AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
Pioneers of African American Entertainment in Pittsburgh
Prepared by Dr. Theodora D. Cotton *
We are indebted to Frank E. Bolden who graciously granted an interview on a Sunday evening for this information. Mr. Bolden, who is an authority on African American history in Western Pennsylvania, is a member of the Pennsylvania Historical commission and the History and Landmarks Foundation. Born and educated in Western Pennsylvania, he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh at a time when few African Americans were attending. He was a World War II Correspondent and was known to such notables as Mahatma Ghandi and Jawaharial Nehru, first Prime Minister of India. He worked with the Huntley-Brinkley Report and provided authentication for television networks regarding African American life I Western Pennsylvania. In 1950. Through his association with the Pittsburgh Courier, our African American Newspaper, he began gathering data on the families who settled in this area prior to the year 1800. Mr. Bolden can be called the living encyclopedia of African American History in Western Pennsylvania.
Here are highlights of the entertainment which impacted the lives of African American citizens in this area during the decades from the thirties to the sixties. In the early 1900s our first stage was the choir loft. During this time gospel music had begun to appear and became quite popular because the churches in this area had excellent choirs. Churches in the Hill District especially, were filled on Sunday evenings with parishioners who had come to hear gospel singing at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Central Baptist Church, Bethel A.M.E. Church and Wesley Center A.M.E. Zion Church. Early in the 1930s gospel music was published and sheet music was sold for as little as two cents a copy, and later in that decade for as much as ten cents. Choral groups sprung up, of which the best remembered were groups led by Maudelena Johnson and Ruble Blakey. Also, the Centre Avenue Y.M.C.A. had a fine group of singers. These groups were in demand all over the Western Pennsylvania area. Mr. Norman Hardy was a soloist for some of these groups. He sang on local radio stations as that medium grew up in this area. Professor Charles E. Pace and his wife Frankie formed an area wide gospel group from singers of various churches throughout the area. Professor Pace wrote and published many gospel selections and sold them from his place of business in the Hill District on Centre Avenue. Gospel music, which had the greatest impact upon people of all ethnic backgrounds in this area, was the music that brought us through the depression years.
We were not only gospel performers, we were also classical artists. Nelson Arter was the very fine choir master at Holy Cross Episcopal church. The Centre Avenue Y.M.C.A. had a symphony orchestra led by Dr. A. R. Taylor, a dentist, and there was Mary Cardwell Dawson who sponsored and started in operas in this area. She performed with her company at the Syria Mosque, which was recently razed. The productions were so well received that Mary Cardwell Dawson and her company traveled to other cities performing such operas as “Aida.”
Segregation was very pronounced during the thirties. African Americans co9uld not eat in downtown restaurants and seating in theaters was segregated. European Americans came to our affairs, but we could not attend theirs. African American entertainers played in downtown clubs, but African American patrons were not permitted into the clubs. European and African Americans came together to watch the black teams, the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords play baseball. Afterwards they came together in the night spots in the Hill District. However, an African American would not receive an invitation to a white place of entertainment. The best musicians in the country, both black and white, played downtown clubs for good salaries, then came up to the Musician’s Club on Wylie Avenue to jam all night for pleasure. Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong are examples of the caliber of musicians who enjoyed the atmosphere at the Musician’s Club.
Wylie Avenue was the street of the “happenings” in earlier days. Before the Civic Arena was erected, Wylie Avenue began in the Hill district at John Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church (at Herron Avenue) and ended at the jail in downtown Pittsburgh. The churches all along Wylie avenue hosted gospel singers, and the clubs hosted some of the finest jazz musicians in the country.
There were many fine local jazz musicians here in the thirties and later. Just a few names will be mentioned here. There was Joe Westray, whose father was a Baptist Pastor in West Homestead, Walt Harper, who is still active in the music arena, Leroy Brown, who played in the Hollywood Show Bar in the downtown area and featured a tenor saxophonist, Allen “Bigtime” Sanders. Albert “Skippy” Sanders, brother of Allen, left Pittsburgh in the forties and settled in New York City where he sat in as a substitute drummer with Count Basie’s Band. There was Honey Boy Minor and His Buzzing Bees, an excellent bassist, Ghost Howell, a fine pianist, Robert Head and Carl Arter, the Saxophone playing son of Nelson Arter. Robert Mosely sang in “Porgy and Bess” and went abroad to perform. Some well-remembered musicians who lived on the North Side of Pittsburgh were the Sanders brothers, Denny Washington, Neenie Waters and Roy Eldridge.
