Preservation Hall

Project Row Houses will revive Houston's first home of black music

Trumpeter Calvin Owens was 20 years old when he climbed the steep stairs and edged through the crowd to take the stage at the Eldorado Ballroom at the start of the '50s.

"I was really stoned in heaven at the time," says Owens, recalling the dreamy launch of his career at Houston's first black nightclub. Playing with the house band, the Pluma Davis Orchestra, would eventually land him a job with blues legend B.B. King. "All the young musicians dreamed of playing at the Eldorado."

Chicago had its Regal. Washington, D.C., boasted the Howard Theater, and the grand dame of them all was Harlem's Apollo. In Houston, the Third Ward's Eldorado reigned.

Many musicians got their boost to the big time from the Eldorado's bandstand.
Courtesy of Calvin Owens
Many musicians got their boost to the big time from the Eldorado's bandstand.
Rick Lowe's group will use rent from the building's businesses to revive the ballroom.
Steve Lowry
Rick Lowe's group will use rent from the building's businesses to revive the ballroom.

Born in the '40s and marked by the era of segregation, the ballroom was the pulse of Houston's black community. The self-proclaimed "Home of the Happy Feet" hosted two floor shows nightly with professional musicians, singers and dancers. At evening's end, patrons dressed in their Sunday best would boogie to the house band or jukebox.

In its heyday, the heavyweights of black music found their way to the brick two-story building at the corner of Elgin and Dowling. Taking those same steps to the second-floor ballroom were famous jazz, blues and standard entertainers: Arnett Cobb, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Illinois Jacquet, Johnny Copeland and T-Bone Walker. Even a promising young boxer named Cassius Clay stepped onto the dance floor, long before his fame as Muhammad Ali.

But that music has been silenced for more than two decades. The club ebbed into emptiness inside a nondescript square white structure. Its only reminder is a torn brown-cloth awning at the entryway proclaiming it as the Eldorado Building.

Now the Eldorado is preparing for an encore. The owner of the property has donated it to Project Row Houses, which has restored houses along Holman. Project founder Rick Lowe says the Eldorado will be renovated as a community meeting hall, education center and -- of course -- venue for music and the arts.

Credit for the Eldorado goes to early black businesswoman Anna Dupree, who started her career as a 23-year-old beauty shop operator on Main Street. With her eventual savings and business holdings, she was able to fund the first permanent building on the Texas Southern University campus. She also began one of the first black orphanages in Texas. But Dupree, who died in 1977, was best known for taking Houston into the big-city ranks for black music with her nightclub.

Blues singer Jewel Brown recalls the '40s era as the "rough and tough times in the Gulf." But there was a tender side to them as well. She didn't mind the sugar rations or saving stamps to buy shoes.

"Those were the good ol' days when you could sleep on your porch and not have to worry about anything," she reports of the Third Ward of old. "Today you have to put yourself in jail with bars on your windows."

Brown began sing-ing at the Eldorado to the piano music of her brother Theodore Brown. Her mother served as a chaperon as they walked down Elgin to the club. She sang with Conrad Johnson, Sammy Harris and Pluma Davis before touring the Nevada circuit with Louis Armstrong.

During the sweltering summer afternoons before the real "shows" cranked up, radio personality Skipper Lee would spin tunes for record hops and hold brief talent shows open to youths. It was at one of the talent shows that Joe "Guitar" Hughes met another young performer, Johnny Copeland, who went on to become known as Houston's International Ambassador to the Blues.

Guitarist Texas Johnny Brown recalls playing with the Aladdin Chickenshackers at age 17. He had to get the guys in the band to assure the cops at the door that he should be allowed in.

"When I first started working up there, I got thrown out," he says. "We also had a couple of raids in that place, and there was only one way in and one way out."

As the Midnighters played one night, the crowd got rowdy and the paddy wagon appeared; cops escorted patrons down the stairs into the jail on wheels. "Luckily they let the musicians get away," Brown says.

Photographer and talent scout Lloyd Wells rented a studio on the first floor from Dupree and her husband, known simply as Mr. Dupree. All the sororities and fraternities had their dances at the club, Wells says.

Wells remembers it as the first place he took his new prizefighting friend who would become known as Muhammad Ali. Picking him up from Hobby Airport in his red Continental convertible, Wells and the Eldorado turned Ali's one-day visit into a week as the host "put so many girls on him."

Wells, a Fifth Ward resident, photographed Eldorado stars such as Little Richard, Billie Holiday and the Four Tops at the club. Before the Coliseum opened (B.C.), the Eldorado was the select place for blacks to socialize.

Lee, the DJ and emcee for talent shows, says the search for female companionship at the club often centered on a key question: transit routes. Most patrons used the bus to get to and from the Eldorado, recalls Lee. Young women from Acres Homes were out of the question, he says, because the bus line to that then-remote community took too long for follow-up visits with them.

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