ANOTHER LOVELY MUSICAL EVENING: The Saga of Ukulele Al Brown
by Ian Whitcomb
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer,
composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and
Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com
"I clapped my hands in glee and my eyes
filled with the salt of a sweet sadness", wrote Elsie Pangland-Frosset in
scribbled pencil on one of her initialed paper napkins." How is it possible
for a mere popular song to take me into such a welter of emotions??" The
song, innocuous enough in itself, was "The Flower Garden Ball," a pot
pourri from a far country of pleasant mustiness. But it carried some dark
baggage: Elsie had danced a mad fox trot to the song at a dance back in 1913
when it was young and fresh; three months later her husband Hiram dropped
without warning on the 17th green, dead before he reached the grass.
She picked up her crystal glass gamely, swirling the wine slowly, and called for more music:" Headier! Heartier!" She did not mean a Freudian march, even though this was late 1924 and such notions were in the air. She craved for the hard liquor of nostalgia, she wished to be back in "The Land of Beginning Again". So Al Brown, the evenings entertainer, went into the old number with but the quickest of winks to his hostess.
Brown was getting known on local radio as "Ukulele Al " but tonight, at Mrs Pangland-Frosset's weekly soiree of parlor music in her Pasadena mansion,
he was a service provider, manning her grand piano, pumping out the old songs with reverence, leading the ladies in a singalong. It was good money and
there were perks attached: some pretty tasty canapés and dips, plus imported wines courtesy of certain ships-of-good-cheer up from Mexico. Mrs P-F might
look the very pillar of Pasadena society--rigid in dress, stuck with flowers-- but she sure knew how to put on a gathering. And after the ladies had left there'd be a slap-up supper of hot viands and creamy mashed potatoes in the kitchen, without any staff around to cramp his style. Not that Mrs. P had any boudoir plans--she and Al had a certain artistic understanding and let's leave it like that.
Elsie--Al was allowed to call her that--had leanings towards literature. She belonged to the local Shakespeare Club (as well as several flower garden
societies required of her social class) and, given the opportunity, she'd read from her notebook of musings or even from her collection of napkin jottings. She believed in spontaneity, she was modern in that way. She subscribed to "Saturday Night" because the magazine so often ran articles and photographs concerning modern dance of the free-flowing improvisational variety---willowy females in thin muslin reaching for the stars one instant and pointing to the earth the next. She followed trends in art too, and was fascinated by abstraction and, lately, mechanism.
With all this devotion to respectable culture it would appear odd that Mrs. P should show an indulgence for the common or garden popular song,
especially the sentimental type. Odder still to hear Al Brown sing of "Blue Jeans" and her lover wandering the trails of the old Cumberland within the
luxuriously-appointed drawing room of Mrs P's mansion," Rollymore", a stone edifice in Scotch baronial set in an estate of 21 acres, paid for by her late
husband Hiram with money made from decades of fruit canning in Hawaii.
The drawing room had been featured in a recent edition of "House Beautiful" where much had been made in the text of the gigantic granite fireplace (big enough to house a medium-size family), the wall array of other people's crests, and the threatening but impressive galvanized steel griffins protruding from various alcoves. Conversation pieces, there is no doubt, reckoned the author of the article. But, in truth, the room and indeed the entire mansion reflected not Mrs P's taste but that of Hiram. She kept it up because she had great respect for the past. Indeed, she wished she could hold
her personal history, put it in a can and freeze it forever. She herself had no interest in materialism--at least, she paid it no attention and took her creature comforts for granted--and had no regard for the latest gadgets in this increasingly electricity-obsessed age. Although, as we have mentioned, she might follow such arts movements as mechanism she had no machine music in her home, no phonograph, and no player piano. Certainly no radio--Al Brown had been brought to her notice by a fellow matron.
Her piano was an exception. A machine, true, but it took blood and guts to play it. The instrument was a full-sized grand handcrafted by Broadwood of
England, weighing tons, and polished so highly by her servants that she could watch, as if spying, the faces of her circle reflected in the piano's black
gloss as they sat at her soiree listening to the art of Al Brown.
But, she wondered, were her friends getting as much out of the music as she? Were they moved to the marrow by the pretty tunes with their sentiments
of hope, of wish-fulfillment, of a belief in a better tomorrow and a yesterday of yearning, and of--getting really as delicious as a wallow in an ice cream sundae-- self-pity? Or were they there out of respect for Hiram and his millions. Were they there for the smoked salmon sandwiches, which right now Mrs Zeigler was laying into with a vengeance?
