Let the Good Times Roll
Feb 19, 2013 09:44PM ● Published by Anonymous
Based primarily along the East Coast, the string of venues that made up the Chitlin’ Circuit (chitlin’ being a term coined from the southern pork dish chitterlings) allowed for a wide dissemination of African American culture, which grew in popularity mostly through word-of-mouth. Entertainers and musicians who regularly toured the Circuit included James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Little Richard, D.C.-native Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin, among many others. Often, such performers were booked in large, big-city theaters and, afterwards, would make pit-stops to lesser-known Circuit venues, sharing their music with appreciative audiences.
Most of the Chitlin’ Circuit venues were concentrated in southern states, and Maryland—particularly Annapolis and Anne Arundel County. Today, many of Maryland’s Circuit stops are veiled by urban development or were abandoned, left to nature’s razing. But at one time—a really good time at that—they were abuzz with some of history’s most celebrated black entertainers. Their stories— those of Carr’s and Sparrow’s Beaches in Annapolis, Beachwood Park in Pasadena, Kennedy Farmhouse in Sharpsburg, and Wilmer’s Park in Brandywine—are cemented in Maryland’s history and are beginning to be heard once more.
“Annapolis was the mecca for entertainment. Every known artist was at Carr’s Beach,” says George Phelps. “Young people should know the history of these areas [Carr’s Beach and Sparrow’s Beach], it’s important to our history.”
Phelps, an Annapolis resident, was director of security at Carr’s Beach in Annapolis for more than 40 years. He saw entertainers such as James Brown and The Jackson Five perform there, and he can tell story after story about those days. “When entertainers came to Carr’s Beach, there would be traffic from Church Circle [in downtown Annapolis] down to Bay Ridge,” says Phelps. “There would be anywhere from 20-25,000 visitors to the beach each weekend, as it was mainly open for music on the weekends.”
Carr’s was one of two sister beaches located toward the end of Forest Drive in Annapolis and served the black community— Carr’s provided a venue for musical entertainers and Sparrow’s mainly hosted church groups. Carr’s and Sparrow’s Beaches were family-oriented and provided African Americans a place to relax and enjoy entertainment. Carr’s Beach was the more memorable of the two, as it drew big name acts and enormous crowds. It was quickly popularized by word of mouth, and by the efforts of C.W. “Hoppy” Adams, Jr. and local radio station WANN. Adams was a popular emcee at Carr’s who would announce the entertainers. He was also the first African American deejay in Annapolis.
The last musical entertainment to grace the stage at Carr’s Beach was in the late-1970s—an act that Phelps will never forget. With more than 22,000 people in attendance, Chuck Berry performed to a delirious crowd.
“I remember that day exactly,” recalls Phelps. “The performance that Chuck Berry put on was memorable. After that show, Carr’s Beach was shut down. Based on politics, the beach was no longer a home for black entertainment.” What was at one time a beach attraction with a Ferris wheel, carnival rides, food vendors, and games is now a private, off-limits beach property located near present-day Annapolis Golf Club.
Larry Griffin, local resident and attendee at both beaches, has similar memories of Carr’s and Sparrow’s. Growing up in Annapolis, Griffin was taken to the beaches by his grandmother and mother, with his first visit when he was 12 years old. Summer provided the best season, with Carr’s Beach primarily visited on Sundays when entertainers would perform, and Sparrow’s frequented daily.
“Carr’s Beach was a hub for black music. I saw Jo Tex, Little Richard, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye there,” says Griffin. Griffin’s experience stretched farther than the avid beach-goer, as he also made his way into the music scene of Annapolis. Griffin quickly realized the importance that Carr’s Beach had for the African American community.
“I was a part of a local group called the XPD’s, and we performed at Carr’s Beach in 1967 or ’68. Our band got to open up for George Clinton,” says Griffin. “My most memorable moments were when I was standing less than 10 feet from James Brown, and when I shook Cassius Clay Jr.’s [a.k.a. Muhammed Ali] hand.”
Griffin also noted that many children learned respect by watching how families interacted while at the beaches. Although segregation was still a common practice, Carr’s Beach was known as a place for anyone and everyone to come. Though mostly frequented by African Americans, whites were admitted on site and visited often.