The Earle Theater was a stop on the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” It was the most expensive theater ever built in Philadelphia. The Earle had an ornate interior and exterior and seating for 2,700. It was demolished in July 1953.
In an interview with the Smithsonian Oral History Project, Philly native and NEA Jazz Master Benny Golson talked about how he was inspired to master the saxophone after seeing Lionel Hampton and Arnett Cobb at the Earle Theater:
I guess they usually went until 9 or 10 at night, which meant that they had about three or four shows a day. It was an ongoing thing. Week after week they’d have whatever band was popular. Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, anything. Charlie Spivak, Claude Thornhill, Tommy Dorsey. Any band that was popular, they would bring there. It was an ongoing thing. Count Basie, Duke Ellington. They all came there.
The reason I went is because I was in high school – Benjamin Franklin High School. The kids were coming back and says, “Oh man. You got to go to the Earle Theater and hear Lionel Hampton. You got to hear him play Flying Home.” Blah blah blah blah. So one day I didn’t go to school. I went there. That’s when I heard him. That’s when my life changed. That’s when I heard Arnett Cobb. Incidentally, years later – many years later – it must have been 50 years later – I happened to see him in Nice, France. I said, “You’re the reason that I play the saxophone.” He says, “I never knew that. Really?” I said, “Yes.” He had tears in his eyes, because he knew who I was. I said, “I hear you play, and that’s when my life changed.”
Back in the day, musicians used to “walk the bar.” Philly native Lee Morgan was among those “honking and stepping.”
In an interview with the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project, NEA Jazz Master and Philly native Benny Golson said: “I caught my boy John Coltrane on the bar.” In a 2009 piece, jazz critic Marc Myers also shared the story:
In 1954, Coltrane’s expanding heroin and alcohol addiction cost him playing jobs, most notably a significant one with alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. After moving back to Philadelphia, Coltrane was forced to play with local R&B bands to make ends meet. In some of these bands, he had to honk away on the tenor while walking along the bar. One night, he saw childhood friend and tenor saxophonist Benny Golson enter the club. Mortified, Coltrane climbed off the bar and walked out for good.
The Smithsonian interviewer asked Golson where the tradition was started:
I don’t know where it started. It didn’t start with the jazz artists, per se. It started with one of the entertainers. An entertainer’s plot is to do or to second-guess what the audience wants to hear. Yeah, I got involved in that. I did some crazy stuff when I was doing all that stuff. You do what you think is going to entertain them. It’s going to bring acclaim to what you’re doing. Yeah, what’s more ridiculous than getting up on the bar where the drinks are and start playing your low B-flats no matter what key you’re in, just honking. We call that honking and stepping. They’re applauding. Ain’t nothing happening. Stepping over those drinks.
Randy Brecker has been shaping the sound of jazz, R&B and rock for more than three decades. His trumpet and flugelhorn performances have graced hundreds of albums by a wide range of artists from James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Chaka Khan, George Benson and Parliament-Funkadelics to Frank Sinatra, Steely Dan, David Sanborn, Horace Silver, Jaco Pastorius and Frank Zappa.
Randy Brecker’s history is as varied as it is distinguished. Born in Philadelphia to a piano-playing father, Randy spent summers in stage-band camps where he got his earliest experience in ensemble playing. He began playing R&B and funk in local bar bands while in his teens, but at the same time he had an ear for hard bop. “I’d listen to Sonny Rollins, Lee Morgan, Miles’ Quintets, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, the Clifford Brown/Max Roach group,” explains Brecker.
Though he never received any exaggerated title, Jimmy Smith certainly ruled the Hammond organ in the ’50s and ’60s. He revolutionized the instrument, showing it could be creatively used in a jazz context and popularized in the process. His Blue Note sessions from 1956 to 1963 were extremely influential and are highly recommended. Smith turned the organ into almost an ensemble itself. He provided walking bass lines with his feet, left hand chordal accompaniment, solo lines in the right, and a booming, funky presence that punctuated every song, particularly the up-tempo cuts. Smith turned the fusion of R&B, blues, and gospel influences with bebop references and devices into a jubilant, attractive sound that many others immediately absorbed before following in his footsteps. Smith initially learned piano both from his parents and on his own.
