George TownesGeorge Townes:
Full Interview

Recorded 3/05. Please be patient as media loads.
Transcription includes real-time designations from the tracks on the CD of the interview.

George Townes: (muffled)....I found a fella that speaks German and he’s gonna call on Friday but it’s about 6 hours difference so I can go back to Hamburg you know if I can get out of here, and he is gonna interpret. Every time that I call them on the phone they’d here the English and they would slam the phone down. I can’t speak it, but when I get over there the stuff comes back to you, but I can’t converse on the phone. So he’s gonna do that for me, and find out if I can get back over there.

I: What do you hope to do over there, in Germany?

GT: Work, Sing.

I: Is it very different? The Jazz culture there?

GT: Oh, yes.

I: How so?

GT: They appreciate it more there. They don’t come to the place dressed up, it’s not their thing, but they come you know? (1: 00) and they’re responsive and they appreciate it. And that’s it, that’s what I love, and they love you back. I hate to use that term, but that’s it. And they show it. Like for me, they gave me my apartment, call them “flats” you know for nothing, all I did was buy my food, you know? And I have to say this too, the social life is tremendous.

I: (laughing)

GT: And that’s the way it was. But I had to come home you know becauce of the children, ’cause sometimes, well the big D is there, you know that’s the drug thing. You have to straighten that all out. Otherwise, I guess, I’d still be over there. Who knows?

I: Now, did you perform in Jazz clubs, or...

GT: Mmhm...

I: What is the atmosphere like, is it a formal setting, or you said it was a little more laid back?

GT: Yes. Laid back.

I: Do you ever interact with the audience?

GT: Oh yeah, just a little. (2: 00) I do it between sets. And even here when their set is over, most musicians, they hang among themselves, I don’t. I go out, I see what’s going on. I talk to them. The last one I had at Summer’s Point, down on the beach down there. Uhhh, as soon as the set was over, I went out, and the place was crowded). The beach was crowded and I talked to a lot of folk, then I saw a lady, and I said “hey you look like my wife Jesus Christ.” And I don’t know whether it was true or not, but I didn’t see but three black people in the whole town. Any of you from Summer’s Point? Anyway I said, “gee, this must be klux town” So I told my driver, I said “get me out of this place” but that’s the way it was. Then when it was over (3: 00) they came up to the band stand and shook my hand and told me how much they appreciated it.

I: I was wondering if you would talk about when you were growing up?

I would listen to the radio and I could differentiate one voice from another and one band from another... listening to music and trying to get a voice, from the voice that I heard.

GT: Oh jeez, well I grow up pretty...I know, when I was about 8 in grammar school, I used to sit down, my mother was a musician for one thing. I think that’s where I got it from. She was a piano player and she was a teacher also.

I: Did she give you lessons?

GT: Couldn’t do that, not with family, you don’t do that, “You’re a blockhead” you know. So I went to school. I went to Academy Theater of Arts, it’s right now on Cecil B. Moore, 23rd and Columbia Ave. then. And then what that close, all this was on GI, then I went down to Hamilton, 16th and Spruce. I finished it out down there. But I could sing. I wanted to take piano lessons, but it was too slow for me (4: 00), so I dropped it and kept voice. When I was growing up, I was about 8 years old, no TVs then, that’s the way it was. I would listen to the radio and I could differentiate one voice from another and one band from another, and my mother would have to call me... “come up to bed, you have to go to school tomorrow.” And that’s the way I grew up, you know, listening to music and trying to get a voice, from the voice that I heard. You do that when you’re young, you know, you imitate, and you listen to see what you want to sound like, but later on you have to get your own, you know what I mean, I mean that’s the way it is. So I came up that way, let’s see what else...

I: Did you participate in a chorus, or like in classes?(5: 00)

GT: Nah, When I was grown I was in a chorus, 18 pieces. I went into that. But I always wanted to be Me. I wanted to stand out. If I make mistakes, I’m making the mistakes. I want to be the one out there and that’s what I did. When I went to the service I was imitating, well I’ll name some names, you don’t have to know who they were. There was a band called Jimmy Dorcy’s Band, the singer was Bob Everly. It was Bob Everly and Hellen O’Connell and they use to sing “Brazil” and “Green Eyes” and that kind of stuff. Well, I liked his voice when I was in the service, but when I came out I heard someone else, you know. I heard Jack Leonard. Jack Leonard was the guy before Sinatra in Tommy Dorcy’s band. He could hold a passage so long without taking a breath, you know what I mean (6: 00) and that’s a thing today. You don’t just do that over night. You practice, you practice...and then again when you breathe now, you don’t breath like you do normally. You take a breath and when you take a breath your stomach goes out when you sing. Not like the other way, ’cause when you breathe like (takes a deep breath) you ordinarily do that (referring to pulling one’s stomach in) and when you expand or push air out it comes out, that’s where you hold it, you know what I mean? But that’s a thing that you learn later on. That’s the way it was. I came up with the biggies, and when I say the biggies, I mean I came up with the Eckstein’s who I loved the Prawsocks (muffled) the Heartman’s the Al Hibler’s and people like that and the Dick Haines you know. Mel Tome with his crazy self and stuff like that. That’s the way I did it and then I had to get my own voice, my own tone, and that’s what I did.

I: (7: 00) so were you listening to them on the radio mostly or on records?

GT: No, well, then yes, but then I saw a lot of them later on .

I: Did you see them performing in Philadelphia?

GT: Yeah, and out of Philadelphia too.

I: Where is Philadelphia did you see them perform?

GT: Well then, let’s see, there was a place called Pep’s on Broad and South. Right around the corner there was a Show Boat on Broad and Lombard. And during that time there was the Lincoln theater on Broad Street near Pine, and on Ridge Avenue near 15th there was a place called the Blue Note, they were the biggies.

I: What were they like, what were the clubs like, what sort of people went there?

GT: Jazz people, people of jazz.

I: Would they be dressed up?

GT: Yes, especially on a Monday night. On Monday there was a jam session at one o’clock in the afternoon and a night session (8: 00) Everybody would be cool. That’s the way it was then, now it’s anything, but that’s the way it was and we enjoyed it.

I: was it mostly men, or would there be women?

GT: Both, all of them everybody together, no kids of course, but that’s the way it was.

I: So Monday did people go, did people leave work to go?

GT: Well, some of them stayed off just like at Earl Theater on 11th and Market, you’ve heard of the Earl. You had all the big people then people stayed off from school, all the kids, a lot of kids used to go down there and they went there, and sure, they’d stay off and that’s the way it was. That’s’ when I was working. A male singer was prominent then, they were over the woman then. There was a little place on Mole Street right between 15th and 16th (9: 00). There’s no more Mole Street now, uhh between Market and Randstaad, no more Mole St. And a place called Spider Kelly’s that was a club, and there was Kelly’s, um, fishery next door, but Spider Kelly’s was the place, where if you want to hide from someone, don’t go to Spider Kelly’s, ’cause they would see you there, and that was a good place. Then there was a Horn and Heartart on the corner at 15th and Market, Automat it’s no

George speaks about Spider Kelley’s.
more there now, not there now. So we go there and eat something, you know, something like that. Them were some good days. And then on the corner at 16th and Market there was a club, uh, they had a revolving stage upstairs, that’s no more there either. Big bands used to go in there too. The Click, they called it the Click [10: 00]. And uh, they were the good days.

I: How did you get your break when you started performing?

GT: Haha, a break...well listen my first job was five dollars, and they stole my hat then.

I: What year was that?

GT: Oh, I don’t know the year. Really, I don’t.

I: Was it the 50s or the 60s?

GT: It had to be the 50s because I got hurt and I couldn’t perform, and that’s when I started going to music school after I got hurt, that was December the 4th 1949 I remember it well ’cause that’s when they took my left eye. I was coming out of the Mercantile Hall when...which is now the Blue Horizon on Broad and Masjunct (mumbled) I had just finished performing, I was going across the street with my lady to get in the car and two fellows approached me (11: 00) and ah they started fighting with the people in the front of me and they ran the people in the front ran. The two guys said here’s one let’s get him which is me—I didn’t know what they were after. So they turned around they pulled the gun and they pulled the trigger and it clicked. It didn’t go off, I’m lucky there, it didn’t go off.

I: Wow.

GT: So I turned around and said what you trying to do kill me? So I saw an arm go up and I saw a big flash of light and I knew that was it.

I: What was the flash?

GT: A knife right stuck in my eye.

I: Oh my god.

GT: I’m here today. That’s in ’49. God blessed me. so I grabbed it and I got up off the ground and I ran zig zag in case the guy would shoot again I had that.

I: Wow.

GT: Oh yeah. So I spied a fellow across the street at the Mercantile Hall he was coming out and I called him and he took me to St. Joe’s 17th and and Gerard. (12: 00) So that morning I heard the nurse say ooh look at that pretty white shirt. I said nevermind the shirt, do something for my eye.

I: (laughs)

GT: So they couldn’t they tried ah to save it for a week they tried they couldn’t do it. And all that week I had pain you know so when they took it out I didn’t have anymore pain but I knew I had one then the world was so large and I had two eyes but then one of those was gone. So hey, that’s that’s life you know. I’m still here. And um, ah the railroad, you know I told you I was working for the railroad. They let me go, they said there’s nothing that I can do but there was, that that’s their policy I suppose. So in ’52, I finally got my job back, you know, and ah, I started working again like that. So I worked with some big boys I worked, you’d be surprised. (13: 00) I... Oh yeah there was another club here too called, um, its on Arch Street, Just Jazz. I got a couple pictures here, Just Jazz. And uh, big folks used to play there. Stan Getz, who was a Philadelphian. Oh yeah, all those guys, most of them told me to leave

Rising pressure to leave Philadelphia.
Philadelphia because there’s nothing I can do here. Nobody’s going to pay minimum or cover to see you because you are a resident here, you live here. Who want to pay a cover charge to see you? So they said leave. Dizzie Gillespie, you’ve heard of him, [interviewers say “mm hmm”] he told me to leave. You know what I mean?

I: Where did they tell you you should go? New York?

GT: Anywhere, anywhere but here. And, naturally they would go to New York. But see during that time New York was loaded. And then again, later on, you wouldn’t believe it, Philadelphia had more places to work than New York. They used to come down here to get jobs. (14: 00)

I: Was that just male singers? That...[muffled]

GT: No, everybody.

I: Everybody?

GT: Everybody.

I: Even if you were a female in Philadelphia?

GT: Yes, an instrumentalist...

I: [muffled] were a resident, so you were excluded from...?

GT: Yes, that’s the way it is. Who wants to see, I see him, he sits in all the time. [hard to hear] Now they got people coming in who couldn’t carry my briefcase. [laughter and muffled words] You know what I mean? Even now.
You see musicians, I hate to say it but they’re a lousy lot. They will not help you.

This is a picture of George singing at Just Jazz on
Arch St. in the 1970s. Bobby Durham is on the
drums and Benny Nelson is on bass.
You know, you cannot slide in on their coattails. First of all if you’re a good singer or if you’re a good performer you get more applause than they do. Like I told you, they’ll go into the theme song or something like that and you’re excluded, you have to fall back. I’ve been with them, you can name them I’ve been with them. And, ah, that’s the way it’s been. (15: 00) So I was singing for a long time but I wouldn’t leave my job because I didn’t know that, I might have starved when I left, if I left. Who knows, but then again I might have made it.. Now most musicians even today don’t have insurance. That was their whole, music is their whole thing. And when they die we have to give benefits. I went to a thing yesterday, a funeral. Ray Grant, a piano player. He just died. And a few weeks a go I went to Jimmy Smith the organ player. And a few weeks before that it was Jimmy Oliver, he played at Top Shelf, 56th and Market. I went to his, you know. And ah, there’s an undertaker here that takes care, ah that does musicians a favor. Savern, he’s a jazz enthusiast on 11th street. Savern Funeral Home. He takes up the slack, you know what I mean, he helps you know. (16: 00) Even I couldn’t get a job on jazz cruises which I go you know. I got a poster. And ah, but I know the musicians on the jazz cruise so I can sit in but they will not give me a job. You know?

I: Where did you perform, what clubs did you sing in Philadelphia?

GT: Ah, let’s see, Spider Kelly’s, Pep, Pep Boy’s, I mean [laughter] Pep, Pep’s. Now I was, I remember when Pep’s was a restaurant, Broad and South, but it became into a jazz club, Pep’s. Blue Note on Ridge Avenue. Ah, Adam’s Mark on City Line. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, um...

