Tag Archives: Philadelphia

MY SEARCH FOR PAT KIRBY

My search for the singer Pat Kirby — an extraordinary artist — began last Monday, June 12, with a trip to the thrift store closest to my college, as I described here.  I’d amassed nearly thirty dollars of records, and the long-playing one by a singer I’d never heard of before caught my eye because of the cover photo, the Decca label (Decca in that period tended to be more rewarding than some lesser labels), the repertoire, and the identification that the orchestra was directed by Ralph Burns.

That the disc was also $1.49 minus the Monday 25% discount was also encouraging, and I thought there might be excellent musicians accompanying Miss Kirby.  I should point out that I had never heard a note of her singing, nor had I been of an age to see her perform on television.

And, having just come from teaching a class of mostly uninspired students, it is likely that the cover picture of Miss Kirby, sweet pedagogue, caught my eye.  I would have bet that her students were paying attention.  It might be silly to have an instant crush on a portrait of someone c. 1956, but I make no more apologies for myself than that.

Good songs, as well.

Before Monday evening, I had played the album four times, had spent a good deal of time searching for Miss Kirby, and had emailed several friends who are professional singers to say, “You have to listen to her.”  Rebecca Kilgore listened and approved: I knew I was on the right track.

At this point I invite readers to do just that. I confess that I had put the needle down on the first track hoping for a pleasing, competent singer but really searching for surprises from unannounced jazz stars.  They may well be there, but Miss Kirby took my attention wholly.

I hear a controlled passion, a lovely dramatic sense.  She understands the words, offers them with diction that is both natural and impressive.  Some passages of lyrics that I had never fully understood are clear for the first time.  Her rhythmic sense is splendid . . . and although she has a splendid vocal instrument, her voice is never the main subject.  It’s the song.  She’s not imitating anyone (although she reminds me ever so delicately of Teddi King) and her approach seems so unaffected but, as any singer would tell you, she is no amateur.  I hear a tender tremulous vibrato, full of emotion but Miss Kirby is in complete control, never over-dramatic.  Yet she can be almost saucy on DOWN WITH LOVE, which rises to a near-shout; however, her LOVER MAN is a young woman’s sweet series of wishes.  Her IN LOVE IN VAIN — backed only by a guitarist who might be Barry Galbraith and a string bassist — is beyond memorable.

I don’t know whether she or Burns or perhaps Milt Gabler chose the songs, but Miss Kirby shows tremendous courage in singing LOVER MAN with the potent shade of Billie hovering.  She manages to make me hear her on I FALL IN LOVE TOO EASILY, making that song her own, not Mr. Sinatra’s.

I will put my adoration down for several paragraphs and offer a story, by John Fink, from the September 15, 1956 Chicago Tribune “TV Week” — full of attractive photographs of a dark-haired, pretty young woman, sipping soda through a straw, singing in front of an overhead microphone, demurely wearing a narrow-striped top. The story’s headline, in lower-case turquoise, is “once too shy to stand up and sing!”  I know the enthusiastic prose that one finds in weekly television guides, but at least Mr. Fink had offered a few facts.

Philadelphia has always been home base for Pat Kirby.  The songstress of the Tonight program, seen week days at 11 p. m. on Channel 5, started life there as Patricia Querubin, and did her first vocalizing with a high school band.  Too shy to stand up and sing, she sat at her piano at the rear of the stage.

Two years ago, after a shot at local radio, Pat was tapped for an Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts appearance.  She won, then retired to Philadelphia to consider a Hollywood offer.  But Hollywood, she decided, was too far from home.

By that time Steve Allen had signed her up for guest appearances on Tonight, and she was staying in a Manhattan convent, returning to Philly on week-ends to be with her parents and three brothers.  She was signed as a regular on the program, and had begun to make records.  She knew she had really arrived when they asked her to make an album called “Pat Kirby Sings.”

The singer with the jet black hair and flashing black eyes stands 5 feet, 6 1/2 inches tall and weighs a tidy 125 pounds.  Her father, a merchant mariner, is of Spanish descent; her mother comes of Irish stock.

Pat chooses her songs for the feeling in the lyrics and leans towards “standards” by Gershwin and Arlen and Rodgers and Hart.  “If the words don’t mean anything,” she says, “why bother pronouncing them.  You might just as well sing vowels.”

But her long range goal was to get married.  She was all of 20, and she had made up her mind.  Pat accomplished that last June.  The lucky fellow?  A boy back home in Philadelphia, of course.

For the moment, we can ignore all the stereotypes and sexism of 1956.

Here are the (uncredited) notes on the back of the Decca album:

Decca’s newest recording artist, Pat Kirby, is one of the most talented as well as the most attractive newcomers in show business. She appears several times a week over NBC Television, and hardboiled critics as well as enthusiastic watchers of Steve Allen’s “Tonight” show are already predicting that she will soon be one of the nation’s top-flight stars.

Born twenty-one years ago in Philadelphia, where she was raised, Pat Kirby comes from Irish and Spanish forbears — her real last name is Querubin.  She was educated at St. Francis Xavier Grammar School and John W. Hallahan Catholic High School, and it was at the latter institution that Pat began to display her musical versatility.  In the school band she played the tympani, drums, piano, organ, and celeste — there seemed to be no instrument she could not master. There was only one thing that did not seem to interest her, and that was singing.  A vocal career was the last thing on her mind; her ambition was to play the drums in an all-girl orchestra.  It was only after she graduated that she took up singing because she thought the ability to sing might help her in show business.

Pat’s professional career began when she was offered occasional piano and singing jobs with small bands in and around Philadelphia.  She forsook the piano — reluctantly — when Buddy Williams engaged her as vocalist for his orchestra.  It was not long before she was featured with the band in such coveted showcases as the Bellevue-Stratford and Benjamin Franklin Hotels in Philadelphia, the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, and many other top spots.  A little more than a year ago, Pat began doing a “single.”  In November 1954, she gained national recognition by winning the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Program,  She also appeared for twenty weeks on “Get Happy,” a show emanating from Philadelphia’s WCAU-TV, in which Pat was given a chance to act and ad-lib as well as sing.

This album furnishes proof that Pat Kirby has arrived.  The songs she sings are among America’s favorites, and she renders them all with a delicate and sure touch.  The songs themselves have a central theme.  Whether the numbers are Ballads, Rhythm Tunes, or Torch Songs, all of them answer the question posed in the title, “What Us This Thing Called Love?”  The arrangements for the numbers are unusually lush in scoring, and their enriched instrumentations furnish a worthy background for Pat Kirby’s voice. 

In writing this post, I have spent a good deal of energy chasing invisible cyber-rabbits.  I found out that after Miss Kirby had made this recording, she “abruptly retired,” although I saw mentions of her singing on the Merv Griffin Show c. 1960-62.  Did she retire as soon as she became pregnant?  Did she choose, a good Catholic, to forsake the bright lights for happy domesticity?  Did she miss performing? (Did Someone hasten her flight by behaving inappropriately to her? She was, as we say, both very attractive and very young.)  Decca, incidentally, seems to have had her record some pop singles, including the paper-thin TAMMY (circa 1957), and this Frank Loesser rarity, which might have had merit. And then, nothing.

I found out that Buddy Williams played drums and apparently had played them for Miller and one of the Dorseys.  Of course, no recordings from the period are listed in Tom Lord’s online discography, and there is no entry for Miss Kirby.  Or Miss Querubin.

There is a single by “Pat Kirby” of the theme from the motion picture SAYONARA, but it does not sound like the same singer.  There is no YouTube video of her, although there is televised evidence in the Paley Center (more about that shortly).  Facebook bristles with authorities, some quite incorrect and vehement about it, but no one responded to my request for information — from a group devoted to the dark corners of popular culture.  And I have little success with family-ancestry sites: her parents may have been Robert and Helen Querubin; her married name might have been Burgoyne.  Given that she was born in 1935 or so, I doubt that she will write to me to say, “Young man, you have gotten the facts of my life all wrong.”

However, I have a frustratingly lively lead that might lead nowhere: a Google search for Pat Kirby led me to the Paley Museum, which has two kinescopes of the Steve Allen show: on one she sings THE BOY NEXT DOOR, the other I’M GLAD THERE IS YOU.  And . . . on Trip Advisor, of all places, Liz M. from Philadelphia visited the Paley Museum and wrote this comment:

I visited here to see a video of my mom on the Steve Allen show from 60 years ago. She was young singer Pat Kirby who sang regularly with Andy Williams. They had 2 episodes.  It is so wild to see your mother in action years before you were born. My friend had never been there before and can’t wait to go back for special events.

I find that very touching, and Trip Advisor has a space to “ask Liz M. a question,” which I did.  Keep your fingers crossed.

Pat Kirby, who obviously wanted privacy after her brief intense turn in the spotlight, might have planned it all this way.  A short bolt of fame, of public visibility, might have been all she could tolerate or all she wanted.  William Faulkner said of fame that his ideal would have been to have written his books without his name on the title page — to do the work and remain anonymous.  Pat Kirby leaves us under an hour of musical evidence of the finest kind imaginable, and then she made her exit.  Thank goodness we have the records, because who would believe this tale otherwise?

I’d love to know more, if only to honor one of the finest — and least heralded — singers I’ve ever heard.

P.S.  (“This just in!”) Music scholar Bob Moke told me on Facebook that Pat is the speaking voice in the middle of this famous record.  The singing voice at the start is Lois Winters — all confirmed by one of the Lads.  Any snippet of Miss Kirby is greatly appreciated:

May your happiness increase!

Advertisements

COME TO PHILLY FOR JOY: MARTY GROSZ, DANNY TOBIAS, DAN BLOCK, BRIAN NALEPKA (Sept. 25, 2016)

I’m going to be in New Orleans on the night of September 25, otherwise I’d be here.  And with me absent, there will be one, perhaps two empty seats.  Do you need any more inducement?

"Tell us a story, Mister Grosz!" Photo by Lynn Redmile

“Tell us a story, Mister Grosz!” Photo by Lynn Redmile

Oh, yes.  It will be a concert — hugely informal, of course — by Marty Grosz, guitar / vocals / badinage / vaudeville; Danny Tobias, cornet; Dan Block, reeds, Brian Nalepka, string bass.  “Four of the best,” as they used to say in English boarding schools.  The host will be Philadelphia guitarist Barry Waharhaftig, leader of the Hot Club of Philadelphia.

Here’s three of the four heroes, with a typical Grosz free-association interlude, from 2013.  It was terribly dark at the Mermaid Inn, but we could still hear Marty, Danny, Dan, and Ed Wise, string bass:

I would point out, most gently, that Marty is now 86.  (And I don’t mean “86” in the bartending sense, but his chronological age.)  So the race is to those who do not delay.

Marty and his friends will be appearing on Sunday, September 25, from 8-10:30 PM.  The jollities will take place at the Venetian Club Ballroom, 8030 Germantown Avenue, in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, under the swinging aegis of Barry Waharhaftig and the Hot Club of Philadelphis.  Tickets are $20, with 5% going to the Weavers Way Food Co-op “Food Moxie” Program.

For tickets, visit http://MartyGrosz-Quartet.BPT.me.  For further information, contact Barry Wahrhaftig at 215-380-2588 or HotClubPhilly@gmail.com.

May your happiness increase!

MARTY and the MERMAID in 2014

I wish I could draw: I would create the cartoon that my title encourages, of Marty Grosz — bowtie and archtop — either embracing or being embraced by or singing to — a Jazz Mermaid. But you’ll have to imagine it for yourselves.

This post isn’t about cross-species romance or a new Disney film. I simply wish to mention that the peerless guitarist, singer, scholar, wit Martin Oliver Grosz, Himself, will be appearing at the Mermaid Inn in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, on these Friday nights in 2014: January 31, April 25, August 29, November 7.  The music runs from 8:30 PM – midnight. The cast of characters will shift during this Tour, but cornetist Danny Tobias is a certainty; expect a bassist and perhaps another horn. The Mermaid Inn is located at 7673 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19118: (215) 247-9797.  It is cozy and neighborly, and the prices will not appall or astonish.

