Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Friday, September 19, 2014

At The Hop





In the late 50s and early 60s the big thing to do on the weekends was going to record hops.  Today they remember them as “Sock Hops”.   Back then I never even heard the term.  They were called record hops.  And they were everywhere every weekend.  Grade schools, high schools, dance clubs, special dances.   It’s got to sound bizarre now for today’s generation right?  “Hops”.  What pictures does that conjure up?  People hopping around.  Bouncing up and down.  What kind of brainless fun would that be? 

 Understand that even though the public thought all of us on the air were millionaires, the fact is there were only a very few making enough to survive.  The rest had to have another way to earn more money.  That was the reason so many got caught in the payola purge.  Stations not paying anything.  Using the glamor of being on the air and the local celebrity it brought as their excuse not to pay enough.  DJs just found other ways.  One of them was the Record Hop.

If a school was going to have a Hop, someone would call the station and book a DJ to appear and run it for them.  The DJs had all the latest records, would line up a local band to play, and would actually come to the school and MC the whole thing.   And here’s where the music business came in. 

Recording artists were always on promotional tours to promote their records.  Those hard working music  Promo Guys in town needed to get airplay so those artists, big and small were brought around to all the Record Hops at no charge to anyone!  And they all came.  Think of it.  A small school dance might have The Supremes, Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Rolling Stones,  and others appearing at their “Hop”.  No charge.  The acts were brought to dance and most times would “lip Synch” their records.  You know what that means right?  The DJ would play the record and the artist would just mouth the words.  If the sound system was good it looked and sounded great.


I never did many "Record Hops".  Couldn’t.  I was on the air at night.  But there were opportunities.

Once in late 1960 I was approached by three policemen from Redford Township, Michigan.  They had been holding Record Hops at the local UAW 182 Union Hall.  They were planning something bigger and wanted me to promote it on the air and MC the event.   I said no.  They kept after me.  I decided to give them a price they would have to refuse.  “Six hundred dollars”, I said.  They agreed.  “Six Hundred it is”.

 The dance was to be held at the Riverside Roller Arena in Plymouth Michigan in a few weeks and they wanted to know could I get a night off from the station and do it?  I needed the six hundred and besides I had never done this before.  I agreed.  Instead of paying me more money the station had already agreed to allow me a little slack now and then.  I did the dance.

Riverside Arena could hold about two thousand people for a dance.  I promoted it for about three weeks.  I said it was a big dance, there would be bands etc., and of course I would be there in person.  Understand now that I had never appeared at any of these things. 

Never.

I mean I had been on the air at WJBK and now WKMH for a couple of years, but I was not a household name.   I was a crazy man on the air to be sure.  Blowing horns, throwing things at the studio walls, breaking records on the air.  Turning the turntables off, letting them freewheel and slowly run down until they sounded like a low growl o the air.  Pulling needles across records.  All wild and nuts!  The ratings were showing that I was beating WXYZ Radio that was the big station, but I thought sure that was a fluke. 

The dance started at 7PM on a Saturday night.  There were no special big name acts in town so it was going to be some local bands, records, and me.  That’s it.  I convinced the three police to hire another guy to actually spin the records so I could to my act without having to stand there and physically play the music.  The record spinner was a friend of mine who also worked at the station.  He started at 7PM when the place opened. I arrived at 7:30 and couldn’t believe my eyes.

First off, I couldn’t get any closer to Riverside than about two blocks.  Traffic was backed up everywhere.  Stopped.  The people knew they weren’t going anywhere so they were all standing outside their cars in the middle of the streets laughing,  talking, and waiting for a miracle to clear the way.   I parked where I could and schlepped my way to the dance.  People were lined up 8 deep trying to get in.  Inside the first thing I saw was a total mob.  A sea of people trying to dance but when one moved they all had to move the same way.  They were stacked next to each other like dominoes.  If one falls they all go.   Standing next to the door was a man in uniform.  His shirt said: “Fire Marshall”.  I wanted nothing to do with that so I worked my way around the edge of the floor to the stage.  The music was loud and despite the crush everyone was having a ball.  Literally! 

Pretty soon I was recognized by one and then all.  There were loud screams and applause.  As I got up on the makeshift stage people were yelling;  “LEE – LEE – LEE – LEE”.  “Hey Lee, where’s your Horn.  Hey Lee”.  You couldn’t hear the music anymore, just the people.  I soon realized that all this commotion was for me.  And that was the first time I ever looked into their eyes.  My listener’s eyes.

I had never seen more than one or two of them at a time.  In a store, on the street somewhere.  Never like this.  They weren’t just yelling.  There was love in that room.   I could feel it and I could see it.  They hugged me, shook my hand, wanted me to say some of the things that I’d been saying on the air.  They hung on every word.  Where did all these people come from and why were they so excited about seeing me?  That night I realized the power of radio and what happens when you love your audience and they know it.  And I did love them, then and now.

The night was a blur.  First thing I knew the dance was over.  I played the last song, a slow dance so they could all hold each other and let it end.  Before they left I was mobbed.  Nicely mobbed.  Hugged, patted on the back, touched.  It was new and thrilling to me.


I went to the office where the police promoters were counting money and talking.  When I entered the little room there were about 12 people there.  “Hey Lee, how’d  it go?”,  said a burly guy seated at the only desk in the room.  The others were sitting on kitchen type chairs just laughing and talking.  It was obvious to me that everyone was happy with the turnout.  “Fantastic Lee, we had a full house.  Great show Lee”. 

