Bygone days: The sweet music of Miami's Overtown

02/01/2009 3:01 AM

02/26/2012 9:53 AM

For a place that once pulsed with music, Overtown is eerily quiet. There are more vacant lots than buildings on the stretch of Northwest Second Avenue that gleamed with lights and life when it was Miami's Little Broadway 50 years ago. Now, if you stand in the cavernous tunnels under the highways that devastated the neighborhood, the only sound is the whoosh of cars overhead.

Miami has always tended to toss its history aside for the next well-hyped development. But when city fathers rammed the giant concrete pillars and looming span of two highways through Overtown in the 1960s, they also dug the heart out of Miami's black community and scattered it to the margins, destroying a vibrant music scene the likes of which Miami hasn't seen since.

''That was the place,'' says Clarence Reid, 69, who haunted Overtown starting in the 1950s, before becoming a lead songwriter for famed Miami disco label TK Records. ``It was so much fun. Ain't nowhere else. Now you got South Beach, yeah, yeah, yeah. But it ain't nothing compared to Overtown.''

Back then, national stars and their bands jammed with local musicians, trading riffs and ideas, lovers and companionship, day and night. Soul legends Sam and Dave started there; a young Lena Horne lived on the wrong side of Miami's tracks; Sam Cooke and James Brown made Overtown a second home; Flip Wilson honed his comedy there; and Ray Charles made his first records in Overtown.

People sang doo-wop on the corner. Jazz flourished, and the blues resounded. The area bustled with clubs: the Knightbeat, the Mary Elizabeth Lounge, the Harlem Square and many more. The action also brought in white musicians and music fans, creating a racial mix unique for the time in a segregated South.

`MECCA OF MUSIC'

''Miami was a hotbed, a flourishing mecca of music,'' says jazz saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, 67, who lived in Overtown in the early 1960s before going on to become musical director for James Brown. ``It was live and vital. It was vigorous.''

It was the sound of the Miami black community's moment in the sun. And five decades later, there is still bitterness over the loss of the Overtown music scene just as black music exploded into mainstream U.S. culture. Although the legend of those glory days survives in local, seldom-viewed historical archives, the excitement of the place lives only in the memories of the decreasing numbers of people who were there.

''It was a part of our lives -- part of us,'' says John Davis Johnson, 95, an Overtown-raised Harvard Law School graduate, who became the second black judge in Florida and whose law office was on then bustling Second Avenue. ``To see the Dorsey Hotel being torn down, and the Mary Elizabeth -- they were part of us. But then when all these changes were made, then we knew that all of that was behind us, and all we could do was tell our children and our children's children about what used to be.''

Ask people who were there about Overtown's heyday, and their eyes widen, and their hands flutter as if trying to conjure it back into existence. They inhale deeply, as if they could blow life back into a place that is so incomprehensibly dead after being so intensely alive.

''It was like if you go to Bourbon Street,'' says Sandrell ''Chief'' Rivers, 61, an event producer who lived in Overtown as a girl. When her mother would send her on an errand, Rivers wasn't in a hurry to return. 'It would be like `Just a second, there's a band playing in here,' then another band playing in here, then another band playing there. . . . I'd go home, and I'd be like, 'Girl, I done forgot what you sent me for.' And I'd have to go back out again.''

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.' ''

`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.

ACCIDENTAL PAIRING

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.

Betty Wright's Clean Up Woman hit No. 2 on the R&B charts in 1971, but she never surpassed that burst of fame. By then, she was living in Liberty City, and Overtown's heyday was over.

Miami musicians like Sam Early, Dizzy Jones and John ''Root Man'' MacArthur were either too raw, too undisciplined or too far from the center of music industry action to make an impact on the national scene. It wasn't until the 1970s, when Henry Stone's TK Records exploded with disco hits by KC and the Sunshine Band, Gwen McCrae and others, that a Miami sound was heard nationally.

''The musicians in Overtown Miami was some of the best musicians in the country, but they was used to playing onstage, not doing recordings,'' says Willie Clarke, 72, who was born and raised in Overtown. In the early '60s, Clarke and partner Johnny Pearsall launched Deep City Records from Pearsall's Liberty City record shop, releasing a roster of local artists, including Betty Wright and Clarence Reid. Clarke went on to write and produce many of TK's biggest hits, including Clean Up Woman and Rockin' Chair for Gwen McCrae.

But Deep City's musicians were drawn largely from the famed marching band at Clarke's alma mater, Florida A&M, because they had the discipline that Overtown's musicians often lacked.

''They was like restless people,'' Clarke says. ``It's showtime, bring out the drinks, the MC, and they played.''

''You have to work it,'' Reid says. ``You put this record out, and it's good, you don't wait a bunch of time and party 'round two-three years before you put out another one.''

For many musicians, the Overtown music scene, though small, was enough. There was plenty of work and inspiration, the heady sense that this was the center of the action; there was the comforting, small-town neighborliness.

''Maybe because [musicians] felt so comfortable here they felt that this was enough,'' Pee Wee Ellis says. ``To get beyond here took a bit of a leap of faith.''

When Sam and Dave started, Moore was more interested in a good time than in his career: ``To get up my little money on Sunday night, go home with the next girl, and come back and start all over. I enjoyed that. I wasn't looking for stardom.''

And now there is no place in Overtown to play. The highways destroyed hundreds of properties and displaced most of the 40,000 people who once lived there, leaving only about 9,000 today.

The neighborhood's social fabric was decimated, leaving the familiar litany of urban ills: poverty, drugs, crime, riots. Overtown rapidly went from being the hottest part of town to a place that caused many people to shudder when they drove through it.

''Overtown will never be born again,'' Dunn says. ``What we knew is gone. We cannot re-create that. No matter how many millions of dollars you spend on this or that project to bring it back to life, Overtown as it was will never happen. All of the things that came together at just the right time, the right people, the right place -- you can't recapture that.''

Although a host of ambitious new development projects are still planned for the surrounding area, from the $1 billion Port of Miami tunnel to the multibillion-dollar Miami Worldcenter, a massive retail and entertainment complex in Park West, Overtown is not included in such schemes for growth. The restoration of the Lyric Theater and the establishment of a historic district in the neighborhood's center may have resuscitated a faint cultural heartbeat, but it doesn't come close to reviving the neighborhood's heyday.

Junkies and prostitutes still drift in the shadows of the expressway, and people still sleep on the sidewalks.

Some things have improved. For 15 years, Dunn has planted gardens in what used to be trash-filled vacant lots. A section of Northwest Third Avenue has been renovated, with new pavement and storefronts. There's a development of pretty single-family houses on the neighborhood's northern end.

But the heart of Overtown is still largely empty. Dorothy Jenkins Fields, Judge Johnson's niece and founder of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida, got a two-block section along Northwest Second Avenue declared a historic district in 1982. Yet, almost all she has to show for her efforts is the still incomplete restoration of the Lyric Theater.

''The 1982 resolution . . . was to wipe out slum and blight in Overtown and Park West,'' Fields says. ``[The resolution] states that it recognizes the historical, cultural, business and entertainment significance of Overtown. . . . They have refused to honor it.''

Overtown residents and civic activists complain that nearby development, like the recently completed condo towers on Biscayne Boulevard or the elaborate Miami Worldcenter proposed last fall for the Park West area east of the railroad tracks, does nothing to revitalize their neighborhood.

''It's the same story we've been hearing for 30 years,'' Overtown activist Denise Perry said at a community meeting on the Worldcenter project last October.

But even if Overtown is redeveloped, all the condos and Starbucks-ready storefronts in the world won't restore the community and energy that flowered there naturally, or the musical potential wiped out along with the clubs on Second Avenue.

Black urban communities throughout the country were destroyed in the 1960s by highways, desegregation and development. But something special was lost in Overtown: its music and spirit, its sense of pride and excitement -- irreplaceable, evanescent things that made life joyful and worth living.

You can't go ''over town'' anymore.

About Jordan Levin

Jordan Levin

@jordanglevin

Miami Herald culture & entertainment critic.

Join the Discussion

Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service