"Pigmeat Markham was many things: the ranking funny man on the Avenue, a hero to young fans, the Judge. He was also a curious anomaly, the last great black comic to perform in burnt cork." - R.J. Smith, author
"I'd been working in blackface for so many years that I was scared to go on without it." - Pigmeat Markham
Pigmeat Markham was probably the only African-American comedian equally as popular in 1939 as he was in 1969. In that thirty year span the inroads made by African-American performers, and black America as a whole, was immense. Media that had shunned an entire race slowly heralded new opportunities thanks to several years of organized protest. In the decades before this crest emerged, a tight-knit collection of black actors had been typecast by Hollywood's studio system into bland, subservient bit parts; the only roles that a racist Hollywood would allow. Progressive activists from the black community set their sights on the major film studios, radio stations and television networks, demanding that the demeaning roles be eradicated. Slowly Hollywood conceded and eliminated the racist typecasting in the early fifties, but they failed to replace such parts with an honest representation of black America. Instead they would dispense with black actors altogether. As a result, the few black actors that had actually managed to make a living in the industry were thrown into unemployment. When the gains of minority activism intensified in the late sixties creating new, substantial opportunities for African-American entertainers, that tight-knit collection of working black actors were mostly too old, too poor or too forgotten to take advantage.
Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham was an exception. At a time when the call of "black power" resonated from Watts to Vietnam, Markham's lowbrow style of vaudeville had an unexpected resurgence. Revamping the tired sketches he had used for years, most of which had originally been performed in blackface, Markham helped bridge the tension between races with his unlikely blend of anachronistic comedy. A few decades prior Pigmeat had all but been eliminated from the scene by the influential NAACP and Urban League. He emerged in the late sixties as an African-American cultural force. When H. Rap Brown, Fred Hampton or Bobby Seale clenched a fist and shouted "black power" it is unlikely they had a vaudeville veteran that steadfastly refused to stop performing in blackface in mind. Pigmeat Markham was an unapologetic proponent of blackface and one of the most popular African-American comedians the country has ever seen.
An explosion of African-American show business hit America, naturally, in the years following the Civil War. As former slaves struggled to find their way in a tenuously free world, some were still actively being prosecuted, one could say persecuted, for "crimes" against their "masters" regardless of their new non-slave status. Hitting the road with a band of traveling performers was an alluring escape. It created the first true era of black American dance, introducing a variety of steps that would quickly be co-opted and popularized in white society. The late 19th century saw the introduction of "The Stop Time" and "The Buck and Wing" which collectively gave way to the exciting new movement of "tap." White minstrelsy, slathered heavily in burnt cork, had been around for several years. With the elimination of slavery came a new practice: the all-black minstrel show.
African-American showman Charles Hicks mounted Clayton's Georgia Minstrels in 1865. Beyond its status as the first all-black revue in American history, it also holds the intriguing distinction of originating the riddle "Why did the chicken cross the road?" One's mind is surely blown in learning that millions of school children around the world have been channeling a black minstrel performance for the last century and a half. Hicks was one of several black producers, managers and theater owners that permeated the landscape during the industrial revolution. Despite this advancement few of the touring all-black productions were free of cringe-inducing racial stereotypes. The use of blackface by African-American performers aside, shameful productions like King Rastus starring Billy Kersands and produced by the Octoroon Players were actively dismissed by the black press as early as 1901. Contrary to popular belief, racist stereotypes were rejected long before the time of nineteen sixties upheaval.
Isham's Octoroons in the operatic comedy "King Rastus" made their appearance at the Auditorium in Memphis, Tennessee March 19 and 20. As a whole the show was one that the citizens of this place care not to see repeated. It is a slander on the Negro of America; for example, here are some of their sayings: "Who raised you, a Colored woman?" "If a Negro left those things here, give them back to him." "That's the reason White folks don't let [slur]s hold office, because they want to rule the earth." And worse than all that was "Every nation has a flag but a coon." Every flag was displayed with honor, then a rag with a chicken and watermelon on it was displayed, and on it was this inscription: "Our rag," signifying that the Negro would spill his last drop of blood to get into somebody's chicken coop and watermelon patch. The costumes and dancing were very vulgar. The white people enjoyed this flag business ... but for us, we say shame, shame!
- Indianapolis Freeman, March 30, 1901
From the black minstrel world emerged one star above all others. Bert Williams was the man that white stars Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields and George Jessel regarded as the greatest vaudeville performer to ever take to the stage. A huge star by 1912, his appearance in a Broadway Follies had statutes insisting Williams not "appear on the stage whenever any of the females were around for fear of inciting a riot among the white audiences." Of all the black performers that engaged in the bizarre practice of blackface performance, Bert Williams was unquestionably the most successful. He was also Pigmeat Markham's hero. To Markham, Williams was "the idol I've never met." W.C. Fields, one of the greatest screen comedians in motion picture history, referred to Williams as "the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew." The New York World called him "that dusky vaudeville genius" and The New York Times praised "his heretofore almost perfect work." Caucasian newspaper publisher Jack Lait lavished him with awkward praise, writing, "Bert Williams makes us glad that the slaves were freed."
