…AND THE REST WAS ROCK n’ ROLL…
(a Semi-Fictional Book)
A Crystal Book, published by arrangement with Nate Jaeger Enterprises and Crystal Publishers ( a Nate Jaeger property )
2013, 2014, 2015, 2022, and updated 2024
Crystal edition published 2024.
All rights reserved.
Copyright 1955-2024 by Nate Jaeger.
This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, by Photocopy or any other means, without permission. For information contact: Crystal Publishers Beverly Hills, California, U.S.A.
No author has ever written a book alone-somewhere along the line, he had assistance. In most cases, that assistance has been great. This book is no exception. First, I thank all the pimps, pushers, prostitutes, drug addicts, and cops I ever had the pleasure of running into as a child. The Doctors, I never saw, and the Hospitals I never had the chance to enter. I would also like to thank all of the Priests who never knew I existed, but most of all The Juilliard School of Music that resuscitated a young child and saved his life, just because.
Included with this book are 10 Compact Discs containing 100 + Musical Performances, and the original 1956 Gold Albums “First Kiss” and “Last Kiss” and several Videos by Nate Jaeger from the earliest year 1955 through the present day 2024. Most live performances have never been released. They represent historical Blues, Country, Rock n’ Roll, and Rock music from the 10 Disc Boxed Edition “The Roots of Rock n’ Roll”.
1. Body Bag, Please
2. Classical Only
3. Love at First Sight
4. Graduation & Jail Time
5. The Sunny Years
6. Welcome to Hollyweird
7. Next Stop Saigon
8. Cops and Rockers
9. Another Brass Ring
10. A New Era
11. The Fast Lane
12. Last Chance
13. The Jaeger School and Fade to Black
* Throughout this Book many people are mentioned who were enormous “Music Stars” but who have been forgotten by the young people of today. So we explain who they are when we mention them.
Body Bag, Please
ONCE UPON A TIME...
... the night I was born; the thunder shook the tenement building, and rain poured like lava over a pitch-black room. Alone, no doors, no windows, freezing cold, a second failed abortion and I still crawled out alive. You couldn’t kill me, you could only set me free. Welcome to Hell's Kitchen 1940. Welcome to the Fucking Jungle.
"Hell's Kitchen" New York, generally refers to the area from 34th to 57th street and was completely forgotten by the world. As a result, most of the buildings are older, dilapidated walk-ups without running water. Hell’s Kitchen was a particularly infamous tenement district populated by the “dirt poor“prostitutes, and assorted criminals that congregated at 39th Street and 10th Avenue (my home). Hell's Kitchen was probably the lowest human, filthiest crime-ridden area in the U.S., let alone the City of New York. At the turn of the century, the neighborhood was controlled by professional as well as aspiring youth gangs, including the violent Gopher Gang led by the notorious Owney Madden. The youth gangs were: (White Kids) The White Shoe Boys, (Black Kids), The Black Barts, and the (Puerto Rican Kids), The Del Rio’s Warlords.
Violence escalated during the 1920s, as Prohibition was implemented. Many warehouses in the district served as ideal breweries for the rum runners who controlled the illicit liquor trade. They made a local dive, (Mama Beasley) rich. Gradually the earlier gangs such as the Hell's Kitchen Gang were transformed into organized crime entities around the same time that Owney Madden, (Owney "The Killer" Madden (December 18, 1891–April 24, 1965) was a leading underworld figure in Manhattan, most notable for his involvement in organized crime during Prohibition. He also ran the famous Stork Club, Cotton Club, and the 1953 Manhattan Escort Service and was a leading boxing promoter in the 1930s.
Madden gained the nickname "the Killer" after gunning down an Italian gang member in the streets, after which he shouted, "Owney Madden, Hell’s Kitchen" Despite the public nature of the murder, no witnesses came forward linking Madden to the crime. By 1910, at age 18, Madden had become a prominent member of the Gophers and was suspected of the deaths of five rival gang members. Owney was my mother's boyfriend from 1939-1945) he became one of the most powerful mobsters in New York. People who knew about my relationship with him made a wide berth around me. He once bought me a toy cowboy pistol with orange grips.