With a flutter of her hand, as if to dismiss such awful thoughts, Mrs P turned her still-pretty head, with a commotion of curls, from the mirror of
the piano body to the animated figure of Al Brown as he worked his peculiar magic on "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows", a song of self-pity if there ever was
one. Hiram had tirelessly thundered against self-pity, calling it repellent and counter-productive. Self-pity, he thundered, was the last refuge of those who can't make it in the real world but who blame others for their lack of oomph. He himself had come from penury, pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, so why couldn't they? Oh, Hiram could lecture forever on self-pity, on how it removes the will and the ability to alter the lot of the complainant. Elsie had suffered his lectures for years and still shuddered at the thought even a decade after his golf course death---for she, on the contrary, was unreasonably moved by the plight of anybody, rich or poor, dog or cat, possum or raccoon. She had pity to donate in spadeloads. Pity was her middle name. She made no sense but she didn't care, so there! She was a woman of pure unrefined emotions.
Al was singing of others who make winnings in this life and of how he never even makes a gain, always chasing rainbows in vain. Elsie's body shook
and then convulsed. She turned to wipe away her salty but delicious tears. What a relief to have a good cry! And yet, being a reflective person, she
asked herself: can these songs bring permanent satisfaction and an end to my inner turmoil? Could it be that true happiness only comes through experience,
through the ups and downs and ins and outs, the laughter and the tears, the pain and pleasure of the world outside of my Pasadena fortress?
She herself, she'd willingly admit, had lived a somewhat sheltered life--her only real excitement had been Hiram's sudden demise and she'd been
in the club house at the time, enjoying a hand of whist--and perhaps, looking back on a pleasantish round of life (so far), she should have gotten more
out of the game, should have driven an ambulance as a Red Cross nurse in the recent war--such dashing uniforms !-- or helped the unemployed veterans, the
nasty-faced ones who'd marched downtown Los Angeles a few years back, or attended a meeting of the International Workers Of The World, those radicals
in blue denim. There'd been a gaudy meeting recently at a hall in San Pedro where, according to the papers, a brawl had broken out when the meeting was
interrupted by over-zealous patriotic sailors and Ku Klux Klan members who had smeared Red children with treacle and knocked radical heads together.
She'd gotten a frisson reading about the melee, holding the sweet-smelling newspaper, savoring the pulp, as she munched slowly on her breakfast toast.
Distant violence and hot buttered toast were one thing. The reality was quite another.
The world outside was horrid. She felt for every victim of a traffic accident, of a marital shooting, of those killed in distant wars in, say, China. In fact, the further away the tragedy the worse she felt. Some mornings she'd wake up with a sense of foreboding, something dreadful was going to happen so she'd better watch out. The feeling could last all day, preventing her from going out, even into her beloved rose garden, forcing her to stay in bed or to lay prostrate on a sofa with a cup of herbal tea at her side, and plenty of pets at the ready---the labrador Duffy and the angora Dolly and lots of others whose names slipped her mind. Pets, you see, were free of worry and dread and jealousy and hate. They were always loyal and never argued. They'd agree that Rosamund Beers had had no right whatsoever to
park that revoltingly huge Packard outside "Rollymore" for, let's see, more than a week now. Supposedly it belonged to her visiting uncle, a furrier from
New York. New money, much too new. And, it goes without saying, suspect. Surely the Beers must be Jewish? But they vehemently denied this, and they
went to the Presbyterian church religiously every Sunday.
Elsie had had words with Rosamund about the automobile matter, nasty words which she'd regretted almost as soon as they'd left her mouth. She'd
been amazed by her burst of anger, amazed to realize that she'd used language not heard from her lips since her childhood in Kansas. How thin is the veneer
of culture! How full of traps is the world outside! Better to stay safe from alarm within the thick walls of "Rollymore", behind thick drapes and rich old
tapestries, surrounded by her pets and her songs. Songs brought vividly to life by the long and lightning fingers of her vagabond lover, Al Brown! What
a beautiful touch he has on the ivories! What a magnificent sight when his hand, in an elegant flourish, lifts high off the keyboard, hovers for an instant, and then, like a hawk, comes diving for an intoxicating chord followed by a full arpeggio in which he rakes the piano up and down with no thought of tomorrow!
When in doubt, Al Brown was thinking, "Go chromatic", which he did fast because his mind had been wandering farther than usual. He put the blame on
"I Hate To Lose You", the ballad he was currently rendering, a wartime song having nothing to do with war and with the clever subtitle:" I'm So Used To
You Now". Nothing mushy about that notion! He'd known a few dames in his time who he could easily have gotten used to, especially those with culinary
skills. He was remembering one cutie in particular, a curvy and cushy little package with a winning way at fixing cottage fries and a nice style in the
sack, yes he could have lingered awhile with her but then all of a sudden hubby returned from the war all weathered khaki and bursting with hot pent-up
blood and so he, Al Brown, noted traveling entertainer, had had to hightail it down a drainpipe with his short shirt flying, thus exposing his rear end to the cutting Colorado wind. How come, in the years he'd toured the USA, he'd never landed a dame like that, a real eye-filler with great skillet skill?
