Monday, January 31, 2011

Ray Charles - Traveling in the South


This is an excerpt from Leroy Cooper's memoir as told to me back in 2007. The material is copyrighted by Susan Cross and cannot be copied, published or duplicated without permission.






Traveling in the South

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

There was a Jewish boy in Ray’s band when we were going through all of this named Donald Peake. I didn’t know anything about his religious background. There were about two or three white boys in Ray’s band during these critical times. I took it upon myself to try to be a protector of Peake’s down south and in Florida. Guys were selling Muhammad Speaks, it was the Muslim newspaper, and when they would see him with us, they’d have a circle on him; they were getting ready to do something. I’d come in the circle and say, “Man, he’s with us,” and blah, blah, blah. He’d be terrified, you know, and who wouldn’t? Having all these crazy people around you.

Miami, Florida

When we used to work in Miami, we couldn’t even stay on the beach. We had to stay up in Hollywood and travel down to the job. Ray was the only one who could stay down there. But we had a good old time and accepted how things were. One of our girls, one of our Raelets had bought some snake boots over in Germany. She paid about 700 or 800 dollars for these fabulous snake boots that come up to her knees. She had on a fur stole and all that and we were off in Miami. She went in the bar next door to the motel where we were living and the cops took her for prostitution. Ray had to go get her out of jail. She was just sitting at the bar having a drink and she told ‘em she was with the band but they didn’t believe her.

Things are better now. The hip hoppers can wear those snake boots and they’re all over Miami. Can you imagine putting one of them in jail? They can buy the jail.

Birmingham, Alabama

Ray started going to towns like Yazoo, Mississippi and Birmingham, Alabama. That was frightening. Back in the day, we were in the bus station and I had to be in the black part of the bus station. I was shooting the pinball machine.

This big cop came over with a fat stomach, a regular cop, and he asked the guy, “What do that big one do?”

“Oh, he’s a saxophone player.”

He said, “Can he blow it? Is he good?” In other words, he just wanted to have some kind of confrontation with me. And I kept ignoring him.

It got so bad when we’d play a gig they’d say, “No drinking in this dressing room. And if we catch one of you drinking in the dressing room you’re all going to jail. Everybody was calling home on the public phone out there. “Don’t stay too long on that phone.” Picky, picky, picky, picky, picky. To me, Birmingham was the worst place in the world.

Nat King Cole was from Birmingham and I read that they had him going through the back door in the auditorium. Well with Ray, when our bus came in, they had us pull around to the back and we had to go in the back door.

When we went to Mobile, Alabama they wouldn’t even let us in the arena unless we got rid of everybody we had white in the band. So the road manager told him we don’t have any whites, we have near whites. So the cops accepted that. The girls put powder on [Don] Peake, brown powder and he was scared that night. They made all the white patrons leave and we had to play to the black audience. The white people stayed outside the arena so they could wave to us when we left.

Things changed. Joe Namath, when he got popular years later opened up a club in Birmingham. We played the circuit in the south with Joe Namath. We went to his club and they had us in the biggest hotel downtown. I forget the name of it, and they had a massage parlor on the mezzanine. The manager of the hotel was telling the band, “You had your back rubbed?”

I said, “Wait a minute; that’s not for us.”

“Oh yes, they’ve got some nice girls up there.”

“This is not Birmingham. Time’s have really changed,” I thought.

We played the Bachelor’s Club in Ft. Lauderdale and we were treated royally everywhere and I said it can’t be the same south; it can’t be the same place.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Audition -- #FridayFlash


© Susan Cross, January 22, 2011 May not be copied or reprinted in whole or part without permission from the author. It is posted here for inclusion in the #FridayFiction stories.

She hadn’t relaxed enough yet for her body to mold into the faux-leather seat on the train. Looking out the window her thoughts were chasing each other trying to catch up with her emotions. After she had settled her crimson satchel on the seat next to her she rested her hands delicately in her lap. Carefully manicured fingernails were not adorned with any of the latest trends. No two-toned polish or rhinestones. No false, squarely filed extensions painted to match her lipstick. Instead she wore clear lacquer applied to her own healthy nails. They were filed across, squared but gently curving at the edges. Her hands appeared to belong to someone else, as if they were transplanted onto her slim wrists.

She was relieved that nobody was sharing the car to notice her movements. Her goal was to slow down her thoughts and relax for the two hour ride. According to the schedule, the length of time going in each direction was the same but as is always the case, looking forward to a destination gave the illusion of time crawling with each turn of the wheel on the track. The element of the unknown added to her anxiety. The trip home would be quicker because she knew what awaited her when she arrived.

Outside the window the fields were flashing past. Grazing cows and horses were a blur. She wondered how the speed of a train compared to that of a car on a highway. Remove the traffic lights and stop signs and each could cover the same distance but the train seemed to beat the car, even with the occasional stops at stations.

