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Nat “King” Cole arrived in Raleigh on April 13, 1956, eager to get on with his singing career after a notorious public assault. Days earlier, a group of white supremacists

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Nat “King” Cole arrived in Raleigh on April 13, 1956, eager to get on with his singing career after a notorious public assault. Days earlier, a group of white supremacists

A King, a Queen, a Duke & the Cop Who Brought Them To Town

Nat “King” Cole arrived in Raleigh on April 13, 1956, eager to get on with his singing career after a notorious public assault. Days earlier, a group of white supremacists had rushed a concert stage in Birmingham, Alabama, to attack the million-selling singer. Escaping with only bruises, Cole was nonetheless rattled. Management canceled appearances in Southern cities. But Raleigh was a different story. A man there named Joseph “Joe” Winters personally guaranteed Cole’s safety. As a police officer, as well as the city’s leading concert promoter of African-American artists, Joe was, indeed, uniquely qualified to back up this guarantee.

When Cole arrived at the Raleigh-Durham airport, reporters swarmed, peppering him with questions about the incident. Meanwhile, Joe, typically sharp in a fedora, stood just behind the singer, a quietly protective and reassuring force.

When segregation kept whites and blacks apart, Joe bridged the gap, one superstar at a time.

It was one of many superstar encounters that Joe navigated when he wasn’t on his police beat. His career as a cop and music impresario stretched from the early 1940s to the mid-’70s, from big band to R&B to rock ’n’ roll, from Jim Crow to the civil rights movement to Black Power. At a time when segregation kept whites and blacks apart, Joe bridged the gap, one superstar at a time: Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick. The list goes on, 200 strong.

“Daddy loved what the music and the concerts did for people,” says Joe Winters Jr. of his father, who died in 2005. “He saw people who he knew worked hard all day at jobs they really didn’t like come to concerts, dressed to the nines, enjoying themselves.”

Joe’s shows meant a lot to the city, too, but his legacy might have faded into history were it not for the cache of his concert posters, ledgers, and news clippings collected by the City of Raleigh Museum. That paper trail has brought him back to life for family, old friends, and a hometown that may remember the live music, but not the man behind it.

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For much of Joe’s career, venues like Raleigh Memorial Auditorium were segregated, with blacks restricted to the floor and whites ushered to balcony seats (or vice versa). But the races rubbed shoulders in the halls and at the concession booths that Joe’s family ran. And sometimes, they disregarded rules and danced together. Joe’s legacy fascinates, in large part, because his two lives complemented each other to create rare moments of unity in a racially fractured community. As a police officer and a concert promoter, Joe projected reassurance and stability, even as he invited people to shed their inhibitions and dance. “My father was interested in helping people and in quality of life — ours and others’,” says his daughter, Chacona Winters Baugh, glancing through vintage photos at her childhood home in southeast Raleigh. She lingers on a shot of her dad with the ever-stylish Lena Horne. “He liked the finer things,” she says. “He always wore Johnny Bull dress shoes. He drove Cadillacs … He wanted to bring music to the people of Raleigh — and he wanted to bring the best.”

At age 2, Baugh bounced on Nat “King” Cole’s knee in this same two-story, red-brick house, as the singer delighted neighbors with songs he plunked out on Joe’s piano. Joe then delivered Cole to Memorial Auditorium, where his two shows went off without a hitch. Later that evening, Cole and his wife retired to the Winterses’ bedroom while Joe, as promised, kept watch through the night.

“Joe’s collection brings to life a different era that teaches us a lot about our own time.”

Joe was always working nights, one way or another. “I’d be in the basement playing with the big toy train he set up,” remembers Joe Jr., who later became his father’s business partner. “And Daddy would be in the room next door, his office, working on his tickets, contracts, posters.” Decades later, those posters would catch the eye of contractor Greg Paul as he prepared to renovate the house for Baugh, who was returning to Raleigh after spending much of her professional life in Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Combined with other pieces that Joe’s children had kept, the City of Raleigh Museum has turned the collection into an exhibit.

“Joe’s collection brings to life a different era that teaches us a lot about our own time, in terms of bridging the gaps that separate people,” says the museum’s director, Ernest Dollar. “He was also a model entrepreneur for any age.” And Joe would need extensive entrepreneurial skills to succeed in the stormy business he had chosen.

“It took a certain kind of person to be a promoter then. It was a tough business populated by tough people,” says Barrie Bergman, former owner and CEO of the Record Bar, a chain whose roots go back to the ’40s. “Just one bad show or a night of bad weather, and they’d lose money. Plus, it was — and is — a relationship business. You’d have to build trust with managers and agents.”

Joe had both the business acumen and the personal touch. He studied mathematics at Saint Augustine’s College, and his accounting was meticulous: A ledger sheet from a James Brown concert notes $10 for the piano rental and $60 for barbecue. Determination and a sense of duty seemed to run in his family. Born in 1912, Joe was a middle child in Charles and Lillie Winters’ brood of a dozen. Urged on by their no-nonsense father, the children were ambitious. Joe’s younger brother, John, grew up to be Raleigh’s first black City Council member since Reconstruction, and a state senator and real estate developer, too.

