Who Was Bessie Coleman?

Who was Bessie Coleman? Bessie Coleman was a pilot. When she was born in January 1892, it was several years before the Wright brothers even began to explore the possibility of flight. For Bessie, as a child, human flight was simply an unknown. And yet she became a well-known pilot – the first woman of African-American descent to do so. When she was older, and when flying was in its infancy, Bessie knew that this was what she...

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Paul Robeson’s Proud Valley

As the shadows of World War II were beginning to cast long shadows over London, Ealing Studios were beginning an ambitious new film. It was shot partly in the coal mining region of South Wales, and adapted the story of a black miner from West Virginia who drifted to Wales by way of England, searching for work. It documented the hard realities of Welsh coal miners’ lives and at the same time created a role that its star, legendary...

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Allen Toussaint: Six of the Best

Six of the Best: Allen Toussaint. Andy Royston picks a half dozen favorite songs by the late New Orleans composer, pianist and producer Allen Toussaint. Toussaint is New Orleans music’s renaissance man, the golden boy in the golden age of rhythm and blues. Keith Spera Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleans “I have never doubted that Allen was a prince in a thin disguise” Elvis Costello...

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Slim Gaillard

It was at a free concert on London’s South Bank; one of the many events put on by the soon-to-be-abolished Greater London Council. The open air event was held in Jubilee Gardens, where the London Eye is situated today. I’d shown up with friends to cheer on the likes of Billy Bragg and Eddy Grant, but it was an amazing old feller in a beret and a wild beard grooving away on piano that caught the imagination. I don’t...

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Who Was Butterfly McQueen?

Who was Butterfly McQueen? I love old movies yet I have to admit  that there’s one – a very famous one indeed – that I haven’t seen. I don’t know why. But I do know about one of the actors in the film. That’s Butterfly McQueen. She is one of the most memorable of the cast (even to people like me who have only seen clips but never the full film) and yet, she hated the part. She took the role because...

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Percy Sledge

Percy Sledge: When a Man Loves a Woman Did you know that Percy Sledge’s song, When a Man Loves a Woman, was based on his own experience? When he wrote the song, he had just been dumped by his girlfriend. He understood at the time that she had left him for another man. Someone had told him that was the reason why she had disappeared from his life and gone to New York. In an interview, he later said that the original title of the...

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My old friend Malcolm X

A teenage Andy Royston picked up a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and it made a huge impression. Almost 40 years later, and now living in Florida, he revisits the book to figure out if it still impresses. “Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising...

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Rockin’ Roots: Maybellene by Chuck Berry

It was a spring day in Chicago’s South Side, just off 47th St, then the home of the blues. Some guy up from St. Louis walked in the door on a mission to see Leonard Chess, owner of Chess Records to see if he could make a deal. His name? Chuck Berry. The night before Berry had been watching Muddy Waters at the Palladium Theater, and – the story goes – Muddy directed him to go see Leonard Chess. It’s likely that...

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Taking The Rap – When Broward got Nasty

”It is an appeal to dirty thoughts and the loins, not to the intellect and the mind.” Jose Gonzalez, Federal District Court – Southern District of Florida On Monday, February 26th 1990 a Broward County Deputy Sheriff walked into his local record store, Sound Warehouse on Oakland Park Boulevard, and bought a cassette tape by 2 Live Crew. The recording, As Nasty As They Wanna Be had been released in 1989 alongside a...

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Bessie Smith ~ Empress of the Blues

Bessie Smith ~ Empress of the Blues. Bessie Smith would have been the first one to laugh at the title “Empress of the Blues.” Not because she thought she didn’t deserve it, but because her childhood and upbringing had accustomed her not to expect much. Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on a date that is still not clear. Census records say she was born on April 15, 1894, but others say she was born in July of...

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Who Was MaVynee Betsch??

Who was MaVynee Betsch, the Beach Lady? She was born into high society. Her great grandfather had been the first black millionaire in Florida. He founded the Afro-American Insurance Company in Jacksonville and the famous black American Beach resort in the days of segregation. MaVynee was exquisitely educated, as were her brother and sister. They were taught the piano, for example, at a very early age. MaVynee went onto study voice and...

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Gonna Be Alright – A Tribute to Abram Wilson

An appreciation of Abram Wilson, written by Andy Royston. All photos by Benjamin Amure courtesy of the Abram Wilson Foundation. Gonna Be Alright – A Tribute to Abram Wilson. ” It’s about finding the inspiration and the energy to overcome any obstacles that might stand in your way as far as playing this music is concerned. You have to be a warrior to get through. It’s somebody who won’t stop pushing, who won’t give up on...

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Florida’s Finest: Cannonball Adderley

How The Cannonball Got His Name. The first in a series of profiles of Florida’s greatest artists, Andy Royston begins with Fort Lauderdale’s be-bop great Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley. “You don’t decide you’re hip. It just happens that way”. – Cannonball Adderley On a Friday night in June 1955 a band director from Fort Lauderdale’s Dillard High School set out on a long drive...

