Willie Tyler...Its Gotta Be In Your Soul
Just think, I was able to interview Willie Tyler!
What an honor. His experience, his accolades, his longevity in the business is something to behold. He and Lester have worked the greatest stages in the world and television screens in virtually everybody's home. He was a pioneer in American television by being one of the first African-American's to be a series regular. He was present at the end of the big variety shows and the rise in popularity of talk shows. He has worked with everybody and was front and center of the Motown phenomenon of the 60's and 70's. We talk about it all in this edition of Vent O Gram. Here is the interview.
Willie, I’ve been waiting to do this interview for a while.
Good, good. You know the Vent O Gram has been around a long time. I remember when I was a kid I used to get it in the mail.
Yes, you subscribed and I did too. I couldn’t wait for it to arrive in the mail. How old were you when you started getting the Vent O Gram?
I think I was about twelve years old. I was taking the Maher course.
Where were you living then?
In Detroit. Maher at the time was located in a suburban area of Detroit.
Did you ever go over and visit Fred and Madeleine?
Yeah, my teacher took me over there when I found the Maher ad in Popular Mechanics magazine. I visited with Madeleine Maher and signed up for the course. It was about $35.00 for the course. Then Madeleine painted a Jerry Mahoney brown for me. I got that with the course.
Tell me more about the teacher.
Thelma Bolin. She was a teacher at my school. She did a lot for me. She was in charge of the auditorium shows and I would be in plays, amateur shows, that kind of thing. When I first started I was using a doll of my sisters. I had hooked it up to make the mouth move. But when my teacher saw the Maher article, she said, “We’re going to take a drive out there.”
Did you stay in touch with her through the years?
Yes. I would keep in touch with her as my career advanced.
When you were in school, what did your classmates think of your ventriloquism?
Not much. (laughter) I was like a little kid talking with a doll. I come from a big family of ten, and even at home my siblings thought, ‘Now what is he trying to do!’ (laughter) But, my Mom and Dad were supportive. Then, when I started doing amateur shows around Detroit, I started winning. Then I had a little more respect from everybody.
When did you go into the Air Force?
1958. I was lucky enough to become a ‘recreational specialist.’ We would play shows, dances and that sort of thing. It was the entertainment part of the Air Force.
Did the Air Force know about your skills before you joined?
Well, when I went down to sign up, I showed them a picture of my little character and me. He said, “Well, I can’t guarantee you anything…” Then when I got to basic training, that’s when I found out I had been assigned to be a Recreational Specialist.
Somebody told me once that after the service you started working a lot of shows including strip clubs. True?
Yes. The strip joints always needed a comic to fill in-between the strippers. There was a musical trio that played for the strippers, but the Union said they had to have three 30 minute breaks a night. So the comic would go on when the trio took their breaks.
Was that a tough gig?
Well, comics always worked those spots, so it was expected. You would go in, get on stage and do your act. It was like talking to yourself two times a night. (laughter) They weren’t there to see me! But, nevertheless, they liked Lester.
Ok, when did you get Lester, and who made him?
Madeleine Maher made him. In fact, all the Lester’s were made by Madeleine
How many Lester’s have there been over the years?
There was small Lester, medium Lester and the large Lester. The large Lester has been around about 50 years. That’s the one I use now. I pretty much grew up with Lester. I got the small Lester when I was around 13. I used him until I was around 16, and then I got the medium Lester. That was the one I used in the service. When I got out of the service I got the large Lester.
That's when I ended up getting in touch with the Motown people. I was working a summer resort and Berry Gordy’s sister would come up there. So, there was a Motown group playing at the resort and that is how all of that started.
So, Berry Gordy was the one who actually signed you to Motown?
Yeah, yeah. Motown always had a meeting on Wednesdays. And they had me come over. I did about a minute or so of my act. They said, “Ok, thank you.” And so I left. By the time I got home, the phone rang and they said, “Welcome to the family.”
I was with Motown about eight years.
Tell me more about the Wednesday meetings.
They would have the meetings on Wednesday, not only to audition new acts but also to listen to new recordings. For instance, if Smokey (Robinson) had a new record they would play it and everyone would give their input.
Did you think it was odd being a ventriloquist on a record label.
No, not really. I did do an album though, “Hello, Dummy.” But I wasn’t signed to do recordings, I was signed to work with the Motown acts in what they called the Motown Review.
So ‘Hello Dummy’ was through Motown, right?
Yes, when I signed the agreement, making an LP was part of the deal. But, when Diana Ross hosted the Hollywood Palace, they also made an album out of that. I was part of it.
