Jenny Sterling has always had music to pull her through
Jenny Sterling has a song in her heart when she talks about her music career that started when she was just a child.
Ten years old and living in the Bronx, Sterling’s love of music was encouraged by a neighborhood couple. The husband and wife had a public address system in their basement that could broadcast into the street. Neighborhood children sang, while people packed the street.
For Sterling, it was the beginning of something magical.
n Name change. At school, her fourth grade teacher took her from classroom to classroom where she sang “Fools Rush In.” She was then chosen by a studio in New York City to sing on the radio, station WBYN in Brooklyn. The first thing the station did was change her name.
“It happened all the time,” said Sterling, who was born Jenny Jendoes. “Producers wanted something catchy that didn’t sound foreign. My professional name became Jean Jordan.”
The radio show was an opportunity for children to showcase their talent.
“We didn’t get paid, but we did get fan mail,” said Jenny. “It was quite the thing.”
WBYN led to WOR Mutual Radio and the Rainbow Hour every Saturday afternoon. Sterling was just entering her teen years, and during her tenure at WOR, one of the other singers was a young boy who would later become known as Vic Damone.
“We sang in a quartet and he sang right in my ear,” said Sterling. “Vic’s mother played the piano, and five or six of us would go to his house to sort of rehearse. Actually, it was just an excuse to get together and sing.”
Sterling performed at USO Clubs -stages were set up in the middle of small towns, and stars would perform.
“Kate Smith, Lena Horne – Vic Damone was a nobody then, just like me – but we sang, and the stars put on a show to sell War Bonds and Stamps,” said Sterling. “Even with the war going on, people were into romance, and that attitude shows in the Big Band music.”
Sterling also recorded songs for GI’s in New York City.
“They would write songs to their loved ones, a girlfriend or their family, and we would record them in the studio,” she said. “The GI got one of those little tapes that they could send home. I don’t remember many of the songs, but I remember this . . .” She sang a few bars. “Funny that that should stick with me all of these years.”
n Wedding singer. Sterling was 17 when she attended a family wedding, and her father urged her to get up and sing.
She approached the dais, and the band had a “roll their eyes” moment. But Sterling reassured them, “It’s okay. I’m on the radio.” Joe Puleo was a jazz guitarist with the band. He and Sterling were married one year later.
“His band, the Happy Jesters, was Joe on the guitar, a bass player and drummer,” said Sterling. “Singing with them was the first time I was paid to perform.”
Sterling’s career continued to grow. She and her husband played some of the big clubs on Long Island and in upstate New York, including the Concord in the Catskill Mountains. She performed with the Dorian Trio in New York and the Ralph Como band, an 18-piece orchestra.
Even today, most professional musicians don’t make enough money to support a family. Sterling and her husband kept their day jobs to pay the bills, and sang and performed at clubs during the weekends and nights for the joy of it. Joe Puleo was a carpenter, and Sterling worked for the B & O Railroad.
“Until the war was over, I was a messenger for the B & O, and then after the war I moved into the office as the men were given their jobs back,” said Sterling. “I loved working for the railroad. Other than singing, I don’t think I’ve had a job I loved more.”
By 1954, Sterling had three children, Christine, Nancy and Steven. Puleo’s work as a carpenter took them to upstate New York. Weekends and nights were still filled with music, while a weekend babysitter watched the children.
n Moving West. In 1959, still following the work, Sterling and her family moved to California.
“We got back into music right away through a friend who knew the San Francisco music scene,” said Sterling. “During the days, I was in sales, and at night we played clubs up and down the coast and on the peninsula, including the officer’s club at the Presidio.”
At the Black Hawk in San Francisco, her son Steve received his first pointer on the drums.
“He was tapping two straws on a glass while watching a show – he was always tapping and drumming on something,” said Sterling. “After the show, the drummer gave him a set of sticks. ‘You’ll never learn to drum with straws,’ he told him.”
Steve is now the head of the music department at the Christian Center in Santa Rosa, California and has recorded several Christian albums. Nancy lives in Susanville with her husband and two children. Sadly, Christine died of breast cancer when she was only 45.
After Sterling’s husband died in 1986, she lived on her own until she met her current husband, Carl Sterling, when a neighbor invited her to dinner.
“She didn’t like uneven numbers at her dinners, so she invited me. I said OK, but no matchmaking. Carl and I married one year later,” said Sterling.
n Nevada bound. After retiring, the Sterlings moved to Las Vegas for two years and then to the Johnson Lane area four years ago. Sterling found an outlet for her music through the choir at St. Gall Catholic Church.
“I didn’t start back up with the big band sound until a year ago,” said Sterling, who is currently the vocalist for Brian Farnon Tahoe Dance Band. Evening performances keep the band busy, plus when the Ormsby House was open, they performed every Sunday afternoon.
“Wow, can those old folks dance,” said Sterling, who is 73. “They love the music as it brings back many wonderful memories.”
The musical community is very small and close knit. Sterling ran into several friends when she joined up with the Tahoe Dance Band. “All of these guys were called out of retirement to join the band. One of them I knew when I lived in New York.”
And a guitarist took lessons from her husband.
Sterling said that her world is filled with music, either with the band, the church choir or working with her arranger every week. Luckily, her husband loves music as much as she does.
“If I ever lost my memories, if I could still remember the words to songs, I’d be fine,” said Sterling, who has a repertoire of 105 songs. “From my earliest memories, music has carried me through.”