March 21, 2017
When we saw Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall in November, he recalled—again—how he was having a beer after a gig in Chicago when he was approached by a young man who wanted Arlo to listen to a song. Arlo grudgingly agreed. The young man was Steve Goodman, the song was “City of New Orleans,” and rest is—well, never mind the cliche.
It’s one of those “near miss” stories. If Arlo had told Goodman to buzz off, who knows how history would have been altered?
The same goes for Jack Lawrence—or so it seems. There are differing accounts of this event, but according to Marv Goldberg in his book More Than Words Can Say: The Music of the Ink Spots, Lawrence made a cold-call visit on January 12, 1939 to the Decca Records recording studio in Manhattan where The Ink Spots were about to cut “Knock Kneed Sal,” and offered his own composition, “If I Didn’t Care.”
The Ink Spots, whose membership evolved over the years, had been around since the early 1930s and by the middle of the decade were popular in the United States and abroad. They continued performing into the mid 1950s, although other groups peddled themselves as the originals for many years after that.
“If I Didn’t Care” was the first studio recording in which The Ink Spots used a style that would become the group’s trade mark. The lead vocal was sung by tenor Bill Kenny, and a spoken bridge was provided by bass Hoppy Jones.
Kenny, who is often cited as a forerunner of Johnny Mathis, sang with a precise, elegant diction and a remarkable high register. Jones would recite the bridge in a colloquial drawl, improvising on the original lyrics and peppering them with terms such as “darlin,” “honey chile,” “doggone,” and “askaird.”
I recently bought a double-CD collection of 50 of The Ink Spots’ recordings, the preponderance of them delivered in this fashion. I was familiar with The Ink Spots because my parents were fans of theirs, and there were some of the group’s Decca records around our house. But until I listened to the collection I just bought, I didn’t appreciate the effect created by the contrast between Kenny’s refined phrasing and Jones’s down-home style.
Besides Kenny’s purported influence on Mathis, The Ink Spots are regarded as ancestors of the R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and doo-wop groups of later generations.
“If I Didn’t Care” never got higher than No. 2 on the pop charts, but it sold 19 million copies, making it the tenth best-selling single of all time. Their numerous other hits included “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” “My Prayer,” “Don’t Get Around Much Any More,” and “Lovely Way to Spend an Evening.”
My favorite among their recordings is “Whispering Grass,” written in 1940 by Fred Fisher and his daughter, Doris Fisher. Perhaps it appeals to me because the lyric seems to have been inspired by Kahlil Gibran: “If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.” You can hear “Whispering Grass” by clicking HERE.
You can hear “If I Didn’t Care” by clicking HERE.
March 11, 2017
The season-ending episode of the British television series “Victoria” gave us a glimpse of Edward Oxford, the first of eight people who attempted to assassinate the British queen who reigned from 1837 to 1901. We last see the young man in a straitjacket, which is giving Oxford short shrift.
The incident occurred in 1840, substantially as it was presented in the television show. Victoria and her husband, Albert, were taking their customary carriage outing, accompanied only by two outriders, when Oxford, who was 18 years old, fired a pistol at them. Neither royal was injured, and it turned out that there was only powder in the weapon.
Oxford, who later said he fired at the queen only to draw attention to himself, had been accumulating weapons and ammunition and noodling around with a fictional military society. He was adjudged insane and sent first to the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Bethlem, Southwark, and then to Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire. Victoria was portrayed in the television program as accepting the decision of the jury, but in actual fact she maintained that if Oxford had hanged, the later attempts on her life might not have happened. The series has been renewed for a second season, so maybe that aspect of the story will come out.
Oxford made the most of his time within the walls. He learned to draw, play the violin, and speak several languages, and he made himself useful as a painter and decorator. He was also known for his exceptional skill at chess and checkers. He was eventually declared sane and released on the condition that he live somewhere in the British Empire other than England.
Oxford went to Melbourne in southern Australia, where he adopted the name John Freeman, found employment as a house painter, and joined the West Melbourne Mutual Improvement Society.