When you signed with Motown, did you think that you had hit the ‘big time?’
No, not really. I really wasn’t thinking in those terms. It was just kind of a progression. When the Temptations started having hit records I was able to work with them as well.
Like when they performed at the Copacabana, I was there. Or the Four Tops working at the Apollo theater, I was part of that too. So it was like a stepping stone for me. It helped me a great deal.
Tell me about the experience of doing the Hollywood Palace?
Well, it was the only time I did the Palace. That was with Diana Ross.
Was doing TV a new experience for you then?
No, I had already been working the Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin shows. Again, I always thought of them as stepping stones. One thing led to another. The Hollywood Palace always had a host every week. The week I was on, was Diana Ross.
Who else was on that show?
Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five, Sammy Davis Jr. It helped me a great deal to be around them. It was really fun.
So you were signed to Motown for eight years. After your contract ran out did you continue to work with those acts?
Yes. As a matter of fact I was on the very last show that Diana Ross and the Supremes did. It was at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. It was a two week run. People came from all over to see these last shows. All the celebrities were there. It was great.
You mentioned the Apollo theater. What was that like?
When I was a kid I would do amateur shows there. The theater would have a headliner, but they would have an amateur show before. First, they would show a classy movie, then the amateur show and then the headline acts.
The amateur show was made up of singers, harmonica players, strippers, that sort of thing. After the show they would line us up and the emcee would place his hand over us and the audience would applaud or boo. Those audiences were really rough.
Well, if they didn’t like you they would let you know. (laughter) If they didn’t like you, they would heckle you. But, its not like today. Today they will throw stuff at you. Cell phones and everything else. (laughter)
One time I went there with a singer from Detroit. He had a hit record and was doing pretty well. He came out and would sing this hit. He would waltz to the center of the stage and he had this handkerchief in his lapel. While he sang the song, he would pull it out and all the women would run to the stage because they wanted the hanky. He would throw it into the audience and the young ladies would fight over the handkerchief. Now, fast forward about six months later. I’m back at the Apollo with the same singer. So he comes out, pulls out his handkerchief and throws it into the audience. They threw it back! (laughter) The Apollo was rough. It was like baptism by fire.
What about the ‘Chitlin’ circuit.
Well those were all Black clubs. They were rough too. You’d be doing the show and people would be in a fist fight in the back of the club. It was pretty dangerous.
Did you work a lot of those clubs?
I did. Those were the only places to work when you were coming up. Later on the working conditions got a lot better. A lot of theater in the round during the summer months.
Who did you work with in those venues?
Oh, Bobby Vinton, Glady’s Knight and the Pips, those sort of acts.
What ventriloquists did you admire?
Well, Edgar Bergen. I used to listen to him on radio and then later on I saw him perform live. Paul Winchell. When I saw him on TV he really fascinated me. And of course, Jimmy Nelson.
Did you ever work with any of those acts?
Yes I worked with Paul Winchell, and others during that HBO special that was filmed. I was able to meet all the people I had grown up watching. All really nice people.
You’ve have had such a long and stellar career. Do you have any shows that really stick out in your mind as being really special?
Well, for sure the Hollywood Palace. But, here is the thing, I always wanted to do the Ed Sullivan Show. But, he had retired. But, I did do a Mercedes Benz commercial where Ed introduced the car and Lester and I were in the back seat making funny comments. So in a way, I did work with Sullivan!
Of course, you were also years later at the Sullivan Theater for ventriloquist week with David Letterman. You killed that night.
It was a fun night. Everything fell into place.
Were you nervous?
Well, they had ventriloquist week, and I was the first one on that week. I was waiting in the wing’s and I was thinking that I was at the Ed Sullivan Theater. It was great. I even got to do a song with Lester that night. It seemed like everything fell into place. That isn’t always the case. But here is the great thing. When I walked on stage they played “There’s No Business like Show Business.’ That was really special. They did that just for me.
Let’s talk about singing. You were one of the first vents to sing in your act. Now everyone does. Is that something that goes back to Motown?
Yes. A lot of times we would introduce the acts. Well, while I would watch the Supremes, or Temptations or what have you, I would notice how much the audience really liked the music. And I thought, maybe I should start putting little songs in my act. And that’s how it happened.
In those days everything was live music. Did you have arrangements made up for the bands?
Yes. It was great because sometimes I would come out on stage to do a song and have a full orchestra behind me.
How much did you have to rehearse the songs with the bands?
Well, first you had to get the arrangements made up. Find the right key and everything like that. It was easy for me because I was working with Motown and they had a lot of arrangers. So then, when I got to Vegas or whatever, I would simply pass the music out to the band. And of course, the guys were pros. We would run through it once or twice and then do the show.
