Special to the News
Editor’s Note: This column is an excerpt from Paul Lucas’ new book, A Guitar Player on the Yukon Border. Lucas has lived in Atlin since 1979. This chapter is part of a 10-part series to run in the Yukon News every Wednesday this summer.
I stumbled up the back stairs of the Red Onion and almost knocked Jan (the madam and owner of the joint) over as she came through the brothel doorway.
“Hey,” she said, “you just missed Peggy.”
I had just returned from Lower Lake, a beautiful little oasis on the mountainside above the town of Skagway. Somewhere in my ramblings, I had managed to fall into a foul smelling bog. I was streaked with mud, looked like hell, and probably smelled worse. I needed to get to a bathtub.
“Who?” I replied, eyeing the door to the bathroom.
Jan wrinkled her nose but, gracefully, continued without comment.
“Peggy Lee. You just missed Peggy Lee. She was on the Star Princess and she came into the bar looking for a tour, so I gave her one. Just a few minutes ago, she was sitting on the end of your bed and looking around the Madam’s room.”
Peggy Lee was one of the iconic jazz singers of her era, and I was a fan.
I scampered up the remaining stairs, peeled off my muddy clothing, filled the old turn of the century iron bathtub with steaming water and slid into it. Finally, all hosed off and sporting fresh duds, I walked through the door, past the cast iron woodstove to the bedroom, and plopped myself down on the corner of the bed – a corner now in slight disarray from Peggy’s shapely tush. It felt warm. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking.
I have a collection of recordings from a tour Peggy did in her early days with her small group. That group featured guitarist Dave Barbour. Barbour came out of Benny Goodman’s band where Peggy got her first big break. Dave was a great player who played a major role in establishing guitar accompaniment for Jazz vocals.
Years after my missed date with Peggy, I got a chance to play with someone who knew a whole lot about those particular road groups – bassist Ben Tucker.
Ben and I played together at ‘Alligator Soul’ in Savannah GA. My friend Hilbo (of Ozone Ranger fame) had moved back to Georgia to follow his new passion – Cajun food. He wanted to become a Cajun chef in the belly of the beast and, by gum, that’s exactly what he did. Ilene and I visited there in 2006.
Even the Air has Manners
Savannah is a magic town – a mythical fairy land. Over 20 city squares make up the downtown core – gardens with serpentine paths, ancient oak trees festooned with Spanish moss, and rugged benches where you can sit in that sensuous southern air and take in the atmosphere. Southern mansions preside over each square – all balconies, shutters and old style porches, looking like they sprang out of a historic picture book.
The restaurant itself is right in the mould. Down the stairs off Barnard St, hanging on to the wrought iron banister, you enter a foyer that looks out over a bar area and tables – all restored within an inch of the period. The place drips with atmosphere. And the food is great.
Ben Tucker played with everybody: Art Pepper, Quincy Jones, Billy Taylor, Dexter Gordon. Known for writing the Jazz hit ‘Comin Home Baby,’ he was also Peggy Lee’s bassist for many years along with drummer Grady Tate.
Ben was a real gentleman, soft spoken and unassuming. Along with our steady job at the restaurant, we played several gigs together, including the opening for the Savannah Jazz Festival with Marcus Printup.
On breaks, and over a glass of wine or two, he would occasionally regale me with tales of derring-do on the road with Peggy. What a life. It was, however, a life complicated in the day by the blatant racism that existed, and still exists, in the South.
Ben was a Black man. Born in Tennessee, he made a name for himself in New York, then retired to his adopted hometown, Savannah. As one of Savannah’s favourite sons, Ben got a pass of sorts. Not that you’d notice much. The racial situation in Georgia, even in 2006, seemed only a bare few steps away from Jim Crow.
The South is a complex place. Savannah, all grace and manners on the surface, can’t seem to escape the racism running just under the skin. And that racism seems to be, for those in the white supremacist camp, as vitriolic and violent as ever.
I generally came into the club in the late afternoon to set up for the early set I did with my wife Ilene. By the time I got there, the bar stools would be occupied by the regular bevy of southern belles. These girls were not wine drinkers. It was highballs or nothing, and they were usually a few sheets to the wind by the time I arrived.
“Why if it ain’t our favourite Yankee come to play us some music on that guitar of his,” I would hear from the bar.
“Come on over honey, and have a drink before you start. It can’t do you nothin’ but good.” They were charming, and funny.
Conversations with these women went the full gamut, but interesting slips revealed a generational, hard nosed bigotry that went to the bone. That, and the fact that the Civil War was often referred to as “that recent unpleasantness,” made me think these folks truly believed the old South would rise again. And not a moment too soon.
I have a problem with all this. I know these people. I have worked with, laughed with, drank and played music with them. These folks would give you the shirts off their backs — as long as you’re not a person of colour. I just don’t get it.
Still, I don’t want to make rash generalizations. Only a small percentage of Southerners are truly racist, and recent political developments indicate that things might slowly be getting better. Still, in 2006 there seemed to be enough of that population to elect racist governors and members of congress – allowing the dirty work to get done without anyone getting anything on ‘em.
That being said, I have to step up to the plate and accept my own complicity in this monumental mess because, the fact is, the racism in the South is likely the result of an errant gene swimming in my own British gene pool – particularly in that bunch who landed in the Carolinas lo’ those many years ago. The Brits are, after all, some of the most racist buggers ever to stand on the planet, with the possible exception of the Spaniards, Dutch and, well let’s face it, any of that “white and right” lot.
These people are like your drunken Uncle Ernie – the guy who stumbles into the living room in the middle of your daughter’s birthday party, lies on his back, and proceeds to light a fart. I am hoping that this particular gene will eventually water itself down enough to make racism a thing of the past. But I’m not holding my breath.
Peggy Lee was a great Jazz singer She was also entirely colour blind. All she wanted was a great band around her and that’s exactly what she got.