In 1881, he got married to a widow who had two children. He became a lay official at St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, and he wrote articles for a newspaper, The Argus, about the city’s slums, markets, and racetracks. These articles provided the material for a book published in 1888, Lights and Shadows of Melbourne Life. John Freeman, or John Oxford–both, really–died in 1900.
February 18, 2017
So much depends on the guide.
Last summer we took two of our grandsons on the Circle Line cruise around Manhattan Island. Although they are siblings–all right, maybe because they are siblings–we took them one at a time.
On the first cruise, the guide was wonderful. Like a lot of guides in New York, he wasn’t really a guide — he was an actor. And his acting skill served him well as he regaled us with a stream of colorful stories and quirky facts, some of which probably were true. On the second cruise, the guide didn’t even come out on the deck. He recited his monotonous narrative over a p.a. system from some air-conditioned sanctuary.
I’m especially grateful to that first guide for talking at great length about a woman I had never heard of, Audrey Munson. Rather than being the face that launched a thousand ships, Audrey was the woman of a thousand faces (I’m exaggerating for effect), most of them in oil, bronze, or stone. The principal reason the guide was talking about Audrey was that her face has been preserved on more than a dozen statues in New York City, including the woman dominating the group below, which is on the Manhattan Bridge.
Audrey was born upstate in 1891 and arrived in New York City with her divorced mother in 1909 aiming to become an entertainer, and in that same she year actually got her first role on Broadway in a turkey that ran for about twenty days.
But a chance meeting on Fifth Avenue with a professional photographer led to a career for Audrey as an artists’ model. One of those artists was sculptor Isidore Konti who was the first to have her pose nude and who used her as the model for the figures in “Three Graces,” which he executed for the new ballroom at the Hotel Astor. In 1915, she posed for the majority of the sculptures created for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair held in San Francisco.
Around that same time, Audrey got into the new film industry, starring in four silent films. In the first one, Inspiration, she became the first woman to appear nude in an American film. She didn’t really act in that film, she posed in various scenes. An actress who resembled her did the dramatic work. None of these films did much for Audrey’s career; one of them evidently was never released.
In 1919, Audrey and her mother, apparently down on their luck, were living in a boarding house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The owner of the place, Dr. Walter Wilkins, fell in love with Audrey and murdered his wife so that he could marry Audrey. Audrey and mom fled to Canada where they were pursued and questioned by private detectives. Nothing came of that, and Wilkins was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but he took his own life while in prison.
By 1920, no one seemed to want Audrey, and she was reduced to living off her mother, who supported herself and her daughter by peddling kitchen wares door to door. In 1922, Audrey attempted suicide, and in 1931 her mother had her committed to a hospital for the insane in Ogdensburg, New York, where the unfortunate woman lived for 65 years until she died in 1996 at 104 years of age.
Audrey, who has been characterized as America’s first supermodel once wrote in a magazine article:
“What becomes of the artists’ models? I am wondering if many of my readers have not stood before a masterpiece of lovely sculpture or a remarkable painting of a young girl, her very abandonment of draperies accentuating rather than diminishing her modesty and purity, and asked themselves the question, ‘Where is she now, this model who was so beautiful?’ ”
For a video by Robert Serrini exploring images of Audrey Munson, click HERE.
February 9, 2017
I came across an audio file on YouTube that identified the contents as “a very funky version of ‘Water Boy’ by an unknown artist named Valentine Pringle.” Well, unknown to the writer, maybe, but not unknown to me. I spotted Valentine Pringle in 1962 when Harry Belafonte introduced him on “Talent Scouts,” a short-lived television show with a premise that still has traction. Pringle’s voice, which ranged from tenor to basso profundo, was startling in its beauty and its power.
