When you’re at the Tennessee Valley Fair this week, in the Jacob Building perusing the canned-vegetable exhibits, the quilt show, the student-art exhibit, watching the cake-decoration demonstration, it might be easy to forget you’re in the building where Knoxville discovered rock ’n’ roll.
I can’t claim to know what the first bona-fide rock show in Knoxville was. But chances are it was in this building.
Today, the Jacob Building is never known for cutting-edge productions, unless you count knife shows. The Jacob Building was built in 1941 to replace the grander old exposition building that had burned down before it. It sometimes hosted trade shows in the daytime, but at night it was a performance space, a dance hall. The public library’s “From Papers to Pixels” project offers us hints of a narrative we haven’t heard before.
In its early days, the tail end of big-band jazz, Chilhowee Park attracted black and white acts and audiences evenly: Buddy Rich, Sammy Kaye, Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey and Count Basie all performed big shows there in the ‘40s.
By the early ’50s, it was hosting mainly black R&B—as the music was evolving into something slightly different.
Roy Brown was here on June 3, 1951, with his own Mighty, Mighty Man Orchestra, along with Ruth Brown, “Queen of R&B,” and saxman Willis Jackson. Today his hit, “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” is a familiar song covered later by rock ’n’ roll or rockabilly bands. It was called “jump blues,” not rock, when Brown performed it at Chilhowee Park. But it offered a hint of what was to come.
A few months later, a show on March 27, 1952 featured 26-year-old B.B. King and H-Bomb Ferguson. A few weeks later, Lloyd Price, whose “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” came out that year, performed here for Emancipation Day, Aug. 8—returning at the end of that year for a New Year’s Eve show.
Fats Domino played at Chilhowee Park in late November 1952 with his “all-Negro recording dance band.” The New Orleans piano player and singer was just 24 at the time. This show was before any of his national hit songs, like “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Blueberry Hill.” According to legends older than I am, “I’m Walkin’” was quietly co-written by Knoxville gambler, bootlegger, and music promoter Freddie Logan. He was responsible for many of these shows.
Big Mama Thornton, who made an R&B hit of “Hound Dog”—only later to be recorded by Elvis Presley—was at Chilhowee in May 1954. With her was Johnny Ace, the R&B crooner who would later that year accidentally kill himself with a pistol.
Only after that did the term “rock and roll” first started showing up in print. On May 1, 1956, Fats Domino, whose shows later that year would spark riots, returned to that venue fronting a “Big Rock ’n’ Roll Party” with a pretty incredible lineup. With him was Georgia-born madman Little Richard, the Clovers, the Cadillacs, Ruth Brown, and others. Little Richard returned later that October with Big Joe Turner, Etta James, the Moonglows, the Five Keys, and the Five Satins.
Bo Diddley arrived in June 1957 with a legendary-sounding show that included the Coasters, Ruth Brown, Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams, the jazz saxophonist who’s considered a progenitor of rock; the Drifters, Smiley (“I Hear You Knocking”) Lewis, and others.
In February 1958, Chuck Berry, at the height of his fame, and Larry Williams (famous for “Bony Moronie” and “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy”) were there.
All these shows were at the “Chilhowee Park Auditorium.” Today most Chilhowee Park rock shows are at the outdoor Homer Hamilton Theatre. But these ’50s shows wouldn’t have worked outside. They were dances, and required a dance floor. Also, they went very late, typically until 2 a.m. Neighbors would have complained. Witnesses confirm that these shows were mostly in the Jacob Building.
And they were segregated shows, intended primarily for black audiences. For the popular shows, white audiences were allowed only as “spectators,” often up on the mezzanine level.
Perusing all these shows, there’s one irony you can’t ignore.
In the 1950s, Knoxville was more than 80 percent white. But almost all the rock ’n’ roll shows back then were by black groups. And most of the great early black rock ’n’ roll performers did play here.
Nationally, lots of white rock groups were making a go at rock ’n’ roll, but they rarely got scheduled in Knoxville. Did Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, or Elvis Presley ever perform in Knoxville in the ’50s, when this new music was exploding nationally? I can’t tell that they did. Some did later.
Even the Everly Brothers, who lived here and first started working up a rock ’n’ roll act for radio in Knoxville, never performed an actual concert here until their audience was graying.
All these white rock pioneers, most of them Southerners, skipped Knoxville. (One exception was from Michigan. Bill Haley and the Comets, already famous for “Rock Around the Clock,” played a two-nighter at the new WNOX Auditorium at Whittle Springs in September 1955.)
Was it the fact that the white community had nobody as well-connected as Freddie Logan? The all-around hepcat kept black East Knoxville hopping with the latest and best music for a quarter century.
Or maybe it had to do with venues. Although white acts sometimes performed at Chilhowee Park over the years, by the ’50s most of its shows were black shows for predominantly black audiences.
The white majority just didn’t have a comparable scene.
Before the completion of the Civic Coliseum in 1961, white Knoxville leaned heavily on UT’s Alumni Hall or “Gym,” which hosted classical concerts and some of the more dignified pop performers. Perhaps ivory-tower skepticism undermined UT’s potential hep factor.
But in the 1950s, Chilhowee Park was the most rockin’ joint in East Tennessee. The Jacob Building turns 75 this year. I think it’s overdue for a plaque, and maybe a revival.
Known today mainly for gun shows, antique shows, and canning exhibits, it’s the Birthplace of Rock in Knoxville.
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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