Brooks recalls the early-1980s as the “Golden Era” of Pittsburgh’s live-music era, just before the rise of illicit crack cocaine use which perpetuated neighborhood violence and the eventual death of the city’s social scene.
“That was just a great era. We could hang anywhere we wanted, at all times of the night,” said Brooks, who learned some of his formal chops with the Ozanam Strings youth orchestra. Brooks later led the Pyramid house band which featured young guns like violinist Rodney McCoy, Tony Campbell, Arnold Stagger, Bobby Yates and Larry Estes.
Brooks notes the following clubs as special during the early to late 1980s: The Hollywood Club in Homewood; Phase II Rendevous in Homewood, Clairton’s Hollywood Club; Eileen’s Zebra Room and Karl’s Kork & Keg, both in Homewood; The Pyramid in East Liberty; The Travelers Club and Tourist Club, both in East Liberty area; Sqawkers Club Downtown on Liberty Avenue.
Why Pittsburgh Funk Never Reached the Acclaim As Its Big Brother—Jazz?
Dr. Nathan Davis, the longtime Jazz Department Chair of the University of Pittsburgh, offers his take on reasons why the Tri-state’s R&B scene never received equal accolades and reputation as received by the Pittsburgh Jazz scene.
“Mainly, it’s because that sort of music, funk, was always driven by the recording industry. In Pittsburgh, we never really had a major recording industry like they did in Detroit, Chicago, Memphis—or even Philadelphia.
“Granted, we had The Marcels of “Blue Moon” fame, but still, never a strong recording presence. Even many of the jazz stars from here had to leave Pittsburgh before they received any real acclaim,” said Davis, a Kansas City native who has led Pitt’s Jazz Department since 1969.
In 1982, Pittsburgh native Alfred “Al” Cleveland, started a recording company called HITSBURGH Records. The business never caught hold and its artist lineup never achieved hit status. Cleveland made his mark as a Motown executive under Barry Gordy. He’s also a co-writer of the Marvin Gaye classic, “What’s Going On.”
Music Historian Darryl Dunn Provides An Overall View
Darryl “Boogie Machine” Dunn is considered Pittsburgh’s resident music historian when it comes to knowledge about the height of the R&B scene from the late 1950s well into the 1980s.
Dunn, a Homewood native, vividly recalls the early 1960s when many bands regularly played Westray Plaza and the Diamond Roller Rink on the Hill District.
“Joe Westray was president of the Black (Pittsburgh) Musicians Union, located at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Frankstown Road,” Dunn said.
Dunn says he recalls seeing a young George Benson playing R&B with The Altairs at Westrays, prior to Benson going on the road with organist, Brother Jack McDuff.
Lonzie Cox Jr. also recalls seeing The Altairs at The Fire Hall social club in Beaver Falls.
“I remember seeing this young guy they called Georgie—and he could absolutely play a guitar. I also played guitar with The Fabulous Embers, so, there was some competitive fire there,” said Cox.
The Fabulous Embers of Beaver County were predecessors to funk groups like The Notations and El Pooks. Bandleader/guitarist Cox, said the group played the Diamond Skating Rink in Pittsburgh and Ohio chitlin’ circuit clubs in Steubenville and Canton. A battle of the bands competition with The Altairs and Georgie Benson is notable, he said. “We were all teenagers hoping for the big-time. George made it out, and the rest is history.”
Cox also lists organist George Jones, Aron Cox, Fred Davis, Del Palmer, Johnny Josey, James Moon and bassist Mike Taylor as significant to Western Pa.’s early soul sound. Grover McBride’s Alpines are another swingin’ band of note, he said.
George Jones is Reggie “Wizard” Jones’ father. The late Mike Taylor was a music academician who performed with the Ahmad Jamal Trio. Taylor, died in 2009 and is a member of the Beaver County Music Hall of Fame.
Cox and Midland drummer Gill Clark, both agree that a small venue in Midland, aptly called the Hole In The Wall aka Love’s Hotel, remains a place of note— even to this day. “People had real good times there,” said Clark, a noted drum instructor and Beaver County NAACP executive.
Another small footnote in Beaver County social history is a hole-in-the-wall venue simply called JACK’S in Aliquippa’s Plan 11 housing subdivision.