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If this is your first visit, welcome to my blog of memories and observations. If you wish to be notified of new posts, enter an e-mail address above, and click on "Submit." As we move through a sixth year of this venture, I thank all who have made regular visits, as well as fellow bloggers who have found Stomp Off worth linking to. Doing this sort of thing is time-consuming, but I try to post fresh material at least once a week—let me know what you think. There is a Commentary option at the end of each post and a Guest Book can be reached by scrolling down and clicking on the quill image. I welcome your observations, reaction and/or suggestions in either spot—or both. As for blog content, the most current posts are on the home page, starting at the top. Earlier items are listed by month, year and title in the archive index. To zero in on a particular key word or subject, use the search option that is located directly beneath the blog's masthead. Most images can be enlarged with a mouse click, and there are links to some of my favorite blogs, etc. Since visitors have come from 150 countries, a translator with numerous languages is located below. You can at any time revert to English with a click at the top left of this page:

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3/25/10

John Hammond - Part 5 (The Nipper No No)


The previous post in this John Hammond series of recollections ended with my experiences as an informal substitute for John. In that connection, I mentioned a note John left for me before taking off. I don't recall the exact wording, but it instructed me to tell George Braith that Columbia would not be releasing an album that he had spent many months producing. I will leave it to you to surmise why John could not have called Braith himself before he left. As I said before, he was a promise-and-duck guy. I just spoke to George Braith, who—not surprisingly—remember well what happened. It was a on which he played all the instruments, and the Union wanted Columbia to pay a double fee if there was an overdub. This enraged John, who insisted that the album would be done his way (i.e. less expensively) or not at all. There was a hearing and John obviously decided to scrap the album, but left it to me to inform George. In fact, John decided not to issue any of George's work, all of which presumably is collecting dust in Columbia's Iron Mountain vault. In the meantime, George is doing fine as he prepares to take his music to Japan. In New York City you can hear George Braith and Friends regularly at Fat Cat, in Greenwich Village. Check their online schedule.

When I realized what was happening, I spoke to John and Clive about the unfairness of have artists create works only to have them suppressed. Why, I asked, could not the company offer the tapes to the artist at cost or allow him to try for a deal elsewhere? John said that  would never work, Clive said it was worth exploring. Nothing happened and one has to wonder how many recordings remain unissued because someone on the deciding end took umbrage.

A couple of times during John's absence, I was asked a question to which neither I nor his secretary, Liz, had an answer, so—having his itinerary—I communicated with John via telegram. He responded with picture post cards. It was obvious that he knew I was holding down the fort, and that this is what he expected of me.

Click on image to enlarge.

Upon his return, It was also visually apparent to John that I hadn't just spent time on the phone in his absence.

"You did a marvelous job of cleaning up that mess," he said, looking around his office. "I presume you got your salary check?"

Salary check? There had been no mention of such a thing, nor had I expected payment, given the fact that I was never asked to take care of any business. As I explained in my previous post, it was a highly unorthodox set-up. John offered me the use of the office in his absence and—without letting me in on it—routed his problems to me. I thought I would stop at the office on my way to the studio, to make phone calls and look over any letters or papers pertinent to the Bessie reissues, but John obviously had something else in mind—he could should have told me.

"No," I replied, "nobody has mentioned anything about a check."

"Goddammit," John said, angrily. "I told a&r accounting to give you....well, never mind, I'll take care of it." With that, he reached into a pocket and pulled out his checkbook. "I hope this will keep the wolves away from your door until you get the check," he said, scribbling out five hundred dollars. "You can pay me back when you get your money."

I thought that was very nice of John.

A couple of weeks later, I told him that I was anxious to give him back the money, but that I hadn't received the check yet. "Don't worry about it," he said, "you can pay me back when you get it, or whenever it's convenient for you."


Again, I thanked him and went about my business. The first of the five 2-lp Bessie Smith  reissues was out and receiving great reviews. My liner notes were nominated for a Grammy, although they were very poorly written and strikingly uninformative, but that did not deter book publisher Sol Stein from asking me if I would be interested in writing a biography. I had for a long time felt the need for one, but it had never occurred to me to author it. I saw myself as someone who wrote jazz liner notes and record reviews because I had knowledge of the subject, and that this was okay because most jazz writers knew more about the music than they did about turning out notable prose. Anyway, having recently read and reviewed a Bessie Smith biography that was riddled with factual errors, I accepted Sol's offer.

When Grammy night came, March 16, 1971, John, engineer Larry Hiller and I were given the 1971 Trustees Award for "non-performing contributions of such broad scope that they do not fall within the framework of the annual Grammy Awards categories." This meant that the three of us had to come forward and receive the awards. It came as no surprise to Larry and me that John stepped in front of us and took over the podium. He graciously thanked us, noting that he couldn't have done this without us. Larry and I exchanged bemused looks, for this was a typical Hammond tactic. What, we wondered, was it that he couldn't have done? The truth is that all John did was have his name put on the covers as co-producer. This entitled him to a "producer's incentive fee," i.e. a royalty, which—by the way—no one else received, not even Bessie's heirs. As far as I know, this was the only Grammy John ever received—it was, sad to say, a political gesture, but John had done much that ought to have earned him one. More about that and corrected credits later.

