“I grew up in the Bottom when Davis Avenue was flourishing with shops. Ella’s Barbeque, Best Grill, Babe’s Hotdogs stand and Craig’s Bakery. That bakery was by Central High School with the best cinnamon rolls. We got one before school each morning. Stella’s Hat Shop sold beautiful hats and gloves. Women flocked to her store at Easter.
I was 11 when I begged my grandmother to let me sing in the choir at Truevine Missionary Baptist Church. I was the youngest one in that choir, but I could sing. I was in 12th grade when a band that played in the clubs on The Avenue was looking for a vocalist. A friend suggested me, but my mother said no, I wasn’t going to be staying out that late. My grandmother said let her sing, we will be wherever she is. When I graduated from high school, I sang with Charles Lott, Joe Lewis and E.B. Coleman. I sang at most of the clubs on The Avenue.
I was nervous going from a church choir to Joe Lewis’ band with horns. But after a few jobs, I got used to it and started getting sassy. I did that for so many years. We played at the Kool Kat and The Golden Nugget. On Sunday night, we played at the Dashiki for a jazz session, then we went to the Elks Club. I sang with E.B. Coleman’s orchestra and had to adjust to different instruments again. It was the music I knew, just played a different way. It worked out fine.
I loved to wear gowns and sing. I could sew and my cousin was an expert seamstress and she helped me out. There were so many shoes to go with those gowns.
Grover Washington played a ball at the Melody Sports Club. His vocalist couldn’t make it, so they contacted me. It was like I had been singing with him the whole time. He said I should come on the road with him. I told him no because my husband was a merchant marine and he was overseas. I blew that and what could have been. Instead, I became a substitute teacher and sang to the little children.
My mother had me when she was 15, so my grandmother raised me. She was my life. She was deaf but you couldn’t tell because she could read lips so well. No one knew why she was deaf. She made us go to church, Sunday School, and every other service.
My grandmother encouraged me to sing, even if she couldn’t hear me. She was always there, just like she could hear every word. I got married and lived a block away from her. My husband was a merchant marine for 35 years and was gone much of the time. He was home before Mother’s Day. I told my grandmother that the next day I was going to dress her from head to toe and we were going downtown. That night the phone kept ringing. My husband finally answered it and said something is wrong with your grandmother. I flew down the street to see her. She died on May 10, 1965. I still think of her and cry.
I stopped singing as much after my grandmother died. Then the clubs closed on The Avenue and I mostly sang in church. One of my girlfriends was a teacher. I got my substitute teacher’s license and I started subbing. Then I became a paraprofessional. One day I was left with the children to myself and didn’t know what to do with them. I was desperate to keep their attention and discovered I could draw.
I am now hearing impaired. I was at work a sharp pain shot through my ear and fluid started pouring out. I went to the doctor and he said fluid from my brain was dripping out of my ear. I needed brain surgery to repair the hole in my brain. He warned me that the surgery could paralyze me and prepared me to be a vegetale for the rest of my life. Everything turned out fine except I lost some of my hearing. Now I hear what I hear and what I don’t, I don’t worry about. It is still a good life.”
Beatrice Smith’s interview is part of my series “Buried in Oaklawn.” The last story “The Decline and Revival of The Avenue” starts running tomorrow in Lagniappe.