December 25, 1942 Dreaming of a White Christmas

White Christmas hit Number 1 on the Hit Parade that November, and never looked back. By Christmas day 1942 the song had barely made it halfway through a ten-week run, at the top spot.

Israel was the youngest of eight children borne of the Baline Family in western Siberia and emigrated to the United States, in 1893. In grammar school “Izzy” delivered telegrams and sold newspapers, to help with family finances. Israel’s father Moses died when the boy was only 13 and he took work as a “ Busker”, to support himself.

Everyone who will read this has bought a record I suspect, but the sale of music came long before the age of the phonograph. Buskers or “song pluggers” would perform songs in vaudeville theaters, railroad stations and even street corners in hopes of selling sheet music, of the latest songs.

Even at a young age Israel Baline had a pleasing voice and a natural ear, for music. By 16 he was a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in New York’s Chinatown. It was there he taught himself to play the piano and to compose music, with the help of a friend. The boy’s first published work led to a name change when Marie from Sunny Italy came back from the publisher, with a typo. I. Baline was now I. Berlin.

At least that’s the story. Others will tell you Irving Berlin changed his name to sound less ethnic. Be that as it may, the author of American standards like “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, had come of age.

In 1911, Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” sold a million copies and inspired a dance craze still remembered, to this day.

Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” during World War 1 but only used it, in 1938. A love song to an adopted country from a kid escaped from the anti-Jewish Russian pogroms of the age the song went on to earn $9.6 million. Every dime of it was donated to the Boy Scouts of America, and Campfire Girls.

Christmas was an unhappy time for Irving Berlin. A devoted husband of 62 years Irving and Ellin (Mackay) lost their only son (also Irving) on Christmas day in 1928, to Sudden Infant death Syndrome. Every year at Christmas was an occasion to visit their baby’s grave.

Berlin wrote the best selling record of all time in 1941 but it didn’t start out, the way you might think. In 1940, the composer signed to score a musical for paramount Pictures, about a retired vaudeville performer who opened an inn. The hook was that this particular inn was only open, on holidays. “Holiday Inn” would guide the viewer through a years’ worth of holidays, in music.

As for White Christmas that started out, as a spoof. A satire sung under a palm tree by music industry sophisticates enjoying drinks, around a Beverly hills swimming pool:

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L. A.
But it’s December the 24th
And I am longing to be up north….
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…
(Chorus continues)

Bing Crosby was already famous in 1941. Berlin agreed to include White Christmas in the film, provided that Crosby perform the tune. Crosby himself was on board, from day 1. On hearing the song he told Berlin “You don’t have to worry about this one, Irving.”

And then the world changed. A mighty sucker punch came out of the east on December 7, 1941, a sneak attack by the air and naval forces of imperial Japan on the American Pacific naval anchorage, at Pearl Harbor.

President Franklin Roosevelt asked for and received a congressional declaration of war on Japan, on December 8. Nazi Germany piled on and declared war on the United States, three days later. The US had entered World War 2.

A generation of men signed up for the draft including Bing Crosby. He would prove too old but this was a loyal American. Crosby would use his gifts at every opportunity and perform for the troops.

Seventeen days after the attack on Pearl Harbor was Christmas eve, 1941. Bulkhead markings would later reveal that even then, the last survivors on board the USS Oklahoma down there at the bottom of Pearl Harbor were making their last marks on the wall of that black, upside down place in the vain hope of a rescue, that would never come.

Bing Crosby performed the track live that Christmas eve and over the following January, the shortwave broadcast of the Kraft Music Hall reaching troops then fighting for their lives on Corregidor and the Philippines. The set list always started out with a tune, destined to become the official anthem of the US Army: “AS The Caissons Go Rolling Along.”.

President Roosevelt asked Hollywood to step up, and do its part. Crosby and others formed the Hollywood Victory Caravan in support of the war effort, Carey Grant, Desi Arnaz, Olivia de Havilland and others raising over $700,000 in support of the Army and Navy Relief Society.

When Holiday Inn was released in 1942 Berlin expected Be Careful It’s My Heart to be a hit, a song tied in the film, to Valentine’s day. But a funny thing happened. White Christmas was received by the people who heard it not as satire but a heartfelt reminder of Christmases past and a promise, of Christmas yet to come. Soldiers abroad and their families dreamed alike of a white Christmas, “just like the ones I used to know“.

That first verse quietly went away, never to return.

Fun Fact: Despite Berlin’s songwriting success he didn’t write music and only played the piano in F Sharp. He bought special transposing keyboards so his songs didn’t all sound the same and paid music secretaries to notate and transcribe, his music.

Crosby himself had mixed feelings about performing White Christmas. “I hesitated about doing it” he once told an interviewer, ” because invariably it caused such a nostalgic yearning among the men, that it made them sad. Heaven knows, I didn’t come that far to make them sad. For this reason, several times I tried to cut it out of the show, but these guys just hollered for it.”

White Christmas hit Number 1 on the Hit Parade that November, and never looked back. By Christmas day 1942 the song had barely made it halfway through a ten-week run, at the top spot.

Bing Crosby appeared in over 70 radio shows over the course of the war including 30 Command Performance spots, 13 on Mail Call, 5 appearances on Song Sheet, 19 on GI Journal and at least twice on Jubilee, all in addition to his regular Kraft Music Hall show transcribed on discs and personal appearances before troops on the front lines. A survey among soldiers after the war revealed that Bing Crosby had accomplished more in support of troop morale than Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower or even, Bob Hope.

Bing Crosby signing autographs in France, in 1944

It’s a new perspective to look at one of the seminal events of the 20th century, through the eyes of the artist. Imagine for a moment you are Bing Crosby himself, performing for the troops in Belgium and France and Luxembourg in December, 1944. What must it have been like a month later to realize that 75,000 of those men were now casualties in the last great feat of German arms of World War 2, the Battle of the Bulge.

Bing Crosby performing for the troops in 1944

Today, the Guinness Book of World Records names Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” not only the best-selling Christmas single in the United States, but also the best-selling single of all time with estimated sales of over 50 million copies, worldwide.

I hope you enjoyed this story and wish a you Merry Christmas and a safe, healthy and prosperous new year.. May this be the first of many more.

Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”.

November 3, 1752 Quacks

As for the man who blinded Händel and all but murdered Bach, he worked most of his 72 years blinding hundreds of unfortunates before he himself, lost his sight. The English writer Samuel Johnson later described the man’s life as “an instance of how far impudence may carry ignorance.”

From Brahms to Beethoven, Mendelssohn to Mozart, German composers have formed the core and the nucleus, of western music. And not just the classical stuff. Frankfurt-born Hans Zimmer has composed scores for over 150 different films including The Lion King, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Gladiator, and the Dark Knight trilogy. The German-born Persian composer Ramin Djawadi may not be a household name but we know his scores for the 2008 Marvel film Iron Man and season 7 of Game of Thrones, both nominated, for Grammy Awards. The German-American singer/songwriter Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. may not be a household name but his stage name certainly is. We remember him, as John Denver.

