by Tim Gilmore, 6/16/2018
I’m surprised when he tells me his name is Algie, not just because the name’s unusual, but because I’ve just read of the December 1958 murder of Algie Nevels at the Havana Nite Club or Silver Star Drive-In Liquors.
“Yeah boy,” Algie says. He’s been hanging around here a long time. His head dodges side to side on his neck, his eyebrows raised, his eyes shifty. The past speaks through place. It echoes back and forth across decades. I know Algie. I also know Stagga Lee.
Whether or not Lee Shelton killed Billy Lyons on Christmas Day, 1895, for the theft of a Stetson hat, Lee became a folk song, a blues song, an outlaw. Somebody said Lee belonged to a society of pimps in St. Louis called the “Macks.” Ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax said Lee, whomever he first was, hooked his nickname from the Stack Lee, a Memphis riverboat brothel.
“Stagolee” and “Stack-O-Lee” bled into underworld villains standing up to established power. Being black, by birth, made you outlaw. Outside official power, Stagga Lee garnered respect through fear. He commanded the scene when he exited Havana Nite Club in 1940 and walked into Silver Star in 2018.
Juan Machin and Alberto and Desiderio “Ye Ye” Guinart opened the Havana Nite Club at 5606 Avenue B in 1934. The Two Spot opened on Christmas Day, 1940, south down Avenue B to West 45th Street, then east to 45th at Moncrief, where Tiny York, Teddy Washington and trumpeter Nat Small and his band the Small Nats, blew their horns all night 80 years ago. In 1948, Silver Star Lounge, later Silver Star Drive-In Liquors, opened next door to Havana at 5668.
Charlie Edd Craddock ran the Two Spot until he died in 1957. At the Two Spot, Sam Cooke sang of “the sound of the men workin’ on the chain gang.” Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton played “Stardust” with his orchestra. Ray Charles, growling from the piano, seeing but the music he felt in his head and his hands, sang, “It should’ve been me / with that real fine chick, / Hey hey hey / drivin’ that / Cadillac!” Dinah Washington sang Hank Williams’s “Cold Cold Heart” and Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
Algie says not so much misbehavin’ happened at the Two Spot, says “the boojie class” danced there with the “social elite.” The oak dance floor accommodated 2,000 people, the three-sided mezzanine and another floor held another thousand. The Afro-American Life Insurance Company held its swanky annual dance at the Two Spot.
A little more misbehavin’ happened out back at the Two Spot Speedway, like one night the moonshine came in out the adjacent woods and three Hudson Terraplanes, glossy elegant cars that kicked clouds of dust like angry horses, raced the track.
Then on July 2, 1950, the Associated Press reported, “The State Beverage Department’s flying squad swooped down on four Duval County taverns yesterday, smashing a huge Bolita ring.” Numbers men controlled rackets on the odds of which of 100 Bolita balls might be drawn. Joe Bowen, an assistant Beverage Department director guessed that “between $30,000 and $50,000 was taken from one tavern alone.” In today’s currency, that’s somewhere between $321,000 and $535,000.
Three of the four bars—the Havana Nite Club, an unnamed home juke joint across the street, probably Algie Nevels’s place, and Mac’s—operated around Avenue B. Mac’s Bar and Liquors stood at Moncrief and Edgewood in a slant triangle with the Two Spot and Avenue B’s Havana Nite Club and Silver Star.
The AP reported the Beverage Department boys “gathered in Lake City and in 13 radio-appointed cars, the 50 state agents moved into Jacksonville.” The liquor flowed and Bolita balls rattled in a driving thunderstorm deep in the night. Revelers were so surprised they hardly responded, though “one man attempting to make a getaway” stopped in his tracks when an agent fired a shot by his head.
In the premier Northeast Florida black newspaper The Florida Star’s “Chips off the Blocks” social column, “Jay Jay” says he “must commend Raymond Taylor for his attempts to change the format and reputation of the old Silver Star.” It’s December 15, 1956. “Taylor is trying to offer Jaxons a real nite club. The show we saw the other night was tops. The boy Robert Grisby on piano and singing the blues is ‘real gone.’ He ‘out-Charleses’ Ray Charles. Little Willie, the former Peacock recording star, was a whiz on the harmonica along with Lucile Dennis’s husky rendition of the blues. To me, the top spot on the show was Caldonia’s rendition of ‘I Love the Life I Live and Live the Life I Love.’”
Jay Jay mentions a number of notorious characters he saw taking in the show. Six or seven names in, he says, “Algie Nevels must have heard the noise and stopped by to look and stayed awhile.”
On December 8th, Jay Jay had written that Raymond Taylor had taken over the Silver Star and was cleaning it up. Jay Jay couldn’t tell. “The line consists of Rhudine Hemphill ‘the Brown Bombshell,’ Almeta and Bernice. All three girls do specialty numbers also. What Almeta does with parts of her anatomy just ain’t lawful. Completing the show nightly is a jam session with musicians from other spots.” Jay Jay says, “Mr. Taylor and company are really going to have to use some police action and educate the ‘regulars’ before outsiders can come in and relax. But if you want to be Bohemian, dig it.”
