Monthly Archives: April 2017

James Brown’s Favorite Uncle The Hal Neely Story Chapter Ten

Previously in the book: Nebraskan Hal Neely, played trumpet on the big band circuit in the Midwest and California before he joined the army in WWI. After graduating from college he went into the record business and met Syd Nathan of King Records.

Obscene, loud, greedy, and crude—those are just a few of the words used to describe Syd Nathan. Also expansive, fun-loving, joke-telling and charismatic. What a combination.
Nathan was born in 1903 in Cincinnati, Ohio.1 He dropped out of school after the ninth grade because he had respiratory ailments and weak eyes. “I couldn’t see, so why bother?” He failed at several businesses including running a pawn shop, bussing tables, managing a shooting gallery, playing drums, operating an elevator, selling jewelry, and promoting professional wrestling. In 1938 he was arrested after he refused to pay off winners at one of his shooting galleries. The charges were dropped, but Nathan was fined $50 for “promoting a scheme of chance.” Later that year he opened “Syd’s Record Shop” on W. 5th St. in Cincinnati. His inventory was 300 old hillbilly, Western, and race records which he bought for two cents each from a jukebox operator. The first afternoon he made $18 which he used to buy more records from other jukebox operators.
Nathan sold the business in 1939 and moved to Miami where his brother Richard was a doctor. He tried his hand in the photo-finishing business but failed again. He returned to Cincinnati and started another record shop on Central Avenue, again getting his inventory from jukebox operators. This time Nathan’s luck changed when country music musicians Merle Travis and Grandpa Jones came into the shop looking for new material.2
“Down on Central Avenue there was a little used-record shop run by a little short Jewish man with the real thick glasses,” Travis recalled. “He had asthma and a scratchy voice, and his name was Syd Nathan. We got acquainted with him, and we had to go down to Syd’s used record shop and find all these great records by the black spiritual quartets. We learned the songs and sang them on the air.”
“Syd got all het up wanting to start a label, a country label,” Jones said. “He came over to radio station WLW where we were doing the Boone County Jamboree and wanted to sign some of us up to make records.”3
The only problem was that Travis and Jones were under contract to the radio station which would not allow them to work for anyone else. Nathan talked them into driving to Dayton, Ohio, in September of 1943 to a makeshift studio above a Wurlitzer piano store. Travis and Jones changed their names for the record and between the three of them they came up with the name of King Records. The first record was a major flop.4
“Some of those early King records came out worked so badly you could use them for bowls or ashtrays,” Jones said. “Watching a needle go around one was like watching a stock car on a banked race track.”
Travis added, “When I got the record, I took it home and put it on my player. It went round and round and round and I sat there and watched and thought, ‘Well, there ain’t nothing on this record.’ It got way over to the end of the record and directly you could hear me and Grandpa. It sounded like we were recording in Dayton but the microphone was in Cincinnati, way off in the distance. It wasn’t much of a record.”5
Every record made between 1898 and the 1940s was 78 RPM, meaning it revolved seventy-eight times per minute. They were generally made of a brittle material based on a shellac resin. When World War II occurred, shellac became scarce and record manufacturers substituted vinyl instead. The term “78 RPM” actually was not used until after new forms of record technology were introduced in the 1940s to distinguish the older style of records from the new.6
The failure did not keep Nathan from trying again in the record business. He went to the local public library where he checked out a book about “gramophone records written by an Englishman,” he said. “I didn’t catch on. I didn’t know what he was talking about.” He then went to the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville and talked to the pressing plant engineers. Eventually he hired one of them, George W. Weitlauf, to work for him in Cincinnati. By 1945 Nathan acquired a building on Brewster Avenue and remodeled it into a record plant.7
From there he created a string of hits in his first five years selling “race” and country music. He was known for signing both black and white artists in the late 1940s and had no patience for racism. King Records had integrated Christmas parties and company picnics. During World War II Nathan hired Japanese Americans to run machinery keeping them out of internment camps. He hired Henry Glover as an executive, making him one of the first African Americans in the music business with the power to make creative and business decisions.8
Syd Nathan was not a great humanitarian or social activist by any means. He ran a tight studio schedule and if white country music performers had to wait in the hall until the black R&B were finished recording, well, that was just the way it was. If a back-up musician would fail to show, Nathan would grab the nearest player whether he be black or white to fill in. “We work at it as if it was the coffin business, the machinery business, or any other business,” he said. “It has to pay for itself.”9
By the end of 1948 King was the top-selling race label. Among the 25 major hits was Bullmoose Jackson’s “I Love You, Yes I Do”. According to historical reports compiled by the public library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, King converted to the 45 RPM record format in 1949. King Records credited Neely with the switchover. As noted in his memoirs, Neely as a sales representative of Allied Record Company, was in Cincinnati calling on Allied client ZIV, which manufactured radio transcripts. In an interview with a representative of the Cincinnati library, Neely said he made it a point to “check out this character” Syd Nathan while he was in Cincinnati.
“I was in town to see a client and as it turned out I was about six blocks from King over on Brewster so I went over to see this guy for myself. I walked into his office and he said, ‘Who are you?’
“‘You don’t know who I am but I know who you are,’ I said.
“‘I know who you are,’ Syd quickly replied. ‘You’re a smart ass.’ By that evening I was having dinner at Syd’s house and he had sent for my bags at the hotel. I stayed for three days.” In Neely’s memoirs he left out the part of the story where Nathan had called him “a smart ass.”10
(Author’s note: I wrote this chapter from my own research. Chapters in italics are Neely’s memoirs.
1King of the Queen City, 90.
2The One, 74.
3Marion, J.C., Hurricane Blues: Earl Bostic.
4Nite, Norm, Rock On: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock ‘n’ Roll (The Golden Years) Thomas Y. Crowell, 1974.
5Buddy Winsett Interview, July 2012.
6 Whitall, Susan, Fever Little Willie John A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul, Titan Books, London, 20.
7 Ibid., 58.
8 Ibid., 56.
9 Ibid., 73.
10The One, 75.
11 Ibid.
12 Sullivan, James, The Hardest Working Man, How James Brown Saved the Soul of America, Gotham Books, New York City, 2008, 64.
13The Life of James Brown, 42.
14King of the Queen City, 91.
15 Ibid.