 I didn’t know a soul in the room except for the policeman with the money and no one was talking to me, not even acknowledging my presence.  I guessed that the others were police too.  There was something strange going on here.  For the last three hours hundreds of people were lined up just to talk with me.  In this room, except for the big guy behind the desk I could have been invisible.  Next to the big guy were neat stacks of money from the night’s box office and a large gun.

I thought the gun was because of all the money.   I said, ‘OK. Everything was good and thank you very much.”  And he gave me $100.  “A hundred dollars?  Our deal was $600.  What’s going on here.” I said.   He put his hand on that gun and said, “You better take the hundred and leave.  These guys here will help you to your car.  Wouldn’t want anyone to take it away from you.”  And he put his hand on the gun and just let it move toward him a little.  I decided that I had no friends in this room and left.  Fast.

That dance and those hoodlums disguised as legitimate police would come back to haunt me almost preventing me from ever working at WXYZ.....  And that's another story....
Regards - Lee Alan

Friday, March 8, 2013

Friends

When I was in Las Vegas for a couple of years and more recently in Los Angeles I learned something about radio and television.  In Vegas and LA the radio is on, programs are running, talk is talking, music is playing, but no one seems to care.  In general the people on the air are very good.  Professional.  Under the ratings gun.  Formatics are tight.  Playlists are strict.  Everyone reaching for listeners.  Television personalities in those cities are the same. Moving fast, looking cool, and after the ratings.

Detroit has always been different.  Oh the ratings battle is the same, formats are strict and have been over the years; but there is something different about the people.  I don't mean people on the air.  I mean people who listen and watch.  In the Detroit market, in the past and to some extent now we hold those on the air to a different standard.  A standard generally held for people who are our friends.

I have been around long enough to appreciate this difference.  Many of the people we hear and see every day are our friends.  We may never have met them face to face, but they are more than voices and faces. They are there in our ears, radios, TVs.  They ride with us to and from school and work.  They are not strangers.

The list of examples I can think of would take most of Google's space, but I'd like to mention a few.  JP McCarthy wasn't just some roving air personality reading the cue cards.  He was our friend.  What he said and what he did made a difference to us.  We could depend on him to be there every morning.  "Good Morning World".  JP (Joe) was a personal friend of mine but his "on the air" friends were legion.  People cared about him.  The day he passed the city basically shut down.  We all mourned.  It was a personal loss to thousands who had never met him face to face. 

All the years that Bill Bonds was on the air.  Controversial, outspoken, unafraid to tackle the tough subjects he was Detroit.  He was our friend.  A personal friend.

Erik Smith has been a friend of hundreds of thousands of Michigan people ever since I can remember when he and I worked together so many years ago.  Then one morning for his friends - no Erik Smith. His choice to not go along with unreasonable management  edicts.  Where is my friend ?

What if someone in your family just suddenly disappeared ? Gone.  How would you feel.  What would you think ?   For most of our radio and television who disappear why do stations even allow them to depart without saying goodbye or celebrating with listeners/viewers the times they had together?  It  used to be that management was skittish about what they might say or do before the curtain finally came down  So they were noven mentioned again.  Just gone.   In my early days in radio during the payola s purge I received many calls from management at WJBK Radio saying, "Come in to the station  and do Tom Clay's ( or Don McLeod's other's) program/show and DON'T MENTION THEIR NAME (S).  So the listeners react.  "What ?  Where is my friend?'

The problem is that when the national conglomerates that own today's stations send in managers from out of town they do not understand "FRIENDS".  They make what their experience tells them is good strategic shuffling of people without a clue that in Detroit on air talent is only part of the reason we watch and listen.  The rest of the reason is that those people on the air were with us growing up, falling in love, raising a family, part of us.  They are our friends.  The out of town radio and TV gunslingers come from areas where none of that exists---just like I experienced in Vegas and LA. 

And who could forget Ernie.  No need to even write the last name.  He was not the machine gun sports guy giving "brought to you bys" every minute.  He was right there with us on a warm summer day.  He was everywhere.  In our back yards, cars, work place.  No need to worry about missing anything when you went shopping.  There Ernie was in every store.  Even if it wasn't loud enough to understand what he was saying, the voice was there.  The unmistakable voice  a warm and close trusted friend.

There are scores of others.  It depends on your age and era if you remember them.  But if you do each name brings back a memory.  A mental picture.  Robin Seymour, Don McLeod, Clark Reid, Paul Winter, Fred Wolf, Dave Diles, Dave Shafer, Dave Prince, Dick Purtan, Bob Green, Erik Smith, Ralph Binge and Joe Gentile, Marc Avery, Joel Sebastian, Dick Osgood, John Kelly & Marilyn Turner, Soupy, Bud Guest, Lou Gordon, Bill Kennedy, Sonny Eliot, Don Zee, Jim Davis,  Arthur Pennhallow, Jim Harper, Mickey Shorr, Ed McKenzie, Deano Day, Jac Legoff, Jerry Goodwin, Byron MacGregor, Jim Hampton, Tom McIntyre, Jim Rockwell, Ross Mullholand, Bob Maxwell, Tom Clay, Barney Stutesman, Rita Bell, Johnny Ginger, Charley Park, Deano Day, and the list goes on.  I know I have missed a few hundred.   All friends who were,  or are part of our lives and who made personal impact with us.

Not so in other cities.  Most have names that are quickly forgotten. I honestly do not remember the names of more than one or two in Las Vegas and that's only because I worked with them while producing The Frank Sinatra Story on the radio there.

Things are rapidly changing for radio and television these days, but its always been that way.  The stations have always had formats, rules, operational procedures for everyone to follow.  However those people we remember and became friends had the unique ability to follow all the rules, stay within the format, and somehow still reach out through the speaker or tube and invade our souls.

Other cities and states have a marvelous Hall of Fame for radio and television people who have made their special lasting mark.  Not as personal as our "Detroit Friends" but they have a Hall of Fame that recognizes their talent and work.

Not so in Detroit.  Oh the Michigan Association of Broadcasters has its Hall, but they are mostly managers, sales people, owners, VPs, etc., rarely recognizing the on air talent that made it all happen and made their election  to the Hall possible .

So sad there is  no Hall of Fame for them  -  however unlike any other city - they were/are our  Friends
See This Site:  www.leealancreative.com/friends
Thanks for "Listening"
Lee Alan









Thursday, January 17, 2013

Thomas L. Washington - American

There is much talk and great debate these days concerning the 2nd Amendment to our Constitution.  Almost no one knows the reason it is there and shall remain. 

Tom Washington was a true friend of everyone in Michigan. For decades he was the reason that the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) even existed. He was a lifetime advocate of the wise use of our natural resources and in his capacity as  Executive Director of MUCC Tom almost single handedly was responsible for initiating and getting  "The Bottle Bill"  issue on the Michigan ballot in the 1976 election.  It passed and as a result vacuumed the state of throwaway carbonated beverage container trash..

I was proud to work with Tom and the team that helped to win the vote and pass the issue. Tom was personally responsible for much of what Michigan Outdoors is today. We worked together on many other issues.  I  MCd MUCC's Outdorrama Show and handled the advertising and marketing for him nearly 15 years.  He was the definition of an outdoors man and a Constitutional scholar. I once asked Tom what was the purpose of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution.

He answered: "Simple Lee,  the purpose is to protect us from the Federal Government".

In a pamphlet urging ratification of the Constitution and of the 2nd amendment Noah Webster said:

"Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe."

In a widely reprinted article by Tench Coxe, an ally and correspondent of James Madison, he described the Second Amendment's overriding goal:

"as a check upon the national government's standing army: As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the next article in their right to keep and bear their private arms."

For many years as a conservation leader Tom Washington was a member of the NRA.. There came a time in the mid 1990s  when he actually became the President of the NRA. He was a moderating, level headed voice and influence in the organization.

In May of 1995 it was Tom who received the letter from former President George Herbert Walker Bush resigning from the NRA. In the letter President Bush said in part:

"I was outraged when, even in the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, Mr. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of N.R.A., defended his attack on federal agents as "jack-booted thugs. To attack Secret Service agents or A.T.F. people or any government law enforcement people as wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms and wanting to attack law abiding citizens is a vicious slander on good people."

Although the letter was written in the first week of May it was published in the newspapers on May 11, 1995.  Read the entire letter  Here

Tom Washington, whose unpaid N.R.A. position was largely honorary, was not always as outspoken as some N.R.A. members would have liked.  Some would say he was a moderating voice.  Still, he did his duty. As President of the NRA it was Tom's  task to answer the former President and point out  the reasons for the NRA rhetoric and government's vicious intrusion time and time again on innocent people. Thus demonstrating the purpose and reasons behind the framers of the 2nd amendment.

Thomas L. Washington will forever be known for his eloquent, pointed, yet respectful answer to former President Bush.

This was his letter:   The Letter

P.S.  Tom Washington lived in Lansing, 70 miles from Southfield, Michigan. He had never met my mother or father. During the memorial service for my Dad when I lost him in March of 1985 I turned around to look at those attending.  There,  at the back of the church all by himself was Tom.  Six weeks later when my mother passed there was a memorial at the same church.  There,  in the same seat in the back was Tom. 

Six months after his reply to the former president while hunting with his son in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan my friend suffered a heart attack that a few weeks later took his life. He was 58 years old. I spoke through tears at his funeral in Lansing, Michigan.  May God Bless him in Heaven.









Sunday, December 4, 2011

SEEING RED



Excerpt from the book:
"Other Days" (Published soon)
by Lee Alan

First Book "Turn Your Radio On"

Sometime in 1963 I was able to take my first vacation in memory. I was working at WXYZ radio in Detroit and had two weeks, so my wife and I took off and drove to Las Vegas. That’s right, we drove!
No freeways then right?
So there we were driving on what now is the fabled Route 66.

How did the words go?
“If you ever plan to motor west take the highway take the byway that’s the best. Get your kicks on Route 66”.

Well, the kicks were long but we made it in one piece and checked in at the also fabled Sands Hotel. I don’t remember much about the days we spent there except for one afternoon when I stood in the casino playing the quarter slot machine.

In those days the slot machine took real coins, in this case quarters and when anyone won even a few coins they made a loud crashing noise as the machine dumped them into the metal tray that caught them. You could hear that sound all over the casino and you could tell if someone was a big winner by how long the crashing lasted.

Also in the 60s the slot machines or one-armed bandits were not electronic like they are today. They actually get their name because of the handle on the right side of the machine that you had to pull to spin the wheels, One handle, one arm, one pull, one spin. All mechanical. One thing hasn’t changed. Electronic or mechanical you seldom win, thus the One Armed Bandit.

Also, the slot machines were only about chest high and they were back to back. You could stand at your machine and look directly at the person playing the machine in the next isle facing you.

So there I was pulling the handle with not much happening when this tall red headed smiling man stopped at the machine in the next isle facing me.

It was the great comedian Red Skeleton himself. He was the headliner that week in the Copa Room, the main showroom at the Sands. I pretended not to recognize him and just kept on playing my quarters. He was doing the same thing. Both of us pulling the handle and both spinning the wheels. There was one big difference.

