In 1947, Greenbrier Valley residents enjoyed a special holiday treat when Erskine Hawkins, his orchestra, and vocalist Jimmy Mitchell played for a midnight dance on December 28 at the Ronceverte Armory. During the 1940s and 1950s, the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra reigned supreme as one of the best dance bands in the country. Undoubtedly, there was some swinging in the Armory that night.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, Hawkins began playing drums at a young age, moved to the trombone and then settled on the trumpet. He attended Alabama State Teachers College, a historic black college. He rose to become leader of the Bama State Collegians, one of the college’s three bands that toured around the country during the depression to raise revenue to keep the college afloat.
The Bama State Collegians landed in New York City where the band evolved into the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra that performed at the Apollo Theater, Ubangi Club, and the Harlem Opera House. In the late 1930s, the orchestra played for nearly a decade in the famed Savoy Ballroom. For RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, Hawkins recorded Tuxedo Junction that rose to number 7 in 1940 on the billboard charts. Glenn Miller later recorded the same piece that reached No. 1, and his recording continues to be identified as one of the most popular numbers of the World War II years. Other Hawkins hits include After Hours and Tippin In.
Hawkins’ orchestra included top-notch jazz musicians like Avery Parrish, Haywood Henry, Sammy Lowe and the Bascomb brothers. Vocalists included Ida James, Delores Brown, and Della Reese.
In a time of racial segregation, what made Ronceverte a venue for Hawkins? It may have been because Ronceverte had an African-American-owned hotel where the musicians could stay, and it was on the main line of the C&O Railroad. With several passenger trains daily, the band could have played during the night and caught an early morning train to its next booking.
Photo from the New York Public Library.
Sources: West Virginia News, New York Times, Alabama Hall of Fame.