Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Greatest Pretender: Korla Pandit, music's most magnificent fraud

A few of Korla's two dozen albums. You might notice a recurring visual motif on the LP covers. 

"For wisdom is better than rubies, and all things to be desired are not to be compared unto it. We bring you musical gems from near and far, blended into a pattern of glorious harmony, a program based on the universal language of music. It is our pleasure to present to you..."
Korla Pandit spoke not a word when he was on camera. He just wore a bejeweled turban, played the organ... and stared. That was the extent of his act. It was all he needed -- the shimmery tones of his music, the vague evocation of the Far East, and that indelible Mona Lisa countenance with its piercing dark eyes and intriguing half-smile. It was a potent combination which carried him along for nearly half a century. And yet, Korla Pandit never really existed at all. It depends, I suppose, on your definition of "existed." Either way, his story is one of the most implausible and oddly inspiring in the history of popular music.

I first encountered Korla Pandit without any clue to his identity or knowledge of his past. Portraying himself, Korla made a memorable cameo in Tim Burton's 1994 film, Ed Wood. In the scene, notorious director Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Johnny Depp) is holding a wrap party for his 1955 sci-fi/horor anti-epic, Bride of the Monster. The wild celebration, attended by Bela Lugosi and the other oddballs and grotesques who orbited Wood, is held in the meat-packing plant of the film's major backer, wealthy rancher Donald McCoy (Rance Howard). While the carcasses of slaughtered animals hang from hooks all around them, the revelers are treated to a suggestive dance routine performed by Wood himself, costumed as a harem girl. Korla Pandit, immaculately attired in a Nehru jacket and the ever-present turban, accompanies him on the organ with a composition called "Nautch Dance," referring to a seductive style of dance popularized in early-1900s India. As near as I can tell from reading about Ed Wood's life, no such party ever occurred, though Ed did like to surprise and shock people by dressing in drag and dancing wildly in public places and at parties. Still, it's a fun scene with a memorable capper as Ed removes his veil. Here's a clip.

For many years, that was my only encounter with Korla Pandit. "Nautch Dance" did appear on the Ed Wood soundtrack, though it was credited -- along with all the other tracks -- to Howard Shore, who composed the film's score. Many years later, though, I started noticing a particular LP cover which kept turning up on Internet lists of the best, worst, craziest, and "most WTF" album covers of all time. It was this one for a '50s-era Korla Pandit Christmas album:

The infamous Korla Pandit Christmas LP cover.

Something about the image stopped me in my tracks every time I saw it. Who was this odd, androgynous man sitting stiffly behind a keyboard and wearing the kind of suit a businessman would be buried in? Why did he seem to be wearing eye shadow and lipstick? And, most of all, why did he look so familiar? A quick Google search answered a few of my questions. He was, indeed, the mysterious organist from Ed Wood. Burton's film was made a mere four years before the musician died of a myocardial infarction at 77. His main claim to fame was starring in a Los Angeles-based 15-minute television show, Korla Pandit's Adventures in Music, in the late '40s and early '50s at the very dawn of the television age. He then made a series of short films which were nationally syndicated and thus made him famous across America. After that followed a series of albums and another local Los Angeles show. He remained a television fixture throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Then, after his career slowed down in the 1970s, he shifted to making public appearances and giving private lessons. He continued working steadily as a performer until the end of his life. To give you an idea of what Korla was like in his 1950s glory days, here's a clip from one of his TV shows. Supposedly, he made roughly 900 episodes like it. If something like this were to air on TV today, it would seem almost avant garde, like some weird experimental parody from Adult Swim.

Korla's story ended in 1998 in Petaluma, CA, but it began in St. Louis, Missouri in 1921, where one John Roland Redd was born, one of seven children of an African-American couple. Growing up black in Missouri in the 1920s and 1930s was exactly as uncomfortable as you might guess it would be. Instead of letting racial politics define his life, however, Redd chose to sidestep the issue altogether by completely remaking his image. In his late teens (after a brief apprenticeship at an Idaho radio station), he made his way to Los Angeles, the city which has perhaps eclipsed even New York as the reinvention capital of the world, and it was there he first donned a turban (an affectation he'd seen in a movie called Midnight Shadow) and began performing under the assumed name, Juan Rolando. As you can see, that first alias was a mere variation on his own real name. However, once he married Disney artist Beryl June DeBeeson in 1944, the complete repackaging of John Roland Redd really began. He and his wife devised the persona of "Korla Pandit," complete with a totally fictitious back story which declared that he was born in New Dehli to a Brahmin priest and a French opera singer. None of it was true, of course, but since when did "truth" and "show business" ever have anything to do with one another? Pandit kept up the ethnic charade for the next half century. The actual facts of his life were not revealed until a 2001 article in Los Angeles magazine.

The story of John Roland Redd a.k.a. Korla Pandit is unlike any I've encountered in popular culture. He presented an abstracted yet alluring version of India without even a semblance of authenticity. Korla represented the Far East as viewed through the eyes of the West. That speech comparing rubies to wisdom, for instance, comes not from anything in the Hindu religion but is a paraphrase of Proverbs 8:11 from the Old Testament. Even more obviously, the electric organ is not remotely Indian in nature. From what I can determine, the instrument was largely developed and popularized in the United States. However, the eerie and unearthly tones Pandit/Redd was able to conjure from it seemed to transport listeners to an exotic world of mystery, some indefinable place far away. That was the real magic behind what he did.

I'll leave you with one more clip of Korla Pandit. Here, he plays "Miserlou," a traditional Greek tune which you'll probably recognize as the theme from Pulp Fiction (where it was played by surf rock guitarist Dick Dale):