On the Distant Shore

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(Pictured: Jimmie Rodgers, on the right, with the Everly Brothers, 1970.)

I follow a lot of creative people on Twitter, and several of them have said that creative work has been difficult during the last year, between the pandemic, the political upheavals, and everything else in the world. It is a measure of my relative privilege that I have not experienced this myself . . . until recently. Since early in 2021, it’s like a door slammed shut or a spigot turned off.  I wrote Sidepiece posts after the attack on the Capitol and the inauguration, but that’s it. At this site, the pace will pick up a little next week, as I have a bunch of stuff in the can I wrote around New Year’s. Until then, and beyond that, who knows. 

It has occurred to me that I never said anything about Phil Spector after his death a couple of weeks ago. There are lots of people in the world who fashion themselves as mad geniuses but few who come by the label honestly. Nobody disputes that he was a terrible human being. Nobody should dispute the power and beauty of the records he produced, his influence on producers and performers who followed him, or the fascination of his strange life.

It is the official position of this website that we should not judge the value of the art by the character of the artist, or there won’t be anyone left but Christian rockers and the boring young singers Nashville extrudes these days. But not everybody agrees. I saw the following take after Spector’s death: “We shouldn’t play his records anymore. Let him be forgotten.” Easy to say, but desperately unfair. Darlene Love told Rolling Stone (in a piece I’m not linking to, since RS is now paywalled and I’m pretty crabby about it) that Spector gave her “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and with it, her career, and why would she give that up? Even Ronnie Spector, who knows better than any of us how rotten Phil was, separates the man from the music she made with him. If artists intimately connected with him believe their work with him should still be heard, who are we to say they’re wrong?

Also: I didn’t hear anybody suggest we should stop listening to “Instant Karma,” All Things Must Pass, or the Ramones’ End of the Century—only the girl-group records. And that opens an interesting window into gender politics, I think, but we ain’t going there today.

“OK,” as I frequently say to my students, “new topic.”

Among performers who first made their mark in the 1950s, only a handful still walk among us. One of those performers died last week: Jimmie Rodgers. He is not the Singing Brakeman, one of the founding fathers of country music. This Jimmie Rodgers scored a handful of hits in the late 50s that made it into the good times/great oldies pantheon for a while, and anybody halfway conversant with the early rock ‘n’ roll era should know them. “Honeycomb” was a #1 hit; “Secretly,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” and “Uh-Oh I’m Falling in Love Again” all made the Top 10; “Bimbombey” peaked at #11. All of them came in 1957 and 1958.

(Two of Rodgers’ songs were adapted into commercial jingles embedded in baby-boomer DNA: “Honeycomb” was used to plug Post’s Honeycomb cereal, and “Uh-Oh I’m Falling in Love Again” was the basis for the slogan “Uh-oh, Spaghetti-O’s.”)

Once the hits slowed down, Rodgers remained visible, largely on TV variety shows. In typical turn-of-the-60s, cash-in-with-the-kids fashion, he got lead roles in a couple of movies, as a Civil War soldier in The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come and a World War II dogface in Back Door to Hell. In 1967, Rodgers was seriously injured in a beating incident, which he blamed on the Los Angeles police but which may have been ordered by mobbed-up record executive Morris Levy after Rodgers insisted on royalty payments he hadn’t received. In 1969, he starred in a summer replacement for The Carol Burnett Show on which Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner were regulars. Rodgers continued to record through the end of the 1970s and to perform for a few years after that.

Jimmie Rodgers was 87; Phil Spector was 81. Their deaths, coming close upon those of contemporaries Hank Aaron (86), Larry King (87), and Gregory Sierra (83), add to the number of icons we leave behind on the ever-more-distant shore, as we sail on.

9 thoughts on “On the Distant Shore

  1. mikehagerty

    Were I to have to plead Phil Spector’s case for the afterlife (a losing case, I know), I’d stick to one claim to mitigation. The man produced “Black Pearl”, a record of transcendent beauty.

    Sinatra (allegedly) caved in a dude’s head with a phone in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. The guy’s transgression? Asking Frank and some rowdy, obscene friends to tone it down a bit. You can have my copy of “Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim” when I die, but not a second sooner.

    As for the writing block—I get it. Same thing here with my automotive site. I knocked out two or three on the first weekend of the year and had absolutely no urge to write between January 4 and January 24. Yesterday, the veil lifted. I’ve done five pieces in the last 24 hours.

    May it vanish as quickly for you, JB. We’d miss you too much if it went on very long.

  2. Yah Shure

    My siblings and I had “Honeycomb”, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and “Are You Really Mine”/”The Wizard” amongst our 1957-58 collection of 45s, although “Honeycomb” never made it back from one of those typical school dances of the time. Where the family name once sat atop the label underneath cellophane tape on “Kisses”, now resembles a torn-off white splotch, making it appear to be on the “oulette” label.

    The last Roulette single of Jimmie’s I remember hearing on the radio as a current was “Tucumcari”, and as I drove years ago through the Texas panhandle westbound on I-40 past Amarillo in the late morning, it occurred to me to see if I could find KTNM on the radio. Tucumcari was still some 50 miles ahead, and being that KTNM resided on the graveyard frequency of 1400 AM, I figured I was still well out of range. Much to my surprise, the signal was already booming in.

    What struck me as odd was that after every (country) song, the air personality would say, “You’re listening to KTNM, Tucumcari, New Mexico.” Never just “KTNM” or “KTNM/Tucumcari”; the state’s name was forever part of the bargain. Score one for preaching geography.

    The last time I passed through Tucumcari, there was no more pummeling of the ears with call letters, city and state, ad nauseum on AM 1400. Instead, it sounded like any other station on autopilot. After exiting the freeway, I turned up Dale Street and found the KTNM/KQAY studio building, unattended. At that moment, one of those incessant, full station I.D.s would have been the most welcome sound in the world.

    1. mikehagerty

      I wonder if a locally programmed, live small-town AM radio station still exists. I worked in my wife’s hometown in 1976 and 1977 (we met once then and married 40 years later—it’s a long story). KUKI in Ukiah is at 1400 AM as well. I programmed it for all but the first month I was there—live and local all the way, apart from Sunday morning taped religion and public affairs programs.

      Now it’s a satellite (or however they deliver it) oldies station with a live jock in the morning. I made the mistake of stopping in two or three years ago for the first time. The place, one of the nicest small stations I’d ever seen back in the day, is a pit.

      For a lot of reasons, there’s just not much money in small-town advertising these days. They’re lucky to pay the power bill, I guess.

      1. Yah Shure

        Mike, I know of a couple small market success stories, and their devotion to the local community makes it work. KDWA/1460 is a class D AM in Hastings, MN, which is well within range of most signals from the neighboring Twin Cities. Yet, by hyper-focusing on the local goings-on, both it and its fairly recent FM translator have managed to thrive, local and live.

        One of my former KOMA PDs bought the assets of a dark class D AM in Bloomsburg (a college town of some 13,000 in NE PA), which had bled money during its previous two ownerships. The competing AM’s license had been surrendered and its class B FM sold to out-of-towers who moved the sales and programming operations to focus on another small market. Joe started with a temporary longwire antenna and got 930/WHLM back on the air, just before 9/11. His first two priorities were engineering and programming, and once those were up to snuff, he turned his attention to sales. He’s upgraded the AM’s daytime power from 1kW to 2kW and added several FM translators to supplement the AM’s meager 18-watt nighttime coverage.

        The station is live from morning through afternoon drive, with a heavy emphasis on local news, weather, sports and community events, interwoven with classic hits. A former flower shop on Main Street serves as a showcase studio, on the pedestrian-heavy sidewalk connecting the University with downtown. When the Susquehanna River floods the town, WHLM covers it nonstop. The staff is small, the hours are long, and aside from a dip in revenue last year, sales have grown every year Joe’s owned it. The station gives back to the community by sponsoring a big parade of lights every Black Friday.

        As much as I loved doing community-intense small market radio at my first gig, moving to Pennsylvania was not in the cards when Joe asked me to come work with him again. However, it’s great to visit and see what he keeps doing with the place, unlike your experience with KUKI!

  3. Wesley

    Never apologize for having a slow creative period, buddy. It happens to all of us. Hell, you may have already surpassed the entire writing output of Harper Lee, for all we know (two novels and that’s about it).

    Spector was so omnipresent in the LA music scene throughout the 1960s that banning his records is fruitless. You can’t draw the line, and you shouldn’t.

    And on a final note, anyone who had to work a late shift from 1978 through the 1980s and needed something regarding life on the long way home must pay thanks to what Larry King did on the Mutual Broadcasting System. A great conversationalist no matter who he talked to or when. Hearing him growl out the name of callers’ cities like “Walla Walla, Washington” before they spoke the piece was one of the purest joys of the medium ever to me.

    1. mikehagerty

      So true about Larry King. After a stretch of working morning drive, I moved to Reno in November of 1977 for a Music Director/6-to-midnight gig. A few weeks later, Larry started his Mutual show on another station in town and I’d drive home listening to him.

      The Carvel’s Ice Cream story alone would have made him a broadcast legend.

  4. T.

    “Let him be forgotten”. Such an ominous sentence, like something out of Shakespeare.
    My only reply would be: Listen to “Do I Love You” by the Ronettes. It is the sound of angels.

  5. mikehagerty

    YahShure: Thank you for telling me about those. It gives me hope. Having lived in both Bishop (population 3,500) and Ukiah, (10,000 then, 16,500 now), I know how important these stations are or at least can be to the fabric of the community.

    1. Yah Shure

      Mike, I should also add WEBO-AM in Owego, NY as another example. Like his mentor Joe, with whom he worked in Rochester, NY, Dave Radigan bought an AM with no permanent tower and turned it into a profitable community asset.

      What makes these local success stories possible is that not only do the stations constantly strive to be deeply involved in the communities they serve, they work equally hard at involving the participation of the people of those same communities in “their” radio stations. That second, often-ignored element is essential. It takes a truly committed, hands-on local owner to make it happen.

      Is that the sound of KBOV in Bishop or KUKI I hear calling your name? ;)

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