Opened in 1961, the Lee Cultural Center is a Philadelphia Parks and Recreation facility located in West Philly. Under the leadership of Shuna Ali Miah Jr. in the 1960s and early ‘70s, the Lee was a creative hub for musicians, sculptors, visual and performing artists, writers, photographers, Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble, and theatrical productions.
In 1971, the Lee held an art exhibit, “Young, Gifted and Black,” which showcased emerging artists, including Barkley L. Hendricks whose “Michael BPP Black Panther Party” was second prize winner.
The Lee provided rehearsal space for musicians and presented jazz concerts.
Though no longer the “Cultural Mecca of Philadelphia,” the Lee Recreation Center is still a community hub.
Opened in 1947 by three brothers – Ben, Jack and Harry – Krass Bros. Men’s Clothes Haberdashery was located at 937 South Street in the former Keystone Theater.
Clients of the self-styled “Store of the Stars” included Palumbo’s house orchestra, Chubby Checker, Johnny Mathis, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, the Dixie Hummingbirds, Redd Foxx and the Ink Spots.
Ben Krass’ appearances in late-night TV commercials shouting, “If you didn’t buy your clothes from Krass Brothers Men’s Store, you wuz robbed,” made him a local celebrity.
Krass Bros. opened a string of stores along South Street. They went out of business in 2002.
Located in the Tioga neighborhood in North Philly, the 1400-seat Tioga Theater opened in 1915 and operated as a movie theater until circa 1950.
In the late 1950s and ‘60s, top jazz artists performed here including John Coltrane, James Moody, Zoot Simms, Donald Byrd, Sarah Vaughan, Kenny Rodgers and Cannonball Adderley. On January 12, 1958, Dizzy Gillespie and Lee Morgan headlined a concert. The Philadelphia Tribune reported:
What began as a sizable crowd for Sunday’s jazz matinee concert at the Tioga Theater, became what is known in the newspaper business as a SRO (standing room only) gathering by nightfall. It all goes to prove that Rock-N-Roll hasn’t as yet completely captivated the musical world–and modern jazz is nowhere near dead.
The Tioga was repurposed and later abandoned by Deliverance Evangelical Church in 1973. It has been vacant ever since.
E.U. Wurlitzer was a musical instrument store located in the Watkins Building in Center City.
During an appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1973, Philly native Bill Cosby recounts buying a drum set and taking lessons at Wurlitzer’s. The erstwhile drummer provides a snapshot of the jazz scene back in the day.
Opened on August 31, 1914 as the Knickerbocker Theatre, the 2,500-seat venue was renamed Fay’s Theatre in 1918.
From West Philadelphia Collaborative History:
In its jazz heyday, Fay’s served as a symbolic place for local African Americans, if not a literal one. Fay’s booked performers like Duke Ellington—popular and highly visible members of the larger African American community—who were part of an emerging Black identity evolving in the African American press. Part of the emerging identity was a deep concern with issues of developing critical citizenship, fighting oppression, and gaining civil rights. Fay’s Theatre embodied this, having been dedicated to Florence Mills, who was remembered by the Philadelphia Tribune as a Black singer whose success in the mainstream allowed other Black musicians to succeed.
Fay’s also maintained a friendly and equitable relationship with local Black musicians. Fay’s often included performances by the Local 274, members of an African American musicians union, created to protect its members from the unethical and racist behaviors of many theater owners across the city. They performed there frequently. Famously, during a musicians’ strike in 1935 when most of the musical venues in the city went dark, shows at Fay’s kept going, thanks in part to their willingness to raise worker wages in accord with the requests of the Local 274.
The Franklin Motor Inn was located off Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 22nd Street and Spring Garden.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed here on his final visit to Philadelphia. It is also where most of the acts performing at the legendary Uptown Theater stayed. From Philadelphia magazine:
Built in 1959, the hotel used to be called the Franklin Motor Inn. New York boxing promoters used to put up their guys here. Hookers idled, businessmen prowled, and the bar used to stay open till 4 a.m.
There was an A-list presence too. The last time Martin Luther King ever visited Philly, according to a 1994 piece in the Philadelphia Tribune, he spent the day sick in bed at the Franklin Motor Inn, his favorite hotel in the city. Joe Frazier, a regular, always sat in the same seat, on the far right end of the bar. (Marvis Frazier tells me his father ate breakfast at the hotel at least once a week for more than 30 years, but really came to “play the numbers.”)
African American bankers E. C. Brown and Andrew Stevens opened the Dunbar Theater in 1919, with plans to offer refined entertainment. However, within two years, business floundered and Brown and Stevens sold the theater to John T. Gibson, the black owner of the more raucous Standard Theater on South Street.
Later during the Depression, Gibson was forced to sell the theater to white owners who renamed it the Lincoln Theater.
From the 1920s to 1940s, the 1600-seat theater hosted major performers such as Duke Ellington, Louise Beavers, Willie Bryant, Lena Horne, Don Redman, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson and Fats Waller.
Empire Records Shop was located on the edge of “The Strip” at 52nd and Market Streets.
Empire Records was the oldest, continually-operated Philadelphia jazz record shop (1930 to 1970). In an online profile, Bill Morlitz shared his story:
I was born in Camden NJ since my mom’s cousin was head of Obstetrics at West Jersey Hospital on February 1, 1950 and have lived my whole life in Philadelphia and/or its suburbs. My dad had the first jazz record shop in Philadelphia so at an early age, I was immersed in the music business. Maybe that’s why I can’t sing a note on key nor have the 10 years of piano lessons stayed with me. Chopsticks is beyond me.
During my teens, I was fortunate to personally meet many great jazz artists including Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Buckner (who developed the locked wrist rhythm style of piano playing and was Lionel’s pianist), Lionel Hampton and many others. Grover Washington, Jr. worked in the store on the weekends and we used to go listen to jazz sets together. My photography is included on his “Live at the Bijou” album.
Ripley’s Music Hall was located in the former Hippodrome in South Philly. The music venue played host to greats of all genres, including McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Sam & Dave, Gil Scott-Heron and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Ripley’s Music Hall was demolished. A new building constructed on the site was occupied by Tower Records, which closed in 2012.