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Accentuate the Positive – The language of Louise Bennett

Accentuate the Positive – The language of Louise Bennett. Back in my high school days the deputy headmaster was trying to make a point about accent and dialect. He turned to me and suddenly I was held up as an example of someone making no effort to speak properly; what he called the Queen’s English. I was dumbfounded (or should I say gobsmacked) by this. I hadn’t considered that the way that I spoke made any...

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Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday: The Voice of a Genius On April 7th, 2016 Billie Holiday, if she was still with us, would be 101 years old. She died too young from her own excesses, but she had a golden voice that will live on well beyond her lifetime. You can find out more here. See a documentary about the life and times of Billie Holiday.       ABOUT THE AUTHOR   Nancy Hardin is a highly experienced writer and author. A retired...

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The Late Great Johnny Ace

“I will tell you exactly what happened! Johnny Ace had been drinking and he had this little pistol he was waving around the table and someone said ‘Be careful with that thing…’ and he said ‘It’s okay! Gun’s not loaded…see?’ and pointed it at himself with a smile on his face and ‘Bang!’—sad, sad thing. Big Mama ran out of the dressing room yelling ‘Johnny Ace just killed himself!” Curtis Tillman, bass player with Big Momma...

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Josephine Baker

The Joséphine Baker Story. Until I recently read a biography about Josephine Baker, I had only the haziest idea about who she was. Little did I know what a truly fascinating life she had. It’s amazing that someone who had such  a poor start in life could achieve so much. The book tells so many fascinating stories about her life – and it wasn’t always an easy one. She inherited her terrific looks from her mother,...

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Queen Victoria and her Indian Servant

Queen Victoria and the Munshi.   It was Queen Victoria whose catchphrase supposedly was ‘we are not amused’. And yet there is no evidence to show that she actually uttered this phrase. Ever. When we think about her,it’s easy to think only of that elderly woman we know from photographs but I suspect that she was a much more interesting character than is sometimes thought. When her husband,Prince Albert,died,she...

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Jazz Standards : Take the ‘A’ Train

Jazz Standards : Take the ‘A’ Train. The story of how Duke Ellington’s signature tune, Take The ‘A’ Train was written is a classic. Billy Strayhorn, future Duke’s right hand man,  was said to have written the piece after Ellington had offered him a job as a writer, arranger and piano man , sending money for him to travel from Pittsburgh to New York and then up to Ellington’s apartment in Sugar...

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Little Stevie – That boy’s a wonder!

Little Stevie – That boy’s a wonder! How Stevie Wonder got his name. It started out with pots and pans. Lula Mae Morris Hardaway’s two year old son was driving everyone crazy banging out rhythms with a set of spoons. Tabletops. crockery, anythng to hand. She came home one day with a set of cardboard drums and little Stevie wore them out. A few years later an uncle had passed on a harmonica and he never went anywhere...

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Don’t be a Dropout – James Brown and Education

Andy Royston pays tribute to the hardest working man in show business. I first saw James Brown’s amazing live act in London in the early 1980s. He was around 50 years old, but the show was every bit as passionate and energetic as it as when he exploded onto the stage in the early 1960s. A recent biopic concentrated on his musical impact, but equally important was the energies Brown devoted to social causes, particularly the...

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The Rhythm Club Fire of 1940

The Natchez Dance Hall Fire of 1940. At 11.30 pm,on the night of 23rd April, 1940, hundreds of people were enjoying listening to music and dancing at a venue called the Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi. Before midnight, at least two hundred of them were dead. Fire had blazed its way through the packed single-storey building. Just a few weeks before the fire the owner,  Edward Frazier, had boarded up with windows to that people...

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Bob Marley’s Family Legacy

Andy Royston marvels at the talent that continues to flow from the kids and grandkids of Robert Nesta Marley. “His work didn’t die with him; his legacy continues through his family. There is no end to Bob Marley’s reign. He will always be part of the existing world. Times change, generations change, but Bob Marley stays with the world. His work lives on.” Rita Marley – Interview, The Voice When Bob Marley married Alpharita...

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In praise of Sensational Women – Mavis Staples

Andy Royston pays tribute to a true musical legend, the magnificent Mavis Staples. We’ve come here tonight to bring you some joy, some happiness, inspiration, and some positive vibrations! We want to leave you with enough to last you for maybe the next six months. – Mavis Staples / Live: Hope at the Hideout Mavis is coming to Fort Lauderdale,just a walk away from my home and I just cannot wait. Here is an American voice...

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A Song for Sunrise : Bob Marley

Picking a sunshine song from the great Robert Nesta Marley isn’t too difficult; most of his music has the glow of the dawn about it. I always turn to the glorious sun-baked Sun Is Shining to throw some light on the day. It dates from my favorite Wailers era – that period in the early 1970s, when, for want of musical direction (a cover of The Archies’ ‘Sugar Sugar’ and the similarly saccharine Dance Do The...

