A tribute: To a Biloxi man named Yankie and two history-changing ’66 concerts

Yankee Barhonovich, shown in May 1978, was a member of the Mississippi Coast Coliseum Commission.
Yankee Barhonovich, shown in May 1978, was a member of the Mississippi Coast Coliseum Commission. Sun Herald File

Music! Those who play it or listen to it often don’t think about how music is the great unifier, the great equalizer.

Music, in fact, has the power to change history, and such is the case with Biloxi and the Mississippi Coast in the mid-20th century.

James Brown. Johnny Cash. Fats Domino. Kitty Wells. Elvis. Dave Bartholomew. Paul Revere and the Raiders. Those and so many more nationally recognizable names — both black and white — performed in this region in the 1950s and 1960s.

Depending on the year, the audiences could be all black, all white or mixed, for as Bob Dylan sang in 1964, “the times, they are a changin’!”

The Coast music legacy born in that era continues, although the scene is now often big resort venues instead of small clubs and community centers.

An important but little-recognized music promoter from that time is the late Frank “Yankie” Barhanovich, who had an uncanny way of convincing big names to perform in little Biloxi. He also recognized unrecognized talents and promoted them through shows and occasionally on his Biloxi record label, Fine Records.

In a public program on Aug. 5, the Coast will learn more about this fascinating era of music and about Barhanovich, a self-made man who grew up poor on Point Cadet. But he is more readily remembered for his business, sports, charity and civic contributions than what he did for Coast entertainment.

A 50th anniversary to remember

Both the date and the place of the Aug. 5 program are historically important. It is titled “The Music Mogul: Frank ‘Yankie’ Barhanovich Tribute and 50th Anniversary of the 1966 Biloxi Municipal Stadium Concerts.”

Aug. 5, 1966 — 50 years ago — is when Barhanovich promoted a concert for singer James Brown, “Mr. Dynamite” himself, at Biloxi Municipal Stadium. So many tickets were sold that one of Barhanovich’s daughters remembers getting pink eye from handling so much money.

Three months earlier, Barhanovich had promoted Dick Clark’s “Where the Action Is” concert at the stadium. It was a revue of popular stars from the teen-electrifying TV show that was a spin-off of Clark’s popular “American Bandstand.” That concert actually caused a high school sit-in by students anxious to get out early to see the concert.

The racially mixed 7,000 to 8,000 who came to each of the 1966 concerts are part of a historic benchmark for Coast desegregation.

The location of the Aug. 5 program is the lodge of the Slavic Benevolent Association of St. Nikoli, where Barhanovich, a first-generation Slavic American, was an active member. The program’s setting also spotlights the lodge’s own music history.

The evening event will include background talks and an interview with Barhanovich’s daughter, Martha Ebberman, a Biloxi restaurateur who once sang for Decca Records as Ann Raye. Because of the successful managing of his teenage daughter’s career, Barhanovich was once asked by a young Elvis to be his manager.

A worthy public program

The Aug. 5 program is sponsored by the city of Biloxi, financially assisted by the National Endowment for the Humanities through the Mississippi Humanities Council, and hosted by the Slavonian Lodge, also known as the Croatian American Cultural Center in its post-Katrina building on Maple Street.

“Historic preservation is more than saving old buildings,” said Bill Raymond, Biloxi’s historic administrator. “It’s about telling the stories of this place we love and the characters who make Biloxi such a unique community.”

The audience will watch a video with drummer Clemon Jimerson Sr., who grew up in Biloxi’s colorful black music district near Main Street. There will be short videos with families of others who influenced the Coast entertainment scene, including Gus Stevens of supper club fame and Sie Simon, who lured the likes of Hank Williams to his small Biloxi club.

PeeWee Maddux of Long Beach, another musician of note, was co-owner of Fine Records with Marion “Prof” Carpenter and Barhanovich. The three founded the Singing River Publishing Co., as well as Fine Record Co., which existed about three years. Singing River, under Carpenter’s management, continued for decades and featured black and white artists.

Oh, so many side stories

The Aug. 5 tribute, although it includes side stories, centers around Barhanovich and the two 1966 concerts. The program has limited seating and Raymond advises advance tickets, even though they are free.

A broader picture of the Coast’s music scene might include families such as the Mladniches, who ran the popular Fiesta club, as well as the people behind a number of North Gulfport clubs, the 100 Man Hall in Bay St. Louis, the Biloxi Strip and just about every Coast town that had night clubs or had organizations that sponsored concerts or dances.

One program cannot cover it all, program organizers admit.

“Live music of many genres has long been a vital part of Mississippi Gulf Coast culture and social life,” said Jim O’Neal, co-founder of The Living Blues magazine, research director of the Mississippi Blues Trails and one of the program’s knowledgeable presenters.

“The bands on the Coast knew first and foremost how to entertain people, both the locals and the many visitors and tourists, to keep the good times going. Biloxi promoter Yankie Barhanovich played an important role in presenting a wide variety of music to teenagers and adults during the 1950s and ’60s.”

