It is difficult to find reliable information about Detroit’s legendary nightclub, Heaven. Maybe because it was located in Detroit or maybe because most of its patrons were black and gay. Maybe because people have only recently started to realize how important the club was in the timeline of Detroit’s musical heritage. Still, information about Heaven remains elusive and is inextricable from the biography of the club’s resident DJ Ken Collier. Most of the current musical luminaries of Detroit techno cite Heaven and Ken Collier as early influences on their sound, and the history of Heaven needs to be uncovered and dusted off if we are to figure out what happened between the heyday of motown and the invention of techno.
In 1977, Detroit’s first primarily gay club dedicated to the disco sound was called Chessmates and Ken Collier spun there until he took over a slot at Detroit’s own Studio 54 in 1979. Detroit’s Studio 54 was located in the basement of what is now the City Club at the Leland Hotel and it closed at 2am, chasing the patrons to various unlicensed after-hours spots around the city. According to a Metro Times article, many of the patrons ended up at an afterhours club called The Factory on Jefferson then eventually settled at Heaven in the mid-80’s. At that point, Heaven was at the center of a fairly tight-knit black and gay nightlife scene with its own dances, music and style.
Located at the corner of Seven Mile and Woodward, Heaven remained open until 1995, giving Ken Collier the opportunity to influence an entire generation of Detroit techno artists, including Kevin Saunderson, Carl Craig, Aaron Carl, Derrick May and many others. Born in Detroit in 1949, Collier grew up within walking distance of the Motown studios and would often stroll over to catch a glimpse of the stars working there and listen to the music emanating from the studio. By the time he graduated from high school it was clear that Ken’s future would take a musical direction; he was already mixing records in his parents’ basement—7 inches, 45’s. Shortly after graduating high school he moved out of his parents’ house and lived a fairly openly gay lifestyle at a time when few young black men did. Ken worked as a popular DJ at parties all over town as well as on the radio, with a stint on the local disco station WLBS. He also produced and mixed records, most notably Was Not Was “Out Come the Freaks”, which made the rounds of clubs in NY, Chicago and LA.
Ken was a club and party DJ before he was anything else and from the early 80’s until his death in 1997 he was the anchor of the gay party circuit in Detroit while being locally regarded as a living legend. Many of the young techno pioneers would come out to hear him play at the gay clubs, regardless of their sexual identity. On Friday and Saturday nights, heaven was the place to be with lines out the door at 3am. Drag queens and serious dancers would climb up on the speakers and lip-synch to vocal tracks or fiercely battle it out in dance circles on the floor. The sound system was overwhelming, a huge bank of speakers that shook your bones and took you over, whipping the dancers into a frenzy. Reportedly it was so hot that the walls dripped with sweat and patrons wistfully remember a club that felt like home to a strong and tight-knit group of dancers and music-lovers. At the time, the music that Ken played was known as “progressive” which was not yet house music and not yet known as techno. It was a soulful and varied mixture of disco, classic soul, post-punk, new wave and import records, such as Alexander Robotnick’s “Problèmes D’Amour” and other synthesizer driven tracks from Europe.
As the 80’s turned into the 90’s, the well-known story of Detroit’s economic slide into chaos was felt inside the club with drugs and guns filtering into the scene. In addition, HIV was taking its toll on the gay community in Detroit and all over the world and funerals became a common occurrence. The club was closed in 1995 and a McDonald’s took its place. Ken Collier moved on to other clubs and played a few dates in other cities but those who knew him say the closing of Heaven was a huge blow for its resident DJ. Collier passed away in 1997, slipping into a diabetic coma, unaware that he even had the disease. It seems that like many artists his importance was not realized until he was gone. The scene that he had formed, racially and sexually mixed yet providing a home for gay nightlife, also fostered the transition from 1970’s disco to 90’s house and techno. It’s unlikely that techno would have existed in its present form without the influence of Collier and the experience shared by many Detroit DJ’s and music producers working it out on Heaven’s dancefloor.