Negro League Baseball: The Reid Factor; Mel Reid-Part II

“Well, sometimes I think I will, …yes, and sometimes I think I won’t…sometimes I think I will,…yes, and sometimes I think I won’t. Sometimes I believe I do and sometimes, and then again I believe I don’t. Well, looked at the clock,…the clock struck one,…he said, “Come on daddy, have a little more fun”,…yes, we rollin’, …we rollin’ on time. ” –Wynonie Harris-“Around The Clock Part 1 and 2

Whenever i hear that song, I think about Mel Reid and Reid’s Records in Berkeley, California.

Reid’s Records went through any number of musical distribution incarnations over the years as it struggled for its own survival among the commercial-retail chain record stores and the larger independents record stores. When Tower Records, Wherehouse and Leopold’s sought to sell commercialized ‘race records’, they saw an unstoppable profit margin in a virtually untapped national market of considerable size and means. I’m showing my age now, because Leopold Records has been replaced by Amoeba Music, when Leopold Records closed its doors in 1996. Amoeba Music is only a few minutes walking distance from People’s Park in Berkeley. For this reason, a legacy of legendary folk music came out of the East Bay, and the record store’s location in reference to People’s Park, and artist that came out to record their songs in Berkeley, also became synonymous with the Free Speech Movement of the 1960’s. Berkeley was ground zero for a lot of exciting things that we take for granted today.

(note to reader: There’s a great video in the first link about Leopold Records of Joan Baez at Leupold Records in 1993, doing her impression of Bob Dylan song, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”,…and her impression of Bob Dylan also. She nails it, and she does it with love. For all you Joan Baez fans, I’ve always loved the 1965 BBC version)

As an example, the Community Memory Board was located at Leopold Records in Berkeley, and it was the first electronically accessible bulletin board system in the United States.

I’m not sure whether I should give the CMB credit for the early ethernet cafés which would eventually develop into internet cafés (ala SF Net with a large bit of Berkeley in tow) or the fact that this early concept was used to help develop the World Wide Web, but I can tell you that the CMB was one single, coin operated machine, and it was one of a kind (at least for a while). Critics say that the Community Memory Bulletin Board System is responsible for the shaping of the way we use personal computers, an also the way the computer industry is shaped today. Some say Berkeley, California is where the origins of ‘social networking‘ all began. What is not known about Berkeley that lays within the counter-culture movement, is how deep it’s record industry roots and music recording industry go.  Or how the West Coast as a ‘whole’, operates in conjunction where the history of new technology and how it applies to the recording artist are concerned.

We often look toward Los Angeles, Nashville, or New York when we think about the music or recording industry.

We never think of Berkeley.

Reid’s Records was founded in 1945, and was the first African American record stores West of the Mississippi. It was the first record stores I ever shopped at when I was a kid. It’s founder, Mel Reid was very much a renaissance man, who had his ups and downs, while his multiple career sporting fame cleared a pathway for him to become a leading businessman in the Berkeley community. That same professional sports career is often overshadowed by Mel’s ventures in the music recording industry, as a music promoter, who’s many business exploits connected him throughout his life, with some of the most interesting array of musical superstars that ever graced the stage.

I’ve only spoken briefly about Mel Reid in the past as part of Yellow Jacket duo, but the Mel ReidJohnny Allen Yellow Jacket Duo is only a small part of the Mel Reid story.

Mel Reid was much better known for his music acumen than his sporting acumen, which is fascinating because he played both professional baseball and football at a time when such a combination was unprecedented. Reid was pre-Bo Jackon and pre-Dieon Sanders, when it came to the baseball/football double punch year around professional. Few people beyond myself know about his career in sports. I doubt that most of them know Mel played both football and baseball, and and at the same time tried to create a name for himself in the music industry. Little is known about either of his sporting careers among sports aficionados, because a crossover from one to another was a rare event in those days.

Mel played for many teams in the Bay Area, and among them were the Oakland Larks (1946) (baseball) of the West Coast Baseball Association, and the Oakland Giants (1943194419451946) (football), the San Francisco Clippers (1947) (football) and the Hawaiian Warriors (1948-QB) (football) in a quote-unquote “semi”-professional football league of the “highest caliber’ known as Pacific Coast Professional Football League that existed under the GNFA.

