Atlantic City had always lured me. Since childhood it had seemed so glamorous. My parents took Gene and me there often. So, not making it in Philadelphia in the summer of ’56, I contacted Atlantic City stations.
Amazingly an AM pop music station, WOND, Pleasantville, on the mainland across from Atlantic City, was looking for an overnight d.j. to take over in the fall.
“WONDerful music,” was the slogan. It featured the kind of thing adults would love, not rock and roll. The sounds of Frank Sinatra, Kay Starr, Patti Page, Lawrence Welk, The Four Lads, Pat Boone, Gogi Grant, Perry Como, Doris Day, and some of the same stars whose records I’d already featured just a few years before on WNAR. Clearly I knew something about that stuff already.
I got the job. Hired by Program Director John Struckell.
I found a furnished apartment in Ventnor, NJ, but also had to devise a way to complete my B.A. degree at Temple. No more performing in plays. Driving 65 miles each way and dovetailing that with my shift wouldn’t be easy. I didn’t want to deal with morning rush hour traffic for daytime classes. I didn’t want to hunt for a daytime parking space near Temple in the afternoon. The best choice was early evening courses. Not every day. I’d sleep in the morning and return to A.C. no later than 9 p.m.
The drive was never easy. About two-and-a-half hours along the Black Horse or White Horse Pike. There was no expressway.
My second-hand 1947 Chrysler was as unreliable as I was as a driver. My parents had never driven. Nor had my brother. We had never had a car. The only people in my family who did were my New York aunts, and they only used them in the summer. I had gone to driving school and had to take extra courses; I didn’t have the aptitude or the coordination, failing several driver’s tests.
I acquired the Chrysler without anyone’s knowledgeable advice. Why that car? Because it had a “semi-automatic” shift, which I thought would make it easier to switch gears. The clutch was less essential, a good thing considering my lack of driving talent. Plus the red plush seats looked classy.
The Chrysler had been getting me to and from WFLN, but I had to struggle to find street parking near my one-room apartment in Center City.
Collecting a few tickets, causing a couple of accidents while not being insured, my WFLN salary had always dwindled. After leaving FLN, I drove as little as possible so as not to have to pay too often for gasoline, frequently parking at a friend’s house way out in Frankford.
Soon after I started at WOND, I noticed that I was regularly running out of oil. An Atlantic City car mechanic told me that a piston ring job would solve the problem. When he told me the cost I was floored. But oil was cheap. So I kept a carton of cans in the trunk. So long as I didn’t drive more than 35 miles per hour, one can of oil would get me from Philly to Atlantic City, or back. Of course, it did slow the trip.
WOND was on a short street named “Old Turnpike” that tapered off into a dirt road on the edge of marshes. The two-story frame house sat on pilings designed to save it if the marshes flooded. There were no other buildings nearby.
The on-air studio looked out on a wooden catwalk over the marshes and out to the transmitter, pile-driven into soggy soil amid waving fronds. Way out there, I learned, the station signal could travel easily out to the ocean, carrying the broadcasts as far away as eastern Long Island. I’d be heard in New York!
Like d.j.s John and his brother George (“George Anthony”), Larry Carle, and Bob Richter, I could play any records I wanted so long as they were “wonderful.” No jazz.
And, especially, no rock and roll. The station was beginning to get a lot of that from record companies, usually on the new 45 rpm format, little discs with only space enough for about four minutes’ worth of non-wonderful music. Any such arrivals were immediately handed over to Chief Engineer Milt Thurlow who had orders to thoroughly scratch them with a screwdriver and throw them out.
So, I had my first all-night show. Midnight to 6 a.m. It felt glamorous, as if there were an intimate connection between me, completely in command of the studios, with people out there in the dark hanging on to my every word and every note of every record I chose to play for them.
Being in the station totally alone was different than being at WFLN with everyone always busy in the offices, or at WHAT with visitors constantly dropping in. This was deep night on a deserted road with stars clearly shining overhead, far enough away from Atlantic City but close enough to be able to see its bright lights twinkling across the bay. And, every so often, someone would call, a person of the night, and we’d have a friendly chat. I developed fans, of course. Who wouldn’t? I didn’t have to do or say anything special. I just had to be there.
Never feeling sleepy, I was alive and happy all through the fall and winter, managing a few classes without much difficulty, able to keep up with the cost of oil. Filling up the oil and checking the gas.
Changes in the Air
My first spring at WOND things changed. I married Vene Cipriotti, my beloved girl friend from Temple, from where she had just graduated, even though I hadn’t yet. We had met when performing in plays, although she was a journalism major with ambitions of being a writer. Given that she had considerable typing skills already she found a job as a secretary working at the Steel Pier for the Hamid family, which owned it and many local movie theaters. She started writing their advertising copy. Which I would then read on the air.
We rented a top floor motel apartment in Ventnor. Furnished, of course, with an arrangement to pay summer rates, $150 a month (equal to about $1,225 in 2012) for six months, getting the other six months free. Meanwhile I was still taking evening classes back in Philadelphia.
