BOOK REVIEW : ‘Ivory Joe’: All the Makings of a Hit Mob Movie : IVORY JOE, <i> by Martyn Burke</i> , Bantam Books, $19.95, 320 pages


“Ivory Joe” is a great story about a handsome, womanizing gambler up against the relentless, humorless, ubiquitous mob.

It’s about dancing with Rita Hayworth in Cairo nightclubs during World War II. It’s about a heroic and drop-dead gorgeous woman who pickets for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union right in front of her own husband’s sweatshop dress factory.

It’s about a 13-year-old chess genius who meets the darling man of her dreams through a series of mail-order chess games. It’s about swaggering gamblers in Harlem.

It’s about a marvelous piano player and singer, Ivory Joe, whose destiny is to be one of the founders of rock ‘n’ roll, and through the force of his totally amazing hit, “Ghost Lover,” to bring de facto integration to a bedrock segregated Southern town.


And it’s about a 9-year-old who takes what looks to be a horrendous childhood and turns it into a great story--because she’s a terrific storyteller and because she loves her life.

Christie Klein, 9, and her chess prodigy sister, Ruthie, share custody of their divorced parents, Leo and Tina Klein. Leo is the gambler, womanizer, almost mobster, party doll. He orders takeout from the Copacabana and has a driver named Stanley. What a guy!

Leo met Tina on the eve of World War II, and it was just one of those things. They fell for each other in a very big way. But after four years of separation and with the gruesome ‘50s staring them in the face, the romance went out of their marriage. Tina can’t stand Leo’s thug friends and his sleazy string of doxies.

So . . . Tina pickets his factory, gets him in trouble with the mob and, through strange circumstance, meets Ivory Joe.

All the visible and invisible walls of segregation and suspicion and prejudice surround and separate Ivory Joe and Tina, but she signs on as his manager, because she feels like it. Leo can twitch and moan as much as he likes, but he hasn’t got a leg to stand on, because he’s a sleaze.

But here’s the deal: Ivory Joe and his new group (Zoot, Clyde and Clarence, who is prey to terrible stage fright) turn out to be amazing and enchanting.

Every song they do is good, but “Ghost Lover” has Rock ‘n’ Roll Classic written all over it. Naturally, the mob moves in. They own every disc jockey, every radio station, every recording studio. They have never given much thought to “black” music, but if it’s going to make money, by God, they want the money! They don’t want it going to waste on the musicians who do the work.

So--once again--Leo and Tina find themselves on opposite sides in a big fight that involves violent beatings, brutal murders, daring rescues, marvelous music, abductions, arson, chess matches, naked women, dubious psychiatrists stuck up in trees and white Southern policemen who unexpectedly start to dance.


Movie-makers! Are you reading this?

Don’t you want to make a gorgeous cops-and-robbers flick set in World War II and the time right after, when rock ‘n’ roll got started? Call the author right now.

Because I’ve just read the book and I’m crazy about it, but, boy, I can’t wait to see the movie.

Next: Bettyann Kevles reviews “Divorce Among the Gulls: An Uncommon Look at Human Nature” by William Jordan (North Point Press).