Grady Starts Dating

My father never remarried. Mom died when she was forty-nine. Grady was fifty-two.
Two years later a shift in the natural order of things was in the air. I knew it. Grady started taking baths. He stole my bottle of English Leather.
She was a waitress at Grady’s favorite greasy spoon. He sold a lot of Royal Crown Cola there. Her name was Ovaline, and she was a good ten years younger. Her hands were all over him.
I was sixteen and sick to my stomach. He never took us to the movies. He ate popcorn in the dark with Ovaline every Saturday. He never went to church with Mom. He attended Ovaline’s church every Sunday. I had just gotten my driver’s license and looked forward to dating. I could get the car on Friday nights, maybe.
The worst part for me was that Ovaline’s son was one year ahead of me in school. I sang in the choir. When I told Grady we were having a concert he had only one question.
“Was Ovaline’s son in the choir?”
“Oh. Well. She wouldn’t be interested.”
And if Ovaline wasn’t going, then Grady wasn’t going.
The only problem with Ovaline’s son—whose name I have mercifully forgotten—was that his only interest in high school was banging girls in the back seat of his car. Of course, he didn’t want mommy and her new boyfriend intruding.
On the other hand, I had no private life. I had a public life with activities at church—not Ovaline’s church. My other favorites were Key Club, DeMolays and school choir. Nothing on her radar. In other words Grady was not a witness to my life.
My brothers, twenty-two and twenty-eight and still living at home, absolutely despised Ovaline. When Dad wasn’t around, all three of us would call her Ovaltine.
“After all,” one of them said, “Grandpa didn’t remarry after Grandma died.”
Grandpa died in the state mental hospital. I can’t say whether he was institutionalized over the lack of Grandma’s love or because he was always frigging crazy.
“Dad’s disrespecting Mother’s memory,” the other brother said.
It was too late to respect Mom, I thought, but kept to myself. He should have taken her to church or the movies or anywhere for that matter. It didn’t make any difference now.
The truth is this: he was unhappy when Mom was alive. He woke up early, went to work, came home late, ate supper, watched some Westerns on television and went to bed. He never smiled.
Now he was out among the living. Ovaline’s friends were Grady’s friends. They went on picnics in the park. They actually invited me along one time. I saw my father laugh.
Even at sixteen I acknowledged the pain of losing a wife after thirty-five years of marriage. It was none of my business why he was unhappy. Everyone had the innate right to laugh. I wanted him to be happy with a woman.
Just not with Ovaltine.

Toby Chapter Sixteen

Previously in the book: West Texas farm boy Harley Sadler became a success on the tent show circuit, married in a whirlwind romance and started his own show. He made a lot of money but gave a lot of it away to struggling farmers. His effort to break into the big city market failed so went back to entertaining the folks who loved him best.

“It seems just opening night, doesn’t it, Billie?” Harley whispered to his wife as he leaned into her at the Sweetwater convention center. They sat on the dais in front of a crowd of excited Democrats.
Billie nodded sweetly and shifted in her chair. She jumped when Burford spoke into the microphone. That man always did make her feel uncomfortable.
“And now I introduce the next state representative from Sweetwater, the first man to make a million dollars from a ten show, Harley Sadler!”
The audience erupted into applause as Harley stood to go to the podium. His face beamed. Billie took this time to pull her make up compact from her purse and look into the mirror. She dusted he cheeks and freshened her lipstick. Burford took a deferential step back.
“Thank you, Burford, for the kind remarks. As for being the first man to make a million dollars from a tent show, well, I was also the first to lose a million from one too!”
As the Democrats stood to clap and holler Harley took a quick look at Billie who had wrapped her arms around her shoulders as though she were cold. He considered letting her disapproval ruin the moment for him, but a fresh wave of applause rolled over him. Any thoughts of sadness washed away.
The next few weeks sprinted by as a blur of picnics, hot dogs and watermelon wedges flashed by him. Sometimes Billie made a passing imitation of a happy campaign wife, especially if a group of ladies encircled her to ooh and ah over her new ensemble. She did not mind posing for local newspaper photographers as long as she was confident her makeup was applied properly and her hair professionally coiffed.
A few times Harley almost missed the curtain when politicians in a smoky room kept stuffing bills in his pockets and would not let him go. Billie enjoyed raising an eyebrow, tapping her foot and pointing at her Woolworth watch. Charley tried to talk to him about accounts payable, but Harley begged off, saying he had to get into his costume.
Most other occasions Billie sat alone in a dark room at home, sipping from a pint of whiskey. Gloria was busy with her school activities and Harley was busy just being Harley.
The first Tuesday night of November found the Sadlers’ Sweetwater living room filled with friends and political allies celebrating Harley’s election. Billie and her mother Lou circled the room with trays of little sandwiches. Burford held his glass high.
“Here’s to Toby in the Ledge!”
“Here! Here!” Billy Bob echoed.
Harley held up his arms to quieten the applauding crowd.
“Now wait a minute,” he cautioned good naturedly. “You didn’t elect Toby. You elected Harley.”
Everyone laughed, but Burford and Billy Bob exchanged worried glances. Hardly anyone heard the telephone ring in the hall. Billie answered it, covering her free ear with a palm.
“Hello?” She grimaced. “I’m sorry. You’ll have to speak up. We’ve got an election party going on here.” She paused. “Gloria Sadler? Just a minute.” She covered the receiver, looked around and waved at her daughter across the room. “Gloria! It’s for you!”
She glided through the room graciously, edging past couples deep in conversation to take the phone from her mother. Billie tried to linger close to find out who the call was from. Burford lumbered up, put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her away.
“Harley’s going to be a great representative for the common man!”
“Yes, he is.” She extricated herself from his grasp.
“You know, Mrs. Sadler, I always had the idea you didn’t like me much,” he said sheepishly.
Billie plastered a smile on her face. “I like all of Harley’s friends.”
“But you really went out and busted your tail to get him elected.” He gave her a hug. “You’re all right.”
Again Billie wriggled free. “Thank you.”
“Hey, Burford!” Billy Bob called from the living room.
“I gotta get back to the gang.” He disappeared into the party crowd.
Billie sighed with relief and turned with anticipation when she heard Gloria hang up. “Who was that?”
“Oh, just somebody from Warner Brothers.”
Billie’s eyes widened. “Warner Brothers?”
“They want me to come out to Hollywood for a screen test.” Gloria crinkled her nose.
Her mother’s first reaction was happiness, but then she looked concerned. “You’re not going to leave me too?”
Gloria laughed. “”I told them I was too busy with college. I don’t want to be a movie star.”
“I—I just don’t want to be locked out of your heart too.” She hesitantly took her daughter’s hand.
“Locked into my heart, Mama.” Gloria sobered and squeezed her hand. “Locked in forever.”

Cancer Chronicles

Me and ties (1)
On Easter Sunday I wore to church the brightly flowered tie Janet made for me forty-five years ago, and it still fits.
She made several ties the first year we were married. She bought the pattern at a fabric shop and went to its remnants table and picked out all the patterns and colors that appealed to her. Every man on her Christmas list got one. I got a rust colored one with little flowers for Christmas and the one with the big flowers for Easter. She cut it so the biggest flower was right in the middle of the widest point of the tie. If I tied it properly, a blue flower with a red spot was perfectly situated in the center of the knot.
Back in the seventies it was my hippie tie. That’s about as close to counter culture I got back then. When I really wanted to shock people I wore it with a bright pink shirt. This was, of course, in Dallas, Texas, where such things easily shocked people.
In the last ten years or so it had become my storyteller tie, usually with a pastel pink striped shirt which seems to delight the children who listen to the stories. When I set up my tent to tell stories at the local arts and crafts festival, I always get compliments on the tie. And I am always quick to tell people Janet was the one who made it.
In the fall I wear the rust colored tie with an orange shirt when I tell harvest stories. I have a spider web tie I wear with a black shirt to tell Halloween stories. When I tell stories on the farm I forgo ties altogether and rely on bib overalls, white shirt and a bright bandana around my neck.
I bet you didn’t know wardrobe selection played such a big role in storytelling.
Well, the ties Janet made for me mean much more than just an accessory for storytelling. They’re another way to keep her close to my heart.

Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Seven

Previously in the book: President and Mrs. Lincoln have been placed in a room in the White House basement by Secretary of War Stanton. Innocent Private Adam Christy is charged with guarding them. Janitor Gabby Zook was caught in the room putting out rat traps so he has to be confined with the Lincoln.

September 1, 1862 was the most fortunate day in the life of Alethia Haliday, or least she thought so as she unpacked her personal items in the large bedroom next to the oval sitting room on the second floor of the president’s home. Only days earlier the plump woman with dark hair and full cheeks had been in the Old Capitol federal military prison, waiting for what superintendent William Woods had called her destiny: death by hanging for espionage.
“Don’t believe it,” Rose Greenhow, her best friend from childhood, advised her in muted tones as they ate dinner in the yard. “Laugh at that skinny little man. Call it a farce, a perfect farce, and eventually he’ll be forced to release you, and then he’ll be revealed to all as the buffoon he is at the core of his being.”
“Why, I couldn’t say that.” Alethia remembered widening her large, expressive brown eyes. “Farce? A buffoon? Rose, you go too far.”
That, of course, was Rose Greenhow’s charm, being brash and audacious, and Alethia, meek and subservient, envied it. She always wanted to be more like Wild Rose, as the young rakes of Bladensburg had called her, when they were girls in the sleepy town at the head of the Anacostia River which flowed south to join the Potomac near Washington. Bladensburg was undistinguished except by a War of 1812 battle win in which the local militia fought and was vanquished by the British army, which then marched on to burn Washington. Since then Bladensburg had slipped into relative obscurity and would have been forgotten altogether, had it not been a minor stop on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad.
“Anybody who is anybody has had a tinkle in Bladensburg,” Rose had quipped many times to the raucous laughter of her beaux and to the embarrassment of her dear, hopeless friend Alethia. “You are much too gentle,” Rose lectured her as they took their Sunday promenade in their teen-aged years.
“But I thought goodness, kindness, and innocence were virtues devoutly sought by men in prospective wives.”
Rose laughed at her friend. “Those qualities are desirable if you wish to be a saint preserved in stained glass in a church and ignored by any young man worth having as your lover, but such qualities possessed by an actual flesh-and-blood girl make her a milksop, and therefore eschewed by paramours of promise.”
“You mean men truly don’t want ladies?”
“Of course, they want ladies—that is, they want women who pretend to be ladies.”
“Pretend?” Alethia shook her head.
“The pretense makes you both appealing and dangerous,” Rose explained.
“I don’t understand.”
“I know you don’t.” Rose sympathetically patted her friend’s shoulder. “You poor creature.”
Perhaps that was why Alethia Haliday was still a virgin and unmarried at age forty-two, while Rose had married and was the mother of several children. In fact, Alethia had resigned herself to a quiet life in Bladensburg earning a modest income selling bread, cakes, and pies from the home inherited from her equally bland parents. Rose had left Bladensburg for an exciting life in the nation’s capital, rarely remembering her old, dreary friend in their backwater Maryland town.
All of this changed in the spring of 1862 when a gallant-looking young man with flowing blond locks appeared in Alethia’s kitchen. He spoke with that odd accent spoken by residents of the Richmond, Virginia, area, which almost sounded like the speech pattern of Boston natives. He informed her that Rose was in a Washington federal prison, on charges of spying for the Confederacy. That Rose was a spy did not surprise Alethia; her flamboyant friend had always had a talent for the devious. That she was a spy for the South also was not a shock, for almost everyone in Bladensburg, including Alethia, was a Democrat with rebel sympathies. What amazed her was that Rose had been caught. Alethia thought her friend would charm herself out of any situation.
“Can you help?” the young man with the golden mane said with pleading, soulful blue eyes.
Alethia felt breathless to have such a handsome man so close, so inviting—even if he were not inviting her in a romantic sense.
“Will you help?”
“Yes,” she said, her heart beating faster.
The young man breathed deeply, and Alethia’s eyes fluttered. He asked her to bake a cake with an escape plan in it and present it to Rose on a trip to the prison. Within days, Alethia sat in a car of the Baltimore and Ohio train with the cake—chocolate with vanilla icing—on her lap. Her cheeks flushed when she pecked her friend on the cheek in the Old Capitol yard and handed her the cake. Perhaps it was her trembling hands that had caused the guard to saunter forward and comment on the freshness of the cake and its sweet aroma. Perhaps it had been her cracking voice when she told him it was chocolate that had caused him to smile suspiciously and reply he could not remember the last time he had had a slice of homemade chocolate cake. Perhaps it was the terror sparkling in her eyes that had prompted him to take out his pocket knife and cut through the middle of the cake, snagging on the packet of escape plans. No matter, for then Alethia had found herself in a room next to her friend, also accused of spying and facing an unknown fate.
Those were the worst days of her life, Alethia told herself as she stood inconspicuously at the window covered with fancy, white cotton lace curtains. She turned her head to glance through the door to the president’s bedroom where a tall, raw-boned man leaned over a suitcase. She caught her breath as she considered whether this tall, sinewy man would ask her to join him in his bed, to make the ruse complete. Alethia remembered Rose’s words: a farce, simply a farce. That was what she was living now.
It had begun one day in July when a short, stout man with a pharaoh-like beard visited Rose in the yard of the Old Capitol. The man turned out to be Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the latest in a long line of officials who tried to force Rose into revealing how she learned military secrets.
“If I have the information that you say I have,” Rose said to Stanton, “I must have got it from sources that were in the confidence of the government. I don’t intend to say any more. If Mr. Lincoln’s friends will pour into my ear such information, am I to be held responsible for all that?”
Alethia noticed the grave look in Stanton’s eyes when they wandered in her direction, and she sensed a distinct snap in his head as he focused his attention on her.
“And who is this?” Stanton paused, as though to control his low, musical voice. “Is she a member of your spy ring?”

James Brown’s Favorite Uncle Chapter Nine

Previously in the book: Nebraskan Hal Neely tells in his own words how he played in Midwest dance bands in the 30s, served in WWII and began his career in the record business. Now begins his biographer’s research into Neely’s life.

Hal Neely was a tall man. According to his Army enlistment records from Nov. 11, 1942, he was six foot eight and weighed 198 pounds. No wonder the basketball fans in his hometown of Lyons, Nebraska were upset when he decided to forego playing hoops his senior year in high school for trumpet lessons in Omaha. He had completed one year of studies at University of Southern California while making a nice living as a society band leader playing the Statler and Hilton chains up and down the West Coast.1 His enlistment was for the duration of the war plus six months subject to the discretion of the President. After the war he returned to Los Angeles and put out the word he was back in town and ready to make music.
Jack McVea heard that Hal Neely was back in Hollywood, and, wasting no time, he called Neely to play trumpet at a recording session of his band for Black and White Records in October of 1946.
McVea was a well-known musician with many bands in the Los Angeles area during the 1930s and 40s, performing with Lionel Hampton, Nat King Cole, Les Paul, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker.2 He was the baritone saxophonist on Hampton’s 1941 recording of “Flying Home,” which has been noted as the first rhythm and blues hit. By 1946 McVea led his own group and recorded for Black and White Records. Black and White Records originally operated in Brooklyn, New York, in 1943; but, Paul Reiner and his wife Lillian bought it and moved operations to the West Coast, specializing in recordings of black musicians, what was called at that time “race music.”
The October 1946 session took place at Radio Recorders studio on Santa Monica Boulevard, which was acknowledged to be the best recording facility in Los Angeles.3 Among the artists who recorded there were Charlie Parker, Jimmie Rodgers, and Louis Armstrong. During this same time Radio Recorders recorded many radio shows for delayed broadcast.
Neely said in his memoirs that Black and White Records employee Ralph Bass was supposed to produce the session but Bass was not there. However, Bass was credited as producer.4 Neely claimed Reiner had picked out the song to be recorded, and only four minutes were left in the session for the last song. He said he suggested replacing the last song with a number he had heard the group perform in nightclubs called “Open the Door, Richard.” Since they had such a short period of time, Neely said he told the musicians they had one take, as they were familiar with the piece, one take should be enough, and he would use a fade out at the end of music.
The original recording of this song was the first time a fadeout was used on a commercial record.5 All other records up to this time had used a “cold” or final note. This comment independently corroborates Neely’s claim that he was the actual producer of the record. The McVea recording made Billboard’s bestseller chart in February of 1947, reaching the No. 7 spot.
“Open the Door, Richard” made the charts in 1947 by other artists including Count Basie, the Three Flames, Louis Jordan, the Charioteers, the Pied Pipers, and Dusty Fletcher, who originated the song as a vaudeville routine in black theaters. It was not unusual for a song to be recorded in many different versions in the late 1940s because fans cared about the song more than the performer.6 Writing credit was divided among Fletcher and John Mason for words and McVea and Don Howell for music. Howell, incidentally, was entirely made up, so that an unnamed (and fabricated) businessman could take some of the royalties away from McVea.
McVea recorded several other songs but none were as popular as “Open the Door, Richard.” In 1962 he began playing clarinet in a strolling Dixieland band at Disneyland where he stayed until he retired in the early 1990s.
Neely’s next producing project in 1946 was with Slim Gaillard of Capitol Records. Gaillard was also a well-known performer during the 1930s and 40s in swing music, though never as famous as Duke Ellington, Count Basie or Cab Calloway. Gaillard was mostly celebrated for creating his own musical language called “Vout-O-Reenie.”7 From this Neely session came Gaillard’s biggest hit “Cement Mixer Putti Putti.”
“We were recording on Sunset Boulevard, across from a television studio. After we did three sides, the A & R (artist and repetoire) man sent us out for some air. I was glad to get out because I didn’t have a fourth song and figured we’d improvise something,” Gaillard said. “Just outside the studio, they were repairing the street and one of those cement machines was going putt-putt-putt. When we were back in the studio the A & R man ask for the fourth side. I said Cement Mixer Putti Putti. Everybody in the place broke up. I started to sing “putt-ti, putti-hootie, putti-vooty, macaroonie, that’s all.”
Once again Neely did not receive record credit for the recording, but one might assume he was the A & R man to which Gaillard referred in his statement. Gaillard continued a successful career with his own small ensemble and on rare occasions with larger groups. At the time of his death in 1991 he was performing in London, England.
Neely also said in his memoirs he produced a record for a “Little Esher;” however, the only performer from that time period was “Little Esther Phillips.” Her first record came out in 1950, which is slightly out of the timeframe mentioned by Neely. Herman Lubinsky signed Little Esther who grew up in Galveston, Texas, to a contract with Savoy Records of Newark, New Jersey, in 1949. In January of 1950 the California Superior Court ruled Esther’s mother to be her legal guardian, upholding her new contract with King Records. Perhaps Neely produced one of her records during her time at King. Esther enjoyed a 25-year career with honors from Rolling Stone and Ebony magazines and receiving an Image Award from the NAACP in 1975.8
Among his other jobs he took to finance his college education, Neely produced a NBC radio religious program. His announcer was Oral Roberts who went on to dominate the evangelical air ways and establish a self-named Tulsa, Oklahoma, university. Neely also wrote scripts for the program. In his future career as a record producer Neely would write liner notes for albums. One of his scripted ideas for Roberts was to tell his listeners to put their hands on the radio during a prayer.9 Listeners would feel an actual vibration coming through the speakers because Roberts was blessed with a very deep voice which created the pulsation.10
Neely also originated the line, “The family that prays together stays together.” He also came up with the product of Jordan River water in a bottle for $2-$4. The water came out of Neely’s own tap at home. Who knows how many relatives going through the personal effects of deceased loved ones would find a tiny bottle of water glued on a cardboard picture of the Jordan River and would wonder what it was and why their family member would even buy it.11 He considered but rejected the merchandising concept of “healing cloths,” which were bits of 2 x 4 inch strips of material which were placed on any part of the body that hurt, and a miracle was supposed to occur. His short radio stint gave him a good education on how payola worked—a tactic he used when he was promoting James Brown and other acts.12
During his studies at the University of Southern California, Neely met nuclear physicist Albert Einstein when he was chosen to participate in a series of lectures conducted during a three to six week period. While the students sat around the professor for informal chats, Einstein once said, “When I am dying,” and he paused to point up, “I hope I see friends.”
Neely said Einstein asked him if he believed in God to which Neely replied that he did not know, but he thought he believed there might be a God.
“I don’t care what you believe, Hal,” Einstein replied, “as long as you believe in something.”13
Neely also became involved with the development of the tape recorder in the United States by Bing Crosby and the company Ampex, according to Roland Hanneman who had spent many hours listening to Neely’s stories about his early career.
Neely first met Crosby during his pre-war days as a band performer in Hollywood. They became friends and often played golf together. Neely did the first pressing of a stereo recording which was classical music. Because no one in the record industry understood stereo very well, records were released with Mono on one side and stereo on the other, which canceled the sound through any compatibility of musical waiver lines.
Fritz Pfleumer invented the tape recorder in the late 1920s in Germany where it was marketed under the name “Magnetophon.” He used paper strips that he coated with carbonyl iron particles suspended in lacquer. In 1938 German radio stations replaced relatively high-quality wax and lacquer discs with the magnetic tapes adding flexibility to broadcasting. During World War II the story began circulating that the Nazis ordered engineers to create the tape recording system so that Allies would not be able to locate where live-sounding speeches by Adolph Hitler were being made. Reality was that the technology had been developed more than ten years before and that Hitler preferred using the tape recordings so his live-sounding speeches could be aired without interrupting his odd sleeping habits.
Major John Mullin of the U.S. Army Signal Corps discovered the Magnetophons at the Radio Frankfurt substation at Bad Nauheim in 1945 and sent them back to his home in San Francisco broken down into 35 small packages. After he left the military he joined with audio engineer W.A. Palmer to reassemble them in a new configuration to create an American version of the machines. The first musical artist to be recorded on Mullins’ redesigned recorder was Merv Griffin in 1946. By 1947 Mullin and Palmer had created the small company of Ampex and introduced the system to Bing Crosby who used it for his ABC-sponsored radio program “Philco Radio Time.” The broadcast was such a success that Crosby talked ABC into buying all their tape recorders from Ampex and invested $50,000 of his own money in the small company.14
Neely made a major step crossing over into the business side of the music industry when he joined Allied Record Company after graduating from the University of Southern California in 1948. The president of Allied was Dakin K. Broadhead, a distinguished businessman who was a member of the War Food Administration during World War II and later served as an assistant to Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson from 1953-55. Broadhead began his career as a manager with Safeway stores. He was president and principal owner of Allied Records from 1945 to 1986.15
Allied was the largest independent record pressing plant in Los Angeles.16 In the 1940s customers were limited to the manufacture of just 200 records a week in accordance with rationing policies. Because Allied wanted to keep its record-pressing methods secret, no one was allowed inside the plant. Allied did not have any advanced technology, and its method was comparatively simple, being the reproduction of a surface, similar to that used to emboss leather.17
Neely was, of course, introduced to this new world of record manufacturing after college graduation. The exposure to the technology served him well when he met the volatile president of King Records, Syd Nathan, in 1949.


1Billboard Magazine, May 5, 1958.
2de Heer, Dik,
3radio_recorders historic.php
4Talevski, Nick, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Rock Obituaries, Omnibus Press, London, 2010, 22.
5Snow, Arnold, Honkers and Shouters, The Golden Years of Rhythm and Blues, MacMillan Publishing Company, New York City, 1986, 226-227.
6 Weisbard, Eric, This Is Pop, In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.,2004, 75-89.
7Purl Roadhouse 1940s Music and Dance,
9 Roland Hanneman Interview.
10Buddy Winsett Interview, July 2012.
11Janet Cowling Interview.
12 Roland Hanneman Interview.
13Buddy Winsett Interview, July 2012.
14Hamman, Peter, The Birth of Tape Recording in the U.S.,
16Broven, John, Record Makers and Breakers, Voices of the Independent Rock ‘n’ Roll Pioneers, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2010, 37.
17 Ibid.

How Grady Lost His Name

I stood with my aunt over my father’s grave after the funeral service. The first thing I noticed on his tombstone was that my father died exactly thirty years and three days after my mother died.
For years the only sign was the little metal one left by the funeral home. That bothered me, but I knew better than say anything to Dad. He moved in his own good time. Eventually he bought a wide stone with three names, Mom’s, his and my oldest brother’s. My brother had his own set of problems so Dad knew he would have to take care of his final arrangements. Of course, Mom’s birth and death dates were carved in, but Dad’s and my brother’s only had the birth dates. Again this bothered me but I said nothing. On this particular day all three death dates were now carved in stone.
The second thing I noticed was his name on the stone: Major Grady Cowling.
His first name was not Major. He never served in the Army. He had only one eye so they didn’t even want him in World War II. Actually, he was named for the doctor who delivered him, a Doctor Mager. Dad did not like that name. He insisted on being called Grady. His signature for legal documents was M.G. Cowling.
I couldn’t blame him for that. I would have hated being named after the doctor who delivered me, a Doctor Thayer. I had a lisp and a problem with saying “r”s. People would have thought I was saying “Sarah” instead of “Thayer”. It was bad enough that I said “Jeh-wee”.
No, my father didn’t like his first name because when he was a boy playing war with friends they never let him be the general because he was “Mager”. Even when he was too old to play war any more, he still resented still being “Mager”. I only knew this story because mother told me. Dad didn’t like to talk about such things.
After I grew up, moved away and came home for the occasional visit, I noticed letters and bills at his house were addressed to “Major Cowling”. When I asked him how come his name was misspelled, he replied, “Aw, they can call me anything they want. It doesn’t make any difference.”
“But Mom told me your name was Mager with a ‘g’.”
“It doesn’t make any difference.”
He even signed his Christmas cards, “Your Father, M.G. Cowling”.
I had always mistrusted my own memory and judgement. Maybe I just dreamed my mother told me that story because every place I found his name in print it was listed as “Major.” My mother, father and brothers did have a habit of lying to me about things because it was so much fun to see the look of surprise on my face to learn something unusual. Also it was easier to tell me a quick lie than to explain the difficult truth. For example, when I was fourteen I overheard my father on the phone telling his sister that Mom had cancer. When I asked him about it, he told me I misunderstood him. After she died three months later I asked him why he lied to me. He said he didn’t know what else to do. Even now I’m pretty darn gullible.
It wasn’t until the last few years when I had to get a copy of my birth certificate for something or other that I saw an official State of Texas document with his name as “Mager Grady Cowling”. I had to admit, it was quite a relief to have it confirmed. When he said, “It didn’t make any difference,” he literally meant it didn’t make any difference to him.
How terribly sad to be so beaten down by life that my father had no spirit left to fight for his own name. He accepted the spelling that was easiest for everybody else, even though he hated it.
I don’t really know what life lesson there is to be learned by this. If anyone figures it out, please tell me. I’m so gullible I’ll believe anything you say.

Toby Chapter Fifteen

Previously in the book: West Texas farm boy Harley Sadler grew up to be a successful traveling tent showman with his wife Billie and daughter Gloria. When the Depression hit, he risked all he had on a costly Alamo play during the Texas Centennial celebration in Dallas. He lost everything.

The air was thick and humid in the tent under palm trees in Rio Grande Valley on the outskirts of Brownsville. Harley sweated so much that it soaked through his Toby cowboy costume. He blinked repeatedly to keep the sweat from rolling from his forehead into his eyes which would sting from the salty solution. Harley had not felt this uncomfortable since he hoed weeds on his family farm, but he was not letting the audience know that. Grinning broadly, he grabbed the hands of the actors playing the hero and villain, raised them high then bowed deep. He lowered his eyes, as all good actors did to humble themselves before their audiences.
The capacity crowd was on its feet, applauding and waving their hats. Sam leaned into Harley. “You’re a hit.”
“They can’t understand a word we’re saying,” Harley whispered nervously.
“They don’t have to,” Sam replied. “You’re lovable in any language.”
After the tent emptied two Mexican-American gentlemen in business suits approached Harley and Sam.
“Mr. Sadler, thank you for bringing your show to town. It was very good. I like Toby very much. He is very funny,” one of them said.
“Muchas gracias,” Harley said, nodding and smiling.
“Si, gracias,” Sam repeated.
“We get so little entertainment down here in the Valley. My friends here is from Roma Los Sains, up the Rio Grande from Brownsville. He’d like you to bring your show to his town.”
“We’d be happy to add his town to our schedule,” Harley said. “And any others that will have us.”
The second businessman continued to speak enthusiastically in Spanish, then the first one translated, “He says all the towns along the river will want to see the great Harley Sadler.”
“Gracias.” Harley bowed in appreciation.
“Si. Gracias.” Sam leaned into Harley to whisper, “Mucho dinero.”
Back in the Sadler home in Sweetwater several months later, Billie sat on the sofa with her legs tucked up under her dress, looking out the front window. Harley was due back today. The house had seemed so lonely to her. Of course, Gloria was there, but the teen-ager had her friends and all the activities involved with being a senior in high school. She did not have time to stay home and hold her mother’s hand.
Billie attended church regularly but that did not seem to help much. All they wanted to talk about was Harley.
“How did he like it in South Texas?”
“Did people love him as much as they did on the Plains?”
“When was he coming home?”
That was the question on Billie’s mind. When would he finally come home? When would she be able to slip into bed and hear his soft breathing next to her? Maybe if he were home she would not be tempted to sneak a pint of whiskey into the house, just to calm her nerves so she could go to sleep.
Looking around to see if Gloria were about to enter the room, Billie pulled out her small bottle for a quick sip. That was all she needed, just a taste to take the edge off of the anticipation of Harley’s homecoming.
“Mama! Do you see Daddy yet?” Gloria called out as she rounded the corner from the hall.
Billie stashed the bottle under a throw pillow.
“He said it would be late afternoon—“Gloria stopped in mid-sentence, a cloud covering her normally cheerful face. “Oh, Mama. I thought you were doing better.”
“It’s been a long time since your father went down to the Valley.” She sat up, her legs returning to the floor. Her eyes went down as her hands smoothed out wrinkles in the skirt.
“I know it’s been hard on you.” Gloria sat on the sofa next to her mother, giving her a hug.
“I don’t know why love has to hurt so much.” Tears filled Billie’s eyes.
A car horn tooted from the driveway. Both of them looked toward the door. Gloria stuck her hand out. “That’s him. Give me the bottle. I’ll throw it out.”
Billie numbly pulled the bottle from beneath the pillow and gave it to her daughter who ran into the kitchen. Harley opened the front door and put down his suitcase.
“Billie! Honey! I’ve missed you so much!”
She went to him and they kissed. Gloria appeared from the kitchen.
Harley pulled away from Billie, licking his lips. He continued to stare at her as Gloria threw her arms around his waist.
“Do you worship and adore me?” she asked in her best melodramatic tone.
“I worship and adore you.” But he continued to stare at Billie.
That summer Harley, back in full regalia as Toby, stepped out on a new stage in a tent with velvet curtains and golden tassels. As he smiled broadly, his West Texas loyal audience gave him a standing ovation.
“Friends, we have had our troubles, just the same as other business have had. Our show is not as big as it once was, but we are trying just as hard as ever to please you. You helped us to grow before; if you will help us now, we can grow again.”
In the audience was the same farmer who brought his girlfriend to Harley’s shows when he was a young man. The farmer and his wife were now older. They applauded as loud as ever. The audience, though smaller, still laughed at all the right places and jumped to their feet when Harley and his family took their final bows. Billie beamed as brightly as before but if anyone looked closer, they would have noticed her eyes were empty. After the tent and the last hand was shaken and the last autograph signed, Harley retreated to the men’s dressing room. He took a huge glob of cleansing cream and swathed his face. Billie hesitantly entered and walked to his table.
“Good show tonight, Billie.”
“I haven’t had a drink since you got home,” she announced, a statement which seemed to come out of nowhere.
Harley detected a tremble in her voice. He stood and hugged her. “I didn’t think you had, but I was afraid to believe it.”
“I think I can really stay away from it now.” She nodded, trying to be brave.
Harley sat to continue removing his makeup. “Good.”
“With your help.”
Looking up, he smiled and said, “You know I’d do anything for you.”
“After we finish this tour,” she continued, her voice lowering a bit and taking on a monotone, “let’s take some time off. Gloria will be in college this fall. We can go on an extended vacation.” She took a deep breath. “We’ve never been to Europe.”
“Billie,” Harley began as he stood and put his hands on her shoulders, “we’ve just gotten back on our feet. We can’t afford anything like that.”
“Okay,” she replied as though she were haggling with a used car salesman, “not Europe. New England. I hear Cape Cod is beautiful—“
“No.” Harley cut her off softly but firmly. Beyond the flap to the dressing room he heard some voices.
Charlie’s voice cut through, “Mr. Sadler can’t be disturbed right now.”
“That’s all right, Charlie. Let them come in.”
“There’s more than one group,” he replied.
Harley heard a man say, “You may go first.” Another person, sounding familiar, said, “thank you.”
Burford Jones and another smartly attired gentleman entered the dressing room. Harley stood to shake their hands.
“Good to see you again, Burford. You remember my wife Billie.”
“Ma’am.” He nodded to her, who appraised him with suspicion. Burford returned his attention to Harley and pointed to his companion. “This is Billy Bob Holstetler.”
After shaking Billy Bob’s hand, he sat at his table. “Excuse me, gentlemen. I got to get this stuff off my face.”
“Harley,” Burford continued, “we want to try to convince you again to run for the Ledge.”
“We thought you might say yes this time,” Billy Bob added.
“Harley just doesn’t have time.” Billie stepped forward, trying to place herself between her husband and the politicians. “We’re getting this new show started—“
“You know,” Harley said reflectively, not realizing he had cut Billie off mid-sentence, “it’s always meant something to be to be among friends, where you don’t have to hire a pallbearer for your funeral.”
Burford and Billy Bob looked dumfounded at each other. They turned to Billie hoping for some explanation from her, but she just raised an eyebrow.
“And this politics thing is another way to make friends, isn’t it?” Harley asked. He was pleased to see the smiles on their faces, but Harley could not help but notice Billie looked hurt and then walked away.
As the politicians left, the other two men entered and introduced themselves as oilmen. They pitched their idea of Harley investing in drilling. He put on his slacks and buttoned his shirt.
“It’s a ground floor investment, Mr. Sadler.”
“Harley,” the showman corrected him.
“Oil is exactly what they say it is, Harley,” the second man said as he picked up the pitch. “And fortunes can be made overnight in the independent drilling business.”
“And lost,” Harley interjected. “I know all about wildcatting.”
“Yes, I know it’s risky,” the first man conceded. “It’s a gamble.”
Harley stopped to smile. “A gamble, huh? Well, I’ve never been one to walk away from a poker game.”
Billie and Gloria stood outside the tent waiting for Harley to appear.
“What’s taking him so long?” Gloria asked.
“First he was talking to those men about running for the legislature—“
“Oh good!” Gloria interrupted. “I think Daddy would be wonderful in government.”
“Charlie said the ones in there now are oil drillers.”
“Oh! That would be exciting!”
“Would it?” Billie asked sourly.
Gloria studied her mother’s troubled face. “What’s wrong, Mama?”
“Sometimes, no matter how much somebody loves you,” she explained with pain etched across her face,” they have to shut you out of their hearts to keep you from hurting them.”
“Mama, Daddy would never shut you out.” Gloria put her arm around her mother.
“I don’t think he even knows that’s what he’s doing.” Billie smiled sadly.
“No, Mama.”
“And the worst thing,” Billie paused to keep from crying, “I don’t blame him.”

Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Six

Previously in the novel: Secretary of War Edwin Stanton takes President and Mrs. Lincoln to a room in the White House basement where they will stay until the end of the war. Their guard Pvt. Adam Christy thinks he’s saving his country.

“Don’t you think I might be missed at the Cabinet meetings?”
“You’ll be there.” Stanton smiled, pausing to chuckle at the look of puzzlement on Lincoln’s face. “Or at least, a man who looks remarkably similar to you.”
“Poor fellow,” Lincoln said with a trace of a grin. “I didn’t think any man on earth was as ugly as I am.”
“This is no time for your silly jokes.” Mrs. Lincoln did not lift her head from his shoulder, but slapped him on the chest.
“Details aren’t necessary,” Stanton continued, “but needless to say, I found a gentleman who, for the appropriate compensation, will dress like Lincoln, talk like Lincoln, and look like Lincoln, but say exactly what I tell him.”
“And that one fact makes him nothing at all like Mr. Lincoln.” Pulling her head up and daubing her eyes, Mrs. Lincoln pursed her lips as she looked at Stanton. “He’s enough like Mr. Lincoln to convince the Cabinet members?”
“And Mr. Nicolay and Mr. Hay?” Lincoln asked.
The mention of the two elegant men serving as personal secretaries of President Lincoln caused Adam to frown. He secretly hoped they would not be fooled and would need some forceful encouragement—and Adam gladly would provide that force.
“They’ll be no problem.” Stanton addressed Mrs. Lincoln. “I even found a suitable replacement for you, madam.”
“For me?” Her eyes widened.
“There’s only one person in Washington I couldn’t fool or intimidate into believing my impostor is the president, and that person is his wife.”
“Of course I could tell the difference.”
“I know,” Stanton said.
“And I’d scream to high heaven about it, too.”
“That’s why you’re joining the president in the basement.”
“You’ll fail.” Mrs. Lincoln smiled. “This plan is ludicrous.”
“You’re wrong, Mrs. Lincoln,” Stanton said.
“Why, Mrs. Keckley knows the shape of my body…”
“A colored woman,” Stanton said dismissively. “It’ll be no problem to convince her she doesn’t see what she sees.”
Adam furrowed his brow, uncomfortable to hear this attitude being expressed by Stanton, the man who had brought him to Washington and taught him of holy crusades. They were supposed to be fighting to end slavery because black men and women were equal to white people. A belief in that equality was not detectable in Stanton’s tone of voice. That tone, Adam had always been told, was characteristic of Southerners using black muscle to till their fields.
“And Taddie,” Mrs. Lincoln continued. “Taddie’ll know that woman isn’t his mother.”
“A child will believe whatever it’s told,” Stanton pronounced.
Again Adam shifted uneasily at Stanton’s remarks. Children did not believe everything they were told. As wise as the secretary of war was, he should know that. Adam certainly knew it; he was closer to childhood than Stanton was, and therefore had a clearer memory of what it was like to be a boy than did the man with the pharaoh beard. Adam remembered exactly the emotions coursing through a boy’s heart when an adult preached sermons his guts told him were wrong. He knew to bite his tongue, nod his head, and allow the adult to think he was having his way, while all along the child comforted himself in the knowledge that, in his own brain, he knew the truth.
“Now, let me see if I got this straight.” Lincoln cleared his throat. “You got a fellow upstairs right now—”
“He’s probably unpacking at this moment,” Stanton interjected.
“And you’re going to have him stand before the Cabinet and tell them General McClellan will no longer command the Army of the Potomac and replace him with…”
“General Burnsides,” Stanton supplied.
“A good man,” Lincoln said. “A bit of a dandy, but a good man.”
“He’s not afraid to fight.”
“But can he win?”
“If he fights, he’ll win.”
“You do wrong to underestimate Bobby Lee.” Lincoln raised an eyebrow.
“Fear never won battles,” Stanton said. “That’s McClellan’s weakness. He overestimates the power of General Lee.”
“Don’t waste your words on him, Father,” Mrs. Lincoln said with a sniff.
“You may be right, my dear.” Lincoln patted his wife.
“He’s a fool. Don’t waste your wisdom on a fool.”
“I do have just one other question. How long do you think it’ll take General Burnsides to win the war?”
“I expect you’ll be able to celebrate Christmas upstairs.”
“And you expect us to be jolly for Christmas?” Mrs. Lincoln asked.
“You’ll thank me—as Private Christy said earlier—for saving lives, the Union, and your place in history.” Stanton smiled. “Oh, you’re a bit peeved now, but that’ll pass when you bask in the accolades justly earned by me.”
“‘A bit peeved’? ‘Justly earned’?” Mrs. Lincoln rolled her eyes. “I swear to God, that man’s a fool.”
“Who else is part of this grand scheme?” Lincoln asked. “Mr. Seward, I presume?”
“No.” Stanton shook his head. “Very few are involved. I decided it’d be better that way. And it’d be better for you to ask no more questions.” He nodded to the young soldier. “Private Christy will be in the next room and will attend to your every need.”
“I need to be with my son,” Mrs. Lincoln said.
“Well, perhaps not every need.”
“But his main duty will be to keep us locked away,” Lincoln said, “while you run the country upstairs through this man who’s unfortunate enough to look like me.”
“Good; as long as we all understand the situation.” Stanton pulled out his watch and squinted at it. “I’ll be calling an emergency Cabinet meeting tonight.”
A slight metallic jangling from behind the barrels and crates in the far corner caught Stanton’s attention.
“What was that?”
“Who goes there?” Adam pulled his Remington revolver.
“Don’t shoot.” Gabby Zook stood, raising his hands.
“Who the hell are you?” Stanton asked, fuming.
“Father! That man cursed in front of me!”
“Molly, Mr. Stanton’s language is the least of our problems.” He patted her reassuringly.
“Come out slowly,” Adam ordered.
“Rat traps.” Gabby came forward, shuffling his feet and lowering his head. “Rats in the basement. Rats in the basement, and we can’t have rats in the White House basement. I put out rat traps. Then you came in, and I was trapped. Like the rats in the basement, but I don’t want to get trapped.
“Who the hell is this?” Stanton repeated, his face reddening.
“If I recall properly, this is the nephew of General Samuel Zook. He put in a good word for his dead brother’s son.”
“You know Uncle Sammy?” Gabby walked toward Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln cringed and hid her face in her husband’s shoulder. “I like Uncle Sammy. He was always the smart one in the family. Everyone said he’d be the successful one. Being a general is pretty good, so I guess he’s the successful one in the family.”
“General Zook said he had a few problems,” Lincoln said.
“What the hell is he doing here?”
“Setting rat traps,” Lincoln replied. “Weren’t you listening?”
“Can I go now?” Gabby inched his way toward the door.
“No,” Stanton said. “You know too much. You heard too much.”
“How can I know too much?” Gabby’s eyes filled with confusion. “They kicked me out of West Point before I could learn much.”
“You must stay in this room with the Lincolns.”
Mrs. Lincoln’s mouth fell open. “First, you stick a gun in my face. You tell me I have to live in the basement. You use foul language in my presence, and now you tell me I must live with this person?”
“It wasn’t planned,” Stanton said.
“Most of life isn’t what we plan, Mr. Stanton.” Lincoln took two small steps toward the secretary. “Stop this now, before it’s too late. This man has shown up. Who knows what other complications await you? You’ve good intentions. I know that. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
“The rat trapper can set up house behind the crates.” Stanton’s eyes dismissed Lincoln’s plea. “You won’t even know he’s there, Mrs. Lincoln.”
“No!” As Stanton left the room, Gabby rushed the door. “I got to get back to Cordie! Cordie needs me!”
“Please, sir, everything will be all right.” Adam grabbed him. “Please calm down.”
“But Cordie! What’s going to happen to Cordie?”
“She’ll be fine. I’ll tell her.” Adam paused. “I’ll tell her something.”

Toby Chapter Fourteen

Previously in the book: West Texas farmboy Harley Sadler left the farm, joined a tent show, married a pretty girl, built his own show and made plans to take on the big city of Dallas.

A few weeks later Harley, Billie and Gloria drove to Dallas to find a venue for the Alamo spectacular which would join the panoply of entertainment during the Texas Centennial. They inspected several buildings. Some were too small, others too large, most were too expensive and the cheap ones gave Billie and Gloria the creeps.
The last stop—the final available space in town—was the Sportatorium, a ramshackle warehouse south of downtown and its tall office building and ornate hotels. When they stepped from the car Billie was sure she smelled excrement but she didn’t know if it were human or animal. Gloria giggled nervously. Harley and Charlie the bookkeeper pretended they did not smell a thing.
Inside the building, the odors intensified with the sweat of fat, hairy wrestlers as they practiced their grunts and holds. The building manager, chomping down on a big cigar, marched up to Harley and Charlie, briskly shaking their hands.
“Welcome to the beautiful Sportatorium, home of Texas Championship Wrestling! You can’t find a better facility for your Alamo Spectacular anywhere in Dallas!”
Before Harley could answer, Billie tugged at his sleeve. He turned to see her crinkle her nose and shake her head. He smiled with amusement and resumed his attention to the manager.
“Um, well, yes. Now the way we work is we pay rental from the receipts, after the run.”
The manager narrowed his eyes in skepticism. “After the run? We usually get a deposit on rentals like this.”
“Oh, you can trust us,” Harley replied with a grin. “We always pay our rentals.” He looked over at Charlie and whispered, “Did you get that check off to San Angelo this month?”
Charlie nodded.
“Yes.” Harley smiled with confidence. “We always pay our rentals.”
“Well, I know you’re a big name out in West Texas.” The manager scratched his head, then extended his hand. “I guess I can take a risk.”
Harley shook his hand vigorously. “You won’t be disappointed. We always pay.”
Billie looked down at her diamond rings. “One way or the other.”
The deal was done. “Harley Sadler’s Own Show” intensified its efforts in creating spectacular backdrops of early San Antonio and the Alamo. Mexican army uniforms were sewn to exact specifications. No detail was overlooked. Finally the storage trucks were loaded and were on their way to Dallas. The Sadlers motored up in their own car. Harley could hardly contain himself anticipating a victory denied to Jim Bowie, William Barrett Travis, David Crockett and the others. They checked into one of the nice hotels downtown and rested before a grueling rehearsal schedule began.
Gloria and Louise convinced their parents to allow them to share a room during the Centennial engagement. Billie knocked at their door.
“You girls all right?”
“Yes, Mama,” Gloria replied. “Good night. Say good night to Daddy and Mama Lou for me.”
“I will. Good night.” Billie walked away.
Both girls were in their nighties. They ran giggling and jumped in the double bed.
“Oh, you should have been there that day at the arena. I thought Mama was going to die,” Gloria said.
“Is it really awful?” Louise asked.
“The building isn’t really that bad,” she conceded. “What made Mama squirm were the wrestlers in the ring.”
Louise’s face brightened. “Were they good looking?”
“They were fat, old and grunted a lot.”
“Ugh.” Louise made a face.
The girls giggled again, although afterwards Louise turned serious. “Oh, I’m so nervous playing Dallas and—and the play isn’t going too well, you know, in rehearsals.”
Gloria fell back on her pillow. “I don’t worry about it. What’s the worst thing that could happen? We close after one night, and Mama hocks her jewelry to get us out of town.”
“You’ve been around show business so long now, it doesn’t excite you anymore, does it?”
“I don’t know.” Gloria sighed. “The tent show makes Mama and Daddy happy, but I want something else.”
“Oh no.” She shook her head and laughed. “People are always thinking I want to be in the movies.”
Louise leaned forward and wrinkled her brow. “Well, what do you want?”
“I want—“ Gloria paused as her eyes sparkled in anticipation of experiencing a new and exciting world. “I want to be a mother. I want to be happy.” She giggled mischievously. “I want to die before I’m old and ugly. There in a coffin with my hands gracefully folded with a lily at my breast.”
Louise threw a pillow at her. “You silly goose!”
Opening night at the Sportatorium arrived, and the audience began to trickle in. These were not the usual customers. Most of them arrived with their own beer bottles and wearing old, dirty torn shirts and trousers. Not many women joined them, but those who did smoked cigarettes and wore dyed rabbit fur coats. They looked at the programs and saw names like Santa Anna, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. Who the hell was this Harley Sadler? Was he the new Hillbilly Bruiser who was supposed to drive the Yankee Slicker out of town?
The curtain rose to a light mixture of applause, foot stomping and hooting. A gasp of recognition rolled through the room, which was not even half filled. It was the Alamo. They had seen pictures of it in their junior high school Texas history books.
Each time a familiar character from school class entered they gave a big round of applause. They saved the loudest ovation for Harley who was dressed as Davy Crockett, though the reaction was aimed at the funny coonskin cap on his head.
Toward the end of Act One, Santa Ana and his army marched ominously through the audience waving the Mexican flag and pounding on snare drums. Such a martial display usually stirred patriotic emotions resulting in scattered applause, until someone realized the guys at the Alamo flew the Texas flag, which supposed to have made them the good guys. A few murmured among themselves about why nobody was waving the American flag. It did not seem right.
The people were so confused that during intermission half of them went home even though there was some nice singing and dancing on the stage.
Toward the end of Act Two Sam, dressed as a Mexican soldier, crawled along in front of a wall. Behind it a loud explosion created a generous puff of smoke but destabilized the wall so it began to lean forward. Sam did as much as he could to straighten it before climbing over. The audience found this quite amusing and chuckled. On the other side Sam crumpled down beside Burnie who was terribly embarrassed.
“I used too much gun powder!”
“Sshh!” Sam put his fingers to his lips.
The audience still tittered as the next round of fake Mexican soldiers approached the wall.
“Was that funny?” Burnie whispered. “It wasn’t supposed to be funny.”
The next evening fewer people fought tickets and by curtain call, more people were on stage than in the audience. So few tickets were sold for the third performance it was canceled and money refunded. Harley made the tough decision to close the show, and the action on the stage that third night was the crew striking the set. When they finished, the cast and crew stood in the arena as Harley, in his best business suit, stood on the bare, starkly lit stage with Billie by his side.
“Well, the Alamo has fallen and so have we.”
Weak laughter greeted his joke. Harley took a deep breath. He had never been so close to real tears before on a stage.
“That was the past.” Harley stopped abruptly when he heard his voice crack. “I plan to send Gloria home to Sweetwater with her mother and Mama Lou. Then I will go down to the Valley around Brownsville and McAllen to see how Toby does down there.”
Sam shouted from the group, “That’s what this show needed. Toby!”
Everyone laughed and applauded.
“I tell you what,” Harley replied slowly, “from now on, I won’t go anywhere unless Toby tags along.”
They laughed again.
“If I can get the money together—“
“That’s when you get the money together,” Billie corrected him.
All their friends erupted in support of the theater family. Harley smiled and took her hand to squeeze it. He frowned a moment and looked down. Her rings were missing. She shrugged.
“I hocked them this afternoon and paid off the house,” she whispered to her husband. “Even had some left over.”
“I stand corrected.” He grinned. “When I get the money together, we’re all be back on the old circuit in West Texas.”
Their spirits lifted, the employees cheered.
“And don’t worry about getting out of town. I’ve sold everything from this show and hocked a little bit more, so everybody will have gas money.”
The last of the company left the Sportatorium parking lot. Harley and his family slowly walked to their car. The cares of the day lay heavily upon them. Mama Lou and Burnie crawled in the back seat. Harley, Gloria and Billie were in the front.
“That was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” Harley said with a sigh.
“I know, dear.” Billie reached across to pat his shoulder.
“I hope I gave everybody enough gas money,” he muttered as he inserted the key into the ignition and turned it. Nothing happened. He tried again.
“You think something’s wrong with the car?” Billie asked.
Harley looked at the fuel gauge which sat on empty. “Nothing that a tank of gasoline wouldn’t fix.
“I’ll go walk for the gas,” Burnie offered.
Billie looked back at her brother. “Before you do let’s see if we have any money.”
Harley opened in his billfold and grimaced when he saw it was empty. He held it up so Billie could see.
“You mean we are sitting in a car without gasoline at midnight in the most disreputable section of Dallas, and you have given all our money away?”
Harley opened his car door. “I think the manager’s still inside. Maybe he would lend us—“
Billie kissed him. “You’ll never change, will you? And I’m so glad.”
Gloria turned to smile into the backseat. “Isn’t love grand?”
“Yes, it is,” Mama Lou replied sweetly.
“Sure is.” Burnie grinned, showing a toothless mouth.
Lou looked at him and frowned. “Please, son. Put your teeth in.”