OTIS REDDING

OTIS REDDING

A former newspaper colleague of mine was recalling on Facebook the other day that on the occasion of Kurt Cobain’s suicide an editor approached and asked, in effect, “Is that a big story for your generation?” I know the feeling. In 1967, when I was 25 and Otis Redding was 26, Redding was killed in a plane crash and I had to convince my managing editor that that was front-page news.

The Facebook conversation reminded me of an incident that occurred about 20 years later when my wife and I and another couple were visiting Nevis, a tiny island in the Leeward group in the Caribbean. Shortly after we arrived, a Nevitian fellow we knew only as Ralph was driving us to the house we would be occupying that week. Ralph took us by surprise by asking this question: “Who were the two greatest American singers?” Considering the size of the field, and the fact that we didn’t know the consequences of answering wrong, we kept our counsel. So Ralph answered his own question: “Otis Redding and Jim Reeves.” Discretion being the better part of whaddyacallit, we feebly agreed with that assessment, but Ralph seemed to detect a lack of passion. His voice ticked up a bit in both pitch and volume: “Don’t tell anyone here that Otis Redding and Jim Reeves weren’t the greatest singers!” Having already made mental notes about the ubiquitous machetes on the island, we promised to do no such thing.
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I have always enjoyed the fact that one of the songs most identified with Redding, “Try a Little Tenderness,” originated in such an unlikely milieu.That song, a favorite of mine, was written in 1932 by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly, and Harry M. Woods and it was recorded many times, including by such as Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé, and Frankie Laine, but also by Etta James, Tina Turner, and Three Dog Night. When Otis Redding wanted to record it in his own style in 1966, the publishers were reticent, but that turned out to be the best known and most enduring version. To see and hear Redding singing “Try a Little Tenderness” the day before he died click HERE. To hear a far more conventional rendition by Frank Sinatra, click HERE.

JIM REEVES

JIM REEVES

While Ralph’s question in itself took us by surprise, we were even more baffled by the reference to Jim Reeves, who I wouldn’t have expected to hold iconic status in the western Caribbean. Moreover, Reeves had died, also in a plane crash, even earlier than Redding — on July 31, 1964. I had painful memories of that, because I had been a big fan of Jim Reeves, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Kitty Wells, and that whole crowd. I still have lots of their vinyl and a turntable to play it on.

I don’t know how well known it is, but Reeves was very athletic and had his eye  on professional baseball. He played for three years in the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system before an injury to his sciatic nerve ended his career.

He could hardly have done better in baseball than he did in music; he was an international star. Once he adopted the easygoing Nashville sound, he became one of my favorites. His hits included “Bimbo,”  “Welcome to My World,” “Blue Christmas,” and “Make the World Go Away.” I was always stuck on “I Love You Because,” and you can see and hear him singing it at a 1964 concert in Oslo by clicking HERE.

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LEONARD WARREN

LEONARD WARREN

My best friend was up in Nantucket at one of those places where you leave things you have no further use for and other folks take them home. Lou  spotted a set of CDs containing dozens of  vintage recordings of operatic arias. Being my best friend, he brought them back for me. One of the singers who was well represented on the discs was the American baritone Leonard Warren, whose voice I hadn’t heard in many years.

Just seeing Warren’s name in the play list evoked for me a vivid memory of a Friday night — March 4, 1960 — when I was watching television and heard a bulletin announcing that Warren had died that night on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan while performing the role of Don Carlo in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Forza del Destino. Warren, 48, collapsed after singing the aria “Urna fatale del mio destino” which is introduced with the words “Morir: tremenda cosa” — “to die: a momentous  thing.”

HARRY PARKE

HARRY PARKE

I was 17 when Leonard Warren died, and I was already an opera fan, so learning of his passing in that abrupt fashion made a strong impression on me. I was disappointed, but the dramatic aspects of Warren’s death — with his boots on, as it were — weren’t lost on me. I have a  recurring daydream of  one day slumping over my keyboard, though I have had to amend it over time from a bulky steel Royal to an IBM Selectric to a variety of front-end terminals and PCs. When those who still remember my name hear how  I cashed out, they’ll purse their  lips, nod, and mutter, “Of course. How else would he go?”

