BEHIND THE MUSIC—Sylvester “Sly” Washington produced live jam sessions for seasoned and mature musicians at The Venue nightclub in Ambridge on Friday nights. (Photo by Tim Cox)
(While their Big Brothers of Jazz will forever receive international acclaim, the Burgh’s funky brethren has toiled in local anonymity. This is the first in a multiple part series highlighting Pittsburgh’s live-music, funk legacy of the 1960s through the 1980s. This series will shed light on an important, vital legacy that should never be forgotten.)
It is well documented that the Pittsburgh region is one of America’s cherished locales when speaking of the development of American Classical Music better known as Jazz.
The unmentioned part of Pittsburgh’s rich musical tradition has been the contributions that so many talented individuals have made in developing the area’s rich Rhythm & Blues idiom—a tradition whose time has come to be told by those who lived it—before those knowledgeable griots have passed on and the real story is never shared.
Fortunately, this two-part article represents a rare opportunity to shine a light on our region’s rich and vibrant culture that featured various live musicians and bands that performed music in the ’60s and ’70s era including Rhythm & Blues, Soul and Funk.
So, where do we start?
Frankly, the inspiration for this article surfaced after reading about the recent success of nouveau hip-hop artist and Hazelwood product, Wiz Khalifa.
In speaking of Wiz Khalifa’s forerunners in the music industry, other area publishing agencies mention Pittsburgh-based artists like Norm Nardini, The Jaggerz, Billy Price’s Rhythm Kings and Donnie Iris, the Ellwood City native formerly of The Jaggerz.
While these artists are special to our region, there are hundreds of African-American musicians and bands that have never attained due recognition when it comes to the development of our city’s rich musical heritage—away from jazz.
Pittsburgh bands formed via regional, residential districts
In an extensive conversation with Harrison Rickman, a musician who performed with various groups at many Pittsburgh venues in the 1970s, he recalled how the city’s R&B band lineups were unofficially categorized by where you lived—or by what region of the city you resided.
For instance, a very rich live-music legacy was cultivated in Pittsburgh’s North Side neighborhoods.
Some of the bands that hailed from that part of the city included The Allen Brothers, New Identity Band led by guitarist Luther DeJaurnette, The Wilson Sisters and Six Day Thing, said Rickman, himself a North Side product and excellent bassman and keyboardist.
Unfortunately, Rickman died in late 2011, during the development of this archival journal.
On the East End, specifically in the Garfield-East Liberty area, you had a very talented crew of young brothers named Wantu Wazuri—obviously named for the Johnson hair care product that was promoted every week on TV’s Soul Train dance show. Uncle Jamm was another Garfield-based band.
While Wantu Wazuri hailed from the city, they really made their mark in the outer reaches of the city in Pittsburgh’s suburban and small-town steelworker communities like Beaver Falls, Aliquippa, Sewickley, Braddock, Coraopolis, “Little” Washington, Homestead, Duquesne, Whitaker, Donora and Clairton.
The Beaver Falls Elks Club on Third Avenue was a haven for many Pittsburgh-based bands who simply couldn’t land substantial work or decent pay at inner-city venues.