Fan Club President Bill Munroe wrote in the Spring 2004 Fan Club Newsletter: "A few years ago, Marianne Lovaas and I met Teresa for lunch near her home in Manhattan. As in past get-togethers, Teresa talked about her career and gave us insights about her feelings on a variety of subjects. Following is a transcription of our warm, convivial conversation with Teresa on that cold, wintry day - sort of a retrospective of Teresa's extraordinary career, in her own words... Make a cup of coffee or, better still, pour yourself a glass of merlot or some other fine spirits, and then pull up an easy chair and eavesdrop in on our conversation with Teresa."|
BILL: Teresa, let's take a trip down Memory Lane. Let's start at the beginning. When you as a child first appeared as a contestant on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, how old were you? And how important was it for you to win?
TERESA: There is a record out that contains one of my appearances on the show. On it, I say I'm seven years old but I was really six. I don't know why I lied and said I was seven. That was the last time I made myself older! You know, I started to sing when I was two-and-a-half, three years old. Every weekend, it seemed, I appeared on some little amateur show. I don't think I ever lost, except once. And that time it was fixed! My Aunt Mary and I went to New York so I could audition for the Major Bowes Amateur Hour. They said I was terrific and that they would put me on the show in a couple of weeks. And my aunt said, "No, we have just enough money to stay in New York until the weekend," so I sold Aunt Mary and stayed the extra two weeks! (laughs) Just kidding! They did put me on right away, though.
BILL: Do you remember touring with the Major Bowes shows?
TERESA: Yes, I do. I did that, off and on, until I was about twelve years old. I'd travel throughout the states with either my mother or my aunt accompanying me for about two or three weeks at a time, then go back to school. They'd call me up again and I'd go to another city and appear.
MARIANNE: What was it like to travel with the unit?
TERESA: When Major Bowes sent out his people to appear in theaters all around the country, he'd rent a train car. And then we'd take the seats apart and make beds out of them. It was less expensive that way. We never had berths. One time we didn't even have the train car. There was a mix-up and we got the caboose, one of those old cabooses that you see in Looney Tunes; we actually had one of those with a potbelly stove. I remember it vividly. Everybody just put coats on the floor and we slept on them.
BILL: Like hoboes?
TERESA: Must have been - really! Same thing! As a child, I found it very exciting. For the grownups, however, it must have been uncomfortable and annoying, but I loved it.
MARIANNE: When you first started singing, who if anyone had an influence on you?
TERESA: Oh, it would have to have been my mother because I started to sing before I was three. And, as a teenager, I bought only two records: Tommy Dorsey's "Boogie Woogie" - I love to dance - and a calypso number called "Run, Joe" by, I think, Louis Jordan. My mother had a wonderful voice, though, and she'd sing around the house.
MARIANNE: Did she want a show-business career?
TERESA: I doubt it. I think it was just that Shirley Temple was a big star at that time and anybody who had a little girl thought she could be another Shirley Temple. I was the one elected in my family - I was the only girl! I have all brothers. I had a very lovely childhood. I loved my parents and my family - a wonderful childhood.
BILL: You retired as a young teenager. How did your first recording come about?
TERESA: You know, I really don't remember too much. I should write a book and call it My Life as Told to Me. I'd have to ask my family, my friends and other people in the business because so much has happened to me since I've been a child that I just don't remember many things. It has to be very, very special for me to do so. I think everything in my life has been sort of special so it's all clumped together. I just don't remember any particulars.
MARIANNE: Did a record company executive approach you or did you take the initiative?
TERESA: I was working in a little nightclub in New York City, the Sawdust Trail, just off Times Square. I was underage, about 17. The man who owned the club promised to put me in a movie but, when I got to New York from Toledo, the movie prospect all of a sudden disappeared and he asked me to work in the club. Tutti Camarata of London Records saw my show and asked me if I wanted to record. I said "yes" and went in and did a couple of records. "When the Train Came In" was the very first record I ever made for London. And the third or fourth one I did was "Music! Music! Music!"
BILL: Did you remember thinking at that time that you were going to be a big, big recording star?
