Part 26: "Here Comes Peter Cottontail."
This is my favorite photograph of my father. When my uncle Vic died, I was given his personal belongings including this. There's something relaxed and candid about it, and the photographer captured a nice moment; an artist focused on creating. By 1950, Riley was using the name "Dickson Hall." He'd already used several names by this time. In 1947 he recorded for the Signature label under the name Rex Cross, probably because he was still under contract to Majestic.
It's curious that Victor wanted an autographed picture from his own brother, perhaps it was a humorous exchange. Victor recounted a story about how he saw Riley perform at Carnegie Hall, and that after the show, he'd gone backstage to see him. "It was a scene, a line of women waiting to meet him," Victor said. Perhaps Vic had to wait in the line to get the photograph.
I met Victor in Hollywood when I was a little girl. It's a hazy memory, but my mother confirmed the details not long ago. I was walking with my parents on Vine Street when an elegant couple (dance partners, pictured below) came up behind us. The man tapped my father on the shoulder. Dad whirled around, stunned and confused.
The elegant man paused, waiting for a response, then said, "Richard, it's me, Victor." After a blank look from my father, the elegant man added, "your brother." I was around six, and had never heard anyone call my father by the name Richard, and I'd never met any of my father's relations.
It was strange that Dad didn't recognize his own brother, or pretended not to recognize him. After all, they'd worked together for Lou Levy, although perhaps they hadn't seen each other for a decade or so. More on this story near the end of this blog.
Victor and his dance partner told us they were in town for a ballroom dance competition. They'd come all the way from Washington, D.C. to Hollywood.
After that brief encounter, we parted ways. My father didn't invite his own brother to our apartment, although we lived nearby. I wouldn't see Victor again until 2008, when he was struggling with serious health issues. He died while I was on the plane ride east, to see him a second time.
To recap, Riley had a lot going on in the late 1940s. He was good at curating and promoting new songs, he was making connections--- not just in New York, but across the country, and he was romantically involved with several women. He'd separate from Alix by 1952, but there's no evidence that they ever divorced, as I've mentioned. Riley wrote that he left a music company he shared, and wrote that he "left Gary Romero in charge". Using the name Dick Scott, he had agitated for more respect for country performers. As a promoter, he signed up artists like Red Foley and pushed for better pay for these artists, who were being ripped off by radio station "Artist Bureaus" who booked the performers for low money and took a huge cut.
Riley was 33 years-old in 1951. His notes state that he traveled to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, then off to Tucson, Arizona, Dodge City, Kansas, Kansas City, MO., New Orleans, Chicago, Minneapolis, then back to New York City. He doesn't say what he was doing in those places, perhaps he was just making himself scarce. He did have a long term, on and off again affair with a woman in San Diego. He lived with a girl in Fort Wayne. He was also in Knoxville doing a guest shot on a network. From his notes:
Sang DON'T CALL MY NAME...Tommy Valando plug. What time of year? I don't think I took Jean Hauck along....Ashville, Raleigh, back to New York, B&S records.
My father talked a lot about how he fought to get equal pay and respect for hillbilly artists, and he was instrumental in the push to change the name from hillbilly to country western in the music industry, and also with the press. Last night, I watched a documentary called "Hillbilly" which is streaming on Netflix and Hulu. You can read about it here.
The documentary discusses the attitudes that many Americans have about hillbillies, and how they've been stereotyped in the media, in everything from movies, to television shows, even cartoons and commercials as dumb, lazy, or unsophisticated. Amazing that so many, including my father, fought so hard to get respect, way back in the 1940s, and yet the painful stereotypes remain. The filmmakers, Sally Rubin and Ashley York, interview the writer and Kentuckian Silas House, who recounts a story about an encounter with a woman who asked him if he knew who Johnny Carson was, as if he had never seen a television set.
Silas House also talks about "code switching" in the documentary, which is when people change or move between dialects (or languages) depending on circumstances or who is around. I witnessed my father "code switch." He'd carefully control his southern "accent" depending on who he was talking to. When Jimmy Carter became president, Dad told me that people thought Carter wasn't smart because of his southern accent, and that many people from the south were talked down to by the rest of the country.
Why did my father work so hard to get respect, fair treatment, and equal pay for the group that he belonged to, only to squander his own money, and engage in scams? He seemed to really care about this effort to fight for respect, and yet when I went through Dad's old contracts, I found this one:
I mentioned this contract in an email to Kevin Coffey. To refresh, Kevin is a writer who focuses on the era of hillbilly music that my father was a part of. Kevin wrote:
Wait -- there is a mention here re: Peter Cottontail "Riley Shepard AKA Jack Rollins"? Jack Rollins was an actual person and a noted lyricist, not one of Riley's pseudonyms. So this entry is puzzling?????? Can you scan that contract? That's also about a year after that song was a hit. Sounds like some confusing shenanigans going on with this one...?
When Jennifer Schmidt, the writer for "Hidden Brain" was interviewing me for the episode "The Cowboy Philosopher" she asked me what songs my father sang at home. I had trouble answering that right away, because my memories of my father were of him at his typewriter, hammering away at The Encyclopedia, not with his guitar, singing. He loved this tune: "Long Black Veil" but it's not much of a children's song. It's pretty dark, actually.
I do remember him singing "Here Comes Peter Cottontail" but he never told me that he wrote the Easter song, only that he was the real writer of "Blue Christmas." In this contract from 1951, it says "Riley Shepard aka Jack Rollins." The other signature is the name Ralph Peer, who was one of the biggest music publishers around. It does seem like confusing shenanigans is going on, and I'm guessing Riley typed this whole thing up for some zany reason.
You can read about "Here Comes Peter Cottontail" here.
The song has been stuck in my head for days, and it's kind of sweet, but also driving me insane. Here are some links, two popular artists recorded the song in 1950. You can listen to Gene Autry singing the song here, and Jimmy Wakely's version of "Here Comes Peter Cottontail" here.
What did he do with this contract? Maybe he was trying to impress someone, or I wonder if he scammed anyone with it. The contracts were in the boxes that were stored with Ted Ensslin in Porterville, California, and I doubt that family looked through these contracts with a skeptical eye. For all I know, Ted was convinced that my father's pen name was Jack Rollins.
In part 19 of this blog, I attempted to list all the names Riley used during his long life. So, do I include "Jack Rollins"? Since this seems to be a strange case of identity theft, I think I won't count it. As mentioned, I'd sent a copy of Dad's biography to this hillbilly site for an obituary. Dad wrote that he used multiple stage names to see if he could "make a name for himself" under each name, sort of a personal challenge. He also said that to Kevin Coffey during a taped interview.
I'm going to keep digging into Dad's box of surprises. Next blog, number 27: Riley gets a gig with Harry Belafonte, who ends up singing good night songs to my half-sister, Leslie at Jo and Riley's apartment. More about Jo Ann, New York, and Leeds.