Tuesday, February 22, 2011
And now Crowell has written a memoir about his early life growing up in hardscrabble Houston, Texas in the 1950s. Crowell's former wife, Rosanne Cash, published an amazing memoir last year, Composed, which was less a memoir of her public life, than an intense meditation on how her life influenced her artistically. I was hoping for something like that from Crowell, but not this time out. It is a study of his life as a child, and tells the story of his parent's life more than his own.
Most reviews are giving the book a home run ... I have to differ. First of all, it is written in too much of a folksy, aw shucks style, peppered with down home expressions that most of us heard while growing up, but left behind as we moved out into the world. Crowell and his editor obviously had never read the old adage, "a little bit goes a long way." It also is a bit clunky at times jumping from chapter to chapter, back and forth in time. There is an endless chapter about attending pentecostal church meetings that wears out its welcome after the first 2000 words, but goes on and on and on.
Here's hoping Crowell has another memoir in the works that will illuminate his professional career as a songwriter and musician. Until then, I recommend you pull out your copies of Diamonds & Dirt or Fate's Right Hand and enjoy the music!
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Better take a raincoat could be sticky on the seat,
Open up you Twisties and open up your fly,
Pictures start to flicker as your hand moves down your thigh.
Saturday, February 5, 2011
Small’s Paradise (2294½ Seventh Avenue near 135th Street, New York) was owned and operated by Edwin Smalls and was one of the premier nightspots in Harlem during the late 1920s. Smalls, a former elevator operator, was a descendant of Captain Robert Smalls, a former slave who became a captain in the Union navy and later a congressman from South Carolina.
Small’s Paradise was one of the most successful and best-known nightclubs in the history of Harlem, and the most prestigious club owned by an African American. Its reputation for first-class musical acts, elaborate floor shows, and dancing waiters attracted thousands of patrons who were eager to participate in the exciting nightlife of Harlem during the Roaring Twenties.
By the time he opened the Paradise in the autumn of 1925, Ed Smalls was already an experienced nightclub owner. Since 1917 he had been running a popular joint in Harlem called the Sugar Cane Club, which catered primarily to an African American clientele. But Small’s Paradise was a much more elaborate venture, and one designed to attract not just local Harlemites but also moneyed white revelers from downtown. When the Paradise opened its doors on 26 October 1925, Smalls marked the occasion by throwing a spectacular gala. . Of course, national Prohibition was in full force at the time, but patrons at Small’s could either drink discreetly from their own bottle or flask of hooch, or else buy bootleg liquor from the waiters (at an exorbitant price).
Nearly 1,500 guests jammed themselves into the brand-new basement club and danced to the tunes of Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, which would serve as the house band for the next ten years. Johnson's Orchestra through the years featured several South Carolina musicians, including Gus Aiken and Jabbo Smith from the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston.
In 1929, the entertainment magazine Variety listed eleven major nightclubs in Harlem that catered to a predominantly white crowd. The four most popular were Small’s Paradise, the Cotton Club, Barron Wilkins’s Exclusive Club, and Connie’s Inn. Many wealthy white curiosity seekers actually preferred some of the other big-name clubs—especially the Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn—to Small’s Paradise, because these other clubs were owned by whites and admitted only white patrons. While the entertainers and the waiters at these establishments were almost exclusively black, African American customers were firmly turned away unless they were true celebrities, such as the dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Small’s Paradise, in contrast, appealed to whites who wanted to attend a club where African Americans made up a sizable portion of the audience. But despite the racially integrated nature of Small’s Paradise, all its patrons were financially well-off; the high prices for both food and liquor were enough to force most working-class Harlemites to seek out a more affordable speakeasy. Although Small’s was not as expensive as Connie’s Inn, for example, an average tab at Small’s was about $4 per person in 1929, when the average domestic laborer in Harlem earned between $6 and $12 a week.
