January 4, 2013
Guests: Frank Calabrese Jr â Fontella Bass
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. Frank Calabrese Sr. died on Christmas Day, an inmate at the Butner Federal Prison in North Carolina. In his day, Calabrese led a life of bookmaking, extortion and murder as a member of the Chicago crime syndicate known as The Outfit, once ruled by the legendary Al Capone.
Calabrese went to prison after one of the biggest mob prosecutions in American history, in 2005; a case built on the testimony of his son, Frank Calabrese Jr. Calabrese Sr. brought his son into the family crime business, and Calabrese Jr. eventually decided his father was so dangerous that he would have to go to the FBI to inform on him. That meant wearing a wire in prison and capturing conversations with his father; and later, testifying against him face to face in court.
As you'll hear, after he sent his father and many associates to prison, Calabrese Jr. declined to go into the Witness Protection Program. Calabrese Jr. told his story in the book "Operation Family Secrets," and I spoke to him in 2011. He began by talking about his childhood in a crime family.
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DAVIES: Well, Frank Calabrese, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write that you never saw your father kill anybody.
FRANK CALABRESE JR.: Correct.
DAVIES: But you describe a moment once when he came back to the house just looking different, with the adrenaline pumping. Tell us about that moment, if you remember it.
CALABRESE JR.: I do. I do remember that. We lived in a three-flat that we called the compound, and one night he came home, and I'll never forget this, and he used to like to talk in the bathroom with the fan on and the water running in case there was any kind of bugs in the house.
And I could just see his adrenaline going. And he was telling me - he was schooling me, and he was telling me that they killed somebody tonight. And, you know, and the reason they did it was because the guy was dealing drugs, and he was disobeying his boss.
And I remember looking at him while he's telling me this, and I'm kind of shocked because I'm like OK, you know, he's telling me this. And I'm thinking, is this what, you know, other kids hear when they come home and their father comes home from work? It kind of stuck with me all my life.
DAVIES: And how old were you then? Do you know?
CALABRESE JR.: I was young. I was young. I want to say in my late teens.
DAVIES: And what was your reaction to the thought that your dad could kill somebody? Do you remember?
CALABRESE JR.: Well, being around him more and more and slowly - see, that's where my father was a master manipulator - was that, you know, he - while I was watching his reactions, he was probably watching my reactions, too.
And he always made it sound like, you know, he was teaching me that - from right from wrong, and this is what you do. And your dad doesn't do anything wrong, but this is the way life is. So when I'm looking at him, I'm having mixed feelings because I'm like, well, if my dad is telling me this, and he's doing it, there must be something right about it.
DAVIES: So when you got a little older, and your father brought you into the family business, one of the first things you did involved pornography stores that your dad and his brothers were running. What did you do?
CALABRESE JR.: I assisted my uncles in the operation of the stores, collecting the money.
DAVIES: Quarters, right, lots of quarters?
CALABRESE JR.: Yeah, lots of quarters, and then there were cash, too, from magazine sales and VHS sales.
DAVIES: This was the days before, you know, the Internet porn and a lot of video porn.
CALABRESE JR.: Correct, correct. At first - I started counting away from the stores at first. My uncles would bring the quarters, and I would be in a room where we could count the quarters. And that was all I did at first. Then I started going with my uncle once a week, my Uncle Nick, and we would go down there, and I'd start collecting the quarters with him.
DAVIES: Now these are quarters from little - what, arcades that would show a brief pornographic film?
CALABRESE JR.: Yeah, they were - correct. They were booths. So we would go in there, and it was really - it opened my eyes to a world that was totally different than my normal, everyday life. Some of the things that went on in those booths and in those back rooms were kind of gross.
So yeah, I was introduced to all this at a real young age, but then again, you know, hey, my father's telling me to do it and, you know, I'm starting to buy into it more and more. At that same time, I'm starting to spend more time with my father, and he's starting to pick up the pace a little bit on grooming me.
DAVIES: Right. Now, you eventually get into the family's loan-sharking business. He was part of this crew - he had this crew. Tell us how the loan-sharking worked and what your role was.
CALABRESE JR.: Well basically, I started out with - as my father's right-hand man and basically, what I was doing is, I'd sit to my father's side, and he was showing me how to do the books. And it was ironic because I wasn't real good in math in school. And all the math I learned were from percentages from the juice loans. And to this day, I still laugh about it because that's how I got my math education.
DAVIES: Now you just used a term, juice loans. Explain that.
CALABRESE JR.: OK. In Chicago, we call it juice loans, and a juice loan is a high-interest loan that's not through a bank or a credit card company. And you'd get it on the street, preferably from somebody like my dad or somebody from organized crime. In New York and some of the East Coast cities, they'd call it vig. So it's just a term that we use for juice.