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When Fats Waller Met Al Capone

Fats should have seen it coming. But playing at the Sherman House Hotel, in the swinging heart of Chicago’s loop, he must have felt safe from the mob. As the song goes, the joint was jumpin’. Fats was only 21 years old in ’26 but he was already a big draw. He’d been making records for four years and was about to enter his first peak period. His solo stride piano and pipe organ playing may have found him fans...

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John T Betsch & Bessie Coleman

John T Betsch & Bessie Coleman John T Betsch’s grandfather was the first black millionaire in Florida. John himself was, in his daughter’s words ‘a race man’ who promoted the black community in the area. In 1930 he, as a member of the Negro Welfare League, sponsored and promoted aviator Bessie Coleman who went to Jacksonville to appear in an air show. You can read about Bessie Coleman here. If you’ve...

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British television in the 60s & 70s

British television in the 60s & 70s Looking back at the television programmes some of us watched when we were growing up is like looking into another world. For one thing, almost everyone smoked. Almost everyone went to the pub. But what is really astonishing today looking back is how incredibly ‘politically incorrect’ everything was. Probably the most extreme example of this was the highly popular and successful...

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American Beach, Florida

American Beach, Florida American Beach is  located in Amelia Island in Florida. Of course, Florida is well-known for its wonderful beaches – so what’s so special about this one? It was founded in 1935 by a local millionaire. It was intended to be a resort for the people he employed in his Jacksonville insurance company – plus others, of course. But not everyone. This was an exclusive beach. Why? The photograph below...

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Zora Neale Hurston

Who was Zora Neale Hurston? The nineteen thirties were a strange time in the USA. When most people were struggling with the effects of the Depression, Zora Neale Hurston was travelling and living in Florida, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Haiti – studying voodoo. She is remembered today as a folklorist, anthropologist and writer, yet she came from a childhood which featured deprivation an segregation in the rural southern states. She...

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Bob Marley

Bob Marley Being from England, it always surprises me to discover that people have English ancestry. Did you know that Bob Marley’s father was English? Bob’s mother was only eighteen when she married Norval Marley – he was about sixty and the supervisor of a plantation in Jamaica. Bob was the result, although the couple split up when he was just a baby and Norval died ten years later. Bob rarely spoke about him in...

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Rufus Estes – the first African-American Cookbook

Rufus Estes – author of the first African-American Cookbook   In 1911, Rufus Estes published cookbook. There is nothing particularly unusual in that except Estes is believed to be the first African-American chef to publish his recipes. Rufus was born in 1857 in Tennessee and given the last name of his master; the man who ‘owned’ Rufus’ mother, a slave. When civil war broke out he said that most of the male...

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London at War: Black Americans

Black American soldiers in London in the Second World War. During WW2, many American soldiers were stationed in London and there’s one curious aspect of this that is very rarely mentioned in history books – the treatment of black American soldiers. In the 1940s racial segregation was a fact of life in the USA but not in Britain. This caused various problems. These had been anticipated by Britain’s foreign secretary,...

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In praise of sensational women – Debbie Allen

Andy Royston introduces a new series of articles on the women in popular culture who made his  world quake. “I don’t have time for prima donnas. You want to become a dancer? You’re going to have to work.You’ve got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here’s where you start paying in sweat. I want to see sweat. And the better you are, the more sweat I’m going to demand. So if you...

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Who Was Bass Reeves?

Who Was Bass Reeves? Bass Reeves was an anomaly of his time, an honest, upstanding United States Marshal of the old west, in a time when many who were given the title of lawman were as crooked as those they chased. Bass, known to face down vigilantes alone, stop hangings, and take the one to be hanged off to jail, was both feared and respected for his quick draw. No one wanted to test his widely known ability with a six-shooter. Bass...

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All Time Hero: Jack Johnson

We learn and grow, we make heroes of our own. For me, being a child of the 60s there were astronauts and civil rights leaders, soccer stars and Olympic champs. Gran loved her music, so Nat King Cole, Paul Robeson and Ray Charles were high on my list. Dad’s a big sports fan, and Cassius Clay impressed as much by his trash talking as his skills in the ring. The undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World. If someone wanted to...

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Bob Marley’s American Connection

Andy Royston re-traces reggae legend Bob Marley’s days living in Delaware in the 1960s and how it influenced his music. When Bob Marley left his new bride to fly to America it felt like history repeating. Bob Marley’s mother Ciddy had married captain Norval Marley, on Friday, June 9 1944, a pipe stuffing white superintendent for the crown lands. She was just eighteen; He was at least three years her father’s senior....

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The Independent: Henry Ford’s strange magazine

Henry Ford’s Anti-Semitism Henry Ford could be called the father of the modern motor vehicle. He was also a huge patriot. But he did have some weird ideas. His anti-Semitism is often mentioned but even that took a rather strange form. It seems that personally, he had no objections to Jews. One of his closest friends was Rabbi Leo Franklin and Ford’s factory designer was Albert Kahn, a Russian Jew; the two were friends for...

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