By Thomas C. Fleming
Edited by Max Millard
Copyright 2006 by Thomas Fleming and Max Millard
Thomas Fleming, the dean of Northern California's black journalists, died on November 21, 2006, the week before his 99th birthday. He was honored with a public memorial service in San Francisco City Hall.
Fleming began his career at the Spokesman, a radical black newspaper published from 1931 - 5. He was the founding editor in 1944 of the Reporter, a black weekly in San Francisco that later merged with the rival Sun to form the Sun-Reporter. He wrote for the paper for more than 61 years, retiring in December 2005. No daily newspaper in the Bay Area hired a full-time black reporter until 1962, when Ben Williams made the jump from the Sun-Reporter to the San Francisco Examiner -- thanks to a recommendation from Fleming.
For the Sun-Reporter, Fleming covered nine national political conventions, met two presidents, and got the inside story on everything from the student strike at San Francisco State University (which led to the nation's first ethnic studies department) to the Jonestown tragedy of 1978, which claimed more than 900 lives. He had the newsman's talent of being able to write fast, and if there was space to fill, the staff could always count on him to come up with something that fit.
Fleming had an uncanny memory and a streak of stubbornness coupled with dignity. Until 1997 he held court at the old Sun-Reporter office on Turk Street, where he spent most of the day reading newspapers, greeting visitors, and writing his three weekly columns -- an editorial, the Police Blotter, and the Weekly Report, a commentary on national or world events. He had a loud, high-pitched, highly inflective voice, often punctuated by raucous laughter which rang throughout the rambling two-story building.
He was like a human time machine: if someone mentioned a person they once knew, he could go on almost forever with details about the person's life, family members, mutual acquaintances and personal history. He liked to tell his favorite stories over and over, especially about famous people he had met. Out of the 100 people listed in Columbus Salley's 1993 book, The Black 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential African Americans, Past and Present. Fleming had met or seen 45, including Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, Charles Houston, Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, A. Philip Randolph, Mary McLeod Bethune, Duke Ellington and Muhammad Ali.
Fleming could be prickly. One time a woman came in, peered at him through the half-door that separated the lobby from the office, and asked politely, "Are you Thomas Fleming?" He said yes. She went on: "Is it Thomas or Tom?" He bellowed back: "It's Mister Fleming to you!"
His most widely read series of articles was "Reflections on Black History," which combined his personal experiences with historical facts. It was nationally syndicated in the black press, and still appears on the Internet at www.freepress.org/fleming/fleming.html..
A lifelong bachelor who lived alone in the Fillmore district until he was 98, Tom Fleming cooked for himself, typed all his columns on an old manual typewriter, and did not collect Social Security until his mid-70s. "I didn't need it," he said. "I was making a salary."
His role as an eyewitness to California's black history may never be equaled. But he didn't belong to the past. Up to the end, he had many close friends of all ages, who constantly called him, visited him and took him places.
He left no known blood relatives, but was virtually adopted by the Jeffrey family of Oakland, who treated him like a beloved uncle and watched over him in his later years. They had organized a 99th birthday party for him on November 25, 2006 and invited many guests. When he died unexpectedly of heart failure, they held the party as a celebration of his life. One of the most moving tributes was from Peter Magnani, who wrote:
"I worked for Tom Fleming at the Sun-Reporter for five years and learned so much from him. He had three qualities that made him a superb journalist: He was always skeptical, never accepting anything at face value and always alert to the motives of those who tried to influence him. He had a well-tuned sense of social justice and no mercy whatsoever for the bully or the oppressor. And he was an amazing story-teller.
"Tom was no fool. He could spot a fake a mile away. And he knew the world was full of people who would lie, cheat and steal to feather their own nests. But at the same time - and this is what really defined Tom Fleming - he had faith in his fellow man, and he believed in progress and in humanity's desire and ability to better itself. That faith made Tom a natural ally of young people. He was always there for them, to teach, encourage, and offer opportunities. It didn't matter who they were, as long as they were willing to learn and grow. Thanks to Tom Fleming, there are legions of people in the Bay Area and beyond who are doing their part to help make the world a better place. That's his legacy - the legacy of an enlightened teacher."
My introduction to music occurred around 1914, when I was living in Jacksonville, Florida. My father played the violin with different dance bands between his jobs on the railroad, and he fronted bands himself. Sometimes they were hired to play for big events in Palm Beach for wealthy whites. He once took me on a dance date and received permission for me to sit on the bandstand and play a kazoo with the band.
From that day on, I became a devotee of popular and jazz music. I still have a strong attachment to jazz, and have followed it closely for more than 80 years, collecting jazz recordings and attending concerts, theater dates and nightclubs in Los Angeles, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. Jazz reached its height after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. All the bars or taverns had large jukeboxes containing all the hits.
I don't know whether jazz started in New Orleans. Blacks weren't writing down too much of what they were doing for the history books. They started out entertaining black audiences, but the ones who were really good moved easily in the white world, where they earned more.
White musicians had to write the score down. They used music stands, and turned the pages while they were playing. Blacks had music stands too, but they never looked at them, even though most of them could read music. Blacks could improvise, and the way they played depended on how they felt. They enjoyed what they were doing, and wanted people to feel good. And they always tried to excel one another.
When a jazz group was playing, you would hear someone yell out, "Every tub!" That meant "every tub rests on its own bottom": we said that when I was a kid, before I heard any musicians using it. It means you've got to look out for yourself. On stage, it was used when everything got real hot, because the music was coming to an end. So everybody joined in and tried to make the music sound as good as it possibly could.
In the early 20th century, Jacksonville was the biggest city in Florida -- much bigger than Miami -- and a lot of vaudeville came there. My neighborhood had its own theaters which few whites attended. In the white neighborhoods, blacks could sit only in the "crow's roost."
A vaudeville show had about five acts, generally including a comedian, a dancer and a vocalist. The least-known came on first, and the show built up to the star. Most of the larger vaudeville theaters had a house band or pit orchestra which accompanied all the singers and dancers. The musicians lived in the area, and when they knew which entertainer was coming, they received the musical arrangements ahead of time so they could practice before the show opened.
The theaters ran continuously from about 9 or 10 o'clock in the morning until midnight. The motion picture came on first, with a piano player who sat facing the screen, and then the stage acts, which generally lasted about an hour and a half -- a little longer than the movie. Vaudeville was on every day, and particularly on holidays.
Around 1915, Bert Williams, the great black comic, came to Jacksonville with a vaudeville show, and I went to see him. He played at the Strand Theater, which catered to nothing but blacks. I'd heard his name a lot, even then. He went up higher than any black entertainer before him. He was the first black to become a star in the Ziegfeld Follies, an annual revue in New York. The talk was that he had a diamond installed in his upper teeth. It flashed every time he opened his mouth.
