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10 May 2012

Ray Charles In The Mitch Thomas Show (c 1955 - 1958)

The rise to mass popularity of Rhythm & Blues music was a long and bumpy one. Since it emerged as a genre, it took all of the late 1940s and most of the '50s to generate true mass appeal among black audiences. A substantial cross over to white audiences didn't even start before the early 1960s.
What you first needed as a black artist was some local recognition as a live performer. If you were really good, such local success caught the eyes and ears of promoters or agents who could book your regional gigs outside your home town, or even on the then emerging wider (mostly Southern) chitlin' circuit. And if you were really lucky, you got the attention of one of the few small, independent record companies that were (almost always: exclusively) catering to the black market.
These record companies had very few channels they could work on to promote and sell their releases. Of course, they first concentrated on getting sufficient shelf space at specialized record stores in black neighborhoods and on placing their disks into juke boxes in black bars and hangouts. They could try and get some free publicity in the black (newspaper) press, and if they were good they could generate air play at the scarce radio shows that paid serious attention to black music. Many excellent records broke out and hit in only one or two cities, simply because "national black media" didn't exist, and promotional success was largely dependent on the good ears and the good will of individual station owners or (more importantly:) popular deejays.
Ray Charles was one of the first artists to go through all these steps. From small-town and regional recognition in Florida, to local fame in Seattle, to a record company that soon went bankrupt, to growing fame in the chitlin' circuit, to a real record contract with Atlantic, to a first national hit (be it in the black market only, with I've Got A Woman), to generating some frantic support from a few local deejays, to scoring a first Pop chart hit (with a slightly sanitized version of What'd I Say), in 1959. It took him 12 years.
This is a screen shot of photo made during the telecast of the Mitch Thomas Show (date unknown to me) as shown in the documentary  Black Philadelphia Memories: with the host and a very young Ray Charles. My best guess is that the photo was shot at a show in 1955 or 1956. 
According to this contract,
Ray performed at two broadcasts
of Dick Clark's
on 10 and 12 April 1957.

Update: this contract was signed
by "the other" Ray Charles
A promotion channel that's only poorly described, is the television of the 1950s. In my own research I've come across a few facts relating to Charles' earliest experiences with 'music television'. Ray himself, with his Maxin Trio, pioneered a format on KRSC TV in Seattle, in the late 1940s, where he had to pay for his exposure. He also may have been on the Johnny Otis Show (LA) in 1955, possibly was on Swing Street On TV (LA) in 1955 or 1956, and also on American Bandstand in 1957 (when it was not yet widely syndicated).

But recently I had an excellent time clicking through the pages of the The Nicest Kid In Town, the website of an impressively well researched multimedia project by Matt Delmont, a professor of Americans Studies at Scripps College (a gorgeous book is the basis for his project). His story features American Bandstand, one of the most popular and influential shows in the history of television, stating that counter to Dick Clark’s claim that he integrated the program in 1957, it became racially segregated and continued to discriminate against black teenagers during the years 1952 - 1964...
Part of his evidence is in the story of Mitch Thomas, who in 1952 started playing music by black R&B artists on WILM, and by early 1955 also had a radio show on Philadelphia’s WDAS. When a television opportunity opened up in Thomas’s home market of Wilmington, Thomas got the hosting job. The first Mitch Thomas Show aired on August 13, 1955, on WPFH, an unaffiliated television station that broadcast to Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley from Wilmington. What made it special was that it was hosted by a black deejay and featured a studio audience of (dancing) black teenagers. Delmont writes that "WPFH’s decision to provide airtime for this groundbreaking show was influenced more by economics than by a concern for racial equality. Eager to compete with Bandstand and the afternoon offerings on the other network-affiliated stations, WPFH hoped that Thomas’s show would appeal to both black and white youth in the same way as black-oriented radio. The station’s bet on Thomas was part of a larger strategy that included hiring white disc jockeys [...]".
Among the stars that were featured in Thomas show were of course vocal harmony groups from the Philadelphia area, but also stars like Little Richard, The Moonglows, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, and... Ray Charles. In a later interview Thomas recalled how he "[...] brought Ray Charles in there on a Sunday night, and it was just beautiful to look out there and see everything just nice."
Thomas’s show stayed on television for three years, from 1955 to 1958. Delmont: "Thomas’s short-lived television career resembled the experiences of African-American entertainers who hosted music and variety shows in this era. The Nat King Cole Show (1956-57) failed to attract national advertisers and lasted only a year. Before Nat King Cole, shows hosted by black singers Lorenzo Fuller (1947) and Billy Daniels (1952) and the variety program Sugar Hill Times (1949) also fared poorly. Among local programs, the Al Benson Show and Richard Stamz’s Open the Door Richard, both had brief periods of success in 1950s Chicago. Two other local dance programs featuring black teens proved more successful than The Mitch Thomas Show. Teenage Frolics, hosted by Raleigh, North Carolina deejay J.D. Lewis, aired on Saturdays from 1958 to 1983, and Washington D.C.’s Teenarama Dance Party, hosted by Bob King, aired from 1963 to 1970. Most famously, Soul Train started broadcasting locally from Chicago in 1970 before being picked up for national syndication from 1971 to 2006. Fifteen years before Soul Train, however, Mitch Thomas brought the creative talents of black teenagers to television."
More clippings here.
Delmont concludes that "The music and dance styles on his show also appealed to the white teenagers who danced on American Bandstand. Because the show influenced American Bandstand during its first year as a national program, teenagers across the country learned dances popularized by The Mitch Thomas Show."

Matt Delmont on his website also presents an attractive screenshot, featuring The Genius, from The Mitch Thomas Show, which seemingly indicates that some footage of it has survived. But it turns out to be a screenshot of a photo that was part of a documentary.*
In the period that the show was on, Ray Charles performed frequently in the Philadelphia area. I've found proof for the following gigs (but there surely were more):
  • On 17 November 1955 (Town Hall Ballroom, with The Sensations; whole band; chauffeur, band members and "a girl vocalist" arrested after concert for possession of marijuana, pills, "needles and other dope equipment"). 
  • In April 1957 (Uptown Theater, headlining a double bill with Ruth Brown).
  • 29 March - 4 April 1958 (Nixon Theater at 52nd and Chestnut, em-ceed by Cannonball, "sensational disc jockey at Radio Station WDAS", also featuring Chuck Willis, Robert and Johnny, The Moonglows, Jo Ann Campbell, The Mello Kings and The Chuckies; "more than 40,000 persons, the majority of them teenagers are expected to visit [...] during the seven-day run [...]; source: Philadelphia Tribune, Mar. 29, 1958).**
Looking at Ray's picture, my best guess is that his performance on the show must be placed in 1955 or 1956.

* Matt Delmont informed me in an email that the picture "with Ray Charles is a screen shot of a documentary which used a still image. The documentary is Black Philadelphia Memories, dir[ected by] Trudi Brown (WHYY-TV12, 1999).  I contacted Mrs. Brown, but she did not have a current address for Thomas's children, so I wasn't able to find the original photo."
** Quotes from clippings kindly shared with me by Matt Delmont.

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