Monday, August 31, 2009

Rest in Peace, Leroy 'Coop' Cooper

Enjoy Birthday Present
By Susan Cross

I woke up singing "Happy birthday" to Leroy this morning. Last year, he and his wife were not going to go out to celebrate. My husband and I insisted that it was a special day and should not be ignored. We invited some friends, Tom and Kathy Bastedo, to join us at B.B. King's Blues Club in Orlando where we all met for dinner.

B.B. and his band played 4 nights during the grand opening which took place the first week in December of 2007. Our friend, Ernest Vantrease, keyboard player with B.B., and long time keyboardist with Ray Charles, met my husband before and after the show to visit. He made me promise to bring Leroy to hear the house band. I try not to break promises.

It took awhile, I admit. Leroy's 80th birthday seemed like the perfect excuse. We had a great celebration. Never did we realize that it would be his last birthday. My policy about birthdays is to celebrate every single one of them as if it were our last. Nobody can predict the future.

Copyright © 2009 Susan Cross – All rights reserved

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Jimmy Reed - Ham & Eggs

Just got back from listening to a local blues band and loved the fact that they did a song by Jimmy Reed. Here's a little excerpt from the Leroy 'Hog' Cooper on Sax about Jimmy.

"I could tell you a story about that record date with Jimmy Reed. The drummer and I used to work together.

"We go up to the studio and uh-oh, Jimmy’s late. Everybody in the studio was ready to go. After awhile we heard something coming down the hallway, bumping into the walls.

"My buddy said, 'That’s Jimmy,' and then ta-da – Jimmy walked in. He was high as a kite.

"He came in there and said, 'I’m ready.'

"Man, what kind of recording is he going to do when he’s high like that? The drummer’s name was Al.

"Jimmy said, “Al, what did you have for breakfast this morning?”

"Al said, 'Ham and eggs.'

"Oh, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum da bum, Jimmy was playing and started singing, 'Ham and eggs, baby, bah bah do do.'

"Al said, 'Jimmy, that’s good stuff. What’s the next one?'

“Jimmy asked, 'Um, what kind of car you drive?' He did an LP just off of the top of his head on whatever subject we came up with.

"I said this is pure genius. And I mean we would tell stories and he would do bum bum… and we finished the thing in about three hours’ time and I’m still standing there in amazement."

copyright Susan Cross, August 2009

Blues musicians' nicknames

Funny how blues musicians have to be given nicknames in order to be recognized. This phenomenon occurs in other genres and of course, is rampant in athletes.

Leroy Cooper was dubbed by his high school band director as Hog. David Newman got his label, Fathead from that same man. Hank Crawford didn't use his first name which was Bennie. All of these are sax players that played with Ray Charles. Ernest Vantrease, keyboard player for Ray for almost 30 years, was dubbed The Deacon, although now that he's with B.B. King he is known by his given name.

Speaking of B.B. King, his real name is Riley B. King, but it is generally known that the B.B. stands for Blues Boy.

Buster Smith's given name was Henry. How 'bout this one? Antoine Dominique Domino became famous as Fats Domino.

Would blues fans recognize a song by Amos Blakemore? Would they know that Buddy Guy was the man performing it?

The list goes on and on and even in local blues bands, if you don't have a nickname you're not a 'cat' as Leroy would describe you. Here in Orlando, we have Mad Dog Mahoney, Mojo Jones, the Iceman, Birddog Bobby, Lil Mookie, and the list goes on.

Go ahead and show me what you know. Leave a comment with one that I've left out. There are plenty that have slipped my mind this morning -- it's Saturday and I was going to take the day off. Hah!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Just words - Flash Fiction

The woman was playing solitaire on a TV tray in front of her easy chair. She was superstitious and believed that if she won the game he would call. She blamed the silence of the phone on the cards. He hadn’t called in over a week and she was obsessing over him, trying to figure out what went wrong.

Her children were sitting in the living room with her watching the Donny and Marie Show featuring the brother and sister Osmond team. In addition to singing, dancing and performing comedy sketches the teenagers were as attractive as Barbie and Ken dolls but life-like and down to earth. Everything about them was perfect in the woman’s eyes.

She had been divorced for over five years now. Loneliness and depression were eating her up and caring for two children alone was a burden. In the 1950s and ‘60s divorce carried a stigma unlike current times when long lasting marriages were the exception and divorce more the rule. Not only was she bogged down by daily life and getting by on the money she earned as a saleslady in a department store, she was an outcast; a divorcee.

