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Pittsburgh Music History Celebrates Black History Month 2012

posted Feb 6, 2012, 10:21 PM by Paul Carosi

Pittsburgh Music History Celebrates Black History Month 2012

Honoring 3 Singing Greats, Hills District Venues, and the 1st African American Music Promoter

To celebrate Black History Month the Pittsburgh Music History website is honoring three world renowned Pittsburgh singers Maxine Sullivan, Dakota Staton and Phyllis Hyman.  Also featured are the stories of three influential Hill District music venues: the Musicians Club, the Pythian Temple and the Bambola Social.  Champion Athlete Sellers McKee Hall who was one of Pittsburgh’s first African American music and sports promoters is also honored.

Pittsburgh’s Divas - Maxine, Dakota, and Phyllis

Three extremely naturally talented Africa American female vocalists who learned their craft in Pittsburgh found overnight national success when they made their first appearances in New York City. Soaring quickly to the top of the charts they went on to become singers influential in the history of jazz, blues, R&B, and popular music who left behind an enduring legacy of great recordings.   

Maxine Sullivan, who learned to sing with her uncle's jazz band, went to New York on a weekend round trip ticket and got a job singing intermissions at a 52 Street jazz club. Within a matter of weeks she had a national hit with the song Loch Lomond.  Music historians credit Maxine with originating an innovative graceful soft swing style with precise diction and timing that influenced generations of female jazz singers including Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee.  A prolific recording artist her music appears on over 150 albums and continues to be released on new compilations.  She hosted her own national radio show for two years, was a Tony Nominated Broadway Actress and appeared in the movies.  Elected to the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame she is hailed by music critics as one of the great singers of the 20th century.

Dakota Staton studied classical voice at the Filion School of Music in Oakland, sang with in Carl’s McVicker’s Kadets jazz band at Westinghouse High School with future jazz superstars Ahmad Jamal and Grove Mitchell, and played the clubs of Pittsburgh with Joe Wespray’s Orchestra.  In 1954 she moved to New York where she was discovered singing at Harlem’s Baby Grand Club by Capitol Records’s head of A&R Dave Cavanaugh.  Cavanaugh signed her to Capitol and quickly released her first single in November of 1954.  She came to international fame with her album “The Late, Late Show” that reached number 4 on the Billboard Top 100. With a string of acclaimed hit albums on Capitol Records from 1957 through 1961 she was as popular as Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington.  Dakota Staton was a captivating story teller with natural feeling for blues and swing.  You can feel her powerful anguish when she belts out the pain of being wronged in blues songs like “I Stood By”, “I did Everything Right with the Wrong Man” and It's The Talk Of The Town”.  Stayton recorded more than thirty critically acclaimed albums on several labels during her career working with arrangers Nelson Riddle, Sid Feller, George Shearing, Benny Carter and Groove Holmes.  Music historians write that she influenced a generation of African-American female singers by creating what the New York Times called “a stylistic link between the earthiness of Dinah Washington and Big Maybelle and Chaka Khan's note-bending pop-funk iconoclasm".  

Phyllis Hyman learned music singing with school choirs in Pittsburgh and taking voice lessons from her school music teacher jazz pianist Dave Tamburi.  In late 1975 Phyllis moved to New York and found work singing in the uptown jazz club Rusts Brown. Within one week the club was standing room only with Stevie Wonder, George Harrison, Ashford and Simpson, Al Jarreau,   singer Cuba Gooding, and musician/producer Norman Conners sitting in the audience. They were drawn in by her powerful voice and her super model thin stunning beauty.  Conners hired Phyllis to sing lead on his Buddha Records album “You Are My Starship”.  The cut “Betcha By Golly Wow” became at Top 30 R&B hit and Phyllis was “named Best New R&B Vocalist of 1977 by Record World Magazine.  Exceptionally talented she sang emotionally powerful ballads with her distinct beautiful silky smooth dexterous contralto voice.  With her great vocal range and her ability to emotionally interpret lyrics on songs like “I Refuse to be Lonely” Phyllis Hyman captivated audiences winning her many loyal fans and high acclaim.  Recording 9 albums between 1977 and 1995 on the Buddha, Artista, and Philadelphia International Records label Phyllis scored many hits on the R&B and Pop charts.  Starring on Broadway with Gregory Hines for two years in the Duke Ellington tribute musical “Sophisticated Ladies” she received a Tony Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical and won the Theatre World Award for Best Newcomer.  Signing with Gamble and Huff’'s Philadelphia International Records she released two of her greatest albums: Living All Alone (1986) and Prime of My Life (1991), which included the number one Hot R&B/Hip-Hop hit “Don't Wanna Change the World.  She was blessed with an incredible once in a lifetime singing voice and statuesque beauty, but cursed with crippling bi-polar disease that put her in such great despair that she took her own life.  The range of extreme joy and deep sadness that she felt are reflected in the legacy of her great heartfelt dramatic recordings memorialized on 22 compilations.   

Recordings and live performances videos of these three great singers have been have been compiled into three Youtube play lists.  Links are provided on each artist’s biography page. 

Maxine Sullivan Gems

Dakota Staton Gems

Phyllis Hyman Legacy

Hill District Music Venues

The crossroads of the jazz world the lower Hill Distinct was home to many important music venues.  The story of three of these venues is told.

From the late 1920s through 1950s The Pythian Temple was one of the nation’s premiere venues for jazz.  It was a must stop for touring jazz artists and “the” place in Pittsburgh to dance to the music of the big swing bands.  Promoter Sellers McKee Hall, Pittsburgh’s first African American music promoter, brought the biggest names in jazz to Pittsburgh for his popular dances that drew crowds of 1,500 to 2,000.  In a nationally broadcast radio performance from the Pythian Temple ballroom in 1930 Duke Ellington was crowned the “King of Jazz”.  Promoter Harry Hendel took ownership of the Temple in 1937 turning the 1st floor into the New Granada movie Theater and renaming the ballroom to the New Savoy.  A new generation of jazz artists performed at the ballroom during the late 1940s and 1950s. Top R&B acts performed there from the 1960s until the ballroom’s closure in the early 1970s.  Hosting dances and concerts by national and Pittsburgh artists for over 40 years the Pythian earned its place in the annuals of jazz history.

The Musician’s Club of Local 471 was a lively after hours club that presented great jazz by local and national musicians for 30 years.  Located on the second floor the Musician’s Club was a piano bar and rehearsal space that was the vital social and creative hub for jazz musicians. It was the meeting place for African American and white musicians from all parts of Pittsburgh and the country. There Pittsburgh and national musicians socialized, jammed, learned from each other, auditioned, formed bands, booked gigs, rehearsed, and performed.  National touring musicians who played the show downtown or in Hill District clubs went to the Musician’s Club after their gigs for food, drinks, and late night jam sessions.  The Musician’s club was also a social hub for jazz fans.  In the 1940s saxophonist Leroy Brown led the popular Sunday night sessions that were they only place to hear jazz on Sundays due to the Blue laws.  During the 1950’s Wednesdays were “Celebrity Nights” when national artists performed with members of local 471.  Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Ammons, Illinois Jacquet, Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins were a few of the many stars who performed at the Musician’s club.  The jam sessions at the Musician’s Club were legendary.  Not every national jazz musician came to the Musician’s Club to jam as they were  afraid of the stiff competition that they faced from local 471 members.  Saxophonist Hill Jordan said “in Pittsburgh a guy might jump off a garbage truck and play you off the stage."  A Pennsylvania state historical marker honoring the Musicians Club will be dedicated in the Hill District on Saturday June 16, 2012.

One of the most popular clubs in the heyday of Pittsburgh’s Hill District was the Bambola Social Club.  An after hours membership club it was housed in the wide basement underneath the RHUMBA movie theater on Fullerton Street.  When the bars and clubs of the Hill closed for the night the members of the Bambola and their guests went to the Bambola for more late night entertainment.  It was open every night and provided entertainment from midnight to five or six in the morning on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The Bambola presented floor shows which were two hour sets of acts by dancers, comedians, risqué shake dancers, and a band hosted by an emcee. There was no cover charge.  The Bambola Social Club, besides have a cool name, was important in the development of Be Bob in Pittsburgh.  The floor shows started at 2 AM after the regular hours bars closed. The band played music from midnight to 2 A.M. while the crowd was sparse.  Band leader Tommy Turrentine took advantage of that time to play the adventurous new sounds of Bebop that were banned from the other clubs on the Hill. 

Sellers McKee Hall

Star athlete, sportsman and businessman Sellers McKee Hall was Pittsburgh’s first African American music promoter.  He brought the biggest names in jazz to Pittsburgh for his popular dances that drew crowds of 1,500 to 2,000 to the Pythian Temple and other venues.  Sell also sponsored legendary “Battle of Music” shows pitting national acts against Pittsburgh bands. Under Sell Hall’s management the Pythian Temple offered food, drinks and all night dancing.  Sell also booked dances at the New Dreamland Arcade, Harmerville Park, the Japanese Garden Boat, Central Theater, and other venues.  Bernie Dunlap, owner the Hurricane club learning the music promotion business work for Sell in the 1930s. Sell also owned several businesses in the Hill.   Like his contemporary friend and rival Cum Posey, owner of the Homestead Grays, Sell Hall also owned and managed two baseball teams: the American Giants and the Cuban-X.  Sell Hall and Cum Posey became friends as team mates on the  Loendi Five basketball team that won the Colored Basketball World’s Championship four years in a row from 1920-23.  Sell was also a star pitcher with the Pittsburgh Colored Collegians club baseball team that was one of the early chief rivals of Homestead Grays and its owner/player Cum Posey.  Sell joined the Grays as pitcher for two years before leading his own teams.  As rival baseball team owners Hall and Posey competed fiercely for players raiding each others rosters and suing each other in court.  Sell’s American Giants team played at the 4,000 seat Central Park baseball stadium located at Wylie Avenue and Chauncey Street.  When Sell purchased the Central Park stadium in 1923 it became the first African American owned baseball park in Pittsburgh’s history.