Archive for the OBITS Category

Nine Favorite Chuck Berry Covers

Posted in African American Interest, Music, OBITS, Rock and Pop with tags , , , on March 19, 2017 by travsd

This is how Chuck Berry looked on tv when I was a kid. He just died at 90. Wake up call!

Rock in Peace, Chuck Berry! I have little to add to the tribute I wrote in 2010, except 90 is a damn good run, Rudolph. One good measure of the value of a songwriter is the number and quality of cover versions of songs you wrote, and the prestige of those who perform them. Here are some covers of Berry’s songs I have particularly enjoyed,in no particular order:

1.”Come On” — The Rolling Stones.

I love the original version of course (it was one of the first songs I learned to play on the bass) but I also love the Stones’ arrangement with its manic key changes, wacky energy, and harmonica punctuation. For some reason the Stones changed Berry’s more forceful “stupid jerk” to “stupid guy” — always wondered about that.

2. “Memphis” — Johnny Rivers

“Memphis” may well be Berry’s most covered song. It is haunting and poignant and sweet and wonderfully constructed, with that touching twist in the last verse, and original turns of phrase like “hurry-home drops”. Rivers practically made an entire career covering Berry tunes, but this may be his best known one (and perhaps the best known version) of the song. (Another version I’ve always loved is the Beatles’, from the Cavern years. John Lennon’s performance pulls the heart strings; he seems to invest a lot of emotion into it)

3. “Roll Over, Beethoven” — The Beatles

Well, it’s hard to choose just ONE Beatles Chuck Berry cover — their version of “Rock and Roll Music” absolutely tears it up. But I’ve always had a particular affection for their cover of “Roll Over, Beethoven” as one of George Harrison’s earliest moments to shine; he has a lilt in his voice I’ve always loved, and I like the way the Beatles version flows even more than the original. The whole thing is much more frenetic.

4. “Sweet Little Sixteen” — Jerry Lee Lewis

Okay, this song is dirty whether Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis is singing it, given their mutual penchant for VERY under-aged girls. But Lewis MAKES it more dirty in his virgin. Berry’s a writer; when he performs his version you at least IMAGINE the singer is also a teenager. When Lewis does it, nope, he’s 24…then 34…then 44. Probably still be tryin’ it at 84.

5. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” — Buddy Holly

We all know that this began life as “Brown-SKINNED Handsome Man”, but that hasn’t stopped white skinned men from interpreting it. Buddy Holly, as he often did, brings a bit of Bo Diddly clave rhythm energy into it, and I hear Holly’s voice just as easily as Berry’s whenever I think of the song.

6. “Too Much Monkey Business” — The Yardbirds

The Yardbirds live version (from 1963’s Five Live Yardbirds) of this tears up. When one thinks of the Berry version one thinks mostly of the lyrics, it’s just a tour de force of language and vocal performance. With the Yardbirds, it’s all about the heavy, amplified bass and guitars. Keith Relf’s vocal performance is def proto-punk.

7. “Sweet Little Sixteen” — The Beach Boys (as “Surfin U.S.A.”)

As even a child can tell, the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” is simply “Sweet Little Sixteen” with altered lyrics, with that wonderful stop-and-start energy, and Carl Wilson’s almost note for note homage to his master (Wilson was probably Berry’s foremost acolyte as a guitar player. Yes, Keith Richard and George Harrison, too, but those guys absorbed and synthesized a lot of OTHER guitar players. With Wilson, you just hear the influence of Chuck.) The Beach Boys also had a hit with Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music”, one of their biggest hits of the 1970s, but I find the arrangement cluttered and simply don’t like it as much.

8. “Johnny B. Goode” — Jimi Hendrix 

Hendrix wasn’t just a musical, aural genius — we often forget that he was a brilliant, crowd-pleasing showman — much like Berry himself. The blues was always the foundation of what he did, no matter how psychedelic he got. His interpretation of “Johnny B. Goode” is a great illustration of the range of the performer, and the adaptability of the song itself.

9. “Around and Around” — The Animals

“Around and Around” is a great party song, it’s all about a fun time, “what a crazy sound”. It lent itself well to the Animals’ quintessential sixties wildness, with Eric Burdon’s rough, raw vocals, with Alan Price’s organ helping it swing.