Mel is one of those people who’s family legacy is connected with the Berkeley Colored League, as the nephew of Charlie Reid. Thomas Reid Jr., was the brother of Charles Reid of the Oakland Pierce Giants fame.

Melvin Reid was born in 1918 in Berkeley, California, to Thomas (Jr.) and Reba Reid. Melvin Reid was the oldest grandchild of Thomas Sr. and Virginia Reid. He was a handsome child and was often photographed with his aunts and uncles that close to his age.

According to the 1940 U.S. Census, Mel was living in his parents house on Acton Street at age 21.

Mel was an all-star athlete at Berkeley High School, as well as a star halfback at the University of San Francisco. He also spent a couple of years with the California Eagles semi-pro baseball team.

 

Ralph Pearce wrote a wonderful article called, “Looking Back: California’s Negro League“. I love the photograph in the article, because it not only has Johnny Allen of the Oakland Larks in it. It also has Foy Scott, who was another great East Bay Area baseball player. The ‘Ed Harris’ in this photograph, is the same Ed Harris who was the business Manager of the Oakland Larks. According to the Oakland Lark’s financial ledgers, Mel Reid was paid $275 per month to play for the Larks, which was a substantial amount of money in 1946. ‘Ike Thompson’, of course, is the same Ike Thompson that sat on the Board of Directors for the Oakland Larks and was also the Manager of the 1940 California Eagles.

Mel’s former wife, Betty Reid-Soskin, helped him start the Reid’s Record business back in 1945, when as a young couple, they began a family-owned and operated business in the basement of their small, but adequate dwelling on Sacramento Street, in Berkeley, California. These days, Betty Reid Soskin is better known as the oldest living National Park Ranger in the United States, who heads up the Rosie the Riveter Museum in Richmond, California. During WWII, Mel also spent his time working as a playground Director at San Pablo Park, and at night in the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond. He’d pick up work wherever when ever he could.

 

Mel’s football career began in 1943 at the age of 25 with the Oakland Gaints. By the age of 27, while starting in the back field as a Halfback for the Oakland Giants (Mel would eventually play quarterback for the Hawaiian Warriors by age 30, towards the end of his football career), Mel decide to go into the music business and never once looked back. 1945 was one of Mel’s most heartbreaking years, but his drive and ambition never waned. By enlisting the help of his uncle, Paul Reid, who was a DJ on the radio program “Reid’s Record’s Religious Gems”, a weekly religious music hour was developed and produced for KRE, and from this Mel and Paul built a financially productive business, built on a dream and a prayer.

It was the Hail Mary play of a lifetime.

As the Religious Gems show’s popularity grew, Paul made his way over to KDIA where a series of programs became a daily event that lasted well into eleven straight years. of on-air publicity for Paul and Mel, which help build the business of Reid’s Records through constant promotion. Paul along with his nephew Mel, never looked back, and they went on to help influence very famous Gospel groups like the The Edwin Hawkins Singers. This was an incredible feat, because at the same time he was playing professional sports almost year around. They became quite the pair of music recording professionals. Mel was the first manager for Walter Hawkins, brother to Edwin Hawkins of The Edwin Hawkins Singers, and it was Mel that helped put “Oh Happy Day” on the charts by suggesting that Edwin meet with the executives from Buddah Records to iron out a deal for major distribution. It was one of the best decisions that Mel ever made, and every time I hear it, and can’t help but think that a baseball and football player of some renown had something to do with that choice. Rumor has it that Mel was tour manager for The Edwin Hawkins Singers when they toured Europe in 1970.

Dorothy Morrison, of the Blues Broads recounts her version of the details that placed them in capable hands of Mel Reid.

The Pacific Coast Professional Football League is rarely talked about among sporting aficionados. It wasn’t quite the NFL or AFL, but it existed at a time when the NFL was at a transitional stage in American history and it was founded during World War II, in 1943. the year that Melvin Reid enter the PCPFL, was the same year that the NFL allowed the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers merged to become the “Steagles“, and split their home games between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, because the draft and military enlistment overwhelmingly depleted the pool of men who played professional sports.

