Tuesday, November 2, 2010

MR. NOSTALGIA AND THE SHEBA - OUR WEDDING PORTRAIT

 
MR. NOSTALGIA
CLIFF CARTER
&
THE SHEBA
PHYLLIS CARTER
 
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Sunday, October 31, 2010

THE GENTLEMAN AT THE PIANO IS CLIFF CARTER

   
 
From the biography by Phyllis Mass Carter
 
It's 1975 - the time of unisex, shredded blue jeans, ungroomed hair, and rock "music", but at the Astor Lounge on St. Catherine Street West in Montreal, there is an air of relaxed sophistication and melodious sound sustained by The Gentleman at the Piano, Cliff Carter.
 
With a repertoire estimated at 3000 all-time favourite songs, Cliff enchants his audience with Rhapsody in Blue, Honeysuckle Rose and Stardust. He sings Mine Yiddishe Mamma in Yiddish and N'Oublie Jamais in French with a New York accent. If you like, he will sing, I Left My Heart in San Francisco in Chinese. In fact, Cliff will play almost anything you can name from the classics to the pops and standards of the 1940's and 1950's.  He can summon up tunes from a time before the 1920's. You see, Cliff was born in Manhattan in 1902, and Tin Pan Alley was his back yard.
 
Cliff will play anything you can hum, even if it is intricate and he has never heard it before. What he will not play is - noise - that is "rock". And he decided early in his career that he would not let himself fall into a stereotype. He denies that anything he is playing is "jazz". But then, who is to say what jazz really is.
 
Cliff came to Montreal, Canada, in 1947, after having sung professionally from Java to Broadway where, in 1938, he conducted his own ten-piece band. He began his singing career long before that as an altar by at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church in Brooklyn. As a boy, he was the first person of colour to perform on the stage of the great Hippodrome Theatre. But it would be a long time after that before Cliff would earn his living as a professional performer. First he would work as an embroiderer, a cook on the Penn Railroad, a pin boy at a bowling alley, a shoe shine, a steward on a freighter travelling to South Africa, an assistant to a pharmacist and to a famous professional portrait photographer.
 
Having started out as a member of a refined middle-class family - a descendent of defiant slaves and far-sighted educators - he was acclaimed for his fine penmanship, foot-racing (track), ballroom dancing and fine embroidery and beadwork - a skill he learned at his mother's side as she taught underprivileged young ladies the craft.
 
The Great Depression cut deep. Cliff was too young for World War I and too old for World War II, so he went to work polishing torpedoes. This dangerous work almost cost him his eyesight.
 
He slept in the subways of New York and always kept a bar of soap in his pocket so he could wash up wherever he stopped. He could have gone home to his family but he was a man who believed in standing on his own two feet. Once he walked across several states to come to the bedside of his young sister who was dangerously ill. He didn't have the bus fare and, in those days, no one would offer a ride to a Negro.
 
At the age of 37, fate brought Cliff to a nightclub where he recognized the name on the billboard - Charlie Skeets. Charlie had been an altar boy at St. Augustine's too. Cliff sat in with Charlie night after night, watching his hands on the piano keys. One night, Charlie was "under the weather" and Cliff took over. With the guidance of Cliff's godfather, Charles "Lucky" Roberts - composer of Moonlight Cocktails - and with the encouragement of his friends, Cozy Cole and Fats Waller, Cliff practiced the piano until he had memorized hundreds of songs, but he never learned to read music.
 
Cliff played and sang and he travelled, doing gigs in nightclubs of every description, and private house parties for friends of Lucky - the Vanderbilts, the Harrimans, and Helen Borden of the Borden Milk Company. Along the way, he became acquainted with the greats of show business. He played, he sang and he composed. He was also responsible for taking care that the money paid to Lucky's bands for the parties reached his godfather intact.
 