Father O'Connor stands by as John runs the spin and Larry and I look on.
I hope Artie Shaw didn't read my liner notes.
I had just returned to our table (it was a dinner affair on those days) when they called my name again. I was certain that the little Victrola would go to one of my fellow nominees, who included Ralph J. Gleason, Rod McKuen and Rex Reed—all better writers—but I was wrong.

Plexiglass trophy not included.


Several months later, I received a call from Billboard magazine. They were moving to a new location and wondered if I wanted the unclaimed 1971 Trendsetter Award that had been collecting dust for a year. I had no idea what they were talking about—what trend had I set? The lady said she would have a messenger deliver it to my apartment. Apparently, John was notified, but he chose to ignore it and not tell me about it.

I later found out that John had failed to notify me of another award: the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival selected the Bessie Smith reissues for their Prix Aiguille 78 Tours honor. It was later spotted in John's apartment.

Reissuing Bessie Smith's recordings was not in and of itself noteworthy, but, 40 years ago, a 10-Lp series was practically unheard of. I believe that was the reason this project generated the kind of media attention that is rarely given such old material. The Trendsetter Award inscription substantiates that theory.

Awards are nice, but essentially useless. That is, if you bring them home, place them on the mantle, and accept as a reward the fact that you will henceforth be introduced as "the award-winning...." Oh, one catches the media's fancy for a hot minute, but it's over before you know it. My friend, Geoffrey Holder was keenly aware of that when he received the Tony for "The Wiz." The show was awarded seven Tonys, but Geoffrey was the only one who had the foresight to do something about it. He immediately hired a PR person to spread the news and turn columnists' one-liners into an interviews. The PR person conveyed the feeling that Geoffrey's talent was in such great demand that one would be lucky to get his signature on a contract—that's how you do it, and it worked. Instead of sitting in his apartment, amid his extraordinary paintings and sculptures, and receiving the inevitable congratulatory phone calls from friends, Geoffrey became busy consider offers. One was to create a Supremes resurrection, complete with costumes and choreography—that is something Geoffrey can do in his sleep, and this one job more than paid the PR bill. There had, all along, been a lot of backbiting and jealousy backstage at "The Wiz", but now Geoffrey was bearing the brunt of it as the rest of the show's Tony winners waited in vain for offers to come in and, in the process, became losers.

I mention this because four years earlier I made no attempt to exploit my Grammys—with almost four decades of dust and the kind of patina cheap metal attracts, they are still perched atop a speaker in the corner of my living room, long since robbed of their glitter. However, these little trophies seem to have inspired a call I received from RCA Victor Records. They were interested in having me produce reissues for their label, a fact that I mentioned to Liz Gilbert, John's secretary. Well, that produced another call.

"Chris, now I am really angry with you," John bellowed as he reached me at home. "I understand that RCA has made some overtures," he continued, pun not intended.

"Yes," I replied, wondering what this was all about.

"Let me tell you," John continued. "If you produce one album for RCA, I will see to it that you are through at Columbia."

 I pointed out that I was working freelance and, thus, not on Columbia's payroll, but that did not make any difference to John, who repeated his threat.

I hadn't decided what to do about this when, a couple of days later, Bob Altschuler stopped me in the lobby at Blackrock.

"What's going on between you and John?," he asked.

Why do you ask?," I said

"We had a singles meeting this morning and John told us that you had borrowed five hundred dollars from him, and never paid it back."

That's all I needed to hear. I went to the nearest phone and called Clive Davis (pictured below with Janis Joplin). Now it was my turn to be angry, and I guess Clive sensed the urgency in my voice, so he told me to come on up to his office.

I wanted Clive to hear the truth before John's story reached his ears, so I told him everything, including the fact that I was only being paid $2,000 for the entire 10-Lp series while I had noticed that Frank Driggs, a reissue producer (who also takes pictures*) regularly billed Columbia for "the agreed fee of $2,000 per album".

"What else," Clive asked, having patiently listened to my story. I added that John was giving himself producer credit yet did none of the work.

I should mention here that John was not everybody's favorite at Blackrock. He was sometimes referred to as the "untouchable," because Goddard Lieberson, the head of CBS Records, owed his job to his connections. While John's real accomplishments were well known to everybody at CBS, his "extended credits," so to speak, were no secret and he did not command the respect that he enjoyed on the outside.

Clive took immediate action. He called the accounting department and had them cut me a check for the amount I had been short-changed, he ordered that John's name was to be removed from future releases in the Bessie series, and he apologized, which was not necessary.

I don't know what Clive did about the five hundred dollars, but I heard that John had put it on his expense account.

* and doesn't return them.



3/23/10

Olbermann comments on the misguided

Regardless of your political affiliation, if you are disgusted with the racist, venomous people who have in recent months spread outrageous lies, acted like hoodlums  and worked hard against our country, its people—and, indeed, their own party—you need to hear Keith Olbermann's comment of last Monday (March 22, 2010).

3/21/10

Laura Nyro: a 1970 interview


Forty years ago, Dan Morgenstern, then Editor-in-Chief of Down Beat magazine, asked me to write a cover story on Laura Nyro. I was happy to accept the assignment, because I had already developed an appreciation for her music and made her acquaintance at Columbia studios,where we both worked—she on a new album, I on the Bessie Smith reissues. I found Laura to be an interesting person who easily appeared to be in a world of her own, yet—one soon discovered—never to the detriment of her work. She wore full-length dresses and smoked pot rolled in lilac colored paper, and she was quaintly old-fashioned in her mannerisms. A friend of mine who was a Nyro fan dropped by the studio one night, so I took him upstairs where Laura was working. She was most gracious, stretching out her hand for my friend to kiss, not what one expects from a young Bronx lady.

