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Monday, Sep 22, 2014
Food & Dining

Did Dolly inspire Tampa’s go-go bars?

Tribune correspondent
Published:

It’s time to set the record straight … or perhaps in this case, set the “Pour Some Sugar On Me” record straight.*

Although the popular belief is that Joe Redner is responsible for Tampa’s flourishing strip club industry, the true credit could lie at the feet of a woman who probably hasn’t seen her feet for a long time: Dolly Parton. Yes, that Dolly Parton, the country singer.

Let me explain.

In the mid-1960s, a West Tampa native and all-around tough guy, the late Bobby Rodriguez, purchased a country bar at 1705 W. Hillsborough Ave., called The Deep South. The bar was as known for its drunken brawls as it was for the up-and-coming country stars who graced its stage. Although the bar was one of the city’s most popular, its profits did not reflect that, so Rodriguez decided to make some changes.

His first order of business was to temper the violence that was plaguing the establishment, hoping it would result in a higher-end clientele. A rough and ready-to-rumble character who openly bragged about how many men he’d shot and loved showing how the knuckles on his hand had been rendered flat from pounding countless skulls, he personally took care of anyone he deemed to be a problem. His favorite story revolved around a man he called “Sampson,” whom he’d had to throw out of The Deep South for starting a fight. A few weeks later, The Deep South’s kitchen mysteriously caught on fire, and hours after it was extinguished, the story goes, Sampson called and admitted he did it. Rather than going to the police, Rodriguez told me he hunted Sampson down and shot him in the leg, a lesson to anyone who might consider messing with him again.

“He set my kitchen on fire, so I set his ass on fire,” Rodriguez once bragged to me.

Rodriguez said Sampson actually did him a favor, though. The Deep South’s kitchen was losing money; too many kitchen employees were heisting food. Rodriguez said he had a few options: hire new employees, beat up everyone he thought was stealing until they promised to stop, or close the kitchen. For a while he was leaning toward option two, he laughed, because he didn’t think he could find any honest people willing to work in his kitchen. Then Sampson’s fire gutted the kitchen beyond economically feasible repair.

Of course, even if Rodriguez wasn’t a wild man, you would have had to have been a fool to cross him. Friends who frequented The Deep South and looked out for its best interests included men on both sides of the law — known underworld figures Pat Matassini, Jimmy Donafrio and the Trafficante brothers, as well as certain members of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office’s vice squad, the law enforcement team charged with investigating those same underworld figures. Ironically, Rodriguez said the vice squad caused more trouble than the gangsters, often staying at The Deep South after the doors were closed, drinking until the sun rose and shooting any liquor bottles they polished off. Despite the mess that Rodriguez would have to clean in the morning, he said their patronage was worth it. Between his reputation as a shoot first and never ask questions type of bar owner and the sight of gangsters and law enforcement officials saddled up to the bar, The Deep South’s rough ways soon went, well, south.

And still the bar wasn’t turning as large a profit as Rodriguez wanted.

So his next order of business was to reconsider the bar’s entertainment expenses.

The Deep South enjoyed its best crowds when it brought in out-of-town country music talent. However, the price of hiring top musicians offset much of the profit he made from drinks. Ferdie Pacheco — Rodriguez’s best friend, Tampa historian and former fight doctor for Muhammad Ali — said Rodriguez realized The Deep South’s largest crowd was for one particular up-and-coming talent: Dolly Parton. Pacheco said Rodriguez realized the majority of her fans were men, and that they were not listening to her talents but rather gawking at them. Pacheco said Rodriguez figured he could toss any beautiful woman on stage, dress her scantily, have her dance and pay her a fraction of what he paid talented musicians, and the same men who came to see Dolly Parton would pay to see the unknown beauty.

Rodriguez thought right.

At first he had the dancers wear bathing suits, but as time went on, he became bolder and bolder. He stripped their outfits down to thongs and pasties, making The Deep South the city’s first go-go bar. Men flocked to the establishment, money poured in and Rodriguez had to hire a manager to help him with his new enterprise. The manager was none other than Joe Redner, who years later took Rodriguez’s go-go bar idea and expanded on it, ushering the era of the lap dance into the city of Tampa.

And without Dolly Parton as an inspiration, it’s possible none of it would have happened.

Can I verify that Pacheco’s claim is 100 percent factual? Not at all. Rodriguez never mentioned the story to me, nor did he ever mention that Dolly Parton performed at his bar. And Rodriguez passed away in 2011, so there is no way to verify this tale’s accuracy. “I’ve never heard that story before,” Redner said when I asked him about it. “But I started working for Bobby after he started the go-go bars, so, well, who knows.”

However, Pacheco had no reason to make the story up. Plus, it is much more fun to believe it is true than false.

* For those of you younger than 30, besides being an account of history, a record is also something that used to play music, like a CD. And ladies, if your husband laughed at the “Pour Some Sugar On Me” line, he is not working late … trust me.


Paul Guzzo is a freelance journalist who specializes in Tampa history. He wrote the documentary on Tampa gangster Charlie Wall and the book “The Dark Side of Sunshine,” which chronicles some of the city’s most infamous people and events of the past century.

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