You are cordially invited to come over to the Irving theatre this Saturday, April 13th from 2 PM to 4 PM and talk about music. This is the 50th anniversary year of Woodstock, the concert that changed both the culture and history of music while defining a generation. More importantly, this event will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first live concert by The Band at the Winterland ballroom in San Francisco California. The Band (Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson) not only change the face of rock ‘n roll, they almost single-handedly created the movement that became known as “Americana” music. Although known by many as Bob Dylan’s backup band, as we shall see this Saturday, there is more to the fellas than meets the eye.
When these five self-described bearded “Cowboys” appeared on the January 12, 1970 cover of Time magazine (a first for an American band by the way) they were described as “The New Sound of Country Rock.” They came to epitomize Woodstock, the community and the concert, although they landed at both quite coincidentally. In an era when other bands were writing and performing songs about sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, The Band were performing songs about reflection and history created in the basement of a little pink house in the Catskill Mountains. The songs dripped with sentiment, depth and meaning straight out of the pages of American history even though four out of the five members were Canadians.
This Saturday I will host an in depth discussion about The Band and its impact on American music. Joining me will be local radio legends Dave “the King” Wilson, Ed Wenck and Jay Baker. The program will start at 1:30 p.m. with live music in the Irving theatre performed by The Mud Creek Conservancy, the acoustic duo of Ed Wenck and Josh Gillespie. Occurring before the presentation this will be their first live performance. The duo will play and explain a couple of The Band’s best-known songs for us during the discussion as well. The program will also include a live podcast of “Firehouse Irvington” by Kevin Friedly and Jay Baker after the show. We invite you to come out, share thoughts, ask questions and even bring your guitar to play and sing along in what promises to be a show for the ages.
Channel 13’s Nicole Misensik and Brandon Kline will be on hand to assist with questions from the audience and Dave Wilson will act as the official emcee. The program will feature film clips of The Band on stage, taped interviews and historic photographs that, combined with the discussion, will help form a more complete history of what many critics believe was the greatest band in the history of rock ‘n roll. The band’s iconic lyrics will be discussed as well as their motivation and meaning and songwriting process. Not to mention some interesting connections to pop culture events and personalities that lasted well before and long after their breakup in 1976.
The Band was born only after the near fatal motorcycle accident involving the world’s most famous electric folksinger changed their direction. And, although The Band’s first album “Music From Big Pink” debuted on July 1st, 1968, the band from West Saugerties, New York did not perform live until the spring of 1969 a continent away in San Francisco. The album was created start to finish in two weeks time with no overdubbing, unheard of for its day. What’s more, The Band very nearly didn’t take the stage at all; saved only after legendary promoter Bill Graham picked a hypnotist out of a bay area phonebook to right the ship. The little-known stories of these great incidents will be discussed this Saturday.
Most people forget that The Band even performed at Woodstock, let alone was a headliner. We will discuss how mismanagement not only kept The Band out of the film and off of the soundtrack, it kept Bob Dylan off of the stage. All but only the most devoted fans realize that The Band not only performed at Woodstock, but also at the largest concert in the history of music alongside the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers at Watkins Glen New York four years later. And then there was the 1970 Festival Express tour across Canada featuring Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and The Band. The Festival Express was a 14 car long train that stopped in three Canadian cities: Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary, during the summer of 1970, that ultimately became one long non-stop jam session and never ending party fueled by drugs and alcohol.
To understand The Band, one must also understand the era into which it was born. Big Pink’s 1968 debut was also the year of student protests against the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy’s assassination, riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Black Panther demonstrations, feminists protesting the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, Apollo 7 and 8’s moon landing rehearsal flights, Charles Manson gathering his cult members at Spahn Ranch and Nixon’s nomination for president. To many, America was coming apart at the seams and the divide between generations had never seemed wider. This band, formed out of a classically trained musician, a teenaged alcoholic, a butche’rs apprentice, a Jewish Native American grifter and a veteran performer from the Mississippi Delta, stepped forward to bridge the gap.
While considered the fathers of the history conscious “Americana” music movement, make no mistake about it, these guys were quintessential rock and rollers. Fast cars, fast women, and fast times punctuated the lives of each member of The Band. They started in the age of rockabilly, while Elvis Presley was still shaking things, up and finished at the dawn of hip-hop. They crossed paths with Hollywood movie stars, gangsters and presidents. Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Conway Twitty, Tiny Tim, Jack Ruby, Martin Scorsese and Jimmy Carter all play a part in the story of these four Canadians and one self-described “cracker” from Arkansas to create a mystique that still surrounds them today, long after three out of the five band members have passed.
Not only is this Saturday’s event timed to coincide with an important anniversary in the history of The Band, it is also taking place on “National Record Store Day”. There will be live music outside the Irving theatre beginning early in the day and lasting long after this presentation concludes. The program will start at 2 PM, admission is free, but we ask that you please make a donation at the door to the weekly view newspaper to help support the Free Press of Indianapolis.
It would be harder to find a more quintessential Victorian Era Englishman than Oscar Wilde, especially if you were to ask a literate American. Who was Oscar Wilde you ask? Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (October 16,1854-November 30, 1900) was THE flamboyant Irish poet and playwright. He became one of London’s most popular playwrights in the early 1890s and is perhaps best remembered for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the peculiar circumstances of his imprisonment and early death. What is largely forgotten is his visit to America in 1882, including two stops in the Hoosier state.
On January 3, 1882, 27-year-old Oscar Wilde arrived in New York on what would become a year long 15,000 mile visit to 150 American cities. The Dublin-born Oxford educated man was at the pinnacle of his personal eccentricity. His garish fashion sense, acerbic wit, and extravagant passion for art and home design had made such a spectacle in London that none other than Gilbert & Sullivan penned an operetta named “Patience” that lampooned Wilde as the champion of England’s aesthetic movement of the 1870s and ’80s . He was hired to go to America to lecture on interior decorating but in the end, it turned out to be a way for Wilde to promote himself. His visit may well have been one of the very first examples of “branding” as we know it today. It was on this lecture tour where most of the iconic photographic images so associated with Wilde and his “fierce” fashion sense were made.
Despite the fact that at the time of his visit, Wilde was only the author of one self-published book of poems and a single unproduced play, he often proclaimed himself a “star”. His established routine was to appear on stage dressed in satin breeches and a velvet coat with lace trim crowned by a velvet feathered slouch hat perched at a jaunty angle as he advocated the importance of sconces and embroidered pillows—and himself. Wilde was among the first “celebrity” to understand that fame for it’s own sake could launch a career and sustain one. Good or bad, no matter, Wilde’s only concern what that they spell his name right.
According to biographer David M. Friedman (Wilde in America) Widle’s tour of nineteenth-century America ranged “from the mansions of Gilded Age Manhattan to roller-skating rinks in Indiana, from an opium den in San Francisco to the bottom of the Matchless silver mine in Colorado—then the richest on earth—where Wilde dined with twelve gobsmacked miners, later describing their feast to his friends in London as “First course: whiskey. Second course: whiskey. Third course: whiskey.” Wilde gave 100 interviews in America, more than anyone else in the world in 1882. Wilde arrived in an America whose news headlines were populated by outlaws (Jesse James), Presidential assassins (Charles Guiteau), legendary showmen (P.T. Barnum), and inventors (Thomas Edison). Where grabbing headlines are concerned, Oscar Wilde went toe-to-toe with them all. The difference being that Oscar Wilde was the first to become famous for being famous.
The first stop in Indiana on Wilde’s tour came in Fort Wayne on February 16, 1882. Wilde appeared at a facility known as “The Rink” located at 215 East Berry St. in the city (between Clinton and Barr streets). As the name denotes, it was opened as a rollerskating rink in 1869 and was converted into a public house known as “The Academy of Music” for the next decade before it became “The People’s Theatre” before being demolished in 1901. According to the “Pictorial History of Fort Wayne” the building stood on the site of the present Lincoln Memorial Life Insurance Building and was 60 feet wide by 150 feet long with a floor space capable of accommodating 500 ice skaters.
The Fort Wayne daily Gazette reported, “the Academy was about three quarters filled last night to hear Oscar Wilde, the greatly advertised lecturer, who has carried with him the lovers of the beautiful and his ideas of art. His lecture, in the main, is certainly an elaborately written, beautifully worded piece of literature; but for Oscar Wilde he is not an elocutionist, his voice is as effeminate as a school girl’s, and he becomes very tiresome to his auditors, even those who admire the lily and sunflower theory of the aesthetic genius. That Oscar Wilde is a cultured man no one will deny, that he is an orator, every one will hold up their hands in horror against such an insinuation.” The Fort Wayne News called the talk a “languid, monotonous stream of mechanically arranged words … scholarly but pointless; as instructive as a tax list to a pauper, and scarcely as interesting.” From Fort Wayne, Wilde circled around to Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Indianapolis.
