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Rich music history long untold revealed and celebrated by Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame

July 2, 2011 26 comments

Six years ago an enthusiastic gentleman by the name of Vaughn Chatman introduced me to his missionary zeal for our shared hometown of Omaha and his mission to bring attention to its rich black music heritage. He founded the Omaha Black Music as a public celebration of the large gallery of black music artists who have come from this place. Soon, the event morphed into honored not only blacks who distinguished themselves in music but in other fields of endeavor as well, and thus the event came to be known as the Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame. I have interviewed many of the inductees in the Hall, including:

Preston Love Sr.

Buddy Miles

Arno Lucas

Lois “Lady Mac” McDonald

Helen Jones Woods

Cathy Hughes

You’ll find their stories and the stories of other inductees on this blog site. The event took a sabbatical a while back but is returning this year, July 29, at the Slowdown during Native Omaha Days. My story below appeared on the eve of the inaugural Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame .  I hope to write about this year’s event.

Rich music history long untold revealed and celebrated by Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The fact that jazz and blues greats often played north Omaha’s live music haunts is well known. What’s not is this inner city’s huge roster of high-caliber musical talents. Enough Omaha artists have impacted the industry to rival the legacy of homies from historical music hotbeds like Kansas City. The contributions of these O-bred and born cats may add up to one of black music’s largest untold stories.

Bringing this weighty heritage to light “before it’s lost” motivated native Omahan Vaughn Chatman to create the new Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, which honors 40 artists in an inaugural awards dinner August 4 at Harrah’s Casino in Council Bluffs. The inductees range from such swing era figures as the late Preston Love, big band leader Lloyd Hunter and rock pioneer Wynonie Harris, right on up to such modern artists as percussionist Luigi Waites, jazz guitarist Calvin Keys, songwriter-singer Gene “Booker” McDaniels, drummer/vocalist Buddy Miles, sideman/songwriter Arno Lucas and drummer/vocalist/keyboardist Lester Abrams.

“When you look at the overall picture, Omaha’s influenced all kinds of music and still does. Half the inductees are still out there playing and influencing the world,” Chatman said. “Buddy Miles came out of Omaha and went on to play with Jimi Hendrix (not to mention Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and a host of other legends). Lalomie Washburn started with Rufus and hooked up with Chaka Khan.”

The “awesome” Keys has played with everybody from Earl “Father” Hines to Ray Charles to Ahmad Jamal. McDaniels has written standards for many top artists, including the mega-hit Feel Like Makin’ Love for Roberta Flack. Lucas has collaborated with Luther Vandross, Al Jarreau, Michael Jackson, et cetera. Abrams headed the Omaha-based grand funk group L.A. Carnival. Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris has shared the stage and earned accolades from the likes of B.B. King.

“If Omaha’s looking for something to be known for, this is what we should be known for. That we’ve turned out a number of artists who’ve achieved recognition everywhere in this country and all over the world. There was an era when this was a great place for musicians. They all influenced each other,” Chatman said.

Miles, co-founder of the legendary Band of Gypsies with Hendrix, said he and his contemporaries earned their chops “doing a lot of jamming.” He and many of the other inductees were peers on the burgeoning music scene here. “Everybody was into music. We all shared ideas and information. Any type of musical adventure or experience that presented itself, we went for it,” Keys said. Mentors abounded, too. Keys recalled how jazz master Ed ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson “lived in Omaha for awhile. He used to come down on the scene, too. He taught everybody. He was the guru. There was another guitar player here named Luther ‘Guitar’ Woodruff. We called him Papa. He was a big influence.”

 

 

Alesia Rae

 

 

Keys and company were schooled, too, by former Count Basie sideman Preston Love. “He helped a lot of us,” Keys said. Visiting artists infused more inspiration. “Every time Wayne Bennett, who played with Bobby Blue Bland, would come through town, he had stories we would listen to and he had some new chords he had learned. That made us hungry to work. Omaha was a melting pot. We were right in the center of everything and we were a window for a lot of stuff going on.”

Chatman, a musician-turned-attorney living in Fair Oaks, Calif., was among the young bloods learning from the hepcats, including his late older brother Percy, an inductee. Back in the day, music was everywhere. It was in the streets, the projects, the churches, the bars, the barbershops, the theaters and the nightclubs — the Dreamland and Carnation Ballrooms, the Showcase Lounge, the Elks Club, the Off-Beat Supper Club . These spots were proving grounds, launching pads, classrooms and stages where innovative chord changes, oh-so-sweet riffs and hot new licks tickled the night.

While some of Omaha’s brightest talents remained, most, like Keys, left to chart music careers — in jazz, blues, R & B, soul and funk — in a myriad of back rooms, studios, concert halls and stadiums, both here and abroad. Whether on stage or in sessions, on the road or back home, the artists took a piece of Omaha with them.

 

 

Calvin Keys

 

 

“Contrary to popular belief, Omaha was not just about jazz or Preston Love. A lot of genres thrived here. A lot of music developed here. A lot of remarkable talent trained here. Cats like Buddy Miles and Lester Abrams created a unique Omaha sound, a big bass sound, that they introduced wherever they went,” Chatman said.

