“Our continuous live shows, and homey atmosphere keep our customers returning wherever we go.”
Of the few historical jazz clubs standing in Harlem, Showmans Café is the only nightspot that has changed Harlem locations three times. While there is some discrepancy over the club’s original opening date, sources point to the late 1940s at 267 West 125th Street, within steps of the Apollo Theater.
Showmans’ proximity made it an instant stop off for Apollo Theater patrons and its celebrity performers. An Amsterdam News article from December 9, 1950 by George Palmer stated, “Showman’s Café is a friendly place with a substantial clientele including many show folk, commuters and servicemen.” During this period Showmans was more than just a club, it was a bar and restaurant that held approximately 200 people.
Nightly live entertainment featured local stars such as blues singer Lavada Snow, The Four Larks, MC Jimmy “Chickie” Horne, and tap dancer Bertie Pilgram. Famous tap dancers who performed next door were regulars including LeRoy Myers and Honi Coles, both members of the Copasetics, a brotherhood of Harlem tap dancers. The group drew up their charter at the club in December 1949.
Jimmy Davis and Elmer Cherry purchased Showmans in 1972, holding down its tradition of live entertainment. They sold the eatery to brothers Al and Jesse Howard in 1978. Al, a member of the NYPD and the first black detective supervisor there, ignited a bold soulful sound, and enticed more musicians by adding a Hammond B-3 organ. His manager Mona Lopez became just as popular as the club. Regular performers included Irene Reid, Ruth Brown, Gloria Lynne, and organists Jack McDuff and Jimmy “Preacher” Robins.
A fire destroyed the club on February 14, 1986, forcing a move to 2321 Frederick Douglass Blvd. The new address didn’t deter the club’s devoted customers. “Newspaper writers Jimmy Hicks and Jesse Walker used the club as their after-hours office having freelancers drop off their stories,” said Al Howard. “We put a desk and typewriter in the back so they could write articles.”
In 1998 a major rebuilding program on 125th Street—a $50 million venture—with Harlem Commonwealth Council prompted Showmans move to its present location 375 West 125th Street. “Our continuous live shows and homey atmosphere keep our customers returning wherever we go,” said Al. “This is a place where you can feel comfortable bringing your mother or daughters.” The place still has a comfortable old jazz feeling with its high ceiling, wooden posts, and long 36’ mahogany bar. Despite many moves the Hammond B-3 still swings with Seleno Clarke and Danny Mixon
—by Ron Scott