50 Years Ago Today: The Beatles’ SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (Capitol Records 1967)

June 2, 1967. The beginning of the so-called “Summer of Love”. The underground hippie culture was grooving toward the mainstream. And those four loveable mop tops, The Beatles , released their eighth album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, on America’s shores, ushering in the concept of “concept albums” that still reverberates in music today. The Fab Four were Fab no more, but genuine artists, with a little help from their friend, producer George Martin.

The Beatles had stopped touring  the previous year, tired of the grind and the hysterical screaming that drowned their music out. They had done some experimenting in the studio with “Revolver”, their previous LP, but “Sgt. Pepper” was something different. Martin and the band members, influenced by both The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and Frank Zappa’s “Freak Out!” discs, utilized then cutting edge studio techniques (tape loops, sound effects, varying speeds) and instrumentations (sitar, harmonium, Mellotron, tubular bells, even a 40-piece orchestra) to create the album’s aural mood, with The Beatles using alter egos as a Edwardian Era marching band!

None of the tracks were released as singles, although two songs that didn’t make the cut (“Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane”) were issued as a Double-A sided 45 (both were featured on their later ’67 LP, “Magical Mystery Tour”). After the hard-rocking albeit brief intro, Paul welcomes singer ‘Billy Shears’, actually Ringo crooning “With a Little Help from My Friends” (later a #1 hit for Joe Cocker). The next song, John’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, is probably the most trippy. Lennon always claimed “Lucy” was taken from a picture drawn by his young son Julian, but seriously… with lyrics like “Picture yourself in a boat on a river/With tangerine trees and marmalade skies/Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly/A girl with Kaleidoscope eyes” what else could it be about than an acid trip? “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” – right John, you cheeky little devil!

“Getting Better” is an uptempo rocker reminiscent of the band’s “Yesterday and Today” period, while “Fixing A Hole” toys with major and minor keys, to good effect. “She’s Leaving Home” is a sad number about a female youth running away, with Paul and John’s vocals augmented by a lush string orchestraition. The last song on Side 1, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, has a swirlingly fun circus-like atmosphere, influenced heavily by the  British Music Hall sounds the band grew up with.

Side 2 kicks off with George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You”, a hypnotic, raga-based mediation on the nature of life and being I find hauntingly beautiful. Harrison shows off the sitar skills he learned from Indian master Ravi Shankar, while accompanied by traditional Indian instruments like the tabla and tambora. “When I’m Sixty-Four” is another Music Hall influenced number, Paul’s ode to growing old together, with a clarinet used to give it an old-timey feel. “Lovely Rita” is another rocker that finds John and Paul playing both kazoo and a comb-and-tissue combo! “Good Morning, Good Morning” puts John front and center for a peppy tune compete with crowing roosters!

After a reprise of “Sgt. Pepper”, it’s time for “A Day in the Life”, the album’s most ambitious track. A drug-soaked rumination on the nature of reality, with the refrain “I’d love to turn you on”, this avant-garde inspired piece features the most famous final chord in rock, a glorious forty-second noise with three pianos and a harmonium hitting an E-Major that vibrates off into space and the album’s ending.

Equally as famous as the music on “Sgt. Pepper”, and deservedly so, is the iconic album cover by artist Peter Blake, parodied and imitated for fifty years and counting. Among those standing in the picture you’ll find the likes of Fred Astaire, author William S. Burroughs, occultist Aleister Crowley, Lewis Carroll, Marlene Dietrich, Bob Dylan, W.C.Fields , Bowery Boy Huntz Hall Laurel & Hardy , socialist Karl Marx, cowboy star Tom Mix, Edgar Allan Poe, poet Dylan Thomas, Shirley Temple, H.G. Wells, and Mae West. Blake’s collage collected some of The Beatles’ biggest influences, and won a Grammy for Best Album Cover (Graphic Arts).

