The Ghost of Lester Russaw

A pioneer of Cleveland soul turns to a late career in bank-robbing.

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The old man's hands were shaking — not with typical old-man tremors, but with fear. White heat from the July sun beamed through the front windshield of his Chrysler Sebring and rose off the parking lot in waves, as from a grill. But even dressed in a jacket and khakis, with the car's vents turned off and the windows rolled up, Lester Russaw felt a chill.

A few months earlier, he'd gone in for a doctor's visit and discovered he had prostate cancer. Just weeks later, the East Side Market, where he'd worked as a security guard, closed its doors and laid him off.

Whoever said life was too short didn't know what he was talking about. For Russaw, life had outlived its welcome.

There'd been a time — it seemed so long ago — when girls would scream for him and his band, the Coronets. At high-school dances across the country, young couples held each other close and danced the box step to "Nadine," the Coronets' hit song, which soared to No. 3 on the R&B charts in 1953.

Most of Russaw's bandmates had since withered and died, the way old men do, but this 74-year-old still had an athlete's agility. Hell, he was married to a woman 30 years younger than him. But now it seemed as if starvation and a tumor were going to have a race to the finish. Lester had decided he wasn't going out like that.

An old baseball cap cast an shadow over his light-skinned, freckled face. His hand clutched the grip of a snub-nosed pistol. He pushed open the car door and began walking toward the bank.

On a cold November morning at the Rock Hall, a group of shaggy-haired teens ogles a glass case filled with memorabilia from Modest Mouse. Visitors wander slowly, with hands clasped behind their backs, pausing here and there to admire a photo of Mick Jagger or listen to an old Beach Boys song.

But the second floor — the area dedicated to the "architects" of rock 'n' roll — is as empty as a tomb. In fact, it is a tomb. Encased in glass is an urn containing the ashes of Alan Freed, the legendary Cleveland DJ and promoter who brought black soul to suburban white kids and coined the term "rock 'n' roll."

Up here, visitors can watch a black-and-white video honoring Freed for making legends of Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. They can gaze at old studio artifacts like acetate records and salt-shaker microphones, sealed behind panes of glass.

This, it seems, is all that's left of the Cleveland Lester Russaw grew up in. On Saturday nights in the 1940s and '50s, the corner of East 55th Street and Woodland — now a boulevard for gangbangers and dope boys — was bumper-to-bumper with shiny Cadillacs and ladies, black and white, in rhinestones and swishing dresses. The soul and jazz club Gleason's hosted the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and Bo Diddley. James Brown swept the floors here to earn extra bucks.

"It was one of the few spots in Cleveland at the time where the races mixed freely," says jazz historian Joe Mosbrook. "It was a happening place."Since he'd been old enough to sing, Russaw had dreamed of being one of those cool cats, living the nocturnal life of the performer. He'd watched his dad, the head porter at the Cleveland airport, shine shoes sunup to sundown, just so he, his mom, and his sister could eat. That wasn't the life for Lester.

At Thomas Edison High — now named after Martin Luther King — Russaw joined the glee club, where he met George Lewis, Sam Griggs, and Sam's brother William. The four started writing songs, practicing for passersby at the park across from Lester's house. Their harmonies were as smooth as a barbershop quartet's. They rounded out the group with a guitarist and a lead singer. With Lester singing first tenor, they crooned gospel-tinged lullabies about God and girls.

They dubbed themselves the Coronets and started singing at open-mic contests around Cleveland. They won a few talent shows and appeared once for the Orioles, a big R&B group in those days. Yet there wasn't much to set them apart from the hundreds of other black boys with a little talent and stars in their eyes.

In 1953, the Coronets pooled their money to pay for studio time. They cut a couple tracks, including "Nadine," a slow song about lost love. Then they hand-delivered a copy to the downtown office of Alan Freed.

Back then, it wasn't who you knew; it was whether you knew Freed. Before the bright-faced DJ at Cleveland's WJW-AM came around, white kids — the ones with the money to buy records — were listening to plaid-clad performers like Georgia Gibbs and Pat Boone. Then Freed, with his late-night show The Moondog Rock & Roll House Party, showed them the underground world of black music — performers like Ray Charles and Little Richard. The rest was history.

After listening to their demo, Freed decided to make the Coronets his next project. Someone from his office phoned the boys to say they had a recording date with one of the biggest R&B labels in the country: Chess Records in Chicago. No audition necessary.

Lester's niece, Mildred Cahill, remembers the day "Nadine" hit the record stands. "Everyone was so excited," says the 68-year-old, speaking with the aid of an electronic voice box due to throat cancer. "I remember my uncle took me downtown and bought me a new pair of shoes that day."

"Nadine" rocketed to No. 3 on the R&B charts and stayed there for 10 weeks. Suddenly, the boys from Edison, most of whom had never seen the world outside Cleveland, were playing gigs to white audiences in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Georgia. The crowds loved them, sending lines out the door at clubs and setting cash registers jingling at record stores. Yet the Coronets were still black boys on white turf.

