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.