Monthly Archives: August 2017

Club V-Vampire

french quarter at night
French Quarter at night

New Orleans librarian Alphine was intrigued by two things in life: the dangerous vampire lifestyle of the French Quarter and Ralph, the quiet, shy young man who shelved books at the library. She didn’t know what to do about Ralph but Alphine decided to buy herself a seductive dress and buy provocative perfume to invade the French Quarter.

On her way home from the drugstore she drove by the Vamporium where she had bought the dress. The sign was down, replaced with a Realtor sign. For sale. She stopped her car, got out and went to peer into the window. The shop was bare.
Out of curiosity, Alphine also went by Club V-Vampire to make sure it was still there. It was, but rather pedestrian looking in the sunlight. An old man, his long, sparse gray hair dangling over his ears, swept the sidewalk and then rearranged the wrought-iron table and chairs in front to make sure they looked just right for the revelry that night.
Alphine took a long soak in a tub of hot water Saturday preparing herself for an evening as a vampire in the French quarter. She invoked the spirit of the bloodsucking temptresses she had read so much about. They would give her courage to break the bonds of timid respectability forged by her parents. From this moment her life would be her own.
Taking her time, Alphine put on her dress according to Madame Du Baucherie instructions, sans lingerie. She quickly dismissed her revelation that Madame was nothing more than another old woman trying to make a living. Even as Bessie Jones she knew which perfume to recommend to Alphine. Its name excited her imagination—Cavort. Her hands were steady as she applied the lipstick and eyeliner. She knew what she wanted and what she would be willing to risk to attain it.
Shadows had settled comfortably among the buildings along Bourbon Street. Music rang out from every open door, but nothing deterred Alphine from her destination, Club V-Vampire. When she walked in, she appreciated the low, eerie melodies engulfing the room. It was the perfect environment for catastrophic romance. She slowly slung one hip forward and then the other, emulating the stride of a cat. At the bar, an old man, his gray hair slicked back sinisterly, poured a beer for a customer and smiled at her. Two teeth were missing, but no matter.
“What does the young lady desire?”
Alphine looked at the sign listing all of Club V-Vampire’s specialty drinks: Scarlett O’Hara, Bloody Mary, Virgin Mary, Mai Tai, strawberry daiquiri…. She soon caught on that all the drinks were red, blood red. She ordered a Bloody Mary, left a hefty tip and settled at a small table lit by a hanging Tiffany lamp which illumined her bosom perfectly.
Within a few minutes a tall young man in full tuxedo and opera cape swirled up and leaned over Alphine. When he smiled, he exposed perfectly even white teeth with his canines orthodontically transformed into fangs. She breathed in. This was her moment.
“I vant to drink your tomato juice,” he intoned, trying to sound like Bela Lugosi.
Alphine did not protest when he swooped her glass up and drank. So this was saturnine seduction. Her heart was pounding. All her senses were magnified to the point of thrusting her toward insanity. Then she watched his pale face twist in revulsion. He spat the red liquid onto her dress. It was really quite disgusting.
“This isn’t tomato juice! It’s got some kind of alcohol in it!”
“Yeah, Charlie,” the bartender called out in a nasal voice that simply screamed Brooklyn. “That’s why it’s called a Bloody Mary!”
His whole body shook. “I thought this was a vegan place!”
“Vegan doesn’t mean no booze, Charlie,” the old man said as he poured Southern Comfort into a glass of cranberry juice. “We don’t serve animal products. Booze ain’t an animal product.”
“Give me some water to wash this garbage out of my mouth!”
Now Alphine realized what Club V-Vampire stood for—Vegan Vampire. She took her napkin, wiped her dress off the best she could and walked out into the night, passing all the noisy clubs back to the parking lot, hoping no one had puked on her car again.
Another good weekend wasted.
To be continued.

Toby Epilogue

The storyteller in me wanted to end the novella with Harley and Billie smooching on stage to the applause of all their old friends. The historian in me wants me to tell everyone what really happened. After the Sadlers lost their home they moved to Abilene. Harley had a heart attack while hosting a Boy Scout benefit in Avoca. Within six months Billie developed cancer in the mouth and underwent disfiguring surgery. Her brother Burnie moved in with her but eventually the grief and pain were too much and Billie killed herself. Harley, Billie and their daughter Gloria are buried in the cemetery at Cameron, Texas, where Billie grew up. Over the years their fans died and the memories of the old traveling melodrama shows died too. But the love they had for each other and the joy they spread in West Texas during the Depression will never die.

The Easy Trails Aren’t Easy Anymore

Me at the falls
Me at Laurel Falls, and I didn’t drop dead

Way back in the old days when I was twenty-four and on my honeymoon, the easy hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains were really easy. Now, forty-six years later, nothin’ ain’t easy no more.
In a brochure put out by the park service, Laurel Falls weren’t that far away, maybe a mile and a half and the elevation didn’t rise that much. On top of that, half of it was paved. It’s completely paved now but that didn’t make much difference for me.
Luckily I had my son along with me. We had small backpacks where we kept our bottled water. Along the way we met a family with three teen-agers who were climbing up an uncharted portion of the mountain or they were scrambling down the side to a little stream babbling below. My son and I usually passed by and smiled as the parents waited for their wayward teens to return to the trail.
It wasn’t long, though, until they passed us because I had to sit on a rock gasping for air. Then we’d pass them again as their kids went on another off-trail adventure. Then they’d pass me on another rock gasping.
One reason I had trouble was that my wife Janet wasn’t there to read the trail guides to me. You see, every few hundred feet there was a post with a number on it. Janet would read the paragraph under the corresponding number in the guide. We learned something about nature and caught our breath at the same time. The pamphlets used to be free and you could slip them in a slot back at the trail head so someone else could use them. Now the park sells them for a dollar each, and I wasn’t going to spend money on something I wouldn’t want to read again after the hike was over.
Eventually I heard the roar of the falls so I knew they had to be around the next bend, or maybe the next. We did get to that last bend and there was a mob of people sitting and looking, climbing slippery rocks and taking a natural shower, with their clothes on of course. As I crossed the wooden foot bridge to sit by the falls, there was the mother of the three thrill-seeking teen-agers smiling at me and extending her hand.
“Congratulations! You finally made it!”
I too smiled, said thank you, shook her hand firmly and searched for an empty rock to sit on. I felt there was a touch of irony in her voice but I was too tired to ponder it seriously. After all I had the walk back to the parking lot to consider. My son and I took a few pictures and rested some more before we undertook the trek down the mountain.
Along the way we again saw the energetic family finding new nooks and crannies to explore off the beaten path. And again we passed them only to be passed by them. No more hearty congratulations for not dropping dead yet.
I learned two lessons that day. Everything is hard after you get old. And take compliments with a smile and thank you when you can get them, even if you don’t think they’re sincere.

Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Twenty-Three


Ward Hill Lamon was Lincoln’s personal bodyguard

Previously in the novel: War Secretary Edwin Stanton held President and Mrs. Lincoln captive under guard in basement of the White House. He guided his substitute Lincoln through his first Cabinet meeting even though there were some complications.

As the carriage arrived at the Stanton home on Avenue K, Stanton saw two imposing figures waiting for him. This next meeting would be the linchpin to secure his plan’s success. He had to convince Lincoln’s personal bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, the taller of the two men standing in the dark outside his house, that the president suddenly had been whisked away before Lamon could be notified of new assassination reports.
Stanton leaned out of the carriage and called up to the driver, “If you could be so kind, let these two gentlemen join me in the carriage for a brief conversation before you return to the War Department.”
The shorter of the two men, Stanton’s private bodyguard, Lafayette C. Baker, entered the carriage first. Stanton took a deep breath as Lamon plopped on the seat opposite him. A fellow Illinois lawyer and close Lincoln friend, he would not be easily deluded.
“What’s this about the president?” Lamon said.
“Yes, you were out of pocket this afternoon…”
“That’s because this man of yours had me out in the countryside looking for quinine in a young woman’s skirt,” Lamon said in a huff. “So what if a Southern belle wants to sneak a few bottles of quinine to Virginia?”
“That young woman was the niece of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair,” Baker interjected. Stanton could see the resentment in Baker’s eyes as he looked at Lamon, which delighted him. Baker had been a mechanic before the war, while Lamon had been a lawyer. Jealousy made Baker the perfect accomplice.
“Reports were intercepted indicating immediate danger to the president’s life,” Stanton continued. “He’s in a safe place, along with his wife, until such time as the danger passes. To insure no public panic, we have placed a man and woman who look like the Lincolns in the White House.”
“Where is the president, Anderson Cottage?”
“I can’t tell.”
“I’m his personal bodyguard, dammit!”
“Don’t let your ego get in the way of national security,” Baker said.
“I have no ego,” Lamon said, sitting up stiffly.
“I’ll communicate with the president, and transmit his orders to the impersonator, who’ll inform the Cabinet of the decisions.”
“This is damned foolishness.”
Baker smiled. “Why? Because you didn’t think of it first?”
Stanton held his breath as Lamon shuffled uncomfortably. This moment would make the scheme. If Lamon could be convinced, then all others would be easy to control.
“How long?”
Stanton shrugged. “Until the threat subsides.”
“That could be to the end of the war.”
“Exactly,” Baker said.
“So I’m just district marshal now.” Lamon blew out a long sigh.
“Oh no. You’re still needed.” Stanton tried to hide his relief in the shadows of the carriage. “The double still needs to be protected.”
“Don’t let him or the woman know you’re aware they’re not the real Lincolns.” Stanton tapped his foot. “That’s it. That’s all you need to know.”
“All I need to know?”
“That’s what the secretary said,” Baker replied.
“You may leave now.”
Lamon exited the carriage, mumbling obscenities, and disappeared into the night. Stanton leaned back, pleased with his progress.
“So. Tell me how it went with Miss Buckner.”
“Why, she’s in the Old Capitol to spend the night.” Baker brushed back his light brown hair and smiled.
“Very good.”
“And her mother and—who else was in the party going to Virginia?”
“A minister, Buck Bailey.”
“I can imagine the quality of sermon Buck Bailey would deliver.” Stanton grunted with disdain. “Are they incarcerated as well?”
“No, sir. I tried, but Lamon stopped it. He said they looked too shocked when I found the quinine bottles sewn into Miss Buckner’s dress to be part of the plot.”
“What was her defense?”
“She showed her military governor’s pass, signed by Major Doster, and a note from the president, and she said her uncle had supplied the money for the shopping trip.”
Leaning forward, Stanton said, “Major Doster, huh? Well, rouse the provost marshal from bed and tell him I want to see the memorandum of Mr. Blair’s recommendation first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Shall I inform the postmaster general of his niece’s unfortunate incarceration?”
“Of course.” Stanton began to get out of the carriage, then paused. “Tonight. Mr. Blair has been a bit outspoken at Cabinet meetings lately. Perhaps this will dampen his spirit.”
“Yes, sir.” Baker followed him to the street curb.
Stanton tapped the seat of the carriage. “You may go.”
“Your plan is going well, sir,” Baker said as the carriage began to pull away.
“There have been a few developments I didn’t foresee.” He nodded thoughtfully. “But, yes, it’s going well.” He looked at Baker. “Be about your duties.”
“Yes, sir.” He disappeared in the shadows to pursue his dark missions.

James Brown’s Favorite Uncle The Hal Neely Story Chapter 24

Hal Neely produced many Little Willie John records

Previously in the book: Nebraskan Hal Neely began his career touring with big bands and worked his way into the King records, producing rock and country songs. Along the way he worked with James Brown, the Godfather of soul.

James Brown always said Syd Nathan was like a stern father; Hal Neely, a kindly uncle, Little Willie John, a brother: and Ben Bart, a pop—maybe that was a father who didn’t yell at him. By the end of 1968 the only one of these surrogate family members Brown had left was Hal Neely.
The exhilaration from that success of “Live at the Apollo” did not last long and failed to heal Brown’s frustrations with King Records, even though his main connection to King evolved to be with Hal Neely instead of with Syd Nathan, who had suffered two heart attacks in recent years. Nathan was splitting his time between Cincinnati and his condominium in Miami, Florida, supposedly leaving the day-to-day running of the company to Neely. Ultimately, however, Nathan still had the final veto.1
Brown complained in his autobiography that when he asked for an advance against royalties Nathan would grant it only if Brown agreed to an extension on his contract. “And I was tired of fighting Mr. Nathan all of the time. I loved him like a father, but I was tired of fighting it. Mr. Nathan had been sick for a while, but when he got himself back he would be running the company full-time again. His ideas about artist development and promotion were old-fashioned, not like Mr. Neely’s.
“Hal Neely, who later became president of King, he was like my father. Hal Neely is one of the finest persons I’ve ever met,” Brown said in an interview in the late 1980s. “During that time it was like I became part of the family, it was a whole different set-up then. If you had a problem you could call the company president at 5 o’clock in the morning, tell him what it is, he would be concerned. He’d be on the next plane down there. That’s what it’s about. Personal feeling, personal touch, personal involvement. There isn’t much of that now.”2
But Nathan still was a problem for Brown in the early 1960s. “Around this time there was a chance Mr. Neely would buy him out, but when it didn’t come through I was ready to go,” he said in his autobiography.
The incident that forced Brown to assert himself came during his last studio session under the old King contract in late October of 1963 with the recording of “Oh Baby Don’t You Weep.” King producer/arranger Gene Redd lectured him that his piano playing was “musically incorrect” which sparked Brown’s retort, “Does it sound good to me? Then it’s not incorrect.” After a few more angry words Redd stormed from the booth to Nathan’s office where he demanded the boss order Brown to do it his way. In a rare exhibit of respect for his musical artists, Nathan told Redd to do it Brown’s way.3
Neely could see the conflict coming. “James had just had enough of Syd. Syd at the time was growing more ill, with the heart attack and all. He still came into work but what little patience he ever had was gone. Syd spent half the year at a condo in Miami but when he would come back into town, all hell would break loose. It just came to the point where there was simply no reasoning between the two.”4
“James used to cause us a lot of problems, though,” Jim Wilson, who had left King to join Neely at Starday, said, “and the problems were that he wanted to call the shots in releasing product. Now I can understand that; he would get all excited about something new. An idea came to him, and he was still young: ‘Let’s cut it! Let’s put it out.’ And I appreciated that from an artist.” Wilson explained that from a company’s manufacturing standpoint, distribution could handle only one hit at a time. “James’s theory probably was, ‘Well, look, if I’ve got five hits on the go, they’ll play all five of them.’” Wilson said it did not work that way. Disc jockeys would quit playing one song even if it were only two or three weeks on the market in order to start playing the new record.5
Wilson also laid blame on Nathan for his failure to spot the surge of the sound of young America. “I think that to some extent, we were dragging our feet at King in moving forward into the Motown-type sound,” he said. Wilson had a special perspective on this change of musical styles since he was in charge of King’s Detroit office, giving him a front row seat to watch the development of Motown from a little fly on the wall to a giant in the industry, leaving King far behind.6
By 1964 Hal Neely must have looked back over his years working for Syd Nathan with a lot of satisfaction but also frustration. For every instance Neely could influence Nathan to make the right decision on a record, such as with “Please, Please, Please” he had to put up with the boss’s attitude of “my way or no way.” One of his unofficial duties was damage control over the addiction problems of King musicians.
“James Brown, bless his heart, he’s been into heavy drugs all his life,” Neely said. Neely went on to say Little Willie John had problems with drinking, marijuana smoking, cocaine and harder drugs and that he had entered John into rehabilitation centers several times.7
Not only did Neely have to run interference between Nathan and Brown he also had to attempt to shield John from Nathan’s outbursts. John was completely different from James Brown. He tried to mold himself in the image of Frank Sinatra, wearing silk shirts and cocking his hat to one side. Ray Pennington, who worked at King Records in 1958, remembered how Nathan would yell at John during recording sessions.
“Mr. Nathan would be trying to tell Willie how to sing. He always jumped on Willie and told him he wanted to be Sinatra. Mr. Nathan would tell him he wasn’t singing ‘black’ enough, only that wasn’t the word he would use. They would always end up all right, but we were usually glad when Mr. Nathan left the room because then we could do it the way we wanted.”8
Neely also was in charge of developing tough business tactics with the sometimes less-than-dependable artists; for example, whenever a musician needed some money he could count on getting it from Nathan. The catch was that the loan would extend the length of the artist’s contract. Neely said he brought a new twist to this “hustle” by adding a condition that the musician was required to give King Records three days of recording time every 90 days no matter where they were at the time. If he did not comply with the company’s request, he would have another year added to his contract. “It’s a hustle contract, that’s true,” Neely said, “but you’re going to be hustled if you don’t.”
John, apparently not realizing that each advance he requested ended up extending his contract, seemed to think he needed a valid reason to ask for the money, so he invented regular deaths in the family. “Willie John’s mother died three times,” Neely said. “I sent it to him. It was his money. Fantastical singer. Of course, our best singer was Willie John. I’m the guy who got him, of course.”9
