Perhaps the greatest name in bubblegum was a band invented for a Saturday morning cartoon. Learn more about the story of the Archies in this episode of NOTES.
They called it “The Twist.” But based on its amazing history, a better title might have been “The Boomerang.”
That’s because Chubby Checker’s version of “The Twist” didn’t just shoot to the top of the charts when it was released in the summer of 1960. No, it performed the unprecedented feat of spending a week at the peak of the Hot 100 — then turned around, went away, and returned even stronger 16 months later, when it became the only single in history to top the charts twice with the same recording.
As you may recall from our previous columns in this space, “The Twist” was originally recorded by rhythm n’ blues great Hank Ballard. Ballard’s version of the song went to #28 on the pop charts, and piqued the interest of the late Dick Clark. Clark was averse to putting Ballard on his show, AMERICAN BANDSTAND, which had become a national program just a couple years earlier, due to Ballard’s reputation, which was deemed too racial and too racy for white teenagers.
But Clark knew the Twist had already become very popular as a dance. In fact, the Twist was in the process of revolutionizing popular dancing, and would quickly supplant the fox trots and lindy hops of previous generations. On the one hand, it was super-simple to perform, with nary a box step to learn or a kick ball change to be taught. It also broke the tyranny of the hold; two kids who barely knew each other could dance the Twist without the awkward and potentially embarrassing puncture of each other’s personal “bubbles.” And with its extreme hip gyrations and back-end protrusions, the Twist was a sexy dance, a terpsichorean act of voyeurism which permitted the dancer to stare at the vaguely suggestive poses adopted by his or her partner for its duration.
It was, by most accounts, Clark’s idea to have Chubby Checker record “The Twist.” Clark had known Checker (then still going by his given name of Ernest Evans) since the latter was a 16-year-old grocery store checkout clerk doing Fats Domino and Elvis Presley impressions in the south Philadelphia projects where he grew up. Clark convinced his friends at the Cameo-Parkway label to let Checker have a go at the single, then proceeded to play the holy heck out of it on BANDSTAND. And that’s how “The Twist” become a hit — the first time.
But the song made its historic return to the top of the charts in 1962, thanks to the combination of a Hollywood actress past her prime… an exiled Russian royal… and a somewhat seedy gay bar in New York. It was that year that Merle Oberon, the actress best known for 1930s films like WUTHERING HEIGHTS and THE DARK ANGEL, was reported to have Twisted the night away with the elderly Russian aristocrat, Prince Serge Obolensky, at the Peppermint Lounge, a bar with a notorious reputation as a place where men could “hook up.” This gossip page item strangely inaugurated a new wave of Twist-mania, and Checker’s single was hastily re-released and once again rocketed to #1.
Thus ends our look back at the twisted history of “The Twist.” But the dance goes on. Because, to paraphrase Chubby Checker’s second Top Ten hit, “Yeah, let’s twist again. Twistin’ time is always here.”
Find out how puppet T & A played a part in the development of television’s best-known costume bands in this episode of NOTES.
Come on, baby — let’s review “The Twist.”
If ever there was a surprising story from the annals of American popular culture, it’s the tale of the cultural craze that revolutionized both popular music and recreational dancing half a century ago. To get the full story of the Twist, we’ll have to travel back to the days when slaves were being hauled from the Congo to the American south… rub shoulders with successful white businessmen looking for the “next big thing”… examine the oeuvre of a veteran black performer infamous for his risque lyrics… be introduced to a squeaky clean teen singer brand new to showbiz… learn about a pair of gospel singers inflamed after a night of sin… and visit an early gay bar known for its “rough trade.” It’s a story through which traipse minstrels in black face, celebrated authors and princes in exile.
Last week in this space, we learned how Dick Clark, according to some sources, retained a silent interest in the Cameo-Parkway record label after divesting himself of his public record industry holdings in 1960. That same year, Hank Ballard (who had achieved notoriety starting seven years earlier when he released a string of racy singles like “Get It,” “Sexy Ways” and “Work With Me, Annie”) released a b-side called “The Twist.”
In later years, Ballard told interviewers he got the idea for the song from watching his backup band dance. On other occasions, he said he was inspired by kids gyrating on Baltimore’s BUDDY DEANE SHOW. But he also claimed on more than one occasion that he had been approached with a germ of an idea for the song by a member of the gospel group, the Sensational Nightingales. Apparently, two members of the Nightingales, Bill Woodruff and JoJo Wallace, had spent a steamy night dancing with some very earthly ladies in New Jersey, when they came up with a few lines describing the specific motions of their newfound dance partners. They knew they couldn’t record a song like that as members of a respected gospel group, so they passed the idea on to a cousin in the Royals, Ballard’s band at the time.
Whatever led Ballard to write “The Twist,” the dance had been around for a lot longer than most people realize. The basic moves of the Twist are believed to have traveled to the U.S. with slaves from the Congo, and a white minstrel performer named Joel Sweeney had a hit with the “Vine Shaquille Twist” as long ago as the mid-1800s.
When Dick Clark came across Ballard’s “Twist” in 1960, he heard hit potential in the song. But Clark disdained Ballard for his sexy reputation, and instructed his friends at Cameo-Parkway to find someone less offensive to record a new version. That person was 19-year-old Ernest Evans. At one of his first recording sessions, Dick Clark’s wife gave Evans his more famous moniker, Chubby Checker, as a play on the name of then popular singer Fats Domino.
Next week, we’ll find out how Checker’s version of “The Twist” helped draw celebrities and royalty to a disreputable gay bar in New York, and learn that there were still more twists ahead in the story of the Twist.
Hoyt Curtin was the man who provided music for most of Hanna-Barbera’s characters, from Ruff and Reddy to Jonny Quest. Learn more about Curtin in this episode of NOTES.
The news of Dick Clark’s death in April, 2012 was met by a great gushing of sentiment by many, and it’s no wonder — for folks of my generation or younger, Clark was a frequent, avuncular presence on TV, sort of an uncle you were never especially close to, but whose ubiquitous presence at family gatherings bred its own sweet (if shallow) sense of goodwill. By all accounts, Clark was a thorough professional, and Craven was not immune to the man’s easygoing broadcast-friendly charms, especially in his roles as host of AMERICAN BANDSTAND and emcee of THE $10,000 PYRAMID. But Dick Clark was a complicated guy who actually held little interest in pop music and teen culture except insofar as it could make him money. Because far from being “America’s Oldest Teenager,” as he was dubbed long ago, Dick Clark was actually “America’s Grooviest Salesman.” And it was in that role that the man whose high school class had voted him “Most Likely to Sell the Brooklyn Bridge” helped elicit one of America’s greatest pop culture crazes of the 20th century.
Today, few folks remember that Clark’s career almost came to a premature halt in 1960, when he was called to testify before Congress regarding the practice of what some called “pay for play” or “the $50 handshake,” but which became better known as “payola.” Most people know payola as the then frequent practice wherein record labels paid radio deejays to play certain songs, but there were other, more subtle forms as well… and among these more nuanced variations, there wasn’t a form of payola that Dick Clark didn’t have his fingers in. For instance, it was common for Clark to agree to play a song on BANDSTAND in exchange for a writing credit — meaning he would draw royalties on every single sold, despite the fact that he had nothing to do with the actual crafting of the songs. By the time he testified in 1960, Clark held over 150 copyrights! He also had money in record labels, distribution centers, pressing plants, etc., all of which saw profit based upon the programming decisions he made on his TV show.
Unlike some of his peers (such as the hugely influential radio disc jockey, Alan Freed, whose career crumbled following the payola hearings), Clark managed to save his own bacon by wisely divesting himself of the companies and properties he directly owned which might have been seen as conflicts of interest. But according to some, Clark continued to be a silent partner in certain record labels, including a new Philadelphia-based rock n’ roll label called Cameo-Parkway, which had been formed a few years earlier by a couple of Clark’s friends, pianist Bernie Lowe and a former comedy writer who had been born Kalman Cohen but who had adopted the professional name of Kal Mann. Clark had known Lowe since his early days in the broadcasting business, when the former was the announcer and the latter was the orchestra conductor for a show called THE PAUL WHITEMAN TV TEEN CLUB.
In September, 1960, less than a year after he had testified before Congress, Dick Clark joined with his buddies at Cameo-Parkway to forge one of the greatest pop crazes of the era. Meet me here next week in this space as we learn about the secret origins of… the Twist!
One of the most successful recording acts of the 1950s and ’60s was a band of cartoon chipmunks. Learn more about the surprising career of their creator in this episode of NOTES.
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. So it would take an encyclopedia to define the music of Spade Cooley. Because swing Cooley’s music surely did, loud and loose and lively.
A little man with a flattened face and a broad, amiable grin, the Oklahoma-born Cooley was one of the earliest stars of western swing. In fact, it was to describe Spade’s music that BILLBOARD invented the phrase in 1944, when the energetic fiddler was at the height of his fame and shooting to the top of the charts with singles like “Shame on You.”
So popular was the Spade Cooley Orchestra during the late ‘40s that, eventually, there was more than one — Cooley would open a show in one southern California neighborhood, play a few numbers, then taxi to another club and join a different “Spade Cooley Orchestra” show already in progress! Although married and a father, Spade had a wandering eye, and was known to be kanoodlin’ when he might oughtta be toodlin’. He also had a black temper, which flared up with his band members frequently. He fired musicians at the drop of a note. And Lord, he drank something fierce.
In 1945, he hired a gorgeous 21-year-old blond named Ella Mae Evans. His band knew the new girl couldn’t sing her way out of a paper bag, but Cooley was smitten. Within a year, Spade had divorced his first wife and married Ella Mae.
But the gravy was dribbling to an end. By 1950, Cooley had amassed a fortune of more than $15 million… but in the wake of rock n’ roll, the music industry was closing its doors to him. Meanwhile, he had become ferociously jealous of his young wife (despite his own ongoing adulteries). He was convinced she had slept with Roy Rogers. He obsessed over his notion that she was going to join a free sex cult with some of his business associates. By 1961, his marriage in tatters, Cooley was popping pills and washing ‘em down with copious gulps of whiskey.
The story of Spade Cooley screeched to a horrifying crescendo on the night of April 3. Cooley was drunk when he pulled up to the Willow Springs home where his wife and daughter lived. In the purple heat of a jealous rage, he proceeded to beat, kick and strangle Ella Mae. When their 14-year-old daughter, Melody, arrived at the house at 6:20 pm, Cooley dragged the girl into the bathroom, where her mother lay slumped in the shower. He forced his daughter to watch as he continued his assault, beating, kicking and burning her mother with cigarettes. He told his daughter she would have to watch while he killed Ella Mae — but according to the coroner, later, the deed had probably already been done. Authorities estimated the woman had been dead for several hours by the time Cooley finally called for an ambulance around 11.
Cooley spent the next eight years in prison, until the state granted him parole, which was to begin on his 60th birthday, in February, 1970. But four months before that, after being allowed to play a concert for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, he was felled by a massive heart attack.
Spade Cooley was dead. His music and his shame live on.
The Beatles mastered everything they touched — even Saturday morning cartoons! Find out more in this episode of NOTES
To hear some folks tell it, you’d think sexy songs are a strictly modern phenomenon. Do a Google search for “sexually explicit culture” and you’ll get more than 3,000 hits — most of them coming from religious and conservative commentators lamenting what they seem to see as a regrettable change from days gone by.
While certain areas of American popular culture have unquestionably relaxed with regard to some sexual mores, the difference between “then” and “now” is sometimes overstated. And that is certainly the case with music. While I suspect people have been singing about sex for as long as people have been singing, proving that assertion is no easy matter. But one thing’s certain — however long folks have been singing naughty songs, they’ve been recording them since the earliest days of the recording industry.
As a matter of fact, it’s likely that a common profanity was among the first words ever recorded! Oberlin Smith, the Cincinnati engineer who patented the earliest version of magnetic recording, claimed in 1911 that Thomas Edison told him one of the first phrases he and his assistants recorded to their prototypical tinfoil cylinder recording apparatus was “mad dog,” which they would then run backwards to produce said profanity. Which just goes to show that a century before they hit MTV, there was a little Beavis and Butthead in the Wizard of Menlo Park.
By the 1890s, actually pornographic wax cylinders were being produced by vaudeville comics like Cal Stewart and Russell Hunting. Stewart was among the most popular of the early recording artists on the merit of squeaky clean recorded monologues in the guise of Uncle Josh Weathersby, but he had a dirty side too, as reflected in recordings like “Learning a City Gal How to Milk.” And Hunting was a comedian who specialized in so-called “Irish acts,” performing low comedy with a thick Gaelic brogue, who eventually went to jail for crafting records like “The Whore’s Union” and “Slim Hadley on a Racket.”
As would be the case for decades to follow, these recordings weren’t intended for record shops and music stores, but were instead sold in bars and tobacconist shops, surreptitiously and with caution, as these records were often seen to be violations of the Comstock Act, which made it illegal for lascivious products to be distributed by mail.
So-called “party records” continued to be big business all during the 78rpm era, with artists like Cliff Edwards, Dwight Fiske and many others selling sometimes hundreds of thousands of copies of records that would still be considered risque today. Even Jimmie Davis — who would eventually go on to write the family-friendly chestnut, “You Are My Sunshine,” and who would be twice elected governor of Louisiana as a Republican (in 1944 and again in 1960) — got his start cutting records like “Sewing Machine Blues” and “High Behind Blues,” with lyrics such as:
“It ain’t your fancy walk, gal, it ain’t your vampin’ ways,
It’s the way you do just before the break of day…”
Rihanna, eat your heart out.
Amos Milburn spent a good part of his career singing the praises of liquor, but it was liquor which destroyed that career, as we’ll find out in this episode of NOTES.
Can you measure a soul?
Douglas Hofstadter thinks you can. In the 2007 summation of his life’s work, I AM A STRANGE LOOP, the Pulitzer Prize-winning mathematician/physicist argues (non-religiously) for the existence of a “spirit” or a state of consciousness that he calls a “soul” — and further asserts it can be quantified. On Hofstadter’s scale, Mother Theresa’s soul was bigger than, say, Charles Manson’s. By his definition, animals could be said to have souls too, although a dog’s soul will by necessity be smaller than a typical human’s, and a goldfish’s smaller yet.
You may scoff, but Craven finds a lot of merit in Hofstadter’s theories. And amongst the many arguments to support those theories, there looms the original White Man in Hammersmith Palais: Joe Strummer.
Joe Strummer was a man with a lot of soul. I’m not speaking here in the sense of “soul music,” but in the sense that Hofstadter uses the word. Strummer (who is known best to the hoi polloi as the lead singer of the 1980s punk band, the Clash, and who died more than 14 years ago from a previously undetected congenital heart defect) was larger-than-life, cared deeply for people and the planet, and many were changed in the turbulent wake of his affect.
Even in the late ’70s and early ’80s heyday of punk rock, Strummer stood out. Older than his peers, Strummer had been playing with his second band, the pub rock outfit called the 101’ers, for a couple years already before the night in April, 1976, when one of their gigs was opened by a new and startling combo called the Sex Pistols. Strummer, who had been driven toward left-wing politics following the suicide of his neo-Nazi brother David several years earlier, saw revolutionary potential in the new genre of punk rock. When he was approached by guitarist Mick Jones and punk impresario Bernie Rhodes shortly thereafter to join the new band they were forming, he jumped at the opportunity.
During the next decade, Strummer and the Clash fundamentally changed the face of rock n’ roll. They transformed punk from a nihilistic, fashion-oriented fad into a movement infused with a political awareness and sense of purpose absent from the music industry for several years. They also mined varied influences that widened the musical scope of punk. (Their cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” and their original “[White Man in] Hammersmith Palais” are considered the first punk-reggae songs, and they introduced a brand new audience to the nascent genre of hip-hop when they enlisted Grandmaster Flash to open for their legendary 1981 Times Square concerts.)
In the years since Strummer’s passing, his legend lives on. In 2006, New Orleans rockers Cowboy Mouth sang about breaking up with a girlfriend:
“She had to go
And I let her go
Like she never was
‘Cuz I didn’t know
And I don’t care what she does
She had to go ‘cuz she didn’t know
who Joe Strummer was.”
Strummer was never comfortable with his status as a rock god. He was a man, and as such, the victim of personal foibles, some of which contributed to the breakup of the Clash in 1985. But for the better part of 30 years, he lived by his values honestly and with compassion.
One might even say: With soul.
Discover the legacy and lonely life of Professor Alessandro Moreschi in this episode of NOTES.
Listen, pal. They say, “The best revenge is a life well-lived,” and — sitting here in 1959, in Don the Beachcomber’s Dagger Bar, one of Hawaii’s best-known Tiki lounges, sipping Mai Tais from ceramic moai mugs — who are we to question such wisdom?
Revenge. It drives a lot of people into lives well-lived and otherwise, even here in Waikiki. That’s right, even here, in as close to an island paradise as you or I will ever see, bad blood can flow like the Mai Tai you almost spilled ogling that hula dancer a few minutes ago. You don’t believe me? If you’ll unwrap your lips from your umbrella straw long enough to look up at the man behind the piano over there, you’ll see the poor schmo who was backstabbed by a billionaire.
That’s Martin Denny, the pianist who coined the musical genre of “exotica” — and here on the brink of the 1960s, he’s busy living his life very well indeed… to retaliate against Henry J. Kaiser, the filthy rich industrialist who tried to take Denny down a couple years ago.
Y’see, back then, Denny was a prime attraction at Kaiser’s Shell Bar in his Hawaiian Village Resort near here. Denny had put together a crackerjack jazz ensemble that included percussionist Augie Colon (whose bird calls and frog croaks, you’ll undoubtedly recall, helped propel Denny’s cover of Les Baxter’s “Quiet Village” to the top of the pop charts this year), and a prodigious, young vibist named Arthur Lyman, who Denny had discovered working as a desk clerk at the Halekulani Hotel. Backed by talents like these, Denny was the toast of Oahu. By 1957, he was courting invitations to play the Mainland and had landed a recording contract from Liberty Records.
But Kaiser (who had himself poached Denny’s band from Don the Beachcomber in ’56) didn’t take kindly to the notion of his star crossing the ocean. When blustery browbeating failed to intimidate the pianist, Kaiser got dirty. Before Denny had even booked his passage to the States, Kaiser engaged Arthur Lyman in negotiations sub rosa, offering Denny’s young vibist his departing bandleader’s spot at the Shell Bar. When Lyman left Denny’s group in 1957, he took bass player John Kramer and drummer Harold Chang with him, leaving Denny to scramble for replacements.
Luckily enough, he drew a pair of aces in jazz drummer Roy “the Kidd” Harte and, especially, Julius Wechter, who replaced Lyman on the mallets. Wechter would contribute much to Denny’s subsequent recordings, before moving on to a career that included stints in Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass (for whom he wrote “The Spanish Flea”) and the Baja Marimba Band.
We’ll discuss the Denny-Lyman imbroglio — as well as other blood feuds of exotica — in this space in future weeks. Join us then as we learn more about America’s passion for all things Polynesian at the midpoint of the 20th century. Now, please pass the pupu platter, pal. Because unlike revenge, pupus are not best served cold.
Learn the astonishing (and slightly nauseating) story of the castrati, those singers who traded their plumbing for their pipes, in this episode of NOTES.
The following originally appeared in the GRAND JUNCTION FREE PRESS. How many of the 250 hidden band names can you uncover?
It was a typical morning in my detective office in Chicago.
I was sitting at my desk which — with only a notepad, a pen and a couple coasters sitting on it — was an oasis in the otherwise cluttered room. As always, I was wearing my morning jacket, a gray fedora and a loose, slipknot necktie. And just like every day at this time, I was sipping my coffee, which I take black with just a lovin’ spoonful of sugar. I had the TV on, set to some news station where the talking heads were chattering about some war or another. Outside, a garbage truck was raising a holy clatter — I swear as loud as a U2, some B-52s and some other kinda jet put together. I peeked out my office window. A trio of skid row rats were scattering in widespread panic, leaving one little, modest mouse to scurry in the gutter. Although it was still early, the street was packed with the residents of nearby brownstones and other village people headed for their offices near Linkin Park, their small faces set stoically. In the alley across the street, a gang of four backstreet boys were pitching pennies, while the waitresses at the sad cafe down the boulevard got busy.
That’s when she walked in.
She was a gorgeous platinum blonde, dressed to the nines. The bangles on her gown were those of a queen, arranged in black and white stripes, and a single golden earring dangled from one lovely lobe. Only her wedding ring seemed cheap, an average white band of gold. She was one of those pretty things who, when they walk in the room, the air supply goes flying out in a rush. She was definitely not one of your average New York dolls, no cheap trick, but sexier than all those barenaked ladies in the men’s magazines that filled the corner newsstand.
“I’m the girl of your dreams,” she said.
“The who?” I stammered.
“My name is Alice. Alice Cooper. And I need your help.”
“No doubt. Ok go ahead, Blondie.”
She sat down across from me. “I’m from Barcelona.”
“Oh. A foreigner. Judas Priest, it’s quite a journey to Chicago from Barcelona.”
She fixed me with those big eyes, and it suddenly occurred to me that those lips needed a kiss. “I want you to find the killers of my husband.”
So it was a murder case. I couldn’t help but think the beautiful Mrs. Cooper might be taking me for a ride. Everything about this smelled of trouble — everything but the girl, that is.
It had been weeks since Mrs. Cooper had hired me to find the rascals who had killed her loverboy and husband, Floyd, but even though I put blood, sweat and tears into it, the investigation was in dire straits. I still couldn’t be sure Alice wasn’t setting me up for the fall. She had the knack for making my heart pump double-time with those sublime eyes of hers. I wanted to have blind faith in her, but I had learned years earlier to rely on faith no more. Anyway, as long as she was paying, I would do my job — and she kept forking over the green day after day. “I want vengeance for my love,” she told me.
“Don’t worry, doll. Keep paying, and he’ll be avenged sevenfold.” But inside, I wasn’t so sure.
I had personally boarded a train and traveled from Boston to Kansas looking for clues, but America is a big country and I came up empty-handed. Eventually, I had to give up and head east. I had sent a wire to Interpol, and they had men at work searching Europe and Japan. For a moment, we thought we’d picked up a lead in Berlin, but it turned out to be a bust and the Interpol agents had to eat humble pie. I even dialed Jackson 5-2765, the number of my friend, Spanky O’Toole. Spanky ran a small detective agency with offices in New York and Canada. His brother, Slade, answered the phone. I filled him in on the case, and he said, “Don’t worry. Spanky and our gang will scour all of Montreal. It’ll be cake!” But they, too, wound up with zip.
Meanwhile, back home, we had learned that the late Mr. Cooper had a thing for silk, satin and other chic materials, especially in shades of pink. He was known to frequent the black market textile shops that operated out of the basements in the garment district. The police, of course, had put the squeeze on the stooges who sold velvet underground, but no one could remember seeing Mr. Cooper the day he died. No one, that is, except for one daft punk named Ezra McGillicuddy. My buddy, Lou Beyond, who was a captain on the force, let me sit in when they interviewed the kid.
Ezra told Lou, “Yes, Captain Beyond, I remember him. What a player! We used to call him Pink Floyd. That day, he put in a new order for some taffeta. I tried to show him some fine paper lace, but he wasn’t interested. He wasn’t alone, either. He was with that drunk old physician — what’s his name? Dr. Robert. That’s it.”
A-ha! I turned to Lou. “Put a warrant out on Dr. Robert. I’ve seen that geezer downtown. I’ll look for him there.”
Lou nodded. “Roger wilco.” As he ran through the doors, toward the cars parked outside, I smiled. This Dr. Robert was likely to be our best lead yet, certainly better than Ezra.
I hadn’t heard from Alice in a couple days. Her gorgeous face had lit sparks inside me, and finding her husband’s murderer had become personal. The night before, I dreamed she had been kidnapped, and now I couldn’t get the image of Alice in chains out of my head.
I had a hard time finding the Aviary, the bar where I expected to find Dr. Charles Roberts, the last man to have seen Floyd Cooper alive. I was running low on fuel, and thought I might have to turn back, but a street vendor told me to take Shakin’ Street past Marcy Playground, ‘til I reached the power station, then go west. By the time I pulled up in front of the Aviary, it looked quiet. There was just an old REO Speedwagon parked outside, and a few of the drifters and the misfits you expect to see in that part of town.
The Aviary was owned by Belle and Sebastian Smith, whom I had known for years, and in addition to offeriing liquor and music, they served food as well, like hot tuna seasoned with red hot chili peppers. (Belle also made the jam that I loved to eat right off the spoon. She’d mash the raspberries through a sieve to remove the seeds, then combine them with the cranberries.) The Smiths opened the Aviary ten years after the arcade fire that had razed their previous restaurant. After the fire, the neighborhood was never the same, and the clientele of the Aviary tended to be bad company.
Inside, it was a crowded house. They called it the Aviary because the place was decorated with paintings and statues of birds. All kinds of birds. The coat check girl was nestled between a pair of swans, a budgie perched over the fire exit, and the eagles hanging from the rafters spun lazily over the what seemed like 10,000 maniacs packing the dance floor. A flock of seagulls was painted in shades of deep purple and simply red above the bar where men without hats nursed their everclear. I was counting crows on the liquor shelf when a mountain of a man stepped in front of me. It was “Zeppelin” McGrew, the Aviary bouncer. “Sorry, bub. Your kind ain’t wanted here,” he muttered.
Wham! I hit him with an upper cut to the chin. Big guys like him are all the same; they might be giants, but they crumple like pixies. I picked him up and led Zeppelin to the bar, where he steeled himself. “It’s no use, Mr. Mister!” The big cracker was so dazed, he was repeating himself. “I’ll never talk talk,” he said. I picked up a gin and tonic sitting on the bar and splashed it in his face. “Hey! You got me wet wet wet!”
“That’s the cure for your laryngitis,” I said. “Now talk!”
“Look, Robert is long gone. You need to speak to them!” His thumb was stabbing westward at the stage in the back of the bar. “You need to speak to the band!”
Before heading backstage, I thought it would be a good idea to interview more of the animals in the bar. It was no little feat getting information out of those gorillaz. Most of the toadies I questioned stared at me like I was trying to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge, but a few confirmed that if I was going to find any information on who killed Floyd Cooper, it would be from the band, which was an all-female group that I knew very well indeed.
Meanwhile, my questioning had raised the alarm among the underworld types in the crowd, and there was a murmured frenzy erupting on the dance floor. I had managed to create panic at the disco, a real quiet riot. I slipped from the fray and headed for the wings of the band stage.
It was dark back there, but I kept moving forward, guided by voices from up ahead. I turned a corner and found a trio of dumb-looking woodworkers puffing on cigars under a sign that read, “NO SMOKING — BY ORDER OF MGMT.”
“Haulin’ ash?” I cracked, but they just stared at me like the zombies they were, thereby breaking Benjamin Franklin’s rule that simple minds are easily amused. “Sorry if I disturbed you. Where do I find the band?” I asked. One of the carpenters lifted his tool and pointed to a dressing room 3 doors down.