R.I.P. Rich Conaty

Posted in OBITS, Radio (Old Time Radio) with tags , , , , , on February 10, 2017 by travsd

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Well, I’m, very blue today to hear that Rich Conaty has passed. I’d heard that he was very sick, but I somehow missed the news that he’d left us. I’ll let my 2009 profile on him stand as my tribute.

I had the pleasure of Rich’s company many a time — got to ride shotgun as he hosted his influential WFUV radio show The Big Broadcast, and hung out with him at Vince Giordano’s gigs. In fact it was Rich who introduced me to Vince, back when he and the Nighthawks had their weekly engagement at a very funky old place in Chinatown. Rich was a generous guy and (it seemed to me) oddly lonely for someone so well known and loved. And I was always really perplexed and intrigued by the fact that he’d discovered that early big band music on his own; it wasn’t handed down to him by an elder practitioner. (I don’t know why it seems that weird to me; it parallels my relationship to vaudeville). At any rate, I find I’m beginning to eulogize him and I doubt I will top my previous appreciation so here it is.  Bon Voyage, Rich — thanks for all the pleasant sounds.

Tribute to a Teacher

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, ME, OBITS with tags on February 7, 2017 by travsd

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I learned this weekend the devastating news that a pivotal person in my life was near death. Even hearing that it was close in these raw, heartbreaking days was enough to double me over with grief. I cried myself to sleep at four in the afternoon. I just now got the news that she had passed — how perfect to hear it at the same time I learn the news about Betsy Devos’ confirmation as Secretary of Education. For my friend Lee Mania was a schoolteacher. She must have been so distraught at the developments of the past few weeks. I hate to even think of her witnessing the country we’re about to become. Her passing now is merciful.

Lee was my best friend’s mom, and she came into my life when I was about 11 or 12 years old, at a time in my life when she was the IDEAL person to have nearby. The way some kids sprout up like bean poles, or suddenly grow beards, or bulky biceps, I felt the thoughts in my head, the words on my tongue expand and multiply with terrifying, dizzying swiftness. And with my home life I could have gone in so many ways — I kid you not, I could have been Timothy McVeigh. There was anger and violence and alcoholism and dark, dark discourse behind the walls of my own house. And there was real danger of my echoing it, perpetuating it. But I had a number of great teachers. Including Lee, who wasn’t my teacher, but taught me. To this day, I think of her as one of the most brilliant people I ever knew. She was incredibly articulate, erudite and funny. She bantered. And she talked to young people (she taught fifth grade) with the kind of respect most grown-ups reserve for other adults. She was the first adult in my life who seemed to sense who I was and knew how to talk to me, how to converse in such a way so to include ALL of me, and in so doing, she catalyzed my transformation into who I am right now. That’s not too strong to say.

Lee was kind and patient and the most rational person I had ever met. In fact, her parenting style was so calm, I didn’t even recognize it as such at first. They used to have this little Japanese car; I’d slam the lightweight door shut when I got in, adolescent fashion, and she’d say “You know, you really don’t have to slam that.” She must have had to say it 50 times before I understood that she was asking me not to do it. That was not how behavior got corrected in my house.

Her son Matt was my best friend from grades 7 through 12. When I was about 13 she brought the pair of us to the JFK Library up in Boston soon after it opened. A small thing for them, to have me along. For me, it was the sort of thing that changed my life. And so much that she valued, like her love of Bob Dylan, got transmitted to me by hanging out with her son.

Yeah, I’m an absolute fuckin’ wreck right now. But there’s something just kind of perfect about her leaving us just now. Just perfect. All I got at the moment besides sorrow is a world of gratitude and a determination to deserve the investment she made in me. Lee, you were a really, really good teacher.

R.I.P. Professor Irwin Corey: Dead at 102

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, OBITS, Stand Up with tags , , , on February 7, 2017 by travsd

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There’s been lots of chatter on social media since last night and I finally got definitive word from Bob Greenberg: Professor Irwin Corey has passed away at age 102.  Those old enough to remember him from tv, may justifiably ask, “Professor Irwin Corey is still alive???” But here in New York he remained very much present and visible in at least two of the circles I run with. The subset of the comedy community that respects its old timers knows him well, of course. As does the progressive activist community. Irwin was very active well past the century mark, still going out, still being “public” amongst those two groups, attending their dinners and functions and parties and meetings, interacting with people, cherishing the limelight. And, as always happens when you approach and then pass 100, he’s gotten more press than usual in the local papers in recent years.