The great jazz venues of Philadelphia.

I: Would you be accompanied by people playing, like a band or...

GT: My main thing is a piano player, you don’t have to have anybody else. If a piano player can play, change chords, change keys, and give me the right chords, its beautiful, if he can’t, lay out.
Sometimes I’d have to piano, tell the piano player to lay out. Sometimes I’d have the piano player, tell the piano player to lay out. That’s another reason they don’t like me today. I want what I want, I want it right, you know. When I sing, I can sing the part, the chord part underneath me, underneath my breath. It comes naturally. Like a triad (sings do do do, do do do) I can hear that myself and I know what should be played on the piano, you know. You know and things like that. Now you can have it, well yeah, I used to sing, you know football, I guess you know a little about football, you know when Cunningham was the quarterback here, you know, with the Eagles? I was singing at least two Star Spangled Banners a year at the Vet. Arlen Saylor was the music director, he’s sick now, he’s in Boyertown now, he retired. (18: 00) And ah, and then 65,000 people I wouldn’t look at them,honestly. I would just sing and people had the pictures and things like that. Yeah, without music, a capella.

I: Now did you ever get nervous performing?

GT: In the beginning. In the beginning, oh yeah, in New Hope too, in New Hope in the Canal House. In the beginning (laughs) the guy who used to play the piano, I’d face him. The audience is back here. I like Miles Davis, he did a lot of that. But ah, sure, sure (laughs)

I: What did you do to overcome that?

GT: I don’t know, I don’t know, you keep singing and the people were responding and clapping a little bit more. The would never say turn around but it just came and that’s where it was. (19: 00) Now, geez I don’t just stand up with the microphone, I look and I try to tell people who ask me about these things, I look at the audience, but never look at the audience’s eyes, the girls’ eyes or the guys’ you’ll mess up. So, you look at right

George with Evelyn Simms in a Jazz
bulletin put together by Fred Miles
in the 1970s.
above their head. They think you’re looking at their eyes. That’s one of the tricks too you know. And that’s it, they’ll smile, but you’re not looking at them. That’s one of the things too. No I don’t get nervous now. But even the greatest girl singer jazz that I know she used to get nervous even when she was grown I mean whatever is Sarah Vaughn. I think that all the ladies that have sung should be sitting at her feet when she sang because she was the greatest as far as I’m concerned. Yeah, her voice way up there and everything and strong

I: She would get nervous? Sarah Vaughn?

GT: Yes, yes she said so in her book. Yeah, after the first song, that’s it, that’s it you know. And she used to sweat like a pig. (20: 00) I never did that, I never sweat but I mean she did. Now Ella, she used to sweat. She scat she sang everything Ella did you know. I was in, you’ve heard of the Appollo haven’t you? I was on the Apollo amateur route. (laughs) But in the dressing room before we went on Count Basie was playing with the band, whoever played there before the amateurs, he was there for that week. Now he wasn’t on the piano, somebody else played the piano, but his band was playing when the guys were performing, the people were perfroming. And in the dressing room, the three people were going around talking to the different people. They never came to talk to me at all. I didn’t think too much about it but there’s a reason. They had already picked their person, you know what I mean? So when I got up and I sang, the spotlight on and people were clapping while I was singing. (21: 00) I remember the song I was singing, you might not know it, it’s “If I can Help Somebody as I Pass Along” its beautiful. So during that time it was applause with your hands, Coles and Adkins, those were the two guys they were comedians too and he put his hand over my head and he says “George you won this tonight but we’re promoting kids.” See and that killed me right there. I was going to hang out in New York but I went right down to Penn Station and got the train and came on home. That knocked me out there. I went over to the Village Gate in the Village and I sang there for six weeks trying for somebody to pick me up. They liked what I was doing but no sponsor, you know? So I went across the street there’s a place there at Thompson and Bleeker called the Maid Surf, a piano bar I used to sit in on something like htat. I’ve been there, that’s beautiful. In Europe I was working at a place called Valentino’s. (22: 00), and uh see George Wein, the emapsara (mumbled) from New York he used to give those shows every year. Is something wrong? Every year and I used to go over, but George wouldn’t let me go on the big stage, but guys used to tell him, let George..., but I sang in a club, this was in Nice, and like I told you, one of the most beautiful cities I’d ever seen, and when the thing was over, and uh on a the big stages in town, it’d always come down to the club where I was working, and sit in and that was beautiful too ya know. And um, (laughter) well that will come later, but they always kid me about the fact that I was run out of Europe. (laughter) well you don’t know these things you know. Uh, I’ll tell you now. I was working in the club one night, and uh during intermission I was sitting at a table with some people, and in walks this lady, and my heart did dum-dum-dum-dum, (laughter) (in a low voice: Jesus Christ you are talking about someone beautiful). (23: 00) So she sat down, and when she sat down, my eyes were on her and about

George at the First Nighter at Juniper
and Race St. in the 70s.
10 seconds she got up to go and the waitress came over and said you are not leaving now are you? We have a wonderful singer here and they pointed out to me and my eyes was on her anyways (laughter) so when it was time for me to go up on stage, I went up the stage and started singing, so she came up there was a seat empty at the bar and while I was singing, I saw her say something to the guy next to her, to her, what she did was ask him would I have a drink with her when I came down, so I came down we went in the back, she wanted to dance American style, close. She wanted to kiss American on the lips instead of the cheek. I obliged on both counts (laughter). So um it it, that was our first night with her, now ten days we had over there, ten days glorious days (laughter), you are talking about the word love, we are all adults here, it it was that. A lot of things I didn’t know anything about.

I: How old were you at this time?

GT: Uh, this was only about 10 years ago.

I: Oh really? (24: 00)

GT: See. (laughing) I didn’t bring that picture down. With her. I didn’t bring that down. Because I had a picture, I sent it home, cause she, she knocked me out. And I sent it to my daughter and I said my lady in Paris. She was from Paris, oh and um now that was about 12 years ago, that’s right, and she was on vacation in Nice. I was in Nice on the Riviera. She had a convertible, so that night, we made an appointment for that next morning to have brunch because musicians don’t get up that early, but I got up a little early for her. So I waited on the corner, you know the outside restaurants and the outside things ya know. She was coming down the street with her little dog in front of her, you know what I mean, pulling her like that. oh yeah and one other thing, have you been to Europe?

