Part 59: Riley Often Claimed He Wrote The Song "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 (I know, my God! Another Richard?) 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". Riley handed him the check, and 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 probably he didn't write the song. Richard wrote, "The music business is known for its thievery." Boy, isn't that the truth. That's were I get so confused. What if he did have something to do with that song? More than promoting it and recording it?
Below is a short essay I wrote about my confusion.
For much of my life I believed my father wrote “Blue Christmas,” which Elvis famously recorded. My dad, perpetually broke, a sometimes flimflam man, was old enough to be my grandfather, and he could’ve been. His thick head of gray hair, crinkles around his eyes, and crowded teeth, stained from years of cigars, coffee, and lack of care. A stage actor for a time, his voice could be heard through thick walls. He’d written other songs, too—we had his old albums around the house—but his style of country western went out of fashion, and besides, no one had heard of his old stuff. But everyone knew the song "Blue Christmas."
I loved hearing stories about his career, the early days of radio, touring with other musicians. When I was seven, playing with a doll on the floor, him pecking away at his typewriter nearby, he paused and said, “You have older brothers and sisters, you know?”
No, I didn’t know that at all. How could I know that? I squinted up at him, bewildered. “I do?”
“Yeah. They’re with their mothers.” He shrugged, still looking down at me, a cloud of smoke rising from his cigar in the ashtray next to the typewriter.
I tried to think of a question, but I sat, momentarily stunned.
“You have a brother named Richard, and a brother and sister named Graham and Leslie.”
He stated this matter-of-factly, like it was just something he thought he should mention.
I looked up at him with wide eyes. “Who takes care of them?”
Dad gathered his thoughts. “Well,” he began. “I left them money—royalties from ‘Blue Christmas.’” I hadn’t been taking about money, of course, too young to understand what that meant. I wanted to know who took care of them, because in my mind, it was fathers that took care of kids. Dad did most of the cooking and cleaning, and he spent the most time with me. My mother was often in bed, exhausted or sick with migraines. She was an artist, so when she was feeling well, she focused intensely on her painting. I worried that these siblings didn’t have a dad to care for them like I did. And where were these siblings? And when could I meet them?
“The mothers don’t want me around anymore,” Dad said. He looked down at his hands.
And it went on like that, knowing that my father had other families, and believing they had most of my father’s money, just not him. I felt sorry for my father, too. These mothers, for instance, they kept him from his children. They kept me from my own siblings, these women.
In fourth grade, I told a group of kids that my father wrote the song “Blue Christmas.” I thought it would impress and make them want to be friends, but instead, they were skeptical.
“But he did write that song,” I insisted.
In 1981, when I turned sixteen, my father took me to an ASCAP meeting in Hollywood. All kinds of songwriters and musicians filled up the spacious hotel lobby, and after we checked in, he scanned the room for people he’d worked with. Dad had a brief conversation with someone, and then, across the lobby, I watched a man with a western style coat (his whole get up was over the top, like it was made in a costume shop) and big, unnaturally dark hair stride up to my father singing, “I’ll have a Blue Christmas without you…” He snapped his fingers and did a little dance. The man seemed thrilled to run into my father, and the two men embraced, smiling and clapping backs, two old friends reunited. The man introduced us to the woman he was with, who looked to be in her early twenties.
“She’s going to be a big star,” the man announced, pointing at the woman. When I heard her name, it flew out of my mind immediately, evaporating into the dazzle of her perfectly feathered hair, petite frame, and tanned skin. When she smiled, her teeth gleamed, reminding me of a toothpaste commercial.
Dad said, “Honey, this is Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager. Tom, this is my kid. She just turned sixteen.
“Sweet sixteen and never been kissed?” Before I knew it, he leaned in, planting a kiss on my mouth with his wet grampa lips. It took all my self-control not to wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. It was my first kiss. Did I have to count it?
As we walked down a long, carpeted hallway to Parker’s hotel room, me and Feathered Hair Lady trailed behind, making small talk. She told me how lucky she felt to have met such a star maker. The four of us hung out for a while, Parker and my father engaged in deep conversation, while Feathered Hair Lady and I stood by like groupies. It seemed to be the best conversation we’d ever been left out of.
In college, as a theater major, I told my aspiring actor friends that my father had written “Blue Christmas.” I tossed it off like it was no big deal. “Wow, that’s so cool,” one of my classmates said, remarking that it was his mother’s favorite.
Years later, in a phone call, I asked my father about the song again. I wondered if he could ever get his royalties back, since I knew he was struggling to get by on Social Security checks. Plus, his other kids weren’t kids anymore, wherever they were. I could hear him take a puff from his cigar, then he said, “I only co-wrote that song. I sold my shares long ago.” Huh. Maybe I was confused about what I’d heard. The music business, songwriting credit, and royalties are difficult to navigate, even for those in the business, so I figured it could’ve been my confusion.
Sometimes I think if I got a brain scan and the experts examined what was inside my head, they’d see all these strange twists and turns in my hippocampus, confusing forks in the neurons, canals in the gray matter dug so deep that rational thought was trapped without oxygen supply. The scan would show pockets in my cerebral cortex where I thought I knew something, then no, no, that wasn’t it, the dings and dents in the maze of my mind caused by believing something, the doubting—the information calcified and blocked off from the rest of my brain like a half-dead bug balled up in a spider web. Neurologists would use my brain scans in classrooms, a real medical mystery. I wonder if living in a state of not knowing what was true or fabricated for so long during my formative years made me more gullible than other people. Or, now that I’m older, a tricky combination of gullible and suspicious.
After the internet came along, and I eventually got a computer, I finally looked the song up. I had no interest in technology before then. I sat for a while in front of the new computer, staring at the screen. Typing quickly, my fingertips skittering across the keyboard, I entered Who wrote the song Blue Christmas? I blinked at the bright screen, reading two names I didn’t recognize; Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson. The song did have two writers, but my father wasn’t one of them. There was no mention of my father, Riley Shepard, except for an early recording he made before Elvis in 1948. Riley Shepard and his musical mountaineers. I looked for another pen name I knew he’d used back in the day in a separate search. Nothing. I clicked around other sites, frowning at the screen, my eyes burning.
My face felt hot. I knew my father lied about other things, but I’d convinced myself that I was the one person he was more honest with. We were close, weren't we?
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 still wonder about.
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 who'd 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 as I mentioned in blog #58. 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 useful when I had to go to that “Kingdom Hall” with Dianna. 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 think he just read someone’s obituary," I said. "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.
Next, blog 60: Riley's strange business deals, his encyclopedia of folk music, and how it was snatched away from the Fresno Library in the 80s.