David Bruce: 250 Music Anecdotes — Practical Jokes, Prejudice

Practical Jokes

• For a while, country singer/songwriter Hank Williams had a bad habit of borrowing cigarettes, reaching into one of his band members’ pockets and taking a cigarette whenever he felt like it. He got cured of that bad habit after one of his band members found a novelty store that sold exploding cigarettes. By the way, Mr. Williams would sometimes write lyrics when traveling in a car from one gig to another. Once, he asked, “What rhymes with ‘street’?” Guitarist and close friend Don Helms answered, “Your smelly feet!”

• At the Metropolitan Opera, tenor Leo Slezak had just finished performing in Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Armide. He saw an old, distinguished gentleman standing nearby, so he pushed him onto the stage, pointed to him, then bowed. Afterward, reporters asked him whom the old gentleman had been, and Mr. Slezak told them that it had been Gluck himself. The reporters printed the story, not knowing that Gluck had died in 1787.

• André Previn once conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at a rehearsal during which he asked the musicians to play a Russian composition that they had not played before. After they had gone through it once, Mr. Previn said, “That was wonderful! I have never heard an orchestra play so perfectly the first time! Now, let’s try it again, and this time I’d like to hear a few wrong notes!” The musicians had fun obliging him by playing many wrong notes! He laughed.

• Tenor Enrico Caruso didn’t mind playing a practical joke on stage once in a while. While singing “Che gelida manina”(“Your tiny hand is frozen”) to Geraldine Ferrar in La Boheme, he slipped a piece of ice into her hand.


• In 1972, Yale University invited many black musicians to its campus in order to raise money for an African-American music department. The invitees included Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Noble Sissle, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Mary Lou Williams. While Dizzy Gillespie was leading a sextet in a performance, someone called in a bomb threat. The other musicians moved outside to play, but Mr. Mingus declined to do that, saying, “Racism planted that bomb, but racism ain’t strong enough to kill this music. If I’m going to die, I’m ready. But I’m going out playing ‘Sophisticated Lady.’” Outside, Mr. Gillespie and other musicians played Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” but from inside the theater building, whose doors were open, Mr. Mingus played his bass.

• Jerry Lee Lewis’ mother once told him, “You and Elvis are pretty good, but you’re no Chuck Berry.” Chuck Berry, of course, was a duck-walking guitarist who put 15 songs on the R&B Top Ten chart. By making hits such as “Maybelline,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” Mr. Berry helped integrate the United States, which during the 1950s was segregated in many places. He and Fats Domino, best known perhaps for “Blueberry Hill,” toured together in the 1950s. At first, a rope divided the blacks from the whites, but later the black music fans and the white music fans mixed. Mr. Berry said, “Salt and pepper all mixed together.” He added that Fats and he used to look at the mixed audiences and say, “Well, look what’s happening.”

• Neil Spencer, editor of New Music Express (NME) from 1978 to 1985, points out that for a long time, female vocalists and musicians were expected to be eye candy. That changed with punk music and Poly Styrene and the Slits. Suddenly, female vocalists and musicians were not playing that game. Mr. Spencer remembers about the Slits, “Guys would shout at them. ‘You look ugly,’ and they’d reply, ‘We’re not here to look nice for you.’”

• During the Jim Crow days, Bobby Womack toured with Sam Cooke, who gave him some advice. Mr. Womack said, “Sam used to tell me, whenever you got some money, you go get yourself a good ring and a good watch. Why would I need that? And Sam would say, you might have to get outta town quickly, before you get paid, and you can always hock that ring and that watch.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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