An Old Flame
Time has all but erased them. Even those who know of them know little about them--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."
The first release from the revived 90th Floor wasn't a Dick and Kiz disc, but Circa 1960, a compilation of never-heard material made from 1959 to 1961, featuring the North Texas State College Laboratory Dance Band, the Paul Guerrero Quintet, the Harvey Anderson Quartet and, most significant, Ann Richards (no relation to the governor), the wife of big band leader Stan Kenton, who was around the area during that period working with the North Texas music program. In 1954 Kenton helped get the pin-up pretty Richards a contract with Capitol Records, for whom she recorded three swinging records that garnered her a rep as "the Elizabeth Taylor of the hip set," wrote critic Leonard Feather. By the time Collier caught up with her, at the Blue Mist nightclub, her marriage to Kenton was disintegrating, and Richards was about to pose for Playboy; her career was close to its end, and she would shoot herself in the head in her Los Angeles apartment in 1982. Though her backup band is perfunctory at best, Richards' performances are stellar--a breathy come-on offered by a woman trying her best to keep you at arm's length.
Circa 1960 was originally intended to be given away to winners of the Addison Jazz Festival's high school and collegiate competition. Collier wisely decided to sell the disc as well, and via Internet sales it found an audience among jazz fetishists, many from the United Kingdom, Japan, Sweden and Canada. The small success of that disc, combined with the occasional query about Dick and Kiz from those who remembered them, prompted Collier and his wife, Jan, to re-release their discs, which they're selling only on their Web site, www.90thfloorrecords.com.
There was only one problem: Collier didn't have the masters, which had burned in a fire in the mid-1970s. He had given them to someone else for safekeeping, which turned out to be a very bad idea.
"I was totally, absolutely depressed," Collier says of his decision to relinquish the masters. (The discs were made from stereo copies of the albums he had preserved, with some extra, unissued tracks also in his possession.) "I didn't even want to think about it. I don't know how you are about death, but when [Kiz] died I went to the funeral, and they made me go in and look at the body. I mean, I didn't want to see it, didn't want anything to do with it. But it's neat to do this now." Collier says he may even record new music, even though he's yet to make back his investment from the first three reissues.
"This is something that helps explain why we resurrected this thing, actually. About 12 years ago I was in Phoenix at the Wrigley Mansion, and there was this couple performing. Long story short, the guy plays a Dick and Kiz song, and I said, 'Wow, that's great. I recorded a couple who sang that song a long time ago.' He asked me who, and I said Dick and Kiz Harp. 'Jesus Christ,' he said, 'I grew up listening to them in New York City on the radio. I was 10 at the time, and they were playing that stuff, which is how I got into doing this vocal thing with my wife.' People all over heard it, but I know we didn't sell enough to make big money, because if we had, my whole life would have been different. It was just very much a cult thing--always was, and I guess it always will be."
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