Laura's apartment at night
She and her dog, a German Shepherd, lived in a small penthouse apartment on West 79th Street, a block from the Hayden Planetarium and the Museum of Natural History. It was a small, comfortably furnished rooftop place with a piano and a terrace. I had heard that she turned down interviews from major magazines, including Time, so I wondered why she agreed to see me. "I like Down Beat," she told me, "because it doesn't care whether or not I had a blueberry muffin for breakfast." 






Down Beat - April 2, 1970
IT IS A WELL-KNOWN fact that although Columbia Records released numerous albums by Aretha Franklin while she was under contract to them in the early '60s, none of them scored as big a success as did her subsequent efforts on the Atlantic label. “It’s very simple, man,” explains Atlantic’s chief a&r man, Jerry Wexler, “we put her back in church—that’s all.”

Columbia is big enough to absorb such mistakes, but the Franklin case is still a sore subject. “Atlantic Records,” notes Wexler, “has been a specialist in rhythm and blues since 1948, and we had recorded people like Ray Charles, Clyde McPhatter and Ruth Brown. So, in a sense, we had been preparing for Aretha. At Columbia, she made beautiful records, but they were more in a pop bag. I don’t want to sound critical of Columbia—it’s a great company—but perhaps they hadn’t gone through this special orientation which would have enabled them to treat Aretha with this particular sympathy.”

Sympathy is the key, and Columbia is avoiding a repetition of past mistakes, Laura Nyro being a case in point. The now phenomenally successful singer-pianist-songwriter did not really make it until she left the Verve/Forecast label—which was not tuned in on her wavelength—and placed herself in the sympathetic hands of Columbia.

While neither case reflects on any general policy of the three labels—all have histories of thoroughly satisfied and successful artists—they illustrate the importance of presenting an artist in the proper setting. Columbia’s mistake was not as grave as Verve’s, since casting Miss Franklin in a role that did not fully tap her potential nevertheless resulted in some very worthwhile albums. Verve, on the other hand, cast Miss Nyro in a role that was eminently uncharacteristic of her and then compounded the mistake by treating her music without much consideration.

“I was miscast,” Miss Nyro notes in recalling her Verve experience. “They projected me as being the ‘Teenybopper Queen’, because I was 18 at the time. I remember my first publicity pictures. I weighed 180 pounds at that time—my weight is always up and down. I was really fat that week, and they wanted to push my song called Wedding Bell Blues, so they stuffed me into this wedding dress, put a veil on my head, and flowers in my hand. I looked so uptight, the most uptight bride you’ve ever seen. And then this picture was splashed all over the industry. The next song they wanted to become a hit was Goodbye Joe and they ran big ads that said something like ‘Well, the Wedding Bell Blues gal has lost another man, but gained another hit’ . . . And then I read this article about myself that said something like ‘Life is a seesaw of joys and sorrows,’ which is a quote from Khalil Gibran, ‘but it only hurts when she laughs and you must keep an eye on her . . . Laura Nyro enjoys a good game of darts . . . ‘I mean, things like that—it really enraged me. They didn’t know what to say about me, so they said these silly things—I guess they tried to put some humor into it, or something. It was really terrible, it really was.”

Miss Nyro, hails from New York City and still lives there, in a small, comfortable penthouse apartment on the upper West Side. Many of her songs reflect her attachment to the city (“Sidewalk and pigeon—you look like a city, but you feel like religion”) and she has been writing them since she was a little girl. Now 22, her craving for freedom and individuality, the major cause of her unhappiness at Verve, goes back to her school days.
Photo by Nancy Levine

“I really hated school,” she confesses, “because it was so full of restrictions and it was obvious to me that school did not prepare you for life and that things I was interested in were not being taught there. I can understand school expanding your mind, but it was just wrong for me, so most of the time I just didn’t go. I got into trouble . . . but I was the type of hooky player who played hooky without guilt. Others, if they cut a class, would feel guilty, but not me—I was very brazen about the whole thing."

Before her 18th birthday, Laura left New York’s High School of Music and Art. “All I could do was write songs,” she recalls, “so I decided to make some money and I took a few jobs as a domestic, mostly taking care of diapering babies. I’d pick up something like $50 a week for taking care of these children—taking them to the park, playing with them and helping their mothers make supper—but the jobs never lasted. I couldn’t keep the children very clean, you know, but I used to sing songs to them, and so I’d bring them something else—not what they bargained for, but something else.”

During that same period, she tried to stir up some professional interest in her songs. “I wasn’t interested in singing my music,” she says, “but I thought maybe I wanted other people to do it. I didn’t see very daring people . . . they counted me out because my material was different—that’s silly. One man told me to go home and write What Kind of Fool Am I? If anybody could be miscast, it’s me—that’s been my problem, because, if you put my music in the wrong place, it becomes a freak. I don’t fall into categories and people constantly want to put me in categories, but I refuse. I don’t like organized religion. I believe in universal love and brotherhood. People must be themselves and they must develop individually. They must do what’s right for them—find their own religion and find God for themselves.”

