Two Popular Musical Masters Pass Away

Nick Ashford and Jerry Lieber have died.  Each was a musical master–one part of a songwriting duo–though neither was ever as famous as the musical giants for whom each penned classics.

Along with his wife, Valerie Simpson, Nick Ashford wrote and produced for Motown beginning in the 1960s.  Their legendary career began when producer Harvey Fuqua gave the two a chance to write some songs for his protégé Marvin Gaye.  Fuqua had decided to pair Gaye with Tammi Terrell, who had sang backup unsuccessfully for the Godfather of Soul.  Ashford and Simpson (he the lyricist and she the composer) came back with “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”  They followed that with a string of chart toppers for the soon-to-be legendary duo of Gaye and Terrell, hits such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I need to Get By.”

Ashford and Simpson would write R&B and pop hits for the next 25 years, from “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand” to “I’m Every Woman” to their own “Solid as a Rock,” a chart topper for them in the 80s.

They were part of a particular moment in popular music, when the dynamics undergirding Motown’s commodification of Black musical culture was just beginning to undergo something of a change.  The label, which had made a factory of success out of its deliberate strategy to make “Black music” appealing and marketable to “White America” began to shift to a more “authentic” representation of Black culture without such a concern for palatability.  Ashford and Simpson didn’t lead that charge, but when Motown finally let up a bit, they were part of it.

Jerry Lieber was a Baltimore-born, LA-raised, white Jewish kid who–along with his writing partner Mike Stoller–became known in the 1950s as the writers of a cache of hits representing the birth of popular rock ‘n roll music.  “Hound Dog” (first performed by Big Mama Thorton and later Elvis), kicked off their professional career, which included some of Elvis’ most enduring songs: “Jailhouse Rock,” “Trouble,” “Loving You,” and “Treat Me Nice.”

But they didn’t stop there.  Lieber and Stoller wrote hits for the Coasters like “Charlie Brown,” “Poison Ivy,” and “Yakety Yak.”  They wrote for the Drifters, songs like “On Broadway” and “Stand By Me.”  Jerry Lieber also wrote “Spanish Harlem” with Phil Spector, and “Youngblood” with Doc Pomus.

Here’s Leon Russell doing “Youngblood” as part of a medley he performed at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh.

Lieber and Stoller took a lot of heat in later decades for being two white guys writing some of the most indelible “Black” rhythm and blues standards.  As the mainstream public waned in their willingness to ignore their own unchecked white supremacy–a condition which fomented years of white musicians, writers, and producers stealing the creative work of Black artists and never paying them royalties–artists like them became associated with the unsavory past of our popular culture.

The negative attention was not deserved for these two men, however.  As the most successful non-Black writers in popular blues and soul it was not surprising they had to bear that burden, as did Elvis (though he only had to suffer to a small extent in his lifetime).  It was, and remains, a distraction from the real and insidious practices which robbed Black musicians and writers of what was really theirs.

Lieber and Stoller often joked how they were “honorary Black men” for their creative legacy. While the notion is certainly complicated beyond its casual use, their self-assessment (however light-hearted) reflects the sense of love which guided their combined careers–the love Black performers had for their talents, as well as the love these two white kids had for blues music.

Both Jerry Lieber and Nick Simpson were part of the birth of popular rhythm and blues music, a period in US history when non-white cultural production became so ubiquitous as to become known as just “American” culture.  As they witnessed and participated in this special time in our culture’s history, they gave us some of the sounds that will forever make up the soundtrack of daily life.

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…

Kevin McCarthy–R.I.P

If you are a regular reader of this blog you know I am a sucker for the working actor, the man or woman who does the job and manages to make a living at it but not necessarily hit the big time in terms of celebrity.  Kevin McCarthy was one of those guys.

He might be one of those people you recognize by face but can’t quite place.  Or maybe he was one of those faces that you remembered instantly, even if you could never remember his name.  He acted for most of his life, credited with some 200 motion pictures and television episodes in his seven-decade career.

Kevin McCarthy died Sunday at the age of 96.  A lot of folks probably didn’t know he was still around.  With some cult classics to his name, he has a good shot of always being around.

Here’s a sample:

From the classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956)

From the cult favorite “Pirahna” (1978) (check out his speech around the 5:00 mark)

And from one of my young adult favorites (for some unknown reason), “UHF”(1989)

Walter Alston is Still Dead…

Walter Emmons Alston died 25 years ago today, eight years after having retired as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He passed away on October 1, 1984, at the age of 72.

Alston managed the Dodgers for 23 seasons, four in Brooklyn and nineteen in Los Angeles (where they played for four years at the Coliseum and for fifteen at Chavez Ravine).  In that time he and the Dodgers won seven National League titles and four World Series championships.  His first World Series ring came in 1955 against the Yankees, Brooklyn’s only victory in the big show and the franchise’s first of six (1955, 1959, 1963, 1965, 1981, 1988; not counting the Bridegroom’s 1890 championship).

He was emblematic of a period in baseball’s history when the commercial hype of it all wasn’t yet the daily, unending norm.  He was quiet and matter of fact in his managing style, as the LA Times described him, “conservative and colorless.”  But he was also one of the most successful managers in baseball history.  Dodger pitching-legend Carl Erskine remembered Alston’s first season as manager.  “We weren’t playing too well, so Walt got us together and said: ‘If you expect me to be a rah-rah manager, you’re wrong. You’re all good players.  You know the price you have to pay.  Now go out and do it.'”

Alston retired when I was four, but he remained a revered figure among fans, including Dodger announcer Vin Scully, who for all practical purposes was my baseball history book growing up.  I honestly haven’t one actual memory of Alston as a living person, but I also can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know who he was.

Henry Gibson has died

Actor Henry Gibson has passed away at the age of 73.

Depending on your age, Gibson was one of those actors whose face you knew well, though you couldn’t remember his name.  For my generation and older, you could probably remember a few of the reasons you knew his face.  If you’re younger, maybe not.  But you would still know his face.

I have all the respect in the world for actors who can make a full-time career of their art, in particular those like Gibson who never become household names but manage to be as successful as anyone.  If you have a moment, check out his credits at IMDB.  I guarantee you’ll be impressed.

If I were a little bit older, he would probably be best known to me as part of the motley bunch of comics on “Laugh In.”  The three roles I most associate with Gibson, however, are a creepy guy he played on an old episode of “Wonder Woman,” the Nazi guy from “Blues Brothers,” and the voice of Wilbur the pig in “Charlotte’s Web.”  He was great in everything he did.

Thanks for all the wonderful memories Mr. Gibson.

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The “Death” of Michael Jackson

They buried Michael Jackson today.

The memorial served as the final spectacle for a man whose public life was almost nothing but. Fans, friends, and family said goodbye in a stirring series of recollections and performances.  Berry Gordy’s remarks for the child star of Motown, and Stevie Wonder’s rendition of “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” were among the standouts. The first public words from one of his children, perhaps, the most lasting.

Outside, the media and throngs of more fans clamored to be a part of something they actively created and yet didn’t fully understand. All in all, it was the kind of production we’ve come to expect from MJ, one befitting his status in popular entertainment.

Michael Jackson died almost two weeks ago and, strangely, the cultural hyperbole of the performer’s unexpected death has seemingly already found its place within our collective memory of him. It is shocking, but only in the way everything associated with him was.  There never was a popular entertainer as big as Michael Jackson. His life was a series of unbelievable events. How could his death be any different?

If anything, the memorial was jarring for its reminder that the icon was also a person, now a body in a coffin before a packed auditorium. His weeping children, brothers, and sisters pulling our attention, though still feeding the public emotion of the moment.  The person they mourned, however, was beyond human in so many ways.  I couldn’t help thinking that the public service, televised to the world, might have been more meaningful for his family than the private ceremony they held earlier that morning. Michael may have been their son and brother, but he was also the engine of a train that transformed all their lives in ways almost surreal.