DAVIES: So who were your customers? Who would borrow from you?
CALABRESE JR.: You know, we had all kinds of customers. A lot of customers were degenerate gamblers that couldn't pay after they gambled that week. So we'd put them on juice right away. Or they were businessmen that needed some quick cash and didn't want to show it.
We used to have hundreds of guys on juice, some for as little as $100, some for as much as $100,000. And my father was - he taught me a lot of good stuff in that business because a lot of people would say: Well, if you don't pay, you're going to get your legs broken. And my father didn't look at it like that.
What he looked at was if I break the guy's leg, and it's going to scare him, how is he going to pay? So he'd always figure out different ways and show us different ways to present to the juice loan customer if he couldn't pay.
Say a guy had $1,000 and he was supposed to pay $50 a week, and he couldn't, he couldn't pay that $50 a week - and it was only interest. Well, what we would do is - my father would double the amount that he owes to $2,000, and he tells him: OK, you pay $10 a week, but you've got to pay every week, and that whole $10 comes off the $2,000. So he'd never try to back guys in a corner, if he could.
DAVIES: But he's keeping them on the hook and, in the end, making a lot more money.
CALABRESE JR.: Exactly.
DAVIES: Right. But in the end, you do have to collect from people who are in a jam. What do you do then?
CALABRESE JR.: The biggest problem where violence would come in is because you'd work with people, and they'd constantly lie to you or constantly try to avoid you.
And then that's when you either had to send them some kind of signal to let them know that they better pay, or they're going to have a problem - you know, if it was physical, to come and give them a crack in the head; you know, rough them up a little; sometimes if you had to take a baseball bat and hit them in the leg, sometimes just maybe throwing some dead rats or something on their car. So there are always ways to show the person that they'd better start paying.
DAVIES: Now, was that your role, or did you just watch other folks do that?
CALABRESE JR.: I had a role in that also.
DAVIES: OK. Now, your father's crew didn't just, you know, run loan-sharking and gambling. They also became a hit squad for people in The Outfit, in organized crime who needed somebody taken care of. And there were a lot of cases that you describe. But let's just talk about one of them.
CALABRESE JR.: The boss's house got robbed. And so what the boss wanted is, he wanted these crews to go around and grab all these thieves and torture them, torture them and leave them to be found so that the message would get out, and they...
DAVIES: Now these were thieves, but they were stealing from the wrong people, in other words.
CALABRESE JR.: They stole from the wrong person. So they were brutally tortured and killed.
DAVIES: And what was your father and your Uncle Nick's role in this one crime?
CALABRESE JR.: Beat them, strangled them, and then my father - my father's way of making sure somebody was dead was that he would cut their throat from ear to ear. And I do believe in this one, I believe that he might have made my uncle do this one - the cutting of the throat. He did make my uncle do it in one of them.
DAVIES: Now, in the book, you describe quite a few cases where they were involved in murders like these. In fact, I think you use the term, at some point, Calabrese necktie for the strangling and then the throat-slitting.
CALABRESE JR.: Correct, correct.
DAVIES: Did you know about this? Did they talk about them at the time?
CALABRESE JR.: Some I did know about, and some I didn't know about until later on, OK. A handful of the murders, I was actually, you know, deep in at that time, at that time, so they - my uncle and my father would talk in front of me and, you know, I was in on everything as far as the conversations and stuff.
The involvement - I was not involved directly because they didn't want me to get involved with The Outfit. They only wanted me to be involved with the family, our family. So if there was something that was going to be done for our family, I was going to be involved. If it was something done for The Outfit, I would just stay in the background.
DAVIES: You know, it's - you're probably a free man today because you never actually killed anybody, but there was this one occasion where it could have happened, John "Big Stoop" Fecarotta. Do I have the name right?
CALABRESE JR.: Correct.
DAVIES: Yeah. Now, why was that different? What was your role there?
CALABRESE JR.: OK, I was - I had bought into everything at that point. And you know, I was ready to follow my father no matter what. Whatever he said, I would do. The problem was, John was an old-time gangster. And he was smart. He carried a gun on him all the time, and he could catch what we call plays. If somebody was up to something, he could catch on real quick.
And so while we were practicing and coming up with the way it was going to go, it was going to go - my father was playing John Fecarotta in our little role, and my uncle was sitting in the passenger seat. And then I would sit in the backseat, and then I would shoot John in the back of the head.
DAVIES: So they were setting this up so that you were going to actually shoot this guy, right?
CALABRESE JR.: Right. I was going to shoot this guy. And then my uncle kept trying to tell me - not in front of my father but away from my father - that, you know, you can't do this. I mean, basically he saved my life. You can't do this. If you do this, you're going to cross that line. There's no crossing back.
