Brown Hill Shake Rattle and Roll
It Ain’t Nothing But The Blues
Mr. Brown, the man behind it all is the father of “Little Jack,” who we all knew. Mr. Little Jack’s wife was my uncle Johnny’s sister. The Brown’s owned all the land on and under the Hill before selling the lots that became Brown Hill. After his father’s death, Little Jack sold the rest of the lots, until there were no more to sell.
Now I don’t know this for a fact, but Mr. Brown could not have been too brown because Mr. Little Jack was a very light-skinned Black man with “good hair.” That is as much as I know of their history. That is, other than Little Jack was the deacon that tithed the most at our church and was the chief power broker. Bar none.
Even the preacher had to step back from Mr. Little Jack, and down South, that is saying an awful lot. Black folks, or should I say, Black women, love their preachers. He had to be good looking, and most times they were, and it didn’t hurt if he came with a little baggage. They love them, even more, when they come with a “ladies man” reputation. Just enough to know that he is possibly available—in a sense— because more times than not, he is married, already, to the “first lady, which is the title given to the wife. Oh yes, he has to be able to stir the emotions and arouse the feelings of the susceptible; though willing, female “population” of the church. They love their preacher.
Back in the day, if the preacher could scream and holler have them rolling in the isles he had the job. That was then; I don’t know how the congregation shows their devotion in these modern times. Or if the preachers are still as animated as they were back in the day. Don’t get me wrong here, I have, since I was a small child, had thoughts of preaching myself. Now, I just want to spread the message that “It Is How You Think.”
Brown Hill was/is a community of Black middle-class folks where most even if they were not active in the church talked a good religious game. It still seemed to me looking back that at least on the surface, it was live and let live irrespective of the hellfire and damnation that would be heard in the church and by the self-anointed “practitioners” of the faith. Brown Hill certainly had an image that could be called its own. And, there was a lot of shakin going on. It was well-known in many ways for many things. Some of it, you did not talk about out loud. We had two “sho nuff” juke joints and the Club. Club Alabam was one of the main venues on the “Chitlins Circuit.” All of this on the crest of Brown Hill, the main drag. There were just three houses between the Club and the house I called home.
Just so you know, the Chitlins Circuit are the clubs and juke joints that the better-known rhythm and blues singers and their bands traveled taking music to Black communities throughout the South. All of the greats made their way to Club Alabam—where Po Boy ruled the roast—long before they made it to the big time. I was just a kid, but I would make sure to be outside early on the night of the shows to see the bands unload their gear.
Of course, the highlight on my watch was when I would catch a glimpse of the entertainers. There was Chuck Berry, BB king, Bobby Blue Bland, Little Junior Parker, Fats Domino, Big Joe Turner, Lloyd Price and a host of other well-known and not so well-known artists—I saw some of them but not all. This was the Chitlins Circuit and most of the great ones came through at one time or another. For those I did not get to see, I did hear loud and clear if I could stay awake. I was too young to go and the mores of the community kept most of the older ones who lived nearby out. So, for them and for me, it was (OTPE), on the porch entertainment. It sounds like a name for a music company, but no this is when you listen from your front porch. And after you turn in—which was usually early—you could hear it all from your bed.
I would be remiss of me if I did not mention one of our very own; Little Willie John. He was an American R&B singer who performed in the 1950s and early 60s. He was a hometown favorite and special to those who knew his roots. Many nickels were dropped in the jukebox for him. And a grinding slow dance to his songs inflamed the passions of the young and old. He was born in Cullendale, an unincorporated community that stands like an island in Camden and it shared its space with the Paper Mill, which had a large presence in Camden. Even this small “way stop” within the larger small community had its Black section and it was just a short walking distance from Brown Hill. I did not ever see Little Willie John and doubt that he played at the Club. But I did hear him sing almost every school day at noon.
Miss Lucille’s place was the favorite spot and noon hang out where we kids would get our hamburgers and hotdogs on our lunch break. My God, they were good. The hamburgers were the best. She fried them on a griddle in pure Trans-fat—just the thought now makes my arteries clog. Miss Lucille would toast the meat side of the buns in that very same grease. Then she or her husband, Mr. John B, would then top it off with mustard and onions for sure. There may have been lettuce and tomato, as good as those burgers were, how could I not be sure.
I do remember how that little piece of meat had just enough juiciness to soak the mustard covered buns to make it the mouth-watering goodness that it was. You know what I am talking about if you would have ever had one. As you would cross the football field on the way to Miss Lucille’s, the aroma would take you by the nose and lead you to the front door. And the music would keep you there. And of course, the girls, or boys, if you were a girl were a favorite treat
As far as I know, there was no girl on girl or boy on boy stuff going on then. I will admit there could have been. What I do know, if you could get there you could be there. No age or grade limit. Step right up to the jukebox and for a nickel, you could hear your favorite singer belt out the tunes.