Just make sure I'm around when you've finally got something to say.--Toad the Wet Sprocket

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

An Early African American Piano Player's Unique and Mysterious Way To Stardom

In L.A. in the early 1940s, John Redd dreamed of making it big as a piano player, but L.A. was highly segregated at the time and the most popular clubs wouldn't hire black musicians.  He did notice, however, that they were hiring Indian singers and musicians.  People were fascinated by the far east and saw it as exotic and exciting and couldn't get enough of it.

This gave John the idea to take the swami stereotype and use it to his advantage. He'd already tried getting work as an Hispanic using the name Juan Rolando with a small bit of success because at the time Mexican music was hot right then, so it was easier to get work if you were Hispanic.  But this promised to be even more successful.  With the help of his wife Disney illustrator Beryl DeBeeson,
he put on makeup and wore a turban and suddenly Korla Pandit was born. They made up the past that said he was from New Delhi and parents were a father who was a Brahmin priest and a mother who was a French opera singer.  He then went to England to study music and then immigrated to America to go to the University of Chicago to study the organ.

He hit the clubs with this act. This was a very risky venture as at best he could be banned from playing the clubs if caught and at worst he could be lynched.  He played exotic compositions on a Hammond organ and it works. He would add tangos, cha-chas, and other music from the 1940s and 1950s as well as the occasional classical piece.  He would play the piano with his right hand and the Hammond with his left-hand, a novelty at the time.  Not once did he speak during his act. He just played and looked out at the audience with his trademark hypnotic gaze.  Soon, he becomes the most popular gig in town.

To pull this off he must be Korla Pandit twenty-four hours a day and only a few trusted friends and family members knew the truth.  He got a gig in 1948 playing the "eerie background music for the revival of radio's occult adventure series 'Chandu the Magician'".  Over the next three decades he recorded over two dozen albums and he had his own TV show beginning in 1949.   "Adventures in Music", where he was TV's first "talking head" without actually speaking but talking through his music. In 1953 during a contract dispute, he was replaced with Liberace.  At the height of his early 1950s fame, he was a guest of honor at the Tournament of Roses Parade and was friends with the likes of Bob Hope and Errol Flynn.

He appeared in Tim Burton's movie Ed Wood playing himself.  He lived this way until his death in 1998. Then three years later a friend writes an article that records the truth. There were those who criticized him for deceiving them by taking on the identity of another minority. But many others said his actions were justifiable considering the discrimination he faced at the time.  He is considered the Godfather of Exotica music nonetheless.

Here are some words of wisdom from Korla Pandit himself (thanks to http://www.korlapandit.com)
In India we believe that music never dies, but ever materializes into beautiful forms.
Music is the Golden Union of East and West.
In the midst of a crowd, keep the independence of your solitude.
Love and respect yourself, and be aware of yourself. Then we can begin to visualize the state we are seeking and feel the reality of it. Then relax, and it will come to pass. Let go, let God, and you can be changed.
You are a mind with a body, not a body with a mind.
This is not, necessarily, the only planet we have ever lived on.
Recently scientists have said there ís something faster than the speed of light, possibly It is thought.
I do not like to use labels, because labels become liable.
Love holds the Universe together.
Permanency in music is the ultimate in love.
Music may not save your soul, but it will cause your soul to be worth saving.

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