Feb. 10 2016 11:41 AM

New book explores Saginaw’s musical history

Fred Reif could have been the prototype for the record store geeks in Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity.” Reif, 69, has owned two record stores and managed another. Along the way he has absorbed an impressive amount of knowledge surrounding the musicians, many long-forgotten, who called Saginaw home.

"All of Me," by musician and record collector Fred Reif, details the early history of Saginaw's music scene.
Courtesy Photo

Reif has crammed that information into a new book, “All of Me: A History of the Musicians of Saginaw Michigan 1850s-1950s.” The title is a reference to the jazz standard, “All of Me,” co-written by Saginaw-born musician and songwriter Gerald Marks in 1931. Marks, who wrote more than 400 songs and had one of the hottest bands in the Roaring ‘20s, is one of hundreds of Saginaw musicians included in the new book.

This book has been in the works for quite a while. Reif was working in a Saginaw record store in 1972 when he started thinking about writing a history of music in Saginaw.

“A lot of musicians would come in and say, ‘We used to play here,’ and we’d start talking,” Reif said. “They’d give me other names and I started interviewing people.”

Over the next four decades, Reif made countless trips to the Saginaw News archives to be sure he got the details right about performers.

One musician who visited the record store was Nelson “Nels” Bitterman, who traveled the world with several popular big bands in the 1920s. Bitterman manned the drum kit behind such groups as the Gerald Marks Orchestra, the Seymour Simons Orchestra and the Martuch Melody Makers. Bitterman also loved photography and provided scores of photos for Reif’s book — including the cover photograph of Bitterman behind the drums.

Reif will present a program on the musicians of Saginaw Saturday at the Library of Michigan. Following his presentation, the R.J. Spangler Trio will perform at the museum with Detroit saxophonist Larry Smith. Reif may even sit in on drums.

Reif, like most of the musicians he writes about, caught the music bug at a young age.

“When Elvis first came out, my mother bought me a 45 (RPM) record player so I could listen,” he said. “That was when I first started buying records. Elvis, Ricky Nelson and Sandy Nelson were my favorites.”

In seventh grade, Reif played snare drum in the junior high marching band. Soon after his mother bought him a drum kit.

“I still have it. I guess it’s an antique now,” Reif said.

In 1967, a friend asked if he was interested in joining a band — a jug band.

“I said, ‘Sure. What’s a jug band?’” Reif said.

It was there that Reif picked up the washboard, which is the main instrument he plays these days.

In the 1970s, Reif discovered one of the seminal American blues players, Lightnin Slim (real name Otis Hicks) was living in Michigan.

“I found him in Pontiac and I began booking blues artists,” Reif said.

Reif booked blues shows for years and helped turn Saginaw into a regular stop on national blues tours. He booked artists like Lazy Lester, Doctor Ross, Bobo Jenkins and, more recently, Larry McCray, a Saginaw native. His connection with these artists enabled him to put together a great piece of history that crosses racial lines. Reif plans to write more about the blues scene in his next book, which will continue Saginaw’s music history through the ‘70s.

In “All of Me,” Reif goes all the way back to heyday of Saginaw’s lumber era in the late 1800s, when groups played at the area’s opera houses and at halls like the Buena Vista, the Eolah and the Irving. These venues provided a stark contrast to the city’s 300 saloons. He writes about one opera house, Boardwell’s, where the sight of woman’s knee could cause a near riot.

Reif moves deftly through the eras of Saginaw’s history, but it’s when he arrives at the 1920s that the book really begins to sing. During this period, supper clubs like the Tuller, the Riverside and Moonlight Gardens ruled. Later, smaller night clubs with romantic names like Cabana and El Morocco would fill with sweaty dancers on Friday and Saturday nights.

The book also includes a fascinating section on blues in Saginaw, describing performers like Smokey Robinson and John Lee Hooker taking the stage at the Cabana. He also looks at the legendary African American booking agent Arthur “Big Daddy” Braggs. In the 1940s through the 1960s, Braggs booked and promoted performers in the Michigan resort community of Idlewild. Marketed towards African Americans whose recreational options were limited by segregation, Idlewild was nicknamed “Black Eden.” Names like B.B. King, Etta James, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were regulars on the circuit.

In the 1950s, jukeboxes and the emerging sound of rock ‘n’ roll marked the end of an era. That’s where Reif plans to pick up the story in his next book.

Fred Reif

Author talk 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13 FREE Lake Huron Room Library of Michigan 702 W. Kalamazoo St., Lansing (517) 373-1300, michigan. gov/libraryofmichigan

RJ Spangler Trio

With Larry Smith 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13 FREE Forum Library of Michigan 702 W. Kalamazoo St., Lansing (517) 373-1300, michigan. gov/libraryofmichigan