A Night At Mickey’s Monkey With Etta James
From the JWSIII series: People I’ve Met Along the Way
Author’s prologue: The year 1965 was wrought with political upheaval and dissention, President Lyndon Johnson was ramping up the Viet Nam war, it was the year of war protests and the Watt’s Riots. It was also the year an underworld character, a bookie who was well known among the entertainers of the time, bought a very popular nightclub on the tidal lagoon just outside of Santa Barbara and through my manager, Jack Foster, he booked me into the club for its grand opening. He also booked Etta James in as the featured act.
Etta was a charming, vivacious lady whose offstage demeanor belied her ability to sing blues and jazz like no other person I have ever met. She had a powerful room-filling voice that she used with all of the nuances that a well trained entertainer needed in the 60’s to captivate mostly white audiences. Her rendition of “At Last” brought the house down night after night and no one ever sang “The Second Time Around” with more fervor and soul than Miss EJ. Without a doubt she captured the hearts and minds of those that packed the club night after night.
One night, after closing, we were having a drink while the bartenders cleaned up, Etta asked Jack and me if we would like to come to Los Angeles and Jam with some of her friends at a little “after hours” club she operated in her garage. We immediately agreed and the following is what happened that memorable night so many years ago…
We were driving around the USC campus looking for one particular street, in a 1957 pink Cadillac convertible at 3:30 in the morning.
“Jack, are you sure we’re in the right place, those are fraternity houses for USC,” I asked my good friend and manager as we negotiated the streets around the university.
“This is where she told me she lived, I just have to find the street and we’ll be there.”
Jack drove his signature pink convertible slowly through the empty streets of West Los Angeles, it was nearly 4:00 A. M. and we had driven from Santa Barbara to Jam with Etta James and friends at her request.
Jamming for us was not an unusual activity for us. Many nights the entertainers and musicians stayed on after the crowds had gone home to wind down from the highs of entertaining and empty our souls of our unrestricted, latent talents. Marilyn Brown, a gorgeous blond cocktail waitress could bring the house down with her sexy rendition of “Embraceable you”, Mel Kirkman Jr. organ, Sammy Dee Saxophone, Keith Roddenberry drums, Bill Wheaton Bass, Terri Fansler piano and any others that wanted to join in did so with a freedom of spirit and soul not seen during our regular working hours. There was something liberating about jamming after hours but I had no idea how liberating it could be until we finally found the street and home of Etta James and joined in the fun in her “garage”.
Garage, it was more like a nightclub of mansion proportions. Mickey’s Monkey, a name she gave her illegal club, was THE gathering point after work for entertainers of all stripes and colors. The night we were there Big Jay McNeely, whose hit “Moose Milk” hit the top of the R & B charts brought his whole musical group to join in the fun, and of course the priceless Miss Etta James showed how much fun she could be with renditions of popular jazz music. Hearing her perform Stan Kenton’s and June Christie’s million selling hit record of “How High the Moon” was a priceless experience. Miss James’ vocal gymnastics were unbelievable and extremely entertaining. When she finished the song she said, “June Christie is the most overlooked vocalist of our time. She should have one hit after another but that’s being done by Doris Day…What a shame that such a great musician is already on the road to invisibility along with others like Anita O’Day, Carmen McRae as well as yours truly.” That brought shouts of “Oh, no, Miss Etta, you’re not invisible and never will be…”
I mentioned my manager Jack Foster. Jack was also one of the best bartenders I ever saw tread the slats. Well Jack was also a composer. He wrote and I performed a lovely ballad he wrote called “One Love” that we eventually recorded. It was included on an album of “Martha, an Evening at Dapper Dan’s”. Martha Haggens was the star of the show at the popular nightclub and I was honored to open for her every night for nearly two years but that’s another story. At Mickey’s Monkey Etta asked me to perform Jack’s song. I did and I was stunned at the silence after it was over. Almost all of the musicians had joined in giving me the feeling that I was singing with Count Basie’s orchestra but I began to feel sheepish when no one applauded my effort. Then all hell broke loose as they all clapped and yelled encouragement. It was a trick they played on any new entertainer lucky enough to join them in their jam sessions. In explaining it to me Etta said they would have done the same thing to Frank Sinatra or any other entertainer the first time they joined in. It felt very good to hear their late, although enthusiastic, approval of my singing efforts.
At 8:00 A. M. a bell rang and everyone began to pack up their instruments and leave. The party was over but what a memorable one it had been. I had another notch in my list of achievements, small as they were, after spending an evening, “morning”, with Etta James in her “Mickey’s Monkey”…A night to remember when you are an 80 year old former entertainer trying to record your life story. Just another page of the exciting times in which I lived. Thank you Miss EJ, you’re one of a kind.