While an undergraduate at Princeton University in southern New Jersey, I belonged to something like a fraternity; “eating clubs” were somewhat less macho than frats, but were somewhat more snobbish. It was the club that was the location for all ones meals and parties during the last two years of college (university/UK) for most of the student body. One of my friends and class-mates in “our” club was George Sensabaugh and he later became involved with the entertainment committee which determined how our budget should be spent to get the most out of our entertainment levy. He ended up as head of the committee our final year, so that his musical tastes (and mine) came to have an effect on whatever the rest of the guys (Princeton still being an all-male bastion back then) had as musical accompaniment for their varied and variegated high-jinks over the big party week-ends. Their preference was music to get extremely drunk by; we obliged, but also satisfied our musical interests.
Our first experience as newly-admitted members of Key & Seal near the end of our second (sophomore) year was to have Bo Diddley for the Saturday night of the Houseparties week-end in the Spring of 1961. He pumped out the rhythms wearing a Viking helmet borrowed from a club member! This was both exciting and encouraging for me with my newly expanded tastes in music, even though dancing by all us White folks (including myself) was generally laughable… the “Funky Honky” is an underwhelming sight! Down the street at other clubs, the entertainment was by Chuck Berry, The Coasters, or Doug Clark & the Hot Nuts.(1) One was allowed free entry into each others’ club to hear what was going on in other locations. We went to hear The Coasters, but arrived during a break – as a result, George got to talking with the tenor sax player, Bill Bridges. He was a jazz, etc. player who had been to Europe with Quincy Jones the previous year with the show “Free & Easy”. He was also doing session work in NYC and was interested in acting as a contractor, along with Lloyd Davis, for musicians to play other parties for us.
The “biggest” name he put a band together for us was John Lee Hooker – this was in 1963 when he was still a “Black” performer recording 45s for VeeJay Records. I think that one of the musicians that Bill got for that night was one Lester Young, a guitarist who I later discovered had a few singles out there in NYC. I got a chance to talk with Hooker a bit, giving him my highly valued copy of Eddie Kirkland’s Tru-Sound LP which I had ordered through the University Store’s record department.(2) I don’t know how often John Lee played the “frat’ circuit in those days, but his European success was just around the corner. One group that we did have one act who was a regular on that eastern seaboard to central circuit, though… Dr. Feelgood & the Interns. Yes, the pride of Atlanta, Willie Lee Perryman (a/k/a Piano Red) and his six or seven piece band. They arrived in a limo pulling a personalized trailer (for their instruments). The band performed in flash suits and Red had on a long lab coat – unfortunately this was not the version of the band with “nurse’ Beverly Watkins! They were used to a bunch of drunken White idiots and knew how to excite the natives… good music, though!
The other experience that George and I shared was to go to NYC, have dates, and go to The Celebrity Club (3) on East 125th Street in Harlem. We really knew how to show a girl a good time!!! (They were aware of our destination and didn’t object in advance… aah, 1962.) There the house band was lead by Buddy Tate, best known for his time with Count Basie, and they had a repertoire that slotted somewhere between jazz and R’n’B. Their tenure at the club was long-standing back then. Needless to say, we were the only four White people there that night. The bar in this downstairs location officially sold only set-ups (I think that there was a liquor store nearby, or you could buy your own bottle of whiskey there) and the band of seven or eight pieces was across the large dance-floor on a raised stage. We paid our admission, paid for ice, glasses and mixers, and settled in at a table to listen… at first. Much drinking and dancing was going on – inevitable with such a great band – and we eventually joined in. At one point, the four of “us’ were dancing while encircled by the place’s usual patrons egging us on and clapping and cheering. I was, of course, proud of myself at the time, missing out on the gentle irony of it all! Ah, college life, with all its infallibilities and obliviousness!! George has since gone on to an academic/scientific career, but still has that “spot” where music reaches him, as do I. The Lord, she works in mysterious ways.
- (1.) There’s a dissertation there – Black “gross out’ bands of varying degrees of lewdness that played the White college fraternity circuit. Two of them who come to mind are Uranus 7 the Five Moons, and Six Screaming Niggers. This last mentioned group had an ancillary member, The Bullet, an armless and legless dwarf who rolled around on the floor screaming from time to time. But all in good taste! Clark’s group had a three tier fee/show structure… one for just a show by the band, another for a show by the band stripped down to diapers (nappies/UK), and a third with a show by the band in the “full monty” by the end of the evening. Still done in good taste, I am sure. We at Key & Seal Club once had a White band that ended up the night with their wedding tackle out (and pockets… the “elephant” twist!) and the organist playing with his organ. All in good taste, mind you.
- (2.) It was a few years later that I was finally able to replace my copy from the Prestige warehouse. The LP was released in ‘61/’62 and almost immediately withdrawn a month later – the owner of LuPine Records in Detroit claimed to own the copyrights to half of the songs, so Bob Weinstock just pulled it, leading to its relative scarcity. I, in fact, purchased all that Prestige had (as well as the Larry (Johnson) & Hank album) and am responsible for bringing them to the UK to give to my BU contacts of the time.
- (3.) The Celebrity Club was the site of a the subject of my first piece for BLUES UNLIMITED, a fund-raiser to buy a headstone for Mamie Smith that Lenny Kunstadt and Victoria Spivey held there one Monday night in 1963/64… Buddy Tate once again was the band leader, with many additionals: From 20’s trombonist Herb Flemming to bebop pianist Tadd Dameron, proving that music crossed generational lines!
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM
“BEER – Helping White People dance Since 1848” was a T-shirt I saw in Auckland. Apt.