Auctions, Creepy history, Health & Medicine, Indianapolis, Medicine, Music, Pop Culture

Elvis Presley — are you kidding?

Elvis Presley Autopsy Tools.

Original publish date August 10, 2010 Reissue date: August 27, 2020

Recently the Leslie Hindman auction house in Chicago caused a flap when it was announced that they would be auctioning off the instruments used to embalm Elvis Presley after his untimely death at the age of 42. The auction house was planning to sell the macabre Elvis relics in two separate lots: one with a pre-sale value of $4,000 to $6,000, and the other estimated at $6,000 to $8,000. Elvis may have left the building, but the man’s ability to get people “all shook up” has not diminished as the announcement sent shock waves through the media and wrought havoc among fans, collectors, historians and auctioneers alike.
The items in question, which included a comb, eye liner, rubber gloves, forceps, needle injectors, an arterial tube, aneurysm hooks, and a toe tag, came from an unidentified former employee who worked for the Memphis funeral home where Elvis’ body was last attended to. They were used only once — to embalm Elvis’ body, apply makeup to his face, and dye his graying hair to the jet-black color his fans knew so well. The replacement toe tag, marked “John Doe,” was attached to the King’s body after an eager fan stole Elvis’s original tag during the chaos at the hospital where he was taken. Other items in the grouping include the coffin shipping invoice, autopsy room preparation paperwork and the hanger that Elvis Presley’s funeral suit and tie arrived on.


Elvis Presley’s last concert at MSA in Indianapolis.

According to the auction house, the items were used to prepare the King’s body for a private viewing for family and friends only in the morning after his death. Presley died August 16, 1977, in the bathroom of his Graceland estate of an irregular heartbeat. “The senior embalmer at the Memphis Funeral Home at the time of Presley’s death saved the items for the last 33 years and decided to sell them after he realized someone might value them,” said Mary Williams, director of books and manuscripts for Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.
Presley’s autopsy involved draining all body fluids and removal of all vital organs which were then sent to a pathology lab for testing to ascertain the cause of death. The coroner, Dr. Jerry Francisco, along with Dr. Eric Muirhead and Dr. Noel Florredo, presided over the autopsy of Presley. The trio initially concealed the facts by attributing the cause of death to a massive heart attack. They later claimed their motive “was not to tarnish the image by a scandal of a drug habit.” For decades, when asked about the rumors that Elvis is not dead, Francisco consistently replied, “If Elvis is NOT dead, he’s walking around without his major organs as Elvis’ brain and heart are still in storage at Memphis Memorial Hospital.”
When the sale was announced, a spokesman for the auction house admitted the auction may be controversial as some people “are going to be disappointed” by the sale of these items. However, Elvis memorabilia remains in strong demand with a lock of his hair selling for $18,300, a red ultra-suede shirt worn by Elvis in publicity photos garnering a $34,000 bid, and an inscribed record sleeve selling for $10,370 at a Hindman’s auction in October 2009. The proposed sale of these creepy collectibles combined with the fact that he’s been dead for 33 years, keeps Presley intact as one of the highest grossing celebrities, bringing in $55 million in 2009 according to Forbes.com. Presley’s posthumous popularity notwithstanding, why would anyone want to buy these things?


Luckily, that question will remain unanswered because these sad rock-n-roll souvenirs were removed from the August 12th auction after doubts were raised about their provenance and authenticity. According to the auction house, the items have been given back to the Memphis Funeral Home, following a dispute between the home and the potential consignor. “Due to questions of ownership, the retired embalmer and his son have decided to turn over the property to the Memphis Funeral Home and its parent company, Service Corporation International, with the intention of donation,” Hindman said in a post on their Web site.
Shortly after the auction was announced, the Memphis Funeral Home claimed that those tools were taken without the home’s consent. The funeral home thought the embalmer was dead, but he’s not. He’s in his 80s. The funeral home contacted the elderly man and told him he can’t sell the items and if they were not returned, legal steps would be taken to reclaim them. According to funeral home president E.C. Daves, “We are awaiting word from the Elvis Presley estate on its preferences for the items. The items could be donated to a funeral history museum in Houston or they could be destroyed. Either way, the funeral home is not going to do anything until the Presley estate agrees with it.”


Now, maybe you’re thinking, “But you never answered the question, who would buy this stuff?” Well, before the items were pulled from the sale, Hindman’s auction house specialist Williams explained, “It’s really about owning a piece of the celebrity themselves… and how much closer can you get than the actual embalming instruments?” Okay that’s a creepy statement. However, I can help add some clarity to the issue for you. If you’ve been paying attention to past columns, you’ve learned that I’ve been an antique dealer for 30 years and a memorabilia collector for even longer than that. As with many collectors, I’ve bought, traded and sold many collections over the years.


