Tag Archives: J.R. Taylor

Dead Folks 2006 (Part 7)

Dead Folks 2006 (Part 7)

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

January 26, 2006 Authors/Illustrators

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Arthur Miller

 

 

Arthur Miller

What was the difference between the McCarthy hearings and the Salem witch trials? There weren’t any witches in Salem. Ignore that, though, and maybe you can find some meaning in “The Crucible” and the other writings of Arthur Miller. He hadn’t written a successful play since 1968, but Miller’s passing was still celebrated as an important event. This wasn’t because he was an important playwright. It’s because all of today’s good leftist playwrights have to celebrate Miller for bringing his absurd politics into high schools all over America. Fellow playwright Harold Pinter even tried to pretend that Miller was some kind of blacklisted figure.

Miller’s own leftist contemporaries, unsurprisingly, never considered him to be of much importance. “Death of a Salesman” wasn’t bad, but it still can’t compete with anything by Rod Serling or Paddy Chayefsky. At least Miller could proudly claim to have married Marilyn Monroe—but that achievement was pretty much ruined in the wake of “After the Fall,” a stage chronicling the marriage that was a pioneering masterpiece in midlife self-absorption. It helps to bear in mind that Bebe Buell once attributed her lust for Elvis Costello to “Arthur Miller Syndrome.” His final play would be yet another rehashing of having sex with Marilyn, so at least Miller had an understanding of his ultimate place in pop culture. –J.R. Taylor

Stan Berenstain

Plenty of parents and former children became very nostalgic when Stan Berenstain passed away. His wife Jan had been his partner in almost 40 years of Berenstain Bears books, as the clan’s illustrated adventures showed kids how to clean around the house and get ready for trips to the dentist—along with weirder stuff, as the Berenstains began to address issues such as drug abuse over the decades. The Berenstain Bears also made the inevitable transition to animated adventures and a bigger world of merchandising. However, all of this was pretty baffling to kids who’d first stumbled across the Berenstains’ hilarious early work as chroniclers of suburban angst. Racy paperback collections such as Baby Makes Four suggest that they could have been Erma Bombeck for those parents who’d just missed living by the Playboy Philosophy. —J.R.T.

Ed McBain

Fans of detective novels and mysteries are familiar with the 50-odd novels in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. Fans of Hill Street Blues, Law & Order, Homicide, Police Story, and dozens of other television detective series are indirectly acquainted with McBain; his novels were the blueprints for a now well-established genre—the ensemble detective story. Ed McBain is a pseudonym, among others, for Evan Hunter, an amazingly successful mystery writer whose first novel was the controversial Blackboard Jungle. Based on Hunter’s experiences teaching at a vocational school in a rough urban environment, the book was adapted for a sensational motion picture starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. His screenplays for the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” television series led to Hunter’s screenplay for Hitchcock’s The Birds. —David Pelfrey

Frank Kelly Freas

Anyone who so much as passed by a bookstore or newsstand in the last 50 years has seen an illustration by Kelly Freas. That’s his work on the covers of countless Ballantine, Avon, Signet, or DAW publications. From 1957 to 1962 Freas drew many of those hilarious, but amazingly realistic, fake ads for MAD Magazine, and provided Alfred E. Neumann’s moronic visage for their covers. Freas’ regular gig was creating otherworldly illustrations for works by such science-fiction legends as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. The insanely prolific Freas earned 10 Hugo Awards for his work in the science fiction and fantasy field. He did real science, too; his illustrations for NASA missions hang in the Smithsonian. The cover illustration for the October, 1953, issue of Astounding Science Fiction (for whom Freas worked for 50 years) depicts a very troubled and puzzled giant robot holding a mortally wounded human in his hand. This legendary image became the album cover art for Queen’s News of the World. –D.P.

 


 

Inventors/Pioneers

Leo Sternbach

In the 1950s, pharmaceutical prospects for relieving anxiety were few: Barbiturates were highly addictive and easily overdosed on; “major tranquilizers” such as Thorazine had emptied mental hospitals but were instruments too blunt for everyday anxiety; and the only “minor tranquilizer,” Miltown, was weak in regular doses and toxic in high ones. What was needed was a drug that relieved anxiety safely and without overt sedation.

Austrian-born Jewish chemist Leo Sternbach, working with a couple of other chemists at Hoffman-La Roche Labs, serendipitously concocted just such a substance in the compound chlordiazepoxide, marketed under the name Librium in 1960. Librium was the first benzodiazepine, but its more potent successor, Valium, would change the face of American culture. It ultimately proved to be addictive, but Valium’s ability to take the edge off of daily stresses with surgical precision, plus its relative safety (you’d have a hard time killing yourself with Valium alone) made it the most-prescribed drug from 1969 to 1982. It was even immortalized in The Rolling Stones’ hit “Mother’s Little Helper.” Such a level of popularity can probably be explained in part by the fact that, for some, it was a readily concealable alternative to alcohol abuse. Sternbach also invented the drugs Dalmane, Mogadon, and Klonopin. –Paul Brantley

Robert Kearns

Robert Kearns invented intermittent windshield wipers, which allowed pauses between swipes during light rain. Ford and Chrysler implemented Kearns’ idea, and Kearns, often acting as his own attorney, successfully sued the automobile corporations in 1978 and 1982, respectively, for nearly $20 million. He had previously shopped the idea to automakers but could never reach a licensing deal. Lawsuits against General Motors and foreign automakers were dismissed. Kearns died of cancer at 77. —Ed Reynolds

Charlie Muse

Half a century ago, baseball players were real men who didn’t bother with helmets when batting. In 1952, a Pittsburgh Pirates executive named Charlie Muse forced his team to wear batting helmets despite taunts from opponents that the Pirates were “sissy.” Slowly, opposing teams began to adapt, and in 1954 the Braves’ Joe Adcock credited the helmet with saving his life after being knocked unconscious while batting against the Brooklyn Dodgers. The next day, the Dodgers began wearing helmets. —E.R.

George Mikan

The first “big man” to dominate the game of basketball, the 6-foot, 10-inch Mikan would simply stand beneath the basketball goal of opponents and swat their shots out of the rim. Mikan’s advantage forced the sport to outlaw “goaltending,” where a ball is deflected away once it begins its downward trajectory to the basketball goal. —E.R.

John Ebstein

 

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George Mikan (click for larger version)

In 1962 John Ebstein created the first airbrushed rendering of Studebaker’s ridiculous-looking Avanti, the ugliest sports car ever. With its extended underbite front end, the Avanti appeared to have lost the futuristic design war that the Corvette Sting Ray had easily won. Hideous though it may have appeared, the Avanti nevertheless turned heads just as the DeLorean once did. Ebstein also designed the Lucky Strike cigarette package and Greyhound buses. —E.R.

George Atkinson

A former Hollywood stuntman and occasional actor, George Atkinson didn’t need Grauman’s Chinese Theater to leave his imprint on the film history. Atkinson pioneered the home video rental industry. In 1979 he turned a 600-square-foot store into a goldmine called Video Station by charging $50 for a membership card and a $10-per-day rental fee for any of 50 available titles. Scoffing at earlier entrepreneurial notions that people would buy movies, Atkinson summed up his business philosophy: “You listen to Beethoven or The Beatles over and over again. You don’t watch Burt Reynolds over and over.” Currently there are more than 24,000 video stores around the nation. Atkinson died at 69 of emphysema. —E.R.

Joseph Owades

Weight-conscious beer drinkers can thank Joseph L. Owades for inventing the first low-calorie beer. Miller Brewing Co. acquired the rights to the process Owades invented and launched Miller Lite in 1975, spawning the phrase “you might as well drink horse piss,” which was almost as popular a slogan as “tastes great, less filling.” —E.R.

Dead Folks 2006 (Part 8)

January 26, 2006

Politics/World Affairs

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Joe T. Smitherman (click for larger version)

 

 

 

Simon Wiesenthal

There are militant Jews, and then there are insanely militant Jews—the latter of which were probably best represented by the NYC group that loved to dismiss Simon Wiesenthal as “Weaselthal” for using legal channels to pursue former Nazis. (They didn’t like his support of Kurt Waldheim, either.) To normal human beings, though, Wiesenthal was a dashing figure as the Holocaust survivor who understood the importance of ensuring that no German monsters got to enjoy their forced retirement. His work in the aftermath of the Nuremberg trials facilitated the capturing of many notorious creeps, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center continued to extradite Nazis while also stopping the pensions of former SS officers. He was also father to a slew of ’70s paperback thrillers that drew upon his pursuits. The covers for a lot of these depicted the White House with a swastika in the background. —J.R. Taylor

Joe T. Smitherman

For years my mother refused to vote for Joe Smitherman, mayor of Selma from 1964 to 2000, because his quick-draw tongue flippantly and all too frequently tossed off racial slurs. (Smitherman can be seen in a 1960s Civil Rights documentary referring to “Martin Luther Coon.”) Nevertheless, our family continued to buy washing machines from his appliance store on Broad Street. He was quite a charmer, a good-looking guy who sort of resembled Johnny Carson.

Smitherman finally accepted that segregation had been declared illegal in Selma—except for the churches and country club. Despite his loose tongue around the neighborhood, as a city councilor he broke ties with white opinion and supported paving the dirt roads on which most of Selma’s black residents lived. He was re-elected every four years for 36 years by wooing black voters. It was never lost on Joe T. Smitherman that Selma’s black population was increasingly outnumbering the whites.

The town’s (whites only) public swimming pool that Mayor Smitherman closed to prevent blacks from swimming with whites became a symbol of Selma’s stubbornness and stupidity. There the pool sat unused for years, filthy and creeping with algae, the water a dismal blend of green and brown slime. Smitherman’s closing of the pool, however, launched a minor boom in the swimming pool industry in Selma. White residents combined resources to construct neighborhood “members only” pools. The one in our neighborhood was less than a hundred feet from Smitherman’s back door. He lived two blocks from our house (as kids we’d yell “Citizens’ arrest!” every time Joe T. ran the stop sign on our corner), and his home was often the target of Civil Rights marches during the mid-1960s. As my parents scowled, my siblings and I would cheer wildly whenever our house appeared on NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report.”

