One can never write off small, dingy bars. It does not matter what fancy cocktail lounges or clubs one might be used to, for in some of the smallest, off the beaten path establishments are folks with big stories, long careers and entire lives unseen from the other side of a bar, or the other side of a booth.
Many Notre Dame students and South Bend socialites know of the Linebacker Lounge, a small bar with surprisingly decent mixed drinks and (relatively) spacious dance floor that overflows on weekends, especially after games. It’s an unassuming place that looks like many a small town, Midwest bar, and on weeknights it seems like the average small town, Midwest bar. But the ‘Backer takes on a different persona when Drew Leach, or “DJ Drew,” as many know him, gets into his cramped booth to take requests and mix music until the wee hours of the morning.
DJ Drew is the ‘Backer’s secret gem, diamond in the rough and beloved behind-the-scenes icon who brings a ton of character to the average-looking Midwest bar.
Drew has been the sole deejay at the Linebacker for 30 years. He started in 1988 in response to a newspaper ad, but before he was the spinning at the Backer he had a whole other life in the entertainment industry. Drew worked on his first local radio show, Moving Generation, when he was still in high school.
He went on and worked on local shows like Disco Party Productions, later called Dance Party Productions. He deejayed in places like The Wharf restaurant in South Bend, worked with Dogs of War record association out of Chicago, and went on to be the first host of Soul Train, among other shows at WCIU TV.
“Music opened a lot of doors for me,” Drew said. “Disco was the real beginning. That’s how it all came about.”
A simple interest in music, and an early special taste for an underground movement called Disco, raised Drew from being a humble kid from northern Indiana to an up and coming entertainment specialist who worked in radio and TV. But when Drew graduated from Columbia College in Chicago and moved back to South Bend, entertainment slowed down some in his life. He continued as a mobile deejay for various events and establishments until he found the newspaper ad that would change his life for the next 30 years. The Linebacker took some convincing for Drew, however.
“In the very beginning it was real redneck. I almost quit in the early days,” he said.
By that time Drew had to hang up his disco records, and he hasn’t gone back to them much in the years since Soul Train. He sold his disco library a few years back for a decent price. Other than the ways deejay technology has “taken some of the fun out of being a deejay,” Drew hasn’t minded the changes in the music scene.
“I’ve always liked music. I like all kinds of music, I’m not partial to one,” Drew said. “I take time to listen to new stuff for younger folks. I keep up with music changes pretty well.”
The music isn’t the only thing that’s changed over the years since Drew stepped into the DJ booth. The Backer itself has changed, and so has its demographic. Drew’s compact, closet-sized room was the original entrance to the bar, and the visitors in the last 30 years are more enjoyable than the rough crowd that hung around the Backer in the early days.
“It changed when the students started coming in,” Drew said. “So many stories.”
The change was enough to make him stay, and he’s still glad he did. Over the years DJ Drew has witnessed and played for marriage proposals, deejayed weddings of Notre Dame graduates and always takes time to catch up with alumni when they’re back in town for games and reunions. Drew has something of a cult admiration at the Backer, something he knows, but holds with humility.
Now 70 years old, he says he’s “getting kind of old for this.” Every year staying out until 2 a.m. or later becomes a little more taxing. But keeping current students entertained with music they enjoy and reconnecting with alumni is what keeps him coming back to the simple bar with a tiny deejay booth.
“It’s just enjoyable… it’s always a fun group,” Drew said. “It’s just so much fun to play these songs.”