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Earl Coleman Oral History

Will Friedwald

A singer in the black baritone school (that also included Billy Eckstine, Johnny Hartman, Al Hibbler, Austin Cromer, and Melvin Moore, several of whom are discussed here), Earl Coleman had a long career as a performer, although he struggled to remain in the public consciousness. Coleman was born in Port Huron, Michigan on August 12, 1925 but moved at the age of two to Leland, Mississippi. Between 1946 and 1989 he recorded with many notable artists, including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Gene Ammons, Howard McGhee, Fats Navarro, Max Roach, Art Farmer, Sonny Rollins, Shirley Scott, Elmo Hope, Ted Dunbar, and Etta Jones. He died in New York City on July 12, 1995. This lengthy interview, which took place shortly after the release of his 1984 Stash album Stardust, began with Coleman reminiscing about some of his singing idols and early influences.

Ed. note: Some factual points have been clarified or annotated, but twenty-five years after the interview was taken and transcribed, there are a few instances for which this was impossible. It is hoped that readers can overlook these.

Roy Felton

I knew him personally, and thank God, I was fortunate because I was a kid. I had seen him when I was a little boy. The minstrels would come down south in the fall, after the harvest. Now I know that’s what that meant: the crops were in and the minstrel shows would come through. I remembered him and that voice and he’d sing something about nothing but “A Handful of Cotton”. He’d get a standing ovation. Naturally, it was a segregated audience, but I’ll never forget that. I mean, everybody, it was a standing ovation.

And so, as a kid, I started running off from home at twelve, something like that. I’m in Chicago, maybe fourteen, and I go to Club DeLisa and sign up for the amateur show. I was cocky enough—I’d been winning amateur shows all over the country, so I thought I’d go on and take this one off. I didn’t realize I was too young [to work there] even if I’d won. And so I’m downstairs, right, and I’m watching all this show business and everything, and I heard a voice, a gorgeous booming voice warming up, right? So I walked to the door. You know who it was? Roy Felton! I’m telling you, when he walked out and sang, I said, “Nope! I’m not going to do this. I got to go and come again.” I walked immediately out of the club, caught the jitney, cause you could catch it for fifteen cents then, caught it at 55th, rode on out to the end of the line at 60th , and then threw my thumb up and went to Naptown [Indianapolis], where you could go and lay and work and learn some more.

Roy Felton’s one of the greatest singers that ever lived. I’ve seen him lay Mr. B [Billy Eckstine] to rest, at Mr. B’s peak! This isn’t hearsay, I’m telling you what I know. And the thrill was, when I came back, I had begun to grow up a little bit. I was with Jay McShann in the Regal Theater. I just felt scared to death because you’re in the first show and if you don’t go over, then they say, “Whack!” You open with a band number and then they have dancers, and then the boy singer. I came out and sang a ballad, “The Very Thought of You”. I opened with a slow ballad. I stopped it cold, just broke it up. The owner of the theater [1] came running after me and he said, “Hey, kid!” I said, “Oh God, this is the boss. I’m fired!” He said, “You got a dollar?” “Yeah, I got a dollar.” “Then go and get some black socks!” I had my pants up real high and I had black pants on and black shoes but white socks. So when the spotlight hit me, it looked like I had a white ring around. As he was talking to me, I heard this big beautiful voice say, “Ken, the kid’s magnificent.” It was Roy Felton. He was one of the greatest human beings and greatest voices that ever walked the earth. Believe me, I’ve heard them all.

That’s right, he cared nothing about Mr. B. Loved him dearly but cared nothing about him. But the difference between the two, he didn’t have the bulldog tenacity that it took. Because there was no place for blacks to be heard, like radio. In other words, his dedication wasn’t what it should have been.

He’s the king of Chicago, king of wherever he went, know what I mean? Benny Carter used to tell me that every time he’d go into the studio to record, he knew what Roy—they used to call him “Bing” and all that: “the black Bing”, “Ebony Bing”—Roy said that he knew it would be a lot of shit whether he sang or not, because Benny Carter never took no for an answer. So Roy said, “Well, baby, I knew what to do, so I went and got me a chair and went to sleep!” What you heard on record, he went up and did that out of a nap! Benny said, “All right, kid, come on!” He’d yawn, take a smoke, and do that.

But man, I’ve heard him and B, and they’d make me do that. They’d make me sing after them. He came to Washington to see one of his hundred ladies—you understand, he fancied himself a playboy and that’s why he didn’t have time to concentrate on the music. But anyway, he came to Washington to see one of his girls, and B was at the Ballet and I was working at a club—Ira Sabin remembers this club, the Star Dust, in southwest—me and Charlie Rouse. Somebody knocked on my window and I looked up there and it’s Roy Felton and Billy Eckstine together. “Open the door!” As soon as he’d walk in, he’d always say, “All right, now let’s sing! Let’s see what you got.” We went on from three in the morning to maybe two the next day. He’d sing, B would sing, the kid would have to sing.

Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo

Bing Crosby was very important because Crosby could sing. Believe me, there wasn’t no bullshit there; ain’t nobody took nothing from him. He was an influence because we could hear him. But B tells me and Roy told me a fellow Russ Columbo was the boss. He said, “Believe me.” I said, “I can’t see any stuff there.” He said, “Earl, I’m telling you. The technology was bad in those days.” People said there was something funny about his death. Because Bing Crosby never wanted to be no star. He just drinked liquor and he sang with the Rhythm Boys and he’d get drunk and Dixie Lee loved him and she was a young starlet. He was forever getting picked up; getting busted for drunk and getting there just in time for showtime.

Bing was a very good man, a great human being. I met him and he was very nice. I think Harry Mills introduced us. Very nice, very warm, and he listened to everybody.

Harlan Lattimore

Now Harlan Lattimore, that was something else altogether. He was Billy Eckstine’s idol. You know how handsome B was when he was young. They said Harlan Lattimore was a handsome dude. It’s a story that’s been told, and enough bonafide people have told me this story that I believe it: Don Redman, for one. See, he was with Don Redman. You know where B got that “I’m Fallin’ for You”? Harlan used to sing “A Little Gypsy Tea Room” and “You Call It Madness”. Eckstine got all that from him. He was too fucking handsome and too ahead of the times, understand? And they just moved a little slow with him.

Don Redman had a pretty sophisticated band and he got better jobs than the average black band and they were at the Zanzibar or something like that. Remember Eleanor Powell, the dancer? Her mother came and got Harlan Lattimore and said, “Look, my daughter is madly in love with you.” He said, “I can’t go,” at first or something like that. She said, “Hell, my daughter’s a star and she’s in love with you and I wish to God I was twenty years younger!” She put him in the room and said, “Make love to my daughter,” and stood guard at the door!

B said he used to just follow Harlan around, just wherever, but somewhere along the line, someone introduced him to heroin. And even though he had left Don Redman, the Apollo booked the two of them, bought the band and Harlan, and he was the star. B said it broke his heart because he got through a couple of tunes, but on one of the tunes where he laid back while the band was doing an interlude, so the guy is high and he’s feeling good and the music’s so good, and he starts nodding. Now Don’s nudging him with his baton. B’s saying, “Oh, my God!” Harlan didn’t know anything. He’s going down towards the floor; he’s got to pay attention to the band. They dropped the curtain. B said he sat there and cried like a baby.

And then they blackballed him. He went to, of all places, Philadelphia, where they drag musicians off the stand and everything. They fixed some heroin on him; he really didn’t have anything. When they busted him, it was a gang. Around Philly they called them “the Forty Thieves.” Anyway, the prosecutor sad, “Just a junkie. Just a sick junkie.” You know, that man didn’t deal no dope or anything. That man was an artist. But they made him, just built up a helluva case. You can imagine the headlines it got. They gave him something like fifteen or twenty-five to life! He did twenty-five years.

Like I said, I’ve been very fortunate. I got a chance to meet him when he came home. The first place he came, Mr. B had just got that million dollar contract with MGM and he was at the Apollo. B saw him and said, “Oh, my God! There he is, baby, that’s the king!” They just hugged and cried. Harlan said, “Son, I’m so proud of you.” But I could still see that dignity. I went down to Bop City and Herb [Jeffries] was there. Herb said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to honor your requests, but I’ve got a request and it’s going to be honored. Ladies and gentlemen, the teacher, the professor, the greatest of them all: Harlan Lattimore!” He brought him onstage. The years had kind of, you know, but I could still hear it, you see, when a dude is extra-talented. Like Bud Powell, he played for the last twenty years of his life from memory. I think King Records recorded Harlan. Yeah, they did.

There’s a singer right across the street. If he makes up his mind he wants to sing, he’s bad. I had him with me the day I recorded “This Is Always”. He and Coltrane was with me. He’s Danny Knight and he’s got to make his mind whether he wants to sing or not. I say he better make it up quick, because we [text missing] all of a sudden I’m saying that, “Oh, I’m so much older than you. I remember when we used to be the same age.” I don’t have time. I can’t babysit [him]. It’s unfortunate, man. I know so many singers that just gave up. I can understand, because, hey man, we’re not going to say this doesn’t exist, but we’re not going to use it as a crutch either. If you want to do something, you can do it. If you really mean to do that. Why, in Mississippi, I left like this: “Why, I’m going to be a singer.”

You mean to not let anybody make you a victim of racism?

I like what Stanley Crouch used, as opposed to those remember where we stood in there, just nothin’, didn’t go for nothin’, we stood in there and wasn’t afraid to wrestle with destiny or whatever. I don’t see it that way. Because when everybody said, “He’s finished,” I never felt it that way. Because, see, I love to sing. But I know more about my business now. I know this, we’ve accepted this: Eckstine knows he’s not going to get paid like Frank Sinatra. Nobody’s going to get paid like Frank Sinatra. But you know something? I know—nobody’s telling me—Frank Sinatra’s a helluva decent human being. And he’s a caring human being, believe me. Because if it wasn’t for Blue Eyes, there wouldn’t have been the great Mr. B in prominence. He’d be runnin’ up and down there, but there wouldn’t have been nowhere for him to go. I don’t know about that “crossover.” I don’t know what that means, because I never had no trouble sellin’ no matter where I went. So I don’t know about crossover. Like I told you, in the last twenty-five years, it was the black people that didn’t know me. If you walk down Lenox Avenue, you’ll see the little sisters with their heads lookin’ like a bird’s nest and sometimes lookin’ like Cyndi Lauper’s. Also, I was sittin’ up there in a bar the other night and a kid said, a hip little alto played, he said, “Let’s play some blues.” [Another kid] said, “Don’t wanna play no blues, Jim.” OK, time for me to go; the kids don’t want to play the blues. We don’t have no heroes.

