If you don’t know what a speakeasy was, turn on the TV and watch any one of the late-night Jimmy Cagney-Edward G. Robinson movies about the Roaring Twenties. Speakeasies ran the gamut from beer joints and sawdust spots to chic salons and private society clubs. Memberships were by entrance fee, by invitation, or by knowing the password---“Joe sent me.”
The piano players were always there---in saloon or salon, on stage in vaudeville and Broadway, and on the radio. They added excitement to motion pictures, created hit records, and, often, simply played what the customer wanted to hear. Indeed, they were part of the social life of that era. Piano players popularized melody, created atmosphere, filled moments of loneliness, stirred memories, listened to tales of woe when the bartender was bored, and answered requests like “Play it again, Sam.”
It was a time of cocktail hour, where people gathered to waltz, tango or foxtrot . . . always in tuxedos and evening gowns. Blue suits and black shoes for men were almost required dress for informal places, and any man in brown shoes was usually refused entrance to the better rooms and hotels. The understood rule---white socks were for tennis matches, golf club heads, and garage mechanics.
Tinkling pianos were a constant all over town, and the quality of the talents varied from magnificent to “oh well.” One of the better known of those players was Leonard Addison Bailey, a regular at the Drake Hotel in New York.
Addison, as he was called, was the son of Bonham’s mayor Leonard Bailey. During World War II, Addison was featured in the September 23, 1943, newsletter CBI Roundup (China, Burma, and India), in an article written by 1st Sgt. Arthus Stein---“Khaki Laddies Raise Whoopie in Fine Style.” Stein wrote, “Midst the glamorous surrounds of the ‘Bamboo Room,’ decorated with Chinese lanterns and festooned with flowers, with the sweetly-flowing strains of the 14th Air Force Band under the direction of Lt. Addison Bailey gently caressing the ear and with ‘Stateside’ food and drink to please the palate, Headquarters Squadron of the 14th Air Force on Labor Day entertained 35 lovely ladies in what proved to be the finest, the fanciest, the foremost part of this or any other social season enjoyed by the G.I.’s of China.”
He went on to write: “Olive-drab blouses, flashing silks of the Orient, sparkling American evening dresses, medals, ribbons and gleaming jewelry combined to form a pleasing picture as the couples whirled across the dance floor in snaky conga chains or jitterbug routines that were a tonic to all the fans of boogie-woogie and the Lindy Hop.”
The high spot of that evening was the arrival of Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault. The article doesn’t link Gen. Chennault to those soldiers who made frequent trips to the punch bowl for “potent draughts of a soul-warming liquid that concealed an iron poke in a kid glove,” but he proved to be stiff competition for the buck sergeant who made the gutsy decision to cut in on him, as the general glided across the dance floor with the “particularly attractive young lady.”
Addison Bailey, buried at Willow Wild Cemetery in Bonham, wrote music scores for Can-Can, Kiss Me Kate, as well as High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, and Louie Armstrong. The 1959 LP Addison Bailey Trio: Holiday in Manhattan with Cole Porter sells for $10-$15 on eBay. Listen to Leonard Bailey’s piano strokes in such tunes as “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “In the Still of the Night,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin, and “I Love Paris.”
Perhaps if you could hear Addison Bailey pounding the ivories to Cole Porter’s song, “The Zip Cornwall Cooch,” you could relate to pianist Oscar Levant, as he explained his way out of a speeding ticket: “You can’t possibly hear the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh and go slow.”