“Silent Night” Turns 200

One of the best known and most often recorded songs in history is the Austrian Christmas carol, “Silent Night”. It was first performed in German 200 years ago this Christmas Eve in the tiny St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, Austria. And this Christmas Eve, 200 years later, it will undoubtedly be sung again in places of worship – and in living rooms – all over the world. There are many events planned this year in Salzburg – 20 minutes from Oberndorf – to commemorate the bicentennial of this song that, in 2011, was listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

A young Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics to the song in 1816 and gave it it’s proper title: “Stille Nacht, heilige nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”). Two years later, Mohr took his lyrics to organist Franz Xaver Gruber and asked him to have music written for his words in time for the song to be performed for the Christmas Eve mass. Interestingly and quite unique for it’s day, Mohr requested Gruber write for guitar accompaniment. The song was performed that Christmas Eve but no report exists indicating how it was received. The oft-told story that it was written for guitar because the church’s organ was under repair is untrue.

Over the years, the original manuscript was lost and subsequently Joseph Mohr’s name was forgotten. It wasn’t until 1995 that a manuscript in Mohr’s handwriting was found that confirmed that he wrote the words and Gruber the music.

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Like the town where it resides, the Silent Night Chapel is pretty, tiny and quaint.

The original St. Nicholas church was severely damaged by flooding in the 1890’s. In fact, the whole town of Oberndorf had to be rebuilt upstream in 1899. The church continued to sustain damage, so much so that the decision was made to tear down the chapel and erect a new one. Today, you can visit the quaint Silent Night Chapel in pretty Oberndorf and you can take a 25-minute tour for 3 Euros.

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Picture this times 30 million. Note that only Gruber is credited.

The song began to become well known, with fans of it distributing it to churches and traveling singers until it was first performed in the United States in New York City in 1839. It quickly became a perennial favourite, adored the world over. Almost one hundred years after hitting American shores, in 1935, Bing Crosby recorded “Silent Night”. It was suggested to him that he try his hand at this treasured Christmas song and immediately he demurred. At the time, Bing was the biggest singer in the land and had already revolutionized the art of popular song. He initially refused to record the song owing to the fact that he was a pop singer who sang in night clubs. He was also an owner of racehorses and he felt it would be inappropriate. Bing had attended the Jesuit Gonzaga University and was a religious man. Eventually, though, he was persuaded. One of Bing’s first 78RPM albums was “Christmas Music”, released in December of 1940, and it contained his initial recording of “Silent Night”. He re-recorded the song in 1942 and released it as a single. It was enormously successful and went on to sell – wait for it – 30 million copies. This is historically significant for two reasons. Consider that only TWO other records in the history of mankind have sold more copies than Bing’s “Silent Night”: it is the third-highest selling single of all time. Secondly, Bing once again proved to be a pioneer – this time in that he was the first pop singer to successfully interpret Christmas music, both carols and pop songs. To think that at one time this wasn’t a thing whereas now it is a major facet of the music business.

Other versions followed. Many, actually. Virtually every artist that has ever sang Christmas music on record or in performance has included this most revered song. I always make a point of saying ‘even Dean Martin’. Dino brought joy to the world with his two Christmas albums but did not sing carols on record – except for “Silent Night”. It closes his 1966 seasonal offering “The Dean Martin Christmas Album”. Dino was savvy enough not only to sing it but to sequence it last on his record. It is the perfect closing song for any Christmas program and it seems odd when it appears anywhere else on an album.

There are a couple of notable exceptions to this, though. The third album ever released by Frank Sinatra was “Christmas Songs by Sinatra” for Columbia Records in 1948. “Silent Night” opens this set. You could argue that this also speaks to the song’s status: it deserves to go first. “Elvis’ Christmas Album” was released in 1957 and is the biggest-selling Christmas album of all-time and one of the biggest-selling albums of all-time. King – like Frank – didn’t wait long to record Christmas music; this is his third album also. He arranged his version of “Silent Night” and it appears on this record and is the second song on side 2 (?).

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Two guys that could really sing but didn’t know where to put “Silent Night” on the record!

All the greatest singers of Christmas music have recorded “Silent Night” and, with the exception of the two big hitters mentioned above – knew that it was the perfect note to end on. Perry Como has it close his 1959 record “Season’s Greetings from Perry Como”. It is the last song on Nat Cole’s original 1960 offering “The Magic of Christmas”. It is also the final song on the first Christmas album from Andy Williams, 1963’s “The Andy Williams Christmas Album”.

1963’s “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector” is commonly referred to as one of the greatest albums ever and the one that made it hip for pop artists of the mid-1960’s to release Christmas music. Phil ends his record with a spoken personal greeting featuring “Silent Night” as a backdrop. In 1966, Simon and Garfunkel made a statement of sorts by ending their album “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” with “Silent Night” played along with a news anchor telling of the unrest in the world. Seven of the ten best selling Christmas albums of all-time feature “Silent Night” with five of them presenting it last; the other two favour it enough to present it first.

“Silent Night” continues to be recorded to this day. In fact, it has been put on record at least 733 times in the past 40 years alone – that is over 18 appearances every Christmas. It’s interesting to note that even with the division in the world today this 200 year old song about the birth of Christ can still resonate with people the world over.

Listing the “best” versions of “Silent Night” is a bit of a fool’s errand. You don’t come across many drastic reinterpretations of the song. Few artists attempt to “bring something new” to the tune or the classic arrangement of it. Just to sing this celestial song is enough. However, I’m a list guy so here goes. Perhaps we can say that this list takes into account not just the purity of the performance but the significance of it in the Christmas music canon.

The version you sing in church on Christmas Eve — I’m being presumptuous here but indulge me. Call it a dreamy nod to the traditions of Christmas Past. Due in part to it’s Origins, Christmas is a sacred time for a lot of people and regardless of your particular inclinations the Christmas Eve service or Mass is simply a part of the season. Invariably, “Silent Night” is sung by many on this night around the world. Maybe ‘living room’ singing has gone by the boards but this practice – as well as the tradition of door-to-door caroling – is also a part of the pageantry of the season. “Silent Night” – being so familiar to many and so easy to sing – has been sung by many of us at one time or another. And it’s a nice thing, to sing this song yourself.

Bing Crosby (1942) — We’ve discussed Bing’s version already but it bears repeating. For myself and for many, there are certain sounds that signal the start of the Christmas season. It may be the energetic intro of Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” or the Jordanaires singing “Christmas…Christmas…” before King launches into “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. And for many it is the dulcet tones of John Scott Trotter’s orchestra playing the intro to either Bing’s “White Christmas” or “Silent Night”. Bing’s 1942 recording is not only sublime but it is flat-out historic.

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Earl Grant (1965) — Earl Grant was a jazz and lounge keyboardist in the ’50’s and ’60’s that had a hit with his vocal rendition of “The End”. For an instrumentalist, he had a great voice and sounded a lot like Nat Cole. His 1965 album “Winter Wonderland” features great arrangements of seasonal favourites. He brings wonderful gospel flavour to his “Silent Night” and blends piano and organ with his humming. The humming – something we all can do – makes this recording extremely accessible and it possesses what Bing would call a ‘mellow glow’.

Harry Connick, Jr. (2003) — Speaking of gospel… After Bing’s, Harry’s was the first version I heard of this song that produced an emotional response in me. Harry was raised Catholic and brings a lot of that reverence to his Christmas music. On his second Christmas collection, “Harry for the Holidays”, Connick brings an exciting New Orleans street parade vibe to the songs of the season. His “Silent Night” ends this record; it even appears after a song about New Year’s. He makes great use of an old friend, trumpeter Leroy Holmes. Leroy’s work on this track literally drips with soul, spirit and emotion. Harry’s vocal likewise. His “Hallelujah”‘s may more likely have been heard in the church Leroy grew up going to as opposed to the one Harry attended.

The Temptations (1970) — Falsetto Eddie Kendricks takes the lead on this track from the Tempt’s first Christmas record, “Christmas Card”. There’s actually nothing spectacular about this version. It contains a gentle orchestral setting and a really fine, soulful vocal from Kendricks. There is an overall heartfelt simplicity to this recording that is somehow comforting.

Elvis Presley (1957) — I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of this record. Elvis’ two Christmas albums – 20 Christmas songs – are near and dear to my heart and, when Christmas comes, for me it’s Bing and King head and shoulders above the rest. Elvis Presley did not release a mediocre Christmas song. But “Elvis’ Christmas Album” features eight Christmas songs and four gospel songs. I love gospel music. The idea that Christmas is the only time to record and release, to hear and to listen to gospel music rankles me. At Christmas, I wanna hear Christmas. I can – and do – listen to gospel throughout the whole year. But that’s just me. EP arranged his fine version of “Silent Night” and the Jordanaires shine. King’s recording of this carol did not raise eyebrows but Irving Berlin thought that Presley’s version of “White Christmas” was a travesty and he had his staff call radio stations in New York to request banning the song and the whole album. Not many complied but one DJ was fired for playing “White Christmas” and most Canadian stations refused to play it.

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Dean Martin (1966) — Again I say that it adds to “Silent Night”‘s cred that Dino, who kept it jolly, thought enough of this song that it was the only carol he ever recorded. Dean sings it in his usual laid back style and it’s a fine recording but what I like about it is it’s sincerity. Dean Martin was seldom serious. There is an often heard bit of comedy from Frank and Dean on stage in which Frank admonishes Dean to “be serious!” to which Dean replies that he tried that and he could only get construction work. It’s a joke but it does speak to Dean’s public persona. He played drunk more often than he was drunk but he was always seen with a smile and was ready with a zinger; after all he did make his name in comedy opposite Jerry Lewis. He inherently was an easygoing person who seldom played it straight. So to hear him earnestly singing “Silent Night” is in it’s own way remarkable. It serves as a reminder that there was a time in the entertainment industry when many performers across the spectrum of the business could get serious when it came to Christmas. It seems they all remembered their shared childhoods that contained much the same Christmas traditions. When the holiday season came around most performers contributed something to the Christmas spirit and – at least sometimes – it was heartfelt and reflective. Nice.

Ledward Ka’apana (1996) — I wanted to include “Led”‘s lovely version for the simple reason that the finest Christmas music speaks to your soul. It is warm, emotive, comforting and promotes relaxation. It’s often listened to quietly by the fire or while admiring the Christmas tree’s glow. It is peaceful. A lot of the same could be said for Hawaiian music. Few other musical styles promote escape as much as the ukuleles and steel and slack-key guitars of the 50th State. When you combine the two genres, it is indeed a tranquil experience. Such is the case with Ka’apana’s take on this timeless classic. This appears on an album I can highly recommend, “Ki Ho’Alu Christmas”. It is choice.

Mahalia Jackson (1962) — Did I say I don’t like mixing gospel with Christmas? Mahalia Jackson’s very being exuded gospel. It was the only music she ever sang, saying that “it makes me feel free. It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues”. Mahalia was once referred to as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”. She was heavily involved with the civil rights movement and, during his famous speech at the March on Washington, shouted an encouragement to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to “tell them about the dream”. He proceeded to deviate from his script and utter the ad-libbed words “I have a dream”. She was one of the first 8 people to receive the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and when she sings “Silent Night” on her 1962 album of the same name her spellbinding voice, vocal intonation and breath control are devastating. The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, was a protégé of Mahalia’s and Franklin would take Jackson’s vocal stylings and phrasing into the stratosphere; which would lead to Whitney and Mariah taking 90 seconds and 14 tones to sing a one-syllable word. But Mahalia’s passion is palpable even though it is properly restrained.

Bobby Darin (1960) — I spoke about Dean Martin and others “getting serious” for the holidays. Walden Robert Cossotto was no exception. In fact, Bobby Darin took it even further. Raised Catholic Italian, like Dino, Bobby’s album “The 25th Day of December” bears much more resemblance to Christmas Eve high mass than it does to “Splish Splash”. This record is ambitious and daring and boldly exhibits songs of the Nativity. Bobby sings carols, hymns, spirituals and folk songs and most of them are obscure. Unlike Dean Martin and more like Frank Sinatra, there is nary a “White Christmas”, a Rudolph or a Frosty in Darin’s Christmas canon. For example, Darin sings in the original Latin “Dona Nobis Pacem”, part of the Agnus Dei from the Roman Catholic Latin Mass that is unrelated to Christmas and was introduced in 687! “Bobby’s Swingin’ Christmas Party!” this ain’t. “Silent Night”, however, is worthy of inclusion among these highbrow works. For a guy with a bum ticker, Bobby always had great breath control. He had a great voice, great tone and he does well with this venerable carol, introduced in Austria 200 years ago.

Gottfried Kasparek is a musicology and dramaturgy professor. He recently broke down the composition “Silent Night” and had this to say: “Even members of different religions or atheists cannot escape the magic of the moving composition. This is because the song expresses the power of the Christmas story in simple words and motifs and because the music does not sound triumphant but rather touching”. Check out these sites for more skinny:

https://www.stillenacht.com/en/

http://www.visit-salzburg.net/surroundings/silentnightchapel.htm

http://stillenacht-oberndorf.com/

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Soul Brother Number One: A Brief History of Don Cornelius and “Soul Train”

The other day, I was on YouTube watching a documentary on soul music. It ended and the auto play took me right into another documentary. This one was about the TV show “Soul Train”. Now, it was time for bed when this second doc started but I couldn’t turn it off and ended up staying up all hours and watching the whole thing. It was very educational.

I realized that I didn’t know much about the show and even less about the show’s creator and first host, Don Cornelius. A small time broadcaster who had once worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cornelius was working at a small television station in Chicago when he realized that there was virtually no programming geared towards black youths. He decided to create a “black ‘American Bandstand'” and came up with “Soul Train”. Interestingly, his bosses at the station were skeptical about this endeavour and – in a seemingly throwaway gesture – GAVE the show to Cornelius; they made him the owner of it as if to wash their hands of what they thought would be a failure.

He conceived of a show that would combine live music with a house party-type atmosphere. The program launched in 1971 and for the first episode, Don brought in Jerry Butler among others and filled the claustrophobic studio with kids and told them to dance. From this humble, makeshift beginning grew a cultural touchstone and a legendary program that lasted 35 years.

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James Brown talking with the always impeccably dressed Cornelius.

The show moved to Los Angeles – as all shows must – and eventually was picked up by numerous stations all over America making Don Cornelius the first black man to be in charge of his own nationally syndicated television show. He himself became famous as the deep-voiced and superbly dressed host. Over time, guests included every single notable black artist of the era: from Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Isaac Hayes to Earth, Wind and Fire, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Kirk Franklin, Lenny Kravitz, Anthony Hamilton and John Legend. Eventually, white artists began appearing. Some appropriately: Hall & Oates, Michael Bolton, Black Eyed Peas. Some inexplicably: Cheech and Chong, Duran Duran, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys.

