Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Reggie Walley Story

By David "Chet" Williamson Sneade

In February of 1998, I was asked by Worcester Magazine to write a profile feature on Reggie Walley. I knew Reg from his many gigs as a drummer and owner of his two nightclubs, the Kitty Kat and the Hottentotte, respectively. Soon after the piece was published, I had the good fortune to play music with the man in a band we called Reggie Walley’s Bluescians. Although already in his '80s, he could still swing like Big Ben and sing like a bluebird. Yet, at the time, he was often left waiting for the phone to ring for his next gig. I called him for a couple of dates at Gilrein's playing blues and swing and he jumped at the chance. We went on to play a string of gigs over the next few years until his death at 87 on Sunday, September 23, 2001.

The profile was the front-page story of the Arts & Entertainment section with a headline that read: Soft Shoe through Life; Reggie Walley preps for a gig of a lifetime. The date was a tribute to the man hosted by the College of the Holy Cross. Here is my piece with a few additions, subtractions and corrections.

There's a bright sun-splashed room on the 13th floor of one of the high-rise buildings at Lincoln Village -- a recreation hall for the many senior citizens who live there. The surface of the room's floor is harder than blacktop and just right for tap dancing.

In the late afternoon hours, when the winter sun casts broad shadows across the expectant room, Reggie Walley takes the elevator up two flights, slips on his taps and begins to practice. Seventy-five years ago, dancing was as natural as getting up in the morning for Walley. These days, the spirit is willing but the feet need a little reminding. "I go up there and grin like the devil," Walley says, chuckling about his routine. "I go up there when there is not anything going on. Because everybody's going to sit around and look at you."

At 83, song-and-dance man, jazz drummer, teacher, painter, club owner, Renaissance man and all-around nice guy Walley is once again honing his hoofing for the gig of a lifetime. And it's all in his honor. On Tuesday, February 24, the First Year Program at the College of the Holy Cross will present "And Then There was Jazz: A Tribute to Reggie Walley," an evening of music and memory honoring this local legend. The Fat Tuesday event will unfold at 8 p.m. in the Hogan Center ballroom. Among local musicians scheduled to "play tribute" are Bunny Price, Al Mueller, Mike Monaghan, Linda and Bobby Dagnello, Dick Odgren and Emil Haddad and Joe Holovnia. The tribute is free and open to the public.

Billed in his prime as "New England's Greatest Dancing and Singing Star," the honored guest will reach back into his time-honored bag of tricks to -- as he puts it -- step a little, sing a few numbers and play some drums. "I bought two pairs of taps," Walley says, laughing about his preparations. "I didn't like the first pair. I'm going to do syncopation tap out there ... from ankles down. That way, I can keep my feet close to the floor and not knock myself out.”

Walley was born Reginald Harold Walley in Worcester's Hahnemann Hospital on June 7, 1914. He was the fifth born in a family of 10 children to George and Octavia (Sumner) Walley. There were six boys and four girls. Young Reggie grew up in the neighborhood around Highland and West streets. The street where he lived, Lilly Street, no longer exists, having been eliminate by the construction of the Elm Park Community School.

Walley has vivid memories of Sunday morning at John Street Baptist Church, a holler-and-shout from his apartment window. "I sang in the choir over there," he says, getting comfortable on a sofa in his tiny Lincoln Village living room. "Grace Johnson-Brown, God rest her soul, she was a piano teacher. She wasn't what you would call a jazz player. She used to help me with my singing ... used to keep me up there for hours practicing."

Note: The pianist lived on George Street, where World Champion Cyclist Major Taylor trained, and the renowned pianist Jaki Byard took lessons.

"Mrs. Grace Brown was a very wonderful woman. She used to keep me up there for hours practicing," Walley said. "She used to have us sing syllables and scales up and down. When Duke Ellington came here to stay while he was working at the Plymouth Theater, she let me know he was in town.

All the singing and dancing seems to have preserved Walley well. Still, in welterweight-fighting shape, he stands 5 feet, 6 inches tall and has the bearing of a man 20 years younger. His high cheekbones, dark eyes and hair highlight his Narragansett Indian ancestry. His father hailed from the tribe. "That's my blood," Walley says. "But all my family married into the Nipmuc tribe. I joined in Grafton. I still go out to the grounds and help to get the powwows going."

Walley's entertainment career began when he was still a child. Back in The Roaring '20s, he made a living dancing on the streets of Worcester. “I used to go around with shoeshine boxes and dance around," he recalls. "I would go to the shows at the Plymouth Theater. They were vaudeville then. I got the idea of dancing sitting there watching the stage acts. I got the idea that either I wanted to be a dancer, singer or something like that. I started doing both. My sister's husband used to be an old-time dancer. He'd kick us in the feet to learn the time-step. The time-step and the buck-and-wing dance."

Walley says he also would head down to White City Park and sing and dance for nickels and dimes. A talented and precocious youngster, he also began drumming and drawing as a child. "I used to bang on swill cans out in the back of the Lilly Street lot till my dad bought me a snare drum and some sticks," he recalls. "I just did it because I liked it. I wasn't that keen into it because, at the time, I was too interested in dancing."

It was a rabbi from Temple Emmanuel, where his father was a caretaker, who helped Walley along on the visual arts side of the development. "Rabbi Olen was the one that sent me to art school. He saw me sketching. There was an art school where the old Red Cross building was -- I used to go up there. I kept going to school until I couldn't go anymore. I was too tired to go out and sing and dance and earn money. My father needed it. This was during the Depression."

Walley's professional entertainment career began in the early '30s. "I didn't start working the clubs until I was around 18," Walley recalls. "You know where the police station was on Waldo Street? That theater down there where all the strippers were? I danced down there on amateur night. Then all the bookers around Worcester got ahold of me. They started booking me around shows. Danny Duggan and Murray Brodeur -- agencies that would send me out."

Saxman Paul Kukkonen, in a 1972 interview, recalled playing the Atlas Club, a fifth-floor speakeasy on Front Street where Walley was a staff entertainer; [Reggie] was handling much of the floor show for the club. I was the band, hot and heavy at tenor sax ... We'd finish and Reggie and I would make a date to meet after four or so hours of sleep. Then we'd go fishing."

Walley worked in clubs throughout the area as well as down on the Cape. He was billed as everything from "Reggie, the Dynamite Kid," to "New England's Fred Astaire." He also performed in minstrel shows and musicals. "I did a couple in the Moffit's place," Walley says, referring to the Chicken Coop owned by the family. Mamie Moffit led one of the first jazz bands in Worcester, Mamie Moffit and her 5 Jazz Hounds. "They liked me," Walley says. They'd let me come in and they'd set me up with a nice chicken dinner." 

Mamie Moffit

Described in reviews of the time as "multitalented" and a "classy hoofer," he danced on tables, did flying splits and a stair-step dance fashioned Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. He even danced while carrying a table clenched in his teeth until someone challenged him with a marble one. "I picked it up," Walley says cracking up with laughter. "But I stopped doing that after someone said, 'What are you doing that for? You're too good a dancer for that."

Walley married his first wife, Evelyn Rickers, when he was 21. He worked during the day at Cane Furniture and danced at night until World War II broke out. He was drafted for a three-year stint in the Army and reenlisted for another two years. "I was still doing a lot of dancing [in the Army]," He recalls today. "In the first part of the war, I had a big band, a 12-piece group. I was making more money than the captain."

Walley's military career was spent in the 639th Ordinance Company, including action at the Battle of the Bulge. He served in Northern France, Normandy, Central Europe and the Rhineland, receiving the Bronze Star. After the war, he settled back into the Worcester community until he received his first of many calls to go out on the road. "I was working at the different places around," he says. "Finally, I got the offer to go away with the Helen Compton band; she was the sister of actress Betty Compton. They were an all-female band. I had a song-and-dance routine. I would come out on stage and sing: 'One Night of Love,' he says, breaking into song. "We played all over: Atlantic City, Detroit, and Philadelphia. We had girl singer that would sing Betty Boop songs. I think there was something like 12 girls. There were two other guys in the band. They were acrobats. We got around. We played the Palace Theater. Georgia Gibbs from Worcester was in the show.

Georgia Gibbs

"We had time after our show to go to other places and introduce ourselves to different entertainers, Bojangles, the Ink Spots. We just went up and sat backstage and talked with them. I was with the Compton band for around six months.”

The Compton band went the way of most big-band jazz after the war, breaking up in 1947. One of their last gigs was at the Broadway's Palace Theater in New York City. "I stayed in New York with my sister Dorothy," Walley said. "She lived in Harlem. I took a job working in a laundry underneath the George Washington Bridge. I was in New York for about five or six months."

Walley's marriage broke up as well at the time, a victim of his constant touring; and ended up staying in New York for a time. There he met his second wife, the adopted daughter of Mary McLeod Bethune, a renowned educator who advised four presidents on minority affairs and founder of the Bethune-Cookman College. The new Mrs. Walley was a chorus girl in Lew Leslie's Blackbirds, the famous show that inspired last year's Blackbirds of Broadway at Foothills Theatre.

A chorus line of Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1928

The couple settled in Worcester and despite offers from a variety of touring acts, Walley says he decided to remain in the community. Combining their talents, he and his wife opened the Reggie Walley Dance Studio at 271 Main Street where they taught 300 students a week the art of dance. Reggie taught tap, modern jazz dancing, and singing. Mary taught ballet, oriental and primitive dancing. And Walley continued to entertain, many of his gigs occurring in Boston and on Cape Cod. "In the summer we would close down the studio and go to the Cape and play in the clubs. Reggie Walley always brought in the people," Mary says. "When the newspaper advertised him, you couldn't get standing room only."

Mary and Reggie
He worked at the Skylark in Hyannis, the Mill Hill Club in Yarmouth, and singing with pianist Al Vega at the Casino in Falmouth Heights. Some of the acts he headlined were called Reggie's Famous Rhythm Masters and Reggie Walley and his Calypso Band. He played local venues such as the Top Hat in Webster, the Peacock Club in Auburn, The Red Top in Shrewsbury, the Golden Gate in West Brookfield, and the A&A in Westboro. He worked the Boston clubs as well. "I worked the Slaves, the High-Hat, Walley's Paradise and all the places up there on Massachusetts Ave., Reggie recalled. "One of the brothers announced me and says, 'Now, as you know our name is Walley, but we've got another Walley. And he's no relative.' Everybody laughed."

In a review of Walley, writer James Lee wrote: "Reggie Walley, one of the finest all-around entertainers Worcester has produced since I've been in town. ... That talent singer, dancer, and musician will appear at the Wells Associations "All American Night" at the Eden Gardens. It was George Wells who got Reggie his first job in show business at Vick Richardson's former Atlas Club back in the 1930s."
Sometime in the early '50s, Walley bought a drum kit, put a band together and began to perform as the Reggie Walley Trio. "Reggie always had a 'great feel,'" recalls pianist Al Mueller. "He wasn't a schooled drummer but the guy has a great sense of time. He's playing the way the music feels, not the way somebody taught him how to play. ... Basically, what he was tap dancing was transferred up to his hands."

Wally's singing also came to the fore at this time. His buttery baritone brings to mind the voice of Billy Eckstine. "I used to marvel at this guy," recalls bassist Bunny Price, "especially playing with him. Reggie was real quality. He had a good-sounding voice. ... I can't explain it ... I used to love to hear Reggie sing.

