Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Decline and Fall of Prince Bobby Jack

History of a hip hustler who became a homeless husk”

Much of the information I've been able to gather on Prince Bobby Jack comes from comments posted on a general discussion thread on Duke City Fix from 2010. The topic of Prince Bobby elicited a number of responses, not all favorable towards him. As it were, unsubstantiated rumors and hearsay is all I really had to go by. I've borrowed the title for this chapter from Solid Ghost's track description for their composition “The Legend of Prince Bobby Jack” from the album “Normal Musik” more on that further down the page. Outside of a grainy photograph and a mention or two in the local papers. Prince Bobby Jack left little trace of his existence in the city he called home for almost forty years. The scrapbook that he carried around with him would fill in many of the gaps, but it's probably buried at the bottom of a landfill. While there is a lack of physical evidence, a large number of locals not only remember him, but can still recall his eccentricities and quirks in detail.

He was an accomplished professional musician and singer, with a career that spanned four decades and yet, to come across even one recording that features him would be akin to stumbling upon Sasquatch at Starbucks. To quote Winston Churchill (or was it Joe Pesci?) Prince Bobby Jack was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. In lay men's terms; he was a strange bird, possessed with an idiosyncratic personality and prone to peculiar behavioral characteristics. It's generally agreed that Prince Bobby first turned up in Albuquerque around 1958. Why he came here remains a mystery. The locals took to him immediately, as he passed out his bright red business cards embossed with gold lettering “Prince Bobby Jack, Mr. Ink Spot” It opened doors that a man working this entertainment starved neck of the woods could turn to his advantage.

In all fairness to the denizens of the Duke City, fact checking was a whole different ballgame without the internet. One could claim to be the original drummer in Canned Heat or one of the “original” Ink Spots and who would know otherwise? It wasn't long before Prince Bobby was a fixture in local clubs, including the Chesterfield Club where he played alongside Dick Bills and Eddie Gallegos in a latter day version of Bills' Sandia Mountain Boys. Stranger things have happened, but we're talking Albuquerque in 1959, East Central, The Chesterfield Club. Let me muster up as much discretion as I possibly can and say that a fly in the buttermilk would have gone over like shit on sherbet. If this is true, then I have to give Dick Bills all the credit in the world for being such a visionary. It does change my opinion of the man or maybe I just didn't know shit from shinola to begin with.

Obviously this version came along after Glen Campbell departed to start up his own band, The Western Wranglers. Dick Bills probably saw an opportunity to flex his musical chops. I wonder if they ever played the old K-Circle-B theme song: "Headin' down the trail to Albuquerque, saddle bags all filled with beans and jerky..." Emeritus... so it must be true, ¿que no? The Dick Bills/ Prince Bobby Jack/ Sandia Mountain Boys musical connection comes courtesy of "Albuquerque, ¡feliz cumpleaños! Three Centuries to Remember.” written by Dr. Nasario Garcia with Richard McCord. A leading folklorist and a professor emeritus of Spanish, Dr.Garcia is the author of 18 books, some co-written with the likes of Marc Simmons, John Nichols, Nedra Westwater and Richard McCord, a journalist, who founded the weekly Santa Fe Reporter and was for 14 years its editor and co-publisher.

The Albuquerque Journal ran this blurb: Mr. Ink Spot, Prince Bobby Jack former lead vocalist of The Ink Spots featuring The best of Ink Spots, Best of Nat King Cole, Best of the Mills Bros. Luncheon Show Nightly at the Port O' Call” This clue gives us a rare insight into Prince Bobby Jack's musical style. Despite all his notoriety, few folks around the Duke City knew what he actually sounded like. No recordings were made during his dubious stint with “The Ink Spots” though Prince Bobby did record at least two singles, circa 1959. Bill Stephens, a man who claims to have known him better than most, recalls that he gave two seven inch singles to Duke City DJ, Bobby Box, which he assumes are still in Box's collection. An internet search turned up two items, a recording on the Jaco label (#711) is mentioned and referred to as, Prince Bobby Jack: Introducing.... which sounds more like an album, though the website deals only in 45 rpm singles. No song titles were mentioned.

