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'Black Bottom Saints' Is A Gorgeous Swirl Of Fiction, History And Detroit Motor Oil

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Harper Collins

Back in the heyday of Detroit — from the Great Depression through the 1950s — Joseph "Ziggy" Johnson knew just about everybody who was worth knowing in the shops, bars, churches, theaters and nightclubs that lined the streets of that city's celebrated Black neighborhood, called "Black Bottom."

Johnson was a gossip columnist for the African American newspaper, the Michigan Chronicle; he also was a legendary nightclub emcee at two of the swankiest hotspots in town: The Flame and The Driftwood Lodge. And, he founded Ziggy Johnson's School of Theatre to lift up the children of the city's Black breadwinners — the workers, most of them men, on the assembly lines of Detroit's automobile plants, which ran 24/7, seven days a week.

As Ziggy tells us in Alice Randall's buoyant and innovative new novel, Black Bottom Saints: "[This] was the [economic] opportunity that created caramel Camelot."

Ziggy Johnson is just one of the over 50 mostly real life African American artists, doctors, sports figures, activists and behind-the-scenes movers and shakers who populate this novel — many of whom I've never heard of and most of whom I now want to know more about. I can't think of a more sparkling way to get some education about the history of Black Detroit beyond Motown than to read Randall's novel.

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As its short chapters whiz by, you get a taste of what it might have been like to have sat in the audience of one of those nightclub shows that Ziggy emceed where, maybe, Moms Mabley was waiting in the wings while rumors were flying that Dinah Washington, along with her husband, the NFL superstar Dick "Night Train" Lane, might be stopping by. Except here, Randall is our emcee and not all the featured guests in this novel are headliners.

Black Bottom Saints opens in 1968 where Ziggy Johnson lies dying in a room in Kirwood Hospital — a Black-owned, Black-staffed historic institution in Detroit. Knowing the end is near, Ziggy decides to set down his memories. It's a conventional enough premise for a novel and the only time that Randall relies on convention to tell this panoramic story.

Consider the baroque form of this narrative: Like many of us who were raised Catholic back in the day, Ziggy is familiar with Saints Day books, a kind of devotional manual in which each day of the year is designated a saint's feast day. Ziggy hits upon the idea of structuring his jam-packed memories in the form of a secular saints day book. He squeezes in a calendar's worth of anecdotes about Black Bottom personalities this way. And, as befits a nightclub emcee, Ziggy concludes each of his "saints'" entries, not by recommending food for their feast days, but, rather, specialty cocktails. In fact, one of the very first "saints" Ziggy celebrates is Tom Bullock.

Bullock was the first African American to write a cocktail recipe book; a country club bartender barred from tasting his own drinks. His book, The Ideal Bartender came out in 1917 and sported an introduction by George Herbert Walker, the maternal grandfather of President George H.W. Bush.

Ziggy recalls he first met Bullock at The Plantation Club in St. Louis and tells us, "Every bar I ever walked into was improved by my knowing and sharing that every bar in America owes something to one brilliant sepian. Thomas Bullock was the greatest bartender of all and the first black man ever to publish a cocktail recipe book." Bullock's feast day cocktail, by the way, is "The Blue Blazer": whiskey, sugar, lemon peel and a match to set the whole concoction aflame.

"Sepian," is a word that Ziggy uses a lot to refer to Black people: It's his opinionated, distinctive voice that rescues Black Bottom Saints from being the static series of tweaked Wikipedia entries it might have been. His anecdotes about real-life famous folks like the Mills Brothers, Bricktop, and Butterbeans and Susie, may be, like that Blue Blazer cocktail, part straight whiskey; part flaming invention, but they take readers deep into the world of mid-20th century Black entertainers who traveled the country by train, carrying "the backdrops, the showgirls, [and] the main acts" with them. And, turning away from the spotlight, Ziggy celebrates his reciprocal relationship with the Black autoworkers who packed his nightclubs:

[When I'm driving] I'm driving some other Black man's sweat and prosperity. Some other Black man's competence. And the next week that man will be sitting in my audience. His approval will matter.

Black Bottom Saints is a gorgeous swirl of fiction, history and motor oil; there are also plenty of cocktail recipes here to make the rougher stories go down a little smoother.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.
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