Phone interview with Harry Charles Jr. (HC) born in 1924 and Jeanne Kingsford (JK) born in 1927. Conducted by Angela Mack (AM) 12/10/06 (not recorded)
AM: This is Angela Mack from Grafton, WI. I am very glad that we were able to be connected. I am wondering if I can type out our conversation today for historical purposes.
HC: Sure, before we begin, my sister reminded me that he wrote a 10 to 12 autobiography. Jean still has it. We grew up with our father in Birmingham, Alabama.
AM: How did he get to become a talent scout?
HC: I was too young to remember. But he told me stories. He said that he found talent to take them to Chicago. I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure that it was Chicago. I remember one time my mother and father took me to New York City. He had business there for a week. I have a feeling that it had to do with that kind of business. I was just too young, but I remember how bored I was. We stayed in an apartment.
JK: I do have copies of copy writes of songs with the names of the songs and the artists but I don’t remember what is on them.
AM: What do they look like?
JK: They look like little note cards (about 2×3 or 4). I have 6 to 8 of those. I have one copy of some sheet music that he wrote. It was published by EE Forbes in Birmingham. He worked for them.
AM: What kind of company was EE Forbes?
JK: A piano company.
HC: They handled the distribution of Paramount records in this part of the country. Our mother worked there too. Her name is Kathleen Staples.
AM: What sort of work did she do?
HC: She was a sales clerk. She sold the records and sheet music.
JK: Dad was in collections when he first started.
HC: Fundamentally he was a salesman. Later in his years he had a successful piano and organ company.
JK: It was even called Harry Charles Piano Company. It was in Birmingham on 1st ave.
HC: Prior to that, he rented space in a furniture store and put pianos in there on the 2nd floor. The first one that he had burned down. He had about 30 pianos on the 2nd floor. He had 29 in one room. There was one piano on display and somebody burned them all.
AM:Did he play piano?
HC: He wouldn’t know one note from another! (laughing)…..but he WAS a salesman.
He even opened a store to sell refrigerators. When he had the piano company, he was on radio and television advertising for his company. He used talent from churches to play and sing and preach on the program. Finally he had a very big show at the auditorium. He rented the municipal auditorium. You still have flyers from that with the date on them, don’t you Jean?
HC: He invited all of the colored churches to send their choirs down to sing. It was amazing. He advertised that he had a 1,000 voices. I’m not sure if it was that many but it was big. He filled the stage with the choirs.
AM: Did you see that show?
HC: Yes. He was very friendly everyone knew him. Many people are even named after him in this area.
HC: One little anecdote is that on Pearl Harbor day, he had all 3 radio stations in Birmingham giving his advertisement. The announcement interrupted his sales shpeal.
AM: I bet that upset him.
JK: No, he was very patriotic. He wasn’t upset at all.
AM: I am assuming that your father was Caucasian. It sounds like he got along well with the African American community.
JK: He had a good report with the African American community. They loved his southern accent. I think it was because of his accent. He was everybody’s friend.
HC: He was very charismatic and it came across on his commercials.
AM: Did you ever meet any of the musicians?
HC: Yes. He had one group sing on his show. There was a woman by the name of RJ Pope who was a phenomenal singer.
AM: Was she African American?
HC: Yes. There was a group singing with her. He ran commercials non stop. They were 15 minute commercials. He would talk as if he was in the piano store. He would say, “On this piano we have such and such and on this piano we have such and such.” He would go from one piano to another. Our mother played the piano.
AM: Did you meet RJ Pope?
HC: Oh sure I did. I met RJ Pope. She was completely confident. She ruled the roost. JK: She was the boss of the singers (choir).
HC: I remember there was a male singer who got invited to sing on the show. RJ Pope didn’t like him. It was competition for her.
AM: Tell me more about his commercials.
HC: He had live commercials that were 15 minutes each on all 3 stations. It was impromptu. He made it up as he went along. He did this for about 10 years.
AM: What years did he own the piano company?
HC: Roughly 1940 to 1979. During the later years, he switched to TV commercials.
He had radio commercials until TV became popular.
AM: Did he have artists play on his TV commercials?
HC: He did not usually have artists go on the TV commercials.
JK: Not the kind that you are looking for.
HC: They sold Kimbel pianos and Kimbel would send some talent.
JK: They sold used pianos of all kinds.
HC: Gulbransen was the name of the piano manufacture.
AM: What years was he a talent scout?
HC: It was 1925 to 1930 as my guess. I know that he was done by 1931.
AM: What did he do after that?
HC: Well, this was a very difficult time, the Great Depression. It was very tough. He did nothing because it was the depression. The conditions that we lived in…..well, we lived in a very poor place. Yet he would buy a crate of eggs for $5 whole sell and try to sell them. He would go door to door.
AM: So he was still selling.
HC: He used to say, “If you can read the classified ads, you can make a living.” He was born in 1900. Me and my brother who is now deceased were involved in the piano company. I helped in the piano store that he had in the 2nd World War. He bought a recording machine and recorded wives (1942) to give to husbands in military. Those were metal records. I know that because I used to run the recording machine.
AM: Where did he get it?
HC: I have no idea.
AM: What ever happened to it?
HC: I don’t know.
AM: What did it look like?
HC: It was a turntable. It shed tiny slivers of metal as it turned around. It didn’t have a needle.
AM: Do you have any metal records, records from that era, or records with white labels on them?
JK: No records. We just arrived at my brother’s house. Could we call you back tomorrow? I will look into some of these things and get back to you.
HC: One last thing, in Birmingham when he did all of the commercials on TV, we used channel 6. I bet that they may have recordings of these. I do know that we recorded them. Channel 6 is still in existence.
AM: Did he record his radio commercials?
HC: I don’t think so. I think they were just impromptu and never recorded.
Updated Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Much thanks to John Gardner of The World Music Foundation for capturing this very important story that has global influence!
Please consider supporting Angie’s work in music through Arts Wisconsin
Angie did this interview in 2006 just 2 years before Cal Ballantine Baldi passed unexpectedly.
ANGELA: So you are a 13 year old who knows more about prewar blues than most adults do. What got you interested in this music?
CALVIN: Well, at first I listened to whatever my parents where playing on the radio. (Mostly 1960s and 1970s rock ‘n’ roll.) And as I grew older and began to develop my own tastes in music I heard Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” on Cleveland’s local oldies stattion, fortunately my dad had a best of Bill Haley album so I listened to it and loved it. From then on I began to research the influences of 50s rock performers (which were R&B musicians for the most part) and so I began to look up the influences of those such as Big Joe Turner and Louis Jordan, I saw that their influence list went two ways, either jazz or country blues. Since I had already heard some jazz such as Jelly Roll Morton and The Andrews Sisters, I decided to try to fine some pre-war blues to listen to.
Like many others, the first pre-war blues album I ever listened to was “The Complete Recordings Of Robert Johnson” since my dad owned a copy that he didn’t listen to, the next step I took in listening to pre-war blues was buying an album of Robert Johnson’s influences. (Kokomo Arnold, Hambone Willie Newbern, Son House, Willie Brown, Charlie Patton, Etc.) and I’ve been listening and researching since
ANGELA: You can boogie woogie on the piano like a musical genius. How did you learn to play?
CALVIN: Well, when I began listening to some Chicago Blues (Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Otis Spann, Etc.) I really noticed the pianists and decided that I wanted to play like that. So I sat down at the old upright, put my headphones on, and with Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” Blaring, I tryed to play along. And since then I’ve been practicing and playing every day
ANGELA: What is it about prewar blues that you like so much?
CALVIN: I’ve been a history buff for a while and the history of nearly anything fascinates me, but I ended up Loving the music too.
ANGELA: Do you enjoy listening to the music that kids your age are listening to? Why or why not?
CALVIN: I can’t stand rap, hip-hop, modern rock, punk, or pretty much anything post-1980 that isn’t blues. Rock (and roll) these days, in my opinion, sounds whiney, and evidently it has to be loud rather than good and technical to appeal to the modern listener.
ANGELA: What are your dreams as a musician? As an adult?
CALVIN: Well, my two career plans at the moment are musician and music historian.
ANGELA: Do your peers know what kind of music you are passionate about? What do they have to say?
CALVIN: Yes they know, most of them either say nothing or something negative with their only supporting reason being that it is “old” (But they think a song recorded in 2005 is old)
I do have one friend with good taste, he listens to Count Basie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Etc. and can appreciate the blues too.
ANGELA: Do you have a CD available? If so, where can people purchase it? If not, do you plan on recording soon?
CALVIN: Nope, the closest I’ve come to recording was when I spoke with Nick Amster at Borders and he said he’d like to listen to me and possibly record me, but that was about a month ago.
ANGELA: Do you write originals or play covers? If covers, whose music do you play?
CALVIN: I generally base my own songs of others so
in a sense, they are covers, but just about everyone borrows a riff or two from someone.
ANGELA: Do you attend a school? What is your opinion of the music education you are taught there?
CALVIN: I attend a middle school and our band classes are decent, we have a somewhat competent director. We also have a Jazz Band but, we play more rock songs than jazz.
ANGELA: Should American schools focus less on the classical composers such as Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart and focus more on the music that originated in America?
CALVIN: Possibly, I can appreciate the talent and musical geniuse of these men, but I sort of like to be unique, so if everyone else knew about the blues I would still like it but still, I like to be uniqe.
ANGELA: Who are your favorite boogie woogie piano players?
CALVIN: Piano Red, Memphis Slim, Roosevelt Sykes, Cripple Clarence Lofton, Speckled Red, Big Joe Duskin, Charlie Spand, Otis Spann, Albert Ammons, Jimmy Yancey, Peetie Wheatstraw, Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson, Amos Milburn, And So Many More…
ANGELA: If you could own only one CD, what would it be?