Melvin Moore

The guy called me up, took my record [2] around to The Wiz and got them interested. Melvin called me back. I respect him because, I’m telling you, Melvin Moore, if he wanted to sing—to wrestle with destiny or whatever—he’s everything that people think Blue Eyes is! He’s out there now promoting Millie Jackson. I don’t see how he can do that. And he hasn’t been singing nowhere or tried to hold a job for twenty-five years or more. He came by and I said, “There’s just two tracks I want you to listen to.” He heard them and said, “You motherfucker!” He went home and called me back and said, “I mean this in all sincerity, there ain’t nobody singing like this, nobody!” I said, “That means a lot, coming from you.” “You know I’d tell you.” The next thing, I get a call from some guy saying, “Guess where Irene [Mrs. Moore] says Mel is?” I say, “Where?” “He’s in the studio down there with Ram Ramirez.” I called [Mel] and said, “Don’t you dare go in the studio just when I’m about to make some money!” I’m teasing him, you know. I was glad. Ram wrote a new tune which I’ve got to get. Yeah man, it’s bad! Melvin ain’t going to do nothin’ with it. It’s a good tune, it’s dangerous. I said, “If you got a demo, put the record on.” Man, he’s fierce right now. Gorgeous! I’m telling you, he’s got a gorgeous voice. That’s how Ernie Fields...they wouldn’t put a jive-ass band in the Apollo! I’ve seen Ernie Fields come in the Apollo right after Billy Eckstine. And in those days you had to work. The star singers had to do eleven tunes, at least eleven. You got to be good to hold people that long. I’m talking about without ’em gettin’ bored. And [Mel] comin’ in right after the great Mr. B and he’d come in and do his eleven. And they was playing stock arrangements! You could buy a whole stock arrangement in those days for a buck and a half. But Ernie Fields was one of the better territorial bands, midwestern bands, and he made plenty money outta that shit. It was a good school.

Melvin was sick, that way I got a chance to work. I worked in his place for a while. Remember the time I told you I ran to Indianapolis? I ran out of Chicago and felt I needed to further my education. Well, there were some black guys there, the Ferguson brothers, and they had an agency. They handled all the territorial bands plus they had a club called the Sunset Terrace. Every Sunday night there was somebody there. I mean somebody like Basie, Lunceford, etc. And then it was always some dynamite youngster who was stranded there, but they weren’t really stranded because these dudes would put their arms around you right away and they owned a hotel and a hall and a restaurant and everything, so you ate all you wanted and you slept. If they didn’t have a big star up there, they’d put us up on the stand, you know what I mean? So there was always somewhere to grow from. Which is too bad you don’t have places like that now.

But anyway, Melvin had fell some kind of way. He used to play what we would call “Brush Operas” in the South. Like a promoter would’d heard ’em talk, like if the rock ’n’ rollers go to Nashville that means a hit record, Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We used to play there. They used to put up a Brush Opera, like the Holy Rollers. In other words, they’d cut down trees and they’d make seats, make benches, make a top, and build a bandstand. And all the big bands played those one-niters like that. Melvin and the band were there one night. He and the guy had a difference of opinion and he fell and his head hit a board. The nail went just like past his brain. He couldn’t remember nothing, so they had to put him in the hospital. They needed a singer.

So when I got to Naptown, guess who I met? Remember the Trenier twins, Claude and Clifton Trenier? Well, they had a big band and that was the second surge of the Bama State Collegians, they were the number two band. This is around 1940, something like that. Erskine Hawkins came out of the same school and he just took the band and kept coming on to New York, and then Mobile took them up. Well, Claude and Cliff did the same thing. And in that band I met Matthew Gee for the first time, in that band, Thad Jones, Lucky Thompson, Sonny Stitt....

Was Sonny playing bebop that early?

He was exciting. He was hip. I can’t describe it. But I know he was a helluva first [alto] man, everybody just marveled at the way he could read. And he was a kid. I remember when Charlie [Parker], Bird, took him to 52nd Street one night and he said, “Come here to the window and look out.” It was like eight in the morning and Stitt would sit out in the middle of Dewey Square Park with his horn. He’d say, “Been hangin’ out with Bird!” Know what I mean? He was out in the park. And the next thing I know, he was on “Oop-Bop-Sh-Bam” with Diz [Dizzy Gillespie]. The rest is history.

John Coltrane

He was in the King Kolax band at the time we made “Dark Shadows”. That’s when I met him and this guy who lives across the street, Danny Knight, the singer. Danny said, “Man, meet this guy John Coltrane. He’s fierce, Jack!” But you know what Trane used to do? Even then, he could copy Bird’s solos—before he met him—note for note in the room and play them to perfection. Then, on the gig that night, he’d turn ’em completely around. Even then.

He heard that I was going to record with Bird and we were living in this hotel, the Morris Hotel, and he said, “I sure would like to meet him.” I said, “Man, come on!” Because you didn’t have to wonder if, when you went backstage to visit somebody, whether you were going to be snubbed or something. It wasn’t like that with Charlie Parker. I said, “He’d love to meet you, too.” So I’m standing at the mike like here, and Trane was sittin’ like that close to me and Danny.

Dark Shadows: Erroll Garner, Red Callender, and Lester Young

Contrary to the lies Ross Russell told everybody, the very first one was the take which they use now. That would be the second take, that was the first one. [3] And Ross Russell woulda liked to jump through the window he was so thrilled and shocked, he says—much to his chagrin now. I can’t understand that, all the money he stuck people up for. But anyway, he said, “That’s good, man!” And so Bird was hip to people, he just walked right between us, just moved him right out of the way. “Come here, baby,” he said. “Look, when you record, that’s excellent. We’re going to keep that. That’s a take. But always make a spare because who knows? A few days from now, when you hear it again, you might like the other version. Let’s make a spare.” And I did. We went right back and just striked it. The light went on and bam, take. And moved out of the way. Man, I wasn’t up there taking up anybody’s time. Danny was there, he can tell you. Because I figured, one thing I had in my mind, I looked at these men as geniuses. They were older, more mature in the business and everything. I said, the least I could do is have whatever I’m going to sing together and don’t cause them no headaches and go in there and do what I’m going to do and get out of the way.

I hired the rhythm section. I hired Erroll Garner. Bird turned all that over to whatever I wanted. Ross Russell didn’t want Erroll Garner either. Can you believe that? All that [the Dial sides by the Erroll Garner Trio] was done on the same day. [4] It was a breeze, man! A happy day. Bird was not on no narcotics; he had just come home. See how healthy that cat was, man? And nobody was [on drugs], and everything went whoosh! like clockwork. I don’t remember making no four takes on “Dark Shadows” because I have played them all—me and my wife Candee—and the only reason we can see is—for the four takes on “Dark Shadows”—maybe it’s for balance or something. But Ross, he went so far as to thing, the lawyer got that...where he says I really didn’t complete nothing that day. He says I got short of breath. What, I’m twenty-one years old and I’m short of breath? He said I had breathing problems and diction problems, said I really didn’t complete nothing, they had to go back and then do surgery. Man, they didn’t have no equipment like that then. He’s the luckiest fool going. Out there in Hollywood, you can find an old soundstage that they don’t use no more and they junked, with beautiful high ceilings and everything. That’s the way he got C. P. MacGregor [Studio]. He must’ve got it for, say, $25 an hour. He got everything for nothing! See, he got so excited he gave me a $20 bonus! Ha!

Ross didn’t want me to sing at all, but Bird was emphatic. “Suppose he sings, nothing happens. What do you wanna do now?” Ross said, “Do you sing bop?” “No, I’ll show you, we’ll go around to this guy’s house.” I go to Erroll Garner and said, “Man, would you play something so this guy could hear me? I’m going to make that date anyhow because Bird wants me.” Erroll said, “Yeah, man!” I said, “Do you know ‘This Is Always’?” I had heard Dick Haymes sing that in a movie. Boy, he was bad! It was in State Fair or one of them. [5] Harry Warren and Mack Gordon. I liked that and I had it down, so I asked Erroll, “Do you know ‘This Is Always’? Erroll said, “I think I know that. Sing it!” So I started to sing, “This isn’t sometime....” and Erroll matched those chords just like he wrote it! And at the time they were trying to get an Erroll Garner Trio going.

Incidentally, this rehearsal took place at Lester Young’s home. You hear everybody say he [Lester] was a nut, he was gay. None of that’s true. None of that’s true. They say he didn’t have no money, he didn’t have no sense. None of that’s true either. None of that’s true. Pres had plenty money and plenty sense. He had a big old two-story house and he said [imitating Young’s voice]: “Well, man, I’m never here and this [house] is for the cats. Cats ain’t workin’, you know what I mean? So don’t worry about nothin’.” He was a helluva cat, man. I know that house was on 27th Street, right by the railroad.

[At the time, they were trying to get an Erroll Garner Trio going] but they couldn’t get arrested. But Red Callender was cool. He was working because he was about the only black in the studios. But the first session I went with him, just to hang out. Doris Day had just left Les Brown, and Doris and Ted Nash was doin’ something with a big [group] of strings and everything and Oscar Moore was on that date. I used to admire Red, the way he just walked in there. I asked, “When did y’all rehearse?” He said, “We just ran it over for notes.” But anyway, Red was the only one who had any money and he had the time and he would come by and help ’em out if they needed some money. And then they would rehearse, but nobody would buy Erroll Garner, weren’t nothing happening. He played “This Is Always” and by the time Red came over—he’d had his spare bass leaning against the wall—he pulled it off the wall and started playing along with us. And Hal West, who was an excellent cook, was cooking a pie, and he run out of there, jumped on the drums, pulled his apron and started sweeping! Everybody looked at each other and laughed and smiled.

Bird said, “Hey, Ross, go get my horn!” And Ross went and got the man’s horn and he [Parker] said, “Sing another one, Earl!” And it dawned on me that there was a guy called Shifty Henry, very good at writing them ditties. And I said, with my little mind, I want to do a blues. I want something that’s the blues but it ain’t. And I said, “Ah—‘Dark Shadows’! It’s got a middle section.” See Shifty Henry was a very good writer. Oh, incidentally, you know all that “Jailhouse Rock” stuff by Elvis Presley? Shifty Henry wrote all that. Somebody got him down as a trumpet player, but no, he was a very—well, we’ll say he wasn’t the best of bass players. But he was a likable guy and he was talented as a writer. [6]

Benny Carter and Bardu Ali

The time I recorded with Bird was the second time I went to California. The first was with Benny Carter. It must have been (the first time) 1940–41. I’ll tell you what year it was, I used to go down there and watch ’em move the Japanese people out and take their property and stuff like that. And then, come night, you had to keep the shades down. In other words, the fliers couldn’t get nothing to shoot at. I guess that was the idea. 1941, I guess. [7] I stayed with Benny Carter at the Swing Club maybe six months. I was too young, fourteen going on fifteen. I had to go off stage and go in the kitchen because I didn’t have no business bein’ out there where they sold alcohol. And the cook said, “I’ll take care of the kid.” So I got all the best food and all that. But after a while, they couldn’t cover it up any longer because some sergeant used to come in there and look the other way, but maybe he got taken off the beat or something. But anyway, I had to step down from that.

But even at that, Benny Carter still took care of me just like I was his son. Until one day I called him and said, “Hey man, I got a gig.” And he said, “Yeah? Who you working with?” And I said it was with Bardu Ali. Bardu Ali had been with the Chick Webb Orchestra and in those days, they had a guy, they used to called “entertainers,” in other words, that’s what Lucky Millinder was. They had personality in front of a band and that’s what Bardu Ali was.

In other words, when I look at Prince, I think the guy is a very poor entertainer. Because I knew guys that did them things. In fact, I grew up, in the boarding school I went to, Piney Wood, I used to—I had my baton and everything, but I could hear. It almost looked as if I was really directing. But Prince is jumpin’ up and down. Aw man, I knew guys that were better....ah, don’t let me get started....