The Verve/Forecast album (originally entitled More Than a New Discovery but later renamed The First Songs ... is not wholly bad, but Miss Nyro likes to ignore it by referring to her initial Columbia effort as her first. “They (Verve) picked the arranger and producer for me,” she complains, “they picked them and said ‘This is whom you must record with.’ And so my arranger (Herb Bernstein) went home and wrote about six arrangements in three hours. I mean, I work months and hours and years and a lifetime on my songs, and if something was a bit difficult, he’d just chop it right out . . . like if one of my changes was a bit difficult. They really kind of brought down my music. There was no balance at the beginning of me . . . there was no peace, there was no comfort, there was certainly no joy, there was no understanding and there was no sensitivity. Just incredible fights, and I was always crying—I mean, that’s the way all those old people really know me.”

While under contract to Verve, she performed at the now-defunct Hungry i in San Francisco, an experience so disastrous that she decided never to do club work again. “Shelly Berman was the headlining act,” she recalls, “and my thing was ahead of its time; it should never have been on that bill. They didn’t give me any publicity, so all the people who came were like, you know, truck salesmen and cat salesmen and drinkers and coughers and they wanted to laugh. Well, I was about 18 years old, and this was my first time away from home, my first gig and in a strange place. So, I used to sing And When I Die and I used to smile. It was like my own little vengeance thing, you know; it wasn’t just the audience—it was me. I can’t play in a club where people drink; I just can’t ... they talk and clunk things. My music is listening music . . . I have to do concerts now.”

That same year, 1967, she appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival with a hastily assembled and not too understanding band of local musicians—another disaster. “It (the audience) was not ready for me,” she sighs. “It was just before I broke up with those people (Verve) and this was like the storm before . . . a storm that just happened to take place on stage with 50,000 people watching. It was like walking to my death and I put this cloud inside my head, like a cushion around me. Then I just walked to my death, and I dressed the part and everything. That was almost like the end of a chapter which will never come back again, and the audience was just flabbergasted by me.”

Since those words were spoken about a year ago, Miss Nyro’s fame has spread to the point where there now exists a Laura Nyro cult. She made a triumphant return to club work last Memorial Day weekend, when she packed an enthusiastic crowd into Los Angeles’ Troubadour, and an even more spectacular demonstration of her popularity occurred last November when she appeared solo at New York’s Carnegie Hall. All the tickets were sold out in one day. This prompted the producers to hastily arrange for a second midnight concert and it, too, sold out within 24 hours.

Strangely enough, Miss Nyro has yet to receive a gold record, although many of her songs have won this honor for other performers. But she has become a very big star indeed, and the devotion of her idolatrous followers borders on religion. Wrote Rex Reed of a Laura Nyro concert in the February issue of Stereo Review: “It took forever for everybody to get inside and sit down, because people kept going downstairs to the gym to give her flowers . . . Then she was there, in the deafening roar of applause from her worshippers, a baby-skinned zaftig beauty with a penchant for thrift-shop attire . . .”

Perhaps part of the Nyro magic lies in the fact that she shuns non-performing. public appearances. She rarely grants interviews and has no use for TV small talk. Her appearance on the Kraft Music Hall last year did not include a single shot with host Bobby Darin. “It really annoyed me,” she recalls, “those technicians are so concerned over whether your eyes are going to show up the right color, they don’t give a damn about the sound, balance, and so on.”

Such unfortunate experiences may be one reason why Miss Nyro refuses to play the show-biz game, but I suspect the main reason is that she simply has no time for the superficialities that taint the industry. She is less critical of other performers’ versions of her songs than she is of her own.

“It’s always interesting to me how other people interpret my songs,” she said. “It’s like an ice cream soda and I love anybody who records my music . . . I’m very flattered.” Her enthusiasm is of course not hard to understand, considering that such Nyro songs as Stoned Soul Picnic, Sweet Blindness, And When I Die, Wedding Bell Blues and Eli's Comin’ have all made the charts in recordings by Blood, Sweat & Tears, the Fifth Dimension, and Three Dog Night, while numerous other recordings of these songs have cumulatively sold millions of records.

In recent months, it has been rumored around New York that Laura Nyro and Miles Davis might make an appearance together. That is not as farfetched as it might seem, for Miles is more than flirting with neo-rock and Miss Nyro has a definite affinity for jazz.

“When I was 15 years old,” she recalls, “I used to drink bottles of cough medicine and I used to lie down with my jazz records . . . put them on, drink cough medicine and dig people like Miles Davis and John Coltrane all night. They’d take me up and they’d bring me down, sweep me up. It was something that I couldn’t even put into words, because it’s hard to even talk about jazz. Jazz is not an obvious thing . . . it rushes the senses. I don’t know anything technical about music, I only know what I feel, and jazz is so beautiful because it’s so free and it’s so expressive. Like, when I listen to Miles Davis, words are not necessary . . . there are no lyrics there, but the music communicates life to me, you know, the pain of life ... it’s very painful music, but it’s not a harsh pain at all, it’s like a little flower, or something.”

Miss Nyro's liking for jazz has manifested itself in her employment of jazz musicians for her two Columbia albums. On the first of these, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, Zoot Sims plays on a track called Lonely Women.

