My friend Gene Kansas of Constellations, an innovative community space in downtown Atlanta, asked me to curate a playlist for their grand opening. I knew I’d need to put a lot of thought into the music because I like Gene and his ventures, but also because Constellations is in Sweet Auburn. As far as neighborhoods go in this city, Sweet Auburn is sacred. Few places in America can boast as much African American business, social, and political history as Auburn Avenue. It’s a legendary place and I wanted to approach this music and research project with reverence.
Using the Atlanta Daily World archives available through the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library, I began to dive into the records of Sweet Auburn’s famous concert hall, The Royal Peacock. The club is still open and its legacy dates back to the 1930s, when it was known as the Top Hat. In the 1960s, the Royal Peacock ran about two ads a week in the Daily World, each listing the upcoming weekend’s performers. For this playlist, I searched the archives from 1960 through the first half of 1964 (there’s a gap in the data for a few years in the mid-60s). No digital page went unturned; I did my best to record each and every advertised performer. There’s an intangible quality to history, we can preserve buildings but we will never really know what a night at the Royal Peacock sounded like. Using the data available in the concert bills, I wanted to come up with the most accurate representation I could.
Within the hundreds of entries are gilded names like Sam Cooke, Hank Ballard, The Supremes, James Brown, and Otis Redding. There are local talents, exotic dancers, and a few names that time may have forgotten. Many of the bands playing the Royal Peacock in the early 60s sat at a pivotal point in American history: pure bluesmen and early rock musicians played alongside acts cranking out a newer style that the kids called “soul.”
Of the stars that graced the Peacock’s stage during the first half of the 1960s, none seemed to have been as popular with young soul fans as Marvin Gaye. Marvin played three nights on Auburn Avenue from February 15-17, 1964. Like nearly every act that played the club, he and his tour mates performed twice each night. The evening schedule was grueling enough, but its likely Gaye didn’t find much time to relax when he wasn’t on stage. Other than a few moments after his arrival, where he was late greeting fans in the airport's “celebrity room”, the Daily World reports that Gaye spent his days engaged in public appearances. He visited local radio stations (including Sweet Auburn’s WERD), toured Clark College (now CAU), and greeted wildly enthusiastic fans at Harper High School. Before returning to Atlanta for his three-night run, Gaye played a Valentine’s Dance at UGA. He attended a party at Frazier’s Café Society (see scholar Maurice Hobson, Ph.D. discuss the popular restaurant’s history here) and lunched at the aptly-named Top of the Mart, a restaurant on the top floor of the John Portman-designed Merchandise Mart.
I’ve shared the Constellations playlist so that you too can enjoy a couple hours of music from the artists that played the Royal Peacock at the beginning of the 60s. There are swinging hits, wild stompers, and soulful ballads. A few of the Daily World ads included the title of a current release alongside the artist's name so I tried to include those songs on the playlist as those were likely played during the singer's appearance at the Peacock. I wanted to present tunes that represented the work of each artist during the time period. It wasn’t hard to find songs I dug by every act that played the Royal Peacock, and I hope you can dig this, too!