Monday, July 28, 2008

Kentucky Avenue Nights


It was Chicken Bone Beach Days and Kentucky Avenue Nights for the primarily black employees who worked at the Kentucky Avenue nightclubs, - the waitresses, bartenders, cooks, bus boys, musicians, dancers and entertainers, - a bevy of hundreds of seasonal employees who lived off the music, which was the main attraction at the height of the heydays - say from the late 1920s until the late 1970s, a half century of cultural Rennessance that made its mark on Atlantic City, and the world.

For the most part, it was taken for granted, just something that was there, was thriving and was Great, even when everything else was going wrong, and few would have imagined that within a few years it would all be gone, demolished and lade vacant with nothing to show that it had ever been there at all.

I was never aware of Chicken Bone Beach, but I knew Kentucky Avenue intimately in its dying days, and still don't belive its gone.

Whenever I'm driving around Atlantic City, for whatever reason, I ride by Kentucky Avenue and look down the street that I remember a well lit Broadway of nightclubs and restaurants and the best live music I've ever heard anywhere, anytime, vibrating right out into the street. You didn't even have to go into the clubs to feel the music.

Kentucky Avenue in Atlantic City was not a place you would accidently stumble on.

Billy Mueller was the first guy to take me there, sometime maybe in 1969, but more probably early 70s. Billywas a blonde haired, handle bar mustache, Custer looking hippie who played guitar, had a unique collection of Les Pauls (the first time I ever heard his name), and later played in a local country blues band Backroads (the houseband at Brownies).

Billy convinced me to accompany him to see B. B. King perform at the Club Harlem, the premier club on Kentucky Avenue. He had done it a hundred times before, it was no problem, he said, and away we went.

Parking on Atlantic Avenue, we walked around the Kentucky Avenue corner and all of a sudden it seemed like we were in another world. First there was this exotic oriental resaurant, and across the street, a barbeque take out with a line, and the more we walked the louder the music got.

When we got to the Club Harlem, on the south side of the street, with its massive Marque announcing B.B. King, and a host of other acts, the French doors were open and the band behind the bar was only a few yards from the sidewalk. Without even going in I could see this bald drummer going crazy, backed up by a keyboard guy who was standing up and running his hands up and down the keys like he was on fire, and a tuxedoed violinist who was fiddling it to the limit.

Not yet, we already had our tickets, and Billy took me up the street to show me the rest of the hood, Timbucktoo, a shot and beer pool hall, the Wonder Gardens, another major act venue, with a line to get in, and across the street, Grace's Little Belmont, from where you could hear the vibrations of a jazz organ.

After a short tune up at a side bar, we walked through the open air French doors of the Club Harlem and sat at the front bar, which is best examplified in a scene of the film Atlantic City, where the purple Art Deco walls, reflected low lights, and big boss man in the tux are all accurately depected.

The front bar at the Club Harlem was where you had a drink while waiting for the next show to begin, as there were three or sometimes four shows a night, most of them sold out in advance. The ticket booth on the far left (south side) of the building, had a crowd control velvet rope with the brass hook, and instead of standing in line, you sat at the bar and were enteratined by the Chris Columbo trio, set up behind the bar, so everyone could enjoy them.

Chris had come to Atlantic City in the 1940s, after a stint at New York's Cotton Club. As one of the leaders of the local Musicians Union, Chris made sure he worked the best jobs, and one of the best jobs in town was leading the house band at the Club Harlem.

While they were on a break, Billy ordered a bottle of beer for each of us, and put up a twenty dollar bill, that I eyeballed while reaching in my own pocket. "I got it," Billy said, "put away your money."

When the black, women bartender gave Billy his change, I noticed it was short, change for a ten, I called the bartender back and pointed that out.

She claimed it was only a ten, and I said that I eyeballed it and it was a twenty, which brought over Mr. Big, the big black guy in the tux that stood by the door. He ordered the cash register shut down, and the money counted and compared to what was rung up, which really pissed off some of the customers who were waiting on drinks.

