Too Much Sugar
No matter the season, Peyton Robinson always wore the same thing. Whether it was 110 degrees or 10 below zero, my great-grandfather used to walk around Chicago in a three-piece wool suit with long underwear beneath it, high lace-up leather shoes with wool socks up to his knees, an overcoat, and a top hat. His body temperature never changed. I used to watch the way he would sweat. It would be mid-August and he would be sitting there calmly with the sweat running down his neck in rivulets. He’d eat spicy food, too—he especially loved wild game: bear meat and raccoons and snakes and all kinds of rustic stuff. I figured that all these peculiar habits were the reason he lived so long and never seemed to catch a cold.
Peyton Robinson didn’t live with us. When I was young, I lived in a big and noisy apartment on 33rd and Cottage Grove near Groveland Park with my grandparents, my mother, my younger sister, and a number of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. But my great-grandfather lived in a rough neighborhood way out on the West Side. As I got older, I came to see Peyton Robinson as something approaching a creature of legend, the protagonist of a trove of family lore. It thrilled me when he came to visit, like some apparition from another century, or another planet. And I loved to think I came from such a singularity—from an ancestor who seemed to move through the world entirely on his own terms.
The stories were riveting. Years later my mother told me that once Peyton Robinson got into some trouble with a gang over on the West Side. One evening somebody said something rude to him and he said, “Fuck you.” The person was associated with the gang, and they conveyed a message that my great-grandfather had better watch his mouth if he didn’t want anything to happen to him.
Peyton Robinson went out at three a.m. with a shotgun and just started shooting up into the air, bellowing in the middle of the night. “Come on out in the street, motherfuckers, here I am!” he yelled. “I’m right here!”
It woke up the whole neighborhood. People were peeping out from behind their curtains at this crazy man screaming in the alley. But nobody ventured out to meet his challenge. And after that, people gave him a wide berth in the street.
Even the meanest dogs knew better, somehow. Often he would come to visit us early in the morning, arriving while everyone was still asleep. He would walk down the back alleys with his three-piece suit and a cane. Usually dogs would bark and growl and rush at the fences when people came down the alleys. But when Peyton Robinson strode by, the German shepherds and bulldogs were quiet.
I live in sound.
All my references go back to sound. I go back in my memory and I don’t see: I hear. The first thing I remember is the sound of the streetcar that went by our apartment building. This was before I started kindergarten. I must have been about three years old. There was a hospital nearby, and all these people would get off at 33rd Street. As the streetcar came in, the first thing you would hear is the carriage bell, announcing its arrival with a cling cling. The carriage bell was made out of brass and sterling silver and built into the floor of the streetcar. It worked with a foot pedal, and the driver would pump it as he pulled in. You find carriage bells in the Caribbean, too, in Jamaica and Bermuda and other places. When I heard that sound, I would run to the window. A few of the young grandchildren stayed home with my grandmother Gertrude during the day while my mother and my grandfather went to work and my aunts and uncles went to school.
The radio was on all day long. My grandmother would listen to shows like Arthur Godfrey Time and Art Linkletter’s House Party. Art Linkletter had a house band that featured an accordion player. I still remember that in particular because I wasn’t crazy about accordion at that time, and I thought the band sounded strange. After their shows finished, sometimes my grandmother would switch to another station where they were playing classical music. My sister and my cousins would get impatient and run off and play, but I would sit and listen and daydream on it. And then it might go from that to Serbian music, because Chicago had the biggest Serbian community in the country, the largest outside Yugoslavia. There was a Serbian radio station, a Serbian newspaper. And there was also a large Polish population, mostly living in an area behind the Stock Yards. So that music would come on, too.
In those days radio was more or less a hodgepodge. I remember Mexican music, country music (which people used to call “hillbilly” back then), jazz, rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie, plus regular programming including radio plays, detective shows, and science fiction. On Sundays my grandfather would put on a gospel station and listen to Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, Clay Evans, and the Pilgrim Travelers. There was a little of everything. In a way, you could say that the programmers didn’t have any idea what they were doing—which is the way it really should be. It was uncontrolled, untamed by the forces of commercialism. A lot of it was improvised. Television was like that in the beginning, too: Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, the General Electric Theater on CBS hosted by Ronald Reagan, the Ford Star Jubilee with live stagings of scripts by Noël Coward and Herman Wouk, The Nat King Cole Show, The Kate Smith Hour on NBC. But radio was the main thing then: the same way kids sit for hours in front of the television or the computer now, back then we would sit in front of the radio and skip from station to station. And it was amazing, the amount of music there was.
By the time I hit high school, Studs Terkel had started hosting his radio show on WFMT, and I was enthralled by how wide and eclectic he made the world sound. He would play everything from blues and Mexican son jarocho to Central African music, Indian classical music, and flamenco, and he interspersed the music with interviews of all sorts of people—film and theater directors, actors, poets, blues singers, architects and industrial designers, orchestra conductors, folklore collectors, choreographers. Decades later, Studs Terkel’s program might have been called a “world music” show, but he did it without the label, before it was a marketing category, and that made it more thrilling: your ears could roam, and you heard unexpected echoes between far-flung corners of the globe.
When I was young, boogie-woogie was the music that caught my attention. Before it did, I wasn’t even aware that there was a piano in the house. It was in the hallway: a player piano, the kind you stick rolls in. When I started hearing boogie-woogie—it was popular then: Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, and people like that—I was just swept off. I was determined to learn how to play it myself, and when I was in elementary school I started pecking at the piano. I didn’t take formal lessons, but I was able to figure out some things by ear. I would sit there engrossed, trying to replicate a riff I heard on the radio or on a record, straining to stretch my little hands to fit those piston-like left-hand rhythms. Sometimes I’d put on a piano roll and then I could see where the keys were depressed and follow the patterns. I lost track of time. I could sit and play the piano for hours and no one would say anything because they knew where I was and I wasn’t getting into trouble. I was like a cow with a bell around its neck.