Several years ago, I was in Joe Smitherman’s office, where a Confederate battle flag flanked his desk. He bragged about Selma’s then-recently appointed first black police chief, told me that the city had a couple of Jewish mayors in its history, and then pointed to a photo of himself sporting bright red wax lips once made at Selma’s now-defunct American Candy Company factory. Laughing, he quipped, “I look like a damn New Orleans queer, don’t I?” —Ed Reynolds

James Stockdale

It’s a shame that Admiral James Stockdale, who was Ross Perot’s 1992 running mate, is remembered for opening the vice-presidential debate by asking, “Who am I? Why am I here?” These words were seized upon by the media as possible evidence of senility (Phil Hartman parodied Stockdale on “Saturday Night Live” with Dana Carvey as Perot), but they in fact reflected Stockdale’s deep philosophical bent. His study of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus helped Stockdale endure repeated torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese throughout his seven and a half years of captivity as a P.O.W. His stoicism was resolute: He mutilated his face to foil his captors’ efforts to have him appear on camera for propaganda purposes and slit his wrists to demonstrate that he’d rather die than give in to their demands. These acts of defiance earned him several decorations and brought about better treatment of P.O.W.s by the North Vietnamese. —Paul Brantley

Rosemary Kennedy

Need further proof of how the Kennedy Empire has fallen? Consider that there was a time when Rosemary Kennedy was regarded as the most embarrassing member of the clan. As the retarded sister of JFK and RFK, Rosemary was hidden away after patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy decided that she was best dealt with by administering a lobotomy. The adoring media obligingly ignored Rosemary’s existence for decades. She lived to a ripe old age, too, most likely because she was blissfully unaware of how her brother Teddy had ruined the family name. —J.R.T.

Shirley Chisholm

Emilio Estevez once mistook a poster of Angela Davis for Shirley Chisholm. That’s okay, though. A guy from Mötley Crüe thought it was a poster of Clarence Williams, III. At least Emilio’s mistake was the result of a good leftist upbringing where Shirley Chisholm was an important feminist icon. She made history as the first black female ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968. She promised fireworks and quickly rebelled once the Brooklyn gal found herself being shuffled off to the Agricultural Committee.

Chisholm would go on to co-found the National Organization of Women, which today might very well have less members than the total number of women who’ve ever posed for Playboy. Chisholm’s run for the 1972 presidency was pure showmanship, but she paved the way for genuinely legitimate contenders such as Barbara Jordan. —J.R.T.

 


 

 

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Shirley Chisholm

 

 

 

Personalities

Domino Harvey

The amazing movie star Laurence Harvey left a bizarre legacy, what with sickly sophisticated turns in films such as Walk on the Wild Side and A Dandy in Aspic—not to mention a creepy turn as a “Columbo” villain. Still, Domino Harvey almost topped all of her father’s incredible excesses. She initially took over the international scene as a stunning model, which seemed natural enough for the offspring of Harvey and model Paulene Stone. Then, however, Domino had to become a genuine character by ditching her glamorous world to become a bona fide bounty hunter. She tossed in the added allure of being a lesbian, although that fact was pretty much ignored when director Tony Scott made the big-screen adaptation of her life. Keira Knightley made for a nice Domino in Domino, but the film itself was a hyper-stylized mess—with its storyline further complicated when Domino died of a drug overdose before the 2005 production was even released. —J.R.T.

Ray Holmes

 

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Domino Harvey (click for larger version)

In an incident that was reportedly caught on film, British Royal Air Force pilot Ray Holmes saved Buckingham Palace from almost certain destruction in 1940. The Hurricane fighter plane he was flying had run out of ammunition, so Holmes rammed into a German bomber, slicing off the tail as it headed towards the Palace. Holmes parachuted to safety. —E.R.

Philip Klass

With an exacting, detail-obsessed mind and the skeptical outlook of an unwavering empiricist, it was inevitable that electrical engineer and aviation expert Philip Klass would occasionally irritate his peers. He didn’t merely know everything about aviation technology; he usually knew it first. During the 1950s, he wrote the very first articles on secret inertial guidance technology, infrared missile guidance and detection, and microelectronics. Klass’s book, Secret Sentries in Space (1971), was the first to deal with spy satellite technology. He coined the term “avionics” and in the process created his 34-year position as senior avionics editor of Aviation Week and Space Technology.

But if his colleagues were sometimes miffed, his opponents were constantly infuriated. That’s because a sideline of his research led to Klass becoming the foremost debunker of UFO reports. Klass always offered an unassailable rationale for his investigations: “My sole objective is to either find a credible, prosaic explanation for a UFO report, or, if that isn’t possible, then to write the most important story of my life—about a visitor from another planet—and win a Pulitzer Prize.”

What galled the UFOlogists, “abduction” victims, and conspiracy theorists is that Klass consistently found a credible explanation. Apparently, a lot of amazing things take place in the atmosphere (plasma formations, radar temperature inversions), but the truth about such phenomena is here on Earth, not “out there.” Throw in a few elaborate hoaxes and pretty soon the X-files are rudely supplanted by the ABCs of basic scientific inquiry. That’s no fun.

His research was made public at the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), which Klass helped establish in the mid 1970s, and at SUN (Skeptics UFO Newsletter), a bimonthly publication that Klass operated himself. This information in turn formed the basis of what are generally considered to be the best books on the subject: UFOs Identified, UFOs Explained, and The Real Roswell Crashed-Saucer Coverup.

That last title placed him on the enemies list of major UFOlogists, many of whom describe Klass as a “disinformer” probably working for the government. The book had turned the tables on one of the world’s most durable conspiracy theories. According to Klass, it wasn’t the U.S. government that was involved in a coverup at Roswell and Area 51. It was the pseudo-scientists and tourist attractions who were “lining their pockets” by maintaining a popular myth. —David Pelfrey

John DeLorean

Let’s note that he was acquitted—but John DeLorean still became a major ’70s icon while being videotaped by the FBI discussing how cocaine was going to be the savior of his automobile empire. It wasn’t just excess that he represented with his car line, although those stainless steel cars with the elevating doors would certainly go down in history as a pre-yuppie status symbol. DeLorean the Man was even more of a spectacle with his three-piece suits and aging good looks worthy of a model in a J.C. Penney layout. He would later be usurped by Moammar Gaddafi in the annals of stylish creepiness.

 

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John DeLorean (click for larger version)

In his defense, DeLorean had created the Pontiac GTO, and his jet-set ways allowed him to raise money from the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr. (There would be a Pontiac GTO named “The Judge,” in tribute to Davis’ routine from “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”) DeLorean even had the hot wife who was ready to ditch him once the going got tough. Anyway, DeLorean’s alleged big drug deal never happened, but he still staved off bankruptcy until 1999—and certainly was far from the flophouse when he suffered a fatal stroke in early 2005. —J.R.T

Also Dead . . .

Ed Masry, partner of Erin Brockovich, played by Albert Finney in the film; Eddie Bunker, Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs, and real-life criminal; screenwriter Ernest Lehman; Henry Corden, voice of Fred Flintstone; Elmer “Len” Dresslar, voice of the Jolly Green Giant; Thurl Ravenscroft, voice of Tony the Tiger; Musicians Chris LeDoux, Chris Whitley, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Luther Vandross, Justin Hinds, Laurel Aitken, Paul “Wine” Jones, Son Seals, Lucky Thompson, Percy Heath, Tyrone Davis, Link Wray, and Martin Denny; Senator Howell Heflin; O.J. lawyer Johnnie Cochran; architect Philip Johnson; Actors Barbara Bel-Geddes, Mason Adams, and Sir John Mills; Authors John Fowles, M. Scott Peck, Saul Bellow, Hunter S. Thompson, and Shelby Foote; Myron Floren, Lawrence Welk’s “Happy Norwegian”; Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist; Gen. William Westmoreland; feminist Andrea Dworkin; Eugene McCarthy; anchorman Peter Jennings; Prince Ranier; TV host Ralph Edwards (“This is Your Life”) &

 

Dead Folks 2005, Music

Dead Folks 2005, Music

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

 

By David Pelfrey, Ed Reynolds, J.R. Taylor

February 24, 2005
Artie Shaw

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Artie Shaw (click for larger version)

Music fans, especially big band enthusiasts, love and respect Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. But if any were forced to take just one bandleader’s work to a desert island, or place the same CD or vinyl album in a time capsule, they might very well choose one by Artie Shaw (94). The clarinet-playing bandleader, in at least three recordings, offered definitive tracks of the swing era: the lilting “Frenesi” (a Shaw original last used to great effect in Woody Allen’s Radio Days), a flowing, magnificent arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” which practically blew Benny Goodman off the charts, and a stunning rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” one of the most instantly recognizable recordings in popular music. Another of Shaw’s compositions, “Nightmare,” is a sultry, gloomy three minutes that evolved into the distinctive sound of films noir, as the scores for countless detective thrillers and crime melodramas all hearken, in some way, to Shaw’s 1938 recording. Throw in the fact that Shaw was a virtuoso clarinetist with looks that made all the girls cry, and it’s understandable that in 1939 there wasn’t a bigger star in the music galaxy.

Shaw’s musical ability was not matched by an ability to win friends or influence people; he broke up bands almost as soon as they made the big time. He wasn’t an egotist, but as a pathological perfectionist he was often devoid of patience with anything or anybody. Oddly enough, that in no way prevented the exceedingly handsome musician from being a ladies’ man (Lana Turner and Ava Gardner are numbered among his many brides), nor did Shaw’s irascibility imply insensitivity. It was Shaw’s idea to work publicly with black composers and players (Billie Holiday was the band’s lead vocalist for a short while), and he was an outspoken advocate for black musicians throughout his career.

Nonetheless, he wasn’t called “the reluctant king of swing” for nothing. Shaw regarded celebrity as an impediment to creative excellence, so his public performances temporarily came to a halt just before 1940. He organized several other groups during the war years and began performing again, but he was never completely comfortable with touring. Although he was approaching new heights in the 1940s and 50s by moving away from swing and into jazz, in 1954 he simply walked away from the music scene to take up a number of other pursuits. —D.P.

Elmer Bernstein

Speaking of his collaboration with Bernstein (82), Martin Scorcese said, “It’s one thing to write music that reinforces a film, underscores it. It’s entirely another to write music that graces a film. That’s what Elmer Bernstein does, and that, for me, is his greatest gift.”

The gifted composer didn’t just create marvelous, memorable films scores; he elevated the lyric quality of incidental music in movies. Bernstein’s legacy includes more than 200 movie scores, 50 years in the film industry, and an inestimable influence on three generations of film composers. So engaging and appropriate were his best works that it is difficult to imagine certain films without their scores. The rousing theme to The Magnificent Seven (later the “Marlboro man” theme until cigarettes ads were banned from television) is a textbook example, being cowboy music par excellence; its distinct “great American West” motif derives from Aaron Copland, under whom Bernstein studied. The martial, upbeat march from The Great Escape (1963) is another instance where melody and tone perfectly suit subject and style. Yet if ever there was a movie score that defined a film’s style, it must be the pure jazz score (a first for a Hollywood film) for The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), a downbeat, gritty melodrama starring Frank Sinatra that dared to explore drug addiction. The first minutes of Bernstein’s gripping score pretty much establish that things aren’t going to go well.

Indeed, the composer had a natural ability to convey urban angst and mean-street sensibility, as the jazzy, sleazy themes for Sweet Smell of Success, Walk on the Wild Side, and Some Came Running indicate. Yet for minimal orchestration and gentle, lyric passages, Bernstein also displayed an innate skillfulness; the tender, wistful score for To Kill a Mockingbird is exhibit A in that regard. His music is also associated with Hollywood actors and icons, most obviously John Wayne, for whom Bernstein provided scores for The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit, and several others. He worked with Martin Scorcese on seven projects, notably The Age of Innocence and The Grifters, the latter being an example of Bernstein’s interest in various offbeat and independent productions such as Rambling Rose, Far From Heaven, My Left Foot, and The Field.

