Tag Archives: Houston

Chitlin’ Circuit Ephemera: Houston

15 Jun

Check out the evolution of black music in Houston through colorful ads and photographs that appeared in the Houston Informer. All of the action depicted here went down thanks to the misunderstood Don Robey, a figure who’s been depicted as a brute, probably not altogether unfairly, but who was also an ingenious black music businessman when such a thing had scarcely existed. He is, I believe, the key business figure in promoting the growth of rhythm-and-blues-rock ‘n’ roll down South during and after WWII.

After launching Louis Jordan’s first big tour in summer 1942, Robey promoted a succession of loud and lascivious small abnds through the South, such as this one in December 1945:

In early 1946, Robey opened a nightclub more posh than any previously seen on the bayou, The Bronze Peacock. It became a key chitlin’ circuit hub, site of key business transactions and late night jam sessions where youngsters like Amos Milburn learned from veterans like Joe Turner. A New Orleans trumpeter and bandleader named Dave Bartholomew met an LA record man named Lew Chudd there in 1947, leading to the phenomenal career of Fats Domino. Opening night set a wild, eclectic tone for the club:

The Peacock was also the site of a legendary debut:Gatemouth Brown hit so hard, Robey rushed him to the top of the bill before learning how to spell his name.

Finally, a reformed drag queen from Macon, Georgia known as Little Richard played a Houston residency in early 1953 as a member of the outlandish Tempo Toppers. The quartet played everything from banjo to bongos, and danced their hearts out, one with a table clenched in his teeth. That’s Richard, third from left:

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.

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