By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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"I was so shy and so bashful they almost had to push me up on stage," he says. "But I did one trick, and it brought the house down. I was amazed. All I did was the overhand [juggling] trick. And I thought, 'If I could go over that big with only one trick, imagine what I could do if I got my act together.'"
So he got his act together, exercising his creative ingenuity and self-discipline until he made the bill at such Chicago nightspots as the Delesa Club, where he caught the eye of producer Joe "Ziggy" Johnson, the "Black Ziegfeld." Johnson was so impressed that he booked Mosley as an opening act for a Duke Ellington concert in Memphis.
"It's hard to describe the feeling," Mosley recalls. "I had my custom-made tuxedo. White shirt. White tie. Patent-leather shoes. When they brought Guy Mosley on stage, he was red-hot. I heard 'oohs' and 'aahhs' from the audience. I was a big success. In fact, Ellington didn't like it. He was very conceited. When I came off stage, I said to this young woman, 'Well. I hope I make the bigtime.' And she said, 'Do you know who you're with? You've already hit the big time. I can see why you're with Ellington.' Then she asked me to sign a picture."
After that, Mosley met Nat Nazarro, who managed the career of Pearl Bailey, among others. Nazarro booked Mosley at the Apollo Theater with the B.B. King Holiday Revue, which also featured Slappy White and Lucky Miller.
"It was wonderful," Mosley says. "B.B. King was very young and playing piano--this was before he got Lucille--and we did five shows a day. Nazarro said I would be the next sensation."
A sensation perhaps, but an underpaid sensation. At the height of his career, Mosley made $125 a week, with Nazarro slicing 30 percent off the top.
"Nat opened the doors for me, and I used to think half a loaf was better than no loaf, but I got tired of it," Mosley says. "I went to the cashier and said, 'I'm getting as much applause as B.B. King, but I'm not getting nearly as much money.' And the cashier said, 'A lot of people know about B.B. King, but don't nobody know about you. When you get as much prestige as B.B. King, that's when you get the big money.'"
Mosley couldn't wait that long. He broke his five-year contract with Nazarro after two years and struck out on his own. Without big-name management, though, doors slammed shut, and Mosley found himself in restaurant kitchens holding dishrags.
"I never had anyone making sure I wasn't taken advantage of," he says. "I never got married. I wasn't as lucky as Sammy Davis Jr., or Mickey Rooney, or the guys who had family helping them. Sometimes circumstances are beyond your control. You have to eat, and in order to survive, you wash dishes, you push brooms, you work construction. Yeah. I've been there. I've had my great moments of depression, anxiety and boredom. But I always carried God with me. That's what helped me to get rid of my troubles. Because when you drink and become an alcoholic, you only add to your troubles. Drinking can ruin you as a performer. No, I never did that."
And just when Mosley thought he'd hit rock bottom, opportunity knocked.
"I was washing dishes, and someone said, 'Why don't you perform on the street?' I said, 'No. No. There's no way in the world I could do that. Put a cup down like a beggar?' But he said, 'Well, you'd be surprised at how much money they make. All you have to do is work with a couple of performers.'"
So Mosley took his tap shoes, juggling gear and red straw hat to the corner of 44th Street and Broadway in New York City.
"I still had the show-business bug in me," he says. "But I'm going to tell you the truth. It's hard going from the stage to the street, even though I wasn't on the stage at the time. Not everyone could do it. People look at you like you're crazy. They say, 'What? You're dancing on the street? And then you got a cup down in front of you!' They make all kinds of cruel remarks. It took me a while to get used to it. Sometimes I still get embarrassed."
Mosley befriended a magician and ventriloquist who showed him the ropes, and he gradually developed a following. He appeared on NBC and CBS television features about New York City. He showed up on a Singapore Airlines commercial. He hit the road to places like Toledo, St. Louis, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Chicago and performed with acts such as Betty Taylor and the All-Girl Dance Revue, the Cotton Club Revue, Bozo the Clown and Lupe Appling of the Chicago White Sox.
"I'm a legend in California," he says. "I've been told that many times. Festivals like the Haight Street Fair. North Beach. Union Street Fair. Palo Alto Street Fair. In Contra Costa, I was on the front page of the newspaper, and that's the richest county in California. I've been lucky enough to have had the right people catching my act at the right time."