Over its 120 years, Birmingham Hippodrome has provided a stage for a wide range of Afro-Caribbean artists, performing a spectrum of acts from comedy to singing, and covering a broad canvas of music and dance genres from drama to Hip-Hop.
Our first Afro-Caribbean artist was a comedian named Johnny Richardson, who stepped onto our stage in September, 1900. He was followed by other entertainers like Joe Huda, Will English, “a speciality dancer”, and J.H.Hegarty,”comedian, dancer and selection whistler”. In February, 1906, African-American singer, dancer and choreographer Belle Davis arrived here. She was regarded as a pioneer of black entertainers in Europe. She came with her troupe of young black men. Hippodrome audiences loved them and they made several return visits.
In 1912 a new music and dance craze from America swept Britain. “Ragtime” arrived with tremendous energy and syncopated rhythms we had not heard before. It first hit the Hippodrome in January, 1914 with the appearance of the American Ragtime Octette, who got the audience tapping their feet to the new beat.
Ragtime merged with other developing African-American music to produce Jazz and the Blues and a whole new era of black performers began to arrive at the Hippodrome in the 1920s and 1930s.
The famous Cotton Club in New York’s Harlem produced many new performers like Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie (neither of whom appeared at the Hippodrome) and Duke Ellington, who came here with his orchestra in 1933, introducing our audiences to the full force of big band jazz. Within six weeks, Louis Armstrong had arrived with a different type of traditional jazz from New Orleans.
In August, 1981, the Hippodrome staged a celebration of the Cotton Club in a fast-moving and vibrant tribute to the music of Duke Ellington, “Fats” Waller and Cab Calloway.
The show starred Madeline Bell and Grace Kennedy and featured a tap-dancing tribute by Marcel Pereux to the famous Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
WW2 brought a halt to visiting American artists but a trickle developed into a flood into the 1950s. First to arrive was singer, dancer and civil rights activist Lena Horne. She had begun her career at the Cotton Club at the age of 16. Five months later, Nat King Cole and His Trio were here, playing to sell-out audiences. Another popular singing group called The Inkspots made several visits, popularising another music genre- “doo-wap”. They were joined by Billy Neckstine, Billy Daniels and The Deep River Boys, who introduced audiences to gospels, spirituals and early rhythm and blues. Child prodigy Sugar Chile Robinson in 1951 played dynamic “boogie-woogie” on his piano.
You may notice that there were few Black British artists appearing at this time. One exception was Trinidad-born popular pianist Winifred Atwell. This was because until the 1950s the black population of Britain was very small in numbers. In 1951 there were about 500 living in Birmingham. However, from the early 1950s, government policy was to encourage immigration from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan to work in our hospitals, factories and transport. By 1961, the number of black people in Birmingham had risen to about 16,000. As more immigrants arrived, they were met with increasing discrimination and times were difficult.
The next music genre to arrive was Rock ‘n’ Roll from the mid-1950s and this was fully presented at the Hippodrome. However, in Britain, most of its performers were white- stars like Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde and Billy Fury. The music had its roots in jazz, blues and gospel.
In 1967, the Hippodrome staged its first African musical called “Djoliba”, with a cast of 60. Ten years later came “Ipi-Tombi” from South Africa. According to the programme, it “captured the heart-beat of the African people” and was entertainment “transcending colour, race or language”.
As the black population of Birmingham increased and settled into the city, so they had children who were born here. Gradually, a more distinctive black culture began to evolve. By the time of the 2011 Census, just under 9% of Birmingham’s population were of Black Caribbean or Black African origin.
Alongside this increasing awareness of black identity came a period when the Hippodrome staged a series of Sunday concerts by visiting American singers of blues, gospel and rhythm and blues music. Artists included Chuck Berry (1965), Otis Reading (1967), Martha Reeves (1969), Ben E.King (1970) and B.B.King (1986). One of the all-time greats of entertainment, Sammy Davis Jnr., did two Sunday concerts here on 8 October, 1961.
Two icons of jazz, saxophonist John Coltrane, and trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie, appeared together at the Hippodrome in an unforgettable concert on 12 November, 1961.
By the 1980s, local black performers were beginning to make an impact. Ruby Turner appeared here in two concerts in 1988 and, in 1994, she returned in “Carmen Jones”, the black version of Bizet’s opera. Joan Armatrading was on stage in June, 1990 and, of course, Beverley Knight made her panto debut here last year in “Cinderella”.
However, from the 1990s, the emphasis shifted from traditional theatres like the Hippodrome to huge arenas, where top artists could play to several thousands of fans in one night.
One of our greatest local stars is not a singer but a comedian- Lenworth George Henry, born in Dudley. Better known as Lenny Henry, in 1975 he won the “New Faces” television talent show that was recorded at the Hippodrome. Once established as a top comedian, he was able to leave behind the impressions of mainly white personalities and develop characters that both mocked and celebrated Black British culture. Lenny first appeared at the Hippodrome as a solo stand-up comedian in November 1985 and was last here in March 2007.
Many black artists have appeared at the Hippodrome but have they represented a distinctive Black British culture, which has now become part of our local community? These are questions that have been raised at the Hippodrome. Through its out-reach programmes in local schools and communities, and through its development of free street entertainment, the theatre is attempting to better reflect the local communities of Birmingham.
One example of this is the annual hip-hop festival called B-SIDE. Now in its third year, it has attracted international street dance stars, graffiti artists and the biggest names in our own home-grown hip-hop talent. Last May, it attracted around 5,000 visitors, with the hip-hop finals being performed on our main stage.
Article written by Ivan Heard, Hippodrome Heritage Volunteer