However, through those years, Neely’s allegiance stayed with the boss Syd Nathan. For example, in the summer of 1960 John wanted to record a Fred Waring song “Sleep” from 1924.
“He was coming off three or four big records, and he said, ‘Hal, I’ve been thinking. I’d like to use the Cincinnati Symphony on my next record.’ I said to him, ‘Gee that’s a great idea, fine, Willie.” Neely said he picked up the phone and asked to be put through to the director of the symphony. “I said, ‘Little Willie John’s in my office, and he’d like to do a recording tonight, are you available?’” Neely told John that the symphony was ready for him. “So Willie marches out of my office and Syd’s, he goes to the studio. He’s gone about an hour. He comes back, with his hat in his hand now. ‘How many men in the Cincinnati Symphony? Mr. Neely, who pays for that?’ ‘Well, you do Willie.’ ‘You know, I think I’ve been a little hasty.’”
Neely was not completely heartless in dashing John’s idea. He did book three violins and a viola and overdubbed them. “So we did ‘Sleep’, and that’s the worst record I ever cut in my life, it’s screechy and it’s bad and they put him on it, they sketched out an arrangement and we overdubbed it about three times, so it sounds like a fiddle section. It’s awful, it’s terrible. It went to number one, of course.” Neely had a penchant for overstatement. The record went to No. 10 on the rhythm and blues chart and No. 13 on the pop charts, but it was John’s best-selling record ever.10
John’s addiction problems escalated in the spring of 1964 when he was arrested in Fort Meyers, Florida. A drunk in the audience threw a bottle at John on stage. John picked up jagged bottle which had broken and threw it back into the nightclub audience. Later that April John attacked a chef because he didn’t like the way his dinner was cooked. He jumped bail and left Florida, thinking he would never return. Even the newspapers commented on his behavior.
“Little Willie John is headed for serious financial difficulties if he continues to miss contracted dates, his agent is being forced to return deposits,” Izzy Rowe said in his syndicated column.11
His erratic behavior climaxed the next October at a shady establishment called the South End Improvement Club in Seattle. John had too much booze, too many women, and too little sense when he asked a man named Kendall Roundtree, six-foot two and weighing more than 200 pounds, to join his party. The group decided to wind up the evening at an illegal party house in the worst section of town. Liquor sales were illegal on a Sunday in Seattle but hooch still flowed in the little frame house which had been converted into a speakeasy.
Roundtree had too much to drink like everyone else in the joint and started calling the women “bitches,” which set John off. Even though he was only five-foot four and weighed about 130 pounds, he saw himself as the protector of the honor of all women. The room was crowded when the fight broke out, and when it ended a few minutes later everyone saw Roundtree bleeding from the chest and John with a steak knife in his hand.12
“When it was all over, about 10 minutes, I got myself together and in the living room there was a dead man,” John later said. “Well, I called for an ambulance and they called the police. I don’t use God’s name in vain, but I didn’t do this.”
John was booked on suspicion of murder. Roundtree’s autopsy showed that the knife entered near the collarbone after a downward thrust, cutting through his lung and nicked his aorta. Eventually John was charged with second-degree murder and after a plea of not guilty was released on a $10,000 bond. Hal Neely claimed to have bailed him out but so did Sam Cooke, James Brown, John’s brother Mertis Junior and his manager Clem Williams. He left the Seattle jail in the morning and by that night he was performing at a San Francisco nightclub. John saw his old friend from Detroit Hank Ballard in the club and shared his plans: after his San Francisco gig he was going to the 54 Ballroom in Los Angeles even though legally he was still supposed to be in Washington state. Ballard may have been John’s friend, but he was also on Neely’s payroll at King Records. He wasted no time in calling his boss to let him know what John was up to.
“Hank called me because they respected me, I think, because I’m honest,” Neely said. “He said, ‘Mr. Neely, I think you’d better know now, Willie John is playing the 54 Ballroom this weekend.’” Neely added that a bail bondsman picked up John after his Los Angeles engagement and took him back to Seattle.13
Shortly thereafter the court allowed John to go home to his family for Christmas. The trial took place in January of 1965 and ended with a verdict of manslaughter with a weapon, which surprised the prosecuting attorney Art Swanson. “Kendall Roundtree was a mountain of a man and could have squashed Willie. Big guy hits the little guy, there’s a fight. Self-defense could have given them a wonderful chance at a not-guilty verdict. How could you convict a guy when you have seven eyewitnesses, but none of them saw the guy do it?”14
John posted a $20,000 bond while awaiting sentencing. Unfortunately, the publicity from his Washington state trial came to the attention to Texas authorities who were looking for him on a bad check charge. He was indicted later that month on the Texas charge but was not brought back to jail in Washington until late August where he stayed until January 1966. He was granted parole the following month which allowed him to fulfill a new contract he had signed with Capitol Records in Los Angeles.15
According to a Jet Magazine interview given by his sister Mabel in May, 1965, John was “free to travel anywhere so long as he reports beforehand to the probation department.”16
John told Capitol Records that his contract with King was expired. The new label gave him a $10,000 advance. Capitol producer David Axelrod was very pleased with John’s recording session. “That album came out terrific. I really think it would have sold,” Axelrod said.
What John and Capitol Records did not realize was that King still held the contract. All those loans so generously made by Neely had come home to roost. Syd Nathan ordered his attorneys to stop the Capitol deal. Already concerned about how well an album by a soon-to-be convict would sell, the Los Angeles record magnate buried the eleven master tapes in its vaults.17
John returned to the Washington state corrections system in May of 1966 to begin serving a sentence of 8 to 20 years with a minimum of 7 1/2 years on the manslaughter conviction. During that time he served in the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla he exchanged letters with Hal Neely, James Brown and Syd Nathan.18

1 The One, 132.
2 The James Brown Reader: 50 Years of Writing about the Godfather of Soul. New York, Penguin Group, edited by Nelson George and Alan Leeds,
3 The One, 130-131.
4 King of the Queen City, 169.
5 Jim Wilson interview.
6 Record Breakers, 140.
6 King of the Queen City, 169.
7 Fever, 120.
8 Ibid., 123.
9 Ibid., 124.
10 Ibid., 127-128.
11 Ibid., 148.
12 Ibid., 153.
13 Ibid., 155.
14 Ibid., 158.
15 Ibid., 162, 165.
16 Ibid., 162.
17 Ibid.,168.
18 Ibid., 172.

Toby Chapter Thirty

Old Harley Sadler
Harley Sadler in his later years

Previously in the novel: Harley and Billie Sadler spent their lives bringing entertainment to farms on the high plains of Texas in the first half of the Twentieth Century. They endured economic hardship, lost their daughter Gloria, helped each other with personal demons and hung on to each other into old age.

Nobody in the theater seemed to care that an overweight man in his sixties was playing Toby, who, by definition, was the picture of young, innocence and energy that came from a heart filled with goodness. They saw what they wanted to see. It was about halfway through Act Three, and Toby was ready for Susie Belle to talk him into helping the Goodheart family fight off the evil Mr. Hurtmore.
But the young lady playing Susie Belle was late on her entrance. Harley was a bit surprised because the actress had been extremely efficient with her cues during the rehearsals. He was not irritated in the least. Harley actually enjoyed being left on a stage to his own devices.
“If that Susie Belle don’t git out here soon, I’m gonna have to tell the story how Clark Gable worked in one of my shows many a summer ago. Now he really was as handsome as he looked in the movies, but he delivered his lines something awful. He was like a bump on a log, so I had to let him go. Who knew I fired a million dollars!”
Everyone in the audience laughed which pleased Harley. Suddenly the laughter turned to hooting, clapping and stomping. He turned to see Billie decked out in her Susie Belle outfit and makeup.
“Next you’ll tell them how you put up a big sign saying Jennifer Jones was appearing that night, but she didn’t show up!” Billie had not been that perky in years.
For the first time in his career, Harley lost his composure on stage. His mouth opened, but nothing came out. “Hey!” he finally said, “this ain’t the Susie Belle I started out with!”
“Of course it is!” she shot back. “I’m the Susie Belle you’ve always had.” She looked out at the audience. “Now, let’s git on with this play!”
The audience roared with pleasure that Billie was back at Harley’s side where they remembered seeing her all those years ago. A little girl with golden curls ran out and knelt before Harley and Billie.
“Oh Toby! Susie Belle! You’ve got to help Mama and Papa save the farm!”
Billie froze a moment. Harley looked in her eyes and saw what she saw. There kneeling on the stage was Gloria, their little girl. He did not realized before this moment but he recommended casting this particular child because she looked like Gloria. Harley felt terrible. He knew how Billie would react. He did not want to inflict any more pain on his wife than she already bore. He felt Billie’s hand slip into his and squeeze.
“Don’t you worry none, Molly,” she said with determination. “Toby and Susie Belle will help your folks. And Toby and Susie Belle will always be there to help you. Even after you grow up and go away, Toby and Susie Belle will always love you.”
A burden lifted from Harley’s shoulders. He no longer felt compelled to save Billie or make life easier for her. Life would always be what it had always been. Sometimes wonderful, sometimes dreadful. And that would be all right.
“Sounds like Susie Belle’s makin’ up a whole new play.”
“And I’m gonna make up something else too.” Billie took Harley’s face and planted a big kiss on his lips. Again the audience erupted in applause As they separated, Harley smiled.
“Ooh la la.”

No Gift Shop in the Sky

Janet's with me

Reaching for the clouds on Clingman’s Dome.

I remember the first time Janet and I hiked up Clingman’s Dome in the Smoky Moutains. We were on our honeymoon. From the parking lot to the observation tower at the top it was only three-quarters of a mile. And paved at that. What could be easier? Then we saw the incline of the path—must have been thirty-eight to forty percent angle. We were just in our early twenties but it winded us.
When we got to the top the only thing we could see were a few pine trees directly below us. Who knew it would be cloudy up there on the highest point of the Smoky Mountains? The trip back down wasn’t so bad. We didn’t care. We were in love.
A few weeks ago on what would have been our forty-sixth anniversary I attacked the trail up Clingman’s Dome with my son. He didn’t mind I had to stop every few yards to catch my breath. I was very proud I even made it up the three-quarter mile. After all, I got a stent in my heart. What more could I expect? The sky was clear so we got to see more than just the pines under the tower. We were descending the spiral ramp when a teen-ager began up the ramp and asked us, “Is there a gift shop up there?”
When we said no, he replied, “Oh,” and he turned and went back down the mountain. I laughed all the way to the parking lot.
I think Janet would have too.

Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Twenty-Two

Edwin Stanton never forgot or forgave an insult.

Previously in the novel: War Secretary Edwin Stanton held President and Mrs. Lincoln captive under guard in basement of the White House. He guided his substitute Lincoln through his first Cabinet meeting even though there were some complications.

