Chickery Chick – Sammy Kaye Orchestra
“Chickery chick, cha-la, cha-la
Check-a-la romey in a banonika
Bollika, wollika, can’t you see
Chickery chick is me? “
My mother, Heather Ruby Laming, was born in June 1935 in Portsmouth to mother Ruby née Price and father Horace Laming. Ruby had come down to Pompey from Abergavenny in her teens and worked ‘in service’ until the birth of my mum. Below stairs in a rich families’ house in other words. Something happened there that she almost told me once, then changed her mind. I’d travelled down to Copnor in North Portsmouth in the 1980s to talk to her about her life. My Nan would have been late 80s by then, still painting occasionally-interesting abstracts, still lives and strange scenes from road accidents or desolate sea shores. The house was full of her paintings. She appeared to be fond of me, regarding me with a tolerant, knowing chuckle as if I couldn’t put one over on her. She came out with some odd things regarding my Mum – “Heather has always been difficult – she wouldn’t even take the nipple as a baby”.
That’s a bit dark, I thought.
Her dad Fred Price was a lovely old geezer who used to write funny letters to my Mum when she married my Dad and moved away from Portsmouth, first to Cambridge, then to Sussex. “Winter – drawers – on” he wrote as we entered December. Clever old stick. Ruby would have us believe that she was the eternally long-suffering wife of a dreadful husband – Horace, and I wrote about the strange atmosphere pervading his funeral in the late 1960s in My Pop Life #49.
Almost all of the stories I heard about my Nan were bad, and my own experience talking to her backed them up. She favoured Mum’s sister, Aunty Valerie, deeply favoured her. She used to drink heavily when Heather was growing up and going out with my Dad, and once or twice he intervened to stop Horace and Ruby coming to blows. Or to stop Ruby beating on my Mum. In any event it didn’t sound like the most closely-knit family. I remember one Christmas round there when I was about five – where we had to behave. Keep quiet. Ssshhh.
Of course when Mum had her first nervous breakdown (that I was aware of) in 1965 (see My Pop Life #54), Nan came up from Portsmouth to look after us while Dad went to work teaching. She must have lived with us in 2 Manor Cottages, Selmeston, for nine months, for that was how long Mum stayed in the hospital in the end. The Mental Hospital it was called. I can’t remember much about that period, having successfully wiped it out of my memory and grown up without its haunting disabilities at the front of my brain. Buried so deep that it rots my soul from within. But Nan must have been alternately strict and loving with us, me, Paul and Andrew. Thinking about it, this was when Andrew was disappeared to Portsmouth to stay with Aunty Valerie and Uncle Keith, so Nan was only looking after Paul and I. We shared a bedroom. We talked before we fell asleep, after the light was turned off. It kept us sane. Kind of.
Later on, when Nan sold the house in Copnor and moved into a nursing home in Southsea, Mum travelled down to see the house for one last time. the same one we’d gather in for Horace’s funeral, for Christmas, for strange visits which I dreaded. When Mum got there the house was empty. Literally. No art. No china. No furniture. “Oh“, she said to Ruby, “I thought I could have taken one thing to remember this house by, a saucer or a vase or something“. Ruby then answered with one of her classics : “I gave everything to the woman over the road. She’s been like a daughter to me.”
When my Mum told me this story I was horrified. I said “You can’t go on taking this shit, it’s abusive, designed to hurt you.” Nan was still alive, we were still visiting her in the nursing home. She was in her 90s now. “No,” said Mum, “I don’t want to upset her.” I had another clue to the cause of the mental illnesses mum had been plagued with for what seemed like the bulk of her life. Not to mention my own bipolarity.
My friend Richard went to see her one day with Paul and we had an interesting chat about it later. He thought there was a possibility that she was a lesbian who’d never owned it, let alone come out. Pretty charitable I thought.
This may well be the happiest memory I can retrieve of my Nan…and perhaps have been the first pop song I ever heard, although it would have been from my Mother’s lips. She remembers it from World War Two when Ruby sang it to her, enjoying the nonsense words. I remember Mum singing this all through the 1960s. She actually sang “Wollika Wollika can’t you see” rather than the actual words “Bollika Wollika” which clearly don’t have the same connotation in America and which were carefully screened from our young English ears. I never did know what she was talking about until one day looking through some old sheet music in a shop, I found this.
So it had been a Number #1 hit song in the U.S. and in the charts for over 4 months, played by the Sammy Kaye Orchestra. The odd words were written by Sylvia Dee, and the music by her regular songwriting partner Sidney Lippman. Sammy Kaye had over 30 hit songs in the swing era, and six number ones. “Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye”offered the tag-line, and young Nancy Norman auditioned aged 16 and 4’11” high and got the job of female vocalist. Her mother would chaperone her all over the United States to sing Chickery Chick. The man’s voice is country singer Billy Wiliams. Many other stars covered the song, including The Andrews Sisters, Frank Sinatra, Gene Krupa & Anita O’Day, and Evelyn Knight and The Jesters, which is my actual favourite.
The word banonika is still in use in our house here in Brooklyn. It is used to denote a wrapping into which the special needs cat Roxy will position herself, enjoying the cosy created therein.
Not a banonika
Not a banonika, strictly speaking
a carboard box I’d call that
When she is under the duvet or inside some clothing then : “Are you in your banonika darling?”we will ask in slightly high-pitched voices as if talking to a child. Which we are really. A furry child substitute. Maybe we should sing Chickery Chick to our cat. I’m sure people have.
Roxy and I agree that we have no banonika pictures
Sammy Kaye, featuring Nancy Norman & Billy Williams :
Evelyn Knight & The Jesters :