“There wasn't any discrimination. Not at the Flamingo.” So says bluesman Flash Terry, pictured last week in front of the Greenwood Avenue storefront where, in the 1950s, the doors of the Flamingo Club were open to all.

"I'm tellin' you, I didn't know segregation back then — in the Flamingo Club for sure," states multiple music hall of famer and bluesman Flash Terry.

Terry worked in that north Tulsa venue both as a headliner and with the legendary Jimmy "Cry Cry" Hawkins throughout the '50s.

"If you were a musician or a music fan, you could come in there and sit down," he said. "There wasn't any discrimination. Not at the Flamingo. And we used to play on the south side of town, too, at places like Benny's Supper Club, out by the turnpike gate.

rockofages20219 Rocky Frisco.

"I remember around '54 or '55, way back there, some of Bob Wills' guys used to come in the Flamingo," he added. "And then, when it was kinda goin' out in '58, '59 and '60, when they were about ready to tear it down, Leon (Russell) and (J.J.) Cale and (Jimmy) Markham and Rocky (Frisco), all those guys, they used to go over there."

In fact, pianist Frisco — who was known as Rocky Curtiss at the time — got his first paying gig with Terry.

"I'd play for him all week, and then I'd go in on Tuesday nights when they had their talent contest, and it was automatic — if I'd played all week, I'd get second place in the talent contest," Frisco remembers. "Eleven dollars. That would be my pay for the week. It was a deal with Flash."

How was it that Frisco showed up at the Flamingo in the first place?

"I just went over there one night," he says, "a stupid crazy teenage white guy coming into the club. And Flash was just real nice to me. He's the most color-blind man I've ever met."

It's said that music can transcend all human barriers, and that was surely the case in Tulsa in the late 1950s, when the pioneers of the Tulsa Sound were sinking their roots into the concrete and clay of this town. There was a north side and south side, a black and white population that didn't mingle easily — unless you were a musician.

And then, it didn't matter much.

rockofages20219 Today he’s Rocky Frisco, but in this 1958 publicity still for Mercury Records, he was Rocky Curtiss.

What was even more noteworthy than that was in this day of segregated audiences and segregationist attitudes, integrated bands were common — and accepted.

The Shadow Lake Eight knows

Perhaps nowhere else was this combination of black and white musical influences better illustrated than in the Shadow Lake Eight, a group that had begun life doing "bigband style cheek-to-cheek stuff" as the house band at the Shadow Lake Pavilion in Noel, Mo., the summer of '58.

That's according to the band's bassist and historian, Rick Eilerts, who met a pre-phenom Elvis on the "Louisiana Hayride" program and first worked in Tulsa for the pioneering rock 'n' roll bandleader Clyde Stacy. Eilerts had close ties to the Tulsa-based Ernie Fields Orchestra, having toured as a fillin with the group.

"I was the only white guy in the band," he remembers.

Through that association, he became friends with Jack Scott, a musician and arranger for Fields' big band, and the group began paying Fields to write arrangements for them.

"I remember it was play a gig and then pay Jack for some arrangements," says Eilerts. "We put a lot of our playing money back into having him write for us. And we migrated into the blues — back to blues, with the black influence. Not that we weren't enjoying Chuck Berry and all the rock 'n' roll currents, but we kind of did a transition from pure rock 'n' roll, Elvis and all that, over to more standard blues.

"Then, we got a black singer who played with Ernie Fields. His name was Li'l Clifford — Li'l Clifford Watson — and he was a dynamite showman. Leon McAuliffe let us come into the Cimarron Ballroom with the Shadow Lake Eight featuring Li'l Clifford, and we had three black girls singing backup. And then we had (white vocalist) Lewis Tilford in there to sing a lot of the Sinatra standards and stuff, so we packed 'em in."

rockofages20219 Guitarist Riley Frances tunes up.

Many times, the initial contact between black and white musicians came with south-side musicians' visits to north-side clubs, which, as Leon Russell points out, "went 24 hours a day, and they had national bands, national acts coming through."

