Six years ago this month, I had a phone conversation I’ll always cherish. I’d talked to Jim Waller in Ironton, Ohio, several years earlier, but I wanted desperately to chat with him again. He had lost his wife, Helen, since we last spoke and was about to turn 87 in a few days.
Mr. Waller (out of respect, I couldn’t bring myself to call him by his first name while talking to him) was the rare living connection to my biological mother, Betty, whom I never had the chance to meet in this life. Since finding my three older full siblings in 2005, I’d spent years intermittently – and mostly futilely – searching for anyone who knew her or my birth father, Bob, her first husband, to see what memories they might be able to dig up for my benefit.
For almost 40 minutes that day, I peppered Jim with questions, and he graciously did his best. He’d spent years working as a bartender and bouncer at a beautiful, historic hotel in Ironton, and that’s where he came to know Betty for a few months in 1960.
During that brief time, as she used her singing gifts to entertain the Sand Bar’s patrons while performing with the Harry Ware Trio, Betty grew ever more pregnant with me.
But although Jim marveled at her voice, grace and beauty – “She was very, very lady-like,” he remembered – he never knew of Betty’s condition. It’s unlikely any of his colleagues – even Harry – did either.
Earlier this week, a day after turning 93, Jim joined his Helen in heaven.
For his age, Jim had been in good health until the past couple of months, from what family members, especially granddaughter Heather, posted on Facebook in recent weeks. Even until the end, as he had gone into hospice care, Jim was smiling and friendly as ever.
Yes, James “Jim” Waller – a Marine veteran, father of two daughters, grandfather of five and great-grandfather of six – was a remarkable and honorable man. I feel blessed to have gotten to know him, even through just a handful of phone calls. I wish we’d been able to meet.
Thank you, sir, for painting such a vivid picture of my mother, with your memories about the days when she was performing music, that no one else has been able to match. You’ll never know how much that means to me.
After our phone visit six years ago, I wrote this post for Facebook that I thought I’d share.
Practically everyone in town knows Big Jim. During the 1950s and ’60s, he kept drink glasses full and, if he had to, bounced folks when their liquor started talking too much. In his day, unruly patrons were rare in the high-class Sand Bar at the historic, marble-floored Marting Hotel in Ironton, Ohio.
“We didn’t let ’em get that far out. We always had two or three old Marines hangin’ around there, and it didn’t take much for us to throw people out,” says 86-year-old Jim Waller, himself an ex-Marine who stood a strapping 6-3, 230 pounds at his brawniest.
For years, the Marting was a prime Tri-State destination for a dressed-up night on the town. Supper in the Heather Room while listening to Harry Ware make magic on the organ and piano. After-dinner drinks at the Kilt Bar. And starting about 9, another drink or three or four, mixed in with cheek-to-cheek dancing and the sounds of Harry’s three-piece band in the Sand Bar until closing time at 2:30.
“Used to be, you had to have a suit and tie on to get in,” Jim recalled in a phone visit a few days ago. “Then they started letting it go, letting it go, and next thing you know, they come in with muscle shirts and what have you.”
That was later, when the bar dropped the dress code and got away from dance music, jazz and the older standards. When performers like Billy Ray Cyrus, from nearby Flatwoods, Kentucky, came along and played there.
But back when it was swanky and safe, it was just the kind of place you’d figure on finding a refined act like Betty Workman. Not as a guest, but singing with Harry’s trio, which she did for several months in 1960.
“I remember Betty well. She used to come in and get up on the little stage they had there – sat on her chair and looked bashful,” Jim reminisced. “She wasn’t like the rest of us clowns. … Good, good person.”
Jim didn’t know all that much about Betty. He’d heard she was divorced. Didn’t even know she had 3 kids. But she made an impression that’s lasted 56 years.
“Never heard a bad word about that lady in any way. I’m not tryin’ to blow you up or nothin’, but that’s God’s honest truth,” Jim says with assuredly genuine honesty.
Jim first shared snippets of Betty memories with me in March 2011 after I stumbled across his daughter Jennifer on a genealogy message board where she’d made reference to her father having worked at the Marting. What was a long shot five years ago has turned out to be the only person I’ve found still living who remembers my birth mother from those fleeting few months at the Sand Bar.
