Pat Yankee – A Red Hot Career


In recognition of Pat’s 88th birthday this is a re-publication of an article in Frisco Cricket issue #43, Spring 2009, based on an interview from September, 2005.

Scott – When did you first start singing?

Pat – Probably in about 1946—1946 professionally. Because I wasn’t really a singer yet. I was a tap-dancer with the Ted Lewis Review. I started out tap dancing in Lodi, you know. And I did so well I came here to San Francisco and I studied with the Amiele Sisters in the late ‘30s. And then when the war came along, I was still in grammar school—8th grade or freshman in high school—and then in the summers when I wasn’t going to school I was dancing in the line at the Golden Gate Theater during the war. I wasn’t singing yet, well, just a little bit, but not much. It was one of those things those days, a tap dancer always sang one chorus of a song and then went into a fast tap dance. So that’s the way it was, you know.

Pat 1950s
Pat Yankee in the 1950s. Photo courtesy Pat Yankee.

Then I went to New York City after that—I was I guess just turned 16—15 or 16. I went to Childrens’ Professional School. I studied everything—I studied dancing. I went to ballet. I used to get up at 7 in the morning and go to ballet, and, of course, the ballet teacher always said, “You’ll never make it as a ballet dancer—You look more like a Mack truck!” But he said, “It’s good for your tap dancing.”

Anyway, I auditioned and studied with a very famous coach—a vocal coach, for the little songs that I did do. But my dancing was the primary thing in those years. Then I auditioned for Ted Lewis, and went on the road, but I went to school, and I would have to come back for my lessons, and then go on the road with Ted Lewis.

I was at the Latin Quarter in Chicago for 3 months with him. I was all through the East with him and travelled by railroad car. I was solo tap dancer. I was doing songs like “I’m an Indian Too,” those little songs that came out. I’d sing one chorus and then go into a fast tap dance. (laugh)

Scott – Well, that must have really been kind of fun.

Pat – Well, it was! I was in Vaudeville, that’s what I was in. And when I studied with this man in New York, Al Siegel—he kind of coached me a little bit. He charged an awful lot of money, and so when I ran out of money he said, well, why don’t you help other singers when they come in with their arm movements and everything, because that always happened naturally to me. So I got my lessons that way from him. But, he was the one who gave Ethel Merman that note that she held out, you know, “I got rhythm (hold)”. He was very famous. He took me to many auditions, and I almost made it, but I was just a little too young and didn’t have the experience of having other Broadway shows.

But, anyway, I was with Ted Lewis for a year, on and off. And then during that time I went back to Los Angeles. They fl ew me back to Los Angeles and I made two B movies for Columbia Pictures.

Scott – What were they?

Pat – One was called It’s Great To Be Young and, what was the other one? Something about fun, or something like that, I don’t remember.

Scott – Have you seen them?

Pat – Oh yes, I saw them. They’re pretty lousy.

Scott – I mean recently?

Pat – No, they’re lousy, they’re just lousy. Someone tried to find them recently, but they’re lousy. I went back to New York. I worked some of the clubs around New York City, and, like I was on the bill once with, Jack Carter and Jan Murray, because my agent was the one who handled them. His name was Nick Agnetta.

Then I went with a band called “Milt Britton”—it was a comical band, you know—at the end of their whole show the piano fell down—that sort of thing.

Scott – Sort of like a Spike Jones band?

Pat – Yes. Milt and Frank Britton were their names, but Frank had died. So, I was the singer. I did a little tap dance and a little singing again. That’s where I met Maurice Chevalier. Maurice Chevalier and Frank Loesser came in one night and said, “Gee, you’re doing just wonderful.” And I didn’t know it was Maurice Chevalier until somebody told me! What did I know? I was very young, 18 or 19.

So, I went down to the theater in New York and auditioned for—they wanted me to open in one [theater] for him, and then he’d come on and do his one man show. That was during the war years. Frank Loesser was there—my God, Frank Loesser! They decided that Maurice Chevalier was a Nazi sympathizer, so they sent himback to Paris, and I didn’t open in the show! It was very heart-breaking for me.

In about 1950 I was studying vocal exercises with a fellow because Vaudeville was going out and I knew I had to start singing. So I studied with Bill Hayes. There came a call that Goman’s Gay Nineties needed a singer, and so he took me down there and Bea and Ray Goman hired me and I was there for five years.

Scott – Where was that?