Cliff Carter, The Gentleman at The Piano. I gave him that title. It was a perfect fit. An impeccable dresser, Cliff's elegance is enhanced by his dashing smile and sparkling eyes. He is gentle and polite  One day, when I was very young, I caught sight of him from afar as he was walking down St. Catherine street in my direction. He moved so gracefully - a ballroom dancer. I just couldn't take my eyes off him. And then he smiled at me.
 
In his navy blazer with the Playboy Bunny crest and the crimson lining, he rises from the piano to kiss a lady's hand. Then he teases her about kissing her lips. When asked to play a particular number, he responds, "I don't know that one, but hum it for me and I'll see what I can do." or -  pretending that the piece is too difficult - "That's all brother ! Now just finish your drink and go home." No one ever does. Then, of course, he plays the piece with aplomb.
 
One of Cliff's gimmicks is to start to play a rinky-dink version of Chop Sticks and, after a contemplative pause - burst into a swinging display of digital dexterity. The crowd loves it, They love him - tonight. Club audiences are fickle, though a few adoring fans follow for years.
 
The gentleman's talent is acclaimed by his peers. His fellow musicians treat him as their exemplar - a father figure. Until the early 1970's when I entered into his life seriously and ventured to become involved with his career, Cliff had received relatively little recognition. He had his own radio show for a while in Montreal years earlier when I was a teenager, but he did not have a business manager and he did not aspire to  either fame or fortune. His friends and associates Art Tatem, Lionel Hampton, Billy Daniels, Duke Ellington, Liberace, Louis Armstrong, Cozy Cole, Cab Calloway and Court Basie all became international stars. Cliff remained contentedly in the background, a musician earning an honest living.
 
When I came on the scene in the 1970's, I brought Cliff to the attention of the media. He began to see his name in the newspapers regularly, and radio and television appearances followed. Still, he had never made a commercial record.
 
Then, in 1981, I came upon the CTV program Thrill of a Lifetime. Wow ! What if ? I sent a letter to Thrill of a Lifetime the way you buy a lottery ticket. I wish. I wish. When I got the telegram from the producers of Thrill of a Lifetime, I could hardly catch my breath. I had not even told Cliff about the program or my letter because I didn't want him to get his hopes up and be disappointed. But once in a very long while, dreams do come true. The people at Thrill of a Lifetime brought Cliff to the attention of RCA Records' Vice President, Ed Preston. An adventure followed. An unbelievable adventure.
 
Cliff's first record album, "Mr. Nostalgia, Cliff Carter", was presented to him on the Thrill of a Lifetime television program in 1982. We had expected a "demo", but there on Thrill of a Lifetime, we saw that RCA had made a full professional album, almost overnight. I sat on a high stool near the stage in an indescribable state of amazement and joy. Cliff and I were both in tears. It was a thrill shared by 1.9 million Canadian television viewers.
 
30 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

THRILL OF A LIFETIME COMES TRUE

MONTREAL GAZETTE
March 13, 1982
 
Mike Boone reports how Cliff came to see his Thrill of a Lifetime come true.
 
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Sunday, August 1, 2010

CLIFF CARTER - A QUIET MAN

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My husband, my sweetheart, Cliff Carter, was a quiet man. In all the years I knew him, I never heard him raise his voice - except in song - and even then, ever so gently.
 
A minor thug who was a regular at the Raphael Lounge in Montreal in the early 1970's, used to whistle along as Cliff was playing. His whistle was shrill, and off-key to boot. He liked Cliff to play Barcarole and Cliff was happy to oblige. But the whistling was unpleasant and Cliff asked him ever so politely to stop. The whistler was offended. He gestured to his jacket and told Cliff he had a gun. That made time stop still for me for a moment.
 
But Cliff just stopped playing and without raising his voice - ever so gently invited the gangster to meet him outside, "And I'll show you what I'm going to do with that gun." He might have invited the fellow for tea in the tone he used.
 
