Today’s tale is set in a theater in London England, for argument’s sake let’s set the date at some time in 1860. The crowd is enthralled by the magician and storyteller, one Henry Brown, as he shares his tale of survival. Many, however, wish he had never told his tale to all in sundry – more on that later. To Brown, ‘Box’ to his friends – to do so is as much an act of survival as his initial deed. For twenty five years his story, and accompanying magic act would keep a roof over his head. Before we discuss the brief tale of Henry Box Brown, it pays to add a little context.
When looking for a year zero for the slave trade in the colonies which became the USA, the year 1619 is generally quoted. Besides a few Africans held captive by Spain in St Augustine, Florida in the 1560s this seems accurate. In 1619, a Portuguese ship, the San Juan Batista, was headed for Brazil with several hundred Africans, shackled then stashed below decks. These men and women had come from what is now Luanda, Angola.
Portugal was at war with the Angolan Kingdom of Ndongo. It would be easy to get lost in the weeds on this, but Portugal had five decades of peace with Ndongo – even loaning them mercenaries at one point. The construction of a Portuguese fort in Luanda in 1575 soured relations between the two kingdoms. The Portuguese were kicked out, but sought help from the Kingdom of Kongo to help conquer the massive country. From 1579, till the signing of a truce in 1621, some 50,000 citizens of Ndongo were taken into slavery as prisoners of war – then shipped off to Brazil. There they would be worked to death in the plantations. Considerably more than this would be sent post-truce. This was one such shipload.
Back on the San Juan Batista. The ship was intercepted by an aristocratic English freebooter named Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick. His ships The White Lion and The Treasurer swiftly took control of the vessel. Not knowing what to do when they found all they had was slaves, they took several of these people, then departed. In August 1619 The White Lion docked in Virginia with 20 Ndongo, who were promptly sold to local farmers. Thus began a disgrace which would see 600,000 Africans imported as chattel – 388,000 directly to American markets with the remainder coming in via the Caribbean. Slaves would have children, adding to the slave pool (Under the ‘partus sequitur ventrem’ principle, literally ‘that which is brought forth follows the belly’). In 1860, as the Union and Confederate states prepared to go to war over slavery, the slaveholding states contained just shy of 4 million slaves – at an estimated resale value of $3.6 Billion, in 1860 money. Born in Louisa County, Virginia in 1815, to two slaves, Henry Brown was one such gentleman.
Of all the tales of slavery I could choose, Henry Brown’s is one of the less shocking, in some respects. By his own telling his ‘masters’ were not cruel people – he never suffered beatings, never went without food or drink. He felt a great injustice at being forced to work for a miniscule share in the profit (he was put to work in a tobacco factory, and was paid a pittance), and a great sorrow at not being able to follow his own muse in life. He did have some great joy in his life, however. As a young man he fell in love with another slave – known to history as Nancy. The couple married – an act not recognized officially by either’s owner – and had three children together. In 1848 Nancy was pregnant with their fourth child, when something awful happened. Henry and Nancy were never allowed to live together, as they were owned by two neighboring plantations. Nancy’s plantation suddenly decided to sell 350 of their slaves to a farm in North Carolina. Distraught and helpless, Henry could only look on in tears as his wife and children were led away in shackles. They would never meet again.
Sinking into a deep depression for months, the loss of his family would prove the turning point in his life. As depression gave way to anger, Henry Brown committed to escaping at all costs. Through James C.A. Smith – a free black friend, Brown was introduced to Samuel A. Smith (no relation); a white anti-slavery sympathizer. In turn contacting Philadelphia based abolitionist James Miller McKim, the men established a plan to escape to the North, on March 23rd 1849.
On the day of the escape, Henry Brown went to work at the tobacco factory. Brown burned his own hand with sulfuric acid, the wound going down to the bone. He was dismissed to get medical attention. Now free to make his escape, he met with the Smiths, who loaded Brown into a wooden box – three feet long, two feet eight inches deep, two feet wide. With a layer of cloth between him and the rough, wooden sides, and nothing more than a bladder of water and a few biscuits to sustain him in his journey – Brown was nailed in. A small breathing hole was cut, and the words ‘This side up’ were stenciled on the outside. The Smiths then loaded Brown on a train from Richmond to Philadelphia – a 27 hour journey.