When I pulled the handle it was disaster. Nothing! But it seemed that each time Red Skelton pulled the handle he’d win. Crash, clink, clink, clink I could hear his winnings dropping into the metal tray.

Soon people started recognizing who was playing and a fairly large crowd gathered to watch this marvelous red headed clown play the slot machine. And soon they started to laugh. I’d pull and nothing! He’d pull and Crash, clink, clink, clink quarters in the tray. The more I’d lose, the more he’d win, and the louder the crowd would laugh.

I mean every time Red Skelton pulled that handle, clink and crash, clank he’s a winner! It was really starting to get to me. I was about to quit, but when I looked up again Red was gone and the crowd was dispersing. I turned to go myself when I saw this wonderful and famous clown walking toward me in my isle.

“Sir”, he said with a smile so huge it would break anyone else’s face. “My name is Red Skelton”. As if everyone in the world back then didn’t know it. I mumbled something and he went on: “Sir I came to apologize. You see Sir, he said, I was having a little fun with you and I hope I didn’t embarrass you too much.”

By this time I was totally confused. He went on: “You see when we were playing the slot machines, every time you pulled the handle and lost, I lost too. The difference was that when I pulled the handle I had a handful of quarters. When the wheels stopped I threw them as hard as I could into the metal tray so they would make a noise loud enough for you to hear.

Unbelievable!
Red explained further: “The crowd wasn’t laughing at me at all. They were laughing at the frustrated look on your face when I won every time and you lost every time”.

“So Sir”, he said, “please be my guest for dinner and tonight’s show. I will have a front table waiting for you”. And with that, Red Skelton like his Clem Kadiddlehopper character, known to the world as the sentimental clown, looked at me, eyes sparkling, smiling, shook my hand, turned and left.

WXYZ Radio and Channel 7 television was located in a marvelous building known as Broadcast House in Southfield, Michigan. It had everything one could imagine including its own cafeteria in a separate small house on grounds.

One day, 5 years after the incident in Las Vegas I wanted lunch but didn’t want the hassle and same old conversation in the station cafeteria so I jumped in the car and went to a nearby Howard Johnson’s. It was mid afternoon and there was no one in the place except for me and another man sitting in a booth way at the back.

Right! It was Red Skelton. All by himself just having lunch. By this time in my career I had met almost everyone from the Beatles to Elvis. But I found myself approaching that table like a star struck fan to try and get his autograph in my notebook, and at the same time asking what he was doing here in this empty old restaurant. ?

Red Skelton was one of the greatest painters of clowns who ever lived. I didn't bother reminding him of our encounter years earlier in Vegas. How could he possibly remember anyway I thought. He said he was here to show some of his collection on a television show across the street at Broadcast House "With someone by the name of Marilyn Turner. Sure I’ll sign your book”. And he did. We exchanged some small talk, I thanked him and said goodbye.

I went back to the station and watched as Marilyn Turner, my friend and co host of Kelly & Company on Channel 7 in Detroit interviewed Red and showed his wonderful paintings.
I didn’t look at that autograph for a few days. When I finally opened the notebook I read what he wrote.

“Thanks, Best Wishes. . . . and May God Bless "
Signed: RED SKELTON
PS:
"Lee. if you ever go back to Las Vegas ....stay away from those quarter machines”.
He remembered the time in Vegas…………

The world lost this wonderful clown in 1997.
I never again met him in person
But through a strange set of ciscumstances our paths are about to cross once more.
Film at eleven.... and May God Bless.

Lee Alan

Saturday, August 20, 2011

When Norman Brooks brought Al Jolson to the Party


Excerpt from the Book: "Other Days" (Published Soon)
by Lee Alan

NORMAN

As a boy growing up in Detroit I was addicted to music, any kind of music. I was part of anything that was music at Cooley High School, singing with other high school people from all over Detroit every Saturday on “Make Way For Youth” a half hour show on CBS radio. At home, although most time wanting to be outside playing baseball or something, I was taking piano lessons and practicing at least a half hour a day. Music meant a lot to me and was a window to new adventures. Still is. And I loved musicals. Movie musicals.

One of them that kept coming back into the theaters was The Jolson Story and its sequel, Jolson Sings Again. They were the semi true stories revolving around the life of Al Jolson, arguably the greatest singing showman and entertainer of the first half of the 20th century maybe of all time. He had a stage presence and a rich voice like none other before or since.

Recently I watched Britain’s Got Talent; a TV show in England and like everyone else was floored when 47 year old Susan Boyle appeared in uncombed hair and a wrinkled dress saying she wanted to be a professional singer. You know the story. The judges and everyone in the audience laughed at her, rolled their eyes, and dismissed her as a mental case. Until she started to sing! Within a few notes everything changed. That voice! Like none other. At this writing more than 25 million people have viewed and listened on the Internet.

Only a few in musical history have been able to stun an audience like that. Al Jolson was one of them. He was the king of entertainers and the toast of Broadway. When he insisted that the Wintergarden Theater sacrifice a hundred seats and replace them with a runway from the stage out into the audience they branded him as nuts! His reason? He wanted to get closer to the audience. He wanted to see their faces. Touch them. Sing to them. He loved them and they loved him. I can understand that. In my own small way I have always felt love from an audience. Because all the other entertainers on Broadway were working their shows during the week they rarely had a chance to see Jolson. So typical of Al, he invited them all to the Wintergarden on Sunday nights when they were off. And they all came, the famous and, not so famous. And Jolson sang to them. Nothing else, no other acts, just Jolson singing on Sunday nights, and using the runway to get closer. House lights up to see their faces.

