It was February 13, 1953 when the Fort McClellan, Alabama Special Services major met Dwight Malcolm and me and took us to the Service Club to rehearse for the finals of the first Third Army Talent Contest. They had flown us from Camp Rucker, Alabama in probably the smallest plane they had. It was us and the pilot and Dwight’s marimba, without an inch to spare. There were people there from every Third Army camp to compete. The major pulled me aside and told me he had this colored fellow to play the piano that he had brought in off the field dressed in fatigues, dirty and looking very tired. He apologized, saying that he didn’t know how well he could play. He wanted me to let him know.
In those days we still had segregation just about everywhere. It even still existed in the Army, but never among musicians. And this fellow was blacker than black and referred to as “colored” in those days. So, with a bit of skepticism wondering about his musicianship, I indicated that my songs, showing my versatility, would be a medley of My Blue Heaven, and then into Mario Lanza’s Be My Love, and wind up with a swinging Bye Bye Blackbird. And I told him the keys for each song. I was taken aback when he nodded on each song and key I told him, as his fingers were flying over the keyboard. I set the tempo and he did an intro and I started to sing. My God, this guy was fabulous. And one has to play great piano to transpose keys like he did.
I was being accompanied by just about the greatest piano player I had ever heard. And before I could I give the thumbs up and a nod of approval, the major asked me what I thought? I gave the guy a grin, a wink and a nod then did a little take like I wasn’t so sure and said, “Oh, I guess he’ll do.” I still didn’t know who he was, but then, the major introduced us. “Private Don Meehan, say hello to Private Wynton Kelly.” Holy shit! There I was singing with one of the greatest jazz piano players in the world and the asshole major didn’t even know who he was. And I didn’t either until I heard his name. He’d been written up in just about every music magazine, and had played with Dizzy, Ella, Dinah, and every jazz great. After the Army he had great times playing with Miles Davis. And there we both were making about $50 a month private’s pay.
Jazz Great Wynton Kelly
The contest went well. Lucky Friday the 13th. And my jumping from crooning a swinging ballad to an operatic high tenor and then to a swinging Bye Bye Blackbird brought the house down. So, I won for the singing with one of the greatest jazz pianists, Wynton Kelly accompanying me. These were all pops and standards I was singing but the next day, Valentines Day, I would be flying to Nashville to record some of my country songs on my RCA Victor session one of which was That Long Long Road of Love. Yeah, it’s traditional from those days. Elvis discoverer Steve Sholes was producing and Chet Atkins leading the band of Nashville greats. There’ll be more on this later in another post.
Wynton and I went on to becoming great friends for the rest of our Army days and after, until his untimely death in 1971. It was Commanding General A.R. Bolling’s decision to put a variety show together from those in the contest, to travel to all the Army bases. Our little caravan of several Army staff cars and a truck took us to all of them. As one of our guys described us, we were “the general’s pets,” and usually were treated first class in most all the camps we went to except one. Gordon Terry, described later as the best bluegrass fiddle player in the country came on board. By then country great Faron Young had joined our group. I’d play bass with our trio, and when I’d sing a country song with my guitar, Wynton would pick up the bass and play with our country band.
We all bunked together at our Fort McPherson, Georgia base, and were always in decent quarters all together at the various camps. After all, we were the general’s pets. We would be up quite late as usual, and also would sleep late as usual, and our commanding officer, a lieutenant, against regulations, most of the time, would bunk in with us at the various camps. However, at one camp they had put us in an isolated barracks to bunk, with the old sagging mattresses on two tiered bunks. It was reminiscent of basic training, whereas two or three sergeants and corporals came busting in at 5AM blowing whistles and demanding everyone line up at attention like you see in the movies. The sergeant almost flipped out seeing two “colored” boys between us, since integration had not been completely implemented in the Army yet. “Get dressed,” he yelled. “And get those colored boys out of here.”
