Part 21: Live and In Person: Famous, Beautiful, and Talented.
It's Saturday, April 18th, and we're still in quarantine here in Seattle. Talking heads are giving their opinions on the Corona Virus, people like Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. One isn't a medical doctor, one is, but Dr. Oz isn't an infectious disease expert. Something about these guys reminds me of the old time traveling medicine shows my dad loved so much as a kid.
Recently, another wacky group came out with a theory that accuses Bill Gates of creating the virus. Others have decided the whole thing is a hoax and are walking around "saying it and spraying it".
Meanwhile, many small shops are shut, including mine, and I don't actually know anyone who has been given one of the PPP loans. Not personally, anyway, and I know a lot of people. Ruth's Chris Steakhouse got 20 million dollars, and Larry Kudlow's artist wife has applied for one of the loans, which Kudlow announced on camera with a straight face.
The shut down has given me time to go through my father's papers and try to figure out the timelines he made. There are several sheets for each time period. He also has these piles of papers he calls "memory wheels" where he lists all the people he met in his life. On one sheet he lists several people; Sam "The Man" Taylor, Dave and Jack Kapp, Milt Gabler, Paul Cohen, Frank Walker, Eli Oberstein, Louis Prima, Mills Brothers, Ink Spots, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, Teddy Wilson... on other sheets he lists dozens of names. I won't mention them here, it will make this blog incredibly long.
By the time the mid-forties rolled around, he'd already met Gene Autry, Red Murrell, Tex Ritter, Foy Willing, and others. In Chicago, he'd begun to realize how the AFM (American Federation of Musicians) treated "Hillbilly" musicians like dirt. He came up with an alias, Dick Scott.
He writes: (Riley is in bold and italics, I'm in regular type.)
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 (see below, he repeats the names here so I took it out) I got art Weems, the head of General Amusement Corp. in Chicago, to back my plan of acton. See Billboard article below:
What persuaded me to leave Chicago, however, was a breakfast meeting with Gene Autry, Roy Acuff, Fred Rose, and Art Satherly. Complimenting me on my accomplishments in Chicago, they urged me to go to New York City and see what I could do to promote "Hillbillies" (performers and songwriters) in the East. I promised I would go and do what I could, and, in turn, they promised to support me in every way they could.
My first decision was to drop the alias DICK SCOTT and use my own name: Riley Shepard.
Last week, I had an email exchange with a cousin I've never met, but I hope to. His name is Ron and his father is Floyd Shepard. I met Floyd, my father's older brother, in 1992. My New Yorker pal, Alissa, rented a car and drove me to Floyd's house in Long Island. He has since passed away. There are so many things I wished I would've asked him.
Ron's family knew my father as Richard, so in the email he uses that name. Here's what Ron wrote to me last week, I'll put it in italics:
Growing up I knew your dad existed, but only heard one or two background stories. They always ended with "We stopped talking when you were a baby, and that’s all I have to say”.
Through the years it came up about borrowed money and broken promises. My father didn’t speak to Richard until he surprised us with a visit about 30 years ago. Sad really. I knew Uncles William and Victor, but all I heard of Richard was his country music days and his falling out with Andy Griffith. No details though.
Wow! Wait, what?
That should be the name of my book, "Wait, What?" because I keep finding out more crazy stuff. I had no idea about my father's friendship with Andy Griffith, or that they'd had a falling out. They were both from North Carolina, both in show business, and New York at the same time, so I guess it makes sense. Also, this movie has stuck with me for some reason, it's called "A Face in The Crowd." Andy Griffith is great in the film, and there's something familiar about the story. If you are quarantined and looking for an interesting film, try to find it.
I found something strange. That could also be the name of my book, "I Found Something Strange." In his journal, Riley lists the towns and cities he was in, and then puts numbers by the towns, like a tally. I asked my husband to look at those sheets.
I said, "what do you think that's about? First impression?" After about five seconds of scanning the pages, he said simply, "women."
Here, I've photographed the notes Riley made.
What do you think this was about?
In another entry he lists all the women he was with while married to Winifred Sedgwick Cessek, then states that Win (Winifred) came to New York in 1945. He'd met Alix by 1944, she'd become his third wife. So many overlapping relationships.
(I kept the typo "wrote she pregnant" just because. The Brunette was an actress, the pregnancy resulted in my half-sister, Marion, who was put up for adoption in 1944.)
--Shelby Davis---Girl Singer (with us at Rockford)
--Russian girl, friend of Charlies
--Brunette, who went to Atlanta; wrote she pregnant
--Jack (redacted)'s wife---Frederick Bros. Secretary
--Woman with husband away in the army
Riley was young in the mid-1940s. New York offered him many fantastic opportunities to find work and meet new people. He recorded songs such as "Atomic Power" which others had recorded, but Riley's rendition had the most traction. You can listen to Riley's version on Internet Archives, the same digital library that published Riley's Encyclopedia of Folk Music. The song is strange, it has an almost jaunty sound, which is at odds with the horrible aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Riley was one of the first to record the song "Blue Christmas." Below, in print, an ad says "Blue Christmas" by Riley Shepard.
Besides recording contracts, Riley was hired by Leeds Music, where he worked for Lou Levy. Levy was married to Maxene, the eldest of the singing trio, "The Andrew Sisters". Riley got his little brother, Victor Shepard, a job playing the piano for the Andrew Sisters for rehearsals, and Lou Levy offered to send Victor to the Juilliard School. Victor told me that Lou would've paid for all of it, but Victor said that at the time, he didn't want to seem "like a charity case." It was one of my uncle's biggest regrets, not taking Lou up on that offer. Victor told me that, and many other stories, a few months before he died in 2008.
Here's a timeline Riley wrote up. He remembered Nat King Cole's song "Straighten Up and Fly Right" was a hit when he met Alix. That would seem romantic, but it seems he was still married to Winifred.
Oct 21, 1944: Played Tower, Kansas City....went to Philadelphia...Jesse Rodgers...WFIL, Hayloft Hoedown
Nat "King" Cole: Straighten Up and Fly Right
Oct 21, 1945: Rosalie Allen, Lou Levy, Gary Romero, Bob Gilmore....NYC & Phila. Win came to N.Y.C.
In New York with Leeds Music. Dick Thomas: Sioux City Sue
Oct 21, 1946--Leeds...Alix....Win
Stopped seeing Alix. Win returned to Chicago. Signed Dave to Musicraft.
Recorded for King.
New York....Atomic Power
On another sheet, he adds various dates, he was remembering when he was in New York based on old contracts.
DATES I WAS IN NYC taken from contracts
1945 June 23/July 23/ Aug 21 (I Trusted You) with LEEDS...Foy, Andrews, Paramount, Nov. 1, and Dec. 5.
1946: Jan. 8, Feb. 2 & 25, March 13, May2/20 & 24 (Dave D), June 7 (Shorty Long), July 10, Aug. 27 & Sept. 3.
Riley repeats 1946 in these notes:
1946: Jan. 8, Feb. 2 & 25, March 13, April 30 (Dave D), May 2, 20 & 24 (Dave D.) June 7 (Shorty L)
The rest of this blog will focus on Alix Taran. I knew about her when I was a little girl, because my father kept her picture in his wallet. When he first showed me the photograph, it was already creased and wrinkled from being in his wallet for over two decades.
As I wrote in past blogs, my father told me things about his life, things that other parents might not have disclosed. I knew that Alix was his third wife, and I knew her real name. (Alix Taran was her stage name.) I knew they had a son, Richard. I think Dad first told me about them when I was six, as I have an early memory of looking at her photograph and hearing my father describe her as "beautiful and talented." I would repeatedly ask about my brother and Alix over the years, and he always had a reason why we couldn't meet. I know now, from reading my father's journal, that Alix found one of his journals and read it. After Alix read what Riley had written, she kicked him out. Richard, their son, was four years-old when they separated.
Alix was an actress when Riley knew her, later she went into casting, then real estate. She died shortly after Riley did. There is no evidence they actually divorced. My brother, Richard, (we finally met in 2007) is an attorney and he looked for divorce documents, none were found. Richard told me our father asked his mother out on a date at her apartment building in New York, which is now the Museum of Modern Art, or MoMA.
Here's me putting a small amount of Riley's ashes where they met all those years ago, as Richard, my half-brother, requested.
While Dad was still alive, I had the photo of Alix restored for him. The photos were taken as a part of an audition for an Elizabeth Arden print ad, and they let her keep the stills. She didn't get the job, though. Elizabeth Arden was popular with the waspy women of New York, women who went to the horse races in fancy hats, and I think Alix probably made a good impression with her blonde hair and green eyes. I wonder which model they decided on for the ad. I'd like to see it. Perhaps Alix, with her Ukrainian heritage, would've been better in a Helena Rubenstein ad. Speaking as an esthetician, Rubenstein is by far my favorite of the two skin care queens.
I'll end the blog by showing you a photographs, one of the old, wrinkled photograph my father kept in his wallet for 60 years, the letter he wrote me asking me to fix it, and the restored version. Dad was so pleased with the result. I cannot remember who did the restoration for me. I think my pal David Hiller might've helped me find someone to do it.
The note above was sent to me a year before my father died. I think he meant to give me those photographs that were in the boxes Ted Ensllin kept in his shed, he just never got around to it.
Here's the restored version:
More about Riley's life as a young, ambitious, crazy man in the next blog.