Paul Whiteman’s TV show, and spending New Year’s Eve with Ella Fitzgerald
OK, time in. Play ball! It's New Year's Eve in the Big Apple. (Another good name for a song.) We find our young gentlemen back at the hotel, talking with Al. He would like us all to accompany him to this lavish New Year's Eve Party being being given by some of the RKO and ABC executives at a posh penthouse overlooking Central Park West. (I just thought of something: They probably wanted a band. Oy!) Any way or, at any rate (neither works for me), there were to be movie and TV stars and starlets, the whole ball of matza! To which we responded as one: Are you kidding?! We're going to Birdland! Al's response wasand he was serous: The zoo is closed now. A nice cat, as as we sent he and his brother on their way to the big doings on Central Park West. You know, as I write this and think back over the years, 61 to be exactI can't help but wonder how and if my life would have been any different had I gone to that party? That's the problem in doing these articles, going back through all of the years with a mental microscope and looking for interesting things to writeand at the same time massaging my ego.
Onward to Broadway and 52nd Street, New Year's Eve 1951: Yeah, man! As we descend the steps leading to the Mecca of Jazz, I notice movement at the bottom of the staircase. It's dark and I really can't see down there very well. As we descend further, I see that it's a little cat dressed to the nines in a black tuxedo. Unbeknownst to us, Birdland had a greetera door person, emcee and musician/hustlerby the name of Pee Wee Marquette. After checking our draft cards and IDs (one could drink at 18 at the time in New York), we were shown to our tablewhich was, much to our delight (to quote Tadd Dameron), very close to the stand. Yes, there we were, as in all of the film noir: The ubiquitous girl walking around with a tray tied on to her person, repeating her mantra ("cigars, cigarettes! Cigars, cigarettes!"). After the bar hop took our orders and left, the next person going from table to table was the camera girl. And now, I'm happy she came to ours: Left to right in the photo above are the vibes player, then Gordy McGinly, the pianist and our titular leader; and then Tommy, the bassist; and yours truly.
We didn't know who was going to appear that night. A trio of piano, bass and drums played a few tunes (the bassist was Ray Brown), and then Pee Wee jumps up on the stand and gives this great verbal build upspeaking two-and-a-half octaves up from a normal voice, he says: "Let's give a great big hand for Miss Ella Fitzgerald!" Then Ella goes into the first tune, as only Ella could. I wasn't and still am not into singers, but it was cool. I really would have preferred Sarah Vaughn, Irene Kral or Helen Merrill. Looking back, Tony Bennett did it for more more than Frank Sinatra. (Dig Mark Murphy, and dug Chet Baker.) But the group was cooking. The audience was in to it, and we were having a great time in Birdland!
So, you've got the picture, right? That was Birdland, Broadway and 52nd Street, New Year's Eve 1951 at about 11 p.m. (Then ... cut the lights, stop the sound: You're looking at an empty stage. A guy comes walking out of the wings, stage left, carrying a sign. Look closely at the wording: Oh! There, see it? Ella and Ray get divorced three months later.) The crowds of people on the Great White Way have increased tenfold since we arrived earlierall seemingly heading towards Times Square. We've got the address to that party; we could hail a taxicab and be there in 10 minutes. Quick vote! We could be at Times Square at midnight? Yeah! And we were. Some snowflakes were falling, and it was cold. The Pepsi-Cola sign was in full bloom, and the guy blowing real smoke rings about five stories up was doing his thing on the Camel cigarette billboard, as well. The cacophony of voices were rising and rising! There was no ball drop, however, in 1951. The scene that I just described was brought back to me in a startling reality in the Woody Allen movie "Radio Days," when they all went to the rooftop to bring in the new year. Writing for me is physically difficult; equally difficult is doing one's own "This Is Your Life"! (For those of you in Del Rio, Texas, it was a very popular TV show back in the day.)
The next day, it was off to Philly, where we were put on a large float with a sound system so we could play "S'Wonderful" and "September in the Rain" over and over again for about two miles in the cold. In front of us in a roadster (yo Del Rio, that's a convertible) were the stars of the movie "Two Tickets to Broadway"smiling and waving to the crowds. And there were crowds along the curbs, about three- to five-folks deep.