If “Big Red” McAllister had practiced more self-control on the road, the Royal Peacock might never have hatched into one of the country’s most legendary nightclubs and a landmark of African-American culture, its rafters rattled nightly by soulful history-makers such as Little Richard, James Brown and Ray Charles.
In the 1940s, McAllister loved playing his saxophone and leading his 14-piece orchestra on the usual rounds of the South’s “chitlin’ circuit,” as well as starchier gigs at white colleges. He managed to cut a few Duke Ellington-inspired records, but he was better known for his epic hedonism than his musical virtuosity.
“He was fun-loving,” says daughter Delois Scott. “He would get drunk, sell the bus, fire the bus driver, pawn the instruments, and they all would be stranded in Florida or North Carolina or somewhere. One time he was locked up; all his clothes gone to the pawnshop. God, it would be the biggest mess.”
It was McAllister’s devoted and well-heeled mother, Carrie Cunningham, who always came to his rescue. “She’d be cursing and calling him all kind of names, but she’d get him, the band, the bus, the instruments—everything—out of jail,” Scott says.
“Mama” Cunningham, a widow by then, owned and managed the Royal Hotel on Auburn Avenue, the lively business artery of black Atlanta. She reasoned that the only way to keep her wayward, horn-blowing son at home and more or less out of trouble was to furnish him with the ultimate playground: a lounge with a stage on “Sweet Auburn.”
However, this spot always was destined to be more than a common juke joint because Mama Cunningham was an entrepreneur with uncommon aspirations. As a teenager in Fitzgerald, Ga., she literally ran away with the circus. When the Silas Green Show, one of the country’s largest traveling vaudeville troupes, passed through, scouting for a juicy chorine to ride a white horse on stage, she saddled up.
“The way she told it was that she got on that … horse to get the hell out of Fitzgerald and see the world,” Scott says. “When I think of my grandmother, the lady on the white horse, well, she always went first class all the way or she wouldn’t go at all. The way she dressed, the cars, the men in her life, the food, the furniture, the activity around her—whatever the best was, that was what her goal was.”
That perfectionism would extend, with glorious results, to the entertainment when she purchased the old Top Hat Club in 1949. She renamed and remade the building at 185 Auburn Avenue in the image of what was clearly her spirit-animal, painting the walls and every surface with vivid, amethyst renderings of those eponymous tail-feathers. “She was peacock-crazy!” Scott says. Outside, a neon-script sign announced without hyperbole: “Royal Peacock: Atlanta’s Club Beautiful.”
The gregarious Big Red, at last discovering a more constructive use for his many contacts from the road, began booking acts. The playbills eventually would read like a genre-defining “who’s who” of American music: Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin, Howlin’ Wolf, the Orioles, the Drifters, Wilson Pickett, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Dinah Washington, Ben E. King, Sam & Dave, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Big Mama Thornton, Sam Cooke, The Four Tops, LaVern Baker, the Isley Brothers and on and on.
The biggest draws, though, remembers Scott, were Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and “Little Richard” Penniman, who invariably worked up such a sweat that his pancake makeup streamed in muddy rivulets all over the piano keys, requiring hours of post-show scrubbing. Drawing on the inimitable poetry that made “Tutti Frutti” a hit, the Macon-born “architect of rock ’n’ roll” described the sounds emanating from the Peacock as a force that “regenerates the heart and makes the liver quiver, the bladder spatter and the knees freeze.”
With all of the brothers and sisters—and, later on, a trickle of reverent white hipsters who hovered as inconspicuously as possible in back—flocking to the Peacock in the 1950s and ’60s, it became known as the South’s version of the Apollo Theater.
‘As hot as it could get!’
Many kinds of plumage were always on display.
According to the fire marshal, The Peacock could hold about 350 but often teemed with hundreds more, standing on tables and chairs to glimpse the nimble footwork on stage. The lines for shows would snake all the way around the block and—with all of the fedoras, flasks and flirting—offered their own compelling pageantry.
However, in the Jim Crow South, revelers were careful not to venture too far from Sweet Auburn. White businesses around the corner on Peachtree Street posted signs that admonished, “Don’t Buy Negro Records” whose “screaming, idiotic words and savage music … are undermining the morals of our white youth in America.” Arch-segregationist Lester Maddox once peered warily into the Peacock in an effort to understand the siren song that was luring freckle-faced kids into booty-shaking dissolution. Whether he ever “got it” at any point in his long, cantankerous life is a matter of some debate, but most people around the world certainly did.
The music had always claimed unmistakable power, which gathered galvanic force with the civil rights movement. The Peacock was surrounded by churches and black-owned businesses mobilized in the struggle, along with The Atlanta Daily World, the country’s first, successful black-owned daily newspaper. While the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sanctified the very air with his oratory, the nightclub functioned as the cathartic id in this heady atmosphere, as well as a jewel-box showcase for black genius.
Mama Cunningham’s civic stature grew with it. An omni-capable, multitasking caretaker and benefactor, she pampered the entertainers as well as her patrons, helping the “shake dancers” mend their slinky costumes and— keeping up a family tradition—always sending money to struggling, stranded musicians to get them to their Peacock gigs on time, where their favorite foods and libations would be waiting for them (case in point: ice-cold beer on hand for the bawdy comedy duo, Butterbeans & Suzy, friends from her old vaudeville days). She improvised like Scarlett O’Hara one evening when Big Mae Belle failed to bring a proper stage costume; without missing a beat, Mama Cunningham yanked down some fancy curtains in the hotel to swathe the singer’s ample figure.