I remembered his name and did everything I could in those pre-internet days to find another opportunity to hear him sing. I was a big consumer of vinyl in those days, and on most Friday nights I would visit Dumont Records in Paterson, New Jersey. Eventually, Val Pringle did show up at Dumont in two RCA LPs–“I Hear America Singing” (1963) and “Powerhouse” (1964). I still have the vinyl, and “Powerhouse” is now available on CD and iTunes.
Pringle made a couple of other recordings; wrote some songs, including “Louise” which he wrote for Belafonte; and had some kind of a career in television and film, but nothing worthy of that voice. The entertainment industry frequently makes no sense to me.
In the 1980s Val Pringle and his wife, Thea van Maastrich, moved to Lesotho, a tiny kingdom that is surrounded by South Africa. Pringle had appeared in Lesotho on a cultural exchange tour sponsored by the United States Information Service, and I guess it appealed to him. He ran a nightclub and the Lancer’s Inn, a hotel and restaurant in Maseru.
On the night of December 13, 1999, two burglars broke into Pringle’s house. Pringle confronted the men with a pistol, but he was stabbed to death. Two men were caught and convicted of the crime.
Pringle had served in the United States Army as a specialist third-class. His ashes are buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.
August 14, 2016
When my son, Christian, told me last July that Meryl Streep would play Florence Foster Jenkins in a movie, my first hope was that the filmmakers would not ridicule Mrs. Jenkins, who would be an easy mark.
I first learned about Florence Foster Jenkins when I reviewed a regional production of Steven Temperley’s play, Souvenir, which recounts the unorthodox singer’s career.
Mrs. Jenkins, who had had several disappointments in her life, inherited a fortune and used her wealth to break into New York society as a significant patron of the arts. She thought of herself as a talented classical singer—whereas in reality she had no sense of tone or pitch—and gave private recitals to controlled audiences that would not tell her the truth. Her ambition exceeded her grasp, however, when she decided to give a public performance at Carnegie Hall.
Some dismiss Mrs. Jenkins as a fool, but others see in her a certain heroism, and her belief in herself may rise to that level when it is viewed in the whole context of her life, including her seriously compromised health.
Anyway, Pat and I saw the Meryl Streep film and found that there was no need to worry. While the filmmakers depart from the facts in that compulsive way that they have, the movie is a fair representation of the woman’s life and, most important, it treats her kindly.
My earlier blog about Florence Foster Jenkins is at THIS LINK.
July 23, 2016
Using only one name has been an effective marketing device for a lot of entertainers, and for none more effectively than for Johnny. When I was a young boy, my mother told me that my father had been at some public event the previous night, and that had met Johnny. She didn’t have to say his last name—none of us knew his last name; I knew immediately that she meant the diminutive bellboy who pitched Phillip Morris cigarettes.
On radio, on television, in print ads, and in public appearances, Johnny was one of the most familiar figures of his time, with his snappy uniform, his tray with the written message on it, and his high pitched announcement: “Call … for … Phillip Mahr-rayss.” That’s how he pronounced it, as you can hear at the beginning of this Lucy and Desi ad.
Johnny, who was born in Brooklyn in 1910, was forty-seven inches tall as an adult and weighed about 59 pounds. He was employed in the 1930s as a bellboy at the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan in an era when hotel lobbies were elaborate gathering places. Uniformed bellboys were fixtures in these spaces, often calling out the names of persons for whom there were inquiries or telephone or written messages. The New Yorker used Johnny’s size as a promotional gimmick.
Johnny came to the attention of Milton Blow, whose advertising agency had the Phillip Morris account. Blow brought a Phillip Morris executive to the lobby to watch Johnny in action and, according to Roventini, asked Johnny to page “Phillip Morris.” If that story is true, no one answered the page, but the impromptu audition launched the young man into what turned out to be a lucrative, forty-year career as the public image of the Phillip Morris brand. He also became one of the most recognizable celebrities of his time and was welcome in the company of everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Dwight Eisenhower.
