The incredible legacy of John Graves


By DC Duncan

Special to The PREVIEW

This morning I was working on a writing project and needed my friend John’s advice.

Without thinking, I picked up the phone and dialed his number. Suddenly — like a blow to the solar plexus — I remembered that John Graves is dead, and would not be answering.

John died at age 86 on Monday, Nov. 10. The great man had been my surrogate father, my friend and mentor, but now he belongs to the ages.

He is gone, but leaves behind an incredible legacy. I would like to share a few of the sparkling gems that made John such a vibrant and beloved human being, here with a few from John’s collection of memories (in quotes):

John grew up in Porterville, a small central California town known for nothing in particular. He must have been born atop a piano because he took to playing like a baby takes to nursing. He became obsessed with swing music and considered Erroll Garner a hero, unlike most boys his age who considered baseball players heroes.

“One of my favorite jazz singers was the former Gene Krupa vocalist, Anita O’Day. When we went to nearby Hanford to see Stan Kenton, whom should I see backstage but Anita O’Day herself! I told her how much I admired her singing … and then she asked me to dance with her! So, at fourteen years of age, there I was dancing with my favorite vocalist!”

Hence the inception of “John Graves: Chick Magnet.”

Only months before, John had run 8 miles down a mountain to get help for a heart-attack victim; his noble character having been cast at an early age.

John played mainly in three bands during high school in the war years.

“Between these groups I managed to play two or three times a week, learning countless songs and priceless insights from this great range of mentors.”

And then it was on to the College of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.

“Dave Brubeck was playing there in a small club, and we struck up a friendship that has lasted all these years. A ten piece band of local musicians with whom I played opened for an Erroll Garner concert, and had a nice conversation with this jazz icon. When Stan Kenton’s band came to play, I was privileged to do a radio interview with him.”

All his dreams were coming true.

Before graduating college —besides playing piano bars and parties — John worked with several bands on the road, including some uproarious comedy bands.

“Red Fox and His Musical Hounds was a four piece band modeled after the Spike Jones format: funny hats, false noses, a bedpan and a musical tree (in which each branch sounded a tuned ‘honk’ when pushed down and, for a grand finale, a brassiere on a spring flew out of the birdhouse on top). A real class act. Red (not the famous comedian) took advantage of my smile-less countenance and used me as ‘Deadpan Digger Graves.’”

In later years, playing with Rio Jazz and John Graves and Friends in Pagosa Springs, when asked, John would flash his patented phoney, toothy smile to the audience just to show that he could actually smile if prodded. But he certainly laughed a lot.

After graduation, John played on: “Ray Bolger was the first celebrity whom I had met in a party for which I was playing. It was a very fancy affair, hosted by Carlton Alsop in an old-wealth section of Pasadena, Calif. After dinner, I was delighted to share my piano bench with the loose limbed dancer. We talked, he made requests, and even sang some of them, mainly to me. Before he left, he offered me the job of becoming his accompanist on a forthcoming tour, but I had just started what I hoped would be my career at NBC and had to refuse.”

John always played at piano bars, clubs and parties for luminaries such as Judy Garland, Groucho Marx, John Wayne and many more; accompanied stars like George Burns, Rosemary Clooney, Jimmie Durante, and a host of other well-known celebrities; and kept playing until the end in one capacity or another. But his main gig was working for network TV as producer, developer, and, believe it or not, censor. He worked behind the scenes at “I Dream of Jeannie” making sure Barbara Eden’s naval was well concealed. (As a young man, not being able to admire Ms. Eden’s belly button really bothered me. Thanks a lot, John.)

John worked on variety shows, comedies, and was film program manager, supervising series such as “Ironside,” “The Virginian,” “The Man From Uncle,” and even “The Monkees”; director of current programming at MGM-TV (with “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and winning a Golden Globe for Medical Center); Producer of the Assignment Vienna mini-series made in Vienna for MGM-TV and the ABC-TV network; executive producer of Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock”; executive producer for feature films and television at the South Australian Film Corporation; marketing vice president for Tyler Camera Systems; executive VP of LA House Productions; and professor emeritus of mass communications at the University of Central Missouri (after 10 years of teaching broadcasting and film courses before retiring in Pagosa Springs in 1996). Whew!

Deadpan Digger Graves spent a morning with Bertrand Russell at his home in Wales (through an invitation from Linus Pauling); made the first recording of a Dave Brubeck jazz concert; lived in London’s Chelsea with J. Paul Getty II and Mick Jagger as neighbors; had tea with Katherine Hepburn; played a keyboard in drag for a costume party at the bottom of the Grand Canyon; and met Errol Flynn in a shower. (Yikes!)

Along the way, John Graves’ personal life was just as action-packed as his professional life. John has two wonderful children from a previous marriage: Kim Graves, an airline pilot living in Arizona with his lovely wife, Sandi; and the beautiful Kerry Graves, a professor at Sienna Heights University in Adrian, Mich.Kim and Sandi have two sons, Taylor and Davis, and a grandson, Gavin. John was extremely proud of his loving family and was tickled to be called a great-grandfather.

Ann Graves, John’s devoted wife, has been his intimate friend and confidante since they met 31 years ago. Since moving to Pagosa Springs in 1996, the couple has been in love with Colorado and never gave a thought to living elsewhere. They designed their charming house with the majestic views in mind, which John enjoyed until his last day. And, for the last year, Ann was by the Professor’s side, caring for him and making his last days comfortable and lighthearted.

Besides playing music in two popular bands and piano at the Pagosa Unitarian Universalist fellowship, John served on the board of education for Archuleta School District, was a founding member of The Geezers’ Club, has inspired many pianists and was instrumental in getting the high school a beautiful grand piano. In all, John Graves was a most loved and respected citizen in Archuleta County.

The “Great One” authored two books (unfortunately both are out of print): “Just Say Yes: Memoirs of a Geezer” and “Animal Verses for Grown-Up Children.”

“Just Say Yes” is a compilation of fascinating stories from true life experiences. Dave Brubeck commented regarding the book: “… John, your stories have a personal perspective that make them as enjoyable as reading a wonderful letter from an old friend (one who knows how to write that is) …”

John acknowledged his partner: “My wife, Ann Graves, is a wonderful, experienced editor and proof reader — with great taste.”

“Animal Verses” is a clever, ribald coffee table book, wonderfully illustrated by Sabine Baeckman-Elge. Here’s an example of one of the milder verses:

“The Mynah Bird’s a major bird, of that there’s no doubt.

“While other birds cheep and chirp, he can whisper, speak — and shout.

“He’ll look you in the eye — and lie without blinking,

“And like a politician, what he says requires no thinking! “

In the end, John Graves had an interesting life full of amazing accomplishments, and some of his work will live on long after we are all gone.

But perhaps the true legacy that the Professor leaves is the tremendous number of people that he touched personally. John was a mensch, a teacher in the true sense of the word and, in some ways, a healer. He was a mentor to some and a friend to all; and was a tremendously compassionate person who exuded love beneath a humorous, curmudgeonly facade.

John Graves was the sweetest man I’ve ever known. We should all rejoice for having known him.