Ask any music lover to which date and place in history they would wish a time machine to deliver them and their answer will easily reveal their musical allegiance; rockabilly fans will invariably plump for Union Avenue in Memphis, while jazz fans will probably request New York’s 52nd Street and blues lovers will state Chicago’s Maxwell Street, but ask any aficionado of jump blues and early rhythm & blues, and the preferred destination will almost certainly be Central Avenue in the late 1940s.
It wasn’t the only black entertainment thoroughfare, of course; every major city had one – many of them have been immortalised in song – but LA’s Central Avenue was arguably the most celebrated, rivalling New York City’s Harlem and, indeed, earning it the wry nickname of Little Harlem West. The Avenue had thrived as an entertainment area since the beginning of the 20th Century because it was developed as a commercial district full of offices, shops and factories whose collective closure in the early evening resulted in a large number of un-winding workers with money in their pockets to spend at The Lincoln Theatre or The Dunbar Hotel. During the early 1940s, however, the massive influx of Texans, Oklahomans and migrants from every other state drawn by the financial incentive of plentiful war-time jobs boosted the area’s economy and small clubs began mushrooming overnight. The increase in venues resulted in hundreds of entertainers flocking to LA from all over the US, many of whom, such as Joe Turner and Pete Johnson, relocated there to live, while others, like Duke Ellington’s vocalist Ivie Anderson, even settled down to open their own clubs and restaurants. And with that unmatched array of entertainers, it was inevitable that a myriad of small independent labels would spring up to take advantage of the local fan-base which was soon clamouring for 78rpm facsimiles of their favourite’s club performances.
This CD is the first in a projected series of Central Avenue themed compilations drawn from those heady days, and illustrates the frenzy of recording activity that occurred when all those singers, musicians and burgeoning recording companies came together during WWII and in the growth years that followed, until the dominance of rock‘n’roll in the late 1950s. Here, and on future volumes, you will find pioneering displaced Texans such as Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, Pee Wee Crayton, Joe Houston and Floyd Dixon, and Oklahoma-born Joe Liggins and Roy Milton, rubbing shoulders with L.A. natives like Hadda Brooks and Big Jay McNeely and loners from other states: pianists, guitar pickers, sax blowers, jump blues shouters, dreamy vocal groups, big-voiced balladeers, jazzy crooners, swing veterans, wild rockers, old bucks at the end of their long careers and cute chicks at the very threshold of stardom, new talent, has-beens and never-wases; the entire pantheon of late 40s and early 50s black American music is here – just as it would have been on any given night at The Lincoln…or the Club Alabam…or Ivie’s Chicken Shack…or The Little Harlem.
The Bihari brothers’ Modern/RPM/Flair stable is well represented, of course, but also labels such as Art Rupe’s Specialty, Jake Porter’s Combo, Dootsie Williams’ Dootone and John Dolphin’s Money, Cash and Recorded-In-Hollywood…and even out-of-towners like Savoy Records who had latched-on early in the game to the wealth of Central Avenue talent.
Big Joe Turner was an early adopter of the laidback Californian way of life; as early as 1941 he was already boasting I’m in the land of sunshine, standing on Central Avenue. For those of us who were born too late and/or 5,000 miles away, this new series is the next best thing to being in the land of sunshine…at least until we can book a seat on that eagerly anticipated space/time continuum machine.