The Black Experience and the Blues in 1950s Wichita
by Patrick Joseph O'Connor
Mid-America Folklore Spring 1993 [now known as Overland Review]
Reprinted in Blues Gazette (Belgium) Fall 1996,
and in the book Wichita Blues: Discovery
The blues offers a significant opportunity to look into the lives of the blacks who perform it and experience it. While Wichita, Kansas has not necessarily been known for its blues, there is in the city a substantial culture and history of this most American, 20th century form of music. This paper attempts to discover the meaning of the music and the historical setting in which it was enjoyed in Wichita during the post-WW II decade.
In 1879-1880, large numbers of blacks were drawn to Kansas, a state, according to Robert G. Athearn, "whose very name was possessed of a special meaning to the [African American] pilgrims who sought this near-mythical land of promise."1 There had been black settlements in Kansas since 1875 (Nicodemus, Dunlap, and the colonies of Hodgeman, Little Coney, Saratogo, Votaw, and Wabunsee, among others), and there had been some planning involved with that immigration. But these were waves of destitute blacks, driven out of the South by economic deprivation and denial of equal rights, who found their way into the state.
The colonies were left to themselves, respected if they made a go of things. But indigent immigrants, particularly those of a different color, were not going to be welcomed on a large scale. Haywood points out that "objection to the ...[black] settlers was based more on the apprehension caused by the impoverished conditions of the arriving colonists than on racist attitudes."2
Many of the blacks, experiencing near-starvation on the plains, managed to return to the South, but others moved to the growing cities, unwilling to go back to a land that had driven them out. Even though their reception in Kansas was decidedly mixed, the immigrants accepted their new life and found situations with courage and faith. Many of them came to Wichita.
In 1963, the Wichita Beacon, in an article that traced Wichita's black population, reported that the "earliest migrants located on North Water and Wichita streets."3 This was a little enclave unto itself, with black-owned shops that served the people.
In the 1880s and 1890s, "a settlement began in the vicinity of 13th and Wabash,"4 nearly a mile away from the city proper. At the beginning of the 20th century, black Wichitans had slowly begun to filter into the establishment, achieving appointments to the Fire Department and other city positions.5
By the 1920s, the bulk of the black population was contained in this northeast quadrant. The 1924 Wichita City Directory offers the designation "(c)" presumably to denote black businesses and residents. The designation is not otherwise accounted for in the abbreviations legend. The (c) appears on North Main from 503 to 632 and 1/2. The Sedgwick County Jail was listed at 634 N. Main. Included in the black entries are: barbers, shoe shiners, tailors, lunch counters, cleaners, and physicians. The Knights of Pythias Hall, the black Masonic lodge, is listed at 615 and 1/2 N. Main.6
Addresses on North Water are also given the (c) designation, beginning at 414 and continuing intermittently until 935. Douglas School (black elementary) is listed at 615, Calvary Baptist Church (site of the First National Black Historical Society of Kansas-now known as Kansas African American Museum) is at 601, St. Paul's AME Church appears at 523, and 517 N. Water showed the "YMCA (c)."7 The 1924 City Directory applied the (c) appellation on North Wabash beginning at 530 and ending at 2630, as well as on the several adjoining streets.
