AT 16 I WAS embarking on a course that would admit me to the preeminent cabarets and ballrooms of Boston and San Francisco -- a piano bench my passkey -- entering via the back doors of assorted waterfront dives, backstreet saloons and turnpike toilets.
Tiny's Carousel, on Route 9 between Worcester and Boston, embodied the middle reaches of the final category. A sign over the bar said, "Our waitresses are ladies of unimpeachable moral character," and the band, a quartet, featured a Negro on tenor sax who played rings around everyone in town. I later learned that I acquired the job (following an undistinguished audition) and held on to it by grace of Tiny's having come up before my uncle, a fairly well known Worcester County judge, on an extortion charge. My uncle had given him a small fine and probation, and Tiny was the soul of deference and congeniality throughout my tenure at his club. "A fine upstanding man, your uncle the judge," he'd say at the slightest provocation.
Tiny hired only strippers six feet tall and over. Glamazons, he called them. I believe the coinage originated with Billy Rose at his Diamond Horseshoe. Tiny's six-footers had names like Belle Adonna, Beryl Bang! (exclamation point hers), Eve Cherry and Ginger Rhale. They rarely brought in music, simply asked for "some slow blues" or "any jump tune, medium tempo, 'bout like this" -- snapping a thumb and middle finger in a brisk ellipse -- or "'Satin Doll,' medium-slow, couple choruses, stop time on the bridge; when I'm down to the bra and G-string double time and out."
Tiny, according to my uncle the judge, was a man "of humble origins and acquired manners." Short and chunky, with a comical rocking motion to his walk, he intoned in a soft, husky voice expressions of civility such as "Happy to be making your acquaintance," on being introduced to a new customer, and "Try the veal parmigiana, it'll enliven the palate."
His introductions of the acts were equally florid: "Now for your postprandial pleasure, the pulchritudinous Ginger Rhale . . ." The second night of Ginger's engagement, Tiny changed her billing to "Silverella." A lissome ebony-skinned beauty ("I grew up on a boulevard of broken lights," I overheard her tell a man at the bar), she emerged from behind a red velvet curtain in glittering silver headdress and swirling layers of diaphanous mauve and scarlet, tracing a sinuous course between the tables under a pale blue spot to a Fats Waller medley of "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now."
Gutbucket tenor and boiling drums propelled the medley through a progression of crescendos, spurring Silverella to impassioned maneuvers -- now prancing like a thoroughbred mare, now swinging her head to the floor, legs taut as a stork's, and straightening abruptly with a rapid-fire shimmy of shoulders and switching of hips -- all the while loosening strategically placed strings, allowing raiment to spin tempestuously from her body in incarnadine streamers. Thundering tom-toms, mingling with the crowd's raucous exhortations, built to a frenzied pitch, rolling into the climax -- the blue spot winking out on a vision that stormed the blood: Silverella, throat arched and arms akimbo, revealed in all her extravagant glory but for a phosphorescent coat of silver paint, collarbone to toes (and this 15 years before Goldfinger!), shining diabolically in the black light. A hollering, foot-stomping ovation followed her regal exit through the swirling red curtain. She colored my dreams, Silverella, the most erotic fantasies I've ever known, and she departed before I could muster the courage to speak a word to her.
Beryl Bang! was equally statuesque but more accessible. She had recently graduated from Pembroke, was funny and imaginative, and told me she had perfected her supple feline strut by conjuring a metamorphic image of herself as a Persian cat strolling along the top of a fence on a moonlit night. Her legs went on forever ("Do they go all the way up?" inquired a leering businessman as she sauntered past his table; "All the way to heaven, dearie," came her over-the-shoulder retort), and her raven hair fell like a lace shawl about her shoulders. Toward the tail end of her engagement I plucked raw courage out of the blue air:
"How about a bit of supper after the last show, Miss Bang!?"
She wore three-inch spikes; I was 5 feet 6, and her green gaze, which seemed to descend on me from the eaves, was not unkindly. "Honey, look at me and look at you and tell me what we're gonna do together."
Strippers, I was learning, appropriate for their art the best, bluest, gutsiest tunes of the day, and that year and a half at Tiny's was probably the happiest time I've ever known. Home at 2 in the morning and up at 7 for school; trying to nap in the late afternoons but too keyed up in anticipation of nightfall, the lights, the funky vibrant club and longlegged glamazons, and the music that sent the blood leaping and bucking in my veins.
As it must to all nightclubs, the IRS came to Tiny's Carousel -- dispassionate agents armed with padlocks -- and I gravitated back to Worcester, a solo spot at Vincent's in the Shrewsbury Street Italian section. This was a shiny and opulent cabaret, incongruously situated among the neighborhood groceries, laundries and pizzerias, and frequented by members of the thriving Worcester-Boston-Providence axis of La Cosa Nostra. I never learned who Vincent was.
The manager, whom I'll call Guido, owned two cocker spaniels, and every night at closing time he'd set out twin yellow bowls of food on either side of the leather-padded door beneath the zebra-striped awning. Inside was a black marble fireplace and lots of mirrors on the crimson walls; from different angles they glittered and flashed with light thrown from the banquettes' silver and glassware. The bar was separate, a small horseshoe affair called The Paddock, with black glass-top tables and framed photographs of racetracks and horses. In an alcove between the supper room, where I worked, and the bar was a combination coatcheck stand and cigarette counter operated by a pretty, faded woman attired in mesh stockings, satin corselet and pillbox hat. This was Guido's sister, and I would soon become overly familiar with a phrase that she invariably appended to her offhand remarks: "It's fairly common knowledge, but for the love of God don't quote me."
At that time you could distinguish the mob-patronized clubs (Vincent's was one of the smaller and more sedate of these establishments, which often featured elaborate floor shows and eight-to-12-piece bands) by the preponderance of good-looking young women who appeared to be unattached -- it took an immoderately courageous or naive outsider to find out -- and middle-aged men in conservative suits. The younger men dressed more elegantly but still along reserved lines, the sole note of ostentation residing in the cufflinks and tiepins that gleamed opulently in the restrained bar lights. The mobsters enjoyed contemporary music and the kindred arts -- singing, dancing, comedy. They liked to conduct their business and relax in sleek and animated surroundings and could grow misty-eyed listening to a pretty girl singing a sentimental tune.
I backed singer Amy Avallone and played solo segments around her. She was a full-bodied, sloe-eyed woman with olive skin and a marauding walk. ("Honey, I only walk down wide corridors 'cause I bruise kinda easy," I heard her say to an aging mafioso.) She came in that first night wearing a luxurious fur coat, a monogrammed leather folder under one arm and a blue silk gown over the other; she dropped the folder on the piano. "Let's run over my charts before the place fills up."
I glanced through the arrangements; they were elaborate and overwritten, dense with notes. My reading skill at the time was rudimentary, and the notation looked about as decipherable as a spattering of bird droppings across a barn wall.
"I know most of the tunes; why don't we just fake them?"
"I paid good loot for these charts. You can read, can't you?"
"Let's save ourselves trouble. Just write out the order with keys and number of choruses."
She leaned her elbows disconsolately on the piano and for a moment seemed to be studying her reflection in the polished wood; then she muttered something under her breath that sounded like a resigned "What a pity." When I got to know her better I realized the phrase had been "S--- City."
She opened each of her three nightly sets with "Once in Love With Amy" and closed with some sprightly maudlin jumper like "Aren't You Glad You're You?" (Ev'ry time you're near a rose/Aren't you glad you've got a nose?) The mafiosi ate it up. Part of my job was to boost her to a sitting position on the baby grand a la Helen Morgan, in one of her strapless sheaths (she wore a different one for every set and a week would elapse before I noticed a repeat.) A rich and heady perfume came off her throat and shoulders like mist off a still pond, and I'd retreat from these exquisite exertions reeling
Between her sets I played ballads and show tunes of the day, trying to impress with a lot of gloss and technical display -- cross-handed embellishments, two melodies rendered simultaneously (Watch this, Alec Templeton) and rhythmic variations on sturdy warhorses like "Alexander's Ragtime Band" -- what musicians call flagwavers. I thought it wouldn 't hurt to get on the right side of these guys.
Guido took me aside one night. Unlike his conservatively dressed clientele, he wore a brown shirt and yellow tie with his pinstripe suit. Complaints had come his way: People were having trouble recognizing the melody, and a highly esteemed party at a reserved table had remarked that the piano player couldn't seem to keep a steady beat -- sadly mistaking my embroideries for rhythmic instability.
"I like you, you're a nice boy," Guido said "Amy wishes you'd use her music but she's happier than she was with the last guy. Now, you want to make an old businessman happy? My friends are simple goodtime Charlies, they don't like a lot of adornment. Knock off the fancy flourishes, cut down the DiMaggios [arpeggios]. Leave us hear the melody, capisc?" And he drove a short playful right to my midriff and slapped my cheek in a friendly but brisk manner.
Later that night an old and battered mafioso approached the piano while I was playing a medley from "Oklahoma." His face was deeply seamed, and coarse tufts of gray hair sprouted from the backs of his thick hands. They lowered onto mine, at first merely covering them, then gently pressing them into the dead keys as if he were reluctantly squashing a pair of harmless but repulsive insects; "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" went flatter than a doormat.
"Play 'Ciao, Ciao Bambina.' It's for my wife." His voice was a hoarse whisper. "Play it every 10 minutes until I tell lyou to stop." He raised off my hands, which involuntarily retained their crushed-bug position, and dropped a $5 bill on the piano; it fluttered like an autumn leaf, brushing the keyboard, coming to rest in my lap. To my considerable relief I knew the tune, thanks to my apprenticeship at the Italian-American Social Club two years earlier -- and found myself smiling in recollection, thinking "Eat, Eat Babe Ruth," which had been an American bass player's designation for "Ciao, Ciao Bambina." (As mnemonic aids he had devised his own translations of the Italian titles; thus "Chiove" became "Anchovy" and "Non Dimenticar," "Please Don't Dent My New Car.")
Guido wandered in from the bar, grimacing painfully and banging the heel of his palm against his ear like a long-distance swimmer emerging from a heavy surf. "What's with the same song, you're sounding like a broken record." I told him of the unusual request and pointed out the party who had made it in a corner banquette. Guido took a look and said, "Keep playing It."
After a month backing Amy Avallone I helped her on with her coat one Saturday night as she was leaving. It was either mink or a class muskrat and gave off a frangrance like a moonsplashed field of jasmine. I opened the door for her and blurted, "How about going somewhere for coffee?" She glanced at me in a sidelong, questioning way, smiling and frowning at the same time; a low chuckle rose in her throat. "You tried of living?" I watched her swing voluptuously across the street on spike heels, her breath pluming in the chill morning, and slide into the front seat of a black Chrysler. A man in a dark shiny suit sat behind the wheel, smoking. At my feet, Guido's cocker spaniels were scarfing noisily from the twin yellow bowls. The club door opened, and the elderly mafioso who had flattened my hands on the keyboard a week earlier came out. He breathed deeply of the crisp air, buttoning his overcoat.
"Guido tells me our name is Asher," he said in his soft, hoarse voice.
"Your father the judge?"
He nodded sagely and gazed down at the busy spaniels; an almost angelic smile crept over the bulbous, weathered face as he stooped laboriously to fondle one of the golden heads. "I see you dogs're dining out tonight," he whispered.