Last week, History Matters - produced in collaboration with the Delaware Historical Society - looked at the legacy of Wilmington’s renowned jazz teacher Robert “Boysie” Lowery.
Our jazz in Wilmington series continues this week with a glimpse into the complex life of one of Lowery’s students – and one of Wilmington’s most widely received jazz musician: vibraphonist Lem Winchester.
For the past 30 years, Scott Davidson has led various music ensembles in Delaware. Like so many others, he also sought out musical guidance from the late Boysie Lowery. However, it was another musician and student of Lowery’s who really caught Davidson’s attention.
“Over the years I kept hearing Lem Winchester’s name,” Davidson said.
Davidson discovered that he’d recorded music on major labels like Prestige – now Concord - records. That was over 15 years ago, when Davidson set out to uncover the story of the Bop Cop, as Lem Winchester became known.
Lem was a policeman – but his passion was music. Davidson says he’d play often at a restaurant in the Gov. Printz Blvd. Merchandise Mart shopping center.
“When he would do the night shift, he’d come to the restaurant in his police uniform, take off his gun and start playing the vibes – and then he’d go to work,” Davidson said.
It was there that Lem got to know the John Chowning trio. Eventually one of Chowning’s distant relatives who worked with RCA Records invited Lem to be a guest on one of their recordings in New York City.
“Then John Chowning’s father sent a recording to a well-known jazz critic named Leonard Feather – who anyone who knows jazz knows who Leonard Feather is,” Davidson said.
Feather was in charge of booking new artists and he gave Lem his big break - inviting him to perform at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.
“They didn’t give him enough money to bring his regular rhythm section from Wilmington so he used a rhythm section from the Herb Pomeroy big band,” Davidson said. “They just played some standards because there was no rehearsal at all. But every jazz musician knows a lot of standards and chord standards – that’s part of learning how to play jazz – so they just got up there and played some jazz standards.”
He was featured on one side of a New Faces At Newport album, and was flooded with opportunities. Lem began billing himself the Lionel Hampton of Wilmington, and recorded more and more music.
“And he used people like Art Taylor and Max Roach, and he did an album with Benny Goldson….” Davidson said.
By 1960 – he’d recorded several albums already.
“That’s a lot – in a two-year time span that’s a great deal, it’s unheard of,” said Shirley Scott, who like Davidson developed a keen interest in Lem’s family. She’s the author of B Street Family Ties, detailing the interweaving of the Wilkerson, Winchester and Davis families on B Street in Wilmington’s Southbridge Community.
Lem came from humble beginnings; he was born in 1928 to Marian Davis, a single mother. William Wilkerson took them both in, and married Davis. But he introduced baby Lemuel to his relatives the Winchesters, who eventually adopted him.
“Apparently if you had a family who was poor and they had a lot of kids and there was another couple who couldn’t have kids, it was very common for that couple to adopt one from another family,” Davidson said.
Together, Lem’s mom and William Wilkerson had fourteen kids including Millie – later to become Millie Cannon, a well-known jazz vocalist in the area. Lem grew up directly across the street from his mom and multiple step-siblings and as Scott detailed in her book, that proximity that helped forge a musical connection.
“When she [Millie] was young – they would get together, she would be washing the dishes, Lem, her uncle Joe who’s also a musician, their grandfather, they’d be at the dinner table after the meal,” Scott said. “Lem would have the spoons, the grandfather would have the ukulele and her father – Millie’s father – he wasn’t a musical man so was the one tapping his foot a lot.”
Maurice Sims grew up with Lem, even attending his adoption party.
“Most talented person I’ve ever known in my whole life,” Sims said. “Lem could play the piano, he’d get on that thing man –play like Lionel Hampton.”
That musical ability developed at a young age.
“He’d climb in the front window – Preston was working at the post office, we’d sneak into his apartment,” Sims said. “He’d sneak in there – Lem started on the vibes in Preston’s there. I said, that doesn’t sound too bad.”
Scott says Millie’s second husband eventually gave his vibes to Lem.
“Lem was so good – this is Millie telling me the story, Lem was so good that he didn’t want to get on the vibes, he gave Lem his vibes – go ahead man, you take it,” Scott said. “You’ve got it. And he went back to the keyboard and that was it. He was done with the vibes after that. Lem was phenomenal.”
But Lem’s quality of life differed from his fourteen step siblings. Lem’s adopted father William Winchester made a good salary as a city councilman.
“He was privileged in the sense that uncle Winchester and his aunt gave him whatever – he had a boat, he had stuff that other kids in the community didn’t have,” Scott said. “They did spoil him.”
Davidson says Mr. Winchester – who in 1945 became the first black representative in the legislature – also helped Lem get a job.
“So he pulled strings and got his son a job as a cop, which was at that time a really good job for an African American,” Davidson said.