In 1924, the Wichita Eagle reported that the majority of black Wichitans lived in an area centered on Cleveland (one block west of Wabash) from 3rd to 21st Streets, as well as the old downtown area west of Main and north of 3rd.8
The Wichita Beacon9 gave population figures for the blacks in the city and computed percent of total population:
1880 268 3.5%
1890 1247 5.2%
1900 1389 5.6%
1910 2457 4.7%
1920 3545 4.9%
1930 5623 5%
1940 5686 4.9%
1950 8802 4.8%
1960 19,861 7.8%
There was some hope of equality in the Plains urbanization. Randall Bennett Woods reports that "Wichita and Lawrence in the 1880s and 1890s and Atchison in the 1890s were the only cities of the first class in Kansas that afforded mixed schools at the primary level."10
By the 20th Century, this practice had changed. "Until 1952, Negro children went to segregated schools in Wichita until they entered 9th grade."11 Black elementary schools during the 1950s were: Douglas, Dunbar (923 Cleveland), and L'Ouverture (originally 13th and Mosley, later 1539 Ohio).12 Douglas was in the original settlement location and the other two were in the northeast quadrant. L'Ouverture also taught 7th and 8th grade children. Percentage of black students at L'Ouverture in 1960 was 99.7%.13
Like most of the nation, Wichita was a segregated city. In September of 1923, W.C. Handy, famed black composer of "St. Louis Blues," appeared at the Crawford Theatre. "Both balconies for colored persons," an advertisement read.14
In the 1920s and '30s, Wichita's black population heard music in church groups, at social organizations, and similar functions. There were a few "buckets of blood" in the north end, plain buildings whose business was to sell liquor and provide entertainment.
According to the recollections of Ms. Easter Haire reported in a study by Rayl15, there was a beer garden on the outskirts of town on 25th and North Indiana, run by a Kenny McCloud.16 Ms. Haire went there as a teenager. The place provided recorded blues, likely on a wind-up Victrola, as well as performances. Many of the race records listened to then were bawdy, according to Haire.
During World War II, blacks were drawn to Wichita's prospering job market. A former director of the Wichita Urban League, Sidney Alexander, in an interview with the Wichita Beacon, maintained that blacks "who had migrated here in the '40s urged friends and relations to move to Wichita...[assuring ] them jobs...at the city's aircraft plants."17 The years following the war found Wichita a crowded and separated city. As can be seen from the table above, the population of blacks had doubled during the decade of the 1950s.
African-Americans who had fought for their country were returning to find their country unwilling to give them a hotel room or a main floor seat in a theater. In 1950, Wichita's ranking in residential segregation "was fourteenth from the top among 211 cities.”18 In 1956, the Northeast Wichita Improvement Association, a black civic organization whose name reflected the quadrant containing black neighborhoods in the city, petitioned the Wichita Board of Realtors to "give equal consideration to both colored and white renters and buyers in their area of the city."19
The long-suffering black population had a measured grace and developed outlets for the repository of woe that came with second-class citizenship. One such outlet of historical import and fad-breaking continuity was the blues.
While most academic thought holds the South as cradle of the blues, Harriet Ottenheimer makes a convincing case for the importance of the Midwest in the origin of the musical form. She finds that "St. Louis is the site which provided us with the very earliest documentation of blues-like singing in the country-in 1892."20 This was a tune called fittingly enough "East St. Louis," and was observed by W.C. Handy on a levee.
Ottenheimer's contention is that the blues traveled down the Mississippi, and this appears to be the case in at least one other documented instance.
Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, working in a touring minstrel show, first heard the blues in Missouri in 1902. An unknown black teen-aged girl was responsible for acquainting Rainey (one of the most famous "classic" blues singers of the 1920s) with the new music. Wandering in front of Rainey's tent, the teenager sang a song so mournful and evocative that Rainey decided to incorporate it into her act of minstrel songs, cakewalks, waltzes, and novelty numbers, for an encore.21
This Midwest origination point, while as yet unproven, serves to enhance the importance of blues performed in Wichita. Blues musicians were by nature an itinerant lot. The restlessness of the idiom is reflected in the shifting chords and extemporaneous lyrics. St. Louis, Kansas City, Wichita, and cities and towns throughout Oklahoma offered temporary homes to the Midwest's blues movers. When the demands of young families or desire for respectability came into play, the musicians settled. This motive, fueled by the availability of jobs in the aircraft industry, brought several to Wichita.
Berry Harris, was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1929 and came to Wichita in 1957 to play music. His remarks are taken from an address given in October, 1991 for Discovering The Blues class taught by the author at Wichita State University.