Mel gained his military deferment buy being employed in the Kaiser Shipyards (aka Richmond Shipyards) during World War II. He was part of that group of men and women that built Liberty Ships, Troops Transport Ships and LST’s. No ships, no D-Day, No D-Day, no end to World War II. With the respect to those that fought abroad, it’s a difficult task for some Americans to understand that after the destruction of Pearl Harbor and the 7th Fleet, ships to win the war would need to be built in record time, and they would be built by using African American labor in Richmond, CA at a pace never seen before in ship building history. Ships built in two-thirds the time, at one quarter the cost.

At the same time, this was a time in history when you could get a steak dinner for $2.00 at Dugan’s Cafe, or after an Oakland Giants footbal game, you could go and watch Ivie Anderson perform. She was one of the finest singers that ever lived. Ivie was one of America’s leading jazz artist, who once sang with the incomparable Duke Ellington Orchestra, with created solid hits like “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” or “I’ve Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good“. She often headlined at the North Pole Club, at 6th and Kirkham in West Oakland.

It wasn’t Slim Jenkins Club, but the joint was still jumpin’.

Rumor had it that in 1945 and under no uncertain terms, Mel Reid was a victim of the NFL’s Color Line, which began in 1934 and lasted until 1946. Major League Baseball never held a monopoly on segregation or Jim Crow during this time period in America. I dare say, and I’m sure most people reading this post can only fathom what the NFL missed by not having Mel Reid’s skills on the turf by keeping the color barrier active the year Reid was voted the Pacific Coast Professional Football League’s MVP. The NFL missed a ‘Mel Reid’, based on the color of his skin, and it’s one of the main reasons that most people never heard of Mel’s sporting prowess.

1945 was the year the NFL drafted Frankie Albert from the Pacific Coast Professional Football League, but not the MVP of the league because the MVP was black.

Then there was the other Mel. The businessman Mel. The one that couldn’t wait for a break in the world of professional sports to happen. The one that was growing older. The man who was being drawn towards a career in the music industry, which he himself measured its financial potential and invested his money and his time accordingly, as he was finding his way through life at the age of 27. The race record phenomena, imposed by a racially segregated music industry within America, had a tremendous pull on Mel Reid’s spiritual sensibilities. His only other known ambition that he ever possessed was to eventually become a driver for Wonder Bread Bakeries. The same bakery that his father, Thomas Jr. had worked for his whole life, and had never seen or ever been offered a promotion within the company ranks. Thomas (Jr.), had only ever worked on the loading docks for wonder Bread, lifting 100 lbs sacks of flour,– which was nothing to be ashamed of, but proved to be a hard, laborious task, which also lacked any upward mobility within the company ranks. The powers that be, during that period of time, would never hired Mel, as a ‘black driver’, because Mel was black, and he certainly wasn’t allowed to join the Teamsters Union back in 1945.

So,…

This is why Mel decided to go into business for himself.

Still, it was often said, by Bay Area church practitioners, that Mel was commercializing gospel music, the Lord’s Music, which was highly frowned upon by the church, and the fact that he set his goals higher than most people ever could sometimes bothered people. He not only promoted gospel music, but tried his hand at producing and recording 78’s also. Mel still had that gift of selling race records to the public. That’s what they were called back in the day, and the market place for them was huge. Mel would capitalize on how big it would become. The record that would change the Reid family’s life and set them on the road to prosperity was Wynonie Harris-“Around The Clock Part 1 and 2. Mel’s reputation for selling gut bucket Blues, Soul, and R&B to the community at large, brought even the most curious from the other side of Grove (MLK) Street. In essence, the early days of Reid’s Records was borne out of its need for survival. Gospel music became a niche market much later on, as things in the community began to change, and the South Berkeley area where Reid’s Records stood was hit with residential blight, declining home values, and major drug dealing problems.