“I remember the day that he came in,” she says. “We played the tape for him—it was a rainy afternoon and the studio looked grey, this great big studio—it was just me and Charlie (Calello, the arranger) and our engineer. Zoot Sims walked in with his head down to the floor, looking so down and everything. Then he did a thing with his sax where you just hear the air coming out and, like, it’s all scratchy and broken and he communicates his loneliness into the song. Charlie and I sat there, crying . . . It was so beautiful and it was so great because it was all in the air . . . this older man in this great big studio on this rainy day . . . he was so quiet, it was great. Then Joe Farrell played flute on Poverty Train and he kind of turned it into Alice in Wonderland, almost . . . he came into my world, and he really enhanced it.”

A Laura Nyro record date could easily be a producer’s nightmare, except that she now produces her own albums (with the valuable assistance of engineer Roy Halee).

It goes something like this: Miss Nyro spends hours at the piano in a darkened studio, recording fragment after fragment of her songs. Fragments, because she is composing on the spot or she realizes that she isn’t feeling a particular song and therefore simply goes on to the next, often in mid-chorus. The tape is not stopped until it is dangerously close to the end, and sometimes it even runs out before she is finished.

The initial result is a great deal of tape with unidentified out-of-sequence bits of Laura Nyro songs which only she can assemble. Once that is done, the pieced-together fragments, which now form songs in their entirety, are played for an arranger of Miss Nyro’s choosing.

In the case of New York Tendaberry, her latest album, the arranger was Jimmy Haskell. Initially, she had wanted Gil Evans for the job, but he never replied to her letter. Just before Haskell arrived in New York to work on this album, she told me: “We’ll sit and talk until he knows as much as he can possibly know of what I feel and where this album has to be. I know that he’s there already, because on Bobbie Gentry’s album (Billie Joe) he creates the delta, and it’s syrupy, and you can almost hear the crickets and bugs. And on Old Friends (Simon and Garfunkel) he really captured the right mood . . . he can do that. I don’t want him to write like Gil Evans, I’m not going to ask him to give me a Gil Evans sound or anything like that ... all I want him to give me is this tendaberry.”

And tendaberry she got. There are those who argue that the latest album does not live up to the standard set by her previous one, but certainly one must agree that Haskell’s arrangements are sensitive and tasteful. In any case, Laura Nyro’s music is not always immediately ear-catching. It has to grow on you—and it generally does. The new album contains at least two memorable songs, Tom Cat Goodbye and Save the Country. Thelma Houston has recorded a soul version of the latter, and it seems destined for the charts.

Of the new album, Miss Nyro herself says, “It is not an obvious one . . . not one that you really even listen to, because it really goes past your ears and it’s very sensory and it’s all feel . . . it goes inside, like at the back of your neck, or something. It’s abstract, it’s unobvious and yet I feel that it’s very true. I feel that it’s life, what life is to me anyway. Tendaberry is my own word, it’s an essence, it’s not death . . . it’s birth and it’s very tender, very fragile, very strong, very true . . . it’s a berry, a tendaberry.”

Photo by Richard Bunkley
Miss Nyro never learned to write music. “I hold the music in my head and I write the lyrics down, usually,” she explains. Generally, she will write the lyrics first, as was the case with the title song of her new album, a song she was working on in January of 1968. At that time, she told me, “I want music that’s going to go with my lyric; you know, let the words compliment the music. I want to marry my lyrics and this is a tough one, because I don’t have it finished, yet. The lyrics are finished, but, musically, I have been resculpturing and resculpturing, because it’s just not where I want it to be, yet. I know where I want it to be and I keep working on it to get it there.

“I think of my albums as a lifeline. Eight months will go by and I’ve written ten songs and, for some reason, those ten songs form a circle and it’s a very natural process. That’s what’s happened with this album (New York Tendaberry). Since my first album (Eli and the Thirteenth Confession), I wrote these songs, and, when I sit down to write, there ain’t nothin’ but me and the piano. I know that there are a lot of people who write for a market. I can’t do that . . . that’s out. When I sit down at the piano, I don’t think about other people—will they think this or be that?—I sit down and the communication comes from my heart and on to the paper and the piano . . . that’s where it is and, if it communicates from there—beautiful.”

That it does communicate from there is now a matter of record, and chances are that Laura Nyro will go on communicating in her own very special way for some time. “I know that soon I”m going to be older,” she says when asked about her future, “and in a certain sense, I am looking forward to getting on in years, to being 30 or 35 and getting a certain maturity, because I have a lot of respect for maturity and I know that I am happier with each year of my life. I also feel that with this maturity will come a certain grace, because I’m a little bit reckless. I want to do my own television special because I know what can be done and it isn’t being done—I have such wonderful ideas for a special—all little, precious things.”

About today’s pop music, Miss Nyro feels that it is “going through a renaissance and that it has gone through decadence . . . like innocence and ignorance.” And, she adds, “The pop music of the ‘50s communicated those times ... these times are smashing and a lot of truth is being sought out, because you can’t live without truth . . . you can’t live, you can only survive, and I feel that there is a renaissance about it all now.

“The world is going through a moral revolution and, sometimes I feel like a mirror in a storm—a mirror that’s smashed against the earth. I don’t read newspapers, but I know what’s going on.”

Obviously, Columbia has learned what’s going on, and they are giving Miss Nyro the creative freedom previously denied her. “I started at the bottom of the barrel, in the gutter,” she observes, “and it’s just a whole different feeling now, I feel protected.”