I must have seen The Jolson Story and the sequel a hundred times back then. Even today I watch them over and over whenever they find their way to cable TV or the Internet. Jolson sang in those movies, but when they were made he was already in his 60s and there was no way he could play a young Jolson on screen. So Larry parks, a young actor played the part, lip synching to Jolson’s singing.

There was one scene in the original movie where Jolson actually appeared as himself. It was the Wintergarden Theater. On that runway. Find it. Look closely. A long camera shot shows the real Jolson dancing, whistling, and singing “Toot Toot Tootsie”. Far enough away you can’t see his aging features. The voice was there though in both the movies. And what a voice it was.
I will never forget that voice. Never.

Many years later in 1959 as a very young radio personality on WJBK Radio in Detroit, Michigan I was doing the all night show. There was an emerging new singer by the name of Norman Brooks. The station had been playing some of his music on the air. He had a hit song. “Hello Sunshine, Goodbye Rain”. Actually Norman had a few hit songs and was well known on the night club circuit and some of the main rooms in Las Vegas.
His voice was a total clone of Al Jolson!
As I said, Jolson was a favorite of mine. I knew a lot about him and his career. And so naturally I was a huge fan of Norman Brooks.

A time came when Norman was performing at the Elmwood Casino in Windsor, Ontario a magnificent nightclub just across the river from Detroit. I knew his music, was amazed at his delivery, and so made arrangements for him to come to the studio after one of his late night performances for a live interview. I found him to be a delightful person. As we spoke that night I played a lot of his music on the air.

I asked him: "Norman, you have a terrific voice. You don't speak like Jolson (Jolson had a sort of drawling almost southern accent and Norman had a slight French Canadian accent) why is it that you always imitate Jolson when you sing?" I have never forgotten his answer.

He said: “Well Lee, fact is I don’t always do Jolson. You have never seen me perform in person. My records sound like him, but I do a lot more on the live stage." When the interview ended. We shook hands and he left.

I wouldn’t see him again for nearly 20 years.

I was in the advertising business then. Tom Navin, one of the sales people who worked for me met with Jack Douglas, an auto dealer in Chicago to sell him on our company and one of our creative campaigns for radio. Jack didn't want anything we had, but said he'd listen to any new ideas we might come up with. Tom showed me the the dealer's newspaper ad with a picture of the dealership. It was a beautiful building and out of place for Chicago. The caption below the picture said:
“THE SHOWPLACE FOR CHEVROLET. “
It gave me an idea.

What happened next would become a new chapter in my life.
After seeing the SHOWPLACE caption to that picture I thought of Al Jolson. What if Jolson could sing a commercial jingle about The Showplace for Chevrolet? Well, Jolson was not among the living. He died in 1950 so that was impossible.

Or was it?

Even though I hadn't seen or heard much about Norman Brooks in nearly 20 years his name came to mind.

I went into my studio and created a 5 minute tape with parts of 7 songs edited together, one after another. Two of them were Jolson. The other five were Norman Brooks!
I went to Chicago and met with the management team of Jack Douglas Chevrolet. There were 9 of them in the room. I asked them this specific question:

“WHO WAS THE GREATEST SINGING SHOWMAN OF ALL TIME?”

One said Sinatra. Two others said Elvis. The remaining 6 said Al Jolson. I then told them that I wanted to remind them of how Jolson sounded and I played the tape. They all enjoyed it, sang with it, and clapped their hands. One guy even got down on his knees like Jolson did when he sang his “Mammy” songs, etc. When it was over I said that I had forgotten to tell them that of the 7 songs they just heard; only two were Jolson. The other five were another voice.
They were astonished, didn’t believe me, and wanted to hear it again. I rolled the tape. Even then they were unable to identify the correct voices.

I told them my story about Norman Brooks some 20 years earlier and made a proposal to write a piece of commercial music entitled THE SHOWPLACE FOR CHEVROLET and do my best to find Norman Brooks to sing it, just like Al Jolson. It would be their commercial in Chicago. Al Jolson singing on the radio advertising their dealership!! They were excited, agreed and bought the concept, providing I could find Norman Brooks and also that he could still sing.

The search was on. It took me three months to find Norman.
He had disappeared. This was 1979. His hit records were a thing of the past and there was no sign of him anywhere. I thought possibly he had died.

I called every entertainment venue and talent agent available in the US. No one knew where we could find him. Some never heard of him. Then I remembered our original interview back in 1959 when Norman told me he was from Canada. I remembered that accent. For some reason I started calling talent and booking agencies in Toronto. Finally an old lady at one of them told me I should call someone in Montreal. I did. I found him.

We talked on the phone for the longest time. He didn't remember me; but it made no difference. He was down on his luck. Like so many of us his big time career was over or at least on hold. I told him of the Chicago project and proposed that he meet me in Memphis, Tennessee to produce the music and that I wanted him to sing it. We made the financial agreement right there on the phone.

I wrote the music, contacted my friends Garry Wells and Pete Pederson in Memphis, Jack Douglas at the dealership in Chicago and we set the date. Jack insisted on coming for the session and bringing his management team as well. They were curious and wanted to make sure of what I was telling them about Norman and his voice. Frankly I think they were a little suspect.

When I arrived in Memphis a week or so later I cornered Garry Wells my old friend and creative director of the William B. Tanner Company where I had been producing my music for many years.

Garry had been a singer in his earlier years, touring with bands, and recording music. His rich baritone voice was like new crystal. His range was like few others I have heard. He was the singer on possibly a hundred of the musical pieces that I produced there in Memphis; a man of great creative ability, empathy, and feeling for friends and people, and totally understood what I was trying to accomplish with Norman. We were trying to take advantage of nostalgia, memories, and a unique voice.

