Interview with Mr. James "Bill" Lee, 28 January 1999, at his apartment in Pennsylvania Bidwell High Rise, Manchester, Pittsburgh, PA.; interview conducted, transcribed and edited by Barry Chad.
Transcribed: 11, 18, 23 February 1999.
Reviewed with Mr. Lee: 5 March 1999.
Entered online: 23 February 1999.
Updated: 23 May 2003.
Q Are you from Pittsburgh originally?
A Yeah, I'm originally from Pittsburgh. I was born in Magee Hospital, 1938, and I had two sisters and a brother. My brother was born at home, my younger brother was born at the house and one of my sisters. The oldest sister and me were born at Magee Hospital.
Q What did your family do for a living?
A Well my mother she worked at Federal Enamel years ago during the War in the 'forties.
Q Where in Pittsburgh did you grow up?
A I grew up in the Hill District. I left from the Hill at the age of 26. And I came here...I been up here [on the North Side] practically from that time when I left the Hill. When I first come from the Hill, I came in Manchester. I lived up in Manchester in 1963. That's when they had the old Manchester Bridge, then they had took it down. That's before all them changes: it was all streets then, and then they ended up changing them to highways and stuff, after that, years after that.
Q What was growing up in the Hill like?
A Well, I could tell you. You take Wylie Avenue--one of the longest streets I've seen. That street there could go all the way from the Civic Arena--all that was no Civic Arena there, just all street--and that street would take you all the way down to Fullerton Street. (That's been cut out years ago too.) There used to be a street, Fullerton Street, that had a whole block...there was nothing but a block that had everything on it: all kind of beer gardens and all kind of things, big celebrities and all kind of people there, and they had the Rhumba Theater there. Wylie Avenue would run straight to town. And Centre Avenue: you'd have to cut off of Centre and jump into Fullerton and after you come off of Fullerton Street, you'd go to Wylie. It would split off like. And it was only a block, but that street had everything on it--Stanley's and all kind of beer gardens and all that kind of stuff...so many activities there...all big celebrities coming in town....
Q Where did you go to school?
A I went to school...they used to call it Herron Hill Junior High School and that was up on the Hill District. I went to elementary school at Robert L. Vann, right off of Wylie Avenue.
I remember years ago at the street dances--we used to have street dances down at A. Leo Weil School down on Centre Avenue. They had all the big celebrities before they even started and you had all the big bands hit Pittsburgh, local bands like Joe Westray--he had his band down the Dakota Staton and he used to sing down there at the street dances off of Centre Avenue. And they had (that's before he started...got great, got famous) Georgie Benson. He was thirteen. His first song he started out singing was "He Makes Me Mad." He was down there. And quite a few of them that I remember coming up during that time when I was on the Hill--years ago--that was back in the 'fifties. Yeah, we had all those celebrities there, the best of them. Sunny Stanton.... A group called...it was a local group here in Pittsburgh...and they was pretty hot then during that time...and they was called Chuck Edwards and they was famous for the old "Bullfight." That was one of the main songs they used to play, "The Bullfight"--all the dancing, cabarets and things that they had...and it was very interesting during the time in the 'fifties.
Q When you moved from the Hill to the North Side, where did you move to?
A I moved down on Ridge Avenue. That was back in 1963. Ridge Avenue was a long street with all these different houses--ain't nothin' but a highway now. A lot of houses, it was a residential area. There's a Humane Society down here on Western Avenue. Well I lived in that next block down there where the gasoline station at. It was all houses down there at one time, a row of houses going straight down. The lower part of that street--down there was a street called Reedsdale. Wasn't no highways during that time. And you come off of Ridge, go straight down the hill and you run right into the old Manchester Bridge and it take you straight across town. That's when I first moved over here. They had that bridge and quite a few other things. It's hard to remember where some of the places, the way some of the places was, since I come here. A lot of things have changed since I moved over here to North Side. A lot of things have changed. It's changed so drastically; I can't even remember half the things...certain landmarks and certain places. It's hard to pick out the location, the way certain things was. The main place I really was very interested in and I can't believe how that whole thing changed--East Ohio Street. It had all the department stores and all kind of things...you had Kappel's, Wilkins....
