El Duke-O's crooning is now a dirge for survivors Family sifts through singer's mementos

July 12, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

The voice of El Duke-O fills the small apartment where Joseph Buchanan used to live with songs washed in blue.

Mr. Buchanan is no more, dead and gone for more than a week since pneumonia took him at 72. But he is survived by the ghost of his show-biz persona, a piano-playing songster known throughout the city as El Duke-O.

El Duke-O's baritone booms from a tape player and rolls through three little rooms in an old folks high-rise on Chase Street, the last gathering place for memories and mementos from a half-century in music, a career spanning the footlights of the Harlem Renaissance to narrow gin mills on the Baltimore waterfront.

"Blue Monday," El Duke-O croons, ". . . how I hate Blue Monday."

On the sofa, beneath a poster announcing a benefit concert for the great El Duke-O, listens Oliver McAphee, a daughter; a son, Bruce Buchanan; and Ernestine Welch, one of the pianist's four wives.

They represent El Duke-O's eight children, 20 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and hundreds of fans in a life spent in Rhode Island and Baltimore. Over the weekend they were sifting through piles of their loved one's belongings, looking for keepsakes, stuff they would like to donate to the Eubie Blake Cultural Center for an exhibit -- if the city museum will have it.

El Duke-O's fingers work the keys for elegant renditions of "Misty," songs by Muddy Waters and Merle Haggard, and George Gershwin's "Summertime," and the family stops turning the pages of fat scrapbooks and photo albums to sit with silent memories and cry.

"It's hard," says Ms. Welch, the wife for whom Mr. Buchanan wrote "Ernestine's Out Tonight," a 45-rpm single still on the jukebox at the Newport, R.I., Elks Club, and the only record he ever made. "It's hard knowing he's dead when it sounds like he's right here."

Ms. Welch stares out a glass balcony door that looks east over the city, her right hand balled up and banging against her knee, in time with the music of her old sweetheart, but more intense, as if she is holding on to keep from breaking down.

"My mother used to have a rooming house in Newport, R.I., and the owners of the local nightclubs used to engage her for rooms for their entertainers," she says. "I met him sometime, I guess it was in 1950, when they sent him to my mother's house for a room. He was good-looking; I loved the way he sang and played, and I wasn't above swooning."

Her advice for young women prone to swooning over musicians is to think twice if they are also prone to jealousy.

It was in a Newburyport, Mass., club, Ms. Welch remembers, that Mr. Buchanan began getting notice for his tribute to Louis Armstrong, the magnificent "Satchmo." Word of the act reached the great trumpeter himself, and Armstrong dropped in on Mr. Buchanan one night to catch the show.

On a coffee table in front of Ms. Welch lies a souvenir from the visit: a trademark, sweat-stained white handkerchief signed "Louis Armstrong."

"That's the kind of wonderful life it was," says Ms. Welch. "We used to walk arm-in-arm with Ella Fitzgerald."

That was not the life that played out its final notes in a spare apartment on Cathedral Street adorned with photocopied pictures of a young and saucy Billie Holliday.

A small shelf of books includes "Outwitting Arthritis," the volume from which El Duke-O probably learned that if he wore gloves while playing it would cushion the pain of hitting the keys; a long line of empty liquor miniatures lines a mirrored shelf on the wall; and a homemade sign on the floor says: "The Living Legend Celebrating 55 Years in Show Business -- 1930 to 1985 -- appearing here. . . ."

As the sign was carried from gig to gig, the space after "appearing here" was left blank.

The last place El Duke-O appeared -- after playing backup for Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughn; working for 10 years as a fire dispatcher in Providence, R.I.; and becoming one of the first black men to complete the Boston Marathon -- was a Feb. 10 gig this year at Dave's Pub on the corner of Lexington Street and Guilford Avenue.

"And if you were there you heard the old tunes," says Bruce Buchanan, who came down from Providence to see his father buried last week at Mount Zion Cemetery on Hollins Ferry Road. "He was the kind of guy who liked to take people all the way back."

Olivera McAphee listens to her father's voice -- a voice that came to Baltimore in 1981 to rest and ended up lifting spirits at the Cat's Eye Pub and the Peabody Book Shop and Bier Stube -- and she knows he never made it as big as he wanted.

"I think he was heartbroken more than bitter," she says. "He didn't get the kind of bright star that he wanted, but you don't get to be the age he was by being too big a fool, either.

"He would tell me: 'Don't dwell on things that didn't come your way. If it didn't turn out exactly the way you wanted, you still have today.' "

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