What do you think about all the singing ventriloquists today?
Oh, I think it’s great. Having music in the act is always great. I always enjoyed that. To me, it was the fun part.
I know this is completely off subject, but has Lester always been your only figure?
Yes. Small Lester, medium Lester and large Lester.
When you get a date, how much time do you usually do?
Well, if it’s just me, 45 minutes.
What about the review shows?
5 or 6 minutes. And in the Casinos if you ran over your time you would hear about it from the management. They wanted people out gambling!
You’ve got a piece of business with Lester that I think is fantastic. Whenever he does a punchline, he then looks at the audience and lifts his arms, getting a second laugh out of the joke. Tell me about that.
My brother came up with that. He used to work at Lockheed and is very mechanically inclined. We were in his garage one night trying to get one arm to come up. He came up with the means to do that, so we just added the other arm too.
Did you have the idea and then he figured out how to do it?
Yeah, yeah. I had fooled around with that for some time. I had used a gooseneck, but that really didn’t work. So, my brother came up with the current system I use today. It’s great. What’s really nice about the effect is that it adds to Lester’s personality as well.
Let’s talk about the documentary, ‘Hello Dummy.’
Well, we have been working on it for three or four years, then the pandemic came along and really delayed everything. Right now we are at the editing stage. Everything else is pretty much done. I like it because there are a lot of people that I have worked with through the years that are in it.
Was it hard to get that footage?
Yes, especially since some people have passed away. But, if you go to hello-dummy.com you can see a preview of it. (link posted at end of interview)
Did you have problems gathering together the archival material?
Some of the stuff yes, because you need to get permission from everybody. Some people said no, or want to charge for it.
Have most people been cooperative?
Yes, especially with the acts that I have worked with.
Willie, where do you come up with your material?
I watch a lot of TV. You watch stuff and it kind of translates to the act in my mind. So, I get a lot of ideas.
I used to watch a lot of Sanford and Son. Great ideas there.
Yeah, I worked with Red Foxx. He always would come up to me and say, (imitating Red Foxx) “Where’s the Dummy!” (laughter)
I liked Red Foxx. He used to work a lot of Jazz clubs. One time he was working a club…Red came out, stood by the piano, light up a cigarette and started talking. But, the audience wasn’t paying attention. It didn’t phase him. He always said, “The show must go on, if you want to get paid.” Here’s another thing, he would time his act with cigarettes. Flip Wilson did the same thing.
What do you mean by that?
Well, one cigarette would last about five minutes. So, three cigarettes would be 15 minutes. So, he timed the act that way. Anyway, Red was really cool. He just did his set, walked off stage, got in his car and left. Some acts would be very upset and start yelling at the audience or what have you. When you do that, you’re in trouble.
Did you ever run across other acts that had that level of professionalism?
Oh yeah. For instance, Chuck Berry.
He wouldn’t travel with a band. He always used a pickup band. And of course, everyone knew his songs. So, when he got to the venue, he would get paid in cash. He would do his show, and if the band was decent, he would give them all a bonus. He used pickup bands, because regular bands always had personality issues. You know, it is like a husband/wife situation. So, pickup bands always worked for him.
Do you rehearse?
Yes. I rehearse in the bathroom because of the acoustics! So, it feels like a performance. You can hear yourself, plus you have a mirror. Repetition is important to get it right.
What about technique? Any trouble keeping that up over the years.
No, it has been fine through the years. I watch a lot of videos and critique myself.
Sounds to me like you have really enjoyed yourself through the years.
Yeah, it’s really fun. When you have a good show, you really feel good afterwards. Its really therapeutic in a way.
You have done so much with Lester over the decades. Are you happy with your career?
Yes, I was lucky. It was something I got into and I have been able to be successful with it. It’s been a good run.
Well, you have to want to do it and perseverance is important. Remember the Apollo shows? Sometimes they would put their hand over my head and that crowd would yell, “BOO!” Well, I would go home and think, "I don’t want to do this anymore." But then a few days would pass, I would watch Winchell/Mahoney Time or something and I would want to go back and do it again. Eventually I started winning.
I remember the first time I won at the Apollo. The crowd yelled, “YAAAAAYY,” and chills ran up and down my spine.
It’s got to be in your soul.
For a look at the documentary in progress, go here: https://www.hello-dummy.com/
Willie and Lester killing it on Letterman, go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Q1JkAa5ksc
Many thanks to pal Al Getler. He was instrumental in making the Willie Tyler interview possible.
Coming soon on Vent O Gram, David Pendleton!!
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