I: Yeah.

GT: You know that dogs can go into restaurants, pets can go into restaurants, and sit at the table

I: No, I know they do, I’ve been to Nice (25: 00)

GT: God, have mercy I couldn’t handle it at first. But I had to get, ya know I didn’t want to feel like that. but I handled it I didn’t throw up or anything. But uh anyway, there was a guy walking in back of us. I didn’t notice it too much. So we sat down, we did that for ten days, we had you know, shed pick me up, and we’d go places you know. Let me off at day light, and all that kind of stuff. So the festival was over, all the musicians left. So I stayed there because of her and a guy said George, he did the same thing with his girl. And he said are you still seeing the girl, her name was Janis. And I said yeah. Well I was told to tell you to cut her lose man. I said what are you talking about. He said, if not, they were gonna break your legs; take your eyes out, whatever. I said what do you mean? He said you don’t know who she is? I said a lady from Paris and all she said to me was she wasn’t a pauper. (26: 00) See she didn’t speak much English but you know you didn’t, music you know is universal but she dressed perfectly all the time. So um he said you don’t know who she is. And I said no, he said she’s a mafia’s mistress out of Paris.

I: Ohhhhhhh, Oh no.

GT: Boy I flew back to the Victor Hugo Hotel. And the Victor Hugo Hotel, uh is the boss of the Sofa hotel down in Center City, I worked down there too at the Sofa Hotel, I think it was 17th street somewhere in there. I went back and told the owner to get me out of here fast, fast, and a quick in a hurry. But the best he could do was to get me out of something into Brussels. In Brussels, I went into Hamburg, where I’d worked before. I started working in a place called Denis’s Swing Club in Hamburg. I was off one night, the next day I went to the station to get a paper from the states, you know, so a guy saw me he says George did you see those three husky Italians looking for you last night? And that was 3 weeks later. And then I left Europe.(27: 00) I left , I left Nice. So I went back to the club I said, and Denis said, “George go home, go home, no blood, no shooting, go home, go home.” He didn’t want nothing because those 3 guys almost tore up his club. Lookin for me. They had a picture and everything, because you know we were takin’ pictures in Nice. And um, I called British Airways, I booked a reservation

This picture was taken in the 1970s
when George was singing at the Sahara
at 15th and South in Philadelphia.
and I made the reservations and uh so a guy said hey George, he was a steel drum player, the best one I’d ever heard. He says listen, why don’t you go up to Copenhagen with me I got a house up there. And I said good idea. So we went to Copenhagen. So I hung out at this place called Tiffany’s, it was this big complex that’s the one that was a home base for Skanicon on route one. I told ya in Princeton. The plant it changed its name, now the Four Stall. And I stayed there for awhile. (28: 00) Hung out with Eddy Lockjaw Davis he used to be with the (---) band too. From there I went to Norway, I had some friends there. Then I came back to Hamburg, nothing. So I stayed then I came home. Next year I went back to Nice lookin for the same girl...never saw her.

I: Can we see some of your pictures?

GT: Never saw her. Honestly it’s a lot, just pick what you want to pick out.

I: Well you can go through and talk about the ones that you uh..

GT: Well it’s uh, it’s uh it’s so much crap here. I don’t know. I just brought some anyway.

I: Now I have a question for you. Um, the kind of jazz that I know from today I know is not the jazz that you know. Did the jazz from your kind of childhood I guess what ya know my grandma listened to, the Ella Fitzgerald and the Tommy Dorsey and the uh, how is, what do you think about the jazz scene today if you will?

GT: The jazz scene is is dying—the young folks are not doing what we did. (29: 00) They’re they’re learning too much about techniques instead of the melody and the stuff that you can listen to and understand you know. Now a lot of, a lot of musicians today when they take a solo you don’t know what they are playing because they are improvising from the get-go. You know what I mean. Like they say all the things you are do do, dodododo...they’ll say doododododod (singing). You don’t know what they are playing. You know. They don’t give you the melody. What we used to do, first time around we’d give you the melody. Dododood, then the second time around put your own crap in it. See, which is beautiful. That’s it. All they interested in now is runnin up and down the scale you know what I mean? They call it jazz.

I: Free jazz?

GT: mmm uh?

I: Free jazz.

GT: I guess they call it jazz. It’s not, it’s not good. Now that’s the reason I have a uh, uh I have trouble with piano players. (30: 00) They’re not learning, but if they ask me I’d say lets go in the wood chair, let’s go to rehearse you know. If they are gonna work for me and um (go ahead and take it if you want) and uh lets go and um, and do that. Now, now here’s something here. Now that’s when I was on the cruise. On a jazz cruise. You know, I just so–me you know, that’s all that’s all. I may do Jay McShan I don’t think you remember him, that’s when I was, that’s one of the nights.

I: Where did the jazz cruise go?

GT: Uh, well I had something here too I was gonna lets you see here. They just sent me a, here’s one of ’em up at top, that’s for this year. Can you read at the top where they went? They’re the islands. Can you read it?

I: Um, I’m looking. (31: 00)

GT: You see it yet?

I: Oh yeah it’s going from Florida.

GT: ...Stays there in the day time, about 4 hours, something like that. And uh you don’t stay there at night. But now they stay there at night because this was the S.S. Norway, that’s no more. It’s the Amsterdam now, the Holland. And they even have um, uh, uh clubs that you can stay over night now. And a lot of the inhabitants there a lot of the people there want to go back with you on the ship to come to America you know that don’t you? And uh, and all the ladies aren’t ugly either, I’m telling ya, I tell you the truth. So, so uh that’s the way that is, but uh, oh and this is England. The only thing I love about England actually is, um, the villages and things where Shakespeare was and all that kind of stuff you know what I mean. (32: 00) I had a friend who went over there, I mean he lived over there, then he came over here and uh, here’s one, here’s one that they wrote to me, wrote about me, that’s when I was..

I: What newspaper is that?

GT: This is uh uh

I: New Observer?

GT: Yeah, New Observer. And um, oh I’ll show ya, you remember um, here’s something here. All these pictures were taken, this was 33rd street, right in the park, um um it was in front of John Coltrane’s cousins house. And all the Philadelphia musicians are there

I: when was that, do you remember when it was?

