Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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Little Rock Look Back: Dr. William Grant Still

Long known as the Dean of African American composers, Dr. William Grant Still was a legend in his own lifetime.

Dr. Still, who wrote more than 150 compositions ranging from operas to arrangements of folk themes, is best known as a pioneer. He was the first African-American in the United States to have a symphonic composition performed by a major orchestra. He was the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the US; the first to conduct a major symphony in the south; first to conduct a white radio orchestra in New York City; first to have an opera produced by a major company. Dr. Still was also the first African-American to have an opera televised over a national network

Dr. Still was born May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi to parents who were teachers and musicians. When Dr. Still was only a few months old, his father died and his mother took him to Little Rock. Inspired by RCA Red Seal operatic recordings, his musical education began with violin lessons.  He graduated from Gibbs High School in Little Rock.

After his studies at Wilberforce University and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he played in orchestras and orchestrated for various employers including the great W. C. Handy. For several years he arranged and conducted the “Deep River Hour” over CBS and WOR.  He also played in the orchestra for the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, which was the first Broadway musical to feature an all African-American cast and writing team.

In the 1920’s, Still made his first appearances as a serious composer in New York. Several fellowships and commissions followed. In 1994, his “Festive Overture” captured the Jubilee prize of the Cincinnati Symphony orchestra. In 1953, he won a Freedoms Foundation Award for “To You, America!” which honored West Point’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. In 1961, he received honors for this orchestral work, “The Peaceful Land”. Dr. Still also received numerous honorary degrees from various colleges and universities, as well as various awards and a citation from Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers in 1972.

In 1939, Dr. Still married journalist and concert pianist Verna Avery, who became his principal collaborator. They remained together until Dr. Still’s death in 1978.  In a proclamation marking the centennial of Dr. Still’s birth, President Bill Clinton praised the composer for creating “works of such beauty and passion that they pierced the artificial barriers of race, nationality and time.”

In 1995, Dr. Still was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  In 2016, the ballroom at Robinson Center was named in his honor.


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Little Rock Look Back: Mayor Lottie H. Shackelford

While this headline may say “Little Rock Look Back,” Lottie Shackelford is still very much focused on the present and the future!

On April 30, 1941, future Little Rock Mayor Lottie Shackelford was born. Throughout her career in public service she has been a trailblazer.

Active in community activities and politics, she ran for the City Board in 1974 and lost.  But she was appointed to the Little Rock City Board in September 1978 to fill a vacancy.  This made her the first African American woman to serve on he City Board, and indeed on any governing board for the City (during Reconstruction, there were at least three African Americans on the City Council, but they were all men.) She was subsequently elected to a full-term on the City Board in 1980 winning 55% of the vote over three male candidates.

She was subsequently re-elected in 1984 (unopposed) and in 1988 (with 60% of the vote).

In January 1987, Shackelford became the first female mayor of Little Rock when she was chosen by her colleagues on the City Board to serve in that position. She was Mayor until December 1988.

From 1982 until 1992, she served as Executive Director of the Arkansas Regional Minority Purchasing Council.  She left that position to serve as Deputy Campaign Manager of Clinton for President.  She subsequently served on the Clinton/Gore transition team. She later served on the Overseas Private Investment Corporation from 1993 to 2003. She was the first African American to be in that position.

A graduate of Philander Smith College, she has also studied at the Arkansas Institute of Politics at Hendrix College and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Mayor Shackelford has also served on numerous boards including the Little Rock Airport Commission, Philander Smith College, Chapman Funds (Maryland) and Medicis Pharmaceutical Corporation (Arizona).  She has been the longest serving Vice-Chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Mayor Shackelford was in the first class of inductees for the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.  In 2015, she was inducted into the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail.


Little Rock Look Back: President Thomas Jefferson

On April 13, 1743, Thomas Jefferson was born in Virginia.  Along with Benjamin Franklin, he was one of the first American multi-hyphenate Renaissance men.  Author, musician, inventor, diplomat, epicurean, architect, educator, and President. Certainly his writing of the Declaration of Independence was of paramount importance to the US, even if he had never served as President.

It was during his Presidency that Thomas Jefferson actively pursued the Louisiana Purchase which brought what is now Arkansas into the United States.  While he never visited the area, he did send explorers to chart out the Louisiana Purchase.  The subsequent surveying which took place during the Madison presidency was based on standards developed by Jefferson for the surveying of Ohio.

In Little Rock, Jefferson is remembered with Jefferson Elementary and Jefferson Street. He is also the eponym for Bill Clinton’s middle name.


