Capri is an island off the coast of Italy. My Dad was in Europe, helping with the reconstruction after World War II. My Mom was with him. On their way back to the USA, my folks stopped in Capri. Lucky for me.
I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, soon after my folks arrived from Capri. Couldn’t they have stayed on Capri for a couple more months?
My folks loved music. My Dad loved old blues and Dixieland jazz; my Mom loved everything. When I say everything, I mean everything. Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Nat King Cole, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, Bonnie Raitt, Ella Fitzgerald, The Band, Dylan, Johnny Winter, Joan Baez, Hank Williams, Sr., Stan Getz, Astrud Gilberto, Dave Brubeck, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Donovan, Dave Grusin, Marvin Gaye, Norah Jones, Anita Baker, Gladys Knight. I could go on and on.
I guess I just did.
My Mom turned me on to so many great artists. We’d go see shows together; everyone from Gladys Knight and the Pips to Paul Simon. When Paul Simon came to town, she bought a couple tickets. When the young guy sitting in front of us stood up and started doing the hippy-dippy Grateful Dead dance, she pulled him by his shirt back into his seat and quietly told him to sit down.
Dayuummm, Ma! Making me look bad! The guy sat quietly for the rest of the show. My Mom was quiet, but strong.
My Mom didn’t have a lot of dough, but she’d treat herself to music—she always had a nice stereo, and went to see concerts. I remember her going to see Bonnie Raitt when she was playing local college gymnasiums. My Mom would drive to Annapolis, Maryland, to see Charlie Byrd play jazz guitar at the King of France Tavern.
My Mom had a lovely voice, sweet and clear with a natural vibrato. She would put on some music, and cook dinner and sing along. Then, we’d have dinner and read cookbooks—looking for new recipes to try. She loved music and loved cooking.
She grew up poor in Eastport, which at the time was a ghetto across the bridge from Annapolis, Maryland, which was home to the Naval Academy, where her dad worked as a custodian. My Mom met my Dad in Annapolis; he was going to St. John’s College, and was in a school play. My Mom was also in the play, even though she wasn’t a student. They fell in love, and had us three dimwits. When I was born, we lived with my Dad’s Mom, Angela, in the basement of her house in Baltimore, near Pimlico Racetrack – a thoroughbred horse-racing track that was home of the Preakness Stakes.
When I was six, we moved into a house a couple miles away, on a dead-end street named Rosebank. It was a great old house, what they call a “fixer-upper.” It had an upright piano in the dining room. The previous owners had built the room around the piano, and when they moved, they couldn’t get it out. So they left it there. I took the piano apart. I painted it black. I replaced the keys with new ones. I put it back together, and started playing.
I was already taking trumpet lessons. Once a week, my Mom would take me down Greenmount Avenue, and I’d study trumpet with Mr. John at a place called Freitag’s. I absolutely loved Herb Alpert, and made Mr. John do all the Tijuana Brass duets with me.
I used to read comic books. In the back, they had these advertisements for seeds. No, it wasn’t marijuana seeds. Vegetable seeds. You’d send away for seeds, sell them to your neighbors, and after you sold a certain amount, you could redeem your points for prizes–one of which was a guitar. I learned how to play by ear. It would have been a lot easier if I had used my hands.
There I was, a little kid, learning how to play guitar and piano and trumpet. I can imagine all the horrible sounds my Mom had to put up with. It ain’t fun listening to a kid practice. My first gig was playing guitar and singing Beatles songs at the sixth grade graduation. I was in fifth grade. Roland Park Elementary School. My first gig!
When I started my rock band, Momma Max, my Mom let us rehearse in the basement. It must have been incredibly loud upstairs. When I started writing songs, my Mom would type out lyric sheets, and write letters to publishers. When I got rejection letter after rejection letter, my Mom would quietly encourage me to keep going.
When I got signed to Motown as a songwriter, my Mom was ecstatic. When one of the first songs I wrote for Motown – “Summer Days” – was recorded by Angela Bofill on her debut CD, my Mom could not have been more proud—she saved all the articles and reviews. When I got offered a record deal with Motown, my Mom’s house was the headquarters while we recorded in Baltimore. When Motown decided not to release the CD, it was my Mom who kept me from jumping off the roof.
After my stint at Motown, I started a band called BootCamp. The music was loud, it was rock, and it was making some big noise in the music biz. But I was screaming at the top of my lungs, all night, every night, singing way out of my range.
When I lost my voice after all that screaming, when I thought I’d never be able to sing again, it was my Mom who encouraged me to sing low and slow. And that’s what I did after BootCamp broke up. Slim Man was born!
When the first Slim Man CD–End of the Rainbow— was released, my Mom was at the release party. She was about the only one in the joint. Seriously. It was a howling failure. Nobody came out. I was convinced the CD was gonna sink like a stone in the sea.
Not my Mom, she kept my spirits up, kept gently encouraging me. When the End of the Rainbow CD started getting airplay, I was playing piano in a dive bar in Baltimore called The Horse You Came In On. My Mom would call the bar on Fridays, and tell me how well the CD was doing on the charts. The CD ended up going Top Ten for the year. My Mom was a huge Slim Man fan. Whenever I played around Baltimore, she’d come see me play. And then she got sick.
