And Another One’s Gone, RIP, Flo

Published by Rick on Tagged Uncategorized

In autumn of 1985, my stage partner and I decided to go our separate ways, she went back to school to get her Ph.D while I began a solo career which lasted about 30 years longer than I expected it to.  In spite of us quitting Rick & Ruby after nearly 15 years together, there were many factions that either didn’t get the message, or knew we had quit but didn’t take us seriously. Over the next decade or so, we would be occasionally called upon to bring the act out of mothballs and add another post script.

In January of 1995, we got such a call. This was from a San Jose promoter who was a good friend of my former in-laws, and who my ex father-in-law had often referred to as “The Bill Graham of San Jose.”  He was nowhere near that far up the ladder, not even in his neck of the woods, but he had gotten a chance to book a series of concerts by acts that appealed to the pensioner set. The acts were along the lines of Jerry Vale, Jim Nabors, and Robert Goulet (Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis were too high up the pay scale), and we were offered the opening slot for a Northern California tour headlined by Broadway and TV star Florence Henderson!

“Hold me back” was my first thought.  I despised “The Brady Bunch” along with every other “family” sitcom of its day, but the money was decent, the venues in the realm of 1000-1500 seats, and there was enough old folk in cities like Redding, Chico, and Cupertino to nearly fill those rooms. Certainly it was better exposure than me playing some comedy haven in Mississippi for a week, or staying in LA and going on at 12:30 or 1 AM at The Comedy Store to 7 or 8 stragglers.

So me and Ruby dusted off what we could of the act to fashion a 25-minute set that was free of any opinions beyond “Boy, Johnny Cash sure does sing off key,” and kept Ruby’s Tina Turner impression free of any innuendo or raucousness. It was Rick & Ruby Lite, but it was exactly what Florence Henderson and her audiences would have wanted and expected from us. We didn’t use profanity in the act anyway, so it wasn’t as big a stretch as it could have been for others.

As an extra bonus, but sadly for no extra money, our keyboardist and I were persuaded to come back onstage to be in Florence’s backing band. I should say now before this sounds like a bitch fest, Ms. Henderson was an absolutely lovely person to work with, and the person you would see on the talk shows or on “Brady Bunch” wasn’t that far removed from who she really was. Her show was mostly a song fest with little interludes of patter, but mostly these elderly audiences came to hear her sing, so even with a less than perfect voice, she made them happy.

For a total of ten shows in seven cities, we played some of the most mainstream tunes you could ever expect, including a medley of Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” (probably the only nod to Rock of any sort) segueing into the Cole Porter song “You Make Me Feel So Young,” yes indeed. I also got to know “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Miz 14 years before Susan Boyle put it in the world’s collective consciousness, as Florence did a medley of tunes from that show. Surely there would be no crossover of material or music styles between her show and ours.

What truly amazed me about her was, even though she was by now in her 60’s and had lost some of the range and pitch that she’d had when she toured the country playing the lead in “The Sound Of Music,” she had one of the best show biz attitudes I’ve ever come across. She knew her voice wasn’t great anymore, but the spirit she carried in her stage persona was enough to compensate and then some.  She spent a great deal of her stage time talking about how wonderful show biz has been to her, and all the wonderful people she’s met along the way. One side game that me and some of the other musicians had was keeping a running tally of name drops, which one night numbered 34, by far her high. That may have been a bit ungracious, but a bit funny nonetheless, and I’m sure if we’d ever had to explain that one to her, she probably would have been amused.

At the end of the week, I had to ask her how someone could stay in show biz for so long and be so successful, and not be, as I put it, “a diva or a bitch.” She very nicely explained it was the way she was brought up, and she was surprised that things came to her as easy as they did. Even during filming of “The Brady Bunch,” she said the long days of rehearsal rarely got to her, even when she had to deal with the occasional tantrum of the child actors she had to virtually live with for six years. She never mentioned, either on or off stage, the rumour about her relationship with Barry Williams, who played her eldest stepson on the show. That rumour, never confirmed, was about the closest you could come to any semblance of a scandal in her career.

I think the only disappointment she ever had to face was a future booking she mentioned in her shows that failed to happen. She had frequently opened for comedian George Burns, who the next year would be celebrating his 100th birthday, and she’d been asked to open for him on his century tour. Sadly, Burns got terminally ill at the beginning of 1996 and had to cancel the tour, still making it to 100, but not lasting long after that.

Now Florence Henderson, at the age of 82, has joined George Burns, along with the mammoth cast to leave this earth 20 years later. It was an unexpected pleasure to meet someone so real in such an unreal environment. I have fond memories of what I imagined would be boring. This is why we do it!

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