The early 1970’s might have been the most appropriate time in America’s history to set up a radio news network for and about Blacks in the United States, more appropriate than any other time in the 20th century. The riots of the 1960’s, which had been installed as a legitimate dynamic of the Civil Rights Movement, were for the most part a thing of the past. The urban pockets of disfranchised citizens were no longer ablaze but the ashes were still smoldering. And everybody from the President to the Pope, and those in between, knew this condition could not be trusted to remain status quo without progressive maintenance.
Answering this call to duty came two young and ambitious black men to New York City, the headquarters location of all the major broadcast networks at that time. Eugene Jackson, an engineer with an MBA and Sydney Small, a business major, along with Del Raycee, a consummate veteran from the grandfather of all radio networks, Mutual Broadcasting, formed the National Black Network under a parent company called Unity Broadcasting, Inc.
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African AmericanAnd while we are on the topic of brilliant performers, it is appropriate to mention that we came within a cat’s whisker of getting Sammy Davis, Jr. to do CEBA. In fact he had personally promised me that he would. As the story goes, the CEBA staff asked if I thought I could help in getting Sammy in the same fashion I had assisted in bringing the project to Tim Reid. Tim’s former partner, Tom Dreesen, would always see that I got to hang out with him and Sammy whenever they were in New York or any other city in which we would find ourselves at the same time. Tom Dreesen was opening act for Sammy for many years before Frank Sinatra contracted Dreesen as his opening performer. This particular day we went to see Sammy Davis, Jr. in his suite in a New York City Hotel. As we entered the room , the conversation following their usual hugging ritual, was thus: “Sammy, you remember my friend Vince, he is with the National Black Network.” “Of course, that’s Unity Broadcasting, right? The CEBA Awards? OK. OK, same people right? Sammy goes on…”You won’t believe this, I was just reading a proposal from the CEBA Awards.” I replied somewhat inanely: “You’re kidding?” No, I am not kidding, I just minutes ago finished reading the proposal. How would I know the details of your project, if I were kidding?” He asked convincingly. Sammy then made his declaration: “I want to do that….I really want to do that! It sounds like fun!” Meanwhile, Tom Dreesen is standing by and probably wondering if I had planned this to take advantage of his goodwill, which allowed me see Sammy in person. I had not mentioned to Tom on the way over that we had plans for trying to get Sammy to do the CEBA awards. Frankly, to this day, I do not know how the written proposal got to Sammy. Tom was as graceful as he could be under such circumstances. He didn’t attempt to join the conversation. Instead he moved to Sammy’s coffee table where one of the largest punch bowls in captivity sat full of fresh pistachio nuts. Tom grabbed a fist full of the nuts and continued prancing around the floor and chucking them into his mouth. Soon the topic of conversation gravitated to other forms of small talk. I remained astonished at two levels. I simply could not believe that he willingly agreed to do the show without my asking...and: “My God! I had never seen that many pistachio nuts at one time in my life. What did it cost to get somebody to take the hulls off of them?” I later learned that Sammy required this bit of specified ostentation in all of his hotel rooms; and why not? Mr. Davis will remain in our history books as the world’s greatest entertainer. When the CEBA awards were mentioned again, Tom and I were on our way out of the door. These were the direct instructions from Sammy. “Call Shirley Rhodes and tell her that I said I wanted to do this, she handles all of my scheduling.” Ms. Rhodes was also the wife of Sammy’s long time music director, George Rhodes. Sammy’s troupe was like one big family. There were 19 people who traveled with him on a regular basis and most of them had been with him for as many years. When we left Sammy’s suite, I sincerely believed, and I think Tom was also convinced , that Mr. Davis really intended to do the CEBA awards. Tom was by this time a bona fide member of the Sammy Davis, Jr. entourage and knew all of these people very well. He, therefore, volunteered to mention to Shirley that he had witnessed my conversation with Sammy. Several weeks went by after I had so proudly reported to the CEBA staff that it was a lock; Sammy Davis is all set to do the CEBA awards. The only thing left was the scheduling and that Mr. Davis himself would work that out with his assistant, Ms. Shirley Rhodes. As the tension of this telephone chase heightened, over a period of three weeks, I was able to get Ms. Rhodes to the phone only one time. I waited for her to get back to me and she didn’t, despite my flood of phone calls to her as she moved around the country with the show. During several conversations with Tom Dreesen I was able to glean that CEBA wasn’t really a top priority with Shirley. I also picked up from the tone of his words that Tom was willing to go but only so far with this matter. And rightly so, it was of minuscule value to him. After all it was Shirley who played a large role in booking Tom as an opening act for Mr. Davis. That’s a gig that few can have and nobody wants to blow it on behalf of a CEBA. Finally, I was instructed to call Sammy’s manager in Los Angeles. His response was the ultimate in superficiality. My one last call to Ms. Rhodes brought on the coup de grace. After realizing that I had not yet gone away, she resolutely said to me: “You got him to say yes, now dammit, get him to do it!” I was stunned, to say the least. And, to this day, I haven’t a clue as to whether Sammy worked me simply because we were socializing and he wanted let me down easy. Or, if Shirley was ticked off because she thought I went over her head. The other possibility is her thinking that I might have worked Sammy while his guards were down. Whatever the case, the records will show, Sammy Davis, Jr. did many great shows but he never did a CEBA show.