His regular costume was a tailcoat and trousers too short, a battered silk hat, and oversized shoes that slapped the floor very hard when he walked. He blacked his face, like a lot of black and white comics did in minstrel shows. He would come out and talk all his ridiculous talk. He sang too, in his style. It was more like a monologue done in a singsong way, and very earthy. He sang about bad luck and being without money. He recorded some comic songs for Columbia Records, and in one he said: "You ask me what I need. Well, I needs everything from my hat down to my overcoat in." I saw him just that once, but I remember him so well because I was watching that diamond all the time I was there.
Williams was followed in the Follies by Ethel Waters. She was the first black female singer to get really into the white world, and was a heavy recorder. She wasn't identified as a blues singer only, but sang pop songs too, like "Stormy Weather."
Williams, Waters and other entertainers had contracts with the Orpheum Circuit, the largest and most prestigious vaudeville chain, which was nationwide. They made a circuit around the country, appearing wherever there was an Orpheum Theater. The Palace in New York City, flagship of the Orpheum chain, was the number one vaudeville house in the whole nation. That's where everybody wanted to go, because any entertainer who played the Palace, black or white, had made it on the big time.
The Orpheum hired black and white both, if your talent deserved it and the operators thought you would draw a good-sized audience. The acts were booked in New York and sent out of there. Jewish entertainers called New York the "Big Banana." But the blacks called it the Big Apple, and I guess people liked that sound better, because it outlasted the other name.
There was a black vaudeville chain, the Theatre Owners Booking Association, or TOBA, that had theaters in the East Coast, the South and the Midwest. They were owned by enterprising whites who saw an opportunity to put a theater in every large black neighborhood. In New York City it was on Lenox Avenue, and in Philadelphia, on Pearl Street. There were TOBA houses in Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, St. Louis, Kansas City, and as far west as Oklahoma City. The world-famous Apollo Theater on 125th Street in Harlem was a member of the chain, although that area was still largely a Jewish neighborhood.
TOBA had the biggest names in Black America, and used an occasional white. In the '20s and early '30s,
one could see Pigmeat Markham, Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday in her early days, Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald, the Mills
Brothers when they first started, and just about any other famous black entertainer. A few of them would get away
from TOBA and join the Orpheum Circuit. There were no TOBA theaters on the West Coast because they
didn't have separate theaters here for blacks and whites.
In 1916, when I was in third grade and living in Harlem, I used to attend the Lafayette Theater, the main theater for blacks in New York. It was white-owned and run, but it regularly presented some of the greatest black talent -- sometimes serious drama instead of musicals. I saw some all-black films there, produced and filmed by blacks in New York City.
In front of the Lafayette was a tree known by black entertainers all over the United States as the Tree of Hope. If they had long periods of unemployment, they would come by and kiss the tree and rub its bark, hoping to get a break. And so many of them got jobs that the name stuck.
Around the corner from the Lafayette was a motion picture house, the Lincoln Theater. That's where Fats Waller started playing the pipe organ on weekends when he was 12 years of age. Fats' father was a minister at the Abyssinian Baptist church. His mother played piano; I think he got lessons at home from her. Fats attended P.S. 89 the same time I did. He was a few grades ahead of me, but I saw him at school a lot, and went to hear him at the theater. Everybody marveled at his talent and followed him around, trying to get close to him.
He wore a cap, and like all the boys of that age, he wore knee pants, knickerbockers. And he had frog eyes; I could always remember those bulging eyes. Whenever I talked with him, he was full of wisecracks. His given name was Thomas. I guess he got his nickname in grammar school, because he was fat then. Nobody picked a fight with him: he was big enough to look out for himself.
After I left New York, I lost track of him and didn't follow his career until years later, when I was living in California. Then the records started coming out. When I read his name in the national black papers, I knew it was him. And when I saw his picture, he looked just about the same. In the 1930s, he was still wisecracking.
Fats became one of the most popular entertainers of his time, mostly because of the style of piano he played -- very enthusiastic. He was also a composer and singer. He worked theaters and nightclubs both, and appeared in a few movies. He accompanied himself on all his records. Sometimes he did them as a soloist, and other times he'd have a saxophone, trumpet, drum and bass. He cut a lot of records, and they were played everywhere.
He was probably best known as a songwriter. He composed the music, and usually collaborated with Andy Razaf, who wrote the lyrics. Razaf was a successful writer for the musical stage, who was a grand nephew of Queen Ranavalona III of Madagascar.
Fats wrote a flock of songs that were tremendous hits: "Honeysuckle Rose," "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Your Feet's Too Big," "'Tain't Nobody's Bizness if I Do." Other entertainers, black and white, played and recorded his numbers. They're being played yet. Fats didn't make much money out of all the pieces he wrote, because he'd normally sell them as soon as he composed them and lose all of his rights. He was always short for money. He chased women a lot, and had a wife and a son at home. He lived high, all the time. He was a man of tremendous appetites for life, which I think included everything.
In December 1943, I read in the paper that Fats had died. The news came over the wires
and went around the world. He had been in Hollywood to make a picture, and was returning to
New York. The train was pulling into the yard in Kansas City when he had a sudden
heart attack, and that was it. He was 39 years old.
Jazz owes a lot of its popularity to the phonograph, the musical box that brought jazz to people outside of the areas where jazz musicians played. When I moved to Chico, California in 1919, Mom had one of the old Victrolas that you wound up in the same manner as a clock, until you could wind no longer. Then you placed the record on the turntable and turned it on, and the music blared out of the megaphone.
Most records sounded very tinny, but the volume could be raised or lowered. When the record was finished, you turned it over, wound the Victrola again, and played the other side. The first electric phonographs had quite an improvement in the quality of the sound, and they were constantly improved.
Some record companies, like Victor, Columbia, Brunswick, Vocalion and Okeh, made a lot of what were called race records, by black musicians and comedians. The record shops everywhere sold them -- not just in black neighborhoods. Decca Records, which started in England, came to the U.S. in 1934 and featured more black entertainers than the others. They sold for just 35 cents.
The music stores had postings of new records every month. You told the clerk your choices and he conducted you to one of several enclosed booths, each with a phonograph. You played the records, picked out the ones you liked, then made your purchase. The stores also sold sheet music. The only records I've ever listened to is jazz records; I'm very one-sided that way. The fashionable homes in Chico had player pianos, which played a roll that had been recorded by some very good musician.
My first summer in Chico, I saved a total of $105 from harvesting peaches and prunes. I went by a music store in town, and when I saw a silver B-flat soprano saxophone, I asked the manager how much it cost. I had $50 on my person, and said that I would like to take the instrument and pay the rest later. He said he would have to come and see my mother that evening, since I was too young for him to offer me a contract. Mom told him that he could keep $25 as down payment, as I needed the rest of my poke to buy clothes and other things for school.
