By Jessica Forbes
At the Gregory Street Assembly Hall, trumpet player and vocalist David Washington recalled playing with Ike and Tina Turner and B.B. King in the early 1960s.
In his home, surrounded by photos, drummer and saxophonist Wally Mercer, Jr. remembered days in which he played with Joe Simon, Sam and Dave, and James and Bobby Purify.
These musicians were not referring to gigs they played in distant cities; they were speaking of a relatively common occurrence at the intersection of Belmont and DeVilliers streets in Pensacola in the 1950s and 1960s.
African-American acts that have since gone down in musical history had to make their way as entertainers while navigating a segregated society. Predominately African-American business districts like Belmont-DeVilliers provided the venues where those acts built a career and, in many cases, a legend.
From the Great Depression to the 1970s, Pensacola’s thriving club scene made it a popular stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a network of performance venues throughout the eastern, southern, and upper mid-west areas of the United States that were safe and open to African American musicians, comedians, and other entertainers. Some of these clubs still exist today though on a smaller scale.
Several generations of talented Pensacolians participated in the scene centered at Belmont-DeVilliers as members of house bands at popular clubs, and in dance bands that played regularly throughout the city and region.
The first entry in the musical history of Pensacola usually begins with Ned Wyer’s Cornet Band and Orchestra, organized in 1873. Edward “Ned” Wyer was from a Creole family that moved to Pensacola from New Orleans prior to 1868.
Touted as a source of pride for all Pensacolians in the pre-Jim Crow era, the predominantly Creole band wore military style-uniforms and played locally at Kupfrian’s Park, the Pensacola Opera House, and numerous parades and dances. The Wyers were active in St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and brought the New Orleans tradition of funeral processions, both the somber first and joyful second lines, to Pensacola.
Two of Ned Wyer’s sons, Paul and Edward, were musicians who went on to play in the 1910s with W.C. Handy, the legendary “Father of the Blues.” Rumors that Paul wrote the rhythm for Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” led Handy to pen a letter to Down Beat magazine in 1952 refuting the claim.
Wyer’s Cornet Band disbanded around 1930, but new waves of popular music were emerging that adapted the brass tradition for the next generation.
Ray Shep, Booker T. Washington High School, and “The Best Band in the Land”
From the 1940s through the 1970s, if an African-American student was interested in music, then tutelage in Raymond Shepherd’s marching band was the next step on their path.
“Ray Shep,” as he was and is still commonly called, served as the band director at Booker T. Washington High School as early as 1945 and earned a reputation as a talented and resourceful director.
During segregation, Washington High was the only public high school open to African-Americans in Pensacola. Facing a disproportionate allotment of resources to black students, pianist Al Martin recalled Sheppard orchestrating pieces so clarinets would substitute parts for string instruments that the school district wouldn’t buy for its “colored” students.
Sheppard, in his trademark suit, instructed students in a range of styles and commonly taught classical, popular, and original pieces that he wrote and arranged himself.
Under Sheppard’s direction, the band at Booker T. Washington High won recognition as one of the most outstanding programs in the state and produced a number of musicians who enjoyed notoriety locally, nationally and even internationally.
Big Bands, Big Legacies
Sheppard and fellow Washington High teacher Harold Andrews both had bands during the 1930s and 1940s that regularly performed around town just as many of their students later did.
Born in Pensacola in 1916, Andrews taught science at Booker T. Washington High for over 40 years. He adopted the bass as his primary instrument at a young age. During his high school years, Andrews led a band known as “The Synchopators” that played dances at the Knights of Pythias Hall on DeVilliers Street.
After attending the Tuskegee Institute, Andrews settled in New York City where he worked as a radio disc jockey and musician, playing a series of performances with Kate Smith at Radio City Music Hall.
In the late 1930s, Andrews returned to Pensacola at a time when the Big Band era was in full swing, and there were plenty of venues to play.
Sheppard, who was 11 years older than Andrews, had established a career as a performer by the 1930s. In 1938, having “just finished a tour of the Southern States” ‘Ray Shep and his Owls Orchestra’ performed a homecoming show at the Odd Fellows Hall on DeVilliers Street.
He regularly played clubs such as the Savoy Gardens and Tom’s Tavern with his bands, billed as both a “big band” and “orchestra.”