And my hours at WOND radically altered; I took over the 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift. Bob Richter became the morning show host when John Struckell left to work at WFPG. Station Manager Howard Green who’d liked my style and radio personality asked me to take over the slot. It also meant that the station could use me in producing its own commercials, working with Traffic Director Alan Israel who wrote the copy. That meant I’d do trick voices in comic commercials. Fun.
Of course, the music would have to be livelier and less soothing than overnight’s. I also had to come up with charming, brief chatter, sounding friendly, not serious, instead of more laid back as the source of gentle companionship in the deep night. Add some Bob Newhart, Stan Freberg, and Andy Griffith comedy LPs. I also found ways to do little comedy bits with my trick voices and using sound effect records and had fun with recorded open-end interviews, voice-tracks where the celebrities’ answers were heard but we could read the scripted matching questions live as if we were the interviewers. Or, in my case, coming up with original questions rather than the intended ones; e.g., Boris Karloff: “I’ve been working like a demon on all sorts of parts.” GS: “Boris, what have you been doing in your garage?”
I missed hearing jazz, though. Oh, I had kept a few LPs I had solicited from record companies while at WFLN, but I wanted to share them with other people, not listen to them alone. I proposed to Howard a two-hour evening show at 10 o’clock. At no extra pay. He agreed to let me have one on Tuesdays.
WOND didn’t have jazz records. There were some LPs that were considered pop music, such as those featuring Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, or Sarah Vaughn singing, or Stan Kenton, Les Brown, and Billy May leading their orchestras in dance band arrangements.
Among them, too, was something by a kid a couple of years younger than I, a singer named Johnny Mathis. Billed as “A New Sound in Popular Music,” his debut was really a jazz record. It had arrangements by Gil Evans, the Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis, and Teo Macero who’d worked with Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. The bands featured Buck Clayton, Hank Jones, Art Farmer, Tony Scott,* Phil Woods, and more great artists. What a range and what a talent Mathis had! He could have been a great jazz singer. But Columbia Records’ Mitch Miller had other plans for him.
*Actually listed as “A.J. Sciacca,” his birth name being Anthony Sciacca (“I’m a Sicilian and proud of it,” he said to me some years later). This was a time when record companies were serious about exclusive contracts, and musicians like Tony couldn’t appear with the same names as on those contracts. He had a major gig with RCA as Harry Belafonte’s music director. Phil Woods, by the way, became “Phil Funk”; Art Pepper “Art Salt”; Art Farmer “Kunst Bauer” (German for “Art Farmer”); Charlie Parker “Charlie Chan.”
Anyway, with my own minor collection of jazz LPs, that wasn’t enough for a weekly show on a regular basis. Since WOND already had an arrangement with two of our sponsors, the Pleasantville Music Shoppe and Ocean City Records, LPs were given to the station as partial payment for advertising. So jazz LPs were added. I selected them. What a golden opportunity. Free records. Some of which I kept; no one at the station cared. I still have a few, collectors’ items now.
We d.j.s had another trade deal. Each of us was allowed to find a gas station which would give us a free fill-up once a week in exchange for daily commercials that we’d read and produce every day during our shifts. Mine were for Risso and Graham’s Sunoco Service Station on Ventnor Avenue across from Atlantic City High. Perks, huh?
I thought I should have some theme music to start and end the jazz show, like many d.j.s. A pensive, lyrical one called “Spencer’s Song” seemed perfect, not only because I was a Spencer but also the mood seemed right. It featured one of my favorite trumpet players, Ruby Braff. The LP I used was from RCA featuring the music played on a 1956 Alcoa Hour TV drama called The Magic Horn. Braff had the role of a legendary musician, Spencer Lee. Another of my favorites, trombonist Vic Dickenson performed in it, too. He and Braff were together on some great Vanguard Records sessions around that time. Trumpet player Jimmy McPartland was likewise in the cast. I’d interviewed him at WFLN the previous year. What better choice could there have been?
I called it Just Jazz and each program began with an ad-libbed intro, something like this. “The little man with the battered hat stood outside in the rain falling gently on 52nd Street that warm spring evening. He clutched a folded newspaper under one arm and was able to keep it dry while he pondered which club to go to. There were so many choices. All of them great. Great because so many great musicians were there. The paper had told him who. He loved them all. He loved their music. So where would he go? Into which club? Actually it didn’t matter, because wherever he went, he’d find what he came for. Jazz. Just jazz.”
Like that little man, I loved that music too.
As spring merged into summer, other things changed. On the air. Larry Carle and Bob Richter, who, in addition to being d.j.s, also sold station advertising and started bringing in a lot of business. Peak season. Which meant that there had to be enough space on the air to squeeze in every possible spot announcement. Which meant less talk about the music. And less music. And more advertising. But the problem was, even though WOND was the highest rated station in the market, management was convinced that other stations could offer lower rates to grab those clients. You’d think that management would have just raised the rates instead of cramming in more.
