Thursday, August 23, 2012
An Interview with Burt Holiday of The Gaylords
Burt Holiday: We had great success with Italian songs. We were the number one singers of those songs. Three gold records all had Italian in them; Tell Me You're Mine, From the Vine Came the Grape, The Little Shoemaker.
Kliph Nesteroff: I listened to a ridiculous song by The Gaylords - an Italian version of Yakety Yak.
Burt Holiday: Oh, yeah (laughs). Yeah, we did a whole album of rock and roll favorites in Italian. We used the original guys, too, that played on the original sessions. We had the saxophone player on Yakety Yak who was with The Coasters at the time. Anyway, we brought together as many of the original people for that as we could. Mercury Records arranged it for us.
Kliph Nesteroff: Last night I watched your appearance on The Colgate Summer Comedy Hour...
Burt Holiday: With Sammy Davis?
Kliph Nesteroff: Yes. I was wondering what you remember about that. It was one of the very first television appearances for The Gaylords.
Burt Holiday: Boy, that's a long time ago. Yes. Sammy was just getting started then. You know the song Mr. Bojangles he used to do? He got that from us. We were working at Lake Tahoe at Harvey's and that was one of the numbers I did. Sam would come to see us often. After the show I said, "Sam, that would be a perfect song for you to do!" He said, "You know, you're right!" So that's where he got the idea to do Mr. Bojangles. That was a big, big number for him. He was a multi-talented guy.
Kliph Nesteroff: That same Colgate episode featured comedian Jay Lawrence.
Burt Holiday: Jay Lawrence, yes, there wasn't more than a fast hello. We hung around more with Sammy than anybody else on that program. We did that and we did The Hollywood Palace, The Glen Campbell Show and a lot of Tonight shows. We did a special with Andy Williams, a special with the Laugh-In show. We worked with everybody. Bob Hope. Red Skelton. Don Rickles. Ronnie [Gaylord] wrote Don Rickles' theme song, I'll Trade You Laughter For Love, which he uses in his act all the time. He closes with that song. Looking through the archives, we were the first recording group out of Detroit to receive a gold record. That was 1953.
Kliph Nesteroff: The Gaylords were playing The Falcon Club when you were signed by Mercury Records.
Burt Holiday: Yes, what happened was we were working the club and Ronnie was going to be drafted. We decided to make a record first and give it to our fans. Our most requested song was Cuban Love Song. We went to United Sound, which is where Motown recorded all their stuff. In those days they had acetate. If you made a mistake you had to start it all over again. We did it about fifty times. We finally got it the way we wanted it to sound. We said, "Let's put this Tell Me You're Mine down - the one with the Italian words in it."
My dad had an Italian bookstore in Detroit and they'd be able to sell it there. We did that song - one take. After we got through with the session Joe Syracuse, the engineer, said, "You mind if I try get this out to a record company?" We didn't care. I said, "Sure, go ahead." He got Mercury Records interested - but they wanted Tell Me You're Mine - the song we did in one take (laughs). That was an immediate hit. Right away. It was incredible for us. In a month's time it climbed the charts to number one. That was our first gold record and that was a freak thing to happen.
Kliph Nesteroff: What was The Falcon Club like?
Burt Holiday: It was a lounge type place. We started at a place called The Conner Showbar. The Falcon was the same thing. They were bowling alleys and they had a lounge with a stage. In those days that was very popular. We used to alternate with The Four Freshman. They would work on the west side of town at a place called The Crest Lounge. On the Monday we'd go to the Crest and they'd come play The Conner or The Falcon Showbar. I also had a radio program for a couple of years out of Windsor, which is just across from Detroit.
Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, really? Was your show on CKLW?
Burt Holiday: Yes, right. I ran out of people to interview. It was a music-of-your-life station and I interviewed a lot of people before they passed away like The Mills Brothers, Bobby Darin, Connie Francis...