It was at Saint Augustine’s that he met David Weaver, who managed the dance hall at the local Masonic Temple. Weaver had been bringing black musicians like Count Basie to Raleigh since before hotels in the city welcomed African-Americans — so they stayed at various locations, including Weaver’s home. Joe worked for Weaver in college before striking out on his own in the early 1940s. By the time he entered his 30s, Joe was booking bigger and bigger acts while running a diner, where his wife, Mable, was known for her chili.

“Everyone — from musicians to the city leadership — knew Dad was a police officer.”

But the patriarchs of southeast Raleigh were cooking up a different career path for Joe. In the ’40s, Raleigh had only one black police officer, John Baker (whose son and namesake would go on to serve as Wake County’s sheriff for 24 years). The neighborhood elders felt that another was in order, and they asked Joe to serve. “As a police officer, my dad treated even those in trouble with respect — no matter what color you were or what part of town you were from,” Baugh says.

In 1966, The News & Observer honored Joe and then-partner T.T. Street as “Tarheels of the Week” for their arrest of a bank robber. The pair had cornered the suspect, who appeared to have a gun. Joe and T.T. painstakingly managed to get him into cuffs without resorting to violence. The gun, they discovered later, was a toy.

Joe’s even-tempered approach also served him well as his promotions career took off. “Everyone — from musicians to the city leadership — knew Dad was a police officer,” Baugh continues. “Without a doubt, they knew and trusted him.” While some cities relegated black acts to lower-tier venues, Joe consistently filled regal Memorial Auditorium.

The respect and loyalty went both ways: One night, Joe trudged toward a dressing room where Duke Ellington waited. He revered Duke. But the crowd that night had been thin. “Even if the show didn’t make money, you would have to take care of the artist,” explains Joe Jr. As Joe began counting out Duke’s final guaranteed payment, the fabled pianist gently laid his hand on Joe’s and said softly, “You don’t owe me anything more.”

• • •

Typically, Joe’s concerts were a resounding hit. Family members helped promote them in advance, selling tickets and concessions. A childhood friend of Joe Jr., Nasif Majeed, remembers getting caught up in the excitement: “The posters and radio announcements — it would go on for weeks,” says Majeed, now a member of North Carolina’s House of Representatives for the 99th district. Joe’s shows, he says, helped expand his view of the world when he was a boy: “I was raised in an insulated community,” he says. “We went to black doctors and dentists. We went to school with black teachers.” At concerts, he saw a larger community.

The shows were also a revelation to Burley Mitchell, a white kid from across town who would go on to serve as chief justice of the NC Supreme Court. Mitchell recalls the night that he and his teenage pals slipped around the back of Memorial to enjoy an illicit sip of Wild Irish Rose wine after a Chuck Berry concert — only to have the duck-walking legend himself exit and engage them in a quick chat.

“Those shows were a way to ease us into integration before it became law,” Mitchell says. “They gave us a different experience. Back then, segregation was just the way it was. But we were all there to see the same, hugely talented person on stage.”

Rock ’n’ roll soon took charge of the charts. Joe brought Little Richard and Fats Domino, along with more and more white fans, to Memorial and other Raleigh venues. Soon, these larger-than-life talents began working into their repertoires messages that would help fuel the civil rights movement. In 1964, Sam Cooke recorded the galvanizing “A Change is Gonna Come.” By the end of the decade, James Brown, one of Joe’s most reliable draws, was preaching an empowerment message: “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

As a cop, Joe was drawn to the idea that a nonviolent movement could transform society. In a way, his concerts had helped do just that in Raleigh. But there was another kind of change coming, and despite all the hustle and finesse Joe possessed, it signaled the end of his era. The increasingly flush pop music industry wasn’t just producing stars, but superstars. The new breed demanded more up-front money, more back-end money, and more perks.

Things came to a head with Aretha Franklin in 1969. Joe had previously attempted to book the “Queen of Soul” when she was still a mid-level star. When he finally landed on a firm date, Franklin had landed a pair of Top 10 singles. Her fee had rocketed from $5,000 to $20,000 (that’s north of $100,000 in today’s dollars), and they needed a bigger venue. What’s more, she came with a demanding contract rider, including access to a new-model Cadillac and a driver.

It was a close call, but Joe and Joe Jr., who by that time was a full partner in his father’s business, managed a small profit. Still, the days of the independent promoter were numbered. Joe Winters & Son Productions kept at it until their final concert in the late 1970s.

Around this time, Joe retired from the police force, too. He turned his sights to Shaw University, helping to spearhead a fund-raising effort to shore up a crumbling historic dorm. He reunited with old favorite Ray Charles for a concert to benefit the restoration.

After that, Joe finally put away his dress shoes in favor of sneakers. He traveled. His legacy was secure, and he saw it reflected in the unabashed integration of pop culture and the success of people he knew had once been part of the dancing throngs at his shows. “Even into his 80s, Mr. Winters would always take time to talk to younger members of the community,” says Dr. Everett B. Ward, president of St. Augustine’s, Joe’s alma mater. “He always talked about the future of the community. He would say, ‘What are you doing to help?’”

To Joe’s children, seeing the community rally around their dad now is a fitting tribute. When the City of Raleigh Museum hosted a February symposium on Joe’s improbable life and legacy, the crowd was standing room only. “A packed house,” Joe Jr. noted. “Daddy would be proud.”

This story was published on Mar 25, 2019

Billy Warden

Billy Warden is a Raleigh-based marketing executive at GBW Strategies as well as a writer and musician.