In July and August we often had so many commercials that we had to use radio library transcriptions which had been specially produced for radio stations, featuring well-known performers’ tracks edited down to about two minutes each. Or we’d cue up the track* from other LPs somewhere in the middle of the song, usually where there was an orchestra bridge between early and later vocal solos. More than once, I’d say, after a slew of back-to-back commercials: “Now, here’s something special: Music!” Nobody at the station minded. But I kept wondering who would be listening to all that talk without much WONDerful music. Probably the advertisers. Or salesmen from other stations hoping to get leads.
*Normally, by the way, we’d cue up the tracks, after putting down the tone arm, by turning the LPs counter-clockwise two turns. The turntables did not pick up complete speed immediately and no one wanted the music to “wow” if not given enough time to get up to full speed.
Bill Watson (already mentioned in Chapter Radio Daze) was on QXR in 1976 when I was added to the substitute announcer list once more, not that we ever encountered each other at the station. He had a weekly pre-recorded program sponsored by American Airlines. C.E.O. C.R. Smith had much admired Bill’s NCN broadcasts and personality and not only paid to have him host three hours once a week on WQXR but also hired him to select and announce all the classical music recordings heard on American’s in-flight music services.
I’m sure QXR required Bill to tape his show to be certain that Bill would not do something radical on the air for which he’d become so well-known during 15 years at NCN. I heard one such program while I had an evening shift. Bill said something about having received a letter from a listener whose name he mentioned. That was all he said about that person—no thanks, no comment—moving on to announce his next music selection. Had this been the old days, he would have most likely excoriated the listener on the air for something in the letter. I asked the engineer on duty if Bill’s comments had been edited. “Yeah. All the time,” he answered.
At QXR I became friendly with Earl Bradsher, Jr. (a.k.a. Earl Bradley) who regularly broadcast weather features sponsored by Con Ed. Earl was one of the few out gay men I knew and was critical of closeted others, such as those at WNCN. He was planning to start a classical music radio station in St. Petersburg and kept urging me to consider becoming his program director. Since I had no intention of leaving New York, when he moved to start up WXCR (Tampa Bay Concert Radio), he asked me to record station IDs for him. Which I did gratis. In December 2015 I searched for his name online and found it in a 1983 piece in the St. Petersburg Times. Clearly at that time he’d started the station. What happened thereafter is yet to be found.
QXR dropped me from the substitute list when I went full-time at NCN.
Reunited with Jazz
At BAI I got to renew my weekly American Music series, again featuring contemporary concert/“classical” music, jazz, film scores, and cast recordings of musicals. Since at least half of my 1960s LPs were still in storage in Genova, I was in touch with record companies and began to re-build my library. Also there were a lot of new “modern” music LPs at NCN, never to be aired. I incorporated them into my broadcasts with David’s tacit acceptance, because they never left the station and were played only on NCN equipment. Bob Richer OKd my taping there.
There were a few pop records coming into NCN. Among them was one by Gino Vanelli, Canadian pop/rock singer/writer who’d created a symphonic piece Pauper in Paradise, which had a lot of appeal and seemed just right for the BAI program where any kind of musical cross-over fit right in. With that and other Vanelli discs, I became a fan.
This was a time when jazz musicians were into the trends of what sold best—latino sessions, fusion, funky hard-bop. Sure, I liked some of that and programmed it, but the mainstream was still my stream.
Of course, substantial audiences remained for much of what jazz greats were still doing in person but on fewer records than in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Plus there were younger musicians who were carrying on such traditions, especially those debuting on newly emerging Concord Records, such as Scott Hamilton and Warren Vaché, both of whom I interviewed (Hamilton in 1981 and Vaché in 1985).
During that time Lionel Hampton had started his own label, Who’s Who In Jazz—great sessions where Hamp performed separately, with Dexter Gordon, Woody Herman, J.J. Johnson, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Woody Herman, and more. Impressive line-ups and lots of good playing. The production of the LPs left an indelible impression. They were the sloppiest such product ever seen, with misspellings of artists’ names, strange and varying typefaces, wrong composer credits for some of the songs, including Hampton’s taking credit for something called “Short Ribs,” which was really Louis Armstrong’s “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” In one instance, a jacket cover made it look as if Coleman Hawkins was on the recording. He wasn’t. Margaret Mercer was listed as a co-producer for some LPs; she had been an assistant to David Dubal around that time and later became program director at WQXR.
I hosted a jazz radio show in Italy, taped at NCN.
In 1978, I went on a holiday, revisiting Genoese friends from the time when I’d lived among them. They included painter Gianni Ghiazza. When I told him about my jazz shows in New York he introduced me to Marco Remondini who had recently started his own radio station, Radio Genova Sound. English words. Very hip.
