Overtown was created as the Central Negro District in segregated Miami, just north of downtown and west of the railroad tracks. The name comes from the phrase ''going over town'' to get there. Old timers say it with a hint of melody, with something of the lilt of all the Bahamians who lived there or the Southern accent of old My-YAM-ah.
SENSE OF COMMUNITY
Life wasn't perfect. There were shotgun shacks without plumbing or electricity, whorehouses by the railroad tracks (convenient to the white side of town), and a violence-plagued alley that earned its nickname, Bucket of Blood. Repressive laws kept black people humiliatingly penned into their 14-by-7-block ghetto after dark, even as white visitors, from the KKK to clubgoers who got the best tables, came and went at will.
But there was also a powerful sense of community, self-sufficiency and pride that made Overtown seem like paradise lost.
''Overtown was economically isolated, repressed and yet thriving,'' says Marvin Dunn, historian and author of Black Miami in the Twentieth Century. ``People were forced into a community of self-sufficiency and, to some degree, independence.''
Second Avenue was a bustling strip of clubs, restaurants and stores, including shops where you could have a dress or a suit custom-made for Saturday night, because hitting Overtown required dressing your best. Scotch and milk was a favorite drink, but at many clubs you had to buy a setup -- a bottle of liquor and mixers -- if you wanted a table.
`THE WAY OF LIFE'
Sam Moore of the legendary soul duo Sam and Dave, who hit the charts with Soul Man and Hold On, I'm Comin', grew up in Overtown, playing preacher in the front yard of his house at 1455 NW Third Ave., sitting on his front porch watching the ''finaglings'' in back of a ''house of ill repute'' behind Charlie's Bar until his grandmother would yell at him to get inside.
''I was in the ghetto, but I didn't know it was a ghetto,'' Moore says. ``I never left out the neighborhood. That was the way of life. I didn't know I was poor. I didn't get everything I wanted, but I never went hungry. So it didn't bother me at all because that's all I knew.''
Says historian Dunn: ``Segregation did a positive thing in that it created a sort of a fulcrum, a boiling pot of rage, of elation, of celebration. It created a place where art could flourish, where musicians in particular could flourish.''
''The local talent was so amazing,'' says Ellis, the jazz musician. ``It was like a big pot that was simmering, and anybody could come and bring their bit. It made a hell of a meal.''
Overtown was an essential stop on the Chitlin Circuit, the parallel music world that many black artists traveled in the days of segregation. But it was also close to Miami Beach, where local musicians and national stars like Lena Horne, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Aretha Franklin entertained at white hotels.
Blacks, even if they were stars, weren't allowed to spend the night in those hotels. So after the show, they would take their talented selves, and often their white fans, back across the railroad tracks to Overtown.
''The party began once they came over,'' says Rivers, the event producer. 'Because it was like, `OK, I done worked for them. I made my money. Now let me enjoy myself with my people. Now I can get down the way I want to get down.' ''