Saturday, March 24, 2007

Alert the Blogeratti

The brightest guy on the listserve Songbirds and the world's biggest Sondheim fan now has a blog!

Highly recommended.

Mystery vocalist of the day. I'll never tell; but the backing musicians are Lou Levy, Max Bennett and Chuck Flores.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Get the hook!

Leonard Reed emcees a typical mid-1950s weekly Apollo Theater Talent Show (Windows Media Player required) American Idol can't hold a candle to this! (A quarter-hour in length; might take a few minutes to download.)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Chapter One: Flat on My Back

Leonard Reed: A Hell of a Life


Flat on My Back

It was January 23, 1937, but you couldn't prove it by me.

I had just awakened to the two most beautiful smells in the world---flowers and fresh baked bread. The roses and daffodils were all around where I lay stretched out---wherever that was; and I could feel that I was coming out of a very deep sleep. Opening my eyes and looking around, everything was white-on-white, including the walls and the snow piled up to the windows.

Maybe, I thought, I'd died and gone to heaven. But then, I heard a noise, I looked over, and there standing in a doorway was Joe Louis. That, at least, seemed real enough. Or could my friend Joe be dead, too?

He stood there for a minute; then slowly began moving toward me. When he reached the side of my bed, though, he didn't look me in the eye; instead, he was staring at my mid-section. I tried to do the same, but all I could see was a body cast and a mess of tubes plugged into my body.

Finally, I began to sense what was going on: I hadn't died and gone to heaven at all, but was lying flat on my back in a hospital somewhere. . .next door to a bakery.

"What's happened to me, Champ?," I whispered.

Slowly he raised up the sheets, glanced down at my nether regions, and gasped, "Oh, my God, NO! They had to cut off your, your. . .", then he turned and quickly walked right on out of the room.

"Joe, Joe!," I called out, panic-stricken. "Oh, God, no!" But he was gone. I laid on the buzzer non-stop; and the nurse came running.

"Mister Reed, are you alright, what's wrong?"

I told her what Joe had said. When she'd finished laughing, she reassured me that my manhood was still intact; but that maybe the car wreck had done something to my sense of humor.

Car wreck?

Slowly, it all began coming back to me: And it couldn't have happened at a worse time: Everything that I had worked for the past six months was now on the line.

continued here

Next Sunday, March 25: Chapter Two: In Passing

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Betty Hutton in Person

Hardly a dry in the house for this extraordinary 1983 appearance by the great Betty Hutton. This is a slightly abridged version of what is believed to be her last public peformance . And here is part two
Leonard Reed (left) welcomes Laurence Olivier (center), Joan Plowright (2nd from right), Alan Bates (right) and unident. to Harlem's Apollo Theater (!), late 1950s

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Hell of a Life , photos part one

see Sunday March, 11, 2007

Reed on the road with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (left

Monday, March 12, 2007

Betty Hutton R.I.P.

Hard to imagine always-in-motion Betty Hutton at rest. Probably the closest she ever got publically was this appearance on the Nat King Cole TV show in 1957.

Julie in Japan

Julie London on Japanese TV

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Dr Chilledair goes serial

Leonard Reed, 1928

All writers have had important projects go south on them, and sometimes it seems to me as if I've had more than my fair share. But of them all (failed stage musicals, screenplays, biographies, anthologies, etc.), perhaps the belly-up I regret most is an as-told-to autobio, A Hell of a Life, that I worked on with African-American show biz veteran (no relation) Leonard Reed for nearly ten years, off-and-on, beginning in the mid-1980s .

Submitted to literally every agent and editor in the U.S., invariably the answer that came back was almost always the same: "The memoirs of an 80-year-old black man who no one's ever heard of? I'm sorrrrrry, but we really can't be bothered."

The cast of the book was large and varied, including the likes of Edith Piaf, Molly Picon, Joe Louis, Ethel Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, David Merrick, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne. And that's just for starters. Reed began in show business as a boy vaudevillian circa 1915, but didn't really hit it big until his association with New York's Cotton Club and Apollo Theatre in the mid-thirties.

