An Old Flame

Four decades later, a forgotten Dallas jazz label descends from the 90th Floor

Time has all but erased them. Even those who know of them know little aboutthem--where they came from, how they met, what they were like. They came to Dallas from the Midwest in the late 1950s to set up shop in a club that was shuttered long ago and vanished shortly after that--she from a brain hemorrhage that would claim her at 29; he to Corpus Christi, where his boat sank in a hurricane. Type the words "Dick and Kiz Harp" into the Google search engine, and you will come up almost empty-handed. On the Internet, where folks will live forever as bits and bytes entered by fetishists who memorialize anything, it's as if they barely existed at all.

Bruce Collier, of course, knows better. He knew Dick--the piano player with fingers as light as feathers, and Kiz, the singer with a voice as heavy as mercury--as well as anyone could back then. He was in his early 20s when the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, a young cat who loved recording music as much as he loved listening to it. He came to Dallas in 1958 searching for the dad he didn't know but found a different kind of family--Dick and Kiz Harp, who sort of adopted the young Bruce as he trawled the city's nightclubs and colleges looking for jazzers to record using his newfangled Sony condenser microphone and his far-out reel-to-reel deck. One night, with his equipment in tow, Bruce stumbled into the 90th Floor, the Harps' hot spot at the intersection of McKinney Avenue and Fairmont Street, and asked the couple if he could record them. They said sure, and he wound up with a remarkable collection of songs that almost vanished forever--one more Dallas landmark reduced to rubble and paved over for parking spots.

Instead, Collier has resurrected the long-defunct 90th Floor Records label, which existed only from 1959 to 1963 and released but four albums during its existence. The first two 90th Floor records contained wonderful recordings of seldom-heard standards performed by Dick and Kiz: Dick and Kiz Harp at the 90th Floor and Again! Dick and Kiz Harp at the 90th Floor, both recorded in the 200-person-capacity club in front of an audience that dared not speak a word even when the recorder wasn't rolling. (The motto of the 90th Floor was "For Listeners Only," and anyone caught making a peep was booted after a lone warning.) Back then Collier, driving to Los Angeles and Chicago and New York, managed to secure modest nationwide distribution for the records; the legendary Wallich's Music City, at the corner of Sunset and Vine in L.A., even had a 90th Floor Records section. Then came an album of material recorded by the North Texas Lab Band, then another by Mal Fitch, a bandleader who worked the best hotels in the country in the 1960s.

The 90th Floor club, with its tomato-can light fixtures and tiny balcony and lockers full of booze kept by patrons trying to drink in a dry town, would spawn not only a label, but also its own self-contained scene. It was among the city's heppest joints, where Tony Bennett or Marlene Dietrich or other movie stars and musicians would hang when in town. And behind the venue, Collier leased a warehouse he converted into a recording space and an office. It seems now like an idyllic working environment--part hideout, part hangout, all work and all play all the time.

"It seemed like such a cool scene," says the New Year's Peter Schmidt, whose solo work in recent years has been constructed not with guitar, but piano. Schmidt became fascinated with 90th Floor Records after hearing Collier on the radio last year. "It's so much of what we wanted Deep Ellum to be. I like the idea of it, because it was listening-based. Music was the thing. And [Kiz's] voice had this kind of world-weariness to it, almost like she knew what was going to happen, just this sad quality. I was disappointed that there was nobody out there to school me on it. You hate it when your own city has something so interesting, only to find people have forgotten about it."

But the label vanished before it had time to make its mark: Kiz died before the first album was even released, and Dick was nearing his decision to hang up his keys. (He would become a photographer before he died.) And in 1961 Collier went off to Vietnam, and by the time he returned in 1963 there was no reason to continue.

"At the time I came out of the service, one of the guys I worked with called and said we needed to close it down, that the label was just sucking money big time," Collier says now. Collier, his face barely covered by a thin, graying beard, sits at a table in his Market Center Boulevard office, where he runs his own marketing company. He looks just like what he is: an aging jazzbo, older than he appears.

"Had I been here, I would have never let it happen," he continues. "But when you disengage and go through two years of changing your life and seeing a whole different perspective when you're 21, well, I thought, 'Fine, let's close it down.' I wish in a lot of ways I hadn't, but I probably would have gone broke."

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