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What's the weirdest order you've ever been given in the military?

One of my favorite ‘Learning Websites’ is Quora, and a current topic invites readers to reply; ‘What's the weirdest order you've ever been given in the military?'

That’s easy for me. I was twice-winner of the ALL-NAVY TALENT SEARCH, winners being presented on The Ed Sullivan Show, and that first year, when I offered my song list to the Producer of the show, he picked ‘Ugly Woman,’ a Calypso song from the public domain. That’s what I sang and played in 1956, and I don’t suppose anyone was impressed. My bragging rights had to do with writing my own songs, a Singer/Songwriter beginning in 1954, at the age of 21.

With that in mind, I offered a list of ONLY my own ditties the following year, and the same Producer chose a good song that I performed well. I was happy as a clam, this adventure beginning on a Tuesday, and my troupe of performers and I were on-the-road in our own plane, on behalf of Navy Recruiting. We continued touring until Thursday’s rehearsal, once again in NYC, at The Ed Sullivan Theater. When I started to sing the song already approved, the producer stopped me and said, “We’ve decided you’ll be singing this instead.” He handed me a 45 record, no lyric sheet or chords, and we were back on the road in our plane in three other locations prior to the Sunday ES Show. I had never heard of this song, nor did I have a phonograph, so before leaving the big city, I bought a battery-operated machine just to learn a song titled ‘Freight Train.’ The phonograph cost $89., and my regular salary was $92. a month.

After two days of practice, I was suddenly stricken withstage fright, fearing what might happen if I didn’t do well in front of forty-million people. I shared these fears with my Commander, and he said, ‘I wouldn’t worry about it…just tell them that you gave it the good Ol’ college try, and you couldn’t learn it, and they’ll let you sing a song you already know.” Needless to say, I felt so much better, and I began practicing the song previously chosen, one THAT I KNEW.

Come Sunday Morning, back in New York, I told the Show’s Producer what my commander had said to say, but that didn’t work. The man said, “You’ll be singing Freight Train.”

I was very suddenly approached by a Captain from a nearby Naval Base, who said, “Son, in the Navy, we follow orders, and I’m ORDERING you to sing Freight Train on the Ed Sullivan show tonight.” My reply was simple: “Sir, I don’t believe that you or anybody else has a right to order me to sing a song that I don’t know….” He walked away, and in about forty-minutes, an Admiral from The Brooklyn Navy Yard said to me, “Son in the Navy we follow orders… at that point, I said, “No disrespect intended, Sir, but I don’t believe that you or anybody else has the right to order me to sing a song that I don’t know. I’m a Draftee in the Navy, and nowhere in the Constitution is TELEVISION even mentioned…


“You’re UNDER ARREST,” he shouted . “You’ll proceed to the Henry Hudson Hotel, and you’ll stay in your room until the Shore Patrol comes for you.”

I went there, but all I could do was laugh…then nearly cry. After about an hour of sitting on the bed, I went back to work, finding a solution to the incredible problem. Sullivan was on CBS opposite The Steve Allen Show on NBC every Sunday night, so I went to NBC and scribbled a note to Steve Allen, describing my predicament, and gave it to the guard at the gate. In less than ten-minutes, a whole lot of familiar faces appeared at the gate, and Steve Allen said to me, ‘You can be on my show, and you can sing and play whatever you want!”

Unfortunately, somebody from NBC Legal came to where we had begun rehearsing, and said to Steve, ‘He’s right that the Navy can’t legally order to sing a song he doesn’t know, but they own him, and we’d have to get their permission to allow him on our show…won’t happen.”

I watched The Sullivan Show that night from the bar next door, and my roommate on the tour sang two solos: ‘Freight Train’ being the second one, and at the end of the program,

I went to the Artist Entrance. I was welcomed in, as I was wearing the ‘Ed Sullivan uniform,’ my whites being dyed baby blue, this because TV cameras back then couldn’t handle so much white light.’