The other item is interesting, a review from Billboard magazine dated April 13th 1959. Prince Bobby Jack “How Does One Know b/w Margie” Corvette 1009 “Prince Bobby Jack who has a style similar to Tommy Edwards, sings this pretty rockaballad with feeling over a simple arrangement. Pleasant rendering of the standard 'Margie' by the lad.” Tommy Edwards was a smooth R&B singer best known for “It's All in the Game” Rockaballad was an archaic term preferred at Billboard in those days to describe soft rock ballads. The review was placed right next to an ad for Taller Than Tall Paul's single “Jo-Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy” a nifty number that was covered with some success by Annette Funicello “I wish I had What Jo-Jo had Drove the crowd Stark raving mad”

Bill Stephens, supposedly Prince Bobby's neighbor on Alvarado SE. remembers Prince Bobby having a wife and daughter (Bobbi) living with him. (also confirmed by Prince Bobby's ward nurse at Casa Real) His wife worked at UNM and passed away from cancer, with Bobbi going to live with Prince Bobby's mother in New York as a result. If Bobbi actually existed, she certainly wanted nothing to do with him in the coming years. Prince Bobby often drove his gold Eldorado to Las Vegas where he had engagements, playing the lounges though never as a headliner. John Truitt, a musician who knew Prince Bobby professionally remarked, “The car was always spotless, appointed with whatever accessories were in fashion, and had his monogram on the door...painted on the older models, stick on letters on the last one.” He was known to frequent a restaurant at Coronado Center (Vip's Big Boy?) and the Village Inn at Central and San Mateo.

There he would hold court. Splendid in a sharkskin suit and tie with a royal crest on the pocket, heavy makeup, pomaded “Eraserhead” hair- do, patented leather high heeled boots, diamond pinkie ring, designer sunglasses and always close at hand, a silver chalice from which he drank. At times he would hold up his Holy Grail as if to bestow upon his fellow diners its special powers designed to provide happiness, eternal youth and food in infinite abundance. “The best things in life are free” The silver chalice was among his most prized possessions, he carried it in a velvet bag, stashed away in the glove box of his Eldorado. John Truitt recalled that whenever he dropped off one of his caddies (he owned several over the years) for service at Galles Cadillac, he would loudly proclaim that if anyone touched his silver chalice, he would have them arrested. Needless to say, no one wanted to work on his car, due to his inevitable complaints that the work had been done improperly or that his belongings had been tampered with.

Address unknown (not even a trace of you)

Prince Bobby Jack's purported association with the Ink Spots opened doors for him, though upon closer examination, his claim to fame was paper thin. Bobby Jack would tell folks that he was an “original” member of The Ink Spots as opposed to being a founding member. It's a fine line that hundreds of “Ink Spots” impostors have walked upon going back to the World War II era. The history of The Ink Spots is well documented, perhaps more so than any other musical act prior to the “rock” era. The Ink Spots formed in the early 1930s in Indianapolis. The founding members were Orville “Hoppy” Jones, Ivory “Deek” Watson, Jerry Daniels and Charlie Fuqua. When lead singer Bill Kenny joined, he introduced the ballad style that would make the group a crossover success in both the white and black communities.

Near the height of their popularity, Hoppy Jones collapsed on stage at the Cafe Zanzibar in New York City and died in October, 1944. This ignited a series of disputes over the rights to use the Ink Spots name. The original group was a partnership, not a corporation, thus Hoppy Jones death effectively terminated the partnership. Over the next ten years, various founding members found themselves locked in court battles for control of the brand. This led to a succession of impostors striking out across the country performing as either The Fabulous Ink Spots, The Famous Ink Spots, The Amazing Ink Spots, The Sensational Ink Spots, The Dynamic Ink Spots and many more. The travesty would culminate in 1967 when US federal judge Emmett C. Choate ruled that since so many groups had been using the name “Ink Spots” it had become “public domain” and free for anyone to use.

By the time Prince Bobby Jack came along in the mid-1950s, The Ink Spots were several degrees removed from the founding members and bore little resemblance to the real Ink Spots other than the fact that they performed some of the same music. Bobby Jack's whispy claim becomes even more questionable when you consider that he performed with an offshoot of Bill Godwin's Ink Spots, Bill Godwin's own ties to The Ink Spots were tenuous. If you're still keeping score.... Prince Bobby didn't perform with Bill Godwin, but with a group of musicians that broke away from one of Bill Godwin's impostor Ink Spots. There were dozens of these groups playing at every lounge, nightclub or casino in the U.S. that would have them.... and some are still out there. I guess it beat digging ditches or washing dishes.

Was Prince Bobby Jack an actual Ink Spot?.... yes, he was. Although according to Judge Choate's 1967 ruling, so are you and so am I... if we so desire. In the late 1960s, Prince Bobby Jack was one of a group of musicians that took control of Albuquerque's musicians union. Prince Bobby was appointed or elected to head up the union. This allowed Bobby and his cronies to cherry pick the best jobs for themselves at the expense of their fellow brothers. This did not go over well and in all likelihood led to an event that started Prince Bobby Jack on his downward spiral.

I found this item online, reprinted from The Eugene Register-Guard, dated Sept. 10th. 1975.
Musician put on probation   Dateline: Albuquerque N.M.
Prince Bobby Jack former member of the Ink Spots singing group has pleaded guilty to embezzling $127 dollars from a musicians union he headed and was given three years probation.
U.S. District Judge Howard Bratton granted probation after Jack's attorney, William Snead, told the court a psychiatric report indicated incarceration would be “destructive” to Jack as an individual.
“I deeply regret the wrongs I caused” Jack told the judge, who made restitution of all funds embezzled a provision of Jack's probation.

I guess the Caddy needed an oil change. Overnight he went from being Mr. Ink Spot to roadkill. His arrogance and condescending demeanor caught up to him. Nobody trusted him and over a period of time, everyone shunned him. John Truitt reports that as a young musician he was advised “that in matters of business, I should keep him at a distance” Prince Bobby Jack tried to keep up appearances, but he was coming undone. Bobby Jack had always had a habit of hitting people up for money, two or three dollars at a time... loans that were never repaid. Bill Stephens, who had maintained a friendship with Bobby Jack, started noticing that he only called to ask for money, two and three hundred dollars in loans that Stephens never got back. Tired of being burned, most of his acquaintances stopped taking his calls or seeking him out.

It wasn't long before people started to notice his black Cadillac parked overnight at Coronado Center or around the University area. He appeared to be living in it. His homeless state took a turn for the worse a few years later when he took to living in the bus stop at Central and Girard. He had with him the telltale shopping cart train full of his belonging, among which he may have stashed his beloved silver chalice and the legendary scrapbook. Then just like that he disappeared from public view. Prince Bobby Jack's fall from grace and subsequent decline played out in slow motion. John Truitt said “Prince Bobby Jack was shunned to the end by those who knew him, and for reasons that went back to his arrival in the Duke City some four and a half decades before.”

In 1993, having retired and taken a job as a pharmaceuticals courier, Bill Stephens found himself delivering to Casa Real, a long term care facility in Santa Fe. There to his surprise he found Prince Bobby Jack. Bill paints a picture of a happy reunion with a “dolled up” Prince Bobby entertaining the residents, “He seemed pretty lucid to me” declared Stephens. His nurse (she posted anonymously) at Casa Real however contradicts Bill's account. “Your memory of a lucid person and that he was his old self, dolled up... couldn't be further from the truth” According to her, Prince Bobby was at Casa Real for three years “He was penniless, homeless, no car, no clothes and no family. He was a ward of the state” Bill Stephens claims he was able to visit him several times a month, adding that Prince Bobby never once mentioned his daughter Bobbi.

