Maurice’s Big Chance

Rector High School, Rector, Arkansas

by Charles T. Crow, Class of 1958


This past Labor Day, members of the Rector High School Class of 1958 gathered to observe the 45th anniversary of their walk down the center of the gymnasium to accept their diplomas.  Growing up in the sleepy, post-Korean War era, in a part of the country that was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression, these children of the 1950’s had but one goal at the time—to get away to someplace where more opportunity lay—whether it was to go north to Michigan or Missouri to work in an auto plant or other factory, or to college, or into the military service, or just anywhere else besides back to the farm.  One such member of that class who harbored those dreams of escape was Maurice Seay.

Maurice Seay lived on a farm outside Rector.  Like every farm boy in high school, Maurice was enrolled in the vocational agriculture classes (the girls were enrolled in home economics, of course), which sponsored a club called “Future Farmers of America.”   FFA had a huge membership, and promoted leadership development, which meant they got to take field trips in the high school bus to district and state conventions in Jonesboro and Little Rock. 

The FFA always chose a “FFA Sweetheart” each year, and they had elected Janice Horton, whose gregarious personality and popular singing made her a favorite performer at numerous school functions.  As it happened, I was her accompanist, and when the FFA  boys decided to enter her in the state FFA sweetheart contest, they drafted me, a town boy, as an honorary member of FFA, so I would be eligible to play for Janice at the state contest.  They took us to the state FFA convention for the sweetheart contest (which she won), and that experience led the FFA boys to accept me even if I hadn’t picked much cotton.

Sometime later, a Rector community talent contest was organized.  For some reason I have a dim recollection that it might have been put together by an itinerant promoter who came through town to organize a fund raiser using local amateur acts, of which there was not an abundance, to say the least.  Somehow, I was tagged to help get the program together, and was inspired to talk a cluster of my FFA buddies into teaming up to sing.  Since they came from the FFA, we billed them as the “Clodhoppers” (or was it the “Grasshoppers?”  If memory serves, this impromptu quartet consisted of Philip Cook, Claude Gore, Dalton Newman and Maurice Seay.  They sang “The Green Door,” and while they weren’t exactly the “Hilltoppers,” they were the surprise novelty hit of the talent show.  On the strength of that success, they began to get invitations to sing in school events. 

While they sounded pretty good, the guys needed to learn more than one number, which for these untrained musicians was a challenge.  They didn’t know parts, and mostly sang in unison, and not always on pitch.  However, it turned out that Maurice had a pleasantly smooth bass voice, and after some experimenting, we decided that Maurice would be the “lead” and the others would be his backup group. Doo wop music and its origins This diversification, which was pretty standard technique in the “doo-wop” era, worked out pretty well, enabling us to navigate through popular numbers by Don Cherry and Tennessee Ernie Ford and even Dean Martin.  The high school crowds (sophisticates that they were) loved these fellows, who got smoother with practice, losing their aw-shucks shyness while never taking themselves too seriously.

Maurice, however, eventually began to ponder the dream of a performing career.  He had received several invitations to sing without the group, which he readily accepted. Recognizing that he needed a big break, he decided that the best way to gain attention was to appear on the “Ted Mack Amateur Hour,” which was a highly popular live weekly television show.  Ted Mack, who had previously had a long-running radio program of the same name, had “discovered” numerous budding performers from around the country in his shows.  It was the ticket to stardom.   Maurice broke the news to me that he had spoken to the person in charge of the Ted Mack program in St. Louis, and that Ted wanted him to audition right away.  I was astonished when he told me I was going with him and that we would be leaving on the train in a few days. 

The details of the trip are a blur, but the memory of the audition is vivid.  Two very green high school juniors arrived in Union Station in St. Louis, and found our way to a seedy section in the heart of the city where the audition was to be held.  We had expected a big building on a broad boulevard, with “Ted Mack” on top in blinking letters.  Instead, the address led us to a narrow side street, lined with shops windows full of garish cut rate clothing, cheap jewelry stores, pawn shops, tattoo parlors and bars.  We finally found the address, which turned out to be an alley entrance, up four flights of rickety stairs, which we barely noticed in our anticipation of a royal greeting by Ted Mack himself.

At the top of the stair, an unmarked door opened into a huge studio room—easily half the size of a basketball court—in which chaos reigned.  People were milling about in every direction; some played instruments, or were singing, or yelling across the room.  Somebody was hammering on a board.  Certain we had stumbled into the wrong place, we stood, speechless, trying to get our bearings, searching the room for someone who would show us how to find Ted Mack’s office. 

Finally, we spotted a slender, balding man slouching in a chair in corner near a big piano, where he was smoking an unfiltered cigarette and talking to two other people.  Maurice approached him, and asked him how to find the Ted Mack show auditions.  Yelling over all the room noise, the man replied that this was the place.  Maurice asked to speak to Mr. Mack.  The man informed Maurice in a blunt, matter-of-fact manner that Mr. Mack never wasted his time on auditions.  He then asked who we were.  Maurice said he was “Maurice Seay from Rector, Arkansas and I’m here to sing for an audition,” the man casually gestured toward the piano and said, “all right, so sing.” 

I sat down on the piano bench and gave Maurice a couple of introductory bars, and Maurice launched into “Wild Cherry,” his favorite Don Cherry number.  He had barely sung half the first verse when the man stopped him cold and said, “thanks, that’s enough.”  We were stunned.  Maurice could barely speak.  I asked the man if we weren’t supposed to “audition,” explaining that we had expected an audience in a quiet room.  The man looked at me intently, as if for the first time, and said in a friendlier tone, “Son, that was it.  If we want to hear more, we’ll contact you.”

The trip back is even more a lost memory than the trip up to St. Louis.  I don’t remember if we ate, if we took the next train back, or if we stayed in a hotel room and came back the next day.  The only memorable part of it was that Maurice would not talk about it, and I don’t recall that he ever sang again.  A short time later, before he would have graduated, Maurice dropped out of school and joined the Navy.  I never heard from him again.

The late songwriter, Harry Chapin, wrote a poignant song entitled, “Mr. Tanner,” about an ordinary man from the heartland of America whose secret ambition in life was to sing in Carnegie Hall.  After winning his chance, Mr. Tanner sings in concert to a small, indifferent audience and to snide reviews. Mr. Tanner packs his things, goes back to his job and never sings again.  When I heard Harry Chapin sing this haunting story, the memories of our devastating experience in St. Louis came flooding back.  While I never thought Maurice was destined to be a star, he did have talent, and I always believed he never got the chance he deserved.

Charles T. (Charlie) Crow
Rector High School Class of 1958
September 14, 2003


Charles Crow and Maurice Seay

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