The hungry i
Fast forward about a year and we’ll be in San Francisco. In North Beach, which is the equivalent of Greenwich Village. There was a club called the HUNGRY i. Eventually it became an ‘exotic’ club, but then it was a high-powered folk venue for JOSH WHITE, HARRY BELAFONTE, THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS and such ilk. And that’s where I wanted to play. I saw no reason why I shouldn’t; I was a lot better than when I’d debuted for the D.A.R. So my mother and I walked down to the i one evening and asked for the owner, HENRICO BANDUCCI. Not surprisingly, we were told that our chances of talking to Mr. Banducci were as likely as talking to President Eisenhower.
The main act that month was PROFESSOR IRWIN COREY, THE WORLD’S FOREMOST AUTHORITY. Authority on what? That was the joke. He was middling-young then, and charming, and the absolutely funniest human being on the planet. And here he was, right out in the anteroom, schmoozing the audience between acts. Especially he wanted to schmooze my mom, because she was a natural schmooze magnet. So we explained our mission, and he laughed and said my chances of performing at the hungry i were the same as my talking to Henrico Banducci. He also wondered how old I was, because I certainly couldn’t play there if I wasn’t eighteen. “Oh, I’m eighteen,” I said while my mom gave her most serious nod. “No you’re not,” said Irwin. “I can tell by your hands. You still have a child’s hands.” I glared at my traitorous hands; I glared at him. And then, good move, my mom invited him to dinner.
Irwin came to dinner after that almost every night during his engagement at the i, then again through his return engagement. I like to think he was lonesome from being on the road so much, and that my mother, sister and I provided a ‘family away from home’. Anyway, that’s the explanation we’re sticking to. He bought me a tape recorder! He was always gifting us, inviting us to his show, taking us to a football game at Cal. AND—one day he said he’d arranged for me to sing on stage at the club. One song. Before a live audience.
If this were a novel, the world would have recognized my genius right then, and I’d have been on the superhighway to success. But no. However, that was one hell of an exciting night. The showroom was black and big, with rows and rows of people in a semi-circle around me and a blinding light in my eyes. I remember I sat on a high stool and was worried I’d fall off. I remember I wore a scoop-necked black top and a plaid circular skirt, gold hoop earrings and high heels. I remember that the song was, inappropriately, the murder ballad “Pretty Polly.” I remember that my hand froze into a claw so I couldn’t pull off the complicated guitar double-stops I’d arranged but just flailed across the strings without finesse. I remember I thought I’d die from heart-stoppage before the song was done.
Odd, though, my uncle was in the audience (this was a major family event) and he took a picture; in it, I looked as relaxed, smiley and gracious as could be. Could this possibly be true? Certainly the audience was as kind and enthusiastic as if they’d been able to see how terrified I was, which I’m sure they could, so bless them.
Afterward, Irwin explained to me that all this was meant to show me that I was not NEARLY ready, and that I should keep going to high school and helping my mother cook dinners. And that I should start learning how to capture and hold an audience , by seeming to single out one person or another with a wave, a grin, a wink—well, all those things we see presidential candidates doing. One needed to learn to seem to be one’s self, certainly not tobe one’s self. (Still workin’ on this one.)
Fast forward three years. By this time I’m married to husband #1, and I’ve done a little more playing, in situations a speck more worldly than the Morrisville D.A.R., and this time I AM SURE that I should be playing the hungry i.
This time I managed to land an honest audition; the manager—PAUL GOLDENBERG—would be willing and even happy to hear a few songs in the afternoon, it would relieve the boredom. So down I went with my guitar, and husband #1, and there was that same dark stage, dreadfully littered and seamy in the daylight, and Mr. Goldenberg heard my stuff and told me to go away, and to get some funny patter to turn my songs into a cohesive act.
I thought I was done for. One thing I certainly could not do was talk to an audience, especially in a funny way. But #1 and I sat down and worked out a routine anyway. Then I called Mr. Goldenberg—now ‘Paul’ since I’d pestered him so often—and told him I thought I could be funny. Unbelievably he granted me another audition. It was great! He laughed loudly at all the jokes we’d made up—and then told me to go away and just get a lot better because I was certainly not going to be hired at the i, even if I wanted to sleep with the owner, which, he assured me, was a likely requisite.
But the most important thing he told me was to go down to Los Angeles and try out at the Ash Grove, because I was like a little flickering flame that needed a protective globe around it until it could burn as bright as it promised it was going to, and the Ash Grove was that globe.
The Ash Grove was that globe to many people. TAJ MAHAL lived in the dressing room (a few years later) and worked odd jobs around the place while he got his act together. THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS were callow and unformed when they first showed up there. And of course there were other flickers of potential flame that no one ever heard of, many of whom are burning bright today.
I went to L.A., where my sister lived anyhow, and phoned ED PEARL, the owner of the Ash Grove. Some different from Mr. Banducci—Ed was actually the one who answered the phone that day. To my amazement, he said, “Sure, come on down and do a set tonight. Twenty minutes.”
Again that black stage, that black hole, the blinding light in the eyes, a room full of carnivores—actually more of them, arranged this time in a rectangle. But Paul Goldenberg was right, this was not as frightening, not by half. These people were not going to eat me and pick their teeth with my bones. I cruised through “House of the Rising Sun,” “Delia’s Gone,” an Israeli song and one my mother had written, called, “My Children Are Laughing Behind My Back.” [More on this song later.] At the end of the evening—a very long evening of suspense—Ed told me he wanted to be my manager.
So husband #1 and I packed up and moved to L.A.