The ward nurse recalls Bobby Jack having just one visitor in those three years (Stephens) She mentions that the caller attempted to pry information from the nurses concerning royalties. “The other nurses and I would laugh, because we knew there were no royalties” While making his weekly rounds, Bill Stephens stopped at Casa Real to check on Prince Bobby and found out he was gone. He asked around and discovered that he had been transferred to the state hospital in Las Vegas. The unit charge nurse confirms that Prince Bobby was transferred, though not to a state facility, but to a locked unit at Casa Real to keep him away from the insistent solicitor (Stephens) she then taunts Bill “If you know about the facility as you say you do, then you also know why he was behind those locked doors”

The plot thickens... I remind you that this is all conjecture and hearsay. One side paints a rosy picture and the other views the matter sans rose colored glasses. If I had to pick a side, I would tend to go with the ward nurse, I trust nurses. Although she does mention that Prince Bobby used to serenade her at the nurses' station which totally contradicts her previous statement concerning his lucidity. Prince Bobby's mental state deteriorated and he passed away shortly after his “transfer” “Upon the hill a pauper's grave had been dug to await it's new occupant. A black hearse carrying an indigent casket slowly wended it's way down the central lane followed by a small procession of workers and a backhoe. Over the years, those few that mourned forgot all about Prince Bobby. Dooming him to the worst fate that a vainglorious man could suffer.... eternal anonymity.”

“At first the ghost was no more than a chill in the air, a shimmer of mist, diffuse.” Slowly it congealed into the recognizable form of a man with vacant white eyes, translucent mahogany skin and a toothy smile. Draped in a purple robe, clasping a silver chalice, the ghoul spoke with the rasping tones of a man cultivating a two pack-a-day habit. “Where the fuck all these people come from? I have been playing in this shit hole for years, I ain't never seen this many people in here at once.” He opened his mouth as if to sing, but only a scratchy whisper emerged. At first it was distant, but it came steadily closer and all the while becoming more distressed “I don't want to set the world on fire, I just want to start a flame in your heart” gingerly tinkling the keys of the old forlorn piano, his eyes unfocused “I've lost all ambition for worldly acclaim, I just want to be the one you'd love” as his form dissipated into the misty night.

In 2008, Solid Ghost, a creative duo from the East Mountains, composed of Justin Parker and Arnold Bodmer in collaboration with Dwight Loop, released “Normal Musik” (some people think... this music is normal) which they describe as “a symphony of montages and grooves extracted from the chaos of white noise” “Normal Musik” features “The Legend of Prince Bobby Jack” a homage of sorts to Prince Bobby, which they describe as the “history of a hip hustler who became a homeless husk” It's a dark self propelled piece interspersed with disembodied voices that one could image to be that of Prince Bobby Jack interacting with the pedestrian and vehicular traffic swirling around the bus stop at Girard and Central that became his home.

Arnold Bodmer should be quite familiar to Dirt City Chronicles readers. Arnold's musical legacy stretches back to the mid-1960s when he first hooked up with The Striders in Los Angeles, where he was hanging around Topanga Canyon having just arrived from his native Switzerland. When The Striders returned home, Arnold came with them and has since been involved in enough musical projects and groups to merit his own write up. Dwight Loop of course was the host of Earwaves on KUNM for 23 years (it's now hosted on Dwight is an electronic music producer, performer, music writer/critic (Albuquerque Journal, Santa Fe New Mexican, Crosswinds, I.E.) plus he's also the founder of Third Ear, a recording label. Justin Parker (not to be confused with Justin Parker the English songwriter and record producer best known for his work with Lana Del Rey & Bat for Lashes) is also involved with Rampant Egos, a Third Ear project that includes Bodmer and Loop.