Adios, Rhinestone Cowboy: RIP Glen Campbell

There aren’t many entertainers who can boast of 9 #1 hits, 12 Gold Records, 4 Platinum, 1 Double Platinum, 10 Grammys, a hit television show, and a co-starring role in a John Wayne movie! In fact, there’s only one. Glen Campbell, who died yesterday at age 81 of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease, was more than just an average country music singer. During the tumultuous late 60’s/early 70’s, when protests and riots were common occurences, Campbell’s country/folk/pop songs were a common denominator, enjoyed by hippie freaks and establishment tools alike. Face it, Glen Campbell was The Man!

Born in humble, sleepy little Billstown, Arkansas, Glen took up playing guitar at an early age. His uncle was a musician, and teenage Glen began his show-biz career picking on his radio show. The young man soon formed his own band and toured the South and Southwest extensively. The bright lights/big city of Los Angeles beckoned, and Campbell headed to LA, joining The Champs, who’d had the hit “Tequila” (his band mates at the time included future folk/rock duo Seals & Crofts).

Glen’s musical talent got noticed, and he became a highly sought-after session musician, playing with a collective called The Wrecking Crew. These were among the top musicians on the West Coast, including during Glen’s tenure Leon Russell, Hal Blaine, and Tommy Tedesco. They backed up hitmakers from Frank Sinatra (“Strangers in the Night”) to The Righteous Brothers (“You Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”), The Crystals, The Ronettes, Sonny & Cher, The Mamas & The Papas, virtually every pop artist on the LA scene. The Wrecking Crew were the house band in the seminal 60’s concert film THE TAMI SHOW, backing up all those great acts. Glen also did work with The Beach Boys, playing on their hits “I Get Around” and “Help Me Rhonda”, and the album “Pet Sounds”. He filled in on tour for an ailing Brian Wilson, singing the falsetto parts and playing bass.

Around this time Campbell tried launching a solo career, with limited success. His record company was about to drop him when he suddenly found himself on top of the pop charts with the bluegrass-flavored “Gentle On My Mind”, written by his friend John Hartford:

After all those years paying dues, Glen Campbell was an overnight sensation. His smooth-as-honey voice dominated AM radio, and his Eddy Arnold-influenced country pop, combined with his clean-cut good looks and pleasant personality, made him a star at last. Among his biggest hits were his interpretations of songwriter Jimmy Webb’s tunes: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Galveston”, and the haunting “Wichita Lineman”, as perfectly crafted a piece of pop music as there ever will be:

In 1968, Glen hosted a summer replacement variety series for folk duo The Smothers Brothers. It was another hit, and the following January he began a three and a half run on THE GLEN CAMPBELL GOODTIME HOUR. This CBS series brought families together to watch and enjoy some of the best music had to offer at the time. Hartford was a regular, as was a young country artist named Jerry Reed. Not just country stars (Eddy Arnold, Johnny Cash & June Carter, Roy Clark, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Minnie Pearl, Roy Rogers & Dale Evans) appeared, but rock acts like The Monkees, Linda Ronstadt, Three Dog Night, and Stevie Wonder were featured (there was even a film clip from The Beatles doing “Get Back”!). The world of show biz was well represented by Lucille Ball, Tony Bennett, Walter Brennan, George Burns, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Debbie Reynolds, and some guy named The Duke:

Campbell had made his big-screen acting debut in TRUE GRIT, Henry Hathaway’s 1968 Western that netted John Wayne his first (and only) Oscar. Glen played Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, who along with one-eyed Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) and vengeful young Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) hunt down killer Tom Cheney (Jeff Corey). Campbell wasn’t the greatest of thespians, but his natural charm was made for the Silver Screen. Unfortunately, his next picture was 1970’s NORWOOD, a plodding bomb that reunited him with Darby and another late 60’s/early 70’s icon, football’s Broadway Joe Namath. He was given a starring role as the Elvis-like rooster Chanticleer in 1991’s animated ROCK-A-DOODLE, which didn’t exactly light up the box office, but is a pretty decent kid’s movie (in my opinion, anyway).

Glen’s career, like many, skidded to a halt in the early 70’s. Times and tastes were changing, and his records weren’t automatically climbing the charts anymore. That is, not until 1975’s “Rhinestone Cowboy”:

The tune, an ode to surviving in the show-biz jungle, was yet another surprise smash, and Campbell was back on top. More hits followed: “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in LA)”, the theme to Clint Eastwood’s ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN, and most of all the soft-rock classic “Southern Nights”:

After a bout with alcoholism and cocaine abuse, Campbell went on to continue touring and receiving accolades for his manybaccomplishments. In 2001, he bravely announced to the world he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but kept touring as long as he could. He released the plaintive 2014 song “I’m Not Gonna Miss You”, about his struggle:

The length of this post says a lot about Glen Campbell’s impact on me. There’s a lot of ground to cover in his 50 year career, and I feel I’ve only scratched the surface. Singer, actor, TV star, talk show guest, Campbell was first and foremost a musician, and I’ll bid Glen a fond adieu with his rendition of “The William Tell Overture”. Rest in peace, Glen Campbell. Wherever you are, I know there’s room for you in the band:

 

The Zombie King: RIP George A. Romero

Way back in 1970, my cousins and I went to a horror double feature at the old Olympia Theater in New Bedford. The main attraction was called EQUINOX , which came highly recommended by Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.  Quite frankly, it sucked, but the bottom half of that double bill was an obscure black & white films that scared the shit out of us! That movie was George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

NOTLD (1968)

From the creepy opening in a cemetery (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”) to the gross-out shots of zombies feasting on human entrails, from the little girl eating her father’s corpse to the tragic final scene when the hero (a black man, no less!) is shot by the cops, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was an edge-of-your-seat nightmare of horror. There were no stars in it, unless you count Bill Cardille, a local Pittsburgh DJ and horror host known around these parts as ‘The Voice of Professional Wrestling’. As a 12-year-old horror fanatic, I absolutely loved it, and still do today, thanks to the genius of George A. Romero.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

George Romero’s dark, apocalyptic vision opened the floodgates for zombie movies to come. He followed up NOTLD with 1978’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, set inside a suburban shopping mall (where I happened to see it!), and 1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD, the final chapter in his original “Zombie Trilogy” (though there’d be more walking dead to come). Born and raised in the Bronx, Romero attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which became his home base. Unlike other low-budget horror filmmakers (Tobe Hooper, for example), Romero stayed true to his roots, making all his movies in and around the Pittsburgh area, refusing to “go Hollywood”.

Martin (1978)

His movies are the stuff nightmares are made of: THE CRAZIES (1973) deals with a biological weapon accidentally unleashed, turning people into homicidal maniacs. MARTIN (1978), Romero’s personal favorite, features both religious fanaticism and vampirism. KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) is the bizarre tale of a traveling medieval show with jousters on motorcycles. CREEPSHOW (1982), a collaboration with Stephen King, has a quintet of stories in the style of 50’s EC Comics like TALES FROM THE CRYPT and THE VAULT OF HORROR. MONKEY SHINES (1988) involves a bond between a quadriplegic man and a service monkey that turns deadly. TWO EVIL EYES (1990) is another collaboration, this time with Italian maestro Dario Argento, with each director taking on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. THE DARK HALF (1993) is one of the most successful adaptations of a Stephen King novel put to film.

NOTLD (1968)

But it’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD that everyone will remember Romero for, a shocking masterpiece of terror that’s been often imitated, but never duplicated. It still scares the hell out of me, and I’m going to go dust off my VHS copy and watch it right now. I think George would’ve wanted it that way.

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!: