John Clifford Bell was born in 1886 in Cincinnati. With only a fourth grade education, he moved to Detroit in his early teens. At 16 years old his family moved him to Detroit where his father put Cliff to work as a porter at his pub on John R. So began Cliff’s long career as a saloon keeper.
But it wasn’t long before Bell was back in action, opening one “speakeasy” after another during the 14 years of Prohibition. In 1922, he began operating in the Grand Circus Chop House behind the Detroit Athletic Club. Better known as the DAC Annex, members could sneak out of the dry club for a quick drink. Next was a neighborhood joint at 48 Lothrop called The Parisian Club and another at 33 West Adams known simply as “Cliff Bell’s Place”.
Unlike the numerous basement speakeasy operators in town, Cliff made little effort to keep a low profile and his Prohibition era exploits soon attracted the attention of the authorities. By the spring of 1928 Cliff was a wanted man and went on the lam. He eventually was arrested after a four months long manhunt.
By 1930 Cliff was back at it and he opened the Erskine Bridge Club on the corner of Erskine and John R. Not a deck of cards in the place, it was known for its quality liquors from Quebec. About the club, a 1954 Hotel and Restaurant Journal article wrote, “Few people, it seems, recognize or remember the history of some innovation years after it appeared. So it is that hardly anybody remembers that it was Cliff Bell who introduced bar stools to the tavern or vice-versa. The Erskine Bridge Club, as near as anyone has been able to determine, was the first saloon to have stools at the bar.” That’s right. Cliff invented the bar stool!
By the early 30′s it became clear that support for Prohibition was waning so Cliff began seeking new ways to outcompete the slew of bars sure to open with repeal. In 1933, he opened the Commodore Club at 72 Peterboro where he began featuring top acts from Hollywood and New York. The place was a smashing success, but the best was yet to come for Cliff Bell.
Throughout the 30′s 40′s and 50′s Cliff Bell’s and the Town Pump Tavern anchored two ends of what was Detroit’s busiest night crawl with clubs, pubs and burlesques dotting Park Avenue.
Cliff Bell ran the club from 1935 until his retirement in 1958 and enjoyed another 20 years of repose with his wife Maude before he died on December 12, 1977. He was 91.
The club’s famous history was as yet unknown but as they worked to uncover what was here, they began to discover what had been. Soon the mission became clear; they would not just restore the jewel of a club, but restore the name as well. After an arduous effort and with the help of family, friends, neighbors and the support of the City of Detroit the famous club reopened as “Cliff Bell’s” in February of 2006.
Cliff Bell’s has since taken its place among the world’s premier Jazz Clubs, featuring regional, national and international acts alongside Detroit’s own deep bench of top level musicians. Ours is one of the busiest stages in the country. Our top level culinary and beverage programs shine alongside the great music and we’ve become a destination for private events large and small.
But don’t take our word for it….