As Stanton sat back during his carriage ride to his home on Avenue K in Washington, D.C., he assessed how the day had gone, and decided to be quite pleased with himself. A few complications had arisen, like the janitor in the basement, and the fact he was unable to force the Cabinet to remove General McClellan, but perhaps such stumbling blocks made the situation he had created seem more real, less manipulated. Leaning his cheek on the back of the leather-padded carriage seat, he breathed the late night air and tried to relax. Quickly he pulled his head back, remembering he did not want to risk a new asthma attack. Stanton had not experienced one of his seizures for more than a year, and did not want a new episode at the beginning of the most challenging endeavor of his life, saving the Union from destruction.
His eyes closed, the war secretary could not help but think of the first time his lungs had refused to work, at age ten, in Steubenville, Ohio. His mother had held his slender little body as it was wracked by hacking coughs, while his father, a pious Methodist, prayed unceasingly over him. As the seizure subsided and his parents hugged him, he was aware of their moist cheeks pressed against his own, as though a baptism in tears. While the asthma regularly shadowed his early years, its effect was abated by the comforting knowledge that both of his parents loved him dearly. That assurance made the death of his father near Christmas when he was thirteen even more unbearable. Added to that trauma was the discovery that his father had left no money. With four children and generous donations to the church, Stanton’s father had nothing in reserve to protect his family in the event of his death; therefore, being the oldest, Stanton was apprenticed to a bookseller, James Turnbell, who kindly filled in as a father figure and overlooked his bouts of asthma and his tendency to ignore customers while reading.
His Cupid’s bow lips now turning up in a smile, he approached his Avenue K home, acknowledging that, while life had not been easy for him, there had been kind people along the way: Turnbell, his father’s friend, had loaned him money to go to college and, when the money ran out, allowed him to come back to work in the bookstore; his mother’s lawyer had tutored him on the bar exam, and a judge first took him into his practice and then turned it over to him upon being elected to the United States Senate. In a bit of irony, Stanton considered how Abraham Lincoln had favored him and named him secretary of war, a position he used to depose his patron, at least temporarily. He smiled to himself. Well, perhaps not temporarily.
The smile faded as he thought of the death of his first daughter and, three years later, of his first wife, followed two years later by the suicide of his brother and then the shattering blow of the death of his son by his second wife in February 1862. He had the boy cremated and kept the ashes in an urn on the fireplace mantel in his bedroom. Stanton knew he would have to dispose of the ashes sometime and move on with his life, but that deliberate action would be the permanent admission that two of his babies were gone. So until he could bring himself to that realization, the urn stayed in his bedroom, and his second wife dusted and polished it daily.
More than anything, Stanton’s black heart could neither forget nor forgive the sins committed against him. No one lived the good Methodist life better than he—chaste, moral, crusading against the evils of slavery—so no one deserved the ridicule and harassment heaped upon him. His eyes opened and narrowed as he remembered his teen-aged years in Steubenville. Short and slight of build, he could not attract the prettiest girls because they always liked tall, robust boys who ran and played games better than he did. When the daughter of the owner of his family’s boardinghouse paid him attention, he was enamored. At lunch one summer day in 1833, the girl’s brother declared he would rather see his sister dead than in love with Stanton. She had slapped her brother, which pleased Stanton. That night, when he returned home from the bookstore, he learned the girl had died of a quick bout of cholera. Fearing contagion, her family had buried her immediately. In his delirium of sorrow, Stanton believed the brother had buried his sister when the cholera had placed her merely in a state of unconsciousness. He disinterred the girl’s coffin to see for himself. As he stroked her cold cheek, Stanton had to admit she was dead.
In the carriage he clenched his fists as he remembered what had happened next. His ears still rung with the laughter above him when he looked up from the grave to see the brother.
“You have to rob graves to find girls?” the brother said, his face barely lit by the lantern in his hand, creating evil shadows across his face.
“I wanted to make sure,” Stanton said.
“I should beat the tar out of you for desecrating my sister’s grave, but you ain’t worth it. Bury her back proper.”
Even in the carriage in Washington, Stanton felt his neck burn with humiliation. But no longer. Besides winning the war, Stanton was avenging the most humiliating moment of his life, for the girl’s brother who had treated him with such contempt was the father of Private Adam Christy. The father’s letter had come fortuitously to complete Stanton’s plan. Momentarily, Stanton saddened, because the private did resemble his aunt in the face, fresh and innocent, but he resolved that Adam’s father had to pay for his insolence.

James Brown’s Favorite Uncle The Hal Neely Story Chapter Twenty-Three

Previously in the book: Nebraskan Hal Neely began his career touring with big bands and worked his way into the King records, producing rock and country songs. Along the way he worked with James Brown, the Godfather of soul.
(Author’s Note: Italics indicate passages from Neely’s memoirs)

