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.

The Last Words

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(Pictured: a young man holds a sign in tribute to John Lennon, 1980.)

Mark was a colleague of mine, another part-time DJ at KDTH, a country station in Dubuque, Iowa, back at the turn of the 80s. He worked a 10-to-midnight shift on Mondays, and a few years ago on Facebook, he wrote about his experience on the night of December 8, 1980:

As I usually did about 10 minutes before my airshift was to begin, I found my way to the newsroom to clear the AP wire and prepare for a little sportscast I did after the 10:00 news.

The moment I arrived in the newsroom, the mechanical AP wire went absolutely apeshit, with a tremendous, clanging racket of bells such as I’d never heard. In those days they didn’t ring the warning bells on the wire often and when they did it was always news of some import, usually a flash or breaking news. I checked the wire just as the flash headline was printing out, JOHN LENNON SHOT DEAD.

Immediately, I ripped the story from the wire and ran from the newsroom into the air studio, and gave it to the woman I was about to replace on the air …. She read it on the air, choking up while she read it, and played “Imagine” immediately after. We unilaterally decided to play all Lennon or Beatle songs for the rest of the night, and none of the usually cantankerous country fans even called to complain.

While I was pulling my airshift on the AM station, the program director of our automated FM station called to ask the news guy and myself to dub off as many Beatle/Lennon songs as we could find and feed them into the automation system …. coming within an eyelash of airing “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” on the radio, the very night its singer and songwriter was assassinated….

Somehow, I managed to get through my airshift. Immediately after signing both stations off the air, I went up on the roof of the station as I often did, rolled up a fat joint, smoked it, and allowed myself a good cry. This horrible, obscene thing was just too much to bear. 

I looked back at Radio and Records to see how the industry reacted to the murder in real time. It devoted much of the front page of its December 12 issue to a montage of pictures and a written tribute. Inside, under the heading “The Last Words,” it was reported that John and Yoko spent three hours late in the afternoon of December 8 being interviewed for the RKO Radio Network, and how afterward, the Lennons caught a ride with the RKO guys to the Record Plant studio. The article mentions waiting for Lennon to sign an autograph for a fan outside the Dakota. We know now, of course, that the fan was Mark David Chapman.

The magazine also detailed how program syndicators were scrambling to accommodate the Lennon story, in many cases updating year-end programs that had already been produced. It was reported that “Watermark has dropped a regularly scheduled hour of its American Top 40 for this weekend in favor of a specially-produced retrospective on Lennon.” That did not actually happen, although Casey’s producers made available an alternate program segment that stations could drop into the already-produced show to replace “(Just Like) Starting Over,” which was at #4 for the week. The AT40 production staff was also forced to update a feature earlier in the show about the top posthumous acts of the rock era.

In the December 19 issue, it was reported that a radio station in Baltimore had planned a memorial benefit with proceeds going to a gun-control group, but its lawyers advised that the Fairness Doctrine might require the station to give an organization such as the National Rifle Association equal time to respond. The event was canceled, and the station instead donated proceeds from an earlier event featuring Beatles movies to one of Lennon’s favorite charities.

On the Contemporary Hit Radio page, columnist John Leader wrote about radio’s response to the murder, how stations tossed their regular programming out the window on that night, how they opened the phones just to let people talk, how they helped arrange public memorials, and more. Leader concluded:

Radio can and should be so much more than the playlist, commercial log, and jock schedule. Radio is communication on a very personal and basic level. Radio is entertainment and companionship. Radio is always there with the flexibility to respond to the needs of its listeners. 

Last week radio did itself proud in the worst and the best of times. 

December 8 and After

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(Pictured: John and Yoko, November 2, 1980.)

I feel compelled to write a bit about John Lennon’s death 40 years ago today, but I haven’t got much to add to what I’ve written here in the past. A bunch of us had been at a campus bar on that Monday night; the football game was on TV, and Howard Cosell likely made his famous announcement while we were there, but with the sound down, nobody heard it. When I got back to my apartment and walked in the door, the phone was ringing. It was one of the guys I’d been drinking with minutes before, telling me the news. My roommates and I turned on CNN, and I remember wanting to cry but not wanting to do it in front of them. The memory has stuck with me because it was the first time in my life that something that had not happened to me directly affected me like that. John Lennon wasn’t a family member or a friend (or even a beloved pet), but I felt his loss in the same way.