The ride inside the crate, packed tighter than he would have been in a coffin, was far from comfortable. There was no single railway line at this time, so Brown had to be carted from wagon to train, from ferry to steamboat, and back again. At several points in the trip the box ended up upside down – Brown later writing of the feeling of his blood pooling in his head while topsy turvy.
“I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets; and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head”
Quietly, he suffered through the bumpy, dangerous ride. He could have died if left upside down for too long, but was likely saved by someone riding the boxcars, in need somewhere to sit. Seeing his box on it’s side, the presumed itinerant flipped the box back over and took a pew. Arriving in Philadelphia, Brown’s box was retrieved by James Miller McKim, along with fellow abolitionists William Sill, Professor C.D. Cleveland, and Lewis Thompson. As they cracked open the top, Brown emerged greeting the men “How do you do gentlemen? I waited patiently on the Lord, and He heard my prayer” before breaking into a psalm.
So… where does this tale get troublesome?
Well, let’s start with Henry… He was a little troublesome. On the question of whether to publicize Henry’s great escape, two divergent groups formed. One faction, led by the foremost former slave of his time, Frederick Douglass, felt they should not tell Henry’s story. To do so would rob others of an avenue to escape the South. Another faction felt another visible former slave in the public eye was too good a PR coup to pass on. Henry was of the latter opinion, not least of all because he revelled in all the attention. As soon as he could, he had a panorama built, so he could publicly re-enact his escape to audiences.
In May 1849, Brown gave a speech to a Boston antislavery convention. Whether this was before or after the Smiths were arrested on 8th May for trying to post another slave – his public speeches would lend weight to the prosecution of the Smiths. It also shut down that avenue for others. Samuel was sentenced to 6 ½ years in prison – while freedman James Smith narrowly avoided incarceration. He wrote an autobiography, the first of two in his lifetime. As his tale became well known, the Carolina slaveholder who owned Nancy and his children sent a letter to Brown, offering to sell his family back to him at a reasonable price. Brown turned down the offer – leading to an embarrassed abolitionist movement hurriedly scrambling to bury that chapter of Brown’s life from the public.
And Brown’s later life?
In 1850 congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, a law approved in an effort to broker peace between slave owning and non slave owning states in the wake of the Mexican – American war. In the immediate aftermath of the war there was much heat over whether new territories won off Mexico should allow slaveholders – the antislavery factions hoped allowing slave owners the right to pursue escaped slaves would be an acceptable compromise. Spoiler alert, it did not take the question of slavery in the new states off the table in the long run. Brown, now at risk of being arrested and shipped back to the plantation, packed his life into boxes, and moved to Britain. He married an English woman named Jane Floyd in 1859, and had a daughter together. Tiring of criticism from the abolitionist movement, he moved fully to show business, becoming a magician, mesmerist and occasional actor. He would move to Canada with his family in 1875, continuing to perform till 1889.
On January 1st 1863, three years into the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation – declaring slavery in the Confederate states illegal, thus freeing all the slaves. Of course some slaves did remain indentured to their ‘masters’ till the end of the war. The 13th Amendment of December 18th 1865 was the final nail in the coffin for the slave trade.
Much could be written about the evils of the Atlantic slave trade, and the horrors of such an existence. Perhaps I am acting irresponsibly in simply telling the tale of such a character as Brown when there are nightmare tales of people crammed into barracoons and left to bake in the sun while slave ships meanders towards Luanda. Perhaps of beatings, killings, dehumanization, slave watches armed with bloodhounds and photos of men’s backs covered in deep keloid scarring. Maybe I should have slotted slavery into the wider context of civil rights – or wrote on the Atlantic slave trade as the truly international horror it was (an estimated 15 million slaves were sent to the Americas, 10.5 million surviving the journey)… or pointed out how even little old me, now living in New Zealand, but born in Birkenhead England – profited a little from the slave trade in the late 70s and early 1980s.
