I've known since early childhood that my mother used to be a professional singer. Initially that awareness was merely a byproduct of my elementary school knowledge that Diva Mommy knew (and was not particularly fond of, I'll have you know) Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on "Star Trek."
Over the years, little nuggets from my mother's younger life would make themselves known in between the private school days, adolescent sleep-overs, "Facts of Life" episodes, crushes on ridiculous boys, Go-Go's, Monkees and English Beat records, lazy summers and Judy Blume books that comprised my suburban existence. For example, when Spike Lee became famous in the '80's, Diva Mommy nonchalantly commented that she had worked with his father, jazz bassist Bill Lee, and a very young Spike had even come over to play with my sisters and oldest brother while the elder Lee and my mother worked on musical arrangements. On another occasion, she casually mentioned that Tony Curtis had hit on her. In fact, if I'm remembering the story correctly, he may have suggested she be his mistress and move to California (my parents and elder siblings still lived in the Midwest at that time), even though she, herself, was also married.
And that's how my knowledge of her career has accumulated over the years. There were no long reminiscences; just the odd anecdote here and there. Starting in the '90's, my mother began mentioning old friendships and work relationships once the people she'd known died. Cases in point: Burgess Meredith (that's right) and James Brown. A few years ago, my dad and I went to see Paula West at the Plush Room, and when Paula offered up her rendition of Oscar Brown, Jr's "The Snake," from Kicks and Co., my dad turned to me and whispered, "That's the show your mother did in New York." That was 2001 and the first I'd heard that my mom did any show in New York. By the way, I think it was during Kicks and Co. that she met Burgess. Anyway, when Oscar Brown, Jr, died a couple of years ago, I called Diva Mommy in Hawaii to tell her, and only then was I regaled with a few tales of how she and Oscar ran around New York during rehearsals for Kicks. And last fall, while I was rehearsing with Fake Band, Diva Mommy sent me some copies of an old newsletter... from a prison where she and Al Jarreau had performed in the '60's.
I've never actually heard Diva Mommy sing, as a throat condition forced her retirement from the microphone before she gave birth to me, the youngest of her six kids, at age 35. Some of my older siblings have vague memories of hanging around nightclubs or even being taken on tour, but I missed all that.
You may wonder why I am bringing all this up right now. Well, my brother Michael has made it his mission to find some recordings of our mother, and he's doing a decent job of searching, at least. He charged his band mate, Dan, with chatting up the aforementioned Bill Lee when Dan met him on a plane. Mr. Lee remembered Diva Mommy but has no recordings. Undaunted, my brother has kept looking, and he discovered that, in fact, an album does exist. It's called "We'll Be Together Again," and it came out sometime in 1959. Or at least she rehearsed for it in 1958. We've gotten this information from one of a few old newspaper articles on my mother that Mike just unearthed last week. Apparently, around the same time, Diva Mommy appeared on a Chicago television show called "Triumph" and was singing at places like that city's Blue Orchid Junior Room, Robert's Show Club and The Blue Angel. My sister, Fabulous Patti, even gets an in utero mention in one of the articles.
You may also wonder why on earth my siblings and I don't just ask Diva Mommy about her career and her album. I suppose we could, and we have on occasion, but I'm telling you, she's pretty mum about the whole thing. Plus, I confess it kind of amuses me that she generally only brings up her singing years when someone dies.
As more details of my mother's chanteuse life sink in, however, the more extraordinary it seems to me that I'm actually related to her. I mean, I have a great education, career and life, really, but compared to this woman, I'm downright ordinary.