Saxophonist Wally Mercer, Sr. came through Pensacola in the mid-1930s touring with the Walter Bonds Orchestra. Mercer met his future wife on that trip and stayed in the city, playing with Ray Shep before forming his own band, then teaching music with the Works Progress Administration. He later became the first African-American radio announcer in Pensacola, working for WCOA, WEAR, and WBOP.
During the 1940s, legends such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong played at the Savoy Gardens on DeVilliers Street that housed the black USO during World War II and was commonly known as the Savoy Ballroom. Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald and Roy Brown performed at the Elk’s Deep Water City Lodge #751, which is still standing today on North Coyle Street, just south of Belmont Street.
Playing Here, Playing There
Pensacola can claim several honorable mentions in American musical history.
Slim Gaillard, guitarist and vocalist famous for the 1945 hit “Cement Mixer” and his own language called “Vout,” had a successful career as part of the duo ‘Slim & Slam.’ Gaillard was born in 1916 in Pensacola. He later recorded with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie among others. One of his performances was even immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”
Internationally renowned pianist Don Shirley lived in Pensacola as a child, before and after moving to Russia in 1936 at the age of nine to pursue his piano studies.
Herman “Junior” Cook, a tenor saxophonist, born in Pensacola in 1934, played and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, and Freddie Hubbard. When visiting family in Pensacola occasionally, Cook would play local clubs with his former classmates. “Those nights we’d really be blowin’” recalls Wally Mercer, Jr.
While not all were born in Pensacola, several spent their formative years being shaped by the city.
Gigi Gryce, a multi-instrumentalist and jazz composer born in 1925, studied at the Boston Conservatory, later working in New York and Europe in the 1950s. Grice collaborated with Quincy Jones, Thelonious Monk, Donald Byrd, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie among many others, before withdrawing from the music business in the early 1960s. Grice is pictured in the famous photograph, “A Great Day in Harlem,” alongside many notable contemporaries.
Grammy-nominated vocalist Peggy Scott-Adams sang with the Abe’s 506 house band in the early 1960s before breaking onto the national scene in collaborations with JoJo Benson in 1968.
Wally Mercer, Sr. travelled to Nashville in the early 1950s to record, briefly owning his own label. In 1952, Mercer recorded but did not copyright a song titled “Rock Around the Clock.” Musicians and historians dispute how much of Mercer’s tune was borrowed for Bill Haley’s famous 1954 song of the same name.
Likewise, Harold Andrews wrote and performed an un-copyrighted song titled “Kokomo,” which sounded remarkably like the much later (1988) Beach Boys hit of the same name.
Abe’s 506 and the Heyday of the Chitlin’ Circuit
With musicians coming and going in the 1950s and 1960s, Belmont-DeVilliers was bustling. Bumper-to-bumper traffic was common, and with people milling about the streets between the various restaurants and clubs, more than one person has compared the scene to the New Orleans’ French Quarter.
As of 1956, the largest venue on the Blocks was Abe’s 506. The business started at a smaller location at 506 West DeVilliers Street. Owner Abraham Pierce, for whom the bar was named, and his family had a building constructed across the street and moved in 1965 to that location, 515 West DeVilliers, keeping the “506” name.
Pierce’s daughter, Delores Pierce Curry, co-managed the venue for years and remembers, “We had so many people. Ray Charles was here several times. We had Clarence Carter, the Four Tops, the O’Jays, James Brown—James Brown practically lived here.”
The 506 was a two-story building with a lounge downstairs that was open daily and a large space called the Stardust Room on the second floor that was available for private events. Each floor could accommodate approximately 400 guests.
In the early 1970s, the Pierces bought the Savoy Ballroom and attached the two buildings, which increased capacity to 1400.
The portion of the Savoy fronting DeVilliers Street was opened as a package store. Abe’s 506 became a true entertainment complex—some likening it to a “black Seville Quarter,” a venue that trumpeter Bob Snow was launching on Government Street in downtown Pensacola.
Also in 1956, John P. Newton opened the Sugar Bowl, later the Bunny Club Disco 500, across the street from Abe’s.
Newton had previously owned the Club Rumboogie in the early 1940s before relocating to New York City, where he befriended and became business partners in a chain of restaurants with actor Sidney Poitier.
A few doors down from the Sugar Bowl, the Saber Club sat directly across Belmont Street from the 506 and served as a popular after-hours spot. Rosemary Kirkland’s family owned West Hill Taxi, which had two direct phone lines in the Saber Club that she, a former dispatcher, remembers kept the company busy on weekends.