My mother used to clean the home of a wealthy octogenarian, who occasionally showed me blueprints of grand buildings designed by her grandfather, built across the River Mersey in Liverpool; buildings built from Triangular trade model money which saw British, and especially Liverpudlian shipping companies make a killing in transporting slaves. Her family fortune came from her grandfather’s work for slave ship owners. Her wages to my mother helped keep a roof over our heads – and eventually helped us pack our lives into wooden crates, bound for New Zealand. I will drop one final piece of trivia however, just to remind us how current slavery really was – Peter Mills, the last former slave in the USA, died in 1972 at the age of 110.
Hey all, I wasn’t planning this topic, but a friend asked me if I knew anything about this sea shanty craze on Tik Tok at present. My friend had seen a news report claiming ‘The Wellerman’ was written by a New Zealander. I knew little beyond the broad strokes. I could say whalers and sealers made up the vast majority of white folk in New Zealand from the early 1790s till some time after most Maori tribes signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. While most early contacts between Europeans and Maori (New Zealand’s first peoples) were peaceful and fruitful – a couple of violent incidents, most notably a massacre aboard the European ship the Boyd in December 1809 – made Europeans wary of attempting to colonize New Zealand in those early days. Whaling would continue in New Zealand until December 1964. I could recall a television interview with the last of the whalers discussing how they sometimes turned the sea around Kaikoura red with whale blood, and in hindsight felt guilty for their actions. It certainly was conceivable the song belonged to the kiwis. We had a long history of whalers. It stands we should also have a history of sea shanties.
Clearing an evening I got out a few old course books from university, and I went surfing the net. I found a few items of interest. In short, yes, ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’ was likely written in Timaru, New Zealand. It was written between 1860 and 1870, by an anonymous author – believed to have been a young man of around 19. The Billy O’ Tea appears to be a fictitious ship, though there were plenty like it in reality around the lower South Island at the time. Here’s what I found.
I should quickly set the scene on this tale, seeing over 98% of people following Tales are from places other than New Zealand. New Zealand, sometimes called Aotearoa, is an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean. A little over 5 million people, colloquially ‘kiwis’ live here. Thirteen out of our estimated 600 islands are inhabited, but most people live on the North Island (Te Ika-a- Māui) or South Island (Te Waipounamu). Maori migrated here in several waves between 800 and 1000 years ago. Europeans first ‘discovered’ New Zealand in December 1642 – when Dutch explorer Abel Tasman tried to land at an area now called Golden Bay. The Maori, who had surveilled Tasman’s two ships for two days beforehand, attacked the landing boat – killing four Dutch sailors. The Dutch fired upon the Maori, hitting one of the defenders. The reason for the defense is unknown, but one theory states the locals believed the Dutch to be ghosts, there to steal their women and children. Another theory suggests word may have already reached Aotearoa from other island nations about the cruelty of European explorers. Tasman named the site Murderers Bay, and departed.
The next undisputed European visit would put Aotearoa on the map. On 6th October 1769, a 12 year old cabin boy named Nick Young called out to all aboard The Endeavor he had spotted land. The ship’s captain, James Cook, promised a reward of rum and a piece of headland named after them to the first to see land. The Endeavor was officially sent out in the pacific to observe the Transit of Venus from Tahiti – part of a larger experiment to determine how to measure longitude – and unofficially to look for the mythical ‘Terra Australis’, a massive continent thinkers at the time believed must be on the bottom side of the globe. One presumed Cook paid the cabin boy his rum – the headland he spotted is now called ‘Young Nick’s Head’.
The first whaling ship would arrive in New Zealand in 1791, The William and Ann, captained by Eber Bunker. Several other ships arrived in the early 1800s, congregating around the far north or far south of the country. Kororareka, now known as Russell, was an early settlement of note. Local tribes saw an opportunity to do business with whalers and sealers, and a town emerged in this far north location which would soon become known as ‘the hellhole of the Pacific’ for it’s drinking, lawlessness and prostitution (sex seen as a commodity by some tribes to get their hands on muskets, which they used to wipe out rival tribes – but this is another story).
