Part 59: Blue Christmas?
Today is Sunday, January 3, 2021. First, a correction. In the last blog #58, I stated that Dianna's foster mother was "the town manicurist." In fact, she was only attending beauty school, and used Dianna's nails for practice. As a side note, she completely destroyed Dianna's nail beds with those acrylic, fake ones. Just stating the facts.
In national news, 350,000 Americans have died, and 20 million have been infected by the virus. A new, more contagious strain of COVID-19 has been identified. The new variant spreads more rapidly, while the roll out of the vaccine has been slow. President Trump is blaming states, and has stated that the death toll is exaggerated. Eleven Republican senators and senators-elect said they would vote to reject President elect Biden's victory when the house and senate meet to certify it.
In personal news, a man named Richard contacted me on the "Riley Shepard, Cowboy" facebook page. He wanted to let me know that when he was a kid, he knew Riley and lived near him. This was back in 2002--2003, after Riley's sixth wife, Ruth had died. Richard said Riley gave him a few guitar lessons, and a book on how to learn to play the guitar. "We shared a mailbox, so I took him his mail," Richard told me.
One day, a couple of months after Christmas, Richard brought my father his mail, and they had a chat. Riley opened one of his letters in front of Richard, wanting to show a check for royalties for the song "Blue Christmas". Richard looked at the check for the song briefly. "I believe it was for around 15k," he said.
"I did believe him at the time, but looked it up years later when I was discussing it with someone," Richard wrote. "I didn't find any mention of his name."
I told my mother about Richard, and the story about the check for the song "Blue Christmas". She said, "I don't believe it." Meaning, she didn't believe Dad had a check for that song. If my mother is right, that would mean that my father had fake mail sent to himself simply to trick people, including the young Richard.
I told Richard I was skeptical that my father was getting checks that size back then, and that probably he didn't write the song. Richard wrote, "The music business is known for its thievery." Boy, isn't that the truth.
The story Richard told about my father was exactly what happened to me. When I was a little girl, my father told me that he wrote the song "Blue Christmas". The first time he told me that was around the same time he told me that I had brothers and sisters. I was young, maybe first grade. Too young to even know how famous the song was. He said that he'd left his other children the royalties. Later, when I was old enough to ask more questions about the song, Dad back peddled a bit, saying that he had co-written the song. These days, if a kindly old man told a kid that he'd written a famous song, they'd whip out their smart phones and look it up. I didn't have a computer until I was almost 30 years old, and that's when I did some digging, and I didn't see his name linked to the song except for an early recording he made. If my father did have something more to do with "Blue Christmas", he isn't given credit.
A few years before my father died, he did an interview with the writer and researcher Kevin Coffey. I think I mentioned in a previous blog that I really had to twist my dad's arm to get him to agree to talk with Kevin. Dad was prone to bouts of paranoia. Anyway, after the phone interview, the first thing I asked Kevin was, "Did he make claims that he wrote the song "Blue Christmas"?" Kevin said that he hadn't. What that tells me is that my father knew who he could say that to (little kids) and who he couldn't (music writers/researchers like Kevin).
What Richard said, "The music business is known for thievery" is something I've thought about. I mean, who knows? As mentioned in a previous blog, I was there when Colonel Tom Parker, (Elvis Presley's long time manager) came up to my father at an ASCAP meeting in 1981. Parker approached Riley, snapping his fingers and smiling, singing "I'll have a Blue Christmas without you." We hung out with Parker for a few hours. I was a teenager, and soooooooooo bored, which is a bummer, because I wish I'd listened in on what they talked about.
Towards the end of my Dad's life, I asked him about the song one more time. "I told you. I recorded "Blue Christmas" and I promoted the song," he said.
Here's a photograph of Riley playing the guitar. He was probably in his late 50s.
Here is an ad from the 1940s which credits Riley for writing the song "Blue Christmas".
In early May, 1990, I took a last minute trip to visit my parents. I'd graduated from college, and was living in Seattle. My father had recently moved back to Porterville, California, the place where he’d been in so much trouble back in 1984. My mother was still living there, and the two were not on good terms.
The month of May in Seattle can be dark and gray, and that year I’d hatched a plan to travel to San Francisco on my break from work. I had a friend named Dave who’d recently moved to the Castro District, and two friends from high school, Alissa and Mark, that lived in the Sunset District. It was Alissa who suggested we all drive down to visit our families in Porterville, and Dave asked if he could tag along.
