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- Joeff Davis
- WHEREFORE ART THOU? From his '80s-era Athens escapades to present-day Atlanta dance floors, Romeo Cologne continues to get his Pied Piper on.
The next day, while riding his bicycle behind a thrift store, he did a double take when he saw what appeared to be the Dumpster from his vision. Looking inside, he was amazed to find stacks of records — seemingly a DJ's entire collection. He carried the vinyl home one armload at a time. It was a cache by the likes of James Brown, the Gap Band, P-Funk, the Time and scores of others. He cleaned them up and began a crash course in classic funk and disco sounds.
He couldn't have been more out of tune with the times. The lingering cultural backlash against music of that ilk was barely a decade old and "disco sucks" was still a national buzz phrase. "No music has ever been so despised or disregarded [simply] for being so spiritual," he says. "To me, it was a form of racism in mass media. So I thought, 'OK, I'm going to play this stuff until someone comes up with something that's better than this.'"
The music Pierce found on those records wasn't favored by denizens of Athens' college-rock scene, but it found a broad audience, anyway. House parties were going down pretty much every night and, after a couple of particularly wild nights at Pierce's house, word got out. "People came to my house to have parties because they loved the music," he says. "Even when I wasn't having a party, people would come by and bang on the door. I'd hide in the back with the lights off, but sooner or later someone would climb through a window and let everyone in, so I had no choice," he adds. "They wouldn't let me not have a party!"
Pierce gradually developed a new persona as a party DJ dubbed Romeo Cologne. He'd always had a taste for flashy threads, but the more old vinyl he spun, the more he began dressing like the old-school funketeers on the record sleeves. Polyester became his fabric of choice. His pants got tighter, his feathered hair poofier and he often wore second-hand Zoot suits.
As if it wasn't odd enough seeing a white guy so dedicated to black music, his sartorial transformation into something resembling a blaxploitation-era pimp certainly took the cake. "That just adds an element of theatricality," he laughs, adding that he's shopped thrift stores across the globe, from Rome, Ga., to Rome, Italy.
These days, there's zero distinction between David Pierce and Romeo Cologne. It's not a character he adopts as much as it is an extension of his natural charisma. He dresses the same way to go to the club as he does to the grocery store. "I am the last of the white peacocks," he declares. "I'm not a throwback. I'm a holdover."
By 1987, Cologne had moved to Atlanta, where he began hosting parties at the now-defunct club Color Box in Virginia-Highland. "They gave me Sunday nights because nothing was happening on Sunday nights back then," he says, adding that his gigs became so crowded and carnal that he had to find another venue.
Around that time, his assistant Chad Cabra arrived on the scene. "Romeo needed help with logistics, things like taking care of equipment and getting everything staged," says Cabra, a regular club-goer at Color Box who began rooming with Cologne in his Candler Park home. "He had the Star Bar gig by then and there were four nights a week where Romeo had a residency somewhere. He finally got to the point where he said, 'All I want to do is show up and spin.'"
Cabra and Cologne's partnership has held together through such venues as Club Kaya, Tongue & Groove and the Georgia Theatre in Athens. And Saturday nights at the Clermont are still as packed out as ever. "People ask me if I get burned out, but I have to say no," Cabra says. "The music that Romeo plays is so decadent and inclusive that it's hard not to love it, and it's hard not to be affected by the people who just want to dance."
And there's never been a shortage of regulars. In the mid-'90s, when Cologne was holding down the main room at Kaya on Friday nights, he had an entourage of costumed dancers, dubbed the Booty Patrol. "It was a serious scene, packed every night," says DJ Karl Injex, who played soul and house in Kaya's front bistro. "He brought this element of performance to the party, and in pairing it with the natural appeal of funk and disco, created an experience that transcended the typical club night."
It would be a shame for Cologne's influential legacy to be marred by an uncharacteristic low point. But in December 2009, that almost happened when he left a cryptic message on his Facebook page. "This is my last post," it read. "Bye, it's been a trip. Be kind to one another. See you later! Love You." Friends and family mistook it for a suicide note and went into a tizzy. When the AJC reported it in a blog post, nearly 200 concerned comments flooded in. He was found within a couple of hours as he made preparations to go into a homeless shelter. His Decatur home had been ravaged by a fire and, after a spell of couch-surfing, Cologne had decided to accept aid from the Red Cross. But before he could spend a single night in the shelter, his older brother Paul put up money for a hotel until he could get back on his feet.