Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Marilyn Monroe paid for trip

Although she was best known as an
actress, Marilyn Monroe also recorded at
least three dozen songs.


Although she had been dead for years, iconic Hollywood movie star Marilyn Monroe paid for my wife Sue and me to vacation in New Orleans.

If that sounds hard to believe, let me explain.

Back in the late 1980s, Sue and I began collecting autographed photos of music celebrities to display in our record store.

We built a substantial collection by writing to stars, trading with other collectors, getting pieces through our distributors, and occasionally going backstage at shows.

One day, while looking through the classifieds in a music collectors magazine called "Goldmine," I noticed an ad offering an autographed Marilyn Monroe photo for sale.

An actress and model, Monroe starred in such movies as "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," "Bus Stop" and "Some Like It Hot." As a singer she was known for "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend," "That Old Black Magic" and "I Wanna Be Loved By You."

She recorded material by such well-known songwriters as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael.

Her last musical appearance came in May, 1962 when she purred "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" at Madison Square Garden during a party for John F. Kennedy. She died of an overdose of barbiturates three months later at the age of 36.

A bit doubtful about the Monroe autograph, I contacted the seller and he let me authenticate the signature with an expert before we finalized the deal.

The 8x10 black & white photo was endorsed to a fan and signed in ink. The 1950s era picture, depicting Monroe in a swimsuit, was in good condition except for pin-holes in each corner where it had been displayed.

An autograph dealer confirmed that the signature was genuine and offered to buy it for a tidy profit over the $650 we paid.

Using the proceeds from the sale, we were enjoying the musical sites and attractions of the Big Easy just a few weeks later.

Our first order of business was to attend the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, also known as Jazz Fest. It's a popular annual event celebrating the "indigenous music and culture of New Orleans and Louisiana."

Held at the Fairgrounds, the festival featured a dozen tents each offering a different style of music.

Along with other fans, we crowded into the gospel tent where an all-black choir sang to the heavens accompanied only by hand-claps from the audience.

Other tents offered bands playing their take on zydeco or Cajun music. Yes, we heard an accordion or two.

There was music for everyone whether it was rhythm & blues, folk, Latin, country, bluegrass, contemporary or traditional jazz.

Outside we listened to the gruff singing of an elderly bluesman who sat under a tree as he played his well-worn guitar.

We heard New Orleans native Dr. John play the piano and sing his classic swamp-rock songs. He's famous for numbers like "Iko, Iko" and "Right Place Wrong Time," a Top Ten hit from 1973.

To complement the music the festival featured food vendors serving a variety of local treats.

At the festival and elsewhere in New Orleans we indulged in po' boys, beignets, crawfish etouffee, jambalaya, pralines and Gulf oysters on the half shell. Pass the Pepto, please.

Sue and I also took in Bourbon St. and the French Quarter, home to Preservation Hall. This historic building is closed during the day, but at night features bands playing New Orleans style jazz.

We stopped at Absinthe Bar, where Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page met his wife, and where Bryan Lee and the Jump Street Five served as house band.

During the day, we were fascinated by musicians playing in Jackson Square.

One evening, we took in a concert headlined by blues master John Lee Hooker, revered for hits like "Boom Boom," "Boogie Chillen" and "I'm In The Mood." In the midst of a comeback, Hooker enchanted a crowd well aware they were in the presence of a living legend.

Also performing was up and coming bluesman Robert Cray. He was having early success with "Smoking Gun," "Right Next Door (Because of Me)" and "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark."

The warm-up act on that particular evening was the Radiators. Based in New Orleans, the Radiators combine local music styles with rock and R&B into what they call "fish-head music." Although they've had limited commercial success, the Radiators know how to throw a great party.

Fats Domino-- who gave us "Blueberry Hill," "I'm Walkin'," and "Blue Monday"-- played Jazz Fest many times but missed the year we went. To make up for it we took a trolley car ride past his house before we left New Orleans.

Back home, our experiences turned to memories until Hurricane Katrina struck, turning every one's attention to New Orleans.

Following the hurricane, Domino was reported missing by his long-time manager. However, his daughter later told authorities he was rescued from the second story balcony of his home.

Many of New Orleans' small clubs were destroyed, leaving hundreds of local musicians without jobs. Artists lost their homes, priceless instruments, master recordings and irreplaceable memorabilia.

The awful storm took some music treasurers, but spared the French Quarter and Bourbon St.

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival continues to he held each year as it has since 1970, although much of the city is still devastated and tens of thousands of people moved away.

Katrina reminded us how lucky we were to have witnessed the sites and sounds of New Orleans when we did.

Sue and I thoroughly enjoyed that musical adventure, but the most poignant moment occurred at a restaurant during our first evening in the city. Remarkably, the waiter seated us at a table under an imposing painting of Marilyn Monroe wearing a red dress.

The colorful image was a notable contrast to my favorite Monroe movie, a drama called "The Misfits," which was filmed in black & white and sadly became her final film.

Sitting beneath the painting, we ordered lobster and toasted the Hollywood legend who made our trip possible with a stroke of her pen.

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