It had the feel of an old black and white movie, where it's night and stormy and the town is as dark as a desert. I was in Simi Valley and only the street lights were on, reflecting in the wet pavement and illuminating streaks of rain falling at steep angles.
Nights like that stir the Walter Mitty in me.
I could imagine I was Humphrey Bogart driving through the darkness and suddenly coming upon Ingrid Bergman standing by a lamp post, the collar of her coat turned up, her blond hair matted by the rain. She's a tiny figure in the ferocity of the storm, sad and vulnerable in the way that women were back then. I get out of the car and light a cigarette, shielding the flaring match against the rain, and say, "So we meet again."
There's a slow and moody riff to a rainy night, and I can easily get caught up in its rhythms, turning a drive through a dark town into a night in Casablanca. But Simi Valley ain't Casablanca, and I have to concentrate to find a restaurant called Figaro Figaro.
I spot it in a strip mall, the only lighted building in town, except for a Vons down the way. It's like one of those little Italian joints I knew in San Francisco a long time ago, which is appropriate because I'm there to listen to the comeback of a trio of girl singers from long ago. But they're singing mostly rock and doo-wop, not "As Time Goes By," which pretty much ends the Bogie-Bergman illusion.
They call themselves the Murmaids, but they can't remember why. They started singing in 1963 at a time when the Beach Boys were hot, and speculate that maybe they wanted to cash in on the California surfin' mood. Why the "mur" and not "mer"? "Maybe," Carol Morrell says, "we just couldn't spell mermaids." Carol was only 15 then and sister Terry, 17. They were the daughters of Carl Fischer, who composed moody, rainy-night songs like "We'll Be Together Again" and arranged music for singer Frankie Laine.
When I heard that, I almost choked on my Chianti. The whole thing was so retro I couldn't believe it. Here I was on a film noir night in a restaurant with plastic grape leaves hanging from the ceiling listening to the daughters of Carl Fischer.
Just like North Beach a long time ago, without the doo-wop.
I'd never heard of the Murmaids, but I did know of Fischer and Frankie Laine. "We'll Be Together Again" was a song that made Marines cry their drunken eyes out. Laine sang it like it was background for that street-lamp scene between Bogie and Bergman where he says, "So we meet again."
The mother of Carol and Terry was the first girl singer with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, blowing holes in the music world with a driving sound called progressive jazz. Their grandmother and great-aunts were a vaudevillian group known as the Locus Sisters.
Given their background, it figured that the Fischer girls would have the family's musical instincts, and they did. The Murmaids had a hit single in 1963 called "Popsicles and Icicles," which you might have missed, and then like so many trios, quartets, bands and tumblers, they dropped out of sight.
Afew years ago they were asked by a friend to appear at a record store to sign autographs. That reignited interest in the Murmaids. The sisters got together with Cynthia Perry** to round out the trio, replacing the original third singer, a friend. Invited to sing in a show at the Greek, they received a standing ovation, and the Murmaids were swimming again after a 35-year hiatus. The other night in Simi Valley, they did tunes from the '40s through the '60s, old teeny-bopper chart-busters like "Rockin' Robin" and "Johnny Angel." They swayed and moved their hands in the synchronized style that groups adopted back then, before Britney's navel or Michael's moonwalk.
Like all restaurants that feature entertainment, especially small Italian places with plastic grape leaves hanging from the ceiling, the food service went on during the singing. It was meatballs and spaghetti right along with "Papa's Off to the Seven Seas," which we sang about sailors going to war in the 1940s the way they're going off to war today. In the conduct of human aggression, only the music changes.
The trio has a new album coming out called "The Murmaids Splash Back," with hits like "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da," and other Western classics. "Popsicles and Icicles" too.
I like slow stuff best, the kind of sad, longing music that fits a rainy night, but doo-wop is OK, too. It's just a little too doo-woppy for me. The Murmaids aren't 15 and 17 anymore, but music never leaves the heart, even if time ages the singers.
It had stopped raining by the time I left Figaro. Street lights still glistened in the damp night, but Bogie was gone and so was Ingrid Bergman. A cold wind whistled down an empty road, but I kept warm by bopping all the way to the car.
Cynthia Perry has since been replaced by Petra Rowell.
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