St. Augustine native talks jazz career in the big city
By Kimeko McCoy
New York in the 1950s meant high heels and high rises.
During the day, the city was loud and lively as cars made their way up and down Times Square.
At night, the New York skyline shone over the city while people crowded into clubs and bars like the Peppermint Lounge doing the twist.
The music reflected the city, and small-town girl Debbie McDade wanted a piece of the action.
At 17, she packed up and left her Lincolnville home on Bravo Street to head to the Big Apple in pursuit of a career as a jazz singer.
“You would have never heard of me if I had stayed in St. Augustine,” she said.
Throughout the span of her career, she traveled the world, made a number of hits and received quite a few accolades.
Today, McDade celebrates 90 years of life, but she hasn’t forgotten her days as what newspapers called a sensational singer in the City that Never Sleeps.
Story of a song
McDade wrote one of her biggest hits after grabbing drinks with a friend one night.
McDade said a sailor came over and said, “Miss, I’ve been out of the service five months, two weeks and two days.”
Unsure of what to make of it, McDade told the soldier she bet he was glad and carried on with her evening.
“He came back again. He came back five times, so I had to tell the bartender, would you please stop him or do something,” she said.
That night on her way home, she couldn’t shake the thought of him and made a mental note to write it down before she forgot.
“I wonder what happened to five months, two weeks and two days. He was out five months, two weeks and two days,” McDade said.
She got home and called her arranger, Don Donaldson.
Donaldson was a former arranger and conductor for Thomas “Fats” Waller.
“I told him, I said, ‘Listen, do you have any time in the studio tomorrow morning?’ So he said ‘Come on in and I’ll work you in,’” she said.
When she got to the studio that morning, she wasn’t sure what she and Donaldson would do with what she had.
“He said, ‘Well, let’s play around with it.’ I said ‘Yeah, let’s see if we can come up with something,”’ McDade said.
She hummed a melody and put the words with it, to make it sultry like Billie Holiday.
“Sexy like that,” she said, but that’s all she had.
“Ooo, ah, gee, gush,” followed.
“Five months, two weeks, two days. We start off like that and we went from there on,” McDade said.
So, “Five Months, Two Weeks, Two Days” became a hit.
From Bravo Street to Broadway
Debbie McDade was born in 1925 as Emmaline Maultsby.
McDade attended Excelsior High School, which is now Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Exhibit.
She was known as a friendly girl with a pretty smile.
Much like McDade, Barbara Vickers grew up in Lincolnville before moving to New York.
She and McDade were friends but didn’t go to the same school. Vickers was at St. Benedict.
“We would just smile at each other,” Vickers said. “I didn’t know Debbie. I knew Emmaline Maultsby.”
Otis Mason of the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Exhibit remembers McDade growing up just a few blocks away from him.
He remembers her performing in chapel services at the school and being a very sociable person.
“We just enjoyed having fun together and grew up together,” Mason said.
At 17, McDade headed to New York because that’s where singers went, she said.
“You see, New York was different. It’s exciting, and you see people doing things so it’s a different atmosphere. It’s different, and you want to do things,” she said.
In New York, she lived with her aunt, Ruth Young, and cousins, Otis and Morris Boon.
McDade doesn’t remember much of her first gig, but it was in a nightclub.
“It was the same day that Nat King Cole got married,” she said. “I think that was a Sunday and that was when it was my first performance.”
Previous articles note that her first gig was at a place called Lucky Robert’s Club, where she met Donaldson.
Before long, McDade was getting bigger and more well-known, so she created a stage name, hence the name Debbie.
My Kind of Blues
A show in Tokyo is what McDade considers her most memorable performance.
“I tell you what, I did a state college in Japan and I was up there singing ‘Five Months, Two Weeks, Two Days’ and I forgot some of the words. That’s the first time I whistled out in public,” she said.
The crowd went wild.
During her time in New York, McDade befriended a few famous folks. Some were writers, entertainers and singers. She even met Louis Armstrong and became friends with his wife.
“One day I wanted to meet him, so I went out backstage. His valet came to the door and asked me what I wanted. I told him I wanted to meet Louis Armstrong, so he finally let me in,” she said.
That was a moment McDade said she would never forget.
Her second album “My Kind of Blues” was released in February 1960 under the name Debby Moore.
A young McDade is on the cover wrapped in fur with a sunset over the water behind her.
Its track list includes “Five Months, Two Weeks, Two Days,” “Nothin’ But Trouble on My Mind,” “Get a Feeling” and more.
Back in Florida
It wasn’t always glitter and gold for McDade.
She had tough moments in her career that made her want to throw her hands up and quit.
She had hopes to work with legendary musician Frank Sinatra.
The two belonged to two different unions, making the collaboration and another stepping stone in McDade’s career impossible.
“I lost on that. I cried,” she said.
The final blow came in 1976 when her mother died.
“It was good when I went to New York, it was real good,” she said.
When she had to return to Florida “I cried every night. I hated to come back down here,” she said.
If she could do it all over again, her mother would be living and she would still be in New York, she said.
Today, McDade still owns the home she grew up in on Bravo Street. She has two children who live out of town.
Continuing the celebration of McDade’s life, A Classic Theatre’s Jean Rahner has a program planned for her next year.
The plan is for a one-woman show where McDade’s story will be told.
“It’s amazing all that she has,” Rahner said. “The fascinating story about Debbie is she left from St. Augustine when she was maybe 18 to New York.”
In 2010, McDade was honored at the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Exhibit and is listed in the Encyclopedia of Jazz.
Taken from The Record May 17, 2015