Through the years, imitators arose. One interesting one came from Dick Clark, who’s “American Bandstand” “Soul Train” was a version of. In 1973, Dick Clark Productions came up with “Soul Unlimited” which in turn was a knock-off of “Soul Train”. Cornelius was outraged by what he considered Clark’s attempt to “undermine TV’s only black-owned show”. With the help of old friend Jesse Jackson, Cornelius was able to get ABC to agree to cancel “Soul Unlimited” – which apparently had racial overtones – after only a few episodes. Cornelius and Clark reconciled to the extent that years later they worked together on TV specials that featured R&B and soul music. Interestingly, Don Cornelius and Dick Clark share initials and their company logos are very similar.

One popular aspect of the show drew attention to the group of kids who danced on the program every week. The “Soul Train Line” was a variant of the ’50’s “The Stroll” whereby kids would group on either side of an open space – the “line” – and watch as couples danced their way to the end. The idea here was to stand out with sometimes athletic and sometimes outrageous dance moves and audacious attire. These anonymous dancers began to enjoy a certain fame of their own. Indeed, some parlayed this exposure into careers outside of the show. Those who were featured dancing on “Soul Train” include Rosie Perez, Carmen Electra, Nick Cannon, MC Hammer and Fred Berry who would go on to play “Rerun” on “What’s Happening!!”. Several of these “anonymous kids” are also credited with creating some legendary dance moves that they first performed on the show. “The Robot” and “The Moonwalk” were both created by “Soul Train” dancers and taken to a worldwide audience by Michael Jackson. Cornelius even branched out into artist management when he chose Jody Watley and two other kids among the dancers to become the R&B group Shalamar.

Don Cornelius was a conservative person and the main goal of his show was to showcase black youth in a positive light. So with the advent of hip-hop and rap in the early 1980’s, Don was faced with a conundrum. He was vocal about his concerns that this tough, urban music with it’s sometimes violent and certainly aggressive lyrics was depicting these young people negatively. He did not hide the fact that this was music that he could not contemplate. Don even said to Kurtis Blow – on the air – that he didn’t understand what Kurtis had just performed. Kurtis has said that he was crushed by this. Don also was concerned by the antics of acts like Public Enemy and all of this lead to him stepping down as the host of “Soul Train” in 1993 after 22 years. He was succeeded by Shemar Moore, among others. The departure of Don as host – he continued to run the show – coupled with Don’s unwillingness to embrace the burgeoning hip hop culture lead to the show ceasing production in March of 2006.

Cornelius had undergone a brain operation 1982. The 21-hour procedure was intended to correct a congenital deformity in his cerebral arteries. Don had said that after this operation he was never quite the same. For 15 years afterwards, unbeknownst to most, Don suffered seizures and extreme pain. Finally, in early 2012, Cornelius said to his son “I don’t know how much longer I can take this”. On the morning of February 1st of that year, Don Cornelius took his own life with a gunshot wound to the head. It was a sad end for this legendary figure in black entertainment.

I find it extremely difficult to accurately describe the enormous impact this show had on the music business. But more than that, “Soul Train” spoke to basically two generations of black America. Finally, here was a program that was made by blacks for blacks. Here was a show that African American youths were influenced by and inspired by. They saw the basic and obvious things like music acts they loved and their parents loved, singers who sang music they could relate to. And they saw the kids who danced on the show and in them recognized their own friends and themselves. Those dancers set fashion trends and kids became aware of what was hip to wear from watching “Soul Train”. And they saw the heavier and more profound things like artists who had risen from nothing to be stars. They saw that kids like themselves could dance on TV and have a moment in the spotlight that could spur them on to bigger things. And they saw Don Cornelius. A handsome, well-dressed, well-spoken, erudite, hip, classy, savvy black man who was in complete control of his own national television show. It must have been truly inspiring to see that it could be done.

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Don Cornelius 1936 – 2012

The Warmth of the Sun: Your Guide to the Music of the Beach Boys

Sirius XM has launched a Beach Boys channel for the summer! Listening to the music of Brian Wilson, et al. randomly has inspired me to highlight some of their lesser known songs in a 3-part series. So, let’s go surfin’ now!

Brian Wilson and I go way back. My earliest recollection of hearing music is my mother’s Elvis Presley records. (And “Maneater” and “Stray Cat Strut”) I connected with Presley early and became not just a “lifelong fan” but a sort of student; of his music, his personality and his impact on society. However, I think I can safely say that the first music that I discovered for myself was the music of the Beach Boys. I was 12 years old and my Aunt Lori gave me some records, among them the Beach Boys’ iconic greatest hits package, 1974’s “Endless Summer”.

I listened to this record throughout the summer of 1985, the summer I was 12. At the end of that summer, my family was moving away from the city I had grown up in to a small town. Perhaps the impending separation from my friends and from the life I had known caused me to gravitate to the Beach Boys’ songs; songs of joy, songs of love, songs of longing. The music spoke to my imagination. It gave me a “place to go”.

I’m going to try very hard to be concise throughout this 3-part series. I intend it to be a set of articles for those only slightly familiar with this music that will highlight some of the lesser known gems in the Beach Boys canon – and not a dissertation on the career of the group and their cultural impact; although their story is so rife with fascinating episodes that I would like to tackle such a series one day. They are often misunderstood and underappreciated and a multi-part series on them would go a long way to clearing that up.

But – like I’ve done with Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Nat Cole (search for them on my blog to read the articles) – I’d like these articles to direct your attention to the music; which has also been somewhat misunderstood and underappreciated. I plan on going a little deeper than their more recognizable hits as most of us are more-than-familiar with iconic Beach Boys music. We could call this the best of the “2nd tier”. Of course, the Beach Boys catalogue is so deep that we could carry on to highlight a 3rd and 4th tier; the hidden gems.

One can’t talk about the music of the Beach Boys without talking about Brian Wilson. Brian was born the oldest of three boys to Murry and Audree in 1942 in Hawthorne, California. The late Rolling Stone writer Timothy White wrote a book of such staggeringly thorough research that I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is called “The Nearest Faraway Place” and it deals not only with Brian and the Beach Boys but it also gets in-depth about what White calls the “Southern California Experience”. White’s book begins with a long history of Brian’s forebears. The story White relates goes a long way towards explaining the person of Murry Wilson. The generational issues that plagued previous Wilson men landed heavily on Murry – and he in turn “landed heavily” on Brian.

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The most thoroughly researched book I’ve ever read. This fascinating read has become an essential book in my collection. Photo Credit: Henry Holt and Co.

Brian was a gentle child who was subjected to brutal treatment at the hands of his father. It’s so hard to abbreviate this aspect of Brian’s journey but suffice it to say that Brian turned to music not only as a companion and an outlet but also as a means to communicate with and satisfy the demands and expectations of Murry. Murry himself had been a songwriter; somehow restraining his demons long enough to compose pleasant little ditties in the hopes of having them published and perhaps even recorded and performed by a big name. He was successful once when Lawrence Welk performed Murry’s “Two-Step Side Step” on the radio.

