They Made it to 2018

Happy New Year! The start of 2018 gives me a chance to update my list of celebrities who are still with us but, because of advanced age or the passage of time, are kind of forgotten. As I’ve said in earlier posts, think of this as a chance to experience the “I didn’t know s/he was still alive” feeling before reading their obituaries.

A good number of past spotlighted celebrities are still kicking. Carol Channing (96), Hal Holbrook (92), Henry Silva (89), and the private Doris Day (93) are alive. Olivia de Havilland continues to be the standout celebrity for my list. At 101, the former actress who had a lead role in Gone With the Wind is likely the oldest living Oscar winner. Of course, former “Lollipop Guild” member and oldest living “Munchkin” Jerry Maren (98) is also a noteworthy mention.

The passing of Fats Domino and Chuck Berry in 2017 make legends like Little Richard (85) and Jerry Lee Lewis (82) worth mentioning. Carl Reiner (95) recently made a documentary for HBO called If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast spotlighting nonagenarians like himself. Friends Dick Van Dyke (92), Betty White (95), Mel Brooks (91), and Norman Lear (95) were all among the folks featured.

That’s already a lot of celebrities, but let me draw attention to three you might not know about:

Larry Storch (94)
Comedian and former star of the show “F-Troop” will turn 95 on January 8. He had a full career in television as a frequent guest star in notable shows of the 60s and 70s and as a voice actor in cartoons later on in life.

Charolette Rae (95)
Mrs. Garret is now 95. She announced last year that she has cancer, but she’s made it to 2018 despite the disease. She is most famous for playing one character on two television shows. Edna Garret began as the housekeeper for the Drummond family of “Diff’rent Strokes” and then became the lead adult in the show “Facts of Life,” which ran from 1980-1988.

Kirk Douglas (101)
The star of Spartacus, Paths of Glory, and The Bad and the Beautiful is perhaps the most famous “Gold Era” Hollywood star still with us. He reached the century mark in December 2016 and is now 101. Father to Michael Douglas, the elder Kirk is arguably the most prominent oldest living celebrity.

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40 years

I was listening to an interview with Priscilla Presley and Jerry Butler this morning and both were talking about the frustration and disappointment Elvis felt with regards to his movie career. He would read scripts and throw them across the room, deriding their quality and declaring that he wasn’t going to do it anymore.

But Elvis had little choice in the matter. Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, had locked the King into these contracts without much regard for his artistic or creative desires. Ever the promoter, Parker just sought out the best ways for Elvis to make money while protecting the image of the star he used to make money.

In Priscilla’s telling, that’s one of the reasons Elvis got so excited about his television special in 1968, the event that has become forever known as his “’68 Comeback Special.” This was something he knew, and something he could use to express his creative self, maybe even enjoy control for a change.

On this 40th anniversary of his death it feels like an especially good event to remember. In light of the story above, the ’68 special carries more than just the excitement of the “comeback”–the raw, stripped down energy that reminds folks why he was who he was. It also carries with it a little bit of loss, of what could have been, of what he was never allowed to be. That, to me, is so much of the memory of the icon that is Elvis.

In this present moment of a white supremacist president and a resurgent white nationalism, there’s another way it all seems a little more appropriate right now, too.

They Made It to 2016!

Welcome to 2016!

As has become my annual custom, it’s time for my 2016 “They Made it to ____” post. This post is meant to recognize the careers of three entertainers who are still with us but, because of advanced age or the passage of time, are kind of forgotten. Think of it as a chance to think “I didn’t know s/he was still alive” before you read their obituary.

There are a good many “former honorees” who are still with us. Happily, we can celebrate the fact that Carol Channing, Little Richard, and former Lollipop Guild member (and last surviving Munchkin) Jerry Maren are still with us. We can add them to the following Hollywood stars:

Abe Vigoda (1921-)
That’s right! Fish is still alive! Perhaps best known for his portrayal of Sal Tessio in the classic 1972 film The Godfather, Abe Vigoda was a supporting star of scores of other films as well. He got his start on stage in his late teens and made a career of it as a “working actor” before achieving some fame in his later years via the silver screen. After The Godfather, Vigoda was a part of the ensemble cast of TV’s Barney Miller, where he playing the character Det. Phil Fish. The character paid off for Vigoda, who got his own turn as the star of the comedy’s only spin-off, “Fish.” He is a most-apt honoree for this list because Vigoda has battles numerous pre-internet rumors of his death. In appearances on the old Conan O’Brien Late Night show this was even a running gag. Vigoda will turn 95 years old this February 24.

