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Benjamin Bynum Sr., a nightclub owner who linked music and politics, dies at 98

Mr. Bynum had made it a point of saying that he would never retire, and even in his 90s would often be found working the door at his sons’ restaurants, such as the blues club Warmdaddy’s.

Benjamin Bynum Sr. was the father of restaurateurs Robert and Benjamin Bynum Jr.
Benjamin Bynum Sr. was the father of restaurateurs Robert and Benjamin Bynum Jr.Read moreCOURTESY BYNUM FAMILY

Benjamin Bynum Sr., a nightclub owner and impresario who deftly comingled Philadelphia’s entertainment and political arenas, died Tuesday, Oct. 19, at age 98 after a brief illness.

He was active and vital until only recently, said his son Benjamin Jr., having enjoyed a late-summer trip to Ocean City, Md., with his longtime partner, Thelma Peake, before taking ill.

Mr. Bynum had made it a point of saying that he would never retire, and even in his 90s would often be found working the door at his sons’ restaurants, such as the blues club Warmdaddy’s, in its last incarnation, before its pandemic shutdown, in South Philadelphia.

Benjamin Bynum Jr., whose restaurant holdings with his older brother, Robert, now include South and Relish, said he was their inspiration in life and in business. Bynum said his father “always stressed to us to persevere and to acknowledge that things wouldn’t always be rosy.” He was direct, getting his point across without raising his voice.

“Sometimes you have to listen in more detail to hear someone who is soft-spoken than a person who is loud,” Bynum said. “It’s like when a jazz band is playing and they bring things down really low and soft. You have to allow your ear to take in what they’re playing.”

Mr. Bynum was a familiar figure at the door of his own establishments, notably the Cadillac Club, on Germantown Avenue just off Broad Street. From its founding in 1965, Mr. Bynum booked an eclectic who’s who of show biz, such as Nina Simone, B.B. King, Redd Foxx, Kenny Gamble, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Gladys Knight, Fats Domino, George Benson, The Stylistics, and Aretha Franklin.

Soul singer Billy Paul’s 1968 debut album was named Feelin’ Good at The Cadillac Club — the second LP ever produced by the team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff — based on his live performances. (Four years later, Paul struck gold with the torch slow jam “Me and Mrs. Jones,” which Gamble and Huff wrote with Cary “Hippy” Gilbert.)

Seeing the rise of disco, Mr. Bynum and his wife, Ruth, who handled the books, closed the Cadillac in 1976 and opened Impulse Discotheque on the site. Its clientele was mainly Black professionals ages 30 and up as it joined a collection of Black-owned bars and clubs along a one-mile stretch of North Broad Street, including Chuck’s Place, El Dorado, Ruth’s Spot, Prince’s Total Experience, and Sid Booker’s Stinger Lounge (the survivor, attached to the fried-shrimp takeout window at Broad Street and Belfield Avenue).

By then, son Robert Bynum was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, where his roommate and best friend from St. Joseph’s Prep was Michael Nutter, the future mayor. While both young men worked for Mr. Bynum, Nutter (who DJed under the name Mixmaster Mike), got lessons in diplomacy, hospitality, and government.

“We’re in college and we’re witnesses to the development of Black and brown politics in the city,” Nutter said. A political fund-raising event at Impulse had a tremendous impact on Nutter, as he met such leaders as the political strategist John White Sr., and such future leaders as John White Jr., William H. Grey III, Marian Tasco, Augusta “Gussie” Clark, David Richardson, and Dwight Evans.

Mr. Bynum mingled as easily with them as with the patrons passing his booth on the way in. “I saw how he remembered a lot of names, shook a lot of hands, and every now and then had to throw someone out,” Nutter said. “As mayor, I had to remember a lot of names, shake a lot of hands, and every now and then throw someone out of my office. I would never have been in public service if not for Ben Bynum.”

The club closed in 1991, shortly after Mr. Bynum’s sons opened the first incarnation of Zanzibar Blue, their groundbreaking jazz club, on 11th Street near Pine in Center City.

“There was a feeling of warmth every time you greeted him,” said longtime radio personality Patty Jackson, who hosted many events at Bynum-owned establishments. Jackson said Mr. Bynum looked with pride at his sons and their work, saying, “This is the seed that I planted.”

Benjamin Louie Bynum Sr., born April 6, 1923, in Lexington, S.C., was one of five brothers and five sisters. During World War II, he was a member of the Montford Point Marines, the first unit of African American trainees in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Before the Cadillac, Mr. Bynum operated other bars, starting with the Cosmo Club and later the Big Moose, both in Brewerytown.

Ben Bynum recounted family trips to the Jersey Shore, as well as outings to Phillies games at the old Connie Mack Stadium in North Philadelphia — now the site of Deliverance Evangelistic Church, where Mr. Bynum’s service will be held.

Longevity apparently runs in his genes. A brother, Jimmy, is 100 years old, and a sister, Zellen, died last year at 102. Ruth Bynum died at age 80 in 2005.

Besides his sons, his brother, and his partner, he is survived by daughters Antoinette, Benita, and Denee, nine grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.

Viewing will be 9 to 11 a.m. Monday, Nov. 1 at Deliverance Evangelistic Church, 2001 W. Lehigh Ave., Philadelphia, followed by a service at 11 a.m. Burial will be at Ivy Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia.