Sunday, July 10, 2011

Time Travelling on a Tune

Over the last couple of days, I found a number of new links on the internet, to my Mom’s career as a singer in the 60s and 70s.

Mom was a preacher’s daughter, born in Ferndale, Michigan and raised in the north part of Detroit. Granddad and Tootsie (the nickname an older cousin bestowed on our Grandmother) lived off of 8 mile road, and the Mt. Beulah Baptist Church wasn’t far from there. Mom was a smart, imaginative, dreamer growing up. She sang in the church, but may have had more of an interest in writing, going so far as having a small chap book of poems printed when she was still in school. I know that she and her cousin Earl talked a lot about how they intended to travel the world when they grew up.

Her first steps away from home were going off to college, to Bluefield, West Virginia for a time, then to somewhere in Oklahoma, I believe. I don’t recall with certainty what she studied, but I know that she dropped out in her final year, to marry my Dad, a charming, sweet-talking man even now, in his late eighties. He’d run off from small town Indiana to the big city of Detroit, on the night of his high school graduation, and returned there after a couple of years in the military.

When he met my Mom, he romanced her hard, taking her to clubs and ball games and shows, and had even the serious Reverend Hardwrick so won over that they had use of the family car whenever they wanted. Mom put her other ambitions on the shelf for awhile, married Dad, had two kids, and before long, seeing the world seemed the furthest thing from possible.

But it wasn’t a very happy marriage. Dad liked the ladies more than a marriage could contain, and somewhere in there, Mom began to nurture the seed of her own liberation. The story is that the seed broke ground the day she was riding in an elevator and singing a tune to herself. There happened to be an agent in the elevator with her. He said something like, “Hey babe, you got some sweet pipes”. And next thing you know, Mom is doing gigs in local clubs, then going on weekend trips to Columbus and Cleveland.

From there, things changed pretty fast. Mom got called to New York, and went. Dad, after awhile, loaded my brother and I into the family car, and followed her there. A year or so later, she got a chance to travel to Berlin, to be part of an international revue titled, “Schwarz/Weiss” – Black/White, that featured black and white performers from several countries. She was supposed to be gone a couple of months, but the show was a hit and she emerged as its star. When the show kept getting extended, our ever game Dad loaded us up again and surprised Mom when we all appeared at her hotel room door.

We were actually a good family there for awhile, bouncing from city to city while Mom developed a reputation and a career. My brother and I learned German and thrilled at being intrepid explorers in foreign lands. Those were the Golden years of our childhood, and created a bond between us that nothing has ever weakened. Ever since then, I’ve felt sorry for the vast majority of chronologically close siblings who fail to nurture any sense of special devotion between them; but I’ve come to understand that my brother and I had blessed circumstances in which to do so.

Dad may be coming across as the bad guy in this story, but it didn’t end up so. There isn’t a bad guy, or a bad gal. When our parents saw that their marriage just wouldn’t work, they did the smart thing and ended it, before the grudges and arguments could become a fixture in our lives. He returned to New York, then did a round trip a year later to take my brother and I with him. The plan was that we’d go back and forth between them. But that never materialized.

Mom’s career peaked over the next few years. She finally travelled the world, as she’d always intended. The next time my brother and I spent substantial time with her was when she came through New York as the star entertainer on the around-the-world, maiden voyage of a luxury ocean liner. It was apparently just too complicated a life – professionally and personally – for her to feel she could adequately parent us. Which was absolutely the tragedy of my young life. But, on the flip side, my brother and I were fortunate enough to have a father who, despite the entreaties of relatives on both sides to allow them to raise us (because no single man, especially one who liked to play like James Kirby, and who worked nights, should be trying to raise no two kids all by himself in no New York City!) insisted that he was going to raise us himself and love doing it.

Of course there’s lots more to it. I will always be proud of Mom that, in the late 1950’s, she, a young, black woman, broke away from a narrow and unhappy life as a housewife, and turned herself into a globe-trotting, jet-setting, diva glamourpuss! The parts of that I shared with her are infinitely precious. Among my best memories are the times I’d come from school and have long, deep, searching, anything goes conversations with her, while she dressed and made herself up for her show that night. And I missed her enormously all those following years when she wasn’t around.

So you can imagine the thrill when, every now and then, when I do a google search, I discover a missing piece of Mom’s life. The last discovery came as a result of my brother finding some long lost photographs, and that spurring me into doing a routine search. Amazingly, these last finds include a few seconds’s worth of video, close ups of Mom singing, fronting a band and wearing a sleek, glittery gown and stole, and a curly, almost platinum wig. It’s a clip from some 1970 Eurocomedy, and she’s off-screen as the camera focuses on the antics of a nightclub’s patrons. But Wow! It’s about the first moving image I’ve had of my Mom since she died twenty years ago.

I’ll have to send a note to the person who posted the clip, thanking them. What a treasure! What a lovely, heart-warming gift, to see my Mom again, smiling, singing, doing her glam-glam thing!

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