After a few minutes of counting and comparing Mr. Big said there was no discrepencey and that the bartender was right, and as I was about to protest that that meant that bartender stole the money, Billy put his hand over my mouth and quietly said to me that it was his money and to forget it.

Then the band came back on and everybody forgot the incident, except me, as I realized that we were taken as Marks in a shakedown from the minute we walked in, the only two white boys in a totally black bar.

It wasn't always that way, as I would later learn from Chris Columbo, the drummer, who would become a good friend until the day he died, a week after his 100th birthday.

Once past the ticket booth and front bar, there was a cloak room and then the main room, which had bars back against the wall, horse shoe booths in the back, and rows of long tables leading up to the stage, fitting as many people as possible into the cramped space.

Billy passed the Matre' d a ten or a twenty dollar bill, and we were escourted up to near the front of one of the tables, stage right, seated with a dozen black strangers, who we would soon get to know.

Billy Mueller ordered a bottle of beer for each of us and a fifth of whiskey, which I protested, but he waved me off, as he shared it with the neighbors and it certainly loosened things up quickly.

Before the main show, there was an MC, a stand up comic, who later became famous as Sanford, on Sanford & Son TV show, and some dancers who put on a show like I'd never seen before.

I later learned that one of the dancers in that troupe was Sammy Davis, Jr.' s mom, although she was there a few years before I got there.

Then B.B. King's band came out, which included a few local musicians from the union, including a few white guys, who I later learned were keyboard masters George Mesterhazy and Dan Fogel, both of whom played Kentucky Avenue before I got to know them personally.

B. B. came out, dressed in a tux, as were everyone in the band, and he played right in front of us, just a few yards away.

When one of the strings broke on his guitar, Lucille, he sat down on a stool and told the story of how he ran back into a burning bar to save Lucille, and when the broken string was discarded to the stage floor, I reached over and grabbed it, a relic that I would keep for years.

While that first show I saw B.B. King at the Club Harlem is burned into my memory, he played more often at the Wonder Gardens, further west down Kentucky Avenue, on the southwest corner of Kentucky and Artic.

Not as big as the Club Harlem, the Wonder Gardens was set up the same way, with two bars along the walls, and long, thin tables facing the stage. At some point in time B.B. King became part owners of the Wonder Gardens, and stopped appearing at the Club Harlem and played twice a year at the Wonder Gardens. He'd come in for a week long stand, three shows a night, and we would try to make the first night and the last night, as they would be the best.

I remember Sandra Ushury, the daughter of the first black mayor, being one of the celebrity bartenders at the Wonder Gardens, and seeing Mesterhazy there on stage too.

After a few years of this we'd get to know some of the members of B.B.'s band, many of whom would stay with him for decades. Between shows, we'd stick around and talk to the musicians, or leave the Wonder Gardens and go check out Chris Columbo's band down at the Club Harlem.

I got to know Chris pretty well, and often drove over to Kentucky Avenue by myself, always parking on Atlantic Avenue and walking down the street like Billy showed me the first time.

Now you have to understand that these shows go on all night lone, beginning usually around 8 pm and ending a five or six in the morning, the last show being called the Breakfast Show, even though no bacon and eggs are served.

One night I was sitting there by myself and listening to Chris and Stan Humphries on keys and the amazing jazz violinists, when the band went on a break. It was a hot summer night, acually early morning sometime, and I asked Chris if I could interview him on tape. Sure he said, and I pulled my portable battery operated cassett tape recorder out and began asking him questions and him telling me about Kentucky Avenue.

In its real heyday, he said, there were so many people walking down the street you couldnt drive down it. "It was wall to wall," he said, taking me by the shoulder and walking me across the street to introduce me to Jimmy, who operated a take out only barbeque pit that Chris said was famous with the rich and famous.

Jimmy, handing out some ribs, dripping in sauce, smiled and said something about the good old days, and how Sammy Davis, Jr. would come by and grab some ribs, just like his mom did when she was a dancer in the line across the street, and even after he became famous he's stop by, just like Frank always did, and Dizzy and Ray and all the guys in the bands after the show.

