Stayin’ Alive

It seems we’re always captivated by the “In Memoriam” segment of the Academy Awards telecast. And I’m always interested in the montage that Turner Classic Movies puts together at the end of the year, paying tribute to those in the movie industry who have passed throughout the preceding twelve months. Too often I find myself surprised: “When did he die?” Or even worse: “I didn’t realize she was still alive”. Seems we’re losing legends at an alarming rate. The ‘golden era’ of anything, really, is getting to be so long ago that those who contributed to these eras are generally no longer with us. Particularly those who really stood out in their field.

I know I feel that when someone dies and the tributes are flying, I want to express my love of this person and share the ways that he or she has contributed to my life but in the days after they pass it can be so much white noise. It can seem insincere. An artist dies and his or her body of work is revisited and it’s revealed they’ve made lasting contributions. Everybody is suddenly ‘reminded’ of them. But by then it’s too late to see the person live or even to just view them as a living person. I’ve often thought it would be a good idea to pay homage to some legends that are actually still alive and while we can still enjoy their work or just the fact that we’re still sharing the same space with them.

So, I checked it out and, sure enough, there are some heavyweights still with us. I’ve compiled a list focusing on those 80 or older. I’ve also stuck to people that have really made an impact, icons. Sure, the original prop man from “The Maltese Falcon” may still be alive at 110 but I’ve concentrated on the truly cool and tried to sum up briefly why they’re significant and therefore why it’s cool that they’re still standing. Lennon and Brando may be gone but there’s still some greats left. Let’s give them some love while they’re still here because once someone dies it’s ‘I always loved him’ – whether that’s true or not.

KIRK DOUGLAS, actor, 98. I’ve started with the oldest. 98! Kirk is a true Hollywood legend. Not conventionally handsome, this shortish spark plug of a man could handle the subdued scenes as well as anyone in film. But get him angry and look out. My kids and I used to joke that when he got angry in a movie with teeth-clenched rage it was enough to make you soil yourself. No one did rage, fury, anger or volatility better. Kirk made “Spartacus” almost single-handedly. ‘Nuff said. He also dealt a huge blow to the McCarthy blacklist of the early ’50’s by hiring – and crediting – Dalton Trumbo, a writer ostracized in Hollywood by the red scare. He’s been married to the same woman for better than 60 years and he’s got a dude of a son in Michael. Kirk owned the rights to the novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and gave them to his son to produce. Michael’s career really took off when “Cuckoo’s Nest” became only the second film to win all four major Oscars. Mike was an Oscar-winning producer before he was an accomplished film actor. Kirk has survived a helicopter crash and a stroke. After the stroke, doctors said he would likely never speak again. Well, that don’t fly with Kirk. He was able to accept his honorary Oscar two months later and say a few words of thanks to the audience. Kirk is so cool that he has made seven films with Burt Lancaster, a legend in his own right. If all this isn’t enough, Kirk has also written ten novels and memoirs. Legend.


BILLY GRAHAM, evangelist, 96. Graham is perhaps the largest single Christian prescence in U.S. history. He was the spiritual advisor to most American presidents between Harry Truman and Barack Obama. In the 1950’s, he insisted his audiences be integrated, at times inviting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach jointly with him. Graham even bailed King out of prison when King was jailed for a peaceful demonstration. It is estimated that Graham has preached to more than 2.2 billion people and a yearly Gallup poll of the Most Admired Men has placed him at the top 55 times since 1955. “His presence converred sanctity on events, authority on presidents, acceptability on wars, desireablity on decency and shame on indecency and many deemed him America’s pastor.” There’s the Pope, Mother Theresa and Billy Graham.

DORIS DAY, singer/actress, 93. Some of these people need their own post. Doris started out as girl singer for Les Brown and His Band of Reknown in 1939 and soon made the transition to the big screen. By the early 1960’s, she was the biggest box office star in the country – male or female – for four years, the only woman of the era to top the list. Here’s what really blows me away, though: Doris Day is the single biggest female box office star of all-time and 6th – male or female – of all-time. Unreal. Here lies the purpose of this post: the people on this list have truly scaled the heights in their field and the fact that they’re still alive, I think, is cool. Doris is also the oldest living artist to score a top ten album of original material in the UK. When her husband and producer Martin Melcher died in the mid-’60’s, Doris learned that she had been robbed. Not only was she broke but she was heavily in debt. She also learned that without her knowledge Martin had committed her to do a weekly television show! (She proceeded to make “The Doris Day Show” a modest hit) She successfully sued the people involved in misappropriating her funds. She was awarded, wait for it: $22,835,646! Her son, Terry Melcher, is a whole other story. A music producer in the 1960’s, he was affiliated with, among others, the Beach Boys and through them with a budding folk singer name of Charlie Manson. A case could be made that the Manson Murders took place because of Doris Day’s son, Terry. Doris has lately devoted her time to the cause of animal welfare, and endevour in which she has made much progress. An interesting note about Doris: in 1950 she made the film “Young Man with a Horn” with Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall. I often like to point out that this classic film is unique in that it’s stars Doris and Kirk – and Lauren until last year – are still alive. Also: Doris was born on the exact same day – April 3, 1924 – as Marlon Brando.

JOHNNY BOWER, goaltender, 90. Any guy who played goal in the NHL without a mask is alright by me. Years before his spells between the pipes for the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs, Bower served in World War 2 with the Canadian Army. Despite his small physical stature and rheumatoid arthritis, he returned from England to toil in the minor leagues for years until – at the age of 33 – he was picked up by the Maple Leafs. He played the next 11 years with the Leafs and although he was plagued by poor eyesight (NHL goalie with no mask and poor eyesight) he won the Vezina trophy twice and three consecutive Stanley Cups. His fourth Stanely Cup victory came when the Leafs beat the Montreal Canadiens in 1967. During that series, Bower shut out the Habs and became the second-oldest goalie to play in the final – he was 42. Two years later, he became the oldest goalie to play in a play-off game but at 44 it was time to hang them up. He remains the goalie with the most career wins and shut-outs in the AHL. He’s been featured on a postage stamp and has had a street named after him. Always a welcome sight at the Air Cananda Centre, Bower is a true NHL legend who keeps on truckin’.

TONY BENNETT, singer, 88. Talk about someone needing their own post. Bennett was the first major singer that did not come from a big band. He has been with Columbia Records since, get this, 1950, 65 years. He’s won 18 Grammys and sold 50 million records. Tony is the oldest ACTIVE member on our list. He continues to release albums of new material and while I could discuss the merit of these recordings all day the fact remains that they are succesccful, highly visible affairs. Nobody – nobody – debates that Frank Sinatra is the pinnacle of the male singer of popular standards. Scholar Will Friedwald insists that Mel Torme should be considered the next name mentioned. Tony Bennett should certainly come after that, though. He belongs on a VERY short list of the greatest singers of all-time. In terms of enduring popularity, only Sinatra surpasses Bennett. The thing about Tony is that he has never compromised. He has never ceased to herald the integrity of the Great American Songbook, the Standards. In the late 1960’s, the evil Clive Davis coerced Tony, much against his will, to record an album in the ‘hits of the day’ vein that were so popular at the time. Tony obliged but was physically sick – actually throwing up – during the sessions. Never again did he make this descent but instead continued to share with the world the glory of Gerswhin, Porter et al. To this day he has never strayed from the kind of music that has been loved by the world for almost a century. He figures if it ain’t broke…