GT: Uh... (33: 00) Um, chuckles, those dates, you’ve got me.

I: You can just estimate.

GT: I, I, really don’t know—and then they have a, any date there?

And uh, they’re Creole folks—don’t never mess with Creole folks. Boy, they’ll mess you up.

I’m telling you.

I: 1995. Ok, ok then, I see—got it there. And here, here’s the who’s who, the numbers. And I’m 148. Pause. And I’m 148, and that’s, that’s me there, 148—do you see me there? In the background I’m right there. Of all the ones in Philly—there was a cold day that day, I remember that. But uh, (34: 00). All those things papers rattle and uh, see it’s not much, it’s just the stuff that I’ve been in, you know. I didn’t ever take pictures because, I didn’t ever, I let everybody else take ’em. That’s when I was down at the um, down at the um, First Nighter. That was when I was at Just Jazz.

I: These are just the club names?

GT: Yah, yah. And there I am again. (34: 30). Chuckles. That’s my—that’s my wife and myself. Yah, that’s my wife there then. But uh, it was, that is, they’re all dead now. Things like that, I, I don’t know what else.

I: I like those pictures, they’re good ones.

GT: Oh yeah?

I: Yah, they’re real nice. Do you mind if we copy some of them? (35: 00).

GT: Oh, sure, it’s all right with me. I haven’t looked at ’em in awhile. And I, I don’t even have enough space upstairs to even hang ’em up—they don’t. That’s why I like those cruises—they have those Western Nights, with the boots and the hats and all. And uh, they’re Creole folks—don’t never mess with Creole folks. Boy, they’ll mess you up. I’m telling you. And that’s when I met this lady, who was a jazz secretary of the jazz band in Chicago. She invited me to Chicago—now Chicago had a lot of places to, to work. So I went there—that’s when I met Freddy Cole, that’s Nat Cole’s Brother. I went and sang with him on a stage somewhere, at a place called Alexander’s. And then from there, I went to Andy’s. That’s in Chicago, and then from there I went to Green Mill. (36: 00). And from there I took the train and came on back home—I was there for a whole weekend, three days. But that was great over there, too, I liked it there. In New York, Count Basie’s in New York—at Sweet Basil’s. tape garbled. Um, ah, mitten’s playhouse. You know. I went with groups from here. Al Grey, was the guy that came to Philadelphia that used to be with the Basie Band. Now he’s the only guy of some note that did anything for me. You know. And um, I went with his group a lot, around you know, in New York, and oh yah—and a girl, a friend of mine—there’s a station, on W, there’s a jazz station here, I don’t know if you listen to it or not—the only here one in Philadelphia, really. Ah, um, WRBG—not WRBG, WRTI, (37: 00)—Bob Perkins, has finished a front drive. He and a girl—I mean me and a girl, named Paula Johns, we did the Exton-Serborn bit, all around the city—we toured. And that was a good thing—that was nice. But uh, I don’t know what happened, ah, um.

Well, first of all—when we were playing, we didn’t need charts. The musicians knew the words, knew the songs—they would learn the songs.

They never play anything, I had something. I gave it to them—they never play it on WRTI. I never did anything to them. Now, see—I say what I want to say. And I say it! And I think, maybe they don’t like that. If I don’t like a person’s singing, I’ll say ‘hey, eh-eh, no good.’ Now another singer, another—if it’s a girl, if it’s another girl—can’t say that, but I can. I like ’dat. Now they make CDs today, and sometimes I want to throw up, you know?

I: Why?

GT: They’re that lousy, I think.

I: Why?

GT: Now that’s what I’m talking—that’s what I say! (38: 00). And um, there’s only about two here in Philly that I like to hear. Now, when a person is singing some time, like a girl, and the song strikes me good, and the, the key is good—I’ll maybe look at her and say, you know, ‘can I come up and join?’ And she’ll say, ‘yah,’ if she knows me, ’cause she know I won’t make her shame. And I’ll go up and we’ll do a duet together, (38: 30), and bring the house down—something like that. Chuckle in the background. But some of ’em like that. Right off the bat.

I: Why do you think jazz is so different today than it was when you were performing and when you were growing up?

GT: Well, first of all—when we were playing, we didn’t need charts. The musicians knew the words, knew the songs—they would learn the songs. Now you gotta claim piano players, who all they do is carry a stack of books around them (39: 00) and you say they want to sing a song, and they have to look in the books, and if it’s not in the concert key—not in the key it’s written, they can’t transpose and put it in your key. And yet they’re biggies out here, you know, supposedly. I let ’em know this, see they don’t like that either! I don’t care! Chuckles. And that’s it, and I came up with the best. Now, my best—one of the best piano players I ever had—she died over here in the Presbyterian (39: 30) a few years ago, Shirley Scott. Shirley Scott. The day before she died, I went over and put my hand over her head, and said a little prayer for her. She died the next day. She was great. She was great. Um,

I: I read online that you did a recording with her? Is that true?

GT: No, not with her. No, she—I never did do any recording with her. See, they never did recordings in those days, they never recorded in those days. It was just right on the spot (40: 00). You know what I mean? Just, just like that. Now, um, I did a recording, I did record in a place in New York, a place right down from the um, not too far from the, Port Authority in New York. With some biggies—with Clark Terry—who’s still alive, he’s in a wheelchair now, though, and uh, Norman Simmons, who was Joe William’s piano player, oh yah—Norman Simmons plays beautiful piano since that Joe Williams has died, he has his own trio. Now, on the cruise—(40: 30)

