Huddled in the Basement

I wrote here recently about the 50th anniversary of my hometown’s high school basketball team winning the state championship—an event I have no memory of. Three weeks after that, however, came the first event of my life on which I can hang a precise date and say yes, that I definitely remember. It will be 50 years tomorrow.

April 11, 1965, was Palm Sunday. We’d been to church and Sunday school, and it’s likely that we little kids were given palm fronds to wave in a procession intended to remind us of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. So the five-year-old me was likely holding one as we rode from Monroe to Monticello, a little town up the road, for a special Sunday dinner out. I was in the back seat of a strange car, for my parents’ 1957 Ford something-or-other was in the shop and they were driving a loaner. My brother, not quite three, was probably at large in the back seat just like I was: there were no child seats and often no seat belts in those days.

After dinner at the Casino, your basic Wisconsin supper club, with the relish tray that came to your table, the basket of individually wrapped breadsticks and crackers, and the inevitable fried chicken I would have ordered, we drove the 15 minutes or so back home. The radio was on, and as we pulled into the garage, we heard the announcer talk about the possibility of bad weather in the Rockford area. “Where’s Rockford?” I asked. “It’s about 50 miles away,” my mother said. Implicit in her tone: “Don’t worry.”

We went inside and my mother put my brother down for nap. I flicked on the TV, picked up a book, and sat down on the couch.

I am not sure how much time had passed when the TV suddenly snapped off. “Hey!” I said. I saw my father looking out of the kitchen window toward the west. “Head for the cellar!” he cried. My mother’s voice came from down the hall where the bedrooms were. “What?” My father again, more urgent this time: “Grab Danny and head for the cellar!” The four of us hurried down the basement steps, but before we reached the bottom, we heard a crash behind us. We went to the southwest corner and waited. I didn’t know what was happening, and I don’t remember what I heard.

We’d been down there maybe five minutes before Dad declared it was safe to go back up. The crash we had heard was a single window being blown in, but the house was relatively unscathed. However, the roof was partly off our barn, and a machine shed that sat a few feet from the house was destroyed. Up the road, our neighbor’s farm buildings were a pile of rubble and the roof was completely torn off their house.

Those few minutes are remembered in my hometown, and by my family, as the Palm Sunday Tornado. My father had seen the top of the cloud, and we assume the tornado had been on the ground at the neighbors’. He told me years later that as we huddled in the basement, he was sure our roof was going to go, or worse—but the tornado must have hopped back up in the air to pass over our farm before touching down again on the west side of Monroe, where it did extensive damage. (Fortunately, nobody died, at least not in my town.)

Like the electricity, the telephone was out, so my father would have gone to the other side of the farm, where his parents lived, to check on them. It wasn’t long before my maternal grandparents pulled into the driveway from their home 30 minutes away, having heard on the radio that a tornado had struck southwest of Monroe. They were worried when they were unable to get us on the phone.

That night, my father’s cows went unmilked for the only time in his 50-plus years as a dairy farmer. The next morning, he managed to re-jigger the vacuum-powered windshield wipers on his old farm truck to generate enough vacuum to power a single milking machine. That day, we were issued passes to display on our vehicles saying we had the right to be in the area. The idea was to keep gawkers away and discourage looting. Although there was some of the latter (people were seen taking cheese from a damaged factory after the storm on Sunday), the former was a greater problem. Despite appeals to stay away, gawkers clogged Monroe’s main highways and arterial streets on Easter weekend, and extra sheriff’s deputies had to be called in for traffic control.

The machine shed was rebuilt. The barn was re-roofed. Life eventually returned to normal. And now 50 years have passed since that very vivid day.

Coming tomorrow: what happened elsewhere on April 11, 1965.

Freberg on 45

stan-freberg-shboom-1954-78

(Edited.)

The death of humorist Stan Freberg yesterday hit a lot of radio people hard. Many of us either wanted to get into radio, or wanted to be creative in a particular way, because of an early exposure to Freberg’s work. A lot of us (and I put myself in this category) admired him because his vision was so uniquely bent, and his critiques of media, music, and advertising were so perfect. I’ll let other people on the Interwebs talk about his brilliant radio commercials or his groundbreaking album Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America. Instead, I’ll write about Freberg’s appearances on the singles chart over the years.

Freberg scored with both comedy bits and parody songs. His first chart single, “John and Marsha,” (1951) was the former; his next four were the latter. His biggest hit came in 1953, when the Dragnet parody “St. George and the Dragonet” spent three weeks at #1. Freberg employed two of the most famous voice actors in history, Daws Butler and June Foray, who also appear on the single’s B-side, “Little Blue Riding Hood.” Only a few weeks after “St. George” hit #1, Freberg went back to the Dragnet well with Butler for “Christmas Dragnet,” and he started 1954 by recycling his first hit into “John and Marsha Letter,” which charted briefly. Later in 1954, the topical “Point of Order” would parody the Army/McCarthy hearings.

(Late edit: Joel Whitburn misidentifies “John and Marsha Letter.” It’s actually “A Dear John and Marsha Letter,” which does revisit Freberg’s 1951 hit, but also parodies the 1953 country hit “A Dear John Letter” by Ferlin Husky and Jean Shepard.)

At the end of 1954, Freberg charted with a parody of “Sh-Boom,” the original of which had become one of first big hits of the rock ‘n’ roll era. Freberg plays a record producer who repeatedly warns his singers that if they expect to have a hit, they need to mumble. Freberg would frequently skewer the kids’ music, releasing versions of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “The Great Pretender.” Freberg’s last chart hit, “The Old Payola Roll Blues,” (1960) is explicit in its belief that rock ‘n’ roll success requires no real talent—just a smart producer and payments to disc jockeys.

In 1957, Freberg hit with a single that most people (of a certain age) have heard: “Banana Boat (Day-O),” a takeoff on the Harry Belafonte hit that features another famous voice, that of Peter Leeds, as a man who keeps interrupting the singer for being too loud, shrill, and/or piercing. It made #25 on Billboard‘s Best Sellers chart and #43 on the Hot 100.

Freberg starred in a radio sitcom in 1954, but his creative vision was constrained by the sitcom format. The Stan Freberg Show, co-starring Butler, Foray, and Leeds, ran briefly in 1957, but couldn’t attract a sponsor and ran only 15 episodes. The show was the launching pad for the Lawrence Welk parody “Wun’erful, Wun’erful,” which charted at the end of 1957. It’s my favorite Freberg record, featuring a runaway bubble machine and an irreparably damaged accordion.

Although he would win lot of honors and make a lot of money from advertising, he could also take a dim view of it. He turned down tobacco advertising for his 1957 radio show, contributing to its eventual cancellation. And at Christmas 1958, “Green Chri$tma$” sharply criticized companies trying to cash in on Christmas, suggesting they’d forgotten the real meaning of the season. Radio jocks, who knew how clever it was, loved it; radio sales executives did not. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), a DJ in New York City who played it was told he’d be fired if he played it again, and a station in Los Angeles made sure it didn’t air within 15 minutes of any commercial break. Twenty-five years later, the radio station I worked for played it a few times, but only after a great deal of soul-searching, and, if I’m recalling correctly, with a disclaimer.

It really is remarkable how harsh Freberg’s criticism of Christmas commercialism is. “Green Chri$tma$” simply destroys the cynicism of advertisers looking to make a buck on the holiday. (It still hits pretty hard today—or it would, if anyone still cared about such a thing, which no one does.) Despite the record’s merciless tone—it ends with the ringing of cash registers—Coca-Cola and Marlboro, both recognizably satirized in it, responded by asking Freberg to design ad campaigns for them. Freberg had done parody commercials on his 1957 radio show—and the lengthy career in advertising that resulted would win him 21 Clio awards, the highest honor in the ad game.

Stan Freberg started as a voice actor in animation before his 20th birthday, and he was still doing it in the 21st century. He was 88 years old.

Gonna Do It Again

(Pictured: Al Green in 1975, with more soul in his little finger than all of us in our whole bodies, combined.) 

I have written a great deal about the winter of 1975 at this blog recently, so I’m not going to make you sit through yet another live blog of yet another American Top 40 show from that season—just the first hour of one, specifically the show from March 22, 1975. This part is one that makes program directors cringe. The songs run the gamut as widely as anything can, and a few are pretty obscure now.

40. ‘Wolf Creek Pass”/C. W. McCall. Before “Convoy,” there was “Wolf Creek Pass,” the flat-out hilarious tale of two truckers and a runaway load of chickens. I hadn’t heard it in a while, and I found myself repeatedly laughing out loud as I listened. A longer post on the works of C. W. McCall would seem to be in order.

39. “Jackie Blue”/Ozark Mountain Daredevils. This is a deeply weird record, really—the effeminate vocal, the oddly sliding guitar solo, and the enigmatic Jackie herself.

38. “My Boy”/Elvis Presley. Casey says “My Boy” is one of his favorite Elvis songs. To me, it’s just another one of those windy but emotionally empty Elvis performances so common during the last couple years of his life.

37. “To the Door of the Sun (Alle Porte del Sol)”/Al Martino. This actually made it to #17 on the Hot 100 earlier in March. If your local station didn’t play “To the Door of the Sun,” I’m not surprised—although it’s actually pretty good.

36. “The Bertha Butt Boogie”/Jimmy Castor Bunch. To make sense of “The Bertha Butt Boogie,” it helps to know a little about the universe Jimmy Castor created on his earlier records, lest his references to the Butt Sisters, Leroy, and the Troglodyte leave you baffled. Or you can just surrender to the absolutely ferocious groove and not worry about it.

34. “L-O-V-E (Love)”/Al Green. Which Casey introduces as “Love, Love,” not spelling out the first one, as we’re intended to do. If you don’t dig “L-O-V-E,” we probably shouldn’t see each other anymore.

32. “Satin Soul”/Love Unlimited Orchestra. Writing about “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” earlier this winter, I referred to the Love Unlimited Orchestra as the sound of a finely tuned limo cruising on the Interstate. On “Satin Soul,” it comes on like a freight train, and you best scramble aboard or get run over.

30. “Butter Boy”/Fancy. If you remember Fanny’s bangin’-great “Charity Ball,” the best way to enjoy “Butter Boy” is to forget that. If if it’s the last thing you hear before you turn off the radio, it’ll keep playing in your head for a while afterward.

29. “The South’s Gonna Do It”/Charlie Daniels Band. In which Daniels name-checks a number of Southern rock acts, from Marshall Tucker to ZZ Top and even his own band. Includes a lengthy fiddle solo, which is both awesome and an indication of just how long ago 40 years is. Imagine such a thing now. Even in country music.

28. “Walkin’ in Rhythm”/Blackbyrds. See #34.

There’s one song in the second hour I want to mention.

23. “Emma”/Hot Chocolate. I was hooked on the sound of this from the moment I heard it—the ominous tempo, that low buzzing guitar, and lead singer Errol Wilson’s idiosyncratic voice as he narrates the story of Emmeline, the aspiring actress “searching for that play / That never ever came her way.” Even after 40 years of hearing it, the end of the story remains horrifying. Wilson comes home to “find her lying still and cold upon the bed / A love letter lying on the bedroom floor.” The suicide note tells him that “I just can’t keep on livin’ on dreams no more / Tried so very hard not to leave you alone / I just can’t keep on tryin’ no more.”

He gasps her name. Then he screams it. Over and over.

There’s a 1975-vintage video. Go watch it. And if you are unmoved, see #34.

National Treasures

(Pictured: “Weird Al” Yankovic, circa 1989.)

I don’t know if anybody reads these Links and Notes posts. (Hell, I’m not entirely sure anybody reads anything around here anymore, based on the stats.) But here’s a bunch of click-worthy stuff that’s appeared on my Twitter feed recently anyhow.

—Michele Catalano briefly wrote the Sound System blog at Salon; now she hangs out on Twitter and posts at Medium. She wrote recently about the lost art of the mixtape.

—From Dangerous Minds (which you really should read regularly without me telling you), what Joni Mitchell has to do with Cheech and Chong’s 1974 hit “Earache My Eye” and hilariously real quotes from real people shopping in record stores.

—Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is considered by some people to be the greatest single album ever made. (Your mileage may vary; mine does, although I like it more every time I listen to it.) You might expect it to have been written while the bard walked across the bucolic Irish countryside (or perhaps, as our pal kblumenau observes, not written as much as it “just sorta happened to him”), but it was actually composed largely during an exile in Boston, while Morrison was hiding out from some mob guys.

—“Weird Al” Yankovic wasn’t a national treasure—yet—when he and his creative partner, Jay Levey, made the movie UHF in 1989. The AV Club rounded up the oral history of the film, and it’s remarkable.

