My relationship with Sally Cruikshank finally came to an end in 1982. I won’t lie: It hit me pretty hard at the time, and for some years after. But in hindsight it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me, even if it was hard medicine. I got a couple of interesting jobs almost immediately. The first was in Los Angeles working for the movie director Paul Bartel doing a comic book version of a movie he’d just directed and starred in called Eating Raoul. He was a good guy and we remained friends until his untimely death about ten-or-so years ago. Right on the heels of that I went to North Carolina and became the art director of ArtBoro films. This was a fledgling movie company started by Brian Yuzna who has subsequently done pretty well making movies in L. A. and elsewhere.
A big personal step forward for me occurred in North Carolina while working for Brian. I joined Alcoholics Anonymous and quit drinking. That happened in 1983 and I haven’t had a drink since. This laid a solid foundation for me to otherwise improve myself, to learn how to be more generally focused, to work harder, and to finally grow up a little. It was only when I started doing all of that that I began to realize how bloody immature I really was!
I started getting into physical fitness in a big way too, and that gave me more energy to get things done. It’s an odd thing. I have never really been athletic, but I always did have, to some extent, the work-out bug. I don’t know where it came from. No one else in my family had ever really been so inclined, but even in my Berkeley period, when I still wasn’t really living right, I ran about a mile a day. Well now I was routinely running six miles a day and spending about two hours working out every day. And I used that gained energy to fuel a lot of artwork. If this wasn’t mainly about records, I’d tell you a whole lot more about all of that. I allude to it briefly here just to give all of this some context.
When my job with Brian ended I continued to sublet my old Berkeley apartment and lived for a couple of years in Los Angeles, sacred land of my birth. I got to know many interesting people there and got to know some of the relatives on my Jewish side better before they all died out. At a certain point, I went to visit an art collector friend of mine in a backwater town in Virginia. Well, I thought it was a visit, but I ended up staying there for three years! Erwin R. Bergdoll gave me a studio to work in, saw that I ate regular, and encouraged me to stick around. He’s a good guy and we are still friends. Basically, for the next three years there I turned that studio into a one man comics boot camp. I really started pouring it on both in terms of art and physical fitness. I was working harder and at a higher level than I ever dreamed possible. In some ways it was a lonely grind, but I’d kicked myself into high gear and that was exhilarating! I finally felt as though I was actually producing at something close to my actual potential. I felt that if I could just get a few other things going right, I would have it made.
One thing I was missing in Virginia was all my records. I found a catalogue that sold mostly old time radio shows but they also sold tapes of 78s. Each series of tapes would contain sides by different recording artists in the order they were made. I got a little cassette player and started buying some of these. Some of the record careers I began to follow in this way were those of Louis Armstrong, Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, Russ Columbo, Ray Noble and Gene Austin. There were others but those were the ones I got into the most deeply.
I’d like to take some time to talk about that last one because Gene Austin’s career was quite interesting. He was a chubby affable looking guy. I’d put him in a group of early 20th century performers that I think of as hip southerners: good old boys who knew there way around the block musically and were hip enough to get with developing modern trends in music as they happened. Others I would also site as belonging in this group would be Art Gillham, Willard Robison and, a little later, Pinky Tomlin. All are interesting, somewhat overlooked today, and worthy of further study.
I think Gene Austin is of particular interest as his music arc starts with country stuff. Then he becomes something of a founding father of the pop crooner era and finally ends up being a pretty credible jazz performer. The initial incident that planted him in my mind for further investigation occurred in 1957.
My father had bought one of the early color TVs, a big old Westinghouse model. Well one Sunday night in 1957 there was a live TV special in color, The Gene Austin Story. It was kind of like all those musical bio pics that were coming out (they all seemed to have started with the Jolson Story in ’46) except this one was on live TV.
But who was this guy? Nobody I knew seemed to know except for my father, who made a few dismissive remarks about him. Nevertheless, there was our whole family in prime time on Sunday night watching The Gene Austin Story. Gene was up in his fifties at this time and did not play himself. However, he did do all of the singing, and it was promised that at the end of the show Gene would appear and sing both sides of a new record he’d just made. The show was no barnburner, but it did have its points of interest and there was one scene in it that I never forgot. This was supposed to be a scene early in Gene’s recording career, the acoustic era when everyone was still singing into a big horn. Young Gene has just showed up to make his sides, but all is in chaos and consternation at the studio. They have been trying to make a record of some old black country blues singer. But this guy sings so rough and gritty that they haven’t been able to get a usable take out of him. Gene stands there taking all this in and then says, “Wait a minute. Let me take a try at that”. Modulating just a bit and with the black guy still playing guitar, Gene does an impersonation of the guy. They get their take which is issued under the black guy’s name and all is well. My old man laughed and said, “I wonder how often a thing like that happened?”
Yeah! It seemed like an all-too quirky and specific story to have been made up entirely out of whole cloth. So I guess that that was one little mystery I was hoping perhaps to solve by ordering the complete recorded works of Gene Austin on cassette tape. There was one further rather intriguing thing about the show that I want to mention. At the end, when Gene himself showed up to sing, he did what so many performers did in those days: He sat at a piano and lip synced both sides of his new 45 RPM record. But the back up singers sounded rather familiar to me! I later found out that they were the Jordanaires, the same guys who were backing up Elvis at that time.
That was the first big clue to a curious mystery. The rest of it, to make a long story short, was this: Austin was being managed at this time by Col Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s flamboyant manager. Usually in those days if Elvis was asked who his fave singers were, he’d site Crosby, Como and Dean Martin, but now he was occasionally tacking the name of Gene Austin onto that list. Was Elvis really a Gene Austin fan? I wonder. Well, one thing I did know for sure: I did not find any sides of Austin doubling for old black blues singers the complete recordings cassettes. But to follow his creative musical arc was still quite fascinating. Most of his early country stuff was slow and lugubrious but still interesting to hear for context. He starts to really take off when he begins to move into pop stuff. The real corner turner was a late acoustic recording of a tune I think Gene had a hand in writing called “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street.” (1925)
It is a fascinating side. It starts with a popular girl singer of the day, Aileen Stanley, singing the verse and first chorus. Then Billy Uke Carpenter routines the thing with a Cliff Edwards type scat chorus, and only then does Gene come on and bring the whole thing home. And he just nails it! He sounds great, as if to say, look out world, here I come. And it does seem to launch him into his greatest era, the mid to late 20’s. He started making Victor sides in collaboration with Nat Schildkret, Victor’s great orchestra leader and A & R man. Austin’s record of “My Blue Heaven” during this period was a million seller, a thing fairly unheard of in those days. Two stone classics that I love are “Lonesome Road” (written by Austin in collaboration with Schildkret) and “Muddy Water”.
By around 1930 though, Austin was starting to fade as a major record star. He lost his Victor contract and started recording on cheaper labels; but it was around this time that he founded a jazz trio. Gene on piano and vocals, a guy named Candy Candito on string bass and a fantastic guitar player named Coco. I don’t even know what Coco’s last name was but he was a guitar wizard! You can see a particularly great example of these guys at their best in a 1934 Joan Crawford movie called Sadie McKee. In a nightclub scene they do a version of “After You’ve Gone” that is on fire!
Some other cassettes that I acquired around this time I found when I made a visit to my old Berkeley apartment (I was still subletting it) and found a lot of old cassette tapes that Sally and I had made for picnics, and stuff from our 78 collection. Among these were tapes Sally had made of her Chick Bullock sides. Now wouldn’t you think a lot of records of a crooner I really wasn’t all that keen on in the first place would be just about the last thing I would want to hear now? Bad memories and all that? Well, it was the strangest thing! All of a sudden, Chick finally kicked in for me! He didn’t have the world’s strongest set of pipes. He had a narrow vocal range, and often had to really reach for the high notes, but he had much versatility and sang with great feeling. In a way he kind of reminds me of a pop version of the opera singer Tito Schippa. Both men had obvious limitations and both, at the end of the day, were great singers in spite of it.
So anyway, one thing led to another and I eventually ended up rooming with my brother Simon in White Plains New York. We collaborated on material that eventually ended up being a book called The Boulevard Of Broken Dreams and also came up with a popular feature that ran for years in Nickelodeon Magazine called Southern Fried Fugitives. I started dating again and had some nice girlfriends.
At a certain point I heard that a friend of mine, the art director of Screw, had broken up with his girlfriend, a girl named Pam Butler. I’d known Pam a few years and we’d always kind of hit it off in a casual sort of way. When I heard she was available, I went right into action and asked her out on a date. When I called for her in late 1994 for our first date, it was rather interesting, to put it mildly! First of all, she looked great. I remembered her as being nice looking but I hadn’t seen her in a while and I wasn’t quite prepared for the classy looking girl who answered the door. Playing in the background was a record I recognized instantly, and a most esoteric record it was, too. It was a 1931 Ted Lewis side of “Crazy ‘Bout My Baby”. If it wasn’t the first vocal Fats Waller had made after nearly a decade of recording, it was certainly among the first.
I complemented her on her taste and asked her what I was hearing — a record? tape? radio? She told me it was a tape of a Sunday night radio show she listened to called The Big Broadcast. It was and is a show run by a guy named Rich Conaty on WFUV featuring jazz and pop from the ’20s and ’30s. I was floored. “Do you like that kind of music?” I said somewhat nervously. Could God be being this kind to me or was it all just the beginning of an elaborate cruel joke? “Yes,” she said, “but I don’t know a lot about it,” This really had me going. This charming, pretty girl, twenty years younger than me who wasn’t just listening to the same tired old stagnant rock ‘n roll music that every schmuck in the universe seems to listen to. Well it just seemed like a damn miracle, that’s all. A rather strong conviction was growing within me that this was it. And it was, too!
Pam and I have now been together for about 17 years now, 11 of them married. She is the light of my life, and no mistake! I still have most of my old 78s in storage. I keep the acoustic ones here in our pad and even occasionally spin a few. I still have that old crank up talking machine that Al Dodge traded me, too. But mostly these days I get my jazz and pop music fix from Conaty’s Big Broadcast show that I have been taping religiously now for all 17 years that Pam and I have been together.
Rich keeps on collecting, and that show of his just keeps on getting better! Recently I got to know a rather bright young guy named Josh Frankel who is just now getting into collecting and listening to the old sides. He likes Bing, Cab Calloway, and even Chick! But unlike a lot of other people I know in that category, he also has some appreciation for the old opera sides. So recently I have been dusting off the old Victrola and spinning him some of my favorites in that category.
At a certain point I did get beyond liking just the male tenors in opera. And one old time singer I like quite a bit is a female named Amelita Galli Curci. She wasn’t a very physically attractive woman, and had been kicking around the opera boondocks a good ten years before she made her first sides in 1916. It is said that Galli Curci actually sounded better on records than she did in person. It might be true. In any event it is still easy to see why her initial records were such a sensation. They are amazing musical experiences and they are still capable of making the walls shake in an almost supernaturally sonic way when you put one on. Recently I played a particular favorite of mine for Josh. It is the mad scene from Donizetti’s opera Lucia De La Moor, “Il Dolce Suono”.
You know, it’s just amazing. A thing like that, recorded in 1916, getting pretty damn close to a hundred years ago. You put the needle on it and it just takes over the room for four vibrantly alive minutes! Astonishing!