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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

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Georgie Woods, Rock and Roll, and Civil Rights

Shortly before he decamped for the West Coast, Dick Clark narrated a short booster film called Song of Philadelphia. Designed to promote the city as a destination for tourism and business, the film juxtaposed images of the history of Philadelphia, including Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and Betsy Ross’s house, with contemporary scenes of the new metropolis, such as skyscrapers, the science museum, and, of course, American Bandstand.[i] Not surprisingly, this fourteen-minute advertisement for the “quant” and “majestic” city of Philadelphia made no mention of the civil rights protests that were growing larger and more publicized in the city, or of the deejay who played a leading role in these protests. When American Bandstand wrapped up its run in Philadelphia in 1964, deejay Georgie Woods was more successful than ever and was in the process of using music to advance civil rights. Woods’s civil rights activism developed out of his experience in working with black teenagers as a deejay and concert promoter as well as his concern about the lack of black television personalities and black-owned broadcast stations in the city. Woods used his radio show and concerts to raise money for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and to promote civil rights protests, in which he also participated. By merging his critiques of the media industry with civil rights work in support of the black teenagers who sustained his broadcast career, Woods offered a model for what music could achieve beyond commercial success.

Although Woods’s concerts were popular when they started in 1954, they took off in the late 1950s and became part of the fight against juvenile delinquency. With his drawing power and the chance for artists to perform on American Bandstand while they were in Philadelphia, Woods’s concerts attracted some of the biggest names in rock and roll. Woods’s March 1958 ten-day show at the Uptown Theater in North Philadelphia, for example, featured Chuck Berry, while Sam Cooke headlined his April 1958 show at the Arena in West Philadelphia.[ii] The Uptown was part of an informal network of black theaters that hosted concerts in the East and Midwest, including New York’s Apollo Theater, Washington D.C.’s Howard Theater, Baltimore’s Royal Theater, Detroit’s Fox Theater, and Chicago’s Regal Theater. The Philadelphia Tribune estimated that sixty thousand people attended the Uptown concerts and noted that “the long waiting lines of teenagers outside the theater – sometimes more than a block long – are visible proof of the magic drawing power of Georgie Woods, the ‘King of Rock and Roll.’”[iii] Woods built on this success with two more shows in 1958 and four in 1959, all multiple-day shows at the Uptown. In addition to enhancing his stature as a broadcaster, Woods believed that these concerts helped curb juvenile delinquency. Woods told the Tribune:
Many of the teenagers who patronize these shows find in them an outlet for their emotions. And while previous single shows have been attended by as many as 30,000 teenagers we have never had any serious trouble. This proves, as far as I am concerned, that there might be less delinquency if there was more healthy entertainment such as that offered by our shows.[iv]
With this commitment to music as a way to reduce juvenile delinquency, Woods and deejay Mitch Thomas also hosted dances at the Elmwood skating rink in Southwest Philadelphia and the Carmen skating rink in the Germantown section of the city.[v] Although some white teenagers attended Woods’s Uptown and Elmwood events, black teens made up the majority of the audiences. Woods’ used his celebrity to provide healthy social activities for teens and built on the work of local black churches and community organizations that had a longstanding concern with delinquency.[vi]

In addition to his well-received concerts, Woods also used his column in the Philadelphia Tribune to critique the lack of black representation in the media industry. More specifically, Woods raised the question of why, after the cancellation of Mitch Thomas’s show, there were no black deejays on television in Philadelphia. Woods started by noting that “Teen-agers have won the hearts of advertisers,” and that these teens “have said that the time is ripe for a DJ on one of the TV channels here.”[vii] As evidence Woods cited Sandra Williams, a North Philadelphia teen who was collecting one thousand signatures asking for the addition of a black deejay to one of the local television stations. Woods wrote that these teens viewed Dick Clark as “the most,” but that they preferred the music played on Woods’s WDAS over American Bandstand. Woods concluded by asking his readers to join these teens in a letter-writing campaign to television stations: “It is my feeling, as I have previously stated, that the Negro population in this city warrants a Negro on the staff of a TV station, whether it be DJ or in some other capacity.”[viii] Woods continued to make his case in subsequent columns. Outlining the millions of dollars black Philadelphians spent on food, household goods, apparel and other products and services, Woods asked why more black personalities were not hired to advertise these products.[ix] “Television, like radio, is only able to exist because of advertising in America,” Woods wrote. “There can be no question that capable men and women, with tan skins, and some who have that one drop of colored blood in their veins, are available and what they don’t know about TV they can be taught.”[x] Woods concluded:
It is our contention that there is many a Negro who can sell soap, cosmetics, beer, automobiles, food or anything else just as well as a white person can. All he asks is a chance. Begin to flood the TV stations here, folks, and advise them the time is RIPE for a Negro to be engaged.[xi]