You know why, Al. Because you're always hightailing, skedaddling, never stopping to contemplate, speculate, coagulate your feelings into hard
thoughts. You're a jazz baby, rolling along, here today and gone tomorrow, buried in the potter's field in an unmarked grave." I Hate To Lose You" has
some satisfying chord changes and a nice slide off the ninth, very sad somehow. But "Hate"--that's a strong word for an Alley ballad, especially in this high-class joint. Hate was a subject Al could lecture about if he had the academic credentials or could get on the chautauqua circuit. Sure, hate had been all around in his childhood in the slag heap chasms of West Virginia where the birds flew backwards to keep the coal dust out of their eyes and where blood was on his father's clothes after one of those pitched battles between the miners and the pit boss men and where there might be fried cat and hot water for supper and where, if you really had nothing to do, you could sit on the dirt floor and watch rats so big they could stand flat-footed and fuck a turkey buzzard.
His mother's old battered upright piano, a family heirloom from better days, had seen him out of the situation. It wasn't feasible for a boy with
long artistic fingers and an ear for music and a mind for dreaming of places beyond the dark hills to be stuck in West Virginia. His mother had brought in
other people's washing in order to pay for piano lessons from an old German teacher. Long-hair classics, scales and arpeggios, foreign stuff, but fit for
escape preparation. When he was 16 he ran away, hopping a train for St. Louis because he'd heard that there were lots of piano players there and that they
played hot music, ragtime and such, the stuff that filled you full of racing dreams and desires. The old hobo who'd glad-handed him into the box car
turned out to be an ass bandit and Al had given him the heave-ho into endless night as the train trundled across the Missouri prairie. Piano lessons in a
swirl of coal dust and blood-spitting was a tough enough college of life without having to have crinkled fairies thrust you into a dubious graduation.
St. Louis, in the right part--meaning the red light district--was a perfect learning center. There were professors such as "One Eyed Bart","
Goodtime George", and "Stovepipe Slim". He'd just missed "Jelly Roll" Morton but he was assured Jelly would be round again sometime soon. All these
teachers he watched carefully as he waited table or slung beer in saloons and sporting houses; they lacked good manners and fine speech but they could
coax a new kind of lingo from out of the most injured of pianos. In fact, the more out-of-tune the instrument the stranger and more exciting did it sound.
On these ramshackle music boxes young Al discovered little urchin notes that had hitherto been left alone, hiding between the cracks dividing the
keyboard. Now they were exposed naked yet unashamed, even brazen, quite unlike the blushing nude maiden in "September Morn", the renowned oil
painting. Here was a world a trillion miles removed from standard, respectable (and wanna-be respectable) America. Here was a rough and rude
world--really an underworld-- ready to take on all comers. Here, amidst painted women and armed sporting men, Al was to win his spurs, learning to
crush two notes together and then separate them and slide them off to some place else, producing an attractive whine like a bullet ricocheting off a
rock, an effect that a classical music professor would, under duress, have termed as ornamentation of an unnatural kind, an illegal dissonance not
covered by an Italian name. And yet, as Al learned when he tried out these new tricks in a public place, the effect was to delight the customers,
transporting them momentarily into a land of danger and then next moment back onto the safe track of melody. This was called jazzing it up, but you had to
be sparing with the blue phrases in case you upset the customers with too much pouring on of the magic ketchup because then you'd end up deserted in
the gutter, like a non-stop blues-muttering Negro, the grimy essence of utter isolation and desolation.
"Pretty Baby", the lively, jog-trotting number he was currently exercising, had been birthed in the twilight of a bawdy house, so said Al's jazz professors, by a colored boy called Tony Jackson who'd had in mind the sex equipment of his current boyfriend when creating the song. But now here we are almost ten years later and "Pretty Baby" is just a sweet perennial, perfect for Mrs P's drawing room, complementing the scent of roses and jasmine and fancy lace from old, old Belgium. What a long journey! What great and numerous services could a hit song provide! What kind of thrill did these classy ladies get from "Pretty Baby"? Al's fingers walked and skipped over the keys like the good pros they were. You know, he could even recite the lyrics and play the tune at the same time, a very difficult feat as any old-timer will tell you. And he could roam in his mind too. He was in a roaming mood tonight for some reason.
From St. Louis he'd wandered around the hinterland, picking up gigs here and there in saloons, in cafes, in barrelhouses. Eventually he holed up for a
long spell in Chicago due to his landing a very nice position as a "song demonstrator" (a high-falutin way of saying "plugger") with the local branch
of Shapiro-Bernstein, a successful New York pop publishing outfit. The offices were directly above a chop suey joint which was useful if you were
romancing a client beyond the performing of the songs. It was at the office that he met James V. Monaco, a genuine hit-maker now living in New York but
in town on a plug tour of his latest song, "If We Can't Be The Same Old Sweethearts---Then We'll Just Be The Same Old Friends". Like his hit ballad
"You Made Me Love You-- I Didn't Want To Do It", the new number had an ace
melody, really flowing and with poignant little turns at the right moment.
