Before he took on the TV persona of Mort the Mouth, Morton Downey, Jr. was a singer like his father, the “Irish Nightingale.” Believe it or not, Stax released Junior’s debut album I Believe America in 1974, an example of the bold A&R work that led the soul label into bankruptcy in 1975.
Around the time his series was cancelled in ‘89, Downey tried to restart his singing career with a new album and an appearance at Trump Castle in Atlantic City, where he was joined by “a singing midget named Michael Anderson.” (Could this be the Michael Anderson who played Twin Peaks’ Little Man from Another Place?) The New York Daily News was not kind:
The Mouth That Roared, and recently roared itself right off television, looked horrible. Wearing pounds of ghastly tan makeup, he most closely resembled a corpse.
During some songs, his voice would quiver. During others it would be raspy, and during others it would fade away. The song selections were disjointed, with the music of the Shirelles getting mixed up with the music of Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Bette Midler.
He has no stage presence - although, on the positive side, at least he doesn’t try to dance. Near the end of the 45-minute act he was visibly out of breath - which was all right, because by that time Anderson sounded as good as the headliner.
A lifelong Angeleno, I only feel truly at home when I am wallowing chest-deep in the muck of showbiz’s most miserable toilets, so I was delighted to stumble upon this footage of Downey doing his act in Phoenix, Arizona sometime in the ‘70s. Imagine how my joy was multiplied when Downey, introducing “Kumbaya,” started talking about preparing to face a firing squad during the first year of the Biafran War. His crime? Helping a Catholic priest smuggle ten Biafrans to safety in the backseat of a Peugeot.
I was extremely skeptical when I first heard this story—remember that time Mort claimed he was stomped by skinheads in the airport bathroom?—but Downey’s New York Times obituary says that he did indeed travel to Nigeria after the Biafran War to aid its victims, and the priest Downey mentions appears to have done actual missionary work in Nigeria, so I have downgraded my response to very, very skeptical. As New York Magazine observed in its 1988 profile of the talk show host, “He is prone to make large claims about his past, then alter or even deny them.” But who knows: maybe this was the one time Downey told the unvarnished truth, with this improbable, self-aggrandizing tale about God’s inscrutable justice.
You know, 1967, my wife Joannie and I took a cruise in the Caribbean. And in that ship, they had a discotheque lounge, so we went downstairs to the discotheque lounge. And there was one person dancing: a little ruddy-faced, white-haired, balding Irishman. And Joan said, “Ah, there’s only one drunk down here.” And I said, “No,” I said, “he doesn’t look drunk.” But we got to meet that little ruddy-faced Irishman, and his name was Tom Rooney. The thing is is that Tom was a priest, a missionary from Nigeria. Of course, the Biafran War was on in Nigeria, and he had been dismissed from the country. And in passing, I said to Tom, I said, “Well, you know, if you’re ever in Washington, come on over and visit me.”
How many of you folks have ever invited a priest casually to come over and visit you? Two days later, Tom was in the living room, and sleeping on the couch. Well, Father Rooney, about two weeks later, had convinced me that something that was very important to him was to save the people who were dying in Biafra, because these were his children, these were the people that he had baptized, that he had lived with for fourteen years. So he asked me if I’d go on an adventure with him back to Nigeria with a Red Cross plane that would take us from a small island off the coast back into the interior, into an area called Makurdi, and there we would pick up some Nigerian starving immigrants and fly them out to the small island.
The first night we were there—incidentally, how many of you folks know what a Peugeot 404 is? [Counts hands] One, two, three… okay, a Peugeot 404 comfortably seats four, and if the buns are small, it’ll seat five. The backseat of that 404, under a tarpaulin, Father Tom Rooney had hidden ten Nigerians, ten Biafrans. So we went from checkpoint through checkpoint, and each one of them stopping and saying, “Oh, Fadda, what you have in backseat?” and Fadda saying, “It’s alright,” he says, “in the backseat I’ve got myself ten Biafrans stuffed under the tarpaulin.” And they’d smile, and they’d laugh, and they’d say “You go ahead, Fadda!”
We came to one checkpoint where they didn’t enjoy an Irish sense of humor. And they checked. The Biafrans were let off into one area, Father Rooney and I to another, to a small little grass hut, where the sergeant of the guard informed us that we would be shot at dawn. Well, Father Rooney, still trying to be jovial, asked me if I had any final words for my last confession. [Chuckles] I asked him if wanting to kill a priest was a sin. Well, at four o’clock that morning, we were taken out of the grass hut, but not to be shot. Because seventeen years earlier, Tom Rooney had baptized the colonel of the regiment who was in charge of the firing squad. His name, Joseph Aturkba (?). We were set free that night, and so were the Biafrans, as a gesture from a man who had been brought to God by Father Tom Rooney.
From Nigeria, I brought back this song, which is the people’s song of Nigeria. From the bush country, “Kumbaya.”
The story begins at 8:48, and Mort tears up “Kumbaya” at 12:30. Sure, you’ve heard it before, but have you heard it sung by Morton Downey, Jr., with Vegas key changes?