The Cat Who Came First

I don’t write about every musician who dies, because most of the time, other people will do a better job than I. In this case, however, I can do OK. 

Jazz came to Europe from America during World War I, when the regimental band of the Fighting 369th, a black unit that was the first American force to reach France, played the music that was taking America by storm. When war again tore through Europe in the 1940s, American GIs again brought their music along. By the end of World War II, the European jazz scene was thriving. In Denmark, a young fan named Bent Fabricius-Bjerre formed a band after the war and made the first-ever Danish jazz records. They were successful enough for him to form his own record label, Metronome, in 1950. He later hosted a show on Danish TV, a variety series called Omkring et flygel, translated to English as Around a Piano. (He had, by this time, shortened his name to Bent Fabric.) By 1961, the show was so popular that its theme song became a hit in Denmark, and it quickly spread to other countries in Europe.

The early 60s were an uncomfortable time for pop music. Elvis had gone Hollywood; the creativity and freshness of the early years of rock ‘n’ roll had waned; although Bob Dylan was in New York and the Beatles were in Liverpool, neither had broken through yet. Even R&B, which had provided such a deep well of material for record labels like Atlantic through the 50s, was going through a dry spell. On the lookout for the next big thing, Atlantic noticed Fabric’s popularity in Europe, and picked up some of his songs for release in the States. The label believed that the Omkring et flygel theme would be a hit here, too, but not with that title. And so, in true American zippy-marketeer fashion, the song was renamed “Alley Cat.” (Atlantic’s marketing department concocted a story that Fabric had been inspired to write the song by his two cats. Fabric did not own a cat.) In the late summer and early fall of 1962, it rose to #7 on the Hot 100. An album of the same name became Atlantic’s best-selling title of the year.

The followup single, “Chicken Feed,” failed to match the stateside success of “Alley Cat.” “Alley Cat” did, however, win the first Grammy given for Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Recording (in 1963), which would boggle the mind if the Grammys didn’t do stuff like that all the time. A collaboration with British clarinetist Acker Bilk didn’t return Bent Fabric to the American charts, either.

It’s doubtful, however, that he cared much. He remained a well-known figure in Danish musical circles, and Around a Piano stayed on TV for years. Metronome eventually moved into television production and, after becoming part of a larger media group, produced (if Google Translate is helping me understand the Danish obituaries properly) Scandinavian versions of shows including Big Brother and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In 2003, Fabric scored an enormous Danish hit with “Jukebox.” Three years later, a remixed version of it became a hit in American clubs. In 2010, at age 85, he appeared in a movie as a brothel owner. He played his final concert in 2019.

Bent Fabric died yesterday at age 95.  One obituary says of him, “old age never came. He made sure to keep it at a distance.”

Like other hit records of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, “Alley Cat” spawned a dance of its own, a simple step that is still performed by elementary-school students today. I am told that I developed my own little dance to “Alley Cat,” which my parents had purchased on a 45. In the fall of 1962, I was two years old. So I guess it’s not true that “Candida” was the first record I ever loved. “Alley Cat” came first.

This post is rebooted from one originally appearing in 2009.

Good Golly

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(Pictured: Little Richard in the 1957 movie Mister Rock and Roll.)

Of the members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first class, only two are still with us: Jerry Lee Lewis, age 84, and Don Everly, age 83. Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Phil Everly, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard are all gone now.

I cannot remember when I first heard, or heard of, these people. My parents’ radio stations might have played certain songs by Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, the Everly Brothers, and Elvis, but I don’t recall specifics. When I first started listening to WLS in 1970, I might have heard them there. Whether I knew who they were and what they represented—well, it’s been too long for me to know. But as time went by, from radio, or TV, or reading, or whatever, I learned who they were, even if I didn’t yet fully appreciate Who They Were. My education didn’t truly begin until I got into radio and became responsible for running the syndicated program Sunday at the Memories. Host Ray Durkee loved 50s music and the stars who made it. He taught me a lot, and he made me want to learn and hear more.

