Last of KFWB’s Seven Swinging Gentlemen has something else to say.

By Anita Garner

Elliot Field onstage – 1950’s

It’s Hollywood in the 1950’s.  It’s the high school cruise.  We’re up and down Hollywood Boulevard then looping over to Sunset and back.   We’re listening to the radio and sticking our heads out car windows, greeting students from other towns whose radios are also blasting KFWB.

KFWB’s disc jockeys, the Seven Swinging Gentlemen, are celebrities.  We know where the studios are and we know we aren’t allowed up there on the second floor at 6419 Hollywood Blvd., but we like being close to the stardust, so we honk each time we pass  the building.

Decades later, I met Elliot Field, the last of the Gentlemen, through Don Barrett, Los Angeles radio guru, and we were immediately friends and collaborators on two books.

Conversations with Elliot are adventures. He’s multi-talented.  He’s brilliant.  He’s feisty.  And who gets to have hair like this in his 90’s?

Now he’s talking about a new book.  He’s written a few pages and do I want to hear?  What he read to me a few days ago is visceral and beautiful.  Do I think we should do this one more time?  He has things he’d like to say.  About being one of the early polio cases during the gruesome era of iron lungs and leg braces.

As told in his first book, getting the job at KFWB presented challenges none of us listeners knew about.  The fact that the Hollywood Boulevard studios were on the second floor meant planning ahead to navigate steps in heavy metal braces to get to the microphone in time to do his show.

He’d like to share some thoughts on what life is like now, about how polio affects aging and vice versa.  I urged him to do it because when Elliot tells a story, it’s worth listening to.  His goal this time is to write brief essays about different aspects of his life in Palm Springs today and he’s offering to share his experiences with individuals or organizations that can use the information.

One worry he has  about putting together a new book is losing the word he’s reaching for.  He said when we started this phone conversation he had a word in mind and now it was gone.  Did I think we could put together a book, even if he loses a word now and then?  Yes I do. I’ll try to help fetch lost words.  One idea – I can be his thesaurus, suggesting words until one comes close. Another device that might work – changing the subject, stop grasping for the missing word and see if it’ll drift back in.  We agreed to get started and were about to say goodbye when he said,

“Dinosaur.”

“Pardon?”

“Dinosaur.  That’s the word I was looking for.  That’s what I am,” he said. “Not complaining.  Just stating a fact.”

Timeless.  Wise.  Witty.  Those are words I’d suggest.

In his first book, Elliot wanted to end with his greatest hope, staying vertical, so here’s where we left off.  Stay tuned for the next chapter.

Vertical

It’s the last leaf in the plant pot.
It stands up straight and tall and proud.
I so admire its presence and strength.
The other leaves are bent, bowed, and almost horizontal.
One is vertical.
I’ve always admired vertical.
I think vertical is worth the effort.
It’s not an easy way.
It’s not uncomplicated.
But, I’ve always felt it’s worth the effort.
I water and feed Mister Vertical.
He responds with strength.
The other leaves also get water and food.
I’m always hoping they’ll stand up.
One of them is really making an effort.
We know the time will come when all of the leaves will lie down,
Will rest forever.
Meanwhile, I’m feeding all of them,
And cheering on the survivors.

******

 

It’s the lights. It’s the music. It’s the coffee. It’s the season.

By Anita Garner

I’m not a good shopper nor an artistic gift-wrapper and am sometimes running late before reaching full immersion in the spirit of the holidays.  However, I do feel fairly confident a few December rituals will eventually turn things around.  Early in the morning, while it’s still dark, I plug in the office lights, turn on the Christmas music and coffee my way toward daylight.  While Willie sings “Pretty Paper,” I’d love to share another couple of favorite spirit boosters.

Visiting the lights in whatever place makes a heart feel at home.  That works for me.  Cities that twinkle all over, or a little tree and a country cabin, I’ll take either.  Before I had the opportunity to live in the Bay Area, I declared San Francisco my favorite city and visited often.  Then I moved across the Bay where it’s always a thrill to arrive at the Ferry Building.  By the end of November, the  Embarcadero Four buildings are stunning, outlined in lights. If a person has to shop, a person might as well do it then and there.

My agent’s office was in a beautiful old building on Geary, across the street from Neiman Marcus at Union Square.  I’d take the vintage elevator up to Joan’s office, then across the street for a bite inside the glorious rotunda.

Like many broadcasters, I have a substantial holiday music collection, going back to the days when record companies sent them to us. I treasure them.

My website partner, Dave Williams, and I were producing audio for another website a couple of years back and searching for music, I met Chris Whiteman and Colin Tribe on YouTube and have followed them ever since.  Their holiday songs are part of my tradition.

My office lights now stay up all year.  The old Christmas CDs still work in my computer and when they don’t any more, I’ll keep downloading and carry on.

******

Here’s Chris Whiteman, who lives in Virginia and plays and teaches everywhere.  Click the picture to visit his YouTube channel

Here’s Colin Tribe with grandson, Edward.  Colin lives in England where he composes, arranges, teaches and plays the you know what out of that ukulele. Click the picture for his YouTube channel.

******

Follow me here anytime.

 

Get your fifteen minutes right here.

By Anita Garner

As soon as our family landed in a town, top of Daddy’s list of things to do was to find a radio station for our show. He preferred a Saturday morning program.  That way he could promote any nearby Singings or tent revivals or concerts where we’d be performing through the weekend.

When we stopped in Louisiana to pastor a church, the station Daddy chose was playing only country music records. No Southern Gospel. But a live show could be had if you’d bring in enough fans and if you came in fully sponsored. Those were the rules.

Since we traveled constantly, The Joneses had built up a good fan base.  It was a surprise though, when our first sponsor at WHXY turned out to be “The Beautiful Pine Tree Inn,” the very building where the radio station was housed.  Mr. and Mrs. Pine Tree Inn weren’t even members of our denomination, but they were fans of Southern Gospel.

Then came our fifteen minutes. Each show opened with a theme song with Daddy on guitar and Mother on piano or accordion. The four of us sang that one then a few more songs from all of us and sometimes a guest, like Brother Gene Thompson, an Arkansas evangelist who came to visit and heated up the airwaves with his guitar solos.  A brief devotion from Daddy, short and sweet and gentle, like the blessing before a meal, then out with the theme, which Kousin Karl, the deejay n duty, faded as he resumed regular programming.

We packed up instruments while Karl reminded listeners they could send in their cards and letters with requests and he’d make sure The Joneses got them before next week’s show.  Daddy stopped by the station during the week to pick up fan mail and true to Karl’s promise, we always performed at least one request each week.  In the 1950’s, songs were so short we packed in lots of music in our fifteen minutes.

Karl entertained my brother and me with his dramatic readings of Hadacol’s outrageous cure-all commercials that aired shortly before we went on the air – way too close according to Daddy.  Daddy knew the magic liquid in the bottle was  mostly hootch.  Karl messed around with different versions of the commercials, changing them every time, performing them with and without his Louisiana accent, sometimes with a deep voice, then next time a high squeaky, anxious delivery, as if nothing would help cure that voice except this product.  He’d pretend to take a swig, and magically his voice returned to normal.

Karl’s career took off.  As we were leaving Louisiana, he was becoming a successful concert promoter and a scout for record labels. He continued encouraging  Mother to get the songs she wrote to people who could record them. And onstage, when he had occasion to introduce “Sister Fern” his build-up to her performance was so flowery, we were surprised Daddy wasn’t jealous. Karl helped make Sister Fern’s fifteen minutes last a good deal longer.