Johnny Roventini’s fame was advanced significantly when Phillip Morris agreed in 1951 to sponsor the television series I Love Lucy, a show that was shunned by advertisers who in those times were afraid of the public reaction to a marriage between a Cuban man and an American woman. Roventini became personally attached to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and he and the sponsor stood by Ball after news reports that the House Un-American Activities Committee was investigating charges that Ball had Communist connections.
I have never smoked a cigarette, but I grew up in an era in which smoking and cigarette advertising were pervasive. People of my age will remember the campaigns—”LSMFT” (“Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco”), “Pall Mall (pronounced ‘pell mell’). Outstanding—and they are mild!” And the campaign that drove English teachers to distraction, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” But no tobacco campaign had Johnny’s personality.
After public awareness of the lethal effects of smoking led to a federal ban on broadcast cigarette advertising in 1970, Johnny continued to make public appearances on behalf of the brand until 1974. He died in 1988.
June 4, 2016
Mohammed Ali, who died yesterday, was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., a descendant of slaves.
The senior Clay, in turn, was named after a 19th century political and diplomatic figure. When Ali adopted Islam and changed his name, he explained that it was his “slave name,” that he didn’t choose it and didn’t want it.
I get what he meant by “slave name,” but there was a certain irony in the term inasmuch as the original Cassius Marcellus Clay was an abolitionist. In fact, although he was a Kentucky planter, the scion of a wealthy family, and a member of the state legislature, he argued for the immediate abolition of slavery.
During a political debate in 1843, a hired assassin named Sam Brown shot Clay in the chest, but Clay went after Brown with a Bowie knife and threw him off an embankment.
Two years later, Clay founded an anti-slavery newspaper in Lexington. Kentucky. This inspired so much antagonism toward him, that he carried two pistols and a knife and sealed himself behind armored doors at his office, which was equipped with two cannons. After a crowd of about sixty men broke into the office and confiscated the printing equipment, Clay moved his operation to Cincinnati, Ohio, but continued to live in Kentucky.
Clay served in the Mexican-American War as a captain with the 1st Kentucky Cavalry from 1846 to 1847. He opposed the annexation of Texas and expansion of slavery into the Southwest. While making a speech for abolition in 1849, Clay was attacked by six brothers, who beat and stabbed him and tried to shoot him. Clay fought them all off and killed one of them, Cyrus Turner, with a Bowie knife.
Clay later served as minister to Russia under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, resigning after Ulysses S. Grant took office. Clay was in Russia when Tsar Alexander II issued an edict emancipating serfs throughout the empire. Clay received a military commission from Lincoln and returned to the United States for a time during the Civil War, apparently influencing Lincoln to prepare the Emancipation Proclamation.
Clay was influential in the Tsar’s decision to threaten war against France and Britain if they were to recognize the Confederate States of America, and also in the sale of Alaska to the United States, which occurred during Andrew Johnson’s administration.
Clay and his wife, Mary Jane, had seven children, but the marriage ended after forty-five years, due to Clay’s chronic infidelity. At 84, he married Dora Richardson, who was 15 years old at the time. Not surprisingly, two of Clay’s daughters, Laura and Mary Barr, were women’s-rights activists.
May 22, 2016
We recently attended a concert by Johnny Mathis and he, of course, sang “the holy trinity.”
Those who have followed this singer’s career know that he applies this sobriquet to three songs—”Chances Are,” “The Twelfth of Never,” and “Misty”—that he sings at virtually every appearance, whether he wants to or not.
These songs are identified with Mathis, and his fans expect to hear them.
In fact, from my point of view, they are so identified with Mathis, that no one else need bother to sing them. When the psychotic fan calls Clint Eastwood’s disk-jockey character in that 1971 thriller and whispers, “Play ‘Misty’ for me,” she doesn’t have to say which version she means, although by that time the Errol Garner-Johnny Burke song had also been recorded by stars that included Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Della Reese.
And not long after Johnny Mathis first recorded “Misty” for an album released in 1959, Billy Eckstine set down his version, which you can hear by clicking HERE.
