Higher than high Society – Higher than high with Guy – Lombardo that is

CONTINUED

I was out of the Army August 19, 1954, and a daughter was born the day after. The big dilemma was whether to head for Nashville or New York. And New York it was, since I had more of a chance for work in New York and I also knew people there. I’d have to start all over in Nashville. I already at least had a  job connection with a relief band for Ray Anthony’s big band at the Hotel New Yorker Terrace Room for a few months.

For that winter of  ’55, what could be better than to spend it playing with a band down in Florida? So, we headed for Nino’s Continental in downtown Palm Beach. The only problem was that society people only liked to dance to fast two beat music. So, every song, whether a ballad or up tempo had to be played only in that manner. Every song was the same and you couldn’t really get any kicks playing jazz or four beat or even slow two beat. So, as a musician, playing a high society job would become quite boring after several hours, however, it paid the rent.

It was a tough gig, but exciting inasmuch as some of Palm Beach high society were there nightly, giving us a glimpse of how some among them enjoyed their nightlife. People like Horace Dodge Jr. from the Dodge clan, Henry Ford II and wife, Anne, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were regulars among many. There was also Jimmy Woolworth Donahue,  the son of Jesse Woolworth Donahue, a Palm Beach resident, and reportedly one of the wealthiest, of  the Woolworth clan. Mrs. Donahue also frequented Nino’s.

The King had adjudicated and renounced the English Throne to marry perhaps the most famous divorcée in British history. And he went from being King of England to being the Duke of Windsor, and apparently hung out with high society among the Palm Beach crowd.

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Instrument of Adjudication of King Edward the Eighth

And there were some pranksters rumored among them, whereas word got out somehow that there was laughing and bragging about one of them who was instrumental in recently shattering the letters “ES” on the New York Essex House Hotel sign making it read “SEX HOUSE” at night.

essex house

New York scene showing the Essex House sign

It was a seven nights a week gig and we never stopped playing even if there wasn’t a soul in the place. When we would get our five minute on the hour break, wed hang out in the kitchen and see how some great dishes were made, and fight over leftovers like shrimp scampi. It was the first time I had seen raw hamburger served.

With all that money floating around, we only got one tip the whole time we were there. After playing her favorite song every time she came in, one of the famous wives, at the very end of our engagement, gave us a $50 tip to split five ways.

Well, after witnessing higher than high society and their higher than high falutin’, it was back to New York with a long band job in Jersey, and 18 months at  RCA Institutes studying radio, audio, and television. I commuted from Bayside, in Queens to RCA in Manhattan for school five days a week, and rode with the leader to the Mayfair Farms Restaurant in West Orange. It was a long hard grueling time of my life, playing and singing six nights a week and going to school five days a week, full time. There was hardly any time for study. But it would pay off on down the line.

To top it off in 1956, when we were playing  in Jersey, five hours, 8 to 1 AM, at the time in the turning the clocks back an hour in the Fall, our brilliant leader expected that since the clocks were set back an hour from daylight saving time (1 AM back to midnight), that we should play that extra hour for no extra pay. No, he didn’t win that one.

It was 1957 and I was still writing my songs and doing my demos. One day I walked into MGM Records with my demos and asked to see Frank Walker, the president. I knew that he had originally signed Hank Williams, and since Hank’s death, he had been looking to find someone to replace him. I dropped a name of one of his artists who I said sent me and I walked right into his office. Well, damn if he didn’t sign me. I guess I really impressed him, because he sent me out to produce four country sides in New York on my own. My records were released and damn if they didn’t have me sounding like Hank Williams.  He had put in a bid for Elvis’ Sun Records contract along with RCA a couple years before that.

It wasn’t long after that MGM session that Music Corporation of America (MCA) agent, Larry Funk, called me one day and said he would like to place me singing and playing with Guy Lombardo. I joined the band in September, 1957 and we went on the road working our way to the Las Vegas Desert Inn. LV STRIP HISTORY asked me to write about the times there for their publication and I couldn’t resist. So, I wrote:

“We were there for at least two months, seven nights a week in the big room. I sang and played upright bass with Guy Lombardo at the time at $350 per week. (7 nights a week at $50 a night) I was by far, the youngest in the band, 26, and they all called me Junior and kidded me. Larry Funk of MCA booking and big band fame put me with the band to use a spring board like other boy band singers (Merv Griffin- Freddy Martin, etc.)

So it was bass and tuba and on opposite ends of the stage. We had to guess if we were playing the same notes at the same time being about thirty feet apart. It was after Jones Beach and some road dates. I believe it was around September-October-November. In order to get to Disneyland and LA with no day off, I had to fly out right after the last show and fly back in time for the first show with no sleep. Shows were one hour and I had trouble staying awake. It was the funniest band ever. Brother Victor was the outcast and he had to dress with the sidemen. This was because he didn’t make it with his own band and he was punished. Like he wasn’t even family.

We flew from NY to Chicago to begin a string of one nighters on the way to Vegas. When I first got on the bus in Chicago, I went back found a seat and sat down. It wasn’t a regular bus, just another charter. But one of the “elders’ came back and said, “That’s my seat. I’ve been sitting there for 27 years.” Scared little me got up and waited for a seat and finally, Tuba player, Fred Exner invited me to sit with him. We became great friends back in New York. What was funnier was that each Lombardo brother, Guy, Carmen and Liebert had a girlfriend meet them at the bus and travelled with the band. It was also the drunkest band I ever worked with. We called Guy’s action with the baton the “goose” since he really didn’t conduct with it, you would always see the baton going up like when you would goose someone in the rear. Although I did sing a couple solos and with the trio. Carmen and Guy (and Kenny) thought Kenny Gardner was the best singer in the world. But when I started to be just a little bit better than Kenny, I got fired back in New York”. – Don Meehan

It was another seven nights a week job and the only way I could get to see MGM in Hollywood was to get there and back in one day. And I did. The only problem was after not getting any sleep was trying to stay awake during the comic’s routine.

We came back to New York in October of ’57 to a Command Performance and reception for Queen Elizabeth II at the huge Park Avenue Armory. We also did the Ed Sullivan show once, and then on to the Roosevelt Grill, Guy’s old stomping grounds. Well, I lasted a little bit past New Years Eve, 1957 to 1958, when they decided they didn’t need an upright bass and a tuba. I always felt out of place. And they referred to Kenny Gardner as the best singer in the world. So, Larry Funk’s idea of him being a springboard for me was a bust.

DON W GUY 1958

A screen shot of me playing bass  in the hour long 1957-58 New Years Eve  movie from the New York Hotel Roosevelt –This scene runs from 23:20 to 23:31

 These are two screen shots  if me with the band. The one hour long  video is out there of New Years Eve. 1957-58 and there  I am playing about 30 feet away from the tuba player on the other side of the stage, supposedly playing the same notes in sync. And I couldn’t even hear George the drummer most of the time. Once  in awhile, Guy would motion to me to play softer, and I would soften down to nothing, making out like I was playing and nobody knew the difference.

GUY LOM 24.53

Another screen shot from the 1957-58 New Years Eve  movie

When I joined the band in the September before, it was on a record date at Capitol Records at their West 46th Street Studio in New York. When I asked where I should play, they said anywhere I want. And then, I waited for them to put a microphone on me and they never did. Well, that was easy money. Frank Abbey (Abbruscato), who had been an engineer at CBS Records since 1969, was at Capitol at the time, remembered the occasion when I jogged his memory. Not sure if he was the engineer mic-ing or not mic-ing the bass, but he was the first engineer ever hired by Capitol Records.

And like I said, it wasn’t only the drunkest band, but the funniest band I ever worked with.

