What The Critics Said About The Beatles

As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band , lauded as one of the greatest releases of modern popular music, it is illuminating to read what some of America’s formost music and cultural critics thought about the Fab Four.

sgt. peppers  

Los Angeles Times

Feb. 11, 1964

Cute? Hardly. The Beatles subverted the American way of life. With their bizarre shrubbery, the Beatles are obviously a press agent’s dream combo. Not even their mothers would claim that they sing well. But the hirsute thickets they affect make them rememberable, and they project a certain kittenish charm which drives the immature, shall we say, ape.

William F. Buckley Jr., Boston Globe

Sept. 13, 1964

An estimable critic writing for National Review, after seeing Presley writhe his way through one of Ed Sullivan’s shows … suggested that future entertainers would have to wrestle with live octopuses in order to entertain a mass American audience. The Beatles don’t, in fact, do this, but how one wishes they did! And how this one wishes the octopus would win….

The Beatles are not merely awful; I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are god awful. They are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as “anti-popes.”



Feb. 24, 1964

Visually they are a nightmare, tight, dandified Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near disaster, guitars, and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of “yeah, yeah, yeah”) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments….

The big question in the music business at the moment is, will the Beatles last? The odds are that, in the words of another era, they’re too hot not to cool down, and a cooled-down Beatle is hard to picture. It is also hard to imagine any other field in which they could apply their talents, and so the odds are that they will fade away, as most adults confidently predict. But the odds in show business have a way of being broken, and the Beatles have more showmanship than any group in years; they might just think up a new field for themselves. After all, they have done it already.

Theodore Strongin, New York Times

Feb. 10, 1964

The Beatles’ vocal quality can be described as hoarsely incoherent, with the minimal enunciation necessary to communicate the schematic texts.

Donald Freeman, Chicago Tribune

Feb. 29, 1964

The Beatles must be a huge joke, a wacky gag, a gigantic put-on. And if, as the fellow insisted on What’s My Line?, they’re selling 20,000 Beatle wigs a day in New York at $2.98 a shake — then I guess everyone wants to share the joke. And the profits.


Hartford Courant

Feb. 23, 1964

Stiff lip, old chap, even the Beatles will pass! The question is, what next?

Alan Rinzler, The Nation

March 2, 1964

The reaction at Carnegie Hall was not a real response to a real stimulus…. The full house was made up largely of upper-middle-class young ladies, stylishly dressed, carefully made up, brought into town by private cars or suburban buses for their night to howl, to let go, scream, bump, twist and clutch themselves ecstatically out there in the floodlights for everyone to see and with the full blessings of all authority; indulgent parents, profiteering businessmen, gleeful national media, even the police. Later they can all go home and grow up like their mommies, but this was their chance to attempt a very safe and very private kind of rapture.

Science Newsletter

Feb. 29, 1964

The Beatles follow a line of glamorous figures who aroused passionate cries and deep swoons. Most prominent in the 1940s was Frank Sinatra and in the 1950s Elvis Presley. Their glory passed when they got too old to be teenagers’ idols or when teenagers got too old to need them.

Boston Globe

Feb. 16, 1964

Don’t let the Beatles bother you. If you don’t think about them, they will go away, and in a few more years they will probably be bald….

And teenagers, go ahead and enjoy your Beatlemania. It won’t be fatal and will give you a lot of laughs a few years hence when you find one of their old records or come across a picture of Ringo in a crew cut.

The Liverpool lunacy is merely the 1964 version of a mild disease which periodically sweeps across the country as the plagues of the Middle Ages once did.

In its current manifestation it is characterized by an excessive hair growth, an inability to recognize melody, a highly emotional state with severe body twitches and a strange accent that is more American Southwest than Mersey dockside….

So now it’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “yeah, yeah, yeah.” The disease is at the height of its virulence, but the fever will subside and the victims may receive immunity for life from fads.


George Dixon, Washington Post

Feb. 13, 1964

Just thinking about the Beatles seems to induce mental disturbance. They have a commonplace, rather dull act that hardly seems to merit mentioning, yet people hereabouts have mentioned scarcely anything else for a couple of days.

Percy Shain, Boston Globe

Feb. 17, 1964

“They … sound like a group of disorganized amateurs whose voices seem to be fighting each other rather than blending…. If I call the act rank, I have a two-fold purpose in mind. For the word has two meanings — strong and disagreeable, and luxuriant growth.

Feb. 6, 1964

Hedda Hopper, L.A. Times

The Beatles have taken the rest of the country by storm, but they didn’t fool Paul Petersen, Donna Reed’s son on TV. “I can’t stand them,” he told me, “and I think they are helping destroy the teenagers’ image. Adults keep asking me if I like them. When I say no, they ask, ‘Then why does my kid pay $5 for their records?’ Guess they don’t know the disc jockeys are leading their little sheep astray.”