And while post-bigtime anecdotes form the core of the book, it was always the first half---with its reminiscences about drifting and grifting from Maine to Albuquerque---that I liked the best. More often than not the action played out while Leonard was touring on the legendary and notorious black vaudeville circuit, the TOBA.

As much as anything, the book served as a memoir of his life and times with boxing legand Joe Louis. They toured a knockabout vaudeville act throughout the world for more than a decade, with Leonard performing as a character named Bearcat.

A Hell of a Life would only have drawn much attention if Leonard were around to help publicize it. . . which he was more than capable of doing well into his nineties. Now it is too late (he died in 2004). And so, I have decided to publish a chapter on this blog every Sunday, starting today, until the entire book is uploaded. Here then is the first installment A Hell of a Life by Leonard Reed and Bill Reed.

by Bill Reed

Leonard Reed was born in 1907 and in his adolescence was swept up into the romantic world of live performing: carnivals, minstrelsy, medicine shows, vaudeville, and the legitimate theater. When he entered show business in 1915, traveling tent shows and carnivals were still in full sway. And although he soon gravitated to more sophisticated realms, Reed's career continues to the present day to be based almost exclusively on live performance. It is somehow fitting that when Reed managed the Apollo Theater in Harlem during the 1950's--- perhaps the last theater in the United States to present stage shows on a regular basis---he was also presiding over vaudeville's final rites. The Apollo struggled on for a few more years as a live showcase after Reed left in 1960, but the man himself rolls on and is now celebrating, at the age of 88 [in 1995], more than seventy-five years in show business as a dancer,producer, comic, songwriter, choreographer, librettist, and manager.

Until the 1950's, with the rare exception of such entertainers as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Duke Ellington, the world of black show business was almost entirely segregated from that of white show business. Fair, with delicate features, Reed managed to troupe and tap his way through both worlds as the situation demanded. If work was available as a barker with a traveling carnival and it was expedient to do so, he "passed" for white. But if the action was with an all-black revue in Chicago as, for example, the ones he worked with as a choreographer and dancer in Chicago in the 1920's, then you'd find him there as well.

I met Leonard in the summer of 1987 when I was looking for people to talk about Dinah Washington, about whom I was thinking of writing a book. Someone suggested, "Call Leonard Reed. I think he worked with her early in her career." I set up an appointment to talk with him.

Reed was then operating out of quarters in a ten-story Hollywood office building owned by Scientologists, one occupied mostly by fringe entertainment industry types, including two-bit talent agencies, scuffling record promoters, and exploitation movie producers. . .all just a scream away from downtown Rape at High Noon. Nevertheless, the man still had class. Impeccably groomed in a manner typical of show business veterans, Reed finished working with his last student for the day, and began to tell me about Dinah Washington: How he'd given the singer one of her first professional jobs, at Chicago's Regal Theater in the late 1930's; how he was "the first one to teach her, the first one to say, 'Here's what you do. Here's how to walk on stage, here's how to walk off.'"

Possessing just enough black blood to have made things terribly difficult for someone born in racist America at nearly the turn of the century and for most of his life, the very light-skinned Reed has had to shoulder the burden of being a member of both races. "But," he jokes, with more than a trace of irony and bitterness, "I always knew what I was in Mississippi."

After my first meeting with Reed, I sensed that here was a kind of Don Juan and the Show Business Way of Knowledge: I wanted to hear as much of his own story as he was willing to tell. Reed perhaps sensed this; for when I left his office that first afternoon, he called after me,

"Do you have a place to hangout?" (He might just as well have added "kid.")

"No," I said.

"Well, you do now!," he shouted out as the elevator doors sprang closed.

