Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Uncle Leonard and The Sweet Davis Orchestra - Forgotten Musicians of Little Rock Arkansas

The Sweet Davis Orchestra

My mother's uncle was Leonard Martin of Little Rock Arkansas, though he was known by some of his closer friends as "Abe" Martin. He was known to have been in several musical groups, including the "Rose City Band", and even his own musical group called, Abe Martin and the Southern Seranaders. But Uncle Leonard was said to have had a fascinating career playing his trumpet in a number of venues and with a number of well known musicians. It is not known how long any of the groups lasted, but the one group that has caught my attention the most has been one group, known as the "Sweet Davis Orchestra". 

Members of the group.
The full names of the group are not known, however, the photo above was made on a post cards, and Uncle Leonard, carefully wrote down the surnames of each of the participants.

Names of musicians in Sweet Davis Orchestra

Top Row: Brewton, Andrews, Mercer, Blackmon, Danille (or Danville)
Second Row: Doc Pepper(?), Alison, Davis, Longley, Porter
Bottom Row: Martin, Hopkins, Watkins, Cox

My mother's uncle Leonard Martin, is the man on the left in the bottom row.

Leonard Martin, Trumpeter, Sweet Davis Orchestra

 But who are the others musicians? They were based in Little Rock, but were they primarily a traveling band or did they play mostly in the Little Rock area? Did they play on 9th Street, which was the business and entertainment district of Little Rock? And did they ever play at the ballroom of the Mosaic Templars?

It was said that the Davis orchestra played in central and eastern Arkansas, as well as in popular ballrooms. I have searched, but have not found any evidence that that any kind of recording was made by this orchestra.

So who exactly was the band leader, Sweet Davis?
Was he from Arkansas, or did he move there from another state?

And the other musicians, can anything be learned about them?

A possible identification
Another name in the group, caught my attention, the man with the surname, "Longley". I happen to know this name as I grew up in Ft. Smith Arkansas where there was and still is a large family in the area, with that surname. In fact, the patriarch of the family that I knew while growing up was a Mr. Leland Longley, who relocated to Ft. Smith in the 1940s. He joined the police force and served there many years as one of the few black lawmen in the 1950s and early 1960s. Mr. Longley died in the early 1960s.

I learned several years later, that the Longley family of Ft. Smith, has roots in the Longley settlement in the Little Rock Arkansas community. And I also learned that for many years, Mr. Longley, the policeman also had a strong passion for music, and in fact had played the saxophone.

Could the image of the man in the photo identified as Longley (to the right of the band leader) possibly be the same Mr. Longley who later migrated to western Arkansas?

Musician Longley, of the Sweet Davis Orchestra

It is known that the youngest child of the Longley family, Christine Longley Gatewood wrote an article about her family history, including her ties to a Civil War soldier. In the article she spoke about her father's parents Egbert and Hattie Longley. Ms. Gatewood's grandfather Egbert was a Civil War soldier and married a much younger woman Hattie with whom he raised a large family. They were the parents of Leland Longley, who later in life became a policeman. 

Now, in an effort to identify some of the musicians of the Sweet Davis orchestra, I attempted to look up the names of some of the musicians from the photo. But there are no first names and it was quite a challenging task. But having seen the name Longley, on a whim, I looked to see if I could learn anything about Mr. Leland Longley before he moved to Ft. Smith, as I wondered if he ever worked as a musician. Well, I located him in the census. In the 1930 census he was a young man of 21 years, living with his mother Hattie and two other siblings. This was the Ms. Gatewood's father.

Source Citation: Year: 1930; Census Place: Little Rock, Pulaski,Arkansas; Roll: 91; Page: 26A; Enumeration District: 0007; Image: 53.0; FHL microfilm: 2339826.

Finding the family in the census was no surprise, and I know that Ms. Gatewood had well documented her family already. But what surprised me was the occupation listed for Mr. Leland Longley. He was a professional musician!

Source Citation: Year: 1930; Census Place: Little Rock, Pulaski,Arkansas; Roll: 91; Page: 26A; Enumeration District: 0007; Image: 53.0; FHL microfilm: 2339826.

So if Mr. Longley worked as a profession musician, could that have also included his having worked with a professional orchestra like the Sweet Davis orchestra? 

I realize that more proof is still needed but I am getting a strong feeling that this was the same person.  I did also note that the photo of musician Longley with the orchestra, closely resembles the image of Mr. Longley whom I had known as a child. Though the family may or may not be able to shine more light on this possibility, I have a strong feeling that this portrait from the Sweet Davis orchestra is possibly the same man!

So now, with possibly three men identified as part of the Sweet Davis orchestra, can more be identified? Can the the history of this long forgotten group be learned? And can more be learned about the man behind the band, Sweet Davis himself?

This is one of those stories that does not have an easy answer, but one that does require more research, and some input from persons in Pulaski County.

I have had this photo of the orchestra for many years, but only when I decided to write this piece about Uncle Leonard, that I studied the surnames of the other musicians.

My mother spoke so fondly of Uncle Leonard, and loved him dearly. I doubt if it was ever known that Mr. Longley who attended the same church as we did, and who was a close friend to my father, was a musician who had once played in the same musical orchestra her my mother's beloved uncle.

Hopefully with time, more will be learned. I would hate for this group to be forgotten and lost to time. In the meantime, hopefully those who study Arkansas music history will also be able to remember this professional, poised and elegantly presented orchestra, that was possibly part of Arkansas Jazz history.

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