The Agora played a central role in the reshaping of Rock and Roll in the years after 1960. It began in 1967 as a small members-only dance club for students in a building (now Isabellas) at Cornell and Random Road just off the Case Western Reserve University campus. Founder Henry J. “Hank” LoConti had worked in the jukebox industry and he had an “ear” for the trends reshaping the industry. The gig on Cornell lasted only a year when the Agora moved to East 24th Street near the Cleveland State University campus. No longer members only, it booked bands, both local and national, that were moving beyond what “Rock” had been in the formative 1950s and early 1960s. By the late 1970s the Agora and local FM radio station WMMS had formed a new market. Groups and singers including Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Kiss, and the local Michael Stanley Band played at the Agora long before they hit big time and become legendary. The new genres on stage at the Agora, including punk, and heavy metal, may have offended Rock traditionalists, but they were music to the ears of new generations of young people.
The Agora was also a showcase for Black musicians and a wide variety of musical genres that were not easily classified under the Rock banner. Blues artists Taj Mahal and Freddie King played the Agora as did such R&B stars as Teddy Prendergast, Chaka Khan and the OJays. Musical legends Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff performed and introduced Cleveland to Reggae. Local favorite John Bassett brought his folk/blues style to the stage. George Benson, the creator of unique driven jazz sound mellowed out the usually rocking auditorium. For many of the Agora fans, who, for most performances, were predominantly white, this was their first live exposure to a great many artists who were long established in the African American community.
As the Agora’s reputation grew, so did the business. Hank LoConti opened over a dozen branches in Ohio and around the nation. When Hank died in 2014, he was honored by the industry both for his innovation and for giving breaks to musicians who “made it”, in part, because he sensed the changing tastes of the time.
Today the Agora rocks on in the old Metropolitan Theater on Euclid near E. 55th where it had moved in 1987 and the programs on stage continue to reflect change and innovation. And the Agora’s legacy lives on in a massive archive of recordings, documents and photographs at the Western Reserve Historical Society.