Why would an African-American performer deem it necessary to indulge in blackface? The purpose completely eludes the modern mind. George Walker, a vaudeville performer and one time partner of Bert Williams explained that "blackfaced white comedians used to make themselves look as ridiculous as they could when portraying a 'darky' character. In their make-up they always had tremendously big red lips ... The one fatal result of this to the colored performers was that they imitated the white performers in their make-up as 'darkies.' Nothing seemed more absurd than to see a colored man making himself ridiculous in order to portray himself." Walker's assessment of the illogical convention would be shared by most... which makes it all the more frustrating to learn he was one of the most accomplished practitioners of blackface to ever grease up.
Everyone has a different theory on the origins of what Henry Sampson calls "Blacks in Blackface." One argument is that black comedians used blackface to "maximize the contrast between himself and the well-dressed 'straight' characters in the show" - the equivalent of a Lou Costello in cork and straight man Bud Abbott without. Sonny Craver, a soul singer and one-time partner of Pigmeat Markham explained the purpose as an "invisible screen." Craver says that "with the blackface, the way I understood it, you wasn't white or ... black. When a black comedian wore blackface, he wasn't a black comedian any more! He was a comic." Leonard Reed, a prolific producer of African-American vaudeville, insisted "it was the white man's idea to make the Negro comic put on cork." However, the main proponent of the genre, Bert Williams, explained the practice as a result of supply and demand economics. White minstrels and their grotesque blackface had taken work away from actual black performers. To counteract this, African-Americans started performing in blackface in an attempt to win back some of the work. "There were many more barriers in the way of the black performer in those days," Williams wrote in an editorial shortly before his death in 1922. "With the exception of the Negro minstrels, the black entertainer was little known through the Northern and Western states. The opposition on account of racial and color prejudice and white comedians who 'blackened up' stood in the way of natural black performers. How to get before the public and prove that ability we might possess was a hard problem for us to solve. We thought, that as there seemed to be a great demand for blackface on stage, we would do all we could to get what we felt belonged to us by the laws of nature." Williams and his comedy partner "finally decided that [since] white men with black faces were billing themselves 'coons,' Williams and Walker would do well to bill themselves as 'The Two Real Coons' and so we did. Our bills attracted the attention of managers and gradually we made our way in." If applying blackface in order assimilate to a white man's world isn't the pinnacle of an Uncle Tom move, I don't know what is. Regardless, it was a brazen, if not completely ingenious way to maintain a living.
Pigmeat Markham entered show business at the start of adolescence. Running away from home in 1918, he took up with a white showman he ambiguously referred to over the years as "Mr. Booker" owner of a "gilly carnival." Soon, before he had even grown pubic hair, Markham found himself in blackface. "Mr. Booker came over to us before the show with a can of Stein's burnt-cork and showed us how to put it on in front of the mirror. He also had some pink and white lip make-up." Markham did not subscribe to the multiple theories or justifications for painting his skin. For Markham, blackface was a simple act of conformity. "You may wonder why a Negro had to do that, and all I can tell you is that's the way it was. Just about every Negro entertainer in those days worked in burnt-cork and lip make-up - even Bert Williams who was the greatest of them all. Matter of fact, I never went before an audience without my burnt-cork until 1943 - more than twenty years later." However, Markham greatly exaggerates the rarity of a black performer not wearing blackface and his explanation smacks of a man desperate for absolution. In 1943 Pigmeat Markham was the only African-American performing in blackface.
When Pigmeat Markham first started in show business, a blackface performance could be seen in most American cities. "In 1919 I started in a little carnival ... with a minstrel show," he recalled. "In those days we didn't have no band. We only had about six people, and we clapped our hands and would hum the music. At that time I was getting a dollar a week." It was Jeff Murphy's Carnival with which he toured "from Cuthbert, Georgia, through North Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee." He worked constantly, learning from more experienced men how to do a wide variety of dances and songs. "In the old days show business for a colored dancer was like going through school. You started in a medicine show - that was kindergarten - where they could use a few steps if you could cut them, but almost anything would do. Then you went on up to the gilly show, which was like grade school - they wanted dancers. If you had something on the ball, you graduated to a carnival - that was high school - and you sure had to be able to dance. College level was a colored minstrel show, and as they faded out, a vaudeville circuit or even a Broadway show." Markham was working in a carnival in Lexington, Kentucky in 1921 when he took up with Doctor Andrew Payne's Medicine Show. "We just played hick towns, ol' Doc, a banjo-harmonica player, and two dancer-comedians," he said. "Us two dancers had a ball outshining each other. [The medicine] wasn't nothing but Epsom salts and coloring. Before Doc's spiel, we came out and did a little comedy dancing, mostly Buck - no Wings yet - with plenty of eccentric stuff while the banjo backed us up, loud and for laughs, to put the yokels in a buying mood ... Half the battle was conning the hayseeds into paying the price of admission."
Throughout the period, Markham adopted a variety of monikers. At any given time he could be billed as David Markham, Dewey Markham, Dewey Alamo, Black Rock or Rock Markham. "Pigmeat," it has been said, was slang for "young stuff" - as in "jail bait." He settled on the handle after performing in Gonzelle White's Traveling Show. Count Basie wrote in his autobiography that Gonzelle White went down to Macon, Georgia "and that is where she found Pigmeat Markham. He was not known as Pigmeat in those days. The name Pigmeat was already part of the show when Gonzelle hired Markham as the new comedian. It was the name of a character in one of the comic skits. Markham took it with him when he left; and he is the one it stuck to, and he took it into the big time." The character in the show would sing with hysterical vulgarity, "I'm Sweet Papa Pigmeat. I've got the River Jordan in my hips and all the women is rarin' to be baptized!"