 

Elvis, Hank and Me – and Steve, Tom, Horace, Chet, Owen, Tommy and Jerry

CONTINUED

When the Opry fired Hank Williams in 1952 for drinking too much, Horace Logan hired him for the Louisiana Hayride. When the Opry told a teenage Elvis Presley to stick to truck-driving, Logan gave him a break, but of course with the same help that Steve Sholes and Tom Parker gave me earlier. And it was at the same $18 a show that he had paid me two years earlier. The experiences with the two stars, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley, provided Logan’s title for his 1998 memoir, “Elvis, Hank and Me: Making Musical History on the ‘Louisiana Hayride.'” Others may have referred to the “Hayride” as the “Junior Grand Ole Opry.” Logan preferred to call the Opry “the Tennessee branch of the ‘Hayride.'” Twenty-seven radio stations in four states were carrying the Hayride and in December of that year, 1952, the CBS Radio Network picked up the Hayride. Boy, did I miss out.

What a bad pill to swallow, having to leave the Hayride. I went on to Fort Sam Houston, Texas Army Reception Center on August 19, 1952, and my vocal talents were immediately accepted and recognized there. I filled in for Vic Damone on the weekly Fourth Army Band broadcasts while he was on furlough. Then, they told me they wanted me there after basic training to replace Vic Damone. Fine with me, I thought.

We were there two weeks, then they shipped us to Camp Rucker, Alabama in the Third Army area for four months of basic training, with assurances that I would then go back to Fort Sam. It didn’t happen. There were other plans for me to stay in the Third Army area. I found out later by chance who orchestrated this and why.

Commanding General A.R. Bolling’s chauffeur, a sergeant, bunked with our show cast and band at Third Army Headquarters, and was also just one of the guys we’d hang out with. One night, the two of us struck up a conversation, and I told the story of how I was supposed to go back and replace Vic Damone at Fourth Army. He said he would tell me a little secret about me being where I was if I promised to never ever tell anyone

He proceeded to tell me that he had overheard a telephone conversation with his boss, General Bolling, back in late ’52 or early ’53, talking to whom he thought was Fourth Army General White. He indicated that it appeared to be a very heated conversation about this singer that the other general had wanted back at Fourth Army to sing with the band there. The sergeant said his boss told the other general that he was sorry but he needed this guy here in Atlanta for his traveling show and also to sing with his band. The sergeant indicated that the singer was me. I was so damned important and didn’t even know it.

We did seventeen weeks of basic which ended the last week in December, 1952, and a much deserved furlough, and I was assigned to the Camp Rucker Band when I would return. I had made plans to meet Steve Sholes and Chet Atkins in Nashville on my furlough after basic, the first week in January to do my record session. But I developed a bad cold and laryngitis and had to cancel. So I headed for my mom’s house in Beaumont on a bus. I’ll never forget while passing through Hank Williams boyhood hometown of Montgomery, Alabama on January 1, 1953, and hearing the news of his death.

There would be no more days off to go to Nashville for a while. It so happened that I’d have a couple days off after the talent contest in Fort McClellan, mentioned in another post. So I set it up to be in Nashville on Valentines Day 1953, the day after the contest. It turned out to be a double session with Porter Wagoner in the morning and me in the afternoon. Here’s how Porter’s sessions were listed:  14 February 1953 [09:30-12:30] Thomas Productions, 109 13th Ave. North, Nashville, TN – Porter Wagoner (Chet Atkins, Velma Smith, Don Davis, Charles Grean, Dale Potter, John Gordy. Producer: Stephen Sholes) and it lists the songs. Evidently, it was Porter’s band plus Chet and Charlie Grean.

I was all set to record all of my own songs when Sholes threw out all but one, That Long Long Road of Love.  He wanted me to do a cover on Seven Lonely Days, which was climbing the charts. I was proud as could be to be recording with Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley, Tommy Jackson, and Jerry Byrd. There were some great solos by Chet and Tommy Jackson, and Sholes used that long echo that he used later on Elvis. I wanted to modulate and go up a half step but they wouldn’t let me. Modulating a country song to another key was unheard of. It was like a curse and not country. It is commonplace today to change keys and it would be interesting to know who was the first  country artist to do it. I wanted to be but it was too New York at that time. Thinking back on it, since the song was in the key of G, they’d have to go up to Ab and I wondered if some of the players could play in that key. It wasn’t a so-called country key.

So, I braved the rest of the Army days, singing with the band and working at the service club. That final day was arriving fast. I couldn’t decide whether to head for Nashville or New York.

TO BE CONTINUED

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.

JP RICHARDSON 004

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

1280px-52nd_Street,_New_York,_by_Gottlieb,_1948_crop

1280px-52nd_Street,_New_York_City,_NY_0001_original

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

A Tribute and Thanks to Paul Jean! Who the hell is Paul Jean? And what’s with Paul Jean? “MORE!”

More of what? Well, it’s a long story. Taking a look back at my old New York days, I was 19, barely out of high school, 1500 miles from home, had played a lot of places for my age, on the road for a time, played in Canada twice, and all the big hotels in New York with different bands. My vocal and drama coaches had drilled it into me to live and breathe the lyrics of a song when singing. And I did. It was 1951 and I had the best steady playing and highest paid band job in New York with the Alan Holmes band in the Hotel Astor Broadway Lounge.

TME SQUARE ASTOR

1951 – Looking north on Broadway is the Astor on the left. Look close at the marquee and you’ll see “Sheraton Astor Hotel – Alan Holmes & orch.”  That’s us!

NY HOTEL ASTOR

1951 – Looking south on Broadway is the Astor on the right. The Broadway Lounge was there on the right where you see the second floor circular windows.  

On New Years Eve we could get a great view out on the crowds from the center window over the marquee, and see the ball drop. In the summers we were the so-called relief band with the big bands like Sammy Kaye and Freddy Martin up in the Astor Roof Ballroom.

I would put so much feeling into a song that some nights, Martin’s boy singer, Merv Griffin, showed a bit of jealousy of my singing. But then I showed a little jealousy when the Hollywood starlets like Polly Bergen and others came to swoon over Merv. On the east side of the ballroom was a beautiful view of the Broadway lights in Times Square, and looking down west from the ballroom was usually a most beautiful view of a row of big passenger ships, docked on the Hudson River. I had never flown in a plane, nor been on a ship, and since those beautiful ships were such a sight to see, I always dreamed of going on one. Maybe someday I might play with a band on a cruise, I thought. Well, I finally did, but many years later, and it turned out to be a highlight in my career.

It was now the ’60s and I had some exciting times, great job at Columbia Records, singing and playing with some great New York bands, singing demos for some great writers, and singing on some great paying commercials. One of the bandleaders I freelanced and played and sang club dates with, Paul Jean, also booked cruises. So, one night I told him about the Astor view of all the ships, and how my biggest dream was to go on one of them. I asked him what would be the possibility of this happening? It just so happened that he was taking a small band on the Queen Mary in three weeks. Would I be interested? Damn straight, I’d get some time off from Columbia. You don’t make much money, but there is free room and board and a chance to see some far off places in the Caribbean.

I didn’t know at the time, and it wasn’t made public, but once on board, word soon got out that the cast and crew including Frank Sinatra starring, were aboard the ship for the filming of the 1966 movie, Assault On A Queen. We had a good band and I did my share of singing the hits and standards. I was singing one of my best songs, More, in the ship’s elegant main lounge one night, and it happened to be a song that Sinatra had recorded on an album a couple or more years prior. I didn’t know it but he was sitting in the back of the lounge and when I had finished, he rose to his feet and applauded. I was dumbstruck. The greatest of singers, Frank Sinatra was standing and applauding for Don Meehan? Wow! Was that something to write home about or what? I went over and thanked him, met briefly and heard him tell me to keep up the good work. What a frigging thrill! I thanked him, shook his hand and I never saw him again. He had been my idol since high school days, and there he was cheering me on. This event did wonders for my confidence over the years. If Sinatra liked what he heard, then I must have had something to offer, I felt. In addition, that song with its meaningful words, became my favorite to this day as you’ll see later in this post.

Arriving back from the Nassau port as the shuttle neared the ship, we had passed right by a barge with the end doors open and down, and set up with movie cameras about a hundred yards away from the ship, obviously preparing to film our departure in an hour or so. I figured that our sailing that night would probably be a major scene in the movie, so I decided I would be in the movie. I went to my cabin and grabbed the bedspread and went to the position under the first lifeboat on the starboard side. I’d be that tiny speck up there under the lifeboat waving the bedspread. When we began to sail, I unfurled the spread and began to wave it high and wide to the cameras.

RMS_Queen_Mary_Long_Beach_January_2011_view

What would you think if you saw the movie and some idiot was waving a bedspread under that first lifeboat

When I saw the movie, they obviously edited it to where the ship was well on the way and to a point where no waving bedspread could be seen. I probably disrupted an expensive one take only scene. And I asked myself through the years, “Why would you pull such a dumb stunt like that?” No answers have emerged, except my usual craziness, and to say, “Yes, I was there.” But the memories of Frank Sinatra applauding me that night would be etched in my mind forever, and Hail to the Queen!

Four years later, unbeknownst to me, that undear first wife had been secretly planning a divorce, and while I was in LA recording the Barbara Streisand movie, On a Clear Day, she had cleaned me out of everything, the savings and checking accounts, safe box, and stocks and bonds that I had lovingly put in both names. Dumb ass I was and in total shock, since I had no clue it was coming. Being totally broke, I was never ever so pissed off in my life as when she handed me a card with her lawyer’s name on it. A bloody divorce ensued that left me with at least my CBS job, a few club dates and a struggle to stay alive.

I met up playing with old friend and bandleader Paul Jean again at that time and I asked him if he might have a cruise that I could go on and get me away from the shit for a few days. The answer was yes, and the timing was perfect. He would be leading a trio on a ten day cruise job on the great ship, the France, and would love to have me there. And I would love it even More.   SS_France_Hong_Kong_74

The beautiful ship, The France

It was a great getaway.  As the greatest luck would have it, the second day out I met Fran, from Philly, and we wound up spending all the time we could together. I would sing some of her favorite songs in the lounge, one of which also happened to be my favorite, More, and of course, I would sing it a couple times every night. The more I sang it, the more I felt the true meaning of the words. We really got to know each other during those few days, as well as our togetherness on as many days as possible after the cruise, and falling in love. About nine months later we said our vows to spend the rest of our lives together, and Fran became the true woman in my life, my hero, my queen, my strength, and my everything. The words of that song, More, could not have had truer meaning then or now.

Two years later we were forced to go for custody of my children, since their mother was hauled in for neglect. There was a huge custody battle, but with Fran at my side, we finally got custody, and learned the ex had paid judges with my hard earned money she took. Imagine the fears, worries and anxiety of a young woman, barely 28 years old, suddenly forced into and having to become the mother of my four neglected kids. But neither I nor my children would have survived without the More than the greatest love of Fran, there by my side all the way.

And once more, a Tribute and Thanks to Paul Jean, for bringing Fran and me together. On July 16, 2013, Fran and I will celebrate our forty-first anniversary. And every word of that song, More, rings loud and true now as it did then. We’ve lived through the good and the bad as the song goes: “waking, sleeping, laughing, weeping.” And as a side note, I can still see Frank Sinatra standing there, applauding and cheering me on after singing those same words. Maybe he was somehow seeing into the future and my growing love for my loving wife, Fran, who is “More than the greatest love the world has known  –  No one else could love you MORE.”

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY SWEETHEART!!!!   July 16, 2013 And may we have many many MORE!

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.

cropped-Wynton_Kelly_01 (1)

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.

c-papersign-showers-white-colored-EM-army

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?”

drinking fountain colored

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.

The “Pepsi Pours it On” ‘60s campaign – Hats off to “Queen” Anne Phillips – Another overdub nut like me

Yeah, I guess that’s where I really learned it. Anne owned Stea-Phillips Studio in the old hotel next to Columbia Records at 799 Seventh Avenue. The Victoria. And she had a studio in her home in Jersey. She could overdub anything, anytime she felt like it, in her own places or her favorite others, like Bell Sound with Eddie Smith, Mira Sound with Brooks Arthur, and I guess I could name six or eight others. Anne was also the main singers contractor for groups for everyone, practically, who recorded. She also did one hell of a job composing, arranging and conducting, and was and is a great jazz singer.

