Still Kickin’

And now for a little something from my weird side…

Those of you who know me via this blog know that I have a little fascination with celebrity deaths.  As a kid, celebrity deaths were among my most favorite kind of news story.  I love obituaries for the famous.  I even think about the public recognition of their death before the celebrity has actually died.

Yesterday’s passing of Phyllis Diller, at age 95, is the fruition of one of those exercises.  Truth be told, with the exception of George Burns, I’ve probably thought about the impending death of Phyllis Diller more than any other celebrity.  Ever.

Most of this comes from an immense amount of respect.  I love stand-up comedy like I love soul music, with a passion that respects the artistry of the greats as well as the history of the institution.  Phyllis Diller was the queen of that castle, in my book.  A trailblazer if there ever was one, she not only stood as a woman in a man’s industry but also an artist who perfected a style that is imitated even today.

A lot of my death fascination with her also came from her age.  Not just her real age, but her “character” age as well.  Like Burns, Diller had built a career off of references to her age.  As a character on stage, in film, or on Johnny’s couch, she was “old” for my entire conscious life.

Anyway, her passing today got me thinking: what celebrities might people be most surprised to learn are still living? (I know it doesn’t seem like a logical leap, but trust me, it was in my mind.)

So, here’s my list of the top 10 celebrities that are still alive.  It isn’t a list of “oldest celebrities,” which would require research (and debate: what counts for celebrity?).  It isn’t a list of those likely to die (that would be macabre).  It’s just a list of folks who I know are still alive and who I think others might think are already dead.

  1. Sid Ceaser (89 years old)
  2. Zsa Zsa Gabor (95 years old)
  3. James Garner (84 years old)
  4. Mickey Rooney (91 years old)
  5. Jonathan Winters (86 years old)
  6. Esther Williams (91 years old)
  7. Robert Guillaume (84 years old)
  8. Doc Severinsen (84 years old)
  9. Olivia de Havilland (96 years old)
  10. Wilford Brimley (only 77 years old!)
Honorable mentions should go to Eli Wallach (96) and George Gaynes (95).

Gene McDaniels

I am saddened at the news of the passing of Gene McDaniels. One of the most eclectic, soulful, political, gentle, and passionate talents in modern jazz/soul music, McDaniels was 76.

You can read about his life and career here. I hope you do.

I came to know the work of McDaniels in the early 90s when he started to become a favorite source of sampling in the hip hop world. It wasn’t until almost a decade later, however, that I started to appreciate the full range of his talent. The deep soul of his music, complimented by the thoughtful and intelligent lyrics he penned, made him a rare gem in a world of superstars.

My favorite song of his has always been “Compared to What.” An investigation of racism and US hypocrisy, it was both an angry song rooted in the moment of the late 60s as well as a prescient warning. In the last year, McDaniels took to YouTube to speak to his fans through a series of videos featured on his own channel. Here’s Gene discussing “Compared to What”:

And here is Les McCann and Eddie Harris’ wonderful live performance of the song (as featured on the former’s albume Swiss Movement):

McDaniels had a deep conscience and used his art to speak out on our collective inhumanity to one another. His ability to critically address issues of race, gender, power, and class while still being meaningfully artistic in a golden age of soul music says a lot about the man and his scope.

Beginning in 1970, armed with the freedom that came with his success after a decade of busting his artistic hump, he created two of the most overtly political and smart albums of all time. The first, Outlaw was something new for the once-pop/soul singer some had once compared to Jackie Wilson. A fusion of urban sounds ranging from jazz to funk and rock, the album (his first on the Atlantic label) was a radical coming out party. It’s a hard album to summarize, but this track “Love Letter to America” is suggestive of the unique blend of styles it contained:

“Welfare City”, also from Outlaw, sounds almost like 1967 but contains more than a few of his purposeful hybridity.

His 1971 follow-up, Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse is even bolder than Outlaws. The story of the aftermath of the album is now legend in music. Due to his overt radicalism, someone in the Nixon administration called to complain to Ahmet Ertegun and encourage him to fire McDaniels. Whether that was the cause or not I do not know, but it was McDaniels’ final release for the label.

Here’s “Jager the Dagger” from the 1971 album:

And here is one of my favorites of his from Headless, “Supermarket Blues”:

For all the controversy of his career, McDaniels possessed a beautiful voice, a gift which rivaled his artistry with lyrics and sound. Here he is in a performance from earlier this year, the one of the last videos uploaded to his YouTube channel.

