The Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame inducted its first class last weekend at Cleveland State University. It's the beginning of a nationwide search for a permanent museum site. But organizers are making a strong case to keep it in Ohio.
Kabir Bhatia of Ohio Public Radio station WKSU in Kent reports.
Twenty-two performers are now members of the R&B Hall of Fame. The inaugural class includes James Brown, The Supremes and the Temptations – all members of the nearby Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well. But Clevelander Fred Wheatt, one of the organizers, stresses they’re not trying to compete with their well-known neighbor.
“Rhythm and blues is a separate genre of music. Rhythm and blues is the foundation from which many rock artists have grown. The difference with our museum is, not only will we have memorabilia, but we are looking at interactive exhibits. You can actually be dancing with James Brown. Singing with Aretha. Because it will be fun. It will be an experience.”
Wheatt grew up in the ‘60s playing trombone in the house band at Leo’s Casino, then one of the pre-eminent R&B showcases in the Midwest. It’s one of the reasons organizers say the R&B hall should be here in Cleveland. Joe Berger, whose brother ran Leo’s, represented many acts that played the club in its heyday.
“It was just the place to go. And you felt comfortable. Whites and blacks sat there, all yelling and screaming at the same time. Music can do it. Because it brings all races together.”
Berger remembers Saturday nights at Leo’s fondly. Artists would show up – sometimes unannounced—after appearing in the afternoon on Channel 5’s music showcase.
The program was unique in that the acts often sang and played live, unlike the more well-known “American Bandstand.” Stevie Wonder appeared multiple times, as did Funkadelic. Otis Redding made his last TV appearance on the show, the played his last concert at Leo’s before dying in a plane crash that night. The nationally syndicated show is another reason organizers are pushing for a building here.
“Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Cincinnati – they all want this there. I’m born, bred and buttered here in Cleveland. There has not been a black museum in Cleveland in I-don’t-know-how-long.”
For the first inductions, Wheatt and co-founder, former Harlem Globetrotter Lamont Robinson, relied on friends, volunteers, donated talent and a lot of support from Cleveland State University’s Black Studies department.
“We hope to also establish a rhythm and blues curriculum. So we’re not just dealing with performance. But with copyrights, royalties, publishing, engineering and all the background things that go along with that genre of music.”
Inductees The Dynamic Superiors came away impressed with the well-oiled machine in Cleveland, and members Earl Vann and Marco Washington are hoping for an actual shrine in any city.
“I can think it’s going to be a great place, wherever it is.”
“We’re just going to support wherever it may land. And that’s all that matters: that we’re getting it started. And then, the sky’s the limit.”
The R&B Hall of Fame considers the inaugural inductions the launch-pad for its fundraising efforts, whether the building ends up at
Cleveland State or elsewhere in the city. Once a city puts together a financial package, the board will presumably vote on whether to put down roots there.
In Northeast Ohio, the R&B Hall and the Rock Hall will be in good company. The Polka Hall of Fame is in Euclid. Just over the border in Sharon, PA is the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. Downstate, the Classical Music Hall of Fame is in Cincinnati. And a Dayton group is trying to raise money for a Funk Hall of Fame.