Johnny Depp was once asked if, in his early days, he really wanted to be a Harlem Globetrotter.
“It’s absolutely true,” he mused “I went through various stages in my childhood as we all do. I would spin the ball on my finger and I would make it go through my arms and I would dribble with it close to the ground like Curly Neal used to do. I went through that stage. I wanted to be the first white Globetrotter.”
But Depp was never going to be the team’s first Caucasian signing. Bob Karsten, one of the originators of the Globetrotters’ Magic Circle pre-game routine, achieved that distinction way back in 1942. The Globetrotters ranks, have, along the way, also included a female star (Lynette Woodard) a player from Mongolia (Shark Tserenjanhor) and even a ball-control wizard with one arm in the remarkable Boid Buie.
Whatever the line-up, they’ve remained the world’s greatest basketball squad. Not only superb sportsman but remarkable entertainers, whose achievements have frequently garnered a musical backdrop.
Cab Calloway was there at the beginning,
The audience enjoyed the basketball. But they demanded more.
“At halftime, a piano would be rolled out in the middle of the crowd and I’d start singing”
Cab recalled. By the end of the evening, the crowd at Chicago’s Savoy Ballroom had received more than their fill of entertainment one way or another.
They’d come to watch the Savoy Five, a basketball squad of six-footers run by five foot three coach Abe Saperstein, a team that had made its debut during early 1927 in Hinkley, Illinois.
What Saperstein lacked in inches he compensated for in know-how. Calloway, he observed, knew how to sell his wares. His basketball team, five black players of reasonable talent, did not.
Something had to change.. Abe made his move. One day in 1928, the London-born son of a Polish-tailor headed for his father’s shop and stitched a new name into the team’s uniforms, “Saperstein’s New York”. Later. they became The Harlem Globetrotters, “because I wanted people to know that they were Negro”. Harlem, at that point, was considered the home of black entertainment. The name related to the Cotton Club and the Roseland. At a stroke the Globetrotters, who’d never moved outside Chicago became synonymous with such seasoned travellers as Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. Now they were moving upmarket.
Calloway recalls that he and a friend named Toots Wright sometimes practised with the Trotters and was offered a place in the team by Saperstein. But his sister, bandleader Blanche Calloway nixed the idea, telling him that there was no way he could travel with the Trotters and also attend college. “So I scrapped the idea of becoming a professional basketball player.”
Had Cab remained with the team, Saperstein’s travel schedule would have proved more than demanding. The team became barnstormers, playing every venue that was offered, small or large.
At one University show, only 27 people showed and the Globetrotters took just five bucks for their appearance.
Initially there were just five players, travelling from town to town in a Model T Ford sometimes sleeping on floors or in barns. There was little rest, they played night after night, with Saperstein acting as their only reserve. And they became good. Very good. In their third season they won 151 games and lost only 13. All they lacked was a substantial income. Plus venues where the towns had places for blacks to sleep other than the local jail.
Already, they’d become great at dribbling the ball, one man holding things up while his team-mates rested their over-stretched limbs. Crowds loved the spectacle. When a player name Kid Oliver accidently set fire to his pants during a game as Williamsburg, Iowa and ran screaming to the locker room, Saperstein suddenly had a vision. The crowd had cheered and laughed at the incident which they thought was just part of the Globetrotters routine. “You’re the hottest player I’ve had since the team began barnstorming” Saperstein informed the still smoking Oliver. But from that date on, the Globetrotters tossed more and more comedy routines into their performances, becoming the Clown Princes of basketball.
Could the Globetrotters really play? The answer came in 1940 when Saperstein’s team took on the New York Rens, rated as America’s best and wealthiest black basketball team, in what was touted as a World Championship. They lost narrowly, 23-27. But from then on, they were taken seriously. In 1940, inspired by veteran star Inman Jackson, they won the competition and became world champs.
World War 2 took its toll on the team as some players joined the forces and Saperstein cajoled those who were left to perform to audiences for war fund raisers and play games that raised public morale.
