Sunday, September 03, 2006

Requiem for Huggy Boy

Dick Hugg, Huggy Boy, is dead.

For any white kid growing up in Southern California in the 1950's, Huggy Boy's velvet voice on the radio late at night revealed to us to the world of black rhythm & blues. I used to listen to his show with the radio tucked under my pillow so my parents couldn't hear. Huggy Boy and fellow DJ Hunter Hancock (both of whom were white) could only play their R&B music late at night because the lyrics to many of them contained double meanings that threatened the sensibilities of the white folks who controlled the airwaves. One of my favorites (now on my iPod) was "Big Ten-Inch Record":
Got me the strangest woman,
believe me this chick's no cinch.
But I really get her going
when I take out my big 10 inch...
...record of the band that plays the blues
Huggy Boy broadcast his show live after midnight in the front window of Dolphins of Hollywood, a record store at the corner of Vernon and Central in the predominantly black area of south Los Angeles. But he was so popular that hoardes of white kids would drive down to the store, where the aisles were full of stacks of ten-inch 78 rpm records, to appear on his show and dedicate songs to their friends. I was one of them on a night in 1954 or 1955 and I'll never forget the thrill of meeting Huggy Boy in person. I recall him as being tall and slim with slicked-back black hair.

The first R&B song I ever heard was "Gee" by the Crows and its catchy refrain (and inane lyrics) still sends shivers up my spine as I remember what it was like to be 14 years old and as responsive as a tuning fork to the sounds around me. Then there was "Earth Angel" by the Penguins, and "One Mint Julep" by the Clovers. Huggy Boy and Hunter Hancock introduced me to Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard, not to mention B.B. King, Big Jay McNeeley and Joe Houston.

Paul, my best friend in junior high school, emailed me last night to tell me about Huggy Boy's death at the age of 78 in Los Angeles. Another old friend tells me that her tenth grade class of 1956, the year after mine, is having their 50-year reunion next weekend in La Canada at the Youth House where I played my clarinet and alto sax in a band for dances back in the mid-50's. She sent me a list of names of her classmates still living (an amazing number were now deceased), and a couple brought back vivid memories.

To recapture the past more fully, I dug deep in my files to find an article I had written in 1973 for Coast Magazine in Los Angeles. It was a special issue on love in various decades and I got to write about the Fifties. The stories are as real as my memory. It was entitled "High School Confidential" (and I've not attempted to update or correct anything):

To a cute necker. Good luck in 9th grade.
Jim B
Jim was the best "necker" in the eighth grade. His succinct entry in my 1953 junior high school annual told me I'd made the grade. Making out in the '50's was our religion and Jim was my guru.

Twenty years ago this month I migrated with my parents and younger brother in a new Ford, west to Southern California. I was 13 1/2 years old and a social Neanderthal. My puberty began and ended with songs; "Oh Happy Day" by Lawrence Welk and His Orchestra heard on our car radio traveling along Route 66 towards the land of orange groves started it all; and, four years later, there was Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue" on the radio in my hospital room where I lay with a broken thigh bone after driving drunk into a candy store following a college fraternity rush party.

To a very wonderful guy.

Laurie was my first steady girl (remember that phrase?) in the spring of our eighth grade. Jim's yearbook compliment resulted from his witnessing of my first fumbling attempts at passion with Laurie at a party. It was at that same party that Charlie P heard me emit a loud fart, during a corner embrace and humiliated me for weeks afterward by spreading the nasty rumor that my love-making was excessively noisy. Only the good Dr. Freud could have guessed what future havoc that trauma may have wrought.

I danced with Laurie at parties and at the eighth grade prom to "Song from Moulin Rouge." She was taller than me, classically beautiful in my memory, and I never laid hands on the forbidden areas of her body. I was a nice boy. My lust was confined to wet dreams. Several years ago I ran into Laurie at a coffee shop. She had married an undertaker and was dressed in the uniform of a middle-aged, middle-class matron. Only wide-open eyes and a giggly laugh remained of the girl I held hands with in her parents' living room.

Flashback: A few years out of college, Laurie and Carolyn lived in a hillside apartment in San Francisco, career secretaries by day, beatniks by night. I came over from Berkeley one evening for a party with Dick, who dated Laurie after me. Dick and Laurie and Carolyn and I fucked most of the night away and in the morning I went into Laurie's room and gave her a brotherly hug and kiss.

Lots of luck to a real cute guy.
Nancy R
A month after writing that, Nancy and I sat next to each other in a pew at the Church of the Lighted Window. Prompted by my guru, Jim, I passed her a note asking if she'd go steady with me. She accepted, and that evening I gave her a ring I'd bought at Woolworth's, a heavy 25-cent ring with the skull's head removed and replaced with my initials. Our affair lasted three weeks, three Saturdays at Jim's house where, while his parents worked, Jim and Judy and Nancy and I " made out" for eight straight hours, stopping only to get a Coke, to go to the bathroom, or to change the stack of 45's on Jim's RCA phonograph ("All Night Long" by Joe Houston, "One Mint Julep" by the Clovers, and more). "Making out" was hot and sweaty work but we were driven teenagers (that label, teenagers - an epithet or a badge of pride?). I hardly even minded Nancy's braces, which frequently sliced up my lips. And she never noticed that my Levis failed to fold the proper way in my crotch, a source of heartrending embarrassment to me. And my hands never touched the forbidden areas of her body.

Lest you think my hands remained virginal throughout junior high school, let me retell the events of New Year's Eve, 1953-54. Jerry and Addie and Melanie and I sat in the back of Jack's lowered Chevy during an aimless round-trip drive from Pasadena to Long Beach during which I managed to slip my shaking right hand into Melanie's pedal pushers, underneath the silky front line, and right onto the end-all and be-all for a 14-year-old boy/man. I hope the experience was as instructive to Melanie as it was to me. Not to be left out, Addie and Jerry enacted the same scenario besides us while Jack delicately tried to watch the road and the rear-view mirror (from which hung an enormous pair of angora dice) at the same time.

Your '40 is going to drag my '41 Chevy someday. Your (sic) going to have your (ass wiped). I'll have a G.M.C
Gary L (Lip)


We have only had a ball together since 8th grade. Especially this past few weeks. I hope we only have a ball Wed. night and Graduation nite. I hope the fun we are having can last through the summer and even longer. I hope that you get your chance to be in that combo. Lots of luck next year.
My love always,

Judy, bless her often-available bare breasts, had forgiven me for that night the summer before when Jim had lured her into the darkened school hall from the dance at the community Youth House next door, right into the waiting arms of three scared but eager teenaged boys who plotted to punish her for being a "P.T." (prick tease). (Those breasts were only available to a select few then.) Two of us held her arms, another put his hands over her mouth, someone ripped her pants off and Jim lit a match. For no more than a second we stared at a thatch of genuine female pubic hair (blonde), and then fled in separate directions while Judy screamed for help, While several teachers on duty at the dance searched through the school for us, I hid under a bush and then ran home over back roads. Judy told on everyone but Jim (he was a charmer) and I was "grounded" (restricted to home base in the evenings) for a month by my parents.

Jim was our leader. He wore his wavy brown hair (bleached blond in the summer sun with liberal applications of lemon juice) in a duck tail (also "D.A." [duck's ass]), was the first to get a pair of black "pegged" (A-1) pants, had brown loafers with pennies in the front as well as the (mandatory) black 'cycle boots, and was the first (he said, we believed) to actually sleep with a girl. It happened, so the story went, the summer before I arrived in California, one night at the home of his girl friend while her parents were out (our middle, upper-middle-class suburb had a high percentage of party-going parent alcoholics). Mark corroborated the story. He was feigning sleep in the living room in front of the T.V. while Jim and ... (her name is lost in the fog of history) went at it in the bedroom. Stealing a glimpse, Mark witnessed moving white limbs and buttocks and heard decidedly gooey sounds. "Yep," said Jim, "we went all the way." Later, she allegedly got pregnant by another, went to live with relatives, and disappeared into a private girls' school some miles away. Sitting at our permanent table in the cafeteria, Jim told and retold his story and reaped the glory, and later Mickey would pull out a plug of chewing tobacco and we were off into another voyage toward adulthood.

Jim cultivated a friend a year older than he who had a car and a driver's license. He lunged ahead of us into the world of drive-in movies and lovers' lanes. The magical age those days was 15 1/2; that was when one became eligible for a learner's permit and a chance to use the family car -- as long as a properly licensed 16-year-old was around. (Everyone's 16th birthday was a rite of passage held at the Department of Motor Vehicles.) I paid $50 around my 15 1/2 "birthday" for a four-door 1940 Ford with baby blue primer paint, which sat in my garage, an apprentice auto mechanic's laboratory, for six months. Unlike most of my other friends, I was totally unable to understand the workings of a six or eight-cylinder automobile engine, but I did manage to drive the thing out of the garage on my 16th birthday. Not long afterwards, Jack talked me into letting him drive it in a drag race on a side street and when he floored the throttle the speedometer sped up to 120 but the car just rolled slowly forward, its U-joint or differential or something threaded. Jack tried to put a new one in later but only succeeded in snapping the rear spring. I think I got $5 from the junkyard. About that same time, Jim' persuaded his father, a car salesman, to buy him a nearly-new Oldsmobile.. A year or more later in high school, reportedly in the back seat of that car, Jim impregnated his girl friend and both were forced to drop out of school, marry and adjust to the stigma of being teenage parents. They failed and Jim ran off to Hawaii, married and failed again, finally returning to Southern California where he married the ex-wife of that same friend mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph. (When last seen five years ago, Jim was selling office furniture and studying law at night school. His confident tone of voice had turned into a pitiful whine and he had sunk from being a leader to becoming a follower of conservative fashion, politically and socially.)

Jerry M was tall and funny, always the first to coin the latest password of slang, always clad in cycle boots and sloppily dressed, always dabbed with grime and grease from working on his '50 Ford (with his cutting torch he chopped the roof down to about a foot, so that he had to squint in order to see out of the windshield). In high school, Jerry got the girl I had desired in my dreams ever since the day she had appeared at an assembly in a variety show from a junior high school across town. My loss, and his good luck, were tempered by the eventual revelation that she only had one breast, the other having been permanently stunted when a shingle fell off her roof and hit her on the chest in childhood (the story always sounded a1ittle preposterous to me, but I wanted to believe it to salve my wounded pride). I saw Jerry five years ago and he had gone through the changes Jim had missed. Jerry was an automotive parts salesman (not a mechanic as we and he had predicted), immaculately and modishly dressed, had a girl friend who lived on a houseboat in Sausalito, and even admitted to having tried the illegal weed.

Jerry R, that sexual experimenter who had been beside me on that long New Year's Eve drive from Pasadena, to Long Beach and back, took Jim's place as my guru during the waning days of junior high school. Jerry taught me how to buy liquor: we'd wait in his car outside a liquor store in the black ghetto until an obvious wino staggered along, whereupon we would offer him an extra dollar to buy us something alcoholic (we didn't care what). On our first try, we ended up with a pint of apricot brandy and that became our steady drink for a few months.

Ellis L was 16 but looked 35 with a heavy beard that required shaving twice daily. He was famed for walking into Olson's Grocery Store, where he would buy a quart of Olympia beer, and then sit outside on the curb and sip contentedly, old Ellis, from the bottle still wrapped in a paper bag. Ellis became a lawyer and is reportedly practicing somewhere in Ohio. ,

Flashforward: At midnight, when I turned 21, I was sitting in a bar I had frequented all summer long with a couple of friends who, knowingly, broke into a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday." I treasure the expression on the bartender's face when I proved my masquerade of age by showing him my driver's license, the real one and not the fake one we all laboriously fabricated from expired learners' licenses.

Barbara had slumber parties for her girl friends and, because her parents were always either away or so drunk they didn't care, my friends and I were usually invited over. We would pop popcorn in the kitchen with the top off the pot, a dozen of us running around with bowls trying to catch the kernels before they hit the floor. Girls in pajamas, boys in peggers and T-shirts, we would turn the lights off and dance cheek-to-cheek in the dark to "Night Train" and "Be-Bop Wino," arms around arms for the slow dreamy songs and to the fast ones doing the Dirty Boogie (the "D.B.') -- couples facing inches apart, feet planted firmly, right hands held, swaying back lasciviously until heads nearly touched the floor behind (the more daring guys allowed one knee to slip firmly between their partners' thighs).

Flashforward: Two years out of high school, Mark returned one summer from the University of Wisconsin to describe a "bad taste" party his fraternity had held. We organized a reasonable facsimile with wine served out of douche bags into urine specimen bottles, dildos fashioned from rubber-covered Kotex pads for favors, and costumes: loin cloths for the men, bra and panties for the women. Barbara, the Elsa Maxwell of the junior high school slumber party, ended up in my arms for a few hours of mutual regret at what we had failed to consumate years earlier. She ran off to Las Vegas for a quick marriage a few months later.

Making out in the '50's with Janet and, Sue and Pauline (when we kissed while lying on her couch listening to Jackie Gleason's "Music for Lovers Only" album she would blush beet red from her forehead to the top of her low-cut blouse; she too got pregnant by another and went away to a girls' boarding school) and Jackie (spurned for a ski instructor) and Sally and Gail and Cherry and ...

This bit of self-centered social history would probably be incomplete without a brief description of How I Lost My Virginity. It happened on the front seat of that same '53 Ford (by then repainted and engine overhauled) that had brought me and my family to California three years before. It was at a drive-in theatre and the movie was a re-release of "Bambi" which, no shit, was the first movie I had ever seen as a child. It wasn't exactly out of True Romance, but I was as proud that night as I'd been the year before when I'd won my letter in gymnastics by climbing the rope. And she didn't get pregnant.

We broke up four weeks later.

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