“C’mon Charlie, let’s get there.”
Mitchell pulled out the keys to the company mini-van. Finally things were picking up. All Gary’s schmoozing was paying off. Plus, it was a novelty - singing telegrams. Turns out they loved them in Alabama. Gary said they would.
Mitchell had been skeptical. Gary was full of schemes, some more successful than others. But Mitchell had to get out of California, and ‘Sing-Sing’ was the way.
Charlie surely needed the gig too. And what a perfect job. He’d always loved to sing and dance and clown around. Really - a dream job.He gave it all he had at the audition and was hired on the spot. Gary snapped his fingers as soon as the number (My Way) was over. “Man, man, man! That was great. You’re some kind of talent.”
Mitchell could clearly see that Charlie was a natural. He was just worried because Charlie was black, is all. Not everybody in Alabama was ready for a bright black man to come bounding into their living room, or boardroom or whatever. Lots of restaurants.
They got into the mini-van. Charlie had on a tuxedo and tails. His put his satin top-hat on the back seat. He knew Mitchell was there to soften the blow of his blackness. The white guy gave him credibility. That’s the way it goes. He was born and raised in Alabama. He was happy to have a job not flipping burgers or hauling a heavy load.
The gig was about two hours north of Birmingham. 50th birthday party. Private home. Gary had negotiated top pricing.
It began to rain. As it got louder and less clear outside, the inside of the mini-van grew still and immediate. The two men sat in an easy silence. Strange, for two gregarious men. Both had a way of telling a long story when it could be told short.
MItchell spoke first. He asked Charlie about his mother. She had been ill and in the hospital. She was doing fine. More tests. Can’t find anything, they think maybe too much salt caused the swelling. They gave her fluids and let her go.
Charlie asked Mitchell about his kids, back in California. He knew Mitchell missed them. If Mitchell wasn’t broke, working to exhaustion, living one breath to the next, he never would’ve left his kids. He was a hands-on kind of dad.
Charlie was just about to compliment Mitchell on this exact quality when Mitchell said, “Here it is!” and turned right, into an oyster-shell strewn, winding driveway. They pulled up to the Greek Revival home - a mansion really. Mitchell shut off the engine, straightened his tie, grabbed his jacket from the backseat and said to Charlie, “Wait here.”
Mitchell had a whole speech at the ready. He put on his big, booming, Southern-tinged voice. A manicured blonde answered the bell, cocktail wrapped in a napkin in her left hand.
“Hello! I’m Mitchell Lundquist from Sing-Sing. You must be Mrs. Hutchinson.”
She was. He asked when they might be ready for the talent. She said any time now. And then, because he really had to, Mitchell asked to use the bathroom.
Mrs. Hutchinson guided him through the grand entry and into a great room holding about 20 or more conservatively well-dressed, middle-aged guests. A vintage Rebel flag was framed over the grand fireplace. In the bathroom, behind the toilet Mitchell faced, was a photo of Robert E. Lee and a black attendant.
Mitchell went back out to get Charlie. He didn’t sugarcoat. “We don’t have to go in if you don’t want. It’s really okay. We can turn right back around.”
“No, I want to do it.”
“And now, ladies and gents,” Mitchell boomed, “For your very own entertainment, the one and only Charlie Bates!”
Charlie stepped into the great room, his satin top-hat nearly matching the hue of his skin. He made a bow with his customary flourish. He flipped his hat with one hand and gestured to his face with the other. “Live, and in living color,” he said, in grand fashion, and launched into My Way.
They loved it. They absolutely loved it. Hands down, it was one of the best performances of any song they had ever heard.