In one day the team played four games, a record for a professional team. But at least they were playing.
During the early ’40s, black sportsmen were barred from participating in the major football, basketball and baseball leagues. Jim Crow was the biggest name in sport and remained so until 1946.
That year the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, destined to become America’s most idolised baseball player. After which, walls tumbled and, in 1950, Saperstein, cashing in, sold Nat ‘Sweetwater’Clifton to the New York Knicks for $25,000, the ex-Globetrotter becoming the first black player to appear in an NBA game.
The Globetrotters didn’t care. During 1948 they’d defeated the all-white champion Minneapolis Lakers. What’s more, they had The Goose.
Reece ‘Goose’ Tatum was like nothing basketball had ever seen before. The possessor of enormously long arms that hung below his knees, he was natural clown. He’d make the ball disappear amid matches, then retrieve it from inside his shirt. He’d sneak into rival team’s on-court huddle – or dance with the referee just prior to scoring with an unbelievable overhead shot. Marques Haynes once declared “Goose was the best I’ve seen in all my years.” Which, coming from Haynes was a remarkable statement. For Marques Oreole Haynes was an awesome player. When he opted for an extended dribble, no-one could take the ball away from him. He was incredible, skipping, faking, dropping to the floor, sliding along, turning on his back but, all the time, controlling the ball like no-one before or since. Writer Josh Wilker observed “In his style of play he resembled alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker, who was that time revolutionising jazz by flooding his songs with a virtually torrent of notes both ferocious and practically bursting with joy. Jazz would never be the same, and neither would basketball. Musicians would follow the path that Parker blazed. Basketball players followed Haynes’ path.”
Not that it was Bird’s music that became synonymous with the Globetrotters.
Enter Brother Bones.
Freeman Davis came from Montgomery, Alabama and was originally known as Whistling Sam. A one-time shoe-shine boy , he’d whistle, click his fingers and bang his brushes to create a rhythm as records played on an nearby Victrola. Additionally, a tap-dancer who also played bones as a rhythm instrument, he was heard by the president of Tempo Records while playing at a Chinese restaurant in L.A.and rushed into a studio to record Sweet Georgia Brown. Heard by one of the Globetrotters, the whistle’n'bones bonanza was adopted as the team’s theme, played as they began their famed Magic Circle warm-up routine. Used additionally as the intro to the 1950 feature film, The Harlem Globetrotters, the record became a massive hit worldwide, one forever linked to the inextricably linked to the team’s exploits.
It was during 1950 that Saperstein’s team really became globetrotters, with games set in Western Europe and North Africa, their shows in London attracting sell-out crowds. From that time on, Wembley became a regular stop on the Globetrotters annual tour schedule. And for interval entertainment they employed such superior musical acts as Bob Scobey’s Frisco Jazz Band and Queen Of The Boogie Hadda Brooks, the latter recalling “When I was married the first time, the only time, it was to a Harlem Globetrotter named Earl Morrison. They nicknamed him Shug. They all had nicknames. ” But Morrison was ill-starred. He died within months of the marriage.
Meanwhile the Globetrotters were moving from strength to strength. A film called The Harlem Globetrotters in which they headlined alongside singer-actress Dorothy Dandridge, was hastily pieced together and proved a money-spinner. Which, in typical Hollywood tradition ensured a sequel. Titled Go Man Go! it featured screen newcomer Sidney Poitier as Inman Jackson plus a theme song delivered with typical panache by Slim Gaillard,
Somewhere along the way, amid the constant touring, the filming and the promo jaunts, something seemed to snap within Goose Tatum. Erratic at the best of times, he became increasingly unreliable, often going awol amid stops by the team bus and sometimes disappearing from the face of the earth. During one trip to Rome he performed his vanishing act only to turn up in Dallas, Texas, a few days later, jailed for having punched-out a neighbourhood cop. “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde had nothing on Goose” Marques Haynes observed. There was only one way out. Goose opted to form his own team, one with whom he could play if the mood took him. But things didn’t pan the way they should.. In 1959 the man once voted The Globetrotters’ most valuable star was jailed for 90 days for failing to pay his taxes. Bouts of ill-health followed. By January, 1967, Goose Tatum , age 45, was dead.