Brian was intrigued by the intricate harmonies of the vocal group the Four Freshmen. He became obsessed with mastering these harmonies by breaking them down – separating them and teaching them to his two younger brothers, Carl and Dennis. Carl was keen on Chuck Berry and rhythm and blues music and Brian absorbed that as well. Dennis was a rebel, for lack of a better word. He would go toe-to-toe with Murry and then take off into the streets and down to the beach. It was surfing, girls and beach life that Dennis was most interested in and it was these pursuits that he talked about around the house and in the music room that Murry had set up for the boys.

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An absolutely priceless picture of Carl, Dennis and Brian Wilson (foreground) horsing around on their front lawn in Hawthorne.

The Wilson boys had an older cousin named Mike Love. Mike was into doo-wop and when the two families would get together, Mike and the three Wilson boys would talk music and listen to the radio and sing songs themselves, Mike taking the bass parts. The four young men began to entertain the idea of forming a group. With the addition of high school friend Al Jardine, they did just that, filling the music room of the Wilson home with their fledgling sounds. This caught the attention of father Murry who quickly put himself in charge of the boys’ progress. He did, after all, have some connections in the music business and he was possessed of the belligerence needed to operate in that arena.

But first, Murry needed a holiday. He and Audree were going to Mexico. Brian, the oldest, was left in charge of the house and of the $500 ’emergency money’ Murry had left behind. No sooner had the Wilson parents left the driveway than the boys took the $500 and rented instruments so that they could work on a song. Dennis had come back from the beach raving about the scene there and suggesting that Brian write a song about surfing. It was this song the group worked on while Murry and Audree were away.

When Murry returned and saw all the instruments and learned to what use the emergency money had went, he blew his stack, focusing his physical rage on Brian. Once Murry had the situation explained to him, and their song, “Surfin'”, played for him, he calmed down and went into business mode. The song was eventually released on the tiny Candix label and became a minor hit for the newly christened “Beach Boys”. Capitol Records became interested and the boys soon found themselves in the studio recording their first album.

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Teenagers. Working out the harmonies while recording their debut LP, “Surfin’ Safari” (1961). Mike, Brian, Carl, Dennis and David Marks. Photo Credit: Capitol Records.

Whew! Seems wrong to compress this story like that! The main purpose here, though, is to talk about the music that the Beach Boys made in this first era of their legendary run as “America’s Band”. During the years 1961 to 1965, Brian Wilson and his group did no less than put their stamp on history; music history and cultural history. And Brian Wilson did it almost single-handedly. Although he would much rather have followed Phil Spector’s lead and been a producer with a stable of artists, Brian found himself “paying the bills” as the bassist of a surf band. The songs that went over with the public in this era dealt with surfing, cars and girls; what Mike Love would later infamously label “The Formula”. The songs come across as so simple that, to the general listener, they are just fun songs. But Brian began to create compositions that were vocally and harmonically intricate if you knew what to listen for. I’ll concede though that the classic songs from this era are still cherished today because they depict and celebrate the sheer joy of living; not necessarily because of Brian’s tonal shifts or chord changes. The great songs from this era are songs we all know and love so well that they have become embedded in the fabric of life itself; you want to depict fun, happiness and the release that warm weather provides, play a Beach Boys song: “Surfin’ Safari”, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, “409”, “Little Deuce Coupe”, “Shut Down”, “Fun, Fun, Fun”, “I Get Around”. Don’t let your familiarity with these songs rob you of your enjoyment of them. They represent a remarkably successful string of records that are sophisticated creations while at the same time being infinitely accessible. You may have heard “Surfin’ U.S.A.” a thousand times and you take it for granted. Try to listen to it again for the first time; there are few records from this era more exhilarating.

OK, so, you know all those songs but what else was going on? Glad you asked. Got a list right here.

10. “Catch a Wave” (1963 – from “Surfer Girl”) — Some of the songs I will present on these lists may seem to be pedestrian or common in the Beach Boys catalogue. Most times the reason for their inclusion is that they are perfect examples of what the group did so well. Some songs are simply great representations of their ‘sound’. “Catch a Wave” may be one of these songs. Written by Brian and Mike, it is a rare time when all the boys played on a recording with no session musicians. Even Al Jardine AND David Marks play on “Catch a Wave”; Marks would leave the group less than 6 months after this was recorded. Mike Love’s sister, Maureen, cameos on harp. Never released as a single, it’s appeal may come in part from it’s inclusion on “Endless Summer”. It appears early on that compilation – track 3 – and helps to create the mood of that album. It is an integral piece, one of many parts, but, taken on it’s own, it has a good, mid-tempo groove with some solid drumming from Dennis and a great solo from Brian on organ. Features some of Mike’s better wordplay. It’s one of many of their songs that sounds like a summer sunset, the end of a fun day spent outdoors. A year later, Jan & Dean gave this song new lyrics about skateboarding and took “Sidewalk Surfin'” to #25.

9. “In the Parkin’ Lot” (1964 – from “Shut Down Volume 2”) — Maybe the most hidden gem on this list, Brian took this little ditty and sent it skyward by tacking on four bars of gorgeous vocals to the beginning and the end of this song from this very good album with the silly name. Earlier in the year, Capitol had released a compilation of instrumental hot rod songs and called it “Shut Down”. I suppose the Beach Boys could’ve called their album something else – but it was likely Capitol that named both. “In the Parkin’ Lot” is most notable for Brian’s arrangement of the boys’ sumptuous voices but it also shines due to it’s ‘slice-of-life’ vocal imagery, brought to you by Roger Christian. Christian was a disc jockey in Los Angeles in the ‘golden era’ and spent some time at the famous KFWB near Hollywood and Vine where he was introduced to Brian Wilson. The two would go for milkshakes and write songs. Christian – a disc jockey, mind you – was great with word imagery and he knew cars. If you look him up, you’ll see that he wrote the words to many great songs by the Beach Boys and – more impressively – he wrote the lyrics to the majority of the best songs of Jan and Dean. If you close your eyes and listen to “In the Parkin’ Lot”, you’ll hear a cute tale of a guy and a girl waiting until the last minute to get out of the car in the morning and get to class on time. But it’s the stunning display of  vocals that bookend this song that set it apart.

8. “All Summer Long” (1964 – from “All Summer Long”) —  A lot of you may say that this enduring title track from ’64 is, indeed, one of the better known Beach Boys songs and not a “2nd tier” song. I won’t argue with that – I may even agree – but I will stand by the assertion that it may not be one of the first 10 or 15 songs a casual fan will mention. Again I will use this song as an example of what the Beach Boys did best in this era. The song is an absolute delight written by Brian and Mike. Brian has crafted another perfect pop song – both with his composition and his production – and Mike again nails the ethos of what the Beach Boys were about. Mike’s lyrics depict a perfect idyll of summer activities with personal touches we all can relate to. He takes the lead vocal here and sings of sitting in the car with a coke, miniature golf, Hondas, horseback rides and randomly hearing your favourite song on the radio. These images provide for us today delightful pangs of nostalgia for a bygone era. Again, all the boys were present in the studio and I was delightfully surprised to learn that it is Brian himself playing the distinctive marimba on this track. This song ascended to rarefied air in 1973 thanks to George Lucas’ seminal coming-of-age film “American Graffiti”. Lucas’ film is a significant paean to the pivot point in the lives of young people but also paints a portrait of the major shifts experienced in American society in the early-to-mid ’60’s. Not only did Lucas give his stamp of approval to the 42 songs he used to exemplify the aura of the time but he was savvy enough to know that this Beach Boys song – in not only the lyrics but the tone of the song – speaks of the end of something; summer, yes, but Lucas also heard in it the “sundown” of the innocence of the era that ended with the death of JFK and the coming of the Beatles. He felt strongly enough to use it over the closing credits even though it was released 2 years after the year in which his film is set.

