Harry Prime – Interview #2
East Falls Oral History Project
Interviewee: Harry Prime (HP)
Interviewers: Wendy Moody (WM) and Ellen Sheehan (ES)
Interview: April 10, 2012 at Epicure Café, Conrad Street, East Falls
Transcriber: Wendy Moody
WM: It’s April 10, 2012. We’re sitting in Epicure Café on Conrad Street with Harry Prime, Ron Astle, Tom Leschak, Ellen Sheehan, Wendy Moody, and Joanne Pejeau (?). We are doing our second interview with Harry Prime, a (former) East Falls resident and Big Band singer.
So, Harry, thank you for coming. Today we’re going to focus mostly on your career. We wonder if we can begin by you telling us when you first discovered you had a voice.
HP: (laughs) Thank you Wendy for the nice words – it’s nice to see good friends again. I’ve known Tom now – well, we talked about a year ago, but we’ve been face to face friends for the last six months or so
And my dear friend Ron Astle brings me down. I’m looking down Bowman Street here at 3512 where I was born and raised until my dad died in 1932.
WM: Can you tell us a little about that? You had told us about that but not on tape – the dramatic story of your father at the dinner table?
HP: He had a heart problem and, as you might expect, in ’32 there wasn’t a lot that they knew about, as they do today – things that they could do to keep your blood down, thin it down, and prolong your life. And handle it a lot differently. So he was on digitalis – I’ll never forget that – that was as far back as ’32. That’s when the doctors would come to your house – he’d carry his little black bag in. Dad was bedridden – he was only 38 – but he was in bed for about two or three weeks with this problem that they were treating him with – I’m sure it was something today they could put a name to it. In those days, “Give him some digitalis and bed rest.”
So anyway, the doctor cleared him to go back to work after two weeks in bed and, as I say, he was 38 – a vigorous guy. We were at the dinner table – the first night he went down to have dinner with us. When I say “we” I mean my mother, my brother John, and myself. My dad – with my mother on one side – my mother here, my dad up there, and the two boys on the side – and we’re having a nice dinner and all. My dad was a real sports nut. In fact he used to take me to see boxing bouts. Boxing was so big in those days compared to now – there was no basketball, there was no ice hockey. It was baseball, boxing, and then football. Those were the three things in order. Boxing was really big. It was right after Dempsey, Tunney,
Luis Firpo, Jack Sharkey, Young Stribling. So anyway, we’re all down here, and we’re at the table this night; my dad was up and about. And he had eaten whatever was on the menu that night. A lady across the way had made him a jar of jelly. We were friendly with this lady – “Give this to your dad” and he had a jar of jelly that he really liked – homemade jelly. So he said to my mother “Marie! Pass me that jelly. I want to try that jelly now.” And my mother held the jelly out to him and as he reached – I’ll never forget it – his face went right onto the table and then he rolled and he’s lying there on the kitchen floor and I’m 12 and my brother is 10. Right here – 3512 Bowman.
WM: What a dramatic story.
HP: Yeah, and between my mother, my brother, and myself we dragged him into the parlor – through the dining room into the parlor, which was right on Bowman Street. Got him somehow on the couch. And in the meantime I had – there was just a railing separating 3510 from 3512 and the people next door – their name was Brooks – Marian Brooks – and I knew they had a telephone so I quick went in there and screamed “My dad is having an attack. Can you call the doctor on the phone?” He was there within 10 minutes – it was a local guy – Dr. Kall or Dr. Rabb or some local doctor. And he was there and he did whatever he could – he put a stethoscope on and he’s checking his vitals and, to make a long story short, he died on that couch that night. That was when we lived at 3512.
You asked me to describe that and I just told Ron as we were coming down “That’s where my mother and dad are both buried. Right up the road there at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.” I feel bad about one thing – so many families visit graves of loved ones and I’ve never been back to see where my mother was. I don’t know many people who do it anymore. But it used to be a family thing on a birthday or Memorial Day.
WM: Let’s go back a little bit. From the age of 12 you had no father so it must have been difficult for your family. At that point did you already know you had a voice? Did your father know you had such a good voice?
HP: It was around that time because I was living on Bowman Street when a favorite nun – I hasten to say it but we had a great relationship – her name was Sister Anthony Joseph. And I’ll never forget that beautiful face. Sister Saint Joseph. And she had a beautiful face and she could sing a little bit and she used to sing and I, for some reason, from the time I was a kid I had two loves: baseball and music. I loved music and I loved lyrics. For some reason I always enjoyed the ability to write something poetic, or that rhymed, and good diction and things were always, as a kid, you know…. So when they had plays at St. Bridget in the old hall on Stanton Street, Sister Anthony Joseph used to say “Harry come on up here. I know you know these songs.” And that’s when it all started, when they had school plays and minstrel shows at St. Bridget’s School I was always in the forefront because all the other boys would say “We don’t know how to sing! That’s sissy stuff!”
After I became an eighth grader, I did my last show at St. Bridget’s maybe 1934 and after I left St. Bridget’s I went to Roman Catholic High School, Broad and Vine, God bless it – it’s still there and it’s still functioning – and I believe it’s the oldest Catholic high school in the country. I’m not sure. I know in Pennsylvania it probably is.
WM: Did you get any formal music training?
HP: No. Not until I was on the Chesterfield Show which was 1945 when I was 25 years old. The producer of the show – a guy by the name of Bill Brennan – and I liked him because my mother’s name was Brennan. Her maiden name was Marie Brennan. And Bill Brennan, knowing I was a neophyte – I had never been on the air before as a singer, or even talking. And this was coast to coast! You know when they say “Chesterfield’s great new singing star, Harry Prime!” and the whole country is listening and you had never made a record – you’re a complete neophyte – my legs were shaking so bad (laughing).
So I had no training at all and this Bill Brennan said “Harry, we’re going to send you to a music coach. I want you to take a course.” This is what I did for about eight weeks – I took a course in what they called Solfeggio, which means intervals. You didn’t learn to sight read where you could pick up a score and just sing the notes, but you learned all the signatures – BEAD for the flats and sharps and F-A-C-E – and all the reason for the notes and the most important thing was it helped you learn a melody and keep it in tune. (starts singing intervals).
WM: You could actually sight read a piece of music – you could look at a piece of music and…
HP: No. He didn’t want me to sight read. I was glad he didn’t because even Sinatra couldn’t sight read but he could learn a tune as fast as I could, which was rapidly. Sight reading did something to you which stiffened your style. It restricted you a little bit because you were so fundamentally “right” that it didn’t allow you to put a little of your own thoughts into the melody.
WM: I wanted to get into this later, but since you’re talking about it, we wondered how you developed your very unique style of singing. You put a lot of emotion in it and good phrasing. I just wondered how that came about. Was that something taught to you or something within you?
HP: With me, first I had a guy that I liked – you have a vocalist and you say “Wow, I’d like to be able to sing like that” and I worked on Bob Eberly’s style of singing. He was with the Jimmy Dorsey Band. And he had all those hit records with Helen O’Connell – “Tangerine,” “Green Eyes,” and “Amapola” – all those great songs, and he was the guy that I first started trying to emulate. Bob Eberly. And then I heard Sinatra who came along a year or two after Eberly – first the Tommy Dorsey Band, then Harry James – or maybe it was the other way around. Harry James then Dorsey. He started doing things – I noticed his emphasis was on telling the story of the song which immediately grabbed me because of my love and fascination with the words. The lyric of a song and the story that it told and how you delivered it. So I went from Eberly to Sinatra and I took a bit from each one.
Then all of a sudden comes the guy who sounded like I wanted the combination of the two to be and it was Dick Haymes. When Dick Haymes came along I said “That’s the sound I want.” And from the time that he was in a few movies before Sinatra ever thought of a movie – things like Diamond Horseshoe, State Fair – he was a big star in the movies, Dick Haymes, and on records. Then I had a new guy to fashion my sound after.
Then it got to the point where people in the business whose opinion I respected said “Harry, you don’t have to sound like Haymes, Sinatra, or Bob Eberly. How about your own sound?” You know, you have the combination of all of them.
From then on, I never tried to emulate, but that was the beginning of what I wanted to sound like. And I took a little bit from the Solfeggio lessons, which kept me in tune and able to still hold the note longer, whereas if I were a sight reader, everything would be bum, bum – right on the beat. And I didn’t like that restriction; I liked people who could take liberties, but still sound good and make the guy who wrote the song happy. I always thought, if I – there were a lot of them (composers) who came into the room, who wrote songs and I’d do a tune, you know what I mean….”Boy, Harry, that’s great! That’s the way I want my song to be sung”
WM: You mentioned that some people told you to develop your own style. I wonder who that was – did you have a manager or a coach. Who was encouraging you? Who was your mentor?
HP: It was the people on the Chesterfield Show that wanted to polish me up a little bit, you know what I mean? You could tell I was a neophyte the first night. I could have milked that audience a lot more than I did. When I think of the chance that I had – today, if you gave me that chance with all the accumulated knowledge and the things that I learned, I would have been a star in about ten weeks! Because I know all the angles now about what to do, who to cultivate, but I was just a dumb kid from East Falls.
ES: Harry, do you remember what song you sang first on the air?
HP: Yes! It was a song from a musical called Christmas in Connecticut with Deanna Durbin, and the song was This Heart of Mine.(starts singing: “This heart of mine was doing very well, The world was fine, as far as I could tell….”) A pretty song. I did that – there were two tunes that I did – and the other was a sure-fire hit, Laura. So I did those two tunes.
You couldn’t go wrong because the arrangements were great, and I had this marvelous Chesterfield Band behind me – all the great players. Like the trombone section was Will Bradley, Buddy Morrow, Warren Covington, and Billy Roush – four of the best trombone players ever. And then the trumpet section was Doc Severinsen, Jimmy Maxwell, Bernie Privin – just great. All you had to do was sing in tune and gather a little confidence as you went along, and with that kind of background and the nice relationship I had with the orchestra leader – a guy by the name of Paul Barren, it was wonderful. I only did the last thirteen weeks of the show, but it was probably the highlight of my life, but the bad part about it is that from then on, I said “I’m going to get back to that status again where I have my own radio show” but things in the world changed so rapidly that no matter what I did I couldn’t get back because there were….
For example, with the advent of television everything changed. Everything changed, because people, in my opinion, started learning by looking instead of learning by listening. They tuned out sound. They didn’t really care about the sound and the beautiful words – all the things I had cherished when I was coming along. It didn’t mean a damn thing to the audience, as long as they had what I would call visual pleasure – a guy like Presley came along – and if you brought Presley into a music department – when I went on the Chesterfield Show in 1945 – and said (to Presley) “Sing us a couple of songs” we would have looked at one another and say “Next!” (laughter). Because the guy wasn’t a great singer – he didn’t have that much emotion in his sound – but when people saw him, they developed all this stuff in their mind of what he was, and he was nothing. I thought he was a clown with those sideburns and mutton-chops and all.
WM: So backing up from the Chesterfield Show, Harry, can you tell us again how you got your start? You mentioned you were working for Kelly and entered a contest?
HP: Now we moved up here, from 3512 (Bowman) to where we are now, this building – and the address was 3479 Bowman because that’s the 3500 block, this is the 34, and up to the reservoir is like 33rd. So my mom moved from that house – my brother and I and my mom. And of course my dad was gone.
I was going to Roman – she got me through those four years at Roman while she was working at a place on Scott’s Lane called Ashton Hill Asbestos. A lot so when high school was over – I had no problem, I didn’t miss much time – I was the only one from St. Bridget’s in the class of ’38 because I wouldn’t go to North Catholic. I wanted to go to Roman. You’ll find that in my makeup – just like I loved anything that had to do with well-spoken words all my life. I used to come home from athletic events just to hear a guy like Fulton J. Sheen – remember that priest that spoke? – because he was so eloquent. And Franklin Delano Roosevelt was eloquent. And I loved it in music. That’s why I thought so highly of Sinatra – he treated that lyric so beautifully and there were certain words that he said that no-one else said the same way and it separated him from a lot of the other singers. There were other singers who might have had a better voice, but no one treated the song as well as he did.
WM: So you had graduated high school…
HP: So I finished high school – my mom was still working at Ashton Hill and I tried baseball again. I still had a couple of tryouts – Connie Mack looked at me. I was chosen on an All-Star Team in Philadelphia as the catcher, and four of the guys, the pitchers, that I caught on that 1938 All-Star Team, four of them were in the Major Leagues – not for long, but they were in there. The guy who was known as the Clown Prince, Max Patkin – Max Patkin was a pitcher from West Philly High. He was signed by Cleveland. Another guy from Umbria Street in Manayunk, his name was Sam Lowry – he was signed by the Philadelphia A’s. Another guy by the name of Bill Hoffman was signed by the New York Giants, and then the topper of them all, from North Catholic High, by the name of Walter Masterson, was signed by the Washington Senators. All in that year of 1938-39. And they all played on that team where I was the catcher.
So I gave it a real shot but the thing working against me all the way was I was only 5’8’ and a half, 5’9”, and I weighed 150 pounds. But I was a hell of a catcher – I could throw, I could hit – I couldn’t hit with power but I was a 300 hitter and as a catcher you’re not supposed to be a great runner, and I wasn’t. So I had these little things but Connie Mack looked at me and said “Harry, I love the way you play.” I’ll never forget him standing in the stands looking at me with a big, starched collar and he was the only manager that ever wore a business suit. He never wore a uniform. Cornelius McGillicuddy. Connie Mack. “Harry, you have all the tools, but how much do you weigh?” And I looked at him and I said “165” and he looked at me and he said “Harry, I wasn’t born yesterday.” (laughter) He said “On your best day you never weighed 165.” I said “Well, no, but it doesn’t matter with me. The heat doesn’t bother me.” He says “Harry, we’re talking about 154 games, which it was then. In mid-summer. There’s no air-conditioning.” You didn’t have air conditioning. You had one uniform which was a heavy muslin things. Philadelphia A’s. These guys have workout suits now – the materials are totally different, and they have all kinds of drinks in the dugout. They have air conditioning in the dugout. And they travel by plane. Everything in those days was either a bus or a train. I’m talking 1938.
So everything was against me. I finally gave up the whole thing after I had a tryout with Brooklyn and they told me the same thing. “We love you but you’re too small to be a major league catcher.” And that was it. I was sadly disappointed because it was my first love.
Then I turned to my second love and I started singing again a little bit and I took the job with Kelly because my mom needed help financially. She had worked after my dad died. So I took a job with John B. Kelly as what they call a timekeeper. Now we’re up to 1940. Because I gave baseball a real try for a couple of years after I graduated high school. And my mother was decent enough to say “You don’t have to go to work. If you think you can make it as a ballplayer go ahead.” I tried it for two years and the same thing happened. Too small – you got all the tools but you’re too small. And I was a catcher, and I couldn’t do anything else. I wasn’t fast enough for other things. But I was a hell of a catcher.
So I took the job and, eventually, I was in Washington D.C. because the war had just broken out in ’41 and after some desperate attempts to get into the service watching a lot of my teammates that I played ball with around here go in the service, and seeing their mothers and then I’d say “How is Bill doing?” “Oh he’s in Fort So-and-So” “What are you doing here?” Well, you don’t know how I’m trying to escape the wrath of the mothers around here….like they were going to write letters to the Draft Board and say “Why isn’t he in the service?” But I had sustained an injury to what they call the adrenal gland and I had a couple of blackouts from it. And after treatment – about two years it took me to get over these blackouts – I never had one since after they did what they did to me. But they wouldn’t accept me in the service because I had these blackouts.
I did every damn thing that I could – I went to the CBs because I knew a little bit about construction, I went to the Navy, the Coast Guard, the Army didn’t even want to look at me. I remember one guy saying “Do you realize that you could be at the front of a group of men and you would go into a blackout and all those men would be killed…?” Anyway, I did the next best thing – I went to Washington because everything was a war effort
And Kelly was building all these beautiful housing developments across the river in a place called Alexandria, Virginia. Over the Potomac. And he was building a place called Seminary Heights. Big housing project. And I was the head timekeeper on that job.
And while I was on that job – this was in the summer of ’42 – we ate at one of the many places on the highway down there – called the Hot Shoppes.
Did you ever see those orange Hot Shoppes? And all the guys that I ate with were from Philly, and we’d come home on the weekends. But there was a girl who started coming in to the Hot Shoppe by herself every night. And we would sit at a table like we’re doing here and this girl would come in and sit on a stool. And I’d say “Man, look at that; that’s a hotshot there.” Anyway, after ogling this girl and being taunted by the other guys – “Man, she’d throw that cup of coffee right in your face if you approached her” I said, “Well, watch.”
