Kwaku Saunders, Playthell, Julius and Doreese Erving
An evening of Fine Cigars, Great Cuisine, Music and Beautiful People
Oh what a night! When businessman /promoter Dana Pitcher invited Event Producer Kwaku Saunders and me to join him at the Cigar City Club to watch the Atlanta Falcons football game I thought it would be fun. As a serious football fan who loves a good cigar it seemed a can’t miss proposition. I liked the atmosphere of the club from the outset; the elegant décor with fine wood paneling, crystal chandeliers, leather seats and thick carpets complimented by fine food and drinks it was the ideal venue to watch a game with the hometown crowd. So long as you were not rooting for the other team.
Since I am a Seattle Seahawks fan I had no dog in the fight. Hence I was not glued to the TV set and was free to roam about taking pictures of the room and the beautiful people lounging about after deciding that I wanted to document this unique Black business. To my knowledge there is nothing like it in Harlem, which has long been considered the Cultural Capitol of Black America, and was once considered the Metropole of the black world.
When I first arrived at the Cigar City Club I didn’t know it was owned by an Afro-American businessman, Julius Bolton, but once it was made known to me I decided to make a record of my visit. I chose to do this because I view this club as yet another example of the uniqueness of Atlanta’s Afro-American community. Ever since I was a boy growing up in St. Augustine Florida, black Atlantans were known for two things: Higher education and black business enterprise.
To this grand tradition has been added black political power and expanded wealth. One can easily see the expression of black political power from the moment you set foot in the airport and witness that magnificent photographic exhibit on the history of black Atlantans posted along the walls of the corridor, and the marvelous stone sculptures by artists from Zimbabwe! And the legacy of black enterprise is embodied today in establishments like the Cigar City Club.
After Dana introduced us and we struck up a conversation, Bolton struck me as a low key unassuming guy. I would never have picked him out of the crowd as the owner, as there were several others in the room who looked the part. But then some guys look like players and turn out to be farmers. I was intrigued by how he happened to open this Cigar club, because I have been smoking Cigars for decades and have never visited a Cigar Club…in fact it never occurred to me.
Bolton told me that he liked to enjoy good food and drinks with a fine cigar and entertainment but had noticed that in his travels he could never find all of these things in one place. This was the inspiration for his establishment and he has realized his dream beautifully. The club has a great live music act, “The Jas Trio,” which on this night featured swinging performances from singer Quida “Sugapuddin” Fanklin They are a swinging straight ahead jazz ensemble that plays the classic jazz repertoire known to all aficionados of the music. They could hold their own in any jazz venue.
Bolton is employing technology to best advantage: The cigar store is a giant humidor with a wide number of choices; the television is programmed to switch from voice to silent text while the game is going on, and he has even employed Social Media man, Joshua McCoy, to keep the public apprised of what’s happenin at the club.
The Real McCoy!
He’s got the world at his fingertips
However the highpoint of the evening for me came with a surprise visit from Julius “Dr. J” Erving, a first ballot basketball Hall of Famer who gets my vote as the best ever on the hardwood court. Kwaku Saunders and Julius Erving have been best friends since boyhood and I met them both when they were students at the University of Massachusetts in 1969. There were other students in their class who also did well, like the singer Natalie Cole, but I don’t think any have equalled Kwaku and Julius’ impact in their chosen fields.
It was an exciting time in the country, radical changes were taking place in the status of women and minorities, propelled by the energy of the black Civil Rights Movement, which began in the South and engulfed the nation. Kwaku was a student activist who was a leader of the students that demanded the establishment of a Black Studies Department, and thus sat on the student committee that interviewed the perspective professors who would design the department and offer courses.
I was the first Professor hired and along with a group of distinguished international colleagues we built the first degree granting Black studies Department in the world in Amherst and name it after the most distinguished scholar in the black world: The WEB Dubois Department of Black Studies. (See:”Dr. DuBois Then and Now” on this site.) For an extended discussion of Dr. DuBois’ life and work see the book “Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folk” by the present writer.
They also demanded that black students be given a block of air time on the University radio station, which was called “The Black Mass Communication Project.” I thought Kwaku a bright young man who was mature beyond his years and would go far in life.
Julius Erving, although just a sophomore, was the most popular student on campus. People used to point him out to me and declare that he was the “best forward in college basketball.” I dismissed such talk as home town hype. Admittedly my opinion was greatly influenced by the fact that at the time I was involved with a lady who was a professor at UCLA, who were the National Champions of collegiate basketball.
Hence I had attende numerous basketball games in the fabulous UCLA arena known as “The House Kareem Built;” it was a fabulous place with real Hollywood stars sitting at courtside. Sydney Wicks and Curtis Rowe were the forwards on the team and they looked and acted like stars. Since the conventional wisdom among sports commentators was that this tandem were the best forwards in college basketball I was sure the accolades heaped upon the skinny bushy head kid on campus, who I and nobody I knew outside of Amherst had ever heard of, was nothing more than overinflated puffery and I refused to believe the Hype – as his fellow Long Islanders Chuck D and Public Enemy would exhort us twenty years later.