The relaxation exercise was working. Her breathing slowed, she opened her eyes, picked up her satchel and headed toward the rest room. Inside the tiny room, she used the toilet and washed her hands. Then she opened the satchel which held just the necessities. In an instant, she pulled her long brown hair back and secured it into a pony tail. Next she removed a plastic bottle containing a skin cleansing product. In seconds she saw her bare face in the mirror. No makeup; no lipstick. It was a familiar routine. She wore a white blouse tucked into straight-legged jeans. A red belt pulled tight accentuated her waist.

She strolled back down the aisle, head erect. She returned to her seat, folded her legs under her and leaned her head against the window. She wondered if she would ever take this trip again. Once she detrained she took a cab rather than walk the 9 long blocks. She had saved up for this trip to the city.

At the studio, about 40 women stood in line waiting. She had filled out the forms on the website. A man walked back along the line asking each woman’s name and then giving her a sticky nametag with just a number printed on it that corresponded to the number on the form.

Some of the women dressed casually, others overly stylish. She preferred to show off her assets for this audition, thus accounting for her non-descript attire. Some women wore gloves. She had removed hers in the cab. The line moved quickly. She was next.

“Number 22,” the man said. She stepped forward and followed him down a hallway and through a door.

She approached the table on the stage. It was covered with a black cloth. Bright umbrella lights were angled toward the table. A woman told her to put her hands on the table facing the camera with fingertips touching. Then she was asked to turn them over showing her palms. In the bright light, her skin looked translucent. A man appeared with a bottle in his hand.




“Are you left handed or right handed?”

“Right handed,” she replied.

“Good,” said the director. He signaled for the cameras to start rolling.

“Using your right hand, slowly open the bottle and pour a small pea-sized dab of lotion into the palm of your left hand.” She did as she was told.

“Great. Now rub the lotion onto the top of your right hand, slowly,” he said. “Good. Now rub your hands together – be careful not to get any lotion onto your nails. We want the impression that the lotion is so soothing and nurturing that you are having a life changing, almost sexual experience.”

She rubbed her hands together as she had been told. Her face was reflecting the pleasure she would feel if the lotion were truly changing her life, even though the camera was focused on her hands and nobody was paying attention to her body language.

“Thank you. You can go.”

She left having no hint of how she had compared to the others. She would wait for days to find out if she had been selected. She walked outside, hailed a cab and returned to the train station.

Her parents had told her she was beautiful, but she knew better. Her facial features were not symmetrical. Her lips were not full and luscious and could not hide her imperfect teeth. The industry's view of beautiful did not sync with her parents' idealized perception. She had dreamed of being a model for years but she accepted the reality that her face would never appear on magazine covers. She was hoping her one great feature would be enough. She closed her eyes as the train rolled towards home picturing herself in a film studio.

Tomorrow she would get up and go to work at the supermarket. She had been the only employee at the store that had ever worn gloves to work every day. Co-workers thought she might suffer from scars or discoloration but they never asked. Protecting her hands from the unwashed fruit and juicy packages of meat was essential. Maybe one day, her long slender hands would help fulfill her dreams. She would become a famous hand model.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Leroy Cooper...Drafted during Korean War


This is an excerpt from Leroy Cooper's memoir as told to me back in 2007. The material is copyrighted by Susan Cross and cannot be copied, published or duplicated without permission.

…Uncle Sam sent me a letter and I got drafted.

I went in the Army. They handed me a machine gun and said, “I’m going to send you down to the heathens. I’m going to send you down to F company where they don’t even give you commands, they give you whistles.” I said to myself, ‘Oh my goodness. I’ve got to audition for this band!’

They would have an all white outfit with a black leader. I went up to an all black band to audition and I tried to get out of playing the baritone. They said “What do you play?” I said ‘Alto.’ They said, “We only need a baritone.” I said, ‘Oh, oh, oh, I play the baritone.’ He said, “Okay, can you read?” I said ‘Yeah’ I saw music they had and it was something I had played every night so for my audition I took this song and said to this guy, ‘Kick it out for me.’ And he said, “Kick it out yourself.” And I kicked it off because I knew the song without the music and I played it and they were shocked.

He said “Okay, just mess around with the horn. I got to go to the office for minute.” I hadn’t played a horn in awhile because I’d been in training so I started messing around with the horn, blowing, and it felt good to me. I was just blowing away and the 55 piece band was sitting on the stage and they applauded. They said “Who was that?”

In Ernie Field’s band when I thought I was just keeping up I was a big deal to these guys. They knew who I was. I was only 21. They said, “We’re gonna get you in the band.”

