WITH BILLY FELLOWS
At age 19, after leaving Berklee School of Music in 1962, I got a call from pianist friend, Lou Forestieri to join him in the Billy Fellows Quartet (BFQ) playing alto sax. Billy was a very talented impressionist and singer. He and the band (drums, organ/piano, and sax) performed shows consisting of him miming the vocal and the band playing along with a tape he prepared of famous singers’ recordings - like Sammy Davis’ "That Old Black Magic" and Bobby Darin’s "Mack the Knife". He also did impressions of other top singers and celebrities like Elvis and Johnny Mathis, using his own voice. Billy had a very warm singing voice of his own, especially on ballads. The BFQ was mainly a lounge act, performing shows and dance music throughout the USA, the Bahamas, and Puerto Rico. We dressed very ‘show-biz’ - suits and ties, or tuxedos with ruffled shirts (sometimes, pink-colored) and cuff links. For a while, we had a steady gig at Grossinger’s, one of the top hotels in the Catskill Mountains (in upstate New York). One weekend, I was playing some piano fills with the band backing up Billy as he sang a ballad. A man came over, gave me his card and invited me to join him at his table after the set. I went over to meet him and his friends. He asked me, with a real New York City attitude, “What are you doing with this group?” Meaning that, according to him, I should be doing better things with my life, musically! He was very impressed with my jazz alto playing on an up-tempo Cannonball Adderley tune that Billy featured me on in the show. This man happened to be the Vice President of United Artists Records. He told me to call him during the week so we could talk about recording my own album, using any of the top jazz players on his label. But I never called him! At the time, I was pretty shy and couldn’t imagine myself fronting a group - speaking to audiences. Although I knew I was a good player for my age, I didn’t feel I was very innovative compared with saxophone greats Bird, Coltrane, Rollins, etc. So that was that!
Demo Recordings (1964) - Billy Fellows (vocal), Joe Zappala (drums), Phil Porter (organ), Fred (alto)
Mo Joe's Blues
2) European Tour
I was about twenty. Billy called me to play with him in Europe doing a string of shows on American army bases mainly in England and Germany. I got my drummer friend, Alan Schwartzberg on the gig. Billy rented a van, and between gigs, we did some sightseeing in Naples (visiting the Isle of Capri), Rome, Lusanne, and the French Riviera (where I gave myself my first haircut). Switzerland was my favorite place, especially the spectacular mountain views that you could see off in the distance on both sides of the highway. It was real Heidi country! One warm day, en route to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, we got off the very fast moving highway that ran along the ocean, to sit on beach chairs, go swimming and eat bread and cheese. In France, a man who was connected with our tour, told me that Eric Dolphy often sat in at the local jazz club, and if I came by, I could probably jam with him. I went to the club but he never showed up that night. This was a little before Eric died. Weisendorf, Germany was such a clean city! It’s located near the Black Forest. There were lots of shops filled with cuckoo clocks for sale. I was eating breakfast outside my hotel and noticed a man and his little boy, maybe three years old, drinking beer from mugs. I guess they start 'em young over there! One drizzly afternoon in Frankfurt, we drove about an hour to an army base to play for the troops. We seemed to be following this huge rainbow for most of the ride. When we arrived at the base, the rainbow was right over the building we were going to perform at! At another base, the three of us arrived early with plenty of time to kill. Near the PX, we walked into this building that had a gym floor with a basketball court. Nobody was around, just us. I told Billy and Alan that I used to be a good basketball as a young kid. Even though I was fairly short, I could jump high. They probably didn’t believe me. But, for a moment, I tried reliving the past... I backed up some distance on the gym floor and ran full force towards the basket in my shoes, jumping up to try to reach the net. I had forgotten that I had ‘grown’ since my youth. My hand got up there and actually brought the rim down with me! Then it fell on the floor. It must have been loose. None of us could believe what I did. We made a quick exit before they banned us from the base!
