Out of the limelight – and loving it

Out of the limelight – and loving it

nappy

By Daniel Rubin, Inquirer Staff Writer

POSTED July 14, 1998

The piano man arrives early for the afternoon show but some in his audience are already snoring.

“Who wants music? ” Jerry Samuels asks in a tone that camp counselors save for rainy days. “You’ll find this very interesting.”

“Prove it!” barks a white-haired man in horn-rims.

Samuels smiles. Once called the Rembrandt of the novelty song by no less an authority than Dr. Demento, he can handle a crowd.

“I have a program for you that I call Verses. Verses are the unsung gems of American popular music. ” And in a mellow baritone, he begins one of the thousands of classic songs in his repertoire.

“Who’s that coming down the street?

“Who’s that looking so petite? ”

For the next 45 minutes, the audience in this Willow Grove nursing home belongs to the barrel-shaped piano man with a salt-and-pepper brush cut and full beard who mixes standards and patriotic tunes.

No one would think of requesting the song Samuels is most famous for.

He performed it only once, back in the summer of 1966, when Samuels, then a 28-year-old recording engineer from Queens, had the No. 1 song in the country. It was a manic rant that stormed AM radio and sold nearly a million copies in less than two weeks, then disappeared overnight.

He recorded it under the pseudonym Napoleon XIV.

“They’re coming to take me away, ha-haaa!

They’re coming to take me away, ho-ho, he-he, ha-haa.

To the funny farm, where life is beautiful all the time,

And I’ll be happy to see those nice

young men in their clean white coats.

And they’re coming to take me away.

Ha-haa!”

*

He sits on the back deck of his rowhouse in Oxford Circle, where he’s lived anonymously for the last 21 years. Neighbors know him as Jerry the piano player and owner of a business that books acts into senior centers. The Jerry Samuels Agency represents 250 performers: accordionists, troubadours, strolling violinists, Mummers, Elvis impersonators, an Appalachian dulcimer and spoon player, a Norman Rockwell lecturer.

He doesn’t court publicity. He won’t even be photographed. “I want a little privacy,” says Samuels, 60.

He’s wearing a headset that’s plugged into a phone tucked into his breast pocket and it’s never clear exactly whom he is addressing. He works out of his home and has a bed in his office. His clients have no clue he might be doing business in his underwear. He has an understanding wife named Bobbie.

“As we sit here, I’m going to make you something out of a hanger,” he says. For the next 15 minutes, as he twists and shapes the wire, he works so furiously his face flushes and he becomes short of breath.

When he’s done, he has turned a coat hanger into an elegant gun whose hammer clicks forward when the trigger is squeezed.

“I also made the world’s best roach clips,” he says, disappearing for a moment before returning with precise steel instruments shaped like a G clef, a lightning bolt, a beer stein.

“I am,” he says, “who I am.”

He never sought stardom. He just had an original idea: making a record where the pitch changed, but the tempo didn’t. For nine months he worked on the words and technology. He knew the theme would be manic. He’d spent some voluntary time as a teenager in a mental institution and was confident that the patients he knew would think the record was funny.

He and his partner Nat Schnapf recorded a drummer who played poorly, then looped 10 seconds of his chink-a-chink beat nonstop throughout the record. Three people provided percussion by slapping bare thighs. Samuels added five police sirens.

When Samuels played the song over the phone for a talent man he knew at Columbia Records, he was offered $25,000 and a 7 percent cut on the spot. Samuels held out for 10 percent, signing with Warner Bros. for a $500 advance. By the time they cut the check, Warners had added another zero because “They’re Coming to Take Me Away. Ha-Haaa!” had become a monster hit. Dr. Demento, the syndicated radio-show host, called it “the most sensational novelty record in American history. ”

Samuels had hoped to hide behind the name Napoleon XIV, but the DJ Cousin Brucie ended that, announcing to his radio audience that the artist was really this guy in Queens.

“Being in the limelight is fun for about five minutes. I don’t think people realize how valuable privacy is until you lose it. People would go, `Are you Napoleon?’ `There goes Napoleon. ‘ The constant phone-ringing and barrage of people in your face – that’s not something I’d like to do again. ”

That summer, he went out on stage in Lake George, N.Y., dressed as Napoleon and wearing a Lone Ranger mask. “I faced 2,000 leering teenagers. My wife was in the crowd and heard someone say, `Look at the yo-yo. ‘ I felt ridiculous. ” He performed his one song, then walked off and refused to do any more appearances.

With two hired hands, he wrote such songs as “Photogenic, Schizophrenic You” and “The Place Where the Nuts Hunt the Squirrels” to pad out an album. But by then, pressure from mental health groups had ended his frantic ride.