Harris' first venue was a club on 29th Street North, formerly called Flagler Gardens. It was named for a famed racing dog, Flagler, currently honored in the Greyhound Museum in Abilene.
"The club was called Rhythm City22 when I got here. The owners came and got me because they were forming a band. That's how I came to Wichita.
"The first thing about it--I never wanted to be a musician. That never was my goal. All my life I was raised around somebody playing an instrument. During this time, the only thing we could get on the old battery pack radio was the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night. Finally we begin to listen to a program out of Nashville, Gene's Boogie Woogie."
Part of Harris' reluctance to play music may have been influenced by his father. "He had a second grade education, and was a deacon and treasurer for the district of the B.Y.P.U. [Baptist Young People's Union] Church for 23 years. And when he died at the age of 90, he wasn't a penny short. My dad didn't want musicians in his family. He called them [guitars] starvation boxes and said all they were good for was to let somebody stay drunk, chase women, and die early."
Harris was exposed to the rural Southern and Texas blues after his family moved to Boggy Bend, Oklahoma. This was a dry county. During this time, Harris played with U.L. Washington, uncle of his namesake who played shortstop for the Kansas City Royals.
"I was a kid and picked it up, played what they could play. A lot of it was in the old traditions. My mother played a little, too. A lot of stuff was played with the long A [chord] position and basic G."
After a term in the service, Harris joined a band touring Texas. "The first gig, they found out I couldn't play [at their level of expertise] but I was too far from home to bring me back.
"We came back home and I learned 'Blues After Hours' and 'Honky-Tonk'. Then I got into jazz and worked with a twelve-piece orchestra."
When he came to Wichita, Harris found that people were listening to Hank Ballard and B.B. King. After Rhythm City, he played the Bomber Club [3245 George Washington Boulevard] and the Tik Tok Lounge [1001 E. Harry]. Both clubs were in the south part of town near the aircraft plants. He was doing six nights a week and worked with Kid Thomas, a harmonica player from Chicago. Later he moved to the Rock Castle, 3813 N. Broadway, and also played the Cowboy Inn on West Street.
"We had to play a lot of country music. I was familiar with it, growing up with it. From there, I played in every club in town, the Esquire [3357 N. Broadway], the Waterhole [another north end club], and the Gaiety Club. The Gaiety Club was at 228 North Main. We started playing at 8:00 and the fight started at 8:02. We quit playing at 12:00 and the fights were still going on, and we didn't have no chicken wire up either. I played in white clubs and black clubs. I played the Elks' Club on 9th Street [a black venue] for seven and a half years. I think I set a record in Kansas for the longest period of time playing for one party, 28 years. It was in Topeka, the Christmas Ball for the Shriners."
In the mid-1970s, Harris stopped performing. "This was when disco came. You couldn't get gigs. You could understand the club owners. The disco machine didn't get drunk, he didn't take breaks, and you didn't have to pay but one man. The musicians brought it on themselves, because of attitude."
Along with electric guitar, Harris plays keyboard, and harmonica, and has also done stand-up comedy.
"I've been in Wichita for 35 years and been in the aircraft industry, and I've worked at all of them, Beech, Boeing, Cessna, Lear Jet. And I've played music. I'm the only black musician in this town that kept blues going. Blues wasn't always this popular. It had a down side. It's an identity thing. I don't want to sound like I know everything, but black people have struggled with identity and have tried to get away from certain things.
"This included trying to lighten skin color. When I was a kid coming up, they started with processed hair. They boiled potatoes and put lye in there with cold cream and eggs, and they put it on your hair to straighten your hair. They were trying to get away from being black. When the young people came along, they didn't want to be reminded of what grandma and grandpa had been through.
"Young kids wouldn't listen to the blues, like I heard coming up. People would have a misconception about what the blues really is. In the reality of it all, a lot of what Jimmy Smith and Al Green do is the blues. Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, they did the same. Hank Williams' biggest hit was 'Lovesick Blues.'
