Monday, May 21, 2007

Page Cavanaugh, cont'd

“I was with [booking agency] General Artists Corporation for a lot of years. Then one time I went with [rival outfit] MCA for one year and it almost ruined my career. Don’t know how many thousands of dollars I lost. MCA thought we were like the Three Suns, didn't know anything about our music, our background. Big corporate business thing, but GAC always treated me well.” [In his hurtling-headlong style of speaking, Cavanaugh tends to gloss over prepositions, skip personal pronouns, and dispose of articles altogether.]

For anyone who does know anything about music, the swinging Page Cavanaugh Trio bore about as much resemblance to the once-popular and stolid “Suns” as Basie did to Lombardo.
“And so Bullets walked in and says to MCA’s Johnny Dugan, ‘We’re leaving. I'm taking Page out of here. Get out the [bleep] release papers.’ We were up on the sixth floor in New York. And MCA started giving us a hard time and so Bullets walked over to the window, raised it up and said, ‘Alright you [bleep] you either give me that paper, or I'll write on another piece of paper that you were the guy that caused my death. I’ll jump out the [bleep] window.‘ This was ‘51. I know because I was at the Blue Angel in New York.”
Durgom‘s wish was forthrightly granted. “And then, do you know what Bullets did? This is just marvelous,” Cavanaugh recalls with extraordinary sense memory more than a half-century later. “‘May I use your phone?,’ he asked Dugan. ‘Sure.’ Bullets dialed the operator. 'Do me a favor, get me GAC on the phone. [beat] Bill! Bullets. I got the release on Page at the office over here at MCA. I got the paper in my pocket. I’ll be over in five minutes. Go ahead and sign him for the Jo Stafford radio show.’ Right in front of everybody. That'd be Bullets,” he laughs.

Page has got a million great show biz stories like this one, stretching all the way back to the mid-1930s. Retrospectively, he liberally peppers them with enough colorful language to put even the late, great and notoriously salty movie star Carole Lombard to shame. It’s an anecdotal style that is especially surprising emanating from the lips of this rather angelic looking octogenarian. (Think world’s oldest debauched choir boy.)

During the mid-1940s to mid-'50s, Cavanaugh might have been more of a household name than he is these days. But he is still well-remembered for having supported Doris Day in her first motion picture, Romance on the High Seas. At the time, he was such a “name” that Day probably didn’t sleep for a week when she learned she would be sharing screen space with him. When I make this offhand observation to the usually modest and self-effacing Cavanaugh, he can’t quite bring himself to deny it. In ‘48 Cavanaugh and trio were a pretty big deal. He got into the film through the intercession of---once again---Durgom.

“Bullets had been working on [getting the Cavanaugh Trio into] Romance on the High Seas for a year. Director Mike Curtiz was such a hard ass with all those Errol Flynn movies, and after a few days of shooting, and pre-recording with us, Doris was marvelous. Just does what she’s supposed to, and then walks away. She finally goes up to Curtiz: ‘Mister Curtiz, I think I should ask you a question. I’ve been on this movie for three days. You haven’t told me anything to do. Would you mind giving me some instruction?’ ‘Why should I? You’re perfect.’ Curtiz was a toughie. This has been quoted in several books.”

Cavanaugh describes Day as “a sweetheart,” a description he reserves for man, woman, child, or animal who passes muster with him. More than a half-century later, he and Day remain good friends.

Other films in which the Page Cavanaugh appeared around the same time include the Margaret O’Brien weepie The Big City and (1948) and, the same year, Howard Hawks’Ball of Fire remake, A Song is Born. In 1951 the trio was back with Day in Lullaby of Broadway. Best passed over in silence is ‘58’s Frankenstein's Daughter (aka She Monster of the Night) in which Page intro’d the also best-left-forgotten “Daddy Bird” and “Special Date.”

Circa 1945-‘55 the trio was almost everywhere else you looked; on radio, records (RCA Victor mostly), and in the nation’s top night spots, both as a starring act, and also offering backup to several “name” singers on the air and in-person. Including Johnny Desmond, Helen O’Connell, Kay Starr, Connie Haines, Mel Torme, and. . . Frank Sinatra.

If what you’re looking for from Cavanaugh is the usual garden variety FS horror tales, you’d best search elsewhere.

“I can’t say anything but good [about Frank Sinatra]. Here’s how it came about we met. I was working at [the Sunset Strip’s] Bocage with Mel Torme, and Billie and Cliff, a black duo. Haywood and Allen. They stopped the whole show. They worked without a microphone. Cliff played ragtime piano.” It’s mid-afternoon but Cavanaugh is still clad in his bathrobe. He leaps up, bounds across the room to demonstrate thirty seconds worth of Heywood singing the duo‘s signature, “I‘m the Prettiest Piece in Greece.”

“Everything in g flat on the black keys. You could have heard a pin drop. Unfortunately, that was their last gig as a duo. Shortly after that, a cab jumped the curb in Burbank and killed him.

“I met Sinatra at that engagement,“ continues Cavanaugh, back on autobiographical track. “Bullets had not told me a damn thing about it. We finished our set and he said, ‘Come over here, I want you to meet somebody.’ There are four people sitting there and Bullets says, ‘Hey Page, I want you to meet Frank Sinatra.’ Eeeeek,’ I thought to myself.” Quickly gaining his composure: “My pleasure, Mister Sinatra, a pleasure to meet you.” “That’s a bitch of a trio,“ Sinatra said. And that was that. Or so thought Cavanaugh.

“Two days later Bullets called. ’Sinatra wants you to go to the Waldorf-Astoria with him. I thought oh my god what am I going to do now. But I'm a fast reader, pretty good player. I’m going to have to do this. The whole book was there. We spent one full week at Columbia Records, and there was no problem at all.” Page points: There’s the picture on the wall [of Sinatra and the trio appearing at the Waldorf in ‘46].”

“He put the trio right in the middle of the floor, and the band was way back there. We did his radio show several times. That’s when the flap happened. Singing “Put Your Dreams Away,” and it got way out of hand. Fans started screaming things. ‘Where you sleeping tonight? Who you sleeping with, Frankie?’ I thought Oh, oh the party’s on now! As soon as the show ended Frank said, ‘There’ll be no more audiences in New York for the next three weeks. That’s it!’“Well, Old Gold Cigarettes [the sponsor] got really stinky about it. By god they fought with him: ‘You can’t do this.’ ‘I can do any damned thing I want,’ he shoots back. We were over at Columbia Records rehearsing. Old Gold said, ’Your contract stipulates you must have an audience.’ ‘Well you can tell Old Gold to stick it.’ He threw them out. ‘Find something in the street to do.’ And Old Gold dropped him. He had no time for idiots. Page pauses a beat and then offers: “He understood the lyrics, and that’s how he handled the songs.” Sinatra. . .case closed.
Pianist-whisper vocalist (he loves that appellation) Cavanaugh and his trio have a new CD, Return to Elegance. It's one of the finest of his sixty-some-odd years recording career. On it, his playing does not sound remotely like that of an 85-year-old. More like a 24-year-old. Which is roughly how old he was when he first met his longtime friend, the late Nat King Cole. Another “sweetheart” in Cavanaugh’s book. “I came to the West Coast in 1942. I had family out here on my dad’s side. My great aunt’s daughter was a total music nut. They took me up to the Radio Room on Vine Street. The King Cole Trio. They were already famous in Los Angeles. He was packing the place every night. The first night I didn’t meet him. I’d never heard a piano player play like that. I was already pretty good, but I had eighteen miles to go to get anywhere near Nat King Cole. That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted up until he died.”

Though Cole's early trio “sound” is that to which Cavanaugh's is most often compared, he tells me, “I did my best to avoid Nat's sound.” He then winks at me and chuckles, “But I was never too hesitant to steal something that he played.”

Cavanaugh arrived in Los Angeles fresh out of the army where he met the two other musicians with whom he would link up to form his popular post-service trio. But by then he’d already lived enough music to last most players a lifetime.

“Tell me about your family background,” I ask Cavanaugh. I'm wanting him to get all Roots-y on me. But all he offers is:

“We're farmers from Kansas,” he says proudly. “Mom was born and raised in Ridgefield, Missouri. Her name was Page. Mary Ann Page. Because of the coal mining industry they moved down to southeast Kansas. Somewhere along there at a dance she met my dad and they got married. It took them nearly twenty years to get me here.”

“BUT,“ I ask him, “Where were their parents from? He thinks for a few seconds, but can’t come up with a solid answer. I decide to help him out:

“Also from this country?”

“Sure!” (Why not?)

Already too busy back in Kansas thinking about music to give such mundane ancestral considerations much thought, for what it’s worth, the surname Kavanagh or Cavanaugh and the other variants of the name are derived from the Irish Gaelic name Caomhánach, which means 'a student or follower of St. Caomhan' and was first used by Domhnall, eldest son of the 12th century King of Leinster Diarmait mac Murchada. (I just now Googled that.)

“My dad was a bitch of a piano player,” Page says. “He played ragtime. That's what he did. Scott Joplin. ‘Maple Leaf Rag.'"

“From sheet music?,” I ask.

“I have no idea. My grandpa Cavanaugh played some fiddle. And my Grandpa Page also played some fiddle. Hoedowns all that stuff. But my dad was a professional farmer---not a professional musician. My mom played piano. She played a few wrong chords, but it didn’t bother her a lot. She played hymns mostly. Dad could read to a degree, mom a bit less so. I started learning by ear listening to them I began taking lessons when I was nine years old at my grade school teacher’s urging. I was a one room school house person. I was always fooling around at the piano and my teacher said, ‘I’m going to speak to your parents.’‘I think you better get him a teacher, get him started,’ she told my folks. I panicked with the first teacher, but then I got new one who I absolutely adored. What she taught me lasted me my whole life. She was about twenty-some years old. Newly married to one of our teachers back there. I took a beginner's lesson. Played something with one hand. ‘Robin in a Cherry Tree.’ She said, ‘I’m not to teach you any more. For one thing, you’re playing everything by ear. You’re not doing one thing I’m teaching you. So consequently I don’t want to teach you anymore until you learn to read music. So you go home and tell your mother I said that.’ I did, and my mom said, ‘You’re gonna learn.’ I skipped two weeks, then went back and the teacher said, ‘Have you started reading yet?’ and I said, ‘I’m trying.’ So she went to the back of the book and said, ‘Read this,’ and I did and she said, ‘Okay. . .I think you’ve learned your first big lesson. Pay attention to the teacher. Here we go.’ She was the sweetest thing.”

In a twist on the old show biz Jazz Singer cliché, Cavanaugh recalls with uncanny clarity the events of the day that set him on his path to becoming a professional musician:

“The only time they [Cavanaugh’s parents] gave me advice. We had a standing rule on the farm. In the summertime I did all the farm work, dad was trading off work with other farmers. In the wintertime dad did all the farm work. Corn, soybean, wheat, oats, four horses, a whole flocks of cows, a bunch of calves. Self-sustaining. I’m sitting there in the dead of winter. Colder than shit in Kansas. Fire was going in the stove out from the wall. Dad was sitting there reading the morning paper. And I’m practicing ‘Sonnets of Petrarch’ by Franz Liszt A tough son of a bitch. Figure out the cadenzas so you don’t sound like a raving idiot. Mom is over there either crocheting, or picking out meats out of pecans or walnuts. That’s what she’s doing. And she very quietly says:


Went right on with what I was doing.

‘Page’ A bit louder.

‘What?!‘ I’m annoyed ‘I’m trying to figure out this stupid cadenza.
What do you want?

‘Have I done something wrong?’

‘Of course not.’

‘What’s the problem, then?’

‘Well, your daddy and I have been talking about you a couple of days ago and we decided that you are just one heck of a musician. And so we decided between the two of us you oughta be a musician. Just don’t be a farmer. It’s too much work. Go out and be a great musician.’

Isn’t that nice. You can’t beat that. Then dad added,

‘Remember now, you gotta hitch up the horses tomorrow.’”

By age twelve Page had already begun to play for local dances in the area around Cherokee, Kansas where he born in 1922.

“I left home when I was eighteen. Had a scholarship to college. But wasn’t learning anything, so dad said quit, and I quit (laughs). How about that!”

His first real professional job was at age sixteen with a local band, led by one Ernie Williamson. I tell Cavanaugh, “I have a lot of big band reference books, but I can’t. . . ..”

“You can’t find him,” he laughs. “Williamson was an old pit band drummer. A very good organizer,” he informs. “And we had the only territory band back then. Played stock orchestrations.. Four or five saxes, a couple of trumpets, sometimes three---almost never a trombone---and drums.

Nest stop WWII and Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, and a musical service outfit, the Three Sergeants, consisting of Cavanaugh, bassist Lloyd Pratt and guitarist Al Viola. “They were drafted a year earlier than me,“ Page informs. “I spent three years in the army. They spent four.”

Beginning in the mid-1940s, Cavanaugh (and Pratt and Viola), along with the likes of Nat King Cole, Bobby Troup, Matt Dennis and Joe Mooney, et al, played a major role in putting a whole new spin on the jazzier side of American Popular Music. Almost overnight, it had a lighter, breezier sound. Eventually, Cole became the most famous of the lot.

“Lloyd left the trio first, then Al in 1949. He wanted to get into studio work. Called on a Friday, then Monday he phoned again. ‘I had a phone call last night. Frank [Sinatra] called me.’ ‘What did Frank have to say?’ ‘He wants me to be the guitarist with his band.’ I said, ‘Get your ass in gear and charge him.’” Occasionally over the years, Viola joined back up with Cavanaugh for a reunion of the trio.

As the decades have worn on, some of Cavanaugh’s fame might have dimmed a bit, there is no question that at age 84---"Godamned, that's old," he said to me--- Cavanaugh is absolutely at the peak of all his powers. Not just pianistically and vocally, but also as a wonderful diseur who, between---and sometimes even during---numbers, imparts a steady steam-of-consciousness supply of tales of his more than sixty years in the entertainment field. Recently, at a performance at the North Hollywood jazz spot, Charlie O’s, he stopped playing for a beat after executing a rare hokey run on the piano keys, and catching himself up short, faced the audience and quipped: "A little cathouse piano never hurt anyone," then he turned around and got back to work.”

A singing and playing encyclopedia of 20th Century American Popular Song. The same night I saw him at Charlie-O’s he rendered old favorites such as "Nina Never Knew" and "Lulu's Back in Town." The latter was performed at the behest of an audience member who called it out as a request. "Goodness," Cavanaugh shouted back in response, "I haven't performed that since World War One." He then, of course, launched into a beautiful vocal rendition of the Torme standby.

Over the last half-century, Page Cavanaugh---especially in the Los Angeles area---has had all the work he can handle, appearing with his various (mostly) small group configurations in some of more swellegant locales in town. And, on occasion---well, a guy's gotta eat---some that are not so toney. If I had any say-so in the matter, for services above and beyond the call of duty to American music, he should receive the Kennedy Center honors. (There's a movement afoot to secure Page Cavanaugh a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.) Instead, he's just. . .booked. Right now he commutes back and forth with his trio, which includes his longtime bass player Phil Mallory, and alternating drummers Dave Tull and Jason Lingle (also both excellent singers), between vaious one-shot gigs in L.A. and Orange County's Balboa Bay Club. Mallory and Lingle back him on the new Return to Elegance.

This true toiling lily of the music field has been plying his trade for more than six decades. But he tends to frame his vast expanse of a career in terms far less lofty:

“We got some recognition. We always had good press especially in New York because we always made sure to have good press agents. One of them got me a quote from Walter Winchell: ‘The greatest thing to hit town since kissing.’ And boy, that made it all over the United States. He pauses a beat, then adds, “You know, the coming of rock and roll never affected me that much. I continued to play the little clubs, sometimes the big clubs. The trio could play ourselves east, play ourselves home.” In the final analysis, that probably is all that really mattered to Cavanaugh. And he did it all without resorting to the regulation Tip Jar, a “tool” of the lounge trade. Plus, he won’t play Andrew Lloyd Webber no matter how much you might offer him to do so. In other words, he’s one classy guy.

For more about Page, go to his web site:
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