They paved paradise

From gun-toting club owners and drag shows to Mamie Smith and John Lee Hooker, Hastings Street breathed life

Dec 14, 2011 at 12:00 am

An absolute place of music legend and African-American culture, Hastings Street once stretched north from the Detroit River to East Grand Boulevard, basically where I-75 runs today. 

After Detroit's Jewish immigrant population left this area, Hastings became a thriving artery of African-American business and entertainment. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the street catered to shoppers by day and offered an array of music, stage acts and colorful folks walking the street at night. Most Hastings venues were Jewish-owned corner bars that booked small groups and bluesmen. 

Barrelhouse blues pianists, while not playing for house parties, found lucrative work along Hastings. By the 1920s, Atlanta-born pianist Paul Seminole performed at Butch's on Hastings and provided inspiration to Rufus G. "Speckled Red" Perryman, who established a reputation on the street. 

A neighborhood movie house, the Castle Theatre, at 3412 Hastings, offered music on occasion, as it did in 1933 when featuring vaudeville blues singer Mamie Smith. 

With Prohibition's repeal that same year, more venues opened along Hastings. Longtime Detroit resident and multi-talented artist, Dr. Jiam Des Jardin, recalled the street in the mid-1930s: "It seemed nothing could keep me from returning to Hastings at night — to see cars and traffic moving bumper to bumper both ways up and down the street, to smell food cooking hanging heavy in the air — barbecue chicken, shrimp, pastrami and salami — and the passing scents of perfumed women. My youthful eyes gazed at their legs covered in Queen-lace stockings. I also marveled at Oxford two-tone shoes — blue and white, brown and white, black and white." 

The street's only black-owned nightspot during the 1930s, the Cozy Corner at 4100 Hastings, was owned by the cigar-smoking, gun-toting Mac Ivey. Such places as the sawdust-floor covered Three Star Bar, featured music occasionally.

At Brown's Bar at 2800 Hastings, between Alfred and Brewster, renowned blues pianist "Big Maceo" Merriweather held forth. While playing Brown's, Maceo made trips to Chicago to record for the Bluebird label, including his 1941 race record hit "Worried Life Blues." 

The street's largest black-operated establishment, the Forest Club (700 E. Forest at Hastings), while under Sunnie Wilson's lease (1941-1951), brought in head-spinningly great national jazz and blues acts, from Charlie Parker and Woody Herman to Louis Jordan and Gatemouth Brown. These acts performed in the Forest Club's roller skating rink that doubled as a concert space. 

By the late 1940s, blues guitarists were establishing a new musical trend with the arrival of Southern-born musicians looking for factory work. Corner establishments booked such bluesman as guitarist Calvin Frazer, a one-time road companion of Robert Johnson. Detroit guitarist Emmit Slay played Sportree Reed's Music Bar at 2014 Hastings. Owned by Raymond S. Jackson, Sportree patrons were also entertained by guitarist T-Bone Walker and blues shouter Big Joe Williams. 

Like other Hastings nightspots, Sportree's offered revue-style entertainment and female impersonators. These drag shows offered work to musicians like blues pianist Floyd Taylor, who during the early 1950s featured jazz multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef in his revue. 

In 1948, John Lee Hooker brought national attention to Hastings Street with his hit "Boogie Chillen." Hooker subsequently recorded at Joe's Record Shop at 3530 Hastings. In the shop's makeshift backroom studio, owner Joe Von Battle recorded blues guitarists Calvin Frazer, Baby Boy Warren, Eddie Burns, Eddie Kirkland and pianist Vernon "Boogie Woogie Red" Harrison. He also recorded a local hit with Detroit Count's 1948 piano-rap tune "Hastings Street Opera," which captured in song all the significant places along the street. Though Von Battle recorded numerous blues, jazz and R&B-style records (many of them leased to other labels), he made his most money on a series of sermon recordings by the Rev. C.L. Franklin (father of Aretha Franklin) — 78 discs of live recordings made at Franklin's New Bethel Baptist Church on Hastings. 

By 1958, hundreds of businesses on Hastings were vacant. The following year the destruction of Hastings Street began as urban renewal and the construction of the Chrysler Freeway — part of a $50 million federal highway plan — spelled the end of this once-vibrant east side community. A local newspaper offered some words of remembrance by stating, "Its origins are invested with dignity. Its history should be viewed with admiration." In tribute to his former eastside scene, African-American poet Robert Hayden wrote that it is time to "Let Vanished Rooms, Let Dead Streets tell," to resurrect in memory Detroit's center of African-American life and music.