Monday, January 31, 2005

Beverly Kenney

By: Bill REED
To the best of my knowledge, little has been written about the life of the late jazz singer Beverly Kenney. Only Jonathan Schwartz's article in the November 1992 issue of GQ came anywhere close to being comprehensive, and even that left a lot of questions unanswered. Most obviously, still dangling with a big question mark over it, is the cause of her suicide in 1960 when she was, if not THE Girl of the Year, at least A Girl of the Year.

And so I set out to see if I couldn't overturn a few more stones regarding the suicide of a woman still in her twenties who seemingly had, if not everything, at least a lot to live for. In the end, however, I'm afraid I didn't come much closer to solving the riddle of her self-willed death than Jonathan Schwartz did.

One thing I did come to sense, though, from talking to a number of friends and professional associates, was that Kenney never really had a chance. The only dissenting voice, in that regard, is one of her closest friends, actress Millie Perkins, who contends that she NEVER saw it coming. Which, finally, makes Kenney's suicide all that much more paradoxical and puzzling.

UPDATE: New 2010 U.S. edition of Snuggled on Your Shoulder (with 4 previously un-issued tracks) now available at


Circa the late fifties, singer Beverly Kenney seemed to have everything going for her. A fast-rising performer in the still-dominant, pre-Beatles world of commercial jazz, she seemed poised to reap the same kind of rewards and accolades that had recently befallen a slightly older wave of singers, i.e. Chris Connor, June Christy, Julie London, et. al. Indeed, the latter in a '57 interview, cited Kenney, along with Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald, as one of her favorite singers. "Looks to me that 1957 will really be her year," London said in an interview. "I dig her because, well, she phrases like mad. She sings in tune, too; matter of fact, she sings like a musician."

Kenney possessed looks to rival those of pin-up chanteuse London. As for her singing style, try to imagine what Billie Holiday, with an equally slight, laid-back timbre, might have sounded had she been born a generation later and come up listening not so much to earlier jazz greats like Teddy Wilson and Louis Armstrong but instead to cool school players like Mulligan, Tristano, and Getz, et al.

Julie London's encomia followed hard on the heels of two years' worth of equally effusive praise in the pages of Down Beat and other influential music and show biz publications of the period: "It looks as if finally, a new voice of unmistakable jazz quality has appeared to take its place beside those of Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald". . ."a great jazz vocal find". . . "Beverly is beginning to arrive and she is displaying the kind of ability and potential that should enable her to stay a long time." In light of how Kenney's life and career played out in 1960, the latter quote was especially ironic. Beverly Kenney wasn't all that much older than I; thus, it was difficult for me, as a teenager, to comprehend her suicide.  MORE

The Two Faces of Miles Davis

From my memoir, Early Plastic:
"It's not just the bitchy world of opera that has its divas: Shortly after jazz pianist Cecil Taylor and I met in the mid-sixties, I went to see him opening night of an engagement at the popular and long-running club, the Village Vanguard. In the middle of his first set, who should walk in---looking very unlike his later period Lectoid From Planet Ten self---but a natty, dapper and Saville Row-ed Miles Davis. All eyes left Cecil on stage and turned to focus as Miles and his still somewhat socially taboo, blonde date as the two made their way to one of the club's postage stamp-size tables. They sat down in front of the bandstand, downed one drink apiece, stayed for all of five minutes, then---when Miles gave the signal---split. I was there again the next night when, at nearly the same time, Davis came in once more, this time with a different, but equally stunning Aryan number, and proceeded to do exactly the same thing: five minutes, and gone! Cecil later told me that this jazz equivalent of a head-on clash between Godzilla and Rodan took place for several more nights running."

On the other hand. . .both times I met Davis, he was absolutely fine . . . albeit, admittedly, somewhat dour. The first time was with my old friend Jean Bach (Great Day in Harlem) one Sunday afternoon when Miles was splitting a bill there with Blossom Dearie (ah, the good old days). After his set, Davis came over to the table and Jean introduced us. All was fine until a fan approached and said:

"I've got a great idea, Miles. Why don't you do a concert at Carnegie Hall, record it, and release it titled it something like 'Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall.'"

