Ronnie Wilson tribute event marks return of concerts to historic Big 10 Ballroom

Sitting inside the refurbished Big 10 Ballroom, Doc Shaw began reciting names of music artists: Ella Fitzgerald. Count Basie. Ike and Tina Turner. The Temptations. Jackie Wilson. James Brown. Ray Charles. Duke Ellington. Little Richard. Etta James.

Why was Shaw name-dropping them?

All performed at the Big 10 Ballroom in the first and robust life of the north Tulsa venue. The Big 10 Ballroom was “the” place to play in Tulsa for touring African-American music artists in decades past — and it’s time to restore the roar.

Big 10 Ballroom

Linda Boulware Wilson poses with a photo of her late husband, Ronnie Wilson, at the refurbished Big 10 Ballroom. A tribute concert for Ronnie Wilson will be held there Saturday, Nov. 4.

The Big 10 Ballroom, 1624 E. Apache St., and Linda Wilson are presenting a posthumous music tribute to Gap Band founder Ronnie Wilson from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4. Wilson died in November 2021.

“I wanted to put something together in his honor,” Linda Wilson, who was married to Ronnie Wilson, said. “I wasn’t able to do anything last year. I was still a little too upset about it. But he deserves it. He was a genius. He was a legend.”

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Yarbrough and Peoples, a duo with Gap Band connections, will headline the tribute show. The biggest-selling Yarbrough and Peoples song is “Don’t Stop the Music,” which topped the R&B chart and rose to No. 19 on the pop chart at the dawn of the 1980s.

“It’s so significant that we have restored this amazing venue and we don’t want to stop the music,” Shaw said.

The tribute show will be the first concert-type event at the Big 10 Ballroom since Shaw spearheaded an extreme makeover to regenerate a venue worthy of preservation.

“Not only is it historical,” Shaw said, “it’s legendary.”

A Tulsa World story from January 1948 described the then-new Big 10 Ballroom as a “swanky” nightclub owned by policeman Lonnie Williams and a partner, Richard Thompson. The story described the venue as “plush” and said its “appointments” are equal to or better than any club in town.

The Big 10 Ballroom became a destination for music lovers from Oklahoma and surrounding states. Even “little” Linda couldn’t resist. She said her father owned a barbecue restaurant down the street and, as a kid, she was forbidden (due to age) to go anywhere near the Big 10 Ballroom.

Big 10 Ballroom

Lester Shaw, executive director and founder of A Pocket Full of Hope, pulls back curtains on the stage inside the Big 10 Ballroom.

“I sneaked out here to see Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland,” she said, adding that she loved his song “That’s the Way Love Is.”

“I decided I’ve got to go see that guy. I creeped down here and I peeked in the door. Somebody just let me stand there for a minute and see Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. That was like ‘65. I was way too young to even think about coming here. But I got to peek in here and I ran back down to my dad’s barbecue place.”

Some performers went to neighborhood homes for lodging. Can you imagine, Shaw said, waking up and having the Temptations lying around your living room?

Shaw also told this story: “When Ray Charles played here, they had a rope going down the middle of the building — whites on one side, Blacks on the other side — because of segregation. And they said after the music started, nobody knew where that rope went. Music united the people. And that spirit, even today, I understand that. Music is a universal language.”

Music will bring people together at the Big 10 Ballroom again, but it took a marathon rebuild to reach this point.

The building was purchased for renovation purposes in 2007 — 41 years after the Big 10 Ballroom’s first run as an entertainment venue ended. Among uses for the property once the music stopped: American Beauty Products turned the Big 10 Ballroom into a storage facility.

Big 10 Ballroom

This is the entrance of the Big 10 Ballroom, a steeped-in-history Tulsa music venue that has been brought back to life.

Doc Shaw, by the way, is Dr. Lester Shaw, the founder and executive director of A Pocket Full of Hope, a youth program that allows participants to develop life skills while empowering themselves in fields like music, theater, dance, videography and photography.

Shaw knew what the Big 10 Ballroom used to be — what it meant to the community — and what it could mean to A Pocket Full of Hope.

“We needed a spot to have our performances, to have our fundraisers,” Shaw said, indicating that, once upon a time, participants in the program practiced in a parking lot.

The Big 10 Ballroom became the new “spot” for A Pocket Full of Hope. A ribbon-cutting ceremony took place in February.

“The kids from A Pocket Full of Hope came and helped and sweeped,” Shaw said. “They actually got to see something being built instead of just walking into something. They got to be a part of it.”

Shaw said the kids now who are in A Pocket Full of Hope weren’t born when the renovation started. He initially thought bringing the place back to life would take, oh, a couple of years. But it needed pretty much everything, including a roof. A photo inside Big 10 Ballroom is a “before” picture with a dirt floor and open sky above the interior.

Big 10 Ballroom

From left, Darrell McCondichie, Lester Shaw, Linda Boulware Wilson and Chuck Cissel go over plans for a Saturday, Nov. 4, tribute concert for Ronnie Wilson that will be held at the refurbished Big 10 Ballroom. Cissel will be the emcee for the tribute concert and graduated in the class of 1966 with Ronnie Wilson at Booker T. Washington high school.

Shaw said an early investor offered to fund the whole project if there was a complete tear-down. Shaw wanted to save and revive what was already there.

“He just didn’t have the vision yet because, when he came in, there were pigeons flying in here and the ground was all messed up,” he said. “Trees were growing in here. Pigeons were everywhere. People would come in and put graffiti on the wall. We got a postcard from one of the pigeons and he said they were in Florida. He said ‘We are ok.’”

Shaw, asked if people said he was crazy when he launched the rebuild, said they said worse than that.

“There were a lot of naysayers,” he said. “I felt like Noah, building the ark.”

But Shaw said people were willing to help because they genuinely wanted to make the project happen. The facelift was achieved with the help of multiple foundations and the HGTV program “Build It Forward.”

Back in the day, everybody knew about the Big 10 Ballroom, according to Linda. She said it was fabulous — and she said it is fabulous again because of Shaw.

“He has done a marvelous job with it,” she said.

Shaw, asked how he feels, said, “Sometimes I can’t believe it, because I was just grinding the whole time. Now I don’t sit down and enjoy it because I’ve always got to do this and do this and do this. I am still in work mode, kind of, sort of. But I feel like, man, this was just meant to be, and I was chosen to put it back together. I feel so proud of the accomplishment.”

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