`DOWN TO EARTH'
In Overtown, black stars found a place to land.
''Oh, they were so down to earth,'' says Dr. Phillip Leno Wright, 63, guitarist and big brother to Miami soul singer Betty Wright, who had a national hit with Clean Up Woman in 1971. Phillip, who went on to play with Aretha Franklin, remembers riding in Jackie Wilson's Cadillac, and seeing Ike and Tina Turner arguing outside the Knightbeat.
'It wasn't like, `Oh, I'm a big star.' They were just like ordinary people. But they had hit records. All over the whole country. And everybody knew who they were in the United States. But when they came to Overtown, they could walk out of the club and walk down the streets at 2 o'clock in the morning, and people would say, 'Hey, Tina Turner, what's up?' ''
Many visiting stars used local musicians to back them up. When Phillip Wright was 13, he auditioned for Sam Cooke. 'He looked at me 'cause I was so young, and he said, `Do you know any of my songs?' And I said, 'I know all your songs.' ''
Wright proceeded to nail Cooke hits like You Send Me and Working on the Chain Gang. ``So, we worked out that I got onstage and played with him, and I was so excited! Because I knew so much about Sam Cooke, and for me as a 13-year-old to play for Sam Cooke was the biggest thrill of my life.''
The neighborhood's tiny size meant that everyone knew everybody else. Cab Calloway's sister Blanche, who lived in a house in Overtown that her brother owned, hosted talent shows at which the Wright kids were regular winners. Deejays Butterball and China Valles hosted shows at radio station WMBM from a windowed booth at the Sir John, known to the neighborhood and celebrities alike.
Hank Ballard, whom local recording pioneer Henry Stone recorded in the original version of The Twist in 1957, before Chubby Checker made it famous, went out with Vanilla ''Miss Boom Boom'' Williams, who led a dance group at the Knightbeat, one of whose members was comedian Flip Wilson. Wilson got his famous Geraldine character from Chickie Horne, a Miami comedian who performed in drag.
Sam and Dave came together accidentally in 1960 when Moore, who was hosting a talent contest at the Liberty City club Queen of Hearts, rescued awkward competitor Dave Prater, who froze up on Jackie Wilson's Doggin' Me Around. 'I walk up and I say, `I know this, boy. I know Jackie Wilson,' '' Moore, 73, remembers. 'So he said, `You better start me.' ''
In the midst of their stumbling harmony, Moore caught his foot in the microphone cord, and he and Prater dived to catch the mic. ''Well, the audience thought that that was it,'' Moore says. ``The whole place erupted. All right! Sam and Dave!''
Soon, the duo were packing them in. Sometimes Prater would come in right after his shift at an Overtown bakery and shed flour onstage. But the audience loved them anyway. ''We're the favorite sons, so they looked over that,'' Moore says. ``It was a family, a neighborhood thing. They knew Sam Moore and Dave Prater.''
Harlem conjures up jazz; Detroit, Motown; Memphis, the blues. But for all the famous names who played Overtown, little local talent made it onto the national stage, and no significant legacy emerged from Overtown's truncated musical and celebrity ferment.
Major acts like James Brown and Sam Cooke may have used local musicians and absorbed local influences, but they didn't bring the neighborhood along with them to stardom. The hits that propelled Sam and Dave to fame later in the 1960s were made in Memphis.