Story By Mary Ellen Thompson
Photos By Susan Deloach
Phil “The Duke” Jenkins puts the “P” in personality. The first African-American radio announcer in Beaufort County, he is all about pizzaz. His outgoing personality and high wattage smile explain his popularity as a WBEU radio announcer and as a musician. Although Phillip Jenkins has been known for many things in his lifetime, not the least of which is that he is a rakish man-about-town dressed to the nines in his dapper outfits. He loves his music and he loves his clothes; and at age 83, Phil “The Duke” can still spin a tune and a tale.
Born in 1929 in Orlando, FL to Phillip and Sarah Bell Jackson Jenkins, Phil and his sister Willie Lee Fyall grew up in Port Royal, SC, where they moved when he was an infant. Phil believes that until her recent passing, their aunt Alice Wilson, was the oldest living resident of Port Royal. Another aunt in Port Royal was the well known “Pinky” Jackson who lived on 12th Street in the “Ma Pink House” and was famous for feeding everyone who came to her. “Grandma Pinkie,” Phil explains, “was a full blooded Cherokee Indian. She washed her hair in sand, not water.” “Grandma Pinkie” adopted Herbert Jackson as a young boy. Herbert, who also know as Tootie Frootie and another legend in Port Royal, daily herded Pinky’s cows to graze. After Pinkie’s death, Herbert continued to guide the non-existent cows down the streets all the while singing beautiful hymns.
Meanwhile, Phil was playing music of his own. “I started playing as a kid, I was about eight years old and the first instrument I played was a washtub G string bass. Then in 1948 I played in the band at the Robert Smalls School; first I played the tenor saxophone and later the b flat baritone sax.” Who were his inspirations? “Rupert Jones from Charleston and my music teachers, Mr. Stewart and Mr. Davis.” His love of music was such that at one time, before he went into the military, he recounts wistfully but with his characteristic smile, “I ran away from home and went to Miami, Florida where I played with the well known band, The Twisters. I couldn’t stay there long because my grandmother wondered where I was, so I had to come home.” Phil has also played with other notable musicians such as Earl Davis and the Pazant Brothers.
Nor did he miss a chance to play during his stint in the army when he played in a military band, the Engineers. As a Korean War Veteran, Phil received a Bronze Star, which was given to him by the President of Korea “For Heroic or Meritorious Achievement of Service.” After this military service, Phil came back to Port Royal and shared his love of music over the air waves at WBEU. “After I came back from the military I went back to school on the GI BIll. Mr. Trask built a radio station here and I went to ask him for a job. He told me I needed to pass a test and get a license. So I hitchhiked and walked to Savannah to get that license. I passed the test, I got the license and I got the job.” In 1955 Billboard Magazine acknowledged: “Phillip Jenkins, WBEU, who plays baritone sax in a local dance band every night, recently hosted Amos Milburn and Fats Domino on his program.” When asked what he liked best about being on the radio, Phil answered “I love music, I love to entertain people. I was a celebrity, in fact I’m still a celebrity even though hardly anyone knows my last name; I’m still Phil ‘The Duke.’”
With wife, Keturah Folbert, and a growing family, Phil realized that he could earn a better income elsewhere. So from 1955 until 1983 he moved his family to New York went to work for the Teamsters Union 816 in Brooklyn. When asked if he had ever participated in the local custom of making moonshine or whiskey in this area, he laughed and said “No, but my job in New York was hauling whiskey to the bars from the piers.” In 1983 Phil retired as a disabled veteran and moved back to Beaufort. However, their children, Isaac, Gertrude, Barnetta, Robert, Phillistine, Phillip, Edith, Kevin, and Dwayne are now scattered around the country. There are twenty grandchildren, forty seven great-grandchildren, and eight great-great grandchildren.
In a home filled with photographs and all manner of memorabilia collected over time, there is an area in his living room dedicated to sound equipment and lots and lots of old records. “I’m a jazz addict” Phil replies when asked about his favorite music. “I love the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Patti Page and Charlie Parker.”
Having spent fifteen years doing volunteer work for the Veterans driving a bus to take veterans to the VA hospital, now when not moving to the music, Phil enjoys outdoor pursuits such as fishing, crabbing and shrimping. He also like to read, especially novels. A corner of his living room holds the spillover from his closet and pairs of shoes in all colors and textures are arranged like a piece of art; accompanying all the shoes are coordinating hats and suits. Some of his favorite haunts these days are Am-vets, the American Legion and the VFW. On Friday nights Phil “The Duke” likes to get dressed up and go out dancing to the music that will always reside in his soul.