(Several months ago I wrote in these pages that I was going to periodically post brief excerpts from the Chet Helms biography. This is the first installment.)
On Saturday, January 19, 1963, Janis celebrated her 20th birthday at Threadgill’s. It was also a going-away party because she had decided to leave The Waller Creek Boys and go to San Francisco with Chet.
On Wednesday, January 23, the couple hitched to Fort Worth and presented themselves at 3510 Avenue D on the east side of town, the home of Chet’s mother and stepfather.
That is the moment the enduring legend of Chet and Janis, peppered with a healthy dose of mythology, began.
Ellis Amburn in Pearl: “Chet’s mother was appalled when Janis came stomping into her house in her funky blue jeans, the first three buttons of her blue work shirt undone, and wearing no bra. Says Chet, ‘Janis sat around swearing like a trooper, right in front of my mother.’”
Amburn goes on to recount how when Chet’s mother refused to let the couple spend the night “there were screams and tears.”
Alice Echols in her Scars of Sweet Paradise more or less repeats this story.
But it strains credulity to believe that Janis, who could indeed be loud, course and vulgar with her friends, would behave that badly in the home of a friend’s parents, a home in which she was seeking temporary shelter. She simply hadn’t been raised that way. It also strains credulity that Chet, despite his periodic disagreements with his mother, would allow her to be so disrespected by someone he’d brought into her home.
Almost two decades before Amburn’s book and almost three before Echol’s, a far more sedate version of the incident appeared in Myra Friedman’s Janis biography, Buried Alive. She writes that although Chet’s mother was shocked by Janis’ mannish attire, she was far more distressed that her son was traveling with a person of the opposite sex. Friedman quotes Chet as saying, “It created a crisis in my mother’s religion.”
Chet’s younger brother, John, who was in the house that night, agrees. John was flabbergasted that Chet would show up with a female companion, expecting to be put up for a night or two, aware of his mother’s religious beliefs, not to mention the social mores of the day, but he insists that Janis neither stomped around nor swore in front of his mother.
“That is 100 percent wrong,” John says. “Make that a thousand percent wrong. When my mother answered the door, Janis was standing next to Chet, strumming her autoharp and softly humming a tune. Janis was very sweet and polite with my mother.”
But neither Janis’ demeanor, nor Chet’s assurances that they were just friends convinced Novella that they should spend the night under her roof. So after dinner, John drove Chet and Janis out to the Fort Worth stockyards on the edge of town and dropped them off to begin the next leg of their journey. When John returned home, his distressed mother told him that having to turn Chet away had broken her heart.
And thus began Phase II of the legend of Chet and Janis.
The story Chet told countless times over the years is that he and Janis hitchhiked from Fort Worth straight through to San Francisco in 50 hours and went directly to North Beach where Janis sang a few songs at the former The Fox and The Hound, which, under new ownership, had recently changed its name to Coffee and Confusion. Despite a strict policy against passing the hat, the club’s crusty owner, Sylvia Fennell, was so impressed by Janis’ performance, she waived that rule, which resulted in a $50-$60 windfall for the newly-arrived Texans.
It’s a terrific story and it’s almost true.
Chet and Janis didn’t travel straight through from Fort Worth to San Francisco; they stopped in Santa Maria, Chet’s birthplace, to visit his favorite aunt, Ruth Helms Vallance, whose husband, Frank, had recently passed away. Ruth was temporarily living in an apartment with her youngest daughter, Goldie, while waiting for a new house to be completed. Her other three daughters were out of the house, but living in the area.
The Helms side of the family was considerably more liberal than the Dearmore side and Aunt Ruth had no qualms about allowing Chet and Janis to bunk at her place. During their brief stay in Santa Maria, Chet and Janis made the short side trip to Betteravia, the company town where Chet had spent his first nine years. They visited the general store where several employees and patrons told them stories about Chester Sr., who was fondly remembered more than a decade after his death. They also went to The Santa Maria Inn, which featured a display of some of the Native American artifacts Chester Sr. had spent his short lifetime collecting.
After spending a night in Santa Maria, Aunt Ruth and Goldie drove Chet and Janis to the Greyhound bus station. Ruth bought the couple bus tickets for the 250-mile jaunt north to San Francisco and lent them $20.
Two weeks later, Aunt Ruth received a card from Janis, thanking her for her generosity and hospitality. A $20 bill was tucked inside the card.
It is true that Janis sang at Coffee and Confusion soon after arriving in San Francisco and it is true that the hat was passed for her that night. Despite that initial success, Chet and Janis soon mostly went their separate ways, not because they had any personal conflicts, but because they had different agendas and separate circles of friends.