The Tulsa Life and Times of Ralph and Jack and Me
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Ralph Brewster was one of the original “Modernaires,” the singing group that became famous as a featured part of the Glenn Miller Orchestra during the 1940s. Jack Fuquay was one of the most skillful and beloved cardiovascular surgeons in Tulsa, Okla., during the 1970s and ’80s. And I was the tagalong — the youngest in our group — who hero-worshiped the other two. Now, I’m the last man standing, and it’s time to document our friendship and adventures before they are lost in the mist of history.
I met Jack in 1972 when I arrived in Tulsa to begin my medical practice, and we quickly discovered our shared interests. I had been a champion high school sprinter, but Jack had won the 100-yard dash four straight years in the old Missouri Valley Conference when he was a student at Oklahoma A&M in the late 1940s. When World War II ended in 1945, I was 7 years old, while Jack had raced across France and Germany in a tank, part of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. But, ultimately, it was the swing music of the 1940s popular bands that really bound us together.
The Big Band Era began its decline as World War II ended, but I had two older cousins who were teenagers then, and I remember listening to their 78rpm graphite records, especially Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie,” which they played over and over. My cousins, those two big boys, liked these, and I became forever influenced by their musical tastes.
Jack grew up in Hugo, a little town in southeast Oklahoma, and in 1973 he vividly described for me that hot summer day in 1941 when he decided to have lunch at Self’s Café, the only air-conditioned restaurant in Hugo. While sitting at the counter, munching a hamburger, he heard a record playing on the juke box: “I liked it, so I got up and walked over to the juke box to check out the name of the tune and the band.” It was Glenn Miller’s recording of “Perfidia,” and Jack liked it so much that he fed a hard-earned nickel into the slot so he could listen to it again, and that’s when he fell in love with the Glenn Miller band. (Dear reader, you can click here to listen to “Perfidia” yourself now, the same recording that 17-year-old Jack Fuquay first heard in 1941. By happy coincidence, the Modernaires, including Ralph Brewster, sing the vocal.)
Over the years Jack accumulated a fabulous collection of records, both graphite 78rpm, and newer 33 1/3 long-play plastic records. CDs, DVDs and iTunes were in a far distant and unimaginable future. His lovely home had a comfortable little alcove where we sat and listened to his favorites on the top-grade sound system of its time. Actually, Jack had wider and more sophisticated tastes in music than I, but with my nostalgic affection for the big bands, he graciously indulged me; and why wouldn’t he? After all, this was the music of his youth. He had an inexhaustible collection of recordings by Miller, Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Count Bassie, Bunny Berigan, Duke Ellington — and plenty of other highly accomplished, but lesser known, jazz greats. Jack was very knowledgeable about these musicians, their music and their lives.
Ralph Brewster sang with the Glenn Miller Orchestra during its halcyon days, and after World War II he sang with the Pied Pipers for Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra, and later with Russ Morgan’s Orchestra and Frank Sinatra Jr. in Las Vegas. Upon retirement, Ralph and his wife, Bonnie, moved to Tulsa in 1974 when Bonnie accepted the position of director of the Magic Empire Girl Scout Council. Shortly after arriving, Ralph was interviewed for a feature article in the Tulsa World; upon reading this, Jack made a cold call on the phone to Ralph, introduced himself, and Ralph graciously invited Jack and me to meet him and Bonnie at their home. What a delightful evening it was!
Ralph was raised in Atchison, Kan., and attended Kansas University, finally moving to New York where he helped form the Modernaires in 1937. This group was a perfect fit for the Glenn Miller band, and they were the featured vocal group on such memorable hits as “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” and “Perfidia.” On the band’s top-selling, “Juke Box Saturday Night,” Ralph sang the tenor solo, imitating the Ink Spots’ popular record, “If I Didn’t Care.”
When we first met, Ralph was “officially” retired in Tulsa, but he loved music and performing, and he put together a little group of musicians; Ralph played trumpet and, of course, he also sang. The combo mostly performed the famous old standards, but some contemporary music, too. Ralph had a regular weekend gig at a restaurant, “Good Time Charley’s,” and once he and Bonnie invited Jack, our wives and me to be their guests for dinner while he played. We especially felt honored when Ralph announced to the audience, “This next number is dedicated to my two good friends who are here tonight, Dr. Jack Fuquay and Dr. Harvey Blumenthal,” and he played “Stardust.” Ralph and Bonnie joined us for dinner, and we had a memorable evening.
For many years, Jack and his wife, Beverley, hosted an annual movie and dinner party in their home and invited 12-15 couples, their closest friends; this was my favorite social event of the year. The party was always held at the end of January, after the excitement of Christmas and New Year celebrations settled down, and we always dressed up in suits and ties and evening gowns. Bev was a gourmet cook and an engaging hostess, and after a sumptuous dinner Jack always showed a rented 16mm movie. He favored old black and white films such as “Gaslight,” “Casablanca” and “San Francisco.”We never knew beforehand which movie was to be shown, except once; that year Jack departed from his carefully guarded secret and insisted we all dress up in 1930s costumes so we would settle into the ambiance for “It Happened One Night,” starring Clark Gable. One year he showed “Sun Valley Serenade,” starring the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and I joyfully watched a youthful Ralph singing with the Modernaires on the screen while I stole glances at him, sitting on a chair only a few feet away from me, tapping his foot and softly singing along with his younger former self. Ralph always had an easy charm and good nature about him.