Woods peppered these columns with notes on the lack of black technicians at the city’s television stations and black-oriented radio stations.[xii] Neither these columns nor the letter-writing campaign produced immediate changes in the city’s media industry, but Woods continued to look for opportunities to establish a foothold in television. He eventually got his shot at television in 1965 with a dance program called Seventeen Canteen, which broadcast locally for two years on WPHL, a new station in which he held a small ownership stake.[xiii]

These critiques of the media industry came at the same time as Woods became more involved in Philadelphia’s growing civil rights movement. Although Woods had participated in NAACP membership drives since 1955, it was Cecil B. Moore’s campaign for NAACP branch president in 1962 that drew him fully into civil rights work.[xiv] As Woods recalled in a 1996 interview with radio historian and producer Jacqui Webb:
I got into civil rights because there was discrimination against black people everywhere, and I felt it personally. Then I met Cecil Moore and he asked me to join in some pickets and demonstrations and things like that, and I’d go on the air and tell people where I was going to be demonstrating, and a mob of people would show up and I had a microphone and I was directing people. When school let out I had all the kids in town listening to me. When school got out all the teenagers came and got into the pickets lines because I was there demonstrating for our rights.[xv]
Moore’s demands for black leaders who were in touch with black working-class communities echoed Woods’s critique of the lack of black leadership in the city’s media. After Moore’s election, Woods became the vice president of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP and used his talents as a concert promoter to help raise money for the NAACP. Woods held his first fund-raising concert at the Uptown Theater on May 14, 1963. Singers Jackie Wilson and Linda Hopkins, comedian Bill Cosby, and other acts performed to a sold-out crowd of two thousand people in an atmosphere the Philadelphia Tribune said had “the flavor of an old-fashioned, ‘down home’ revival.”[xvi] The show raised $60,000 for the local branch and provided Moore and Woods with an opportunity to urge fans to support the NAACP.

The concert came days after Moore and the Philadelphia NAACP organized one of the city’s largest civil rights demonstrations to support the Birmingham civil rights movement. Moore made a provocative comparison between Philadelphia and Birmingham in his speech at the concert: “Personally, I can’t see much difference between a Philadelphia policeman and a Ku Klux Klansman in Birmingham. The only difference is the geographic location.”[xvii] Focusing on employment discrimination in Philadelphia, Moore went on to detail differences in pay for white and black construction workers. Moore noted that white construction workers were paid $200 and asked the crowd: “They want to pay your daddies and husbands $75 a week. We aren’t going to put up with that are we?” Moore concluded his speech by asking for support for the upcoming pickets of city construction sites, which developed into a weeklong picket at the Strawberry Mansion Junior High School construction site in North Philadelphia. Woods praised Moore’s words and actions, calling him “a leader who has the nerve to point his finger in the white man’s face and tell him when he’s wrong. That’s the only reason Cecil Moore is criticized. He’s criticized because he stands up for the Negro.”[xviii] In addition to his fundraising and words of support, Woods also participated in the NAACP’s school construction protest two weeks later.[xix]

Woods expanded his civil rights activism over the next two years, supporting the NAACP with fundraising concerts, using his radio show to publicize issues and protests, and participating in pickets. In fall 1963, for example, Woods and Nat King Cole headlined a memorial and protest rally in Center City following the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four young girls.[xx] Woods also hosted a Freedom Show in March 1964 to raise money for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Opportunities Industrialization Center, a North Philadelphia job training center run by Reverend Leon Sullivan.[xxi] Held at the Convention Hall in West Philadelphia, the concert featured Sam Cooke, Jerry Butler, the Shirelles, Martha and the Vandellas, and comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley.[xxii] The concert raised $30,000, and the Tribune estimated that fourteen thousand people filled the hall, with another five thousand waiting outside.[xxiii] Woods hosted a second Freedom Show on March 23, 1965. In the weeks leading up to the show, Woods traveled to Selma, Alabama to protest the attacks on civil rights marchers by state and local police. Civil rights activists in New York, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Boston, San Francisco, and other cities organized sympathy protests against racial violence in Selma.[xxiv] In Philadelphia, Woods led four thousand marchers from the Uptown Theater down Broad Street to City Hall, where they were joined by Moore, comedian Dick Gregory, and eight thousand other marchers. Almost all of the marchers were black and many were teenagers from the city’s public high schools, whom, the Tribune reported, “frequently left the main body of demonstrators to stage their own demonstration, featuring freedom ‘war chants,’ hand-clapping and rock ‘n’ roll-type singing.”[xxv] Woods marched in a blue denim workman’s jumpsuit rather than his usual silk suit and explained to the Tribune reporter, “This is a day for walking, not talking.”[xxvi] The Freedom Show following the protest march raised another $30,000 for the NAACP. The Philadelphia Tribune praised Woods’ accomplishments, calling him “a true champion of the civil rights offensive in Philadelphia.”[xxvii]

