Bound for Glory…Almost

May 26, 2011
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I routinely pump my mother for stories of my biological father (#1) because I never got to know him and I think that knowing something of his character gives me an insight into mine. Of course, ‘warts and all’ is the only worthy approach since good without the bad would present a distorted portrait of who he was.

Bound for Glory...AlmostCertainly, my late DNA buddy and me shared much in common. Physical stature: lean and lanky, slightly round shouldered with big hands and long fingers. Our musical tools were the same: drummers both, guitar players both, singers both and adjunct comedians both. My mother tells me that when she sees me perform she sees a lot of him in my performances. I’m only sorry there’s no existing film of him playing because I’d love to have seen it.

Sometimes I feel like my identity is incomplete because I don’t have but the most brief recollection of the being that co-wrote the preface to my life. All the years of screaming “author, author!” yielded next to nothing and I was left to rely on third party anecdotes. You take what you can get.

Fortunately, my mother, who always leans towards sanitizing the text (carefully parceling out the bad parts) has been a bit more matter of fact recently when discussing Larry. That was his name, Larry, or, Lawrence, if we’re being more formal. I have no idea what to call him since I never had a chance to call to him but we’ll go with the Larry moniker for the sake of this story.

Keep in mind that this is not only a third party recollection but a third party recollection once removed since it occurred before Larry met my mother and was something he relayed to her after they were married.

In the mid-forties the big bands were thriving and the sole focus of popular music. Larry was working as a drummer/singer (somewhat of a rare combination) in various local bands (wherever local happened to be at the time). His skill level was good enough to draw the attention of touring big band leader, Les Brown, who happened to catch one of Larry’s gigs in a Detroit nightclub called The Night Hawk.

In town for a tour stop, Brown asked him to come downtown during the day and audition with the band and, as Larry relays it, the gig was all but his for the accepting. Now, it’s easy to see why Larry would tell this part of the story. He was confident in his abilities. He was one of the best players in the area and it was impressive that Les Brown was showing interest in bringing him into the fold.

I suppose the prudent thing would have been to let it go there and make up some fanciful ending but Larry was obliged to answer the “what happened then?” question with the truth.

On his way to the audition he found a 20 dollar bill on the sidewalk. In the 40′s that was not an insignificant piece of change and it looked like luck had not only handed him a big career break but a cash prize as well. I’d like to report that Larry pocketed the loot, went to the audition and had a long and glorious run with one of the great big bands in the country but then I wouldn’t be telling the truth.

No, dear reader, Larry had $20 and, since he had arrived downtown early, figured he’d do a little pre-celebrating by dropping into a bar and grabbing a beer…or two…or whatever the final total turned out to be. Twenty bucks went a long way in those days and on that day it went long enough that he never showed for the audition.

At this point, I hope you’re shaking your head like I am because what dumbshit would blow that kind of chance over a lousy glass of beer? My dad, that’s who, and the entire story spooks me to my core since I am dumbshit’s direct descendant and suddenly I’m psychologically holding his ghost up against my history and wondering, am I like that?

The first thing I asked my mother was, “do you think he was afraid of success?” and she, without hesitation, said, “Yes, he was.”  I have dealt with that issue myself but I can safely say I would never, considering the enormity of the opportunity, have done what he did.

While I find Larry’s story disheartening, the next Quixotic flame-out, via my stepfather, Fred (father #2), is just a case of bad judgment or lack of foresight. I’m not sure which but, in hindsight, another golden opportunity drifted away into the mist of nothingness.

Fred was a pretty good trombone player and worked quite a bit in smaller combos around town but he definitely had the chops, as we say. Before he and my mother were married he made his way out to California looking for band work and ended up with a Los Angeles audition for Lawrence Welk. Welk was in the process of putting together the unit he’d bring to television and Fred had a shot at being part of that.

Unlike Larry, Fred not only showed up on time but got offered the job in the horn section. Now, unless you’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on another planet or plane of existence you’re probably aware that The Lawrence Welk Show was around for a very, very long time. It got picked up by ABC in 1955 and ran in prime time weekends for 27 years.

Twenty-seven years…and still runs on PBS in syndication.

I let that sit there for dramatic effect but, holy crap, 27 years! And on top of that his musicians stuck with him forever because he took care of them with top pay and perks galore. Welk was a pretty straight-laced guy and maybe Fred couldn’t handle the rules and regulations that were going to come his way but he turned down the gig, called home and, in the immortal words that he would be reminded of every Saturday night until he died, said:

“I don’t think it will last.”

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