During the 1950s, immigrants, notably Puerto Ricans, moved into the neighborhood in large numbers. The conflicts between the White trash, Irish, Blacks, Italians, and Puerto Ricans were highlighted in the movie “West Side Story”. The movie was filmed at 65th Street and 69th Street between Amsterdam and West End Avenue, north of Hell's Kitchen. In 1959, an aborted rumble between rival Irish and Puerto Rican gangs led to the notorious "Capeman" murders in which two innocent teenagers were killed. By 1965, Hell's Kitchen was the home base of the Westies, a very violent Irish American crew aligned with the Gambino crime family. I ran numbers for John Gotti’s father and John Gotti was my best friend. The senior Gotti was a generous but violent man, who liked me as a son and feared Owney. He told me his family would always respond to my needs. When “Honor among thieves doesn’t work” violence ends the competition”. The rule of “The Jungle” produced John Gotti Jr. and me.
In 1940 the Depression was just ending, World War Two was beginning in Europe, servicemen were everywhere and pretty young women worked the streets and tenement rooms with fervor to earn money, most of it for the pimp, some for drugs and the rest for milk and cereal for their bastard kids. The lucky ones died in the back alley from coat hangers and it was over quickly. The kids that survived grew up angry, fearing the "Morgue Man". He was the precursor to the Coroner’s van and the black body bag. Every kid grows up going through the Boggy Man phase of childhood, the result of a vivid imagination. In Hell's Kitchen, he was real, and a lot of kids were around one day and gone the next, forever. When you saw a friend, instead of a “Hello” you’d ask "How are you feeling" and you would listen to see if they had a cough before you played or got close. Kids in my building, with bad coughs, could be heard day and night until at some point, they just disappeared. They were usually hauled out by the "Morgue Man". The Boggy Man in my neighborhood, folks, was the real deal.
There were only three ways out of Hell's Kitchen, a body bag, Riker's Island for life, and the prizefighting ring. The latter was reserved for the really tough kids, mostly Hispanic and Black who stayed away from the heroin needle and learned to box at the dilapidated gym down the street. If they worked hard and avoided criminal acts they had a chance to survive another day. A chance to have their brains beat out at five dollars a match on Friday and Saturday nights. So there I was in the middle of Hell‘s Kitchen, the bottom of the barrel, white trash with a German last name in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. It didn't help to have an Escort Service woman for a mother and an older sister preparing for the same illustrious career.
Illnesses were handled without doctors, hospitals or pharmaceuticals and you got well by toughening it out. Nobody held your hand or kissed your forehead for comfort. No one said they loved you. They were too busy working the streets or raising hell in the rooms next door till morning. When you weren't running numbers for the Italians in the bar down the street, stealing food or other necessities, you went to public school. Welfare kids didn't get regular school books, just recess, and colorful magazines. The caveat was "That'll keep them busy for now". The school was interesting at best, you sat down and listened to how "If you applied yourself for twelve years with a primary education" you could go to college and enter into the world as a contributing member of society. Yea, if you jumped over winos, dead junkies, and pools of vomit in tenement hallways and outran gangs that took your lunch money, coat, and shoes you might even get an athletic scholarship or signed by the NFL.
The angels of mercy were always out to save us with words, but nobody ever took action to improve our way of life. Each day the school got paid for every child who answered up for roll call. After roll call their job was done. If you were lucky you could read, write and do arithmetic at the end of twelve years. Nobody survived in school for twelve years in Hell's Kitchen. Most were in Little Riker's, the Military Service, or dead by then. There were very few youthful suicides. How do you jump off the basement? So we always smiled at outsiders when they spoke about the future waiting for us in the real world. If you were lucky some poor sap of a temporary teacher would come in with a mission to save you, then you learned something in class.
Otherwise, your real goal was to acquire a switchblade knife and become a made man in The White Shoe Boys, Del Rio's War Lords, or the Black Barts. Until then you had to watch the streets you traversed doing your daily business. You learned to use the shadows and conceal yourself going from place to place. Smart kids knew where every emergency exit was, “down an alley“. These skills would become invaluable to me as a Marine Corp. Scout Sniper in Viet Nam years later. You never wasted a second feeling sorry for yourself or dropping a tear for anyone or anything. When someone left with the morgue man it meant more food, more space, less competition, and more room for advancement in the future. You lived for the day, yourself, and trusted no one. Nothing you heard and ten percent of what you saw was real. The rule is “Never give a sucker an even break”. No next month, next week, or even tomorrow. There was just today when the sun came up. If you were smart you were on the street long before that occurred. Every minute was spent trying to manipulate the system. Making a phone call was easy. You used a bobby pin, straightened it out, and placed it in the second row of holes on the receiver of a pay phone. The other end was touched against the money box keyhole. When it shorted out with a spark you got a dial tone and a free call.