Smith was born in Norristown, Pa., and attended the Hamilton School of Music in 1948, and Ornstein School of Music in 1949 and 1950 in Philadelphia. Smith began playing the Hammond in 1951, and soon earned a great reputation that followed him to New York, where he debuted at the Café Bohemia. A Birdland date and 1957 Newport Jazz Festival appearance launched Smith’s career. He toured extensively through the ’60s and ’70s. His Blue Note recordings included superb collaborations with Kenny Burrell, Lee Morgan, Lou Donaldson, Tina Brooks, Jackie McLean, Ike Quebec, and Stanley Turrentine, among others. He also did several trio recordings.
The “Golden Strip” spanned Columbia Avenue from 8th Street to 23rd Street. With neon signs aglow, it was also known as the “Great White Way.” Noted author and hip-hop scholar James G. Spady wrote:
The biggest concentration of bars and clubs frequented by blacks and offering Jazz was along Columbia Avenue (later renamed Cecil B. Moore Avenue). Among what as upwards of fifteen different venues were the Crystal Ball, 820 Club, Spider Kelly’s, Watts Zanzibar — one of the few black owned venues—and the North West Club. [Lee] Morgan played at many of these with groups made up of his peers. The trumpeter Cullen Knight remembered seeing Morgan at the North West, leading a band consisting of tenor saxophonist Odean Pope and a rhythm section of McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman and Ronald Tucker.
Both the Zanzibar and North West were private clubs, and these were often keener to employ, under-age musicians than other venues; in addition, removed from some off the commercial concerns of the regular bars, they were thought of as sites for some degree of experiment among young musicians, as ‘hardcore’ bebop clubs where players could cultivate their jazz improvisation without needing to make concessions to dancers or casual listeners. Private venues would often pay the musicians a decent nightly fee, often around $10.
In Whisper Not: The Autobiography of Benny Golson, the NEA Jazz Master recalled his days on the Golden Strip with John Coltrane:
On jam days—Saturday afternoons between four and seven—John and I started at one end of Columbia Avenue, where most of the clubs were located, and proceeded toward the other end. We played at each club for an hour, then moved to the next. If we didn’t get to a particular club, we started there the following week. These clubs were small, on the ground floor of apartment houses or in storefront slots, long and narrow.
Published by Temple University Press, Golson’s autobiography is available for purchase here.
West Philly’s Main Street, aka “the Strip,” is a commercial corridor on South 52nd Street that stretches from Arch Street to the north and Baltimore Avenue to the south. In a 2012 interview with Hidden City Philadelphia, Shirley Randleman, then-president of the 52nd Street Business Association, recounted:
Oh, it was wonderful. It was a thriving commercial corridor surrounded by a neighborhood that was financially stable. The 52nd Street corridor had five movie theaters, many high-end clothing stores, and eateries like Horn & Hardart, with the nickel automats. There were bakeries, doctor’s offices, and independent stores, like Buster Brown shoes. 52nd Street was the entertainment capital of West Philadelphia, AKA “the Strip,” and every top notch entertainer found his way there. It was more than just shops; it was the community meeting place. People were engaged in conversations in every shop and on the streets. We lived together.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Strip was the place to see and to be seen.
Celebrities including Muhammad Ali, Cab Calloway, Billy Eckstine, Joe Frazier, Teddy Pendergrass, Stevie Wonder, and members of the Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies hung out at Mr. Silk’s 3rd Base. Everyone ordered Mammer Jammer sandwiches at Foo Foo’s Steak House. Top jazz performers played the Aqua Lounge. Etta James and Jackie “Moms” Mabley graced the stage of the State Theatre in April 1963.
For more risqué entertainment, there was the Pony Tail.
Fast forward to today, the Enterprise Center is spearheading efforts to revitalize the 52nd Street Corridor.