She had this horrible illness called Supra Nuclear Palsy, a disease where the body’s motors shut down. It becomes hard to move your mouth or tongue; it’s tough to chew or swallow or talk. It’s hard to move your arms or legs. It was difficult for my Mom to even close her eyes to sleep. And yet her mind was still sharp as a razor.
My Mom never complained. Not once did I hear her say, “Why me?” I rarely say “never” but I never heard her complain. All she could do was lie in bed and watch TV or listen to music. I once got an advance from a record company; I spent it on a TV and a stereo for my Mom. It was the least I could do after all the hell I’d put her through when I was a teenage idiot.
Even when she was sick, she’d get my sister to take her to the Slim Shows. It wasn’t easy, getting her around in the wheelchair, when she couldn’t even move a muscle. But she made it, even when it was snowing.
I took care of my Mom the best I could. I brought her food all the time. I called her almost every day, even though she couldn’t talk. I had a jazz radio show in Baltimore on Sunday mornings, I always dedicated the show to my Mom. After the show, I would visit her, bring her a dish, and we’d drink a Bloody Mary and watch old movies. One time, I rented a handicapped van, and took her and the nieces to Pimlico racetrack. Nothing like some horse-racing to take your mind off things!
When I got an offer to do a cruise, I was hesitant. I didn’t want to leave my Mom, but she insisted I go. Michael van Droff–who owned a German record company that had released some of my music–organized the concert cruise. I flew to Germany, practiced with the band, and then flew to Jamaica, where the cruise ship was docked. We were going to cruise the Caribbean for a week, cross the Atlantic, and cruise the Mediterranean for a week. Not a bad gig. My first cruise.
My first night on the ship was a night off. I had dinner at the huge buffet, and then nestled into my tiny little cabin. Early the next morning I got a phone call.
My Mom had died. I was crushed. I was inconsolable. The Germans, they’re a pretty stoic bunch. My grief must have been pretty alarming to them, because they had me off that cruise ship within hours. It was like an evacuation. A small boat picked me up, took me to a small island, where I caught a small cab to a small airport.
How small? There was one tiny runway among the palm trees. The terminal had one counter and no walls; just an old rusted tin roof overhead. They had a small sound system that played music in between announcements – which were few and far between. I was pacing; I couldn’t sit still. I had a lump in my throat the size of a basketball. My eyes were swollen and red.
I was staring off into the distance, trying to wrap my head around what had just happened, when a song of mine came over the tiny sound system. How that happened, in that little airport, on that tiny island in the Caribbean, I’ll never know. The song was “Night Like This.”
I picked up my cell phone and called the first person I always called when I wanted to share a moment like that. My Mom.
Except she was gone.
My Mom was an excellent cook. She prepared all kinds of foods—Indian, Mexican, Italian, French. She once made coq au vin—a French dish of chicken with red wine—for my entire seventh grade French class.
Insalata Caprese–that’s what the Eye-Talians call it–is my favorite salad. Yes, I was conceived on the Isle of Capri, where this recipe comes from, so I am partial. But this salad is so quick, easy and delicious.
There is only ONE THING you have to remember.
Every ingredient has to be the best.
The tomatoes have to be ripe and luscious. The olive oil has to be extra virgin, or at least one that hasn’t been pole-dancing at the club every night.
This would be a good time to splurge on bufala mozzarella. Yes, it’s expensive. But it’s really, really good. Take out a second mortgage, if you haven’t already. Break open the kids’ piggy bank. This is the one time to dig deep and fork it over.
Bufala mozzarella comes from water buffalos. The scientific name for water buffalo is Bubalus bubalis. Which sounds like something I made up, but didn’t. Bubalus bubalis! Boo-Bah Lish!
I used organic heirloom tomatoes. They weren’t expensive, and they were so fresh, ripe and colorful and tasted like heaven.
Some people use balsamic vinegar as well as olive oil on their Caprese salad.
I prefer using just olive oil. But what the hell do I know?
2 or 3 heirloom tomatoes, or fresh vine-ripened tomatoes
1 large ball of mozzarella — I suggest bufala — about a pound
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and fresh-cracked black pepper
Fresh basil, a handful
Here we go
Slice the tomatoes into circular slices, about a ¼ inch thick.
Slice the mozzarella the same way.
Grab another slice of tomato, preferably a different color. Lay it on top of the first slice of mozzarella, but down about an inch, so it’s layered, like when you play solitaire. Put a slice of mozzarella on top of the second slice of tomato.
One more time! Grab a slice of tomato, lay it down, put a slice of mozzarella on top.
If my math is correct, you’ll have three slices of each.
Drizzle some olive oil on top.
Add some salt and fresh cracked black pepper.
Grab some basil leaves and a pair of scissors. Snip some basil right on top of the tomatoes and mozzarella.
Make as many individual plates as you can, this usually serves four. Unless you’re in my family –this would feed only one of those monsters.
Serve with some crusty bread, and…