"I'm sorry, Cliff, " the weasel said. And he promised not to whistle at Cliff's piano again. And he never did. At times he would seem to want to start, but he would look at Cliff and sort of nod that he understood. It wasn't about power. It was about respect. Everyone respected Cliff Carter. He was tough alright. Really tough where it counts -inside. But he earned respect by being a gentleman.

CLIFF CARTER - GENTLE MAN

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At the beginning of the 1970's The Raphael in Montreal was a seedy motel with a piano bar in the small lounge. It was frequented by Runyonesque characters - often harbouring weapons of potential destruction. But to me, it was a landmark that changed my life - a sacred place.
 
I first met Cliff when he came to Montreal for a short gig at the Clover Cafe across from the Montreal Forum circa 1947. I was just eleven. I met him in my family's store, Metropolitan News on Peel Street where he, like thousands of other interesting people, came to buy his newspaper.
 
I listened, enchanted, to his radio show and followed his lounge performances as a little girl staring in the window of the club next door to our store. I was too young to go inside. After that, Cliff was in demand in the Montreal area and he decided to stay. I followed his career, dreaming that one day, he would somehow hear me sing and invite me to sing with him. I don't think I ever really imagined where my dream was going to take me. But his shining eyes and his devastating smile and his honeyed voice warmed my little girl heart. I bought Hit Parade song books and memorized all the lyrics and sang along with Cliff on the radio.
 
Remind me to tell you about the miraculous encounter that took place when a Red Cross blood donors marathon took place when I was about sixteen. That event needs a page all by itself.
 
But Cliff returned to the United States and he disappeared from my life for years.
 
I met him again when he returned to Montreal in the early 1970's. He invited my family to come see him play at The Raphael - and I fell in love with him again. This time, I was all grown up and deeply in love - for real. 
 
Born in Manhattan in 1902, Cliff Carter was the descendent of school teachers and slaves. He believed that a man could lead a good life if he conducted himself ethically and politely. He avoided drugs. Even working in the nightclubs where people were always wanting to buy him a drink, he would look them right in the eye, and with his sweetest smile say, "No, thank you." And the patrons knew he meant it and they respected him - even the real tough guys respected him.
 
Cliff was authentic - the real thing. Humphrey Bogart was an excellent actor, a charming personality. Cliff Carter was the man Humphrey Bogart was trying to be on screen. And Cliff could play the piano like Dooley Wilson too.
 
The Cliff people met in supper clubs and saw on television was exactly the same Cliff I lived with at home. There were no airs about him. He was simple. If you asked him, he would tell you that all he wanted to do was be a good husband and father, do his job well and make people happy. I was always the dreamer, the romantic. Cliff would tell you he wasn't sentimental. He was practical and he just wanted to be a good man.
 
But there was a mysterious side to Cliff Carter that even I know little about. Cliff was a deputy sheriff in New Jersey before returning to Montreal at the beginning of the 1970's. He worked undercover for the U.S. Treasury Department in drug control. I didn't need to know the details. He made mysterious trips to the Canada -U.S. border to see what he had to see and report what he had to report. I never asked. He never said.
 
At home, Cliff was a wonderful cook - pork chops, home fried potatoes, the best fluffy pancakes I ever tasted, bread pudding - real food. He would wash dishes, iron his own shirts to perfection, polish his shoes until they glowed. While I worked days, he cleaned house, took care of his car, shopped for food and picked up my panty hose at Reitmans. The sales girls loved him. Everyone did. What's not to love.
 
In the evening, Cliff went to work, and I joined him later in the evening to sit at the baby grand and sing love songs - not for the audience, though they may have thought so - but I always sang only for Cliff.
 
Cliff was proud of his Toronado. Driving a nice car was important because the bosses were impressed with what kind of car you drove. To get a good job and a half-decent wage, it helped to drive up in a nice car.
 
Wherever we went, we were treated like royalty, especially after Cliff appeared on CTV's Thrill of a Lifetime and RCA surprised him with his own record album , Mr. Nostalgia, Cliff Carter.
 
