More Boles, Please!

Talking with Detroit’s jazz piano icon Charles Boles is like having an intimate chat with entertainment history
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Photograph by Roy Ritchie

EDITOR’S NOTE: Frequent contributor Jim McFarlin complained that he wasn’t given enough space to tell all of jazz piano icon Charles Boles’ stories. And we had to agree. So here’s an expanded interview with Boles.

Anybody who’s been a professional musician since 1947 and toured the world over undoubtedly has a story or thousand to share. And talking with Detroit’s jazz piano icon Charles Boles — particularly in the relaxing coziness of the backstage lounge at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe Farms, where he performs every Tuesday night with his quartet — is like having an intimate chat with entertainment history.

This 81-year-old, still young enough to have recently released his first CD (Blue Continuum, on the Detroit Music Factory label), even sounds like jazz: vibrant, smoky, peppered with spicy riffs and, when he leans over and lowers his voice to a raspy growl, downright conspiratorial. And so it should be for a man who personified music in some of the most legendary locations in the golden age of Detroit’s café society, spots like the Elmwood Casino and the Playboy Club on East Jefferson.

As musical director of the Playboy Club, Boles enjoyed a cat’s-eye view of all the shenanigans at the ’60s jazz-and-celebrity hot spot. “There was some funny s— happened in there,” he winked, suggesting that on some slow weeknights, there was more action on the club’s second floor than around the stage. Among the times he remembers laughing hardest, however, was the night a Detroit Lions star and a Detroit Tigers ace of the era (their names withheld to protect the guilty) conspired to pry a beautiful, young diner from her sugar-daddy escort.

“They used to run together,” Boles says of the athletes, “and they would come into the club all the time. “[One of them] put a napkin over his arm and walked up to the table, pretending to be a waiter. He was all over this girl. Then [the other one] did the same thing, came up and said, ‘They need you in the kitchen.’ They kept going back and forth like that, trying to pick up this girl. The real [servers] couldn’t get through! That old man had no clue what was happening.”

Boles was a trailblazer at the club, albeit a reluctant one. “When I started at Playboy, they wanted to call Ebony magazine, Jet magazine,” he recalls. “They never had no black conductor before — they called them musical directors then — in the whole country. I said, ‘I don’t want that.’ I didn’t want to be the n—– in the window. I said, ‘What I want to know is, am I competent enough to have the job? If I am, give me the damn gig.’ I stayed there a year and a half, then they finally just went out of business.”

He has performed alongside stars great and small in a near seven-decade career, including the Queen of Soul when she was still a princess. “I was with Aretha when she didn’t have no money,” Boles remembers. “I played for her, and she paid me, but she was borrowing back 20 bucks from me here and there every week because she was short of money. I’m telling you, we were riding around in cars with Canned Heat on the floor, trying to stay warm! Seems like I always got with the stars at the wrong time, when they were either on their way up or on their way down.”

Such was not the case with blues titan B.B. King, for whom the pianist recorded and toured nationally and across Europe in 1969 for King’s “Live and Well” tour — his least comfortable musical genre, and on the wrong instrument.

“Well, I’m more of a jazz and a bebopper,” Boles acknowledges, “but there was this old hotel in Vegas called the Carver House, and I used to play there. Everybody came into the Carver House, people like Pearl Bailey, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Daniels, Buddy Rich, everybody. B.B. was playing next door, doing cabaret, and I went over one night. I met him and invited him over, and he came and heard the band.

“I didn’t see him no more until the late ’60s, when I heard he was at the [fabled Detroit nightclub] 20 Grand holding auditions for an organ player. Now, I was probably the world’s worst organ player, but I went there to see him. When he saw me he said, ‘Who are you?’ And when I reminded him, he said, ‘I want this guy, because he can play the blues in any key.’ B.B. was the kind of guy who’d start a song, but he had a bad throat so oftentimes he would have to change keys on the fly. That’s how I got the job.”

From the Queen and King he moved on to the late, groundbreaking female comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley, for whom he holds some of his fondest memories. “I was her conductor in the early ’70s,” Boles says. “I left B.B. King and I went with her. Nice lady.”

The caustic comic showed her softer side to Boles from the beginning. “The thing about Moms was, when I went to meet her in New York I stayed in this rooming house or whatever it was,” he relates. “Man, I came outside and some dude was lying dead on the sidewalk with a needle in his arm! I called Moms up and said, ‘Moms! Come get me!’ She sent her chauffeur down there for me, and for the rest of the time I was in New York she let me stay at her house. She had money, man. You know where this broad lived? She was three doors down from Nelson Rockefeller! Plus, she put me on a contingency, paid me every week. She was just a lovely person to work for.”

One downside — or perhaps, high side? “Moms smoked a lot of weed,” Boles says, laughing. “Oh, she loved to get high! You could not believe. If we’d be riding in an airplane, and the plane started shaking, man, she would say, ‘Lord, I’m scared! If this damn plane goes down and the police get us, we’re all going to jail because we got a trunk full of weed in the back!’ ”

Not that anyone could pick her out of a lineup. “If you saw Moms offstage, there was no way you would know it was her,” Boles marvels. “I have been standing this close to her and somebody would come up and say, ‘You’re Moms’ conductor, aren’t you? Where’s Moms?’ She would be standing right in front of them! But she’d have on some high-heel shoes, a fur coat, she had her wig on and her teeth back in. And I’d say, ‘I haven’t seen her. I don’t know where she is.’ I wasn’t about to give her away.”

Boles cut his chops alongside fellow Detroit jazz luminaries like Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, and Paul Chambers, and has accompanied such music immortals as Marvin Gaye, Etta James, Mary Wells, Lou Rawls, and Dinah Washington. His personal highlight? “Playing with Mel Tormé at the Elmwood Casino,” Boles says, wistfully. “Me and the Velvet Fog.”

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