The Fastest Bandleader in the World

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

When he arrived via Kingston Pike on a special bus that afternoon, the Knoxville Police met him at city limits in Bearden with a motorcycle escort. They led him to City Hall.

Those who saw him get off the bus had to look twice. In 1937 he was one of the most famous people in the world, but nobody had seen him like this. A slim fellow with close-cropped hair, he wore a black hat and a sharp blue-striped suit and conservative tie. He looked a lot like a jazz bandleader. In fact, when he came to Knoxville, he was a jazz bandleader, with a 12-piece band of “Harlem all-stars.” He was ready to play a dance that evening at Chilhowee Park.

When he became world-famous, the previous summer, he was wearing shorts. He was Ebony Antelope, the Buckeye Bullet, the Fastest Man in the World. He had proven it just eight months earlier, at the Olympics in Berlin, with the whole world and Adolf Hitler watching. His name was Jesse Owens.

Waiting to greet him at City Hall was City Manager George Dempster, just then enjoying a bit of fame himself, for his invention called the Dumpster. After the formal handshaking, Jesse Owens was off to say a few words at all-black Austin High. Then he popped in at Knoxville College, where, stepping in from backstage into a dramatic performance, he drew the cheers of an astonished room of collegiate theatergoers. He went in a motorcade to see Norris Dam, less than a year old. In 1937, Norris Dam was an obligatory part of any visit to Knoxville, so famous Owens had probably at least heard of it.

It was the sort of day that would require the stamina of an athlete. When Lowell Blanchard, the popular host of the new country-music variety show Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, heard that Jesse Owens was coming to town, he worked out a deal where the Olympian would perform an early-evening show onstage at the new auditorium on the 100 block of Gay Street. WNOX wouldn’t be allowed to broadcast the show. Owens’ contract with his agency, Consolidated Radio Artists, who were paying him a reported $100,000 for this tour, forbade it.

But he could do interviews, as he did with local sportscaster Joe Epstein. Owens was gracious, but obviously tired of the question of the “Hitler snub.” Der Fuehrer didn’t greet Owens, as he did the Nordic gold medalists. In his reviewing stand, the author of the Nazis’ white supremacist doctrine looked distinctly unhappy that Owens was beating the Master Race at so many events.

“After the 100-meter run, Hitler waved at me, and I waved at him,” Owens said in Knoxville. “That was enough for me.”

He later added, “I didn’t go to Germany to get the applause of Hitler and his gang.”

It was a late-night show that was the real reason he came to Knoxville. At 10 p.m., he stepped before his orchestra at the Chilhowee Park Auditorium, the old exposition hall up on the hill. He held a baton, different from the one he’d carried in the 100-meter relay. It was a dance planned for an all-black crowd on the floor, but white “spectators” were allowed to observe on the mezzanine.

We don’t know much about what he played, or how well, just that he led the band through some “hot numbers,” perhaps including “Pennies from Heaven,” a recent hit for Bing Crosby. He’d been singing lately, practicing that one. He also did some tap-dancing; he’d been working with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

Like most dances of that era—Louis Armstrong would play the same venue a few weeks later—it went until 2 in the morning.

He never got the hang of it. That two-month American tour was the extent of his experimentation with music. Just a few days after his Knoxville show, in Richmond, he came down with strep throat. That was excuse enough to give up the whole thing.

A remark at Knoxville College suggests that he was already aware that the jazz life wasn’t working out for him. “This playing for dancing is a lot of fun and it’s all right for making money, but it’s no good socially,” he said. “It’s not doing my people any good.”

That Knoxville quote made it into the 1986 biography, Jesse Owens: An American Life, by William J. Baker.

Education was the important thing, the 23-year-old runner told KC students, adding that he was determined to go back to Ohio State and get his degree, maybe go into coaching. He tried to do that, but didn’t succeed.

He was able to buy his family nice things for a while, but it was the era before multi-million dollar endorsements and high-paid celebrity commentators. He had a hard time finding a good job.

The next time Jesse Owens came to Knoxville, he was in his 30s, doing what he was most famous for. Being that there weren’t Olympics in 1940 or ’44 to demonstrate any contenders for the title, he may still have been the Fastest Man in the World.

It was August 1944, and Jesse Owens was at Caswell Park racing the fastest runners from two Negro League baseball teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Atlanta Black Crackers. He handicapped himself by including hurdles in his run. He won anyway.

It was partly a war-bond drive. “I’m one of you, and I’m proud of it,” he told the predominantly black crowd. “But let us remember that, first, we’re Americans.”

He returned to Caswell Park two summers later and raced a local horse and jockey on a 100-yard dash, and won by a length. A decade after he’d beaten the best of the Aryans, he got some criticism for racing animals.

“People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse,” he recalled years later. “But what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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