If anybody in Los Angeles deserves to call himself “Big Daddy,” it’s Carlos Adley. The DJ, club owner and now philanthropist is larger than life in every way. Standing 6 feet 3 inches, possessing the stature and swagger of a pro wrestler and fond of flamboyant headwear and silver bling, the East L.A. native talks bold and lives bolder.
I first met Big Daddy Carlos when he was behind the decks at Three Clubs back in the early 2000s, where his marathon DJ sets melding rock, funk and hip-hop would pack the place on weekends. He seemed to know everybody back then, and why wouldn’t he? He’d been going out to shows and parties and working in L.A. nightlife since he was practically a kid.
“When I was 11 years old, I rode my bicycle to a house party in San Gabriel and saw The Germs. The magic of [the] L.A. subcultural punk-rock bug bit me and life would never be the same,” Adley recalls by phone from Vegas. “I started as a bouncer with a fake ID at Club Lingerie in its heyday in the mid-'80s. By my late teens I was running the door for David Lee Roth's infamous Zero after-hours club. I’ll never forget the night I told Madonna's party that they weren't allowed in; Diamond Dave pulled me aside and said, ‘Buddy, that was the most genius thing I've ever seen. You're gonna go places.’”
Adley went on to run one of the biggest after-hours gambling clubs in L.A.: Sweet Daddy Brown's, the first club to bring together house music and hip-hop under one roof, along with card games. Frankie Knuckles, a pre–Crazy Town DJ AM and DJ Lethal spun the grooves as celebs, City Council members, supermodels, studio heads, professional athletes and rock stars played poker, with a portion of their “ill-gotten gains” going to local charities, Adley says.
After promoting and DJing at venues such as the Viper Room, the Opium Den, Blue, Dragonfly, Martini Lounge and Vertigo, Adley eventually sought to have a real place of his own, where his disparate circle of rock degenerates and celebrity rabble rousers could gather to enjoy good food, booze and great music.
He opened Velvet Margarita on Cahuenga Boulevard on Cinco de Mayo 2004, with his wife, Ava Berman (also a successful nightlife impresario). But his vision, characteristically, was bigger. The pair purchased most of the block, capitalizing on the burgeoning bar scene that was happening thanks to Beauty Bar (now gone) and renewed interest in stalwarts such as the Room and the Burgundy Room. Not long after Adley and Berman came on the scene, the area became known as “the Cahuenga Corridor,” with a swarm of new restaurants and swanky hot spots coming in and out over the years. Velvet Margarita, with its plush blue seating, black chandeliers, Mexican velvet paintings and Día de los Muertos décor, remains a solid destination for glam kitsch, authentic Mexican cuisine and signature strong tequila drinks.
“With Velvet, it was finally time to grow up. We realized we were all getting older and needed a place for the Hollywood Gen X-ers to be able to have a restaurant where you could come for the cuisine and stay for the scene,” Adley says. “In the past, you would go to dinner, then to a nightclub, and there was no restaurant culture in L.A. per se. We have been very blessed and we are where we are through hard work, perseverance and the grace of God.” Every year on Cinco de Mayo, the restaurant celebrates its anniversary with a red-carpet charity gala that raises money for an orphanage in Tecate, Mexico.
The confines of the restaurant and bar have seen some pretty rocking moments over the years. I’ll never forget The Go-Go’s party after their Walk of Fame induction, or the holidays bashes for Cinco de Mayo, Halloween and New Year's Eve. But I’ve always preferred the patio in back, where DJs spin under the stars and guests dance next to a giant Aztec mural. The space has taken on a special significance, too: It was dubbed the Skatemaster Tate Patio on honor of the well-known local boarder and DJ, a frequent spinner at Velvet and longtime friend of Adley, who died in 2015.
Big Daddy was in a punk group called Chickenhawk back in the late ’90s, and has tried showcasing live music at Velvet Margarita over the years. But it wasn’t until he opened up his next two venues in Las Vegas, in 2013, that the full scope of his ambitions could be realized.