This is a picture of George singing in the 1970s
with Sam Dockery on the piano, Benny Nelson
on bass, and Butch Ballard on drums.
this is the truth—he told Norman, ‘if you sing, if you play for George, you’re fired.’ Chuckles. I’m telling you the truth! And in New York, when I was playing for that Al Gray, Clark Cherry, Benney Pale, Steve Torray, and a couple others, we were recording, I recorded two tunes, Al Gray died. The thing was put on the shelf, hasn’t come out—nothing happened (41: 00), it was like that. Jimmy Fars, who wrote Night Train, he was with the Bassie Band—he was going to do something for me—he died. I went to, I went to Vegas, Red Fox, the old guy—that’s how I learned some things from Red fox about heckling. Don’t heckle Red Fox—he’ll tell you. So, I learned some things from him. See, in the audience, like I used to work in Pottstown, yah, Pottstown—SunnyBrook Bar Room (41: 30). Maybe your parents would know about that—Sunnybrook in Pottstown. All the big bands used to come there—I used to work in the lounge, you know, things like that. First, with a sextet, and then with a piano player and myself. I worked for JC Penney’s President—he lived in Pottstown. He took me and the piano player to his home to inspect his new piano that he had bought. His place—we were going, I was driving with his wife, and my piano player was riding, you know, with him. (42: 00). So, I asked her, I asked her, ‘when we going to get there?’ She says, ‘George, for the last twenty minutes, you’ve been on the grounds!’ You know? So we got there, went inside, his stairway was so huge—he had operas there, he had parties there and everything, you know, that’s what he gave, that’s what he did. And um, it was beautiful! It was beautiful! So my piano player saw one of the, one of the (42: 30) guys working on some of the, you know, out on the lawn, and he wanted to ask him for a job! I said ‘man, we’re entertainers, we’re not laborers!’ Background laughs. I had to tell him that way, you know. But that was a good one—that was a good one. But every time he passed the piano when we were in the club, Sunny Brook, he’d put a 20, they’d they’d put a 20 in the glass. I had more in the glass than what I was paid! And, there’s so many things that, you know, I think of, when it crops up, you know. Now, like I told you (43: 00), they threw me out of the place at Sunny Brook in Pottstown, I mean in, Princeton, because the leader, got larger than the job, you know.

This is a picture of George singing at the Funeral
of Bill Ryan in the 1980s. Kenny Gates is on the
keyboard, Arthur Harper is on bass, and Lucky
Thompson is on the drums.
They told him, in the first set, when we, when they were eating, ‘hold it down,’ because he was a drummer. And after awhile, he thought he was bigger than the place and still played loud. So after awhile, the hostess said ‘phep, you’ve got to go!’ After two years! (43: 30) Boy, I got a picture—

I: Was that recently?

GT: No, no, I had a picture here, I was in a tuxedo, too, a tuxedo. You don’t need to look at all this crap. It it’s too much here, I mean um,

I: Can I see some of them?

GT: Yah, yah. Now here, you can, you can start when I retired. See how thin I was?

Laugh in background.

I: Well, you still look good to me.

GT: When I retired, there was a, you know! That part of it, but um. (44: 00).

GT: You can see if you want to. You can put them down. It’s a lot of crap.

I: Becca and I have to catch a bus in a few minutes. Thank you very much.

GT: I am sorry I am so late. But the fact is I have to get up sometimes and adjust my sugar.

I: It’s just us. We are the trouble makes.

GT: OK, take it easy

I: Ok, Bye.

GT: You’ve heard of Jackette, maybe. He was the head of a big band. We called him the beast. He never let anybody in his band play saxophone besides himself. He fired his brother in his band. We were in Nice and he says, “George, when we go back to America, I’m going to get a band and you are

I can’t feel the blues. Anything I can’t feel, I don’t sing. Other people can do the blues, and I enjoy it— But I don’t get anything out of it when I do it.

going be my singer.” I said, “OK.” I went back, came back, and I went to Vanguard in New York. He says, “George, I’m singing, I’m dancing, I’m doing it all.” See what I’m talking about. Oh man, I’m sorry. There’s another, at Ortleib’s, at 3rd and Poplar. They are still around.

I: This looks relatively recent (looking at a photo). The photograph looks new.

GT: Well, it’s in the last two years. He hasn’t hired me in two years and I opened the place 17 years ago.

I: You opened Ortleib’s

GT: Yeah, I was there when they opened 17 years ago.

I: When they first started?

GT: Yeah, Shirley Scott, Benny Nelson, Bobby Durham, who is in Milan Italy right now, staying there. Some more friends of mine are in Berlin, married, with a kid.

I: You were comparing Jazz nowadays to back then. What styles did you mainly sing?

GT: What do you mean?

I: Were they Bop...?

GT: Never did Bop, never did the Blues.

I: Right, you were telling us about that before.

GT: I can’t feel the blues. Anything I can’t feel, I don’t sing. Other people can do the blues, and I enjoy it. But I don’t get anything out of it when I do it. You know what I mean. Ray Charles can do it. I can’t so it, I don’t feel it.

I: Is the music or the words?

GT: It’s the music, it’s the music. The words are all right. You see, the blues aren’t that bad. (George sings for about 10 seconds).

That’s all of it, you know what I mean, then you are done. But I can’t even do that. And I only sing the tunes, the songs that I like. And yet it works because when people hear me, they know what I like and they respect those particular tunes.

I: So they like what you like?

GT: There you go. Now I sing Ballads mostly. I’m a Balladier mostly. And then there are show tunes and I love show tunes. And I swing too. And you were asking a guy about Bop the other day. Bop is the old off-time. You remember the old off-time. You heard the name rug-cut. Well, you cut it in half and that’s where you got your Bop. When you throw a person out, instead of swinging, you do half of that.

I: Quicker?

GT: Slower, but the time is still there. That’s the off-time or the Bop.

I: Will you sing us a song?

GT: I don’t really do that (laughing). If the lady was in here that talked so much before we went into a room down there and she started playing a song. I knew that she couldn’t do well playing. Still, I did something for her. She said, “Huh.” I said, “yeah, there is nobody here I can talk to.

I: So when you were singing in the clubs, were people mainly dancing or listening?

GT: Sometimes they feel it and they get up and dance. Sometimes the owners will let them do it and sometimes they don’t, you know what I mean. So I’ll tell them when they feel it, “C’mon, c’mon.” In Europe, too, I had a piano player, Jesse Lemorski, Polish. When I finished a big thing in Birdland, he wanted to take me to Rascal’s. Just he and I, work together. And then he’d take me back to his flat. I got a thing upstairs. That’s when I was drinking. I was drinking white label then. And I lay on the floor and my girl was feeding me white label and he was playing the piano. And I didn’t know he was recording the thing. It turned out pretty good. Of course, I forgot a couple of the words. I didn’t know till he sent it to me later. He plays the accordion over there in the Hamburg Symphonic Band. It’s fantastic over there. You said you went to Nice? (talking to Sara)

I: Yes.