It was evident to me that both the black R & B and “old” country (as we knew it) was changing. Our total self-contained business was in jeopardy. Syd and I disagreed on tactics. Motown changed the way independents did business. Berry Gordy Jr. and I were good friends. We talked about a merger. In 1964 King’s profits sunk. Syd and I disagreed.
“Hal, it’s my way or no way.”
Don Pierce’s Starday Records also changed. Don, a pioneer in country music, founded Starday. Don was not a musician but knew the business. He knew the Starday catalog and assembled most of the LPs. Don and I were both low handicap golfers and played whenever we could. We became very good friends. Don had a young man, not a musician, working for him as his assistant but he left to join a company in California. Don had a good staff and was aware of my problems with Syd so he offered me a good deal in July 1964–a minority interest in Starday if I would move to Nashville and become his vice president and chief operating officer. I would keep my King deal and still help Syd all I could. Syd and Don had always been good friends but not on the same wavelength. Starday worked through distributors and direct mail order, keeping a low profile.
My wife Mary did not want to leave Cincinnati and all her friends. Even so, she agreed. “Hal, if that is what you want, okay.”
We bought a small house Pierce had built out on Old Hickory Lake, close to where Faron Young, Roy Acuff, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and a host of other country music stars lived. Starday’s “lake guest house” was close by me. Pierce had built, and now lived in, a big new house on the lake up the road from me. We jointly owned sixty acres on the lake called “Grasslands.”
Several of my key Cincinnati King people–Jim Wilson, Johnny Miller, Roy Emery, and Dan Quest– moved to Nashville Starday with me. Key Starday staff were Suzanne Mathis, sales, and her little sister Dorothy of accounting, Mrs. Casey in shipping, and Tommy Hill, producer.
Eventually Mary and I built a big ranch-style house on 80 acres of woods and pasture. We owned horses and cattle. James moved his office to Macon, Georgia, and built a beautiful estate across the river in South Carolina. He and I were still in business together, but he did his own thing. Surprisingly, James loved country music and several times in our early years came to our house to eat and listen to country music. He loved Mary because she taught him proper table manners. However, for the rest of his life he seldom ate in a restaurant. He picked at his food.
James Brown exploded in the marketplace. His shows sold out. He worked nonstop. This earned him the title “The Hardest Working Man In The Music Business.” In the beginning I often toured with James, running interference for him as his massive ego and unpredictable nature created problems.
By this time I had built an enviable reputation in the music entertainment business. Among my credits, awards, and industry service were being the Record Industry Association of America representative on the Copyright Act Tribunal, cofounding the Music City Pro-Celebrity Golf Tournament at the Woodland Hills Country Club and being the master of ceremonies at the “after golf” show. Participating in the tournament were Perry Como, Boots Randolph, Nashville Cats Band, Sam Snead, Jerry Reed, and other Nashville stars who enjoyed golf as a pastime. I wrote a series of technical music/productions/engineering articles for Popular Science magazine, Billboard, and other trade papers.
At Faron Young’s Christmas party in 1967, I was holding court and spouting off as usual. “What Nashville needs are some sharp young ladies in our business other than just secretaries.”
Standing in the back of the group was a 5’11” beauty in high heels.
“My name is Victoria Wise. I would like a job. When can I see you?”
My ass was hanging out. “Come see me the Monday after New Year’s.”
That whole holiday season was snow, snow and almost blizzard weather. That Monday, I had a Jeep with snow tires so I went into the office early as usual, knowing none of my people would probably come to work. My book did show a Victoria Wise in for an interview. I did not figure she would show up. About eight, a car pulled up out front and in waltzed Miss Wise who took off her coat and sat down in the lowest chair she could find, wearing the shortest shirt dress I had ever seen. She crossed those long, long beautiful legs. There wasn’t any place else I could look.
“Glad to see you. Nice of you to come out in this weather.”
She said she had a friend who had snow tires on her car and had brought her out. She was now sitting in the outer office. Victoria was one sharp, sharp lady. She had a good resume. A scholarship to Middle Tennessee State University, worked with Revlon out of New York as a beauty consultant traveling and teaching salespeople. She quit Revlon to move to Nashville where she was born and raised. She had family in Lawrenceburg. Currently working at the new Country Music Association Hall of Fame and Museum, she wanted a chance in the music industry. In high school she played clarinet and had been a drum majorette and she had some music knowledge.
She was very well-qualified and probably just the person I was looking for. We agreed on the terms and conditions. She wanted to do public relations and artist relations. She would report to me. We would build a special office for her on the second floor. I was due in Las Vegas, leaving Wednesday, to attend the James Brown show opening at Caesar’s Palace’s big room that weekend. I thought it was a good idea to take Victoria along to break her in.
But there were two problems. She still had her job and she had a boyfriend. Her job at the CMA would be no problem. I was now a vice president and director of CMA and her boss would be happy to see one of his girls get a chance. Victoria went into the next office, closed the door and talked to her boyfriend on the telephone. He was not happy with her deal. Even so, she came back into my office and said “Okay.”
My plan was that Jim Wilson—who had left King to join me in Nashville—Victoria, and I would leave on American Airlines Wednesday morning by the way of Cincinnati, to pick up Jim’s girlfriend and then fly on to Vegas. I had the premium guest suite at Caesar’s and rooms for my people. She and Jim’s girlfriend would share a room.
James Brown was the “hottest act in the industry”. He had hit after hit and sold out shows on tour. I had chartered a special flight from Hollywood to Vegas and my guests were Hedda Hopper, the Hollywood Reporter, Billboard, Variety and others. It would be a gala night. We held a preshow special James Brown reception in my suite.
Victoria was a little late getting to the reception, dressed in a beautiful short skirt, long legs, stunning. Wow. But I told her, “No way.” She was working. I sent her back to her room to change into something more businesslike. Victoria, in all the years to come, never forgave me.
Col. Parker, an old friend of mine and Elvis Presley’s manager, had a special personal booth directly in front of the stage. He was at James Brown’s opening reception and invited Victoria and me to be his guests in his booth for the show. I had not gone to that afternoon’s rehearsal. I knew the James Brown show by heart. It was basically the “Live at the Apollo Show” which I had produced. I had seen it many times.
Showtime. The curtain went up. I went into total shock. James Brown’s 12-piece band with Bobby Byrd and the girl singers were all staged out in front of a full 24-piece orchestra with its own conductor. The orchestra opened the show with “I Feel Good.” James came out on stage dressed in a black silk tuxedo and not his usual cape. He had good opening applause, and then not much of anything. He was “bombing.” James Brown had that pure instinct of a great performer, to improvise, and all of a sudden on “Fever,” the James Brown’s band took over from the big orchestra and were doing the Apollo show. The orchestra members were good Vegas musicians, could play anything so they picked up their James Brown version and joined in “jamming.”
I ran upstairs to the control room and called the lights and sound for an Apollo show. Thank God, all Vegas show room technicians are adaptable to emergencies. This was an emergency. The customers never knew what happened. They loved it! Soon some were up dancing in their chairs, others in the aisles. I had never seen such a show in the big room, even Elvis. My Hollywood guests were enthralled with the “Godfather of Soul.” After the show I took them backstage to meet and greet Mr. Brown. By this time James insisted on being addressed as Mr. Brown. The entourage loved him. He was at his best. The evening was a huge success.
The original contract was for two weeks; however, we all agreed to cut it to one week. The date was a success. It opened the door for me to book more of my artists, Redd Fox and the Wayne Cochran CC Riders band into a Caesar’s lounge for very early 4 a.m. shows.
James took his private plane to Hollywood to regroup. Bobby Byrd and the others followed on their bus. They had no trouble and booked into a Los Angeles club. Victoria and I went to Hollywood for a week of meetings. She took to her job and soon was pretty much her own boss when we got back to Nashville.
Next I went to London, and our sales hit bottom. We had no hits. I called Jim Wilson and said, “Jim, I’m stuck here for at least a week or so. You better cut back where ever you can and hold the fort ‘til I return.” This was the same old record business. “Hot today, cold tomorrow, hot again.”
First thing Jim did was to lay off some people. Victoria Wise was the last hired so she was the first to go. When I got back I called her. She was furious. She always did have a bad mouth and knew the words. She hung up on me. So be it. She had two weeks’ pay coming. Victoria’s girl roommate was one of my artists with some merit but had no hits yet. She was in the office, and I told her I had Victoria’s check, but she would have to come and get it.
Victoria came in. We made peace. But she had taken a job with her friend Ellen Tune as a bus tour guide of Nashville. She was good because she knew the stars, the gossip and Music Row. She was doing okay.
I was involved with the Beach Boys. Their manager, a bachelor, was in Nashville visiting me. He wanted to “go out and do the Strip.” I called Victoria and her friend to invite them to go out with us. We would pick them up about seven. That night began a complication: the girls went to the store and locked themselves out. They had to climb up the balcony to get in through a window. When we got there they were not yet dressed.
The plan was for Victoria to team up with Roger and sit in the back and Sarah and I would sit in the front. But Sarah jumped in back with Roger. Victoria had to sit in the front with me. That was the pattern for the night. We ended up at Boots Randolph’s club. It was a good fun night, though it was cold and wintry. Victoria and I found we had much in common.
Jim and I had to go to Cincinnati and would stay at a new inn close to King. Victoria knew all the Cincinnati people and hadn’t been there in a long time. I asked her if she would like to go, and she agreed. We got in late and went directly to the inn. My room was on the first floor in back facing the pool. Jim’s room was across the hall. About five in the morning the fire alarms went off. Jim Wilson was running up and down the hall knocking on all the doors yelling fire.
Smoke was coming under my door. Victoria and I soaked towels, packed them around the door, dressed in our sheepskins and cowboy hats and went outside. People on the second floor could only get their patio doors partially opened and were calling down to us. The smoke was billowing. The fire trucks arrived. There was more smoke and commotion than danger. A man on the first floor, across from me, had fallen asleep with a lighted cigarette. The first floor was cleared, and we went back to our rooms.
Mary and I still lived on the lake. She loved her house, her dogs, and her friends. Mary never went into town and hated the music business. We had drifted apart. Victoria and I started hanging out together. It just happened. She liked the clothes, the travel, and the music business. We liked many of the same things and had the same friends. Victoria was very independent; however, we were each still going our own way. She still worked with Ellen Tune and was doing very well.

