Part 27: When Harry Met Riley
Today is Saturday, May 30th, 2020. To refresh, I'm going through my father's papers, journals, and letters. As I write this, it's pouring down rain, and there's a massive demonstration in Seattle to protest the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer. What happened to Mr. Floyd was extremely disturbing, and like other black citizens killed by police, his horrific assault and death was caught on tape. All because he allegedly tried to pass off a $20.00 counterfeit bill. This gave me pause because that's something my father might've done.
The mayor has declared a civil emergency. Downtown is a disaster. George Floyd's family have called on people to stay peaceful, but that didn't happen. I know people who were down there today, so I will get information from them. I'm glad I wrote most of this blog earlier in the day, because I don't think I could've focused on this.
All hell is breaking loose. But. Here's what I wrote and worked on today:
When I was interviewed by NPR's "Hidden Brain" podcast in 2018, the producer asked me, "why are you doing this?" She asked that question just before I was told we only had a minute left. I can't answer that question in a minute, so I said that I was doing this research for my brothers and sisters, because that is the quickest answer I could pull out of my ass with only moments left. #annoying
It's part of it, I am doing this for my siblings, because there's been so much confusion. Perhaps I won't know all of the reasons I'm compelled to get this story down until I'm done, when ever that happens. In any event, I'll release a new blog every Sunday, and it feels good to straighten out our twisted past.
My sister, Lisa, found the note about the meeting with Harry Belafonte (pictured above) in Riley's stuff after he died, along with shut-off notices, piles of love letters from women, manuscripts for unpublished work, and scratched off lottery tickets. When Lisa first found this note from Lou Levy to Riley, she scanned a copy for me. We were both struck by the tone of it. It's basically a dashed out note from Riley's then boss, Lou Levy, saying, "Don't fuck this up."
Lou Levy was one of the most powerful and successful men in the music business, and supplied big stars like Frank Sinatra with hit songs. Lou Levy founded Leed's Music Corporation, and Riley was one of many song writers and promoters who worked for Leeds. In this note, Levy is sending Riley to meet with Harry Belafonte. Notice that Lou Levy spelled Riley's last name "Sheppard." I only wish there was a date on this note, but from Riley's notes he was working for Harry Belafonte in 1961, so perhaps the deal was in the works as early as 1959, who knows.
If you don't know who Harry Belafonte is, (pictured below) you can read about him here.
It's worth the price of admission to see the movie "Black Kkklansman" just to see Belafonte's monologue in the film.
People say they have trouble reading the handwriting on the note to Riley from Lou Levy regarding Harry Belafonte, so I'll type it out here:
From: Lou Levy
To: Riley Shepard
You're well versed in everything--- don't blow this job---just tell them what you they want crossed out to know. You've got too much talent, so be diplomatic. over crossed out.
I wonder what Levy was going to write on the other side, and what changed his mind. What made Lisa wonder, and me, too---why did our father save this note? It's not flattering. I've saved notes from employers, but they were filled with praise. Even if the most famous man in the world was on a note that had to do with me, I wouldn't have saved it if it was like this one.
This note certainly makes sense to those of us who knew Riley in real life. His boss was concerned that Riley would somehow blow a deal, which implies he'd blown other deals, or that he'd alienated people in the past. It seems as though my father worked for Leeds and Lou Levy on and off again throughout the 1940s and 50s. Riley writes that in July, 1947, he left Leeds and went to Majestic, but then he ended up back at Leeds.
(Riley's words in bold and italics.)
I traveled across the mid-west and then returned to California. A year later I obtained a divorce. Within three yrs, I returned to NYC, where I was hired for a second time by Lou Levy (Leeds Music Corp.); and began a new career under the alias Dickson Hall.
My father made a list of women he knew, romanced, engaged in affairs with, "plus those to whom I was legally wed" and sent it to me in the late 1980s after I kept nagging him to tell me who his other wives were. On the list are his first wife, second wife, Alix Taran (wife #3) and Jo Ann Sullivan, who went by the stage name Jo Graham. (see photo and resume at the end of this blog.)
I talked with my half-sister Leslie (Jo and Riley's daughter) on a call yesterday, and she reminded me about a story her mother told, that Harry Belafonte had come to their New York apartment for dinner, and that he'd played his guitar and sang her a bedtime song. She was not yet two years old, and doesn't remember the night, but her mother, Jo, retold the story several times.
