My friend, Ed Howard is…The Man That Can!
Planned West Oakland television series would share positive, historical stories
Brittany Schell on August 20, 2012
The Pointer Sisters. The Black Panthers. Olympians Jim Hinds and Ray Norton, basketball player Bill Russell, baseball’s Frank Robinson and Curt Flood. These famous names all have roots in West Oakland, and Ed Howard wants to share their stories, along with those of other West Oakland residents from the 40s, 50s and 60s.
“So many positive things have come out of Oakland, and still do,” Howard said. “The people I grew up with, many famous and most of them not famous, I know the impact we’ve made. It’s not the image that the world and the country have.”
Howard, 75, is co-producing the West Oakland Stories, a six-part television series he hopes will air later this year, with childhood friend Leonard Gardner. The pair has been raising money for a few months and plan to start filming once they raise half the total production costs, less than $10,000, Howard said.
If all goes according to plan, the shows will be aired on local station OUR TV, channel 78. The programs will be made up of anecdotes, told by people who grew up in West Oakland with Howard and Leonard, both 1955 graduates of McClymonds High School.
“Every time I get with my friends, we talk about West Oakland, everything we did,” said Howard, president of Kakakiki, a company that makes hair products for the black community. This is the format he envisions for the show—guests will share their stories and memories of the neighborhood in the 40s, 50s and 60s.
Part of Howard’s motivation for the West Oakland Stories was to counter the negative portrayal of Oakland, locally and across the country. “Since the 60s, we’ve seen such a negative image of Oakland,” Howard said. “Oakland is not negative. Black Oakland is not negative. That’s what the story is going to be about.”
Though many people are unaware of the celebrities who came out of West Oakland, Howard wants to tell everyday stories, not stories of fame. He grew up with Frank Robinson, Bill Russell, and others who became well-known figures from that era. He knew their families, went to the same schools and had class with them.
“Frank Robinson used to talk about people’s mamas,” Howard said, referring to the major league baseball player. Bill Russell, now a retired professional basketball player, taught Howard to sneak into shows at the downtown Fox Theater when they were teenagers.
“This is a legacy piece to capture stories,” said Rickey Johnson, who runs a website to promote multicultural projects and activities. He is helping Howard and Gardner get the word out about their endeavor. “This project will tell the stories we know can’t be told again once the people who lived here have moved on.”
Howard wants the television series to showcase what he called the “West Oakland attitude,” which he said comes from growing up there. He used Russell, who was a basketball star in the 50s and 60s, as an example. Russell, who moved to Oakland from Louisiana when he was eight, is known for his gruff demeanor.
“That’s not a negative attitude, it’s a West Oakland attitude,” Howard said. “It’s simply a black man who stands up and speaks his mind, in a positive way.”
When he was five, Howard also moved with his family from Louisiana to Oakland. Thousands of black laborers moved to Oakland during World War II, many coming from states in the South, to work in Oakland’s thriving shipyards and canning industry. After the war ended in 1945, industry declined and jobs were harder to find. The following decades were marked by poverty, rising violence and heightened racial tensions.
This environment produced the West Oakland attitude, which comes from “surviving and thriving during difficult times,” said Johnson. “This is about West Oakland residents who had tenacity, the willingness to tough it out.”
Howard has been involved in endeavors for the black community most of his life. In the 1960s he produced a television talk show, for San Francisco’s channel 7, called “Black Dignity.” He also worked as a Kaiser engineer downtown, where he created a summer hiring and training program for young black men.
Now, Howard said, there is a void the West Oakland Stories can fill. “Oakland is a positive place,” he said. “Nobody’s talking about that.”
“We haven’t got one decent black club in the whole Bay Area,” Payton said prior to the event. The presence Sunday of four of his former employers – Esther Mabry of Esther’s Orbit Room, Ruthie Labee of Ruthie’s Inn, Ed Howard of Ed Howard’s Place and Irvin “Dusty” Williams of Jimmie’s Entertainment Complex – drove his point home. None remain in the club business, with the exception of Mabry, who still runs her restaurant and bar on Seventh Street in West Oakland. She presented major R&B attractions such as Lowell Fulson, Charles Brown and Al Green in the 1960s and early ’70s, before her former property became a post office parking lot, but her present location is too small for live entertainment.
Also among those assembled were vocalists Lenny Williams, Terrible Tom, Camille LaVah and the Hartfield Brothers, guitarist Marvin Holmes and comedian Finney Mo – remnants of a Bay Area African American club scene that thrived before disco began putting a damper on live R&B, and hip-hop finally buried what was left of it.
Payton was the Godfather of Bay Area R&B, the glue that held the scene together, particularly during the 29 years (1968-97) that he produced an annual event called the Top Star Awards at Bimbo’s 365 Club, the Claremont Hotel and other venues. It served as a counterbalance to the better-known Bay Area Music Awards, or Bammies, which in its formative years largely ignored R&B.
As Jay Payton scurried around Bates Hall Sunday evening, conversing with old friends and making sure the show was running smoothly, much as he had in Bay Area nightclubs for the past half-century, he paused briefly to cut a few steps alongside couples line dancing the electric slide to the throbbing grooves of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” Hip problems may have forced Payton, who launched a career as a tap dancer at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1947, to drop hoofing from his act some years back, but the spirits were simply too high for his feet to fail him at that moment.
Dressed in their clubgoing finest, some 200 fellow entertainers, former club owners, friends, family and fans gathered at the East Oakland banquet hall for a dinner/dance that doubled as a celebration of Payton’s 60th anniversary in show business and his retirement party. Health concerns, however, did not cause Payton, who remains lean and limber at 81, to decide to throw in the towel. Economics were the key issue. For the first time since his 1954 arrival in the Bay Area, the Asheville, N.C.-born entertainer can find no steady work as an emcee and comedian.