Garry Wells had a carved wooden plaque on his desk. It read:
“Capture their hearts……….and their minds will follow”
I have never forgotten that creative principle. I believe it to this day. Whatever the day is that you are reading this, even if I am long absent from the earth I still believe it.

Garry and I went over everything with Pete Pedersen the arranger. Pete might possibly have been the finest arranger and harmonica player ever. His musical background included, among other things, playing and arranging for Jerry Murad’s Harmonicats and the biggest harmonica hit of all time, “Peg O My Heart”. Pete was another of those geniuses that God has allowed me to know and learn from.

The instrumental session started about 7PM. Jack Douglas and his management team were there with us…..watching. Listening. And I must say, skeptical. The orchestrations were always produced before the singer did anything. First the rhythm instruments, then horns, strings etc. It took a few hours for us to build the band tracks. A limo was sent to the airport to pick up Norman. He arrived at the studio about 11PM, met everyone, listened to the tracks and we all went to dinner. Memphis Bar B Que. Best in the world. He was scheduled to sing the next morning.

Conversation among the musicians, producers, clients and us was cordial. It was just dinner. All were anticipating.
So many were there who would become valued friends. Musical geniuses all. Dee Barton performer drummer and trombone player for the Stan Kenton organization among them.

The next morning was something I shall never forget. The studio control room was huge and through a massive glass window looked a full story down into the music studio. I went into the control room with engineers and clients. Garry, Pete and Norman were down in the studio at the piano learning the song. The mikes were not on. We couldn’t hear what they were doing. Mouths moving, but no sound for us.

At one point the control room engineer turned the studio mike on and everyone could hear chords on the piano and Norman just sort of humming the melody and now and then trying the words; but softly, almost in a falsetto.

Jack Douglas and his guys were shocked. They thought what they were hearing was his real voice. They looked at me and said: "What is this? This guy can't even sing, let alone sound like you promised." I told them to relax. They were not happy. I knew what Norman had done in the past, but I must say after all these years even I was wondering.

A few minutes later the engineer rolled the tape with the full band track on the wall; meaning that it was playing through the speakers down in the studio so Norman could hear it. Now he was singing with the full instrumental track; but the mike was still off and we couldn’t hear him, just the orchestration.

After a few minutes Gary and Pete, still down in the studio were happy, climbed the stairs to the control room and told Norman through the talk-back that we were ready to try to record if he was. Standing in front of the mike and a music stand with earphones on he said he was ok and let's go.

In those days the Tanner Company, where this all took place, produced thousands of commercial jingles and music scores every year. They were never really excited about what was happening in the studios. It was old hat. Everyday same stuff. This morning was different. About a hundred people left their desks and offices and crammed into the control room. They all wanted to hear what would happen when Norman Brooks opened his mouth.

The engineer rolled the tape. The band track boomed from the speakers in the control room and Norman was on. Was he ever!

Like what I saw recently on television when Susan Boyle sang, jaws dropped. People turned white, laughed, gasped. All in disbelief. Jack Douglas and his people were in a state of shock. Norman Books was singing. He was at his very best. His voice was better than those old recordings I had played in Chicago. Deeper. Richer. And for the next 45 minutes or so it was more than anyone could have expected ....except for me. For the next 45 minutes Norman Brooks became Al Jolson. I knew what Norman could do all along.

When the recording session was over a few of us went to dinner. We spoke of many things. Careers. Music. Dreams for the future. The usual as I remember. And then it all turned to Norman. That's when I began learning about Norman Brooks, his life, and the path it had taken. Norman told us stories of his career and at its peak how he had even appeared in “Ocean’s Eleven”, the movie with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. We all looked at each other. No one believed him; not even yours truly.

Soon the subject of Jolson was the focus. I learned then how, although he was happy for the Jolson connection, in his heart he really just wanted to be himself. Earlier in the studio Norman became Jolson on the mike only. Not in appearance or with his movements. The physical excitement was not there. But the voice, the voice was there…. not the man.

There in that small restaurant he talked about Al Jolson. He started explaining to us how when George Gershwin wrote the song Swanee, he introduced it at a large outdoor party of a hundred or more people. As Norman told us about this he rose from the table where we sat in that restaurant and sort of backed up until he was on a small dance floor directly front of us, all the time talking and explaining about the song, his voice getting louder as he increased his distance.

As he spoke he seemed to change. Oh he was Norman alright but his spoken voice sparkled and his facial expressions became pronounced. His arms expressing thoughts. He was telling us that when George Gershwin introduced the song Swanee for the first time to the audience at the party he was playing the piano and singing it slowly with no meter or beat. He was singing it as a slow ballad.

Then at that point in the story Norman Brooks actually became Jolson before our very eyes. He looked like him, spoke like him. Moved and gestured like him.

He told us that Al Jolson was in the crowd at that party and when he heard the song he got up from his table, interrupted Gershwin loudly from the back of the crowd yelling something like:

"George.............George that's a great song. I know you wrote it and all that but you need to put some life in it.....you need to give it some rhythm....here George let me show you." Norman was gesturing and speaking exactly as if here were Jolson. Accent and all. We were all floored by this. He was Jolson. For the next few moments he was no longer Norman Brooks.

He was Al Jolson.

At that point, Norman said Jolson went through the crowd, grabbed the sheet music Gershwin had at the piano and started singing Swanee with great panache, a strong up tempo rhythm , and Gershwin soon followed accompanying him on the piano.