I took private lessons for a while, and at Central Junior High School I played in the band. During the graduation ceremony, I left the orchestra pit to receive my diploma, then returned to my position and continued playing.
At Chico High School I engaged in jam sessions with a group of friends several times a week, playing popular tunes that we heard on the thick, 7-inch, 78 rpm phonograph records. "Babe" Bowman, who was white, came by my house just about every evening, and we would put a record on the Victrola. Lester Price, a trumpet player, joined us; he was already playing with bands at dance spas in the area. Some of the spas were outdoor pavilions built especially for dancing, and others were indoor halls.
Bowman left Chico right after finishing high school and landed a job at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, playing trombone in the house orchestra with Anson Weeks. We, being black, did not get the same opportunity. Years later, I ran into Babe and asked him, "Why doesn't the hotel ever bring Duke Ellington in, or any of those guys?" He said, "Tom, the white folks don't know how to dance to that music."
Chico had one theater for stage acts, the Majestic. Sometimes a big-name band would come through, and now and then a black group. Around 1923, Struttin' Along, a musical revue that starred Mamie Smith, the great blues singer, had a long run in San Francisco. The cast was all black. After closing, it toured some cities in the Sacramento Valley, including Chico, where it appeared at the Majestic for two nights. I attended both nights, fascinated with a show of that size playing in the hick towns.
The cast included Smith, an orchestra of about eight pieces, a chorus line of maybe six girls -- all good-looking -- and a number of comedians. One I recall with pleasure was Frisco Nick, who staged a hilarious dance while he sang "Three O'clock in the Morning," a great waltz hit, with a broom as his partner. Except for Smith and her band, the Jazz Hounds, the entire cast was assembled in California.
Hadwick Thompson, the black rice farmer from Willows, worked Saturday nights at a place where the farmhands and their women came to drink and to wrestle on the floor in their type of dancing. They were stuck for a band one time, and Hadwick knew that Henry Herriford, Ted Johnson and me, and sometimes my sister Kate, had been practicing, so we were hired. Each of us received $3. We were not invited to return, but I later played in a group for the high school's senior dance.
Most of the dance bands played the same style of music as Paul Whiteman, a white musician and bandleader who was very famous at the time. The white world called him the King of Jazz. At first I thought he was the greatest thing in the world. But he wasn't playing jazz; his music was more like a symphony.
Then I heard Fletcher Henderson, a black composer, arranger, bandleader and pianist, who was more spirited than Whiteman, and I liked him much better. He had the first black big band that became really commercially successful. His band had some of the guys who became future stars. Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins, the great tenor saxophonist, played with him for a while. Hawkins was all we heard about then. He was the first one who took the tenor and made a solo instrument out of it.
Fletcher's band was about 14 or 15 pieces. He had four and sometimes five reeds, three or four trumpets, three trombones, piano, bass, drum and guitar. He might have been the first to start writing arrangements for sections -- all the reeds and brass harmonized together, and the rhythm section too. Before that time, most bands had no more than about five to eight people, because the places where they worked couldn't pay very much. The first big bands had cornets instead of trumpets, and a tuba for a bass horn; the string bass replaced it about 1930.
When big bands came along, they started appearing in the vaudeville theaters, besides playing for dances and nightclubs. Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie all had bands of 16 or 17 pieces, with a singer. I liked big bands and listened to all of them, black or white. I don't think I ever had any bias against white musicians; I bought a lot of their records when I was in high school. But I thought blacks played jazz better than they did, because it seemed they had a different emotional approach to music.
When our house in Chico burned down in a fire, we did not get another phonograph, and I have often
thought of the records we lost -- Mamie Smith, Paul Whiteman, the Mound City Blue Blowers and a host of others.
In 1923, after I had left New York, the Cotton Club opened on 142nd Street in Harlem. It was the most famous nightclub in the country. It had an elaborate floor show every night, with a big band, vocalists, comedians, and a chorus line. All the entertainers, waiters and other personnel were black. But the owners didn't allow blacks in as paying customers even if they had thousands of dollars in their pockets.
Jazz music attracted tremendous crowds. Most of the young customers were college students from wealthy families who came uptown "slumming," because they knew that nobody could play jazz music, or dance, like blacks did. The chorus girls were beautiful and shapely, and most of them were very fair. That was one of the main ingredients of what jazz was all about. Nightclubs became even more popular -- and a lot more profitable -- when Prohibition started, because many of them continued to serve hard liquor.
Crystal radio sets came in around 1922 or '23. Radio provided another medium for jazz devotees to hear big-name bands from nightclubs and supper clubs in big hotels. Some of them always played hot or jazz music. But most played for people to dance by, and their arrangements were sort of stiff. The shows were about a half hour, not the full hours the band was playing.
KRE, a radio station in Berkeley, furnished a seven-day-a-week jazz menu, 24 hours a day. That was the station that first presented the Mills Brothers, a group of four brothers who sounded just like musical instruments. They were a national sensation. Black musicians appeared on the white-owned radio stations as far back as the 1920s. Ethel Waters and Fats Waller were frequent, and Louis Armstrong was played on the radio very early in his career.
Count Basie first played piano with the Bennie Moten band in Kansas City, one of the hot spots where jazz was heard nightly over the radio. They came to New York after making a lot of noise in the Midwest, and became even bigger. Another famous black band from Kansas City was Andy Kirk and his 12 Clouds of Joy, with Pha Terrell singing. There were a lot of blacks living in the Middle West, way before they came to the West Coast.
Earl "Fatha" Hines, the great jazz pianist and bandleader, presided for many years at the Grand Terrace in Chicago. He made it probably the best nightclub in the country, except for the Cotton Club. In California, we got Hines several nights a week on the radio, and since he had never been West, his broadcast was eagerly awaited.
McKinney's Cotton Pickers was a nationally known, all-black big band which we heard when they broadcast from their base at the Greystone Ballroom in Detroit. They came to the Bay Area around 1928 or 1929 on a tour, and played at a dance at Stanford University. The next night, they played at the Hotel Oakland, but for whites only. Don Redman wrote all the arrangements for the band and some of the songs. "Chant of the Weed," a Redman composition, was the band's theme. We were all pretty sure that it was about marijuana.
The stations didn't have to depend upon records: some had live acts on, and created their own celebrities. Most stations in the 1920s and 1930s had a policy of not hiring blacks. My family didn't get a radio until 1927, when I started working for the railroad. I became well acquainted with Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Moran and Mack -- the Two Black Crows -- and Amos and Andy, who were played by two white men, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll.
