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St. Louis-area entrepreneur Orlando Watson has the strength to carry on

Watson said that neither COVID nor cancer could stop his entrepreneurial spirit
Credit: St. Louis American
Orlando Watson is a concert promoter and co-owner of Prime 55 Restaurant in the U. City Loop.

ST. LOUIS — “I was watching my leg die.”

In November of 2019, Orlando Watson, 44, concert promoter and co-owner of Prime 55 Restaurant in the U. City Loop had to make a tough decision.

A sarcoma cancer had formed in his left leg, below the knee. It wasn’t the first time. In 2006, lymphatic cancer had manifested in the same knee. He initially refused traditional chemo and radiation therapy.

He opted to travel to Mexico to work with Dr. Hulda Regehr Clark, a naturopath practitioner of alternative medicine and author of “The Cure for All Diseases.” With Clark and additional help from the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center, Watson was pronounced “cancer free.”

But the cancer came back in the same spot.

“The lower part of my leg went numb. I couldn’t feel it anymore. It started to turn black, tumors were protruding out of my skin,” Watson recalled.

“The pain got so bad, I called the surgeon and said, ‘Alright, man, go ahead, take it.’”

Doctors said the returning melanoma was “post-radiation cancer,” which Watson said was caused by the radiation treatment he received 14 years earlier. He was told there was no cure.

Watson’s leg was amputated above the knee, almost to the hip. As he was recovering from that, another calamity rocked his business world: COVID-19.

“The pandemic hurt the concert side of our business the most. Venues were basically shut down. In fact, the entire industry shut down,” Watson recalled.

“I thought for sure we’d have to close the restaurant, too, but God had other plans.”

Unlike many other businesses, Prime 55, an upscale restaurant that opened seven months after Watson’s second cancer diagnosis, survived. Business has been steady since the fall of 2020, but now that the city and county have jointly announced new, relaxed guidelines, Prime 55’s economic forecast seems even brighter.

In 2011, Watson threw a party in Forest Park called “I’m a Survivor” to celebrate five years being cancer-free. It was supposed to be a one-time event, but his mother succumbed to lung cancer in 2012.

That tragic event, plus the attendance and testimonials from cancer survivors, urged him to form the nonprofit “I’m A Survivor Cancer Foundation” which hosts the parties annually.

Watson said the nonprofit’s name has special relevance.

“I gave it that name because it’s my motto: I am a survivor,” he said.

Indeed. Watson’s incredible life story underscores the power of creativity, ingenuity and stubborn resiliency. It is the formula that fortified him to battle cancer twice and ride out the rocky waves of COVID. This formula, Watson said, was seeded in him at birth.  

His grandfather on his mother’s side, Herman Dennis, fled the South at the age of 13 after witnessing a lynching. Soon after, he relocated to St. Louis and founded his own construction company, Dennis Construction, in the 1930s. His father owned a cleaning company, and his uncle was also an entrepreneur. 

“I liked how entrepreneurism looked on them,” Watson reminisced. “So, at an early age, I knew I wanted to work for myself.”

Watson, a University City native did just that. In the 1980s, he became friends with a University High School mate, who later became known as “DJ Charlie Chan Soprano” (best known as turn-tableist and DJ for Run-DMC). Watson started making marketable music tracks and beats. After graduating from high school, he moved to Atlanta and continued making music. By the 1990s, his production company, “Ol School,” was signed to R&B singer Keith Sweat’s record label.

A bad contract with Warner Brothers Records, Watson said, forced him to learn more about ownership and being paid fairly for his work. He soon moved from just making music to producing albums. His company “PrettyBoy Productions” (which later became Prettyboy Records) was part of the production team that created the Bone, Thugs-N-Harmony album, “Strength & Loyalty.” The album was certified “gold” by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

Watson and the collaborators on the album, which included Akon, Jermaine Dupree, Mally Mall and Swizz Beatz, became fast friends. Those relationships proved valuable when Watson formed Rockhouse Entertainment in 2005 with his partner Bradd Young.

The independent recording, concert, management and promotion company has produced hundreds of concerts locally and nationwide featuring artists including Kelly Roland, Chris Rock, Mike Epps, Jodeci, Megan The Stallion, Kodak Black, Toni Braxton and the late DMX.

Joining with his old University City High School classmate, Tony “T-Luv” Davis (rapper, Nelly’s former manager) the two decided to get into the restaurant business. They wanted to fill “a void,” Davis told the St. Louis American in 2019.

“I’ve been to places in other cities where you go to dinner, you socialize for a few hours and then you go home,” Davis said. “Me and Orlando felt like St. Louis didn’t have that type of go-to for our community. When you say ‘prime,’ people know that means topnotch.

The two-level restaurant may have been a superlative experience for customers, but the partners had a rough go of it in the first few months, Watson said.

“We knew the bar side of the business from being in the entertainment game. But we didn’t have any experience as far as food was concerned. We just jumped out there,” he explained.

Just as the partners had gotten into a groove, turning a profit with the restaurant, cancer and COVID-19 reared their respective heads.

But Watson had battled cancer during the production of the Bone, Thugs-N-harmony album. He weathered through it again in 2020.

Next week, Watson will start working with his $70,000 prosthetic “Smart Leg.” In addition, doctors at the Siteman Center have put him on a medicine that seems to be shrinking tumors that had spread to his lungs.

He’s hopeful that the ban on concerts will soon be lifted. When it is, his concerts will resume, but cautiously, Watson stressed.

Watson said that neither COVID nor cancer could squelch his entrepreneurial spirit.

“I come from some tough people. I was born to be a survivor,” he said.