Tracking the Spoor of the Signifying Monkey

The Signifying Monkey

This monkey signifies.

“The Signifying Monkey” is one of the most popular songs in the history of rock and the blues… but it originated centuries ago in ancient Africa! Learn about the cultural impact when lion… elephant… and one jive-talking primate come together… in this episode of NOTES.

The photo above is by James Fischer and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

The Value of an Old-Fashioned Love Song

When the spiky-coiffed, slightly grizzled and diminutive man took the stage of Staples Center in Los Angeles in January, 2014 to accept the “Best Album” Grammy with Daft Punk, a lot of young fans probably wondered: Who was that leprechaun-looking fellow doing the talking for the French robotic duo?

The answer, of course, is Paul Williams, who nabbed his first Grammy nomination (for “Rainy Days and Mondays”) 34 years earlier, a good four years before either member of Daft Punk was even born. When Williams collaborated with Daft Punk on two songs (“Touch” and “Beyond”) from their best-selling RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES last year, he became the only songwriter to have written for Daft Punk and the Monkees (“Someday Man”), Scissor Sisters (“Almost Sorry”) and Streisand (“Evergreen”), Three Dog Night (“Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song”) and the Muppets (“Rainbow Connection”). In a career that has included numerous acting roles — besides his best-known roles as Swan in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and Little Enos Burdette in SMOKY AND THE BANDIT, Williams has also played the Penguin and an ape engaged in the BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES — the man born Paul Hamilton Williams, Jr. in Bennington, Nebraska has had one of those Zelig-like careers, photo-bombing his way through musical history like nobody else.

You could be forgiven for thinking Williams’ turn on RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES was a bit of a comeback for the 73-year-old songwriter, but the truth is Williams has been more than elbow-deep in the musical industry for the past several years. As a board member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (better known by its acronym: ASCAP) since 2001, and its president since 2009, Williams has advocated for songwriters for well over a decade now.

Williams made news in May, 2014, when he penned an editorial for ROLL CALL, the congressional blog, about ASCAP’s intentions to revamp the laws which govern songwriting royalties. The last time these laws were addressed by Congress was in 2001, before the Apple iPod was invented. Since that time, the music industry has morphed in ways few could have predicted. As a result, it is sadly not uncommon now for music labels and recording artists to make as much as 12 or 14 times the amount a songwriter makes on the same streaming song on Spotify or Pandora.

To help counter the winds against the songwriter Williams and his ASCAP cohorts announced an initiative called “MAP,” which stands for “Music Advocacy Project.” As part of that initiative, Williams traveled to Washington, D.C. last year with other great songwriters like Jimmy Webb and Randy Newman, to meet with lawmakers about ways current licensing laws could be changed to be more equitable to songwriters.

Only time will tell if their efforts will come to fruit, although the ASCAP-approved Songwriter Equity Act of 2015, a (nowadays rare) House Resolution with wide bipartisan support, now sits in committee. But something needs to be done; as the author of “Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song” knows only too well, modern love songs just don’t pay like the old-fashioned ones used to.

Dolemite and the Signifying Monkey

Dolemite

He was so bad, he kicked his own a** twice a day.

There has never been and never will be another man like the late Rudy Ray Moore. As a singer… comedian… actor… and producer… Rudy Ray Moore left an indelible mark on the world of popular culture — and primed the pump for the hip hop acts to come. Find out more about the Human Tornado in this episode of NOTES, recorded before Moore’s passing in October, 2008.

Five Ways “The St. Louis Blues” Changed Everything

There are many important songs in the history of American popular music, but W.C. Handy’s “The St. Louis Blues” has to be near the pinnacle of the pantheon.  Here are five reasons why “The St. Louis Blues” changed America forever:

 

  1.  It made the blues respectable.  Handy wasn’t the first musician to publish blues songs, but he’s known today as “the Father of the Blues” because his hits transformed what had been an informal, regional, ethnically specific genre into the basis for all of the American pop music which would follow over the next century.  Before the 1914 publication of “The St. Louis Blues,” the blues was considered a novelty. But within a decade, the blues had transformed from being an exotic amusement to the backbone of almost all future American musical invention.  It can be argued that without “The St. Louis Blues,” there would be no rock n’ roll, no soul music, no hip-hop.  And genres like jazz, cabaret and even gospel would be pallid, bloodless versions of what we have come to expect.

 

  1.  It changed the way musicians did business.  “The St. Louis Blues” came two years after Handy had sold the rights to his first hit, “The Memphis Blues,” to publisher Theron Bennett for $100, and then watched in dismay as the song became a huge money-maker.  As a result, Handy determined to never sell his copyrights again.  And that proved to be a wise choice — by the time he passed away in 1958, Handy was still making $25,000 a year from “The St. Louis Blues” royalties.  (In 1958, $25k had the buying power of more than $200-thousand today.)  Handy turned his songs into a fortune by creating his own publishing company, and became a model for subsequent generations of songwriters and performers.

 

  1.  It cemented stardom for Bessie Smith.  Whereas white singer Marion Harris was the first to score a hit with “The St. Louis Blues,” the version recorded by Bessie Smith in 1925 is widely considered to be the definitive interpretation of the song.  By then, Smith was already on the music industry’s radar thanks to best-selling “race records,” but her version of “The St. Louis Blues” (replete with subtly beautiful cornet accompaniment by Louis Armstrong) caused her star to skyrocket.  Four years later, Smith appeared in her only film: “The St. Louis Blues,” in which she sang the song that gave the film its title and provided her the mantle of “Queen of the Blues.”

 

  1.  It expanded the blues’ musical palette.  One reason ”The St. Louis Blues” turned heads in 1914 was that Handy combined the so-called 12-bar blues with a tango.  In both his personal dealings and his work as a musician, Handy was a bridge-builder, and by merging the blues with a then-popular dance rhythm, he drafted the blueprint for much of the experimentation which would turn American music into the world’s most creative hotbed for the next century.

 

  1.  It forever changed the role of African-Americans in popular culture.  In treating the African-American experience respectfully and sympathetically, “The St. Louis Blues” set a standard that could not be rolled back thereafter.  Permanently vanquished were the “coon songs” of yore.  Blacks were finally treated as people, not mascots, and some historians see “The St. Louis Blues” as a bellwether moment, the butterfly-wing flutter which would grow into the juggernaut of the Civil Rights movement a half-century later.

The Offers the Rat Pack Couldn’t Refuse

The Rat Pack and Angelo Bruno

Why did Dean, Sammy and Frank attend the wedding of Angelo Bruno’s daughter?  Because they had to.

When Philadelphia’s “gentle Don,” Angelo Bruno, wanted to make his daughter’s wedding special, he called his old buddy, Sam Giancana… who, in turn, told Frank, Dean and Sammy to be there, capish?  Learn how, when Sam said, “Jump!” the Rat Pack asked, “How high?” in this episode of NOTES.

The Tragedy of the Layla Coda

It’s one of the most famous three minutes and 48 seconds in rock n’ roll. And its story is marked by theft, madness, domestic violence — and murder.

When Derek and the Dominos’ LAYLA AND OTHER ASSORTED LOVE SONGS hit record store shelves in November, 1970, it was widely anticipated by the fans of two guitar legends: Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. Clapton had been a star in his native U.K. since his 1963-’65 stint in the Yardbirds, after which he had, in just a few years, done time in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers… spent a couple years (and become a rock star in the U.S.) as the guitarist in Cream… cut an album with Blind Faith; toured with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends… and recorded his first solo album. In 1970, believing he would be more comfortable as a member of an ensemble rather than a headlining “star,” Clapton decided to form a new band with some of the musicians in Delaney and Bonnie and Friends as well as former Stax sideman, Bobby Whitlock. They joined together with Clapton’s old friend Carl Radle on bass and Wrecking Crew drummer Jim Gordon to form the band that would be known as Derek and the Dominos.