Marco had started the station in 1975 at a time when RAI owned and controlled all Italian broadcasting. His was one of a number of private stations that started cropping up around then. They weren’t legal. But, since no government agency made any moves to close them down, such owner/operators continued broadcasting based on the widely held Italian modus operandi that anything not officially prohibited was tacitly acceptable. Soon the private stations were being fined as unauthorized businesses but still not prohibited from broadcasting. They opted to pay fines and several decided to appeal their rights legally. In 1976, the Italian Constitutional Court, in a case involving a Florence station, held that the RAI monopoly was unconstitutional regarding local broadcasting. Radio Genova Sound was officially on the air. http://www.citi.columbia.edu/elinoam/articles/Broadcasting_in_Italy-Overview.pdf. These stations called themselves “public” radio to contrast with state radio. They also sold advertising, as did RAI.
Marco and I discussed producing a monthly two-hour bi-lingual show on tape and mailing it. He could only afford to pay me 40,000 lire per show (ca. $50 then and about $190 in 2015) plus mailing costs. He thought it was equally hip to have someone on his station speaking some English. This was a characteristic intro: Allora, qui abbiamo un disco da Duke Ellington. This is the 1959 orchestra with Johnny Hodges, sax alto as soloist, e dopo Jimmy Rushing canta and Dizzy Gillespie plays la tromba. The titles “Fillie Trillie” e “Hello Little Girl.”
The show was called Jazz Da New York con Gordon. It was a hell of a lot of fun.
On a second trip in 1980, I decided to take two boxes of tapes, 12-inch reels recorded at 7.5 ips, which equals one hour of the show per tape. I was carrying six months’ of shows and traveling by train from Germany, as opposed to my previous visit in a rented car. Arriving at the Italian border, two members of the Guardia di Finanza (Customs Police) asked me what was in the boxes. In Italian. Stupidly I replied in Italian, forgetting my old practice of speaking English when confronted by Italian authorities. Usually in such instances I was left to go on my way, being considered thereby to be a tourist, i.e., guest, or because the authorities usually spoke very little English. This time I was taken off the train and questioned about the legality of transporting unauthorized recorded material, as if it were a product for sale. (At least I was smart enough not to mention that Marco paid me for the shows.) The Guardia guys felt that I should pay customs fees. But after some friendly discussion, given that I was an American and could prove it, and that I didn’t actually live in Italy, they decided to let me go and put me on the next train.
Then, in 1981, I met Carla Verdacci of RAI at a party at a friend’s apartment. I mentioned my on-going show. She suggested that I send her a copy of one of the tapes; she might be interested enough to propose it to RAI back in Rome. She liked it. She pitched it. Jazz da New York con Gordon became a monthly RAI feature all across Italy for two years until I was no longer in New York. At double the payment rate.
Reversing directions, two close Italian friends came to visit New York in 1976 and were eager to hear Woody Allen play his jazz clarinet. They knew the dates and the place. Allen appeared at Michael’s Pub on Monday nights. We went. His group of musicians, some of whom were familiar to me from records, got into traditional New Orleans style. Allen sounded quite capable but not distinctive. But my friends didn’t care about that; they just loved being there. After one set, Allen took a chair on the stage and, sitting by himself, shook hands and held brief conversations sequentially with any people in the audience who wanted that personal contact. Sort of a Santa Claus line. My friends were thrilled to have the chance to speak with him, me translating. He was courteous and polite.
I did a few interviews for my BAI program. Two stood out. One with Ruby Braff. The other with Gerry Mulligan.
Braff was my all-time favorite trumpet/cornet player and I’d cherished his recordings for more than 25 years. He was appearing in the Newport Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall in 1980. Having never seen or heard him in person I was looking forward to that. And decided to try to get an interview. With his phone number from the Festival publicity office, we made an appointment to meet at his apartment in the Bronx.
It was clear from the start that he was delighted for the attention. He was jolly and outgoing. We both had a great time. When the taping finished he gave me a couple of new LPs he’d recorded in England. One was on the Pizza Express label, Braff Plays Bing. He told me a story Crosby told about himself. In the early ’70s when Crosby was in his, a New York taxi driver asked him, “Didn’t you used to be Bing Crosby?” To which he replied, “Nah. Must be some other fella.”
Braff also told me a Benny Goodman story. Braff had played in some of Benny’s 1950s groups, in person and on records. Eleanor Steber (opera soprano) had gone to Goodman’s house to go over some music they were planning to perform together. Steber told B.G. that the room felt very cold. Benny agreed. Excused himself and left the room. And returned wearing a sweater. Without further comment. Steber told this to people she knew.
Ruby and I became something like friends. He suggested that we keep in touch and that we should hang out together. He’d call me. Which he did. He invited me to join him at Jimmy Ryan’s where one of his favorite trombonists Vic Dickenson was playing. They’d had some great sessions together for Vanguard Records in the ’50s. Being a big fan of Dickenson, I looked forward to going.
