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Club Harlem at K.Y. and the Curb

Club Harlem was once one of Atlantic City's main attractions bringing in superstar musicians from the jazz world and beyond

By Jim Waltzer
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 6 | Posted Dec. 16, 2010

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KY at the Curb

Once upon a time, Club Harlem was the place to be in AC

By James Waltzer -->

THE ADDRESS WAS 32 North Kentucky Avenue, and it was a place where the music -- and the night -- never died. If the entire block, including the likes of Grace's Little Belmont and the Wonder Garden bar, was a jazz mecca, Club Harlem was the primary shrine.

Shifting silhouettes painted on wall mirrors mimicked flesh-and-blood dancers onstage, as musicians roared through their sets at all hours. Sunday mornings brought 5am "breakfast" shows, with breakfast consisting of pretzels and a chaser. The top black entertainers in the country took the stage at Club Harlem and performed for an audience that was mostly white. Soulful Billie Holiday sang here, flamboyant bandleader Cab Calloway conducted, and Sammy Davis Jr. danced up a storm. The Sepia Revue and Beige Beauts dazzled with their costumes and movement, Chris Columbo beat the drums, "Hot Lips" Paige blew his trumpet. "Moms" Mabley, George Kirby, and other comics -- including one of the rare white performers booked here, Lenny Bruce -- grabbed laughs, but Club Harlem was known for its music. Headliners appearing elsewhere in town often showed up after finishing their acts to take in the wee small hours.

Club founder Leroy "Pop" Williams said that he chose the name Harlem because "a lot of black people live there." But on Kentucky Avenue, excitement was color-blind. At Club Harlem, the streetfront exterior only hinted at the magic within. Columbo, who piloted the house band for 34 straight seasons, often warmed up with guitarist "Wonderful" Floyd Smith and jazz organist "Wild Bill" Davis in one of two lounges before the main show. Crowds jamming the big room were known to exceed the capacity of 900. Of Davis, Columbo said, "He brought the Hammond organ from the funeral homes and gave it to jazz."

Click here for 2010 video on the Club Harlem exhibit in Atlantic City and interviews with kin of original owner Leroy Williams.

Williams had converted the dance hall Fitzgerald's Auditorium into Club Harlem in 1935, and in the early days, the new venue offered more than just music. By day, it took bets on the ponies, and funneled gamblers into the backroom of an adjacent building for a go at blackjack and craps.

In 1951, Williams and his brother, Clifton, recruited additional partners, and the marquee eventually bore the name "Clifton's" in large electric lettering, topped by a note-shaped electrified sign that said "Club Harlem." One of the new business partners was Ben Alten, who had left the Paradise Club on Illinois Avenue. Years later, Alten was quoted in the Atlantic City Press as saying," Pop [Williams] wanted a white man as a partner because he wanted to expand the place, and in those days, the banks weren't lending money to black men."

Pop and Clifton got their green, and turned the walls to red-and-gold velvet. Debonair promoter Larry Steele packaged his annual Smart Affairs tour for Miami Beach and Las Vegas as well as Club Harlem. The dancers stayed sleek, the singers dusky, the comics razor-sharp. Then the inevitable decline.

In the early morning of Easter Monday, 1972, a shootout inside Club Harlem triggered a melee and resulted in five deaths. Philadelphia gangs battling over drugs were fingered as the culprits. In truth, this musical mother lode was already on the skids. Soon, the arrival of casino hotels on the Boardwalk sealed the demise of the streetfront clubs.

Club Harlem switched off its red-hot marquee in 1986. Six years later, a December nor'easter shook the structure and crumpled the famous sign. Two weeks after that, bulldozers leveled the storied building.

A few loyalists rescued some of Club Harlem's inimitable texture: chairs, booths, padded interior doors, onstage props, vintage photographs. These appointments were sequestered in storage rooms, awaiting the call back to center stage, perhaps in a new or existing museum.

Meanwhile, the old voices and images hover in the air, unwilling to relinquish that special space on Kentucky. The dancing dynamo whirling about the stage-in-the-sky is Peg Leg Bates. And those one-liners are being slung by comedian Slappy White. The beautiful songstresses with their sultry voices are Nancy Wilson and Damita Jo, and vocal stylists Billy Daniels, Joe Williams and Brook Benton weave their spell as well. Dinah Washington and her musical heir, Aretha Franklin, are belting to the heavens.

They all played Club Harlem, as did many more. Where the bricks and mortar came alive, and the adrenaline never quit.

Jim Waltzer's Tales of South Jersey, co-authored by Tom Wilk, is published by Rutgers University Press.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 6 of 6
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1. Dawn Kindt said... on Mar 22, 2011 at 09:51AM

“I worked as a waitress in Wildwood back in the 60's and we always went to
Atlantic City after work on early Sunday morning to the show at The Harlem
Those days were so exciting. Working in the clubs in wildwood I had the pleasure of meeting many of the wonderful entertainers back then. Sam Cooke had to be the nicest man I have ever miss. I miss those days so much. They were great and everybody got along. The music was the best. I went on to work in Phila at "Just Jazz". and there again we had the best entertainers. Oh, to be able to relive those days. They are memories I will always cherish.





















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2. Anonymous said... on Apr 3, 2011 at 09:17AM

“Saw a show at Club Harlem back in the early 60's by Slappy White. Was to date the funniest ever. Too bad they didn't record these shows. I would pay anything for the recordings.”

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3. Rockzilla said... on Jun 2, 2011 at 06:05AM

“My late dad, Chris Woods, played alto sax in the house band for the "Larry Steele Smart Affairs" review. We where living in Brooklyn, NY at the time. Every year for 3 years he'd head off to Atlantic City at Memorial Day and remain there until Labor Day. He played a grueling schedule with very few days off. My mom and I would go down to visit him once a month. I'd go to the matinee (PG) show on Sunday. I saw the greats. It was wonderful.”

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4. MALIK'S NEPHEW said... on Nov 29, 2011 at 02:32AM

“My uncle, Gilbert "Malik" Satterwhite, was one of the victims of the shooting that occured on April 2, 1972. He had turned 25 just two weeks earlier. Billy Paul was the artist tthat evening. As much as I look forward to this exhibit, for our family, the recollection of this historic venue is bitter sweet.”

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5. Paul Glover said... on Oct 24, 2012 at 06:34AM

“My mother (Helen Glover) and I lived right across the street above Jerry's barbecue. I have fond memories looking out the window and watching all come and go from the club, meeting Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr and so many others. But I must say the best part was getting to know the people in the area who made the place run. They were such beautiful people and I will never forget the special way and feeling that those people gave to me. I love you all.

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6. Sue Milnes said... on Sep 13, 2013 at 10:47PM

“I was a college student back in the late 1960's when I first started to get summer jobs in AC. The discovery of Kentucky Ave. was a whole new wonderful world to me. I loved going to the Harlem Club and the Wonder Garden where I first heard BB King. I took my parents to the Harlem Club on their 25th wedding anniversary to hear Nina Simone. But what I liked best was the bar at Gracie's Little Belmont. It was always packed, very intimate and Featured the fabulous Wild Bill Davis every night. Occasionally Miss Gracie herself would come down to the bar at night. She was quite old at the time. I see one commentator says he lived above Jerry's. It was the best Bar BQ I ever ate and made a great early morning breakfast.”

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