ENTERTAINMENT

Mell O Tones Band Performing at Nightclub

Mell O Tones band performing at a Williamsburg, Va., area nightclub, circa 1950s. Maurice Ballard on trumpet, Grant Talbot on saxophone (at center?). Photo by Albert W. Durant.

            The Albert Durant Photography Collection provides a fascinating glimpse into African American social life in the Williamsburg, Virginia, area during the 1940s and 1950s. A number of segregated nightclubs existed where African Americans could gather to socialize, dance, and listen to musicians, singers, and comedians. Many African Americans, including Albert Durant, traveled to other cities to hear major jazz performers. According to Durant’s wife, Elsie, “He was a great fan of jazz and blues. He would even go to New York to meet people in the bands and take pictures of them.”[1] African Americans who loved music also organized regional productions to showcase local talent. Albert Durant carried his camera to many of these events and captured the excitement as audiences laughed at silly floor routines, swayed to jazz music, or cheered for R&B singers.


 

Men's Quartet Serenading Nightclub Customers

Men's quartet serenading customers at Williamsburg area nightclub (probably Yorkie's Tavern), Va., circa 1950s. Photo by Albert W. Durant.

              By participating in men’s singing groups, African American men with vocal skills could earn extra money and pursue a musical hobby on the side. Quartets and quintets strolled about the nightclubs to engage audiences and provide intermissions between larger acts. A number of Durant’s photos show such men’s vocal groups serenading tables of customers.

Comedy Team at Nightclub

Lassie and Lou's (also identified as Lassus and Lou's) Comedy Team with Fort Eustis musicians performing at Williamsburg area nightclub, Va., circa 1950s. Photo by Albert W. Durant.

               Comedians also appeared on the playbills for local nightclubs. Several of Durant's photos document a comedy team, Lassie & Lou (or possibly Lassus & Lou, as noted in variant identifications). The male and female pair provided comic relief between acts by jazz musicians and singers.

Ruth Brown Performing at Yorkie's Tavern

R&B singer Ruth Brown possibly performing at Yorkie's Tavern, Lightfoot, Va., circa late 1940s. Photo by Albert W. Durant.

                Ruth Brown, a native of Portsmouth, Virginia, launched her career as an R&B singer by performing in various nightclubs in the Hampton Roads area. In the mid-1940s, she started appearing secretly in taverns and theaters on the peninsula to avoid being caught by her father, who disapproved of her aspirations to be an entertainer. The Jefferson Theater, located on 25th Street in Newport News, regularly hosted talent contests and Brown frequently won them. With contributions from loyal fans, she made her first trip to New York and won first prize in the Apollo Theater's amateur night contest.[2] Exposure to larger entertainment venues in New York and Washington, D.C., enabled Brown to launch a career as a recording artist, and she eventually became a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her hit song, "Teardrops from My Eyes," featured on her first album recorded with Atlantic Records in 1950, reigned at number one for eleven weeks.


 

Yorkie's Tavern Souvenir Photo Envelope

Envelope for Yorkie's Tavern souvenir photo taken by Albert W. Durant (DUR-5311CN), circa late 1940s-1950s. Stamp on envelope reads, "TRY OUR / FLOOR SHOWS SAT. and SUNDAY / CHICKEN STEAKS HAMBURGERS BAR-B-Q / YORKIE'S TAVERN RT. 60 LIGHTFOOT, VA. CHAUNCY BATCHELOR, Prop."

               Yorkie’s Tavern, operated by proprietor Chauncey Batchelor and located in Lightfoot, Virginia, drew large crowds of African Americans on the weekends. Offering traditional restaurant fare such as barbecue, steaks, and hamburgers, the tavern transformed into a nightclub with floor shows on Saturdays and Sundays. Albert Durant circulated through the room before performances to take group photos, which he later sold in keepsake souvenir envelopes. He capitalized on the trend in the 1940s and 1950s to offer special memories for club patrons via souvenir photos. Other local hot spots, such as the Starlight Room at the Monticello Hotel in Norfolk, Virginia, also featured photographers who walked the perimeter of the room taking images of couples or groups.

Ladies at Yorkie's Tavern Nightclub

Nine women at a table at Yorkie's Tavern, Lightfoot, Va., circa late 1940s-1950s. Enclosed in a "souvenir photo" envelope (DUR-5311CNb). From far right, counterclockwise: Queen Esther Taylor, John Parsons (upper right, with scarf), Josephine Lee Hargis,  [Alzene Parsons or Alzenia Holmes], Cynthia Ferguson Wallace, Celestine Carter Overberry,  Marilynn Billups, Marie Crump Brown, unidentified, Clarine Billups Jones (with arm outstretched toward viewer). Photo by Albert W. Durant.

                The venues frequented by Albert Durant’s camera reflect the places popular with local African American residents, including military servicemen (as shown in the photo of the comedy team). Music, dance, and comedy, as well as a night on the town at a popular floor show, played a significant role in bringing the community together. Those who toiled as laborers during the week could shed their work identities to become vibrant entertainers. The release offered by an entertaining evening gave African Americans a sense of renewal and pride.

 


[1] Jonathan Goldstein, “A New View of the Past: Photo Exhibit Shows Strength of Black Community,” Daily Press  (Newport News, Va.), 29 September 1993.

[2] Sam MacDonald, “Ruth Brown Can’t Forget Her Local Roots,” Daily Press (Newport News, Va.), 17 March 1996.