I’d never been in Ryan’s, despite its reputation. It usually featured traditional jazz, a.k.a. Dixieland. Even though I loved such music along with all other styles, going to any club was not something I did. Ruby and I stood at the bar talking during the music. Conversation under such circumstances seemed normal. This was not a venue for a serious concert. At a break, Vic Dickenson came over to the bar near us. Despite his vigorous outgoing manner on the stage, he looked serious. “I’d like to go over and tell him how much I admire his playing,” I told Ruby.
“Don’t embarrass him. Don’t embarrass him. He hates having to play here,” Ruby replied. Then Ruby went over to Dickenson, wordlessly shook hands and returned to me.
Soon we were conversing about musicians playing in clubs, competing with all the noise of talking people. “They’re listening,” he said. “They hear what we’re doing. And I know when to play softly to get their attention, if I want it. That’s what it’s like in clubs.”
A month before, I’d gone on a Thursday evening to hear pianist Roland Hanna play in a small club near Washington Square. There were only a few people there to eat, drink, and listen. Always a Hanna admirer, I was once again impressed with his gentle, lyrical pieces. Clearly a party of six, really partying, wasn’t listening. Gabbing. Laughing loudly. All of a sudden in the middle of one piece, Hanna got up from the keyboard and went to a table by himself. Going over to him, I told him how much I liked his playing on records and just a few minutes ago before he’d stopped. “Yeah,” he said, sadly, “but how could you hear it?” I replied that I could hear it and asked why he walked away from the keyboard. “What’s the point?” he asked. “I can’t compete with that.”
Telling Braff about that, Braff commented, “Jesus Christ! What did he expect? It’s a club.”
And we talked, too, about Charles Mingus who’d eventually given up such live gigs, laughing together at a Mingus’ recording, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, where Mingus wanted to give the feeling of a club date and begins by telling the audience how to behave.
Another time Ruby invited me to one of his small club gigs in Fort Lee. He performed with a guitarist and a bassist and kept loudly calling out key changes after a few lines of notes in the same tune. It was very distracting.
In April 1982, he invited me and my girlfriend/eventual wife Hannelore to hear him at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on 5th Avenue at 90th Street. Pianist Dick Hyman performed with him, a pairing with great results already on records. That afternoon Hyman played the church’s pipe organ. The idea for both of them was not entirely new; in 1977 Hyman had recorded on a studio organ with Braff in a set of Fats Waller-connected tunes (Fats Waller’s Heavenly Jive). This time Braff was facing downstage, his back to Hyman, whose back was to his. They played magnificently. How did they coordinate without seeing each other? I asked Hyman afterwards. He showed me two mirrors he’d set up on the organ wings.
Braff had told me by then he hated playing in such out-of-the-way places as that one in Fort Lee, but that he always tried to avoid big clubs where there was a lot of smoking; he was developing emphysema, making it increasingly difficult to get the most out of his horn. FYI: he died of it in 2003, more than 20 years after we’d connected.
Having left New York for New Mexico later in 1982, I didn’t try to stay in touch. Frankly I made no effort to do so, just as I’d neglected to sustain a similar friendship with Tony Scott.
Waiting for a set to begin, I was standing in a hallway, when drummer Bobby Rosengarden walked by. I recognized him from when he’d played with Woody Allen at Michael’s Pub. “Hello Bobby,” I said. “You’ve played with Ruby Braff, right?” He said that he had. “Is Ruby anywhere around? I’m a friend of his.”
“Yeah?” Rosengarden replied. “Probably the only friend he’s got.” And walked off.
I soon found Ruby in the hall, talking to bassist Michael Moore. I went over to them.
“Hello, Ruby!” I said. “I’m Gordon Spencer. Remember? We met in New York.”
“Yeah. How you doing Gordon? Good to see ya.” And he turned back to Michael Moore. Dismissed.
Certainly my feelings were hurt. But I let it pass. I’m sure Ruby had met a lot of people in New York and elsewhere. Given that this was at least three years since we’d last been in touch, it might have been natural that he didn’t remember me.
But what did Rosengarden mean? In time, I learned that Ruby was becoming more and more contentious with everyone he knew. He accumulated quite a negative reputation, being called by some colleagues “Mr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde,” no doubt inspired by one his favorite Robert Louis Stephenson books. You can likewise see him being nasty in an interview with Brit Jim Godbolt. https://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2014/12/05/jim-godbolt-interviews-ruby-braff. However, there Braff is also full of praise for many jazz greats and turns out to be eventually quite congenial. It’s a great interview.
Interviews with musicians can often turn out to be challenging. Even those of us who come fully prepared have to expect many variables. Some musicians are so outgoing and friendly, such as Louis or Duke, about whose interviews I wrote above, that the interviewer is almost superfluous. Yet there are other artists who are not that articulate, or are distracted, or bored, or even annoyed, especially when dealing with the same questions that they consistently get asked.