—On the subject of national treasures, the people at Archeophone, who restore and release recordings from the pre-1920 Pioneer Era, certainly qualify. Here’s a fascinating blog post on the process involved in restoring an 1898 recording by Dan Quinn, arguably the first superstar recording act, and one about what the term “hit record” means when we’re talking about the 1890s.

—A few months ago I wrote briefly about the “Outside the Top 40″ playlists assembled on Spotify by Matt Hinrichs of Scrubbles.net. He’s got some new ones, including Outside lists for 1976 and 1977 (!) and a playlist of songs to hit #1 on the adult-contemporary chart between 1979 and 2006. Find them and others here.

—On the subject of 1976, this whole blog. And also this collection of disco cash-in merchandise and other ephemera from Flashbak.com, including a spectacular 1976 Newsweek cover. Flashbak also posted some 1979 disco stuff here.

—I own a lot of comedy records. There’s a copy of The First Family around here somewhere, a couple of Bob Newhart Button-Down Mind records, Bill Cosby, Monty Python, Robin Williams, etc.—so I found Diffuser’s history of comedy records to be pretty interesting.

—I also bought a lot of CDs in longboxes back in the day. Nobody misses those.

—The long-awaited documentary film on the Wrecking Crew, the fabled group of Los Angeles studio players who were (and in some cases, still are) on everything, is finally being seen, after eight years in the making and another nine in the can. If you read this blog, you’re gonna want to see it.

—KC and the Sunshine Band has released an album of 60s covers. I listened to it, and I live-blogged my experience, with a little help from some of the Popdose crew. The live-blog is here; it may be better without the music.

—The 30th anniversary of “We Are the World” came and went with a tiny bit of fanfare, and this marvelous minute-by-minute history of its making.

—Sha-Na-Na played at Woodstock. Why?

—Now that WKRP in Cincinnati has been released with much of its original music intact, somebody needs to get busy on clearing the soundtrack of FM. My Favorite Decade broke the whole thing down.

I believe that gets us back to the last time we did one of these posts. Hope you find something worthwhile to read. If not here, then someplace.

I Was a Teenage Anglophile

(Pictured: Rick Wakeman takes a bow after a performance of King Arthur on Ice, a real thing that happened in 1975.)

Forty years ago this spring, former Yes keyboard player Rick Wakeman continued his solo career with the release of the splendiferously titled The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Sometime in the summer of 1975, I was at a party when I heard it for the first time, and I was knocked sideways, gone, hooked. I raced out and bought a copy, which was rarely off the turntable for the next several years. My original copy perished in the early 80s after I accidentally left it in the sun over a long weekend, but I replaced it, and although I went for a long stretch in the 90s and 00s without listening to it much, I find myself frequently returning to it now, 40 years later.

The album is a rough biography of Arthur, starting with the stories of the Sword in the Stone and the Lady of the Lake. He encounters Merlin the Magician, is challenged for Guinevere’s love by Lancelot (who also does battle with the Black Knight), and he sends Sir Galahad on a quest. The story ends with “The Last Battle,” in which Arthur is slain by Mordred and shipped off to the Isle of Avalon, where he sleeps until, it is said, he will return, “to save Britain in the hour of its deadliest danger.” Like any good concept album, it has several main themes that recur throughout. The Arthur theme is a magnificent thing, so quintessentially English-glorious that the BBC uses it as the theme for its election night coverage. Merlin the Magician is invoked by themes both ominous and crazed. Guinevere is represented by precisely the sort of sweetly lyrical theme you’d expect for a woman as beloved as she.

Fooling around at YouTube recently, I found a video version of the King Arthur album. (The preceding paragraph contains links to segments of it.) I have not been able to track down much detail about it. It seems to have been made sometime in the late 90s or early 00s, and it mixes stills from the original album package and 1975 concert footage with clips from movies, including the 1981 Arthur movie Excalibur and an Italian film called The Church. Most of the concert footage comes from Wakeman’s 1975 King Arthur on Ice tour—yes, it was staged as an ice show, but you can’t tell from the clips used in the video. The concert footage is beautifully lit (beautifully treated in post-production, actually), and Wakeman, with his trademark long hair and caped, sparkly costume behind banks and banks of keyboards, is every inch the prog-rock god.

The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table rose to #21 on the Billboard album chart in a 15-week run that began in April 1975—one of seven Wakeman albums to chart between 1973 and 1979; only the 1974 release Journey to the Center of the Earth, which went all the way to #3, charted higher. In the intervening 40 years, Wakeman has remarkably prolific. His discography at Allmusic.com shows literally dozens of releases over the years. He’s also an amusing follow on Twitter.

