Sunday, November 29, 2015

Riffs on the Driftwood

By Chet Williamson 

It was an odd choice of names for a landlocked venue miles from any ocean view, but former proprietor, Arthur Tonelli, liked the sound of it. It was an outpost planted on Rte. 9 East, in the little old town of Shrewsbury, far from any cosmopolitan center. Hardly the recipe for success, but from its auspicious beginnings as a “roadhouse to be reckoned with,” the Driftwood became one of the more successful local nightclubs ever to offer jazz. Now 93, Tonelli took time out from his longtime gig as owner of Westboro Toyoto, to talk about the fabled room.

Who named the place?

“I did. There was a restaurant in Falmouth named the Driftwood. We used to go there in the summer.”

How do you explain its popularity?

“When I was in the service in Boston there was this cocktail lounge that had this big circular bar with music in the center. I said, ‘Boy that’s nice.’ That’s exactly what I did at the Driftwood. The first night I opened, the place was packed. We were full every night because of the concept.”

What year was this?

“This was 1959. I had a trio and singer on the stage. It sat about 30 people around the bar, plus I had a couple of alcoves. It was done nicely. It was strictly just a cocktail lounge. I wasn’t selling any food. It got so busy. I needed a larger place. I built the back room and renovated a small kitchen. I served food behind the lounge.

“Then I said, ‘This town is in need of a hotel.’ People used to come in and have a drink, dinner. I’d say, “Where are you staying?’ They’d say there is no place to stay in Worcester accept the Bancroft. There was a lot next to me. Frontage-wise I didn’t have enough room. So I bought the lot and I constructed a 72-room motel.

Being in service, I saw motels with interior corridors in the bigger cities. I wanted to build it like a hotel. I had a big lounge with a fireplace where salesmen could eat and talk. It went over big. The motel was full every night with people from New York, New Jersey, business people. They would book in on Sunday night. They did their business in the area and left Friday nights. They stayed all week. I had the same clientele practically all week.

Tell us about the music.

“I had music seven nights a week in the cocktail lounge and Friday and Saturday in the keg room. I had the Ragtime Rowdies. Then I had bands from Boston. I don’t remember their names. They played special music. People used to come all the way from Boston to listen. Friday nights I had the Ragtime Rowdies. The clientele was young people, Holy Cross students and the like. On Saturday nights they would call and reserve a table. That was unheard of. It was because they wanted to listen to this music.

“Customers who would stay all week would say, ‘Arthur why don’t you get some real good singers from New York?’ I said, ‘I can’t afford to pay them.’ He says, ‘No they’ll come to work here. It will be like a vacation for them. (I had a swimming pool.) I've talked to some of them and told them all about your place, how nice it was and relaxing. They’ll come to work here seven nights a week for $125. You’re paying people around here one hundred dollars.’

“He connected me with great singers from New York for $125 bucks. They’d stay a week or two weeks and that was big to get that type of singer. They loved it. It was like a vacation for them just to get out of the city.

I understand that the great saxophonist Howie Jefferson played there. 

“He was one of the first ones. Howard Jefferson loved to play there. He made $100 a week playing seven nights a week. The trio cost me $300. Howie says, ‘No one in this band can read music. You’re bringing in good singers and I’ve got to change piano players; someone has to read music.’

I said, ‘I don’t want to pay someone just to read music. He says, ‘Don’t worry about it. I can get a guy for $125 bucks. Pay me $80. I said, ‘Howie I can’t do that.’ He says, ‘I don’t care.’ So we hired a piano player just to read music.

What was Howie like as a person?

He was a gentlemen. Nice guy. Oh, he could play that horn, but he couldn’t read music. I am surprised he never made it. He was so looked up to that on Sundays the best musicians in the area used to come and play for nothing because of Howie. He used to bring them in. Most places didn’t have music on Sundays. I was music seven nights a week. The place was humming.”

You've said that some famous people stayed at your lodgings.

Edward R. Murrow

“The fellow that owned the Monticello used to come down to my place to have a drink and I would go down to his place. He said, ‘Do you mind if I send my performers down here? He said if I give them a room, they don’t pay me. I’ll tell them I’m full and send them up to your place. So he would send me all the stars. I had Liberace.

Linda Darnell

I can’t think of them all. I never got a single autograph. Nothing. I never asked for anything. Linda Darnell. She stayed there. Bette Davis. Everyone that played there, he sent them to me. Flip Wilson. I even had Edward R. Murrow. He stopped on his own. He just popped in. He stayed here two nights. I remember him – a real gentlemen.