My interview with Gerry Mulligan had a much different feeling than the one with Ruby. In January 1981 I’d seen an article in New York Magazine about Mulligan, mentioning that one of his quartets was to play at Eric’s in February. I called the club to see if I could get Mulligan’s phone number so as to set up an interview. That made it possible to call Mulligan. I told him that I’d admired him for years and that I often played his records on WBAI, WNCN, WOND, WFLN. Politely he said he wasn’t much available because he was working on writing new orchestral arrangements for a concert with the CBC Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in June. But that, if he had some free time later in the month, he’d get back to me.
As the date for the gig at Eric’s became imminent, not having heard from him, I decided to call again. Responding, he said, “Well, as I think I told you I’m really busy. But, all right, if you want to come up to my home in Darien, I guess I can spare about an hour. But no more. Would that be acceptable?”
Yeah, if I’d thought about it better, I might have realized that this was something of an imposition. But I was so eager to talk with him that I didn’t want to miss the chance. It was clear from what I’d recently read that Mulligan was, off the stand, an intellectually alive person with many interests in all kinds of things, including (like me) classical Indian music and yoga, theatre, literature, movies. I felt as if we might bond. Well, anyway, I hoped we would. That was certainly naïve.
Arriving at his house, I was warmly welcomed by his wife Franca. We exchanged a few words in Italian and she led me into their living room. Mulligan told me (again) that he hoped we could keep the talk to no more than an hour.
Every so often in the conversation I felt that he was a little put off by the questions, not that they were in any way personal, but rather as if the answers were so obvious that they needn’t be asked.
It wasn’t a bad interview by any means, but listening to it later, he sounded impatient at times. I concluded that he hadn’t really wanted to be bothered but had felt it was an obligation, being, after all, somebody famous who needed to not be dismissive of the press.
We ran into each other again in February 1995 at a gig. He fronted a quartet playing in Milwaukee where I was living, hosting jazz shows and serving on an advisory board for a series of jazz performances at the Pabst Theater. I was the m.c. I didn’t expect him to recognize me after 14 years but went up to him to say hello and to remind him of that encounter. Remembering that Franca spoke Italian I thought it would be cool to talk to him in Italian because he must have known some. When I started speaking, he looked totally unsettled, as if facing an obstacle that threw him off-balance. I guess he didn’t understand. Apologizing in English, I told him my name. Then, when introducing him on stage, we shook hands as if old friends. It had never occurred to me that backstage he could have been nervous before a performance. So many people are. Why shouldn’t he be?
Clearly we never bonded.
In 1978, I’d gone to a jazz concert at Carnegie Hall. Stan Getz was on stage. (“That’s some kind of genius,” Ruby said to me once.) Before Getz started playing, he went over to the microphone stand then walked away from it. Calling out backstage, he said, “Would someone take this thing away from here? We don’t need it. This is Carnegie Hall for Chrissakes!” A stagehand came and moved the microphone to the side of the stage. Many of us cheered. I vowed then I’d find a way to tell him of my admiration.
In late June 1982, I had that chance. He was to appear at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in a reunion concert with Jimmy Giuffre, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims. The “Four Brothers” shared the bill with younger, further-out guys, the World Saxophone Quartet: Hamiet Bluiett, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and David Murray.
Through the concert promoters, I’d been able to phone Getz and he said to meet him backstage after he, Giuffre, Cohn, and Sims had practiced out front.
They ran through a few arrangements, deciding who would solo where, Getz then came to where I was sitting, leaving the other men still on stage talking, occasionally playing a few notes, as if trying out things.
He seemed gentle, almost serene. Quite a contrast to ebullient Ruby Braff and opaque Gerry Mulligan. I told Getz of my admiration for his Carnegie Hall comment. He smiled. “Yeah. You’d think they would have known better. Horowitz wouldn’t have had a mic.”
I took my tape recorder out of a bag and plugged in a microphone. Immediately a tall, grey-bearded man in sloppy street clothes walked over to us.
“What are you guys doing?” he challenged.
“I’m going to interview Mr. Getz,” I replied, showing him the microphone and the tape machine.
“What do you mean?”
“You have permission from IATSE?” (The backstage tech union.)
“Gee, no. Do I need that?”
“Goddamn right you do!”
“Well, I’m an AFTRA member.”
“And I’m with the AFM,” Stan added.
“Look,” the IATSE guy said, getting pissed off. “I don’t care what unions you belong to. This is an IATSE space. You can’t record here. We do all the recording. You know, I could confiscate that equipment you’ve got. So you better get the hell out of here right away if you know what’s good for you.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know.”
“Well, you should have.”
I was flustered and distressed, not able to think what to suggest next to Stan as we walked out of the building. Upon exiting, we ran into bassist Marc Johnson who just happened to be passing by. Johnson had played with Bill Evans at the same 1978 Carnegie Hall concert as Getz. Stan hugged him tenderly, said something I couldn’t hear, and we continued heading toward Columbus Avenue.