Rest in peace brother…

They made it to 2011

Well here we are–the 2nd Annual “They Made It To ___” on LatinoLikeMe!

For those who don’t remember, in an effort to recognize (largely inactive) entertainers before they’ve actually died, every New Year’s Eve I write a post about three celebrities who lived to see the new year. Each featured celeb had an impact on me in some way and also happened to live long enough that people might be surprised to hear they are still around.

Last year we spotlighted Phyllis Diller, Lena Horne, and Carol Channing.  I’m happy to report that two of the three also made it to 2011.  Of course, recording and screen legend Lena Horne died in May, but what a legacy she left behind.

This year, I want to say how much I have enjoyed the acting talents of Mickey Rooney; the comedic gifts of Sid Caesar; and the legendary career of Esther Williams.

__________

When he began his career at age 7, the young Joe Yule played the character “Mickey” in a series of serials, eventually taking the name of the title character as his own. Before he reached 19 years of age, he had been in scores of productions, won a “juvenile” Oscar, and starred with Spencer Tracy in “Boys Town.” Already one of the top box office stars of the late Depression, this role catapulted Rooney to the respectable big time. He went on to be one of Hollywood’s most recognizable figures in its “Golden Era” and beyond, making more than 200 films (!), many of which (like “Boys Town,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and “National Velvet”) are among the best Hollywood turned out. The diminutive man is also well-known for his romantic life, having married 8 times (his first to star Ava Gardner). His romance with Judy Garland is the stuff of Hollywood legend.

I won’t pretend Rooney was better than he was. He had talent–anybody who watches “Boys Town” can see that–but it probably never really had the chance to mature in any meaningful way. He was a star at a young age and managed to remain so for the rest of his professional life, more focused on “the next picture” than on any kind of artistic development. In a lot of ways, he was a well-established figure before such concerns came of age, but in an industry which celebrates the “working actor,” Rooney worked. Some of that work made an impression on me at a young age. Raised on the classics, and a big fan of Johnny Carson, Rooney has always been a part of my entertainment life. He turns 91 this fall.

__________

If Milton Berle “invented” television, Sid Caesar was the first to perfect it.  His “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour” are television legends, as big as it gets in the medium.  Sid, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, and Carl Reiner (who I almost chose for this year’s list) are arguably the best variety comedic cast in TV history, and they were among the first.  His writing staff…well, when you have a play written about your writing staff, you know you were big. Caesar was a TV favorite for most of American in the early 50s, and some of their sketches are the stuff people can still talk about and get a laugh, half a century later.

Sid Caesar, who is now 88, is a figure I can’t neatly summarize in a paragraph or two, and I don’t really want to try.  I do want to say, that in addition to always being one of those figures who I knew as long as I knew of such things, the young historian in me was always respectful and enamored with what he and his crew did.  Every time I got a chance to see a documentary on Caesar I’d watch it, every time I got a chance to see clips from his shows I would.  Maybe more so than most figures of his generation, I liked Sid Caesar because I actually liked his work, not just because he was a big star.

__________

Finally, Esther Williams–who is now 89–began her career as a professional swimmer. She would have competed in the 1940 Olympics if not for the outbreak of WWII, but instead found her way into acting in one of those legendary stories of “being discovered.” Williams acted for less than 20 years, and though she was a formidable talent behind the camera, he aquatic talents earned her her stardom. Below you will see why:

Williams participated in some of the most visually impressive cinematic creations Hollywood ever produced, and became a household name for a generations of this country. In my house, like in so many others, she became synonymous with swimming talent of any sort (“Look at you! You think you’re Esther Williams?”). I don’t know why–the visual symmetry or the fact that it was ladies in swimsuits–but for some reason I always loved her work.

Plus, she was once married to Fernando Lamas!

__________

And there you have it! Congrats Mickey, Sid, and Esther! You made it to 2011!!

Strange Coincidences in History

It has occurred to me that this past Sunday was another strange pop cultural event in the world.

Ronnie James Dio died on May 16, 2010, on the exact 20 year anniversary of the passing of Sammy Davis Jr.  On August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died and, 20 years to that day, in 1997, internationally-known Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died.  Elvis and Nusrat are a pair, each man has a similar standing in his own musical genre, musical culture, and global industry.  Dio and Davis aren’t too oddly matched either, both being notables inside of a larger genre, perhaps not recognized widely as the best but certainly widely known as on of the best by all those who’s opinions matter.

