I was fortunate to do a series of interviews with Chicago based broadcasting legend Studs Terkel (b.1912) in November, 2005. He had just published a terrific book, And They All Sang, a collection of interviews with figures in music going back fifty years. Terkel's interests over a long career ranged from politics and civil rights to jazz and opera. The Chicago Historical Society maintains a web site, www.studsterkel.com
Here are some selections from our talks
ROSA RAISA AND CARUSO
CP: I wanted to ask you about someone I know only from recordings and the history books. Rosa Raisa
ST: Oh! How do you know Raisa! You're the first person your age to know Raisa!
She was fantastic! She sang with Caruso. She came out of Eastern Europe, Bialystok, a little town that was decimated by the Nazis. She studied mostly in Italy. She had a voice that was so rich. Her Norma was fantastic, I would say better than Callas. The one memory that sticks in the mind is that when Puccini, who wrote Tosca and Madame Butterfly, when he was writing Turandot, he had her mind. Puccini died before he finished Turandot. So here's the opening night, and Puccini had died, and the opera hadn't been finished. Toscanini's at the podium and Raisa is singing this role created for her, and as soon as they came to the part where Puccini died, Toscanini put the baton down and turned and faced the audience and said, "At this point the maestro died", and he walked out.
There was another singer named Edith Mason who was very funny, and she and Raisa both described singing with Caruso. Caruso was of generous heart and spirit. He's the one who created the phonograph. There would have been no Victrolas without him.
His records were bought by immigrants who had very little money. They paid two bucks just him sing, two bucks! That fifty bucks today. But they both said he was so nervous, and he's give them a little shot of whiskey, which they wouldn't take but he would.
He said, I'm nervous because the audience wants 108 percent and I can only give 100 percent.
But he would go up and just as you'd think he's finished, he could go no higher out would come two or three more notes. He indicated what the human being could do.
Caruso's recordings are ninety and 100 years old and are readily available.
Has anyone ever heard a bad one? He died at forty eight in 1921.
Rosa Raisa's (1893-1963) biography by Charles Mintzer was published in 2001.
Her recordings are not plentiful and its said give only a hint of the magnificence of her voice.
CP: What makes Chicago a great city?
ST: I came here in 1920 as a little boy, an asthmatic little boy, 8 years old. And the minute I smelled those stockyards, I got over my asthma!
Chicago I found a very exciting place. Remember Carl Sandburg the great poet called it hog butcher of the world/center of wheat/son of railroads. That's all gone now. The stockyards have gone to the feed lots in New Mexico and Arizona. The railroads are gone. Nonetheless the skyscrapers by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright want to touch the heavens! Chicago is the city of horny handed people. Hands is an old fashioned word for working. And so they came from Eastern Europe. Chicago's Polish population is bigger than many cities, except for Warsaw. And they came from the Mediterranean, and from south of the Rio Grande, and now Asia, but Chicago' s hands mostly were builders, city workers. It had such quality. There are still the flat bungalows that somebody saved money for by working in the steel mills that are no longer here. What's happened to most cities has happened to Chicago too, losing so many landmarks. On an airplane now you fly over a city and you see golden arches and pizza places. You don't know what city you're in. Years ago I was traveling and I say to the switchboard operator in the motel, "Oh you gotta wake me up ans six o'clock in the morning, because I gotta be in Cleveland at nine. And she says to me, Sir, you ARE in Cleveland!" Chicago suffers from that but it still has that quality. Neighborhood is the key word. Chicago represents that. People came from the deep South. The sharecroppers used to hear that IC train...where's that goin'? It's goin' to Chicago!
There was a blues song, Jimmy Rushing who used to sing with Count Basie would sing: "Goin' to Chicago baby, sorry I can't take you" Well, even today the nature of the city, its impulse...still there!
CP: In one of your books, you write "I knew I had the makings of a good spectator.
What do you mean by that?"
ST: I never dreamed I'd do stuff like talking to you on the radio and stuff. My dream as a depression child was of a civil service job, 9 to 5. I went to law school in Chicago, and I was dreaming of Clarence Darrow, and I wake up to Anthony Scalia! So that was enough for me! I became a disc jockey. First I was a gangster in radio dramas, and soap operas....Chicago was home of soap operas more than new York and Hollywood. Now they all were the same. Woman in White was about a nurse. The Guiding Light was about a minister. Mid Stream was about a doctor. But all the same scripts. I was always the same guy. They wanted a gangster,and I had a gangster voice. There were always three gangsters. The bright one, the middle one, the dumb one. I was always the dumb one.
CP: Did you get killed?
ST: Oh I always got killed! Well, sometimes you'd go to prison for life and that would be the end of it. I did another show called Mister First Nighter, out of the studios in the Wrigley building here in Chicago. The studio seats about 400 people, a live audience would watch us read scripts. Crazy! Then the told me, you gotta wear a tuxedo. I never owned tuxedo ! So I rented a tuxedo that night, very self conscious, and I walked down to the Wrigley building where I was going to play this gangster, and the guy hollers out, Mister First Nighter, Curtain Goin' Up! But he says you look just like a bookie goin to his sister's wedding! And I said that's exactly what I am, a bookie going to his sister's wedding! And I get killed before the first commercial.
CP: Did you always get killed before the first commercial?
ST: No. This happened a few times. Sometimes it was before the second commercial. I get killed or sent up for life. I made a living, sort of. And they guys in charge liked my style,a nd I became a disc jockey before that term was ever used.
MORE TO FOLLOW...see www.studsterkel.com