Amos 'n' Andy, which started in 1928, was one of the most popular radio shows across the country. The two white comics used what they called a black form of speech. It was the manner they thought blacks spoke -- uneducated people who mangled the King's English. I imagine you did hear people talking like that in some areas of the rural South. Gosden and Correll became so famous that they made a Hollywood picture also, wearing blackface.
I was laughing just like whites did, because they sounded funny to me. Amos and Andy were being much quoted, both in the black and white communities. It was so ridiculous that all you could do was laugh. Almost everybody enjoyed the comedy at first, but then some blacks began to feel ashamed at the way blacks were being depicted as buffoons and fools. I took some comfort in that their portrayal was not like any black people I personally knew.
The first black entertainer to get on a radio show in San Francisco was Henry Starr, who was born in Oakland, then worked in Los Angeles and on the East Coast as a piano player. He was gone for a long time before he was hired in the late 1920s for the Edna Fischer Show, a variety show broadcast every morning on KFRC in San Francisco. Thousands of listeners turned their radios on every morning, and the names of the stars were well-known locally. Starr sang and accompanied himself on the piano. Rumors were that he was paid $100 every week, which was a lot of money in 1929 for anyone. I knew him and his family well because his brothers worked as waiters for the Southern Pacific when I was a cook there.
When we lived in Chico, my mother's minister in Oroville was Bishop King. One of his sons, Saunders King, sang and played the guitar in that church, and I saw him all the time. But after we came down to the Bay Area, he moved in a different world than I did. Saunders was a member of the quartet of black singers who appeared every morning on Crosscuts, a radio show that went on the air in San Francisco around 1928. They sang mostly spirituals.
Saunders King formed the first band to play at Jack's Tavern on Sutter Street when it opened in 1938.
Jack's was the premier jazz club in San Francisco. It was black-owned, and all it ever had was
black musicians. I started going there from the beginning. It became a mecca for jazz
aficionados, attracting large contingents of whites to the Fillmore district every night. One of
King's recordings, "Saunders King's Blues," swept the country and was played by a lot of the
famous bands. But apart from that, he wasn't well known outside of San Francisco, because he
stayed there all of his professional career.
When I was working for the railroad, C.L. Dellums' billiard parlor in Oakland attracted some luminaries, including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, a big star at the Cotton Club. In his day he was the king of all tap dancers, appearing as a headliner for the Orpheum Circuit. He used to come through the Bay Area every year, and I would go to see him. Most of the time he was the only black on the bill.
Every big city on the West Coast had an Orpheum Theater -- Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland. San Francisco had two. The shows never played just one day; for the smaller places they might play three days. They had a set of stairs on stage when Bojangles appeared, so he could dance up and down. He was the first one to develop that style. He used to wear tails, or sometimes a tuxedo or a straight suit. He'd carry on a line of patter, because he didn't have any voice for singing. I wasn't a big fan, but I felt a lot of racial pride for a black man to be doing well like that.
Bill was an uneducated man. When he wasn't dancing, he loved to hang out in poolrooms or get in poker or crap games. This was before he went into the movies and made those films with Shirley Temple. He was a celebrated pool shark who bet as much as $500 a game on himself. When he came down to C.L. Dellums' poolroom, it attracted a lot of onlookers because he was very good with the cue. I heard the pool hustlers talk about him down on the street, about how he would clean out everybody but this guy Garbie. Robinson thought he was so damned good that he could beat him. But Garbie was a pool hustler, and used to take him every time. The others couldn't stay with him because the saying was, Bojangles had long money, and the other guys had short money.
I went down to see Bojangles play once, and after I heard him talk, I didn't bother any more. In person, he was rude and crude. Every other word was m***********, all day long. He dissipated a lot of the admiration I had for him. It looked like he didn't know any other form of speech. That was the big complaint I heard about him locally. It was strictly the street blacks who played him up, because he was famous.
He was very domineering. The police chief in one city made him an honorary police officer, and
gave him a gold badge and a permit to carry a loaded gun. He'd go into one of these places where
there was gambling and do all this big talk, and when he got in an argument, he'd flash that gun
on people. Everybody respected that gun. The black middle class just admired him as a dancer, the
same way I did. But I could see that he was very disagreeable, and didn't have any class. To me,
he was a bully and a coward. I was surprised that he lived as long as he did.
During the Depression, the vaudeville theaters were still drawing heavy. You could see a show for 35 cents. I liked vaudeville better than movies because I felt I was relating to the performers. If they did something particularly good, the applause was so great, and you got caught in the spirit of that. They'd come out to talk to people after.
The West Coast had the Pantages Circuit, which started in Los Angeles, and the Fanchon and Marco chain, founded by a brother and sister dance act in the 1920s. They were at their height in the 1930s. Fanchon and Marco had a contract to supply their extravagant stage acts for the Fox Motion Picture Company, which owned the Fox West Coast, a chain of vaudeville theaters that went all up and down the coast.
I went to the T&D Theater, the number one movie house in Oakland, more than any other. Occasionally I'd go over to San Francisco to see a show at the Warfield or the Paramount, or the Fox Theater on Market Street when it opened in 1929. It seated almost 5,000 patrons and was the biggest theater in the country outside of New York City. I came over from Oakland the day it opened.
The Fox hired Henry Le Bel, a black man from Seattle, to work the keys of the mighty Wurlitzer. Le Bel was one of the premier organ players in the nation, and he was very fair. He never did bother with any blacks when he came down here. Some light-skinned blacks probably felt that if they socialized with blacks too much, they might lose their jobs.
Two of my favorite headliners on vaudeville were the Nicholas Brothers, who were absolutely the best pair of dancers I ever saw. They toured the whole nation and went to Europe too. They used to come through on the Orpheum Circuit, and I saw them many times. Fayard and Harold Nicholas could tap better than Fred Astaire; he was mostly a ballroom dancer. They didn't get the publicity of Gene Kelly, and they knew it was race, because Kelly would tell you himself: the Nicholas Brothers were tops. The black world didn't think much of Kelly.
They were headliners at the Cotton Club every year, and were the most famous dancers in the country in the 1930s. They had learned all that dancing in competition with kids on the streets of Philadelphia, where they were born. As soon as Fayard learned a step, he'd teach Harold. They worked in the big hotels and some nightclubs, but mostly in the East. To the west of Chicago, hotels and clubs just didn't use blacks. So vaudeville was their best outlet. They would be on stage for maybe 12 or 14 minutes, maybe longer; it depended on how large the bill was.
Vaudeville phased out when TV became popular. A lot of the acts started appearing on television, and the audiences decreased at the theaters. The Orpheum Circuit is now the RKO Theaters.
