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Walter Barnes Walter Barnes

Walter Barnes - clarinet, saxophone, bandleader

One of the deadliest fires in American musical history took the lives of over 200 people, including bandleader Walter Barnes and nine members of his dance orchestra The Royal Creolians at the Rhythm Club, in Natchez, Mississippi, on April 23, 1940. News of the tragedy reverberated throughout the country, especially among the African American community, and blues performers have recorded memorial songs such as “The Natchez Burning” and “The Mighty Fire” ever since. A state historical marker was later erected at the former site of the Rhythm Club.

Barnes, a Vicksburg native, had moved to Chicago in 1923 where he began studying reed instruments with classical teacher Franz Schoepp, then took further studies at the Chicago Musical College and the American Conservatory of Music. He took over as bandleader from the Detroit Shannon outfit in 1924, and renamed the band The Royal Creolians. He recorded with this band in 1928-29 for the Brunswick label.

He developed a successful career taking his dance music to small southern towns where big-time entertainers rarely performed. In keeping with the musical fashion of the era, by 1939 he had renamed his unit the Sophisticated Swing Orchestra. Barnes recruited musicians from several different states for his final tour.

The impact of the disaster hit home not just in Natchez and Chicago, but all the way from Texas to Ohio when the musicians’ bodies were sent home for funerals

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