Reta Ray: The Naughty Nightingale
Last update: Jan 2013.
Reta Ray was an unconventional headlining star of radio and nightclubs for five decades. She was a beautiful woman who played against type by becoming a comedienne at a time when most comediennes were expected to be unattractive. Reta said always do comedy; if your act is about being sexy and gorgeous when you get old you are through, but if you are funny you can work when you are old and looks have gone. She was a talented independent woman who played and sang her own special material in a deep smokey voice. She recorded records independently of the large labels. Her clever songs were bawdy, risqué numbers. She was booked at the legendary San Francisco club Finocchio’s and had long runs the Club Moderne in Long Beach where she met and married the bartender. Together they purchased the Riviera Club. She even opened two nightclubs in Hawaii and hired black musicians at a time when they were forbidden to work in Waikiki. She began her career in Texas around 1932 under the name Marie Ringer. She became a singer with the Vincent Lopez Orchestra and had a contract with NBC before breaking out on her own. She had five marriages and after her years in Hawaii she returned to the mainland, performed in San Diego for a while and lived in Florida until her death on July 9, 2006.
I first discovered Reta Ray at David Diehl’s amazing online resource “the Blue Pages” where I have researched other nightclub and recording artists such a Bruz Fletcher, Spivy, Dwight Fiske, Spivy... I became interested in Reta. I then located Reta’s daughter’s website with nearly 100 photos and details about Reta’s career and found some of Reta’s old records. In my collection I obtained about 10 records that were not listed in David Diehl’s discography. I also found an online thread in which Reta’s daughter said her mother did not save any records, just pictures and clippings. A musician had found them and offered them a cassette. I had some 10 more songs than were listed on David’s site, so I wrote to Reta’s daughter offering what I had on CD and some actual records. She was delighted, offered me an autographed picture of her mom and shared the following memories. Any contributions to the website are most welcome.
Contact Tyler Tyler_Alpern@yahoo.com
E-mail interviews taken from over 150 pages of text
Reta’s daughter, “Little Reta” as nicknamed by older family members, has written me several wonderful e-mails describing her life with her mom. As she puts it,"I like to write and spell correctly but I just let my e-mails go at stream of consciousness." She sends me all sorts of thoughts and memories. I have gathered these exerpts and reorganized them as a string of facts to inform the reader. It is NOT intended to be a continuous narrative or a time line. This is a collection of reminiscences that captures a time and the life of a performer. It gives a flavor of very different era.
RE: RETA RAY
My mother is Reta Ray..."the Texas Bombshell, later named for good "The Naughty Nightingale". I have my mom’s career in show biz in boxes and albums. She did 50 years in show biz.
She traveled week to week to different hotels and so on. Then she met many, many entertainers and band leader, Rudy Vallee, Vincent Lopez etc. Her mom kept all the ads that appeared in the paper of her. Some just have text but one is hilarious: the “blank” club is having a nudist review and there will be an extra 50 cent cover charge. She also owned nightclubs in Hawaii herself. Mel Torme came over and Sarah Vaughan and Mel played drums...and so on. She dated the world’s heavy weight boxing champ Max Baer.
My mother is almost 100 years old and she can authentically sign her photos. I have so many of her: of her in white gowns, performing in clubs, on NBC, a double exposure of both her on top of a white grand piano and with herself playing the piano. In it she is dressed like Jean Harlow in a white silk slip of a dress with no underwear. She was a knock out! Also, my mother had sheet music composed and written for her. It says for Reta Ray and it is copywritten and stamped with embosser tool, by the arranger. I found that to be fascinating, written in ink by hand, “Reta comes in here and etc.”
My mom is healthy with nothing wrong but she is wearing out her eyes, ears and joints; but she has no heart trouble or diabetes or anything that would kill her.
Mom wanted to cut a new CD now and put all on new songs and add more jokes to tell. She was 95. To include a photo was my idea and to sell it on ebay but life goes by. She can hardly walk but she could use the money like all or most entertainers -they die broke. They are childlike to become entertainers- they are not adult like personalities. In fact, I was the adult in the family of two - mom and me....she married five times... and left all her husbands because she could walk in any nightclub and get a job 500 a week.
She promised the club owners, “I will work for scale, if I don't bump your take; but if I do bump your take then you’ll pay me more.” They did and she did and all were happy.
But Mom played piano, this got her lots of jobs too because the owner didn’t have to hire musicians.
Mom met Sophie Tucker and Sophie gave Mom a song or two.
Did I tell you that Mom knew Rudy Vallee? She still has letter from him stating that he needed a girl singer. However Mom said no to 75 a week as she was making much more as headliner and Doris Day took the job!
She broke Nat King Cole’s record in San Diego for the most gross sales of booze...
She did a lot of drinking on stage, like Joey Bishop did.
She has a huge stack of jokes that she collected from the audience when she slowed down and wanted to live in San Diego. She worked piano rooms and her act became singing and some jokes then she would say, “send up your jokes,” gather them up from the audience and she read them and cracked up. That was funny and all had a blast, all were drinking like crazy. Mom did that for a while and I would drop in...
When I was 21 in San Diego I went in and played snare drums brushes and sang with Mom she loved that...
One time we went on cruise. Mom was 80 she did a show...and looked great and told jokes and sang and knocked em dead. I have that on video.
Her real name is Willie Marie.
David Diehl told me that I should put her memorabilia in the Cleburne archives as “local girl makes good.” My grandma lived there and that family was a big rich family that owned lots of things in Cleburne, Texas. Mom is now the last sibling. Mom says that her parents were fun. I lived with them on the farm when Mom dumped my dad and took off for more shows...They kept me...it was grand in Texas. I was an only child with a playhouse and room to grow. I loved it...Once the whole extended family all came to the Skyliner in Fort Worth to see Mom. I was there, it first time they ever saw her perform.
RE: HOW RETA GOT TO HAWAII
...so Mom had lived in Arizona, then she divorced and moved to her home stompin’ grounds in Dallas. I was in boarding school after she left my stepfather. Then she attracted a big millionaire...MAJOR TRUCKING. He was based in St. Louis but lived in Ft. Worth and he fell for her hard. He was a hard drinking, big spending Texan and they had a ball. Mom wanted a home for me, I was in boarding school and she wanted to quit working so they married. But they divorced exactly in 7 months. She let him off the hook. It was big hearted of her because she could have taken a lot from him as it was a community property state. She gave him back his furniture and so on. Then she set out for Hawaii to forget the whole thing and have fun.
She had no connections in Hawaii, never worked there. So her agent said, “The Clouds, a club in the penthouse of the Park Surf Hotel, wants you. It is small and has good small acts...” Mom was a woman who played piano and sang comedy and then later after Mom they hired others with similar acts. Mom said that she would take the job, the free apartment and the plane ticket they offered BUT THEY HAD TO PAY FOR HER DAUGHTER. They agreed and we went.
The four gals who owned the club were lesbians and most comediennes in those days were lesbians. But then, no one would talk about it but show people knew. When they picked us up at the airport I had on a suit and high heels and they all assumed, “DAUGHTER ...SURE...” I was age 13 or so and I had been in finishing school in Texas. We had to wear hats, gloves and heels and I was more mature for my age being raised as only child, no siblings or any kids around, just adults. So the lesbians thought I was Mom's sweet thing and they hit on me.
There were four gals at this hotel the PARK SURF. I don’t think they are alive, if but if so they wouldn’t mind the publicity - they probably have quite a story. One was short and fiery and was a comedienne. Most nights she appeared in the show too. I would sit on the fire escape with the door cracked and learned all her routines...and other acts too. Her name was Verle Henry.
Now Verle did comedy. One bit was about Dragnet. She put on a trench coat and played a detective with hat and said, “I woke up that morning and right away I knew something was wrong. All the lights were on, I was fully dressed, and I was in bed with a horse! (pre “Godfather”) This struck me as rather strange? I ALWAYS TURN THE LIGHTS OUT when I go to bed.
Other bits all delivered in a Henny Youngman like cadence were:
“Suddenly, a tall girl passed by my window, I knew she was tall cause I live on the tenth floor.”
“I wanted to paint her in the nude, but she insisted I wear a robe.”
“She said, ‘Here, here.’ And I said, ‘Where, where?’”
Anyway, Verle and a gal named Betty and two more were the owners of The Clouds and they all lived in the hotel on the bottom floor. It's probably gone now as it was across the street from the zoo on the beach at Waikiki on the corner. These gals had a great deal home for all of them and a nightclub. I don’t know much more but I know that Verle was very very tough and Betty was very dark haired and sweet. Many had SWEET THINGS who were young and gorgeous. So that is why one got me in the hall and said something. I have no idea, maybe she hugged me, I had no idea about those things. I didn’t realize she hit on me. But Mom got her and said, “Listen you, that IS MY DAUGHTER.” Mom really bawled her out. They profusely apologized...
