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1955


 but 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 music.

 

 

"BIRDS OF PARADISE!", someone with a clipboard yells...

"uh, yeah...that’s us!", i reply.

"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 way around?).

"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!"

"huh?"

"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...

"the publisher...who’s 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.

"well...that’s ok...we’ll find it. wait’ll we give ya the high sign and then we can start the timing..." and the dismembered voice clicks off.

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 leach whispers

"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 meter".

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 microphone.

"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 bass drum...

"standby...please...standyby...quiet, please..."

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 sign.

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!"

     "she’s 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 early!

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 the bridge?!"

‘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, the..."

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.


 

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