One of the signature features of Small’s Paradise was its dancing waiters, who would balance heavy trays full of bootleg liquor while dancing the Charleston, sometimes on roller skates, as they moved among the tables. Small’s also carved out a niche for itself in the competitive nightclub business by staying open much later than most other clubs, including the aristocratic Cotton Club. After other cabarets closed down at three or four o’clock in the morning, black and white patrons alike would descend on Small’s Paradise for one of its famous early-morning “breakfast dances.”
The floor show, complete with twenty-five or thirty dancers and showgirls and two dozen musicians, would go on at six o’clock in the morning, and the dancing might last until noon or even later. The entertainment at Small’s was always first-rate, and some of the most famous musicians of the Harlem Renaissance played there, including Willie “the Lion” Smith and Duke Ellington. And in the early-morning hours, many of the finest musicians in Harlem who were engaged by other clubs met at Small’s for impromptu jam sessions.
More than most nightclubs in Harlem, Small’s Paradise figured prominently in the lives of many important artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Alain Locke, Harold Jackman, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. Even William Faulkner is said to have attended a party at Small’s during a visit to New York.
One of the club’s most loyal customers was Carl Van Vechten, the wealthy white writer who helped launch the careers of many famous figures of the renaissance. In fact, some critics claim that Van Vechten based his description of the Black Venus, a nightclub prominently featured in his controversial novel Nigger Heaven, on his experiences at Small’s Paradise. After Nigger Heaven was published in 1926, the managers of Small’s were so offended by its portrayal of Harlem that they permanently banned Van Vechten from his favorite watering hole, much to his dismay.
Small’s Paradise holds the distinction of being the longest-operating nightclub in Harlem, witnessing the rise of not just jazz but rock and roll and even disco before it finally closed its doors in 1986. After Ed Smalls sold the business, the Paradise changed hands a number of times.
Basketball star Wilt Chamberlain owned the club briefly in the 1960s, renamed it Big Wilt’s Small’s Paradise, and featured Ray Charles as his star performer. Although the doors have now closed on Small’s Paradise, the frequent references to the club in newspapers, essays, autobiographies, and fiction from the 1920s testify to its enduring legacy as one of the most popular racially integrated nightclubs of the Harlem Renaissance.
Friday, February 4, 2011
Benford began studying drums privately with Steve and Herbert Wright (both from the Jenkins Band) shortly thereafter and his performances with the Green River Minstrel Show circa 1920 are considered to be his first professional engagements.
Soon thereafter, Benford began drumming with the Marie Lucas Orchestra, and was based out of Washington, D.C. The capitol city was a hotbed of new jazz developments in the '20s, and the drummer began playing with Elmer Snowden, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington.
Audio clip of Tommy Benford playing drums with Jelly Roll Morton, performing the "Shreveport Stomp."
During the 1930s Benford recorded prolifically with many jazz greats of the genre, including guitarist Django Reinhardt, Sidney Bechet, and Coleman Hawkins.
"Honeysuckle Rose" by the Coleman Hawkins All Star Jam Band (Benford, drums; Hawkins, sax; Reinhardt, guitar; Stephane Grappelly, piano.)
During the 1960s, Benford was still working as a professional drummer, the epitome of straight-ahead swing, for bandleaders Joe Thomas and Ed Hall. Students of drumming still study Benford's technique, in which he accents the second and fourth beats of a measure on recordings with Morton from the late '20s. . As he got older, Benford worked with the Saints & Sinners band. As late as the 1970s Benford was playing lengthy tours with the Clyde Bernhardt Orchestra, indicating great health for a man who had been playing drums since before World War I.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
This is the sad saga of the youngest person ever executed in the United States. It was the inspiration of the 1989 Edgar Award winning book as Best First Novel, Carolina Skeletons, by David Stout. The book became the basis for the 1992 movie of the same name starring Lou Gossett, Jr. and Bruce Dern.