GT: Now I was in Valentino, the Park Hotel, and the Meridian. I was in all three of those. We had a good time. And the beach, like I told you, was good. It’s topless, but it’s good. And they have stones down there. I enjoyed the whole scene. I didn’t do much with Paris though. I worked at the New (something) and I didn’t like how they did me one time, so I said I wouldn’t go there again. So when I went to Paris to work in Paris, a family in Nice wanted me to come out to their home to stay, place called Kriti, outside of Paris. And I stayed at their home. They drove me every night into Paris, and I almost did something in my clothes, because how fast they went. They would be eating and driving 110. And that’s what they do. And nothing but Mercedes and, of course, London has all the big cars there. I don’t know what you want to keep (speaking to Sara)

I: Can we keep these?

GT: OK, well listen, look at a couple of these.

I: I think we definitely want to take some of the articles. Take that one with everyone in front of the house, the really big one.

GT: No, that’s not it (speaking to Mark).

I: This is the...

GT: This is the names, the names of that. Then you know where I’m at. Down at the bottom it has George Townes, 1-4-8, and then you can picture where it is.

Is that is (speaking to Mark)?

I: That’s the names, it’s the one below it.

GT: The one here.

I: Yes.

GT: Oh I see. Then the cruise ones I have here, but that’s another thing. Then I’m sitting down here with some people at this club. It’s the same stuff, it’s too much. You’ve had enough I suppose. So that’s about it, that’s about it. So I had a really good time.Oh, this is something. Here I am there with a girl names

This is a picture of George singing at an
outdoor festival in the 1980s.
Evelyn Simms. She’s dead, too. Every year they had the best singer in Philly, and I would always come in 2nd because they always had her first. It didn’t make any difference to me as long as I worked. That’s the way it was.

I: I heard at some of the clubs there would be after-hours jams sessions, like after the performance was done and the audience went home. Were you ever involved in anything like that?

GT: Yeah, down at 15th and South, place called RF Club. I mean 15th and Federal. Then there is one after-hours called Fidey’s Square Club that was at Oxford and Sydenham. That was a good one. I don’t know if you ever heard of Bull Moose Jackson; he was an ugly man. He got married and his wife would wake up at night and look at him and say, “Sing, Bull, sing.” (everyone laughs) See I say these things, I tell the truth (laughing). That was at 19th and Columbia Ave., 19th and Cecil B. Moore, that’s where that club was.There are the after-hours places. There are a couple of more. I forget the names of them now. Oh yeah, one is on 3rd, where they took all those pictures. I forget the name of that one. That was a beautiful thing, after-hours. You go home when the sun was up.But my first job, like I said, was for $5, and it went on up. But during those times we didn’t make that much and we worked 6 days a week, Monday to Saturday with a matinee on Monday. I remember making $75. That was that time.

I: A week you said?

GT: Yeah, but that was pretty good during that time, and we enjoyed it. And they dressed when we went to those places.we worked six days a week. Monday to Saturday, with a matinee on Monday. I remember making $75...

I: Wow.

GT: ...see. That’s that time.

I: A week you say?

GT: Yeah.

I: Wow.

GT: That was it.

I: Wow.

GT: That was pretty good...

I: Hm hm.

GT: know, during that time. And we enjoyed it. And they dressed, like he [people?] just said, [55: 00] they dressed when we went to those places.

I: And at those places were they listening, or dancing, or...?

GT: Oh, yes. Oh yeah, they listened. Just like in England, at Ronnie Scott’s in London. If you made a little noise Ronnie himself would put you out and even give you your money back.

I: Hm.

GT: Yeah. And buyer buys, same token there’s another place there in London called Pizza Express. You could do anything you want, you know what I mean, as long as you bought that pizza, and booze and stuff like that. It’s like that. That was another nice place, but they didn’t have many places in London as far as jazz is concerned. Um...

I: So, places in Philadelphia, they would put you out sometimes if you...made a little too much noise, or...?

GT: Well, I’m going to tell you this, too, you remember the word, you remember the girl who used to sing, they used to call her the queen of the blues, Dinah Washington...

I: Mm-Hm.

GT: ...Dinah when she came here [56: 00] she stayed at a house on Montgomery Avenue. Everybody, a lot of musicians stayed there while they were here, you know. And nobody had much money. One time she came down to the Showboat. She was working at Pep’s then, a block away. Miles Davis was working the Showboat. During intermission she came over to the showboat to see Miles, and Miles was playing, Coltrane was getting ready to play yet, oh yeah I worked with ’Trane, too, you know...

I: Mm hm.

GT: ...before he went with Diz [Dizzy Gillespie].

GT: ...And yes, I’ve been with the biggies, that’s what I’m trying to say.

I: Wow.

GT: ...and um, so Miles was playing, so there’s a couple there talking, a couple there talking. So, Dinah said, ‘will you please keep quiet, please’ and they looked at her and kept talking. I turned around again, the lady was picking herself up off the floor. Dinah had decked her...

I: Oh wow.

GT: ...and was getting ready to just walk on out the door. I’m telling you Dinah was something.

I: She’s feisty. [57: 00]

GT: Dinah was a...yes she was, yes she was. Dinah didn’t like a whole lot of noise and Nina Simone didn’t like noise, oh, she’d stop you. She went to Europe to stay, you know, that’s where she died. Um, she’d stop, you know, ‘please keep quiet.’ A lot of them today will say that, but I won’t say it, I think it’s a management’s thing to say, but they won’t but in because if you can’t sing and get the attention from the audience I don’t think you’re doing your job.

I: Mm.

This is a picture of George singing
on a “Jazz Cruise” in 2003.
GT: You know? Now, a long time ago, we read this, Abraham Lincoln (I’m not that old), Abraham Lincoln, when he was doing the Gettysburg Address, the crowd was out there, he started, ‘Four score and seven...’ lot of noise. He calmed it down to the first row, listen. The second row wanted to know what the first row was doing. After a while he had the whole audience. That was written, that’s how he got that. [58: 00] So, I learned that from that. Ha. So, if you’re not doing any, if you’re not doing it right, I think somebody should say, ‘hey,’ you know, some thing like that. But if you...the only time I’ll get off the stand is when the musicians are not playing right. I’ll get off and I’ll say ‘you’ve got this folks,’ and I’ll walk off. There’s a place now on 23rd street, I go on Tuesday nights, jam session, um, musicians are not too good, but they’re learning, you know. And sometimes when I’m going the next week, this past Tuesday I told a guy the Tuesday prior that I was going to do ‘Easter Parade’ because it’s Easter, I like to do seasonal songs. So, he went home, he went over it, and I went upstairs, and I had missed a couple words, and I played it on my radio, on my machine. And Tuesday I sang it down there, you know. I sang that one and another pretty thing that I like called ‘Imagination.’ [Singing] ‘Imagination...’ You know, something like that...

