Black and white summer
See that apartment building? It’s on the north side of Overlook Road, about halfway between Kenilworth Road, to the east, and where Overlook meets up with Edgehill Road and goes down the hill to Little Italy/University Circle, to the west.
It’s big for a Cleveland Heights apartment building. It’s all one building, but it has three separate entrances, with a total of 37 apartments.
During the summer of 1966, when I was between 11th and 12th grades, I spent some time in every one of those apartments. It wasn’t because I was that popular; it was because I had the job of painting every one of their ceilings. I painted them white, standing on a ladder, looking straight up all day, getting my face and glasses speckled with white paint. And it was hot—no air conditioning in any of the units.
But it was still better than the job I started with that summer—riding a Checker Bar Ice Cream bicycle all over Cleveland’s inner city—specifically the Hough neighborhood—starting every morning from its Chester Avenue headquarters, which operated from 1930 to 1990 (and is still open as a store). I rode around, trying to sell frozen treats to people who had no money, on a bike—or tricycle, really—that was made in the 1940s, with no gearshift, and with a large, heavy box built onto the front, filled with ice cream and ice.
That tricycle-truck contraption was very difficult to ride. And though the people in the neighborhoods wanted the popsicles, creamsicles, fudge bars, ice cream sandwiches and ice cream bars, most had no money. Especially the little kids. I wound up giving away more than I sold and I lost money. So after one week, I had to quit. I couldn’t afford to work there. But it wouldn’t have lasted long, anyway. By the middle of July, the Hough neighborhood was engulfed in race riots.
A friend’s mother was the custodian of that big apartment building on Overlook and she offered me the painting job. Each apartment took one day. I worked five days a week. So the job took a little more than seven weeks.
And while I was painting it white, all I heard all day was “Paint It Black.” The Rolling Stones single was in the Top 40 that summer, and that was all I could get (that I wanted to hear) on the little portable radio that I moved from room to room and apartment to apartment. Back then, FM was not an option, unless you wanted to hear ethnic radio shows, representing various nationalities; or so-called “elevator music” (so-called because that’s what was played in elevators). The only way to hear rock music on the radio was to listen to one of the two or three Top-40 stations in any American city. Which also meant that along with the Stones, plus the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer,” I got Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night.” And with the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” and the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” I got Ray Conniff’s “Somewhere My Love.”
But that summer, I also got to hear Bob Dylan’s “I Want You,” Simon & Garfunkle’s “I Am a Rock,” the Capitols’ “Cool Jerk,” the Animals’ “Don’t Bring Me Down,” Sam & Dave’s’ “Hold On, I’m Coming,” the Yardbirds’ “Over, Under, Sideways, Down,” the Associations’ “Along Comes Mary,” the Hollies’ “Bus Stop,” the Cyrkle’s “Red Rubber Ball,” Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny,” and about 25 more. The same 40 songs all day. And every half-hour, more news about the riots in Cleveland’s inner city. And in other cities.
They would also throw in a few oldies, like the Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby.” I saw the Ronnettes, Bobby Hebb and the Cyrkle at the end of the summer, performing at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, opening for the Beatles. My friend, whose mother was the custodian, bought tickets to the show for herself and me, for $3.50 apiece. I say I saw those groups, because I certainly didn’t hear them. The screaming, from start to finish, was so loud that you couldn’t even tell it was screaming.
That month, another friend’s father took us to Leo’s Casino, on Euclid Avenue and 75th Street, to hear Stevie Wonder. Leo’s was one of the country’s premiere R&B nightclubs. Black and white patrons sat together and got along fine, even as blacks and whites were shooting at each other a few blocks away.
So, two bad day jobs, a huge concert that I couldn’t hear, a great nightclub show I could hear well, and three months’ worth of good summer nights, fairly safely ensconced in Cleveland Heights, away from the trouble, but not that far. It was an eye-opening summer. By the end of it, I could see black and white.
David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.