It was on the eve of the Great Depression that the Uptown Theater opened in 1929. The lavish venue featured stained glass, terracotta and high ceilings built to enhance the sound of the new talkie movies of the era. As the Industrial Age peaked, the population of the area surrounding the theater shifted as white flight befell North Philadelphia. Soon, Black doctors, lawyers, politicians and preachers took over the grand mansions along Diamond Street, while middle and lower class African Americans moved into the rowhomes that were once predominately white.
In 1951, the Uptown Theatre was bought by Sam Stiefel, who also owned Washington’s Howard Theatre and Baltimore’s Royal Theatre, and became part of the “chitlin circuit,” hosting live music shows that were primarily rhythm and blues, soul and gospel directed towards an African-American audience. The performances at the Uptown Theater came to rival those at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. In 1957, WDAS DJ Georgie Woods started to produce and host shows at the Uptown Theater and those events would go on to mark the Golden Age of the legacy venue.
“Joy Ride! The Stars and Stories of Philly’s Famous Uptown Theater” (Xlibris Corporation, $29.99) is the inside story of iconic disc jockey Georgie Woods’ spectacular R&B shows at Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater, and how the controlled creative chaos at the majestic movie house inspired “The Philly Sound.” Written by The Philadelphia Tribune’s entertainment reporter Kimberly C. Roberts, “Joy Ride” is the first comprehensive history on the Uptown, which was once a mandatory stop on the legendary “chitlin’ circuit.”
“I first wrote about the Uptown in 1998 when I decided to do a story about it for Black Music Month and I interviewed Georgie Woods,” recalled Roberts. “Since I grew up going to the Uptown, I always wondered how that actually all fell into place, so I had an opportunity to ask him and he told me from beginning to end how he started giving shows there, so that was really the foundation of the book.”
As told by the people who actually lived it, all agree that like Woods’ soulful theme song that opened his R&B extravaganzas, every show at the Uptown Theater was, as the book’s title suggests, a “Joy Ride.”
“I was around nine or 10 years old, and every time Georgie announced a new show my friends and I would get together — there were about 12 of us — and we would get on the ‘S’ bus after we asked our parents for three dollars: It was a dollar for transportation, a dollar to get into the show and a dollar for candy, soda and stuff … It was absolutely a part of me growing up and having the knowledge of classic R&B that I have now.”
Since 1997, Roberts has shared her vast knowledge of Philadelphia’s historic Uptown Theater and the Sound of Philadelphia with The Philadelphia Tribune’s readership. Her journalistic contributions to the region’s musical legacy have been recognized by the Pennsylvania State Senate, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and the Uptown Entertainment & Development Corporation.
“Joy Ride!” features the intimate, amusing, outrageous and sometimes scandalous stories of dozens of decorated entertainers, including 11 Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.
“I started interviews with the (Uptown) house band because they were the guys that were there all the time. So, I talked to Sam Reed, of course, the bandleaders; Leon Mitchell, who says he’s the bandleader — but there was a dispute between the two of them, which you’ll read about in the book. I spoke with Earl Young, the legendary drummer who was on so many of the records in Philadelphia and Jimmy Heath, who was actually a jazz musician who played with the orchestra for one year. And, whenever I would do an interview I would ask for Uptown memories. When I spoke with, say Smokey Robinson, I’d say, ‘Hey, I saw you at the Uptown,’ and he would tell me this great story.”
The “Joy Ride! The Stars and Stories of Philly’s Famous Uptown Theater” book signing will take place on Thursday, May 30, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, 738 South Broad Street (at Fitzwater Street). The book can also be ordered online at www.xlibris.com, www.amazon.com and www.bn.com.
Earlier this year, West Philadelphia native Akiba Solomon was named the managing editor of Colorlines.com.
Solomon, who has been an advocacy journalist since her high school days at Central, has written about the intersection between gender and race for Colorlines, The Root.com and culture for Ebony.com.
As Colorlines’ inaugural reporting fellow, Solomon reported on reproductive health access for women of color during and immediately after President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
“I think that ‘Colorlines’ is somewhere where you can grapple with that many nuances of journalism,” explained Solomon. “People call it intersectionality and it’s an idea that goes back to where all the women are not white and all of the men are not Black; or like when people say, ‘we need equity’ or ‘we need more women in the space,’ unless they explicitly say they need that it includes women of color — not just one or two — but that the idea that women of color are in the DNA of the intersectionality that you are doing, then for the most part people generally when they say ‘more women’ it really means that a lot of times it’s going to be a large group of white women. And, this is not about being divisive; it is about the idea that the power structure is in place based on the history of this country, and that we cannot have conversation about diverse city without having a conversation about equity. Like, there is a difference between diversity and equity: Diversity is we throw a couple of (minorities) into the room, and now we are diverse. That does not produce equity. It can, maybe, alter a company’s culture on an individual level, and maybe some people will have jobs, but that is a very temporary and momentary solution because, again, it doesn’t change the structure. We really have to have a conversation about equity — and about its outcomes.”
