Early 1960’s. Mardi Gras Room, Park Wilshire Hotel near MacArthur Park, Los Angeles. The former Nita Faye Jones, now Anita, with Barry Townley of The Barry Townley Trio.
There was almost no time lapse between graduating Herbert Hoover High in Glendale and singing all night in clubs. I was underage, wore tons of make-up and turned my natural red hair blonde, spending hours in a salon every month to keep it that way.
Step down from Wilshire Blvd into this hotspot. Seats on the right faced the stage. It was packed even on weeknights.
A nightclub singer’s wardrobe was flashy. Feathers. (There are feathers on the bottom of that white dress and the bottom isn’t far from the top.) Sequins. Fancy fabrics. Much of my paycheck went to a little shop in Beverly Hills where I made layaway payments.
The pay for a singer back then? Not enough to afford the clothes. Many of us worked two jobs. I was a skinny teenage girl burning the candle at both ends. My day job was to try to look good at a front desk in the plush lobby of a high rise in downtown Los Angeles. I was a lickety-split typist but I didn’t tell them that because I doubt I could have stayed alert enough to complete a task, so I just sat there.
The company was LAI, Lockheed Aircraft International, where military officers from other nations came to negotiate the purchase of aircraft with a team of LAI attorneys. My job was to smile and greet them and push buttons to summon their hosts and translators. Through translators, we chatted. They loved music and wherever I sang, there they were.
So – all day in an office, then change clothes and sing until 1 or 2 AM, then drive home, try to sleep, wake up to lots of coffee and do it all over again. it took a while before I made enough from singing to stop the day jobs, but eventually every bar and restaurant featured musicians and a singer and times were good for live music all over Southern California.
I don’t remember back then ever having a single conscious thought about my work in clubs having anything to do with rebelling against my upbringing. It was just something I knew how to do. I grew up performing with my family.
I’m still surrounded by boxes of photos for my book project. Pictures do bring up stories. I’m telling this one to say, well I’ll be damned, there’s much in common here with my mother. Fern Jones took her guitar into a radio station when she was 12 and they were glad to give her a show. By the age of 14, she lied about her age to sing in honky-tonks, then went to work with a big band. Then she met Daddy.
Because of Daddy’s religious beliefs, I was raised with no makeup, no going where liquor was served and pretty much everything else a young woman wanted to do was a sin. These days I look at pictures of teenage Fern and it’s apple, meet tree.
Nita Faye Jones & Reverend Raymond Jones Birthday picnic at Narrows Dam, Arkansas, 1952
This picture represents groundbreaking, earth-shattering, modern behavior for our family. I see wax paper and store-bought, sliced bread. We didn’t purchase either of those items often. Most of our everyday, carrying-around lunches traveled in brown sacks with contents wrapped in brown paper like the butcher used, so the rustle of wax paper meant excitement for Jones kids, no matter what it held.
We made our own bread at home: Two kinds of biscuits, some for breakfast and another skillet of “cathead” biscuits to be sliced and used for sandwiches. The name came from their size – “big as a cat’s head.” Cornbread was cooked later in the morning and Daddy usually finished off the last of it at night, crumbled into a tall glass of cold buttermilk.
Daddy had no truck with store-bought food but Mother was my ally on this occasion. Because it was my birthday, and because she loved it too, she persuaded him to buy a loaf of “light bread” and a jar of smooth-whipped pimento cheese spread instead of our usual homemade kind. Our other everyday sandwich staples were baloney or sizzled ham. Daddy fried them and tucked them into cathead biscuits and that’s what Leslie Ray and I carried to school.
Some of the unwrapped parcels of wax paper on this picnic table held big wedges of pie, which Mother baked in the middle of the night while she worked on writing her songs.
Soda pop was allowed when we traveled and for special occasions, but there was no stinting on the everyday intake of caffeine and sugar in our house. That snazzy thermos jug on the table was filled with Daddy’s sweet tea. He made pitchers of it every day, stirring in gobs of sugar while the tea was warm. We also drank jars of lemonade sweetened with simple syrup. A slender thermos just out of sight held Mother’s very strong, very sweet coffee which went everywhere with her.
The expression on Daddy’s face here is probably because he was caught mid-chew, but it could also mean, I’m eating this store-bought stuff because it’s your birthday, but tomorrow it’s back to real life.
Note the preacher at a lakeside picnic in the Arkansas piney woods is wearing a dress shirt and tie. That was also part of our real life. Soon after our meal, we’d pack up the car, he’d drop us off at home, then he’d head out to spend hours calling on members of the congregation who needed him.
By the time my brother was 13, he was getting slippery about his comings and goings. His moods were unpredictable and he was nearly impossible for our parents to deal with. His new weapons were anger and silence. I envied him all that barely-contained rage.
For a while, Leslie Ray used his paper route for freedom. If he was late for church, he said the papers arrived late. Sometimes he skipped church altogether, a sin for a preacher’s boy, according to Daddy, and instead he went door to door collecting on his route. Freedom from Sunday School lasted only until Daddy set up other collection times. I wanted to be just like Leslie, brave and bold. So far the best I’d come up with was moping. When things went wrong, I was the sad one. He was the mad one.
This is not the face of a happy boy.
We were interpreters for each other.
“What’s your sister crying about now?”
“Nothing. She just cries sometimes.”
Not eloquent, but given that he always knew exactly what I was sad about, it was his attempt to let me keep secrets too.
“Where’s your brother?”
I was a fairly competent liar myself by then and getting better at it all the time. Saying “I don’t know,” when in fact I did know, was necessary to keep them from engaging in a line of questioning that might have exposed Leslie Ray’s present sanctuary. I assumed part of his enjoyment was derived from keeping them guessing.
We never tattled on each other. Exercising an instinct shared sometimes by children born close together, we helped each other avoid incrimination. We were dedicated to maintaining the dividing line between Them and Us.
Leslie practiced brinksmanship, magically reappearing just before a situation required someone to go hunt for him. His arrivals back home were cut so close, he entered the house a cartoon character accompanied by screeching, braking sound effects. Contrary to Daddy’s suspicions, my brother was not, at the present time anyway, doing anything our parents would consider sinful, but his history of misdeeds kept them alert to all possibilities. I wished just once without jeopardizing Leslie’s privacy, I could say,
“Go ahead, ask me that again. Ask me ‘Where’s your brother?’ so I could answer,
Churning for Sister Coker. That’s where he was at least once a week. Churning and listening to the radio in the Cokers’ kitchen and chatting with the family while maneuvering their old wooden churn paddle into a happy slap, glug, slap glug rhythm that turned milk from their cows into butter. Which was a surprise at first because he was impatient, full of energy, never could sit still, and everyone knows churning takes time. It’s repetitive. I never lasted a whole churn’s worth, but Leslie could sit there all night swooshing that dasher around.
Spending time at the Cokers’ house was never forbidden. They were among our most faithful church members, and their farm was one of the places we were welcome any time we could slip away. That’s why it was so odd and somehow more fascinating that Leslie Ray kept his time with them a secret.
Just down the road from our parsonage, on the way to the creek, was the Cokers’ place, where a humble farmhouse boasted a wide front porch that welcomed a steady flow of neighbors.
Sister Lastena Coker with our Baby
Sister Coker was sometimes a little absent-minded but she continued to absorb information even while seemingly in a trying-to-remember state so you didn’t want to underestimate her, because she could drop a cogent remark into a conversation when you least expected it. You had to let yourself stay relaxed about whichever state you found her in. She was always occupied with the farm and family and church and always offered the world a kind demeanor. She said, about most any problem,
“Everything will work itself out directly.”
She repeatedly misplaced one or another of her favorite butter molds and when Leslie Ray showed up ready to churn, she first dispatched him to help her get everything rounded up again.
“Leslie Ray, climb up there and see if you can find that one that’s shaped like a rose. That was my mama’s favorite. I want you to see it. Be careful now. Use that ladder.”
He was already on the counter, part monkey, part growing boy, and was feeling around at the very top of the cabinets where somebody, probably Sister Coker herself, kept stacking up the old, prized butter molds, and when the stack tumbled, some of them lodged in odd spaces. Leslie said,
“Here it is! It slipped down back there. We better fix that shelf. It’s pulling away from the wall. You got a hammer handy?”