All the while Markham was a journeyman, performing non-stop and amassing an ever growing repertoire of dance steps, jokes, sketches and stunts. He toured with Bessie Smith's Traveling Revue, was present for the introduction of "The Charleston" by the act of Miller and Lyles and appeared in A.D. Price's Sugar Cane Revue from 1925 through 1928. He gained an elderly mentor named Bob Russell while traveling with the Florida Blossoms Minstrels. "Bob Russell [was] an elderly trouper at the end of his career," says R.J. Smith. "A young Pigmeat joined the Florida Blossoms Minstrels. They roomed together on the road, and Russell made the kid memorize comedic routines and listen to his stories about the showman's life. From Russell, Pigmeat learned the fundamentals of clowning." Russell was old and sick by 1923. He had been performing a minstrel act as far back as the Civil War and he found an heir willing to adopt his routines in Markham. Pigmeat remembered the essential hustle. "When the noon whistle blew at the factories letting the workers out," he recalled, "we came right off the train and started the parade. I played bass drum then, but I wanted to be a walkin' gent - they were the dancers and comedians - wearing a cape or frock-coat of many colors. We played real jazz." They lured tired workers to their performance, pied pipers in blackface.
Markham had logged thousands of performances by the time he was twenty-four years old. He had learned what was expected of a professional vaudevillian and expected the same from his fellow thespians. He had no sympathy for performers that displayed tardiness at the stage door. "I don't need no alarm clock to get me outta bed," he would kid. "When I got a job to do, my debts wake me up!" He loved to tell the story of a tap dancer he overheard apologizing to a stage manager in Bainbridge, Georgia. Extremely late for the performance, the exhausted dancer begged for forgiveness as the theatrical company threatened to withhold his pay. "I'm mighty sorry, but y'see, this house next door to where I'm sleeping, they got a rooster always crows at the same time every morning and wakes me up. Well, honest - last night somebody got in there and stole the rooster."
Such an anecdote would find its way into Pigmeat's act, but he didn't find everything he encountered on the road quite so amusing. The late twenties and early thirties witnessed an intensification of racist acts in the theater world. In 1928 Porgy, the non-musical predecessor to Porgy and Bess, was presented at the incongruously named Fair Theater; a "whites only" venue in Washington DC. The theater manager hired "spotters" for the run of the production. The job of a spotter was to find black people in the audience that were passing for white, remove them and impose "discipline." Shades Over Harlem, a successful all-black production, toured Europe in 1930. It had to abandon its run when German fascists broke up the performance. The fascists cried "black shows [are] ruining German culture." Markham would recall a harrowing crime. "I'll tell you, see, I've been in this business fifty years ... I saw it when it was really raw. I was in Macon, Georgia in 1932 ... they lynched this colored boy and hooked him on the back of a Model T-Ford and drug his body with tin cans that made a lot of noise and threw his body in the lobby of the theater. I was there when this happened." Markham's horrific memories don't stop there. "Another instance in '21 or '22 in a little sawmill town. We came in on a train and I saw this big mob - they tell me there are two brothers alive on a barbecue sput. With cedar. You know cedar burns hot ... and they was turning like they was pigs." So great was the risk of mob violence, even murder, that Markham would never venture into a white part of town. "All my traveling in the South - all the years I've been in this business ... I always used a system ... I get in the colored neighborhood and stay there. Right now [in 1968] when I pull my car into Nashville or Knoxville, I go right to that hotel and I'm there til the time I leave."
By the early thirties Markham started appearing in Harlem as a regular at the Alhambra Ballroom. His vast experience allowed him to easily upstage the more established comedians of Harlem. "I was earnin' sixty-five dollars a week as house comic at the Alhambra, and it wasn't long before I'd not only jumped to eighty-five, I also jumped to top comic over a couple of fine fellows I found already established there - Dusty Fletcher and John Mason, also known as Spider Bruce ... A lot of them white folks from downtown who weren't afraid to come to Harlem in them days kept comin' back from one show to the next. They were tough audiences, but I took 'em by storm ... I worked the Alhambra ... and then I met a very clever writer-comedian named Johnny Lee Long. We became partners and we decided to go into burlesque - because at that time there was only one colored comedian in burlesque, a boy by the name of Eddie Green." Green enjoyed great fame as a bartender on the radio sitcom Duffy's Tavern, playing one of the stereotypical roles that would eventually be admonished.
Harlem's famed Apollo Theater finally overturned its shameful "whites only" policy in 1933. Markham said "shortly after it did, I was booked ... These were the days when all the gang from downtown used to come up and sit 'on the front seat' as we used to call it. I mean comics like Milton Berle, Jack Carter, Henny Youngman, Joey Adams and Molasses and January (who were white in spite of those names) and a whole lot of others would come to see our Saturday midnight shows, and they'd bring their girls along with them - the girls had notebooks and took shorthand awful fast - and they'd sit in the front seats and copy down our jokes." It is said that Milton Berle's longstanding reputation as a joke thief was first established when he started cribbing from Pigmeat Markham.
White theatergoers were enamored by the bevy of all-black musicals playing Broadway in the thirties, and Markham appeared in several. Hot Rhythm (1930), Blackberries of 1932, Cocktails of 1932, Blackbirds of 1939 and Ecstatic Ebony (1939) kept Markham's dancing abilities in top form. Over the course of the decade he would be credited with the creation of several popular dances. Pigmeat was the originator of the "Susie-Q" and "The Boogie-Woogie," two items that quickly saw themselves move from the stage of the Apollo to the dance floor of the Savoy. Further dances included "The Skrontch" and "The Pimp's Walk." Both had fleeting bouts of popularity and R.J. Smith says "Jackie Gleason's agile glide likely owes a debt to the creator of the Pimp's Walk." Most ubiquitous was a dance that was immortalized years later in a popular scribble by underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. Pigmeat remembers fooling around during a stop over in the District of Columbia. "1935 - Truckin. It started in Washington one night during a five-week stock job ... We was putting nickels in the juke box and the boys was all out on the floor ... I finally got out there and started doin' this step. They all laughed and said what was it, and I said I didn't know ... That Friday I was asked to do some bit in the finale to bring up the show. Don Redmond, the great Negro bandleader was there runnin' though his special arrangement of 'Honeysuckle Rose.' So I jumped in there and started doin' this new step of mine - and it went over so big I had to do three or four encores ... everybody was askin' me, 'What was that?' I didn't have any name for it, so I just said, 'Oh, I was only truckin' on down.' Well, by the time I got back to New York, the dance was there ahead of me; people was doin' it the way they thought it should be done ... When I arrived at the Apollo and started doing the original truck, it swept the whole country. I stayed at the Apollo and I had to do the truck every week for two years. If I didn't truck, the people wanted their money back!"
By the late nineteen thirties, a series of fly-by-night companies started filming B-movies with all-black casts. The pictures went on roadshow tours, visiting areas with large African-American populations. Markham ventured to Hollywood to participate in some films for the low-rent Talzman studio. "I made two comedy shorts," said Markham. "In fact, I wrote 'em and worked in 'em both. I got one thousand dollars ... My two featurettes were the same sort of thing I'd been doing on the stage - I just worked 'em over for the camera. One was called Mr. Smith Goes Ghost ... the other movie was One Big Mistake ... We made ours cheap - and they made money." Beyond the initial novelty factor, they are also unwatchable.
The westward jaunt proved valuable for Markham. He started performing at Los Angeles' famed Lincoln Theater, the place to go for top black entertainment in the early nineteen forties. Dusty Fletcher had been living in California for a couple of years and had been the preferred comic at the Lincoln. However, a vicious squabble between Fletcher and Lincoln bandleader Bardu Ali resulted in a terrible stabbing that left Ali sleeping in a pool of his own blood. Dusty skipped town and Smith notes that "Fletcher leaving town abruptly ... led to less competition for Pigmeat. The comic made the most of it."
Through his Lincoln Theater engagement, Markham landed a high-profile role on a national radio show called The Eight-to-the-Bar Ranch. The program starred The Andrews Sisters, perennial white favorites of World War Two, and featured bearded character actor Gabby Hayes. Markham played a wisecracking chef, constantly threatening to shave Hayes with a meat cleaver. "Lou Levy, who was married to one of the Andrews Sisters, wanted to do something for me," Pigmeat explained. "He heard I was working at the Lincoln, he told the Andrews Sisters about it and they all came down to see my act. They must have liked me, because they had a radio show at the time ... and they signed me to be on it. I stayed with them a whole year on this show - coast-to-coast network - and I remember Nash Kelvinator was the sponsor. When the show finally went off the air, Lou wanted me to stay with him - he was the girls' manager so we put together a traveling show that opened up down in San Diego and from there we went to Los Angeles and then came to New York." He was billed as "Pigmeat Markham, The Colored Comic."
Markham and Johnny Lee Long would start their routine the same way each night. With Pigmeat waiting in the wings, Long would bellow "I'm not going to tell jokes that you heard thirty years ago," he'd give a long pause and nod his head in silent promise. "But I'll introduce you to my partner Pigmeat... who will." Markham's act was indeed old hat. It appealed to the less refined sensibilities of people that preferred their punchlines shouted. Not only were his jokes old, but so was his approach. Many civic leaders within Los Angeles' black community were unhappy to see Markham on The Lincoln Theater stage acting out drunken gambler type characters, depictions they felt were holding back the advancement of a race. Markham was willing to acknowledge that his act might, indeed, reinforce stereotypes. He didn't seem to take issue with the assertion. What bothered him was having non-show business folk telling him how to adapt his act to the modern wind. "A lot of people have pointed out that my comedy is not exactly high-class ... I won't argue with that. And a lot of others say my characters like the Judge ... do not represent the modern Negro; that they are caricatures. Well, I won't argue with that either, [as] long as we admit they're funny. But when these people tell me I gotta change my act - well, that's where I will argue." And argue he did. Many were on the receiving end of Markham's epic tongue lashings. "Now many of these critics are my friends ... and have offered me lots of money, more than once, to work in shows with them ... They offered me that money because I added something to the show - I was funny. Not historical - funny. And how did I get to be funny? I was born and raised black. I learned my comedy from black comedians. The earliest skits and bits I did ... were invented by black men. The audiences I learned to please ... they were mostly black, too." Historian R.J. Smith says that Markham "owned the stage at the Lincoln with a down and dirty sense of humor, summoning chitlins and nagging wives, dice games and knife fights. He was bonding with unpretentious people who felt he was just like them." Smith adds that Markham's Los Angeles devotees were "domestics out on their night off and ... the old folks and kids and those whose thoughts were on subjects other than the state of the Negro arts." Typical routines involved Markham and his "King Kong Liquor (ten cents a dipper)."
