Category Archives: Music

Billy Joel: A Tribute

billy-joel-cover-1One of the greatest troubadours of my generation is Billy Joel, a poet and musician of genius, who shared his deepest emotions, and ours, over a lifetime of joys and tears. He is much more than a pop icon. He is the chronicler of an age in American life.

In one of my unpublished novels, Strange & Modern Phobias, two psychiatrists speculate on the psychiatric merits of Billy Joel’s greatest hits. It was my way of paying tribute to him. Here is the excerpt.

Albert Drexle had different tastes in music; and throughout their medical school and residency years together (the mid-1970s into the 1980s); Albert was fixated on the genius of rock and roller Billy Joel, whom he celebrated as the most psychologically aware troubadour of their generation. Rooming with Albert necessitated cohabitation with the albums of Billy Joel and enthusiastic lectures on how the composer’s lyrics were more meaningful to the listening public than any of the therapies that they were being taught as clinicians.

Bernie remembered Albert saying, “If we can learn to be as keen an observer of the human condition as Billy Joel, we have the possibility of being good doctors.”

Bernie heard the Billy Joel songs so often in Albert’ s presence that he learned the melodies and the lyrics by repetitive osmosis, but he never more than politely acknowledged that such music had lasting social value, or that it could affect the behaviors of anyone with more than sentimental emotion. Poet-musicians were entertainers, not philosophers, in Bernie’s reckoning.

billyjoel-500x280

To counter Albert’s insistence on the loud sublimity of rock and roll, Bernie substituted albums by Jean-Pierre Rampal, the French flute king, and the piano records of Ferrante and Teicher and Peter Nero. These Albert would tolerate, plus any flute album by Herbie Mann in the jazz idiom. Thus a musical modus vivendi was achieved in their shared environment.

In recalling Albert’s insistence on the psychological insights of Billy Joel, Bernie decided to re-visit the entertainer’s greatest hits; and, on impulse, he saw one of the ubiquitous block-size, everything-you-want-twenty-four-hours-a-day marts and went in to purchase a CD. He had not gone into such a store during his married life since they were considered so déclassé in Joyce’s social league. The hour was late; but there were customers, maybe second-shift workers from the few remaining cotton mills that produced sheets and socks and jeans for someone other than the block-sized chain marts that got their cotton goods from factories in places like Mexico and Hong Kong. The shoppers looked tired, and they were price conscious about everything because they had to in the blue-collar rank to which they were assigned. They looked at Bernie passing in his $2,000 suit and his $300 shoes, and he could see the question in their eyes, “What the hell is he doing here?”

The city block under a single roof store was divided into departments, but the aisles were not laid out in a grid. They were mazelike so that people would get lost among the high shelves of merchandise and feel the impulse to buy their way out. Bernie wandered through the necessary, but mostly unnecessary, junk of American civilization and felt claustrophobic as the stuff surrounded him, confined him, and threatened to claim him as a helpless shopper and gnaw at his wallet.

billy-joel-greatest-hits-vol-1-2Finally, he found the music department and was informed by the signage that the mart chain was the largest seller of tapes and CDs in the known universe. Of course, they had a CD copy of Billy Joel, Greatest Hits, Volume I and Volume II. Bernie renegotiated the maze back to the front of the store and paid cash for the CD to a sad-eyed cashier, a woman with white hair, who would have preferred to spend her retirement at home but couldn’t because of the cost of her husband’s medications, so she had to work (nights was all she could get) just enough hours to be legally part-time so the mart wouldn’t have to provide health benefits, but that’s the way it goes these days. The cashier told Bernie this while she rang up the register, made change, and put his CD into a plastic bag—all this in response to his simple rhetorical question, “How are you tonight?”

It was after midnight when Bernie reached his assigned space in the downtown parking garage. He wanted to play the Billy Joel CD before nervously trotting the half-block to the gothic apartment tower where he temporarily resided, but first he had to pee. The garage level where he parked exhibited no traffic, so Bernie dared to do what had previously been unthinkable. He exited his car, walked to a convenient cement pillar, and relieved himself hard and pooling where cultured men should not go. The zipping up was not without a sense of reckless enjoyment, but Bernie wondered if his urine would stink with the sunrise and be blamed on some homeless man seeking refuge from the rain.

Since Bernie had identified no CD player in the penthouse shrine to the 1920s, and his Mercedes had a state-of-the-art sound system, Bernie fed the new CD into the slot, locked the car doors, reclined the power driver’s seat, and settled his nerves for the shock of Billy Joel’s rock and roll therapy. Bernie tried not to anticipate the music. His intent was to have it roll over him like a memory-bearing wave that somehow contained the psychological insight that Albert had touted.

billy-joe-piano-man

The first cut was Piano Man, a song that described a bar scene peopled with disillusioned characters who were revealed in terse verses by the piano man who recognizes the loneliness of crowded places where people gather to escape the perceived failures of their lives. The tempo of the song was upbeat, but the lyrics captured a sadness inherent in many modern lives. Yes, Bernie had to agree—Piano Man was an accurate psychological assessment of bar flies.

“Congratulations, kid,” Bernie said, like one of the inebriants dropping a dollar bill into the piano man’s tip jar, “you summed it up better than a psych grad’s master thesis.”

Say Goodbye to Hollywood contained a line that said goodbye to his “baby,” and that reminder annoyed Bernie. New York State of Mind was a song about returning to a person’s roots, to one’s own reality after being out of touch. Bernie, however, was unable to conjure up the same sentimentality for Baltimore and a neighborhood that he knew he would not recognize should he ever return there.

The next cut, The Stranger, was what Albert consideredbilly-joel-the-stranger a psychological epic. The lyrics were about the secrets of inner life, the self a person conceals even from a lover. Bernie could hear Albert’s commentary. “The secret self is about unfulfilled desires, things that we are afraid to reveal to each other. Our lover leaves us, and we can’t understand why. It’s not why! It’s who! On some levels we can’t communicate, so we will always be strangers to each other. And that’s how psychiatrists make a living—we bridge the gap. Billy Joel was right on. Hell, we hardly know the stranger in our self.”

“Oh, thanks,” Bernie said sarcastically to both Albert and Billy Joel. “Great analysis, but what’s the solution?”

The following cut seemed to provide a partial answer. Just The Way You Are was about relationship, acceptance, and commitment through good times and bad. The lyrical saxophone break provided moments for reflection, and Bernie recalled that he had often had to work at conversations with Joyce so as not to push her Southern panic buttons about race and class and the Democratic Party. In many ways, Bernie decided, Joyce had not been easy to talk to.

