I could have been Elvis! Maybe! Or somebody? Elvis and I got $18 a night on the ’50s Louisiana Hayride

But a few ifs, ands, buts, maybes, how comes, and bad timing got in the way. My biggest problem was that I didn’t focus on a style, since I was singing all styles. How can anyone like and even play all styles of music, country, swing, Texas, jazz, classical, rock and Greek 7/8 and 9/8? I can and I did and I do (Sounds like a song title). That part has been easy for me. You have to like it or even love it to play it and/or sing it. I was raised on all kinds of music. My sister had me singing the pop songs of the day when I was six or seven years old. As I got older I’d sing like Bing Crosbyand loved the pop swing bands of the day like Woody Herman as much as I loved Bob Wills, and all the other country and western bands and singers of the day like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. We had an old piano, so I took some lessons and then my Mom bought me a big old jumbo Gibson guitar that I then learned to play when I was getting into my teens.

But first, I believe it is rather timely that I talk about this racial thing. It was bad enough being wartime and going to the movies and hearing the audience roar when a German or a Japanese pilot was shot down. It was also about that time in my life that I really saw and witnessed the racial and ethnic hatred that existed all around me, very much of which had a lasting impression on me of asking “why?” We are all made the same. Those “others” were  human beings, the same as everyone, and were treated with such total disrespect and hatred. And I could not get with this thinking. My mother, rest her soul, had an African American maid come to the house often and she had to go around to the back door to come into the house. When Mom would send me to the store, she would say, “Son go over to the (and she’d use the “d” word for Italian) store and get some bread,” or whatever. These acts of our parents, historically, were supposed to be learned and become a part of us. But some were and some weren’t. Some, I remember as being totally against all logic.

It was the day before my birthday, June 15, 1943, when my big brother, who was 17 at the time, told me he was going out and raise hell and beat up some (and he used the “n” word). It turned out to be a huge race riot when thousands marched on city hall. He was among the whites who were armed with guns, axes, and hammers. They terrorized black neighborhoods and many blacks were assaulted, and many buildings were burned.

The next day, my 12th birthday, he bragged to me about how they beat up the blacks and that they killed one. News reports are varied about how many people were killed, however ONE SUCH REPORT stated that 21 (twenty-one) were killed. So, my home town of Beaumont joined New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Mobile, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, as sites of bloody race riots in the summer of 1943.  Aside from two alleged rape cases, the Ku Klux Klan  had planned to host a regional convention of the Klan two weeks later on June 29 in Beaumont, and expected to bring 15,000 to 20,000 Klansmen from all over the South to hear the “imperial emperor” of the KKK, speak.

Without a doubt, huge media attention on this intensified racial tensions. And there I was, growing up in this deep seated hatred, meant to be passed along from generation to generation with total brainwashing. And I hated it. Later in high school, when riding the school bus, every day several of the boys would shout out racial slurs to every black person they would see along the way. And this is just a small sample.

Thank God I wasn’t influenced by all of this to follow that Deep South brainwashing, which I despised more and more as I got older. My thinking never changed and I am  even more against it now than ever before. 

Well, back to trying to grow up in a polluted environment. I  started playing guitar and singing and met Clyde Brewer, stepson of Shelly Lee Alley of  Shelly Lee Alley and the Alleycats, a prominent band in that day. Shelly invited me to work with them. One night the bass player got stoned on booze and chewing Benzedrine, and Shelly turned to me and said to play bass. What the hell? I never played bass. So I thumped around and finished the night with big blisters, but figured after that I might like to learn the bass.

Clyde told me the story of when Shelly turned to him one night and said to play fiddle, and he had never played fiddle before. So, I learned on my own with no lessons and I’ve been playing ever since. I bought an old beat up bass and really started learning, and was playing with country and pop bands and even playing with the Lamar College (now U.) dance band in Beaumont when I was 15. In high school, I was singing just about everything, and high tenor and operatic in the choir.