"It was not good," says R&B historian Marv Goldberg. "A lot of black performers wouldn't go to the South at all."

But Lester and his friends were too caught up for caution. So they entered clubs through back doors, ate dinner with cooks in the kitchens of restaurants, slept at rooming houses instead of hotels.

Unfortunately, one catchy tune couldn't carry them forever. "Nadine" eventually played out. A couple months after cutting their first record, the Coronets returned to Chicago to record another couple tracks. These songs would never show on the charts.

Lester left the Coronets a year later. He joined the Modern Jazz Group, played Gleason's, even appeared on a record with jazz great James Moody. But real stardom never came again. Lester Russaw had seen his day in the sun as a one-hit wonder. For the next 50 years, he'd be just another name in the phone book.

"Hello," shouted the older man with the baseball hat and a Band-Aid over his nose, as he walked into the Huntington Bank on Wilson Mills Road. He swung his body over the teller counter and whipped out a revolver.

"Give me your money," he told teller Carol Fellenstein. She opened the cash drawers, and the man rifled through them, glancing up at the clock as he scooped up green stacks.

Fellenstein feared it wasn't just money the man wanted. After taking about $14,000 in bills, the robber grabbed her by the arm and led her out the bank entrance into a deserted alley. The teller's heart pounded in her rib cage.

That's when the man did a strange thing for a bank robber: He apologized. He was sorry to do this, he said, but he'd hit a tight spot and had no choice.

When Fellenstein complained that he was hurting her arm, the man loosened his grip. Then he pushed her back into the bank and disappeared down the alley.

In Russaw's day, discarded celebrities couldn't fall back on reality shows and mall autograph signings. After he quit the Coronets, he had little more than fifty bucks in studio money to show for his brush with stardom. Now real life was calling. Lester married his childhood sweetheart, Barbara, who'd give him four babies. And if that wasn't enough of a reality check, a letter arrived in the spring of 1954: Lester, who was in the Army Reserve, was being activated to fight in Korea.

Russaw could have been among the buddies who died in the dirt on the other side of the globe, but his handiness as a radio operator landed him a position at the back of the platoon. His niece Mildred remembers getting packages and running home excitedly to open them. "He'd send me letters and candy," she says.

After his tour, Russaw came home and found work at a typewriter factory. But the Cleveland he had left was changing. The bright lights of the East Side were dying. Gleason's shut down in 1962. Russaw's life went the way of the neighborhood.

He was looking for extra money, and James Vagarasoto, a salesman from Shaker Heights, needed someone to take care of a personal errand. He wanted Russaw to put a scare into a man named Marshall Weil, the estranged husband of a woman Vagarasoto was seeing. Vagarasoto promised to pay Lester more than he could make in six months assembling typewriters. It was hard money to turn down.

But Weil turned out to be a tougher customer than either man imagined. One summer night in June 1962, Russaw lured Weil to a parking lot in East Cleveland. He demanded Weil's money and watch.

But instead of handing him his wallet, Weil attacked him. Russaw drew his .45 and fired, sending the man crumpling to the ground. Weil went to the emergency room in critical condition. Lester went to the Ohio State Reformatory for six years. Barbara and the kids were left to fend for themselves.

After prison, Russaw struggled to get his life back on track. Barbara had since filed for divorce. Russaw married another woman in 1972, but the marriage didn't even last a year. Unable to find work as a felon, he went into business for himself.

Having learned karate while in Korea, he opened a chain of martial-arts studios on the East Side. But his financial skills weren't as swift as his jabs and kicks. The studios folded after nine years.

Yet Lester was committed to staying on the straight and narrow. He followed the letter of the law as if he were a Sunday-school teacher. In 1993, the East Side Market in Glenville hired him as a security guard. It didn't pay much, but it was honest work. Russaw held the job for 14 years. Then the market closed.

Russaw tried to find new work, but there weren't many places looking for an old man with an armed-robbery conviction. He even applied to park cars, only to be told he wasn't what they were looking for.

Back at home, the bills were adding up. Social Security provided a few hundred bucks every month. His new wife, a 43-year-old nursing-home worker named Cynthia, brought in a bit more. But the couple's combined income barely covered the rent on their Mayfield Heights apartment. They couldn't afford the prescriptions, car payments, groceries.

Lester panicked. "His back was just up against the wall," says niece Mildred. "There's really nobody well-off in the family to help him. I guess he just didn't see any other way out."

"Rssell?" asked the kind lady at the KeyBank branch in Wickliffe.

"No, ma'am, Russaw," Lester enunciated.

It was a few weeks before Halloween and just a few months after Lester had robbed the Huntington branch. He'd made a clean getaway, but damn, did that $14,000 go quick. Lester hadn't come to the bank today brandishing a gun. He'd come to get a loan.

Unfortunately, branch manager Nancy Schwarzenberg wasn't in the business of handing out large sums of money to convicted felons without collateral, and Lester had nothing to offer. He gave a polite nod and stood up from his chair. Before he left, he asked whether it was possible to exit out the back door.

That door wasn't used by customers, Schwarzenberg told him. Russaw gave another polite nod and left.

Marv Goldberg may be the only person alive who owns a copy of "Nadine," let alone who listens to it. The 63-year-old from Manhattan has made an odd hobby of tracking down '50s R&B performers and interviewing them — sort of like VH1's Behind the Music, only these names mean nothing to anyone but Goldberg and a handful of other historians.

"I'm one of the few people in the entire universe who do care," he says in a nasally New York accent. "It has been my goal in life to represent these people on paper."

Goldberg interviewed Lester Russaw 20 years ago, yet he can't remember a single detail about the man. Like most of the ex-performers he's sat down with, Russaw was just another average Joe by then.

Only one other origi nal member of the Coronets is still living. Sam Griggs, who sang second tenor beside Russaw, resides in a faded green home in Cleveland Heights. In the driveway on a gray November afternoon, a figure in a hooded sweatshirt rakes leaves off the asphalt. As a reporter approaches, the hood is removed to reveal a woman in her 50s with fair skin and wispy blond hair.

Sam's inside, says wife Sherry, but he can't talk right now. He recently had a stroke, and he's resting.

Sherry remembers Lester as a "nice man." When Sam's brother William died several years back, Lester came to the funeral. It was a reunion of sorts for the band, only without the impromptu song associated with musicians getting back together. Sam used to talk a lot about his days in the spotlight, says Sherry, but not much anymore. There are no gold records adorning his walls. Not even so much as a photo.

Goldberg says that's typical of most old singers. It's what makes the era so fascinating to him — the feeling that he's making special again what everyone else seems content to let wither in memory.

"When I talk to singers, an amazing number of them don't really care about what they did," he says. "It does seem odd to me. If you did something like that, if you got up on a stage and had people applauding you . . . I wish I could have that."

When Wickliffe Detective Robert Valko arrived at the KeyBank on Euclid Avenue on the morning of November 5, the whitened faces of the tellers said it all. Minutes earlier, a man in a ski mask had burst in with a pistol, taking $9,200 in cash.

"They were still shaking as they were trying to complete their witness statements," remembers Valko.

"No buttons, no alarms," the robber had shouted. "This is only money."

After piling the cash into a brown knapsack, he ran out the back door and sped off in a silver Chrysler Sebring. Branch Manager Nancy Schwarzenberg remembered the robber as the man who'd requested a loan just weeks earlier.

Euclid cop Jeff Swider spotted Lester's car minutes later, heading west on I-90. It didn't seem like the guy was making a getaway. He was traveling only 50 mph in the fast lane. Swider pulled alongside the Sebring. The man behind the wheel didn't look over. Swider dropped back, waiting for backup to arrive.

Moments later, two more cruisers arrived. Swider turned on the flashers, and the Sebring pulled over. Swider drew his gun. The man stepped out of the car with his hands high in the air. Swider asked whether he knew why he was being stopped.

"Yeah," said the old man, hanging his head. "I was stupid."

Lester Russaw doesn't want any visitors coming to see him in the Lake County Jail. Not even his wife. "This whole thing has been very embarrassing for me," he says through a static-filled phone line and an inch of prison glass.

Russaw doesn't have any elaborate stories about how the police got the wrong guy. Asked whether he robbed those banks, he lowers his head and says calmly, "Yes, I did," then offers an excuse that isn't likely to win him much sympathy: "When I have money, everything's fine. It's when I need money that there's a problem."

Lester pleaded not guilty to four felony counts, including armed bank robbery. The old man says he has a great lawyer. But he's still wise enough to know that, absent a legal or medical miracle, the only way he'll ever pass through those heavy doors that now entrap him is in a coffin.

"I'm dead," he says matter-of-factly.

When cancer finally claims Lester, there won't be any limousines filled with old musicians at the cemetery. The fact that he was, for a moment at least, one of the hottest singers in the country may not even make the obituary — if one is ever printed.

A puzzled look crosses Lester's face when asked to recount his glory days. It's as if he's almost forgotten that they weren't just a product of an old man's imagination. It's been years since anyone's asked those questions.

But then the look evolves into a wide smile, and the old man's eyes light up. He talks romantically about meeting music greats like Charles Brown and James Moody. "In fact, I still owe James Moody $20," he guffaws.

Lester talks about how he recently heard a guy humming a tune from one of the bands back in Russaw's day. The man couldn't remember the name of the song, but Russaw did. Thinking about that split second in time still makes him beam.

"The music these days is different than the music back then," he says. But then the phone cuts out with a screech. Lester's 15 minutes of visitation are up. He gives a wave and walks back into the pod, just another old man in blue.

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