Friday, September 21, 2012

Pittsburgh's Silhouettes

George Bacasa, Ronnie Thomas and Al Secen were inseparable Lawrenceville buds. They went to high school together, and formed a polka trio during their senior year, practicing in George's basement. In 1953 they auditioned for Uncle Sam, and enlisted as members of the 536th Air Force Band.

In exchange for a four-year stint, they were stationed at Cape Canaveral, Florida (or maybe nearby Patrick AFB). When on-base, they showed VIPs around the rocket facility. But most of the time, they were out entertaining the troops, doing PR-type tours, performing on radio and TV and for recruitment drives. Their final year saw them recognized with the Roger Award, the Air Force's honor for its most talented airmen.

They came back home a little more sophisticated musically and morphed into a jazz group, with Bacasa on flute and reeds, Secen on vibes (he played the squeeze box when they were a polka band) and Thomas on bass. They eventually added jazz drummer Lenny Rogers (who went to Duquesne and later taught there) and vocalist Cathy Martin, though they would run through a number of singers over the years.

The band called itself the Silhouettes, sometimes messing with the minds of vocal fans who expected Bill Horton/John Wilson and the Philly harmonizers of "Get A Job" fame. Pittsburgh's Silhouettes were anything but doowoppers.

They had a funky, bossa-nova sort of sound with a mellow side. The group played the college and jazz circuits, and gigged at local clubs like the Red Door, Casa Di Monzo, Pilot House, Escapades, Encore, the Hilton and the Holiday House, going strong from the late fifties into the early seventies. While their Latin beat was infectious, they're remembered today because the Silhouettes left behind some great vinyl.

The first single was released on Bacasa's Bye George label (#1000). It was "St. Thomas," a remake of the Sonny Rollins piece, backed with a cover of John Phillip's song "Monday, Monday," released in 1967.

But their piece de resistance was the Segue release of 1969, their LP "Conversations With The Silhouettes." (SEG-1001) Segue was a local jazz label owned by WRS Labs and run by Basaca and Nathan Davis. (It would later fold when the owners switched from jazz to rock unsuccessfully.) Bacasa produced the imprint's first release, Davis' "Makatuka," and Davis produced the Silhouettes' "Conversations," their one and only album.

The band added Willy Smith on congas and percussion for the session, and tossed in a little lo-tech electronic trickery while recording. The tracks included on "Conversations" are Young Blood, Time To Fall In Love, Norwegian Wood (Lennon/McCartney), Sally's Tomato (Mancini), Question: Why?, Fonky First, Hashi Baba, Conversation, Sesame, What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life (Bergman/Bergman/Legrand) and Lunar Invasion, with most of the tracks written by Al Secen.

It was quite well received critically - Norwegian Wood was especially popular among affectionados - but as often happens, the wax didn't sell at the time though it's worth a small mint on today's collectors' market. Several of the tracks have been downloaded to by funk fans, as have the 45s.

The last single by this group was 1969's "Oh What A Day," an upbeat pop tune sung by Carol Christian and produced by Bill Lawrence for his Canonsburg based Western World label (WWS-5503). The B-Side is "Red Snow," a composition penned by the band. The record companies at the time were trying to get the jazz guys to cross over by leading with a pop side in exchange for the flip being the group's choice. And as it ended up, "Red Snow" is the more remembered song.

Bacasa and Secens fronted a group called New Horizons into the early-to-mid eighties, playing clubs like Cunimondo's Keyboard in Verona. And that is about where Old Mon's trail runs cold. George Bacasa suffered a heart attack in 1976 and passed on in 1988 while still in his early fifties. Ronnie Thomas met his maker in 1991, while he was in his late fifties. The last we heard, Al Secen is still hanging in there and soaking up the sunshine in Palm Beach.

If anyone can help us fill in the missing pieces of Pittsburgh's Silhouettes, give us a yell so we can finish the story.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Loendi Club

Loendi Club on Fullerton Street
 from the Carnegie Museum of Art Teenie Harris collection

The music never stopped in the Hill for most of the twentieth century, and one of its famed venues was The Loendi Social and Literary Club. But the Loendi wasn't an organ house or one of the famous "Black and Tan" clubs like the Crawford Grill or Hurricane Lounge. In fact, it was so exclusive that you and I probably couldn't get past the doorman.