CHUCK BERRY, 88. FATS DOMINO, 87. LITTLE RICHARD, 82. JERRY LEE LEWIS, 79, rock ‘n’ rollers. It’s outstanding, really, that most of the architects of early rock ‘n’ roll are still with us. Out of all the major heavyweights, only Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly are gone. These artists are important not only because they played the type of music that eventually led to the bulk of the music we know and love today but also because they made massive cultural contributions to the burgeoning teen-age society. The biggest, most influential artists in history will tell you themselves that they were directly influenced by these pioneers. Chuck Berry, what can you say? Without question, he was the very first guitar hero and set the tone and style for rock guitar riffs and playing in general. Keith Richards once said every riff he played he stole from Chuck. Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” has placed #1 in lists of the Greatet Guitar Songs of All-Time. Fats Domino was plying his trade even before the the rock ‘n’ roll era. The piano man from N’Awlins epitomizes the rock ‘n’ roll sound. “Ain’t That a Shame” was one of the biggest chart records of the era and that and “Bluberry Hill” rank among the classics of the age. Fats also provides an essential link between rock ‘n’ roll and New Orleans. In fact, Fats so loves his hometown that not even Hurricane Katrina could make him leave. Little Richard was a wild man. A true pioneer in his love of wild clothes, hair and performing style. His voice was more consistently outstanding than any of his peers. His largest contribution may be the “holler”. A welcome addition to any rock song is a well placed yell or scream of some sort. This practice originated with Little Richard. All the outrageous rock personalities – from Elton John to David Lee Roth – can thank Little Richard for blazing the trail. At 79, Jerry Lee Lewis is a touch young for this list but he definitely deserves a mention, especially among living rock pioneers. Unfortunately, Jerry’s major claim to fame these days is that he once married his 13-year-old second cousin. But what’s lost is Jerry, like Little Richard, is an original wildman. He’s got Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley for cousins and has his own biopic starring Dennis Quaid.

GORDIE HOWE, 87, hockey legend. While the debate over who was the greatest hockey player of all-time concerns only Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky, there is only one “Mr. Hockey”. After making his debut in 1946, Gordie Howe was never one for single-season records – he never scored 50 goals in a season – but where Howe has all others beat is in the area of longevity. He played in the NHL in the 1940’s and the 1970’s. He was in the top ten in scoring 21 consecutive years! The first recipient of the NHL’s “Lifetime Achievement” award, Howe has the distinction of having the “Gordie Howe Hat-Trick” – a goal, an assist and a fight in a single game – named after him. He retired from the Hartford Whalers at the age of 52 – only to come back for one shift with the Detroit Vipers of the IHL at the age of 69. It’s hard to believe that his records for Most Games and Most Seasons will ever be broken. And the nickname “Mr. Hockey”? It’s officially trademarked.Gordie

CLINT EASTWOOD, 85, actor/director. Clint is the very best example of a man who has found success on so many levels and in so many arenas that any ONE of his ‘careers’ would make him a legend. He started out on television as a cowboy actor on “Rawhide”. During this time he released an album of ‘cowboy favourites’ – which I own on CD. From here he went to Spain and created the look of “The Man With No Name” in Sergio Leone’s three ‘spaghetti westerns’. From here he began directing his own films and made definitive ‘cop movies’ as Dirty Harry. Throughout the ’70’s and ’80’s he directed 30 films, became synonymous with golf at Pebble Beach, became a pilot, and shared his love of jazz by making a film on the life of Charlie Parker, working with Tony Bennett, and even writing and performing the scores of some of his films. Did I mention he was mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea for two years? He is one of two men (Warren Beatty) to have been twice Oscar nominated for Best Actor and Best Director for the same film. He is one of only three living directors to have directed two Best Picture Oscar winners. He’s also the oldest ever recipient of the Best Director Oscar. The recent “American Sniper” proves my point that Clint is not only still alive but he’s still contributing and relevant.

ARNOLD PALMER, 85, golfer. Perhaps the most legendary and beloved golfer of all-time, Arnold Palmer is the reason golf is televised today. Palmer’s rise in the late 1950’s coincided with the dawn of television but the nature of the game of golf at the time proved a challenge for broadcasters. Then came the charismatic “Arnie”, the first hero of the televised game. It is not even debated among pro golfers today that they owe their living to Palmer. A simple man of humble beginnings, Arnie changed the perception of golf as an elitist sport reserved for the rich. When, into his 50’s, his competitive days were over, what is now known as the Champions Tour was created for him and his contemporaries. And here again he made it possible for golfers to continue to make a living at the game into their 60’s. The man has a beverage named after him. Interesting note: in 53 years as a pro golfer, Arnie earned $1,861,857 in winnings. In 2008 alone, his off-course earnings reached $30 MILLION. Arnie is a man of the people and universally loved. He also received the Congressional Gold Medal, the U.S.’s highest civilian honour, from President Obama.

