By Susan Cross
This is an excerpt from Leroy Cooper's memoir as told to me back in 2007. The material is copyrighted by Susan Cross and cannot be copied, published or duplicated without permission.
Traveling in the South
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
There was a Jewish boy in Ray’s band when we were going through all of this named Donald Peake. I didn’t know anything about his religious background. There were about two or three white boys in Ray’s band during these critical times. I took it upon myself to try to be a protector of Peake’s down south and in Florida. Guys were selling Muhammad Speaks, it was the Muslim newspaper, and when they would see him with us, they’d have a circle on him; they were getting ready to do something. I’d come in the circle and say, “Man, he’s with us,” and blah, blah, blah. He’d be terrified, you know, and who wouldn’t? Having all these crazy people around you.
When we used to work in Miami, we couldn’t even stay on the beach. We had to stay up in Hollywood and travel down to the job. Ray was the only one who could stay down there. But we had a good old time and accepted how things were. One of our girls, one of our Raelets had bought some snake boots over in Germany. She paid about 700 or 800 dollars for these fabulous snake boots that come up to her knees. She had on a fur stole and all that and we were off in Miami. She went in the bar next door to the motel where we were living and the cops took her for prostitution. Ray had to go get her out of jail. She was just sitting at the bar having a drink and she told ‘em she was with the band but they didn’t believe her.
Things are better now. The hip hoppers can wear those snake boots and they’re all over Miami. Can you imagine putting one of them in jail? They can buy the jail.
Ray started going to towns like Yazoo, Mississippi and Birmingham, Alabama. That was frightening. Back in the day, we were in the bus station and I had to be in the black part of the bus station. I was shooting the pinball machine.
This big cop came over with a fat stomach, a regular cop, and he asked the guy, “What do that big one do?”
“Oh, he’s a saxophone player.”
He said, “Can he blow it? Is he good?” In other words, he just wanted to have some kind of confrontation with me. And I kept ignoring him.
It got so bad when we’d play a gig they’d say, “No drinking in this dressing room. And if we catch one of you drinking in the dressing room you’re all going to jail. Everybody was calling home on the public phone out there. “Don’t stay too long on that phone.” Picky, picky, picky, picky, picky. To me, Birmingham was the worst place in the world.
Nat King Cole was from Birmingham and I read that they had him going through the back door in the auditorium. Well with Ray, when our bus came in, they had us pull around to the back and we had to go in the back door.
When we went to Mobile, Alabama they wouldn’t even let us in the arena unless we got rid of everybody we had white in the band. So the road manager told him we don’t have any whites, we have near whites. So the cops accepted that. The girls put powder on [Don] Peake, brown powder and he was scared that night. They made all the white patrons leave and we had to play to the black audience. The white people stayed outside the arena so they could wave to us when we left.
Things changed. Joe Namath, when he got popular years later opened up a club in Birmingham. We played the circuit in the south with Joe Namath. We went to his club and they had us in the biggest hotel downtown. I forget the name of it, and they had a massage parlor on the mezzanine. The manager of the hotel was telling the band, “You had your back rubbed?”
I said, “Wait a minute; that’s not for us.”
“Oh yes, they’ve got some nice girls up there.”
“This is not Birmingham. Time’s have really changed,” I thought.
We played the Bachelor’s Club in Ft. Lauderdale and we were treated royally everywhere and I said it can’t be the same south; it can’t be the same place.
Copyright © 2011 Susan Cross – All rights reserved