The great man was dressed expensively in a Paris suit of silk with matching silk handkerchief falling beautifully from the breast pocket. A long
way from his early days in Chicago as Ragtime Jimmie, piano pounder in blood & guts saloons. Al was thrilled to demonstrate the new song in front of the
composer and afterwards Jimmie gave him a few tips on accompaniment, telling him to lay off the octave ragtime in favor of thumbing, which meant using the
left hand thumb to emphasize the tenth of a chord while the right hand fills in the rest of the chord in a pleasing manner, broken but not bruised. This
technique, said Jimmie, left you free to sell the song vocally and if you needed to stress a lyric all you had to do was to let the right hand play
the melody while you declaimed like an orator on a soap box. Al took serious note of all this invaluable device and dedicated himself for the next year
to learning his trade.
Came The Great War. We can't get into Al's mind about what he did in The Great Adventure. He never brought up the subject in public and seems to have
shut it behind a steel door in his memory. Was he a spy? Was he a radical? Did he become a Red? He certainly came to display plenty of knowledge about
the Wobblies and their ways at Mrs P's "Current Affairs" parties which she held every other month, as an alternative to the house concerts. At the
parties he'd regale the ladies with tales of union organizing in the logging camps and fruit fields of the west. Of course, Al was quick to explain that
he'd been present simply as an entertainer. But then he'd proceed to roar with laughter as he told how, at one big logging camp, the Wobblies had
complained about the rough carbolic soap provided in the workers' washroom and had demanded and received twelve boxloads of the same fancy scented soap
found in the management washroom. Straight away the men were disgusted by the expensive soap because it wouldn't wash off pitch. They threw the rest of the
boxes into a heap outside the management's main office. But understand, Al would say dramatically, the boys were one up on the bosses, they'd got their
way, they'd disrupted the system!. And his laughter would turn to a cackle, to almost an eerie keening. Some of the ladies grew frightened but Mrs P
would later reassure them that Al Brown was only play-acting, that it was all in fun.
However, there were times when Elsie was alone with Al and when too much liquor had been provided and Al would grow ornery, picking quarrels for no
reason and begging Elsie to duke it out with him. She'd quickly direct him to the piano where he'd work off these tiresome bouts of contrariness by
punching out the dirtiest licks ever heard, dirtier than any Negro could ever dig up.
We do know that immediately after the war Al was back in Chicago working once again as a song plugger. Now, in the early 1920s, at the very start of
the Jazz Age, radio had started making some noise--not just with jazz music but with the noise of money. Oh, it could come jingling down, the radio
people soon realized, if you used a little zippy music (tempered with some lullaby ballads) to draw in the listeners and once you'd done
that---zap!--you had them like a fairground barker and you could sell them anything. Al and his fellow song pluggers quickly realized that radio could
be another outlet for song plugging. Radio was ravenous for music. So Al started pioneering forth from the office, armed with the latest sheets, to
invade the radio stations and offer to perform on the air at once and for free. What a deal! Al would play the piano and deliver his material into a
table microphone sitting right there in front of him on the lid of the instrument. Al wasn't a bit afraid of the mike, like so many of these
stentorian-voiced operatic singers were. No, he made love to the mike, murmuring his songs in a dulcet tone, getting closer and closer to this black
tin altar, worshipping with respect, and every husk in his voice getting picked up and conveyed to wherever--farms, mansions, city hall, you name it.
He developed a very nice act and boy did the mail come in! Especially from the ladies, the lonely ones, the shut-at-home ones.
Soon the old wanderlust got into him and he suggested to the sales manager of his publishing house that he take his act out on the road,
roaming from burg to burg, hitting each and every radio station, a traveling song salesman, a new kind of troubadour. What ever sells songs, said the
boss. And off went Al.
Well, the midwest and the rural folk were one thing--an easy mark and full of farm hospitality and ham and eggs--but the big cities were another.
They'd seen it all, they'd seen other radio pluggers like Al. Arriving in Los Angeles in 1924, after a hard slog in the East where he found his folksy
style was considered cornball, he decided to take some time off by looking around, taking in the city and its ways. It seemed to be a whole bunch of
cities. Well, more like a strung-out collection of villages. Of course, the newspapers touted Los Angeles as a big city in every way. To Al, downtown in
a modest rooming house, the place was just a larger version of the hick towns he'd conquered, the same overall cheapness, the cheap stores, the cheap
people. The rich were cheap too, only with a gloss of paint over their essential tattiness.
Los Angeles was like one of its much-touted palm trees---exotic and exciting seen on the horizon at sunset, but when you got close and inspected,
your hands would be covered in ooze and dirt and there'd be a funny smell. Yes, Al was suffering from the newcomer's inferiority complex. He wasn't in
the movie business or in oil, so he got no respect. Why, even when he played a nifty new song on the piano in the rooming house nobody gave him time of
day. How far is the Ambassador hotel from here?, he asked a man in the street. How the hell should I know? said the man, hurrying on, head down.