The good money was in the newspaper business. All that was required was a Newspaper Boy’s Delivery Sack and a buck's worth of nickels. Now you were self-employed with no overhead. You rode the bus, changing routes every day, getting off every three or four blocks. Drop a nickel in the coin box of the newspaper rack, open it, take five papers, put them in your bag, hop back on the bus, and ride down to Wall Street. The papers were gone in twenty minutes and you did the same thing heading back to school. Halfway, you got off the bus and sold the papers in the garment district. Then back on the bus with an initial cash outlay of $1.00 and gross profit of $6.00, net $5.00 a day. In 1948 $5.00 a day was a small fortune for an eight-year-old kid. Welfare paid $26.00 a month for a family of three. Riding Public Transit was lucrative.
Thirsty! You just went to the grocery store, back to the Coke Cola Machine Box, and instead of putting in a nickel and dragging the bottle down the grate to the drop slot; you carefully "Popped" the cap, stuck your straw in, drank up, and replaced the cap carefully. Self-discipline over your intake meant success. In the Grocery Market, you only took a third of a bag of chips, placing the bag at the back when finished. You borrow one piece of bread from the back of the bread bag and two finger scoops of peanut butter from the peanut butter jar. Then you made sure to smooth it out before putting the lid back on. Every day or so you would move the items you pilfered, to the back of the stack. Many times they were disposed of, due to age, before your theft was discovered. What we called “Backstopping”.
Control your greed and success was yours at all times and under all circumstances. You always paid for your dessert, a candy bar, on your way out of the Mom and Pop Grocery Store. What kid would steal food and pay for his candy? There were a lot of those stores in Hell's Kitchen. When you move quickly, “Backstop” and cover your tracks, you could finish the day with a full stomach and a pocket full of cash. Next Saturday at the movies you would be set to buy a ticket, popcorn, and candy. You paid for the movie unless someone, already inside, opened the fire door quickly so you could slide in for free. I called that a “Half Price Movie” You paid $.10 for that.
If you’re big enough and tough enough, you form a gang. Now a gang can be a bunch of kids making noise and defacing personal property or it can be a well-trained and directed group of entrepreneurs. A good gang leader trains and supervises his “Crew”. He plans every move the gang makes and he enforces discipline. Setting up the mark is the first step. You select a store that you will have a legitimate business interaction with such as shopping for the Hookers in your tenement. Taking their cash to the selected store you place one “Spotter” across the street. Three crew members are placed on each side of the store remaining out of sight. We call those “Passers”. One “Scout” would go into the store and make selections noting where the merchandise was located, return outside, and advise the “Mover”. Noontime meant that most of the salespeople would be out to lunch leaving two or three people to cover the floor of the store. In goes the “Distractions”, one for each salesperson. The “Mover” goes in and brings the selected merchandise slowly to the front of the store and places it. The “Handoff” goes in and the “Spotter” signals the “Pickups” to alternate crossing in front of the store. The “Handoff” passes the merchandise to the “Pickups” and they leave the area. The “Distractions” make their legitimate purchases for the Hookers and leave the store. Everyone meets up and 50% goes into our “Hold” and the rest is divided up amongst the gang members. You wait and see if the rest of the day turns out alright. Today was a good one if you made it home in one piece and your mother's customer didn't sip a few too many, run out of smokes, and punish you for their oversight. You learned to eat out and to amuse yourself in your area of the 400 sq. ft. you occupied with other family members and the visiting "Uncle" from time to time. I would always keep a few pints of liquor and several packs of cigarettes stashed in an old military trunk. Their possession came from some real savvy petty theft at the local liquor stores down the street from the tenement.
If a John got unruly and it looked like I would get hit, I would break out the peace gifts and get through the night until he passed out or left. My fondest memory was of a guy who, while waiting for service, picked up my silver cowboy pistol with the orange grips and clicked it repeatedly until he broke it. He smiled at me and threw it across the room. Human Beings, you gotta really love'em. This is the way it went for most of the 1940s until the glorious end of the war. After that, most nights, everybody was drinking and "Funning" until early in the morning, especially on the weekends. Sailors, Marines, and Soldiers were everywhere, still coming home after cleaning up Europe and waiting for a discharge. The business was now booming for the newly formed "Manhattan Escort Service" in uptown. The pretty young girls from Hell's Kitchen got lots of work, plenty of penicillin, and many new offspring. It was a real boom time and I was free to roam about the picturesque neighborhood at all hours. I had a gang and was big and tough enough, armed with a switchblade knife, that I knew how to use, to survive.
