As a Mecca for music and the recording arts, Los Angeles enjoys an enviable reputation for the diversity and quality of its output. This sonic largesse is a result of both homegrown and imported talents, as each group or performer has their own particular tale to chronicle the path to their own, individual sound. For Sherwood Sledge, his decade’s long tenure straddling the genres of gospel and jazz actually began on the opposite side of the country. Overshadowed by the specter of Washington, D.C., Baltimore has produced its own unique, contributions to the culture and especially the music of America.
Once upon a time in the United States, before the onslaught of integration, “Negroes” as they were called, were cut off from virtually every aspect of society. Because of this, a separate, distinct lifestyle developed, especially in entertainment. The “Chitlin Circuit” (a term possibly coined by vocalist Lou Rawls), a chain of nightclubs and theaters sprung up throughout major cities of the east coast, mid-west, and the south, specifically in the “colored” sections of these towns to provide hospitality and entertainment for an amusement starved citizenry.
These venues in turn sprouted up commercial industry around them, and allowed entrepreneurship to those who might not otherwise have been given the opportunity. Denver Ferguson parlayed profits from his numbers racket into a string of establishment in Indianapolis, Ind. offering leisure time pursuits, notably the Sunset Terrance, the state’s outpost of the chitlin circuit.
Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue was the east coast equivalent of this, with scores of commercial, cultural, and entertainment concerns lining its streets. Of course, illicit pursuits flourished along side these most respectable haunts, among them threadbare gambling establishments called “holes.” It was here where young Sherwood would “cut his teeth” as a 6-year-old entertainer and vocalist.
His father would take the diminutive crooner into these tread bare places, often with dirt floors, and announce to the assembled reprobates that his son would sing for their amusement, provided they part with a portion of the winnings from their games of chance. In short order, he became a fixture singing in these wretched locales, earning his father the ire of his mother.
Her tune changed when the pint sized songster displayed his earnings.
“Maybe your father isn’t so dumb, after all,” she sighed when Sherwood would turn over four or five times the $5 monthly rental for a night’s crooning.
Music was a nice respite from the World War II doldrums of air raid drills, rationing, and no bubble gum (due to the necessity of rubber in the war effort). Adding to the formative diet of young Sledge’s developing ear was the affable baritone of the influential D J Chuck Richards. Starting out on radio station “WITH” (he later moved on to “WBAL”), Richards left his prolific career singing in front of the Swing bands of Duke Ellington and Chick Webb to take up the art of spinning records as a pioneering Black radio announcer.
The Baltimore branch of the chitlin circuit was Pennsylvania Avenue’s Royal Theater, a cultural institution that showcased the best Black America had to offer over the course of four decades. An incomplete listing of the talents that “threw down” on its stage would include Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, James Brown, Nat King Cole (initially known as a pianist before ascending to stardom as a vocalist), Duke Ellington, Etta James, and scores of others.
His father initiated him into the Royal’s patronage when he was a tender 4 years old. By the time he was 6, the seasoned theatergoer was mature enough to make the six-mile trek from home to stand in line at 2229 Pennsylvania Ave. The itinerary here, like the rest of the outlets on the circuit, included a trifecta consisting of a comedy, a feature film, and a stage show.
One memorable event happened when he entered a Tri-State Talent Show at the Royal. Among the contestants that night was a sultry, voluptuous 16-year-old chanteuse named Sallie Blair. This bottle blond bombshell, whom jazz great Miles Davis called the “brown Marilyn Monroe,” went on to have a more than respectable career, with appearances on the covers of Ebony and Jet magazines, and performances on the Danny Kaye and Ed Sullivan television shows. On this particular night however, she was overshadowed by her pushy, obnoxious, Stage Mom, who threw a tantrum when her darling daughter came in second behind Sherwood Sledge.
Even the most gifted can find themselves forced to take on a “day job” to provide shelter and sustenance as they pursue their art. Young Sledge was blessed to have clerical skills, and the good fortune to work in civil service as an adult in Maryland. In those days during the painful shift between segregation and integration, he often found himself the only child of Africa in a room full of Whites. Once out west, he pursued education in the medical field at downtown’s Trade Tech College, and was about to receive his LVN (Licensed Vocational Nurse) certificate when school administrators held a meeting, resulting in the collective recommendation to encourage his pursuit of music.