On Sundays generally we would go to my grandmother Gertrude’s church, the Church of God in Christ, which was a Holiness-Pentecostal denomination, or what people called a “sanctified” church, on Indiana Avenue around 32nd Street. There was a famous minister there, Reverend Charles, and they would always have these assistant ministers and visiting preachers coming in. The “singing preacher” was always a big thing there. I remember one in particular at that church named Sammy Lewis. My sister and my cousins and my youngest uncle and I would go to church and get knocked out by the music, and we’d come back home and put on our own little show. We would fight over who was going to be Singing Sammy Lewis. It became a whole ritual: we put all sorts of gunk in our hair, dressed up in our aunts’ and uncles’ clothes, and set up a stage in the house.
Occasionally we would go to my other grandmother’s church. My father’s mother, Helen Threadgill, belonged to a more traditional house of worship, the Olivet Baptist Church on 31st and South Park, or what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. It was more “sophisticated,” you could say, than the Church of God in Christ. The minister of Olivet Baptist Church was Joseph Jackson, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention, who was very influential in terms of drumming up votes for city hall downtown. It was the biggest church on the South Side of Chicago, a beautiful stone building with fabulous rugs and a balcony. At the Baptist church they sang arrangements out of the hymnal. It sounded good, but it was more restrained. At the Church of God in Christ, though, they would just sing. They would go off: people would speak in tongues and fall on the floor, kicking and screaming. So Reverend Charles’s church was the one that grabbed my attention. The whole thing was like a ritual of theater and movement and sound and drama. And it wasn’t planned. Each week the service would follow a similar layout or template, but it was unpredictable. Things could take off in any direction.
The Church of God in Christ also had regular visiting preachers and singers like Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland. When Mahalia Jackson would come there to sing Sunday afternoons—most of the time they’d have these afternoon concerts—the entire neighborhood would be out in front of the church, including people who had no interest at all in religion. The church would be jam-packed, so they had to put speakers outside when she sang. I remember being overwhelmed by her and the other singers who used to come through there.
Early Sunday mornings my grandfather, Luther Pierce, would sometimes take me with him to the Maxwell Street Market, what people used to call Jew Town. It was a big outdoor market, and blues musicians would be on the sidewalk playing. My grandfather wouldn’t really listen to blues on the radio at home. But at Maxwell Street I got to hear it. On Sunday morning at six o’clock in the morning they’d be out there on a little platform less than a foot high playing guitars hooked up to portable amplifiers. Muddy Waters, Arvella Gray. The one who really mesmerized me was Howlin’ Wolf—the power of his sound almost had me frozen in my footsteps.
My mother was the person who was responsible for taking me to hear concerts when I was a kid. She did various things for work while I was growing up. Eventually she worked as an accountant at a bank downtown, but I remember that for a while when I was little, she did a bunch of small jobs at home: she would bake cakes for people in the neighborhood, for example, and she also made lampshades on commission. There would be dozens of frames all around the apartment, and she’d painstakingly cut silk or other fabric and stretch it onto the shades. But my mother also liked music, and it turns out she had studied the piano. I always thought the piano in our hallway was my aunt’s piano—that my grandparents had bought it for my aunt who had gone off to study voice and opera in college. I didn’t find out until years later that it was actually my mother’s piano. When I was a child, I never knew that she had studied piano at all. She never told me.
At that time, you could go to the big movie houses and see a film, and then there would be a stage show. I went to see so much live music that way. I was still a toddler, maybe only two and a half or three, when my mother took me to see Sugar Chile Robinson, the “child wonder” from Harlem who played piano and organ. We went to see Sugar Chile and people like Lucky Millinder and Louis Jordan multiple times before I started elementary school. Louis Jordan was a great entertainer, and his music was joyous and loose-limbed. I liked the way he played the saxophone. What he played was kind of a mix of jazz and rhythm and blues, and the lyrics had these double meanings. I remember people around us in the audience would be cracking up. I didn’t get it—I was too young to understand—but I would look over and see people laughing. I’d say to myself, I wonder what they’re laughing at.
These concerts were mostly at the Regal, which was on the South Side and had a history of stage shows. Or downtown in the Loop, at the Chicago Theater, or at the State-Lake. I can remember sitting back in the balcony at the Regal. My mother used to take my sister, too, but my sister would sleep through it half the time—she wasn’t interested. I was entranced, though. I remember that I was particularly fascinated with Sugar Chile. I couldn’t get that kid out of my mind. It was astonishing and intimidating to see the way this kid up there in a white tuxedo would come on stage and play like that. We’d be so far back that I couldn’t tell exactly what age he was, but I could tell he was a little boy. He was bigger than me, but he was still young. I just couldn’t believe that kid.
In 1951, when I was in elementary school (I started at Doolittle and then switched to Douglass Grammar School a year later), we moved to 31st Street. My parents were separated, and every week my father would come and pick up my sister, Carol, and me. He would be sharp, he’d come by and pick us up in his big car. My father ran a sort of gambling house. He would pick us up in the morning and take us to his casino. And he would bring us in and turn on the lights and open the place up, taking the covers off the beautiful green felt tables, which later in the evening would be bustling with games of craps, blackjack, poker, and baccarat.
Copyright © 2023 by Henry Threadgill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.