One of those collections was a group of crime related autographs, artwork and paintings featuring infamous names like serial killers John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy, Manson family members Charles Manson, Tex Watson and Squeaky Fromme and political assassins James Earl Ray, Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Charles Guiteau. I have owned signatures of Bob Ford, the “dirty little coward” who killed Jesse James and a personal check signed and written out by Bruce Lee made payable to and endorsed by his hairstylist Jay Sebring, who died alongside Sharon Tate in the Manson family massacre. Most of these items lost their appeal to me as I grew older but the urge of the infamous and their misdeeds never fully went away, for I still own a signed photo of John Wilkes Booth and a few other assorted macabre mementos from our country’s history.
I have seen many similar grisly relics offered for sale in the past, and held many of these macabre items in my hands including several items connected to the Lincoln assassination conspirators, the blood stained glasses that John Lennon wore the night he was murdered, the “Double Fantasy” record album Lennon signed for Mark David Chapman just a short time before Chapman killed Lennon, the watch that was in Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne’s pocket when he died in a plane crash, the watch Buddy Holly wore on his wrist when he likewise perished in a plane crash, and countless locks of hair and death masks from celebrities in every field across the board. Within the “hobby” they are commonly known as “blood relics” and they are in high demand. Whether you agree or disagree with their relevance, there exists a lucrative market for these sad souvenirs.
Collecting is an addiction. There is the thrill of the chase, the negotiation for acquisition, the elaborate planning for display and the final realization that you now possess the object of your desired search. For those collectors whose fandom goes beyond collecting rare records, signed merchandise and other conventional methods of capturing a performer’s essence, it’s only natural that they would be interested in something that would bring them a little closer to the performer. And friends, it doesn’t get much “closer” than this. So ask yourself: if you had the chance to own, possess or simply handle one of these unique items, what would you do?

Amusement Parks, Music, Pop Culture

Indiana Beach Music Scene (Part II).

Original publish date:  August 18, 2014 Reissue date: August 20, 2020

Last week, I shared the details of Janis Joplin’s visit to Indiana Beach in Monticello on August 14, 1968, 46 years ago. It still seems strange to me. The place most Hoosiers identify with the cartoon crow popping up out of a cornfield to squawk “There’s more than corn in Indiana” is the very same venue where Janis Joplin performed live for a crowd of 100. Not to mention, she strolled the midway before the show checking out the food and arcade games like any other 25-year-old. It got me to thinking, who else played the “Beach Ballroom” that I didn’t know about.
Since I never attended a single Indiana Beach show, I was fortunate to track down a couple fellows who did. Gary Brewer and Brad Long were gracious enough to share memories and files with me about the bands who played the park back in the day. Brad recalls, “I attended a few concerts at Indiana Beach years ago – Blue Cheer, Ohio Express, The Who, and Brownsville Station / Alice Cooper. I intended to continue my research and make a list of all the acts I could and all the dates they performed there, along with the opening acts from back then, who included The Chosen Few, REO Speedwagon, etc. IB was indeed a big music place in the sixties and I can remember that The Beach Boys, Byrds and Yardbirds were just a few who played there.”
Brad, a Logansport native, has an impressive list of bands with whom he’s performed and recorded with in his own right. He started playing in 1967 and his bands have included The Psychedelic Oranges, Celebrate, Tobias, The Lynx and Lincoln Supply Depot and has recorded albums on the Line Records label, whose artists included Jimi Hendrix and the Yardbirds. So, Brad has the necessary street cred to talk about Rock ‘n Roll at Indiana Beach in the 1970s.

Gary Brewer has an equally impressive musical pedigree and also recalls attending Indiana Beach concerts in the 1960s, “I used to go see some of the big name bands at Indiana Beach in the 60’s, my mom & sister & I vacationed there in ’68 and ’69, and I saw the Grassroots, Iron Butterfly & Lemon Pipers then… later in both of those summers, I persuaded some older band friends to take me there to see the vanilla fudge (twice). They also had local teen bands playing 6 nights a week in the ballroom, too, along with lounge bands upstairs above the tiki gods in the fountain.”
Gary, who used to play in Duke Tumatoe’s band and has ties to the Eastside of Indianapolis (his dad was a Tech grad), is an ex-guitar player with the Faith band. He recalls, “They (Faith) occasionally opened up for the bigger name bands in the ballroom, when they were still known as the Chosen Few. I saw them open for the vanilla fudge, and they also opened up for the Who. In 1968, the stage was facing towards the lake which I think they (Vanilla Fudge) had been swimming in (before the show), & the opening act was the Chosen Few (later known as Faith). The stage is back in that same spot now, pretty much.”


Indiana Beach Ballroom today.

“But, in 1969, i have mixed memories of it’s (the stage) location. When they (Vanilla Fudge) performed in the show, they were at the farthest end of the ballroom, facing towards the entrance & the game room, boardwalk, etc… but, it seems like, when they first arrived (late), they did a soundcheck, and were facing where the 1968 stage had been (opposite side of it). That doesn’t make a lot of sense, though, unless they moved the stage, for some reason? Or, there was another one? But, I think it’s a possibility that the stage was in one location for the soundcheck, and moved later for the show. Some of their equipment didn’t show up in time and they (The Chosen Few aka Faith) played with a scaled-down set-up. And during the soundcheck, they messed around with a led zeppelin song as they’d just taken them on their first U.S. tour a few months before.”
During Gary’s stint with the Faith Band, he recalls, “While were riding in the car somewhere, the Faith guitarist told some stories about the Who show. He said they were all having a party in one of the rooms (with the Who), and Keith Moon slipped off somewhere (he may’ve gone down the balcony). I think he ended up in an elderly lady’s room, and she came knocking at the band’s door, holding onto Keith’s earlobe, trying to return him!” When the Who played Indiana Beach in July of 1968, guitarist Pete Townshend knocked out a large chunk of the ballroom ceiling while destroying his guitar on stage. (It has since been patched but the spot may still be seen in the old ballroom.)
Gary, who hadn’t been back to Indiana Beach since 1969, drove back up there in the mid ’90’s, and says, “it was like going back in time. Except for a few new rides, it looked just as it did when I last visited there. Mr. Spackman, the owner, still walked the grounds daily, usually with an unknown, pretty girl in tow. I started driving back up there, on a regular basis, sometimes not even arriving until 30 minutes before closing. But, I’d take a few laps around the boardwalk, and that would last me until my next visit.”
Gary continued, “A few months ago, Mr. Spackman passed away, at the age of 100. I drove up for the funeral showing, and spoke to the family, all of whom had left Indiana Beach. They shared a funny story, around that time, of Cream’s appearance at Clowes Hall, in March of 1968. (I attended that show, by the way, and it was great!) After the show, Eric Clapton heard that B.B. King was playing that night at a local Knights of Columbus or possibly an American Legion or Eagles club, but, i’m pretty sure it was a K. of C., anyway, Eric was already friends with B.B. King, and wanted to go see him. So, they took Eric & Ginger Baker to the place. I didn’t know there was such a thing, but this particular K. of C., or whatever it was, was comprised of mainly black folks. But, they said they had a time with Ginger, because he was chasing all the girls around!”
Gary concludes by recalling, “I went to many of the shows back in those days…they were scattered around venues all over the city, many on the eastside. The Rivoli, The Irving and Melody Skateland…. the nationally-known surf band, the Astronauts, played on the steps of Eastgate once, back in the 60’s. and across the street, at the YMCA, were their weekly teen dances, which were legendary.”


While it may not come as a surprise that big name bands played the Circle City back in the day, often stopping on the eastside for shows, concerts and partying, the idea of Indiana Beach being considered a hot music spot does come as a surprise. A 1968 Indiana Beach publication offers a picture of the Mothers of Invention with a young Frank Zappa, his Fu Manchu mustache and soul patch combo looking as “hip” today as it did in June of 1968. The Who belted out their hit “I Can See For Miles”, The Yardbirds sang their standard “For Your Love”, The Turtles’ performed “So Happy Together”, and Lovin’ Spoonful harmonized the classic “Summer In The City” live on stage at Indiana Beach.
Along with the shows came images of the band members roaming the midway, sunning on the beach, swimming in the lake, crashing the bumper cars and riding the rides alongside Hoosiers who had no idea who they were. Legend claims that the Turtles rode their motorcycles down the midway and that Cher took a long ride on the skyride. But wait, let me blow your mind with a partial list of bands and the dates they played the Beach Ballroom:

The Beach Boys July 19, 1963-Jerry Lee Lewis July 17, 1964-Everly Brothers July 31, 1964-The Kingsmen (Louie, Louie) July 9, 1965, Aug. 5, 1966, and July 21, 1967-The Byrds July 23, 1965-Righteous Brothers July 30, 1965-Sonny & Cher Aug. 20, 1965- Mitch Ryder & Detroit Wheels May 29, 1966…Lovin’ Spoonful June 24, 1966…The Mindbenders July 15, 1966…Paul Revere & the Raiders July 22, 1966-Simon & Garfunkel Aug. 5, 1966-Yardbirds Aug. 12, 1966 (with a young Jimmy Page on bass and Jeff Beck on guitar)-Tommy James & The Shondells June 2, 1967 (Crimson and Clover & Mony Mony)-Jefferson Airplane July 3, 1967-Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs Aug. 18, 1967 (Wooly Bully & Little Red Riding Hood)-Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention June 21, 1968-Gary Puckett & the Union Gap and Ohio Express June 28, 1968-The Who July 12, 1968-Janis Joplin/Big Brother and Holding Co. Aug. 14, 1968-Guess Who Aug. 29, 1968-Iron Butterfly with REO Speedwagon Aug. 30, 1968 (In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida)-Boyce & Hart Sept. 1, 1968 (I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight & Last Train to Clarksville)-The Box Tops June 27, 1969 (The Letter)-Spencer Davis July 3, 1969 (Gimme Some Lovin’)-The Grass Roots July 11, 1969-REO Speedwagon July 3, 1970 & Chicago July 17, 1970 which is generally considered to be the last big show in the ballroom.

