Wednesday, February 8, 2017

African Americans on Old Time Radio: Singer Meredith Howard on Pete Kelly's Blues (1951)

For my fifth entry African Americans on Old Time Radio, I am showcasing a program that was a summer replacement series in 1951.  The star was Jack Webb, who two years earlier introduced the gritty reality of Dragnet to people all over the country.  In this series, Jack Webb introduced America to another passion of his, Jazz.  Playing a key role in this series was a young African American singer named Meredith Howard.  Unlike the roles played by Eddie Anderson and Lillian Randolph, Meredith Howard played a singer in 1920s Kansas City who had a solo with each show.

This year to celebrate National African American History Month in February, I am going highlight a new series on my blog.  This year, I will feature African Americans during the Golden Age of Radio - or Old Time Radio - during the 1930s through the 1950s.  I wanted to start this blog last year, but alas...better late than never.  I hope to have a great assortment of programs that showcase the great contributions of African Americans in mainstream radio when Jim Crow laws, segregation and discrimination were regular obstacles facing artists of color.

Visit to Old U.S. Mint (New Orleans, Louisisana)

Visit to Old U.S. Mint (New Orleans, Louisiana) - 2013 - There is a record in this story...honest!

Pete Kelly's Blues was a brief summer replacement series on NBC that was produced and starred Dragnet actor Jack Webb.  It only ran during the summer of 1951 and was not picked up for a permanent show.  However, it did become a television show and movie of the same name later in the 1950s.  Webb played Pete Kelly, a clarinet player who often finds himself in trouble in the rough and tumble world of musicians and speakeasies during the Prohibition Era.  Meredith Howard played Maggie Jackson, a local singer who not only is written into the stories, but also gets to perform in each episode.  The role of Pete Kelly was much like the role Jack Webb played in the great series Pat Novak, For Hire, which shared Webb and writer Richard Breen who worked on the new series.  He was a musician who played from late at night to early in the morning.  Furthermore, like Pat Novak, trouble found him!  And while this series was the confluence of great radio producers, actors and musicians, the star we want to focus on is Meredith Howard.  Towards the end of this short run, the Los Angeles Sentinel, a newspaper for the African American community, published this profile of the young singer and how she got the part on this program.

How A Lass Tagged Meredith Becomes A Chirper - Maggie
Los Angeles Sentinel, September 20, 1951, page B3
Twenty-one year old Meredith Howard, who plays the role of blues singer Maggie Jackson on NBC's "Pete Kelly's Blues," is still walking in a daze.  In just a few short weeks she jumped from being a student in a Los Angeles trade school to feature billing on the NBC radio shows and star st status on Capital records - and all because Jack Webb once heard her sing two years ago.
It was back in 1949 during Alumni Week at Belmont High School, Meredith, a senior student, sang a few numbers in the school's "Hi-Jinks" production.  Emceeing the show was Jack Webb, Belmont alumni and rising young radio star.  The two met very briefly and that was it, or so it seemed.  When two years later, in 1951, Webb was searching for a genuinely different voice to play the speakeasy blue singer on his "Pete Kelly's Blues," series, he recalled the young girl he'd heard at Belmont high, Webb tracked her down, offered her the radio job and arranged for her to cut some sides for Capital with the "Pete Kelly and his Big Seven" combo and now there seems to be no telling just how high the girl with rocket.
Her brother, Paul White, is also in show business.  He's a dancer in the Ted Lewis aggregation and does the famous "Me and My Shadow," dance with the veteran showman.  In fact it was because of Paul, that the Jackson family left New York for California in 1937.  Paul, then a very young boy, was signed to a Universal Pictures contract and worked in films for three years.
Meredith a big girl of 5' 5" and 163 lbs., says she may finally have the secret of losing weight.  "Just get a sudden phone call from Jack Webb, jump into a whirl of rehearsing, singing, acting, recording, then stay up all night, wondering how it all came about."
Jack Webb's love for jazz was clear in this short-lived series.  Each episode had a few songs that makes listening to the episode a real joy if you love the music of the twenties.  The opening was really great as well:
This one's about Pete Kelly.

It's about the world he goes around in. It's about the big music, and the big trouble, and the big twenties. So when they ask you, tell 'em this one's about the blues. Pete Kelly's blues.
When Pete Kelly and his band start recording a few songs, they found themselves at a recording study where people record music or personal messages for 'family back home.' That is where Pete Kelly finds himself mixed up in a crime...again.  Turns out that the cylinders can be used multiple times, which means that some incriminating evidence might be out there.  When a woman named Zelda shows up and stops him from going into the studio, the adventure begins. Zelda is asking Pete to get back a recording from the studio.  Starting at 16 minutes into this episode, Meredith Howard sings a great song about Fat Annie's, the bar across the river on the Kansas side.  If you like the combination of jazz and crime stories, this is a good series for you!  I hope you enjoy.

Zelda (Pete Kelly's Blues - September 5, 1951)

African Americans on Old Time Radio:

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