Club V-Vampire

The French Quarter and its mystique enticed Alphine.

New Orleans librarian Alphine was intrigued by two things in life: the dangerous vampire lifestyle of the French Quarter and Ralph, the quiet, shy young man who shelved books at the library.
After she left work on Friday afternoon, she decided to drop by the neighborhood drugstore to buy a new scent of perfume for her escapade in the French Quarter Saturday night. Inside the store, which looked entirely too modern for its surroundings, Alphine found a modest selection of perfumes, none of them satisfactory. An array of the best brands was locked in a glass case.
Catching her eye was a bottle of perfume worn by her mother’s late aunt Ticey. When Alphine and her parents attended the funeral for Ticey’s husband, she asked her great aunt the name of the scent. Cavort, Ticey replied. It came in a black bottle.
Alphine had only met her aunt Ticey two or three times at family reunions. Ticey looked and smelled like she always enjoyed a good time, which evidently was the reason Alpine’s mother had never invited her to dinner into her sanctuary of piety. If that perfume could put such a happy face on Ticey, that was the perfume for Alphine.
Looking around for a store clerk, she spotted an elderly woman, spraying Windex on the next counter and vigorously wiping it off with a paper towel. Alphine walked to her.
“Excuse me, ma’am, I’m interested in one of the perfumes in the locked glass cabinet.”
“Let me get the key,” the clerk said without lifting her head. “I’ll meet you over there.”
The voice sounded familiar, and Alphine could not quite place it. When the old woman arrived with key, Alphine’s eyes widened when she saw the clerk’s face.
“Madame Du Baucherie!”
Unlocking the case, the woman laughed. “Oh dear me. What a name. And which perfume are you interested in?”
“I know you! You’re the lady at Vamporium in the French Quarter!”
The old woman, dressed in a light blue skirt and white lace blouse, lifted her withered finger to her pale lips and shushed the young lady.
“Oh dear me, no. My name is Bessie Jones.”
Alphine recognized the black fingernail polish. “Of course. You’re right. Perhaps I made a mistake. I’m sorry. Let’s see, I want Cavort. It’s in the black bottle.”
“Yes, miss.”
The old woman brought it to Alphine, opened it to let her sniff the scent.
“Do you recommend this particular perfume?” Alphine asked.
“My gracious. I’m just a drugstore clerk. I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to purchase.”
Alphine handed her the credit card. The clerk ran it through the machine and handed it back with a sweet smile. “Now, you have a blessed day.”
On her way home she drove by the Vamporium where she had bought the dress. The sign was down, replaced with a Realtor sign. For sale. She stopped her car, got out and went to peer into the window. The shop was bare.
Out of curiosity, Alphine drove by Club V-Vampire to make sure it was still there. It was, but rather pedestrian looking in the sunlight. An old man swept the sidewalk and then rearranged the wrought-iron table and chairs in front to make sure they looked just right for the revelry that night.