Tatum’s ultimate replacement was Meadowlark George Lemon, a rookie from North Carolina. Sometimes it seemed he’d lived his early life to the strains of Sweet Georgia Brown. All he’d ever wanted to be was a Globetrotter. A singer and dancer, he was, above all else, a remarkable basketball player who was strong on gaining laughs in best Goose Tatum tradition. Before he finally left the team Tatum took Lemon aside and informed him “A couple of times watchin’ you, I thought I was looking in a mirror, no kiddin’” Dubbed Meadowlark, he became the team’s chief clown. It was a job he held down for over 20 years. An icon, his name later figured amid one of the Jurassic 5′s early songs.
Meanwhile, Abe Saperstein was still attempting to blaze a show-biz trail. In 1956, as Lonnie Donegan’s version of Leadbelly’s Rock Island Line headed into the US Top 10, Abe took a trip to London with a deal in hand. He offered the skiffle-king a Stateside tour involving 60 appearances with the Harlem Globetrotters at major arenas. Inevitably, there was a problem. In that era, band exchanges had to take place. If a British band played a series of dates in the US, then an American unit had to play s similar number of venues in the UK. Bill Haley was offered as the reciprocal act. But negotiations fell apart, Saperstein went home empty-handed and the Globetrotters never became involved in an early British invasion.
It was during the early ’50s that the Globetrotters began supplying their own opponents. Because the team was finding it increasingly difficult to find worthy opposition, Saperstein contacted basketball expert Red Klotz to develop a team which could tour around with the Globetrotters and play well enough to keep spectators interested. They toured under various names – Boston Shamrocks, Baltimore Rockets, New York Nationals etc. – but they were all Klotz’s teams and destined to lose virtually every time they played. By 1956 the Globetrotters were so in-demand that they had four separate teams on tour, playing seven days a week. And when they took on ‘real’ opposition in the World Series Of Basketball, the 21-game series attracted an audience totalling 203,615, the Globetrotters narrowly beating the College All-Americans by an 11-10 margin. It seemed that the team could hardly improve.
Amazingly it did. In 1959, the year after signing Wilt ‘The Stilt’ Chamberlain, the game’s greatest offensive source, the Globtrotters notched their first-ever undefeated season, finishing with 441 wins.
Another decade, another talented clown. The quiet man, Hubert ‘Geese’ Ausbie, made his first appearance with the team in 1961. Quiet off court that is. Let loose with a basketball, Ausbie proved as outrageous as Goose Tatum and Meadowlark Lemon. He reigned as resident Clown Prince through to 1985. His arrival coincided with an spectacular run of success. Though in a stunning upset, the Globetrotters were defeated in a game against the Washington Generals, they were destined to lose just one more game in the next 8,964 – a 1964 charity match against an assorted team of British comics and celebrities that included Prince Phillip as a reserve!
Many new breed black players in the game looked down on the Globetrotters with distaste. It was a problem that had previously beset other black entertainers such as Louis Armstrong, whose CV included at least one interval gig with Saperstein’s heroes.. It was alleged that they were selling out, making a mockery of their race, becoming stereotypes. What was overlooked was the fact that the Globetrotters, while having fun and flaunting their skills, could, when called upon to do so, outplay every other team in the country.
The decade brought its share of sad moments for the team however. In March, 1966, Abe Saperstein died at the age of 63. As a kind of tribute, the Globetrotters played a game in Hinkley, Illinois, where everything had begun. Amazingly, in 1968 the team their first ever game in Harlem, 47 years after making their debut.
