MLK Day: “Beyond Vietnam”

It remains one of the most powerfully incisive speeches in U.S. history. Delivered at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was gunned down.

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My Happiness

Elvis Presley was born 83 years ago today. It’s a good time to take a little taste of what made the man special, musically speaking.

Here’s a recording of the song “My Happiness” made by Elvis on July 18, 1953. It’s his first ever recording, an acetate press made for $3.98 at the Memphis Recording Service at Sam Phillip’s Sun Record Company.

There’s no producer here. No technological tricks. No band even. No nothing, really, just Elvis and his guitar and a style made up of the diverse musical upbringing he had.

It’s a great example of Elvis in an unadulterated form. Maybe we can think of it as a “pure” Elvis, before he gets marketed as a “product” and long before that process makes it so that many other forces are involved in what his music is.

To put that specialness into context, here are some popular recordings of the song made before Elvis walked into Sun Studios. This is “My Happiness” by the Marlin Sisters, a 1947 recording that is believed to be the first:

Here are Jon and Sondra Steele, whose May 1948 recording was the first “hit” version of the song:

Competing versions by the Pied Pipers and none other than the great Ella Fitzgerald also came out in 1948:

There are elements of all of these in Elvis’ version. Perhaps he’s closest to the last two, which are a touch slower than the earlier ones. But Elvis’ phrasing and vocal shifts are his all alone. He’s more than an imposter, even at this early stage in his career. He was a hybrid, a part of this and that, mixed with something from here and something from there. The resulting style brought together white and black musical styles, along with specific trends from different genres (like country and gospel and rhythm & blues) and made them into something else.

Elvis certainly wasn’t the only one doing this. I’m willing to admit he might not even have been the best. But he certainly wasn’t something to be dismissed. The tradition of that hybridity, mixed with raw talent, and even mixed with the commodification of the marketplace, all that is the history of rock ‘n roll.

So happy birthday to the King!

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.

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.

Friday Five: Music for the Movement

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

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!