Maxine Gray was already awake as the train rocketed north at 80 miles an hour to Chicago. The Hal Kemp band had been a rousing success the night before at the University of St. Louis. She was very lucky to be the girl vocalist earning $100 a week singing with a great group of musicians twice voted by Metronome readers as the "Best Sweet Band in America." True, there were other outfits capitalizing on the "swing" craze, but the college kids were partial to the sophisticated cheek-to-cheek Kemp style (later described by lyricist Johnny Mercer as "typewriter music.") Hal's trumpet section boasted the incomparable Earl Geiger, and trombonist Eddie Kusborski played memorable solos every night. Tenor sax great Saxie Dowell held down the other end of the reed section from Kemp, while drummer Skinnay Ennis scored mostly as the favorite breathy singer of such hits as "You Got Me Cryin' Again" and "Got a Date With An Angel," the band's theme song. John Scott Trotter was the pianist/arranger at this time. He and Skinnay were special buddies to Maxine, the only girl on the team. But at this pre-dawn hour hurtling towards Chicago they were all sound asleep.
Maxine had been awaked by a persistent inner voice. As she explains it to this writer,"Granted, Walt, I'm a religious person, but I heard my Guardian Angel say 'Maxine, there'll be a train wreck!' And I kinda listened. I argued 'Oh, we've traveled on trains so many times.' The voice asked, 'Will you be dressed?' I said 'I probably will be because I'm always up before the rest of the guys.' 'Maxine, you should get yourself a roomette!' 'No!' I thought, 'The boys will laff at me if I get a room!"'Unable to shake off a premonition of disaster she made her way to the ladies room, careful not to jostle any of the sleeping musicians. As she was leaving the ladies room it happened. The train broad-sided a truck at a crossing. The engine became uncoupled from the passenger cars, and the final coach where the Kemp band was sleeping whipped off the tracks. The engineer and the truck driver were killed instantly. Many others were seriously hurt, including some band members. Maxine's shoes and galoshes remained at the door of the ladies room while she was thrown the length of the train car, landing in a heap under some seats. She had a concussion and remained unconscious for three days. The full extent of her injuries wasn't known until later in a small hospital, the Passavant, just outside of Chicago. Ironically,band leader Kemp had been in the men's room at the other end of the car and wasn't injured. Maxine chuckled when she noted that "Hal was standing up at the time. He just held out his hands and braced himself!"
With a broken back and foot injuries along with symptoms related to the concussion, recovery for Maxine Gray was to be a long, slow process. Kemp generously continued to pay her salary during her convalescence. Only later did she learn that Kemp's band insurance covered all this. In any event, there was plenty of time for her to think and to recall her life to this critical point.
She was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, the only child of a mother who played piano and a father who was the inventor of the Gray Gas and Oil Separator, equipment vital to the oil drilling business in Louisiana and Texas. Her earliest radio memories were of going to the garage with Daddy to listen on earphones to a crystal set. However, these were the days before children's radio programs. Her childhood favorites were from the movies: Jeanette MacDonald, the queen of operetta, and Tom Mix, the king of the cowboys. At the tender age of 10 she sang her first solo at a Shreveport Sunday school picnic.
The depression wreaked havoc on her fathers business. He was forced to sell out, and the family moved to Kansas City to find work. "But that was exciting," said Maxine, "because we got to see Lindburgh after his triumphant solo flight across the Atlantic." And it was in Kansas City that she began ballet and acrobatic dance lessons with Helen Gifford. "I used to teach to help pay for my lessons." she explained. "There simply was no money. We were very poor."
"We returned to Shreveport where I went to high school. At this time I studied the concert harp with Sister Benecia Page. I loved her dearly, but she used to get so exasperated with me. I'd learn a piece the first time I looked at the music -- and then never refer to the music again. She scolded me and said, 'Maxine, that's not the way to play the harp. You must read the music!' But I was the same with my singing. One time through a song and I knew it!"
