The Day John Lennon Died

John and Yoko outside the Dakota in 1980

We younger Boomers remember the assassinations of the 60’s, but we were really too young to be touched by them. I remember my parent’s agonized reactions to JFK, Bobby, and MLK, but my reaction was more of amazement than sorrow.

The 70’s were blissfully free from the types of high-profile assassinations that plagued the 60’s, but it wasn’t without trying. President Ford survived two attempts, but nobody died.

That all came crashing to a halt the evening of December 8, 1980.

A lot of the nation was watching Monday Night Football when Howard Cosell broke into the broadcast to announce that John Lennon had been killed. I was watching MASH, so I learned through a news bulletin.

Now I knew how my parents felt in the 60’s.

I reached up and turned off the television and put John’s Plastic Ono Band on the stereo. John had just released one of his most commercially and critically successful albums, Double Fantasy, and had just appeared on Rolling Stone’s cover (naked, of course). It looked like the 80’s would prove to be an artistically productive decade for my favorite Beatle.

And just like that, he was dead.

John’s memorial in Central Park

I had time to create pen-and-ink drawings back then, and over the next few days created a collage of images of Lennon. It was pretty good, but I have no clue what ever became of it.

John had long been a thorn in the side of conservative politicians, being an outspoken critic of ANY war, but particularly the one in Vietnam. Richard Nixon, whose paranoia led to his infamous enemy lists, was a foe of Lennon’s protests. The US had used a drug conviction to deny him citizenship, most likely in retaliation. But they finally relented in 1976, and John became a model citizen.

Little was heard of Lennon for a while. He took out a full page ad holiday greetings ad in the New York Times about 1978 or so which seemed to hint to fans of a Beatles reunion. But remember, these were the same fans who were convinced that Paul was dead.

In 1980, Lennon and his wife released their joyful celebration of family life, the previously mentioned Double Fantasy. Now we knew what they had been up to during those quiet years, raising kids!

John’s death deeply touched many Boomers, including Paul Simon, who penned these poignant words in his song “The Late Great Johnny Ace”:

On a cold December evening
I was walking through the Christmas tide
When a stranger came up and asked me
If I’d heard John Lennon died
And the two of us went to this bar
And we stayed to close the place
And every song we played
Was for The Late Great Johnny Ace

Johnny Cash: the Man, the Show

Brenda Lee on the Johnny Cash Show

“Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.”

Those words opened an amazing variety show that shined brightly for three short years, from 1969 to 1971. My parents were both fanatics of the show, even though neither particularly cared for country music. Every Saturday night, Cash would grumble his intro and launch into the opening riffs of Folsom Prison Blues.

Cash’s show was appealing to all sorts of folks. The fact is that he was simply a master entertainer who could hold the attention of virtually any generation. I was a nine-year old kid who can still vividly remember his regular bits, including “Come Along and Ride This Train,” his gospel sings, and his nightly duets with June. I also remember the night he proudly introduced John Carter Cash, just born.

Carl Perkins, Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash

Johnny had some familiar country/rocakabilly faces on regularly, including the Statler Brothers (who later had a pretty good song themselves called “Kids of the Baby Boom”), Kris Kristofferson, and Carl Perkins.

He also featured acts that were distinctively NOT country musicians. Gordon Lightfoot, The Guess Who, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Melanie, Mama Cass, and Linda Ronstadt were on there strutting their stuff. Dylan would record a foray into country music about this time with Johnny’s help, Nashville Skyline.

Johnny could have been just another country hitmaker, and he certainly could have been great at it. But he elected to stay in touch with musical styles that would appeal to many others, including blues, gospel, rocakabilly, and even a spoken comedy hit, “A Boy Named Sue.”

Cash, the man, was an amazing human. He managed to overcome addictions that could have killed him, he kept on producing cutting-edge music right up until his death, and he promoted prison reform when it was unpopular. He also masterminded a great TV show. It might have lasted many seasons, unfortunately ABC pulled the plug on it over Cash’s ignoring their desires for its focus.

Oh well, as his friend Neil Young said, it’s better to burn out than it is to rust.

WLS Radio

I doubt that there is a rock and roll loving Boomer within 1000 miles of Chicago who doesn’t have fond memories of a bedroom AM radio with the dial set to 890. The first pushbutton on the car radio was likely also set to this position.

If you wanted to hear rock and roll on the radio, your options were limited circa 1972. In my location, FM was hard to come by. Besides, it was Country Music Central. The two stations that DID play rock and roll left something to be desired. One was strictly Top 40, with the harder stuff filtered out, so it was more like Top 27. And those songs were endlessly repeated until you hated them. I still can’t listen to “Let Em In.”

The other station required you to be within about 500 yards of the tower to pick it up in stereo (only slightly exaggerated).

Thank heavens for sundown. That meant that WLS was cranking up their power, and we finally had state-of-the-art R&R.

WLS was simply magic. You could tell if a song was good or not by seeing if they played it. And the music they played ran the full gamut, from the sweet soul of Smokey Robinson to the raunch of Black Oak Arkansas, with everything that is Rock in between. And NO disco (that I recall, anyway)!

WLS played country music in 1924

We knew the jock’s names, too. Dick Biondi, Larry Lujack, John Records Landecker (that was his real middle name, BTW), Fred Winston, and Art Roberts seemed like old friends. It didn’t matter which one was on, they were ALL great.

The little town I lived in at the time was Pea Ridge, Arkansas. One unforgettable night a schoolmate called in a request, and the DJ had a lot of fun making fun of the town’s name. We absolutely loved it! After all, we made fun of it too.

I listened to WLS up until I got a tape player for my car. I preferred listening to my own stuff after that. I was a fool.

WLS didn’t last forever, as I assumed it would. On August 23, 1989, the last song was played. It was “Just You and Me” by Chicago. After that, Sally Jesse Raphael’s talk show followed it, and WLS became a talk radio station.

However, salvation has come to Boomers who miss the greatest rock and roll station that ever existed. Go to http://www.reelradio.com/ and sign up for a year. It only costs twelve bucks for a year’s access, and it will be the best twelve bucks you ever spent. They have hours and hours of classic WLS shows, along with practically every other radio station in North America. You’ll think it’s 1972 again.

Also, check out http://www.wlshistory.com/ for ALL of WLS’s history, including the Hindenberg crash broadcast. And thanks to them for the graphic!

When TV Show Theme Songs Mattered

This column was inspired by the sad news of the death of Earle Hagen, former big-band musician who is better known for composing (and whistling) the theme to the Andy Griffith Show. He also wrote themes for a dazzling amount of other series, including I Spy, That Girl, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gomer Pyle, USMC, and a whole lot more.

However, this column is not an obituary for Mr. Hagen. Others have already done a better job of that than I could. Rather, it’s a poignant remembrance of when TV show theme songs meant something.

Who can’t recall the song from The Beverly Hillbillies? Batman? Green Acres?

Indeed, no self-respecting TV show of our youth would dare take the airways without a well-crafted theme song that we would be whistling, singing, or humming long after the episode had ended.

What happened to all that?

Earle Hagen

One of my favorite shows is Deadliest Catch, about the Alaskan king crab fishermen. However, even though I never miss an episode, I couldn’t tell you anything about the opening theme. It doesn’t even have one, for all I know.

One of my favorite shows from the 90’s was Homicide: Life on the Streets. I DO recall its theme song because it was so awful! It was a real cacophonous stinker that contrasted sharply to the great show. Compare that situation to Secret Agent Man, an absolutely classic theme song that accompanied a show that was by and large pretty forgettable.

The old theme songs had a way of sticking permanently in your memory like a porcupine quill. Example: in the mid 80’s, Nick at Nite showed reruns of Car 54, Where Are You?. My wife watched it occasionally, I don’t think I ever did. But that theme song that played in the background of our apartment is permanently lodged in my memory banks!