Wilde’s February visit to Indianapolis came at a busy time in the city with 3 major conventions taking place: A veterans of the Mexican War reunion, the GAR reunion of Civil War Vets and the Greenback Party convention. Wilde appeared in person for one of his fashion lectures at the English Opera House on the northwest quadrant Monument Circle on February 22, 1882. A full color poster inside the opera house’s marble entryway declared that Wilde’s visit would be “The Fashionable event of the season.” The building was constructed by the Honorable William H. English, a businessman, banker, historian, and politician. Opened on September 20, 1880, the English immediately became the city’s leading theatre and remained so for the next 68 years. Widle’s visit came two years after Hancock ran for Vice-President with Civil War Hero of Gettysburg, General Winfield Scott Hancock.
A crowd of 500 people crowded the opera house to witness Wilde’s 75 minute performance titled “The Decorative Arts”. The Feb. 23, 1883 issue of the Indianapolis News reported, “Oscar Wilde delivered his lecture on “The English Renaissance” last evening at English’s Opera House, to a large audience. He appeared half an hour late, and was greeted with a tender murmur of applause. He came upon the stage alone and proceeded to his lecture without formal introduction. He was dressed partly in the style made familiar to most of his hearers by “Grosvernor” in “Patience.” He wore a dress coat, double-breasted white vest, exposing a wide expanse of unsullied shirt front, in the middle of which glowed a single stud of gold, a standing collar, dead white silk necktie most artistically knotted, knee breeches, black silk stockings and low-cut shoes… Mr. Wilde has been has been variously criticized, but all agree that he is well worth seeing and listening to. Some can make nothing out of his lecture while others are delighted with it. The only way to judge is for each to go and hear for yourself.”
No less than five separate newspaper columns excoriated Wilde or his performance. The Indianapolis Journal newspaper said “We have grown sunflowers for many a year, suddenly, we are told there is a beauty in them our eyes have never been able to see. And hundreds of youths are smitten with the love of the helianthus. Alackaday! We must have our farces and our clowns. What fool next?” Soon, gaggles of admiring young men sporting sunflowers in their velvet lapels formed clubs known as “sunflower boys” to sit front and center at Wilde’s appearances. At Wilde’s other appearances, so many young street toughs interrupted Wilde’s shows that he sent advance notice to Denver that he would no longer act the gentleman and that he was “practicing with my new revolver by shooting at sparrows on telegraph wires from my car. My aim is as lethal as lighting. — O. Wilde.”
“He knows uncommonly well what he is doing,” said the Indianapolis News. The Indianapolis Daily Sentinel reported that “from pit to dome,” most came to make fun of him, but many soon realized that he had something to say. “It would be safe to wage a cigar that if Oscar can be induced by his manager to be a little more utilitarian, he will not want for appreciate or applause.” Wilde took the conservative criticism seriously and decided to tone down his outlandish stage costumes. Wilde later noted that his next night’s audience was “dreadfully disappointed at Cincinnati at my not wearing knee breeches.” Of the Queen City, Wilde quipped, “I wonder that no criminal has ever pleaded the ugliness of your city as an excuse for his crimes.”
Morris Ross, one of the “legendary foursome” staff of writers and editors for the Indianapolis News (including Hilton U. Brown, Meredith Nicholson and Louis Howland), said that Wilde gained attention “mainly by adopting knee breeches and a lily. The latter’s lecture at the last-named city was by no means successful. One reporter caught him using the word “handicrawftsmen” seventeen times and noted his pronunciation of “teel-e-phone,” “eye-solate,” and “vawse.” The same newsman disliked Wilde’s legs, which he said had no more symmetry than the same length of garden hose. Wilde was invited to the governor’s party that evening and on the way he was asked why he came to America. “For recreation and pleasure,” he answered with his typical wit, “but I have not, as yet, found any Americans. There are English, French, Danes, and Spaniards in New York; but I have yet to see an American.” This was a common British criticism of this country during the nineteenth century. At dinner with the governor and his family, Wilde ate greedily. The Saturday Review reported that when he was introduced to ice cream he spooned it up “with the languor of a debilitated duck.”29 Indiana of the 1880’s was truly unsympathetic to Wilde and the aesthetic movement.”
On his 1882 lecture tour of America drank elderberry wine with Walt Whitman in Camden (of whom he said, “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips.”), conversed chillily with Henry James in Washington (who called Wilde “the most gruesome object I ever saw”), lectured in Saint Joseph, Missouri (two weeks after the death of Jesse James), called on an elderly Jefferson Davis at his Mississippi plantation (of whom Wilde inexplicably remarked, “The principles for which Jefferson Davis and the South went to war cannot suffer defeat.”), and fell prey to a con-man in New York’s Tenderloin (he lost $ 5,000 to legendary Gotham City conman Hungry Joe Lewis in a rigged Bunco game).
However, my favorite encounter story from Wilde’s American tour comes from his visit to Hildene. the New Hampshire estate of President Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln. Wilde ate dinner with the former Secretary of War and his wife Mary. Mrs. Lincoln was apparently entranced by Wilde but Robert remained silent throughout the encounter. The visit culminated with Mr. Lincoln’s sudden rise and push back from the table followed by a slamming of his napkin onto his dinner plate and announcement, “I do not care for that man!” Years after Lincoln’s death in 1926, an imperial sized cabinet photo of Wilde (dressed in all his finery) was found in the Secretary’s estate signed “To Robert T. Lincoln, with my very best wishes, Oscar Wilde”. Oh, if they only knew.
Its February in Indianapolis. As I sit at my keyboard in 10 below zero weather, my power is out, the candles are lit and my compy is running on battery power. So…time for a happy warm memory. 55 years ago, on February 18, 1964 The Beatles met a young Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali at his training camp in Miami Beach, Florida. The Fab Four were wrapping up their whirlwind tour of America (including two shows at the Fairgrounds in Indianapolis) and Clay / Ali was prepping for his February 25 fight against heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Although both events would change history, for that brief moment in time, they were just five kids goofing around and mugging for the camera.
In the previous nine days, the lads from Liverpool had performed on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York before a record television audience (and taped another program for later broadcast), played concerts at Washington, D.C.’s Coliseum and New York’s Carnegie Hall, then traveled south for their second Sullivan Show appearance at Miami’s Deauville Hotel. Their Meet the Beatles album was dominating the U.S. Billboard charts and their single “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was blasting out of every transistor radio in the country. Beatlemania, which had already swept Britain for a year, was exploding worldwide. America hadn’t seen anything like this since Elvis Presley the previous decade. The band’s Svengali manager, Brian Epstein, decided the boys needed a rest and what better place to take a break than in Miami Beach?
The Beatles arrival in Miami is legendary and offers a great snapshot on the innocence of “Beatlemania” in South Florida. Some 7,000 screaming teenagers greeted the Beatles at Miami International Airport. The Fab Four were thrown in a limousine, raced across town, and rushed into the Deauville Hotel. The Deauville hotel was built in the mid-1920s, and was transformed into the Deauville Beach Resort in the mid-1950s. Towering over Miami Beach, the Deauville featured 500 rooms, on-site restaurants, nightclubs, boutiques, a beauty salon, swimming pool, an ice skating rink and it’s own radio station that routinely hosted Frank Sinatra and his rat pack. The Beatles stayed on the 12th floor, which has become a shrine to Beatlemania festooned with memorabilia and photographs on the hallway walls around the actual rooms where the Beatles stayed for those eight days in February 1964. There is a guard posted by the elevator and a sign that requests: “Silence.”. John and then-wife Cynthia Lennon stayed in room 1211. Paul, George, Ringo, manager Brian Epstein and others in their entourage shared rooms. There was no backstage in the Napoleon Ballroom. The band traveled from their hotel rooms, down the elevator, across a lobby packed with screaming girls to make their way into the ballroom and through the room filled with thousands of adoring female fans waiting to see them perform for millions more watching them on TV.
On the other hand, Cassius Clay was training hard in the ring and talking smack outside of it to anyone within earshot. The brash 1960 Olympic champion had earned his shot, raising steadily through the heavyweight ranks while racking up a 19-0 record including 15 knockouts. His 1963 victory over Doug Jones and subsequent drubbing of Englishman Henry Cooper rounded out his “Bum of the month” schedule and set up his shot at the title shot at the menacing Sonny Liston. While Clay / Ali was an intelligent technical fighter, Liston was a brute whose appearance, like Mike Tyson afterwards, screamed pain. Liston had won the championship in 1962 by flooring Floyd Patterson in the first round of their title bout. Ring experts proclaimed the lithe and lean Clay / Ali didn’t have a ghost of a chance against the mammoth brawler Liston.
Problem was, like a scene straight out of “Rocky”, while “the champ” Liston was training in the relative splendor of the North Beach community center, “the upstart” Clay / Ali was sparring hard at the decrepit Fifth Street Gym in what is now South Beach. Despite its run-down appearance, the 5th Street Gym was a boxing mecca visited by the likes of Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster during its heyday of the 1950-60s. The gym opened in 1950 on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach by Chris Dundee brother of Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Angelo Dundee. The rings were located on the second floor of the building and besides Clay / Ali, the gym was used for training by other champion boxers including Joe Louis, Carmen Basilio, Jake LaMotta, Willie Pastrano, and Sugar Ray Leonard.
In shades of taunts to come, 22-year-old Cassius was unmercifully needling his opponent, going so far as to take his entourage by bus to Liston’s training headquarters to heckle the champion in front of the media gathered outside. Clay quickly branded Liston as the “big, ugly bear.” For his part, Liston, who was 35-1 when he met Clay / Ali, remained relatively silent, furrowed his brow, bowed his back and brushed the loudmouth youngster’s taunts off summarily. Liston was known for his toughness, formidable punching power, long reach, and intimidating appearance and was widely regarded as unbeatable.
The Beatles-or more likely someone in their entourage-requested a photo-op with heavyweight champion Liston. Fleet street photographer Harry Benson, traveling with the band on their first American trip, tried to set it up. But the grim Liston, made even grumpier from the constant harassment by Clay, had had enough youthful enthusiasm and decided he wanted no part of Beatlemania. 25-year-old New York Times reporter Robert Lipsyte, in town covering the lead up to the big fight, said Liston rebuffed the request by asking, “Who are these little sissies?”
So Benson made a detour to the dingy Fifth Street Gym with the Beatles in tow for a hastily arranged session with Clay, whose own press agent welcomed the publicity. Because of dire predictions by experts promising a short, unmemorable contest, ticket sales were slow, even though it was title fight. Clay / Ali was a 7-1 underdog and aside from his antics outside the ring, he was still relatively unknown. While fight fans found Clay’s smack-talk amusing, they also believed the increasingly irritated Liston would quickly dispatch the braggart and shut the upstart’s mouth for good. Even the Beatles weren’t exactly thrilled at the proposed meeting.
The optics of the trip did little to encourage the Fab Four’s hope as they rambled up the gym’s decaying steps. Even John Lennon referred to the young challenger at one point as “that loudmouth who’s going to lose.” The lads were ushered into the dark and dank warehouse where they waited in the stale air for Clay / Ali to arrive. The fighter was late and the boys clowned around the rings, bouncing on and off the ropes like subjects in a Charlie Chaplin film. Photographer Benson busied himself by scouting out the best angles in the gym for his photos. The lads were tired and ready to hit the beach and chase chicks. As the time ticked away, the band became increasingly impatient and annoyed. “Where is he?!” Ringo Starr angrily asked. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Lennon muttered as he headed for the door. Instead, Clay’s promoter had a couple security guards herd the band into a dressing room, where reporter Lipsyte found the boys fuming and cursing Harry Benson’s name.
Suddenly the door swung open and the startled band-mates looked up to see the biggest man any of them had ever seen framing the doorway. “Hello there, Beatles!,” Clay exclaimed. “We oughta do some roadshows together. We’ll get rich!” The Beatles were instantly mesmerized. Amid laughter, playful nudges and jostling, the five young men who would come to define their generation, headed into the gym. There they posed, mugged and improvised slapstick situations for the cameras like old time vaudevillians. The media image-savvy young boxer at first posed in his street clothes and then changed into his white trunks. Clay characteristically bit his upper lip and posed knocking the Beatles down like dominoes. The Fab Four dutifully lay on the canvas in mock defeat before as the young fighter towered over them. Clay suddenly picked the diminutive Ringo up off the floor and effortlessly cradled him in his arms like an infant. “Man, you guys are the greatest!” Cassius enthused. “The whole world is shook up about you!” One UPI reporter said Clay ad-libbed a little verse for the occasion: “When Liston reads about the Beatles visiting me / He’ll get so mad I’ll knock him out in three!”
The exhausted Beatles were thunderstruck by the encounter. As the dunned Fab Four fled the gym and piled back into their limo, they swore oaths to photographer Benson that they’d never speak to him again, with one unidentified Beatle carping that the whole experience had been “degrading. You made a fool of us!” The feeling was apparently mutual. Back at the gym, Clay completed his workout, then hit the dressing room for a rubdown as the press prodded him for details. Cassius turned to Lipsyte with a puzzled look and asked about the four long-haired young Englishmen he’d spent the morning clowning with earlier by asking, “Who were those little sissies?”
A week later Sonny Liston threw in the towel by refusing to come out of his corner for the seventh round of the title fight. Of the encounter, reporter Robert Lipsyte later wrote, “In 1964 my time was not very valuable. I was a utility night rewrite writer and speechwriter at the Times when Sonny Liston fought Cassius Clay for the first time. The Times, in its wisdom, did not feel it was worth the time to send the real boxing writer. So they sent me down to Miami Beach and my instructions were, as soon as I got there, to rent a car and drive back and forth a couple of times between the arena, where the fight was going to be held in a week, and the nearest hospital. They did not want me wasting any deadline time following Cassius Clay into intensive care.”
“As I walked up the stairs to the gym there was a kind of hubbub behind me. There were these four little guys in terrycloth cabana suits who were being pushed up the stairs by two big security guards. As I found out later, it was a British rock group in America. They had been taken to Sonny Liston for a photo op. He had taken one look at them and said “I’m not posing with those sissies.” Desperately, they brought the group over to Cassius Clay—to at least get a shot with him. They were cursing. They were angry. They were absolutely furious. I introduced myself. John said, “Hi, I’m Ringo.” Ringo said, “Hi, I’m George.” I asked how they thought the fight was going to go. “Oh, he’s going to kill the little wanker,” they said. Then they were cursing, stamping their feet, banging on the door. Suddenly the door bursts open and there is the most beautiful creature any of us had ever seen. He leaned in, looked at them and said, “C’mon, let’s go make some money.” He turned and the Beatles followed him out to the ring. They lined up. He tapped Ringo. They all went down like dominoes. It was a marvelous, antic set piece. And then it was over and they left.”
The Ottawa Journal newspaper of February 19, 1964 ran an article titled, “BRITAIN’S BUSH-HAIRED BEATLES MEET BOXING’S BARON OF BRAY” which reported, “Britain’s bush-haired Beatles met boxing’s Baron of Bray, Cassius Clay, Tuesday and it ended up in clowning, off-key pandemonium. Boxing and singing probably were set back 100 years when Gaseous Cassius teamed up with.. the four mop-haired singers during a break in training at the Fifth Street gym. “Man, you guys are the greatest. The whole world is shook up about you,” said Clay, apparently a longtime Beatle fan. The raucous meeting represented two firsts: Clay admitted that someone other than himself is “great,” for the first time, and he predicted that he will flatten Liston in three rounds, even though the brash 22-year-old contender is a 6-1 underdog at the moment. The Beatles, dressed in flashy sport shirts, snow-white vests and beach shoes, enjoyed the meeting as much as Clay. They entered the training ring with a “yeah, yeah, yeah” and pretended to attack Clay en masse. Clay shouted “no, no, no” and feigned horror. It was about what you’d expect from Clay – Beatle meeting: noise, poems and more noise. Photographers had a field day during the clowning, which didn’t end until trainer Angelo Dundee reminded Clay that he had a date in exactly one week. Before they left, Clay lifted Beatle drummer Ringo Starr two feet off the floor, tossed him up and wished him good luck.The other three Beatles, George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, watched laughing. For the Beatles, the confrontation with Clay was the kickoff of a leisurely day on the beach. They have no more appearances to make and are vacationing until Friday when they return to London. For Clay, it was a respite from the serious business of hard training. Loudmouth or not, Clay apparently realizes what he is here for. He snapped back into the routine as soon as the Beatles left.”
As for Liston, rumors circulated that the champ had been drinking heavily the night before the fight. Liston was still a world-ranked boxer when he died under mysterious circumstances at the estimated age of 39 (Sonny’s birth certificate has never been found). Almost a year after defeating Chuck Wepner on January 29, 1970, whose 1975 title fight with Muhammad Ali was the model for the “Rocky” films, Liston was found dead by his wife, Geraldine, in their Las Vegas home on January 5, 1971. Upon returning home from a two-week trip, Geraldine smelled a foul odor coming from the main bedroom. There she found her husband slumped up against the bed atop a broken foot bench. It was believed the champ was undressing for bed when he fell backward breaking the bench. Geraldine called Sonny’s attorney and his doctor, but did not notify the police until two to three hours later. Police found a quarter-ounce of heroin in a balloon in the kitchen and a half-ounce of marijuana in Liston’s pants pocket.