At 17, after she had graduated from high school in Shreveport, the Grays moved to Dallas, Texas, where Maxine was featured on the "Early Bird Show" (5 AM!) at radio station WFAA located in the Baker Hotel. Fortunately for her, one of the early risers who used to watch her sing from the control room of the station was another struggling musician, Lawrence Welk. Lawrence undoubtedly established his early-rising habits on the farm in Strasburg, North Dakota. Certainly, as he relates in his autobiography, he learned a healthy respect for the selling power of broadcast exposure. Radio had saved more than one of his early bands from financial ruin. In any event, he liked what he saw and heard, and Welk persuaded Maxine to become his first "Champagne Lady" for the queenly sum of $50 a week.
Her mother traveled with her, and the band would pack everybody and everything into two cars with the bass fiddle and drums on the roof -- and off they'd go!
"One date I remember vividly. We were playing the 'Rosebud' in South Dakota. Indians still lived in teepees. I danced with Tom Owl as part of the show, and Tom said 'You know, we have and old squaw who makes moccasins. She made moccasins for Sitting Bull.' Well, she made me a pair. They were so beautiful! And, Walter, I'm talkin' 65 years ago and, you know, I still have those moccasins! They're all beaded with the Sioux designs. I used to wear them to travel in -- but they are still in beautiful shape!"Another memorable meeting grew out of Maxine's association with the Welk band. They were playing a country club date in Denver where she was taken to the Paul Whiteman estate to meet Paul's mother. Whiteman's gold baton was on display in the living room, and outside in a huge cage were the first two Siamese cats in the United States. "Funny the things you remember sixty-five years later!" said Mrs. Ford with a chuckle.
About fifty miles northwest of Omaha and a hundred miles south of Yankton, South Dakota, is the little town of Schuyler, Nebraska. Maxine had made friends with a young man from Schuyler who insisted that her future lay -- not with Lawrence Welk -- but in Chicago. The fact that the "windy city" was the rootin' tootin' center of prohibition activities with the likes of Pretty Boy Floyd didn't faze Maxine and her boy friend. Off to Chicago they went.
They soon got word that Jan Garber, the "Idol of the Airlanes," was looking for a singer. Maxine went down to audition and got the job. The salary was only $25-$30 dollars a week, and after the first week Garber fired her. "Girl singers," he complained "were a headache!"
"I had given my notice to Lawrence Welk, and my boyfriend had already gone back to Schuyler and told the band that I was singing with Jan Garber. Boy! That almost killed me! Mother and I were living in a run-down, flea-bitten hotel. So one day I went over to the Woods Building to rehearse some songs and I heard that Ted Weems needed a singer. But here I am sick with a cold and I have laryngitis. No matter! We got word to Ted to come to the Woods Building for an audition.
"I sat there for an hour. I sat there for an hour-and-a-half. I sat there for two hours when I finally said, 'You think he has forgotten?' And the little girl said, 'Don't worry! He'll be here. He's always late for appointments!' So I'm tearin' my hair out and sick with a cold...and finally he showed up. I sang, and he asked, 'Can you go to work tonight?
"I did! Fortunately I had lots of beautiful evening gowns which Mother had made for me, and I started singin' that night at the Bismarck Hotel with the Ted Weems band. Elmo Tanner and Red Ingle were with the band and they took care of me: walked me home after the band finished quite late at night. Remember, Chicago was a wild town in those days! I was only making $25 a week. I let Mother eat. I said I wasn't hungry. But the guys in the band would order sandwiches at midnight and share them with me."
While Maxine sang with Ted Weems, Hal Kemp's manager came down to the Bismarck and asked her to pay a visit to the Blackhawk Restaurant where the Kemp band was broadcasting its nationally famous "Midnight Flyer" program. She went over one afternoon to give pianist/arranger John Scott Trotter the two songs she planned to sing for her audition. Then at midnight after finishing with the Ted Weems band she went over to the Blackhawk. The place was still jumping.
When it was time for her to sing John Scott Trotter sat down at the piano and played the first of the two tunes in a key totally inappropriate for her vocal range. She then tried the second song which was also a disaster.
"I got off the stage and I went home and cried. And I said to Mother, 'They'll never hire me! It was a fiasco!' But the next day Hal Kemp's manager called me and said, 'We want to apologize for what happened. Would you arrange for us to talk with Ted Weems because we want to hire you. I've been listening to you at the Bismarck night after night and I think you'd fit in with our band just fine.' You know, Walter, " Maxine confided, " Hal Kemp and all his boys were Southerners from North Carolina!"At a magnificent salary of $100 a week Maxine Gray joined the Kemp organization at the Blackhawk. However, when the band finished its engagement Maxine stayed on to sing for the opening of the Kay Kyser band which followed them. "I groomed Ginny Simms for the permanent vocal spot with the band." However, just before opening night there was a terrible accident. The canopy over the front entrance to the Blackhawk collapsed, and Maxine's head and shoulders were driven through the canvas injuring her neck and shoulder. In spite of the pain she was not about to miss opening night festivities. Rudy Vallee and Phil Baker were there along with many other celebrities. Kay Kyser, Ishkabibble (Merwyn Bogue), Harry Babbitt and all the gang were there. But Maxine was in trouble. "When I got up to sing I could inhale -- but I couldn't exhale. I must have been going into shock from the pain. I couldn't sing." Historian George Simon notes that the band broadcasts from the Blackhawk were banned after the Kemp organization left. Kay Kyser had to resort to other gimmicks to stay on the air -- and came up with his "College of Musical Knowledge." Eventually the Kyser band broke the attendance records established by Hal Kemp at the Blackhawk Restaurant.
Maxine soon rejoined the Kemp band which played the posh hotels around the country: the Drake in Chicago, the Ritz Carlton, and the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York -- which had just commissioned Norman Bel Geddes to design its Manhattan Room. The Kemp musicians were a bit apprehensive about following the sensational Benny Goodman swing band into the Pennsylvania, but they needn't have worried. The college kids were ever loyal.
Maxine recalls hanging out the window of her hotel room to watch the Hindenburg dirigible as it flew over on its way to Lakehurst, New Jersey. A few weeks later they were all horrified to learn of its being struck by lightening.
"We were at the Hotel Pennsylvania over a year. Eddie Sens, the famous make-up artist, was 'sweet on me" and he bought me a little marmoset monkey which I kept with me at the hotel. She only weighed a pound-and-a-quarter and was the sweetest little thing!"The Kemp band also played the old Astor Hotel in New York where they were often visited by Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. The Nelson band held forth at the nearby Lincoln Hotel. Harriet was pregnant with their oldest son "Ricky" at the time.
Maxine Gray's career with Hal Kemp is well documented by the many recordings made with the band during these years. What isn't documented is the "horseplay" that went on behind the scenes -- and sometimes in front of an audience. Had Kemp and Skinnay Ennis would stand close to either side of Maxine while all three took their bows. At this point -- with the audience roaring its approval -- Skinnay and Hal would run their hands down her back, patting her on the fanny. "I couldn't do anything about it!" groaned Maxine. " I had to just stand there and smile -- and take it!"
It was when the band was playing the "Coconut Grove" in Los Angeles that Maxine met Tommy Lee. Tommy had the local Cadillac agency, and his dad owned thirty radio stations throughout California known as the Don Lee Network. Don Lee was a major source of programming for the Mutual Broadcasting System. Tommy fell in love with Maxine and followed her everywhere. At that time the Lee "empire" built the first television station on Hollywood mountain, W6SKO. Maxine had the distinction of being "the first lady of TV" in those pioneer broadcasts. As successful as Tommy Lee was in business, his secret desire was to be a dancer.
Then the Kemp organization returned to Chicago, and the train wreck occurred which was to change Maxine's life forever. Early in the critical period of hospitalization it was discovered that the injured vocalist was running a fever of 105 degrees. This was first thought to be due to internal injuries, but Walter Winchell reported the eventual diagnosis in his column,"To add insult to injury...Maxine Gray has the measles!"
During the long, slow process of rehabilitation she returned to Los Angeles. Skinnay Ennis had left the Kemp band and went out on his own. " I still had a brace on my back and was having trouble remembering lyrics because of the concussion, but 'Skin' would work with me and encourage me when the lyrics wouldn't come." It was during this period that she and Skinnay Ennis recorded their only duet, "Dinner For One, Please, James."
Eventually Maxine went to New York to join the Kemp band which was to open at the "Starlight Roof" of the Waldorf Astoria. "Hal couldn't open without me because I was written into the contract for the date. Shortly after the opening Hal Kemp fired me. That just about broke my heart. I had been through all this mess. I didn't want anyone to know of my humiliation. Of course he also fired John Scott Trotter at the same time." Actually it was a blessing in disguise for both pianist and singer. John Scott Trotter went to Hollywood and joined the Bing Crosby organization -- and the rest is history! As soon as Tommy Lee in Los Angeles heard of Maxine's plight he said, "Don't worry. You come back here, and I'm going to fix you with the most gorgeous band you'll haver have!" And he did.
Maxine Gray was featured three evenings a week on the Mutual Network with an orchestra headed by the legendary Alvino Rey. This radio series was initially called "Alvino Rey Presents" and later changed to "Maxine Gray Entertains". Rey's side men were the best to be had in the L. A. area, including Raphael Mendez on trumpet and Buddy Cole on piano and Novachord. "Buddy" who started life as Edwin Lemar Cole later achieved fame with his hi-fi theatre organ recordings and as an accompanist for Bing Crosby. Fortunately for us these 15-minute gems are still available in pristine copies of the Don Lee master disks. Through an electronic process which became notorious in later "Bromo Seltzer" commercials, Rey superimposed his steel guitar sound onto human voices for a most unusual opening radio theme.
Sometime later when Alvino Rey joined forces with the King Sisters (and married Louise King!), Tommy Lee produced an even better musical aggregation complete with strings and headed by composer/arranger Dave Rose. "California Melodies", after its maiden broadcast on March 28, 1940, soon became one of the major musical shows of the period. Maxine was featured vocalist, but the half hour blockbuster also featured the legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum along with incredible side men such as trumpeter Raphael Mendez. The pianist/composer/conductor Skitch Henderson was also with "California Melodies" all during the period when Maxine Gray was the singing star. She and Skitch continue to be close friends, and she followed his later career in TV with Steve Allen on the "Tonight Show" with personal pleasure. Maxine had the greatest respect for Art Tatum and one of her treasures is broadcast tape of the duet she did with Tatum of the Rogers and Hart standard "This Can't Be Love." "We couldn't always be certain Art would make it through one of his fabulous solos. A shame about the drug thing! Personally, I never drank nor smoked!"
Dave Rose used microphones in such a way that the violins sounded as rich and full as a whole symphony orchestra. "California Melodies" was also a showcase for Dave Rose to try out many of his brilliant compositions and arrangements for concert orchestra. "Holiday for Strings" was his major commercial hit for RCA Victor, but there were dozens of others which were first aired on the show.. Although this was a tremendously creative period for Dave Rose the composer/conductor, his personal life was in a shambles. Martha Raye had divorced him and taken from his home not only her spirited presence but most of the furniture as well. Maxine remembers spending leisure hours in the back yard where Dave had his fabulous steam train layout. Like happy kids they spent hours riding around the yard on the trains. Later on, romance for Dave blossomed with actress/singer Judy Garland which also ended in divorce. This nearly caused Dave Rose to have a complete breakdown.
For Maxine Gray life couldn't have been sweeter or more fulfilling. She mentions that one of the high points in her career came in 1941, a few months before Pearl Harbor. The Canadian Broadcasting System produced a Red Cross Benefit Show which included most of the megastars of the entertainment world who were either British or Canadian. Maxine Gray was the only American in the company of Lawrence Olivier and Vivian Leigh, Mary Pickford and dozens of others. Dave Rose who was British born was asked to do the music for the show. Maxine got to sing two of Ray Noble's greatest tunes, "The Very Thought of You" and "Goodnight Sweetheart." One need only listen to her thrilling performance followed by thunderous applause to realize why this was an unforgettable triumph.
Perhaps equally satisfying was that earlier moment in her career. The Hal Kemp band had opened at the New York Paramount Theater. After one particular performance she returned to her dressing room where her mother was waiting for her. "'Maxine,' Mother asked, 'What was all that stomping on the floor and clapping and hollering. It sounded like an earthquake!' 'Mother,' I said, 'I think I stopped the show.' Up to this point they didn't have my name in lights on Broadway. But next day they had taken down the quartet -- I forget who they were -- and put up my name! There was also a life size picture of me in the lobby of the Paramount.Now that was a thrill!"
The "California Melodies" program ended for Dave Rose on October 31, 1942, when he joined the Army and organized a service band. Other conductors including Frank DeVol took over, and the show lasted until 1949 on the Mutual Network. Maxine left the program on March 31, 1943. Tragedy had struck her life once again.
Tommy Lee, Maxine assured this writer, was the love of her life; but marriage was not to be! Tommy developed cancer of the brain which, in the later stages of the disease, radically changed his behavior. He would go "completely berserk" at times and fly into uncontrollable rages. He tried to kill Maxine on at least two occasions, one time nearly choking her to death. Tommy eventually committed suicide by jumping off the Wiltern Building in Los Angeles. In spite of the passage of time -- so many years later -- the details were too painful to contemplate.
Maxine eventually met the man she wanted to marry -- Todd Ford -- and she changed careers to become a wife and mother to a son and daughter. After a few years it was all too obvious that the marriage wasn't working, and Maxine went back to earning a living with her usual determination and gusto.She opened a music store in Laguna Beach where they lived. "I'm a survivor!" Mrs. Ford confided, "Always have been!" For the sake of her children she managed to keep the family together.
It was during this period in the 1950's that an old friend was to come back into her life. Maxine learned that band leader Lawrence Welk. was desperately ill in a Los Angeles hospital following major surgery. Unfortunately his wife Fern and their three children were back in Chicago. His first "Champagne Lady" opened her home to Lawrence Welk to recuperate for two weeks necessary. In one of his books Welk credits Maxine Gray with "saving my life" at this juncture. Also a fan of fellow-musician Dave Rose, Welk vowed to Maxine that one day he would have fiddles in his orchestra as well!
Later when Welk Enterprises opened the Welcome Inn in Escondito (near San Diego) Lawrence turned to Maxine to help him establish a gift shop to complement his hostelry, golf course, and theater in the complex. She even designed the special carry-bags used to transport people's purchases. To this day those who visit this Lawrence Welk mecca for tourists in Southern California will be faced with five cut-outs of the Champagne Ladies -- the first in line is Maxine Gray. "I always called Lawrence on March 11th to sing 'Happy Birthday,' and he always recognized my voice instantly!"
Eventually the Ford marriage ended in divorce. Staying on in Laguna Beach didn't seem like the best course of action. Maxine had traveled to Hawaii many times and she heard that a job in a music store was hers for the taking in Honolulu. So she packed up her household and headed West across the Pacific. Waiting for her in Hawaii was another disaster.
"I went down to the music store. It's closed! The guy who owned it has died! Here I am with two kids, a dog, and a little girl who baby sat my children. Here I am with all this mess -- and no job!"
Nor was this the end of her troubles. "My furniture had been lost in transit and I had to cough up a thousand dollars -- that I didn't have!" Eventually by selling her jewelry and taking work in Honolulu where she could find it Maxine got back on her feet. Let her tell it in her own words:
"I was one of the first private investigators over here. Roger Marcotte had his own company called Allstate Investigations. He had been on the Honolulu Police Force and was a retired Marine. Roger was a tough guy but he had a heart as big as he was. When I'd bring my written reports into his office he'd look up and say, 'Hi! Dickless Tracy! How'd you do last night?' He was a doll. He was fun. I was insured for $25,000 in case anything happened to me." She took another job selling caskets for a Memorial Park owned by the same group in Hollywood that ran Forest Lawn. "I was top sales gal for caskets...Now, Walter, don't laugh! I earned enough money to take my two kids to Europe!" Radio was to play an important part in her life again. Maxine Gray did an early morning news show with Eddie Saks. He was called "Turtle" and Maxine -- "Turtle Dove." She managed two different Zales Jewelry Store openings on the island. Eventually she bought homes and an apartment house which she eventually sold. Her two children are all grown up. Son Jere lives in California, but her daughter Macie returned to Hawaii and married a biochemist.
And where is Maxine Gray Ford today? Living on Kaneohe Bay which is on the windward side of Oahu and over the mountains from Honolulu, Hawaii. She enjoys opera, ballet, and ice-skating shows on TV and can't pass up any athletic competition."I enjoy sitting on my lanai and just watching the beautiful view of ocean and mountains." Getting to the telephone sometimes takes time. Those injuries years before have taken their toll! "But, Walt, I'm a survivor! I always have been! And I still have my Guardian Angel -- Everybody does! -- only I think I listen better now than I used to."