I think TV has forced the entertainment world to change its attitude toward black performers. It
has always hired more blacks than the big screen because it found out it could make money off
these people's talents. So Hollywood decided, "We'll make some of that money also."
Los Angeles was a fairyland that drew religious mullahs from everywhere. Some were sincere in their beliefs, and some were simply quacks who flocked to the rich pickings to be found in the area -- swamis and goofy people who started their own religions. I thought they congregated down there so they could get in films.
Hollywood created the impression that all females were beautiful and all men were handsome, and always very well off. Not many blacks worked in Hollywood, but they still aspired to get into the movies -- either on the screen, in the studios, or in any other capacity. Black parents had ambitions like white parents, because they saw Sunshine Sammy and others in the early days. He was a little black kid who appeared in the Our Gang comedies.
Hollywood used black entertainers who had made big names on the stage and in nightclubs. The Nicholas Brothers were among the early ones to be considered, because they had a class act. They performed dance numbers in some musicals, but they were never given a starring role because Hollywood wasn't willing to take the chance with them. No studio thought blacks would sell except when they were portrayed as entertainers doing their specialty. They got them for what they did, not for their acting. I guess that's why so many blacks didn't take any dramatic training: they knew they weren't going to get any jobs. Hollywood made an occasional black movie, but often it was just taken from a musical, and all they had to do was film it, like Cabin in the Sky in 1943.
At one time Los Angeles was smaller than San Francisco. Then it swallowed up Hollywood and everything else in the area. You didn't know when you got out of the city. Some prankster put up a billboard in Fresno, more than 200 miles away: "You're entering Los Angeles." It seemed that the sole ambition of its political and business leaders was to be bigger than New York City. Los Angeles has a lot more land, but I don't think it will ever be a New York, because the Big Apple is where it all is. Los Angeles to me is just like a big country town.
Los Angeles had no opera house and no major playhouses. The city was the butt of wisecracks all over the country for its lack of good hotels. I used to hear white people saying that it only had one first-class hotel, the Ambassador. San Francisco had at least three -- the Palace, the St. Francis and the Fairmont. We used to brag to them: "You live in a small town, because we've got high-rise buildings in San Francisco."
A lot of the big-money people went to the Ambassador's supper club, the Coconut Grove, where Bing Crosby became famous. There was the music of Gus Arnheim -- a good white composer and bandleader -- along with Bing and the Rhythm Boys, until Crosby left the group and went out as a single. Like all the bands that played there, Arnheim's band was all white. A lot of us listened to that show on the radio, along with the nonblack people. But we couldn't go into the club.
Los Angeles had quite a solid black nightclub scene. In the late 1920s, Dr. John Somerville, a black dentist, opened the Somerville Hotel on Central Avenue, and it became one of the most popular places in black Los Angeles. He built it from the ground up. It was three or four stories, and had about 150 rooms. The ground floor contained a restaurant, a barbershop, and a nightclub with good jazz for dancing every night.
The nightclub was a gathering place for the black railroad workers. It served meals and whatever booze each customer was able to purchase on his own, since Prohibition was still in effect, although one could buy the brew called near beer. The first night I went there, George Dewey Washington was the featured vocalist. He began his career in San Francisco before leaving for the more lucrative Los Angeles and New York City areas by way of vaudeville and nightclubs.
The small house band at the Somerville was headed by Curtis Mosby. His drummer was Lionel Hampton, before Hamp left to join the house band at Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City under the direction of Les Hite. The club was just outside of L.A., and was a smaller, West Coast version of the original club in Harlem. Up north, we diligently stayed up late to hear shows from there. The Hite band was well known all along the Pacific coast, and it would come north when the Cotton Club closed for short periods, playing one-night stands in Oakland and some towns in Oregon and Washington.
The Culver City Cotton Club wasn't even a bad copy of the nightclub it was named after, because the shows were not nearly as lavish. But it was there, and it was mostly Hollywood that went. It had maybe one big-name singer on the bill and a tap dancer or two, like Sam and Sam, a great team made up of Sammy Marmillion and Sammy Montgomery.
Lawrence Brown, the great trombonist, sat in the Hite band at that time. He would later play for Ellington. Los Angeles had far more openings for black musicians than you found in the Bay Area, because there was more nightlife, and you could also get work in films.
Cab Calloway, who had been a headliner as a dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem, was put at the head of a band called the Missourians, with a baton. He played no instrument; all he did was direct and sing, and dance too. Calloway was at Culver City one New Year's Eve when he began singing his theme song, "Minnie the Moocher," and scatting the national anthem. He was promptly shut off the air.
Louis Armstrong was a big attraction by himself. He always came as a single and picked up local musicians to play with him. He fronted the Hite band when he appeared at the L.A. club., and recorded some of his best hits with them. The records said: "Louis Armstrong and His Band." But it wasn't his band at all. I can tell you the records Louie made with the Hite band because I recognize the guitar player. That's the way he was most of his life. He never did have a band in the same sense that Ellington did, although late in his career, when he started making concert tours with Louis Armstrong's All-Stars, he had a few guys that stayed with him, like Jack Teagarden and Trummy Young.
I recall the time when Armstrong came to Oakland with a band of 12 pieces. Among them was the trumpet player Henry "Red" Allen. Armstrong and Allen carried on a conversation as to who was the ugliest. Both were natives of New Orleans, and no doubt had known each other for a long time, but they were very funny describing one another. When Armstrong played in San Francisco, they caught him smoking a joint or two, and he was barred for a while.
Armstrong recorded the "West End Blues" in 1928. That's the one that made him really famous. He got all the publicity because he started the style of hitting those high notes. His theme song was "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," written by Leon and Otis Rene in 1931. The Rene brothers were pharmacists in Los Angeles who played music too.
The Lincoln Theater was the big house on Central Avenue, presenting both motion pictures and stage acts of top black entertainers who would appear when they came out to make movies. It was the only movie palace on the West Coast that hired blacks for ushers, projectionists, or any other jobs except for entertainers.
Every weekend they had a big stage show called the Midnight Ramble. I saw all the famous black comedians that worked the theaters back in Chicago and New York, like Pigmeat Markham, Dusty Fletcher and Sandy Burns, and then you heard a lot of good jazz. It was kind of like the shows you'd see at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. When I came into L.A. on the train, as soon as I got into my clothes I was gone to the Lincoln Theater to watch that show. It was mostly a black audience.
The Lincoln didn't get many of the big-name bands from the East, but there were some good local black musicians like Kid Ory, a trombone player from New Orleans who was already a national jazz legend, Curtis Mosby and his Blue Blowers, and Lionel Hampton, who was just starting his career.