An imperious, statuesque woman sequined in peacock jewelry, Mama Cunningham was every inch the queen. She was a confidante and adviser to King as well as Atlanta’s progressive white mayors and newspaper columnist Ralph McGill and she held court with Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Mohammed Ali and other African-American celebrities who were relieved to find a comfortable hotel without “colored” entrances and the other indignities of segregation. “No matter who you were, you couldn’t stay at the Biltmore; you couldn’t stay at the Georgian Terrace,” Scott says. “My grandmother ran a first-class hotel, with rooms that were stylishly decorated and bellmen in costumes that carried your luggage to your room.”
And in every conceivable way, guests got more than their money’s worth—usually $3.50 admission—at the Peacock. Mama Cunningham’s hellzapoppin’ showmanship drew on her roots in the Silas Green Show, which stocked its revue with gold-toothed, bump-and-grind contortionists called the “Sugar Girls.” Gorgeous George, the Atlanta disc jockey, emceed most shows, resplendent in furs, silks and the flashiest bling of his era, including plenty of chocolate “arm candy.” R&B diva LaVern Baker (“Jim Dandy Got Married,” “Tweedlee-dee”) reportedly started as a Peacock dancer billed as “Little Miss Sharecropper” and curvy Rosita “Chicken” Lockhart was nicknamed the “9th Wonder of the World” for her shimmying prowess with a boa.
Here, Little Richard took many of his music and fashion cues from local sensation Chuck Willis, a blues shouter known as the “King of Stroll” and the “Sheik of the Shake,” who accessorized with capes and a collection of 54 turbans. Occasionally, Percy Welch, a bluesman (“Back-Door Man”) and a booker and promoter for the club, would be heard trying to calm Etta James, whose temper could erupt into a lava-flow of profanity between sets that soared to blissful heights with her signature “At Last.” And silky Sam Cooke played one of his last shows at the Peacock before his tragic slaying in a California motel that was not as scrupulously managed as Cunningham’s Royal empire.
For Delois Scott, the wide-eyed granddaughter growing up in the hotel and allowed into the Peacock on Fridays, the high stepping, boogie-woogie jubilee never stopped and seldom disappointed. She remembers coming home once and stopping abruptly to appraise the smoldering young man at the bottom of the steps. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what a good-looking guy!’ It was Marvin Gaye, who had just made his first hit record.”
Mercy, mercy me, indeed.
On a recent swing through Atlanta, Aretha Franklin reminisced, “Then there was the Royal Peacock. Let me tell you, that was as hot as it could get!”
Scott is always careful to distinguish the nightclub’s identity from its New York City counterpart. “In some of the articles that have been written about the Royal Peacock, it has been likened to the Apollo, but the Peacock was the Peacock and the Apollo was the Apollo, in my estimation,” Scott says. “Everybody calls the Royal Peacock the ‘incubator’ for artists. When Little Richard first started playing here, he was an unknown. When Ray Charles was first starting out and unknown, he played here. James Brown, unknown. Gladys Knight and Pips, unknown. Nat King Cole played here before he even started singing. He was just playing piano in the Nat King Cole Trio—I have the picture from those days before he sang.”
When these artists found their voices, with all of their range and coloratura indelibly derived from making the best of hard times, it could be argued that, in many ways, they saved the world’s soul.
The “incubator” metaphor turns up in an eloquent Atlanta Weekly story by Steve Dougherty: “The Peacock should be remembered for what it was: an incubator for black music, keeping it hot and alive until it was allowed to be born, full-grown and screaming, into the midst of mainstream American pop. It’s taken over now. American music is black music.”
Still Making History
Mama Cunningham died in a nursing home in 1973 after struggling with what her granddaughter now believes was Alzheimer’s. The Peacock closed its doors with a sigh that year, but its rhythms echoed in everybody’s mind, while “Sweet Auburn” gradually succumbed to urban decay, abetted by an elevated freeway slicing it in half. A black troupe called “The Survival Theater” nested in the historic building for a little while. Later, the Fellini’s pizza magnates made a game attempt to revive it as a rock club in the 1980s.
At a 1988 show, “Iceman” Jerry Butler took the stage and looked rapturously around the smoke-filled room. “The walls here are talking to me,” he said. “The shadows are whispering in my ear.”
More recently, the Peacock has been refashioned into a hip-hop venue that started to catch on with the crunksters when it played host in 1994 to the first FunkJazzKafe, one of the city’s edgier arts festivals, where the rapper Bone Crusher, 23 at the time, made one of his early appearances.
Nowadays, according to boosters, Auburn Avenue is cresting the wave of intown gentrification—with many giddy “mixed-use development” plans in the works—and the Peacock is re-emerging as a place for music-makers to be discovered. Bad Boy South’s Russell “Block” Spencer signed Yung Joc after spotting him at one of the nightclub’s “ATL’s Most Wanted” talent competitions. Yung Joc’s earnings then landed him on “Forbes’ Richest Rappers List,” so naturally all of the rhyme-busting hopefuls, flanked by this generation’s “Sugar Girls,” are practicing their preening “hustlenomics” at the latest incarnation of “Atlanta’s Club Beautiful.”
If we’re lucky, the Royal Peacock will endure in the spirit of another line from Little Richard: “The beauty is still on duty.”