Mannie Jackson, a Globetrotter during the late ’60s and early ’70s recalls:
“Cab Calloway came back during the ’60s and appeared as one of our intermission acts. Another was Peg Leg Bates, the one one-legged dancer. He was enormously popular both with us and on TV. He toured with us for three or four years and was phenomenal.”
Globetrotter Nate Branch also made some inroads into the music scene at the close of the decade.
Bassist Bill Stuve, who’d worked with Little Johnny Taylor, Charlie Musselwhite and an array of others recalls that he formed part of Branch’s backing band at one point. “When he wasn’t working with the Globetrotters, we’d travel to various cities like Vegas, Tahoe and Reno, backing him as a singer, We’d get $350 a week plus hotel accommodation.”
Branch additionally made a series of records with Wally Cox, one of which, ZaZu, appears on Ace’s SuperFunk 3 compilation and rates highly among those who love their music Hammond-filled and
But it was television, not music that was to provide the Globetrotters with a whole new audience.
Mannie Jackson: “It all started with Scooby Doo. The Globetrotters made a cameo appearance on the show after which the the producers began incorporating regular visititations by the team on that programme. That created a whole following around the Globetrotters and they had their own cartoon series in which they were stars and superheroes. And those shows were popular because they were well-written and enables the players themselves to become recognised by the kids who got up on Saturday mornings to see them. It became the highest rated Saturday morning cartoon series ever.”
And so the court jesters became caped crusaders, though none of the team actually provided their own voices to the original Hanna-Barbera series that ran for two years on CBS between December 1970 and February 1972. Sometime Motown recording artist and actor Scatman Crothers provided the voice of Meadowlark Lemon in that series, also dubbing the voice of Nate Branch in the later Super Globetrotters episodes on NBC. Adam Wade, the provider of three US Top 10 hits, voiced Sweet Lou Dunbar at one time, while others provided the onscreen sounds of Meadowlark Lemon, Geese Ausbie, Curly Neal, Sweet Lou Dunbar and other favourites.
“Several of the players had TV contracts as a result”, recalls Jackson, “They were doing situation comedies and variety shows and there were spin-offs like The Harlem Globetrotters’ Popcorn Machine,live series. People turned out to see the characters who appeared on TV and it became like 1950-51, when the team beat the Lakers two years in a row.”
One consequence of the TV shows is that Don Kirshner, the man behind The Archies and The Monkees, got together with Jeff Barry and various Brill Building writers, such as Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, to created a record album titled The Globetrotters, which purported to be by the team though Meadowlark Lemon was said to be the only Globetrotter appearing on the record. Ron Dante, the front man with The Archies, recalls: “I wrote some songs for the Globetrotters with my friend Jeff Barry. One that we wrote, Cheer Me Up, made it on to the album just an hour before the session. Jeff was a very quick songwriter. I had the idea for the chorus of Cheer Me Up and some of the music. He put it all together very quickly and it came off pretty well. The singers on the recordings were New York City studio guys who sang on tons of background sessions and a lot of commercials. They were real pros who knew how to get the songs across.”
It was New York doo-wop historian Bobby Day who finally came up with the answer. He confirmed that the record, which comprised a successful mixture of funk, doo-wop and novelty material, was performed by a number of ’50s R&B veterans, who included members of The Coasters, Drifters, Cadillacs and Platters, Johnny Moore taking the lead on Marathon Mary and Billy Guy taking charge on Lillia Peabody and Sneaky Peter. One track, Sedaka and Greenfield’s attractive Rainy Day Bells, has become a cult item of sorts often revived at West Coast doo-wop soirees.
Meadowlark Lemon had in the interim, become an in-demand celebrity. He’d recorded a single Shoot A Basket for RSVP as early as 1962. In the late ’70s, he cut a solo album, My Kids, for Casablanca and followed up with single that found him reprising Sweet Georgia Brown. Additionally, he turned up films such as The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh and, later, Modern Romance.
“I played in 9,925 consecutive games,” Lemon claimed after he retired in 1978 “At times we’d average nine games a week and I didn’t have a lot of free time because I wanted to be the best I could be.”
