Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Pat & Barbara revisited

(This week's installment continues a series of Whitt's reflections on becoming a folk music addict and performer.)

Well, I need to backtrack.
In making sure I left out things I shouldn't say,
I left out a number of things I should.

So, about this duo, Pat & Barbara...
Nobody had ever seen anything like it, certainly not in Kentucky, where they got their start, playing supper clubs and hotel lounges with Preston Weber.

Their natural magnetism, quick wit, and excellent, rich, distinctive voices were accompanied by the hardest-working guitarist and performer I ever saw.
And they did a show.  Just listening, oddly enough, to records of Bud & Travis,
The Limeliters, and (reverb) The Kingston Trio, they had learned a lot.
 (Oddly familiar group of names.)  And they stole only the best.

Actual talent hits hardest in the intimate venue, and their following was growing and intense.  Folks who could afford to be out and about frequently become "regulars" and a social scene starts to develop.  Remember, this is back in the olden times of much more direct contact with everyone, audiences in particular, and to fans it was personal.

Some sorta-jet-setters from At-lay-uhn-uh latched onto them, took them partying in Florida, and, suddenly, everybody was in show bidnez!

In those days, it was common for a really professional, polished act to have a deal as the house group for a certain venue.  To have one designed and built for them, and named after them is not as common.  Truth is, they deserved it.

Pat Horine's father had been in Vaudeville.  Pat only wanted two things: to make his father proud, and to be in the Kingston Trio.  He accomplished both before his outrageously early demise in 2004.

He played with heavy gauge steel strings and a heavy pick.  He could play pretty clean, but he played hard even when he played melodically or slow chords.  He just backed up.  When you looked down the neck of his axe, you could see actual little kinks in the strings right in line with the strum wear around the sound hole!  By the end of a show, you could watch the sweat drip from his reddened face and splash off the top of the guitar, sometimes right in tempo!

He had a smoky, probably actually damaged, voice he controlled very well that was romantic in a solo and easy to blend in a duo, and made him a natural choice for The New Kingston Trio later.  But it was all very strenuous, largely because, in his mind's-eye view of Dad's level of performance, it couldn't ever be big enough, dramatic enough.

He could play anything, learn his part fast, and deliver it well timed, and he was clearly having a ball doing it.  They both were.

Barbara King grew up expecting to be a comedic and musical star.
She had a quick, often blunt, flat-out approach to comedy that took over a small room.  She'd drop one on 'em, bat huge false eyelashes, and then, that laugh.
Called it "the Red Skelton school of comedy."
"Hey," she said, "it works for Phyllis Diller!"
(Again, oddly, Travis always claimed to have started out writing comedy for Ms. Diller.)
She had natural timing and was a born actress

Her voice was mostly deep and throaty, but she could (and did)
sit in front of a piano played well and do justice to Sarah Vaughan or Fanny Brice all night, with at least part of any song you might request sung right back to you.  She wanted to be, and should have been, backed by a band doing her own show.

But, she loved the music and the success and was always willing to go with what works, so she was "Barbara" of "Pat & Barbara," and, in my opinion, like Travis, two-thirds of a duo.

There were hilarious times, moving times, glorious times of genuine creativity and performing artistry. We met Skitch Henderson, Ray Bolger and Marilyn Maye all at one gig in Savannah. We all ate and breathed and slept The Show.
We laughed, we cried. 

Ask anyone from "back in (any given) day" and we all know:
Opportunity of a certain kind knocks once.
Another tale of investors not understanding the product in which they invested,
and killing the goose that laid those never-to-be-seen-again treasures.

By the time the act collapsed, they had been booked for the Dick Cavett show and booked their first actual tour, both cancelled by the act.  Officially dead.

Just before the end, though, there was a wonderful experience when I got to go with the act for a gig at a big club in New York City, booked by their big-time GAC agent in Atlanta, Monk Arnold.  It was at "Shepherd's" in the Drake Hotel in Manhattan!

We didn't know the club had been closed two weeks after having been a sort of luxury disco for years.  A little ad was running somewhere, that was it.  No radio interview, no TV exposure--nada.

The first two nights were, put kindly, lonesome.  Pat & Barbara had never played for two or three couples who just wanted to eat.  (I have.)

Morning of the third day of the two-week run, a couple of bulky gents with accents out of a movie came to the dressing rooms in the afternoon and said they were going to get us a record player and some records so we could start doing some music the people would like, you know, like the Beatles and such.

I thanked them for their concern, but said this is a folk and comedy act, not a lounge band.  If someone thinks this act is not right for this room, they need to talk to our agent at GAC.

We laughed, once they had gone, but, quietly, because they seemed very serious and pretty disappointed.

Ahhh, show business.
Like golf, if you don't take it seriously, you're no good at it,
and if you do, it breaks your heart.