I knocked on the door. No answer. I could hear the hum of a television set, so I knew someone was there. I decided to count five, then opened the door.
It was hot, at least 98 degrees, in the room, which was a real hole, and the paint job was painful. The walls were aqua, trimmed in moody blues, and the clash of colors made me wince. The band must have hated it too, because one wall had been covered by a black flag with a rainbow in the middle, affixed to the wall by nine inch nails.
The five girls in the band were scattered about the room. Charlotte, the lead singer, was standing at an ironing board, apparently trying to iron butterfly decals onto a T-shirt. She looked up as I entered. “Well, I’ll be. Hey girls! Guess who just walked in!”
Molly, the guitarist, was sitting on a suede couch against the back wall, sucking on Lemonheads and reading about the latest Hollywood scandal in the new edition of some gossip magazine. She was gorgeous, with skin like peaches and cream, a rose tattoo on her arm, and long blonde tresses — although, on close inspection, the roots of her hair suggested that might have come from a bottle. Molly had a reputation for being loose. Word on the street was she wasn’t just a tramp, she was a supertramp. But I knew Molly wasn’t naughty by nature, but instead a survivor. She had been born Molly Borden and had taken the name of Molly Hatchet when she joined the band, but she changed it after an unfortunate incident involving her sister, Lizzy Borden, and an axe. “This better be good Charlotte,” she muttered, then looked up to see me. Her visage softened.
The last few weeks had been a blur. I couldn’t calculate the time that had passed in toto since I’d been hired by Mrs. Cooper. The kinks in this case had become pretty tangled — but now, as I stood in the dressing room, it began to dawn on me that I could be near the solution. With lead singer Charlotte at the ironing board and guitarist Molly on the couch, I looked at the three other girls present.
Jane and Cleo Thompson, the identical twins from Alabama who played bass and keyboards, were eating at a small table. The platters of food in front of the the Thompson twins were full, and Jane was gulping down black eyed peas while Cleo nursed a mug of hot chocolate like the sweet beverage was ambrosia. I knew these two Dixie chicks well. They were the offspring of an old girlfriend named Eve. I had promised Eve 6 years earlier, back in the days of the Bush administration, that I would watch out for them. When I heard Jane (the prodigy of the family) had developed a drug problem, I wrote dozens of letters to Cleo in an attempt to find out how big the problem was. It turned out Jane’s addiction was serious; like a lot of kids, she had sought nirvana in the crazy horse, pot and coke that destroyed so many lives. Those drugs had become her muse. She worshipped them — and I knew well that was one bad religion. Her days of mindless self indulgence eventually left her teetering on the brink of madness. With some TLC from a rehab center sponsored by the church in her hometown, she got healthier and the temptations to indulge subsided. Now, her bright eyes told me she was still clean.
I turned to the last girl in the room, who was absently slapping a rhythm on the bongos. I didn’t recognize her. I thought at first she was one of the replacements the band used when their regular drummer had the cramps, but she didn’t look much like a drummer at all. She was dressed like a deerhunter, with a plaid jacket instead of the cardigans the other girls wore, and a belly the size of a mastodon. She had short, stubby arms like a T. Rex, and a face that could give you the hives. “Bow wow wow,” I thought. “Call the pet shop boys, ‘cause this twisted sister is a real dog.” But then I realized — she wasn’t a girl at all! It was Floyd Cooper — he hadn’t been murdered! I realized he must have faked his death to hide his involvement with the textiles black market.
He knew he was made and started to bolt, but I jumped across the room and punched him hard. He howled like a screeching weasel and tried to kick me in the shins. “Oh, one of those violent femmes, huh?” I hit him again. “Take that!” I yelled. “You’re comin’ with me, Cooper — dead or alive!”
As I led him outside, past a group of stray cats and into the traffic on the avenue, I sneered at him. “Your actions hit your wife like a nuclear bomb, Cooper, and it’s time you faced the fallout boy.”
The story of the greatest bass voice in pop music history continues, as we wrap up our series on the untold tales of the Randy Van Horne Singers by finishing the Thurl Ravenscroft story, in this episode of NOTES.
Sometimes, when you talk about pop music, you just have to get personal. Today, I wanted to discuss a couple songs about a subject that doesn’t get a lot of play in music these days: Forgiveness.
It’s a topic you hear a lot about in religious circles, and so it probably comes as no surprise that there are some gospel and Christian pop songs on the subject. But amongst secular songs, you could no doubt count on your fingers the number of paeans to pardon.
