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This 'Preacher's Grandkid' Finds His Congregation At A Legendary Kansas City Nightclub

Julie Denesha
Singer Lee Langston entertains the Friday night happy hour crowd at The Phoenix night club in downtown Kansas City.

For almost 15 years, Lonnie McFadden commanded Friday night happy hour at The Phoenix. He's passed the torch to a new performer, who says he's excited to be following in the footsteps of a Kansas City legend.

As the work day draws to a close on a recent Friday, an energetic singer takes the stage at The Phoenix night club in Kansas City’s downtown Garment District. The club, already filling up, stirs with anticipation. Lee Langston has the mike, and the weekend is about to begin.

For the past three decades, The Phoenix has been known for the vibrant musicians who perform on its stage six nights a week. For about half that time, Lonnie McFadden was the main attraction on Friday nights. The veteran trumpeter and tap dancer was what The Phoenix calls its artist-in-residence.

McFadden left last fall to start his own club just a few blocks away at the Ambassador Hotel. He handed the Friday night gig to Langston.

I just I can't say enough good things about him,” McFadden says. “Not only is he a great singer but he’s also an entertainer. That's something that he and I both share in common. We try to connect with the audience and and try to make sure that the audience is having a good time.”

Julie Denesha
For almost 15 years, Lonnie McFadden performed for the Friday happy hour crowd at The Phoenix in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

Langston says the first thing he did was reach out to McFadden for a few pointers for entertaining the Friday night crowd.

"They're about to put me in your old time slot," remembers Langston. "He was like, 'Yes, I am glad to hear that. I've been watching you.' And I was like, wow, what would you recommend? And he told me to show up as my authentic self."

Langston says the advice has proven to be sound.

“I'm just excited to be able to bring what I do to the space while stepping into the footsteps of someone that I consider a legend and that other people consider a legend" Langston says. "Yeah, so I'm excited."

Langston is originally from Oklahoma. He was born into a home filled with music and religion.

Julie Denesha
Langston and his band put their stamp on classics from Stevie Wonder to Nat King Cole.

“I'm a preacher's grandkid," Langston explains. "So church was heavily present on my father's side. I remembered being around my aunts and uncles and cousins as they sang in large groups at my grandmother's house, and then even on my mother's side, my grandfather on my mom's side was an entertainer. I was just always surrounded by music.”

Langston brings a mix of musical genres to his happy hour show. His trio features Odell D. Talley on keyboard and Kevin Johnson, better known as Church Boii, on drums and percussion. Together, they put their stamp on classics from Stevie Wonder to Nat King Cole.

For Langston, working at The Phoenix is all about his connection with his audience.

“It’s intimate," Langston says. "There's not a bad seat in the space. You're going to hear. You're going to see. And it allows you to interact with people and see them. So I'm like looking at you and if I ask you something from the stage, ‘Hey, you in the nice black and white mask,’ and if you're wanting to interact, then we can interact and talk about music and do things. I just love the way it feels.”

The Phoenix is on the ground floor of the historic Phoenix Hotel, built in 1888. There’s always been a bar in the place — though it went dark during the years of prohibition.

Julie Denesha
Langston says he's excited to be stepping into the footsteps of Lonnie McFadden, someone he considers a legend.

Doorman Michael Tommer greets guests as they arrive. He's worked at the Phoenix off and on off for 11 years.

“The crowd is a mixture of everybody, and it's people that come here not only to celebrate life, but celebrate music," Tommer says. "What happens in this bar is necessary for life right now, maybe even more so than ever before.”

Sitting at a high top near the bar, Sonya Thomas is waiting to meet friends after work.

“This is my first time being here since COVID, really my first time out," Thomas says. "So it's going to be interesting, how I start to feel as people come in. But I've been vaccinated. So yeah, I think it's going to be great tonight.”

Donald Harrison, better known as Big Brother D, has found a table with friends by the door.

“We always have fun," Harrison says. "We're all like friends, best friends, brothers. So it's all good.”

He grew up hearing stories about nights at The Phoenix.

Julie Denesha
Angel Tigerlilystar, (at left) who performs as "Just Angel," hung out with Marlin Hatcher during happy hour. Tigerlilystar says she's always on the hunt for great music around town.

“This used to be a place where my parents would go out when they had their date night," Harrison remembers. "I always was, like, soon as I turned old enough to drink, this is the first place I'm coming to. And it was the first place I came to when I turned 21. That was 20-something years ago."

Harrison says music is a big part of why he comes to The Phoenix week after week.

“It’s been a staple here," he says. "One of the few places where you get live music and everybody here, once you come here enough, everybody gets to know each other. And it's kind of like a big family, a family reunion every Friday night.”

Back onstage, Langston says he couldn’t be happier to be a part of his new family.

“When you're making a choice to be married to a venue on a specific day, you have to make that choice wisely, just like you would with a marriage," he says, with a laugh. "So I'm excited because I do feel like it is an awesome place to be able to call home.”

Lee Langston performs Fridays from 4:30 p.m.-8:30p.m., at The Phoenix, 302 W. 8th Street, Kansas City, Missouri.

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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