Book Review Archives
Peavey Guitars: The Authorized American History
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- See more at: http://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2016/04/29/peavey-guitars-the-authorized-american-history#sthash.AdrcDBwL.dpuf
Originally published in Alabama Writers’ Forum on Jan. 11, 2016
By Rex Burwell
Livingston Press, 2015
$17.95, Paper; $30,Hardcover,
Reviewed by Ed Reynolds
With a title like Capone, the Cobbs, and Me, (and featuring photos of Al Capone, Ty Cobb, and Cobb’s drop-dead gorgeous wife Charlene on the cover), the reader is intrigued right off the bat. The story told within doesn’t disappoint, either. The “Me” hanging out with Capone, his thugs, and the Cobbs is a Chicago White Sox catcher named Mort Hart who quickly falls in love with Cobb’s wife. Hart is second in hitting percentage in the Roaring ’20s when a knee injury places him on the disabled list. Hart also happens to be the only major leaguer with a law degree. The ballplayer’s life suddenly catapults into spellbinding adventure when Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis needs someone special to investigate Capone’s fixing outcomes of ballgames using Cobb.
Author Rex Burwell spins a fictionalized tale based on a real-life major league catcher named Moe Berg, once described by baseball Hall of Famer Casey Stengel as “the strangest man ever to play baseball.” Berg was an average major leaguer who was a spy for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) during World War II and later for the CIA. Over the next 200 pages, the author takes readers on a surreal journey through baseball, gambling, organized crime, murder, and mayhem—with enough subtle descriptions of sex and violence to spice things up. Burwell also tosses in a few musical elements to make for a fascinatingly quick read.
Among the characters is Milton Mezzrow, a jazz clarinet player. Better known as “Mezz,” the musician is a bookkeeper at the Arrowhead Inn in Burnham, Illinois, a hotel owned by Capone where Mezz not only keeps two ledger accounts but also leads a house band called the Mezzophonics that features guest trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbek. In one memorable passage, Burwell shares Mezz’s description of the Mezzophonics as a “zebra band,” the first mixed-race band in history. “Black and white cats, Matts. And some hot guests with good chops too. You never seen a mixed-race band before, did you? And nobody else did either. This is history.”
Mezz is actually a white Jew who had decided years earlier to pass himself off as an African American, with the author referencing Mezz’s “perfect Negro hipster accent.” Burwell lets Mezz do the talking: “We got a real tight band,” says Mezz. “historic, like I told you, the dark and the light and the lightly toasted playing together so hot, Jack. You’ll hear it tonight. You can’t hear it anywhere else in the universe, nowhere but here, tonight.” Our hero Mort Hart elaborates on Mezz: “His metamorphosis from Jew to Negro with no change in complexion was a bold strike, not undertaken foolishly, but knowingly. Only white people thought Mezz a fool. Negroes took him as a brother who talked their language. I thought him crazy at first. Then I thought him courageous. One changes one’s mind.”
Dig it. Especially the Mob violence. Hart wanders into an icehouse loaded with meat while exercising his baseball-playing damaged knee, only to discover the dead husband of a woman who was sleeping with a Capone thug named Jimmy. “I walked in a few steps on the soft, wet sawdust, and lit and held up the cigarette lighter I always carried,” says Hart.” Behind hams and a side of beef hung a dead man wearing a hat, suspended by a noose and a hook. I got a good look at the waxy face. I never forgot the face.”
Burwell uses several references to indicate that Hart is telling his story in today’s world. Hence, the introduction of a pitcher named Dutch used by Detroit Tigers manager Ty Cobb to throw a ballgame for Capone. Hart notes, “My complete baseball record is available on the internet. I batted against Dutch eight times in the 1926 season and got only one hit—that after he’d hurt his arm and had nothing.” The fix was in because Dutch was forced to pitch though “Dutch’s arm was so sore that he couldn’t comb his hair, but Cobb started him anyway…. In the first inning, with two runners already on base, I batted against him for the eighth and last time that 1926 season. The first pitch Dutch threw was a nothing spitball—he had nothing. He was through as soon as he started. Even as I swung and knocked the ball on an arc to the wall, I felt a drop of his saliva fly up and hit my eye.”
In a strange twist, Hart becomes a spy for Kennesaw Mountain Landis as he also serves as legal advisor for Cobb and lusts after Cobb’s wife. Burwell writes in sexually flirtatious descriptions of our hero’s first introduction to Mrs. Ty Cobb during a blizzard: “At the hotel I met Charlene for the first time. She was outside in a bulky coat that could not hide her good figure. Without vanity, she was aware of her beauty…. She took off a glove and shook my hand. Women, ladies, did not offer a hand in those days, much less take off a glove…. She unbuttoned her fur. One does not often see such a beautiful figure. A man must take advantage of rare occasions. I could feel Cobb watching me look at her.”
Hart continues: “Charlene and I had been corresponding for months, exchanging typed, unsigned letters. I fell in love by mail…. Tucked in one of those letters had been a picture of her that I still have today. She wears a cloche with wings, like Liberty on the dime. In profile her upper lip pushes out…. Cobb made his first wife his ‘trophy wife,’ as they call it nowadays, and kept her thereafter above his mantelpiece with the boars’ heads.”
The musical passages are among the most memorable, historically speaking, especially when Capone is present. Referencing Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, Burwell writes: “Both musicians were Mezz’s friends. Beiderbecke happened to be living and drinking himself to death in a farmhouse somewhere in the area. This was not the first time he’d played with the Mezzophonics. He was the acknowledged best white jazz cornet player in the nation. Armstrong, of course, was simply the best, white or Negro…. After the show, the band members all ate where the Negroes ate, in the kitchen. Beiderbecke had five shots of free whiskey in three minutes, fell off his chair and had to be helped outside to puke. From here he was poured into the back seat of a car…. Mr. Capone joined us, stepping through the swinging doors, a Heavy on either side of him…. Vain Capone was adept at keeping people, especially photographers, from seeing his left profile with its two long, vivid scars. His wide-brimmed fedora was canted left. He carried his head toward his left shoulder. He wore high collars and often carried a handkerchief to hold his left cheek…. ‘Good music,’ he said to the musicians. ‘Good music, everybody.’”
As long as Mr. Capone is happy, I’m happy. Capone, the Cobbs, and Me is a hell of a novel. Jan. 2016
Ed Reynolds is a writer in Birmingham.
Father and Son
Golf king Tiger Woods and his father, Earl, recently whisked through Birmingham on April 20 and 21 to raise money for the Tiger Woods Foundation. Featured in the weekend festivities were the younger Woods’ phenomenal ability to charm golf balls and his dad’s uncanny mastery at charming his son’s legion of fans. Dwight Burgess of St. John’s AME Church had seen an article on the Tiger Woods Foundation, prompting him to make a 1999 call that resulted in the visit to Birmingham; one of only four cities on the Woods Foundation itinerary.
Reassuring smiles and words of encouragement from the golf legend greeted the awed stares of youngsters participating in the instructional clinic. Woods offered invaluable tips on adjusting stances, gripping clubs, and following through on swings. “There’s some serious talent out here,” observed Woods. “Kids today hit the ball farther than I did [at their age]. They’re younger, stronger, and more athletic.” Father Earl lounged nearby in a golf cart, posing for photos with lovely ladies and fielding occasional questions from bold reporters. After a few awkward seconds, the sometimes controversial Woods Sr. scoffed at suggestions that Tiger’s exposure to Buddhism (his mother is Buddhist) was responsible for his son’s unparalleled ability to concentrate under immense pressure. Instead, he said, the younger Woods learned self-hypnosis from a sports psychologist he saw for five years beginning at age 16.
Tiger and Earl Woods started the Tiger Woods Foundation four years ago to “make golf look more like America,” according to Tiger. Each year four cities are selected for the popular instructional and exhibition clinics. “We go to communities that haven’t been as enthusiastic about golf,” explained Tiger, emphasizing the importance of lingering in a city for a couple of days for greater impact on the community. “We don’t want to be a circus, where we just come in, do a clinic, and leave.” As for those kids battling nerves trying to hit a ball in his presence, he said, “I tell them no matter who’s watching, it’s just you and the ball. No one else can hit that shot for them.” Asked if he considered going back to finish his college degree at Stanford, Woods noted the difficulty in resuming studies. The former economics major hinted at a change in his field of study. “I’ll have to change majors. Maybe become a journalist,” Woods laughed to the throng of media gathered on the golf course between Highland and Clairmont Avenues. “Then I can just B.S. my way through.”
The afternoon before the clinic, Earl Woods, president of the Tiger Woods Foundation, addressed a two-thirds capacity audience at St. John’s AME Methodist Church in downtown Birmingham. Focusing on raising children and the importance of his son as a role model, Woods confessed, “I never raised him to be a golfer. I raised him to be a good person.” An engaging speaker, Woods sometimes wandered in melodramatic, even surreal, directions. He never failed to place Tiger on a monumental pedestal. “My son’s power dwarfs mine like a grain of sand in the Sahara Desert,” explained the elder Woods.
Back at the golf course, Tiger Woods made an entrance befitting that of a champion, motoring down the fairway from several hundred yards away to the strains of “Eye of the Tiger” as more than 3,000 shouting children and adults squinted for a glimpse of the world’s most famous athlete. Stepping from a golf cart, which had been flanked by two carts driven by bodyguards, Woods flashed his world-famous smile as he wowed starry-eyed patrons with his million-dollar golf swing. Putting on an impressive exhibition, he explained practice habits and the importance of becoming comfortable with gripping the club. Aiming for a 100-yard marker as he began hitting balls, Woods shook his head and questioned the marker’s distance. “That’s a long hundred. What did you do, measure it in meters?” He fielded questions from children, revealing that he wore red shirts during final rounds on Sundays because his mother told him his astrological charts said that red was his “power color.”
Woods ended the exhibition with a flourish. Bouncing the ball on his club just as he does in his now-famous Nike television commercial, Woods grabbed a second club and began performing the feat with two balls. Suddenly he tossed one iron aside and peered into the distance, still bouncing the ball as he apprehensively noted how narrow the fairway appeared. Woods promised to give the shot a try, regardless. And, of course, he whacked the ball in mid-air, it’s 200-yard flight a white blur that brought a collective sigh from the gallery. It was reality imitating television, with fine dramatic flair.
By Ed Reynolds
At Southern clubs in the late ’70s, bands played three sets a night, four nights a week. Most were dishing out versions of The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, and The Eagles, among other dinosaur acts. Meanwhile, a Birmingham actor from Sweden named Mats (pronounced “Mots”) Roden was studying theater at New York University when he attended a show at Irving Plaza — a performance by a campy rock combo from Athens, Georgia, called The B-52s. “It was a really mind-blowing for me because I realized that you didn’t have to be from New York to play the city,” he recalls. “I had been working for the Wooster Group [an experimental theater company] in New York with Willem Dafoe and Spalding Gray, so I was really serious about the theater in those days. But I was always torn between music and acting. So I called Matt [Kimbrell] a couple of days after The B-52s show, and we talked about me coming back to Birmingham to start a band called Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits.”
Roden, Matt Kimbrell, and Leif Bondarenko had been friends since high school while attending the Alabama School of Fine Arts (where Roden was legendary for wearing his bathrobe to class). As teens, Kimbrell and Bondarenko were already working as professional drummers at various highbrow cocktail lounges in Birmingham, Alabama. By 1979, Roden had returned to Alabama to form the Leisure Suits, where they rehearsed at his parents’ house, much to the consternation of neighbors (“just keep on playing that white trash rock/you can hear us practicing for blocks,” Kimbrell sings in “White Trash Rock”). They recruited local attorney Craig Izard (rhymes with “lizard”) as second guitarist and third songwriter. Jim Bob & The Leisure Suits soon began playing the same clubs that were booking cover bands four nights a week, though they concentrated on original songs with rearrangements of tasty covers of Franki Valli & The Four Seasons’ “Walk Like a Man,” a Ramones-style version of The Eagles “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” and a scorching “Burning Love” (featuring front man Kimbrell as a sensual but vulgar Elvis Presley, shaking his hips and caressing his body as he sang).
The band’s inaugural release was a five-song EP, 1980’s First Time, which reflected the Leisure Suits original vision: fast songs with a punk rock aesthetic, each clocking in at under three minutes. Though there was no college radio station in town to promote First Time, their unpredictable, energetic live shows created enough excitement to to earn them a following in Northern Alabama. The EP’s “White Trash Rock” best defined the Leisure Suits’ frustration seeking recognition outside of the South with the classic line: “They don’t make stars out of bar bands in Birmingham….” Eventually, the club scene in Birmingham evolved when venues such at The Nick and Old Town Music Hall began to focus on presenting a different act nightly. Birmingham groups such as The Mortals, The Invaders, and The Colas as well as The Rakes from nearby Auburn, began getting jobs playing original music. “What I think Jim Bob really did was tap into this underground scene,” says Mats Roden. “There was a wanting of new, original music in the scene. We were not going to do covers; Craig and I were totally opposed to doing covers, which Matt and Leif were not. So that caused a little friction in the band. I wanted it to be totally original.” In 1981, the Leisure Suits released a 45 rpm single, featuring “Panama City Bleach” and “This World Is Killing Me”. The single did not have the rapid- fire punk-rock ammo of First Time; rather the band’s sound had evolved into something slightly more sophisticated, especially the slow, introspective “This World Is Killing Me”. Continue reading
By Ed Reynolds
Gambling with a daring landing method, NASA plans to explore Mars with the largest, most sophisticated surface-roaming robot ever created.
Shortly after midnight on August 6, 2012, NASA will attempt another in a long history of successful outer- space engineering marvels. An unmanned spacecraft with the unsexy name of Mars Science Laboratory will complete its 8-month, 352 million mile, mission from Earth to Mars by setting a one-ton rover named Curiosity on the planet.
NASA has placed robots on Mars in the past, most notably the rovers Spirit and Opportunity in 2003 (Opportunity continues to function). Because neither of those rovers is bigger than a golf cart, large airbags were used to cushion the landings. Curiosity—which is as big as an automobile—will require a feat never attempted by the space agency, the lowering of a Mars rover using a rocket-equipped crane. Continue reading
By Ed Reynolds
On the corner of 18th Street North and Reverend Abraham Woods Jr. Blvd (aka Eighth Avenue North) in downtown Birmingham sits a white building loaded with antique radios and the various gadgets, technical manuals, and assorted spare parts necessary to keep the radios operating.
Overseen by a gang of electronics wizards, this shop is home to the Alabama Historical Radio Society (AHRS), which has an impressive collection of vintage radios including pre-World War II radios with immaculate wooden cabinets; futuristic-looking, colorful clock radios from the 1950s and ’60s; and an array of military and other short-wave equipment.
Established in 1989 by the late Don Kresge, a retired General Electric engineer, the society was organized for anyone interested in the vintage radio era, whether that involved simply listening to old broadcasts or the restoration of antique items by skilled hobbyists. Dave Cisco was one of the early AHRS members.
“I’ve been involved in radio since I was in fourth grade,” says Cisco, who, like many of the members, is a ham radio enthusiast. “[As a kid] I was starting to build some things. The neighbors would end up setting an old radio outside and I’d pick it up and start taking it apart to find out what was in it.” Continue reading
By Ed Reynolds
Dr. Frank “Doc” Adams, the last of the old guard of local jazz musicians who played with legends Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, and Erskine Hawkins, among others, has written a captivating memoir with writer Burgin Mathews entitled Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, by the University of Alabama Press. Adams is a brilliant story-teller, recounting life as a professional musician and musical instructor in segregated Alabama beginning in the 1950s. One of the first inductees into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, the 83-year-old musician will perform a free concert with the Birmingham Heritage Band on October 25 at 7 p.m. at the Bama Theatre in Tuscaloosa.
Adams was trained at Industrial High School [now known as Parker High School] under the tutelage of John T. “Fess” Whatley, whose discipline and devotion to musical professionalism made an early impression. The young Adams turned down an invitation in the early 1950s to tour with Count Basie’s orchestra, instead remaining in Birmingham to teach music at Lincoln Elementary. Adams’ family [his brother Oscar was the first black attorney to join the Birmingham Bar Association, as well the first black Alabama Supreme Court Justice] was somewhat prominent. His father published a newspaper, the Birmingham Reporter, in the early 1900s, and also wrote a column for more than 20 years for the Birmingham News entitled “What Negroes Are Doing.”
Black & White chatted with Dr. Adams in his office at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame on a recent October afternoon.
“I got a chance to [travel] around with my Dad. He was one of those dads that said, ‘Come on. Go with me, boy!’ And I’d go with him,” Adams recalled. “And I found out a lot of things about people. One was that people are more alike than they are different.”
Reflecting on the evolution of musical styles he’s played during his lifetime, Adams grabbed a sax next to his desk to demonstrate different variations on the melody “Tea for Two” during our interview. “The big bands were evolving. First, we had Dixieland,” he explained. “You had a trumpet, maybe a clarinet, maybe a bass and a guitar or mandolin or whatever you had. It was everybody for himself. The clarinet going one way, the bass going one way, the
trumpet going one way. That’s Dixieland. But when you start adding two or three saxophones, you had to have harmony. You had to read music. Everybody couldn’t play what
they wanted to play.”