1685 was a good year for German composers, George Frideric Händel born on February 23 in Halle and Johann Sebastian Bach barely a month later, in Eisenbach. Bach’s father Johann Ambrosius was a 7th generation musician and encouraged the boy, to learn the violin. Not so Händel ‘s father. A respected barber-surgeon aged 63 at the time of Händel’s birth to his second wife Dorothea, Georg expected his son to study civil law.

Little George found means to smuggle a clavichord into an attic room where he would steal away to practice, while his parents slept.

The boy was yet to turn ten when he accompanied his father to the court of the Duke of Johann, Adolf I. Somehow, George found himself on the organ stool and, when he began to play, Georg could only wonder where THAT came from. The Duke was so impressed he persuaded his father to allow him to study music and the rest, is history.

J.S. Bach was only ten when he lost both of his parents, only eight months apart. It was an uncle, Johann Christoph, who introduced the boy to the organ. Like Händel , Bach went on to become one of the most prolific composers of the Baroque era.

From 1727 to this day the anthem Zadok the Priest is performed at coronation ceremonies, of British royalty. The magnificent strains of George Frideric Händel’s “Messiah” and Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” are favorites, of the Christmas season.  And yet there is another, darker connection between the two men. While the two never met both composers were blinded, by the same quack physician.

In the Dutch language a kwakzalver is a seller of cures, nostrums and potions of dubious origin, and little efficacy.   In 1665 an outbreak of Bubonic Plague ravaged London causing doctors to flee by the score leaving quacksalvers and charlatans to pray on the vulnerable, and the fearful.

So bad was it Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, penned the following: 

“Infallible preventive pills against the plague.” “Neverfailing preservatives against the infection.” “Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air.” “Exact regulations for the conduct of the body in case of an infection.” “Anti-pestilential pills.” “Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before.” “An universal remedy for the plague.” “The only true plague water.” “The royal antidote against all kinds of infection”;—and such a number more that I cannot reckon up; and if I could, would fill a book of themselves to set them down.

Daniel Defoe

British surgeon Dale Ingram remarked: “Every one [of the quacks in London] was at liberty to prescribe what nostrum he pleased, and there was scarce a street in which some antidote was not sold, under some pompous title.”

Clark Stanley claimed to have studied with native Hopi shaman and learned the medicinal benefits, of snake oil. The original snake oil salesman made a tidy sum until the US Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, in 1906. In 1917, investigators discovered that Stanley’s elixir was nothing but ordinary mineral oil and beef fat flavored with red pepper, and turpentine. William Bailey’s RadiThor, a nostrum for the cure of erectile dysfunction was basically radium, dissolved in water. Ebenezer Byers, the wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist who won the 1906 US Amateur golf tournament was so enamored of the stuff he drank two to three bottles, every day. The federal government shut RadiThor down in 1932 but not before Byers met a horrible end, his skeleton destroyed and much of his skull eaten away, his jawless body buried, in a lead lined coffin. In 1822, British businessman James Morrison cured his own “inexpressible suffering” with a home made vegetable pill said to cure, whatever ails you. Morrison’s “vegetable universal medicines” were roundly criticized by the medical establishment of the time, but that didn’t seem to hurt business. In 1836 one of Morrison’s resellers was convicted of manslaughter when the post-mortem of one unfortunate revealed a belly full of Morrison’s pills, to be the cause of death.

Which brings us to John Taylor and no, I’m not talking about the founding member, of Duran Duran. The self-styled “Chevalier” (knight) John Taylor was an oculist, Royal Eye Surgeon to none other than Britain’s King George, II.

Flamboyant, egotistical and utterly without principle, Taylor would ride into town in a horse drawn carriage painted with images of eyes and the words qui dat videre dat vivere (giving sight is giving life), painted on the side. Victims err, I mean patients of this Baroque era ShamWow pitchman were instructed to leave the bandage on for seven days, plenty long enough for the good doctor to get paid, and leave town. When he wasn’t busy writing his two-volume autobiography “The Life and Extraordinary History of the Chevalier John Taylor”, Taylor would ride into town and deliver a speech on a street corner before performing surgery. On the street corner. In an age before anesthesia with little conception of bacteria the idea was to get in and out, as quickly as possible.

Bach was losing his sight when he underwent the first of two unsuccessful surgeries. After the second, the composer developed a painful post-operative eye infection. Unsurprisingly, a ‘cure’ of laxatives and bleeding did little to relieve the symptoms. Johann Sebastian Bach died of his infection, just a few months later.

Händel was suffering with cataracts when he met the good doctor. Taylor performed a “couching” of the lens on this day in 1752, the insertion of a sharp hook to dislodge the lens and push it down, to emit light. On those few occasions where the procedure succeeded the patient would wear enormous, thick glasses to compensate, for the rest of his life. The other 70 percent including Mr. Händel …went blind.

The man who blinded Händel and all but murdered Bach worked most of his 72 years blinding hundreds of unfortunates before he himself, lost his sight. The English writer Samuel Johnson described the man’s life as “an instance of how far impudence may carry ignorance.” Today the name of John Taylor is all but forgotten, while the works of Bach and Händel live on, after all these centuries.

There’s a reason they call this stuff…Classical.

October 30, 1938 Fake News

“We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” – Orson Welles

October 30, 1938 was a Sunday. The 8:00pm (eastern) broadcast of the Mercury Theater of the Air began with a weather report and then went to a dance band remote featuring “Ramon Raquello and his orchestra”. The music was periodically interrupted by live “news” flashes, beginning with strange explosions on Mars. Producer Orson Welles made his debut as the “famous” (but non-existent) Princeton Professor Dr. Richard Pierson, who dismissed speculation about life on Mars.

A short time later, another “news flash” reported a fiery crash in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. What was believed a meteorite turned out to be a rocket capsule as a tentacled, pulsating Martian unscrewed the hatch and incinerated the gathering crowd of onlookers, with a death ray.

The story is great fun, a Halloween classic telling and retelling the story of a radio broadcast leading untold thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands to take up their families and their shotguns and flee into the night, to escape the Martian menace.

1 million Americans or more according to some news outlets, members of a generation who survived the Great Depression and went on to win World War II, actually believed Martian killing machines had blasted off and traveled across interplanetary space and attacked New Jersey, only to be destroyed themselves by microorganisms, all in the space of a sixty minute broadcast.

Umm…OK.

To be fair I wrote as much myself in this space, four years ago. Then as now the healthy skeptic might have begun, by following the money.

In 1899, the obscure Brazilian priest and inventor Father Roberto Landell de Moura successfully transmitted audio over a distance, of 7 kilometers (4.3 miles). That same year an Italian inventor called Guglielmo Marconi successfully broadcast, across the English Channel. Twenty years later, Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad began to broadcast music, in the Pittsburg, Pennsylvania area. Conrad’s broadcasts stimulated demand for crystal sets. A year later, Westinghouse started the radio station, KDKA. Within two years, KDKA was broadcasting prize fights and Major League Baseball games. By early 1927 there were 737 stations nationwide, and growing.

In the 19th century, newspapers alone carried the journalistic heft, to go toe-to-toe with the corruption of Tammany Hall and other such political machines. Books could be written about the newspaper wars of the turn-of-the-century and the Yellow Journalism which helped goad the nation, to war. A week after the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898 William Randolph Hearst’s American Journal ran the headline “How do you like the Journal’s war?” 

The “stunt journalism” of Nellie Bly and her Ten Days in a Madhouse opened the door to an era of Muckraking, journalists reporting on waste, fraud and abuse in public and private life, alike.

In depression-era America, radio was not only the cheapest form of entertainment but a source for high quality programming. By the late 1930’s radio was not only the center of household entertainment but also, a center for news and information.

It was the Golden Age of radio. By 1934 some 60 percent of American households had radio sets as did 1½ million, of the nation’s automobiles. Many theaters didn’t bother to open their doors during the Amos & Andy program and those who did shut off the projectors while the show was on and hauled out, a radio.

To the news reader of the Great War period the newspaper was equal to the entire print and electronic media of our time, in all its forms.

Such was the media landscape in the inter-war years. A new and novel form of news and entertainment gaining ground almost daily, at the expense of a centuries-old competitor. Small wonder it is then that such an industry would find threat in this upstart, called radio.

And then came October 30, 1938. The War of the Worlds.

With memories of the Great War still painfully fresh and the Nazi threat looming in Europe an excitable few did indeed, take to the streets. Most had heard the repeated warnings that this was only entertainment though, or figured it out for themselves. Others did what rational people would do and picked up the phone, in search of information.

Friends and family called each other to see if they had heard anything. New York phone switchboards experienced a geometric increase in traffic, that night. New Jersey phone traffic jumped 39 percent during the broadcast. The New York Times received 875 calls about the program. The Newark Evening News logged over a thousand. Some called CBS, to congratulate them for the show. Others complained that the program was too realistic.

Then as now Sunday night newsrooms, are all but cold and dark. With few reporters working that night and little original reporting many papers relied on the Monday morning recap from organizations, like AP. And who was this irresponsible upstart in any case when the public already had a far more trusted source, for news and information?

The Associated Press reported Monday morning, a man in Pittsburgh returned home to find his wife with a bottle of poison saying “I’d rather die this way“. A woman in Indianapolis ran into a church screaming “New York is destroyed… It’s the end of the world!“. The Washington Post reported the story of one Baltimore man who died of a heart attack but somehow didn’t bother to follow up, for any of the details. The New York Times piled on with the October 31 headline “Radio listeners in panic, Taking Radio drama as fact”. The Times went on to inform its readers, “In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than 20 families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture”.

Long on anecdote and egregiously short on details, the print media went with the narrative blaming the entire radio industry. It was the first clue, that something wasn’t right.

“For at least a couple hours or more and really into the next morning, we believed we were mass murderers, because the press which was very hostile to radio was delighted for this opportunity to piss on radio and say they were irresponsible, and so on”.

War of the Worlds producer, John Housman

Not a single one of multiple purported deaths was ever tied directly to the War of the Worlds and yet, 83 years later the panic narrative remains, alive and well. For the 75th anniversary in 2013 USA Today reported, that “The broadcast … disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged communications systems.”

NPR’s Morning Edition reported as recently as 2005, that “”listeners panicked, thinking the story was real. Many jumped in their cars according to the broadcast, to flee from the “invasion.” ‘Radiolab’, a program produced by New York Public Radio from 2002 to the present day reported that some 12 million people listened to that original broadcast, in 1938. 1 in 12 according to Radiolab believed the story, to be true.

The Truly Terrified likely numbered in the tens of dozens and not the tens of thousands but the narrative was already being set. What better tools to apply but fear and mockery, techniques we see in common use, to this day.

The War of the Worlds broadcast was, in the end, what it described itself to be. A Halloween concoction. The equivalent of dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying, ‘Boo!’. Instead, the story remains one of our great and enduring media hoaxes giving proof where little is required, of Winston Churchill’s wise and timeless advice: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on“.

October 20, 1977 That Other day, the Music Died

As for that so-called feud with Neil Young it never was anything more, than a good-natured brushback pitch. “I think “Sweet Home Alabama” is a great song” Young would later say, “I’ve actually performed it live a couple of times myself”.

If you’d like to start an argument, find yourself a pair of music enthusiasts and ask them, about the origins of rock ‘n’ roll. And then sit back because I guarantee you, hours of entertainment.

If you’d permit me a gross oversimplification, the answer may be found in the collision of black and white culture of the 1940s and 50s, an amalgamation of style and instrumentation exceeding the sum of its parts and resulting in nothing short, of cultural revolution.

Religious leaders, government officials and parents’ groups decried the new style, as the “devils music. The FBI launched a year-long obscenity investigation directed at the Jamaican sailor’s ballad “Louie Louie”, as performed by an obscure Portland Oregon outfit, called the Kingsmen. The G-Men could have saved themselves a lot of trouble and asked lead singer Jack Ely about those lyrics, but that would have made sense. As it is, the FBI’s archival website contains no fewer than 119 pages, covering the investigation.

Witnesses were interviewed and Louie Louie played forward, backward and at varying speed. In the end, the song was ruled “unintelligible at any speed”.

Rock ‘n’ roll music, was here to stay.

Before the “British invasion“ of the 1960s, rock ‘n’ roll music remained largely a product, of the American south. Artists such as Bo Diddley, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis all hailed, from the deep South.

Popular music changed in the 1960’s from the “Land of Cotton” to large cities like Liverpool, New York, London, Toronto, Los Angeles and San Francisco. A generation of youth the world over “turned on, tuned in and dropped out” in the words of Timothy Leary while bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Canned Heat and a Canadian folk rock group called The Band featuring Arkansas’s own Levon Helm preserved a Southern blues, boogie woogie and country music heritage which would come to be known, as Southern rock..

For a man tragically taken from among us at the age of 24, few have brought about the tectonic cultural shift of a man called “Skydog” by his friends, Howard Duane Allman, by the rest of us. As a session musician with established artists such as Aretha Franklin, King Curtis and Derek and the Dominoes, Rolling Stone ranked Allman #2 guitar player of all time in 2003 second only, to Jimi Hendrix.

The Allman Brothers Band established in 1968 never played so much as a single gig before cutting their first album and yet, went on to become “the best damn rock and roll band this country has produced in the past five years,” according to George Kimball of Rolling Stone. Following session work on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, Eric Clapton himself described Allman as the “musical brother I’d never had but wished I did.”

On October 29, 1971, a motorcycle crash on the streets of Macon Georgia ended the life of Duane Allman. A year later, bassist Berry Oakley was himself killed in a motorcycle crash only three blocks from the spot, where Allman had perished. He too, was only 24.