7. “Kiss Me, Baby” (1965 – from “The Beach Boys Today!”) — This album represented a major leap for the Beach Boys and a turning point in their career and in Brian Wilson’s life. Brian and the boys had been going non-stop for 4 years, releasing some of the most iconic music in American history. Consider that all this time Brian had been doing most of the heavy lifting: composing the music, arranging the songs, arranging the vocals, playing bass and various keyboards, singing and performing and touring. He was doing all this while battling psychological issues of immense proportions that I won’t get into. A week after recording the backing track for “Kiss Me, Baby” with the famed Wrecking Crew (plus Carl on guitar; himself on piano), Brian had a significant anxiety attack and nervous breakdown and announced he was retiring from touring and staying home to focus on making music. “The Beach Boys Today!” is significant as the album that indicated that things were pivoting. Gone were songs of surf and cars and goofy teenage love. This album was filled with serious statements on mature love and life. I single out “Kiss Me, Baby” because it is sublime. Written by Brian and Mike – who also take the leads – it begins with dreamy vocals and dramatic piano (Leon Russell is also credited on piano here). Mike’s lyrics tell of the aftermath of an argument – and there is a sense that what the couple is fighting over is no longer just ‘kid stuff’. Excellent percussion from the legend Hal Blaine leads us to one of those ‘cliffs’ I love in a song – the vocals seem to hang in midair for a second and then we drop into the chorus: “We both had a broken heart…oh, baby…kiss me, baby, love to hold you….” Beautiful vocals from all five Boys. A gorgeous song.

6. “Wendy” (1964 – from “All Summer Long”) — I’ve always thought that there was something significant about the second half of “Endless Summer”. The songs always seemed a bit more serious while still feeling like sunshine and warm air. Maybe the first half is the glow of midday; full bore fun in the sun. And the second half is late afternoon, approaching sunset; exhaling, afterglow, driving back home, tired but exhilarated. “Wendy” fits that ‘second half’ vibe for me perfectly. Another song written by Brian and Mike and featuring all five Beach Boys playing and singing. There’s just something about the sound of the guitars and the vocal arrangement. Brian lays down a nice organ solo and when the voices come back in – “Wendy, I wouldn’t hurt you like that…” – it is one of a thousand examples of how good their voices sounded together. This song may be looked at as one of those simple, little ditties but there is more going on here. There is certainly emotional content, yes, but if you look it up, you’ll find that there is a surprising amount going on with the composition, as well: “The song begins with a minor i chord in the key of D minor, moves to a major IV…then modulates to the key of F major (the relative major of D minor) through a substituted plagal cadence…” I don’t know what any of that means but I do know that it substantiates the claim that the genius of Brian Wilson was hiding in plain sight; you may not have understood it but it was there. As I say, “Wendy” has a unique quality to it and it made me a major fan of that feminine appellation.

5. “The Warmth of the Sun” (1964 – from “Shut Down Volume 2”) — Here is an earlier example of that “Wendy” vibe I just mentioned. “Shut Down Volume 2” is an interesting album. It contains what could be considered ‘filler’ like “Shut Down, Part II”, “Louie, Louie” and “Denny’s Drums” but it also contains the iconic up-tempo “Fun, Fun, Fun” and ballads like “Keep an Eye on Summer” and “The Warmth of the Sun”. A dramatic ballad, the song begins – as many of their songs do – with soaring harmonies featuring Brian’s lovely falsetto. Mike has written some fine lyrics here which immediately seem different from other sentiments from his pen. The words express a confusion about life, wondering what is the value in the things that I do? It is fitting that this conundrum is solved when Brian sings that it’s all good “for I have the warmth of the sun within me at night”. It’s a manifesto of sorts from the Beach Boys that says that while things may not always be great, things like sunshine and the freedom and joy it can afford will help – if not save – you in the end. There is an emotion inherent in this song owing to the day it was written; November 22, 1963. The day John F. Kennedy was assassinated was a turning point for American society and elicited feelings in the entire nation. Brian and Mike were not immune to this and both were inspired to create this beautiful statement from a tragic event. This song is often mentioned when discussing Brian’s inventive chord changes in his earlier compositions. Beach Boy dad, Murry Wilson, did an instrumental version of this song on his lone album, the surprisingly enjoyable “The Many Moods of Murry Wilson” on Capitol (1967).

4. “Car Crazy Cutie” (1963 – from “Little Deuce Coupe”) — “Run, a-run, a-do run run. Oh, oh, run…” Annnd, I’m done. But seriously: I love Capitol Records but…in the summer of ’63, the label put out an album of hot rod songs called “Shut Down” which featured the song of the same name and “409” by the Beach Boys. This was done without their participation or knowledge. So, Brian quickly finished up some songs he had been working on and hustled the boys back into the studio to record their own album of car songs. They released the “Little Deuce Coupe” album only one month after their previous album, “Surfer Girl”. The Boys flying through the recording of this album with the speed of a ’32 Ford can be seen in the fact that half the songs are under two minutes in length and the whole album runs about 20 minutes. Nevertheless, this is looked on as one of the earliest “concept” albums. The longest song on the album? The one that LEAST sounds like it was a rush job, “Car Crazy Cutie”, written by Brian and Roger Christian. Brian constructed a very cool vocal arrangement that puts one in mind of the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron”, which was recorded around the same time as this tune. Once again, the song begins with a distinctive vocal intro and the tune drops in to a great mid-tempo guitar-driven groove. Again, the band features Al Jardine and David Marks, who would not play on another Beach Boys record until 2012. Roger’s car-savvy lyrics tell of a gal who’s a real “rodder’s dream gal” who’s “hip to everything, man, from customs to rails” and when he “takes her to the drags, man, everyone flips”. I love this song and – like “In the Parkin’ Lot” – it’s the vocal bookends that make it stand out.

3. “Do You Wanna Dance?” (1965 – from “The Beach Boys Today!”) — Beautiful harmonies, strikingly complex arrangements. These are the things we often think of when thinking of the Beach Boys. But here is an example of them exhibiting sheer energy in a driving remake of Bobby Freeman’s classic song. This is the only song on this list that was a domestic A-side single. I wish I knew musical terminology to describe to you what Brian has done here with the arrangement. Utilizing Freeman’s pounding piano chords to build the song up with crescendos, Brian has maximized the dramatic import of the composition. Although he used the Wrecking Crew on this one, the instruments that stand out the most are the pounding piano played by Brian himself and the guitar (that doubles with the piano) played by Carl, who also takes the solo. Brian has replaced Freeman’s unique percussion sound in the breaks with Carl’s boss guitar. But again it’s the vocals that really stand out. The lead is taken by Dennis and this is significant. The highest charting Beach Boys song to feature Denny on lead, “Do You Wanna Dance?” benefits from his masculine voice. Indeed, the energy inherent here is due in large part to his reading of the lyric. I love how his voice starts things off here, popping out of the gates. The times when the group comes in to sing “oh, do ya, do ya, do ya, do ya wanna dance?” are exhilarating! Particularly heading for the outro; listen for Brian’s falsetto wail at the final crescendo. Add Hal Blaine’s drums and this thing rolls. Consider that this track features organ and two mandolins. Not easy to hear them but they contribute to the overall sound. Makes me think that actual video footage of Dennis Wilson, at this point in his life, recording this song would be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