And the line he's talking about is the line that, now I'm in debt to my dad because now I've performed a murder, and he owns me. I can't say one day, ah, I don't want to do this no more. So there's no ceremony involved or anything. It's just the fact that I cross that line with him.
My uncle wasn't as fortunate enough to be slowly groomed as I was with my dad because as soon as my uncle got involved with my dad, they committed a murder immediately. And so he was in. And he kept wanting to pull away because he didn't like what he was seeing, either. But he was in on two ends. He was in with my dad, plus he was a made man in The Outfit now. So you know, he was trying to help me get away from it.
DAVIES: So they want to get this guy Fecarotta, and the drill is Uncle Nick is going to be in the front seat, you're going to be in the back with the gun. So how did it actually happen?
CALABRESE JR.: Well, what had happened was, my uncle says, you know, I can do this. I can do this. I don't need Frankie in the car. I can do this. And my father somehow agreed with it and - which is a big no-no because of the fact that, you know, it would've been much easier with two guys. And if there was a problem, you have two guys against one instead of one.
And so there was a problem. John Fecarotta caught the play when my uncle pulled the gun, and my uncle wound up shooting himself in the arm in the process of shooting John.
John jumped out of the car, ran in the street, and the kind of guys that my father and my uncle were is that, you know, my uncle knew he had to finish this. And it was kind of almost like a scene out of "Scarface," where Al Pacino runs out in the middle of the street to gun down the guy in the head, down in Miami.
My uncle did the same thing. He crossed the street, walked up to him, put a bullet in his head to make sure he was dead right in front of - it was ironic because he did it right in front of the bingo hall where my grandmother played bingo all the time.
DAVIES: Frank Calabrese Jr.'s memoir is called "Operation Family Secrets." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: We're listening to my 2011 interview with Frank Calabrese Jr., whose testimony sent his father to prison. Frank Calabrese Sr. died Christmas Day.
Well, to move the story along a little bit here, you spent years working with - in your father's crew. You married. You had two kids. You had a lot of difficulty dealing with this, wanted to break away from your father. You got into cocaine using, some dealing - right - which was utterly forbidden in your father's crew.
CALABRESE JR.: And then there comes a point in the 1990s when a guy that the family had dealt with, named Matt Rousseau(ph), goes to the FBI. And the result is indictments against you, your dad, your uncle, others on loan-sharking for a racketeering indictment, not for the murders. And so you end up going to a prison but for a few years. Now what was your plan for your life as you were entering prison? How did you look at this?
Well, I looked that I had two demons in my life. I had two big demons: cocaine and my father - and basically breaking away from my father. And it wasn't just me wanting to break away from my father. It was my brother. It was my uncle.
It was anybody in the family around my father that - he was just getting out of control. But you know, it's your father, and you love your father. And it was almost like we were co-dependents because we - every time something would happen we would think oh, you know what? Now this happened, so now he's going to change.
And going to prison, I wanted to change my life. And in order to change my life, I had to get away from my father, and I had to get away from cocaine. So going into prison, I was prepared for it. I couldn't wait to get in there. I needed it. I really, really needed it bad so I can get my life back in order.
I went in early so I can get the drug program in prison. They had a great drug program in the federal prison. Not only is it a great program, but you also get time off for it. You get a year of good time plus six months halfway house, so that you get 18 months to be on the street earlier.
DAVIES: Now you ended up, I think against your preferences, in the same prison as your father. And the federal investigation that really ended up bringing down this family, and it was one of the most important criminal investigations, probably, in - certainly in Chicago history, probably in American history - really begins with you sitting down and typing a letter to an FBI agent because you want to inform on your father. Tell us what made you do that.
CALABRESE JR.: I'm down for a year, and I'm with my father for eight months, every day, and I really want to work out this relationship. We had made some promises to one another in the lawyer's office the day I was reporting him. And I wanted to keep my end of the bargain, but I wanted to make sure my father was going to keep his end.
And what promises did you make to each other?
Well, I promised that I would never touch drugs again. And I keep that promise to this day - and until my dying day, I will. His promise was that he was going to change his ways. He was going to back away from the mob because you can never leave, but you can retire.
And we were going to work on our relationship and be honest with one another. And I thought, this is great, you know, I'm going to be away from my dad for a while. When we get done, we get out, I'm going to be a better person, he's going to be a better person, and we are going to work on our relationship.
So when I sit down to write this letter after eight months of trying daily to work out my relationship with my dad, what I did was, I used everything my father taught me against him to see if he was telling the truth. And at this time in life, my father didn't draw no lines no more. He didn't care who he manipulated. He didn't care if it was me or my brother or my uncle; it was always for his benefit.