During 1980 it was announced that the Globetrotters total television audience to date had passed the billion mark. Soon after, they appeared in the TV special Harlem Globetrotters On Gilligan’s Island and appeared to still be flying high. But the team’s appeal was waning, while their appeared to be an upsurge of interest in the NBA which was now boasting such superstars as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Even the arrival of US women’s basketball captain Lynette Woodward failed to attract more than a passing rise in interest. When team member Bobo Hubbard married Shirley Jones, lead singer of Philly group The Jones Girls, there was hardly a yawn, even though Shirley’s Do You Get Enough Love topped the US R&B charts around that time.
By 1991 it seemed to be all over. The team’s owners The International Broadcasting Company went belly-up. It was at that point that Mannie Jackson made his return to basketball.
After quitting the Globetrotters in the early ’70s , the man who’d been born in a box-car, moved into the world of big business, eventually becoming a senior vice president at Honeywell, in charge of a multi-billion division.
In 1993, at a special ceremony in Harlem, the former player became Globetrotters first black owner.
“I’m the fourth owner” he says. “The financial company who previously bought the team only saw it as a cash cow. They extracted all the cash from it and just drained everything off. ”
Jackson’s love of the team aligned to his business acumen, saw him change things around.
“What we tried to do was make thing more contemporary. Youth culture is driven by dance, by song and by music, so we set out to incorporate a lot of contemporary music, incorporating the energy that’s inherent in hip-hop, rock and R&B. Nowadays it’s like coming to a rock show that lasts just two hours and leaves people wanting more. Some hip-hop entertainers have been good to us and for us. LL Cool J is a huge Harlem Globetrotter fan, he is also a good friend of Fubu, the clothing manufacturer who produce our wares and the kids have gone crazy over it. LL Cool J was the first to wear our gear and show it off at concert. Nelly is also a fan and wore Globetrotter attire of two of his videos. When the kids saw them they went into the stores and tried to buy the authentic jerseys. I think we sold around 100,000 in just a few weeks. Another huge Globetrotters fan is Justin Timberlake. He grew up in Memphis, where a couple of our players are from, and they’ve stayed in communication.”
Another Jackson innovation that captured public imagination was the vertical slam dunk -the art of leaping directly upwards and just placing the ball in the basket.. “It started because we realised how high some of our players could jump. We were amazed to find that we had three or four players who were capable of setting world records. One day we had a jump-off, Michael Jordan and everybody came to try it. But Globetrotter Michael ‘Wild Man’ Wilson jumped 12 feet and later leapt 12 feet 2 inches unofficially. During college all-star games we run the event during the interval and challenge all the top college stars to see how high they can go. It’s become a very popular feature.”
Mannie Jackson, who considers Marques Haynes to be the finest player ever to wear a Globetrotters shirt, adds: “When I came back I wanted to demonstrate just how great basketball could be when it’s played Globetrotters style. So we began playing everybody -just like the team did in the ’20s and ’30s. Today, people realise that Globetrotters basketball is hard to beat. People used to say “When we got beat by these guys we got beat by clowns.” But now things have turned around. The Hall Of Fame has begun to recognise the team and its players and the contribution they’ve made to the sport and the world of entertainment.”
Additionally the links to the world of music remain intact. Meadowlark Lemon, now a preacher. has released a well received gospel album, albeit one that ends with a new version of Sweet Georgia Brown.
That song remains a key element in the Harlem Globetrotters story. Anyone placed on hold after phoning the main Globetrotters office in Phoenix, Arizona, hears the sound of Brother Bones’ original version.
Mannie Jackson chuckles. “Ain’t that just great? Brother Bones did a great thing for the team back in 1949 when he did that song. It’s been an anthem for us every since. Every years somebody comes to us and wants to hip-hop it or disco it. But I always say no – it’s just perfect the way it is.”
The musical connections of America’s basketball ambassadors