18 February 2008

Marie Blake

Enthroned at the Five Oaks: Miss Marie Blake
After I wrote this piece, a reader thoughtfully sent me this photo.


This story has no illustration. If there are any pictures of Marie Blake on the Internet, I’m unable to find them. References to her are scarce, too, apart from a couple of reminiscences by diehard Greenwich Village piano bar enthusiasts and one online German tourist guide, the authors of which seem unaware that she’s been dead for 14 years: they recommend her highly, though she’s no longer with us, and the bar where she played is long since closed down. Had she lived a little longer, there might be CDs and YouTube postings, and whole websites dedicated to her. It never occurred to me to bring in a tape recorder, to document surreptitiously her performances, or to interview her, or to photograph her at the piano. Now I wish I had anything more than memories to remember her by.

She was born in 1919 and died in December, 1993. Until her obituary appeared in The New York Times, we didn’t know her age, and until we talked to Fredd Tree, we didn’t know she was gay. That’s the way with performers, the better ones: they reveal to us only what they choose to reveal. She couldn’t hide, or didn’t care to, that she was short and plump, unapologetically homely and terribly, terribly tired by the time I knew her. And it should be admitted right away that she did not know me: sometimes she recognized me vaguely, never by name, but most times I was just another customer.

For a few nights every week, she held forth at a baby grand in the Five Oaks on Grove Street, rasping out a repertoire of pop standards in a voice that spanned perhaps three notes, all of them low, none of them sustainable. Her keyboard technique was astonishing for its grace, although it consisted primarily of fingerwork like bricks dropping short distances, and pedalwork like kicking a bad man in the balls; the piano often thumped as she attacked it. I have a recording she made, and to hear it without seeing her, you’d never know her touch was anything but flexible and nuanced. I don’t know how she did it.

Her material was eclectic, but it was an odd night indeed if she didn’t offer several of her signature songs: mostly Fats Waller and Cole Porter numbers, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Down in the Dumps (On the 90th Floor),” but also Blondie’s “Rapture,” all the more entrancing for its unexpectedness. Above all there was a song called “Rag Mop,” which according to its lyrics is actually spelled “R-A-G-G M-O-P-P,” and which I’ve never heard elsewhere.

She seemed to chew her words, and the bars and cars and guitars of “Rapture,” especially, took on an elastic quality in her broad mouth. She knew her lyrics too well to find them funny anymore, and sometimes she didn’t even smile as she sang. But that detachment seemed to enhance her formidable comic timing and phrasing. She let the listener discover the jokes, without forcing them. As she got older, her sets shrank from one hour to about 40 minutes, and she alternated sets with younger pianists with more stamina; she resorted more frequently to her sheet music and to a clutter of photocopied fake-book pages scattered around her. Her first piano teacher could play only by ear; she had to learn later how to read music. But no request could faze her, and for a tip she’d play anything you wanted.

Her interpretations were brisk and efficient, and as time passed they became almost perfunctory; she never could be bothered with patter or small talk. She gave every impression of mortal fatigue, almost as if she resented us for keeping her up past her bedtime, and between her sets, she’d retreat to a little cot in the back; during her sets, she’d pace herself by yielding the microphone to her students and to the occasional tipping customer, while she played along. And I mean “played along” to denote not only musical accompaniment but also complicity, possibly criminal, because many of the customers had no business singing at all. She indulged them, for a price, and once she had the money it made little difference to her whether they sang well.

The most notable customer was a character named Dennis, lacking some teeth and an entire lobe’s worth of brain cells. Emaciated, very tall, and even taller in his cowboy hat, he had long greasy hair, a straggly moustache, and the haunted, bleary eyes of someone who would have been better advised not to endure the ordeal of the 1970s, where he seemed still to reside. Time was only one of many things that had passed him by.

Unfailingly, any time we went to Five Oaks, he’d be sitting at the bar and ready to regale the crowd with a song, usually the Village People’s “Macho Man.” The opening lines of that song (“Body, body, body, do you want my body?”), combined with his choreography (unbuttoning his shirt to reveal his pallid, concave chest), elicited shrieks of protest throughout the room. But he was just getting started, and worse horrors awaited us. For Dennis was quite simply the worst singer I have ever heard.

If he had any voice at all, the disparity between the lyrics and his own strung-out appearance might have been entertaining, but in the event it was surreal, even disturbing. One could replicate his timbre by shouting into a cardboard mailing tube, and the concept of pitch was one with which he never familiarized himself. His rhythm was only slightly surer. Depending on the evening, the crowd might sing along — and over — him. He was indomitable, though, a piano bar Weeble who would not be shouted down, always coming back for more. The Village used to be a haven for people like him; I’m not sure it is anymore. I’m not sure there are people like Dennis now, in any case.