For such a small town, Alcolu, SC can claim to be the home of some notable Americans. Althea Gibson, first African-American woman to play tennis at Wimbledon and Peggy Parish author of the famous “Amelia Bedelia” children books were born in the town. It can also boast to being the birthplace to five South Carolina governors. Most of the residents, black and white, worked the Alderman Lumber Company Mill, or farmed, or both.
In 1944, most people in the tiny mill town were just trying to get by and hoping the few local boys who were serving in the war would make it back home. The most recent American casualty totals for World War II had just recently been released - 19,499 killed, 45,545 wounded, 26,339 missing and 26,754 captured. Every day the newspaper was filled with death tolls, descriptions of war horrors, and though no one knew it, the worst was yet to come. The D-Day invasion of Normandy was two and a half months away.
March 24, 1944. Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 8, went to pick flowers that afternoon. Betty June asked permission to take a pair of scissors and then told her family, “We'll be back in about thirty minutes.” The girls rode off together on one bicycle and never returned. No one was concerned. The girls often played on this side of town, and several people saw the familiar scene of the two girls riding double.
They passed by the Stinney house. Even though the Stinneys were black, both girls knew the Stinney kids. Katherine Stinney and her older brother, George, Jr., were in the front yard. “We're looking for maypops,” Betty June said. “Do you know where they are?”
Katherine told them “no,” and the two girls rode off on their bikes.
When the two girls didn't return by dark the Binnicker family was panicked. Soon a town-wide search was launched, with hundreds of volunteers. They searched through the entire night. About 7:30 a.m. the next morning some men found several small footprints in the soft ground and followed the footprints along a narrow path on the edge of town where they found the pair of scissors lying in the grass nearby. Following the path with more urgency they searchers discovered a large ditch filled with muddy water. They could see the outline of a bicycle beneath the murky surface. Scott Lowden jumped into the water and the bodies of the two girls were dragged out. Both girls had severe head wounds - Mary Emma's skull was fractured in five different places and the back of Betty June's skull was smashed.
Within a few hours, local sheriff's deputies arrested George Stinney, Jr. His youngest sister, Katherine Stinney Robinson, later recalled, “And all I remember is the people coming to our house and taking my brother. And no police officers with hats or anything—these were men in suits or whatever that came. I don't know how they knew to come to that house and pick up my brother.”
George was taken to the sheriff's office where he was interrogated. In 1944, there were no Miranda Rights to be read to the accused. George was locked in a room with several white officers. Neither of George's parents were allowed to see him. Within an hour, Deputy H.S. Newman announced that Stinney had confessed to the murders. Stinney told police that he wanted to have sex with Betty June but the only way to get her alone was to get rid of Mary Ellen. But Betty June fought him, so he killed her too. Stinney then led the police to the scene where they found a 14-inch long railroad spike. Deputy Newman wrote a statement on March 26, 1944 and described the events.
I was notified that the bodies had been found. I went down to where the bodies were at. I found Mary Emma she was rite (sic) at the edge of the ditch with four or five wounds on her head, on the other side of the ditch the Binnicker girl, were (sic) laying there with 4 or 5 wounds in her head, the bicycle which the little girls had were beside of the little Binnicker girl. By information I received I arrested a boy by the name of George Stinney, he then made a confession and told me where a piece of iron about 15 inches long were, he said he put it in a ditch about 6 feet from the bicycle which was lying in the ditch.
The town was horrified by the crime and overwhelmed with grief. Both girl's parents worked at the Alderman Lumber Mill, as well did Mr. George Stinney, Sr. Within a few hours the grief among the mill workers had quickly transformed into a seething anger.
March 26. About forty angry white men headed for the Clarendon County Jail and demanded mob justice, but sheriff's deputies were one step ahead of the folks. They had moved Stinney fifty miles to Columbia.
B.G. Alderman, owner of Alderman's Lumber Mill, fired George's father. The Stinney family lived in such fear of their lives that they moved from town in the middle of the night, abandoning their son to his fate.
