Monthly Archives: January 2011

Bill Cosby, Himself

Bill Cosby, Himself

Cosby discusses turning the other cheek to hecklers and why he resisted the temptation to use profanity in his act.


January 20, 2011

When comedian Bill Cosby answers the phone, his response to a reporter’s greeting of “Mr. Cosby?” for verification, is a playful grumble: “No! This is George Roofles!” before breaking into his slow, wiseass Cosby chuckle: “Heh, heh, heh!” One is never quite sure when Cosby is being playful and when he is genuinely irritated. He speaks in a deliberate cadence he has made his own, slightly stretching out some syllables when not pausing between every other word to get his point across. Cosby is not the easiest person with whom to hold a conversation, but thankfully he answers with engaging, thoughtful responses. When asked if he has ever dealt with hecklers, he simply replies, “Yeah, yeah.” As I waited several seconds for him to elaborate, he suddenly interjects, “There are two of us talking here, so you’re going to have to say something. You asked me about the hecklers, The answer is ‘Yes.’ What do you want to know?” Wow, I was being reprimanded by “the Coz.” Bill Cosby will appear at the BJCC Concert Hall on Saturday, February 5, at 8 p.m. Tickets: $25–$65. Details:, 458-8400.

Black & White: Tell me about the early days when you were a struggling comic.
Cosby: I decided to leave Temple University and to go out for a year to test and see what would happen to me. I got favorable reviews from people who had seen me in different venues around the city of Philadelphia. So I went up to this club at 116 MacDougal Street [in Greenwich Village] called the Gaslight, which had a reputation for having classy entertainment and folk music. In those days there was no comedy club. Plus, there was no profanity. Dick Gregory had come along, it was about 1963. This booker for what they called Negro comics was there. So I brought my storytelling and auditioned and the guy said, “Well, you’re a little raw, but we’ll hire you.” I don’t know that I even had a day off, and I got $60 a week. I want you know that I’m the first old person to say, “And that was not a lot of money!” You hear a lot of old people go, “And that was a lot of money in those days.” Noooooo! By the time I cleaned up that room they gave me—which I’m very thankful for—I had spent close to $60 on mops and stuff to clean and make it look good. I showered without a shower. I used the restroom at the club to take a bath. I started at eight o’clock at night and worked ’til four in the morning, working between the folk singers.

(click for larger version)

How did you deal with hecklers?
After being upset with people, I just decided to go in another direction and not fool with them. Because, you get angry with these people and you start a vocal argument. And many times, for some weird reason, the audience sees you become angry and after a while it has changed the aura in the room. It’s difficult for you to get back to the image that you’re a fun person, even though it wasn’t your fault. But then again, it was your fault because it’s also the entertainer’s job not to lose it. I’ll give you an example. I was at Lake Tahoe in the late ’60s. I already had the mindset that when people wanted to interrupt to say things, the first thing is to understand what they are saying, and then respond as if you were really interested in what a person was saying. When you listen to that, many times if you stay linear with it, you can get rid of ‘em post haste. So I walked out onstage, had on a brown leather suit, and the shoes I had on were high-tops and had sort of like a dark brown mustard color. It was a midnight show, so the people have a chance to medicate themselves with alcohol. The room holds 750—Harrahs, Lake Tahoe, one of the most beautiful rooms in the world. And a woman’s voice shouted out, “I hate those shoes!” And because of the way I think—which is not to challenge, not to beat up the person but to understand what the person has just said and to remain linear—I said, “Madame, you are very, very fortunate, because these shoes will not be performing.” And, man, I never heard from her again.

Were you ever tempted to work as a blue act?
Sure. There was a time when Richard Pryor’s popularity kicked in strong, and there really was a feeling from me—not that I wanted to use profanity—but it just seemed like this was due to Richard’s sales and the publicity. . . . Hey man, it’s a matter of sort of “keeping up with the Pryors.” I was at the Las Vegas Hilton, and it had been on my mind for some time. But I had rejected it because I just always felt I didn’t want it. That particular night I went into a story about my father, and I gave my father the profanity while addressing me. I think I did it for about two or three minutes, which is a long time. The next day, Barron Hilton called the owner of the hotel in Las Vegas. Barron never bothered me, and I was drawing strong, so . . . He said, “Bill, I just want you to read something. And you just do what you want with it.” It was a letter from six nuns who had seen that show. And they very nicely said that they were disappointed that a fellow they felt comfortable with had disappointed them with the use of the profanity. They didn’t ask for their money back, they didn’t say they walked out, but they just felt that they respected this fellow, Mr. Cosby, so much and he really and truly did not need to go in the direction of this, the [foul] language was unnecessary. Then they wished me the best. That was the day . . . that was it. I wasn’t too happy anyway, so the letter just helped close the book on that. And for my not embracing it [working blue], I have been able to turn over volumes of thoughts and write about them and turn them into modernist routines.

When “I Spy” came out, there was a fear that some network affiliate stations wouldn’t carry the show.
It wasn’t only a fear, it was a reality. Television, in those days, people blamed everything on the South. But they were using the South as a reasonable excuse to do what they wanted with their racist thoughts. The beauty of “I Spy” was that even though there were some stations that had people threatening to pull their commercials because of the presence of this actor—this black man—it didn’t have much strength. But I would not be surprised that there were some stations that did put on something else.