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was a #1 smash, and definitely is the pinnacle of the psychedelic rock era. Fifty years on, both fans and musicians alike marvel at The Beatles’ stunning achievement, done in a time when studio tricks and sound sweetening were at a primitive level. The album has influenced everyone from Pink Floyd (“The Wall”) and The Who (“Tommy”, Quadrophenia”), to latter-day artists like Green Day (“American Idiot”), turning the ‘concept album’ (and rock itself) into an art form. It belong in any music lover’s collection, and if you haven’t heard it in a while (or, heaven forbid, ever!), today would be a good day to let The Beatles “turn you on”. (Just stay away from the wretched 1978 movie starring Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees!)

Special Memorial Day Edition: THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS (20th Century-Fox 1944)

War is hell, not only on the participants, but on those left home waiting for word on their loved ones, dreading the inevitable. THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS is based on the true story of five brothers who served and died together as shipmates, and their family. It’s a story of patriotism, of grief and loss, and its penultimate moment will rip your heart out. Finally, it’s an American story.

The Sullivans are a proud, close-knit Irish Catholic family living in Waterloo, Iowa. Patriarch Tom (played by Thomas Mitchell ) is a loyal railroad man whose five sons (George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al) climb the water tower every day to wave goodbye as the train pulls out. Mother Alleta (Selena Royale) keeps the family fires burning, with the help of daughter Gen. The scrappy brothers are a pint-sized version of the Dead End Kids, getting into mischief like a Donnybrook with neighborhood kids on little Al’s (future Disney star Bobby Driscoll ) First Communion day, getting caught smoking corn silk in the woodshed (Pop’s solution is to give them each a real cigar, causing the boys to throw up), and sailing on the lake in a leaky vessel that capsizes (foreshadowing things to come). Despite the boy’s boisterous nature and their various misadventures, the Sullivan household is filled with warmth and love.

Time marches on, and the boys are now in their twenties. Al, the youngest, surprises the family by marrying sweet-as-pie Katherine Mary (a young Anne Baxter), and presenting the Sullivans with their first grandbaby. One winter’s day, news comes over the radio: “The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor!” While Mom phones a local woman whose son was stationed on the U.S.S Arizona, the brothers decide then and there to join the Navy. Brother Al feels left out, having a wife and baby to look after, until brave Katherine Mary reluctantly talks him into signing up. Tom and Alleta proudly display a flag with five stars in their window.

The boys are all together on the U.S.S. Juneau off the Solomon Islands, and get their first taste of action. George is wounded during the raging battle, and the ship is fatally hit. Ordered to abandon ship, the Sullivans won’t leave without taking George, who’s in sick bay. In the midst of all this chaos, the screen abruptly turns to black.

We’re back home in Iowa, where the Sulivans get a visit from Cmdr. Robinson (Ward Bond).  He’s the bearer of bad news, and when Alleta asks which of her sons is gone, he solemnly replies: “All five”. Gen and Katherine Mary leave the room in tears, while Alleta sits stoically, her face in shock. Tom hears the train whistle blow and excuses himself, dutifully making the slow walk to work in silence, his face a mask of anguish and torment, his head bowed low. He boards the train as it steadily moves past the tower, looking up as if expecting to see his children there one more time. He gives it a small salute as he passes before finally breaking down in tears. It is one of the most heart wrenching scenes in cinema, and beautifully underplayed by Mitchell.

The real five Sullivan brothers (left to right) Joe, Frank, Al, Matt, and George

What really happened to the five Sullivan brothers? On November 13, 1942, the Juneau sank after being hit by a Japanese torpedo. Navy brass ordered all ships in the vicinity to leave and avoid any further Japanese submarine strikes. Frank, Joe, and Matt were all killed instantly. Al, adrift in the ocean, drowned the following day. Eldest brother George survived four or five days on a life raft but, grief-stricken and delirious from hypernatremia (high salt content in the blood), jumped overboard. The parents were not informed until Alleta wrote a letter to FDR. On January 12, 1943, three Naval officials knocked on the door of the Sullivan home to relay the bad news: “All five”.

Today we celebrate the life and legacy of those brave souls who fought and died in service to our country and our way of life. Brave souls like George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al Sullivan. We salute their courage and the sacrifices they made, yet let’s not forget the loved ones left behind, and the sacrifices they made as well. Whether you’re chowing on hot dogs and cheeseburgers at a family cookout, or cheering at your local parade, or just kicking back and watching a ballgame, take a moment today to reflect on those who gave all in defense of freedom. And to maybe say a prayer for the loved ones left behind.

