October 29, 1972
Rio Pardo brings crowds to Black Bear Lounge
By Jim Heffernan, News-Tribune columnist
There was a time – and it wasn’t too long ago – when you could go to the Black Bear Lounge in Hotel Duluth and if you were along and wanted company you could always talk to the stuffed black bear.
There also was a time – and it was quite a few years ago – when the same room was one of the two or so most popular night spots in town.
It appears those days of glory have returned. On weekdays now you have to elbow your way through the glass door off the most beautiful hotel lobby north of Hinckley. Once inside, you can get a table one of two ways: with luck or with patience. On Saturday nights you must add longevity.
Responsible for all this excitement is a friendly fellow names Jamesearl Brown, a Meadowlands horse raiser, among many other things. His first name is two combined into one.
Duluthians know him as Rio Pardo.
“Why did you pick a name like Rio Pardo?” I asked.
“Well,” he said as he lit his Sherlock Holmes pipe for the third time in three minutes, “I always liked the Latin beat and I saw the name Pardo in a book.”
“What about Rio?”
“I don’t know – it sounds sort of South American so I took it.”
I should point out here, for the dozen or so Duluthians who haven’t heard of Rio Pardo yet, that he’s the bandleader currently playing at the Hotel Duluth. He can play 12 instruments and sing in his own style with tinges of Brook Benton and Al Hibbler.
He plays everything from old standards to the latest rock backed by three able musicians. His popularity knows no age limits; on a given night you see young people (some look like teenagers) gyrating on the dance floor with not so young people who were dancing long before Rio Pardo was playing anything.
So much for the music; now for the man.
Jamesearl Brown was and still is his real name. Around Meadowlands he’s known as Jim. He was born in Great Bend, Kan., something over 40 years ago. His basic instrument is piano: “My mother worked so I could take lessons.” But as time went on he started picking up other instruments, most notably the trumpet.
After high school graduation in Great Bend, young Jamesearl Brown went into the U.S. Navy (World War II was on) and he served in the Mediterranean when it was a very unsafe place to be.
Following the war, Brown began his life as a professional musician, starting in Norfolk, Va. Soon after, he went to New York where he played in Harlem at the height of the old Cotton Club days. Brown played in a place called the Baby Grand where he became friendly with Nipsey Russell, who was the M.C. there, and a then-unknown comedian named Redd Foxx.
Enter the 50s. Carnegie Hall. Rio jumps off the stage during a rhythm and blues concert and gets mentioned by columnist Dorothy Kilgallen.
Rio Pardo with Jane Smith (back, left) and Anthony Benson (back, right) during a recording session in September 1979. At that time the three were working on developing a syndicated TV show, with Smith conducting interviews and Pardo providing music. (News-Tribune file photo)
Four years ago Rio came to Duluth with his wife, their son and a foster boy who came to live with them in Minneapolis. He played various local lounges, including the old Tin Pan Alley at the London House, and even bought his own place upstairs of the old Kasbar. He did OK – made a living.
Then last March he came to Hotel Duluth. He glows when he tells the rest of the story. “I can’t explain what happened, but we just hit. I fixed up my music a little, added another musician as backup, and everything started happening.”
Yes, it’s true he led a frolicking “Saints Go Marchin’ In” line through the WDSM studios during the 10 o’clock news one night. And some surprised moviegoers at the Norshor saw Rio leading a line of celebrators up and down the aisle during a movie a few months ago.
These antics belie the personality of the man, and the musician. Here is a soft-spoken family man with rustic yearnings. Here also is a superb musician whose talent has taken him to the top of his trade in the nation’s metropolitan centers.
Here is Jamesearl Brown of Great Bend, Kan., and Meadowlands, Minn.
I’m not too sure about the “Jamesearl” part – later stories referred to him as James Earl Brown. Either way, Rio Pardo continued to perform in Duluth and the surrounding area for many years.
After the Hotel Duluth gig ended, his band was the house band at Telemark Lodge near Cable, Wis., for a while. According to clips in the News Tribune archives, in 1983 he was back performing in the Twin Ports at the Zoo bar in Superior. In 1994, he performed at the Blue Note Cafe.
Eventually, Rio Pardo moved the Twin Cities area. where he continued to perform. He died at his home in Maple Grove in December 2006 at age 80.
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