Part 24: Living the Life of Riley
It's the beginning of May, 2020, and Washingtonians are still following the COVID-19 stay at home orders until June. My business has been closed since mid-March. I keep hearing from other business owners I know that their commercial landlords are cutting rents up to 50% during this time, some more than that. There is a family owned business near me, and when I talked with one of the sisters, she said her landlord visited her shop back in March. He handed their rent check back to them with tears in his eyes, and said in a trembling voice, "Don't worry about the rent. I want you to have this back," just like a scene from a movie. I cast Robert Redford to play their landlord.
I drew the short straw in the landlord pool. Maybe I'm having karmic payback for all the landlords my father ripped off; somehow the bad juju trickled down to me from him, like some kind of genetic haunting.
Last night, I was feeling kind of stressed out about the remainder of my two year lease, and when I started to think about what my dad would do in the same circumstances, a smile crept across my face. I couldn't control my grin, it was almost demonic, my facial muscles overpowering my sense of duty and order. It relieved my stress to imagine how Riley would've handled my current situation, and I had to fight myself not to start laughing when I pictured it. It's not funny, I kept saying to myself. To begin with, Riley wouldn't have signed the lease with his real name. He'd have used one of his fake social security cards, or stolen someone's identity, or he'd would've pulled some crazy name out of his ass at the last minute. Next, he'd literally just not pay the bill, after promising money was on the way for weeks to delay and ball things up, and then, finally, he'd simply leave town. He'd leave everyone behind, without a care in the world.
When I feel stressed, I allow myself to think, "What would Riley do?" and a twisted, dark feeling creeps in, and I cannot stop grinning. Every cell in my body lights up when I imagine drifting off like a hobo, changing my name, and leaving everything behind.
I would never do that, though. Like a lot of people who have screwed up parents, I've put an enormous amount of pressure on myself to be the opposite of my father. I care about what people think. I care about my credit score. Now I wonder, in this new world, if I've become the ultimate chump. It seems that the more brazen people are, the more they succeed.
Let's get out of 2020. A trip back in time to the late 1940s is in order, the best time of my father's life, although he had no idea, so it seems. He's married to Alix Taran, a young and talent actress, striving for success. She is his third wife. Dad is in his early 30s, he's in the prime of life. Here's Alix, below, in a print ad campaign for cosmetics. No matter how beautiful Alix was, it simply wasn't enough for Riley. He had at least four side relationships.
During this time, Dad is employed and actually making money, although he doesn't seem to be able to save for a rainy day. Riley was bouncing checks all over town, all the while he's recording songs, promoting Dave Denney, traveling to do radio shows and live performances, writing songs and making connections. I have piles of his recording contracts from the late 1940s and some from the 1950s. He was busier and more productive than he'd ever be.
Here's one from 1946, "Part of My Heart is Missing" written and composed by Dave Denney and Riley Shepard. I've scanned some of these contract and sent them to Kevin Coffey, who was interviewed on the Hidden Brain show created based on our research. The thing about these contracts, how can I say this....they devolve into some kind of swindle Riley cooked up. They start out legit, and then end up, like everything Riley touched, twisted, distorted. I'll dig into those "contracts" later.
I'm pretty sure George Levy was Lou's brother, in the signature below.
Riley is working for Leed's music, and more specifically, Lou Levy, one of the most successful men in the music business. Lou believes in Riley. He even hires Riley's piano playing younger brother, Victor to be the rehearsal pianist for The Andrew Sisters. I met my uncle Victor twice, once when I was a little girl in Hollywood, and then in 2008 when he was dying of complications of skin cancer. I'll get to those stories, later.
After Victor died, I was given all of his personal items by his friend in Virginia, including his dreamy headshot, below. When Victor was on his death bed, he told me his main regret in life was that he didn't take Lou Levy up on a generous offer, as I wrote about in a previous blog, Lou offered to send Victor to Juilliard to continue studying music.
Take a good look at my Uncle Victor. He had stories to tell. He loved to gossip. I adored him the first moment we met. When I asked him what my father was like all those years ago, he said, "your father was the horniest man I've ever met."
Below is a portion of Riley's biography from around that time. I typed it in exactly has he had, only fixing obvious typos that would cause confusion. I've included the photograph that he refers to at the very end, which I've posted before. I purchased my copy of it on eBay, as I've mentioned in a previous blog. An old lady had died in one of the southern states, and my father's photograph was included in a box of her life's treasures. The seller told me that there were only a few other items in the box besides my father's autographed picture. My Dad was alive when I purchased the picture, and when I called to tell him about it, he told me a story about the photograph.
The thing is, I don't remember exactly what he said. I did not inherit my father's memory for details, and I certainly would have had trouble remembering who I told what to, so the fact that he had so many romantic relationships going at the same time always blows my mind. It's much easier to simply tell the truth. Less bullshit to keep track of.
Below is an excerpt from Riley's memoirs about his career. He sent this to me in the late 1980s. It's long, so I understand that only the most hardcore music history people would want to dive in. There's quite a lot of name dropping at the end. As a child, I literally thought my father knew every famous person. If you see anything that isn't correct, let me know. His words are in Bold and Italics.
In addition to managing the Country-Western department for Leeds and Duchess, I continued to record and perform. Cut 12 sides for King Records and followed that with 16 sides for Musicraft.
I was approached by Ben Selvin, Majestic Records, to join that label as A & R and set-up a country-western roster...I discussed the offer with Lou Levy, Owner of Leeds and Duchess, because of the agreement we had together. Lou agreed that I should accept the Majestic offer.
Prior to that, however, I had recorded a session in Charlotte, NC, for STERLING RECORDS, a new company. I produced the session at WBT, and also recorded Fred Kirby.
With Majestic I discovered the wherabouts of Pete Cassell, an old-timer who was blind, and had him meet me in Nashville along with Bradley Kincaid. I recorded both of them. Eddy Arnold, Red Foley and several others showed up at the studio to see and hear Pete Cassell.
From there, I went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I recorded Leon McAuliff. he was no longer with Bob Wills and was leading a band of his own.
In New York I had become acquainted with everybody who was anybody (or was trying to be) in the music business. Pop singers, bandleaders, jazz artists, and of course country-western performers. You name them and I knew them.
Unfortunately for everybody concerned Majestic Corporation got into deep financial trouble--not the record part, but the manufacturing part. This was passed onto the Record company. This prevented me from signing other artists, including Chet Atkins. I never told anyone that Majestic was in deep trouble. I simply quit and opened my own office.
Sylvestor Cross, a music publisher in California, came to New York to offer me a proposition. He said he had followed my career for quite a while and had wanted me with him, but didn't think I'd be interested since his firm, AMERICAN MUSIC, was BMI and I was ASCAP. Result: We formed a partnership. He would manage the California office and I would manage one in New York. Thus CHOICE MUSIC, INC. was born.
I set up my offices on the third floor of the building that housed the famous LATIN Quarter. I hired a secretary and a contact man, Gary Romero, who had been employed by Peer. In less than three months we were on the charts with two hits:
1. NEED YOU (Jo Stafford & Gordon McRae), and 2. CRY OF THE WILD GOOSE (Tennessee Ernie Ford, Capital, and Frankie Laine, Mercury.)
The following year I struck again. This time with a funny song: SLAP HER DOWN AGAIN, PA, recorded by Arthur Godfrey; DECK OF CARDS; recorded by T. Texas Tyler, myself, Tex Ritter; DIVORCE ME C.O.D., written and recorded by Merle Travis; and then BLUE CHRISTMAS, RECORDED BY ME, Ernest Tubb, Hugo Winterhalter, and Billy Eckstine.
I had a good run because artists would ask me for songs to record. They usually followed my recommendations because, I believe, I made a point of never plugging a song to any artist unless I thought the song would be good for them. Unlike many song-pluggers in the business, I did not hustle a song just to get it recorded.
Every time Gene Autry saw me, he'd ask if I had or knew anything that he could record. Others who gave me easy and welcome access were: Steve Sholes, Milt Gabler, Frank Walker, Mitch Miller, Paul Cohen, Lee Gilette (in A & R), and Elton Britt, Red Foley, Jimmie Davis, Tex Williams, Ernest Tubb, etc. (in Country-Western). In the pop field there was dozens, including: Tony Pastor, Rosemary Clooney, Teresa Brewer, Guy Lombardo, Andrew Sisters, Georgia Gibbs, Patti Page, Mills Brothers, Ames Brothers, Russ Morgan, Dinah Shore, etc.
They knew the song I recommended could belong to someone else---that I had nothing to gain money-wise.
I received an offer to write, perform and MC a daily CBS program at KMOX in Oklahoma City. The "OKLAHOMA ROUND-UP" aired Monday thro Friday at 6 to 7 am and 8 to 9 pm on Saturday night. I accepted the offer for 13 weeks and went to Oklahoma City. The local talent selected for the program were all good and ambitious performers and I got along with all of them. I did not allow anyone to refer to me as "the star" of the show. I always thought if you had to tell the audience who the star was, he/she wasn't much of a star. Also, I never asked for fan mail-- a practice not appreciated by management. The station manager suggested I encourage fan mail by offering an 8 by 10 photo of myself to anyone who wrote in. I agreed on condition that the station pay for the photos and the mailing. I made the first announcement on a Thursday, followed by Friday and Saturday night. By Wed. of the second week we received more than 7,000 requests for my photograph. That amount put a quick end to the idea.
Alix and Riley had a son. Did he tell Alix he was sterile, too? We may never know. I met my half-brother Richard in Prague in 2007. We spent a week or so hanging around, getting to know each other. The next blog is dedicated to my half-brother Richard, and with his permission, I'll publish something he wrote to me several years ago.