Heartbeats' contains much truth about struggle of black entertainers

April 11, 1991|By David Hinckley | David Hinckley,New York Daily News

Halfway through "The Five Heartbeats," Robert Townsend's movie about a composite 1960s R&B vocal group, he inserts a scene so striking it seems almost detached from everything else around it.

The Five Heartbeats, their career ascension not yet in high gear, are thumping along a Southern highway in an old station wagon. It's the nightly drill: Pack up in one small town, head to the next.

A flashing light approaches from behind. "What'd you do?" someone asks the driver. "Nothing," he says. He pulls over.

Some white cops come forward and order the Heartbeats out of the car. Hands on the hood, boys, where we can see 'em. After ripping apart everything in the wagon and tossing it on the ground, the cops ask why they're here.

We sing, they say. The cops snicker. If you sing, boy, one says, let's hear it.

Hands on the hood of the car, flashlights in their eyes, their possessions tossed aside like trash, they sing.

It's an extraordinary scene, showing both the power and evil of the bully and the helplessness of the victim. The cops don't even fully realize what they've done: Taken the thing the Five Heartbeats do best and made it a symbol of humiliation.

"That happened," says Chuck Barksdale. Barksdale sings bass for the Dells, the real-life R&B group that has been together since 1953 and on whose story "The Five Heartbeats" is more than loosely based.

"We were driving along in the station wagon," says Barksdale. "The police stopped us and to prove who we were, they made us get out and sing."

The box-office success of "The Five Heartbeats" will probably hinge on how well viewers like the characters and the story. But moments like the "sing, boy" scene also put on the cinematic record a slice of real life that should not be forgotten: the conditions under which black entertainers carved out the largest building block of modern American

popular music.

Other movies have addressed this subject, including "Bird." Spike Lee, in "Mo' Better Blues" and elsewhere, has noted that its vestiges continue today. But early black entertainers, like early black ballplayers, sometimes find a warm wash of nostalgia blurring harsh truths about fighting to make a living, and those who benefited from the doors they opened often assume things were always this good.

"They don't know about going into a town and not being able to get food at any restaurant," says Bo Diddley. "You had to know the cook so they could slip you something out the back."

Hotels? Forget it. There was a network of people, often including black deejays and promoters, whose homes formed an informal bed-and-breakfast network. Otherwise, artists slept on the move the station wagon or, if it was a package

tour, the bus.

"After the show, you'd race to the bus to get one of the big seats," says Melvin Franklin of the Temptations. "I used to go for the luggage racks, because that was the only place I could stretch out."

Ruth Brown recalls one all-night bus ride -- no hotels available -- where Chuck Willis wrote "Oh What a Dream" for her on the back of a brown paper bag that had held fried chicken and french fries. No restaurants available. Brown recorded the song, it became a major R&B hit and just as it was about to become her first major pop crossover hit, Patti Page covered it and got the gig on "Ed Sullivan."

Black artists in the '50s and into the '60s were still largely working the last vestiges of the old black vaudeville circuit, TOBA, the Theater Owners Booking Association. It paid less than the white circuit and conditions were rough, but it was the

only game in town -- steady work, a marginally living wage and a loyal audience.

On stage, in fact, it was OK. The trickier problems came off the stage, says Therman Ruth, who led the famous Selah Jubilee Singers for many years and had a brief spin with the R&B group the Larks in the early '50s. Much of the R&B/gospel circuit was in the South, where the protocol of segregation remained


"One time in a Southern town when I took a drink from the white water fountain," says Ruth, "a policeman saw me and told me he'd put me in jail unless I caught the next train out of town and never came back. I told him, 'If you let me go, I'll catch the train yesterday.' We knew too many stories to mess with those people."

Chuck Barksdale hopes "The Five Heartbeats" will entertain, but he also thinks "a lot of people could get an education from it.

"Today, you see black singers and people like Robert Townsend, Eddie Murphy and Spike Lee making money. But for a long time, this system was not set up for blacks to reach great heights of either publicity or financial reward. A lot of artists had to pave the way to get to where we are now."

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