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View From Lodi, CA: Remembering The Jazz Singer On Mother`s Day
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May 07, 2004, 05:00 AM
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Mom was sleeping soundly when I left her house in Los Angeles. My good-bye kiss didn`t wake her.

As I walked away, I wondered if Mom—now 85—was dreaming about the days when she was the toast of Hollywood and about her nights filled with cheering and applause.

Using the stage name Betty Van, Mom was once the lead singer for the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Along with Goodman, Mom crooned with the best musicians of the era—Gene Krupa, drums, Teddy Wilson, piano and Lionel Hampton, vibraphone.

Mom`s first break came when she was 17 on the KHJ radio program, "The Road to Fame." The reviews were great. The Los Angeles Evening Herald wrote "the evening`s outstanding performance was Betty Van`s soulful blues singing accompanied by the tapping of her versatile feet."

After graduating from high school, Mom joined the Kenny Baker Orchestra. While she was touring California, Goodman, who had heard the "Road to Fame" show, caught her July 3 1937 act. Goodman called Mom on July 6 to invite her to meet him at the RCA recording studio. When she arrived, Mom cut a demo titled "Afraid to Dream." Goodman signed her on the spot.

Ella Fitzgerald was the premier female vocalist of the day. Although Goodman pioneered integration in music by hiring Hampton and Wilson, no bandleader had the courage to tour with a black lead singer.  Goodman thought that my mother`s voice was as close to Fitzgerald`s as he could get.

The late 1930s and early 1940s were the beginning of the swing era and Goodman was king. Goodman`s band was full of the big names of jazz—Harry James and Ziggy Elman on trumpet, Vito Musso on tenor sax and of course Hampton and Wilson.

There`s a picture of Mom singing to a packed house. What a knockout. Only 20, Mom was dressed in a black satin evening gown. Goodman was standing behind her decked out like a Wall Street lawyer in a blue blazer, a starched white shirt and a striped tie with a matching handkerchief.

Goodman`s rimless glasses gave him a menacing look.

Mom told me that behind his back, the band called Goodman "fish face."

Despite Mom`s success with Goodman, he didn`t alter his pattern of changing lead singers frequently. Goodman believed that new vocalists added a different look to the band without significantly changing the music. Martha Tilton took over for Mom and, shortly later, Peggy Lee replaced Tilton.

Mom signed on with Jack Teagarden, another leading swing band, and they went on a one-year tour of the U.S., playing to packed houses. Swing had taken the country by storm.

When Mom returned to Los Angeles, Dad courted her. Soon after, Mom gave up her career. After Mom married, I doubt there was much discussion about continuing to sing. My father never would have permitted it.

Who knows what would have happened had Mom kept on singing. Fitzgerald and Lee became the greatest female vocalists of all time.

What is known is that Mom became a selfless wife and mother to an often-demanding husband and four constantly demanding children.

If there were carpools to be driven, school activities to attend, errands to run, Mom was the first in line.

When my father`s career uprooted him from Los Angeles to San Juan, Puerto Rico, Mom packed up the family and got us safely to our new home.

Several years later, when we moved from Puerto Rico to Guatemala, Mom without complaint boxed us up again.

Only now do I realize how disruptive those moves were for her. For my sisters and me, we changed schools and made new friends. But for my mother, moving 4,000 miles away took her from the California life she had grown up with and threw her into different countries with new languages and customs.

Mom made that sacrifice twice. When she finally returned to California, her kids had graduated and started their own lives.

Another tough move lies ahead for Mom—one that we spoke about at Christmas. Mom`s house is too big for her—she doesn`t need the space and can`t keep up with the maintenance.

Mom`s talking about moving into a condo.

But her heart isn`t in it.

For Mom to give up her pool, her garden and her dog will be the most difficult of her life style changes.

When that day comes, though, I expect Mom to handle her new challenge the way she has every other—with grace and dignity.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.