2. “Don’t Worry, Baby” (1964 – from “Shut Down Volume 2”) — Here’s where we can begin debating the definition of “2nd tier” Beach Boys songs. I’ll allow that the general public is aware of this beautiful song but it also fits the criteria presented here as in it is not immediately indicative of the Beach Boys’ sound in this era. The fact that this is on the same album as “Pom Pom Playgirl”, “Shut Down, Part 2” and “Louie, Louie” shows the strides Brian was making as a composer. Brian wrote “Don’t Worry, Baby” as an homage to Phil Spector and Brian’s favourite record, “Be My Baby”. Roger Christian provided the lyrics which depicted a young man’s apprehension regarding an upcoming drag race. Thing is, Brian had spoken at length with Roger about his frustrations with his father, Murry, and his own vulnerabilities where girls were concerned. Roger – to his credit – seems to have taken these talks with Brian and turned them into a lyric about a drag race – that’s not really about a drag race. Here, too, we can also begin to collectively shake our heads and struggle to accurately describe such a work of art. Dennis starts things off with a gentle snare and those glorious vocals come in followed by some nice piano from Brian. And, again, there is just that sound to this song. It has that dreamy sunset sound to it. Maybe I shouldn’t be so amazed that all the Boys play on this recording but I am. They all contribute to an amazingly smooth recording. I have read that Brian was unsure about singing a falsetto lead on a single – although this was technically not a single as it was released as the B side of “I Get Around”, the Beach Boys’ first #1 song. “Don’t Worry, Baby” charted in it’s own right and peaked at #24. It is one of the few Beach Boys songs to have been covered extensively, having been essayed by the likes of Bryan Ferry, the Bay City Rollers and Billy Joel. Keith Moon did a brutal version on his terrible solo album that reportedly made Brian break down crying. B.J. Thomas took it to #17 in 1977 and the Everly Brothers do a fine version – featuring the Beach Boys – on the soundtrack of “Tequila Sunrise”. The vocal arrangement is one of Brian’s finest and if someone asks you what is so good about the Beach Boys, play them this song.

1. “Let Him Run Wild” (1965 – from “Summer Days [And Summer Nights!!]”) —  I see now that I have given myself a ridiculously difficult task – trying to describe not only “Don’t Worry, Baby” but now also “Let Him Run Wild”. Appearing on a fun and somewhat underrated album, “Let Him Run Wild” was written by Brian and Mike. Brian’s composition is a nod to the song stylings of the great Burt Bacharach and is notable as being the first song that Brian wrote under the influence of marijuana. It was also the first song that made Carl and Dennis realize that Brian was starting to move into another realm and it is a significant signpost on the way to “Pet Sounds”. Vocally, this is another 6-Beach Boy performance with Bruce Johnston putting in some of his first shifts. Several star members of the famed Wrecking Crew are on hand and the track starts with Frank Capp’s vibraphone followed by Brian’s lead. Some dreamy guitar work by Carl (or Howard Roberts) and a nifty bass line from Carol Kaye carry the tune along gently. We drift into the chorus – “Let him run wild, he don’t care…” – and are neatly lead back to the verse: “I guess you know I waited for you…”. I dunno – I’m out of things to say about this gorgeous track. It was the b-side of “California Girls”.

Next Up… 1966 – 1973: Brian pivots and leaves everyone behind

 

 

 

Red West: One of the Good Ones

Robert Gene “Red” West died this past July, aged 81, of an aortic aneurysm. He had “pains” in the afternoon and, by evening, he was dead. Red is probably best known as a longtime “bodyguard” of Elvis Presley. They met in high school and formed a bond that lasted until 1977, the year Elvis died. As this month we mark to 40th anniversary of Presley’s death, it’s timely to take a quick look at the interesting life of Red West.

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Red and Elvis boxing, June 14, 1956

Red was born is Memphis and attended Humes High School with his cousin, Sonny West, at the same time Elvis did. Red was a strapping, red-headed athlete and knew Elvis only by sight when he came upon a group of toughs hassling Elvis in the boys bathroom. Quiet Elvis, with his slick hair piled up in a pompadour and guitar slung over his shoulder, was regularly the brunt of teasing. Famously, Red confronted the gang and managed to extricate Elvis from the situation. A friendship was born. Red went on to occupy a unique position in “Elvis World”. Never a sycophantic ‘yes man’, Red was something unique to Elvis: he was his friend. That’s not to say that their relationship ran smoothly. Far from it. But through it all I think it can be seen that Red’s motives were pure in his relations with Elvis even though Red was strong-willed enough to go toe-to-toe with his boss at times. Also, as we’ll see, he was more than capable of operating and earning outside of just working for Elvis. Keep in mind that “working for Elvis” meant a lot of good things but it also meant that you never had money of your own.

Red West was nothing if not a “good, ol’ boy” and he and Elvis hit it off instantly when they met. It floored Red when he heard his buddy on the radio and it was soon after that Elvis decided he wanted Red around so Red began driving Elvis and his band to dates. Red also tackled the challenging job of simply getting Elvis from the car to the stage door which became increasingly difficult as Elvis’ publicity soared and the girls that went to these concerts began to grow more and more demonstrative. As we’ve discussed, Red was big, strong and hot-headed. Simply put, if you stepped to him it was lights out for you. On the eve of Elvis heading to Hollywood to make his first movie, Red got into another fight. Elvis’ father, Vernon, was petrified of bad publicity and had the first of his shouting matches with Red, telling Red he was not going to make the trip to Hollywood. Red, mostly disappointed that Elvis did not have his back, blew a gasket and said he was quitting to join the Marines, which he did. Already we see Red’s “no BS” policy in effect. While many would endure anything and toe the line to ensure a free ride through life with Elvis Presley, Red wasn’t having it and quit.

Two years later came the event that perhaps is the most significant in “Elvis World”; the death of Elvis’ beloved mother, Gladys. Months before her death, Red showed up in Memphis on a two-week leave from the Marines. He learned that Elvis was in Hollywood but stopped by Graceland to pay his respects to Mrs. Presley. Before he left, Gladys implored him – as indeed she did any and all of those in EP’s circle – to “look after my boy”, indicating plainly the anxiety and worry that had plagued her since her only child had become famous. Red called Elvis from Memphis and King flew Red out to the coast, Red arriving on the set at Paramount a “crew-cut hick” in his Marine uniform. He spent the rest of his leave hanging out with Elvis in the California sun and then headed back to camp in Virginia. In August of 1958, Gladys Presley died and Elvis was beside himself. As soon as Red heard of his friends’ distress, he asked for leave from the Marines and was denied. However, later that same day, Red learned that his own father was gravely ill and was heading home to be with him when he received word that he had passed. He was unable to attend Gladys’ funeral but was dumbfounded when Elvis appeared at the funeral for Red’s father. Elvis, only two days removed from laying his beloved mother to rest and still overcome with grief, almost had to be helped over to Red where the two wept together. Elvis lamented the fact that just two days earlier he had been in the same funeral home for Gladys’ services  and now he was joining his friend in his sorrow over his father. At this moment was born a unique bond between Red West and Elvis Presley; they each had lost a parent on the same day.