Pat – In San Francisco here, on the old Barbary Coast, where Pacific Street is now. Across the street was, for instance, Johnny Mathis was at the Hollow Egg. The rest were all strip joints around there. I had blond hair then! I used to come out in little short costumes and sing “I don’t care, I don’t care, what people think of me!” You know, and do all those kind of things! I was really in Vaudeville. I was really trained for Vaudeville.

Scott – Was that about the time you met Turk?

Pat & Turk 1961Pat – No. I knew who Turk was and I met him about 1957 when I fi nished at Goman’s Gay Nineties. I left after five years, then I went and got an act in Los Angeles from Jack Cathcart, who was Judy Garland’s brother-in-law. He conducted for Judy and did everything. So, I was doing this act all around—I went to Vegas with the act. I was making very good money. I had a big contract with the Silver Slipper.

Anyway, I went to the Silver Slipper but I wanted to get my own act because I was with a line of girls and I’d just come out and sing one song in a little tight dress. We had an agent—Turk and I had the same agent, Milton Deutch, out of Los Angeles. Milton sent me up to Alaska and I played, you know, Fairbanks, and all the places that had nightclubs. So, I was getting ready to come home and Milton called and said, “I’m sending Turk Murphy up there for the Fur Rendezvous, and he needs a singer. Would you stay up there for another 2 weeks?” And I said, “Well, yes, I’d love to.” That was my fi rst encounter with Turk. I had a wonderful time meeting him, and, of course, the fi rst time I heard that band, I knew I belonged in that band. I just knew it.

Scott – And was it love at first sight? Did Turk love to have you with him?

Pat – Yes, (laugh) it was love at first sight for his part of it, but it wasn’t love at first sight with my part of it. (laugh) Take that part out, don’t put that in!  Oh, he liked it immediately. Oh, immediately he liked what I did, and he had heard of me at Goman’s Gay Nineties. When I was at Goman’s Gay Nineties I was in everybody’s column every other week, doing something here and there. I did a lot of charity work and I did also a lot of shows, you know, a lot of society parties, and Turk knew who I was. I used to come down, and watch him at the Italian Village and to hear Claire Austin. I liked her very, very much.

Well, anyway, I had all my music, and Turk just played anything I knew, and we got along just fine. He wanted me to come along with the band but I had a six-month-long contract to go back to the Silver Slipper. I think this was at the end of ‘57—around there. And then after the Silver Slipper, I came back here, and that’s when I went with him—in 1958. That’s when he was at Easy Street, on Stockton, I think.

Of course, the Duponts were backing Pete and Turk at that time. When that closed—it just went belly-up, that’s when Ralph Sutton played the piano [for intermissions?] so well. Clancy wasn’t there yet. And then the band went on the road. We went on the road for almost two years.

We went to New York City. We worked out of New York because Turk was managed by Joe Glazer. Turk had been to New York before, in 1955, to play at Child’s Paramount, but I didn’t go until later. We played the Roundtable, the Embers, the Village Vanguard, and all those places. I had a wonderful time. I met a lot of people—[cartoonist] Charles Adams and all those. One place I loved so much was the Metropole. People talk about, “Well, I know this person or that person,” but when you can get up and sing with Claude Hopkins at the piano, and Henry “Red” Allen, that is something. Sometimes I’d go in and sit with him, and he’d say, “Oh, go up and sing a song.” We were opposite each other at the Metropole. People like [famous clarinetist] Edmund Hall, and Buster Bailey. People would stand outside on the sidewalk and look in—and sawdust on the floor!

So I have really played with some of the greats, like [trombonist] Tyree Glenn, when we went into the Roundtable. Turk’s band, we were the drawing attraction. The second group was [pianist] Teddy Wilson, Joe Jones on drums, and Tyree Glenn. All these wonderful players that you worked with, you got to know them. I knew these people, talked to them, drank with them—wonderful people. I got to know some of their wives. Henry “Red” Allen took Turk and me up to the Apollo Theater one time. I didn’t sing but Turk got up and played trombone. They wanted me to sing, but I said no, but I went with them. It was really a fun, fun thing.

Turk had a big following of all the “Who’s Who” in New York—all the society, especially the Duponts. We used to go up for Tea at Mary Dupont’s place, the New Hampshire House. People say to me, “Have you been in show business?” And I say to them, “Well, yes, I guess I have (laugh)!” I think I could have gone on and done something really big, but I fell in love with Lou (Rosenauer), and you can’t have two careers.

Scott – When was that?

Pat – That was in ‘61. We didn’t get married until ‘73. He was free to marry then. Turk introduced us. He said it was the biggest mistake of his life (laugh). I left him to go to Spain in ‘72. I’ve had a wonderful life. I can’t tell you how great a life I’ve had.

Scott – When was it that you went on the road with your own band?

Pat – In 1962 I quit Turk. That’s a long story too. I was going with Lou at the time, and he always talked about sometime having my own band. This was right after we opened at the first Earthquake McGoon’s down on Broadway. I quit Turk and got my first band, Pat Yankee and the Sinners. I had Ernie Carson [cornet] and Dave Weirbach [banjo/guitar] and Bill Carroll [tuba], Art Nortier [piano], and a fellow by the name of Bob Burkhart on drums. And Phil Howe was the leader.

Pat and the Sinners
Pat Yankee and the Sinners, 1962. Photo courtesy Pat Yankee

I did very well—I opened a place called Mike’s Pool Hall in San Francisco here on Broadway, and, of course, everything was fi ne until Carol Doda came in with her topless and they said, “Well, Pat, why don’t you go sing jazz topless?” And I said, “No way, no way!”

Scott – How long was that, with the Sinners?

Pat – Let’s see—About ‘64—A couple of years. And then I got another band called Pat Yankee and the Giants. I got an agent—Milton Deutch was my agent before—but I got a manager. This manager had Jack Sheldon, and he had a lot of big stars out of Las Vegas, and he named it Pat Yankee and the Giants. It’s a funny story, because I was working at the Riverside Hotel in Reno with my band and Reno Barsichini came up to see me. He had Joe DiMaggio with him, and Joe DiMaggio wouldn’t come in to see me because it said “Pat Yankee and the Giants.” Honest to God! I said to Reno, “You’re kiddingme?” He said, “No, he won’t come in.”

Anyway, I toured all over with the “Sinners.” One of my first big engagements was Harvey’s Wagon Wheel and it went so well I was booked in Las Vegas immediately at the Riviera and that was the night that Ernie Carson decided to get bombed. So opening night I had the Dukes of Dixieland and Billy Maxted and all these people that wanted to come to see me and the band and give me a boost—he came on stage playing a completely different song than I was singing!

We were playing the Nugget opposite Jack Teagarden and his band. And Dave Weirbach brings this girl over to me and says, “Pat, I just got married and I want you to meet my new wife.” And I thought, “Gee, I haven’t met this girl before—Where in the hell did she come from?” Well, I thought, “How nice.” So, I gave them a reception in the lounge. I ordered about 5 bottles of Champagne—At that time Lou was sponsoring me, so he’d pick up the tab for everything—You know, at that time, maybe $25 a bottle for Champagne! And he and Ernie had concocted the whole thing up, and I was giving everybody Champagne—they weren’t even married! And Jack Teagarden was there drinking my Champagne!

I went all over with that band. It was mostly musicians from Los Angeles and we did harmonies together. I never did do modern stuff. I’d always do Hard Hearted Hannah and all those type of tunes that I still like to do.

Scott – Did you sing for the whole set?

Pat – No, I didn’t. Even with my own band I always give the fellows a chance to do something. I’d maybe go out and sing three songs, then I’d let somebody else do two songs. Then I’d come back and do one or two, and then let somebody else do something else. That’s the way I’ve always operated with my band. Because if you’re going to have good musicians, show them off for God’s sake!

In about 1964 the band kind of broke up. Well, fi rst of all I fi red Ernie Carson, not only for that incident. We were up in the Northwest and he came to work barefooted (laugh). He and Dave Weirbach—with tuxedos on—and I fired them. Then I got George Baker to do banjo, he was up there anyway. He had worked for Turk at one time. Thank God he was there! I would have been up a creek.

Who did I get for trumpet? Maybe no one. Maybe there was just Phil. Phil and a five-piece group I guess. Ernie was drunk and barefooted. The write-up was, “Pat Yankee, the band sounded good, but she was having an awful time with her band on stage.”

Scott  Lou had a club, is that right?