The Hall of Fame awards dinner, which costs $35 a plate, is reuniting O-artists separated by years of touring and recording. McDaniels and fellow inductee Richetta Wilson, who perfomed with Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald, are to do a duet that night. Coinciding with Native Omaha Days, the biennial African-American homecoming, the banquet promises a nostalgic celebration of the city’s fat music times. Proceeds are to fund music scholarships for minority youths. Chatman, whose event is slated every two years during the Days, is working with local educators in the hope that a curriculum will be designed to teach Omaha’s rich black music history in the public schools.

The local talent pool runs so deep there’s no end of potential future inductees. Among the leading contenders are sax man Buddy Tate and bass fiddle player Alvin “Junior” Raglin, who went on to fame with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, respectively. “The list goes on and on, A whole lot of talent has come out of Omaha,” Keys said. “Yeah, Omaha was a mecca to be reckoned with,” Miles added.

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Radio One queen Cathy Hughes rules by keeping it real: Native Omahan created Urban Radio format

April 29, 2010 4 comments

Microphone (MXL 990)

 

 

UPDATE: On February 17 Cathy Hughes received the NAACP Chairman’s Award, joining some distinguished company in the process.  As the NAACP website reports, the award is chosen by chairman Roslyn M. Brock in recognition of special achievement and distinguished public service.  Past honorees include U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, Tyler Perry, Former Vice President Al Gore and Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai, Aretha Franklin, Bono, then-Senator Barack Obama, The Dave Matthews Band, Danny Glover, and Aaron McGruder.

“I am thrilled to offer Cathy Hughes the NAACP Chairman’s Award,” says Brock. “ This recognition is long overdue for her accomplishments as a trailblazer in the media industry.  As the founder of Radio One and TV One, an advocate for small business entrepreneurship, and philanthropist, Cathy Hughes reminds us that collectively and as individuals, we can make a difference.  Her presence at the Image Awards continues the NAACP’s quest to celebrate and uplift individuals who model principles of hard work, perseverance and community empowerment.”

“This is the most humbling honor to ever be bestowed on me,” says Hughes. “Those who have received the Chairman’s Award in the past are counted among the very best that America has ever produced, and I am honored and very humbled to be included in their ranks.”

– – –

I remember reading something about Cathy Hughes somewhere years ago and after digesting the fact this African-American woman was a major media mogul born and raised in my hometown my next reaction was: Why didn’t I know about her before?  I mean, she’s a big deal, and her hometown didn’t seem to acknowledge or celebrate her success the way you would expect. One of the nice things about what I do as a freelance journalist is getting the opportunity here and there to rectify such perceived wrongs or at least to put my own spin on someone’s story and perhaps introduce a whole new segment of the population to the subject.  That is precisely what I did in the following profile I did on Cathy Hughes for The Reader (www.thereader.com) newspaper in 2005.

I share the story here simply because hers is a story that cannot be told too often.

 

Radio One queen Cathy Hughes rules by keeping it real:

Native Omahan created Urban Radio format

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

The cool hip-hop culture is driving the urban — read: black — entertainment industry explosion. Radio’s no exception. Omaha’s Hot 107.7 FM loudly carries the banner here for urban radio’s mix of rap, hip hop, soul and R&B. Contemporary rock KQCH 94.1-FM tries a little ebony flavor. But no matter how much they try positioning themselves as urban players, these stations are part of white owned and operated networks — Waitt Radio and Journal Broadcast Corporation, respectively.

To be sure, a more authentic urban electronic media model exists. One with black ownership-management and a black sensibility. Just not in Omaha. That’s ironic, too, as the queen of the urban format is Omaha native Catherine Liggins Hughes, a 58-year-old African American whose Radio One network is described as “the voice of black America and the lightning rod for the black community.” Her stations feature music, news and talk from a black perspective. She and her son, Alfred Liggins Hughes, reign over the Baltimore-area-based Radio One empire comprising 69 radio stations, one television station and, since January 2004, the new cable/satellite channel, TV One, a lifestyle and entertainment option aimed at middle-age blacks. TV One is a joint venture with Comcast Corporation. Her parent company went public in 1999 and is valued at $3 billion, making it one of the largest radio broadcasting companies overall and the largest black-owned media firm. She estimates more than 2,100 of her 2,800 broadcasters are black. Many are women.

 

 

 

 

Hughes adventure in radio comes full circle on May 14, when she receives an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the 2005 commencement at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she got her first big break in the industry. But it was in Omaha her love of radio first bloomed.

It’s been years since Omaha sustained a truly black station. One of the last was KOWH. A group of Kansas City, Mo. doctors and a consortium of Omahans, including Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, NBA veteran Bob Boozer, social service director Rodney Wead and businessman Al Gilmore, bought it in 1969 and operated it through the mid-1970s. Warren Buffett was an advisor. It’s where Hughes got her start in radio as a do-everything volunteer.