However, Lem’s career as a cop soon came to a screeching halt.
“The unpleasant part of the story is that he had a fight with his wife and it was physical,” Davidson said. “The mother-in-law called the cops, the cops came to the house and took her statement. And he was going to be thrown out of the police force with a hearing. So before he had the hearing he decided to resign. So he resigned from the police force in the spring of 1960.”
Davidson uncovered this fact by obtaining Lem’s police records with the help of former Mayor James Baker.
“Unlike everybody else around him, he understood why I would want this file to write a biography, especially since I hardly had any document’s from any other place,” Davidson said. “So about six days later I’m sitting in the police department’s office in the chief of police and going page by page in the file and giving me the file and he said there was something he wasn’t going to give me which was kind of annoying. So I’ll never know what that is. I don’t know what could be more embarrassing than being charged with battery and run out of the police department. I don’t know what other detail in the file is more embarrassing than that, I have no idea.”
After resigning from the police force, Lem turned to music full time.
“I think there was probably – from what I hear from his brother George – pressure to keep a stable job,” Davidson said. “Because he had three kids and he had to support them. And it was kind of insane to suddenly decide I think I’ll be a jazz musician to support my three kids.”
Shirley Scott says in conversations with Millie Cannon, she suspected Lem might be bipolar.
“She said – I believe that was what was wrong with Lem,” Scott said. “Had we really known and paid attention, maybe he could have gotten the help that he needed because he would really fly off the handle. The mood swings were very present.”
Sometimes, those mood swings would present themselves as temper tantrums.
“He had a pattern of temper tantrums that were very, very dangerous,” Scott said. “He loved guns. He kept guns. He shot at Millie a few times.”
Not only was he fixated with guns, he was also obsessed with risk taking – and would line his siblings up in the backyard, shooting apples or cans off of their heads. His risk-taking personality carried over into all aspects of his life.
“He used to set off firecrackers in the police locker room, so people would think they were gunshots,”Davidson said. “Crazy stuff like that.”
Sims recalls his reckless nature on his motorcycle, standing up on it and riding carelessly with both of his sons. Eventually, his mother successfully persuaded him to give up the motorcycle, bribing him with a car.
“She bought him a ‘46 Chrysler, brand new, just for him to get off of that motorcycle with them boys,” Sims said.
But eventually this reckless attitude caught up with Lem, just a year after leaving the police force.
“And he had a headache so he asked the bartender for an aspirin – so when the bartender opened his drawer, he was actually the owner of the club too – Lem Winchester saw that he had a gun, so Lem Winchester said let me show you this trick I used to do with my police service revolver,” Davidson said. “So he used to take out all of the bullets in step 1, and he used to put it to his head and go click and scare the living daylights out of his friends.”
But this time his Russian roulette trick didn’t work.
“He screwed up the trick and blew his brains out,” Davidson said. “And it’s my theory that that’s why he hasn’t gotten his due as far as being honored in Wilmington and recognized even though 50 years after his death there are record companies that are putting out his CDs – companies in Spain and other places, and the U.S.”
Davidson insists Lem wasn’t suicidal, and Shirley Scott agrees.
“There were things lined up for him,” Scott said. “I know that this was the last thing on his mind when he played the game that he normally played. But he did not have his service revolver. And that was the end of that.”
Davidson says everything went downhill for Lem’s family – and his legacy – after his death.
“Lem Winchester’s mother-in-law – after Lem accidentally shot himself – his mother-in-law who didn’t like him – took all of his sheet music and recordings and dumped them in the trash,” Davidson said.
His wife was forced to find work as a domestic worker. Life wasn’t easy for Lem’s children, either – or the community. Davidson says over 1,000 people showed up at his funeral.
“There were a lot of people who were incredibly broken up and sad actually to this day when they talk about it,” Davidson said.
That included Matthew Ship Sr., who was in the police force with Lem.
“He was so upset that he didn’t go to the funeral,” Davidson said. “He went to the funeral home and paid his respects privately because he was so broken up about it. And actually he was kind of angry at Lem Winchester for doing his stupid gun trick.”
But many like Sims choose to remember Lem for the musical legacy he’s left behind.
“Last time I heard him play was at the Round Table playing Polka Dots and Moonbeams, I always thought that was his favorite song anyhow,” Sims said.
One of his favorite Lem Winchester tunes? Down Fuzz.
“Fuzz is a cop and down mean you hip, you know everything,” Sims said. “So he was a Down Fuzz.”
The copyright has expired on Lem’s music – and Scott says his family doesn’t receive any royalties from the companies, in the U.S. and abroad, putting out his music today.
“But one thing they do benefit from and that’s being in the same family,” Scott said. “And having these two people to share, Millie and Lem.”