An article in the March 31, 1950, Red and Black student newspaper noted that two bands would play simultaneously for the Spring Formal at Sigma Nu house on Saturday night. Harry Fraser’s Rhythm Masters, a white orchestra from Greenwood, S.C., known for waltzes and slow dances, would perform under a tent on the terrace. Al Jackson’s Dukes of Rhythm was a small, mixed-race, six-piece combo playing jumpin’ jive, and blues – they would be downstairs in the game room. *
The article clearly showed that musical tastes were beginning to change. In the 1950s, most of the campus-wide entertainment at The University of Georgia featured the nationally known recording stars who were on Billboard Magazine’s music charts and on radio. Full orchestra swing bands were often on campus – the likes of Jimmy Dorsey and Vaughn Monroe were headliners. Most of the entertainers were white.
But off-campus, there was a different sound. Fraternities were generally self-governing so while some social events were held at their on-campus houses, many larger parties were held at off-campus facilities with entertainment chosen by the fraternities.
The 1950s was the decade that civil rights issues came to the forefront nationally, with the state of Georgia and Athens right in the middle of it. While it was a sporting event in 1956 that would create a stir statewide and nationally, that controversy would also affect the college music scene in Athens and set a new direction in upcoming years.
The 1956 Sugar Bowl
Georgia Tech had wrapped up their season with a 21-3 win over Georgia on Nov. 27, 1955, and was bowl bound. The Jackets received an invitation to play the University of Pittsburg in the 1956 Sugar Bowl. A valuable member of their team was an African American running back named Bobby Grier. Gov. Marvin Griffin, who had a son at Tech, had quietly told Tech officials he would not stop the game but then he changed his mind and began publicly opposing Tech’s participation. On Friday, Dec. 2, Griffin sent a telegram to the Board of Regents imploring them to prevent Georgia teams from participating in racially integrated events which had Blacks either as participants or in the stands.
Tech players voted on Sunday to play, and their student body showed widespread support. The Board of Regents voted the following Monday to allow Tech to accept the Sugar Bowl bid since the game was outside the state. ** However, they specified that segregation policies would be followed in-state.
Legislation followed. In 1957, Senate Bill 44 was introduced to ban all integrated athletic contests in the state, as well as other social functions such as dances and concerts. A violation of this act would be a misdemeanor crime, with a possible fine of up to $1,000 dollars or 60 days in jail.
The governor supported the bill, but it received fierce opposition from sports writers and athletic clubs, who warned it would ruin Georgia athletics. SB 44 unanimously passed the Senate on Feb. 14, 1957. On Friday, Feb 22, the last day of the session, the House took up the bill and voted it down 93 to 68.
While the next day after the vote, a full house cheered Louis Armstrong and his 5-piece combo in Stegman Hall, political interest in legislation on interracial athletics and social events would begin to cast a long shadow over entertainment on the state’s college campuses. Griffin’s letter to the Regents became policy and college administrators adhered to it but, private fraternity and sorority events were where the action was. Sanctioned campus-wide concerts continued to present only white performers while fraternities hired and hosted black artists such as Piano Red or his full band, Dr. Feelgood and The Interns.
In 1959, a Red & Black article reports that the University Jazz Society had to cancel a March 4 concert by the Dave Brubeck quartet “because one member of the group is a Negro.”
In the spring of 1960, an interfraternity council (IFC) effort to book a rhythm & blues show featuring major “mixed” race bands was vetoed by university officials. The proposed concert at Lake Welborn would have included Chuck Berry, The Coasters, Lloyd Price, LaVern Baker, The Imperials, Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley, Joe Turner, Jimmy James & The Vagabonds, and Sonny Turner of The Platters.
Despite the previous year’s rejection, Chuck Berry made it to Athens in 1961 anyway. Tau Epsilon Phi and friends enjoyed the Chuck Berry show and heard Maybelline and Sweet Little Sixteen long into the night. And the other entertainers who were in the 1960 proposed show would perform at off-campus parties within the next year.
