Once upon a time there was a form of traveling show that young hearts leapt into high beat at the prospect of seeing. It was the dawn of the rock and roll era. Young whites were beginning to listen to something new on radio stations that dared to play records by "negro" artists.
The heyday of these shows occurred during a ten-year period running roughly from 1955 to 1964. The primary feature that distinguished them from today's concert appearances by touring rock stars was that the program included not one, not two, not three major attractions, but as many as a dozen popular rhythm and blues recording artists. All in person, all on one stage.
New York disc jockey Alan Freed hosted a number of rhythm and blues "cavalcades" that caused quite a stir due to the enthusiasm of the mixed race audience. The little image at right will take you to a photo (circa 1955) of the Paramount Theatre in Brooklyn and a marquee advertising a Freed show that featured Ruth Brown, The Platters, Frankie Lymon, Bill Haley, Little Richard, The Cadillacs, and many others.
The newspaper strip at the left advertises the first of these shows that I ever attended. Notice that the show was billed as a "Concert and Dance." Many of the performers did not bring their own accompanists. Rather, a full orchestra was on hand to provide the backup for any performer who needed it. The Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams band played both before and after the concert. The afterwards part was the "dance," as those in the audience were invited onto the stage to enjoy themselves into the wee hours.
You've got to figure that the programs and posters from these shows are pretty scarce items. I seldom ever see them showing up in auctions or flea markets. You may see a larger version of the program from this 1955 show by clicking on the image. As to the value of these rare artifacts, a separate page has been provided for your edification.
It pains me to admit it, but 1955 was a long time ago. To give an idea of how long ago it was, us white folks were assigned to sit in the balcony. The main floor was reserved for blacks (although not known by that nomenclature at the time). Also, the white members of the audience were not welcome to stay for the dance which followed the show.
What a lineup awaited me at that first show! Joe "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" Turner, Faye "Shake A Hand" Adams, The "Hearts of Stone" Charms, Etta "Roll With Me Henry" James, The Five "Close Your Eyes" Keys, and all the others. Not a ringer in the bunch, not to mention the young man who was turning the music world on its ear with his first release -- "Bo Diddley."
I distinctly remember approaching "Big Joe" Turner in the hall during intermission and requesting his autograph. Even though he brushed me off, it was still an electrifying moment for a young white boy to actually be in the presence of this giant.
I would be negligent if I did not mention how fortunate I was to have a mother who would take me to such a show at a young and impressionable age. This 1955 show was the first of many that I or we would manage to see over the next few years.
Possibly the most exciting show of this type that I ever attended was the "Fantabulous Rock 'n Roll Show of '57," held at the Municipal Auditorium, in Charleston, West Virginia, on June 22, 1957. The headliners were Ruth Brown, The Coasters, and Bo Diddley. But, as you can see from the poster, the other acts were none too shabby. The excitement was at least three-fold. My man Bo Diddley was much bigger than he had been two years previous and the Coasters were coming to town at a time when both sides of their smash hit record "Young Blood" and "Searchin'" were tied for the number one spot on the local charts. Incidentally, the poster at left is an "image map." This means that several of the names are "active" and clicking them will take you to other pages that provide current information with regard to the performers shown on this poster.
Young romantics would have killed to see The Five Satins in person singing "In the Still of the Nite." I would also observe that warm-blooded young men couldn't help but ponder: Just exactly who were these "Spence Twins" anyway?
Now there's a story! First off, I had enticed a younger friend to also attend this once-in-a-lifetime show. You will recall in how low regard "rock and roll" was held in the early days. His plea to reluctant parents that "Jimmy's mother is letting him go!" prevailed. So we rode to the show on the bus together, with the understanding that his parents would drive to the auditorium later, park at the curb, and pick us up outside the door immediately after the performance.
Well, it goes without saying that the show was fantabulous. But, when the Spence Twins came on late in the evening, they caused such a sensation, bumping and grinding in flimsy negligee-like outfits, that people began standing on the seats, stomping their feet, and causing a general disturbance. Municipal Auditorium authorities, fearing damage to the facility, called for reinforcements. The next thing we knew uniformed police were on the scene. You can imagine how my friend's parents must have felt as their car (dutifully waiting at the curb) was surrounded by patrol cars, flashers flashing, gawking in dismay at the audience streaming like a herd of sheep out of the auditorium.
My recollection is that Billy never went to one of those shows with me again.