Finally she had met a man and thought that her life might possibly change for the better. He was attractive, which was very important to her, and had a steady job. He was obviously interested – enough to call her and take her out for a few early dinners during the weeks before. She never saw the signs or suspected that there was a pattern to the phone calls and dates. A more sophisticated woman might have guessed that he was married. Maybe she suspected it but didn’t want to acknowledge the possibility.

She turned up the final card and once again had lost her solitaire game. The phone rang. She jumped up to answer thinking that maybe there was nothing to this silly superstition. The voice she heard was a child calling to invite her daughter to a birthday party on Saturday. What a letdown! Out of frustration, she told the girl that her daughter couldn’t come to the party. She imagined the other mothers talking about her as the single mom who couldn’t find a man. Why impose more shame upon herself?

She looked at her tiny young daughter who was born with a chronic disease. Although the child never complained, the mother was a witness to the constant pain as it was displayed in her facial expressions. The child sat on the floor in front of the TV set. Even though she suffered the little girl didn’t deserve to go and have fun at a birthday party. If mom was miserable, why should her daughter be allowed a pleasure that was being denied to her?

The mother lit another cigarette. She glanced at her son who was eating cookies. He was already obese and shunned by the children at school. His daily tales of ridicule added to the weight of her misery.

Before giving up, the cards were laid out one more time. She vowed that this would be the last time tonight for her evening ritual. She concentrated and moved the cards carefully tempted to cheat. Once again the final winning card was buried under another and she gave up. She stood up and went into the bathroom. It was obvious when she looked in the mirror that she was a beautiful woman with her green eyes and flowing red haired.

There could only be one reason he hadn’t called. She had been right all along and the man would never call again. During their last dinner together, the all-important third date, she had told him that she had two children. No man in his right mind would get weighed down by a woman that represented a future involving an obese boy and an ailing daughter. Of course! Who could blame him? It wasn’t her fault or his; the children were responsible for her loneliness.

Stubbing out her cigarette, and taking another from the packet she stared at her defective offspring. Without them her life would be happy and fulfilling, she thought. Then she glanced up at the television screen. It didn’t seem fair.

“How come their mother got those gorgeous, talented children and I am stuck with you two?” Her children didn’t turn to look at her. They sat silently letting the words burn into their brains like tattoos. They were just words; one sentence. It never occurred to the woman that children never forget what their mother tells them. Just words had branded each of these little lives with guilt that would last a lifetime.

Lowell Fulson - "Reconsider Baby"

The Big Man
By Susan Cross

Excerpt from Leroy 'Hog' Cooper on Sax, A Memoir by Leroy Cooper with Susan Cross, copyright August 2009

In 1954, I played with Lowell Fulson at Chess Records. Leonard Chess was at the date and was telling me what to play on the baritone. “Play some low notes, play some low notes.” All this was going on when we was playing on "Reconsider Baby".

In 1956, we recorded “I Believe I’ll Give it Up,” “Please Don’t Go,” and “Be on your Merry Way.”

Lowell lived about 30 miles from me in Ft. Worth. He would come to Dallas to do a gig and would come by my house and rest up. You know, him and his lady. I guess I knew him pretty well. Back then, the guitarist was so superior to everybody else, just like organ players. If you could play the organ you were better than the rest of the guys. You were a big man.

Copyright © 2009 Susan Cross – All rights reserved

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Can you spell the name of Ray Charles back up singers

How many ways can you spell the the name of the group of women who sang with Ray Charles? Seems to me the most logical way would be Raylets. Wrong! I have seen Raylettes. Wrong! Raelettes? Wrong! Ralets? Wrong! Raelets? Wrong. I could go on and on.

Mable John, the lead singer of the ladies in the pretty dresses, singing “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and many of his other songs has informed me that the proper spelling of Ray’s backup singers is: Raeletts!

So, if you guessed Raeletts, you win. I can’t tell you how many times I was a loser until I spoke to the expert. All that matters is that I finally got it right.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fork in the road - pick a path

A woman found Leroy Cooper's MySpace page, which I maintain, and contacted me about her grandfather. Robert Murphy was a friend of Cooper's when they played in Fred Cooper's Big Band made up of all adult black men. They were two of the teenagers asked to sit in for musicians that had been called to serve in World War 2.

Both had played music from a young age. They were excited about playing Tommy Dorsey music with adult musicians in theaters to an all-white audience. Both dreamed of careers in music. Both got their wish, but in two separate arenas.

Cooper and Murphy attended college on music scholarships. Back in the late 1940s, black colleges offered limited options. As Cooper put it: "You could become a preacher or a teacher." Cooper decided in his senior year that he didn't want to be either so he left to play in a band. Murphy stayed in school.