“You can’t help the revolution, because there’s just evolution … Every time I’m in Georgia, I eat a peach for peace”

Duane Allman

Up to this point, the Allman Brothers’ sound may be described, as blues rock. The 1972 double album “Eat a Peach” turned the corner to a more “Southern Fried” sound led by guitarist Dickey Betts’ epic, “Blue Sky“. The band led the 1970’s Southern rock phenomenon with hits like “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica“, both from the Brothers and Sisters album. Groups like Marshall Tucker, ZZ Top and Molly Hatchet rocketed to stardom during this period but none so much, as Lynyrd Skynyrd.

In the insanity that was the summer of 2021, the Robert E. Lee High School of Jacksonville Florida was renamed, Riverside High. Back in 1969, five Lee High school buddies, were in a band. Ronnie Van Zant (guitar), Bob Burns (drums), Gary Rossington (guitar), Allen Collins (guitar) and Larry Junstrom (bass) went through several band names from ’64 on, including The Noble Five, The One Percent, and My Backyard. In 1969, the boys took a backhanded swipe at a flat-topped gym teacher who didn’t care for all that hair. Forby Leonard Skinner was his name, the band at first calling itself Leonard Skinnerd and later morphing into, Lynyrd Skynyrd.

“It seems a physical education teacher named Leonard Skinner didn’t cotton to long hair or loud music. A run-in with him helped get the boys suspended. As a way of getting back, they named the band for Skinner, changing the vowels to avoid a lawsuit and becoming famous enough to make the story a rock legend.

Associated Press
Leonard Skinner, in later life

Skinner went on to sell real estate and even had his sign and phone number (for which he gave permission) included in the cover art for the band’s third album. Fans would call him up at all hours to ask “who’s speaking”? What followed was invariably “far out” at the response “Leonard Skinner”, but the retired PE teacher said such calls at 4:00am tended to be, anything but.

In 1972, songwriter, musician and record producer Al Kooper of Blood, Sweat and Tears saw the band on performance in Atlanta and signed them to his “Sounds of the South” label to produce their first album: “Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd” featuring the hit song “free bird“ debuted in August 1973. The band never looked back.

An opening slot on the Who’s Quadrophenia tour of late 1973 cemented the band’s popularity proceeding to the follow-up album “Second Helping”, in 1974. Much was made at the time (and since), of the so-called “feud” between Neil Young and these sons of the south but that drama may be a wee bit, overblown. Everyone concerned describes themselves as fans of the other’s work. Neil Young later described his own lyrics in “Alabama” and “Southern Man” as overly accusatory. Ronnie van Zant said the man was shooting all the ducks when he only wanted to kill, one or two. The song “Sweet Home Alabama” they claimed, started out as a joke and was, after all, just a song.

Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow

Be that as it may, the song rocketed up the charts scoring Gold and/or Platinum certifications in Denmark, Italy, the US and the UK. Lynyrd Skynyrd was on the way to becoming one of the most popular Southern rock bands of all time, but such popularity does not come, without a cost.

There were brushes with the law and band defections much of it steeped, in drugs and alcohol. Allen Collins and Gary Rossington were involved in serious car crashes only hours apart over Labor Day weekend 1976, prompting Ronnie van Zant’s ominous warning in a song called, “That Smell”.

Angel of darkness is upon you
Stuck a needle in your arm (Ya fool you)
So take another toke have a blow for your nose
One more drink fool would drown you (Hell yeah)

Guitarist Ed King left the band in 1975. Looking to restore the signature three-guitar front-end Lynyrd Skynyrd, went looking for a replacement. Back up singer Cassie Gaines recommended her younger brother, Steve. Steve Gaines proved to be a prodigiously talented singer, songwriter and musician. The band was headed for greatness, in 1977. The Street Survivors tour brought the band to sold-out concerts throughput Europe and all the way to Asia and a first-ever appearance for a Southern rock band, in Japan. The same group who had once opened for the Who was now playing the same venues, as headliners.

With the release of the Street Survivors album on October 17, Lynyrd Skynyrd rebranded the next leg of the tour with the ominous name, “Tour of the Survivors“. The October 19 show in Greenville South Carolina followed a three day run through their native Florida and ended with a 20 minute rendition of the now famous rock anthem, “Free Bird“. A bright future lay in wait. A future, never meant to be.

26 people boarded the Convair CV-240 chartered from South Carolina on October 20, bound for Baton Rouge and the next concert, at LSU.

“Whiskey bottles, and brand new cars, Oak tree you’re in my way / There’s too much coke and too much smoke / Look what’s going on inside you / Ooooh that smell / Can’t you smell that smell … The smell of death surrounds you.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd

Realizing the aircraft was running out of fuel, the pilots attempted to reach the airport outside McComb, Mississippi. Visibly distressed and losing altitude, pilot  Walter McCreary instructed passengers, to strap in.  Gary Rossington describes a sound like baseball bats on the aircraft’s aluminum skin as tree branches began to strike  the fuselage.

Keyboard player Billy Powell, deeply lacerated with his nose all but torn from his face later described Van Zant being hurled from the plane, his head striking a tree as the aircraft, broke apart. Despite broken ribs, former United States Marine-turned drummer Artimus Pyle extricated himself from the wreckage and walked to a nearby home to notify the inhabitants.

Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and his sister Cassie, road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot McCreary and co-pilot William Gray were all killed in the crash.  Everyone else on the aircraft, all 20 of them, were seriously injured.

This was to be the band’s last flight in this particular aircraft. Everyone agreed the Convair was well past its prime, unbefitting a band some have called, the best in the world. Pyle said the thing looked like it belonged to the Clampett family, referring to the Beverly hillbillies. Aerosmith had previously looked at the same aircraft and flight crew and rejected it for the 1977 American tour, despite objections from Steven Tyler and Joe Perry.

Lynyrd Skynyrd went on hiatus for over a decade after the crash but eventually, reformed. The band remains on tour to this day including original member Gary Rossington and now featuring Van Zant’s brother Johnny, as a lead singer and lead guitarist.

I don’t like my words when I listen to it today. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, too easy to misconstrue.”

Neil Young in his 2012 book, “Alabama”

As for that so-called feud with Neil Young it never was anything more, than a good-natured brushback pitch. “I think “Sweet Home Alabama” is a great song” Young would later say, “I’ve actually performed it live a couple of times myself. My own song “Alabama” richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record. I don’t like my words when I listen to it today.” There were even plans to collaborate on Young’s upcoming song “Powderfinger” recorded on the 1979 “Rust never sleeps: album, but it wasn’t meant to be.

In later life, Leonard Skinner opened a bar in Jacksonville called “The Still” and his namesake rock group, played there. Skinner died in 2010 leaving a New York Times obituary to call him, “Arguably the most influential high school gym teacher in American popular culture“. Other music fads of the 1970s would come and go. Today, the Funk and Punk movements of the period make for good trivia questions. The disco craze is more of a punchline.