While he was telling us this story, as if he was actually Jolson, Norman raced across the dance floor in that little Memphis restaurant he was talking and motioning to an unseen Gershwin, acting out every word and then singing just as he told us Jolson had done. There was an old piano on that dance floor. Hearing all this...someone from the restaurant left his table, went to the piano, and played as Norman Brooks gave one of the most remarkable performances I have ever seen. All for the few of us. Others in that restaurant were totally blown away and didn’t have a clue as to what was going on.

When he was finished there was a silence in the room. The restaurant crowd didn't know what to do. Without warning they had just seen and heard something never before seen and never to be duplicated. We were all stunned.

Then as Al Jolson became Norman Brooks again, smiling and returning to our table there was thunderous cheering and applause. At least as much thunder as a small crowd can produce.

Norman left the next morning after our dinner and his amazing performance. I stayed another day to mix all the parts of the music we recorded and returned to Michigan on the red eye the next evening arriving home about 1AM. I turned on the television, fell asleep and suddenly woke up about 4 o'clock in the morning. The TV was still on and there, unbelievably in front of my eyes, was Norman Brooks on the screen singing. It was a movie. It was Oceans’ Eleven; and there he was just as he told us.

There’s a classic picture of Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and maybe others in Las Vegas standing in front of the Sands Hotel marquee. If you look past the photo at the sign you can make out the name in huge letters:
“NORMAN BROOKS”

Jack Douglas Chevrolet, the Chicago client was happy with the music. It stayed on the air in Chicago for about a year.

A few weeks after we produced it I was addressing a seminar of auto dealers in St Thomas in the Virgin Islands. I played them a number of things including The Showplace for Chevrolet. They too were stunned and 6 of them invited me to visit them at their dealerships in various parts of the country. Meanwhile back in the Detroit, Michigan market I took the music to a friend who also owned a large Dodge Dealership. I asked him for advice. What should I do with this? He said "I want you to produce that for me". And that's how it all started.

I re-wrote lyrics for the same instrumental track for 6 dealerships, called Norman, and met him again in Memphis where he, Garry Wells, and I recorded six more of the same tracks each with new lyrics. We repeated this a few times over the next few months until we were in about 25 cities. Same commercial music, different dealers and lyrics. Norman Brooks was singing again and very popular with our clients. He and Garry became great friends. There was some talk of producing an album with Norman singing the songs Jolson would have sung had he still been alive. We all met at my house one day, Norman, Garry, Pete and I. We gathered around my beloved grand piano and worked at it. It never happened.
Years later I lost that piano; but that’s another story.

Needless to say Norman and I became close friends, frequently calling each other and sometimes just talking as friends do. During one of those phone calls I said to him: "Norman, I have a personal favor to ask."

He listened as I explained that in a few months my mother and father would be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and how I was planning to have a large surprise party for them at my home in West Bloomfield, Michigan. I went on to remind him that in the Jolson Story movie, when his parents celebrated their anniversary Jolson sang to them. He sang The Anniversary Song.
Remember the song? "Oh how we danced on the night we were wed..... "

I asked Norman if he would honor me and my parents, come to my home, perform at the party, and sing that same wonderful song to my mother and father.

Without hesitation he said: "Lee that's easy. The answer is yes".
The months passed. We recorded with him a few more times and then the big day arrived.

There was excitement and hope in Detroit that year in 1980; especially at our house. Mom and Dad were about to get the surprise of their lives. All of their friends and ours were invited. I drove to Canada to bring Evelyn Saunders one of their best friends they hadn’t seen in many years to the party. Dad was born in Dutton Ontario Canada and grew up with Eugene Saunders, the son of the family that owned the lumber mill there. They were schoolmates, athletes together and lifelong friends. Eugene had passed away; Dutton was a town of only about 1,000 people. My grandfather was the town blacksmith, but that’s another story too. Evelyn came to the party. I can still see her excitement when I picked her up in Dutton.

1980 was an election year. Jimmy Carter wasn’t doing too well and there were fierce political battles taking place throughout the land. The prime interest rate was nearly 20 percent. Hostages were being held in Iran. And at the same time our Golden Wedding Anniversary party was to take place, the Republican National Convention was about to open in Detroit.

I contacted the Governor’s office in Michigan, the President’s office at the White House, and the Republicans, and asked them for a letter of congratulations on Mom & Dads 50th.

The letters came. The Governor and President Carter’s letter bore signatures that were stamped. Ronald Reagan, the about to be nominee for President and who was in Detroit for the Republican convention, signed his personally.

I hired my old and dear friend Nate Rondell to gather a little band of musicians to play for the event. Nate was the finest Hammond organ player and keyboard player I have ever known. I met him when he was working in a music store and I was in the market for a Hammond organ. After I heard him play I was sold! I bought the organ and still have it to this day. Nate and I stayed in touch and I started hiring him to play at various functions. He played for me at so many venues I could never count them all including other parties at my home. His personality and smile were riveting and infectious. I can still see him at the organ in front of eight thousand people at Detroit’s State Fair Coliseum mesmerizing audiences at the annual Outdoorama Sport Show that I emceed for nearly 12 years.

Dad loved Dixieland music and Nate’s little band would play for the event.
I don’t remember now the names of all who were there to honor my parents, but there had to be one or two hundred.

The morning of the big day I drove to the airport to pick up Norman Brooks. Norman fulfilled his promise. He came to Detroit. As we drove back to my home in West Bloomfield, Michigan I realized that he had no suitcase; just a large briefcase. I was a bit worried. He was dressed in jeans and a comfortable, but rumpled shirt. No suitcase!
What was he planning on wearing to sing? The thought went away.
Too much to do, too little time.

The rest of the preparation that day is a blur to me now. As far as I know there are no movies or even pictures of the event. At least I don’t have them. So here is what I remember.

