I was in high school—still a freshman, I think—when I first heard the iconic recording of “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman’s band. Goodman recorded it commercially for RCA Victor. It takes up two sides of a twelve-inch 78-rpm record. (Most 78 discs were ten inches in diameter). However, the version I’d heard, and the one most devotees prefer, was the “live” version performed at the band’s legendary appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1938. Pianist Jess Stacy stole the show that night, but much has also been said about Gene Krupa’s remarkable drumming during that concert. He’s quite exciting on his “signature” tune, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” but the fact is his playing is truly inspired throughout the whole concert.
Shortly after I had discovered “Sing, Sing, Sing” and that great Carnegie Hall concert, I mentioned Gene Krupa’s name to my father. I told him how great I thought Krupa was as a drummer. I think my father was washing the dishes at the time.
He surprised me when he dried his hands, turned to me and said, “Gene Krupa? He was a real nice guy.”
I stared at my dad. I said, “You mean, you actually knew him?”
He said, “We rode together once on a train, from St. Louis to New York City.”
I made him sit down and tell me as much as he could remember. It was the only time he ever talked about it. In the following chapters, I have tried to recreate that memorable train trip. Of course, the dialogue and most of the scenes are invented, but it’s all based on what my dad told me about his time with Krupa. The anecdotes about my father’s experiences on his Navy cargo ship are all true, and “approximately verbatim” as he had related them to me.
World War Two. United States. Ration coupons for food, gasoline. Fear in the air: Hitler. Hirohito. Mussolini. What do these madmen have planned? What’s really happening in the European Theater and the South Pacific?
1942. Music was in the air. Dancing and exhilarating swing music helped mask the dark clouds of war with a little sunshine. Ever since Benny Goodman’s triumphant appearance at the Palomar Ballroom in Oakland, California in 1935, “Swing” has been the thing. Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, and hundreds of other musicians across the country are leading bands that—if not full-blown “Swing” bands—include at least a percentage of swing arrangements in their libraries. The exciting, joyous music gives the nation optimism: while you’re jitterbugging to Jumpin’ at the Woodside, it’s easy to believe that better times are ahead.
Market Street in St. Louis. St. Louis Union Station. Train platforms crowded with commuters; a few are smiling, but most of them are solemn or lost in thought. Families. Women and children, traveling to visit relatives. Single men who, for whatever reasons, weren’t drafted or couldn’t enlist.
And military personnel.
A train slowly pulls out of the station, bound for New York City. In one of the cars, a lone United States Navy sailor—in his navy blues and with a bright white cap perched jauntily on his head—is carefully making his way down the aisle. He has jet-black hair, and is a slim, wiry fellow a little under six feet tall. A few young women have already followed his progress through the train car. He’s wrestling with a large olive-drab duffel bag on his shoulder, and threads his way to the end of the car without finding a seat.
He opens the door to the next car, and realizes he’s entering a First-Class coach. He makes his way through this elite car, perhaps envying the passengers in the deluxe, mahogany-appointed compartments lining the inside wall of the train car. In the first compartment, two businessmen, both wearing what could be Brooks Brothers suits, have cigars going, and are laughing.
In the next compartment, the sailor sees a single mother with three children, all impeccably dressed. The oldest child—a girl of about nine years of age—is helping a six-year-old boy with a coloring book. The third child, another boy, is about three years old. He’s sound asleep, leaning on his older brother. Their mother is seated across from them, holding a magazine up to her face. But the sailor notices she isn’t reading it. She’s weeping, and discreetly wiping tears from her face with a gloved hand.
The sailor feels guilty at what he thinks was an intrusion—however, unintended—upon a mother’s private moment. He doesn’t speculate on the reason for her grief. There were many reasons for sadness in 1942. Best to just move on, and try to find a seat on this damned train. There must be one someplace.
In the next compartment, a dark-haired man is sitting by himself, smoking a cigarette. Years later, the sailor will remember the man’s beautiful hounds’-tooth overcoat. The man looks up and over at the sailor, who then recognizes the handsome dark-haired guy. He’s a celebrity; a terrific drummer, and leader of a popular big band! They nod at each other as the drummer smiles and gives the sailor a mock salute. The sailor laughs and moves on, continuing to search for a seat.
The next car is another Second-Class car. It too is crowded, and in this one, there are people standing in the narrow aisle.
The next three cars are also full. The sailor turns around and makes his way back. He must pass through the First-Class car again. He thinks he might be able to stand in the vestibule of the Second-Class car; the one through which he’d first passed.