The schedule that these performers maintained must have been very taxing. The "Biggest Show of Stars" for 1957 appeared in Tacoma, Washington, on a Monday night, March 4 and by Tuesday, April 9, it was in Charleston, West Virginia. No doubt it played many other little burgs in between with Friday and Saturday nights reserved for larger venues.
This poster is another image map. Several images will take you to other pages.
Advertising, of course, appeared in advance. Colorful posters were affixed to telephone poles or placed in store windows. The few that have survived are liable to have staple holes in them. Newspaper ads were often a reworking of the poster design, as can be seen by comparing this ad to the poster above.
Talk about inflation! Imagine seeing a show like this for $2.00!! And it was a really great show, I can tell you! I had occasion to speak to Charles Brown about it in December 1995, telling him that I had last seen him perform nearly 40 years before. He remembered it well, saying that he came on stage just after Bill Doggett, following the intermission.
Oddly, there was more than one edition of the "Biggest Show of Stars for '57," both a spring and fall edition. For that matter, the "Fantabulous Rock and Roll Show" was also in 1957. The busy Paul Williams Orchestra played for them all. Another band that commonly backed such shows was lead by Illinois Jacquet. By 1957, the audience was integrated. Notice in the poster at the top of this page that the cast on stage was, as well. Wow! All on one stage: Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, The Crickets, Paul Anka, LaVern Baker, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, The Diamonds, and on and on!
It is a crime that so little documentary film of this period exists. Aside from seeing a clip from an old Ed Sullivan Show or American Bandstand, there is precious little around in the way of film footage of these wonderful performers in concert. An outfit called Studio Films, Inc. did release three films in 1955, which were put together from footage originally produced by Ben Frye for a television series entitled "Harlem Variety Review." The poster for one of these films is shown here. Reportedly filmed at Harlem's Apollo Theater, "Rhythm and Blues Revue" is hosted by Willie Bryant and Paul Williams' Orchestra backs up a long list of performers including Ruth Brown, Joe Turner, and Faye Adams. The same studio released "Rock 'n Roll Revue," featuring many of the same performers plus The Clovers, and "Basin Street Review," which is headed by Lionel Hampton, but also features The Clovers, Faye Adams, Amos Milburn, and Cab Calloway, among others. These three films are available on video tape, but as they are regularly repackaged and the dealers who offer them change from time to time, I leave it to you to find the online sellers who are currently offering them.
The Rhythm and Blues Scene Today
Is it possible to still see such shows today? Well, yes and no. The "no" part is easy. Obviously, it is not. Many of these wonderful performers are deceased or retired. A comparable assemblage of currently popular artists on one stage will never happen again, unless as part of a satellite-televised pay-per-view event. We are simply living in less innocent times.
The "yes" part is somewhat qualified. There are two avenues of approach. While the rhythm and blues revues are long gone, it may still be possible to see a touring show of black gospel performers, similarly packaged and advertised. At least it was only a few years ago.
If you have a chance to see such a show, do not let it pass. The experience is nothing short of stepping into a time machine. The audience will likely be similar to those found at the early r&b revues. That is to say, there will be only a sprinkling of white faces among the packed house. The performers are no less exciting and the overall experience is one that you will not forget. Recall that a number of rhythm and blues performers (Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin) started out as gospel singers.
The other approach is to book passage on a "Blues Cruise." My aforementioned meeting with Charles Brown took place aboard the S.S. Norway during its inaugural Blues Cruise. Other performers on board included: Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Irma Thomas, Magic Slim, and the Junior Wells Band. The third such cruise, in May 1997, was headlined by Bo Diddley. I last say him on this same cruise in December 1998.
Ruth Brown led the list of performers for the December 1997 Cruise. It was a thrill for me to see her again, forty years (!) after the first time. Hey, I even saw her again during the 1998 "Floating Jazz Festival" cruise.
The aforementioned Illinois Jacquet and his band was also present on one of NCL's jazz cruises in the fall of 1997. Details of future cruises are available by searching for "jazz cruise" in your favorite Internet search engine. More than one cruise line may offer them in a given year -- a rare opportunity to rub elbows all week long with some of the greats who are still performing, despite their advancing age.
I also commend to you the coffee table book, "The Art of Rock" by Paul D. Grushkin (Artabras, 1987), for more than 20 pages of colorful reproductions of rhythm and blues revue and similar posters.
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