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.
Otis - 2
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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KURT COBAIN

KURT COBAIN

Old Man Trouble can’t stay away from Kurt Cobain’s door. The huzzerai over the plaque honoring him in his hometown in Washington seems to have died down, but now there is a problem with how his image is used in the video game Guitar Hero 5.

Courtney Love, who was married to Cobain at the time of his death in 1994, gave Activision, the publisher of the game, permission to use Cobain’s image, but she says she did not know or agree that the avatar could be activated so as to sing other writers’ songs. Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, Cobain’s Nirvana-mates, are also annoyed. Love says there will be legal action against Activision if the game isn’t altered so as to restrict the use of Cobain’s image to songs associated with him.

SHIRLEY BOOTH

SHIRLEY BOOTH

There have been similar blowups in the past, including one involving the great stage and screen actress Shirley Booth, who played the housemaid Hazel from 1961 to 1966 in a TV series based on Ted Key’s cartoon character by the same name. After the show left the air, in 1971, Key gave Colgate-Palmolive permission to use the Hazel image in a commercial for a detergent called Burst.

The sponsor or its ad agency hired an actress named Ruth Holden to provide the voice in the commercial, but the voice sounded exactly like Shirley Booth’s voice, as I recall myself. Anyone who was familiar with Booth and saw that commercial would have assumed the voice was hers.

Shirley Booth thought so, too. She sued the sponsor and its ad agency in federal court, but the court didn’t agree with her complaint.

For now, you can see the Kurt Cobain avatar and read a Christian Science Monitor blog about Courtney Love’s objections, both at this link:

http://features.csmonitor.com/innovation/2009/09/11/courtney-love-outraged-by-kurt-cobains-role-in-guitar-hero-5/

KURT COBAIN

KURT COBAIN

I suppose Kurt Cobain had it both ways — he was who he wanted to be, and he wasted the person he was, if such things can be measured by longevity alone. But it’s a little late to moralize about how his life was spent. Without intending it, although he might have enjoyed it, Cobain is at the center of a tempest in Aberdeen, Wash., his hometown. More specifically, a monument to the musician placed in a public park, and even more specifically, a word on that monument, has the pond stirred up.

The monument in question bears a picture of Cobain and seven quotes from him. “The duty of youth is to challenge corruption,” for instance. One of the quotes begins with the words “Drugs are bad for you ….” — a sentiment that should play well in Aberdeen, if you’ll pardon the stereotype. But the rest of that quote includes a word that shocks the sensibilities of some Aberdeenians, a word one seldom sees engraved on public monuments, the word, if you get my drift.

ROBERT DE NIRO

ROBERT DE NIRO

“I don’t like that word,” said one member of the Aberdeen governing body. “The city pays thousands of dollars a year just to remove it from our parks — painting and sandblasting.”

“The majority of the people who are going to make their way down there, it’s not like that’s the first time they’re ever going to see that word,” said another councilman, who was a founder of the official Kurt Cobain Memorial Committee in a city that appreciates Cobain’s talent and his contributions to music.

Language is so interesting. One word is widely regarded as offensive and another word that means precisely the same thing is fit to be pronounced in a middle-school sex-education class. It’s all in the connotation, isn’t it?

One night about 20 years ago a couple came to spend the evening with us and, on the way, they picked up a video — “Midnight Run.” While we watched, our female guest blushed and apologized profusely for bringing that movie, because she hadn’t expected Robert De Niro’s language which was laced with a word fit for — well, for a Kurt Cobain monument. Meanwhile, we all roared at that movie, which, thanks to De Niro and Charles Grodin, is one of the funniest of its kind ever made.

KURT COBAIN

KURT COBAIN

Years later, I watched that movie on television, and it wasn’t nearly as funny. That was partly because I had already seen it, but it was also partly because De Niro’s language had been dubbed out with language that sounded ridiculous coming from the mouth of such a character. It’s hard to know what to make of that. It’s only a word, after all, and people like De Niro’s character use it so habitually that they aren’t even aware of it. And yet, many of us, like the Aberdeen councilman, don’t like it and don’t want to hear it or see it cut into granite in a public park.

It’s one of those things that makes us human beings so fascinating.

The Los Angeles Times reported on the Aberdeen dispute and how it was resolved. The story is at this link:

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-hometown-aberdeen16-2009aug16,0,19620.story