Going back the other way now, as he passes the famous drummer in the hounds’-tooth coat he sees that the mother with the three children has composed herself. Now she is smiling, and speaking softly as she brushes the girl’s hair. The sailor feels better. Then he hears a voice bark out behind him.
The sailor turns slowly, aware of the heavy duffel bag on his shoulder, and sees the dark-haired drummer’s head sticking out sideways from his compartment. He looks funny like that, but the sailor doesn’t laugh. The sailor says,
“Oh, good afternoon, Mister Krupa!”
Krupa says, “Can’t you find a seat? Come on, join me. I could use the company.”
The sailor can’t believe it. Gene Krupa inviting a US Navy Sailor to join him in his private compartment. First Class!
The sailor stopped in the aisle and took the large bag down off his shoulder. He set it on the floor in front of him, holding it upright by the canvas strap on the end. “Thank you, Mister Krupa,” the sailor said, “but I don’t want to impose on you. I’m sure I’ll find a seat…”
“Sailor, you’re not imposing. I’m inviting you! Please, come on in.” he held the sliding door open as the sailor, thinking this was some kind of dream, made his way past Krupa into the compartment. He looked around for a place for his duffel bag.
Krupa gestured with his cigarette hand to the luggage rack above the seat opposite him. The sailor squared his gear away. He remained standing.
“Well, you’re sure a polite sailor, all right,” Krupa said. “Please, have a seat.”
The sailor sat down opposite Krupa. He was smiling like he won the Trifecta.
Krupa put out his hand. He said, “I’m Gene Krupa.”
The sailor shook his hand a little too vigorously, and said, “Yes sir, I know! Hello again, Mister Krupa. My name is Ed Barrett. I’m honored to meet you!”
Krupa looked at Ed Barrett. He smiled and said, “Call me Gene.” He took a pack of Chesterfields out of his breast pocket. “Care for a smoke?”
Krupa lit Ed’s cigarette and shook out the match. Several awkward seconds passed as Krupa appraised his new visitor. He blew some smoke up and away from them, and said,
“You look a little like Humphrey Bogart.”
Ed laughed, and said, “The guys on the ship call me ‘Bogie.’ I don’t mind it, but I guess I prefer ‘Ed.’”
“OK, Ed it is. I noticed you’re all by yourself. No other Navy boys in St. Louis?” Krupa took another long drag on his Chesterfield.
Ed said, “No, I’m on my own this time. Actually, I’m not ‘on my own’ anymore. I just got married! My wife Dorothee lives in St, Louis. I’ve been on leave. I’ve got to meet my ship in New York City. I’m on the S. S. Alnitah. Then…we ship back to the South Pacific.”
“Hey!” Krupa said. “I’m going all the way to New York, too! This is great! You can ride with me all the way through to Penn Station, sailor…uh, Ed!”
Once again Ed couldn’t believe his luck. The trip from St. Louis to New York could take thirty hours or more! “Thanks so much, Mister Krupa. That’s…that’s swell!”
“Please, please call me Gene. Enough with that “Mister Krupa’ jive!” He smiled again at Ed, impressed with the courteous young sailor.
There was a soft knock on the compartment’s glass door. Krupa and Ed looked up and saw a young waiter with a small rolling beverage cart. The waiter pushed open the door and asked if either of them would like a drink.
Krupa said, “That sounds good to me. I’ll have a scotch and soda. What’ll you have, Ed?”
“Uh…scotch and soda’s fine…”
The waiter fixed the drinks. Ed fished around in his pocket and pulled out his wallet. Krupa waved him off. “Drinks are on me, Ed. In fact, drinks are on me from here to the Big Apple.”
“But Mister Krupa—Gene—” Ed protested.
Krupa paid the waiter, and as the door closed, he said, “Here’s how it works, Ed: you serve the country, and I buy the drinks. Then we’re both contributing to the war effort!”
Ed laughed and raised his glass.
Krupa said, “Here’s to you and Mrs. Barrett; the newlyweds!”
The unlikely pair continued to converse, laughing often. Every time the waiter came around with the beverage cart, Krupa and Ed each had another scotch and soda. The two Catholic guys—one from Chicago, born of Polish immigrants, and the other of Irish-English heritage from St. Louis—were hitting it off.
Eventually, the train conductor showed up at the compartment door.
“Oh, you’re Gene Krupa! Hey, Mister Krupa, I have a couple of your records! I like your new band all right, but…well, I really liked your stuff a few years ago with Benny Goodman.”
Krupa looked at Ed. He looked out the window as he said to the conductor, “Yeah, thanks a lot.”
The conductor finally noticed the sailor sitting across from Krupa. “Hey there, sailor! You’re not supposed to be here in First-Class! Military personnel have free carriage in Second-Class only! Mister Krupa is supposed to have this compartment all to himself! Come on, follow me. Good afternoon, Mister Krupa. I’ll find the sailor another seat…”
Krupa grabbed the conductor’s forearm. He said, “Just a second.” He looked at the sailor and said, “You stay right there.”
Krupa addressed the conductor. “The sailor’s name is Ed Barrett, and he’s a friend of mine. I invited him to join me here. He’s gonna stay right here with me. Now, if that’s all you need, then…good afternoon.”
Then Krupa suddenly added, “Oh…say, pal! Send that waiter back here when you see him. I think Ed and I could use another drink.”
The conductor looked at Krupa, and then at Ed. Ed shrugged, and smiled sheepishly. The conductor left. Krupa shook his head. “These fans…you work your tail off to get a great new band together, and all they want to hear is what you did yesterday!”
Ed smiled and said, “Well, Gene, you gotta admit, your stuff with Benny was…real good…”
Krupa glowered at Ed, and then his face broke into a smile. “Yeah, I guess it was at that, wasn’t it?”
They chatted some more. The waiter came around again. Drinks were served. Again.
Gene regarded his guest. “So, what is it you guys do on that bucket you’re on? Did you get into any…trouble over there?”
Ed knew what Krupa meant. “So far, we’ve been lucky. We haven’t seen any action at all. See, we’re a cargo ship, and they route us as far away from the enemy submarine lanes as they can.”
“Well, that’s good!” Gene stubbed out his Chesterfield in a tall, round, Art Deco ashtray. “What do you do, personally? Like, your position, or whatever they call in on a ship.”
“Oh, Ed said, looking dead-pan at Krupa. “You mean my ‘gig’!”
Krupa laughed out loud at the sailor’s reference to every jazzman’s word for employment.
Ed continued. “I was just recently appointed Postmaster on the ship. See, we have Mail Call every couple of weeks. We stand on the deck, and the Postmaster—the PM—well, he’s in the middle of a big circle of guys. We go to Mail Call in several different groups—like A to E, then F to J, and so on, so it doesn’t get too crowded. The former PM would call out the names on the envelopes, but he…well, he isn’t your average Einstein, if you know what I mean.”
This got another good laugh out of Krupa. “I’m gonna remember that one! The cats in the band will love it!”
“So,” Ed went on, “he’s smoking a really cheap cigar, and calling out names with the wet cigar rolling around in his mouth, and he’s just mangling the ethnic and Eastern European names. Finally, one guy’d had enough. He hollered out, ‘My name is Coz-NOFF-ski! Coz-NOFF-ski! It’s been Coz-NOFF-ski for the past several centuries, and it’s gonna be Coz-NOFF-ski long after I get off this miserable scow!”
“Oh, man!” Gene said. “Then what happened?”
“Well, the PM, he looks around, takes the cigar out of his mouth, and yells, ‘I’ve HAD it with you jerks! Anyone who thinks he can do better is welcome to it!’ And then, he threw all the letters in the air and stomped off.
“I saw a chance for myself, and I took it. I shouted, ‘Hey, PM! I’d like to give it a shot!’
“He turned around and said, ‘OK. Barrett. The detail is yours. I’ll tell the CO.’
Ed went on as Krupa sat shaking his head.
“So, I gathered up all the letters off the deck, and stood on a stool so the guys could hear me better. I started reading the names on the envelopes. When I got to a name I didn’t know how to pronounce, I’d shout out the first name, and SPELL the last name. When a sailor answered, ‘Yo!’ I’d ask him to please pronounce his name. The next day, I had a pencil and paper, and I’d quickly write down the guy’s name, and a phonetic pronunciation. I tried not to mess up a name more than once.”
Ed looked out the window for a few seconds. Then he looked back at Krupa and went on.
“A couple of weeks ago, a Polish guy came up to me and said he and the other guys appreciated hearing their names ‘said right.’ That really meant a lot to me. But see, I have kind of an inside track toward how to pronounce those names.”
“What’s that?,” asked Krupa.
“Well,” Ed replied, “My wife’s parents are Serbian. Dorothee’s maiden name looks like the third line on an eye exam chart!”