Beyond stereotypical characterizations, the most polarizing entity was, again, the burnt cork. As World War Two waged on, Hollywood film was occasionally displaying authentic black faces in uniform. Hollywood was dropping blackface - but Pigmeat wasn't. Smith says that Markham was becoming "a marked man, wanted by the NAACP, the Urban League and any and all Negro advancement societies wishing sudden death to Uncle Tom ... [it was] a generational disagreement and maybe a class conflict too." Finally it came to a head in 1943. Markham was confronted backstage. "One night at the Lincoln, as I was getting ready to go out there and do my act, a handful of young Negroes came around to my dressing room. We had a real friendly talk and it turned out they wanted me to stop this blackface make-up thing. They said things was beginning to change ... and me coming out there in blackface caused a lot of unhappy memories and it would be more dignified if I was to just go out there the way I was, in my own skin, instead of covering it up like I was ashamed of it. At first, I disagreed with them ... to tell you the truth, I'd been working in blackface for so many years that I was scared to go on without it ... finally, I gave in and agreed to try it - but I warned them it was sure to be a flop. I was plenty nervous when I went out in front of that audience - and I discovered ... that the young folks were right ... Those kids did more for my self-confidence than anybody ... I was so happy and so relieved that I went back to the dressing room, threw the make-up in the wastebasket - and I've never gone onstage in blackface again."
Leonard Reed contradicts Markham's account. He recealls that Pigmeat did not have a renewed sense of confidence and that, in fact, his act suffered as he stumbled through his old routines. Without the mask, Markham had lost much of his winning bravado. "He went downhill when he stopped doing cork. He didn't feel that his mugging and his facial expressions would show up and they didn't, you know. Because he wasn't positive enough about them without the cork. He felt hurt - I think it killed him, and I think he died of a broken heart. His expressions lost something." Smith reveals that Markham "left the Lincoln in 1944 fading from view while hanging out among the hustlers and lowlife characters of Bronzeville, a bustling community at the north end of the Avenue." The chastising of Markham had the Lincoln Theater reconsider their mandate. The theater started booking a new form of black entertainment, "high-toned productions" consisting of "stirring drama, portraying the problems and victories of the Negro people." Despite the noble attempt "It tanked. By the end of the year, Pigmeat was back, minus the blackface, presiding over revues starring T-Bone Walker." Still, Pigmeat's act, regardless of confidence, regardless of blackface, regardless of "high-toned" or "low-brow" had simply worn thin.
Pigmeat, standard comic at this house, is back again for the umpteenth time and regales the customers with stale gags and some dull repartee with [Willie Bryant] the emcee and bandleader ... his material is creaky."
- Daily Variety, September 25, 1946
PRC, the Producers Releasing Corporation, was a pathetic staple of Hollywood's "Poverty Row," the Gower Street area that was home to the cheapest collection of B-film manufacturers in Hollywood. Fight that Ghost (1946) and House Rent Party (1946) were two B-pictures cranked out back to back for PRC by prolific shitmeister Sam Newfield. Despite the ineptitude of the productions, such low-rent outfits provided work for a variety of fine black performers like Mantan Moreland and Moms Mabely. The lack of production values was gladly overlooked. Enamored black audiences loved to relish in a Hollywood netherworld where every actor was African-American. The films generally lasted less than an hour and often featured fine jazz and dance numbers. It was decent work for Markham as his career, although still chugging along, had faltered somewhat. The films were all in good fun, as can be gleaned by the House Rent Party tagline: "A Pair of Flat Foot Floogies! HOT-DICKETY!"
Markham always had the Apollo to perform at, but blues musician Tommy Brown says he was surprised at Pigmeat's low-standard of living when he met him at the end of the nineteen forties. "I worked with him at the Apollo ... when I got there and saw how Pigmeat and Freddie and Flo were living ... they were supposed to be big-named artists. That shocked the hell out of me. They were living in an apartment back of the Apollo Theater. They [eventually] tore those down. I was shocked." Resounding criticism of Markham's stereotypical and potentially harmful character depictions had much to do with his dwindling income, workload and popularity.
Why have Negro comedians failed to make the big time? Certainly Negro humor is not dead, but the truth of the matter is, it has been forced underground. No Negro in his right mind would dare venture upon an American stage and do a minstrel act unless he wanted to become the guest of honor at the first all-colored lynching in history.