Directly following the European tour, I had a summer gig with the Billy Fellows Quartet at Grossinger's. The band had its own bungalow and I had my own room. After a short time there, I began feeling strange for a few days - getting weaker and sicker. On this particular day, the band was off. I was throwing up a lot. I hadn’t slept for a day or two, and craved sleep. When I closed my eyes, I would hear the 'corny' hit single version of "Tea for Two" with pizzicato strings playing the melody over a cha-cha beat. This melody kept repeating over and over in my head, almost driving my crazy. The only way to stop the music was to open my eyes. But I was so, so tired, I had to close them again. This horrible pattern continued on and on ... I was becoming delirious, if I hadn’t already! I had to tell myself to stay calm. It had been 'pouring' outside throughout the day into the night. Someone called a doctor to come and examine me. When he looked at me, he told me that my eyes were yellow and that I should go to the hospital in the morning. Very late that night, when everybody was asleep, the phone by our front door rang. No one got up to answer it, so guess who did? The guy who could barely walk! It was Elaine Grossinger calling to let Billy know that her father (the owner of this very famous hotel) had just died. This was some unbelievable night! In the morning, Billy drove me to the hospital, a few minutes away. I was almost hoping that we’d get into an accident so I would be knocked unconscious and finally get some rest! The nurse in the admitting room started asking me a whole bunch of questions, that I couldn’t handle in my condition. I started to cry... Billy got angry with the lady and told her to get some help for me. The hospital was totally filled with patients, so they set up a bed for me in the hallway. I didn’t care, I just wanted to sleep. They must have given me some medication, because I did sleep. In the morning, Dr. Reisenberg, the doctor handling my case, (who I knew from Grossinger's) told me that I had acute infectious hepatitis. Soon after, I was put into a room with two other patients. One of them, an old man who just had his leg amputated, claimed to be over one hundred years old. The sad thing was, none of his relatives (if he had any) visited him. One of my first visitors was my saxophonist friend from the Bronx, Donny Miller. We had been hanging out at Grossingers just before I started feeling ‘funny’. I had let him briefly play my sax, using my mouthpiece. Because of that, he had to get a gamma globin shot, which, I was told, is painful! He didn’t look too happy! Since I barely had any energy, I decided to let my beard grow, for the first time. Looking at myself in the mirror after a few days - unshaven with yellow eyes - I thought I resembled the Werewolf. I basically had to rest in bed my whole stay at the hospital. I had no choice. To pass the time, I wrote down a lot of jazz licks on music paper, sitting up in bed. Some of the older nurses that came into my room and saw me lost in the music, humming and scatting away, probably thought I was a bit weird. A number of these jazz licks I used in my improvisation books that were published many years later. Something very positive that I got from my hospital ordeal was learning “patience”. The lights went out at 9 PM. I wasn’t used to having to sleep that early, being a musician that worked into the night. Often, I didn’t feel like sleeping yet, or just couldn’t. So it was a bit scary, at first, just laying there in the dark. I had to control my mind - talk myself into relaxing and going with the flow of the situation, so I wouldn’t panic. My parents drove up about 3 hours from the Bronx to visit me every weekend of my six-week stay there. Often, my dad, after seeing me for a short time, would leave my room to draw pictures (a hobby of his) for the other patients or talk with them. Then came the time when I finally got strong enough to leave the hospital. I remember looking out of my window, possibly for the first time since I had been there. This was only a few days before leaving! Until then, I really had little desire to leave or to know what was going on in the outside world! You just get used to being there, with people taking care of you all the time. You expect and enjoy that attention. It’s a strange thing - it becomes a habit - your way of life, your new home. But then, you get better, and have to take responsibility for yourself once more. It’s a relearning process regarding a lot of things that were second-nature to you before! Being sick for a long time, such as what I went through, tends to make a person depressed, on some level. It took me a good six months to get close to feeling 'normal' again without feeling nauseous all the time. The other thing about this disease, is that you can’t ever give blood. Just writing about all of this, reminds me of how sick I actually was, but also of how 'fortunate' I am now to be healthy and have the freedom to do some many, many things in my life!