"I look back at this music and listen to all these different forms of music--it's all the same thing, it's all the blues. It takes on a European, African theme, intertwined in an American music. Without the blues, we'd all be listening to European cultured music.
"Some people say you've got be down and out to sing the blues. It's taken a bad rap. In the beginning, you didn't hear black music on the radio. I remember in Ada, Oklahoma when I was young, the white kids would try to come over and hear black music. The sheriff would say 'You don't want to go over there.' This was race music, it wasn't supposed to have any culture.
"The blues are on the uprise, not because of black people but because of white people. I was up at Wamego, Kansas playing and the kids came up and asked me for songs I never heard of. I don't listen to Howlin' Wolf, or Ledbetter, or Robert Johnson. I heard that stuff when I was a kid in Oklahoma.
"Blues is not going to lose its popularity. The three most popular forms of music in this country today are blues, gospel, and country. The whites are listening to it today, but the black folks are coming around. Even the jazz players are thinking they need to get back to playing the basics so folks can understand what we're playing."
Harmonica Chuck (Charlie Phillips) has played blues in Wichita since 1958. Chuck was interviewed by the author over the telephone from his home in January, 1992.
He started at the Sportsman’s at 1003 E. 9th Street. "That's practically all that was goin' on here in the '50s. I was raised up in Morris, Oklahoma and moved here in '53. I was just a farm boy down there. We made our own music, harmonicas, tin cans whatever we could use to make up noise. When I came here, there wasn't youngsters messing here like in Oklahoma.
"My brother came here first. There were some good acts that came through-- Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Fats Domino, Junior Parker--they were all here in the early '50s. We'd go to the Mambo Club [2459 N. Hillside] and Flagler Gardens. You paid around $1.50 to get in."
The bluesman found inspiration to join in the telling. "Something just hit me on the job one day and I started singin'. The boss said 'Your singing had to go.' I started playing again, stopped by and picked up a harmonica. I figured I must have something that somebody wanted."
Harmonica Chuck began to play throughout the state. "When I was traveling the road, we had time to drive to Junction City and Salina." This was in the late '50s and early '60s.
"Playing the road, I never missed a weekend in eight or nine years." Then Chuck bought a club.
"The 904 Club used to be on 15th and Mosley. It was originally owned by a Mexican; then a white fellow got it. I played in there for both of them. When I went into the business, it didn't cost a lot back then." This was in '64. In 1971 Urban Renewal bought him out and Chuck moved to just east of 9th and Grove. He stayed at this location for 15 years before leaving the business.
"I got tired of the laws, and got my kids grown."
His early blues band experience supports the notion of substandard instrumentation with which the performers had to contend.
"Me and one guy started my band, John L. Nero. I met him walkin' along the street one day. He had a guitar, I had an amplifier, mike and harmonica. We made the guitar into an electric guitar, and we put everything through one amp. We called ourselves the Noisemakers. We used to audition over the telephone.
"We went from that to a set of drums, another guitar and another amp. Then we started to call ourselves Harmonica Chuck and the Cavaliers. This was in the early '60s and we played one white club where Hillside dead-ends [south] at Planeview,23 and Flagler Gardens, the Blue Light, and the Rock Castle."
When Chuck got his own club he found that the blues band's popularity led to difficulties. "I used to have people out of Ponca City, Hutchinson, Salina. I drawed a crowd: Mexicans, white, black. I was mixing the crowd and people was getting along but the city of Wichita didn't go along with that. The police used to give people [traffic] tickets on the way into the club and on the way out."
The bluesman became aware of the power of his music. "At one time it got to where I couldn't get a job in this town. I got on the blues so hard I could start a fight. I had to break my talent so where people would act right. I've never been able to come back to perform where I was, after I broke my talent. Now people are more understanding."
Chuck sometimes plays with a megaphone rigged in front of his harmonica which is on a rack worn around his neck, enabling him to play guitar. "I used to pack my place with just me and a drummer. I'd play guitar, blow the harmonica and sing. The only thing I couldn't do was to make change for a twenty for one of my waiters while I was on stage."
