We can wait too long. That should surprise none of us.
This week in New York, I got that lesson, in the mortal version, yet again. Going to, going to, intentions, intentions…yet when I actually called and tried to visit an old chum from our previous lives, he was dead.
Tomorrow will be the fifth anniversary of Reginald Charles Obrecht’s death. I won’t be talking to Reggie, unless it’s like a Bluetooth fool ranting solo.
A woman with whom, as we Southerners are wont to say, I kept company for several years and I lived a few floors above Reggie, his son, and second wife on East Ninth Street on the Lower East Side.
I was on the iPad trying to figure out why his long-time phone number was “NOT IN SERVICE” when I found only vestiges of his musical life. When I returned to Boston and hit up the Social Security Death Index, I got confirmation. Then I was a bit disappointed seeing no Obrecht obit. It seems like the Times or somebody should have been aware that a lesser figure in early rock and R&B died.
Setting aside for the moment his delightful personality and wonderful stories, consider that he gave us boomers earworms and love songs. He wrote, arranged, and played the music for the likes of The Coasters, The Bobettes, LaVern Baker, and Ruth Brown. His Reggie Obrecht Band was on many of the late fifties tunes. He sometimes got credits too under a stage name, Reggie Chase.
He had his Gelett Burgess mixed blessing as well. While that art critic/author/editor was overshadowed by his throwaway poem The Purple Cow, Reggie had Mr. Lee, sung by The Bobettes. Unlike most of the rock and doo-wop songs of the era, this did not get everyone and his uncle throwing his name on to get possible revenue. Reggie had to take full blame for what he acknowledged was a really stupid song. Yet, we sang and hummed its stupid lyrics. I bet he continued to get residuals from it to the end.
Reg was young then and made what was for him a fair amount of money. He was in on the early days of Atlantic Records. Like most recording groups, bands, composers and such, he got screwed out of much of the revenue in a dirty business. Yet, he squirreled away enough cash to suit himself.
The way he told it, he fixated on chess. He grew up a poor black kid and chess was both intellectual and classy enough to please his new self. He devoted several years to becoming a good player. He spent a lot of time with Grandmaster Nicolas Rossolimo at the latter’s Greenwich Village chess studio. He says he memorized the requisite 2,000 games to be able to win most of the time.
When I met Reggie, he had married again. His first had become a junkie and produced their son Marcus, who was non-functioning autistic. She went away and died young. His second wife was Marjorie Saunders, adopted daughter of the long-time head of the Colgate-Rochester School of Divinity.
Reg said the Rev. Dr. Wilbour Saunders was none too pleased that his only daughter had taken up with a black many of uncertain prospects. Reg was never above laughing at himself and spoke of the first weekend the three of them spent at the regal homestead in Rochester. Like any period sitcom, there was another black person, the maid who clearly disdained Reg and Marcus. Reg was so concerned that Marcus would disgrace them with primitive eating, he sat beside him constantly ready to correct and help. When the servants brought roasted half chickens, Reg was in a near panic. Marcus meanwhile was mirroring the others around him and doing just fine. In his distraction, it was Reg, who knocked him bird into his lap.
Marj was a public-school teacher and a sort of precocious New Ager. Those became relevant as she turned to Marcus. She refused to believe he had to be institutionalized as all doctors and teachers pronounced. She put him (and them) the Feingold Diet (no artificial anything) and a regimen of vitamins, minerals, whole grains and such as barley stew with bones of a chicken or two boiled until they dissolved in it.
All those seemed to work. Marcus was a giant at 12 and had disconcerting self-absorbed traits like climbing on my shoulders and sitting when I sat. He was not what we call normal, but Marj made a huge improvement. He was at the point of low-functioning normal by the time he came of age and left.
Eventually, Marj and Reg separated and I think divorced. I heard she headed off to Denmark to teach English, but that was decades ago.
Reg called me years ago, perhaps six years. He sounded pretty good and we had our usual long, light chat. He called for a reason though. That woman who had been with me on East Ninth had lent him $50 many years before. He said he had heart trouble and wanted to repay her, just in case.
I had figured to see him again. When I got to the City, I intended to call him and get together.
Spending four days in Manhattan this week, I did call him. Anywho and other online directories list his number and address as the last time we spoke. Only this time, when I called that offensive tone was followed with “THAT NUMBER IS NOT IN SERVICE.”
I found out why and shouldn’t have been surprised. He did warn me he had a heart ailment. Yet, I deluded myself as we all are likely to do. On occasion, I’d see that he was still listed and think he was perking along. Only he wasn’t.
Draw your own inferences. I’ve been pretty good about tending to parents, friends and other relatives. I can’t say I did not come to peace with anyone I loved. Still, Reg is a good soul. I do regret not making the extra effort to visit him a few more times.