It is that feeling that created her two latest albums and propelled her to stardom. There are those who think of Laura Nyro as somewhat of an enigma, but the truth is that she is simply a very creative artist who takes her craft seriously, knows what she wants, fights to get it, and does not allow herself to get marooned in the shallows of show business. 

Laura Nyro died April 8, 1997, at age 49.


3/17/10

Lonnie Johnson's unopened letter


There is something I have wondered about for fifty years, the content of a letter from Lonnie Johnson to a Miss Bell Sims of Chicago. It was September, 1960 and Lonnie had just returned from his first major musical gig in many years, two weeks at Chicago's Playboy Club. He was not staying with me, but he obviously did not want his girlfriend/wife (I never knew what position she held) to know about Miss Sims, so he used my apartment as a return address. It was probably a wise decision, for Miss Sims never claimed the letter, so it was returned by the Post Office—to me.



I was actually packing up to relocate in New York City and start a new job at Riverside Records, so things were a bit hectic at Clinton Street and the letter disappeared into a pile of papers. Lonnie knew about it, but never bothered to pick it up.

So, I have had this letter in my possession for half a century, and left it unopened!

Don't think that it hasn't been tempting. Lonnie is long gone, so—presumably—is Miss Sims, and that side entrance? Who knows if gentleman callers still use it?

My question is...what would you do? Open it or...


Post a comment and tell me what YOU would do...

UPDATE July 2013

You can't take it with you, so I decided to sell the letter, The buyer has promised to reveal the contents if he decides to open the envelope, but I have a feeling that he will keep it sealed. I would.

3/9/10

John Hammond - Part 4 (The Vacation)



This is the fourth in a successive series of posts containing some of my experiences with the late John Hammond, a man who contributed mightily to jazz, but wanted us to believe that we had only heard the half of it. In a sense, we had. Click here for the beginning of this series. Each installment ends with a link to the next.


Mrs. Emily Vanderbilt Hammond, John's 95 year old mother, died February 23, 1970. Not long after that, John told me that he now could finally afford to take his wife, Esmé, on vacation, so they were going on an extended trip to the Far East. Since I was working on the Bessie Smith reissue project every weekday night, I welcomed John's offer to "feel free to use my office while I'm away." Great, I thought, I can stop by on my way to the studio and make my phone calls, etc.

That's what I did on the first Monday after John and Esmé left for Japan. "I am so glad you're here," said John's secretary, Liz Gilbert, "because Kim Hunter (Dr. Zira, the ape) is looking for the record Paul Robeson made with Basie, and Mrs. Leonard Bernstein also called—she needs a folk singer for a party on Saturday."

"Didn't you tell them that John is away?," I asked.

"They asked for you."

That was how I learned that John wasn't just giving me use of his office, he was expecting me to handle some of his business! That is not exactly how things are done at big corporations, such as CBS Records, but it was certainly intriguing. So, I began spending almost all my afternoons at John's desk, and it soon became evident that John had told many people that "Chris will handle it."

Charlie Smalls
Since John was Columbia's Head of Talent Acquisition, his very position attracted people in pursuit of fame and fortune. Add to that his reputation as a natural born talent scout, and there was but one set of ears to aim at.  It was a lottery that most hopefuls played by mail, but some just walked in, which one could do in those days. One particularly determined visitor was Charlie Smalls, an aspiring songwriter who showed up almost every day, charmed John's secretary, and always stopped at the newsstand in the lobby to pick up a box of John's favorite cheroots. One day, his persistence paid off, John signed him up for a single and booked the studio. The record had not yet been released when Charlie asked John for a modest advance, because his landlord was about to throw him out of his apartment. Back then, they literally put all your stuff in the street. It happened to Ornette Coleman in the 60s, he came home from a concert and there—on the sidewalk and with snow coming down—were all his belongings. Charlie was worried about his dog and his piano, but he found no sympathy from John, who, incredibly, told him that he would not have signed him to a contract had he known about his financial situation. The single was never released.


Charlie had the last laugh, however. Ken Harper, a radio disc jockey who was actor Laurence Harvey's lover (pardon the gratuitous aside), had an idea: turn The Wizard of Oz into a black musical. Great, but that was the extent of it—Ken had no script, no music, no budget, not even an outline. I happened to be visiting Geoffrey Holder and his wife, Carmen, when Ken called and wanted to stop by for some feedback. Always hospitable, Geoffrey's immediate response was "take a cab, darling." Harper was there in a flash and he had barely aired his idea when Geoffrey thrust an acceptable finger in the air and said, "Call it the Wiz." 


The problem was that it existed only as a concept, so Ken Harper began feeding tantalizing bits of gossip to Jet—a magazine that thrives on the stuff. There was method in his madness and so it wasn't long before people were actually talking about this new musical as if it was a reality. Now Ken needed to come up with something tangible. There was no money to work with, so he went around asking songwriters and composers to write some music on spec. Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson were among those who turned him down, but they would later contribute a song to the film version. Then there was Charlie Smalls—all those little cheroots had turned out to be just so much smoke, and he was still struggling to make ends meet, so what did he have to lose?


Of course Charlie stopped coming around, but I ran into him not long after John gave him the ax for being indigent. It was at a semi-chic Eastside gallery opening that Ken Harper somehow was involved with. Charlie looked good and when I posed the usual "How are things going?" question, he told me that he was writing a musical. Ken had shown up at the right moment and tapped the right shoulder. The following year, Charlie eased on down the road and solved his pecuniary problems, the dog switched from dry Purina chow, the wolves stopped lurking, and John? Well, you win a few and you lose a few.