Duane Allman was the last to the party. After recording the first sessions for the new album, producer Tom Dowd took Clapton to an Allman Brothers concert. After the show, Clapton invited Allman back to the studio to jam. By the time their partnership had ended, Allman had contributed slide guitar to 11 of the 14 songs on LAYLA AND OTHER ASSORTED LOVE SONGS.

The album spawned a couple of hits. But by far, its best-known song is the title track, which Clapton wrote to express his unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, the model wife of Beatles guitarist George Harrison. A searing guitar riff and Clapton’s tortured vocals would have made “Layla” memorable no matter what. But sealing the deal was a nearly four-minute piano coda of such sheer loveliness that “Layla” was recognized almost immediately as a new classic.

The coda was credited to drummer Jim Gordon, who played the main piano part while Allman contributed the (slightly off-key) slide guitar. But years later, it was revealed that Gordon had stolen the melody of the “Layla” coda from his ex-girlfriend, singer Rita Coolidge. Coolidge (who was living with Gordon in early 1970 but who left him after he gave her a black eye in the hallway of New York’s Warwick Hotel) had written the music for a song called “Time,” and knew Gordon had stolen her melody but, afraid of his temper, decided to shine it on.

Gordon continued to work steadily after the Derek and the Dominos sessions. (You can hear his work on Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis,” among others). But years of cycling between heroin, cocaine and alcohol had taken a grim toll on the talented musician. Through the 1970s, Gordon wrestled with acute schizophrenia. He was paranoid. He heard voices. He became convinced his mother was evil, and had killed Karen Carpenter and comedian Paul Lynde. Finally, in 1983, he murdered his own mother, bludgeoning her with a hammer before stabbing her with a butcher knife. Jim Gordon, the man whose piano-playing on the “Layla” coda has brought grown men to tears, is now in his 32nd year in prison in Vacaville, California, where he is expected to spend the rest of his life.

The Chairman and the Boss

The Rat Pack and Sam Giancana

When Sam Giancana called, the Rat Pack came a-runnin’.

There wasn’t much Frank wouldn’t do for his old friend, Sam.  So why did Sam eventually want to put a bullet in Frank?  In this episode of NOTES, we explore the unhealthy friendship of singer/actor Frank Sinatra and mob boss Sam Giancana.

For more on the relationship of Frank Sinatra and Sam Giancana, see “With Friends Like That…”
For more on the music of Frank Sinatra, see “The Concept Albums of Frank Sinatra”

Screech for the Stars

Last week, we learned that America’s appetite for god-awful racket makers goes back more than a hundred years, to acts like the Cherry Sisters and Florence Foster Jenkins. But after the Cherrys retired and Florence died, there were other women ready assume the mantle of most successful, worst singer in the world.

Some of these acts were parodies. Take Darlene Edwards, for instance, who caterwauled while her pianist husband, Jonathan Edwards (a man with two right hands, if the cover of the duo’s GREATEST HITS package is to be trusted) accompanied her on songs like “I Love Paris” starting in 1957. In actuality, Darlene’s off-kilter (and off-key) singing was performed by the musically gifted Jo Stafford, a pop singer who had scored hits like “The Trolley Song,” “Candy” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” in the 1940s. And Jonathan Edwards was actually Stafford’s real-life husband, the very gifted Paul Weston. Stafford and Weston won a Best Comedy Album Grammy in 1961 in their guise as the Edwards (tying with the classic THE BUTTON DOWN MIND OF BOB NEWHART that year).

In 1957, at almost the same time the Edwards were winning by failing, a 72-year-old woman with operatic dreams released one of the true classics in the genre of horrible singing. MUSIC TO SUFFER BY was Leona Anderson’s only album, but it launched a ten-year career that found her billed as “the World’s Most Horrible Singer.” In addition to butchering standards like “Carmen,” Leona also assayed originals like “Rats in My Room” and “Fish.” (The latter included a young Bil Baird playing tuba, some years before he would find fame as a world-class puppeteer. If you remember “The Lonely Goatherd” puppet sequence in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, that was Bil Baird’s work.) Anderson had been working at the fringes of show business since she was a young woman. Her brother was the famous movie cowboy, “Bronco Billy” Anderson, and Leona herself appeared in silent films during the 1920s. Her last film role came in William Castle’s camp classic, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, a year after the release of MUSIC TO SUFFER BY.

Probably the most famous terrible singer of all time emerged during the following decade. In April, 1966, Mrs. Ela Ruby Connes Miller released her first album, MRS. MILLER’S GREATEST HITS, on the Capitol label. The album was a hodge-podge of current pop hits like “Downtown,” sung in a high-pitched, warbling voice that, while never rising to the level of good, was certainly unforgettable. Within a year-and-a-half, the album had sold over a quarter-million copies and Mrs. Miller had become a sought-after guest on television shows like THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, LAUGH-IN and THE TONIGHT SHOW. In 1967, she appeared in the motion picture, THE COOL ONES, opposite Roddy McDowall and Phil Harris.

It was never entirely clear if Mrs. Miller understood the kitschy appeal of her singing. But when she recorded her 1968 album, MRS. MILLER DOES HER THING (produced by future Republican lieutenant governor of California, Mike Curb), with song titles like “Mary Jane,” “The Roach” and “Renaissance of Smut,” it is clear that she didn’t recognize the double entendres present throughout the album. Reportedly, when the drug references were explained to her later, she was outraged. She self-released two “straight” singles in the early 1970s, and then retired until her death in 1996.

The Soundtrack Magic of Ennio Morricone

Jackie Chan's Greatest Hits

People scare better when they’re dying.

His music has enhanced films of every genre… and even video games!  Discover more about the amazing Ennio Morricone… and especially his aural contribution to Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST… in this installment of NOTES.

Women Who Sing Badly (and the Audiences Who Love Them)

One of the oddest trends in popular music — and one of the longest lasting — has been the American penchant for women who sing very, very badly. You think you know what I mean by “very badly,” but no — worse than that. Worse than Jessica Simpson. Worse than Paris Hilton. We’re talking women for whom the word “caterwauling” might well have been invented. Women whose tonsils, could they be smelled, would lead you to think something crawled under the house to die. Yet weirdly, these women have found large, eager audiences for over a hundred years.

Take, for example, the Cherry Sisters, who rose to prominence in the late 1890s. These four dour sisters rose from performing at local school presentations in their native Linn County, near Cedar Rapids, Iowa to long runs on the big-time circuit of vaudeville, eventually playing in Oscar Hammerstein’s opulent Broadway “palace,” the Olympia Theatre. The Cherrys did a sold-out, six-week run at the Olympia, saving Hammerstein from bankruptcy and establishing the venue as one of New York’s most important vaudeville houses. And they managed to accomplish this with nary a whiff of talent or craftsmanship. At many of the theaters where the Cherry Sisters played, so awful was their performance that they were met with what one newspaper called “vegetable applause” — fusillades of tomatoes and rotten fruit sent hurtling by aggrieved vaudeville patrons. At first, the sisters didn’t take kindly to this form of criticism. The eldest, Effie, would sometimes come onstage brandishing a shotgun, and in more than one city, the local law was forced to intervene during their performances for fear that someone would get hurt. But being incredibly bad proved to be better than being merely competent, and the Cherrys parlayed their lack of musical skills into a long career, until the death of youngest sister Jessie put an end to their act in 1903.

It was nine years later that Florence Foster Jenkins launched her musical career. Jenkins was the daughter of a wealthy attorney from Pennsylvania who lavished his daughter with musical lessons when she was a child, but who refused to bankroll Florence’s ardently coveted career as an opera singer when the young woman came of age. And who can blame him? For, having heard young Florence sing, he probably recognized she was as tone deaf and rhythmically insensitive as a fence post. But whatever Florence lacked in talent, she more than compensated for in sheer passion to perform. When her father passed away in 1909, leaving her a sizable inheritance, she founded the Verdi Club in New York City, where she proceeded to star in numerous musical recitals, often bedecked in ridiculously ornate costumes of tinsel and bangles. Soon, like the Cherry Sisters before her, she became popular for her very lack of vocal ability. That popularity continued to grow until she played a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall, just a month before she died.