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Margit Burgin, Elvis and Red, Bad Homburg, Germany, October, 1958

Elvis was in the Army going through his basic training when Gladys died. Shortly after, still mourning the loss of his mother, he prepared to ship out to Germany. On the eve of his departure, Red, fresh out of the Marines, came to say goodbye. On a whim, Elvis asked Red to come with him and he did. Mostly, Elvis desperately needed people with him; his friends, people from back home who ‘knew’ him and that would have been reason enough to have Red in Germany with him. But there was more than that. Red – and others – have been called ‘bodyguards’ but they had to do much more. There was always plans to be made and details to look after and Elvis never actually traveled with a ‘staff’ so ‘the guys’ looked after things. But protecting Elvis from overzealous fans could be a full-time job and Red did it well. Red was sometimes VERY aggressive when carrying out his duties and there was often fights. Once again, Elvis’  father, Vernon, would be sick with worry over the potential of bad press and would get into screaming matches with Red. And, once again, Red got fed up and quit.

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Red and Elvis jam on the set of “It Happened at the World’s Fair”, 1963

Returning Stateside, Red traveled to Hollywood where he looked up people he had met through Elvis, people like Nick Adams and Robert Conrad both of whom had their own TV shows. Robert Conrad was making “Hawaiian Eye” and later “Wild, Wild West” and Red was able to find regular stunt work on these and other television shows. When Elvis returned from Germany in 1960, he tracked down Red and they renewed their friendship. It wasn’t long before Elvis was heading to Hollywood to start his movie-making machine throughout the ’60’s. He used Red often and the sharp-eyed can spot him in the films. He was usually the first guy to attack Elvis when the fight broke out. Interesting when you think of actors back then and the way they liberally used stunt men for even the most innocuous looking scrap. But here was Elvis and Red, a couple of redneck hillbilly boys, getting paid to do on camera what they had always done for kicks down at Graceland. Sometimes Red even got to say a few lines. He portrayed Elvis’ brother in “Wild in the Country”, for example. One of the many interesting things about Red West was that even with his athletic prowess and his proficiency as a street fighter, he was also a songwriter. He began to make inroads in the music industry by writing songs, making a demo recording featuring himself singing and then shopping it around to see if someone would record it. Quite often, he would present these songs to Elvis and the King recorded many of them: “If Every Day Was Like Christmas”, “Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees”, “If You Talk in Your Sleep” and the incredibly heartbreaking “Separate Ways”. This means that Red West, a “bodyguard”, wrote better material for Elvis than some of the professional songwriters writing songs for Elvis’ movies. Red’s involvement in EP’s recording career went even deeper. Often times Elvis could not be bothered to appear at the recording studio to decide on and record songs for his movies. Red was often recruited to go to the studio, sift through AND CHOOSE the songs that Elvis would sing in the movies. Once the songs were picked, Red would record them with the band, singing them in the way he knew Elvis would. He would then take the recordings to Elvis so Elvis could learn them before going in to record them properly. Red also joined Elvis in his passion for karate, sparring with Elvis and for a time running a karate school in Memphis. When Elvis’ marriage to Priscilla was on the rocks, she took up with renown karate instructor Mike Stone. Elvis was enraged. He was determined to have Stone killed. Who did he turn to? Red West. West recalls he felt he was in a daze while he arranged the weaponry and prepared to carry out any instruction Elvis gave him. Finally, Elvis cooled down and said ‘forget it. It’s too heavy’. Red breathed a sigh of relief.

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Sonny West, Elvis and Red, Atlanta Georgia, June 5, 1976

It’s common knowledge that the 1970’s saw a general decline in Elvis Presley’s health. A lot – but not all – of this was due to his use of pharmaceuticals. Red was especially persistent in trying to steer Elvis away from this lifestyle. Elvis always maintained that he knew what he was doing. He was not addicted and he knew how to use prescription drugs responsibly to relive his many ailments. In this negative atmosphere, with many close to Elvis becoming increasingly concerned with the changes in his habits and his sometimes violent reactions, everyone was on edge. In the mid-1970’s, there were a couple of instances when Elvis had his life threatened and his security staff had to be particularly vigilant. Quite often, certain lines may have been crossed in dealing with unruly fans. It was undoubtedly hard to tell, in the heat of the moment, who was a homicidal maniac and who was simply an excited fan. Again there were fights, beatings. Vernon – always petrified of being poor again and trying vainly to curb his son’s extravagant spending – continually questioned Elvis’ need of such a large ‘staff’ and when lawsuits started to mount up due to Red’s and others physicality, Vernon pushed through the idea of firing many employees. Three security men – Red West, his cousin and long-time Elvis associate Sonny West and newly arrived Dave Hebler were let go. By Vernon. Red West was hurt and angry. 22 years with Elvis and fired by Vernon without a word from Elvis. Here’s where the big debate regarding Red that polarizes many Elvis fans begins. Red is suddenly and cruelly expelled from the life of his long time friend. He is left without a job (although working for Elvis NEVER actually PAID much). He is angry, sure, at the way he’s been treated but also at the way Elvis is killing himself. In an effort to make money but also to hopefully prompt Elvis to right the ship, Red writes a book. Together with his cousin Sonny and Dave Hebler, they publish the infamous “Elvis: What Happened?”. The book is published in the summer of 1977, two weeks before Elvis dies. Knowing what we know about Elvis’ dependence on pharmaceuticals it’s tough to remember that, before Red’s book was released, the general public had no idea that anything was amiss in Elvis World. The book shocked the public and devastated Elvis. Red took a lot of flak over exposing many secrets as “silence” had long been the mantra of the Memphis Mafia. But let’s face hard facts: Elvis’ intake of prescription drugs was mammoth and – although he did indeed have legitimate health issues – over-prescribing himself was killing him. It has been suggested that Red, Sonny and Dave were the only ones of the inner circle who actively pestered Elvis to get his act together and this could be one of the reasons they were dismissed. Also, as I’ve explored in previous posts, Elvis’ father could never enjoy his son’s success as he lived in fear of one day being poor again. The Memphis Mafia were nothing but hangers-on according to Vernon and he NEVER wanted ANY of them around and this presents an obvious reason why the boys were fired. The debate rages in Elvis World: was Red motivated solely by greed or was he legitimately trying to help his friend by exposing his foibles? No one can say for sure. However, I’ve learned that analyzing the life and career of Elvis Presley is a massive undertaking.  There is so little black or white in his tale and so much room for conjecture. I have found that you need to have all the information. Consider many different accounts from many different sources. Mostly I think what you have to do is accept that Elvis was human. He was an incredibly charismatic man who lived a life that had no blueprint – NO ONE before him had trod a similar path. But he was human and, like all of us, heavily flawed. So when you take the case of Red West you have to look at the facts. Before Elvis was anything but an outcast, really, Red stood up for him – even though the two high school kids barely knew each other. He helped Elvis in the early days but then left to join the Marines. Elvis opened doors in Hollywood for Red, yes, but Red walked through most of them himself and built his own career and reputation in film. Red worked for Elvis through the ’60’s but also found success working with other artists and wrote some high quality material for Elvis. Three prominent members of Elvis’ inner circle wrote a massive book on their lives with the King. In it, they agree that Red wrote his book to make money – naturally. After all, he had a story to tell that many people would want to hear. But they also all agree that NO ONE was closer to or loved Elvis more than Red West. And, while we’re facing facts, most of the claims in Red’s book have been proved accurate. In the summer of ’77, a shocking book is published with hard-to-believe allegations about Presley’s drug use – allegations that had NEVER been raised before. Then TWO WEEKS after this ‘outrageous’ book is published, Elvis Presley dies a drug-related death. You really have to look up the facts and draw your own conclusions.