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J.P Richardson, later the Big Bopper, and I were side by side tenors and became great friends. The irony here is that  J.P. stayed in Beaumont and became a big star and I went to New York and “also ran.” My director set me up with a scholarship to North Texas State, but although I could sing classical I just didn’t want to sing it and tie down for four years, so I turned it down. In those days people were also prejudiced with their music. Either you liked classical or you didn’t. And I just couldn’t get with classical, however I played classical bass in the high school orchestra.

I couldn’t wait to leave town after graduation, and after several road band experiences and some bass lessons, I arrived in New York at age 19, and found a room on Sixth Avenue in the block north of Radio City Music Hall, between 51st and 52nd Street. How lucky I was to be right across the street from all the famous jazz joints. I would carry my bass over to the Three Dueces

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and sit in with Sol Yegged, and then over across the street to Jimmy Ryans. What a damn thrill that was. I’d walk a block the other way to Radio City Music Hall, and for fifty cents, I could see a movie, the Rockettes, the Corp de Ballet and the orchestra.

I learned from the road that when you get to New York, you go and hang out at Charlie’s Tavern, and meet other musicians.

Charlie's Tavern
Charlie’s Tavern in New York

Guys mostly never bought anything, and Charlie didn’t mind if you just hung out. I met Everette Hull, who had just formed the Ampeg Bassamp Company. He took me over to show me his first prototype of his bass with a mic mounted inside. I was later working for him building amplifiers. As I related in my last post about six months later I landed a gig at the famous old Hotel Astor in Times Square, with the highest paying pop dance music job in town. A year later, after the big bands, the Grand Ole Opry cast and band came to the Astor Roof and we were the relief band. Imagine, one of the hottest and biggest dance spots in New York, with all the Hee Hawness of the typical Country and Western music of the day, with our band there playing all the pop music of the day. And the Dixie Dinner Special was $2.00, while a full coarse dinner was $3.75

grand ole opry astor

New York just wasn’t quite ready for country and western music. But it was a most fabulous experience for me and I hadn’t even turned 21. I got to know everyone including Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Eddie Hill and all the Nashville musicians. Eddie Arnold came over with his manager, Tom Parker, to catch the show and also our pop band. 

It was at the same time that RCA Victor’s country A & R producer, Steve Sholes, heard my demo of my song, That Long Long Road of Love  and signed me to record that and three other sides. So, one night, my publisher, Al Gallico,  Steve Sholes, Charlie Grean, who was Steve’s boss at RCA and his bass player, and Colonel Tom Parker were all seated there discussing plans for developing my career. Parker wanted to manage me but I had recently signed a management contract with big band manager, John O’Connor, in New York and I wasn’t sure if I could get out of it. Actually, that turned out to be a bust  trying to get out of the contract. Sholes and Parker had already set it up for me to go down and be a regular at the, Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, Louisiana, where Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and a bunch of others sprang from. Sholes and Parker brought Elvis in to the Hayride two years after me. Yeah, we both were getting paid $18 a Saturday night. It was later called the “Cradle of Stars.” I would have to pull up newly established roots in New York and head back to Texas and Louisiana, and spend some time building a following on the “Hayride.” Sholes and Parker had great plans to build me into a star, the way that they did Elvis later.

I had to stay signed with John O’Connor in New York but since he wasn’t doing anything for me I was still trying to get out of it. I gave my notice to Alan Holmes at the Astor and headed to my old home at my mom’s in Beaumont. I’d commute to the Louisiana Hayride on Saturdays and try to set up with some bands there to work with and travel and build a following.

Well, I got some boots and a Stetson, loaded my bass into its coffin, got on a train again, guitar in hand and headed for Texas.  I couldn’t pass through Lafayette, Louisiana without stopping and spending some time with my big brother, Dan, and his family, and then it was on to Beaumont with wild anticipation about the Hayride.

The moment I stepped off the train to a bunch of waiting relatives in Beaumont, the first words out of my mom’s mouth were, “Son, you got your draft notice.” Shit, there goes everything I’d been working for and hoping for, out the door. I’d have to report in less than two months. So, I went to the Hayride halfheartedly a half dozen times and had to hear from Horace Logan that I had to get back into southern country mode. I’d been up north a little too long I guess. Meanwhile, Tom Parker was losing interest because of the Army. And Steve Sholes wasn’t excited either, since we couldn’t plan anything.

