If you’ve had occasion to take the Brightline train and use the adjacent garage, you may have noticed that the Northwest Second Street sign also bears the name James A. Dallas Sr.
Music fans might wish to have the days of this man back – if just for a Saturday night. Dallas was a Fort Lauderdale pioneer who brought the likes of Count Basie, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington and Lionel Hampton to clubs all along the fabled Fifth Street corridor in the 1950s.
Northwest Fifth Avenue was known then as “Black downtown.” Dallas himself owned Odell’s Lounge and Grill as well as The Big Savoy, and he booked talent for the Windsor Club, the Crystal Palace and the Blue Flame. That was one swinging scene back in Dallas’ day.
It’s an era long gone. Ironically, segregation gave birth to the hopping scene, and integration brought it to a close.
Of course, segregation brought more than enough despicable negatives. That’s why Black businessmen such as Dallas – known by all as Jimmie – were also busy with civic organizations like the NAACP. But few were as active as Dallas.
A 1942 graduate of Florida A&M University, he developed his own musical chops playing trombone in the school’s trifecta: jazz band, concert orchestra and the famed marching band. Then he moved on to Howard University’s pharmacy program. But World War II intervened; he was drafted into the Army and stationed in Okinawa. He moved to Fort Lauderdale in the late ’40s.
According to his daughter Michele, a Fort Lauderdale dentist, the trombone “was his vehicle to the world.” After learning to play as a child, Dallas got a scholarship to Florida A&M, and later on it was his entry point into the music world he navigated so successfully. She points out that Odell’s was more than a nightspot. It was a supper club too, and a place where people would come over after church in their Sunday best.
Dallas taught at Blanche Ely High School, then Sunrise Middle School. He was a leader of the Elks Lodge; a charter member of the local alumni chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi and a founding member of the Young Men’s Progressive Association. If all that wasn’t enough, he also started a grocery and a pest control business.
It takes a special kind of person to cross such varied social terrain. Dallas was nothing if not social.
“Everybody knew him, and he knew everybody,” said Leon Picot, a white DJ with a blues and jazz program on WFTL, in a 2004 interview. “He liked putting people together.” The pair once put on a jazz symphonic concert at War Memorial Auditorium.
Dallas’ son James Dallas II, like his sister Michele, studied at Howard University. All three of the children of Dallas and his wife Margie Sweet became professionals. James is a doctor of physical therapy living in Chicago. He credits his parents with their success. “My mother was nominated as teacher of the year shortly before she died,” he said. “Poor as we were, we had parents who gave us discipline and guidance.”
Dallas Sr.’s guidance extended beyond the family: “He would get Black kids from various high schools in an oratorical society,” Dallas II told the Sun-Sentinel shortly after his father died at age 86, in 2004. “It was very important to him.”
Fort Lauderdale’s first Black attorney, T.J. Reddick, was lured here by Dallas and lived at Dallas’ home until he got settled in. Dallas even talked a prominent physician off a train bound for Miami and into practicing in a “new and upcoming city.”
“I was passing through Fort Lauderdale going to Miami and on to Key West,” Dr. Calvin Shirley told the Sun-Sentinel in 2004. “I saw him at the train station. He talked me into going to see where he was working. It was Odell’s. I went to his club. He invited me to spend the night, and the next day he introduced me to the doctors who worked at Providence Hospital. They convinced me to practice medicine here.
“But it was Jimmie Dallas who talked me off the train.”