When Ray Charles came to Dallas, David 'Fathead' Newman joined his band and subsequently brought Cooper along. Murphy had the opportunity to join and was inclined to do so. However, his father urged him to stay in school and pursue his Master's Degree. He obviously didn't see a possibility for a successful career playing in bands.

Cooper paid his dues, playing with Ray Charles and other bands. He traveled the world and saw the sights. He watched his friends marry and divorce as life on the road was not marriage-friendly. Musicians loved playing music but there were drugs and alcohol and women that destroyed many. In 1977 he left Ray Charles, where he had become the bandleader, to marry (for the third time) and settle down. Wise choice. He remained married to the love of his life for 33 years. "She saved my life," he said. He continued his musical career as a member of the Dixie Deltas, the strolling trio at Disney World in Orlando where he retired after 20 years.

Murphy stayed home. He got his degrees and became a teacher. He married and had children. He was promoted to principal and eventually administrator. His entire career was built around teaching music and his home life was stable. He has seven grandchildren and is 82 years old.

The memories of standing on stage next to Cooper have floated to the top of Murphy's mind. He is having his granddaughter look up old friends, only to find that they have passed on. Murphy is a bright, happy man who sounds satisfied with the life he has led but wonders what it would have been like if...

Cooper died with the knowledge of three children that he fathered, none of which he was allowed to meet. Although he raised two step-children and a step-grandson, there was always that little hole in his heart that filled with nostalgia when he told me about his two sons and a daughter.

These men grew up together in Dallas. Their fathers played music together. I'm sure there were a lot of contributing factors to the decisions each one made, but their stories describe the opposite paths that each traveled, both with happiness but also with wonder. Neither had regrets. Cooper's last words to me were: "I have enjoyed every part of my life." That is a reflective statement from an 80 year old who survived the challenges and dangers of pursuing uncertainty. Murphy's spoke of his family and stability with equal satisfaction.

Nobody can answer the question, "What if?" and therefore, nobody should ask it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Father's Advice - Flash Fiction

Lifeguarding fit neatly between spring and fall semesters at the university. Arnie was a natural and took his work seriously. It was a typical day at the beach. He was watching children build sandcastles while enjoying conversation with cute bikini-clad babes. Everything was perfect.

Suddenly he heard people shouting. He looked toward the water and saw a man waving his arms as a wave came crashing down on him. The man disappeared. Arnie started swimming toward him. With his arm around the man's neck he swam to shore. A circle of horrified people surrounded him. CPR was unsuccessful. It was too late. In those few minutes the word responsibility had taken on new meaning. One man was dead and another's life had changed forever as a result.

Twenty years later, Arnie was sitting at the desk in his study grading essays. Final exams were over and he was writing comments and critiques on each page. His son, Joseph, was finishing his second year of college. It was time to consider his options for summer jobs. He was athletic and had been a member of the swimming team since high school. He needed some advice so he went into the study.

"Dad, I'm thinking about what I should do this summer to earn some money. Any suggestions?" Joseph asked.

Arnie's reply was simple. "Mow lawns, son. Mow lawns."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Leroy Cooper on Frankie Lee Sims & Sun Ra

Leroy talked about the jazz side and blues side. He describes some of his first experiences with real 'outlaw' jazz as he called it.

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.

"My first automobile I got when I was playing with Frankie Lee Sims. And I didn’t know that he was a big man. So I got down on him. Then I heard these guitar players talking about Frankie Lee Sims. I said he was just another cat to me. I never did know what the story was and when to stop. He’d say, “Blow.” And I’d go voom, voom, voom. And I said to myself, when do you stop? And finally when you got tired of blowing, he’d get back to singing. No charts, no nothing. Just blow.


That’s the way it was with Sun Ra, too. I used to rehearse with Sun Ra in Chicago. And that’s the way he’d come to me.

He’d say, “Play.” The cats in the band would look at you and say, “Play. Just play your instrument.”

That’s not easy to do. He would call me changes. Sun Ra might get a bell. Creativity. People was sitting there so high they don’t even know what day it is. I didn’t last with that too long. I got friends that loved them. They stayed with Sun Ra for years. I’d see them in New York and they’d say come down to the so-and-so and I’d say, I’ll be there. But I didn’t want to go to that.

This is just a snippet. There's much more about Count Basie, Duke Ellington, etc. who he considered more traditional because they used charts and books.

Something different - flash fiction (100 words)

Pepsi or Sprite?

