February 09, 2018
This is the month to remember the struggles and celebrate the accomplishments of African-Americans and their fight for long-withheld civil rights. But as we mark Black History Month, it is worthwhile to consider the often-overlooked role three legendary white pop-music acts played in the demise of segregation-customary and codified--in the United States.
We usually don't think of swing-music titan Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and The Beatles as civil rights movement figuregheads, but each in their own way certainly deserves to be remembered as such. Each took the lead in advancing the cause of social and political equality in America.
Goodman, the "King of Swing," who took jazz out of the ragtime/Dixieland realm and streamlined and modernized it, was the first of the triumvirate to step up on behalf of integration.
During his last-half-of-the-1930s heyday, black and white musicians were almost universally prohibited from performing together. In the North, it was more of a "gentleman's agreement," but in the South, "Jim Crow" was the law of the land: Hit the stage with a racially mixed combo, and trouble, legal and otherwise, was sure to follow.
But the only rule Goodman, a Jew from Chicago, deigned to follow was: Jam with the best musicians possible. To Goodman, the color of a player's skin was about as relevant as whether they preferred eggs or pancakes for breakfast.
In 1935, Goodman invited African-American pianist Teddy Wilson to join him and drumming giant Gene Krupa in what was dubbed the Benny Goodman Trio. A year later, vibraharpist Lionel Hampton was added to the re-christened Benny Goodman Quartet.
The presence of Wilson and Hampton could have led to Goodman's arrest below the Mason-Dixon Line. But that didn't faze the bandleader at all: He was so successful and so popular in the North that he essentially told the South to go to hell, and stayed away from Dixie altogether.
In January, 1938, a number of black artists joined Goodman at his landmark Carnegie Hall concert. It wasn't too long after, in the North at least, that integrated bands began to flourish, thus, according to some historians, helping pave the way for other advances, including the 1947 debut of Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Some two decades later, it was Sinatra's turn to take up the cause of civil rights.
Despite the right-leaning politics of his later years, "Ol' Blue Eyes" was, in his younger days, one of show business' leading liberals. In 1945, as the full scope of The Holocaust was being realized by a shocked world, Sinatra starred in an Oscar-winning 10-minute short called "The House I Live In," which was designed to combat anti-Semitism. In the 1950s, he defied the anti-communist "blacklist" by hiring writers and directors alleged to be members of the Communist party. And in Las Vegas, it has been long accepted that he stood at the forefront of racial integration.
Top black entertainers of the 1950s (e.g. Louis Armstrong, Nat "King" Cole, Lena Horne) were regular headliners at Vegas casinos. But away from the gaming hall stages, they were generally treated no differently than any other African-American of the time period. They were reportedly forced to enter the properties by back doors and service entrances, and were usually prohibited from availing themselves of a hotel's amenities. An enduring tale from those days has a casino swimming pool being drained after Sammy Davis Jr. took a dip; it was Davis on whose behalf Sinatra took a stand against segregation.
As the story goes, Davis was headlining at the Sands, Sinatra's Vegas base back in the ring-a-ding '50s, and, as was usual for black entertainers, he was forbidden from staying there. He was likewise relegated to using non-public entrances to go to and from the famed Copa Room.
This didn't sit well with Sinatra, who, in those days, reigned supreme in Sin City. He told Jack Entratter, the Sands' famed entertainment director, that if Davis wasn't afforded the same privileges enjoyed by white guests at the hotel, he (Sinatra) would no longer perform there.
Thus ended Jim Crow's days in Vegas, at least for black headliners. But it wasn't all that long before segregation throughout the casino industry was history.
Some doubters have suggested the Sinatra tale is more apocryphal than fact, but at least one in-the-know person has stood up for "The Chairman of the Board."
In 2015, Corrine Sidney, who was twice married to Entratter, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that, in her opinion, "Frank Sinatra did more for ending segregation than anyone I ever knew. He was the power in show business. That's how he felt. He was a fervent believer in equality.
"Frank not only talked the talk, he walked the walk."
Although the four Beatles ended their collective career at the forefront of seismic societal shifts in the late 1960s, on their first U.S. tour during the summer of 1964, they were just a bunch of kids on their first visit to America. But that didn't keep them from diving into the the then-roiling civil rights crusade.
Three weeks before their Sept. 11 show at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., the group was in Las Vegas. It was there that Philly TV news icon Larry Kane, then a 21-year-old radio reporter from Miami-and the only media member to be on the entire tour-gave a heads up about the strict segregation policies in effect in Jacksonville (which, incredibly, stands as the only Florida city in which they ever performed).
As Kane remembered it, the response was immediate and unequivocal: No integrated seating, no Beatles. An ultimatum to that effect was issued and was reportedly accepted just five hours before the concert was scheduled to begin, thus helping commence the chipping away of the Jim Crow South.
The above is not meant to suggest any kind of equivalency with people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks or James Meredith. But it would be equally egregious to not acknowledge the relatively small, but crucial, roles these artists played in advancing the cause of civil rights.
Chuck Darrow is a veteran entertainment columnist and critic. Listen to "That's Show Biz with Chuck Darrow" 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WWDB-AM (860), WWDBAM.com, iTunes, IHeartRadio, and TuneInRadio.
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