******

Just before Hadacol went out of business (false advertising, owner was a swindler, numerous other charges) it was huge.  Hadacol was said to be one of the biggest advertisers in the Deep South with a budget second only to Coca Cola. Here’s a sample of the kind of commercials Kousin Karl had to read.  Click the bottle to listen.

 

 

Calling on the saints of lost objects

By Anita Garner

I’m sharing office space right now with stacks of scrapbooks and photo albums, with boxes and bins filled with photos, searching for pictures meant to be in my new book.My forthcoming book (“forthcoming” is such a lovely word) will contain photos and the publisher’s waiting for me to decide which ones.  I’ve decided.  I just can’t find them.

There’s no shortage of pictures available, but I have specific memories in mind.  Later, The Glory Road website  will be updated for the book’s release and there’ll be room for lots more there, but where are the ones I’d set aside for the book?  They were here a few days ago.

It’s time to invoke St. Anthony (specializing in finding lost objects) and St. Jude (specialist in hopeless causes.)   When we lived in Louisiana Bayou country, all my friends were Catholic.  I envied them their array of saints who are apparently available all the time.  We little Pentecostal preachers’ kids were advised to talk to Baby Jesus, but then we were also cautioned about when we should and shouldn’t be specific with our requests so we weren’t always sure we were doing it right.  With St. Jude or St. Anthony you can say, “Will you help me find my keys?” and sometimes they will.

I don’t want to put things away until I find what I’m looking for.  In old movies, Irish characters sometimes said, “Saints preserve us!”  If the saints know exactly where my misplaced photos are, this would be a good time to show me. I’ll be most grateful.

******

Follow the song.

By Anita Garner

I’m unloading the dishwasher.  Music is playing.  Randy Owen (Alabama Band) sings one of my favorite old hymns with The Isaacs and I’m right back there in places where I first learned the song.  Follow the music to the Deep South during the ’40’s and ’50’s and find a story.

Off the highway and down a dirt road, nearly impassable during heavy rains, in a clearing just big enough to embrace a small building, stands a sweet little church.  It was built long ago by a community who walked miles to get here or rode in wagons carrying food to share after worship. We make the trip decades later in our big old very used sedan.

This church has no full-time pastor.  It’s not much different from the circuit-riding preacher days of Little House On The Prairie.  Daddy, one of several ministers from other towns, travels here to conduct worship or sometimes to say words over a departed member of the congregation.  They don’t meet every Sunday.  They meet when a minister is available.  Today it’s our family’s turn.

It’s a Sunday afternoon, after Daddy has already preached at our own church.  Mother’s home resting, waiting for the birth of our new baby.  If she’s well, she sometimes comes along to sing, but today it’s Daddy, my brother, Leslie Ray and me.  A visiting preacher might bring his own guitar, but it’s not necessary. It doesn’t take many souls to fill this chapel with song.

Today, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, when I hear families blending like Randy Owen and his cousins in Alabama and The Isaacs’ exquisite harmonies, I think of my family singing our own homey version when any one of us started off with this song.

Click the picture for Randy Owen with The Isaacs,  I Need Thee Every Hour

******

 

 

 

Quilting on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

After childhood years spent hanging around with prolific quilters, I remain untalented in that department, but I’m an appreciator.  When Leslie Ray and I were little, quilts were a big part of our lives.  We touring Gospel Gypsies slept on pallets on the floor made of piles of old quilts.  When Daddy pastored, congregations furnished the parsonage with everything we needed.   Colorful quilts arrived, many of them made from scraps of cloth that had already seen several lives.

Those were my favorites.  Each square came with stories attached. Stories were vital for young children without roots. I remember specific quilt squares. I remember tears in the eyes of a woman piecing together a tribute to someone recently departed.

The quilts in our life weren’t fancy patterns.  They were patchwork, a piece of a skirt a little girl wore to school, a snippet of one of her brothers’ shirts, flour sack remnants. Some quilts were thicker than others, stuffed with batting inside for warmth, and while they did the job during cold winter nights, the insides eventually separated and formed clumps. Nobody cared.  Nobody treated the clumpy quilts different because of their shape.