Maria walked into the store. Pepsi or Sprite? Did she need caffeine? During the night working at the nursing home the only patient who hadn’t slept was grumpy Mr. Franklin.

“Where’s my extra blanket?” he had roared. Maria was used to his demands. He reminded her of grandma who lived with her until death finally brought relief to both their suffering.

No caffeine. She wanted to be able to sleep. She paid for the Sprite and drove home. Her husband was on his way out the door as she climbed into bed.

“Where’s my extra blanket?” she yelled after him.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

5 Tips for keeping children occupied while working

First, wash face after PB&J sandwich!

Even though our offspring may be hovering around the age of 30, we still consider them our children. Ah, and while we are sleeping, or so it seems, grandchildren appear and our lives are changed forever. Since I am a grandmother working at home, I am sometimes faced with a challenge: How do I spend time on weekends with my grandchildren and still meet a Monday deadline. Planning better would be one way but the surprise visits often pre-empt it. Here are some tips that I use that sometimes work (and sometimes don't).
  1. "Don't forget to color the trees green and the sky blue. I can't wait to see what color you make the house." Always have coloring books and crayons in the house. Coloring is a positive form of entertainment for a child that takes concentration.
  2. "Make me a donut," or "See if you can make a dragon." Play Doh is one of the best inventions for allowing children to use their imaginations. It is non-toxic, not that my 3-year old would eat it, but it's good to know that it's safe. Cleaning the carpet afterward can wait until the deadline has passed.
  3. "Use this little plastic putter to see if you can get the golf ball into the hole. Start close to the hole and then move back a little each time you make your shot." It is very important for little tykes to practice coordination and motor skills.
  4. "See if you can get all the puzzles pieces in their slots before Grandma finishes her paragraph." Make sure the puzzle is age appropriate but still challenging.
  5. "Here is a video I know you'll like because you liked it last time you were here." I hate to resort to this one and prefer to watch the video with the child so we can talk and laugh together, but if the deadline is pressing and the child liked the video the first time, it's likely that they'll want to see it again and again.
Once your work is complete be sure to bake cookies, play a game or take a walk together. The deadline may be tomorrow, but you never know if you'll see your grandchild again. A bit of advice from a grandmother who knows the meaning of that statement.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Leroy 'Hog' Cooper on Sax can RIP soon

2008 International Blues Challenge in Memphis
with the Smokin' Torpedoes (talking to a fan)

Writing Leroy 'Hog' Cooper on Sax has not been easy. The best part was sitting in his home listening to him tell me the stories of his life, dating back to about 1936. Stories about growing up in Dallas through hard times in a middle class black neighborhood, learning to play reed instruments as a child, attending high school, college and joining his first big band. Being drafted interrupted his musical career until he auditioned by the Army Band where he played baritone sax and became the bandleader.

Not long after leaving the service, he became a member of the Ray Charles Band, a small group at the time that wasn't getting much respect. It took years before the country recognized the blind, musical genius and his supporting cast, one of which was Leroy Cooper.

His life took many twists and turns and I enjoyed hearing every single story. I wish I could say the same about the work involved in writing the book. It has been a rigorous undertaking and a labor of love. Leroy and I had no signed contract, but as was Leroy's nature, we shook on the deal. Now Leroy has left us behind to listen to his music and read his story. He kept his end of the bargain by telling me his stories. Now I am honoring him by completing this labor of love.

I am delighted to have received some amazing photos of Leroy to use in the book; some with Ray Charles, others with the Dixieland Deltas from his 20 years strolling the grounds of Disney World entertaining guests. Pictures of Leroy being Leroy, with a cigar in his hand, a drink in front of him and empty dishes -- all of which he was known for, especially the empty dishes since his self described addiction was to food more than anything.

I'm still adding stories told to me at our last meeting. Then the manuscript goes to the professional editors, I go to the publisher's with the photos and work on the cover art. There is still plenty of work to be done before I hold the finished product in my hand but momentum is building.

Leroy Cooper knows I'm a woman of my word. I made a promise and I am keeping it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Leroy Cooper's home - a place without race

The many hours interviewing and conversing with Leroy Cooper have built the foundation for Leroy 'Hog' Cooper, A Memoir. This was just the first step -- the easy one. Listening to Leroy talk was a pleasure. If I hadn't started with the intention of writing his memoir, as he had requested, I hope I would have taken the time to spend just as many hours in his 'prayer room' listening to his stories about musical history in parallel with racial history in America.