The NABJ-Award winning journalist, editor and essayist is a graduate of Howard University, and co-edited “Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts” (Perigee, 2005), an anthology of original essays and oral memoirs about Black women and body image.
Solomon has also been a researcher for Glamour, a health editor for Essence and a senior editor for the print versions of Vibe Vixen and The Source.
Today, the Brooklyn resident credits her career to her 1990 participation in the Daily News’ Urban Journalism Workshop, a former two-week reporter’s boot camp for high school kids from diverse backgrounds.
“The people who did that program was (Daily News editor) Michael Days, (former Daily News reporter) Joseph Blake and several others who literally took a bunch of kids and put us through rigorous journalistic training and send us out into the world,” Solomon said. “It really gave us the tools and said — like, really said — you are a journalist and this is what you do and this is how you do journalist. I never would have thought at the time that I would be a journalist — I thought I was going to be a singer or a clothing designer — so to have somebody like a Blake or Days walking around with us raggedy kids and literally having us sit and talk to other journalists was empowering. I remember an article that I wrote and produced for the newspaper and we sat around the table and interviewed a judge and we were in high school. Now, we were all very serious and and days, Blake and the others involved took us serious, too. That kind of nurturing was really, really important because, especially now because there is really not a whole lot of journalistic training available anymore for people of color, and especially young people of color.”
Solomon has also written for a range of publications on a freelance basis, including Redbook, Vibe and Heart & Soul. As a panelist, she has spoken about women’s and social justice issues through the lens of hip-hop culture at a range of institutions including The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Stanford University, Yale University, Harvard University and The University of Chicago.
Today, Solomon continues to boldly speak out via her online journalism where she tackles the hot-button issues of the day. To discover, or catch up on, Akiba Solomon’s work, visit http://colorlines.com, or follow at @akibasolomon.
The “Patriots of African Descent” monument was erected in 1993 and is the nation’s only commemoration on federal property that pays tribute to those African patriots who served in the founding of our nation.
The Valley Forge Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. erected the monument in 1993 at Valley Forge National Park, and will mark the 20th anniversary with the attendance of it’s creators: artist Cal Massey and sculptor Phil Sumpter — both of whom are in their 80s.
The monument is a granite block with carved text and a bronze bas-relief that depicts three soldiers of African descent, one facing left, one facing right, and one in the middle facing straight ahead.
On the back of the monument reads the words: “In Honor of the patriots of African descent who served, suffered and sacrificed during the Valley Forge Encampment 1777-1778.”
There is also a quote by Charles L. Blockson, the founder of the Blockson Collection of African-American historical documents at Temple University: “Throughout these historic and hallowed campsites were courageous Black Patriots who participated in our nation’s bitter fight for independence.”
It was Blockson’s 1975 book, “Pennsylvania’s Black History,” that inspired chapter founding member, Martha Russell, to form the chapter in 1991 to raise awareness of the service of African Americans in the American Revolution. Blockson, who grew up in Norristown, participated in a Boy Scout march to Valley Forge during the 1940s and was disappointed to find no historical markers about African Americans.
Russell initiated meetings between suburban-based Delta Sigma Theta members and Valley Forge National Historical Park in 1990 to propose a monument to African Americans in the Revolution.
Immediately following the chartering, the chapter righted a historical wrong at the Valley Forge National Historical Park, and in February 1992 the chapter sponsored the African American Patriots Day at Valley Forge. The monument project was guided by an advisory council of community leaders formed in March 1992 with Blockson as honorary chairperson.
Since the monument’s unveiling in 1993, the statue aided in educating visitors of Valley Forge about the diverse cultures that contributed to the nation’s birth.
“What makes the Valley Forge Alumnae Chapter unique in its own right is its erecting of the ‘Patriots of African Descent’ monument,” noted Sherry Wilson Butler, chapter president. “The site erected in 1993 in the Valley Forge Park is the only monument built on federal ground in the United States paying tribute to the thousands of men of African descent who served in the Revolutionary War. Now, with the inclusion of its ‘Military Milestones’ project the chapter will recognize and honor today’s military men and women returning home from duty. An annual wreath laying ceremony and program salutes our Patriot ancestors, as well as current military service men and women.”
The Valley Forge Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. will host its 20th Anniversary celebration of the “Patriots of African Descent” monument on Saturday, May 18 at 10 a.m. with a wreath laying ceremony that will recognize past and present military heroes in the name of our “Patriots of African Descent.
The wreath laying ceremony is free to the public in front of the monument in Valley Forge National Historical Park, 1400 North Outer Line Drive, King of Prussia, Pa. For travel information, visit http://www.nps.gov/vafo/. Additional information about the Valley Forge Alumnae Chapter can be found on their website dstvalleyforge.org.