Here are two videos I recorded during one of Marty’s 2013 appearances — with Danny Tobias, Dan Block, and Ed Wise — inducement for the Faithful to mark their calendars and go:

‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS:

WE’RE IN THE MONEY:

May your happiness increase!

“A ONE-MAN RHYTHM GANG,” or OUR MAN IN PHILADELPHIA: MARTY GROSZ (May 2013)

“A one-man rhythm gang” is how clarinetist Frank Chace described the Most Esteemed Martin Oliver Grosz, “Marty” to those on an equivalent social level.  I write this not to praise Marty, but to let my readers know that he has two — count ’em, two — gigs in Philadelphia in the very near future.  One is this coming Saturday (May 11) with cornet wonder Danny Tobias and fine string bassist Ed Wise — from 7-11 PM at The Saloon Restaurant — (215) 627-1811, 750 S. 7th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147.  Then, the next Friday (May 17), Marty and his Fig Pickers — make of that what you will . . . in Marty’s world, its etymological origin comes from a Ben Jonson play — which means Danny, Ed, and perhaps another hero — will appear at The Mermaid Inn from 8 PM to midnight.  7673 Germantown Ave, Philadelphia · (215) 247-9797.  I hope to make it to one or both of those gigs . . . if the creeks don’t rise, etc.

Perhaps you have only a dim sense of the Blessed Martin Grosz?  Let me refresh your memory with two impromptu videos (sub rosa, with a low-level digital camera) I shot at the 2007 Jazz at Chautauqua party — with Professors Dapogny, Robinson, Block, Giordano:

ARKANSAS BLUES:

FROM MONDAY ON:

Marty Grosz knows how to swing.  Don’t miss these opportunities to join the oceanic motion.

May your happiness increase.

DON’T FORGET EDDIE LANG, PLEASE!

Our ’20s guitar man

South Philadelphia’s Eddie Lang, the “Father of Jazz Guitar” who died in 1933, lives again at Chris’ Jazz Cafe.
By Dan DeLuca

Inquirer Music Critic

From Django Reinhardt to Jimi Hendrix, the names that commonly appear on argument-starting lists of the greatest and most influential guitarists of the 20th century are familiar.

But there’s one flat-picking virtuoso from South Philadelphia typically left out of the conversation, whose music has receded into obscurity despite a trailblazing career cut short by his tragic death in 1933: Eddie Lang.

That’s an injustice an aggregation of local musicians and Lang enthusiasts are doing their best to redress, starting with a multi-act show that will bring Lang’s music to life at Chris’ Jazz Cafe in Center City on Monday.

It’s the 108th anniversary of the birth of Lang, who died of complications from a tonsillectomy that his friend and collaborator, Bing Crosby, urged him to get. And it’s been declared Eddie Lang Day in Philadelphia in a proclamation from Mayor Nutter that “urges all citizens to be aware of Eddie Lang’s history-making musical legacy as well as the role of Philadelphia in the development of early jazz music.”

And it’s about time, say ardent fans of Lang, frustrated that such a prodigiously talented and innovative figure could be all but forgotten by all but jazz cognoscenti.

“He’s somebody who died at a young age who had a brief, meteoric career,” says Aaron Luis Levinson, the Grammy-winning Philadelphia record producer who helmed Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson, the 2008 release that re-created three of the historic guitar duets between Lang and African American guitarist Johnson that broke the recording industry’s color line in 1928 and 1929.

At Chris’ on Monday, all 12 of the duets – which Lang recorded under the pseudonym Blind Willie Dunn so as to not arouse suspicion of music miscegenation – will be reprised by guitarists Jef Lee Johnson and Jonathan Dichter, who will “play” Lang.

“He’s not someone anybody ever remembers to talk about when they talk about Philadelphia music,” Levinson says. “There’s something really unfair about cultural memory. It’s like anything that happened before Elvis Presley gets treated like it happened in the dinosaur age.”

Lang’s life story may be little known, but it reads like an unwritten screenplay about a dazzlingly talented, thoroughly modern musician. Born Salvatore Massaro in 1902, Lang took his stage name from a favorite basketball player for the club team the Philadelphia Sphas (an acronym for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association).