We’ll look back at other remarkably successful and remarkably awful singers next week. Until then, take a lesson from the Cherry Sisters and Florence Foster Jenkins and remember: It is better to sing poorly than to never sing at all.

Chan’s the Man!

Jackie Chan's Greatest Hits

Who else can drop 50 feet off a clock tower and sing in at least four languages?

Jackie Chan is well-known the world over for his work as a film action hero. But few in the west are aware of his status as a musical pop star. Learn more about singer Jackie Chan in this episode of NOTES.

Jackie Chan's Greatest Hits

Wading Across Genres

To some, the study of popular music may seem the very model of a trivial pursuit.

After all, BILLBOARD‘s charts are often littered with flash-in-the-pan fashion fads and jejune novelties. In the pop domain, art can be eclipsed by P.R. and talent can be trumped by spin. For every Beatles there is a Pipkins, for every U2 a Right Said Fred, for every Michael Franti a Kevin Federline. It is a world where the forgettable and insubstantial frequently elbow their way to the front of the V.I.P. line, a world where the A-list is all too commonly dominated by the Z-grade.

Nevertheless, there is much to be learned about our nation in the study of popular song. Sometimes, like the shadows on Plato’s cavern wall, the hits of the day reflect the history and zeitgeist of the universe which spawned them.

Submitted for your consideration is the old baptismal hymn, “Wade in the Water” — a song that has been covered by literally hundreds of artists and which has crossed effortlessly from its gospel origin into the genres of rock, soul, jazz and easy listening.

For a song that is more than 150 years old, “Wade in the Water” has proven remarkably spry. In 1966, it was a hit for jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis. It has been dressed in blues by Big Mama Thornton and Dr. John… funkified by Billy Preston and Booker T. & the MGs… and folked up by Bob Dylan and Odetta.

As with other American negro spirituals (like “The Gospel Train” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”), “Wade in the Water” had a dual meaning for the slaves who sang it in the mid-19th century. Although it served as an accompaniment to baptism, the song’s lyrics were also codified instructions for black runaways seeking freedom via the so-called “Underground Railroad.” Until 1850, slaves fleeing the plantations of the south could find independence just north of the Mason-Dixon line. Gospel songs like “Follow the Drinking Gourd” reminded the runaways to steer north using the Big Dipper (the titular “Drinking Gourd”), while “Wade in the Water” exhorted them to evade the pursuing bloodhounds by running by night through streams and rivers.

Even the biblical locales mentioned in the song were encrypted references to specific checkpoints along the Railroad. For instance, in the song’s third lyric:

Jordan’s water is chilly and cold.
God’s gonna trouble the water.
It chills the body, but not the soul.
God’s gonna trouble the water.

Jordan represents the Ohio River, which slaves would cross on their way to one of southern Ohio’s several African-American settlements or further north to Canada.

It’s possible that some who sing “Wade in the Water” today are unaware of its Underground Railroad roots. Many have enjoyed the song for its spiritual message, timeless melody and rhythmic possibilities. But like other popular American hits, it also tells an important story about a part of our national history that must not be forgotten.

Peking Opera Blues — The World of Hong Kong Cinema Music

Peking Opera Blues

Composer James Wong put the blues in Tsui Hark’s PEKING OPERA BLUES (1987).

During the latter half of the 20th Century, Hong Kong rose to prominence as a major player in the world film industry thanks primarily to its hugely popular cinema of martial arts.  In this episode of NOTES, you’ll learn more about the music behind the mayhem.

Wordless, But Not Nameless

Here’s a thought: How about I hum today’s post?

Okay, I acknowledge that probably wouldn’t work very well in blog form. But sometimes, in the strange world of pop music, wordless singing is just what the doctor ordered.

There are many kinds of wordless singing we could talk about nowadays, ranging from humming to scat-singing to beatboxing, and beyond. But when the phrase “wordless vocals” is used to describe a song, it is generally distinguished from improvisatory techniques like scat or percussive techniques like beatboxing to signify the use of the voice as a melody instrument — er, without words, that is.