Betty arrived in town in early summer with her boys, 16 and 12, and her young daughter of 5. She’d been divorced a little over a year back in Huntington, West Virginia, but she and her alcoholic ex-husband, Bob Workman, couldn’t get each other out of their hearts or lives.
When Betty was up there with Harry’s band, singing to a packed room of about 50 tops, she exuded not only elegance and an unmistakable musical endowment, but also emotion surely summoned by a consuming weight of worry and fear. For her children’s future with no father and little money. About whether Bob, hauled off weeks earlier after a drunken display, would track them down.
And find out about his baby she was carrying.
Betty didn’t drive, but she had relatives and friends – including men fawning over her – who gave her a hand with that. One of those guys helped Betty and the kids make a temporary home out of an apartment above a grocery warehouse in Ironton, an industrial town nestled up to the Ohio River just northwest of Huntington.
She’d performed with a dance band and even sang on TV a few years earlier on the “Saturday Night Jamboree.” So Betty approached Harry, the house musician at the Marting Hotel who was pushing 60 and had led bands for decades – even played the steam calliope on a Mississippi riverboat. She must’ve wowed him with her audition, because Harry’s bands weren’t known for featuring vocalists.
Did Betty tell Harry and his wife, Melba, a hostess at the Marting who used to sing with Harry, that she was in the early stages of pregnancy? How could she? Betty desperately needed the work, had a beautiful voice – and who’d hire a pregnant woman about to turn 39 to sing in a loud, smoky bar?
Big Jim sure didn’t know about her condition. He was as shocked as anyone to learn from me five years ago that Betty spent those months performing at the Sand Bar as an expectant mother.
But he knew she was a damn fine singer.
“She was good … and was pretty, very pretty. On the bandstand, she looked good,” says Jim, who, at 31 may have been the youngest member of the Marting staff in those days.
When Betty sang there from about June to November 1960, Jim thinks back, on most nights it was Harry on keys, Freddie Sell on sax and clarinet, and Bill Gannon on drums. Jim can seat you right in the middle of the Sand Bar with flashbacks. His recall is crisp, the memories meaningful as he gets ready to celebrate 87 years on April 25.
“There were some high-back booths on the right side on the wall, and a couple of shorter ones. On the other wall, there were tables, and tables down the center,” he says. “It was dark-lit, with front, back and side doors.
“The dance floor up front wasn’t much bigger than a postage stamp. And the bar was smaller ‘n that. You had to be awful careful when you walked through or you’d bump into the tables. It was crowded, and everybody loved it.”
And, you can bet, loved Betty and her sultry presence.
I asked Jim if he remembered a fellow who stood about 6-1 who used to come to the Marting every so often with his glamorous, 4-11 Panamanian wife in the late ’50s and early ’60s. He couldn’t recall Clark and Olga Christlieb, my adoptive parents, who lived in Huntington from 1957 to late 1961 before our family moved to Houston.
But after I posted a photo of them on his Facebook page, Jim said he instantly recognized Dad. I told him how moving it is for me to think about the likelihood that Mom and Dad saw Betty perform at the Sand Bar, mere months before they would adopt her baby boy in early March 1961.
Jim lost his love, Helen, three years ago last month. He served from 1946 to ’48 in the Marines, working guard duty at the branch’s headquarters in D.C. after World War II.
“We had 17 guys and 558 women at the base. Now you talk about a tough duty, I had it.”
A day later, it dawned on me what he meant.
After his years at the Marting, Jim became a long-distance trucker, hauling loads until neuropathy in his legs forced retirement in 1989. One of the guys he drove with was Lawrence Bare, the brother of country music legend Bobby Bare, who’s from Ironton (Jim grew up in nearby Coal Grove).
A couple of years ago, Bobby, who turned 81 this month, threw a big concert back home, and Jim met and visited with him about the old days – and the Sand Bar. Someone once mentioned to me that Bobby sang there when he was getting his start, as did other members of his musical family.
Saturday morning, Jim attended a retired truckers breakfast in Ironton. The group, which once numbered over 60, has shrunk to eight. He’s hanging in there, doing well and getting ready to drive to South Carolina to visit daughter Jennifer, grandkids and great-grandkids.
Happy birthday to you, Big Jim. May you live long and get a kick out of every day.