TO BE CONTINUED

Those were the days? Not quite but almost Some were Some weren’t

It was February 13, 1953 when the Fort McClellan, Alabama Special Services major met Dwight Malcolm and me  and took us to the Service Club to rehearse for the finals of the first Third Army Talent Contest. They had flown us from Camp Rucker, Alabama in probably the smallest plane they had. It was us and the pilot and Dwight’s marimba, without an inch to spare. There were people there from every Third Army camp to compete. The major pulled me aside and told me he had this colored fellow to play the piano that he had brought in off the field dressed in fatigues, dirty and looking very tired. He apologized, saying that he didn’t know how well he could play. He wanted me to let him know.

In those days we still had segregation just about everywhere. It even still existed in the Army, but never among musicians. And this fellow was blacker than black and referred to as “colored” in those days. So, with a bit of skepticism wondering about his musicianship, I indicated that my songs, showing my versatility, would be a medley of My Blue Heaven, and then into Mario Lanza’s Be My Love, and wind up with a swinging Bye Bye Blackbird. And I told him the keys for each song. I was taken aback when he nodded on each song and key I told him, as his fingers were flying over the keyboard. I set the tempo and he did an intro and I started to sing. My God, this guy was fabulous. And one has to play great piano to transpose keys like he did.

I was being accompanied by just about the greatest piano player I had ever heard. And before I could I give the thumbs up and a nod of approval, the major asked me what I thought? I gave the guy a grin, a wink and a nod then did a little take like I wasn’t so sure and said, “Oh, I guess he’ll do.” I still didn’t know who he was, but then, the major introduced us. “Private Don Meehan, say hello to Private Wynton Kelly.” Holy shit! There I was singing with one of the greatest jazz piano players in the world and the asshole major didn’t even know who he was. And I didn’t either until I heard his name. He’d been written up in just about every music magazine, and had played with Dizzy, Ella, Dinah, and every jazz great. After the Army he had great times playing with Miles Davis. And there we both were making about $50 a month private’s pay.

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Jazz Great Wynton Kelly

The contest went well. Lucky Friday the 13th. And my jumping from crooning a swinging ballad to an operatic high tenor and then to a swinging Bye Bye Blackbird brought the house down. So, I won for the singing with one of the greatest jazz pianists, Wynton Kelly accompanying me. These were all pops and standards I was singing but the next day, Valentines Day, I would be flying to Nashville to record some of my country songs on my RCA Victor session one of which was That Long Long Road of Love. Yeah, it’s traditional from those days. Elvis discoverer Steve Sholes was producing and Chet Atkins leading the band of Nashville greats. There’ll be more on this later in another post.

Wynton and I went on to becoming great friends for the rest of our Army days and after, until his untimely death in 1971.  It was Commanding General A.R. Bolling’s decision to put a variety show together from those in the contest, to travel to all the Army bases. Our little caravan of several Army staff cars and a truck took us to all of them. As one of our guys described us, we were “the general’s pets,” and usually were treated first class in most all the camps we went to except one. Gordon Terry, described later as the best bluegrass fiddle player in the country came on board. By then country great Faron Young had joined our group. I’d play bass with our trio, and when I’d sing a country song with my guitar, Wynton would pick up the bass and play with our country band.

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We all bunked together at our Fort McPherson, Georgia base, and were always in decent quarters all together at the various camps. After all, we were the general’s pets. We would be up quite late as usual, and also would sleep late as usual, and our commanding officer, a lieutenant, against regulations, most of the time, would bunk in with us at the various camps. However, at one camp they had put us in an isolated barracks to bunk, with the old sagging mattresses on two tiered bunks. It was reminiscent of basic training, whereas two or three sergeants and corporals came busting in at 5AM blowing whistles and demanding everyone line up at attention like you see in the movies. The sergeant almost flipped out seeing two “colored” boys between us, since integration had not been completely implemented in the Army yet. “Get dressed,” he yelled. “And get those colored boys out of here.”