Following an investigation, Las Vegas police concluded that there were no signs of foul play and declared Liston’s death a heroin overdose. The coroner said Sonny’s body was too decomposed to be conclusive and officially declared the cause of death to be “lung congestion and heart failure” to save embarrassment for the family. The date of death listed on his death certificate is December 30, 1970, which police estimated by judging the number of milk bottles and newspapers around the front door of the property. Many people who knew Liston insisted that he was afraid of needles and never would have used heroin. Some claim Liston was murdered by the mob and a loan-sharking ring in Las Vegas. Others said Liston was murdered by drug dealers with whom he’d become involved. Underworld connections and his unrecorded date of birth added to the enigma.
For their part, that evening The Beatles went to a drive-in movie, where they watched Elvis Presley in Fun In Acapulco. Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, “THE” heavyweight champion of a generation. It was a title he’d retain on and off for the next 15 years, twice as long as The Beatles lasted as a group. That hastily-arranged photo op of greatness from 55 years ago has become an iconic mixed-metaphor snapshot of the sixties. The participants are all shown smiling, jostling and cajoling each other in the ring, betraying no trace of the resentment being felt on all sides. Three of the five subjects are gone from this earth, but those images have achieved pop culture immortality.
Ten years ago, the dead body of a 67-year old woman was discovered in Engkewood, New Jersey. Her death came sometime that week and, for the most part, her passing went unnoticed. It remains so a decade later. But, in the weeks and months before the British invasion hit our shores, she was the hottest third of a fairy-tale girl group featured on magazine covers, 45 sleeves and album covers all over the world. She dated George Harrison, Mick Jagger, George Hamilton and Johnny Mathis. Her name was Estelle Bennett and together with her sister Veronica and cousin Nedra Talley, they were known the world over as The Ronettes.
One of the most popular groups (male or female) from the 1960s, they charted nine songs on the Billboard Hot 100, five of which became Top 40 hits. The trio came from Washington Heights in New York City, and took their name from lead singer Veronica; better known as Ronnie Spector. The Ronettes’ most famous songs were “Be My Baby”, “Baby, I Love You”, “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up”, and “Walking in the Rain”. The later won a Grammy Award in 1965, and “Be My Baby” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, just a couple years before Estelle’s death, officially from colon cancer, but those who knew her said she died of a broken heart.
The girls had been singing together since they were teenagers in Spanish Harlem. In 1959, they entered a talent show at the Apollo Theater and won as “The Darling Sisters.” Ronnie was then 16, Estelle 17, and Nedra 13. Soon they were appearing at local sock hops and charity shows. By 1961 they were dancing and singing at New York’s Peppermint Lounge during the Chubby Checker “twist” dance-craze. They were featured in “Twist-A-Rama” shows and toured with Joey Dee and the Starlighters, whose song “Peppermint Twist” was a standard of the era. In time, they were discovered by New York city’s famous disc jockey “Murray the K,” who had them appear in his “rock ‘n roll revues” held at the Brooklyn Fox Theater. In March of 1963, they moved to Phil Spector’s Philles Records and changed their name to “The Ronettes”.
The Ronettes were an exotic contradiction, singing songs in flirting tones about puppy love like edgy big apple street sirens while still looking somehow lonesome and vulnerable. Their heavy mascara framed Cleopatra eyes, their tight slit skirts exposed shapely legs and their tall, jet-black beehive hairdos screamed sex appeal… and danger. All three girls were of mixed-race decent and all three were undeniable young beauties. Ronnie and Estelle had a white father and a mother of African-American and Cherokee descent. Nedra Talley was black, Indian and Puerto Rican. Despite their vampish appearance, the girls were kept off the street by their parents and led tame, sheltered lives. Sometimes at school, they were bullied for their mixed-race looks. Hard to imagine from the girls who Darlene Love (He’s a Rebel) described as “the bad girls of the ’60s.”
Estelle Bennett (July 22, 1941 – February 11, 2009) was the quieter of the two Bennett sisters. When they were in school, Estelle concentrated on her homework and brought home good grades. Ronnie, more of an extrovert, spent her time singing and cultivating her “look”. Estelle was thr fashionista of the two, always reading Glamour, Vogue, and other fashion magazines. Estelle was valedictorian of her class at George Washington High School in Manhattan and went on to study at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Estelle worked at Macy’s durig the day, attended fashion school at night, and sang with The Ronettes on the weekends. And above all, Estelle loved singing and the recognition that came with it. She was the “pretty” Ronette, the one whose dance card was always the fullest. Although content to remain in the shadow of her younger sister, Estelle always soaked up her fair share of the spotlight. Those who knew Estelle described her as gentle and intelligent, and the driving force behind the Ronettes’ style. As cousin Nedra recalled: “She was not pretentious at all, but she carried herself with a sophistication that a lot of guys thought was really sexy. And she had a very, very good heart.”
By the time the girls signed with Phil Spector in 1963, thanks mostly to Estelle, the Ronettes had their look precisely calibrated. In August of 1963 “Be My Baby” was released and by October, it had shot to No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart, making the Ronettes instant stars. The girls embarked on a tour of Britain in December of 1963 into early 1964. The Ronettes were the only girl group to tour with the Beatles. The Rolling Stiones were their opening act. When they toured, the Ronettes always traveled with at least one family member. In late 1964, the group released their only studio album, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica, which entered the Billboard charts at number 96.
It was during that tour of ’63-’64 when The Beatles George Harrison, the “quiet Beatle”, began dating Estelle Bennett. The two hit it off immediately. According to Estelle, “We kept running into each other at parties and gatherings and always found our eyes meeting no matter how many other people were in the room. George and I talked whenever we’d see each other. We found we liked the same things, long walks while wearing comfortable clothes and being with sincere people who liked us for ourselves and not because we were in show business. I think I was the happiest when I was talking with George. There was something about him that made me open up and spill out anything that was on my mind. I think he felt the same way, for he’d often call late in the evening and talk on the phone for hours.”
The duo were inseperable for the remainder of the English tour until The Beatles left for Paris. When The Beatles came to America, the Ronettes met them at their hotel in New York City. The Ronettes, in fact, were on hand February 8, 1964 to welcome the Beatles as they arrived in New York for their first U.S. visit and Ed Sullivan Show appearance. But the relationship fizzled out, Estelle saying, “We saw each other many times. I was with him at the party after their concert and on other evenings when we just sat around the hotel with the rest of the group. But somehow things weren’t the same. We couldn’t recreate the same relationship we had when I was in London…Over there he’s at his best, he’s relaxed, he’s George Harrison, Englishman and not George Harrison, Beatle.”
During that same tour, Estelle was also romantically linked with Mick Jagger.
In Keith Richards autobiography “Life” he admitted that he was dating Ronnie when the Stones toured with the Ronettes in 1963. He recalled there that Mick Jagger got with Estelle because she was less “chaperoned” than Ronnie. The pairings were viewed as controversial for a couple of reasons. One was that management, particularly The Beatles’ Brian Epstein, wanted “the boys” to remain single for fans’ sake. And two, interracial pairings were taboo back in those days. Frowned upon in the U.K. and nearly suicidal in parts of the U.S.A.
In 1965, the Ronettes continued to record and tour while making a few appearances on television, including a CBS special and the NBC pop music show, Hullabaloo. However by this time, Phil Spector was busy with other artists. The 1965 song “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” produced and co-written by Spector for The Righteous Brothers, became a No. 1 hit. And by early 1966, he was preoccupied with Ike & Tina Turner. By now, The Ronettes were being moved to the back burner by Spector and some of their songs, such as “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine”, and two songs co-written by Harry Nilsson, “Paradise” and “Here I Sit,” were held back for decades. They had one last hurrah in August 1966 when the Ronettes (minus Ronnie) joined the Beatles on their 14-city U.S./Canada tour as one of the opening acts. As for the Rolling Stones, during one visit they made to New York in the 1960s, Ronnie’s mother ended up cooking for them at her Gotham City home.
In late 1966, after several singles failed to make the charts, Phil Spector stopped releasing new records, the Philles label shut down and the Ronettes disbanded. Nedra Talley married New York radio station programming director Scott Ross. Estelle Bennett married road manager Joe Dong and the couple had a daughter, Toyin. After the Ronettes’ break-up, Estelle took it hard. Her cousin, Nedra said “Estelle did not want the Ronettes to end.” Estelle recorded one single for Laurie Records, “The Year 2000/The Naked Boy.” It didn’t do well and she quit the music business. After she left music, her life began a descent into another world.
By 1968, Estelle seemed to lose her moorings. At one point, she was hospitalized with anorexia. Not long after her grip on reality began to loosen considerably. Estelle was often seen wandering the streets of New York, telling people she would be performing with the Ronettes at a particular jazz nightclub. Estelle’s daughter Toyin explained she had never really known who her mother was. “From the time I was born she suffered with mental illness. I never really got to know Estelle in a good mental state.” Cousin Nedra Talley Ross, reported that Estelle had led a hard life, struggling with schizophrenia and anorexia.