BOB NEWHART, 85, comedian/actor. Along with Betty White, Newhart is a living television legend. He is the original stand-up comedian who got his own TV show. But before this he became the world’s first solo straight man and was an extremely successful recording artist in the era when comedians put out albums. In fact, his “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” album became the first comedy album to go to #1 and it actually won the Grammy for Album of the Year. He also won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1961 – the same award that’s been won by the Beatles, Mariah Carey and Carrie Underwood. He won an Emmy in 2013 for a guest spot on “The Big Bang Theory”. He’s been married to the same woman since 1963 and was one of the first owners of a home computer. Canadian content note: his grandmother is from St. Catherines.

QUINCY JONES, 82, producer/band leader. “Q” has done everything. Much like Clint Eastwood – with whom he went to Seattle University – he has had a exceptional career in so many different areas that any one of them make him a legend. Dig: record producer, conductor, arranger, composer, musician, TV producer, film producer, magazine founder, entertainment company executive and humanitarian. Jones has won an astounding 27 Grammy Awards which ties him for second most. Jones was the first African American to do many things in the music industry and no African American has been nominated for more Academy Awards. His music career has seen him bring his particular brand of cool to the music of Paris and Brazil and he was the only cat cool enough to arrange and conduct two of the albums Sinatra made with Basie. Jones produced the biggest selling pop album of all time, “Thriller”. I’ll always be indebted to Jones for the theme from “Sanford and Son” – if that was all he ever did, he’d still be my favourite. The man is so cool that – get this – his middle name is “Delight”. My man.

HANK AARON, 81, baseball player. One of the greatest and most beloved ball players ever is still with us. “Hammerin'” Hank was an MLB All-Star a ridiculous 25 times. His record mark of 2,297 RBI’s is considered one of the few ‘insurmountable’ records in pro sports. His heroic pursuit of Babe Ruth’s all-time home run mark was made moreso considering the hate mail and death threats he received as he approached the 714 mark. When he retired after a sublime career, he held most of the key power hitting records in the game. He perhaps – along with Ruth – was the original “power hitter”, setting the standard for generations to come. The best thing about Henry Aaron? Sheer strength and an eye for the ball. Never even a hint of any substance use that may have enhanced his performance. It was all Hank.


Honouable mentions: Roger Moore (87), Sean Connery (84), Angela Lansbury (89), Maureen O’Hara (94), Debbie Reynolds (83), Robert Wagner (85) and Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, 88, who were born with a week of each other in 1927. And Nancy Barbato – the first Mrs. Frank Sinatra and the mother of his children – is still alive at 97. She wins.



Mad Men
As a writer, I think I’ll always be haunted by a line in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and Damned”: “I can imagine a man knowing too much for his talent to express.” Or feeling too much. Case in point: my feelings regarding the “Mad Men” series finale which aired last night. It was as the rest of the series was. Enigmatic, thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining. People of a certain age will agree, I think, that there is incredible poignancy in this show’s depiction of the 1960’s. People can see themselves in this show, they can see their lives and the lives of their parents. There are people that can recall this era and so therefore the show may seem to them like a photo album, memories. This, of course, can only add to the significance of the finale. Example: Sally is becoming an adult, having to deal with her mother’s impending death. This feels like watching your mother be born. You’re seeing where you parents came from, getting a perspective on what the world was like right before you were born. That’s heavy. Make no mistake: the appeal of “Mad Men” lies not only in the 1960’s as a backdrop. The series has consistently exhibited such staggering quality of story and performance that it belongs on a VERY short list of the greatest dramas of all-time. Indeed, when it comes to critical acclaim only “The West Wing” can compare. Both shows, keep in mind, won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama in each of their first four years. I really don’t know what other shows to add to the conversation if you’re talking universal appeal and cultural significance: perhaps “NYPD Blue” or “Breaking Bad”. “The Sopranos” I thought was incredibly made but when discussing that show’s place in television history there’s always an asterisk: it’s easier to make compelling drama when you can regularly delve into R-rated territory. The enormity of “Mad Men” lies in it’s depiction of an entire era. Every life of every character on the show adds up to represent American society. History. “Mad Men” is a prologue and an origin story for 21st century society.