As late as January 1957, Jay Jay was shocked to see regulars of the old Silas Green and Rabbit Foot Minstrel Shows playing at Silver Star. Trombone Watts, “an old-timer on the slip-horn” could take on “any of the cool school to blow against him.” BlowTop and ZooMop, two dancing minstrel-show comedians could “pick ’em up and lay ’em down” with their “softshoe and tap routine.”
A month later, Jay Jay says, “Silver Star has a new attraction,” a “shake dancer from Houston, Texas who gyrates and twists like a Texas tornado. She dances under the stage name Rose and she is one.” Meantime, that’s “no farmer with the overalls and process job.” It’s “Chico, one of the city’s top blues shouters.” Across the street, Algie Nevels and his wife Miss Mary keep their “Avenue B service station open all night,” selling “fish and poultry” and special potations.
Detective Sergeant Lee Cody, now nearly 90 years old, remembers “Ye Ye,” or “Yay Yay,” as he spells Desiderio Guinart’s nickname in his 2010 book The 14th Denial, “a Cuban who ran the Havana Night Club, which was located on Avenue B.” He recalls “informants like Algie, a huge black man who ran the Silver Star. The clientele of these places were black generally, with crowds that ran from the civil and gentile [sic] to rough and dangerous. Algie was big, bold, and blustering.”
Whatever Algie Nevels did at the Silver Star, he also ran his own home juke joint across Avenue B. On January 3, 1959, The Florida Star called Algie Nevels “one of the most notorious figures in Jacksonville’s police and underworld history.” On December 2nd, a white man named George Yancy had walked into the Silver Star and fired three shots into Algie’s chest. Whatever his badass “Stagga Lee” reputation, few people in the neighborhood knew Algie was also a snitch. Lee Cody called Yancy “a belligerent customer,” and said, “Duval County lost a valuable contact that night.” In January, The Florida Star reported the shooting “ruled ‘justifiable.’”
And Mississippi John Hurt sang, oh, “Gentlemens of the jury, what you think of that? / Stack O Lee killed Billy de Lyon ’bout a five-dollar Stetson hat.”
James “Charlie Edd” Craddock died in 1957, and with him his business empire, including the Two Spot, the Charlie Edd Hotel, the Blue Chip Hotel and the Young Men’s Smoke Shop. The Two Spot became the Palms Ballroom and slid into decline. The liquor poured and the music bumped at Mac’s and Havana and Silver Star.
In 1971, 23 year old James Edward Pough stepped out of the Havana Nite Club with his best friend David Lee Pender and their girlfriends. It was well after midnight, technically Sunday morning, May 9th, whiskey aflame in young heads, when David called James’s girlfriend Jackie a bitch. Closing time. Pop Pough pulled a pistol from his girlfriend’s purse and shot his best friend three times and killed him.
A June 24, 1990 Florida Times-Union story headlined “Survivors Remember Precious Final Days,” says, “The Havana Nite Club was a hot spot on a Saturday night in 1971,” standing between “Surprise Nite Club and Silver Star Drive In Liquors.”
The Avenue B Strip “was well known to local police,” and “Sgt. Paul Short knew it especially well. It was the hub of a little universe where Saturday night shootings were common.”
Charged with murder, Pough pled guilty to aggravated assault, got five years’ probation, was lectured by a judge on not carrying a gun, then, June 18, 1990, after shooting four people, two of whom survived, near his West 22nd Street home the night before, he walked into the General Motors Acceptance Corporation auto loan office at 7870 Baymeadows Way, fired more than 50 shots from his M-1 carbine in a little more than two minutes, shooting 13 people, killing nine, then killing himself. It was the worst mass shooting in Florida history. For a while.
Robert Highfill, a retired police officer whose wife Denise died in a helicopter on her way to a hospital after Pough shot her that day, 28 years ago, remembers Avenue B in the 1980s and ’90s. Robert didn’t know Pough had murdered his best friend 19 years before murdering Denise until we met Thursday morning at a coffeeshop.
“I remember Silver Star and the Havana Club and Mac’s Lounge. I became a police officer when I was 18 years old. When I was a young cop, we’d park at Edgewood and Moncrief or down Avenue B, because we knew something was always gonna go down—a shooting, a robbery, something. I became a cop because I wanted to stop the bad guys. I had this very strict delineation in my head between good and bad. But bad was real bad. It wasn’t just smoking weed. If I caught guys with weed on Avenue B, I’d make ’em eat it. I wouldn’t arrest ’em. At the time, I didn’t know it would make them high, but I knew they didn’t want to do it.”
He remembers one night, he was only about 20 years old, he and three other white cops, off-duty, drove up to the Havana Nite Club in a pickup truck and went inside to have some drinks.