Next week:  Movin' on
Now, a "video"--a still of the album cover, accompanied by the only recording of The New KT (with Pat) that I could find.  You'll agree, I think, this configuration sounded most like the original.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A new era dawns, but not on me!

(This week's installment continues a series of Whitt's reflections on becoming a folk music addict and performer.)

So, there I am in Atlanta, GA, of all places, finally getting an opportunity to work "full-time" in "the business" with established, seasoned performers, blissfully unaware it's already coming apart.  (Hey, I was barely 20.)

Probably seeing the oft-ignored handwriting on the proverbial wall, Travis devoted a good deal of time and effort convincing Pat & Barbara I could help them with their show.

I began by just addressing the bits they were doing--tidying up setups, strengthening punch lines, smoothing continuity.  They were young, bright, and humble enough to learn.  They were also packing the little lounge every night (except the one night off) with their contagious, high-energy style.  (I also reset the few baby spotlights the club had, so more of what was happening could actually be seen.  A lot of their comedy relied on takes and reactions, so that helped.)

Meanwhile, Travis was just not rehearsing anymore, and Bob was shifting into a hip country thing with Bucky Wilkin and a bass player whose name I don't recall.  There were lots of laughs offstage, due to Bob's personality and the word games he liked to play; but, they now needed a comedy writer not at all.  Anyway, I didn't have any handle on humor for the genre they were focused on now.

I was quite taken with Bucky, and we had some great times together, even writing a song, "Atlanta Revelations," which P & B recorded as the "B" side of a single Travis had written called "Moonbabies and  Starflowers."  (Hey, it was the late 60s.) I got to be in on the studio session in Nashville, with Rick Powell producing! 

So, I became a coach for Pat & Barbara, sitting in the back of the room during shows, furiously writing on a legal pad every point they needed to polish.  Between shows, in the dressing rooms, I would go over the notes for the next show from the previous night, to remind them of things to focus on in that set.  They were eager, quick, and improving steadily.

I had given them plenty to chew on, so when I returned to Tucson, it was with the understanding that I would continue to write for them.  Back in the Old Pueblo, I returned to radio, my fall-back gig for decades.

Then, word came that P & B's backers were getting ready to build a showroom for them and they needed someone they could trust to design lights and sound.  I met with a friend who had been a consultant with JBL for a few years, and, based on the rough blueprints I had been sent, we crafted a plan and an equipment list.  Long story short, we ended up with a first class showroom with a combination proscenium/apron stage with theatrical lighting and pure, clean, stereo sound for a room seating 300.  (Pat & Barbara filled that room six nights a week, too!)

I was working full-time as their producer, and getting paid to run lights and sound.  

About this time I had my first experience with "backers," the entertainment hobbyists who had fallen in love with Pat & Barbara's ability to fill a bar with happy drinkers.  In spite of the fact that the act was the focal point of the whole enterprise, and that presentation was an important factor in this highly competitive business, the money minders began trying to cheap out, and we had to fight to get my plans implemented.  We prevailed, and, with the exception of a couple of glitches we worked out after a couple weeks, we launched a new level of entertainment experience for that city's live show fans.

I'm not exaggerating when I say we turned that 300-seat room over for two shows a night on weekdays, and three on weekends!  The backers began to smell serious money and decided to hitch a restaurant to the rocket, forging a deal with Jimmy Orr (yes, the athlete) to "merge" with his not-so-thriving "End Zone."

Pat & Barbara, still rather unclear on what 25% of their club was worth, began getting the old run-around about the proposed deal, and trust began to deteriorate.  I was, due to inexperience and immaturity, responsible for making everyone very upset with what I considered to be normal business questions.  I had married Barbara, further complicating both our relationships with Pat, and felt I had to press on this sore spot until something happened.  It did.

When Pat & Barbara broke up, we moved to Tucson and Pat realized a lifelong dream and became part of The New Kingston Trio, along with Bob and Jim Connor (who wrote "Grandma's Feather Bed").  There is history and even music, I think, on an excellent site where Allan Shaw has held forth for a long time as the expert on the whole era.

How things went from there will have to be another installment.  I've glossed over a lot already.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Bob and Travis: the new act and more!

(This week's installment continues a series of Whitt's reflections on becoming a folk music addict and performer.)

In '67 I was in Atlanta, GA (long story) working a job I needed but disliked when a roommate came home and said, "Hey, your buddies Bud and Travis are playing a hotel lounge downtown!"

I went down there that evening to find that they had not, in fact, reunited.
It was Trav and Bob Shane, of The (also disbanded) Kingston Trio, trying to put an act together.

When I walked into the lobby of the Georgian Terrace Hotel, Travis was sitting there with his leg in a cast.  (A horse had stepped on his foot.)  He jumped up and started hobbling toward me. 
"We looked all over for you!  We need a writer!" 
He introduced me to Bob, and the next several weeks would change my life.

