He ran a Greensboro entertainment empire as famous for its fried chicken as for its stunning array of internationally known black musicians. From 1949 until 1971, Alexander Great Faucette’s El Rocco club fed and entertained Greensboro residents in a manner rarely seen outside New York, with some folks comparing it to Harlem’s famous Cotton Club and even the Apollo Theater.

It was a family affair with his wife, Eloise, doing the cooking and Faucette’s six sons and daughters helping out wherever they were needed.

“I used to wait tables, help cook, also,” says Faucette’s only surviving son, Amos, 76, a former insurance agent.

“His daddy was a heck of a trendsetter,” says Magnolia House proprietor Sam Pass. The restored, historic establishment hosted some of El Rocco’s notable performers back in the day.

“That club used to have quite a few pro entertainers to come through. Yeah, man, little bitty hole in the wall. The old man, Mr. Faucette, he could cook his butt off. They were known for some good eating, too, in that place.”

Despite its compact appearance, the club could accommodate a surprising amount of revelers.

“You could cram between 300 and 350 people in the place back then because it had between 55 and 60 tables in there,” Faucette says.

Alexander Faucette

Before he opened El Rocco, Alexander Faucette spent seven years as a railroad porter on the Atlantic Coast Line route that ran from Washington to St. Petersburg, Fla. He grew up in Efland, just outside of Mebane, moved to D.C. while working as a porter. Then he moved back to Greensboro, driving a cab and working as a waiter at Sedgefield’s Embassy Club until he opened the El Rocco in 1949. He also operated a grill in the King Cotton Hotel and a snack bar in L. Richardson Hospital, which Faucette took over and ran for a number of years when his dad left for New York in 1971.

By all accounts, Faucette was a genial man whose food-seeking clientele, as well as artists he booked, liked and respected him.

“No one was ever killed there,” son Amos says. “We would have little fights now and then, but we would pay two policeman to be on duty when we had shows to keep the peace.”

In the beginning, he only used half of the cinder-block building at 1910 E. Market St. near the U.S. 29 overpass.

“He started off as a grill. It was a duplex, and the building caught on fire,” Amos says. “I think the Burnettes had the dry cleaners there when the building caught on fire. ... Burnt the roof off the whole building.”

The dry cleaners left, and Faucette took over the whole building in the ’50s.

“He had one side where he had the grill, and there was a big side where he had the club side,” Amos says. “So he eventually tore the wall down and opened it up as one big building. So we were serving food, and we had entertainment.”

Faucette started with local bands but was soon booking big stars of the era, including James Brown, into the coliseum and other large venues, as well as his club.

Chuck Cotton

Local drummer and horn man Chuck Cotton, who has toured the world with Bob Margolin, and played locally with Buddha Hat and the Sky Kings, was drawn to the cub in his formative years.

“I grew up down by A&T, so we used to go up to the El Rocco and see who was gonna be playing there that night, see if we knew musicians who played there,”

Cotton says.

He says he used to play baseball on N.C. A&T’s campus and would go by the El Rocco after games.

“We knew people would be at the backdoor taking their equipment in, and we just wanted to go around there and see what we could see because those posters from that Globe poster place in Baltimore used to be up and down on Market Street all the time. We would see those posters, and we’d go up there and look around and just be a nuisance,” Cotton says.

In high school, Cotton had a little band called the Blind Justice.

“The El Rocco was right there, and then the Carlotta was right up the street, and they both gave us a little chance to come in and play,” Cotton says.

“I only played there three or four times when I was coming up. Nobody knew anything about us, so nobody would ever be there,” he says with a laugh.

Cotton was playing sax back then, and he and a trumpet-playing buddy used to go to the Record Center on the corner of Washington and South Elm streets every Saturday and buy 45s and popular music they had heard on WEAL, Greensboro’s premier soul and R&B station.

“We’d learn all the horn lines,” Cotton says. “About a year after we got done playing Little League baseball, some older guys in the neighborhood were forming a band and needed some horn players. They came and got me. We started playing places like the El Rocco as Chuck King and the Cadillacs. I was not Chuck King. It was an older guy, and they all had processes. Chuck King would stand up onstage. He didn’t have a guitar strap, so he would just put his leg up on chair an put his guitar across his leg. That’s how we would go. And we played all kinds of little joints down in the country — Liberty and Sanford and all kinds of little places.”

Roy Roberts

Local bluesman Roy Roberts also frequented the El Rocco, motivated by the music and by amorous opportunities he foresaw.

Moving to Greensboro in 1960 was kind of a culture shock to Roberts.

“I had never been in a real nightclub before,” Roberts admits. “I came out of the woods down in Kentucky, little juke joints out the woods.”

Soul legend Jerry Butler was playing the night Roberts and a carload of buddies rolled up looking for a taste of the big time.

“Butler was performing and the backing band, whenever they got ready to take a break, come off the stage. Man, women was all over them,” Roberts says. “And here me and my buddies were, riding around in this old car with about five or six of us trying to find us some women, so I knew that wasn’t gonna happen. No room to even put them in the car. So when I saw all of that, I turned to my guy and said, ‘I don’t want y’all to come and pick me up no more. I’m gonna learn how to play a guitar, that’s what I’m gonna do. And I ain’t gonna have no problem getting no women.’ Well, I should have let that go ... been in trouble ever since,” he says, laughing.