Bernstein’s stunning versatility is apparent from this partial list of compositions: Hud, The World of Henry Orient, Animal House, The Gypsy Moths, An American Werewolf in London, The Carpetbaggers, The Great Santini, the ballet music for Oklahoma and Peter Pan, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, “The Films of Ray and Charles Eames,” and themes for “The Rookies,” “S.W.A.T.,” and “Ellery Queen.” —David Pelfrey

 

Jerry Goldsmith

Last year when the record label Varese Sarabande announced the release of a series of film scores entitled “Jerry Goldsmith at 20th Century Fox,” orders started coming in the next day. The first run of the boxed set sold out nine days later. Put another way, everybody digs Jerry Goldsmith (75). His name might not ring a bell, but the motion picture scores and television themes Goldsmith arranged or composed for more than half a century certainly do. A deadly serious student of music since the age of six, Goldsmith learned classical piano and absorbed music theory before taking a film music class at the University of Southern California (under legendary composer Miklos Rosza, no less). Afterwards he landed a pretty good gig at CBS, where he scored several episodes of a show that was getting a lot of attention called “The Twilight Zone.” Dozens more television commissions came, but Goldsmith’s acquaintance with another famous film composer, Alfred Newman, led to his long career in motion pictures. He began as a contract composer for 20th Century Fox, and then basically established himself as the sound of the movies. Even a partial list of his film scores and television themes is daunting: Alien, L.A. Confidential, Planet of the Apes, Chinatown, Patton, Seconds, Logan’s Run, In Like Flint, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Omen, Papillon, Basic Instinct, The Boys From Brazil, Poltergeist, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and “The Waltons.” —D.P.

John McGeogh

Like any founding guitarist who’d been in classic—and still listenable—bands such as Siouxsie & The Banshees, Public Image, and Magazine, John McGeogh (48) had both gotten a day job (as a nurse) and was trying to record dance music by the end of the ’90s. That’s kind of a shame since McGeogh was probably one of the rare punks who really had the versatility to thrive as a session man. It’s certainly no secret that he was a huge influence on subsequent generations. At least to those funky punks who don’t try to get away with citing old blues guys as their heroes. —J.R.T.

Johnny Ramone

 

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Johnny Ramone’s headstone (click for larger version)

He didn’t have many songwriting credits, and that’s probably not even him playing guitar on some of your later favorite Ramones songs. Still, Johnny Ramone (55) got to retire as the wealthiest member of the band because he had 100 percent of the merchandising rights. How did that happen? It’s a long story that certain people can’t wait to tell if certain long-awaited books don’t reveal the whole story. Suffice to say that Johnny benefited from being one of rock ‘n’ roll’s proud conservatives, cashing in on the hypocritical peacenik attitude of certain other band members. The greatest testimony to Johnny, however, is that he was always well-loved in the music community, even after expressing his support for President Bush while being inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. We lost him to prostate cancer, which leaves C.J. and Marky to helm various tribute nights in the future. Jeffrey’s somewhere out there, too. —J.R.T.

Elvin Jones

The younger brother of pianist Hank and trumpeter/bandleader Thad was a drummer who changed the way we hear jazz. Jones (77) played with major figures like Sonny Rollins and J. J. Johnson in the ’50s, but it was with the iconoclastic quartet of John Coltrane (1960-66) that Jones’ fluid, polyrhythmic blankets of sound found their ideal setting. Jones’ beat was implied more than defined, and although one always knew where it was, the surrounding percussive accents and colors were endlessly fascinating, opening up the rhythmic options for the other players unlike what any drummer had done before, even since. Coltrane greatly appreciated Jones: “I especially like his ability to mix and juggle rhythms. He’s always aware of everything else that’s happening. I guess you could say he has the ability to be in three places at the same time.” Jones played on Coltrane’s classic albums My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme; he led his own bands from 1967 until his death, incubating such talent as Joe Farrell, Dave Liebman, Nicholas Payton, Joshua Redman, and Ravi Coltrane early in their careers. His unique approach, seemingly limitless ideas, and sheer power led many to regard Jones as the world’s greatest drummer, and following a much-ballyhooed “battle” with Cream’s Ginger Baker in the early ’70s, Jones became something of a celebrity, even appearing in the cult film Zachariah. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever sounding like him again. —B.G.

Rick James

 

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Rick James (click for larger version)

The guy would’ve made an interesting footnote just for signing to Motown with bandmate Neil Young as the Mynah Birds back in the ’60s. Of course, Rick James (54) had to take a stranger path to fortune and disgrace. He finally got to make a record for Motown in 1978 and was a popular R&B star until the release of Street Songs in 1981. “Give It To Me Baby” and “Super Freak” were huge hits that made James briefly seem like another Prince in the rock-crossover sweepstakes. He was a steady performer through 1989—following his move to the Reprise label—but it still felt like nostalgia to the masses when MC Hammer sampled James for “U Can’t Touch This.” By then, James’ drug problems had plunged him into several embarrassing legal situations. He spent the ’90s with critics hoping for a comeback, but James’ last high profile moment was as a punch line in sketches on “The Dave Chappelle Show.” He was probably pretty happy with that, but any future opportunities—say, on VH1′s “The Surreal Life”—were lost after James’ death from a heart attack. At least he got to date Linda Blair. —J.R.T.

Illinois Jacquet

Tenor sax man Illinois Jacquet (82) was one of the jazz piledrivers: he typically hit his solos full throttle, with clearly developed musical phrases based in the sophisticated vocabulary of the great Lester Young, but run through a rough-edged dialect of Jacquet’s own creation. The latter included “honking,” later to be overdone by a multitude of R&B and rock horn players, and squealing in the altissimo range (i. e., above where the tenor is normally supposed to sound), an effect that was also subsequently overdone by lesser players. He became a star at 19 when he recorded a rousing solo on Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home” (1942), and was a featured player in the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts in the ’40s and ’50s. He also led a septet in that era that featured the likes of Fats Navarro and J. J. Johnson. After becoming the first jazz musician to serve a long-term residency at Harvard in the early 80s, Jacquet formed a his first big band, which had a big success, recording the irresistible Jacquet’s Got It (1987, Label M). Almost everyone who plays the tenor sax owes something to this guy. —B.G.

Robert Quine

Lefty hipsters were pissed off that Ronald Reagan’s death overshadowed not only the death of Ray Charles but that Robert Quine’s death was completely squeezed out of all the NYC newspapers. To be fair, Quine (61) was an innovative guitarist and overaged punk who—while unable to make Richard Hell & The Voidoids sound interesting—went on to a stellar career enhancing (and occasionally saving) the work of artists such as Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull. Quine was depressed over the recent death of his wife, but don’t believe anyone who called his heroin overdose a suicide. If you want to see Quine in action, track down the 1983 concert DVD A Night with Lou Reed. —J.R.T.

Barney Kessel

One of the greats of jazz guitar, Kessell (80) was one of the first generation of guitarists influenced by Charlie Christian, and as an Okie from Muskogee (literally), the sole white member of local jazz bands. It was in that setting that he met Christian, perhaps the most influential jazz guitarist of all, and his direction was set. Kessell played in big bands (Artie Shaw’s, Charlie Barnet’s, and even Chico Marx’s), when Gjon Mili made the short film Jammin’ the Blues in 1944, Kessell was again the only white face, but since an integrated ensemble was not to be shown on the screen, he remained in shadow or silhouette.

Kessel became famous after recording with Charlie Parker (1947) and touring with Oscar Peterson (1952-1953), but it’s likely that many more people heard his studio recordings with pop artists, from Julie London’s “Cry Me a River” to his work with Elvis, Rick Nelson, and the Beach Boys, to numerous movies and TV shows. Phil Spector was his student and protégé; Kessel advised the young man to get into record production and later played on almost all of Spector’s big hits (“You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” et al.). He introduced Brian Wilson to the theremin that was used on “Good Vibrations” and Pete Townshend wrote a song in honor of Kessel after the latter’s 1969-70 residency in London. Throughout, Kessel found time to make numerous jazz recordings, and from 1976 on toured with Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd as The Great Guitars. —Bart Grooms

Randy VanWarmer

There was a brief window of opportunity in the late ’70s when lite-pop songwriters discovered they could put on a skinny tie and seem vaguely cool while turning out mellow sounds. Randy VanWarmer was able to break through with the modest hit “Just When I Needed You Most”—modest in its humble wimpiness, that is. The song still made it to number four on the Billboard charts. The solo career went downhill from there, but VanWarmer (48) was already establishing himself as a hit songwriter for country acts. The band Alabama scored with “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why),” one of VanWarmer’s earliest compositions. VanWarmer would spend most of his subsequent career in Nashville—including a brief comeback as a solo artist in 1988—although he was settled in Seattle when he finally succumbed to leukemia. —J.R.T.


Jerry Scoggins

Jerry Scoggins’ (93) rendition of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” is one of the best known musical motifs in television history. The show originally ran from 1962 to 1971, with 60 million viewers at one point. Accompanying Scoggins on the theme were bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. —E.R.

Hank Garland

As king of the Nashville studio guitarists, Hank Garland (74) was in constant demand. Switching effortlessly between jazz and country, he played with an impressive list of performers ranging from Elvis Presley to Roy Orbison to Patsy Cline to Charlie Parker. He pioneered the use of the electric guitar at the Grand Ole Opry. A 1961 car wreck left Garland in a coma for months. When he regained consciousness, he received more than 100 electroshock treatments that forced him to relearn not only how to play the guitar, but also how to walk and talk again. —E.R.

Terry Melcher

Many people wanted to kill Terry Melcher (62) for co-writing “Kokomo” with the Beach Boys, but Charles Manson had a personal grudge against Doris Day’s son. As an A&R man in the wake of his early days guiding The Byrds, Melcher passed on Manson as a recording artist. Charlie was also still pissed about the Beach Boys altering his song “Cease to Exist,” so Melcher’s association with the band didn’t help matters. Anyway, Melcher moved out of the house he was renting, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate moved in, and the speculation continues about how things might have changed if Charlie had kept his address book up-to-date. Melcher kept working with some of the great pop acts of the era, and the ’60s lost a key figure when the California icon passed away from cancer. —J.R. Taylor

 

Billy May

He could have retired in 1942 as a brilliant arranger, but Billy May (87) was lured away from his staff position at Capitol Records to provide Frank Sinatra with some of his most unforgettable and brassy settings. The association began with “Come Fly With Me” in 1957 and continued to the end of the ’70s. —J.R.T.

