'Teddy Grace Once lost, now found' by Derek Jenkins, 2007

From The Elvis Costello Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search

The Oxford American Issue 58 Ninth Annual Southern Music Issue, 2007


Teddy Grace Once lost, now found.

By Derek Jenkins

Compensating for a lack of natural range with a buoyant yodel, she sang not quite like a bird—more like a bird in flight and low to the ground, lilting and dipping and unpredictable, guided by an exhilarating force or chased along by unseen troubles. Cut loose from any bodily anchor, resonant and spectral, her agonizing shallows and abrupt swells haunted any listener fortunate enough to stumble upon a loose 78 for almost half a century. Something not just in the words but in her phrasing signaled a worried mind, hinted at a racially specific point of reference. She sounded black. She might well have been black.

She went by Teddy Grace, and she became a byword among a certain stripe of jazz and blues enthusiast for being little more than a name under the title, and more often than not the name under the name under the title, spelled out in that small type reserved for vocalists during the reign of the extravagantly arm-swinging bandleader. Her output was limited to fifty-three sides and spanned only a few years, but she recorded for Decca and with some of the premier artists of her era, including Dave Barbour, Bob Crosby, Billy Kyle, Buster Bailey, and Jack Teagarden. Those relatively sparse, all-but-anonymous cuts, many your standard swing fare but some imbued with a genuine feeling for deep blues, kept the tiny gears of the recollection machine turning.

For a long time, hers remained one more object lesson in how slippery our past really is, how different things had been before the advent of fully integrated media, how easily a singular talent could fall by the wayside, and to what extent even the most precious of human achievements could be reduced to mere remnants by cold and bloodless events. The music, so immediate and lifelike but also disconnected and mysterious, took on all the significance of an apparition.

Then somebody in the know, a kind of redemptive angel, laid eyes on her one and only album, a collection of five 78s featuring ten of her best recordings, on the sleeve a capsule biography and an actual photograph. Teddy Grace turned out to be a privileged white woman from Bienville Parish, Louisiana.

David W McCain is a born seeker. Raised in New Orleans, his preoccupation has long been collecting, digging up recordings by various female vocalists like Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley, and Ethel Waters. A compulsive excavator, he has the habit, familiar to obsessive’s, of moving heaven and earth to feed his interests. As a young man, he turned a predilection for female vocalists into a fondness for the Andrews Sisters into a love affair with the Boswell Sisters into a full-scale investigation, rediscovering the youngest of the latter three, Helvetia "Vet" Boswell, and preserving her memories before they faded away for good. (He's currently writing a book on the Boswells with her daughter, Chica Minnerly.)

McCain attended college at Northeast Louisiana University for a while, and then transferred to Northwestern in Natchitoches (right in Teddy Grace's backyard), where he received a BA in journalism and the research skills that continue to serve his life's pursuit. He drifted from job to job for years, at one time training to be a court reporter. At thirty-six, he moved to New York. He slept on the couch of a friend until he landed stable office work. New York has no end of serious jazz and blues collectors, and McCain fell in with a like-minded community.

Somewhere along the way he came across Teddy Grace. He thinks the song was "Alibi Baby," a track on a mix tape given to him by a fellow collector, nestled amongst a number of his treasured female vocalists. The music was good enough, swing dressed up in blues by a riveting vocal performance, but the story was great. She stayed in the back of his mind. He managed to track down some of her best performances, including the gravelly and acrobatic "Downhearted Blues" and its yearning B-side "Monday Morning," each of which brought his interest to a boil.

A short time later he was on the phone with the woman who used to be Teddy Grace.

That small biography on her record sleeve, woefully incomplete, reserved most of the space for selling her peculiar ability to "sing like the colored people." It was the pre-Civil Rights equivalent of saying she'd spent some time in prison. Her full name and hometown of Arcadia, Louisiana, gave him enough to start with, though. McCain called the parish historian on the off-chance of a local record. By some miracle, Teddy's younger brother had been in town only a week earlier for a high-school reunion. McCain found himself two phone calls away from the Southern California nursing home where the former Miss Grace was living out her days. The story she told him filled in the blanks.

She was born Stella Gloria Crowson in 1905, the penultimate of ten siblings: seven boys and three girls. Teddy always hated the name "Stella," and was only too happy to become Ted or Teddy when her baby brother couldn't manage her given name. Her father was a parish clerk, old-moneyed and important, and the inventor of a fraction-adding machine. Her mother was Frances James, a college graduate and dutiful wife. They lived on a forty-eight-acre pecan orchard.

Her older sister received classical training on the piano from a blind instructor named Elizabeth Garrett (the daughter of Pat Garrett, who shot Billy the Kid), and Teddy maintained to her dying day that big sis was the greatest pianist she had ever heard. One of her brothers played the trombone. While Teddy had no formal musical training, she could pick out songs by ear at a very young age, and she made good use of a ukulele given to her by an uncle. For her own instruction, she preferred to sneak out and climb to the roof of the barn, where she could hear the family of her father's "fetch and tote man," "Catlick" Johnson, sing black spirituals and the blues.