Pat  Oh, Lou had a club way before I met him during the war years. It was called the Loechean Gardens. It also had a picnic grounds. He worked in the shipyards—he was a supervisor in the shipyards, and also had this club on the side. He made an awful lot of money at that time, and Turk used to come out there. He used to give the guys drinks and steak dinner—they were kind of hard to get in the war years. Clancy Hayes and Burt Bales—he knew all those people. That’s when Lou became friends with all of them.

When I joined Turk’s band—at the club [McGoon’s]—Lou came in and it was love at first sight. I knew that I was never going to be up there making millions of dollars, because you have to eat and sleep this business. You don’t have time for marriage, you really don’t. You can’t be distracted—Your focus has to be just like that. It’s like with this show I’m doing now, the Sophie Tucker thing. I have to focus right on it every day. It’s like a month before I do it, I’ll do it every day, I will focus right on that show.

Scott  Now, you were in Spain for awhile?

Pat  I came back [from Spain] in 1978 just for a visit. I never really came back until ‘81. I’d come back periodically because Lou had a business here also. We had three places—one in Newport Beach, one in Spain, and one here up until about ‘82 and then we got rid of all of them and just kept this one.

Scott  You sang there?

Pat  Oh, yes, I sang in Spain. I didn’t want to sing there, but all of a sudden I started singing in this little club. I was Mrs. Rosenaur and doing nothing but charity work and that kind of thing. One day I was with Mrs. Stabler whose husband was the Ambassador. I was sitting there outside having coffee—we had had some sort of meeting—I was getting the music and I was the assistant chairman of something—and this man comes up and says,“Aren’t you Pat Yankee?” And all these women looked at me with funny looks, and I said yes. He said, “I heard you do Careless Love  at McGoon’s in San Francisco.” They all looked at me—they didn’t even know that I sang. So, Mrs. Stabler said, “My dear! Are you a jazz singer?” I said, “Yes,” and she said “Oh! How wonderful. You can do something to make money…” for the American School, or whatever.

I got a job at the “Whiskey Jazz,” they called it for two or three weeks. All the people we knew there came to see me. Literally, people were waiting in line—just a trio and myself, because they never heard anything like I did over there. I would rehearse my band, “Uno, dos, tres, quatro…” I was singing all my songs—Hard Hearted Hannah , A Hundred Years From Today , you know, all those. Anyway, I closed at Whiskey Jazz, and Ola , the Spanish magazine, came out and said, “The White Queen of Jazz is here.”

I didn’t think too much about that, but then in ‘74 a man called me—Leon Lieberman. He wrote for the Guidepost, an American magazine there. He talked to the man at the Castellano Hilton into giving me a job in the lounge singing. I sang with just piano and bass, nothing else. I sang there for almost 3 months. Opening night, of course, I had all my friends come in—it’s a beautiful hotel, just wonderful—I’m in the middle of a tune and a spaghetti cart comes right in front of me! And I said, “I always wanted to sing in a spaghetti joint!” I didn’t know that was a thing they did—at midnight they served spaghetti to all the people in the room. I had no idea they did that!

We had a wonderful time in Spain. Lou had a lamp factory, and he had a furniture designing company. And he sort of inherited a pig farm outside of Madrid. About 6 years ago I was the Grand Marshall of the Lodi Wine and Grape Festival, where I was born. And so I’m all dressed up in a Maseratti with an outfi t to match. Going down all these streets you’d hear people saying, “Who the hell is she?” I hadn’t been there since 5000 people were there—there’s 200,000 there now. Anyway, the committee entertained me with a lovely dinner, and I talked a little bit about my background and what I had done, and then I introduced my husband and I thought I might relate to these people, because I assumed maybe they might not be so sophisticated. So —you know Lou owned a bank, he owned a savings and loan, two mortgage companies, all these things—they asked, “What does your husband do?” And I said, “He’s a pig farmer.” And Lou almost dropped his fork!

Pat and Lou at Pig Farm
Pat and Lou on their pig farm. Photo courtesy Pat Yankee

Scott  When did you start doing the Bessie Smith show?

Pat –  I always have done, when I was with Turk’s band, Bessie Smith songs. Baby Doll , most all the things that Bessie did. The only thing I didn’t do with Turk was Pigfoot and a Bottle Of Beer.  I don’t know why I didn’t. But I did all the other songs, which I loved doing. And I did You Got To See Your Mama Every Night  which is a Sophie Tucker song. Turk hated Sophie Tucker—I don’t know why.

But, I loved Bessie Smith. I always had the feelingfor black jazz and when I did the CD of Bessie Smith, George Avakian wrote a wonderful thing about when I do Wasted Life Blues . He said it couldn’t have gotten any better if Bessie had been doing it herself. We started the show in ‘93, and Frank Reilly did all the research on it and we did it until ‘99 and three or four times at performing arts centers after that. The show was nominated for Best Musical and I did win Bay Area Critics Award for the Best Female in a Musical with that show at the Alcazar Theater. We were there for 8 weeks. Before that we did the show many times at festivals and performing arts centers to refine it.

Scott  What made you start another show based on another singer?

Pat  Well, I’ll tell you what happens with a singer—You keep singing some of the same songs over and over, and you get bored with yourself. And even though I try to keep it fresh like it’s the first time I ever sang the song. But you do get bored, and I thought to stretch myself a little bit, I’m going to do that. I did always have a natural feeling for movement on the stage. Frank heard me do Some of These Days  and he said, “Why don’t you do Sophie Tucker?” Where Frank (Reilly) comes from, for 15 years he had the Chamber Theater here [San Francisco]—dramatics theater, not musical. He won all kinds of accolades or his theater. He and his wife owned a media company here called F. S. Reilly. They had a lot of clients—the rice growers, Delta Dental, and a lot of wineries. He also did parts in movies here with people like Clint Eastwood—speaking parts.

I met him at the end of the 1970s. He’s also a wonderful writer. What he did with me, what he brought out—I did study acting and all that—I did things that I never had done before. I knew it was there, but I never had done it. And he brought that out in me. Now when I do a character, I don’t try to imitate Sophie or Bessie Smith. I try to create an atmosphere. It’s a funny thing, when you get on stage, you can hide Pat Yankee in back of those characters…without my voice imitating them. Anyway, with Sophie, we put a few things together and we tried it out—it went over very well. It went over almost better than Bessie. You know why? People were more familiar with the tunes. And what Sophie does—people think thatall she did was these bawdy things, and that’s not true—she lost her voice, and that’s when she started doing special material. But, more song writers, like Jack Yellen,wrote songs for her. She sold a million copies of St. Louis Blues.  Several songs that were big hit songs they wrote for Sophie and she introduced them.

I met Sophie Tucker. When I was with Ted Lewis in New York City—this was about 1946. I was at the Strand Theater, and across the street was Sophie Tucker at the Latin Quarter. It was Ted Lewis’s 50th birthday. Bo Jangles Robinson, Buddy Clark, and some others—they all came over to Ted Lewis’s birthday. I was in the middle of tap dancing and singing I’m An Indian Too  and I looked over and there was Bill Robinson in the wings and he came out, the music stopped, and he did the “Shim-Sham” with me. So, I danced with Bill Robinson then. And I met Sophie Tucker at that time.

Then, when I went to Goman’s Gay Nineties in the ‘50s, Bea and Ray Goman were a vaudeville act in their earlier years as a dance team, and they knew Sophie Tucker and worked with her on the same bill, so when she played San Francisco here in the ‘40s and ‘50s, she came back stage all the time and spent a lot of time with the Gomans. All the Gomans’ kids called her “Aunt Sophie.”

I met her, and I came off [stage] one night singing Some of These Days , and I said, “Miss Tucker, how did you like the way I sang your song?”, And she said, “Well, my dear! As soon as you learn how to sing, you’re going to be just fine!” So, that’s when I met her again!

I’ve had a wonderful life, a really wonderful life. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Pat, you ought to write a book,” even people who are writers. There would be several chapters of Turk Murphy alone. It just takes so long to do that. I loved being in this business—a happy life. A happy marriage and a happy show business life. Most of these people that didn’t marry and didn’t have anybody are left alone. I’m alone now, but I wasn’t up until a few years ago. I couldn’t go for the star thing because you have to eat, sleep, and breathe it. I’m not out to make any money, I’m out just to sing a few times and have a good time, and see the people that are still with me, and that’s how I feel about it.

Scott  After such a long career, what keeps you wanting to continue singing?

Pat  Well, if you don’t keep going, I think you just start to waste away and you disintegrate. Your mind doesn’t stay sharp—It starts to deteriorate. You have to keep going if you want to live. Your body starts breaking down at a certain age. I try to keep fit, I’m on a treadmill five days a week. I have a little dog I walk. And I happened to have a husband who supported me in anything I wanted to do in my show business career.

I love the music.

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