CALVIN: Hoo boy that’s a hard one, probably My 4-Disc Piano Red Boxed set, but if I can only have one CD from it, I would pick the second.
ANGELA: What is it that draws you to this music that was recorded so long ago?
CALVIN: Just the way it sounds, I love it. And a little mystery or obscurity is always good. (Willie Brown, Henry Sloan, Hambone Willie Newbern, Bo Weavil Jackson, Etc.)
ANGELA: What influence have the Paramount recordings and artists had on your life?
CALVIN: Charlie Spand has had a big influence on my style of playing and the style of piano I listen to. I tend to look for barrelhouse boogie more often now. And of course all of the greats, whether they play piano or not have had a HUGE influence on my performing. (Son House, Bo Weavil Jackson, Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson, Roosevelt Sykes, Bumble Bee Slim, Etc.)
ANGELA: Do you think that the blues is experiencing a revival and why?
CALVIN: Perhaps a small one, since I have run into about 4 or 5 other teenagers who listen to the blues.
And The Blues In The Schools should do quite a bit for this music
“Grafton City Blues” Interview with playwright Kevin Ramsey
PUBLISHED IN THE MILWAUKEE REP 2007/08 SEASON PROLOGUE PUBLICATION
Last season Stackner Cabaret audiences were treated to a spirited world premiere production of SAM COOKE – FOREVER MR. SOUL, written and directed by Kevin Ramsey. When he was here last year, Kevin learned about the history of Paramount Records that was located in Grafton, Wisconsin. One person who has assisted him in his research was Angela K. Mack, co-founder of Paramounts
Home, paramountshome.org, and Music Director/Instructor with the North Shore Academy of the Arts. Here, Angela interviews Kevin about his exuberant world
premiere musical, GRAFTON CITY BLUES.
Angela K. Mack: Where did you grow up and how did you get introduced to the world of theater?
Kevin Ramsey: I was born and raised in New Orleans. I grew up a stutterer as a youngster. My sister got me involved in a summer theater program as a form of speech therapy at the Free Southern Theater, which was one of the oldest African-American theater companies in the southern region. I guess you can say I found my passion at age 12.
AKM: How is Grafton like New Orleans?
KR: A river runs through both of them. Their musical traditions and contributions are very different. New Orleans is the birthplace and Grafton is one of the cradles.
AKM: What were your greatest sources of inspiration for this musical?
KR: I was fascinated by the idea of the blues being created and recorded in this very small rural all-white town. I was introduced to a brief history of Grafton by Cecilia Gilbert [a former Rep board member and the City of Milwaukee’s Permits and Communications Manager for the Department of Public Works], who I met last season when I was at The Rep doing the Sam Cooke project. It was a most educational encounter. Ms. Gilbert spoke enthusiastically about Paramount Records and other intriguing Wisconsin history, including Bronzeville. I have set the play in an attic in Milwaukee’s historic Bronzeville district. Actually, my set designer, Jill Lyons, suggested the attic. Originally it was set in a basement. I loved the attic idea especially because the piece deals with conjuring up the past and the spirit world. The attic made it feel not so earth-bound. The show is a stylized retelling of stories and tales woven into a musical blues rap discourse celebrating Paramount Records and the blues.
AKM: What is the main message of this musical? Why is it important for this message to be told?
KR: I would say the question explored in the musical is: what do we do with our legacy and how do we use it? Each audience member will be effected differently, I suppose. As humans we are usually in search of a connection with where we have come from and how we fit in.
AKM: Are there any subtle twists or contradictions you use to convey the message?
KR: Certainly. It’s the blues; and the blues is full of contradictions.
AKM: Describe your first trip to Grafton, Wisconsin, in one word.
AKM: Why is GRAFTON CITY BLUES a great fit for you as a playwright?
KR: It fuels my love for history and music.
AKM: What aspects of this musical are you the most pleased with?
KR: Thus far, I am extremely excited about the cast assembled: Jannie Jones, Jeremy Cohen, Eric Noden and Juson Williams. They will knock your socks off. In terms of the musical, once we are in rehearsals and in front of an audience I will let you know.
AKM: Is the story more historical or historical fiction?
KR: I think a mixture of both. Recalling history can be very challenging. Whose history are you recalling and from whose perspective? My process was to find as much historical information as possible and then throw it all away.
AKM: What do you want your audience to go away with?
KR: An awareness of the legacies in one’s own ‘attic’, as well as a deeper appreciation for the early pioneers of blues music.
AKM: How has this musical inspired you personally?
KR: I am inspired to listen more deeply to the world around me.
AKM: Both of the musicals that you have written so far for The Rep, SAM COOKE and GRAFTON CITY BLUES, are about African-American musicians. Do you think that this is a niche that you would like to continue pursuing?
KR: Actually, I’ve written four musicals. I grew up surrounded by music, interesting characters and events. Music and stories are in my blood. I am committed to the historical examination and retelling of the African-American musical experience and its artistic contribution to American and world cultures. So, yes, I will.