Sunday, February 2, 2014

Jesse Pearson, AKA Conrad Birdie

Jesse Pearson played Conrad Birdie in the 1963 film Bye Bye Birdie, which is one of my favorite movie musicals. For a guy who starred in such a high-profile film, Pearson has had very little written about him. He had a fascinating career and died too young, so today Music Weird will try to fill in some gaps in the story of this multitalented singer/actor. 




Pearson was born Bobby Wayne Pearson in Seminole, Oklahoma, in 1930. 

He cut a couple of unsuccessful singles for Decca in 1960, and his efforts as a recording artist got him his gig as Birdie in the Broadway stage production of Bye Bye Birdie. He took over the Birdie role from actor Richard Gautier, who is heard on the 1960 Broadway cast album.

In Bye Bye Birdie, the story of Birdie's celebrity and induction into the Army mirrors the Elvis Presley story, but the name "Conrad Birdie" is a spoof of Conway Twitty's name. (Twitty was an Elvis sound-alike back then.)

Pearson told the story of how he got the role to the Louisiana newspaper Lake Charles American-Press in 1963: 
I came to New York after a recording executive had heard me sing Southern blues at a club in Texas.... The records I cut were never released because while I was singing blues, the country was buying rock 'n' roll. Back I went to the South for club dates.

I cut tapes of my performances and sent them back to the record company. They were having trouble working out arrangements they felt would sell. They called in Charles Strouse, who composed the score for Bye Bye Birdie. When he heard my tapes, he recommended me for the national company of the show. I got the part and spent a year travelling with the show all over the country. 
My records still didn't do anything, but I enjoyed playing the part and gained a lot of valuable experience in both acting and singing. I broke my ankle, was out of the show for a week, then came back and played it with my foot in a cast.
The skin-tight gold lamé suit that Pearson wore in Bye Bye Birdie had to be altered so that the legs could slip over his cast. 

The article went on to say:
Twenty-five-year-old Jesse was born on a house boat in the Louisiana bayou outside New Orleans. His grandfather was a fiery evangelist and brought Jesse along to sing at revivals. The transition to blues was a natural one. The picture has triggered his recording career. Now under contract to RCA, his new single "One Last Kiss" from the picture is in release. 
Being readied for release in a few months is his album, The Glory of Love. "In the past few years," he says, "music has sort of come my way. Standards and blues are getting more and more popular. I'll also be on the soundtrack album being released by RCA." 
Whether people like his performance and music is still to be seen. One thing is certain, though. You'd like Jesse—he's a natural, smiling, warm guy.

When Bye Bye Birdie was made into a film, Pearson kept the Birdie role, making the rare transition from the stage to the screen. He performs a few songs on the 1963 Bye Bye Birdie soundtrack album: "Honestly Sincere," "One Last Kiss," and "A Lot of Living to Do." 

The album spent over a year on the Billboard album chart, including two weeks at #2. 

As the Lake Charles Press-American article mentioned, RCA Victor released Pearson's version of "One Last Kiss" as a single. Pearson's single wasn't a hit, but Bobby Vee's cover version reached #112 on Billboard's "bubbling under" chart and #91 in Cash Box

For the rest of the '60s, Pearson mostly appeared in television series, especially western and military series such as Death Valley Days, Bonanza, and McHale's Navy. Two of his best-remembered appearances were in The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies. In both shows, he played a singer. 

In the late '60s, Pearson worked part-time as a secretary for Rod McKuen, and McKuen has quite a bit to say about Pearson on his website. He says that Pearson recorded an unreleased album of love songs (maybe the never-released RCA album Glory of Love that was mentioned in several news stories in 1963?) and an unfinished album of Woody Guthrie songs. 

While working for McKuen, Pearson provided narration for a number of McKuen's album projects: the San Sebastian Strings Sea trilogy (The Sea, Home to the Sea, and The Soft Sea) and two albums of Walt Whitman's erotic poetry that McKuen set to music (Walt Whitman's the Body Electric and The Body Electric-2). 






All of the Sea albums, as well as a complete set of the three, were chart hits. The Sea spent 143 weeks on the Billboard album chart and was awarded a gold record for sales. 

In the '70s, Pearson did a lot of work in narration. Even some of his film credits from the '70s, such as 1978's The Norseman, were for narration. Somewhere in here, he narrated two religious albums for Jaime Mendoza-Nava: And Jesus Said... and Meditation in Psalms. I don't have these albums or any information about them, so feel free to add comments if you do. 

The most surprising chapter in Pearson's life might have been his foray into the adult film business. Under the pseudonym A. Fabritzi, he wrote and directed The Legend of Lady Blue (1978) and wrote the screenplay for Pro-Ball Cheerleaders (1979).  

Keep in mind that this was during the "golden age" of adult film, after screenings of Deep Throat had become hipster happenings and many adult film directors acquired serious artistic aspirations. Even 101 Strings, the orchestral "beautiful music" franchise that was responsible for countless albums of elevator music in the '60s and '70s, recorded two "adults only" erotic albums in the '70s.