She answered with another subject.
“Now what’d I do with that dasher?”
From his perch up on the counter, he performed a quick scan and spotted it.
“It’s over yonder. You probably took it out to clean it.”
He came back home to our parsonage carrying his handmade and quite artistic fresh butter, acting like the Cokers had made it and asked him to give it to their pastor.
Daddy was an appreciator of everything homemade and he thought Sister Coker was responsible for the recent abundance of beautiful butter on our table. He called to Mother,
“Doll-Baby, c’mere and look at this butter Sister Coker made. This one’s shaped like a rose.”
Leslie delivered butter to us every few days and we spread it on warm biscuits and didn’t even bother with preserves, the butter was that good. Not once did my brother reveal himself as the maker of this bounty.
When Daddy thanked Sister Coker for the butter, she said,
“Oh Leslie Ray’s such a big help,” and her statement rolled right on into that great ball of Southern church-speak where people say nice things they think someone else wants to hear, so Daddy thought Sister Coker was just complimenting him on his very trying son’s behavior.
Leslie’s secret would have been uncovered if Sister Coker had ever once said something more specific like “He’s so helpful with the churning,” or “So sweet the way he makes butter every week,” but the words never happened to fall that way into a conversation, so nobody was telling a lie.
While we lived in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, my brother spent as much time as he could with that family, helping them at butchering time, working in their garden whenever he wasn’t required to work in ours and finding something there that he needed, something more important than just being able to disappear now and then. Leslie Ray needed to be in charge of something. The Cokers let him.
A version of this story appeared in Reminisce Magazine.
A tad fuzzy but I wanted to get closer on that corsage
The church lady on the right looks exactly the way many ladies looked in our Louisiana congregation in the 1950’s. On the left, Sister Fern is the gospel singing pastor’s wife wearing a slinky black dress and the big corsage.
From time to time we came off the road from our gospel tours when Daddy pastored a church for a while. On the road she wore jersey, which clung in the right places and moved even when she stood still. When she married the preacher, she gave up wearing makeup and raised her low-cut necklines a bit, but she still sought enhancement wherever she could find it.
She found it down at the yard goods store where she discovered polyester and nylon and plastic/vinyl in thin sheets and stiff netting and every other difficult-to-wear, artificial material available.
She made those corsages, huge prickly things they were, in every color. She cut out the petals using pinking shears, then wired the parts together with florist’s tape and bunches of nylon net. She formed all the parts into shapes resembling prom corsages – big ones – some even bigger than the one pictured. She was tall and her impressive front was built for displaying her creations and she wore some version of this every Sunday. Responding to compliments which may not have been solely directed at her corsage, she was happy to pass along details.
“You can suds them right in the sink, shake them and they’ll dry right off.”
Which doesn’t sound like a great endorsement for items meant to resemble flowers, but people kept saying nice things. This pleased her so much she made new ones, brighter and bigger, and gifted them to many church ladies. When I stood at the microphone on Sunday to sing with the family, I looked out at a garden of plastic and nylon net occupying the fronts of ladies in their cotton print Sunday best dresses.
Then her attention turned to making school clothes for my brother and me. Memories of a nylon dress and Leslie Ray’s matching shirt are still fresh and painful. More about them another time.
Meanwhile, here’s Sister Fern doing what she did best. Click the picture for a song.
The younger me thought I could do a bunch of things at once. This is not a great time to find out I’m no longer a good multi-tasker, if I ever was. I’m working or thinking about working or talking about working on several projects at once. My reward used to be seeing the check marks on a to do list. Today I am the owner of a single-task mind and a check mark isn’t so exciting.
I’ve started a new book, need to revise (again) a book I’ve already finished, and working on a play which has been seen onstage, but the director and I both know it needs fixing.
I’ve been using the following reward system: Write a scene. Brew a fresh pot of coffee. Work on the outline for the new book. Eat a candy bar. Open original manuscript file on the previous book and stare at it. Cheese and crackers. Or pie. No matter how numerous and how caloric the rewards, the work’s still there. Carrot, meet stick.
Eventually my coffee and sweets and cheese system will either produce something good and relatable and shiny or else I’ll be the roundest little writer in all the land.
*Sheep and carrot above from artist Gina Taylor, Cambridge, UK. Here’s where to find more of her work. Thanks, Gina, for letting your chubby sheep visit here. If I don’t change my reward system soon, she may become my self-portrait.
We evangelists’ kids were curiosities even back then. I still get the most questions about 1) The tents 2) The music 3) The tents.
Our family’s revivals started with tents seating a few hundred people, and eventually held about 3,000. That was as big as Daddy was willing to get.
This tent resembles some of our earlier ones. Most evangelists didn’t own their tents. They were rented and arrived in a truck for local assembly.
By the mid-50’s, a different kind of tent revival appeared. Brother Oral Roberts was out there on the same path we followed, with a huge difference. Instead of the two and three-pole tents most of us rented, he owned his own, billed as “The world’s largest fireproof tent.” It seated close to 20,000.
We visited his tent the night a storm in Amarillo lifted up the heavy metal center poles and set them swinging, the biggest fear of evangelists in the Deep South.
Here are excerpts from The Glory Road (both the book and stage play) about getting ready for a tent revival. This was repeated countless times by The Joneses all over the South.
Our gospel caravan was fueled by Hershey bars and snow cones, Co-Cola and Dr. Pepper, Moon Pies from every gas station, Royal Crown Cola on the road to Oklahoma, Peanut Patties in Georgia, Orange Crush in Mississippi, biscuits and grits in Arkansas, tamales in El Paso, Po’ boys in Louisiana and baloney sandwiches all over the place.
Daddy went off to meet with the ministers of the region and the construction crew and the electricians and the people who rented us folding chairs, and a couple of roustabouts, strong men who earned their keep as soon as trucks carrying the tent and equipment rolled up to the edge of the field.
He supervised every detail of our tent going up. Leslie Ray and I could go along with him all day if we wanted to, over to a church office, to a midday dinner in a cafe with local backers and then out to the field, where sponsoring ministers floated around the site watching Reverend Raymond Jones, the charismatic evangelist, swinging a mallet and driving tent stakes into the ground alongside the crew. We’d seen and heard all these details many times, but we went along to remove ourselves from the case of nerves that struck Sister Fern Jones before just about every revival.
That first day while Mother unpacked at the motor court, the field where the tent would be was already buzzing. Trucks arrived filled with people who drove out to watch the tent go up. Children stayed home from school to see it. A circle of onlookers surrounded the proceedings all day.
Workers laid the tent sections flat on the ground then pushed them up with big tent poles and stretched the guy-wires tight. Before departing , roustabouts taught volunteers how to work the flaps every night, some flaps up, some down, employing a specific choreography intended to outsmart the weather.
Daddy and Mother always conferred about how everything would look, the sign out in front, the cross behind the podium, the altar, and Daddy had specific measurements he was comfortable with for the platform. Several steps were needed and a ramp was built for loading sound equipment and a piano. A generator was concealed behind a tent flap. Our car became our own backstage area. Every night, Leslie and I carried music and instruments and helped set up.
Another truck rolled up and deposited a piano. Daddy directed them to place it at a specific angle so the crowd could see Sister Fern and also so the music-makers could see the congregation.
A bunch of kids, including us, sprinkled sawdust on the ground under the tent. When we heard the putt-putt-putt of a small crop duster, we looked up as handbills about the revival floated down from the sky. The pilot swooped away, going on to drop the brightly colored fliers all around the area.
Rain or shine, by late afternoon long before the service began, parking fields filled with carloads and truckloads of families eating the food they packed for their trip. Crowds were already milling about even before Daddy made his last stop on the platform to check the sound. No matter how many times the sound system was checked in the afternoon, he always made one last check as the seats filled. He asked a sponsoring pastor,
“You got us some people working the flaps tonight? Sky’s mighty dark.”
“Got volunteers standing by. They’ll open every other flap if they need to. Keep it cool in there ’til we have to close ’em.”
Daddy looked up, gauging the clouds.
“I reckon we’ll just have to let the mosquitoes and lightnin’ bugs in with the sinners.”
“That’s right. If we close those flaps and a good wind comes up, y’all will all be lifted up to heaven way ahead of schedule!”
Here’s how The Glory Road book became a play first. I began writing the book years ago, put it aside and turned to short stories. A Los Angeles broadcast buddy, Don Barrett, introduced me to estimable literary agent, Carol Schild, who suggested I make the stories into a play. Entertaining friends got together and we put on a show.
Multiple talents made up the casts, offering suggestions all along. There were revisions and more revisions, all valuable lessons for a first-time playwright. I was new to it. They weren’t.
Both directors, David Atkinson and Greg (North) Zerkle, (accomplished actors and directors – and boy can they sing!) are friends I met at church in Los Angeles. The casts for each show started in our congregation and kept extending out to performing friends of friends. The church we had in common was Little Brown Church in Studio City which grew into Church Of The Valley, Van Nuys. These two congregations were (and still are) populated with singers and musicians and dancers and writers and actors and radio and television and movie and Broadway babies.
I keep rewrite notes attached to each of these script versions in the picture above. Once the new book is launched, I hope to see The Glory Road onstage again, full throttle, lots of music and our show’s Southern Gospel quartet in matching jackets, beautiful harmony, Ray and Fern and their big love story and big conflicts.
Here’s a version of the song we opened with onstage. Our quartets rocked! Written in the 1950’s by Lee Roy Abernathy, this version of “He’s A Personal Savior” is performed by the Gaither Vocal Band.
Bonus – another Lee Roy Abernathy song he’s most famous for. Performed here by The Blackwood Brothers. Originally titled “A Wonderful Time Up There,”it quickly became known as “Gospel Boogie.”This one’s made for a bass singer. This version is by Brian Free & Assurance.
While Daddy was a young man attending shape-note singing lessons taught in a country church by traveling sheet music salesmen, Mother was lying about her age to sing in honky-tonks. When they got together, things got interesting. They mixed her Saturday night and his Sunday morning sound and made a whole new thing. After WWII they moved their music out of churches and took it on the road.
I hope you’ll follow along each week as I post updates from The Glory Road projects. It began with short stories and essays, next a stage play (a story for another day) and now a book manuscript. My goal is to help preserve the music and these glimpses of American history.
Early recordings blended Mother’s honky-tonk alto with Daddy’s hill country tenor. Years later, their recordings have been re-mastered, re-released and are heard everywhere, on television, in movies, on the radio, on streaming services and everywhere music is available.
Here’s an excerpt from the book manuscript.
All Day Singing With Dinner On The Grounds.
Kousin Karl took the stage and the crowd shook off their post-dinner torpor, ready to be entertained. He welcomed everyone back and made a few announcements, ending by reminding us there’d be plenty of food left out there at suppertime. After the crowd rustled and scraped and quieted some, he hollered,
“Ladies and gentlemen – THE JONESES!”
Daddy called out the key to the pickup band. A piano player started off and the crowd laughed as they caught on to what was happening. Brother Janway eased in from the side, chasing the first piano player away. He bounced around, playing some boogie woogie first, then slid into the intro to the familiar song Daddy and Mother were about to sing.
Daddy paced and grinned, guitar strap slung over one shoulder, strumming as he walked over to the piano shaking his head, pretending to be shocked at Brother Janway’s antics. The two buddies always had fun up there and their schoolboy foolishness had everyone smiling.
When Mother joined Daddy onstage, he moved over next to her and leaned in so close it looked like he was about to kiss her, then he stepped away again, always in motion before returning to share the mic with her. They started off on one of Daddy’s favorites, with Mother taking the lead and him singing harmony.
By and by, when the morning comes
All the saints of God are gathered home
We will tell the story, how we’ve overcome
And we’ll understand it better, by and by
Daddy was always a crowd-pleaser yet it appeared to be accidental. He never held onto a note any longer than he had to. When she sang she laid every ounce of emotion she could muster into a note before sending it out to the audience.
Here are Sister Fern and Brother Ray singing “By & By” from their first album, “The Joneses Sing,” recorded in the 1950’s.
On lead guitar, fellow evangelist, Brother Gene Thompson