Chitlin’ Circuit Landmark: The Bronze Peacock

10 May

Don Robey put Houston on the chitlin’ circuit map in the mid-1930s, when he operated a series of downtown nightclubs. One, the Harlem Grill, stood on W. Dallas Avenue, the Houston stroll, then the nexus of black business and culture, now an interstate on-ramp. There’s no evidence of ’30s black Houston’s pomp and prosperity, no signage, nothing.

In 1936 a reporter visited the Harlem, and found that, “Every conceivable avenue of pleasure was rampant.” Later that year, chitlin’ circuit pioneer Walter Barnes played the joint.

As black music evolved throughout WWII, Robey championed the new sound, promoting Louis Jordan’s first Southern tour, and showcasing the hard-hitting small combos that followed Jordan’s lead:

Postwar, Robey opened the most lavish nightclub black Houstonians had seen, out at the far reaches of the Fifth Ward at the corner of Erastus and Wylie. He named it the Bronze Peacock. It opened February 18, 1946.

White tablecloths, fine wine, chic grub, the place had class. It also had rooms for cards, dice, and the wheel out back. The Peacock reminded some of Las Vegas. Drummer extraordinaire Earl Palmer said the place was definitely in the desert. “At night you could look out the Peacock and see lights from another part of town,” he said. “In between was an expanse of darkness.” Of course, the Peacock also spotlighted the finest in entertainment, shake dancers, jitterbugs, and orchestras, as the opening night bill of fare shows.

It became a hub for chitlin’ circuit business people, and a laboratory for the new sounds in black music that emerged after WWII. It is one of the key locations, as Robey is a monumental figure, in The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Unlike Robey’s earlier clubs, the Peacock still stands. After housing the club for a few years, it became HQ for Robey’s chitlin’ circuit empire, including Duke-Peacock Records and the Buffalo Booking Agency, where B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Little Richard, Big Mama Thornton, and Ike and Tina Turner worked.

It has undergone a spiritual reawakening since then—today the building holds a little church.

And a few old outbuildings still stand where Mr. Robey laid out the Bronze Peacock’s gambling dens.

7 Responses to “Chitlin’ Circuit Landmark: The Bronze Peacock”

  1. Chaz Hayden October 20, 2011 at 5:48 am #

    I have – “The Chitling Circuit’ on my Kindle – really enjoying the story.

    Where can I purchase a Bronze
    Peacock “”Chip”” for a son working in the gaming industry?

    Thanks, Chuck

    • Preston Lauterbach October 20, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

      Chuck, I wish I knew! I’d get a pile myself. Thanks for reading, I’m glad you dig. And let me know if you find some Peacock pennies.

  2. Rob D January 2, 2013 at 11:22 pm #

    Terrific book..and the stories are fascinating. EVeryone talked about the CC, but this book really brings it alive and I learned a ton about it. I notice they tore down the old place since and the plaque they erected is in front of a new building. Sad..but that’s progress I guess.

    • Preston Lauterbach January 2, 2013 at 11:30 pm #

      Thanks for the comment, Rob–I had no idea the Peacock was torn down. Sad news.

      • rc21pitt January 3, 2013 at 1:25 am #

        I get a pain in my heart thinking about it. It’s only a building but those names and places send a charge through you if you love the music that originated in those clubs. I recently watched a vid that showed the state of disrepair of King Records in Cincy and that had the same effect. If you can’t preserve something as famous and foundational as King, what hope do the smaller (but in fan’s minds, no LESS legendary) places and recording studios and clubs that were part of the reason America’s music(s) went around the world?

        I guess you need a lot of people working in tandem: Writers like yourself, historical socieites, deep pocketed fans, state legislatures, tourist board of trades etc. to make it work. It’s wonderful what the did with STax in Memphis for instance. But too often, people don’t seem to realize that guys like me will PAY to go see these places. SEt it up and we will come!

      • rc21pitt January 3, 2013 at 1:37 am #

        And if you click on the pic in this article, you can see the old Peacock Records building has been replaced by the “Louis Robey Professional Building”

        Nice plaque though.

        I notice another of my fave authors , Roger Wood, was in attendance. I read his book on Houston area blues “Down In Houston” and Preston’s excellent tome back to back! Wonderful stuff.

        Thanks to Mr. Lauterbach for the book and the website.

        (another club done gone..Here’s some raw footage of the Duke Harlem club going up in flames….yikes…

        Long in disrepair but still sad.

  3. John Branch April 19, 2014 at 7:57 pm #

    Just to clarify – the Bronze Peacock/Charity Baptist Church building on Erastus Street is still standing. I drove by it today…

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