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Black History celebration swells with talent and pride

Keynote speaker Bob Slade (fourth from l.) is honored by Donald Clarke (from l.-r.), Bill Thompson and City Councilmen Leroy Comrie and Ruben Wills.
TimesLedger Newspapers

Queensborough Community College kicked off Black History Month with revelry as talented performers graced the stage at the school’s performing arts center Saturday.

With City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) and a bevy of unannounced guests, attendees swelled with African-American pride as the jovial celebration filled the auditorium.

“This has been a historic time for people of color throughout the country,” said Comrie, who hosted the event at 222-05 56th Ave. in Bayside. “With the annual celebration of Black History upon us, and having just witnessed President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, we must take this time to reflect on where we came from, envision where we are headed and celebrate those who sacrificed so much to get us to where we are today.”

And celebrating this occasion with Comrie were Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica), city Comptroller John Liu, former city Comptroller Bill Thompson, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and community activist Donald Clarke, who acted as master of ceremonies.

“When I was a kid, we had one week to celebrate our heritage and it was called Negro Week,” he said. “I’d say we’ve come quite a distance.”

Clarke introduced the event’s keynote speaker, journalist and radio pioneer Bob Slade as a “distinctive voice and music historian.” Clarke was not exaggerating as Slade in his radio-ready delivery told the story of a small African-American run record label out of Indiana that wielded a surprising amount of influence over the music industry in the 1950s and ’60s.

Slade explained that Vee-Jay Records, started by husband and wife team Vivian Carter and James C. Bracken, grew from tiny to tremendous after signing acts such as John Lee Hooker, The Spaniels and The Dells.

But surprisingly, most of their success came from their involvement with two of the biggest rock’n’ roll acts of the early ’60s: The Four Seasons and The Beatles.

The Four Seasons signed with Vee-Jay, but the record label merely acquired the rights to The Beatles’ early records and released them to lukewarm response in the fall of 1962. But when the British invasion hit the states in 1964, Vee-Jay was suddenly sitting on a gold mine.

“Here you have two people who had a dream and through persistent and dogged determination lived that dream,” he said. “We need to teach our young people that they have to go out and get that dream. It’s not just going to fall into their lap.”

Slade, the morning newsman at Kiss FM for more than 30 years until the station switched format and he moved to WBLS, said the story of Vee-Jay records is not only a tale of African-American success — it is also a cautionary one.

“The African-American community tends to close the door behind them when they make it,” he said. “This has to stop. Leave that door open a bit for others to follow.”

Plenty of young performers knocking on the door of success were also on hand. The first performance starred about a dozen young women from the Kerri Edge School of the Arts, at 217-12 Merrick Blvd. in Laurelton, who athletically buzzed around the stage in a number celebrating the rights of black women.

The event also featured saxophonist Randolph Smith; vocalist Crystal Smith; dancer Bianca Johnson, from St. Albans Baptist Church; youngsters from PS 176 in Cambria Heights; a jazz performance by Joe’s Music School in Jamaica; and singer James “Ajax” Baynard.

Black History Month will continue at Queensborough with “Black Stars of the Great White Way” Feb. 17.

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at smosco@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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