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.
We’ve been here before. However bad it seems, our ancestors fought through much worse and carved out a road for justice. Now we pick up where they left off, aware that the fight has changed but our weapons–dignity, community, and love–have never been stronger.
Power to the people!
5. “Brand New Day” (The Staple Singers)
We gotta put our heads together / and see where we go from there / We got to fight for what we believe in / Somethin’s in the air!
4. “Everything is Everything” (Lauryn Hill)
Let’s love ourselves and we can’t fail / To make a better situation / Tomorrow, tomorrow, our seeds will grow / All we need is dedication / Let me tell ya that
3. “Glory” (Common and John Legend)
Every day women and men become legends / Sins that go against our skin become blessings / The movement is a rhythm to us / Freedom is like religion to us / Justice is juxtapositionin’ us / Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
2. “Fight the Power!” (Public Enemy)
Got to give us what we want / Gotta give us what we need / Our freedom of speech is freedom or death / We got to fight the powers that be
1. “Better Way” (Ben Harper)
Reality is sharp it cuts at me like a knife / Everyone I know is in the fight of their life /
And I believe in a better way / Take your face out of your hands and clear your eyes / You have a right to your dream and don’t be denied / I believe in a better way
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.
I’m happy to be visiting the students at California State University San Bernardino on Tuesday, November 3, to talk about history and movements.
If you’re a part of that community I hope to see you later today!
On May 30, 1975, Toni Morrison spoke at Portland State University, as part of a conference on Black Studies. Her address was titled “A Humanist View.”
After presenting the audience with a litany of racist remarks from major historical figures in the US past, remarks against African Americans, Asians, Mexicans, and Native Americans, she analyzes their role and purpose:
Racism was never, ever the issue. Profit and money always was.
And all of those quotations––from William Byrd to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Jackson to the New York Tribune––the threat was always jobs, land, or money. And when you really want to take away, to oppress, and to prevent, you have to have a reason for despising your victim.
Where racism exists as an idea it was always a confidence game that sucked all the strength of the victim. It really is the red flag that the toreador dances before the head of a bull. It’s purpose is only to distract, to keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy, to keep his mind focused on anything but his own business. It’s hoped for consequence was to define black people as reactions to white presence.
Nobody really thought that black people were inferior, not Benjamin Franklin not Mr. Byrd and not Theodore Roosevelt. They only hoped that they would behave that way. They only hoped that black people would hear “coon” songs, disparaging things, and would weep or kill or resign––or become one! They never thought black people were lazy––ever––not only because they did all the work. But they certainly hoped that they would never try to fulfill their ambitions.
And they never, ever thought we were inhuman. You don’t give your children over to the care of people who you believe to be inhuman, for your children are all the immortality you can expect. Your children are the reason you work, or plot or steal, and racists were never afraid of sexual power or switch blades. They were only and simply and now interested in the acquisition of wealth and the status quo of the poor.
Everybody knows that if the price is high enough the racist will give you whatever you want. It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is and to know the function, the very serious function of racism which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.
It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
You can listen to the full audio of her remarks at Portland State University or directly from their Soundcloud.
This documentary originally aired in 1974. It was produced by KRON as part of their “Assignment Four” series. It’s narrated by Paul Ryan and was written, produced, and directed by Ira Eisenberg.