Fellow 1960s singer Darlene Love, who once described The Ronettes as Rock’s tough girls, said the last time she saw Estelle, “She didn’t remember me.” By the early 2000s, Estelle Bennett was homeless. In 2007, The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Love recalled seeing Estelle at the induction ceremony. “They cleaned her up and made her look as well as possible…She looked the best she could for somebody who lived on the street. It broke my heart.” It was decided that she was too fragile to perform. A back-up singer with Ronnie Specter’s new group stood in for an encore performance of “Be My Baby”.
“Be My Baby” sold millions of copies, both in the 1960s and since then, having been used in the opening segments of films such as Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film Mean Streets and 1987’s Dirty Dancing. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the song at No. 22 on their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys has called “Be My Baby” one of the greatest pop records ever made and is his “all-time favorite song.” Wilson was in his car when he first heard the tune on the radio, and being the composer and arranger that he was, stopped the car to give the song a closer listen. “I had to pull off the road,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. The choruses blew me away.” Wilson, in fact, wrote a famous Beach Boys song, “Don’t Worry Baby,” initially as a follow-up intended for the Ronettes, but it was turned down for that purpose.
When Estelle was found dead in her apartment by police, after relatives had been unable to contact her, Kevin Dilworth, a friend and former Newark, New Jersey Star-Ledger newspaper reporter said, “I think she really just died of a broken heart. After the Ronettes disbanded in 1966, I don’t think she was ever right again…” Dillworth added that the only time he really saw her come to life was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame of March 2007: “When they came out of the main ceremony… when she walked down the hallway, and the paparazzi … all the flashing cameras, and the people asking for autographs … her eyes just lit up. She was so excited, and she was back on top of the world again. But she went right back to anonymity.”
Posthumously, all agreed that growing up, Estelle had been a force in creating the Ronettes’ style and act – and that she had a heart of gold. “Estelle had such an extraordinary life,” said her cousin, Nedra. “To have the fame, and all that she had at an early age, and for it all to come to an end abruptly. Not everybody can let that go and then go on with life.” “Not a bad bone in her body,” said her sister Ronnie in a press statement. “Just kindness.” At that 2007 Hall of Fame ceremony, Estelle spoke only two sentences during her acceptance speech, “I would just like to say, thank you very much for giving us this award. I’m Estelle of the Ronettes, thank you.” No, Estelle, we thank you.
Sixty years ago, February 3, 1959, three of Rock ‘n Roll’s biggest stars- Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, known as the Big Bopper- were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. The day became known as, “The Day the Music Died.” 13-year-old Don McLean was folding newspapers for his paper route in the early morning hours of February 4, 1959 when he got the news. Ten years later, McLean recorded an album in Berkeley, California called “Tapestry” in 1969. After being rejected 72 times by multiple labels, the album was picked up and released by Mediarts, a label that had not existed when he first started looking. It attracted good reviews but little notice outside the folk community. McLean’s major break came when Mediarts was bought by United Artists, paving the way for his second album, “American Pie”.
The album launched two number one hits in the title song and “Vincent”. American Pie’s success made McLean an international star. The title track went on to become an anthem for late stage baby boomers. Decyphering the song’s lyrics became a national pasttime, sparking rumors that persist to this day. “American Pie” was the number-one US hit for four weeks in 1972. The song was listed as the No. 5 song on the RIAA project Songs of the Century and was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.
McLean has really never divulged the song lyrics meanings. He has said: “They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry.” His silence has simply added fuel to the speculation. In 2009, on the 50th anniversary of the crash, he stated that writing the first verse of the song exorcised his long-running grief over Holly’s death and that he considers the song to be “a big song … that summed up the world known as America”. It should be noted that McLean dedicated his album to Holly. Every line of the 8 1/2 minute song has been carefully culled over and, rightly or wrongly, “explained” by fans and pundits alike ever since. Some of them are simple, others, not so much.
“A long, long time ago.”: American Pie was written in 1971 but talks about the 1950’s. “I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.”: McLean’s favorite music were the golden oldies of the 50’s. “And I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance, and maybe they’d be happy for a while…”: Fifities music was primarily made for school dances and sock hops and McLean was waxing nostalgic about creating the same atmosphere with his music. “But February made me shiver.”: His idol, Buddy Holly died in a February plane crash in Iowa. “With every paper I’d deliver.”: He was a newspaper delivery boy in New Rochelle, New York. “Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step.”: Denotes the day he got the news of the plane crash. “I can’t remember if I cried, when I read about his widowed bride.”: Buddy Holly’s wife was pregnant when the accident occurred and soon after had a miscarriage. “But something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.”: Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died together on the same day and fans felt that these three were that only major artists left. Elvis got drafted, Little Richard turned gospel, Bill Haley was forgotten, Jerry Lee Lewis was scandalous and Chuck Berry was a convicted criminal.
“Did you write the book of love?”:”The Book of Love” was a hit in 1968 by the Monotones. “And do you have faith in God above, if the Bible tells you so?”: Don Cornell’s book “The Bible Tells Me So” (1955) and the Sunday School song “Jesus Loves Me,” with the line “For the Bible tells me so.” were presumed memories from McLean’s childhood. “Now do you believe in rock & roll?”: McLean was a former folk singer, a medium supplanted by Rock n’ Roll. “Can music save your mortal soul?”: Music may be the only thing that can save the listener from the social upheaval of the sixties. “And, can you teach me how to dance real slow?”: another perceived reference to the innocence of the 1950s. “Now I know that you’re in love with him, ’cause I saw you dancing in the gym.”: Buddy’s widow Maria Elena remarried. “You both kicked off your shoes.”: 1950s sock hop reference. “Man, I dig those rhythm and blues.”: Buddy Holly was living in Greenwich Village at the time of his death and frequenting the Jazz bars with his young wife. “I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck with a pink carnation and a pickup truck.”: likely a tip of the cap to Marty Robbins 1957 song A White sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation). “But I knew I was out of luck, the day the music died.”: Holly’s death presaged an end of innocence.
“Now for ten years we’ve been on our own.”: It was a decade after Holly’s death when McLean put out his first album in 1969. “And moss grows fat on a rolling stone.”: Bob Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone” signified (to many) the death of folk music. “but that’s not how it used to be.”: Again referring to Dylan’s musical changes. “When the jester sang for the king and queen.”: A veiled reference to Dylan as the jester. The king was Peter Seger and the queen Joan Baez. The two biggest names in folk music in the ’60’s. “In a coat he borrowed from James Dean.”: Although some see this as reference of Dylan’s “Freewheelin'” album cover where he is wearing a red windbreaker, it has also been explained as the movie idol’s death coming so close to Holly’s. “And a voice that came from you and me.”: again a reference to Dylan being the voice of his generation. “Oh, and while the king was looking down the jester stole his thorny crown.”: When Elvis “The King” left for the Army, Dylan stepped up to take his place. “The courtroom was adjourned, no verdict was returned.”: Dylan left the folk scene and went electric, then had his motorcycle wreck and disappeared for awhile. “And while Lennon read a book of Marx.”: Like Dylan, John Lennon and The Beatles switched genres from a pop band to serious musicians with an even more serious message. “The quartet practiced in the park and we sang dirges in the dark, the day the music died.”: The Beatles performed their last live concert at Candlestick Park and were broken up by the time this song became well known. There are many music aficionados out there who will argue that this verse is not about Bob Dylan at all but rather about the Kennedys. In that case, the lyrics should be pretty self explanatory.
“Helter Skelter in a summer swelter.”: In the summer of 1968, Charles Manson massacred an entire family spurred on by the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” from the white album. “The Byrd flew off with to a fallout shelter.”: The Byrd’s were a popular folk-rock group who had a hit with Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” in 1965. Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” appeared on his “Bringing It All Back Home” record, which features the image of a fallout shelter sign in the lower left corner. “Eight miles high and falling fast then landed in the foul grass.”: Eight Miles High was the first ever psychedelic song by the Byrds and tall grass refers to marijuana. “The players tried for a forward pass with the jester, on the sidelines in a cast.” Bob Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle wreck sidelined him and led to the success (out of necessity) of his back-up band, “The Band” whose 1968 and 1969 albums are considered classics. “Now the half time air was sweet perfume while sergeants played a marching tune.” Perceived reference to Dylan’s time off and the 1967 Beatles album Sgt. Pepper. “We all got up to dance, but we never got the chance.”: reference to the protests at the 1968 Chicago DNC and Kent State massacre of 1970. “Cause the players tried to take the field.”: The National Guard at Kent State University. “The marching band refused to yield.”: resulting in the deaths of of four students and wounding of nine others. “Do you recall what was revealed, the day the music died.”: Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.