Before Bernie’s thoughts became too specific, the rush of Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song) overtook him. The song was about expectations vs. reality. In summing up what the songwriter observes from a working-class perspective, he asks, is that all we get from a lifetime of effort? His response is to roar away on a motorcycle rather than conform to so dismal a future. Bernie recognized the syndrome. Working-class kids witnessed the struggle of their parents living from payday to payday, and they rebelled. They wanted the lifestyle that they saw advertised on television, and they saw that obtaining it had nothing to do with social or moral virtues.

The teenage rebellion theme was repeated in Only The Good Die Young, that Bernie recalled as having been banned by the Catholic Church, and My Life, which became an anthem of the youth culture. Bernie drifted in attention through four other cuts that had imbedded messages relevant to his circumstances, but he missed them. Then the staccato beat of Pressure pounded him back on point.

billyjoelpressure

“Right,” Bernie said into the sound waves, “I’ve got all the advantages, but I still can’t deal with pressure. So what’s the benefit of a protected life of privilege and some ritualistic faith if you cannot deal with pressure?”

Pressure was one of Albert’s favorite diagnostic songs. Bernie supposed that Albert even played the song for certain dysfunctional patients as a kind of wake-up call to treatment. Bernie had given Albert a wooden sign long ago for his birthday. The lettering was deeply routed into the wood like an old-fashioned doctor’s shingle. The lettering read: Drexel and Joel, Rock & Roll Psychotherapy. It was given as a joke; but Albert beamed instead of laughed, and, to Bernie’s chagrin, the damn sign hung prominently in his office ever since.

billy-joel-allentownAllentown was another Billy Joel composition that Albert considered worthy of a graduate degree in either sociology or psychology. The song correctly encapsulated the failed promise of The American Dream for the children of WWII-era working-class parents. The post-war was industrial collapse, the loss of blue-collar jobs, and the resulting clinical depression was artistically rendered. Bernie did not treat these people because generally, they could not afford psychiatrists, and that reality forced Bernie to realize how disconnected he was from most of the working population of the country, how far removed he was from the desperate old woman cashier at the everything mart.

The following cut further isolated Bernie. It was another bit of Billy Joel genius that took the complex Vietnam experience and made it real and moving in less than five minutes. Bernie had avoided the draft and Vietnam combat by becoming a doctor. He had remained deferred until the war was over; but he had treated some of the inmates from that asylum and seen the consequences of their unnatural push into adulthood and horror, but Bernie had not experienced their bitterness, their loss. He had separated himself from his own generation, a generation going down into chaos together; and if he wept, he wept as an outsider to their torments.

Tell Her About It was a painful cut for Bernie to listen to billy-joel-tell-her-about-it
because it underscored his communication problems with Joyce. In the beginning of their courtship and marriage, he had told her his career dreams and his hopes for a cultured lifestyle; but as their life settled into the seamless routine of their class, what was left to share about feelings and emotions except their critiques of the performance arts?

Uptown Girl and The Longest Time played while Bernie tried to identify the moment of disconnect with Joyce. When had their respective appointment books rescheduled their intimacy into a ritual that mimicked obligatory church going? Why had the two of them settled for a closed provincial culture? Wasn’t their refusal to live in the greater society a kind of self-proclaimed aristocracy? In their rejection of modernity and all its underclass problems, hadn’t they just pretended that underclass desperation and criminality was not happening? And in building walls against contact with the great masses of the unwanted, had they not also walled themselves way from their own emotional sensitivity? The analytical questions continued until Bernie heard the familiar opening bars of You’re Only Human (Second Wind), a song that Albert swore by.

billy-joel-youre-only-humanAlbert considered that the Second Wind song provided excellent advice to patients suffering from depression due to feelings of inadequacy. The lyrics acknowledged the presence of heartbreak depression, but it then affirmed the arrival of a second wind and urged the listener to hang on. The song was both empathetic and encouraging to sufferers of a circumstantial depression, as differentiated from clinical depression such as a bi-polar disorder that requires drug therapy. Since many patients consulted psychiatrists for circumstantial, temporary disorders, Albert felt that the Billy Joel song had positive therapeutic value. Bernie, as a psychiatric resident student, thought that rock and roll had no place in the delivery of mental health services. Listening to the message of the song, locked in his car in a parking garage well after midnight, however, Bernie underwent a change of opinion.

billy-joel-the-night-is-still-young

The last cut on the Greatest Hits album was The Night Is Still Young; and although young people probably thought that the song was about sexual endurance, Bernie took it to mean that his life was not over at age fifty-five. But what next? This life as lived in Charlotte was over. He might continue the practice of psychiatry, but the comfort zone of country club connections and charity board networking among the deranged of high society was lost to him. Joyce and her cache of elitists would see to that. Consulting Dr. Selkin would no longer be fashionable. He would be so “last year,” so unpardonable, as if he had driven Joyce into the arms of Marcel Swann with a bullwhip. Her story, told to intimates in powder room whispers, would be a Faulknerian doozy that implied a hidden darkness of character that made life with Bernie sound like a slow ride through a carnival horror show.”

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Prince Henrik of Denmark: A Royal Collaboration

The Prince Consort Henrik of Denmark

The Prince Consort Henrik of Denmark

Classical music performance artists dream of recognition in the places where concerts are sponsored by royalty. Here is the story of how an American composer rose to acclaim in the châteaux of European royals in the dreamtime of a single year.

Henri de Laborde de Monpezat, as the husband of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, is titled His Royal Highness, the Prince Consort of Denmark. A native French Comte (Count) before his wife came to the Danish crown in January 1972, Henri, or in Danish, ‘Henrik’ is a published poet of some regard, having authored five books since 1982, and a prize-winner in several European literary academies. Prince Henrik writes in French and maintains a part-time residency at his château and winery in France. As it evolved, Prince Henrik and I have a great deal in common. We are both poets and collaborators to the same Franco-American composer Edmund Barton “Bart” Bullock.

Long before Bart and I began our partnership on the oratorio, The Awakening of Humanity, Bart has had a long-term interest in the composition and performance of art songs like those based on the poetry of Prince Henrik. In 1999, Bart began a collaboration with the Académie des Jeux Floraux de Toulouse (Academy of the Floral Games), the oldest literary society in the western world, founded in 1323. Bart composed an art song in 1999 based on a poem by Prince Henrik, “Descent on the river of the catafalque of Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse”, which opens his Cycle of Seven Arts Songs in honor of the Seven Troubadours and of Clémence Isaure, founders of the Jeux Floraux de Toulouse.

Edmund "Bart" Bullock in performance

Edmund “Bart” Bullock in performance

The art song was composed with permission, but Bart had no personal contact with the Prince. This work was premiered in the Clémence Isaure Hall in Toulouse in 2001, with a repeat performance that same year in a Carnegie Recital Hall concert in New York City. Then in August 2013, Bart’s friend and landlord Marquis Robert de Palaminy invited him to attend the annual charity concert sponsored by Prince Henrik and Queen Margrethe II. Bart decided to package the song cycle, published in the U. S., for Prince Henrik on the chance that he might be presented to him.