At first I was nervous about Dave meeting my parents. We weren’t dating, so that wasn’t the worry. It was more that Dave complained about his parents several times, and I felt that what he was complaining about wasn’t really all that bad… so what would he think of my wacky situation? I cared a lot about what other people thought, and I dreaded Dave’s reaction to my family’s deep dysfunction. Dave was funny and smart, and I decided it would be fine. I was sure he'd have a sense of humor about it if anything strange happened.
I called Dianna who was living in San Diego, and she decided to drive to Porterville as well, and we made plans to meet up in Porterville for one of the days.
When we got to town, Alissa and Mark dropped Dave and I off where my father was living. It was a small house, with a big tree out front. It was still daylight. When we pulled up, my father was outside, smoking a cigar under that tree. It was a perfect day, the sun bright in a cloudless sky, but thankfully not the kind of overwhelming heat so common in the San Joaquin Valley.
I introduced Dave, while at the same time taking in my father’s mood. Dad was overly exuberant about something, grinning from ear to ear. It made me nervous, because his mood was a bit over the top, an unmedicated high. The three of us chatted for a bit after the introduction, and then Dad chuckled loudly, laughing at some private joke.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Well, I’ve outlived them. I’ve outlived them all,” Dad said, still laughing.
“Who?” I could feel my upper back tensing. I looked at Dave, he was trying to follow our exchange, looking a bit confused.
“Just people that were after me for something, and they never got me. They’re dead now,” Dad said, with a wide smile.
I let it drop, but only because I was mortified. Dad was gleeful because someone had died before him, he was dancing a jig on someone's grave. Right off the bat, my friend experienced this unsavory side of my father. If Dave hadn’t been there I might’ve pressed Dad for the name of the person that had died. Back then, I was still confused about what was motivating him. He’d blurt strange things out like that, almost like he wanted to tell me everything, and other times he was evasive, and as I've said, almost paranoid.
My mother told me that from a young age, I could block things out of my mind that I didn’t want to know. I see now that it’s true, I did do that, and for years I did that when it came to my father's behavior. It was a great and useless talent of mine, blocking things out, although it helped when I had to go to that “Kingdom Hall” with Dianna. (See blog 58). That memory of my father under that tree, talking and laughing about how he'd outlived someone, it's so clear in my mind, as if it happened recently, not over 30 years ago. I thought that maybe one of the Porterville investors had died, someone who had bought shares in Riley's "Encyclopedia of Folk Music." Maybe that's why Dad felt comfortable moving back to town-- someone he'd owed had kicked the bucket.
I don’t remember where we spent the night in Porterville, maybe at Alissa’s mom's house. Dianna had other friends she wanted to see, but we all met up at some point because I have the photographs in front of my mother’s rental house on Jaye Street.
That first night, Dave said, “I didn’t get what your dad was laughing about.” I said, “I think he just read someone’s obituary. Someone he owed money to... or something.” I filled Dave in on some of the strange mysteries with money and music.
We saw my father a few more times, once at a lunch that I set up, insisting that my mother join us. Why did I do that? She’d said no several times, but I guilted her into coming. I was 25 years old, and still thought everything could be fine if they’d only try harder. My parents fought bitterly in front of Dave, while I sat, frozen. Looking back on it, I realize that I was delusional. I kept wanting everything to be fine and normal when it wasn’t.
“Oh my God, Stacya-- I’m never going to complain about my parents again,” Dave said when we were alone, slapping a palm on his forehead in a dramatic gesture. It made me feel that I had to defend my family against him. He said it again the next day in the car in front of Mark and Alissa, and I wanted to punch him. I wasn’t mad at Dave, really. I was just annoyed that he’d come with us, and that he witnessed my Dad’s raw mood swings and twisted humor.
Below, Dianna, me and Dave on that visit in 1990.
Recently, after thinking about that visit with my father, I realized that Morris Levy, the guy who ran Roulette Records, had died that May. On May 2, 1990, to be exact. That was the man my father had worked for in the 1950s. Dad told my mother that he'd been caught embezzling money from Roulette. In previous blogs, I mentioned that my mother told me that Riley's colleague at the time had his throat cut, and was left for dead in an alley. "That scared the shit out of Riley," Mom said.
Perhaps a great weight had been lifted off my father’s shoulders when Morris Levy died, and he simply couldn’t control his reaction. I wonder why on earth Dad was so crazy to rip off someone like Levy, who was known to be "mob adjacent". Levy had people killed, even if they moved away from New York. The music business in New York wasn’t so big that you wouldn’t know who was dangerous. It didn’t seem to me that my Dad was naive, but maybe he was back then. Or, he couldn't control his impulse to try to get away with something, and didn't think he'd get caught.