There were too many movie posters. He didn't like it. He didn't have any angles on the movies.
Eventually, via a taxi, he reached the Ambassador. He'd heard about how really important dance bands played the hotel and that they were a good new
plug for songs. But as luck would have it he didn't need to even open his briefcase of song samples: the hotel was offering a Ladies Excuse Me
night--meaning that women could invite men to dance-- and before he could reach the bandstand to talk to the leader he was accosted by a middle-aged
lady and asked to step the upcoming waltz with her. He looked her up and down and knew she meant money. The precious stones were everywhere, even in her
hair. Yes, she was a little old for dalliance but Al sensed an interesting relationship in the offing.
During the dance--and the subsequent ones and then the late supper--Mrs O.K. Lyon talked about divorce and how useful it was in getting rid of O.K.
because after all it was her front office manner that got the customers into the guts of the store, in the back, where O.K., with his grimy fingers and
runny nose, could supply them with all the necessary plate condensers, teledyne tubes, all the stuff you needed to build a radio. Yes, he'd been
early in the game, but he was a backroom boy. She was the sales pitcher, and now the O.K. Lyon stores were all over the West. She deserved his money. And
anyway, she'd caught him with a movie extra, some green girlie up from Georgia, and that was that, if you had a good lawyer and did she have a good one!
Al was a good listener and of course immediately he heard the radio word his ears pricked up, but not so's you'd notice. Thoughtfully he stirred
his coffee. The last dance was a waltz," I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles", and Al took the opportunity to sing along with the music. "Hey, you're pretty good",
said Mrs Lyon, pushing him back to regard him more carefully and then pulling him in close so that he felt her body and it was in good shape for an older
woman. "Are you in the business?" " I thought you'd never ask", said Al, with
a smile to counter the underlying seriousness.
Around midnight Mrs O.K. was cooing at him and he was calling her Madge. She said she kept a special bottle in her room and would he help her empty
it. Did she live in the hotel? No, she replied, she lived in Santa Barbara, such a tasteful spot and far from commerce. She was here to see her daughter.
And what did her daughter do, if anything? " She takes after me. I tried to stop her, said she could live with me, but she's independent, you see, like
me. She's the program director at KFI, a radio station." Al was really getting interested now." And I'd so hoped she'd leave that dirty business
behind!" "Fascinating", said Al, as he followed her into her room. Fade Out. Title card:" Came The Dawn."
Now, please don't assume that Al was predatory, a lounge lizard. He never made the first move; he was just genuinely interested in what older women had
to say, and God bless him for that because there are a lot of females who never get a word in when the men are up and about and shouting. Women need a
face to confess into, and Al was all sympathy, with plenty of buckets of pity to spare as well. So you see, Al was really performing a service for Madge,
easing away her hate for O.K. and his philandering, giving her a good-time relief from the flowered boredom of Santa Barbara. Al could sear behind the
surface and see that for all Madge's toughness she really needed a little loving and a receptive ear.
In return, with one brisk phone call, she arranged for Al to get a meeting with her daughter Margot at KFI as soon as possible. Al had done his
homework way back when he was on the road: he knew that KFI was a powerhouse station with plans to spread its message every which way on the ether. Life
or fate was on his side and Al, a messenger from the 19th century, deserved to meet the technology of the 20th. A radio minstrel!
The morning of the meeting he dressed in his best suit--his only one actually, but he made it look like his best. He was surprised to find that
KFI was stuck up on the roof of the Packard building on Flower Street He'd imagined it to be spread out on the ground, a splendid Spanish castle with
grounds, like so many of the businesses in Los Angeles. But then, Al reassured himself, radio's a state of mind, a creation for stimulating the imagination.
Of course, everybody knew--and Al was soon informed-- that the Packard building was the domain of Earle C. Anthony, the statewide distributor of Packard automobiles, and a go-ahead businessman of great vision and serious ties and vests. Anthony, a man from Nowhereville, had introduced neon to the
Southland after seeing it at work in Paris, France. All night there glowed PACKARD from the 30 ft neon sign on top of the building and now it was flanked by two twin radio towers, 75 ft high, telling everybody that soon there would be a superstation operating from the roof, far larger and louder than before, boasting a 50000 watt capability.