Not suprisingly, at 80 years old, he had experienced changes in both, intertwined throughout his life. I learned that there are black people in this country who lived in middle class neighborhoods back in 1928 and enjoyed positive experiences through childhood. Surprisingly (to me, at least) Leroy was encouraged to go to college and received a full music scholarship to The Pride of the South, Huston-Tillotson College (now University).

It's not that he was not affected by racial differences, it's just that he had access to the same benefits as white kids his age; they simply were separated. Growing up in the YMCA provided all the activities a child could want. Athletic teams, band, indoor swimming and motivational speakers.

Music is what caused the change in his perspective. Going to play alongside of the musicians at the University of Texas, who were white, and being invited to their homes gave him a peek into life outside of an all-black community. Not surprisingly, music continued to be the element that exposed him to differences and similarities around the country.

Leroy Cooper was never underprivileged. As his life progressed he experienced peaceful integration in some places and racist threats in others. He never used the word bitterness in relation to his own life and when he spoke about Ray Charles, he only used it in regard to Ray's blindness. It was generally known that Ray was bitter about not being sighted.

Cooper's life is a tribute to American musical history and a monument to a country that has overcome differences. Leroy felt blessed to witness the campaign of a black American running for President.

I was surprised when he asked me how I felt about Obama. We discussed campaign promises of both candidates that we liked and disliked. I asked him if he were more inclined to vote for Obama because he was black. Leroy was stunned! Although he felt pride that a black man was in the race, it never occurred to him to vote based on that single premise. Leroy Cooper was an educated man. He would vote for the person he thought was best qualified to deal with the issues at hand.

Leroy Cooper never focused on the differences between people. Instead he focused on the person.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Avoiding cliches in writing

It's so easy to fall into the habit of using cliches that are used in everyday speech at the work place and TV. They have become part of our daily dialogue. Then add in the text-speak and before you know it you're mixing apples (your grandmother's old sayings) with oranges (your kids' new ones).

The practice comes naturally when I'm writing and I have to go back and edit them out of my blog posts and written work. That can be challenging when I'm over-exposed to the latest trends in newspapers, people and contemporary fiction. I'll give you an example. When titling this blog, I had to resist using the words, "What not to do when..." How often do you see that in the title of a magazine article or post?

Here are some of my favorites, most taken from talking heads (oops!), I mean panelists on news shows. Pay attention next time you're watching. "At the end of the day" you'll see what I mean. "Take a listen" to what the Senator said in a meeting.... During the Clinton days, every change in opinion was referred to as "waffling." Now, the current administration "flip-flops" on policy decisions. This is not intended to leave out the Republicans. Last year, I thought I'd choke if I heard one more person refer to Cheney's whereabouts as an "undisclosed location." With Bush, well, I can't think of a particular one. Every time he opened his mouth I thought, "Has he ever heard of Toastmasters?"

But I digress (oops)! Excuse me because I have lost my train of thought (oops!) Now that I'm off topic (oops!). Writers are supposed to convey original thoughts, not regurgitate the slang of the day. That's what differentiates us from people in other professions. Imagine picking up a book 30 years from now and expecting someone to know what a BFF is? If you want your work to have a life span of more than a year, think before you write.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Guidelines for writing celebrity memoirs

According to all the books about the process of writing celebrity memoirs this subject appears to be wide open. Could that be because there are no books available on writing celebrity memoirs?

Let me assure you that as soon as I've completed Leroy 'Hog' Cooper on Sax, A Memoir my very next project will be to write a book on how to ghost write someone else's memoirs.

I assume that each of my blog readers (all thousands of you, ahem) have considered pursuing this path of ghost writing a memoir or autobiography of someone famous. Surely you wondered, if I were going to do so, how would I go about it?

The first thing you would probably do is go to a bookstore (or online) to find a guide to the subject. That was my first step. Unsuccessful there.

My next step was to go to the biography/memoir section of the bookstore, sit down on the floor and one by one, take each book off the shelf and peruse the various styles of each. Surprise again! There are no two written alike.

Some are written as question and answer interviews. Some are snippets of one's past experiences. Others include only a portion of the subject's life -- presumably the portion that the subject would like everyone to know about or that he thinks everyone would want to know about.

Some are sordid. Others are sentimental. Long chapters. Short chapters. Narrow margins. Wide margins. Lots of color photos spanning one's life inserted in the center of the book. Few photos black and white photos strategically placed throughout the book.

Certainly I want Leroy 'Hog' Cooper's memoir to be one of the best ever written but that required finding my groove, since there were no guidelines. So, after months of floundering about, asking questions, reading memoirs (or at least studying their approaches), I have found my own way.