Ernie Ball

Every would-be star who has attempted to play a screaming guitar solo is intimately familiar with Ernie Ball Slinky guitar strings and their neon-colored packages. Endorsed by the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and a million other rock stars, Ernie Ball strings are sold in more than 5,500 music stores in the United States and 75 other countries. They were made to be stretched, but, inevitably, they do break, thereby simultaneously rendering them the most revered and cursed guitar string in the world. Ball was 74. —Ed Reynolds.

Jan Berry

As one half of the duo Jan and Dean, Jan Berry (62) and partner Dean Torrence pioneered the surf music sound with hits such as “Dead Man’s Curve,” “Surf City,” and “The Little Old Lady (From Pasadena).” Berry had been in poor health for much of his life after suffering brain damage in a car crash in 1966. —E.R.

Al Dvorin

Al Dvorin was the concert emcee who made the phrase “Elvis has left the building” a staple of pop culture. The 81-year-old Dvorin was thrown from his car following an accident on a California desert highway after delivering his famous line at the conclusion of an Elvis impersonator contest. —E.R.

Estelle Axton

Estelle Axton (85) was the “ax” in Stax Records, which she started with her brother James Stewart (he was the “St”). Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, and the Staple Singers were just a few on the Stax roster of hitmakers. Her son Packy Axton was saxophonist for the Mar-Keys, an instrumental group on the label that often accompanied the singers. She later took over her son’s record label Fretone Records, whose only hit was in 1976 with the novelty “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees. —E.R.

Johnny Bragg

Leader of The Prisonaires, a singing group composed of black Tennessee State Penitentiary inmates that put Sun Records on the map with the hit “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” Johnny Bragg (79) and his fellow convicts traveled under heavy guard to Memphis to record in 1953. In 1961, Elvis Presley visited Bragg (who had been convicted of rape in 1943), in prison. The Prisonaires were among the first rhythm and blues groups to have hit records in the South. —E.R.

Alvino Rey

As a bandleader who made the steel guitar popular during the swing era, Rey (95) billed himself as “King of the Guitar.” Rey had a hit in 1942 with “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” —E.R.

John Peel

To discerning music fans, John Peel (65) was best known as the legendary BBC radio DJ who promoted any number of really forgettable ’80s acts via assorted live “Peel Sessions” releases. There’s certainly no denying that Peel got really excited about way too many forgettable art/punk/new-wave/grunge acts over the years. In his defense, though, Peel would often just as easily lose interest in the struggling acts that he would grace with needed airplay. At least he was always interested in new acts, which was pretty good for a guy who’d been spinning discs since 1965. Peel could legitimately claim much credit for breaking acts ranging from David Bowie to The Smiths. —J.R.T.


Lacy Van Zant

He couldn’t match the output of Olivia Osmond, but Lacy Van Zant (89) made an impressive musical contribution through his rockin’ DNA. This ultimate band parent oversaw the Southern Rock dynasty of Ronnie, Johnny, and Donnie—which covers two Lynyrd Skynyrd vocalists (one, sadly, deceased) and a member of the underrated .38 Special. Van Zant worked hard to help out his kids in their early musical years, and his home also served as a museum. Lacy looked the role, too, with a long white beard and a penchant for overalls. If his image hasn’t been put on an album cover, it should be. —J.R.T.

Timi Yuro

She was pretty much forgotten at the time of her death, but Timi Yuro (63) cast a striking figure while ruling the early ’60s charts with gloriously overwrought tunes such as “Hurt” and “I Apologize.” Despite the exotic name, she was pure American pop. Still, it didn’t even help her career when Morrissey singled her out as his favorite vocalist in the 1984 tour program for the Smiths’ Meat is Murder tour. While the subject matter helped, Morrissey might have also been influenced by Yuro’s bizarre ability to look androgynous even when dolled up in evening gowns. —J.R.T.

Lizzy Mercier Descloux

She made some forgettable Parisian punk, but Lizzy Mercier Descloux (47) went out as a goddess to French hipsters. The very young gal was hanging out in NYC during the days of the New York Dolls, and she made it back to Paris in time to start up a pioneering punk clothing boutique. Descloux eventually went into the studio with her musician pals to record two fairly useless albums at the end of the ’70s. (This past year’s CD reissues reminded us why she was promoted mainly as a moody sex symbol.) Nobody was paying much attention to Descloux when she suddenly came up with an international chart hit in 1984. “Mais où sont passées les gazelles” was recorded with South African musicians about two years before Paul Simon got the idea, and the World Music genre was suddenly off and running. Descloux didn’t benefit much, though. Her major-label career was over by the ’90s, and she had moved on to a successful career as a painter before succumbing to cancer. —J.R.T

Alf Bicknell

From 1964 to 1966, Alfred George Bicknell (75) chauffeured The Beatles to concerts and other appearances. The inspiration for the song “Drive My Car,” Bicknell wrote the 1999 autobiography Ticket to Ride: The Ultimate Beatles Tour Diary!, in which he recalled the moment John Lennon reportedly snatched his chauffeur’s cap from his head and declared, “You don’t need that anymore, Alf. You are one of us now.” After The Beatles ceased touring, the former circus clown began driving business executives. A chainsaw accident ended his driving career in 1980, and he joined a Beatles convention circuit giving speeches and selling memorabilia. —E.R.

Skeeter Davis

One of the few women who serve as both a footnote and a legend, Skeeter Davis (72) spent her very long career skirting the pop and country markets. She started out as a rockabilly pioneer with her partner Betty Jack Davis, in 1953, before the duo ended up in an automobile accident that left her as a solo act. It took another decade before she finally became a huge solo star with “The End of the World.” Her public profile would later be that of a one-hit wonder. Within the Nashville scene, though, Davis was much admired and often sought out for duets. She aged pretty well, too, as NRBQ bassist Joey Spampinato noticed when he began courting her back in the ’80s. —J.R.T.

Arthur Kane

You can find at least two CD booklets from the ’90s that refer to the late Arthur Kane, while others believed that the New York Dolls’ bass player had simply disappeared after a jilted groupie cut off his thumbs. The only person who seemed willing to insist that Kane (55) was still alive was Keith Richards, and everybody probably thought that was just a hallucination. Anyway, Kane made a triumphant reemergence with his old band in 2004, after Morrissey invited the Dolls to perform at a UK music festival he was curating. Sadly, Kane succumbed to leukemia before the Dolls could follow up with any American dates. —J.R.T


Dead Folks 2005, Television part 2

Dead Folks 2005, Television part 2

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

 

 

February 24, 2005Bob Keeshan

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Bob Keeshan, aka Captain Kangaroo (click for larger version)

 

 


Far sillier (and better dressed) than Mr. Rogers could ever be, Bob Keeshan, otherwise known as the walrus-faced Captain Kangaroo, ruled children’s television programming on CBS from 1955 to 1984. The “Captain Kangaroo” show, which finished its run at PBS in the early ’90s, followed the Captain and his ragtag cast of puppets and characters, including Mr. Moose, Bunny Rabbit, Dancing Bear, and Mr. Green Jeans (who, despite rumors, was not the father of Frank Zappa) throughout their adventures at Treasure House. Keeshan entertained his audience with cartoons, the mysterious Magic Drawing Board, and sundry other gags. When Mr. Moose told one of his ridiculous knock-knock jokes, a shower of ping-pong balls was inevitable.

Keeshan (76), who started his career armed with a pair of horns and a bottle of seltzer water as Clarabell the Clown on “The Howdy Doody Show” in the late 1940s, couldn’t dance, sing, or even play an instrument, but he always had an eye-popping outfit and a knack for making funny faces. —D.M.

Robert Pastorelli

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Robert Pastorelli

He enjoyed a fine career as the housepainter Eldin on seven seasons of “Murphy Brown,” plus successful big-screen turns in Michael and Eraser. However, it seems Robert Pastorelli (49) was speaking a little too soon when proclaiming himself to be a former druggie in recent interviews he gave. In his defense, though, Pastorelli’s heroin overdose may not have been an accident. It turns out the cops were very eager to question the actor about the increasingly questionable “suicide” of his live-in girlfriend back in 1999. —J.R. Taylor.


Jan Miner

Madge: “You’re soaking in it.”

Customer getting manicure: “Dishwashing liquid?!”

Madge: “Relax. It’s Palmolive.”

Viewers who recall those television advertisements, which ran for a stunning 27 years, are all too familiar with stage actress Jan Miner (82). She played Madge the Manicurist, a wise broad (of a certain age) whose mission in life was to alarm customers before spreading the good news about Palmolive dish detergent, those green suds that “soften hands while you do the dishes.” —D.P.

Mary-Ellis Bunim

The next time you witness a drunken hook-up on “The Real World,” thank Mary-Ellis Bunim (57), one of the founding producers of MTV’s original reality series—or just turn off the television. Bunim, a TV “pioneer,” is responsible for changing the face of television in 1992. Bunim/Murray Productions bypassed actors and selected seven real unemployed post-graduates, er, strangers, to get real (eat, sleep, get wasted) while hanging out in a posh pad together for three months—without television—as the cameras rolled 24 hours a day to catch every droll, er, dramatic act.

MTV plans to air five more seasons of the show, carrying “Real World” through its unnecessary 20th season. If being solely remembered for producing the show that married Pedro, kicked off Puck, and let Coral rule as queen bitch wasn’t enough, Bunim/Murray Productions can also be blamed for the Fox Network’s “The Simple Life,” starring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. That’s hot. —Danielle McClure

Ed Kemmer

Ed Kemmer (84) appeared as Commander Buzz Corry in the popular science fiction television program “Space Patrol,” broadcast live each week on the ABC network from 1950 to 1955. Kemmer switched from portraying heroes to villains when appearing on “Perry Mason,” “Gunsmoke,” and “Maverick.” He was also featured in daytime dramas “The Edge of Night” and “All My Children.” Lampert once said that of all his roles, he was most proud of “Space Patrol” because engineers told him they were inspired to careers at NASA after watching the sci-fi series as children. A German POW for a year in 1944, Kemmer staged plays in prison camp. —Ed Reynolds


Art James/Gene Wood

It’s sad when a creative voice is stilled, but we’re also losing far too many non-creative voices—specifically, those legendary figures of game shows who didn’t even get to cash in on the genre’s short-lived recent revival. Art James (74) was certainly unique in his field, having served as both an actual host (Concentration and Blank Check) and announcer for shows including The Joker’s Wild and Tic Tac Dough. Gene Wood’s (78) long association with Mark Goodson Productions allowed the legendary announcer to achieve two cultural milestones. His rave-up intro to Family Feud would later be appropriated by the World Wresting Federation, and that was his voice whispering the secret word on variations of the popular Password series. —J.R.T.

