It was on the eve of the Great Depression that the Uptown Theater opened in 1929. The lavish venue featured stained glass, terracotta and high ceilings built to enhance the sound of the new talkie movies of the era. As the Industrial Age peaked, the population of the area surrounding the theater shifted as white flight befell North Philadelphia. Soon, Black doctors, lawyers, politicians and preachers took over the grand mansions along Diamond Street, while middle and lower class African Americans moved into the rowhomes that were once predominately white.
In 1951, the Uptown Theatre was bought by Sam Stiefel, who also owned Washington’s Howard Theatre and Baltimore’s Royal Theatre, and became part of the “chitlin circuit,” hosting live music shows that were primarily rhythm and blues, soul and gospel directed towards an African-American audience. The performances at the Uptown Theater came to rival those at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. In 1957, WDAS DJ Georgie Woods started to produce and host shows at the Uptown Theater and those events would go on to mark the Golden Age of the legacy venue.
“Joy Ride! The Stars and Stories of Philly’s Famous Uptown Theater” (Xlibris Corporation, $29.99) is the inside story of iconic disc jockey Georgie Woods’ spectacular R&B shows at Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater, and how the controlled creative chaos at the majestic movie house inspired “The Philly Sound.” Written by The Philadelphia Tribune’s entertainment reporter Kimberly C. Roberts, “Joy Ride” is the first comprehensive history on the Uptown, which was once a mandatory stop on the legendary “chitlin’ circuit.”
“I first wrote about the Uptown in 1998 when I decided to do a story about it for Black Music Month and I interviewed Georgie Woods,” recalled Roberts. “Since I grew up going to the Uptown, I always wondered how that actually all fell into place, so I had an opportunity to ask him and he told me from beginning to end how he started giving shows there, so that was really the foundation of the book.”
As told by the people who actually lived it, all agree that like Woods’ soulful theme song that opened his R&B extravaganzas, every show at the Uptown Theater was, as the book’s title suggests, a “Joy Ride.”
“I was around nine or 10 years old, and every time Georgie announced a new show my friends and I would get together — there were about 12 of us — and we would get on the ‘S’ bus after we asked our parents for three dollars: It was a dollar for transportation, a dollar to get into the show and a dollar for candy, soda and stuff … It was absolutely a part of me growing up and having the knowledge of classic R&B that I have now.”
Since 1997, Roberts has shared her vast knowledge of Philadelphia’s historic Uptown Theater and the Sound of Philadelphia with The Philadelphia Tribune’s readership. Her journalistic contributions to the region’s musical legacy have been recognized by the Pennsylvania State Senate, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and the Uptown Entertainment & Development Corporation.
“Joy Ride!” features the intimate, amusing, outrageous and sometimes scandalous stories of dozens of decorated entertainers, including 11 Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.
“I started interviews with the (Uptown) house band because they were the guys that were there all the time. So, I talked to Sam Reed, of course, the bandleaders; Leon Mitchell, who says he’s the bandleader — but there was a dispute between the two of them, which you’ll read about in the book. I spoke with Earl Young, the legendary drummer who was on so many of the records in Philadelphia and Jimmy Heath, who was actually a jazz musician who played with the orchestra for one year. And, whenever I would do an interview I would ask for Uptown memories. When I spoke with, say Smokey Robinson, I’d say, ‘Hey, I saw you at the Uptown,’ and he would tell me this great story.”
The “Joy Ride! The Stars and Stories of Philly’s Famous Uptown Theater” book signing will take place on Thursday, May 30, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, 738 South Broad Street (at Fitzwater Street). The book can also be ordered online at www.xlibris.com, www.amazon.com and www.bn.com.
Contact staff writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or firstname.lastname@example.org.