Our lieutenant, stripped to his shorts was also a real sight standing there with us at the sergeant’s order, especially when he finally stepped forward to try to identify himself, but not before they began to rummage through our personal belongings. He quickly put on his uniform and flashed his gold lieutenant bar and suggested they talk alone. He told us later that he had to negotiate with the sergeant that neither would tell on the other for disobeying certain regulations. I.e., he wasn’t supposed to bunk with us enlisted men and most importantly, the sergeant was supposed to know who we were. (“The generals pets”)
We were on the road constantly between camps and had to stop for meals. Remember, this was 1953 and we were in the Deep South traveling with a dozen white guys and two African Americans. Every time we had to stop for meals they would say that those “colored” boys would have to go around to the back and eat outside.
And we all went around to the back with them.
It was reminiscent of the stories of people like Sammy Davis Jr. and others in Las Vegas having to stay across town in boarding houses, and not being allowed to stay in the hotels where they were performing. We had to contend with this kind of garbage throughout the south. In November 1954, the Will Maston Trio featuring Sammy Davis, Jr. became the first African Americans offered complimentary room, board, drinks and access to a casino on The Strip at the Vegas Frontier, and a big $5,000 a week for the trio.
Picture twelve white guys and two blacks sitting on the ground at the back entrance of a restaurant, with plates, consuming a meal. They never expected the rest of us to join them. There was only one restaurant during all those months that set up a private closed dining room where we could all eat together. We all went to a pizza place in Augusta, Georgia once, where they weren’t allowed in and we finally had MP’s guarding us outside while we all sat on the MP and staff cars eating our pizza. And some of us have the nerve to repeat the phrase, “Those were the days?”
Another post will be forthcoming about my earlier years of being born in, living, playing and singing, and having to deal with Deep South racial hatred.
Dick Van Dyke was doing an afternoon variety show on WSB in Atlanta in 1953 and I was booked on it to sing. By then, Wynton Kelly and I were like brothers with our music. I also played bass and with another jazz great, Harold Karabell on clarinet, we had the best little trio around. So, Wynton and I took a bus to the station, not a very good sight in the south for a white boy hanging out with a “colored” boy in the ‘50s. He had to go and sit in the back of the bus. If I had tried to sit with him I probably would have been arrested.
We didn’t know if it was Van Dyck or the producers who ordered that that (and using the “N”word) could not appear on camera with me. What a bunch of shit. One of the greatest piano players in the world and he couldn’t be seen or even get a mention. And I felt like walking right out. But I knew that if I did, I’d probably be court-martial-ed.
Our Lieutenant almost put me on FECOM (Korea duty) when he threw me out of the show once for wearing the wrong jacket during a big outdoor concert and show in Atlanta. I just wanted to look good with my solo performance before thousands of people, but he charged me with disobeying an order. The only good thing about that came about when I met Barry Newman in the band. He and I teamed up for a Martin and Lewis type comedy routine at the service club. He later got big and became Petrocelli on TV. Strange that his bio said he was born in 1938. Let’s see, if I was 22 that would make him 13 or 14 at the time. That’s showbiz. You must be “young.” Good thing the lieutenant didn’t find out that we unhooked the odometer cable and drove one of the staff cars 250 miles from Fort Jackson, South Carolina to Myrtle Beach and back one time.
I guess I was just a natural born rebel rouser. At Christmas time that year, I was living in an apartment off post, and I put up some decorations in the upstairs window. I expressed some of my sentiments by painting a large representation of four choir boys singing and set up a speaker to play Christmas choir music outside. The painting consisted of one lone black boy and an oriental boy singing shoulder to shoulder with two white boys, and the wording,”Peace On Earth.” My sentiments won me the first prize for the best decorations, and I wasn’t court marshaled. By the way, our lieutenant was finally arrested and went to prison for stealing some wallets.
Those were the days? I just have to say that we did our best to make the most of them with our music.