How did your life change after the success of “I Spy”?
NBC allowed me to have my own show, “Chet Kincaid,” which lasted two years. Then I had one-hour variety shows with my variety specials, so the change was just tremendous, the acceptance. I think in 1971, I had four LPs on Billboard’s charts. I had four comedy albums in the Top 10 because radio stations were playing them then. So there you can see the strength, the popularity.

Was there any subject matter you wanted to cover on “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” but didn’t feel comfortable approaching?
No, and when you look at the box set of Fat Albert shows, you just look at the titles and see how far ahead that show still is on subject matter.

Which of your television shows had the greatest impact on society?
If you play “Chet Kincaid,” there’s a ton of stuff there, a ton. If you play “I Spy,” you look at it. But people keep saying that I’m the Jackie Robinson of television. And I always say to them, “Well, if I’m the Jackie Robinson, then Robert Culp must have been the Pee Wee Reese and the Eddie Stanky [Robinson's teammates].” We went all around. We went to Mexico, we brought Mexican people into your living room. We brought Japanese, Chinese, and Korean people into your living room because we traveled around the world. We brought Greek people, Italian people into your living room, Spanish people into your living room, English people. So, “I Spy” just wasn’t a black man and a white man, it was all around the world. &


Dead Folks 2010: Television

Dead Folks 2010: Television


Tom Bosley (click for larger version)
January 20, 2011

Tom Bosley (83)
Actor Tom Bosley, best known as the patriarch of the Cunningham clan on television’s “Happy Days” beginning in 1974 and as the title character in “The Father Dowling Mysteries,” was a portly fellow with a warm stage persona. A Chicago native, in 1950 he opted for the stages of New York City instead of going to Los Angeles to launch his acting career, because he feared he was too short and fat to make it on the big screen. His first major role was on Broadway as populist New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia in the production Fiorello! He also appeared in dozens of popular television shows, including “Get Smart,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Bonanza,” and “Bewitched.” In 2004, Bosley made the Top Ten on TV Guide’s list of the most popular television fathers. In an interview with the publication, he recalled a hilarious anecdote from his earliest days on stage. He had a small role in a play that included Shelley Berman and Geraldine Page, and was busy going over his lines backstage on opening night when he became confused and walked on stage too soon. Page turned to Bosley and said, “Do you mind? We’re doing a play here.”—Ed Reynolds

Stephen J. Cannell (69)
His last name rhymes with “channel,” which is appropriate, because it would have been difficult, from the early 1970s until the mid-1990s, to scan cable or broadcast television without running across a crime drama produced, created, or written by Cannell. His output is daunting: 450 full scripts, production of 1,500 episodes, and about 40 TV series creations or co-creations. He formed his own production company in 1979; in 1986 the prolific writer and producer boasted six shows in prime time on two different networks that year. “The Rockford Files” was the gold standard for smart dialogue and superb ensemble casting. “The A Team” was that mystifying phenomenon in which a stunningly bad, cheaply executed carnival attraction becomes a prime-time success.

Working for Universal and NBC during the 1970s, Cannell knocked out scripts for “Adam-12,” “Ironside, “Baretta,” and “Columbo,” for which he was paid the minimum Writers Guild fee. Thanks to a stipulation in his contract with Universal, however, Cannell could earn a small fortune writing pilot episodes for new series. Along with being a lucrative arrangement, his work in scripting pilots had him consistently thinking in terms of “the new.” Very soon he was simply creating shows from the ground up. “The Rockford Files”, “Wiseguy,” “Silk Stalkings,” “21 Jump Street,” and “The A Team” were among his most successful endeavors.

Although his colleagues (“Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law” creator Steven Bochco; “The Sopranos” creator David Chase) reference Cannell’s clever dialogue and prolificity, the most truly remarkable aspect of his career is that he suffered from a serious case of dyslexia. Indeed, Cannell’s personal history was the payoff to one of Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story” entries; television’s most prolific and gifted crime-drama writer struggled daily to spell and read. He was obviously more befuddled than troubled by his condition; that’s him with a twinkle in his eye at the conclusion of each of his shows, tearing a sheet from his old IBM typewriter and tossing it into the air just before the page morphs into a logo for Stephen J. Cannell Productions.—David Pelfrey

Dixie Carter (click for larger version)

Dixie Carter (70)
A former daytime soap opera actress and stage and cabaret performer, Dixie Carter achieved prominence as one of the four stars of hit TV series “Designing Women.” Her character on the show was an outspoken liberal, offering monologues from that point of view. In real life, however, Carter was a conservative who disagreed with her character’s commentaries. As a result, she made a deal with the producers that she would be allowed to sing a song in a future episode for each liberal diatribe she was forced to deliver. As have several other celebrities, Carter confessed to maintaining an appearance that belied her age by using human growth hormone, known for its anti-aging properties, as well as plastic surgery.—ER

Gary Coleman (42)
A diminutive fellow with a perpetually childlike face that made it difficult for him to find acting jobs later in life, Gary Coleman’s adult life was the typical nightmare that many child stars endure. He suffered from congenital kidney disease, which stunted his height at four feet, eight inches. He underwent two unsuccessful kidney transplants by age 14 and was forced to undergo daily dialysis for the rest of his life.