I met Lionel in the early 1930s. From then until he died, he was a major figure in the jazz world. He came out to California in 1928 and soon made his reputation as a great drummer in the Les Hite band. He played with Hite several years, and became famous in Los Angeles because he was such a showy drummer. Lionel used to excite everybody along Central Avenue by walking down the street with two drumsticks in his hands. He'd beat on the walls, then lean over and beat on the sidewalk to keep the rhythm up. It was very entertaining.
I was surprised when Lionel joined Benny Goodman in 1936 and started playing the vibes, because he was better known as a drummer. When Goodman formed his own band, he immediately went out and got some blacks to play in it. I don't recall any white bandleader who integrated his band before him. I think he did it for commercial reasons, to try to get the true feeling of jazz.
He got Teddy Wilson, a famous piano player, and formed a small group out of his big band called the Benny Goodman Trio, with Wilson on piano, Gene Krupa on drums, and Benny playing clarinet. They made a lot of records together. When he got Lionel Hampton to join them, they really were jumping.
Then Goodman went after Cootie Williams out of Duke Ellington's band. Cootie was a growl trumpet player who used a plunger to make that sound; he was the best at that. When he joined Goodman in 1940, somebody wrote a song about it: "When Cootie Left the Duke." To get the black sound of jazz, Goodman hired Fletcher Henderson to arrange full-time for his band. I guess Fletcher wasn't working enough to keep his payroll going. He didn't have a band of his own after that; all he did was write arrangements.
Goodman was the most popular of all the white bands. He was named the King of Swing by the white media, but the musicians knew better, and he knew it too. He was well trained -- a thorough musician -- but he didn't understand how to improvise. Almost any black band outswung him. Black musicians would say about some players: "That cat's really swinging," or "swinging like a gate." That's why they called it swing music. You don't know how crazy the white kids got about swing music in the 1930s. It was something new to them, and Goodman's band stood out.
Many of the black musicians couldn't appear in the places where Benny could, and he got on radio before they did, so the white kids never heard of them. Benny used to come on every Saturday night, broadcasting nationwide over NBC on a program called Let's Dance. I used to listen to the show because I like that type of music. I could tolerate him.
During World War II, Lionel Hampton was drafted into military service as a member of the St. Mary's Preflight Band at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California, where they were training Navy flyers. It was about a 20-piece band, who were all professional musicians in civilian life. They were just there for the music. And man could they swing! The Navy wanted them as a showpiece band, and they played wherever the Navy wanted them to. They were stationed on the base all through the war. Out of that group was the nucleus of the big band that Lionel Hampton formed when the war was over.
One of those men was Wilton Johnson, a very good alto saxophone player from Sacramento, who was my sister Kate's boyfriend. Wilton used to come by Kate's house in Oakland, and sometimes Lionel would come with him because he liked the way Kate made lemon cream pie. They were both in uniform. I used to talk to Lionel, and he always remembered I was Kate's brother.
He didn't have what I'd call one of the great bands, but it was exciting to watch -- a great show band. Lionel was very versatile. He would be drumming, then switch to the mallets to play the vibes. Then he'd drop the mallets on the vibes, jump up on the piano and start playing. He played two-fingered style, just like he did on the vibes. Two fingers! His musicians would come off the stage and go down the aisle of the theater, all tooting, then back up to the stage.
Lionel's wife Gladys had been a showgirl in a chorus line in Los Angeles. She was about eight or nine years older than Lionel, and it caused a lot of comment among us who knew him. They never had any kids. Lionel made Gladys handle all the money. That's what made him well off. When they played one-night stands for dances, all over the country, Gladys would stand in the box office and watch the money as it came in, and help to count it to make sure the band got theirs. She put that money away very carefully. She invested in real estate deals in Harlem, because she had the business sense. He didn't. He was just a musician.
Lionel performed up until he died in 2002. At the end, he moved around stiffly, and wore a rug on top of his head; I noticed because it was always slipping down. I wanted to get close enough to ask him, "Man, why don't you take that goddamn rug off your head?" I knew him well enough that I could go up and talk to him like that.
In 1930, when my job on the railroad first brought me into Chicago, I bought a newspaper in the depot as usual, and discovered that Duke Ellington's band was appearing on the stage of the Oriental Theater downtown. The Oriental was part of the chain of big luxurious movie and stage show houses called Balaban and Katz that one found through the Middle West.
We in the West had been listening to Ellington's broadcasts from the Cotton Club in Harlem, where he gained an international reputation starting in 1927. He made the Cotton Club famous, and the Cotton Club in turn made him famous. It looked like whites didn't start paying too much attention to jazz until Ellington came along, although blacks had already been playing it all around the country. We'd gather at one another's homes sometimes to hear Ellington or whoever was playing. The radios were too large to take around with you. Ted Husing announced the shows from the club for CBS. He was white; no black person had yet been allowed to break into broadcasting.
The stage show included dancers, vocalists and the band. So I decided, this I must see. The landlady gave me directions for the streetcar downtown. There was snow all over the ground and I had on my California weight clothes, but I sat through three shows at the Oriental, where I listened to the music and watched the contortions of Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker. I never saw anybody who could twist the way he did: his body looked like it was made out of rubber. Ellington led the group from the piano.
Wilton Johnson was the first to voice his delight about the Ellington band. We used to talk frequently about the big bands. He said Ellington was the greatest thing he had ever heard. I listened, because Wilton played professionally himself. I quickly shared his opinion, and after that, I bought only Ellington's records. He first recorded for the Brunswick label, under the name of the Jungle Band. He was in great demand from other recording companies, and later signed contracts with Vocalion, Victor, Columbia, and Decca.
Ellington would leave the Cotton Club at periods during the five years he was playing there, and would go on tour. He would broadcast from wherever he was playing. He went into the big hotels more than any other black. Sometimes he'd come on the radio once a week, and sometimes three or four successive nights. I watched the schedule every day in the newspaper.
Starting around 1920, the big bands made Oakland a city where they played one-night stands. None came to San Francisco for any dates, with the exception of Ellington, who played at the Orpheum Theater on Market Street about 1931. The ads read: "Duke Ellington and His Aristocrats of Modern Music." The reviews in the newspapers were glowing in their praise. He was supposed to play for a week, but the crowds were so immense that they held him over a second week. That's the first time they had done anything like that. I went both weeks to see him.
Ellington first played Oakland on that same trip, performing for whites at Sweet's Ballroom, and the next night for blacks at the Oakland Auditorium, which was owned by the city. It could seat 6,500 or 7,000 people, but they did well if they got a thousand in there that night to see him. This was before Bill Sweet, owner and operator of the ballroom, decided he would have a two-night session for black entertainers who came to Oakland. The first night would be allocated for whites only, and the second night for blacks. That went on until after World War II. The policy was only for black bands; I don't think any blacks wanted to hear the white bands because they didn't play hot enough.