(This post is respectfully dedicated to the brave men and women who gave their lives to the ideals of Freedom and Liberty)

 

RIP in Blues Heaven, J. Geils

Appropriately, I was just leaving Fenway Park in Boston with my friends when we heard the news that guitarist J. Geils had died. The J. Geils Band were legendary here in Massachusetts, a gritty, down-to-earth blues rock band who had a string of hits in the 70’s, then reemerged again in the 80’s at the height of MTV’s heyday. The band, fronted by charismatic lead singer Peter Wolf and propelled by the bluesy harmonic licks of Magic Dick, released their first album in 1970, and hit the road to tour the country incessantly. They became known as one of the hardest working (and hardest rocking) bands in America, and hit it big on FM radio with their 1972 LP “LIVE! FULL HOUSE”, featuring the single “Lookin’ for a Love”:

The first time I caught them was in ’73, touring in support of their album “BLOODSHOT”, with the hit “Give It to Me”. More hits followed, but at the dawn of MTV, the boys changed from guitar-based blues rockers to video pop stars with hits like “Centerfold” and “Freeze Frame”:

Musical differences caused the band to split up in 1985. John Geils turned to his second love, auto racing, driving and restoring Italian sports cars. In the 90’s he returned to music, forming Bluestime with former band mate Magic Dick, and once again hit the road, touring the New England club circuit. There were sporadic Geils band reunion shows, most recently a 2015 outdoor performance for WHJY-Providence’s 34th anniversary. J. Geils was found dead in his home in Groton, MA earlier today at age 71, purportedly of natural causes. Their working class, blue collar ethic made them Boston’s greatest rock band, and I’ll end this tribute with their hard rocking 1980 hit “Love Stinks”. Rock on, J. Geils.

 

RIP, Ya Hockey Puck: Don Rickles on Film and Television

“Mr. Warmth”, the great Don Rickles, died yesterday at age 90. He was outrageous, rude, definitely non-PC, and hysterically funny. Rickles threw his verbal brickbats at everybody regardless of race, creed, national origin, or political persuasion, and it was all in good-spirited fun. There will never be another stand-up comic quite like Don Rickles, especially in today’s “safe space” world, and it’s a pity, because if we can’t all laugh at ourselves, if we can’t take a joke, then it’s time to pack it in.

Something I didn’t know about Don Rickles is he didn’t start out to be “The Merchant of Venom”. He intended to become a serious actor, studying at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. Frustrated with his lack of acting jobs, Don began doing stand-up as a way to gain exposure. When he was heckled by some audience members, he heckled ’em right back, and a style was born. When Frank Sinatra caught one of Rickles’ gigs, the comedian started lobbing his insult grenades at the superstar. Sinatra loved it, and Rickles’ career took off like one of his verbal poisoned arrows, landing spots on TV shows like Ed Sullivan and especially Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

Don made his movie debut in RUN SILENT RUN DEEP, a 1958 submarine drama alongside Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. Not bad company for a Jew from Queens! Highlights from his film career include the role of the shady carnival partner of Ray Milland in Roger Corman’s X – THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES. Rickles also appeared in four of AIP’s “Beach Party” flicks, playing basically different variations of the same character (Jack Fanny , Big Drag, Big Bang, Big Drop). He was “Crapgame”, the hustling supply sergeant, in Clint Eastwood’s 1969 WWII heist movie KELLY’S HEROES, and had a memorable role as Robert DeNiro’s lieutenant in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 CASINO. That same year, Rickles gained a whole new audience when he began voicing Mr. Potato Head in the TOY STORY series.

But it was episodic television where Rickles truly got a chance to shine. Rickles never headlined a successful sitcom on his own (the closest he got was two seasons as CPO SHARKEY), but his guest shots are among some of my favorite Don Rickles performances. For example, his Newton Monroe on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW ,   a nebbishy door-to-salesman who’s given a boost of confidence by Andy and Barney (“I’m not inept anymore! I’m ept!!”). Or the renegade Hekawi Bald Eagle, son of Chief Wild Eagle, on F TROOP. He was fugitive kidnapper Norbert Wiley, raising a ruckus on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. Rickles hilariously played Sid Krimm, old Army buddy of Maxwell Smart (“When do we meet the broads, Max?”) on a two-part GET SMART, with his close friend Don Adams as Agent 86. Best of all was his 1990 appearance on HBO’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, as the mentor to Bobcat Goldthwait, one of the creepiest in the series!

