Q: I’ve been told that Ray Charles once appeared as part of Lufkin’s Community Concerts series way back when. Anyone remember? I’ve lived here all my life, and it’s news to me.
A: Ray Charles — as well as Otis Redding, Little Richard and B.B. King — was among black performers en route to show dates in large cities who would stop in Lufkin because they knew their performances at the East Texas Cotton Club would draw crowds, according to a 2006 Lufkin Daily News article detailing a meeting of the Angelina County Historical Commission at the Lufkin/Angelina County Chamber of Commerce.
Charles also performed at the Pitser Garrison Civic Center, according to a 2017 Lufkin Daily News article detailing a panel discussion of “The East Texas Cotton Club: A Juke Joint on the Chitlin’ Circuit in Lufkin, Texas.”
The club — located at Wilson Street and Culverhouse — was named after the famous night club in New York City that operated during and after Prohibition.
During its heyday, the East Texas Cotton Club hosted some of the greatest African American entertainers of the era, including Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Ike and Tina Turner and Sammy Davis Jr. A panel discussion on the history of the club, which operated from the 1940s to late 1960s, was the topic for that 2006 meeting.
The East Texas Cotton Club started as a small store, then expanded into a dance hall that also functioned as a social center, housing banquets and meetings for the Brakemen’s Wives Club. The building provided musical entertainment and in many ways made an impact on the history of the black and white community.
“Integration really started there because the white kids wanted to come and hear these outstanding entertainers,” the late Rev. Bettie Kennedy, a Lufkin native and black community historian, said in the article.
“The Cotton Club was part of the Chitlin’ Circuit,” said the late blues historian Phillip Morris, who had a scrapbook of dance tickets and photographs, in the article. “Blacks couldn’t play in (white) clubs; they had to play in auditoriums, in road shows, or in the black clubs, and that was the Chitlin Circuit. Anybody that was somebody played there.”
The Cotton Club closed around 1967. The building was torn down in the 1990s. What remains are the memories of “the fashions, the dances, the songs, the cafes, the entertainers that worked there and what this building meant to the community of North Lufkin as we refer to it,” Kennedy said. “It really was the hub of this area.”