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Jazz and cocktails: The hip life in Philadelphia, c. 1963

A noir memoir: Philadelphia before the 60s

9 minute read
Pulp fiction by Goodis: When hipsters mixed with mobsters.
Pulp fiction by Goodis: When hipsters mixed with mobsters.
It was the world of jazz and cocktails, as Billy Strayhorn's melancholy lyric put it, and we were the last of the "old school" hipsters. Men wore sport coats and slacks in the thin-silhouetted Peter Gunn style. Our female companions, young femmes fatales, dressed up in spike-heeled shoes and slinky black cocktail dresses with cleavage abetted by push-up bras. We snuggled and caressed amid the illicit excitement of dark corner lounge booths.

It was the early '60s, just before the Cultural Revolution. In those days, coolness and sophistication were still defined by straight-up booze, jazz illuminations, cigarettes, reefer when we could get it and talk of worldly affairs. It was a time when authors like William Burroughs and Jean Genet were reviving the concept— first articulated centuries earlier by Francois Villon and Arthur Rimbaud— that linked criminals and the underworld with poets and artists. You could read books and be a tough guy too.

Our parents had belonged to an upwardly mobile immigrant working class that had survived the Depression and then fled the cities for the suburbs. We were the rebels seeking to reclaim the remnant value in our underclass roots. I yearned to live out the dark dreams in the noir films of the late '40s and '50s that I watched on late-night TV.

Kerouac and Corso

In 1963, after a brief sojourn in Greenwich Village, I made my way back home to my father's house in Palmyra, New Jersey. Weekdays I commuted to Rutgers in Camden, where I attended classes conducted in tenement buildings owned by the university. On Friday nights I'd start the weekend in my red-lighted bedroom, together with my hometown buddy, Paul, a friend from high school.

We'd listen to a recent decade of jazz we had discovered hanging out in New York. We'd read aloud from our personal paperback libraries of intellectual and literary outsiders: Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso, books about working class heroes by Britain's Angry Young Men. We worshipped the previous generation's literature as well: Mailer, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Jean Genet and Camus. Books were our currency as well as our intellectual guideposts and roadmaps.

From Camden I crossed the river to Philadelphia, where I was sure the action was. I went to the predominately black Uptown Theatre on North Broad Street to experience live jazz and witness all-star shows by great musicians like Mongo Santamaria and his Latin band, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with Freddie Hubbard. I saw Jimmy Smith on the organ with his trio, and an unlikely appearance by Little Stevie Wonder, playing hot harmonica from his hit record, "Fingertips Part II."

Bartender and hustler

While attending Rutgers, I made friends with Stu, an intellectual gangster, who, when I met him, was about to quit college and begin a career as a full-time bartender and hustler. Stu quoted Mailer's The White Negro and dressed stylishly in high-collar French cuff shirts, black slacks and Jodhpur boots. I admired Stu's Italian hound's-tooth checked sport coat, in the style then known as the "continental-cut."

Stu, the hipster and jazz aficionado, played me his recordings of Mose Allison, who he thought was very cool. He often quoted Lenny Bruce, whom he'd seen perform at Atlantic City's Le Bistro Club.

Stu hooked me with good stories about things I not only wanted to hear about but also craved to experience. Afternoons I'd leave the Rutgers campus to hop across the Ben Franklin Bridge for happy hour in Philadelphia, where Stu tended bar in a small hotel at 22nd and Walnut. Stu became my guide to the city's underground. After his shift ended at 6:30 p.m., we'd hit the dinner hour at the Pub Steak House on Sansom Street. Afterward Stu would stop by the bartenders' union office to pay his dues, then making the rounds of Center City, spending most of his own tip money on all the bartenders he knew.

Young Mafia hangouts

Stu's friendships with petty criminals provided my entree into the hustling underworld nightlife of Philadelphia, Camden and Atlantic City. I met assorted barflies, gamblers and hipsters. With Stu I could count on getting served in bars without a card, and often we'd end the night in a gay bar like the Allegro on Spruce Street, or at one of the young Mafia hangouts at 13th and Locust. The late hours would find us with the drag queens at Dewey's all-night coffee shop around the corner on Chancellor Street.

Sometimes we'd slip through the partying crowd at Joe Pep's jazz bar on Broad Street during the last set and catch Dizzy Gillespie on the dance floor bandstand. Or we'd go around the corner on Lombard and down the steps into the shadowy confines of the Showboat bar for weirder jazz. Bill Cosby would be the bright college boy comic, come down from the North Philadelphia projects and Temple University to the backdoor Cypress Street underground bar, where he'd alternate with shoutin' gospel groups.

