Spotlight shines on black pioneers who paved the way for today’s entertainers

Edward Kearns

Edward Kearns

Today, black entertainers enjoy a great deal of success in the media. It’s hard to imagine that only 50 years ago, racial inequalities forced many black artists to struggle for survival. A few managed to find success but, rarely, greatness.

In honor of Black History Month, here is a history of three blacks who had to overcome many trials and tribulations to make it in the entertainment business.

Chuck Berry

Charles Edward Anderson Berry, better known as Chuck Berry, also had his share of success in a life that had as many highs and lows as the music charts itself.

Berry started playing the guitar after he spent time in prison for armed robbery when he was 18. Following his release, he played in a number of bar bands around St. Louis.

After meeting with Muddy Waters in 1955, Berry played his song “Ida Mae” for record producer Leonard Chess.

Chess had the song re-written turning it into “Maybellene” and Berry’s debut single hit the air waves. The song became a top five hit as well as an R&B number one.

A stream of chart success followed his debut, with songs like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “School Days.” Berry managed to cross the color barrier with songs about the teenage obsession and the generation gap. Unlike previous Black artists, Berry enjoyed chart success rather than having white artist covering his songs.

In 1961, Berry found himself in prison again for “transporting an under-age girl across state lines for immoral purposes.” He kept writing songs during his 20-month stay in prison, but was unable to record. During those two years, groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones included Berry’s songs on their albums.

By the time he was released, he had a whole new fan base. Many young people were curious about the man writing songs for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It wasn’t until 1972 that Berry finally achieved a number one hit with “My Ding-a-Ling.”

Berry is one of the most admired stars in Rock ‘n’ Roll. John Lennon is quoted as saying “If you tried to give Rock and Roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.”

Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier enjoyed great success in his life. At age 16, Poitier moved to New York City and began working as a janitor at the American Negro Theater. While working at the theater, he was given the understudy role for Harry Belafonte in the play Days of Our Youth. Poitier’s public debut came when he filled in for Belafonte one night.

Poitier continued performing in plays until his 1950 film debut in No Way Out. The film was a tale of racial hatred and violence which made him a hero back home in the Bahamas. The British colonial government chose to censor the film and protests erupted. This eventually gave birth to a new political part that would overturn British rule.

In the 1950s, Poitier made some of the most controversial and important films of the decade and was given a nomination for an Academy Award for his role in The Defiant Ones.

In 1963, Poitier was praised for his role in Lilies of the Field. He was nominated for another Academy Award and became the first African-American to win the award for Best Actor. After 50 years in the entertainment industry, Poitier had played 55 different characters. By the end of the 1960’s he was one of the most popular stars in Hollywood. Today, he is considered one of the greatest entertainers of all times.

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker ran away from home at age 13 and began dancing in Vaudeville and on Broadway until moving to Paris in 1925. Her jazz dancing and ability to make people laugh caught the attention of the director of Folies Bergere and she was given a job. She was an instant hit and became one of the best-known entertainers in all of France and Europe.

World War II kept Baker busy. She spent her time working with the Red Cross and entertained troops in Africa and the Middle East. On top of that, she gathered intelligence against the Nazi invaders for the French resistance.

When the war ended, Baker and her husband adopted 12 children from all over the world. She returned to the stage in the 1950’s to finance her new family. Unfortunately, Baker was never as popular in the U.S.A. as she was in Europe.

In 1951, columnist Walter Winchell accused Baker of having communist and fascist sympathies after she yelled at him for refusing to come to her aid when the famous Stork Club of New York City refused to serve her. More rumors were started by Winchell, causing her to take up the fight against racial inequality. Baker refused to play in any club or theater that was not integrated, forcing owners to break the color lines. In 1963, she spoke alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. during the march on Washington.

Baker made her comeback to the stage in 1975. Her performance at Carnegie Hall was a huge success as were the following performances in Paris. Sadly, two days after her last performance in Paris, she died from a stroke.