It wasn't like that with Clayton Coots's father J. Fred. Seeing "The Selected Songs of J, Fred Coots," a somewhat dusty and worn-looking 33-rpm record, in one of the record-holding bins at Plaza Record Store, in Larchmont, one summer afternoon, I began to wonder if the man really did write pop songs, as Ned Bellamy, one of our next door neighbors' sons, had told me when the two of us were wrestling disruptively, one sunny summer afternoon, in one of the Coots' front yard gardens.
I soon became good friends with "Mousey" Coots, a confirmed tomboy of about 20 years. She spent a lot of time, it seemed to me, stalking game (rabbits, squirrels, an occasional skunk) in the wilderness that lay beside her house in the vacant lot, before the vegetation was thoroughly exterminated. When she came home every day at 3:30, from New Rochelle High School, she seemed to retreat immediately to the next-door lot, to hold and occasionally fire, her Daisy Red Ryder carbine-model BB rifle.
A few weeks after being introduced to her, she invited me inside her house. The first floor didn't seem much different from our own, across the street. In a corner of the living room stood a concert-size Steinway, much larger than our own, from which issued the Gershwin, Porter, and Berlin melodies that we could hear especially well in the summer, when all the Coots' windows were open. Downstairs, in the basement, Mousey opened the door to a large room that had the appearance of a Hollywood recording studio, but with a large concert-grand Steinway in a corner. This is probably, I thought, where he constructs his songs and practices them. Much later, memories of those melodic weekends brought to mind those drunken, musical parties at Gatsby's house, on eastern Long Island, the constantly flowing abundance of bootleg booze, carelessly potted guests who hadn't even met their fabulous host. As long as each Coots party lasted, that was the length of time someone master of the instrument -- played as if it was he who had written the song, deathless as an Elizabethan sonnet.
It was about that time that a very young Pat Boone recorded a very pretty song called "Love Letters in the Sand," written by J. Fred Coots. It must've been an old song, because it had been a best-seller when it was first recorded, many years ago, by Gene Raymond. There were other best-sellers whose titles I soon forgot, if ever I knew them. But one day I learned how our neighbor had been able to afford the lovely and massive tudor house across the street, together with the adjoining garage and the big navy-blue Cadillac inside.
One day in the 1948 pre-Christmas season, when I was about 8, I happened to be chatting with Mom as she was washing dishes in the kitchen. She usually had the maroon table radio turned on, medium volume, to a station that played pop music, Christmas carols now. At the first strains of the new hit, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", sung in this early version by cowboy singer Gene Autry, unless I'm mistaken, my mother laughed pleasantly and broke into song, with her sweet, underused mildly vibrato soprano voice:
"You'd better not pout, you'd better not cry,
You'd better be good, I'm tellin' you why
Santa Claus is comin' to town. . . "
Then she stopped, paused, and sighed. "Well, I can hear another dime or quarter dropping into J. Fred's royalty box!" When I asked her what she meant, she explained that our neighbor had written that song . . . and that it alone was probably earning him a pile of loot. Maybe it had paid for his stately heap across the street! And the Cadillac, too! In the same league with -- if not Gershwin, Berlin, or Porter -- then at least Hoagy Carmichael, whose "Deep Purple" was reputed to be perennially at the top of the list. My estimate of the mysterious J. Fred soared through the roof. Wow!
I came to actually meet the composer only at dusk of the summer day my sister Bev and I were horsing around on the circular Normandy Lane outside our house. J. Fred himself, it was reported, was inside the house beside our softball field, drinking with his modestly reclusive neighbor Phillip Daitsch, the wealthy (and divorced) inventor of the original Dixie Cup, the first disposable paper cup. I was perhaps 16 years old, Bevie, 10, riding my own Raleigh bike around and around and around the circular Normandy Lane, my sister standing somewhat inside the grass-carpeted circle working feverishly to throw a clothesline rope around my neck, like cowboy Roy Rogers's wife-sidekick Dale Evans, and failing that, to at least hit me with the rope. Throwing up my left arm to shield my face, I lost partial control of my bike, which suddenly swerved and struck Bev, causing her to fall and strike her head against the iron grating of one of the street's three sewers.
The next thing I knew, J. Fred and Phillip were rushing haltingly down the Daitsch's paved driveway toward the circle. When J. Fred finally got there, and I suddenly became aware of his drunken weaving, sour breath, and slurred speech, he completely ignored my sister, who lay unconscious on her back right above the sewer, he gave me a mighty back-handed slap across the mouth that nearly knocked me to the pavement, too.
To be continued