When the Honorary Consul of Denmark in Toulouse, an acquaintance who was also attending the concert, learned about Bart’s gift package, he offered to convey it to the Prince. The Prince, an excellent classical pianist himself, was able to read the score and was impressed enough to call Bart to him during the concert intermission. Thus began a conversation about music that led to Bart being invited to the Prince’s after-concert dinner party.

Queen Margrethe and Prince Consort Henrik of Denmark

Queen Margrethe and Prince Consort Henrik of Denmark

Amid a roomful of close friends and family of the Prince and Queen Margrethe II, the Prince asked Bart if he would compose another art song from a poem that he had written about Toulouse. The composition of that song led the Prince to send Bart a book of his poems for the creation of an art song cycle that he would commission. The commission of the six new art songs included a performance contract to perform the music at the Prince and Queen’s 2014 benefit concert. The arc of that year between concerts must now seem as magical as a fairy tale for Bart.

The concert in the Château de Cayx in Luzech, France will be held on

Chateau de Cayz Luzech, France

Chateau de Cayz
Luzech, France

Thursday, August 21st at 6:30 p.m. As sponsored by Prince Henrik and Queen Margrethe II, Bart will perform his Three Tango Fantasies, a Cycle of Seven Troubadour Art Songs, a Cycle of Six French Art Songs based on Prince Henrik’s poems from the poetry book “Cantabile,” and his Prélude Elégiaque, from the oratorio Le Cortège de Lucie, based on the libretto by the Franco-Belgian poet and philosopher Bernard Van Brugghe.

The second half of the concert will hear Bart play famous Opera Arias with mezzo-soprano Christine Labadens. A DVD recording will be made of the concert with a royal dinner party to follow.

Bart was no stranger to French nobility when he began his collaboration with Prince Henrik. His home base in France is on the estate of the Marquis and Marquise Robert and Jeanne-Marie de Palaminy. Bart had leased the historic estate manager’s cottage, on the grounds of the Château de Palaminy . In cooperation with the Palaminys, he has restored it to be the ideal composer’s environment.

Chateau de Palaminy

Chateau de Palaminy

 Interior alterations allowed for the entry of Bart’s huge Steinway D concert grand piano and a staging area to accommodate forty guests for intimate concerts in the composer’s home. Bart also gave private concerts for the Palaminys and their guests in the old wine storehouse of the château, a late 18th century addition whose walls were built out of the distinctive Toulouse brick and stones from the adjacent Garonne River, a vast space with a wood beam ceiling seating up to 400 people. Other noble acquaintances then wanted Bart to perform at their château, so Bart was kept busy, making new friends and supporters at these intimate cultural gatherings.

Edmund Barton Bullock Photo by Maurice Petit

                                                         Edmund Barton Bullock
                                                          Photo by Maurice Petit

In addition to concert appearances in Europe and the United States and recording sessions of his major works, also on Bart’s agenda are my oratorio, The Awakening of Humanity, and his French oratorio, Le Cortége de Lucie.

After the anticipated triumph of the Prince Henrik art song cycle concert in August, there is hope that it will be repeated in Denmark and the United States.

My own collaboration with Bart will have the premiere performance of its first two movements on January 11th in Toulouse by the Ensemble Vocal Unité under the artistic direction of Christian Nadalet. Our hope is that the recording of this concert will stimulate interest leading to a commission for Bart to complete the entire six-movement work. We would like to see The Awakening of Humanity premiered in France with a symphony orchestra, followed by a United States premiere in Washington, DC or in our native North Carolina.

"Bart" Bullock and Monty Joynes in their oratorio collaboration

“Bart” Bullock and Monty Joynes in their
oratorio collaboration

I can also imagine a day when a concert program might include the Prince’s art song cycle as well as my oratorio. Perhaps as the attending collaborators, we would be introduced—Henrik as a Royal Prince and me with a kind of title awarded at birth. I am a Saint. St. Leger Moncure Joynes. I hope that my joke makes the Prince smile. We do, after all, share a composer.

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Edmund Barton Bullock: The Return to New York Recital

Bart and Monty working on The Awakening of Humanity oratorio

Bart and Monty working on The Awakening of Humanity oratorio

A North Carolina-born composing and performing artist returns from his home in France to once again triumph on a New York City stage.  “Bart” Bullock is my dear friend and the composer of The Awakening of Humanity, my oratorio libretto.  Bart is in the U.S. during January and February (2014) to give university recitals and master classes and to return to New York City where he enjoyed his early career successes.

If you are in the New York City area, I urge you to reserve your seat for an evening of great piano music when Bart plays Debussy, Rachmaninoff, and three of his own unique compositions.

Here are the date and venue details along with the program and program notes:

Bart on piano in website

 The E. Barton Bullock Piano Recital

Monday, February 10, 2014  8:00 PM

Klavierhaus Recital Hall

211 W. 58th Street  NYC

For reservations, please contact Nicholas Russotto, Recital Hall Manager, at nicholas@klavierhaus.com.  Although tickets may be available at the door, reservations are recommended due to limited seating.

Klavierhaus recital hall

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Children’s Corner, for piano solo                        Achille-Claude DEBUSSY

I.    Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum

II.   Jimbo’s Lullaby

III.  Serenade for the Doll

IV.  The Snow is Dancing

V.   The Little Shepherd

VI.  Golliwog’s Cake-walk

Three Tango Fantasies, for piano solo          Edmund Barton BULLOCK

I.    Allegro, molto ritmico e appasionata

II.  Canción d’amor

III. Allegro appassionato

– I N T E R M I S S I O N –

Prélude Elégiaque, for piano solo                     Edmund Barton BULLOCK

Excerpt from the Oratorio Le Cortége de Saint Lucie                                 

 Three Nocturnes, for piano solo                         Edmund Barton BULLOCK

I.     Andante, tempo rubato

II.    Ben moderato e espressivo  “September 11, 2001”

III.  Tranquillo, con molto tenerezza

Prelude in B Minor, Opus 32, No. 10                        Sergei RACHMANINOFF

Prelude en G Major, Opus 32, No. 5

Moment musical in E Minor, Opus 16, No. 4

piano clip art

PROGRAM NOTES

Under the auspices of the La Gesse Foundation, over a period of 6 years, pianist and composer Edmund Barton Bullock performed regularly in the Carnegie Weill Recital Hall, including an evening of his works for chamber music in 2002, as well as 2 world premiers. During this period, he met Sujatri Reisinger, Vice-President of Klavierhaus, and a musical friendship ensued. Reisinger ultimately loaned a Hamburg Steinway D for a memorable concert of Bullock’s works in the Weill Recital Hall.