Irwin’s schtick was very vaudeville: he affected the distracted, disheveled look of the academic intellectual much popularized by Einstein: ill fitting clothes and long, messy hair. He was a kook who would spout nonsense, confusing the convulsed audience while purporting to enlighten them. He started this bit at night clubs and cabarets in the ’40s. In the ’60s, he caught on with the counterculture and tv. By the ’70s, since he was so well recognized, he got lots of bit parts in movies.

At the same time, he was extremely left wing, a radical of the type that had become quite rare in America by the turn of the 21st century. He surely must have been flipping out these last few weeks.

Bob Greenberg, who was his good friend, posted this message last night:

“Irwin passed away at 6:27 PM tonight in his home. He had just eaten Vanilla Ice Cream Swirl followed by Egg Drop Soup. (The Ice Cream didn’t satisfy him so he sent his son out to get the soup.) After the soup he complained that the covers were too heavy on his feet. (This was odd since he usually complained that there wasn’t enough covering him.) His Nurse adjusted them and when she looked up he was gone. “

Farewell to the “World’s Foremost Authority”.

R.I.P. Mary Tyler Moore

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Dance, OBITS, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , on January 26, 2017 by travsd

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We would certainly be remiss if we didn’t lay down a few words in honor of the late Mary Tyler Moore.

As I tweeted yesterday, she influenced many of us not just as a comedienne but as an example and a role model. I’m a white working class male, and she influenced my world outlook immensely. The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran during highly impressionable years of my life (1971 through 1977, and thereafter in syndication). I knew it was seminal only in retrospect. Growing up watching her, I always took it for granted that it was the most natural thing in the world that a single woman should choose to pursue a career and that she should be respected in the workplace. Unlike Marlo Thomas in That Girl (1966-1971), there was no fiance constantly waiting the wings and her career goals weren’t pie in the sky. She dated men, and sometimes it was even hinted that they stayed the night.  But her career seemed to be her priority. She later backtracked some on this takeaway, but really that is the message her show sent.

Of course, that message is what most people celebrated yesterday, but now I want to talk about her as a comedian. She was a great one. I seem to recall her saying that her teacher in playing comic scenes was her old co-star Dick Van Dyke, and I started to watch her performances with that in mind, and you can see it. (Apart from her crying routines — the debt there is probably to Lucille Ball. And I have to say, of the two, I vastly prefer MTM’s more subtle and true comic performances over Lucy’s. Lucy only had a sledgehammer in her arsenal, Mary had a full tool kit.)

Recently, when watching 30 Rock I had the revelation that Tina Fey’s show is kind of a mash-up The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. On the one hand, it’s set behind the scenes at a tv comedy show; on the other hand it’s about a single, female tv producer. 30 Rock is way more absurd and surreal, but the core of the situation echoes those pioneering shows, and I would imagine it’s not accidental. Fey is a formidable comic architect, and quite encyclopedic in her knowledge of comedy.

Like Van Dyke, Moore was an incredible dancer; it’s kind of her jumping off point as a performer. It informs both their comedy — and it’s fairly insane that, apart from some variety show appearances, they didn’t co-star in a LOT of musicals. With their array of talents that could potentially have been amazing. But something interesting happened to Moore — and it happens to a lot of actors and comedians when they get very big. Moore wasn’t just a comedian, she became a producer. And with her husband Grant Tinker, she was responsible for a large number of hit tv shows: Phyllis, Rhoda, Lou Grant, The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, The White Shadow, Hill St. Blues, St. Elsewhere. When you are powerful, you acquire dignity and self-assurance. She was no longer young or fresh or goofy by the 1980s. She had gravitas and was even (as she was in Ordinary People) intimidating and scary. She tried many later tv series: The Mary Tyler Moore Hour (1979), Mary (1985-86), Annie McGuire (1988), New York News (1995). None flew, I think partially because you see the show business titan beneath the performer. It’s not uncommon — think of Bob Hope’s last movies.

She’d gone conservative in recent years, I hear. I wonder what she thought of the millions who attended the Women’s March on Sunday, so many of whom she influenced. She’s leaving us at another time of change, when even the mild gains women have made are under serious threat. I already get melancholy and nostalgic when I watch tv. Now there’ll be some added bittersweetness when I see this and think of more innocent times:

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R.I.P. Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus

Posted in Circus, OBITS with tags , , , , on January 15, 2017 by travsd
Hartford Circus Fire, 1944

Hartford Circus Fire, 1944

HEY RUBE!

That’s what you yell when the circus is in trouble, when it’s all hands on deck, when it’s time to start a bucket brigade, or pull up stakes, or generally come to the aid of your family, which means everyone else who works at the circus. The news this morning, that the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus will be folding up for good in May hit me like a ton of bricks — as I just tweeted it feels like I’m on an elevator plunging 50 floors. While I may frequently knock the contemporary incarnation of the RBBB, I hope I’ve always made one thing clear…the Greatest Show on Earth is THE tent pole of American show business and even its theatre. It has been around that long. This is like a long line of grandfathers all dying at the same time. The organization itself is 146 years old, but the producers whose names are in the title were operating long before that. P.T. Barnum’s name has been above a title in show business somewhere for 181 years! The fact that this is happening at the same time as America’s Constitutional government is being dismantled feels symbolic, a mirror image. Everything we have ever known seems to be flying out the window. But as RBBB did so many times before, after the 1944 fire, and in the 1970s when the Feld Family re-invented it for the modern age, I think it is up to us to keep the show going. The show must go on. It is up to us, in whatever way we can do it. We MUST keep the best of our cultural traditions alive for our children.

I’ll be writing a much, much longer tribute to this important American institution and put it up when they go away for good in May. Mean time, you can refer individual posts I’ve written on P.T. Barnum, the Ringling Brothers, James A. Bailey, and various aspects of the show itself. Today I feel immense sadness, a bit of fear (untethered, in a way, in freefall), but also resolved to address this somehow.

R.I.P. Dick Gautier

Posted in Comedy, OBITS, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , on January 14, 2017 by travsd

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Okay, they’re officially dropping faster than I can pump these out. My normal rule is I only bother with a tribute if I have things to say, but I may have to amend that.

At any rate, I have plenty to say about comic actor Dick Gautier, who passed away yesterday at age 85. (People always want to know how. Who cares how he died? He’s 85, that’s how!) I am precisely the right age to be among what I imagine is the pretty small group of Dick Gautier fans. The primary credit that put him on my radar was of course When Things Were Rotten (1975), the Mel Brooks produced Robin Hood sit com which I blogged about here. Of course, Gautier had worked with Brooks earlier as the robot Hymie in Get Smart, which I watched in re-runs (and need to watch some more, I still have not quite gotten my fill of Get Smart). But mostly where you saw him in the ’70s was in guest shots on other people’s shows. I quite clearly remember him from a 1978 episode of The Love Boat, and he was also on Love American Style, Banacek, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. He was in the 1977 movie Fun with Dick and Jane which I loved. (I am curious to know why he wasn’t in the 1980 Get Smart movie The Nude Bomb). This is just the tip of the iceberg. He was everywhere in the 70s. He was on all the game shows as well. And he seemed to work pretty steadily through the ’90s.

But he never cracked beyond a certain level. Never became a movie star, never was the star of his own hit series (When Things Were Rotten was not a hit in tv terms). Though he was the original Conrad Birdie in the Broadway production of Bye, Bye Birdie, in the movie the role went to Jesse Pearson. But he worked constantly. He was a truly interesting type, and that’s why I’m inspired to write about him today. He came pretty close to good looking, but with a certain exaggeration of the features that added up to being a parody of conventional good looks, almost like those caricatures of movie stars who made appearances on The Flintstones. In the ’70s he grew his hair out to John Davidson proportions, this great puffy, blowdried and combed pillow of hair. And so he would often be cast as jerky boyfriends, blind dates, and that sort of thing, a kind of second tier George Hamilton. He also had a kind of smirking expression on his face and good delivery on comic lines, which made him natural for light comedy. I feel like his casting as Robin Hood in When Things Were Rotten is roughly the same comic idea as Daphne Zuniga as Princess Vespa in Space Balls, although I can’t exactly say why. Parody of an ingenue, I guess.

Bon Voyage, M. Gautier.

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