He was 10 when he landed the role of Arnold Jackson on the TV sit-com “Diff’rent Strokes” in 1978 after having been spotted in TV commercials as a 7-year-old by a talent scout for TV producer Norman Lear. Coleman costarred with troubled child actors Todd Bridges and Dana Plato on the show. (Bridges later served time on drug and weapons charges, and reportedly physically bullied Coleman on the set. Plato died of a drug overdose at age 34 in 1999.) The show was about two black brothers adopted by a white Manhattan millionaire after their mother, employed as a housekeeper by the millionaire, passed away. Plato played their adopted white sister. Coleman’s famous catchphrase was repeatedly asking his TV brother, “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” The show was so popular that former First Lady Nancy Reagan appeared in a cameo to make an antidrug pitch. “Diff’rent Strokes” was canceled in 1986. At that time, Coleman was 18 and reportedly worth $18 million. He soon discovered that he had been cheated out of millions and successfully sued his parents and business advisor in 1989 for mishandling his finances when he was earning $100,000 per episode. He was awarded $1.3 million. By 1999 he filed for bankruptcy, and his life further unraveled as he became increasingly bitter.

Desperate for money, Coleman appeared on a celebrity dating show, worked as a corporate pitchman, and wrote an online advice column. He was eventually forced to take menial jobs. In 1999, he was working at a Los Angeles mall as a security guard. A woman asked for his autograph, whereupon Coleman became outraged and struck her. He pleaded no contest to battery. In 2003, he sought the office of governor of California, finishing eighth, just behind Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. In a frantic grab for a quick payday, Coleman sought public resolution of his 2007 marriage on the TV show “Divorce Court” a year later.—ER

Robert Culp (79)
During the film and TV spy-thriller craze of the 1960s, the James Bond franchise filled theaters, and programs such as “The Avengers,” “Get Smart,” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” dominated television. A familiar face among television’s international men of mystery was Culp’s character Kelly Robinson, a secret agent masquerading as a tennis player, resolving matters of espionage with his partner, Alexander Scott, who posed as his trainer. Scott was played by Bill Cosby, which made “I Spy” the first American TV series starring a black actor. When Culp learned that Cosby was to be cast as his co-star, he balked at the notion—not because Cosby was black (Culp was a civil rights activist, after all) but because he wondered how audiences would respond to a nightclub comedian playing a spy. Because both actors at the time exuded a kind of debonair cool, it was never an issue.

Robert Culp (click for larger version)

With a glint in his eye and barely smirking, square-jawed features, Culp was a natural as the charming, smarter-than-average playboy, whether on screen in the 1969 sexual mores comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, or in real life at the Playboy Mansion’s poker tables, where Culp held court with his own carefully chosen league of distinguished cads and close friend Hugh Hefner.

In spite of his naturally appealing demeanor (or maybe because of it), Culp often cleverly chose roles in which he could reveal—and revel in—the dark side of the charm offensive. As a corrupt city official, conniving murderer, or all-around jerk, he displayed a casual air of superiority, privilege, and calm exasperation with the fools he was forced to suffer, most notably in three different roles as a suspect in the TV series “Columbo.”—DP

Phil Gordon (94)
Who got the hicks sounding so authentic on “Green Acres”? Give some credit to Alabama’s own Phil Gordon, who—in addition to acting in several episodes—was also the show’s occasional dialogue coach. The Mississippi native was also a recurring presence on “Petticoat Junction” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The latter show had Gordon appearing as traveling salesman Jazzbo Depew, who became the first character in TV history to invoke the mythical name of Hooterville. All this was in the aftermath of the jazz musican’s frequent work with TV pioneer Jack Webb, who cast Gordon in both -30- and The Last Time I Saw Archie—both truly classic films that remain unavailable on DVD. CBS later decided to purge itself of all its popular cornpone comedies, and Gordon left Los Angeles for Mobile—where he passed away in June.—JR Taylor

Edward Kean (click for larger version)

Edward Kean (85)
He had a brief showbiz career, with his main writing and production credit beginning in 1947 with the pioneering TV kiddie hit “The Howdy Doody Show.” That was also when Kean began his career as a songwriter. First, he used the popular tune “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-Dee-Ay” for the theme song of “It’s Howdy Doody Time.” People of a certain age can still recite the lyrics by heart, and he lived to see the song used on the big screen for both 2008′s Revolutionary Road and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Kean managed a few more important milestones while writing more than 2,000 episodes of the daily TV show. Howdy Doody, for example, became the first TV character to campaign to become president of the United States. More enduringly, Kean came up with the character of Chief Thunderthud, whose greeting to the kiddies was originally spelled as “kowabunga.” The phrase is now commonly spelled “cowabunga,” of course, and has gone from surfer rallying cry to part of the American language—freshly renewed in the 1980s by both Bart Simpson and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.—JRT

Art Linkletter (click for larger version)

Art Linkletter (97) was a fixture of daytime television during the 1950s and ’60s, having pioneered unrehearsed audience-participation talk shows on radio and at the dawn of television. The most popular incarnation of this spontaneous format was “House Party” (1952–70), an anything-goes (but resolutely family friendly) program for which there were no scripts. During the “Kids Say the Darndest Things” segment of his show, Linkletter interviewed school-age children, eliciting candid responses (read: unvarnished truth about Mom and Dad) and consequently mining a rich vein of TV gold. The segment quickly emerged as a Linkletter trademark, fostering a series of best-selling books and decades later providing a forum for Bill Cosby. Linkletter was generally associated with kids, having invested in the Hula Hoop, acting as the spokesman for Milton Bradley (that’s Linkletter’s face on The Game of Life’s $100,000 bill), and famously hosting the grand opening of Disneyland in 1955.—DP

