He Became the
Magnificent Montague When He Got Off of the Boat in Galveston
by Bill Cherry
the early ‘50s, white people were listening to an NBC radio weekly
comedy called, “The Magnificent Montague,” that starred Monty Wooley.
But the Magnificent Montague I want to talk about isn’t fictional,
and he’s not white, he’s black, and he’s probably one of the most
important contributors to American black culture that has ever lived.
Someone you should know about.
His real name is Nathaniel Montague, but probably less than a handful
of people know his given name. To the public, he’s always been known
as The Magnificent Montague. He was born in New Jersey, left there
before he graduated from a black military school to travel the seas
as a merchant marine. And he got off of his ship in Galveston
because he heard there was a disc jockey position open at a Beaumont
radio station. He wanted to play music. It was 1954.
Montague got the job, and like all of the other black disc jockeys,
he played rhythm and blues records – B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’
Wolf, Bobby Bland and Little Junior Parker, but he added a new twist.
Montague used poetry, sometimes that of a great poet, sometimes that
he had written himself, to connect the music together. And he did
it with a low and mellow voice, and sometimes a piercing, rapid falsetto
one. Even though I’ve had fifty years to think about it, to me his
style remains indescribable.
He learned when the Ku Klux Klan showed up at that Beaumont station
to run him out of town, that more white housewives were listening
to him every day than black. The Klan thought he was causing that
on purpose. Fortunately, another disc jockey at the station, a well-respected
white fellow named J.P. Richardson, was there, and he convinced the
Klan members it wasn’t Montague’s purpose at all. J.P. Richardson,
by the way, later became known as the Big
Bopper (“Chantilly Lace”).
Somewhere along the way, Montague married one of his Beaumont station’s
listeners, a Louisiana girl who was white. Her name is Rose, and they’ve
been married for nearly 60 years.
moved from the Beaumont station to Houston’s KCOH, and that’s where
I heard him for the first time. I was 14, and every boy I knew was
listening after school to the Magnificent Montague. Magnificent Montague
in the afternoon followed by Rascal McCaskill at night. It was impossible
for there to be a music diet of too much rhythm and blues. For me,
there still isn’t.
And then one day a friend and I left Carl’s Drive-in in his black
‘47 Ford with the fender skirts and the mellow rumbling of the Smitty
mufflers, and turned down 53rd Street from Broadway. There was a new
brick building on the east side of the street that had just popped
up, and on the front was a big poster with Montague’s picture, letting
all who passed by know that he would be the opening personality for
the new tavern. We had to see him, and we did.
The Magnificent Montague was a skinny, short man, impeccably dressed.
And we watched and listened as he entertained – just like he did on
KCOH – a packed house of black men and women and two underage white
Shortly thereafter, Montague moved from Houston to Texas City’s KTLW,
and then almost as quickly, he vanished from Texas, going from radio
station to radio station across the United States, following the chain
letter that would take him to and through the big time – Chicago,
New York, Los Angeles. And he made big money because his influence
on what rhythm and blues tunes became hits was phenomenal.
what makes this story a story and what really makes Montague legitimately
magnificent is that he came on this earth with a big brain. He began
reading and studying everything he could about American black heritage.
But what he did that was the most unique was that he began searching
every garage and estate sale, every used bookstore and every art gallery,
and bought every first edition book, original art piece, and historical
artifact that told and validated the history of black America. Most
of the vendors didn’t know their worth. Those that did, Montague raised
the money and paid their price. Why weren’t museums doing that? Where
was the Smithsonian? Would there have ever been a substantive collection
of the works of black authors, musicians, scholars and artists had
there not been a Magnificent Montague?
at 78, the Magnificent Montague has some 6,000 pieces in his collection,
all catalogued, and its value is now reported to be some $5 million.
The Magnificent Montague and Rose live in Las Vegas.
His autobiography, “Burn Baby, Burn,” was written with the help of
famed Los Angeles Times reporter, Bob Baker. It was published by the
University of Illinois Press in 2003. It is an extremely well-written
chronicle of that culture, as seen and experienced by Montague. And
it offers empirical evidence to those who are unfamiliar with Nathaniel
Montague as to why the name Magnificent rightly belongs only to him.
Cherry's Galveston Memories
, 2007 column
Copyright William S. Cherry
All rights reserved
a Dallas Realtor and free lance writer was a longtime columnist for
"The Galveston County Daily News." His book, Bill Cherry's Galveston
Memories, has sold thousands, and is still available at Barnes
and Noble and Amazon.com and other bookstores.
Cherry's Galveston Memories