Getting back to my new task at hand, every day's mail drop brought demo recordings from the hopeful. For a long time, John had just thrown them into a pile, which was becoming unsightly, so the first thing I did was to stack them in some order and systematically check out what was there. I'll admit that part of my energy was spurred by curiosity—did the pile contain a new Aretha? A budding Berlin? There was only one way to find out—dig in.


It was amazing, but maybe not. I mean, there were recordings of every musical idiom known to man, some hopefuls hit the record button to capture their singing in the shower, others wrote and recited painfully trite patriotic poetry, usually suggesting that we have André Kostelanetz or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir do something appropriate in the background. I recall one cassette with a dog barking God Bless America, at least that's what the label said. And the stuff just kept pouring in so that I could hardly keep up with it. Years later, when "American Idol", week after week, painfully demonstrated the prevalence of tin ears among the younger generation, I was prepared.


Of course, there was decent material, too, but not a lot.

Then there were the phone calls. When you spend a month behind somebody's desk, you end up learning much about that person. I learned that John's empty promise to Ruby was typical of him—he had made so many promises, Liz told me, that there were time when angry people popped up in the reception area and John had to escape through the conference room. His name was often the only one budding black artists recognized when it came to seeking a record deal. This was the great discoverer of black talent, from Billie Holiday to Aretha—Yep, John was "the man," but sometimes hype makes a 180 and bites you in the butt. There were probably times when John wished he hadn't embellished quite so much, because, in the late 60s and early 70s, dogged persistence sometimes sparked real drama, as when one man, having had his fill of empty promises and futile phone calls, stormed past Liz Gilbert's desk and caught John before he could head for the conference room escape route. Grabbing him by the neck, wannabe star threatened to throw John out the window! Liz froze up, but the intruder's raised voice bounced down the hall and reached Teo Macero's secretary, Corinne Chertok, who summoned security. I'm glad I wasn't there for that one.

George Braith
Not every forsaken performer became threatening. Some cases were just sad, like the musician who called from his hospital bed. John had given him good reason for optimism only to end up avoiding his calls. Now he was in the hospital, being treated for a bleeding ulcer and—I gathered—a broken dream. When he explained to me the project that had brought him to John, I recommended that he give Nesuhi Ertegun a call. I hope that worked for him. Then there was George Braith, who had spent a year in the studio laboriously producing an album on which he played multiple instruments. I remember that call and John's note handing me a painful task while he escaped reality. I have often wondered about the details of this Hammond promise. Mr. Braith has promised to fill me in, so that's where we will pick up when I get to Part V of my John Hammond recollections.


The next installment will also deal with John's return, Grammys—deserved or not—a revelation at a CBS urinal (not what you think), and a that's-record-biz phone threat. Stay tuned.   



3/6/10

John Hammond - Part 3 (Ruby Walker pops in)



I ended Part II of this ongoing recollection with something Rex Stewart told me over lunch. Basically, it was this: he and John were not speaking, because John had a low tolerance for "niggers" (Rex's word) who didn't know their place. Where have we heard that attitude before? But in 1961, and from the "Great White Father"? To compound my disillusionment, Rex added that John—the white man who I believed to have done more for black musicians than any other—would go out of his way to hinder rather than further a career. It didn't sound right, but I knew Rex wasn't making this up. A few years later, when I met Ruby Walker, Bessie Smith's niece by marriage, I became convinced that John had  problem—and it wasn't for lack of accomplishments.

I already alluded to Ruby in the first segment of this thread. She and I met in John's office, quite by chance, and I think it might be both pertinent an illuminating to tell you about it here. You see, Ruby's past experience with John bears out what Rex told me about John the Impeder. To make it easier on myself, the following recollection is mostly from the revised 2003 edition of my book, Bessie. Hope you don't mind.

I found myself in John Hammond’s office at "Blackrock"—the CBS building at Sixth Avenue and 52nd Street—at what proved to be a most opportune moment. We were a group of two or three gathered on the visitor’s side of John’s desk when his secretary announced that Miss Ruby Walker was there to see him. Blasts from the past can be pleasant or pesky, and this one could have gone either way, but John seemed genuinely delighted. "Oh, send her in," he said, but Ruby had already stepped past the secretary. John got the how-good-to-see-you-again ritual out of the way and, almost as an aside, told us "she's a marvelous singer." 


I had heard one or two of her recordings, but I was otherwise unfamiliar with Ruby and totally unaware of her relationship to Bessie Smith. John made formal introductions and began small talk reminiscences with Ruby about the old days, but clearly for the benefit of the rest of us. That soon evaporated into an awkward silence and when it became obvious that the fizzle was permanent, John rose from his seat and reached into his pocket to withdraw a ten or twenty. and handed Ruby what I believe was either a ten or a twenty dollar bill. "I know I’ll never see this again, but here," he said, handing it to Ruby. It was a remarkably tactless and humiliating gesture, but Ruby took the money. I felt embarrassed as I instinctively turned to Ruby. "Have you had lunch?," I asked.


"No."


"Would you like to join me?" 


Ruby nodded and we left John's office without another word being spoken. As we waited for the elevator, she told me that this was not what she had come for. "I know," I said, but why did you let him do that to you?"


"A bird in hand," she replied with a smile. "That man owes me a lot more."

