Alderson native was the toast of 1920s Paris
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Ada "Bricktop" Smith was one of those colorful personalities who defined a place and an era. A biracial entertainer from Alderson, the nightclub hostess and bar owner was the toast of café society in Paris after World War I.
Bricktop, who will be celebrated at the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame's induction ceremony Nov. 16 in the Culture Center Theater, entertained, encouraged and inspired some of the musical, artistic and literary heavyweights of the Jazz Age.
Among those who people who will be honoring her is Art Simmons, an acquaintance of Bricktop's.
Simmons, from Raleigh County, was a piano player and bandleader who worked in the cafés and clubs of Paris following World War II.
"Bricktop wasn't only an entertainer," the 90-year-old jazz musician said. "She had that charisma as well."
Born in 1894, Ada Smith left West Virginia at a young age with her family for Chicago, where she began performing in saloons as a teen. She got the nickname "Bricktop" from the red hair and freckles she inherited from her Irish immigrant father.
After successes in New York, she moved to Paris in 1924 and worked for songwriter Cole Porter. Soon she was operating clubs of her own and gradually became a fixture of Paris nightlife.
Among her friends and acquaintances, Bricktop counted authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck as well as performers such as Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker.
Simmons knew her during the second half of her life, after World War II. The jazz pianist was drafted in 1944 and sent to Europe in 1946, where he performed with an Army band that performed in France, Germany and Czechoslovakia.
In 1949, he left the Army and went to Paris to be part of the city's rich music scene and to study music at the Paris Conservatory.
Simmons performed and toured in a variety of musical outfits through the 1950s and '60s before retiring and returning to West Virginia in the early '70s.
"I was in my 20s when I was in Paris," he said. "Bricktop, she must have been in her 40s. She'd have been a seasoned performer by then."
And not as successful as she'd once been.
"In the 1920s, she came over at the right time," Simmons said.
Paris, after World War II, was a different city.
"Paris wasn't on its feet," he said. "It wasn't on its feet in 1949. It really didn't come back until the late 1960s."
People were broke, but the crowds still came out.
"The places I worked were packed every night," he said. "People were glad the war was over."
They just had less money to spend, and Simmons believes Bricktop didn't know how to cater to this more frugal audience.
"Drinks at Bricktop's were a little too expensive for the ordinary folks and for the travelers who came in," he said. "She was used to catering to the royalty and the upper classes."
That kind of crowd just wasn't around like they had been, and Simmons believes that probably led her to close her last Paris club in the 1950s.
"If she could have hung on," he said, "I think she'd have seen the turnaround."
Instead, Bricktop opened a club in Rome and remained there until her "retirement" in 1961. While she didn't own any clubs, she continued to perform well into her 80s. She died in 1984 at the age of 89.
West Virginia Music Hall of Fame induction
WHERE: Culture Center Theater
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16
TICKETS: $60. VIP tickets $200, includes meet and greet and governor's reception.
INFO: 304-342-4412 or www.wvmusichalloffame.com
Reach Bill Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5195.