Part 3: North Richmond blues
on June 15, 2011
Joe Fisher doesn’t go to North Richmond much anymore. But when he does, he still hears the music.
“Crowded, lively, upbeat,” Fisher said, describing his memories of the mid-century music scene in North Richmond. Fisher was just a young man then (“probably under-age,” he said) but he remembered that the energy was something special.
“Different types of music, jazz music, rock and roll, James Brown, all kinds,” he said.
As Fisher spoke, he was standing on Chesley Avenue. In the 1950s, this corridor was brimming with music clubs and juke joints, most notably the Savoy Club and Minnie Lou’s.
Fisher gently ran his maroon velvet hat between his thumb and forefinger. None of the clubs are here anymore. There are no visible monuments to the past.
“To be here, made you feel like you were part of something great,” Fisher said.
The music scene that emerged in North Richmond featured a strong, bluesy, country twang that represented not only the influx of southerners to the area during World War II, but also other unique geographical and cultural heritages.
“You had not only African American musical and cultural traditions from the south, but also white Americans working class really taking root in Richmond as well,” said Shirley Moore, a history professor at Sacramento State and author of several books and articles on Richmond’s history. “Country music. Honky tonks. You had people bringing in their cultural tastes with them.”
The music represented not only a curious blend, but also a rare harmonious point in race relations in a city where tensions often ran high.
“Richmond has always been a working class town, and these were the expressions of black and white working class people,” Moore said. “The food, the music, the entertainment all of it was a surge, an influx in a very short period of World War II, that created a unique and energetic cultural expression.”
During World War II, the city of Richmond was taking on its own character, going from a small and quaint town in the shadow of massive oil refining operations to a big, bustling working class city. But North Richmond began this period with a slightly different cultural identity, and those peculiarities were only magnified.
“North Richmond, with its location on the outskirts, partially in the county, had been known even before the war as a place of borderline businesses, drawing gambling and prostitution from all over the bay area,” Moore said.
North Richmond, during and after the war, was the location of several nightclubs that hosted performances and dancing, including the Savoy Club and Minnie Lou’s.
Many local African Americans still remember the raucous, vital scene at some of these dance and music joints in North Richmond, a memory that stands in sharp contrast to the perceptions of a younger generation that has grown up in a North Richmond marked by bleak poverty and virtually no nightlife.
At the corner of Third Street and Chesley Avenue, the building that was Minnie Lou’s is refurbished and now a county health center, but 30 years ago it was vibrant nightspot and a diner that served a rich breakfast.
But by the 1970s, the music scene was dead. “Like everything, musical tastes change, blues music had this connotation as lower class, and as African Americans became more upwardly mobile, newer generations drifted away from that type of music,” Moore said. “People didn’t want to be with what was perceived as country bumpkins.”
And there was another, perhaps even more powerful influence that sped the decline of the raucous nightclub in North Richmond: television. “Popular media, particularly the advent and availability of television, took a tremendous toll on mom and pop operations and live entertainment across the U.S., and North Richmond was no exception,” Moore said.
And so the music, at least as it had been known here, died.
Aficionados of the music are still around, but they’re scattered and fewer in number.
George Livingston Jr., son of the former mayor, has a trove of thousands of records, photos, clippings and other memorabilia tracing North Richmond’s musical heritage, but most of the interest he gets into the treasures comes from outside the neighborhood.
“The musical history is so rich,” Livingston said. “It seems almost wrong that there isn’t a museum or anything to bring it all together.”
And there have also been sprouts of other music and artistic expression since the heyday of the club scene, particularly a small but energetic hip hop scene. A series of gritty music videos can be found on youtube, featuring local and some out-of-town rappers broadcasting their expressions from North Richmond’s blocks.
“We be getting at it, representing,” said Bobby Moore (no relation to Shirley Moore), 20, a local rapper with a reputation around the neighborhood for witty wordplay and syrupy vocals. “it’s just hard to get on, you know, because there isn’t that support for local musicians.”
Today, the fact remains that Chesley Avenue is quiet and dark at night. An occasional car rolls by. Little distinguishes it from anywhere else. The history here is hard to know.
But perhaps it should not be. North Richmond is a historic African American community, in some ways a powerful distillation of the literal great migration from the South during World War II, and the cultural and social journey toward upward mobility that black men and women in America embarked upon at the same time.
Yet there are no statues here. No historic districts. No libraries. A few murals on the walls of a teen center and a community center are about the extent to which public art and historical celebration come together. A health center stands where Minnie Lou’s once pulsed with activity. There are some photos and other monuments to the past.
“There needs to be a recognition of the effort of the black community in North Richmond and what they did,” Moore said.
The title of Moore’s most acclaimed book on Richmond, To Place Our Deeds, comes from longtime Richmond resident Margaret Starks, who used the phrase when Moore was interviewing her about the history of African Americans in Richmond.
“I asked her about black people in Richmond,” Moore said. “And she said that when talking and recounting the heroic efforts of the people who came to Richmond to work, you have to reassess the notion that there wasn’t much there, or that it was just simple people working. You have to place our deeds in the right light in order to understand what we’ve accomplished, Starks told me,” Moore said.
“Those places and people in North Richmond specifically deserve recognition and commemoration,” Moore said.
Instead, the neighborhood and the richness of its culture and history go largely unknown, like a secret past to which only the select few who lived it have access. The music lives, but in a muted form, probing for outlets.
Another local rapper and singer, Robert “Little Rob” Matlock, 29, found an outlet at the April 14 funeral of his friend, Ervin Coley III, who was killed in a drive-by shooting. A lifelong North Richmond resident whose grandmother came to North Richmond during WWII, Matlock experienced the dueling emotions of performing in front of a large venue while grieving over his friend’s death.
“That’s how I express myself, through music,” Matlock said. “But a lot of people aren’t always listening.”
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