And pushing me along, down the sidewalk, the sound of what I would later recognize as a B3 organ could be heard getting louder, and actually vibrating the street outfront of Grace's Little Belmont, a small, intimate joint that had that art deco square glass brick front, with boths lining the walls, and "Whild" Bill Davis' organ emanting the vibs that rocked Kentucky Avenue for decades.

Now I know there was "Whild" Bill Donovan, head of the OSS during WWII, and I've been called whild in my time, but "Whild" Bill Davis was as whild as you can get, at least from what I remember of him.

Chris said hello to some guys in suits and ties in a booth, later saying they were big union leaders from New York city, but Billy was the center of attention and I wish I had a good tape of him playing because he was certainly amazing.

It's hard to belive that Chris was so young - then in his sixties, physically fit, big and muscular, and I watched him grow old, and over the years, fight the casinos from eleminating live music from casino shows, and permitting taped music, and then giving in and eventually playing in the casino lounge acts, a complete degradation from the Kentucky Avenue days.

After the casinos came in, they slowly closed the Kentucky Avenue clubs, and promoter Elsie Street, from Baltimore, who booked many of the Club Harlem acts, tried to put together a series of Atlantic City Jazz Festivals, first at the Club Harlem, and then at Gardner's Basin.

Then there was the benefit concert for Bangladesh, or some kind of pseudo benefit at the Club Harlem, where I ran into Chris and we sat together in his private booth that had his name on it.

"Canned music just doesn't push you," Chris was saying, as he pushed me on the chest, making sure I was paying attention. "Live music, when you hear it, PUSHES you," Chris was saying, as the band was getting ready to play and when it came on, clearly pushed us, unlike the canned music that was playing through the sound system a few minutes earlier.

The casinos, Chris Columbo was telling me, want to put the end of live bands and orchestras in their showrooms, and feature canned recorded music, which would be totally wrong, and I could do nothing but agree with him.

After the show, Chris took me to the back of the Club Harlem and up some steps that led to offices, and a door that Chris unlocked, and showed me his own personal office and backstage dressing room, which was lined with photos of him with various celebrities and adverstisements and posters for shows he'd done all over the world.

He knew then that it was all over. The game was up. But he didn't just want to give in. He was disapointed that he had to fight the casino exects over the need to have union musicians play the casino showrooms, yet took the fine salary they paid him to play the lounges that graced the casino floors, his drums overshadowed by the casino racket.

The last time I saw Chris Columbo play he was in the middle of a set at the front door of the Showboat casino, which has a Marti Gras theme, but had the band playing there on the floor by the door, not even on a stage. The casino lounges had all been converted to slot pits.

I waved to Chris and he waved back and I stayed and listened for a few songs, but had to go, and missed talking with him.

It was few years later that I learned that Chris Columbo was celebrating his 100th birthday at a nursing home on the boardwalk in Ventnor, and drove over to see him. I go there about an hour after the local TV crew had filmed him eating a piece of birthday cake and everybody singing happy birthday.

I asked directions to his room, and when I go there, he was curled up asleep.

"Chris?" I said, thinking for a moment that I had the wrong room.

This wasn't the big, bald, muscled Chris Columbo I knew, and was about to leave when I heard his voice, which I immediately recognized. It was Chris Columbo.

"Happy Birthday Chris," I said.

"Not again," he replied. "I just had a birthday party."

I said I was sorry I missed it, but said I just had to come by and say hello after all the good shows I had appreciated.

I said my name again, and he said, quite clearly and lucidly, "The writer?"

Yea, that's me, I said, having written about him and his band and the Club Harlem about a dozen or so time over the years.

He tried to sit up and his big head stood out from his shriveled up body that looked like it was evolving back into the fetal position.

I thanked him again for all the good times, and he looked at me and smiled, and said something like, yea, they were pretty good weren't they?

He asked me some questions about what I've been doing, and we talked some small talk for a few minutes, and then he started to fade out a little bit, before looking back at me and saying, "Forbidden Fruit."

Then he closed his eyes and turned on his side and shrivelled up and went back to sleep.

A few days later the Press of Atlantic City reported his death.

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