[59: 00]

GT: ...and um, it went over fine, you know, but um...uh, that’s about it. But I can’t get any work here, they don’t give me anything here at all. Can’t get a thing here at all. Now there’s a place at 51st, no, 50th and Woodland Avenue, 50th and Baltimore Avenue. Every summer, got a few sponsors, Denise King, she’s a girl, she can sing. She has promised me for three years to be on that show, it’s from 6 to 8 in the evening on a Friday. Every time I see her ‘George,’ I said, ‘oh, shut up, Denise,’ you know. She won’t do it, I don’t know why. I got up there one day, I just went up and grabbed a mic. A friend of mine, Sam Reid [sp?] was playing saxophone, the tune was, um, ‘You Go To My Head,’ you know.

I: Mm hm.

GT: So, I went up and I said, ‘what do you say, Sam?’ He said, ‘yeah’. So, I grabbed it, and I sang it [60: 00] and the people went crazy. I, I loved it. But that didn’t get me anything either. Now, when I go to concerts here in a church, now in the churches, now, it’s jazz, you know. It’s not like it used to be. We couldn’t play jazz in churches, but now they do it all in churches. Concerts. So, they never hire me, they hire girls that sing with the band, but if I’m in the audience [in a high voice] ‘hey, George, you going to sing one uh George,’ you know? I want to do it, so I do one...

GT: ...but yet, I said, I tell the members, ‘if you want me to sing, hire me and I’ll bring my crew in here.’

I: Mm hm. Do you have any, uh, you said, mentioned Coltrane. Do you have any special memories of working with Coltrane?

GT: Uh, yeah. When I was in uh, when I first worked with him it was in Merchantville, New Jersey. Place called ‘Over the Top’. He was with a guy named Freddie Bullock.

George recalls John Coltrane.
We used to work railroad together, he played vibes and piano. I was the singer. And, and ’Trane [John Coltrane] was playing, so, when we finished ’Trane said, ‘George, when we go back to Philly [61: 00] I want you with me.’ I said, ‘ok.’ Came back, he came into Spider Kelley’s.

I: To, to which place?

GT and I: Spider Kelley’s.

I: Spider Kelley’s.

GT: I went there, they had Fats Wright, a guy that had a gun and a bottle of wine underneath his, underneath the piano, that’s what he did all the time. Oh yeah, he didn’t take any crap, but he could play. He could play. Ya, no charts, you didn’t need it because you know, they would, we learned then. And, uh, there was a guy named, Bob, ah, Boyd, [61: 30] Jimmy Boyd on bass, he’s in California today, out of music...real estate. He’s in L.A. On drums we had Kenny Dennis, Nancy Wilson’s first husband, on drums. In the wings we had ’Trane on tenor, and Tommy Simms on trumpet. That was the first week. I was held over another week, on piano we had Shirley Scott, Jimmy, uh, Jimmy Merrit on bass [62: 00], Coatesville Harris on drums, and in the wings ’Trane and Simms. That’s how we started, then we did some more stuff. Going around, I mean, ’Trane. But, then he knew he wasn’t going to get anywhere here. So, he left, all of them left.

I: Hm.

GT: That’s how we started, then we did some more stuff. Going around, I mean, ’Trane. But, then he knew he wasn’t going to get anywhere here. So, he left, all of them left.

I: Because he was from here? And he knew...

GT: That’s right. They won’t pay anything here. Then he went out, and wow.
But, I wanted to be with him when he made that good, uh, um...

[62: 30, tape cut out]

[Track 2, 0: 00]

GT: And he was big in Australia and everything, you know. But he died, when he died they didn’t even show his face. So, that’s about it, that’s about all I know unless you want to ask me something else.

I: Thank you so much, we appreciate it.

GT: Listen, I, you see, you start, you start me, and that’s it...

I: No, that was great

GT: I don’t have any, I’m glad because I don’t have anybody to talk to here. They wouldn’t believe me anyway, what I just told you. Oh yeah, I was with Basie, too.

I: Well, you have newspapers to prove it...that covers it.

GT: I don’t go that far. I had, I went to Basie’s...I wish you had a, you don’t have anything to put that in, do you? [talking about the pictures that Sara was holding] Here, put it in there. And I was with Count Basie, you’ve heard of him.

I: Mm hm.

GT: In Toronto.

I: Wow.

GT: And, um, that’s when Basie told me, ‘George, you’re great, but you don’t sing enough blues.’ So, [1: 00] in comes Joe Williams, and you know what happened there...biggie, you know, that’s it. And Joe didn’t talk to me because I wasn’t big enough. When we got on a cruise, Joe didn’t talk to me. His wife did. Rich lady out of Vegas. But Joe, Joe didn’t talk to me. You know, that’s the way people are, think they gonna do...I didn’t care if Eckstines and all the biggies would sing, I would follow them. I know what I do, they knew what they do. You know, it don’t bother me at all. It didn’t bother me. I asked my mother once, I said, ‘Mom, do you think I’ll make it in this business?’ She said, ‘yes, but I wish you would sing our songs,’ you see, she was in church.

George’s mother had mixed feelings about his singing.
I: She meant, gospel? Or...

GT: Well, we didn’t call it gospel, just songs, yeah, yeah. I never did like the, I never did like the churches when they sway and all that mess. I didn’t like, that’s what they do now, anyhow. You know what I mean? I never did like that. You sing, [2: 00] you know what I mean, things like that, but it’s a different thing. I guess I’m a hold back from that kind of stuff, but I like just the voice, I like to hear that, you know, you don’t want all of that action stuff, you know, and I didn’t care for that. And like I told you, I miss her the most.
Yep, so that’s about it, that’s about it, that’s all. So, I hope this can help you all.

I: Yes, thank you very much.

I: Thank you very much.