A lot of people thought that, after the sexual revolution, mainstream America was ready for free and open expressions of sexuality. The conservative backlash of the Reagan years and the rise of anti-porn feminists put a damper on that, but in the mid-'70s, it was a different time, so Pearson's involvement in a couple of adult film projects isn't really all that weird. Especially after all the time he spent hanging out with Rod McKuen!

(Besides, the list of mainstream musicians, composers, actors, screenwriters, and directors who have worked on adult films is long. It includes big stars such as Jackie Chan and Sylvester Stallone.)

The Legend of Lady Blue is a classic golden-age attempt to meld explicit sex with sophisticated storytelling. The movie follows a young couple as the boy is drafted and sent off to fight in Vietnam and the girl falls into prostitution. At the end of the film, they meet again and uneasily rekindle their romance. The viewer is left wondering whether they can overcome their traumatic experiences and reconnect, or if their ability to love and be loved is damaged beyond repair. 

Pro-Ball Cheerleaders is an X-rated comedy. It's remembered today, if at all, for an outdoor sex scene in the pouring rain that gave actress Lisa De Leeuw pneumonia. It's a goofy, low-budget movie in which none of the football players and cheerleaders look like they could be actual football players or cheerleaders. 

On McKuen's website, he answered a question from a reader who asked if Pearson was gay. McKuen replied, "[I]f I knew the answer to your query I probably wouldn't tell you anyway." (Read what Pearson's cousin has to say about the topic here.)

Anyway, that was the end of the line for Pearson. He had cancer and moved back to Monroe, Louisiana, to be with his mother. He died on December 5, 1979, at the age of 49.

Some people seem to think that Pearson disappeared or faded away after Bye Bye Birdie, but, cumulatively, his albums were on the pop charts for over three years in the late '60s and early '70s! He was awarded a gold record! He continued to rack up album, film, and television credits right up to the end of his life! 

Pearson was a cool guy with an interesting career, and a much better singer than even his performances in Bye Bye Birdie suggest. 






Jesse/Jess Pearson discography



Singles

Finger Prints b/w Some Enchanted Evening (Decca 31068, 1960)
(Billboard said of "Finger Prints," "Jesse Pearson, with a style somewhat similar to Ivory Joe Hunter, sells this touching ballad with warmth. It could get coins." Of "Some Enchanted Evening," Billboard said, "Jesse Pearson comes thru with an interesting reading of the familiar Rodgers and Hammerstein tune.")

Next Stop, Paradise b/w Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes (Decca 31117, 1960)
(Billboard said of "Next Stop, Paradise," "Strong piece of material, which was out a few years ago, receives a first-rate reading by the chanter, over backing with a beat by the ork. Side has a chance. Watch it." Of "Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," Billboard said, "The familiar standard is sung neatly here by the singer, accompanied by a chorus. Two listenable sides.")

One Last Kiss b/w By My Side (RCA Victor 8173, 1963)

I've Got a Feelin' I'm Falling b/w Talk to Me Baby (RCA Victor 8283, 1964)

Woody Guthrie's We Ain't Down Yet (Cream CR-7609, 1976)



Albums 

Bye Bye Birdie original soundtrack (RCA Victor LSO-1081, 1963)

The Glory of Love (RCA Victor, unreleased, 1963)

The Sea LP (San Sebastian Strings; narrated by Jesse Pearson) (Warner Bros. WB 1670, 1967)

Home to the Sea (San Sebastian Strings; narrated by Jesse Pearson) (Warner Bros./Seven Arts WS 1764, 1968)

Walt Whitman's the Body Electric (Rod McKuen; narrated by Jesse Pearson)

The Soft Sea LP (San Sebastian Strings; narrated by Jesse Pearson) (Warner Bros. WB 1839, 1970)

The Body Electric-2: Walt Whitman's Timeless Words Set to Music (Rod McKuen; narrated by Jesse Pearson) (Discus DS 7005, 1970)

Woody Guthrie's We Ain't Down Yet LP (various artists; narrated by Jess Pearson) (Cream CR 1002, 1976)
(This various-artists LP featured artists such as Hoyt Axton, John Hartford, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, and Arlo Guthrie recreating the original Woody Guthrie Folkways album. Pearson narrated the part that actor Will Geer narrated on the original.)

And Jesus Said... LP (Jaime Mendoza Nava; narrated by Jess Pearson) (Mark I MI-S-102, 19??)

Meditations in Psalms (Jaime Mendoza Nava; narrated by Jess Pearson) (Mark I ??, 19??)


Filmography


See Pearson's pages on the Internet Movie Database for a complete list of his television and film appearances. 

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting story about Jesse Pearson... The musical scene in Bye Bye Birdie ; A lotta Livin To Do' is one of the greatest in the history of musicals ... RIP Jesse Pearson

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