There must have been at least a dozen or more singers working with Anne of which I was one. And there must have been all twelve or more of us called in on about the hottest July days of year in 1966 to back up Kate Smith on her Christmas Album It was hotter than hell when they had to turn the AC off when we recorded.

Our main group of four consisted of Anne, Jerry Keller, Trade Martin and me. We could sing anything written at sight. Her Queen Anne’s Lace Album” at HERE is available at CD Baby. We were joined on the album by two additional singers, Jerry Duane and Gene Steck. Several of Anne’s solo albums include the classic Born To Be Blue, and her most recent release, Ballet Time .

Anne had put me through a wringer, having to learn to sight sing anything written on a music sheet in any key. We were just like any good musician with an instrument. And then, with some additional coaching by Anne, I became one of the four of her main group. When she had more than one date booked, she would usually call on me to go and act as the leader according to AFTRA and SAG  rules. Anne was blessed, or rather cursed with perfect, or what is called absolute pitch. This meant that if a part was written in C, and the singer wanted to sing it down a half a step, the band would have to transpose it to the key of B with five sharps. And so would Anne. On the other hand, if they wanted it up a half step it would be in Db with five flats. The rest of us would just blissfully sight read, without a problem as if we were still in the key of C. But not Anne. She had to transpose.

Well, I get this call sometime in 1965 in the evening at the Columbia Studio, from Anne asking, “Can you do an imitation of Del Shannon?” “Sure, what’s up?” I said. During those times I had learned that you never turn down anything when it comes to a singing job. She explained that she was writing an arrangement for the Pepsi Cola “Come Alive“ campaign to sound like Del Shannon’s big hit, Handy Man in ’64. Frankly, I could imitate and sing like most anyone at that time, and I told her that I could do it. So I ran right out and bought the record and spent the rest of the night listening and copying his sound on his words, “I fix broken hearts, I know that I truly can Come-a, come-a , come-a Yeah, yeah, yeah Come-a, come-a, come-a”

So, we go into the studio the next day and Anne had assembled the best players and written a great rock arrangement that would sound identical to Del’s Handy Man. And there I was singing, “Come alive, Come-a come-a alive (from a high A and Bb twice), You’re in the Pepsi generation.” I thought it was for radio but learned later it was only a demo at AFTRA rates, and no radio play. But guess who did the TV commercial. You guessed it. Del Shannon, imitated me imitating him. I believe they may have just used the same music track and had him and the Royaltones overdub it. So he got the big bucks on that one. See it HERE.

Anne was arranger-conductor on some more for Pepsi, including the “Turtles” whom we also imitated, and then, they imitated us imitating them. Hear them HERE. She also did the “Four Tops.”

But the real big one came along later when I got a call from Anne to be at A&R studio the next morning for our own Pepsi commercial. Phil Ramone would be engineering, and a young(er) Jerry Bruckheimer at BBDO Adv. Agency producing. I was working days at Columbia at that time, and would have to call in with a sick day. The fact was that I had already called in because I had a bad case of laryngitis. So it wouldn’t be a lie. How in the hell am I going to do this? I thought. I could barely talk, much less sing, but here was one of my biggest breaks ever in show business. Since I had run out, I’d have to hurry to get some Megazones in the morning and eat them like candy to clear my throat.

