by Gail Lyons
Recently, on a frigid Buffalo wintry day, I ventured downtown to the Central Library’s African American Museum exhibit. Missing the speaker I pursued the books, photos and placards impressively displayed. Gathering a handful of pamphlets, the Ongoing History card produced by the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor caught my attention. I wondered, was Michigan Avenue ever known as Michigan Street?
As I continued scanning down the placard I saw the heading WUFO 1080 AM. I stopped dead in my tracks. It stated: “WUFO has provided America with popular African American radio personalities including Frankie Crocker. Gary Byrd, Jerry Bledsoe, etc.” Really?!! I took a slow, deep breath. Before any of these personalities even set foot inside a radio station, much less put their voices on the air waves, Mr. Jimmy Lyons opened the door and quite frankly, as my drummer friend Darryl Washington puts it, “when my family gathered around the radio on Sunday to listen to the Upper Room we knew Jimmy Lyons had put an end to White supremacy on the radio!”
It is high time we set the record straight.
Before WUFO even existed Jimmy Lyons (who I affectionately call Daddy) worked tirelessly as a part time DJ on radio stations WXRA, WINE, and WWOL where he researched artists history (long before Google), answered fans’ phone calls (no caller ID or call waiting) and make copy for commercial spots. His bread and butter job was technical illustrator for Bell Aircraft being one of only three Blacks. In addition to work, being husband and father, Daddy was a seasoned performer, having gigs as a professional singer, dancer, emcee and comic here in Buffalo and across the bridge. A well-rounded showman in the era of legal apartheid (Jim Crow) and the Green Book (thank you Mr. Green), it was constant vigilant determination just to keep your head above water and food on the table, all the while having to deal with the humiliating absurd caricatures mainstream White media spewed forth. And yet, Buffalo was experiencing a thriving Black Community full of hard working business women and men forging ahead against the odds, establishing businesses, raising families, attending schools for higher education, travelling the world, creating music and works of art, against all odds.
It’s no wonder Buffalo attracted so many artists. Throughout the community block after block there were hot spots for music. The Pine Grill, BonTon, Little Harlem, Moonglow, Revilot, Royal Arms just to name a few The air would be filled with the sacred sounds of jazz, rhythm and blues, blues and gospel so thick you could taste it. This truly was the place to be!
Daddy fit right into this Renaissance. Intelligent, with a keen eye and ear for artistic talent, Jimmy Lyons, born and raised in buffalo (he was Buffalo!) rose up from being a shoe shine boy dancing for pennies on street corners to becoming Buffalo’s first full time Black DJ on the radio years before Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Over the span of his radio career he interviewed on air such greats as Sammy Davis Jr., the Marvelettes, Little Stevie Wonder and Sam Cook. He also interviewed historical figures like Malcolm X, and Wyatt Tee Walker, one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s right hand lieutenants. Daddy certainly had his own dreams and realities.
During WWII he served as a lieutenant in the segregated 92nd replacement company in Italy and Germany (Frankie Crocker was still in grammar school learning his ABC’s). Returning to Buffalo after the war he and our mother Ruth bought a home in what we know on the Eastside as Cold Spring in 1948. Five generations of the Lyons family have come through this home on Northland Avenue. I am proud to say that I am still holding down the fort.
In the early 60’s Daddy started the Amateur Night at the Apollo on Jefferson Avenue. National as well as local artists were given the opportunity to perform for appreciative audiences and monetary prizes were awarded to the winners. Oftentimes the artists came to our home to have a delicious home cooked meal courtesy of our dear mother. We were allowed to eat dinner in the dining room on a Wednesday. The “sit up straight, no elbows on the table” was the golden rule. But we still managed to have big fun!
Friday nights were reserved for the swinging record hops at the Dellwood Ballroom. I still recall Daddy taking us to the radio stations so we could see where he worked. He introduced us to the other DJ’s such as Joe and Lenny Rico. On Sundays, when WUFO was located on S. Cayuga in Williamsville, after Daddy finished his show he would treat us to Glen Park to ride the roller coaster. Very fond, priceless memories.
As this year marks the 100th anniversary of Daddy’s birth (March 15,1919), it is fitting and proper that not just the Michigan Street Heritage committee amends its ongoing omissions but that Buffalo, as a whole, recognizes and honors the tremendous talents, perseverance, sacrifice, courage, humanity, beauty and truly love that have passed the tests of time giving all of us reasons to stand tall, keeping head to the sky, being very much present and accounted for.
With eternal love I dedicate this article to Daddy and to Ma. Thank you for all and everything you have done to make this world a better place. We will remember where we come from as we move up and forever onward!
(Gail Lyons is the beloved daughter of Jimmy Lyons, who is working to ensure that her father’s historic legacy is properly honored and remembered. The legendary Mr. Lyons made his transition on December 28, 1981.)