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Boise Voices

Boise Voices

Oral History Project

Paul Knauls

Wall-to-Wall Soul (0:12)

Paul Knauls, Sr.

    The Cotton Club, our slogan was "It was the only night club on the West Coast with wall-to-wall soul," so that gives you an idea of the kind of spot that we had. I mean, on any given night—it was a place to see and be seen.

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    • My name is Paul Knauls, I was born in Huntington, Arkansas, 1931, that means I am 78 years old.

      Wow. Where was your childhood home located?

      Well, it was a little coal-mining town, where the only industry there was coal-mining. My Dad worked in the coal mine and the worst part about living in a coal-mining town--when you hear the whistle or the siren you know that there's been an explosion or a coal-mine collapse and that means somebody got hurt. You know, so, everybody run down to the coal-mine to see if your Dad was going to come out or relative or whatever. That's where I was born and where I was raised.
    • Is there any stories you can tell us about your grandparents or great-grandparents?

      Yes, actually my grandfather, he never went to school but he knew music. And he taught everyone on my mother's side, he taught them all music. And he had a little band, made up of the children of the family and they played dances on Saturday night, like at the barn dance, you know? And it was amazing that he never went to school at all--well, he went to the fourth grade--but he was able to read music and teach music and that carried on throughout our family. I have a sister now that she's a singer and last year she won the Dove awards--that's like the Grammys of the religious awards--it's called the Dove awards, and so she was in Memphis, Tennessee and received that.
    • Did you ever get into trouble when you were growing up?

      I worked all the time so if you work you don't usually get in trouble. I think my first job was when I was nine years old and I've never been on unemployment, at 78. I've always been working. But I remember one time--I'm a basketball player--and I was--they say, they tell me; I don't even remember, they say I was the star of the team, that's what they say now--but I remember we had a basketball tournament up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and I asked my mom if I could go and she says no, the roads--they get black ice up there--it's too slick out there. So she said, "You can't go."

      But as the star of the team you gotta go because you gotta win so I went anyway and when I got back and I walked in the house my mother grabbed a broom--a regular sweeping broom--and she hit me across the back with this broom and it actually broke, the broom broke.

      So I was probably 35, 40 years old before I ever went near a broom the next time to actually sweep. So that's the only time I ever remember getting a whipping, but it was a good one, with a broom handle. That would be child abuse today!
    • I was part of history back in 1949. In 1948 there was a black army and a white army. And in 1948 President Truman decided that they were going to merge the armies so there wouldn't be two segregated armies, so they picked me out of Fairchild Airforce Base. They called me in and told me that I was going to be the first African-American to be on the Air Base with all the white people, you know, so they wanted me to go up an integrate the base, so I did.

      To be the first African-American to show up on a Air Base with all white people--back in those days, African-Americans, you know, did not get, they didn't get promoted a lot. They had all the worst jobs. And they never got promoted. They might have got two stripes but when I came out I had five stripes so I'm really proud of that, I was a staff seargeant. And when I see guys my age and they ask me what my rank was, they look at me funny, so I go back and get my DD2-14, that's my discharge papers, and they look on it and say, "Man, I don't know anybody with that kind of rank." So I love that part of my history.
    • So you and me both know Portland's a great place, but what brought you here?

      My family is very religious and I wanted to buy a nightclub, so I wanted to live in Seattle, but they had all moved to Seattle, and so I knew how they would feel about me selling alcohol, because they were so religious, so I decided that maybe I would go to Portland. I needed a place where there's a nice African-American community so I can get my clients, so that's when I came to Portland and opened a nightclub, 1963.

      The night club was called The Cotton Club, right?

      Yes, the night club was called the Cotton Club, I bought it from Mr. T., Mr. Thompson, they always called him Mr. T.

      Can you describe what the Cotton Club was like?

      Well, the Cotton Club, our slogan was "It was the only night club on the West coast with wall-to-wall soul," so that gives you an idea of the kind of spot that we had. I mean, on any given night--it was a place to see and be seen. You would come there to see who's going to be there and to be seen.

      And we had music, had a jam session on Sunday that all the musicians would come in and sit in, and then at night we would feature the floor shows.

      And we brought some famous people through--you won't remember these names, but Big Mama Thornton, she did the song "Hound Dog" before Elvis Presley, but that record company stole it from her, but she did come through the Cotton Club.

      Little Esther Phillips, she was a singer and she could sing those Blues.

      We brought in all of our acts from California, and it was just the spot, on any given night, you might look up and--like one night, my wife went to a concert for Sammy Davis, Jr. and she asked him to come over and he came over and he got up and sang a song with my little three-piece band and signed autographs and took pictures with everyone, all night long. We closed at 2:30 but Sammy was there until about 4 that morning, just entertaining.

      Then one night after the Mamas and Papas finished their concert I looked up and here was Mama Cass, walking in the place. And Mama Cass was not a small person, so you recognized Mama Cass when she walked in, you knew when she walked in the place. To see people like that come in, you knew that they had heard about it and they just wanted to hit it to see what it was like. Joe Louis came in one night, you know, the "Brown Bomber," and so when people like that visit your spot, it makes it very, very famous.

