Portland’s golden age funk and soul bands find new life, in Albina and beyond
Nightclubs are long gone, but the music that filled them night after night – funk, soul and even disco – is back.
You might even notice someone in the Old Quarter today, standing where the Cotton Club was, tapping their toes and swinging their hips.
That someone would listen Albina’s Soul Walk, a self-guided, musical walking tour that takes listeners to northeast Portland to learn about what was once the city’s most important black entertainment scene.
In the mid-20th century, the Black Portlanders were evicted from many of the city’s neighborhoods and suburbs by redlining, the institutionalized refusal to provide them with mortgages and other financial services. They therefore settled in Albina, an industrial district neglected by the city’s leaders, and made it their own.
âProduce markets, Chinese cuisine, hair salons, doctors’ offices and of course Dawson Park, where everyone hung out,â guitarist Normand Sylvestre said in the audio tour, recalling Albina in the 1950s, when the Louisiana native arrived in Portland at the age of 12.
Sylvester, a Inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame Known as âThe Boogie Cat,â described Portland’s black neighborhood at the time as prosperous and community-driven, a place âwhere everyone knew your nameâ¦ you came home.
As the Soul Walk narrative goes, âThere was a whole town within a town.
But Sylvester and his family landed in Albina as she began to physically fracture and disappear, thanks to the construction of Interstate-5, as well as the controversial expansion of Emanuel Hospital and other misguided urban renewal efforts.
The 1967 “Albina Riot” and the drug epidemic of the 1970s and 1980s also transformed the neighborhood that Sylvester and other longtime Portlanders remember.
Even the progress has had unintended consequences, says drummer Calvin Walker, 69, another inductee to the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.
“Integration, as good as it is, openness, it ruined things [in Albina]He told The Oregonian / OregonLive. âIt broke the community. That dollar you spent was no longer going to another person of color.
Megan Hattie Stahl, a Hunter College graduate student in Integrated Media Arts, initially came up with the idea of ââAlbina’s audio tour as a class project. The 30-year-old raised in McMinnville wanted to focus on Portland’s well-known jazz history. But then she met Bobby Smith, archivist at World Arts Foundation and founder of the Albina Music Trust.
Smith had spent years unearthing records, most of them never released, of little-known Portland soul and funk groups of the late 1960s, 70s and 80s.
He introduced Stahl to the Gangsters, legendary Beyons, Ruby & the Wonders, and more. Stahl was amazed at what she heard.
âThe bands are just breathtaking,â she enthuses. “And hardly anyone knows them.”
These acts were all homegrown and largely self-taught – with the help of other local musicians. Most clubs in Albina had jam sessions on Sundays that allowed anyone to sit down with the house group and learn.
âYou were there to show off and strut, that’s the point of jam sessions,â one musician said in the Soul Walk. âYou wanted to get this sign from whoever was running the jam session, ‘Yeah, that was cool. It was cool. ‘ â¦ That was your red badge of courage right there. You would spend your week feeling pretty good.
Black city musicians performed at Fred’s Place, Texas Playhouse, Upstairs Lounge. Above all, they wanted to score a place at the Cotton Club of Paul Knauls. It was doing it.
âIt was a beautiful place,â says Walker.
The nightclub, located at 2125 North Vancouver Avenue, was a popular stop on the âChitlin ‘Circuitâ in the 1960s. Etta James, among other notable stars, performed there. But it was local acts that really defined and supported it.
Walker, inspired and later taught by local drumming legend Mel Brown, was 13 when he first performed at Knauls nightclub.
âPaul Knauls was very nice to us,â he says, referring to the underage musicians in the neighborhood looking for a chance to play at the Cotton Club. âWhen we weren’t playing, we had to go out to the restaurant section. We couldn’t watch the adults do their dirty work.
This “filth” consisted of men and women going wild in the popular nightclub. It was a place to have a good time, of course. A place that has often seen too much alcohol, possibly sex and illegal drugs.
âThe Cotton Club was for everyone, from top to bottom,â says Walker.
For Walker, at least, witnessing depression – even from the distance from the stage or the restaurant section – was good for him. âSeeing the results of people drinking, it never seemed like a scene to me,â he says.
At the age of 18, Walker joined The Gangsters, a fully instrumental group that would reach their peak when future Grammy-winning trumpeter Thara Memory joined the group.
Success in the Albina district, however, seldom provided for greater things. Even crossing the river was not easy. Many of the lost recordings Smith unearthed were demos, made by bands hoping to convince club owners in downtown Portland that they might appeal to white audiences.
âThere was kind of a divide between the Albina music scene and everywhere else,â Smith says.
Time Soul Walk, driven by a free geolocation app, begins at the Cotton Club site on North Vancouver Avenue, then heads to the historic 1926 Billy Webb Elks Lodge, which was recently badly damaged by fire. The tour continues north on North Williams Avenue and east on Northeast Knott Street, with various guides – including Sylvester, Walker, and Knauls – offering anecdotes and tidbits of history at each stop.
For years Albina’s nightclubs thrived, although opportunities were limited for the local black musicians who performed there. The Pink City was not Los Angeles, Chicago or Detroit. He didn’t have a record industry or a national profile. But live music was at the heart of the social life of this working-class city.
Before cable TV and the Internet, many Portlanders went out almost every night. This meant that there were clubs not only in Albina but in almost every part of the city, and during the Mid Decade the funk and soul scene flourished.
âPeople were going from club to club to club, all night long,â Walker recalls. “It was on fire.”
Everything started to change in the 1980s.
Punk music took hold in the city, followed by alternative rock, pushing back funk, jazz and blues. Smith, who grew up in Portland in the 1990s, “thought it had always been a rock’n’roll town” – for years he had very little sense of the town’s black music history. , he admits.
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Other factors were also at work.
Walker remembers the days when drunk driving was largely ignored, even laughed at. The national Mothers Against Drunk Driving organization, founded in 1980, “helped change that,” he says. âThen AIDS came along, and it really made a difference. “
People stayed at home more often. The clubs started to close.
Portland’s eclectic music scene that defined Walker’s life in the 1970s and 1980s is now over. For a long time, it seemed to be largely forgotten too.
May the Albina Music Trust now revive his memory – through the Soul Walk, but also by release of old recordings – is a bonus that the local musicians of the time did not expect.
Having a Gangsters album released recently, over 40 years after the music was recorded, makes it “somehow more endearing” than if the band released it a long time ago, Walker says.
A similar nostalgic joy can be found in the Soul Walk, but at the same time there is also a sense of loss, a sense of what could have been.
âIt can be touching, funny, funny, sad,â Megan Hattie Stahl says of the audio project. “Music can do that.”