The Indiana Beach ballroom also hosted hundreds of other performances, including legendary big bands who drew massive crowds in the 1940s. Records from most of those performances at the Lake Shafer amusement park in the 1940s and early 1950s are sketchy at best. Some played more than one night, an entire weekend, a whole week of shows or even stayed and played for a month. Those acts included Glenn Miller June 1940-Benny Goodman June 25, 1941-Louis Armstrong June 12, 1955 and again on July 27, 1962-Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey June 28, 1955; Aug. 1, 1956-Dave Brubeck July 3, 1956-Bill Haley & the Comets May 31, 1957 & June 22, 1962 and Duke Ellington Aug. 20, 1957. The “Heart-throbs” and “Folkies” were well represented too with acts like Fabian, Ricky Nelson, Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio.
The Monticello stop was usually sandwiched between gigs in Chicago and Indianapolis. By the early 1970s, cavernous arenas started to pop up for big rock tours. The arena rock era led to bands being more theatrical (Alice Cooper & Kiss, for example) and elaborate sound and lighting systems made places like the Indiana Beach Ballroom seem archaic and outdated. The list of legendary Indiana Beach bands are all but faded memories now. However, it is fun to think that back in the day, it was possible to drive an hour north of the city to see music history come alive in a room filled with less people than you might find at a Costco or Sam’s Club on any given Tuesday afternoon. And all this for the price of a $ 3.25 ticket.

Amusement Parks, Music, Pop Culture

Janis Joplin at Indiana Beach. Part I.

August 14, 1968 Janis Joplin Indiana Beach Part One August 18, 2014 picture

Janis Joplin on stage at Indiana Beach August 14, 1968.

Original publish date:  August 18, 2014 Reissue date: August 13, 2020

As the last gasps of summer slowly wheeze out of our lungs, I wanna take you back to 1968. America seemed to be coming apart at the seams. It was a presidential election year in the United States. The nation was divided by disputes about civil rights and the war in Vietnam. This seminal year became the backdrop for a confluence of independent yet related phenomena. It marked the end of LBJ’s “Great Society”, the country was ensnared in an unpopular war, campuses were alive with dissent, years of racial unrest were reaching a boiling point, women were burning bras, divorce was on the rise and the youth of the nation were finding their collective voice.


The culture was getting younger, like it or not. Styles and indulgences were taken to revolutionary status; drugs, music, clothing, sexual liberties, you name it and it was changing. There wasn’t a single institution left unchallenged by the nation’s youth. To top it all off, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were tragically removed from the National stage at at time when both were needed most. In the critical year of 1968, as the atmosphere of threats, distrust, and violence poisoned the nation’s politics and public life, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” became the mantra. The blows to the national psyche were catastrophic, and were only exacerbated by the urban violence that accompanied both major parties’ political conventions that August.
But 1968 was a golden age for music..artistic expression..and political thesis. On August 14, 1968, 46 years ago this week, an iconic symbol of the sixties was breezing through Indiana. Was it Richard Nixon? Hubert Humphrey? The Beatles? No, it was Janis Joplin and she was rockin’ the main stage in the “Beach Ballroom” at Indiana Beach. Yes, Indiana Beach in Monticello, Indiana.


At the time, 25-year-old Janis Lyn Joplin was the lead singer of the psychedelic-acid rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company. Her performance at Indiana Beach came a year after her breakthrough performance at the Monterey Pop Festival and a year and 3 days before she stormed Woodstock with the Kozmic Blues Band on her way to becoming an American Rock n’ Roll legend.
Janis and Big Brother played for a crowd of about 100 people on that Wednesday night. Before the show, while the roadies were setting up the equipment, Janis casually strolled the midway through the games and rides and none of the park visitors bothered her. She later told friends that she “was just having a good old time.” No-one hassled Janis, no-one asked her for autographs, no-one screamed or hollered or caused a scene. Half the people didn’t even know who she was.


For the show, Janis and the band performed on the north stage that faced south. Although no playlist from that particular show exists, the Indiana Beach concert came just two days after the band released their second album, “Cheap Thrills” on August 12, 1968. So it is reasonable to deduce that Janis belted out classics like “Down on me” and “Easy Rider” from their self titled 1967 debut album along with new standards like “Summertime”, “Ball and chain” and “Piece of my heart” from the new album.
A concert at Indiana Beach in the 1960s was like going to the State Fair with the smell of grilling burgers and popping popcorn wafting in from the midway. “It had that carnival atmosphere,” one fan remembered. “It was like going to a big party.” Those who had front-row seats left with unforgettable memories. But with the passage of time, physical evidence has faded away and memorabilia has been long ago tossed in the trash or stowed away in long-forgotten boxes in the attics of Northern Indiana.


The White County Historical Museum is one of the very few places where memorabilia from Indiana Beach Concerts may be found. The museum has a collection of 1960s Era newsletters from the venue known as the “Indiana Beach Preview” and later “Happenings”. Even these newsletters change tone as the decade marches on with the early versions promoting what the park rather innocently called “Dance-In Experiences”. By the late 1960s, these same events were being called a “Psychedelic Experience & Musical Explosion”. Browse through these newsletters today and you will find bubblegum acts like Brenda Lee (I’m sorry, Sweet Nothin’s, Rockin around the Christmas Tree) to Big Bands to Beach Boy look-alike garage bands to the Beach Boys themselves. In these newsletters, music trends and styles change before the reader’s eyes. By 1968, psychedelic and hard rocker bands sporting mutton chops, long hair and wearing dashikis were showing up at Indiana Beach.

Some concert photographs and ticket stubs survive, but posters, contracts and other documentation have essentially vanished. Not even the Spackman family, former owners of Indiana Beach, know where such memorabilia can be found. Nobody was thinking in terms of posterity or Rock ‘n Roll history back then, they were just trying to get more kids into the amusement park to spend money on rides, midway games and food. Had they realized back then that today, those contracts and memorabilia would sell for a day’s receipts at auction, they most certainly would have saved them. By the way, a ticket to see Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the holding company sold for $ 3.10. Amazing huh?
Today, the Beach ballroom sits quietly behind the Indiana Beach arcade never betraying the Rock n’ Roll history it once held sway over. Few people enter the ballroom or even take notice of it. Inside, there’s an odd mix of outdated furniture as well as the old DJ booth. The cement floor remains that once withstood thousands of feet each summer all dancing to the sounds of rock ‘n’ roll royalty. The old stage stood on the north side of the ballroom allowing for a large space for standing room only crowds. The walls opened up to allow people from the outside as well as those docked on their boats, to see and hear the bands if necessary. (Did I mention only 100 people showed up to see Janis?) The ballroom can still be reserved for events, but most live bands now choose to play in the Rooftop Lounge, a bar just a short walk from the historic ballroom. A newer stage was built in the 1970s long after Janis Joplin’s raw, emotional voice pierced the summer air along Lake Shafer.


By the time Janis Joplin finished her set at Indiana Beach, she was on her way to becoming a legend. Big Brother and The Holding Company left Indiana for a gig at the Aragon ballroom in Chicago on August 16-17. By now publicists and media were calling the band “Janis Joplin and Big Brother and The Holding Company”, which led to dissension among the band. The other members thought that Joplin was on a “star trip”, while others were telling Joplin that Big Brother was a terrible band and that she ought to dump them. On August 18 Big Brother played the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. On August 23 they were playing the Singer Bowl in New York City and just over 2 weeks after performing at Indiana Beach, Big Brother was playing the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. It was at this show where Janis Joplin announced that she will leave the band at the end of fall tour.
In 1968, Time magazine called Joplin “probably the most powerful singer to emerge from the white rock movement”, and Richard Goldstein wrote for the May issue of Vogue magazine that Joplin was “the most staggering leading woman in rock… she slinks like tar, scowls like war… clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave… Janis Joplin can sing the chic off any listener.” Her final show as a member of Big Brother was December 1, 1968 at the Family Dog Benefit in San Francisco. She had been a member of the band for two and a half years. From that day on, although she toured with a backup band, she would become Janis Joplin. By early 1969, Joplin was allegedly shooting at least $200 worth of heroin per day. But for that one brief shining moment in Monticello, Indiana, Janis Joplin innocently strolled the carnival midway as just another average kid. The rest, as they say, is history.

If this article about Indiana Beach “blows your mind”, wait til next week when I tell you about some other big name acts that played there. It will be groovy man. Tune in, turn on, tune out…next week.


Next Week: Indiana Beach Part II

Black History, Music, Pop Culture

Robert Johnson and the Devil.

Robert Johnson

Original publish date:  August 12, 2013                Reissue Date: June 18, 2020