Bill Sweet used John Burton, a black man who was a one-man publicity hound, to encourage blacks to come out. To catch attention, he spelled his name Bur-ton, with a hyphen, and stressed the second syllable. Burton was one of the most colorful persons in Oakland, and was good with his technique: he got the news out whenever some big entertainer came to town.
Sweet's was the mecca for jazz devotees in Oakland. It was the only place where the famous big bands played, such as Ellington, Armstrong, Lunceford, Andy Kirk, Earl Hines and some white bands. Fats Waller came once alone, and used a local drummer and a few others to accompany him. Sweet's wasn't a nightclub. It just had dances -- no floor shows. When these bands played worked the clubs in Los Angeles, they stayed anywhere from a week to maybe four weeks.
Ellington came back to Oakland every year for about a decade, then not quite so often during World War II. After the war, he never played another Oakland engagement, but always in San Francisco, as clubs here began to sign him and other big bands for dance dates.
I went to hear him on his first visit to Oakland, and after the show, at the 16th Street depot, I was introduced to him by a man I knew, Tex Allen. We were all waiting for the train; the band was going to its next engagement. Every time Ellington came after that, I'd go up and talk to him. I called him maestro. And he was always very gracious; he spoke well and met people very easily. He had that manner about him. The Duke was a sharp dresser. He was almost as well known for that as for his music. That's how he got his nickname, from the other students when he was at high school in Washington, D.C.
I talked to just about everybody in the band -- Barney Bigard, Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Cootie Williams, and later Ben Webster. My father told me that when Cootie was 16 years old, just after he had left his native Mobile with his trumpet, he had played in one of the old man's groups in Florida. I once asked Cootie about that and he said, "Yeah, I remember Fleming."
Some members of the Ellington band developed around the Bay Area. I knew Lawrence Brown, his trombonist, because he lived in Oakland and went to Technical High School there. Ellington stole him from the Les Hite band. Ivie Anderson, his first woman vocalist, was born in California and lived around the bay when she was young. She sang in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles, where Ellington picked her out of the Cotton Club and put her in his band. She stayed with the band for about a dozen years.
Barney Bigard, his clarinetist, had some relatives in Berkeley, and he always stayed with them when the band came here. That's how I got to know him so well. He was from New Orleans, and spoke French fluently; he talked with that accent that the French-speaking blacks had. His cousin Eddie Aubert, my best friend at the time, never paid to go in when Barney played at Sweet's Ballroom. We went in with him.
Ellington was a star before he ever visited Oakland, and had already made a couple of films in Hollywood. He was such a big hit at the Cotton Club that they put him in the Ziegfeld Follies; he was doubling in both places. That's how much they thought of him in New York. And the rest of the nation followed suit, because whatever New York did in those days, everybody else wanted to do it.
The next time Ellington came through Oakland he had his father with him, and I got to meet him. He called his father Uncle Ed, and so did everybody in the band. The old man seemed all excited, and didn't know what to make of it. I guess Ellington wanted his father to see the United States, which I thought was wonderful. Then about 1937 or 1938, when they were playing one-night stands all over the country, he brought his son Mercer, who was only about 18. Duke remained close to his family all of his life. After he became successful, he moved them from Washington to New York -- his mother, father, and younger sister Ruth.
All musicians wanted to play with him, regardless of their color, because he was unique. Everything he did was far more sophisticated than what other bands were doing. He composed most of the band's music, and never played his pieces the same way. His compositions and arrangements were so unusual, and he let the guys in his band express themselves freely. He knew the kind of people he wanted in his band, and he got them. I could tell that these men were better than anybody I had ever heard, together. Another thing that made him great was that the men stayed with him longer than with any other bands. He paid better salaries than most bands, and had the greatest bunch of soloists ever assembled. Every trumpet player and every saxophone player could take a solo.
There weren't any white musicians in his band at first. He had some later on, about the time the white bands started taking in some blacks. He had a white drummer, bass player and a trumpet player at one time. A lot of the white bands paid more because they could play in the big hotels, like the Plaza in Boston and the Shannon in Chicago. He was the first black band to get in those.
All the musicians were handled by big booking agencies in New York or Hollywood, and naturally these agencies were only going to deal with the well-known clubs. That's where the money was. The nightclubs where Duke and all the top black musicians played were mostly segregated. A lot of them resented it, but there was little they could do if they wanted to work steady.
Duke was always traveling because he wanted to keep his band working. Some of his most popular hits, he composed on the road. The tune would come to his mind, and when he'd get somewhere that had a piano, he'd work it out. Irving Mills, Duke's manager, put his own name as the co-writer on a lot of pieces that Ellington composed. But he didn't write note one. Duke accepted it because he wanted to move on. Mills had a music publishing house in New York, where he sold sheet music for people to play on their pianos.
If Duke played down South, he went in a Pullman sleeping car. When the band got through playing, they'd come back and sleep in the car. They didn't bother with that crap in the hotels. That didn't change until the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
I went to see Duke every time he came to Oakland. I never had enough money to take a date, and I very seldom danced. I tried to get as close to the bandstand as I could, and stood there all through the two and a half hours they played, watching those wonderful musicians. About half of the people who came did the same thing. There were a lot of women, and I imagine most of them paid their way too.
When he played at the nightclubs in San Francisco, he'd be here maybe a whole week, and there were generally three or four shows every night, so I'd see him more than one time. In some of the places, those tables were packed around so much that there wasn't space to dance. People mostly came to hear, anyway. There never was any color bar when he played in San Francisco.
You could talk to him at the clubs. People would rush up when he left the piano. He signed autographs. He once asked me for my business card, and I didn't have any with me that night, so I so I wrote my name on a piece of paper. But he probably threw that away. People who were close to him said, "He'll send you a Christmas card."
I met Ben Webster, the great tenor saxophonist, when he joined Ellington's band in the early 1940s. One time when I was visiting Barney Bigard he said, "We've got a tenor man who's better than Coleman Hawkins. You're going to hear him tonight." And I agreed with him: Webster was more exciting. Ben had a cousin named Byron Barker who was living in San Francisco, so I saw Ben even more then.
He used to drink heavy on the bandstand, and he was very unruly when he got drunk. He ran wild; nobody could do anything with him. He hit Duke up alongside the head one time. He was with the band for three or four years. Duke hired everybody back but Ben, because Ben would fight anybody. He later moved to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he died in 1973.
One night, when Duke came through San Francisco, he stopped at Jack's Tavern and saw a local bass player, Junior Ragland, playing in a group. Duke hired him for his band. I was there the first night he got up and played bass with Duke, at Sweet's Ballroom. Ragland stayed with Duke for three or four years.
