Sunday, August 1, 2010


At the beginning of the 1970's The Raphael in Montreal was a seedy motel with a piano bar in the small lounge. It was frequented by Runyonesque characters - often harbouring weapons of potential destruction. But to me, it was a landmark that changed my life - a sacred place.
I first met Cliff when he came to Montreal for a short gig at the Clover Cafe across from the Montreal Forum circa 1947. I was just eleven. I met him in my family's store, Metropolitan News on Peel Street where he, like thousands of other interesting people, came to buy his newspaper.
I listened, enchanted, to his radio show and followed his lounge performances as a little girl staring in the window of the club next door to our store. I was too young to go inside. After that, Cliff was in demand in the Montreal area and he decided to stay. I followed his career, dreaming that one day, he would somehow hear me sing and invite me to sing with him. I don't think I ever really imagined where my dream was going to take me. But his shining eyes and his devastating smile and his honeyed voice warmed my little girl heart. I bought Hit Parade song books and memorized all the lyrics and sang along with Cliff on the radio.
Remind me to tell you about the miraculous encounter that took place when a Red Cross blood donors marathon took place when I was about sixteen. That event needs a page all by itself.
But Cliff returned to the United States and he disappeared from my life for years.
I met him again when he returned to Montreal in the early 1970's. He invited my family to come see him play at The Raphael - and I fell in love with him again. This time, I was all grown up and deeply in love - for real. 
Born in Manhattan in 1902, Cliff Carter was the descendent of school teachers and slaves. He believed that a man could lead a good life if he conducted himself ethically and politely. He avoided drugs. Even working in the nightclubs where people were always wanting to buy him a drink, he would look them right in the eye, and with his sweetest smile say, "No, thank you." And the patrons knew he meant it and they respected him - even the real tough guys respected him.
Cliff was authentic - the real thing. Humphrey Bogart was an excellent actor, a charming personality. Cliff Carter was the man Humphrey Bogart was trying to be on screen. And Cliff could play the piano like Dooley Wilson too.
The Cliff people met in supper clubs and saw on television was exactly the same Cliff I lived with at home. There were no airs about him. He was simple. If you asked him, he would tell you that all he wanted to do was be a good husband and father, do his job well and make people happy. I was always the dreamer, the romantic. Cliff would tell you he wasn't sentimental. He was practical and he just wanted to be a good man.
But there was a mysterious side to Cliff Carter that even I know little about. Cliff was a deputy sheriff in New Jersey before returning to Montreal at the beginning of the 1970's. He worked undercover for the U.S. Treasury Department in drug control. I didn't need to know the details. He made mysterious trips to the Canada -U.S. border to see what he had to see and report what he had to report. I never asked. He never said.
At home, Cliff was a wonderful cook - pork chops, home fried potatoes, the best fluffy pancakes I ever tasted, bread pudding - real food. He would wash dishes, iron his own shirts to perfection, polish his shoes until they glowed. While I worked days, he cleaned house, took care of his car, shopped for food and picked up my panty hose at Reitmans. The sales girls loved him. Everyone did. What's not to love.
In the evening, Cliff went to work, and I joined him later in the evening to sit at the baby grand and sing love songs - not for the audience, though they may have thought so - but I always sang only for Cliff.
Cliff was proud of his Toronado. Driving a nice car was important because the bosses were impressed with what kind of car you drove. To get a good job and a half-decent wage, it helped to drive up in a nice car.
Wherever we went, we were treated like royalty, especially after Cliff appeared on CTV's Thrill of a Lifetime and RCA surprised him with his own record album , Mr. Nostalgia, Cliff Carter.
Late one night after Cliff finished work at The Abacus in Dollard des Ormeaux, we went to Le Cafetiere at Le Marche de L'Ouest for a late supper. The place was huge and it was virtually deserted at that hour. As we entered, something touched me. It took a minute for me to realize  - the public address system was playing Cliff's recording of Satin Doll from the album ! Talk about coincidences !
And so, the reader can see that this story will take a long time to tell,  Shades of Scheherazade ! This episode written in the middle of a hot summer night is just a taste, written because it is easier to get up and tell it than to try to sleep as these memories spin around in my mind.
There is so much more to tell.
The Sheba
Phyllis Carter

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