By: Jon Lohman
It’s a Saturday night in 1963 at the Longshoremen’s Hall, and the joint is jumpin’—as are the countless other black music clubs that dot Church Street, the cultural and financial heart of African American Norfolk. Charlie McClendon and his band the Magnificents have just torn through a blistering set of rhythm and blues standards made popular by national acts like Otis Redding, James Brown, and Booker T. and the MGs. As the crowd—moments earlier screaming and pressed against the front of the stage—retreats to get a drink and some fresh air, Charlie closes his eyes, wipes the sweat off his forehead, and leans his six-foot frame back from his Hammond B-3 organ.
The moment of quiet is quickly broken: “Charlie. . . Charlie McClendon?” a voice calls out. “Charlie, do you have a booking agent?”
“No,” Charlie answers, without opening his eyes.
“You want one?”
Charlie leans in to the unexpected sight of a skinny Jewish kid, maybe 15 years old, named Richard Levin. “You talking about you?” Charlie answers with a smile. “Hmmm.”
“I can get you more money than you’re getting now,” Richard continues. Charlie’s chuckling now, but the kid isn’t fazed. “Charlie McClendon,” the kid says, pausing for dramatic effect, “I’m gonna’ make you a star!”
Sitting together fifty years later in the small house where Charlie has lived and operated a home recording studio since returning from service in the Korean War, Charlie, now 85, and Richard remain close friends, since that first night at Longshoremen’s Hall. They relish the memory of their humorous encounter, and count their blessings that Richard had the guts to show up and approach Charlie and that Charlie was kind and open-minded enough to listen to him.
Richard never made Charlie “a star” on the order of other Hampton Roads musical standouts like jazz greats Pearl Bailey or Ella Fitzgerald, or even those like Gary U.S. Bonds or Gene Barge, who gained a measure of fame as part of Frank Guida’s “Norfolk Sound.” But in partnership with Richard, as well as Norfolk brothers Tom and Steve Herman, Charlie and his band recorded a number of wildly popular local hit records. Together these young men were successful pioneers in the profound musical and cultural phenomenon taking place not only in Norfolk, but also in highly localized urban and rural communities throughout the country, which came to be known as “crossing over.”
In most respects, Norfolk was a deeply segregated city in the 1960s. Though the Norfolk schools officially integrated by the end of the 1950s, 90 percent of all schools remained either all white or all black by the end of the 1960s. The city’s neighborhoods were decidedly either black or white. Yet two vehicles that seemed ahead of the curve towards integration were the city’s jukeboxes and radio dials. Throngs of Hampton Roads’ white youth were venturing away from their own familiar stations to those that played R & B, like Norfolk’s WRAP. Biracial bands, such as Booker T. and the MGs, were embraced by blacks and whites alike. Although just a teenager, Richard knew this dynamic provided a golden opportunity:
I knew they were going to love Charlie. I mean there wasn’t anything not to love. Here’s this guy, coming from the most humble beginnings you could imagine and completely self-taught, and he was absolutely killer. And you have to remember, the white kids were already listening to this music. They just couldn’t get to it. And Charlie was already huge in the black community, but white kids had no idea who he was, which was totally insane. But if you didn’t have a record at that time, then they just wouldn’t hear you, ‘cause they just didn’t have access to these bands live. So we saw ourselves as a kind of bridge. It was a no-brainer.
Charlie accepted an offer that required very little risk. Charlie would continue to book his regular schedule, with Levin and his friend Tom Herman booking any additional shows targeted to white audiences. Soon Richard and Tom booked Charlie at the popular Nansemond Beachside Resort hotel in Ocean View. The audience response was nothing short of ecstatic. The producers booked Charlie at high school dances, debutante balls, college fraternity parties, and makeshift Virginia Beach dancehalls that catered to young crowds, including the Peppermint Lounge and the Club Top Hat. Many of the fraternity gigs, as well as those at the Peppermint and Club Top Hat, were raucous affairs. Charlie remembers playing a U.Va. fraternity house when a young couple drove a motorcycle into the house, up the stairs, and on to the stage. The two were completely naked. At the Peppermint, the band was instructed to avoid even the shortest breaks between songs so that fights wouldn’t break out, and at times the shows were raided (because they provided competition to another venue owned by a local public official).
In addition to booking the Magnificents for their own shows, Richard and Tom booked them to back up larger national acts that Richard was presenting in the area. At the time, it was customary for many popular soul and R & B singers to travel without a band. It was the responsibility of the show’s producer to provide one. Charlie found himself playing for the likes of Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, and many others, usually without a single rehearsal. Eventually, Richard and Tom, along with Tom’s older brother Steve, recorded Charlie and several other regional artists on their own startup label, L-Rev Records. Charlie recorded several L-Rev singles that were local hits, including lively renditions of Sam Cooke’s “Put Me Down Easy” and Arthur Alexander’s “We’re Gonna Hate Ourselves in the Morning.”
Charlie had gained a great amount of local popularity and plenty of work, but his R & B career ended in a flash—literally. After a late performance, he invited his friend Gene Williams, who sang for the Platters, to his house to hear a recording he had just made of “Rainy Night in Georgia.” As he played the tape, lightening struck the house, blowing out the power and throwing Charlie and Gene across the room. Charlie made his way through the darkness and stopped at the door to his room to see that the suit that he had worn on the stage that night, which he had draped over a chair, was on fire.
“I said to myself, the Lord’s trying to tell me something,” Charlie remembers, “so that’s when I started looking for a church.” Charlie found one in the Goodwill Baptist Church in Hampton, Virginia, where he has served as musical director for over 28 years. He hasn’t sung R & B publicly ever since.
With generous support from L-Rev founder Steve Herman, the Virginia Folklife Program is documenting the remarkable stories of Charlie and others involved in this seminal period of music in Hampton Roads. We have created an online exhibit of Charlie’s life and work, including recent and archival video, audio, and still photography, and conducted extensive interviews with Charlie McClendon, Richard Levin, and others. To view this material, please visit our online exhibit at VirginiaFolklife.org/McClendon.