Samuels returned to the control room. After traveling around the country in a VW bug, and singing in bars and on cruise ships, he settled in Philadelphia, where he had friends, in 1973.

He’d written songs for ’50s pop idol Johnnie Ray, LaVerne Baker and Ivory Joe Hunter, and had a hit with Sammy Davis Jr. But Samuels says he never felt as much a success as when he played his first gig in a nursing home.

*

“Did you like it?” he asks the 45 seniors gathered in the social room of the Willow Lakes Assisted Living Center.

Yes, yes, they say.

Samuels calls it an honor to play for people who may be suffering. Told that Details magazine once scoffed that the one-hit wonder was reduced to playing the seniors circuit, he laughs.

“I don’t care what anyone says – I was born to do this. I’ve met important people. I’ve written songs for famous people. I’ve had a No. 1 record around the world. And I’ve never done anything as satisfying as this. ”

As he packs his amplifier and microphone, Samuels tells his audience that he is responsible for booking many of the entertainers who visit there.

“You’re the best,” a man says. “Have you been playing on the outside?”

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Free, at last, to offer an opinion on Barnes

Free, at last, to offer an opinion on Barnes

POSTED: May 25, 2010

Pennsylvania state inmate BB8134 was expecting someone else.

From time to time he had a woman visitor at Graterford Prison, and when he ambled into the guests’ lounge that morning back in September 2007 and spotted me with my notepad, his look said, who the hell are you?

He sat with me anyway, and talked about what it felt like to be charged with murder, 41 years after shooting a cop.

William J. Barnes didn’t look to me like a danger to society, but that wasn’t the reason he was being tried. He looked more like a 71-year-old supermarket stock boy (the job he held at the time he was picked up), a little stooped, a little bewildered.

He had a career criminal’s understanding of the law: You shove someone on the sidewalk and they happen to fall into the path of an oncoming car, you’re responsible for their death. What Barnes had done was worse than that.

While burglarizing a beauty shop in 1966, Barnes shot Walter T. Barclay, a 23-year-old rookie police officer.

Barclay never walked again. He was a victim, a prisoner now of his own uncooperative body. He died in 2007 from an infection the state contended was a direct result of the bullet Barnes fired.

When prosecutors decided that the two decades Barnes had served were not enough, I never ventured an opinion on whether they were going too far. I couldn’t.

I was a state witness.

By getting Barnes to talk about the shooting, I wound up providing a potentially key link in the evidence.

Barnes told the story that day at Graterford as if he’d been rehearsing it for years.

“Let me tell you how it happened,” he began. “It was Nov. 27, 1966. I was drunk. I was carrying a weapon. . . .”

He had wandered in back of some storefronts around Fifth Street and 66th Avenue in East Oak Lane. “I just started kicking in these doors. I didn’t even know it was a beauty salon, that’s how loaded I was.”

A woman upstairs hollered, he said, and out of nowhere the rookie cop appeared, whacking Barnes in the face with a flashlight.

“I sobered up immediately,” he said. “I got the hell up those steps.”

Barnes had a gun. He told me he had intended to use it to disarm the cop, maybe bluff his way out of the jam. After years of being in and out of jail, he didn’t want to go back.

He grabbed Barclay’s coat and pulled the officer close. Barclay spun free and his partner came into Barnes’ view. Barnes fired twice.

“Now, I’m totally committed,” he told me. “I just shot at random, twice, in Barclay’s direction. One hit his leg, the other his upper shoulder.”

Barnes had never told any of this story to the court. He’d pleaded not guilty and didn’t testify, as was his right. So the prosecutor wanted the option of using my account to establish the chain of events that he said caused Barclay’s death.

I had to answer his questions in front of a grand jury. I relayed what I had put in the paper after my jailhouse interview. The prosecutor didn’t force my hand and ask me to say more.

Ultimately, he didn’t need me. Barnes did stipulate that he had shot Barclay – but maintained that he was not responsible for the officer’s death. Too many other factors, he argued, could have caused the infection.

Monday, a jury of his peers agreed with Barnes.

Until today, I’ve been unable to say how bad I felt about trying the man twice for the same act, after he’d served his time.

I’ve always thought that decision was wrong. Would he have been charged again had his victim not been a police officer? I don’t think so. I would have expected Lynne Abraham’s successor, Seth Williams, to put the brakes on the prosecution. I was optimistic.

That day in prison, Barnes said something that made me wince. He thought it was unfair to be charged again.

“For the first time, I feel like a victim,” he said.

Incredible words from a career criminal.

The state never should have given him the satisfaction of saying them.


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.