I was program director of the campus radio station, but we were off the air that week, waiting on a transmitter repair, so there was nothing we could do but mourn privately. We were back on the air by the weekend, however, so when the world’s radio stations went silent for several minutes in tribute that Sunday, we were able to participate.

I wrote a music column for the campus newspaper then, and I think our deadline was noon on Tuesday. So I went into the office and wrote something that morning to replace whatever I had already submitted. I don’t have a clipping, and I have little memory of it, which is just as well. I am not proud of my columns, which are mostly dumb opinions expressed poorly. Whatever I wrote was probably inadequate for the moment.

Walking around campus that day, Lennon was inescapable, and not just because each of us was playing his music in our heads. Somebody, or several somebodies, had posted pictures of him on walls, on bulletin boards, on message posts, all over campus. His face was everywhere.

That week, during which the world mourned, was the campus TV station’s annual telethon for Wisconsin Badger Camp, and I worked a few shifts behind the scenes on the tech crew. The telethon was always the capper to the fall semester. Finals would have been the next week. After that, we all went home for Christmas, and life went on as it always had.

“Life went on as it always had.” It does not feel now, 40 years later, like John Lennon’s death marks a historical break. It felt like one then: the leader of the most important band in history, rock’s philosopher-poet, has been taken from us too young by a senseless act of murder, and nothing is ever going to be the same again.

But apart from foreclosing any idea of a Beatles reunion (which was the longest of longshots in 1980 anyway), his murder really didn’t change the course of history all that much. What—specifically—happened, or did not happen, as a direct result of his death? The single biggest thing was lost music. But as a comeback, Double Fantasy was less than I wanted to hear from him. Maybe his five years off the radar, devoted to house-husbandry and fatherhood, had mellowed him (as others seemed to mellow by the dawn of the 80s), but maybe it was temporary. Maybe his next album would have been more challenging. Or not. But it certainly would have been something, and we’ll never know what.

Beyond that, it’s hard for me to imagine MTV-era John Lennon, or grunge-era John Lennon—or #MeToo era John Lennon, for that matter. In the years following 1980, we saw each Beatle’s gift writ large: Paul’s bottomless well of ideas, George’s generous willingness to collaborate, Ringo’s ability to reflect the fans’ love back on them. What would John’s gift have turned out to be? How would it have played through the 40 years he didn’t get to live?

Maybe, just as they were back then, my thoughts on Lennon’s death are inadequate once again. But that’s the chance you take when you click over here. Let me know what yours are.

Via Facebook, I convened a small panel of sages to help me think about this topic, and I thank each of them for their thoughts. Also: our pal Yah Shure was on the air on December 8, 1980, and he shared his recollections here

The Total Sinatra

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I wrote this last summer after reading James Kaplan’s monumental Frank Sinatra biography. I didn’t post it then, but here it is now. 

Frank Sinatra was the first musical celebrity in the modern sense, the first to excite mobs of screaming teenagers like Elvis Presley and the Beatles and a gaggle of lesser stars would eventually do. While his popularity in the 40s rivaled that of Bing Crosby, his celebrity was of a different degree. Bing was cool and understated; Sinatra was hot, and he made other people hot. Nobody was going to tear up a theater or rush a police line to get their hands on Crosby, but Sinatra pushed people’s emotional buttons in an entirely different way.

That fundamental difference between the two men crossed all forms of media. Every week for a decade (1936-1946), millions of American radio listeners settled down for a comfortable hour or half-hour of Bing as host of Kraft Music Hall, while Sinatra hosted several different shows that struggled. Similarly, Crosby was more visible and successful on TV. Crosby’s easy charisma translated to the movie screen; as a screen presence, Sinatra was more intense. (Crosby won his Oscar for playing a kindly priest in Going My Way; Sinatra won his for playing a sawed-off troublemaker in From Here to Eternity.) Some of the differences work in Sinatra’s favor, however. Crosby disliked singing songs containing the phrase “I love you,” although he would sing of love obliquely; Sinatra was far more swooningly romantic. On the other hand, Bing could sell Christmas songs from the heart, while Sinatra never seemed comfortable with them.

While biographers have revealed that Crosby was cold, harsh, and unfeeling in his private life, there was almost never a hint of it while he was alive. By the late 40s, Sinatra was frequently in the papers for hanging out with mobsters and punching out photographers. His love life was also a familiar topic, although as Kaplan reveals, the women whose names made the papers were only a tiny fraction of the total. Eventually, many would be decades younger than he. Sinatra feuded with reporters and columnists over the way he was covered but he didn’t change his behavior, which ensured that the papers would continue to write stories that angered him, over and over again.

