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July 6, 2011 Special to Crime Magazine
This is an excerpt from the book, Straight from the Hood: Amazing but True Gangster Tales, by Ron Chepesiuk and Scott Wilson. The book is published by Strategic Media Books (www.strategicmediabooks.com) and is available from the web site, Amazon.com and other publishing outlets.
by Ron Chepesiuk and Scott Wilson
Al “Scarface” Capone—Impresario to Chicago’s Black Musicians
The Federal Government closed Storyville down in 1917 during World War I over the objections of New Orleans’s city hall, claiming that the district was a threat to national security. In reality, many Americans of the early 20th century were not comfortable with what they heard about Storyville. For them, it was an integrated den of sin, which, as one New Orleans guidebook explained; “held out the allure of sex across color lines, even though segregation legislation was passed in New Orleans in 1894.”
With Storyville’s closure, New Orleans’ jazz musicians had to find work, so many of them joined the flood of black migrants from the south and ended up in Chicago, the Windy City, making the metropolis America’s jazz capitol and one of the country’s most exciting cities of the 1920s. The nightlife came with gambling, alcohol and prostitution. Gangsters often owned the clubs and nightclubs in the Black Belt, and as Walter Reckless, the author of Vice in Chicago, noted: “They were important links in the chain of beer running operations conducted by different gangs.”
Two prominent white gangsters, the notorious Al “Scarface” Capone and his brother, Ralph, were frequent visitors to Southside night spots; in fact, they became two of the most important jazz impresarios in Chicago. In the segregated and often violent world of the early 20th century Chicago, Al Capone became an ardent champion of some of jazz’s great black practitioners.
Born on January 17, 1899, to Italian American immigrant parents, Al grew up, along with Ralph and his other siblings, on the mean streets of Brooklyn. Denied a proper education, he grew up a near illiterate gang member who dropped out of school in the sixth grade after he slugged a teacher. By his late teens, Al was, at 5’ 10” and 225 pounds, a cocky, beefy, street smart alley-fighter. Tough men could wet their pants in his presence, knowing that he could kill within an eye blink. A few of Capone’s brawls involved vicious knife fights, and that is how he earned his nickname: “Scarface.”
Al’s mentor was Johnny Torrio, one of gangster New York’s brightest lights, who worked as a lieutenant for crime boss Paul Kelley in the Five Points Gang. With 1,500 members, the Five Points Gang was the most powerful in New York during the early 20th century.
Around 1915, Torrio moved his operations to Chicago, where his uncle Big Jim Colisimo was the godfather of organized crime. Meanwhile back in the Big Apple, Capone had brutally killed a man in a fight and was laying low from the police. Scarface accepted Torrio’s invitation to come to Chicago, and in 1919 Capone headed west with his wife and kid. Al’s brother Ralph followed him to Chicago about a year later. The two shared an apartment while they both worked for Torrio in the vice trade
The Capones arrived in the Windy City at about the time Prohibition became the law of land. Colisimo’s extensive vice, gambling and labor racketeering operations made him Chicago’s leading gangster. The ambitious Torrio arranged a hit on Uncle Jim and took over his criminal empire. The hitman?—Al Capone. When Torrio and Capone were pulled into police headquarters for questioning about Uncle Jim’s murder, a sad faced Scarface told police officers “Mr. Colosimo and me both loved opera. He was a grand guy.”
This profitable business arrangement remained in place until January 1925, when some fellow Italian American gangsters shot and nearly killed Torrio. The godfather survived, but he decided he had enough of the gangster life. He retired and moved to Italy with his elderly grandmother. At 25 years of age, Al Capone was now head of Chicago’s biggest gang.
Prohibition was making the godfather rich and he reveled in the role of the generous godfather spending lavishly on those around him. Capone’s flamboyant style captured the imagination of main stream American, and he became a high profile celebrity, just like famous professional athlete and movie stars of the day.
What is not as well known is Scarface’s relationship with black Chicago. He bought the Plantation Cafe, a black and tan cabaret located at 338 East 38th Street near Calumet Avenue, which Edward Fox and Al Turner initially owned. The Plantation Café, which featured King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators, had a notorious reputation as a gangster haunt for undesirables. After Scarface took charge, the ultra violent gang wars in Chicago heated up, and in the spring of 1927, the Plantation Café was bombed several times.