This got another hearty laugh from Krupa.
“I said ‘Serbian,’ but they’re specifically Hungarian and Yugoslavian. Her parents’ friends are all from the big Serbian community in St. Louis. So, I learned how to pronounce those Slavic names pretty quickly. I had to, if I wanted to stay on my in-laws’ good side!”
Krupa nodded. Then he said, “My parents were Polish! ‘Krupa’ is an old Polish name. My dad is from a little village in southeastern Poland. My mother is also Polish, but she was born in Pennsylvania; a place called Shamokin. He, that name would give your old PM a run for his money, wouldn’t it?”
It was Ed’s turn to laugh. For a big star, this guy was about as down-to-earth as a guy could be.
Ed then said, “As far as other stuff we do to pass the time on the ship, I guess a lot of guys read books. Novels, magazines, comic books. The Red Cross sends ‘em. We’ll also play board games, and do crossword puzzles. Chess, checkers. Also shuffleboard…You know…”
Krupa nodded some more.
Ed said, “I started a little personal project a few weeks ago. I found a copy of Webster’s Dictionary in the ship library. See, Gene, I was about nine years old at the beginning of the Depression. You’re a Catholic; you’ll understand: I had eleven brothers and sisters! A couple of years after the Depression hit, I had to go out and work for the family. So I figure, since I never made it past the eighth grade, reading the dictionary might at least help me with the English language.
“I try to read a whole page every couple of days. Then I go back and review the definitions and make sure I have the words memorized. I’ve made it up to the Gs so far.”
Krupa’s jaw dropped, and his mouth fell open slightly. This sailor was reading the DICTIONARY cover to cover, like some kind of novel! This Ed Barrett was a pretty solid cat. Krupa was very glad he’d invited the solo sailor to be his guest.
Eventually, Krupa slept. Ed slept. They woke up about the same time. Both men checked their wristwatches; just a few more hours to go. Krupa led Ed to the restaurant car for breakfast, and they picked up where they left off.
“So, Ed,” Krupa began, a while ago you mentioned the sides I recorded with Benny. Are you—you know, are you a real fan? I mean, do you really dig jazz?”
Ed smiled and said, “I have quite a few 78s. Dorothee likes to play ’em when she’s not banging on the piano. There are a few records on the ship that I like, and the Red Cross sends new sides to us every so often. I can’t say I understand that much about jazz, but Dot and I used to go dancing around town and got to know a few of the musicians in the different bands. We learned a little from them. There was a juke joint called “Halstead’s” over in East St. Louis with a terrific little band. Sometimes Dot and I were the only two Whites in the place, but there was never any trouble or anything. Man, now that was a great band!”
Ed dug into his bacon and eggs, and went on.
“I love Goodman and Artie Shaw. I guess I always liked the clarinet. In fact, I took lessons when I was a kid. I had to give it up, though. My teacher was trying to get me to play some kid’s tune called Teddy Bear. After a few nights of practicing, the neighbors in the apartment building started complaining. So that was the end of that. But I still listened to music. Say, do you know Shaw’s Gramercy Five recording of Summit Ridge Drive? It’s a killer, especially at the end; that’s where you hear the clarinet ride over the top…”
Gene was amused and somehow moved by the sailor’s enthusiasm. This sailor—Ed— really dug the stuff, all right.
Krupa said, “Yeah, I know that record. Billy Butterfield’s on trumpet. Shaw made John Guarnieri move off the piano over to a harpsichord in the studio, to give the band a different sound. Johnny told me it’s tough to swing on a harpsichord, ha, ha! And my friend Nick Fatool plays drums on that side and on Artie’s other Gramercy Five stuff. Nick is one of the cats who followed me in Benny’s band. Great drummer, man! Yeah, Summit Ridge Drive…You’re right: it’s a solid, swinging side.”
Krupa paid the waiter, and they made their way back to Krupa’s compartment. Krupa had to sign a few autographs along the way. They finally made it back to the First-Class compartment. As they neared New York City, they had time for another couple of rounds of scotch and soda.
“Say, Ed,” Krupa said. “I never told you why I’m heading to New York. My band is opening tomorrow night at the Paramount Theater. We’ll be there a month; six shows a day between the movie, the comedian, the dancers…you know the bit.”
“Wow!” was all Ed could say.
“Yeah, wow.” Gene lit up another cigarette. He offered one to Ed, who declined.