Sammy Davis Jr. is Still Dead…

Sammy Davis Jr. passed away 20 years ago today, on May 16, 1990.  He died of lung cancer, after a lifetime of smoking.

I remember his passing very well.  The Friday before his death–on May 11th–the first story on the evening news in LA was the caravan of celebrities who were making their “final” visits to his Beverly Hills home.  Sammy was on his last legs, and everyone from Sinatra to Martin were paying their respects.  He died on the following Wednesday, the same day Jim Henson died.

Davis was only 64 years old, but because of a somewhat sad childhood, his death ended a performance career of more than 60 years.  That’s right!  Sammy Davis Jr. began performing at the ripe age of 3 years old.!

I won’t chronicle his life here, but I will say he was (in my opinion) one of the most talented performers I have ever seen in my lifetime.  He could captivate a crowd with a voice, and a body, that simply amazed. He was a trailblazer, an icon, and, at heart, a simple song-and-dance man.

His life was as remarkable as his career, filled with tragedy and great success.  One of the most powerful autobiographies I have ever read is his famous 1965 bestseller, Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis, Jr. I highly recommend it.

Here is the genius in action:

And from a tribute to Sammy Davis, when his illness was somewhat known, Gregory Hines:

Incidentally, Davis was half-Latino.  His mother–who was absent in his life after the age of 3–was born in Puerto Rico, according to Davis’ book. (There is some internet chatter about her actually being Cuban, and Davis hiding that fact for political reasons.)

Beginning the week of his death, billboards with his picture began covering parts of LA.  The campaign they represented, prepared with Davis’ permission, was for the American Lung Association.  It featured a gorgeous black and white photo of Sammy, with smoke in the minimal light, and read: “He took our breath away. Smoking took his.”

Sandro de América is dead

He was known as the El Elvis argentino and El Gitano but millions more knew him as Sandro de América. Roberto Sánchez, who crooned to a generation and became one of the biggest stars of popular music and cinema in Latin America, has died.

You might not have heard of Sandro. While he was one of the biggest selling Spanish-language musical artists in history (outselling all others in the world in 1969), and the star of 16 films and several telenovelas, he was not widely known outside of the Spanish-speaking world. He began his career as something of an Elvis impersonator, singing tunes by the King, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Rolling Stones in the mid-1960s.  As he ventured into his own signature tunes, he gained famed as one of the stars of popular/youth music in Argentina, the man who hybridized Anglo-Saxon rock with Spanish romance and pop.

While you might not “see” Elvis in his style, he captured the essence of that 60s male crooner, sex-symbol, rock idol archetype  an image he projected to his adoring fans (known as “las chicas”).  In an English-language context, he was much like a Robert Goulet, Tom Jones, or Englebert Humperdink, people who appropriated a popular musical image and style and made a career out of it.  Here he is with one of his biggest hits, “Rosa, Rosa”:

But in terms of his popular impact and longevity, he was bigger than all the Elvis-derived performers rolled together.  Here he is as a middle-aged man, performing his biggest hit (“Quiero Llenarme de ti”) to the grown-up “chicas” at his famous 25th anniversary performance:

Sandro–who received a lung and heart transplant last November–died of an infection.  He was 64.

See ‘ya Captain Lou!

Captain Lou Albano has died.  He was 76.

LOU

The brazen, rubber-band-wearing figure of professional wrestling achieved “crossover fame” in the 1980s when professional wrestling did the same.  Many who would never have seen him in the ring knew him instead from Cyndi Lauper videos and periodic antics on MTV.

I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the man.  I can remember the very morning I started watching professional wrestling addictively.  Capt. Lou was on the screen.  He screamed at the screen with his Popeye-esque forearms and mouth frothing with spit, with kinetic hair and rubber bands fastened to his cheek.  It was the most fascinating thing I had seen on Saturday morning TV.

My fascination with pro-wrestling lasted from about 1984 to 1988, not long, but oddly long considering I was in high school by 1986.  I subscribed to the WWF magazine, I watched the stupid Saturday morning cartoon, and I bought the action figures.  I own it all still, in a box in a closet at my folks house.  I also went to two wrestling events.  Big Lou was in the corner for one of them.

You can read more about his life here, here, and here.

But here’s all you really need to know: “Albano’s 75th birthday party last year at a Yonkers restaurant turned into a drunken battle royal, with the arrest of one wrestler.”

And this is as good a thing as any to remember:

BTW, click at your own peril.  This is the entire 12 minute version of the video.