Jack Gould, New York Times

Feb. 10, 1964

The boys hardly did for daughters what Elvis Presley did for her older sister or Frank Sinatra for his mother.

The Liverpool quartet, borrowing the square hairdo used every morning on television by Captain Kangaroo, was composed of conservative conformists. In furthering Britain’s comeback as an international influence, they followed established procedure for encouraging self-determination in underdeveloped areas.

In their two sets of numbers, they allowed the healing effect of group therapy to run its course under the discipline of Mr. Sullivan, the chaperon of the year.

Larry Wolters, Chicago Tribune

Feb. 10, 1964

We think the three B’s of music — Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms — have nothing really to fear from the Beatles, even though Presley wired them his blessing last night.

Vita Sackville-West, Died in 1962

#DiedToday. June 2, 1962

Vita Sackville-West, writer, died on June 2, 1962 at 70. She was known for her exuberant aristocratic life, her passionate affair with the novelist Virginia Woolf, and Sissinghurst Castle Garden, which she and her husband, Sir Harold Nicolson, created at their estate. She was involved in several same-sex affairs in her life, while her husband also conducted same-sex affair, and also shared lovers. She also has a Charleston connection. 


Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Wolfe

One of Sackville-West’s house servants gave birth to a boy named Gordon Langley Hall, who grew up surrounded by opulence, intellectual and sexual liberalism. Gordon moved to Charleston in the 1960s, had several homosexual affairs, and in 1968 had successful sexual reassigment surgery, and changed his name to Dawn Langley Hall.

Dawn then became engaged to John-Paul Simmons, a young black motor mechanic with dreams of becoming a sculptor. Their marriage on January 21, 1969 was the first legal interracial marriage in South Carolina, and the ceremony was carried out in their drawing room reportedly after threats to bomb the church. After a second ceremony in England, the crate containing their wedding gifts was firebombed in Charleston, and Simmons received a ticket the next day when the charred remains were obstructing a sidewalk.

However, that is only the tip of the iceberg for this outlandish story.

The entire story of Gordon / Dawn’s life can be read in Edward Ball’s Peninsula of Lies. There is also a chapter about Gordon / Dawn in my book, Wicked Charleston, Vol. II. 

LEFT: John Paul Simmons & Gordon Hall. RIGHT: Newspaper announcements of the changes in Dawn’s life.  

Lightning Strike Ignites Charleston Romance

1777, June 8. 

 The Philadelphia-built frigate Randolph spent two months being refitted at Hobcaw shipyard in Charlestown. As the ship was being launched into the harbor a lightning bolt struck the mast and splintered it. The ship had to be pulled back into the shipyard for repairs.

Captain Nicholas Biddle of the Randolph, spent several extra weeks in Charlestown. Me met a young lady, Elizabeth Baker of Archdale Hall on the Ashley River, and began to court her. They became engaged by the end of the summer. So, thanks to a fortuitous lightning bolt, romance blossomed. 

Unfortunately, in March 1778, Randolph engaged the 64-gun British warship HMS Yarmouth and Capt. Biddle was wounded in the engagement. While he was being treated by the ship’s surgeon when Randolph’s magazine exploded, killing the entire crew, save four men. 

“I have courage. No one has dared to impeach it yet. If any should, I will not leave them a moment of doubt.” — Capt. Nicholas Biddle, 1776. 



USS Randolph (Courtesy of Hilda Straight)



The USS Randolph was a 32-gun frigate, named for Peyton Randolph.

The frigate, designed by Joshua Humphreys, was launched on July 10, 1776, by Wharton and Humphreys at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Captain Nicholas Biddle was appointed commander of the Randolph the next day.

Sarah Bernhard Appears in Charleston

bernhardt-sarah-1880Sarah Bernhardt appeared at the Academy of Music in “La Tosca” on January 21, 1892. Her appearance was treated like that of royalty. A local reviewer for the “News and Courier”, who referred to Bernhardt as “the divine Sarah,” also wrote that the theater “had rarely held as brilliant and cultivated an audience who were spellbound through love, hate, scorn, revenge, and disgust, all of which had full sway in the role.”


The two lower floors of the Academy sold out for Bernhardt’s performance within forty-eight hours. The day before, the “News and Courier” warned the audience about the “bonnet boycott” if they were attending.


(From “The News and Courier, Jan. 20, 1892)
Bonnets and Bernhardt do not go together. We do not mean … that the Divine Sarah has discarded the use of bonnets; on the contrary her headgear is said to be perfectly lovely; and we wish to convey the idea to the ladies of Charleston that bonnets will be entirely out of place at the Bernhardt performance … It is suggested that all ladies leave their bonnets at home unless indeed they are small enough not to interfere with the view.

“A Sufferer” goes so far as to suggest that it would be entirely proper for the Reporters of the News and Courier to take down for publication the names of all the ladies who go to the Academy wearing any particularly offensive hats or bonnets. Another correspondent “who paid three dollars to see Bernhardt, and not to gaze at ‘Miss Brown’s bonnet’” suggests that the new Chief of Police might distinguish the beginning of his administration by posting a strong force of men at the Academy to keep all the high hats out of the house!

It is true that some ladies have to wear hats as a protection, but the ladies of Charleston never look so sweet and charming as when they display their queenly heads unencumbered by the frippery of the milliner’s art. There is no reason why any lady in Charleston should keep her head covered at the Bernhardt performance tomorrow night.


Academy of Music photo: from “Memories of the Professional and Social Life of John E. Owens, By His Wife.” 1892.
Sarah Bernhardt photo: from Library of Congress

Charleston Almanac update

The Charleston Almanac manuscript has been indexed (3 weeks of fun!). Proofs will be ready by the first of February. Another step forward.

This is the finalized cover.


Richard Adams … R.I.P.


While everyone is mourning Carrie Fisher and George Michael, we lost another (mostly) overlooked icon over Christmas, Richard Adams. His influence on me cannot be overstated.


Richard Adams

WATERSHIP DOWN was published in 1972 and I read it the next year when I was thirteen. THIS was the book that jumpstarted my love for imaginative fiction and epic fantasy. It was also (and still is) one of the most emotional experiences of my life. The last page of the novel was one of the most heartbreaking moments I have ever encountered while reading fiction, yet, at the same time, it opened up an avenue of hope and paved the path for an expanding view of death and afterlife. 

If you have not read Watership Down, I can think of no better way to close out 2016 by introducing yourself to Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Dandelion, Blackberry, Pipkin and Silver. Don’t wait for the BBC mini-series next year. Read it NOW!



Some of my best friends during my teenage years … the rabbits of Watership Down.


watership-downA simple story about rabbits looking for a new place to live and defending their way of life doesn’t sound like the foundation of an epic that rivals any of the more splashy epic fantasies that I read due to Watership Down. (Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Thomas Covenant, Dragonriders, Mistborn, etc … ). However, in the gentle hands of Richard Adams, this simple story has so many political overtones and spiritual undercurrents that even my 13-year old mind and soul understood I was reading something more than “just a story.”   

Through the years, Adams has written several other notable novels, The Plague Dogs and Traveller, an ingenious story about Robert E. Lee during the Civil War, written from the perspective of his faithful horse, Traveller. As much as I enjoyed those books, and highly recommend them to any reader, it is Watership Down which is what Adams will forever be known.

SPOILER ALERT!!! SPOILER ALERT!!!  The following quote from the last page of Watership Down may still be one of the powerful sentences I have ever read and serves as a fitting eulogy of Mr. Adams.   


It seemed to Hazel that he would not need his body anymore,  so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch the rabbits and tried to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses. –from Watership Down  

Thank you, Mr. Adams. Hope you and Hazel are walking the fields among the primroses.


plague-dogs  traveller-final


Today In Charleston History – October 28, Ladd-Issacs Duel

OCTOBER 28 – Ladd- Issacs Duel

  Dr. Joseph Brown Ladd met Ralph Issacs in a duel on Philadelphia Alley at dawn, approximately 6:30 a.m.


Philadelphia Alley, Charleston, SC. Photo by author

In the spring of 1784  nineteen-year-old Dr. Joseph Brown Ladd arrived in Charleston from Rhode Island to establish a medical practice. He was fleeing vicious rumors about his character spread by the relatives of a woman, Amanda, he wished to marry. Amanda, an orphan, was from a wealthy family, but her fortune was held in a trust controlled by her uncle, who would lose access to the fortune if she married.

However, none of that scandal was known to the residents of Charleston and Ladd quickly became a popular man about town. Over the next two years,  he published over seventy poems in the American Museum, one of the most influential magazines in America, with a subscription list that included Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington. 

Ladd also became part of Charleston’s intellectual and social community. On July 4, 1785, at the invitation of Governor William Moultrie, he delivered a patriotic address before the Sons of Cincinnati of South Carolina.

On October 12, 1786, Dr. Ladd responded to a public smear campaign by Ralph Issacs in the Charleston Morning Post. Issacs was jealous of Ladd’s success in Charleston society and publicly called Ladd a “social climber that cared only for money … a quack.”

Ladd responded in the paper by writing, “I account it one of the misfortunes of my life that I ever became friends with such a man.”

Four days later, Ralph Issacs responded to Dr. Ladd:

I dare affirm that the event of a little time will convince the world that the self-created doctor is as blasted a scoundrel as ever disgraced humanity.