- Ebony Magazine
Sourpussed newspaper columnist Ed Sullivan had recently enjoyed modest success with his creaky new television program Toast of the Town. Sullivan had been covering the Manhattan entertainment beat for several years and had great reverence for interesting performers. He relied on his experience as an avid nightclub and theatergoer when it came to booking talent for his variety show. Debuting in June 1948, Sullivan spent the better half of a year smoothing out the wrinkles of live television before he booked Markham, who he had enjoyed several times at the Apollo. Despite his reputation as a stodgy square, Sullivan insisted on showcasing black performers right from the start, fighting network and sponsor apprehension in order to do so. Sullivan would showcase African-American remarkables like Peg Leg Bates and The Harlem Globetrotters at a time when sponsors were firmly under the purchasing-power thumb of racist Dixiecrats. Ed Sullivan arguably did more to advance race relations in America than anybody else in the television industry. As white actor comedian Orson Bean remembers, "When [African-American singer] Pearl Bailey was on we were told, 'Don't touch her.' This was in the fifties. 'If your shoulder even brushes Pearl Bailey, we will lose stations in the South.' When Pearl Bailey went on the show, [Ed Sullivan] threw his arm around her and said, 'How you doing Pearly Mae?" It was in this spirit that Sullivan rescued an increasingly out-of-favor comedian and granted him a national audience. Television director Howard Storm says that Ed Sullivan "rekindled Pigmeat Markham's career. I know that as a fact because my first cousin was married to Pigmeat Markham."
Markham first did his "Here come da judge" routine on Ed Sullivan's show ... and repeated it on two other occasions ... His humor is a potpourri that relates to his own race. In the particular routine which has captured the fancy of television viewers, he's a judge who keeps battering the defendants with the bladder of an animal. "It's a real bladder," Markham explained. "I can't tell you where I get them, but someone at a slaughterhouse picks them up for me. I tried many things, but this is the only thing that gives me that real good sound when it crashes on someone's head." Typical of the cornball type humor that comes out of the act: "I say, Order in da court," Markham yells out. A young lady defendant responds, "Did you say order in the court? I'll have a cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee." The bladder crashes on her lawyer's head.
- The Milwaukee Journal, July 17 1968
Of the bladders he would say "Funny thing about the beef bladders I used to beat the guy over the head with. Pig bladders don't get the effect of the beef bladders. So you have to have a connection to get them. The beef bladders I use are kosher. You don't have to use kosher, but it happens that the connection I got is kosher." Smith reported that Markham thought that without the bladders - he never would have been successful. "They used to have fresh meat markets in the old days, where you could go and get a pig slaughtered or have a chicken's head cut off," says one of Markham's daughters Kathy Maldonado. "He would bring several bladders home, soak them in water overnight, grease them up with Vaseline. [He] had a pump contraption that inflated the prepared bladder." Pigmeat Markham was convinced he could never succeed without using beef bladders as props or draping his already black skin in burnt cork. Perhaps what Pigmeat Markham really needed was a therapist.
Thanks in part to the progressive booking policies of Ed Sullivan and Jack Paar, African-American comedians were making inroads in American television in the early sixties. Pigmeat Markham and George Kirby were soon joined by Godfrey Cambridge, Dick Gregory, Moms Mabley and Flip Wilson as regulars on the three big networks. Although the exposure of brilliant black comedians like Gregory and Cambridge would be great for African-American performers as a whole, it was bad for Markham. Markham's career, slowly coming back with the help of Ed Sullivan, was soon mooted by the socially relevant acts of Gregory and Cambridge who, in turn, made Markham seem like a pathetic old hack. The young Dick Gregory was specializing in political relevance. Markham was specializing in political irrelevance.
Godfrey Cambridge and Dick Gregory sprang from a movement that had ignited at the end of the fifties, spearheaded by Mort Sahl. Collectively, the "new comedians" spawned a genre of creative, cerebral comedy that appealed to coffeehouse intellectuals, musicians, philosophy majors and liberal beatniks. Record labels specializing in jazz music such as the Fantasy, Verve and Pacific imprints started pressing comedians on vinyl for the very first time. The recordings of Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman and Sahl found a voracious audience, spawning a miraculous comedy record craze that lasted for a decade. From 1957 through 1967 every stand-up comedian working pressed an album - and no matter who they were - chances were that a ready-made audience would buy it. Chess Records in Chicago had been established as the pre-eminent rhythm and blues label in America. Following the comedy record trend, Leonard Chess immediately signed African-American comedians Moms Mabley, Clay Tyson, Slappy White and Pigmeat Markham to contracts, and started churning out a series of comedy records.2 Pigmeat's career was resurrected once again.
Like the Chess Records output of Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, Pigmeat's comedy albums primarily reached a black audience. Pigmeat says that he "discovered that many white people aren't tuned to my act at all. When they hear it on records, just the way I do it on a stage for Negroes, they don't dig the slang, they have trouble following my accent, they don't even get the point of some of the jokes." Regardless, the albums were popular and Markham started touring with the Chess roster of rhythm and blues acts. Dick Alen, a top agent and promoter that represented Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin became aware of Markham's draw at the time. "I was his agent in the mid-sixties. As I left agenting, I became his manager ... I was with this company Universal Attractions that specialized in the R&B field. Because I was always in the R&B field, I was very aware who Pigmeat was. Universal Attractions was booking him and I would advise him on work ... up until then it had been the end for black sketch comedy. Butterbeans and Suzy, Mantan Moreland ... Pigmeat would mainly be working at the black theaters: the Apollo, The Royal, The Howard as a comedian on the bill. Business was done by the singers and they would have him on. As Here Come the Judge hit, suddenly he started to headline R&B packages - four or five R&B acts with Pigmeat and do good business. We spent a while with Moms Mabley ... playing five and ten thousand seaters."