Meanwhile I went down to my outfit, this machine gun company, and I was getting ready to go to Korea to fight. If you ever witnessed this, it was like a jail sentence. They said, “The following EM have been alerted for FECOM.” That was Greek to me. I said, ‘EM?’ They said, “Yeah, FECOM. Far East Command.” I said, ‘What does that mean, man?’ They said, “You’re going to Korea to fight.” I said ‘Oh Lord.’ They said, “Send all of your civilian clothes home. You won’t need them.” They gave you $10,000 insurance and they asked, “How do want your people to get the money? Ten thousand at once, or break it down?” I said, ‘Wait a minute. You can tell me nicer than that, man.’ I mean, they were sending us off to die. They said, “How do you want your people to be paid?” I said, “Just give it all to them at once, if something happens.” I went to mail my clothes home.

That’s not a good feeling. I was going to Korea, and in the machine gun company. They said, “The biggest man in the squad formation, the biggest man carries the ammo, the ammo bearer. One man carries the ammo, one carries the tripod.” I said, ‘I’m an ammo bearer, man. What do I fight with?’ They said, “You don’t need nothing. You just gonna carry the ammo. They knock you out first anyway.” Oh man, that’s not a good feeling.

Anyway, two days before I was shipping out, I’m in the barracks. Some guys were crying. It was sad, a depressing time. The CO who was the captain said, “Private Cooper?” I said to myself, ‘What have I done this time?’ So I said, ‘Sir, are you looking for me? Cooper?’

“Who is this damn band?” he asked. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, “Who are you?” I said ‘I’m Private Cooper.’ He said, “This band sent a direct order and drafted you away from us. You’re going to that band.” In other words, going to that band is more important than going to Korea to fight? And I said, ‘Pardon the expression, sir, but don’t bullshit me.’ He said, “No. They’re sending a jeep for you as we speak.” Then a jeep pulled up and said, “Are you Private Cooper? We’re looking for Private Cooper. Get your gear; you’re outta here.”

I threw my stuff in the jeep. My buddies waving and I would never see them again. We went up to where the band lived, and we slept on mattresses. And they had two sheets and they were complaining that the sheets weren’t ironed.

On the same post, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, they had 20 or 40 square miles; four or five bands. It was a city out there. I got up to the band, and, oh boy, at the PX I saw women walking down the streets; I’d been in the jungle down there.

I used to work hard up there and then not in much time, about ten months, I was a Sergeant. I felt so impressive in the band and when the man gave me those stripes, I didn’t want it. I wanted to hang with those fellows. He said, “No, I’m giving you a direct order, I’m making you a Sergeant.”

They gave me an 18 piece band to be in charge of. I was booking one of my jobs. One of my duties was to book Friday night parties for the different outfits on the post. Where did they send me? To the 91st battalion where I came from! This time I had Sergeant stripes, got my own driver and Jeep and I go back down that hill and there was the same Sergeant that kicked me out and told me I would never be nothing, I walked in and said ‘Request command to see me.’

“Oh yes sir, go back in.” I went into the office. “Close the door, son.” He pulled his liquor out and said, “You drink son, don’t you?” We drank and we had this party and all these girls came from St. Louis and talked about the band and after we finished business we talked about anything; telling jokes and everything. Then he said, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”

In the Army days they called me Boogie Red. I don’t know what that was about but that was my nickname. I said ‘You remember Boogie Red?’ He said, “You used to be down here?” ‘I told you all the time I was a musician,’ I said.

I keep thinking about those Army experiences and I think the angels are watching out for me.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Leroy Cooper, Ernie Fields, Charlie Barnet and Uncle Sam

This is an excerpt from Leroy Cooper's memoir as told to me back in 2007. The material is copyrighted by Susan Cross and cannot be copied, published or duplicated without permission.

After I left school, I went to Waco, Texas with the little band. While we were there we met a big band leader that had a territorial band. There was a guy named Ernie Fields from Tulsa, Oklahoma that had a big band and part of his band had quit him. I’ll tell you who he had in his band: J.J. Johnson, the trombone player that wrote for the movies; Miles Davis was in that band; Gene Ammons; and Yusef Lateef. All of these guys went on to be big names but back then they were young so they left his band.

Someone from Ernie Fields band called down to where we were staying in Waco. They heard there were some musicians staying there, and they wanted this trumpet player to come join them. We were all high and everything, drinking our wine.

I said, ‘Tell ‘em you got the greatest saxophone player in the world sitting here.’ The guy put him on the phone and he said, “You want a job?” And I said, ‘Yeah.’

I was all cocky; I was tough and I was big and he said, “Okay, I’ll send you a train ticket to come to Oklahoma.” There was four of us, they sent us train tickets. All the people in Waco said we were going to be nothing and we said, ‘We’re going to join Ernie Field’s band in Tulsa, Oklahoma.’

