In my inaugural post for this website I discussed the subtle humor of the blues, and how that humor helps to give the blues its healing power. Last week we lost an American icon, a musician who is perhaps the best-known blues musician of them all.
B.B. King was neither the most versatile nor the most emotionally impactful blues musician. The ever-amiable master displayed little of the hellhounds that cast tortured shadows over the early delta players, the sheer frightening force of Howlin’ Wolf or the commandeering magnetism of Muddy Waters. But the “Blues Boy” developed his own influential style of fluid, single note guitar leads – moving seamlessly through his very being and out through his fingertips – which became the defining sound that many think of when they think of the blues. He spoke through his fingers. Tone flowed through his veins. His immense popularity and consistency made him the unquestionable ambassador of the blues to the world, and for that he rightly earned the title of King.
B.B. King defined his long and impressive career with class, sophistication and an effortless grace. But he wasn’t above a little good-natured humor, and had no reservations about making music with any artist from any genre, human or otherwise.
Here is a clip of the “King of the Blues” sitting in with the gang from Sesame Street, singing a song about the importance of the letter B. It’s a fun, humorous clip, but it underscores a deeper truth. Without the letter B, so the song goes, there would be no birds, no Berts and, most importantly, no blues. And without the blues, there would be no spirituals, no jazz, no honky tonk country, no R&B, no Rock ‘n’ Roll, no soul music, no funk, no hip-hop, not even pop. Without the blues there would be no anecdote for life’s unbearable heft. There could be no healing. Without the blues there is no American music. There is no America.
Play on, Blues Boy.
In 1984, a young filmmaker and a group of musically gifted comedians set out to make a low budget comedy and ended up inventing a genre. This is Spinal Tap was the directorial debut from Rob Reiner, who was then primarily known from his role as Michael “Meathead” Stivic from All In the Family. Reiner would go on to direct Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and Misery, among many other classic films.
This is Spinal Tap was filmed in a mere 25 days and was almost entirely improvised. The film, about the declining years of fictitious hard rock band Spinal Tap, spoofed not only the pretentiousness that had enveloped rock ‘n’ roll by the 1970’s, but the even greater pretentiousness surrounding rock journalism and documentaries, or “rockumentaries.” The deliciousness in This is Spinal Tap is that it was a double-edged sword, lampooning two separate phenomena and subcultures simultaneously and to perfection.
The method of filming, a series of interviews and footage told in a faux-documentary style became known as “mockumentary” and its influence can be seen in comedy today, from The Office to Modern Family, and especially in the Christopher Guest-helmed ensemble mockumentaries that have followed: Waiting For Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration.
Dean Martin and Roger Miller may seem an unlikely pair at first, but the two entertainers were quite similar in many ways. They both possessed an inviting, conversational vocal style, a sharp, playful wit, a natural ability at improvisation and an endless supply of humor and charm.
Roger Miller was a country music superstar who achieved cross-over commercial success with infectious masterpieces like “King of the Road” and “Dang Me.” Martin was a pop and film icon who had a sincere affection for country music and recorded several country albums, beginning with 1963’s Country Style. Dino even covered a few Roger Miller songs.
Here’s a clip of these two flip sides of the same coin in a sketch from The Dean Martin Show about fishing, drinking and a “Dang Me” duet. And just as Dean Martin could wrap himself around a heartfelt ballad with the best of the crooners, so too did Roger Miller have a gift for poignant ballads. The clip closes with Miller singing his masterful “Husbands and Wives” at Dino’s request.
Roger Miller made four appearances on The Dean Martin Show between 1966-68. Here they meet up in Season 1 for some humorous wordplay. Miller calls out for a number, Martin answers with 21, and the two begin to seemingly write a song on the spot. (Of course the song, “Got 2 Again,” had already been written and recorded by Miller – the record begins by Miller calling out for “a number between 20 and 22” – released as the B-side to “Dang Me.” But why spoil the fun?)
His humor is so rude, in such bad taste, that it offends no one — it is too offensive to be offensive. – Gay Talese
Don Rickles is bigger than stand-up comedy. The same way Frank Sinatra is bigger than singing. They each developed a style which would, in essence, become its own genre. They were both actors and, more accurately, entertainers. And they both forged their respective careers by refusing to compromise or vainly chase ephemeral trends. Such stuff as icons are made.
Don Rickles studied acting formally at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Spencer Tracy and Kirk Douglas studied. Rickles admits he wasn’t the best student at the Academy, but he received advice and direction there which he applied throughout his career. Rickles landed some film and television roles and appeared in a few stage productions, but the loudmouthed Jewish kid from Jackson Heights made a name for himself with his quick, merciless wit.
Don Rickles never hesitates to credit his mother for much of his success. Like most comedians of his era, Rickles got his start playing mob-run dives and strip clubs. Etta Rickles, who he affectionately refers to as “General Patton,” hustled all the comedian’s early gigs, marching into club owners’ offices and demanding her son be given a slot.
Shortly after the Rickles family moved to Palm Beach, Etta learned that Frank Sinatra was performing in town, and that the famous singer’s mother, Dolly Sinatra, was staying at a nearby hotel. Etta somehow met, and charmed, Dolly. The two mothers hit it off and Dolly assured Etta that her son Frank would be at Don’s show that night. Dolly Sinatra made good on her promise; Frank and entourage showed up for Rickles’ set. Upon seeing Sinatra enter, Rickles quipped, “Make yourself comfortable, Frank, hit somebody.” Silence. Sinatra’s entourage looked to the Chairman for direction. Sinatra howled. Rickles doubled down, “Frank, believe me, I’m telling you this as a friend: Your voice is gone.”
That was it. Continue reading →
Some of the more meaningful Thanksgivings I have spent have been with strangers, far from home. Whether it be a mixed bag guest list peppered with other wayfarers, or being welcomed into the home of a friend’s extended family, there is something about breaking bread with strangers that lends a certain poignancy to the holiday.
It’s sort of like a television special. The personalities gathered may be incongruous, may never be in the same place at the same time again, yet the spirit of the occasion provides a cohesiveness that, even if transparent, works.
There is also the discovery of common ground. One year I spent Thanksgiving in Long Island with a college friend. Before we entered his Italian grandmother’s home he warned me, “Just so you know, we don’t do the traditional turkey dinner. It will probably be lasagna.” I just smiled. “In my family it’s ravioli,” I said.
Speaking of television specials, usually a collection of comedy bits and musical numbers, there have been a few Thanksgiving-themed ones over the years. Continue reading →
Psycho has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ. – Alfred Hitchcock
[Hitchcock] only finishes a picture 60%. I have to finish it for him. – Bernard Herrmann
It’s almost Halloween, and nothing says Halloween like Alfred Hitchcock. So let’s take a look at the music in Hitchcock’s great comedy, Psycho.
Maybe comedy is a bit of a stretch. But Hitchcock himself has long held that his low budget, black and white 1960 thriller, which literally invented the genre of slasher films, is a comedy.
I once made a movie, rather tongue-in-cheek, called Psycho…The content was, I felt, rather amusing and it was a big joke. I was horrified to find some people took it seriously.
What did Hitchcock mean by this exactly? He was famous for his wry wit and it is possible the real joke was to later classify the film itself as a joke. But there is also a likely earnestness in his claim. Hitchcock elaborates that he envisioned Psycho as a thrill ride, akin to a “switchback railway,” or rollercoaster.
It was intended to make people scream and yell and so forth – but no more than screaming and yelling on a switchback railway…you mustn’t go too far because you do want them to get off the switchback railway, giggling with pleasure.
Audiences certainly enjoyed the roller coaster ride of the film, and continue to do so to this day, although perhaps not “giggling with pleasure” at its finish. Does this mean Hitchcock failed, went too far? Hardly. What separates Psycho from its countless imitators is precisely its darkness and heft, the superb performances from the entire ensemble, especially Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, and perhaps most importantly Bernard Herrmann’s musical score.
That’s not to say the film lacks the tongue-in-cheek quality Hitchcock intended. There are quite a few laughs in the film, mostly from the brilliant bit performances. Pat Hitchcock shines as Marion’s homely co-worker (“He was flirting with you. I guess he must have noticed my wedding ring.”) as does John Anderson as used car salesman “California Charlie” (“You can do anything you’ve a mind to. Being a woman you will.”) and Helen Wallace as the eccentric hardware store customer concerned with finding a humane insect poison (“They tell you what its ingredients are, and how it’s guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world, but they do not tell you whether or not it’s painless. And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless.”). Even Norman balances his darkness with humorous bits of awkwardness, such as his incessant Kandy Korn nibbling.