Two years ago--my, but that seemed like in prehistoric times!--Mr. Anthony founded the station by setting up a 5 watt transmitter on a breadboard in his kitchen and enunciating to no-one in particular: "Hello there. This is Earl C. Anthony, owner and operator of KFI. You give us your attention and we will offer you worlds of delight and profit". A man of dreams, and in no time at all the station had gained 500 watts and had a business understanding with a local newspaper so that you could learn that at 5.30 pm Nick Harris, retired L.A. detective, would be recounting his exploits, and at 6pm there'd be the KFI sermon which tonight is titled,
"God's Inner World And Its Moral Glow", and if you stayed up real late, beyond 10 pm, then you could enjoy Abe Lyman & His Orchestra broadcasting
live from the Ambassador Hotel. Truth was, it was turning out that music attracted the most listeners (and thus customers): the letters told the story: a nurse from the La Vina Sanitarium, up in Altadena, hard by the mountains, writes of late night dance bands giving inspiration and succor to ailing patients with chronic breathing problems; 200 miles out at sea, a captain compliments the station on the splendid selections performed by the KFI concert orchestra; and in Sheffield, England, a lad of 16 reports that, by the magic of the nighttime ionosphere, he picked up a weak signal of jazz played by a "Gabe Wyman" at 468 wave-length. The listener clearly is referring to KFI's Abe Lyman (who also superintends the house bands, including the concert orchestra, and sometimes broadcasts to the kiddies as
Uncle Nate From Old Kentucky) Mr. Anthony was a very conservative man but he knew a good deal when he saw it: if jazz sold socks, candy, and cars, then
jazz it would be--for the time being.
By now Al had been conveyed by the all-electric elevator up to the top of the Packard building and was safely inside the reception room of KFI, with
construction workers and men in long white coats busying about all around him. It was hard to make himself understood by the pretty little piece of fluff sitting at the front desk surrounded by a bank of telephones. Eventually she checked her appointments book and, in a piping voice, asked him to please take a seat because Miss Lyon was "tied up" at present but would see him as soon as she was free. Trying to be friendly, Al came back with: "Tied up, is she? Say, little girlie, is Miss Lyon a female Houdini?" The gag was met with a blank stare. The girl then returned to the inspection of her fingernails.
Al chose a tall wrought-iron chair, sat back, and pulled out a cheroot. Facing him on the wall was a huge painting, an artist's rendition of how the new superstation would look. Much of it was a bit too technical for Al's earthy brain but helpful captions explained the greatness to come: Western Electric, the builders, were installing water-cooled rectifier tubes and generators so that there'd be no more ghost tones creeping in from wall echoes as in the dark ages of radio. To Al's eyes the equipment seemed merely big and ugly. But he marveled at the depiction of the station's future interior design: a white marble switchboard, a generally Spanish tone in the archways and statues, relieved by a scattering of Chinese screens." In consideration of the sensibilities of our performers", read a caption to a section showing a reception room filled with Italianate vases and splashing fountains and caged birds of paradise," We have chosen surroundings with a view to the stimulation of fine art".
Already, on another wall, workers were hanging a hefty oil painting showing, in a most realistic style, the pageant of the taming of the West---well-muscled frontiersmen shaking hands with equally well-muscled redskins; genial old Spanish priests welcoming generously-proportioned dusky maidens to the door of a quaint ivy-covered mission. Al was thrilled to his marrow but, unfamiliar with both the people and the landscape, his pleasure was spoiled by regret because in all of his travels he'd never encountered anything like the contents of this painting. Were there any remnants left of such an Eden?
Al was shaken from his reflections by a sudden giant voice pounding out from behind him. He turned around but all he could see was a large blow-up
photograph of a gleaming Packard with a glowing-faced gentleman at the wheel. The voice seemed to fit the driver and Al guessed this to be Earle C. Anthony. He also guessed that hidden by the photo was a very large loudspeaker. He'd never heard such bass response in all his radio days.
"On December the ninth", declared the voice,"The mighty voice of a brand new KFI will roar from the gargantuan towers of Earle C. Anthony's business
empire across the nation, to the huts of patient prospectors in Alaska, to the isolated and lonely in the mountains and deserts, and out across the ocean to ships ploughing their way to the other side of the Earth!"
Even the reception girl had stopped her finger work at the sound of this grand announcement. Then a man in a white coat said to another man in a white
coat:" A good test, very radiophonic. The bass boost works swell". His fellow worker replied," And how!".
A quieter voice came over the hidden speaker: "Send in Mr. Brown, please".
A rather firm voice, but kind of sexy, thought Al. He responded to challenge. A small door to the right of the receptionist mysteriously opened on its own, gusting out a perfumed breeze. "Please enter", said the girl with a dismissive wave of her hand and without looking up at Al.
Margot Lyon sat straight in a high Spanish colonial chair. Spectacles hung from her neck. Her desk was long and large and immaculate. There was hardly a paper on it. From two horn speakers hanging from the ceiling there poured out the sound of a lugubrious theatre organ. Al recognized "Wonderful One", a big waltz hit of a few years back. Miss Lyon picked up on his look.
"We do cater to the older audience as well as the young", she said, even as he was still walking towards her."We are aware of the past and of its inhabitants". She smoothed down the frilly front of her creamy white shirt. Rather too briskly--Al noted the nice rise that meant full breasts beneath.
