The time: 1936-1938. The mood: Hopeful. It wasn't wartime, not yet. The music: The incomparable Count Basie and Benny Goodman, among others. The setting: Living rooms across America and, most of all, New York City.
Dream Lucky covers politics, race, religion, arts, and sports, but the central focus is the period's soundtrack—specifically big band jazz—and the big-hearted piano player William "Count" Basie. His ascent is the narrative thread of the book—how he made it and what made his music different from the rest. But many other stories weave in and out: Amelia Earhart pursues her dream of flying "around the world at its waistline." Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., stages a boycott on 125th Street. And Mae West shocks radio listeners as a naked Eve tempting the snake.
Critic Nat Hentoff praises the "precise originality" with which Roxane Orgill writes about music. In Dream Lucky, she magically lets readers hear the past.
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About the Author
Roxane Orgill is the author of a number of notable books for children and young adults, including the recent Footwork: The Story of Fred and Adele Astaire. She has also been an award-winning music critic whose reviews and articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Billboard. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Read an Excerpt
Joe: Round One
June 19, 1936
Start with 39,878 paying customers in Yankee Stadium. Add the papered seats, including those for Joe Louis's mother, Lillie Barrow Brooks; his stunning wife, Marva, in a fiery red suede chapeau and gloves and shoes to match; seven hundred newspapermen; and the nonpaying hundreds who peered down from the upper stories and roofs and fire escapes of the surrounding Bronx apartment houses. Add the riders of Interboro Rapid Transit who caught a glimpse of the stadium from their train near the 161st Street stop.
Add the German movie star Anny Ondra, who never attended her husband's fights but listened via shortwave radio in a country house near Potsdam, Germany.
Back in New York, add the people listening to the radios in the Harlem gin mills with signs posted "Joe Louis Headquarters," and the people downtown listening via loudspeakers set up on the corner of Eighty-sixth and Lexington and outside Rockefeller Center. Heading west, north, and south, add all the radios in taverns, lunchrooms, general stores, railroad stations, pool halls, automobiles, and living rooms across the country—one in two Americans owned a radio.
In sum, probably sixty million people experienced the tilt between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling on a cloudy, damp evening in June 1936.
On the radio Clem McCarthy, who always sounded like he had rocks in his cheeks, ground out the words faster than a telegraph operator. The only way to hear was to shush everybody in the room and lean in close to the Silvertone. "A right hand high on Louis's jaw that made Louis rock his head. . .."
It was a strange beginning, considering that the odds were in Joe's favor eight to one.
In the most general way, whites favored thorough, methodical Schmeling simply because he was white. They were willing to overlook the offense of his being so buddy-buddy with Hitler and his associates. He was white—that's what counted when you were going against a black man in the boxing ring. A Negro had no place in the ring.
Remember Jack Johnson? Who could forget the first black man to hold the heavyweight boxing title? Cocky, spoke whatever was on his mind, had no respect for white authority. Johnson had lost his title back in 1915, but memories were long when it came to rich niggers running with white women. Johnson not only ran with them; he married three of them. His biggest mistake, though, was a seemingly small thing: He paid a white lady's bus fare across state lines. That was against the Mann Act, passed to halt transport of females for "immoral purposes." Johnson fled the country rather than face the charges.
Louis was a different kind of man, but white folks didn't pay any mind. A Negro had no place in the ring.
Naturally, Negroes backed Louis, but not just because his skin was brown—"coffee with double cream" in the eyes of one female admirer. And not just because he was quick and had a murderous right cross. Negroes stopped him on the corner, at the gas station, in a restaurant to tell him, "Way to go, Brown Bomber. Show the white man who we are!" Joe was serious and sober, respectful. Unlike Johnson, he had taken a woman from his race for a wife. He fought fair, and he gave a ton of money away. Goodness and ability madeJoe the Last Great Hope, the one who was going to deliver Negroes from slavery once and forever. He was the New Day.
The Bomber had won twenty-seven fights in a row, all but four of them knockouts. He was twenty-two to Schmeling's thirty, and six pounds heavier than Schmeling's one hundred and ninety-two. No way could Joe lose. He himself was so casual about the match that he brought his new wife and his golf clubs to training camp in Lakewood, New Jersey. More than once he sneaked off to play eighteen holes. Meanwhile, Schmeling, at camp in the Catskills, ran uphill and down for hundreds of miles to build endurance, and drank exclusively German mineral water.
On the train ride up to New York, Joe played "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" on his harmonica for fifteen minutes and then slept soundly in his gray pinstripe suit for the rest of the two-hour trip. Max had a long, harrowing drive downstate in the pouring rain.
On the radio, McCarthy was spitting words like watermelon seeds. "A right hand high on Louis's jaw that made Louis rock his head. Schmeling has sent Louis down. Joe Louis is down!" It was the fourth round, and the Bomber was on the canvas for the first time in his professional career. He was so unaccustomed to working the count to his advantage that he quickly stood up again. "He did not wait for the count! He got up on the count of two! Schmeling came back at him and gave him another right! Schmeling is pouring in now . . ." It wasn't possible; Joe was taking a beating. The crowd was screaming so loud the fighters didn't hear the bell to end round four, and they went on hammering.
Lillie, seated ringside, screamed, "Don't kill myboy, dear Lord!" A family friend carted her out of the stadium before she got too hysterical. Marva, in the fifth row, would have left, too, but some magazine woman was peppering her with questions, pinning Marva in her seat. "Joe, honey, get up! Get up!" she shouted.
In general stores, mothers perched on upturned wooden boxes let squirmy children slip from their laps. In taverns, nearly full beer bottles stood still as soldiers along the bar. At intersections, automobiles idled, their drivers unseeing as stoplights shone green, red, and green again.
In Kansas City, in the stuffy parlor at Aunt Lucy's boardinghouse, where everybody was glued to the radio turned up all the way, Bill Basie couldn't take it anymore. He was thirty-two, a short, stocky man, very dark, with surprisingly long fingers: a piano player. He had a small, neat mustache and a full lower lip that was often turned up in a sunny smile. But not right now. Basie went outside and lay in the floppy hammock strung between two trees, to wait.Dream Lucky. Copyright ? by Roxane Orgill. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.