Friday, August 7, 2020

An Interview with Jack Blanchard - Part Two

Kliph Nesteroff: You produced a record for a guy named King Houston on the Cincinnati based King Records, arguably the most important label in rhythm and blues history. It was an important country label too.

Jack Blanchard: King Houston's actual name was Houston King and for some reason we changed it around. I guess we thought King Houston sounded more country. He was a used car salesman and owned a used car lot. He was a rough guy too, but he was fine with me. He had such an extreme southern accent that it was hard for me not to laugh.

He had trouble with my songs, couldn't do them, couldn't learn them, but he was a real nice guy. I said, "All right, well, if you can't do mine, we'll just do your songs." One of them was callled "Steppin' on My Heart"and I had to stand beside him and tap him on the shoulder when it was time for him to sing. King Records was affiliated with Starday Records at the time.

Kliph Nesteroff: I found an ad from 1960 for a gig you did at the Downstairs at the Seville. You were on the bill with Sammy Ambrose, the King of the Limbo. Do you remember anything about that?

Jack Blanchard: Sure, yeah, and there was a great woman singer on that show too, I can't remember her name.

Kliph Nesteroff: Esther Sutherland?

Jack Blanchard: Esther Sutherland, yeah. She was really good and so was Sammy Ambrose. We were the alternate band. There were a lot of those places around Miami and Lauderdale with two or three bands that would rotate. So I never really got to know the other guys because when we were offstage they were onstage. That's funny that you dug that up.

Kliph Nesteroff: Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale were both important to showbiz in those days. So many performers, so many venues. You were fronting the Jackie Blanchard Quartet and one review said you guys were doing impressions of Les Paul and Mary Ford along with Louis Prima and Keeley Smith.

Jack Blanchard: Yeah, well, we were just doing their songs - and we were doing them really well because our band could really rock. We didn't actually sound like Louis Prima and Keeley Smith, but we were trying to get attention. It was more about getting the crowd.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have a listing for the Jackie Blanchard Quartet at the Calypso Village.

Jack Blanchard: I'm not sure where that is. I don't remember it.

Kliph Nesteroff: The newspaper blurb said, "The Jackie Blanchard Quartet are playing the Calypso Village, formerly known as Porky's Hideaway..."

Jack Blanchard: Oh, okay! I remember it as Porky's. Porky was the owner. For that movie Porky's, they recreated the building. I was playing vibes then. It was me, a guitar player, a drummer, and Misty. And it was really rough. The legs on the stools were all rotten and they would go right through the floor and people would fall to the ground all the time! I remember some guy threw an ash tray at our guitar player. I went across the stage and grabbed the guy. Porky was a nice guy, but that place was a bad situation.

Kliph Nesteroff: I assume it was another Mob-run nightclub.

Jack Blanchard: Oh yeah, it was definitely gangster-ish in there. We didn't fit because we were playing jazz at the time. They didn't want jazz so we didn't stay at Porky's very long.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was a place called the Time-Out Lounge in Miami Beach. It was a club that was open all-night long. The shows kept going until seven in the morning.

Jack Blanchard: (laughs) Oh, yeah. They wanted three different piano players to alternate all night until seven in the morning and it was like an eight hour job. The sun would shine in whenever someone walked in. The sun rays would blind everybody and they would shout, "Shut the door!"

Kliph Nesteroff: The Time-Out Lounge advertisement said you played it with Gloria Blake, Donna Lori, and an emcee named Ben Tracey.

Jack Blanchard: I don't remember any of those people.

Kliph Nesteroff: May 1961. Another unusual venue - the Robin Hood Restaurant and Forest Lounge.

Jack Blanchard: Oh yeah, that was a very nice English restaurant. I never thought of English food as gourmet, but the food was really good there. I think we played there for several months. The owner had a crush on Misty. He invited her to dinner and not the rest of us.

They had rum rolls that you could get drunk on. If you ate rum rolls and didn't get drunk, that meant the chef was drunk. The place was all Robin Hood themed. They had colored glass with a Robin Hood design. One of their main features was this roast beef which rotated on a huge spit about six feet high. You'd pour the juices back on it and I remember it being the best I ever had.

Kliph Nesteroff: Another venue you guys played was called Pier 66.

Jack Blanchard: Yeah, a society gig. That place had a good society band. They were the house band and we were just passing through. It was alright. We had to play light jazz.

Kliph Nesteroff: At the time your future wife Misty Morgan was being billed as Mary Male.

Jack Blanchard: Yeah, we changed her name to Misty Morgan when we started doing records in Nashville. It was during our recording session in Key West that we changed our whole look. I wore those big glasses and we started to dress very mod. I started singing in a harsh bass, using a deeper voice. We changed everything.

Kliph Nesteroff: Another of the venues you were playing in the early 1960s - the Outpost Cocktail Lounge.

