Dec 14, 1946: Rumble at the Rio Casino
Billy Eckstine and his orchestra opened at the Rio Casino for two weeks on December 8, 1946, and on Saturday the 14th, they were playing to a packed house. All went well until the end of the second show, just before closing. Boston’s blue laws required all nightclubs to close at midnight on Saturday to honor the Sabbath, and Eckstine was wrapping up for the night. That’s when the trouble started.
I’ve read two different accounts of what happened next, one in Nat Hentoff’s Counterpoint newsletter and the other in the Jan 15, 1947 issue of Down Beat. They differ in details but agree on the main points: someone in the crowd insulted Eckstine; some of the crowd and some of the band pushed and shoved; and the Rio announced that it would no longer book black bands.
First the insult. Yes, it was the n-word, and it was hurled at Eckstine when he said he could not play any more requests because of the imminent closing time. In one account, the guilty party was a woman, and in the other it was her companion. Either way, Eckstine cut the music and left the stage to confront the couple. The guy kicked Eckstine, who flattened him, and “flattened” is the verb both accounts used.
Then, wrote Hentoff, “a slight fracas ensued.” Down Beat was a bit more explicit: “At this point, chairs began flying, with the Eckstine forces claiming that they were used by the girl’s party against the crooner, and the Rio, through lawyer Ben Gilbert, claiming they were used by the orchestra against the customers.” While this was happening, half of the crowd headed for the door without paying their tabs.
The club claimed it sustained $200 in damage. Ben Ford, the club owner, fired the Eckstine band, thus cancelling the second week of the engagement and rendering $350 in advertising unusable. Although there was a signed contract, Ford refused to pay Eckstine all the money he was due.
Come Monday, there were four lawsuits filed against the club by allegedly injured patrons, a claim filed by Eckstine with the musicians’ union for the money he was owed, and a counter-claim filed by Ford for $1,000 in damages. And lawyer Gilbert said that “the management may be compelled to abandon its colored band policy.” (They did abandon it, and suffered financially as a consequence.)
That struck Hentoff as shortsighted, and already sounding like his vintage self at age 22, he wrote: “The justice involved seems a little twisted to us; what was Eckstine supposed to do, make like Uncle Tom? From what we’ve seen, most bookers would answer in the affirmative which is why we have little affinity for most bookers, or anybody else who puts loot above race equality.”
The lawyer Gilbert (I can’t help it, but the word “pettifogging” comes to mind) further told Down Beat that there had been trouble with Eckstine “from the beginning.” “The band refused to quit playing jive. They kept using the front entrances after we explained that all employees had to come in through the rear.”
Eckstine was not yet a superstar, but he was a big enough star to pack the Rio Casino on a Saturday night. And there was that slight fracas, and a band getting fired mid-engagement, and claims and counter-claims. Was any of this news in Boston? It was not. Four Sunday papers, seven daily papers…and not one of them touched the story. Not even the Hearst tabloid that reveled in show-biz gossip. It fell to Boston disk jockey’s jazz newsletter, and a national music magazine, to report the rumble at the Rio.
Here’s video of the 1946 Eckstine band playing a little of that jive, “Rhythm in a Riff.”