February 9, 2021 – The characters “Scatter” and “Priest” in the classic Blaxploitation flick, Superfly, were both inspired by infamous Cleveland Black crime boss and restaurateur Herman (Scatter) Stephens. Superfly, the story of pimp and drug dealer Priest trying to make one last score before going straight, came out in 1972 and set off an entire genre of filmmaking.
The movie’s budget was less than $100,000 and the returns at the box office reached over $30,000,000, resulting in a string of similar-themed African-American anti-hero characters popping up as the tentpoles of the Blaxploitation cinema movement in the years to come. In the film Superfly, Scatter was portrayed by actor Julius Harris (Live & Let Die, Black Caesar) and depicted as Priest’s old-school mentor in the Harlem drug game.
Scatter Stephens was murdered gangland style on September 10, 1967, gunned down in front of flabbergasted patrons inside his iconic Scatter’s Barbeque joint in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood on E. 125th Street, after running afoul of the local Italian mafia. Superfly scribe Phillip Fenty grew up in Glenville and was familiar with Stephens from his childhood.
Fenty connected actor Ron ‘O’Neal, who would go on to play Priest, with Superfly director Gordan Parks, Sr. The Scatter character in the film owned a restaurant and lounge that hosted musical performances, much like Scatter did in real life at his BBQ spot. Scatter’s Barbeque attracted a celebrity clientele, including regular patrons like entertainers Sammy Davis, Jr. and Count Basie and athletes such as world-champion boxers Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis, who each considered Stephens a friend.
Leveraging his ties in the entertainment industry, Stephens handled booking duties (pocketing giant personal commissions) for the Café Tia Juana, Cleveland’s preeminent jazz club of his era. He was known to go on tour with jazz masters Count Basie and Miles Davis. According to his FBI file, Stephens accompanied Basie to Europe for a month-long tour in the summer of 1967.
It was in 1960s when Scatter Stephens began expanding his BBQ and drug empire into real estate, construction and the vending machine business. The vending machine in Ohio had always been controlled by the Italians, specifically Cleveland mob boss John Scalish at Buckeye Vending. Per Cleveland Police Department records, Stephens had decided to move in on Scalish’s territory and replaced Buckeye Vending machines with his own at a number of locations around Glenville.
The decision to head to Europe with the Count Basie Orchestra in July 1967 was a way to lay low during his takeover play, according to informants within Stephens’ inner circle. Stephens had bought up the entire block that his BBQ joint was on and made it an encampment where he felt safe and kept most of his business interests.
He was wrong to feel safe. A masked gunmen shot him on the night of September 10, 1967 as he entered his Stephens Vending Co. office, down the street from Scatter’s Barbeque. Woozy and wounded, the always immaculately dressed 47-year old Scatter stumbled towards his restaurant, collapsing in the doorway. As onlookers stood frozen in shock, the gunman finished Stephens off with three execution-style taps to the back of the head.
Two days later, on September 12, some five thousand people attended his funeral. The wake had drawn more than ten thousand mourners in the days prior. His funeral procession featured 65 Cadillac El Dorados, a white dove release and a $10,000 gold-plated casket.
The character Scatter in Superfly met a different, yet equally fatal demise; he is killed by corrupt police in an intentional overdose of heroin.
John Scalish died on the operating room table undergoing heart surgery in 1976. The Cleveland mafia turned to shambles in the wake of Scalish’s passing and today is a mere fraction of its former self in the Scalish heyday of national prominence.
Scatter’s Barbeque shuttered in 1983. Columbia Pictures produced a remake of Superfly in 2018, moving the location of the story from Harlem to Atlanta. Fantastic character actor Michael K. Williams (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire) played Scatter in the remake.