Issacs then challenged to settle the affair “with honor” – a duel. 

At dawn on October 28, Ladd met Ralph Issacs in a duel on Philadelphia Alley. There was a fog hanging on the narrow alley next to St. Philip’s Church graveyard. Dr. Ladd had the honor of the first shot and fired into the air.

Issacs, not able to clearly see Ladd due to the fog, hollered out, “Hah! You missed!” Then he fired at the vague outline of Dr. Ladd standing in the mist. Ladd was struck in the right knee, shattering bone and Ladd fell to the ground screaming in agony. He was carried to his boarding house at 59 Church Street. 



59 Church Street, Charleston, SC. Photo by author.


On November 2,  Dr. Joseph Brown Ladd died from his injuries.

For more complete details of the story, read this entry from the book Charleston Ghosts: Hauntings in the Holy City, by James Caskey, the most historically accurate book about Charleston hauntings and paranormal activity.  


Today In Charleston History – August 30

1706 – Queen Anne’s War

At daybreak, Captain Cantey and 100 militia from Charles Town attacked the French, driving them back across Shem Creek. Several French drowned and fifty-eight French prisoners were taken. One Charles Town militia was killed. 

1778 – Duel

Gen. Robert Howe

The duel between General Robert Howe and Vice President Christopher Gadsden took place. Howe demanded satisfaction from Gadsden, due to the unflattering letter that Gadsden had written about Howe’s military ability.  Col. Charles Pinckney served as Howe’s second, while Col. Bernard Elliot served that role for Gadsden.

Howe missed his first shot at eight paces, grazing Gadsden’s ear. Gadsden then intentionally fired into the air and demanded Howe fire a second time. Howe refused. The two men shook hands and parted.

Charleston Embraces “Porgy & Bess” … 81 Years Later

Stephen Sondheim in Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation But Missed the History Books, wrote:

DuBose Heyward has gone largely unrecognized as the author of the finest set of lyrics in the history of the American musical theater – namely, those of Porgy and Bess. There are two reasons for this, and they are connected. First, he was primarily a poet and novelist, and his only song lyrics were those that he wrote for Porgy. Second, some of them were written in collaboration with Ira Gershwin, a full-time lyricist, whose reputation in the musical theater was firmly established before the opera was written. But most of the lyrics in Porgy – and all of the distinguished ones – are by Heyward. I admire his theater songs for their deeply felt poetic style and their insight into character. It’s a pity he didn’t write any others. His work is sung, but he is unsung.

In 1922 a petition was sent to Charleston City Council, signed by thirty-seven white residents of Church Street and St. Michael’s Alley, which called for the immediate eviction of all the black residents of Cabbage Row. The petition detailed their unsavory behavior which included fornication between of black women and white sailors, knife and gun fights, unsanitary conditions and “the most vile, filthy and offensive language.”

During the spring of 1924, DuBose Heyward, founding member of the Poetry Society of South Carolina, began to work on “a novel of contemporary Charleston.” Heyward was the descendant of Thomas Heyward Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was part of Charleston’s aristocratic heritage where family bloodlines were more important than bank accounts.

During the early 1920s DuBose Heyward gained a reputation in American literary circles as a talented, serious poet. Charleston society was rightly proud of his success and reputation. The perception at Charleston tea parties was that his forthcoming novel of “contemporary Charleston” would, of course, be a drawing room drama, or a comedy of manners. Everyone was anxious to read it, assuming it would be about “them.” They could have never imagined what Heyward actually wrote, a lyrical folk novel about the Gullahs of Charleston.

For many white Charlestonians, the ubiquitous presence of Gullahs was as common as the humidity, present but rarely acknowledged. Heyward lived on Church Street, a dignified colonial-era neighborhood that had become quite ungentrified after Emancipation. Whites descended from the elite families of Charleston society now lived in close quarters, side-by-side, with descendants of their former slaves. The once pristine houses and gardens were now covered in shabbiness, the result of decades of dwindling fortunes and cultural depression.

Heyward became fascinated by the odd story of Samuel Smalls. The Charleston News and Courier featured a small item on the police blotter:

Samuel Smalls, who is a cripple and is familiar to King Street, with his goat and cart, was held for the June term of Court of Sessions on an aggravated assault charge. It is alleged that on Saturday night he attempted to shoot Maggie Barnes at number four Romney Street. His shots went wide of the mark. Smalls was up on a similar charge some months ago and was given a suspended sentence. Smalls had attempted to escape in his wagon and was run down and captured by the police guard.

Heyward finished the first draft of a novel based on Smalls’s life. He gave the manuscript to his friend John Bennett to read. Bennett was astonished by the story. “There had never been anything like it,” he said.