My daily routine going to work at Columbia was to park my car in Long Island City and take the subway E train into Manhattan two stops to Fifth Avenue. On that day, even though my throat was a lot better, I would head on over to a certain drugstore on Broadway and buy up a load of “Megazones.” We singers would usually have some of these handy in case of throat problems. I didn’t. So, as the train approached the station, who did I see in the back of the last car but my studio boss? That’s right. We rode the same E Train those two stops every morning. There was no time to wait for another train so I hightailed it to the front end of the car, hoping he didn’t see me on the crowded standing only car. If I hadn’t gotten on and just stood there on the platform, he would have certainly seen me standing there, deepening the puzzle. Since he would usually get on the E train at the stop before mine, I would run into him often and we’d get off the train and walk a block to work together. If he had seen me and confronted me later, my excuse would have been that I was seeing a doctor in Manhattan. However, since we had to dress hip and young and Beatles like on most all of our dates, I don’t know how I would have explained my Beatle boots and my rock and roll outfit, if he had seen me and confronted me later. He didn’t. And I never really knew if he saw me or not.

So I got the Megazones and hurried to the A & R studio where about twenty or twenty-five musicians were setting up. A huge event. I was popping the powerful little lozenges one after another like candy, sucking away, trying to relax and numb my throat as much as possible. I almost fell over when I saw the parts. It was a first. We were to overdub three or four times, “Taste that beats the others cold, Pepsi pours it on…” Throat felt a lot better and I did it. I don’t know how but I did it, thanks to the Megazones. It was flying colors and I sang my ass off with all the others.  You can see and hear it HERE.   Another HERE. And just us and an MP3 HERE.   We did some more with different arrangements and keys later. We weren’t on camera, but we overdubbed and got paid double scale and double residuals with every play, and  residuals poured in for awhile.

And yes, it was played on the Super Bowl, a whole minute. Most unbelievable was hearing the cost of a one minute spot on the Super Bowl show was that year. When our Pepsi Pours It On one minute commercial  aired in 1967, it would have cost them $40,000 twice or $80,000.  See the yearly Super Bowl prices through the years at HERE.  This year, in 2013,  it would have cost them $8 million to run it, twice the $4 million for thirty seconds, almost two hundred times more than ’67 for the one minute.

Soon after that, one day while jaywalking across West 48th Street in New York heading for Manny’s Music Store to buy some strings, I was surprised by the loud honking of a horn coming at me, a big Rolls Royce. It was none other than Anne Phillips enjoying some of her newly earned singing wealth, also heading for Mannys. She deserved it, dammit, as one of the most talented people on the planet.

Well, speaking of Super Bowl  commercials, my son, Don Meehan Jr, a working actor moving ahead in New York, starred in a very funny one about the “Perfect” N.E. Patriots in 2008 with his comedic talents, when the price then was upwards of $5,400,000 for a one minute commercial. See it HERE. He did the Off Broadway show Play Dead  recently with Teller of Penn and, and is opening in another one on July 9, World Premiere of SASQUATCHED! THE MUSICAL Set for NYMF, 7/9 through 14. Yeah, just a block off the old chip. That’s my boy.

 

Overdubbing with RoughmixDon Meehan

How did I start the voice overdubbing process?

Gotta tell you the story of how I continued to overdub my voice in the ‘60s. That is if you’d like to hear it, or see it. It’s a little bit technical, but may be of interest to some. I started out with the one 8 track machine, because that’s all we had at Columbia at the time. It was the machine they built that the pop and classical non-rock ‘n rollers didn’t know how to use, apparently. I had discovered it gathering dust in the back hallway and decided to put it to use. Note in the illustration here at top left showing track (Tr) one  through eight.

OVERDUB CHART

Don Meehan’s overdub explanation of 8 track and 16 track in the ’60s

Track 8 had the click track. For those not familiar with the term, it was the beat per second perfectly timed for the desired tempo of the song, lasting for as long as desired to the end of the song. Starting on track 2, a tuning fork sounded to establish an “A” 440 pitch, which was the third in the key of F, and a count off just before the beginning of the song. That “A” and count-off  could then be heard each and every time a voice was added, but the click would not be heard in any of the vocal tracks. And so, the first voice was recorded on track 2. While listening to the first voice and the click track, the second voice was recorded on track 3, the third voice on track 4 and so on until the 6 voices were recorded. Oh, by the way, did I tell you about the dial tone on a phone gives you a pure F chord?