The sixty-year-old is confident of the appeal of the music. "The blues is coming back. You take like when this disco came about. I never stopped pIaying. I had my own business. I tried it [having a DJ], but people said 'What you got that out for? We came to hear you.'"
Chuck ran his club for over 25 years, giving many of Wichita's younger blues musicians their start. "They started off with the blues. They might have gone to something else but they played the blues at the 904. What I'm proud of, I could talk to the public. I don't have no scars or bruises, and I didn't put any on anybody."
Organist Jerry Childers was born in Wichita in 1939, and started playing drums in 1957. He was interviewed by the author over the telephone from his home in December, 1992.
"What got me off into music, I suffered from asthma as a kid. I didn't want to play violin. You were considered a sissy if you did that. Asthma meant I couldn't play a horn. That's why I played drums.
"I went to school with the Smart brothers [who later formed a rhythm and blues group] at L'Ouverture Elementary. That's where I learned music. We used the woodwork room as a band room. Our teacher was Mr. Walton Morgan, who played saxophone with the Syncopaters in the late '30s and '40s. Walton Morgan taught a lot of these kids, including the Smart brothers, how to play. He never lost his interest in music, and still plays for senior citizens."
Childers soon got into performing. "I played drums with Berry Harris in '57. I was 17 years old and working at Boeing. I had a set of Slingerland drums with a 26-inch bass."
This group included Jesse Anderson on sax. "We played Little Richard and Chuck Berry, anything we could get on the radio at that time other than country and western. We played the blues too, naturally. We had a piano player, Adolph Thurman. He was old enough to be my father. We played on Wichita Street, at a beer tavern owned by Frank Jones. At the time it was located around 800 N. Wichita [in the original black neighborhood], then it moved to 9th and Washington behind the Sportsman’s."24
According to Childers, most places had a piano at that time, "even though sometimes it wasn't in tune." He recalled playing a couple of clubs on North Water next to Jackson Mortuary [703 N. Water], one of the two black mortuaries in town.
"Blues was always prevalent in the joints. Older people liked to hear the blues. We had to play the blues to get paid. When I played with Berry, we were out at old Flagler Gardens, out there in the country. I really wasn't old enough to be in there. We did rhythm and blues, and a few standards. Lot of these guys played in other clubs and their people came in to see them."
Childers discovered one of the powers of music. "Everybody, regardless of race, creed or color, will accept musicians.
"Berry was the guy who broke a lot of this open. People wanted to hear the blues. A lot of those white young people had never heard it."
Childers was part of the intricacies and affiliations of the community of black musicians. "We all just knew each other. You might meet one musician and pretty soon you would meet all of them. Back then, a lot of these guys were staying together in apartments, like over on Pennsylvania [six blocks east of Wabash], trying to make it as musicians. They'd invite me over and would cook up pinto beans and hamburger meat and offer me some. I didn't want to take any of it 'cause they were poor."
Childers recalled seeing some of the big acts that played Wichita. "A lot of them would stay at the Water Street Hotel [638 N. Water]. The Mambo was the best club for blacks. I wasn't supposed to be in there but I got in. I saw Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, and Earl Bostic at the Mambo.
"There was also the Blue Moon on south Oliver. You could rent that. It burned down.25 And the Shadowland. That was a place from the '40s."
Wichita drew the talent in the 1950s as recording stars toured the nation. "You could hear B.B. King, Charles Brown passing through. The Arcadia26 was where I first saw Jimmy Smith and Ray Charles. They drew a mixed audience. People would come to see Ray Charles and the Rayettes. We were out there mingling on the floor. Nothing [untoward] ever occurred. We were just enjoying the music."
During that decade, hearing good blues and rhythm and blues was not an everyday event. "Keep in mind, we've always had a bunch of country music to listen to. The only time we could get any music when I was a kid, you would get Wolfman Jack [DJ broadcasting from Texas] or a blues station in Louisiana late at night. We were far behind the rest of the country. In the middle of the '50s, Elvis Presley was trying to break into the music scene. He did a lot for the black music world [playing his brand of the blues]."