Late one night after Cliff finished work at The Abacus in Dollard des Ormeaux, we went to Le Cafetiere at Le Marche de L'Ouest for a late supper. The place was huge and it was virtually deserted at that hour. As we entered, something touched me. It took a minute for me to realize  - the public address system was playing Cliff's recording of Satin Doll from the album ! Talk about coincidences !
 
And so, the reader can see that this story will take a long time to tell,  Shades of Scheherazade ! This episode written in the middle of a hot summer night is just a taste, written because it is easier to get up and tell it than to try to sleep as these memories spin around in my mind.
 
There is so much more to tell.
 
The Sheba
Phyllis Carter

Saturday, July 31, 2010

MEMORIES OF CLIFF

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It's been eighteen years now and I still miss him terribly every day. My mind is a cornucopia full of memories of those glorious days and evenings when Cliff and I were living a dream. In those times, I woke up in the morning singing, I sang while I washed the dishes, and I sang as I fell asleep at night. Our life together was music and romance. We were never rich. We lived simply. But our life together was a fairy tale.
 
I can still see him sitting across the little table from me on the balcony at Biddles while Oliver Jones, Charlie Biddle and Bernie Primeau sent me into raptures with the sweet standards we loved. While we relished our ribs and potato skins and listened to the music, life was everything I could ever have hoped for.
 
And then Oliver would invite Cliff to take over the piano and I understood what heaven was. My eyes were always on Cliff. I hardly knew there was anyone else in the room. And Cliff sang, "I saw your eyes, your wonderful eyes…" and "I've got a woman, crazy for me - she's funny that way…"
 
One evening at Biddles, I found myself up on that little stage singing, "Summertime." I heard my own voice and I couldn't believe it was really happening. Cliff was at the piano and I was singing to him. My childhood dreams come true.
 
There are hundreds of memories like these in my head and in my heart and soul. And I have written volumes of notes. I pray I will live to put them together in a book. There is just so much to tell. So much to remember. So much to share. In a world full of trouble and anger and ugliness, Cliff and I lived in an oasis of love and beautiful music. "You're Mine, All Mine - I want the world to know… " Cliff wrote - "You're Mine, All Mine, and I'll tell it wherever I go…"
 
"How much do I love you ? I'll tell you no lie. How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? How many times a day do I think of you? How many roses are sprinkled with dew?"  Our life together was expressed in song - beautiful song. "Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you…"
 
"Someday, if all my prayers are answered, I'll hear a footstep on the stair. With eager heart, I'll hurry to the door - and maybe he'll be there."
 
The Sheba
Phyllis Carter
 

 

Friday, May 21, 2010

THE CASABLANCA AND LE TOUCHE BAR - BEHIND THE SCENES

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My husband, Cliff Carter, Mr. Nostalgia of RCA Records, was a talented gentleman who played his piano with ease and sang melodies that mellowed his supper club and lounge audiences.
 
What most people don't know is what goes on behind the scenes. I am talking about the Montreal nightclub scene in the 1980's.
 
Cliff and I were walking on St. Denis Street in Montreal late one afternoon when we came upon a club called The Casablanca. Anyone who ever met Cliff Carter would understand that The Casablanca would have a special appeal to us. We found the door open before business hours and went in. A couple of gentlemen met us and took one look at Cliff and asked if he could play something for them. And he was hired.
 
And the owners put a brass star with Cliff Carter's name into the pavement in front of the door of The Casablanca. I often wonder where that star is now.
 
But it wasn't that simple. Every pay day, the brother of one of these men came for his "cut". Even though he had done absolutely nothing to get Cliff the gig, he claimed he was an agent of the Montreal Musicians' Guild, and maybe he was. But it made no difference. I was too scared to protest, and Cliff was resigned to this kind of business. He just paid him every week.
 
While playing at Le Touche Bar in the hotel on the north east corner of Sherbrooke and Peel Street, Cliff had to pay another "agent" who had done absolutely nothing to get him his job.
 
One day we sat in the sun porch of Le Touche Bar with this Musicians' Guild agent who had his hand reaching under the table for his money, and I asked him what would happen if someone didn't pay.
 
I will always remember his answer, "Well, I'm not one of those who break fingers but..." So Cliff paid. And I remember how helpless we were to do anything about it.
 
#30

STEPHEN LOCKE - LE PIMENT ROUGE, MONTREAL

 
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The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.
Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, Act 3- William Shakespeare.
 
In the early 1980's, my husband, Cliff Carter - Mr. Nostalgia of RCA Records - was pianist at The Abacus Restaurant on Shakespeare Rd. in the West island of Montreal. His employer was Marc Schwartz.
 
Marc Schwartz had a business partner named Stephen Locke.
 
After Cliff had worked at The Abacus for quite some time, he was to end his gig there. Stephen Locke was to bring Cliff his last pay cheque.
 
But that cheque never came. At first, Locke said there was some delay, but don't worry. When we pursued it, Stephen Locke said that his car had been broken into and Cliff's pay cheque had been stolen.
 
He never explained why Cliff should be deprived of his pay because of this bizarre "crime". He refused to replace the "stolen" cheque.
 
Very soon afterward, Stephen Locke opened Le Piment Rouge on Metcalf Street at Dominion Square in Montreal. One may wonder if Cliff's missing pay cheque was the only irregularity in this strange business. 
 
As I recall all these years later, we appealed to the Musicians' Guild, but I can't recall the outcome with certainty. I believe there was some compensation from the union. But money was not the only issue. The real issue was honesty and respect, both of which were sorely lacking in this matter.
 
Cliff Carter was not only a beautiful pianist and singer, he was a fine, gentle, decent man, admired and respected by his fellow artists and fans. I honour his memory with great love - and truth.
 
Time does not erase injustice. I don't know or care where Stephen Locke is today, but I do care that injustice be recorded for all the world to see and remember. The evil that men do .....
 
Lest we forget.
 
#

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

THRILL OF A LIFETIME - STOLEN TRADEMARK STETSON

 
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Mr. Nostalgia, Cliff Carter.

His trademark Stetson fedora (seen on the album jacket) was known to audiences on television and in supper clubs and lounges in Montreal and far beyond. When Cliff appeared in an episode of SEEING THINGS for CBC TV with Louis Del Grande, the producer specifically asked that his trademark Stetson fedora be placed on the grand piano for the scene.

On October 7, 1996, Dawn McSweeney stole Cliff's Stetson along with everything of value that I had worked for all my life and everything Cliff had left me.

While the hat might not have the commercial value of all the jewellery Dawn McSweeney stole, she knew it would hurt me terribly to lose it and, apart from greed, Dawn's motive was to hurt me terribly.

All the details of these crimes have been reported to the Montreal Police and members of government at all levels for thirteen years. To this very day, the thief and her "partners in crime" continue to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

If you have information that will lead to bringing the "partners in crime" to justice and the return of everything they stole, there is a reward being offered. Please leave a message at this site.

 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

EIGHTEEN YEARS

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I am  the words,
 
You are the music:
 
We are the Song.
 
Always,
 
Sheba
 
 

Friday, January 29, 2010

A DATE AT THE OLYMPICS IN CALGARY - RCA RECORDS

FACEBOOK
January 29, 2010
 
A DATE AT THE OLYMPICS IN CALGARY
 
http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000343040806&ref=mf 
A DATE AT THE OLYMPICS IN CALGARY: They are rare now, but some radio stations must still have a copy of A DATE AT THE OLYMPICS IN CALGARY: Music by Cliff Carter, Lyrics by Phyllis Carter. The album is Mr. Nostalgia, Cliff Carter, (Thrill of a Lifetime). RCA Records, Canada, 1982. RCA Victor KKL1-0445.