She was in her mid-seventies, and knockout beautiful. Her skirts swirled and her sequined shoes flashed as Charlie masterfully led her about the ballroom floor.
Charlie. Oh, yes, Charlie, with his tuxedo and his pencil thin white mustache and his shoes shined to a mirror finish. Charlie, who had written the arrangements for my band, and whom I watched with one eye, my other on my fine musicians as I waved the baton. The tears flowed down my cheeks, for I knew Charlie...
It had been the prior Spring, and I had jumped when the voice came out of the shadows. "Say, Mr. Edwards," someone said.
I was walking from my car in the parking lot to the club where I was playing piano, and I had never been accosted before, although this didn't happen to be a very desirable area of Kansas City.
"Yes?", I said, and turned to see a smallish old man in a long, badly torn overcoat and a ball cap emerge from the darkness. "Could you let me have a couple of dollars for something to eat?" he asked. His hands were shaking, and I knew it was wine he wanted and not food.
"How did you know my name," I asked as I gave him two dollars.
"You're the piano player here," he said, "and a fine one, too. Sometimes I stand outside the door and listen when people come in and out and leave the door open a moment."
"How nice," I said. I was flattered.
"Say," he said, clutching the two dollar bills, "You ought to play 'Misty' in Eb instead of C. It lays better that way."
I watched him start toward the little diner on the corner, then duck down the alley where he could get some wine.
That night I played "Misty", and, remembering what the old man said, moved it to Eb. He was absolutely right! It did "lay better" that way.
When I took a break, I went out the back door and around the building. He was standing by the front door, listening, I suppose, while I was playing.
"You were right about 'Misty'", I said, "Why don't you come on inside?"
"I haven't got the money," he said, "and besides, I couldn't come in looking like this." He indicated his torn overcoat.
"Sure, you can," I said. "It's the last set, and the place is clearing out anyway."
I led him in, sat him at the end of the piano bar, and bought him a glass of wine from my tip jar. After a while, when I had just finished playing "Tenderly", he said, "Pardon me, Mr. Edwards, "but in the third measure, why not play a C minor 6th chord instead of the D minor 7th you've been using?"
There were few people left in the club, so I played "Tenderly" again, this time with the C minor 6th he had suggested, and lo and behold! He was right again! Where did this old wino get so much knowledge?
The wine was doing its job, and his hands had stopped shaking. He told me his name was Charlie Spangler, that he had once been an arranger for big bands, and that most people didn't believe him when he told them what he used to do. I believed him, and asked him to come back in every night and impart some of his chord knowledge to me. He seemed thankful to be asked, and came in almost every night.
On Monday night of my last week at that club, I told Charlie that I had a fourteen piece band that played the Golden Eagle Ballroom on Grand Lake in Oklahoma during the summer season, and asked him if he would care to write an arrangement for it.
"I'd love to, Mr. Edwards," he replied. Funny, he still called me Mr. Edwards even though he was much older than I, and obviously a vastly superior musician. It should have been the other way around. During the last set on Saturday night, he brought in a large manila folder. "This is a medley," he said, "for you to start out each evening with."
I took the folder and looked through the dozens of pages of handwritten music. "I'm not a good sight reader, Charlie," I said, "so I really can't tell by looking at the score how good it is. But all the boys in my band sight read very well, and we'll take a chance and open our first night with this. How much do I owe you?"
"Could you go a hundred dollars?" asked Charlie, nervously.
"Sure," I said, and I gave him the hundred, took the folder and we left; Charlie back to his flophouse on the river, and I to Grand Lake to pull my band together for the season.
The following Monday, when we were set up and ready to play, I passed Charlie's arrangement out to the band. Briefly, I told them the story, and said to my third trombonist, "Tommy, I want you to conduct this, because you read better than I do, and I'll go out front and listen."
Tommy rapped the baton on the stand and raised his arms. When the band started, we were suddenly in the magnificent presence of Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Les Elgart, Stan Kenton -- all the great ones, all somehow wrapped up in my band!
Did I say MY band? No! Now it was Charlie's band -- Charlie Spangler, who at that very moment was probably in the river area of Kansas City trying to hustle up something to eat.
The audience was entranced, as was I, as were the musicians, and we knew at that moment we had to have Charlie for our Arranger.
During the week we all agreed to take a small cut in pay if we could hire Charlie and bring him to the resort. On Sunday, Tommy went with me, and we drove to Kansas City to try to find him. He had no address, but I knew he lived somewhere in the river district, and we finally found him living in a dollar a night flophouse.
Charlie was glad to see me. "How was the arrangement, Mr. Edwards?" he asked.
"You already know the answer to that, Charlie. We want you to come back with us and be our arranger for the season."
Charlie sat on the side of his cot and stared off into space for a long time. Then he tried to say "Thank you", but choked up and couldn't. It was several minutes before we could collect ourselves and get started back to Grand Lake. Charlie didn't have any belongings at all.
Mr. Haskell, the resort owner, gave Charlie a room and all his meals, and the band advanced him a few hundred dollars. Tommy took him into Tulsa to buy clothes, and suddenly Charlie became the 75 year old version of the gentleman he must have been in the 1940's.
Each night, as the band finished playing and left the ballroom, we could see the light burning in Charlie's room as he sat up late writing the arrangements for the next night's performance.
Sometime during the summer, Charlie met the beautiful seventy- something Margaret, who owned a condominium there, and was the daughter of a past Tulsa mayor. And now it was she whom he was so elegantly leading around the floor as they danced to his beautiful arrangement of "Dream". It was the last performance of the season, and when it was over, the audience rose and applauded the band, and the band rose and applauded Charlie - and Margaret.
I got the word about five the next morning.
My second trumpeter, who lived in Miami, Oklahoma, a little town just north of the lake and which was known as the "marriage capital", was on his way home when he came upon the carnage on the highway. An oncoming driver had gone to sleep, crossed the center line and slammed into Margaret's car. Charlie was with her, and a ladies wedding ring was found in his tuxedo pocket.
Someday, I believe we'll all hear Charlie's wonderful arrangements again, because there's no doubt in my mind that as I write these words, Charlie is writing arrangements for a Heavenly choir of Angels. Surely God would not produce such a talent, and let it die forever.
~© Joe Edwards~