"Take a seat, Mr. Brown. My mother had good things to say about you". Al studied Miss Lyon as he settled into a somewhat smaller version of the
program director's chair. She had a handsome face, rather than the pert-pretty face of her mother. She was erect and well-turned out. He found himself directed to her eyes which were sending out radiant sparkles like messengers of strength and support. Yet, from her bearing and her severe suit, he felt she was definitely off limits. This was a gal with a head on her and screwed down tight.
"My mother also told me about your show business experience---and hopes. So let me tell you about radio as it is today. Forget about yesterday. I'm
talking here and now and, most importantly, tomorrow". Al shifted in his chair so as not to betray his current feeling: a funny one at the base of his spine.
She started her speech: "It is peculiar to witness the reaction of those who hear singers in the studio and then walk out to the loudspeaker and hear the same voice as it comes off the air". (I know all this stuff, thought Al, but I love her delivery-- beneath the iceberg is fire, I'll bet!) " A tenor, whose voice in the studio seems to lack resonance and purity, will broadcast with the utmost clarity and purity, leaving nothing to be desired" (Am I imagining this or did she say "desire" with a dangerous glint in her eye? Whoa there, Al!)
"Whereas, Mr. Brown-- if I might get your proper attention-- whereas a trained voice that from the concert stage has delighted thousands, will not
radiate at all". (Radiate, that's what she does, and she can't stop her wild horses!)" You have, I learn, experience in both the field of theatre as well
as rural radio. You will appreciate, then, that here--especially here in a growing world-beating metropolis--every program must be planned as though it
were being played before a theater audience with the lights off". (What would this baby be like with the lights off? One cold mountain he'd like to conquer!)
"Mr. Brown!". Her voice had gone quite shrill. She quickly lowered it back to normal, smoothing her frilly shirt front like before. "Mr. Brown---what can I do for you?"
She granted him a test to judge his tonal possibilities. Rather than sing he decided to display his all-round entertainer skills. Also, he was getting queazy with all the technical talk and the neatness and sewn-up quality about KFI, about Los Angeles in general. So he recited a fragment he'd used once or twice on rural radio:
"I can't be what Shakespeare was, I can't do what great folk does.
But, by ginger, I can be ME! And among the folks that love me, nothin' mores expected of me".
The engineer gave an OK sign, making an "O" with his thumb and first finger. Miss Lyon, inside the control booth, leaned closer, putting her spectacles on, then resting her chin on her fist. A long pause. Then: "You show folk appeal. We have a lot of immigrants from the mid-west out here".
She came into the broadcasting room. "What about a song?" " What about a ukulele? Would you have a uke in so grand an emporium?" " My dear man, of
course we have such an instrument! We have accordions, too. And even Jews harps. We are in the people business here at KFI!"
He started to play a peppy song about hot lips. "No, no!", she ordered," No jazz. Jazz is passé, jazz is out. Give us something sweet and
sentimental". He sang "Till We Meet Again", a surefire number. Even so, he gave it strong, yet kept the performance intimate and sincere, singing for her and her alone.
She looked bothered. She took off her spectacles and gave them a good polish. She said she'd let him know.
A week later Al was hired. From his very first broadcast he was a hit. The mail poured in. It was 90% from women. Even rich ladies in Pasadena.................................
From the grand piano Al noticed out of the corner of his eye that Mrs Pangland-Frosset was indulging in her habit of hugging a piece of sheet music, heaving her bosom, then sniffing the sheet and then looking up at the ceiling as if to heaven. Now was she trying to eat it? Oh dear, oh dear! We've had this display before. So he quickly went into "Till We Meet Again", because the evening needed ending and the song was his radio show sign-off number.
Once she gets into such a state of ecstasy you had to beat a retreat. At least, he'd have to. Keep that gulf between performer and audience. Not a rule he always obeyed. Mrs P. had a thing about the smell, the taste of print, especially if it was a song. She liked to run her fingers up and down the sheet, feeling for any embossment and if the cheap primary colors of the cover would come off in her hands so that she could then stain her dress. She liked that very much. We all have our eccentricities, some odder than others.
Al envied the songwriters of whatever sheet she was clutching. He wished he'd produced something to be remembered by, something that could be held and
smelled and tasted. Instead he was just another ghost of the airwaves, a voice in the night, wafting into a home to provide a cheap balm for the moment, a fleeting moment of pleasure and escape. Who would ever have and hold his radio broadcasts? Even Miss Lyon would leave behind a paper trail of correspondence and memos. Miss Lyon! Dared he ask her for a date? No, keep your distance, remember your career! But that's just it--- a career with nothing to show, no legacy. Oh, to be encased in hard cover, to be in a locked bookcase. When he had enough time and peace he'd sit down and write a great novel. But what would it be about? That was a tough one. A good story, that's what he needed. I'll make the time to write this novel if it kills me. I have fine other skills so why can't I learn writing? I mean, very few people can play and sing and smile and think deep thoughts all at one and the same time, can they?