Dead Folks 2010: Music

Dead Folks 2010: Music

Solomon Burke (click for larger version)
January 20, 2011

Solomon Burke (70)
“King Solomon” was many things, but shy wasn’t one of them. A massive man, he performed sitting on a throne with a scepter and robe (before James Brown used the latter). Ordained a minister at age 12, he grew up performing gospel music and was recording it, as well as R&B, in his teens. But because R&B was anathema in church, he coined the phrase “soul singer” to describe himself, thus naming a genre he helped define with hits like “Cry to Me” (1962; covered by the Rolling Stones), “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” (1964; covered by the Stones and the Blues Brothers) and “Got to Get You Off My Mind” (1965). Interestingly, his early 1960s recordings were mostly country, and these influenced Ray Charles to go in a similar direction. In fact, Burke’s “Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)” (1961) led to his accidental booking to sing at Ku Klux Klan events by a promoter who didn’t realize he was African American. Burke recalled: “They called the doctor and had him cover my face in bandages and made it look like I had an accident,” and the show went on. He recorded more than 30 albums, acted in The Big Easy, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame in 2001. The man also knew how to hustle: between sets at the Apollo Theater, he would sell food backstage, and he owned a chain of funeral parlors and other businesses (as he fathered at least 21 children, this may be understandable). He also headed Solomon’s Temple: The House of God for All People, a denomination with 40,000 parishioners in almost 200 churches across North America and Jamaica.—Bart Grooms

Captain Beefheart (69)
Once you’ve heard Beefheart, it’s hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood.—Tom Waits

Musicians are often the most eccentric of artists: Little Richard, Sun Ra, David Byrne, George Clinton, Tom Waits. But let’s be honest; the truly insane engineer on the crazy train to Wig City, or the mad pilot flying music’s mystery plane to an even madder planet—that would be Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart.

Musically, Beefheart is a godfather to Guided By Voices, Public Image Ltd, Pere Ubu, Gang of Four, Sonic Youth, The Fall, P.J. Harvey, Tom Waits, and The Flaming Lips, among numerous others. Culturally, he is an underground patron saint for anyone who marches to the beat of his or her own drum. Actually, make that an invisible drum on which tribal spirits pound out the obscure rhythms of a lost, psychotic civilization whose ghosts haunted Beefheart’s desert home. His unique sound was all of that, plus earth-shattering electric guitar riffs, wild vocals, and other cool stuff you might hear along the Mississippi delta, or at a club where John Coltrane is playing, or on Venus. In many instances the voice was the thing. If Howling Wolf is at one end of the spectrum, and Tom Waits is at the opposite end, we find Captain Beefheart at dead center, growling into a withering microphone, fitfully making indecipherable gesticulations while staring vacantly at a stunned audience.

Captain Beefheart (click for larger version)

Sometimes the more indulgent and experimental aspects of certain Beefheart recordings resulted in wholly off-putting abstraction and cacophony. In other words, the hype and lore concerning Trout Mask Replica, the third album by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, remains a mystery. It is a genuinely awful record that, although revealing the possibilities of music to generations of artists, rarely offers listeners the possibility of a pleasant experience.

On the other hand, Beefheart could corral his instincts for surreal, avant-garde composition toward challenging but truly appealing songs filled with invention, lyricism, and surprise. In that respect, Clear Spot is essential listening. As for what makes his music so forcefully compelling, mesmerizing, or confounding (often all at once) words tend to fail. But words never failed Beefheart. Despite the surface appearance of abstraction and play, the facts and logic in his writing are fundamentally sound. “Magnet draw day from dark, sun zoom spark,” sounds like pure, fanciful imagination, unless you consider how light energy is affected by the electromagnetic force. A perverse sense of humor lies at the core of his lyrics, and the joke is in his saying something nonsensical that eventually establishes its own perfect logic: “The moon showed up and it started to show,” or “my head is my only house unless it rains.”

There’s something deeply satisfying about the fact that language can even do that, yet it’s doubtful that Beefheart could communicate in any other way. Appearances on talk shows and radio interviews, throughout his life but especially in later years, suggested that his weirdness was no mere persona, but perhaps a condition best explained by new advances in cognitive science. Put another way, the syntax and semantics of his everyday language did not differ greatly from those of his charmingly baffling lyrics. Poet and blues singer, desert mystic, underground pop star, or bipolar/autistic genius? The jury is still out.—David Pelfrey

Fred Carter Jr. (76)
Fred Carter will be remembered for his guitar work with Dale Hawkins, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Levon Helm, among many others. A former guitarist with Roy Orbison and Conway Twitty when the latter was playing rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s before becoming a country star, Carter became an in-demand studio musician heard on classic recordings such as Marty Robbins “El Paso,” Bob Dylan’s album Self Portrait, and Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” on which he contributed four guitars, including the finger-picking guitar lines that open and conclude the tune. He was personally responsible for attracting such diverse acts as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Band, Neil Young, and others to Nashville for recording. He also was The Band guitarist Robbie Robertson’s guitar mentor when Carter was touring with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, for whom Robertson was playing bass.—Ed Reynolds

Hank Cochran (click for larger version)

Hank Cochran (74)
Songwriter Hank Cochran wrote Patsy Cline’s first number one hit, “I Fall to Pieces”—the song often referenced as the common thread that attracted a diverse group of people to eventually embrace country music. He followed that up with Cline’s 1962 smash, “She’s Got You.” The songwriter’s early showbiz career included a band with rockabilly legend Eddie Cochran (no relation) in 1954 called the Cochran Brothers, a duo that often opened for country singer Lefty Frizell. In 1965, Eddy Arnold scored a Billboard hit with what many consider to be Cochran’s signature tune, “Make the World Go Away,” a song that Cochran wrote in a mere 15 minutes.—ER

Ronnie James Dio (68)
He had become a joke for many things, including suing a band called Dios. Ronnie James Dio also once threatened an Atlanta rock critic with a curse that would lead to an ear infection. In his defense, though, Dio never really tried to claim credit for inventing heavy metal’s notorious “sign of the horns” hand gesture.

Ronnie James Dio (click for larger version)

He was a legitimate rock god who could put on a great show far into his sixties. That was as a solo act, although Dio was mostly loved for his long stint with Black Sabbath. He couldn’t be part of the proper band anymore for legal reasons, but he occasionally reunited with his old bandmates as Heaven & Hell—which was also the name of the group’s best album with Dio.

The New Hampshire native also provided vital vocals for Elf and Rainbow over the course of his very long career. Dio’s solo work pretty much defined melodic metal, often in service to Satan. He would have been pleased to know that notorious homophobe Rev. Fred Phelps held a rally after his death to condemn the rock star. He would have been less pleased to have so many glowing obituaries written for him by rock writers who never bothered to see him in concert. (68, stomach cancer)—JR Taylor

Eddie Fisher (89)
MAD magazine used to run a regular feature called “The Mad Library of Extremely Thin Books.” It included Songs I’ve Sung On-Key by Eddie Fisher. The reliably bland Fisher was one of the recording industry’s biggest teen idols at the start of the 1950s. His run of hits between 1950 and 1956 included “Lady of Spain,” “Oh! My Pa-pa,” and “Dungaree Doll.” The Beatles would have probably killed his career, but Fisher managed to wreck his own success in spectacular fashion. It was a major scandal when he left wife Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor in 1959. His popular TV show was canceled, and he was dropped from his record label.

Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher (click for larger version)


Taylor showed some support by giving him a role in her 1960 film Butterfield 8, but by 1964 the couple was divorced. Fisher went on to marry Connie Stevens. He kept working and even managed some chart hits though 1967. After that, he was strictly a lounge act for the oldies crowd. His celebrity offspring include Joely Fisher (with Stevens) and Carrie Fisher (with Reynolds). The latter, of course, became an outspoken novelist who did a lot to make Fisher notorious as a lousy father. Fisher responded by embarrassing Carrie with his own private and lascivious details in his 1999 autobiography Been There, Done That.—JRT

Dale Hawkins (click for larger version)

Dale Hawkins (73)
A lot of people probably thought Dale Hawkins was already dead. His pioneering swamp-rock is certainly—and appropriately—the kind of primordial genius that makes you believe the songs never had a human creator. The Louisiana native first mixed his local influences and admiration for Elvis to create 1957′s “Susie Q.” (Guitarist James Burton provided the vital riff that would lead to the guitarist working with Ricky Nelson and then Elvis.) Hawkins kept recording, but things really took off for him in 1968. That’s when Creedence Clearwater Revival performed an epic cover of his early classic.

The song had already been done by the Rolling Stones and Johnny Rivers, but CCR scored the (edited) radio smash that turned Hawkins from a one-hit wonder to an important early pioneer. By then, he had become a popular record producer, sounding mod while helming hits like the Five Americans’ 1967 song “Western Union.”

Hawkins worked through some drug problems and began a proper comeback with 1999′s Wildcat Tamer. It was his first album of original material in 30 years. He put on great live shows and made a few more strong albums, ending on a high note in 2007 with Back Down to Louisiana. It was always depressing to realize Hawkins was only a few years younger than Elvis Presley would have been.—JRT

Bobby Hebb (click for larger version)

Bobby Hebb (72)
Hebb was from Nashville, where he played in Roy Acuff’s band and with other country musicians (rare for a black musician at that time). Hank Williams gave him songwriting advice. Then he cut some R&B in New Orleans, backed by Dr. John and James Booker. His huge 1966 hit “Sunny” (which he wrote, and which featured backing vocals by his friends Melba Moore, Nick Ashford, and Valerie Simpson) led to a tour with the Beatles, to whom he suggested that his friend Billy Preston might be a good piano player (Preston played organ and piano on several Beatles hits). “Sunny” has the number 25 position on BMI’s Top 100 Songs of the Century, and has been covered by Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra with Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, the Four Tops, James Brown, and 500 or so others.—BG

Lena Horne (click for larger version)


Lena Horne (92)
Joining the Cotton Club as a chorus line singer at age 16 in 1933, Lena Horne eventually found her rising Hollywood career stalled after she was blacklisted during the Red Scare of the 1950s. She was forced to return to the nightclub circuit as a result. A high-profile civil rights activist, Horne refused to appear before whites-only audiences while doing USO shows during World War II, and she once stormed offstage when she performed in a mess hall where German POWs had been seated in front of black American soldiers.