Here Come the Judge is the catchphrase, the sketch and the song that Pigmeat Markham is remembered for. Although not everyone realizes its origin, most everyone has heard someone utter it at some point. It was Sammy Davis Jr. who was responsible for reviving it and giving Pigmeat his final and largest injection of fame. "March 25, 1968," explained Markham. "That was the night Sammy Davis Jr. did a guest shot on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In." The moment would bring Pigmeat full circle. He thought it appropriate that Davis would be the one to rescue his act from the doldrums. As he explained, "Sammy ... I carried him around in my arms backstage when he was only two months old and his Mommy was out there dancing as a chorus girl."
"I wrote Here Come Duh Judge in 1928 when I was doin' stock at the Alhambra," said Markham. "We kicked it around through burlesque. I did the judge on the Ed Sullivan show in 1947 when he had his program at Maxim's Theater. [Later] Ed came to Harlem looking for me. I was in a hospital. I had a sketch, I'd see a ghost and yell 'WOW' and go right through the roof on a piano wire. The piano wire broke and I broke both my legs. I did the judge a lot of times for Ed. Sammy Davis saw me do it at the Apollo. Sammy tells me one night he run out of words on TV so he said, 'Here come duh judge.' The kids grabbed it and we had eighteen weeks on Rowan and Martin and Ed brought me back." The producers of Laugh-In hired Pigmeat to recreate the original sketch of which Sammy Davis Jr. had been paying homage. "I worked with George Schlatter and Pigmeat on about eight different Laugh-In [episodes]," remembers Dick Alen. "Also, I helped write the song Here Come the Judge. We brought it to Chess Records because Pigmeat's albums as a spoken comic were on Chess. I did a lot of the lyrics based on Pigmeat's stage routine. Ralph Bass, who was the A&R man at Chess did the music. The record went out and was quite successful. In fact, it still pays royalties to this day." Of the catchphrase Pigmeat commented, "For 40 years I'd worked that chant, and that character, for laughs. But things were kinda slow for me just then, and a lot of people who saw Sammy doing my line began asking whatever happened to old Pigmeat? They found out fast enough - my comedy records, just plugging along, suddenly took off - my phone began ringing - my price jumped to $4000 a week."
Although it was a huge opportunity, the idea of appearing on Laugh-In filled Markham with trepidation. Performing for a large audience of Caucasian drop-outs was foreign, uncharted territory and he was worried that he might not be able to cut it. "For an old pro like me, getting up there in front of an audience ought to be a pure walk-through," he wrote at the time. "After all [regardless of race] it's still an audience. Maybe, if I had a little more feel of it." He said a little prayer as he faced the reality. "Good Lord be with me as You have been for all of my 65 years - I have never [watched] Laugh-In."
IT'S HERE COME THE JUDGE AS COMIC'S CAREER ZOOMS
Whoever thought that a phrase uttered by a Negro comic in 1927 would suddenly echo across the nation as a verbal rage more than 40 years later? Certainly Pigmeat Markham never though it would. Markham, 65, has been using "here come the judge" as a catch phrase for one of his comedy skits for all these years without the nation's clamor that suddenly erupted last winter.
It all started innocently enough. Sammy Davis Jr, filling in for Johnny Carson on his late night television talk show, got hung up for a few seconds without anything to do. So he just said the first thing that came to his mind to bridge the unwelcome intermission. "Here come da judge," Sammy said to himself.
"That kind of started it," said Markham. "Sammy heard other people pick it up a bit, so when he went on the Rowan and Martin Laugh-In, he used it again. It sure took off this time." Now, Pigmeat (his real first name is Dewey) Markham hasn't exactly been destitute all these years. He's always made a good buck through the years, upaward of $50,000 a year. But when "Here come da judge" suddenly became a national byword, his career zoomed.
It's an old story in show business. A single hit creates new horizons. "I've been discovered by the white market," Markham declared during a recent interview. "I've always had the black market, and the kids too."
"Yeah," he responded, "I've been big with the kids for about six or seven years now. I've been going out on rock n' roll concert tours with James Brown and Joe Tex, making between $750 and $1000 a week for some time now. The kids dig my act. They liked that old corn."
Another phrase that caught on from the Rowan and Martin show, "Sock it to me," also is credited to Pigmeat Markham. Among the 15 albums he's recorded is this bit of dialog from one released about 10 years ago. "Is you guilty?" the judge inquires. "I'm guilty," the defendant answers. "Then, I'se going to sock it to you!" says Markham. "Sock it to me," echoes the defendant. Markham has been in show business for more than 50 years, starting in 1917.