My fellow tour performers were lined-up on the stage, and Ed Sullivan was shaking hands, congratulating each one, so I quite naturally got in line. When he reached where I was standing, he grabbed my hand and said,”‘Good Show, Sailor…”’ But then he asked, “What’s your name”?, ”Sparks,” I replied proudly, whereupon he threw my hand away from his, and said, “Get this SONAVABITCH off my stage!,’ and walked away.

.

My Commander came running-over to where I was standing, and he told me I had to leave. “I don’t think so,” I answered.


”You realize, of course, you are no longer on tour with us…” and my reply once again was, “I don’t think so,” “What do you mean, by “I don’t think so?” “There’d be too many questions that I’m ill-prepared to answer,”’ I said. “Like what kind of questions?” he asked ? “Like how your wife died of a mysterious ailment in a Navy Hospital, while in the care of a corps-person who suddenly, and quite unexpectedly was declared to be a winner of The All Navy Talent Search, and is on tour with us, but nobody remembers her competing…or why she now lives at your house here in D.C,”

I knew NOTHING of how the Commander’s wife had died…or any of the other information, but I’d had a conversation with one of the musicians from Hawaii, and he shared the rumors. The look on the Commander’s face seemed to declare that the gossip just might be valid, and the man’s parting words that night were, “If there’s no publicity about this, then you can quite possibly stay on tour with us…”

The next day I awoke to a numbing report (supposedly on the second page of every news rag in the country): ‘Sailor Mutinies On Sullivan Show.’I became depressed again, as I knew I’d be headed back to my ship, but near nightfall, the Commander came to see me. “There’s been no publicity,”’ he said, ‘“so you’re still on tour.’”

I ought to have run like hell away from this man and his ‘Medic Mistress,’ but I don’t frighten easily, and I awoke from a coma three days later as a patient in the VA Hospital near Chicago. Nobody knew the cause of my mysterious life-threatening illness. “The symptoms are not unlike what we call the kissing disease,” one of the doctors said to me, but no determination was made. They still don’t know what it was or how it reached me, but I have some thoughts about the timing.

I became only the second performer to walk-off the famed Sullivan Show, the only other being Frank Sinatra…who, later-on, shook my hand and said, ,”That SONOVABITCH!

There was a rumor circulating among music publishers at the time, that Sullivan and his Producer had been paid $10,000.00 in cash for three-performances of two songs, one being ‘Sxteen Tons,’ the other: ‘Freight Train.’ There was no easy way to prove such an allegation at the time, but there is now. There exists a COMPLETE LIST of all the songs performed on Sullivan’s Program, and not was ever played or sung morn then once…except these two, and their totals were three plays each.Just a coincidence? No, I don’t think so, and that’s called PAYOLA. I was one of their victims, and they ought to have gone to prison, but it’s much easier to squeeze a NOBODY.

Both Sullivan and his Producer warned me that if I didn’t follow their orders and sing the song, I would NEVER work in the music business again.

In less than six months, I was working at the Desert Inn in Palm Springs for its owner, Marion Davies (for whom William Randolph Hearst built the Castle at San Simeon), and I was asked to do a ‘Command Performance’ in Ms. Davies’ private dining room (with only twelve chairs, one of them claimed by a very drunk Broderick Crawford). That went well, and as I exited, a very old and kind Jewish couple, both opera stars on

his and her own, said to me, “We think you’re the best singer we’ve ever heard, and we want you to meet our son who is the

Producer of The Ed Sullivan show. “I’m flattered,” I told them, “but I don’t think I’m ready yet.”

There’s much more of this incredible tale, my life in showbiz and even the Military, but I’m saving the rest for my book. It’s titled, ‘I’m Still Here,’ sub-title: ‘HEROES & ASSHOLES,’ no shortage of either.

Like my life, it’s nearly finished.

A few years later, I did a movie with Ed Sullivan. I wrote the music, and he appeared as himself in The Singing Nun.


Cheers!

RS

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