In 1958, the first Whisky a Go-Go in the United States opened in Chicago, Illinois, on the corner of Rush and Chestnut streets. It has been called the first real American discothèque. A franchise was opened in 1966 on M Street in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., by restaurateur Jacques Vivien.
It owes its name to the first discothèque, the Whisky à Go-Go, established in Paris in 1947 by Paul Pacine.
The Sunset Strip Whisky was founded by Elmer Valentine, Phil Tanzini, Shelly Davis, and attorney Theodore Flier and opened on January 15, 1964. In 1972, Valentine, Lou Adler, Mario Maglieri and others started the Rainbow Bar & Grill on the Sunset Strip. In 1966, Valentine, Adler and others founded The Roxy Theatre. Lou Adler bought into the Whisky in the late 1970s. Valentine sold his interest in the Whisky a Go Go in the 1990s but retained an ownership in the Rainbow Bar & Grill and the Roxy Theatre until his death in December 2008.
Although the club was billed as a discothèque, suggesting that it offered only recorded music, the Whisky a Go Go opened with a live performance by drummer Eddie Rubin and singer, guitarist Johnny Rivers as a duo. DJ Rhonda Lane was spinning records between sets from a suspended cage at the right of the stage.
Early Whisky matchbox. Note the alpha-numeric phone number and French style
The Whisky a Go Go was one of the places that popularized go-go dancing. Elmer Valentine, in a 2006 Vanity Fair article, recalled arranging to have a female DJ play records between Eddie Rubin's and Rivers' sets so patrons could continue dancing. But because there was not enough room on the floor for a DJ booth, he had a glass-walled booth mounted high above the floor. A contest was held for the female DJ job but when the young winner called Valentine on the night of the opening and tearfully said her mother forbade her from doing it, Valentine recruited the club's cigarette girl, Patty Brockhurst. Valentine quickly hired two more female dancers, one of whom, Joanna Labean, designed the official go-go-girl costume of fringed dress and white boots.
Eddie Rubin and Johnny Rivers rode the Whisky-born go-go craze to national fame with records recorded partly Live at the Whisky a Go Go. In addition, The Miracles recorded the song "Going to a Go-Go" in 1966 (which was covered in 1982 by The Rolling Stones), and Whisky a Go Go franchises sprang up all over the country. Arguably, the rock and roll scene in Los Angeles was born when the Whisky started operation; because of its status as a historic music landmark, the venue was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
The Whisky played an important role in many musical careers, especially for bands based in Southern California. The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Smokestack Lightnin', and Love were regulars, and The Doors were the house band for a while – until the debut of the "Oedipal section" of "The End" got them fired. Van Morrison's band Them had a two-week residency in June 1966, with The Doors as the opening act. On the last night they all jammed together on "Gloria". Frank Zappa's The Mothers of Invention got their record contract based on a performance at the Whisky. The Turtles performed there when their newest (and biggest-selling) single "Happy Together" was becoming a hit, only to lose their new bassist, Chip Douglas (who had arranged the song), to The Monkees; guitarist Michael Nesmith invited him to become their producer (he returned to the Turtles a year later, to produce them). Neil Diamond also played at the Whisky on occasion. Metallica bassist Cliff Burton was recruited by the band after they watched him play a show there with his band Trauma. At one point singer and actress E.G. Daily had a residency at the Whisky.
The Whisky a Go Go in 2007
Arthur Lee of Love immortalized the Whisky in the song "Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale". "Here they always play my songs," he would sing on the side two opener of Forever Changes. The Whisky was located on the strip between the streets Clark and Hilldale. British rockers Status Quo also referenced the venue in their 1978 song "Long Legged Linda" with the lines, "Well, if you're ever in Los Angeles and you've got time to spare / Take a stroll up Sunset Boulevard, you'll find the Whisky there."
In 1966, the Whisky was one of the centers of what fans call the Sunset Strip police riots. In the mid-1970s, the Whisky hosted stage presentations, including the long-running show The Cycle Sluts. During the early 1990s, the Whisky hosted a number of Seattle-based musicians who would be a part of the grunge movement, including Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Melvins, Fitz of Depression and 7 Year Bitch. Tracks recorded from a February 12, 1992 concert of Hole appear on their EP, Ask For It (1995). In 1994 Oasis played at the Whisky too. In 1997, System of a Down played at the Whisky. The band were unsigned at the time, and played songs from their early demo tapes, in particular containing the band's only live performance of the song "Blue".
On September 12, 2016, the Whisky a Go Go launched an official TV channel on the Roku Connected TV platform. The Whisky a Go Go channel opens the Whisky's doors to a global audience with live music videos, full concerts and related content spanning its 52-year history.