|Occupation: School Principal|
|Favorite Boswell Song: Shout, Sister, Shout|
Tommy Meehan’s story is one of the most remarkable we’ve heard here at Bozzies.com. A principal of a school for the deaf, Tommy has had a hearing impairment all his life. But he is able to fully experience music and had an early fascination with harmony. He comes from a musical family and was exposed to a wide variety at an early age. His parents were older, born in 1911 and 1912, and were contemporaries of the Boswell Sisters.
What makes Tommy even more amazing is that he was first Bozzed at age six.
“I was watching a movie “Buck Privates” and my father was watching it with me,” Tommy told us. “Keep in mind that I am hearing-impaired. I was just getting used to the idea of wearing a hearing-aid. Prior to this time, I either would NOT wear it (not wanting to look ‘different’) or I could be bribed to wear it for school only. I was in the beginning stages of realizing that I was hearing TV (with meaning) when I stumbled on this movie.”
It was the Andrews Sisters in the 1941 Abbott and Costello comedy that helped make them a household name.
“During this movie, I said to my Dad, ‘Wow, those three sisters sing beautifully; sort of a high, low and medium voice combined.’ He then explained to me what “harmony” meant and ended his sentence with ‘Well, Tommy, if you think the Andrews sisters are good, you shoulda heard the Boswell sisters’”
He asked his father what these “better” singers names were.
“He was close – called them Connee, Beth and Martha,” Tommy recalls.
His father also told him that Connee had a disability, a childhood paralysis which confined her to a wheelchair. For a kid just coming to terms with his own physical challenges, it made the Boswell Sisters even more interesting.
“Helping my mother clean out old things from the attic one day, I saw a music book of songs from “The Big Broadcast” and lo and behold, their picture was way down there in the corner,” Tommy remembered. “It was a gold mine find!! I told everyone I came into contact with that I was on the hunt and one of my cousins, who was about 40 years older than I, came upon an album that contained a spin of There’ll be Some Changes Made (Change in the Weather). Once I heard that the rest is history: or I should say My-story!”
So Tommy began his life-long quest to obtain and immerse himself in the music of the Boswell Sisters. Living in New York City had its advantages, for there were a wealth of resources that even a youngster could access.
“When I was old enough to work, at a local supermarket, and earn money of my own, I started to go to libraries, (like the) Lincoln Center Performing Arts library to locate anything, pictures, songs, titles of songs and then (I would contact) record dealers. This was before internet and computer, so I would write, ask if they had any Boswell Sisters records, how much, etc., wait for a reply, then go and buy them. I have a ton of 78 RPM records, including their very FIRST recording, Crying Blues and Nights When I am Lonely.
“What I found was that I listen to a song often, at various times, and always hear something different. At times I would try to follow ONE sister, listening to Connee all the way through, or Vet or Martha. Since I am musical, I could envision a thread (like a moving thread) bobbing in and out, weaving all three individual threads into the songs. Honestly, if you try, you CAN hear them individually. I did, on occasion, need to refer to the liner notes because people who wrote them might make a notation that one sister or the other was doing something particularly different or unique in the song.”
While Tommy’s story is remarkable for his youthful passion for the Bozzies, what he did next really knocked our socks off.
“A group of about 10 kids and I (all same ages) banded together and decided to take on a project to raise money via dinner-dances for handicap charities. As a part of the deal, a person would pay X amount of dollars for dinner and dance, a band would donate the evening and we would provide additional entertainment (some of us sang, danced, played music instruments) to make the night last long and be varied.”
“We wanted to see who we could get to come as a “star”. All the kids all knew about Connee Boswell so I looked her up (once I knew her last name was Leedy) and called her. She was SO nice, and said she would try to come. We were raising money for MDystrophy or MSclerosis at the time. Unfortunately close to the time of the event she had a conflict. So instead, she sent me a nice letter to read to the audience and gave me a present of a couple of her recordings, which we played to the audience. They all clapped and especially when she talked about being handicapped herself.
“That was the start of my feeling OK to call her on occasions and chat, and golly, she LOVED to talk!! And was SO much fun to listen to!”
And that’s how young Tommy Meehan, Boz Buf deluxe, began a long-term relationship with Connee Boswell.
“I would call about once every couple of months, tell her what I had found as far as movies, pictures and records; ask her questions that I may have had about her growing up, where they were living, the impact of the gospel church singers on their music; tips for playing; how she thought of her fans etc. On a few occasions, not all, I recorded our conversation. She knew (I was recording) because there were times when I would miss some dialogue and by having it on tape, my mother was able to tell me what I missed (and believe me, when you hang on to every word, you wanna know!!)”
“She had a great Southern drawl and a lilting bounce to her voice,” Tommy recalls.
But despite their long-term telephone friendship and his relatively close proximity to her Central Park home, Tommy had never gotten the courage up to actually meet Connee. It wasn’t until cancer had hospitalized Connee for the second time that Tommy overcame his shyness and decided to meet his friend and idol.
