One day in the early ’50s, three jazz legends were on a road trip from East St. Louis to California. Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Max Roach had eaten all the chicken they’d brought, so they stopped in Oklahoma for carry-out sandwiches. But the restaurant refused to serve Mingus. So he returned to the car and, speaking heatedly with his colleagues, threatened to blow up the joint. Davis was more circumspect. The trumpeter cautioned the bassist to sit down, shut up and not “end up going to jail over your loud mouth," as he recalled in Miles: The Autobiography.
"They were Black. They were Black. It didn't matter if they were Miles Davis or Mingus," says The O'Jays' lead singer Eddie LeVert, one of 15 African-American music pioneers Billboard interviewed for this oral history of Black touring artists in the ’50s and ’60s. "These are people that maybe sit there and enjoyed their music and danced to it. But because they're Black, we cannot serve you. Because you're Black, we have to beat you. Because you're Black, we have to have systemic racism, which goes on for years and years."
Back then, giants of Black music, from the Supremes to the Temptations to Sam Cooke, following in the paths of forebears such as Marian Anderson, Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr., had to eat sardines from cans on the highway because they weren't welcome at white restaurants. They couldn't use restrooms at small-town gas stations. They couldn't walk freely through the very Las Vegas casinos they were headlining. They slept on each other's shoulders in station wagons because they couldn't stay at white hotels. Police attacked their buses.