“And then we were all in one place.”: The Woodstock Festival took place in August 1969. 400,000 of McLean’s generation were there. “A generation lost in space.”: with the Apollo 11 moonlanding, the kids who grew up watching Lost in Space were coming of age. “With no time left to start again.”: The deaths of Buddy Holly and James Dean were harbingers for assassinations of the 1960s that could not be undone. “So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack flash sat on a candlestick.”: Reference to the Rolling Stones song Jumpin’ Jack Flash. “cause fire is the devil’s only friend.”: The Rolling Stones 1968 album Sympathy for the devil. “Oh, and as I watched him on the stage.”: In December of 1969, the Stones attempted another Woodstock at Altamont Speedway. A free concert with the Hell’s Angel’s handling the security. The Stones paid them with beer and handfuls of acid and during the performance of “Sympathy for the Devil,” a black man was beaten and stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels. “My hands were clenched in fists of rage no angel born in hell could brake that Satan’s spell.”: The Hell’s Angels. “As the flames climbed high into the night, to light the sacrificial rite.”: The stones were helicoptered out after the murder and mayhem ensued. “I saw Satan laughing with delight, the day the music died.”: Historians point to the Stones at Altamont as the death of the sixties and good no longer triumphed over evil.
“I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away.”: Considered as a reference to Janis Joplin’s death by an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970. “I went down to the sacred store.”: Nostalgic return to a once safe place. “Where I heard the music years before, but the man said the music wouldn’t play.”: pining for the forgotten golden oldies of the good old days. “And in the streets the children screamed.”: Race riots, political protests and militant groups now ruled the streets. “The lovers cried and the poets dreamed.”: The political assassinations of the sixties had destroyed the promise of the future. “But not a word was spoken. The church bells all were broken.”: The age of Nixon-Agnew & Reagan was now usurping religion as their mantra fueled by the so-called silent majority. “And the three men I admire most, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”: McLean is Catholic and this is a tribute to the Holy Trinity. “They caught the last train for the coast.”: The April 8, 1966 Time magazine cover had asked the question “Is God Dead?” and The Beatles John Lennon had echoed the sentiment the same year. “The day the music died. And we were singing.”: McLean’s shock and despair at Holly’s death seemed insurmountable but it in fact led to his own birth as a musician and after all, music soothes the savage beast.
This song’s refrain may be the hardest part of the song to explain. “So bye, bye Miss American Pie. Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry. And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye singing This will be the day that I die, this will be the day that I die.” The rumor was that American Pie was the name of the doomed plane carrying Holly, Valens and Richardson. Not true. It was also suggested that McLean was dating a Miss America contestant while writing the song. Also not true. Years later, McLean stated that Miss American Pie is as “American as apple pie, so the saying goes.” When taken on the face of it, I believe the refrain came together as a chorus simply because it was catchy. All hidden meanings aside, that may also be true about the entire song. Practically speaking “Chevy” rhymes with “levee”, it’s that simple. Still, theorists propose that the song’s refrain comes from Buddy Holly’s “That’ll be the day,” that eventually says “that I die.”
To further confuse the issue, an internet site notes that the Levee was a bar in Purchase, NY near McLean’s hometown and that there is also a town named Levee located about 15 minutes from his old school. According to local lore, McLean first wrote the lyrics on paper napkins in a bar in between gigs at Caffe Lena coffeehouse. A plaque on the wall of the Tin & Lint bar reads: “American Pie written by Don McLean, summer 1970.” McLean denies that story and in 2011 he told a local newspaper reporter that he wrote the song with the famous line “Bye, bye Miss American Pie” in Philadelphia. McLean himself said the chorus came to him suddenly while out shopping in a pharmacy in Cold Spring, New York. “I drove as fast as I could back home-I didn’t have a pencil and paper with me-and scribbled that down and put it in the tape recorder.”
McLean bristled when asked about the meaning of the song; “Over the years I’ve dealt with all these stupid questions of ‘Who’s that?’ and ‘Who’s that?’ These are things I never had in my head for a second when I wrote the song. I was trying to capture something very ephemeral and I did, but it took a long time. You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me… Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.”
In February 2015, McLean announced that Christies Auction House in New York City would sell his original lyrics for the iconic song. McLean explained his reasoning in Rolling Stone magazine: “I’m going to be 70 this year. I have two children and a wife, and none of them seem to have the mercantile instinct. I want to get the best deal that I can for them. It’s time.” The lyrics are 18 pages and contain 237 lines of manuscript and 26 lines of typed text and includes lines that didn’t make the final version as well as extensive notes. Christie’s described the lot as “Comprising: 4 pages manuscript in pencil on four sheets of blue paper stock, 11 pages manuscript on 10 sheets in pencil and ink on ruled spiral paper (including one a half sheet), 2 pages manuscript in pencil on two sheets of yellow paper stock, and one page typed manuscript on blue paper (with four lines holograph notes on verso in purple ink and pencil). Together 18 pages of manuscript on 17 sheets. ” The lot sold on April 7, 2015 for $1.2 million ($1.57 million with buyer’s premium).
After the auction when asked what “American Pie” meant, McLean jokingly replied, “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.” McLean said he would reveal the meaning of the song’s lyrics after the original manuscript was auctioned off. In the auction catalog, McLean revealed: “Basically in American Pie things are heading in the wrong direction. … It [life] is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.” The catalog confirmed some of the better known references in the song’s lyrics, including Elvis Presley (“the king”) and Bob Dylan (“the jester”), and confirmed that the song culminates with a near-verbatim description of the death of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Free Concert, ten years after the plane crash that killed Holly, Valens, and Richardson.
After the sale, McLean said that he would be selling off more from his music collection adding that he had just embarked on a program to lighten the load and get rid of things. “I hadn’t thought about the lyrics much. They were upstairs in a box of lyrics probably a foot thick with all kinds of songs I’d written that people know. But, of course there’s no song like that song and so I decided to sell them and see what happens. I know that people feel like that song belongs to the public so I thought a public auction would be the best thing to do.” McLean added that the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame wanted his lyrics but he refused because “they didn’t want me. I’ve never been in the rock n roll Hall of Fame, I’m an outsider. I’ve been very famous all my life. Many people have been inducted into the Hall of Fame but I haven’t because I’m a contrarian. The wanted my lyrics but I said to them ‘well, you don’t want me in the Hall of Fame so to hell with you’.” Fits in well with American Pie’s loss of innocence, don’t you think?
60 years ago this Sunday was the day the music died. On February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed along with pilot Roger Peterson in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. The event was immortalized by Don McLean in his 1971 song “American Pie”. Sixty years of rumors, innuendo and urban legends have followed since that frozen Tuesday morning. The facts get twisted, the accusations become tangled and conspiracy theories are contorted to fit a new narrative. One thing that never changes are the facts.
Three months before the crash Buddy Holly terminated his association with the Crickets. For his prophetic “Winter Dance Party” tour of 24 Midwestern cities in 24 days, he assembled a new band consisting of Waylon Jennings on bass, Tommy Allsup on guitar, and Carl Bunch on drums. The tour also featured Ritchie Valens, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Dion DiMucci and his band The Belmonts. To save room (and money) Holly’s group was utilized as the backing band for all of the acts. The tour began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 23, 1959. The rigorous travel schedule soon became a logistical problem; instead of hopping from town-to-town in a logical pattern, the tour zig-zagged chaotically, sometimes with distances between cities over 400 miles.
All of the musicians traveled together in a series of reconditioned school buses prone to breaking down and poorly heated inside. Five separate buses were used in the first eleven days of the tour. The bands had no “roadies” back then, so the artists themselves were responsible for loading and unloading equipment at each stop. Because the tour was scheduled in winter, the travel route consisted of waist-deep snow and the weather featured temperatures from the 20s to as low as −36 °F. Shortly after the tour began, Richardson and Valens began experiencing flu-like symptoms. A bus breakdown in the middle of the highway near Ironwood, Michigan in subzero temperatures resulted in drummer Bunch being hospitalized for severely frostbitten feet. While Bunch recovered in the hospital, Carlo Mastrangelo of The Belmonts took over the drumming duties for Buddy Holly. When Dion and The Belmonts were performing, either Valens or Holly manned the drums. On Monday, February 2, Dion DiMucci took over the drums for the performance in Green Bay, Wisconsin and, after driving 350 miles, again took over the drum stool for that final concert in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Clear Lake had not been a scheduled stop, but the tour promoters, hoping to fill an open date, called the manager of the local Surf Ballroom and offered to do the show. When Holly arrived at the venue that evening, he was visibly angry with the ongoing problems with the bus. The next gig was 365-miles north / northwest to Moorhead, Minnesota, which took them directly back through two towns they had already played within the last week. To make matters worse, the following day, they were scheduled to travel back directly south to Sioux City, Iowa, a 325-mile trip. Holly decided to charter a plane to take himself and his band to the Fargo, North Dakota airport, a 2 1/2 mile drive to Moorhead.