But Bardu Ali had the Chick Webb band. Webb had the hump on his band and he couldn’t play all night. So Harold West would sit in. He was his relief drummer, as we would say, and Bardu Ali fronted the band and Ella Fitzgerald sang. When Chick died, Bardu Ali took over the band and they used Ella’s name and Bardu handled the band. But Bardu retired to southern California and the Lincoln Theater opened up, black theater on 23rd, when everything was on the east side of L.A., 23rd and Central. [8]

So I heard about it and went by there. I was talking to a couple of cats and they said, “Get up and sing, man.” So I sang and he offered me a job. I guess I stayed there for about a year. I stayed as long as I wanted to, until I got tired of the coast. Guess who was in the band? First time I’d ever heard, “Man, you got to get some charts.” Charts, what? Melba Liston was in that band. She did some records for Dial, too, with Dexter Gordon. “Mischievous Lady” and all that. Well, they all went to the same teacher, Miss Hightower. Her, Dexter, Lamar Wright, and a lot of others. So did Chico Hamilton and Buddy Collette. [9]

But Buddy came later. See, he wasn’t the one that made the sessions at the [nightclub called The Bird in the] Basket and all that. But he was a guy that was always going to work and to practice—a very studious type. Like he is still, straight ahead, and he made it. He came from very, shall I say, humble beginnings, you know what I mean. I guess that was 1941–42. [10]

Pha Terrell

You’ve heard about Pha Terrell [with Andy Kirk]. He was the first one to sing “Dedicated to You”. Pha was the only one of them guys that had a higher voice, but he didn’t screech. And he had soul and was just a helluva nice guy. [text missing]

I watch all that, I guess it just saved my sanity or whatever’s left. She [clarification unavailable] used to preach that. Because I just sat down, I think I sat in that corner for three years because of all them cowards out there. I said, “To hell with everybody. If they don’t like me, I don’t like them.” That’s frustration. She used to sit down with me and say, “Benny Carter—he’s not a bum. George Duvivier, not a bum. Charlie Parker, he sure wasn’t a bum. Just evaluate all your real friends. I mean, if you’re down, you never have to really hurt. You can pick up the phone and call anybody anywhere—Beverly Hills, I’m talking about—people of substance, and get right through. They’re glad to help. Don’t that tell you something?” I began to see. Dexter said it once, when he came back from Europe. He said, “What’s goin’ on around here?” I said, “Damned if I know!” And [Ira] Gitler verified it. I think it’s in one of his books.

Jay McShann

Anyway, as the Bible says, I took unto me a wife at nineteen, which I wasn’t ready for, and I went home. Eckstine spoke to Dizzy about me and said to him, “There’s your singer.” Dizzy said, “B, I know you like the kid, but can he sing?” B said, “Yes, he can sing. He’s eighteen and sings two keys lower than me now!” Diz came up to me and said, “Hey man, you wanna go with my band?” I said, “Yeah!” But he took a long time to get it together and my parents wanted to meet my wife and all that, so I took a trip home to Leland, in the delta. That was where I started, around Memphis, a lot of talent came from around Memphis. And before I knew it, a big Greyhound bus—the word spread that I was home—pulled up and it was a band out of Little Rock, Arkansas, Jimmy Lofton, a local band, but they were well-funded and payed good money. He said, “Chuck Green told me you’d be glad to work. All you’ll be gone is three or four days—just like Jackson, Memphis, Vicksburg—and you’ll be home. You’ll get $35 a night.” That was kind of big money then, especially if you’re nineteen, so I took it.

William Green was in that band. He’s one of the best reedmen in L.A. [11] They don’t put nothing together. Whatever you see out there, he’s probably playing in the reeds, him and Buddy Collette. He was in that band, also Richard Boone. After I stayed with that band a little while, I moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where they were booked out of. I had me a little house and everything.

Jay McShann came through and by then, I was beginning to feel a little more confident about my singing. As opposed to kids now, I knew I had to spend a lot of time in the minors and when I thought I was ready to take the step, then I would take it, that’s the way I did it. By then, from singing with them bands, I learned not to be afraid. That Billy Eckstine, he’s been very helpful to me, just throwing things my way. He’d say, “What key do you wanna sing in?” and I’d say, “Does keys make a difference?” And Wardell Gray, bless his little heart, he’d say, “Whis-key!”

So [Jay] said, “We ain’t got time to make no charts. You know this song? You know ‘Long Ago and Far Away’?” I said, “Yeah.” My confidence was coming and I was beginning to like what was coming to me. But I didn’t think I was ready to get in contention or anything like that, but I wanted a record. So if I went to an agent—and I was pretty tired of runnin’ through Mississippi—it was time to move on. But the Petrillo record ban was on. However, I heard that there was some companies in California, regardless, that were still making records. The Black and White label, Exclusive, Dial, and so on.

I spoke to Jay McShann and the next thing I know, he said, “Why don’t you come back home?” I said, “Well, where you all going?” He said, “Around San Antonio and through to California.” I said, “Oh...let me think about this,” and I went home and packed. That’s the way I got to California the second time, with Jay McShann. We went into the Club Plantation, where we broadcast every night, six nights a week, locally.

Then it looked like it was a mass exodus to New York. I looked around and all the cats were in New York, because the Eckstine band was in New York. Miles was in that band, you name it, I mean, all the right cats were there. That was Dexter’s home and he had quit or got fired or whatever and was home. Wardell Gray was there and young Sonny Criss. I mean, everybody was there. Then B went to Boston and he broke the band up and he came back to California.

Bird at Camarillo (and in Kansas City)

Now, everything was happening in California. I remember I went to Ross Russell. I was just walking down Hollywood Boulevard looking for record companies to approach. I approached Ross Russell and he told me, “I don’t like singers. I think they get in the way of jazz. They don’t fit with jazz.” I said, “Oh?” He said, “Really, I’m adamant about that. If Billy Eckstine or Sarah Vaughan walked in here, I wouldn’t record ’em!” I said, “Good day,” and left. He was entitled to his opinion and I didn’t think nothing else about it.

But, as fate would have it, I went by Howard McGhee’s house one day and Bird had had the breakdown. And Howard was doing very well. He said, “I’m going to see Bird tomorrow. You wanna see him?” I said, “Shit, yeah!” The attendant there [Camarillo Hospital] said that when Bird first got there, he was kind of out of it, but they put him in that solution and he took a nap or two, and when he woke up he said, “Damn, what am I doing here?” He went on and started asking where was the library. He was very brilliant, you know.”

Bird and I were friends from way back in Kansas City. Bird and I were talking when I did not know who he was. Because I don’t meet no “strangers”. I like people. I know if I’m being jived or not. I just go about my business. I don’t fool around. I met Bird in Kansas City at 18th and Vine. I was the desk clerk on the night shift. I’d come on from maybe ten to six or something like that. Right across the street was a club called Chez Paris, a beautiful club, beautiful chorus girls, production numbers, the whole bit.

I was night manager but when it was time for me to go on, I ran across the street over there. They were opening a new show and the guy heard me and offered me a job. He offered me $150 a week and we had a deal, but I kept my little job over at the desk. It didn’t interfere. When it was time, I’d get someone at the desk and go. I’d go over there and do my fifteen or twenty minutes.

I remember this guy would always be in the luncheonette or he’d be outside at this place they called The Rock. All the musicians, whatever part of Kansas City they lived in, they’d all meet at 18th and Vine at The Rock. Some would smoke or whatnot. Great musicians, some that never made it. But I was hearing about Charlie Parker every day. Now I know they was jealous nitpickers about how crazy he was and he tries to play all of them notes and he uses all that dope, and all them old negative-ass things.

That particular night I came out, I was dressed and all ready to go. The guy I was talking to was nice. He said, “Hey man, you sure sound good. Can I walk over with you?” I said, “Sure, man.” I didn’t know who he was. We got over to the club, he said, “I just wanna sit in the back and catch you.” He sat almost near the guy that did the lights and things. Then I went on and did my bit and I came off and he waited for me. He said, “Man, I’m tellin’ you, you should be with Gate.” I said, “Who’s Gate?” He said, “Earl Hines.” I said, “Man, Billy Eckstine’s with him. But I had a dream that if Eckstine ever left, I’m the only guy that can take that job.” He said, “That’s right, you are. I’ll give him a call. He may be goin’ in the army or something, but one way or the other, he’s going to leave that band. I’m going to do something.”

I later found out that was Charlie Parker I was talking to. I would see him later on in the week. He was the tenor with Earl Hines for a while. Billy Eckstine made him [Hines] hire Bird, just like he had to knock him in the head to make him hire Sarah Vaughan. He [Hines] wasn’t too observant. Like I said, Bird and I were good friends and he respected the little kid’s talent. Like Eckstine says, “Bird knew what it was about and knew what was in front of you, what you were going to have to fight, you understand?” “Yeah...!” Hey, Bird was also smart enough to know that you could commercialize what he was doing without.... [pauses]

...destroying it.

Right! That’s smart, OK?

OK, so I went on an honest visit, just to see about him. The attendant said, “You guys are gonna be surprised. Hey man, he’s cool. Ain’t doin’ nothin’ but waitin’ his ninety days out. He’s in good shape. He ain’t doin’ nothin’ but playin’ pretty ballads.” This is the attendant talking to me and Maggie [Howard McGhee]. He said, “I used to hear him play all them notes. I didn’t understand all those notes. But now he’s playin’ pretty stuff. They said he didn’t have no tone—man, he’s got a beautiful tone!”

So the guy brought Bird out and we sat by the ocean. Maggie was lining up some gigs and had business to talk with him, so I, being a kid, got out of the way to let the big people talk business. But whatever Maggie and him was talking about, he’d look over at me and say, “Earl Coleman!” I said, “Yeah?” He said, “You wanna do a record date with me?” I said, “Sure, man, sure.” And all that was running through my mind was this man is in this place, all fucked up and he’s thinking about trying to help me! I shook my head, walked away, and forgot about it immediately. The next thing I knew, he had did his little stint. The phone was jumpin’ off the hook and they said, “There’s some man been callin’ all day, say he’s got to find you. You’re gonna record with Charlie Parker!” I said, “Oh? He meant that, huh!”

I happened to be standing at a place called The Bird in the Basket, where the sessions didn’t start until midnight. All the cats would be standing out in front, and Bird drove up in a cab, stepped out looking good with June Christy on his arm, you understand? All the musicians were looking and he said, “Earl Coleman!” He always knew what he wanted to do, what he was talkin’ about. He said, “Earl Coleman, come on in.”

The guy there wouldn’t let me sit in with them, but he was a jive dude, he couldn’t play nothing. I’d have been afraid too if I had as little talent as he had. It’s always that kind that’s in charge of the session. He’s dead now; he ain’t gonna be a part of history. He said, “He wants to get up there and sing. He must be crazy. He can’t keep up with that.” Dexter looked at him funny and so did Wardell, because they knew me, you know. Bird said, “Come on man, sing something.” So I sang “This Is Always”. I was working on that, gettin’ the kinks out of it. Then he told me where to meet him, what time. And the rest is history.

Like I say, I didn’t jump on something to get a free ride. That was pure friendship and love and respect. I’ll tell you something, that was really unheard of. Only a man like Charlie Parker would have done that.

New York

Milt Shaw heard a dub. The Shaw people were very smart, Milt and Billy. They were bookers, the smartest that ever did it. He was with William Morris, and when he brought Billy Eckstine over there, he started trying to move him. Billy Shaw then got his own office and he had a son, Milt Shaw, my dear friend, God rest his soul. He was a good man, a good friend, and very smart. There was a girl I was goin’ with...yeah, Delores. Anyway, she had the dub. I went around with it, playing it for people. At least I had me something to hold up! I wasn’t looking for no hit or nothing.

But when I got to Chicago from the coast, “Dark Shadows” was already released. It was on all the jukeboxes. I was walkin’ up and down 42nd Street hearin’ myself and I confess I’d stand in the chili joint and listen to myself three or four times. But this girl Rosalee Lewis, she took Milt Shaw because he was bookin’ Dizzy’s big band. I was supposed to have been the vocalist, but I got something else and by me leaving, B got Pancho [Kenny Hagood] the job. She got Milt over to the record store—because you could go in record stores at that time and play ’em—with the dub of “This Is Always”. Milt Shaw snapped! They found me and took me backstage. Diz said, “That’s my main man!” [Shaw] said, “You should be in New York.” I said, “I play to leave in the next couple of weeks.” He said, “Do me a favor, let me take this record to New York. I got a guy, a good friend of mine, a hot DJ. His name is Symphony Sid.” I didn’t know who he was then, although I’d heard Pres play “Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid”. [12]

When I got to New York, booking agents were standing in line looking for Earl Coleman. But Ross Russell sent for me right away because Ross Russell followed Charlie Parker to New York and opened an office on 52nd Street. Ross asked me and Bird to come in and he said, “I got good news and I got bad news. However you see it, we got a strange situation here. It’s good, though. Every distributor in New York and across the country is screaming. Word is getting out about this new singer, Earl Coleman. They’re calling up and saying, ‘Whatever you do, I want “This Is Always” first.’” Bird looked at me and started laughing and I knew that laugh was approval. He said, “What’d I tell you?” And he did. He told me before that record date that he was gonna make a record date with me and it’s gonna be remembered. I used to say, “What a nice guy,” and forget about it—you know what I mean? That’s a big man.

He [Russell] said, “Everybody’s asking for ‘This Is Always’ by Earl Coleman. What I’m asking you, Bird, is do you mind if I give Earl featured billing?” He [Bird] said, “That was the idea!” That’s the way with that, but Ross even discredits that.

Fats Navarro and the Dial Session

Naturally, he had a winner. He wrote something on back of one of those Spotlite records saying, “It’s peculiar that all the rest of the records [Earl Coleman] made for other companies and nothing ever happened since then. He’s like a lot of those obscure singers that Louis Armstrong used,”—something like that!

Ah, man, he approached me and gave me what’s considered decent money. You know, he didn’t want Fats Navarro! “That’s my record date! I don’t want Fats Navarro! Man, he’s finished! He’s on that dope and he’s finished.” Fats was dwindling away, but Fats Navarro was my friend. When I was trying to learn what was happening, Fats was maybe a couple of years older. We were friends and he already had a name and everything.

He used to come to Diz’s house and he’d walk right up to Diz’s face—in his house!—and he’d say, “They talk about this Diz that’s so bad! Let’s go through the keys!” Diz would like that, he’d say, “He’s badder than Diz, bad little m-f!”

But I loved Fats. I was doin’ pretty good, but down on 112th and Lenox—Spanish Harlem, that was the narco area, where the tragic magic was, as I call it now—I just walked through there. I didn’t know anything. Guys were shootin’ up all around me and I did not know what they were doing, nor was I curious. Ha! Life is funny. But anyway, Fat Girl was sittin’ on the curb, man, and he was sick! I mean, he needed a fix. He was dyin’. He was dying, that’s what was happening.

I said, “Say man, would you make a record date with me?” He said, “Yeah Jim, you know that!” You see, I know there are certain musicians that can be without a job for three, four years or whatever, then pick their horn up and sound like they just put it down an hour ago! I tell you some guys: Fats Navarro could do it, Lee Morgan could do it, Willie Cook, and I’ve been fortunate in that sometimes I cannot work [for a while] and...I don’t like to get left and be a drag, you know what I mean?

I made a deal with Fat Girl. I said, “Look baby, I know you ain’t got no horn. I’ll spring for the horn, but there’s gotta be a condition here, man. No offense and no disrespect, but I can’t afford to pay for no Buescher or anything!” That was like $300—all the money in the world. I think I rented it for like $20 an hour. “But after the rehearsal, you have to turn it in.” He said, “That’s cool, Jim!” So we started the rehearsal.

Now the rhythm section was supposed to be Linton Garner, who was really the genius in that Garner family; Max Roach; Curley Russell; with Fats Navarro up front, right? And Linton had found an electrical device, he called it an “organa,” a celeste or whatever and hooked it in. That’s the first time I heard an electric piano. He said, “We don’t have no horns to work with, so we have to try to enhance the sound somehow,” and he came up with this. That’s all we had counted on.

I get in the studio and there’s some bass player—I think you made me know his name because I didn’t know him or send for him, and wasn’t nobody thrilled with him and don’t nobody remember him—Jimmy Johnson. I was mad at Ross. Don Lanphere wasn’t asked [by me] either, but he was there also. But what we liked about Don was that he was trying to hear. He could read and knew how to play behind a singer. He was all right. He was a nice guy and that was all right.

But then as we began to learn things about Ross Russell, Don said, “Yeah, you’re right, he is an asshole! You know how I got on that record with you? I was uptown at a jam session at the Baby Grand, and I was goin’ out the door when Ross Russell, who was at the bar, stopped me and said, ‘Hey, I like the way you play. I got a record date I’m going to put you on.’” He didn’t consult me at all.

But far be it from me I say, I liked Don right away. The bass player, well, I’m hung and I didn’t know where Curley was and Curley was in demand, so Ross could’ve been telling the truth. But I found out it was a lie. He’d told him he’d decided to do something else. Ross just iced Curley.

Fat Girl just played so pretty. We didn’t realize how sick he was. We said, “Why don’t you cut loose, kid?” I said, “Ross, Fat Girl’s gonna burn one!” He said, “Oh?” Max said, “Brrrrrrr! Wham!” and then that “Move” came out of that, you know what he did to that! Like I told you, he hadn’t owned a horn in a few years by then. Shortly after them years, you take a guy to a hospital and they find out a guy’s a drug addict, they won’t touch him. They’ll probably call the police on you. He went in there while he was going through withdrawal symptoms. You can die if it’s handled wrong. I know. These people—and that’s a helluva strain on your whole nervous system—these people just said, “Junkie!” and they just let that man die. That was Harlem Hospital. You know how big he was, man? When he died he went down to ninety pounds. They wouldn’t do nothing for him. What the ailment was, besides the withdrawal and kicking a habit, then he had TB and he probably caught pneumonia.

I remember when I got in “the fast lane” or “the lost lane.” My manager took me down to Bellevue. He didn’t know what to do. We had run out of hospitals. We went everywhere, so we went to Bellevue and he [the doctor] said, “There don’t seem like nothin’ wrong with this man,” because I was immaculate and all that. Then they found out and said, “He’s got a drug habit! Dope! Get him out of here! I mean, get out of here before I call the police and have you both locked up!” And so there was nowhere in those days.

At the Apollo

Milt [Shaw] gave that thing to Symphony Sid and all that action sprang from a dub! Sid was saying, “The Great Earl Coleman! The Great Earl Coleman!” and boy, everybody was hollerin’ “Earl Coleman!” Then, I told you, we had the meeting [with Ross Russell and Charlie Parker] and the record was released. Boom!

Frankly speaking, I was twenty-one. Like I told you, I want to be good, sure, and make a decent record, but I wasn’t looking to be in contention with the big singers. [I just wanted to] go to an agent and say, “That’s my record.” But this thing bust wide open. See, after learning this business, you got to be ready for stardom. If you’re not ready and you get it, that’s worse than not having it at all.

Then I believe in something else: the love guys had. See, I come out of the old school. I learned all that in Mississippi. Every house I passed I would say, “Good morning, Mrs. So-and-so.” If I missed one house, by the time I got to the corner, Mrs. So-and-so would come and kick my ass and if I acted like I didn’t like it, I got another ass-whipping. So I was taught to be polite and respect people.

I was to learn how how dirty the in-fighting can be when you start making a name. I remember Wardell Gray told me, “Sure they love you! But if you ever make any noise where they start comparing you see what happens!” I said, “Aw man, they ain’t got no business worryin’ about me!” I was to learn all those things.

I got booked at the Apollo. Pancho [Kenny Hagood] was everybody’s man in New York and everybody was sayin’, “Bird got a vocalist? What does he want with some m-f from the coast?!” Cats was cruel then, like if a new guy would come on the scene. They’d let him sit in and, like I’ve seen them do that to Phineas Newborn—man, that was cruel. On his first night in New York, he went down to the Bohemia and they kicked off “Cherokee” so fast it was impossible! Even Charlie Parker couldn’t play that, but they would do that.

So I was the start of the first bebop package to go into the Apollo Theater. We opened in the Apollo that morning and then left and opened that night on Broadway in the Royal Roost. I was so young, so [on the marquee] they had everybody’s name and at the bottom, “introducing Earl Coleman.” And on this bill were Allen Eager, Charlie Rouse, and Tadd Dameron, God rest his soul. Curley Russell, Max, the whole....

But you know what they did to me, man? I would know how to handle it now. You can’t get nothin’ tryin’ to upstage me now, but as a kid I didn’t know, I wouldn’t do that. It was a cruel thing. They sabotaged my act. I had a friend, a guy that quit singing to become a black promotion man. He said, “Man, you hang around them cats all the time and they get jealous.” I said, “These are my friends and they’re hip to this music.” I wanted to be hip. I wanted everybody to like me. Everybody ain’t going to like you, I don’t care!

Symphony Sid brought me on, and when I walked out, man, the place went bananas! I think I opened with “September Song”, and every move, if I’d little hip change, the audience was very receptive—killed ’em, boy! And then I sang “This Is Always”. Instead of putting in E-flat—I don’t care now, I’ll say it—Tadd Dameron say poom! [wrong key] Joe [possibly Joe Fields] told me later that them cats was actually laughing! And by me being young, inexperienced, and so in awe of my first appearance at the Apollo. There was a woman buyer there who, if she liked any of the new acts at the Apollo, would buy you for the whole black circuit, all the black theaters. But they threw me a whole tone too low! If I’d have had the experience I do now, I’d have turned around and said, “Wait a minute, we’re not together, are we?” I wouldn’t have panicked. But I didn’t die. The audience was still in my corner.

I’m the only act that ever got closed out of the Apollo and didn’t suffer the humiliation that went with it. Know what they used to do? You had a contract to play the Apollo, and if you went out there and died, well then, you still had to make every show, every call, every half hour. You had to be there and be in costume. You had to come downstairs and stand there, right in the room where all the people are going on stage, stand there and be humiliated. I used to see so many acts go through that, but [Apollo owner/manager] Mr. [Frank] Schiffman sent for me—they had a band from Philadelphia, Jimmy Gorham, don’t worry about him!—and he said, “I don’t see how your agent let you get up there with them sons-of-bitches. They weren’t trying to accompany you. You need pretty accompaniment. Kid, I know you can sing and I know you’ve been sabotaged. If we had Duke [Ellington] or [Count] Basie here, you could run right down between shows, pull your music out. I wouldn’t let you go on with them. So look, I’m gonna tell you, you don’t have to hang around. I’m gonna bring you back and, if you want, I’ll put that in writing.” Even he saw it, but that broke my heart.

And they laughed about it! That’s the funny part. It was funny to them. But then I had to go to work with them that night at the Roost. But they didn’t pull off nothing. They only tried one thing. That’s when their respect started growing for me. I used to hit the ninth way out there and resolve on a major seventh. I knew what I was doing when I went after the note and everything. I hit that ninth to the major seventh and I resolved it. It wasn’t no sweat. I knew what I was doing when I went at it. That was the night I won the guys’ respect, because I looked, and there was my rhythm section sitting right in front of me! When I slowed down, they eased up their instruments. You know, Max went one way, Tadd went one way, and Curley went the other way, and they met up in front of the stand and when I resolved it, they were sitting there applauding. Now, I look back at that Apollo thing and I think it made me grow.

New York, Gene Ammons, and Billy Eckstine

In those times in New York, those were the best times because there wasn’t nothing but talent. You see, people liked the music. Them kind of people like they call “stars” today, these guys come in there, it’s gotten more you take a guy like Chuck Berry. He’s an authentic country boy. He can play in three keys, maybe, I dunno. But it’s an authentic feeling, so I don’t mind nothing about that. But them people that jump up there and get naked and them broads that show their cunts and everything, that ain’t got nothin’ to do with no music.

And everybody you be talking to today, maybe they have a quartet and they’ll talk about, “My band, well, my band don’t play that...” and he’s got a drum, and the drummer can’t play it, it’s probably his friend from up the street. It’ll be a quartet and he’ll call it “a band.”

But we used to just refer to that...I mean, we’d be seeing stuff like the Orioles come in, well, I’d been seeing stuff like that for years, but we always referred to stuff like that as “bad music”—well, not the best of music. See, I always had a feeling for the blues.

Which brings us to Gene Ammons.

Well, Jug and I had met before he was with B. I got him the job with Eckstine. I met Jug during the time I was in Naptown. Remember the time I ran out of Chicago to get a little more education in this game? I also met King Kolax. He always had good bands. He never made no money, but he had a helluva school. Those players, boy, smokers! And Gene Ammons was the straw boss. He handled the money. We just hit it right off. Like I say, the guys then just had a bond. We loved each other.

I’m talking about black and white alike loved each other! There wasn’t none of that stuff about “Don’t go to Harlem.” Hey man, on any given night, you’d see Earl Coleman, Gerry Mulligan, Serge Chaloff, Stan Getz, [Al] Cohn, Zoot [Sims], Lady Eager [Allen Eager]—we’d be goin’ somewhere! Havin’ some insane fun! Them cats, they was welcome, and there wasn’t nobody about to bother ’em!

Jug persuaded me to sing with Kolax and we had a good friendship. We worked together and boy, I knew he was fierce! And when I came to New York—before “This Is Always”—and the guys, Budd Johnson and all of them, were trying to convince Eckstine that he should get a band. “We’ll write the music, we’ll take care of all that, you just sing.” I used to sit in on all that.

So when they left town, they took a skeleton crew with about twelve charts—and Basie probably gave ’em eight or nine of those! But Lucky Thompson was the tenor player when they left town with Bird, and they was addin’ as they went along because then they picked up Rouse along the way. It was the best thing that ever happened to him, because the company was too fast for him. He was young then and he couldn’t read that well, and B said—I told Rouse about this, he knows—B said, “Man, it breaks my heart. I got to let this little cat go.” You know what Charlie said? He said, “Please let me stay. I’ll be the valet—anything!” He wanted to sit next to Charlie Parker. Everybody did. B said, “No, man. You ain’t no flunkie. You ain’t no valet. You’re a musician. Go back home, get your shit together, you’re gonna make it.” Like I said, fate would have it, we [Rouse and Coleman] ended up on the same job together at the Stardust.

One time on the weekend, I had Mondays off, and B was saying he and Lucky Thompson were at odds about something. But Lucky had to go. Everybody voted he had to go. I said, “Hey, I know just the man! When you’re in Chicago, you go get Gene Ammons!” B said, “Is that Albert Ammons’s son? I said, “Yeah, and he’s dangerous.”

B said that the day they held auditions, every tenor player in Chicago was there. There was a line of tenor players. You see the kind of music they was playing, the key signatures and everything was entirely different from anything. Some tough cats sat down there and said, “Next!” They say Jug came in and sat down, read it, and stood and soloed! B said, “Cut! That’s it, gentlemen!” Charlie Parker said, “Jug can read anybody’s book down on sight, with feeling, and get up and solo!” Jug tells me, “Man, I was scared to death!” I said, “Man, don’t nobody know it.”

I was always around the [Eckstine] band, but I did get the job with Hines. Sarah and me shared the vocals until the band broke up. That’s when Earl Hines added the girls playin’ strings. They were bad. Ha! They didn’t make any records [with strings or with Coleman or Vaughan vocals]. If McShann had let me sing “The Very Thought of You” at a date, he’d have had a hit then, because I was breakin’ up theaters all over the place with that. They were recording for Decca and, as usual, them fools they had for A & R men, they said, “No, we don’t want nothing but the blues!”

Walter Brown and Leo Parker

Walter Brown was uptown somewhere gettin’ high. He’s one of the original druggies. I used to always wonder—this is how naïve I was—he would come to me and say, “Kid, loan me $20.” And I didn’t mind, but I was thinking, he was a star, why did he have to ask me? He would carry a little portable iron and I’d see guys together. They would come in my room and be doin’ that. I understand all that now. Because, number one, I didn’t know what they were doing and, number two, I wasn’t one of them. Number three, the main thing, I didn’t ask ’em for any of it. Every one of those people that I knew.

Every one of those people that I knew became stars. We’re talkin’ about major stars. Now, Leo Parker, you know how he got the job? He come in one day and he’s talking. “Hey B, ain’t you gonna hire me, homey?” You know, he’s from Washington. B said, “M-f, I need someone who can play baritone. Can you play baritone? No.” Leo said, “Yeah!” He wanted to play beside Charlie Parker. B said, “I tell you what. Get it. If you don’t, I’m gonna kick you in the ass!” He got it and Leo sat right down and the rest is history.

Everywhere you looked, it was a new thing happening. And that’s the only “new music” I know in this century. [laughs] Because Earl Hines, that’s the band I always dreamed of. Tell you something that may sound corny, but it’s true: You know, everything I’ve ever dreamed of has happened. Tell you one thing I never dreamed of: I never dreamed of makin’ no hit record or to get the kind of respect that I’m gettin’ from critics. I didn’t know from that. But I wanted...I always would watch those bands when they came through the south and there always was one guy—I don’t care if the band is starving—there’s one guy who never lost his dignity. Dapper, immaculate, and classy—I don’t care if the band didn’t have a dime! I wanna be like that! I wanna be like Uncle Dan, Dan Grissom, singin’ with Jimmie Lunceford. Because them cats would look like lawyers. Jimmie Lunceford’s band looked like lawyers and doctors. They looked like anything but what the stereotype of musicians would be. Black glasses and all.

Herb Jeffries

Then I met Herb Jeffries, a very wonderful man, and a smart man. I think he’s lazy as a singer, but then I understand him. He just does what he wants to do when he wants to do it. He’s extra-talented. He can paint. He’s a helluva artist, like Tony [Bennett]. Tony’s a helluva artist and so’s Herb. And I’ll tell ya something else Herb can do—woodcraft. Herb can carve pipes that sell for seven or eight hundred dollars. He just sits around. I’ve seen him do some acting in Hawaii, he’s pretty good at that. He was the first black cowboy: The Bronze Buckaroo, Harlem on the Prairie, and all that, sure.

This is the way I met him. Duke [Ellington] played for the Cotton Carnival and I used to hear him [broadcast] out of the Hotel Sherman in Chicago, and I’d hear them introduce, “And now, Herb Jeffries!”—“Flamingo”—bam! That was the band that they hired to play the Cotton Carnival. Everybody was celebratin’ King Cotton. That was the big money industry. So when they played Greenville, which was about eight miles from my home, a big auditorium with Duke’s band, I had my ticket two months in advance. But I found out I didn’t need it, because I happened to be standing outside when the band drove up and they started getting off the bus, and up the steps walked Herb Jeffries!

You know how kids are, I said, “You’re the Bronze Buckaroo!” He gave me a big “Hi!” The next dumb thing I said, “I’m gonna be a singer like you!” He said, “Oh, you will.” He put his arm around my shoulder and pointed out one guy and said, “See that guy? That kid’s Blanton. I worry about him. He’s the greatest bass player ever. Jimmy Blanton, he comes from Nashville.” Herb was very handsome, Indian-looking with long hair like the cats are wearing it now, nice hair like the Indians. [He was warning me with Blanton’s example] “The bitches have killed him. You know what I mean, between the bitches, he won’t eat. Man, I’m afraid he’s just gonna wither away.” That’s when TB was to people like cancer. You had TB and that was the curtain.

But Herb took me on the stand and introduced me: Ben Webster, Ray Nance, Ivie Anderson—in other words, I wouldn’t have had to pay to go in, no way! And then I heard him sing “Flamingo” for the first time in person. I’d heard him sing it on the radio. The next day at my job—I was a Western Union boy—I was trying to sing it. I still am. I always liked it and wanted to do it. But I wasn’t trying to take nothin’ from him. That’s his. He owns that. He sounds good now. He works whenever he’s ready. We gotta talk him into comin’ back here. He was here not so long ago because he was on Channel 13 [New York PBS television station WNET].

Al Hibbler

That was one of the people that pushed me on the amateur show. There was a band from Memphis, a local band led by Doug Jenkins. Hibbler’s from Little Rock and he always used to call me “Little Hib” or something. They used to play at this place called Red Ruby’s every Monday night and they’d have an amateur show. I said I’d get up there, and Hib said, “Yeah, you’ll kill ’em, Little Hib.” And I got up there and I won and I sang “Star Dust”. First prize. I’ve always felt “Star Dust” was special. I hear certain disc jockeys—please quote me on this—saying, “That verse on ‘Star Dust’, that’s not easy to do.” To me, it ain’t nothin’ but a story, a pretty story. They made such a big issue out of that until Sinatra recorded it, just the verse. But when I used to go to dances down in the South and the singer would do “Sometimes I wonder why...”, the crowd would just go bananas! So I found out that was a hot tune and I was smart enough to do that on the amateur show.

I find that I want to sing because you can get a lot of stuff off your chest that you can’t say ordinarily. You can say it through a lyric, though. The “music of the years gone by”—sounds corny, but it’s what you feel, a fucking drag. A guy said something in the barber shop the other day. It’s frightening but it’s true: the situation today where the kids don’t have no respect for the parents and the parents act like they’re scared of the kids. “Man, these are the last days,” he said. “We’re on the out chorus now.” They’re not gonna let it get no better; they don’t want that.

Anyway, Hibbler inspired me enough to, when I went to school that day, to see the new principal about wanting to start a music class, as opposed to agriculture. I wasn’t into that. I didn’t want to pick cotton or none of that. I thought that was...I didn’t know what to think of that. People getting up in the night to catch a truck and stand in the hundred-degree sun for a dollar a hundred or whatever they’re talking about? I said there’s got to be another way.

I knew these guys, Doug Jenkins and Hib, from Memphis. And when I asked the principal about the music class, he told me, “You need to join the agricultural class and learn how to work, because your problem is you want to be a big shot.” And this is the principal of the school tellin’ a little eleven-year-old kid somethin’ dumb like that? So I just sat there quietly. Along the way, I said, “Can I be excused, sir?” He said, “Yes,” and I haven’t seen him since.

I ran out to the highway and I went to Memphis. I found Doug Jenkins. I read the placard that said “Doug Jenkins Booking Agency” and it was his house. We called it DBAU—“doing business as usual.” I hitchhiked up to Memphis and found my way to Beale Street and someone pointed me to Lucy Avenue. I looked up and there’s his house. I know he said, “What is this kid doin’?” But he put me up and the next day he took me over to Beale Street and that was somethin’. There was so much talent there. I auditioned for Irving Miller’s Brownskin Models. But I was to watch Hibbler’s career and the next thing I knew, he had gone with Jay McShann.