“Half of my family are from Las Vegas, so we've always considered it our second home. We pride ourselves on historical renovations and making old classics new kings,” Adley explains. He found his “old classic” in a dilapidated downtown Vegas property five years ago, which he transformed into two neighboring spaces, Backstage Bar & Billiards and Fremont Country Club, that brought the old downtown Vegas on Fremont Street some L.A. flavor (and inspired others, such as L.A. retro nightlife king Bruce Perdew, to do the same).
"The problem was there was no Troubadour, Whisky or Roxy in Las Vegas” in 2013, Adley says. But four years after his twin venues opened, “We are now considered the epicenter of the live-music scene that is downtown Vegas, and we were voted critics' choice by Las Vegas Review-Journal over the House of Blues, Brooklyn Bowl and Hard Rock."
“Yes, you can go uptown and see Celine Dion or Blue Man Group,” he continues. “or you can come downtown and see bands that have started their own genres, such as The Blasters, Ministry, Fishbone, TSOL, The Sonics, GBH, Eagles of Death Metal, Warren G, David J, Wanda Jackson, Robbie Krieger from The Doors, or on any given night hear 'Jump Around' spun by co-writer and Backstage partner DJ Lethal. Las Vegas and L.A. have always been two sides of the same entertainment coin, and the beauty is the spirituality of music will always bring the people together.”
Adley's Vegas venues get extra attention every year from Angelenos and rockers around the world during Memorial Day weekend, when the L.A.-bred Punk Rock Bowling festival comes to the area and his venues host the official pre- and post-party events.
You’d think running three venues in two cities would be enough to keep Adley too busy for anything else. But for the past few years he’s been working on what he calls his biggest passion project yet. On April 30, Adley and Berman, along with Ken Kragen (who helped put together the “We Are the World” single), Australian music industry giant Michael Chugg and Live Aid co-producer Hank Cohen, are throwing a benefit concert in Honolulu called Ocean Aid, which they hope will become an annual event. Proceeds will go to Adley and Berman's charity Love the Sea, which cleans up the oceans and provides education and scholarships for those behind the cause.
"When you see an endangered turtle taking two weeks to die after eating a plastic bag that he thinks is a jellyfish, something has to be done,” Adley says. “The oceans are the lifeblood of our world. If nothing is done by 2050, there will be more plastic pollution in the water than actual fish. The largest gyre [a soup of plastic debris twice the size of Texas] resides a thousand miles off the coast of Hawaii. Hawaii is the epicenter of the drifting toxic plastic pollution, and within five years the fishing population of the Hawaiian islands could be decimated. … The call to arms must begin in Hawaii.”
The inaugural Ocean Aid will feature CeeLo Green, Bootsy Collins, Ohio Players, Grandmaster Flash, Maxi Priest, Fishbone, Henry Kapono, DJ Lethal and DJ Big Daddy Carlos himself. Adley says they plan to turn the concert, which will be televised in Hawaii, into a global event, with more shows in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and other countries each year. Love the Sea will use proceeds from the concert to benefit environmental organizations in Hawaii, including Surfrider Foundation, Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, and Hawaii Wildlife Fund, among others.
“I spent a large portion of my childhood on a farm on the North Shore [of Oahu], so there's a spiritual connection that compels me to utilize all of my resources through entertainment and the universal language of music to bring this crisis to the world,” Adley says. “We'll begin this universal awareness campaign through the power of love, music and altruism.”
Adley has come a long way from bouncing after-hours parties in Hollywood. But one thing David Lee Roth said all those years ago is obviously true — Big Daddy is going places. And he's making them better along the way.
For information on the Ocean Aid benefit concert in Waikiki, Hawaii, on Sunday, April 30, visit lovethesea.org. For more on Velvet Margarita's 13th annual Cinco de Mayo party with DJ Big Daddy, DJ Lethal and guests, visit velvetmargarita.com or follow Velvet Margarita on Facebook.
Los Angeles native Lina Lecaro has been covering L.A. nightlife since she started as a teen intern at L.A. Weekly (fake ID in tow) nearly two decades ago. She went on to write her own column, “Nightranger,” for the print edition of the Weekly for six years. Read her “Lina in L.A.” interviews for the latest nightlife news, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.