Olivia de Havilland (1932-)
One of the stars of the legendary film Gone With the Wind (1939), Olivia de Havilland was a bonafide Hollywood star. She won two Oscars for Best Actress–for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949)–and starred in such classics as Captain Blood (1935) (with Errol Flynn, whom she starred with eight times), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and the campy disaster classic Airport ’77 (1977). She was even best friends with Betty Davis! Miss de Havilland will turn 100 this July 1.

Hal Holbrook (1925-)
Hal Holbrook was in so many movies I don’t have time to count them. What’s so surprising about this is that his first credited movie role didn’t come until he was about 40 years old! I have no idea at all what he did between birth and his successful acting career, other than playing Mark Twain on stage in his (now legendary) one-man show. That Twain performance is perhaps his most enduring contribution to the arts, but I will always know him for his roles in greats like All the President’s Men (1976)–he was Deep Throat!!–and Magnum Force (1973). He also did well on TV, having a recurring role on two CBS sitcoms–“Designing Women” and “Evening Shade”–and a memorable recurring guest role on the “West Wing.” Holbrook will turn 91 on February 17.

Happy 2016!

Friday Five: 1982

I bought my first radio/cassette player sometime around 1981, using my own money “earned” by recycling newspapers. (Since my dad was the one who subscribed to, read, and neatly stacked our copy of the LA Times, and since he or my mom were the ones who drove me to the recycling plant across town, it didn’t really do much to get that money.) Around the same time, I joined my first music club, Columbia House, using one of their ads inside of the TV Guide. I got my dozen cassette tapes for 1¢–including albums like Journey’s Captured and Escape; Pac Man Fever by Buckner and Garcia; and The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat–and then would buy a handful of albums (at full price) over the next year (things like John Cougar’s American Fool.

It was a time of a lot of music exploration for me. I started to hear a lot of stuff I would have never heard if not for the music club and I started to listen to the radio all the time, exploring the diversity of LA radio and, more often, trying to record my favorite songs on blank cassette tapes (my first of which, I still have).

All this is a long-winded introduction to my own personal 1982, but it’s an important part of my musical context. Vital even. When I look at the list of Billboard’s weekly number 1 singles for 1982 I not only know each of those songs, I can remember really liking them at the time. (Only 15 songs reached #1 that year, at the time the smallest number since 1956.) When you’re listening to radio all the time, of course, you’re bound to hear the hits more than anything else. With that box in my hand, those ear phones on my head, I felt like it was my music.

Here’s five songs from that year…

5. “Eye of the Tiger” (Survivor)
The story of this song is interesting enough that it might make any list for this year purely for the pop-cultural-kitsch factor. It’s relationship to the movie Rocky III is also a big part of what made an impression of me. The movie was a big hit (two words–Mr. T!!) but also a big slice of the kind of 80s encapsulated in this song. “Eye of the Tiger” is derivative, indulgent, and intentionally commercial above all else. It should be nothing more than “common” in the final tally. But one of the decade’s best guitar riffs, combined with a group who knew what they were and what they were supposed to do, makes for a rock classic.

4. “Rosanna” (Toto)
Toto doesn’t get a whole lot of respect from mainstream pop culture. If you hear them or their music its usually as some ironic joke. I can understand that. The mainstream sounds of 80s pop were so distinct they can seem a little more dated (and less artistic) than other eras of music. This hit single, which also won the Grammy for Record of the Year, is filled with a lot of those musical markers. But if you dismissed it for all those reasons, you’d be missing out on a song that also has some greatness in it. Drummer Jeff Porcaro’s playing is, perhaps, the best proof of that. His “half-time shuffle” is well-respected in musical circles. Porcaro died really young but recorded with Steely Dan and had a prolific career as a studio musician, in addition to his work as part of Toto.

