Appleyard: Celebrate area’s black history in music – Pensacola News Journal
This is the thirdÂ in a series of articles on important black Pensacolians throughout history.
Long before the War Between the States, there were tales related to the enjoyment of music within the black community.Â Every generation has a generous share of fine voices among black men and women, and those voices of earlier days often blended into unique harmonies which everyone enjoyed.Â There were instrumentalists, too, and among local black residents there probably were composers, drafting melodiesÂ mentally, then using the memories of associates to sing â¦ and to remember.
BLACK HISTORY COLUMNS
The first such historically related formal musical group was the all-black bandÂ Third Battalion of the U.S. Army, stationed at FortÂ Barrancas in 1873.Â The band was directed by Prof.Â W.H. Wyer, and public performances by that organization were well-remembered in local journals.Â As a civilian, Wyer subsequently became active in the cityâs musical circles.Â He formed his own band, became a teacher and performer, giving concerts in Clutterâs Music House.Â He played a role in developing programming for the new St. Josephâs Roman Catholic Church.Â With his son, he taught music in their family homeÂ at 538 E.Â Zaragoza St.Â Itâs reasonable to suggest that the early formal black presentations and instruction began with this route.
When B.T. Washington High School opened in 1908, a music department was establishedÂ and comments made years laterÂ by members of the Black Music Hall of FameÂ indicate that this source initiated a new generation of music loversÂ and performers.
Early in the 20th century, the wave of racial segregation began in PensacolaÂ and stage by stage businesses, professional and then entertainment activitiesÂ began a new setting at Belmont and DeVillier streets.Â One by one clubs and performing societies were formed, and through 40Â years places with names such as the Ambassador Club, Newtonâs Bunny Club, the 506 Club, the Belmont Theatre and the Saber Club were formed.Â Some local performers left the area and became noted musical names in New York and New Orleans.
As talent peaked and the good times rolled, audiences included white as well as black listeners, all of whom were excited by the sounds of the great Louis Armstrong, the Earl “Father”Â Hines BandÂ and Beverly Crosby, who had been a headliner on three continents.Â These performers gave a name to fun at Belmont and DeVilliers.
But if the stars heard on radio drew extremely well, there was a constant parade of local men and women who made black music here great.Â Some talent passed through generations, as it did with the Wally (The Cat) Mercers, senior and junior.Â Together this pair wasÂ recognized as composers, arrangers, as a drummer (with the Dizzy Gillespie Band) and saxophone artist.Â When specialty radio came to the local black communityÂ with WBOP in 1957, the Mercers were among the early disc jockeys.
On stage were Ida Goodson (the self-proclaimed “last of the red hot mamas”), a vocalist well-remembered from appearances in Pensacolaâs Belmont Theatre and at Preservation Hall in New Orleans.
From a long list, history remembers guitarist Emory “Bo-Bo”Â EdwardsÂ and James McArthur, also a guitarist, who over time played with half a dozen great bands, including Harry James. Harold (Professor) Andrews, was a vocalist and teacher, who was credited with polishing the talents of many who later became well known.
And in an unusual memory, J.P. Newton began a successful big-city commercial career during which he began a lifelong friendship with a young cinema artist named Sidney Poitier.Â Locally, Newton established The Bunny Club.
Black musical history has many, many names.Â Unfortunately economic conditions of the mid-1950s drew a curtain down over the entertainment hub at Belmont and DeVilliers.Â However, community revival is in progress and perhaps the spotlightÂ will again shine on a new generation of starsÂ performing there.