NOTE: A young woman, Julie McCormick, approached me at a book event earlier this year and asked that I sign a copy of Jerkwater Town for her friend, Blu Cava, a vocalist who had entertained a mobster that I had featured in the book. That brief encounter led to a wonderful meeting with the former San Diego nightclub singer. Her voice is magical. Her life an encapsulation of the challenges and rewards of holding down a day time job, raising a child, and earning a reputation as having been San Diego’s greatest voice. I tried to capture the treasure that is Blu and her time in Scam, a forthcoming historical novel, and in a recent article I penned. A brief abridgment of the article follows.
Cigarette smoke clouds the dimly lit nightclub’s air. It’s 1956. San Diego’s young, elite, powerful, and infamous—looking to let their hair down—mob the then-small town’s most popular nightspot, Frank Harris’ Hillcrest Hide-A-Way in Hillcrest. They crowd the twin bars at front and back. Sway on the jammed dance floor. Share drinks in one of the few booths or smattering of tables. A diminutive blonde chanteuse, fronting a four-piece band, stands at the microphone. She is very young, so young that at a previous engagement and still underage, her band requires her to guard the alley door during a break while they share drinks and a joint. She wears her hair in an updo. Her lips are painted bright red. Stylish heels adorn her feet, and a black, off-shoulder evening dress frames her petite figure. She opens her mouth and steals their hearts.
On any given night from nine to one a.m., the daytime secretary/radio and TV ad exec might be heard entertaining one of her daytime employers, then-Congressman Bob Wilson. Mayor Charlie Dail and members of his city council may have dropped in after a session at City Hall. Her friend, bail bondsman King Stahlman, would likely be found on the dance floor dressed to the nines. During a break, she might share a drink with Frank Dragna, manager of the downtown Gold Rail Bar and partner with local Mafia chieftain Frank Bompensiero, to whom she once gave a ride to the El Cortéz.
Amid this backdrop, Blu Cava raised a son on her own, conquered a challenging daytime employment schedule, and honed her voice. And, as anyone who heard her at one of the many venues she called home could attest, she could sing. While sitting recently inside her memorabilia-adorned home near SDSU, her friend and assistant Julie McCormick convinced Blu to let me her voice. Julie slipped a disc into a decades old boom box. I stopped talking in mid-question. Even the poor sound quality of a digitized tape fails to belie the vibrancy of a piano-accompanied voice that sounds as distinctive as it is a dead-ringer for Billie Holiday.
“I didn’t try to sound like her,” Blu mildly protested at the comparison. “I had my own distinctive style.”