Janet Jackson had been chosen to portray Horne in a TV movie about her life, but after Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl, Horne requested that Jackson be dropped from the role. Horne tolerated performing for white audiences and was known to curse them beneath her breath as she took her bows to thundering white applause, according to her biographer. Most of her film appearances featured her as a singer in an evening gown leaning against a pillar as she sang, an image that became her on-screen trademark. In her 1965 autobiography Lena, she wrote: “They [Hollywoood] didn’t make me into a maid, but they didn’t make me into anything else either. I became a butterfly pinned to a column singing away in Movieland.” The reason she usually appeared in cameos in films as a singer was so that her scenes could be edited out when the movies were shown in the South, where Jim Crow laws stipulated that blacks not be depicted as other than a lower class.—ER

Marvin Isley (56)
The youngest of the Isley brothers, Marvin joined the band as bassist in 1969 and was a part of their 1970s success (“That Lady,” “Fight the Power”). The younger brothers and in-law Chris Jasper performed as Isley-Jasper-Isley (“Caravan of Love,” 1985) for most of the 1980s; Marvin returned to the Isleys proper from 1991 to 1997, after which he was sidelined by diabetes. He and the other Isleys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.—BG

Abbey Lincoln (click for larger version)


Abbey Lincoln (80)
Born Anna Marie Wooldridge, Lincoln was accomplished as an actress, jazz vocalist, and songwriter. A striking beauty, she was made for the big screen, and her films include The Girl Can’t Help It, Nothing But a Man, For Love of Ivy,and Mo’ Better Blues. Influenced by Billie Holiday as a singer, she recorded more than 20 albums with some of the best players in the business (Benny Carter, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Stan Getz) and for a time was married to drummer Max Roach. Lincoln’s delivery was striking—she projected with power in a speechlike, dramatic manner that was instantly recognizable; Cassandra Wilson and Lizz Wright name her as a major influence. Though unusual for a jazz vocalist (especially for a woman in that sector of the recording business), Lincoln came to write much of her repertoire, especially over the last 20 years.—BG

Teena Marie (54)
Berry Gordy’s Motown label had a tradition of banning artists—both black and white—from their own album covers if the color of their skin didn’t match the music. Teena Marie scored that questionable honor with her 1979 debut. Wild and Peaceful established her as a protégé of Rick James, who first met her in the Motown label’s headquarters. Then at the peak of his powers, the funk-rock genius—and future crackhead—scuttled a planned album with Diana Ross to work with the 20-year-old newcomer. Their duet on “I’m a Sucker for Your Love” was a hit. Marie followed up with a sophomore album that lacked James’ imprint but made her an international success.

Teena Marie (click for larger version)

Her next two albums showed the multi-instrumentalist taking control of her own career. Typically, this led to friction with Gordy. Marie ended up successfully suing Motown after he refused to release her fifth album. She ended up on the Epic label in 1984, and spent the rest of the decade plying a likable mix of funk, rock, dance, and pop. She wisely took a break at the start of the 1990s, and during her absence was widely sampled. her ballads for both labels were also rediscovered as part of a Slow Jams revival.

She couldn’t get signed to a major label that decade, but began a proper comeback with La Doña (2004). Congo Square (2009) showed impressive sales on the R&B charts, even as Marie began to experiment more with jazz. It was a shock when she was found dead by her daughter on December 26. She still lived pretty long, considering her early association with a psycho like James. Marie was smart not to marry the guy after they were briefly engaged. Ike Turner also used to talk about hooking up with Marie for a new variant on an Ike & Teena Revue—another bullet dodged.—JRT

Teddy Pendergrass (click for larger version)

Teddy Pendergrass (59)
One of the most powerful (and sexiest) voices in R&B, Pendergrass became famous as lead singer with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes in the 1970s (“If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” “The Love I Lost”) before leaving the group to start a successful solo career that included five platinum albums). He was competing with Marvin Gaye in popularity when in 1982 he suffered a spinal cord injury when his brakes failed and his Rolls-Royce crashed; he was paralyzed from the waist down. He continued to record, but apart from a few brief appearances, it was 20 years before he was able to do shows again.—BG

Billy Taylor (89)
Jazz has not had a better spokesman than Dr. Billy Taylor, and not many better musicians. A brilliant pianist (his mentor was Art Tatum) whose focus on harmony influenced numerous players in the 1950s, he played first with Ben Webster and then as the house pianist at the legendary club Birdland with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. He was music director of The Subject Is Jazz (1985; the first TV show about the music), was the first black leader of a talk show band (David Frost, 1969–72) and was an engaging, always articulate authority on jazz, whether hosting NPR’s Jazz Alive or appearing on CBS Sunday Morning for two decades.

A tireless advocate for what he called “America’s classical music,” Taylor founded the Jazzmobile in 1964, which began as a series of free concerts “where he basically dressed up a beer float that drove through Harlem and carried musicians who blew bebop at passersby” (Matt Rand) and now embraces two festivals and several workshops and symposia. Among his hundreds of compositions is “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” covered by Nina Simone in 1967, and more recently by Derek Trucks and Levon Helm. “I think of myself in some ways as an urban griot,” Taylor said, “because the griot was someone who was a minstrel; he was a teacher, a healer, kind of a part of the collective memory of the people that he related to and served.”—BG

Dead Folks 2010: Innovators, Sportsmen, and Politics

Dead Folks 2010: Innovators, Sportsmen, and Politics


January 20, 2011

Inventors and Innovators

Fran Lee (99)
A fiery consumer advocate responsible for New York City’s adoption of pooper-scooper laws in 1978, Fran Lee initially opposed the ordinance, believing it to be too lenient as she denounced notions of dogs being allowed to desecrate the city. Though dog waste may be her claim to fame, Lee appeared on local and national radio and TV programming from the 1940s through the 1990s, playing characters such as Mrs. Fix-It, Mrs. Consumer, and Granny Fanny as she doled out consumer tips. She once appeared on “The Steve Allen Show,” and she taught Allen how to make a bikini from a tattered sweater. She acted in off-Broadway plays and had a small role as a Macy’s customer in Miracle on 34th Street.

