Part 16: Women, a Nudist Lawyer, Colonel Tom Parker, and Hillbillies.
Things have slowed down quite a bit here in busy Seattle. It's March 15th, 2020, and everything has come to a grinding halt because of something called COVID-19, or the Corona Virus. The virus has been compared to the pandemic in 1918, the year my Dad was born. The one back in 1918 was known as the Spanish Flu.
While everything is on hold, I have more time to think about what was going on with my father in the 1930s. Who was he hanging out with? These years are a bit harder to fact check. I have Riley's journal, and I have Kevin Coffee and Marilyn Mcguire (I hope I haven't exhausted their generosity yet) but I don't have the flyers and newspaper clippings like I do from the 1940s.
If you remember from a few blogs back, I actually talked Riley into writing out the names of all his major relationships. I knew he'd married a woman named Winifred Sedgwick Cessek. Dad spells it Winigred on the list he wrote for me, and I thought "Winigred" was her name. I realize now it was a typo. I gave the name to Marilyn Mcguire, and about ten seconds later, (it felt that fast) she had a photo of Winifred. Not just any photo, Winifred's yearbook photo! (See below). Winifred was from Cicero, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.
In his journal he says (and he told me this a long time ago) that he met Winifred on the SS Del Valle, a freight passenger ship, and that he was working as a cook on board. I guess passengers took those, even though there were German U-boats lurking around. The trip to Rio doesn't sound worth it!
Riley also wrote about the other women he was with while he was with Winifred, here's a partial list:
Girl in Philadelphia
Girl Singer, Rockford
Russian girl & married woman
Riley listed a few other names, but I'm not sure if they are still living, so we'll skip those ladies. My hunch is that around this time he met Alois Knapp, an attorney from Chicago and also a proponent of nude recreation. A nudist. I know this because I remember my father talking about him, but also Riley writes that Alois became Winifred's attorney when she divorced him, which seemed to hurt my father that his friend, Alois, helped Winifred. But I suspect Alois Knapp knew something, or perhaps he actually wanted to be paid for his time.
I also have come to believe that the 1930s is the time period when Dad met other characters, like Colonel Tom Parker. Dad had claimed he wrote the song "Blue Christmas" and one of the reasons I believed him (my three half-siblings also believed he wrote the song) is because on my 16th birthday, my father took me to an ASCAP meeting in Los Angeles. A man came up to my father snapping his fingers and singing the song "Blue Christmas." I'd never seen my father so happy to see an old friend. The two men embraced, and then my Dad introduced me to Colonel Tom Parker, telling Parker that it was my 16th birthday.
"Oh? Sweet sixteen and never been kissed?" The old creeper said. Then he leaned down and kissed me on the mouth with his wet grampa lips.
I was stunned and grossed out, and unfortunately, after that icky moment, I tuned out everything they said after that. Now, I wish I would've taken notes. We went back to Colonel Tom Parker's hotel room with a woman who was an aspiring singer. I remember her feathered hair and suede jacket with fringe on the sleeves. I talked to her while my dad and Parker went over old times. They talked forever, and I got the feeling they'd met when they were both "starting out." Why didn't I listen in? Damn.
About those Bluebird sessions back in the day, in the journal entry from part 15, Riley wrote that he was over-looked in some way, but he doesn't say how, only that he wasn't "smart enough to insist on credit." I reached out to writer Kevin Coffey, who was featured on the Hidden Brain episode.
Whenever I have a question about anything Hillbilly, I write an email to Kevin. What's interesting, I found out from Kevin, is that there is no actual evidence that my dad ever recorded with the Dixie Reelers, at least not in any paperwork from the time. Perhaps Riley did something like play guitar. I wish his journal was more specific.
"The Bluebird session sheets seem to indicate only three musicians -- these are the musicians normally associated with the group and known, from newspaper ads of the period, etc., to have been in the group: Ollie Bunn, Daddy John Love, Clarence Todd. So discographies don't credit Riley and there is nothing in Bluebird's files to indicate that he was involved. However, he had a clear memory of recording with the band and I don't doubt that he was telling the truth about this. He told me he only played guitar on the session, and perhaps he went along to spell the other musicians when they were singing -- something which became much more common in the decades to come; that is, using a rhythm guitarist who isn't the singer to allow the singer to just concentrate on singing, which not only often yields a more focused vocal performance but also allows for a better recording balance. That might not have been the case here, but Riley's clear memory (to me, and in his surviving notes) of going to Charlotte to record with the band, to have cut 8 sides, etc., make it clear that he DID record with the group in Charlotte in '36 (or at the very least went along to the recording session with them)."
Perhaps that is what bothered my father, the fact that he wasn't listed anywhere in writing, even as a guitar player. When I went through all those long-lost boxes, there was a pile contracts which I've scanned and shared with Kevin, but none of them shed light on his relationship with Bluebird or the Dixie Reelers. I wish we could ask him about it. I suppose this was a time when Riley was first trying to make a name for himself. Or should I say "names" for himself? It is around this time that my father starts using various pseudonyms.
Back to Winifred Sedgwick Cessek. One of the reasons I wanted my father to list the relationships he was in (back in the late 80s early 90s is when I opened up this can of worms) is because I wondered (only to myself, I didn't wonder in my "outside voice" to my father. He would've shut down) how many kids he'd had. Marilyn did some digging regarding Alma (remember, from a prior blog she had a miscarriage) and Winifred, and here's what Marilyn found:
"I searched birth records in Cook county, IL to see if Winifred Cessek had any children. Nothing came up. If she had a baby out of wedlock she may have had it in a different county. I’ll check that out too. I also searched North Carolina & South Carolina for any children born to Alma Anderson Shepard. Nothing. She may not have had any kids. None were mentioned in the news articles but that doesn’t mean anything."
When I first met three of half-siblings back in 2008 (we hadn't known about Marion yet, who spoke on the "Hidden Brain" episode) we wondered how many other kids Riley had. What's so strange is that my father told women back then that he was sterile, but he never told my mother that. They were together for 23 years, the longest romantic relationship in my father's life, and yet my mother just confided last week that she never knew my father's real name.
"What do you mean? What did you think his name was?" I asked.
"Richard R. Shepard," she said.
"What did you think the "R" stood for?
"He told me it was just an initial. Just the letter R."
My mother thought that Riley's name was Richard and the R stood for nothing. Just "R" and now I'm confused.
So maybe my father was named Richard R. Shepard, and the "R" wasn't for "Riley" as he'd always told me.
Here's another part of Dad's bio where he writes about the first time he came up with the alias "Dick Scott". This part is jumping ahead to actions he took in the early to mid-1940s, but I think his early experiences made him mad enough to become an agitator for change.
Another thing I didn't like was the way artist bureaus and other talent agencies treated performers in my field.
Stations like WLS and WJJD kept performers locked in through threat of dismissal if they booked appearances outside the stations agency. WSM, Nashville, demanded that artists not only book through its own agency, but appear at the Opry on Saturday night for a pittance. $35.00, I think.
The AFM also treated "hillbilly" musicians like dirt. When negotiating contracts for the number of musicians a station should employ, the "hillbillies" weren't counted. yet we paid the same dues........I thought something should be done to change things.
Using the alias DICK SCOTT, I went to work on making some changes in the unfair situation. For three years, in between earning a living, I finally figured out the best way to get something done. With the support of Gene Autry, Fred Rose, Roy Acuff, Art Satherly, and Red Foley, I got Art Weems, the head of General Amusement Corp. in Chicago, to back my plan of action. See Billboard article below:
Next, I set about the business of organizing by setting up The Federation of American Folk Artists. Support came from everywhere, including Canada.
I'll get back to the 1930s soon. For now, Here's Winifred's family headstone. Her father, Frank, and her mother, Mary, my dad's in-laws at one time are all buried here. Winifred died in 1952. Thanks again, Marilyn and Kevin.