I didn’t have to listen very long to understand that Little Richard’s energy was different. Where the pianos of Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino rolled like a mighty river, Little Richard’s hit like a battering ram. Elvis sang, but Little Richard shouted. Ray Charles testified, but Little Richard came off possessed. “Tutti Frutti,” “Lucille,” “Keep a-Knockin’,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and the others were wild in a way that the other iconic hits of the 50s were not, not “I’m Walkin’,” not “Great Balls of Fire,” not “Johnny B. Goode,” not anything else.

Not since Glen Campbell died in 2017 has Twitter felt more like a firehose of information than it did after Richard’s death was announced on Saturday morning. Here’s some of what I saw, read, and heard:

—In 2004, Little Richard himself reflected on his career and influence for Rolling Stone.

—Bob Stanley, author of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Modern Pop, wrote about Little Richard and what he meant for The Guardian; his piece contained some insights I didn’t see anywhere else.

—Rob Sheffield described the remarkable range of Little Richard’s influence: everybody who was anybody.

—A couple of Twitter threads told some tales proving that of all the early rockers, Little Richard was the biggest character: this one, about an early 90s Little Richard/Jerry Lee double bill that was quite something; and this one, in which Richard made a big entrance and an even bigger impression.

—The excellent Let It Roll podcast did a number of episodes in 2017 with author and historian Ed Ward that discussed Little Richard and his times. Find them here.

—The original Ernie version of the Sesame Street song “Rubber Duckie” is a war crime, but Richard’s version is a big improvement.

Look over the list of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers beyond the 1986 inaugural class and you’ll see that only a few of the pioneers remain. In addition to Jerry Lee Lewis and Don Everly, Charlie Thomas, last of the original Drifters, is still here at age 83. Dion will be 81 this summer. Several of the Isley Brothers, who first hit in 1959, are still among us. If you want to count Tina Turner or Smokey Robinson, both 80 years old, working musicians in the late 50s who found their greatest fame in the 60s, I’m good with that. The greatest surviving stars of the 60s, several Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson, the Rolling Stones, Paul and Ringo, are all on the far side of 70.

At a time when the oldest among us are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, it’s natural to feel more protective of them than ever before. And not just musicians. One night last week, The Mrs. and I made a list of elderly VIPs we’re glad are still here: her Aunt Clara, Betty White, Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tony Bennett, Olivia de Havilland (who will be 104 this summer), Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Norman Lear. And we mentioned Little Richard too, never knowing that he’d be in the news only a couple of days later.

Counting Flowers

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(Pictured: the Statler Brothers in 1981; L to R, Harold Reid, Phil Balsley, Don Reid, Lew DeWitt.)

(Here’s one of those posts I warned you about at the very beginning: one that may not be of interest to anyone but me.)

I have written many times over the years that I grew up in a house where the radio was always on. And even before I had my own music on my own stations, I was absorbing what I was hearing on Mother and Dad’s radios. That education served me well when I became a radio DJ. My first paying job, at KDTH in Dubuque, involved playing country music, mostly. Although I would not have claimed to know anything about country when I started there, I soon realized that I did, because I’d grown up listening to it, even if I hadn’t intended to. One of the acts I discovered that I knew pretty well was the Statler Brothers.

The Statlers’ first big hit, “Flowers on the Wall,” from 1965, was yet another song I knew before I knew that I knew it. After “Flowers on the Wall,” the Statlers were best known for performing with Johnny Cash; they were on the bill with Cash at Folsom Prison in 1968. They had a small handful of country hits during the last half of the 60s; the 1967 top-10 hit “You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith Too” was a template for a lot of what was to come. Comedy became a big part of the Statler Brothers’ stage show, but their gift for wordplay gave a lot of their songs unexpected emotional depth.

For example, you learn a lot about a certain small town in these two lines: “She was called a scarlet woman by the people / Who would go to church but left me in the streets.” Those are the opening lines from “Bed of Rose’s,” which at the end of 1970 became the Statlers’ biggest hit since “Flowers on the Wall.” The possessive “Rose’s” is correct; the singer is a homeless 18-year-old boy, and the nature of his relationship with Rose, the town’s lady of the evening, is ambiguous. I’ve always chosen to think, however, that by the end of Rose’s life, he loves her as if she were his mother. “Bed of Rose’s” crossed over to the pop chart, making #58 on the Hot 100.

In 1972, the Statlers scored two Top-10 hits that they’d sing at every show for the rest of time. “Do You Remember These,” a laundry list of pop culture items from the 40s and 50s, resonated strongly with their generation, born in the 1930s. “The Class of ’57” had a similarly nostalgic vibe, and is again in the form of a list, as the Statlers describe what happened to each of their classmates. But the list packs a subtle wallop:

Betty runs a trailer park
Jan sells Tupperware
Randy’s on an insane ward and Mary’s on welfare
Charlie took a job at Ford
Joe took Freddie’s wife
Charlotte took a millionaire and Freddie took his life

If you could write a lyric like that, why wouldn’t you?

Unlike many country acts, the Statler Brothers wrote most of their own songs. Harold and Don Reid, the group’s only actual brothers, were the principal songwriters, together and separately; their names are on the group’s biggest hits, including “Bed of Rose’s,” “Do You Remember These,” “The Class of ’57”, “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You” (which made #93 on the Hot 100) and “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine,” which in 1978 became the first of the group’s four #1 country hits.

By the turn of the 80s, the Statlers fell into a familiar trap for country artists of the time: the need to release three singles a year meant that not all of them were going to be classics. Some would be pretty slight, and they would disappear from memory as soon as they fell out of current rotation. Nevertheless, practically everything they released between 1978 and 1986 made the country Top 10. They hit #1 as late as 1985 and charted for the last time in 1989. They hosted a syndicated TV show in the 80s and 90s before they retired from performing in 2002. Somehow, it took until 2008 for them to make the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Founding Brother Lew DeWitt (who wrote “Flowers on the Wall”) left the group in 1982 and died in 1990. This past weekend, Harold Reid, whose baritone anchored the Statlers’ unique sound, died after a long illness. He was 80.

Would You Still Remember Me?

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(Pictured: Lynryd Skynyrd, on the road in 1976.)

Classic-rock radio, and album-rock radio before it, has certain songs upon which its entire ethos and reputation is built. One of the most important is “Free Bird.”

“Free Bird” was on Lynryd Skynyrd’s debut album, released in 1973, and it certainly would have gotten album-rock airplay from the time the album came out. But it didn’t catch on as a single until after “Sweet Home Alabama” (from their second album) had opened the way in the fall of ’74. Although a couple of smaller radio stations could claim to be on it first, KDWB in Minneapolis/St. Paul led the flight of “Free Bird.” The station charted it in late October 1974, and it stayed in the Top 10 there through much of December and January. WYSL in Buffalo and WAKY in Louisville would also chart it high before 1974 was over. The record (edited to 4:41 from 9:08) cracked the Hot 100 at the end of November and rose to #19 for two weeks from January 25, 1975.

In late 1976, Lynryd Skynryd released the live album One More From the Road. Ronnie Van Zant asks the audience at a show in Atlanta, “What song is it you want to hear?” There follows a 14-minute version that completely stomps the original, looser and more soulful, with a gorgeous piano replacing the organ heard on the album version, and a long piano solo that is surprising in the context of a song better-known as a triple lead-guitar blazer. (This is the version a lot of classic-rock and album-rock stations, including my college station, played, although I haven’t heard it on the radio recently.) An edited version of it, cut to 4:55, was on a few Top 40 stations by the end of October 1976. It had neither the reach nor the run of the studio version, although it reached #11 on WLS in Chicago on the first chart of 1977. It spent eight weeks on the Hot 100, peaking at #38, on January 8, 1977.

One way of looking at “Free Bird” today is as its own self-comment on 70s rock ‘n’ roll excess. It was nine minutes long in 1973 because it could be, not necessarily because it needed to be, and the half-length 1974 single loses nothing significant except the stately organ-and-piano introduction. But by 1976, the song’s reputation was such that it wouldn’t sound right at anything less than epic length. On the One More From the Road version, you can hear the crowd go wild around the 11-minute mark as the band kicks into a still-higher gear, and their reaction is unexpectely thrilling. The song takes nearly 90 seconds just to end, but there’s no sense that the band is doing anything more than the song, and the audience, deserves. Even though it’s edited from the same performance, the 1977 single comes off like a pale copy. The song is there, but none of the excitement.

