The Quiet Man in the Studio

An appreciation for Lynn Westergaard, 1936-2008

I heard last week that my friend Lynn Westergaard died, at his home in Atlanta. He was 71. He hadn’t lived in Knoxville in 40 years, and his obituary didn’t appear in the daily, but he was once well-known here.

Westergaard was a thoughtful, unassuming, soft-spoken fellow, especially for a radio man. He was a disk jockey, in the early 1960s, for WNOX. His dad, R.B. “Dick” Westergaard, had been station manager during the station’s country-music heyday, from 1936 on; the elder Westergaard, who was originally from Iowa, first hired fellow Midwesterner Lowell Blanchard, as the country-music DJ and MC of the something they’d concocted called the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round. During the leadership of these two Yankees, WNOX achieved its fame as an incubator of some of the finest Southern music, launching the careers of Chet Atkins, Homer and Jethro, and many others. Westergaard’s success earned him some national status, as vice-president of Scripps-Howard Radio.

But his son Lynn, who grew up in Knoxville, mostly on Lake Avenue near UT, turned out to be much more interested in jazz. In the early ’60s, the era of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, it was hard not to be.

Though major jazz stars occasionally played in town, in clubs like Gordon’s Townhouse on Cumberland, near his house, or the Gem Theatre on Vine, Knoxville had few connections to mainstream, nationally popular jazz.

But the city did turn out to have one pretty good connection. In early 1961, Lynn Westergaard learned something astonishing through the local-music grapevine.

Georgia-born singer Ida Cox was a jazz legend of the 1920s and ’30s, who’d recorded with Fletcher Henderson and Charlie Christian and at the height of her career performed at Carnegie Hall. By 1961, she hadn’t performed in public in at least 15 years; some presumed her to be dead. It turned out she was living quietly in East Knoxville.

The buxom, famously bawdy singer was different from some of her contemporaries like Bessie Smith in that she wrote many of her own songs. Several were famous, including “Sixty Minute Man” and “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues.” She had vanished from the jazz world sometime during World War II, and here she was, age unknown, living quietly with her daughter on Louise Avenue in East Knoxville, singing only in the capacity of her membership in the choir of the Patton Street Church of God.

Westergaard, a pianist himself, interviewed her at her house and made some demo tapes. Whether Westergaard or jazz impresario John Hammond learned about her first is a subject people argue about. Westergaard says she never mentioned being recorded before he made his tapes; he had the impression that he talked her into making her last record, but other people claim that honor as well.

In any case, she did agree to make one more record, which would be called Blues for Rampart Street.

Westergaard went with her to New York, and was agog to meet several jazz titans: Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones, all of whom accompanied Cox on the recording. Westergaard stood quietly while his heroes drank gin and made fun of each other. He met John Hammond and had dinner with Ida Cox’s stepdaughter and pianist Errol Garner, and cherished a photograph of them grinning together like they were old pals.

Ida Cox returned to Knoxville and disappeared again. She and Westergaard stayed in touch; she always asked about his kids. Though he never had a formal agreement to represent Cox as her agent, he wrote letters on her behalf on her behalf when he suspected she hadn’t been paid the full $500 that Riverside Records had promised her. He never found out whether it did any good. Cox, a stroke victim, tended to get mixed up about financial matters, and couldn’t always remember when she’d been paid.

Westergaard visited her just before she died of cancer at Baptist Hospital in 1967. He moved to Atlanta, where he raised a family and worked in public transportation, and eventually founded a non-profit called Resource Service Ministries, to help low-income Atlantans with utilities.

In 2000, I interviewed Lynn Westergaard at length about the story. He was generous with some priceless materials he loaned me, including letters, tapes of his early interviews with Cox and his photos of the recording session. Learning about the unlikely comeback, the elderly black legend and the young white kid who befriended her, was one of my favorite favorite reporting experiences for Metro Pulse.

