Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Overtown's Mr. Entertainment!

Came across this ad in a Nov. 1963 issue of the Miami Herald for Clyde Killens' Knight Beat in Overtown.

Killens was an entertainment impresario who brought popular black entertainers to Overtown nightclubs half a century ago.

Here's a recording of the legendary Sam Cooke performing live at Killen's Harlem Square Club in 1963.

Killens died in 2004 at the age of 95 but had he lived he would have been 100 this year.

The Herald archives have many stories on him but I like this 1990 piece best.

June 30, 1990

by SHARONY ANDREWS Herald Staff Writer

Clyde Killens doesn't think about the old days much. Except, perhaps, when he walks into his neighborhood barber shop and people need a little help with some Overtown trivia.

"Once they was betting on whether Redd Foxx had ever played the Knight Beat," says Killens. "I walked in and I was the proof. I'm the one who brought him in.

"They know if anybody knows, I do."

And so he does. Killens put Overtown on the national map as one the hottest black entertainment pockets in the country during the 1950s and '60s. Back then, he brought in legends like Dinah Washington, Count Basie and Sammy Davis Jr., who performed nightly in clubs like the Sir John Hotel's Knight Beat, which he managed.

Back in those days, Killens was known as "Miami's Mr. Entertainment" or "the Glass," the latter coming because "I always had a glass in my hand -- Scotch and water, of course."

His domain included Overtown's hot spots: Harlem Square, the Island Club and Mary Elizabeth's Hotel Fiesta Club. And the names were big: Mary Wells, Sam and Dave, Hot Papa Turner, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Jackie Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank DuBoise. Black performers would play at whites-only stages in Miami Beach, then drive across the bay to play Overtown. Often they saved their funkiest sets for those late-night gigs with Clyde; the audiences were often anything but segregated, whites knowing that Overtown was were the real shows were happening.

But Killens' genius was recognizing that it took more than big names to keep audiences happy. On Ladies Night, he gave out free panty hose and dresses. Sunday's door prizes were grocery carts filled high with offerings like neck bones and cans of black-eyed peas. His "Night in Nassau" was big with South Florida's Bahamian population; patrons brought native dishes like stewed conch, conch salad, conch fritters, pigeon peas and rice and fried fish.

"He was a guy who knew what kind of entertainment it took to make a club go," said China Valles, who hosts a jazz radio show on WTMI but in 1964 was broadcasting live the happenings at the Knight Beat.

"He had all the big acts. He used to bring them over to my radio booth and let me interview them, people like Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Joe Louis."

The clubs were filled nightly with both whites and blacks who did dances like the Madison, the Hully Gully and the Chicken Scratch "like they had rehearsed it the night before. It was just something to see, a hundred of them on the dance floor." The next day, from 3 to 6 p.m., the neighborhood kids were let in. For a dollar, they'd get dancers, comedians and a singer.

Folks also flocked to Clyde's, Killens' own pool hall. It's still open today. Frequenters in the old days included Muhammad Ali, then a young Cassius Clay; boxer Archie Moore; Flip Wilson. "It was the classiest operation around," said Killens. "Always someone big in there."

Killens arrived in Miami in 1924, a 15-year-old from Valdosta, Ga. Today, at 81, his memory is still sharp. He can tell you about when the tracks were just being laid for streetcars to go through Overtown, about being one of the first blacks to vote in the 1920s, about getting air conditioners in the old Colored Town theaters, about the hurricane of 1926 that ripped through the houses of affluent whites in Miami Beach but couldn't beat down the shotgun shacks of Overtown.

"They had to build Miami Beach all over again," he remembers. "We built ours right. Maybe a shingle fell here or there, but ours stayed up."

One house that made it through the storm was the one Killens still lives in today, at Northwest 11th Street and Second Avenue. The neat, two-story, bright white home with yellow trim now looks out of place on the glass-strewn, gutted block that once was the economic and social heartbeat of Overtown. In the 1950s and '60s, black society came through those doors for Killens' lavish parties. Says his bedridden wife, Ova, "Only the socialites partied here. We're the only ones left today."

The house used to have a gas station out front that sold more moonshine than gasoline in the 1920s and '30s, Killens remembers. He bought the place, fixed it up a little, and personally stood out on the corner and waved passing motorists in to his smooth driveway. "I'd stop any black person with a car. I am and have always been a hustlin' businessman," Killens says with a laugh.

Although much of the Overtown he knew and loved exists only in memories, Killens has no interest in moving. This is his home; these are people he knows and who know him. When he drives his brown Lincoln through the streets, people nod and say hello to the man who has been here longer than most have been alive.

Killens rarely leaves the neighborhood anymore, but every afternoon he heads east across the railroad tracks to the Miami Herald building to get the first edition of the next day's paper.

"I got to have my news, " he says. "I stay up to late at night reading the paper. I don't read books. The print is too small in those books. I just read. Don't even listen to music."

And he remembers. Showing a visitor an old scrapbook with browned clippings, he gently turns each page and points out the names. "See, here's Dionne Warwick. Her first gig was in the Knight Beat. Oh, there's Jackie Gleason -- he used to sing on the pool tables in my pool hall down the street, yes ma'am."

1 comment:

  1. Clyde Killens would have been 102 in October 2010 updated info from his oldest child Brenda Killens Evans. He passed away 6 years ago today in the arms of his oldest grandson Herbert Evans. He left behind his beloved wife Beola Killens and their two children Brenda & Clyde Killens. He also was a grandfather of 6 & 14 great grandchildren. Our family has since then expanded and he is sadly missed but will forever be remembered and always in our hearts.


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