Sometimes, it’s good to be impulsive. Especially when you’re overcome by an overflowing feeling of good will, and you can’t help yourself, you have to let it out. There was no hidden agenda. No thoughts of personal advantage. No hope of a possible relationship down the line. I felt it, and I did it. No premeditation. No plan.
In a studio filled with people, I pushed my way through the throng, raced over and threw my arms unabashedly around a blind man.
I doubt that it was memorable for him. Who knows? Maybe it happened all the time. For me, it was a first. Hugging a sightless stranger. It sticks in my mind.
Here’s how it happened.
I was working on a talk-variety show produced in Toronto called Everything Goes, hosted by comedian Norm Crosby, who coincidentally is almost entirely deaf. (I do not recall hugging Norm, so we are not talking about a pattern here – embracing people with disabilities above the neck. It was sui generis, if you want to bring Latin into it. A one of a kind occurrence.)
Everything Goes, a ninety-minute piece of irrelevance, was intended, like the successful prototype of its genre, The Mike Douglas Show, to be syndicated over hundreds of local stations throughout the United States and Canada. It wound up, I believe, airing on four stations. And was ignominiously cancelled.
A telltale sign that a show has less than First Class aspirations is that they booked me as a regular performer. (I also later performed on a CBS summer series called The Bobbie Gentry Show, which got the axe after four airings. There was a message for me in those experiences. The message was: “You’re a writer!”)
Another sign that Everything Goes was determinedly minor league was in the booking selection of the guests. No superstars, or even close. Everyone who appeared on the show had either once been famous but were indisputably on the downside of their careers (one guest, comedian Georgie Jessel, was, at the time, in his eighties), or they were relatives of famous show business luminaries rather than the luminaries themselves who had better things to do than fill a guest slot on a failed folly in Toronto. (Think Frank Sinatra Jr.)
One of the parade of over-the-hillers and never-were’s-but-their-Dads-had-been (e.g., Romena Power, the singer-daughter of movie great Tyrone Power, whom I do not recall singing in anything) was the blind baritone Al Hibbler, whose biggest hit had been Unchained Melody in 1955. “Johnny on the Spot”, Everything Goes booked Mr. Hibbler a mere nineteen years after his heyday. When his career had considerably cooled down.
The thing is, I loved Al Hibbler, and I adored Unchained Melody, which I once sang in a talent show at camp, as I recall, to enthusiastic applause.
Oh my love, my darling
I hunger for your touch…
That stuff really scores when you’re eleven, and wear bifocals.
Who’d have thought, as a precocious pre-teener, rendering this heart-wrenching ballad beside a towering bonfire in Northern Ontario as I swatted away mosquitoes and dodged the spitting sparks that, one day, I would be standing behind the cameras, watching the originator deliver the “Genuine Article” before my tear-filled and awe-stricken eyes?
Not me, I can tell you that.
But there he was, leaning against a stool, deep-voicing the beloved “oldie” to masterful and unforgettable perfection.
Al Hibbler was singing my song. And I did not in mind in the least that he was singing it better. (A more impressive concession than you might imagine.)
When it was over, the studio audience went wild. Al Hibbler had hit Unchained Melody out of the park, an accomplishment akin to Pavarotti nailing…some opera ditty.
And we were there to see it.
I didn’t think about it. (Which could easily be the title of my memoir.) Before I knew what I was doing, I raced onto the stage and threw my arms around Al Hibbler, screaming some variation of, or maybe these exact words:
“That was great!”
It was only later that I considered what it must have been like for a blind man, with no alerting visual signals to be physically accosted by a highly-emotional Jewish stranger.
There are no words to describe how that abrupt assault on that sightless singer’s person must have felt. No. I have to no words to describe it. Imaginably, a blind person might.
Because my left eye doesn’t see well, I once, not noticing it, accidentally walked straight into a telephone pole. It was scarily disturbing. That’s as close as I can get to how the “hug out of nowhere” might have felt. The shocking contact. Although, unlike the “Hibbler Incident”, the telephone pole was not racing up to congratulate me. I am hoping that the circumstances made a difference.
Thinking back, it is not inconceivable that Al Hibbler could have decked me. I had invaded his personal space, and to this day, I am unsure of his reaction. I would have to say, reading his face at that moment, I saw less elation than confusion, as in “What the hell’s goin’ on?”
Al Hibbler passed away in 2001. I am thrilled I got to hear him sing Unchained Melody live. And I am happy I hugged him.
Though I am not entirely certain he was.
Now, here’s Al. (You have to click on it, but it's there.)