TERESA: When it happened, when I did have a hit, I didn't think anything about it because I thought once you made a record that you automatically had a hit. I was 17 and was naive. By the time I had that first hit, I was already married to Bill (Monahan). "Music! Music! Music!" was released in 1949, on New Year's Eve, and I had just found out that I was pregnant. So I was going to have my first hit record and my first baby. And I was more excited about the baby.
MARIANNE: What was your first television appearance?
TERESA: I think it was the Pick and Pat show (American Minstrels of 1949), with Jack Carter as the interlocutor. The first half of the show, we did in white face, you know, and then for the second half, darker makeup was put on us. It wasn't actually putting black cork on your face, but they did put a darker makeup on you.
BILL: In 1953, you did a well-received, 15-minute television show twice a week with Mel Torme. How did that come about?
TERESA: They just picked Mel and they picked me. They said they wanted a boy and a girl. And he was a boy and I was a girl. We enjoyed working with each other and got along fine.
MARIANNE: In addition to appearing regularly on the Sullivan show in the '50s and '60s, what other variety shows do you recall?
TERESA: Kathryn and Arthur Murray had The Arthur Murray Party, lovely people with a wonderful show, and I was on it all the time. And I did The Stork Club with Sherman Billingsley, a lot of Perry Como and Eddie Fisher shows. I loved doing Jackie Gleason's show, loved working with him. I can't remember on what show it was, maybe Sullivan, but I was one of the first singers to perform with Kermit. I did a show with this little frog puppet, I remember, and it must have been one of the first times Kermit was ever on television. I don't remember any other little frog so it had to have been Kermit. I sang to Kermit and he sang back to me. I was his first love... before Miss Piggy!
BILL: Those were the days of live television. Did you have any unusual experiences on a live show?
TERESA: There was a show called The Orchid Award. I did a few of them but one in particular I remember. It was on an aircraft carrier. And it was a live show. They would take me on a little golf cart or something to different parts of the ship. For example, I'd go down to the galley and sing "Too Much Mustard," cooking in the galley. And then they'd go to a commercial and they'd put me on a little scooter and take me to another part of the carrier. En route I'd put on a different outfit and people would not believe it was a live performance. It was just fabulous.
BILL: You made one movie, Those Redheads from Seattle, in 1953 for Paramount Pictures. Why didn't you go on to make more films?
TERESA: I could kick myself because Paramount wanted to sign me to a seven-year starlet contract. They used the wrong word when they said "starlet." I was married at the time with two children. I thought: "These people are crazy - a starlet with two children?" And I just said "no."
MARIANNE: That was it, because of semantics you turned it down?
TERESA: Yes, that's it.
MARIANNE: You needed a good agent, Teresa.
TERESA: No, I needed a good doctor, to examine me!
MARIANNE: In the fifties, how were songs for you to record selected? Who chose them?
TERESA: Because I don't read music, demonstration records of the songs were submitted to me. I'd be given a bunch of them to see which ones I liked. The record company would say which ones they preferred, and we'd compromise. About four songs were picked for each recording session.
BILL: How did you feel about the advent of rock 'n' roll in the mid-'50s?
TERESA: Well, when it first broke, there weren't any female rock 'n' roll singers, just male singers and groups. Most of your basic pop singers, both male and female, were wiped out when rock 'n' roll took over.
BILL: You have told us before about meeting with Elvis Presley after one of your Las Vegas shows. According to many books written about Elvis, one of the first songs he performed in public was "Till I Waltz Again with You."
TERESA: Yes, that's what he told me. When I was told that Elvis Presley wanted to come to my dressing room to say "hi," I thought, "What would Elvis be doing watching my show?" Sure enough, he came back with his whole entourage and the first thing he said was that he enjoyed my singing. For about a half hour, he told me his life story, sort of rambling on; he seemed so lonely. When he was through, he snapped his fingers and he and his entourage left. He seemed like a very lonely man; he just wanted to talk.
MARIANNE: Did he seem like a nice person, as polite as they say?
TERESA: Yes, very nice, just like a little farm boy, really. And I'm a little farm girl, so we got along fine.
BILL: Let's talk about some of the hits. We've touched upon "Music! Music! Music!" briefly already. Do you remember your reaction when you first heard that song?
TERESA: You know, it's funny, but all of those big, big hits that I had, I really didn't care for them. "Music! Music! Music!" was already out by Eddie 'Gin' Miller, I believe, and he did it with sort of a German accent. I heard the record and thought, "I can't do that song. There's nothing to it." They said, "Oh, do it." When I listen - then and now - to my original version of the song, I think that it was done too slowly. The tempo is just too slow. But I'm glad I did it! An interesting aside: I recorded "Music!" for London Records, a British company that was then just starting to sign American artists. The records were still being pressed in England, however. There was a big strike over there at the time and there were problems getting all the records pressed. As it was, the record sold well over a million copies, but it would have sold much, much more if there hadn't been the strike.
BILL: The next really big hit - also a million-seller - was "Till I Waltz Again with You" in 1953.
TERESA: That song was pretty. The writer of it sang the song to me while we were riding up in an elevator. It sounds crazy, doesn't it, that this is the way you hear songs. He sang it and it was done in a country tempo, with a fifth bar, and I said it just doesn't work. The title is "Till I Waltz Again with You" and it isn't even a waltz. I thought the song was beautiful so we just put it in a pop tempo, recorded it, and it was a big hit. I think it sold the most copies of all the hits I had, and it's my favorite of all of them.
MARIANNE: Almost throughout your recording career, you've had the expert guidance of record producer Bob Thiele, whom you married in 1972. He picked the song "Ricochet," which was a smash hit in early 1954.
TERESA: "Ricochet" was not supposed to be released, at least not the version we first recorded. I had a cold that day and I didn't particularly care for that take and I said "Don't release it." So we rerecorded it at a later date. But Bob released the first one, the one done when I had a cold, and it sold a million copies! (Laughs) It goes to show what I know!
MARIANNE: A lot of your hits in the '50s were covers of rhythm and blues songs. Tell us about "A Tear Fell."
TERESA: That was a beautiful song. I love that song. "A Tear Fell" was taken from the R&B hit for Ivory Joe Hunter. At that time, rhythm and blues artists couldn't break through in the pop field. Every pop artist was covering the R&B record. In retrospect, I feel that it was unfair, especially since they usually had better versions of the songs than we did. But the songs were so great that the pop artists did them.
BILL: What was the general feeling at the time of a pop artist covering the R&B song and then selling substantially more records?
TERESA: I don't think the white artists, the pop singers, even realized that such things were going on. I know I didn't. I wasn't aware that I was covering a black record. I thought I was just covering a song that was out. I also covered country songs and other pop songs.
BILL: Some of your biggest hits were originally country songs; "Ricochet," "Jilted" and "Let Me Go, Lover!" are examples. In fact, many pop artists such as Patti Page, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Jo Stafford and Eddie Fisher, to name a handful, had big, big hits of country songs, outselling the originals by far. Yet there never was - and never has been - any backlash the way there has been with R&B songs. Why do you think this is?
TERESA: Perhaps it was a racial issue. There was no backlash at the time, as far as I know. It started probably in the late '60s or early '70s. Civil rights activists complained that the white artists were taking away the potential sales of the black artists. But the white people probably wouldn't have bought the black record - at that time, anyway. The R&B records were really made for the black consumer at the time and were played on the black stations. The black record wasn't, for the most part, played on white stations. If it had been, then of course it had the potential for being a national hit. As for country songs, most of the artists singing them were white. They were insular and proud of the fact that they were country. Those are important factors.
MARIANNE: During the '50s, it was not unusual when a particularly marketable song - pop, country, R&B - became available to have the recording released by a number of different artists simultaneously. What was that like?
TERESA: The competition was between the record companies themselves, not the artists who recorded the song. The only difference was who knew Ed Sullivan the best so he or she could get an appearance on his show and sing the song. That's where the competition came in, getting television appearances to do the hit songs. That said, if one artist had a good enough jump on a particular song, no one else would cover it.
BILL: "Let Me Go, Lover!" is one example of a song that was recorded by many artists.
TERESA: Yes. "Let Me Go, Lover!" was one that I heard on a TV show. Studio One. It was Joan Weber singing on this dramatic show. I flipped over the song, just watching the show. And all of a sudden the phone rings and the record company says, "You've got to come in and do that song." I think we went to the studio either the same night or the next day, with the arrangement being written right there at the recording session. It sold a million copies for me, for Joan Weber, and probably for Patti Page, who also had a record of it. If only one girl had recorded that song, she would have sold three or four million!
BILL: "I Love Mickey," which you co-wrote with Ruth Roberts and Bill Katz in 1956 and then recorded with Mickey Mantle, was a hit but was not among your biggest sellers. Still, it's one of your most collectible. Can you tell us about that song?
TERESA: Oh, we thought it would be a cute idea. It was Mickey's big year, a young kid coming up. He was such a hot baseball player at the time that we thought it might be fun to do a record with him. We made a deal with Mickey Mantle. He was earning something like $50,000 a year then and he made the record for $2,500. Now, if it were today, a comparable player would probably want $100,000 just to walk down the street and make a record. And that basically was it.
MARIANNE: One last song: "A Sweet Old Fashioned Girl."
TERESA: Really, at that time, I got a lot of songs with silly little lyrics. "Music!" had "dum-dee-dum-dee-dah-dee-dum"; "A Sweet Old Fashioned Girl" had "scoob-el-ee-doo-bee-dum." And "Pickle Up a Doodle" has a nonsensical chorus that goes on forever. Not the most intelligent lyrics! I was stuck with that type of song for many, many years. I did "Choo'n Gum," "Molasses, Molasses," and all those icky, sticky, ootsy-poo songs. They sold well but they were children's songs, really. Nowadays, people are more in tune with music and they expect more from the songs they listen to. And that's why I think that today we have better music than ever. "A Sweet Old Fashioned Girl," I must say, had a cute gimmick, with the transitions throughout it, back and forth from a sweet pop tune to an attempt at rock 'n' roll. It's a song that I always get a lot of requests for.
MARIANNE: Linda Ronstadt, Harry Connick, Jr., Carly Simon and others have been extremely successful with albums of pop standards with large orchestral backup. Have you considered doing a straight pop album of standards?
TERESA: I've done the standards on albums but not with a big, big orchestra. We used small jazz bands. If you listen to the renditions, sometimes it's better to do them with a small band rather than a large one. It's lovely to have a big orchestra but I think when you're listening to a song that you love, the size of the musical accompaniment isn't important; it's the way the song is interpreted. I really enjoyed doing the albums with a small group. It was a lot more fun than doing the recordings with the big orchestras. You know, when you have a lot of people involved, everything is so timed; you have to keep an eye on the clock. With small groups, such things aren't necessary.
BILL: You've recorded with Duke Ellington, Count Basic, Earl Fatha Hines and other jazz legends. How did you get into singing jazz?
TERESA: With the releases of those albums, people have asked me why I turned to singing jazz. I've been singing the same way all my life. In the past few years I've been surrounded by great jazz musicians and that's the key to everything. But I'm singing the same as I did years ago, the way I did when I was a child. I just didn't have those wonderful guys backing me then. People think that when you sing jazz, you have to put in a lot of words, a lot of little slurs, a lot of this and that, but the simplicity of it is its charm. Simplicity is the real key to the singing of jazz
MARIANNE: How did the recording with Count Basie come about?
TERESA: That was the very first time I ever worked with a big jazz band, 1973. Bob (Thiele), who produced every jazz artist there was, asked if I'd like to do an album with Count Basie and I thought, "Oh, my goodness, would he do one with me?" Basie said "Sure!" so we decided on doing the Bessie Smith songs, starting out in Florida and finishing the set in New York. I was scared stiff, but he was so professional and so nice. He was helpful, didn't rush, and we'd get the songs in one or two takes. You know, we didn't do all the songs associated with Bessie Smith. We couldn’t do some of them! They'd be censored even today. That turned out to be one of my favorite albums.
BILL: You also did an album with Duke Ellington and, if I am correct, it was the last recording he made.
TERESA: Yes, I think it was. It was around 1973, too. Duke Ellington had heard the Bessie Smith album and he asked when was he going to do an album with me. It's as simple as that. My very favorite song on the album is "Mood Indigo." In this particular song, there is a beautiful trio part, and I kept saying "What should I do while the trio is playing behind me?" I'm singing lyrics, of course, but it sounded as if everyone was covering everything at the same time. Bob told me to lay out a little bit; just answer them. In the end, I laid out during practically that whole portion of the song. I'd just stick in a few words here and there. Bob said, "That was perfect!' I said that I hardly had sung anything, (laughing) Bob said that by my not singing, it was perfect. Bob was right, though, because the song came out beautifully. After the first take of every song we did, Ellington would always say, "That's it!" At times, Bob or I thought a song could be better so we'd redo it, but we'd always end up releasing the first take. Every time. Ellington was right! It was such a thrill recording with him and Basie, and it was so easy. They'd tell me to relax, take it easy. They were so talented, so down to earth, weren't playing stars or anything like that.
BILL: Later on, you released another album of Ellington songs called A Sophisticated Lady, a tribute to the composer.
TERESA: When the Broadway musical, Sophisticated Ladies, opened in 1978, we went out to the coast to cut another album, this time with the great Shelly Manne, and his men. For many, many years my husband was a great friend of Shelly's. I think they were in the Coast Guard together. He was a wild man. He had me laughing all the time, just a funny, funny man. He was also a wonderful drummer, but a different kind of a drummer. A real jazz drummer, a driver, and that sometimes throws a singer. He's one of those. You think that you're hearing the tempo and then all of a sudden he's gone off on his own and then he returns. He's a crazy man to work with, but a genius. One of my favorites on the album is "Duke's Place," a song whose lyrics were written by my husband.
BILL: When Ain't Misbehavin' was the rage of Broadway in the late 1970s, you jumped on that bandwagon as well and did a record with Earl Fatha Hines that included all the hits from that show. What was it like working with him?
TERESA: I was a little nervous before we started. I usually am when it's someone with that stature, people like Basie or Ellington or Earl Fatha Hines. As soon as we get into the first tune, though, it's fine. They are all such professionals. There's something about those people that just relaxes you and you just zip right through those albums. It takes something like two days to do a whole album. That's all it took for us to do any of those albums.
MARIANNE: One of my favorite albums of yours is the two-pocket set, Teresa Brewer/ Live at Carnegie Hall and Montreux, Switzerland. For the latter concert, you had Woody Herman and his Young Thundering Herd backing you.
TERESA: Yes. That live album was done in Montreux in the summer of 1983, at the jazz festival there. Woody's band was appearing there and so was I. As soon as Bob heard that we were going to be on the same bill, he approached Woody and that was that. It was wonderful singing with all those young musicians in his orchestra. They were great! In Montreux, I also got the chance to work with Clark Terry, a gentle, gentle man. He was part of the brass section of the Ellington band, the great Ellington band. Clark happened to be in Switzerland at the time, too, so he came and performed in my show. He was my guest at the concert and is also on the live album. He's an improvisational master, I would say.
MARIANNE: Stephane Grappelli, now that was an unusual musical affiliation. How did you happen to hook up with the jazz violinist?
TERESA: He was a good friend, and one of the best jazz fiddle players in the business. Simply the best. And so sweet. Bob and I were traveling in the south of France and we were staying at this lovely hotel. The lady who worked in the boutique there was Queenie, who was a dear friend of ours. A little, bitty beautiful blond lady. My husband had always been such a fan of Stephane Grappelli's and he approached Queenie and asked her if she possibly knew how he could get in touch with Stephane Grappelli. She said, "Well, I don't know how this happened but I'm having lunch with him this afternoon. Would you like to join us?" It was as bizarre as that! So we met him and Bob asked him if he'd like to do an album and, sure enough, we ended up doing an album. Stephane would try anything, including country. One of the songs we did on the album was the Willie Nelson hit, "On the Road Again." Stephane didn't know the song so I sang it a few times for him and then we went to it. He got it. He said that he liked it; that it was a very nice song. He brings in young musicians with him, just like Woody Herman. He finds all these very, very talented young kids, works with them, gives them the spotlight. He then just stands back and lets them go. He was quite elderly at the time but had the energy of a 40-year-old man.
BILL: You've recorded with Dizzy Gillespie; at least, he is featured on the live album from Carnegie Hall.
TERESA: Yes, I did. Dizzy surprised me. We were going over the songs and he pulled a good one on me. We started singing "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" and he pulled out a jew's harp. Fantastic, a great sound. And he had so much fun with the darn thing that I said that we should put it in the act. You can hear it on the Carnegie Hall album. He's amazing, another nice man! Bob and I went out to his home in New Jersey. We went down to his music room and he started to teach me the different tempos. I'm a tap-dancer so I could keep up with him; I would count and I usually had the tempo right by figuring out a little dance step. He'd say, "Hey, you got it" and I'd say only when my feet are moving! (laughs) He's a terrific gentleman. What else can you say about Dizzy - he's so fantastic.
MARIANNE: In 1982, you recorded Come Follow the Band, an album of Broadway songs. Are you a big fan of the Great White Way?
TERESA: I have to confess something. I had never seen a Broadway show until Sugar Babies. I've seen only four Broadway shows; that's all the Broadway I've ever seen in my life. Over the years, though, I've recorded a lot of the big hits from the shows, but I never got to see a Broadway show until a few years back.
MARIANNE: You sing all types of songs - pop, jazz, country, rock - and sing them well. If someone were to put a gun to your head and say that you could sing only one type of song for the rest of your life, what would you say?
TERESA: (laughs) I'd say "shoot!" I love singing them all. My very, very favorite is country, though. I love singing country and yodeling. I've written a lot of country songs that could be big hits.
BILL: "No Way, Conway (I ain't gonna twitty tonight)", which you in fact did write and record around 1983, enjoyed a degree of popularity. It made the Cashbox - and possibly the Billboard - charts at the time.
TERESA: It was a cute song. When Conway Twitty heard it, he flipped!
BILL: That same gun is at your head and you're now allowed to take only one album by a male vocalist and one by a female vocalist to that proverbial deserted isle.
TERESA: I know the female one. It would be Ella Fitzgerald. I love her. Of the men, I don't know. I like so many of them, but... (laughs) I'll take two of Ella's!
BILL: A lot of female vocalists have cited you as being a major influence on their style, and a lot of critics have stated that they are reminded of you when they hear certain singers. We're talking about performers as diverse as Connie Francis, Brenda Lee, Emmylou Harris and Bette Midler. Even the Scottish singer Lulu who sang "To Sir with Love" said that your singing style greatly influenced her. She used to listen to Teresa Brewer records on her "gramophone" growing up in Glasgow and wrote in her autobiography that the first song she sang professionally was "A Tear Fell."
TERESA: That's very cute. I've never heard that. And Bette Midler. I've never met her but I think she is so funny. Her humor at times is raunchy but she's honest.
MARIANNE: So many performers - singers, actors, et cetera - have offspring who have pursued a show business career as well. Did any of your children show an interest?
TERESA: No, not at all. They all have good voices and sit around the kitchen and sing harmony. Great harmony. They were very good and could have done something with their singing, but the only time they express it now is when they say, "Boy, could we have made money!" (laughs)
BILL: Do you play your own records at home?
TERESA: No. Only when I rehearse; then I'll play them and sing along. Otherwise, no, never.
BILL: Do you have a complete collection of your recordings?
TERESA: No, nothing close to it. We don't have anything, really. What we have could fit in a little hatbox.
MARIANNE: You read autobiographies written by celebrities that you think are so stable and so together, and yet they tell about all the terrible things they've gone through, and the adverse effects that events have had on them. Do you think you were just lucky?
TERESA: I think it comes with luck, yes, and maybe not wanting everything at once. You know, I think sometimes the little problems that some people have are blown up into something outrageous, just to make their books sensational and big sellers. Everybody has hard times, and we're not always on a high, not always happy. I mean, I've never been one hundred percent happy all my life. I think it's blown out of proportion, these little ups and downs in life.
BILL: Fame tends to make some people self-centered. You were never obsessed with your career, all of your success. Maybe you just didn't take your fame or yourself seriously.
TERESA: Never did. I think it's a mistake when people do. Not just in show business; in any business. I feel very strongly about this.
MARIANNE: Before you were out of your teens, you had hit records, international recognition; you were married and had a couple of children. Your family grew, as did your fame, and somehow you stayed normal. You remain extremely close to all four of your daughters who grew into lovely adults. Many times values are distorted by good fortune and success. How did you avoid this?
TERESA: Maybe it's because I never thought of myself as a star, and was never treated like one at home. My life didn't depend on performing. I'd get as much enjoyment out of cooking or gardening. Everything I did, singing included, was equal in importance to me. This whole music career of mine has been like a hobby, really - a wonderful hobby.