Eckstine, who died in 1993, is largely forgotten, but he was an influential jazz musician and bandleader, a pioneer in be-bop, and a very successful singer. His vocal hits included “Blue Moon,” “Everything I Have is Yours,” “Caravan,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “I Apologize.” His recordings of “Cottage for Sale” and “Prisoner of Love” were million-sellers. He released more than forty-four albums. He had a rich bass-baritone voice with both subtlety and power, and a distinctive vibrato. A lot of his work, including his recordings with Sarah Vaughan and Dizzie Gillespie, is available on CD or MP3.
In 1950, LIFE magazine published a three-page feature on Eckstine that included photographs by Martha Holmes. One of the photos showed Eckstine, who was one of the first “cross-over” black musical performers, with a group of female fans, all of them white. The whole group is laughing over something, and one of the women has her hand on Eckstine’s right shoulder and her face against the lapel of his jacket as she laughs. Because of the mores—or, I should say, prejudices—of that era, LIFE published the photo only with the approval of its publisher, Henry Luce. LIFE received many letters objecting to the picture, and many people turned against Eckstine. TIME magazine reproduced the photo to mark the centenary of Ekstine’s birth. You can see it by clicking HERE.
Eckstine, whose life included its share of personal turmoil, was a civil rights activist and a close friend of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
March 20, 2016
Bob Costas tells a story about having dinner with Mickey Mantle and thinking it odd that Mantle asked for a doggie bag when the meal was through. When they left the restaurant, Mantle asked Costas to take a walk with him. At a certain point, Mantle stopped and knocked on a big cardboard box where a homeless man was sleeping. The man emerged, appeared startled and afraid at first, but then recognized his visitor and said, “Oh, hi Mick.” Mantle gave the man the doggie bag, and Costas reasoned from the manner of the exchange that this was not the first time this had happened.
Since Bob Costas told this story, I assume it is true. And if it is, it means that whatever problems Mantle had—and he had more than his share—he had the grace to look at a homeless man rather than avert his gaze, rather than pretend not to see the evidence of neglect and indifference lying at his feet.
The neglect and indifference with which much of society regards the homeless is the underlying truth of Time Out of Mind, a 2014 film starring Richard Gere and Ben Vereen. Gere plays a man named George who, although he denies it—claiming to be in some transitional state of life—is homeless. He has no prospects and no identification, and at times he seems disoriented. When he is able to scrape together a few bucks, say by selling his coat, he uses it to buy a six pack of beer which he quickly consumes. His wife has died, and his daughter, who tends bar in a New York tavern, wants nothing to do with him. George finally resorts to a shelter where he meets Dixon (Ben Vereen), a self-described jazz pianist, who talks almost incessantly and acts like a conscience, a kind of Jiminy Cricket, to George.
The movie is almost without a plot, except for George’s effort to re-establish a relationship with his daughter. Time Out of Mind was written and directed by Oren Moverman and provocatively filmed in Manhattan. There are many scenes in which there is no dialogue, scenes that are mostly a study of how a man who has lost all ties to the world around him can be completely alone among millions of people. There are long, brooding shots, many of them from unconventional angles. There is no background music, only the sounds that sweep over and around George as a world busy with its own affairs goes on as though he were not there. “We don’t exist,” he tells Dixon.
It is a disconcerting film in the same way that the homeless men and women in New York and other cities are disconcerting reminders of the failures of our society, our institutions, and our economy. This film, which Gere’s production company developed, has made no money, and I read on the IMDb web site that twenty people walked out when the movie was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Maybe that says as much about them as it does about the film.
March 5, 2016
In the 1936 film Prisoner of Shark Island Samuel Mudd is portrayed (by Warner Baxter) as a well-meaning country doctor who unwittingly abetted the escape of John Wilkes Booth and wound up in a federal prison on an island in the Caribbean. He is pardoned after stemming a yellow fever epidemic that swept the prison.
It’s a good story, but it isn’t entirely true. The truth, some might think, is even more interesting, and it is laid out in detail in The Assassin’s Doctor by Robert K. Summers.