Price is the son of the late trumpeter Barney Price, another Worcester jazz legend. "I joined Reggie in '62, after my brother got drafted in the Vietnam War," Bunny says, referring to drummer Tommy Price. "We were playing everywhere, the Reggie Walley Trio. That was pianist (Johnny Catalozzi), me on bass, Reggie, and we had a blind saxophonist, Guido Grampietro. Oh man, that guy could play. He knew all the songs, all the keys. Amazing!"

In 1969, the Walleys opened the Kitty Kay Lounge at 252 Main St., an upstairs club -- now a parking lot -- next to where the Irish Times sits today. It took Walley two years to open the place. "We were the first blacks to have a bar on Main Street," Mary Walley recalled in an interview before she died. "They kept telling Reggie, in a nice way, "Why don't you go on a side street?'" The Kitty Kat was a reflection of Reggie. It was a fun place, centered on music. Friday and Saturday nights the Walley's booked traveling R&B acts that were making the rounds. 

Thursdays and Sundays were reserved for jazz jam sessions, with Walley fronting the house band. People like organist Al Arsenault, onetime Woody Herman saxophonist Jackie Stevens, Barney Price, Howie Jefferson -- another local legend -- would grace the stage. The weekly session became a proving ground for such players as Jim and Dick Odgren, Tom Herbert, Jim Arnot, Rob Marona, Gene Wolocz and Babe and Ken Pino.

One of the more memorable nights at the Kat was a tribute to Jaki Byard, the Worcester-born pianist who was one of the founders of the legendary Saxtrum Club who went on to play with Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, among others. The rented piano procured for Byard was too big to carry up the stairs, so Byard blew sax all night for the happy throngs of family and fans.

The Kitty Kat closed in 1976, and two years later, Walley opened the Hottentotte at 8 Austin Street in the former Dutch Cafe -- another recent victim of the wrecking ball. There, he continued the tradition of the Sunday-afternoon jazz jam session. The Soul Jazz Quintet was the house band, with Walley on drums, Bunny Price on bass, Mueller on piano and Nat "The Hat" Simpkins on saxophone. Other musicians frequenting the club included pianists Dick Odgren, Michael Loconsolo, Bruce Thomas, Terry Collins, and Jack Allen, guitarist Bill Vigliotti, bassists Dave Kenderian, Charles Ketter, saxophonists Sonny Benson, Ken Sawyer, Stephen Thomas, Harvey Williams, trumpeters, Barney Price, Bill Ryan, Ted Blandin, and drummer Willie Pye, among others.

The Hottentotte
The Hottentotte closed its doors in 1983. Walley stayed busy working a day job for the Massachusetts Wholesale Drug Co., and he continued to gig at night with the Soul Jazz Quintet. For a couple of years, in the mid-'80s, the band hosted a Sunday session at the Quinsigamond Elks -- better known as the "Black Elks" -- on Chandler Street. Mrs. Mary Walley died of cancer in 1987. When Barney Price died in 1988, the band never really recovered and Walley retreated from the public eye. He also worked as a security guard at the Social Security Administration, but never officially retired from the music business. Although he sold his drums, he still takes a gig here and there. He performed in January at the inaugural ball at the Worcester Art Museum and has been seen sitting in at the Sunday afternoon blues jam at Gilrein's.

Self-portrait with Barney and Bunny Price
One of the more affable people one could ever meet, Walley carries himself with dignity and distinction. Behind the sunny front-port disposition resides a man of great pride. These days, he busies himself with painting, and some of his best work is currently on display through Feb. 25 in a group exhibition at the ARTSWorcester Gallery at Quinsigamond Community College.

Walley's one-bedroom apartment is filled with his work. His latest landscape is perched on an easel in front of the television; painting of family and friends line the walls. His many portraits include paintings of Howie Jefferson, Drummer Tony Agby, and Emil Haddad and Dick Odgren. Sitting among these memories, at the end of an afternoon of remembering, he gazes out his living room window, and the light of a thousand nightclubs seems to reflect in his eyes.

