Monday, March 11, 2013

Velma Carey: Unsung Singer from the Golden Age of Pittsburgh Television

Enjoying a good record is one thing, but did you ever think of a record as more than a format for music? Miriam-Webster dictionary defines the term record as “a thing constituting a piece of evidence about the past.” We're not saying that you can't just kick back and simply enjoy a record, but records are indeed just what their name implies. The records that we’re about to discuss are not actual records, but acetates. Acetates are essentially records, but they’re generally produced in very small quantities and only intended for a finite number of plays. We're going to use the terms interchangeably. Way back in the day, in this case the 1940’s, people would cut acetates and, if they dug the recordings upon playback, perhaps they would make an actual record. While out digging for records on a cold Pittsburgh day, because that’s what we do here at I DIG PGH, we stumbled across a stack of acetates by a woman from Rankin, PA named Velma Carey. We don’t know of too many recording artists from Rankin, so this was a really exciting find.

The recordings were very interesting in the respect that ... a) Like we said, they were from Rankin. b) Many of them were dated (1942-1953) and included all sorts of additional information. And c) Some of the acetates were transcriptions of live performances from local and national television and radio. Search engines initially produced little to no information about Velma Carey. As we dug deeper and deeper a very interesting story came together. These recordings documented Carey’s development from an aspiring vocalist to a professional singer and local television celebrity. Although her name has been lost to obscurity, she could very likely have been the first African American woman to make regular appearances on Pittsburgh television.

One of the acetates is marked “first record made”, but we’re pretty certain this is not the earliest of the recordings. We’ll save that for later and instead start with a record that was made at Fillion Studios on June 1st, 1942. Ferdinand Fillion was a classically trained violinist and composer born in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He was the founder of the Pittsburgh Civic String Orchestra and he served as the president of various local organizations including the Musicians Club and the Pittsburgh Drama League. He arrived in Pittsburgh in 1925 and established Fillion Studios. They had several locations and employed a staff of forty or more instructors specializing in all aspects of music, drama and dance. Carey, who recorded as Velma Woodbury, probably studied there when this recording was made. We determined that she was approximately twenty-five years old at the time. The record features a modern classical composition, “Come Love With Me” by Vito Carnevali, an eighteenth century Haydn canzonet “My Mother Bids Me Bind My Hair” and a spiritual that most readers should be familiar with “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen.”

Velma Carey made her first radio appearance on Sunday, December 26th, 1943. There was a corresponding mention of her in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the following day. The Post-Gazette owned radio station WWSW. Carey appeared on their Sunday afternoon program, Victory Varieties. She was a contestant performing for a $100 grand prize. According to the article she was a twenty-six-year-old war wife, who had a six-year-old son, and she was employed as an elevator operator at the Union Switch & Signal in Swissvale. Her husband, Kingsley Carey, was enlisted during WWII, but he was home on furlough and present in the third row of the Nixon Theater where she dedicated Schubert’s “Ave Maria” to him. Audience members voted by ballot and Velma Carey was announced as the first place winner in the Tuesday, December 28th issue of the Post-Gazette.

The next recording is dated May 7th, 1944. One side is “Miss You”, which was a hit for Rudy Vallee in the mid-1920’s. The flip is a Hedgerow & Meadow/Walter Warner composition. The team of writers collaborated on popular love songs, also from the 1920’s. Maybe we’re just a little bit too romantic over here at I DIG PGH, but we imagine Velma Carey continuing to dedicate these selections to her husband Kingsley who was likely still serving in WWII at the time the recordings were made.  

Velma Carey performed at The Irene Kauffman Settlement Music School’s 1945 recital. She was likely receiving musical instruction there also. The Irene Kauffman Settlement was founded late in the 19th century. Initially, the organization was formed to help the children of Jewish immigrants. They were based in the Hill District. Mr. and Mrs. Henry Kauffman donated a building for the organization in 1911. It was located at 1835 Center Avenue and it is now a part of the Hill House Association. Once they acquired this building they offered a wide variety of programs to immigrants of all ethnicities and provided space, which was utilized by different social, religious and political groups. There’s just one more recording made in the 1940’s, which is an acetate dated November 9th, 1947. It’s the first of several transcription records where Carey is singing live on the radio. Unfortunately it’s largely unlistenable because of condition and there’s no information pertaining to which radio station it was broadcasted on.