The image you get of these early towns is one of vice, sex, and rough men (not just whalers and sealers, but soon enough some escaped criminals from Australia). Maori, however they felt about these rough men, often did business with them – and some Maori did join up with whaling crews in much the same way that Australian Aborigines joined Indonesian ships from Makassar. (Makassan ships began visiting Australia by the 1720s, possibly even several decades earlier than that, to collect sea cucumbers and pick up local labour – but that IS DEFINITELY a whole other story).
But…. Back to Sea Shanties?
Yes. This appears to be quite the rabbit hole. A number of sea shanties originated from whaling towns in New Zealand. The first song on record is probably worth the digression. ‘Davy Lowston’ is New Zealand’s first known sea shanty, dating from around 1815. It tells the story of a group of ten sealers left on Open Bay Island, an island on the west coast of the South Island to catch all the seals there and skin them. Telling the men he’d be back soon, captain John Bedar sailed for Australia. The ship sank on it’s journey, leaving the men stranded on the inhospitable rock for four years (from 1810 – 1813). All ten men survived, rescued, of all people by New South Wales Governor Bligh (The same William Bligh cast adrift by the mutineers on the HMS Bounty in 1789). A musical kiwi wrote the following, which basically just puts the above to music.
Oh my name is Davy Lowston, I did seal, I did seal. Oh my name is Davy Lowston, I did seal, I did seal. My name is Davy Lowston, I did seal. Though my men and I were lost, though our very lives it cost We did seal, we did seal, we did seal
‘Twas in eighteen hundred and ten, we set sail, we set sail. ‘Twas in eighteen hundred and ten we set sail. We were left we gallant men, Never more to sail again, For to seal, for to seal, for to seal,
We were set down in Open Bay, we were set down, were set down We were set down in Open Bay, we were set down T’was on the sixteenth day, of February For to seal, for to seal, for to seal.
Our Captain John Bedar he set sail, he set sail. Our Captain John Bedar he set sail “I’ll return, men, without fail!” But she foundered in a gale, And went down, and went down, and went down.
We cured ten thousand skins for the fur, for the fur. We cured ten thousand skins for the fur. Brackish water, putrid seal, we did all of us fall ill, For to die, for to die, for to die.
Come all you sailor lads who sail the sea, sail the sea, Come all you jolly tars who sail the sea, Though the schooner Governor Bligh took on some who did not die Never seal, never seal, never seal.
The Weller Brothers were an early whaling and trading company, with bases in both Sydney, Australia and what would later become Dunedin, in the South Island. Established by three English brothers, Joseph, George and Edward – they moved across the world, in part, hoping less polluted air in the antipodes would extend Joseph’s life. Joseph had tuberculosis, and would still be the first brother to die. George Weller, then settled in Sydney bought a trading ship in 1826. The brothers were first attracted to New Zealand in 1830, for the flax and kauri (wood) trade in the far North of the North Island. By 1831 they bought The Lucy Ann from the New South Wales government. The ship’s last act for that government was to transport the descendants of the Bounty mutineers from Pitcairn Island (which was believed too small for them), back to Tahiti.
From what little I could find in a short timeframe it looked like the Weller brothers had colorful lives. Joseph would die young, in his early 30s, while in New Zealand. His body would be transported back to Sydney, Australia for burial. To keep him from going off, he was submerged in a large cask of rum, and presumably arrived in Sydney a little pickled. Edward Weller ran the New Zealand business till 1841. He oversaw the establishment of a whaling village of around 80 huts. The village was close to a Maori village, where Edward would meet his first two wives, both Maori wahine (women). The two villages would eventually merge, and are now known as Otakau. While heavily involved in whaling, Edward built up a trading station handling all manner of goods. One particularly odious trade was the sale of mokomokai – the preserved heads of what was originally defeated Maori warriors – but which increasingly included the heads of unfortunate slaves, as it became apparent a tattooed, preserved head was worth a lot of guns and ammunition.