“I was nervous as I knew about cancer issues,” Tommy said. “Some of what I read told me that time was not on her side and something (an angel?) made me do it. I called up and talked with her brother-in-law Ben (Leedy), who knew all about me and made an arrangement for me to go at a specific date and time: and I did.
It was Labor day of 1976.”
How was it to meet Connee?
“It was like a religious experience,” Tommy fondly recalled. “I cannot find my way out of a paper bag so my mother, who knew the city and subway system like the back of her hand, went with me and had intended to stay in the coffee shop while I went up. Ben came to meet me there and insisted that she come too. We went up to her room, and my heart was beating like a drum. I felt like that scene in Wizard of Oz, where they are about to meet the Wizard for the first time, wondering what lay behind the door.
“The room was filled and adorned with flowers. Boswell sister pictures everywhere and a tape player was playing their music.
“We went in and she was propped up in bed wearing a blue chiffon robe, made up very, very nicely with a blond short curly wig.
“She was SO pleasant! She extended her hand and said “Hello Tommy!” It was so funny to hear the VOICE say my name. Ben introduced my mother and then Connee asked us to sit down.
“I told her that I was so happy to meet her and that I enjoyed her music, the sisters and the type of music (they performed). She replied by saying she did not know she had fans as young as me and still around. She started to talk about growing up in the south, loving her music, and how fans are the heart of the career…without them you are nothing…she believed in mingling with them, signing autographs because they made you what you are – a star. Then we got to talking about foods, and she said no matter how big her star was, she still liked her “meat and ‘taters”. She and my mother talked a little about growing up as they were close in age (my mother was born the same year as Vet).
“She was so alert, so personable: you would never know she was suffering in any way. Her sweetness, her down to earthness….the stereotype of a star (snob) was no where to be seen. She had gone all out for me, and in all honesty, I was only a peon, not anyone that would be of any value to her. But the treatment and ‘performance” I got was star quality!!
“We stayed for about 30 minutes, then Ben kind of let us know that it might be time to leave as she would be getting tired. We thanked her, she gave us each a hug and a kiss. Gosh I was on cloud nine. She died about one month later and I am so happy I made that trip.”
Tommy’s adventures with the Boswell Sisters didn’t end there. Not long after Connee passed away a second Boswell Sister entered his life.
Tommy writes, “I had moved to Connecticut in September of 1977 and had gotten a letter addressed to me (forwarded from NY by mother) from Vet. It was a letter that mainly said that she was going through Connee’s things and had found many notes, letters, and gifts from me and she wanted to contact me to see who I was, if I wanted anything back and how I came to be involved with Connee. She had also seen me at the funeral parlor but did not say anything at the time because she was not sure who I was. I had asked her if I could call her periodically and then finally got up the nerve to ask if I could visit as it would be about 2 hours away. She said fine, and she would get back to me. She did….she invited me to come Labor day of 1978 and meet a young guy from New Orleans who was coming also. So I went and just about died when I met the guy – he was one year younger than me! And we became very special friends from that day to now and that was David McCain.”
(Note to bozzies – this is David McCain, the Wizard of Boz, who will be featured on bozzies.com as soon as we can drag the crew out to the east coast, and whose book on the Boswell Sisters being written in collaboration with Vet Boswell Minnerly is, in his words, 95% finished.)
Tommy struck up a friendship with Vet Boswell Jones and visited her often at her home in Peekskill.
“There were not many people around who could really understand her history and the value of the sisters. She was easy to be friends with and I could see she really enjoyed my coming there. She was charming. She loved it when David and I would go – we would be so silly. We understood all her references to times in the past, or people or situations or musical items. David says he has a recording of he, Vet and I (me on piano) singing Heebie Jeebies. I have got to hear that again! We even had sleepovers!”
One of Tommy’s many great stories about Vet reflects what a fun loving lady she could be.
He writes: “I have to laugh – one night she said she was taking us out to dinner. I picked she and David up and she had me drive to a supermarket. She took us down the frozen food aisle to the TV dinners and said “take what you want – help yourself it’s on me!” And that is what we did!”
The Boswell Sisters continue to have an influence on Tommy’s life.
“They are singing in my head all the time. The whole “be kind to handicapped” theme is always with me.”
Despite the personal relationships with Connee and Vet, the thing that is still most special to Tommy is their art and the way it changed the music industry forever.
“They revolutionized the music industry with their voices. They were an encapsulation of a bygone era where blacks and whites in the deep south cross over – two very different styles and genres of music blending into a new culture and setting the stage for the musical eras to follow them. Sometimes even now I hear music and recognize a trick or a note transaction that sounds like something they would have done or did!”
Bozzies.com thanks Tommy Meehan for his wonderful stories, his candor and support of the Boswell Sisters. We are honored to feature him as our debut Bozzie of the Month.