Columns » Bob McCord

Breaking the concert color line

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Jim Porter and I have been friends for a long time mostly because we like jazz and can’t stand rock, rap, hip-hop, gangsta, etc., which is what you hear these days on the radio. Porter is one of the 15 elected members of the Pulaski County Quorum Court. He made a living by working for his father at the Commercial warehouse, but on the side and because he loved popular music he started bringing bands to Central Arkansas. Porter is now retired, largely because he thinks, “Music has now become noise.” But he likes to talk about his music experiences to groups like he did to the men’s club at the Lakewood United Methodist Church last week. He bragged that in 1955 he was the first person to bring Elvis Presley to Little Rock. By 1957 he was bringing famous bands to Little Rock — Tommy Dorsey, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, etc. “They hardly knew where Arkansas was,” Porter said. But that was before the crisis at Central High School when Gov. Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to keep black kids from going into the all-white school. Booking bands to Little Rock became a lot more complicated — and dangerous. Many people didn’t like the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education that called for the abolition of state-sponsored segregation in public facilities. It was then that Porter and a friend and big-band music fan, Bere Church, formed Porter Entertainment. Their first attraction was Les Brown and his band, and because all the musicians were white, there was no problem. But in 1961, Porter brought in Ray Charles and his orchestra to play for a dance in the Robinson Auditorium. Charles and all his musicians were black, and hundreds of blacks bought tickets. However, the auditorium’s rule was that they couldn’t dance and could only sit in the balcony. There were complaints and a lot of tension. Suddenly a Little Rock policeman arrested Porter and took him to jail on the charge of attempting to incite a riot. “I remember,” he said, “that when they walked me down the aisle in the jail I passed the cells that held several prostitutes and they yelled out, ‘Put him in here! Put him in here!’ ” He finally got to use a telephone and called Attorney General Jack Holt, a family friend, who told the policemen to release him. A month later, he did a deal to bring Duke Ellington and his orchestra to the auditorium. Porter wanted blacks to be able to dance rather than just sit in the balcony, but the auditorium manager said no. The NAACP intervened, and Ellington canceled five days before the dance. “I learned something,” Porter said. “It may be the law of the land but not at the Robinson Auditorium.” Porter then began to bring bands to private clubs that didn’t care if the musicians were black or white and to hotels that would admit anyone who had the money. So people got to hear Erroll Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, Pete Fountain, Lionel Hampton, the Four Freshmen, the Glenn Miller band, etc. The popular places were the Pink Pussy Cat, where legislators used to hang out; Club 70, where there were occasional fights and bottle-throwing; and the Riverdale Country Club, which was owned by Winthrop Rockefeller, who never worried about the color of people’s skin. Porter closed his speech with a line from Wolfman Jack, once a nationally known disc jockey: “I’ve never seen a white man and I’ve never seen a black man. I only see men that look just like you and me.” On Martin Luther King Day a neighbor in Lakewood called to tell me that several hundred handbills had been thrown in people’s yards by men in a truck. They said: “Today we honor a philanderer, drunk, liar, plagiarist and cheater.” It also said he was a “communist sympathizer.” It quoted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover saying that King was “the most notorious liar in the country” and “a tom cat with obsessive degenerate urges.” The handbill was signed by the White Revolution in Russellville. I think the head man of this organization is Billy Roper, Jr., a well-known white supremacist who used to be a high school history teacher. King, the youngest person ever to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, probably was a philanderer, and undoubtedly had to lie occasionally in leading the crusade for equality of blacks. But Hoover was known to be a cross-dresser, and he constantly lied to the members of Congress about the taps he put on their telephones. The White Revolution needs better critics. Even Dr. Spock and Harry Truman disliked J. Edgar Hoover.

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