Still, the early ‘60s saw the university continue to book only white entertainment acts. Singer Anita Bryant headlined Greek Week and Lester Lanin’s Orchestra played a campus-wide event. Comedian Dave Gardner was in town. Off-campus, however, spring formals included Black groups such as The Clovers, Drifters, Four Steps of Rhythm, and The Isley Brothers.
IFC launches a campaign.
The Red and Black student newspaper occasionally printed letters to the editor complaining about the sanctioned campus entertainment as out of date. Attendance was dwindling but conversations about the issue between student leaders and administrators were going nowhere, according to the newspaper.
On Feb. 8, 1962, the Student Council voted to undertake an effort to “enhance” UGA campus-wide entertainment, that is to challenge the university policy. Ed Garland (president), and now a prominent Atlanta attorney, and Tom Johnson (secretary-treasurer of the junior class), later president of CNN, were appointed to lead the effort and work with the IFC, according to the Red and Black.
“There was a tremendous desire to hear black entertainers,” Johnson recalls. “We had arranged for some acts off campus, but we wanted to have large dances with the best entertainment we could get. My fraternity, Sigma Nu, had contacts through Phil Walden at Capricorn, who represented Otis Redding, Little Richard, and Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts.”
Garland remembers meeting with several organizations to round up enough support to pressure the administration, ranging from the debate team to the Panhellenic Council to the IFC.
A formal campaign was launched that included an opinion poll of the student body. A story about the poll ran in the paper, accompanied by a letter from then-IFC president Jim Blanchard, now retired chairman of Synovus, seeking input, and citing the need for change. The Red & Black editorialized in support of repealing the ban and an editorial cartoon suggested the student body appeal to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy who was booked for a Law Day address at UGA that spring.
Meanwhile, university-wide performers remained white. The Highwaymen were IFC’s Winter event; The Four Preps headlined Greek Week in April. Peter, Paul & Mary backed up by the Glenn Miller Orchestra were the Homecoming entertainment.
1963 began with a hint of change in the air. The Lettermen were the Winter Quarter entertainment on Feb. 8, but two weeks later, Roy Hamilton, a prominent African American singer, was the featured artist for the annual ROTC Military Ball, a university-sanctioned event. The Red & Black pointed out in their coverage of his upcoming appearance that he was the first Black artist to appear on campus in years. By then, of course, a federal court decision in 1961 had forced the state to repeal its laws that barred support for integrated schools.
Off campus, Black entertainers were taking center stage. Joe Turner, Atlanta’s Lotsa Poppa, James Brown & Flames, Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs, Huey Lewis & The Clowns, Jerry Butler, Bobby “Blue” Bland Revue, and a new Bill Lowry discovery, The Tams, had white students dancing in the streets.
Then came the Greek Week – and it was BIG! A large caravan of Rhythm & Blues acts was headed to campus. It was the 1963 version of the 1960 Caravan that university officials had nixed. Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, The Tams., a total of eight big name Black entertainers. The concert was advertised as the largest entertainment undertaking ever on campus. Five weeks later, Jackie Wilson appeared for an appreciative standing room only audience.
In “Sweet Soul Music,” author Peter Guralnick writes, “To Rufus Thomas, Percy Sledge, and countless others the Southern fraternity circuit provided the best kind of gig: high paying, dignified (you got to wear a tuxedo, and the young men and ladies were dressed to the teeth), and full of the most appreciative audiences you could hope to encounter.”
The dye was cast. Saturday nights in Athens became memorable and famous throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and it all started when white fraternities wanted to party down to Black bands.
* Al’s 15-year-old son Al, Jr. was his drummer and a decade later became a founding member of Booker T. & The M.G.s).
Chris Jones is a retired government affairs executive with Verizon living in Oconee County since 2015. He is an avid beach music collector and researcher and is former president of OLLI@UGA.