I think Duke's 1938 band was the best, the Blanton-Webster band, with Jimmy Blanton on bass and Ben Webster on sax. The last time Blanton came through here, tuberculosis had him pretty bad. Duke took care of him until he died -- paid all his bills.
I didn't see any period where Duke's band declined, because I was buying their records steadily, all the time. Of course I could have been blinded because I didn't think there was anybody like him. The last time I saw him was at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in 1973. Most of his original musicians were still with him. He died in 1974.
After Ellington made his first appearance in the Bay Area, other black jazz bands came. The ones I kept up with were Ellington, Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford. I forgot about the rest of them. Lunceford, in my opinion, was second only to Ellington as the best of all the bands, and Basie third. But I had already separated Duke from the rest of the field.
Basie came to Oakland with what we called his "Jump Band" and the blues-shouting Jimmy Rushing. Basie's signature song was "One O'clock Jump." He played jump music -- fast most of the time, and always with a tremendous beat. The phrase came from Fats Waller's song "The Joint is Jumpin'." It depicted a house rent party, which they had in big cities. You'd come to a party and they would charge admission so they could pay the rent. They'd cook a big pot of beans or whatever, and have some bad liquor. A lot of guys who were waiters on the train attended them when we went to Chicago. They might still be going on in New York.
I saw Basie at Sweet's Ballroom in the 1930s, and later met him at a nightclub in San Francisco. I used to see his ex-wife a lot, because she was living over in Berkeley. She was a good-looking gal, and I knew a lot of the same people that she did. So when I met Basie, I said, "I met your former wife." He said, "Who?" I said, "Vivian." "I don't want to hear nothing about that shit," he said. That was the end of the conversation. I just thought it was a subject I could talk about. I never tried to approach him any more.
San Francisco had so little work for black musicians that some of them took jobs at the post office. Although there were dance halls in the city, they used only local bands, which played "hot" or jazz music just occasionally. No blacks were admitted to the supper clubs at the Mark Hopkins, St. Francis and Palace hotels. When black artists such as Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and Roland Hayes, the great tenor, came to town, it was the whites who brought them, and they sang in concert halls, not just for blacks.
But many hotels wouldn't register them, and some restaurants refused to serve them. These
included some big fine restaurants in Chinatown, where they would flatly tell you to leave.
The Chinese practiced discrimination because they were keeping up with what the whites were doing.
That old devil racism plagued so many blacks gifted with talents that classified them as artists in Europe but not in their native land, such as Paul Robeson, the great bass singer and actor. Over here they never did forget that he was a black man first. He went all over Europe making concerts way before World War II, and he and his wife Eslanda lived in London for years before the war. They were treated with such dignity and respect in the Soviet Union that they enrolled their son Paul Jr. in a public school in Moscow.
During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, Robeson went over and entertained the republican government troops on the battlefield. I think that's one of the reasons the FBI started thinking he was a Communist.
In 1949, when there was talk about the possibility of war between the two countries and people were being accused of Communism in a reckless manner, Robeson said in an interview that he did not think U.S. blacks would serve in a war against the Soviet Union. His reason was that there was no racial discrimination there. His comments brought an immediate response of condemnation. The House Un-American Activities Committee was in full bloom, and to get at Robeson, the red-baiting chairman of the committee ran and got Jackie Robinson, and brought him to Washington, where the baseball player told the committee that blacks would fight in any war that this nation became involved in.
Jackie wasn't political at all, but I think the chairman felt we were so simple that anything a well-known black would say, that was how blacks felt. A few of us thought that Jackie was being used and didn't recognize it. Later on he said he regretted making the statement.
That same year, the U.S.State Department took away Robeson's passport, and all concert halls in the nation were closed to him. A lot of blacks were afraid of Robeson. I think if Robeson had been a Communist, he would have admitted it, because Paul had too much integrity. The FBI never produced any evidence against him, but he was held in fear because he was a spokesman for liberals.
One of the things that infuriated me was that there was a great woman opera singer in Europe who supported Hitler. And when the war was over with, she came to the United States and they let her sing in concert halls over here. And Robeson was an American.
Robeson came to San Francisco in February 1958 at the invitation of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union. He remained here for more than two weeks, and that is when I became closely acquainted with him. He came by the Sun-Reporter's office often, and we spent many an hour at the corner of Sutter and Fillmore, talking about the problem. He always called me Flem, and I felt that I was very close to him then. He informed me that the government could not hurt him, because he had salted away more than a quarter of a million dollars during his career.
At the time, there was a lot of news about the zip gun wars on the streets of Harlem. The zip gun was a handmade weapon that could fire a .22 caliber bullet. The spring was made from rubber bands, but as crude as it was, it was deadly if the victim was struck in the head. I asked Paul why those kids were killing each other like this, and he simply shook his hand and said they had given up hope, and in their frustration had turned against one another.
While Robeson was here in the city, Dr. Carlton Goodlett and I worked on Rev. Frederick D. Haynes, the pastor of Third Baptist Church, to let Robeson perform in a concert there, to which Haynes graciously answered yes. Robeson sang from the pulpit to a packed audience. He followed this up by singing at the Longshoremen's Hall to a full house of waterfront workers and the general public. Then we got in touch with some people in the East Bay and arranged for Robeson to sing in a concert at the Oakland Auditorium.
In June 1958 he got his passport back. He was 60 years old. He made a few more concert appearances in Europe. Then I heard that he had an illness that made him lose all power of speech. In 1962 Vincent Hallinan, a distinguished white lawyer, invited Robeson and his wife to his estate in Belvedere, across the bay from San Francisco. Vincent didn't give a damn what the establishment thought about him because he was a millionaire and he freely expressed his views.
The Hallinans lived in a compound with a big house and a guest house, all surrounded by a wooden wall. Paul and Eslanda stayed in the guest house, and the Hallinans had a big party for Paul. I was invited. All of the liberals in the Bay Area were there that night. Robeson and his wife came into the room where the party was being held. Eslanda walked him around the room, guarding him very closely, and he shook hands with many, giving signs with his smile when he recognized someone. When he came to me, his face lit up and he pumped my hand, and he let me know that he knew who I was. He remained for a little while with all the people in there, and then Eslanda took him back to the place where they were staying. That was the last time I saw him alive.
When I was in East Berlin in 1969, I took a tour of the Paul Robeson Museum there. It housed a lot of articles and recordings, and revealed how much Robeson was admired in Europe.
I think Robeson would have been as well known as Martin Luther King, had television been around when he was active. King got the publicity from leading those demonstrations because the camera was always going. That vaulted him to the top. But I don't see what he did was much different than what Robeson did. Had Paul been heard by students all over the country, I think he would have had the same impact.
Max Millard can be reached at email@example.com or 415-771-6279.