We traveled the Deep South in the 50’s with old quilts in every condition. When they were finally no more than shreds, Daddy and Leslie Ray wrapped them around the amplifier and guitars and microphones and other equipment in the trunk.

When we stayed a while in parsonages, we kids went along to Quiltings.  A Quilting was a regularly scheduled gathering of a group of women in the home of whichever one had a quilting frame.  The frames were big wooden things suspended up near the ceiling and lowered by a rope pulley.

Quilts-in-progress came down when the ladies arrived and chairs were situated all around, where a roomful of women making tiny stitches connected colorful pieces of cloth.  Their hands moved in age-old rhythms while they engaged in conversation.

In addition to plain old everyday necessary quilts, a quilting group took turns working on each other’s special items. A quilt for a new baby. Graduation. Engagement. Hope chest. Wedding. Shut-ins.

We kids were allowed to stretch out on the floor under the quilting frame and because we were out of sight, the ladies forgot little children were  listening.  After any Quilting, my brother and I left with more information than we should have.

When it was time for refreshments, we made our presence known.  In every Southern home, whatever the economic resources or lack of them, some cook had a specialty that showed up when the quilting sisters came over.

A few years back, I mentioned to friend, Barbara, that I no longer have even a remnant of a family quilt.  She, a San Francisco jazz singer with many other talents, took my sad story to heart and made me this lovely piece.  She handed it over saying, “Now you have a quilt.”

I still love most old things better than most new things, but this wall hanging Barbara made is the exception.  Not long after she completed it, she was gone. Another quilting story for another time.

******

You gotta help somebody.

By Anita Garner

Patsy & Loretta & Kris & Johnny

Music stories touch on the close relationships between Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash.  In each case, one got out in front a bit and reached back to bring another one along, to make a living writing, performing, touring, getting steady work in the music business, maybe getting on The Opry.  Patsy had hits, met Loretta, loved her and looked out for her.  Kris wrote great songs but when he met Johnny, he was a janitor at a recording studio just trying to get someone to hear them.  Johnny listened.

In the 1950’s, Mother (Sister Fern Jones) was writing songs and looking for a recording artist to record one of them.  Her options were limited.  She wrote and performed only gospel. She needed to find  a popular artist who also sang “inspirational” songs now and then.

She handed her packages to my brother and me to take to the post office, packages containing tapes of her singing her songs.  One went to the home of The Singing Governor, Jimmie Davis, in Louisiana, the man with the hit song, “You Are My Sunshine.”

We didn’t know how she got his attention in the first place.  We didn’t ask.  We were young kids, not that curious about our parents’ activities that didn’t concern us.

It could have been Kousin Karl, a country radio deejay, who let everyone know how much he liked the music sung by Sister Fern.  Karl was well connected and he emceed shows all over the place.  It could have been  gospel recording artists appearing on the same bill with her or musicians from all over the South who showed up to accompany the singers.

Did Sister Fern fit into that group of people who reached back to help?  Did she ever promote someone else’s work?  Daddy did.  Helping other people was his job as a preacher, and it was also how he believed, but if Mother helped other people, she never spoke of any such relationships.

We didn’t find out until after she passed.   Going through her files (multiple tall filing cabinets chronicling her life in music) there were audition tapes and rough music manuscripts and head shots and demo records sent to her from strangers from all over the world, hoping she’d connect them with someone else.  I don’t know how those people found her address and phone number, but they reached her in surprising numbers

She kept all the material she received and copies of her responses, handwritten on those self-carboned note papers.  To some, she offered names and addresses of contacts.  By then there were multiple television shows featuring gospel music and she seemed to know all of them.

Once in a while today we hear a right-place-at-the-right-time story, but not as often as we used to.  Back then, without any apparent expectation of reciprocity, country and gospel performers helped each other.  It’s how things worked.

