North Omaha has been home to hundreds of musicians who “made it.” One man moved to Omaha and created multiple bands, finding big time talent by working smalltime gigs across the Midwest. This is a biography of Red Perkins (1890–1976).
Muchakinock, Iowa, was home to the largest coal mining company of its time. Hiring Black workers from the South, the company grew huge and the town grew. A child named Frank Shelton was born there in 1890, when the town was near its peak. A large town of 3,000 people when he was born, there was a town hall, public schools, an opera house and churches there, as well as a drug store, general store, meat market, saloon and blacksmith. Restaurants, saloons, a telephone office, an African Methodist Episcopal Church and a Baptist church. An equally white and Black town when young Frank was born, it was surprisingly mostly closed down when the coal company moved away in 1900. That was the town Frank Shelton grew up in.
In 1910, when he was 20 years old, Perkins left home to tour with a minstrel band in the region. By 1917, he had a wife and child and together they moved to North Omaha. Working in a barbershop on North 24th Street, it was 1919 when he was an occasional drummer at a Fort Dodge, Iowa, nightclub. When the owner moved it to Des Moines, Perkins organized a quartet with a trumpet, trombone and piano. This band started touring vaudeville theaters and carnival dances. Soon he led a five-piece cabaret group called the Melody Five traveling to small towns region wide, and doubling as a brass band. Charlie “Big” Green (1900–1936), an early jazz trombone icon, played with Perkins’ Melody Five.
In 1923, he took over a jazz band called the Omaha Night Owls, and for five years they played throughout the city and beyond. The Omaha Night Owls were a six-piece with Perkins leading the band, playing trumpet and singing. started with the Night Owls. Despite it not being true, the Night Owls have been called the first jazz band in Omaha. They also played ragtime.
Perkins formed a new eight-piece band called the Dixie Ramblers in 1926. Booked throughout Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and North and South Dakota, the band played hotels, ballrooms and theaters, as well as fairs, carnivals and special events. With a vibrant stage show including dancing and a variety show, the band became more popular during the Great Depression.
They played regularly in North Omaha from 1926 through the late 1930s, most often at the Dreamland Ballroom. During these years, the Dreamland had both African American and white audiences, even though it was in the strictly segregated Near Northside neighborhood. In this same era, Red Perkins Dixie Ramblers would have battle-of-the-bands events against Lloyd Hunters’ Serenaders and others.
Apparently, Red recorded four songs for Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana, in 1931. In the late 1930s, Red’s Dixie Ramblers was joined by young upstart vocalist Anna Mae Winburn (1913-1999), who later entered jazz history in an important role.
In 1932, Red Perkins played regularly on Dallas radio station WFAA. Playing solo and with others, the performances lasted through 1934. In 1936, RCA Victor signed Perkins and the Dixie Ramblers. Eventually they recorded more than 250 performances for the label, and for another smaller label.
Throughout their existence, the Dixie Ramblers were renowned because several of their players were multi-instrumentalists. Despite never being bigger than an eight-piece, they were able to create a big band sound because of their versatility.
Perkins’ players were renowned. A 1933 article in the Omaha Monitor said, “It may be well to know that Mr. Perkins is the only leader and manager who has been able to keep all of his boys together, and has not changed or lost one to exchange in the last two and a half years. This alone accounts for their wonderful teamwork and ensemble renditions.” Apparently, the players were always members of the Musicians Union Local #558.
In the 1920s and 1930s, members of bands were rarely formally acknowledged for their contributions though. However, some of the musicians who played with Perkins through the years have been identified. They include:
- Walter Cobb, banjo
- Gene Garrett, double bass
- Will Brown, guitar
- Charles Underwood, guitar and vocals
- Melvin Bethel, mandolin
- Eugene Freels, trumpet and bass brass
- Frank “Red” Perkins (t, as, ss, v)
- Bill Osboen
- Charlie Watkins
- Harry Fooks
- Jim Alexander
- Sam Grievous, trombone
- Charles “Goodie” Watkins, banjo and guitar
- Harry Rooks, drums
- Howard Fields, piano
- Andre Oglesby, trombone
- Jesse Simmons, trombone
- Joe Drake, trumpet and alto saxophone
- Anna Mae Winburn, vocals
- Jabbo Smith, trumpet
- Charlie “Big” Green, trombone
- Jay Green
- Shorty Gray
- Booker T. Hart, aka Dick Welles, drummer
In the late 1930s, the band was regularly playing at the new Swingland at 24th and Lake, but by the early 1940s, Red Perkins had given up the baton and put away the trumpet. Sometime after World War II, Perkins and his family moved from North Omaha to Minneapolis, where he became a professional photographer. He died there in 1976.
After he left, Perkins was long remembered in Omaha as highly influential on younger musicians and the jazz scene in general. Today, when North Omaha’s jazz legacy is celebrated, it highlights the few performers who were in the same league as Red Perkins.
While there is an increasing amount of interest in North Omaha’s jazz heritage and celebration through places like the Dreamland Plaza, there are no specific memorials for Red Perkins in Omaha today. No signage, street names, schools or other places are named for him, and no historical marker in the city remembers his name.
- “My Baby Knows How”
- “I Want My Rib”
- “Hard Times Stomp” (1931)
- “Old Man Blues” (1931)
- “Minor Blues” (1931)
You Might Like…
MY ARTICLES ABOUT THE HISTORY OF MUSIC IN NORTH OMAHA
PEOPLE: George T. McPherson | Dan Desdunes | Flora Pinkston | Jimmy Jewell, Sr. and Jimmy Jewell, Jr. | Jim Bell | Paul Allen, Sr. | Josiah “P.J.” Waddle | Frank “Red” Perkins | George Bryant
PLACES: 24th and Lake Historic District | Dreamland Ballroom | Carnation Ballroom | Stage II Lounge | Club Harlem | The Off Beat Club | King Solomon’s Mines | Allen’s Showcase | Druid Hall
EVENTS: Stone Soul Picnic | Emancipation Day & Juneteenth | Native Omahans Festival
- Red Perkins on Wikipedia
What a great story. Thank you for the research.
LikeLiked by 1 person
good story interesting .
LikeLiked by 1 person
I have a couple of his recordings as well as one by Lloyd Hunter and a couple by Anna Mae .
LikeLiked by 1 person