Contract with the Count Basie Orchestra, 1969

Charles "Chickie" Tonelli, Arthur's brother, standing in front of the club

In 2012 Tonelli was interviewed by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

“In 1959, I purchased the Red Top Inn on Route 9 in Shrewsbury,” he told writer Carol Costello. “I then began to remodel and expand the site. I opened the Driftwood Motor Lodge, which was a restaurant and hotel that included business meeting centers and banquet rooms. Local jazz musicians played nightly and also some celebrities (stayed there). I owned the Driftwood until about 1969.

What made you consider buying the Red Top?

“I started going to there after I got out of the service in the ‘40s. The Red Top was owned by … there was a French couple that ran it and in the ‘50s. They sold it to Ray Mitchell, who was a B&W bus driver. His wife ran the coffee shop. My friend and I would go down and have beer at the bar. He said, ‘Arthur I think Ray wants to sell the place. He’s got a $15,000 mortgage and Katz, who was a small money lender, the mayor’s brother [Israel “Izzy,”] had a little spot on Main Street.

I talked to Ray Mitchell. He says, ‘Yeah, I’ll probably sell it for $35,000.’ I said, ‘Geez, I don’t know if I can afford that.’ I talked to my mother to see if she would loan me some money. I got back to Mitchell. He said Katz is going to lend me more money and I’m going to keep it.”

Okay, so how did you finally take ownership?

Eventually, he lost it and a fellow by the name of McNamara bought it from Katz. McNamara worked for the Worcester Street railways. He came up with the money. He picked up the loan from Katz. He was never a drinker until he got in the business.

After a few years he lost it. Katz took the place away from him. My friend Tommy Flynn says to me, ‘I think the place is up for sale again.’ He said, ‘You should talk to Katz.’ I met Katz again. ‘Yeah, it’s for sale,’ he says. ‘I own it now. You can buy it for $25,000.’ I said, ‘No. I don’t want to pay that much. I’ll give you $18,500 for it.

He said, the Knights of Columbus in Shrewsbury is very interested in it. I think they will buy it for $22,500. There’s a meeting Monday night. If you want it for $22.5, I’ll sell it to you now or I’ll sell it to the Knights of Columbus. On Tuesday, Katz, in his Jewish brogue says, “Arthur you’ve got yourself a deal at $18.5. So, I bought the place and immediately started fixing up the place. It was run down.

How long did you own the place?

“Eleven years. All I did was work. I was there from morning till night. I actually physically built the place, myself and a carpenter by the name of Einer Erickson. He and I built the place.

It was man killing. It was open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Back then you had a lot of functions. Now people are afraid of drinking. I could do four weddings in one crack. I had the room for it. Then clean it up and have functions at night. I was never home. I’d work till two in the morning, get up at seven and go right back. That went on for 10, 11 years.”

Arthur and George Butler

When did you sell it?

“I sold it in ’69. I had two reasons to sell it. I was sick of working seven days and seven nights. George Butler was going into the Toyota business and he said, Arthur when I get an agency, you can have it. That was my out.”

This is a work in progress. Send all comments, corrections, and suggestions to: Thanks for taking the time. I appreciate it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Worcester’s Whispering Serenader

By Chet Williamson

He was among America’s first generation of popular singers known as crooners. Along with such American vocal giants as Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, and Gene Austin, Worcester-born vocalist Chester Gaylord sang in this style with a soft fluttering approach that earned him the moniker of the "Whispering Serenader."

Unlike Crosby, Vallee and Austin, history has not accorded Gaylord his due as a legendary singer. However, the fact remains, he was among the most active and recorded artists of the 1920s and ‘30s.

Gaylord was born in Worcester on February 24, 1899. He was a graduate of Worcester Academy, where it was said that he "ached to get into the music business." He studied with with J. Edward Bouvier, director of the Holy Cross College Band.

He entered the military in 1917 just as America entered World War I and played saxophone in the Navy band at Newport. After the war, Gaylord moved to New York City and worked with, among others, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Burt Lowe, Red Nichols, and Paul Whiteman.  

According to his obituary, Gaylord returned to Worcester in 1924 "after being chosen from 500 applicants as chief announcer for WTAG." He was the station's first employee. "I put together the station's programs, did the announcing, played for singers and, and whenever there was an open spot, I played the piano and sang," he once told a Worcester Telegram reporter.

In the August 16, 1998 edition of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, under the headline of “WTAG was City's Chief Broadcast Resource,” local historian Albert B. Southwick wrote: “As the premier radio station of Worcester County, WTAG played a key role in Worcester's life and progress for more than 50 years. The strength of WTAG came from its solid roots in the community. Dol Brissette, one of the chief programmers, began his career as a band leader playing for dances at the Hotel Bancroft's Starlight Roof, and his orchestra was featured on WTAG. One of the early regulars was Chester Gaylord at the piano. He was a longtime favorite, almost the signature hallmark of WTAG."

Gaylord was first committed to wax as a saxophonist and not a vocalist. The early sides were recorded in 1921 by Thomas Edison on cylinders known as “diamond discs.” The tunes documented are “Love’s Old Sweet Song” and “Sweet and Low.” He also recorded for Columbia, Brunswick, Okeh, and Melotone records.

In 1923, playing saxophone, Gaylord recorded the single, “Baby Blue Eyes,” for Okeh with pianist Justin Ring. That same year, Gaylord signed with Columbia and made a raft of vocal records with the company under his own name. They are “Montmartre Rose,” “On My Ukulele,” “Who Takes Care of the Caretaker’s Daughter,” and “There’s One Born Every Minute,”  “Insufficient Sweetie,” “My Sugar,” and “Her Have Gone.”

Other Columbia sessions feature Gaylord singing in a vocal ensemble with Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra. He was paired with other popular vocalists of the day, including Bing Crosby, Al Rinker, Austin Young, Jack Fulton, and Harry Barris. Those sides are “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love,” “Evening Star,” “Last Night I Dreamed You Kissed Me,” “Get Out and Under the Moon,” “No More Worryin’,” “I’m in Love Again,” “Fallen Leaf,” “My Blue Heaven,” “The Calinda,” “Shanghai Dream Man,” “Ooh, Maybe It’s You,” “Why Do You Roll Those Eyes at Me,” “It Was the Dawn of Love.” 

According to Wikipedia, Gaylord’s “popularity spread rapidly leading Brunswick Records (the second largest record company in the United States in the 1920s) to offer him an exclusive contract. He became one of the label's most prolific vocalists during the late 1920s.”

Between 1927 and 1931, Gaylord recorded more than 50 sides in New York City. Some of the studio musicians on the dates included many of the top players on the scene, including jazz stalwarts Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, trumpeter Manny Klein, and guitarist Dick McDonough. Topping the list of tunes Gaylord recorded for the label are such classics as “My Baby Just Cares for Me” (Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson), “Blues in the Night” (Johnny Mercer), and “Just You, Just Me” (Jesse Greer and Raymond Klages).

In addition to accompanying himself on the piano on many of the sides, Gaylord is also supported by a collection of bands. He sang with the Joe Rines Band, Jack Denny’s Orchestra, Jacques Renard and His Orchestra, Castlewood Marimba Band, and Red Nichols and His “Strike Up The Band” Orchestra. The Nichols recordings featured among others, the Dorseys, Charlie Teagarden, Glenn Miller, and Gene Krupa. "As a Brunswick recording 'houseman,' he also played saxophone with Dr. Frank Black and Gus Haenschen orchestras, and was once described as a 'saxophone virtuoso," the Telegram noted.

In 1930, Warner Brothers bought out the Brunswick Record company. Wiki notes that a reorganization occurred and Chester Gaylord's contact was one of numerous artists whose deal was not renewed. “Chester Gaylord continued to be popular on radio throughout the early 1930s until the introduction of swing music, in 1935, a type of music that was unsuitable to his style of singing. From 1929 to 1931, he was a featured vocalist on NBC radio on the Top Notchers Coca Cola Radio Program with Leonard Joy and his All String Orchestra.”
The history of the program is documented on the website known as Digital Deli (edited by Steve Ditlea).  On a show that was aired at 10:30 p.m. on November 26, 1930, Gaylord appeared with the playwright Ring Lardner and sang a collection of standards such as “Something to Remember You By,” “Three Little Words,” and “I’m Confessin’ That I Love You.”

The site states that “Coca-Cola made their first entry into Radio network programming in 1930, with 'Coca-Cola Top Notchers,’ a weekly, live (then later for syndication), 30-minute Sports/Variety show, which aired on Wednesday nights over the NBC 'Red' Network from 10:30 to 11:00 pm. Popular New York Herald Tribune sportswriter and commentator Grantland Rice presided over the show for its run.”

Bandleader Leonard Joy was also an arranger for RCA records. He was involved in two of the more historic moments in the annals of jazz. He was an assistant director with Paul Whiteman, who was involved in the 1928 recording of “San” by Bix Beiderbecke. And, on October 11, 1939, Joy was the studio producer for Coleman Hawkins landmark take on “Body and Soul, a recording that the Library of Congress has placed into the National Recording Registry.

Gaylord also appeared on radio with bands led by Ted Fio Rito, Ben Pollack, and Ben Selvin. According to Wiki, Gaylord moved to WBZ in Boston in the late 1940s, and “completed his broadcasting career there. He retired sometime in the mid-1960s.” In a feature article on the history of WBZ Radio, Donna Halper wrote: “November 26, 1946: WBZ’s 25th anniversary celebration features performers from the early days along with current stars. Had you listened back then, you would have heard such popular entertainers as country singer Georgia Mae and her Buckaroos, vocalists like Ray Dorey and Chester Gaylord, and courageous Dotty Myles, who despite having been severely burned in 1942’s Cocoanut Grove fire, was making a musical comeback.”

Harper later added on a WBZ bulletin board the comment: “In the course of my research, I have found all sorts of interesting stuff about Chester Gaylord, the former chief announcer of WTAG in Worcester (their first announcer in fact, way back in 1924 when the station went on the air as WCTS), who was also a prolific recording artist during the golden age of radio and beyond. He made a number of hit records during the 78 rpm era, and sang on NBC as well as on the Yankee Network. 

“According to his obituary (he died in 1984, at the age of 85, and was still performing right up until a few weeks before his death!), he moved to WBZ in the late ‘40s, and finished his  broadcasting career there -- but I do not recall him at WBZ, although I have seen his name in printed materials from the station.”

The Old Timer, Clinton
Though retired from radio, Gaylord remained an entertainer. "One of his favorite playing spots was The Old Timer Restaurant in Clinton," reports the Telegram.
Chester W. Gaylor, the Whispering Serenader, died on July 1, 1984.

Note: This is a work in progress. Send all comments, corrections, and suggestions to: Thanks for taking the time. I appreciate it. Also see:


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A League of Her Own

By Chet Williamson

In her book, Swing Shift: All-Girl Bands of the 1940s, author Sherrie Tucker documents the largely forgotten history of women musicians and their contributions to the big band era. She notes that during WWII, when men were serving overseas, “swing skyrocketed with the onslaught of war.” The book is filled with firsthand accounts of remarkable women playing in all-female jazz and dance bands all across America.

Here in Worcester, one such band was Maxine King and her Starlets, an all-girl territory band that barnstormed throughout New England in nightclubs, dance halls, and ballrooms. At its peak, the group had as many as 13 members and by most accounts could really swing.

King was a gifted pianist and organist who was born in Worcester on October 5, 1922. Her family name was George. Her real name was Sadie Ferris George. There is no known origin of the name change to the more Americanized “King.” The guess is that it was fashioned after one of the Andrew Sisters (Maxine) and the King Sisters. She grew up in a traditional Lebanese home and practiced her faith at St. George Orthodox Church. She first lived at 31 Wall Street, in the same neighborhood of local trumpeter Emil Haddad.

In fact, according to Maxine’s younger sister Delores, Haddad was first taught how to play the trumpet by Michael George, one her older brothers. Emil was 13 when he first started playing.  

Author Elizabeth Boosahda, who is a cousin to the George family, wrote about Maxine and those early days in her landmark book, Arab-American Faces and Voice; The Origins of an Immigrant Community. “Around 1939 and 1940, when she was just out of high school, she had practice sessions with Emil Haddad on the trumpet, Richard Haddad on the saxophone, and her brother Michael on the trumpet at their homes or at an empty store owned by Emil Haddad’s parents. They did gigs together.”

The adcopy for the book reads: Boosahda focuses on the Arab-American community in Worcester, Massachusetts, a major northeastern center for Arab immigration, and Worcester's links to and similarities with Arab-American communities throughout North and South America. Using the voices of Arab immigrants and their families, she explores their entire experience, from emigration at the turn of the twentieth century to the present-day lives of their descendants. This rich documentation sheds light on many aspects of Arab-American life, including the Arab entrepreneurial motivation and success, family life, education, religious and community organizations, and the role of women in initiating immigration and the economic success they achieved.” It was published by University of Texas Press, 2003.

Boosahda also noted that Maxine King’s all-girl orchestra played gigs not only in New England, but all the way into New York, and at military bases. “Her four brothers were in the U.S. military and enjoyed the orchestra’s music.”

Teenager Emil Haddad on trumpet with the Al Gervais Band 
Before taking up the trumpet, Haddad was already an entertainer by the age of 10. He and Al Dahrooge – also a neighbor and cousin of the George family – formed a comedy act and for a period of time appeared every Saturday morning over radio WTAG.

In addition to both being Lebanese, Maxine and Emil were the same age. As teenagers they went to Commerce High School, which at the time had an outstanding music department, boasting two large orchestras and concert bands, choruses, and glee clubs.