Q What kind of work have you done over the years?
A Well mainly I was a candyman.
Q How's that?
A I worked at Clark Candy Company. Making Clark bars. I'm one of the "young old men"--if you can understand what I'm sayin'--one of the "youngest old men"--I was young during that time. But, see, I come in when they made candy the old way, but I was at the end of it all--when the old men broke me in on this candy-making thing. That's when you used to hand-weave candy...the Clark bar...used to hand-weave it. See, now they got machinery weaving the candy--when man did it by hand years ago.
When it first started out, you had the carmel.
When we used to get the batches, we would dump 'em out on the table--hot stuff with molasses, just real hot--temperatures I'd guess about, maybe, four-hundred degrees, maybe a little hotter than that. I think it was hotter than that. You dump it out and it cools off to a certain degree, to a certain temperature. You keep flippin' it. It's like jelly. Hot gunk. You had to have gloves 'cause that stuff would burn right through your hand. It comes to a certain feel. It gets hard on the table. The stuff is hot, but the temperature on the table is cool--it gives it a certain body. Then there's a certain feel that you can pick it up, and you have to put it on a hook; at that time then that stuff turns to taffy and when it turn to taffy (and there's a certain feel to everything--you have to know it), you put vanilla flavor on it and you keep turnin' it and mixin' it and you keep mixin' it. It's a fluffy feeling. It's hard to explain about the feeling...it gets fluffy. (This is the taffy. You ain't got to the peanuts yet.)
Okay now, we take what's called the "cover" off the hook--you work with a partner. I put my "cover"--it's almost like a blanket--on a big iron slab table and I make my "cover"--like you rollin' dough--and you take a big iron bar and roll it, flatten it out. My partner takes the big part of the batch off the hook and lay it right down beside me. Now in the meantime while I'm rolling my "cover" out, he's rollin' his out and evenin' it out.
Now, the peanuts come to us.
We got a big pan of peanuts (about five pounds) to go in one basket. It's runny. It's loose peanuts. But see, you roast peanuts and make this--like peanut butter. So we take the peanut butter and we flip it...and you take it and you dump it out in your vat. Then you thin it out just like a slate--it's still got that "molasstic" to it. Then you pull it all the way across that table [Mr. Lee indicates the table length is about 10-12 feet]. You flip that end and you throw your end to [your partner]. (Oh it was very interesting to look at. People used to come up and look at [us doing this].) Then you take this end and throw it back to him; and we join 'em together. And he'd pull it all......the......way......out [Mr. Lee draws out his words, mimicking the motion he describes]; and I'd pull mine out. Then we'd throw it back to each other. And we're pulling it back against each other. And then we'd flip it back over: it's two-and-a-half times of turnin' it to each other. Then you flip it over. And that's when you take a knife and cut it right in half. Then you take the other half of that batch and put it with this end.
Now heres come your carmel.
You go in the hot room: they got carmel comin' out to you. You take a piece of the carmel--you got a five pound thing of carmel. You take half of that, split it in half and put it between the two batches that you done cut. (Now you done joined those batches together now.) You put the carmel right in the middle of it. Now you flip that over on top. And now you get butter. That's the original bar I'm talkin' about; they don't do that today.... Then you put the carmel in there, in the butter, in between. Now we come and get the stretcher, put it right into the table and put [the batch] right on the stretcher and we roll it right to the machine. The machine's like a cone machine. It spins real thin. And when it goes on the other side, it's cutters. That's what make your bars. It look like a snake goin' through.
Now your bars are uncoated; and there's a belt.
The bars are still joined together: they all like links, like a chain, and they uncoated. They break off. They fall. The machine shakes 'em like that and breaks 'em loose and they spreads out on a belt. Now they got to go all the way down to another floor and when they go down to another floor the women sittin' up there waitin'. Uncoated bars, they go through this machine called a anrover [sic] and that's where the chocolate pours down on 'em and when they come through there you see the chocolate hit 'em. Now to spin that bar out in a machine, that one bar, it takes about three-and-a-half minutes to spin out after you done made it. The weavin' of the taffy that takes about two minutes. We were movin'--constantly--like an assembly line--another partner with his partner right behind me....
I worked at Clark Candy twenty-five years. I did that job--out of twenty-five years at least a good fifteen years--on makin' candy. When I first started down there, I started on night-turn and I did cleanup and I stayed on cleanup for maybe two weeks. Then they put me on daylight--that's what I asked for, and I worked on the shipping department. I think I stayed on shipping department about two years. Then one guy told me...he say...well he knew me real good too...he the one got me hired down there...his name was Callahan...he told me, "You know, I think you ought to try out for that candy-makin' thing 'cause you a good worker." So I tried out for it and I went in training and I stayed in training for about three weeks. Then I was pretty well qualified: they said I was pretty fast catchin'-on. And I was on the job ever since. I started 1968.
Q Were you still working at Clark Candy when they moved to the suburbs?
A Yes. I was still working there. I went with them. I went there and I stayed there about eight years at the most. It was a big change from they way they did things down here, a big change. Everything was different. The cooks was runnin' by computer. Everything was by computer but, before, it went by know-how. You had timers. And when them bells rang, them guys would know exactly when to pull those levers and drop the kettles, those big kettles...and then it would cook for about five minutes...pre-cookers...then they'd take 'em and drop 'em and pull 'em back...you know, levers on 'em...and slide 'em back and they'd dump 'em. That stuff hit you...it would take all the skin right off. [Mr. Lee extends his arm:] (See you can tell I'm a candyman. That's a candyman's arm there.) It was all in the know-how. You'd have people come in to see us doin' it. It's very interesting. And it looks easy when you see a little guy, about your size, pickin' up a batch--and them batches are about seventy-some pounds when they on the table flippin' 'em over like that. (And you better know how to pick 'em up.) Here's guys can be two-hundred-fifty pounds--can't pick 'em up. It's a way to do all that; it looks so easy the way the guy been used to doin' it. They can pick that batch up and put it right on that thing while it's still runny a little bit but still have some body to it. They can grab that thing before it hit the ground...and that's how interesting that job is.
Q When did you come to Bidwell?
A 1997. I been here about a year-and-a-half. I left from Reedsdale and went on Jacksonia [Street]. I stayed at Jacksonia for three years.... See, I went into a thing called the O. I. C. [Opportunities Industrialization Center]. I attended that program. I wasn't workin' then. They had a group called the Feeders. The Feeders is when you first start, a little basic education that they give you and that's to start you in to the part called Step-Up--when you go to school. There was a little center. It was a church. Right off from East Ohio Street they had this place called Feeders classes. I started from down there. Then I end up going to Oliver School up there for classes. See, that's for your basic education and try for your diploma.
Q Did you do any other kind of work other than being a candyman?
A Oh, I did so many different jobs, but, you know, the jobs I had, you might as well say wasn't no jobs. I was young. I worked at an auto company. It was glazin' cars, you know, like bufferin' 'em...there was about four or five guys...made real nice money. And I was young. I didn't keep the job no more than about five months or so.... And I had another job workin' at a rug company...all I did was deliver rugs, put them on trucks...it was a warehouse really. Then a job I worked down at Penn and Smallman...a commercial rubbish truck company....
Q Since you've lived on the North Side, how has Manchester changed?
A Manchester was a wide-open place one time. It was like the Hill in so many ways. Like Fullerton Street. Right over here on this called Pennsylvania Avenue, it had every bar, every celebrity and all kind of people comin' [that] Fifth Avenue would have when Ann Mulvahill's and all them places were down there, like the High Hat. And we had a place called The Pennsy Bar. You had the barbecue place over here. That's Wilson's Barbecue. He used to be here years ago. He's over that-a-way now. And that's when barbecue was only about a dollar and fifty cent for a big order, that big for a dollar fifty cent. It was a wide-open place and they had good fun, lot of fun. And they had The Fish House. They sold fish sandwiches. It was a place on Brighton Road they called it The Dog House and they had foot-long hot dogs and that place was tore up in the late 'seventies. They had every hot dog you could think of, every kind of hot dog: any way you wanted it be made or if you wanted an oddball or something with wheels on it, they probably could make that too! [Mr. Lee laughs.] Any kind of way, any kind of way you wanted it to be doctored up, they knew how to doctor it up. It was fantastic.
It's something how you look back at all them things now, you don't see none of this stuff now left. No traces of where the place was. All I can do is remember when it was up. It was a pretty place though--big difference than what it is now. All those changes over the years made a big difference.
Q Are you involved in church?
A I belong to the church up here in Bellevue. My church is called Mount Zion Baptist. I was baptized out there...oh, about seventeen years ago. Reverend Hall was my pastor.
I used to sing quartet singing, spiritual quartets. I sung professional on that. Like "The Swan Silvertones" and "The Blind Boys" and all of 'em. I sung with a group called "The Mighty Sons of Thunder." There are a lot of people know about 'em. We was probably one of the hottest groups here in Pittsburgh back in the 'sixties.
Q Did you make any recordings?
A Yeah, I made some recordings. [Mr. Lee laughs.] Yes I did. I'm trying to find some of my stuff now and one of my friends, he died, he was a lead soloist for us and he died about twenty years ago and I was trying to get in touch with his wife. We had records. We had a 45 record made. I sung with two groups. I sung with the original group that I had called "The Mighty Sons of Thunder" and another group that I sung with made up of--we started off with part of our group and part of the other group--called "The Sun Rising Kings" and we made a album with that group, a whole album. See, we never put 'em in none of the record shops 'cause they wanted too much money. They wanted five percent or somethin' off each record. We sold [our records] and promoted 'em when we made our bookin's. We sold 'em on our programs. We performed everywhere. We was in Buffalo...(name it, we done been there)...Cleveland...Cincinnati.... We traveled behind our records. We had our members since we started and since we ended: we kept the same members. We had one boy was named (he's passed away) his name was Augustus David Yancy that was our lead singer. We had one was named Johnny Manson. And another boy's name was Jimmy. He was our baritone singer. And John Brown was another one, that played the guitar for us. And one was named Craig. Then me. One of the guys sung with "The Swan Silvertones." Everybody know about "The Swan Silvertones" in Pittsburgh. They started here in Pittsburgh. When I was a little boy, I always admired "The Swan Silvertones."
The name of the album with "The Sun Rising Kings" was "God Can Do Anything But Fail," "God Can Do Anything But Fail." The manager, he kept 'em at his house, and when we used to go programs, we'd sell 'em. That-a-way the [record stores] couldn't cut in on our money. They wanted a piece of our pie and we wasn't gonna give 'em no piece of it. So that's how we did our stuff. And a lot of groups today do that.
[Our deal with the recording studio] was they wanted--I think it was about seventeen hundred dollars during that time--that was thirty years ago. We made a proposition with 'em too: how many records we sell, it'd come off the top. We had about 4,000 records recorded, cut at that time. We started out with 4,000.
We performed anywhere according to who wanted to hear. Now we could have dinner setups, you know like cocktail setups...not like in no beer gardens.... We had quite a few programs downtown. We performed at the Hilton.
Q Did you do secular music as well as religious music?
A We used to do rock 'n' roll too. I used to do rock 'n' roll before I started into spiritual. I did rock 'n' roll back in the 'fifties when "The Turbans" were singin'. Our group was called "The Quintears." There was five of us. I was on the "Cavalcade of Stars." And this is a funny thing--I gotta tell ya this--we singin' rock 'n' roll, we pretty good doin' it...here's a guy come up to me, come over North Side, and told me, say, "Bill, I seen one of your pictures of your group down there on Centre Avenue." (Now this wasn't too long ago...less than a year.) He said, "Yeah!" I said, "Man, get outta here." He said, "Yeah, it's right in the barber shop. He got all the local groups used to sing here." And he and my brother picked it up and brung it right to my house and showed me my face in the picture.
I wrote a couple songs. I never recorded one of my songs. We never recorded no rock 'n' roll. We recorded some spirituals but we made 'em over in a different arrangement, that's how we recorded them, in our own arrangements--nobody else's but our own.
I sung background. I used to do high top tenor, that's the kind of voice I had at one time. It ain't like that now. I got a deep voice now--ain't that somethin'? I sung way up in fifth. That's up there, that's way up there...sung way up in fifth. And nobody would ever believe it. And I can sing down there like a bass now. [Mr. Lee sings:] "I know a man...." That's strange how your voice change--you don't sing no more that's what happen to you. A lot of singers that used to be top tenors end up bein' good basses later on in life--your voice change on ya. You could never believe I sung way up there but I was up there. My voice was real high. I had a high-pitched voice when I talked.
Q How far did you travel when you were on the road?
A We done been way down in the South, parts of the South. There's a place we went down in the South...I'm tryin' to think what part of the South that was...years ago...and there weren't nothin' but two people around. And we come way there to sing and nobody in the church. It was way in the woods somewhere. And they had a big bell settin' up on this church...and I'll never forget it. We sittin' there and a padlock on the door, and a man comin' down the road, real old man, he walk up to us. He said, "What's wrong?" I said, "Well, we done traveled all this far and nobody at this church." He said, "That's what's botherin' you?" I remember the old man said, "That's what's botherin' you?" I said, "Yeah, we come this far and the church is closed up here." We didn't know he was the Minister. He said, "Well wait a minute. Just sit right there for a minute." He opened up the door. He opened up the padlock on the door. (It was some part of the South, I'm tryin' to think what part--it'll come to me.) He goes in the church and he take this bell and start clickin' it, Bing! Bing! Bing!--and people's comin' out of the woodworks and they come down through there--that church was overpacked in five minutes! [Mr. Lee laughs.] My God, I never seen nothin' like that in my life. All he was lookin' for us to do was show up. So he seen us sittin' on the steps that day, but see, we had the wrong impression: now who is this old man comin' down the road? and what is he comin' down the road for? Ain't nobody here at the church. And that's the impression we had. And all it was he was comin' to say, "What's your problem? Why you sittin' there lookin' sad?" Now we don't know what his point was: "Why you lookin' so sad, youngman?" And we say, "Ain't nobody at the church here today!" He jumps and walks right into the church. He opened the door--wasn't no problem--and he hit the bell, and nine-hundred people come runnin' through! [Mr. Lee laughs.] It was some part of Virginia. I'm tryin' to think what part it was...at least six or seven hundred miles from here. It was strange. They didn't have no bathrooms; they had outhouses. That's what they had. They had outhouses outside the church. And it was one of the strangest experiences I've had in my life. Never seen nothin' like it. [Mr. Lee laughs heartily.] It was strange. It was really strange.
Oh they ate us up. Oh they went crazy over us down there. Then the sisters wanted to take us home: we ate. A big table full of chicken and they had food galore. And them guys got at that table, and, I mean, the more you ate, the more you eat, the more they gave you. Just kept puttin' bowls of chicken on that table, but the people treated us real good. It was real nice there. It was fantastic. The experience I had down there was really nice. I loved it.