Part 22: Making A Brand New Start of It, New York, New York
Riley came to New York to work for Leeds Music by age 27. He wrote that he had dropped the name Dick Scott. He came with his wife, Winifred Sedgewick Cessek. He'd had affairs with various women, but he probably left Winifred because of the woman (on the left above) in the picture with him. Her name was Alix Taran.
Winifred divorced him, using their friend Alois Knapp, the nudist lawyer (such a funny way to describe him...) I wrote about in prior blogs. Even though Riley left Winifred for Alix, he was angry when she filed for divorce.
From Riley's journal: "Met Alix...Win went back to Chicago, never returned."
The most significant relationship for Riley during this time would be with Alix. They had a son together, naming him Richard after our father, and gave him the middle name Alexander for Alix's father. I wish I could identify the couple on the right, I had thought it might be Dave Denney, but after looking up Denney's images online, I'm sure it isn't him.
Here's a section of Riley's journal, and when he says "Dave" he means Dave Denney, a singer who Riley promoted for a few years. Dave Denney married one of the Thomas Sisters. "Win" is Winifred, his second wife. Riley is 28 years-old in 1946. His words are in bold and italics:
OCT 21, 1946;
Win and I had a room at Stratford Arms. Win returned to Chicago after I met Alix Taran. Stopped seeing Alix. She wrote a letter, returned radio...went to see her and resumed affair.
Chicago--HAVE I TOLD YOU LATELY (?)
Recorded for King. Recorded Dave for Musicraft.
Red Foley went to Grand Ole Opry
Went down for opening broadcast. Dave was with me. Sent him to Hollywood for Abe Oleman, to be in Republic pictures. I went back via Cincinatti, saw Sid Nathan at King; met him in Chicago, to record. Roosevelt Hotel with Shelby Jean; used her boyfriend for contractor.
Returned to NYC. Dave lost out. Left Leeds.
Signed with Majestic. Went with American Music. Left Leeds. Recorded for Sterling in Charlotte. Signed with Majestic Records as A & R.
Went to convention at Chicago. Went to Tulsa to record Leon MacAuliffe...went to Hollywood. American.
KOMA (OKLAHOMA ROUNDUP) CBS.....Dave, Thomas Sisters, and took Alix with me.....(?)
If I had to point to a time when my father had some prestige and success, it would've been the years from 1944-1948. He was young, talented, people were drawn to him, and he had a lot going on. Best of all, he lived in the heart of the action, New York City. He always wanted me to move to New York. When I told him I was going to college in a small town in Northern California, he said, "That's a waste of your time. You have to move to New York while you're young." He spent a lot of time trying to get me to see that nothing happens for people outside of New York. It was as if he thought that I could just move to NYC in the 1980s with no job, no contacts, and just sleep on a bench in Central Park until things panned out.
After college, when I told him I was moving to Seattle, he was even more dismayed, and we had the same talk. He said that he had a friend in New York that offered to help me out, (I found out later she was an old girlfriend of his) and that I should move there instead. He added, "I went through Seattle when I was performing. There's nothing there. Nothing happens in places like that." In a subsequent telephone call, he actually said of Seattle, "There's no there there." He thought the world of me, which was wonderful, but it also made me second guess myself for years. As it was, I had to room with up to four people in a one bedroom apartment when I first moved to Seattle. New York would've been much harder. It's not like I had a trust fund or anything. If I had, Riley would've borrowed it from me.
"Pay you back with interest, kid."
Back when he was on the second campaign to get me to move to New York, it was 1989, and my father hadn't been back to NYC in decades. It was as if the city was frozen in time for him. When I look at that picture of him with Alix, above, he looks thrilled, like he's taking a big bite out of the ass of life. I think he wanted me to experience that kind of success.
Now that I'm studying his journal, it's surprising how fast he flamed out, and it's clear from what he wrote he takes no responsibility for anything that went awry. There are things I know about, things my mother told me. For some reason, Dad confided in her the most. I think he thought she would keep his secrets, and they were together for 23 years, so she did for a while. Anyway, my mother told me that Riley had found a way to embezzle money...whether from Leeds, or it might have been Lou Levy directly, or it might've been Morris Levy at Roulette records, I'm not sure. Although Morris Levy would've probably had Riley killed. According to my mother, he was caught by one of these companies. She said for some reason, they didn't press charges, they just wanted Riley to tell them how he did it.
Riley told me that he and Alix did summer theater together, and the photo below is from that time. In a journal he sent me (remember from previous blogs, he'd actually sent me information about his life, like a manuscript for a book) he stated he'd met Alix at Radio Station WOV, where she was employed. He wrote that they married six months after meeting, in Maryland.
Here's an excerpt from the autobiography he wrote for me, below. (In italics and bold) Just a note, when he writes about "A & R Men", those are the guys that are part talent scout, part go-between for the artists and the record label, another part marketing and promotions, it was a bit of everything, with a dash of talent management thrown in the mix. Many A & R men were musicians themselves. I know Dad loved playing that role, and he knew he was good at it.
1946 was a busy year for me. I began by making as many contacts in the "pop" field as possible. I knew the best way to advance my kind of songs in the East was to convince A&R men and name "pop" artist to record them. Most A & R men, such as Milt Gabler, Dave Kapp, Goddard Leiberson, Mitch Miller, Eli Oberstein, etc., were willing to work with me.
I agreed to record for Sid Nathan, owner of King Records, and cut eight sides (songs). Next I signed a deal with Musicraft Records and recorded 12 or more songs for them.
At Leeds Music Corp things went smoothly and successfully. Bing Crosby recorded "NOBODY'S DARLIN' BUT MINE," and "HAVE I TOLD YOU LATELY (with the Andrew Sisters), Dinah Shore recorded "Along the Navajo Trail," and Bob Wills recorded "Silver Dew on the Blue Grass Tonight," which I previously cut for King. It wasn't too long before quite a few "pop" artists jumped on the "country" trend.
I got this sheet music around 2014 from AbeBooks.com
Words and music by Dick Sanford, Sammy Mysels, and Riley Shepard.
Here's Riley Shepard's "Radio Round-Up" show cast:
Standing, left to right: Riley Shepard, Karl Davis, of the team of Karl and Harty, Red Foley, The Ranchers;
Seated, left to right: Roy Newman, Shelby Jean, Judy Martin (Mrs.Red Foley), Charlotte Marsh, dancer, Little Jackie and Lucky, the smartest dog in the world.
It was around 1944 or 1945 that Gene Autry told Riley he should take on the stage identity "The Cowboy Philosopher" which always confused me, because I grew up hearing that was what Will Rodgers' handle.
While researching for this part of my blog, I finally found a page in Riley's writings that explains what happened with the song "Blue Christmas." I wonder why he had to inflate his relationship to that song? As a kid, and for too long after, I truly believed my father either wrote or co-wrote that song. When I got a computer back in 1994, I began snooping around, fact checking things my Dad had told me, and I found out that he didn't seem to have a hand in writing it. My half-siblings also believed that he wrote that song. I'm the one that broke the news to them.
When Kevin Coffey reached out and asked me to connect him with my Dad, I asked Kevin if he knew anything about that song. What's interesting is that during the interview, Dad didn't tell Kevin that he wrote "Blue Christmas" -- because he probably knew that Kevin, as a researcher, would know the truth. I know I go back to this song too much in this blog, but the story that he wrote it still confuses me. Why? Why did he bother telling me and his other kids he wrote that song?
Here's what Riley writes about promoting country songs to pop performers, and the story of his connection to the song, "Blue Christmas." He didn't write it, but he did recognize it was great, and believed the song would succeed when others passed on it.
"Back in the New York office I continued to push to get "pop" stars to record "country-western" songs. Vaughn Monroe surprised everybody with is recording of "COOL WATER." Actually, we published hit after hit:
"NEED YOU"--Gordon MacRae & Jo Stafford.
"SLAP HER DOWN AG'IN, PA" -Arthur Godfrey, Riley Shepard.
"DECK OF CARDS" -T. Texas Tyler, Riley Shepard, Tex Ritter, Etc.
"DIVORCE ME C.O.D." --Merle Travis
"SIXTEEN TONS"--Tennessee Ernie Ford
"SMOKE, SMOKE, SMOKE"--Tex Williams
"JOLE BLON" --Moon Mulligan, Riley Shepard
"WHO? ME?" --Riley Shepard; Tex Williams
Plus the biggest surprise of all: BLUE CHRISTMAS.
I say surprise because every A & R man in New York turned the song down. Following my own instinct, I recorded the song myself. Then Ernest Tubb recorded it. He was followed by dozens of singers, including Elvis Presley.
Having proved to myself and others that I knew how to be successful in the music business, I decided it was time to concentrate on research and writing. So I sold my half interest in the business to my partner, Sylvestor Cross and went my way alone."
When Riley says "sold interest in the business" I think he meant Choice Music. I'd like to know Sylvestor's side of that story, although he seemed to be a shady character himself.
It's April 25th, 2020. Everything is extremely quiet. I saw one of my friends today, Beatrice Basnight. She came by, we both had a talk, six feet apart, with masks on. She and I both own small businesses in Seattle, so you can imagine what we chatted about. She's a hairdresser, I'm an esthetician, and you can't distance yourself and still do your work in our fields.
Something interesting about Beatrice, her father was also a force to be reckoned with. He'd lived in New York and Paris, and was quite the "lady's man" as they used to call it. It turns out, her father is also from North Carolina. The Basnight family, like the Shepards and Tindals and Merritts on Dad's side, also settled in that state by the 1700s, coming over from what is now the United Kingdom. (although we'll see what happens with the UK) Beatrice's ancestors owned land and were in the hardware business in North Carolina. They were Baptists.
In 2009, I went to meet all my half-siblings (we didn't know about Marion yet) on a rural farm in Virginia that Richard owned. I was there for three days, and only one person dropped by, a neighbor, an older man who had a "Basnight Hardware" t-shirt on. I couldn't believe it. What were the chances of that? I spoke with him, and he lived near my brother's place, and he said he knew some of the Basnights.
Anyway Covid-19 and the shut down gives me the time to think about all these odd connections and coincidences, and wonder about things. Sometimes I think maybe Bea is somehow a relation, although we don't look alike, she's a kindred spirit. Here's a picture of me and Beatrice, (back when we didn't need masks and we could side hug) just for fun. This page needed some color.
Photo by Thomas Schworer
Next, blog 23: Lies, big, small, stupid ones, too! How my half-sister Marion was conceived, and more.