The Music Of The Darker Streets

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It’s probably always a mistake to think of decades in clichés: the nineties weren’t especially gay; for most people, the twenties didn’t roar much. And I suppose the fifties were nowhere near so bland as they once appeared to us, looking back from the sixties.

Still, things did seem pretty calm then. I spent most of the early fifties as a teen-ager in Hyde Park, a pleasant, shady, largely white neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side that, then as now, huddled in the shadow of the Gothic citadel that is the University of Chicago campus. Hyde Park’s boundaries were Lake Michigan to the east; the Midway to the South, a grassy, treeless, noman’s-land left behind when swamps were drained to make way for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; and on the west, a wide, busy street called Cottage Grove. We knew very little about the black Chicagoans who lived on the shady streets, only slightly shabbier than ours, that stretched for miles beyond Hyde Park’s inland boundaries.

It was thought best that we stay close to home.

The popular music to which we listened was homey too. On Saturday evenings my friends and I watched “Your Hit Parade,” a television program on which, week after week after week, a team of distinctly unthreatening white singers—one was named Snooky—did their peppy best to breathe life into the same songs about pyramids along the Nile and loving one another a bushel and a peck.

I think it’s safe to say that this was not a distinguished era in the history of popular music—and it is no accident that when the Smithsonian Institution recently issued American Popular Song , a scholarly compendium of 110 of Tin Pan Alley’s finest tunes in definitive performances, its compilers thought it best to stop in the mid-fifties.

But if we did not ourselves dare move much beyond our own neighborhood, the radio brought the music of those darker streets into our bedrooms. Some of it was sacred—on Sundays the radio dial was filled with the fervent sounds of black gospel, broadcast live from half a dozen local churches. But most of it was distinctly secular, rhythm and blues—it had only recently stopped being called “race music”—that dealt with the same subjects about which Snooky and his chums sang, but a good deal more directly.

And all of it seemed raw, ardent, unabashed, above all, compelling—unlike anything most of us had ever heard before. (It’s hard to imagine now how alien even the most genteel black music then seemed to some middle-class whites. One contemporary of mine remembers her father, otherwise the gentlest and most tolerant of men, insisting that the radio be turned off whenever Nat King Cole began to sing: to him, even that silky voice seemed unsettling.)

Some of us couldn’t get enough of it, though, and a few even tried to seek it out in person.

One Saturday evening a high school friend and I borrowed his father’s car, actually ventured beyond Hyde Park’s western edge, and parked behind the Pershing Lounge, a small, dark, smoky club in the cellar of an all-black hotel. (I no longer remember where we told our parents we were going, or for that matter how we knew where the Pershing Lounge was.)

The featured attraction that evening was Big Maybelle, a rhythm-and-blues veteran with an enormous, raucous voice. We got there early—very early—and, dressed in our best wide-shouldered sports jackets, were shown to a ringside table by a genuinely astonished hostess, ordered Cokes (we were too young for anything stronger and probably too young even legally to enter the club), and were then stared at steadily and with varying degrees of bemusement and hostility for nearly two hours until we had drunk up our allowances without a sign of the star. Finally, unable to stretch either the drinks or our funds any further, we paid the bill and started up the narrow steps to the street.

We found them suddenly filled: Big Maybelle, in a glittering gold wig and white satin gown, had chosen that moment to make her way down the staircase, nudging the wall on either side. She was as surprised to see us scurrying backward to get out of her way as we were awed by her size and presence. But as she passed us, breathing hard, on her way to the Lilliputian bandstand on which she was supposed to fit along with piano, bass, and drums, she laughed aloud at the incongruity of our being there, and shouted, “Good-night, white boys!” That was as close as we then dared get to the real thing, but we kept listening.

Big Maybelle is not represented on the mammoth, evocative new collection, Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947–1974 —she recorded for other, smaller labels—but scores of her contemporaries are to be found among the 186 selections on its fourteen disks.

Listening to these records again after so many years, 1 was struck by how comfortingly familiar they seem now, how odd my own children and the children of my friends would think it that this kind of music could ever have been thought outlandish in homes like theirs.