llinois Memories of Jean Mullen
My husband Dee and I first met Jean in the summer of 1974 when she was singing at Irelands, a restaurant/lounge in Bloomington, Illinois*. The first song I heard her sing was Ode to Billy Joe, and she sounded just like Bobbi Gentry. Not only was she a wonderful singer, she was also a terrific mimic.
In the mid 70s she went by the name Jeannie, which I gather she shortened later. The last letter we received from her in July 1976 was still signed, Jeannie.
Not only was she a wonderful musician, she was just about the most terrific person I have ever met. She was very warm and attentive to children and it is a shame she never got to be a mother, she would have been the best. Back in those days children were allowed in lounges in Illinois, if accompanied by parents, so our two sought every opportunity to go with us to Irelands to hear Jeannie sing. If there was a youngster in the audience, she always sang House at Pooh Corner and/or Puff the Magic Dragon. On our daughters 10th birthday, Jeannie made sure to sing both those numbers for her, and spent a couple of her breaks at our table talking pretty exclusively to the birthday girl. My daughter, Deeann, adored Jeannie and wanted to be as tall as her… she actually made it to over 5 11. In high school she wore her hair in much the same style as Jeannie had in Bloomington. A few days before we moved away from Illinois, Jeannie had lunch with my daughter and me, and took Deeann back to her apartment and entertained her for the afternoon while the rest of the family dealt with moving problems. She was working on Song for a Friend at the time and Deeann got to see how the process worked. She sang it for both of us later in the day, and it was great to see the title on her Green Bean Jean album, but the song had changed quite a bit from the preliminary rendition she was working on that day.
Our son, Barth, turned 16 in 1974, and had already shown an aptitude for all things electronic, and one night he told Jeannie that one of her huge speakers didnt sound right. Back in those days I believe they were still on tubes and not the transistors and digital that came later. Most 20 somethings like Jeannie would have ignored the remarks of a 16-year-old… but she didnt. She had it checked by a professional the next day, and made sure to let Barth know he had been right, and there had been a strong possibility the speaker could have gone out during a performance. It is hard to impress a teenage boy, but this certainly did!
The first week of October 1974, Jeannie was discovered by McLean Stevenson.** He was home for a visit with his parents and saw one of her performances. He asked her to appear on the Johnny Carson show the next time he was guest host. Was she excited? Oh, yes! I made the mistake of saying something like; We will be able to say we were friends of Jean Mullen before she became a big star. Her eyes snapped and she replied, You will say you ARE friends of Jean Mullen! That was Jeannie, she was determined she would never forget where she came from or who her friends were.
About a week later, Jeannie showed us a letter from McLean confirming her being on the Johnny Carson show with him the last week in January 1975.
In November of 1974, Jeannie spent a month performing at the opening of an Irelands in Champaign, Illinois. We missed her in Bloomington, but having lived in Champaign for almost 9 years, we found an excuse to visit there and took some of our friends to hear her sing. She was as popular in Champaign/Urbana as she had been in Bloomington. Of course, we had to have dinner at the Bloomington Irelands the first weekend she returned in December.
December 1974 was our last month in Bloomington before moving to points west. We had an interesting evening with Jeannie when my niece and her Tennessee-born husband came to visit. To say he only liked country music is putting it mildly, but he really fell for Jeannie, especially when she put on her cowboy hat and sang a real country song with a Texas drawl. It was great, and again showed her wonderful performance skills.
That Christmas Jeannie got a new 12-string guitar as a gift and we got to hear her perform with it for a few more weeks before we moved. And on January 28, 1975, in our new home in Iowa, we let our kids stay up late to watch Jeannie Mullen on the Johnny Carson show. She sang House at Pooh Corner and she was really good – she looked just terrific!
After that, our only contact with Jeannie was with letters. In March 1975 she told us of her plans to move to Los Angeles and about signing with a manager and with the William Morris Talent Agency. It all happened so fast from the time we arrived, that I was afraid they werent going to really listen to me. I did get to make a demo tape and the recording studios seemed impressed and liked my originals. I also did an audition for the head honcho of the William Morris Talent Agency and that was the deciding factor. They say I have too much going for me to limit me to a lounge act, so they are going to give me acting, dancing and writing lessons. Somebody up there likes me!
She left Bloomington for L.A. on May 18, 1975. Im getting more sentimental everyday about leaving, but Im also quite excited. I have 9 finished originals now. Sure wish I could sing them for you. The one the recording studios liked the best is called Lets Dance.
In June 1975, she talked about being poor in L.A. We finally arrived two weeks ago after nine months of planning and 3 months of trying. Cant believe were here – except that were so poor I have to believe it! Of course I realize that the only way to arrive in Hollywood seeking ones fortune is to be penniless – so I know were doing it right! I also know it will be temporary because I am going to be a success. (I have to talk big cause I dont have any friends around to reassure me like I did in Bloomington!)… My manager wants me to start taking some acting lessons. He wants me to do a TV series during the week, then do nightclub appearances on weekends.
In August her letter related some of the struggle she was experiencing in L.A., but her optimism was still high. There is much to learn about the music scene in L.A. and I really dont want to rush it. I still know things are going to happen and I dont expect them over night. Sure would love to show you the sights. I simply love oceans, and mountains and everything.
There is a gap of almost a year before we received another letter from Jean in July 1976. It was not because I didnt think of you all, but so much has happened to me in the past year. I will try to fill you in with the highs and lows.
I prefer not to relate some of the bigger lows because they were very personal events in her life. There are also some happier references regarding some of her family members which I will also edit out, but much of her letter was exciting reading!
I spent the fall getting back on my feet financially, and luckily I was able to do that by singing in local restaurants. In December I moved to a little apartment 1/2 block from the ocean in a beach suburb of L.A.
In February, my sister and girlfriend moved out from Illinois,… It was about that time that I decided to pick my head up again and smile at the world, cause it was trying hard to smile at me. I landed a singing job for March and April in Mammoth Lakes, Ca. which is a beautiful ski resort 6 hours north in the Sierras. I had a great, peaceful, introspective 2 months, tried desperately to stay alive on skis (and loved it!), wrote some happy songs, and had the most responsive audiences Id ever known.
Meanwhile, around Jan., I had signed a contract with a personal manager, Carol Hightower, who is a 28 year old girl who has never managed anyone, but I relate to her much better than the rich music business men. I trust and believe in her and know we will make it together. When I got back from Mammoth, she had a limousine waiting for us, and we were flown to Las Vegas for a 1st class experience, then on to Australia and New Zealand by the same multi-millionaires who were looking for a talent that they could promote from Australia as an international star. We soon discovered that Australia is 10 years behind musically, and when we learned that they wanted 15% of me for life, and their final say-so on everything. we thanked them kindly and headed home. We have now signed with a new production and promotion company which has started around me as their artist, and once again, were starting from scratch, but were going to the top! Ive been doing auditions for producers, engineers, and record companies, and the Green Bean Jean is just around the corner. I can hear the thunder, and the lightning is gonna strike soon!
We never heard from Jeannie again. We moved to Seattle in 1977, and wrote to her about our new address, but received nothing in return until the notice of her death and the making of the memorial Green Bean Jean album. Our family was devastated to lose a terrific friend and to know the world had lost a tremendous talent. When thinking of Jeannie, I like to remember the adage that When a person dies, part of their immortality is the good memories of their friends and family. Jeannie – your immortality is assured.
These memories are from my journals written in the years we knew Jean, and excerpts from her letters. It is my pleasure to share them with all of you.
*(For purposes of geographic clarity, Bloomington is NOT a suburb of Chicago. It is about 130 miles south of Chicago, in McLean county. Those of us who were born there call this area downstate.)
**(Yes, McLean Stevenson really was a native of Bloomington, McLean County, Illinois. His father really was a doctor there, and my mother was one of his patients.)