It has been the official position of this website for many years that while it’s appropriate to discuss the private lives and behavior of artists, we should not use private lives and behavior to judge their art. As soon as we start discounting artistic merit because of personal failings, the slope gets very slippery. Some of our greatest artists were drug users, child abusers, or simply jerks for their own private reasons. Does any of that affect the intrinsic value of their art? It should not. What’s in the grooves is what should count.

Outside of the grooves, Frank Sinatra was not an especially nice man, and often barely an admirable one. It’s all part of the historical record: he was capable of great personal kindness, but he also treated both friends and strangers callously, and he squabbled childishly with lovers. He donated time and money to charity, but he also used people selfishly and then cruelly cast them away. He hung out with mobsters, knew exactly who they were, and took professional and personal advantage of those relationships. And he did it all as if it were his due. Don Hewitt was onto something when he promised that Walter Cronkite would treat him like a president. By the time of that 1965 Cronkite interview, Sinatra had long since expected head-of-state deference from everyone in his life.

Was Frank Sinatra, in totality, a good person? Your mileage may vary. But was he a great singer, perhaps the best America has ever heard? Listen to his music and there’s only one answer: indisputably yes.

Len Barry, by the Numbers

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(Pictured: the Dovells, with Len Barry on the far left.)

Len Barry came out of Philadelphia at the turn of the 60s, out of Overbrook High School (alma mater of Wilt Chamberlain and other pro sports stars, along with rapper/actor Will Smith and members of the Delfonics) and the Coast Guard, at a time when when record moguls tried to make stars out of any young man who could carry a tune. He joined the Dovells, a vocal group that scored a handful of hits between 1961 and 1963, most famously “You Can’t Sit Down,” “The Bristol Stomp,” and “Bristol Twistin’ Annie.”

In 1965, Barry hit under his own name with “1-2-3,” which was a smash, going to #1 in Cash Box and #2 on the Hot 100. Thanks to oldies radio, it was once one of those records everybody knew, at least until oldies stations stopped playing 60s music. Among the musicians and singers backing Barry on “1-2-3” were guitarist Bobby Eli, a childhood friend and longtime collaborator of Barry’s who became one of Philadelphia’s major studio stars, especially with the group MFSB; keyboard player Leon Huff, future architect of the Philly soul sound; trumpeter Lee Morgan, famed jazz player pickin’ up a check one year removed from his hit “The Sidewinder;” Valerie Simpson, future Motown songwriter; and members of the Tymes, who had hit in 1963 with “So Much in Love.”

Barry continued to chart after “1-2-3,” but nothing broke as big. In 2011, I told the story of what happened next—one of the great moments in record marketing, a speculation on my part that nevertheless has the ring of truth:

Flash forward to the summer of 1968. Len Barry, three years removed from his biggest hit, is on a new label, and the new label is looking for a score. The thought process is easy to follow: Len Barry is best known for “1-2-3.” Ergo, if we want to get radio stations to notice his new release, shouldn’t it be called “4-5-6”?

Not an unprecedented thought in the entertainment biz then or now—if people like something once, make it a second time and they’ll probably like it again. But there was a flaw in the plan: Somebody would have to write a song called “4-5-6.” What in the hell would a song called “4-5-6” be about? A house number? An area code? A batting average?

It was at this moment some anonymous record executive was seized with a stroke of brilliance worthy of an era 40 years in the future, when no promotional gimmick is too shameless and people will fall for anything. Barry had recorded a song called “Now I’m Alone,” a weeper about a man who has lost his wife and family. In June 1968, that song was released under the title “4-5-6 (Now I’m Alone).”

Never mind that the numerals 4, 5, and 6 do not appear anywhere in it—a radio programmer who remembered “1-2-3” might be persuaded to give it a listen when it crossed his desk, just because of the title on the label.

As it turned out, “4-5-6” didn’t become a hit, although a few stations picked it up. At WRIT in Milwaukee, it rose as high as #14 in August 1968.