Remember the letter (it's pictured at the bottom of the part 19 blog) to the landlord in part 19? Riley was living in an apartment at 789 West End. Ave, New York, NY. He wrote the letter to the landlords on May 8, 1962. He told the building owners (using his brother's name, Floyd Shepard) that he wanted to leave by June 1st, 1962. He was "married" at this time with two children, a son named Graham, and Leslie. I say "married" because Richard, who has searched, can find no record of a divorce between Alix and Riley.
If Leslie was born in 1960, and her mother said Harry Belafonte was at their apartment singing bedtime songs to the kids, that might mean Riley had a relationship with Leeds as late as the spring of 1962. Or perhaps he and Harry Belafonte forged a separate relationship. In Riley's notes, which I've typed in below, it seems his contract with Belafonte was short-lived. Leslie said her mother told her that Riley worked for Belafonte, writing songs for him.
I'm going to patch together a timeline based on Riley's scattered notes. His words will always be in bold and Italics. Remember, the political scene during this time was frightening. The Red Scare and McCarthyism took a stranglehold on the nation. People in show business were singled out and blacklisted, people lost their careers, some had to change their names in order to keep working, some committed suicide. It was an ugly time, headed up by a demagogue, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R) of Wisconsin. My mother told me that although my father shared many of Harry Belafonte's political beliefs, he was afraid of getting into any kind of trouble, so he toned down some of his earlier leanings, at least to the outside world.
Here, he's going over a timeline of Broadway shows (I narrowed them down, it's long) he saw, and I've cut out most of the movies he went to, because it would take up so much space. He admits he was still seeing a woman named Doree (and he was probably living with Doree) when he hooked up with Jo. Notice Riley said he bought the music and lyrics for a show that closed after three performances, or maybe it was only meant to be three performances. You can read about the show here.
1950: THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING--Ethel Waters, Julie Harris, Brandon DeWilde, Joan Shepard, Phyllis Love. Opened at the Empire Theatre, Jan 5, 1950. 174 performances.
HAPPY AS LARRY Musical with Burgess Meredith. 3 performances. Opened Jan 6, 1950, Closed Jan 7.
I bought the music and lyrics, written by (words) Donah MacDough. Music Mischa & Wesley Portnoff.
I had an office in Brill Penthouse. Nov: Richard 2 yrs old. We moved to Bayside, L.I. Albany?
THE MAN with Dorothy Gish, Peggy Ann Garner, Richard Boone, Don Hammer. Handy man who kills. Opened Fulton Theatre, Jan 19, 1950. Closed Apr 8, 1950. Saw it with Alix.
Then he goes on to list all the plays he saw with Alix, Richard's mother. I'll list them here briefly, cutting down on his extensive notes:
THE COCKTAIL PARTY, THE HAPPY TIME, COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA, THE WISTERIA TREES (Based on The Cherry Orchard)
1951: Nov: Richard 3 yrs old. Summer: Albany, Ford Car. Reading....Shorty's park, Cincinatti...Oklahoma City...Tulsa...Twin Falls, Reno....San Francisco...Los Angeles...San Diego....Tucson....Santa Fe...Clovis...Amarillo, Dodge City.
Had Ford car: Twin Falls.
1952: Presidential election year
1954: Year that Artie Shaw quit the band-leader business.
1955: Song: LET'S PLAY SWEETHEARTS AGAIN by Ray Haney and Richard James (RS).
1956: Tommy Dorsey Died. (Before this I was in Idaho, etc.)
1957: (Aug. 36 and Oct. 27 I was in NYC). Jimmy Dorsey Died.
1958: Recorded AND GOD SAID with Dana Andrews for Epic.
Wrote: JUST WEARING OUT YOUR SHOES by Paul Lester (RS) and Ray Haney.
July 11: W. Winchell write-up: Woman & And God Said
Worked for LEEDS (Bob Miller) and ROULETTE
Went to Nashville for convention?
Wrote title song: COWBOY--Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, Brian Donlevy, Anna Kashfi
Nov. 22: Write-up in Cashbox
Made 2 albums: Kapp Lable and Epic LN 3427
1959: Jan 1: Denver Post review of AND GOD SAID
May 5: NY Times letter thanking me for show.
Sold PRETTY GIRL WALTZ TO DUCHESS.
Saw ANATOMY OF A MURDER--James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott. Saw it with Jo.
1960: Nov. 9: Music work: Faith of Lincoln (Bayer Music)
Dec. 28: NYC album: Faith of Lincoln
I'm going to list some of the movies he saw here, but he lists the cast, which I'll skip over:
Riley saw these films that year: PSYCHO, SPARTACUS, TWO WOMEN, THE WORLD OF SUSIE WONG.
1961: Feb. 14 Signed contract to write for Belafonte.
Aug. 15 Invalidated Belafonte contract
Feb. GOLDRUSH album release on Epic (Burgess Meredith)
Aug. Lived at 302 W. 79th, NYC (with Jo, Graham and
Strangely, Riley left a blank where Leslie's name should've been written. Leslie was born in Feb. of 1960, and her brother, Graham, the year before that. I almost typed in the name Leslie, which he meant to type, but either he was interrupted and never got back to it, or he just spaced out. When I'm tempted to correct obvious mistakes, I have to stop myself, because it's interesting to me that he left a blank where a child should've been. His child.
I will correct this error by making Leslie, the daughter of Jo Ann and Riley, the star of my next blog.
Riley wrote in his notes that he "Met Jo in saloon...with Shorty (who was in Most Happy Fella) That was in Aug. (?) 1956...I was still seeing Doree.
Girl who was dating Shorty (blonde)--when I had a rom next to Jack__________above Carl's bar-restaurant (No, it was a place next to Carl's owned by featherweight boxer)
Notice, below, Riley mentions Steve Nelson. Here on this link you can read about the connection to "Here Comes Peter Cottontail." Nelson and Jack Rollins co-wrote songs, and they wrote this "Peter Cottontail" popular Easter song I mentioned in the last blog. Apparently, Riley and Steve Nelson hung out for a while in the 1950s, Nelson even drove Jo and Riley to Connecticut to get hitched. At the end of this section, he mentions Edith Fellows, who was a child star. Riley and Edith had an affair around this time. I said I wouldn't mention things like this, but hopefully this information isn't painful to anyone living.
Jo had apartment on east side...Finally moved in with her.
Steve Nelson drove us to Connecticut, to be married....
Jo went to Montreal to do a play.
I was working for Lou, at Bob Miller Music...got Presley Record... A Fool Such As I.
Took an apartment on 45th, below 8th Ave. Robert Donat's nephew lived in Apartment below me. Blond lived in Apartment adjoining mine.
Below, he mentions Jo's cat died. This is a story I've heard, but not from my father. He was supposed to take care of the cat while Jo was in Canada doing a play, and suddenly, no cat. Later Jo suggested to Leslie that he got rid of the cat. I didn't know my father to be mean to creatures, but I could see him being careless, and Jo said that Riley never liked the cat. Who knows what really happened?
Riley mentions David Kapp. Dave and his brother, Jack were both in the business. Dave founded Kapp Records which you can read about here.
Foy Willing put us up in 1965 when I was a baby, and when we'd first moved to Hollywood.
Made trip to Montreal to see Jo. Her cat had died. After she returned, we got married. Then moved to 45th. She got pregnant. Had son, Graham....
Her mother left her father and came to NYC. She lived with us until I found her an apartment.
Two girls from Buffalo came to town. I had met them at Baffo's, in Buffalo.
Cut an album for Dave Kapp...
Cut album with airforce singers. Went to Wheeling, cut sides with HARDROCK GUNTER for ______________records.
Became A&R for Roulette....Went to St. Louis to meet Autry and talk about an album. Cut sides with Foy Willing. Got apartment on W. 72nd. Then on West End ave at 95th.
Below is the photo and resume used by Leslie and Graham's drop-dead gorgeous mother, Jo Ann Sullivan, AKA Jo Graham, back when she was a working actress. She passed away a few years ago, and I'm glad I spent time with her in Pennsylvania around 2011. Jo Ann didn't want to talk about Riley, but we had a nice talk about her acting career.
Special thanks to my sister, Lisa for all her work taking care of and sorting through our Dad's stuff, and thank you to Leslie Sullivan for allowing me to use this information and the photographs, below. Thank you to Thomas Schworer for enhancing the old photos and images that needed work. Thank you to my readers, your input and fact checking helps me greatly. Special thank you to David Silverman, the best reader, plus the greatest person to be shut-in with.
Next, Blog 28, written by my half-sister Leslie Shepard Sullivan, Jo's daughter.