Elvis Presley, In Memoriam, Red West

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

 

 

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Centennial, Dean Martin, music, singing

Dino 100: Part 3

Dean Martin hit ‘legend’ status early. By the late 1960’s, his records weren’t charting anymore and he wasn’t starring in hit movies. But it didn’t matter. He performed on stage in Las Vegas and elsewhere to sold out crowds. Dino played it “drunk” and sang all the old songs and the people loved it. He gathered his celebrity friends together to put on one of his legendary “Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts” and the people laughed. Funniest of all was watching Dean, laughing harder than anyone. And not just at Don Rickles ripping people to shreds, either. You could believe that he was laughing mostly because he truly had it made. He could sustain a career and reap the rewards with very little effort. He just had to be himself.

The thing about Dean Martin is that he didn’t care. Now, as soon as you say that, it sounds negative. But I don’t mean to say that he had a poor attitude toward things or he was indifferent to his family and friends. When I say he didn’t care I mean that, for the most part, he wasn’t consumed with striving to attain a level of greatness in his singing or his acting. He could sing. He could sing well. He liked to sing. So, he sang. Period. And the record buying public loved it. His talent was based on ‘feel’ as opposed to ‘craft’. He had ‘a way with a song’. While making movies, he was laid back and jovial on set. When the cameras rolled, he acted naturally and his charisma shone through. But that’s not to say he wasn’t good – very good – at what he did. Watch him in his films with Jerry Lewis and you’ll see that Jerry is bang on when he talks of Dean’s comedic timing and his handling of a funny line. Not to mention the looks and expressions he could pull off in place of a spoken punch line. It all came so naturally to him. That is what is at the root of his greatness – it was all so seemingly effortless. He was so completely confident and sure of himself that he was able to simply be himself his entire career. This is what people today remember most about Dean Martin. His attitude, his coolness. He was also successful when he went looking for a stretch and played it serious in films like “The Young Lions” with method actors Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift or “Rio Bravo” with John Wayne. While making records, he could delight you with joyous recordings like “That’s Amore” and “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” but he could also make you close your eyes while his voice washed over you with the smoother sounds of “Once in a While” or “My One and Only Love”. With a change of sound upon moving to Reprise in the ’60’s, he could still delight listeners with a jaunty run-through of “I’m Gonna Change Everything” or make them shake their heads and sigh with the heartbreak of “Nobody’s Baby Again”.

In the interest of taking care of business, it should be noted that the last years of Dean Martin’s life were not happy ones. One of Dean’s sons was Dean Paul Martin, who was known as “Dino”. Young Dino was a noted tennis player and a minor actor. He starred in a TV series in 1985-86 called “Misfits of Science” that also starred Courtney Cox. Dino was also a pilot. He joined the California Air National Guard and rose to the rank of captain. He died in 1987 when his jet crashed into the San Bernardino Mountains, the same mountains that had claimed the life of Frank Sinatra’s mother, Dolly. Losing his son devastated Dean and he was truly never the same. In 1988, Frank Sinatra organized a series of reunion shows featuring himself, Dean and Sammy Davis, Jr. Frank reportedly said that the main purpose of the reunion shows was to give Dino something to do, to get him out and about, to maybe forget his troubles. But Dean’s heart was never in it. He lasted only five performances before bowing out. In the fall of 1993, Dean was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died Christmas Day, 1995 of acute respiratory failure resulting from emphysema. He was 78.

But enough of that. We’re here to celebrate Dino’s LIFE. His legacy is remarkably full and varied. He made many great comedy films in the golden age of Hollywood with one of the greatest and most celebrated comedians that ever lived. He recorded timeless music in his early days, sprinkling lovely Italian melodies amongst gems that are the very definition of mid-century crooning. His alliances with other legends added a luster to his personality as regular joes looked at him as the ultimate ‘pally’: the perfect guy to hang out with. In a tux at Romanoff’s or a sport shirt in the clubhouse after a round of golf. He epitomized the swank Las Vegas lifestyle and aura that appealed to royalty and working stiffs the world over. With his many westerns he won over many fans of that hardy, masculine genre. Adding to this was the appeal of his style of country crooning throughout the 1960’s – just one more way he endeared himself to the majority of the adult record buying public. It seems today he is remembered for one major thing. His most lasting legacy seems to be COOL. When hip, happening people of today look back for inspiration when it comes to handling the lady, handling the cocktail, handling the situation no matter what it is – and handling it dressed to the nines – they all seem to land on Dean Martin. He may have had equals but was there ever anybody cooler than Dino? I don’t think so. As Dean’s character in “Ocean’s 11”, Sam Harmon, said: “Everywhere I go people stare at me in dumb admiration”. Yes. We do.

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Centennial, Dean Martin, music, singing

Dino 100: Part 2

Most students of mid-century culture are well aware of the story of the Holmby Hills Rat Pack, later known as simply the Rat Pack. (Frank hated the term and neither he nor anyone else in the later group ever used it. They preferred to call themselves ‘The Summit’ or ‘The Clan’) The semi-formal group of famous friends was founded – for lack of a better word – in the mid 1950’s by Humphrey Bogart. He and his wife, actress Lauren Bacall, brought like-minded friends together, friends who could not abide the typical Hollywood pretensions and dedicated themselves to drinking and keeping themselves apart from the social whirl. The members included, among others, David Niven, Judy Garland and her husband, Sid Luft and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra idolized Bogie and after Bogie’s death in 1957 Frank became the leader. In 1959, Dean Martin had become a regular headliner in Las Vegas, as had Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. Often times they were appearing at various hotels in Vegas at the same time. Frequently, when Dean was in the middle of his show, Frank and Sammy would show up to join in a song or simply to heckle. The same would happen to Frank. Dean and Sammy would walk in and hilarity would ensue. Word started to get around Las Vegas and the entertainment world in general that these guys were hanging out together. This meant massive crowds of people flooded into Las Vegas with the idea that if you bought a ticket to see Sammy Davis, chances are you’d end up seeing Dino and Sinatra as well. Add to this the hype surrounding the guys coming together with Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop and others to film “Ocean’s 11” in the various casinos and you had a seismic event going on. The celebrity of Dino and his pallys reached dizzying heights. It was at this point that Dean Martin famously quipped “It’s Frank’s world. We’re just living in it”. This statement actually says a lot about the personalities of the two men. Sinatra was indeed the leader, which is how he liked it. Always headstrong and in charge, Sinatra cut a swath through virtually every environment he found himself in. Dino sat back and commentated. Frank Sinatra was head down, teeth gritted, wrestling perfection into submission. Dean Martin was heavy-lidded, shoulders slowly shrugging. Happy to be home in the evening with his wife, Jeanne, and their ever growing family, Dean was often in bed early to be up in time for an early tee time. There’s a telling scene in HBO’s “The Rat Pack” biopic starring Ray Liotta as Sinatra, Joe Mantegna as Dino and Don Cheadle as Sammy Davis, Jr. The boys are all staying together in a swank Vegas hotel. The camera pans through their various rooms revealing all kinds of debauchery. When we get to Dean’s room, he’s lying alone on his bed with his putter watching the late show in the dark.

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As the 1960’s progressed, Dean Martin made many notable and successful films – with the boys and without: “Ocean’s 11”, “Sergeant’s 3”, “Four for Texas”, “Robin and the 7 Hoods”, “Kiss Me, Stupid”, “The Sons of Katie Elder”. He also pursued dramatic roles in films such as “Ada” with Susan Hayward and “Toys in the Attic”, which was based on a play and co-stars Gene Tierney. Dean’s way of “winking at the camera” came to full fruition when he portrayed suave secret agent Matt Helm in films based – very loosely – on the very serious novels by Donald Hamilton. Dino smirked, drank, sang and kung fu kicked his way through four Helm films starring alongside the likes of James Gregory, Stella Stevens, Cyd Charrise, Ann-Margret, Sharon Tate, Tina Louise and Chuck Norris. The films are delightfully ridiculous.

Dean Martin is at the heart of another wonderfully true Hollywood legend. In the early 1960’s, NBC began hounding Dino to do a weekly variety show. Martin was reluctant, due mostly to his desire to be free to accept movie and night club offers. But also he wasn’t keen on the work and discipline it would take to put on a weekly show. Heading into meetings with the network, Dino made some intentionally ridiculous demands including an overly high salary and, most significantly, that he need not show up for any rehearsals but only for the actual taping of the show. So, one day of work a week. You can just imagine Dino in that meeting. Must have been hilarious. What is even funnier though is that the network accepted! Reportedly, Dino went home to his family and dejectedly said ‘they went for it. I guess I have to do it’. So, Dean was ‘stuck’ with a highly-rated show that lasted for 9 seasons and featured absolutely EVERY major star of the day. The show also featured the Gold Diggers dancing girls, Dean singing – natch – with his pianist, Ken Lane and generally just Dino being Dino. His lack of preparation was played for laughs. He made no bones about the fact he was reading cue cards – his ‘winging it’ became the charm of the show. This is an example of Dino putting in no effort whatsoever – reading the cue cards and laughing during skits – and people eating it up. They loved to watch Dino be Dino.

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In 1960, Frank Sinatra was fed up with working for Capitol Records and so he, of course, started his own record company, Reprise Records. Over the course of the next few years, FS began drawing many of his recording artist friends into the fold including Keely Smith, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis, Jr. and our boy, Dino. Dean’s first couple of albums with Reprise reveal that the company wasn’t sure what to do with him. He started with “French Style”, an album of, you guessed it, French songs. And then there was “Dino Latino”, a set featuring…yep, Latin songs. Then they got on to something. Billed as Dean “Tex” Martin, Dino released two albums of country music. Now, we’re not talking real, sawdust, honky tonking Hank Williams exactly. This is what you might call “country crooning” in the vein of Jim Reeves or Eddy Arnold. There seemed to be a good fit between Dino’s easy way with a song and these gently cantering country tunes. Soon after these two country albums, Dean recorded maybe the finest album of his career, “Dream With Dean”, a wonderful collection of quiet, intimate songs meant to be enjoyed late at night by the fire. During the recording session for this album, Dean’s pianist Ken Lane suggested Dean take a crack at a song Lane had written some 15 years before called “Everybody Loves Somebody”. Dean agreed and this gentle version appears on the album. Some time later, Dean was back in the studio and recorded the song again, this time with full orchestra. Reprise Records was excited about the recording and issued it as a single in June of 1964 – the height of Beatlemania. Traditional crooners like Dean were hard pressed to even place songs on the charts once the British Invasion hit. Remarkably though, Dean’s song not only charted but achieved the seemingly impossible – it went to #1, displacing The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”. “Everybody Loves Somebody” became Dean’s signature tune, eventually even being inscribed on his grave marker.

After the success of “Everybody Loves Somebody”, Reprise continued to team Dean with producer Jimmy Bowen who maintained the easy-loping country sound that seemed to fit Dean so well. A sort of “countrypolitan” sound, Dean still sounded like Dean – smooth vocals steeped in the tradition of the Great American Songbook and the recordings still featured full orchestras, string sections and female background singers – but the songs themselves were either actual country songs that had been hits for country artists or songs introduced by Dean that were obviously written in the country idiom. His Reprise catalogue provides a vastly different listening experience when compared to his Capitol recordings of the ’50’s. Recordings like “The Door is Still Open to My Heart”, “Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On”, “(Remember Me) I’m the One Who Loves You”, “Houston” and, perhaps my absolute favourite Dean Martin song, “I Will”. Nine Top 40 hits in 4 years. Dean’s albums on Reprise are a delight. If somewhat nondescript, they are the perfect accompaniment to a lazy and warm afternoon. For me personally, they seem to transport me back to the late 1960’s and – although I wasn’t there – they provide for me a sort of snapshot of the era. They are very much of their time.

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The entertainment industry changed drastically in the 1960’s and most singers of popular song saw their fortunes decline as the decade went on and tastes continue to fluctuate. There were a handful – and Dean was certainly one of them – that had a sufficient amount of talent, celebrity and flat-out charisma to survive and even flourish by branching out into movies, television and live performances. Dean certainly enjoyed great success in the ’60’s. It could even be said that his career didn’t even hit it’s stride until the middle of the decade.

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Spotlight on…Del Shannon

I recently listened to a Del Shannon 2-CD Greatest Hits package and it really got me thinking. I have known of him since basically the beginning of my awareness of “oldies”, due in most part to his timeless 1961 #1 song “Runaway”. It was the biggest success of his career and the number he is most remembered for. But I seemed to recall having heard things about his later career, about how super stardom seemed to elude him and of his tragic end.

Del was born Charles Westover in Michigan. Just as he was beginning to get his recording career off the ground, he joined forces with a keyboardist named Max Crook who had invented his own organ-type keyboard called a musitron. Del and Max reworked an older song of theirs called “Little Runaway” and recorded it as “Runaway” in early 1961. The song reached #1 in many countries in April of that year and became one of what I would call the pillars of classic rock ‘n’ roll. Even today, many people have heard or heard of the song and it has even become something more than just a song and has become an iconic symbol of another era. “Runaway” also received the Lucas Stamp. George Lucas deemed the song indicative enough of classic rock ‘n’ roll that he included it in his seminal document of the era, “American Graffiti”. Del is interesting to me because he was more than just a one-hit wonder and was able to follow up “Runaway” with other moderate hits. Indeed, his next single – “Hats Off to Larry” – peaked at number five and he closed out the year with two other songs reaching the top 40. Not bad. While Del was not an excellent vocalist, he did have an excellent falsetto that was featured on both of these early hits and became something of a trademark of his recordings. 1962 started with minor chart activity until late in the year when “Little Town Flirt” reached #12 in the US and also did well globally (#1 in Ireland). And then the hits seemed to dry up. So, really, that’s only two calendar years but three notable hit recordings – one eventually reaching iconic status – is a pretty good resume for the fickle world of early ’60’s rock ‘n’ roll.

He continued to be popular in England – where he was always more popular – and in fact added to his rep in 1963 by becoming the first American artist to record a Beatles song. Del’s recording of “From Me to You” charted in the States before the Beatles version did. In 1964, after a few more minor chart entries, Del had a hit with the excellent “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun)” which entered the top ten late in the year. Also in 1964, Del produced some demo recordings for fellow Michigander Bob Seger. The demos fell into the hands of Dick Clark and shortly thereafter Seger signed a recording contract and began his lengthy career with some regional successes. In 1965, British pop duo Peter and Gordon scored a hit with Del’s gorgeous “I Go to Pieces” but chart success eluded Shannon during the late 1960’s. He turned to production and discovered country singer Johnny Craver (?) and the band Smith, who you may remember had a hit with a remake of “Baby, It’s You”. He also produced Brian Hyland’s 1970 hit “Gypsy Woman”. A telling sign that his own recording career was nearly over is his re-recording of his big hit “Runaway” in 1967, although the single was successful in Canada and Australia. Also in that year, back in welcoming England, Del worked with former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham on an album called “Home and Away”. Oldham intended the album to be in the vein of the Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece “Pet Sounds”. However – and this is a common story in rock ‘n’ roll history – the record company shelved the ambitious album and refused to release it. Another highly regarded album – “The Further Adventures of Charles Westover” – couldn’t find an audience and sold poorly.

So, at the dawn of the 1970’s, Del had a good rep as a live performer and was looked on as somewhat of a survivor but his lack of chart success disappointed him and – another common story – he turned to alcohol. However, Del cleaned up enough to record the album “Drop Down and Get Me” in 1982. Del had a fan in Tom Petty and Petty produced this album and his Heartbreakers play on it. It features the moderate hit remake of “Sea of Love” (#33). Petty and his friends would come back onto the scene after Del enjoyed a resurgence when he re-recorded “Runaway” yet again for use over the opening credits of the great Michael Mann show starring Dennis Farina, “Crime Story”. At this time, Del also worked with Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty’s band mate in the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys who had just lost their resident early ’60’s legend when Roy Orbison died. Here’s the part I actually remember about Del and it used to bug me. There was every indication that he would be the perfect – freakishly perfect – replacement for Orbison. But Shannon had been suffering from depression, depression caused by his faltering recording career. He had been taking Prozac for this depression and, despite his possible future as a Wilbury, he took his own life in February of 1990 with a rifle (!?).

The part that bugged me was, at the time, I was stunned by his depression caused by not having a chart hit for many years. What did he expect? I remember thinking. He started out in 1960, he still wants hits in 1990?! Well, yes, he did. Easy for us fans to sit back and say ‘hey, Del, you gave us “Runaway”. That’s good enough’. But for him and for artists like him it’s not good enough. They want to continue to make music and have it heard by the world. When they feel they can’t do that, I’m sure it can be a blow.

So, what is Del Shannon’s legacy? What is he? A ‘one-hit wonder’? Just another tragic example of how middling success can take a toll on those who aim for super stardom? Seems to me it’s yes and no and somewhere in between. He was responsible for one of the most enduring songs of an era that has taken on the rosy glow of nostalgia for many people. And that’s enough for us, the fans. But he had ambitions and he had more music in him. It’s just that the majority of the record-buying public wasn’t into that music. And that’s a shame. It’s also a shame that Del Shannon’s story is a common one.

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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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#endofanera

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.

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