If I ever do join Warren in that exclusive society, he won’t be the only entertainer I find among those with club-room privileges. Harry Parke, for example, could hardly have picked a more auspicious context for his final bow. Parke, who is largely forgotten, was a former newspaper man who more or less wandered into comedy by way of Eddie Cantor’s radio show. Parke developed a character he called Parkyakarkus and did a schtick in which he spoke in a garbled form of  Greek. He eventually had his own radio show, and he appeared in nearly a dozen movies from 1936 to 1945. He also made a lot of money in real estate.

HARRY PARKE

HARRY PARKE

On November 24, 1958, Parke was appearing at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills at a roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He had just finished what reportedly was a very successful riff on the honorees when he slumped over onto Milton Berle. Berle asked if there were a doctor in the house and the line — understandably in that context — got a big laugh until folks realized that Parke was really ill. Five physicians who were among the Friars worked hard to save Parke, but he died after about two hours at the age of 54. His sons include the comics Albert Brooks and Bob Einstein (Super Dave Osborne) and the versatile writer Charles Einstein.

DICK SHAWN

DICK SHAWN

Many years ago, I met a man who eventually would fall into this rarefied category: the comedian Dick Shawn. I met Shawn while he was appearing in a play in a regional theater, but his career for more than 35 years was principally as a stand-up comic. He did appear in some movies, including the iconic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, and the Springtime for Hitler segment in The Producers, and he was a familiar figure on television as a comedian and as an actor.

On April 17, 1987, Shawn performed at the University of California at San Diego. During a routine in which he was talking about he and the audience surviving a nuclear war, he collapsed on the stage, the victim of a massive heart attack. The audience thought his fall was part of the act and didn’t leave even when they were told to after someone had gone onto the stage to examine Shawn.  He was 63.

If you click HERE, you can see and hear Leonard Warren, in a television performance, singing the prologue from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci.

poet 1
It’s all about Bill, an unpublished poet, whose dream is to sell vegetarian lunches in a park in Austin, Texas. He buys a hot dog cart — on monthly payments — and starts whipping up the hummus and babba gannounj. He calls his business Happy Poet, but whether he is happy or not is a matter of conjecture since the central joke of this deft little 2010 comedy is the poker face on Paul Gordon, who wrote and directed the film and plays the title role.

Bill has no business sense and his enterprise gets off to a slow start, but he gets help and moral support of sorts from two underemployed hangers-on and a young woman who not only likes the vegetarian fare but takes a shine to Bill himself.

JONNY MARS and PAUL GORDON

JONNY MARS and PAUL GORDON

The most helpful, seemingly, is Donny (played by Jonny Mars), a charismatic hustler who has a motorcycle and an idea: he will print and distribute flyers promoting the Happy Poet all over downtown Austin and then deliver lunch orders called in to Bill’s cell phone. This might be a workable if limited business model — if it weren’t for Donny’s sideline.

Curtis, played by Chris Doubek, shows up around four  and helps Bill close up — even consuming some unsold victuals, giving what turns out to be a misleading impression of indolence. And Agnes, played by Liz Fisher,  is a willing customer, because she eats healthy, who finds Bill more intriguing in a way that most people can’t perceive.

PAUL GORDON and CHRIS DOUBEK

PAUL GORDON and CHRIS DOUBEK

Bill’s foray into the culinary trade would have ended in failure but for an unexpected reversal of fortune. Sad to say, the resolution is giddily contrived and out of character in this film. It appears to be a clumsy attempt to create a contrasting background for Gordon’s poker face, which remains unmoved by events until everything goes black. But the movie was a game effort by Gordon, and it got some positive attention when it made the rounds of festivals. The casting and the performances and the effective use of the Austin locations add up to an engaging experience.

LIZ FISHER and PAUL GORDON

LIZ FISHER and PAUL GORDON