Beer, R&B and Race Relations[Editor’s note: This month, in a departure from the usual “Random Thoughts While Driving in Waco,” we present a first-person essay Jack wrote about an encounter he had as a student in the 1960s in Waco.]
Way back in part of 1965 and 1966 I attended Baylor Law School for about a year. It was odd in that I did so between undergraduate school at the University of Texas and graduating from undergraduate school at UT. I had just finished a semester during which I didn’t exactly prioritize class attendance. A couple of professors took umbrage at my dereliction and gave me failing grades, which led to the university asking me to sit out a semester.
I didn’t know what to do. A friend told me that if you had 90 or more credit hours and made a satisfactory score on the Law School Admission Test, you could enter Baylor Law School. So I flunked out of UT one semester and started law school the next. I guess I must have passed the LSAT.
I started in the summer and there were probably 25 students in that class. I lived at home that summer, in Marlin, and commuted. There was absolutely nothing to do in Marlin, so I killed time by studying. After that first quarter, grades were posted on the bulletin board, and I was ranked fourth in the class. I had never been ranked that high in anything before or since. I soon reverted to my non-honor-student ways.
After that first summer, I moved to Bellmead and shared an apartment with another law student. I think it was a cinder block building with about six apartments. It was near the Catholic church. Every day, driving from my apartment to school and back, I drove past a large one-story building with a sign out front that said “Copacabana.” It was in what was known as no-man’s land, which I think was in an unclaimed area between Waco and Bellmead about where Sam’s Club is today.
I never really thought about the Copa until one weeknight when driving home from a party in Waco, I decided that I really needed one more beer. There were only about three or four cars parked there. I parked and went in, not knowing what to expect.
As you went in the front door, you faced a bar with about eight bar stools in a small area and then a very large ballroom to the left. I immediately realized that it was a black bar since the bartender and the five or six customers were all African American. I was a little apprehensive, but the bartender and owner of the Copacabana, welcomed me. So I sat down at the end of the bar and ordered a beer. Probably a Lone Star.
The bartender was very nice, and we began a long conversation. He asked what I did and where I was from. I told him that I was a Baylor student and was from Marlin.
Well, it turned out that he had also lived in Marlin, so we had that in common. His name was Oscar Bledsoe, and we became friends. He said to come back at any time, so I started stopping off every week or so to have a beer and visit with Oscar.
One time he said that he had a really good band that would be there on Saturday night and why didn’t I bring my girlfriend and come enjoy it. I asked if he was sure that would be OK, and he assured me that it would be great. We both knew that I was asking a race-related question, but it was unspoken by both of us. 1965 was a troublesome time in America for race relations. Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery was in March of ’65, and tensions were high in the South. They weren’t high in Bellmead, Texas.
So I brought my girlfriend, Vicki, now my wife of 54 years, and another law school friend, Jim, and his date. Jim had a great voice and was into R&B also. The place was packed with about 200 or 300 folks. Oscar found us a table in the back-left corner.
The stage band was Al “TNT” Braggs. It was a really good rhythm and blues band with horns and saxophones and a great and powerful sound with Al doing the vocals. They had some popular records at the time, like “I Don’t Think I Can Make It” and “Cigarettes & Coffee.” In 1965 we mostly only had records. Eight-track tapes were just coming online.
I don’t remember dancing, but the music was great. And everyone was very nice to us, the only white people there. I think Jim and his date danced, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself and Vicki and the white race. Most white men can’t jump or dance.
As the regular show ended and recorded music took over, Oscar came back and asked how we had enjoyed the show. We told him that we loved it. He said there might be something else that we would love.
“How would you like to meet Wilson Pickett?” he asked. That was not a tough decision. Of course I would like to meet Wilson Pickett.
Oscar took us to a table near the front. There with a girlfriend and another couple of guys sat the one and only Wilson Pickett.
“Wilson, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine, Jack Smith,” Oscar said. Wilson was not impressed and seemed somewhat aloof.
He looked at me rather sternly and asked, “What’s my number?” I immediately blurted out 634-5789, which was one of his latest songs. He grinned, grabbed my hand and told me to pull up a chair. We sat and visited with him until it was closing time.
For some reason I asked if he would like to come over to my apartment for another drink. I was shocked when he said he would like that.
So Vicki and I and our friends drove to the apartment with Wilson and his girlfriend, Pee Wee, following behind us. Pee Wee was beautiful, and she was as nice as she was pretty.
I had an old guitar, which I never really learned to play, that Wilson played while we all sang a few of his and our favorites — “Mustang Sally,” “In the Midnight Hour” and “634-5789.”
I have not met a lot of showbiz folks. I have shaken the hand of five presidents (actually four, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and both Bushes. Harry Truman patted my head when I was about 5 or 6, and I count that as a handshake). One time I got an autograph from Hopalong Cassidy. However, none of those brushes with fame came close to our evening with Mr. Wilson Pickett.
Wilson, a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, died of a heart attack at age 64 in 2006. Al Braggs died in 2003 at age 65. Our good friend Jim, who sang at our wedding, died at an early age with AIDS. He was still in the closet when we knew him, but I hope that fact wouldn’t have made any difference; he was a wonderful human being. I lost track of Oscar, but I would bet that he is telling tales in heaven.
So this tale is told. In 1965 in Waco-Bellmead, the beer was cold, the music was hot, and black folks and white folks could be cool with each other.