"It was a good life," he says simply. "I had a wonderful family. We stuck together, very close. I worked all my life trying to be somebody. There isn't a place I can't go where somebody says, 'Hey, you're Reggie Walley.' I feel honored."

A postscript: Mark Cadigan reported on the Holy Cross tribute. "Among those commending Walley were: Kenneth Richardson, president of the Black Student Union, who read a letter from Sen. Edward Kennedy and a proclamation about Walley that was entered into the Congressional Record; Dean Jacqueline Peterson, Holy Cross vice president for student affairs, who called Walley, "a major contributor to this art-form;" and Raymond Mariano, mayor of the city of Worcester, who presented Walley with a key to the city and heralded him as, "a very special part of our city, our heritage. ... Veteran trumpeter Emil Haddad, voicing the emotions of many, commented, "It's all for Reggie, whom we love very much."

Encore and epilogue

I was fortunate enough to have worked with Reggie for four years. Our best gig was a regular Saturday night at a piano bar called O’Flaherty’s in the Cherry Valley section of Worcester. We worked opposite Emil Haddad and Dick Odgren who owned Friday nights. The weekly gig lasted three years running until the venue was sold. The regular line-up was Reggie, Bunny, myself and pianist Jim Heffernan, who played the first couple of years with us. Lou Terricciano, Matt McCabe and Al Mueller also sat in the piano chair.

The group relied heavily on material from the songbooks of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. Reggie was at his best vocally on tunes like “In My Solitude, where burnished baritone really shined. Medium tempo numbers like Harry “Sweets Edison’s “Jive at Five” and Freddy Green’s “Down for Double,” featured his rock-steady way of hard-swinging that invariably would get audiences dancing. 

The highlight of the band’s run was a sold out Jazz at Sunset concert at the Ecotarium where host Jack Wertheimer presented Reggie with a lifetime achievement award. In his acceptance speech, the grateful Mr. Walley chronicled his history in the music. We razzed him after the show reminding him that 20 minutes into his speech, he was only up to 1940. The Bluescians were supplemented that day with saxophonist Nat Simpkins and guitarist Rich Falco. Another highlight was playing on the back of a flatbed truck in urban-renewal celebration of new three-deckers built on Kilby Street. Senator Ted Kennedy was the guest speaker. 

In addition to nightclub dates, the band played what was left to the general business dates in Worcester. We played wedding and bar mitzvahs, dances at PNI club and private parties at the Black Elks. A couple of special dates included opening for the Drifters one year, and the Platters another at the African-American Festival, hosted by the Henry Lee Willis Center at Temple Emmanuel. Reggie was in great form on those show and none other than Herb Reed let him know it.

The Bluescians with Matt McCabe on piano
The Bluescians played the Castle Restaurant every summer and were in regular rotation at Gilrein’s, including a memorable New Year’s Eve celebration. At Gilrein’s we would usually add a guitarist to give us more of the blues flavor. We used a rotation of local players, Dan Hunt, Dwight Perry, and Troy Gonyea. Whether it was at Tuckerman Hall uptown or a downtown honky-tonk, Reggie was always impeccably dressed in a suit and tie – the consummate professional. He had an infectious smile -- even though as Sam Lay once said of Sonny Boy Williamson – “He looked like he swallowed a mouth full of firecrackers” -- the aftermath of picking up too many tables from years of tap dancing.

Yours, Nat Simpkins, Reggie, and Dan Hunt

Reggie’s last gig was at Point Breeze in Webster. After the first set he complained of having cramps in his legs. The next day he was hospitalized and after examinations, it was discovered that cancer metastasized throughout his body. He died eight days later. He was 87.

A fundraiser was organized to help defray the cost of burying the man. It was held at WPI and WICN’s great jazz programmer Joe Zupan hosted the show. More than 300 people showed up and almost as many musicians graced the stage in tribute. 

One of the many regrets I have in my life is that I never got to record with him. He was my mentor whose memory continues to inspire. Thanks, Reg. Rest in eternal peace.

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