You know, and I can give you one great example of that - is, there's a play around the country, called "Tony and Tina's Wedding." OK, in the Chicago version, my brother was a partner there. But my brother didn't put his name on anything, my brother Kurt, because he didn't want my father to know about it because if my father knew about it, my father would want some of it. That's how my father was; he'd extort us.
And so my father sent - he thought Kurt had something to do with it, and Kurt was trying to break away from him, so he sent some of his guys to the play to extort the owner, my brother's partner.
Well, what my father didn't know was that there was cameras there for security, and when the guys that came - my brother recognized them because he was in the back, just happened to be there that day and seen them on camera. So my father always denied that he had anything to do with it.
So when we were in prison, I confronted him on it. And I told him, I says, I can't believe that you would extort your own family. What are you talking about? I says, you extorted Kurt at the play. I did not; I saved him. I says, no. I says, we have on tape your guy walking in there and extorting him.
And my father's jaw dropped. What are you talking about? Who's taping who? I says, look, Dad. I says, this is the way it is. And he gave me this long story. So that was another strike against him. And there were a lot of other stories like that.
DAVIES: So you decided, based on these conversations and other things you learned, that your father wasn't getting out. He wasn't going to back away from the mob. He fully intended to be just as involved.
CALABRESE JR.: Correct.
DAVIES: And you had to do something.
CALABRESE JR.: Right. And you got to understand, this case, we're in jail. The FBI thinks they got us. We're done. They barely touched us - and all this all comes out later on, you know. And I'm looking at what choices I have here. You know, I mean the choice that I wanted was the agreement I made with my dad: We'd both go to prison; we, you know, we do what we promised; and we get out.
But now, I look and I'm like, OK. You know, I can only think of two choices that that I have. And one choice is to cooperate with the government, which we were always 100 percent against, or my other choice is wait 'til he gets out and let's see what's going to happen and knowing that what's going to happen is either I'm going to wind up dead, or he's going to wind up dead - and the other one is probably going to wind up in jail.
DAVIES: So you write a letter to this FBI agent and you say, come talk to me. And he does. And what do you tell him?
CALABRESE JR.: OK. Well, when I wrote this letter, you know, I wanted to do a business agreement with the FBI. I didn't want - I wasn't looking - you know, I'm not a victim here. I was a bad guy. I belonged in jail. But I needed to keep him in there because I knew I wasn't going to be a bad guy when I got out. So I needed to work out a business agreement with the FBI.
And you've got to understand the FBI. I mean all of a sudden here, you get back from lunch and all of a sudden, you've got this letter on your desk? They couldn't believe it. There was a lot of legalities that we had to go through. I couldn't reach out to my lawyers. I couldn't trust nobody on this. So I was on my own.
I didn't want immunity. I didn't want any kind of deal that I was indebted to anybody. I just wanted to work in a business agreement. I don't want to lose no time, but I want to help you keep my father locked up. And at first, I decided that I would just feed them information so that they can get my father.
After the first meeting - and I went back to my cell and I sat there, and I laid in my cell and I thought about it. I says, you know, I need more than that. If I need to wear a wire, I'll have to do it. I cannot draw no lines. I can't make no boundaries in doing this. If I'm going to do it, I have to do it a hundred percent.
DAVIES: So in the end, you said you will wear a wire, and you will go and try and talk to your father and get him on tape admitting to some of the awful things he's done - for the FBI. Now, it's dangerous doing that outside the walls. Being in prison must have presented special obstacles, right?
CALABRESE JR.: Oh, yeah. Yeah, well, the biggest obstacle was for me to even get to the room that the FBI agents were in. If I was seen going anywhere near that area, and I didn't know somebody seeing me, my life's in danger. I mean, I'm going out on the prison yard, OK,? You know, you can't trust - I don't know who I can trust in prison. I don't know what guards I can trust. So it was really hard.
CALABRESE JR.: Plus, there was no monitor on me. So when I got wired up, and I left that room, those FBI agents sat there for as many hours - sometimes as many as five hours - not knowing what's going on. They're not listening because they can't. And they're just waiting to see me come back or waiting for the prison alarm to go off that somebody's down, meaning I'm probably dead or beat up or stabbed.
DAVIES: Frank Calabrese Jr., recorded in 2011. His father, Frank Calabrese Sr., died in prison on Christmas Day. Calabrese Jr.'s memoir is called "Operation Family Secrets." We'll hear more of our conversation in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to my 2011 interview with Frank Calabrese Jr., whose memoir "Family Secrets" tells the story of following his father into the family crime business and later informing on him. His father, Frank Calabrese Sr., died in a federal prison in North Carolina on Christmas Day.
