MANY YEARS AGO, MY BROTHER, THE GREAT DANCER Bill Bailey, used to sell candy for Cordelia Lyles at the Dunbar Theater. One summer I got to know Mrs. Lyles. She had a club across from the Lincoln Theatre. This was in the mid-'30s. You know who was up there all the time was Jelly Roll Morton. He was Mrs. Lyles' friend. So, Mrs. Lyles gave me a chance to sing up there for $12 a week. I was 15 1/2. She called the place the Jungle Room or the Jungle Inn.

I had never sung before. That was my first job. The piano player there was a guy with a hunchback, Toby Winter, a great, great piano player.

By the time I was 17 or 18, I was working for Mr. Tindel at the Republic Gardens. By then I was making $15 to $20 a week, and you made tips in those days. The Republic Gardens, what a memory! The biggie there, the queen of the garden, was Savannah Churchill, a gorgeous woman. If I was 17, Savannah was 20. She had real black beautiful hair, fair skin and a deep voice. She was something else.

Then I worked at some of those fancy-pants places. I worked for Mr. John Carter at the Capitol Pleasure Club for 25 whole dollars a week. Just to get in that place was something. The place was filled with doctors and lawyers, and it was a small place, intimate. The atmosphere was like a private club. Then there was the Crystal Caverns. I was working there, and I still wasn't 20. That was a swinging place.

The whole of U Street was something for an entertainer. I remember working at the Republic Gardens when Edgar Hayes -- who did the greatest rendition of "Stardust," not vocally now, no one can touch Nat {King Cole} -- asked me if I would like to go with his orchestra, and I left for the circuit: New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. We'd come through playing like that. In New York it was the Apollo, in Philadelphia it was the Lincoln, in Baltimore it was the Royal, in Washington it was the Howard. We'd do a week in each city, then do an extra week in the last city, New York or Washington, and turn around and go back the other way.

I always came back to Washington. It was home. And I'd work at the Crystal Caverns. Monday night at that place was so exciting. Whoever was playing at the Howard, Duke Ellington or whoever it was, would come over to the Caverns after they finished playing on Monday night. Everybody wanted to be there. See, it was a chance to see everybody get loose after their stage performance, just play and have a good time. Duke, Lucky Millinder, Blanche Calloway, all of those people. I was so proud and scared to be performing in front of the biggies in the profession. So come Monday night I was ready to put on the dog.

I remember when Don Redman, the band leader, would come in there -- the place would start jumping. Redman was the first to put five reeds in a band, and he was the one that started band singing -- you know, where the band stands up in unison and starts singing songs.

I drive a lot with {my husband} Louie these days, and I'll just make a turn, down Florida Avenue or Rhode Island Avenue. At Sixth and M is the House of Prayer where my daddy used to preach. Then I drive down by U Street. It's really a heartbreaker.

I've told Mayor Barry that this area could be a great cultural avenue once again. But nothing has happened. If this street was put back together with lights, with some style, you could have better acts booked here than at the Kennedy Center.

They've tried to reopen the Howard Theatre, but you can't just reopen it and say this is the old Howard Theatre. You've got to get the right people, the people who are going to draw people back here. I'm not talking about these teen-age shows. There are plenty of good artists who would be delighted to play here. What's wrong with fixing this place up?

I was driving across 14th Street one day, going up toward the Howard Theatre. I started looking at the steps of the buildings and the old clubs and theaters, and I could not believe it. Seven steps spilling over with 500 people and every one of them scratching. I turned and there were more on the other side -- a bunch of people just laying on the buildings like a mass of flies or something.

You know, I care about life. You won't see me in marches, that's not me. But don't tell me that someone in charge of this city can't look up and down 14th and U streets and see what's up.

How can you sit in the Capitol of the U.S. and let something like that go on? The people should say, "Let us do something about U Street." U Street used to be like Broadway was to New York. There's a saying: Poverty has nothing to do with dirt. It's the attitude that's gone bad on U Street.