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Recapturing the dream

From brief fame to family and back, Mary Swan has known her place was onstage.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Maurice Rivenbark]
Mary Swan sings this month at the Spring Hill Knights of Columbus hall.
SPRING HILL -- With lights twinkling behind her, Mary Swan pulls the microphone from its stand and launches her rich, hearty voice into what may be her signature song, a syrupy ballad called My Heart Belongs to Only You.

Already warm to her, the crowd stirs, and people start to dance. She jokes with them, and they laugh. She finishes a song, and they applaud. During a break, a fan comes up to her. "You have a beautiful voice," she says. "You have so much energy."

It's a Christmas party at the Timber Pines Lodge for about 200 residents of the retirement community. And it's the latest stop on a whirlwind month of December that has Mary Swan and her husband and partner, Bim Brown, playing almost every night.

While it is far from the heights Swan reached more than 40 years ago, Swan clearly is enjoying herself. And the compliment from the fan, a woman wearing a festive red Christmas blouse, is music to her ears.

"I never get tired of that," said Swan, whose song list for the evening covers everything from Patsy Cline's Crazy to the song that haunted Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca -- As Time Goes By.

For Swan, it's all a part of a life that she still considers a fulfillment of the American dream, despite everything that might have been.

A peek at stardom

Back in 1958, Mary Swan's life could have been the dream of any American girl.

The dollish little teenager from Philadelphia appeared on American Bandstand in October that year to sing My Heart Belongs to Only You. The screaming kids in the audience loved it so much that Dick Clark, the TV show's host, had to scold them so he could talk to Swan afterward.

Already, Clark had signed Swan to a recording contract that would lead to the release of three singles over a two-year period, including Prisoner of Love and Crying in the Chapel.

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Swan in a 1958 publicity photo.
As other girls fainted at the prospect of touching the hand of musical heartthrob Fabian, Swan was hanging out with him on a bus they shared for a month with an entire posse of musicians traveling with "The Big Rock Show."

There was talk of her doing a movie with Frankie Avalon, another heartthrob of the day. And she was laying down some promising tracks in the studio that seemed destined to be big hits.

Yet, events would conspire against her.

The movie fell through. Opportunities for some of her new songs to get air time on TV and radio were dashed at the last minute. Sensibilities being what they were in the 1950s, one song was deemed too risky for radio play because it was a jazzier version of a religious song. Another she was to perform on TV was nixed because its title was nearly identical to a song Avalon was due to release shortly. She wound up having to sing a song that had already topped out.

And, as the 1950s ended, Swan had a child. Her musician husband, the late Pete Carroll, was a jealous and controlling sort who didn't want her on the road. So she stayed home.

"Back then, I thought you had to do what your husband said," Swan recalls now.

And so Mary Swan's chance at music immortality slipped away.

The path to the spotlight

For Swan, now 61, there is joy and gratitude in considering the memories of what was. But in looking back at what might have been, there is also an element of regret that can still prompt a tear or two.

The story of how she entered the music business is one that could make even the most creative publicist lick his chops.

Her father, Charlie Swan, was a drummer and a singer who led a band that played nightclubs around Philadelphia. He made sure that each of his six children knew how to play an instrument. And, Mary says now, he harbored dreams for a family act that would make it big.

When Mary was 12, her dad started bringing her along to clubs where his band was playing. Gradually, she began to sing with them at USO clubs.

Also, because the Swans had a piano, their home was a hangout for other Philadelphia bands, such as Danny and the Juniors, whose big hit was At the Hop. Members of that group encouraged Charlie Swan to give his daughter a chance to make a recording herself.

Mary and her father picked a local studio out of the phone book and reserved some time to make a demonstration record. While she was singing -- and here's the storybook part -- Dick Clark came in to pick up a package. He liked what he heard and signed her on the spot.

The legendary Clark was not available for comment for this story. But his publicist, Paul Shefrin, said Clark still remembers Mary Swan, if not many of the details of their dealings 43 years ago.

None of Swan's records became hits nationwide, even though they succeeded in various markets to different degrees. Always eluding her was the one breakthrough hit that would push her over the top.

"I believe in fate. It just wasn't God's will," Swan said. "I thank God I can still sing. I'm not rich, but we're enjoying our family."

Returning to the stage

Swan's marriage to Carroll turned out to be far less idyllic than the love songs she sang. Carroll continued to pursue his career and traveled constantly. After 10 years, they divorced.

Swan says she raised the children practically by herself. She worked at a day care center for a while and moonlighted on the music circuit where she could.

For years, she performed in Atlantic City casinos. And she did a lot of weddings. In 1990, she married Brown, who had played in the Philadelphia area with Chubby Checker but wound up in the trucking business.

Now they have both a marriage and a musical partnership.

Brown plays the keyboard and songs such as Mack the Knife and Runaround Sue. But Mary, whose voice evokes thoughts of Patsy Cline, still takes the lead most of the time. Brown says she has basically the same vocal range as the girl on the recordings from the 1950s.

Heeding the call of some family members living in Florida, they came to Spring Hill in 1996, not knowing if they would find work.

Six years later, they are now fixtures on the local dinner-dance circuit. And they've been seen at various stops on the "animal circuit" -- the Elks, the Lions and the Moose among them.

Frequently, they appear at the Knights of Columbus hall in Spring Hill, where they have a big concert scheduled for Feb. 2. Already, they are booked for every Wednesday and Friday in 2003.

Though they wouldn't reveal details about their performance income, Brown characterizes it as ranging from "small money to big money." They live in a modest, yet well apportioned home off Coronado Drive in Spring Hill.

After everything, Mary says her greatest joys in life are her children -- now both grown and performing music themselves -- and her two new grandchildren. She's singing and having fun, pleasing crowds and being pleased by their response to her.

"It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if I had stayed with it," Swan said of the abrupt halt to her budding career in the 1950s. "I was so fortunate to be a part of it. I thank God for what I got."

-- Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com .

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