We have no information or recordings from those last years of the 1940’s, but there’s an important historical development we can use to fill this gap. Pittsburgh’s first television station, WDTV owned by the DuMont Television Network, began airing early in January of 1949. WDTV would eventually be acquired by Westinghouse (owners of KDKA radio) in 1954 and become KDKA the TV station, as we know it today, in 1955. Carey was mentioned in, Post-Gazette music and drama critic, Harold V. Cohen’s Drama Desk column on July 14th, 1951. Cohen wrote “Velma Carey, a finalist at the Schenley Theater in the recent ‘Star Discovery’ contest and a regular Wednesday afternoon guest star on WDTV’s ‘Variety Resort’ leaves in a day or so for Montreal and Toronto to combine business with pleasure. She’ll meet theatrical contacts there to line up some future Canadian bookings.“ So we don’t exactly know when Carey’s television career began, but we do know that she was already making regular TV appearances on WDTV as early as July of 1951. Pittsburgh television was less than thirty years old at this point.

WDTV aired the first televised Children’s Hospital fundraiser on Sunday, December 9th, 1951. Station Manager Harold C. Lund was also the head organizer of the Old Newsboys’ Fund, who organized the event. Carey performed along with a who’s who of Pittsburgh’s original TV celebrities. This pantheon of local names included the likes of Joe Negri, Johnny Costa, Rege Cordic, Bob Caldwell and many more. Carey was prominently featured in a Post-Gazette article leading up to the event. That's her pictured in the top right of the above image. The following Saturday she was mentioned again in the Pittsburgh Press for her participation with a similar Children’s Hospital benefit, also organized by the Old Newsboys' Fund, this time being broadcast on KDKA radio. 

There’s documentation of Carey performing locally in 1952 and continuing to appear on local TV and radio. She’s mentioned in various issues of the Post-Gazette that year for engagements at the Famous Door, which was a venue located on Frankstown Avenue in Larimer, and at The Blue Ridge on Sawmill Run Blvd. Her next recording is a radio transcription made by Westinghouse Radio Station, Inc on November 18th, which means that the recordings would have been broadcast on (Westinghouse-owned station) KDKA. The record features two children’s songs penned by the songwriting team, Jewel Frank and Hiram Hirsh. Hirsh was better known as a lawyer and Republican Party politician. In 1952 he was the Western Pennsylvania chairman of the GOP. His most notable accomplishment was introducing voting machines to Allegheny County in the 1930’s.

So far we’ve talked about an entire decade of Velma Carey’s life. The recordings made up to this point honestly aren’t the most impressive, but they do get progressively better and her story is inspiring. We’ve traced her beginnings as a twenty-five-year-old wife and mother who aspired to be an entertainer. She was receiving classical training much later in life than most performers do. A decade later she’s a bit of a local celebrity appearing regularly on Pittsburgh television.

Carey’s story gets more interesting in1953. Enter Esther Middleman, who meets Velma Carey while she’s working as a tea hostess by day at the original Saks Fifth Avenue location in downtown Pittsburgh. Middleman explains all of this on the first of the next three records that we’ll discuss. They're live radio transcriptions from Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, which were made by Rockhill Radio, Inc. in New York City. Arthur Godfrey, already an established radio personality, was a huge player in the early days of television. This was just one of his programs and it ran from 1946-1958. Episodes began airing live simultaneously on radio and TV in 1948. The show was broadcast on WCBS, which was located in the CBS Studio Building on 52nd Street in New York City. Middleman got Carey booked on the program where she received her first national exposure on Monday March 2nd, 1953.

Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts was a show that launched the careers of Pat Boone, The McGuire Sisters, Johnny Nash and Patsy Cline just to name a few. Comedians such as Lenny Bruce, Don Knotts and Jonathan Winters all appeared on the program. Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly were actually rejected. Carey performed “Stormy Weather”, a tune that was written in 1933 and recorded the prior year by Billie Holiday. She received a thunderous applause from the audience and appeared on the show again the following Thursday, March 5th. The Thursday appearance is on the second acetate featuring Carey performing Gershwin’s “Summertime” from the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. There’s a third acetate as well from Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, but there’s no label on the record. It’s likely from the same week. Carey performs “You Made Me Love You.”

There are other acetates, but for the most part they have no information on them. The one we mentioned earlier, marked “first record made”, features Carey accompanied by Herman Middleman on piano. This is probably not the first record that she made, but more likely from the early Fifties assuming that Herman Middleman is a relation of Esther Middleman. Carey sings “Hallelujah!”, the title track from the 1929 MGM film. The other side of the acetate features Glenn Miller’s 1942 hit “That Old Black Magic.” Another acetate, which is probably our favorite, is titled “You Told Me.” It features Carey singing R&B accompanied by piano with group vocal backings. It’s more than likely from the mid-Fifties, or later, and it’s a complete departure from all of her other recordings, which largely showcase her classical background and her affinity for popular theatrical tunes. Her vocal style doesn’t translate to R&B all that naturally, but it’s a very interesting recording. It's also the only one of the acetates that plays at 45 rpm rather than 78 rpm, which further implies that it's from the mid to late 1950's. That's when the 45 rpm format, introduced in 1949, began to gain popularity.

Carey performed throughout the Fifties and was consistently referred to in print as “one of Pittsburgh’s favorite TV songstresses.” She had a lead singing role in What’s The Rush?, which was a long-running musical that opened at The Pittsburgh Play House on April 13th, 1956. This was an early work by composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams who were responsible for the 1960 hit musical Bye Bye Birdie. On June 24th,1958 Harold V. Cohen writes “Singer Velma Carey is coming along all right after three major operations but the doctor has advised her not to take any bookings until fall.” Carey did return in the fall for an engagement at Ronnie’s in Millvale that November. We’ve only found two references to Velma Carey from the 1960’s, the latter being a 1965 NAACP benefit at the Hilton Hotel, which was a Jazz gig. She was the featured vocalist along with musicians Jon Walton (tenor saxophone), Carl Arter (piano), Tom Sewell (bass). According to the article 1,500 reservations had been made for this event. Velma Carey would have been 48 years old at that time.

In 1984 Carey, then residing in Braddock Hills, wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Press, as did many other readers, opposed to the demotion of Westinghouse principal Richard Wallace. This was an incident that caused a protest on the part of residents in Homewood that year. She expresses her social concern again in a 1993 Post-Gazette article about a potential community park and wildlife sanctuary that many Braddock Hills residents were opposed to. Velma Carey’s obituary appeared in the Post-Gazette in July of 2004. She lived to be 84 years old. There was no reference to her twenty-plus year career as a singer, or that she arguably may have been one of the first, if not the first, African American women on Pittsburgh television, or her national appearances on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. It only said that she was survived by her husband and son, her five grandchildren and “a host of” great grandchildren. Perhaps she wanted to ease into obscurity because her family life was more important than all of those aforementioned accomplishments. In any event we thought that her story was pretty awesome and there should be some tribute paid to her. 

Ninety-five-year-old WWII veteran, Kingsley Carey, had a tribute paid to him last year. He was honored by the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania at Carnegie Music Hall in October of 2012. We believe that he’s still out there somewhere, but we're having a hard time getting a hold of him. If anybody reading this is in touch with him tell him that we made him a Velma Carey CD.

If you'd like to hear some of Velma Carey's recordings visit the I DIG PGH YouTube channel. I DIG PGH is also on Facebook and Twitter.