The story was set in a location Heyward called “Catfish Row,” two run-down tenement buildings one block from his home on Church Street. Nestled between the two tenements was 87 Church Street, a classic brick Georgian double house that had been the home of his ancestor, Thomas Heyward, Jr. As previously noted, by the turn of the 20th century both tenements were notorious as dens of crime and violence.

83-91 church street

85-91 Church Street, circa 1910. These pre-Revolutionary structures had deteriorated into slums by the turn of the 20th century. (L-R) Cabbage Row; Thomas Heyward House; Catfish Row. Courtesy of the Library of Congress 

DuBose Heyward’s novel, published in September 1925, was titled Porgy. It was the story of a crippled beggar on the streets of Charleston. During a dice game, Porgy witnesses a murder committed by a rough, sadistic black man named Crown, who runs away from the police. During the next weeks, Porgy shelters the murderer’s woman, the haunted Bess, in the rear courtyard of Catfish Row, a rundown tenement on the Charleston waterfront. Porgy and Bess fall in love. However, when Crown arrives to take Bess back Porgy kills him. He is taken in by police for questioning. After ten days he is released, because the police do not believe a crippled beggar could have killed the powerful Crown. When Porgy returns to the Row, he discovers that Bess had fallen under the spell of the drug dealer Sportin’ Life and his “happy dus’.” She has followed Sportin’ Life to a new future in Savannah and Porgy is left alone, brokenhearted.

The novel became a national best-seller, and received rave reviews. DuBose Heyward was praised for portraying “Negro life more colorful and spirited and vital than that of the white community” and for creating a character that is “a real Negro, not a black-faced white man,” who “thinks as a Negro, feels as a Negro, lives as a Negro.”

In Charleston, the reaction was polite but less positive. Some acknowledged the truth: it was a powerful book. Others claimed “the paper was wasted on which it was writ.” Most people were disappointed and shocked, when they discovered Porgy’s main characters were black, not white. The white characters were little more than poorly drawn caricatures. 

Lost amidst the initial praise and criticism, that, at its heart, Porgy, is a reminiscence of the old way of life in Charleston. Blacks are second class citizens, living lives of limited freedom and still expected to be subservient to whites. Porgy, however, examines this world from a black viewpoint. Portrayed with realism, these Charleston blacks were far removed from the “new Negro,” who could be seen daily on the streets of Harlem, and appearing in the literature of New York writers. In Charleston blacks and whites suffered from the same malaise.


In 1924 George Gershwin’s musical, Lady Be Good! ran for 330 performances on Broadway, establishing him as one of the most popular songwriters in America. While his second hit show, Tip-Toes, was on Broadway, Gershwin read Porgy in one sitting. He immediately wrote to Heyward proposing the two men collaborate together on an opera based on the story.

Heyward was astonished, and then excited. Gershwin was one of the most powerful, successful and talented artists in the New York musical world. He contacted Gershwin and was told that, although the composer wanted to create an opera his work schedule was booked solid for the next several years. Heyward decided to go ahead and write a nonmusical stage version of Porgy.

DuBose Heyward’s wife, Dorothy, was an award-winning playwright. The two had met in 1922 at the MacDowell Colony, an artist retreat in New Hampshire, and Heyward was immediately smitten. In 1923 they married in New York where Dorothy’s play, Nancy Ann, won Harvard’s Belmont Prize, beating out Thomas Wolfe’s Welcome to My City. First prize was $500 and a Broadway production of the play. Meanwhile, MacMillan Publishing had accepted a volume of Heyward’s poetry for publication.  The young couple spent the first months of their marriage living apart, Dorothy in New York working on the play production and Heyward on a speaking tour across the South.

Heyward’s decision to go ahead with a dramatic stage version of Porgy, instead of waiting for Gershwin, was an important one. After all, he already had the perfect collaborator living under the same roof. Together the Heywards turned the novel into a stage play. Gershwin was fully supportive of the effort. He told Heyward that a stage script of the story could more easily be transformed into a libretto for the proposed opera.

Dorothy wrote most of the dialogue for the play, smoothing the Gullah dialect from the novel into more recognizable English. By the summer of 1926 the play was written and submitted to three professional production companies in New York. One week later, it was accepted by the Theatre Guild, but the Heywards were pessimistic that the play would ever be produced. They had one unshakable demand, which could easily have been the death knell of the production; they wanted black actors to play the black roles, not white actors in blackface, still common at the time. The original director resigned due to their demands and the play was set aside.

In early 1927 a young Armenian director named Rouben Mamoulian decided he would direct Porgy, with a black cast. Trained as a lawyer, Mamoulian and his sister had fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, moved to London and began working in West End theaters. Mamoulian arrived in America at the invitation of George Eastman (of Eastman-Kodak) to work for the American Opera Company. It was there that he attracted the attention of the Theatre Guild, who asked him to stage Porgy.