Those 6 voices were then mixed to track 1 and track 2 was erased. Voice 7 was then recorded to track 3, voice 8 recorded to track 4, and so on to voice 11 on track 7. Tracks 3 through 7 gave us 5 voices which were mixed to track 2, for a total now of 11 voices. Voices 12 through 15 were recorded on tracks 4 through 7, and those 4 voices were mixed to track 3 for a total of 15 voices. Those 18 voices were now mixed stereo to tracks 5 and 6. At this point a band could be added to the remaining tracks 1,2,3,4, and 7. I did a couple releases on Columbia in this manner, backwards you might say, with the band added last, as you will see below.

I used various setups later, including syncing two 8 track machines together. Along about that time Columbia research and development (R&D) built a one inch 16 track, and I was lucky to be the first one to use it as shown here. Clive signed me as an artist and Jimmy (the WIZ) Wisner produced several sides with me multi-tracking voices.

RoughmixdDon overdubbing a world record

Me, with my trusty little Lafayette speaker overdubbing on the 16 track

So, getting back to my one inch machine, with some tracks (18 voices) I had already started on the 8 track machine, I mixed those to tracks 14 and 15 of the 16 track, and the original tempo click to track 16 as seen in the illustration. I then recorded voices 19 to 29 on tracks 3 through 13 and mixed those 11 voices onto tracks 1 and 2. We now had a total of 18 plus 11 = 29 voices. Now, recording on 5 to 13 gave us 9 more voices totaling 38. Recording 7 through 13 gave us a total of 45 a cappella. And if we wanted a band at this point, we mixed those 7 to tracks 5 and 6, with 7 tracks then available for a band. And, yeah, we did the band, and House In The Country went out there and is still out there. Click HERE to hear it. It has about 29 or 30  overdubbed voices if my memory serves me right, since we had 9 tracks to record the band. Give a listen. No I didn’t do the dogs and the crickets. But it was the first recording ever released having been recorded on that machine. And then everyone wanted to use it. I have a story to tell later of about how I got into a struggle with some certain stars who wanted to use the machine. I had to stop my sessions since they came first. So, I had created a monster, I guess. Soon after that, 2 inch 16 track machines came along, and then 24 track. And Columbia Studios became the busiest studio in town.

DON CASHBOX AD - Copy

Note that I also have the little speaker here on my left listening to a take

 

The console you see in the photo and the ad was built for three and four track mixing only, and it was a real pain to have to bring in every piece of loose gear, equalizers and limiters, and another portable mixer to get all the tracks mixed. I continued with my “Don Meehan Project” and kept on recording back and forth and later on, wound up with 101 voices on the song Mons Meg, and then wiped enough tracks to record the band, and that’s how it was released. And here I am today, still overdubbing with my same old 50 year old Lafayette speaker in my ear.

Fib Lafayette speaker # 99-4551 - Copy

 My trusty little 50 year old Lafayette speaker

People ask me why the little speaker as opposed to using headphones. Also at that time, I was moonlighting with the Anne Phillips singers, backing up every unknown and known star around, in all the New York studios including Columbia. I discovered when I was group singing with the other singers, that when I heard myself in the phones I tended to hear and sing flat. You’ll see photos of people holding one earphone to their ear, and that is mostly the reason they do it; to hear themselves and also to blend with others. Also, when you have a set of headphones on, you don’t hear your natural self, such as what you hear when are just singing with nothing on your ears. However, not enough sound level can be delivered to an earphone like you can with a speaker, and when in a group, you need to hear the group as well as your own voice and blend yours with the others. And so, I discovered that the little speaker can deliver more power and a higher level, so as to hear a blend with the recorded voices. Also, the important factor is that you can hold it a certain way as to keep it from feeding back into the microphone.

As engineers and singers, I guess we all have tried different ways to overdub and hear the music tracks in the best possible way, and to deliver a great performance. I guess I’ll stay with my trusty little speaker. To date I have used it on 126 voices on the Hallelujah Chorus, with no leakage whatsoever of the click track. Guess I’m doing something right. Still no word from Guinness for the 200 voices.