The Roy Rogers On Memory Lane
James Darr's life Comes Full Circle With a Gig at a Fast-Food Joint
LA VALE, Md—It may be the only Roy Rogers restaurant in America with a lounge act.
It may be the only lounge act in America with a star who's 91.
He may be the only 91-year-old fast-food lounge act star who's an African American saxophonist who practiced his nightclub art for decades in the Jim Crow Appalachia of his youth, retired into factory and janitor jobs, and then suddenly in his old age taught himself to play a piano that appeared in a Roy Rogers.
He'll say: "A man like me always had to do whatever it took. Work wasn't always steady with the groups and when that music faded out I pushed a broom for 17 years."
Now he's a musician again, a noon-hour star of small but distinct wattage in a shopping mall near Cumberland, in the hill-country panhandle about 100 miles from Washington. Live long enough, it seems, and anything can not just happen, but it can happen again. This might account for the seen-it-all-before briskness of James Darr.
"Morning, Mr. Darr, how are you today? Looking good," says a middle-aged white-haired woman as Darr opens the doors to the Country Club Mall, which sits atop a knoll of the Appalachian Mountains. He moves fast and dresses well, walking the walk of a man on a mission.
"Hey, how you doing today?" asks a burly, red-bearded man.
Sometimes Darr nods back and sometimes he fires off a curt "Morning" but always he keeps moving.
The girls behind the Roy Rogers counter utter a chorus of "There he is!" He ignores them. He takes off his overcoat to reveal a charcoal-gray sport coat set off by a crisply positioned red tie. A man introduces himself, wants to ask some questions.
"I can't talk to you right now, I’ve got work to do," he says.
Meanwhile, this may be the only Roy Rogers in America that has an 88 year old regular who wants to get here so bad he pays a nurse to help him. He comes not for the food but for the musician he's been listening to for more than half a century, starting when he was on the other side of the Jim Crow divide.
"When he starts playing, it's like neither of us ever got old," Loman Bennett says.
Bennett, a white businessman, heard Darr play the saxophone in the black jazz and swing bands that toured the region back in the 1930s and '40s: the Original Bellhops, the Black Diamonds, Bud Mills and His Orchestra, and the Broadway Serenaders.
Bennett sits at the table closest to the piano.
"Hey, Mr. Darr, do you remember one called The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi?"
A faraway look crosses Darr's face. He begins gently bobbing his head to some unheard melody. Then the fingers work the keyboard.
Bennett first heard Darr play at the Riverside Casino in Ridgeley, WVa. That was before a flood of the Potomac washed the place away. Bennett would listen and drink. Darr would play and thirst. It was one of the rules of Jim Crow.
Darr says, "We could play in the clubs and the white people would sing and dance to our music. But we couldn't buy a drink and they weren't allow to buy us a drink even during intermission. We opened up nightclubs all over the East Coast It was quite a life, quite a life."
They toured around in seven-passenger cars with instruments tied to running boards and rooftops. There were few black-owned hotels, so boardinghouses and friends' extra cots were the accommodations.
"It brings back memories to all of us here when Mr. Darr sits down at that piano," Bennett says.
Some of Darr's best tips come from old favorites: "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," "Miss You" and "If I Had My Way."
"Sometimes 111 suddenly remember some tune from 50 years ago and it just comes out" Darr says. "I never learned to read music. The guys who could read music in our bands weren't always the best players because they were used to reading too much and not feeling enough. And I'm not even a piano player. I'm a sax man who has trouble getting enough wind these days to play my favorite instrument I just decided to pick up the piano like this when they put this thing into the Roy Rogers a few years ago."
He takes the bus every day but Sunday from his downtown Cumberland apartment for the 20-minute ride to the Roy Rogers.
"It gives me something to do. I can't sit in my apartment every day. It's like being in jail. So I get dressed up nice, come here and meet the folks and play for them. And once in a while I make a tip or two," he says.
He plays the piano from noon to 2.
He says: "I never made it to the big time like my daughter did. She was an international star." He flips through his wallet until he finds a publicity shot
"Her name is Alice. Alice Darr. She played instruments and sang on stages in New York and Europe. She's in her sixties now and doesn't talk to anybody because her arthritis has got her crippled up and she doesn't want anyone to see her that way."
He's 91 and still working.
Darr won't buy into the idea that work and life as an African American in Appalachia decades before the civil rights movement was any worse than it was in any other part of the country. "It was tough, real tough. But it was tough everywhere. It still is tough. Ifs just that now everyone wants to make out like everything is easier for us black people. But it isn't"
He is done performing for the day. The crowd has been friendly but small and there's only $4 on top of the piano. "I'd probably have made more if you weren't talking to me so much," he says to a reporter.
With that he gets up from the bench and with the dignity and dress of a man heading for a chauffeured ride he heads toward the door.
"I can't talk to you anymore right now," he says. “I’ll miss my bus."
Text and photograph - Glenn Tolbert, Special to the Washington Post
The photograph is of James Darr, 91, at the piano with restaurant manager Julia Campbell and longtime fan Loman Bennett, 88, who says, "When he starts playing, it's like neither of us ever got old."
Allegany County, Maryland
African Americans, History; Allegany County (Md.), History.
Allegany County (Md.), 1890-2008