Over the next thirty years, Mamoulian came to be known as “the mad Armenian” due to his frenetic energy. He directed more than twenty Hollywood movies and several successful Broadway plays, including the original Oklahoma (1943) and Carousel (1945). Porgy, however, was to be his first opportunity in charge of a Broadway production.


Rouben Mamoulian

 To prepare, Mamoulian traveled to Charleston to soak up the atmosphere and learn about the Gullah culture. On his second day in Charleston, he was taken to the Jenkins Orphanage for an after-dinner private concert. Several women sang spirituals and then members of the Jenkins Band performed. Mamoulian was amazed by the band’s “melodious discordance” and the “infinitesimally small darkey boy who led the band.” Before leaving Charleston the next day, he persuaded Rev. Daniel Jenkins to allow the band to appear in the Porgy production.

Opening night for Porgy was October 10, 1927. At the beginning of the second act, when the cast travels to Kittawah Island for the picnic, they were led onstage by the Jenkins Band playing “Sons and Daughters Repent Ye Saith the Lord.”

Within a week, Porgy was playing to standing-room-only audiences. When it closed after 367 performances it was viewed as an overwhelming success, with a higher box office than its main competitor, Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings. During its run Porgy employed more than sixty black performers in a serious drama, unheard of on Broadway at that time.

Five years later, George Gershwin’s heavy work schedule finally lightened enough to allow him to devote his energies to the opera. In late February 1934 he reported to Heyward that “I have begun composing music for the first act, and I am starting with the songs and spirituals first.” He then asked Heyward to join him in New York so the work could be expedited. Over the next two months, while living in a guest suite at Gershwin’s famous fourteen-room house at 132 East Seventy-second Street, Heyward wrote the lyrics for almost a dozen Gershwin compositions, including “Summertime,” “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” “Buzzard Song,” “It Take A Long Pull to Get There,” “My Man’s Gone,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’.” The opera was beginning to take shape.

In June 1934, George Gershwin arrived by train in Charleston with his cousin, artist Henry Botkin. They drove out to Folly Beach, where Heyward had rented a cottage at 708 West Arctic Avenue.

Folly Beach was a remote, sparsely developed barrier island ten miles from Charleston. It was a vastly different world from Gershwin’s New York neighborhood, in the middle of rollicking night life and luxurious accommodations. Life at Folly Beach was at best simple and at worst primitive. The surrounding marshes were filled with gators and other wild, exotic creatures. Crabs and snakes entered houses freely. Heat and humidity often reached equatorial proportions. In his letters Gershwin complained that the heat “brought out the flys, and knats, and mosquitos,” leaving “nothing to do but scratch.” Two weeks later, the Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, S.C.) filed this story:

Charleston, June 30.

Bare and black above the waist, an inch of hair bristling from his face, and with a pair of tattered knickers furnishing a sole connected link with civilization, George Gershwin, composer of jazz music, had gone native. He is staying at the Charles T. Tamsberg cottage at Folly Beach, South Carolina.

“I have become acclimated,” he said yesterday as he ran his hand experimentally through a crop of dark, matted hair which had not had the benefit of being combed for many, many days. “You know, it’s so pleasant here that it’s really a shame to work.”

Two weeks at Folly have made a different Gershwin from the almost sleek creator of “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Concerto in F” who arrived from New York City on June 16. Naturally brown, he is now black. Naturally sturdy, he is now sturdier. Gershwin, it would seem intends to play the part of Crown, the tremendous buck in “Porgy” who lunges a knife into the throat of a friend too lucky at craps and who makes women love him by placing huge black hands about their throats and tensing their muscles.

The opera “Porgy” which Gershwin is writing from the book and play by DuBose Heyward, is to be a serious musical work to be presented by the Guild Theater early next year, is an interpretation in sound of the life in Charleston’ “Catfish Row”; an impressionistic dissertation on the philosophy of negro life and the relationship between the negro and the white. Mr. Heyward, who is staying at Lester Karow’s cottage at the beach, spends every afternoon with the composer, cutting the score, rewriting and whipping the now-completed first act into final form.

“We are attempting to have an opera that is serious and dramatic,” Mr. Gershwin said.  “The whites will speak their lines, but the negroes will sing throughout. I hope the audience will get the idea. With the colored people there is always a song, see? They always find something to sing about somewhere. The whites are dull and drab.”

It is the crap game scene and subsequent murder by Crown which may make the first act the most dramatic of the production. A strange rhythm and an acid, biting quality in the music create the sensation of conflict and strife between men and strife caused by the rolling bones of luck.