Bullock is honored to be invited to perform on Monday, February 10, 2014 in Klavierhaus’s intimately beautiful recital hall on renowned Greek pianist Gina Bachauer’s restored circa 1910 Steinway D, an instrument of exceptional technical and tonal qualities.

Bart full face portraitThrough the influence of renowned French pianist Daniel Ericourt, who performed Debussy’s piano works in legendary performances in Carnegie Hall, Bullock, a native of North Carolina, went to Paris to study with Paris Conservatory professor Pierre Sancan in 1978, after finishing his undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He began a love affair with France which continues to this day, after prizes from the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Musique de Paris towards the Licence d’Enseignement and the prestigious Licence de Concert, and private studies with French pianist Thérèse Dussaut and Russian pianist Yevgeni Malinin, once director of  Moscow’s ‘Tchaikovsky’ Conservatory.

In the 1990s Bullock began a parallel career as a composer, working with Dr. Robert Sirota, Director of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, and Guillaume Connesson, French composer. Many chamber music and piano works were created and performed during this period in the U.S., Canada, and in Europe. After a major commission for his Appalachian Concerto for Piano and Orchestra from private sources, Bullock embarked on a new journey of the creation of works for large ensembles, including the commissioned work A Spanish Concertina for Bandoneon and Wind Ensemble, premiered with renowned Argentinean bandoneonist Daniel Binelli and the Appalachian Wind Ensemble in 2005, based on the piano work Three Tango Fantasies, which will be interpreted on the Klavierhaus program.

In honor of Daniel Ericourt’s connection with Claude Debussy, Bullock will begin the February 10th program with Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite. Ericourt was the first pianist to record all of Debussy’s piano works, and even performed on a recital in his youth in which Debussy also performed and was close friends with Debussy’s daughter “Chouchou” to whom this work was dedicated.

Bullock’s Three Nocturnes were composed during 2001, and the second nocturne: Ben Moderato e espressivo “September 11, 2001” is a musical “witness” of the tragic “911” event, whose spiritual energy attempts to begin the collective humanity healing process.

Bullock is currently working on 2 oratorio projects—on the American side, The Awakening of Humanity, based on librettist Monty Joynes’s libretto, and in France, Le Cortège de Lucie, based on the libretto of Franco-Belgian poet and philosopher Bernard Van Brugghe. On the request of the author, Bullock created a transcription for piano solo of the Prélude Elégiague, originally composed for violin, cello, harp and piano, which also be performed on the program.

In honor of Yevgeni Malinin, also a very important mentor on Bullock’s path to becoming a concert pianist, three Rachmaninoff pieces will close this unique February 10th recital at Klavierhaus.

Visit Bart’s website.

To hear Bart performing his Three Tango Fantasies, click here.   Bart casually at piano

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Mel Tormé: Best Male Jazz Vocalist

Mel Torme first photoI was already a Mel Tormé fan when I began to go to New York City in the falls of the mid-1970s to solicit national print ads for Metro Hampton Roads Magazine from major advertising agencies. My boss, George Crump, installed me a week at a time at his favorite NYC hotel, the elegant St. Regis, with a prestigious signature account. Imagine my delight when I discovered that Mel Tormé unofficially opened New York’s fall cabaret season with a show in the Maisonette, the hotel’s nightclub.

With a magazine journalist’s panache I was never reluctant to stick my nose into things like celebrity rehearsals, and thus I bumped into Mel Tormé and engaged him in conversation. At age 49, without makeup, hairpiece, and perhaps a girdle, Mel resembled a middle-aged traveling salesman more than he did a musical prodigy and dynamic entertainer.

Normally, Mel explained, the club area was off limits to visitors during rehearsals, but for whatever reason, he made an exception for me although I was making sales calls out of the hotel for most of the day.

St. Regis Hotel

If you don’t know the genius of Mel Tormé, you should be advised that the Velvet Fog voice was one of the greatest musicians, singers, songwriters, and arrangers of his generation.  His hit records and recognitions included the Down Beat Award for Best Male Jazz Singer (1976), and two Grammy Awards for Best Male Vocalist (1983) and Best Male Jazz Vocalist (1984). You will certainly recognize Mel for writing the music to The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire) that was first made a hit by Nat King Cole.

Mel Torme with Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson

Mel Torme with Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson

Mel knew and learned from legendary drummers Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, so when he steps away from the piano to do a drum set, you will be awed.  During the 1979 Chicago Jazz Festival, Mel played drums with Benny Goodman on the classic Sing, Sing, Sing. Who would have dared if he didn’t have the chops?

For Mel’s 1974 opening night at the Maisonette, I used the status of my St. Regis signature account to reserve a front-row table in the hotel showroom. My then-wife flew into New York from Norfolk, Virginia for the weekend, and I also invited another couple to join us.  I was recruiting the husband to be our magazine’s sales manager, and if my acquaintanceship with Mel Tormé didn’t impress him, nothing would. Also, I had a better table than many of the show business celebrities in the room.

The album Mel Tormé: Live At The Maisonette resulted from that September show, and it includes a medley of 17 George Gershwin songs that runs for more than 15 minutes. Mel’s arrangements and performance that night earned him a standing ovation.  He also did a fabulous drum set, and I also believe that he even played a trumpet solo! He was called back to the stage for two or three encores, and in one pass by our table, Mel leaned in and gave a long stem rose to my wife from those that had just been presented to him. Wow, Mel!  What had I done to deserve that!

Mel had invited me to visit the Maisonette off-stage Green Room after the show, so I left my wife and guests briefly to pay respects to one of the greatest examples of talent and showmanship that I had ever witnessed. The Green Room was crowded with Mel’s friends that included songwriter Burt Bacharach, comedian Henny Youngman, and television star Morey Amsterdam among others.

Then I witnessed a very shocking thing. The great Mel Tormé, drenched in sweat and fresh from repeated standing ovations, was yet pleading for our approbations. Did we really love the show? Did the Gershwin medley work?  When he shook my hand, I wanted to shout to him, “Mel. Relax! Tonight you are the king of the world.” But instead, I said something like “wonderful” and “incredible” and withdrew from the unexpected scene. Is it perfection that drives entertainers to self-doubt even in the hour of their greatest triumph?

Mel Torme Mel Torme open photoThe next time that I saw Mel Tormé was in Las Vegas at the Sands Hotel showroom. It was a year or so later, and Mel was opening for Rich Little, a comedic impressionist at the height of his fame. I happened to be staying at the Sands, and so I ran into Mel and his family at the huge central courtyard pool. I didn’t want to intrude on his privacy, so the greeting was brief with my mention of his kindnesses to me at the St. Regis.