I hear Daddy saying from the pulpit, “You gotta help somebody,” and then I have to go listen to this song.

Billy Eckstine, “If I Can Help Somebody” (Nat King Cole show, 1957)

******

 

If it’s Halloween, it must be time for Christmas movies

By Anita Garner

Starting the last weekend in October we’re reminded again that in Christmas movies small town living always works out best, that city people are driven and can’t put down their phones, and a holiday movie will help everyone change for the better.  This is my annual Christmas movie post.  It doesn’t really require updating because some things don’t change, but here are a few details to watch for.

******

Hallmark and Lifetime Christmas movies have started.  You can still get a snack without pressing pause and you won’t miss a major development.  Thank goodness.  Our favorite plots are all still there, faithful in every detail.  Here are some things that happen in every  Hallmark Christmas movie.

1945 movie, Christmas in Connecticut. Not a Hallmark movie, but worth noting that the plot features a famous entertainer forced to learn to decorate a Christmas tree without wearing flannel.

Today’s movies acknowledge that expensive clothes could be ruined in the weather. So we get beautiful and country-fied cold weather wardrobes.

Stylish coats and mittens and scarves are crucial to the plot.
We’ve come a long way.

All this unfolds in a charming cabin or an inn. Oh but there are problems in the country too. The heating at the inn might quit or the owner is days away from eviction. Worse yet, the visitor from the city is actually a scout from some big, cold-hearted company that plans to change things.

As these movies move along, cell phones are thrown away, big job offers are turned down, snow storms create white-outs that bring commerce to a halt, forcing our hero or heroine to slow down and learn some Christmas lessons; how to toast marshmallows, trim a tree.

There will be baking, and flour may be tossed around in a getting-to-know-you romantic way. Hands will meet over cookie cutters.

Everyone is happier wearing plaid.

Turns out people in the little town are the kindest, most generous folks anyone’s ever met. Our main character falls in love with the town and also with a former sweetheart who stayed there all this time and is miraculously single.

It’s happening again right now. Christmas movies with happy endings.  Fine with me. I like my holidays predictable.

******

 

Country Music Connections

By Anita Garner

We’re still talking about Ken Burns Country Music on PBS. People who know about The Glory Road asked, so I’m answering questions about my family’s music and how our history fits into the decades depicted in the show.

Early in the series Ralph Peer set up recording equipment in the South and pickers and singers came down from the hills to start a  country music revolution. Ralph Peer connects to our family in more than one way. (See  below.)

In the early episodes there’s shape-note singing, taught in small country churches and sponsored by sheet music salespeople. Daddy (Brother Ray) was there, sent with his brothers and sisters by his Mama, who insisted everyone in their house would carry a tune.

Governor Jimmie Davis, Louisiana’s Singing Governor, was already famous for You Are My Sunshine when  he recorded a song Mother (Sister Fern) wrote.  He was responsible for the earliest acknowledgement of her songwriting.

Johnny Cash heard Jimmie Davis sing I Was There When It Happened on the radio in the early 50’s and learned the song to please his mother.  When my Mother wrote it, the deal she was offered to get it published was to sell half the copyright to Governor Davis, whose publisher was Ralph Peer. Today our family still shares the copyright with Peer Music.  Johnny continued to record and perform the song throughout his career. (See link below.)

When Johnny auditioned for Sun Records, he and the Tennessee Two, Marshall and Luther, sang the song for Sam Phillips who, it turned out, didn’t want to record any gospel. This story appears in the movie, Walk The Line. Marshall Grant, one of the Tennessee Two, wrote a book about his time with Johnny and titled it with Mother’s song.  His book, I Was There When It Happened, is still available, I believe.  Through the movie I met Dan John Miller, talented actor/singer/musician, who played Marshall in Walk The Line.  Dan John was kind enough to play Brother Ray at a Los Angeles reading of my play.