And, yet, there is also something unspectacular about his passing, something common and almost rote. Michael’s legend became solidified in death in the way it seems to always happen for music legends. The surprise of his death is the expected end to a story we’ve heard so many times before.

When the “King of Pop” had a heart attack, I was inclined to reach into my analysis bag and find the piece that fits the hole and say this is my generation’s “Where were you when Elvis died?” moment.  It’s a question I heard adult music fans ask each other for most of my life.  I was five when the “King of Rock ‘n Roll” passed, a little boy going to shopping with his mom in a small suburban town of the greater Los Angeles area.  We heard the news on the radio.  It was raining.  It was August in LA and it was raining.

Thing is, the question always bugged me, mostly because it was the wrong way to ask what people wanted to talk about.  They wanted to share where they were and what they were doing when they heard Elvis had died.  They wanted to share an event, the receiving of news that is shocking, so shocking you remember where you were when you got it.  They wanted to share the surprise, the unanticipated emotions, the kick in the gut.  And they wanted to confront the surrealism of death, in particular the death of somebody you never met but who, in passing, could have such a mysterious and sad effect upon you.

Other popular musicians and performers had died unexpectedly before Elvis, but none had possessed his historical or cultural significance.  Like MJ for those who came of age after the “boom,” he was bigger than his music.  He was bigger than popular music itself.  He was a self-contained entertainment event, a spectacle, a movement, and a tragedy.

Maybe it’s the natural comparison to that other King, but another part of me can’t help thinking the question we’re going to be asking each other is a little off, still.  Part of me feels like we should be asking “When did Michael Jackson die?”

That’s probably the same question we should have asked about Elvis, even though we didn’t really want to know the answer.  That’s the funny thing about icons.  The human death of the person who represented the phenomenon we associate with them is not necessarily the death of the phenomenon.  (And that’s not because the “music lives on,” though it does; that’s just the beauty of art.)  The person’s death is not the phenomenon’s death because that phenomenon is often already dead.

Icons aren’t people.  People play them, inspire their creation, carry the burden and benefit of having this uncontrollable, unmanageable, and largely incomprehensible force housed inside of and on their body, but they are not the “it” that is magical.  It is bigger than them.  It is them magnified by infinity.  It is not them at all.  Michael Jackson was a person, an artist, and entertainer.  Michael Jackson was also a larger than life movement, a burst of media-dominating mass consumerism, and a cultural artifact.

Jackson’s status as a cultural icon is built on the person he was, sometimes bordering on an impersonation of the man he could never become. But the death of that person, however tragic and sad, is not an end to his iconic position, just like the waning of the Jackson phenomenon was not. If anything, it is fuel for it.

The vacillations of the tabloid & news coverage of him during his life should not be seen as the same as his regard as an artist or as a cultural phenomenon. His standing on those counts is the reason he was and remained tabloid fodder. But even that fodder didn’t affect the icon, since that had already been locked in time as finite, as past. The most horrid of charges leveled against him later in life couldn’t even take it away.

At the heart of it all was his talent.  From there, he made us all dance, the kids and the old people in the room.  Everybody.  He made us love him with the smile, the cuteness, the power and passion all contained within a boy-man.  By the time of Off the Wall and Thriller we were well-primed.

That’s when it all took off, became the thing that we’re really concerned with right now, and tomorrow and after that.

The Michael Jackson spectacle—-the worldwide superstardom—-should not be underestimated.  No musical performer or group has ever been as popular as he was at his height.  Nobody may ever be that big again.  Jackson made an event out of the premiere of his Pepsi commercials; his award show performances were the thing you talked about the next day at school; kids went crazy for him on nearly every continent of this globe.  There was a time in the 1980s, maybe it was 1983 or 1984, when every single member of my family knew exactly who Michael Jackson was—and that family spanned nine decades of life and two nations.

And in death it has been more of the same, maybe even more than the same.  The Michael Jackson story is hardly over. It is now bookended and complete.  A little thing like death can’t kill it.  What the icon means will change over time; we can only guess what it will mean to generations alive a century from now. But we can almost be assured that the icon will mean something.