      So back then when you walked through the doors, how did it make you feel? What did it sound like?

      When I walked through the doors at night when the show was on? Well, if everybody--if all my waitresses are on the ball and the bartenders are slinging drinks, you know, and the music's going, it make you feel very good, you know--you're going to have a good night; at the end of the night, it's going to be a good night.

      What did people usually wear?

      Well, back in the 60s, of course, polyester was the clothing. And a lot of loud colors, you know--your pants might be yellow, or yellow and red, or blue and gray, or whatever, but there were just a lot of checkered colors, so people dressed that way and they had shirts, you know, with the frivvle down the front and the sleeves puffed. That was the style. Not a lot of hats in those days because of the Afro--everyone had the big Afro--so people didn't wear a lot of hats. But that was the era, you know--even jeans wasn't in. People didn't wear jeans like they do now. You can go down the street now, you see 30 people, 27 of them gonna have on Levis, you know.

    • Why did the Cotton Club close its doors?

      Oh, that's a real tragic story. See, I had a crowd--the white people came like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and on the weekends, the club would turn to African-Americans come out--they didn't come out every night back then. So I had the best of both worlds. About 3:00 in the afternoon I got all the car dealers, all the car salesmen, they would come after they got off work, and the night people would come. And then there was a news reporter with the Oregon Journal, his name was Doug Baker, and he liked our show, so Doug would come to see our show and the next day he would write down an article about the show he saw at the Cotton Club last night and all these white people show up, and I thought, "Whoa! That's great!" you know? Because the money's coming in, and then on weekends, the African-Americans came out, so I had the best of both worlds.

      But then when Dr. King got killed in 1968, that started to separate the races so the whites stopped coming because the blacks were there and the blacks stopped coming because the whites were there, so here I am sitting here with this business and I have no business, you know. I mean it just separated the races just like that--overnight, you know. So I was able to sell--I found a guy that wanted it, you know, so I sold the business. That's why the Cotton Club went down.
    • What was the most stressful experience that you ever lived through?

      I think it was the Dr. King assassination. That was hard. I had three businesses going then and I had to close them all because they didn't want people drinking and going out doing things that they would regret later. So I did actually close my businesses there for about four days, when the heat--til the heat was off. I think that was the worst time.

      What helped you get through it?

      Probably just adjusting to things, you know--I would go out at night and if I saw anyone on the streets that was planning on doing anything, then talk them down, you know, "You don't want to go to jail for the next 20-25 years..."
    • What was the neighborhoods like in the 1960s and 70s?

      Okay, the neighborhoods were: African-Americans lived was no further north than Fremont and no further east than about 22nd or 23rd. I remember a lady that--a friend of ours--bought a house on 21st and Thompson and someone set a cross on their lawn and burned it to let her know that she wasn't welcome in the neighborhood. You know, and this was 1963, 64, and most of the African-Americans lived around Emanuel Hospital, in that area, but then as times changed and Emanuel tore down the business on Williams and Russel, then, of course, people had to have a place to move so they starting moving all over, even further north.
    • How do you feel about the changes in this neighborhood?

      I like the changes and I don't, because I remember when you could hear gunfire every night--every night you could hear gunfire--and since the neighborhood has changed, you don't hear gunfire. But you don't look and see the person at the grocery store that you used to see. Because now they might live at 182nd and Burnside, because now they can't afford the rent in the neighborhood. But I didn't like the gunfire, but I do like the fact that Martin Luther King, if you look at that street--I've been all over the country and every time I go someplace I look at Martin Luther King Boulevard--and we have the most progressive Martin Luther King Boulevard in the country, I mean I've probably visited 25 or 30 of them, and this one is on the ball. And I've been on, I was on that Advisory Committee for twenty years to advise what we wanted on Martin Luther King Boulevard and how we wanted to structure it and pretty much, it's done what we wanted it to do.
    • I'm the oldest Knauls that there is--and you're not going to be the oldest Knauls long. There's somebody else is going to replace you--maybe a year, maybe tomorrow, maybe in ten years--but you won't be the oldest Knauls long, and that's exactly the way life is.
    • If there was one thing in your past that you could change, what would it be?

      Oh, boy. You know, I can't think of anything that I would change, because it's been a good life, a very good life. You know, I've done just about, I've done just about everything that I would like to do.

      I've been so fortunate because I've been around the world: I've been to Greece, I've been to Africa, I've been to Brazil, I've been to Thailand, I've been to Alaska, I've been to Hong Kong...I've done just about everything that I would like to do, you know, in this lifetime.
    • How would you like to be remembered?

      I think people gonna remember me for...I don't know, I take pretty good care of my employees, you know, because they always tell them, you know, "You're pretty lucky to be working for, you know, someone like Paul Knauls."

      People ask me today, "Why do you still work?" I say, "Because I can!" Because I know people my age who can't get out of bed. So I still go to work. I take off on Thursday, but we open at 9:00 and I'm there and then we close up at 6:00. I take an hour off in the afternoons, but I'm there because it's your business and you better take care of it, otherwise it won't be there.
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