Saturday, February 2, 2013

An Interview with Willie Tyler and Lester - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: You and your dummy Lester used to perform at a Detroit club called the Brass Rail.

Willie Tyler: Right, it was a strip club. Back in those days, a strip club wasn't like they are today with the poles and things like that. When I wasn't working on the road I would work local venues and one would be the Brass Rail, downtown Detroit. They had a trio that played for the strippers. Because of the union rules, the trio had to take three thirty-minute breaks each night.

So when they took their break, a comic would fill in that slot. The comedian would go up and do time. So, the stripper leaves the stage and the trio leaves the stage, and now you're up there doing stand-up, or in my case doing my [ventriloquist] act with Lester. The last thing a guy at a strip club wants to see is a comic, but it was just one of those gigs and you had to do it.

I'll tell you how conservative strip clubs were back then. In those days, when you were onstage in a strip club you were not allowed to use four-letter words. You could not be crude. It wasn't exactly against the law, but you would definitely be fired from your gig. It was a situation where you could only imply stuff. But I got a lot of practice, a lot of experience, working venues like that. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You were working these strip clubs shortly before you were signed to Motown Records...

Willie Tyler: Actually I was already with Motown in Detroit, but when I wasn't on the road I was around town picking up local gigs and the Brass Rail would be one of them. It was an interesting kind of a situation. Any comedian that worked a place like that would be local. They wouldn't be people that anyone would know - just local people working downtown. 

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you get signed to Motown?

Willie Tyler: I had gotten out of the Air Force and went back to Detroit. I did four years in the Air Force with special services. That was my job. Performing. There was a summer resort community called Idlewild, Michigan. I got a job in the summer working with a revue there. It was a resort, but it was a Black resort. Black performers would work there. 

People like Lloyd Price of Stagger Lee fame. I worked there for the whole summer. They had a full band and that band was all the Funk Brothers. The Funk Brothers were from Motown; Benny Benjamin, James Jamerson, Earl Van Dyke. They were all working up there. The Gordy family would come up there for the summer and that's where they saw me. Someone was talking to Berry Gordy when they returned to Detroit about the ventriloquist they had seen. 

They contacted me and I went over. Motown in those days had their meetings every Wednesday. They had me come in on Wednesday and do about five minutes with Lester. I did that, left, and by the time I got home there was a call: "Welcome to the Motown family." I signed with Motown and I was with them for eight years. I worked as their emcee and I traveled the road with the Motortown Revue. 

We did one-nighters all over the place and we would play the Apollo Theater in New York, the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia and the Fox Theater in Detroit. We were always playing the Fox Theater at Christmas because Berry wanted everyone to be home in Detroit for Christmas. We'd work it every year for the two weeks around Christmas and New Year's.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were on the bill at the Apollo Theater, February 1965, as part of Jocko and His Rocket Ship Show.

Willie Tyler: Jocko was a New York deejay. They often had popular New York deejays emceeing the shows there. Nine out of ten times we didn't do our own emcee work at the Apollo. They always had a deejay who had been publicizing the Motortown Revue on their radio show and they'd emcee it in the evening.

Kliph Nesteroff: The line-up for that engagement was Willie Tyler and Lester, Marvin Gaye, Sheila Ferguson and The Three Degrees, the Reuben Phillips band...

Willie Tyler: Yeah, the Reuben Phillips Orchestra. That's it. I have a photo of the Fox Theater with everybody's name on the marquee for one of the Motortown Revues, everyone's name is on it including Lester and I. Even though our name took more letters and more space than anyone else, Motown was very kind to allow our names on the marquee. It took up most of the space!

Kliph Nesteroff: Where would you you be placed in the line-up on a show like that?

Willie Tyler: It depended on whether there was a deejay. If there was a deejay hosting then I would be some place in the middle. If they didn't have a deejay then I was on in between each act. I was the emcee.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, wow, you were actually the host of the Motortown Revue?

Willie Tyler: Yes, that right. You know, have you ever watched the television show Showtime at the Apollo? They have amateurs come out and the audience will boo their disapproval. Well, those are the kinds of audiences we had at the Apollo back then as well. We were doing six shows a day at the Apollo. If it was a holiday like Thanksgiving weekend or something then the shows were back to back to back. Back to back shows.

Sometimes if it was slower during the week people in the audience would stay over. They could stay and watch the next show. With songs it's different, but if you came out doing comedy - then they already knew your punchline. You had to change your stuff. You'd have to play games with the audience because otherwise you have them messing with your set and yelling out your punchlines. So I learned a lot working those particular situations.

Kliph Nesteroff: I imagine that these gigs must have been more difficult for you compared to the other acts.

Willie Tyler: Well, no, not at the Apollo. When you worked the Apollo, even the acts that had hit records were apprehensive. It was a rough audience. Smokey Robinson has mentioned this many times. He said that when he first worked the Apollo... he did the first show and then the manager of the Apollo phoned Motown. They had a deposit down of some kind. They were paying Motown, but he phoned and told them after Smokey performed that they wanted their money back.

The Miracles weren't going over. The audience treated Smokey poorly with heckling and shouting and yelling during the songs. So it was rough. It was kind of rough. I was working there one time with a singer - I can't remember his name - but he was from Detroit. He had a regional hit record in the Northeast - New York, Detroit and Chicago.

So we're at the Apollo and I was emceeing this particular show. I introduced him and he went out and sang this hit song. As part of his act, he had a handkerchief in his lapel pocket which he'd pull out and walk to the edge of the stage. Women would run up to the edge of the stage with their arms out and he would toss the handkerchief and the ladies in the audience would fight over it. Now fast forward six months.

We're both working the Apollo again. He's introduced, he sings the song that was a hit six months earlier, pulls the handkerchief out and goes to the edge of the stage and tosses the handkerchief. This time - they're not fighting over it. They take the handkerchief and throw it at him. It was that kind of a crowd. Baptism by fire. But if you made it at the Apollo - you could make it anywhere.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have an advertisement from June 1965. A Motown tour of one-nighters all across the South: Raleigh, Greensboro, Greenville, Charlotte, Louisville, St. Louis, Nashville, Chatanooga, Augusta, Montgomery, Knoxville, Mobile and New Orleans. All of that in twelve days.

Willie Tyler: Yeah, all the villes are in there (laughs). Greenville, Knoxville, Nashville, Louisville (laughs). Yeah, those were one-nighters and we'd all travel in the bus. Everyone was on the bus except the Four Tops. The Four Tops had their own station wagon so they were independent. The four of them and their valet. They would already be at the gig by the time the rest of us arrived on the bus.

Kliph Nesteroff: The line-up for this tour - Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, Junior Walker and the All-Stars, Brenda Holloway, the Contours, Willie Tyler and Lester.

Willie Tyler: Mmm hmm and this was the type of tour in which I was the emcee. Lester and I would host the shows and do all the emcee work. These shows were sort of self-contained, the traveling Motortown Revue. I guess people still tour like that, but I don't think the venues are as far away now as they were in those days. We would be driving forever.

We'd be driving through the Appalachians, driving down the mountains and they'd be icy, icy roads. The driver would have to go very, very slow. We had two drivers and we'd be driving at night. We'd always drive through the night and get to the hotel in the morning. Check in, rest up, shower, go to the venue, come back, check out and then drive again to the next one. It was a grueling schedule. I remember we were working a place called the Carter Barron in Washington DC.

It was a big venue and the accoustics were really bad. Sound was bouncing all over the place during the soundcheck and I thought, "Wow, this is going to be really difficult for me." I'm the only talking act and it was a Saturday night with the potential for a rowdy audience. So I wondered how I was going to get through it. When we got there... we all felt this... there was something about the place... it was not a good feeling.

So, the show started and the leader of the band for the Motortown Revue was Choker Campbell. He was onstage, this large stage. When the show started we all still had this feeling. "There's something strange here." The Contours opened. If the Contours were on a given tour they always opened. Martha and the Vandellas were on second.

Martha is singing and then all of a sudden way up in the balcony - four shots went off. And as soon as the four shots went off we knew they were shots. Choker Campbell took one look at the band and stopped them. Didn't look at the audience. He grabbed all his sheet music, the band grabbed theirs and walked off the stage - as did Martha and everyone else. That was it. Show over. When something like that happens - you can't follow that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Even though this was part of the whole Motown scene - were the venues you were playing considered the Chitlin' Circuit... or what, at least, had been the Chitlin' Circuit?

Willie Tyler: Well, yeah, some of the theaters were considered that, but the Chitlin Circuit was mostly clubs. Black nightclubs. A lot of Black entertainers couldn't work white clubs and these were the places that Black acts could perform and Black crowds would come. BB King called those places Buckets of Blood because there was always someone fighting in there. They were full of cigarette smoke and they had no ventilation.

I always noticed when I worked places like that... especially in the days when Lester had a big Afro... every time I went to take him out of his suitcase, boy, you could smell that cigarette smoke in his hair. We'd play all those clubs and that cigarette smoke would linger. Me, of course, I can take a shower and everything, but you can't give Lester a shower (laughs). But yes, it was the Chitlin' Circuit.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were there any other comedians signed to Motown?

Willie Tyler: There was a guy named Bill Murry - not the actor from films, but a guy named Bill Murry who grew up in Detroit. He had an alias. He called himself Wine Head Willie. That was his moniker on the Chitlin' Circuit. When he got with Motown and started traveling with the group he changed his billing to Bill Murry. As a matter of fact on the Stevie Wonder Fingertips album where there's Part One and Part Two...

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah...

Willie Tyler: At the end of part one you hear a guy go, "How about it? Let's hear it for him! Little Stevie Wonder! Take a bow, Stevie."

Kliph Nesteroff: Right...

Willie Tyler: That's Bill Murry.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow, that's interesting. I didn't know he was a comedian. Bill Murry never put out a record, did he?

Willie Tyler: No, I don't think Bill ever put out any comedy albums, but when Motown moved out to Los Angeles he moved with them and did a bit of movie stuff. I'd go see a movie and there he'd be in the background.

Kliph Nesteroff: How was your Motown comedy record done?

Willie Tyler: The Fox Theater in Detroit that I mentioned, it was done live there. When I signed with Motown, in the contract it said they'd put out a Willie Tyler and Lester comedy record in one year. So while I was working in Detroit during Christmastime, they did it then. In fact they recorded all the acts at the Fox Theater during that engagement. 

They recorded our shows there and made the Hello, Dummy album from it - and you can tell because of all the people yelling in the audience on the record. It was almost like the Apollo, but that was a fun thing to do, to have my own album out on the Tamla record label... 

Kliph Nesteroff: I don't think too many people know about that record. It was recorded during the height of Motown's popularity, but it got lost in the mix.

Willie Tyler: Yes, it was a situation where they were abiding by the contract. But on that album we sing a song called Fever. In the act we'd do songs too, but if Lester and I did a song it was just something short. One time at the Fox, Berry Gordy was standing by the elevator and all the writers were there. He was talking to them and he looked over at me and looked back at them. 

He said, "When are you guys gonna write something for Willie?" But, I mean, these guys were thinking, "Why in the world would we write a song for Willie Tyler when we have the Temptations and the Supremes?" They had priorities. They told Berry, "Yeah, we'll think about that." (laughs) Of course they never wrote anything song-wise for us, but it was still just phenomenal to be a part of all of this.