And there were upcoming events to look forward to, events that could sail him into real stardom, maybe the movies. They were all inked into his diary.
Al had always liked to have lots of appointments, to know that there'd be few times when he'd have nothing to do, to be utterly all alone. Whenever he was
gloomy he'd open up his black leather book and peruse his dates, musical and amorous.
Next weekend marked the Great Experiment, the talk of KFI, when the imminent superstation, as a preview of big things to come, would set the
record for marathon broadcasting with a 48 hour music festival from the roof, under the stars, with non-stop numbers from a special KFI radio band, pooled
from all the best musicians around. A charity affair to raise money for the wayward women of Hollywood, mostly poor demented girls from outside states
who'd come to town in the hopes of being discovered for the movies. So many get knocked up, it's pitiful. Nice to be performing for a good cause, makes
you feel good.
Yes, Al had been selected for the team, specifically as a contributor of whispered songs deep into the night. A special new-fangled microphone was to
pick up his slightest murmur, claimed the engineers at Western Electric. Should his chin bristle scrape the new mike the effect would be to the listener as if a giant redwood was being attacked by a chainsaw. He would have to be on his very best behavior. Even though it was radio, he would wear a white tuxedo with a red carnation. Margot had decided this. She was great at business decisions. What about material? She left that to him with the proviso that she should think nocturnal, think pacification. Perhaps he'd open with "Blue Jeans", a catchy melody and with lyrics that painted an appealing picture of life up in the mountains of the Old Cumberland, of wandering down the trail hand in hand with pretty Blue Jeans, the girl of your dreams.
Who was he fooling? He knew full well that life in the mountains was worse than life in the mining towns below. Stunted people, stunted lives, stained pants. But Al liked to dream ideals especially when life grew murky with too many promises to too many women. He was such a nice guy, you see, and he couldn't say no. He'd been put on earth to give folks a moments pleasure and forgetfulness, to make believe his songs told the truth. Well, surely it was possible that somewhere there existed the right girl in front of the right cottage, ready to welcome you home after a hard day's honest but dull work. He could see it now-- the snake of golden smoke snaking up to the top of the sky as the moon rose over the mountain.
It was a picture to be framed and hung in an art gallery. And yes, he, Al Brown, was going to be immortalized like in a painting: Victor records had
been hired to make a custom field recording of highlights of the radio marathon and with any luck--some careful working of Margot--he'd be featured
on the disc. He'd be caught as an object for posterity. So there was some point to his life after all! And what a skilled technician he had become!-----Right at the climax of this thought "Blue Jeans" came to its natural end. The tale had been told, the book was now closed, the A flat tonic chord capped another lovely musical evening.
On Thursday, November 20, the front page of The Los Angeles Times reported the sudden death of the celebrated motion picture producer and director, Thomas Ince, following an attack of chronic indigestion while a member of a yachting party off San Diego. In later editions the paper revealed that Ince had been one of several movieland celebrities (including Elinor Glyn, Charlie Chaplin, and Marion Davies) aboard the Oneidin, and that the pleasure boat was owned by press baron, William Randolph Hearst, who had been hosting a birthday party for Ince. There had been several rotating dance bands on board. An elaborate sound system enabled the yacht to both receive radio broadcasts from the mainland and also to send out its own messages, even programs. Hearst also had had each cabin wired for sound with a central listening post in his stateroom.
Within days of Ince's demise rumors began to circulate that there'd been some funny business on board during the night and that maybe Ince hadn't succumbed to a surfeit of oysters but to a revolver shot through the back of his head fired by Hearst in a fit a sexual fury. The whisper was that Hearst had caught either Ince or Chaplin having cabin sex with the press baron's mistress Marion Davies. It was dark, the story went, and the radio was playing "If You Were The Only Girl In The World", one of the many songs performed at the KFI radio marathon. Now this number was one of WRH's favorites, never failing to make him cry.
Blinded, confused, and slightly demented, Hearst went off to fetch his revolver. Later, Ince got shot. Maybe Hearst had mistaken him for Chaplin.
Meanwhile Al, as part of his KFI job, had caught the midnight speedboat from San Diego and had joined the yacht in order to be available as a
strolling musician for the cabin entertainment of the guests, if so desired. The whisper went that several of the guests who'd witnessed the murder were
pensioned off by the Hearst Corporation. Was Al one? All we know is that we never hear again of "Ukulele" Al Brown. There is no record of him being
aboard the yacht. There is no record in the KFI files that he was ordered to play on board. He was never called to the subsequent inquiry. He simply
disappears into the air, like the radio spirit he was becoming.
If only he'd remained on the ground, on land, as the entertainer of rich and restless ladies, or even of the passing crowd in city streets, instead of
succumbing to the temptations of the new world of ether and electricity.
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer,
composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and
Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com