Wednesday, April 18, 2007

An Unforgettable Gig

This would have been in the 1960's when I worked frequently in the San Francisco area. I sang quite often at the hungry i, and at that time, jazz clubs were thriving in that fair city, i.e., The Jazz Workshop, The Purple Onion, El Matador, Sugar Hill and Basin Street West.

It was a customary annual concert concept new to me: Sponsored by the city itself and/or the SF Penal Commission, any and all performers who happened to be working in town on New Year's Day were asked to voluntarily participate in a show for inmates at San Quentin Federal Prison. I was there and so were Sarah Vaughan, legendary blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon, and Louis Armstrong. An accordion band, a group of Hawaiian dancers and a ventriloquist rounded out the cast.

The prisoners were assembled in the huge dining hall, and guards were posted at strategic positions on catwalks above the floor with rifles drawn. Their presence failed to convey a sense of security as far as I was concerned, but I stood in the wings, ready to follow Spoon's set.

At one point, he began to sing a blues containing the words "Did you ever find your woman with another man?" As if on cue, a large man seated down front jumped up and shouted: "Yeah, Spoon! And I killed the M....F'!" to which the rest of the audience responded with loud laughter and applause.

There is a photograph of me, now long disappeared, smiling bravely as I cautiously and tremblingly stepped from the wings toward the microphone placed center stage. The men seemed to love my songs and me, but you should have seen their faces when the girls did the hula. Several hundred men became rather quiet. I have always thought it was rather sadistic to allow those women to swing and sway sensuously before those female-companionship-starved men. Their grass skirts alone could have inspired a riot.

As we walked toward the vehicles which would take us back to the city, some hands were viewed waving at us from high above. "Death row" one of the officers informed us, many of the ill-fated calling Jimmy Witherspoon by name.

One of the more memorable afternoons of my life.


Pinky Winters said...

"An Unforgettable Gig" was of special interest to me, as I also visited San Quentin in the 1960s, not as a performer, but accompanying my boy-friend who was on Art Pepper's "guest list." I was impressed by the beautiful setting of the prison, and by the roses which were next to the pathway from the guard house to the prison itself. Inmates, I believe, were tending these flowers. I did not visit Art Pepper, but waited in the adjoining area, along with relatives/friends of prisoners.

Anonymous said...

This is a great story. You've had such a fascinating life. Please continue to share you stories. thanks