I knew that Getz had used an echoplex a few times and I’d had felt that saxophonist John Klemmer, well-known for that device, sometimes had a Getz-like tenderness in his playing. “I was wondering,” I said to Stan as we walked, “Do you think that John Klemmer was influenced by you?”
“God, I hope not,” he replied, grinning. Before I had a chance to ask what that meant, he’d hailed a taxi. Getting in, he asked, “Can I drop you off somewhere?”
Oh, I thought, he’s through with me. “If I go wherever you’re going, maybe we could talk there?” I suggested.
He directed the driver to an address in Greenwich Village. “Look, I’m staying at Irwin Corey’s house. I shouldn’t bring in any uninvited guest. Maybe we could do this some other time.” Perhaps he’d been put off by that IATSE encounter. Certainly I was.
He left me off near Times Square and I walked cross-town to my apartment, dejected.
Incidentally, long an Irwin Corey admirer, I always loved his Professor act (“The World’s Foremost Authority”), having seen it numerous times on TV, especially on TheTonight Show with Steve Allen where the routine ended with Corey being chased through the audience, i.e., “Stop that madman!” I’d even used some of his style in my Beyond the Fringe audition back in the ’60s (see above). Plus something in Corey’s face reminded me of my father in a jovial mood.
Actually I met Corey in 1978. Gary Gumpert, an old friend from my days at Temple University, had heard me on NCN and called to re-connect after so many years. He invited us to a party at his home in Great Neck. On a balmy April evening we sat in a small garden outside his house where Gary introduced me to some neighbors. Corey was one of them.
Corey looked just as I thought he would, except that his hair was combed and he was wearing clothes more casual than the falling-apart, semi-formal attire of his standard act. Naturally I told him how much I’d enjoyed his performances. “They are terrific, aren’t they?” he asked with a serious expression on his face.
Used to talking to famed people, mostly musicians, I wasn’t star-struck. Rather than pepper him with questions, I told him about how Gary and I knew each other and about Temple U and my own performing background. Corey seemed interested. Soon we dispersed into the party. But I kept subtly watching him to see how he behaved off-stage. He seemed very much like the Professor. At one point all of us started earnestly discussing politics. There Corey rambled on in the same tone as the Professor, throwing in non-sequiturs, making little sense. No one laughed. Maybe he was serious. But it was as if he and the Professor were interchangeable. Maybe doing that act so often, they’d merged somehow.
Speaking of old friends, in 1980, Jean Desjardins (a.k.a. John Gardner), a buddy from the 1960s, called and invited me to his wedding celebration at his home in suburban Philadelphia, an isolated house surrounded by woods and trees. It was one of the most original parties I’d ever attended. He’d not only hired caterers but wandering entertainers, including a double-talking comic who threaded and chattered among us. Plus, all of a sudden, a bagpiper, completely kilted, dramatically came marching through the woods. Rufus Harley, a black man who’d billed himself as the World’s First Jazz Bagpiper. I knew who he was; he played on a Herbie Mann concert LP from about 10 years before. Evidently he was one of John’s neighbors.
During those days Fleetwood, Marzano, and I collectively became friends with Gladys Buchman, a regular NCN listener. She sometimes called us and sent us holiday greeting cards and a few times invited us to dinner at her apartment. Together we eventually decided to take her up on the offer out of curiosity. It turned out that she was in her early ’60s and lived in Alphabet City…Avenue C, I think…in a public housing project with her husband Morris.
They were both very jolly people and seemed to be unendingly fascinated hearing our stories about ourselves. So we three minor celebrities had a great time hanging out together, which we’d never done elsewhere or before. Plus Gladys and Morris would tell us about their kinds of lives about which we had no inkling, except to learn that they loved going to live concerts despite living on pensions.
Naturally, I invited Gladys and Morris to dinner in midtown and once asked them if they’d like to see my cat, Sulu, given that they had three cats of their own.
Gladys couldn’t get over Sulu’s beauty. He was indeed magnificent. A nine-year old chinchilla, with deep blue eyes, beautiful white fur under light grey tips. Many friends had remarked on his exceptional looks. Some had even said that he should get modeling jobs. A potential show business cat. Gladys thought so, too. A friend of a friend of hers knew an animal talent agent.
Gladys gave me the name and phone number. Sulu and I got an appointment.
The agency was in a large office building on West 54th Street. A tiny office, seeming to have one room, one agent. Nothing unusual about the place except for an open cardboard box full of wriggling, chirping chicks on the top of a small bookcase.
“Before you let the cat out of the case,” the agent asked, “do you think the chicks are in any danger?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “He’s never seen any before. It’s hard to say. But I can probably get him back into the case if there is a problem.” Nonetheless, I scanned the office to see where Sulu might run and hide if he panicked. Not that chicks would scare him, but the agent’s reaction to threat could turn out to be too energetic.
“OK,” the agent said. “Why don’t you let him out?”