Commerce High School Orchestra, 1939

Maxine was the fifth of eight children of Thomas and Sophie George, both originally from Lebanon. “My father got up every morning at 4 o’clock to chant and pray,” says Dolores. “We all sang in church. Maxine was the organist.”

Student walking outside Commerce High on Walnut Street

  The El Morocco, a legendary Lebanese restaurant
owned by the Aboody family,
first opened in 1943 on Wall Street. 

By the 1930s the George family moved to Hamilton Street, where Delores still resides. She says Maxine was earning money for the family by playing music at an early age. “She was a special person. Maxine had perfect pitch. My mother made it a point to see our teachers once a week and one of them said to my mother, ‘Your daughter has musical talent.’ She recommended her getting private tutoring. I still remember her teacher. Her name was Marie Louise Webetts. She was a real Blue Blood American. She lived up near Fairlawn Hospital.  Lessons were $25 a week. That was a lot of money back then.”

Before putting the all-girl band together, Delores says Maxine worked general business musical jobs all over the city. In particular, she recalled her sister playing at Putnam and Thurston’s Restaurant on Norwich Street. She also worked at the Eden Gardens, Hotel Coronado, the Bancoft Hotel, and at one point, Maxine was the house pianist at the Plymouth Theater.

Maxine died on July 17, 2006 and according to her obituary in the Worcester Telegram, she played between showings of movies and newsreels at the Plymouth when she was 12 years-old. “She later played with such well-known groups as Spike Jones, Woody Herman, Tommy Dorsey, Horace Heidt and singers: Vic Damone, Dick Haymes, and the Ink Spots.”

“She was invited to join Spike Jones, but my parents said, no because while at home she was required to sleep in her own bed every night,” says Dolores. “I remember she had an agent. She also studied in Boston.”

Maxine (2nd from left) and her Starlets, circa 1945

Unfortunately, very little is known or documented of the all-girl band. In 1945, Telegram entertainment writer James Lee made mention of them in his column, Backstage: “Under the marquee: Maxine and her Starlets, all-girl Worcester orchestra, play a repeat date Sunday at the Merry-Go-Round, Hoosick Falls, NY, nightclub.”

The trumpeter in the group was Jane Krasuki, an accomplished musician who held a “gold card” with Worcester’s Musicians Union Local 143. She was later a member of a trio called the Rhythmettes. 
Delores, who was born in 1939, was little too young to remember the band, but she says, “I have a 78 of the band somewhere. I remember them travelling. They played in western, MA at a place called the Bernardston Inn.”

The March 12th 1949 edition Billboard magazine mentioned Maxine. An item, with the headline of “Organ Jamboree Big at Dolan Skateland” read: “Worcester, Mass, March 5 – An organ jamboree held February 28 at James J. Dolan Skateland here was reported a big success by Mrs. Norman Allen, wife of the Skateland organist. Five organists, including Allen, were featured. Ira Bates, Boston; Joe Nickerson, the Sheraton Hotel, Boston; Ron Harry, Fitchburg, Mass., and Maxine George, Worcester, Mass., appeared on the program. To the skater selling the most tickets to the affair went an album containing an autograph record of each organist. Skating was offered the first half of the evening, with ballroom dancing following. Organ novelties were offered between sessions.”
In 1948, Maxine played a church convention in Grand Rapids, MI and met her future husband Moses Hattem, who owned a prominent dining establishment in that city. She left Worcester in 1950, settling in Grand Rapids where she became a well-known pianist and organist for more than 50 years. She first came to prominence there after performing at Hattem’s Restaurant.

Grand Rapids is comparable to Worcester. A 2010 census counted its population as a city of 188,000 people and is the second to Detroit as the largest city in Michigan. Maxine and Moses had four children. A daughter, Donna still lives in Grand Rapids. “My mother was very talented. She had a great ear. She could play any song in any key. She played in the family restaurant and elsewhere, everywhere, really. And, she taught. She recorded one album. It is called Music by Maxine.”

Downtown Grand Rapids, circa 1950s

At the restaurant Maxine played for many dignitaries, including Betty and Gerald Ford, who were so enamored of the pianist that they invited her to the White House as their guest. According to her Grand Rapids Press obituary, “she was the pianist at the weekly Grand Rapids Lions Club meetings, Cascade Hills Country Club, and many local retirement communities. Maxine was the organist and member of St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church.” Aquinas College has established the “Maxine G. Hattem Memorial Music Scholarship” for students pursuing a major in music with a preference in piano and organ.”

Note: This is a work in progress. Send all comments, corrections, and suggestions to: Thanks for taking the time. I appreciate it. Also see: