Birches was one of two dozen smoke filled bars scattered around Dallas in the early ‘50s. Mostly they wore fancy names like Artist’s Lounge or The Music Box. Birches was just plain Birches Lounge, taking the name of the three brothers who owned it. Tom had gone to public school with the Birch brothers and he told me that when those boys got tired of sitting in the classroom, they just jumped out the window and went home. Well, he didn’t know if they went home or not but they left and rode off to somewhere on saddled horses that they rode to school and kept tied to a tree at the edge of the schoolyard. Those horses were always ready and waiting when the Birch boys decided to leave.
There was a “dangerous” feeling about Birches Lounge. When we were sitting at a table, I sometimes had a feeling that we were pretty close to folks who had been shaking hands with The Godfather. Actually there was no reason to think that except I was a young girl new to the city and feeling that I was living on the edge was exciting.
The lounges in Dallas were popular gathering places at the time and provided entertaining places for guys to take their dates without spending a week’s paycheck for dinner and dancing at the Adolphus downtown. Tom and I and my brother Austin and his date stopped by Birches Lounge nearly every weekend. The main reason we went was because of their piano player. If you slipped a dollar bill into the quart fruit jar he kept on that old upright piano, Harold would come up with words and music to whatever you requested. Sometimes he’d look stumped for a few seconds but if you hummed a few bars, he’d listen, close his eyes, strike a few keys and be off and running with your song. It might not be the way you remembered it, but he’d sing it so good, you’d wind up liking his version better.
When Harold played best was when he was just let alone to pick his own songs, songs that had never before been played for a white audience. No other musician played those songs for white folks until a few years down the road, a country bumpkin named Jerry Lee Lewis, whose cousins were television’s shouting preacher, Jimmy Swaggart and “Stand by Me” Mickey Gilley played them. Jerry Lee played black road-house music and physically abused innocent pianos. His musical renditions shot straight to the top of the charts and if he hadn’t married his 13 year old cousin because he loved her, he might have been right out there along side of Elvis. But he did and so he wasn’t but he could really entertain with his piano. And so could Harold.
Remember that in the ‘50’s all customers at Birches were white. Harold was black and he played music we had not heard before. He handled a piano so fiercely that it had to be re-tuned every week. We watched as he would jump up and play the bass notes with his right foot, while keeping the melody with both hands not unlike Jerry Lee would do a few years later, showmanship that made him famous. Jerry Lee was a white man playing black music. Harold was a black man playing black music for white folks.
Harold was not only a talented musician, he was an entertainer. The crowds filled every chair at Birches Lounge on Oak Lawn and they rose and shouted with Harold as he jumped up and, fingers still on the piano keys, keeping the rhythm would shout “Cal…doon..ya!….Cal…doon..ya! What makes your big head so hard? But I love you! I’m crazy ‘bout you woman and Caledonia is your name!”
Then he’d jump up, kick the piano stool over and finish the song standing while both hands pounded the keys in a crescendo.
After such a fierce performance, he would bring the crowd back from the peak of excitement to cool off. Gently he’d ease into an old Negro spiritual that could make everybody in the place stop talking and listen.
I always hoped that some smoky evening, a producer or somebody important in the entertainment industry would just walk in off the street, sit awhile and listen and then we’d have to buy Harold’s records at the music store. But he never got his “Cinderella moment” so he just played on until I guess he got tired and quit or else he died. I never knew because Tom and I married, my brother moved away and we just stopped hanging out in lounges but before that time, there was the night that Tom brought a new machine to the lounge. It was a reel to reel tape recorder and we were fascinated with what it could capture on a piece of brown tape. He wanted to record an hour of Harold and he did.
That old machine is out in the barn now with a lot of other stuff that doesn’t work anymore but on that winter evening in 1950, just before Christmas, Tom recorded an hour of Harold and his piano magic.
A few years ago I had that tape transcribed to a CD and on lonely evenings when there’s not much to watch on television, and I’ve already seen all the movies, I get out that recording made so long ago and for just a little while I am once more fresh out of college, with a nice job and a great guy to share good times and we are listening to a real musician beat the heck out of an old piano someplace in Dallas.
I’m the only one left to remember how it was so I have to remember enough for all of us.