Nashville’s A Team, fabulous studio musicians, played on Sister Fern’s recording sessions at Owen and Hal Bradley’s Quonset Hut in Nashville.  When I was writing my book and musical, Hal was still playing sessions, and was President of Nashville Musicians Union.  He was generous with his time and advice.

Mac Wiseman, bluegrass star, introduced Mother to Randy Wood, President of Dot Records, where she got her own recording contract.

The Joneses made their records later in the 50’s and their music mostly falls into the rockabilly/Southern Gospel sound, but Daddy kept his hill country/high lonesome tenor.  He married it with Mother’s blues wail and honky tonk attitude while they sang songs about Jesus.  When their music was re-mastered and released by Numero Group in 2005, some of the earliest fans came from progressive radio and college radio stations who’ve embraced roots music all over again.

I’m glad the series was produced during a time when so many of the people who played significant roles were still around to tell their stories in their own words.  Sadly, we’ve lost several of these pioneers since the show began filming.   Praise is due Ken Burns and co-producers, Julie Dunfey and Dayton Duncan.  I’m in awe of Dayton’s writing. He’s a beautiful storyteller.  And of course there’s no voice like narrator, Peter Coyote’s.

Park Hill is the mansion Ralph Peer owned in the Hollywood Hills.  My daughter, Cathleen, later worked for Peer Music (with Ralph Peer Jr. in charge) while I was on the air at KBIG radio just around the corner. Here’s one view of the Peer mansion.  Tucked away in and around the estate are guest houses, a grotto, and Monique Peer’s (Ralph Sr.’s widow) prize camellias.  Lots of camellias.  This magnificent estate housed the headquarters of the publishing company.

Here’s where Cath sat at her desk, inside the entryway, writing the company newsletter.

Peer Music represents all the works of the man who some say started it all – Jimmie Rodgers.  Daddy revered him and Cath arranged for her Grandpa Ray to have copies of all Jimmie Rodgers’ recordings.

Here’s Johnny Cash singing Mother’s song, I Was There When It Happened, at Town Hall Party in Los Angeles.  Click the picture for the video

Here’s Mother, singing, Keeps Me Busy, a song from the Numero Group album, Fern Jones The Glory Road recorded with Nashville’s A Team.  Click the picture to listen.I wrote a story, Hank Williams Was A Friend of Mine, which won several awards, including a Marin County Arts Grant.  The friendship in the title refers to Daddy, who prayed for Hank every day. I’ll post it here one day.

For years I was a voiceover (V/O) for KCET-TV, PBS for Southern California.  Once in a while I got to say things like “Coming up tonight, Ken Burns’ (fill in the name of any of his films.)”

And one almost-connection.  I lived in Mill Valley, California for years.  In that very small town I often spotted fellow Mill Valley resident, Peter Coyote, actor/narrator, and I always meant to say, “Nice job on the Ken Burns (fill in the name of the show)” but I never did.

***

 

Ken Burns Country Music. Wasn’t that a time!

By Anita Garner

I gobbled up all eight episodes of Ken Burns Country Music along with countless other fans watching to see what we’d hear about our favorites.  I’m among a huge population of transplanted Southerners all over the world watching and making connections between the music and the writers and performers and the places in our hearts

As soon as the first episode aired, I began to hear from people asking how this telling of country music history connects with The Glory Road and the music my family recorded during some of the times depicted in the series. In every episode, there are people and places and songs and trials and triumphs connected to my parents’ own musical history

The Joneses in The Hollywood Reporter when The Glory Road play came out right after “Oh Brother Where Art Thou.” 

Brother Ray and Sister Fern’s Southern Gospel and country music are part of the same family.  If country music is a place, The Glory Road runs through it.  If country music is a community, they’re next door neighbors.  It’s all one big, colorful quilt.

There’s much about this in my book, but until that comes out, I’ll put some of the pieces together and in a couple of days I’ll post specifics.