A taste of Tinseltown
Upon arrival in the City of Angels, he found a thriving entertainment business catering to the Black community, not unlike the atmosphere he’d left on the east coast. Superficially liberal, L.A. none-the-less had its own, distinctive caste system, racially and ethnically. There is, however, a silver lining in every tribulation, and this social exclusion made for a concentrated assembly of extraordinary talent, as it had back home on Pennsylvania Ave.
The influx of upwardly mobile Black middle class families into the area known as The Crenshaw District in the 1950s and 60s meant an abundance of music lovers with considerable disposable income, coupled with the desire for top flight leisure pursuits.
Crenshaw Boulevard, in particular, was a hotbed of aural delights, with droves of venues lining the “strip” from Vernon Avenue north to Exposition Boulevard showcasing exceptional talent. R&B and Funk impresario Lonnie Simmons (the driving force behind the GAP Band), opened the Total Experience (now shuttered), a nightclub just across from Leimert Park. Several blocks north was and is John Daniels’ Maverick’s Flat, according to legend the inspiration behind the Temptation’s hit single “Psychedelic Shack.”
Around the corner on Santa Barbara Ave. (latter Martin Luther King Blvd.), nighthawks could find the Memory Lane Supper Club (later bought by actress Marla Gibbs), and in the vicinity, Freddie Jet’s Pied Piper, the Parisian Room, and other intriguing musical show places.
The overall vibe of the area and the sheer quality of the performances drew listeners of every color with unprejudiced ears. This included significant numbers of the Hollywood elite, much as Central Avenue had been a magnet for matinee idols of the silver screen in earlier generations. Marlon Brando, the Rolling Stones, and other luminaries dropped in regularly to absorb the soulful noise.
At one time or the other, Sledge has “put in work” in all these establishments.
Later, as the transition into the 1980s progressed, the area continued to be a cultural hub of a different sort, as Hip-Hop and Rap became a driving force on the airways and dance floors.
During these times, Sledge and his colleagues found themselves in the curious position of performing gospel in nightclub settings, as their patron’s sipped alcoholic beverages while absorbing the sacred word. Work was plentiful, and he reached audiences throughout southern California, and intermittent jaunts to that citadel of vice, Las Vegas.
Good times, Bad times
The coming years would bring triumph and tragedy to season his musical repertoire. The death of Martin Luther King was blunted by a sense of foreboding on Sledge’s part.
“He’s not going to be around long,” was the premonition that came over Sledge well before his assassination in Memphis.
“I just felt in my spirit,” he remembers.
The murder of Robert F. Kennedy two months later prolonged the mood every where.
“Everybody was in a daze.”
A grey cloud of depression crept across the city, reminiscent of the aura that swarmed Baltimore years before, with the shooting of President John F. Kennedy.
Occasionally on their excursions to the San Fernando Valley, he would encounter an amazing percussionist who wowed the crown with her tambourine virtuosity. Sandra Crouch’s twin brother, Andraé, would become better known as a Grammy-award-winning singer and pastor in the realm of praise music.
Sledge has collaborated with most of the greats of the latter half century in American music, sacred and secular. Never reaching the “pinnacle” of stardom, he has been involved with the likes of Robert Goulet, Quincy Jones, and others. A career highlight was his contribution to the Gene Page sound track to the 1972 “blaxploitation” horror film, “Blacula.” His smooth tenor can be heard on the track “Main Chance.”
By 1971, a fortuitous recommendation by gospel great Clara Ward garnered him the opportunity to go overseas as part of the USO (United Services Organization), the concern tasked with entertaining the armed forces around the world. Two songs into the audition, he and his fellow singers got the nod.
“Y’all in! Y’all don’t have to sing no more…”
This begat a series of tours throughout the Far East, and later Europe and the Mediterranean.
After all his years with a foot in both musical “camps” of gospel and jazz, Sherwood Sledge has never felt a conflict of interest or a compulsion to choose between the two.
“There’s a blessing in everything you sing, if it comes from the heart,” he believes.
He reasons that God would not give him a gift that would render negative effects on the world around him.
Recently, Sherwood Sledge compiled all his memories in book format and is shopping the manuscript around for publication. Tentatively titled “Ma Journey,” it is a chronicle of his musical journey during a seminal period in the growth of America.