Isabel Sanford

As a not-so-young character actress, Isabel Sanford (86) built a fairly amazing filmography, including Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The New Centurions, and Lady Sings the Blues. The real fame for the former stage actress began in 1971, though, when she made her first appearance as Archie Bunker’s neighbor on “All In The Family.” A quick recast of her husband, and the groundwork was laid for “The Jeffersons.” She invested her money much more wisely than co-star Sherman Hemsley, so it was probably just a good sense of humor that kept Sanford repeating her role long after the series had ended in 1985—including in Denny’s commercials, a “Tonight Show” cameo, and a turn in the big-screen comedy Mafia! —J.R.Taylor

Dead Folks 2005, Television part 1

Dead Folks 2005, Television part 1

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

February 24, 2005

Tony Randall

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Tony Randall (click for larger version)


Tony Randall’s best act (employing a trademark, withering gaze of surprised indignation) in his later show biz years was at feigning impatience with David Letterman, on whose program he made a record 70 appearances, often in cameos lasting only a few seconds. For most of his career Randall (84) was all over television, most effectively as himself during the halcyon era of “What’s My Line,” “The Tonight Show,” and the entire panoply of celebrity television that, in retrospect, seems like the best reality programming ever broadcast. His shining moment, of course, was the five-year run of “The Odd Couple,” in which Randall played the fastidious hypochondriac Felix Unger. The chronic allergies were Unger’s issue, but the fussiness was definitely a Randall matter, so much so that, as an entertainment persona, Randall exists in the gray area between straight and gay.

He’s been known to take a seat before Carson or Letterman and recite some very damp passage by Ernest Dowson, Oscar Wilde, or Gilbert and Sullivan, casting himself as a kind of throwback fin de siecle dandy. In the bedroom farces starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson and similar romantic comedies of the era, Randall was the stereotypical Madison Avenue executive, turned out in a trim-fit suit and skinny tie, relentlessly mixing martinis and chasing girls. It’s just that everyone watching wondered what Randall might do, precisely, if he caught one. Never a sissy floorwalker or a fey decorator (early Hollywood code for homosexual), Randall nonetheless asks Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk, “Need a light, cowboy?” and winds up in a bed with him in Lover Come Back.

Rock Hudson was the fully masculine romantic lead in those pictures, while Randall was . . . whatever he was. Of course in real life, Rock, well, let’s simply observe that human history is a cavalcade of paradox and irony. Let’s also recognize that Randall was never a mincer, nor a prancer for that matter. He was a brilliant whiner. Exactly where he might be placed on a continuum with Charles Nelson Reilly, Paul Lynde, and Rip Taylor is a topic for debate, but it can be safely stated that Tony Randall was flamboyantly theatrical, and very often damn funny. —D.P.

Jerry Orbach

Early in the morning, when our vocal cords are fully relaxed, who among us has not sung in the shower (where voices resonate most effectively) that number from The Fantasticks? We manage a deep baritone or, on a good day, a basso profundo rendition: Try to remember the kind of September . . . Not knowing the full verse, we immediately skip to . . . and fol-low.

There’s no getting around it. “Try to Remember” is Jerry Orbach’s baby, and it always will be. Orbach was a veteran of the stage, most notably for The Fantasticks (the world’s longest-running musical when it closed in 2002), Burt Bacharach’s Promises, Promises, and the original production of Chicago. He’s best known as detective Lennie Bresco on “Law & Order.” He played the same character on “Homicide: Life on the Street” and on three “Law & Order” spinoffs, which must be some kind of record. In motion pictures, Orbach offered excellent portrayals in Dirty Dancing, Prince of the City, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Last Exit to Brooklyn. That’s also Orbach as the voice of Lumiere the candle, singing “Be Our Guest” in Beauty and the Beast. —D.P.

Jack Paar

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Jack Paar (l) with John F. Kennedy (click for larger version)

After Steve Allen and before Johnny Carson there was Jack Paar (85), hosting “The Tonight Show,” that is. When Paar came on board several months after Allen’s departure, the show was in trouble and no one had any ideas about how to fix it. He chose to drop the variety format and simply have guests arrive, sit down, and chat for a while. It worked, especially since some of the guests were Judy Garland, Woody Allen, and Richard Nixon. It was high-profile conversation, even if it was decidedly not highbrow. Many viewers who saw the show during Paar’s tenure argue, often persuasively, that he was the best host the show ever had. Paar’s catch phrase “I kid you not” entered the popular lexicon fairly quickly, undergoing a slight variation in the Marine Corps, where the altered phrase was employed on a full time basis at boot camp. Paar left the show in 1962 at the top of his game. Letterman and Leno should take heed. —D.P.

Alistair Cooke

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Alistair Cooke (click for larger version)

As the first trumpet notes of Jean Mouret’s rondeau in B-flat from “Symphonies and Fanfares for the King’s Supper” catch viewers’ attention, the camera focuses on a distinguished gentleman seated in a highback chair with a book in his lap. That’s Alistair Cooke (95), the host of “Masterpiece Theater.” The music, his BBC diction, and the PBS program are inseparable in the public mind. He referred to his role on “Masterpiece Theater” as “headwaiter.” “I’m there to explain for interested customers what’s on the menu, and how the dishes were composed.”

The Cambridge educated Cooke (he became an American citizen in 1941) also produced the world’s longest running radio program (an awe-inspiring 58 years) called “Letter from America,” a 13-minute BBC piece that was nothing more nor less than Cooke offering his random thoughts on the American scene. From 1946 onward, he composed the entire program on a typewriter, exercised total editorial control, and only missed a few weeks during the program’s run. The former London correspondent for NBC worked from memory to provide listeners across the pond with his take on such disparate topics as brunch with Groucho Marx, hanging around a movie set with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, diners, taxi cabs, lunar landings, television commercials, or his presence at the assassination of Robert Kennedy (I heard somebody cry, “Kennedy, shot,” and heard a girl moan, “No, no, not again.”). Someone ought to have all those “letters” organized in a giant boxed set of CDs, as Cooke has provided what may be the most comprehensive personal history of America after the Second World War. It is easily the most erudite and charming. —D.P.

J.J. Jackson

Well, it’s not exactly like counting down Beatles or Ramones. Still, J.J. Jackson (62) set a milestone of sorts by becoming the first founding MTV VJ to pass away. He was the most beloved—or at least the most tolerated—of the original crew, thanks to his prior life as a notoriously knowledgeable DJ. That still doesn’t make up for Jackson trying to convince us that the lyrics to “All Touch” were genuine poetry. Anyway, it was a rare moment in rock when an older guy was actually welcomed as a valuable resource. His token spiritual predecessors would be Dave Kendall and Matt Pinfield. After that, MTV gave up and hired folks with less personality than one of Alan Hunter’s old shirts. —J.R.T.

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J.J. Jackson (second from left), surrounded by Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn, and John Goodman. (click for larger version)

Harry Babbitt

Harry Babbitt (90) was the voice behind the infectious laugh of Woody Woodpecker. Prior to his cartoon gig, Babbitt sang with the Kay Kyser big band on hits such as “The White Cliffs of Dover,” “Three Little Fishes,” and “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle.” He also did a Christmas novelty tune called “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth,” complete with a lisp. —Ed Reynolds

Danny Dark

According to the trade paper Radio & Records, the voice of Danny Dark (65) was heard in more award-winning commercials than any announcer in broadcast history. Known as the “voice-over king,” Dark’s unique voice was heard admonishing Charlie Tuna for not being the best-tasting tuna in the sea with his trademark “Sorry, Charlie.” He made the phrase “This Bud’s for You” common even with non-drinkers. Dark was also the voice of Superman in the “Super Friends” cartoon. —E.R.

Jerry Nachman

With his ever-present cigar, charming humor, imposing girth, and commanding grasp of current events, award-winning newsman Jerry Nachman was one of the more appealing television commentators in the business. Nachman (57), the editor in chief of the MSNBC cable network, was also a staff writer and executive producer for “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.” —E.R.

Jeff Smith

As the “Frugal Gourmet,” Jeff Smith (65) was at one time the host of the nation’s most-watched cooking program. But in 1997, seven men filed a lawsuit accusing Smith of sexual abuse. He left the airwaves soon thereafter. Six of the complainants said that Smith, a Methodist minister, abused them while they worked at his Chaplain’s Pantry restaurant in the 1970s. Smith denied the accusations and was never formally charged. —E.R.

Dead Folks 2005, Cinema part 2

Dead Folks 2005, Cinema part 2

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

February 24, 2005

Peter Ustinov

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Peter Ustinov (click for larger version)


The Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe winning Sir Peter Ustinov (82) is best known as pompous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in the film versions of Agatha Christie’s Death On the Nile and Evil Under the Sun. He’s also known for turns in upscale sword-and-sandal epics Spartacus and Quo Vadis, the latter being Ustinov’s opportunity to provide us with a definitive Nero. He excelled, in other words, at playing characters imminently full of themselves but just this side of ridiculous. Ustinov’s portly frame was a plus, yet his mellifluous voice carried most of the load; he sounded like an ideal blend of James Mason, Lawrence Olivier, and George Sanders. A master of dialects and accents, and fluent in almost a dozen languages, Ustinov was a motion picture wonder at times, never more so than in 1961 when he wrote, directed, produced, and acted in the stunning naval drama Billy Budd (one of the great underseen, under-appreciated films of modern cinema). —D.P.

Frank Thomas

From 1934 to 1978, Thomas (92) worked at the same company doing the same thing everyday. Since his office was at Walt Disney Studios, that’s not such a bad thing. Indeed, film scholars agree that his long, hard labor was a very good thing, as Thomas was a member of an elite squad of Disney animators known as “the nine old men.” He worked on such iconic animated pictures as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Pinocchio, later displaying a knack for crafting some unique characters and moments (the Queen of Hearts from Alice In Wonderland, Captain Hook from Peter Pan). That spaghetti dinner scene in Lady and the Tramp was also his idea. —D.P.

Walt Gorney

Walt Gorney achieved screen immortality in Friday the 13th as “Crazy Ralph,” the old hermit who warns those kids to stay out of the woods. “You’re all doomed!” he intones, only to be laughed at by those pot-smoking teens. Crazy Ralph was killed off in Friday the 13th Part 2, but every subsequent rural slasher film would include a similar character. Meanwhile, Gorney lived to the ripe old age of 92 because he didn’t go into the woods! —J.R.T.

Noble Willingham

Along with numerous appearances on “Rockford,” “The Waltons,” “Murder She Wrote,” “Home Improvement,” and several other series, Willingham (72) found plenty of work on the big screen (Paper Moon, Good Morning Vietnam, City Slickers, The Hudsucker Proxy) portraying sheriff’s deputies, congressmen, oil men, car salesmen, and military types. His characters often exhibited a right-wing, menacing, good-ol’ boy demeanor, but occasionally the actor could effortlessly manifest the quiet decency of an American Joe from the heartland (if such a being exists). In short, he seemed less like an actor and more like a fairly interesting “real” person who just wandered onto the set. Such is the magic of Hollywood. —D.P.

Joe Viterelli

The characters he played were always named Salvatore, Vinnie, Fat Tony, or Dominick—their last names ending with a vowel, of course. He had a face that looked like a basset hound wearing a medium pizza for a Halloween mask, thus providing, atop his rotund frame, a clueless visage that might be amusing were it not so damn intimidating. Viterelli (66) was that Hollywood casting creation known as the “mobster meatball,” and as Robert de Niro’s enforcer “Jelly” in Analyze This, he practically defined the dimwitted wiseguy. It was almost as though Joe were bringing past experience to his roles; after all, his former occupation is listed as “New York businessman,” and he died in Las Vegas of “complications after surgery.” There’s no sense in reading too much into that, though. —D.P.

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Joe Viterelli (click for larger version)

Spalding Gray

Many a person wanted to kill himself while enduring a Spalding Gray monologue—especially when somebody had the bad taste to put in one of his videos like Swimming to Cambodia or Monster in a Box before letting everybody get really stoned first. His final stage show ended with him celebrating life by jumping around to Chumbawamba, which was certainly so embarrassing that no one was surprised when Gray (62) killed himself by jumping into the East River of Manhattan. Still, Gray had a nice film career going as a George Plimpton type who gave vague class to bad indie films—and How High, too. He also had small parts in respectable films such as The Killing Fields. Let’s also not forget his early X-rated work in The Farmer’s Daughter and Little Orphan Dusty. You can also supposedly spot him in Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks. —J.R.T.

Julius Harris

Last year’s “Dead Folks” issue cited how the late dictator Idi Amin claimed that it was God’s will when Godfrey Cambridge died while playing him in the 1976 TV movie Victory at Entebbe. The joke was on Idi, though, since Cambridge was replaced by Julius Harris (71), who’d live long enough to read Amin’s obituary. Sadly, though, this amazing character actor passed away this year, leaving behind one of the best ’70s legacies of all time. Harris’ bulk provided menace and humor in classic blaxploitation films ranging from Shaft’s Big Score! to Superfly to Trouble Man—and that was only 1972. That set him up to take on James Bond in the blaxploitation-themed Live and Let Die. After that, his work in films like Friday Foster would be mixed with big-budget productions including Looking for Mr. Goodbar and the remake of King Kong. —J.R.T.

Carrie Snodgress

Carrie Snodgress became an overnight star when she appeared in the title role of 1970′s Diary of a Mad Housewife. The film bombed, despite her Oscar nomination, and her follow-up, Rabbit, Run, was another disappointing adaptation. Snodgress (57) had disappeared by 1972, and the gossip columns were asking “whatever happened to?” by 1976. The answer was that she’d run off to live with Neil Young and was raising their son Zeke, born with cerebral palsy. She returned to the screen in 1978 in Brian DePalma’s The Fury, which coincided with her having to endure coverage of record producer Jack Nitzsche’s trial for assaulting her. Fortunately, the worst details were too sordid to make the papers. After that, Snodgress worked steadily in both indie and major productions, right up to her death from heart and liver failure. —J.R.T.

Ingrid Thulin

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Ingrid Thulin (click for larger version)

Liv Ullman is better known, but Swedish actress Ingrid Thulin almost vaulted to international stardom in the wake of her films with Ingmar Bergman. Her stint with the famed director included 1957′s Wild Strawberries and 1972′s Cries and Whispers. Unfortunately, her bid to win over Hollywood stalled after Angela Lansbury had to dub her voice in the 1962 Glenn Ford film Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This was still schlock cinema’s gain, since Thulin (77) would later contribute a stunning performance as the madame of a Nazi whorehouse in the fabulously trashy 1976 classic Salon Kitty. Thulin remained one of Europe’s most respected stage actresses after retiring from the screen in 1988. —J.R.T.

Christopher Reeve

In an ironic twist, actor Christopher Reeve (52) went from playing the definitive Superman to living as a quadriplegic after a horseback riding accident nine years ago. Though admitting that suicide was his first thought, Reeve eventually became a champion for paralysis victims, and was determined to one day walk again. He was a willing guinea pig for new medical treatments and eventually was able to partially leave the respirator he had been on after electrodes embedded in his lungs allowed the actor to breathe on his own for an hour or so each day. Reeve said those precious minutes were a highlight in his later years, as he cherished being able to turn off the machine and listen to the sound of his own breath again. Neither Reeve nor his wife lost their senses of humor, however. His wife appeared on Howard Stern’s television show to plug the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation one evening, and smiled through Stern’s cruel jokes that she should have just let Reeve die. Reeve passed away following a heart attack. —Ed Reynolds

John Drew Barrymore

Drew’s no longer the only Barrymore to escape the family curse. Her father, John—son of acting legend John Barrymore—could claim to have lived for about five more decades than anyone could have ever expected. This notorious Hollywood casualty began his career as a total embarrassment to the Barrymore dynasty, giving horrific performances on stage and screen. He disappeared for a few years, changed his billing from “John Barrymore, Jr.” to John Drew Barrymore (72), and made several bad foreign productions during the ’60s. He was especially suited for historical roles, thanks to his love of long hair and hatred of shaving. There were plenty of drug busts, and the guy ended up living in the woods. Some would call him a dropout, but he was pretty much just homeless and crazy. He was an absentee father, naturally, and his daughter wisely didn’t have much to do with him. A wheelchair-bound Barrymore ended up being provided with a court guardian in 2003. He was certainly very handsome, though. —J.R.T.

Theo Van Gogh

He was a direct descendant of Vincent Van Gogh’s brother, but Theo Van Gogh (47) had made his own fame as a daring filmmaker in his native Netherlands. Sadly, a Dutch television showing of his short film Submission—about the mistreatment of women in Islamic culture—led to Van Gogh’s murder in the streets of Amsterdam. In a typically European display of bravery, the 2005 Rotterdam Film Festival planned to honor Van Gogh by showing Submission as part of a debate on free speech, but then showed submission by canceling the screening after more threats of Muslim violence. —J.R.T.

The Set List — Alicia Keys/John Legend, The Smothers Brothers, and more

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February 24, 2005

Alicia Keys/John Legend

There’s little to add to the success story of Alicia Keyes and her collection of bowling pins that are better known as Grammys. Casual fans should still go see her in concert, because they’ll be very impressed by the power of songs that they mainly know through osmosis. Opener John Legend is also a major rising star, although people react a little too defensively when you file him under hip-hop. The critics like to pretend that Legend is a genuine R&B guy—but if that were the case, his album, Get Lifted, would pale in comparison to Terence Trent D’Arby. The years spent working with Kanye West have turned Legend into a hook-happy soulster with an identity of his own. That still leaves him sounding like a really inspired hip-hop artist, and everybody should just be grateful for that. (Wednesday, March 2, at BJCC Concert Hall, 8 p.m. $38-52) –J.R. Taylor

The Smothers Brothers

Once one of the most important musical acts of all time, The Smothers Brothers are now the most neglected act in the history of CD reissues. Their 1961 debut with At the Purple Onion and the next year’s The Two Sides of . . . remain an example of the greatest leap for a performing artist in the shortest distance, as Tom & Dick went from being weird folkies to one of the funniest—and most disciplined—teams of all time. Tommy’s role of the befuddled innocent was handled with a perfect sweetness that would become even more touching in the wake of stoner comedy. Meanwhile, Dick had to serve as both straight man and a parody of a sincere folkie.

They were already working with Pat Paulsen by then, too. The later albums tilted even more towards comedy, and they were polished showbiz professionals by the 1967 debut of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” Their battles with the censors overshadowed what was some brilliant mainstream work. Sadly, the brothers didn’t have Sonny Bono’s knack for goofing on changing times, and Tom & Dick were soon back on the nightclub circuit.

The ’80s were particularly unkind to the act, as Tom & Dick began to buy into some notion of themselves as important artists, and they undermined their own gentle chemistry. You were better off skipping the ’88 revival of their primetime show. They’ve never quite regained their early chemistry, but all political persuasions can still enjoy their live act. The occasional alleged insight is still comic relief. (Saturday, March 5, at BJCC Concert Hall, 8 p.m. $18-$85) –J.R. Taylor

Social Distortion/Backyard Babies

It’s been about 27 years now, and maybe five albums total, for Social Distortion. Remember when we used to think it was Mike Ness’ heroin addiction that caused the gaps between albums? That hasn’t been the problem since the mid ’80s, though. Judging from the discography, Ness is really just an unusually thoughtful songwriter who waits until he has something to say before going into the studio.

1996′s White Light, White Heat, White Trash should have been a huge hit, as Ness didn’t let the passing years keep him from examining his life from an unusually brutal perspective. Thoughtfulness was out of fashion, though, and two solo albums didn’t fare any better. Last year’s Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll responded by being a lightweight punk-rock expedition that’s still riddled with self-loathing and burdened by the search for redemption. Ness will be in big trouble if anyone ever figures out he’s the father of emo.

The Backyard Babies have only been around since ’87, and too much time was wasted when one member went off to pursue hipster stardom with The Hellacopters. Still, you can’t blame the guy. These Swedes were simply too uncool to be appreciated in the ’90s, but their glammy punk is sorta back in vogue, and they’re way overdue to get a big push for the American market. It probably won’t work out, but this is still a fairly memorable bill that you’ll be able to brag about seeing someday—at least, if you’re ever in Sweden. (Wednesday, March 9, at at Sloss Furnaces, 7 p.m.). –J.R. Taylor

The Vern Gosdin Show/Connie Smith

In 1960, Vern Gosdin and his brother left Alabama for California to play bluegrass with future Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman. The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Byrds, along with Gram Parsons’ cowboy contributions, were the forerunners of country rock, and therefore Vern Gosdin can rightfully be cast as one of the genre’s godfathers. Gosdin later cemented that dignified position by contributing “Someone To Turn To” to the film Easy Rider. To put him in even more elite company, Gosdin is often placed on the holy pedestal of pure country vocalists along with George Jones and Merle Haggard.

Dolly Parton says there are only three female singers in the world: Connie Smith, Barbra Streisand, and Linda Ronstadt. Parton is out of her mind if she really believes this, but little blonde Connie Smith is even more delusional. According to her bio, Smith believes that classic country music is powerful because it has a strong commitment to “home, family, and living life.” She’s obviously has never paid close attention to George Jones, Hank Williams, or any other country music icons whose notions of “living life” are whiskey, sex, and threatening the wife with a shotgun. Nevertheless, Smith remains a legend. She had her first hit in 1964 with “Once a Day,” and her weepy ballads are the essence of genuine country and western music. The opportunity to see her and Vern Gosdin together at the Alabama Theatre is too good to pass up. (Friday, March 4, at Alabama Theatre, 7 p.m. $20-$35.) —Ed Reynolds

Dead Folks 2005, Politics and Sports

Dead Folks 2005, Politics and Sports

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

 

February 24, 2005Politics/News

Pierre Salinger

 

As one of the lesser lights of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, Pierre Salinger (79) worked hard to maintain his fame after serving as Presidential Press Secretary to JFK and Lyndon Johnson. He rushed the book A Tribute to John F. Kennedy into bookstores after the Kennedy assassination and would later be appointed as a Senator in 1964 after the death of a California incumbent. Then he was promptly voted out of office when he sought legitimate election, partly because he didn’t really live in California. After that, Salinger showed up as an attorney in an episode of “Batman,” and was a panelist on two episodes of “What’s My Line?” The former ABC news correspondent finally went away for good after making an ass out of himself in 1997. Salinger held plenty of news conferences proclaiming that he had absolute proof that the U.S. Navy had shot down TWA Flight 800, which had crashed with no survivors off of Long Island in 1996. It turned out Salinger had found all of his revealing documents on this new thing called the Internet, and nobody had explained to him that any crackpot could put together a collection of conspiracy theories and post it on a web site. Not surprisingly, Salinger passed away in France. —J.R.T. 

