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92 E xcept for a couple of raggedy blocks straggling south from East Grand Boulevard, Detroit’s Hastings Street is gone now. The Motor City’s major African American entertainment thoroughfare was gouged out in the late 1950s to make way for the Walter P. Chrysler Freeway, a federally subsidized fast track laid down to facilitate the flight of the city’s white population to the northeastern suburbs of Hazel Park, Warren, Ferndale, Royal Oak, Madison Heights, and points north. But for twenty years before that, Hastings Street swung all the way from Paradise Valley downtown for fifty or sixty blocks north.The legend of Hastings Street was perhaps best told in a 1948 recording by the Detroit Count,a rough barrelhouse pianist who immortalized that pulsating scene by enumerating the many theaters, lounges, bars, and rude nightspots that thrived along the length of the stroll in his two-part 78 RPM single on JVB Records titled “Hastings Street Opera.” Then there was the man they called the Mayor of Hastings Street, a dapper, diminutive gentleman named Sunnie Wilson who painted a vivid portrait of Detroit in the ’30s,’40s, and ’50s in his 1997 autobiography, Toast of the Town, written with John Cohassey and published by Wayne State University Press. Wilson was an intimate of the great Joe Louis and the popular proprietor of nightclubs, restaurants, and hotels serving African American citizens in the racially segregated eastside neighborhood between Woodward Avenue and Hastings Street. He saw and heard it all, and his account is a valuable addition to the small body of literature that examines the city’s history. In its prime years, Hastings Street throbbed with music, from the elemental blues of John Lee Hooker, Eddie Kirkland, Eddie Burns, Boogie Woogie Red, and Washboard Willie and His Super Suds of Rhythm to the swinging jazz of the Teddy Wilson Trio (with drummer J. C. Heard), Maurice King and His Wolverines (with vocalist LaVerne “Bea” Baker), Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams, T. J. Fowler, Todd Rhodes and His Toddlers, and the Mathew Rucker Orchestra. Jazz stars like Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, and Cootie Williams played the Forest Club or the Flame Show Bar as well as the Paradise Theatre on Woodward Avenue,sharing the stage with rhythm and blues recording stars like Dinah Washington, Wynonie Harris, Amos Milburn, B. B. King, and T-Bone Walker. Sonny Boy Williamson even spent a few months in Detroit in the early ’50s, playing with Calvin Frazier and Baby Boy Warren and providing inspiration to a young Aaron Willis, who gained national recognition some fifteen years later as Little Sonny, “New King of the Blues Harmonica.” As Hastings Street began to disappear, a whole new generation of singers and musicians who grew up in or around the immediate vicinity emerged to extend its influence across the world, from Jackie Motor City Blues through the Ages John Sinclair 93 Wilson, Andre Williams, Little Willie John, and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters in the ’50s to the Motown Records stars who put Detroit on the map in the ’60s: the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Aretha Franklin’s father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin, pastored the New Bethel Baptist Church on Hastings, where his sermons were recorded by Joe Von Battle and leased to Chess Records in Chicago. Aretha’s first recordings were made there when she was fourteen years old, and Joe’s Hastings Street record store and JVB imprint were also home to bluesmen ranging from One-String Sam, Detroit Count, and Will Hairston to fledgling guitarist Johnnie Bassett, one of the leaders of Detroit’s blues renaissance of the 1990s. After Hastings Street disappeared, the Motor City blues scene dwindled to a handful of bars in rough neighborhoods where stalwarts like Little Sonny,Washboard Willie,Boogie Woogie Red,and Little Mack Collins and the Partymakers continued to entertain their friends and patrons, well outside the mainstream of modern entertainment. In the early ’70s, Little Sonny had a shot at blues stardom via several fine albums for Stax Records’Enterprise imprint; a wild collection of Motor City blues artists was spotlighted at the 1973 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival; and bluesman Bobo Jenkins and DJ/entrepeneur Famous Coachman established a series of free Detroit blues festivals, a Detroit Blues Society, and a weekly blues radio program on WDET-FM, but these were at best shots in the darkness of American life in...


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