Live at the Royal Palm Cafe!

 

A Rising Star in the Beginning
Soulful Afro-American Arias

Featuring James Brown and the Dew Drops 

What is opera? It is a melodramatic story often dealing with matters of the heart, love stories, especially Italian Opera, which embodies the passion of the romantic people who invented the art form.  Alas, one irreverent wag said opera’s featured “words too silly to say, so they had to be sung,” thereby rescuing the audience from a boring banality by virtue of the magnificent music and marvelous singing, the apex of which is the aria.

It is the moment that everyone waits for with great anticipation, as it features the best singers with the most beautiful complex passages in the score.  Add to this melo-drama, elaborate costumes and sets, occasional dance, and we have the stuff of Opera in its original form as it emerged in 16th century Italy.  In the 19th Century the French elaborated on the art form and “Grand Opera” was born in Paris, a city world famous for artistic innovation.

It is no exaggeration argue that some rhythm and blues performances are a series of arias created by Afro-Americans, whose lyrics are often passionate and clever, as they tell tall tales of love won and love lost. In a classic Rhythm & Blues performance the costumes are elegant, the staging colorful, the singing dramatic, and the choreographed dance moves bewitching…real Black Magic!

The majesty of these shows was captured in the movie The Five Heartbeats,  which resurrected glorious memories from the halcyon days of my youth when I sang bass in the “Dew Drops,” a five man Rhythm& Blues group who sang hit songs by the groups of the day. Our favorite acts were “Harvey and the Moonglows,” “Sonny Till and the Orioles,” “Hank Ballad and the Midnighters,” “Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels,” Jerry Butler and the Impressions,” “The Dells,” “The Penguins,” “Shep and the Limelights,”  “The Five Satins.” and if we sang Gospel our favorite group was “The Soul Stirrers,” which featured first Sam Cooke, and then Lou Rawls and Bobby Womack as lead singers. All of whom went on to become legendary R&B crooners.

 

Harvey and the Moonglows

 

Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels

 

Sam Cook and the Soul Stirrers

 

The Five Royals

 

Ray Charles at the Royal Palm Cafe, Circa 1960

Yes…The Genius Could Also Play Sax

Our paramount goal, aside from the pure joy of singing, was to win the Sunday talent show held at the “Royal Palm Cafe,” in Jacksonville Florida, a major southern City, with a fabulous black community that produced a flourishing black business class that was home to the Afro-American Insurance Company, which insured black families and businesses across the state of Florida, and a black owned medalion cab company with 1000 cabs! For a poignant portrait of this black business class and the community that produced it, read the book: “American Beach.”

And they also owned “The Royal Palm Cafe,” a fabulous supper club with a spacious dance floor that featured live music. As a major venue on the so-called “Chittlen Curcuit,” the black owned theaters, auditoriums and nightclubs that presented the leading Afro-American performing artists of the era, I saw everybody from Count Basie, Dinah Washington and Duke Ellington, to Ray Charles, Big Maybelle and James Brown. I would look around at all the elegantly dressed black, brown and biege beauties and think: “Heaven must be like this!”

While my reveries of those halcyon evenings at the Royal Palm constitute an embarrassment of riches, making it nearly impossible to choose one magic moment over another, without a doubt my most treasured moment at the Royal Palm Cafe was the first time I saw James Brown!

This Dance Floor Was Always Crowded!

The Royal Palm Cafe was Originally the “Two Spot”

 

One of Several Bars

Every Seat Was Taken By Showtime!

 

It was at an evening matinee, where the three best vocal groups were selected to perform in a grand finale to determine the winner of the talent contest, and the winner would be awarded a record deal with a local record company in which the most popular Black Disk Jockey in Jacksonville, and outlying towns for miles around: Johnny Shaw, “The Devils Son-In-Law!” had an interest. So, your record was certain to be played on the hottest radio show in North East Florida.

We were as serious as brain cancer about winning the contest. All the cats in the group could really sing; we were all members of my Aunt Marie’s Choir. A classically trained pianists, organist, and choir master, she taught us to sing the classical European chorales as well as Lieder, and we learned how to sing gospel and R&B in that great conservatory which has produced more musical innovators than the Julliard School: THE BLACK CHURCH!