And how amazing is that?

Read more LATINO LIKE ME.

On the death of a warmonger

Robert S. McNamara died this morning at the age of 93. If you don’t know who he is, you can read his obituary in the NY Times, the LA Times, or his Wikipedia page. For more in-depth discussions of his life and legacy you can watch the 2004 Oscar-winning film The Fog of War, or read his 1995 autobiography, In Retrospect.

My first inclination with the passing of McNamara is to say something sarcastic and mean, not out of a desire to hurt his family but out of a need to make a statement against the actions this man took in his life.  But I find myself doing what I just did in that last sentence: thinking about his family, or anyone who might be feeling loss due to the man’s passing today.

mcnamara

McNamara deserves to be understood as a weak and misguided man.  On the latter point, he is no different than any number of government and military officials for more than half a century who were so wedded to the myth of the “domino effect” as to be blinded by the overwhelming evidence they collected that it was nothing but metaphor.

On the first count–on his weakness–perhaps he is also linked to an “army” of so-called leaders who forget to cherish the lives of the people who put their games of war into action, in addition to the lives of those whose deaths are the objects of those games. Robert McNamara served a government in a capacity which brought him tremendous power and responsibility. But, in his crucial moments, time and time again, he traded his obligations as a human being for the exigencies of that master.

A liberal-pragmatist might say men like McNamara are necessary when we need them to do the things we cannot.  I don’t agree.  In the world we have created, in the systems we have made and rely upon to define what is possible and necessary, perhaps. But that human-made reality must always be checked by the greater responsibilities we have to humanity and to the planet on which it resides.

In some ways, he recognized his failures as a human.  His autobiography, his public opposition to further US immorality in war, all these were rooted (at least in part) in his sense that what he did was wrong.  He might have been motivated more by the need to protect his historical memory but, in so doing, he did recognize the primary challenge to that legacy would be his all too-human failings. I think that is what is keeping me from being callous in my assessment of his death.  Maybe he needed to be better and be contrite for those he left behind.  Maybe I can empathize with them.  Indeed, maybe we have the responsibility to do so.

It would be easy to call Robert McNamara “evil.”  Whether or not he was is meaningless to me. The undeniable fact is he caused more human suffering than can be measured and he did so, in the end, for nothing.  But it would also be a disservice to the millions who suffered as a result of his actions to dismiss him so casually.  He was nothing but a man, yes, but a man whose failures were almost pre-determined by a government that would have exiled anyone who struggled for true, human “success” in his position.

This understanding is not meant to be absolution for the soul of Robert S. McNamara. Rather, it should be taken as an indictment of those of us who remain, as we continue to propogate a rationale of this world that necessitates war, that dismisses the tragedy of organized human death, and that, far too often, forgets to remember.

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Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

For an analysis of Jackson’s iconic status, see my more recent review of his memorial service.

At his height, he was the biggest thing in the world. For a generation of young people–my generation–there will never be another.

Michael Jackson will be remembered for many things–his time with the Jackson 5, Thriller, the worldwide phenomenon he was, as well as the controversies of his molestation trial, financial troubles, and appearance–but to me and millions of others he will always be the “King of Pop.”

michael_jackson

It’s not that I excuse the man’s failings and shortcomings, whatever those were. But he was always more than a person, more than what can be contained within the limitations of a human being.

Michael Jackson was music.  He was dance.  He was, for a time, the biggest thing in popular culture.  He was girls and boys screaming, sweaty crowds reaching, flashes of light and human ecstasy.  In the U.S., in Europe, in Latin America, in the so-called Third World, wherever he went, it was the same spectacle.