During the next couple of hours, as we downed a rather ordinary, inexpensive luncheonette offering, Ruby filled in the gaps. She had come to John's office in the hope of cashing in on a promise made to her thirty years earlier.


 It had been John’s original intent to include Bessie in the all-star lineup of his historic 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, From Spirituals to Swing, but fate intervened on a dark Mississippi road, so he turned to Ruby. "He said he was going to make me the new Bessie Smith," Ruby told me, pulling from her purse a time-worn page from that evening’s printed program. It contained proof that John had seen her as a worthy successor to the Empress of the Blues.

"He made me walk like Bessie and wear those kind of old-fashioned dresses that she had worn when they was modern," Ruby recalled, "and he wanted me to sing like Bessie did back then, not like she did before she died. Bessie had changed, you know—she was more up-to-date when she died." Bessie had indeed morphed her act into a more modern style and repertoire, but Ruby—although similarly inclined—bowed to Hammond’s wishes, changed her last name to Smith and became the anachronism he needed her to be. As Ruby unfolded her past, I realized just how close to Bessie Smith she had been. In 1923, when Ruby was in her late teens, Bessie married her uncle, Jack Gee, and the two women bonded. Bessie needed a confidante, Ruby needed a role model. Of course, Bessie was the antithesis of a role model, as normally defined, but then again, Ruby was not your average teenager—she had long since lost her childhood, among other things.


In 1938, when John had Ruby rehearse for the concert with Count Basie, his insistence on her becoming a replica of Bessie was actually the fulfillment of a long held desire on Ruby's part. For many years, she had danced in Bessie's chorus line and participated in comedy skits, but she was never permitted to sing, so here was her chance—and at Carnegie Hall, no less.

Unfortunately, as the Carnegie Hall concert slipped into history, Hammond’s promise to Ruby slipped from his mind. To appease her, he occasionally booked her to sing at private parties—not the elegant ones thrown on Fifth Avenue by his Vanderbilt-rooted family, but small gatherings of leftist literati and other intellectuals to whom a sprinkling of dark skin lent a visual touch of liberalism. However, fees for such appearances were hardly the stuff of which capitalists are molded, and there was no promotional value in performing at small private parties.

In 1939, Ruby recorded a couple of sides for Vocalion with James P. Johnson, who had been Bessie’s favorite accompanist. Mostly through her own promotional efforts, she also recorded for Harmonia and Victor in the mid-1940s, but John had lost interest in her career. Ruby eventually found work attending to old people, but she never totally gave up on John. Her home, a converted Jersey City garage, was no place for anyone to live, but Ruby was made of that tough stuff. On my first visit to her place, she pointed to the newspapers that covered her walls. Held together with scotch tape, they were ostensibly there to absorb the dampness, but they also had another function. Lifting up a panel of papers, Ruby revealed two or three brightly colored dresses, encrusted with costume jewelry and made fragile by years of just hanging there. "See," she said, "I've been ready for Mr. Hammond, but then he had to go and get mad at me."


 "Why?," I asked.


Ruby explained that she hadn't heard from John by the early Fifties, so she decided to take matters into her own hands and solicit the record companies. To that end, she wrote a letter to Mercury Records, a label that seemed particularly interested in rhythm and blues singers, which is what she now saw herself as being. In the letter, she stressed her long association with Bessie, pointed out the Carnegie Hall experience, and the career plan John had laid out for her fifteen years earlier. "John Hammond promised me the moon," she wrote, "but he dropped me like a hot potato."


What Ruby didn't know was that John Hammond now held a high position at Mercury, so her letter landed in his inbox. In what proved to be characteristic fashion, he made a blustering phone call to Ruby, vowing to see to it that she never recorded again. This is the side of John Hammond that Rex Stewart told me about. I subsequently learned that Ruby and Rex were not isolated victims of such vengeful calls—in fact, I would eventually receive one myself. but at this point I was merely catching glimpses of what lay beyond that iconic smile and the twinkly eyes.

We now fast-forward some twenty-five years. Having noted the heavier than usual promotion Bessie Smith's reissue albums were receiving, Ruby decided to see if time had mellowed John to a point where he might finally be ready to fulfill his promise. She was as ready as ever to fill Bessie's shoes, even if it meant allowing John to freeze her in an earlier era. That day, when she showed up at his office, unannounced, she felt confident that John would also see how good her timing was. She was even prepared to audition on the spot, if necessary. In her purse and at the ready was an instrumental blues single by the Nat King Cole Trio. But Ruby would not need it. All she got that day  was a demeaning handout.

I don't know why, but John eventually asked me for Ruby's number. He had finally decided to give her a chance, so he arranged an audition in Studio B and asked that Dill Jones be there to accompany her. This is when I introduced John to Alberta Hunter, who happened to enter the control room as Ruby sang Down Hearted Blues. It had been Bessie Smith's first release an biggest seller, and Alberta wrote it. I recall her whispering to me, "Tell her to sing it slower, the next time."


Nothing ever came out of that audition, but I wonder if the tapes still exist somewhere.


As I continue these recollections, I will tell you how I unexpectedly found myself in the role of John Hammond for three or four weeks, listening to sub-bad patriotic nonsense, hunting for a folk singer for Mrs. Leonard Bernstein, etc. It was an odd and not altogether pleasant experience, but quite revealing.


Stay tuned.