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Scatman Crothers, a Black actor and musician, was born on this date in 1910.
Born in Terre Haute, IN, Benjamin Sherman Crothers (his name at birth) was the son of a cobbler. At the age of 14 he began to teach himself to play the drums and guitar. Soon he got a job entertaining customers at one of the local speakeasies, and at the age of 19, he and his brother, Louis, moved to Indianapolis to find work as entertainers.
This proved to be difficult at first, so Crothers found work cleaning and blocking hats for a Greek merchant. Eventually he landed a job with Montague’s Kentucky Serenaders traveling band. Touring the Deep South, Crothers experienced the harsh realities of racism. In 1931, he left the group and moved to Dayton, OH where he had heard work was more plentiful. It was here he acquired his distinctive nickname, during an audition at radio station KMSK. He felt he needed a name that was not so bland; hence, Scatman was created. Throughout the 1930s, Crothers performed mainly in the Midwest.
Crothers worked as a solo act and mostly in front of white audiences who had rarely seen Black performers. Crothers soon formed his own band. In 1936, while working in Canton, OH, he met Helen Sullivan, a white woman from the area; they married the following year and created a bond that lasted the rest of Scatman’s life. By the early 1940s, Crothers was a regular in the Chicago Loop occasionally playing with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Around 1945, he left the Midwest and headed to California, settling in Hollywood with his family and finding bookings in L.A. and San Francisco. As business slowed, he signed on and played with the Slam Gilliard Trio.
In 1948, Crothers wrote the song “Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy” with Phil Harris for his NBC radio show; two more songs followed: “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “Dead Man’s Blues.” He became a regular guest on the show and created a long friendship as well.
In 1952, while working at the Oasis, he met actor Dan Daily and was offered a part in the movie “Meet Me at the Fair,” which became a semi-classic and launched his acting career. Over the next two decades, Crothers appeared in a number of feature films. He was a frequent guest on The Jack Benny Show and the Steve Allen Show while continuing to make records and perform on stage in L.A. and Las Vegas.
Some of his film credits include “Between Heaven and Hell” (1956), “The Patsy” (1964), “The Great White Hope” (1970), “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “The Shinning” (1980), and “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983). On TV, some of his parts were in Mannix, McMillan and Wife, and Sanford and Son in 1972, and Chico and the Man in 1974. Throughout his career, Crother’s most endearing characteristic aside from his talent was his unmistakable smile.
In 1985, a tumor developed on his lung; it spread to his esophagus and Scatman Crothers died in November 1986.
The African American Atlas
Black History & Culture an Illustrated Reference
by Molefi K. Asanta and Mark T. Mattson
Macmillan USA, Simon & Schuster, New York