As historian William Barlow has shown, black deejays like Woods played an important role in mobilizing turnout for civil rights protests. Among civil rights organizations, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference worked to cultivate a network of black radio hosts across the country. In addition to Woods, Nat Williams in Memphis, Louis Fletcher in Nashville, Hot Rod Hulbert in Baltimore, Mary Mason in Philadelphia, and many others kept listeners abreast of local and national civil rights developments, interviewed civil rights leaders, and encouraged meeting attendance. In addition to providing a broadcast platform for civil rights information, deejays were well known and respected members of their communities who could move thousands of people to attend rallies.[xxviii] For these broadcasters the localism of radio made it the ideal medium for organizing grassroots actions. Woods used radio to this end in the mass protest organized by Moore and the NAACP at Girard College, a North Philadelphia boarding school for fatherless boys that, by rule of the founder’s will, excluded black youth. As historian Matthew Countryman describes, for Moore "the goal of desegregating Girard College was…less important than finding a protest target that would attract the black youth of North Philadelphia, and in particular the teenage members of the area’s street-corner gangs, to join the NAACP picket line in front of [Girard’s] ten-foot walls." [xxix]

Woods contributed to the Girard protest by leading marches of young people to the picket line and recruiting other teenagers through his radio and stage shows.[xxx] With Woods’s help, civil rights activists picketed Girard everyday from May 1 to December 18, 1965. Moore suspended the protests after two attorneys appointed by Governor William Scranton filed a lawsuit in federal court to overturn Girard’s will.[xxxi] On May 19, 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Girard College could no longer admit only white students.[xxxii]

Although the Girard victory was largely symbolic and did not impact the de facto segregation in the city’s public schools, the protests at Girard mobilized anger among black Philadelphians over persistent racial inequality in the city. With Woods as one of the leading organizers, the protests also exposed many black teenagers to activism for the first time. Kenny Gamble, for example, remembered that in his early-twenties he became more aware of discrimination through the Girard protest. Gamble attended West Philadelphia High School, just blocks from the American Bandstand studio. As an aspiring singer, Gamble brought coffee and records he cut in penny arcade recording booths to Woods at the WDAS studio.[xxxiii] In a tribute to Woods’s civil rights work, Gamble wrote:
The public school system didn’t teach us anything about our culture or our heritage or anything like that. So the Girard College demonstrations sort of opened my eyes to discrimination…I felt good that Georgie Woods was there because this was somebody that I knew…And when they were talking about how Girard College would not admit Black people, and how racist Stephen Girard and his whole system had been, it really opened my eyes up. From that day on I started to be more aware.[xxxiv]
By the end of the Girard protest in 1965, Gamble and his musical partner Leon Huff had started their first record label. With the help of writer-producer Thom Bell, Gamble and Huff became one of the leading R&B production teams of the late 1960s, and they founded Philadelphia International Records in 1970 as an upstart competitor to Motown. The soul-funk “Philadelphia Sound” they developed featured gospel-inspired vocals and narrative lyrics over tight rhythm tracks and lush string and horn arrangements.[xxxv] Like Motown, Philadelphia International scored crossover hits on the R&B and pop charts in the early and mid-1970s with songs like “If You Don't Know Me by Now” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, “Back Stabbers” and “Love Train” by the O’Jays, and “I’ll Be Around” by the Spinners.[xxxvi] With his radio show at WDAS, Woods helped to break many of Gamble and Huff’s songs, and helped to reassert Philadelphia’s status within popular music.[xxxvii]

In 2009, Philadelphia dedicated the stretch of Broad Street in front of the Uptown Theater as Georgie Woods Boulevard, and a mural of Woods appears on the side of the building. These acknowledgements honor how Woods used his radio show and concerts to popularize rock and roll and R&B and how, in turn, he used this popularity to fight for civil rights and more black voices in media. While Mitch Thomas did not become an activist of Woods’s stature, Thomas’s television show broke ground as one of first televised dance show for black teenagers. The Mitch Thomas Show also made black youth culture visible at a time when black teens were excluded from American Bandstand. Despite their roles as rock and roll pioneers, neither Woods nor Thomas is well known outside of Philadelphia. Dick Clark, in contrast, became one of the most successful entrepreneurs in music history. Clark’s breakthrough moment was when ABC turned Bandstand into the nationally televised American Bandstand, making Clark the only national rock and roll deejay. Like Clark, Woods and Thomas sought to capitalize professionally from the popularity of rock and roll, but unlike Clark, Woods and Thomas remained focused on Philadelphia’s local music scene and their local communities of fans. For Woods and Thomas, segregated local markets marked the opportunities and limits of their careers, and activism followed from these close community ties. Clark’s understanding of the local community of fans was necessarily complicated by the fact that his show broadcast not just to Philadelphia, but also to Portland, Peoria, and dozens of other media markets as well. He had unique access to a nation of young consumers that he leveraged to great profit. With American Bandstand, commerce and community mixed at a national scale and an image of national youth culture emerged in the process.

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