Anyway, the penthouse was called THE CLOUDS... they booked Mom in there. Mom was the headliner and packed the joint . . Also, Nat King Cole was there. So that's how that went.
Ever hear of Ed Kinney? Ed Kinney gave me my first grown up kiss. He was singer in Hawaii and he did Broadway shows and he was handsome and tall and worked at the nightclub that booked Mom before she had her own clubs there. The women owners promised him a spot on the show in the penthouse above the hotel. Anyway Ed Kinney wanted to sing there. He worked there at the desk hoping for a break but they never gave him a break. Then he cut some albums about Hawaii with gorgeous pictures of him on the jacket and then, get this...he stared on Broadway as the leading man in Flower Drum Song with Pat Suzuki. He had two page color spread in Life with photo of him laying her down in a dance pose so sexy and the cast behind...I kept the photo. He returned to Hawaii, Mom did too, I didn’t. It turns out he was gay too, but we never knew it.
Mom told me other times that some people have different lives. I didn’t know what “gay” was, the word didn’t exist then for that. And she never was prejudiced.
So Mom went to Hawaii. Her first run was in the club called The Clouds. Later she persuaded the hotel to open the lobby that had a bar leading into a piano room because she was happy in Hawaii and she said she would make her money there. She brought the entertainers from all over to play and sing with her,disc jockeys, Hawaiian legends and visiting others. Now this is not to be confused with the big night club she opened after that The Orchid Room. She stayed in Hawaii and then she opened The Orchid Room, one of the hottest clubs on Waikiki and that is where the jam sessions were and the casual shots we have of all the stars that came and performed were taken...and a lot of the big names too.
Reta’s Two Nightclubs In Hawaii The Orchid Room and The Pink Poodle and the famous people who played and visited them.
I did put Mom’s photos on webshots.com, many I shot myself. I have had a camera strapped to my hip since I could walk. People go there and see her and they buy the photos from webshots, and I get nothing but the pleasure of them looking. Well her albums get about 300 hits a week. Starting out is an image,”Mrs. Bill Ringer sings for 15 minutes on the radio.” I posted little blurbs in the paper her Mom kept. I got adobe and blew them up and put them in digital, what a job. I put them on webshots and I made three albums. I just started Album 3 and put in a photo of Mom with Christine Jorgenson. Mom and Christine buddied around for a while. Mom is not a lesbian, and most female comedians were. Mom had two nightclubs. One was the Orchid Room. I have pictures of many celebrities that came: Abbot and Costello in aloha shirts...the Four Sportsman - the Jack Benny group on radio, Morey Amsterstam and one of my favorites NELLIE LUTCHER. Linda Hopkins was just a kid when she sang for Mom.
Nellie Lutcher still has many many fans -I’m one of them...She played piano and sang “Black Gal”...not risqué but sharp stuff. One song was “Real Gone.” I heard it played on a hip background one time so I know musicians know it...I can find photos of her sitting on the floor at some wild parties...
I can no longer reach Linda Hopkins. She is 70 plus years old now. I have some recordings of her singing and she brought the house down - I mean it. Later I saw her on Johnny Carson. I still remember that she had on a beaded dress. She played lead role of Bessie Smith on Broadway in BESSIE. I know that Linda would love to talk to Mom because Mom hired her and Mom said she needed a manager. It would be grand to find her. She has no children but I know she gives to other children from an interview I found. I don't know her record company but I’ve got one of her albums that she cut with Jackie Wilson in 1950’s. This means she was cutting that album at time she worked at Mom’s. Mom gave her 75 bucks a week!
Mom never worked where their was dancing. Her club the Orchid Room had a big dance floor but it was never used except for the acts that danced.
Do you remember the songs sung so sexily by that big handsome black guy HERB JEFFRIES? He had big hits with “Flamingo,” “Flying Over the Islands, ” and was it...”Tell My Lover?” Anyway, I have candid shots of him in white shorts on stage at the jam sessions at my Mom’s club. That is where the stars came on Sundays. Mom knew that acts are lonely on Sundays and so she started Sunday jam sessions. She’d send to them via western union saying, “we’ll have a jam session at the Orchid Room, the drinks are on me and come on in.” And they did. The blacks couldn’t play Waikiki Beach in those days but they swamped our jam sessions. The photos of these guys are incredible. Like this guy Robbie played the sax while he laid on the floor between tables and another guy played trumpet and he is standing on the table, oh, it was wonderful... They got up and sang and our in house photographer took photos...so fabulous. Too bad they were not all that famous. I have have a photo of Billy Daniels from when he came. God, he was fabulous too. The blacks worked the island but had to be downtown in the down town juke joints or jazz blues clubs where the sailors went (all the services). God, I loved those Sundays.
The Ink Spots came and I was there and Nat King Cole played and I met him, but like Lena Horne and others have said, they had to come on stage and to leave by the back door. This was in the mid fifties. They could work but were not allowed privileges.
Champ Butler was making it in singing movies. Mom hired him and they were together but then he disappeared and he made a movie with Rosemary Clooney.
There was a woman Mom’s agent told her about named Irene Kral. She was little sister of Roy Kral. Irene was on her way to stardom. She was incredible and was the front for group called the Tattle Tales...they were incredible. I have many shots of them. Irene was alone and under 30 and she was wild. She sang jazz with a voice that was mesmerizing.
Then Mom opened the Pink Poodle in Kailua across the island. The Pink Poodle had two areas the back. It had a circus tent over a dance floor so you could dance and the floor show went on a stage. It was there that Mom hired Nat King Cole’s older brother Eddie to play and he worked with his wife Bettie Cole. He played boogie woogie rockin’ piano and sang “Saturday Night Fish Fry.” I loved that song. But in between the acts the piano bar came on...so we had a piano bar guy that sang and I learned some of his material. It was...Tom Lehrer, you know “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” although I never heard that one. I did learn others with very complicated lyrics. He was genius. There was “The Boy Scout Marching Song” and other one about gal that killed her whole family and served them up as Irish stew etc. “She set her sister’s hair on fire and the smoke and flames grew higher, she danced around the funeral pyre...” Then there was one about two game wardens, 7 hunters and a cow. This is how I was able to start a band. I had so much material in my little brain and my mom told me I had more talent in my little finger than IN her whole body. She said that over and over...I sang material rock and roll and material...I worked a lounge for about a year...
Then Mom gave RUSTY WARREN OLD MATERIAL OF HERS... and made Rusty a star and Rusty said so at her concert. She said, “Reta Ray is in the audience and if it hadn’t been for her I would never have made it.” Now, Rusty made it big with “Knockers Up” but first she had been a school teacher and I know she was alive in Arizona about five years ago. Mom wanted to reach her, but this comedian...a chiropractor worked as an MC at night he knew Rusty real well and told me how to get in touch with her and I let it slip. Later, I called his home and he had had a stroke and couldn’t remember much. Now we had a dead end to find Rusty.
One time Mom was on the mainland to book talent and she was in Las Vegas. These agents were all trying to get to her to book their acts; she turned down the muppets thinking “nuts a bunch of puppets.” At one point the loud speaker went off, “Calling Reta Ray ...calling Reta Ray,” so she would leave the crap table then back again. Then again, “Calling Reta Ray ...calling Reta Ray,” and Milton Berle was standing by Mom and he said, “who in the hell are you?”
She never pointed it out to me people’s sexuality. Once this guy came to work for us. He was the greatest entertainer I ever saw, so talented. He sang, he danced, he played trumpet and piano and drums. He danced tap dance kinda like Sammy Davis Junior but he was white. His name was Johnny Bachman and Mom hired him. He was dynamite, he worked on Waikiki Beach. Now this Johnny Mom loved.
We used to give the headliner an apartment and we had an apartment and they were next to the nightclub so you had to go thru the nightclub to get to our apartments. I walked by the nightclub in the daytime when usually no one was there and Johnny was drinking and Mom was with him. I stood by...acting very grown up now (wait til you see my picture - I was smart but didn’t dress well. I had evening gowns, sundresses and bathing suits but when I went to school I had to take off sandals, earrings and sundresses.) Anyway, I was walking around not looking like a teenager. So Johnny has his head buried on his hands crying and he said, “sniff sniff...have you just ever loved some one so much that ...garbled ...snif snif.” And then I heard him say, “he...” and I realized, like a light bulb turned on, that Johnny was gay. I was shocked, embarrassed and naive but I went on my way. But Mom had never told me then if anyone was gay or not. They didn’t use that word, “queer” was the word. This was after the lesbian gal hit on me and Mom told her off in private. I didn’t know that she had hit on me...and Mom didn’t tell me til later. So we didn’t have these talks about lesbians etc, until much later.
RE: Prejudice in those days
Mom was from Texas as you know and at that time at the Cleburne Train Station where I traveled with my grandma and later alone I remember that the whites had a water fountain marked “white” and there was another one marked “colored.” I saw the black and white bathrooms too at the train depot. I was never prejudice and hated it.
My mom had hired a black young girl to be my nanny and once we were all on the train together. I had a terrible fever. It was the Santa Fe Railroad and there were black and white cars. Mom and me and my nanny were in the car and conductor came and said that my black nanny was told she had to go to the black car which was not air conditioned. My mom said, “absolutely not, her baby was sick and no way.” So conductor, get this, STOPPED THE TRAIN TO PUT MOM OFF. He had said, “you get to that car or we will call the police.” Then they stopped the train to put us all off. Mom said, “if you put us off, I will sue.” They conferred for 10 minutes and let her and us all back on and the nanny stayed with us. I think the fact I had a fever was why they backed down and were afraid of law suit but Mom was a firebrand. Still is...
As I said before, I lived on the farm and the family would say ‘nigger.’ My own grandmother referred to “nigger town.” I had a black cat and my grandmother named it “Nigger.” I had no one to play with when I was only five except for two little black girls. Once when they were there to play with me I said, “you have to see my cat,” and I called, “Here Nigger, Nigger...” They didn’t say anything and I didn’t say anything but I was deeply ashamed...I never realized what Mama had called the cat.
My mom had brothers and she wouldn't allow them to say “nigger” around me. They would always fight and say it to themselves. She told me that they were just as good as us... and she wouldn’t put up with that kind of talk.
From “Little Reta’s” August 2004 Online Posts:
David Diehl is a librarian in Texas devoted to saving the risqué records of old. He came and Mom met him for lunch. She showed him some albums and gave him autographed photo. Anyway I know David and he was ecstatic to meet Mom.
There is one guy that is big musician, he plays a lot big stars movies such as Eddie Murphy. He had collected all Mom’s records and he made us a cassette of his collection. We gave him a broken record we had. The old 78s all broke. She published under several companies, but she sold them for $1,500 in Arizona in 1949. $1,500! I have about one or two 45's that were in her suitcase. But she never cared to keep anything but her photos. There is a table card that she had on each table it said if you like Miss Ray’s songs her records are for sale in the lobby.
I have a stack of jokes that I may publish and e-book of her jokes. They are old but still coming around. Mom could still probably add a song and cut that record before she has a stroke or something. I wonder about it and think I should do it.
List of Known Songs Recorded by Reta Ray
PARDEE RECORDS 78's and 45's:
Abie Is an Indian Now
Bert the Jerk
I'm Just a Bad Girl
They Can't Make a Lady Out of Me
Stinking at the Savoy
Latin Love Is Not for Me
No Help Wanted
Can't Say No to a Man
Rum and Coke
Sort of In Between
Why Should a Girl Say No
You’re Never too Old
The Honeymoon Is Over
Woman on the Couch
All Day All Night
Lancelot - The Beatnik
The Marriage Blues
Keep an Eye on Your Husband's Business
Why Go to Hawaii
The Madam's Lament
I Wish I Were A Glamour Girl
Bert The Jerk From Albuquerue/That's The Way He Does It by Reta Ray accompanied by The Aristocrats
Reta has a birthday!
RETA RAY PARTY RECORDS: Recorded before the Par - Dee records and duplicate songs have very different lyircs than the Par - Dee versions, especially Keep an Eye on Your Husband's Buisness which really copies the Bruz Fletcher original.
Bruz Fletcher: Camped, Tramped & A Riotous Vamp . Multi talented writer, composer, performer Bruz Fletcher, born to one of the wealthiest and most dysfunctional families in Indiana, twice took the difficult journey of riches to rags in his short, turbulent 34 years. His drama filled life was an ever changing saga, a wild and sad story of extremes and incredible plot twists. He ran away from home at age 8 and attempted suicide as young teen. While home for the school holidays, his mother and grandmother drank poison committing a double suicide. His older sister escaped their family’s high society life and lived as a man, joined a Broadway show, then took off for Germany where she was jilted by a count. Later she was committed to an asylum and was arrested for attacking the fraudulent Lady Bathurst before dying at age 24. His father lost the fortune and prestigious banks his family built over generations a became an elevator operator. Bruz overcame it all and literally sparkled as he entertained nightly in glamourous nightclubs, delighting his often well-known patrons with his electric, quick witted, sophisticated and risqué songs. Though he killed himself at age 34 in 1941, he left behind three albums of wonderful songs and two novels that give some colorful and candid glimpses into his own world populated by society dowagers, misfits, celebrities, addicts, servants, lovers and eccentrics that covered a wide variety sexualities and mores.
Visit Bruz's site