Day Jobs and Night Gigs
James Brown was called “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” but some Pensacola musicians may have rivaled him for the title.
Though some individuals were able to support themselves on their performance income alone, others worked full-time jobs and gigged several nights a week, sleeping only a few hours before getting back up to repeat the cycle.
To save travel costs, many headlining acts did not travel with a full band, but rather relied on local musicians to round out their sound. David Washington told the IN that jam sessions often served as informal auditions. If the sound jelled, acts would give local musicians the green light to join them on stage.
According to Curry, the 506 hosted headliners usually every other weekend and was booked solid during the holidays. The Rounders, the house band at Abe’s 506, played every Thursday through Sunday, with or without a headliner.
Wally Mercer, Jr. remembers his day job as a delivery driver and manager for the Lewis Bear Company providing connections that led to gigs outside of his standing commitment to the Rounders, who rehearsed early each week in the Stardust Room.
As Al Martin, who attended shows at Abe’s in the 1960s, remembers, when a popular act was coming to the 506, the house band may listen to an artist’s song on the club’s jukebox for 25 cents a play, “and if they had to spend 50 cents [to learn a song], it was unusual.”
“The band was the nucleus of the club,” according to Washington, who noted that if customers didn’t have a band to dance to, they didn’t come through the door.
While jukeboxes were common, the bands provided the show and energy that drew crowds and money to the clubs. Without bands, the club scene would not have existed as it did.
Washington played with Andrews, Sheppard, both Mercer Sr. and Jr. and others before forming the Fabulous Flamingos in the early 1960s, who played gigs all over town. Martin credits the Flamingos and the Rounders as inspirations to his generation.
Local pianist Henry “Chick” Minor, saxophonist John Boller, and bassist James MacArthur also played with the other musicians named. Musicians stationed at NAS also frequently jammed with local bands along with others from Pensacola, Mobile, and the surrounding area.
Desegregation, though one of the most significant steps forward for the U.S., had a detrimental effect on many black-owned business.
At precisely the same time white businesses doubled, or more than doubled, business by opening doors to African-American customers and performers, the music industry was changing.
Throughout the 1950s, record sales became more lucrative than live performance, and the music industry’s emphasis shifted to recording. Acts like Little Richard, Tina Turner, and Ray Charles opened up previously designated “black music” to the mainstream. With a level playing field, black entertainers no longer needed to rely on the Chitlin’ Circuit venues, and many small clubs went into decline.
Throughout the late 1970s, business on the Blocks dwindled. Abe’s, the largest club left, closed its doors in 1981. Sadly, the building was demolished in 2000, but its legacy remains strong.
Washington, who like Mercer and Martin have played continuously since the 1970s, now looks back marveling, “I didn’t know then that I was making history.”
Oral histories, articles, and other projects have documented stories from the time, the most recent being Robin Reshard’s documentary, “Belmont-DeVilliers: The Making of a Neighborhood.” Many individuals, though still beloved and mentioned often, unfortunately died without their stories or talents recorded.
Appropriately located at the corner of Belmont and DeVilliers, the plaques of the Music Makers Hall of Fame are housed in the Truth for Youth building, which is currently fundraising to preserve the building and expand operations.
Hopefully, the stories and legacies of the musicians honored will find a permanent home on display, and will continue to remind residents and visitors alike of Pensacola’s rich musical history.
BELMONT DE VILLIERS: THE MAKING OF A NEIGHBORHOOD
DETAILS: to watch the trailer or order a copy of the DVD, visit themakingofaneighborhood.com.
The Four Corners, Then and Now
On each of the four corners of the Belmont-DeVilliers intersection are buildings that date to the neighborhood’s historic period. The buildings are the physical center of current revitalization efforts in the area lead by neighborhood residents and community groups.
At the southwest corner of the intersection, the Eddie Todd Building, which formerly housed the Escambia Furniture Company has become an administrative hub of sorts for preservation and development of the area. The Belmont-DeVilliers Neighborhood Association meets the first Wednesday of every month on the ground floor of the building. Architect Eddie Todd and partners plan to develop retail units and retain office space on the second and third floors.
Directly across Belmont Street, The Bunny Club anchors the northwest corner. A prominent nightclub in the 1960s, the Bunny Club is currently an event space, and for a time was home to the DeVilliers Cultural Heritage Museum. Prior to the Bunny Club, the building housed the Sugar Bowl restaurant.