While beginning with rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and blues, Childers was introduced to the sophistication of cool jazz. "My brother was listening to John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. He said 'What you want to mess with that other stuff for?'
"The band used to play 'Honkey Tonk' by Bill Doggett. Then I heard Jimmy Smith and that's when I wanted to play organ."
As he was taking lessons on the organ--"I took lessons for six months before anyone knew it"--Childers played drums with the Smart Brothers. "We played Gene Metcalf's aunt's place on Ninth and Mead [the Downbeat]. Gene Metcalf jumped in out of nowhere, played drums, guitar, sang, and played piano. I thought, man this guy is something."
Childers supplanted the drums with organ in 1960. "I was working at Red Ball garage for a dollar an hour, 72 hours a week. I bought a brand new Hammond spinet organ with payments of $59.00 a month for three years. I didn't know how I was going to pay for that.
"As a drummer, I made up to $30 a gig. There were maybe a couple of guys playing organ around here then."
Childers left Wichita for California in '62, staying on the coast for five years before returning to Wichita. He alternated between locales until settling here in the 1970s. He still performs on Hammond organ, the ultimate model B-3.
Donald Dunn was born in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. He was interviewed by telephone from his home by the author in December, 1992.
"I started playing when I was 12, and came to Wichita in '59."
After finishing high school, Dunn went to Minneapolis. "I lived up there for a year and came to Wichita for a visit. I was playing a 3/4 size Rickenbacker guitar out of a Kay amp.
"Back then, you just kind of played with different people. I was kind of young, right out school. I did my woodshedding in Minneapolis. When I came to Wichita, that's when I started playing in a lot of bands. At that time Wichita was like New York to me [regarding opportunity to play professionally]."
Dunn credited the time as a learning process. "I was 18, playing with other musicians in their 40s and 50s, doing blues, R&B mostly, and old standards like 'Satin Doll' and 'Moonlight in Vermont.' The blues was kind of natural to me, because that's the era I was born in. When I first came here, Wichita was real good on blues. B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Ray Charles were very popular."
In those times, blues performers, touring the Midwest, were accessible to a young black guitar player. "I met and talked with Fats Domino at the old Mambo Club."
In 1959-1960, Dunn played with Jesse Anderson and the Blues Toppers. The group included Jerry Wood, a white musician who teamed with Mike Finnegan in the early '70s to record in the rock genre.
"We were playing at the Sportsman's Club. Jesse went to Topeka, and I got my own band together, King Dunn and the Royal Subjects."
Instrumentation was piano, bass, drums, and guitar. "Antoine Carr's [Wichita State University basketball star] father, James, played bass. We got a job at the Esquire. The Esquire was number one in town for a black club. I had reached the heights by the time I got there. Mike Finnegan used to come down and sit in with us there. He played a regular old upright piano. No mike or nothing."
Dunn's ability to interpret blues and R&B was borne out one night at the Mambo Club.
"It was on a Saturday night back in '61. I wasn't playing that weekend. A friend of mine came by the house and said Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, playing at the Mambo, needed a guitar player." One of the progenitors of rock and roll, Ballard had lost a guitarist on tour.
"I took my guitar and amp and we went down to the club. The band had already started so I hooked my guitar up and started playing. The first song we did was 'Watermelon Man'. All these songs I knew. I guess that's why it was easy for me.
"Hank came over during the break and said he liked what I was doing. He said he needed a guitar player for Topeka. Sunday I went with them to Topeka. Then the band had a couple days off. We were all going to meet in Dallas on Wednesday. I was married at the time with two kids. Money [for musicians] wasn't too good. Ten dollars was standard. Somebody would come by and tell you about a gig, say it was paying a dime. I made $25 with Hank Ballard. I'd been with music long enough to know that you needed to pay bills."
