Growing up Hillbilly – Chapter XXI

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(My Big Break)

My Big Break

While I worked at the Pennsylvania Hotel, I still had the urge to sing with a band in a night club. One night of from work I took the IRT Subway down to Greenwich Village and strolled down Third Street where clubs and bars lined both sides of the street.
There was one club, I believe it was 52 Third street, that fascinated me. There was an awning covering the steps to the club’s entrance with all the glitter and glamour that a hick from West Virginia could gawk at all night and still not have enough. A big Black doorman in uniform with brass buttons patrolled the entrance with the menacing look of a Pit Bull, making sure that only the right guests were allowed in.
In those days, despite my fears and lack of knowledge about protocol, I was not afraid of a challenge. Always willing to take a dare, first one to climb a roller coaster car or jump off the cliff into an uncertain bottom of a river, I wanted to sing and maybe this would be my opportunity. I didn’t know anymore about agents than I did about the New York Stock Exchange but that awning and the doorman’s shiny brass butters were invitations to adventure. Remember I was still only 17 years old, with barely any fuzz on my face or anywhere else. I was a kid as long as nature allowed.
So I swaggered right up to that doorman. He saw me coming and said, “Whatcha want kid?”
“I’‘m lookin’ for a job.”
“What kind of job?” He looked me up and down like a juvenile detective.
“I sing. I want a job singing.”
He scuffawed. “Get outta here.”
As it so happened the manager of the club, Mr. Stoneman, stepped outside and lit a cigarette just as the big guy with the shiny brass buttons was shushing me away.
“How’s it going tonight Joe?”
“Kinda quiet tonight Stoney, except this smart-assed kid who thinks he can sing.”
Without hesitation Stoneman said, “Oh.” and motioned me to come up to where he was standing.
I kinda stood numb for a second or two when Joe said, “Did you hear him kid? Get your ass up there.”
They might have been planning my execution, I’d heard about how the New York Mafia bumped people off – just like that, but I raced up the steps to the club level.
Stoney went to the core of my situation. “Whadda ya sing kid?”
“Oh, everything,” I blurted with all the confidence and power of a piss ant. I’m sure he smiled inside at my brassy response. 
He lifted my elbow and said, “Come on in. We’ll talk.”
Inside it was a cozy room with a dance floor surrounded by tables and chairs. The band was just finishing a set and couples were returning to their tables and drinks. I liked the place right away.
We sat down at Stoney’s table where his business partner, Babe Baker was already sipping a fresh drink.
“What do you want to drink?
I knew it was a night club and even though I wasn’t 18, the age you were allowed to consume alcohol, I also knew that I would like a damned fool if I didn’t order alcohol so I ordered a slow gin fizz, definitely a kid’s brew.
Mr. Baker, who hadn’t said a word, asked ,“What’s your name kid?”
“Ray. Ray Strait.” That brought a broad grin to Babe’s face. I would
soon learn why.
Stoney motioned the back of the stage. “See that short guy at the piano? He’s our band leader. The guys just took a break before the next show. Go up and see if he will let you sing a couple of songs. Tell him I sent you. Then come back.”
I bolted out of my chair as though lighting had lifted me up and crossed the dance floor. The orchestra leader was a small guy, very cordial. “What would you like to sing?”
I gave him two titles , A song that was contemporary on the radio made popular by The Andrews Sister, FOR ALL WE KNOW, that would later become a jazz classic, and MURDER, HE SAYS, a jump tune popular with the jitterbug crowd recently recorded on Decca Records by singing movie star, Betty Hutton, whose sister was Glenn Miller’s girl singer. I always knew what was hep and what wasn’t just as kids follow rock stars today.
When the set was over the pianist thanked me and sent me back to see Stoney.
I was always a little cocky, but my knees were weak as I approached the manager’s table and I really need that alcohol jolt.
His facial expression never changed. Stoney was a big man, six foot plus with plenty of muscle to go with his oversized belly.
“Twenty five a week, plus tips.”
The twenty five bucks was a lot in 1942. I’d never made that much a week in my life. Even in the navy I only received $21 a month. Plus room and board of course.
“What tips?”
“For singing requests at patrons’ tables. We have a roll around piano and when someone requests a song, the pianist rolls the table right up a table and you sing a song if they ask. You do know more than two tunes I would assume.”
“Oh yes. Hundreds.”
“Good You can start at 9 o’clock Friday Night. Six nights a week, one show on Sunday. Monday off.”
I was suddenly a star in New York
I later discovered why Babe laughed at my name. THE HOWDY CLUB was New York’s number one drag club. Owned by “the boys” they had another one in Hollywood, Florida. I was the only member of the cast that didn’t perform in drag. Some of the most famous drag queens in the world performed at both clubs; Jackie Maye, Leon LaVerde, Ray Bourbon just to cite a few of our headliners that drew larger crowds than Phinoccio’s in San Francisco. They were all older than me and were not interested in young guys. Actually they were mostly all connected with someone.
Yes, lest I forget, one of my first tips was $50 and it came from a very famous and wealthy couple. Fur magnet John Jacob Astor, the second or third and his equally super star date Hollywood film beauty ,Hedy Lamarr. 
After I moved to Hollywood years later to work as Jayne Mansfield’s press secretary a friend introduced me to Hedy and she remembered that night.
“Why,? I asked, “had he given you such a large tip because he was never known for such generosity despite his wealth. He said, ‘He looked like a kid that had never seen a fifty dollar bill in his life and I wanted to see the expression on his face.’”
I’m sure he was gratified. I’d never been so shocked and astonished in my life. I wasn’t about to question it for fear he might have made a mistake.
There was another lesson I learned from an equally famous political personality. Believe it or not, Wendell L. Wilkie who ran on the Republican ticket against FDR in 1940 came into the club one night and invited me to lunch the following day at the Commodore Hotel for lunch. It was nothing like you may be thinking. He requested a song that brought him almost to tears because it reminded him of someone dear to him that had recently been killed in an automobile accident.
The crux of the story has to do with dessert and one of my missing out on some table manners. Grandma used to make deep dish apple pie and always served a paper cake cup with white syrup on the side. As you might have guessed already I ordered deep dish apple pie and it came with a crinkle cookie cup with white liquid which I took to be syrup. When I went to take a sip of it to see how sweet it was, I barely had it at my lips when Mr. Wilkie put his hand on my arm and said, “Ray, that’s the finger bowl?”
No firecracker on the fourth of July could have possibly matched the ruby red flush on my cheeks. I’m surprised my hair didn’t go up in flames.
So much for a hillbilly singing star in Greenwich Village. 

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