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Pierre Salinger (click for larger version)

Charles Woods

Perennial political candidate and Dothan media and real estate tycoon Charles Woods (83) was the butt of many a cruel grade-school joke. Severely disfigured after a fiery World War II B-17 crash, Woods ran for governor of Alabama several times during the 1960s and ’70s, and even launched a bid for the U.S. presidency that once landed him a guest spot on David Letterman’s show. His bald, earless head, which sported an eyepatch, inspired children across Alabama to stylishly transform their thumbs into the head of Woods, complete with the eyepatch courtesy of a ballpoint pen. —E.R.

Mary McGrory

An outspoken liberal reporter on the Washington, D.C., political scene for 50 years, Mary McGrory (85) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for her columns on Watergate. McGrory first made a name for herself reporting on the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 (“an Irish bully” was her assessment of Senator Joseph McCarthy). Her final pieces criticized the Bush administration for invading Iraq. McGrory often referred to Congress as the “federal entertainment center.” Among her accomplishments was inclusion on President Nixon’s famous enemies list. —E.R.

David Dellinger

Often described as a “radical pacifist,” David Dellinger (88) was a leading organizer of nonviolent antiwar protests in the 1960s; it was Dellinger who created the encirclement of the Pentagon immortalized by Norman Mailer in his 1967 account, “Armies of the Night.” His close contact with North Vietnamese officials allowed him to escort several American airmen held as prisoners back to the United States. Civil disobedience was his game. He got the harshest sentence in the political conspiracy trial of the Chicago Seven: five years and a $5,000 fine. Dellinger was a devoted follower of Rev. A. J. Muste’s movement supporting pacifism during World War II. He went to prison for a year in 1943 for draft evasion. Upon his release, he refused to report for his military physical, though he was exempt from actual induction because he was a seminary student. This got him locked up for two more years at a maximum security prison. —E.R.

Archibald Cox and Samuel Dash

Former President Richard Nixon shocked more than a few folks when he fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Oddly enough, Cox, (92) died the same day as 79-year-old Samuel Dash, the chief counsel to the U.S. Senate committee that investigated the Watergate scandal. It was Dash who urged a White House aide to reveal that Nixon was taping conversations with officials. Cox subpoenaed the recordings while investigating the burglary and subsequent cover-up. When Cox refused edited versions of the tapes, Nixon fired him. The former president resigned in 1974. Samuel Dash, an ethics adviser to Kenneth Starr, who investigated former President Bill Clinton, resigned from that position when he felt Starr was abusing his powers as an investigator by advocating Clinton’s impeachment. —E.R.

Yasser Arafat

The celebrity buzz in Hell right now is that Arafat and Hitler are sharing an apartment. That’s not so shocking; the two are both known for their “let’s kill all the Jews” world view. Yet one wonders what else they could possibly have in common. (A deep and abiding fondness for denial and subterfuge? Not much to build a marriage on.) Anyway, one also wonders just who is making whom wear the shiny boots. —D.P.

Abu Abbas

Abu Abbas (55) was the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLO) terrorist behind the 1985 hijacking of the Italian passenger ship Achille Lauro. An elderly, wheelchair-bound Jewish American tourist was pushed overboard during the seige. A 1995 peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians included immunity for PLO members for any terrorist activity committed before September 1993, the month the two sides established a mutual recognition agreement. As a result, Abbas made his first visit to Gaza in 1996 after Israel declared that he was no longer a threat. Abbas was captured by American forces in Iraq in April 2004. He died in U.S. custody. —E.R.

Sports

 

Tug McGraw

 

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Tug McGraw (click for larger version)

Nowadays, a wacky sports figure is somebody who runs over a nun while eluding the cops in the aftermath of a drug bust. Tug McGraw (59) represented a more genial age. He would’ve been eccentric enough as a left-handed pitcher leading the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies to their first World Series. McGraw pretty much summed up the quotable ’70s when—asked for his preference between grass and Astroturf—he responded that he’d never actually smoked the latter. McGraw also knew how to stage a photo op, as when he arranged for fellow Phillie Mike Schmidt to jump into his arms after winning the 1980 World Series. After his retirement in 1985, McGraw made appearances in a custom suit that combined his Mets and Phillies uniforms. He died in the home of country star Tim McGraw, who only discovered Tug was his real father after finding his birth certificate at the age of 11. The father had originally agreed to pay for Tim’s education as a condition for no further contact, but apparently he was just too damn lovable to leave it at that. —J.R. Taylor


Larry Ponza

Lorenzo “Larry” Ponza perfected the modern pitching machine, a marvelous invention that has entertained many a drunken tourist as they swat at baseballs in batting cages up and down the Florida coastline. Ponza (86) created the prototype for pitching machines with his “Power Pitcher” in 1952. In 1974 he built “The Hummer,” an invaluable tool used for batting instruction by both Little Leaguers and major leaguers. The inventor kept improving on his work with the “Casey” in 1983, the “Ponza Swing King” in 1987, and the “Rookie” in 1988. —E.R.

John H. Williams

As the son of legendary baseball icon Ted Williams, John Williams (35) got his name in the history books after a much-publicized bout with his sister over whether their father’s body should be cremated or cryogenically preserved for future resurrection. The male Williams prevailed, and his father’s head was removed and frozen. However, the cryogenics company later threatened to thaw out the late slugger’s head for disposal unless the younger Williams paid the laboratory $111,000 it was owed. No word on what was done with the younger Williams’ noggin upon death. —Ed Reynolds

John Kelley

John Kelley (97) ran in 61 Boston Marathons, finishing 58 and winning two. Running in his first in 1928, he finally won in 1935, and completed his last in 1992 at age 84, running the entire 26 miles. At age 65 he said his motivation to continue competing was “to try to beat the girls.” —E.R.

Brian Maxwell

One of the top marathoners in the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Brian Maxwell (51) made a fortune after he and his wife created the Powerbar, a sports energy snack, in their kitchen in 1986. Maxwell died of a heart attack at age 51 while waiting in line at the post office. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young was an early customer who began eating the Powerbar when they were still being made in the Maxwells’ apartment. Young credited the Powerbar for revolutionizing the sports world’s approach to healthy living. “[Before the Powerbar], players smoked at halftime in the locker room,” said Young. —E.R.

Joe Gold

Joe Gold (82) was an early bodybuilding pioneer. He opened Gold’s Gym in the Venice section of Los Angeles in 1965 and sold it in the early 1970s. They were subsequently franchised across the country. In 1977, Gold started World Gym, the setting for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film Pumping Iron. As a teen, Gold discovered California’s “Muscle Beach,” which set in place his devotion to bodybuilding. He often worked out with railroad ties and buckets of hardened concrete. —E.R.

Sidney James

In 1954 Sidney James became the founding editor of Sports Illustrated. The first issue sold for 25 cents. James, who had coordinated the first televised coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1948, convinced William Faulkner, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck to contribute pieces to the magazine. —E.R.

Walter F. Riker, Jr.

As drug adviser for the NFL, Riker was an expert on the effects of drugs on muscular and neuromuscular systems. Riker advised professional football in the early 1970s when amphetamine use by pro athletes was booming. In the 1980s, he addressed the escalation of cocaine among players and warned that steroids would one day be a major dilemma. —E.R.

Marge Schott

Anybody who thinks racism isn’t funny never saw Marge Schott (75) in action. The outspoken former owner of the Cincinnati Reds constantly made headlines with her idiocy, and got the occasional fine for racial slurs. That’s what happens when a trashy broad inherits an empire after her husband dies. Schott had been best known in Cincinnati for her dopey TV ads for her car dealership—in which she co-starred with a dog—but she spent the ’90s as the spokeswoman for privileged obliviousness. Reds owner Carl Lindner said, “She will be remembered for her love of baseball and for her passion for the Cincinnati Reds.” There’s some wishful thinking. It’ll be hard to top the memory of Schott proclaiming, “Everybody knows [Adolf Hitler] was good at the beginning, but he just went too far.” —J.R.T.

The Set List — Winter Jam w/Newsong/Audio Adrenaline/Relient K

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Winter Jam w/Newsong/Audio Adrenaline/Relient K

Mel Gibson stole their act! Actually, this lineup of Christian rockers—who seem to visit Birmingham as often as the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Unit—swiped their act from many others. Newsong has a mighty backbeat worthy of Up With People!, and provide an alternative for Justin Timberlake fans who think he’s gotten too surly. Worldwide is a major breakthough for Audio Adrenaline, though, as half the tracks embrace a frantic sound worthy of the Foo Fighters. That beats how they use to be the quirky Pearl Jam. Relient K is also on a roll with Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right . . . But Three Do. It’s Blink-182, of course, but nobody said thou shalt not be derivative of really fun acts. (Thursday, February 26, at Boutwell Auditorium.) —J.R. Taylor Sweet Honey in the Rock
You can tell they’re legends because they’re playing a venue bigger than the Hoover Library. Bernie Johnson Reagon still leads her earthy version of the New Christy Minstrels after 30 years, and Women Come Together is a typically fine a capella display. The political message is pretty laughable, though. “Give the People Their Right to Vote” laments the plight of the Washington, D.C., populace. Sorry, D.C., but you’ll have to come back after Reagon can explain Marion Barry. The title track also bemoans violence without suggesting that women come together at a gun show and learn how to use a firearm. They have a fashion sense worthy of Dean Martin’s Golddiggers, though. (Friday, February 27, Jemison Concert Hall, Alys Stephens Center, 8 p.m. $22-$42.)—J.R.T.

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Robert Moore (click for larger version)

Robert Moore
Local trumpeter/vocalist Robert Moore projects a working-class persona as part of his unpretentious allure as a jazz stylist. Moore’s reputation as a charismatic jazz crooner has been built on his boundary-crossing tastes. It’s not uncommon to hear Moore perform jazz interpretations of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” He’ll be performing with keyboardist Anthony Williams at Vestavia’s Moonlight Music Café, where, says Moore, “It’s so quiet ‘you can hear a rat pissin’ on cotton,’ to quote Ella Fitzgerald.’” He readily admits that working with only one other player is among the more rewarding approaches to milking a song for all it’s worth. “It’s much more intimate as a duo,” says Moore. “There’s much more space for interplay between myself and the accompanist. There’s more focus on the intimacy of the song.” (Saturday, February 28, Moonlight Music Café, $8.) —Ed Reynolds

 

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Jonny Lang (click for larger version)

Jonny Lang
Well, he’ll always be younger than Jennifer Love Hewitt. This former teen idol of the rockin’ blues crowd is now an industry veteran, and Long Time Coming is the inevitable big sell-out album. All the songs are tempered with glossy studio touches that rely on R&B roots. But you know, the same could be said of John Hiatt’s Warming Up to the Ice Age, and that was Hiatt’s last great album. Of course, Hiatt knew better than to cover Stevie Wonder. Long Time Coming still sounds a lot more like a beginning than an ending. Jonny’s also smart enough to cover his ass with the stripped-down title track. If this one bombs, he’ll just go acoustic. (Saturday, February 28, at the Alabama Theatre, 8 p.m. $38.50, R.S.)—J.R.T.

Guster
It’s not just boy bands who thrive on street teams. Guster has slowly become a best-selling act by cultivating their dedicated fans. Of course, they’re stuck playing smaller venues outside of major cities, but that’ll just make the street teams envious that you get an intimate setting for their sincere and tuneful folk-rock. In fact, they’re so sincere and tuneful that Keep It Together is completely forgettable. It’s perfect for the fans, though, including the song “Amsterdam.” They probably flipped a coin over whether or not to go with “Prague” instead. (Wednesday, March 3, at WorkPlay, 8 p.m. $15; sold out.)—J.R.T.

Don McLean
It was a stellar 2003 for Don McLean, with American Pie reissued in slim packaging that suited the album’s true status as a double A-side single (“Vincent,” remember?). George Michael also covered Pie‘s “The Grave” as a protest against the Iraq invasion. If he’d been anti-Saddam, of course, the song would have to be retitled “The Graves.” Anyway, McLean has earned his reputation as one of the most unpleasant people in the recording industry. He’s also turned his three-hit wonderdom (“Crying,” remember?) into a bizarre one-man show that’s truly epic and entertaining. He’ll also remind you that Tapestry was a pretty good album. (No, not Carole King’s Tapestry. His Tapestry, remember?) (Saturday, March 6, at The Ritz, Talledega, 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. $24.)—J.R.T.

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Larry Gatlin (center) and the Gatlin Brothers

 

Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers
In the battle for ’70s suckiness, the two major contenders were Dave and Sugar and Larry Gatlin and The Gatlin Brothers (“All the Gold in California”). In fact, the Gatlins are very important to our country music heritage because they give alt-country fans a factual basis for bitching about how Nashville sucks. The Gatlins certainly respect country music more than your average fan of The Eagles or Dixie Chicks, but there’s no denying that they recorded many of the worst songs of the genre. The punch line is that Gatlin and his brothers actually began as a pop alternative to the Countrypolitan sound. They still know their gospel harmonizing, though. Also, they all know Frank Gifford. (Saturday, March 6, at the BJCC Concert Hall, 8 p.m. $30-$65.)—J.R.T.

 

 

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Southern Culture on the Skids (click for larger version)

Southern Culture on the Skids
It’s taken two decades, but SCOTS have finally returned to the sound that once made them the Southern-fried Cramps. Mojo Box still has vocals, but the trio is comfortably finished with their major-label aspirations. They’re not bidding for the festival circuit, either. Instead, SCOTS is catching up on a wide range of influences that they neglected during the ’90s. The subject matter is still straight from the journals of a Chapel Hill freshman who just discovered life outside the suburbs. The mix of surf, soul, and rockabilly, however, sounds like a veteran band that’s mastered the art of keeping things tight and trashy. (Tuesday, March 9, at Zydeco, 9 p.m. $10-$12. 18+)—J.R.T. &

The Set List — 9-09-2004

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September 09, 2004

Janis Ian

Janis Ian was the first musical guest to appear on “Saturday Night Live,” where she sang her ode to lonely, unattractive teenage girls, “At Seventeen.” With its verses about “ugly duckling girls like me” and “inventing lovers on the phone,” one could almost hear the universal sobs emanating from the bedrooms of acne-plagued adolescents. It’s rather odd that she found such a natural connection singing about the younger set, because her teenage years were anything but normal. She had her first hit at 15 with “Society’s Child,” a tale of interracial teen love. Needless to say, she had parents drenched in cold sweat as they perused their children’s albums to find out what other mischief their kids might be getting into. (Friday and Saturday, September 10 and 11, at the Hoover Library Theater; 8 p.m. $20) — Ed Reynolds

The Damnwells

You’d be enjoying a proper interview with The Damnwells if they weren’t the most publicity-averse band in New York City. I used to blame the Epic label for trying to bury this Brooklyn band’s Bastards of the Beat—despite the album being loaded with earnest plainspoken tunes whose lack of pretension is their biggest charm. Smooth and sparse tracks are contrasted with others that work up convincing heads of steam, all brimming with stylistic atmosphere and sheer musical invention.

And if any of those descriptions sound reliably dull, it’s because I lifted a bunch of misleading praise from the Trouser Press reviews for BoDeans and Grant Lee Buffalo. The difference is that you won’t be embarrassed to someday still own a Damnwells album.

The guys in The Damnwells won’t mind that gag, either. They’ve already had to endure plenty of more insulting comparisons—although the real high point was when the indie mag No Depression accused them of sounding like “poor man’s Americana.” It was a bad review, too, which should leave all of us wondering exactly what’s missing from the logic there.

Most likely, what’s missing is the $20 that certain No Depression critics charge for providing positive reviews. Anyway, The Damnwells have recorded one of those Albums of the Year that you’ve never heard of. Actually, it’s kind of refreshing how that’s their own damn fault. (Wednesday, September 15, at The Nick, $7) —J.R. Taylor

Paul “Wine” Jones

Listening to Paul Jones’ raucous, haphazard vocals and runaway train guitar licks, it’s easy to start wondering how he got the nickname. Make that stop wondering. This isn’t juke joint or front porch blues so much as falling-off-the-porch blues, egged on by adult doses of getting-tossed-out-of-the-joint, Mississippi back-roads skronk. It’s a glorious mess, but Jones’ lack of technical proficiency is matched by an appealing lack of pretense; song titles such as “Roll That Woman” and “Guess I Just Fu**ed It All Up” suggest that this artist is what is sometimes referred to as “the genuine article.” If it were possible to isolate the basic elements of Delta and Memphis music, toss them into the trunk of a big ’78 Bonneville, and then get liquored up for an all-night drive to Memphis, you might not recreate Jones’ sound, but you could get dangerously close to his style.

In one respect, someone actually has isolated the elements of Jones’ particular style. A remix of his song “Goin’ Back Home” adds jazz samples and electronic flourishes to Jones’ gritty number, sounding like The Fall and Gang of Four covering Canned Heat, with John Lee Hooker’s vocals. That won’t happen at the live show, but this stunning track can be heard on Jones’ 1999 Fat Possum gem Pucker up Buttercup. (Wednesday, September 15, at Club XS, Tuscaloosa and Tuesday, September 21, at The Nick; $6) —David Pelfrey

The Pierces

It was a strange day when the mail brought The Pierces’ debut CD in 2000. I’d never seen ballerinas from Birmingham who’d grown up to be anything but waitresses and/or heroin addicts. It certainly wasn’t their fault that gorgeous harmonies and ethereal beauty were about to become old hat. The record was pretty impressive, but it was kinda obvious that it wouldn’t age any better than your average Christina Ricci performance.

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The Pierces (click for larger version)

And nobody could’ve complained if The Pierces’ long-delayed follow-up was a commercial contrivance. Instead, Light of the Moon is even more unrepentantly gorgeous than the first album, with producer Brian Sperber carefully anchoring their languid sound to a true heart of darkness. Maybe everyone in Birmingham has been enjoying this maturation, but idiots in NYC didn’t have any idea what the gals have been doing lately. Oh, wait—the Strokes guitarist, right? (Wednesday, September 15, at Workplay; 8 p.m. $8) —J.R. Taylor

Billy Joe Shaver

Perhaps the greatest country music outlaw since Johnny Paycheck, Billy Joe Shaver has never strayed far from the working-man ethic embraced by his more famous buddies Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and the late Waylon Jennings. Shaver played Zydeco several years ago in a quartet that featured his son Eddy assaulting patrons’ ears with a bulldozer guitar attack. Despite his son’s electrified licks, the elder Shaver’s songs retained their stark lyrical and melodic charms. After the show, the band immediately hit the bar to drink and carry on with unattached women. Not Billy Joe. Having been sober for quite a few years after a lifetime of hard drinking and drugging, the ever humble, unpretentious Shaver carried on with business as usual as he broke down and packed up everyone’s gear, including the drummer’s equipment. And he didn’t mind chatting with a stranger while he worked, talking endlessly about how much he missed his dog back home.

Billy Joe Shaver found a way to whip his demons. Unfortunately, his son never did. Eddy Shaver died of a heroin overdose on New Year’s Eve 2001. Devastated, the elder Shaver found solace that night by enlisting Willie Nelson to take his son’s spot in the band at an Austin club in what must have been the most emotional performance of his career.

In a world of boring, generic singer/songwriters too numerous to list, Billy Joe Shaver is the last of a dying breed. Widely regarded as a cowboy poet laureate after Waylon Jennings recorded an entire album of Shaver songs (except for one) on Honky Tonk Heroes, Shaver nevertheless continues to labor in virtual obscurity. And he does it his own way. Who else would record a song written after Kurt Cobain’s suicide and end it with a shotgun blast? (Wednesday, September 22, at Workplay; 7 p.m., $20) — Ed Reynolds

Gene Watson

Like musical legend George Jones, Gene Watson is admired throughout the country music industry as a “singer’s singer” for his smooth but unique vocal delivery. It’s country in the truest sense. Watson spent a decade touring Texas honky tonks before hitting the charts with “Bad Water” in 1975. His only number-one record was the catchy “Fourteen Carat Mind.” But the real diamond in his repertoire is the tearjerker “Farewell Party,” the greatest funeral dirge since the Carter Family sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” It’s the ultimate song of self-absorption and self-pity, as Watson sings from the perspective of a corpse peering from his casket, watching his friends bringing him flowers one last time while his true love has the time of her life “at my farewell party.” More creepy than tragic. (Thursday, September 23, at the Cullman County Fair, Cullman) — Ed Reynolds

Marc Broussard

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Marc Broussard (click for larger version)

Remember when we used to complain about bands whose soulful roots were as deep as the theme-park camps of Orlando, Florida? At least those kids had an excuse. Marc Broussard is genuinely depressing as the product of both a fine musical heritage and an industry that was supposed to spare us from pop pap. This guy grew up surrounded by some of the best musicians in Louisiana. He was also helped along by the same crappy Americana industry that’s hyped soulless acts such as Ryan Adams. The result has been a major-label career that’s left Broussard fitting in perfectly on bills with Maroon 5 and Gavin DeGraw. The new album’s called Carencro, and it’s just more of a beautiful R&B voice singing useless crap. (Thursday, September 23, at Workplay; 9 p.m. $12) —J.R. Taylor