Prince George’s County, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Years
Music in Prince George’s County, Md., in 2012 often means go-go and tropical sounds, with the occasional rock band visiting the University of Maryland radio station. But back in the 20th century, rock 'n' roll and honky-tonk country had multiple homes in the county. Tonight at the College Park Arts Exchange, filmmaker Jeff Krulik, of Heavy Metal Parking Lot fame, and author Mark Opsasnick, who penned Capitol Rock, will present a free lecture, slide presentation, and discussion titled “The History of Rock and Roll in Prince George’s County, Maryland—Nightclubs and Teenclubs, Bands and Concerts, 1950s-1970s.”
Expect some zany stories and history, much of it from Opsasnick, who has spent years talking to old-timers and viewing microfiche copies of old newspapers from the era. Such tales might include the alleged Rolling Stones road trip to see Roy Buchanan at the Crossroads in Bladensburg, or when patrons of the Las Vegas Club in Capitol Heights (where Danny Gatton used to perform) went outside and grabbed lawn chairs to watch bikers and greasers fight across the street after leaving the Campus, a bar that is now Freedom Way Baptist Church. Via email, Opsasnick told me a little about their plans for the evening.
Tell me about the slide show you will have.
Jeff will be organizing that aspect of the show. It will include a lot of ads from the Washington Daily News and various photos of musicians and bands.
And your part of the presentation?
My presentation will include the history of Jimmy Comber's Supper Club and the 4400 Club on Rhode Island Avenue; the Dixie Pig, Surf Club, and Berk Motley's Sirloin Room on Bladensburg Road; the Crossroads in Bladensburg; Chubby's on Central Avenue; the Hilltop and Senate Inn on Marlboro Pike; and Strick's and the Quonset Inn on Branch Avenue. Within that framework I'll be covering Murray Schaff's Aristocrats, Joe Stanley and the Saxtons, Chick Hall, Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton, and dozens of examples of local and national rock 'n' roll musicians that worked those nightclubs.
I remember driving around to P.G. rock landmarks with you some years back, did you take pictures of those sites and have you been back recently to the locations? Is anything left?
I have a lot of photos and I am constantly updating them. A small portion of the buildings are still standing in the county, though many are vacant. Those that have survived are the buildings that once housed Waldrop's and the 4400 Club on Rhode Island Avenue; the Dixie Pig on Bladensburg Road and, nearby, the Crossroads; the Senate Inn is boarded up, but still standing on Marlboro Pike; Strick's is still open to the public as a liquor store on Branch Avenue and the old Quonset Inn behind it was most recently called the Legend and it looks like it has been shut down. Those are the major early-era rock 'n' roll nightclub buildings that have thus far escaped the wrecking ball.
Does Prince George's County's working-class nature contribute to its musical importance in some way—whether it's rock and soul back when or go-go and Latin music today?
Back in the 1950s the county was more than 90 percent white and southern, and country and western music prevailed. Nightclubs catered to the population. When rock 'n' roll hit it was booked into many country and western bars and nightclubs. My main interest is in the '50s and '60s, so I have no idea what is going on out there today. My best guess is that since the demographics have changed, the music has changed with it.
Mark, how will the presentation go beyond your book? Have you done more interviews and research since then?
I am working on a new, expanded history of popular music in the Washington, D.C., area from the 1700s to about 1976. As yet, this new book is unnamed. It covers every type of music and then there is a heavy focus on early-era rock 'n' roll in the area. There is more in-depth nightclub history and a greater range of musicians and bands will be covered than what I did with Capitol Rock. For my current book project I have already interviewed an additional 200 musicians, but I had to stop—there are too many tapes that need to be transcribed and I can't keep adding to my workload.
“The History of Rock and Roll in Prince George’s County, Maryland—Nightclubs and Teenclubs, Bands and Concerts, 1950s-1970s” takes place tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the College Park Arts Exchange at the Old Parish House, 4711 Knox Road, College Park.