Probably the most famous example of wordless vocals in a rock song is British singer Clare Torry’s anguished (but melodic!) wail on Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” from DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. Torry was paid 30 pounds for coming into Abbey Road Studios on a Sunday and improvising a vocal part over a chord sequence written by Pink Floyd’s keyboardist, Richard Wright. In 2005, Torry sued Pink Floyd for a share of the songwriting royalties on “Great Gig” and eventually settled out-of-court for an unspecified financial payment and a co-writer’s credit on all subsequent releases of DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. She also performed similar wordless vocal duties 11 years later on the Culture Club’s pacifistic ditty, “The War Song.”

But when Torry laid down her tracks for Pink Floyd in 1973, there had already been a long tradition of wordless vocals in rock and jazz. One of the earliest recordings to utilize the singing style was Duke Ellington’s 1928 single on the Victor label, “Creole Love Call,” which featured Brooklyn-born song thrush Adelaide Hall crooning exotically over Ellington’s torchy melody.

Wordless vocals were very popular during the lounge era. Juan Garcia Esquivel’s stereo masterpieces were liberally dosed with finely harmonized “oohs,” “ahhs” and “zu-zu-zus” provided by the Randy Van Horne Singers. Les Baxter frequently spiced his records with wordless vocals from the likes of Beverly Ford or the bordering-on-the-outlandish Bas Sheva.

And many a television and film soundtrack has been enhanced by memorable wordless vocals. Burt Bacharach used the technique on the track, “South American Getaway,” from his award-winning score to BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. Bacharach turned to the Ron Hicklin Singers to perform the wordless vocals for that song, just a couple years after they sang on the television themes to BATMAN and FLIPPER, and only months before they would sing all the background vocals on the songs of the Partridge Family.

Meanwhile, Italian singer Edda Dell’Ors made memorable wordless contributions to Ennio Morricone’s scores for Sergio Leone films like ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and DUCK, YOU SUCKER. And sessions singer Loulie Jean Norman provided one of the most famous examples of wordless vocals of all time when she warbled the classic theme to STAR TREK.

Singers like Torre, Dell’Ors and Norman are unknown to most people, although their work has been heard — and loved — by millions. Their songs may have been wordless, but it is long past time their names be sung.

This article originally appeared in slightly modified form in the GRAND JUNCTION FREE PRESS.

The Eccentric Genius of Vivian Stanshall

Vivian Stanshall

He made dada rock.

He died in flames — but for decades, he burned with the incandescent glow of his own off-kilter brilliance. Learn about the singular Vivian Stanshall… the man who had his fingers in mainstream and oddball classics like the Bonzo Dog Band’s “Rhinocratic Oaths,” Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” Stevie Winwood’s ARC OF A DIVER and his own RAWLINSON’S END in this edition of NOTES.

And you can read more about the Bonzos in “The Missing Link Between the Beatles and Monty Python.”

Of Razors, Conspiracy Theories and Iron Butterflies

Not everyone wants to shave with Occam’s Razor.

Even after nearly 700 years, Occam’s Razor remains sharp and useful — but not everybody knows of its existence or understands its importance.

Occam’s Razor is a philosophical precept invented by the 14th Century friar, William of Ockham. It states: “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.” That’s a fancy, 14th century way of saying, “The simplest answer is usually the correct one.”

In 1999, when they found Philip Taylor Kramer, the brilliant engineer and former bassist in Iron Butterfly, at the bottom of southern California’s Decker Canyon, he was just a skeleton. The flesh had been stripped from his bones, presumably by rats. Police said that was to be expected; after all, his body had lain undetected in the wilderness area for more than three years.

What was harder to explain was that Kramer’s 1993 Ford Aerostar minivan had also been stripped — of its license plates, that is. They were never found, and that was just one of the strange facts which led many of his friends and family to conclude Kramer hadn’t died accidentally.

But was he murdered? We may never know for sure, and your take on Kramer’s death will probably be dictated by whether or not you choose to apply Occam’s Razor.

When we left Kramer’s tragic story last, the video compression company he co-founded, Total Multimedia (TMM), was floundering and Kramer himself was in massive debt. Kramer had begun to combine his knowledge of data compression with the study of gravity waves. He was inspired by his own father’s effort to disprove Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity during the 1960s at Ohio State University. He worked late in his lab, forgoing sleep for sometimes days on end.

Meanwhile, TMM’s board of directors had hired a new CEO to improve the company’s bottom line. Peter Olson had won accolades as a canny manager at the communications giant, MCI, but once ensconced at TMM, he proved to be a New Age flake, hiring South American shamans to offer business advice and requiring his staff to read James Redfield’s spiritualist novel, THE CELESTINE PROPHECY. Olson’s credulity rubbed off on Kramer, who began requiring his family to wear only certain colors, and who became convinced O.J. Simpson was the innocent victim of a nefarious conspiracy plot. Kramer was beginning to show the classic signs of extreme paranoia. He was convinced someone was trying to get his research, which he told friends was worth billions.

Finally, on February 12, 1995, he left his home and went to the airport. Records show he stayed there for about 45 minutes, but never met the investor he was there to pick up. Instead, he drove off and began making cell phone calls. He called his old bandmate in Iron Butterfly, Ron Bushy, to say he loved him. He called his wife and told her he had “the biggest surprise” for her. He made 14 other calls, then dialed 911. He told the emergency operator, “I’m going to kill myself. And I want everyone to know O.J. Simpson is innocent. They did it.”

That was the last time anyone spoke with Philip Taylor Kramer.

This article originally appeared in the GRAND JUNCTION FREE PRESS.

The Ladies of Rockabilly, Pt. 4: The Lesser-Known Ladies

Rockabilly Girls

Besides Wanda, Janis and Lorrie, there were other great — but lesser-known — female rockabilly singers.

The rockabilly era also saw many great singles released by more obscure female artists.  Learn about some of these lesser-known lasses — including the amazing Sparkle Moore — in this episode of NOTES.

The Mysterious Death of an Iron Butterfly

On THE X-FILES, Fox Mulder used to say: “The truth is out there.”

But for Philip Taylor Kramer, one-time bassist with the psychedelic band Iron Butterfly, the truth was down there — at the bottom of Decker Canyon, 300 feet below California State Route 23, to be precise.

Decker Canyon is like the mythic Elephant’s Graveyard, only it isn’t pachyderms which come to die in its poison oak-shrouded ravines, but the cars and trucks which at various times have plummeted from Route 23’s serpentine curves. One of those now rusted automotive fossils is a green 1993 Ford Aerostar minivan. That was the vehicle Kramer was driving on February 12, 1995, the last day he was seen alive. In May of 1999, more than four years after Kramer vanished, his skeletal remains were found in and around the minivan by a pair of hikers. How Kramer’s Aerostar got to the bottom of Decker Canyon is either a very simple story or a very complicated one, depending on how far “out there” you are prepared to go in search of the truth.

If you remember Iron Butterfly at all, it’s probably on the strength of their one Top 40 hit, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” from 1968. That infamous song (the title of which was originally “In the Garden of Eden” but was changed because lead singer Doug Ingle was so drunk on red wine during the recording session that he couldn’t properly pronounce it) was over 17 minutes long in its album version, and was a popular early example of “acid rock.”

Kramer didn’t play on that famous recording; he joined a later incarnation of the band formed by original drummer Ron Bushy during the mid-’70s and can only be heard on the Butterfly’s now virtually forgotten SCORCHING BEAUTY and SUN AND STEEL albums. When the band dissolved for a second time in 1977, Kramer got a haircut and went to night school to study aerodynamic engineering. Upon graduation, the budding physicist snagged a job with the military contractor Northrop Grumman, where he did highly classified work on the guidance system of the MX missile. According to a fellow Northrop employee, very few of his co-workers knew about his rock star past.