After immersing herself in public health and safety issues, she went all out. Her son told the New York Times: “She had the elevator man in each of her buildings bring her all the medical journals that were being thrown out by the doctors in the building. So she had files on spider bites, ticks, all sorts of diseases.” He added that he could overhear his mother—a staunch atheist—talking to herself in her final years, when she would mutter, “God, when I get to see you, am I going to tell you a thing or two.”—ER

Fred Morrison (90)
Visit the beach in Santa Monica, California, on any given afternoon, and more than likely you will see Frisbees being tossed. That’s fitting, because the flying disc’s inventor was selling “Flyin’ Cake Pans” there before eventually creating a plastic version known as “Flyin-Saucer” with investor Warren Franscioni in the late 1940s. A former World War II fighter pilot, Morrison was determined to improve the disc’s aerodynamic qualities, which he did after parting ways with Franscioni. Specifically noted in Morrison’s U.S. patent is the outer third of the disc, known as the “Morrison Slope.” By the mid-1950s Morrison’s new and improved version, “The Pluto Platter,” caught the attention of entrepreneurs at Wham-O, the toy company responsible for the Hula Hoop, the Super Ball, and other iconic toys. Ed Headrick, (later owner of the Disc Golf Association), further improved the design by adding stabilizing concentric rings at the disc’s edge (known as the “Rings of Headrick”). The new name was coined when Wham-O reps learned that college kids in New England referred to the Pluto Platters as “Frisbies” after the Frisbie Pie Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut. That company’s cake pans were already being used as makeshift toys. The Wham-O legal counsel naturally insisted on altering the spelling to “Frisbee.”

The whole process, instigated by Morrison’s idea to capitalize on the era’s flying saucer craze, made him a millionaire. He wasn’t the only one who got rich. Before selling the name and design for Frisbee to Mattell, Wham-O sold approximately 100 million discs.—DP

Elizabeth Post (click for larger version)




Elizabeth Post (89)
Is it proper to talk about the deceased while comforting a bereaved survivor? Are floral patterns appropriate to wear at a funeral? Is it okay to bring a date? You’ve missed your chance to ask Elizabeth Post, who succeeded her grandmother-in-law Emily Post as America’s leading expert on manners. She enjoyed a long career that included frequently revising the book Emily Post’s Etiquette. Elizabeth also kept a column under her own name that ran in Good Housekeeping for 25 years. Known as “Libby” to her pals, she had a notably relaxed notion about the etiquette industry. She mostly believed in respect and consideration as a way to bring people closer together. She was on the front lines of dealing with things like wedding showers for unwed mothers—so it’s pretty impressive she lived as long as she did.—JRT

Glenn Walters (85)
Many people can curse Glenn Walters as the inventor of cubicles. At the very least, he was a major figure behind the workplace innovation. Back in 1966, his vision was more about the concept of movable walls. Still, it was inevitable that his big idea would be turned into little boxes for office employees. Cubicles made a success of Walters, who started out as a salesman for the Herman Miller furniture company. He retired as the company’s president in 1982.

Walters might not have even noticed how his dehumanizing eight foot by eight foot enclosures (if you’re lucky) became a touchstone of Generation X revolt a decade later—and soon had hip corporations embracing an open office workplace as a fashionable option. You can still thank him for absurdist humor ranging from the “Dilbert” comic strip to the cult film Office Space. He should also get credit for that cute picture of a cubicle dolled up like a gingerbread house that someone emailed you last week.

This is also a good time to salute UAB employee David Gunnells, who was the winner of Wired magazine’s 2007 competition for America’s Saddest Cubicle. Revenge is yours, sir.—JRT

Morrie Yohai (click for larger version)

Morrie Yohai (89)
You might think of them as a trashy Southern tradition, but Cheez Doodles—marketed under the Wise Foods banner in the mid-1960s—originated in the Bronx under the eye of Morrie Yohai. His company was later absorbed by Borden, who promptly moved the product to their affiliate’s potato chip division. The cheese-flavored corn snack was a Cheetos knock-off, but the Cheez Doodles brand has continued to prosper. Yohai did pretty well for himself, going on to work with Borden’s snack food division on (the predominantly East Coast–preferred) Drake’s Cakes and (the universally beloved) Cracker Jack. Yohai always insisted that the invention of Cheez Doodles was a group effort, but he conceded that he invented the name. He certainly embraced his proud heritage—passing away in the New York home that his wife of over 50 years described as “the house that Cheez Doodles bought.”—JRT


Alexander Haig (85)
A veteran of the the Korean and Vietnam Wars, former U.S. Army General Alexander Haig was perhaps best known for wrongly declaring himself to be in charge of the country in the immediate aftermath of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. It was the first of several controversial episodes that prompted Reagan to fire him after Haig was appointed Secretary of State. (He pronounced himself “the vicar of foreign policy” after accepting the post.) He took over H. R. Haldeman’s position as President Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff as Watergate began to unravel and is widely credited with keeping the government functioning during Nixon’s final days.

Alexander Haig (click for larger version)

Noted for his staunch anticommunist posture, Haig readily admitted to feeling that way at a young age in a 2000 interview with Fox’s James Rosen: “I started out as a Cold Warrior, even my last years in grade school. I used to read everything I could get on communism. In fact, the first paper I wrote as a plebe at West Point caused a major upheaval in the faculty, because I predicted that our next enemy was the Soviet Union. . . . It was during the war [World War II], when we were allies. . . . I was viewed with some suspicion by the social sciences department.” Later in the interview, he knocked his old boss Reagan: “There ain’t anybody else in America that I know that has quit three presidents—but I have. And I quit Ronald Reagan for exactly that reason. He’s sitting there, not knowing what the hell was going on, and he had [Deputy Chief of Staff Mike] Deaver and [Chief of Staff James] Baker and Mrs. Reagan running the government!”—ER

James Kilpatrick (89)
Like many Southerners before him, political writer and pundit James Kilpatrick finally realized that the racial discrimination he once championed was simply wrong. As the editor of the Richmond News Leader in the 1950s and ’60s, Kilpatrick was a fervent segregationist who in editorials espoused states’ rights and separation of the races. In 1963, he submitted an article to the Saturday Evening Post titled “The Hell He Is Equal,” writing that the “Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race.” The Post pulled the article out of sensitivity to the deaths of four young black girls in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. By the late ’60s, Kilpatrick began to repent.

James Kilpatrick (click for larger version)

Kilpatrick became a conservative political TV star for his in-your-face debating prowess on the CBS “60 Minutes” segment “Point-Counterpoint.” He verbally jousted with liberal opponents, the most memorable instances being snide exchanges between him and liberal Shana Alexander. Kilpatrick and his colleagues called their debates “a political form of professional wrestling.” The pair was parodied by Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd on “Saturday Night Live” during Weekend Update sketches.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy was a neighbor and friend of Kilpatrick’s. “The man is not locked into a mold. He’s not just the curmudgeon you see on TV,” McCarthy told The Washington Post in 1973, adding that Kilpatrick had “kind of a country manor style.”

My favorite things that Kilpatrick wrote were his weekly syndicated columns on grammar and word usage in the Birmingham News each Sunday. He mercilessly scolded, scoffed at, and corrected writers who committed grammatical sins in print. I was once inspired to send him an email praising him after he relentlessly shamed a writer for misusing the word “shimmy” when the scribe wrote of someone who “shimmied up a pole.” Kilpatrick admonished, correcting the mistake with the pointed barbs and verbal skill of a master swordsman when he informed that “shinny” is the correct verb to represent such an action. “Shimmy” is more correctly used to define the intense shaking in the front end of an automobile. I shared with Kilpatrick that I first heard the word “shimmy” used by my father to describe the intense vibrations from the engine of our 1967 Chevelle. The next morning, Kilpatrick had already responded, writing:

Dear Mr. Reynolds,

Many thanks for your note. We have a good deal in common. I’m 84. I learned to drive under my father’s tutelage in a Studebaker sedan, and thus learned all about shimmy. This was in 1934 or thereabouts. Great car, but—

You could do me a favor if sometime, when you’re thinking about my column, you could drop a note to the News editor saying you enjoy my pearls of wisdom. Nothing helps a columnist quite so much as a few letters from readers, writ by hand.

James J. Kilpatrick

I remain forever amused that a writer of Kilpatrick’s prominence asked me to dash off a note to the editor of a newspaper that ran his column to tell them what a great job Kilpatrick was doing.—ER


Don Meredith (click for larger version)

“Dandy Don” Meredith (72)
For nine seasons “Dandy Don” Meredith was quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, later making a name for himself as part of the original Monday Night Football broadcasting team. Meredith was commentator Howard Cosell’s comic foil for 12 years. His ever-present smile, effervescent personality, and down-home humor made him popular with viewers. One of his favorite quips was the night he was working a game in Denver. “Welcome to Mile High Stadium—and I really am,” he said.—Ed Reynolds

George Steinbrenner (80)
Noted for his demanding, outspoken demeanor, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was the first professional sports franchise owner to pay outrageously large salaries to players. Building a baseball dynasty second to none, Steinbrenner was renowned for firing and rehiring managers, with hothead Billy Martin taking five turns managing the team. The revolving door of personnel changes earned the Yankees the nickname “the Bronx Zoo.” During his college years, Steinbrenner flirted with coaching football and was an assistant coach to Woody Hayes at Ohio State the year the Buckeyes were the undefeated national champions. Before acquiring the Yankees in 1973, he dabbled in producing Broadway plays.—ER

Bobby Thomson (86)
Born in Scotland, Bobby Thomson moved to the United States at age two. His game-winning home run—known as “the shot heard ’round the world”—lifted the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers in a 1951 playoff game to secure the National League pennant. It was later confirmed that the 1951 Giants employed telescopes to steal the pitching signals that opposing catchers gave to pitchers.—ER

John Wooden (click for larger version)

John Wooden (99)
Known as the “Wizard of Westwood,” John Wooden is considered the greatest basketball coach in college history; his UCLA Bruins won 10 national championships in 12 years, including 7 in a row. No collegiate team dominated a sport the way UCLA did basketball with Wooden at the helm, spawning two of the greatest names to play the game: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. His teams were noted for their merciless full-court press on defense. Wooden always described his job as teacher, not coach. Abdul-Jabbar wrote in the New York Times in 2000, “He broke basketball down to its basic elements. . . . He always told us basketball was a simple game, but his ability to make the game simple was part of his genius.”—ER