They were playing the "cocktail hour" (remember that, fellow dinosaurs?) in the hotel lounge, a tiny dive called "The Pink Poodle" that had been taken over by Pat & Barbara, a couple of youngsters doing a folk show high on energy and comedy--pretty much what was expected of an acoustic act those days. 

Bob was related to one of the backers of Pat & Barbara, who set the gig up so Bob and Travis had a place to rehearse and try out material.  I started joining them for rough-draft practice sessions, throwing out lines and trying to shape bits into "continuity."  That's the term for patter that moves the story line of the performance forward, explaining the song or its origins, tying the last idea to the next idea, etc.

Bob was relaxed, even casual, but still very focused.  He proved to be a quick (and accurate) study.  Trav, not so much.  His attitude resembled mine through high school; that is, he knew the material, basically, but wasn't concerned about his cues, or getting the set-up just right so the gag had some impact.  The pudding was proofed onstage.

Bob would do his line, Trav would approximate his, Bob would riposte, and wait while Travis groped around for his next part, sometimes resorting to an old stand-by one-liner.  When he was stuck, or flubbed the line, Bob would get that twinkle in his eye and just let him hang.

I had seen this sort of thing between Bud and Travis--the weight of huge egos suspended like anvils on threads over a scene the audience may or may not have understood.  Bud and Travis were so alike, so evenly matched, and so similarly tuned comedically, that audiences almost never noticed any friction.  Their stuff moved very quickly, building to one or two big laughs toward the end of the bit.

Bob's timing was shaped by the huge auditoriums and crowds of the college circuit.  He knew when to wait, letting a line sink in all the way to the cheap seats before proceeding.
He didn't drop the punch line until everyone was waiting for it.  Travis admired this, and understood the theory; but, it made him antsy, and his expertise from smaller venues like nightclubs prodded him to jump a little quicker.  This really made his hesitations stand out, and Bob seemed to take a perverse delight in it.
I suspected that the huge respect B & T had earned as instrumentalists might have been a contributing factor.

A day came when Bob & Travis would be featured in Pat & Barbara's nighttime show, to make the much larger audience aware of them and test out the repertoire a little.  Bob proposed we go out to his farm outside Roswell (GA) to rehearse and then have dinner.  He picked us up in the station wagon and took us out there in the morning.

Bob and his wife, Louise, were raising and breeding Shetland ponies.  I think they were Shetlands--hope I'm not insulting some more specific breed--and they were cute enough to gag the school spirit queen.  The house was, of course, gorgeous and richly appointed with antiques and artifacts from the KT's world travels.  The kitchen looked like something set up for a gourmet chef's TV show, with lots of tile and copper pots gleaming from the stainless ceiling racks.

The "rehearsal" went about as thoroughly as usual.
When I admired the shotguns on the wall, and some of Louise's shooting trophies, Bob asked if we had ever shot skeet.  I, at that time, harbored no ill will toward the creatures, and confessed I had not.  So,that's what we did, right off the back deck.

When the back yard was liberally strewn with skeet remains, Louise said dinner was ready.
She served us the best chiles rellenos I had ever tasted, actually presented with small, perfect sides and an almost clear sauce.  I praised the meal profusely and wished for more.  Then everyone "cleaned up" and we drove to the club for the show.

I think it was that same evening, during Pat & Barbara's show, a fight broke out at the end of the bar.

I watched with mild amusement as an unlikely couple struggled together for a clear spot for combat.  Then my peripheral sight caught Travis, Walter Brennaning on his cast toward the action.  The sudden vision of my meal ticket hospitalized with more casts propelled me into the fray.

Once the unevenly matched pair were separated, the smaller of the two thanked me for saving his posterior from that "big animal" and issued a permanent invitation to free dining in his well-known and most excellent Italian restaurant right next door, Salvatore's.  It would have been discourteous of me not to begin frequenting that fine establishment and scarfing all the veal parmesan I could.

One afternoon Bob showed up at the hotel, and Trav was off somewhere; so he invited me across the street to catch a flick at the neat old theater.  We saw "Bonnie & Clyde."  We sat in the balcony so we could smoke (yes, long, long ago!) and when the movie ended with that slow motion murder scene, Bob nudged my leg.  I looked down, and we were both holding cigarettes that had burned all the way down, leaving two full-length cylinders of standing ash.

Travis was involved, as usual, with an "affair," and became undependable.  Bob began to make other plans, bringing in Bucky Wilkin as a "side man" with sidekick possibilities.

Bucky has a wide range of talents, including writing and producing, and was, through skillful overdubbing, the entire staff of "Ronny & The Daytonas" of "Little GTO" fame.  We had some good times, and even wrote a song together.
But, now, we're getting into another chapter, and this one's too long already.

 Next week:  Atlanta Revelations!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Getting into the business

(This week's installment continues a series of Whitt's reflections on becoming a folk music addict and performer.)

On the bulletin board at Ash Alley I found a note about a classical guitar for sale.  (B & T played classical guitars, as opposed to the more popular steel string.) 
It was $35, which I had from my little yardwork business.

It was a La Valenciana guitar, which served me well until Rick Fritchie sat in it while we were horsing around in my room a couple of years later. A very kind gent who lived across the street, Clyde Wary, was a master cabinet maker.  He insisted on fixing it for me so earnestly I had to let him, though I suspected his skills were not really applicable.  He did a beautiful job.  It looked just like a guitar.

I had so much trouble making my hands contort into basic chord positions, I often had to use the fingers of my right hand to place the fingers of my left hand correctly.  Concerned, I finally consulted a classmate, Bob Johnson, who had a pretty decent rock band.  I wanted to know if I was going to be capable of this.  Bob showed me the two barre chord positions, and how quick a change had to be, and said, "Learn to do that and come back in two weeks."

Two painful weeks later, I was back, making the change from barre to double barre.  Bob said, "Go for it!"  I didn't have another guitar lesson until my last in 1970.

In my junior year of highschool, I met Ken Globus, a classmate in Drama, and when I turned him on to my addiction, he said, "We could do that!"  (You may only have thought of Ken as "The Bird Whisperer," a much later avocation that brought him considerable recognition.)

Before long, we were actually getting paid small stipends by civic groups (and others) to perform our little show of simple songs and gags!

After highschool, we both went for our six months of active duty training with the Marine Reserves.  We met up again at Camp Talega (area 64), in the northernmost tules of Camp Pendleton for combat engineers school.  A week away from concluding my active duty, I got a strep throat infection that ruined my voice.  It was 20 years before I learned what to do about it.

Ken's family had moved to L.A., so he went to Pasadena Playhouse, played music with a female partner for a while, and then moved to Israel where he wrote hit songs and a musical and ended up working, strangely enough, with Globus/Goram (no relation) films.

I became reacquainted with Ken a few years ago (at Judy's urging), and he was overcome by cancer very shortly after that.  Moral:  Don't wait 'til your wife has to tell you to look someone up.

So, with my pipes wrecked, I wasn't going to be a performer.  Fortunately, my highschool speech teacher, the wonderful and patient Don Milner, turned me on to my first radio gig in my junior year. Through that I met some of the better DJs in Tucson, mainly Tom Kyle and Rich Heatley, and began doing character voices for their drop-ins and learning audio production.

Stranded off a traveling sales crew in Denver in the summer of '65, I applied at an employment agency that just happened to do the hiring for the Intermountain Radio Network and found my first full-time radio gig at KBZZ in La Junta,CO.  There I was mentored by a genuine old pro and true mensch, Marv Conn, and thus began my other career (the subject of a book I've begun).

Then the fall of '66 found me back in Tucson, where, with the recommendations of Tom and Rich, I secured an airshift at KOLD (AM).

Travis was back in Tucson (the duo having broken up the year before) and Tom and another broadcaster, Nick Cutrules, had set him up as the emcee for the Miss Teenage Tucson Pageant.  Tom suggested me as a continuity writer and Travis said, "Yeah, I know him.  He is funny!"

The show was, indeed, hilarious.  "? and The Mysterians" (remember them?) never showed.  With that name, who could expect them to?  Tom and I also worked lights, sound, and supplemental audio (track cueing).

Travis was always good at setting himself up as House Troubador at a guest ranch or country club, enabling him to live like a prince and still take regular gigs.  One of his engagements was at a supper club called "The Bull & Bear."

Remember supper clubs?  Then you, like I, are a dinosaur.  They were nightclubs with shows and excellent food as well as drinks.  Beginners learned their chops there, becoming pros, and pros worked there in between the big gigs. I was there, as was Tom, every night Trav was.

Then the bomb threats started.

We later learned the whole thing was a set-up by an FBI subcontractor trying to convince his superiors he had found long-lusted-after mob activity.  A couple of charges were actually placed, one under the seat of Tom's car, which I spotted as I squatted by his open driver's door one evening, talking with him.

We both knew from combat training (Tom was also a  reservist) that if a charge didn't go off when depressed, it would surely go off when released; so Tom sweated there until the cops came.  Fortunately, this one was just a scare tactic, and had no detonator.

We spent the rest of that evening (from 2 am 'til 6 am or so) as we did many others--"unwinding" with Travis in his hometown of Nogales, 80 miles away, howling along with the mariachis in his favorite Mexican cantinas.

In those days, performers used writers, but seldom called attention to them.  And acts who aren't getting a lot of exposure don't burn through much material.  I continued to hone my lighting, sound, and general stagecraft skills.

Here's a little slice of recollection of those days:

Next week: a new town and a new act--Bob and Travis!