“The Devil went down to Georgia. He was lookin’ for a soul to steal. He was in a bind ’cause he was way behind. He was willing to make a deal.” If you’ve ever listened to the radio in your lifetime, these lyrics are very familiar to you. And chances are, after reading this, they’ll be bouncing around in your brain for the rest of the day. But did you realize that there is a school of thought out there that believes these lyrics are not just musical fantasy, they are autobiographical in nature?
z Daniels thumbLegend claims this song tells the story of the most famous guitar player you’ve probably never heard of. Robert Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi on May 8, 1911. He died under mysterious circumstances 75 years ago this week, on August 16, 1938. Johnson’s life has ascended into legend and it is often hard to separate fact from fiction, where this Mississippi bluesman’s life is concerned.
Robert Johnson was born to the Delta blues like a fish was born to water. Although he grew up dirt poor, one of 10 children, and was sparsely educated,no less an authority than Eric Clapton called Johnson “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” Johnson was married at age eighteen in 1929. His wife, 16-year-old Vergie Mae Smith, died in childbirth a year later. He married Caletta Craft in May 1931 and a year later, the couple moved to Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta. Here Caletta fell ill and Johnson abandoned her for a career as a ‘walking’ musician. He spent the rest of his life traveling from town to town, playing on streetcorners, at picnics, Saturday night dances and juke joints.
z 976a8d34ef5e0338e1693cc971245069Johnson’s haunting, spiritual lyrics survive in songs such as “Cross Road Blues”, “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Me and the Devil Blues”. Robert Johnson’s shortlist of 29 landmark recordings from 1936 & 1937 display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that influenced future generations of musicians. The American Record Corporation released eleven 78rpm records on their Vocalion label during Johnson¹s lifetime, and one more after his death.
If you doubt his impact on modern music, I suggest you Google Robert Johnson and take a few minutes to listen to any one of his many recordings that can be found on YouTube. Johnson’s music has been acknowledged as the driving influence behind the careers of guitar legends like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Led Zepplin and the Allman Brothers. Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues”, which allegedly tells the story of how he sold his soul to devil, has been covered by Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen, Steve Miller Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet and The Doors, among others.
As an itinerant performer, Johnson experienced little commercial success and remained relatively unknown during his lifetime. From 1932 until his death in 1938, Johnson moved frequently between large cities like Memphis, Tennessee and Helena, Arkansas to smaller towns on the Mississippi Delta. On occasion, he traveled much farther to Chicago, Texas, New York, Canada, Kentucky, and here in Indiana. Johnson’s records sold poorly during his lifetime. It was only after the reissue of his recordings in 1961 on an album called “King of the Delta Blues Singers” that his work reached a wider audience. Johnson is now recognized as a master of the blues, particularly of the Mississippi Delta blues style. Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “Early Influence” in their first induction ceremony in 1986. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Johnson fifth on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

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This rare photo of Johnson, discovered in a box at a swap meet,  was recently discovered and sold on ebay.

Johnson’s songs documented the intense loneliness, terrors and tortuous lifestyle that came with being an African-American in the deep South during the Great Depression. Never before had the hardships of the world been transformed into such a poetic height; never had the blues plumbed such an emotional depth. Johnson transformed his specific and very personal experience into music of universal relevance and global reach. “You want to know how good the blues can get?” Keith Richards once said: “Well, this is it.” Eric Clapton put it more plainly: “I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson.”
The power of Johnson’s music has been amplified over the years by what little we know about him. Johnson was the first guitarist to use the guitar as ‘the other vocalist in the song’, a technique later perfected by B. B. King. Johnson mastered the guitar using an approach that was highly complex and extremely advanced musically. When Keith Richards was first introduced to Johnson’s music by bandmate Brian Jones, he asked, “Who is the other guy playing with him?”, not realizing it was Johnson alone playing one guitar. “I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realize he was doing it all by himself,” said Richards, who would later add “Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself.”
z rj lfContemporaries described him as well mannered, soft spoken, and most often, indecipherable. As for his character, everyone seems to agree that, while he was pleasant and outgoing in public, in private he was reserved and liked to go his own way. Musicians who knew Johnson testified that he was a nice guy and fairly average—except, of course, for his musical talent, his weakness for whiskey and women, and his commitment to the road.
When Johnson arrived in a new town, he would play for tips on street corners or in front of the local barbershop or a restaurant. During these live performances Johnson did not focus on his dark and complex original compositions, but instead performed more well-known pop standards of the day to encourage bigger tips. Johnson had an uncanny ability to pick up a tune after hearing it just one time. Johnson had no trouble establishing a rapport with his audience and in every town he played, he established ties to the local community that would serve him well when he passed through again a month or a year later.
z 220px-Cross_Road_Blues_single_coverJohnson’s poorly documented life and shadowy death at age 27, fueled the Faustian myth that he sold his soul to the devil to achieve success. This self-perpetuating legend states that sometime in the early-1930s Johnson strolled down a Clarksdale, Mississippi county road and was stopped at the intersection of highways 61 and 49 by Lucifer himself. It was here that he sold his soul to become the best blues guitarist that ever lived. Robert Johnson actually recorded songs alluding to this legend of the devil’s crossroads, and his untimely death only fed the legend.
Several different accounts of what really happened in Mississippi can be found on the net: it happened in the graveyard in Beauregard; it happened at the intersection of highways 1 and 8 in Rosedale; it happened at the crossroads of Old Highway 8 and Dockery Road in Clarksdale. There are now tourist attractions claiming to be “The Crossroads” in both Clarksdale and Memphis, so locating the “official” signposts that commemorate the event can be a challenge.

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Purported death shack of Robert Johnson at “Three Forks.”