Sammy Davis, Jr., one of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, once allowed Mel Tormé to open for his Las Vegas act, but he soon discovered that Mel’s show was too hard to follow. The audience was totally spent by the time Sammy got on stage.  Anyway, that was the story told to me by a Vegas gambler.

From his first published song at the age of 16—“Lament to Love”—that became a hit recording for bandleader Harry James, Mel Tormé proved to be one of the top musical talents of his generation. And like the character Judge Harry Stone on the 1980s television situation comedy Night Court, I am also an unabashed fan of Mel Tormé.   That's All

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Bob Hope: The POW Shows

Bob Hope feature image Comedian, movie, and television star Bob Hope will always be remembered as a great patriot for his USO wartime tours to entertain American servicemen. In combat zones covering WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, no one was better known or more appreciated by military service men and women.  Imagine my excitement as a former Army enlisted man when I was asked to meet Bob Hope’s limo at the curb and escort him to the Green Room of the Norfolk Scope Arena where he would host a show honoring just-returned POWs from Vietnam and their families.

Following the Paris Peace Accords of January 1973, in Operation Homecoming, American prisoners of war were released and began to return to the USA during February and April.  On May 24th President Richard Nixon hosted a White House dinner for the POWs, and Bob Hope headlined a gala show that included John Wayne, Sammy Davis Jr., and Les Brown and his band. Suddenly, every major city in the country wanted to honor the POWs and their families, and Bob Hope was expected to host all of these celebratory events.

Bob Hope at the White House

By the time the POW honoring events got to Norfolk, Virginia, one of the major military centers in the nation, the POWs were worn out by the travel, and their attendance was limited. Nevertheless, the Scope Arena was filled with Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, and Marines from all the nearby bases, and Bob Hope was there to fulfill his role.

Bob Hope at USO show

I must have gotten my assignment to escort Bob Hope from the street curb to the arena stage because I was well known to the Scope management. I had had a minor role at the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce in bringing the ABA Basketball Virginia Squires to the venue, and then as the editor of Metro Hampton Roads Magazine, I had continued to support Scope at every editorial opportunity.

Norfolk Scope Arena

Norfolk Scope Arena

Bob Hope was yet dapper at age 70 when I greeted him at the curb and announced my role as his temporary aide. Our route into the building to the Green Room was through a wide concourse where more than a dozen photographers followed our progress and took pictures. My head was turned toward Mr. Hope as I informed him of the pre-show arrangements, and although he acknowledged what I was saying, he did not turn to look at me.  Finally, as the photographers persisted, Mr. Hope whispered a word of professional advice to me, “Always keep your eyes on the camera, kid.”

Monty was a 32-year-old working magazine journalist at the time that he met Bob Hope who was then age 70.

Monty was a 32-year-old working magazine journalist at the time that he met Bob Hope who was then age 70.

Throughout my social and professional life ever since, I have never been shy to have my photograph taken because I can still hear Bob Hope whispering to me in my 32nd year, “Always keep your eyes on the camera, kid.”

Bob Hope final image

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Danny Thomas: The Miracle of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Danny Thomas featureA destitute comedic actor and night club singer prays to the saint of hopeless causes and makes a vow to build a shrine to St. Jude if he should be blessed with success.  Years later, the entertainer fulfills his vow by becoming the founder of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital where miracles happen everyday.  What a plot for a movie!  But that’s the Danny Thomas story, and I was privileged to know him and to witness his vow come true.

Danny Thomas It all began

In the 1940s, Danny Thomas worked steadily on network radio shows as a comedic character actor. Film roles during the early 1950s in The Jazz Singer with Peggy Lee, and I’ll See You In My Dreams with Doris Day propelled Danny into television where he enjoyed great success with Make Room For Daddy, The Danny Thomas Show that had a 13-year run (1953 to 1965).

Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee

Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee

Producing his show at Desilu Studios where Lucille Ball was filming her iconic series, I Love Lucy, Danny partnered with legendary television producers Sheldon Leonard and Aaron Spelling to co-produce three landmark television series: The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Mod Squad.  Danny is credited with discovering Mary Tyler Moore in 1961 when he recommended to Carl Reiner that she be cast in the Dick Van Dyke Show.  Danny also produced three television series for Walter Brennan—The Real McCoys, The Tycoon, and The Guns of Will Sonnet, and he continued to work in television through the 1980s.

Bess and Pete Decker at an early St. Jude fundraiser

Bess and Pete Decker at an early St. Jude fundraiser

My personal connection to Danny Thomas was facilitated by Peter Decker.  In the 1970s, before I left my home city of Norfolk, Virginia, Pete and Bess Decker were my best friends.  Pete was a criminal attorney, humanitarian, and a talented musician and singer who lived to receive every honor that a grateful city and state can award an individual. When Pete and I got together, he was already on the Board of Governors and Directors of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis that Danny, a fellow Lebanese, had founded in 1962.

As Pete’s friend, I joined the Board of Directors for St. Jude of Southeastern Virginia, and I served as secretary at our meetings. Through this 20-member board Pete organized a regional telethon and other events that over a 50-year period of his service raised tens of millions of dollars for St. Jude, a hospital dedicated to the treatment of sick children regardless of race, religion, or the ability to pay.

The focus on cancer and other catastrophic diseases in children paid great dividends in 1996 when two doctors from St. Jude’s Immunology Department were recipients of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for key discoveries in how immune systems function to kill virus-infected cells.

Pete Decker and Danny Thomas

Pete Decker and Danny Thomas

Peter Decker made over 500 appearances with Danny Thomas in concerts, telethons, and other fundraising events for St. Jude.  As a singer, Pete made records with the Pat Curtis Orchestra that were sold to benefit St. Jude.  Pete and I performed impromptu together in clubs where musician friends would invite us on stage, and I even wrote a cabaret act for us that we performed with the Pat Curtis Jazz Band. I was surprised, however, when Pete asked me to record a song for the Southeastern Virginia St. Jude telethon.

To diversify the telethon entertainment, Pete wanted me to do a big band pop standard, and he provided a recorded Nelson Riddle orchestral arrangement of “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie.”  I sang the song with the recorded accompaniment in a recording studio and later lip-synced the song in a television studio taping against a uniform St. Jude telethon backdrop.  During the telethon, Pete could introduce me, and I would appear on tape as if I were actually on stage.  I accepted, however, that my performance was little more than late-night telethon filler.

Monty and Peter in cabaret act

Monty and Peter in cabaret act

A few weeks after the Norfolk telethon, Pete called me to say that my tape performance of It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie had been chosen for the master telethon talent reel that would be provided to St. Jude telethons produced in more than a dozen markets where the same stage backdrop would be used.  In a sea of rock and roll, I was the quiet romantic crooner alternative.  I waited in vain to be discovered, but Pete and Danny appreciated the effort.

