it was bob luscome, really...when he found out that i
could sing and play and had written some music that said "hey,
we gotta have a concert...we’ll do it right at your house" and
he started making plans right away. before i knew it,
there were about a dozen friends in my basement and i
played everything i knew...a lot of it original though
all of it derivative...
i was a teenager and this
was the 50’s...mose and i would hang out in the black
r&b record shop in pontiac. it was a narrow shop
with checkerboard lineoleum squares broken on the corners
with some stains that could tell a story. it’s open bins
of singles and 10" lps lined either side with names
i gradually came to know...the drifters, the platters,
the tokens, the charms, the cadillacs, frankie lymon
and the teenagers...the shop was narrow; bins on the
right wall as you walked in and the owner on a perch
at the rear of the store. if he thought it was strange
for a couple of white boys to be in the store he never
let on...he had a crotch-high boxer security dog that
used to pad softly among the customers while we were
thumbing through the selection...i don’t think any records
were ever stolen from that store.
among the most popular underground
songs in the early 50’s were the ‘ANNIE’ set by the crows
(i think). almost like a soap opera, ANNIE’s story unfolded
over a series of several single releases; the first with
a chorus of ‘...work with me annie...ugh, ugh!’ and the
last record of the series ‘annie had a baby, can’t work
no more...’ well, that was just the kind of information
that fourteen and fifteen year olds are trying to assimilate
and the fact that our parents couldn’t understand the
lyrics helped make the content doubly exciting. mose
and i would bring the records home and though he didn’t
have my musical ear, he’d encourage me as i pulled apart
the arrangements and assigned various vocal parts to
jim leach, don fraser and pete kass. tom halsted played
drums and we had some occasional help on baritone saxaphone
from doug austin but mostly it was my electric guitar
and halsted kicking us along...
we called ourselves (or did
i call ourselves?) the BIRDS OF PARADISE...i think because
there were so many r&b groups with aviary names,
besides the crows, there were the robins, the sparrows...we
even had a theme song that we sang to open each appearance.
although i’m sure we ‘white-breaded’ the original passion
out of each these black soul songs, in all fairness we
did replace it with a kind of adolescent energy which
seemed to substitute well. we did the charms piece TWO
HEARTS, one of the center pieces of our program was ‘REAL
HUMDINGER’ by the el dorados (i think).
but it was the senior trip
from michigan to washington, dc (via new york city) that
formalized the birds. kass and fraser, leach and i with
a lot of encouragement from schoolmates spent the time
on the train writing a song called ‘MINE’ which became
a school favorite and a mainstay of the BOP repetoire.
and because mose didn’t have a singing voice, he became
the ‘official BOP emcee’; his voice the first one heard
on the album of songs released in high school, ‘THE BIRDS
FLY HOME’. the original tapes lost forever, the only
hard copy of those sessions are some badly pressed 10" records
with barely more information than hiss.
after the encouragement by
luscombe and the basement audience, i jumped right into
songwriting and came up with most of the BOP repetoire, "NURSURY
RHYME MAMBO", "VENAE NATURAE", it was
as if the audience represented the missing half of the
"BIRDS OF PARADISE!",
someone with a clipboard yells...
"uh, yeah...that’s us!",
"time for your sound
check..." and the five of us, jim leach, pete kass,
howard leavenworth, tom halsted and myself are summoned
over to the area in front of the microphones.
"how many of you are
there?", he asks.
"well, there’s four singers
including me, but i’m on one mike and they’re off to
the side and we’ve got a drummer and...", i’m wondering
if i’ve forgotten anyone...it’s a little nervewracking
what with this being the first appearance of howard leavenworth
who is taking don fraser’s place (or was it the other
"so, four microphones
oughta do it then, eh?" he asks...
"uh, i guess so..." i
reply, a little out of it...i’m really not that nervous...we’re
all pretty excited but thankfully none of us are a scared
kind of nervous...it’s just that the BIRDS OF PARADISE
are competing in the finals of the WXYZ-TV ED MACKENZIE
talent show. we are up against maybe 4 or 5 other acts
from the detroit area who also won first round competitions
on other shows.
we’ve been singing for about
a year and a half now...mostly original stuff that i’ve
written but there’s also quite a lot of r&b material
that mose and i have discovered in the pontiac michigan
black record stores. we’ve known and have been listening
to joe williams version of ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK for
what seems like a good year before the bill haley version
hits the radio.
"hold it!", the
clipboard comes back to the front microphone. "i
thought you told me that was it!"
"you didn’t tell me about
the electric guitar! geez..." and he turns and yells
to someone, "we’re gonna need another mike over
here on the guitar amp".
i start to say i’m sorry,
but he’s gone and there’s a scurry is taking place around
my amplifier. i’ve got a beautiful kay sunburst guitar.
given to me by my mom and dad for christmas 2 years ago.
well, actually they gave me a banjo...don’t know why...maybe
it was because of mose and i and the ukelele and four
strings and well, for whatever reason they read the look
on my face correctly and within two weeks i had this
electric guitar and an amplifier to work on. boy, what
a gift! i’d sit in my bedroom awkwardly following the
beginnings of the mel bay books...where to hold the fingers
to make a C chord...wow...and now an E chord...and then
an A chord and ohmyachin hand a ‘barre’ chord...do people
really get past the pain?!
"whats the name of the
song?" a voice asks over the monitors.
"HUMDINGER", i reply.
"who’s the publisher?"
"what?" gads, i
only know the name of the group that recorded it...
got the copyright on it?"
"gee, uh...the el dorados
did the song first...i don’t know" and i’m having
a worst case fantasy of being kicked off the show flashing
before my eyes.
find it. wait’ll we give ya the high sign and then we
can start the timing..." and the dismembered voice
this T.V. stuff is some high
pressure i’m thinking...
"how’re ya doin, noel..?",
a head with earphones pokes into the bright lights.
"oh! mister trakus! what’re
you doing here?’ george trakus is a physical education
and social studies teacher at the birmingham high school.
"i’m a camera-man here
in my spare time...c’mon out and take a look through
the camera when you finished here...gotta run...good
luck today..." and he ducks away back into the darkness
beyond the microphones.
"thanks!" and doesn’t
that make me feel some better to have a ‘friend’ amongst
all these professionals.
"who was that?!" jim
"trakus...", i start
to answer but the clipboard shouts "go!", and
somewhat raggle taggle we beat our way through the tune.
the soundcheck is so close
to the beginning of the show that we don’t get a chance
to see the cameras up close. from slightly behind the
risers set up in the studio for the audience, we spot
george trakus and are suitably impressed with the tightly
choreographed dance that he and the other cameraman must
peform to give a lively feel to each of the acts as they
perform their pieces.
"look at that...",
i nudge halsted in the ribs.
"what?", he whispers.
"on top of the camera...",
i point at a tiny lit dial with a wavering needle.
"it must be the applause
sure enough, as the current
group finishes their number, the audience’s applause
sends the slender black indicator to its right and i
notice in particular a couple of pronounced peaks caused
by the proximity of mister trakus’s individual clapping
from his current camera position directly under the audience
"shouldn’t we be getting
back to the dressing room?" asks tom and we grope
our way backstage to the cramped waiting area where,
standing in a tight circle, we try to calm the last minute
jitters by going over the chorus 10 times in a sing-song
whisper while halsted plays his drumsticks on the wall.
"ok!" the door pops
open; it’s clipboard again, "time to move it!".
we feel like we’re walking
on tiptoes as we thread our way through the winding black
cables and lighting trees to get to the stage area. halsted
is the first one out. two assistants have already setup
most of the drum kit when tom arrives to position the
my amp is being pushed on
from the side.
there is a commercial on the
air while all this backstage activity is taking place
and we can see it in the monitors...i can tell that the
trick here is to not get hung up watching the monitors...plug
in the guitar...what about the other end? one of the
backstage crew plugs into the amp and gives me a high
jim, pete and howie around
the mike, halsted settled down behind the drums, i turn
around to a microphone set about a foot too low...
"standby...5, 4, 3, 2,
1...and the clipboard leans into the circle of light
and points at me...go!"
a real HUMDINGER (bop-doo-wop)
a real HUMDINGER (bop-doo-wop)
a real HUMDINGER (bop-doo-wop)
if you know what i mean! (yeah, yeah)"
we’ve done this song so many
times, my mind starts to wander...i wonder if anybody
in birmingham is watching us...of course they are...i
wonder how many would be watching...i’m not even thinking
about the second chorus...i wonder if monzelle clark
is watching...i’m not even thinking about the lyrics
coming into the third chorus...it’s like riding a bicycle...once
you know...but i start thinking...gee, here comes the
2nd bridge...what are the lyrics here? WHAT
ARE THE LYRICS? YOU HAVEN’T GOT TIME TO THINK ABOUT THE
LYRICS HERE...YOU’RE ON STAGE IN FRONT OF A LIVE AUDIENCE
AND CAMERAS AND WHO KNOWS HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE WATCHING...AND
HERE COMES THE PLACE FOR THE SECOND BRIDGE AND OHMYGOSH
WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO!?!? without missing a beat i
play the chord that signals the repeated end chorus and
though there are more than one set of eyebrows raised...without
an apparent ruffle we end the song...almost a full minute
the applause is bright and
enthusiastic but to me it seems justifiably short as
if each member of the audience knew we had left out a
bridge and felt cheated...’c’mon noel,’ i reason with
myself, ‘how many people here could possibly know...’
"alright fellas. great
just great..." bob mackenzie, the host, approaches
the microphone applauding. "stay right here, " he
turns to the camera, "and we’ll have the voting
right after this..."
the lights go down for a minute
and i turn apologetically to the guys behind.
"hey...sounded good to
me, stook!" says halsted.
"yeah", the others
chime in, "we didn’t leave out anything...the ending
went just like it should’ve! whaddya mean we left out
‘am i going crazy?’ i ask
myself. ‘nah...they must just be more nervous than i
was...i know we left out a bridge...well maybe it didn’t
hurt that much, i...’
"alright and we’re back
for the final voting and as we announced at the beginning
of the show we do this by audience applause", mackenzie
holds up the list of acts. "first, from hamtramack,
and reality begins to break
into my little adrenalized world...i hear the applause
for the other groups and start kicking myself for blowing
the second bridge...i get that kind of ache that comes
when i’d like to go back and do something right...if
only we had another chance...
"...and finally, from
birmingham michigan, THE BIRDS OF PARADISE!" and
the applause is about what i expect...maybe just a little
more because of some pronounced clapping from the area
just behind one of the cameras.
"and the winner is...from
the booth...can you tell us who got the most applause
there...?" mackenzie inquires looking past the lights
and cameras with the paper shielding his eyes.
"...the last group...the
BIRDS OF PARADISE.." intones the flat voice from
the monitor speakers.
we are completely taken by
surprise. mackenzie beams and hands me a small gold-plated
trophy and advises me while the theme song plays and
the applause continues that the program director will
make sure that we get the engraved plate that will adhere
to the flat surface of the award.
years later, when i pass by
the WXYZ award hanging on the wall of my recording studio,
i will hold it in even higher regard because of mary
travers’ discovery that one of the record industry’s
gold records awarded to peter, paul and mary in the 60’s
was actually an extra copy of tony bennett’s I LEFT MY
HEART IN SAN FRANCISCO album dipped in plate and affixed
with a pp&m label.