A 1947 single-engine, V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza airplane was chartered from the Dwyer Flying Service of Mason City, Iowa to fly Holly and his band to Hector Airport in Fargo. Tickets were $36 per passenger on the single-engine plane that could seat three passengers plus the pilot. One of the urban legends that sprang up years later was that the plane was called American Pie. In fact, the plane had no name other than its NAA code of N3794N.
Richardson was still battling the flu and asked Waylon Jennings for his seat on the plane. When Holly learned that Jennings was taking the bus, he teased the future country legend by joking, “Well, Hoss, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings responded: “Well, then I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” Jennings, who would be known by the nickname “Hoss” given him by Holly, was haunted by that bad joke for the rest of his life. Richie Valens, who was also struggling with the flu, asked Allsup for his seat on the plane even though he had an admitted fear of flying. Valens had witnessed a plane crash that took the life of his best friend on January 13, 1957. The two agreed to toss a coin to decide. Valens won the seat but lost his life.
Dion later said that Holly approached him along with Valens and Richardson to join the flight (the plane had 6 seats). In a 2009 interview, Dion claimed that Holly called him, Valens, and Richardson into a vacant dressing room and said “I’ve chartered a plane, we’re the guys making the money [we should be the ones flying ahead]…the only problem is there are only two available seats.” According to Dion, the coin toss for the seat was between Dion and Valens. Dion said that he won the toss, but ultimately balked at the $36 fare ($310 in today’s money) which equaled the monthly rent his parents paid for his childhood apartment, he could not justify the expense and opted for the bus instead. One report claimed that Buddy Holly wanted to charter the plane so that he could do his laundry. Reportedly, Holly was tired of traveling in cold uncomfortable buses and rattling through the Midwest wearing dirty clothes. Some witnesses claim that he chartered the plane in part so that he could arrive early and find a washing machine.
Holly, Valens, and Richardson departed from the Mason City Municipal Airport. The weather at the time of departure was reported as light snow, a ceiling of 3,000 feet AMSL (above mean sea level) with sky obscured, visibility 6 miles, and winds from 20 to 30 mph. And it was going to get worse. The plane took off normally from runway 17 (today’s runway 18) at 12:55 am CST. A witness watching the take-off from a platform outside the control tower was able to see clearly the aircraft’s tail light for most of the brief flight, which started with an initial left turn onto a northwesterly heading and a climb to 800 ft. The tail light was then observed gradually descending until it disappeared out of view. Eight hours later, with no news from the pilot or sign of the passengers, airport owner Hubert Jerry Dwyer retraced the doomed planes route in another airplane. At around 9:35 am, he spotted the wreckage less than 6 miles northwest of the airport. The sheriff’s office dispatched Deputy Bill McGill, who drove to the crash site, a cornfield belonging to Albert Juhl.
The Bonanza had banked steeply to the right and entered a nose-down death spiral before it augured in at around 170 mph. The right wing tip hit the ground first, sending the aircraft cartwheeling across the frozen field for 540 feet before coming to rest against a wire fence at the edge of Juhl’s property. The bodies of Holly and Valens had been ejected from the torn fuselage and lay near the plane’s wreckage. Richardson’s body had been thrown over the fence and into the cornfield of Juhl’s neighbor Oscar Moffett, while Peterson’s body was entangled in the wreckage. The County coroner certified that all four victims died instantly, citing the cause of death as “gross trauma to brain” for the three artists and “brain damage” for the pilot.
The official investigation was carried out by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB, precursor to the NTSB) later concluded that the accident was due to “the pilot’s unwise decision to embark on a flight” that required instrument flying skills he had not proved to have. A contributing factor was the “seriously inadequate” weather briefing provided to Peterson, which “failed to even mention adverse flying condition which should have been highlighted”.
The charter plane’s wreckage was strewn across nearly 300 yards of snow-covered cornfields. The death certificate issued by the Cerro Gordo County Coroner noted the clothing Holly was wearing, the presence of a leather suitcase near his body and the following personal effects: Cash $193.00 less $11.65 coroner’s fees – $181.35, 2 Cuff links: silver 1/2 in. balls having jeweled band, Top portion of ball point pen. Notably missing from the list were Holly’s signature eyeglasses.
On February 29, 1980, a pair of glasses were found in a filing cabinet of the Cerro Gordo County Sheriff’s office in Mason City, Iowa. The glasses were found in a manila envelope marked simply, “Charles Hardin Holley received April 7, 1959”. Along with the glasses, four dice, a cigarette lighter and a watch belonging to one Jiles Perry Richardson were also in the envelope. The lenses of the glasses were missing but the watch still ran pretty well. The relics had been resting unrecognized for nearly twenty-one years. They had been found at the scene of the February 3, 1959 plane crash, placed in storage as evidence and forgotten.
The wristwatch and cigarette lighter belonged to the Big Bopper and the horn rimmed glasses belonged to Buddy Holly. It is widely believed that the envelope had remained undiscovered because nobody recognized the innocuous plain sounding name Charles Hardin Holley written on the outside. The envelope was found while some records were being moved. Officials speculated that the leftover items had been found by a farmer two months later after the snow melted. The coroner’s office collected (and then misplaced) them in the process of moving to a new county courthouse. Buddy’s glasses had been thrown clear of the plane wreckage and buried in the snow. Those glasses were special, they were Buddy Holly’s trademark. The focal point of a carefully crafted look. They became the single item most remembered by his fans.
The Big Bopper’s watch was inscribed on back for a 1957 disc-a-thon, representing an important milestone in his life. In May 1957, at the Jefferson Theater in Beaumont Texas broadcasting from radio station KTRM, the Big Bopper beat the record for continuous broadcasting. His record was marked at 122 hours and 8 minutes (a little over 5 days) during which the Big Bopper stayed on air and awake the entire time. The dice were unattributed but played into an urban legend that circulated claiming that the crash happened after a game of chance went bad and one of the performers shot another (usually told as Holly and Richardson) which, like most urban legends, has no basis in fact whatsoever.
Another urban legend claimed that the plane crash was caused by some mysterious in-flight gunplay. The rumor claimed that Richardson’s death was the result of an accidental firearm discharge on board the aircraft that caused the crash. The rumor began two months after the crash when a farmer found a .22 pistol known to have belonged to Holly at the crash site. The rumor further claimed that Richardson survived the initial impact and froze to death while crawling out of the aircraft in search of help. The fact that his body was found farther from the wreckage than the other three was offered as proof of that theory.
On March 6, 2007, at the direction of the musician’s son Jay Perry, Richardson’s body was exhumed from it’s Lone Star grave for reburial in a more fitting part of Beaumont, Texas’s Forest Lawn cemetery. According to the autopsy report, when the casket lid was raised, it revealed a fairly well-preserved corpse dressed in a black suit with a blue & gray striped tie. The Bopper wore socks, but no shoes. The mottled, bluish face was slightly moldy and misshapen, no doubt owing to the shifting of mortician’s putty used to reconstruct the crushed skull. The fingers had “mummified into curled, dark brown talons.” X-rays of Richardson’s body concluded that the musician had indeed died instantly from extensive, non-survivable fractures to almost all of his bones; no traces of lead were found from any bullet. The report further stated that Richardson had probably died quickly from massive head injuries suffered in the plane crash. Putting any unsavory internet rumors to rest forever.
Remarkably, The Bopper’s thick brown hair was “still perfectly coiffed in his familiar, 1950s flat-top.” Strangely, the Bopper’s son Jay was present during the entire autopsy. On the subject of the Bopper’s still perfect flattop, his son stated, “It was awesome.” and went on to say, “I talked to him. I got to know my dad a little better.” Jay, showing signs that he inherited his father’s droll humor, joked that the Big Bopper would never have chosen to be buried in such a tie. The Bopper was re-interred in a replacement casket donated by the Batesville Casket Co. of Batesville, Indiana in March of 2007.
The toll was incalculable: The singers of “Peggy Sue” and “Come On Let’s Go” and “Donna” and “La Bamba” were all dead. Holly was just 22 and Valens only 17. Rock and roll would never be the same. Holly’s pregnant wife, María Elena, learned of his death by watching television. A widow after only six months of marriage, she suffered a miscarriage shortly after, reportedly due to “psychological trauma”. Holly’s mother, at home in Lubbock, Texas, heard the news on the radio before she screamed and fainted. Following these inexcusable death notification circumstances, a policy was adopted by authorities not to disclose victims’ names until after their families have been informed. That policy remains in affect today. Holly’s widow did not attend the funeral and has never visited the gravesite. Holly and Richardson were buried in Texas, Valens in California, and Peterson in Iowa.