Calabrese Jr. went to prison with his father in the late '90s and while there decided his father was so dangerous he would have to go to the FBI and get him put away forever. After speaking with agents, he agreed to wear a wire on his father and record conversations with him in prison.
Now, your father was always very careful about talking business. Even at home, he used a lot of code words and liked cover noise. How did you approach getting him to talk about some of his criminal past?
CALABRESE JR.: I didn't push anything. What I used was, he had this jealousy of our relationship - mine and my brothers with my uncle. And he thought that my uncle was trying to take his place as a father. And it wasn't the case. He was just he just had our backs; my uncle had our backs. He was an uncle. And my father taught me, you know, two ways to make a guy talk. Either feed them a lot of liquor, or get them mad. So we don't have no liquor in jail. So I figured, let me use my uncle to get my father mad - and the premise that we were working on our relationship. So all this stuff he started talking about, you know, it really wasn't forced. If it was forced, he would have caught the play. My father was good at catching plays.
DAVIES: And so you get him to talk about a lot of stuff -murders, right?
CALABRESE JR.: In detail. In detail. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe the way he was talking.
DAVIES: Were there ever any moments when you thought he might be on to you?
CALABRESE JR.: Yeah. There was one moment during a conversation - I had gotten a tattoo, and he just got done explaining to me in detail who was there when the Spilotro brothers got killed. And I - just all of a sudden seen a funny look on his face. And he's like, let me see your tattoo. And my tattoo was on my upper right shoulder and I got a sweatshirt on, and I'm on the yard. And that day -which was ironic, was because the recording equipment they gave me was last minute from Detroit because the stuff they brought malfunctioned. So I was wired up like a Christmas tree. If I take off that shirt or even move it, it was - he would have known right away. And I'm on the yard, and I'm standing in an area with a lot of Italian guys, a lot of Outfit guys, a lot of biker guys -a lot of everybody. If that wire is spotted and I'm friendly with everybody in that prison then, you know, I don't think I'm making it back.
So he went to grab my shirt, and I grabbed him. And I says no, I can't show you this. I said, there's guards standing right there. If he sees it, I'll go to the hole. And I says, and you've seen it already. So you know, I didn't know if he really wanted to see the tattoo - and there was a lot going through my head right then. What do I do? Do I run? There is a long way, probably a couple hundred yards, to the door. I probably won't make it. Or do I punch him? You know, and so I just stood my ground and ironically, he didn't pursue it.
DAVIES: Now, when you talked about what you knew about these murders to the FBI, that meant you had to also tell them about the role of your Uncle Nick, who you loved and respected, right?
CALABRESE JR.: Yeah.
DAVIES: You were, in effect, informing on him as well. I mean, you know how this works. The FBI is going to want to know everything you know, and a lot of what you know involved your Uncle Nick, who you loved and respected. And you were going to implicate him. That must've been hard.
CALABRESE JR.: It was hard. It was hard. I - you know - I mean, he's never done nothing to me. He's never done nothing but look out for me. I can't sit here and give any reason why it was right for me to implicate him. The only thing was, there was - I never had thought about that far down the line. And then when it came up, there was no way around it. And I had to do it.
I believe that I saved his life. I believe that I saved my life. I know I saved a couple guys in our crew's life because my father talked about killing certain guys when I got out. So you know, had I not implicated my uncle, had I not went against my dad, there would have probably been a bloodbath on the street.
DAVIES: Eventually, there are indictments against your father and a lot of other members of the Chicago Outfit. And there is eventually, of course, a trial. While you've given the FBI its choice evidence in these tapes, these recordings of your father implicating himself, that's not enough. You've got to go take the stand at the trial, tell the jury the story of your getting the tapes, and also to translate the code that your father uses as he speaks to you. So that means you're going to have an extended stretch on the stand, face-to-face with your father. How did you feel, approaching that?
CALABRESE JR.: I felt confident. I knew the day I did the letter my life was going to change, and I know that the day I did the letter that I would be sitting on the stand in the same room as my dad, going through all this. So I knew it was going to happen, it's just a matter of time; it's just a matter of waiting.
What I never thought about was the emotion that would come over me when I walked in that courtroom from not seeing my dad - I want to say probably for about a good five years, hadn't seen him. And there he is, sitting over there, he's aged and, you know, I walk in the room and I just - didn't stare at him, but out of the corner of my eye I could see him sitting there. And I could see a dad looking at his son, and me looking back at him.
I wanted to run over and hug him. I really wanted to go over there and hug him. And it killed me. And so that first day on the stand - I only was on the stand for a half-hour because it was towards the end of the day. But I'll tell you, after five minutes of being on the stand, it didn't take me long to have that love for my dad turn into hatred for my dad and remind me of what I'm doing. And I'm sitting up there, doing it. And I still don't understand why he didn't have mine and my brothers' backs ever. We always had his back. I was willing to kill and die for this man, you know. It was - tough time.