And yet… it’s the rare bird who can live his or her whole life through without learning first-hand something about forgiveness. And usually, the lesson is a painful one. Most of us, at some point, reach a juncture where we learn we must forgive. Whether we come to this realization as a result of our religious beliefs, or because we eventually understand that the person who can’t forgive is the person who can’t move on, learning to forgive seems like a necessary landmark on the journey to complete and healthy personhood.
Craven got to thinking about this as a result of a strange coincidence recently. While I was driving in my car, Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly’s “I’ll forgive But I Won’t Forget” came up in a random playlist, and it reminded me what an amazing songwriter Kelly is, finding universal truths in the specifics of a particular friendship in which an old buddy slept with the singer’s girlfriend. It also reminded me of the many friends, lovers and acquaintances who have let me down over the years — as well as the many times I let them down as well. As I drove down the parkway, I was flooded by memories of how I found peace by letting go of pain, and how I found warmth in the grace of others.
But then something happened to remind me that forgiveness does not always come so easy. As a youngster, on too many occasions, I watched, wide-eyed and terrified, as my biological father beat my mother senseless. His attacks were as frequent as they were violent. Once, I saw him tear our front door to splinters. Another time, I skittered in a small boy’s panic when he came crashing out of a closet where he had lain in ambush for hours. I recall vividly the day he kidnapped my brother and me and was finally taken into custody by a half-dozen cops who surrounded him with their guns drawn and fixed upon his chest.
My mother, thankfully, divorced him, and we spent the next few decades healing in a life which became stable and placid. But of course, as any of the many souls who emerge from similar circumstances know, the psychological scars remain long after the physical have disappeared. When, years later, my father returned to my life, and sought to regain a relationship with his sons, I — as an imperfect man who found his own redemption not once, but several times — was willing to give him a chance. But in order to forgive my father, I needed one thing from him: Contriteness. When my father, all these years later, continued to blame the violence with which he had stained my family’s history on my mother’s behavior as a young wife, I told him the father-son relationship he sought remained impossible. And this week, two years after my father died, as I drove on the parkway with Paul Kelly’s song of forgiveness having just finished, another song came up in the mix. It was the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice.” As Natalie Maines sang, “They say time heals everything, but I’m still waiting,” I knew exactly what she meant.
If you needed a booming bass, there was one name that sprang to mind in the latter half of the 20th Century. We begin a look back at the amazing vocal career of Thurl Ravenscroft, in this episode of NOTES.
In some ways, it’s hard to imagine two genres more diametrically opposed than gospel music and the blues.
Gospel is meant to be the sound of salvation, and much of gospel music specifically finds that salvation in a crowd. There have been many successful solo gospel artists, but it is a genre more characterized by groups than individuals. Think harmonies. Think call-and-response. Think rapture and joy. Think the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Staple Singers, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Golden Gate Quartet, the Sensational Nightingales and the Wynan Family.
Blues, on the other hand, is a music for loners. It’s the sound of a lonely voice as far from salvation as a soul can get. It should surprise no one that the greatest legend to emerge from the field of the blues is the story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads for the chance to be a great guitarist.
And yet, and yet…
The overlap between gospel and the blues is great. And nowhere did that overlap express itself more than in the work of musicologist John Work III.
Work’s father, as we learned last week, had helped re-establish gospel music as an honorable genre during the early part of the 20th century, through his work at Fisk University, the black school which was formed just months after the end of the Civil War. When John Work III came along, 18 months after the dawn of the 20th century, no one could know that his career as a composer, archivist and musical scholar would eclipse that of his father a few decades later.
The younger Work got his start as a composer while he was still in his teens. He went to Fisk High School and then Fisk University, achieving his degree in 1923. After a short stint at the New York school which would eventually become Julliard, he returned to Fisk — this time as a teacher and choral director. But he continued to study in New York during the summers, and eventually secured an M.A. from Columbia University. Given his father’s work preserving the black gospel music of American slaves, it seems natural that his thesis was on “American Negro Songs and Spirituals.” He also continued to compose, including many gospel spirituals.
During the 1940s, Work came together with another musical folklorist, Alan Lomax, to chronicle the music of Coahoma County, Mississippi, and was the man who led Lomax to essential blues pioneers like Son House. It was also Work who discovered an itinerant musician named McKinley Morganfield, then playing with an outfit called the Sons Sims Four. McKinley Morganfield would eventually change his name to Muddy Waters and become one of the most important figures in establishing the genre of the blues.
Whether helping to compose important gospel songs like “Go Tell It On the Mountain, or recording blues giants like Waters and House and gospel greats like the Fairfield Four, John Work III’s work is a divine contribution to the history of American music. That his name isn’t better known to lovers of gospel and the blues is devilishly wrong.