An Autobiography: Chapter 4, Painting the Barn Roof

Many years before I realized, in the late 1940s, that there were no magazines for hillbilly/country music fans, I discovered this was true for the popular music artists. Movie magazines were prevalent from the silent movie era, including Photoplay, Silver Screen, Modern Screen, and Motion Picture.

As a teenager, I knew all the pop singers and big bands, and sang the hits of the day. Singers like The Andrew Sisters, Vaughn Monroe, Bing Crosby and the Ink Spots were selling millions of records in the early 1940s, and the big bands, like Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Harry James and Tommy Dorsey were popular. Fans knew them through their records, but could not find anything about their lives – and what was wanted by the fans most of all was rarely available: their photographs.

I was thinking about this at a time I was spending summer months with my Uncle Cecil (my mother’s brother) on his small 10-acre farm near Waynesville, Ohio. He was a remarkable man. He played his old fiddle in the evening after a day’s work, and I would pump the player piano. But I did get to listen to the radio there, the local disc jockeys, and kept up with the popular songs.

Being blind, Uncle Cecil had attended the School for the Blind in Ohio, where he learned to make brooms. He had a complete broom shop in the barn, and he taught me to sew brooms. We turned out the best brooms available, and every few days we had to take a bundle of brooms to the stores in Waynesville.

Cecil Hiteman in his broom shop.

I remember, too, visiting with Uncle Lafe and Aunt Mary (my mother’s sister), at their nearby farm. They had an old 1920s radio set with headphones, and it was there, in the 1930s, that I took my first ride in a horse and buggy. They had no car, but when the time came to go to town or visit someone, Uncle Lafe went to the barn and hitched up the horse to the two-seat buggy. There was a robe in the backseat to put over your legs in the cold weather.

A couple listening to the radio in the 1930s.

One event I must share before I get back to the music is something I have never forgotten. I think it was around 1941, when I was 15. One day, Uncle Cecil said to me, “The metal roof on the barn needs a coat of tar paint; do you think you could do that?” Well, the barn was very large and quite tall, but without thinking, I said, “Sure.”

So Uncle Cecil ordered several 5-gallon cans of roof paint and showed me the ladder that I should lay on the roof, with curved ends that laid over the top to keep the ladder secure on the roof as I went up and down, painting with the big long-handled brush. It was a precarious job, and I am thankful I can write about it! He told me to wear gloves to keep the paint off my hands, but he failed to tell me to keep my body covered.

The tar paint had to be applied on a hot day when the metal roof was very hot so the paint would flow. Course, being a hot day, I took my shirt off and went to work. Well, after two hours, with splattered paint on my arms and chest, I started to burn and was soon in agony. A sunburn through tar paint is misery as I found out. I kept painting through the afternoon, and when I came in the house moaning, Uncle Cecil didn’t have much sympathy. He said I should have known better than to take my clothes off!

Aunt Laura was Uncle Cecil’s second wife, and her daughter Martha was married to John J. Edmiston, whom everyone called Ed. Ed and Martha were real Bohemians, and I loved my visits with them and their many cats. Ed always had a book in his hand – or at least nearby. They drove a classic Pierce-Arrow automobile, last manufactured in 1938. It was an expensive touring car, and even in the depression it sold for $10,000. The company ran artistic ads with no information about the car.

Ed played the banjo in the Ted Weems orchestra in the early days. It was Ted Weems who gave Perry Como his first national exposure in 1936. Many evenings Ed would play for me, and best of all, he played the Gershwin tunes, including The Rhapsody in Blue. He had met Gershwin, and the first record I bought was Paul Whiteman’s recording of the Rhapsody, purchased with money given to me by Ed and Martha. This was my first contact with a professional musician, and I thought it was wonderful. I had started writing songs about this time and would play the melody on Uncle Cecil’s old player piano.

Ted Weems and his Orchestra.

As days went on, Uncle Cecil told me about Ed – how he had graduated from Harvard with a law degree and was an attorney for the governor of Florida for awhile. Rummaging in the attic one day, I came across Ed’s framed Harvard diploma It was dusty, dirty and evidently of no interest to Ed, so I said nothing about it.

I told Ed about my idea of books about pop singers, calling them “Scrapbooks of the Stars.” He thought it was a good idea and suggested we survey high school students to get their comments and interest. We did that and developed a plan for the proposed books. Ed and I went to New York City and visited record companies who offered their support. We also tried to find a publisher, but no one was interested. That trip was a great experience, though, living with Ed in Greenwich Village for two weeks.

Sometime later, I decided to go to RCA Victors main offices in Camden, New Jersey, but when I got there, they told me the offices for the popular records division was in New York City. However, on my visit to Camden, the company was preparing a feature on employees for their monthly newsletter, and they were getting ready to photograph the receptionist when I arrived, and asked if I would pose with her. So they took photos of me at the reception desk, briefcase under my arm, talking to the receptionist. A few weeks later, they mailed me a copy – and there I was on the front page of the RCA Victor Newsletter! 

Thurston Moore at RCA Victor in 1948.

I remained confident that I had a good idea in the pop books, and a few years later I made an attractive prospectus on a few top artists like Perry Como. One of the biggest hits in 1947 was Francis Craig’s “Near You.” Craig wrote the song, and his band recorded it. Doris Day is one of the many singers who covered it. The song was No. 1 on “Your Hit Parade” for four months and on the charts for six months.

When I learned that Francis Craig had the top society dance band in Nashville, Tennessee, I decided to visit him. So I got on the train in Covington and made my first trip to Nashville. That beautiful old train station in Nashville had details such as a glorious 65-foot barrel ceiling fitted with stained glass, stone fireplaces and carved bas-relief panels. It was later turned into a fine hotel. Little did I know that I would make countless trips there over the next 36 years, before moving there in 1983.

Much of that trip is hazy, and I don’t recall any intelligent plan of meeting with Mr. Craig when I got there, but the bottom line is simply this: on Saturday night, I was in the Craig living room with his wife, family and friends, listening to “Your Hit Parade” to hear the position of “Near You” that week; Mr. Craig was out on tour.

“The Francis Craig Scrapbook” never came to fruition, but an interesting sidenote: Francis Craig’s young daughter, Donia, was there that night in Nashville, and about 45 years later, we met at Radio Station WAMB in Nashville. Georgianna and I were recording our weekly program, The Theatre Scene, which aired every Sunday, and Donia was there talking about a special they were doing on her father’s music. Donia and everyone there was amazed at our meeting again after all those years.

Twelve years later, I discovered that Donia was an art dealer, and she came to our house to see some of the works by the Japanese artists I represent, Masaaki and Chikako Tanaka. In the living room was the magnificent 3-foot-by-6-foot water color “The Great Smoky Mountains.” Donia looked at other smaller works, but her eyes kept going back to the Smoky Mountains. Finally, she said, “I have to have that, and not for resale; I want that in my personal collection, and I know exactly where it will hang.” The painting was $12,800, and in following months she did sell some other Tanaka pieces to her clients. One day she called and invited me to her apartment to see where the Smoky Mountains hung. It was in her bedroom, on the wall at the foot of her bed where she would see it last thing at night and first thing in the morning. I think her father would love this story, and I thank him for writing “Near You.” Georgianna and I loved his recording with the piano, bass and vocalist. I play it often. If you’d like to hear it, you can find it on the internet. 

“The Great Smoky Mountains” painting.

Don’t miss the next chapter: The Pop Scrapbook. 

Published on May 15, 2012

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