Monday, July 13, 2009

Negotiating Nostalgia: Remembering Frank DeVol (and Tall Paul)

Negotiating Nostalgia: Remembering Frank DeVol (and Tall Paul)
By Tom Wachunas

During the several years I worked in the retail record business in New York City, shortly after the invention of dirt, I had a considerable number of co-worker friends who can best be described as “characters on the edge.” We were comrades-in-arms, united in our creative, sometimes desperate efforts to patiently dispatch the challenging if not ridiculous questions from inarticulate and woefully uninformed customers. Many of them were, like us, baby-boomers.

I can’t begin to tell you how many times in a day – indeed, an hour – we were assaulted with variations of this question: “You got dis jam wit da piano an’ horns in it goin’ boo-WAAA-da-WAAA-doo-do-BAAA?” Our initial incredulous silence at these inquiries would then invariably prompt the customer to volunteer further, “Oh, yeah, it got dis woman singin’ ‘love, loooove’ in it, maybe.” Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere.

Many times, emboldened and rejuvenated by our liquid lunches, we would then dutifully steer the consumer to the female vocalist section, with the suggestion to purchase a newly released greatest hits compilation by, say, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Billy Holiday, or Doris Day, and leave them to browse. Maybe a particular song title would jar their memory, maybe not. But the process somehow always elicited the same paternal editorializing from a lanky and lovable member of our counter-assault team, whom some of us called Tall Paul. His knowledge of pre- and post-war jazz big bands, and singers of that era, was encyclopedic. Gingerly lifting an album (one of those 12” vinyl discs still found at some garage sales) out of an overstuffed bin, his eyes seemed to almost tear up as he smiled broadly down at the customer (we all looked up to him in more ways than one), and proudly resurrected a dusty old saying as he intoned, “Now THIS is music made back in the days when men were men and women were proud OF it.”

OK, don’t be offended. Lest any of you over-sensitive guardians of sociopolitical correctness get your cultural sensibilities all discombobulated, keep in mind this was Tall Paul’s quirky way of recommending what he thought, and rightfully so, was truly timeless music at a time when disco was in its death throes, and punk and rap were clamoring for - and finding- a restless audience.

And so it is that I recently found myself thinking of Tall Paul and his remarkable reservoir of contagious passion for the music his parents cherished, effectively encouraging my own genuine appreciation of the same. The occasion of my reverie was the July 11 production of “Dream Awhile: A Tribute to Frank DeVol” at Canton’s Palace Theatre. The two-act multimedia event was a thoroughly engaging and lovingly assembled remembrance of famed Canton musician Frank DeVol (1911-1999), whom the Los Angeles Times once called – deservedly so - a “Renaissance Man in Motion…composer, conductor, arranger, pianist, instrumentalist, singer, writer, comedian, actor and record executive.” The tribute was directed by Herbert Crum, and written by ArtsinStark Marketing Director Judi Christy, with contributions by Canton Repository columnist and lifestyles editor Gary Brown, who also narrated the proceedings from off-stage. The ambitious production combined video and film clips, photos, family interviews, and live music and acting. Actor Don Jones played Frank DeVol.

I won’t go into DeVol’s massive and impressive resume here. For a substantial taste of that, I refer you to Gary Brown’s excellent piece in the July 6 issue of The Repository. Suffice to say here that DeVol, as we were so enthrallingly reminded throughout the Palace show, lived “a dream life.”

Judi Christy’s script is a credible, affectionate, and often wry portrait of a resilient and witty artist whose work spanned several decades of film and television. Don Jones wears the script, peppered with charming if not corny jokes, like a favorite coat, warm and familiar. He deftly and enthusiastically works his way through captivating reminiscences as he introduces some of the stars for whom he wrote arrangements, among them, Doris Day, played here by Peggy Coyle. Her rousing rendition of “Que Sera Sera” captures all the youthful verve of the original and then some. Another great collaboration was with Diana Ross and The Supremes for their hit, “The Happening,” brought to sparkling life here by Blu Lewis (as Diana) with Jamaica Singleton and Miah Bickley. But for sheer, haunting authenticity, and powerful vocal presence, perhaps the high point of the production is provided by Kent LaMar as he sings the Nat King Cole song, “Nature Boy.” Close your eyes, or keep them open. Either way, Nat King Cole is in the building.

That same kind of entertainment magic applies to the band here, too. Accomplished bandleader and saxophonist Jack Halkides assembled a thrilling orchestra in the true big band tradition. I’m reminded that a tasty recipe of soaring brass, mixed just so with sweet reeds, yields an invigorating and, like this evening as a whole, joyous experience.

I’m left wondering what we as a culture will hold in the future as precious or worth remembering. Will our children continue to savor and preserve what we consider important? Will they snicker – as children so often do - at our old-fashioned tastes in music and entertainment in general? Worse, will they forget altogether? Or will they be, as I was, fortunate enough to have a Tall Paul in their life?

Que sera sera.

Photo: Don Jones as Frank DeVol in “Dream Awhile: A Tribute to Frank DeVol,” Palace Theatre, July 11, 2009

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