My favorite hangout was on the second step of Mama Beasley's Roadhouse down on the docks. I took a picture of the place with a small Kodak Box Camera that just jumped into my newspaper bag one day on my way uptown. It is one of my favorite photos in my life. With the camera, you would shoot snapshots, mail the camera to Kodak and they would send you back your photos with a new cardboard box camera. Years later I used the photo of Mama’s place for a Blues Album Jacket. Black musicians from all over Chicago and the South would gather there. People who would later achieve great fame with the ever-popular boogie style blues sound which became Rock n’ Roll. Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Sunny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Reed, Ike Turner, Crudup, and Little Richard just to name a few.
I had been listening to the radio, mostly “Race Stations”, since I acquired my radio under the long-standing and unwritten rule "If it's not nailed down, it‘s yours". I attached the antennae to the tenement’s roll-out metal frame window and suddenly I could hear those stations playing Howling Wolf, Sunny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, Little Richard, and best of all Jimmy Reed. Jimmy Reed was my favorite and I fell in love with the instrument he used to create his sound, the guitar. Mama Beasley would tell me who was going to be in New York and playing at her club each week. Finally one day she said Jimmy Reed would be playing on a Saturday night and I was invited. I got down to the docks at 10:00 p.m. and sat on my step looking in through the screened door. The music was loud and blaring and had a beat that was sexual in nature. The women wore tight blouses and skirts. They moved in the most provocative ways in front of their male dance partners. The booze flowed and every once in a while, someone would come flying out the door with a warning from the bouncers to "Straighten up and fly right" or don't come back. It was very cold so Mama Beasley would bring me a couple of "Bourbon Shooters" and several cigarettes to keep me warm.
Winter in New York's Hell's Kitchen was a bit sobering. I enjoyed the relaxed feeling that the straight bourbon gave me on an empty stomach and the way it intensified the music's rhythm. That would come back to haunt me later in life. I quickly learned to love the blues and set out to use this fabulous music to get out of Hell's Kitchen. What was my childish plan? All I needed was a guitar and a little practice. I would become a STAR!
Night after night I would sit until just before 2 a.m. when the beat cop would come to close Mama down and get paid. I would slide out and head home only to get up at 6 a.m. to start my private Newspaper Enterprise on my way to school. The doorman at Mama's, Mr. Pops, was a pretty good blues guitar picker when he wasn't loaded on "Horse". He showed me how to play the open "E" chords and taught me how to apply the blues rhythm to my strums. Next step, individual notes between chords that gave the song some snap and let you turn it around to start all over again. It took months to learn because I could only practice when Pops wasn't loaded and could loan me the guitar. Finally, he constructed for me a fake guitar out of a flat piece of wood attached to a cigar box. He glued down some newspaper baling wire, six strands, the length of the flat stick, and carved and painted the notes for each string at each fret. He then taught me scales, chord positions, and fingerings that I would practice without sound.
When I had memorized them he would let me play them on his guitar. I started getting good and I mean “Real” good. When I got the chance to use his guitar I would play every note over and over, up and down the neck until I could hum each note as I played the Cigar Box Special. Soon I didn't need to wait until he sobered up to play songs. I could vocally create the sound for every note on the neck myself. That's the way I did it every day and night for two years. I was getting out of Hell’s Kitchen. I would carry that fake guitar everywhere while practicing singing, scales, notes, and chords while going to and from school each day. When I needed an audience, I serenaded the bus patrons. It must have looked like I was a "Nut Case" to passengers until one hot summer day, a woman at the bus stop approached me and asked where I learned to play and sing. I told her I taught myself. It wasn't the actual truth, but close enough for Government Work.