Many of our local jazz artists went on to national and international fame. Erroll Garner, an internationally known pianist, was nicknamed “Gumdrops” because of his love for eating this confection. Billy Eckstine, the great crooner, Earl “Fatha” Hines, a gifted pianist and Maxine Sullivan of Homestead, who had popular versions of “O Danny Boy” and Loch Lomond.” These artists started their careers here. Mary Lou Williams, an excellent [pianist and arranger left the area to travel with Andy Kirk and the Twelve Clouds of Joy. Joe Thomas, a native of Uniontown, played tenor saxophone with Jimmy Lunceford. Lena Horne became a movie star and Ann Baker went on to sing with Billy Eckstine and Louis Armstrong. Dakota Staton, singer, went on to record with Louis Armstrong. Edgar Willis was one of the musicians in the band on the Johnny Carson Show. Art Blakey, a former student at Schenley High School, is a drummer who traveled with his own band. Ray Brown, a bassist, married Ella Fitzgerald and still plays with Oscar Peterson. George Benson, a guitarist and singer, was born here. These names represent some of the many talented African American musicians who were born in this area and started up the ladder to stardom while living here.
Some of the many clubs frequented by the African Americans in the earlier days were the Paramount Club, Crawford Grill I, the Savoy Ballroom and the Musician’s Club on Wylie Avenue. Others were the Harlem Casino, the Harlem Show Bar, the Washington Club and the Pythian Temple. There were clubs with colorful names like the Loendi Club, the Bamboola Club, You Can’t Find It and Derby Dads. A very well-frequented place was Stanley’s Lounge.
An African American pioneer in radio was disc jockey Mary Dee of WHOD before it became WAMO. She was followed by Bill Powell and Lee Dorris. Erroll Garner with Candy Kids was on the radio. Malvin Goode, Mary Dee’s brother, started in radio here and went to ABC as the United Nation’s Correspondent. Calvin Jones, a waiter at Westinghouse, was also an early radio personality. A vice-president of the company liked his voice so well that he had Jones broadcast the stock report at six 0’clock P.M. on KDKA radio. Other artists who were heard on the radio ere Robert Mosely, Maudelena Johnson with her choir, the Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church Choir with Mr. Norman Hardy who was the soloist. It is interesting that the jazz singers who attained national prominence did not sing on the local radio stations when they resided here.
The earliest African American local television personality was Kathy Milton. Since those days we have had many. Those who will be mentioned here are Eddie Edwards who now owns WPTT, John Christian, who was known as Sir Walter Raleigh on WHOD and went on to Channel 11-WPXI, and Bev Smith, who started at Channel 11 and is now seen on BET and CNN.
The well-known actors during this era include Althea Washington and the Curtaineers. They were the first African American dramatic trope in Western Pennsylvania. Another was Herman McClain, an English teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, who played at the old Irene Kaufman Settlement House.
This area was and still is rich with talent in the performing arts, but just a sample of those who gave pleasure to the African Americans in the area are included here. Our apologies to the many who are not mentioned here but who provided just as many hours of good entertainment.
(This is an important document distilled from an interview of journalist/historian Frank E. Bolden that was collected and edited by Dr. Theodora D. Cotton. It is an early attempt to gather some first-voice oral history of Pittsburgh’s black community from an authoritative source. Though admittedly incomplete it contains some references that might otherwise be totally overlooked or undiscovered by later historians who might not have access to the memory of such a rich source as Frank Bolden. Based on some of the references I would estimate that this undated interview was conducted somewhere in the mid 1980s. Your comments are encouraged and perhaps some of the above will raise questions or awaken some details from your memory or experience.)