The son of an Italian American immigrant instrument maker was among the pioneers of the flat-picking style (which involves playing with a plectrum held by, rather than attached to, the fingers) and is credited with popularizing the guitar over the louder, previously more prevalent banjo, as a key instrument for the jazz bands of the 1920s. So much so that the historical marker across the street from the Saloon restaurant in Lang’s old neighborhood at Seventh and Clymer Streets, put up in 1995, proclaims him “the Father of Jazz Guitar.”

Along with his childhood friend, violinist Joe Venuti, Lang laid the foundation for the improvisational gypsy jazz stylings of Reinhardt and his violin-playing counterpart, Stephane Grappelli.

Crosby biographer Gary Giddins writes that in contrast to Venuti’s merry-prankster personality, Lang was “quiet, thoughtful and responsible, a ruminative Catholic.”

In A Pocketful of Dreams: Bing Crosby, The Early Years, 1903-1940, Giddins writes that after cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, Lang and Venuti were “arguably the most influential white jazz musicians of the 1920s, serving as a sort of template for the famed European jazz ensemble of the 1930s, the Quintette du Hot Club de France.”

Lang and Venuti made their names together playing in Philadelphia and Atlantic City showrooms, and according to Dichter, a music historian as well as a guitar teacher at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, toured in England with the novelty band the Mound City Blue Blowers.

In 1929, they were hired by bandleader Paul Whiteman, and it was there that Lang first began to accompany Crosby, who said of Lang’s playing: “He made you want to ride and go.” Giddins calls Lang Crosby’s “jazz conscience,” and the singer’s “most intimate friend, almost certainly the closest he would ever have.”

Crosby brought Lang for the 1932 film The Big Broadcast. He also negotiated a deal for Lang to have speaking parts in all his movies, which is why he urged him to have an operation to rectify the chronic hoarseness attributed to tonsillitis.

Richard Barnes, a guitarist and photographer who lives in Aston, is the driving force behind Eddie Lang Day in Philadelphia and will perform at Chris’ with his band, the Blackbird Society Orchestra. He’ll also do a number of Lang-Venuti duets with violinist Michael Salsburg. Barnes first got the Lang bug after he saw Leon Redbone perform in West Philadelphia in the early 1990s.

“That was my exposure to 1920s music,” Barnes says. “I got a couple of CDs, and when you listen to Paul Whiteman, Bix Beiderbecke, there was always this one guitar player that I really liked. It was totally different. Not strumming.

“Not blues. He plays in an almost pianolike style. Very interesting chord inversions, always complementing the singer. A real distinct sound. It turns out it was Eddie Lang.”

Barnes put an ad on Craigslist this year, reading “Eddie Lang Day, This October.” One of the interested parties to inquire was Mike Hood, who suggested Chris’ as a venue, and will play on Monday with his band Cornbread Five.

The event will raise money for the Eddie Lang Music Scholarship Program for underprivileged children, and Barnes hopes to turn it into an annual Eddie Lang Festival at Chris’ every October.

Barnes, who says business for his 1920s-style Blackbird Society Orchestra is looking up thanks to interest in HBO’s Atlantic City mob drama Boardwalk Empire, got the idea to approach the Nutter administration from one of his first musical memories.

“When I was 13, my first concert was seeing Elton John at the Spectrum,” he remembers. “And there was a picture of Frank Rizzo in the newspaper with Elton John, when he declared it Elton John Day. I thought it would be so cool if I could get the mayor to do that with Eddie Lang.”

The attention is well-deserved, says Dichter, who plays in a band called Beau Django, and who talked to Les Paul about Lang’s influence before the guitarist’s death at 94 last year. “He said it was just too long ago,” Dichter says. “It’s convenient to forget.”

Barnes says he’s always on a mission to bring Lang’s music to a wider audience. “I’m not trying to form the fan club or anything,” he says. “But I do think that people would appreciate this music and enjoy it. It’s something you don’t hear all the time.”

“He invented single-string guitar playing,” Dichter says of Lang, who is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon. “I would call him the most influential guitarist in terms of melody, and then he had this incredible sense of rhythm that really made you want to dance. He laid the foundation, and then he died.

“Charlie Christian is remembered. Jimi Hendrix is remembered. What about Eddie Lang?”