Sulu was not eager to emerge. He had certainly not enjoyed the cab ride or the ascension in the elevator. He was a house pet, not a traveling companion.
As in the past, I had to turn his carrying case on its side to, in effect, dump him out. The trick was to pick him up thereafter before he scampered away. Of course, he was nervous. Not because he was auditioning. That would have been my effect on him, wondering if Sulu was on the brink of a performing career.
I was able to lift him to my shoulders where he stared at me, as if to say, “What the hell is this?” Then he scanned the room. His ears pricked up, hearing the chicks. He was very close to them. He looked. No other reaction. He turned to me, still puzzled. That was his audition. He passed.
The agent called me the following week telling me that Sulu had a job. A photo shoot. All I had to do was take him to a photo studio in the Garment District at the scheduled time.
There were several rooms in sequence at the studio. The receptionist sent us to one, saying Sulu would be up soon. The waiting room was full of cats, some sitting on human laps, others hiding under chairs. None of them seemed to be congenially mingling with the others. Stuck up felines. Nothing unusual there.
A man with an occupied cat-carrying case joined us, looking discouraged and picked up his coat.
“How’d it go?” a rather glamorous lady cat-companion asked.
“He didn’t make it,” the man replied.
I took Sulu out of his case and held him, stroking him, getting him to resist the urge to hide under another chair.
Talking with the other cat people, I learned that we were all there for the same job. This was Sulu’s gig? I didn’t get it.
A gruff male voice called out. “OK. Gordon. Bring Sulu in.” Certainly someone there knew what the star animal’s name was.
That room glared with spotlights. They were illuminating a draped wooden box on top of which was a different shaped box containing the delights of Tender Vittles Gourmet Dinner.
“OK, Gordon, here’s what we want,” said the man identifying himself as the director. “We just want Sulu to sit next to the box, with one paw on it and look straight-ahead at you. Which is toward the camera, under which you’ll sit. Do you think the lights in his face will scare him?”
As before at the agent’s, I knew Sulu was unpredictable. He was a cat. “Gosh. I don’t know,” I replied in a confident show business voice.
“Right,” the director said. “Could you take him over to the box, set him down next to it, put his right paw on it and slowly walk back?”
Sulu’s paw was placed. I backed away. Subtly.
“Camera ready?” the director whispered.
From somewhere behind me and the lights a voice answered “Ready.”
Sulu left the box and walked over to me and sat in my lap.
“Do you think he can do this?” the director asked gently, not at all aggressive.
As before, I pleaded innocent ignorance.
Same routine. Set the camera. Ready for the shot. Sulu back to my lap. Well, at least he didn’t hide under a chair.
After the third try the director said. “Sorry, Gordon. That’s a great looking cat, but this won’t work.”
I asked if I could stay and watch the next candidate and was told that that was all right, provided that Sulu didn’t fight with his competition. Sulu and I took a seat together off to the side where he remained secure in the place he most wanted to be: my lap.
The next cat was striped black and white and didn’t look all that special. The lady who brought him placed his paw on the box and walked away. This animal could have been stuffed for all the movement it didn’t make. Multiple photos were taken. The cat never moved that whole time. Show business. There’s no business like it. I know.
I made no other attempt to further Sulu’s career.
As for mine, I had a couple of minor roles in advertising.
I had an agent, Bea (Bernice) Beck, who would every so often get me auditions. She was the wife of one of the most famed voice-over performers of all time, Jackson Beck. Not that his name would be remembered by most audiences. Rather, actors and announcers much admired and envied him; he got a lot of work. Those of us who experienced the great days of radio drama knew him as narrator for The Adventures of Superman for many years. And he provided loads of voices for everything else, including cartoons, e.g., “Bluto” in “Popeye” movies.
Bea did get me one memorable job. It was for voicing an Arby’s TV commercial. Young & Rubicam producing.
In the luxurious, classily decorated offices, I joined five other men in a waiting room going over the script. We said “hello” to each other. Plenty of resonant voices there, pretending that we didn’t mind that one of us could come away with the big cash which we deserved, given our massive talent, even if none of us was in Jackson Beck’s league.
The script: one page, one sentence: “Get your free Norman Rockwell glasses now at Arby’s.” What a challenge. Incidentally, almost 40 years later, they’ve become collectors’ items.
My profound reading took the day. Subsequently the session took one day. All day going over and over that one sentence. The director had me say more variations than anyone could imagine.
Bea got me a buy-out, i.e., rather than receiving residuals over the time that this commercial aired, I got a flat fee. AFTRA rates, of course. I don’t remember how much money that was; it might have been something like $700, given the fee of $2,000 in early 2016.
For a couple of years I also produced and voiced radio commercials for New Jersey Symphony Orchestra concerts. This was a pattern I thereafter repeated for the New Mexico, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh symphony orchestras. Aside from my expertise with such content, I blew away the competition; Hannelore was a top staff member in the marketing departments for all three.