At the beginning of the process, I asked Leroy, "Do you want this book to be written entirely in your voice or in my voice?" What I really meant to ask was, did he want it written in first or third person. It was a poor choice of words on my part. His response, though, was simple. "Both." A reasonable answer under the circumstances. He viewed himself as the subject and me as the professional writer (his words, not mine).

I asked him if he minded if I interviewed some of the 'characters' he had spoken of and he said, he would be delighted to have me do so.

My intention was to call some of his old friends to get a different perspective and to do some fact checking. I have chosen to use those interviews as part of Leroy's memoir. He talks about them; they talk about him. He remembers a specific event or common interest or fear; they remember the same but from a different point of view.

From a reader's standpoint (yes, I am reading the book each time I sit down to work on it) I find that this gives more dimension to the story and shows that the book does not just consist of an old man's memories of a life gone by.

This technique adds color to what would be a black and white (pun intended) recount told by one person about events that involved groups of people. Okay, there were really two puns intended. One was of black words on white pages. One was a reference to civil rights history in this country, an underlying theme throughout Leroy's experiences.

I did seek guidance from other successful memoirists, one of whom is the premier writers of celebrity memoirs in the industry. I have learned the most important rule of this genre: there are no rules.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Little Leroy 'Hog' Cooper - Making music with magazines, hangers and body language

Leroy Cooper started his music career at a very young age. Or at least he had already begun fantasizing about it. Here's an excerpt from Leroy 'Hog' Cooper, A Memoir by Leroy Cooper & Susan Cross with Foreword by David Ritz.

When I was a little boy, 7 or 8 years old, I was a one man band. I had a rolled up magazine and wooden boxes for drums and coat hangers. I’d blow through the magazines and beat on the boxes. I’d be having a ball, just beating on the boxes and blowing through the magazine. I had a picket fence and I could take the coat hanger and scrape it along the fence to add another sound. The old lady neighbors were saying, “He ain’t right. He ain’t gonna make it!” I’d be just having fun.

My mother would come up with some kid to play with me and say, “Surprise, I brought Johnny, Jr. to play with you.” I would get mad because Johnny, Jr. would interfere with my fun.

Awhile later I started blowing the horn. I would get up on top of the barn, the garage was a barn, I’d get up there with my horn and the cat staying across the alley would get up on top of his barn, and he had a saxophone and we’d be blowing at each other. Then my daddy would come home from work and he’d be standing there laughing. Back then we used to practice body moves because we couldn’t play any music. So we figured we had to get some body language. We practiced that stuff.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Happy 40th Woodstock Anniversary

I'd like to extend my happy anniversary wishes to all of the Woodstock attendees with whom I shared a mud puddle 40 years ago. A lot of things have changed since then. A lot!

Other things haven't changed quite so much. We're engaged in a different war but it's also undeclared. Racial issues have evolved to a point that we never dreamed possible. Having a black man elected President was not even on our radar; we would have been happy just to stop the discrimination and segregation. People are protesting political policies and we now recognize new cultural differences that require some attention.

Teenaged boys are growing their hair long again and the stores are full of tie dyed clothing with peace signs on them. Everyone uses the word love, a little too loosely in my opinion. It's one thing for a parent to say "Love you" at the end of a phone conversation with a child, but when an American Idol contestant says, "I love you all" at the end of a performance, it occurs to me that they may not understand the concept. Nobody 'likes' anymore; everybody 'loves' now.

At the last concert I attended, a no smoking event, at the end of the show everyone held up their cell phones as if they were lit matches to show their sincere thanks to the musicians. We didn't have cell phones 40 years ago and if we did, we probably wouldn't have had any reception due to the weather conditions out in the middle of nowhere. Our matches kept going out due to the rain, but we just lit more matches.

Reminiscing is good. If you really want to take a look at how things have changed, refer to GRAND Magazine's cover article for the August issue. GRAND is a webzine targeted at baby boomer grandparents. What better way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the event that affected so many cultural changes than to feature an interview with Arlo Guthrie written by, none other than -- Susan Cross (shameless plug).

By the way, Arlo has 4 children and 7 grandkids and is a card carrying Republican. That alone should tell you that anything is possible -- even me meeting my deadline 10 days from today!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Is there a bookcase in your house?

As a child, my favorite room in my grandmother's house was her library. It was a small room and most of the books were Reader's Digest condensed books, but I didn't understand what that meant at the time. To me, my grandmother was my hero and books were a treasure.