"Okay, man," Miles said, waved the man away, then just shut down and glared off into space.

The problem was that Davis had done just that very thing, with the results being released only the week prior. No wonder he was such a world-renowned bringdown.

The next time I encountered Davis was a few years later. I looked up to see him seated next to me in customs. We had both just winged in from Paris. He had flown coach; I, first class. Um, come to think of it, 'twas the other way 'round. Of all things, I happened to be reading a book about Buddy Bolden, historically recognized as THE first jazz musician AND a trumpet player to boot. Who could fail but mediate upon the irony of same? Talk about yer synchronicity in everyday American life! I handed Miles the book, and said, "Here, this belongs to you." "Thanks, man," he replied, without so much as even looking at the title. I stood up and walked off.

There was some kind of hangup in customs. An hour later we were still there. From the steerage of coach immigration, where I now found myself, I gazed down and espied Miles devouring the contents of the book I had just given him. Not quite sure what the moral is here. Maybe I'm just rehearsing for a future David Letterman "Brush With Greatness" segment. On the other hand, that might be just a leeetle bit too hip for the house.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Le Roi du Bundt Cake

I have known Mike Shelley since '81 when he was but mere protoplasm in Buster Brown Shoes and I was still a couple of decades away from becoming the semi-arthritic, high blood pressure pill-popping shambles that I am today. I met Mike when I worked with him in the behind-the-scenes madhouse at the Great Bronze Age of China exhibit at the L.A. County Museum of Art.

We were filling ticket orders for that touring Metropolitan Museum of Art show at a time when computerized fulfillment of tix was still just around the bend. Dozens of failed hipsters, misfits, wannabes, never was-es, etc. seated around long folding tables armed with (a bit dangerous in some cases) letter openers, staplers and other accoutrement of of the mail order trade. It might well have been Mike's first grownup (!) job. For reasons now swallowed up by the dim recesses of time, Mike called the exhibit the "Great Pronta," and it stuck (he might have been the one to've opened an envelope addressed that way).

Mike is now a professional musician with a half-dozen or so CDs, and countless live appearances and tours to his credit. I am not certain how much he talks about his lineage in bios and interviews. However, it is significant that his late father was the well-known actor and director Joshua Shelley. In the former capacity, Josh appeared in the original production of Marc Blitzstein's No For an Answer, and wearing the latter hat, his credits list include the original staging of Langston Hughes' Simply Heavenly. His mother, Molly, is an actor and acting coach; in the latter capacity she played a significant role in the development of, among others, Matt Dillon's career.

With such a vaunted geneology, it's little wonder that Mike was---to invoke the parlance of Lord Buckley---such a hip little kiddy. Thus, despite the two decades difference in our ages, he and I quickly became fast friends in '81 and (also in spite of the entirety of the U.S. continent that now lies between us) have remained so ever since.

Mike and his wife, Jordan, have just become the parents of their first child, Juniper. AND he has also just added another CD to his credit, the brand new Goodbye Cheater. Mike thinks it is his best, and I tend to agree. You can read more about it here.

The Phil Spector of Japan

That's what they call Eiichi Ohtaki in his native land. . .even though, to the best of my knowledge, he's never been charged with any crime. Here is: what he sounds (link for a limited time only) like (dig those crazzzy castinets); where you can read more about him; where you can buy.

His LP Long Vacation (1981) was the first CD (1982) issued in Japan. No doubt he will be seated front row center, six hours from now---8 pm 8/30 Japan time---when Brian Wilson commences his blitz four Smile concert tour of Tokyo and Nagoya Japan.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Sound Advice

Rummaging through a desk drawer earlier today, amidst a handful of old snow I happened upon this ancient undated "Dear Abby" clipping . . .at least a couple of decades old. I felt it deserved re-syndication. To whit:

Dear Abby:
About four months ago, the house across the street was sold to a "father and son"---or so we thought.

We later learned it was an older man about 50 and a young fellow about 24.

This was a respectable neighborhood before this "odd couple" moved in. They have all sorts of strange looking company. Men who look like women and women who look like men, blacks, whites, Indians, and yesterday I even saw two nuns go in there.

They must be running some kind of business or a club. There are motorcycles, expensive sports cars, and even bicycles parked in front and on the lawn. They keep their shades drawn so you can't see what going on inside but they must be up to no good, or why the secrecy?
We called the police department and they asked if we wanted to press charges! They said unless the neighbors were breaking some law there was nothing they could do.

Abby, these weirdos are wrecking our property values! How can we improve the quality of this once-respected neighborhood?--- UP IN ARMS

Dear UP: You could move.

Formerly Feral

I will close out my first week of blogging by doing what all good bloggers do on Friday, i.e. posting a cat photo. In this case, it's a pic of my beloved three-year-old plus formerly feral cat, Kuro (which means "black" in Japanese). To the best of my knowledge, he is the sole survivor of a mommy cat and a litter of four ferals who suddenly appeared on our back porch in the summer of 2001. And he was the only one of the lot who would allow for any serious interfacing with humans. One thing led to another, and here we are, more than three years later, thick as thieves. It was very hard for me to draw the "strictly indoors" line, but I just couldn't bear to lose another indoors-outdoors cat, like our beloved "Charles Walters" who succombed, not to a speeding car, but instead to some deadly outdoor fungus known as cryptococcus.

While I was vacationing in Japan last year, I received word that Kuro had escaped/gone on a lark/wandered off/disappeared, or....? I was devasted. But four days later, while still in Japan, I was told that he had returned, seemingly no worse for the wear. Now, just last week, the back door accidentally popped open and I entered the kitchen to discover Kuro poised twixt the great in and outdoors. Riveted to the spot, without moving so much as a muscle, I began to calmly try and lure him back in, and all that it took was a simple "Here Baby Sweetie Kurokins," for him to turn tail on our forrest of a backyard and saunter back into the kitchen.

Kuro's favorites. Food: bonito; singers: Nina Simone, Irene Bordoni; film: Gus Van Sant's Gerry; pastime: vogueing.


Wednesday, January 26, 2005

It Pays To Be Grouchy

Happy Birthday, Charles Lane!

Monday, January 24, 2005

Walmart Cradle-to-Grave Minimum Wage Program pt.1

The new Walwart TV "image" campaign goes something like:

"Local products from local manufacturers for local people."

Sure. . .if you happen to live in Taiwan.

Just who do they think they're fooling?

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Valaida Snow

A few years ago, for the second time in as many months, I gave media interviews on the subject of thirties jazz star Valaida Snow: for the NPR radio show Jazz Rhythm; and a few weeks later I taped a segment for a new TV "magazine" show hosted by Tim Reid of Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, WKRP, and Frank's Place fame.

I'd appeared on TV before and was never too happy with the way I looked, but Reid took some pains to light me and when the show finally aired I could actually look at myself and not flinch. While Reid worked on me, like a veritable von Sternberg achieving those modest results, he talked about the making of "Once Upon a Time," one of the most underrated films of the nineties. While he shifted light stands and ran about, he also told me a bit about its making.

The film was actually one of the first black ensemble cast films ever to turn a profit by playing almost exclusively theaters in African-American neighborhoods. And what a cast! If you had dropped a bomb on the film, you risked wiping out black show business: Al Freeman, Jr., Felice Rashad, Paula Kelly, Leon, Richard Roundtree, Isaac Hayes, Taj Mahal, Bernie Casey, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Anna Maria Horsford, with the one significant white role played by singer-actress Polly Bergen.

"Once Upon a Time" cost less than three million dollars for a film that appeared to have a budget many times that amount. "Not to sound like a braggart at all and not to diminish Steven Spielberg's talent," Reid confided to me, "but I'd like to see him make the same film for anywhere near that small an amount." Reid's cast and crew worked way above and beyond the call of duty to make the film possible. The 1940s-period film had more than 200 costumed extras and speaking parts with (hang on to your hat, Ruth Myers) the entire budget allotted to dressing them amounting to a little over a measly $20,000. The costumer had to work so diligently bringing the miracle off, Reid informed me, that she suffered a stroke during the film’s making and had to be hospitalized.

There was yet another calamity. The gas lines of the forties antique cars were forever getting clogged. Whenever this happened, filming would cease long enough for the technical assistant to go and suck gas from the line and spit it out. It became such a common occurrence that one day when he did this, either because he acted too reflexively or maybe he coughed, he accidentally swallowed gasoline and went into cardiac arrest.Reid ran and began to apply CPR to the man who was out cold. After a minute or two, the TA's eyes fluttered open and he looked up at a relieved Reid. Almost soundlessly he muttered the same words over and again to his rescuer. At first, Reid could not quite hear what was being said and bent closer. Then very faintly he could make it out.

“I don’t want to come back.”

“Well godamn it, you ARE going to come back whether you like it or not.”

“And,” Reid told me, “I continued pounding on his chest with all my might.”

"And did you manage to save him?,” I ask.


“And was the man grateful?”

“I suppose. Later I went to see him in the hospital and asked him, 'And so. . .was it warm and peaceful with beautiful bright white light everywhere?'”


By this time in his retelling of the episode, Reid has momentarily stopped fiddling with the lights and is doubled over from mirth recalling this darkly humorous tale ripped from the pages of reel movie life.“Oh, well,” says the ever cost-conscious Reid, as he abruptly returns to familiar quadruple duty as a producer-director-lighting/camera man, “back to work!” And I began to tell some of what I know about just plain Valaida (as she was sometimes billed) to his camera.

Valaida Snow was a beautiful, multi-talented entertainer, a first-rate jazz arranger, trumpeter, dancer and singer who was once as well-known a performer as Ethel Waters, but who has since fallen into obscurity. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of her story from a dramatic point of view was her long internment by the Germans in a concentration camp during WW II.

Eventually freed in a prisoner exchange, she returned to the U.S. and was able to somewhat obtain to a modicum of her former celebrity before suffering a fatal stroke backstage at New York's Place Theater. Her story has everything, almost including, to invoke Thelma Ritter in All About Eve, "the hounds yapping at her rear end."

There have been a number of failed attempts, including one by Diana Ross, to develop a movie based on Snow's extraordinary life and career. To the best of my knowledge Reid, with the segment on his TV magazine show on which I had the honor of appearing, is the first to have widely disseminated Valaida's amazing story.

Hear (link removed) Valaida Buy Valaida
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Long Live the King

Today, only a few hours after Johnny Carson's death, the media is already abuzz with all manner of hagiographic mudwrestling. So why should I, as a member of the blogger media (of sorts), be any different?

I have always been a big believer in the old adage "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." However, Carson always struck me as just about the sanest of all the major public figures of my time, and one of the few, perhaps, not to have fallen prey to the worst soul-blunting excesses of major celebrity.

From one-time-only, close personal observation of Carson off-screen, I've concluded that it might have been nothing more than a few simple conditioning tricks he taught himself early on when he began to sense just how BIG he was going to be in the grand scheme of things. And made the decision that he didn't want to ever get to the place in life where he was lowered into his pants instead of putting them on one leg at a time. To whit:

One night I happened to be in his presence at one "do" or another at Maison de la Merv, i.e. the Beverly Hilton. He was seated at a table with a few others. I tried not to stare, but couldn't help but notice that whenver Johnny espied someone moving in his direction to greet him---whether it be a captain of industry or a mere fan---he would generally bound to his feet, extend his hand, and meet the interloper more than halfway. The ordinary run-of-the-mill show biz weasel would probably have just stayed in place awaiting the oncoming sycophant to approach the throne, fall to his or her knees, and kiss the ring.

At the time, Carson was still in the midst of his reign as the King of Late Night, or as director Martin Scorsese would have it in his brilliant (part) cinema a clef. . .The King of Comedy. As a result, he was also one of the richest and most powerful men in the country (which he remained from the time of his 1992 unequivocal retirement to his death earlier today).

My sense is that Carson probably had a few additional ploys up his sleeve, in addition to the one outlined above, that he employed to try and keep his ego in check. For as C.B. DeMille put it another way in Sunset Boulevard, viz a viz Norma Desmond: "A dozen press agents working overtime can do horrible things to the human spirit." But, apparently, not in the case of Johnny Carson.

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