After we met a few times she asked to talk to my mother, which was a ludicrous idea in my mind, about doing something with my alleged talent. We strolled back to my cold water walk-up tenement and climbed the six flights to our room. My mother had just concluded a business arrangement and her customer was leaving. She demanded to know, from the woman, what I had done and how much it would cost to fix it. The lady explained that she worked at a special school where she felt I could benefit educationally. My mother asked if it was free because “she wasn't paying for nothing”. The lady said that the schooling would include regular education with musical training. The lady said she felt I was talented but would have to be interviewed and tested by others at the school. If I was accepted, the schooling and training would be free on a Poverty Grant from wealthy benefactors. Meals and my “open” bus pass would be included. My mother said she didn't care as long as she didn't get “a bill for anything“. So now I was going to get a strange break in life. I was going to be a "Poverty Grant" child at some place called "The Juilliard School of Music" in uptown. Sounded good, especially the free meals part, I was always hungry. What she saw in me I wasn’t fully aware of until years later on stage, in front of people listening to me perform and liking it. Anyway, it was still a long road ahead, but at least I wouldn't be ducking and dodging to and from school every day. The bus stopped right on the corner of my tenement building, so it was a short walk and very convenient. It made my newspaper enterprise more lucrative. Just imagine a free bus pass, valid on any bus, at any time, day or night without "On and Off" restrictions. The most important point was I had a legitimate reason for being on the buses. I was special. I was a student at Juilliard School of Music, slick.
All of the stops along the way were rich with Newspaper Racks. I could pitch the morning paper on the way to school and snag the evening news on the way home. Neither paper company would miss getting short-sheeted four times a week. Don’t adults steal? Kind of a public limo ride to and from school, a built-in small business, and three squares a day. All I had to do was play the guitar, which I loved doing anyway, and a real one to boot. Now I would see if the local "capo" would let me "Run Numbers" on the weekend. That would bring in some additional money each week to pay my way in the tenement. I could save up for a real guitar, one of those new "Electric Telecasters (Officially Broadcaster) like Jimmy had the last time I heard him at Mama's place. Things were looking up in the summer of 1949 and I was ready to move on.
Well, what a surprise my first day at Juilliard (The Juilliard School), now located at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, is a performing arts conservatory. It is informally identified as simply "Juilliard," and trains about 800 undergraduate and graduate students in dance, drama, and music. In 2007, the school received 2,311 applications for admission, of which (149 were admitted for a 6.45% acceptance rate.) I got to Claremont Avenue in Morningside Heights an hour early. Just wanted to see which gangs were in control of the area, but I couldn't see anyone that remotely looked like a gang member. Kids showed up in Private Cars or Limousines and the boys were dressed like squares, with checkered shirts, khaki-colored pants belted almost up to their necks, and short Crew Cut hairdos. The girls had Ponytails and wore long Circle Skirts, the forerunner of those dresses with the dopey-looking poodles sewn on the front in the mid-fifties. They carried neatly folded sweaters over their left forearms and had penny loafers with lucky pennies in the shoe bands. They all chattered about Frank Sinatra and Al Martino and how groovy this or that song sounded.
One girl was bragging about the new television her family had just purchased. I had only seen a TV, once, in a store window uptown. The main thing I noticed was how clean their appearance was compared to mine. I realized slowly their attention was drawn to me the longer I stood on the corner in front of the school. I was tall and skinny for nine years of age, with long dark hair combed into a pompadour style in front and a perfect Duck’s Ass style in the back. My ensemble consisted of a black beat-up leather jacket, a white t-shirt, and pegged black Levi's that could stand in the corner of a room by themselves, capped off with a pair of old black dress shoes. Want new shoes? Just cut out cardboard to fit in the shoes and cover the holes coming through the worn-out soles. My fingernails were dirty and my general appearance was quite rough. Finally one of the teachers came out to muster everyone inside. He stopped a passing beat cop who then came over to me and said “Scram or else”. Saved by the bell when my benefactor came out and told the cop I was with her. The auditorium was large and the Head Master gave a welcome speech as I stood in the shadow of one of the pillars in the back. Each kid was asked to stand and introduce themselves and tell something interesting about their lives and their future goals at the school. I didn't have to worry about doing that because I was well hidden behind the pillar. Later my benefactor, Alice, told me to follow her to a large room where I was introduced to the Head Master Mr. William Shuman, and an old man who was seated behind the longest piano I had ever seen. Around the room were scores of stringed instruments from guitars to violins to stand-up basses. They were all in rows like little soldiers and on their stands were descriptions for each.