And we can’t talk about Rickles without mentioning his insulting every star in Hollywood on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts:

We’ve been blessed to have such a man as Don Rickles to make us laugh over the years. Hail and farewell, ya hockey puck! We’ll miss you!

 

 

Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll: RIP Chuck Berry

“Johnny B. Goode”. “Roll Over, Beethoven”. “Sweet Little Sixteen”. “Rock and Roll Music”. The most iconic songs of the Golden Age of Rock’N’Roll belonged to one man, Chuck Berry. When I got home this evening and heard the news he passed away at the age of 90, I knew I’d have to preempt my regularly scheduled post and pay tribute. Because without Chuck Berry, there’s no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Beach Boys, no rock and roll as we know it. He was that influential on 20th century music, and the uncrowned King of Rock and Roll.

Sure, Elvis was bigger, but it was Chuck Berry who wrote the soundtrack for a generation of kids listening to their radios searching for relief from the blandness of 50’s commercial pop. He spoke their language, the language of teenage lust, hot rods, high schools hops, all set to a rocking back beat. Berry was influenced by the jump blues of Louis Jordan and the electric blues of T-Bone Walker, the western swing of Bob Wills and the soulful singing of Nat King Cole, added his own “duck walking” brand of showmanship, all propelled by Johnnie Johnson’s honky-tonk piano, and created something totally unique. He called it rock and roll.

Chuck was no saint. Far from it. As a teen, he did time in a reformatory for armed robbery and car theft. He was found guilty of violating the Mann Act for crossing state lines with a 14-year-old waitress, got sued for installing a camera in the ladies room at his restaurant, did four months for tax evasion, and was busted for possession of weed. Chuck Berry was rock and roll’s real bad boy, and a notoriously cranky curmudgeon, but his fans remained ever loyal despite his flaws. They knew his talent outweighed all his faults.

Much as teens idolized him, the adults hated him, mainly because he was a black man selling teenage sex to their children. But he still sold out concerts and was featured in Hollywood rock flicks like ROCK ROCK ROCK and GO JOHNNY GO! Like most 50’s rockers, he suffered a career slump during the 60’s, but came back strong in 1972 with the #1 double-entendre hit “My Ding-a-Ling”:

The 1987 rock doc HAIL! HAIL! ROCK’N’ROLL a 60th birthday concert filmed by Taylor Hackford featuring a veritable Who’s Who of classic rockers joining Chuck onstage. There was Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, and more celebrating the music of their idol. Earlier this year, on Chuck’s 90th birthday, it was announced he would be releasing his first new recording in 38 years, “Chuck”. I for one am eagerly awaiting it’s release.

Chuck Berry will live forever as one of the greats in rock’n’roll history, and one of the last century’s music pioneers. I own a compilation disc titled simply “Blues” that showcases his best recorded blues performances, and I’ll leave you with his “Wee Wee Hours”. All hail the uncrowned King!:

Say Goodbye to Hollywood: RIP Robert Osborne of TCM

“Hi, I’m Robert Osborne”.

Those four words, delivered in a smooth-as-honey voice, were delivered to classic films lovers watching TCM for over twenty years. Now that voice has been silenced, as fans learned today of Osborne’s death at the age of 84. He had been off our screens since early 2016 due to an undisclosed ailment, and we all eagerly hoped and prayed for his return. Alas, it’s not to be.

Robert Osborne wanted to be an actor when he first arrived in Hollywood in the 1950’s. He signed a contract with Desilu Studios, and soon began a close, lifelong friendship with superstar Lucille Ball. Osborne had small roles in episodic TV, and a couple of films (but I’d be hard-pressed to pick him out in SPARTACUS or PSYCHO), but his acting career went nowhere. Ball suggested he put his journalism degree from the University of Washington to good use, along with his extensive knowledge of Hollywood history. He wrote “Academy Awards Illustrated” in 1965, then used his newfound credibility to become a television and newspaper entertainment reporter. His seminal work “50 Golden Years of Oscar”, first published in 1977, has become must-reading for classic movie lovers, and has been updated every ten years.