Her rise to national prominence the last 25 years has made her, outside Oprah Winfrey, Eunice W. Johnson and Condoleezza Rice, perhaps the most powerful black woman in America. She’s been called so by Essence Magazine. She counts Ebony Magazine publisher John H. Johnson and award-winning journalist Tony Brown as friends and mentors. Yet, her story’s largely gone untold in her hometown. It’s not surprising given Omaha’s conservative daily newspaper and her penchant for ruffling feathers. But hers is the classic American success story. Despite hailing from an educated and accomplished family, she overcome major obstacles growing up. A shining example of black upward mobility, her climb serves both as an inspiration for how far passion can carry one and as a reminder of how too many blacks remain disenfranchised.

Love Affair

Growing up in the now old Franklin Plaza projects just off 24th and Franklin in north Omaha, Hughes fired her imagination to the museful sounds emanating from the oversized radio she listened to in her room at night.

“My love affair with radio started when I was 8-years-old when my mother gave me a 15-pound transistor radio. I used to get spankings, because at night — when I was supposed to be asleep — I had my radio on under my pillow,” Hughes said.

Unlike her mother, Helen Jones Woods, a former musician, Hughes had “no musical talent. So, rather than being drawn towards music and embracing it, I kind of shied away from it…I felt awkward that I couldn’t sing, dance or carry a tune. The interesting thing about my relationship with radio is that the part I loved most was the commercials, not the music. Today, Radio One is a case study for the Harvard Graduate School of Business, and when they were doing their case study they said, ‘Well, no wonder y’all did OK, because your love of radio was not the music, it was the commercials.’ Yeah, I loved the commercials. I used to take my toothbrush and pretend it was a microphone and be up in the mirror — in the projects — giving commercials,” said Hughes in the earthy tones of a late-night urban deejay.She was on track meeting her family’s high standards, attending a private school, when, at 16, she got pregnant. Her marriage to the father didn’t last. “I went into shock because I had my whole future ahead of me,” she said in a 1998 Essence Magazine interview. The birth of her son snapped her out of her “arrested development. I was a lost ball in high weeds.”

Being a mom, she said, “was the last thing I ever anticipated and it turned out to be the greatest blessing of my life. Absolutely, my son changed my life. He’s the reason I am who I am today. By that I mean spiritually. He necessitated a belief in a power much greater than myself.”

She managed supporting herself and her son, got an education and made a career out of her first love — radio, and Alfred was beside her every step of the way. “I took him everywhere with me. I stayed in constant trouble with my employers, particularly when I moved to the East Coast, because I knew no one there and I was not going to entrust him to strangers. And, so, I brought him to work with me.”

Her wild success has not made her forget her struggle or the huge gap that still separates many African Americans from the good life. A self-described “black nationalist,” she’s all about promoting and strengthening the black community and emboldening her people’s sense of pride. She learned social activism from her parents, members of the social justice action group, the De Porres Club, and from crusading Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, for whom she worked and whose offices hosted De Porres meetings. The faith-based Club led Omaha’s early Civil Rights fight under the late Jesuit priest, John Markoe, of Creighton University. Formed in 1947, the Club agitated for change via demonstrations, sit-ins and boycotts that opened lunch counters, like that at Dixon’s Restaurant, and desegregated employment rolls at such work sites as Coca-Cola and the street-railway company.

Hughes was also a protege of Markoe’s. She recalls marching in demonstrations when she was only five. As a teen, she helped integrate Peony Park. Markoe, a close family friend, sponsored Hughes at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, where she became the first black graduate, and loaned her mother the money to attend nursing school. “He took special interest in a lot of young black people. He saw their potential. He was a pioneer,” said Hughes’ mother. The family visited Markoe when he was dying at the old St. Joseph Hospital, where a West Point classmate of his, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, also said goodbye.

Forging new ground and contributing to The Cause is a family trait Hughes inherited from her parents and maternal grandfather. “They were always very committed to trying to improve the plight of our people,” she said.

Her mother’s father, Laurence C. Jones, was one of the first African-Americans to receive an Ed.D from the University of Iowa. In 1909 he founded the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. Still a premier boarding school for disadvantaged African-American students, it places the vast majority of its graduates in college. Hughes is its largest contributor. Her mother, who was adopted by Jones and his wife, attended the school and played trombone in its touring all-girl swing band — the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. As the band gained popularity down south, the Sweethearts chafed at being a cash cow for the school and left, en masse, to perform separately from the institution. Woods was among the rebels. The popular band, which included bi-racial and white members, played all over the U.S., even headlining the Apollo Theater. “When you play at the Apollo Theater, you know you’ve arrived,” Woods said. During World War II, the band entertained overseas black American military personnel as part of the USO. The orchestra disbanded in the late 1940s.

Helen Jones Woods

 

 

Helen Woods met and married her husband, and Cathy’s father, William Alfred Woods, while with the band in his hometown of Chatanooga, Tenn. After the couple moved to Omaha, he became the first African American to earn an accounting degree from Creighton University. When no one would hire him as an accountant, he worked an overnight line job at Skinner Macaroni. That is, until “the Jesuits just refused to accept the embarrassment any longer of their first black accountant bagging macaroni at night, and prevailed upon the Internal Revenue Service to give him an opportunity,” Hughes said. He later went into business for himself. Helen became an LPN and, later, a social worker at Douglas County Hospital. The couple’s first of four kids was Catherine Elizabeth, who helped raise her younger siblings.

Fascinated and Inspired

By the late ‘60s, Hughes was taking liberal arts courses at Creighton and then-Omaha University. “Fascinated with radio,” she leapt at the chance to get in on the ground floor at fledgling KOWH. “This was too good to be true, you know. Black folks owning their own radio station. This was a learning opportunity. That’s the reason I was motivated to volunteer and help out.” Even though her real radio education came later, she feels KOWH played a key role in her broacast odyssey.

“I think the reason we have a $3 billion corporation today is because Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Rodney Wead and the other individuals who invested in KOWH inspired me to do it for myself and become a broadcast owner. I saw them do it and so I figured I could. I think none of my success would have taken place if I had not seen the example set by that group. That’s very important to me, because often times when I tell in interviews what a profound effect people in Omaha had on my life, it gets left out of the story because some editor doesn’t consider Omaha exciting.”

Hughes’ big break came on the heels of love and tragedy. It was the early 1970s and she served on UNO’s Black Studies Committee, which sponsored appearances by noted journalist Tony Brown, who befriended her. The man Hughes was dating at the time was hired by Brown, then the dean of Howard University’s newly formed School of Communications, to chair a department in the School. Meanwhile, her father was given a contract by the Office of Minority Business in Washington, D.C. to organize the books of small minority businesses. Her father was set to leave for D.C. when he fell ill and died of a heart attack.

A grieving Hughes went to D.C. and was surprised when Brown offered her a job as a lecturer in Howard’s School of Communications. “I said to him, ‘But I didn’t finish college,’ and he laughed and said, ‘Neither did anyone else on the faculty other than myself.’ The faculty he allowed me to join included Quincy Jones, Melvin Van Peebles, Stan Lathan. It was a list of non-degreed practitioners of the media and this was quite revolutionary for a major institution of higher learning.”

Hughes began volunteering at Howard’s radio station, WHUR. “When I found out they had a radio station I was like, ‘Oh, let me learn, let me help out. What can I do?” Within a short time she was hired as sales manager and, later, general manager, engineering a turnaround that dramatically increased advertising revenue and put WHUR near the top of D.C.’s highly competitive black radio market.

The Quiet Storm

It was at WHUR she created The Quiet Storm, a sexy late night music-chatter format that’s come to dominate urban radio programming (once featured on 600 stations). She formulated the concept after Howard showed faith in her by sending her to a broadcast management course at Harvard University and a psychographic programming seminar at the University of Chicago. Psychographic studies help broadcasters design programming based on target audience lifestyles and trends.

So, what did Brown see in Hughes? “He saw my love of radio. My determination and commitment to the student body. He saw this was a passion for me. He knew it was like throwing a duck into water. That I was so happy for the opportunity and so fascinated with everything. I used to write back home saying, ‘My eyes are tired seeing the glory and the beauty of being an African living in America.’ Because I had never seen black men and women wrapping their heads and wearing African fabrics and having black plays and black radio. This was a new experience for me. Coming from Omaha, my daddy was the only black accountant, who knew the only black lawyer, who knew the only black dentist, who knew the only black doctor. These were the days when we had one of each in Omaha.”

When Howard University balked at licensing The Quiet Storm on the grounds it was commercially unviable, Hughes left for DC’s WYCB-AM and, in search of more creative control, began looking to acquire her own station. When DC’s WOL came up for sale, she sought to purchase it. Married at the time to Dewey Hughes, the couple made a bid with $100,000 of her own money, plus an additional $100,000 from 10 investors who put up $10,000 each. Another $600,000 came from a group of black venture capitalists. She still needed $1 million dollars from a senior lender. She was rejected by all-male lenders at 32 separate banks. Chemical Bank was her 33rd try and a new-on-the-job Puerto Rican female loan officer there approved the loan. The 1980 purchase made WOL the base of Radio One’s pioneering 24-hour talk from a black perspective format, with its theme: Information is Power.

“If that woman had not gambled on me then I would not be in business today. She was the one that made the difference,” Hughes said. “I never asked her why she did it. I assumed because she saw me a good investment. Those 32 men that told me no probably told some man yes the same week.”

Even today, after all her proven business acumen and personal wealth (in the mid nine figures), Hughes said women of color like herself still lack respect in the business arena. “It hasn’t changed. Not at all. Particularly when you’re one who’s outspoken. It’s not a role white women have enjoyed for too long and, so, it’s definitely still brand new for African American women. It’s the whole confidence factor. You find it with your lenders…your staff…your audience. The most perilous time in the history of my company was when I divorced my husband (Dewey Hughes). He was not making a contribution to the business. He was a drain. But that’s not how it was seen by advertisers, lenders, creditors…They saw it from the perspective that I wouldn’t be able to survive.”

Networking and Visioning

Today, her network of stations is in virtually every major black market: Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Washington, DC, Louisville, Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami. Radio One’s 1995 purchase of WKYS in Washington, D.C. for $40 million, reportedly the largest transaction between two black companies in broadcasting history, made Hughes the first woman owner of a #1 ranked major market radio station.

Cathy Hughes accepting the NAACP’s Chairman’s Award

 

 

Radio One’s among the few black-owned media companies to stave off the Wall Street wolves and conglomorates that began buying up black stations and networks. Hughes’ corporate strategy of acquiring and turning around underperforming urban stations has proven profitable and grown the company exponentially. “We’re turnaround experts,” she said. Yet, only a few years ago, she tells how at “a big affair of financial types a gentleman who was not very well informed stood up and thanked my son for saving my company. Gave him full credit. And when my son tried to correct him, he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, but you made a difference.’ Alfred tried to say, ‘No, I wasn’t even old enough to be around to save her company,’ but they weren’t having it. Alfred has an MBA from Wharton. He’s the one that took us public and, so, he gets the credit for about 15 years of hard work that existed before he became part of the scenario.”

Hughes’ vision for the company was big from the start and then federal legislation compelled her to keep getting bigger. “I always wanted more than one station but our corporate strategy crystallized in 1996 with the passage of the TeleCom bill (Telecommunications Act),” which removed limits on the number of stations a company could own. “It basically says, Either you grow or you go. Either you become one of the big boys or you sell out. I wasn’t interested in selling out,” she said. According to Hughes, that same Act has made radio/TV ownership a rigged system that forces vulnerable stations into the hands of giants and prevents smaller companies from buying in. She’s bought out many stations herself. The spiraling cost of media properties makes it harder, especially for prospective black owners.

“Black folks own more stations, but there are fewer owners. Sixty-nine of them belong to me. It costs several million dollars before you can get a station. It’s very difficult, unless you’re independently wealthy, to put together the financing and go through the rigors and the process of securing the license. There’s some great (black) individuals who would do a great job of running a radio station, but they’re not able to get the start-up money and organizational revenue they need.”

No dilettante operating from afar, Hughes is a hands-on media owner. It makes sense considering she came up through the ranks of radio. She’s done everything at the station level except engineer. Her first days at WOL found her scrounging for everything and even sleeping some nights on the office floor. Up until the mid-’90s she was a popular on-air personality who set the frank tone and assertive agenda for Radio One’s fierce community activism and involvement. These days, she hosts her own show, TV One On One, on the new TV One network.

 

 

 

 

A Passionate Woman

She said critics’ decrying her pro-black stances “misinterpret” her. “I’m a very passionate woman. My voice raises. I get excited. I start to talk fast. When I was on the radio, nationalism was not quite as understood and accepted as it is now. So, a lot of white journalists mistook my passion, my excitement, my commitment to my people as me being a fire-breathing activist who didn’t like white folks. Well, my second in command to my son is a white woman, Mary Catherine Sneed. She’s like a daughter to me. Just because I love my people doesn’t mean I don’t like other people. I laugh about it, because I grew up in Omaha, and if you’re black and not an integrationist in Omaha, you perish. OK? There’s not enough black folks.”

Even with Radio One and TV One ever expanding, (at one point, TV One was gaining a million new subscribers per month), Hughes is not complacent. “I don’t see it as success yet. I still see it as a work in progress. The reason I have to keep driving forward is the reality that my community seems not to be making the progress for the masses we should be making considering how blessed more of us are each year.” She feels whatever success she’s had is rooted in her community focus. “Our commitment to our community is what has built brand loyalty. It’s a misnomer that you can’t do good and do well. You don’t have to forsake your peoplehood in order to get wealthy. In fact, I’ve had just the opposite experience.”

Of her many riches, she said she’s proudest of “rearing a son by myself that grew up to embrace my vision, my dream, my commitment to electronic media.” She still get backs to Omaha, where her mother resides. Aside from being honored at a Native Omaha Days, Hughes keeps a low profile here with family and friends, seeing old haunts and attending mass at St. Benedict the Moor. “I earn my living being in the spotlight. When I come home, the best past of it is that there is no spotlight.”

Helen Woods never imagined all this for her daughter, although she suspected something special was in store. “Some people are destined for greatness,” she said.

Howard University’s newest crop of grads have a model of greatness they can call their own.


Now Wasn’t That a Time? Helen Jones Woods and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm

April 29, 2010 4 comments

I believe it was one of two dear departed friends, either Billy Melton or Preston Love Sr., who first told me about the International Sweethearts Rhythm and Helen Jones Woods. It’s a story about race, culture, gender, music, and history coming full circle. I was taken with the story as soon as I heard it, and I’ve never lost my affection or fascination for it. This story was published in a monthly Omaha newspaper called the New Horizons that caters to the so-called senior population. I’ve long tried to get it published elsewhere in my hometown but to no avail. This is where the Web, courtesy this blog spot, allows me to share the story with a new audience.