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Women’s History Month – Janis Kearney, first presidential diarist

Janis Kearney is the only person to have held the title of U.S. Presidential Diarist. In 1995 she was appointed to that position by President Bill Clinton.

After graduating from the University of Arkansas, she was hired by the State of Arkansas as a program manager.  Nine years later, she became managing editor for the Arkansas State Press. She later purchased it from owner Daisy Bates.

In 1992, she took a leave from the paper to work on the Clinton presidential campaign.  Following the election, she worked in the transition office, the White House, and the U.S. Small Business Administration until her appointment as Presidential Diarist.

In 2001, she moved to Chicago and started working on a book, while also having fellowships at Harvard and DePaul.  In 2004, she founded Writing Our World Press and published her first book, Cotton Field of Dreams.  Her Clinton biography, Conversations: William Jefferson Clinton-From Hope to Harlem was published in 2006.  Since then she has also published a novel, a biography of Daisy Bates, and the second part of her memoirs.

 


Little Rock Look Back: President Clinton performs with Arkansas Symphony

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton addresses the audience after reciting Martin Luther King’s famous speech, ‘I Have A Dream’, to the music of Alexander L. Miller at Robinson Auditorium March 25, 2003 in Little Rock. (Photo by Karen E. Segrave/Getty Images)

On March 25, 2003, former President Bill Clinton took the stage of Robinson Center Music Hall to perform with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. Entitled “Let Freedom Ring – A Patriotic Celebration,” the evening was a joint fundraiser for the Symphony and the Clinton Foundation.

Before a packed house, Clinton narrated Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait which weaves excerpts from Lincoln speeches with Copland’s own unique classical take on American heartland music.  Clinton also narrated Let Freedom Ring, a symphonic setting by Alexander Miller of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

The evening also consisted of Broadway veteran and Little Rock favorite Lawrence Hamilton singing “Wheels of a Dream” from the musical Ragtime.  On Broadway and on national tour, Hamilton had previously sung the song.

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra also performed An American in Paris by George Gershwin and “Jupiter” from The Planets by Gustav Holst.  This final selection was a tribute to the seven astronauts who had died in the crash of the space shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003.

David Itkin, who was then the musical director of the ASO, conducted the concert.


Women’s History Month – Dr. Joycelyn Elders

Being the second female and first African American female to serve as Surgeon General, was just another milestone in the career of Dr. Joycelyn Elders.

In 1960, she graduated from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Though not the first African American female to do so, she was very much in a minority for both her race and her gender.  In 1967, she would return to UAMS as a faculty member.

After two decades of service as a physician and educator, Governor Bill Clinton appointed her to lead the Arkansas Department of Health in 1987.  She was the first African American woman to lead that department.  She led that department until 1992.  At that point in time, President Bill Clinton tapped her to be Surgeon General.

Upon leaving the post of Surgeon General, she returned to UAMS as a professor. She is now a professor emeritus.  Dr. Elders is also in demand as a lecturer and panelist.

She has been inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame, and the Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail.


Black History Month – Aretha Franklin and Robinson Center

wjc-arethaTwo days before the Clinton Presidential Center opened, at Robinson Center Music Hall, patrons were warmed by the musical talents of Aretha Franklin.

She shared the Robinson stage with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.  The ASO brough Miss Franklin to town as part of the festivities surrounding the opening of the presidential library.  Long a favorite of the Clintons, Miss Franklin sang at his 1993 inaugural festivities the night before he took the oath of office.

Resplendent in a series of white dresses, Miss Franklin was in top form feeding off the love from the audience.  While backstage she may have been dealing with back and knee issues (which the Culture Vulture saw first hand), when she stepped on to the stage she was giving her all as she rolled through hit after hit from her starry career.  She sang, she played the piano, she entertained!

It was a sold out house and her voice and energy reached the last row of the balcony.

Born in Memphis, she moved to Detroit before age five and grew up singing at church.  After gaining some fame singing gospel songs, at 18 she switched to more secular music.  After initially singing for Columbia Records, she moved to Atlantic Records, later to Arista, and now has her own label.

Among her hits are “Respect,” “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “Share Your love with Me,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Break It to Me Gently,” “Jump to It,” “Get It Right,” and “Freeway of Love.”

Franklin received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1979 and became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. NARAS awarded her a Grammy Legend Award in 1991, then the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994, the same year she was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1994.  In 1999, she received the National Medal of Arts from Bill Clinton.  George W. Bush bestowed her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.  She has 17 Grammy Awards and 14 additional nominations.