Ain’t nobody making fun of Sweet Home Alabama…

May 26, 1907 Little Duke

The Wedge is a spot at the end of Balboa Peninsula in southern California. Located at the east end of Newport beach the place is a surfer’s paradise and a spot anyone with any sense, would stay out of the water.

The Wedge is a spot at the end of Balboa Peninsula in southern California. Located at the east end of Newport beach the place is a surfer’s paradise and a spot anyone with any sense, would stay out of. When conditions are right, a steeply rising sandy bottom causes waves to rise to 30-feet and more. Great, curling monsters breaking onto the shore with such force the outgoing water alone creates a surf and a backwash so powerful as be a danger, to the strongest of swimmers.

Wally O’Connor was a four-time Olympiad, a competition swimmer and water polo player inducted in 1976, into the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame. Long before that, he stood at the entrance of Newport Harbor admiring The Wedge, and what may have been some of the biggest waves he had ever seen.

O’Connor turned to his friend Marion and said I’ll take the first pass. “Watch and learn”.

O’Connor stood at the crest of a wave of his own at this time, a craze that was sweeping the west coast surfing crowd. Body surfing. The man didn’t invent the sport but his strength and skill was capable of drawing crowds on the beach.

Marion hated that name. As a boy, he was rarely seen outside the company of his best buddy, a large Airedale terrier, named Duke. Local firefighters took to calling him “Little Duke” and the name stuck.

Now years later on that day at Newport Beach, Marion Mitchell lit another Camel, and watched. It was easy to see why Wally had won Olympic gold in Paris, back in 1924. Powerful strokes brought his friend out to 100 yards where, diving into the face of an oncoming wave, he sprang from the bottom to emerge at the curl of a giant breaker, not on the crest but in it, speeding to the shore like Superman with one arm out straight and the other, tucked behind.

Wally was flying, not on but of the water, his body staying just ahead of the thunderous crash that hurled him forward like a spear where he glided, grinning, onto the sand. Like a seal.

For Duke, that ride was heart pounding. Electric. An upper Midwest kid who had moved with his family to southern California where he now played football, on a scholarship to the University of Southern California. Duke was well accustomed to the adrenaline, the bone crunching action of college football but this, was something different. This looked like human flight itself and no power on earth was going to keep him from it.

Though himself powerfully built, Duke wasn’t the swimmer that Wally was. The water wasn’t his home but, there he was, strong if ungraceful strokes bringing him out to where Wally had launched that virtuoso performance.

Waiting for a wave as big as Wally’s he too dove into its towering base, springing from the bottom to emerge from the crest and, for a moment, to fly.

And that is where the similarity, ends. One must have exquisite timing to do this at this level, to be at just the right place where the thundering crash of the water hurls you forward and not down, toward the bottom.

Duke hit solid ground with the force of a car wreck. He could literally hear his collarbone break, feel the shoulder dislocate with the terrific force, of that impact.

The other thing he could almost hear was the sound of a football scholarship, crashing to an end. Of the end of USC and the promising law career that would never be.

Duke emerged alive from the water that day but not so, his future plans. With the end of that scholarship he was left no choice but to drop out. Duke left USC never to return and took a job. A prop man, at 20th Century Fox.

There, Director Raoul Walsh saw Marion moving studio furniture and thought, this guy would be better in front of the camera, than behind it.

So it is, one of the great leading male actors of the age of film, met with reporters some 35 years later, in the living room of his Encino home. He spoke with them of his lung cancer, only four days out of major surgery, though he didn’t call it that. With four ribs and a lung removed and stitches pulling loose even now he called it “The Big C”, assuring reporters it was no big deal. Soon, he’d be back in the saddle.

That he did, going on to appear in 24 feature films over the next 12 years until finally, the Big C returned. This time there would be no encore. The man who shot Liberty Valance born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907, died on June 11, 1979, at the age of 72.

So it is we remember his name, the man the LA Times once called a “$35-a-week prop department flunky” who performed in over 200 feature films, all because of a body surfing accident, in 1926.

Happy birthday, John Wayne.

Los Angeles, USA – September 8, 2012: John Wayne memorial on the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Hat tip Mike Rowe for this story and his excellent podcast, The Way I Heard It.

April 3, 1904 The Crying Indian

“Any man who thinks he can be happy and prosperous by letting the government take care of him; better take a closer look at the American Indian”. – Henry Ford

In the motion picture business, the term “silent film” is a retronym, a description coined after the fact to distinguish the genre from “talkies”. The Jazz Singer produced in 1927 was the first feature length picture featuring synchronous recorded music and lip-synchronized singing and speech. Within a decade, widespread production of silent films, had ceased. The era of the modern motion picture, was born.

For Iron Eyes Cody, a career spent in motion pictures reads like a history of the industry itself. This self-described son of a Cherokee father and Cree mother and born with the name “Little Eagle” began a long acting career, in the early 1930s.

Iron Eyes Cody with Roy Rogers in North of the Great Divide, 1950

To read the man’s Wikipedia page is to learn “He appeared in more than 200 films, including The Big Trail (1930), with John Wayne; The Scarlet Letter (1934), with Colleen Moore; Sitting Bull (1954), as Crazy Horse; The Light in the Forest (1958) as Cuyloga; The Great Sioux Massacre (1965), with Joseph Cotten; Nevada Smith (1966), with Steve McQueen; A Man Called Horse (1970), with Richard Harris; and Ernest Goes to Camp (1987) as Chief St. Cloud, with Jim Varney”.

“Iron Eyes learned much of his Indian lore in the days when, as a youth, he toured the country with his father, Thomas Long Plume, in a wild west show. During his travels, he taught himself the sign language of other tribes of Indians.”

Glendale Special Collections library

From future President Ronald Reagan to Bob Hope, there is scarcely anyone prominent in the first half-century of the entertainment industry who didn’t work with “Hollywood’s favorite Native American”. A close personal friend of Walt Disney, Cody appeared in over 100 television programs including many Disney productions. In 1974, Cody appeared on an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, featuring native American dancers. That’s him chanting in the background, on Joni Mitchell’s 1988 song “Lakota” from the album, Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm.

Jay Silverheels, the native American actor who portrayed Tonto in the Lone ranger, used to question Cody’s story. Native American stunt man Running Deer pointed out that something seemed off, Cody’s background didn’t make sense but, no matter. No use getting in the way of a good story.

The period beginning with the Cold War and ending with Woodstock was a time of sea change in American life. Babies weren’t the only thing that “boomed”. The economy exploded and with it, disposable income. Families bought cars and televisions, bought TV dinners and went on road trips. Sperry & Hutchinson company “Green Stamps” were handed out at department stores, grocery stores and gasoline stations, redeemable for Fabulous Gifts and Prizes. During the 1960s, S&H boasted about producing three times the number of stamps, as the United States Post Office.

Along with all this conspicuous consumption came conspicuous amounts, of litter. Engine oil and other solvents were drained directly into sewer drains to become part, of inland waterways. Garbage was everywhere. The situation became so bad in 1969, Cleveland’s Cayuhoga River, caught fire.

The Santa Barbara oil spill of January and February 1969 killed aquatic wildlife by the tens of thousands and remained for years the largest such spill in American history, eclipsed only by the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster and the Deepwater Horizon spill, of 2010.

For Wisconsin Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson, the time was right to bring a lifelong passion for environmental conservation, to center stage. Joined by Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey, the campaigns of 1969 culminated in the first “Earth Day” on April 22, 1970. President Richard Nixon and 1st Lady Pat Nixon planted a tree on the White House lawn, in celebration.

For Earth Day 1971, the nonprofit organization Keep America Beautiful launched the Public Service Announcement the Ad Council later called one of the “50 greatest commercials of all time.”

There he was, Iron Eyes Cody, paddling his canoe down that garbage infested river surrounded by smog, pollution and trash. Stepping onto the junk strewn shore, a bag of rubbish explodes at his feet, carelessly tossed from a passing car. Not a word was spoken, excepting the narrator’s voiceover. Just the actor, turning to the camera, a single tear coursing down his weathered cheek.

The “Crying Indian” ad incited a frenzy of neighborhood action. Cleanup brigades fanned out across the nation, reducing litter by an estimated 88% across 38 states. Iron Eyes Cody was rewarded with two Clio awards and his own star on the Hollywood Walk of fame. The “Face of Native Americans” was plastered across billboards, posters and magazine spots. Advertisers estimate his image was viewed no fewer, than 14 Billion times.

It’s hard to say that anything bad came of the story. The garbage was cleaned up, Hollywood raked in the cash, but Iron Eyes Cody had a secret.

In 1996, a reporter from the New Orleans Times-Picayune took a trip to Gueydan Louisiana and stumbled into that secret. “He just left” recalled Mae Abshire Duhon, Iron Eyes Cody’s sister, “and the next thing we heard was that he had turned Indian.”

Iron Eyes Cody was in fact Espera Oscar de Corti, born April 3, 1904 in rural southwest Louisiana, the second of four children born to Sicilian immigrants Antonio de Corti and Francesca Salpietra. Six years later, Antonio took his three boys and left for Texas, abandoning his wife and daughter. It was there that Cody (Corti) developed an affinity for the windswept deserts and for Native American culture.

In 1919, film producers came to the area to shoot a silent film, “Back to God’s Country”. Oscar was cast as an Indian child.

Following his father’s death five years later, Oscar traveled to California to pursue a career as an actor.

A cynic would call the man’s story a fraud and a fake, and maybe they’re right. Or maybe the transformation was as personal, as real to this Italian American, as it is possible to get. Off camera and on, De Corti portrayed a life borne of the First Nations. “Nearly all my life” he once told reporters, “it has been my policy to help those less fortunate than myself. My foremost endeavors have been with the help of the Great Spirit to dignify my People’s image through humility and love of my country. If I have done that, then I have done all I need to do“.

Iron Eyes Cody died peacefully in 1999 at the age of 94, leaving this poetic tip of the hat to the culture he had adopted, as his own. “Make me ready to stand before you with clean and straight eyes,” he wrote. “When Life fades, as the fading sunset, may our spirits stand before you without shame.”

March 16, 1968 Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay

Otis Redding’s iconic song and #1 hit, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the bay“, became the first posthumous number-one record on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts. The album by the same name was the first posthumous album to reach number one on the UK Albums Chart.

With his father suffering tuberculosis and often hospitalized, Otis Ray Redding Jr. quit school at the age of fifteen to help support the family. He worked at a gas station, but it was the occasional musical gig that got him noticed.  From Macon (Georgia) talent contests to local bands, Redding later joined Little Richard’s band “The Upsetters” when the singer abandoned rock & roll music, for gospel.

Redding began his musical career touring the “chitlin circuit” at a time of racial segregation:  a string of venues hospitable to black musicians, comedians and entertainers throughout the American south, northeast and upper Midwest.  Harlem’s Apollo Theater, the Regal Theater in Chicago, the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C, the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, and others.

800px-otisreddingstatue

Redding joined STAX Records in 1962, a portmanteau of the founding partners and siblings Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (STewart/AXton = Stax).

The label’s use of a single studio and a small stable of musicians and songwriters produced a readily identifiable sound based on black gospel and rhythm & blues which came to be known as Southern soul, or Memphis soul.

Singer-songwriter-musician Otis Redding became STAX Records’ biggest star in the five years before the plane crash that took his life: the “Big O”, the “King of Soul”.

Musicians from Led Zeppelin to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Janis Joplin and virtually every soul and R&B musician of the era have taken musical influence from Otis Redding. It was he who wrote the ballad R-E-S-P-E-C-T made famous by the “Queen of Soul”, Aretha Franklin.

His initial recordings were mainly popular with black audiences, but Redding and others crossed the “color barrier”, performing at “white owned” venues like Whisky a Go Go in LA, the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, and venues throughout Paris, London and other European cities.

Redding’s iconic song and  #1 hit, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the bay“, became the first posthumous number-one record on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts.  The album by the same name was the first posthumous album to reach number one on the UK Albums Chart.

The song wasn’t intended to turn out the way it did.

Redding wanted to expand his musical footprint beyond the soul and R&B genre and took strong influence from the Beatles, particularly the layered sounds of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  If you listen to the song – the seagulls, the sound of lapping waves – that’s what he was going for.  Redding remembered those sounds from the rented houseboat in Sausalito where he wrote the first lines and asked Stax producer and guitarist Steve Cropper, to dub them in.

The “outro”, the twenty-five seconds’ whistling at the end, were nothing but a place holder. Cropper explains there’s “this little fadeout rap he was gonna do, an ad-lib. He forgot what it was so he started whistling.” No trouble, it could all be fixed an a second recording session session, after the tour.

That second session was never meant to be.

The kid who once pumped gas to help support the family boarded his own Beechcraft H-18 aircraft on December 10, 1967 along with Bar-Kays guitarist Jimmy King, tenor saxophonist Phalon Jones, organist Ronnie Caldwell, trumpet player Ben Cauley, drummer Carl Cunningham, their valet Matthew Kelly and the pilot, Richard Fraser.

ben-cauley
Bar-Kays trumpet player, Ben Cauley

The band had played two nights in Cleveland.  The next stop was Madison, Wisconsin. The plane took off despite warnings of foul weather.  The show must go on. Ben Cauley remembers waking from a nap to see band-mate Phalon Jones look out a window and cry out “Oh No!”  He then found himself alone, clutching a seat cushion in the 34-degree waters of Lake Monona.  He was the only survivor.

True to his word, Cropper mixed Dock of the Bay as he said he would, adding in the crashing waves and the seagulls and keeping the outro, the way Otis had left it.