For most of her formative years, she didn't have much to cry about. Then, at fourteen, the first in a series of misfortunes struck her family. Within days of each other, her father and her mother died from a bad flu, leaving Teddy and her younger brother, the only siblings still at home, prematurely adrift. Teddy was sent to Virginia to live with her namesake, Stella Cox, but missed Louisiana too much to stay permanently. She returned to attend Mansfield Female College and graduated at eighteen.

Though she had lost her parents, Teddy didn't want for much. Now a young woman, she continued to enjoy the advantages of her class. Her brother John was an oil man in El Dorado, Arkansas, at a very good time to be an oil man in El Dorado, Arkansas. She fondly recalled the "sophisticated life"—one time meeting a handsomely renumerated Babe Ruth at a local event—and spending her weekends among social darlings on the Saline River. At her eighteenth-birthday party, she met George Grace, a recently divorced, extremely successful older man. They courted for a year, then Teddy acquired her stage name and a big house in Montgomery, Alabama.

She whiled away almost a decade in country-club comfort, draining cocktails with high society, prepping with the golfers' wives for a long and distinguished career by the pool in the beating sun. Happily childless, often on the road with her traveling businessman of a husband, she might have spent the rest of her days singing the blues under her breath. Then somebody caught her quietly singing along at a party where a band was playing a W.C. Handy number over a radio remote.

I hate to see that evening sun go down, I hate to see that evening sun go down, 'Cause, my baby, he's gone left this town. Feelin' tomorrow like I feel today, If I'm feelin' tomorrow like I feel today, I'll pack my truck, make my getaway.

Teddy Grace was already twenty-six years old and well on her way to a life of comfort and leisure when she accepted a fortuitous dare and sang those words into a microphone. The odd Bessie Smith fan in the crowd may have heard them coming from miles off but they took the high and mighty of Montgomery by surprise. Coming from a white woman, they opened a window had always been nailed shut. The owner of the local radio station, WSFA, rushed to her side, followed closely by the owner of French's Piano Company, her first sponsor: She went on the air the very next day.

McCain was able to piece together the story of her tumultuous career using Grace's recollections and the dusty work of pre-Internet research. Grace remained on WSFA for a couple of years before moving on to the larger WBRC in Birmingham, where she played sometimes with an orchestra, but often accompanying herself on a piano or on a guitar strung with four strings like her beloved ukulele. Her signature tune was "Stormy Weather," a song she would never get around to recording. From there, she hooked up with Al Stanley and His Arcadians (pure coincidence) on a tour of the Gulf Coast before landing in Pensacola, Florida, for a month-long summer engagement.

Meanwhile, her relationship with her husband was deteriorating. Well-traveled though he was, Mr. Grace expected his wife around on his days off and grew to resent her success. "He thought it [her musical career] was cute at first, but it soon became a nuisance," she later explained. When Al Katz and His Kittens breezed through Pensacola looking for a vocalist along the same lines of Connee Boswell and found instead an eager Teddy, the Graces' tenuous partnership couldn’t withstand the blow.

Grace joined Katz for an eight-week stint up the Atlantic Coast, stopping off in North Carolina, where she first tasted fame: She was named "Wilmington's Sweetheart" and was hounded by some overly familiar fans.(One such admirer was the appropriately christened Hap Hazard. When Teddy later played New York City, Hazard sailed his boat up the coast to see her. He thought they'd just married.) By the time she arrived in New York with Katz, her career was beginning to run full-tilt. She accrued "about seven thousand managers" and played essential teeth-cutting gigs to bigger audiences with Tommy Christian's orchestra. Meanwhile, another amorous fan showed up at enough shows to catch her eye. She married Harry Maple,an actuary with Sun indemnity and friend of Tommy Christian's, in 1933.

After Teddy signed on with the Mal Hallett Orchestra in 1934, her headlong ascent plateaued for a few years. Hallett's was a flamboyant territory band, led by gangly Mal in raucous dance numbers before drunken weekend revelers, limited in popularity but touring almost nonstop, hopelessly on the cusp of breaking out. Though successful enough to merit the cover of Orchestra World in June of 1934 (almost unheard of for a vocalist), Teddy found the life nerve-wracking and resented the advances of the kind of men she ran into on the road. Rattled by a horrible accident somewhere in Ohio, in which all of the band members save Teddy were injured, she gave up the business for a couple of years rest at home in New York.

When she returned in 1937, conditions had changed. Hallett had a much higher profile, landing bigger gigs and snagging a little radio time, and Teddy's return only took things up a notch. Her first recording was "Rockin' Chair Swing," a fine introduction to the way her blues insinuated themselves into Hallett's white-boy swing, highlighting her sleepy drawl, pierced by bright, pinched high notes. She went on to record ten sides with Hallett. That same year, Warner Bros. released a one-reeler called Mal Hallett & His Orchestra, a hammy revue in the form of a music class, featuring, along with a crash course in "Swinglish," two restrained but revealing performances by Teddy. Such success managed to coax her back onto the road, and she played a string of engagements all over the Northeast.