Tribute organizer shares memories

Photographs, music videos, a meet-and-greet, refreshments and dance music of that era from the Coast-based Band of Gold will round out the two-plus hour program that is the brainchild of Dr. Gilbert Mason Jr.

Mason is a Biloxi native, son of a noted civil rights activist and a retired physician who has a passion for the music of his youth. Mason has vivid memories of attending the ’66 stadium concerts at age 12. “Where The Action Is” and James Brown were Mason’s first big concerts and his first time to witness blacks and whites at the same large popular music venue.

“Yankie could be considered our little town’s version of Memphis’ Sam Phillips with Sun Records — Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins — and a perpetrator/champion of a continuum of flirtations and commitments to expositing the culture of ‘race records,’ ” said Mason, referring to the history of R&B music from a time when black performers were characterized in the popular white culture as “the other.”

“He should also be favorably compared to New Orleans’ Cosimo Matassa, who, also as a talent scout and recording industry icon, presented local and national talent from the late ’50s through the ’70s — Little Richard, Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, Fats Domino, The Meters and a host of others.

“To think of what Yankie accomplished in this unique limited environment was truly remarkable. Yes, there were other ‘actors’ in the story, and he didn’t do it alone, but he was an intriguing central figure and what he did in 1966 is what got me interested enough to go this far.”

How the program came to be

Mason explains that he was high school friends with Barhanovich’s youngest son, Mark. They were reacquainted at a 2012 rededication of Yankie Stadium, the former Biloxi Municipal Stadium where the ’66 concerts were held. During their conversation, music puzzle pieces fell into place for Mason.

For years, he had wondered who was most responsible for the ’66 concerts, likely the first time on the Coast that blacks and whites from the general public watched the same large pop concerts. Only two years had passed since the Civil Rights Act ended segregation in public places and the South moved slowly to change.

When Mason learned that Mark’s dad was the promoter for both shows, the old friends discussed the idea of publicly acknowledging the 50th anniversary of the concerts in 2016. When the younger Barhanovich died in a boating accident several weeks after their conversation, Mason couldn’t forget the discussion or other side-stories he was hearing, including the existence of Fine Records.

Selling others on the tribute

Mason went to the city for sponsorship, and in the next step asked the Slavonian Lodge to host the 50th anniversary tribute.

“I’m carrying the torch for what my friend Mark would have done anyway,” said Matthew Dubaz, the Slavonian Lodge president. “That’s why we volunteered to provide a venue for it.

“The lodge is a fitting place with Mr. Yankie’s involvement. And in his era, the original lodge hosted a lot of bands, both blacks and whites.”

Barhanovich staged the Coast’s first Elvis show at the lodge on June 26, 1955. He brought Grand Ole Opry entertainment to Biloxi. His Fats Domino concert in 1956 at the Biloxi Community Center was so jam-packed with white fans there was no room to dance. Fats would also play at nearby black venues in the days before desegregation.

Many years later, the New Orleans icon performed at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi, and guess who was one of the movers and shakers to bring that large music arena to the region? Barhanovich, who had completed 15 terms as Coliseum board president when he died in 1987 at age 71.

Participants in the Aug. 5 program say they intend to show how Barhanovich’s era, those two ’66 concerts and the universal language of music brought together the diverse cultures of the Coast.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald but continues to write her Sunday “Mississippi Coast Chronicles” column. She will be one of the Coast history presenters at the Aug. 5 Tribute. You may reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

If you go

What: ‘The Music Mogul: Frank “Yankie” Barhanovich Tribute and 50th Anniversary of the 1966 Biloxi Municipal Stadium Concerts,’ a free public program spotlighting the ’50 and ’60 music scene.

When: Aug. 5. Doors open at 5 p.m. and the program begins at 5:30 p.m. About two hours long.

What to expect: Organizer Dr. Gilbert Mason Jr., at age 12 experienced the ’66 concerts firsthand. Two history presenters are Jim O’Neal (Living Blues magazine co-founder and research director of the Mississippi Blues Trails who is knowledgeable about Tribute-era music) and Kat Bergeron (a semi-retired journalist from the Sun Herald who is acknowledged for her perspectives on Coast history).

Special appearances: Biloxi Mayor ‘FoFo’ Gillich, who attended the ’66 concerts, will talk about his memories; Emceeing is by Biloxi native Vincent Creel, who grew up hearing the music stories and sometimes experiencing them himself.

Program lagniappe: Videos by Biloxi videographer August Taconi, vintage photos and music by Band of Gold. A meet-and-greet, refreshments and a cash bar will end the program, as well an opportunity to dance to Tribute-era music.

Where: The Slavonian Lodge in Biloxi at the corner of Maple and Howard streets; also known as the Croatian Cultural Center.

Tickets: Free, but advanced tickets are advised as seating is limited. Pick up tickets at the Biloxi Visitor’s Center just north of the Biloxi Lighthouse; or call 228-374-3105 to reserve tickets.

Funding: The program is sponsored by Biloxi, financially assisted by the National Endowment for the Humanities through the Mississippi Humanities Council, and hosted by the Slavonian Lodge.