Culture - Finding the Sweet Spot

It’s late-ish on a Friday evening at Sage — the intimate, halcyon sidecar pasted like a classy goiter on the front of the Fairmount Hotel — and a silver-haired gentleman, attired smartly in a cream-and-burgundy ensemble, is trying to impart one of the secrets of serious vocal performance: making your sound system work for you. “There are three types of microphones,” he explains. “The kind that make your voice sound worse than it is, the kind that make your voice sound just like it is, and the kind that make you sound better. That’s the one I like.

“You learn to look for that sweet spot,” he adds.

Finding said “sweet spot” is a skill that’s been honed to near-perfection by celebrated local jazz singer Ken Slavin, who, at the moment, is serenading the patrons of Sage and coating the room with layer upon layer of smooth, honeyed croon, backed ably by Chuck Moses’ steady and strolling bass line and a tinkling, tinselly piano, courtesy of Morris Nelms. The trio is playing expertly; toes are tapping against carpeted hardwood floor, fingertips are almost involuntarily keeping time against tabletops. It’s a good night, seemingly, for Slavin. But this isn’t a story about Slavin. (Or, at least, not directly.)

“We never ask to sing, anywhere we go,” says Don Woten, 76, he of the burgundy-and-cream ensemble. The “we” refers to Woten and wife Nell, who is some 11 years his senior, and seated across from him. “We don’t do that. Normally when somebody asks to sing, it’s some drunk blond over here that’s had too many drinks, and they get up and they can’t remember the words, and they’re screechy, and they can’t carry a tune, either.”

Nonetheless, sing they do — and often. The couple estimate that they perform at least twice a week, and have been doing so since they came to San Antonio a decade ago.

“We always sing with Ken Slavin at the Fairmount Hotel on Friday nights,” Don says, seated at a table in the couple’s home in Live Oak, “and we sing at Me and C.A.’s Lounge on Perrin Beitel.” He is tall, with angular features and large eyes that pinch down at the outer corners, effecting a mild (but not necessarily accurate) suggestion of sadness, or weariness. A meticulously trimmed white mustache crests his upper lip; his eyebrows are thick and arc bushily earward. Across the way sits Nell, a steady, if acutely petite, woman with dark eyes and well-kempt swells of white hair that drop neatly down into place about her face.

“For the better part of a decade, they’ve been coming out,” says Slavin, who makes time during every Friday show to call Don and Nell up for a number or two. “It’s gone beyond just musical friendship … They’re an important part of my life. I can’t imagine not having them.”

“Nell is always welcome on our bandstand, and so is Don,” says George Prado, whose Regency Jazz Band is another regular stop for the Wotens. “They’re passionate people … It’s amazing people at their age still go out to listen to music … It’s an inspiration.”

Why? Why does this couple have a standing invitation to sit in with two of the city’s best-loved jazz outfits? Aren’t there truckloads of worthy elderly couples in San Antonio?

Not like this one.

Don and Nell met late in life — about 18 years ago in Austin, Texas, when Don walked into the Common Interest, a then-piano-bar where Nell occasionally sang.

“And he danced with me once, and I knew I had ’im,” says Nell, “because I was a good dancer, and he’s marvelous. So I knew then he would go out with me. I didn’t want to marry; I hadn’t been married in over … ”

“25 years she’d been single, when I met her,” Don offers.

Don says he was attracted to Nell immediately (“She was a knockout, tell you what. Still is,” he says.), but it was her singing that really caught his attention. Nell, meanwhile, says she liked that Don (1) didn’t drink and (2) looked like Cesar Romero (she’s dead-on about that) — but was better-looking, and a better dancer. Indeed, she says she did once dance with Romero, at a fundraiser for the Austin Humane Society, which she says she helped start, decades ago. (Current AHS executive director Frances Jonon said she isn’t clear on the history, and could neither confirm nor deny this claim.)

Tripping the light fantastic with the Joker, however, wasn’t Nell’s first brush with fame.

“When she was going to school in Dallas, there was a band come through town,” explains Don, who, after 16 years of marriage (they dated for two), seems to know Nell’s stories better even than she — and derives tangible pride from telling them. “In those days the big bands traveled … One-night stands, they were called … Well, the Barney Rapp Orchestra out of … Cincinnati, Ohio, was touring and … came through Dallas/Fort Worth … And their vocalist was with child, and had to take maternity leave at that time. Their vocalist’s name was Doris Kappelhoff.”

Nell, it seems, had won a singing contest that got her listed with a local radio station as a possible replacement for traveling bands. So, when she got a call to fill in for the gravid Ms. Kappelhoff, she gladly acquiesced, and then didn’t think much more of it, until years later, when, says Don, “that girl changed her name, Doris Kappelhoff changed her name … to Doris Day.”

Nell also performed several times with the enormously influential (and Texas-tied) trombonist Jack Teagarden, and sang for him on a 45-rpm USO record for the soldiers overseas during World War II.

“Nell probably had the looks and the talent to be a big-band singer,” Don says, “but she would’ve had to travel with bands, and that is not a good way `to live`.”

Though her parents wouldn’t allow her to go on the road (because she’d have to undress on a bus full of males, among other indecorous possibilities), or wear black dresses (they were for “hussies” — which word she pronounces with a delightfully emphatic “zz”), Nell says she never begrudged them their decision, and rather agreed with it. “I just couldn’t bow down to `those standards`,” she says. “I knew something would happen. You can’t just be a nice girl, and stay that way. It’s just, I don’t mean that they’re tramps, but I didn’t want to.”

Nell also was a stenographer and campaigner who worked in close proximity with Lyndon B. Johnson during his pre-Washington years; she calls the late statesman “my hero.”

For his part, Don is an immoderately decorated Air Force veteran: A Distinguished Flying Cross, a Purple Heart, seven air medals, and the distinction of having at one time been the youngest aircraft commander in the Strategic Air Command are ample reminders of his 20 years of military service. Recently, he has taken to referring to himself as “a sober Dean Martin.”

Back at Sage, Slavin gives the pipes a break and calls up the Wotens, separately. Nell, a small white hand gripping the mic stand, glides her way sweetly and gracefully through “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Mood Indigo”; Don, all corners and charm, offers an indeed Martin-esque “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You,” then brings it down for “It Had to Be You,” with loving finger-points at You-Know-Whom, prompting a requisite — but sincere — chorus of “awwws.”

“The reason we have such a good marriage,” theorizes Nell, “is because I’m a 5-o’-clock-in-the-mornin’ getter-upper, and he’s just about going to bed then … I don’t need to see anybody early in the morning, I can do everything I need to do, and he `thinks` ‘Hell, we got a maid came in and cleaned up — everything just `looks` awful nice.’ About 10:30, 11 — breakfast. We have a good marriage … Not everyone in their 80s goes around singing and married to a younger man.”l

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