But Roberts’ guitar playing scheme paid off, at least career-wise. A couple of years after coming to town, Roberts skills had progressed enough for him to sit in with house bands at the Carlotta and El Rocco. He had become friendly with a band from Reidsville, The Continentals, who were backing Solomon Burke at one of his appearances at the club. The band’s bassist was having problems with one of Burke’s songs, and asked Roberts for help. As Roberts was demonstrating for him how it was supposed to go, Burke overheard.

“Solomon looked around at me and said, ‘Do you know all my music like that?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know everything you recorded, man.’ Because back in those days, any black entertainer who came out with a song, I would learn it,” Roberts says.

Burke hired him for the evening’s performance. “He said, ‘I’ll pay you if you’ll come in and back me.’ So I went in, and after I got done playing the gig, Solomon wanted me to go on the road with him. So I left that night and stayed with him about a year.” Roberts would go on to tour with Dee Clark and Eddie Floyd among others, eventually leading his own band.

The food

Roberts remembers the food being almost as big an attraction as the entertainment. “Aw, yeah, man, that fried chicken. It was something else. You could come down Market Street and get down there near in front of the El Rocco and get out of your car and you could smell that chicken all the way out to the parking lot.”

In those pre-McDonald’s days, the menu was a big draw. “Ninety nine and a half out of every 100 people who walked in that door bought food,” Amos Faucette remembers. “We sold a chicken sandwich, a fourth of a chicken, on a plate, like a leg and a thigh, and we’d put a coupla slices of bread — one slice would be completely flat, they would cut the other in half and put the chicken on top of the plate. And have potato salad on the side, and those plates used to cost about 75 cents. And the barbecue ribs, they would cost 85 cents. They would sell those two-decker club sandwiches; they were like 85 cents.”

Faucette recalls that the highest thing on the menu was the T-bone steak. “It would be an inch thick, and it would cost you $2.50 for a steak dinner.” In it’s heyday, the club was selling 50 to 60 cases of beer a week, making up 50 pounds of potato salad a week to go with the meats and poultry. “Most of the food was cooked before people got health conscious, was cooked in pure lard,” Faucette says.

The entertainment price was right as well. “Back then, you could have a show, and prices were low. I remember seeing a contract for Jerry Butler. You could get Jerry Butler for two nights for $750. You could have a show and charge $2.50 per person.”

The stars

And the entertainment was top shelf.

James Brown, Solomon Burke, Gladys Knight, Jackie Wilson, Jerry Butler, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, Etta James, Roy Hamilton and Red Foxx were among the entertainers who appeared at the El Rocco.

“Solomon Burke, it would be standing room only when he would come. He played there several times,” Faucette says.

A Wednesday night dance contest with a 75 cents admission charge hosted by local musician Victor Hudson and the Electric Express was a big draw, as was the risqué music of perennial frat parity favorites Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts. The shows were set up as a showcase with several acts.

“You would have Jerry Butler, then you would have an exotic dancer, which was a semi striptease dancer. Then they’d have a comedian. That’s the way they’d do it.” Faucette recalls a dance troupe from Philadelphia Hortense Allen Dancers who also showed up regularly.

“People came from all around. What we would do when he would have a show, he would order placards and we would go to Burlington and Reidsville one day, then we’d go to High Point and Winston the next day, and we would put up placards in restaurants, grills, in the towns.”

“El Rocco was something like, in New York you had the Apollo. You had the Regal in Chicago, Royal Theatre in Baltimore, Howard Theatre in DC, a circuit — all the hot artists. El Rocco had a nice place over there for them to come,” says Chic Carter, former pitcher for the Winston-Salem Pond Giants, a Negro League team in Winston in the 1950s.

Although it was a black cub, some white visitors were welcome. “I used to take some girls to the El Rocco,” Greensboro-based shag legend Larry McCranie says. “One time in the mid-’50s, I took four girls down there, and we were the only white folks in there. They were cool girls. They ended up dancing with all the black guys, and I danced with black women, and we just had a ball. Not too many white kids went over there,” he says, “but occasionally they were invited. The girls could dance, and you could just have a good time.”

But first and foremost, the El Rocco was a beacon for the black community — a place to congregate and celebrate.

“Blacks could not go to white clubs,” Faucette says, “so they had the club there. And all of them had Christmas parties there every year. People who worked for Lorillard, people who worked at Cone Mills, school teachers, the high school teachers, junior high teachers, all of the people in the majority of the black community, they had parties there.”

THE END

Ironically, integration was the end of the club. “The civil rights actually is what closed the club,” Faucette says. “Blacks started going to a club out there on High Point Road. It was called the Plantation Supper Club. They started going to different places, so that just caused us just to sell food mainly. (We) did that for quite a few years, then he shut the club down in 1971.”

Alexander the Great passed in 1995, but his legacy lives on, in the musical memories and the cuisine. After all these years, on a good day when the wind is right, EL Rocco aficionados swear they can still hear a soulful melody in the air and smell the traces of that long ago fried chicken hovering over the club’s remains.

Contact Grant Britt at gbritt1

@triad.rr.com.

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