Mel was made privy to the inside track on the Gospel music scene by buying significant radio air time on KRE, and listening to his uncle Paul. Mel was also smart enough to target his market and out advertised his all of his competitors. He also had a gift as a promoter of musical acts. In doing so, the creation of a niche market, which other competitors never bothered with, built Reid’s Records to new heights. Gospel battles, between quartets and groups, staged and promoted by Mel, Betty and Paul normally would fill the Oakland Auditorium, expanding the overflow into the large ballroom area, where as many as 7,000 people show up for these Gospel Extravaganzas. They often featured the likes of such gospel stars as James Cleveland, the Rev. C.L. Franklin and his then-teenage daughter Aretha, the Caravans, Davis Sisters, the Staple Singers and the Ward Singers

Mel was a progressive individual, whose ideas were mostly ahead of their time. One of these ideas tells a tale of a young, fledgling Aretha Franklin, who Mel decided to record in 1954. I’m not sure where those master tapes ended up, but it was long before she became a famous R&B Singer, as was still using her pipes for gospel music. It was all a risk to Mel. I’m not sure he could have lived his life anyway else. The fact is, life isn’t always good as it seems, nor is it fair, and when you’re life is based on risk taking, you will literally gamble your life away. Even though gospel music had paid off big time, Mel gambled on hedging his bet with the changes in the music industry from every angle.

The challenge for Mel was stepping outside of his marketplace, only to return and find out that what he was in search of was beyond his reach. Even with the promotion of musicians and famous musical acts that Mel sold recordings of, the larger chain stores which maintained a much larger selection than Reid’s Records could ever keep in supply. Large chain record stores were able to work with much less overhead based on their ability to buy in bulk for multiple distributors. These chains stores, along with the consistent decline in the local neighborhood environment near Sacramento Street in the mid-1970’s, Reid’s Records soon found itself on the edge of imminent demise. Mel, who was suffering from severe diabetes, would eventually have both of his legs amputated. Wrought with debt and despair Mel gave in to Betty, who had divorced Mel in 1978, and she took over the business and returned it to it’s former glory days of selling Gospel music and Choir Supplies.

Reid’d Records is still in operation, and is run by Mel’s youngest son, David. With the taste in music constantly shifting, Things still hang precariously in the balance for Reid’s Records, because the musical landscape is changing and gospel music no longer possesses the same dynamic it once did in the African American community, as it once did on a much arger scale.

Not every story that involves gospel music can have a happy ending, like Sister Act II even though they sing “Oh Happy Day“.

It is nice to know Mel had a hand on making that song.

It’s something that will live throughout eternity where Gospel music is concerned.

And then you have “Around the Clock” featuring Johnny Otis’s and his jump-swing style of music. (Otis’s real name, Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, was another Berkeley legend, who as a white man chose to live his life as an African American, in both his professional and personal life. Which places a historical and social ‘perspective’ on Professor Rachel Dolezal choice to be “black”, within the concept that her claim of wanting to live life as a “black” person is not a new phenomena, and never has been one) Otis put the band together and Harris recorded the song,…Mel bought the “Around The Clock” record in bulk, which started the ball rolling for producing a steady cash-flow income for Reid’s Records. Of course,… there were all those other outside influences that were so distant from the gospel music scene, yet reflective of human life, human failings, and nature itself.

Well, sometimes I think I will, …yes, and sometimes I think I won’t…sometimes I think I will,…yes, and sometimes I think I won’t. Sometimes I believe I do and sometimes, and then again I believe I don’t. Well, looked at the clock,…the clock struck one,…he said, “Come on daddy, have a little more fun”,…yes, we rollin’, …we rollin’ on time. ” –Wynonie Harris-“Around The Clock Part 1 and 2

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One thought on “Negro League Baseball: The Reid Factor; Mel Reid-Part II

  1. An interesting article. I am grateful for the time the author put into writing about my father, Mel Reid. There were many things I was not aware of, and a few that I remember differently. In addition, Mel was the first “colored” football player at USF. I was present when the Edwin Hawkins Singers recorded “Candles In The Rain” with Melanie Safka, which became a hit recording. My Dad’s “spirituality” was not something I was well acquainted with. I am not at all sure what the author is referring to. I suppose he was “spiritual”. He certainly wasn’t religious. My parents moved into an all-white neighborhood in Walnut Creek in 1952, another example of resisting the limitations they felt were being pressed upon them. Thank you for helping to share my father’s life with the world. I am grateful for him to receive this attention. I am sure my family is weighing in with their comments.

    Like

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