CALABRESE JR.: And at the end of the trial, the biggest thing that bothered me was, you know - when I went back upstairs and I sat down, and one of the agents walked in the room and he goes, you OK? And I says yeah, but this is probably, you know, this is probably the last time I'm ever going to see my dad alive. I'm losing my dad right now, and I'm part of it.
DAVIES: And do you think about him much these days?
CALABRESE JR.: I do. I do. If they let him out, he'll come after me in a second. I think about him all the time. I keep a picture of him in my wallet. Sometimes on TV I'll watch certain things, and it'll trigger tears in my eyes. You know, it's been rough.
DAVIES: When you undertook the step to testify against your father and we ought to say not just your father. I mean, other people went down. This was a huge indictment, a massive case. You chose not to go into the witness-protection program. You didn't want to be cut off from your family. You wanted to be able to be honest and earn a living in some way. What can you tell us about your life today?
CALABRESE JR.: Yeah. The witness protection, I've caught a lot of flak for not going. But I have to be here. I have to be here. I have to give my father that chance of getting revenge on me if he needs to. And I didn't want to bring my kids into that program. I know nobody is going to bother my kids, and I don't want anybody to bother my brothers. So they know where I'm at.
My life today is, I'm just a simple, plain Joe. I work. I work hard. I work two jobs. I - and you know, I'm just a 9-to-5 guy living on a budget, and I'm enjoying life. I have MS. I've had it for a while so my legs are a little screwed up, but I deal with it. We all have our little problems in life that we have to deal with.
DAVIES: That's MS, multiple sclerosis.
CALABRESE JR.: Correct.
DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah. Did you just say that you had to give your dad the chance to come after you if he wants to?
CALABRESE JR.: Yeah.
DAVIES: What do you mean?
CALABRESE JR.: Well, I feel that there's a difference between - you know, one of the names that they like to tag people with is rat. I don't feel I'm a rat. A cooperating witness, I am a turncoat. I mean, you could call me a lot of different things. But rats run and hide, and I couldn't run and hide.
I don't want to stand on a corner in the neighborhood and raise a flag and flex my muscles and challenge people - because there's some tough people there. But what I'm saying is hey, I'm living my life out here. This was between me and my dad and, you know, my dad has made many attempts to scare my brothers -especially my one brother, Kurt - intimidate them. And so I just want him to know that, leave them alone. They didn't bother you. Here I am.
DAVIES: Hmm. You know, Frank, when I read the beginning of your book - and it begins with you writing - you're in prison, and you write the letter to the FBI saying, I want to talk to you about this. And you explain your motivation at the beginning of the book, that you wanted to help them make sure that your father was kept in prison the rest of his life. And I read that and thought, that can't be the real reason. Whenever anybody in organized crime testifies or informs on people, it's because there's something in it for them. They want a reduced sentence. They want immunity. They want a deal. You didn't get any of that, did you?
CALABRESE JR.: Oh, what I got is a chance to live my life free and clear of my dad, so I did get something. And a lot of people around me also got to live their lives free of him, too. But till this day, my father - sitting locked behind three doors - still instills fear in a lot of people. People are still scared sometimes to mention his name.
DAVIES: Well, Frank Calabrese, thanks so much for speaking with us.
CALABRESE JR.: Thank you.
DAVIES: Frank Calabrese Jr. recorded in 2011. His father, Frank Calabrese Sr., died in prison on Christmas Day. Calabrese Jr. told the Chicago Tribune last week quote, "I've never been comfortable that he was locked up the way he was, but he needed to be. I am comfortable with the fact that he's not suffering in there anymore and that no one else has to suffer on the street." Calabrese Jr.'s memoir is called "Operation Family Secrets."
Coming up, we remember singer Fontella Bass. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Soul and gospel singer Fontella Bass, whose 1965 hit "Rescue Me" endures as one of the most recognizable soul records of the '60s, died last week on the day after Christmas. She was 72 years old. Despite the success of "Rescue Me," it was the number one R&B single for four weeks, it took years of litigation before Bass could claim her share of songwriting credit and royalties. In 1993, she sued American Express for using the song in a commercial and received what she said was a significant settlement.
A few years after "Rescue Me," Bass left the pop music world. For a while she sang with her then husband, the late Lester Bowie, the trumpet player with the avant-garde jazz group the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Bass performed very little while raising her family. In 1980 though, she returned to the music she sang with her mother and grandmother as a child, gospel music.