On the other hand, my wife’s current favorite sitcom is The King of Queens. She watches DVR’ed episodes many afternoons when she gets home from work. Yet, I had to think hard before I remembered how its theme song went. It’s a good one, but unforgettable? I think not.

Quick, without clicking the link, play back the theme to American Idol (The country’s top-rated TV show at presstime) in your head. Now, Dancing With the Stars. Okay, how about my favorite “broadcast” show, House?

These are all Top-Ten Nielsen shows, and I’ll bet the themes escaped you. Sad, isn’t it? What happened?

For one, the VCR. Suddenly, we could fast-forward our way past drudgery like opening sequences. The DVR makes it even easier to skip through to the meat of the episodes.

For another, society’s changes have made theme songs disposable. Look at how well Seinfeld did for all of those years with an unrepeatable funky bass riff for a theme. Who cares? We tuned in to see comedy, not listen to music. Somehow, the show itself became much more important than the music which accompanied it.

Ironically, shows with memorable themes like The Sopranos, and the various flavors of CSI rely on hit songs that stood on their own well before the TV show adopted them.

So here’s to Earle Hagen, whose passing reminds us that his craft, the essential catchy TV theme song, preceded him in death some time back.

Tiny Tim

Tiny Tim (born Herbert Khaury, April 12, 1932 – November 30, 1996)

The date he was born was April 12, 1932. His parents were a Lebanese man and a Jewish woman. When he was five years old, his father brought home an old wind-up gramophone and a record of Henry Burr singing “Beautiful Ohio.” Later, more old records were obtained. Young Herbert Khaury fell in love with the old songs, stretching back to the early 20th century. He soon became an authority on early popular music that made it onto 78’s.

Herbert obtained a ukulele and learned to play it. He would spend hours singing the old refrains in his natural mid-baritone voice. By the mid 1950’s, he was playing in small clubs throughout New York. Sometimes the crowds would laugh at him. Sometimes they would laugh WITH him. And sometimes, he would simply bowl them over with his unconventional appearance and his ukulele.

In 1968, a rather strange film was released called You Are What You Eat. The movie was a celebration of the Flower Power generation and their music, and featured performances by the likes of David Crosby, Frank Zappa, Barry McGuire, and a narrator/performer who had, in 1962, begun calling himself Tiny Tim. One particularly memorable performance involved Tiny Tim and a female singer performing “I Got You Babe,” with Tim singing Cher’s lines in falsetto, Eleanor Barooshian singing Sonny’s lines in baritone.

The film was spotted by the producers of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, who booked Tiny Tim for an appearance.

He was an absolute sensation. TV audiences had never seen anything like the gentle long-haired singer with the pasty white makeup and the voice that went places that a voice simply wasn’t supposed to go. I hesitate to post YouTube links, the way they get yanked for various silly copyright objections, but here’s some footage of a Laugh-In appearance by Mr. Tim.

Again, many in the audience laughed at him, but many others were taken by his unconventional talent. And sadly, not many of them delved deeper to discover the encyclopedic knowledge of 20th century popular music that the man possessed.

Tiny Tim’s handshake brings John Wayne to his knees on Laugh-In

The Laugh-In appearances led to more on the likes of Sullivan’s, Jackie Gleason’s, and Carson’s shows. Comedians feasted on Tiny Tim and spread his fame even farther. By 1969, he was one of the most recognizable performers the world had ever heard of. Far from a one-shot wonder, his popularity grew as the 60’s progressed.

He released three albums during the decade, which sold modestly well. His single “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” sold 200,000 copies. In 1969, he announced that he was getting married to his girlfriend, Miss Vicki, on the Tonight Show.

On December 12th of that year, 40 million viewers tuned in to hear the couple recite their self-written vows to each other.

Tiny Tim and Miss Vickie get married on the Tonight Show

The couple had a daughter, Tulip, before their marriage collapsed eight years later. One Laugh-In gag I recall fondly was that “they are planning on having three children, one of each.”