“You won’t hear the dice click and roll,” he said. “It is impressionism, not realism. When you want to get a great painting of nature you don’t take a camera with you.”

Jazz will rear its hotcha head at intervals through the more serious music. Sporting Life, the negro who peddles “joy powder” or dope, to the residents of Catfish Row, will be represented by ragtime.

“Even though we are cutting as much as possible, it is going to be a very long opera,” Mr. Gershwin said. “It takes three times as long to sing a line as it does to say it. In the first act, scene one is 94 pages of music long and scene two is 74.”

There is only one thing about Charleston and Folly that Mr. Gershwin does not like. “Your amateur composers bring me their pieces for me to play. I am very busy and most of them are very bad – very, very bad,” he said.

Heyward took Gershwin on forays to neighboring James Island, which had a large Gullah population. They visited schools and especially churches. Gershwin was particularly fascinated by a dance technique called “shouting,” which entailed beating out a complicated rhythm with the feet and hands to accompany the spiritual singing. Heyward wrote:

The most interesting discovery to me, as we sat listening to their spirituals …was that to George it was more like a homecoming than an exploration. The quality in him which had produced the “Rhapsody in Blue” in the most sophisticated city in America, found its counterpart in the impulse behind the music and bodily rhythms of the simple Negro peasant of the South.

I shall never forget the night when at a Negro meeting on a remote sea-island George started ‘shouting’ with them. And eventually to their huge delight stole the show from their champion ‘shouter.’ I think he is probably the only white man in America who could have done it.

The first version of the opera ran four hours, with two intermissions, and was performed privately in a concert version at Carnegie Hall in 1935. The world premiere took place at the Colonial Theatre in Boston on September 30, 1935, the traditional out-of-town performance for any show headed for Broadway. The New York opening took place at the Alvin Theatre on October 10, 1935 and ran for 124 performances, impressive for an opera but woefully short for a musical. The reviews were decidedly mixed.

Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times, October 9, 1935:

After eight years of savory memories, Porgy has acquired a score, a band, a choir of singers and a new title, Porgy and Bess, which the Theatre Guild put on at the Alvin last evening … Although Mr. Heyward is the author of the libretto and shares with Ira Gershwin the credit for the lyrics, and although Mr. Mamoulian has again mounted the director’s box, the evening is unmistakably George Gershwin’s personal holiday … Let it be said at once that Mr. Gershwin has contributed something glorious to the spirit of the Heywards’ community legend.

It was called “crooked folklore and halfway opera” by Virgil Thomson. Whereas, Lawrence Levine stated: “Porgy and Bess reflects the odyssey of the African American in American culture.” Most critics complained about the form of the show – was it opera or musical?

Gershwin himself anticipated those reactions. In the New York Times in 1935 he said:

Because Porgy and Bess deals with Negro Life in America it brings to the operatic form elements that have never before appeared in the opera and I have adapted my method to utilize the drama, the humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing and the irrepressible high spirits of the race. If doing this, I have created a new form, which combines opera with theater, this new form has come quite naturally out of the material.

The argument still rages.

heywardand gershwin

George Gershwin and Dubose Heyward on Chalmers Street, Charleston.

People in Charleston, however, wasted little time in taking advantage of Porgy and Bess for profit. As the first American folk opera, composed by one of America’s greatest composers and based on a story written by a native son, the opera was a boon for Charleston marketing. Loutrel Briggs, landscape architect, who had moved to Charleston, became the driving force behind a movement to clean up Cabbage Row. He wanted to save the Row. He wrote:

DuBose Heyward, with an artistry to which my unskilled pen cannot do justice, has preserved for posterity the picturesque life of “Catfish Row,” and I have attempted to reclaim, with as little external change as possible, this building and restore it to something of its original state in revolutionary time.

The Chamber of Commerce paid for the placement of historical markers on structures throughout the city. The 1929 opening of the Cooper River Bridge had given motorists direct access to the city via Route 40 and the Atlantic Coast Highway. There was already an increase of tourists visiting in the city.  

The Chicago Tribune wrote:

In a world of change, Charleston changes less than anything …. Serene and aloof, and above all permanent, it remains a wistful reminder of a civilization that elsewhere has vanished from earth.

With the Great Depression gripping America, Charleston was in no financial position to turn away money. The pre-Revolutionary residential area of Heyward’s former neighborhood – Church and Tradd Streets – became a haven for tourist shops, catering to the much-disdained but much-needed Yankee dollar. Ladies of “quality” from Charleston’s “first families” opened coffee houses and tea shops and served as “lady guides” on walking tours down the cobblestone streets and back alleys. Their version of Charleston was completely focused on the glory days of the past, discussing “servants” not slaves, architecture not secession, George Washington not Jim Crow. They were trying to preserve, or more realistically, resurrect what Rhett Butler described in Gone With The Wind: “the calm dignity life can have when it’s lived by gentle folks, the genial grace of days that are gone.”