Her Hallett sessions sold Decca on a deal, and Grace left the band to record on her own. Five of the best musicians around gave her one day for scale, and together they laid down four of her best tracks, including the characteristically defiant "Love Me or Leave Me" and her first traditional-blues number, "Crazy Blues." Teddy, Frank Froeba, Billy Kyle, Bobby Hackett, Buster Bailey, and Jack Teagarden started drinking early in the day, but you can't hear it in the music, unless that easy shuffle is the whiskey talking. Teagarden, an infamous lightweight, would bandy about Teddy's abilities with a bottle for years.

The music business is like one of those infuriating glass cubes at the county fair, swirling with money but little more than a rube's game to all but a sticky-fingered few. Decca founder Jack Kapp had a knack for snatching bills out of the air. And he thought they might be onto something with Teddy. Organizing a similar session the next year, he put together a slightly larger band but drew material from the same bluesy tradition. Kapp had already discovered a number of huge acts, including such vanilla icons as Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo, but he did little to tweak the sound of the initial recordings. The music remained a stripped-down vehicle for the lived-in loneliness of Teddy's voice.

The resulting album succeeded, but not enough to warrant a follow-up. Kapp may have been savvy enough to give her a shot, but he was hardly set to make decisions based on any value outside of a dollar. Teddy only had a handful of sessions with a couple of different orchestras left in her She put down some vibrant sides with Bing's brother Bob Crosby and His Orchestra—and also played with them at the 1939 World's Fair in Flushing. But her best remaining recordings were four numbers with Bud Freeman's Summa Cum Laude Orchestra, including a sorrowful version of Marlene Dietrich’s "See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have."

Then, nothing.

However easy her life had been, Teddy Grace seemed to be gathering soul in reverse. By 1940, she grew weary of the business. Touring took too much out of her and her recording career gained too little traction with audiences. She felt under-promoted, but Decca found her anomalously authentic blues unmarketable. A white lady who sounded black might've been a striking find, but the world proved unready for her brand of cross-fertilization. She stopped touring. Recording sessions thinned out. Her second marriage failed. She retreated to the wings for three years.

Another tragedy broke her silence. When her nephew was killed in the war in 1943, she joined the Women's Army Corps, or WACs (immortalized on celluloid in the Cary Grant vehicle I Was a Male War Bride). She completed basic training in Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia, and set to touring, singing, and organizing war-bond drives- all over the Southeast as Sgt. Stella Maple. Enlisting the help of red-blooded stars like Ozzie and Harriet, Bob Hope, and Red Skelton, she raised over three hundred million dollars and consistently broke records for recruitment.

If her previous tours had been strenuous, this schedule was grueling. One need only recall the inexhaustible tempo of contemporary newsreel footage, the ceaseless procession toward some hopeful but unimaginable end, to recognize the simultaneous elation and strain of such work. She moved from town to town, taking on ever more responsibility, singing at every stop. Dallas, Sherman, Texarkana, Little Rock, and back again. She shredded her voice.

Teddy felt it going, but pushed forward—one more bond rally, one more recruitment drive. She ended up in a Little Rock hospital, speechless. Doctors weren't sure if she'd ever regain her speaking voice, much less sing as she once had. Six months later she was talking in whispers, but her progress had a low ceiling. Having stripped her of that glorious asset, the Army shipped her down to Camp Plauche in New Orleans to learn a trade, as any kind of pension commensurate with her loss was out of the question. Having never done much menial work, Teddy was on her way to becoming the world's most tragic secretary.

She met her third husband in New Orleans. an instructor at the receptionist school. After following him to California, she took on a fourth and final name, as horribly fitting as any before. She got a job at Rockwell International, a contractor with the space program. Now meek and earthbound, she was known as Stella Hurt.

Almost fifty years later, all David McCain knew of Teddy -Grace was that voice—a voice long dead. The win, shaky drawl at the other end of the line belonged to someone else. Their conversations were lovingly digressive and thick with endearments. He called on her birthday, sent tapes of her recordings and all the pictures he could scrounge up from that long-ago yesteryear, even the film clip. One night, her fellow residents got to see Teddy Grace onscreen, dancing lightly at Swing School with Professor Mal and the gang.

But however affectionate the relationship, the two never met. Teddy was in bad shape. She felt abandoned and alone, and cancer was slowly eating her away. She felt that she'd lost what she once was. "They used to tell me that I projected happiness, and now I know I project irritability 'cause I have it so much now. I'm just not the same person," she told him. She would die only a few weeks later. He'd known her for nine months. Around the time he first contacted her, he sent copies of some pictures to commemorate those ten or so years out of her long life. She autographed a couple to send back. On the second, she accidentally signed the name by which she now knew herself: "Stella Hurt.' The staff at her nursing home helped her fix the mistake. He still has that picture hanging on his wall, with cosmic white-out correcting fifty years of wrong.