Our lieutenant, stripped to his shorts was also a real sight standing there with us at the sergeant’s order, especially when he finally stepped forward to try to identify himself, but not before they began to rummage through our personal belongings. He quickly put on his uniform and flashed his gold lieutenant bar and suggested they talk alone. He told us later that he had to negotiate with the sergeant that neither would tell on the other for disobeying certain regulations. I.e., he wasn’t supposed to bunk with us enlisted men and most importantly, the sergeant was supposed to know who we were. (“The generals pets”)

We were on the road constantly between camps and had to stop for meals.  Remember, this was 1953 and we were in the Deep South traveling with a dozen white guys and two African Americans. Every time we had to stop for meals they would say that those “colored” boys would have to go around to the back and eat outside.

colored served in rear

And we all went around to the back with them.

 

colored dining roon rear

 

It was reminiscent of the stories of people like Sammy Davis Jr. and others in Las Vegas having to stay across town in boarding houses, and not being allowed to stay in the hotels where they were performing. We had to contend with this kind of garbage throughout the south. In November 1954, the Will Maston Trio featuring Sammy Davis, Jr. became the first African Americans offered complimentary room, board, drinks and access to a casino on The Strip at the Vegas Frontier, and a big $5,000 a week for the trio.

Picture twelve white guys and two blacks sitting on the ground at the back entrance of a restaurant, with plates, consuming a meal. They never expected the rest of us to join them. There was only one restaurant during all those months that set up a private closed dining room where we could all eat together. We all went to a pizza place in Augusta, Georgia once, where they weren’t allowed in and we finally had MP’s guarding us outside while we all sat on the MP and staff cars eating our pizza. And some of us have the nerve to repeat the phrase, “Those were the days?”

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Another post will be forthcoming about my earlier years of being born in, living, playing and singing, and having to deal with Deep South racial hatred.

Dick Van Dyke was doing an afternoon variety show on WSB in Atlanta in 1953 and I was booked on it to sing. By then, Wynton Kelly and I were like brothers with our music. I also played bass and with another jazz great, Harold Karabell on clarinet, we had the best little trio around. So, Wynton and I took a bus to the station, not a very good sight in the south for a white boy hanging out with a “colored” boy in the ‘50s. He had to go and sit in the back of the bus. If I had tried to sit with him I probably would have been arrested.

back of the bus

We didn’t know if it was Van Dyck or the producers who ordered that that (and using the “N”word)  could not appear on camera with me. What a bunch of shit. One of the greatest piano players in the world and he couldn’t be seen or even get a mention. And I felt like walking right out. But I knew that if I did, I’d probably be court-martial-ed.

Our Lieutenant almost put me on FECOM (Korea duty) when he threw me out of the show once for wearing the wrong jacket during a big outdoor concert and show in Atlanta. I just wanted to look good with my solo performance before thousands of people, but he charged me with disobeying an order. The only good thing about that came about when I met Barry Newman in the band. He and I teamed up for a Martin and Lewis type comedy routine at the service club. He later got big and became Petrocelli on TV. Strange that his bio said he was born in 1938. Let’s see, if I was 22 that would make him 13 or 14 at the time. That’s showbiz. You must be “young.” Good thing the lieutenant didn’t find out that we unhooked the odometer cable and drove one of the staff cars 250 miles from Fort Jackson, South Carolina to Myrtle Beach and back one time.

I guess I was just a natural born rebel rouser. At Christmas time that year, I was living in an apartment off post, and I put up some decorations in the upstairs window. I expressed some of my sentiments by painting a large representation of four choir boys singing and set up a speaker to play Christmas choir music outside. The painting consisted of one lone black boy and an oriental boy singing shoulder to shoulder with two white boys, and the wording,”Peace On Earth.” My sentiments won me the first prize for the best decorations, and I wasn’t court marshaled. By the way, our lieutenant was finally arrested and went to prison for stealing some wallets.

Those were the days? I just have to say that we did our best to make the most of them with our music.