Notorious vice cop

With Stu as my docent, I had come to recognize Philly noir, its notorious haunts and characters. I'd see Inspector Ferguson of the Philadelphia Police Department's Vice Squad, wearing a porkpie hat tilted high on his forehead, patrolling South Broad Street alone, from City Hall down past the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, cruising the Harvey House all-night restaurant, then walking off down side streets to check out the Locust strip.

Fergie was a high-profile cop character with a nasty reputation among criminals, but he was often chronicled as a hero in the papers (like Frank Brookhouser's gossip column in the Evening Bulletin). The unsavory dives in the warren of alleys off Juniper and Mole and Camac Streets that once surrounded City Hall gave him ample opportunities for investigation, like Lillian Reis's Celebrity Room— one of Lenny Bruce's local hangouts, before he took his first bust in Philly.

A Dirty Frank's welcome

Nearby on Market Street, west of 13th, stood Allinger's pool hall, where out-of-town hustlers and local sharks made a life in a cavernous second floor walkup on Market Street. Legend told that Philadelphia's native son Willie Mosconi had once dueled Minnesota Fats in that old hardwood emporium.

Anyone who enjoyed a paranoid scene or was willing to risk getting busted would gravitate to Dirty Frank's Bar at 13th and Pine, notorious since the '50s for its eclectic clientele— everyone from beatniks to hookers, college kids and art students, antique dealers and drug dealers, poets, painters, homosexuals, construction workers and thieves, along with the usual crew of dedicated drinkers— all hanging together at that anonymous nondescript corner bar with its dirty gray walls hung with abstract paintings by neighborhood artists.

Of course you could also count on some undercover cops in the packed crowd at Frank's, or a ratfink informant lurking in the corner. But their presence had to be understood in the larger context of the bar's place in the city. Lacking the pretensions of a trendy bar, Frank's presented itself as a moody but ultimately friendly place, where everyone was cautiously welcome but no one really cared who the hell you were— since, after all, the place was so packed with patrons that you could simply morph into crowd.

Prophet without honor

These were the final years of Philadelphia's own noir novelist, David Goodis, who lived in his parents' house in the Logan section, where he wrote pulp fiction novels that sold millions of copies on drugstore racks around the nation and even gained the interest of Europeans as iconic examples of American noir. François Truffaut turned Down There, a Goodis novel set in a sawdust bar near the Port Richmond docks, into the film Shoot the Piano Player.

Goodis had left for Hollywood in the '40s to write screenplays for M-G-M, but he ended up living on desolation row, a failure in Los Angeles, and so he returned to Philadelphia to live a more or less incognito existence among the down-and-outers and working class anti-heroes who populated his books— a typical case of a Philadelphia prophet without honor in his own backyard.

Age of Aquarius

The scene began to get out of hand with the advent of psychedelic drugs in the mid-"'60s. By 1967 the whole Locust strip seemed to have gone day-glo mad. Jimi Hendrix was blasting out of a jukebox of a Locust Street bar. Old bust-out joints like the Bag O' Nails morphed into go-go bars where all the gals wore white dancer boots and miniskirts and long straight bleached blonde falls of hair.

Dick Clark's original "Bandstand" crowd flashed South Philly styles, flitty and dykey in mod bellbottom velvets, dancing "the 81" in the All-in-the-Family cocktail lounge, next to the all-night Dewey's. In the Living Room Lounge, everyone was literally jumping with the Soul Survivors, who literally busted the cash registers, flinging coins into the crowd.

But my favorite during those frantic drug-infested years was Johnny Caswell and his band— back from a Vegas lounge gig, still retro in his sharkskin suit and pointy shoes, swept back-pompadour, white boy rough and dirty get-down attitude— doing Otis Redding and wicked Wilson Pickett soul music. I can still hear the music!

A dying world

But by the time I was introduced to Johnny, he had gone on a mind-expanding trip, leaving rhythm and blues and his nightclub mode behind for the psychedelic scene. But who didn't in those years?

Now I look back nostalgically at a time when the underworld was accessible to an eager if alienated youth like me— providing just enough experience to survive in the real world of urban adults without getting killed. The secretive, insular world of the old noir underground was giving way to more liberated but weirder new times, and my in-between generation was laying the foundations.

Of course something is always dying, and something new is always being born. In retrospect I'm grateful that I briefly had a front-row seat.♦


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