Rebel Angel, Dive Bomber

My high school years were spent running back and forth from classroom to bandstand, at first in theaters, gymnasiums and concert halls but increasingly in smoky dives. I would often arrive back in town from a road trip just in time to rush to class still wearing the clothes I had performed in. My schoolmates were interested in cars, sports, dances, games and movie stars. I cared little for any of those things and felt utterly alienated from my peers, who for the most part left me alone to do my thing. I just wanted to rock.

By the time I graduated, I had been shot at (outside a club called the Chicken Shack, in a case of mistaken identity), stalked (by a woman in a wheelchair who saw me at a concert and pursued me relentlessly for months), and carried off the stage too drunk to leave under my own power by a club owner who intended for his daughter to marry me the minute either of us turned 16. I had toured summertime Georgia by bus and the wintry mountains of East Tennessee in a car with no heater or defroster. I had arrived at primitive churches in a reconditioned Chrysler hearse (now a “limousine”) only to be condemned from the pulpit for my ability to stop my leg from twitching when I played the piano. Yet I sat quietly in English class, rode the Trailways charter to New York and back on our senior class trip, sang “Battle Hymn of the Republic” with the glee club, collected my diploma and went out and got a day job moving pianos.

I lasted three weeks. A co-worker and I shoved an enormous upright grand up three flights of marble stairs at the Elks Building, only to learn that we’d been sent to the wrong address.

So much for the working world. I moved down to Birmingham and joined a working band, Jerry Woodard and the Esquires. We played seven nights a week at Pappy’s Club, eight hours a night except Saturdays, when we stopped at midnight. I had made thirty bucks a week moving pianos. Now they were paying me eighty to sit at one. We went from Birmingham to Pensacola for a few months at the Southland Club, where I jammed with the Tommy Dorsey Band (Lee Castle was leading it by then), Bobby Goldsboro and Bill Black’s Combo, drank Old Charter with Ace Cannon, and saw Cotton Watts, a comedian on the southern circuit who had appeared in an Ed Wood film (“Jail Bait”) and, incredibly, still performed in Blackface in the 1960s.

I saw Watts by default. A friend of mine, a stripper, had taken me to see a competitor. We had left in an aesthetic huff (hers, not mine) when the performer came onstage and proceeded to remove her long white gloves. “Amateur! Fucking amateur!” hissed my companion. “Any professional knows you take the gloves off last. When they see your arms, the show’s over.” So we had wandered around the block and into another club to watch the aging Watts gamely fend off hecklers, armed with nothing but material at least fifty years old (“I thought I told you to stay in the truck!”).

From Pensacola the Esquires went to Atlanta, where I watched my first presidential press conference on TV while eating a hot dog at the Varsity and met Lillian Barker, a ghostwriter, war correspondent, official biographer for the Dionne quintuplets and bitter rival of Margaret Mitchell. Barker had interviewed Adolph Hitler for a New York paper (was it the Trib?). On her way to Germany she stopped in Paris and consulted a fortune teller who, as Barker told me, “knew where I was going and what for.”

“Ask him if he remembers me,” said the clairvoyant.

Against her better judgment, Barker brought up the subject at the end of her interview. To her amazement Hitler confirmed the fortune teller’s claim. The woman had told him “everything that would come to pass,” he said. However, she had predicted that it would all come to a bad end, which showed you the “limits of such foolishness.”

A pity that anthologies of female war correspondents always seem to omit Lillian Barker.

After a dispute over money, I quit the band and returned to Birmingham. The Esquires were later in a movie (“Toys in the Attic”) for about two seconds. When I saw the film I was surprised to see my own photo leering over Dean Martin’s shoulder in one scene.

In Birmingham I gigged six nights a week at Bryan’s Lounge downtown until 2:00 a.m., slept a couple of hours, then did a live television show weekday mornings at 6:00 a.m. before rushing off to classes at Birmingham-Southern College. Legendary underground cartoonist Howard Cruse and novelist Robert Houston were classmates. We studied creative writing with Richbourg Gaillard McWilliams, who had been department chairman since 1921 and could remember the name of everyone who had made an “A” in his classes.

I had some interesting “classmates” on the TV show, too. There were lively conversations with guests who came on the show to plug movies or recordings. Slim Pickens, there to plug a re-make of “Stagecoach,” seemed embarrassed by his role in “Dr. Strangelove” when I asked him about it. “That was a strange movie,” he said. “Most people like me better in westerns.” Jock Mahoney told me he had been nearly devoured by tsetse flies while filming a Tarzan picture in Africa. Ralph and Carter Stanley gave me a copy of their latest 45 rpm record. I still have it. Richard and Jim, a great folk-country duo, were semi-regular guests.

But it was two women who really made my time at WBRC-TV memorable. Fannie Flagg was hired to give the weather report and turned her segment into probably the first slapstick weathergirl routine, falling off the stool, poking herself in the eye with the pointer and cheerily predicting sunshine when the entire viewing area was being pounded by hailstorms and tornadoes.

Fannie and I did a show together at the Little Theater. James Hatcher directed it. He adored Fannie and tolerated me, usually not well enough to speak to me directly. He preferred to address others in my presence, saying things like, “Listen, Sweet-Ass, why doesn’t someone should tell this man that the days of the sallow young pianist are over?” The show was a big success and got a rave review from the Birmingham News. There was only one problem with the review: it appeared in the paper a day before the actual show occurred. The critic, eager to get off on vacation, had filed early and fled. At any rate, he called me, sight unseen and note unheard, a “dazzling virtuoso pianist.”

The other woman was Wynette Byrd, later to become world-famous as Tammy Wynette, the First Lady of Country Music. She was working as a hair stylist when she got up the nerve to come up to the station one morning and ask to sing on the show. She quickly became a regular. I’ve written extensively about my relationship with her ( <> ), but I don’t believe I’ve mentioned that we were each paid the princely sum of $35 for five shows a week at WBRC. Not $35 per show, $35 for all five of them, plus an extra show that we videotaped on Fridays for a Saturday morning slot.

Occasionally we would drive down to Montgomery after the show and tape a week’s worth of shows there for an extra $35. That’s where I met Wiley Walker, who wrote “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again,” a song Elvis recorded for his second album.

Elvis also recorded a number written by Ted Brooks, a great guitar player from Birmingham with whom I worked for a couple of years. Ted also wrote tunes for Al Martino, Eddie Arnold and Wanda Jackson. He took me to Nashville with him and introduced me to Arnold, Red Foley and Jack Clement. Over dinner at an underground restaurant, Clement told us of his recent discovery, a Black country singer named Charlie pride.

While gigging with Ted at the Gulas Restaurant, I met a woman named Flo, a waitress there, and struck up a friendship with her. She came from Sand Mountain and was sister to the Louvin Brothers. I remember the night the highway patrol came into the club and asked to speak with her. She went into the manager’s office with them. After a few moments she came back out and resumed waiting tables until the night was over. I gave her a lift home and we had a few drinks together before I remembered to ask her what the official visit was all about. I was thinking that maybe she had bounced a check here and there or failed to pay a traffic ticket.

“Oh, they just wanted to show me some pictures,” she said.

“Pictures of what?”

“My brother. It was pictures of my brother.”

Ira Louvin had been killed in a car wreck that night. The officers had asked her to make “positive identification” from grisly black-and-white photos taken at the scene.

A day or so later, when I heard Roy Acuff sing “Wreck on the Highway,” it sounded unbearably sanctimonious to me. “I heard the crash on the highway, but I didn’t hear nobody pray,” he complained, and I couldn’t help wondering, “What the hell were YOU doing?”

I supplemented my meager income with a few happy hour gigs at the Birmingham Country Club, playing dinner music for the patrons while the manager gave tours to prospective members. On my last day there I heard him tell one couple that the BCC had provided “full service” even during the darkest days of World War II (i.e., while my father was starving in a POW camp) and had never “knowingly served or admitted a Jew.”

Next: I discover politics.

DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch.

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DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.