Thursday, July 2, 2015

Curiouser and curiouser

It's been another one of 'those weeks'. You know, the weeks where you are constantly busy but seem to get nothing done. Well. that's not quite true. I did get the laundry done. The second washer full did stop part way through the cycle... I'd had this vision when I started that particular load of opening the lid and seeing my clothes floating in water. I would hope the universe didn't assume that I was attempting some sort of visualization or affirmation which it decided to honor. Couldn't it let my vision of winning the lottery come true instead? And there aren't any dishes piled up in the sink. It's not like I've been cooking up a storm, but just the same, I have attained the status of near elderly bachelorhood and leaving a few dishes in the sink is no longer a sin against man and nature. It's been another rainy week, so once again many garden chores have simply been left undone. The flower garden is in that awkward but somehow amusing adolescent stage after the flush of triumphant springtime youth, pausing for awhile to grow and be difficult before once again rewarding the senses and spirit as it prepares to come into its summer young adult own. We won't discuss the vegetable garden. There was that dream I had this morning - a slender middle aged man in flapper drag, all 1920's jazz baby sequins, wearing one of those hats that resembles a bathing cap (with dangling strands of rhinestones) sat at a piano in some existential café and began to perform. His voice had a feminine quality, one redolent of a proper amount of booze and 4am smoky huskiness. Something distracted my attention for a second,. When I looked back, his head was floating a few feet away from his body. I can not recall the song which he was singing, but the sequined tassels of his cap swayed in time to the rhythm.

Last Saturday's radio show celebrated the birthday of one of the great "characters" of the music business. Harry Raab grew up in Harlem during the time it was transitioning from being primarily Jewish to an area hospitable to African Americans. He came from a musical family - to bring in extra money, they repaired player pianos in the basement of their building. By the age of 13, Harry was playing ragtime in the local speakeasies. After the repeal of prohibition, Harry's expertise on the 88's got him admission to the jazz clubs which replaced the speaks. As he left his teenage years, he became enamored with the piano barrelhouse-stride style of Fats Waller. Soon there began to be rumors of a white kid who could play Waller's songs without missing any of the notes. One night, Waller stopped by to hear him, sat by the piano and asked for a couple of Waller songs putting $5.00 in the kitty for each one Harry played. In an era when the new minimum wage was twenty-five cents an hour, it was more money than Harry had ever earned. By the end of the evening, Waller had introduced himself and hired Harry to be his intermission pianist. One night, someone told Harry that he didn't have an appropriate name for a performer. He changed his last name to Gibson, which he took from a gin bottle. During the day. Harry was a fellow at Julliard. By night, he played boogie-woogie in the jazz joints on 52nd Street. Harry had grown up speaking the jive of black musicians; he became convinced that "hep" had become common and was being used by the squares. He began using "hip" instead. He'd start a set by urging, "All you hip cats gather 'round now....". Soon the musicians began calling him Harry the Hipster. He not only adopted the name, he wrote a song using it. His act was outrageous and over the top - he even started playing a chord or two with a foot. One night he accidentally knocked the piano into a roll toward the audience. The club owner went right out and found a beat up piano Harry could use to keep it in the act. His songs weren't the stuff of sentimental war time balladry, but Harry caught on. He eventually pushed the envelope too far. "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine", along with a bust in Florida with Billie Holiday (he was her accompanist for several years), followed by an almost bust with Charlie Parker outside a club in Los Angeles got him blackballed from recordings and radio. He spent most of the next 20 years driving a cab, reemerging in the late 1970's when the Dr. Demento radio show discovered Mrs. Murphy and her ovaltine and someone tracked him down.

Last Saturday's show also played a few for other birthdays of that weekend - songwriter Doc Pomus, early yodeling country-western star Elton Britt, composer and arranger Jimmy Mundy, and composer Richard Rodgers. Sorry this took me so long to post. As always, I hope anyone who listens enjoys the show.

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