“So,” Gene continued. “When we get off the train, I’ll get into my bag. I’ve got a few extra tickets. You can have two. Give one to a buddy from the ship. Come and see the show! In fact, go around to the side of the theater. You’ll see a sign that says, ‘Stage Entrance.’ Just inside, there’s a guy at a desk there. His name is Sammy. Just tell him I invited you and your friend backstage. He’ll let you in. Come on back and meet the cats in the band. They’d enjoy meeting you, too.”
“Gosh, Mister Krupa—Gene—I…I don’t know what to say…”
“Forget it, Ed. It’s nothing.” Krupa took a long drag off his Chesterfield. “Hey, is there anything else I can do for you?”
Ed thought for a second. He finally said, “Would it be possible for you to send a photo to Dorothee? It’s the only way she’d believe that this whole trip really happened…”
Krupa laughed, and said, “Sure, Ed. Gimme her address. I’ll see she gets a photo.”
They finally arrived at Penn Station in Manhattan. My father told me they “more or less helped pour each other off the train.” Krupa and my father then went their separate ways. My father told me he struggled with the decision whether to go see Krupa’s band at the Paramount. The problem was his leave had officially ended; his orders had him staying on the ship that night. Going AWOL (Absent Without Leave) was a serious offense, especially in time of war. He just couldn’t risk it. So, he never made it to the Paramount. He never met Sammy at the stage door, and never got backstage to “meet the cats.”
However, the Barrett family has a terrific memento; proof that an encounter with Gene Krupa actually took place. In our home, proudly displayed in a cabinet with other family memorabilia rests a 5×7 manila envelope, brown with age. The 1 ½-cent postage stamp has an oval “Yonkers, N.Y.” postmark stamped over it.
Inside is a 5×7 sepia-toned publicity photo of Krupa, looking happy and handsome behind his drum kit. He’s sporting a smart, double-breasted jacket with a huge gardenia in the lapel, and is smiling broadly at the camera. He’s seated in front of a large, surreal mural featuring dozens of snare drums (or are they tom-toms?) spinning off into space behind him.
In the lower right corner of the photo, in faint black ink—yet still clear after so many years—is Krupa’s distinctive autograph. It matches the handwriting on the front of the envelope, leading me to believe Krupa actually signed the photo and addressed the envelope himself. (Often, this level of celebrity will leave these chores to a secretary or assistant).
Years after telling me about his encounter with Gene Krupa, my father told me about the most harrowing experience of his life. Shortly before the end of the war, and the end of his service to the Navy in 1945, the U.S.S. Alnitah was cruising the South Pacific. The crew was on “Magic Carpet” duty, which meant the ship was now being used to shuttle various military personnel from locations in the South Pacific to various bases from where they would travel home.
Dad remembered it was an especially beautiful, sunny day. Most of the crew was up on the deck. Many had their shirts off. Some were playing shuffleboard; others were playing catch. Just another relaxed day on the ocean. At one point, they heard a plane engine coughing above them. The plane was in trouble. A few seconds later, the “battle stations” sirens sounded. Amid the deafening sirens, there was instant chaos. The approaching plane was a Japanese kamikaze; a straggler, and having serious engine trouble. The pilot was heading straight for the ship!
Dad remembered the guys having to cut the canvas covers off the machine guns on the deck. The guns hadn’t been maintained, and the covers had dried out in the salt air and sunshine.
A few guys finally remembered how to load the guns, and started shooting at the same time the kamikaze began strafing the deck. Dad gave a chilling description of the bullets splintering the wooden deck not far from where he was standing. He started running. He was just small enough and slender enough to slide under one of the guns, like Lou Gehrig sliding into home plate. Dad said he covered his ears with his hands; the guys were firing that gun right over his head! It must have been mere seconds before the plane would have hit the ship that the gun crew managed to shoot it down. The cheering sailors watched it fall into the sea. I remember my dad’s account vividly, for it was the first time I remember him ever admitting to being frightened of anything. He said he was scared to death. I’m sure he wasn’t alone.
Regarding his meeting with Gene Krupa, I often wish I’d asked my father for more details about his special encounter with one of jazz music’s greatest figures. But then again, my father wasn’t the sort of man who fawned over celebrities. It’s probably why he told me the story only once, and didn’t elaborate on it, or trot it out over the years to try to impress others with his “brush with celebrity.” I think he liked Krupa simply because he felt Krupa was a good, kind, and generous man.
That was enough for Ed Barrett.
Costa Mesa, CA
27 March 2023 (Ed Barrett’s 103rd birthday)