Gospel in his soul.
6:30 p.m. Oct. 31—
Studs Terkel died the same week of Mahalia Jackson’s birth.
A spiritual connection.
In 1945 Studs introduced the African-American gospel legend to a white audience. He was host of “The Wax Museum,” a Sunday night ABC network radio show that originated from the 19th floor of the Merchandise Mart.
“I’d do all kinds of crazy things,” Studs told me during a 2000 conversation in his home where a black and white photo of Jackson was taped to a wall in his kitchen. “I’d play an operatic aria. I’d follow that with Louis Armstrong and then Woody Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Ballads.” I’d pick out records at George Hoefer’s Concorde record shop on Randolph Street (Hoefer was a critic for Down Beat magazine). And I found this Apollo 78!”
Studs’ 88-year-old eyes lit up.
He loved to be on the pulpit in front of a fellow story catcher………
The fine record featured Jackson singing the Rev. W. Herbert Brewster’s “Move on Up A Little Higher,” which became her signature tune. Terkel smiled and said, “I heard this voice. Oh no, it wasn’t (opera contralto) Marian Anderson. It wasn’t Bessie Smith. It’s all of them!
“So I started to play all her records, ‘In the Upper Room,’ ‘Joshua FIt the Battle of Jericho.’ Bit by bit, she’s known. And she’d give me credit for white America knowing her. That’s how we got to be friends.”
Jackson’s gospel found its way onto mob-controlled South Side and West Side jukeboxes, thanks in part to gangster Al Capone. In 1954 one of Jackson’s jukebox hits was Bob Merrill’s “A Rusty Old Halo,” which sounds like a bouncy Broadway show tune. Jackson and Studs frequently kidded each other; he teased her that “A Rusty Old Halo” was a “Sweetin’ Water Song.”
Studs flashed a devilish smile. “Of coure, I’m agnostic.”
During the early 1950s it was difficult to find a place downtown where Studs could have lunch with Jackson. “There was one restaurant,” he said. “Riccardo’s! (Riccardo’s Restaurant and Galley, now Phil Stefani’s, 437 N. Rush). They had a little sign that said, ‘All men of good will welcome.’ At the time Ric’s owner (Riccardo) landlord was P.K. Wrigley. Riccardo got a memo from Wrigley where he said he heard a ‘certain element’ was coming in and he didn’t like it. Riccardo wrote him back that whatever element it was would still be coming in. That’s why he put up that sign. That’s why I went there with Mahalia.”
Jackson had a rare power. “Mahalia would do something she called demonstrating,” Studs said. “She’d sing and move the whole body. She’d walk into the congregation and she would be shaking hands. She was claimed by Greater Salem Baptist Church, but she belonged to many churches (The Staple Singers once opened for Jackson at the Tabernacle Baptist Church, 4130 S. Indiana). Her friends were not high society blacks. She was a working woman. Her hands were callused.”
Over my 24 years at the Sun-Times I had several encounters with Studs.
Who didn’t drink from this golden well of knowledge?
Studs worked on the American Guide Series, hailed as the nation’s first “self-portrait,” including the legendary WPA Guide to Illinois in 1939. He was kind enough to write the foreword for my 2000 collection of Sun-Times travel columns “Ticket To Everywhere.”
He said, “These are endearing rememberances of a personal odyssey, a journalist growing up. In 1938 and 1939 I joined the WPA writer’s project . I wrote radio scripts, state travel guides and histories. Although I didn’t get into writing until the 1950′s, this is what I call GUERRILLA journalism. That’s what this is. GUERILLA journalism. Enjoy!”
Studs was already down with the blogging.
In 1987 I was with Studs on the set of “Eight Men Out,” which John Sayles filmed at Bush Stadium (built in 1931) on the bad side of Indianapolis, Ind. The film depicted the story of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal.
Studs had the bit role of heartfelt Hugh Fullerton of the Chicago Herald and Examiner. Studs called Sayles and said, “We’re going to get that bastard Comiskey!” Of course, it was the Nelson Algren 1942 prose-poem “Ballad for Opening Day” that introduced Sayles to the scandal.
In 1997 the Tribute to Steve Goodman was dragging along at the Medinah Temple. Studs gave an inspiring half-time talk recognizing Goodman’s compatriots Bonnie Koloc, Mike Smith and Ed Holstein, who were not invited to perform. Studs then referenced Frank Sinatra’s “My Kind of Town.”
“What the hell does he know about Chicago?,” Studs gnarled before naming Goodman as the city’s true musical laureate.
Studs tore the roof off the place. The second half of the show kicked in.
In not so recent times Studs like to have a drink with the late Hank Oettinger, a lefty at the Old Town Ale House who always sat at the right end of the bar. Hank and Studs were of the same age and spirit. They read newspapers, books and people. “Studs is the essence of Chicago,” Oettinger once told me. “To think what he went through for his political beliefs, with the so-called intelligence agencies of the government. Evan Naval intelligence had him on a list and Studs can’t even swim!”
In 2000 I took Studs to my friend Tim Tuten’s (of the Hideout music club) class at Jones Academic Magnet High School in the South Loop. The students were prepping for a musical adaptation of Studs’ “Working.” It was the school’s first ever full-length theatrical production.
One 16-year-old was portraying a cleaning woman. She asked Studs, “I want to know more about her. I know she doesn’t want her daughter to become a cleaning woman. But what was she like?”
Studs nodded his head. He couldn’t hear well, but he heard her eyes.
He then answered, “I was visiting the Jane Addams project for an earlier book (1967′s “Division Street: America”). The oldest public housing project in the country. So here’s this woman, Lucy Jefferson, who works as a hospital aide. An aide! But she’s always reading paperback books. She’s got Langston Hughes. Faulkner. Hemingway.
“She’s pointing to her daughter, whose husband had left her. And the daughter now is with child. She goes, ‘I want that child in the belly of my daughter to read, to see paintings, to hear good music, I want his or her little soul to fly.”
The students all wore red socks, the Studs trademark. He was in a good mood as Studs always was when he was hanging around the future.
He continued, “Now today, you run into Dr. Marvin Jackson, neurosurgeon at one of the most prestigious hospitals in the country. He’ll say, ‘I met Studs Terkel once before I was born. I was in the belly of my mother.”
As Studs was in the heart of Chicago.