And whatever happened to those glasses? When that envelope was discovered, Holly’s parents claimed the glasses, as did his widow, and on March 20, 1981, a judge awarded the eyeglasses to María Elena in the same Mason City courthouse where they were discovered. Maria kept them until October 1998, when she sold them to Civic Lubbock, the nonprofit cultural organization that created the Buddy Holly Center. The price was $80,000. Today the glasses, visibly scarred from the plane crash, are on exhibit at the center, in a case near Holly’s Fender Strato-caster guitar. Other pieces in the collection include Buddy’s stage clothing, letters, photos, and a book containing handwritten song lyrics.
Thirteen years after the crash, Don McLean wrote a song about the tragedy: “American Pie,” an 8½-minute epic with an iconic lyric about “the day the music died.” Next week, in part II of this story, we’ll take a look at that song.
Were you alive on January 22, 1973? If so, consider this a reminder, if not, let me show what a typical day was like for a late-stage Baby Boomer like me. January 22, 1973 was a Monday in the Age of Aquarius. All in the Family was # 1 on television and The Poseidon Adventure was tops at the box office. Carly Simon was riding the top of the charts with her hit song “You’re so vain.” A song that has kept people guessing who she’s singing about to this day. Is it Warren Beatty? Mick Jagger? David Cassidy? Cat Stevens? David Bowie? James Taylor? All of whom have been accused. Carly has never fessed up, although she once admitted that the subject’s name contains the letters A, E, and R.
The month of January 1973 had started on a somber note with memorial services in Washington D.C. for President Harry S Truman on the 5th (he died the day after Christmas 1972). Then, Judge John Sirica began the Nixon impeachment proceedings on the 8th with the trial of seven men accused of committing a ” third rate burglary” of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate. Next came the Inauguration of Richard Nixon (his second) on the 20th. Historians pinpoint Nixon’s speech that day as the end of the “Now Generation” and the beginning of the “Me Generation.” Gone was JFK’s promise of a “New Frontier,” lost was the compassionate feeling of the Civil Rights movement and LBJ’s dream of a “Great Society.” The self-help of the 1960s quickly morphed into the self-gratification of the 1970s, which ultimately devolved into the selfishness of the 1980s.
The line between want and need became hopelessly blurred and remains so to this day.
Twelve years before, John F. Kennedy decreed, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” On January 20th, 1973, Richard Nixon, purposely twisted JFK’s inaugural line by declaring , “In our own lives, let each of us ask—not just what will government do for me, but what can I do for myself?” At that moment, the idealism of the sixties gave way to narcissistic self-interest, distrust and cynicism in government of the seventies. Although it had been coming for years, when change finally arrived, it happened so fast that most of us never even noticed.
January 22nd was warm and rainy. It was the first Monday of Nixon’s second term and it would be one for the books. That day, Nixon announced that the war in Vietnam was over. The day before, his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese politburo member Lê Đức Thọ signed off on a treaty that effectively ended the war; on paper that is. The settlement included a cease-fire throughout Vietnam. It addition, the United States agreed to the withdrawal of all U.S. troops and advisers (totaling about 23,700) and the dismantling of all U.S. bases within 60 days. In return, the North Vietnamese agreed to release all U.S. and other prisoners of war. It was agreed that the DMZ at the 17th Parallel would remain a provisional dividing line, with eventual reunification of the country “through peaceful means.”
That same day, the United States Supreme Court issued their landmark decision 410 U.S. 113 (1973). Better known as Roe v. Wade. Instantly, the laws of 46 states making abortion illegal were rendered unconstitutional. In a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s right to privacy extended to her right to make her own medical decisions, including having an abortion. The decision legalized abortion by specifically ordering that the states make no laws forbidding it. Rove V. Wade came the same day as the lesser known ruling, Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179 (1973), which overturned the abortion law of Georgia.
The Georgia law in question permitted abortion only in “cases of rape, severe fetal deformity, or the possibility of severe or fatal injury to the mother.” Other restrictions included the requirement that the procedure be “approved in writing by three physicians and by a three-member special committee that either continued pregnancy would endanger the pregnant woman’s life or “seriously and permanently” injure her health; the fetus would “very likely be born with a grave, permanent and irremediable mental or physical defect”; or the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.” Only Georgia residents could receive abortions under this statutory scheme: non-residents could not have an abortion in Georgia under any circumstances. The plaintiff, a pregnant woman known as “Mary Doe” in court papers, sued Arthur K. Bolton, then the Attorney General of Georgia, as the official responsible for enforcing the law. The same 7-2 majority that struck down a Texas abortion law in Roe v. Wade, invalidated the Georgia abortion law.
The Roe v. Wade case, filed by “Jane Roe,” challenged a Texas statute that made it a crime to perform an abortion unless a woman’s life was in danger. Roe’s life was not at stake, but she wanted to safely end her pregnancy. The court sided with Roe, saying a woman’s right to privacy “is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” Dozens of cases have challenged the decision in Roe v. Wade in the 46 years since the landmark ruling and the echoes of challenge are heard to this day.
And what did Nixon think about that day’s ruling? The same Oval Office taping system that would bring about his downfall in the Watergate Scandal recorded his thoughts on Roe V. Wade for posterity. “I know there are times when abortions are necessary,” he told aide Chuck Colson, “I know that – when you have a black and a white, or a rape. I just say that matter-of-factly, you know what I mean? There are times… Abortions encourage permissiveness. A girl gets knocked up, she doesn’t have to worry about the pill anymore, she goes down to the doctor, wants to get an abortion for five dollars or whatever.” Yep, that was the President of the United States talking. And his day wasn’t even over yet.
At 3:39 p.m. Central Time, former President Lyndon B. Johnson placed a call to his Secret Service agents on the LBJ ranch in Johnson City, Texas. He had just suffered a massive heart attack. The agents rushed into LBJ’s bedroom where they found Johnson lying on the floor still clutching the telephone receiver in his hand. The President was unconscious and not breathing. Johnson was airlifted in one of his own airplanes to Brooke Army General hospital in San Antonio where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Johnson was 64 years old. Shortly after LBJ’s death, his press secretary telephoned Walter Cronkite at CBS who was in the middle of a report on the Vietnam War during his CBS Evening News broadcast. Cronkite abruptly cut his report short and broke the news to the American public.
His death meant that for the first time since 1933, when Calvin Coolidge died during Herbert Hoover’s final months in office, that there were no former Presidents still living; Johnson had been the sole living ex-President Harry S. Truman’s recent death. Johnson had suffered three major heart attacks and, with his heart condition recently diagnosed as terminal, he returned to his ranch to die. He had grown his previously close-cut gray hair down past the back of his neck, his silver curls nearly touching his shoulders. Prophetically, LBJ often told friends that Johnson men died before reaching 65 years old, and he was 64. Had Johnson chosen to run in 1968 (and had he won) his death would have came 2 days after his term ended. As of this 2019 writing, Johnson remains the last former Democratic President to die.
Nixon mentioned all of these events (and more) on his famous tapes. All the President’s men are there to be heard. Along with Colson, Nixon talks with H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman (whom ha calls a “softhead” that day), Bebe Rebozo, Ron Ziegler, and Alexander Haig. Haldeman is the first to inform Nixon of LBJ’s death in “Conversation 036-051” by stating “He’s dead alright.” For his part, Nixon states in “Conversation 036-061” that it makes the “first time in 40 years that there hasn’t been a former President. Hoover lived through all of 40 years” and then refers to the recent peace treaty, “In any event It’ll make him (LBJ) look better in the end than he would have looked otherwise, so… The irony that he died before we got something down there. The strange twists and turns that life takes.”
Another event took place that night to round out the day, but unlike the others, you won’t find mention of it on the Nixon tapes. In Jamaica, a matchup of two undefeated heavyweight legends took place. Undisputed world heavyweight champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier (29-0) took on the number one ranked heavyweight challenger George Foreman (37-0) in Jamaica’s National Stadium. Foreman dominated Frazier by scoring six knockdowns in less than two rounds. Foreman scored a technical knockout at 1:35 of the second round to dethrone Frazier and become the new undisputed heavyweight champion (the third-youngest in history after Floyd Patterson and Cassius Clay). This was the fight where ABC’s television broadcaster Howard Cosell made the legendary exclamation, “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”
“This is a peace that lasts, and a peace that heals.” Nixon announced to the American people the next day. The announcement came exactly 11 years, one month and one day after the first American death in the Vietnam conflict: 25-year-old Army Specialist 4th Class James Thomas Davis of Livingston, Tenn., who had been killed in an ambush by the Viet Cong outside of Saigon on Dec. 22, 1961. For you budding numerologists out there, that translates to 11-1-1. It was all downhill from there. LBJ’s death precipitated the cancellation of several Inauguration events and a week later, on January 30, former Nixon aides G. Gordon Liddy, James W. McCord Jr. and five others were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in the Watergate incident. The dominoes were falling and eventually “Down goes Nixon! Down goes Nixon!”