The kid was a natural. That much was clear, and we all thought those 24-karat pipes of his would be just the thing to take Weems Boland and His Foggy Knights straight to the top. Hell, even I thought so, and I'd been around long enough to've known better.
The name's not really Weems, by the way. It's William. I got the nickname Weems when I was a kid and my sister Gretchen couldn't pronounce my real name. When she said "William," it came out "Weems," and the name just sorta stuck. And in the interest of full disclosure, I suppose I should also tell you that "Boland" is short for Bollander. Yeah, I'm a phony. What of it?
But the kid was for real. This was '52, see, and boy singers were in. Julius La Rosa was riding high on the Godfrey show then, and suddenly every band had to have a boy singer. I mean, without a boy singer, you were nowhere, and I mean nowhere. Dame singers couldn't get arrested if they were caught hooking in front of a Lutheran church. We had a dame singer, Loretta something, but we had to cut her loose. A shame, too, because she was a heckuva little thrush and none too bad in the kit, either. I guess all the boys in the band took her for a ride at one time or another, including yours truly. Wonder whatever happened to her?
Anyhow, the kid came to see us play one night at the Rumpus Room in Beasleyville. He was your typical milk-fed Midwestern moron, a country cluck who didn't know his dick from a doorbell, and he stuck around after the second show and asked to audition for us. I didn't see any instrument case with him, so I asked him what he played.
"These," he said, and pointed at his neck.
Naturally, we were skeptical, but if we were ever going to make it out of the tank towns and hit the big time, we needed a boy singer but quick. I told the boys to play "My Love and Devotion" and cued the moron to come in after the four-bar introduction. The boys were plenty tired by this point, but they wheezed through the introduction, and the kid stepped up to the microphone and began to sing:
My love and devotion will always be true.
Now and forever, I live for you...
My love and devotion are yours, yours alone.
Kiss me, beloved. Say you're my own.
We were all stunned. Me, the boys, even the bartender who was polishing up the last few beer mugs of the evening. The kid had it all: tone, phrasing, dynamics, the gift for lyrics and melody they can't teach you and you can't learn but just have to have somehow. A natural. The proverbial needle in the haystack. Lordy lord, hallelujah, what have I done to deserve this gift? I cut the band off after "you're my own."
"I've heard enough," I said.
"W-was that okay?" the kid stammered.
After a pause, I said, "Sure, kid, it was fine," playing it cool. The boys followed my lead and mainly looked down at the floor, avoiding eye contact with the kid. We didn't want the moron to get a swell head this early in the proceedings. "We're staying at the Hopper House tonight. We're leaving for Carver City tomorrow at eight a.m. sharp. Our bus is parked in back. Be on it."
"Now go home and pack your suitcase. If you're gonna be on the road with us, prepare to live out of that suitcase for the next six months."
"What's your name, kid?"
"It'll never sell, kid. From now on, you're Teddy Bears. Got it?"
I showed him our set list, and he said he knew every song on it. I said he better, because those were the songs he'd be singing the very next night. He said that was fine with him and went home to pack.
Well, I need hardly tell you that by the time I managed to get those bums out of bed and dressed, and we finally staggered to the bus at 10 the next morning, the kid was there waiting for us, grip in hand. All smiles, in fact. I figured he'd seen everything Beasleyville had to offer by that point -- probably several times over -- and was eager to see the big, wide world. Or at least as much of it as he could see out the window of our tour bus. The kid's arrival could mean big things for the Knights, and we all knew it. Tuck wasn't much to look at, a skinny little twerp who looked like he'd been put together out of pipe cleaners, but we knew once the crowds got their first listen, they'd fall for him just like we had. Soon we'd be able to say goodbye to the jerkwater burgs and hello to the Copa. For the first time in I don't know how long, the mood on the bus that day was upbeat, and the boys were laughing and swapping dirty jokes like old times. Even Scratch, our drummer, perked up a bit. For his part, the kid sat in the back, keeping to himself and looking out the window with a dazed expression on his moronic face.
That night, Carver City's fabulous Wintergreen Lounge would feature the debut of Ted Weems and His Foggy Knights Featuring the Velvet Tones of Mr. Teddy Bears, and this is where my tale takes a turn for the supernatural. The gig was at eight, and our bus pulled into town just after seven. This promised to be a well-attended show because Carver City was playing host to a Knights of Pythias convention that weekend, and we figured that any musical act with the word "Knights" in the name would be sure to draw plenty of conventioneers. Depending on who was in the crowd that night, this gig could even be the start of better things for us. We pulled in behind the Wintergreen around 7:15 and started to unload the equipment, just like usual. It was cold that night and we worked quickly, trying to get everything off the bus and into the back of the club as soon as possible. Looking back on it, I guess it was odd that the kid didn't volunteer to help us, but no one noticed it at the time, not even me. I mean, we'd unloaded that damn bus so many times we had it down to a science. We didn't even notice he was AWOL until everyone else was inside and we were setting up the stage. That's when it struck me.
"Hey," I shouted. "Where's the kid?"
The boys looked around, puzzled. The kid was not in the club as far as they could see.
"Goddamnit! It figures he'd wander off just when we needed him. Maybe he's still on the bus! Somebody go check!"
Our tenor sax man, Gordy, said he would and wandered out the back door.
"Well don't just stand there staring at me," I yelled to the others. "Keep setting up that equipment!"
They went back to work, and I started pacing. I always pace before a show. Twenty years on the road, and I still get nervous before gigs. A half million things can go wrong, you know? Case in point, this moron not getting off the bus. What was he, some kind of prima donna? Good Christ, what a life. I should've gone into insurance with my cousin Leroy.
After a couple more minutes, Gordy stumbled back into the club, looking ashen-faced.
"Well?" I demanded. "Where's Beemish?"
"Th-the kid... h-he's dead, Weems," Gordy replied somberly. "I..."
I didn't wait for any kind of follow-up. I immediately pushed my way past the boys and the equipment and dashed out the back door into the cold night air. It had started to snow by that time, but I hardly noticed it. I just ran to the bus, hopped on, and hurriedly made my way to the back where the kid was sitting perfectly still, that same dazed look frozen on his face.
"KID! TUCK! CAN YOU HEAR ME!"
No reply. I put my hand over his heart and felt nothing. I felt his wrist. No pulse. His hand was cold. I slapped him across the face. No response. I grabbed him by the shoulders and shook hard. Nothing.
"Oh, sweet mother of god!"
I walked a few paces away from him down the center aisle of the bus, paused to catch my breath, and then walked back to the kid. He had slumped over in his seat, his head lolling lifelessly to the side. He might've been an old sack of flour. I walked slowly off the bus and back into the club. When I came in, all the boys were assembled in a big group, staring at the door, waiting for me to return. They were anxiously awaiting my report.
I stood there for a moment composing my thoughts, eventually saying with a tone of finality, "He's dead. The kid's dead." I folded my hands in front of me and looked down.
Other than a few muted gasps, they made no sound. They just stood there, staring blankly ahead with their mouths open, not sure of how to react. Nothing like this had ever happened to us before, of course, and we were at a loss as to how to deal with it now. It was Stokes, our trombonist, who broke the silence.
"So... whatta we do, Weems?" he said. "Call the cops?"
"I guess so, Stokes," I replied. "Where's the phone in this..."
The voice came from the back of the group. It was Scratch, the drummer. Like I said, Scratch wasn't the liveliest fella in our band. Hell, between gigs, he hardly said a word other than maybe "pass the salt" or "got a match." An outburst like this was rare indeed. We all turned around to face him.
"I know another way. Before you call the cops, let me look at him."
"Well, sure, Scratch," I said. "But what do you plan to do? I mean, Gordy and I have examined him, and he's definitely dead."
"Dead? For now. But you forget, I'm from Louisiana. New Orleans, born and raised."
"What the hell ya talkin' about, Scratch?" I asked, a little peeved. "Louisiana...?"
"I'm talkin' about voodoo, Weems," he replied, calmly.
A couple of the boys chuckled, others scoffed. I groaned and threw up my hands in disgust.
"C'mon, Scratch," I said. "Be serious here. A man has just..."
"I am serious, Weems. Watch me and see how serious I am."
And with that he calmly walked out the back door of the club and headed for the bus. The rest of us stood in the club looking at each other for a few seconds, then decided to follow. By the time we got out there, we saw that Weems was lifting his heavy frame onto the bus. When he saw us coming, he held out his hand.
"Uh-uh! Stay back! I'm goin' on this bus alone."
The boys looked to me for direction. I nodded in silent agreement and signaled for Scratch to go ahead without us. He shut the door of the bus behind him. Once he was inside, I decided to address the troops.
"Listen, guys. The kid is already dead. There's nothing Scratch can do to him now. Let's just stay out of his way for the moment, okay?"
At that moment, we heard something coming from the bus. It was a strange, deep voice chanting in a language none of us recognized. Some of it was soft and mumbly, but occasionally it got very loud. We stayed several feet away from the bus and strained to see what was going on inside. From our vantage point, we couldn't see much, just the barest outline of Scratch's heavy frame as he waved his arms and gesticulated wildly. We didn't know what in the holy hell he was doing back there, but it was the performance of his life. One of the boys, Tug the bassist, cracked that we should work Scratch's voodoo routine into the show, but he was quickly shushed by the others. After about five minutes of this, we could see that Scratch stopped what he was doing and sat down. The strange vocalizations also ceased. After that, nothing more seemed to happen on the bus. Minutes ticked by. We didn't know what had happened, what was happening, or what was going to happen. Finally... finally... we could see Scratch lift himself up and walk towards the front of the door.
"Well," said Gordy, "it looks like that didn't..."
Another figure on the bus stood up and followed Scratch to the door. Instinctively, we all stepped back a few paces, as if what was going to emerge from the bus needed plenty of room. What emerged first, of course, was Scratch, who had loosened his tie and was mopping sweat off his brow. As cold as it was that night, Scratch looked like he'd just stepped out of a jungle. I noticed that I was sweating, too, and looked around to see that the boys were all sweating and loosening their neckties. It had stopped snowing.
"Did I tell ya, Weems?" shouted Scratch. "Huh? Did I tell ya?"
He gestured to the still-open door. After a few ominous seconds, the kid emerged from the bus and walked toward us. We eyed him suspiciously, like he had some disease we were fearful of getting. The kid looked okay, I guess, but there was something wrong with his eyes and he walked with a stiff, lurching gait. I turned to look at Scratch, who was watching the kid and taking obvious pride in his handiwork.
"Hey, Scratch," I said. "Can he talk?"
"Ask him yourself."
"Hey, uh, kid. Tuck. Can you talk?"
The kid stopped lurching forward as he turned his head to look directly at me.
The voice which emerged from his lips was at least an octave lower than his normal speaking voice. He sounded like a 78 being played at 33, kind of mushy and drawn out.
At this point, the owner of the Wintergreen, a waxy little bald guy with a mustache and a cheap-looking suit, came running out of the club towards us, shouting.
"HEY, YOU BUMS! Maybe you've forgotten, but you gotta show ta put on tonight! The crowd's waitin' for ya's. I got the fuggin' Knights of Pythias breathin' down my neck, fer Chrissakes. I don't know what kinda game a' charades yer playin' out here, but let's wrap it up and getcher asses out on that stage. Like now! You read me?"
"Yeah, yeah," I said, wearily. "We read you loud and clear. We're comin', we're comin'."
The owner wheeled around and stormed back towards the club, muttering about the "goddamn musicians." Once he'd gone inside, the boys looked to me for what to do next.
"What now, Weems?" asked Stokes.
"The kid looks fine, Stokes. And the show must go on."
"Yeah," said Stokes. "But look at him. He's in no condition..."
"Sure he is," I said. "Once we get him inside, we'll pour some hot coffee down his throat. That oughta perk him up a bit. Otherwise, we'll do everything at half tempo."
I turned to the kid. "How 'bout it, kid? You ready to sing some tunes for the folks?"
He sounded like a man on a three-day drunk, and his eyes resembled burned-out light bulbs. We led him back into the Wintergreen Lounge. Once we got inside, the owner -- who was also acting as emcee -- was already introducing us. We caught the tail end of his spiel.
"...AND HIS FOGGY KNIGHTS!!! LET'S HEAR IT FOR 'EM, FOLKS!!"
This was met with enthusiastic applause. There was just time to pour one cup of coffee into our freshly revived vocalist. Most of it went down his chin and onto the front of his shirt. As we stepped onto the stage, the boys feigned cheerfulness as they took their usual positions. The kid managed to find the microphone once I steered him toward it. I said a brief "hello" to the crowd, then briefly looked at the kid, who was staring ahead with an absolutely blank look. I think I detected a bit of drool coming from the corner of his mouth. Boy, I thought, are these people going to get a show unlike any other tonight. Live! From beyond the grave! Mr. Teddy Bears! Watch his fingers rot off, folks! And for those of you in the front row, sorry about the smell.
In all the confusion, I'd forgotten to ask whether the kid could still sing or if he even knew the words to the songs anymore. Well, I guess we were about to find out, huh?
I turned to the boys and raised my arms. They jerked to attention and got their instruments ready to play. I gave them the tempo. A-one, two, here we go.
The boys started to play "My Love and Devotion." The kid, perhaps operating on some primal instinct, moved up close to the microphone and opened his mouth. I held my breath in anticipation. My heart pounded in my head. What kind of sound was he going to make? Could we possibly get away with this?
My love and devotion will always be true
Sweet Mary's mustache! The kid still had it! Even dead, he still had it. What did I tell ya? A natural! The voice came out of him as clear and pretty as a church bell on Sunday morning.
Now and forever, I live for you...
Truer words were never spoken, kid. Or sung, for that matter.