According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Robert Johnson developed a burning desire to become a great blues musician. He was “instructed” to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it. The “Devil” played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. This was in effect, a deal with the Devil mirroring the legend of Faust. In exchange for his soul, Robert Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous. Another version places the meeting not at a crossroads but at midnight in a graveyard.
z 352168530590The capstone to Robert Johnson’s legend is cemented by the details of his early death at the age of 27. On the night of Saturday, August 13, 1938, Johnson was playing in a juke joint 15 miles outside of Greenwood, Mississippi when he was allegedly murdered by the jealous husband of a woman with whom he had flirted. In an account by fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnson had been flirting with a married woman at a dance, where she gave him a bottle of whiskey poisoned (reportedly with strychnine or lye) by her husband. When Johnson took the bottle, Williamson knocked it out of his hand and advised him to never drink from a bottle that he had not personally seen opened. Johnson replied, “Don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.”
Soon after, he was offered another tainted bottle and accepted it. Johnson began feeling ill the next evening and had to be helped back to his room in Greenwood Mississippi in the early morning hours. Over the next three days his condition steadily worsened and witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain. Some say the poisoned whiskey killed him, other stories range from pneumonia to syphilis. Regardless of cause, by all accounts, Johnson’s death was a violent array of howling and convulsions.
As you might expect, the mystery of Johnson doesn’t end with his death. The biggest mystery of all might be his final resting place. Three graveyards claim the musical legend’s tombstone: Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City; Payne Chapel near Quito Mississippi; and the Little Zion M.B. Church north of Greenwood. Visit any of the sites today, and you’ll see all kinds of memorabilia, liquor bottles and music-related trinkets left atop the headstones by adoring fans from around the globe.
z from-spirituals-500Ironically, 75 years ago this week, while Robert Johnson was thrashing back and forth in agony on his deathbed in 1938, Columbia Records producer John H. Hammond was frantically searching for Johnson to book him for the first “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. Robert Johnson’s “Big break” never reached him.

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So mysterious is Robert Johnson that he has three grave markers in three different cemeteries.

Auctions, Music, Pop Culture, The Beatles

John Lennon’s tooth and doodles.

John LennonTooth-sign

Original publish date: November 17, 2011            Reissue date: June 20, 2019

The last couple of weeks have witnessed yet another sign of the staying power of the Beatles as a couple of items hit the auction block at two different auction houses in Great Britain. One of them is historically significant while the other is slightly creepy.
On Saturday November 5th, the tooth fairy was denied when a tooth belonging to former Beatle John Lennon was sold by Omega Auction House in Cheshire England. (Admit it, an image of Austin Powers saying “Yeah, baby” just flashed through your mind.) Americans have long parodied the English and their bad teeth. The thought of actually paying money for the tooth of anyone, let alone a Beatle, may repulse and revile you. However, 49-year-old dentist Michael Zuk from Calgary, Alberta, Canada thought enough of the relic to plunk down $ 31,200 to own it.

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Dentist Michael Zuk.

