Bicker, Bicker -- and Belt It Out
Alexis Rivera had the whole deal set up for Mickey Champion, his star singer. Nice little gig at the Venetian in Vegas, fat paycheck for an hour’s worth of work, a room at the Hard Rock Hotel.
And what thanks did Rivera get for his efforts?
“I ain’t #&*%@ goin’ nowhere, honey.”
She’s shy of 5 feet tall but gives no ground. Mules shake their heads in disbelief.
Champion is somewhere around 80, but good luck trying to nail down the Crenshaw resident’s exact age. She is perfectly happy belting out blues, jazz, gospel and pop at the Living Room, Little Pedro’s and Babe’s & Ricky’s. Other than that, don’t mess with her, don’t expect her to get on a plane, and don’t ask questions.
Rivera is 28, lives in Echo Park and has a crazy job spying on hotels for other hotels, so they know which corporate groups are staying where. In his spare time, the music lover and former critic is Champion’s manager. He does it for free, because he saw her perform a few years ago and thought it was a crying shame that one of the greatest singers ever to walk the face of the Earth never got her due.
Together they’re a sight, laughing, bickering, scolding, making up. They’re worse than married, and this little showdown over Vegas was typical. Rivera cajoled, praised, scolded and begged.
“Bring me some fish,” Champion finally said by phone, which was promising.
Rivera went to the Crenshaw Fish Market, because it’s got to be from there and nowhere else. He picked up some fried sole and French fries and ferried the bag of grease to her house. But it still wasn’t a sure thing. She hemmed, she hawed.
Finally, she gave in.
Champion left the house in a blue sweater, clutching her fish and chips, the sequins of her black cap shining like the lights of the Vegas Strip. She takes a while to get from here to there and needed Rivera’s arm to keep her steady.
Rivera all but jumped for joy. He called to tell the band members -- who were already halfway to Nevada on the chance she would come through -- and they couldn’t believe it.
Vegas or bust, baby. The young Mr. Rivera is driving Miss Mickey.
“&#%$@!!! Don’t get too close!” Champion snaps before we even hit Rancho Cucamonga.
“Mickey, I know how to drive.”
He takes one cellphone call after another. He’s also the volunteer manager for two other bands.
“I wish you’d get off that phone,” she whines when he hangs up.
The phone rings again.
“Let me drive,” she says, eye level with the glove box.
“You’re not driving, OK?”
She announces that if they make it to Vegas alive, she will not be needing her hotel room because she’s going to party all night. Rivera knows she’s not kidding. He’s seen the sun come up with her more than once and knows that only a fool tries to trade drinks with Mickey, whose latest CD is called “I Am Your Living Legend.”
The Living Legend bites into the fish.
“Mmmmmmm, hmmmmm, lord, honey.” She likes the fish.
But not the traffic.
“You told me you wouldn’t fly,” Rivera says.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Lord have mercy.”
“Look at that old lady drivin’.”
Rivera slows for a line of slow trucks, and Champion braces herself, grabbing on to the strap above the window as if she’s going to do a pull-up.
“Pass them!” she barks.
“I can’t pass.”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t fly.”
But that’s one explanation for why she never hit the big time. Barbara Morrison, a sensational jazz and blues singer and good friend, says Champion is world-class but wouldn’t go to Europe when that was the thing to do. Still, she made her mark.
“I think the blues singers who are her age and younger copied her style,” says Morrison, who met Mickey 35 years ago and marvels at Champion’s “walkin’ the floor” act, in which she travels a room, bellies up to a bar and even walks outside, singing with or without the microphone. Who needs it?
“She was a pistol then, just like she is now,” Morrison says. “The queen of the scene.”
Champion grew those great pipes in Louisiana, came west as a teen and got hitched to bandleader Roy Milton. She worked the legendary Central Avenue jazz clubs and shared bills with Count Basie, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday.
But she gave it up to raise a family and punch a clock in Los Angeles Unified school cafeterias. It wasn’t until she retired about 15 years ago that she started showing up again regularly in local clubs.
When you talk to her, there isn’t much talking. She gives you short bursts, the words slung like brickbats, and sometimes she pauses mid-sentence to wonder how she got there and where she was headed. But hand her a microphone and she’s a young diva again, vamping, grinding, hiking her dress, her pipes knocking dust off the walls next door.
Is there still time for a breakout?
Hard to say, and it’s not even clear she’s pining for one. She loves being loved, no mistake about it, but there’s plenty of love in the small L.A. places where people know she’s got the chops. Maybe Champion is doing this trip for Rivera and the half-broke band rather than herself. She does insist, after all, that the money be split evenly.
Vegas is three hours up the road. Sam Cooke is singing “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and Mickey is holding on to the strap with both hands like it’s a ride at Disneyland, telling Rivera he’s going to kill us all.
“Mickey,” he says, interrupting a phone call, “I know what I’m doing.”
We stop at a Terrible Herbst in Barstow and she’s a kid on Christmas Day, making a haul. She walks every aisle, grabbing pork rinds, Cheetos, Cracker Jack, two strawberry sodas. Now she’s zeroed in on a Smirnoff Ice and smiles like a thief when Rivera picks up an 18-pack of Miller Genuine Draft.
Ten seconds later they’re bickering in the potato chip aisle.
“I wanna get me some nachos,” she says, looking straight up at Rivera, who is normal height but looks like he’s on a ladder next to her. “Mickey, you messed up my car last time.”
“What you mean?”
“Don’t you remember? You ate nachos and got it all over my car.”
The relationship survives the trip, and Champion is dazzled by the Strip. She rolls into the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino and her other boyfriend, lead guitarist Johnny Moezzi, wraps his arms around her but still can’t believe Rivera managed to talk her into coming.
Two hours later, Champion, Moezzi, drummer Gary “Dap” Gibson and bass player Carlos Reveles cruise into the Venetian’s Tao Nightclub, a popular cross between a brothel and a set from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” There’s fake fog, strip-club music blasting over the speakers and a nearly naked woman in a bathtub dropping flower petals over her head.
Champion asks for a drink, and Rivera could use a double. He’s worried about the scene and the crowd, which swells to hundreds. He’s wondering if they’ll connect with something real and original, or if they’ll look at Champion as some kind of novelty, or, worse, an intrusion on their party.
The canned dance beat stops.
Champion, standing unnoticed in the crowd, takes the microphone. The band sets her up with “Next Time You See Me,” and Champion reaches to the depths of those bottomless lungs and almost knocks Tao’s hundreds of Buddha stones off the walls.
Next time you see me
Things won’t be the same.
If it hurts you, darling,
You only got yourself to blame
One verse and she has them. People swarm in for a better look, clapping, swaying, dancing. As guitarist Moezzi would say, Champion delivers a soul injection straight into the heart of the beast.
Halfway through the next cut, “At Last,” Rivera looks like the biggest winner in Vegas. He stands just a few feet away from Champion, in case she needs to take his arm, and he is lip syncing.
And then the spell was cast.
And here we are in heaven
And you are mine at last.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org and read previous columns at www.latimes.com/lopez.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.