Truth for Youth (TFY) is the current steward of the former Smith’s Bakery building, which for many years was the home of the Belmont Arts Center. The plaques of the Music Makers Hall of Fame are housed in the building now, along with various artisans’ workspaces. Plans for future exhibit, event, and community spaces exist, with funding coming from TFY’s “Raise the Roof” fundraiser.
At 431 West Belmont, the southeast corner, Four Sisters Café occupies the former site of Gussie’s Record Shop, a community institution for nearly 40 years. Gussie Streeter opened her record store on the ground floor in 1965, selling records, as well as tickets to shows at Abe’s 506. Radio station WBOP was located on the second floor of the building from the mid-1950s through 1968.
South of Four Sisters, Gumbo Gallery is on the frontlines of the revitalization through the arts movement. Sonja Griffin Evans, artist and owner, opened the gallery in 2009. Her paintings for the National Cultural Heritage Initiative’s “Forgotten Communities” series brought Belmont-DeVilliers to the organization’s attention, and the neighborhood is now the National Community-Based Tourism Model established by the initiative’s parent organization, the National Black Chamber of Commerce.
From the 1920s through the 1970s, the intersection of Belmont and DeVilliers streets was the epicenter of African-American business and social life in Pensacola.
The neighborhood was nicknamed “Harlem of the South.” Local historians have aptly called it “A City Within a City.” Others commonly refer to the area as “The Blocks.” Whatever it is termed, the neighborhood has played an important and distinct role in Pensacola’s history.
In the late 1800s, African-Americans, both black and Creole (a person of both African and European—usually used to denote French or Spanish—descent), were among some of the most prominent citizens and successful business owners in Pensacola. African-American-owned businesses downtown served both black and white customers, many in spaces along Palafox Street, the premiere shopping area of the time.
Jim Crow laws, practiced elsewhere in the South since the 1870s, were passed in Pensacola in 1905, starting with the segregation of streetcars. Segregation remained in practice in Pensacola, separating businesses, schools, and other services on the basis of race, until 1962 (public schools in Escambia County did not completely desegregate until the late 1960s).
The years between 1905 and 1920 marked a transitional time in which racial boundaries became increasingly sharpened. The lynching of Leander Shaw in 1908 and Dave Alexander in 1909, both downtown, demonstrated the rise of a violent element in the city.
Though city and religious leaders admonished the violence, the events and lack of arrests, coupled with the enforcement of Jim Crow laws, signaled a shift in race relations. As a result of the changing social climate, African-American life became increasingly concentrated in the burgeoning West Hill area from 1905 onward.
West Hill, west of Palafox Street and south of Cervantes Street, first developed as a residential area in the 1880s. Spanish, Greek, Jewish, African-American and Caucasian residents and businesses put down roots in the area. The Tan Yards, west of Palafox and south of Garden Street, had grown as a largely Creole neighborhood at the same time.
Aside from being a civic leader, John Sunday owned a construction business and had, throughout the late 1800s, constructed both residential and commercial buildings in West Hill, including several at the Belmont-DeVilliers intersection. At Sunday’s encouragement, black business owners were able to relocate their businesses from Palafox Street to a more tolerant area with many residents part of the newly legally defined “colored” population.
During its heyday, venues for living, working, studying, worshiping, and partying were all located within walking distance of the Belmont-DeVilliers intersection. Restaurants, pharmacies, groceries, barber and beauty shops, gas stations, entertainment venues, fraternal organizations, insurance companies, newspaper offices (The Colored Citizen, Pensacola Courier, and Pensacola Voice), music stores, and taxi companies were among numerous businesses in the area.
Eddie Todd recalls smells from Smith’s Bakery and Blue Dot barbeque wafting through the air; signature sounds included music from the numerous clubs, as well as radios broadcasting the sounds of WBOP, a radio station that operated from the 1950s through the 1980s.
Desegregation, which drew business away from Belmont-DeVilliers, occurred at the same time suburbs were expanding, which drew residents away as well. Many people, both black and white, moved from the older, urban core to larger, more modern homes in neighborhoods springing up north of Cross Street and toward the vicinity of the airport.
Some historic businesses are still in operation including the Blue Dot Cafe (opened in 1944), Benoboe Funeral Home (opened 1937), and Joe Morris & Son Funeral Home (ca. 1910). These neighborhood institutions are preserving an element of the neighborhood’s history, an asset that a group of community and business leaders currently occupying the four corners of Belmont-DeVillers are incorporating into the next wave of the area’s development.