- Essays: On The Road (And A Little Off)


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Editor's Note: I know I know. We left off with our hero on his way to Austin sometime last October, but then Thanksgiving happened, and then Christmas, then we went on vacation. In short so much stuff happened that piled on top that, having neglected our usual habit of keeping notes, we forgot all but the highlights: playing with Will Sexton and band at the Saxon, a great and extended conversation with Gabe Rhodes on a six-hour drive over and back to play a gig in Crockett.
\So anyway, I gotta go back down there to do a couple of gigs in March and this time I'll keep better notes. In the meantime, just to freshen up our site a little bit, we're gonna talk about something not very important in the long run, that is, getting famous.

Rockvale TN, February 10, 2006 - -

Let us talk about getting famous.

George Raft, the ole American B movie actor, mostly famous for flipping a coin on film, got famous in the weirdest way. Gotta go back to 1927 I think it was, the first talkie "The Jazz Singer", starring AL JOLSON. Blew people away, I mean talking PICTURES, fer chrissake.

Okay, but what happened was that, at that time, the Prince of Wales, he who was soon to abdicate the throne of England so he could marry Mrs Wallis Simpson, came to North America. Gotta remember now that this was the Roaring Twenties, they were calling it that even then, the big dance craze was the Charleston. Raccoon coats, bell bottoms, ukuleles, breastless girls in beaded chemises and bobbed hair, all were in fashion, when this guy, the present Queen Elizabeth's uncle, later to become the Duke of Windsor, anyway this royal dude comes over, hangs out in Canada, hangs out in the US, it's a media event, gets his picture taken learning to do the Charleston. And the picture, thanks to the new technology of the AP wire- photo, gets plastered all over the front pages of just about every paper in America.

His teacher, identified in the photos, is some dude named George Raft. Now George Raft is no Fred Astaire , but the picture makes it appear that George is some kinda dance honcho. So somehow it's a big thing, and George, he ain't no kinda dancer, but all of a sudden he's famous as a dancer, a Charleston maven as it were, so he's gotta swing with it. So he does. And from that he develops a whole career, like I say, of mostly flipping a coin on film.

Fast forward about eighty years. I'm watchin'some old movie made in the mid-thirties, when the Next Big Thing was the Tropical Motif. The movie, which was called "Rhumba", turns out to be about this Cuban dude, played incongruously by George Raft, who invents a dance called the Rhumba, takes it to the States, is a big hit an lives happily ever after. Pronounces it Rum-ba, not Room-ba, an this guy is played by ol George.

Keeps talkin' about the Rum-ba like it's a religion. Coupla obligatory dance scenes, an here's ol George, as stiff as can be, gamely trotting around doing his best to dance, but like he's completely devoid of pelvis. If you've ever seen an actual Cuban dancing an actual rhumba, and I have, George's version is a complete hoot. Not that I could do any better, I'm sure.

Later on, after he'd made a couple of movies, George managed to establish some rumors that he's like somehow connected to the Underworld, y'know, Mad Dog Coll, Babyface Nelson, that bunch, who during the Depression, somehow took on a Robin Hood kinda mystique cause everybody was pissed off at the banks anyway, the banks having let the little man down. Anyway George manages to establish a rumored connect an therefore a gangster persona, so that for the next thirty years all he has to do is this gimmicky thing of flipping a quarter while he's saying his lines.

Guy was a lousy actor, but people bought it, and that is what counts. But, yeah, he was a lousy actor. And he was a complete non-dancer. But he took the bull by the horns, and wrested a career out of an Associated Press photograph.

Amazing show business tales #37.