As a result of this pragmatism, Dunn remained in Wichita, but managed to tour the state. "We had a little circuit we played--Hutchinson, Junction City, Larned. We'd rent these halls. We had these booking agents, Aunt Kat and Uncle Bob Smith. They worked out of their house. We played regular at the Sportsman's Club as the Blues Toppers with Donald King Dunn." The group also played gigs throughout Kansas. The management team ran an efficient operation.
"Like you came in and needed a guitar or an amp; they'd go down to the music store and let you get the one you wanted. They'd have you sign [the contract]."
Dunn was glad for their help but learned something at a later date. "I didn't pay attention. It turned out they signed as witness and I signed on the line as buyer."
The instruments remained in the Smiths' possession until they were paid off. "They were good people. Whatever you needed, they would help you out. You could stay with them, eat and sleep with them if you didn't have any place to go."
At the time the Smiths were in their late 50s. Neither played music. "What they would do, is rent halls, and get the posters made up. They didn't mess with [handling] the jazz musicians."
Dunn started playing more rock and roll in the early '60s and moved into the white clubs. "Late '50s and early '60s was my greatest time. In the '50s, Wichita had some real good musicians. If a band came here and they were short of musicians, they could pick one up. They could find one who could play anything."
Commenting on his own experience with the integrating force of music, Dunn said "The blues was strong in the late '50s. I could see when the rock and roll intervened and that's what mixed up the audiences. Rock was up-tempo blues and had the beat on the 2,4 rather than the 1,3."
Or as Chuck Berry, one of the preeminent black rock and roll musicians close to the rhythm and blues vein, wrote "It's got a back beat; you can't lose it."27
"In '65, [blues great] Johnny Otis called me from California and I went out there and played for him. We were so busy playing, I didn't have time to notice the [Watts] riots. We were playing Inglewood, and the nice neighborhoods. I have also played around Kansas City."
Dunn rates the musicians and opportunities of Kansas City "way ahead of Wichita. I put it on the scale with Chicago." Dunn returned to Wichita and currently owns D D's Club, a blues venue on north Emporia. "All I'm doing now is playing down here on Sunday."
His look back tells a lot about black culture in the Midwest. "I come from Oklahoma. I could hear blues around the house and when I was in the black neighborhoods. We listened to Stan's Record Company in Mississippi on the radio in the early '50s. That's how I ordered my blues records.
"At the time blues was underground music. You couldn't just go anywhere and buy some blues. In a small town you couldn't get no black records."
Ferdinand Tonnies first applied the terms gemeinschaft and gesellschaft to the differing influences on culture, signifying community and society, respectively. "[I]t is in the organization and order of the Gemeinschaft that folk life and folk culture persist."28 Once people move to the urban centers, they belong to gesellschaft, where "The state and its departments and the individuals are the only remaining agents, instead of numerous and manifold fellowships, communities, and commonwealths which have grown up organically."29
This analogy easily applies to the change from the folkways of rural Oklahoma, and to a certain extent, the black community as represented in L'Ouverture school, to those of the urban setting of a thriving 1950s Wichita. Remnants of the city's unfortunate segregation, coupled with the influx of small-town Oklahomans and others seeking jobs in the aircraft industry, kept the blues music of Wichita at a seminal piquancy.
Blues and R&B artists came through town, spreading the concept of professional levels of performance. This aided local performers by example and, as outlined by Dunn, with opportunity to match talents with the big names. Thanks to Wichita's aircraft industry which provided the shift work that enabled night clubs and taverns to have a steady late-night clientele, and also gave the musicians day jobs, the blues prospered in the city.
Blacks came to Wichita in the 1950s, doubling their population and more than doubling the quality of blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll available here. This in turn helped Wichita find acceptance for the minority community in arenas outside the northeast quadrant.
The interviews with the early practitioners of the blues serve to show the life and wealth of form that existed in Wichita, thanks to the African-American community. Berry Harris, Harmonica Chuck, Jerry Childers, and Donald Dunn began their musical careers in the 1950s, choosing the music of their cultural tradition for its ability to reflect the intricate passages in black life, and this city in Kansas for its aura of opportunity.
