FORT WAYNE—Last week marked the end of an era for Fort Wayne and the nation.
On Jan. 2, legendary performer, entrepreneur and community advocate Al Stiles made his transition at age 91. He was one of the last survivors of an era that could only be called the golden age of jazz and entertainment.
Stiles’ story is the stuff of legend. He initially left his home in Tampa, Fla., without his parents’ knowledge at the age of 12 to
pursue his dream of performing in New York. He and his nine-year-old “band partner” Nathaniel Reese succeeded in securing an audition for the then-famed Major Bowles Amateur Hour radio program, subsequently winning the competition, thus beginning Stiles’ long and storied entertainment career. Throughout his travels as a dancer, singer and songwriter, he performed and shared strong friendships with some of the world’s greatest entertainers including Lionel Hampton, Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
In 1971, Stiles relocated to Fort Wayne, where he and his wife began raising a family. While he curbed his itinerant career, Stiles kept busy in the music business, owning a record shop and a record company for which he wrote and produced songs and recordings, hosting a radio program and later founding the Talent Factory—a training facility and program for budding entertainers, with Stiles sharing the benefit of his knowledge and experience. Additionally, he worked as a labor leader, being perhaps the first black man to head the local level of a national labor union, and eventually put his entrepreneurial spirit to work with his longstanding business, Al Stiles’ World’s Best Shoeshine—a long familiar fixture and gathering spot on the corner of Anthony Boulevard and Wayne Street.
He also served on a number of boards and commissions, always advocating for the “everyday person’s” position. In an upcoming edition, Frost Illustrated will chronicle Stiles’ life and work in the community and gather comments from just a few of the thousands of people upon whom Stiles’ life had a positive impact.
This week, renowned poet and community Elder Brother Omowale-Ketu Oladuwa pays tribute to Mr. Stiles:
Lite of the Talent Factory
For Elder Brother Al Stiles
By Omowale-Ketu Oladuwa
Legends are with us only for a season
And then, like smoke
They vanish leaving behind the essence of their lite
Those bright sunbeams of inspiration
That touch hearts and inform our education.
That lite developed during the real hard times
When Jim Crow reigned, and Strange Fruit hung
And our people learned to hold one another with a fierceness
To which their artists bore witness
And our identity was a lesson in principle
That challenges us today
To be the very best that we can be.
Our Elder Brother
You rode The A-Train with the wave of pre- and post-war stars
Glittering in the heaven defined by our experience
You not least among artists
Whose warmth and enlivened brilliance still bedrock our culture
With god-given resilient grace.
Culture that’s grown unto this fourth and fifth generation
And if we are judicious, we will pass on to our progeny.
The Lady Days and Lionel Hamptons
The Apollo stage in the heart of Harlem
That you brought back, planted and grew at the Three Rivers
Where understanding who you were gave rise to the first note
The first dance tap, the first word
That told the story of what we’ve been thru
And to where we must journey to be
In these latter days of challenge.
Your Talent Factory, Elder Brother, never promoted despair
And always had a helpful word and a healing hand.
You journeyed over 90 years
To be a man who saw and served
And gave his gifts to raise up others
We beat the drum now and give heart to sing
In praise of your years and your life
And our legacy.
© 2014 Omowale-Ketu Oladuwa all rights reserved