"I was a good hitter, but I couldn't hit the long ball," says Peter (Snake Hips) Dean of his role as center-fielder for the Speculators in the Adirondack League, 1930 to 1931. "I had a job singing for five bucks a night in a hotel and I was playing ball during the day."
Dean can tell some baseball stories, but for every one of those he has a couple of hundred tales to tell on show biz celebrities, many of whom he managed, among them vocalists Dinah Shore and Jane Froman, band leaders Paul Whiteman and Charlie Spivak, pianist Buddy Weed, and the Hi-Los.
The singing, however, did not end with moonlighting at hotels. Dean went on to sing Sunday nights on NBC Radio with Vladmir Selinsky's quartet and jazz harpist Casper Reardon, lead his own 15-piece orchestra at Nick's in Greenwich Village, perform on the club and hotel circuit and at jazz festivals, and record six albums, one of them with his niece, Carly Simon. Dean will open at Cates Restaurant this Friday and stay through Dec. 1. House pianist Eddie Hayter and bassist Donald West will accompany Dean's voice, ukulele and dancing shoes, and among the selections will be "Duke's Melody," "Radio" and "Take Me to the Land of Jazz."
Dean, whose nickname goes back to his teens at New York's George Washington High School, was hooked on jazz early. "The stage manager of 'Blackbirds of 1928' was okay as far as us sneaking into the theater and watching the rehearsal," he says. "In that show was a fellow named Earl (Snake Hips) Tucker, and he came on in a white satin suit and gyrated and all that sort of thing. I would go home and practice that dance and my mother would slap me with a towel and say, 'Get in bed -- you have to make school tomorrow.' "
World War II Army service, nearly five years of it, aborted Dean's first singing career, but it created another one. "I was stationed on Governor's Island in Special Services in charge of all athletics and entertainment. Benny Goodman, Dinah, my old flame Peggy Lee, Whiteman, all my friends said, 'Sure, we'll come over to entertain the troops.' It was really an exciting time. When I got out, I had met so many people and so many doors were open to me, I decided to manage."
"That was the big one," says Dean of the Whiteman contract, launching into one of his favorite "Pops" stories. In August 1955, Whiteman was scheduled to conduct an all-Gershwin benefit concert at Connecticut's Fairfield University, an outdoor event expected to attract 10,000. Arriving two days early for preliminary festivities that included a parade in his honor and presentation to him of the key to Bridgeport, the famed orchestra leader participated enthusiastically in the conviviality, and on the day of the concert was barely able to navigate. An emergency summons to Dean reached him on the tennis court at Stamford.
"I got there and I see the old man perched on a stool, listing tremendously, trying to conduct an afternoon rehearsal," he says. With the assistance of the local chief of police, Dean drove Whiteman around in a squad car with the windows open. "We got him to the point where he could at least start the evening concert," but Whiteman collapsed on the final note of "American in Paris," which concluded the first half of the program, and was carried to his dressing room. Providentially, radio conductor Gus Haenschen was in the hall and volunteered to conduct the second half.
"Whiteman wakes up and hears the first notes of the concert's final number, 'Rhapsody in Blue,' " Dean recalls. "I have six policemen around him, and he knocks them all on their tochis. He was furious -- this is his baby, and no one should conduct it but him. He runs out on stage, bumps Haenschen off the podium with his shoulder, lifts his arms like a big eagle and leads the orchestra in that great legato movement -- da da dee da, you know -- and everybody stands on their feet and claps and yells.
"Oh, it was incredible -- the audience thought he was sick. They didn't know he was drunk."