50 years of First Avenue

First Avenue
First Avenue celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1990. Photo by Daniel Corrigan / Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

This April marks a momentous milestone for Minnesota music history: First Avenue is celebrating its 50-year anniversary.

From rock to disco to punk and new wave to a starring role in a movie featuring Prince — and a roller coaster of financial ups and downs — First Avenue has remained an iconic music venue that brings Minnesotans together.

It all began on April 3, 1970, when Joe Cocker headlined a raucous performance at the venue then called The Depot, located in the former Greyhound bus terminal in downtown Minneapolis.

Cocker arrived with “a freakishly large entourage of forty-some people that needed to be taken care of,” including future stars Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge and Bobby Keys, several children and a dog, according to author Chris Riemenschneider, who penned First Avenue: Minnesota’s Mainroom.

In the 1960s, rock and roll was taking over the nation, and cities like Minneapolis offered very small bars or large venues (such as the Minneapolis Armory) for live music, and not much in between.

Allan Fingerhut, whose family ran the Fingerhut mail-order catalog business, and Danny Stevens, frontman for the band Danny’s Reasons and a music booker, came together to fill that void.

After some scouting, the pair decided on the Greyhound bus depot — which had been sitting empty for two years — as the site of their new music club.

Greyhound built the station in 1937 in a streamlined Art Deco style with bright blue glazed bricks and white trim on the outside — and chandeliers, air conditioning and a cafe on the inside.

Much of that original design remains today, including the curved front entryway, the green and beige tile floor (which looks black and white in photographs), and the upper floor of two levels of windows that originally brought light flooding into the depot’s waiting room.

Right away, the founders knew it was the perfect spot for a live music venue with its high ceilings and excellent acoustics.

Disco dancers
Disco dancers frolicked at First Avenue, then known as Uncle Sam’s, in the late 1970s. Photo by Steven Laboe / Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

It took six months to remodel the space, which included removing the ticket counters, putting in a stage and painting.

Fingerhut wanted to honor his hometown team, the Vikings, so he had the walls painted purple, added plush purple drapes behind the stage and ordered purple shag carpeting, which unfortunately didn’t arrive in time for opening night.

Originally, Carlos Santana was tapped to perform the debut concert at The Depot, but he canceled a few months out, opening the door for Joe Cocker. The 25-year-old, up-and-coming artist was on tour in the spring of 1970, fresh off his legendary performance at the Woodstock music festival in the summer of 1969.

Setting the tone for the evening at The Depot, Cocker and his entourage arrived at MSP airport on April 3 on a private plane with the words “Cocker Power” painted on the side.

The group performed four sets over two nights to sold-out shows.

In the Upper Midwest in early April, the sun sets relatively late, and Cocker’s early sets both nights were bathed in sunlight that shone through the double sets of windows.

Fingerhut brought in 2,000 carnations to brighten things up, and the flowers made their way across the dance floor, onto the stage and even into a few of the musicians’ instruments.

Joe Cocker
Joe Cocker and his entourage performed at The Depot on April 3, 1970. Photo by Darrell Brand / Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The band performed two hits off Cocker’s 1969 album as well as covers of songs by the Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen and the Beatles, including With a Little Help from My Friends, which galvanized fans.

Despite the club running out of alcohol before the first set — and Cocker’s manager shaking down venue management for more money — the night became the stuff of music legend with fans reveling in the freewheeling rock-and-roll atmosphere and the amazing sound.

Since that date in April 1970, the club has taken many forms. It’s been a discotheque, a haven for rock-and-roll bands, a breeding ground for new music and a place where DJ culture has thrived. It was known as The Depot, Uncle Sam’s and then Sam’s until Dec. 31, 1981, when it became First Avenue & 7th Street Entry.

It’s supported many up-and-coming artists, most notably Prince, who first played there on March 9, 1981, and who called the club home. Though at times it struggled to make money — and even closed for two weeks in 2004 when the original owner declared bankruptcy — the club has survived and even thrived, despite steady competition from national interests.

During the past seven years, First Avenue has acquired numerous clubs and now controls six venues, including its two flag- ships, the Fine Line (Minneapolis) and the Turf Club and Fitzgerald Theater (St. Paul). It’s also an operating partner for the recently renovated Palace Theatre in St. Paul.

To read a recent story in Mpls.St.Paul magazine detailing the current CEO’s plan for the club’s next 50 years, go to tinyurl.com/first-ave-mpls.

Jessica Kohen is the media relations manager for the Minnesota Historical Society. We may earn a commission via some of the links on this page – at no cost to you.