As I mentioned in a previous column, Ida Cox’s Louise Avenue home was torn down earlier this year to make way for a vacant lot. But her rendition of her song, “Four Day Creep,” is available through a couple of different sources on Youtube. “I’m a big fat mama, meat shaking off my bones,” she sings, frankly. “And every time I shake, some skinny gal loses her home.” (The same song, with altered lyrics, was later recorded by others, including Humble Pie.)

In the video, Ida Cox is about 50 or 55, wearing a flowered blouse that’s holding up admirably under the circumstances. Cox seems robust, confident, playful; she’s having a good time. According to a YouTube installment called “Ladies Sing the Blues, Part 4,” the bearded piano player who accompanies her in the film is her sometimes collaborator and sometime husband, Jesse Crump. The film appears to date from around 1945, just before the stroke that ended the first part of her career, and just before her move to Knoxville.

Lynn lived long enough to see his favorite blues singer get new exposure to a new medium and a new generation; when I last heard from him, a few months ago, he was pretty tickled to hear about that.

© 2008 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 2

ChrisAlbertson writes:

Sorry to hear of Lynn Westergaard's death, but you should know that he told you
(and others) a rather fanciful story re Ida Cox and his involvement in her last
recordings. The fact is that he had nothing to do with it. I can also tell you that
his "suspicion" that Ida never received payment from Riverside is totally
unfounded--I know, because I made sure that she received the check in
advance. I did that because she did not know me when I came to Knoxville from
New York and I wanted her to know that the recording deal was real.
Westergaard saw an opportunity and seized it, but I'm afraid he felt a need to
exaggerate his involvement with Ida.
Just thought I'd straighten that out, hope you don't mind. --Chris

scarletpimpernel writes:

I suspect there’s some misunderstanding here. Lynn Westergaard was a good man and I don’t think he claimed anything he didn’t believe himself.

Chris Albertson, who was a well-known producer in New York, played a major role in making the recording happen. According to the Wikipedia entry, for whatever it’s worth, Albertson gets the sole credit for persuading Cox to make the record.

But any confidence that Westergaard “had nothing to do with” the rediscovery of Ida Cox would require some knowledge of his activities over a period of months in 1961. Westergaard, who lived only about two miles from Cox, learned of her via local musician Harry Nides. After making contact, Westergaard visited her repeatedly. During his visits, Westergaard played piano with her, talked about her youth, and made a demo tape which he sent to Riverside. He urged her to make an album, which she told him she was reluctant to do, for religious and physical reasons. He accompanied her to New York. He remained in touch with her for the rest of her life. He spent time with her as she was dying in the hospital in 1967.

He kept evidence of their association, including a taped conversation with Cox, several photographs of the recording sessions, and correspondence.

About payment, Westergaard's understanding was that she was promised $500 for the LP, plus royalties. Sometime after the trip she told Westergaard she'd been paid only $250. Cox seemed to call Westergaard with her problems, perhaps because he was her friend, perhaps because he had a local phone number. Westergaard wrote letters to Riverside on her behalf asking about the balance. He was frustrated never to receive a clear answer.
He admitted to me that he didn’t know for certain whether Cox got the money. If Riverside or its successors have records of those transactions, that might settle the issue.
Westergaard, who made the trip to NYC at his own expense, got no financial reward out of his association with Ida Cox, and didn’t ask for
any. He was an enthusiastic young musician whowould have been happy to get a foot in the door of the music industry, but that didn’t happen, and he didn’t pursue it. He spent most of the rest of his life working in non-profits, all in service to the poor in Atlanta.

Since I wrote that obituary, I’ve heard from more than a dozen people who
knew Westergaard, and admired him. I know several who have known him for a period of 50 years or more and they know him as a man of honesty and heart. If he ever misrepresented himself in any way, it was a unique and uncharacteristic episode in his 71-year life.

Westergaard harbored no ill will toward anyone. I don’t know whether
Westergaard and Albertson ever spoke after 1961, but if they had I suspect
they could have worked out the details to their mutual satisfaction.

Jack Neely

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.