In my column on the Deuces Wild a few weeks ago, I mentioned Bridgeville’s own Lum Sams and promised to do a column on her in the future. In the interim I have learned a lot more about her and am convinced her story deserves to be told.
LaMese Sams was born in Bridgeville on February 12, 1924, the youngest of six children of Joseph and Clara Sams. The Sams family were prominent members of the small Syrian community in Bridgeville, centered around St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church. Their home was at 722 Bower Hill Road, “three doors up” from the intersection with McLaughlin Run Road.
Nicknamed “Lum” at any early age, she remembered humming tunes as early as first grade. When she was thirteen, she competed on the Wilkens Amateur Hour, hosted by Brian McDonald on WJAS, but failed to win the $10 first prize. Undaunted, she continued to sing and soon was an important part of the St. George Choir. She and her brother Tom, a fine vocalist in his own right, performed comedy routines at local parties.
In 1942 she stole the show at a Bridgeville High School assembly honoring the basketball team with her renditions of “Deep Purple” and “Too Romantic”. Unfortunately 1942 was not a good year for a young lady to launch a musical career, so Lum emulated Rosie the Riveter and took a job at Universal-Cyclops Steel, a short walk from her home, an opportunity facilitated by the fact one of her brothers was shop steward there.
Her first job was tying wires around steel billets to identify them. She then was promoted to operating a shear press, and eventually a charging machine. An excellent article about her, by Roy Kohler, in the Roto Section of the December 25, 1955 Pittsburgh Press, includes a photo of Lum operating the charger. She eventually became a production clerk in the cold mill.
In addition to her day job, Lum continued to be active musically, singing in the St. George Choir and in the Universal-Cyclops Mixed Chorus. Another BHS alumnus, Warren Carson, was also involved in both of these groups. Fortuitously the two of them met Bob Trow at a party, at the time he was forming a quartet.
Trow was a popular local radio and television personality, initially as a prominent member of the cast for Rege Cordic’s program, “Cordic and Company”, then as co-host (with Art Pallan) of the KDKA morning show, and eventually as a cast member of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”. In the early 1950s he formed a jazz vocal quartet consisting of Lum Sams, Warren Carson, Jim Ferrang, and himself.
The group, called the Bob Trow Quartet, performed a style much like contemporary groups, the Hi-Los and the Mel-Tones. Cordic heard them perform and offered to manage them. Early in 1954 the Quartet was booked into the Point View Hotel in Brentwood, along with the Deuces Wild spinoff group led by Harry Bush. They also recorded their first disc — “Soft Squeeze” on the Zodiac label. “I Went Along for the Ride” was on the flip side. Both can be heard on YouTube.
I was surprised to find a news item late in April that year reporting that Cordic and the Bob Trow Quartet were providing the entertainment for the Dravo Engineers Club Social. Unfortunately I was in Japan, saving the world for democracy at the time. A few years later I was President of that Club; I lacked the good taste to book such a fine group.
In addition to the aforementioned records the Quartet also recorded “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and “Dora”, both of which can be accessed on FaceBook, and “Forever”, a song that currently is unavailable. We are fortunate to have this small handful of artifacts of Lum Sams’ talent. I wish there were more.
Her experience with the Quartet gave Lum enough exposure to the local night club scene to enable her to begin to perform under her own name. An item in the December 30, 1955 Pittsburgh Press reports that “the singing steelworker of the Bob Trow Quartet” would be joining the Deuces Wild for the New Year’s Party at the Press Club.
In January, 1956, she was advertised as “Pgh’s Ella Fitzgerald” for an engagement at the Point View Hotel in Brentwood with the Deuces Wild. A month later she was back there, described as “Pgh’s Sensational New Jazz Vocalist”, booked “because you asked for her”. In April, her “song and comedy act” was a featured part of the grand opening of the Great Southern Shoppers Mart. Later that year she had a gig at the Cove, on Route 51, with pianist Reid Jaynes, followed by another with Dodo Mararosa. The same year an article listing performers for a special event at the Press Club listed her as a single on a bill that included Carmen MacRae, Dodo Marmarosa, and Tommy Turk as well. Pretty fast company for a singer just breaking into the big time.
Lum became a fixture at the Point View with the Deuces for the next three years, with occasional appearances with the Trow Quartet elsewhere. In February, 1960, she appeared at the Fallen Angel on Washington Boulevard with the Deuces and at the Showcase in East Liberty, backed by the Leo O’Donnel Quartet. In March of that year the Post-Gazette reported she had gone to California “to look over the show business situation” there.
One wonders how she fared in California. The 1960s were difficult years for jazz musicians. We found very few records of Lum’s life in that decade except for her obituary; she died, much too young, on Christmas Day, 1970, at the age of forty-six, and was buried in the St. George Cemetery. Being remembered as Pittsburgh’s finest jazz singer in the 1950s is her legacy.