Rewinding Asheville’s Black History

James Mason Agency card
James Mason Agency card
by Dan Kochakian –

“Motown of the South” and the Illustrious Mason James Agency.

The Southside of Asheville had a prominent place among centers of black musical history from the 1930s to the late 1960s. Photographs of the Sax Kari Orchestra show the band traveling in a tour bus that boldly announced “Mason James Agency, Asheville, North Carolina” on its sides. How Mason James became connected with Sax Kari, c. 1945-47, is a mystery.

Members of the Sax Kari Orchestra from Detroit pose in front of the  Mason James Agency’s tour bus. Taken in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, March 1947.
Members of the Sax Kari Orchestra from Detroit pose in front of the
Mason James Agency’s tour bus. Taken in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, March 1947.

Kari’s career began in Detroit where he worked as a songwriter, producer, recording artist, and bandleader along the east coast as far south as Miami. A business card for Mason James listed the agency address as 409 Southside Avenue in Asheville, NC. I had never known Asheville to hold a prominent place in R&B lore, but since my wife and I intended to spend vacation time in Asheville for the specialty craft beers, I figured I would also spend time on my other love, researching blues and R&B.

In searching for 409 Southside Avenue, we learned that Southside ends (or begins) with number 90, and then becomes Phifer Street. After taking a few trips around the area, we realized that number 409 no longer exists, thanks to the “urban renewal of the 1960s and ’70s.

Instead of “urban renewal,” the term used across the U.S. to describe “improvements” to cityscapes, one noted citizen of Asheville called the program “Negro Removal.” Two-thirds of the black housing in this area comprised sound, safe structures, and the city allegedly used a variant form of Eminent Domain as the rationale for demolishing these homes.

A retired police officer who now works at the Asheville Chamber of Commerce informed me that most of Southside was “torn down in the early seventies” and that “there were lots of old buildings with beautiful architecture lost in the process.”

Rich Mathews of Mathews Architecture in Asheville called the destruction of Southside “utter and complete.” Asheville’s 425-acre project area began in the East End community and meandered down Valley Street (now South Charlotte St., past McCormick Field), through the Southside-Depot area (today’s River Arts District), and on to Oakland Road. Mathews added that “even the roads and topography were changed beyond recognition.”

The James-Keys Hotel was located at 409 Southside Avenue in Asheville.  Photo: Andrea Clark
The James-Keys Hotel was located at 409 Southside Avenue in Asheville. Photo: Andrea Clark

The James-Keys Hotel was one of the lost, and beautiful, buildings. It contained a theater on the first floor; eight public rooms, two bathrooms, a ballroom and lobby on the second floor; a three-room apartment on the mezzanine, and 20 rooms and six bathrooms on the third floor. A prominent sign painted on the side of the building that faced so-called “Death Alley” identifies it as (formerly) the “Booker T. Washington Hotel-Dance Hall-Theatre-For Colored.”

The theater was used to show films, and the ballroom for musical performances and concerts. Through the years, entertainers such as James Brown, Bill Doggett, Nat King Cole, Billy Holiday, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, Jackie (Moms) Mabley, and baseball hero Jackie Robinson stayed and/or performed at the James-Keys Hotel.

The Untils
The Untils

One of the local bands that played the hotel was The Untils, a group of teenagers from the Stephens-Lee High School Band. The group included Clifford Cotton along with Stanley Baird, Thomas Jones, Bruce Friday, Cornell Proctor, Marshal McCallum, Ernest Fair, and Bynum “Jimbo” Griffin.

Although Stephens-Lee was a black high school, the band also included a white guitar player named Tim Hayden, who attended a different school. Handling vocals was Charles Pickens, backed up by Burnell Freeman, James “Bobo” Ferguson and his brother, Dan, among others. The group played many functions at various locations, including the James-Keys Hotel and the Owl Lounge.

Mr. Cotton surmises that the Booker T. Washington Hotel was in existence initially, and then the James-Keys took over ownership. Madison “Doc” Lennon, the band director at Stephens-Lee High School for 25 years, didn’t approve of R&B, and wanted the band to “play legitimate concert music” and “learn to read music.” Stanley Baird told me the name “The Untils” came from Lennon, who coined the phrase, “…until you do better.”

The students would play songs by Bill Doggett, Fats Domino, Louis Jordan, and Little Richard, and jazz groups such as Gerry Mulligan, Cannonball Adderley, and John Coltrane, artists who played the Asheville area. Stanley Baird said that the band tried “to perform like Little Willie John, Bobby Blue Bland, Fats Domino and Jackie Wilson,” and all the major R&B names of the day. He said that local musicians such as guitarist Johnny Moon, alto sax man Bobby Gash, and piano player Elmer Luck also provided inspiration.

Cotton fondly recalls Mr. Lennon “hitting us on the head if he caught us playing ‘Honky-Tonk.’ He didn’t really go for that,” though Leonard allowed the boys to play songs by Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, and Bobby Bland. Clifford was most impressed by Grady Gaines and The Upsetters, and based The Untils’ horn section style on theirs.

The Untils had a manager named Lawrence Doherty who also owned a nightclub called the Southland Drive-In on McDowell Street, which had a dance floor and stage in back and a restaurant in front. Doherty booked the band in local venues, and the students played four to five hours per show for $5 to $10 per person. Doherty took expenses from the band members’ wages, leaving them with little, but Mr. Cotton said, “We didn’t really care. We just loved to play.”

The Firey Sparks
The Firey Sparks

The majority of members of The Untils stayed together and they all attended college, many in North Carolina. Mr. Cotton attended NC Central, others went to NCA&T. and Tim Hayden enrolled at Berkley School of Music in Boston and then taught music at Clemson and UNC Asheville. Most of them incorporated The Untils into a new group called The Fiery Sparks, with a couple of new members.

After college, the band broke up; Clifford Cotton went with Chuck Jackson (with whom he recorded) and brought a few other members to join that band. Cotton remained with Jackson for over 10 years and moved to Philadelphia. After this stint, he joined The Temptations for several years and then toured with Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars into the late 1990s.

Doc Lennon was inducted into the North Carolina Bandmasters Association Hall of Fame in 2002. James’s name last appears in 1953, and while his wife Callie managed the hotel, her husband concentrated most of his efforts on booking bands and orchestras, including those of Eddie Crisp and Bull Moose Jackson, for the hotel and elsewhere. A gorgeous sketch of a proposed night club with floor plan and seating was made for Mason James by architect Henry Irven Gaines of Six Associates.

In the late 1950s and in her last will and testament, Louise Keys left Callie L. James and Samuel Camp her half-ownership in the James-Keys Hotel. Sam Camp became the owner of the hotel when he returned to Asheville from serving in the Korean War, and in the early 1970s, the City of Asheville condemned the building. Camp filed notice that he disagreed with the low valuation of the structure, but the city fathers insisted that it was a liability to the city. Fearing recriminations for pursuing his stance, he gave in, and in a special proceeding in June 1972, the hotel was condemned and then demolished as part of the East Riverside Redevelopment Project.

The writer is grateful for the assistance of Rich Mathews of Mathews Architecture; Clifford Cotton II; photographer Andrea Clark; Zoe Rhine and the staff of the North Carolina Room of Pack Memorial Library in Asheville; Lyme Kedic of Buncombe County Public Libraries in Asheville; Ms. Johnnie Grant, owner/publisher of The Urban News; tenor saxophonist Stanley Baird; Colin Reeve of University Archives of The Ramsey Library at UNC Asheville; Catherine Bishir of NC State University Libraries Architectural Special Collections in Raleigh, and author Preston Lauterbach.

 

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