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Commentary: Joe Paradise

By Spencer Michlin, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX –

Most of us learn from our jobs. Writers do, too, but we usually learn more from what we find on the periphery.

For a kid interested in theater, I had a dream job throughout high school. Some nights and weekends and all summer long, I worked in the office of the producer of what was then called the State Fair Musicals. Naturally, this also involved a show during our city's three weeks of October excess - eight performances a week and an employee pass to the Fair.

Naturally, I became intimately acquainted with the rides, the games, the sights and sounds and smells of the Midway, spending my salary and a little more every day before, after and between shows. That's how and where I met Joe Paradise.

Toward the end of this stretch of carny heaven were the strip show and the freak show, each enticing in its own way to a teenage boy. Nestled between them wailed the Rhythm and Blues Show. Within, surrounded by the blended smells of musty canvas and popcorn, you'd be treated to a truly soulful band playing jumpin' 45-minute sets with a girl singer, a guy singer and a highly choreographed and pomaded group taking turns doing the hits of the day. Because of the talent level and - this being the late 50's - the wealth of current and past material, they were ready with a dozen sets, each expertly performed.

Meanwhile, a parallel and equally wonderful show was taking place outside. Beneath flapping canvas posters depicting - in vivid circus art style - black men and women singing and playing, a small, swarthy man with an astonishing array of brightly colored tailcoats barked, "Come on in, come on in, come on in and listen in. Take a load off and hear hear hear the music of your favorites Ruth Brown and Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and The Drifters and The Coasters and The Flamingos and Mickey and Sylvia and Laverne Baker and Johnny Otis, Fats Domino and mooorrre! Come on in, come on in, come on in and listen in!"

He varied the names in each spiel seemingly as effortlessly as the band inside varied the repertoire. And each day he wore a more colorful and whimsical outfit. After a time he began to recognize me, nodding, and one day spoke to me in a surprisingly soft voice filled with the rhythms of his native Brooklyn. "You really like the music, huh, kid? Next show, just go on in. My treat." But there was some time before the next show and not very many people on the midway that night, so I bought the man a Dr. Pepper and we talked for a while.

He told me that his name was Joe Paradise and his answer to my first question was, "I gotta whole trunk full of 'em. Used to have a girlfriend who made 'em for me." His dark eyes flashed and he showed a toothy grin. "I love to look good." Joe said that he loved music, too and that he was a piano player and songwriter. "I never was much good, but I hung out with so many Negro bands that they used to let me announce for them in clubs up in Harlem. That's how I got this gig."

For the rest of that Fair I made it a point to catch at least one set a day for free, or at least for the price of a Dr. Pepper. And as much as I enjoyed the music, I enjoyed equally a daily talk with my peacock of a new friend. Part of the attraction was that he treated me as an adult; the rest were the road stories that he painted of clubs and carnivals and fights and parties and the claustrophobic camaraderie of traveling with a band. It was like hearing an Arabian Nights of rock and roll and race and raucous living.

Joe Paradise gave me a peek behind the curtain of an adult world that thrummed beyond the boundaries of my middle class teenage existence. He opened my eyes to many things, but I guess the most important was this: for a writer, people are always more fascinating than things, even when the thing is wonderful music.

 

Spencer Michlin is a writer from Dallas. If you have opinions or questions about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.