"I remember J.J. Cale saying, 'Man, you've gotta hear this cat named Flash Terry,'" says vocalist and bandleader Jimmy Markham. "So he took me over to Greenwood, to the Flamingo Club, and that was the first time I ever heard Flash. I really dug it, too. Loved Flash. And through that, we just kept meeting more cats over there. They played a lot of white clubs over on this side of town. We didn't play that many black spots over there, although I did, because I liked the environment, and I liked the music."

Learning from each other

Probably, Cale had first become acquainted with north-side musicians as a member of Gene Crose's Rockets. That group had played KOTV's "Party Lane With Chris" program regularly in the summer of '56, as had a black group called Harry Vann's All Stars, a working north-side band.

"They were very nice guys, and they had a really nifty blues band, and we were all over 'em with questions," recalls George Metzel, the Rockets' bassist at the time. "They said, 'Well, come on out and sit in.' The first time I went out to the Flamingo, I was a little nervous — for several reasons. No. 1, I'd never gotten to play in a group like that. No. 2, I'd never been in a nightclub in my life. And No. 3, everybody else was black, which I'd never encountered. But they welcomed us and treated us so well. We just had a heck of a time.

"We learned an awful lot from those guys, just from listening to the way they approached something. We were just kids from the high schools in the area, and we'd heard a few records, but we'd never heard any real blues folks."

“There wasn't any discrimination. Not at the Flamingo.” So says bluesman Flash Terry, pictured last week in front of the Greenwood Avenue storefront where, in the 1950s, the doors of the Flamingo Club were open to all.

Guitarist Tom Rush, on the other hand, made his connection with black musicians through the elevator operator in his mother's building. Rush, who had left the Swingin' Shadows, had an engagement but didn't have a piano player. Elevator man Kermit Hall suggested his son Kenneth.

"I knew nothing about him, and when he showed up he asked me, 'Can I just do a tune first?' I said, 'Yeah, go ahead.' And if you turned your back and listened, you were listening to Ray Charles. He was a good salty piano player," notes Rush.

"He said, 'I know a drummer and a bass player,' and I said, 'Well, get 'em, and we'll start a band.' We were gonna do a dance at TU, and so we were gonna rehearse out there, and he showed up with a whole carload of fellas, all black. We started rehearsing 'In the Still of the Night,' and all of a sudden I heard all these she-doe-be-do-be-does — and there they were, sitting over on the couch, singing. They just blew me away. They were great vocalists.

"So we put together a group called the Ambassadors, featuring the Edsels — myself and seven black fellas. The band was the Ambassadors, and the singers were the Edsels. I only remember two names: one of 'em was Macho Van Dyke, who worked for channel 6 news a number of years, and the other was Kenneth Hall, who went on to be a piano player for Bobby 'Blue' Bland."

On stage, off stage

rockofages20219 The Shadowlake Eight at attention on a local bandstand.

But even if the musicians were colorblind, the rest of the society around them often proved to be less tolerant. As drummer Jim Turley notes, "Even though we went out and played with black guys, and didn't think anything of it, there was still some serious segregation going on, even in school. When I graduated from Central, I think there was one guy there who was black."

"I played with a ton of African-American guys — Mike Dean, Little Alex. Joss Wheeler had a group called the New Velvets. I played with them sometimes and they had three black singers — and no one thought a thing about it," says pianist Jim Blazer. "If you were good, and you played, no one cared about the color of your skin."

No one, that is, except your nonmusician friends and family members.

"Sadly, my friends who were not musicians thought it was cool that we had black people in the band, but they never wanted me to hang with 'em," Blazer explains. "Even a lot of the families would think it was against the rules to go to a movie with 'em or have dinner with 'em. And quite honestly, to go to a Bishop's or Crosstown Grill — that was frowned upon by the retail establishments."

Two of Tulsa's earliest rock 'n' roll bandleaders, Markham and Jumpin' Jack Dunham, encountered a subtler form of segregation at Tulsa's Municipal Theater, which is now the Brady Theater. The two had hit upon the perfect way to sneak into the traveling shows that had begun hitting town in the '50s.