The 1970’s saw the public fascination with Tiny Tim waning. However, he had one triumphant final appearance that had him on top of the world. It was at the Isle of Wight Music festival in August of 1970. Some 600,000 people went crazy when, at the climax of his set, he sang “There’ll Always Be an England” through a megaphone, Rudy Vallee-style.

As the decade wore on, he continued to grab whatever gigs he could find. He had good success in Vegas. Alas, he was as naive as his stage persona, and he didn’t end up making a whole lot of money from his shows. In 1994, he even joined a circus for a few months. In 1995, his profile once again began to be raised in the public perception, with appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He also landed a role in Stern’s movie Private Parts.

In November, 1996, while playing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” at an appearance at the Women’s Club of Minneapolis, he suffered a heart attack on stage and was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

Thus ended the tale of a sweet, naive individual who achieved far more than fifteen minutes of fame, who greatly enjoyed what he did, and who left a legacy of doing your own thing, no matter how unorthodox.

The Twist

This one is one that I personally don’t remember at its inception, but have recollections of its fallout. My older brothers no doubt recall when the Twist swept the nation. One reason I’m writing about it is the fact that Chubby Checker’s song “The Twist” set a mark that has never been equalled before or since. More on that in a bit.

I learned some remarkable facts about the dance craze that swept the nation in 1960. In 1958, a group called Hank Ballard and the Midnighters performed a dance routine that they dreamed up at a show they were giving in an Atlanta club. The audience got a kick out of it. Hank wrote a ditty to go along with it and on November 11 of that year, released it as a backside to a single called “Teardrops on Your Letter,” which made the R&B Top Ten the next spring.

The flip side finally got some attention from deejays, and none other than Dick Clark heard it and knew it was a hit.

He invited Hank Ballard and the Midnighters to perform on Bandstand, and for some strange reason, they no-showed. BIG mistake.

Dick suggested someone else might record the song, recommending Danny and the Juniors. Long story short, Chubby Checker was finally chosen to cut the record after disappointing results from Dick’s preferred group.

The record was far from an instant smash. Underpromoted by Cameo-Parkway Records, it took fourteen months from its release to catch on. Checker, knowing it was great, worked his tail off doing his own promotion in the form of interviews, TV dates, and live shows. He reportedly lost thirty pounds demonstrating the Twist.

Finally, in 1960, lightning struck. The Twist went to #1. Then, in late 1961, it RE-ENTERED the charts and soared to #1 again! No other song has ever accomplished the same feat.

Many other songs were released that referred to the Twist, and it was still around in the mid-1960’s. It still makes periodic comebacks, always danced to Chubby’s familiar tune.

I got a lot of this history from http://www.classicbands.com/checker.html. For much more detail than my brief overview, visit their site.

The Rooftop Concert

In 1969, the dream wasn’t over, but the closing credits were playing. However, as is frequently the case in the movie theater, the music that was playing during the closing credits was pretty wonderful stuff.

The 1967 death of Brian Epstein was the beginning of the end of the incredible pooled talent of what we knew as The Beatles. Epstein was a manager that the group respected, whose decisions weren’t always perfect, but weren’t disastrous either. On August 27 of that year, the day before I turned eight years old, Epstein died of an overdose of sleeping pills.

The Beatles muddled on under McCartney’s taking the lead for awhile, but Paul’s decision to commit the group to the film Magical Mystery Tour effectively ended the rest of the boys listening to him. While the accompanying album was a success, the film was a critical and financial flop.

By 1968, and the recording of the White Album, all four members of the band were thinking much more in terms of themselves as individuals rather than as members of the greatest pop/rock band in history.

The post-Epstein group was persuaded to film a live concert, along with the practice sessions leading up to it, tentatively called Get Back. As it turned out, the film’s eventual completed version, released as Let It Be, captured the worst of the squabbling that was taking place among the members to the disintegrating group.

But there certainly was a glorious high point of the documentation: the Rooftop Concert of January 30, 1969.

The group met with the film’s production department four days earlier. They presented the idea of setting equipment up in the cold January air on the rooftop of Apple’s headquarters in Savile Row near Piccadilly Circus.

The idea was crazy on a number of levels. So of course it was agreed to and planning began.

On the busy Thursday workday, the group arrived at the rooftop, grabbed instruments, and began jamming. Cameras were rolling all over the place, including down in the streets as astonished Londoners engaged in their normal workday routines came out to see what all of the loud music was all about.

What none of them realized at the time was that it was history. It was the final live performance of The Beatles.

The bobbies hadn’t been informed, nor had anyone else but the filming crews. So it wasn’t long before the police showed up, looking curiously upward and trying to maintain order as the streets began to fill with both fans and detractors of the group.

Eventually, the police showed up at the rooftop itself and demanded that the impromptu concert cease. Legend has it that it might have gone on much longer, if not for the wool merchant next door. He was quoted as saying “I want this bloody noise stopped. It’s an absolute disgrace!”

Footage exists of the magical moment, of course. The concert, as well as many other Get Back recordings, were among the most bootlegged moments of rock and roll history. Underground record stores like many medium-to-large-sized towns had in the 70’s had the uncut products for sale freely.

George Martin eventually produced the album Let It Be, for better of worse, complete with heavenly choirs to help dissuade the depressing sound of the constant bickering.

The Midnight Special

“I want my MTV” was the catchphrase of the early 80’s. But years earlier, producer Burt Sugarman saw a market for a rock and roll TV show that would take the medium just a bit farther than American Bandstand.

Late night TV was an untapped market in 1972. Once Carson was done, it was signoff time. So when Sugarman approached NBC execs with his idea of a Friday night show that would ride on Johnny’s coattails, and that would draw in the teenage demographic that was still wide awake at that hour, he was surprised and disappointed that they turned him down. Unfazed, he produced the first episode, bought the airtime (with help from Chevrolet), and televised it. The result? Great ratings, and reconsideration by the NBC execs.

Sugarman grabbed up rising star deejay Wolfman Jack, who was being blasted across the US and Canada from a 250,000 watt Mexican radio station. A year later, he would appear in the smash hit American Graffiti. Good move, Burt.

The pre-disco Bee Gees on the Midnight Special in 1973

The show would be hosted by a different musician each week (except for a year run with Helen Reddy as the regular lead), with the Wolfman providing his own running commentary. And man, did it attract the big names.

Groups and individuals who appeared on The Midnight Special during its eight-year-run included John Denver, Mama Cass, Harry Chapin, War, Linda Rondstadt, Ike and Tine Turner, The Doobie Brothers, Billy Preston, Loggins and Messina, blues legends Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, aargh, I could fill up a web page with the names.

Comedians also stopped by. They included George Burns, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Andy Kaufman, Bill Cosby, David Brenner, Martin Mull, and Robert Klein.

The show inspired an ABC copycat, In Concert. And it no doubt also put the idea of MTV into some creative exec’s head.

It was so much fun for thirteen-year-old me to stay up late Friday night, with my parents sound asleep, and jam to some great rock and roll. Ironically, now that I’m forty seven, my own son does the same thing while dad snores. Only he has access to the 24-hour-a-day version, while I had to wait until midnight (Central Time) to hear the Wolfman and listen to the best music that could be delivered through a three-inch television speaker.

We lost the Wolfman in 1995. Burt is still with us. He produced Children of a Lesser God and Crimes of the Heart in 1986, but has pretty much retired.

But we Boomers have fond memories of a show that the two talents joined up to give us some seriously great late-night rock and roll.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Like the Energizer bunny, this song keeps going and going.

When I envisioned this entry, I intended to write about a doo-wop song that has made frequent comebacks. However, I was amazed to find out that this song dates back to the 1930’s, and there is some real controversy about who holds the copyright.

The song originated with an artist named Solomon Linda, who recorded his creation (entitled “Mbube,” Zulu for lion) with his group The Evening Birds in 1939. Linda, one of a gajillion artists who got screwed over by record companies, was paid a modest flat fee for the song with no royalties.

Solomon Linda

His version eventually sold 100,000 copies, mainly in South Africa.

In the ’50’s, the South African recording company sent it to Decca Records. They passed on it, but folk historian and musicologist Alan Lomax was intrigued by it, and sent a copy to his friend Pete Seeger. Seeger also loved it, and recorded it with The Weavers. He sent Linda an unspecified amount of money for use of the song, and recorded it as “Wimoweh.”

In 1961, an aspiring doo-wop group called The Tokens auditioned Wimoweh before RCA execs. They liked it, but decided the song needed new lyrics and a new title. The group rewrote the song and called it “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It hit #1.

Ten years later, the song made a strange comeback. Two members of the Tokens produced and performed on a new version sung by Robert John. It was a huge 1971 hit that sounded almost like the original.

The song resurfaced again for the movie The Lion King in 1994. Other artists, including Brian Eno, Tight Fit, Baha Men, They Might Be Giants, and R.E.M. also recorded it.

For the whole copyright mess check out this article. In the meantime, look for this timeless classic to keep reappearing on the airwaves.

The King Is Dead

I had just walked into the house after playing a round of golf. Mom hollered “Elvis is dead!”

There was no need to ask Elvis who. There was only one Elvis back then, and many feel the name should be retired, like Jackie Robinson’s number.

Elvis Aron Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi on January 8, 1935. While no Boomer himself, there’s no estimating just how great an effect he had on our generation. More’s the pity he was robbed of the chance to completely own the music business, instead being coerced by his controlling manager into appearing in a long string of cheesy movies through the 60’s, wasting time that should have been spent in the recording studio.

Elvis exploded onto the scene with hit singles released by legendary Sun Records. His career was launched into overdrive by triumphant (and controversial for the time) appearances on Ed Sullivan. He truly was rock and roll to a generation of Boomers a bit older than me.

Then, Uncle Sam called. On December 20, 1957, Elvis opened his mail to find a draft notice. We didn’t know it then, but the King of Rock and Roll would never be the same.

Serving in Germany, Elvis discovered amphetamines. They would keep you going when you were short of sleep. Elvis was an instant fan, and they accompanied him right to the grave, along with a host of other prescription drugs obtained for him by Colonel Parker.

But it wasn’t the drugs that took Elvis’s brilliant edge off that was so cutting from 1955-1957. It was his greedy manager, who saw more cash flow from Elvis the actor instead of Elvis the rocker. So he convinced Presley it was in his best interests (it was certainly in Parker’s) to back off of cutting records and spend more time making movies. Songs like Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog, and Love Me Tender will endure for the ages. Movies like Charro!, Tickle Me, and Kid Galahad won’t.

Elvis towards the end of his life, his doctor behind him

But in 1968, Elvis, dissatisfied about his downhill career slide, signed a deal with NBC to produce a television show called simply Elvis. It later came to be known as the ’68 Comeback Special. The King, whose record sales and movie receipts were way down from previous highs, wowed TV audiences with a smash hit show that was also artistically praised by the critics. Elvis was back.

He went on the road, playing all over the country, but performed numerous times in Las Vegas. His later career was marked by his white outfit onstage at the big Vegas casinos. As Neil Young sang in He Was the King, the blue-haired ladies screamed.

But the whole time, he was on a veritable cocktail of uppers, downers, and everything in between that was available at the local pharmacy. Colonel Parker might have slowed down the flow of drugs if he had envisioned the early death of his cash cow, but he kept Elvis richly supplied with everything the King asked for.

On August 16, 1977, it all caught up with him. He was found dead in the toilet.

I wish I had known Elvis the rocker. Jailhouse Rock, one of his few cinematic jewels, gives me an idea of how this man turned the world of music upside down. So does footage of the Sullivan appearances. But, sadly, the Elvis I remember was the one who sang those bad songs in those bad movies, and who died at the age of 42 looking like he was twice that old.

I blame a sponging, dominating, self-centered agent, and Elvis’s poor judgment in sticking with him.