Walter “Brother” Barnes was a popular bandleader from the late 1920s until his death. A clarinetist, conductor, and tour organizer and advertiser, he fronted the Royal Creolians and then the Kings of Swing. A native of Vicksburg, Barnes spent most of his early years in Chicago, where he learned to please both white and black audiences. A diminutive, smooth, smiling showman, Barnes led his swing bands dressed in a tuxedo. He is perhaps best known for popularizing long tours by bands of African American musicians and for his horrific death.
In the late 1920s Barnes became a popular figure as the bandleader at Chicago’s version of the Cotton Club. He benefited from having Al Capone as a sponsor: Capone told Chicago radio stations to play Barnes’s music, making him one of the first African Americans to receive substantial airplay. He and the thirteen-piece Royal Creolians recorded several singles in 1928 and 1929.
In the 1930s Barnes turned primarily to African American audiences, barnstorming through the South on the sort of tours that became known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. Part of Barnes’s influence and knowledge came from his role on the Chicago Defender, the most important African American newspaper and a connection between the cosmopolitan, urban world and the rural and small-town South. After first writing columns about bands playing in Chicago, especially the African American Bronzeville neighborhood, Barnes turned to producing stories about southern places to play and about the bands, like his, that played there. As historian Preston Lauterbach writes, “Though he began as Chicago orchestra columnist and self-publicist, Barnes rapidly became central dirt dispatcher for traveling black jazz bands.” Barnes and his wife, Dorothy, who also wrote for the Defender, became proprietors of the Walter Barnes Music Corporation. Barnes’s last band, the Kings of Swing, left Chicago in the fall of 1936 for a six-month bus tour stretching from Oklahoma to southern Florida.
In April 1940 Barnes and most of the other members of the Kings of Swing died in a fire that killed more than two hundred people at the Natchez Rhythm Club. Crowds had packed the club, but management closed all but one of the doors to guarantee that only paying customers entered. According to reports in the Defender and legends associated with the tragedy, Barnes and his musicians continued to play during the fire in an effort to calm the panicking patrons.
- Davarian L. Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, The Great Migration, and Black Urban Life (2007)
- Preston Lauterbach, The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ’n’ Roll (2011)
- Michael Rugel, American Blues Scene website, http://www.americanbluesscene.com