As a young teen, Adams played sax with Alabama’s Sun Ra. “Sun Ra
was a known character in Birmingham. To some people he’d be frightening because nobody knew where he came from and nobody knew his parents,” said Adams, who
writes in his book that Sun Ra would warn Bull Connor’s henchmen that they would be “paralyzed” if they tried to harm him when the jazz maestro wore his colorful robes on
the street. “Sun Ra lived over by Terminal Station in a raggedy house. He was ‘flower power’ before ‘flower power.’ He was before Dr. King. He was defiant back in the 1930s when
nobody was thinking about civil rights. And he had this thing about where he was from—the Sun or the Moon. And his bands were terrific. He picked up people [to play] that were just unusual folk. They didn’t have the discipline [musically] . . . They never played a place like the Birmingham Country Club. They played little dives and stuff.”
Sun Ra asked Adams’ mother if her son could join his band. “One day he called my Mom, he wanted me to play in his Intergalactic Arkestra. My Mom just said, ‘OK.’ What it was about him was this mystique; He would look at you and say, ‘Well, do this.’ And you might say, ‘I can’t.’ And he would say, ‘You’ve already done it. It’s in your mind.’ Those weird things, you know? He would wear these clothes down on Fourth Avenue and everything. And people admired him for his band. He was just a weird guy. He could play Count Basie but he also had this other weird stuff he was playing. And he talked more than he would really practice.” &
Originally published in Black & White, Oct 18, 2012
By Ed Reynolds
It’s a strange world between midnight and sunrise when you make a living driving a taxi cab.
The taxi industry’s unofficial slogan makes a whole lot of common sense: It’s cheaper to pay for a cab ride than it is to get a DUI. God bless taxi drivers— they really do make the roads safer after dark, a
notion reinforced for me after riding with Yellow Cab taxi driver Rod Walker all night on a recent weekend.
Walker started driving a cab in November 2010. His full-time job had become part time, so he decided to drive a taxi to make up the difference in income. “I didn’t know how it worked or if I could make any money driving a cab but I thought it would be fun, so I gave it a try. Still doing it,” the 52-year-old Walker said at one o’clock on a recent Saturday morning as I rode shotgun with him to the Lakeview district. Here Walker waits for mostly intoxicated customers in search of rides as they depart the bars. Continue reading
At the 1970 Peach Bowl at Grant Field in Atlanta, the Selma High School Band waited to play the National Anthem. The stadium announcer shouted, “Ladies and gentlemen . . . Governor Lester Maddox!” It was an odd sight: the governor of Georgia in his trademark seersucker suit was sitting on the handlebars of a bicycle riding backwards around the entire football field as part of the pre-game ceremonies.
Thirty-two years later, at Roswell Street Baptist Church, hundreds of mourners stare at Maddox’s coffin, draped in an American flag and flanked by a bouquet of flowers with a Confederate battle flag centerpiece. Those in attendance are consoled by selections from Maddox’s 1971 album God, Family, and Country, a collection of hymns and ruminations on religion and patriotism by the former governor. A year earlier, Maddox had stipulated that the album be played at his memorial service, a predictable request from a man who never missed an opportunity to perform. Last summer, Maddox had been scheduled to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” during the city of Roswell’s Fourth of July celebration. Instead, the legendary segregationist whipped out his harmonica and blew a couple of verses of “Dixie.” Continue reading
By Ed Reynolds
The portrait of Eudora Welty beside her casket in the rotunda of Mississippi’s Old Capitol building offered quiet reassurement to the thousand or so mourners paying homage to the acclaimed writer. Welty’s inquisitive eyes—blue and round as the moon-—gazed thoughtfully at all who filed past her white-draped coffin on a rainy afternoon in Jackson. A modest but pretty arrangement of orange Montbretia from Welty’s garden offered an unpretentious symbol of her simple yet uncommon life. On the floor beside the coffin lay a single long-stem rose. High above, the walls of the rotunda balcony were adorned with samples of quilt patterns from 1850 to 1946, a fitting display that paralleled Welty’s embrace of everyday people in their attempts to extract meaning from mundane lives. Pattern names sounded not unlike metaphors from a Welty tale: “Drunkard’s Path,” “Russian Sunflowers,” and “Gentleman’s Bow Tie.” She was only the fourth person to lie in state at the Old Capitol.
Welty had written of the Old Capitol rotunda years before while reflecting on her passion for words and the sense of accomplishment derived from writing the perfect sentence: “I could see the achieved sentence finally standing there, as real, intact, and built to stay as the Mississippi State Capitol at the top of my street, where I could walk through it on my way to school and hear underfoot the echo of its marble floor and over me the bell of its rotunda.” Continue reading