LIMA — There was the Big Band era, and then there was rock ‘n’ roll.
The musical journey between those two is a fascinating one, and Lima saw it firsthand.
At the intersection of state Routes 115 and 65 lies a hall now called Springbrook Gardens and a former swimming pool. Both date from the 1920s. In 1952, the newspapers reported that a new club was going to be opened there, called Springbrook Flamingo Gardens. Maurice “Mike” Imm, a former Putnam County amateur boxer, and boxing promoter Jack Lewis were working together to put on boxing matches there.
Imm leased the building from owner William Harrington and planned to put $50,000 into renovations, a story from July 10, 1952, reported. He wanted to make the upper deck, or former pool, into a “novel open-air dine and dance area.” The north section of the pool would be leveled with concrete for a dance area, and the south section of the pool would be divided off and turned into an aquarium. The dance area would double as the spot for a boxing ring. There would be seating ringside as well as up on the 15-foot wide walk encircling the old pool. It was only sunken about four feet, so they envisioned it as being perfect for their plans.
By July, business was open. “Enjoy open air dancing on our new upper deck dance floor,” announced an ad from July 11, 1952. Leonard Klausing and his 10-piece orchestra were set to play.
Lima musician Don Hurless remembers those days. He played there on Sunday afternoons for a time.
“That was a nice place to dance,” Hurless said. “People could dance on the flat bottom of the pool. There’s a lot of sitting space on the top (for) tables and chairs.”
The establishment offered liquor, beer and food and had a steady flow of bands. They hadn’t forgotten about boxing, though.
“Flamingo Gardens, the new outdoor arena north of the city at Springbrook, will stage its first show with a seven-fight card starting at 8:30 p.m.,” according to an Aug. 5, 1952, paper. It was reported 1,500 people showed up for the big fight between Dick Geib and Pat Lowry.
The place did well enough to attract the attention of burglars — whose biggest take of the night was four cases of whiskey — but it appears that it couldn’t make a long-term go of it. Although Lewis and Imm wanted professional boxing, amateurs were being promoted by 1954.
At that time, Springbrook Gardens switched gears. Perhaps its owners were looking for another source of regular bookings? Whatever the reason, R&B acts started appearing at the venue. Backed by The Lima Post, Lima’s short-lived African-American newspaper, the names started pouring in. It was surely cause for excitement for the paper’s target audience, even though other audiences may have been completely out of the loop.
This was an era when the musicians themselves were finding their way to a “modern” sound by mixing blues, R&B, jazz and more. African-American musicians struggled with “crossing over” to appeal to white audiences.
Willie Mabon appeared Jan. 30, 1954. Mabon was a singer, songwriter and pianist whose hit “I Don’t Know” was huge for Chess records. He followed up with “I’m Mad” and “Poison Ivy.”
That summer, Earl Bostic played. Bostic, an alto saxophonist, hit with “Flamingo” and “Harlem Nocturne.” It’s said he influenced John Coltrane.
On June 11, 1954, the Post advertised the “hottest attraction of the year,” a dance coming June 19 that would feature B.B. “The Blues Boy” King, Bill Harvey on saxophone, Evelyn Young on saxophone and Fred Ford, “the man with the big horn.” King, now 85, was only 28 years old at the time. The ticket price was $1.75 in advance, which was very standard for all these bands in this era at this venue.
An ad that summer said the place operated from 12:05 p.m. to 4 a.m. Music was key, but it wasn’t the only attraction: “Try our famous bar-B-Q ribs. The best yet.”
In August 1954, James Moody and singer Eddie Jefferson came to town. Moody, a tenor saxophonist, had started with Dizzy Gillespie’s band and then went out on his own.
September 1954 saw Roy Brown and His Mighty, Mighty Men Unit. “You wanted him! We got him!” the paper trumpeted. He was promoted as “America’s most exciting blues stylist ... foremost blues exponent of rockin’ rhythm ...”
Brown’s hit “Good Rocking Tonight” — just one of many — was covered by many white artists and he is credited with being an influence on African-American musicians as well.
Pianist Sonny Thompson and vocalist Lula Reed appeared Nov. 19, 1954. They had hit with “I’ll Drown In My Tears.” Thompson later teamed up to co-write with blues guitarist Freddie King.
A breakfast dance was planned for 1 to 5 a.m. in February 1955, featuring T.J. Fowler. He appeared a second time, “back by popular demand” that April with Maurice Goens, “a regular feature on WOWO TV station in Fort Wayne.” Fowler and his men worked for a few years as the backing band for bluesman T-Bone Walker. He is credited with sharing his music-industry experience with Berry Gordy to help get Motown off the ground.
April 1955 saw S.G. “Guitar Slim” entertaining the masses. His “The Things That I Used to Do” had been a big hit just the previous year. His stage presence was legendary. He is credited with usually wearing bright outfits and using hundreds of feet of guitar cord to work the stage. Many guitar players have credited him as an influence.
Later that year, the Griffin Brothers orchestra took the stage. They backed singer Tommy Brown often (“Weepin’ and Crying’”) as well as Amos Milburn and Margie Day (“Little Red Rooster”).
In fall of 1955, The Drifters (“Money Honey”) and Sil Austin and his orchestra played, quickly followed by Erskine Hawkins. Hawkins, a trumpet player, wrote “Tuxedo Junction.” The Glenn Miller Orchestra version of that was a national hit.
Skewing again toward rock ‘n’ roll was the next act: Chuck Berry. Playing at a New Year’s Day dance, the guitar great would bring his “Maybelline” and “Thirty Days” to the audience. Tickets were still only $2 at the door.
The Lima Post introduced Ray Charles in 1956, feeling necessary to explain he’s a “sensational blind vocalist-pianist.” His “I Got a Woman” had hit just the year before, and he was booked for a concert March 30, 1956, at Memorial Hall on Elm Street. There was no mention of this in the mainstream papers, who were busy promoting boy choirs and folk singers.
Springbrook Gardens and other venues here went on to book many music greats as orchestras paved the way to jazz and blues, which paved the way to rock ‘n’ roll — and groups like the Yardbirds started coming into Springbrook — offering Limaites a front-row seat to watch music history being made.
Willie Mabon — Jan. 30, 1954
The Famous Royals — Feb. 20, 1954
Todd Rhodes and Honey Brown — April 3, 1954
Dick Baker — May 21, 1954
B.B. King, Bill Harvey, Evelyn Young, Fred Ford — June 19, 1954
Earl Bostic — June 24, 1954
Rosco Euanes — July 2, 1954
James Moody, Eddie Jefferson — Aug. 13, 1954
Roy Brown — Sept. 3, 1954
Sonny Thompson, Lula Reed — Nov. 19, 1954
Les Wakefield, Olive Brown, Laura Johnson — Feb. 5, 1955
T.J. Fowler — February 1955 and April 9, 1955
Guitar Slim — April 30, 1955
Griffin Brothers Orchestra — May 27, 1955
Bill Doggett — July 31, 1955
Erskine Hawkins — October 1955
Chuck Berry — Jan. 1, 1956
Ray Charles — March 30, 1956
Gene Ammons — April 9, 1955
B.B. King — May 7, 1955