Nov 14 1955: Hamilton Sets Box Office Record at the Hi-Hat
What was happening at the Hi-Hat? In the first half of 1955, it was still Boston’s House of Jazz, presenting, among others, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, and Max Roach and Clifford Brown. After the summer shutdown, though, it was almost as if it were a different club.
October started with Mel Torme, followed by the doo-wop group The Stylers, and then pop singer Sunny Gale. Next came guitarist Tiny Grimes and His Rockin’ Highlanders, an R&B outfit who performed in kilts, on an unusual bill with singer Jeri Southern. Then came the venerable R&B band of Steve Gibson and the Red Tops with singer Damita Jo.
Metronome didn’t like it, lamenting that the Hi-Hat was now featuring the likes of Tiny Grimes, a onetime jazz guitarist playing in a band “with funny hats and blue jokes.” The Harvard Crimson, which then followed jazz closely, also complained that the club had abandoned good jazz in favor of singers and R&B bands with semi-jazz overtones.
The mixed-bag schedule might have confused the press, but when Roy Hamilton opened at the Hi-Hat on November 14, the public showed it wasn’t confused at all—everybody wanted in. Roy Hamilton’s one-week engagement at the Hi-Hat set the club’s box office record, or so wrote Daily Record columnist George C. Clarke a few months later.
Roy Hamilton, dead for over 40 years, is little remembered today, but in 1955 he was at the top of both the Billboard pop and R&B charts with “Unchained Melody,” which followed on hits like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Ebb Tide.” Roy Hamilton was huge, a crossover artist who took pages from the books of Billy Eckstine and Billy Daniels.
Backing Hamilton was the trombone band of drummer Manuel Denize, aka Manny Wise. Wise came to Boston from the U.K. in the late 1940s, and acquired his colorful stage name during the mambo craze, when a band booker decided that “Manny Wise didn’t sound very Latin.” By 1955 Wise had organized a septet featuring three trombones, a saxophone, and piano-bass-drums. The Hi-Hat hired Wise’s band because the show needed a big sound to support Hamilton’s dramatics, and Wise delivered it—George Wein said Wise’s was the loudest septet he ever heard. (Manny wasn’t the only drummer in the family. His cousin Arnie Wise played drums with Bill Evans for about two years.)
After Hamilton, the Hi-Hat brought in Al Belletto’s Sextet, with its Louis Prima sound, then Machito’s mambo band, then more doo-wop with the Five Keys. They closed on Sunday, December 18, and early in the morning, the empty club caught fire. The two-alarm blaze caused extensive damage; newspaper stories did not identify a cause. Woody Herman, who was to open on the 19th, had no place to play.
The fire marked the end of the Hi-Hat as a location on the national jazz map. The club was closed for much of 1956, then it struggled with an on-again, off-again music policy until it reopened, fully remodeled and under new management, in late December 1958. In March 1959, another fire closed the place forever.
The Hi-Hat’s situation in late 1955 remains a puzzle. Why the abrupt shift to a schedule that seemed to feature everything but jazz? Jazz in Boston went through a slump in early 1956 and perhaps Rhodes saw that coming. Also, he might have been losing his jazz audience share to Storyville. Dizzy Gillespie, one of the Hi-Hat’s biggest draws, was playing Storyville for the first time in January 1956.
Nonetheless, it was Roy Hamilton, and not Dizzy, Miles, or Monk who provided the biggest payday at the Hi-Hat. Maybe Rhodes was on to something with Hamilton, heard here with “Unchained Melody,” which reached no. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and no. 6 on its Pop chart.