Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Some of the Entertainment Legends Who Toured and Performed on Leon Claxton's Shows Before Becoming Big Stars

Fontella Bass, a St. Louis-born soul singer, hit the top of the R&B charts with Rescue Me in 1965. At 17, she auditioned on a dare for Leon Claxton's show and was hired to play piano and sing in the chorus, making $175 per week for the two weeks it was in town. She wanted to go on tour with Claxton but her mother refused and according to Bass "... she literally dragged me off the train".

Micki  Lynn was discovered by Leon Claxton in a West Coast nightclub. She toured and performed on Harlem in Havana for several seasons before recording with Capitol Records. 
The Avalons, 1950s
The Avalons, a popular Doo Wop group from the Tidewater VA area, joined Leon Claxton's Road Show and toured throughout the United States for several seasons in the 1950s and 60s. 

Big Memphis Ma Rainey worked in several road shows before landing in Memphis, Tennessee in the late '20s and becoming a regular performer on the city's famed Beale Street, where she was known as "the Mother of Beale Street." She toured and performed on Leon Claxton's show before recording with Sun Records in 1953.  

Chuck Berry, 1940s 
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Chuck Berry had an interest in music from an early age and gave some of his first public performances on Leon Claxton's road shows before going onto become the King of Rock and Roll. 

Merceditas Valdés, 1950s 
Merceditas Valdés (far left) was a Cuban singer who specialized in Afro-Cuban traditional music. In 1949, she became one of the first female Santería singers to be recorded. Valdés toured and performed as a featured act with the Cuban Dancing Dolls on Leon Claxton's Harlem in Havana revue in the mid 1950s. After the Cuban Revolution, the commercialization of Afro-Cuban music was restricted. Nonetheless, Valdés managed to make several recordings in the early 1960s before halting her recording career.

Rufus Thomas, 1940s
A rhythm and blues, funk and soul singer and comic entertainer, Rufus Thomas toured on Leon Claxton's revue in the early 1940s. Thomas went onto record with Chess and Sun Records and was the first R&B disc jocky at WDIA in Memphis.

Five Pennies, 1950s
The Five Pennes Doo Wop group started performing in Knoxville, TN. Around 1955, the group toured with the “Harlem in Havana” variety show, organized by producer Leon Claxton before recording with Motown Records.  

Dinah Washington
The "Queen of the Blues" - Dinah Washington was a American singer and pianist from Chicago who has been cited as "the most popular black female recording artist of the '50s". In the  late 1950s and early 1960s before her death, Washington toured with Leon Claxton's shows and  performed on the Las Vegas Strip.  Washington was a close friend to the Claxtons and often stayed at their showplace home in Tampa.   

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Harlem in Havana Helped Popularize Afro Cuban Music and Dance in North America

JIG SHOW film spotlights Cuban Dancers who brought Rumba, Batá Drums, Lucumi Rituals and Santeria songs to U.S. and Canadian Audiences before the Revolution

From the secular to the spiritual, Afro Cuban music and dance were rapidly growing in popularity in the U.S. by the mid-20th century. With the 1959Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro, international relations were shattered, artistic freedoms ended and travel was restricted to the tropical island once known as America's favorite vacation spot.

Although the best talent from Cuba has long been forgotten in the states, Afro Cuban culture still has a strong hold on American entertainers. Many U.S. troupes today incorporate this rich blend of Latin, African and European cultures into their repertoires. But, there is still much to be discovered about how the Afro Cuban craze landed and took root in American soil. Read More.

Help Preserve American Entertainment History!

Filmmaker Leslie Cunningham is the granddaughter of top producer, Leon Claxton. Five years ago, she set out on a journey to learn about her family’s historical legacy. Her grandmother and great aunts, the Bates Sisters, were lead dancers in Harlem in Havana. Her father, John Cunningham, was raised on the Harlem in Havana show and drove stakes with the tent-hands in his teens. 

Cunningham’s deep connection to her grandfather’s spirit of entrepreneurship, her unique relationship with film historians and familial ties to the Claxton legacy, adds to the authenticity and complex resonation of her grandfather’s life and the preservation of her family’s rich history.

Slated for release in 2017, JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana is currently in production. In partnership with the Southern Documentary Fund, filmmaker Leslie Cunningham is seeking funding to complete the film project.

The Tyler Perry of His Time

By Paul Guzzo | Tampa Tribune Staff

Tampa (February 2015) — The show was called Harlem In Havana, but Tampa could stake as much a claim to it as the city in Cuba or the Manhattan neighborhood. This was the variety show’s winter headquarters, plus Tampa’s Cuban heritage helped inspire the decision to combine in one troupe the music, dance and comedy of the island nation with the show’s African-American roots. What’s more, Harlem in Havana helped launch the careers of such stars as Chuck Berry, Mercedes Valdez, Redd Foxx and Fontella Bass, but its major attraction was the producer and ringmaster — Tampa’s own Leon Claxton. 

Read more.

Get Brownskin Showgirls

There are many art and entertainment resources that reference the contributions and important role women of color played in shaping the art of dance in North America. However, it is rare to encounter a historically rich and visually stunning book that is dedicated solely to the brown skin showgirl or black burlesque of the early to mid 20th century.  Read more.