Summers, a great-grandson of Dr. Mudd, has written several books on this and related subjects, but he is not an apologist for his forebear. He seems more interested—particularly in this book—in spreading the record before the reading public.
Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln just as the Civil War was ending, and the reaction of the federal government—particularly of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton—was affected by the intense feelings rippling through the country, feelings that included fear, disillusionment, desperation, and paranoia.
After shooting Lincoln, Booth jumped from the presidential box to the stage of Ford’s Theatre, breaking a leg. He stumbled out of the theater, mounted a waiting horse, and galloped off to Maryland where, in the company of David Herold, one of his co-conspirators, he arrived around 4 in the morning at the home of Dr. Mudd.
Aroused from his sleep, Dr. Mudd took Booth in, put a splint on the broken leg, and provided Booth with a makeshift pair of crutches. Booth remained at Dr. Mudd’s home until the following day, and then left with Herold, heading for Virginia where Herold surrendered and Booth was shot to death by a Union soldier.
Dr. Mudd did not tell anyone about his visitors until several days later, and even then he didn’t do so directly but asked his cousin, Dr. George Mudd, to notify federal authorities in a nearby town. Military personnel visited Samuel Mudd’s home where the Mudds eventually turned over a boot that had been cut from Booth’s leg and that bore the inscription “J. Wilkes.”
Dr. Mudd was arrested, charged with conspiracy, tried by the same military commission that condemned to death three men (including Herold) and one woman (Mary Surratt); Dr. Mudd was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas islands south of Key West. He was pardoned in 1869 by President Andrew Johnson after working diligently to treat victims of yellow fever at the prison and contracting the disease himself.
There are no serious disagreements about these facts, but there is a lingering discourse about certain aspects of Dr. Mudd’s behavior. The most important question is whether Dr. Mudd recognized Booth when the assassin came calling with his broken leg. Dr. Mudd had met Booth before, when the actor was in the neighborhood ostensibly looking at real estate and seeking to buy a horse. But the doctor and his wife, Sarah, maintained that Booth was wearing false whiskers when he came seeking help with his injury and that Dr. Mudd did not recognize him and had no reason to suspect him. The Mudds’ account was that Booth left their house on Saturday, April 15, while Dr. Mudd was absent, and that Mrs. Mudd noticed the false whiskers at that time. According to this version of events, when Dr. Mudd resolved to notify authorities about these now-suspicious men, Mrs. Mudd prevailed on him to stay at home inasmuch as the men might still be in the area and might pose a danger to the family. So Booth used his cousin as a surrogate messenger.
I think the consensus among historians now is that Dr. Mudd’s acquaintance with Booth was more than the incidental encounter Dr. Mudd described, and that Dr. Mudd participated in conversations with Booth and others concerning Booth’s earlier plan to kidnap Lincoln and take him to Richmond, hoping to enable the Confederate government to negotiate a release of military prisoners. Dr. Mudd was a slave holder and a Southern sympathizer living in a border state, although not an activist against the Union government. It is unlikely, however, that he knew anything about Booth’s decision to murder Lincoln, both because Booth seems to have made that decision only shortly before carrying out the murder and because Dr. Mudd’s character suggests that he would not have agreed to have any part in such a crime. If he did help facilitate Booth’s escape, his primary motive might have been to purge the Mudd household of a murderer.
All the questions about what Dr. Mudd knew and when he knew it are explored in this book. Summers also includes extensive documentation, including many letters that Dr. Mudd wrote to his wife and others while he was a prisoner at Fort Jefferson. These letters include a description of his one attempt to escape from the prison, the harsh conditions under which he and the other prisoners lived, his relationship with other men who were sentenced in connection with the conspiracies against Lincoln, and his heroic part in stemming the yellow-jack epidemic. The average reader might not want to read all of these documents—although a history wonk such as me might devour them—but they do present in a convenient collection an opportunity to hear history unfolding in the voices of those who were taking part in it.