 

 

 

Now Wasn’t That a Time? Helen Jones Woods and The International Sweethearts of Rhythm

©by Leo Adam Biga Originally published in the New Horizons (2005)Revised and updated for this blog

Back in the day, when big bands blew wild and made swing America’s most popular music and dance craze, touring orchestras tore it up at juke joints and dance halls across the land. At the height of swing, in the 1930s and ‘40s, the number and range of bands was astounding. There were the name bands of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Harry James, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and many others. There were novelty bands, like the one led by Spike Jones, that played for laughs. There were the Latin-flavored bands of Xavier Cugat and Desi Arnaz. And then there were female bands that ran the gamut from Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears to Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Band.

Female performers have generally played second fiddle to their male counterparts. The one time they got a fair shake was World War II. The stock of women musicians and bands rose then as military service depleted the ranks of male artists. Girl bands flourished, but none compared to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a popular period band with strong Omaha connections. Taking the “international” of their name from the blend of ethnicities among their members, this jiving outfit laid down their hot licks on stage, record, radio and film.

The Sweethearts played gigs at jumping live music spots from coast to coast, touring every big city and little town in between. They shined at the Apollo Theater in New York and shared the stage with everyone from Basie to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Earl “Father” Hines. On their Midwest tours, the band jammed at Omaha’s Dreamland Ballroom.

Omaha claims many ties to the Sweethearts, whose brief but event-filled run lasted from 1937 to 1947. It’s where their glamorous leader and vocalist, Anna Mae Winburn, once lived and fronted for the Lloyd Hunter band. It was the hometown of manager/chaperone Rae Lee Jones. And, it’s where Sweethearts lead trombonist Helen Jones Woods (no relation to Rae Lee) lived from the early 1950s until a couple years ago. Images of the Sweethearts are included in a photo exhibition at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center at 2510 North 24th Street in Omaha.

The Sweethearts achieved fame in their short life — small wonder, given their unusual composition and origins. For openers, there’s the story of how this interracial band got its humble start in the heart of Jim Crow before bolting for the bright lights and big cities. The man who formed the band, the late educator Laurence C. Jones, was founder and head master of the strict vocational institution Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. He dedicated his life to Piney Woods, a still active foster home for poor black children from broken homes.

Helen was given up as a baby by her mixed parents and brought to the school, the only home she ever knew. She was later adopted by Jones and his wife. Never feeling fully accepted, she found solace in the band, which became her surrogate family. Made up exclusively at first of young urchins and orphans from the school, band members had few prospects outside Piney Woods other than the domestic-service jobs they toiled in.

As Helen said, “We were just glad to get away from the school.” The band was formed as a social experiment by Laurence Jones, who felt the group gave the girls another outlet, showcased minorities in a positive light and proved that racial harmony was achievable. His idea for the band was inspired by seeing Ina Ray Hutton’s Melodears play in Chicago and by hearing Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Band on the radio. He also used the band as a public relations/fund raising tool for the school. The monies collected from their early paid performances supported the fledgling facility as much as they covered the girls’ tuition and room and board.

To create the group, Jones picked promising members of the school’s all-girl marching band and turned them over to a veteran musician to learn syncopation.

The band began by playing at school gymnasiums and small dance halls. “We traveled around just in Mississippi for quite a little while,” said Helen, an original member who was just 14 at the start. “As the band got better, we traveled more and more and we ventured out and played better places.” Soon, black newspapers like the Chicago Defender championed them.

The Sweethearts made a big impression wherever they went. And why not? They were an attractive troupe of nicely-coiffered, well-mannered young “colored” girls who not only looked great but could flat out play. The majority of original band members were untrained, but over the years their ranks grew to include well-schooled musicians from outside Piney Woods. In their heyday, they featured some top-flight players and some of the music industry’s finest arrangers.

Then there’s the fact the Sweethearts were integrated at a time when segregation ruled. Comprised mainly of African-Americans, their members also included Latinas, a Chinese, an Indian and Caucasians, all of which gave the Sweethearts an exotic charm that was played up in publicity stills and posters. Diversity also made traveling, especially in the South, difficult and dangerous in an era when few lodging-eating places were integrated. Down South, white members wore black face as a hedge against harassment. To avoid further hassles, the band usually stayed overnight aboard their sleeper bus, Big Bertha, or in black hotels.

As the band added older musicians, playing for peanuts at small venues became less palatable, particularly when the school raked in all the fruits of their labor. Exposed to new places and better lifestyles, members felt exploited. The band also attracted sponsors who saw the potential to cash in on their discontent. Convinced to strike out on their own and take a stab at the big time, the band’s 17 original members “ran away” en masse to Arlington, Va., to become a full-time professional orchestra independent of the school. It was 1941. Helen was 17.