Hib went from Doug Jenkins to Boots and His Buddies in San Antonio and then with Jay McShann. Then Charlie Parker got him with Jay McShann. Then in 1942–43, Duke Ellington stole him. So Bird took me up to the musicians union and I auditioned for Jay McShann. He said, “Good. We’ve got to do some one-niters in Chicago. I’ll get in touch with you then.” I said, “Thank you,” left, and forgot about it, because I was used to hearin’ “I’ll call you.”

I’ll never forget it—it was on a Friday—I got my induction papers to go into the army. I got the letter and a telegram from Jay McShann. It said, “We’ll meet you at LaSalle Street Station, Friday morning, Chicago, Jay McShann.” I grabbed the Kansas Special to Chicago. I was walkin’ around LaSalle Street Station and I didn’t see nobody I recognized out of the band, but then I see a little guy—and you can tell the musicians in those days because he was conked and whatnot. That was Willie Cook and he had his little wife with him. So we both just migrated to each other because we both were there to meet Jay McShann, only there wasn’t nobody there to meet us. So we said, “Let’s just get a cab and go out to the hotel, the Oakwood Manor.”

Earl Hines and Sarah Vaughan

That’s how I got what I wanted, workin’ with McShann, I got in through the side door. “Welcome to the band,” and I went to work. Then I got what I wanted, to sing with Earl Hines. I had dreamed about that for years because Earl had a helluva band, especially with Budd [Johnson] and all them cats. Earl was at the Howard Theater [in Washington, D.C.] and we came in on Sunday night at Turner’s Arena. Earl came by to hear McShann—he really came to steal some trumpet players and trombones. I happened to be called up to sing and he comes up to me and says, “You’ve got a good quality in your voice. Why don’t you come by the Howard? I’d like to talk to you. Come by after the second show.”

I went by there and as I stepped through the door, Sarah Vaughan was singing “I Must Have That Man”. Boy, I stood there frozen I don’t know how long. She was one of the people. I had to go in and wait I don’t know how long until Earl came down. Then Earl said to the straw bosses John Williams and Louis Dunlap—who wrote “You Can Depend on Me”, a smart man—Earl said, “Take the kid downstairs and make him sing you one, cold! Let’s see if he sounds that good just cold. Because he sounded awful good last night.” Even Sarah came down, too. So I sang somethin’. Sarah said, “That’s the one.” Because they was auditionin’ guys every day. It was a trip to see the guys they were auditioning. Every one of them was trying to be Mr. B. They had the big collars the way he did. One dude had his hair parted just like B....

That was the first time I met Sarah, when she said, “That’s the one.” She’s still my friend. She always stays the same, Sarah never changes. She’s just Sarah, just loves to sing, and gettin’ better every day. The older she gets, the better she gets.

You’ll find this out, don’t let ’em terrify ya or nothing. I heard this woman, a very intelligent woman on the TV, talkin’ somethin’ about bein’ “an old woman of twenty-seven.” I thought, “What the fuck is she talkin’ about?” But that’s the way America is set up, you know, on age bullshit. I don’t feel nothin’, but I just know at a certain time in my life there are things I’m supposed to do and things I’m supposed to give up doin’. That’s all, but it took me forty-five years to really wake up to that you’re out here and you’re on your own. You got to stand tall and you’ve got to be strong or they will eat you alive and dance around the funeral pyre. It’s a cold world. The world loves a winner, but I’ve learned about those too. I’ve always lived. I’ve always done as well as I’ve wanted to do, not bragging. I’ve been fortunate. I came out of a good home.

The only problem, the only time I’ve been on my ass and didn’t do shit, was when I tried to be hip and got into that “fast lane” and got lost. That’s the only time I didn’t have nothin’, you understand, and didn’t do nothing. And anybody that does do that ain’t gonna have nothing and anybody that does that—I don’t wanna know him! Like Shelly Manne said, “Don’t get near me with a short cigarette!” That was in the late 1940s and 1950s, oh, that was “hip!” Everybody be talkin’ about it. B used to say all them little saxophone players was gettin’ hooked because they thought Bird did that and that was gonna make them play. B said, “Look at them, they droppin’ like flies and Bird’s still standin’ tall!” But he wasn’t doin’ somethin’ because somebody else did it. If you get caught up in something, figure that’s it, because you figure that’s “hip” to do, well then, you’re lost.

Bird died too young—thirty-five years old, man, and they say he had a body that was sixty-five! [13] I’ll tell you who else is gonna be like that—and I love him because he’s such a wonderful person and has got so much class, a terrific family background and everything—Dexter [Gordon]. Ain’t nothin’ rough. He knows what he’s doin’. He was doing that before I was. I told you, man, all them guys got high around me and I did not know what the hell they were doing. It didn’t even faze me. You can’t say, “The wrong people was handling me.” No, you’ve got to put that on yourself! All those excuses don’t sell. You’ve got to stand up.

Prestige and Prison

You had a surge of record labels, young hip guys that were comin’ up, and they weren’t interested in no “personalities.” If a dude acted out, he acted out. So what? Get out of the way and let him do what he’s gonna do. Let him express himself. All the musicians used to like Earl Coleman and so I could get up on stage in places where they wouldn’t allow any singers.

I guess I knew [Prestige Records owner Bob] Weinstock first through reputation. I was away, one of the time I got sent down for a while. You know, put away. In the South, that’s all, they gave me seven years for something that should have been ninety days. I was uppity. But that was cut in half because on one of the Christmas shows, after I got my health back and everything, there was a judge that came over and caught the Christmas show. I’ll never forget there was a dude in there doin’ life—they called him “Bow Tie.” He wasn’t goin’ nowhere; he was there forever. But he thought he was quite a star. He was funny to me. “Don’t care nothin’. Old Bow Tie can sing!” I said, “Oh yeah? What do they give you for the first prize?” “About $25.” I wanted to get in that anyway, so I said, “Good. Put me down. I want the first prize.”

So everybody came to laugh, like to see me fall on my face. They had a little band there and I sang “I Surrender, Dear”. The guys, they tore up the place, right?’s funny, everybody used to think that if you could sing “Ol’ Man River” then you were the baddest thing in the world. Baby, ain’t everybody can sing “Ol’ Man River”. So I sang it, and I was healthy—in good shape—and hit a note an octave higher. I had been gettin’ my rest and whatnot. This white dude was sittin’ down. He was obviously a civilian and someone important, because they allowed him to come in the joint. He jumped straight up in the air when I hit that last note on “Ol’ Man River”! Man, he came to see me and said, “What the hell are you doing in this place? You can’t tell me you’re a criminal!” I told him my story and he said, “What they’ve got to do is....” We sat down and talked and he was tellin’ me they need a narcotics squad and all that, and he said, “You shouldn’t be in here. You have no business in here.” To make a long story short, he went to the top of the parole board and they accepted it and before I knew anything, they wiped my sentence down to four years. I was home in two years and ten months. It was a judge out of Richmond, Virginia, and he had a lot of clout.

So that’s why I’m tellin’ ya, man, don’t come to me and be tellin’ me about white and black, because you don’t know! I’ve been in positions where nothing’s happening and it’s always going to be somebody nice, I don’t care where it is. And that was a white man, wasn’t it? After I saw how people had ratted on me—people that I thought I loved, I said, “I’m going to start accepting people on a one-to-one basis.”

While I was there, I wrote Weinstock because I was feelin’ good and I was singing good. I knew I had to have a tonsillectomy. I was scared to death, but it was a good doctor that came to the place, and I told him, “Now Doc, whether you believe it or not, this is my living!” In jail, most guys be tellin’ about who they were, most were lying, as a joke. But I was adamant, so he starts talking to me about “The Syncopated Clock” and starts throwing a little music quiz at me. So he got a specialist and that’s when my range began to expand. After the tonsils were removed, I sang even better.

I wrote Weinstock a letter and said, “Man, I’m over that situation and I’m singing better now than I ever sang in my life. I’m not bullshittin’ no more. Would you give me a record date when I get back out?” A letter came right back and he said, “Sure, man, you can have your own album.” Then he said, “...and Sonny [Rollins] is always buggin’ me because he wants to do something with you.” Sonny said, “That Earl Coleman knows a lot of tunes, man!” One day, the mail come and there was a beautiful letter from Sonny. Evidently he had written it after he had gotten off from work at Birdland. I had things like that to inspire me, so I knew I wasn’t forgotten.

When I came out, Weinstock and I had a little workin’ relationship. But what I had was post-nasal drip, not sinus, though it’s in the sinus family. It’s like if it’s very humid, I’ll drain a little, but I got tablets for this. But I didn’t know that then, and on some of them records, I said, “Damn! What’s wrong with my pipes?” I’d go get a shot of penicillin, which would clear you up for about an hour, but by the time I got back to the studio, it’s right back there again. So on some of those records, I wasn’t really singing full voice. In other words, I’ve got a lot of equipment, so I can sing soft and still be louder than the average guy. So that’s what I did: I dropped the keys and was whispering a little bit.

Somehow I ran into Richard Carpenter, who was managing Jug [Gene Ammons]. That wasn’t no sweat there. I said, “Well, when do I got to work?” He said, “Now!” That was the kind of friendship we had. So I worked with Jug for about three or four years. We had a tough little seven-piece band smokin’, Jack! We used old man Henderson [trombonist Henderson Chambers] when we recorded, Nathan Woodyard, a good trumpet player...let’s see, who else? Eddy Moore, a helluva writer and trombone player, he wrote the charts for me. And we had Shep [bassist Ernie Shepard]. He knows you all right, but he wouldn’t come near you, Jack! That was an enjoyable three or four years because I was with my good friends and we was making music.

But that’s when I began to see that this business was changing. We were always invariably—like in the Labor Temple in Minneapolis—with one of them groups like “the Spaniels.” Like a dog. You look up [on the marquee], “The Spaniels again tonight.” They were the stars, we were relegated to the background. They were awful. I remember when Jug and I—well, I never had no problem gettin’ booed or anything like that—but this night in Minneapolis, Jug said, “And now we’re goign to bring to you our vocalist, Mr. Earl Coleman!” Them people that wanted the Spaniels and them rockers, like, they said, “We don’t wanna hear him! Bring the Spaniels back!” But I kept walkin’ right to the mike and went right into “Funny Valentine”. They calmed down and soon they started sayin’, “The m-f do sound pretty good....” Then silence. They liked me. But, now that I think of it, the Spaniels were the only reason we were working. We were the band for them and they were carrying us. So they weren’t too happy when I started getting applause. I know nobody ever heard of them anymore, but I’m still here.

But about Bob Weinstock...I can say that I respect him because he was good for good music. He would listen and he wasn’t into personalities. He wasn’t a nitpicker or petty. He wasn’t lookin’ for nothin’. If a guy said, “Hey man, I got to have $50,” forget that. Because everybody was young, man—and dumb.

Elmo Hope and Jack McDuff

We [Hope and Coleman] were good friends. I met some young kids up on the hill one day. I was standing around 142nd Street and St. Nick up in there, sittin’ up in the park, and a young tenor player by the name of Sonny Rollins came through. I said, “Man, he’s bad! He plays the tenor like Bird!” Next, I met Jackie McLean and we all became friends right away. I call them “the kids up on the hill.” One day I called Miles [Davis] and said, “Say, man, there are some bad little ol’ kids up here!” Miles say, “I know, you’re talkin’ about Newk [Rollins] and Jackie!” There was also Kenny Drew, Art Taylor, and another one out of this crowd. It was unfortunate what his family did to him. His name was Lowell Lewis. He looked like Miles, black like Miles. He was a handsome little cat. He could play, he had his own thing. But his people thought that he was too good to be a musician and they didn’t want him to hang out with us. But he ended up in a nuthouse and he died in there. They kept him in there. Lowell Lewis. If you ever see Jackie McLean, you ask him about Lowell.

But [that’s when I met] Elmo and them. There were so many places where you could go and jam in Harlem. [Gerry] Mulligan lived up here with Bird for a while. He’d go down to the Paramount Paradise on 110th Street. Elmo and I—as a matter of fact, it was a friend of mine, we’ve become friends, a man who has got a little club up in Newburgh, New York—Merle Robinson. Somehow he was down on the weekend and he wanted some kind of noise in his place. I was introduced to him and I didn’t have nothin’ to do, so we made a deal. I put everybody in that place. He said, “Man, through you I’ve had the greatest players in here, from Sonny Rollins to Jug to Elmo Hope.” Like I said, it was a togetherness and a love between guys then. We didn’t mess over each other or allow anyone else to.

I don’t remember the guy’s name from AudioFidelity, [14] but he had a very morbid idea. He had a whole lot of strung-out cats, you understand, and he gave us money every day to rehearse, and I went over there. I think that’s one of the worst records I ever made. That’s one of them baddies that’s horrible, because I was sick and I was dreaming, and I had to go try to sing. And then when the title came out.... A lot of people liked the damn thing, but I know and you can’t bullshit yourself. I know that wasn’t shit! And when the title came out, Sounds from Rikers Island! A lot of people today think we made that on Rikers Island. I’ve been to the island, years and years ago, but that wasn’t made there. That was made in the studio. No.

Was John Gilmore on that? I remember Freddy Douglas was on the alto, Philly Joe [Jones on drums]. Was Walt Dickerson on vibes? Somehow, he’s one of them cats that always had to be the straw boss or in charge of the money. He was a helluva vibes player. I don’t know whatever happened to him. From Philadelphia he went to Sweden or something. I always thought that John [Gilmore] deserved better than what he got [staying with Sun Ra], but John is happy with what he’s doing, so I let him alone. He loves Sun Ra! I knew Sun Ra back in Chicago. That was a different thing. I didn’t bother to find out what that was. But Jack McDuff, who’s my neighbor here, and I were in the old Pershing Hotel. I heard somebody was rehearsing, so I stepped down there and I heard, “joop-baba-eeee-yah!” It was the God-damnedest thing I ever heard.

McDuff is one of the most underrated musicians. They don’t know what he’s doin’ yet! Because on the Joe Williams record he plays piano and one of the critics wrote, “If he wants to practice the piano, he should do it on his own time.” Boy, Mac was mad! But he can write for anything. He’s a very bright musician. But he went for the survival kit. He jumps in that truck—you see that truck sittin’ out in front with his logo, the sailor cap? It’s like a little house and he goes off to see the world in it and makes a living. Poor guy just lost his wife, but other than that, he does all right. They won’t do no benefits for him. But some cats just don’t even get part of what is due them.


Well, look at me! I’m trying to be positive. All the offers that I’ve had, really solid offers, have been from foreign countries. That’s great; I’m not gonna argue with ’em. I was dumb, I’ve had chances, but now they want me well enough and I’m going to take it. I’m gonna take that club in Japan. You see, I’m not in George Wein’s clique and I really don’t like it, either. He was gonna do a tribute to Bird and Ira Gitler said, “Get Earl,” and Stan Getz said, “You might as well.” So I walk on to a standing ovation and in fifteen minutes I stopped everything cold. Then he hires me for two years running, but relegates me up in the boondocks. N.Y.U.’s a helluva school [15] and they got a room there—Ira calls it the “Singers’ Corner.” So they gave me sixty minutes and more money. One year I was up with Helen Merrill and Carrie Smith. That’s when I began to know that I had fans out there that really respected and loved me. When I walked in, Carrie was bowing to come off—she had ’em up screaming! “Damn!” I said, “I got to follow that, mama?” She said, “Looks like it!” I said, “Oh well,” and went right on. They quieted down after a while. By the time I was through, they wasn’t going to let me leave. There was pandemonium. One of George Wein’s kids was there and he said “blip” and doused the lights. Somebody grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out. That was the only way I could get out of there. He was smart. I had already gone back about three times. You see, bein’ up there [far from New York City], ain’t a critic or nobody could see that. Mel Torme was down here in Carnegie Hall.

I know Mel Torme. Mel Torme is a genius! There ain’t a greater musician out there. But then I don’t like the “jazz thing.” But he’s been into acting, he’s done cowboy parts. He was, at one time, the top gun in Hollywood. He writes music, he can do that for fun. Oh yeah, he’s a genius! I’m sayin’ that and he can write his own arrangements. When it comes to his singin’, I can take the ballads, but ever since George Wein built him all up as the “jazz” singer, he got a new lease on life. Can’t blame him, take the money.

But that’s plastic. I hate to hear Joe Williams try to scat. And I hate to hear Sarah scat, because her voice is too pretty for that and she doesn’t really feel it. That’s the only time I don’t like to hear her. Because I don’t think—only Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson were different, they were made for that. But it’s good to know how to do that. I can scat, but I’m not gonna stretch out for no four or five choruses. When you see me, I sing blues. I swing. I’ll scat for a chorus or two, maybe, then I’ll step out of the way. Just to show versatility. I’m not gonna get carried away no more, not when I could be really creating something, man. That’s boring.

I’m sure thankful, because I found out.... One thing Jimmy Jones used to say, “Earl’s just always been with the wrong political party.” I said, “Yeah, I’m a bad politician.” I could have jobs. Ninety times they’ve offered me the job with the Ink Spots, the bass with the Ink Spots. I can’t do that. Next they was gonna draft me for the Drifters. No, I can’t do none of that, I know. And everybody says this, “That’s good. It may have taken you a long time, but everybody obviously respects what you’re doin’. They just gonna sit there, and the next thing you know, they’ll all be after you. They’ll be bumpin’ heads!” Because they know if I haven’t sold out at this age, I ain’t gonna change! They know if they come to see me, this is what I do. Don’t put no sheet over the drummers and don’t put the horn behind no glass or whatever that shit is that they do—make half a song today and the rest tomorrow? Uh-uh. Lemme sing with the guys. If they drop a mike, I’ll go in there and make an overdub.

Mike Abene and Gerry Valentine

I never dreamed I’d get these accolades. Right now, I ain’t got no money, but they ain’t gonna do no benefit for me, either! As I say, that icebox stays full! When I work, I save my money. In the words of Earl Coleman, as spoken to Budd Johnson, “I’m one of them dudes that took fifty years to make 21.”

That’s what it was. I didn’t start to grow up until I was forty-five. I started seeing things different. I couldn’t believe it. I started walking around just feeling hurt. Who can you trust? When Miles started playing rock and roll, then I really didn’t know what the hell was going on. Fate had it, that’s when I really made up my mind [to kick drugs]. I’d had it. I was tired of that. One junkie don’t even like another one. Believe me, that ain’t shit! That’s all you have in common. They’ll talk you to death. “My man!” They love to see me comin’, because I was down-to-earth and them dudes don’t have no way of gettin’ no money. I had a little talent and I knew people. The minute I’d give it [drugs] to them, the minute they’d use it, they would turn and I’d watch it turn on me. The great actor Val Avery said at a party one night, “Kid, you ain’t got nothin’ to worry about. You look good. Remember, nothing succeeds like success.”

Since Stardust, I walk through the streets now. “Yo, my man!” I know who my friends are. I spent a hundred dollars one night. I heard Mike Abene. “Hey man, would you work with me?” I head him play behind one of them girl singers, the one that makes all them commercials. [16] He told me, he said, “That girl made five hundred thousand last year!” “Doin’ what?” “Commercials. But she’s scared of crowds.” If you’re nervous, it affects the piano player and puts tension on the bandstand. “But she’s such a nice person, I like to play for her.” I was listening. I said, “Would you work with me? I tell ya, they’re not exactly tearin’ my door down.” He said, “Sure.” I asked how much would he have to get and he said, “Well, I have to get a hundred dollars.” Well, you got that!

That is the greatest thing that ever happened to my renewed life, because he is one of my best friends and he’s my man. He knows. I look at them singers as being crazy when they insult a great arranger. Don’t they know that’s who has got your fate in his hand? He can kill you! I don’t have to patronize no one. I just know and respect talent. Mike has got the kind of talent that I came up around, from Gerry Valentine and those people. You know when I knew it? Because he played me some of his writing. I heard him accompanying and everything. I took some Eckstine tapes and everything up to his house and said, “That’s Gerry Valentine.”

Gerry Valentine didn’t write a score, you know, when he decided to write an arrangement. He started writing, “first trumpet...” because the score was in his head. He just wrote out the parts without a score. He wrote all that stuff, “The leaves are on the ground / It’s a cottage for sale.” He wrote all that. And Budd Johnson was equally as bad. I don’t know about Budd and no scores, but I know Gerry didn’t use no scores. I know that. We didn’t have nothin’ but great arrangers.

I played them for Mike and he said, “Damn! I didn’t know cats were doing that back then!” “What?” “A song can be thirty-two bars but maybe you need two or four more bars for a certain effect, so he’d add it.” I learned something that day. Budd Johnson and Valentine were doing that then. It’s not new shit. It was a band full of arrangers. John Malachi could write his ass off! You know who else can write, but he won’t? Hank Jones—and John Coltrane!

I didn’t know Mike Abene until Al Cohn told me about him and if Al Cohn turns me on to someone, that’s enough for me. But Mike has got a touch of genius about him. Once we decided to work on these tunes, he said, “OK, m-f, get out so I can go to work.” I left him about 3:00 or something and he called me about 7:30, “I got everything completed and I’m getting ready to send it to a copyist.” He’s smart. If we didn’t have him, the thing could have gone down the toilet, because that kid [clarification unavailable] didn’t know what he was doing. Mike was there from beginning to end, until I said, “That’s all we can do.” He’s a helluva dude. I lucked out like that. You just don’t find guys, like Sinatra had Nelson Riddle, you know, and Valentine.

B’s thing didn’t get strange until he walked away from them guys. I mean, Bobby Tucker is a bitch. I don’t know [Angelo] DiPippo, but Mike knows him and told me he’s an accordion player, very bad too. The accordion itself is bad. Tucker should have wrote the album. Every gig I was on I would find an accordion act and I would have to stand in the wings and listen to “Lady of Spain”. God damn.

It’s comin’ together, though, because everybody out there ain’t crazy. Sure, there’s some white men think that black men ain’t got no business singin’ love songs and stuff. Don Schlitten told me his father used to come in his room and say, “My son’s become a communist! He’s hangin’ niggers’ pictures up on the wall.” Don would say, “Dad, these people are artists.” Word is that a black man doesn’t know anything about no love, so how can he sing about it? So, seemingly all the people that would get those jobs talked like that. We’re just supposed to sing the blues and shake our ass a little bit. No, never.

My dreams outdone themselves, exceeded all the artifice. I wanted to be good and I wanted to sing with Earl Hines and I enjoyed the recognition. But now it’s different. I get a little mad about these things. Especially when a guy wastes my time. Like Horst Liepolt, he keeps callin’ me and asking, “Do you have a new record out?” He don’t realize he’s asked me this twice. “Yes, Horst, I do.” “Have you ever played [Liepolt’s New York club] Lush Life?” Yes, and played it on Yom Kippur like a damn fool, but packed it and kept it packed all night long. That’s a no-no. When George [Duvivier] and I was going to work, we said, “Suicide, huh?” Ask my wife, she’ll tell you. Ask Ira Gitler. I packed that m-f all night long! And then he’s got the audacity to tell me, “Well, I’m booked for a while, but have Bernie [Brightman of Stash Records] stop by....” Bernie told him he was full of it. I don’t want to make Bernie stand around. What’s he want with Bernie? Bernie don’t book me.

I’ll tell you what it is: when Mike was at the [Village] Gate, he got the same shit. “Did you produce something on Earl Coleman? I sure would like to hear it!” Well, turn on the radio. I’m through sendin’ records. The guy at Freddy’s, Larry Gallagher, that S.O.B., “Frankly speaking, I don’t know you.” Well, I can understand that, you’re new out here. Go to the Encyclopedia of Jazz. Talk to Mike Abene, Gretchen [Abene].... “You got any press clippings, records? We gotta move on this thing....” That was last year. I got up early and took ’em myself to him. Haven’t heard from him since until last few weeks he ran into Mike, all excited. “Hey, I heard a record on Earl Coleman. Just one song, but it sounded damn good. Then I read something that was good. Hey, you tell him to call me.” I did. The secretary kept me waiting for ten minutes and said, “Send him all the clippings you got and a copy of the record.” That’s what I shouldn’t have sent. That was the insulting part. But anyway, I sent it, haven’t heard nothing.

Next thing I knew, Arnie Smith said, “Earl, what can I tell you, I’m quitting.” They accused him of trying to upstage him in the business or something. “I can’t work with him no more. I don’t know what to tell you.” [17] And Abby Hoffer tells me, “Well, get me a copy of the record over here and send me those clippings.” But then, ten days later the mailman has a package for me, and this was the biggest insult, because it was sent back just like I put it together, with the record and the 8 x 10’s, and clippings, and stuff. The album hadn’t been played with a big long rejection slip, “Dear Mr. Coleman, We realize everybody is after us to represent them, but at this time we cannot take on anybody else. Very sorry, thank you, signed Terry Hoffer.” So [Jerry] Dodgion said, “God damn! I know he’s a little out, I didn’t know he’s a damn fool! I thought he wanted to make money and you already got a name, man!” But we kept thinking about that because it was insulting the way it was done. Maybe the package never got to him.

My agent, Paul Williams, uptown here, he said, “There’s something in the air and some people would like to see you starve to death, but I won’t even dignify ’em by calling their names. But they don’t know. I’m not going to do nothing for them. You keep doing just what you’re doing. Stay out of the street and keep working. [Speaking about a Joe Franklin Show television appearance] I didn’t know it was national, but a lot of clubowners, black and white, have been seein’ me on that for the first time. I like what the owner of Charlie’s said: “I know who Earl Coleman is. I don’t need an audition or a demo record. Just send me some of the new clippings. If you can send me a record, please, because I love Earl’s voice.” We talked for a long time and I did send him one.

Now Larry Golden at the Blue Note said, “I think the Blue Note is too big for Earl at this time. I’d hate to see him singing to the tables.” Man, all the time I didn’t even have a record, when I was with Don Schlitten, when I was in L.A. all them years, I always drew people. I put it together. I had a lot of fans that said, “What happened to Earl Coleman?” People came out that wouldn’t come out all the time.

One agent finally answered his phone, Max Kavally. Paul was working his ass off. He said, “That’s just the beginning. They’re gonna be calling.” Max said, “You’re wasted at Michael’s Pub. Let me talk to my man in Chicago. You ain’t gotta send me no record, I know you’ve got a helluva voice. I know, the best!” Like Paul and Mike said, it’s rough but it’s gonna come together. Because everybody ain’t crazy out there. I remember in the dark days when I didn’t have nothin’, nowhere to go, somebody would come out of the blue.

The Current Scene

You can quote me on this—is the tape running? Because in the 1940s they didn’t have anything like I saw the award for Diana Ross: “Best Black Song.” What’s a black song? Then, when Michael Jackson came on, they had a guy named Regis Philbin, who just shouldn’t say nothin’ about nothin’. I knew him from California. I mean, he bombed there, why in the hell do they let him do anything? These damn fools at ABC got excited over him and signed him. He gets a quarter of a million a year and he got ’em for a long time. They don’t know what to do with him now. He’s on a local cooking show or something. But through all that, he’s in at Atlantic City. We all know him from L.A. He tried to sing out there and he’s had ninety different local television shows, just a nothing. How did we get on him, anyway? I know what I wanted to say: These are the big white stations [imitating Philbin’s voice:] “Don’t you feel we’ve had enough of Michael Jackson? Beat it! Beat it! Beat it! Yeah, let’s hold a three day moratorium for Michael Jackson.” I mean, what the hell are they talkin’ about?

I had a little mention in Billboard, so I picked it up and saw “white stations,” “black stations,” etc., and I thought about what an old black man told me. “Earl,” he said, “the brothers—and I use that loosely—have did it to themselves.” Because if they don’t want to honor their own blues—everybody loves the blues. I mean, Charlie Parker would run some blues through “The Way You Look Tonight”. But what it is, and Billy Eckstine said this one night and it makes sense: we don’t have any more leaders. Black or white.

Or any more composers.

Lionel Richie don’t write bad, or Stevie Wonder can write some good things. I like “All in Love Is Fair”. And I heard something, “Ribbon in the Sky”, it’s kind of beautiful, even though he’s screechy a little bit. He has taken the time to learn music.

It’s like the Black Image award. The company, John H. Johnson, the son-of-a-bitch makes the man of the year Prince. I don’t want my children looking up to no shit like that! I told you Prince was bad even then, he’s worse than even the worst “entertainer” was in the 1930s. That’s all he’s doing—runnin’ and skipping around. He doesn’t even have any rhythm! These cats had rhythm. They felt something. He’s pullin’ off his clothes and that doesn’t have nothin’ to do with music. I seen him with hi-top shoes and a woman’s bikini on, all nekkid with a guitar that has water skeetin’ out the neck. They made him “image of the year,” Johnson Publishing Company.

In their charts, Jet and Ebony don’t give no respect to nothing authentic. They don’t talk about no Dizzy Gillespie, Bird, Sarah Vaughan, Billy—their top twenty is that funny shit. There’s a pretty little girl and you know what the name of her group is? Klymaxx! It’s disgraceful, man. They’re adamant about their “music”—they got to be. I don’t need to ride in no limousines and all because I don’t want to be around that many idiots. I wouldn’t even go to that thing where they’re sittin’ around talkin’ about “new music” and a pretty girl talking about “Vanity” and “lingerie rock.” So they run around in their lingerie. What does that have to do with music?

Take Mick Jagger. Those English cats are more honest than Americans. I’ve heard Jagger say, when a guy told him, “Chuck Berry and those guys have had it, they’re over the hill. But your music is new!” Jagger said [in British accent], “Oh no, on the contrary. I learned my music and whatever I know from Muddy Waters.” And Boy George, strange as he is, my respect for him has grown in a way, before that special [Motown Returns to the Apollo] I heard him say to Liz Smith, she asked if he was going to get a facelift when he hit thirty, and he said, “Do you know how many hungry people you could feed with that money? Then everybody’s talkin’ about how gaudy I dress, you got Liberace over here!” I said, “Tell ’em, George!” At least he’s sincere.

OK, that’s a wrap.

OK, Earl. You’ve been talking now for three hours!


[1] Ken Blewett was actually theater manager.

[2] Stardust, Stash ST243.

[3] Coleman’s statement on particular takes is unclear but it would seem that he is countering what is written in Ross Russell, Bird Lives!: The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker (New York: Charterhouse, 1973), which states, “Earl Coleman struggled for two hours to complete acceptable takes on two vocals, ‘Dark Shadows’ and ‘This Is Always’. I didn’t like them, although they were better than I realized. After the last take of ‘Dark Shadows’ Earl was unable to sing another note and retired to the sidelines” (239).

[4] February 19, 1947.

[5] Actually from the 1946 MGM film Three Little Girls in Blue.

[6] John Willie ‘Shifty’ Henry (sometimes seen as Shifte Henri or Shifte Henry) (1921–1958) was an early proponent of the Fender electric bass. He is mentioned by name in the lyric to “Jailhouse Rock” which was copyrighted by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

[7] United States Executive Order 9066 was issued by U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on February 19, 1942 so a date of 1941 is impossible.

[8] The Lincoln Theater opened on October 7, 1927.

[9] It is confirmed that Melba Liston studied with Miss Alma Hightower and played in her rehearsal band, but Collette does not mention studying with her in his autobiography. Likewise, Gordon and Hamilton have not been mentioned previously as Hightower students.

[10] Chronology is suspect. Melba Liston joined Bardu Ali’s band in 1943 at the Lincoln Theater. In 1943 Buddy Collette was in the U.S. Navy, and nowhere near Los Angeles.

[11] Reference to William Green is problematic. Earl says he was only 19 years old when he was with this band, which would make it 1944. However, Green spent the war years in military service in San Diego. He was released in 1946. He then returned to and lived in Kansas City for only a few months, April through August of 1946, gigging with a small combo in the city. He left for good and headed to Los Angeles in September 1946.

[12] Apparently it was in Chicago at this time (October 23, 1947) that Earl recorded “Hold That Money” with Gene Ammons.

[13] Added later by telephone, a few hours after the interview: “There’s one thing I want you to get straight: Charlie Parker did not turn me on to no narcotics! In fact, when he found out about it, he wanted to kill the m-f who sold ’em to me.”

[14] Sid Frey. The album’s liner notes indicate that the concept stemmed from a conversation between Frey and Walt Dickerson.

[15] The correct reference is the Center for the Arts at the State University of New York at Purchase, where Coleman performed in the summers of 1981 and 1982 as part of the Kool Jazz Festival, produced by George Wein.

[16] Marlene Ver Planck.

[17] Arnie Smith is Arnold Jay Smith, but at this point he cannot provide any clarification, stating just: “Earl and I were together for a minute while he was with Abby. I don’t remember actually working for Abby save on a free-lance basis nor do I remember him saying those things about Abby. Earl’s was always a hard sell; I don’t know why. I think Joe Fields was in his corner. That’s how I met him, not through Abby. It was such a long time ago.” email from Smith to Friedwald, 2009-12-16.

Author Information: 
Will Friedwald has written seven books on music and popular culture, including the autobiography of Tony Bennett, the survey Jazz Singing, and Stardust Melodies. He was the jazz critic for The New York Sun and currently writes for The Wall Street Journal. His biography of Frank Sinatra, The Song Is You, received the ASCAP Deems Taylor award in 1996.

An oral history of singer Earl Coleman, covering his life and career, this article includes accounts of Coleman’s interactions with Charlie Parker, Gene Ammons, Erroll Garner, Benny Carter, Jay McShann, Fats Navarro, Ross Russell, Mike Abene, and others. It also includes his views on other vocalists including Roy Felton, Harlan Lattimore, Melvin Moore, Billy Eckstine, Herb Jeffries, and Al Hibbler.

Earl Coleman, Charlie Parker, jazz, singers

How to cite this article:

  • Chicago 15th ed.: Friedwald, Will. “Earl Coleman Oral History.” Current Research in Jazz 1, (2009).
  • MLA 6th ed.: Friedwald, Will. “Earl Coleman Oral History.” Current Research in Jazz 1 (2009).
  • APA 5th ed.: Friedwald, W. (2009). Earl Coleman oral history. Current Research in Jazz, 1

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