The place of “Free Bird” in rock history was cemented by Lynryd Skynyrd’s 1977 plane crash. The bird in the song would be forever conflated with the band members lost, even though it’s likely that the band would have closed every show with it until the end of time anyway. Before the crash, the band frequently dedicated it to the memory of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. In the years since, the surviving members of the band have often performed it as an instrumental in tribute.

On the Subject of Tributes: I often use Ron Smith’s Chicago Top 40 Charts 1970-1979 as a resource at this website. Smith’s books did for the weekly charts of WLS and WCFL what Joel Whitburn has done for the Billboard charts. Ron Smith died suddenly earlier this month at the age of 66, which does not seem very old to me at all. He was a radio personality and movie producer as well as an author and researcher. He and I exchanged a bit of e-mail over the years, and I am grateful for what he provided to this low-rent site of mine, and for what his books will continue to provide even though he’s gone.

After I’d mostly finished this post, Monty Python member Terry Jones died. I worshipped at the Python altar practically from the moment they came ashore in America. I adored—and still adore—their erudite absurdity. They were the smartest funny people I’d ever seen. So I am grateful to Terry Jones too for what he provided to a low-rent jokester such as I, and for the inspiration his works will continue to provide even though he’s gone.

The Wish

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A couple of weeks ago, somebody—and I forget who because I found the whole thing too depressing to finish—wrote a piece focused on the ages of prominent rock figures from the 60s to the 80s, and the likelihood that they’re going to start dying in droves. And then it started happening. Eddie Money died on Friday at the age of 70, and Ric Ocasek of the Cars died yesterday at 75.

(That’s older than you’d expect. “Baby Hold On,” Money’s first hit in the summer of 1978, would have come when he was already pushing 30; when “Just What I Needed” hit that fall, Ocasek was 34.)

Money’s first two hits, “Baby Hold On” and “Two Tickets to Paradise” (always choose the 45 mix, people), were simple, no-frills rock, the kind of thing that stood out in 1978, a year filled with lightweight pop tunes. His third album, 1980’s Playing for Keeps, has two of my favorite performances: “Trinidad,” with great jangly guitars and big stomping drums, and “The Wish,” which builds up from a single sizzling riff into a tough rock ‘n’ roll strut that leaves no ass unkicked.

Money ascended to a new level of stardom in the MTV era. In 1982, No Control featured “Shakin'” and “Think I’m in Love,” which are in competition with “Baby Hold On” for the title of Eddie Money’s signature song. Unless that’s “Take Me Home Tonight” from his 1986 album Can’t Hold Back, his highest-charting single of all.

(In 1986, the first show of the tour supporting Can’t Hold Back was in the Illinois college town where I was a Top 40 morning jock. Ann and I went to the soundcheck that afternoon, where we were surprised to see how tough he was on his band. He repeatedly stopped run-throughs and made his guys do them again. He was pretty blunt in telling them he expected more than they were delivering. When we sat down for our interview, that was the first thing I said to him: “You were working the band pretty hard out there.” “I was,” he said. “This is our job, and this tour is important, and we’ve got to get it right.” I had always assumed that rock bands just kind of showed up and started to play. His level of commitment opened my eyes, and it impressed me. I never forgot it.)

Part of Eddie Money’s appeal was his regular-guyness. Part of Ric Ocasek’s appeal, and that of the Cars, was that they were not. There had never been anything that sounded quite like that first album, with its all-world opening threesome of “Good Times Roll,” “Just What I Needed,” and “My Best Friend’s Girl.” The Cars is where the musical decade of the 80s begins: the band’s music and their buttoned-up look have lot more in common with the chilly, danceable pop music of the 80s and the fashion plates who made it than they do with the styles and stars of the looser, scruffier 70s. Candy-O remains my favorite of theirs. And as Alfred Soto wrote at Pitchfork last year, their 80s albums were both experimental and squarely in the pocket for the decade, which is not an easy daily double to hit.