The club dates back to August 13, 1897, when it was founded by George Hall, best remembered today as the father of one the City's best athletes, Sellers "Sell" Hall. Sell pitched for the Homestead Grays, was a standout in hoops (he played for the Loendi Five, which regularly whipped college teams), football and track, and eventually became a music promoter for black acts.

The Loendi was named for an East African river that flowed from Lake Nyassa until it joined the Ruvuma River, and was mentioned several times in David Livingstone's (As in "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?") 1872 journal.

It was the Duquesne Club for the black elite. Its membership included Pittsburgh’s African American doctors, profession folk, business owners, entrepreneurs and celebrities. The Loendi offered lectures, music, and sponsored athletic teams beside providing a refuge from the teeming masses and a quiet meeting place for the area's black movers and shakers to do business.

The Loendi's early presidents were William Maurice Randolph, Esq., George Hall, WH Patterson, William Stanton Esq., Eddie Johnson, Captain CW Posey (Posey Steamboat Company), Samuel Pangburn, Ollie Jones, James Peck, John Henry, John Anderson, Sylvester Jones, William Hance Sr., Eugene Lewis, and Robert Vann (lawyer and Courier editor), all well established luminaries in the City's black community. William Taliaferro, Teeny Harris' uncle and mentor, was a founding member.

The original building was a converted three-story structure on 83 Fullerton Street (erased by the Civic Arena project, on the same street that former City Councilman and stage actor Sala Udin, then known as Sam Howze, was raised) on the corner of Wylie Avenue, a block below Crawford Avenue. The members bought it in 1902 for $100,000.

It didn't look very special from the street, but the local kids used to hang around outside just to watch the limos pull up to the nondescript clubhouse. If they could only have seen the inside... It had an atrium, a rosewood piano, artwork by Henry O. Tanner, plush carpets, tapestries on the walls and a library/reading room, along with billiard and card rooms. Its dining room had a steward.

As a private hall, the Loendi didn't hold many public events. They would hire local bands, never larger than quartets, to play for the members during weekends, for dances or for special events. More often than not, they just brought in a solo pianist. The club never had a bandstand, and as an older building, its rooms weren't particularly spacious. And it was most certainly not a venue for hard bop or Mississippi blues; the musicians played or reworked standards and the classier contemporary pieces, as befit the club's image.

Outside groups with the right connections could rent the building, too. For example, the FROGS (Friendly Rivalry Often Generates Success) society had many members with ties to the Loendi. They held dances there until the Arena project nuked the neighborhood and the club moved. FROG events were front page news for all the local African-American press (they still are), and usually quite a bit livelier than Loendi acts.

While they may not have been on the cutting edge, the Loendi could roll out the carpet for the big-time performers, and that's how it earned its rep in the Pittsburgh music scene. An invite to one of their private artist parties was a guarantee for a night to remember. The club featured or honored musicians like Billy Eckstine, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Bennie Moten, Cab Calloway, and Louis Armstrong. High brow or not, the members did enjoy their swing, and sometimes even shared the swag.

According to Colter Harpers 2011 dissertation "The Crossroads of the World," here's what they did to celebrate Billy Eckstine (a bit redacted): "In 1952, the Loendi sponsored a week of events for Pittsburgh vocalist and bandleader Billy Eckstine, who was returning to the city to perform in downtown’s Stanley Theater...The events included the Loendi Formal at the Fort Pitt Hotel honoring Billy Eckstine; open house for Billy at the Loendi Club; teen-age party for Mr. B; Loendi press, radio and TV party at the club, and the big salute to Eckstine at the Famous Door (in East Liberty).” It's a wonder Mr. B got to perform while he was here!

But like everything else that got in the way of the Civic Arena, the Loendi's days in the Lower Hill were coming to an end. In 1958, they opened a new building at 841 Ledlie Street in the Upper Hill (off Bedford Avenue at the end of Cliff Street), an impressive and modern one story structure. It wasn't the same, though. Membership became easier to come by, and it eventually turned into more of a social club than haven for the elite.

Still, it had its moments. The biggest may have been on April 8, 1967, when 400 people elbowed into the Loendi to celebrate "Bill Powell Night," honoring the career of the WAMO/WILY DJ and Courier columnist. But as time went on, the club was suspected of harboring gambling and other illicit activities, and was sometimes even under police surveillance, who came to regard the Loendi as a party bar by the seventies.

It soldiered on into the early eighties. The last band we could find to play the club was Jothan Callins and the Sounds of Togetherness, featuring saxman Kenny Powell, and they may have sounded taps on the Loendi era in Pittsburgh music history.