The person behind this cultural phenomenon is dead, but that amazingly rare commercial beast that he embodied will never die.  It’s time has passed, but we all did bear witness to it.  We, too, will pass, but future generations will still know the name Michael Jackson.

michaeljackson

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George Reeves is still dead…

Fifty years ago today, on June 16, 1959, George Reeves shot and killed himself.  Best know as television’s Superman, Reeves also played a small role in the legendary film Gone With the Wind.  When he died, he was 45 years old.

superman

The purpose of the “Still Dead…” feature on LatinoLikeMe is to give me–a GenerationX Chicano with a historically-inclined addiction to his own encounters with popular culture–a chance to share a bit of what the figure being remembered meant to me and, I hope, others.  It might seem odd, then, for me to be writing about a man who died more than a decade before I was even born.

George Reeves might have been dead the entire time I’ve been alive, but, as Superman, he had a profound place in my life.  My dad is a Chicano baby-boomer from East L.A.  When he was a child, Reeves’ embodiment of the Man of Steel helped turn his imaginary play into something more real, more concrete.  The magic of that show is suggested in the enthusiasm for the actor and the character I inherited from him.  It is further suggested by the fact that the show remained a feature of daytime and weekend TV throughout the 1970s.

Among the earliest forms of exposure I had to moving-image science fiction and fantasy, shows like “Superman” had a lot to do with laying the foundation of my later love of things like “Star Wars.”  I believed the clumsy technology of Reeves taking off and flying around Metropolis.  It helped to make the more real-looking “Star Wars” just that much more powerful.  The acceptance of his build as emblematic of strength, carved from the Jack LaLane era of body fitness, served as a stark contrast to Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk or, later, Schwarzeneggar’s Conan, making those later figures seem all the more strong and unbeatable.

That isn’t to say Reeves is only to be appreciated for the comparison he offers to something better.  “Superman” was–and is–a great show.  It’s rootedness in the original ideal of Superman, makes it a faithful project but, more importantly, the way it gave life and breath to Superman forever informed how it is we see and understand that legend of comics.  In many ways, all Superman work from Reeves’ Superman as a starting point.  They are either impostors or conscious departures.

George Reeves had a life filled with some success and some tragedy, reflected in the manner of his death.  He struggled with the success he achieved with Superman and the way that essentially cut him off for more serious roles.  While I can appreciate that level of his struggle, I can’t help but think that if the man knew the place of science fiction and fantasy within the popular culture today, he wouldn’t have hurt so much becoming synonymous with the last son of Krypton.  Certainly in my mind, there can be few more significant achievements in the world of entertainment.

Reeve’s iconic interpretation of the “Man of Steel” is now available on DVDfor a whole new generation to discover for the first time.

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Preston Gómez (1922-2009)

Former baseball player, coach, manager, and scout Preston Gómez died yesterday. He had been severely injured last year after being struck by a motor vehicle. He was 86.

Born in Cuba, Gómez was the first manager of the San Diego Padres when they were created as an expansion team in 1969. He was hired by the historic former Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodger executive Buzzie Bavasi, who knew Gómez from the Dodgers, where he served as the third base coach from 1965 to 1968. (That term included the Dodgers’ 1965 World Series season.)

Gómez was only the second Latin American/Latino manager in baseball history when he took the helm in 1969. Before him there had been the cubano Mike Gónzalez who managed the St. Louis Cardinals during two interim stints, one in 1938 and another in 1940. (Gónzalez managed a total of 22 major league games.)  Accordingly, Gómez, it could be argued,was the first Latino to manage a major league baseball team on a permanent basis.

Preston Gómez played baseball for more than two decades on a professional basis, including 8 games in the big show (for the Washington Senators).  He made much more of a name for himself as a coach and as a manager (for the aforementioned Padres (1969-72), as well as he Houston Astros (1974-75) and Chicago Cubs (1980)).  For the last 27 years he worked for the California Angels as, first, a coach, and (since 1984) as a scout and consultant.

Latinos have a strong presence in professional baseball.  In a generation or two, we will also have a notable presence in the Hall of Fame.  Men like Gómez can be simultaneously regarded as pathbreakers for their early achievements but also as human records of baseball’s racial past–a past that prohibited the play of dark-skinned and African-descent Latinos while it allowed the participation of “white” ones.

Undoubtedly, he was an important part of baseball history.  For more information on his life in the big leagues, see the announcement from the Angels organization.