Memoirs of a Sideman: Lena Horn

Clifton Davis and Lena Horn in Pal Joey Revival

Nearly three years of touring with the legend Lena Horn had finally come to an end because she was about to launch into a solo Broadway show, “The Lady and Her Music”.  Her Los Angeles based quintet, who had been with her through thick and thin for several years, was being discharged for political reasons.  When you go to New York, you deal with the strongest musician’s union left on the face of the planet; New York local, 802.

The Schubert theater chain, actually the brothers Schubert, wanted Lena for her new vehicle, but only New York musicians were to be employed.

Late one night, on one of our last days of touring, we got the call from her manager at the time, Ralph Harris, a true gentleman of the “old school” to tell us that we were being let go.  Ralph was not very happy about delivering us this news and he had class enough to visit each musician in their hotel rooms to explain the situation man to man. Ralph was particularly uncomfortable with my being let go.  He knew that Lena had come to rely on me for several reasons.  My guitar playing was decent, I could, most importantly make her laugh when she needed it, and thirdly, once she discovered I could sing, we closed the show for many months singing a duet together which she had recorded earlier in her career with Harry Belafonte.  Yea, how about this, I’m singing with LENA and I’m subbing for Harry Belafonte.  

I had mixed feelings about the decision—mostly, I was glad to be headed back to LA for a rest, but I definitely would miss a lady who had become my friend as well as my boss.  She was pure class from sunrise to sunset.  She always used to say,

     “...Honey, you’re not working for me, you’re working with me.”

I had learned a great deal from her, and I think she even learned a few things from me in the process.  She had great respect for her musicians if you were cutting it.  If not, you were out the door in a “New York minute”.

Best begin at the beginning. 

Early in 1978 I was planning my second ill-fated marriage when I got a phone call from “Dad” Miller, ‘the Buddha” as he was sometimes called.

      “Hey Arturie, wha’s up?  Feel like pickin’ a little guitar?”  His smiling voice questioned.

      “What’ya got in mind, my man?”

Maurice then informed me that he had just joined the group to backup Lena Horne for an all-black version of the Broadway play, “Pal Joey” to be performed at the Ahmanson theater in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in LA for six months. 

This type of opportunity is a real good thing for a “Sideman”.  Weeks of paid rehearsals, and then a show that pays top scale for the talent displayed, and mostly, to be around someone like Lena Horne, a true one-off and a piece of active musical history on the move.  Through Lena I met Billy Eckstein, and Cab Calloway, yea, I talked to these guys, they were nice cats and very humble.

I remember our gig in Philadelphia when Eckstein was playing down the block at another theater that week.  He came to our hotel every night to hang out with Lena and talk with her musicians.  One night I greeted him coming into the hotel lobby and asked him,

     “How’d the show go Mr. “E”?

     “Son, I murdered them!”--he responded with a serious smile.

Nothing like “old-school” well-earned confidence from paying the dues big time. 

We began rehearsals in LA a month before the show was to open.  Of course, true to form, all of the music wasn’t copied yet, (meaning, probably not even orchestrated.)  There is probably no harder music to sightread than “Broadway-show business-big-hoopla” arrangements where you have millions of notes to read correctly and in actuality, few of them really count.  Music for an orchestra pit musician eventually sounds like swirls of notes, none great or small, just a sonic diffusion of frequencies.

     (Think that last sentence will get me into the Harvard school for rocket scientists?)

The weeks passed and we eventually pulled it all together and in typical “Broadway” fashion, we opened the show out-of-town to get the bugs out.  Oddly enough they chose San Diego and the old Spreckles theatre downtown, which a few years later would be totally converted into what is now, Symphony Towers. 

Having an all-black cast was very interesting.  All of the dancers and singers were pros from LA or New York and even the hairdressers, wardrobe personnel and choreographer were black.  It was to become an interesting experience to observe the role play on everyone’s part and of course the truly ridiculous way that people can take themselves so seriously for virtually zilch!  One thing about Lena Horne, they didn’t call her “Lady” for nothing.  Through most of the conflicts that arrive when one hundred or so individuals are trying to do one thing, she remained polite and courteous to all involved, in other words, a real professional.