Kliph Nesteroff: October 1953, The Gaylords played The Chicago Theater.
Burt Holiday: A beautiful theater. We worked it a number of times. That was a great experience for us, but the biggest experience happened when Ronnie got drafted. There we were, Don and I, not knowing what to do. We went to see Buddy Greco perform. He worked The Falcon too. He asked us what we were going to do and we really didn't know - because Ronnie sang the lead, y'know.
He said, "Listen, I'll work with you guys. Get another guy to sing the high parts." And that turned out to be another big, freak success for us. We worked with Buddy for about four months. The last job we had was in Youngstown, Ohio. The company in the meantime started recording Ronnie solo. They said, "You guys can record but... just record novelty songs." I said, "Well... okay... but can we do regular songs on the B sides?" They said, "Okay."
Anyway, we recorded a song called Mama and Papa Polka, which got a lot of play, but the B side was a song called Strings of My Heart. In those days, jukeboxes were very, very important. The Jukebox Association picked Strings of My Heart as the "Hit of the Month." This meant it went in 280,000 jukeboxes they had around the country.
Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.
Burt Holiday: So that was the end of that. They let us do ballads, regular songs, from then on. We did Isle of Capri, Ramona, From the Vine Came the Grape and the hits. On and on.
Kliph Nesteroff: 1953 - shortly after the Chicago Theater - you guys went on a tour of one-nighters with Duke Ellington.
Burt Holiday: Duke Ellington. That was the biggest thrill of our lives! Imagine that! Here we are working lounges in bowling alleys and all of a sudden we're working with the fabulous Duke Ellington! That was fabulous. That was a big thrill for us. Joe Glaser, the agent, represented Duke Ellington and Duke introduced us as "The Purveyors of Tonal Zest." He was fabulous. A super talented guy who never got the credit. He was a genius. Fabulous.
The whole band - they were all legendary guys and they did two hundred and fifty one-nighters a year. Can you believe that? That's hard to do. All great guys and great musicians. We worked all over. Ballrooms, mainly. We traveled by train. It was a great experience for us and I'll never forget it.
Kliph Nesteroff: Your manager at the time was a guy named Mannie Greenfield.
Burt Holiday: He was our manager for a while and then we were with the office of Jerry Perenchio. I don't know if that name means anything to you, but at one point he was the second richest man in California. A fabulous guy. He had his own company and he was with Yorkin and Lear and produced a lot of movies.
Kliph Nesteroff: 1954 you did another mass tour of one-nighters with Don Cornell and Jerry Fielding.
Burt Holiday: Yes, that was a big success. Don Cornell had Size Twelve and we had Little Old Shoemaker. We went all over the country. We finished the tour in New Jersey.
Kliph Nesteroff: Yes - you played The Rustic Cabin in Englewood, New Jersey.
Burt Holiday: (laughs) Yes. You've got a lot of information on us! It was a nice place, as I remember. It was so long ago. Of course, we ended up in Nevada for so long. We played Harrah's for twenty-two years. We were on our way to California, stopped in Reno and liked it. We were supposed to be there for two weeks and it turned out to be our home. We played Harrah's with Fats Domino. He got so in [gambling] debt that he owed them more than they were paying him! Some guys would get addicted.
Kliph Nesteroff: March 1955 - another engagement at the Chicago Theater. This one with Roy Hamilton...
Burt Holiday: Oh, yes, he was great - and he died young. All those dates we did at the Chicago Theater were great. Of course, you're there all day long, which is not the easiest job in the world. The first show was at eleven [in the morning] and I guess we did four shows between movies. In those days, it was a real bargain, boy.
Kliph Nesteroff: What was the difference between an eleven AM show and a ten PM show? There must be a difference in the dynamic.
Burt Holiday: Well, we weren't as warmed up in the morning, obviously. But it wasn't too much of a problem.
Kliph Nesteroff: The same Roy Hamilton - Chicago Theater engagement, you guys were on the bill with Jack Carter.
Burt Holiday: Jack Carter, the comedian. Yes. He was nuts!
Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)
Burt Holiday: Real hyper guy. He always complained about the band. He'd get off the stage, "Goddammit! Goddamn the band!" Always complained (laughs). A great comedian though. A cranky guy. A Vegas guy. A famous story was when we were working Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. It was around three in the morning. We were just finishing up our show around three o'clock in the morning. There were just a few people in the lounge and all of a sudden people came rushing into the lounge. Following all these people was Frank Sinatra in a golf cart!
Jilly comes up to us. He says, "Do you know You're Nobody Til Somebody Loves You in E Flat?" What happened was... Frank gets onstage. He had got in an argument with Carl Cohen, who was casino manager at that time. Frank wanted more [gambling credit] and Carl said, "No, you've reached your limit." They got in an argument.
Frank tried to punch him and Carl hit him in the mouth. Frank was known for drinking pretty good. Frank gets up there and he's singing, "You're nobody... til somebody..." It was so embarrassing. Here's our idol up there and he's missing his teeth. No teeth - trying to sing. It was a time.
We also did a birthday party for Frank out at his house in Palm Springs and Frank didn't show up. We had to sing happy birthday to him over the telephone. Everybody had to line up and say, "Hi Frank, happy birthday." All the movie stars were there and everything. Everyone had to line up. Frank didn't show up for his own birthday party at his own house! He was a legend, I tell ya.
Kliph Nesteroff: You played a long stint at Newt Crumley's Holiday Theater Bar with Harry WooWoo Stevens.
Burt Holiday: Oh, yes, yes, that was the Holiday where we really got started in Reno. Woo Woo Stevens was a banjo player. Newt Crumley was great. He was a big hero. He died in a plane crash with the banker who supported all the casinos in the northern part of Nevada. He was a jet pilot and he owned the Holiday. The plane iced up, but he knew they had no chance. They got into a spin and for four or five minutes they knew they didn't have a chance. That was terrible.
Kliph Nesteroff: April 1961 you did the Latin Quarter in New York.
Burt Holiday: Latin Quarter had the most beautiful girls in the world. They outshone all the girls in Las Vegas. They were from Europe, most of them. The week before we were there Rowan and Martin played it. New York being the hub of the international... there was a group of Arabs sitting in the front row. Dick and Dan had a routine where Dick gets drunk and Dan says, "You're drunk!" And Dick says, "I'm not drunk! That guy over there is drunk!" And he points to someone in the audience.
This night he points to one of the Arabs. After the last act everyone comes out and takes a bow. A representative with the group of Arabs, there were about fifteen in their group, came up to the maitre'd and said, "You know, we need an apology. That's against our religion. We don't believe in getting drunk or drinking." Gigi goes backstage and tells Dan, "You better offer an apology to these guys." Dan said, "Okay, very happy to do it." They stopped the band and Dan got up and apologized. The Arabs all stood up and accepted the apology.
Next week we were working there and a contingency from Cuba were in the audience. We did a little routine, a blackout, about Castro. I'm on the firing line and, "Do you have any last words before you are shot? Cigarette?" "No, I'm trying to quit." "Ready, Aim..." "Castro - he stink!" "Whatchoo say?" "Castro, he stink!" "Are you looking for trouble?" And that was the little blackout.
After the show these guys go up to Gigi and they want an apology. Gigi came backstage and said, "You have to apologize to these guys." I said, "For what? He's an enemy of ours! I'm not going to apologize. I'll only apologize if the boss tells me." What was his name? With the daughter.
Kliph Nesteroff: Lou Walters.
Burt Holiday: Lou Walters, right. I said if Lou Walters says I have to apologize then I'll apologize. So they waited and they were there and Lou finally comes backstage and Gigi explains, "They did this bit and the Cuban contingent was insulted and Burt doesn't want to apologize." Lou said, "Burt, come over here with me." He grabbed me by the hand and I thought, "Ah, dammit, I'm gonna have to apologize." He goes up to the contingent and he says to them, "Goddammit, you guys get out of my club! I never want to see you here again!" He told the guys to get the hell out of his club (laughs). He was on my side! He had a lot of nerve (laughs).
Kliph Nesteroff: You played the Saddle and the Sirloin in May 1961.
Burt Holiday: We worked there with Bob Hope. It was a bit embarrassing for Bob. We did a routine about football. We did it and he came on after the break... and he did the same joke! It had no effect at all. He thought, "My God." He didn't realize that we had done it, you know. It threw him off for about fifteen minutes and he had a hard time getting back into his routine. It wasn't our fault. He should have listened to what we were doing! We did a lot of comedy. We worked a lot with Don Rickles and Buddy Hackett. They were a pleasure to work with.
Kliph Nesteroff: What was Buddy Hackett like?
Burt Holiday: Well, he was... he was feisty! Feisty, but funny. He didn't get the credit when he passed away. There wasn't much said about him, but he was funny. When he'd walk out onstage, he just had that charisma. Rickles was a pussycat and not at all like what he pretends to be like onstage.
Kliph Nesteroff: When did you first encounter Don Rickles?
Burt Holiday: He was a star already. We worked the lounge with him at the Sahara. That's where he became really well known - like Louis Prima and Keeley Smith. We worked with him at that lounge in the Sahara. We became very good friends and played golf with him a lot. He had dinner at our house a lot when I lived in Reno. Like I say, it's a beautiful song that Ronnie wrote for him, I'll Trade You Laughter For Love. It's perfect for him.
Kliph Nesteroff: October 1961, you played Eddy's in Kansas City.
Burt Holiday: We worked Eddy's with John Gary. I don't recall much about the club exactly, but there isn't a place we haven't worked.
Kliph Nesteroff: A comedian I spoke with told me it was a real Outfit joint, but I guess all the clubs in those days were pretty much run by the Mob.
Burt Holiday: Yes. If I remember it had a pool right in the middle so you had to work around it. It wasn't the best set up in the world. Oh well. It was work.
Kliph Nesteroff: September 1962 - the Mapes Skyroom.
Burt Holiday: Yes, that was in Reno before we were hired at Harrah's. It was a landmark in Reno, but they've since torn it down. It was a beautiful hotel and the Skyroom was gorgeous. It overlooked all of Reno. The clubs in Nevada were perfect. The sound was perfect, the lights were perfect. It wasn't like some of these other venues where you're taking chances or when you'd have to work ballrooms and the facilities aren't great. But any venue in Vegas or Reno or Tahoe were just perfect places to work. And the best places to work were theaters.
Kliph Nesteroff: You played The Thunderbird in Las Vegas.
Burt Holiday: We worked The Thunderbird with Dinah Washington. Dinah is one of my favorite singers. She was married to a football player named Dick "Night Train" Lane. All-pro, very good, played for the Detroit Lions. I got hold of him and told him I'd like to have him on my radio program. It was Thursday night and I had the engineers on the other end of the room. I said, "Ladies and gentleman, on the phone, my favorite singer's husband, Dick Lane. Dick, welcome to the show." He said, "Uh huh," and mumbled something I couldn't understand. I said, "Dick, what have you got going on these days?" He says, "Mmmph gmph rmmp."
Again, I couldn't understand. The guys in the engineering room are laughing! I said, "Uh, what is your favorite Dinah Washington song?" He says, "Ahg mm hmm rmph." We couldn't understand a word he said for the entire interview! We found out later that his son had just got arrested in Detroit for selling drugs. He was mad and wasn't in the mood to do any talking. He was live on the air, but we couldn't understand a word he was saying. I had Ray Anthony on once. He was hard of hearing and all he kept saying was, "What you say? What you say?" How do you do an interview on the radio with a guy saying nothing but, "Huh? What? Huh?" Yeah (laughs).
Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned earlier that you did some kind of a Laugh-In special?
Burt Holiday: We went on a tour with those guys [as Gaylord and Holiday]. We went all over the country. We worked the hotels. We worked Montreal and a couple of arenas. The whole cast. Dan and Dick, Ruth Buzzi, Goldie Hawn - the entire cast and they did their television bits and we did ours. We came off the best because we were used to working a live nightclub audience and they weren't. They were a little stiff. It's a good thing they had us on that tour, to tell you the truth.
Kliph Nesteroff: July 1963 - Gaylord and Holiday played Isy's in Vancouver.
Burt Holiday: I love Vancouver, yes. We worked Isy's a lot. That was a great club and Isy was a great guy to work with. I bet we played it around eight times. On certain nights at the last show - all the hookers would come in. And they were a great audience! Real dumb girls, though. Real flakes. They'd come in looking for customers, but they loved Isy's. Isy must have taken care of them with free drinks or something. I don't know. I loved the town.
Kliph Nesteroff: 1968 - you returned to Detroit to play The Moon Club.
Burt Holiday: It was part of the hotel. That was the first time we played Detroit in a long, long time even though we were from there.
Kliph Nesteroff: The big clubs in Detroit - there were a few like The Roostertail, but it seems like the main ones were across the border in Windsor.
Burt Holiday: Yes, I'm trying to remember what it was called...
Kliph Nesteroff: The Elmwood?
Burt Holiday: The Elmwood. We never worked that, but we worked The Top Hat very often. We did work all over Canada. Edmonton, Winnipeg and we did the Calgary Stampede three times. Canadian audiences were great for us.
Kliph Nesteroff: I watched an episode of The Hollywood Palace that Gaylord and Holiday appeared on with Arthur Godfrey.
Burt Holiday: Arthur Godfrey, yes. We did it about four times. When we did them they were taped live. They wouldn't re-shoot. We were in the dressing room with Maurice Chevalier and we sang a song for him. I think he was a little insecure. He wore suspenders and a belt, which we thought was peculiar, but he was a real gentleman.
Outside of saying hello that was the extent of our meeting Arthur Godfrey. We worked a lot with Julius LaRosa over the years and he had a lot of stories about working with Arthur Godfrey. He didn't care for him. We worked with Vic Damone. Jerry Vale was a good friend of ours. Sad about both of them - they can't work anymore. Jerry has dementia and Vic had a slight stroke and can't sing.
Kliph Nesteroff: We've mentioned Rowan and Martin and Don Rickles... are there any other comedians that you guys were particularly chummy with?
Burt Holiday: Red Skelton. He was a real funny guy. Danny Thomas. We worked with him and I wrote a song for his wife Rosie. She became good friends with my wife. The song was called, "I'm Danny's Rosie." She was an ex-singer from Detroit. Every time she was introduced she would sing the song. I have a picture of us with Danny and Rosie.
Kliph Nesteroff: There was a comedian from Detroit named Jackie Kannon.
Burt Holiday: Yes, he worked a club there called The Gay Haven. Boy, but to be a comic in those days you really had to have material. A comic had to go out there and do around forty-five minutes then introduce an act then do another fifteen minutes and then introduce another act and then after that do their regular act. Comics in those days - they really learned their trade working clubs like that.
Kliph Nesteroff: What was the Gay Haven like?
Burt Holiday: It was a beautiful club. It was a real nightclub. It held about five hundred people. Real nice.
Kliph Nesteroff: Apparently it was another Mob club. So many of those clubs, as I mentioned, were run by the Mob...
Burt Holiday: Well, in Youngstown you'd really run into that. Out there you'd run into guys who had their guns right on the table (laughs). But other than that we never got involved with that. We were working there when I got the call from the jukebox company that our song had been picked up. It was already a hit because of the 280,000 records they got for their jukeboxes. Boy, that was something. A different time.