However as it turned out Julius Erving was the real deal. I first discovered this when a friend of mine, big Jim Corbin, who had been a college All-American football player and later a high-school basketball coach suggested that we go check this young man out and see for ourselves if all the fuss was justified. That night U-Mass played Providence and Julius was pitted against their 6” 9’ forward Marvin Barnes, who went on to a solid NBA career but was then the terror of the Yankee Conference – which I had never heard of before coming to U-Mass. Julius dominated this great player – who was bigger than him – in every phase of the game: rebounding, defense and scoring. And he did it in such a convincing fashion that Big Jim said Julius was “the best college basketball player” he had ever seen. And he predicted he would go on to achieve greatness as a pro. History has proved both of our hunches true!
Kwaku went on to make history as the first black music agent at the powerful William Morris Agency, after a stint with the legendary Norby Walters where he represented virtually all of the top black stars in Rhythm & Blues as well as the pioneering Rap acts that rose up from the playgrounds and small clubs in Harlem and the South Bronx and made Hip Hop a billion dollar industry whose product is enthusiastically consumed world-wide and changed the character of youth culture everybody: for good and bad.
He would later become an artist manager whose group “The Sounds of Blackness” was declared his “favorite group” by that intrepid saxophone player in the White House, President Bill Clinton. During his tenure there Kwaku had several occasions to book his group at White House events and “Sugar Willie” even broke out his horn and joined them on one occasion!
Before Kwaku became the manager of this group they were just another choir in the Twin Cites of Minnesota. It was under his astute and careful guidence that they became a world wide attraction. Kwaku is now a successful producer of big live events around the world. As I write he is producing a concert with the legendary R&B artist Charlie Wilson at the River front Amphitheater in Montgomery Alabama on November 7.
After his Hall of Fame basketball career Julius returned to what he would have done had he not made it into pro-basketball, become a successful businessman. Today Julius is involved in international deals that take him as far away as China! As a long time student od Chinese society I had many questions for him, and his thoughtful observations conveyed a sense of wonder at the size of Chinese cities and the pace of modernization.
Sitting and rapping with them my mind wandered back over four decades when they were just young men with enormous promise, and reflecting on how that promise has been fulfilled in grand fashion. In a solemn moment of reflection Julius noted the passing of his former coach in high-school and U-Mass, Ray “Speed” Wilson,” and told me that he would soon be departing for Rhode Island to deliver the Eulogy at his final rites. There was a profound humility in his voice as he spoke of this man who he says taught him much more than the game of basketball.
What I find most impressive about these two old friends – whose relationship is explored in the outstanding NBA Television documentary “The Doctor -” is how little success has changed their fine personalities and character. In this documentary, which was aired nationally, we learn that Kwaku actually nicknamed Julius “The Doctor” and he in turn called Kwaku “The Professor.” And there we were almost a half century later hangin out and reminiscing in Atlanta’s cigar club….Oh what a night!
It was a Grand Party!
The “Doctor” and the “Professor
Friends 4 Life
Debating the Atlanta Falcon vs. New Orleans Saints Game
Much pompous drivel was spouted before the Saints crushed their hopes
Big Dana Pitcher Was in da House
A Louisiana Businessman and Bon Vivant making his mark in Atlanta
Although he is a relativly Young Man Dr. J’s hair is Steel Grey
Julius Says its a family trait; his father had it and he loves it
And from the look of things…..
…….so do the ladies
A Visionary Entrepreneur
He saw a vacuum and filled it: fine food, drinks, live music and great cigars
He created and elegant environment
That attracts a Smart and Stylish crowd
It’s a Cigar Smoker’s Paradise
That offer a dazzling array of choices
A Well Designed Humidor
Carfully designed to satisfy the taste of the most demanding epicure
Exotic Tobacco Leaf from Far away Lands
Find their way to these shelves
Its the kind of Posh Place…..
Gentleman of high style and substance are drawn to
And beautiful women flitter about…..
Like luminous technicolor fire flies in Africa’s night
Satin Dolls like Duke Elington Conjured up……
In Black, Brown and Biege
It’s also the Lair of…..
Even the waitresses are fine!
Like this Tall, Tan, Terriffic Beauty
Or this Pulchritudinous Eye Candy
The guys get a kick outta watching Sarah work the floor….perhaps some girls too
And there was great Music!
James Schneider and the JAS Trio was Killin
The bass and the drums were locked in the pocket!
Quida “Sugar Puddin” Franklin
Swung a Jazz Song with Blues and Soul
For those whose taste runs to Chess and Champaign
Its Yours Upon Request
From Night to Night you’ll find Him…..
Watching over the care of his customers
And big Dana….Who invited me to the Cigar Club
Scoped the scene with a for real Louisiana Players Lean