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Music stars from 1960s reflect on John F. Kennedy assassination

The mood in Dallas went from excitement to somber as word of the death of JFK spread

Dale and Grace (Special photo)

Dale and Grace (Special photo)

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S.J. (Sam Montel) Montalbano (Special photo: Louisiana Music Hall of Fame)

After completing the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars show in Wichita, Kan., on Nov. 21, 1963, the show’s participants began an arduous, seven-hour, 400-mile bus trip to their next stop in Dallas for a show scheduled for Nov. 22.

Arriving in Dallas about 8 a.m., Clark and several of the performers decided to stand on the hotel steps and wave to the motorcade transporting President John F. Kennedy; his wife, Jackie; Texas Gov. John Connally, and his wife, Nellie, through downtown Dallas later that morning. Three blocks after the motorcade passed the hotel, Kennedy was assassinated and Connally was serious wounded.

Among the Caravan members who watched the motorcade were Dale Houston and Grace Broussard, the pop duo of Dale and Grace fame, and S.J. (Sam Montel) Montalbano. Dale and Grace had the nation’s No. 1 song that week, “I’m Leaving It Up to You,” and it was released on Montel Records, which was owned by Montalbano. All three have been inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.

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This was a view from President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade through Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963. (Photo: Cecil Stoughton, White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

“It was quite a day, one that turned into true turmoil. I’ve tried to block out so much because memories of that day are just so painful for me,” Broussard said during a telephone interview. “I remember waving to the motorcade, and it seemed like JFK waved back to us.

“I then went back into the hotel to get my hair done for the show that night. While I was waiting, it came over the television that Kennedy was shot and later that he was killed. Once that happened, I decided there was no need to get my hair done because I knew that night’s show would be canceled. … And, anyway, who would have wanted to see the show after that happened?”

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Frightened onlookers lay on the grass in reaction to shots fired as cameramen record their actions Nov. 22, 1963, at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. (Photo: Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

Added Broussard: “I just said to myself, ‘Oh, my God,’ and just sat there and listened, totally stunned. In my mind, Kennedy was the best president we’ve had in my lifetime.”

“The whole city of Dallas seemed like it was in such a good mood that morning,” Montalbano recalled. “We stood in front of the hotel and waved. He (Kennedy) was shot a couple of blocks from the hotel, and I’ve never seen a city’s mood change from joyful to tragic in a matter of seconds.”

After the presidential motorcade passed, Montalbano, who owned Montel Records from 1958 until it closed in 1972, decided to walk the few blocks from the hotel to Neiman Marcus, a well-known American luxury specialty department store, to buy Broussard a mink jacket to commemorate “I’m Leaving It Up to You” reaching No. 1 on the charts.

“I was talking to a lady behind the counter at Neiman Marcus and she momentarily turned her back to me,” Montalbano recalled. “When she turned around, she had a tissue in her hand and was wiping her eyes. She told me that the president had been shot. Neiman Marcus’ manager then got on the store’s public address system and said, ‘The store will be closing immediately because the president has been shot. Please complete your business and leave as soon as possible.’

“I put the jacket back on the rack and left the store. Like everybody else, I was in complete shock. I walked the four of five blocks back to the hotel and nobody on the street was talking and they all had blank stares on their faces.”

With shows in Dallas and Oklahoma City on Nov. 23 canceled because of the tragedy, the pert singer from Prairieville, La., got an unexpected tragic break from the tour’s demanding one-night performances that were scheduled to go for six weeks.

“It gave me a chance to wash my clothes and pack for our next stop (St. Louis on Nov. 24). … It just seemed like those days never would get over,” Broussard said.

“When we finally got back on the bus to leave Dallas, Dick Clark asked us to bow our heads and he said a prayer for President Kennedy. Most of us were teary-eyed,” she said.

While Broussard departed Dallas on one of the Caravan’s buses, Montalbano had planned to return to Baton Rouge, La., to tend to his multiple musical business interests.

The only problem was finding a way to leave Dallas.

“It took me a day and a half to be able to get a plane out of Dallas,” he said. “Because of the situation with President Kennedy, everybody wanted to leave the city. No car rentals were available, and all the planes were booked. There were no cell phones in those days, and it was almost impossible to get a call out of the city.

“It was just a tumultuous time. Our hotel was near the Dallas police station and sirens were blaring all night long. The city was in a total state of confusion.”

Houston died in 2007, while Broussard is still performing several nights a week with one of her brother’s bands.

Barry “The Old Rocker” Levine writes entertainment stories for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at dot0001@yahoo.com.