At showtime for the Oldies revival at the Warner Theater Saturday night the backup band for the opening act, Vito and the Salutations, had disappeared. Promoter Alan Lee was not the least bit pleased. He sent Prince Cowboy, the show's fast-talking emcee, out on stage to stall the crowd while Vito and the boys checked the dressing rooms upstairs.
Five minutes later one of Vito's band members wandered through the stage door eating an ice cream sundae. It seems he remembered being told to be backstage at 8:15, not 7:30. Promoter, Lee was incredulous.
Lee was reminded that things could be worse. The night before at the Howard Theater, for instance, where another rhythm and blues revival was staged, there was no heat. The temperature dropped so low backstage that most of the performers, who included headliners Ruth Brown, Eddie Vinson and Oscar Brown Jr., huddled out in the heated lobby at intermission.
If news of the other revival show's problems brought comfort to Lee, it vanished the moment Chuck Jackson tapped him on the shoulder. Jackson, star of Lee's revival along with Carla Thomas and Dee Clark, had a complaint. His dressing room had no heat.
According to Lee, a thin young man with sharp features who has parlayed a radio show and a couple of record outlets into a successful career as an oldies producer, he and his partners, Les Moss and Lawrence Berry, had planned this weekend's concert more than three months ago. Signs were already posted around town when they learned that the Howard Theater Foundation had scheduled a similar series of concerts on the same weekend.
"I think the Howard Theater Foundation has done a good job keeping the Howard Theater open," Lee says, slowly measuring each word. "But I think there was a little dirty pool going on too. I know for a fact that some of the signs we posted around town were covered up by Howard posters later on."
Even so, the show at the Warner outdrew the one at the Howard this weekend, though both turnouts were disappointing.
Edwin sylvester Wilkins, a retired postal employe and an early arrival at the Howard theater Friday for Ruth Brown's first D.C. concert in 16 years, said flatly, "We won't get a big crowd tonight. A lot of people tend to get religion around Christmas time, and religion and blues don't mix. They never have."
Despite the turnout, Lee had an idea why acts like Brook Benton, Chuck Jackson, Carla Thomas and oldies shows in general remain popular. "I call it disco backlash," Lee said. "A lot of people who don't like disco don't have a place to go at night. I think they should have an alternative, and that's what these groups represent. That's what this whole thing is about."