So one night I got up enough courage to go over and I sat alongside her and I said “Good evening, how are you?” She said “I’m fine.” And I said “You know I can’t help but notice you come in here each night; I was just wondering: What’s your name? You have such a pretty face.” She said “My name is Mary Lee” “Oh that’s a beautiful southern name” and so on and so forth. Finally, I said I wonder if there’s some weekend I’ll stay down here and we could go out and dance and have a good time.” And she said “I don’t usually do things like that when a man comes up to me like you have.” “Well can I at least have your phone number?” She said “Well I’ll think about it.” The next week I did the same thing, two weeks. She finally gave me her phone number. So I called her and then we had a date, and we had another date the next week and I didn’t come home. My mother was frantically saying “What’s going on down there, bah, bah, bah!?”
And it was one of those things where there was nothing more involved than a few kisses – it wax platonic – nothing going on, but from the gitgo she said “Look, I don’t know what your plans are, what you have in mind, but there are certain things that I do not do unless I’m married.” So I said “Wow, what a choice.” And in the meantime I’m going “Oh boy, I’m hungry for …” (laughter) Damn, if the next week I didn’t say “Well, let’s go.” We went and got a blood test – I only knew her three or four weeks – and we went to Fairfax, Virginia September 1942. And we were married by a Justice-of-the-Peace in Fairfax, Virginia. When I called my mother and told her that, I know that that shortened my poor mom’s life. She was so upset. After all those years of working and everything, I’m out there bringing money in now, and then I go and get married after knowing a girl three weeks. And if push came to shove I would have to say it probably was a big mistake because she was 28 and I was 22. Mary Lee. A beautiful girl. A good woman. She had been married before and I had nothing more than a few little romances with girls around here and on Allegheny Avenue. Again, I was a neophyte.
ES: So Harry, were you singing at that time?
HP: It was in my mind and I was always singing around the house. We lived in Alexandria for a while. Then I decided to come up here and see my mom – broke the ice – and God bless my mom, she became a friend of this Mary Lee – she liked her. And then the next thing you know, we’re going to have a baby. Oh boy, my mother went out of her mind. So I had to go back to Virginia because nothing was happening here – it was either work for Kelly in Virginia – I wasn’t making enough money with Kelly so I took a job working at the Union Station, which is the big station in Washington D.C. And they have a huge postal department right alongside the station. So I took a job from 11 to 7 in what they call the East-South Rack – did you ever see these racks with the big pouches where the heavy mail goes? And at that time there was so much mail going from the White House, the Army, the Navy, all these big brown manila envelopes, and you had to know what pouch they went into. And, me being an old ballplayer, was perfect. I had 24 bags that went up like this – they’d bring over a whole tub of these envelopes about this big and I’d take them and boom – I knew the rack.
WM: That’s an interesting connection. Tell us about the contest where you got your start.
HP: What happened was, I got tired of this night-time job. I had to take a bus and then get on a trolley on F Street and go over to the Union Station. And the trolley was like a destination point; it would fill up there at 14th and F Street in Washington. And one day I’m sitting there and look out and see this club called The 400 Club. And it has a big sign out “Do you sing? Dance? Tell jokes? Come join us for Stardust Night – Monday night.” And I said, “You know what? I’m going to go there next week.” So you had to go there Monday afternoon to audition and there were about 50 people there trying – and they only picked four for the night. Well they picked me, for one. Anyway, to make a long story short, I won the whole thing. And the prize was a week engagement at the club.
WM: What did you sing for that?
HP: I sang (starts singing) “I’ll Get by, as long as I have you” and the other one was (singing) “Long Ago and Far Away.”
WM: Jerome Kern.
HP: If you listen to the tunes that I sing, they all have great lyrics. Jerome Kern. Those were the two tunes that I did when I won that.
WM: And you worked there…
HP: I worked there for about four weeks and the owner of the place was a cigar-chomping guy by the name of Joe Moss. And Joe Moss said “You’re wasting your time here, kid. I want you to make an acetate at United Recording Lab in Washington. It was like an old vinyl record. Licorice pizzas, we called them. So I made this acetate and Joe Moss sent this thing to New York to a guy by the name of Joanie Kape (?). His name was Kaperstein but he shortened it to Joanie Kape, an agent. Another cigar-chomping guy. And Joanie Kape took that acetate of me singing “I’ll Get By” and “Long Ago and Far Away.”
And the next thing you know, I get a call in the 400 Club from Jimmy Dorsey’s office – a guy by the name of Marshall. George Marshall was Jimmy Dorsey’s agent – one of his many agents – but he ran his business office in New York – and he wanted to know if I could join the Jimmy Dorsey Band at Miami Beach at a place called The Frolics. You can imagine me – I mean, I won a contest working throwing mail off, I win the contest, I work for four weeks, I make an acetate, it gets up to New York, they hold the phone over the record and Jimmy says “Where the hell is this kid?” And they said “He’s at a club in Washington D.C, – the 400.” And he said “I gotta have him! I gotta get that kid! He sounds like Eberly.” So the traces of Bob Eberly were still there.
WM: What happened next?
HP: Well Joe Moss talked to me and said “Look, you go to Florida and meet Jimmy Dorsey and see what happens.” And I took a train out of Alexandria, Virginia with one suit to my name and I got a hold of a guy who worked at the post office with me – a wonderful Black guy – his name was George Johnson. But he and I were real friendly. He loved music and he knew I could sing. I used to sing at the post office all the time and he said “Oh, man you can sing.” I went to his home one time because he had a great collection of records and I noticed “Man, you have a lot of good clothes.” He said “I’m a clothes horse. I love good clothes.” So when I needed a suit to go to Florida I went to George and I said “I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do. I don’t have a really good suit. And he said “You come to my house and you pick out the one you want out, and you take it to Florida.”
That’s the suit I took to Florida and when I first met Jimmy Dorsey I was in that suit. And when Jimmy met me, all of a sudden his problems with his boy singer, which he was having – that’s why he wanted me – he was also a Philadelphia guy by the name of Teddy Walters – good singer, guitar player, and far better equipped at that time – experienced – than I was. I had no experience at all. And Jimmy said “Look, I want you to sit around if you will. I’ll pay you. What were you making in Washington? I said “I don’t know – 50, 60 dollars a week.” “I’ll give you $60 a week if you’ll just sit alongside the band every night. We have four weeks to go here.
So for four weeks I sat alongside the Jimmy Dorsey Band and learned all the songs, waiting for this Teddy Walters – let me put it bluntly – to fall off the wagon. He was heavy into drugs but good-looking, a good singer. And the guys in the band were propping him up because they liked him. In other words, they kept him straight for those four weeks out of loyalty to him while I’m sitting there, and they’re looking at me like I’m waiting to step in… So that’s how it all began for me.
When they left, the big engagement coming up was at the Café Rogue of the Hotel Pennsylvania. We went up the coast and we were only at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York for about three nights – the famous Pennsylvania 6-5000 where all the bands were. That was the mecca. I’m sitting there – I knew the book by then. One night “Where’s Teddy Walters?” “I don’t know; I haven’t seen him today” Jimmy called me and said, “When he gets to New York, that’s his source.” Do you know what I mean by “source”? That’s where he gets his drugs. And sure enough he didn’t show this night.
Jimmy comes over to me panicky and says “Do you know all the songs?” “Yes I do, Jimmy.” He said “Well, we have three broadcasts tonight – WOR, NBC, and CBS, do you think you can sing these songs?” I said “Yes, I know them all.” He said “I’m depending on you.” So 11:30 comes – the first air shot – and I’m up there and I did two vocals in half an hour. One of them was “Tenderly.” (Harry starts singing “The evening breeze….”)
What was your impression of Jimmy Dorsey?
HP: He was a lovable, likable, but completely dependent on his brother Tommy, who he was constantly warring with. Jimmy was a lightweight guy, laid-back, but a great guy. And he loved to drink and he loved to party, but he was a hell of a musician. Boy he could play that saxophone and clarinet. The guys in the band loved him. I was very impressed with Jimmy.
On the other hand, Tommy was just the opposite. When you were in Tommy’s presence, He dare not do anything out of line because he was bigger than Jimmy – a strong guy – and not easy to get along with. Especially if you made mistakes. “Give that sucker his money” – he was a tough one. But if you did the right thing, there was no better guy in the world. If you sang well or played well, Tommy was your friend for life.
WM: How long did you sing for the Dorsey Band?
HP: I sang with Jimmy Dorsey that one night and then the next night I go in and Teddy Walters is back. So there’s this conflict. And he had both of us – Teddy knew what was happening. In the room, that second night, was a guy by the name of Martin Block who was the king of all – the Make-Believe Ballroom, which set a precedent for all DJs for playing records. He had a show on CBS called Music That Satisfies. A 15 minute radio show. Remember it was all radio then. And most of the shows were 15 minutes packages. And on NBC Chesterfield had Perry Como with a show called The Supper Club with Perry Como and the Mitchell Ayres Orchestra. And on NBC they had Paul Barron and a guy by then name of Johnnie Johnstone – a show called Music That Satisfies. Johnstone balked when it came time to sign the papers for the last thirteen weeks of the show and went to Florida and laid on the beach and said “I want more money. I want Como money.” In other words Como was making more money for his fifteen minutes on NBC than Johnstone, who by the way was married to Kathryn Grayson, a beautiful actress.
So what they had to do on Music That Satisfies was get people who were in town that would do the thing as a guest for a week. Well when Martin Block heard me with Jimmy Dorsey’s Band, he said “That’s the guy I want to replace him (Johnstone) and put him on permanently as a great new singer.” It was a great gimmick – out of nowhere comes this Horatio Alger story of a kid who never sang before in public and he replaces Johnstone – Chesterfield’s great new singing star.
WM: And that lasted how long?
HP: I did the last eleven weeks. The guy who did the show the week before me was Frank Sinatra, as a guest. He, at that time, had nothing really going for him – there was no movie career. He had just left Tommy Dorsey and he was looking for work.
WM: We’re running out of time, Harry. So just a few quick questions. One of them is, what were some of the famous places where you sang – you mentioned Atlantic City?
HP: Steel Pier in Atlantic City, Sunnybrook Ballroom up in Pottstown for local flavor, The Ritz Ballroom in Hartford, Connecticut with the best dancers I ever saw in all the years I traveled. I never saw better jitterbuggers in my life than Hartford, Connecticut, The Ritz Ballroom. Among the great places were the Chase Hotel in St. Louis, the Palladium in Hollywood was a great job for four weeks – you’d look out there and all the big movie stars and sometimes you’d be lucky enough and they’d call you over to have a drink with them. You almost felt like you were in the movies because you were there for four weeks and every night the place was filled with movie stars. Dancing and ogling the band. So those were the main places – the Chase, the Palladium,
the Steel Pier.
WM: Were you allowed to pick your own songs?
HP: No. You could make suggestions but it depended on the guy you were working with. Ralph Flanagan was not a very receptive person. He was mainly an arranger and very cold to vocalists. He did beautiful things, but I would be singing – he did the arrangements – and he would be going to the guys in the band “Blow, blow” – in other words, drown him out – he had no sympathy for making that nice sound that Dorsey did with Sinatra. He was very sympathetic to vocalists. Tommy Dorsey appreciated how important it was that the vocal was comfortable and nice and relaxed. Flanagan was so concerned with the arranging that he did that he didn’t give a damn how little you could hear the vocal. He was a very uncompromising guy – that’s all I’ll say about him.
WM: And the last question: How did your career affect your personal life? Was it a positive?
HP: No. It was bad. That Mary Lee – we finally were living out in Levittown Long Island – the first Levittown – and we had been married ’42 to ‘54 and I left the Flanagan Band and she talked me into going to her hometown outside Richmond, Virginia. A place called Providence Forge. Biggest mistake I ever made in my life. I went down there and I had nothing in common with those people. They were nice enough, but it was all country music. It was all the kind of taprooms with straw on the floor and guys came in with cowboy hats and cowdung on their boots. It was just not my type. Within a year it was apparent that it was over. From the beginning she told me – maybe I shouldn’t say this, but, what the hell, she’s dead and I’m down here. When I’d say to her “I love you” I’d say, “Can’t you say I love you?” and she’d say “I’ll learn to love you.” I’ll learn to love you – that’s what I kept getting and I thought, oh boy, I’m in trouble here. This was from the beginning. Not a good sign.
ES: Harry, will you do another interview at some point?
HP: Sure I will, if Ron can stand it. But he’s a great guy. I don’t know what I’d do without him.
WM: Your memories are so vivid and so amazing. So much fun. Thank you so much.
HP: (Starts singing “If I Love Again”)