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A St. Louis Sojourn - Bob Dorough

In 1960, I packed all my belongings into the small car I owned (by this time, I'd already been living in Los Angeles for three years) and drove to St. Louis , a place I'd never before been.  After a one-day stopover in Amarillo to see Mother and Dad, I arrived at last in St. Lo and made my way to what was more or less the local equivalent of "the Village,” the area known as Olive Street , since I had an address to locate there.  Once I found it, I knocked (and knocked) on the door.  At last, someone answered.  That someone was the person I was seeking:  Fran Landesman.  She was a smallish lady with, it turned out, a tremendous brain.  When I introduced myself, she seemed genuinely pleased.  We didn’t visit for long that day, because she soon sent me to the address where I was to live.  Later, I met her husband Jay Landesman and he showed me the Crystal Palace . 

I recall this as a mysteriously exciting time for me, since the whole purpose of my trip was to star in a musical called “A Walk on the Wild Side,” with music by Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf – and based on Nelson Algren’s novel of the same title.  

The Crystal Palace , way ahead of its time, was a cabaret theater that had already served as a performance venue for numerous folk, blues, and jazz artists, as well as for comics of the day like the Smothers Brothers, Del Close and Lenny Bruce.  Jackie & Roy had played there, too, of course. 

After I settled in, I was invited to attend the current production at the Crystal Palace – a light musical called “The Boy Friend.”  That night, I met some of the actors who’d remain in town to help me in the upcoming production.  Tommy Wolf was due to arrive soon from LA and also serve as leader of the pit band trio.  I already knew Tommy.   In fact, it was he who’d originally cast me for the part, ignoring my pleas that I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an actor.

OK, now a little flashback.  One night when I was playing at the Twelfth Knight in LA (a job I held for six months as a single), in walked Jimmy Rowles with some other guy.  Since I was near the end of that evening’s first set, I decided to close with the ballad, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” a song that I’d normally do somewhat later in the evening.  As I made my way through the complex structure of the song, I could see that these two cats were enjoying it immensely, exchanging looks and smiles. 

Finishing up the set, I made the usual announcement ("Back in twenty-five minutes, folks!") and then strolled to the bar to greet the great Jimmy Rowles.  Jimmy said, "Bob Dorough…" (and then glancing to his friend) "…Tommy Wolf!"  Well, we all broke into laughter. Once I’d calmed down, I remember saying "I don't know what made me call that tune, Tommy.  Whew!  Wow!"

So, here I am “now” in St. Louis , facing my theatrical future (whatever), but really (in my mind) on my way back to the Apple after a three-year absence.  My bevy of special LA friends had seen me off with a grand party and going-away gifts – plus lots of advice on being a singing actor!  Although the play lasted only three weeks or so, I spent another month in St. Louis, working as a single and jamming a bit in East St. Louis at a venue hosted by the great Grant Green. 

During that stay, I also formed many new friendships, some of which have endured until this day, notably with Dave Moon (the set designer at the Crystal Palace ) and his wife, the late Gladys Rankin, who was an important actress with me in the play.  It was the beginning too, of a long collaboration with Fran Landesman.  She and Jay are alive and well in London.  Shortly thereafter, back in New York, I put music to her lyrics for such songs as “Nothing Like You,” “Small Day Tomorrow” and “Without Rhyme or Reason.”  Yes, those were indeed the days!

© Bob Dorough 2003

The closing weeks of 2003 have been exciting ones for me, starting with a six-day engagement (September 30-October 5) at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles.  It’s always a challenge to play opposite (and with) Dave Frishberg.  He’s such a brilliant pianist and a fantastic songwriter.  Whenever we do our two-piano act, we always work in a few duets along with our individual mini-sets to fill out the evening. 

Several of our high-profile fans came in during the week, along with many of the faithful, and a good time was apparently had by all.  A young artist named Nelly McKay showed up on opening night.  She actually comes from my home area (the Poconos) and seems destined for stardom as a singing, piano-playing songwriter.  On Thursday night, I paid an after-hours visit to Jack Sheldon's gig at a club in Glendale called Jax.  When Jack saw me come into the room, he nominated me for Governor of California, then quickly "made" me sit in with his fine quartet. 

Returning to New York soon after, I swung immediately into a two-night gig at Joe's Pub in the East Village, where I was the guest of super lyricist Fran Landesman.  Fran had arrived from London with her new collaborator and pianist, Simon Wallace.  She also invited Jackie Cain to do a guest spot on her four shows at Joe's Pub.  As you may recall, Jackie & Roy introduced lots of classic Landesman-Wolf songs (co-written by the late Tommy Wolf) in days of yore.  Roy Kral, too, wrote a few melodies to Fran's lyrics.  Jackie sang some of these in her all-too-brief segment of the show, illustrating in the process why many of us believe Jackie is definitely ready to return as a solo singer.  For my portion of the show, I focused on some of the songs that I’ve penned to Fran’s lyrics, including some I’ll bet you already know.

The following week, I met another young singer-pianist – one from London this time.  His name is Jamie Cullum, and he has already arrived.  During the last week of his month-long engagement at the Oak Room, Jamie announced the signing of a contract with Verve Records.  I’d been hip to him for some time because he recorded my song “Devil May Care” on his recent Candid CD and my man-at-sea, Swedish jazz chef Peter Parnestam, mailed the disc to me.  Jamie's new release features “But For Now,” another of my songs.  Jamie included that one in his Oak Room shows.  In fact, on the night we attended, he ended the set with “But For Now” as an encore.  Then, as I was taking a "songwriter's bow," he surprised me by calling for a duet on “Devil May Care!”  "You play the piano, Bob!” he insisted.  I predict that you’ll soon hear much about this dynamic new artist and his CD, which is entitled “Twenty Something.”  I should mention that he was accompanied by his fine bassist-arranger Geoff Gascoyne and his drummer Sebastian de Krom.  They’re are on the CDs, too.

In the meantime, plying my steady way at Sunday’s Iridium brunches, the year turtled on and the holidays began.  In early December, George Newall, Gil Dyrli, and I (the three of us are known collectively as The Web Generation), made a presentation in Nashua , NH , at the NHSTE concerning “Schoolhouse Rock” and its effect on the Web (more on the xlink).  As the year-end pace picked up (I didn’t miss one brunch) and my birthday approached, we added drummer Ed Ornowski to our trio at the Iridium, in preparation for a live recording to be done right there at the club.  Although the recording has been postponed,  Ed continues to play with us on Sundays, making our weekly gigs there livelier than ever. 

Celebration of my eightieth birthday – believe it, baby! –  was actually spread across four days, beginning with a concert on December 11 at the Hillside Inn, here in my home area.  This concert featured the new CD – “Reasons For Christmas” – and spotlighted the PATH organization that both produced it and benefits from its sale.  This was a joyous and colorful affair lasting several hours, with many groups doing various numbers from the recording.  I covered both a new Christmas song and my old one (“Blue Xmas”).   At the end, though, I was surprised to be called up to the stage by State Representative Kelly Lewis, a prime mover in the project.  He presented me with a citation from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.  There was also a fine birthday cake and the other musicians broke into that song we always sing on birthdays. 

My true day (December 12) was celebrated at home with 60 or 70 guests, including my three siblings, on hand.  Two days later, the Iridium brunch also dissolved into a birthday celebration with an exceptional cake presented to me by the club’s staff.  Whew!  I can’t take anymore – but thanks, everybody! 

We close the year with two more Brunch concerts and ……. away!!!  Happy New Year!

© Bob Dorough (November 2003)