Zuk, a crusading whistle-blowing dentist and author of the 2010 book, “Confessions of a Former Cosmetic Dentist”, has practiced dentistry in the Canadian town of Red Deer for 25 years. He admitted he hoped the high profile tooth purchase might draw attention to his book. He said Lennon’s tooth is another example of how even celebrity’s teeth can be imperfect. “It’s visibly rotten and contains a large hole, Zuk said, adding it’s likely a second or third molar from the lower part of Lennon’s mouth. I’m guessing Lennon may have had an acid reflux problem caused by the rock star lifestyle.” says Dr. Zuk. “That’s my speculation, he had a stomach problem that caused a massive cavity.” Zuk said. The Doctor says he’s already making plans to take it on tour and show it off at dental schools worldwide. He added it could be used for future research. “The nerve of the tooth is dried up and inside,” he said. “But that’s where DNA would be if in the future people are interested in trying to clone John Lennon.”
z lennon tooth 2The molar, slightly yellowed with heavy coffee stains and a large cavity, was given to Dorothy “Dot” Jarlett, John Lennon’s housekeeper for half-a-decade. The story goes that one day Lennon encountered the housekeeper in the kitchen of his Kenwood home in Weybridge, Surrey. John, having just returned home from a trip to the dentist, gave Dot the tooth wrapped in a piece of paper and asked her to dispose of it for him. Then John paused for a moment and suggested that Dot give it to her daughter as a souvenir, since she was such a huge Beatles fan. Dot Jarlett’s daughter cherished the sacred relic and when she married a Canadian, she brought her Beatle biting bicuspid into the marital union. The tooth has been “living” in Canada for all but a couple of the last 45 years.
Dot Jarlett, who was employed by Lennon from 1964 to 1968, developed a warm relationship with John. Lennon’s mother died in an automobile accident less than a decade before when Lennon was just 17-years-old. He was in his mid-twenties and Dot was in her mid-forties during their association. Undoubtedly, Dot filled a void in Lennon’s life as a much needed maternal figure during her employ, thus strengthening the connection between the two. Dot’s son Barry told BBC News, “He treated her like family because he didn’t really have a very big family and he really looked after my mum. He used to call her Aunty Dot.”
z Clone-a-BeatleWhile “Aunty Dot” is selling the tooth, she plans to keep a leather wallet and a pearl necklace Lennon gave to her after returning from a concert tour of Japan. Lennon gave the Jarlett family many gifts over the years. A few years ago, Dot sold the jacket worn by John on the “Rubber Soul” album cover, also given to her by Lennon. Dot, who is now 90-years-old, said it was the right time to pass it on rather than to risk the tooth getting lost. Auction house experts have determined that the tooth is too fragile to conduct a DNA test but they have no doubt about its authenticity and point to the impeccable provenance that accompanies it.
Of course, this isn’t the first Rock-N-Roll body part to be sold at auction. In 2009, a clump of hair trimmed from Elvis Presley’s head after he famously joined the Army in 1958 sold for $18,300 at Chicago’s Leslie Hindman auction house. Lennon, who was a huge fan of the King, would be pleased to share that stage.
Less sensational, but undoubtedly more historically significant, 10 days later on Tuesday November 16, 2011, a placard for John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 “Bed-In for Peace” sold for $155,892 by Christie’s International auction house in London. The winning bid for this anti-Vietnam War movement relic came from an unidentified phone bidder. The handwritten cardboard rectangular sign featured the slogan: “BED PEACE” and could be seen behind John & Yoko in the window directly behind them when they spent seven days occupying rooms in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Canada.
z 2-2-31The Montreal bed-in came two months after the couple’s honeymoon bed-in in Amsterdam and was their take on a sit-in. Lennon’s idea was for protesters to stay in bed and grow their hair rather than doing anything violent. The couple opened their hotel room door to the world’s media and spoke to journalists, politicians and artists trying to promote the idea of peace in the world. They also found time to record the anthem Give Peace a Chance. Many artworks and placards were created over the week and were moved around and given away but the Bed Peace sign was a constant.
The placard, signed and dated by the couple, was acquired by a sound engineer who attended the event. He passed it on to a colleague, whose family kept the relic safe ever since. The message “BED PEACE” was scrawled in black ink on a piece of plain manila colored foam board. The two words were outlined and then colored in with black felt tip by John Lennon himself. John and Yoko produced many artworks during the event but this was one of only two kept prominently above the bed (The other was a sign that read “Hair Peace”). Many were moved around the room and some were given away to friends and fans. However, the sign sold at the Christie’s auction was displayed in the window of the Montreal hotel room (Suite 1742) for the couple’s entire stay. It can be seen in nearly every picture taken of the pajama-bathrobe clad couple as they called for an end to the Vietnam War. The sign includes John’s self doodled mini-portrait of the newlyweds and is signed by both Lennon and Ono.
z Bed-In_for_Peace_Amsterdam_1969_-_John_Lennon__Yoko_Ono_13The sign is not the only item from the Montreal “Bed-In” to be auctioned by the famed auction house recently. On July 10, 2008, Lennon’s hand-written lyrics for “Give Peace a Chance” sold for $800,000 at Christie’s. When Lennon gave teenager Gail Renard his scribbled lyrics to “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969, he told her to hold on to the cue card. “It will be worth something someday,” predicted Lennon. She did, and it was.
Renard, a teenage fan who sneaked past security guards, was among the first to arrive. She befriended Lennon, helped look after Ono’s young daughter, Kyoto, and made copies of the song Lennon wrote during the “bed-in” so their friends could read the lyrics and record it in the room. “It was a bit ‘Mission Impossible,'” Renard recalled. “It was back up back staircases and fire escapes and waiting until the security guard — until nature called — and the moment he went away, running in, knocking on the door, and Yoko answered, and I said, ‘Could we have an interview for a school magazine?’ and she said, ‘Yes’! ” They were wonderful. We were lucky. It was before the world’s press got in, and they had just arrived, and John was very tired and hungry, and they couldn’t get room service yet, and I had a Hershey bar in my handbag, and I said, ‘Would you like a chocolate bar?’ And he went, ‘Yes, please.’ And we bonded over a Hershey bar! … He was a lovely man.”

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John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics to “Give Peace a Chance.”

The lyrics, she added, were “on my wall originally, but then somebody pointed out, ‘Is it really wise keeping it on your wall”‘ And it became a responsibility, because it had to go into a vault and things, and I thought, ‘It should be enjoyed. It has to be enjoyed and seen, and remember why John wrote it in the first place. John and Yoko did it for love and peace.'” Renard, now a British-based TV writer and presenter, developed a lifelong friendship with Lennon, who helped launch her journalism career by placing an article she wrote about the bed-in in the Beatles Monthly magazine. The actual recording of “Give Peace a Chance” took about five minutes. It became a worldwide hit after it was touched up in the studio. A number of famous guests, including Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Tommy Smothers, sang on the record, which went to No. 14 on the Billboard charts. The song is a simple, casual affair recorded without any of the Beatles’ typically high level of musicianship and artistry, but the phrase “Give Peace a Chance” has entered the popular lexicon, surviving long after Lennon’s death in 1980.
Who’d have thought that a cue card, a sign or a tooth could be worth so much money? There was no such thing as rock memorabilia back in 1969. Who could have predicted what a big business Rock-N-Roll would become? zbe4c8532446775cb45446b70adfe80f0