Series finales are huge, actually. There is such built-in emotion. You’ve spent, sometimes, years with these people. The better shows draw you in and you begin to find yourself connecting with the cast. To say good-bye to them can be legitimately difficult.

It’s hard to believe but at one time television networks did not see the appeal in there being a definite end to a series. Perhaps the very first show to mark the end of it’s run was the sitcom closest to this writer’s heart: “Leave It to Beaver”. Jerry Mathers had portrayed Beaver Cleaver for six seasons when he announced he’d like to end his run to attend high school under more normal circumstances. So during the last season, the writers were able to present stories dealing with Beaver preparing to attend high school and also his brother, Wally, getting ready to leave home and attend college. If you have kids of your own, watching the last season can be an emotional experience. The series finale uses a technique that is now considered passé but one that was unique at the time: the flashback episode. It works in this case. “Family Scrapbook” takes us back through the years and reminds you how you’ve watched these kids grow up. This ‘reality of life’-type ending – kids going off to high school and college – makes for emotional viewing.

A few years later, the writers of “The Fugitive” created perhaps the first truly significant series finale. As anyone who is familiar with this iconic show knows, the series centered around wrongly-convicted Richard Kimball – played non-smilingly by David Janssen – and his cross-country search for the one-armed man he saw leaving the scene of his wife’s murder. In the two-part finale – which I found on VHS at a garage sale – Kimball finds and confronts the one-armed man. Truly riveting viewing and drives home the point that seeing the conclusion of a story you’ve been watching for years can be heavy – like finishing a month-long read of a 1000-page novel.

My first memory of watching a series finale is kneeling in front of the TV crying as Joanie and Chachi got married at the end of “Happy Days”. I had regularly watched the show and loved it. I’m a little embarrassed to say so now, though. This show and another of my faves – “The Dukes of Hazzard” – are good examples of shows you loved as a kid but you realize later are lame. (“The A-Team”?) Anyways, “Happy Days” was smart enough to end with a big crowd-pleasing event. And in the ‘business’ end of things they succeeded – and failed. It was a coup of sorts getting Ron Howard to return as Richie. Howard had become a director of note by the time “Happy Days” wrapped but to his and the show’s credit he showed up for his sister’s wedding – as a real-life brother would do. Where they failed was in the disowning of Chuck. In the first nine episodes of the show the Cunninghams had three children, the oldest being hoop-shooting Chuck. By the series finale Chuck was persona non-grata so much so that Mr. C makes a speech mentioning how now BOTH his kids are married. Well, we don’t watch TV for realism anyways.

Another of my favourite shows ended poorly – on the ‘business’ end if not story-wise. In the final episode of “Beverly Hills, 90210” Donna and David get married – which makes perfect sense. The bad part though is in this show about the transplanted Walsh family trying to adjust to life in Beverly Hills, by this point there are no Walshes on the show and none of them show up for this wedding which is basically the culmination of a lot of years of ALL their lives. Sure Gabrielle Carteris shows up as Andrea – I’m sure she was available. But no Walshes? The show had dropped the ball in the realism department earlier with the “wedding” of Brandon and Kelly. Brandon’s twin sister – played by Shannen Doherty whom the producers hated and would never have invited back on the show – doesn’t show up for the wedding of her brother and best friend? And then their union – which makes perfect sense – doesn’t even happen?! But I digress.

