Billy Cliff (Will Downing photo)

As we enter into 28 days of Black History Month, it’s important to acknowledge that the month originally started as “Negro History Week” in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson. During Negro History Week’s introduction, Woodson declared that the teaching of Black history was imperative to confirm the physical and intellectual survival of the race within the broader society. “When you control a man’s thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions,” Woodson wrote in his book “The Miseducation of the American Negro.” 

It was President Gerald Ford who officially recognized Black History Month in 1976.

The month will kick off with “Celebrating African American History Month at Flushing Town Hall 2023,” with “The Chuck Berry Rock & Roll Concert Party” on February 3. Berry’s showmanship, his guitar playing, the chords, solos and catchy lyrics earned him the title “Father of rock & roll.” John Lennon of the Beatles said, “If rock & roll should be called by another name, it might be Chuck Berry.” 

Representing Berry’s rock & roll sound will be Harlem’s own blues singer, songwriter and guitarist Keith “the Captain” Gamble, who was inspired by Berry. Harlem residents are familiar with the Captain’s funky soulful licks from his performances at Showman’s Café, the Cotton Club and Mama Harlem. He was the male vocalist and lead guitarist for the Mile High Club band that served as the house band for ABC’s “The View.”

While Berry deserves all the titles and accolades for pioneering rock & roll, credit must be given to guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who, as a gospel singer, was an early forerunner of rock & roll. Berry’s style can easily be traced back to Tharpe, who danced and sang while playing serious riffs, and her picking was outrageous. She was a crowd-pleaser in the 1930s–’60s, playing in both churches and clubs. Elvis Presley acknowledged that she was one of his influences.

The Captain follows in their tradition, with the addition of his own unique style infused with some Harlem soul.

On February 10, the celebration at Town Hall continues with “The Challenge to Defy Gravity: Lindy Hopping, Black Bottom & Jitterbug Dances from the Legendary Savoy Ballroom” in Harlem. Saxophonist and musical director Patience Higgins and his band, along with The Savoy Swingers and guest artists The Big City Stompers, will transport the audience back to those high-flying days. 

The ballroom, at Lenox Avenue and 140th Street, became the place for young dancers to show their stuff as the Lindy’s high-flying acrobatics became the craze. The place billed as “The world’s most beautiful ballroom” stayed packed, with feet, arms and legs flying in all directions under the swing sounds of Chick Webb’s Big Band with singer Ella Fitzgerald. From the day of it opened on March 26, 1926, the Savoy was in high gear every night and garnered the name “the Home of Happy Feet.” While Webb held down his reign as the hard-swinging house band, other bands did come through, such as Duke Ellington, Cab Callaway, Jimmie Lunceford and Jay McShann. 

The Savoy became a dancer’s haven. Longtime Harlem resident and dancer Frankie Manning & Norma Miller and others in the 1930s became part of the elite “Kat’s Corner,” a corner of the dance floor where impromptu competitions took place. At age 75, Manning co-choreographed the Broadway musical “Black and Blue,” earning him a Tony Award in 1989. His autobiography, “Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop,” was written with co-author Cynthia R. Millman (Temple University Press, 2007).

With this presentation, assembled by choreographer and dance historian Mickey Davidson, “we are celebrating the gravity-defying contributions of the Lindy Hop and Air Steps,” Davidson said. 

Flushing Hall’s Black History Month celebration concludes on February 24 with “Soul Men: Singers Who Defined the Soul Music Genre—The Music of Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, Al Green, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave.” “Soul Men” will take audiences on a musical journey reflecting on the times when these African American singers laid the blueprint for soul music with gospel tinges (1960s—’80s). 

Singer Billy Cliff will lead this music excursion. Cliff’s singing credits include working with artists such as Freddie Jackson, Angela Bofill, Dianne Reeves and the jazz group Spyro Gyra, and as the lead vocalist for Kool & the Gang. The smooth, hip vocals of Curtis Mayfield and the deep timbre of Isaac Hayes will also be part of the event. 

The music of these “Soul Men” not only attracted Black listeners but crossed over to white listeners as well. It was the closing era of DJs like Allan Freed, Murray the K, Jocko Henderson and Hal Jackson, who first introduced these artists. It was the beginning of a new epoch of a sound called soul that brought more luster, a deeper emotional timbre, to the R&B structure. It was also during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements leading into the ’70s and ’80s. These Soul Men helped to make Black music a dominant force in the music industry. It was no longer “race music” or “negro Music”; it was Black music that changed the entire dynamic of music and who listened. 

The concert will even take you to Houston, Texas, where Archie Bell & The Drells introduced their hit classic “Tighten Up.”

This trilogy concert series celebrating Black History Month represents the sum of Black music, from the beginnings of urban blues rock & roll to the Savoy Ballroom’s swinging jazz sound, where teenagers danced to live big bands, that eventually led to the soul sounds that hit America.

 As this series shows, Black music didn’t come out of a vacuum. It is a family of unified genres from the roots of Africa—an American progression of song from the plantation to the pulpit, junk joints to dance halls concert halls and festivals. It is the soul of a Black experience played out in songs, improvisational instrumental and dance.

As we celebrate this 2023 Black History Month, it is important to recognize the significance of what it means to celebrate every day, 365 days a year. We are at a crucial time in this U.S. of A. Celebrate this month with deliberate intention.Flushing Town Hall is at 137-35 Northern Boulevard. For tickets, call 718-463-7700 x222 or visit the website,

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