Junior, as most of his friends and colleagues called him, couldn’t have known a man named James Edward Pough had murdered his best friend here five or six years before, nor that this same James Pough would murder Junior’s wife a decade later.
But Highfill remembers being afraid that night. “Talk about stupid! We got off the three-to-11 shift and came into the bar after midnight. There were some dangerous characters hung out on Avenue B back then,” men like Stagga Lee, who knew no way to importance but through fear misunderstood as respect.
He remembers Humpty Jones, real name Ernest, died 2015, aged 65, recalls when “Humpty squirted his wife down with lighter fluid and set her alight.”
Highfill says, “When you grow up in an environment where life is cheap, it doesn’t mean much. When life doesn’t mean anything, taking a life doesn’t mean anything.”
Mac’s and the Havana Nite Club disappeared with the 20th century. Pines and palmettos rise where the beats bumped and the Cisco flowed. Today, the “Avenue B Strip” seems more rural than it did 60 years ago, though cheap suburban subdivisions checkerboard the surrounding landscape, and though Ed Brooks pulls up in his shining antique auto.
Silver Star carries on as it’s always carried on. Algie takes me inside, introduces me to Kenny Brown and D.J. Fatigue and Mookie, to several friends who treat me kindly but won’t give me their names.
Sometime in the early to mid-1960s, the original Havana Nite Club went up in flames, burnt up in the gangster night amidst the moonshine pines. Havana’s replacement structure most recently housed a small charter school called “Share and Seed Academy for the Performing Arts,” which dwindled in the shadow of Ye Ye Guinart.
Jacksonville City Councilman Harold Gibson, who served 1979 to 1983, then lost his bid for mayor to Jake Godbold, 71 to 29 percent, worked various business enterprises like Skate City on Soutel Drive and took over ownership of the Silver Star at the new millennium.
In the depths of the Silver Star, now the Royal Terrace Men’s Club, there’s dark sunglasses and red ballcaps, but no “Make America Great Again” delusions, that’s for sure, dreadlocks and peace signs, backward American flags, plastic cups of straight Hennessy, Black Widow tattoos, leather pants and halter tops.
Algie tells me sometimes, in his back office in the old juke joint, he calls himself Stagga Lee. But he doesn’t go stuntin’, keeps it to himself, says if I’m to write him, I’m not to go frontin’.
The Florida Times-Union reported—August 24, 2013—police approached the Silver Star, the Royal Terrace Men’s Club, 2:15 a.m., responding to reports of gunshots. Though the club had emptied, blood and shell casings covered the concrete. Two men with gunshot wounds arrived at UF Health Jacksonville.
The past speaks through place. It echoes back and forth across decades. Mississippi John Hurt sings, “That bad man, cruel Stack O Lee / with the .44! / When I spied Billy de Lyon, / he was lyin’ down dead on the floor.”
A double shooting outside Silver Star on May 11, 2009 left dead Freddie Lee Jones. On March 4, 2017, First Coast News bragged it had “obtained exclusive surveillance video” of a shootout “involving multiple men” outside the old Silver Star. Co-owner Tim Littles pointed out at least five bullet holes in the club’s front wall. In December, 1956, “Jay Jay” says he “must commend” new club owner “Raymond Taylor for his attempts to change the format and reputation of the old Silver Star.”
Avenue B, May 2012, police demand 32 year old Thomas McMullen come out from under a house, 5700 block. Police dogs bark viciously. Several witnesses have given descriptions. Cops believe McMullen’s the man fired several shots into the Cleveland Arms Apartments down Cleveland Street from West 45th off Avenue B. McMullen was first arrested for involvement in an armed robbery that left a corrections officer dead in 1993. He was 14.
Police hadn’t yet named McMullen. His family did. Chief Tom Hackney said responding officers spotted McMullen’s car at 45th and Avenue B and “gave chase.” When McMullen ditched his car and ran, officers said they saw a gun in his waistband. The Times-Union reported, “The officer who fired three or four shots at McMullen was not injured, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.” The man Officer T.E. Stafford shot, however, was not only injured, but dead. Thomas McMullen spent 17 of his 32 years locked up.
It was the eighth shooting of a civilian by a Jacksonville police officer in 2012, the fifth fatal. In 1950, one man fleeing a Bolita raid on foot stopped in his tracks when a state Beverage Department agent fired a shot by his head. The past speaks through place.
It’s dark in the Silver Star. It blunts the green and blue of all the camouflage—tank tops and pants and ball caps. The rapper Flo Rida bumps. “I bet I’m guilty, yo’ honor. / But that’s how we live in my genre. / Went to hell and paved the road wider. / There’s only one Flo and one Rida.”
Through a gauze of funk in the air, I spot bow ties and a glossy gossamer Hudson Terraplane. I hear the click of Bolita balls in a corner. 1956. The Florida Star’s Jay Jay says the Silver Star is “going to have to use some police action and educate the ‘regulars’ before outsiders can come in and relax. But if you want to be Bohemian, dig it.”