"We'd always dress up and have briefcases, and those briefcases'd get us right in," relates Dunham. "As the guys in the bands were coming off the bus, if there was a gap, we'd step into it — and go right on in. We did that for a long time.

"Then one time we stepped into Jimmy Reed's band. And this security guard corralled us right there at the door. He said, 'You boys step over here a second.' We did, and he asked us, 'Who you boys with?'

"'Jimmy Reed,' we said.

"He looked at us. 'Well,' he said, 'you know Jimmy Reed's band's all black.' And we were just dumbstruck. We had no comeback at all."


The black and white of song royalties

rockofages20219 Guitarist Tommy Rush stands with the drum kit for his band, the Swingin’ Shadows.

In recent years, a number of stories have surfaced concerning how black artists of the '50s were often rooked out of songwriting royalties. Guitarist and bandleader Tom Rush, who played guitar with an otherwise all-black outfit called the Ambassadors, featuring the Edsels, relates a tale that indicates it may have also happened right here at home.

"They wrote a song called 'Shout,' and we took it to KAKC radio," says Rush. "This would've been '59, maybe. We went up to Oklahoma City and recorded it, and took it to KAKC radio, and the fellas at the radio station really liked it. They went out to talk to some of the fellas' parents, and asked if they'd sign for 'em on a contract, so they could do something with the song. KAKC wanted to be involved.

"Most of the parents said no — 'We want 'em to go to school.' 'We want 'em to do this and that.' And the next thing we know, KAKC tells us that our tape has been destroyed. Torn in half. And they were trying to make a duplicate. It was the only one we had."

In March of 1962, a tune called 'Shout — Part 1' reached No. 6 on the Billboard magazine pop charts for the New York-based Joey Dee and the Starliters. It was, says Rush, "probably 80 percent the same song." – J.W.


A bass player by any other name

Bill Raffensperger

A legendary Tulsa music story involves a couple of legendary Tulsa musicians — white bassist Bill Raffensperger, who, like so many others, began his career with vocalist Gene Crose, and black bandleader Earl "Bang Bang" Jackson, who was playing regularly at the Stardust Supper Club in the late '50s.

By that time, Raffensperger was working with Johnny (J.J.) Cale at the Casa Del Club. The same person owned both places and, recalls Raffensperger, "He was always trying to get us to go over there after we finished at the Casa Del Club, because the Stardust was open after hours. We were always so tired we didn't go. But one night, we did.

"So we're there, and we're all gonna sit in. Elon Watkins, the saxophone player, gets Cale up there, and (Watkins) starts telling the crowd about Cale's background — 'He's played with Ray Charles. He's played the cruise ships.' A big resume, right? Except he hadn't done any of it. He hadn't done jack.

"So Cale goes up and plugs his guitar in, and Elon whispers to him, 'Who's the drummer?' Cale whispers back, "Buddy Jones," and Elon says, 'He's played with Pearl Bailey, and he's played with Sam Cooke!" Then the piano player, Duane Collins, and he goes off on Duane Collins, giving him all these creds."

Next, it was time to introduce Raffensperger. But Watkins couldn't quite understand the name Cale was whispering.

"He says, 'Here's the most wonderful bass player in the world!' and he whispers to Cale, 'What's his name?' Cale whispers, 'Bill Raffensperger.'

" 'And he's played on the cruise ships, and —' (whispering to Cale) 'What's his name?'

"'Bill Raffensperger.'

" 'And he's played at the White House, and —' (whispering again to Cale) 'What's his name?' Finally, he just gave up on understanding my name and said, 'Here he is! Basssss Mannnnn!'"

Raffensperger laughs. "Everybody just called me bass man for a long time after that." – J.W.


What is Rock of Ages?

Sunday began a five-part series on the early history of rock 'n' roll in Tulsa. We'll continue it in the Scene through Wednesday, skip Thursday (no paper) and conclude it Friday in Spot.

Sunday: The birth of Tulsa rock 'n' roll

Monday: The venues, from clubs to the hop

Tuesday: A laboratory for racial integration

Wednesday: Teens tuned in to the radio

Friday: The Tulsa Sound comes around