Alfred Hitchcock was a celebrity as a personality as well as a director, and served as a perfect pitchman for his films. The marketing campaign for Psycho is almost as infamous as the film itself. It began with pre-production: Hitchcock bought up every copy of the novel on which the film was based so that the story would be as little known as possible, he had the actors sign confidentiality agreements before filming commenced, and he openly refused to allow Paramount to photograph the set. This anti-publicity served as ingenious publicity.
Hitchcock appreciated the shock value in killing off his star less than halfway into the picture, so he Continue reading →
Bill Murray may be the coolest living celebrity. This is due in large part to his very approach to celebrity. Murray is one of the few movie stars that is able to balance a consistent public presence, amassing both commercial and cult status, with a genuine private life.
You may see him at Cannes, but not on Facebook. He’s on Letterman, but not Twitter. He is evasive without being reclusive, reserved without being withdrawn. He famously has no agent or manager and can only be contacted through a 1-800 number, which his own lawyer uses to reach him. He reportedly has homes in South Carolina (he is co-owner and “Director of Fun” of the minor league baseball team the Charleston RiverDogs) and near the Pechanga Indian Casino in Temecula, California, as well as PO boxes in New York and Martha’s Vineyard (at least). The truth is, Bill Murray is never in one place for very long and is notorious for randomly interacting with fans at bars, fast food restaurants and, of course, karaoke booths. He’s crashed birthday parties and engagement photos. He once drove a cab from Oakland to Sausalito so that the driver, who worked 14-hour days, could practice his saxophone, stopping for barbeque at two in the morning along the way. He doesn’t retreat from the world, he simply chooses his own entrances.
This healthy, almost admirable, approach to celebrity is part of what has fueled one of show business’ great third acts. Having enjoyed blockbuster movie stardom in the 1980s and 1990s with iconic films such as Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, Murray is highly sought after in middle age by indie filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and Sofia Coppola, who have used his sardonic, almost post-hip persona to help elevate their quirky imaginings of the modern world.
But before the film success, Bill Murray began his comedy career with the legendary Chicago-based improve group The Second City, and eventually achieved national fame on Saturday Night Live.
Murray created many memorable characters on SNL, the most beloved of which is Nick the Lounge Singer. Continue reading →
There’s no love song finer
But how strange
From major to minor
Ev’ry time we say goodbye.
The strange change from major to minor runs throughout Cole Porter’s life and work. Harmonically, it was the signature of his sound. Personally, he was the toast of town; even in a wheelchair, having suffered a crippling riding accident that would eventually cost him his right leg; or in shadow, his homosexuality not proper upper-set cocktail conversation.
Cole Porter was born into the privilege and constraints of middle-western wealth in Peru, Indiana in 1891. His overbearing grandfather, J.O. Cole’s, reach dominated most aspects of Porter’s early life, even giving the boy the maternal family surname as his first, lest he be somehow denied the privilege of being a Cole.
He showed early promise as a violinist and pianist and began composing songs as young as ten, although he was a mischievous child. At the age of eight, Cole was kicked out of the local movie theater for playing comical music on the house piano during a sad part in a film. During summers on Lake Maxinkuckee, he and his friends would climb aboard the passing steamship in their bathing suits and dive off the back before it moved on. While on board, Cole headed straight toward the piano, wet suit and all, and pounded away on the keys, keeping time with the rhythm of the engine, until the ship captain chased him away and Cole made his escape somersaulting into the clear lake waters beyond the captain’s reach.
There’s something wild about you child
That’s so contagious
Let’s be outrageous
DON’T FENCE ME IN
His mischievousness would remain most of his life. His lyrics were littered with suggestive imagery and double entendre, which often put the songwriter at odds with censors of the day who took objection to lines such as “I’d love to make a tour of you,” especially “the south of you,” from the Silk Stockings number “All of You” (Ironically, the censors missed the most obscene thing about “All of You” – the song, about gaining “complete control” of a woman, is sung by a theatrical agent!) as well as entire compositions such as “Love For Sale.”
Anything didn’t always go.
Times have changed
And we’ve often rewound the clock
Since the Puritans got a shock
When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
Any shock they should try to stem,
‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,
Plymouth Rock would land on them
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
At Yale he studied English and music and composed several football fight songs. His natural charm and musicality made him a social success among the children of the eastern elite, even as he defied the conventional conservatism of the Ivy League (“[He] wore salmon-colored ties and had his nails done,” one classmate observed). His grandfather never considered music a worthwhile pursuit and insisted Cole attend Harvard Law School where he earned the equivalent of straight D’s his first year. The dean of the law school encouraged Cole to transfer to the Harvard School of Music, against his grandfather’s wishes.
Defying his grandfather by pursuing his passion for music would (almost) cost him his fortune before it would gain him another. His grandfather cut Cole completely from his will; however, Cole’s mother split her inheritance with her son, each of them ending up with two million dollars.
People always say that so much money spoils one’s life. But it didn’t spoil mine; it simply made it wonderful.
Porter lived a life of luxury, but he was a disciplined writer. He never waited for inspiration; he wrote constantly, and surrounded himself with staff paper and pencils, rhyming dictionaries, thesauruses, and other tools of the trade. Being left handed, he found it difficult to pencil in the notes of his compositions, so he would turn the staff paper on its side and write out the notes upward from the bottom of the page to the top, rather than left to right. No wonder then his best songs seem to take flight as they unfold, like bubbles in a glass of champagne. But there was another element that would permeate beyond the surface sheen of his milieu: hopeless longing.
It was just one of those nights,
Just one of those fabulous flights,
A trip to the moon on gossamer wings,
Just one of those things.
Porter found himself in Paris after World War I, when it seemed every young, modernist genius of the time – Picasso, Hemingway, Joyce – descended upon the City of Light like moths to a flame. And it was in Paris where he would meet his wife, Linda Lee Thomas, an American socialite eight years the songwriter’s senior. Continue reading →
Why aren’t there more films about effeminate Elvis impersonators doing Ozzy Osbourne songs with a crack bluegrass band? Co-writer/director/producer (and Nashville music producer) Scott Rouse set out to remedy this omission with his short film, Van Heffer.
The Comedy Central pilot traces the life, career and mysterious death of Sherman Van Heffer (Shane Caldwell) told in the style of the mockumentary pioneered by Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer with 1984’s This is Spinal Tap.
Van Heffer is peppered with a virtual who’s who of bluegrass legends playing themselves (Del McCoury, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill) as well as Nashville notables such as Station Inn owner J.T. Gray and Wichita Rutherford, which lend the film its sharp, sarcastic authenticity.
To the best of my knowledge nothing further came of the project with Comedy Central, but the pilot has become a cult classic, and was a hit at the 2006 Nashville Film Festival.
Look for yours truly (with a transitory southern accent) as the record store clerk. The running time is a mere 26 minutes, so there is very little commitment. Much like my acting.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Most great musicians develop their style by first imitating their musical heroes. This is especially true in country music. Ray Price was little more than a Hank Williams sound-alike until he eventually developed his own unique and influential sound. Ernest Tubb tried to sing like Jimmie Rodgers but a tonsillectomy caused him to end up sounding like, well, Ernest Tubb. Lefty Frizzel also tried to sound like Jimmie Rodgers, but his sweet, sliding way of singing resulted in yet another distinctive voice. Merle Haggard, who idolized Lefty’s singing, tried to emulate his style and ended up creating what is arguably the single most influential voice in country music.
One of our greatest feats as sophisticated beings is our ability to laugh at ourselves, in spite of ourselves. Merle Haggard’s life is the stuff of great fiction: born in a boxcar in Oildale, California to Okie migrant workers; a troubled childhood laboring in the California cotton fields and hopping freight trains; his incarceration in San Quentin State Prison where he discovered music as a means of escape, both figuratively and literally; his eventual pardon by then-governor Ronald Reagan, allowing him the freedom to tour unrestricted and build the career in music which would save his life. His songs are weighty, earnest, even Steinbeckian in their examination of hard lives and solitary men. But behind the melancholy Haggard has always had a bright and prevalent sense of humor. The man who wrote “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” “If We Make it Through December,” and “Silver Wings,” also had a knack for spot-on and hilarious impressions of his country music super star contemporaries.
Haggard not only causes his voice to sound eerily like the subjects of his impersonations, he can manipulate his face and body to reflect their mannerisms and overall physical presence in uncanny ways.
Here’s a clip of Merle Haggard on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour having some fun with Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Buck Owens and Johnny Cash. Make sure to stick around for the special guests at the end of the clip.
And here he is with the actual Marty Robbins. The set up takes a few minutes but is well worth it just to see Robbins’ reaction when Merle hits Marty’s trademark high falsetto.
And finally, an excerpt from Haggard’s 1970 album The Fightin’ Side of Me, recorded live in Philadelphia during a time when this medley of impersonations was a standard part of his live show.