Marie seemed amused by him, and she’d introduce him with gusto each night, playing a little glissando and flinging out her left arm to call him from the bar, as if he were one of the more glamorous singers who frequented her microphone. (One such guest was the great Laurel Watson, a venerable beauty with wickedly suggestive delivery, who in addition to her other distinctions would later turn up to sing at the wedding reception of my friends Merrill Gruver and Ted Greenwald.) Because her own students were mostly a gifted, stylish bunch, well schooled by her in the art of putting over a song, I presume that Marie cared about music — yet not so much that she discouraged an abomination like Dennis.

The question is why. Did she see what I saw — that Dennis lived for those minutes in the spotlight, and that he would die (as he did) without them? Was she saving his life? Or was she simply taking his money? Strange are the ways of destiny, and it’s hard now to think of Marie without thinking of Dennis, too.

And these thoughts oblige me to consider that while Marie was very good at what she did, in her hands music seemed a kind of vehicle. She didn’t think about it much, she just turned the ignition and drove. She even let Dennis drive, a little. She was too sophisticated to stop to marvel at the wonders she could create at the piano — any more than you or I marvel at the automobile when we drive to work. And music served Marie well. It gave her a career, which not every black woman of her generation got, one that rewarded her for wit and talent and that carried her out of New Jersey, through the Great Depression, and into Manhattan for life. She sang with Count Basie and Duke Ellington and Billie Holliday, but those were merely stops along her way, and for four decades, she sang mostly alone. She became an institution, a legend of sorts, though by now she is proving that legends die when they are not retold.

Yet scratch a Villager of a certain age, even an Upper West Sider like me, and you’ll stir up passionate but slightly blurry memories of smoky midnights and scotch-soaked hours spent listening to Marie Blake. Memories like mine.

We went on to hear her on Fridays or Saturdays, to be sure to have the next day to recover. We’d arrive after eleven o’clock, when Five Oaks stopped serving dinner, because the food was expensive and we wanted to save our money for drinks (which weren’t cheap, either) and for tipping Marie. I never left without giving her five bucks, a princely sum for me in my graduate-student days. Once I tried to explain my situation, to excuse myself, so that she would understand that my tip was all I could afford, though not all she deserved or all I intended. But she wasn’t interested. If I wanted to consider the tip a symbolic gesture or a romantic tribute, that was my business, but the money was hers now. She gave me a gruff smile and a quick nod, and kept playing.

Most often I’d go with a group of old friends, and most often I’d leave with a new friend, too: rare was the excursion to Five Oaks that didn’t end with my picking up somebody. We’d stay until the end of Marie’s last set, and sometimes longer; more than once, we closed down the bar.

We were semi-regulars, with a favorite waitress, a Scotswoman named Alice, who claimed to know Forfar, the tiny village where Rena Grant was born; and we enjoyed a nodding acquaintance with the maitre d’, a young aspiring actor named Stephen who produced a variety show at Five Oaks, starring his friends and some of Marie’s students, for public-access cable television. Their “let’s put on a show” enthusiasm exceeded their scriptwriting ability, but one episode stood out: after Marie died, Stephen dedicated a half hour to video clips of her. I hope he has guarded that material zealously.

Sometimes the scotch made us careless, as scotch will do, and one night, in the middle of some boozy argument, I looked up to see Jack Levinson at the microphone; he’d left our table, tipped Marie, and begun to sing “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” as beautifully as anyone ever has. Not until that moment did I know he could sing.

Another night, a woman at the table next to us smiled firmly to say that I was getting too loud for her comfort. I apologized, and asked her name. “May,” she replied. In a spontaneous flash of inspiration, I ran to the pianist — Marie’s relief player — and asked him to play Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” but with a slight alteration in the lyric: “Night and May / You are the one….” The trick worked exceedingly well, through every verse and chorus (try it yourself), and May forgave me.

That past seems so distant now, more distant than almost anything else in my life. Marie is dead, and so are Dennis and Rena, and doubtless so is Laurel Watson. The Five Oaks is closed, but those people wouldn’t be there, even if it were open again. I have no idea what’s become of May, or of young Stephen — except that he’s less young now than he was. Tree says that Alice returned to Scotland. There’s no going back to Five Oaks. Proust tells us that we can’t go back to places, only to the names we give to places, because the moments we spent there are what matters, and they’re past. All we can do is remember.

And I do remember this. When you were with Marie Blake, you knew you were a New Yorker, like her, and you didn’t want to be anywhere else.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

What an incredible surprise! I was listening to Pandora just now, and something by Alberta Hunter came on.. I looked to see who it was, and then started to wrack my brain about who the singer/pianist was at the Five Oaks.. eventually remembered Marie, and googled her name, fully expecting to come up with a blank! This entry came up. What wonderful memories! and what a good job writing - Kudos to you!
I have a cassette tape (gasp) of Marie and included on it are the songs you mention - RAGGMOPP, the 90th floor and many more... I am in the process of converting lots of items to digital media (vinyl, photos, etc) and now I guess I'll just have to convert that as well.
I was one of those semi-regulars that visited the Oaks.. and it was a sad time indeed when Marie passed away.

Anonymous said...

I had the pleasure of hearing Marie Blake only once at The Five Oaks. I watched in amazement as she took a rag and dusted off the entire piano before playing. The bar maid was Barbara who designed hats and waited tables during the day.
I'm sad that there are not places like this anymore. But then, who would go? ME!

Anonymous said...

I have been living outside the US for over 25 years and, just this past weekend, I found out that Marie had passed away years ago. I used to frequent the Five Oaks with friends in the late 70s and early 80s, when I was still in college and during the first years of my career in NYC. The memory of the Five Oaks, seeing Marie perform, is forever etched in my mind as one of the backdrops of my
early adult years, as I explored NYC (and Greenwich Village in particular)and dragged my out-of-town friends to experience the same. I found out about Marie's passing from an well-known performer who, luck would have it, has recordings of Marie's performances. He has kindly offered to send me a recording in the near future.

Anonymous said...

In fact there are now a couple of snippets on you tube of the great Marie singing her most famous songs including Down In the Depths and Raggmopp.

I particularly liked your closing comment. The Five Oak's experience was always for me quintessential a New York City one, and I too was always greatful to be part of it.

How I long for those wonderful days and of course long nights.

Richard Harveston
San Francisco

Unknown said...

A really lovely article, Richard. What memories came back to me!

I too was one of the regulars who came to the Five Oaks and sang. Although my background was more and more at the time strictly opera, I sang lots of musical songs and Brel with Marie. Her accompaniment was variable, sometimes right on, sometimes depending on her mood, a little rough. Sometimes though it just clicked and it was unforgettable. She had songs SHE wanted me to sing, and I would always oblige because it was her show and I knew it.

I remember Dennis well, and if anyone doubts what you've written, it's all absolutely true, I can back you up. I think what you said about her recognition of his need to sing hits part of the nail on the head, to coin a phrase. And sometimes I think it was her way of showing who controlled the room.

I remember Alice (with that lovely Scots accent) and the host (in much of my time) Jeremy. I can see their faces now as if it were yesterday that I was last there.

The years of going to the Five Oaks in the 70s and 80s are so a part of my life that I find it hard to believe Marie is no longer with us and the Five Oaks long gone. I've been living in Europe for 16 years now but the Oaks remains with me like the memory of a vivid dream in another life.

Karen

William V. Madison said...

Thanks so much for sharing your memories, Karen! I envy you the chance to work with Marie Blake, even on those days when her playing was "a little rough."

Anonymous said...

Exquisitely evocative reminiscence. Thank you! I every so often do some cyber-sleuthing on dear Marie, hoping that I'll one day find someone who is selling one of her cassettes. For nearly two decades I have had ineradicable regret for not having purchased one of those cassettes--my meager funds, like yours, went for tips and tipples--which were always for sale at the Five Oaks. Today I did one of my searches and jackpot! On Amazon is Marie's Live and the Five Oak album, and I also chanced upon your splendid write-up. I can't wait to clap hands on your Madeline Kahn book. She means a lot to me too.

William V. Madison said...

Thank you so much, Anonymous reader! I appreciate your taking the time to write.

Robert said...

What a lovely article. This brought me back to the mid-1980s, when I had just moved to New York and was discovering the big city as a lad in my mid-20's. The Five Oaks was a regular haunt of mine, either as a destination or as a stop en route to some even later-night entertainment. Those nights of Marie Blake, the young talented singers (often services staff themselves), and even deplorable Dennis, are hard to forget.

Thanks for the great memories.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reminding me of Marie. A colleague introduced my partner and I to 5 Oaks in the mid-eighties. We went there to celebrate birthdays with drinks, dinner and Marie. What you say about Dennis is absolutely true. I still have Marie's LP (signed!)
Thanks for the memories and God bless you, Marie Blake!

Anonymous said...

I will never forget Dennis in his turquoise western suit and matching string tie, clapping to the sledgehammered ONE-two ONE-two ONE-two beat of "TIE-a YELL-ow RIB-bon ROUND the OLD... OAK... TREE!

Thanks for conjuring up those fond memories.

Linda from NJ