The man’s name was Fritz and he was a dead ringer for a photo of Albert Einstein I had seen in Sunday's paper. I was introduced to him as Nathanial Jaeger and he took notice of my last name. He decided that I would be called "Nate" for short as he had an uncle named "Nathanial" he despised. He was unhappy with my last name as it was German and the Germans were not popular in America in 1949, or anywhere else. Nathanial was a significant Jewish name so I became Nate Jaeger there and then forever. He told me to go to the back of the room and turn around and face the wall. He played one note after another for me to sing. When I told him what each note was alphabetically, he seemed amazed. It was simple for me because it was just another form of math. I simply could, in my mind’s eye, see every note; its placement in the scheme of things, and could hear it in my head. I told him that the last note was indeed off-pitch on his piano. Apparently, he couldn't hear it. He asked if he could see my fake guitar and wanted to know what it was I did with it. I told him that I practiced all the chords, scales, and individual notes on the neck and that I could hear them in my head as I played. Fritz told me to pick out a guitar that I liked and which felt comfortable and bring it over to the chair next to him. I surveyed all of the guitars and picked out the best one, a near-new Martin Acoustic. I sat down and he instructed me to repeat the strings of notes he played for me. Then he played chords and I followed suit. The Martin Guitar, I picked, was amazing. The action was very low, someone had shaved the bridge and the metal frets so the strings were real close to the neck and you could glide from chord to chord and note to note real fast. What an amazing guitar and it fit my gangly body perfectly. Fritz told me he was going to play Paganini, specifically his Caprice # 24, and he wanted to see how many measures I could remember and follow. Who was Paganini, oops, I'm in trouble now. I then realized that I was able to repeat every note he played and could play the whole string back when he finished without error. He realized it too and told Alice I should begin classes immediately, but I was to be put in the advanced section, whatever that meant.
His final request was that I play some selections of music that I liked. I picked up the Martin and checked its tuning. He said it was now my assigned school instrument. I began with "Don't Start Me Talking" in the key of "F" followed by "Hoochy Coochy Man" in "G" and for my delightful finally, I did my version of ‘Choo Choo Boogie” from the new music called Rock n' Roll. He looked at me and said, "Never Again, Not Here". The school consisted of classes in Theory (first year): Basic introduction to note reading, key signatures, scales, rhythm, and time signatures. Independent research culminating in oral presentation in the second semester. Music Workshop (first year): Uses theory, composition, and improvisation in an experiential way to approach musical performance. Musical challenges such as: What turns sound into music? How are ideas of unison, dialogue, and obstinate used to create music? Musical examples through a broad spectrum of genres illustrate the artistic application of these same principles. Theory (second year): Review of the first year, especially the circle of fifths and major and minor scales. Continued rhythm work. Introduction to intervals, dictation, and harmony. Music as Art (second year): Provides a historical context for Western classical music. Students learn about music through various points in history, from the pre-historic era to the dawning of the 20th century. Performance Workshop (both years): Basic concert etiquette for the performer and audience member is taught through the use of in-class performances. Issues discussed include practice, constructive criticism, combating performance anxiety, careers in music, and proper performance attire and preparation. An informal discussion format is used. Ear Training (PATHS): Melodic and rhythmic dictation, and solfège (ear training). Introduction to chord structure and chord progressions. Piano Skills (PATHS): Provides a working knowledge of the keyboard. Introduction to harmony, applied theory, transposition, sight-reading, improvisation, and piano ensemble skills. Provides a working knowledge of the piano for non-majors. PATHS Seminar: Provides students with a more intense and focused performance setting. Students perform in class and prepare two outreach concerts per year. Topics discussed include orchestral etiquette, leadership, and issues in the arts. Chamber Music (PATHS): All students are required to play each week in chamber music class. Small ensembles of mixed woodwinds, brass, strings, and piano. Math, English, Reading, Writing, History, and Geography were taught separately. What was nice was that each class had a maximum of 15 students and you could ask all the questions you wanted and the teacher would repeat things over as many times as you needed until you got the concept. There was no ridicule or chastising you for mistakes only "That's a boy" when you finally got it right. No smacking you in the back of the head if you got your numbers crooked on the blackboard and most of all smiling teachers at all times. I ended up staying at the school through evening meal and until midnight in the rehearsal studio playing my lessons over and over until they were up to speed and perfect. Then a little Rock n’ Roll. I usually got home at 1 a.m., crashed, and got up early spending as little time in the tenement as possible.
Eventually, they gave me a part-time job at the school as a janitor. The training I got from Manny Mendez, the Head Janitor would really come in handy years later when I hit Memphis, hungry, homeless, and on the run from the Juvenile Authorities in Harlem. They paid me $2.50 a week to clean the classrooms on the first level, the auditorium, and the bathrooms. That made it possible to keep my two changes of clothes in a locker and put them in the school laundry every other day for cleaning. I was able to shower every day after Physical Education and I bought a fingernail clipper and used it daily to increase my finger pressure on the guitar strings not to mention the cleanliness issue. I still looked like a thug and no student ever looked me in the eye, spoke to me, or sat next to me in class. I started wearing my janitor overalls to class each day and that seemed to keep everyone at ease like I wasn't intruding anymore. I looked like staff and I looked clean, but the hairdo stayed. That's what made me, silently, part of the music that I could only play when everyone left the school and I was alone with access to acres of instruments. Interestingly enough I taught myself to play piano long before the school assigned me a piano teacher. The violin had to wait until I was accomplished on my first two instruments. One of the requirements for graduation, up the line, was the ability to read, write, transpose on the fly, and score your original compositions. It was necessary for you to play, at a professional level, at least three different instruments. This included voice if you chose that skill to graduate. It was a given that you passed your studies in all academic areas as well as concurrently with musical schooling.
As time passed I began to present myself at recitals. I attempted to hold back in my presentations so that I didn't become the star of the school and antagonize the parents and other students. It was difficult because I was putting in hundreds of hours of after-school practice and often slept in the laundry room all night to get back to the music first thing in the morning. I meticulously cleaned the Head Master's and staff's offices and made the morning coffee. This kept me in good stead with all of the teachers. Showering, getting dressed, and ready for class early put me at the front of the breakfast line and entitled me to the best hot food. I was starting to grow and gain some needed weight. I was also becoming civilized. One of the great side benefits of my traveling to and from the tenements looking like a newspaper boy was my ability to get off the bus on Friday nights at The Roxy Theatre in New York City. It was a 5,920-seat movie theater at 153 West 50th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. It opened on March 11, 1927, with the silent film “The Love of Sunya“, produced by and starring Gloria Swanson. The huge movie palace was a leading Broadway film showcase through the 1950s and was also noted for its lavish stage shows. It closed and was demolished in 1960. I would bring a pint of Jack Daniels to the side stage door where Mr. Tyrone James would be sitting and leaning back on his metal chair. I paid my admission with a pint and a paper and went into the backstage area and handed out free evening newspapers to the people who looked like they were in charge. Then I would watch the stars go out and perform. One night, in 1953 Tony Martin headlined and I watched him with his wife Cyd Charisse get ready to go on stage. He came up alongside me, looked down at me, and said “How are you, young man”? “I said fine, I’m going to be a performer like you someday”. “He looked at me and said, “Well when you do, come and see me”. Now I took him seriously and on March 19, 2009, at the Catalina Jazz Club, I was sitting at stage side when he came in to do his show. He was as dynamic at 96 years old as he was in 1953. I came to see him as he asked me to. I saw many stars perform from behind that curtain including Edith Piaf. I will never forget this tiny woman who stood next to me behind the curtain. I didn’t know who she was but when this little woman went out and started to sing the audience went to their feet and stood clapping for ten minutes.
She sang “La Vie En Rose” to another standing ovation. She closed the show with the French National Anthem and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Finally, the last show I ever saw and the one that showed me the lifelong road to entertaining, the road I followed because of David Whitfield and the song “Cara Mia” that he sang that night. I wanted that kind of attention someday. I wanted to sing like him, but of course, no human will ever do that again. Going home and being around the tenements was becoming harder every day until something marvelous happened. A beautiful girl moved into the tenement room one floor below me. It looked like 1953 was going to be a great year for a lot of reasons.
Love at First Sight
There she was with her mother, the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I watched her climb the steps to the fifth floor and offered to help them carry their bags up. The apartment they rented was larger than our space and it had divided rooms, with real walls and carpets on the floor. It had its own bathroom with larger windows facing the street. The girl had a bit of a superior attitude and that's because her mother worked for the Manhattan Escort Service where the big money earners worked. I later learned that she no longer did escorts but was instead put in charge of the girls living in our tenement. She was given the best set of rooms in the building with hot and cold running water. The company had apparently grown to the point that they needed to supervise the girls directly at the point of service. Anyway, her daughter Desirae was a dream come true, and the same age as me, 13. She was very smart and made me chase after her whenever I saw her. I know she liked me because I would catch her taking sneak peeks at me when I played and sang on the tenement front stoop.
I had to start making decisions about her and how much extra time I spent at school and whether I should come home from school each day early instead of staying all night. The decision was simple, her. I also needed to work on my paper business to replenish my cash. I started coming home each night and began teaching her to play guitar and sing. Johnny Ray (John Alvin Ray (January 10, 1927 – February 24, 1990) was an American singer, songwriter, and pianist. Popular for most of the 1950s, Ray has been cited by critics as a major precursor of what would become rock and roll, for his jazz and blues-influenced music and his animated stage persona. (He was totally deaf.) He was the big heart throb by then and I bought her his records. He was going to play at the Paramount Theater in a couple of weeks and I just had to make some extra money so that I could take her there first class. So I went down to "Corky's", the local corner bar where the well-dressed Italians hung out. There were always two big guys standing out front checking everyone who went in to see the "Capo". When I walked up, there was Anthony, my friend, waiting to take me in and vouch for me to the Capo. So now I could get a job selling numbers in my neighborhood. He was a large, well-dressed, diamond stud-wearing Italian man with gruff manners and a dead mean stare in his eyes. Anthony vouched that I was dependable and had deep connections in the neighborhood as well as connections with Mama Beasley's customers. They were plentiful and loved to gamble. Italians and Blacks didn't get along well, and blacks wouldn't buy "oxygen on sale" from them. So, I was a shoo-in for that market and I was now playing along with Mama's musicians with the moniker of "The Golden Boy".
The Numbers Game was the first real Lottery in America, I mean you really won good payouts and frequently. My sales were great, both with my neighborhood call girls, their clients, and the black population in the neighborhood. I would use my trusty "over the shoulder” newspaper bag and a phony receipt book to go from door to door in the neighborhood pretending to collect on a nonexistent paper route. I would collect money and give the customer their tab and number for the day. If they won I would bring back their winnings in an envelope the next day. Each week I would turn in my spent number’s sheets and return the net profits, less payouts, directly to the Capo. He in turn would pay me 20% of the profits. I was getting closer to that new guitar and the Paramount Theater tickets.
Desirae and I were now an item and were holding hands everywhere we went. I bought myself a cool pink and black speckled sport coat, a black silk shirt, black pegged pants, white bucks, and a silver cross necklace for the Johnny Ray Show. I surprised Desirae with a sweater, blouse, skirt, and penny loafers for the show. I wanted her to look like the uptown girls that attended my school. She looked great, we looked wonderful together and when I took her to a dance at my school everyone immediately liked her and seemed to accept me now too. I was on a roll. We would go down to Mama Beasley's every Friday and Saturday night and sit on the front steps while I played along with the musicians appearing at the roadhouse inside. Every once in a while they would move outside where "The Kid" could really whale with them and not have the beat cop charge Mama with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Those were some memorable jam sessions and I knew I had arrived when some of the pros would later ask me "How I did that" on the guitar. What I needed to do was find some kids my age that could form a band with me. Rock n' Roll was moving off of the black underground radio stations and becoming prominent with white radio stations. White singers were singing it and that left the music sorely deficient. White guys like Pat Boone had no rhythm. If a white guy could sing and play black Rhythm and Blues with a backbeat like a black artist, then you might have a potential Rock n' Roll Star in the making. At the moment, being with Desirae and playing music on my own was fine.
One more year and I would graduate high school at fifteen. Still too young to do anything with my knowledge and ever-advancing skills. There had to be something, somewhere, for me after all of this work. We didn't have telephones in the individual tenement rooms and the hall phone was strictly for addicts to score with their suppliers. You didn't disturb them when they were placing their orders. Desirae's mother had a phone but that was for communication with the agency only, so we had to devise a way to talk to each other at will, day or night. One of the kids at school was an Eagle Scout and he showed me how to cut a milk carton in half, wax a twenty-foot string with a melted candle, punch a hole in the bottom of each half, and connect the string to both via a knot in the center of the bottom of each carton half. You step back, pull the string taught and take turns talking and listening by saying "Over" so the next person can answer or talk. I would slowly lower Desirae’s half carton down to her room window each night and we would talk for hours. Sometimes I would sing some of the songs I wrote until the neighbor woman would bang on the wall with a warning that I was "killing her customer’s mood". These were the times I always remembered when things got really hard and life was just a series of one-night shows, crazy driving all night, noisy fans, cheap motels, and brown bag room service. I missed those cold nights when we had lots in common and dreams yet to be realized. We would talk about buying a home with grass and a fence. Maybe have children born away from Hell's Kitchen. Big Thanksgiving and Christmas Dinners with friends all around singing carols like in the movies. At night we would keep asking the same question after just a few minutes of idle chatter _Do You Love Me_? The answer was always the same _Yes_ and the thought was always the same, _We got to get out of here if it's the last thing we ever do_.