Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the big band era. It was, actually, before my time, barely. Still, the songs, both foolish and lovely, linger in my memory, some loud and clear, others with a word or two missing in a line of melody. When I was a teenager it was Pat Boone and Johnny Cash and only a few radio stations played Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw. But in those days teenagers had some references from grandparents and parents. It seemed to me that teenagers in my day had little knowledge of music that came before their own life experiences. I was so wrong! And I remember well one magnificent night of my life when I saw how wrong I was.
It was a long time ago, but once I started a company called PeQuod Productions. (the company lasted only as long as Melville’s famous ship). I often wonder about the people who came to my shows in the San Jose Center for Performing Arts. Who shares my memories of the music I brought there?
One of the best shows I ever produced was “The Sounds of the 40s.” It was a huge flop financially because it was the beginning of my producing years and I booked the show on the night of the Academy Awards.
Serious swing devotees came out to celebrate the still-living stars of what was by then the past. And it was, the time during and after WWII. I brought them all to San Jose in person: The Glen Miller Band led by Tex Benecke, Ray Eberle, Cab Calloway, The Modernaires and Anita O’Day. All huge stars in “their day.”
Many people told me they were shocked to see all the performers in person because the box office had told them I was just going to play the records and it was just a dance. Ah, my amateurish lack of the words “IN PERSON” on the posters!
I prepared a great show: the huge floor was stripped and polished until it gleamed like a movie set, the cocktail tables around the San Jose Arena were covered with white table cloths and art deco silver vases holding one red rose, place cards in silver and black vintage design, and of course, the mirrored ball swirling colored lights across the huge hall.
The lights went down and the Glen Miller band, swathed in blue light from their music stands began to play “Moonlight Serenade.” Then something I think of often since happened.
A young couple. I mean a young couple just out of their teens, began to dance beautifully in the exact style of the music. The man wore a classic sailor suit from the days when they had wide bell bottoms and the woman had her hair in a snood, and wore a dress with a peplum. They danced as if I had hired them as my opening act. Nobody joined them, all mesmerized by the technique and beauty of the young dancers. I still get the chills when I remember that couple. A surprise and a gift. Young people, half my age, who not only acknowledged a bygone musical era, but who so enjoyed dancing to the music and went home. I never saw them again, nor did I ever know who they were. It was proof that good music never dies, never is lost or forgotten, and it is not about age.
That night was full of joy for those who missed the Academy Awards, and a magnificent surprise to those who expected records when they saw the stars of the past in person. That thrilling moment when the young couple glided onto the dance floor in homage to a bygone era was my greatest reward that night.
When Cab Callaway, who was a most modest man considering his star-bright past, began to sing, he got up on a table, and despite his years, led everyone in a wild “Minnie the Moocher.” The audience went wild with applause. Someone shouted, “Why haven’t you come to San Jose until now?” and he yelled back, “Because Joan Johnson didn’t invite me!” (Was that generous of him to acknowledge me when the spotlight was properly on him?)
An elderly man came up to me between numbers with tears in his eyes and said, “I don’t know how much this cost you, Dearie, but you have taken twenty years off my life.” At the end of the show, people left clutching the place cards from the tables.
My days as a promoter did not last more than three years, about as long as the voyage of Melville’s Pequod, but I earned some singular memories that have lasted these many years.
Memories are important and more valuable than money when life turns mean as it does when people are selfish, childish and spiteful. That young couple still makes me smile with gratitude for their anonymous gift, dancing the first dance in the fake moonlight to a serenade from the past. Cab Calloway’s generosity and amazing performance is a comforting memory too.
I am grateful to those who sing, dance, write songs, and all those who have in the past for us to continue to enjoy. And I am grateful for those happy folks who made one memorable evening in San Jose, California such a joyful celebration. And I am more than grateful the we have a whole bunch of time capsules thanks to YouTube where we can still enjoy the big bands, and the singers of the 40s even if we had not been alive at the time to dance to the tunes in person.
Why not spend some time now with the beautiful music and music makers from the 40s (who are now found in YouTube time capsules)? Check out the music of Glen Miller (and the loving tribute from a son to his GI dad), Harry James (who was married to the pictured pin-up in the video, Betty Grable), Benny Goodman playing “Let’s Dance” and Artie Shaw leading his band in …Close your eyes and imagine those ghosts in sailor suits and pompadours, and know that life goes on– as does the music! I bet you will begin to dance no matter what your age. Enjoy. And pompadours have come back with Katy Perry, no? Peplums? Well, you can go to Google images. More time capsules.
Those were the days, my friend….https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mHANNkKBSNU
COMING NEXT MONTH: NEW PHOTOGRAPHS FROM PETER TAN!