Rhythm & Blues stations were quick to add the song to playlists already saturated, with Otis Redding. The song shot to the top of R&B charts and pop charts, weren’t far behind. Dock of the Bay reached #1 on the billboard Hot 100 on March 16, 1968 and stayed there, for four weeks.

Since that time an impressive list of musical talent has joined Otis Redding, for producing # 1 songs released after the artist was gone. David Bowie. Biggie Smalls. Janis Joplin. Tupac Shakour. John Lennon.

It must be some kind of band they’ve got going up there.

March 14, 1805 A Candle in the Wind

Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!

Accomplished as he was with the violin, cello, piano and guitar, Adam Liszt was a natural musician, a personal friend of Joseph Haydn and Ludwig von Beethoven. It was natural that Adam’s young son Franz would take to music, like a duck to water. That he did, beginning at the age of seven. Franz Liszt would come to be known as one of the greatest pianists of all time, but there was more. In an age of staid reserve not known for mass hysteria, the man’s mere appearance was capable of exciting paroxysms of adulation among his fans, heretofore rarely seen outside the realm of religious rapture.

Fans wore the man’s likeness in brooches and pendants. At concerts, women would literally fight to get at his gloves or his hat or even a broken piano string from which to fashion a bracelet. Female admirers would carry glass vials, in which to hold the dregs of his coffee. One infatuated lady-in-waiting once saw him toss a cigar butt, to the curb. Heedless of the stink of that malodorous object she picked the thing up and wore it in a locket bearing the diamond encrusted initials, F.L.

Franz Liszt in 1858

The German poet Heinrich Heine coined the phrase “Lisztomania” but this wasn’t the hysterical adulation directed at four lads from Liverpool, of a later age. Heine referred to a literal medical condition communicable to the public and requiring immunization measures, to control.

Frenzied adulation amounting to mass hysteria was unusual in the time of Franz Liszt, but not unheard of. The delirium of an earlier age would so thoroughly sweep through Great Britain that not even the Royal family, was exempt.

William Betty, the ‘Boy Wonder”

It all began in 1802 when William Henry West Betty attended a theater with his father in Belfast, at age 11. The boy was enthralled by what he had seen declaring to his father “I shall certainly die if I may not be a player.”

Anyone who’s raised a pre-teen can well imagine the badgering, that followed. At last relenting the father brought young “Master Betty” to the theater manager who must have seen some natural talent. There followed several weeks of training and that first performance, met with rave reviews.

Shakespearian acting is famously difficult in the world of thespians but Betty was a natural, even memorizing the famously wordy role of Hamlet, in three hours.

Hamlet. Romeo. Macbeth. The Boy Wonder trod the boards from Dublin to Glasgow to Edinburgh becoming a sensation across all Ireland, and Scotland.

Paintings were made in his likeness. One cartoon depicted the young artist bestriding the bodies of older players, of the age. A medal was struck with the lad’s image and the inscription, “Not yet mature but matchless”.

The kid was earning a hundred pounds a night at a time when the average working man was lucky to receive one, in a week.

All across England, the kid was a sensation. He was “the Young Roscius”, a reference to the slave-turned-actor of Roman antiquity who inspired Quintus Lutatius Catulus to proclaim, “I stood by chance to greet the uprising Aurora, when suddenly, on the left, Roscius rose up. Please, o heavenly gods, give me leave to say that a mortal seemed to me more handsome than a god“.

At last, Master Betty was ready for London. Hopeful theater goers stood in line for hours just to get tickets in December, 1804. The Covent Garden theater hired policemen to control the crowd waiting outside to catch a glimpse, of the Boy Wonder. One reporter wrote: “Shrieks and screams of choking, trampled people were terrible. Fights for places grew; constables were beaten back, the boxes were invaded. The heat was so fearful that men, all but lifeless, were lifted and dragged through the boxes into the lobbies which had windows.”

Betty was celebrated by London society, invited to dine with none other than King George III and his wife, the Queen Consort Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The House of Commons was adjourned on March 14, 1805 so MPs could trek across London to see Betty play Hamlet.

In his short but meteoric career, Master Betty inspired a rash of child prodigies. For the Boy Wonder, the flame was destined to burn out. The novelty was gone, he couldn’t draw large enough crowds, to pay for the venue.

In 1806, a failed performance of Richard III caused him to be hissed, off the stage. Critics panned an attempted comeback in 1812 and another in 1819. There was a failed suicide attempt at the age of 30.

On September 6, 1997, Elton John performed “A Candle in the Wind” at the funeral for Princess Diana, a song about the meteoric rise and the tragic death, of Marilyn Monroe. For William Betty the candle blew out in 1824. Like so many child prodigies, this one retired to a life of lonely obscurity where he devoted his time and still-considerable fortune, to charitable causes. He died with barely a notice on August 24, 1874, at the age of 83.

March 9, 1953 Always be a Good boy

For that one moment one signal operator was the only man in the free world, who knew what the world would soon learn


All too often, history is measured in terms of the monsters.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe once orchestrated the murder of 20,000 civilians from a single province, after failing to receive even one vote. During the late 1970s, Pol Pot and a revolutionary leftist cadre called the Angka murdered 1/5th the population of the southeast Asian nation, of Cambodia. Communist Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’s policies and political purges killed between 49 and 78 million fellow Chinese citizens, between 1949 and 1976.

You’re really playing in the Big Leagues when they can’t get your body count any closer than the nearest thirty million.

Life in Mao’s China was quite different from that depicted in the propaganda posters.

From Adolf Hitler to Idi Amin, the top ten dictators of the last 150 years account for the loss of nearly 150 million souls. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin joined this parade of horribles with the deliberate starvation of as many as ten million Ukrainians in 1932-’33, a political famine known as the Holodomor. Estimates of the dead attributed to the Communist monster run as high as 60 million, surpassing that of even the National Socialist dictator, Adolf Hitler.

Stalin suffered from poor health in his final years. He was found on the floor of his Kuntsevo Dacha on March 1, 1953, semiconscious, suffering from a brain hemorrhage. His was “a difficult and terrible death” according to Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, lasting four days. Josef Stalin died on March 5, perhaps of natural causes, perhaps he was murdered. Few knew. Fewer cared. The beast was dead.

Fifteen hundred miles to the west in Landsberg Germany, a young staff sergeant was listening. Landsberg was a forward base at this time in the decades-long standoff we remember, as the “Cold war”.

John enlisted in the Air force in 1950, reporting for duty at Lackland AFB, in Texas. He met the woman who would become his first wife there, Vivian, but that was all four years in the future. For now, the budding romance would have to wait. John had deployment papers, to Landsberg.

Today if we want to talk with someone we pick up the phone, but it wasn’t always that easy. In the early 19th century, Europeans experimented with various electrical signaling devices.

Samuel Morse developed a system of timed signals in the early 1840s. Two tones, one short and one long, combined to represent every letter in the alphabet, and every number.