When I got married my husband was surprised at the boxes of books I brought to our newly combined household. They were in boxes because my studio apartment didn't have room for bookshelves. Once we were settled and had all of the essentials I started shopping for a piece of furniture to display and store my collection of books. They needed a proper home. I don't own first edition, signed hardbacks signed (with a few exceptions by a friend who is a successful author). Mine include complete, paperback sets of my favorite authors, as well as some by relatively unknown. To me, they are more valuable than jewelry, even if they're used or old with yellowed pages.

"Did you already read them?" he asked. "Of course," I replied. "Then why keep them?" he wondered aloud.

I don't often reread a book in its entirety but great authors write books with great sentences; paragraphs that can be read independently of the context; chapters that have meaning all by themselves. I can pick a John Irving book off the shelf and read an excerpt and come away satisfied.

Since then, my husband has become an avid reader. We have bookshelves in the house. I was delighted when I was preparing for a garage sale and asked him, "Do you still want this book or are you done with it?" Surprisingly, he responded, "I really enjoyed that one. Keep it, I might want to read it again."

Photos of Ray Charles & Leroy Cooper

These past few days have been challenging, as described in recent posts. The good news is that I received the photos I need for the book. It seemed essential to me to have pictures that included Leroy 'Hog' Cooper with Ray Charles, Hank Crawford, Phil Guilbeau and Marcus Belgrave. Although people who know Leroy Cooper know that he played with Ray, and the book tells some stories about those experiences, without photos I had an empty feeling relating to credibility.

The forces of the Universe have come together and from two different sources I have received photos of the old days. I have another person now searching for pictures of her with Leroy and David 'Fathead' Newman which would also be a treat to those who know about the jazz greats. When Fathead left Ray, he started playing jazz sax and worked with Cynthia Scott, a former Raelet quite often.

After interviewing Cynthia yesterday, she's now looking for photos. By the way, her new CD is fabulous (shameless plug) and all original. You can 'take a listen' (I hate that term that all the news readers -- I can't call them reporters -- use) to her yourself. There's a tribute song to Ray Charles on it. Check out Cynthia at

Looks liks I'll have to go with the glossy photo section in the center of the book instead of all black and white. That is not what I planned but I am very excited to have the pictures to make it happen! (Aside: I sure wish they had digital cameras back then!)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Missing recordings -- ARGH! (sound of banshee screaming)

Use your imagination (I didn't have to). You are writing a memoir and you are a victim of the infernal April 1st Conflictor virus which happens two days before April Fool's Day. Now there's an April Fool's joke to rival any you've endured in the past! The hard drive in your computer has been eaten by some invisible gremlin. You are certain that you've backed everything up. What rational person wouldn't back up all files when working on a book?

You have a deadline looming for your memoir. Most of the book is complete and you run into a snag. Some questions are unanswered, some gaps unfilled. Your subject has died six months ago so you can't call and ask him to fill in the blanks. You search your multiple flash drives, hoping, hoping, that you will find the data hiding somewhere but it seems to be lost forever.

Your photographic memory is trying to envision your subject sitting in his chair telling you stories that will elicit your audiographic memory. Bits and pieces are returning, but it's not enough. The struggle is whether to delete passages that give only fragments of stories or work them into a place where the suspense seems intentional.

Suddenly, in addition, you realize that one of your supporting celebrity interviews is also missing. You try to call that person and get voicemail to do a repeat interview and get voicemail. You find out later that he was on tour in Germany and his cell phone service was waterlogged under the Atlantic somewhere. What does a writer do?

The answer is so obvious; why didn't you think of this before? You ask your spouse! He or she insists that you backed up the data and says to keep looking. The first flash drive was created after the crash. Then you insert the second, searching every little file and folder. And then, you drill down, folder into folder, down another folder and another -- and there it is! A folder with the missing files. Guess what, there aren't one or two. You find eight files, some over three hours long, that need to be listened to and possibly transcribed completely.

Remember, the deadline is hanging over you like a storm cloud. You can see what appears to be just a hint of a funnel sliding downwards from that cloud. There's only one thing you can do now. Take all your pillows, cell phone, flashlight and laptop, go in the closet and hope there's not a tornado about to rip your roof off and destroy everything. Secretly you hope it will, because then you'd have a good excuse to miss the deadline, abandon the project and get on with your life after a two and a half year investment in it.

An hour goes by. You pass your time playing Mah Jongg on the laptop when you see the battery is almost dead. The thunder has ceased. No tornado. No excuse. Time to get back out of the closet, go to your desk, plug in the computer and start listening to recordings.

