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Suspicious Minds 

Wednesday, Sep 25 1996
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It was a perfect capitalism moment. I was riding the 21 Hayes bus home up Market, reading Lee Friedlander's introduction to his new book of photographs The Desert Seen (D.A.P.). He writes, "I stumbled into adolescence having been bitten by the mysteries of photography." But he wasn't entirely faithful to his camera alone: "At about the same time, I was in love with the cheer and wit and grace of Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins and later, Bird. My peers were listening to 'I'd Like to Get You on a Slow Boat to China.' I had a record of Nellie Lutcher singing 'Hurry on Down to My House, Baby, Ain't Nobody Home But Me.' I guess it's the same wish, but I felt that Nellie's was more full of real possibilities. The real world, the capture of the moment, hurry on down, it's happenin' now."

Just as I'm thinking, "I have got to hear that song," I look out the window and there's that consumer's paradise, the Virgin Megastore. "You want it? We got it!" its cheerful facade barks. I lunge out of the bus, hurry on up the megaescalator to the megajazz section, and find The Best of Nellie Lutcher (courtesy of Capitol Records) waiting for me, smiling there in the front row.

That was days ago. I've been living with Lutcher's songs ever since. So much so, in fact, that her voice has become the air in my room; I read to it, work to it, fall asleep to it, turn her down to talk on the phone. It's one of those albums that can drift in and out of consciousness -- fragrant and glamorous enough to sit quietly when need be, but raucous and unladylike when you're paying attention.

If the film Grace of My Heart leaves you a little unsatisfied in terms of geez-girls-write-songs-too stories (and it should, it should), track down this woman. Lutcher, like the movie's protagonist, Denise Waverly, is a mother who sings (but better), plays piano (only slappier, funnier), and writes her own songs. Born in 1912 in Lake Charles, La. (which she salutes in the rollicking "Lake Charles Boogie"), she moved to Los Angeles in 1935, where she still lives and performs.

"Hurry on Down," one of Lutcher's own, was recorded in 1947. It's as immediate and urgent as Friedlander says, not to mention playful and teasing, directed at a man who Lutcher makes clear can be replaced with a phone call -- a certain Sam's up for the job. In the middle of it she gets too excited to sing, fast-rapping instead, "Mama's gone for the whole long day! Just think of it honey! We'll have a long time to play!" Seconds later, after she coos, "Quickquickquick!" she solos on the keyboard. She might be playing with her swinging hips instead of her fingers, all the while mouthing a hiccuping little scat, somehow sounding girlish and womanly at the same time.

The other day, I was supposed to be interviewing Friedlander about his photography, but after all these years, he seemed more interested in fanning his still-burning flame for the woman he lovingly calls "Miss Nellie" than analyzing his own work. The first time he saw her, he says, "I was a teen-ager in Seattle and I was at the movies. Back then, big cities sometimes had live acts in between movies, and Nellie Lutcher was playing. I heard her again when she came to New York about 12 years ago. When I asked to hear all the old songs like 'Hurry on Down' and 'Fine Brown Frame,' she gave me a hug."

" 'Fine Brown Frame,' " he adds, "is not a song to scoff at." On the verge of leering, Lutcher slows down and lowers her voice as she scopes out the man with a naked stare. She's all over him, tells him, "Don't be a square." Lucky for him, he doesn't have a chance in the world of walking out of that room alone. What if he's not worth the effort? What if this prankster diva is too good for him, too funny, too much? But the only question she's asking is "What's your name?" You get the feeling Nellie gets what Nellie wants. And why shouldn't she? This is America: Sometimes, all you gotta do is jump off the bus and grab what's yours. For a price.

By Sarah Vowell
svowell@aol.com

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Sarah Vowell

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