Jack Blanchard: Another little place in Hialeah, Florida that was gangster-owned. They had a funny bartender who was basically a comedian. He acted sort of like Pee Wee Herman behind the bar.

We were doing hard jazz and the wife of the gangster booked all the acts. Her husband was a dangerous, violent guy. He would come in sometimes when he was mad and he would knock all the whiskey bottles off the bar and start ranting. I remember one time he beat up the cook. The second time we appeared, his wife booked us for more money. So he sat me down in a booth and said, "You took advantage of my wife! You come back in here for more money than the last time? Why would you do that?" I said, "We were underpaid the last time." I thought he was going to take a swing at me. Instead he said, "You remind me of me. That's how I got where I am."

Kliph Nesteroff: There was another of these till-the-sun-comes-out venues called the Seminole Lounge.

Jack Blanchard: That was also in Hialeah. You worked from eight in the evening until four in the morning, but you took an hour break in the middle which didn't help. After the racetrack closed they got a new crowd coming in so they gave you an hour in between while the audience changed over. Yeah, we played there for quite a while. It stifled us a lot, but that is when Misty and I started singing together. We did duets as Jack and Mary and that's where it began.

That place stifled us because you had a bunch of old fogies in the audience. The guy who owned the place, his sister was an old Sophie Tucker type of entertainer. She belonged to American Guild of Variety Artists and she was telling us what to do and how to do it. That was annoying. And then there was a drunk at the bar who knocked his wife off the stool. I tried to step in, but he was going to kill me. It was just a rough joint. One night a guy came in after he won at the track. He tipped us a hundred dollars, which would be like fifteen hundred today. Misty and I went to an all-night restaurant and had pizza and champagne.

Kliph Nesteroff: You guys played the Richley Country Club in Texas in 1962.

Jack Blanchard: Yeah, I remember they stuck foam rubber in the piano because they felt it was too loud for the crowd. We had a guitar player named Merle who later became an executive with Gibson guitars. The three of us went over big at that club. I remember they had a jungle in the window with a live sloth. I caught the flu when I was there and they got a doctor for me and gave me a few nights off and were just wonderful to us. I'll never forget how nice they were to me.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the Casbah Supperclub in Akron, Ohio?

Jack Blanchard: I don't remember that. I remember playing a place called Nick Yanko's in Akron.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, that's the place.

Jack Blanchard: Oh, God, that was a nightmare! The star of the show was a belly dancer. I had a set of conga drums with my drum set. I was always the utility man. The belly dancer would come over and play my bongos with her boobs. That pissed Misty off something awful. And we had nothing but trouble with the maitre'd and Nick Yanko who owned the place. I stopped taking their crap and we left as soon as our contract was up. But Akron was a good town for us. Whenever we had a record out, we had big bookings there and all the big radio stations played us. So I had nothing against Akron.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the problem with Nick Yanko?

Jack Blanchard: He was running a Greek restaurant with Greek decor and belly dancers. We had nothing against that, but we couldn't become that. We just didn't fit in there. 

Kliph Nesteroff: A venue you guys played a lot was El Bolero in Miami.

Jack Blanchard: Movie stars used to come in there all the time. Richard Nixon came in once. We had a drink with him and he played the piano. The place was full of celebrities and rich people and they loved me. We tried to do some comedy there and it went over well, although I think the audience was just being polite. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you have ambitions of becoming a comedian instead of a musician? 

Jack Blanchard: Well, my family were all comedians, but they didn't do it for a living. They were like the Algonquin Round Table, sitting around, always trying to make each other laugh. And that's why I got thrown out of high school. I thought it was more important to make the class laugh than to do the work. When I started working as a musician, I'd get hired to play a show - and although I wasn't hired to tell jokes - I did. I didn't have planned material, but I'd talk about funny things going on. 

It was non-sequitur humor, nothing topical. I worked with the audience. We worked Washington, D.C. where we used to do a big disc jockey program called Harden and Weaver. We got booked in this nice hotel and I talked to the audience there and funny stuff would come out of it. I was always a little apprehensive when I got into it because - what if I wasn't funny? But it always came to me in the moment. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Your songwriting has a humorous streak. You seemed to oscillate between comedy and poetry in your lyrics, not unlike Roger Miller

Jack Blanchard: Roger and I would talk whenever we ran into each other. We arrived for the recording session of "Somewhere in Virginia in the Rain" at Columbia and when we showed up I could see through one of the windows that Roger was doing a session. We went into our studio and a half hour into our session Roger walked in. He was dressed real nice and carrying a briefcase. I stopped the session and walked over. I was going to put out my hand and say, "I'm a fan of yours," but he put out his hand and said, "I'm a fan of yours." And so we got to talking and later on Misty and I attended a couple of the parties that he threw at the King of the Road Motor Inn. 

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the King of the Road Motor Inn like?

Jack Blanchard: Oh, it was far out. The decor there was like something out of Popeye. The windows were like the port holes on a boat and everything was bright yellow, bright blue, and bright orange. Even the shower curtains and everything. It was a good place.

Kliph Nesteroff: I want to ask you about the song "Gemini." This is one of your early songwriting credits and it became a hit for the Ventures. How did they end up recording your song?

Jack Blanchard: There was a song called "Telstar" by the Tornados. I thought I could write a song sort of like that so I came up with "Gemini." We did it with good session players at a studio in Miami. I co-wrote it with a guy who was much older than us. He was in his sixties and we were in our twenties. It was a local hit. It got played on the rock stations in Miami. We got a phone call while we were playing El Bolero. It was the record label that had the Ventures. They said the Ventures wanted to cover it, but they wanted the publishing rights. I said, "How about half and half? I think we should keep half the publishing rights." They wouldn't do it. I didn't know much about business. I probably should have just agreed, but I didn't. And then they did the song and it appeared on two of their albums. And we have never gotten a penny from it! They just released it without our permission and we never received a royalty or anything.

Kliph Nesteroff: Let's talk about Starday Records. Roger Miller got his start there. And George Jones

Jack Blanchard: And Willie Nelson.

Kliph Nesteroff: You sold some songs that got recorded by Hank Malcolm at Starday. Who was Hank Malcom? 

Jack Blanchard: Well, he used to be a friend of mine, but he's an idiot now. He was the first guy I produced in Nashville. We drove up in a car with no heater in the middle of winter. I wrote several songs for him. One of the best ones was called "Mary Turn Around." Starday bought the songs and put them out. I was doing that for quite a while.

And then I lost track of him. He went out on his own and started doing shows. I didn't see him for a long, long time and then one day he came and fixed a washer and dryer that Misty was having trouble with. He seemed a little bit off and was maybe going senile. The last time I called him was about a year ago. He said, "I can't believe you're calling me after selling my albums and keeping the money!" I said, "What albums? What are you talking about?" He said, "Ha! I think you know!" I had no idea what he was talking about. I had put a bunch of old songs on Soundclick so I could link to them. Somebody told him that he was number twenty-two on the Soundclick chart. Well, if seven people listen to a song on there it would be considered number one. Anyway, he was still thinking this is the Billboard charts era. He was under the impression he was number 22 on the charts and that I was profiting from it. I haven't spoken to him since.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the atmosphere at Starday Records like in the early 1960s? It was a small studio, but a factory of great country music.

Jack Blanchard: Yes. They had a house band, a Starday band, and they were damn good. The back-up singers were called the Harden Trio and they'd bring in Ray King to sing bass sometimes. Tommy Hill was the house producer, although I was the producer on all the recordings I did there. In the house band Tommy Hill played rhythm guitar, Jerry Smith was on piano, Junior Husky played upright bass, and Jerry Shook played lead guitar. And the steel player was my favorite - Pete Drake - and he really made the whole session.

Pete Drake was an absolute genius. He was the best of any steel player I ever worked with. He was in demand with all kinds of people. He produced an album for the Four Freshmen. I'd go sit in his office and sit around and talk with him all the time. I was there when he produced an album for Ernest Tubb. He had Tubb record his songs and then Pete brought in all of Ernest's friends. Each of them sang on a track so that it came out like a duet - but they didn't tell Ernest. So when it came out they had trouble with copyrights and who owned what. It took years before that album had a proper release.

Kliph Nesteroff: Pete Drake was best known for the hose-like contraption he called the Singing Steel Guitar. It looked like something out of a science fiction movie.

Jack Blanchard: Yes. He never used the singing steel guitar with us, but he could do more fancy licks on a session than anyone. The other big steel player was Lloyd Green and he worked with us on a hundred sessions. I really like Lloyd Green, but if you wanted someone to add a little hook to the record, Lloyd was a little conservative. But Pete Drake would take chances. Someone said to me, "Boy, Lloyd Green sure had a heyday with your track 'Bethlehem Steel,' didn't he?" But it wasn't Lloyd Green. It was Pete Drake.

                  Continue to Part Three

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

An Interview with Jack Blanchard - Part One

Jack Blanchard: I was working in factories and I wanted to get out of there really, really bad. There were a bunch of guys from the factory who got together and sang every Wednesday or Thursday night. I would play the rhythm guitar with them, but they really couldn't sing. Only one of them could sing, so he and I broke off and formed a group called the Dawn Breakers.

We went through four or five sets of people until we finally found the ones who ended up on the record. I wrote original songs and arranged all the music and harmony. I'd sing it to the guys and they were pretty quick in picking it up. We went down to a little place in Buffalo called the Hal Studio. They recorded directly to disc. There was no tape then, at least not there. If you made a mistake on these old time sessions, you had to throw it away and they'd have to put a whole new disc on. 

I played the piano and sang harmony. We had a band from Niagara Falls back us up. So we got our acetate disc and we shopped it around to the record distributors in Buffalo. We finally made a connection with a Buffalo deejay. His show was called Hernando's Hideaway, but his name was actually something else. He had some connections at Decca Records and their subsidiary Coral.

We got on Coral with a song I wrote called "Boy with the Be-Bop Glasses." The other side was a Four Aces style number called "Things I Love," which I did an arrangement for. We put it out and it was a local hit. 

We got bookings not only all over Buffalo, but in Pennsylvania and up in Canada. It never went national or got on Billboard, but we were big stars locally. We got lots of gigs out of it - and then it died out. I escaped from Buffalo and went to Miami.

I got to Miami and started playing a club called the King of Hearts. It was where Sam and Dave got their start, the guys who did "Soul Man." I was playing organ, piano, and left-hand bass. I was still thinking about making records. It was a gangster-owned place. A Mob-owned place. They had a little record label called Mida. The guy who owned the place was named Johnny so I wrote a song called "Johnny was the King of Hearts." It was tailor-made to try to get him to pay for a recording session. A session was around $150 in those days and I was working six nights a week for $70 total.

We went down to a studio owned by a guy named Frank Linale. He was the manager of a famous comedy team called the Vagabonds. His wife and child were murdered shortly before we recorded there and I could see it in his eyes. It was hard for him to concentrate. We made the record and it wasn't too good, but at least we were on a record. One side was rock n' roll and the other side was a ballad. It got a little local play, but went nowhere.

Then I got a call from somebody with the state government who was doing a film about the Everglades called Million Acre Playground. They wanted someone to write the music. It was something I had never done before, timing music to the scenes, but I bluffed my way into it. And I got my name in the credits at the end.

I bought a little place on the V.A. Loan in Carol City, Florida and had an office in the back. Singers started coming to me to produce records for them. Most of them were country singers. I made a deal where they'd pay my way to Nashville and have to record at least two of my songs if I produced them.

I started producing at a place called Starday Records in Nashville. It was a major label. I have quite a few songs on Starday, although I never sang on any of them. They were all done for different artists. That got me started and I bummed around Music Row for quite some time until Misty and I finally started singing together. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Eventually you two married and became famous as Jack and Misty and I want to talk about that, but first I want to learn more about the King of Hearts Club in Miami. You once said that it had thirteen different bouncers.

Jack Blanchard: (laughs) Yeah, it did! And a few of them were really crazy. They were waiting to see blood. They were dangerous. I think everybody is dead now so they can't kill me. On the weekends the guy that ran the place would send these bouncers out robbing places! A friend of mine, Bob McCoy, used to sit in there and play cards with them. He wasn't one of the bouncers - but he got mixed up with them - and he got killed.

They had tried to rob a high school! I hated to see him get killed. I mean, why would anyone try rob a high school? When I finally left that club, that's when I started working with Misty.

We picked up a guitar player and we worked some good and bad places. But it's funny, for the first year that we performed together, Misty and I never even thought of doing duets. But all the connections I made in Nashville while doing stuff for Starday helped us when we finally started recording together.

There was a guy named Dick Gillespie. He said he won an Emmy for producing the Colgate Comedy Hour. He owned a country station south of Miami and he was a funny guy. I talked to him one night when he was having dinner at this club we were playing.

Gillespie said, "You have nothing to sell. Nobody wants to walk across the street just to see two singers. What you have to do is go home and work out a whole new style. Dress differently. Change your whole appearance. Make it something that will attract attention, but don't try it out here where everyone knows you because nobody will buy it." So we went to Key West to play a lounge down there. It was just Misty and me. She was playing organ and I was just playing the drums.

We had a song called "Bethlehem Steel." Two guys came into the club. One was an air force captain and the other was a sergeant in the army. They came in and sat down and ended up signing us to a four-song contract in Nashville with the condition they would manage us if anything came of it. So we went to Nashville and cut "Bethlehem Steel" and three other songs. The song got play and everyone got excited. A label picked us up called Wayside, which led to us being picked up by Mercury Records...

"Bethlehem Steel" died out from lack of promotion, but we put out another record called "Big Black Bird" with a sort of haunting melody and it caught on. It got heavy play and Mercury Records wanted to pick it up. Wayside made a deal with them, but they didn't trust them. They were just a small company and weren't very hip. When they sent the master to Mercury, they left a big blank space in the middle so that they wouldn't steal it. But this meant the record couldn't come out when it was needed. Mercury wanted it in a hurry when it was hot. By the time Wayside sent them a proper master, it was too late. All the airplay on it had dropped. But as a result we were now on Mercury Records.

                    Continue to Part Two