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The infamous book, released two weeks before Elvis died.

 

After Red’s life with Elvis came to a close, he became a full-time actor earning a recurring role in Robert Conrad’s series “Black Sheep Squadron”. He also made guest appearances in many television shows throughout the 1980’s. He is perhaps best known to audiences for his role in the classic Patrick Swayze film “Roadhouse”. He also appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Rainmaker” and Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” and “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer”. Unbeknownst to just about everybody, he gained his first starring role in the 2008 independent film “Goodbye Solo”. Roger Ebert called it “a masterwork” and the New York Times hailed it as “a near-perfect film”.

A major player in the life of Elvis Presley has died this year, the 40th anniversary of the death of the King. The Memphis Mafia is never included in official family business in Memphis during the annual Elvis Week marking the anniversary of his passing but this year Red and his wife of 56 years, Pat (Red met Pat when she was a secretary for Elvis) were going to be involved in some events with longtime Elvis associate, disc jockey George Klein. Unfortunately, that won’t happen now. It’s this Elvis fan’s opinion that Red West gets a pass. He gets the benefit of the doubt. There really is too much evidence to support the deep love that flowed between Red and Elvis. They went back too far together and Red had too many more options outside of Elvis to make any of Red’s actions purely mercenary. One of the many sad parts of Elvis’ story is the people he left behind. People who lost a son, a grandson, a father and a friend. Many people were left behind to suffer with sadness, frustration, anger and guilt. Red West was one of these people. And he was one of the good ones.

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Vernon Presley, Elvis and Red, Chicago, 1972

 

 

Elvis Week 2017: Day 3 – 1956

Elvis Presley was born 82 years ago this coming Sunday. That makes this Elvis Week! We’re looking back on his life and career in seven all-too-brief segments.

Day 3: 1956 – Sam Phillips called it. History has venerated him as the man who first heard the potential in Elvis Presley. Not only that but he knew that this was the performer and this was the time and place for a new and energetic sound. The sound began sweeping the nation and Sam Phillips’ record label – Sun Records – released five records by EP that were successful in the south in late 1955. But then Sam started to quiver financially under the weight of promoting the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll star and when the opportunity arose to sell Presley’s contract to RCA Records for $35,000, he sealed the deal and spent the money building up the careers of other singers that got their starts at Sun: Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and others. So, at the dawn of 1956, Elvis Presley had a new record deal and a new manager. He began to go national. In January, he began appearing on variety shows of the day and he would literally tear those television studios apart. Any and all young people in the audience were beside themselves with glee watching this young man sing and play music that they were just beginning to appreciate. And then there was the effect that his inability to stand still while he sang had on the audience. Middle-aged people were sure it was some sort of a gimmick but the kids were drawn to everything about him. The music he played and the way he played it, the clothes he wore, the way he moved. In March, his eponymous debut album was released. It featured covers of some black R&B tunes but unlike some other white artists of the time, when Presley covered an R&B tune he didn’t water it down. Quite the opposite. The cover of this album featured Presley in wild abandon with a guitar strapped around his shoulders. This image played a crucial role in putting the guitar front and center of this new music. He recorded some his most recognizable songs early in the year among them “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog”; the latter of which he performed which such ‘vigor’ on the Milton Berle show that his performance touched off a powder keg of criticism regarding his singing style and ability and mostly his unbridled enthusiasm and gyrations when he sang. Steve Allen had Presley on his show and made a big deal of how he was presenting a “new Elvis”, dressing EP in a tuxedo and tails and having him restrain himself as he sang. That night Allen beat his biggest rival Ed Sullivan in the ratings. This forced Sullivan to have Presley appear, even though Sullivan had said he wouldn’t have Presley on because his was “a family show”. Elvis’ first appearance on the Sullivan show was viewed by 60 million people – a record 82.6% of the TV audience. It was this appearance that really put him over the top. His second album was released in October. It went to number one. In November, he appeared in his first film, “Love Me tender”. I have found in writing this that it is very difficult to fully appreciate the impact Elvis Presley had on the public during the year 1956. Literally everything began to change because of the exposure and the success he had during these twelve months. The year ended with a front page article in the Wall Street Journal that reported that $22 million worth of EP merchandise had been sold that year – on top of record sales. Also, at RCA – one of the biggest record labels in the business – Presley had accounted for over 50% of the label’s singles sales. We have to end with the words of historian Marty Jezer to put 1956 in perspective: “As Presley set the artistic pace, other artists followed. … Presley, more than anyone else, gave the young a belief in themselves as a distinct and somehow unified generation—the first in America ever to feel the power of an integrated youth culture.”

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Elvis Week 2017 – Day 1: Tupelo & Mama

Welcome to Elvis Week 2017! This is the annual week long celebration of the January 8th anniversary of the birth of Elvis Presley. This year he would have been 82. There was so many cool things about him – one of the coolest was to be born when he was. The holidays are over but before the January Blahs can set in we can all continue our ‘escape’ by entering Elvis World for a week to cushion the blow of the coming winter. I’ve tried to break down EP into only seven short segments (no small task) but let’s walk through the Coles Notes version of his life over the course of this week.

Day 1. TUPELO – Tupelo, Mississippi,  January 8, 1935 – basically the mid-way point of the Depression – and Gladys Love Presley goes into labour with her first child. Father Vernon Elvis Presley – in the manner of the day – is banished from the shack he has built with his father’s help to await the arrival. In the early morning hours, Gladys finally delivers a tiny baby boy. The child, however, is born dead. In the horrific aftermath of this it is realized that there is another child awaiting birth. 35 minutes later, another child – only 5+ pounds but alive – is delivered into the world. In trying to think of these people as just regular folks, one can possibly understand how a stillborn baby – and the knowledge for the mother that she can never conceive again – would do irreparable emotional damage to an already destitute, although tight-knit, family. As Elvis grows, Gladys becomes obsessively devoted to her only child. Often to the exclusion of Vernon. She never wanted little Elvis out of her sight and so began a relationship that saw mother and son form an unusually strong bond. Indeed, in many ways, as history would show, their destinies became inextricably linked.

I don’t think enough can be said about the effect that extreme poverty had on the rest of Elvis Presley’s life. Growing up in such dire straits and then coming into a fortune that was inconceivable to share-cropper families like his had an inestimable effect on the way Presley conducted business throughout his career. It can explain so much about the way he handled contracts and his employees and about the influence he allowed his manager, Col. Tom Parker, to exert over him. The same can certainly be said about Vernon. Indeed, Elvis’ father lived the rest of his life in fear that one day it would all be gone and they’d be back where they started. Even in the middle of the opulent lifestyle that his son’s success made possible.

As Elvis entered his late teens, the family decided to pull up stakes and try for a better life over the state line in Memphis, Tennessee. The next few years of his life would bring a change of fortunes for his family. Actually, the next few years of his life would bring changes that would literally resonate throughout the social history of life on this planet.

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