Sure, you only have ten more days, but what's one day to listen, and possibly transcribe, hours of recordings? The book is almost done. The sky has cleared. The phone rings. It's the guy whose interview you thought you had lost. He apologizes for not getting back to you right away but he was in Germany playing keyboards with B.B. King. You chat with your friend as if nothing had happened. By now, you have his two hour interview and life will go on.

Another fantasy shattered. Time to get back into bed and take a nap.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

10 Questions to ask yourself before ghost writing a memoir

People seem obsessed with telling their life stories. That's a personal decision. Have you thought about writing someone else's memoir? If so, you might want to consider answering these questions first.

1. Who is your subject? Does anyone really care about his/her life?
2. How old is your subject? The older, the more difficult. An older person has a lot of memories (if they're lucky enough to be of sound mind). Also, be prepared for an unexpected death.
3. Does the person have an unusual story with a twist that will appeal to a reader or even a niche market?
4. If the person is a celebrity, is he/she A-list? If so, why would they want you to write their memoir instead of a professional memoirist?
5. If the person is a B-list celebrity, are you prepared to do a whole lot of marketing to reach your target audience and let them know the book is out there for them?
6. Do you have a plan? Going in to interview someone for an article is not like writing a memoir; I found out the hard way. Interviewing someone for a memoir illicits memories that stray from your questions but are critical to their story.
7. Are you willing to do a lot of transcription, or pay someone to do it?
8. Once you have a transcript, how many hours do you have available to edit the material?
9. Does your subject have enough photographs to accompany the text and illustrate what makes his story unique?
10. Are you a perfectionist? If so, stop right there and go find something else to do. Getting someone else's story perfect is not like writing your own story, especially if they pass away and you can't call them up to ask questions.

I learned the answers to these questions the hard way. Fortunately, my subject passed away after I had finished all of the work and we were just getting together as friends. Even so, during conversation over lunch, a new tidbit would dribble out of his mouth, causing me to push the red button on the recorder that was always always in my hand. I can't call him up if I have a question about something he said but I have a vast number of resources, including his wife and colleagues, who are able to verify facts for me.

My advice? Think twice.

Being in control of planning a party

Every New Year's Eve my husband and I have a party. We've known each other 20 years and been married for 16 of them. We have only had to cancel once due to illness and that was this last one. The reason for my parties is that my grandmother was born on January 1, 1900 at 1 minute after midnight. She was officially the first baby of the century in the state of New Jersey. During childhood, we always attended the first hour of her parties and then were sent home with babysitters as the party escalated for the grown ups.

Grandma Sadie was very successful and had influential friends many of whom were politicians or other business people. Grandpa would schmooze. The party was always catered with little ice creams made in special shapes and other fancy hors d'oevres. At midnight Grandma would blow out the candles and welcome the new, or so I was told.

I was very close to my grandmother. If she were alive today, she would be the biggest fan of my writing as she was even when I wrote a poem back in my youth. She was very proud of me and it showed.

To recriprocate, I continue to celebrate her birthday at my home. All my friends know that the New Year's Eve Party is at our house so they bring covered dishes and bottles of wine. We play silly games and socialize. We've had as few as 6 people and as many as 40 (and this is not a large home).

This year I am planning a different party. Although there is some level of preparing to be done, it seems relatively easy. A phone call to book the club on a Sunday afternoon. Some calls and emails to book live entertainment and request specific music. The most important thing that needs to be done is to let everyone know there will be a party and I'm working on that.

It will not be a birthday party. This November 1 at 4 PM, I have put together a Tribute to Leroy Cooper at BB Kings Orlando Club. Leroy's musician friends and former bandmates will play for free. The club is providing us with the space for free. Admission will be free. We will all be there for one reason, to pay tribute to this beloved, talented man who brought us joy through his music and his stories. There will be a box of tissues on every table (two on mine) and we will remember him.

His memoir will be at the party and will be available for sale, but book sales have taken a back seat to the main focus of the event: the Tribute.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Video post of Leroy Cooper with Ray Charles

To my loyal readers and newcomers, if you haven't scrolled to the bottom of this blog give yourself a treat. There is a YouTube video posted there of Ray Charles, the Raelets and Leroy Cooper leading the orchestra. Listen for Joe Adams to make the introductions. Leroy is the large man all the way on the right with the 'big' saxophone and the smile.

The Deacon, the keyboard player with the large Afro, is Ernest Vantrease. 'Trease is the single person who played with Ray Charles longer than any other musician, 30 years, right up until Ray's deah five years ago. Fortunately, Ernest Vantrease has found a new gig playing keyboards with B.B. King. Did you know that B.B. King and his band travel by bus all over the country? Of course, on this recent trip to Germany, they relented and flew across the pond.