In 1973, Saadoun Al-Bayati released his first and only album, Songs of Iraq, on his own record label in Costa Mesa, California. It was, quite literally, a solo project. With just his voice and hands, Al-Bayati created an intimate, skilled, and intense tribute to a vast musical history. Trained in classical Islamic and Sufi vocal traditions in his native Baghdad, Al-Bayati, who also learned to play oud and percussion, had spent time in Chicago studying theater before heading to Los Angeles in search of TV and film roles. He landed two, on a 1967 Western for CBS and a 1969 Western for NBC, but it was his music that found him a home in Hollywood, where he became a staple at the Sunset-Boulevard-adjacent supper club The Fez.
The first full-scale Arab nightclub in Los Angeles, The Fez was a two-story movie set of Middle Eastern fantasy. Its downstairs Magic Carpet Room restaurant served Lebanese classics from the family recipes of the club’s owner, Lou Shelby (née Shelaby), while its cavernous upstairs Sinbad Room lounge featured the city’s top belly dancers, oud players, and darbuka drummers.
Shelby opened the club in 1957, just north of Sunset on Vermont, right when American pop culture was in the throes of its latest harem love affair with the exotic, mythic Orient. By then, Egyptian dance and screen icon Samia Gamal had already been dancing at Ciro’s and showing up in Hollywood films like MGM’s The Valley of the Kings, and the Brooklyn-based musician Mohammed El-Bakkar had already played an “Arab rug seller” on Broadway and put a topless belly dancer on the cover of his debut album, Port Said: Music of the Middle East Vol. 1 (subsequent volumes were dedicated to sultans and magic carpets).
In his early Los Angeles Times advertising for The Fez, Shelby promised “Near Eastern food” and “steaks,” but by the ‘60s, he had fully embraced a more typically sensationalist pitch aimed at attracting non-Arab customers. Come for “an exotic setting,” stay for “Turkish and Persian Harem Dancers,” and “You’ll find a world of difference.” The club’s commitment to lavish cultural set design helped make it a Hollywood favorite for the likes of Kim Novak, Marlon Brando, Jayne Mansfield, and Syrian-American actor Danny Thomas (born as Amos Muzyad Yaqoob Kairouz).
“The Fez became what it was because, for the most part, it was prior to the demonization of the Arab,” Shelby’s daughter Roxxanne Shelaby told me (her documentary on the club was released in 2015). “It was 1001 Nights, it was exotic and interesting, and mysterious, and that’s not the world we live in anymore. With the Six-Day War and Sirhan Sirhan, all of a sudden, we became the other. My dad even wondered if he should have changed the name of the club and made it ‘Greek’ or ‘Mediterranean.’”
But the name stayed, and the club remained popular not only with the studio set, but with the local Arab community who had always made up its core audience. They came, in part, because it was an after-hours studio for Arab dance greats like Feiruz Aram, Aisha Ali, and Antoinette Awayshak, and because it was the unofficial diaspora headquarters of the city’s Middle Eastern music scene. You could catch a set from a visiting Lebanese singing star like Toni Hanna, or sit at the feet of more familiar L.A. faces like Al-Bayati, Jordanian-American multi-instrumentalist Hani Naser, and Armenian-American oud stalwart and Kef Time band leader Richard Hagopian (who was also a regular at another Middle East themed Sunset club, Seventh Veil, in the years before it morphed into a favorite Mötley Crüe strip club).
Palestinian singer Maroun Saba was so at home at The Fez that he eventually became part owner after Shelby sold it in 1971. One of Saba’s first moves was to record the album Live from the Fez in Hollywood (the only release from Fez Records), which featured Saba alongside acclaimed Lebanese violinist Aboud Abdel Aal and Syrian Druze singer Fahd Ballan. Side A only had one track: the complete musical score to one of the club’s infamous belly dance stage shows. It was a first in the history of preserving Middle Eastern music in Los Angeles, and a guarantee that long after The Fez was gone, its sounds could still teach people how to move.