The house was frantic. My wife and her friends had made all the preparations. Nate Rondell and his little Dixie band arrived and set up in our attached garage. People were pulling up to the house; valets were parking their cars a block away so it wouldn’t look like anything was going on at our house. I took off to pick up Mom and Dad who thought they were just coming over for dinner or something.

When we drove up to the house there was no sign of what was about to take place. I opened the front door, Mom and Dad walked in and before them were a hundred or more people.

Surprise! Surprise! Shock! Laughter! Hugging!
And back in the garage a little Dixie band was playing. A moment in time and a day never to be forgotten by anyone who was there.

After all the greetings were over I looked around for Mom and Dad. Couldn’t find them. When I finally made my way to the garage there they were. Dixieland music playing and Mom and Dad holding each other and dancing. Cutting a rug as they use to say (even though there was no rug in the garage!). I shall never forget the look on Dad’s face. Mom’s too.

Like most of us they had come through very tough times. Mom’s terrible accident when she rolled off Dad’s speedboat years before all but killing her. Dad’s stroke ending his career as president of his own company and his depression that followed. Their personal conflicts with each other that somehow were resolved allowing them to get to this day, still together and celebrating. 50 years. Still married.

Well, to say the least there was hilarity in the hall that day. The people, food, music, gifts and so many friends.
But now the time had come for the big surprise!

After a good deal of rounding up we finally were able to get everyone outside and seated for what was about to happen. We had a wonderful yard with a pool and patio. There were two door walls leading from the house to the outside patio which was partially covered. Mom and Dad were seated in the front of all of their friends. As I started my presentation I realized that I hadn’t seen Norman Brooks since we returned from the airport.

Anyway as usual my words ran too long. Gifts were given and opened, the letters from the Governor, the President, and Reagan were presented to them.

Garry wells, my long time friend and producer from Memphis who helped me record all the Norman Brooks music was there with his Dad. Garry sang and thrilled everyone. He sang Danny Boy. There were tears.

It was then I started into my story telling them all about Al Jolson. The Chicago trip, The Jolson Story, the Memphis experience and finding the extraordinary Norman Brooks.

Rain was threatening and the little band was now set up under the patio overhang. Finally to great applause I introduced:
NORMAN BROOKS

I shall never forget what I saw next. As I spoke his name I turned around hoping he was there. The door wall opened and out stepped Norman in the most immaculate, perfect, tuxedo I had ever seen. Was it in that little briefcase all the time? I will never know.

But there he was! The band was playing and Norman was dancing some steps and singing. Whistling as just as Jolson did on that runway at the Wintergarden.
Except it wasn’t Norman Brooks.
It was Al Jolson!

He sang, told his jokes. “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” he said.

"Yesterday I heard a lover sigh, Good-bye, oh me oh my.
Seven times he got aboard his train
And seven times he hurried back to kiss his love again and tell her
Toot-toot Tootsie, goodbye.
Toot Toot Tootsie, don't cry. That choo-choo train that takes me
Away from you, no words can tell how sad it makes me.
Kiss me tooty and then do it over again.
Watch for the mail I'll never fail.
If you don't get a letter then you'll know I'm in jail.
Toot-toot Tootsie, good-bye. Toot-toot Tootsie, good-bye!"


Everyone was stunned, jaw dropping thrilled! He sang a dozen more.
It was then my dream for this day was fulfilled.
Jolson (Norman) looked right at Mom and Dad, spoke so kindly to them and then, getting down on one knee, sang only and directly to them. The Anniversary Song. Just as Jolson did on the movie ……


“Oh how we danced on the night we were wed
We vowed our true love though a word wasn’t said
The world was in bloom, there were stars in the skies
Except for the few that were there in your eyes
Dear as I held you so close in my arms
Angels were singing hymns to your charms
Two hearts gently beating, murmuring low
My Darling I love you so
The night seemed to fade into blossoming dawn
The sun shown anew, but the dance lingered on
Could we but recall that sweet moment sublime
We’d find that our love is unaltered by time"


As Norman neared the end of the song Mom and Dad joined hands, got up from their seats and danced as the music played and Norman sang.

It was raining now ever so slightly, but they were dancing now and were in their own world. A world without rain.

For a few moments they were young again. Aware only of each other.
Perfect. Just perfect.

I remember nothing of the rest of the day, but I will always have a picture in my mind of the sheer joy on Mom & Dad’s faces and the best of memories for all time. Of them.

Just after that priceless moment Mom hugged me, tears in her eyes and said, “Thank you.
No one ever had a party for me before.”

A few years later Pete died after a long illness. I believe that Pete was the greatest Harmonica player in the world.

Norman and I recorded a few more of those commercials and then I lost track of him.
Years passed. We spoke one last time on the phone in the early 90s.
Norman died at age 78 on September 14, 2006. I didn’t know he was ill.

Four and a half years after that marvelous surprise party on March 3, 1985,
Dad passed away.
Only 48 days later on April 17 we lost Mom.

Through good times Mom and Dad kept their vows. No matter what, they kept their vows. I will always remember. They stayed together.
They had been married 54 years.
I know I shall see them again in heaven.
May God bless them.

And may God bless my late friends Garry Wells, Pete Pedersen and especially Norman Brooks for his generosity, the precious memory, and the joy when finally there was a Golden Wedding Anniversary celebration for Mom and Dad.
When Norman Brooks brought Al Jolson to the party.


To hear the late Norman Brooks & "The Showplace for Chevrolet"
Garry Wells & a Jingle
Watch Pete Pedersen "The Worlds Greatest Chromatic Harmonica Player"
Go Here: www.leealancreative.com/blog