Linda Richardson, president of the Uptown Theater and Development Corporation, remembers going to Richard “Sonny” Driver’s office in North Philadelphia and being regaled with stories about Driver’s days as a music promoter.
“He’d start telling me stories about some of the older people in the industry, and he’d start pulling out pictures. He had massive amount of pictures,” Richardson said. “We’d sit and talk for half the day.”
But Driver, who died Dec. 28 at 91, was more than a music promoter. Throughout his long life, he tried his hand at a variety of pursuits, but his fused passions for journalism and community activism helped boost issues of importance to African-Americans.
He further promoted those issues in Scoop U.S.A., the community newspaper Driver founded and published for 57 years.
In the early 2000s, noticing that Philadelphia was one of just a few cities that didn’t have a street named after Martin Luther King Jr., Driver took up a petition to have West River Drive renamed in King’s honor. Then-Mayor John Street got on board, and the Fairmount Park Commission quickly approved the name change.
Richardson recalled the ceremony for the renaming.
“The day the name went on the drive, I came to just be a participant and he said, ‘Oh no! You’re going to get in the picture.’ That was one thing about Sonny. He brought people in whether you were famous or infamous or somebody on the street.”
Born in Germantown, Driver served in World War II and afterward, played in a band. He went on to become Philadelphia’s first black booking agent. Driver had plenty of work — in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Philly teemed with clubs where African-American entertainers were plentiful. He brought some of the biggest jazz acts to Philly, as he told the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, who honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.
“One main show that I gave every year was ‘Down the Ridge and Over the Bridge,’ every Easter Sunday, where I booked them all — Gloria Lynne, Nina Simone. Ray Charles was the biggest one,” Driver said.
When the nightclub scene died down, Driver turned his attention to promoting the people and issues important to African-Americans through Scoop U.S.A. The newspaper helped give him an audience with the city’s movers and shakers.
“Some of the people considered to be powerful, he would talk to them,” Richardson said. “He was a straight shooter.”
Driver distributed Scoop himself until well past his 90th birthday, Richardson said.
When he received his lifetime achievement award four years ago, Driver let people know that while he appreciated the honor, he still had work to do.
“I’m not finished yet,” he joked. “ I hope they wait until I’m finished before they give it to me.”
Services for Driver will be held Friday at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia.