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Eight Forty-Eight

The True Story of Natchez Burning

A tragic accident that took place decades ago in a small Mississippi town made a huge impact on local and federal laws. And this tragedy also changed the music scene, especially in Chicago. For WBEZ, Ron Brown brings us the history.

Blues legend Chester Burnett, also known as Howlin' Wolf, cut one of his most haunting records at Chess Studios in Chicago in 1956.

It's called The Natchez Burning and it's a classic piece of mournful blues music. But it's also a true story...

Two hundred nine people died in a corrugated tin building called The Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi. It happened 50 years ago this month. Ora Frazier knew people who were saved from the fire.

FRAZIER: A lot of parents felt that they didn't want their kids to go. They said it was going to be too crowded, you don't need to go.

And it was crowded, with good reason. The main attraction was a band from Chicago; Walter Barnes and his Sophisticated Swing Orchestra.

Clarinet and saxophone player Walter Barnes was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi. But he later moved to Chicago where he attended high school and later studied music.

He formed his first band, the Royal Creolians, in 1924 and recorded for the Brunswick label, songs like “Birmingham Bertha” and “It's Tight Like That.”

Barnes performed at Chicago's swank and jazzy Savoy Ballroom where big name stars like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Woody Herman shared a stage.

WHITE: Walter Barnes was also an entertainment editor for the Chicago Defender newspaper, which at that time was the preeminent African American paper in the nation.

Darrell White is the executive director of the Natchez Museum of African American history and culture. He says Barnes' resume also includes a two year stint at the notorious Cotton Club in Cicero.

WHITE: Walter Barnes may not have had the national recognition, but it is my understanding that he served for a number of years as the house band for one of one of Al Capone's speakeasies, so that gives you some idea of the stature of his musicianship, because he could get whatever he wanted and he always went for the best.

The Rhythm Club in Natchez was a quite a bit lower on the stature scale. But Barnes and his band were touring and on their way back to Chicago, decided to pass through Mississippi.

Young fans in Natchez had been saving for months for the 50 cent admission charge. And club operator Ed Frazier, wanted the Rhythm Club to look special for this big city band. He draped a plant called Spanish Moss from the rafters to give the club a more stylish look. Ora Frazier recalls her brother in law's wishes for that night.

FRAZIER: He said this is a big dance, and I want it to look good. And he sprayed the moss with some sort of insecticide to keep the bugs from coming in.

The insecticide was Flit, a petroleum based bug killer. It was popular at the time, it also was extremely flammable. That was not the only mistake made that night. In order to keep party crashers out, most of the club doors and windows either were padlocked or nailed shut…leaving the front door as the only way in…and the only way out.

FRAZIER: And it was said that the band was playing Tuxedo Junction and somebody apparently flipped a cigarette and started that fire.

The fire broke out in the front of the building and quickly spread along the moss-covered rafters.

Thirty four-year-old Walter Barnes and eight members of his band were among the 209 who were killed. Darrell White…

WHITE: At the time of the fire, it was the second most deadly structural fire in the history of the nation. It is now listed as number 7 of the top ten.

Barnes employer, the Chicago Defender quickly erected a monument to the victims on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, just a few blocks from the site of the fire.

Cities across the country changed their fire codes, after the Natchez fire, clearly marked exits, occupancy levels and rules about locked doors were put in place.

And the musicians who died? They were memorialized in song.

(Baby Doo Caston song begins)

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