Saturday, November 18, 2006


The great rhythm and blues/jazz singer Ruth Brown died yesterday. Here’s an anecdote about her that appears in my unpublished as-told-to memoir of legendary black showman, Leonard Reed. A similar version of the same events appears in Brown's autbio "Miss Rhythm."

One example of just how far Joe [Louis] would go to get a laugh requires a little background. Since, until fairly recently, there were hardly any hotels below the Mason-Dixon line that catered to other than whites, when black performers toured the South, they were forced to make do with whatever lodgings they could muster up. This was the situation in 1953 when Joe and I were touring our standup comedy act as part of a package called The Big Rhythm and Blues Show. Ninety cities in nearly as many nights! Joe was the headliner, but the others on the bill were fairly big stars in their own right: Ruth Brown; Buddy Johnson and Ella Johnson and a sixteen piece band; comic Dusty Fletcher; singers Wynonie Harris, the Clovers, the Edwards Sisters; and for jazz spice, Lester Young. Naturally, the housing problem proved especially great for a traveling unit as large as "The Big Show" with its two busloads of nearly fifty blacks. Or, I should say it was a problem to everyone in our troupe but me! Since I looked too white to stay in most places that catered to blacks anyhow, I usually stayed in white establishments. Most rooming houses in the South were willing to allow a white manager traveling with an all-black show to stay with his cast, but still things could get messy. Many more times than I care to recall, during the first two decades of my show business career I'd been routed by the local constabulary in the middle of the night and thrown out of my lodgings, bag and baggage. On one occasion I was even arrested. The charge? Being a white man cohabiting with coloreds! And so with "The Big Show," the bus would pull into a town, I'd get off at a white hotel, and the rest of the cast and crew would head off to the black side of town to scuffle.

Not everyone in the company accepted my excuse that I was checking into the white hotels to avoid trouble with the law; and others were annoyed by the fact that many of the places I stayed just happened to be located conveniently near the nice whites-only golf course in town. A few just thought I was being "uppity". But mostly there were no strong, hard feelings and things went smoothly. Except, once in Houston. I got off the bus at the swank Shamrock Hotel, waved goodbye to the others, and after checking in at the desk I went to my room and was just getting comfortable when there was a knock at the door. I got up, opened it, and it was the manager of the hotel.

"I'm sorry, sir, but you can't stay here," he said in this very starchy voice.

"Why, what's the problem? I paid in advance and everything," I said.

"We'll refund your money. I think you'll be happier elsewhere."

I began to catch his "draft"; back then when blacks sensed white prejudice they called it feeling a "draft," and this was a positive hurricane. Knowing that there was no use in bothering to protest, I told him I'd leave, and I packed up to go.

When I reached the lobby, the reason for his attitude was obvious. Actually, three reasons. There stood one of our show's star attractions Ruth Brown, and pulling up the rear were two of the most pathetic little, wide-eyed waifs you ever laid eyes on playing the part of her children. She strode angrily across the lobby, and when she reached me, shook her finger in my face, grabbed me, and as she dragged me toward the hotel entrance, shouted back over her shoulder at the two little "picks": "Come along, children, we've found your daddy."

Needless to say, Joe had put her up to it.

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