Korla Pandit (September 16, 1921 – October 2, 1998), born John Roland Redd, was an American musician, composer, pianist, organist, and television pioneer of national notability. A pathbreaking musical performer in the early days of television, Redd is known for Korla Pandit's Adventures In Music; the show was the first all-music program on television. He also performed live and on radio and made various film appearances, becoming known as the "Godfather of Exotica". Beginning in the late 1940s, Redd claimed to be "Korla Pandit", a French-Indian musician from New Delhi; however, Redd was actually African-American. Redd maintained the Korla Pandit persona—both in public and in private—until the end of his life.
Life and career
Family, education and early career
In 1921, John Roland Redd was born in St. Louis, Missouri as one of seven children. His father, Ernest Redd, was an African-American Baptist pastor. Redd's mother, Doshia O'Nina Johnson, had French and African ancestry. Both parents were descended from African-American slaves. Redd and his siblings were all light-skinned with straight, glossy hair and an ethnically ambiguous appearance.
Redd's mother's paternal grandfather was Henri Jeansonne, who was born in Lyon, France, emigrated to the United States, and married Marie Le Cleur, a Louisiana Creole (meaning mixed race) woman.[failed verification] Jeansonne and Le Cleur's son, Henry F. Johnson, used or was given an Anglicized surname. Doshia Johnson's maternal grandfather's line of Lankford (also spelled Langford in some records) can be traced to a white English immigrant ancestor to Virginia.
In 1922, Redd's family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, where they lived for nine years. In 1931, they moved to Columbia, where Redd's father was pastor of the second-largest Baptist church in town. Given the Jim Crow restrictions in the state, Redd and his siblings attended racially segregated public schools for children of color. He learned to play piano.
A contemporary of Redd's, the jazz pianist called "Sir" Charles Thompson, knew Redd from Columbia; they attended high school together. Later in life, Thompson remembered Redd, saying that he was the much better piano player of the two. The Redd family was musically talented: his two sisters sang, and one played piano. John's older brother Ernest Redd, Jr. (known as "Speck") (1913-1974) also became a jazz pianist, and John played with him and his eldest brother, Harry. Later, Speck became a band leader in Des Moines, Iowa. In 2004, he was inducted into the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame.
Hollywood, marriage, and the creation of Korla Pandit
By the 1940s, Redd had moved from the Midwest to Los Angeles for more opportunity. His older sisters, Ruth and Frances, had already moved there by 1939. Redd used the name "Juan Rolando" to gain a job playing the organ on the Los Angeles radio station KMPC. Passing as a Mexican allowed him to join the Musicians Union (which was not open to African-Americans) and opened up additional opportunities for studio and club work. Redd performed under the Rolando name in various lounges, on the Rudy Vallée Show, and on the Jubilee radio program, a program of black jazz and swing bands handled by the Special Services of the War Department for transmission to American servicemen overseas during World War II.
In the early 1940s, Redd met his sister Frances's white friend and roommate, Beryl June DeBeeson, a Disney artist and former dancer. The two fell in love. They married in Tijuana, Mexico, as interracial marriages were then prohibited in California. The couple had two sons, Shari and Koram.
Redd and his wife created a new entertainment persona for Redd's use. Most Americans did not know much about people from India, and they thought Redd could have some exotic appeal by passing as an Indian. Beryl designed the makeup and clothing Redd used and Redd took the name "Korla Pandit". He developed an elaborate history and continued to add to it during his career. He stated that he had been born in New Delhi, India, to a French opera singer and an Indian Brahmin government official. Supposedly raised in an upper-class Indian household, Redd claimed to have studied music in England as a child, arrived in the United States at age 12, and studied at the University of Chicago. Redd used the Korla Pandit persona for the rest of his life.
In 1948, Redd created and played background music as Korla Pandit for the revival of radio's occult adventure series, Chandu the Magician, achieving atmospheric effects on the Novachord and the Hammond CV (Ancestor of C-3) electronic organ. In 1949, he performed on Hollywood Holiday, broadcast from a Los Angeles restaurant.
In 1948, while performing as Korla Pandit in Hollywood at a furrier's fashion show in Tom Breneman's Restaurant, Redd and his wife Beryl met television pioneer Klaus Landsberg. He offered Redd a daily, 15-minute television show, with the stipulation that the musician would also provide accompaniment for Time for Beany, Bob Clampett's popular puppet show. It featured Stan Freberg and Daws Butler as puppeteers and voices.
Korla Pandit's Adventures In Music was first telecast on Los Angeles station KTLA in February 1949; it was the first all music program on television. Viewers soon became familiar with the musical opening, "The Magnetic Theme." Landsberg insisted that Redd refrain from speaking and gaze into the camera as he played the Hammond organ and Steinway grand piano, often simultaneously. "Not once in 900 performances did he speak on camera, preferring instead to communicate with viewers via that hypnotic gaze."
Redd—known to the public as Korla Pandit—became an overnight star and one of early television's pioneering musical artists. He widened the array of music associated with the organ and popularized its use. While never dropping his Indian persona, Redd acquired notable friends such as actor Errol Flynn, comedian Bob Hope, and Sabu Dastagir, known for his roles in the documentary Elephant Boy (1937) and the feature Thief of Baghdad (1940).
In 1951, Redd left KTLA in a deal with Louis D. Snader of Snader Telescriptions. He made short films for Snader, which helped Redd gain a national TV audience. However, problems with contract negotiations prompted Snader to replace Redd with Liberace by 1953.
In 1956, Redd moved to San Francisco and performed as Korla Pandit on San Francisco's KGO-TV. He began speaking on his show, espousing a spiritual blend of ideas that entranced many of his fans. After returning to Los Angeles, he became friends with Paramahansa Yogananda, Indian spiritual leader of the Self Realization Fellowship. The leader wrote an introduction to liner notes for one of Redd's records. This was a time of seeking for many Americans, with Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley becoming more prominent intellectuals in California. Redd read widely and incorporated a variety of thought in his talks. In 1967, Redd and his family moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, to prevent his sons from being drafted in the Vietnam War.
After moving to Canada, Redd returned regularly to the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas for work. In the 1970s, as his television popularity waned, he supplemented his income with a variety of increased personal appearances and performances. Continuing to use the Korla Pandit persona, Redd performed at supper clubs, supermarket openings, car agencies, music and department stores, pizza restaurants, lectures, music seminars, private lessons, and the theater organ circuit. He made a cameo appearance as Korla Pandit in Tim Burton's biographical film about the director Ed Wood (1994), which drew renewed attention to him.
Redd's career was revived in the 1990s, and he attracted a new generation, taking them under his wing. "The Tiki-lounge music revival gave Korla one last career resurgence and cult following. He recorded with The Muffs." Redd also performed a sold-out show at the legendary Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco.
Death and revelations
Redd died in Petaluma, California, of a myocardial infarction. Two years after his death, R.J. Smith, magazine editor of Los Angeles, published an article revealing Redd's true ancestry. Redd's sons had heard rumors about their father's ethnicity as they grew older, but were not told of their father's African-American ethnicity until after his death. Shari died before the publication of Smith's 2001 article, and John rejected Smith's findings.
Intrigued by the Smith article, John Turner and Eric Christensen, retired TV producers who had each known Redd in his later years, made a documentary entitled Korla (2014). The duo wrote and produced the film together and Turner directed it. The duo interviewed an array of friends, fellow musicians, and family, discussing Redd's life and achievements and exploring the complexities of racial identity. In 2015, the year Korla was widely released, various media outlets commented on Redd's history, which they cast as a classic American story of self-invention.
Allyson Hobbs, assistant professor of history at Stanford University, wrote A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life (2014). She met members of Redd's birth family at a screening of the 2015 film about him in San Francisco. While Redd had kept his sons away from relatives during his lifetime, his extended family "felt he was very authentic and were very close to him," she said.
Recorded audio works credited to Korla Pandit number more than two dozen albums: they consist of 78 rpm and 45 rpm records, LP vinyl albums, and CD labels. He made several records for the Vita label from 1950 - 1952. The back of his LP Hypnotique (Fantasy 3329/8075) lists eight other Fantasy Records LPs credited to Pandit. He eventually recorded 13 albums for the Fantasy label. The album entitled Plays Music Of The Exotic East (from 1958, Fantasy 3272/8013) contains the song "Misirlou". His Christmas album, Merry Xmas (CD reissue 2007, Deja Vu), has been highlighted by Nick DiFonzo in The WORST Album Covers in the World... EVER! (New Holland Publishers, 2004). The album cover may be viewed at All Music.
- Snader Telescriptions
- Chiu Chiu
- Song Of India
- Tango In D
- Moon Love
- Underwater Worshippers
- Miserlou (1951)
- The Swan
- Stormy Weather
- Ed Wood (1994)
- Smith, R. J. (June 2001). "The Many Faces of Korla Pandit". Los Angeles. Emmis Communications. 46 (6): 72–77, 146–151. ISSN 1522-9149.
- Turner, John (June 1, 2016). "America's First 'Indian' TV Star Was a Black Man from Missouri". What It Means to Be an American: A National Conversation. Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square. Retrieved June 1, 2016.
- Liesl Bradner, "How a Black Man from Missouri Transformed Himself Into the Indian Liberace", New Republic, 18 September 2015
- de Clue, David. "Epilogue". History, part two. KorlaPandit.com. Retrieved September 13, 2012.
- "Korla Pandit biography" by David Marshall-Rutledge deClue, Korla Pandit.com
- Dunning, John. On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-19-507678-8
- "Korla Pandit Documentary 7/22/15", Emmy San Francisco Events, July 2015
- Zack, Jessica (15 August 2015). "Exotic Korla Pandit hid race under swami persona". SFGate. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
- Bradner, Liesl (12 September 2015). "How a Black Man From Missouri Transformed Himself Into the Indian Liberace". The New Republic. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
- https://www.allmusic.com/album/r1241510 Allmusic: Merry Xmas: Korla Pandit
- Korla Pandit performing: "Silver Bells"
- Korla Pandit performing: "Miserlou" (on YouTube)
- Korla Pandit performing: "Kumar" (on YouTube)