We now come to the mother of all finales and a major television event in it’s day. The final episode of M*A*S*H couldn’t help but be emotional. Here you have an extreme rarity: a successful show based on a movie (and a novel before that), a show that continued to thrive despite many cast changes and a show that was based on an actual historical event – the Korean War – that has built-in emotional impact. Not only is this 11-year series coming to an end but the war is over and the characters are all going home. Nothing could be more bittersweet – the horror of war ending, but also these close friends having to go their separate ways. This results in an extremely emotional viewing experience.

Quickly: inventive and endlessly watchable is the ending of “Newhart”. The last scene starts in a darkened bedroom. Bedside lamps are turned on to reveal Newhart in his previous show’s incarnation as psychologist Bob Hartley. We’re back on “the Bob Newhart Show” and a great cheer goes up when the studio audience sees him in bed next to his wife from that show, played by Suzanne Pleshette. Bob tells her he’s had the strangest dream: he was running a Vermont inn, the premise of his follow-up show, “Newhart”. This is exceedingly clever and good comedy.

Tom Selleck wanted out of “Magnum, P.I.” so they killed him off; which in itself would have been a hugely dramatic and courageous ending. But then Selleck signed up for one more season so they brought him back to life and the last season saw a recurring story involving Magnum’s ex-wife and daughter wrapped up. The closing credits of the finale feature scenes from the series’ run and the final image is of Magnum/Selleck looking at the camera, saying ‘goodnight’ and using a remote to shut things down.

Another of my all-time favourites, “Moonlighting”, regularly broke the fourth wall confirming to the viewer that this was indeed a show you were watching. What was the story line when the show got cancelled? The show got cancelled. David and Maddie spent the final episode running around the Paramount lot looking for the show’s producers and vowing to finally get married like the viewers always wanted. Too late. Goodnight. “The Sopranos”? It was an interesting technique to unexpectedly cut to black but people want more closure than that. It’s interesting to note the technique but there’s little emotional impact to an ending like that. “Seinfeld”? It bugged me for two reasons: one, it celebrated the apathy of the characters which, while in keeping with the run of the series, made note of the show’s inability to be pleasant or heartfelt, things I think you want in a finale. And two, while the finale was airing Frank Sinatra was dying. The next morning the news was full of Frank’s death and the last “Seinfeld”. A depressing connection for me.

A quick note about binge watching. I’ve never done it but I have to think that watching 4 or 5 years worth of a show in a week can lessen the emotional impact of the final episodes simply because of the lack of time spent with the show. I think it can only get really heavy when you’ve spent years watching a show.

Obviously, finales are about saying goodbye to things you’ve loved: stories (“The West Wing”), people (“Will & Grace”) or even a setting (“Cheers”). To goodbyes we can all relate. We all have left high school or college, changed jobs, sold our homes and moved: these are all ‘the end of an era’. These are emotions we’re all familiar with and that we can all relate to when we see them happening to others and that’s what makes this significant. We all have “moved on” from something. We’ve all lived through “the end” of something. When you see your TV ‘friends’ going through the same stuff you can understand and it’s then that you realize how invested you are. Even knowing the “Mad Men” finale was coming had me clenched. This is heavy stuff. But it doesn’t mean we’re going to stop watching.

Sad Songs Say So Much

Music speaks to all of us in a very unique way. Your favourite performer can make you feel a special connection, make you feel like you’re friends. And they certainly seem like friends sometimes: they seem to be there at all the right moments, exactly when you need them. And sometimes it’s not even a specific artist. Sometimes the right song will hit you in the right way at the right time. Remember the scene in “Jerry Maguire” when Jerry was on a high having had a successful meeting? Driving away, he began scanning the radio for just the right song to fit his mood, one he could sing along to at the top of his lungs. (He eventually found it: Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'”). Stumbling on the right song fresh out of work on a sunny Friday afternoon can be a golden moment.

But what of the other side of the coin? Equally poignant can be the ‘sad songs’. There can be times in your life when you’re going through a break-up and you keep going back to the same songs that seem to fit your situation. They can even act like friends that help you hold things together. Maybe the singer sounds like he’s been there, too. That can really help. And then there’s the REALLY sad songs that you sometimes feel the need to just immerse yourself in even though you know they’re just making it worse.

Which brings to mind Frank Sinatra’s ‘torch’ albums. In the early days of the LP, FS pioneered the ‘concept album’: an album full of songs with a common theme. He had his upbeat, swingin’ albums and he had his ‘torch’ albums: songs of sadness, loneliness and despair. Nobody ‘inhabited’ a song like Sinatra. He was truly an actor when he sang, playing a role. Having ‘been there’, he recorded songs of heartbreak like no one else. The album’s titles say it all: “In the Wee Small Hours”, “Where Are You?”, “No One Cares”. Frank’s son famously remarked that his dad’s album “Only the Lonely” should be sold by prescription only. Later, Sinatra recorded the album “Watertown” which was comprised of a cycle of songs depicting the dissolution of a marriage. Gut-wrenching stuff. I say today that I wish I had had these albums back in the day. Although, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t.

It seems to me that a song can be not necessarily sad but wistful. I can think of “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” by Spanky and Our Gang. The lyrics recall a relationship that used to feature walks through the park on a Sunday afternoon. But now, it’s over. It’s not exactly heartbreaking but it’s sad to remember the relationship and the way things used to be: “Now I wake up Sunday morning / Walk across the way to find / Nobody waiting for me / Sunday’s just another day”. Another ‘sub-genre’ would be the nostalgic sad song. The melancholy, bittersweet remembrance of an era in life. I’m thinking of “The Old Crowd” by Lesley Gore: “I still think about those good times we knew / We were so carefree then, our hearts were on a cloud / how I miss the old crowd”.

Then you have the ridiculous. The too-obvious ones, the maudlin songs. One of the very first popular singers, the legendary Al Jolson, had a hit with “Sonny Boy”. Legend has it that songwriters jokingly wrote this for Jolson because of his penchant for tear-jerkers. Al had the last laugh – the song spent 12 weeks at #1 in 1928. In the lyrics, Sonny Boy – only three years old – dies at the end. Which brings us to what they actually called ‘death rock’. In the Golden Era (1954-1963), songs that portrayed people dying was a thing. These, of course, are too obvious to be really sad. Depressing is a better word. “Teen Angel” by Mark Dinning – car hit by train (“just sweet sixteen and now you’re gone / they’ve taken you away”). “Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers – also car accident (“something warm running in my eye”). The Everly Brothers’ “Ebony Eyes” – plane crash (“I knew the heavenly ebony skies / Had taken my life’s most wonderful prize”). Then, years later, “Honey” by Bobby Hebb. This song is truly fascinating because despite scaling the heights of schmaltz it became what I call a ‘contemporary classic’ or a modern-day standard: everybody and their mother recorded a version. In this tune, this poor slob is lamenting the loss of his lovely, young wife (“the angels came”). Breaking up is hard to do but do we need songs about wives and fiancées dying?

Let’s get down to the best of the sad songs. Songs that are so well done and hit the mark so perfectly in lyric and in composition that they are actually a joy to hear:

“What’ll I Do?” – written by the legendary Irving Berlin, this tune, rendered properly, is absolutely heartbreaking. It was effectively used over the opening credits of the 1974 film version of “The Great Gatsby”. Nelson Riddle won an Oscar for this film’s score which used this song as a theme. Most of the great singers in history have recorded this song. “When I’m alone with only dreams of you that won’t come true, what’ll I do?”

“All Summer Long” by the Beach Boys. I always say this is the saddest song I ever heard. This is the last song I listen to every summer, before I go to bed Labour Day night. Definitely falls in the nostalgia category we talked about earlier. The lyrics speak of all the fun and freedom young people enjoy during the summer. “We’ve been having fun all summer long”. This tune is much more poignant due to George Lucas using it over the closing credits of his landmark film “American Graffiti”. The film is a depiction of the definite end of an era of history. Summer ending is appropriately symbolic of not only a moment in time but also the end of our youth. Our coming of age.