By this time, Osborne was a regular columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. He hosted films on the fledgling The Movie Channel until Ted Turner came calling. Turner held the rights to the MGM library and was eager to compete with AMC. He brought Osborne on board, and it was a match made in heaven. Osborne’s easy going style and vast familiarity of Hollywood history made him welcome in millions of homes. He was comfortable as a slipper, relaxed and gracious, never talking down to his audience. The classic film community will miss Robert Osborne’s presence in our living rooms, and I think this “TCM Remembers” clips says it better and more eloquently than I ever could:

Godspeed, Mr. Osborne. Job well done.

You’re Gonna Make It After All: RIP Mary Tyler Moore

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She was America’s TV sweetheart in the 60’s and 70’s. Beautiful and talented Mary Tyler Moore has passed away at age 80, her smile no longer brightening this world. Mary was Laura Petrie, the perky and perfect suburban housewife on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, then broke new ground as single career girl Mary Richards on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, both seminal sitcoms from television’s Golden Age of Comedy.

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Born in Brooklyn Heights in 1936, Mary became a dancer as a teen, and got her first show business break as ‘Happy Hotpoint’, a tiny dancing elf in TV commercials for Hotpoint stoves. Her next break got her noticed, playing the sexy secretary on RICHARD DIAMOND PRIVATE DETECTIVE, which starred David Janssen. Mary never fully appeared on the show, only her smoky voice and dancer’s legs, and viewers were left to speculate on the rest of the package.

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Then came THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (1961-66), a sophisticated (for its time) half hour about a comedy writer, based on Carl Reiner’s experiences working for Sid Caesar. Laura Petrie was, like Mary, a former dancer who met husband Rob while working for the USO. Mary’s singing and dancing skills were sometimes on display, but it was her comic timing with partner Van Dyke that earned her an Emmy for Best Actress. The pair was pure gold together, and they reunited several times after the series ended its run, including a memorable 2003 PBS adaptation of the stage hit THE GIN GAME.

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Mary made a few movies following THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, most notably 1967’s THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE with Julie Andrews and 1969’s CHANGE OF HABIT, Elvis Presley’s final film. She returned to the small screen in 1970, headlining her own sitcom THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. As Mary Richards, a thirtysomething single girl who moves to Minneapolis and lands a job as associate producer of the local Six O’clock News program on fictional WJM, she was an independent working woman paying her own way through life, something rarely seen on weekly TV. The show featured what’s possibly the best supporting cast in sitcom history: there was gruff boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner), newswriter Murray Slaughter (Gavin McLeod), sarcastic neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), bubbleheaded anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), man-hungry ‘Happy Homemaker’ Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), upwardly mobile neighbor Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman), and Ted’s sweet, naïve wife Georgette (Georgia Engel). All had the chance to strut their comedic stuff while level-headed Mary was the glue that held it all together. The series won 29 Emmys during its seven-year run, including three for Mary herself.

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Mary never made it big in feature films, though she did receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination as the icy, uptight mother of a suicide victim in 1980’s ORDINARY PEOPLE, Robert Redford’s directorial debut. Television was her home, and she starred in popular TV movies like FIRST YOU CRY (1978), HEARTSOUNDS (1984, with James Garner), FINNEGAN BEGIN AGAIN (1985, with Robert Preston), and the 1988 miniseries LINCOLN, playing Mary Todd Lincoln opposite Sam Waterson’s President. She proved herself as adept at drama as she was with comedy in these roles. She had an abrupt change of pace in 2001’s LIKE MOTHER LIKE SON: THE STRANGE STORY OF SANTE AND KENNY KIMES, based on the true story of a murderous grifter and her equally homicidal son. But it’s still as America’s TV Sweetheart she’ll fondly be remembered for, the girl who “could turn the world on with her smile, who could take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seems worthwhile”. Sweet dreams, Mary.