By the late 1980s, Kramer had become fascinated by the incipient field of media compression and had helped form a company called Total Multimedia Inc. Using groundbreaking mathematical techniques developed by Kramer, TMM (as it is still known) introduced the first commercial video codec utilizing so-called fractal compression. Although the technology was licensed to a handful of videogames in the mid-’90s, it proved to be too time-intensive for widespread use. (Encoding just one minute of video could take a network of dedicated servers up to 15 hours.) By 1994, TMM was fighting for its life in bankruptcy court and Kramer — by now a husband and father of two children — was in massive debt.

Next week in this space, we’ll learn more of the strange story of how Philip Taylor Kramer, rock star-turned-rocket scientist, wound up at the bottom of Decker Canyon… what roles O.J. Simpson and THE CELESTINE PROPHECY payed in his ballistic arc… and why some of Kramer’s friends and family, in the years following his disappearance, adopted another of Fox Mulder’s favorite sayings: “Trust no one.”

This article originally appeared in slightly modified form in the GRAND JUNCTION FREE PRESS.

The Ladies of Rockabilly, Pt. 3: The Collins Kids

The Collins Kids

She may have been young when she recorded with brother Larry in the 1950s, but Lorrie Collins was a real “Rock Boppin’ Baby.”

The Collins Kids were young and squeaky clean — but that didn’t stop thousands of rockabilly fans from fantasizing about pretty Lorrie Collins.  Learn more about Lorrie and her brother Larry in this episode of NOTES.

Weill-ing Away the Years

Like the country itself, American music is a melting pot. Its songs come to us from many different walks of life and parts of the world. Today, let’s look at how some of America’s best-loved standards were given to us by a small, balding and bespectacled German Socialist.

Kurt Weill did not cut a studly figure, but he is remembered today (64 years after his passing) as one of the greatest composers of the musical theatre stage, and many of his songs still weave a spell over audiences whose parents weren’t born yet when he died. What’s your favorite genre? Chances are, some artist you like has covered a Weill song. You dig jazz or the Rat Pack? Then you have probably enjoyed Weill’s “September Song,” which has also been covered by Bing Crosby, Lindsey Buckingham and Lou Reed, just to name a few.

Or are you a fan of classic rock? Then it’s probable you have sang along at some point with Jim Morrison on the Doors’ cover of Weill’s “Alabama Song” (aka “Whiskey Bar” or “Moon Over Alabama”), which the L.A. band recorded almost 40 years after Weill wrote the song.

And then, of course, there is Weill’s best-known song, “Mack the Knife,” which was a #1 hit for Bobby Darin the week Craven was born, and which has also been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Nick Cave, among many others. The song (known as “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” in its original form) might never have existed had an actor in one of the musicals Weill co-wrote with playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht not complained that his entrance wasn’t “special” enough.

It was with Brecht that Weill had his first big success in his native Germany, composing songs for plays like HAPPY END and DIE DRIEGROSCHENOPER (the latter of which we know here as THE THREEPENNY OPERA, and from which emerged “Mack the Knife” in 1928). Brecht and Weill’s work was popular, but eventually the partnership disintegrated — not over money, but politics, instead. Although he considered himself a Socialist, Weill was alienated by Brecht’s tendencies to propagandize for the Left. (“[I am unable to] set the Communist party manifesto to music,” he famously told his wife, actress Lotte Lenya.)

It was political differences of a more desperate measure which also separated Weill from his native country. In 1933, he moved to France to escape the Nazis, then to the United States in 1935. He eventually became an American citizen and did much volunteer work for the war effort during the 1940s. Always influenced by American dance music, Weill continued to draw upon the idioms of his adopted country as he collaborated with other great theatrical luminaries like Maxwell Anderson, Elmer Rice, Langston Hughes, Alan Jay Lerner and Ira Gershwin. He was working on a musical version of that most American of novels, HUCKLEBERRY FINN, when he died from a fatal heart attack in 1950. He died just 12 years after penning the words from “The September Song” he might well have addressed to his wife, Lotte, in that final year:

“Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few…
September, November…
And these few precious days, I’ll spend with you.
These precious days, I’ll spend with you.”

This article originally appeared in the GRAND JUNCTION FREE PRESS.