3. “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” (Culture Club)
Boy George the singer would not enter my consciousness until 1983, when I saw the premiere of Culture Club’s video for “Karma Chameleon” on NBC’s “Friday Night Videos.” My friend and I spent much of the rest of the weekend arguing over whether or not Boy George was a boy or a girl. Ah, the sheltered life of Catholic school boys! I first heard Boy George the voice the year before, with the release of this single from their first album. Without the video, there was nothing but the power, smoothness, and irresistible soul of his voice.

2. “Vacation” (The Go-Go’s)
From the band’s second album of the same name, this single was a huge hit in the summer of 1982. I had a thing for Belinda Carlisle starting around this time. How could you not? The band’s all-female line-up was the main sell in the press and, truth be told, in an era of video it didn’t hurt that they were all so good-looking. But they were also so much more than looks. The Go-Go’s made some excellent music. They’re the epitome of LA music in many ways. Post-punk, New Wave, beach and garage, they remain worth a listen.

1. “Love Plus One” (Haircut 100)
This song never fails to make me both happy and nostalgic. I don’t have specific memories of it, to be honest. It was one of a handful of new Wave hits from the time as well as one of the many one-hit-wonders for the decade. I liked it, but it probably meant less to me than “Pac Man Fever.” But I was a kid. The grown-up me likes it more and more. It does a whole lot of things right, and is catchy as all hell.  I love the soprano sax, too. A nice change from the typical 80’s horns.

 

 

 

“Is Hollywood Mexican enough?”

Chris Rock is making the news these past few days because of his comments on race in Hollywood. Those comments were a lot broader than just about his experience as a Black man in the industry.

But forget whether Hollywood is black enough. A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You’re in L.A, you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans. It’s the most liberal town in the world, and there’s a part of it that’s kind of racist — not racist like “F— you, nigger” racist, but just an acceptance that there’s a slave state in L.A. There’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn’t exist anywhere else. I remember I was renting a house in Beverly Park while doing some movie, and you just see all of the Mexican people at 8 o’clock in the morning in a line driving into Beverly Park like it’s General Motors. It’s this weird town.

You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up? What are the odds that that’s true?

You can check out his full essay at The Hollywood Reporter.

Monday Blues (10.06.14)

Otis Redding’s third album, Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul, was released on September 15, 1965. It took less than 24 hours to record, with Otis and the Stax house band of Booker T. & the M.G.’s (joined by Isaac Hayes on piano and an ensemble of horn players including the Memphis Horns) entering the studio on July 9 and wrapping up on the 10th.

The album contains an assortment of covers, mostly songs written and recorded previously by Sam Cooke. Cooke was Redding’s idol. His death the previous December brought a palpable level of emotion to those songs. The standout from the album, at least in my opinion, would be a song written by Otis and Jerry Butler. “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” would be the first big hit for the big ‘O’.

Friday Five: Chicano oldies

There are oldies and there are Chicano oldies.

The music that resonated with the brown baby boomers of East L.A. is largely African American rhythm and blues music. It’s heavy on harmonies, on some interesting guitar work, and on a lot of soul. It’s the kind of music that was popularized in dance halls, and it sounds like slow dancing. End of the night slow dancing. Had too much to drink slow dancing.

There are many kinds of oldies, and many kinds of sounds that could legitimately count as “Chicano oldies.” My bias here are the slow songs, the ones I most associate with my youth and with East L.A.

5. “I Do Love You” (Billy Stewart)
This 1965 recording was Stewart’s first big hit. The harmonies and piano and guitar interplay make it one of my favorites. It’s certainly a classic from a man whose career was cut short at the age of 33.

4. “La La (Means I Love You)” (The Delfonics)
This 1968 song was the biggest hit for this Philadelphia-based quartet turned trio.

3. “You’ll Lose A Good Thing” (Barbara Lynn)
A guitar-playing, rhythm and blues-singing trailblazer, Lynn wrote and recorded this chart-topper in 1962.

2. “Daddy’s Home” (Shep and the Limelites)
Their first and last big hit, from 1961. Makes me think of the end of the night.

1. “Angel Baby” (Rosie and the Originals)
The 15-year old Rosie Hamlin (who was half Mexican) wrote this song as a poem to her then boyfriend. She recorded it with her friends in a San Diego studio, just for themselves. It ended up securing them a recording contract in 1960. It also ended up being their only hit. Such a vocal and guitar masterpiece.