James Brown came right out of the church: as did everybody from Grand Opera Divas Kathleen Battle and Jyssee Norman, to Jazz masters Max Roach, Dizzy Gellespie and Charlie Parker. Peerless singers such as Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, and the genre crossing Diva Jean Carn, as well as the blind musical genius Ray Charles.

The broadly learned and ever insightful Blues Philosopher, Albert Murray, has described Brown as the “blues idiom” equivalent of a “down home” sanctified preacher in his masterpiece on Afro-American music: “Stompin the Blues.” And the emotional ferver JB generates with his electric performances often amounts to a secular revival that inspire our spirits to dance. The night of the finals competition, James Brown was the main attraction!

On this enchanted evening we got to sing with the full house orchestra, and we put on a show. Our three alloted songs were: “When I’m With You,” by Harvey and the Moonglows; “Oh What A Night!” by the Dells, and “This is Dedicated to the One I Love,” by the Five Royals. These are classic Rhythm and Blues love ballads, and unlike the saccharine renditions of the songs on “The Hit Parade” – which celebrated artists like Pat Boone and Rosemary Clooney – if you sang these love songs before a black audience, you damn well better sound like you are REALLY in love. Otherwise, admiration can quickly turn to ridicule, and the performer driven from the stage in a cacophony of course commentary.

We sang together in perfect harmony; it was as if our souls took flight as one. “Blackhead” Bascomb sang the lead on the Moonglow’s tune, his mellow baritone voice conjuring up the sound of the entrancing Harvey Fuqua. “Baby Lumkin” sang the lead on “Oh What a Night!” “Bubba Duck” Jackson, a handsome star running back with a chiseled physique, sang first tenor and could croon in falsetto like Eddie Kendricks and my boy Eddie Holman. When he sang the lead on “This is Dedicated To the One I Love,” falling to his knees on the edge of the stage, tears running down his cheek, induced by the raw onion juice on his handkerchief, which he dabbed in his eyes, the girls went wild!

It was the high point of the competition, yet the “Dew Drops” came in second, and we never abandoned the belief that we had been robbed! We believed we were the he victims of a home town decision, since we were from St. Augustine Florida, 38 miles to the south – the oldest and most beautiful small town in America – they chose there Jacksonville homies over us. We had no doubt that we had iced it. We were sharp county slick dudes, good looking football players in football crazy Florida, and could sing and dance our asses off! We thought we should have won first place,

However, we didn’t stay sad for long, because a few minutes after they announced the contest winners the MC bellowed out: IT’S STAR TIME AT THE ROYAL PALM CAFE! The Maestro struck up the band, and introduced James Brown, who had a big hit on the R&B charts: “Please! Please! Please!” The song that taught a generation of black men how to beg!

A young, really country dude with an athletic physique from Augusta Georgia, which was just up the road, walked onstage decked out in an exquisitely tailored white tuxedo with tails and stared singing “Caldonia!,” which had been a monster hit for Louis Jordan. one of the farthers of R&B and of all that’s called “Rock&Roll.” James started doing the “Mashed Potatoes,” which was the dance of the day, and he lit the place on fire with his spectacular performance!

This was 1956, and that boy blew up like the Goodyear Blimp, mashing potatoes and doing spectacular splits all over the world! Folks even started calling him “The Godfather of Soul,” although Little Richard, Bo Diddly. Loyd Price, Shirley and Lee, Etta Jame, Fats Domino, ,Ray Charles, et al were also right there in the beginning and they were all stars!

I love hearing the great classical singers perform the beautiful arias from the Grand Opera, with their heart wrenching tales of love and loss. Yet watching the great Rhythm & Blues performers, I am reminded of what the canonical American novelists, whom some learned literary wags claim is the first “original American literary voice, “Mark Twain,” said after watching an operatic performance at “La Scala,” then the unquestioned Mecca of the Grand Opera, during a tour of Europe. When asked what he thought of the performance, Twain said in his usual candid fashion: “Well for my money the Europeans can keep their Grand Opera! I’d rather see a good Nigger show any day.  Let the show begin!

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Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

April 28, 2001

Click on Links to see the Groups Perform

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAmGtN2f

 

The Mighty Dells  “Oh What a Night!”

 

https://youtu.be/dOrb7py-cgo

 

This is Dedicated to the One I Love – The Five Royals

 

https://youtu.be/y335E8mfBAU

 

Harvey and the Moonglows

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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