One such incident of “cast conflict” occurred in Los Angeles when we finally began the official run at the Ahmanson Theater downtown.  I’m a musician, and although I’ve slept with a couple of ballerinas, my knowledge of dance is rather limited.  To me, everything seemed fine with the choreographer, a heavy set extremely energetic, African-American, man who seemed to be doing his job.  But, show business being what it is, one day—bam! He was history. 

The producers of the show were flying in someone from New York to take over.  The dancers were enraged.  They were absolutely not going to dance for anyone else except the man they had been working with thus far.  Back stabbing and mutiny was about to commence with dancers in huddles ready to quit if someone else landed at LAX from New York.  How could the producers do such a thing?...etc.

Well, someone else did arrive and it was none other than Michael Kidd, the original
choreographer from the movie “Pal Joey” with Sinatra and company done in the 1950’s.  Although I was an idiot concerning the hierarchy of the dance world, I knew this man’s name: it had been on the credits of zillions of Hollywood musicals and New York musical theatre productions.  Mr. Kidd was a definite heavyweight.

The hour arrived and a cast and crew rehearsal/meeting was called for the early afternoon.  The dancers were rumored to strike and just bail out of the show.  Tensions were extremely high at the time.  Lena looked worried and extremely stressed.  Mr. Kidd being the ultimate pro could feel the mood of the dancers as he was introduced to the company.  My impression at the time was that no one in this “younger” company of dancers knew who the hell this guy was as he was talking to them in a very sympathetic way about the current situation. 

To my way of thinking, not knowing who Michael Kidd was if you were a dancer would be like not knowing the name Louis Armstrong if you were a jazz musician.

There was definitely a little tension.  Lena had asked all of her musicians to be there while this “meeting” was going on, for support. Although it had no direct influence on our roles, and it seemed a waste of time, I hung in there to watch where it might go.

The spokesman for the dancers explained to the very patient Michael Kidd that they felt lost without their mentor, the one who had,

     “...Shown them the way” through this very involved production.
Mr. Kidd continued to show sympathy towards their dilemma but wanted to get moving along with his job.  Finally, as a “Sideman” my patience was growing thin.  The spokesman for the dancers after a long debate with Mr. Kidd about the dismissal of their former choreographer finally with great emotion began to scream out,

     “...Without him, we don’t have any motivation left amongst us...what is our motivation now?”

Before Michael Kidd could respond, with his mouth half-open, I yelled out instinctively,

“...How about your god-damn paycheck!  That’s certainly enough motivation for me!” 

My uncalled-for response sent a shock wave throughout the ensemble.  Michael Kidd held his hand over his mouth to prevent laughter, and Lena damn near fell over from laughing which she could not control.  The dancers gave me a look that would have frozen a hot enchilada and I just shrugged my shoulders. Michael Kidd had now had enough.  He clapped his hands together loudly and said,

 “...Well, there’s our answer!  Let’s get to work.”

Once again, a fine example of the “Sideman’s” prerogative to speak out even if it meant being fired.  Actually, at the conclusion of this conflict I was congratulated for my totally unwarranted comment, even by some of the dancers.

Halfway through our run of the show, Lena had her sixtieth birthday and we celebrated backstage at the conclusion of a performance one night. 

In the orchestra pit along with myself, were “Mo” Miller on drums, John Miles as the conductor/rehearsal pianist, and Bobby Haynes on electric bass.  I found out on the last night of the production that Lena had requested all of the above musicians to go on the road with her except me.  Ralph Harris, her manager, took me aside and kindly explained to me that she always toured with a guitar player from Las Vegas who also worked with Frank Sinatra named Joe Lano.  I had heard about Joe and knew he was one hell of a guitarist.  I felt no remorse and packed up my gear and headed home.  I would be called to replace Joe Lano in six months but in the meantime other interesting projects awaited my participation.

In Hollywood, this situation is a way of life for any one in the entertainment industry; you’re a hot item one day and cold the next.  What keeps you going, if you’ve got the balls, is an inert capacity to believe in yourself and have the confidence that work will always find you.  I was one of the lucky ones: work always found me.


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