A more successful Barry project was the 1969 instrumental hit “Keem-o-Sabe” by the Electric Indian. He originally produced it for his label, Marmaduke, which he co-owned with Philadelphia DJ Hy Lit, although it didn’t become a national hit until after United Artists picked it up. Although Barry likely wrote “Keem-o-Sabe” (and recorded a vocal version of it), it’s credited to Bernice Borisoff, Barry’s mother, and another Philadelphia record mogul, Bernie Binnick. The musicians are all Philadelphia studio cats including Eli, Vince Montana, and other future members of MFSB. Wikipedia claims Daryl Hall is on it too.

From the 70s to the new millennium Barry stayed in the entertainment biz, producing and performing, and he even wrote a novel about growing up in Philadelphia. He died in his home town last week at the age of 79. There’s more about his life and career here.

One More Thing: I was on the air Saturday when the major news organizations called the presidential election for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, so I got to tell the people about it. I even broke the format to do it—on the country station, talk breaks have been severely curtailed for a couple of months now—but old radio dogs know when to bark, and it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission anyway. Reading that bulletin was one of the highlights of my radio career.

You Really Got Me

Although I was in the prime Van Halen demographic—“You Really Got Me” was a minor radio hit during my last semester in high school—I was never a fan. As somebody whose top two musical obsessions were A) Top 40 pop and B) English prog rock, I wasn’t wired for it. When I got to college in the fall of 1978, I quickly associated Van Halen’s debut album—and specifically, the siren-like fade-in of “Running With the Devil,” cut one on side one—with dormitory stereos cranked beyond the limits of human endurance. I cheered the music critic who wrote of Van Halen II that it was as imaginative as its title. When Women and Children First came out in 1980, I was writing for the campus newspaper, and I destroyed it.

I should go through my clips and find the actual column, but I’m not doing that today. If I’m recalling correctly, it was mostly a screed about what an asshole David Lee Roth was, a word that the paper actually printed. (And I remember that it led to a blizzard of aggrieved letters from Van Halen fans.) It occurs to me now, 40 years later, thinking about Eddie Van Halen, that 100 percent of what I hated about his band was Roth. He was the opposite of the kind of rock star I admired—a keyboard god like Keith Emerson, to name one. And he also represented the very kind of person I disliked in the real world—a strutting, bloviating pretty boy. It took a long time before I could get past him to the music of the band behind him. But by the end of 1980, after several months of hearing Women and Children First in radio rotations, I had come around a little. I was never going to be a fan, but I wasn’t going to savage them anymore, either.

One measure of genius is whether you can inspire legions of imitators without any one of them sounding exactly like you. Eddie Van Halen certainly had that. Just as guitar players who came up in the 50s wanted to be Chuck Berry and those who came up in the 60s wanted to be Jimi Hendrix, those who came up in the 80s wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. His sound owed plenty to Hendrix, but it went to its own places. Even when his band was making music that left me cold (the entirety of the Van Hagar years), Eddie’s one-of-a-kind virtuosity on both guitar and keyboards was clear.

Based on everything I’ve read about him before his death and after, Eddie was relatively normal, and largely unimpressed by who he was. (Maybe you have to be like that when you’re in a band with David Lee Roth.) A former radio colleague of mine tells how his station’s morning team somehow got the direct phone number to Eddie’s studio. They would call it every now and then, and sometimes Eddie himself picked up, and he’d talk to them when he wasn’t talking to anyone else. “Unfazed by fame,” one of the jocks said on Facebook this morning.

And the man was married to Valerie Bertinelli. I mean, really. That’s a life well-lived.

Also yesterday, we lost soul singer Johnny Nash. “I Can See Clearly Now” is Nash’s monument, having done a month at #1 in the fall of 1972 (not long after Mac Davis, who passed last week, did a month at #1 with “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me”). It’s as familiar as the weather now, and I’m not sure anybody needs to hear it again. Maybe give “Hold Me Tight” a few spins instead—it was a #5 hit in 1968 that somehow resisted becoming part of the good times/great oldies radio pantheon.

Nash, born in Houston, was an important figure in the rise of Jamaican music in the United States. On “Hold Me Tight,” he’s backed by the band of Jamaican impresario Byron Lee, and nothing that sounded quite like it had ever hit so big on American radio. According to music historian Charles Hughes, Nash got the first UK record deal for what became Bob Marley and the Wailers, and publishing deals for Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer.

If it’s true that they always go in threes, we need to hold our breaths today. But that’s a regular condition of life in America right now, and it’s got nothing to do with music.