Led by two community-boosting-mayors John P. Grace and Thomas Stoney, this refocusing of history transformed Charleston in the 20st century. The 1930s preservation and tourism campaign solidified Charleston’s image as “America’s Most Historic City,” making it the darling of upscale tourists. In 2012, readers of the international travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler voted Charleston the #1 Tourism City in the World.

17b. porgy and bess (loc) blank pg. 170

Broadway production of Porgy & Bess. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Kendra Hamilton wrote:

The ironies of the situation are compelling. Charleston becomes daily more segregated, the chasm between rich and poor ever deeper and wider, as in the salad days before the war. The tourist-minded city fathers become daily more ingenious at smoothing down the ugly truths of the city’s history so as to increase its appeal to people whose impressions of the South owe more to Scarlett O’Hara than Shelby Foote. And yet, the city’s most readily identifiable cultural emblems – from Porgy to “the Charleston” – have African-American roots.

During the 1930s and ‘40s, DuBose Heyward’s former home at 76 Church Street became the Porgy Shop. This store sold antiques, china curios and other fine furnishings that had nothing to do with the opera, the play or the novel. It certainly had nothing in common with its namesake, a poor, violent, black beggar turned folk hero.

porgy house (loc)

Porgy House. Dubose Heyward’s home on Church Street where he wrote the novel Porgy, was turned into a gift shop.

In another ironic twist, the “first families” of Charleston, who made money from this skewed, picturesque version of history, did not even allow a version of their most famous commodity to be performed in its home setting until 1970, thirty-four years after its debut. Indeed, Charleston often goes out of its way to soften its African history. In the 1991 video, Charleston, S.C.: A Magical History Tour, Mrs. Betty Hamilton, daughter of artist Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, discusses her mother’s 1920s-era paintings as capturing “the Gullah South Carolina niggra with their simplicity and their sweetness.”

In 1952 a new international production of Porgy and Bess was mounted, featuring twenty-four year old newcomer Leontyne Price as Bess and the veteran Cotton Club song-and-dance man Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life.  This production was a theatrical triumph in Vienna, Berlin and London and also a hit when it returned to New York’s Ziegfeld Theater. The black press, however, launched a furious attack on the opera. James Hicks, a reporter with the Baltimore Afro-American, called the opera:

the most insulting, the most libelous, the most degrading act that could possibly be perpetrated against colored Americans of modern times.

Critic William Warfield noted:

In 1952 the black community wasn’t listening to anything about plenty of nothing being good enough for me. Blacks began talking about being black and proud.

In 1954 there was an effort to produce Porgy in Charleston, but it ran into trouble. South Carolina law at the time forbade the “mixing of the two races in places of amusement” for “historic reasons of incompatibility.” Local black performers refused to perform in front of a segregated audience and the show was canceled. It wasn’t until 1970, during South Carolina’s tri-centennial festivities that an amateur production of Porgy and Bess was approved and subsequently performed in Charleston before an integrated audience. It was the first amateur production of the opera allowed by the Gershwin estate, but by that time, the opera had acquired a problematic legacy.

During the 1960s the Civil Rights and black power movements transformed America. Porgy and Bess became an embarrassment to many black activists. Harold Cruse wrote that:

Porgy and Bess belongs in a museum and no self-respecting African American should want to see it, or be seen in it.

Such is the love-hate relationship associated with Porgy and Bess, and the ebb-and-flow of cultural acceptance that endures to this day. However, in 2011 the story was reborn for Broadway. Titled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and starring four-time, Tony-award winner Audra MacDonald, the new show was not without its own controversy. The producers changed some of the story and music to make it more appealing to modern audiences. The operatic-styled recitatives were replaced by spoken dialogue.

Nonetheless, the production was a runaway hit. It received ten nominations at the 2012 Tony Awards, winning Best Revival of a Musical and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for McDonald. It played for 322 performances, seventeen more than the 1953 revival, making it the longest-running production of Porgy and Bess on Broadway.


This year, 2016, Porgy & Bess  is being performed during the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, and is accompanied by an all-out effusive campaign that encompasses the entire city and every media outlet – 81 years later. 

George Washington Visits Charleston: Day 9

George Washington’s Visit – Day 9

Monday, May 9, 1791

Early in the morning Washington left for Savannah in the company of Gov. Pinckney, Gen. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Sen. Pierce Butler. They escorted Washington to his cousin’s (Col. William Washington) plantation Sandy Hill for the evening meal and lodgings.

Butler remained with Washington for the entire journey to Savannah (where he owned several plantations). 


Pierce Butler