So we caught the train, and I got to the band, and they were more professional than I was accustomed to. These guys were warming up and I heard the sounds coming out of their instruments, and I was afraid to toot my little horn. So I was just sitting there. The bandleader could see I was terrified because I was just a teenager so he said, “I’ll tell you what. Just play anything you want to play and tell the piano player what key you want to play it in. The guys didn’t even want to speak to me—that’s how musicians are. So I played Lady Be Good. And they got all friendly and introduced themselves. I thought, Wow I made an impression.

They wanted me to take Yusef Lateef’s place. He was a famous tenor saxophone player. I didn’t play tenor, I played alto. So that night in bed I thought, the baritone is the same pitch as the alto, it’s an E-flat instrument. They had an opening for a baritone player and the baritone player didn’t have to play solos because it was a bit awkward. So I told the band leader at rehearsal to let me try the baritone. He said okay. I didn’t have a baritone so one of the guys lent me one. So I got on the baritone and I wasn’t used to playing those notes and going through all those changes, and finally I told the bandleader, ‘Look, you can just give me bus fare back to Dallas and I’ll try again.’ I was giving up.

Back in those days, the band leader was like the father. He called everybody Hoss.

“I see something in you, Hoss.” he said, “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you give Hal McIntyre or Mooney who played with Duke Ellington’s band, (he was playing lead alto) you give him a dollar or two when you can afford it, and get him to teach you our book. So I got a room down the hall from Geezil Minerve, who went on to play with Duke Ellington, and I would worry him every day to teach me something. I was practicing every day. He was strict and he was from Orlando, Florida. He was a West Indian guy. And he would kick things up. I would say, ‘Slow it down,’ and he would say, “HuH Hut hut”, so being under him I improved. I got this new instrument that was a baritone and I got to where I could play. Sometimes he would get his flute and I could keep up with him on the flute, and in fact I was getting pretty good and they told me anytime a band comes through, worry the baritone player to death about the ins and outs about the instrument.

Basie’s band was forming in Oklahoma City and I was living in Tulsa. So when they came to Tulsa I would worry the baritone player to death. His name was [Jack] Washington. I would ask him, ‘Why do you do this, and why do you do that?’ He would say “Leave me alone.” But still we messed around.

Ernie Fields gave us our first trip to New York. The band went to do the show at the Apollo Theatre. Charlie Barnet’s band was playing there. Charlie Barnet’s band had all these big studio musicians. I remember the drummer had all these drums up on the stage. I had never seen that many drums and our little drummer had some little $1.98 drums. He was my buddy so he said, help me put my drums up on the stage. He was ashamed to take his drums up.

That night, Charlie Barnet had a birthday party and said everybody’s invited. So I went up there and I was drinking up the booze. And I was shaking hands and they didn’t know we were little country bumpkins from Oklahoma that didn’t know nothing. I went out on the stage and sang that first night. Our little drummer got a job with Dizzy Gillespie so when they took the program out I said ‘We don’t have nobody to sing.’ Lemon Drop was the song. So I said ‘I’ll sing it.’ I was 19 and I would do anything. This was at the Apollo Theatre where they would throw bricks at you; I went out there and sang my little song, baboom boom boom and blew with them so long that I got ahead.

The bandleader was teaching me stage decorum. I went out there and I turned around and he said “back up, back up.” I was learning how to entertain. The band paid me more money than I ever had in my life. He called me into where everybody got paid, this was in the late ‘40s, and I never had seen $100, and this man counted me out 100 bucks and he kept going. I thought ‘He’s counting out the money for the band.’ And then he got to $125 and he said, “Okay. Spend it wisely.”

I said ‘I get all this money? And you get paid like this every week?’ He said, “Yeah, boy.” And I said, ‘Wheee! I got money in my pocket!’ I spent it wisely. It was January and I was wearing my little Texas raincoat. I said I need a coat, so one of the little guys hanging around said “I’ll show you where you can get a coat cheap, and uh maybe I can get one if you get it cheap enough.” I thought he’s pulling my leg because everybody in New York needed a coat in January. He took me to a dry cleaner and all the unclaimed stuff was on the rack. He said, “Pick you out a coat.” Oh man, I got this nice, warm overcoat and the guy said “Give me 20 bucks.” ‘20 bucks?’ I said. The other guy I was with said “Fifteen.” I paid $15 and had a nice warm coat and the other guy got him a coat for about five. So I spent 20 bucks and both of us had coats.

He said “Now you need some snow boots.” For my little $125 I had a new suit and everything for the first time in my life. I wanted to go to a barber shop and get the works—shoe shine, nails—like I had seen it in the movies, so they fixed me up. I thought, ‘Oh, I could get used to this.’

They did a record while we were over in Jersey and a Broadway producer saw me. I didn’t know the baritone was popular like that and he said, “I think I can use you in a Broadway show.” I’m with this band over here and he was paying over 2, and I was traveling. Too much was happening too fast, but in the midst of all this Uncle Sam sent me a letter and I was drafted.