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An Autobiography: Chapter 3, Pop Music to Rhythm and Blues

Music has been an important part of my life - popular, classical, rhythm and blues, country - all genres. I was singing the hit songs of the day as far back as I can remember, buying the various magazines that featured the lyrics. I still have copies of some of these going back to 1942. Interesting, too, many of them carried a log of the radio shows on the networks. In those days there was Sammy Kaye’s Serenade; Dinah Shore; Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch; Andre Kostelanetz Orchestra; Red Skelton; Fibber McGee and Molly; Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra; Fanny Brice; Arthur Godfrey; and, of course, “Your Hit Parade” on Saturday nights. 

Hit Parader 

In the 1930s, radio was important. We had a big Xentih, the one with the “green eye,” which almost hypnotized you when you sat there listening intently, watching that needle moving.

In 1938, when I was 12 years old, I was selling newspapers regularly and had income to spend on song sheets, comic books, Hollywood fan magazines, and movies. I saw an ad on the back cover of a comic book for a restored Underwood typewriter for $39.95, with the option of putting 50 cents down and making a payment of 50 cents a week. Well, I sent my order in, and you talk about a youngster being excited when that typewriter came! I knew nothing about a typewriter, probably never saw one before, and the most interesting feature to me was the ribbon - you could print black AND red! Imagine that.


I bought a 3-ring notebook and tabbed five sections in the book. The first was HIGHLIGHTS, and I filled 7½ pages with interesting facts about movie stars. Like “David Niven once delivered laundry in a Rolls-Royce” and “Tyrone Power on his trip East was in his hotel room one hot day and ordered a couple of fans. In two minutes, two breathless girls arrived, bearing an autograph book.”

Another section of the book was devoted to CENSORS by Walter Winchell. Like “You must not thumb your nose in Kansas” and “A woman must not lose her honor,” says Virginia, “or her stockings!” Another section was SHOWS, and there I listed films that I could remember having seen, up to No. 90, and from then on as I saw them. The starting date on that page is February 1939, and there is a total of 398 films. I gave each film a star rating and a short comment. I think the folks at Turner Classic Movies would find this very interesting.

The first film I saw in a “movie palace” was Gone With the Wind in 1939 at the Capitol Theatre in Cincinnati. My Aunt Elsie (my mother’s spinster sister) took me, and at 13, I thought I was really grown up. Aunt Elsie was a schoolteacher, and when I was a kid I spent time in the summer at the family farm when she was home. I loved her, and she was the only person who remembered me in her will. She left more than $100,000, divided among her family and the church. My two brothers and I each received $5,000. I was born in Visalia, Kentucky, and Aunt Elsie was my brother C.C.’s teacher in the first grade in the one-room schoolhouse atop Visalia hill.

Gone With the Wind 

Even though I was an avid movie-goer in my early years, I was never an autograph seeker and only wrote to one movie star. That was Joan Leslie. I don’t remember the year, but I do remember that she sent me a handwritten letter telling me about her interests and things she did when she wasn’t making movies. The one thing remember is that she said she was learning to play the accordion.      

Joan Leslie 

Joan Leslie 

Joan Leslie appeared in many films, including the biography of Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper; and Yankee Doodle Dandy with James Cagney.

There was a miscellaneous section in my notebook that listed singers, dancers, and marriages of movie stars. At the end of two years, I wrote in “quit-bah”! But the most interesting section to me today, and I am sure the most enjoyable when I was keeping the notebook, was a listing of the top 10 songs on the Saturday night program, YOUR HIT PARADE with the master of ceremonies, singer Lanny Ross. My listings ran from March 11, 1939 (the No. 1 song was “Deep Purple”) through February 22, 194l (the No. 1 song was “I Hear a Rhapsody”). Those were days of great songs, so unlike most of the music today. Incidentally, I still have that notebook - and it’s in mint condition!

In those days of segregation, rhythm and blues was the music of the negroes - and I, too, loved that music, especially the blues, as sung by stars like Bessie Smith, Son House, Billie Holiday and Alberta Hunter. TIME Magazine wrote, “There’s no one alive who can sing like Hunter.” She died in 1984 at the age of 89 in her apartment in Island House on Roosevelt Island, New York City, the same apartment house where we lived in the mid-1970s.

Alberta Hunter 

Alberta Hunter in the 1920s 

Alberta Hunter became the greatest blues singer of her generation. When her mother died in 1956, Alberta retired, saying, “I want to do something to help people.” For the next 20 years, she worked with patients at Goldwater Hospital, the same hospital where Roosevelt Island Players, the theatre company we founded, put on shows. 

Black Swan label 

He’s a Darn Good Man (To Have Hanging Around)
– Alberta Hunter, Ray’s Dreamland Orchestra

In 1976, Alberta Hunter was rediscovered. No one in music history had ever made a comeback like hers. When she sauntered to the microphone, threw a wink to the audience, a nod toward the piano man, and started clapping and singing invitingly to everyone, “Come on up some night, my castle’s rockin,’” everyone knew she was a star of the greatest magnitude. Did you know Alberta Hunter? You can enjoy her singing on YouTube. I feel honored that I could know this wonderful woman.

Alberta Hunter 02 

Alberta Hunter 

My first introduction to rhythm and blues music was when I was 9 years old. We had just moved to 828 Banklick Street, 2nd floor, in Covington, where rent was $6 a month. On the street behind our house lived a family of negroes, and they often gathered in their backyard and played records. Our houses were close, and I loved to hear their music. I was hanging out the window listening one day when they noticed me and hollered a “hello.” They then invited me to join them if my folks said it was OK. I have always been thankful that my family never had any prejudice against people of another race or color. I was delighted to join them, hearing their music and getting to know those wonderful neighbors.

In my teenage years, I knew all the popular songs of the day, including songs from Gershwin’s folk opera, Porgy and Bess. When I began writing songs, working with several talented lyricists, I dreamed of being “another Gershwin.” In November 1943, the important revival of Porgy and Bess came to the Taft Theare in Cincinnati, and that’s where I took Georgianna on our first date.

Porgy and Bess cover 

Don’t miss the next chapter. Painting the Barn Roof.