benny shelby in front of drawing

The Shelbys, Benny and Calvin are legendary. It is difficult to speak about nightlife activities in Kansas City during the last 40+ years without them being mentioned by someone who is in the business directly, has done business with them orenjoyed what their businesses had to offer. 

A few days ago, we lost one half of this dynasty with the passing of Benny Shelby.  Unlike the family eulogy or obituary which is the private purview of those closest to him, I thought it fitting to remember this man in the context which so many of us knew him: the consummate businessman, community philanthropist, supporter of live music venues and one of the pioneers of what became Kansas City Black tourism.

During the last four decades, the Black nightclub life in Kansas City was an important rite of passage where one learned to perfect their Two Steppin’ skills, how to dress, rather you preferred brown or white liquors and where many met their future spouses and/or divorces.  Indeed, you had a church home and a club home and nine times out of ten, those clubs involved Benny Shelby and the Shelby’s “formula” of running a successful entertainment venue for our people.  

Benny was a big Chiefs fan.  

That formula was “give the people what they want,” which was a safe environment, good music, good food, prompt service and most of all CONSISTENCY in product.  He and his brother were MASTERS at the formula and there are those who can speak to all of it and how we are witnessing the beginning of the end of an era.  

The following is the recipe they enlisted and made them a famous success:

Ingredient #1:  Be Community Minded

Benny attended Paseo High School where he played football.  

Benny was called when young women from a local high school wanted new Pom Pom uniforms and their school would not get them.   I went to the business community and my first call was to Benny Shelby. He in turn called several other businessmen and the result was a $1,000 donation to get six young women beautiful new outfits. 

“We were so grateful because we were the poorest of the cheer squads in the district and nobody seemed to care. We got our new uniforms, and everyone was so proud to go to games and things,” said LaTyna Jalieba who in 1995 was a teenager on the Pom Poms squad at Southwest High School and benefitted from Benny’s efforts.

One of the businesspeople Benny called was Kelvin Perry who was the head of the Black Chamber of Commerce. “He was that kind of guy. I remember when he and his brother started the travel to the Bayou Classic from Kansas City and trips for Black people to experience the Kentucky Derby,” said Perry. 

He also recalls Benny as one of the main players in the Southeast Bar and Restaurant Association, a group founded to better the interest of Black club and restaurant owners in the area. “He had a hand in so many things in the community, it is hard for me to say all by myself how much he has done,” Perry said.

Exposing your community to experiences that enhance their lives and your presence as a businessperson is being COMMUNITY MINDED.  He was that.

 

Ingredient #2:  Give Back Often and Always

The Epicurean was the spot for African-Americans, residents and visitors, to party.  It’s reputation spread throughout the region.  

I knew Benny as a “nightlife entrepreneur.”  He and Calvin were “THE” guys who owned the Epicurean Lounge and Bodyworks.  But of course, it didn’t end there. Being a club owner in Kansas City during the last 40 years wasn’t an easy feat but there were certain guarantees, those two aforementioned clubs would be open, would have YOUR drink and  at the end of the night, the lights would come home and the DJ would say to the last few partyers who still weren’t quite ready to stop …, “You ain’t got to go home but you got to get out of here!”   

The intricacies of being a successful club owner came down to consistency and sometimes, changing to adapt to the times.  There are those of us who remember when Club Epicurean was expanded to include a side door on Troost made on Troost to have a side door for those who didn’t want to party but wanted and order of the club’s savory chicken wings and fries. from the kitchen. 

Jimmy and Alfred Hadley, two well-known local construction owners remember Benny calling and hiring them to make the expansion happen. “He asked us to take out the entire wall on the North side of the building so that people could be quieter and most of all not miss the revenue for the food. Some clubs were asking for a cover charge when you wanted to just eat but they found a way to make it right for everybody,” said Jimmy Hadley.

Using local Black professionals and businesses in the community is another important ingredient to success. He knew that.

#3: Mix with INTEGRITY

When other clubs switched to djs, the Epicurean maintained live music, giving many Kansas City musicians and opportunity to make a living.  

Ira Wilkes, a musician from Kansas City now living in Florida, remembers the afternoon live music matinees that were a part of Kansas City’s music scene for so long. Wilkes worked with many of those bands, most notably as the band director for Kansas City’s own Bloodstone.

“He and Calvin supported live music for decades. Even when everyone else was going only to DJ’s, they stayed with live music for the weekends and some evenings. I remember there were no bad dealings with the musicians he hired. He always kept his word and was a straight up professional. Something we are really missing with the new folks who own clubs these days,” said Wilkes.

Betty Brown, Head of Sales and Marketing for Gates BBQ and long-time colleague of Benny recalls how much his integrity fit into his business. “Being a businessman, Benny did his homework, he worked hard, and he reached out to people.  He knew his business and his customers.”

She reminisced about his role in the Southeast Bar and Restaurant Association, where he helped local Black nightclub and restaurant owners who so often were left out of the city’s  tourism and business strategies.

“He used his connections with the liquor and beer companies to donate to the organization. He wasn’t selfish. Young people who wanted to do the club business would consult with him and he would talk to them about the importance of doing and being what you said you were versus making a lot of money as a goal. He would say, ‘It’s not about making a lot of money. It is about making a LIVING,’” she quoted. 

Benny and his wife Charlesetta

Indeed, through his businesses Benny made a living not just for himself or his family, but for countless others who he directly employed or who benefitted from his businesses utilizing their services or products.

He knew to treat others with respect and dignity no matter their profession because they are the KEY to your own success.

#4: Serve Tall and Strong to as Many as Possible

One last observance in this formula for success.  I have two examples in my professional life that made me see the importance of taking the high road to success. One of them was a personal meeting with Ewing Kauffman that taught me the importance of something as simple as always answering the phone. During our meeting, Kauffman recalled to me that he made his first million dollars by returning a call to a vendor that others had not.

I had called his office for an interview for a local newspaper and he himself returned my call. When I inquired why one of the richest men in the country (at the time) would do that, he told me his story and let me know the sheer importance of making direct contact with someone because as he said, “you never know who you are talking to.”

I had a similar experience with Benny Shelby. I was working on a project and I needed to know if I could rent the club.  I called him and he picked up the phone.   I heard a lot of noise in the background and asked him was he able to talk and where was he? He responded, “I am in Beijing but it’s okay. What’s up?” The man was at the OLYMPICS in CHINA and still answered my call!   

I think there is no excuse whatsoever for someone to be in business and not return phone calls. These two great entrepreneurs demonstrated for me that to be a success, you must be accessible even when you have MADE IT because, “you never know who you may be talking to.”   

We who are not family, don’t know their grief that comes with this loss, but the Black business community has taken a huge hit and we can only pray that Benny’s formula to success will live on in those who wish to be entertainment gurus like the Shelby dynasty was to many of us in Kansas City. 

Benny Shelby playing checkers

Surely, there will never be another time like that. I miss it.

Anita J. Dixon is a local entrepreneur and longtime journalist in Kansas City. She started one of the first Black tour companies in the United States and has recently authored the application that made Kansas City the ONLY UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) Creative City of Music in America.  www.sageworldview.com creativecitykc@gmail.com

 

 

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