“Brown-Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison. Here’s a paradox. What song sounds more joyous while bombing down the highway on the first warm day of spring? But it occurred to me several years ago that the lyrics are very sad. Here is a nostalgic look back at the past, at things that happened before and don’t happen anymore. “Do you remember when…”. I’d love to hear somebody do a slow version of it. Van sounds like a man who has had to somehow move on and is struggling with it. And that’s sad. So many times we get caught up in recalling a failed relationship or a past lover that we can’t move forward. Consider: “So hard to find my way now that I’m all on my own…cast my memory back there, Lord, sometimes I’m overcome…”.

“My Whole World Ended (the Moment You Left Me)” by David Ruffin. Here is a great example of everything coming together. The lyrics, yes, sad. But here we have, unlike “Brown-Eyed Girl”, a composition that seems to reflect the sadness. I’m not a music scholar but I hear LONGING in the chord changes. But the crowning aspect is the voice of David Ruffin. The lead singer of the Temptations during their first hit-making years, David recorded this as a solo outing. Anguish. There is absolute anguish in his voice. You can hear it in every note he hits particularly when he sings the title and “now my body is numb…”. I have to say, I’ve been in pretty good shape romantically for sometime now but I have actually wept listening to this song. Shivers.

“Separate Ways” by Elvis Presley. Art imitates life. Elvis Presley had separated from his wife, Priscilla, one month and four days prior to recording this in 1972. Putting emotion into a song was one of the many things Presley did well and, all things considered, it wouldn’t have been too difficult to sing this like he meant it. Co-written by Red West, the words are just really sad: “There’s nothing left to do but go our separate ways and pick up all the pieces left behind us / and maybe someday, somewhere along the way, another love will find us”. Again, the music is sad here, too. Especially the piano at the end. Longing for something lost.

“It Makes No Difference” by the Band. Bassist Rick Danko takes the lead here and his tenor voice almost comes across as a whine. Again, anguish. “And the sun don’t shine anymore / and the rains fall down on my door…and I’ve never felt so alone before”.

“Bobby Jean” by Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen understood Spector. It’s always been said that the production of the landmark album “Born to Run” borrowed from Spector’s grand style. I can hear that style here in the chord changes of this song from “Born in the U.S.A”. I always come back to the word ‘longing’ – there is real longing in this track even without the vocals. The lyrics are sad, too: guy goes looking for an old flame. Her mother tells him she’s gone. Think Jenny from “Forrest Gump”. Sweet girl goes out into the world, searching, selling herself short all the while. Our boy is the only one who gets her. He’s perfect for her but she doesn’t know it: “Maybe you’ll be out there on that road somewhere / and you’ll hear me singin’ this song / I’m just callin’ one last time NOT TO CHANGE YOUR MIND BUT JUST TO SAY ‘I MISS YOU, BABY’ / good luck good bye Bobby Jean”. Just then Clarence Clemons delivers some of the saddest sax you ever heard.

“Wish It Were Me” by the Platters. Tony Williams, lead singer of the Platters, is the unsung hero of all ’50’s singers. His voice had a quality that transcended simple pop singing. Emotional delivery on these lines: “Yes, I pray that my prayers
will touch you, touch you for true / so you’d love me too / and the whole world would see”. Here’s a man who feels like nothing unless he has her by his side: “and the whole world would see”.

“For the Good Times” – Ray Price’s original version. It’s a toss-up between this song and “All Summer Long” for the saddest song I ever heard. Maybe this is flat-out sadder because where “All Summer Long”‘s sadness comes more from a feeling of nostalgia, “For the Good Times” speaks of a man who’s descended into the pathetic: I don’t care if you don’t need me or love me, I can’t survive without you so pity me. Just stay here with me and I’ll pretend. “Make believe you love me one more time”. If the chorus is sung well – and you’ll find lots of good versions of this song – it is the saddest five lines you’ll ever hear. It’s even raining.

You can’t wallow in sadness. But if you have to visit there, take these tunes along. They’ve been there.