By Danny Crownover
Episode 13 : 1950’s dance bands
This episode is a portion of my late brother Bill’s memoir. Bill wrote his memoir for the family only, but I include this story in this series because it is a part of Gadsden’s unwritten history. The following are Bill’s comments about one of Gadsden’s best but largely unknown black musical talents. Enjoy!
We had this band of five guys that played at school dances, usually for $10 each. There were not any piano players in Gadsden at that time except Joe Noojin, who had his own band. We began a search for a piano player.
I knew a number of tunes, but never had any technique on piano, so I thought I should play the trombone. Our drummer Lee Charlton said, “What about using Bo-nner?”
James Bonner, a black guy, had been a truck driver in France in World War II and did a little chauffeuring for (former classmate) Marie Rushing’s dad. Bonner used to go down to E.E. Forbes Piano Company – they left the double doors open in summer – and would play the piano.
This was Alabama in 1950. Rip Reagan had booked this job, but his band at Emma Sansom High School had a football game that night. So Rip furnished his old 1938 Chevy.
Delmus Golden would play tenor sax, and I was put in charge. It was my decision, and I naturally made the musical one – I integrated Alabama. I wasn’t sure how many songs that James knew, but it turned out that he knew a lot.
Somebody requested “Yellow Dog Blues,” which I guess was a hot piano record at the time. James said he hated the song but he played it. He complained about all the wrong notes he had played, but it sounded great to me. He couldn’t really read music and would count up or down from middle C to see what key we wanted. Sometimes James would “walk” a chorus for variety. With his long fingers he could reach an octave and a sixth.
James once asked me to write out a song he had written, a rhapsodic little piece. We were walking along toward my house and he asked to go to the bathroom at a gas station. The owner refused. James was mad and said that one day it would be different.
When we got to our house, I announced that James had to use the bathroom. I don’t know what Mother thought; she was from a very segregated era, but then again, we did have Aunt Lucy, who helped out when Mom was having us kids.
James lived in a row of houses on stilts (the river sometimes flooded) down by the American Legion Amphitheater, literally a stone’s throw away from Municipal Auditorium, where we often played. Rent was $8 a month and there was no electricity.
Rip Reagan calls me and said that James wanted to buy a 1935 Chevy Roadster with that nice sloped-back grill that the Studebaker and Hudson Terraplane of that vintage had. It was painted bright yellow and brown, and James just had to have that car.
The car looked great, but it burned oil like the smokescreens that the Camp Sibert Army Chemical Corps used to practice with during the war. Rip called a week later. We had to chip in to get Bonner out of jail. He had “opened her up,” smoke screen and all, on the way to Attalla. That must have been a sight!
The whole band traveled together in one car, with the drums and music stands in the trunk and the huge bass fiddle and five guys inside.
Bonner actually had a better deal than us on dance jobs. Those four-hour jobs are long, and you are usually standing a lot. James would sometimes go to the kitchen. On a cold night, the kitchen would be warm, sometimes with nice food and occasionally with some cute girls. He would be treated royally.
Only once was there trouble. Rip called me to say he had gotten a threatening call from someone claiming to be the KKK. James was not to play with us at our job that night at Municipal Auditorium. My natural inclination was to defy them – it was probably a hoax. But we weren’t heroes. If it was bona fide threat, James’ safety was definitely at risk, so I played piano. I’m thinking, “They get to hear me when they could have heard him?”
Rip did have James come in and play at intermission for tips, and we divided five ways as usual.
James was always going to Chattanooga, which was the first step toward going to Detroit. We did one job for him. He was going to night school on the G.I. Bill and asked us to play for graduation.
James Bonner was probably the greatest natural musical talent to come out of Gadsden, and there was no way he could capitalize upon it. It was sad that so few of us were privileged to hear him.