And so, the next time I went to his office, it wasn't so much to talk of Dinah Washington, but about Reed and this show business in which he had been such a major player. And as the weeks wore on, I was hit with stories that jumped all over the chronological map and spanned the globe. One moment he was in Paris in the 1950's performing on the same stage as Edith Piaf; the next he'd leapt back in time to 1920, galloping across the Oklahoma landscape in a medicine show wagon pulled by wild horses. . .just like in the movies: With Reed performing from the back of the wagon with his partner Crackaloo, while a Fieldsian character by the name of Doc Clark conned the locals out of their last few pennies by selling them a patent medicine of turpentine and sugar. Another day, he quantum-leaped forward three decades in time to the Apollo Theater in the 1950's. And for months, through all of it, there was never a thought of getting it down on paper, just a desire on my part to hear recalled, first hand what it was like producing shows at the Cotton Club; working for AI Capone at the Grand Terrace in Chicago, and, of course, acting for many years as a straight man, golfing partner, and aide-de-camp to Joe Louis.

In 1992 I co-curated an exhibit at the California Afro-American Museum about Black Hollywood in the 1940s. Part of the exhibit was devoted to Reed's activities as a producer-choreographer on Central Avenue, Los Angeles fabled entertainment strip. In the course of working on "Hollywood Days/HarlemNights," I interviewed a number of "old-timers"---African-American entertainment professionals and "civilians" alike. Invariably I was told that Reed was a "very famous man in his time" who had performed "everywhere." But he was thought by many I spoke with to be no longer among the living. Not so surprising when you consider he has managed to outlive nearly every one of his contemporaries; moreover, premature reports of his death had already begun to circulate nearly a half-a-century earlier.

see photos, Wednesday March 14Next week, Chapter One: Flat on My Back

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Murray Grand R.I.P.

Murray Grand, about whom I wrote on this blog last Aug, and the author of the not-so-funny "Guess Who I Saw Today" as well as the HI-larious "April in Fairbanks" as done to a faretheewell by the Hi-Lo's on their "All Over the Place" and also here.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Jazz pianist John Wood, who I've written about before on this blog, here, here, and here, etc., will have his first Japanese CD, entitled Blue in Green, released on April 23rd on SSJ Records. He has also begun to issue his CDs in the U.S. What is so extraordinary about this turn of events is that John has an impressive body of work---13 albums to be exact---stretching back three decades plus change, but seems to have taken his good old time in releasing this strictly-vinyl catalogue in the CD format. Now, however, it has begun to happen, and not a minute too soon. Reaction to the U.S. issues has been strong, and one suspects that Japanese response to the SSJ release, along with the others as they come out, will be at least as great. Players on various of John's releases include the likes of no less than Joe Henderson, Ray Pizzi, Woody Shaw, Billy Higgins, and Tony Dumas.

If you are unfamiliar with John's history, the Leonard Feather liner notes to his Inner Merge LP, which will soon be released in the U.S. (replete with three bonus tracks) under the title Drum Machnes Have No Soul v. 3, should help set the story straight. To wit:

"John Wood came to jazz as a profession at a time that might have been considered somewhat less than propitious. His recording career began around the period when words like "fusion" and "crossover" were heard in the jazz marketplace, when businessmen and producers became dominant figures in what had remained for decades a relatively unadulterated art form.

Fortunately Wood is not the kind of artist easily swayed by commercial temptations. In order to understand why his sense of direction is so unusually firm, it is necessary to examine his background and his credentials both as listener and performer.

Born November 1, 1950 in Nashville, he moved to Los Angeles with his family at the age of six. His father is Randy Wood, the founder of Dot Records, and of Randy's Record Shop, WLAC Nashville, the world's largest mail order record shop and the cornerstone of black culture in America for the twenty crucial years of the civil rights movement.

"In the house where I grew up," John recalls, "back in the late '50s and early 1960's, I was really into Frank Sinatra, Nancy Wilson, Andre Previn, and felt that this was jazz music. That's all I had really heard. Then I heard this record called The Sermon by Jimmy Smith. I had never heard anything like that before, and it changed my whole view of what I wanted to do. After that, I took an interest in Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Bill Evans, and within two or three years I actually started playing myself.”

His one and only teacher was Ernie Hughes, with whom he studied piano From 1965-8. He had been playing less than a year when he began to work parties and gigs with his own trio.

His extensive listening experience continued as he examined the work not only of the mainstream jazzmen, but also of Tim Buckley ("he made a couple of great records that really got to me") and Judy Collins.

In 1974 Wood's father, acknowledging that his son was going to be involved with music and recording, decided to build a studio. located in West Hollywood, Ca., it became the family business; John went to work there ---"I spend most of my time manning and overseeing the comings and goings of people who work there, booking time, and doing a little taste of engineering. Jazz music really didn't have anything to do with the capital that it took to build the studio, but it's always remained my motivation for playing."

In an interview with Lee Underwood for Down Beat, Wood once evaluated his own work. "I'm participating in and extending a long, deep heritage of American jazz. Basically I keep going back to people like Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Gary Burton and Bill Evans. . .I inevitably sacrifice new music listening time by spending so much time listening to records made in years gone by." Despite this sentiment, John Wood is anything but an antiquarian; his music is just as much a sound of the 70s as that of Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea.

For the past year or two, John has been working off and on with Tony Dumas, one of the youngest and most prominent bassists on the Southern California scene. Born in Los Angeles October 1, 1955, Dumas made his professional debut on the road with organist Johnny Hammond. Soon after, he joined Freddie Hubbard and stayed with him a year. He has also worked with Kenny Burrell, and in 1977 toured Japan with JJ. Johnson and Nat Adderley.

Dumas takes special pride in his instrument, the Blitz bass, which has an upright bass fingering board, no sound board, and a special extension enabling him to reach a major third below the bottom E. "It used to belong to Reggie Johnson, who sold it to me when he quit playing for a while," Dumas says. The powerful impact of this physically bodiless yet musically full-bodied instrument is particularly well showcased in Tony's own composition Star Doom.

The opening cut, Inner Urge, began, Wood points out, as "one of Joe Henderson's best tunes, and the title number of one of his best selling albums." An appropriate introduction to Wood's improvisational character is provided here, with his characteristically gentle yet firm left hand punctuations, the rolling, relentless single note lines alternating with impressionistic chords in the right hand.

Next we are introduced to Wood the composer. "I wrote One For Teenie in the studio," he says. "I wanted to conjure up a mood similar to what Yusef Lateef evoked in his recording of Theme From Spartacus. With the help of Ray Pizzi, who has such a personal and refined sound on flute, I think I succeeded."

Ray Pizzi was a high school band teacher in a Boston suburb before moving to California in 1969. After recording with Willie Bobo and Shelly Manne among others, he joined John Rodby's house bond on the Dinah Shore show in 1974. Two years later Dizzy Gillespie, a guest on the show, heard Pizzi ad libbing during a commercial break and, impressed, asked him to play on a record date. After the Gillespie session Pizzi was invited to make his own album. A versatile performer, he plays saxophones and bassoon as well as flute.

The exotic mood of One For Teenie contrasts effectively with the moderato, swinging bag immediately established in Upsidasium, a piece written by Wood a couple of years ago. This comparatively uncomplicated work has an engaging melodic line that is admirably supported by Dumas and by the subtle, unflaggingly pulsating drummer, Billy Higgins. The solos are shared by Wood and Dumas on this beguiling trio track, in which the leader's intelligent use of dynamic contrast is a notable feature.

Star Doom is Tony's composition, its title a combination of the word stardom and the first half of his last name. Dumas wrote the original version some four years ago, revised it slightly before this session took place, and plays superbly throughout both as rhythm section component and soloist.

Serling Silver is a double word play designed to point up the dual influences of Rod Serling and Horace Silver. "I think we moved into some of those twilight zones, some of those same outer limits," says John, "and of course, although my main influences have been Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, I have always had the greatest admiration for Horace Silver.”

"Billy Higgins had the original idea here, to just do something really improvised all the way. He had a rhythmic structure he wanted to provide, but from that point on it turned out to be a joint effort."

With Roy Pizzi returning, this time on soprano saxophone, the performance leads the group into unpredictable and literally uncharted territory. Wood emphasizes that no editing was needed, despite the totally spontaneous nature of the performance.

Higgins by now should be familiar to anyone who has followed the jazz scene for the past decade or two. A charter member of the original Ornette Coleman Quartet, he later worked with Sonny Rollins, Cedar Walton, Clifford Jordan and Jimmy Heath as well as countless other combos in Los Angeles, New York and Europe. He is as much at home with the kind of music created here as he was with Ornette back in the late 1950s.

To sum up, it might be fitting to repeat a comment made by John Wood to Lee Underwood: "My progress will be a gradual fade-up, slow but very steady. Whatever recognition I get will be built on something solid and human, not something that was created and supplied for economic reasons.”

Actually John didn't have to say it and I didn't need to quote it. You can hear the evidence very clearly for yourself in these five compelling iIIustrations of the Wood brand of integrity."

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Start your engines!

And speaking of film, which I did in my previous entry, between (ahem) major assignments, I used to write material for a certain cable channel specializing in trivia questions for its viewers twixt feature presentations. (Hey! A guy's gotta eat!) Here's a batch of 'em that I womped up one month. Readers of this blog who email me the most correct answers (beyond five) between now and the following Wednesday will receive a free copy of the forthcoming (April 23) CD: World on a String: Pinky Winters Sings Sinatra Live in Tokyo. (see contest rules below)

1. The same year John Garfield made He Ran All the Way, he turned down the lead in what soon-to-be-filmed early 1950s classic?
A. Shane
B. From Here to Eternity
C. On the Waterfront

2. Which behind-the-scenes member of the creative team of Kenneth Branagh's 1989 Henry V also appeared in a small part in the film?
A. Producer Bruce Sharman
B. Composer Patrick Doyle
C. Production designer Tim Harvey

3. Appearing in a tiny, uncredited role in 1972's Hickey and Boggs is what future TV sereies star?
A. Roger E. Mosley
B. Don Johnson
C. Robert Urich

4. In the 1980s Robert Downey, Jr. lived (and was presumably consorting) with what actress?
A. Cynthia Stevenson
B. Greta (they're spectacularly real) Scacchi
C. Sarah Jessica Parker

5. What other film, aside from 1992's Honeymoon in Vegas, and made the following year, also hinged on the plot device of a man losing his wife in a game of chance?
A. Compromising Positions
B. Indecent Proposal
C. House of Cards

6. In the I'll-do-anything-to-continue-working sweepstakes, Oscar-winning Ray Milland went from appearing in (though a far cry from his TV series Meet Mister McNutley/McNulty) respectable little British films like 1966's Hostile Witness to, in 1972, a grind house epic about a bigot whose head is trasplanted onto a black man's body?
A. Transposed Heads
B. The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant
C. The Thing With Two Heads

7. What popular British comedy team starred in the seventh screen verson (this time as a spoof) of the Doyle classic, Hound of the Baskervilles?
A. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore
B. Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan
C. Monty Python's Flying Circus

8. Aside from 1967's Hour of the Gun, in what other film did James Garner portray Wyatt Earp.
1. Lawman
2. Sunset
3. Doomed at Sundown

9. Because of his connection with such veddy British phenoms as the Beatles and the Goons, director Richard Lester is presumed to be a loyal subject of the Queen. He was, in fact, born in:
A. Pittsburgh (when you're from Pittsburgh, you've got to do somethinggggg)
B. Montreal
C. Hamburg

10. What TV series star appears as a witch in 1965's How to Stuff a Wild Bikini?
1. Eve Arden
2. Elizabeth Montgomery
3. Marlo Thomas

Employees (or their family members or pets) of People-Vs-Dr-Chilledair are not eligible to enter. Entrants must answer at least five questions correctly in order to qualify for the grand (and, in fact, only) prize. In case of a tie, the email with the earliest "postmark" will be declared the winner. email entries should be sent to Deadline is next midnight March 7, a week from today. Put on your cogitation chapeau; good luck to all twelve of you; and may god have mercy on your souls.