The recording of my St. Jude performance was reprised at our middle daughter’s wedding.   As a surprise to me, the bride danced with her father to his recording of “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie.  Only the family was in on the plot. I remained the mystery singer.

The most time that I spent with Danny Thomas was at a small dinner party given for Danny and Phyllis McGuire at the Deckers’ home in Norfolk.  Phyllis was still a statuesque beauty who you will remember as the lead singer of the McGuire Sisters. After the trio won the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts television show competition, they produced a succession of hit records on the Coral Records label.  With number one hits like “Sincerely” (1954), “The Theme from Picnic (1956) and “Sugartime (1958), the group had 30 chart hits over a 16-year period.  The McGuire Sisters appeared on all of the top television variety shows during the 1950s and 1960s and even made the cover of Life Magazine. On tour for St. Jude with Phyllis McGuire, Danny, in his early 60s, welcomed the chance to relax at the Deckers.

The McGuire Sisters

The McGuire Sisters

The last time that I saw Danny Thomas was at his home in 1975 or 1976 where he hosted a reception following the final day of the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic (1970 to 1984). Danny was an avid golfer, and two PGA tour events bore his name.  I was in Memphis on business as the Associate Publisher of Holiday Magazine, and was thus available to attend.  Entertainer Jimmy Dean, famous for his hit record “Big John” and later for his breakfast sausage, was a memorable guest.  My former boss, George Crump, who owned country music radio stations, had once held Dean’s management contract, so we had a common connection.

Danny Thomas In memory

Just like everything else in the life of Danny Thomas, St. Jude was the focus and financial beneficiary of the golfing event.  If St. Jude himself had anything to do with Danny’s great television success, the blessing has been repaid exponentially at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I am so glad to have been a witness to Danny’s and to Peter’s devotion to a great work of life.

Danny Thomas with some of the children at St. Jude

Danny Thomas with some of the children at St. Jude

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Telly Savalas: Who Loves Ya, Baby?

telly savalas who loves ya babyIn the summer of 1975, I was brought into the extended family of television and movie star Telly Savalas to celebrate the opening of his stage show at the Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.  Here is what it was like being around Telly in the prime of his performing career.

My best friends in those days were Peter and Bess Decker. Bess’s sister was married to Telly’s older brother, Gus, and thus the family connection.  When the entire Savalas clan was urged to join Telly for his Las Vegas opening, Pete and Bess invited me and my then-wife Theresa to join the Norfolk, Virginia contingent.  Our junket host on the private charter flight required only the male gamblers to post $1,500 that could be redeemed in casino chips.  Otherwise, the flight, hotel room, meals, and drinks were covered as we were expected to be active players in the casino.

In 1975, Telly was one of the most popular stars in show business. His New York City police detective show, Kojak, was in the middle of its five-season run (1973-1978). TV Guide ranked Telly number 33 on its 50 Greatest Television Stars of All Time list.  And if that were not enough, his singing-talking rendition of the song If (If a picture paints a thousand words….), was #1 in Europe for 10 weeks in 1975.

Telly Kojak

Telly had won an Emmy (1974) and two Golden Globe Awards (1975-1976) for Kojak, so when we met him as the shaved head, lollipop sucking, assertive NYC cop character with the famous catch-phrase “who loves ya, baby?” he was universally known.

In person, Telly Savalas was joyfully entertaining, but his sensitive and generous side shined through in his consideration of family.  His older brother, Gus, a Foreign Service Officer stationed at the American Embassy in Athens, came from Greece to celebrate Telly’s success.  Gus even sang a song as a surprise guest in Telly’s opening night at the Sahara.  Gus proved to have a grand operatic voice and was obviously the best singer among the Savalas brothers as Telly playfully acknowledged.

l-r Teddy, Telly, Gus & George

l-r Teddy, Telly, Gus & George

George Savalas

George Savalas

Younger brother, George, who played Detective Stavros, a wild-haired, quiet, comedic foil to Kojak’s street-wise savvy and dramatic darkness on television, was also there. I had established a previous friendship with George and his family when he served as the Celebrity Grand Marshal of the Neptune Festival Parade in Virginia Beach. I was a member of the festival committee, and I also saw George several times when he visited the Deckers in Norfolk.

To really appreciate Telly Savalas, you ought to know that he served in the US Army for three years during WWII and received a Purple Heart. He earned a degree in psychology from Columbia University and began his entertainment career as the host of a popular talk show on the Voice of America radio network.  Oddly, Telly also worked as an ABC network senior director of special news events. He began doing character roles on television drama series in the 1950s and 1960s.  His more than 50 guest appearances included the Twilight Zone classic episode “Living Doll.”

Living Doll episode from The Twilight Zone

Living Doll episode from The Twilight Zone

Telly got his start in feature films when he was discovered by the legendary Hollywood star and producer Burt Lancaster who cast him as his deranged prison mate in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).  Telly received a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for that performance.

Telly Savalas in Birdman of Alcatraz

Telly Savalas in Birdman of Alcatraz

That same year, he also appeared in another box office hit, Cape Fear, with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. For the 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told, Telly shaved his head for the role of Pontius Pilate and then decided to remain shaved for the rest of his life. Big film roles followed:  Battle of the Bulge (1963), The Dirty Dozen (1967), the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and Kelly’s Heroes (1970) with Clint Eastwood.  In total, Telly played the villain in 34 feature films and diverse character roles in another 21 films from 1962 to 1988.

telly savalas kelly's heroes

Theo Kojak was conceived in a television movie pilot for the Kojak series titled The Marcus-Nelson Murders (1973).  After the television series ended, Telly reprised the Kojak character in seven made-for-television movies between 1985 and 1990.

Telly Savalas IFIn Las Vegas during our time with him, Telly invited us to his Sahara showroom rehearsals where he sang If and danced a soft-shoe routine with a few shapely showgirls.  Mainly, the show was built around an entertaining patter of show business anecdotes.  Most evenings that opening week, the family party gathered in Telly’s dressing room for refreshments, and then the men went out with Telly for late- night gambling.  Telly was a world-class poker player who finished 21st in the 1992 World Series of Poker.  In 1975, his preferred game seemed to be baccarat, which he played with the high rollers behind a red-velvet roped VIP area.

Since most of us were not in Telly’s high-roller league, Peter, Gus, George and some others in our party kept to the craps tables where we found no luck even when we tried tables in other casinos.

On opening night of Telly’s Vegas show, I brought a bag of rubber skinheads for the men to wear at the Savalas family tables.  When Telly announced the presence of his family in the audience, and the spotlight turned on us, there we were, every man shaved headed like Telly!  Telly was totally surprised, and the gimmick got a big laugh.

One night, Telly got us all invited to a Paramount Pictures reception where I met a very gracious Dionne Warwick, and a Glen Campbell who must have been going through a rough patch in his personal life.  A few years before this encounter, I had been part of a production team that brought Glen Campbell’s touring show to the Hampton Coliseum. When I reminded him of our previous meeting, he was very rude in demonstrating a “so what” attitude.

On one of our final nights in Las Vegas as we enjoyed a late after-show private party  with Telly, he asked for our attention.  He announced that he had to leave to attend another party. Regretfully, he said, he could not take us with him. Frank Sinatra had just called, and we understood that even Telly had to go when summoned by the Chairman of the Board.  Anyway, we had already seen the Sinatra show at Caesar’s Palace from a front-row table.

Frank Sinatra and Telly Savalas

Frank Sinatra at a Vegas party with Telly Savalas. Photo by John Rimmington

When Telly died of cancer at the age of 72 in 1994, his friend, Frank Sinatra, attended his funeral.  Another attendee was Don Rickles who was in the film Kelly’s Heroes with Telly.  Telly Savalas was a generous friend, and I will always remember his great kindnesses to me and my wife that week in Las Vegas when he treated us like family.

As an Afterword to the Las Vegas events of July 1975, I must confess that in my excitement of mingling with the stars, I gambled way more than I could afford.  When my markers were gathered, I had lost nearly $5,000, which was enough that year to purchase a new Ford or Chevy.  And although business and book research has taken me back to Las Vegas a half dozen times, I have never gambled a single dollar more!

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Johnny Cash Live at the Hampton Coliseum, 1970

Johnny Cash Man in BlackIn October 1970, I was part of the local production team that booked and promoted the Johnny Cash touring stage show in Hampton, Virginia.  When Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter played the newly opened Hampton Coliseum, their show was one of the most popular acts in show business.  Too bad that their performances would be interrupted by the worst thing that can happen to a live stage show.

Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash

Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash

Johnny’s ABC television variety show, recorded in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, then the home of the Grand Ole Opry, was rated the 17th most viewed television program in 1970.  The show began in June 1969, with Joni Mitchell, Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw, comedian Fannie Flagg, and folk legend Bob Dylan as guest performers.

Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash

Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash

Nearly every star of the folk-country music genre appeared on the show. Cash also featured the legends of country music like Bill Monroe as well as pop stars like Ray Charles, Neil Diamond, Pat Boone, and even jazz great Louis Armstrong in his last television appearance before his death.  For the ratings boost, show business royalty like Bob Hope, Kirk Douglas, Peggy Lee, and Lorne Greene came to Nashville to appear on the show.

Johnny Cash Show

WCMS, the top-rated country music radio station in the five-city Tidewater, Virginia media market, was owned by Com-Ent Inc. where I was a vice-president.  I was thus part of the production team effort to sell out the 13,800 concert seats in the Hampton Coliseum and to handle the financial and logistical details of managing the event.

Hampton Coliseum. Photo by David Polston

Hampton Coliseum. Photo by David Polston

Although the Hampton Coliseum would go on to successfully host a great lineup of shows including those of Elvis, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, The Eagles, Elton John, and just about every other major act that toured, the newness of the venue facility that had just opened earlier that year had a critical flaw.  The coliseum sound system had bugs.

Hampton Coliseum indoors

Evidently, people in the concert sound system business suspected that the Hampton Coliseum system might fail during a major concert because our office was contacted by a portable sound system vendor who had truckloads of giant new speakers, amplifiers, microphones, and sound technicians that he offered in a stand-by role at no charge.  Since WCMS promoted a line-up of country music concerts every year, some outdoors, I concluded that the equipment owner was just trying to get his business foot in our door.  I thus recommended that we accept the offer, and I arranged for truck parking spaces just outside the Coliseum loading dock.

June and JohnnyAs the huge audience crowd found their seats, Johnny sequestered himself with June in one of the dressing room suites.  In talking to the band members who assembled in the larger Green Room, I was told that Johnny preferred to be alone with June prior to going on stage.  In my pre-show contact with him, he was very polite, but reserved, as if preserving his energy.  Then with a final tuning of their instruments, you could see the energy surge into Johnny.  His posture came erect, and he strode out to the stage as The Man In Black that the audience expected.

I don’t remember how many songs Johnny got through before the HamptonJune and Johnny duets album Coliseum sound system failed.  The audience was all hyped-up to hear Johnny sing I Walk The Line and Ring of Fire, and to perform Jackson, It Ain’t Me, Babe, and If I Were a Carpenter, his famous duets with June.  But when the sound system went out, and it couldn’t be fixed, Johnny, June, and the band departed the stage with the raised hand gestures of “what can we do?”  The capacity audience then erupted with outcries of disbelief.

Back stage there was panic and desperate demands to quickly bring the sound system back on line, but the Coliseum management was helpless to correct the complex technical problems.  After more than half an hour of blood, sweat, and jeers, we made the decision to summon the outside vendor who then began a rapid set-up of his portable system.  The performance stage was a raised platform at one end of the Coliseum floor with the audience seats cupped in layers around it.  On stage, it had the feeling of performing in the round.  The huge box speakers were designed for outdoor concert use; and when the four primary ones were positioned on the platform, they became monolithic barriers that the performers would have to work around in order to gain sight lines to the audience.

Johnny and June

To the credit of Johnny and June, after an hour and a half delay, they returned to the stage and humorously worked around the six-feet tall black speaker boxes in giving a great show.  I had witnessed Shirley MacLaine walk off a Chrysler Hall stage in Norfolk after a sound system failure had twice interrupted her act.  The second time, she did not return.  Johnny and June would have been justified in doing the same, but they didn’t.

After the show, there is a financial reckoning between their accountants and ours.  Usually, the bottom line payout from the box office receipts is made by a promoter’s check, but this time the Cash show road manager wanted their share of the box office in currency that would be counted and carried out into the night in brown paper grocery bags.  After enduring the sound system ordeal, how could we say no?  I witnessed the count. I believe that our country friends walked away with about $83,000 in small bills.  That was a lot of money in 1970!

As the Johnny Cash tour buses departed Hampton, our exhausted staff went home feeling that we had dodged live concert’s most fatal bullet: the failed sound system.  We were also aware that Johnny Cash had done each of us a huge career favor by returning to the stage after the long delay. Thanks, Johnny.  You will always have our gratitude and respect.

Gravesite in Hendersonville, TN

Gravesite in Hendersonville, TN

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Garrison Keillor: The Will Rogers of our Generation

Photo by Paul Wellman

Photo by Paul Wellman

My father’s homespun philosopher hero was Will Rogers.  Characters like Will Rogers come along maybe once in a generation.  For my generation, Garrison Keillor has proven to be the American folk humorist most worthy of a statue in the U.S. Capitol Building.

I was born after Will Rogers died in 1935 at age 55, but I knew him through his movies and the retrospectives of his newspaper columns and radio shows.  As the quintessential American cowboy, Rogers performed rope tricks in the Ziegfeld Follies and then became one of the world’s best-known celebrities of the 1920s and 1930s as a humorist, social commentator, and star of 71 movies, 50 of which were silent films.

A 1900 photo of Will Rogers with his rope.

A 1900 photo of Will Rogers with his rope.

My father loved the folksy style of Will Rogers, and so I came to hear many of his aphorisms.  “I joked about every prominent man of my time,” Rogers famously said, “but I never met a man I ‘dident’ (sic) like.”

When I saw Garrison Keillor perform live in a show he titled “A Brand-New Retrospective” on April 16, 2013, I was immediately struck that he was the reincarnation of Will Rogers.  Keillor’s views of the “common man” seemed to me the same magic mirror that Rogers employed to reflect on America’s iconic values.  Both men had been born out in the American hinterland—Will Rogers in the Oologah Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), and Garrison Keillor on the prairie of Minnesota.  And both men had become acclaimed humorists on the radio.

2006 movie A Prairie Home Companion

2006 movie A Prairie Home Companion

I have been a fan of Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show, and I own a collection of his Lake Wobegon stories.  I had even seen his A Prairie Home Companion movie (2006) where he played himself as directed by Robert Altman.

Garrison Keillor program

Keillor’s touring show in Boone, North Carolina opened with two acts recruited from the North Carolina High Country environs.  The Mountain Home Bluegrass Boys and The Forget-Me-Nots (three young women playing Celtic fiddle music) were equal in talent to anything on Keillor’s national radio show, and his recognition of them obviously boosted their careers.

Without an intermission or introduction, Keillor strolled onto the platform stage set at the end of a convocation center more suited to basketball and then descended with a handheld microphone down the center aisle.  After a greeting, he asked the audience to stand and join him in an a cappella singing of America the Beautiful.  The act of the communal singing was a powerful bonding experience.  Keillor remained in the aisles during a chatty monolog about turning 70 years of age, and then he stayed among the people for twenty minutes or more before he took the stage where his three musical accomplices had gathered for the rest of the show.

After performing for more than an hour, Keillor again came down into the aisles and announced a bathroom break for those who needed it.  With the house lights up, and nervous people moving around him, he strolled and talked and led the audience in some familiar pop songs including one from Elvis and one from the Beatles.  In all, Keillor performed non-stop for well over two hours.

The night of this performance followed the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, and we might rightly have expected Keillor to make comments.  The Mountain Home Bluegrass Boys had already dedicated a hymn—Shenandoah/Sweet Hour of Prayer—to open the show; and although Keillor did not mention the event that was on everyone’s mind, when he led the a cappella singing of Amazing Grace, there was great personal emotion, and the harmonies of the combined voices were profound.  I felt that a compassionate genius had recognized this moment of grieving and that he had allowed it to occur without any show business considerations.

Garrison Keillor photo

There is a statue of Will Rogers that faces the House Chamber in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U. S. Capitol Building.  Presidents rub the left shoe of the Rogers statue for good luck before entering the House Chamber to deliver the State of the Union Address.  A friend of FDR during the traumatic years of the Great Depression, Will Rogers spoke for the common people who suffered and endured.

This statue of Will Rogers was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by Oklahoma in 1939.

This statue of Will Rogers was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by Oklahoma in 1939.

I think that Presidents today would do well to be the frequent confidant of Garrison Keillor.  Keillor is our Will Rogers.  He can speak for us without politics getting in the way.  If something works for Lake Wobegon, I’ll take a chance that it will work in my hometown.

Thank you, Garrison Keillor, for your visit to Boone.  Each one of us felt liked by you that night.  Will Rogers could not have done better.

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Taking Five With Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck and Monty at the 1971 Hampton Jazz Festival

Dave Brubeck and Monty at the 1971 Hampton Jazz Festival

I met the great jazz composer and performer Dave Brubeck backstage at the Hampton Jazz Festival in 1971.  As a magazine journalist, I had a press pass that afforded me introductions to many entertainment and sports personalities.  Brubeck’s 1959 hit Take Five, with saxophonist Paul Desmond, was still a popular concert request a dozen years later.

Dave Brubeck was very approachable and a generous interview subject.  I appreciated him as a worldwide ambassador for an art form that I loved:  American jazz.  His passing in December 2012, nearing the age of 92, reminds me that great music never dies.

I once thought of myself as a band singer and had enough performing experience to have a deep respect for the real professionals.  During my college days, I sang with swing bands that played country clubs in the early 1960s, and I even did a nightclub solo act with a tenor guitar by performing the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary songbooks.

In the 1970s I would sometimes do a set of pop standards with a visiting band.  A highlight for that kind of walk-on was singing with Bob Crosby, the brother of Bing, at a convention gala.

Monty appears with Bob Crosby at a convention gala

Monty appears with Bob Crosby at a convention gala

My favorite performing partner, however, was the irrepressible Norfolk, Virginia attorney and philanthropist Peter Decker.  Pete introduced me to Danny Thomas, who invited me to sing “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie” on the St. Jude Children’s Hospital telethon.  I recorded the song in a studio and then lip-synced it in front of the telethon set in a local television studio.  The tape then played in 16 major markets during the national telethon, but I got no calls to sing anywhere else.

Monty on stage backed by Lucian Montagna on trumpet

Monty on stage backed by Lucian Montagna on trumpet

Pete also introduced me to movie and television star Telly Savalas, his brother-in-law, and we had a couple of great trips to Las Vegas together.  As a singer, however, I was way out of my league in Vegas.  But in Norfolk, Virginia, Pete and I had the opportunity to do cabaret shows with some great musicians including trumpet player Lucian Montagna.

After taking our solo turns, Pete and I once did a takeoff on the Dean

Peter Decker and Monty perform their Martin and Lewis comedy routine

Peter Decker and Monty perform their Martin and Lewis comedy routine

Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy routine where Jerry fights his way through the band to interrupt Dean trying to sing a love song.  At that show I paid two front-row lady friends to throw lace panties at Pete, a la Tom Jones, during one of his romantic ballads.  Fortunately, some photos remain of us performing on stage.

Seeing the homage being paid to Dave Brubeck triggered many memories of my minor-league performance days.  The road to success as a performance artist, I have to admit, is much more difficult than writing literature.  As writers, we can put our pens down and take a break for days, or even months.  When you are a professional musician, you can only “take five.”

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