Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: While in New York earlier this year we took in the most recent revival of “Grease.” Heading this cast was Max Crumm as Danny and Laura Osnes as Sandy.

While online researching the history of “Grease,” I found a Ral Donner biography with this interesting comment: “A classmate of Donner's [at Chicago's William Howard Taft High School] was Jim Casey, who wrote the original stage play for “Grease.”

Is this true? I have seen no mention of this anywhere else, not even in New York at the time of the show.

Can you tell this greaser more about Ral and a possible connection to Jim?
—Norman Parker, Carlisle, Pa.

DEAR NORMAN: There is more to this story than we have room for today, but here is the short version, as told to me by Donner.

About 30 years ago I produced an album featuring, among other acts, Ral Donner. For awhile in 1978 we were even business partners. At least one of our musical discussions centered on his days at Taft High, located in the Chicago community of Norwood Park where Ral was born.

There is one mistake in the comment you quote. Jim Casey is a combination of both “Grease” co-creators: Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. This duo created the book as well as all of the music used in the stage show.

“Grease” is set circa-1957, when Jacobs and Donner attended Taft. A decade later, he and New Yorker Warren Casey collaborated on a book and play based on Jim's high school memories. In 1971, “Grease” premiered in Chicago, then opened February 14, 1972 in Manhattan at the Eden Theatre.

Names used in the show vary from the real Tafties, but Ral, and his pal Michael Fee, revealed to me that each character and place in “Grease” is inspired by a real person or Norwood Park area location.

As for Ral Donner, he is depicted in “Grease” as Johnny Casino, played on Broadway for over 12 years by Alan Paul.

On April 6, 1984, Ral lost a four-year battle with lung cancer. At just 41, he died in his beloved Chicagoland.

DEAR JERRY: In 1955, Tennessee Ernie Ford hit No. 1 in the UK with “Give Me Your Word,” yet none of my reference books indicate this song made any of the U.S. charts. How unusual was it then for an American to have a No. 1 hit in the UK that failed to make any U.S. charts?
—Dennis Laudal, Grand Forks, N.D. DEAR DENNIS: Ford's '50s feat is not common, but he is not unique in this regard.

To expand the parameters a bit, here is a chronological listing of ALL No. 1 UK hits for that decade that never appeared on any of the nationwide U.S. charts:

1953: “Broken Wings” (Stargazers); “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window” (Lita Roza); “Look at That Girl” (Guy Mitchell); “Answer Me” (David Whitfield); “Answer Me” (Frankie Laine).

1954: “I See the Moon” (Stargazers); “Let's Have Another Party” (Winfred Atwell).

1955: “Finger of Suspicion” (Dickie Valentine); “Softly, Softly” (Ruby Murray); “Give Me Your Word” (Tennessee Ernie Ford); “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” (Eddie Calvert); “Unchained Melody” (Jimmy Young); “Dreamboat” (Alma Cogan); “The Man from Laramie” (Jimmy Young); “Hernando's Hideaway” (Johnson Brothers); “Christmas Alphabet” (Dickie Valentine).

1956: “Poor People of Paris” (Winfred Atwell); “No Other Love” (Ronnie Hilton); “Singing the Blues” (Tommy Steele); “The Garden of Eden” (Frankie Vaughan); “Cumberland Gap” (Lonnie Donegan); “Puttin' on the Style-Gamblin' Man” (Lonnie Donegan).

1958: “The Story of My Life” (Michael Holiday); “Hoots Mon” (Lord Rockingham's XI).

1959: “As I Love You” (Shirley Bassey); “Side Saddle” (Russ Conway); “Roulette” (Russ Conway); “Travellin' Light” (Cliff Richard); “What Do You Want” (Adam Faith); “What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?” (Emil Ford). Improbably though it is, the complete Adam Faith title is also the first four words of Emil Ford's hit. They were Britain's last two No. 1 hits of the 1950s.

The three Americans in this crowd are: Guy Mitchell; Frankie Laine; and Tennessee Ernie Ford.

Besides these three, several U.S. artists did extremely well with originals and/or cover versions of the following from the list above:

“(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window” (Patti Page); “Unchained Melody” (Les Baxter; Al Hibbler; Roy Hamilton); “Hernando's Hideaway” (Archie Bleyer); “Poor People of Paris” (Les Baxter); “Singing the Blues” (Guy Mitchell; Marty Robbins); “The Garden of Eden” (Joe Valino); and “The Story of My Life” (Marty Robbins).

On the transatlantic flip side, Vera Lynn (1952: “Auf Wiederseh'n Sweetheart”) and Laurie London (1958: “He's Got the Whole World [In His Hands]”) are the only Brits to top the U.S. charts in the '50s.

IZ ZAT SO? Attending Taft High School at the same time as Ral Donner and Jim Jacobs is actress Donna Mills.

Another Taftie, about three years behind the Donner party, is Terry Kath.

Terry, co-founder, guitarist, and frequent lead singer of the group Chicago, accidentally killed himself (January 23, 1978) while playing with a gun.

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