- Dan Lewis, Bell McClure Syndicate, July 18, 1968
Markham enjoyed the attention. Phyllis Diller was vying to have Markham cast in a new sitcom, his comedy records were re-released, several artists recorded cover versions3 of the song Here Come the Judge, and a sparse paperback autobiography was rushed onto the market. With Markham's wallet comfortably padded, the echoes of the Judge subsided and the mania waned. Markham was content. He quietly accepted that his style of comedy had had its day - and then some. Happy to pass the torch to the modern approach of Bill Cosby, Stu Gilliam, Dick Gregory, Godfrey Cambridge, Richard Pryor and Flip Wilson, Pigmeat slowed his pace. No one seemed to mind. "We had separated by the seventies," says his former manager Dick Alen. "We just let it peter out and I went to work for William Morris as an agent. Nobody stays hot forever. We had a nice long run on the basis of Here Come the Judge. He always worked. He always had the Apollo Theater. It wasn't a case of Pigmeat himself having faded out. It was a case of black sketch comedy [having] sort of faded out. I guess that's what his problem was - he was at the end of that era ... hitting people with pig bladders ... this was old-timey ... His time just ended." Pigmeat Markham defied his critics until the day he died. "My act is not history, it's comedy," he would reaffirm. "It's not white-man's comedy, it's Negro-born and Negro-popular. It's not aimed at ridiculing anyone; the characters I've created are no more a slur on the Negro than Jackie Gleason's hot-headed bus driver or Art Carney's sewer cleaner or Dean Martin's drunk or Red Skelton's fool or Jack Benny's stinginess are a slur on white men. I am an American Negro comedian and I'm proud to be all three. It's what I've been - nothing more and nothing less - since that day in 1918 when I ran away from home in Durham, North Carolina."
1The phrase "ham actor" can be traced to the era of blackface minstrelsy. Blackface performers would use ham fat to wash off the hard to remove burnt cork from their skin.
2Pigmeat released at least three 78s in the mid-forties on the famed Blue Note label. As he explained, "They wasn't comedy bits - nobody was doing comedy records in those days ... these was singing records. One was that old Bessie Smith number You've Been a Good Old Wagon, Mama, but You Just Broke Down." The other two, Blues Before Sunrise and How Long Blues, can be listened to below.
Pigmeat Markham released the following comedy LPs on Chess Records. The majority were recorded live at the Howard Theater in Washington DC, the Regal Theater in Chicago and the Apollo in Harlem, usually featuring Baby Seals or Sonny Craver as his comedy partner. The same week that Chess recorded Markham's performance at the Apollo for World's Greatest Clown, James Brown was recorded by King Records for the album that became his famous Live at the Apollo.
The Trial - 1451 - (1961)
Pigmeat at the Party - 1462 - (1961)
Anything Goes with Pigmeat - 1467 - (1962)
The World's Greatest Clown - 1475 - (1962)
Open the Door Richard - 1484 - (1964)
Best of Moms and Pigmeat - 1487 - (1964)
Mr. Funny Man - 1493 - (1965)
This'll Kill Ya - 1500 - (1965)
One More Time (w/Moms Mabley) - 1504 - (1966)
If You Can't Be Good Be Careful - 1506 - (1966)
Mr. Vaudeville 1515 - (1966)
Save Your Soul, Baby - 1517 - (1967)
Backstage - 1521 - (1967)
Here Come the Judge - 1523 - (1968)
Tune Me In - 1526 - (1968)
The Hustlers - 1529 - (1969)
Pigmeat's Bag - 1534 - (1969)
New York's tiny Cosmopolitan Records also pressed Markham singing an R&B single titled Let's Have Some Heat.
3The flipside to Markham's Here Come the Judge single was titled Sock It To 'Em, Judge, a natural Northern Soul dance floor pleaser. Cover versions and/or interpretations of Here Come the Judge were recorded by The Magistrates, The Buena Vistas, The Ventures and Motown's Shorty Long. Hypothetically, Shorty Long's version can't be considered a cover as it hit the market three weeks prior to Markham's version, even though Pigmeat is the basis for Shorty's track. Here Come the Judge also inspired several funk and soul knock-offs within the year including The Funky Judge by Bull and the Matadors, Judge Baby, I'm Back by Cliff Nobles and Co, and Funky Judge by The Common Pleas. Jazz musician Eddie Harris would also title one of his LPs Here Comes the Judge.
ARCHIVE OF ARTICLES BY KLIPH NESTEROFF
The Afro American, January 27, 1940
Daily Variety, September 25, 1946
Why Have Negro Comedians Failed to Make the Big Time; Ebony, October 1960
Milwaukee Journal, July 17, 1968
NEA Exclusive: Black Dialogue, Raleigh Register, July 23, 1968
Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance by Marshall and Jean Stearns (MacMillan, 1968)
Here Come the Judge by Pigmeat Markham with Bill Levinson (Popular Library, 1969)
Blacks in Blackface: A Source Book on Early Black Musical Shows by Henry T. Sampson (Scarecrow Press, 1980)
Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie by Count Basie and Albert Murray (De Capo Press, 1995)
Profiles of African American Stage Performers and Theater People 1816-1960 by Bernard L. Peterson (Greenwood, 2000)
Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era by Brenda Dixon Gottschild (Palgrave, 2000)
A History of African American Theater by Errol Hill and James Vernon Hatch (Cambridge University Press, 2006)
James Brown's Live at the Apollo by Douglas Wolk (Continuum, 2004)
The Great Black Way: LA's Central Avenue in the 1940s by R.J. Smith (Public Affairs, 2006)
33 1/3 Greatest Hits by David Barker (Continuum, 2007)
Blues Before Sunrise: The Radio Interviews by Steve Cushing (University of Illinois Press, 2010)
Dick Alen, Interview with author, November 6, 2010