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Thu, Mar 1, 2012

A graphics designer by profession, Morris (Dino) Robinson was a natural for the role of archivist to the Black community on the North Shore. He cross references old newspaper stories against public records and family histories and mines city council minutes for people like Tuskegee Airman trainer Fred Hutcherson Jr. (see main story). Robinson began his research in 1995 when a local newspaper editor asked him to write on the subject and he found little documentation. He started producing a quarterly newsletter in 1999 and established the nonprofit Shorefront Legacy organization in 2002. It is now part of the Black Metropolis Research Consortium that includes the DuSable and Chicago History Museums.

In an interview at the Shorefront Legacy Center, Robinson shared stories about Kathryn “Kay” McDonald Wimp, a Northwestern graduate who as Kay Davis sang with Duke Ellington in the 1940s and ’50s; about ’60s and ’70s soul singer Patti Drew; and about the Legacy Keepers program for youth in third through eighth grades.

“Kay Davis’s grandfather was William Twiggs [the printer in downtown Evanston and who was also active with the YMCA, who is the namesake of a Simpson Street park]. She went to Evanston Township High School and studied music at Northwestern University. She was a huge Duke Ellington fan and had a chance to meet him backstage. She mentioned to him she was having her graduation recital at Northwestern. When she was finished having her recital she had a round of applause. The applause kept getting louder and louder.
“It was Ellington coming down the aisle to greet her. He said, Can you be in Baltimore next week? She is the voice behind Minnehaha, Brown Penny, On a Turquoise Cloud and Nothing But the Blues.

“Duke Ellington tagged her voice more as a musical instrument. She would hum more than vocalize. Al Hibbler would sing a line of the verse and she would hum it: call and response. She was goofing around, but Ellington said, ‘keep it up.’ The only song she sang was Brown Penny.

“She toured with him for seven years and was also in a film and we are looking for that film now. We have a replica of the poster. You would go to the theater in the 30s and 40s, before you’d see the main feature and you would see a lot of shorts. The early days of music video were done on films — you’d see them in concert — and one of them was Kay Davis singing Duke Ellington’s songs.

“If you’re a Duke Ellington fan, just to have her living here at the time was a huge thing. Imagine you’re 20-something years old and you’re leaving town to tour with a band. Pretty heavy stuff.”

Robinson had been looking for Patti Drew for over a year when he finally learned she lived practically around the corner from him.

“Patti was a singer, popular in the late ‘60s, early 70s. She helped define soul music and was part of a group known as the Drew-Vells: she and her sisters but she was the standout star. She was signed by Capitol records and made four albums. Some of songs she sang were Working on a Groovy Thing and Hard to Handle. When I finally came to the door and she cracked it open, I thought, ‘Wow I have about three seconds to make impression.’ We’ve become friends.

“As we were talking she told me she sang on American Bandstand, so I immediately started looking for the tape. I wrote Dick Clark Productions. They wrote back and said ‘if you send the fee, we will send you the tape.’ They did send the VHS tape with the entire performance time coded of Working on a Groovy Thing, 1969-70. She’d never seen her own performance. I brought the tape over to her house and her granddaughters were there. They were about 6 or 7 and now they are in college. I popped the tape in and we saw Dick Clark introducing Patti Drew. She was sitting there with her hands [on each side of her face, he gestured]. Her granddaughter was like – ‘Is that you, Grandma? You were fine!’”

The Legacy Keepers started as part of a pilot in Kankakee with a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council that helped Shorefront hone its research skills, Robinson said. They went down the first Saturday of every month for two years and told the kids to record what was important to them on disposable cameras. Now the Shorefront web site includes a blog entitled A Day in the Life of a Teen.

“I give them the password with a set of rules and guidelines and they are free to post. They don’t have to come to the location. They can do it in an email. I tried to make it user-friendly because anything that makes it complicated becomes a barrier. My daughter does it. She’s 11 and is excited about describing what is going on in her life. ‘I went skating today. I skate three times a week for competition; here is the level I am at and what I have to do.’

“I asked them to be as descriptive as possible. ‘You have to describe what an iPhone is.’ They said, ‘everyone knows what an iPhone is.’ And I said, ‘Fifty years from now, no one will know what an iPhone is. Do you know what an eight-track is?’ ”

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