Many people in the jazz world of Harlem’s Black Belt, depended upon Capone for work and business and he loved it. “To the musicians burning to make names for themselves or simply desperate to work, the Capone brothers, Al and Ralph, were the men to see,” writes Capone biographer Laurence Bergreen. “Although the majority of the musicians were black, (Al) Capone, as an equal opportunity employer and corruptor, drew no racial distinctions. Everyone was welcome to join his coalition.” All Scarface asked was for “’’members’ to be loyal consumers for his bootleg booze.”
Milt “Judge” Hinton, a famous African American bassist, recalled how Capone approached his uncle, John Thomas, a bootlegger who controlled alcohol sales in his Southside neighborhood. “You buy all the alcohol from me for $6 a gallon and sell it for $18 dollars,” Capone instructed Thomas. “You keep $12 for every gallon of alcohol. I’ll handle all the police. You won’t have to worry about protection. I’ll furnish all the transportation. All you have to do is deliver the alcohol and collect the money. Just don’t buy from anybody but me.”
It was an offer many people in Chicago, black as well as white, could not refuse, especially when they knew what the consequences could be. Scarface was a tyrant with a mercurial temper who had murdered hundreds, if not thousands, of associates and foe alike. An audience with Capone was the last thing one wanted to experience.
But that is what happened one night to the legendary Fats Waller, renowned lyricist, singer and pianist, when some white men kidnapped and hustled him into a waiting limousine. Waller found himself in a lounge in the lilly-white Chicago suburb of Cicero, Capone’s stronghold. There waiting for him was your friendly, smiling godfather, who ordered the petrified Waller to sit at the piano and play. Waller began to relax, realizing he was the special entertainment at Al Capone’s birthday party.
The bash turned out to be the time of the entertainer’s life. Waller performed and partied with Scarface for three days, and then went home, exhausted, his pockets bulging with thousand of dollars. It was the first time Waller had tasted champagne.
While Scarface may have been more racially tolerant than his fellow gangsters, it would be wrong to conclude that he was an early American paragon of civil rights virtue. The white mob in Chicago and other major U.S. cities controlled the jazz scene in the 1920s and ‘30s as a musical version of a plantation system.
Capone, moreover, had designs on the policy and other gambling rackets thriving in the Black Belt. By the 1920s, an estimated 50 percent of the black population of Chicago played policy, and the game became so big and popular that one found a numbers bank on every corner and in many of the district’s markets, barbershops and the backrooms of stores. The policy banks stayed open from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. and were served by runners who meticulously recorded the gigs on tiny slips of papers.
Capone planned to make his move by first taking over the policy wheel on 35th St. near Indiana Avenue, operated by a man named Roberletto. Sam Ettleson, the powerful senator from the second congressional district, and another senator named Marks learned of the godfather’s plans and told Capone to give up the idea. Why they did so is not known, but Capone did tell his men stay out the Southside policy racket. In return, the black gambling establishment agreed to stay out of the bootleg beer business.
Chicago’s black criminal underworld had managed to arrange a truce with young Scarface, America’s most famous gangster.
About the Authors
Ron Chepesiuk is award winning freelance investigative journalist, documentary producer and Executive Producer and co-host of the “Crime Beat” radio show (www.artistfirst.com/crimebeat.htm/) . He is a Fulbright scholar and a consultant to the History Channel's Gangland documentary series. His true crime books include Drug Lords, Black Gangsters of Chicago, Gangsters of Harlem Gangsters of Miami and Sergeant Smack: The Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson. Kingpin, and his Band of Brothers.
Scott Wilson is a freelance journalist who has done work for publications such as Don Diva Magazine and Hip-Hop Weekly. He currently writes for the website Planet Ill (www.planetill.com), as well as his own blog Scott’s Introspection Section (www.scottsmindfield.com). He has also been interviewed by Rap Entertainment Television (www.rapentertainment.com) for a documentary on former heroin kingpin Leslie “Ike” Atkinson.