In a moment, we'll hear an interview Terry Gross recorded with Fontella Bass in 1995, following the release of her gospel record "No Ways Tired." Here's the title track.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO WAYS TIRED")
FONTELLA BASS: (Singing) I don't feel no ways tired. I've come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy. I don't believe he brought me this far to leave me.
(Singing) I, I said I don't feel no ways, no ways tired. I've come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy. I don't believe He brought me this far to leave me.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Fontella Bass, welcome to FRESH AIR.
BASS: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Now, your new CD is really a return to gospel music for you. You grew up in a gospel family. Your mother and grandmother both performed?
BASS: Oh, yeah. When I was a little girl, five, I used to play for the funeral homes in St. Louis with my grandmother Nevada Carter - every night. Of course, $10 a night during those days was a lot of money, lots of money we're talking about, '50s now, early '50s, one, two, up until I graduated from grade school in '54. So I was, sort of, like an income person in the home.
GROSS: What was it like for you as a young girl to be playing at funerals where people are overcome by emotion and you're providing the musical backdrop for it?
BASS: Oh, believe me, we needed the funds and my grandmother said, you shall go and I went.
BASS: And that was the end of story. Of course, you know, I had the funeral home director, Mr. Buddy Walton and Mr. Ellis, they would walk me in, you know, so I couldn't see the remains and they would sit me at the piano with the - what do you call it? Thing that you fold up where you couldn't see the musician or my grandmother, and then after the funeral was over, you know, they walked me back out. So all I smelled was flowers.
GROSS: Would people fuss over you because you were so young and so talented?
BASS: Oh, yeah. We had negative things from people in the church because, by me being so young, a lot of the peoples would say, I just think it's a shame you got that child out there playing for you. And I was traveling all over Texas; Atlanta, Georgia; Memphis. You know, but that was very educational to me. And my mother thought so too. And my grandmother thought so.
But a lot of people, oh, she needs to be in school, blah, blah, blah. But, really, I never missed school that much. Maybe a week at the most.
GROSS: So you were on the road with your family.
BASS: Oh, yes. I was on the road with my family at an early age.
GROSS: Did you assume that you were given a special gift from God?
BASS: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. That's the only person I can give thanks to for my talents.
GROSS: Growing up singing gospel, did you listen to and enjoy secular music?
BASS: Well, that was - of course, I listened to secular music but it was not really allowed in the home. And first of all, we really didn't have a record player until I was much older and out of grade school. But we had, like, record shops that would play the music on the outside of the record store, you know, as you would walk through town and stuff like that.
So, you know, coming from school every morning, you know, LaVerne Baker, Ruth Brown - "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean." Johnny Ace, "Pledging My Love." All of those tunes, I remember them just like yesterday.
GROSS: So if your grandmother disapproved of you listening to that, would she punish you if she found out?
BASS: No. My grandmother was a little more outward with her. She would let us have those talent shows, you know, on Saturday, you know, because she knew that we would be listening to everything and we would be doing everything. You know, and if she went to choir rehearsal, you know, we got in and played the boogie woogie and all the Louis Jordan's tune.
And "Open the Door, Richard, and Let Me In." So on Saturday, she would bring the family together and we would do our music lesson first. And then she'd say what is that song I heard you playing the other day? What is that? I know now that she knew, but as a child, you know, I was going, like, what song?
What song, Granny? She'd say you know that little boogie woogie beat. She'd say play that for me. Let me hear you. And, oh, boy. And then she'd say, boy, if you could just play your lesson like you played that.
GROSS: Oh, I know that trick.
BASS: So that meant, like, sometimes 15, 20 minutes more with your music lesson because I know you have the ability...
BASS: ...to do these things. So that's what happened a lot of times.
GROSS: Take us to 1965, the year that you recorded your big hit, "Rescue Me." That was also the year, I believe, that your grandmother died and the year that you left your hometown of St. Louis. So how did you end up making "Rescue Me" that year?
BASS: OK. When we wrote the song I was working in the Regal Theater on "Don't Mess Up A Good Thing" and I stopped in the Chess recording studio that morning. And Raynard Miner, who is blind, was in the studio. And he was sitting there playing. He said, hey, I got a song here. You know, come on, let's work together on this, because we were the only two there.
So we worked on the song. We worked on the song. We just - I said you can do this, you can do that. And at that time, you know, like somebody played rhythm, you know, I just gave the melody lines for the song - and a lot of the lyrics. And then I went on to work.
When I - maybe a week later, they say, hey, we're going to do this here song. You know the song you guys were working on? I said great. So we all, you know, went in the studio and they got the band, you know, and we cut "Rescue Me." And I was reading in the paper during the recording and it dropped on the floor. And I went Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Because I didn't want to, you know, mess up the band or stop the tape from rolling. So that's how "Rescue Me" got the famous Mm-hmm in it.