The performers proved the point that the blues held its own among other types competing for the attention of blacks, and influenced white musicians. These musicians went to the clubs in the 1950s to learn the theory and method of the blues from the masters, continuing to break down otherwise forbidding color lines.
Berry Harris told the story of working behind his "starvation box," being a part of integration in clubs across Wichita in the late 1950s, using the fluidity of the blues. His panoply of venues covered the city, quite unlike the segregated housing. Likewise, his ability to play several types of popular music, always discovering the richness of the blues beneath, portrayed an African-American contributing to the culture of Kansas.
In addition to Harris, Harmonica Chuck, another sexagenarian whose 904 Club mixed races in the appeal of the music, along with Jerry Childers and Donald Dunn, who could have continued to show their talent in other parts of the country but chose to return to Wichita, are some of the originators of the 1950s Wichita sound, and keepers of the blues.
In other words, there were sustaining forces at work in Wichita in the '50s, keeping the genuine warmth and majestic feeling of the music alive. During the embarrassing days of 1950s segregation, Wichita blues was a source of comfort and identity for the African-American community. The message of the music, the universality of depressing days and the inherent ability of the blues to reach the listener and show a way out of the sorrow (or at the very least to show that sadness is a shared human condition) helped integration and fostered acceptance as no court-mandated package could have.
These ambassadors of the blues--and there are others whose story has yet to be told--deserve the bit of recognition their talent accords them. They have led their people through the hard times, and the community of Wichita has been sustained.
1 Robert G. Athearn, In Search Of Canaan,
(Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1978) 37.
2 C. Robert Haywood,
"The Hodgeman County Colony", Kansas History, Volume
12, Number 4, 213.
Beacon, December 9, 1963.
Beacon, December 9, 1963.
People's Friend (Wichita), May 24, 1894.
City Directory, 1924.
City Directory, 1924.
Eagle, January 18, 1924.
Beacon, December 9, 1963.
Randall Bennett, A Black Odyssey, (Lawrence: The Regents Press
Of Kansas, 1981) 55.
11Wichita Morning Eagle, October
12Wichita Morning Eagle, October
13Wichita Morning Eagle, October
14Wichita Eagle, September 16,
Rayl, "My Experiences With The Blues.", Unpublished essay,
1925 Wichita City Directory has an entry for a Cleo McCloud,
residing at 1227 N. Mead, who was a laborer for the C B Team Mule Company.
There is a restaurant listed at 2601 N. Indiana, Orville Patterson owner,
in the 1932 Directory.
17Wichita Beacon, December 9,
Donald O. and F. Samuel Osterlay, Jr., The People Of Wichita
(A Report of the Center for Urban Studies, Prepared for Wichita-Sedgwick
County Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, January, 1962), 26.
19Wichita Evening Eagle, March
Ottenheimer, "Prewar Blues in St. Louis", Popular Music
& Society Vol 14, #2, 1990.
Ottenheimer, "The Blues Tradition In St. Louis", Black
Music Research Journal Vol 9, #2, 1989.
1957 Wichita City Directory lists a Ken's Club at 318 W. 29th
N. No listing for the Rhythm City was found.
1957 Wichita City Directory lists a Hillside Club at 3200 S.
Hillside, which corresponds with Phillips' description.
1957 Wichita City Directory lists a Jones Tavern at 948 N. Washington.
January 19, 1941 Wichita Eagle reports that the Blue Moon, built
in 1937, was located at 3401 S. Oliver and seated 1200. The club burned
to the ground in January 1960.
26 The Arcadia Municipal Theatre was located
in the Forum, 201 S. Water.
27 Chuck Berry, "Rock And Roll Music",
Chess 1671, May, 1957.
Tonnies, “Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft.” The Making of
Society. Ed. Robert Bierstedt. New York: The Modern
Library, 1959. 296.