The Shep Allen Story
by George W. Kay
At long last, jazz writers and historians are beginning to look closely into new and unexplored sources for important documentation of the story of jazz. A veritable hidden treasure of priceless, authentic memorabilia may be found in the memories of agents who booked the old road bands and operators of nightclubs, ballrooms and theaters throughout America.
There are the field men of MCA, William Morris and Joe Glaser booking agencies; there are the operators of the large ballrooms of the past, such as the Savoy and Roseland in New York, the Greystone in Detroit, the Playmore in Kansas City and Castle Farm in Cincinnati (the list is endless); there are the managers of the vaudeville houses and theaters specializing in live stage presentations — some of the familiar names here are the Apollo in New York, the Royal in Baltimore, the Howard in Washington (all three are still going concerns incidentally), the Lyric in New Orleans, and the long lamented Pekin, Grand and Vendome in Chicago.
Shep Allen, manager of the Howard Theater in Washington, is one such source. One of the most revered and respected men in show business, Allen, a very active 72, has managed the Howard since 1931. He was the first person to place a jazz orchestra (Duke Ellington) on a stage in Washington. Born in Chicago, Allen started in show business in 1912 as manager of the old Pekin Theater. From there he took over the operation of three of the most famous State Street spots of the early Chicago jazz era — the Panama Cafe, The Entertainers and the DeLuxe Café. In 1921 he went to the Sunset Café as manager of that legendary cabaret of the Roaring Twenties. All the great Negro musicians and entertainers during those early Chicago days were his intimate friends.
Allen left Chicago in 1926 to open the Pearl Theater in Philadelphia for the Stiefel brothers who owned a chain of Negro Theaters that included the Royal and Howard. While at the Pearl, Allen booked Duke Ellington and featured the Duke in an elaborate stage show patterned after the lavish Cotton Club reviews. A few years later he adopted the same format with tremendous success when he opened the Howard Theater with Ellington in September, 1931.
A minimum of editing has gone into this interview with Shep Allen, because Allen’s story in his own words is the important thing. His remarkably accurate recollections should serve to corroborate the findings of others who are doing such important and valuable work in the documentation of jazz origins. In the following text the words in italics are my own.
George W. Kay
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When did you first go into show business in Chicago?
If you want to call it show business, I started in 1912 at the Pekin Theater. From then on I was between the theaters and the nightclubs. Between 1912 and 1916 I was operating the Pekin and the Panama Cafe. The great entertainers at the Pekin during those early days were Lottie Grady, Harrison Stewart, May White and Pearl Brown. They were probably the most famous of the show people at The Pekin. Lottie Grady was a dramatic actress and Harrison Stewart was quite a noted comedian. The others were singers.
The Pekin seated about a thousand people. It had a very lovely stage and we featured some very fine shows, at least for that day. Bob Motts was the owner of the Pekin. When I left the Pekin about 1914, Motts converted the theater into a cabaret and Wallace Tyler took my place as the manager.
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Where did you go when you left the Pekin?
I went to the Panama Café located at 35th and State. There I organized the Panama Trio, composed of the late Florence Mills, the famous Ada “Bricktop” Smith who is now in Italy, and Cora Green. The pianist for the trio was Glover Compton and the drummer was Ollie Powers. In all probability Powers was the greatest of the tenor singers of that day. The Panama Café was closed because of a murder. A fellow known all along The Stroll as “Curley” stabbed another man in a fight in front of the bar. This incident resulted in the closing of the Panama and my taking the Panama Trio to the West Coast in 1916.
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Do you recall Tony Jackson?
Tony Jackson played at the Elmwood located at 32nd and State. As you know, Tony was the writer of the song Pretty Baby and he sold the rights for twenty-five dollars. The operators of the Elmwood were Sidney Dago and Bob Russell. I never did hire Tony for any jobs. When I came to the Elmwood, Tony was already working there. I was around there quite a bit until I went to the Panama Cafe.
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Where else did Tony Jackson play?
Tony played at the Elite No. 1, which was one of the famous spots in the early ’teens. Jelly Roll Morton also played there. Art Cardoza (Codozoe) was the owner of the place. He also owned Elite No. 2 which I tried to persuade him not to buy. The principal performers at Elite No. 1 were Jackson, Morton and Carolyn Boyd. Carolyn was a singer and pianist and she worked at Elite No. 1 for many, many years. She was a real top-notch entertainer.
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Did you see Jelly Roll in California?
Jelly Roll was playing around the clubs there and writing music and playing piano. I know that Joe Woodson in Chicago was associated with Jelly Roll and he was supposed to have lined up engagements for him on the West Coast. Jelly Roll would be listed in the happy-go-lucky field. It was all right if it broke good and it was all right if it broke bad. He just took it in his stride. Anyway it would come was all right with Jelly Roll. He always did carry a lot of money. I don’t know about that one thousand dollar bill story but he saw a lot of money in his hands or in his pockets, all the time, every day. And the diamond in his tooth — that’s a fact. Maybe he had reference to the diamond being worth a thousand dollars. But he had the diamond in his tooth and the money in his pocket.
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What happened after you returned to Chicago?
The Panama Trio made some theater engagements, including the Grand, in the Fall of 1918. “Bricktop” Smith left for Europe and her place was taken by Carolyn Williams. (Carolyn was married three times, her other married names being Todd and Lillison). Tony Jackson played piano for the Panama Trio during these theater engagements but he was not their regular accompanist. When I left the Panama, I went to a small place next door called the DeLuxe. That was for a brief stay. Then to the Entertainers for a short stint. I finally wound up at the opening of the very famous Sunset Cafe at 35th and Calumet Avenue. The dates were 1919 for the DeLuxe and 1920 for the Entertainers. I went to the Sunset in 1921.
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Do you recall the famous entertainers you hired for those clubs?
Freddie Keppard was the great trumpeter at the DeLuxe. Keppard, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong were always vieing [sic] for honors. Louis was across the Street at the Dreamland and Keppard was upstairs with us. There is no question that Freddie Keppard was one of the greatest trumpeters. Between him, Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong, if you would flip up a coin, which ever way it went, that was it. You just couldn’t draw between them. Louis probably got the best break of all.
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Going into the Sunset, who was operating it before you took over?
I went there at its very inception. We opened the Sunset in 1921. It was located at 35th and Calumet, just a half-mile east of State Street. Across the street was the great Plantation. Up the street was another little nightspot called The Apex. We were just surrounded by them, but the Sunset with the great Carroll Dickerson orchestra was the leading place on the street.
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Tell us about your acquaintance with Joe Glaser.
I was at the Sunset before Joe Glaser took over. Ed Fox and Sam Reifas were the original owners of the place. Joe Glaser was a very rich man at that time. His father died and left him a lot of holdings. The automobile business was what he stayed in and was closest to. After that, however, he began to like the theater, nightclubs and show business and he eventually bought the Sunset from Fox and Reifas. He stayed there until the nightclub business went on the wane in Chicago. He then became associated with Louis Armstrong and today he is one of the largest bookers of theatrical talent and bands in the country.
Joe Glaser knows the business very, very well. He has been responsible for the success of Louis Armstrong. Louis was probably on the wane at that time but Joe seemed to have the needle and success, success, success followed. I didn’t have Louis at the Sunset. He came in there after I left Chicago in 1926. I had Carroll Dickerson, Frankie Half-Pint Jaxon and Charlie Elgar. Of course, Joe Jordan was music director for many years at the Pekin and the Sunset. Later he joined violinist Willie Tyler for a successful tour on vaudeville.
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Would you tell us about Cab Calloway’s start?
Cab Calloway was working at the Sunset with his sister Blanche. One night they were without an orchestra leader (Smitty of Smitty’s Missourians). They had to have a leader and Blanche suggested Cab. He did it so well that the public demanded that he stay as leader. This did not sit too well with Smitty. However, Cab stayed and it was a very successful change they made in putting him in front of the band. He started all that hollering and he went on from there to great heights.
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Let’s run down the list of clubs and theaters in Chicago in the early days; We will start with the States Theater at 35th and State.
The States Theater was just three or four doors above the Panama Cafe on State Street. It was a very nice little movie house. Then we come to my old place, the DeLuxe Café which was next door to the corner. You asked about the entertainers at the DeLuxe. I knew Roy Palmer and Tubby Hall, but I don’t remember Sugar Johnny Smith or Lawrence Duhé, who were supposed to have been there too.
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Now we come to the Dreamland Café.
Bill Bottoms was the owner and operator. They had such greats as Dodds, Sidney Bechet and a host of others. Of course, Louis Armstrong’s wife Lil was pianist. Bill Bottoms left the Dreamland to go with Joe Louis as his dietitian. He’s back in Chicago but I don’t know what he’s doing now.
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Going north from 35th Street on State we come to the Flume Café.
That’s right . . . the Flume Café. Then came the New Monogram Theater and up near the corner and next to the Panama was Elite No. 2. The Panama was located on the northeast corner of 35th and State.
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Proceeding north on State to 31st Street and the Vendome Theater. Tell us about the places in this vicinity.
The famous Vendome was on the right side of State near 31st Street. The Grand Theater, on the northeast corner of 31st and State, was a very fine theater also. They had the Original Creole Band for awhile. Later came the great Earl Hines. He left the Grand to go to the Vendome to join Eddie South and Erskine Tate. Teddy Weatherford was there before he left the country.
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Do you recall a singer named Lizzie Hart?
I knew Lizzie Hart very well. She was a great singer, no question about it. She just came along a few years too early. Lizzie was popular around 1913-14-15. She played the theaters, in fact, she played the T.O.B.A. circuit. Of course, Bessie and Clara and Mamie Smith made frequent trips around that circuit. I remember Ma Rainey but I didn’t know her too well other than as a singer.
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Now we circle back to 35th and Calumet and your place, the Sunset Café.
The Sunset could seat a thousand people. It was very beautifully decorated and it had a glass dance floor. When the music was playing for dancing, the rest of the house lights were turned out and the floor was illuminated by the lights coming through the glass floor. There were no hours. People operating nightclubs in that day would buy the place, decorate the premises, stock the bar and throw away the key.
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Next on our list is the Plantation.
The Plantation was diagonally across the street from the Sunset on the northeast corner of 35th and Calumet. Joe Oliver played there as did Kid Ory and Paul Barbarin. They were all familiar names in the Twenties. And there was Dave Peyton, later president of the union and a great pianist and composer. Close by was the Nest and then the Apex. The Apex was across the street from the Plantation. It was upstairs and quite an after-hours spot. After the other places along The Stroll would close, which was three or four o’clock in the morning, you could always get into the Apex for a little Scotch and soda.
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There are two landmarks we have not mentioned. They are the Eighth Regiment Armory and the Lincoln Gardens.
The Armory was located at 35th and Giles Avenue. Many nights there were big affairs . . . breakfast dances to which all the fashionable people came, had their drinks and danced to the big bands. There would be Bill Cook, Carroll Dickerson and Earl Hines. The Royal Gardens, later known as the Lincoln Gardens, was at 31st and Cottage Grove. Joe Oliver and his Creole band were there in 1918. The name was changed to Lincoln Gardens in 1921. It was still going when I left for Philadelphia in 1926.
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Before we close, would you elaborate on any points we have overlooked?
There are a few things I might say about Tony Jackson and Jelly Roll.
Tony was a versatile performer. As a singer, he sounded something like Nat “King” Cole but he had more power and greater range. He could reach very high notes without getting a falsetto. He could play a great piano and he could play anything. Tony was very ill during the winter of 1921 and I attended the big benefit they held for him at the Dreamland Café in February of that year. Tony died in April of 1921, a victim of tuberculosis.
As for Jelly Roll, I knew him very well during those early days in Chicago. When I was in L.A. in 1916-17 with the Panama Trio, I saw Jelly Roll almost every day while he was in town. But I didn’t see him often when he was in Washington in the late thirties. (Jelly Roll’s club, “The Music Box” was located almost directly behind Allen’s office at 1212 Vee Street N.W. Morton’s establishment was situated at 1211 U Street, NW.). Jelly tried to book an engagement at the Howard but he couldn’t get together a band that was good enough for us.
Finally, I should mention that many of the legendary characters of Old State Street in Chicago may still be living and they would have good stories to tell. One fellow who knew The Stroll from A to Z was a fellow named Klondike. He was a reporter for several papers and at one time he put out his own newspaper. The last I heard was that he was still around Chicago. There should be many others who should have something important to contribute to the story of that colorful era of Chicago nightlife.
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The above article was published in the Jazz Journal magazine, dated February 1963, Vol. 16, No. 2, pages 7—11.