Like Money, the Cars became MTV superstars in the 80s, and like him, they were a sure thing for several years. But the Cars were done as a force by 1987, shortly after Ocasek’s solo career peaked with the single “Emotion in Motion” (although he made five other solo albums between 1991 and 2005, and the surviving Cars reunited for a one-off album in 2011). He was also a prominent producer, and his 28-year marriage to supermodel Paulina Porizkova (pictured above in 1990) gave hope to nerdy-lookin’ dudes everywhere. After the 1991 album Right Here, Money’s longtime label Columbia dropped him, and he settled into a period of recording infrequently on small labels and playing shows featuring his old hits. But thanks to oldies and classic-rock radio, neither act ever disappeared.

At the end, Eddie Money was pretty happy just being Eddie Money, with a respectable set list to entertain the people. And that’s the kind of ending you and I might wish for: to be 70 years old and at peace with how things have turned out for you. We don’t know whether Ric Ocasek’s life turned out as he wished, given that he kept a much lower profile. But from the outside looking in at the lives of both of them, we can guess that it would be a fine thing to have so many people care so much about you when your time comes to leave.

The Hero

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You are a young boy growing up in 1960s Wisconsin. The Green Bay Packers have won five championships in seven years, but by the time you start watching, Vince Lombardi is no longer the coach, and the championship veterans are aging. The first year you can remember, they have a losing season. The next year they’re a little better. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the popular bumper sticker you see all over the state—the one that reads “The Pack Will Be Back!”—is more wish than prediction. Yet hope remains, because the gladiators of the Glory Years still remain: Ray Nitschke, Willie Davis, Willie Wood, Carroll Dale, Boyd Dowler, Forrest Gregg, Dave Robinson, and others.

And Bart Starr. Your wardrobe includes a yellow jersey-style shirt with his number 15 on it, which your parents bought when you barely knew who Bart Starr was. And when you start watching the games, Bart becomes your favorite Packer.

It might be because he’s the most visible player, the quarterback, the one who gets the ball on every play. The leader, the alpha dog. Or maybe it’s that name. You learn fairly early on that his given name is Bryan Bartlett Starr, and because his middle name matches your last, there’s a connection. But those two snappy syllables, “Bart Starr,” are almost too good to be true. They’re like a name you’d find in a Frank Merriwell story. “Bart Starr” will not be a mountainous defensive lineman or a speedy wide receiver. He has to be a quarterback.

In a movie, “Bart Starr” would be an upright sheriff or a brave fighter pilot. He would be the hero. In the real world of football, he was also the hero, and he becomes mine.

I will respect many athletes over the years, but only one will ever be my hero.

Bart Starr died over the weekend at age 85. It’s nearly 50 years since he last played, but younger fans in Wisconsin know him and what the 1960s Packers accomplished because the Glory Years remain a living presence here, even as the men themselves pass away. On slow afternoons, dudes of a certain age find themselves watching 60s highlights on YouTube. Every year on December 31, we think of 1967, and the impossible story of the Ice Bowl, a game in which those men—Lombardi, Nitschke, Davis, Wood, Dale, Dowler, Gregg, Robinson, Starr, and their teammates—did not merely defeat the Dallas Cowboys but nature itself, did not merely win a football game but were transfigured into gods by the doing of it.

It was Bart Starr who won that game, driving the Packers down the field, seeing the opportunity to run a particular play on the goal line, and then executing it to secure victory as time ran out. If Bart Starr had never played another game after that day, his legend would loom just as large as it does today.

What came after, on the field, was not so glorious. After Super Bowl II (the anti-climax of all anti-climaxes, two weeks after the Ice Bowl), Vince Lombardi retired and less successful seasons followed. Starr himself played through the 1971 season, but was plagued by injuries and age. In 1972, he became a coach, calling the plays from the sidelines as he had done on the field, but only for a year. After two years away from the team, he was hired as the Packers’ head coach and general manager. But the team did not have much success apart from the strike-shortened 1982 season, and he was fired after his ninth season, in 1983.

Bart Starr’s greatness as a player erases our memories of his less-than-greatness as a coach. But his greatness as a player should be eclipsed by the man he was. His record of philanthropy is impressive, but the countless stories of simple human decency that are told about him remind us that whatever good each of us might do for others, there is more we could be doing.

Bart Starr was a great human being. Possibly the best one.