George Stinney, Jr. was fourteen years, five months old when he went on trial. The first recorded execution of a juvenile in America was Thomas Graungery, aged 16 of Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, who was hanged for bestiality. On March 14, 1794 two young slave girls, “Bett, age 12” and “Dean, age 14” were executed for starting a fire that burned down a portion of Albany, New York. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court passed a ruling that “prohibits the death penalty for juvenile offenders whose crimes were committed before they were 16.” Prior to 1988 there was no age limit for executions.
Lorraine Binniker Bailey was Betty June's older sister. She recalled that “Everybody knew that he done it - even before they had the trial they knew he done it. But, I don't think they had too much of a trial.”
Katherine Stinney Robinson later recalled, “I remember my mother cried so. She cried her little eyes all swollen. I would hear her praying. She said, 'I just want you to change the minds of men. Because my son didn't do this.' But it wasn't long after that that they just did it. He was gone.”
The court appointed 30-year old Charles Plowden as George's attorney. Plowden had political aspirations and the trial was a high-wire act for him. His dilemma was how to provide enough defense so that he could not be accused of incompetence, but not be so passionate that he would anger the local whites who may one day vote for him.
April 24. More than 1500 people crammed into the Clarendon County Courthouse. Jury selection began at 10 a.m. and was finished just after noon. The jury contained twelve white men. Due to the nature of the crime, and the passion of the community, it certainly would have been in George Stinney's favor to have a change in venue. But defense attorney Plowden made no motion.
After a lunch break the case was heard before Judge Stoll. Plowden did not cross-examine any of the prosecuting witnesses. His defense consisted of claiming that Stinney was too young by law to be held responsible for the crimes. In response, the prosecution presented Stinney's birth certificate stating that he was born on October 21, 1959, which made him 14 years and five months old. Under South Carolina law in 1944 an adult was anyone over the age of 14.
The case had begun at 2:30 p.m. and closing arguments were finished by 4:30. The jury retired just before 5:00 p.m. and deliberated for ten minutes. They returned with the verdict “guilty, with no recommendation for mercy.” The case took less than three hours to decide. Judge Stoll sentenced Stinney to die in the electric chair at the Central Correctional Institute in Columbia.
When asked about an appeal Defense Attorney Plowden stated that there was nothing to appeal and the Stinney family had money to pay for a continuance of the case.
Several local churches in conjunction with the NAACCP appealed to Governor Olin D. Johnston to stop the execution. The governor's office received letters for mercy. Most cited Stinney's age as the mitigating factor why the execution should be dropped. One message was as direct as could be in 1944 by stating “Child execution is only for Hitler.” The Tobacco Worker's Union, the National Maritime Union and the White and Negro Ministerial Unions of Charleston asked Governor Johnston to commute the sentence to life imprisonment.
However, there were just as many, if not more, in favor of the execution and encouraged the governor to be strong. One of the more blunt letters to the governor stated, “Sure glad to hear of your decision regarding the nigger Stinney.”
The governor decided to do nothing. He let the execution proceed.
June 16, 1944. At 7:30 p.m., George Stinney, Jr. was fitted into the electric chair. It had been designed for grown men, not children. He was five feet, one inch tall and weighed ninety pounds. The guards had a hard time strapping him into the seat. The mask over his face did not fit properly. When the switch was thrown, the force of the electricity jerked the too-large mask from his face and for the final four minutes of his life, the spectators in the gallery had a full view of Stinney's horrified face as he was executed.
Stinney's sister, Katherine Stinney Robinson, was interviewed on the fiftieth anniversary of her brother's execution and said, “He was like my idol, you know. He was very smart in school, very artistic. He could draw all kinds of things. We had a good family. Small house, but there was a lot of love. It took my mother a long time to get over it. And maybe she never got over it.”From South Carolina Killers: Crimes of Passion (2007) by Mark Jones