Dots and dashes. Dits and Dahs

John had talent when it came to Morse code. Signals were anything but clear but he could almost anticipate the patterns, coming out of the ether.

Rising to the rank of Staff Sergeant, John was often placed at the forward position, straining to derive meaning through the static from the distant Dits and Dahs of Soviet communications.

The work was demanding and highly secretive. He wasn’t allowed to leave base and when he did, privileges were sharply limited. He couldn’t even share the work with his sweetheart, back in Texas. In hundreds of letters home he never could talk about what he did. He may as well have been in prison.

John saw an American film around this time, a film noir crime drama called Inside The Walls of Folsom Prison. He could relate.

At night, “Johnny” would seek a kind of lonely solace with his old guitar. He found a rhythm, a melody of sorts in the dots and dashes, of Morse code.

Dit-Dah-Dah-Dah-Dit-Dit-Dah-Dah, Dit-Dah-Dah-Dit-Dah-Dah

He even started a band, called the “Landsberg Barbarians”.

So it was the young Staff Sergeant was listening to Soviet chatter on March 5, 1953, straining to pull some order out of faint and distant signals confused and all but obliterated, by static. And then it came to him. The one word standing out from the sequence.

DDah-Dit-Dit
EDit
ADit-Dah
DDah-Dit-Dit

He listened to it again, and again. The news was momentous if true but he had to get this right. In all the free world he alone knew, what the rest would soon learn. The Soviet leader, the Great Beast Josef Stalin, was dead.

Sergeant Cash told his superiors of what he had learned, and the rest is history. Josef Stalin lay in state for three days at Moscow’s House of Unions where the crush of crowds killed 100 people. He was laid to rest in Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square on March 9.

Johnny went back to his job. At night he’d pick up his guitar. The Dits and Dahs. The words would come later but, for now, the melody. A song begun in Landsberg so many would come to believe had arrived later, following that famous visit to Folsom Prison.

For many years, Johnny Cash could tell no one about the Stalin intercept. 3 Hall of Fame inductions, 9 CMA awards and 17 Grammys would have to wait. For now he went back to his job save for nights spent alone. Nights when the talent which had found its voice in that rare ability to find patterns in Morse code found another voice, one we could all understand.

Dit-Dah-Dah-Dah-Dit-Dit-Dah-Dah, Dit-Dah-Dah-Dit-Dah-DahWhen I was just a baby, my mama told me “Son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns…“”

January 12, 1992 Daisy Bell

In 1961, physicist John Larry Kelly, Jr. and Louis Gerstman produced the first truly synthesized speech using an IBM 7094 computer. Kelly’s synthesizer recreated the song “Daisy Bell” with musical accompaniment from Max Vernon Matthews, a song made popular in 1892 and better known as “A Bicycle Built for Two.”

We live in an age when pocket sized devices are capable of producing text from speech, and speech from text. We’ve all tried with varying degrees of success, to dictate a text message or email. It may come as a surprise as it did to me, how long the idea of other-than-human speech has been around.

According to Norse mythology, Mímir was the wisest of the Gods of Æsir. Mímir or Mim was beheaded during the war with the rival Gods of Vanir after which Odin carried the thing around (the head), so that it may impart secret knowledge and wise counsel.

The Brazen Head of the early modern age was the legendary automaton of medieval wizards and necromancers and always said to give the correct answer, provided the question was…just right. William of Malmsbury’s History of the English Kings (c. 1125) contains the earliest known reference to such a talking, Brazen Head. Similar legends followed the polymath Pope Silvester II (c. 946 – 1003), the Dominican friar Albertus Magnus (c.1200 – 1280) and the English philosopher Roger Bacon (1214 – 1294).

Roger Bacon’s assistant is confronted by the Brazen head in a 1905 retelling of the story. H/T Wikipedia

In 1779, the German-Danish scientist Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein built a model of the human vocal tract which could produce the five long vowel sounds of the international phonetic alphabet.

Wolfgang von Kempelen of Pressburg, Hungary, described a bellows-operated apparatus in a 1791 paper, including facsimiles of tongue and lips to produce the nasals, plosives and fricatives required to mimic most (but not all) consonant sounds. Charles Wheatstone actually built the thing in 1846 after Kempelen died, calling his acoustic-mechanical speech machine, the ‘euphonia’.

“A replica of Kempelen’s speaking machine, built 2007–09 at the Department of Phonetics, Saarland University, Saarbrücken, Germany” H/T Wikipedia

At Bell Labs in the 1930s, the pioneering work of acoustic engineer Homer Dudley led to the Vocoder, a portmanteau of voice and encoder, capable of synthesizing and encrypting voice transmissions for use in  secure radio communications. The receiving apparatus or Voder, a keyboard operated device capable of independent speech synthesis, was demonstrated at the 1939 World’s Fair.

In the late 1940s, the pattern playback machines of Dr. Franklin S. Cooper and the Haskins Laboratories converted pictures of acoustic speech patterns, into recognizable speech. In 1961, physicist John Larry Kelly, Jr. and Louis Gerstman produced the first truly synthesized speech using an IBM 7094 computer. Kelly’s synthesizer recreated the song “Daisy Bell” with musical accompaniment from Max Vernon Matthews, a song made popular in 1892 and better known as “A Bicycle Built for Two.”

“Daisy, Daisy / Give me your answer, do. / I’m half crazy / all for the love of you…”

By sheer coincidence, the English futurist, science-fiction writer and television host Arthur Charles Clarke was visiting his friend and colleague John Pierce at this time, at Bell Labs’ Murray Hill facility.

If you think that name sounds familiar, you’re right. Today, Clarke joins American writers Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein as the “Big three”, in science fiction.

It is Clarke who wrote the script for Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 dystopic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Clarke was so impressed with the Daisy Bell demonstration he wrote it into his screenplay. You may remember the climactic scenes of the film as fictional astronauts Frank Poole and Dave Bowman battle for their lives against Discovery’s supercomputer-gone-bad, the HAL9000, “born” this day in 1992 at the HAL Labs in Urbana Illinois, according to the screenplay.

After HAL hurled Frank Poole off into the black void of space and shut off life support to the rest of the crew while still in suspended animation, Dave Bowman is now the sole survivor of the Discovery mission, desperately seeking to unhook the power modules, to the HAL9000.

“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, Dave”.

In the end, the servant of mankind-turned-evil supercomputer reverted to his most basic programming:

“It won’t be a stylish marriage / I can’t afford a carriage.”

“But you’ll look sweet/on the seat/of a bicycle built, for two.”

Fun fact: English songwriter and composer Harry Dacre first came to the United States, with a bicycle. Complaining about having to pay duty on the thing, Dacre’s American friend and fellow songwriter William Jerome quipped, “It’s lucky you didn’t bring a bicycle built for two, otherwise you’d have to pay double duty.” Dacre was so taken with the phrase he soon used it in a song, first popularized in a London music hall and first performed in the United States, in 1892. “Daisy Bell”.

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