Helen St. James lays down a winner


The guys were hunkered down in the studio lobby munching on sandwiches and chips, sipping beer. Cooling their heels, shooting the breeze. The last time they’d hung with Helen had been her send-off gig several weeks ago at Kenny’s Castaways in the West Village. It closed soon after and liars were already coming out of the walls, claiming they’d once upon a time played the venerated venue. Helen had, and the crowds had loved her.

She strolled in wearing a baggy sweatsuit that covered up but couldn’t hide her fabulous full figure. Or her paunch. Didn’t have on a lick of makeup. Not even lipstick or eye-liner. Hair snatched back in a ponytail. She was going for comfort, not style.

“Hey, fellas,” she called out with a broad grin. “We gonna get some work done around here or what?” The guys laughed. She smiled directly at Keith who, smiling back, shook his head, motioned her over to the couch, and sent the boys into the studio.

He took a good long look as she crossed the floor. It was, to say the least, interesting to see the famous fox dressing down.  Frankly, something about this was sexier by far than her customary flesh-baring attire. Her bare face, weathered, had an intriguing, world-weary texture. “Thanks, darlin’,” he said, “for bailing me out.”

“You’re welcome.” With a wizened gaze, Helen sat and, taking his hand, winked, adding, “You do realize I expect sexual favors in return.”

“You truly are a piece of work.” They took maybe 15, 20 minutes going over a chart to the song Samantha’d got bent out of shape about. Then Helen said she also wanted to cover Allen Toussaint’s “Let’s Fall in Love Tonight.”

Fine, Keith figured. We walk away with two tracks for Helen St. James’ recording debut. The money men and women left hanging by the kid blowing the gig could talk with Helen’s investors about getting in on this.

She offered to keep him on as arranger and music director. Keith knew, though, when he was out of his league. Guiding a neophyte to legitimacy was one thing. An artist of Helen’s heavy rep demanded an industry-proven, razor-sharp ear, not a session player moving into this territory for the first time. “Thank you, darlin’, but no thank you.”

She arched an eyebrow, squared her shoulders, hand on hip. “Why? Why not?”

He explained. Then put his other hand over hers. “Darlin’—”

She scowled, snatching her hand back. “You darlin’ me one more time, Jackson…” Then, shifting on the cushion, eyes bright, she said, “Fine.”

Keith hardly heard what she said next for staring at her thick, parted thighs, willing himself not to look any further. Helen demanded he arrange at least those two songs. Or she’d walk. What could he do? They shook hands, hugged, then went inside and joined the band.

With that, the session commenced to become the stuff of which memories are made. Once the key cuts were done — in a couple takes each — and it finally was time to knock off, everybody’d forgotten about what a headache the kid had been and nobody wanted to quit.

Helen had hit a groove, settling in, waxing true, old-school R&B. All she needed was more material. Which she dug up from her club set lists. Which the band knew backwards and forward. It pretty much wound up being a live album, just without an audience.

By quitting time, looks went around between them all. Except her. Helen kept listening to playback after playback, questioning whether they shouldn’t go back and do everything all over again from the top. Which was academic — no one but her was interested in trying to fix what clearly worked like a chain gang on overdrive. Let Helen drive herself nuts with improving on perfection.

The guys turned in their invoices and left. Keith sat with Helen in the engineer’s booth. And said, point blank, “You’ve got yourself a winner, kid.”

“You sure?” It amazed the absolute hell out of him that even someone strong as her, complete with bad-ass bravado, doubted herself.

Tired, beat to the bone, he kept from yawning and stretching so as not to hurt her feelings. “Yes, darlin’. I’m sure.” Keith hugged her. Helen all but collapsed into his arms.

“Good,” she murmured. Then, collecting herself, she lifted her cheek from his chest. Gently pushing away, she gave him a narrow look, square in the eye. “I’m going home.”

He watched her walk away, magnificent hips churning, beautiful behind heaving, and wondered, yet again: If she’s married, how come nobody knows who her husband is?


Next week: Keith decides what to do about Leslie

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