 

 

 

Aided by their backers, the Sweethearts took up residence at a brick home in Arlington dubbed “Sweetheart House.” Meanwhile, school officials outraged by the rebellion, which made headlines, tried securing the return of their wards. Helen stood fast. “My father was very much upset, but he didn’t say anything about me coming back. He sent his sister Nellie to bring us to Piney Woods, and she just said, ‘It would be wise if you came home, Helen.’ And I said, ‘No, I want to stay with the band.’ I was glad to stay with the group because I felt more comfortable with them than I did being at Piney Woods. I didn’t know what future I would have there.”

Helen said a strong camaraderie existed among members. “We all got along. You must remember, most of us were out in the world and had nobody but each other in the band. We began to bond like a bunch of sisters. We all needed each other. So, therefore, we had to get along.” Going back home wasn’t an option anyway. Some had no home but for the school. Those that did had little to return to.

“In those days, going back to a home in Mississippi didn’t amount to much once you’d gotten out and seen better things,” she said. “And we were blessed to have seen better things. Where we all came from we didn’t have electricity and indoor plumbing and all those things.” Besides, she said, the band “was the way we made our living. It kept us from having to be a cook or a dish washer. It showed us an exciting time beyond the same old dull life. So, it was a pleasant change. Plus, we got a chance to see the world. That was our reward. It wasn’t money, because we certainly didn’t see any.”

Despite the Piney Woods rift, success came fast for the Sweethearts, who proved they were more than a curio act or shill for the school. “They were a heckuva band. Some of those cats could blow. Enough to make the guys take notice,” said the late Paul Allen, a longtime Omaha club owner. As word spread of their ability, the Sweethearts became a hot booking on the night club and after hours circuit.

Actually, the band enjoyed a national reputation before ever cutting strings with Piney Woods. These darlings of the black press set box office records at an impressive roster of venues. By 1940, they’d already appeared at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. and competed in a school band contest at the New York World’s Fair. Seeing the sights in the big cities was a thrill. “I think the thing that really excited us was the first time we went to Washington, D.C. and to New York,” Helen said, “because we were just a bunch of country girls and these things, you know, you only read about in history books.”

After severing ties with the school, they worked hard preparing for their major coming out party at the Apollo Theatre, the mecca for black artists. “When we first left Piney Woods we spent two or three months just rehearsing so that when we got ready to be presented, the band sounded really good,” said Helen.

Their engagement at the Apollo, where lousy acts got hooted off stage, was a hit. “The first time we played the Apollo Theatre there were lines all the way around the block. We were amazed to think we’d come that far,” she said. Their “show stopper” was a rendition of W. C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues. Handy himself came to hear them and met them back stage. For their debut, the Sweethearts worked with comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley and tap dancer Peg Leg Bates. From that auspicious start, the band played the Apollo twice a year.

The Piney Woods girls were used to hard work and close supervision and that discipline was used by arrangers like Eddie Durham to sharpen their precise arrangements. The Sweethearts also developed a sense of style and showmanship — from Winburn’s elegant manners and gowns to members’ high spirits and beguiling smiles. Always well-turned out, their smart ensembles epitomized class.

 

 

Unusual for a women’s band then, the Sweethearts cut recordings for RCA Victor and Guild Records. They also appeared in short films — called soundies — that were that pre-TV era’s music videos. Soundies were viewed on Panorams, a jukebox-with a screen popular at bars, diners and drug stores. The band also took part in gimmicks pitting them in staged “Battle of the Sexes” with male groups. “At that time, money was scarce and the more you offered people the more you got them to come,” Helen said.

Just as the band’s success made it easy to attract new blood into the group, it led other bands to steal away talent. There were bigger problems. When still a school band, the girls spent far more time playing and traveling than studying, which hurt their formal education. Even after breaking away from Piney Woods and adding non-students, players were expected to follow rigid rules. Some balked at the early curfews and the ban on fraternizing with the opposite sex. “The ones that did not adhere to following the orders would leave” — voluntarily or not, said Helen.

 

 

 

 

Then, as many Sweethearts have described, the band’s crooked sponsors made empty promises and pilfered their already meager earnings. “They promised us everything, but we never got anything. In fact, they stole everything from us. Most of us were left with nothing,” said Helen, whose $3,000 in savings were spent by manager Rae Lee Jones. Despite the betrayal, Helen later moved to Omaha to help care for the ailing Jones. After she died, Helen stayed on here.

During the war the band became a favorite with servicemen via broadcasts on Armed Forces Radio’s Jubilee Programs. The group was requested, by popular demand, to join an overseas USO tour. In their crisp dress WAC uniforms, the Sweethearts played for appreciative, mostly black troops in France and Germany. Everywhere they went in bombed-out Germany, Helen said, the band drew stares from natives fascinated by these women of color. For their camp shows, the girls played on makeshift stages before troops sprawled out on open fields. Helen recalls one show being interrupted by an officer. “He walked up and said, ‘Stop the music. I have an announcement to make. Japan has surrendered.’ That was the end of our concert, because everybody started hollering” and celebrating.

The Sweethearts “came apart” shortly after returning from their rousing USO tour. The girls had matured into women. They wanted to get on with their lives. Some left to marry and have kids. Others to reunite with families they’d been long separated from. And still others to continue making music, including a few — like Mary Lou Williams, Vi Burnside and Carline Ray — who went on to individual fame.

Helen met and married her late husband, William Alfred Woods, in his native Tennessee and made a life with him in Omaha, where they raised four children. She played a while with Cliff Dudley’s Band before becoming a nurse and social worker. Her husband became Creighton University’s first black accounting grad. The couple were active in the De Porres Club, an Omaha civil rights group, and in St. Benedict’s Church. Their daughter Catherine Liggins Hughes went on to found the Radio One network, which she heads today with her son Alfred Liggins Hughes.

 

Helen Jones Woods

 

 

Attempts to re-form the band fizzled and the Sweethearts faded away like their contemporaries. They were destined to be a lost chapter in jazz history until 1980, when the Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City, Mo. recognized them. The event, which Helen attended and called “wonderful,” brought many Sweethearts back for a reunion celebration that sparked interest from authors, journalists, musicians and filmmakers. Since then, their story’s been retold and their music revived.

Recently, the New York-based all-women Kit McClure Band has released a tribute CD, The Sweethearts Project, that faithfully performs the Sweethearts’ music. To ensure authenticity, the Sweethearts’ original charts were transcribed from recordings and band leader McClure recruited Sweetheart Carline Ray to sing and play guitar on a couple of the tracks. A new McClure Band CD, The Sweethearts Revisited, reharmonizes the earlier group’s musical themes.

It’s a homage of the highest order and an ironic one, too, since women musicians were seldom taken seriously. As Helen said, “Some thought we did very good — for being women. Others thought we were just cute. They wanted to date us.” Articles often discussed the band’s looks more than their music. Now, 60 years later, major jazz figures respect what the Sweethearts did. Their achievements are documented in books by D. Antoinette Handy, Marian McPartland and Sherrie Tucker. The McClure Band’s tributes acknowledge the debt that today’s women musicians owe the Sweethearts for paving the way.

McClure said of all the women bands, “it was the Sweethearts’ music that caught my imagination the most. It’s dazzling. And in trying to play it, we found it’s very, very challenging. Their tempos were really, really fast. Their precision is incredible. They must of had a lot of rehearsal time. And they had a lot of talent and so much energy. When we sat down to try and play it, we all said, ‘Oooh, these women really had it going on.’ We had to step up to the plate to try to fill their shoes.”

For McClure, the Sweethearts are both “pioneers and an inspiration. The band really gave women a chance to have a voice in the music. I feel it is so important we have some women role models that went before us who had great bands and who were great musicians,” she said. “That’s the difference I hope our CDs make. That maybe finally we can get into the school systems with this music and the kids can learn the Sweethearts’ music like they learn Ellington’s and Basie’s. And maybe young girls will come up believing they can go into jazz. Things haven’t changed much since the ‘40s. It’s very difficult for even wonderfully talented women to be accepted in the major bands. Unless these women are recognized in jazz history, it’s going to take longer to change the face and gender of jazz.”

This renaissance is sweet for Omaha’s own Sweetheart, Helen Jones Woods. She’s been interviewed by jazz pianist/author Marian McPartland and award-winning film documentarian Ken Burns, whose segment on the Sweethearts didn’t make the final cut of his jazz opus. She said it was “a proud thing” when a framed portrait of the group was displayed at the Loves Jazz & Cultural Arts Center in north Omaha — a stone’s throw away from the group’s old 24th Street haunt, the Dreamland.

While appreciating their rediscovery, her homespun humility downplays any notion they were “all that.” McClure insists it was the music that had crowds queuing up to see them. Helen isn’t so sure. “I didn’t know whether it was to see the girls or to hear the music,” she said. “I have a serious feeling the music was secondary. People wanted to see a bunch of good looking black girls together who were clean and neat. A lot of the women entertainers were shake dancers and partiers and all that, where we weren’t allowed to. That wholesome image was really our selling point, because I don’t think people said we were the greatest thing since snuff.”

McClure “respectfully disagrees,” saying Helen and her mates had some serious chops as musicians. “I know she does downplay her ability, but I’m sorry, that trombone section was slammin’,” she said. “My hat is totally off to Helen Jones, because she was just a wonderful, funky musician. The whole band was funky, but that trombone section stood out.”

For Helen, her time with the Sweethearts wasn’t so much about the music or the history they made, as it was the experience it afforded. “I am one of the most blessed people in the world to have come up out of those conditions in the South and to be with the band, which gave me a chance to see every state and different countries and the privilege to meet some of the great old musicians. I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”

One of only a few surviving Sweethearts, Helen filled her days working with kids at Skinner Magnet Center in Omaha, until moving in with her daughter Cathy back East. Helen long thought about writing a book on her life, but never quite got started. If a book ever were to be written about her poignant Sweethearts journey, it would be a page-turner filled with sweet nostalgia for that chapter in her life.

Now wasn’t that a time?


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