It’s not surprising to me that I’d fall so hard for this album when I was 15, for at that time, I was obsessed with all things English. I am not sure where my Anglophilia began, but I could have told you the whole Arthur story (and many, many other tales from English history) long before I ever heard the album. I watched every British TV show on public television from Monty Python’s Flying Circus on down. I even considered my English accent as good as a native’s, which it certainly was not. As far as I was concerned, England was the center of the world.

But that was then. Now, I listen to the King Arthur album because it’s really, really good.

One Day in Your Life: March 20, 1965

(Pictured: It was a day of showdowns—LBJ vs. George Wallace, UCLA vs. Michigan, and Matt Dillon vs. a bad guy. Perhaps not a day in your life, but definitely in mine.)

March 20, 1965, is a Saturday. Ahmadou Ahidjo is reelected president of Cameroon. In the United States, President Johnson announces that he will call up units of the Alabama National Guard to supervise a third civil-rights march from Selma to Montgomery that is set to begin tomorrow. The first march two weeks ago turned violent when state troopers attacked marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. After making the announcement at the Texas White House, Johnson also discusses the situation in Vietnam and announces several federal appointments before taking questions from reporters. NASA continues preparations for tomorrow’s launch of Ranger 9, which will be the last of several probes sent to photograph the moon before intentionally being crashed into it. In today’s Peanuts strip, Lucy continues her weeklong battle against Linus’ security blanket. Inventor Leandro Malicay of Los Angeles files a patent application for a coconut shredding device. Fans of the the Chicago Cubs are mourning the death of play-by-play announcer Jack Quinlan, who died in a traffic accident last night in Arizona. He was 38, and had done Cubs games on radio since 1952. Actress Dorothy Malone of Peyton Place is on the cover of TV Guide.

Bonanza tops the primetime lineup on NBC tonight; CBS has episodes of Gilligan’s Island and Gunsmoke. In southern Wisconsin, regular programming on the local ABC affiliate is pre-empted by coverage of the state boys’ basketball tournament. Monroe completes an undefeated season by winning the championship 74-71 over Eau Claire Memorial. In Portland, Oregon, UCLA wins the NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball championship over Michigan 91-80. It’s the second straight NCAA championship for UCLA. In the consolation game between losers of the national semifinals, Princeton beat Wichita State, 118-82. Princeton’s Bill Bradley is named the tournament’s most outstanding player. St. John’s defeats Villanova 55-51 to win the NIT.

Bob Dylan plays Buffalo, New York. The Motortown Revue, starring the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Miracles, and Stevie Wonder, begins its three-week tour of Europe at Astoria Hall in Finsbury Park, England. Judy Garland wraps up a week of appearances at the Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami. At WMCA in New York, B. Mitchel Reid does his last show before returning to KWFB in Los Angeles, from which he’d come two years before. “Stop! In the Name of Love” by the Supremes is #1 on the WMCA survey dated March 18; two other Motown songs are also in the Top 10: “Shotgun” by Junior Walker & the All-Stars at #7 and “My Girl” by the Temptations at #9. Three British Invasion stars are in the Top 10 also: the Beatles with “Eight Days a Week” at #3, Freddie and the Dreamers with “I’m Telling You Now” at #4, and Herman’s Hermits with “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat” at #5. Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” are also in the WMCA Top 10.

Perspective From the Present: Although Monroe has won state boys’ and girls’ basketball championships in more recent times, the 1965 team retains a great hold on the imagination of the locals. It was a one-class tournament back then, which meant that Monroe, a town of about 8,000 then, was competing against much bigger schools. (Monroe’s win came in the middle of a stretch in which Milwaukee Lincoln, a school that no longer exists, won four championships in seven years; one of the other schools qualifying for the 1965 tournament was the suburban Milwaukee school Wauwatosa East, my wife’s alma mater.) Thousands of fans greeted the champs when they returned to town on Sunday riding aboard a fire truck. The caravan of cars that greeted them as they came down Highway 69 is fondly remembered around town. Although I have no memory of it, my family was in one of them. Years later, the team picture of the 1965 champions would look down on us in the high school cafeteria every day.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 618 other followers

%d bloggers like this: