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Retro Baltimore: At Odell’s, you knew if you belonged

A construction fence recently went up around the old Odell’s disco palace as a renovation began on this North Avenue landmark.

The solidly built structure (it opened in 1909 as an auto showroom and dance academy) in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, once attracted dancers and celebrities who gyrated until nearly daybreak. When the doors were finally shut on the weekends, Odell’s patrons spilled onto North Avenue.

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The Odell behind its name was Odell Brock, a young Black entrepreneur who lived at the Village of Cross Keys. A graduate of Catonsville High School, who attended Morgan State University, he worked briefly for his family business, Odell’s Fuel Oil and Oil Burner Service before striking out on his own.

In 1972, he opened the Carousel, later called Gatsby’s, on Charles Street near Lafayette.

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In 1976, as the disco craze was catching on, he took over what was then a Pappy’s Beef and Beer at North and Lovegrove, added dance floors and a lot more to make his Odell’s a reality.

Odell's in June 1992, before it was shut down for the last time.
Odell's in June 1992, before it was shut down for the last time. (DAVIS /)

He operated the business until his untimely death from cancer at 39 years old in 1984.

A 1979 story in the Baltimore Afro-American said Brock relied on his extended family to run the disco.

“We have no competition in Baltimore,” Odell Brock said. “We have never ripped people off — so obviously we have to be doing something right.”

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Brock used the slogan “You’ll know if you belong” to market his venture. He had it printed on bumper stickers, keychains and matchbooks. It worked beyond all expectations.

It also attracted some of Baltimore’s colorful underworld figures.

Maurice “Peanut” King, the convicted drug lord, told how he turned heads at Odell’s as he entered the club. He traveled in a DeLorean sports car.

“He wore a $6,000 coat of seal fur,” The Baltimore Sun’s 2017 story said. “The diamonds of his pinkie ring glittered M-a-u-r-i-c-e. He lit up smokes with a bejeweled Zippo. Everything about him had the sheen of wealth and elegance, even his women.”

Maurice "Peanut" King, middle, at Odell's nightclub.
Maurice "Peanut" King, middle, at Odell's nightclub.

Evening Sun reporter Linell Smith visited Odell’s in 1978. “Odell’s is the biggest, the flashiest — and probably the most sensible — discothèque in town. It’s big enough to accommodate up to 1,000 people. It’s got glittering walls of mirrored tiles, neon decorations, balloons, floors that radiate light and pink punch that bubbles in gold-colored fountains.”

The owner had a no-drinking rule — liquor was not sold — and there was no food or lounge areas for conversation. It was all about dancing.

Odell’s became an incubator of a subgenre of dance music.

“Around here it’s still simply called ‘Club,’ but around the world, the uptempo, chopped-up sound is known as Baltimore Club,” said a 2017 Sun article. “Luminaries like Miss Tony, K-Swift, Scottie B., Rod Lee and many others brought the minimalist music — derived from Chicago’s influential dance music known as house — to clubs like Odell’s and the Paradox [on Howard Street].

“Club continues to mutate, said veteran producer Mighty Mark, who credits Baltimore Club artists like Blaqstarr and Lil Lucky with taking the original Club sound and infusing it with more melodic elements and memorable vocals,” the 2017 article continued.

“[Club music] has traveled to different states, but Baltimore has a real gritty, grimy sound with our club music that’s really unique to us,” Mighty Mark (born Marquis Gasque of Cherry Hill) said in the story. “You want it to sound good, in terms of mix and quality, but then you still want to make it sound dirty, like it came from a basement.”

Diva Ultra Naté, who was a regular at Odell’s in the 1980s, told The Sun in a 2012 interview that “Odell’s wasn’t just a club. It was a culture and a lifestyle, and if you were a part of it, then you felt like you were a part of something special. Not many clubs these days try to capture the emotional connection.”

Odell’s did not endure after the founder’s death. It was purchased by two entrepreneurs who encountered legal issues and Odell’s closed in 1992. The building has remained vacant since that time.

It is due to become the offices of a pair of nonprofits, Young Audiences of Maryland and Code in the Schools.

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