GROSS: So you were just filling time because you didn't know what the next lyric was?
BASS: Well, yeah. Well, you know, you have formats. You know, I didn't know whether we were going to go to that or whatever. I didn't know what was coming up next. So I just went to the hum until I got the paper of the structure in front of me.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
BASS: I thank you too, Terry.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESCUE ME")
BASS: (singing) Rescue me. Oh, take me in your arms. Rescue me. I want your tender charms. 'Cause I'm lonely and I'm blue. I need you and your love too. Come on and rescue me. Come on, baby, and rescue me...
DAVIES: Terry Gross interviewed Fontella Bass in 1995. Bass died last week the day after Christmas. She was 72.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESCUE ME")
BASS: (singing) Can't you see that I'm lonely? Rescue me. Come on and take my hand. Come on, baby, and be my man. 'Cause I love you. 'Cause I want you. Can't you see that I'm lonely? Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Take me, baby. Take me baby. Love me, baby. Love me, baby. Need me, baby. Need me, baby. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
(singing) Mm-hmm. Can't you see that I'm lonely? Rescue me. Rescue me. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan tells us about a new suspense novel set in Poland. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Book critic and mystery fan Maureen Corrigan starts the new year right by stumbling upon what she considers a terrific suspense novel set in a fresh crime scene - Poland. Here's her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: My mother is Polish, which meant that during the holidays when I was a kid, we broke out the polka records and kielbasa for special occasion meals from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day. Certainly, nostalgia for those belch-y festivities of yore led me to "A Grain of Truth" by Zygmunt Miloszewski, a Polish mystery novel that unexpectedly turns out to be as hard-boiled as the skin around a circlet of that ubiquitous holiday kielbasa.
It's also just about as tough to digest, given that it delves deep into the ways that modern Polish society handles - and avoids - the historical memory of anti-Semitism during and immediately after World War II. Like many a fine crime writer before him, Miloszewski worked as a journalist; he also served as a former editor of the Polish edition of Newsweek.
His reportorial eye imbues Miloszewski's depictions of daily life in provincial Poland with fine detail, as well as his own distinctive bitter humor. The likeably washed-up hero of "A Grain of Truth" is named Teodor Szacki. In the first novel of this series, called "Entanglement" - which has also been translated into English and is available through Bitter Lemon Press - Szacki, a state prosecutor in Warsaw, allowed a stupid affair to destroy his marriage and family.
In "A Grain of Truth," Szacki has fled that emotional wreckage and moved to the town of Sandomierz, a picturesque burgh of fine old manor houses and churches. A few months into his new life, Szacki has realized that: He had thrown the life he had spent years building down the toilet and now he was left with nothing, which felt so terrible that it even gave him a sense of exoneration for his own bad behavior.
Instead of being the star of the capital city's prosecution service, he was an outsider who prompted mistrust in a provincial city, which was in fact dead after 6:00 p.m. Szacki also learns something else about his new hometown: Sandomierz turns out to have been a red-hot locale, historically speaking, for anti-Semitic atrocities.
In fact, the town's soaring cathedral is famous for a painting that depicts Jews slaughtering Christian children. These days, that painting has been tastefully covered up by a red cloth upon which a portrait of Pope John Paul II has been affixed.
The case that draws Szacki in is just as baroque and gory as those cathedral paintings, involving a series of what look to be ritual religious murders. The intricate mystery narrative here owes debts to Poe's "Purloined Letter" and even Conan Doyle's "Hound of the Baskervilles," but it's really Miloszewski's nuanced take on contemporary Poland - geographically and sociologically - that makes "A Grain of Truth" such a standout.
Gray winter in Miloszewski's Poland seems to last even longer than winter in Stieg Larsson's Sweden. It's a running black humor joke in this story that Szacki is always dashing out of his apartment underdressed into the Polish spring drizzle and wind. And the atmosphere is just as oppressive, psychologically.
Because of the apparent nature of the murders, Szacki must sprint all over town interrogating suspects, among them modern so-called Polish patriots, extremists who bombard him with their anti-Semitic rants. He's also forced to face his own discomfort with the topic of Polish-Jewish relations, especially when an anti-Semitic slip of the tongue during a news conference makes him, to his own horror, the hero of small-town Poland.
"A Grain of Truth," like every great crime novel, digs up more unsettling questions than it does answers. It also demonstrates the seemingly endless possibilities of the form itself to serve as smart social criticism. Who knows? Maybe 2013 will be the year that Poland snatches the crime fiction crown away from the Swedes and Norwegians. If so, I've got a kielbasa in the freezer, ready to be fired up.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "A Grain of Truth" by Zygmunt Miloszewski.
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