In 2005, Dave Chapelle, one of the most popular and successful television comics at the time, defaulted on a $55 million Comedy Central contract. He later explained his decision as a response to the discomfort he felt as an African-American performer whose comedy depended on bringing offensive stereotypes to dramatic life.
In his final sketch — the straw that broke the camels back — Chapelle appeared as a racial pixie, a tiny minstrel performer in full blackface, wearing a bellhops uniform while dancing to banjo music. Though Chapelle was signifying on offensive stereotypes, using them to explore and critique societal representations of African Americans, he felt he had crossed the line into the territory of minstrelsy.
“Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop” (W.W. Norton & Company; $26.95) is the first book devoted exclusively to the history and lasting influence of Black minstrels. Yuval Taylor, co-author of “Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music,” and Jake Austen, the editor of Rocktober magazine, explore the complex legacy of the African-American minstrel tradition. They argue that Black performers have always had an ambiguous and very relationship to the form, embracing, signifying on, or attacking it. Despite being based on slanderous stereotypes, the innovator performances of the menstrual stage ultimately laid the foundation for American comedy, song and dance. This riveting book enumerates the ways minstrel performances of the past continue to exert a profound and often liberating influence on African-American performers in the present day.
To set the foundation, the authors examine the popularity of the minstrel form and its heyday, from the 1850s to the 1890s. The shows were popular with both white and Black audiences, and Black minstrel shows were often more commercially successful than those political and buy a white cast. Although it has often been posited that African-American minstrel shows a bald as a direct response to the requirements of white audiences, these all-Black casts found great freedom and flexibility in re-creating real “Negro life.” Great African-American performers such as Billy Kersands and Bert Williams embraced blackface because it, paradoxically, gave them a freedom that was not available anywhere other than on the stage. Through their chapter on Williams, Taylor and Austen revisit the motives and influence of a masterful comedian who felt most comfortable as a blackface performer playing to white audiences.
“Darkest America” also explores one of the best know genres of minstrelsy: music. The authors focus is impressive, as they hone in on the popular songbook, the birth of rock and roll and, ultimately, the rise of hip-hop. In contemporary times, hip-hop has co-opted minstrel stereotypes, using broad minstrel depictions of African-American culture and vernacular language with a menacing, hyper masculine stance that owes nothing to the gentle, emasculated buffoon of the minstrel stage.
Turning to film, this riveting book contrasts two modern reactions and interpretations of the minstrel tradition. The first dance is embodied by Spike Lee, particularly in his masterful work “Bamboozled,” a scathing movie about a contemporary minstrel show. The second is offered by taking a serious look at Tyler Perry’s popular and commercially successful movies that allow both Black and white audiences to witness African-American comics depict stereotypes.
Because it refuses easy answers, “Darkest America” is a searching meditation on the sources of American popular culture and a panoramic study of African-American culture from the 19th century to the present.
Bassist extraordinaire, composer, arranger, educator, curator and administrator Christian McBride has been one of the most important and most omnipresent figures in the jazz world for 20 years. Sometimes hard to believe considering this man is not yet 40. “The bassist-as-bandleader is a fairly rare thing, with the torch being passed over the years from Charles Mingus to Ron Carter — and now to Philadelphia-born Christian McBride,” assessed a recent NPR review on “All Things Considered.”
Since 2000, McBride has blazed a trail as a bandleader with the Christian McBride Band. In 2009, McBride released his quintet CD “Christian McBride & Inside Straight” on the Detroit-based Mack Avenue Records and marked a return to his undiluted “straight-ahead” roots. Any time that McBride steps into the studio or onto a stage he plays what could be called “people music,” but it’s a particularly apt title for the second release by his hard-swinging acoustic quintet Inside Straight. Four years after “Kind of Brown,” the band’s acclaimed debut album, “People Music” delivers a more road-tested sound that has become McBride’s trademark.
“‘People Music’ is my personal mantra as a musician,” McBride says of the title. “Sometimes jazz musicians can get too caught up in their own heads; they get so serious and so caught up in their creativity that they’re not bringing the people in. So I figure the best way to communicate is to let the people navigate where you should go.”
Make no mistake — there is a major difference between “people music” and “popular music” (though the two can overlap). McBride makes the distinction clear on the new album’s opening track, “Listen to the Heroes Cry.” The tune’s melody, evoking a modern spiritual, was inspired by the parade of vapid performances on a music awards show McBride watched one night, all garish spectacle and absolutely no substance. “It bothered me that the show was more about the image and less about the music,” he says. “It made me wonder what Duke Ellington or John Coltrane or Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan would think if they could see this. I think they would be crying.”
It is evident throughout the eight original tunes on “People Music,” that means balancing intense interplay with an exuberant personal expression that speaks directly to the listener. “When you pull the people in, you can go anywhere as long as they feel like they’re a part of the ride,” McBride continued. “That’s why Cannonball Adderley was always my hero — he always exemplified high artistry, but no matter how esoteric or abstract it could get, he still related to people. And I’ve always felt that this band plays ‘people music.’”