Pittsburgh has many surprises. As one person said to me recently in a passing conversation, “Pittsburgh has the biggest gap between people’s perception of it and reality.”
One of the biggest treasures it has are the people, characters who built it, eccentric, rich and, at times, entertaining. While you may disagree, great characters still seem to be an essential ingredient in Pittsburgh’s secret sauce.
Tim Stevens definitely fits that profile and albeit major Pittsburgh newspapers didn’t do a good job in covering Pittsburgh’s black community and its leaders (thank the universe for Teenie Harris), Mr. Stevens was hard to miss. He was everywhere and even managed to get into our photo archive. Because in the end of the day, “How many singers do you know with a master’s degree in urban-regional planning?”
In his early career, the native of the Hill District during the day would work as a coordinator of the Black Political Caucus for the NAACP and would get involved with a project to establish a youth rehabilitation program at Juvenile Court, but at night he would “croon a rich and throaty voice from the elevated stage behind the bar at Nite Kap East,” an oasis of music at 40th and Penn in Lawrenceville, way back when Lawrenceville was not hip at all and mostly lived in the shadow of Downtown. He started his singing career at Trinity AME church on the corner of Wylie Avenue and Francis Street where he also was an organist. His mother, Georgetta Holmes Stevens, was “his role model in the arena of the community service.”
In 1970, he was named “Pittsburgh Entertainer of the Year,” people loved the songs he wrote and performed — jazz, blues, pop — the same year he became Executive Director of the Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP. It was after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. that Stevens decided to be more involved in the community. In 1986, Stevens founded the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP).
Stevens was elected as President of the Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP in 1994, the position he held up until 2004. He is still involved with the community and is an outspoken advocate for African American rights and interests.
His career as a musician lasted as long if not longer than his role as a civil rights activist, community advocate and volunteer. He released albums, wrote singles, even served as a contributing editor of the Pittsburgh Magazine’s jazz section.
In the 1980s he didn’t seem to be too enamored by fame. He said at the time, “I just want to keep singing here, and keep people happy with my work and surround myself with the best musicians I can find.”
He produced and released songs with his ensemble called “the Tim Stevens Project.”
The press loved the singing activist, an article from 1999 captures it best:
“Tim Stevens is at the microphone, but tonight he’s not addressing issues as the President of the Pittsburgh Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Tonight, he is the singer — backed by guitar and drums — in the trio “The Tim Stevens Project” appearing at Crawford Grill.
Among regulars, the Wylie Avenue restaurant/club is often referred to as Crawford II because the original club, where international jazz greats had graced the stage was torn down along with other Hill District businesses and homes during urban renewal in the late ’50s.
The scene here is much as it was in the old club. Men in sport coats and women in suits and dresses chat softly and smile constantly, their faces illuminated by lighting as soft and smooth as the jazz being played.
The crowd of about 85 people is predominantly black, but whites are made to feel welcome by both the clientele and the efficient waitresses in white starched shirts, black bow ties and black pants.
Stevens, wearing a multicolored shirt and black pants, holds a wireless microphone as he strolls the floor, singing “The Two of Us” to the upbeat crowd, often stopping at tables to sing directly to patrons. There’s an understated excitement in the air, a happiness that’s infectious.
The crowd on this night includes Frank Bolden, 86, the former city editor of the Pittsburgh Courier when it was the country’s most influential black weekly newspaper, and city Councilman Sala Udin.
Manager Mark Allen, dapper in a blue blazer, white shirt and earring, moves through the crowd, making certain everyone is doing fine.
In a nearby booth, Dennis Ross and Patty Lawson drink in the ambiance. They invite some newcomers to the grill to share their booth and a chat. There are an attractive, interesting and interested people. They are the kind of people who make sure visitors feel comfortable in a new setting, the kind of people you meet in the Crawford Grill just by turning to your left or your right…”
Can you feel the vibe yet?
Interesting people, interesting times…