Edward would be kidnapped and ransomed by Maori in Northland in 1833, but released soon after. Though he had plenty of sailors willing to risk their lives whaling – and it was a risky job where people often died – he insisted on captaining one of their ships. As the market for whale oil temporarily slowed down in the mid 1830s (due to competition, a decrease in whale numbers; and transatlantic politics – whale oil was still needed for oil lamps, baleen, the whale bone used in corsets, remained popular also – but Britain and America began butting heads over taxes on the oil) Edward put his money into land speculation. Many of his land deals would be overturned as criminally bad deals following the signing of New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi.
Edward relocated back to Sydney – where he would die on 11th March 1893. He refused to leave his house, knowing a flood was coming. To escape drowning, Edward knocked a hole in his roof and sat atop his house till the waters receded. He’d die on his roof, of hypothermia. He’d handed the day to day management of the company’s operations to his sister’s husband, Charles Schultz. Shultz was in charge in the 1860s, when a young man composed a shanty about a ship, the Billy O’ Tea (a Billy, by the way, is a kettle), in an epic battle with a whale – and a man wishing the Wellerman, a supply ship – would soon arrive with sugar, and tea, and rum.
There was one final aspect of the tale of the Wellerman which fascinated me; that we came so very close to losing the song completely. We have folk music compiler Neil Colquhoun to thank for it’s continued existence. Colquhoun was a folk musician, teacher and a great compiler of the songs of New Zealand’s whalers, gold diggers and kauri loggers. He came across the song in 1966, having learned it from an F.R. Woods – a man then in his 80s who had learned ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’ from an uncle, who was a sailor. A number of folk artists recorded the song throughout the 1970s, however Colquhoun preserved it. I did a little further digging, thinking it might be interesting to find Mr. Colquhoun and ask him if he’d be interested in doing a short interview with me, however he appears to have passed on in 2013.
I hope you all found my little meander through my back yard a little interesting. I know this hasn’t been usual ‘Tales’ fare. I don’t get to share a lot of history from my homeland, and hell, it is topical. We’ll be back to normal transmission next week…. Though I am saving a Kiwi tale, just on the backburner for now, which features one of my least favorite politicians while he was still a young boy (I’ve been rude and confrontational to this guy some years ago when he was still in power), a famed killer and artist, and a mysterious disappearance… just to forewarn you all.
Hey everyone, this was – almost – this year’s Christmas post. I just wasn’t feeling it this year. On first draft though inspiration struck. I present this as I think it still has some value right? – An actual Xmas post will drop on the 25th.
Hi all, Merry Christmas to you all. After reading the following you may well wonder why I’m not wishing everyone a hearty ‘Bah humbug’. You see, I’ve been wracking my brains for a suitable tale to tell this year – I didn’t even have a subject for this year’s Christmas day blog until I hit the first draft of this post. The following is a blog on things which happened Christmases past – and why none of the following made the cut. The actual Christmas blog will drop Christmas day.
One – The Stone of Destiny.
On Christmas eve 1950, four students from Glasgow, Scotland met at a Lyon’s Corner House in London – an open 24/7 complex full of pubs, foodcourts and barber shops – to plot the theft of the Stone of Destiny; sometimes referred to as the Stone of Scone. For lack of a reliable backstory to this artefact, it is worth mentioning a story from the bible. Jacob was on the run from his brother Esau – who was out to kill him for usurping him as his father’s favourite son. One night he laid his head on a rock, and had a vivid dream where he climbed a magical ladder to heaven. Up the top Jacob meets God, who tells him his progeny are destined to rule the world, but he best get busy spreading his seed far and wide. He would go on to have twelve children, who would each lead one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The rock he slept on would be blessed, declared a relic, and eventually taken into the temple of Jerusalem.
Forward to Scotland in the 1290s. The Scots believed the prophet Jeremiah, famous in the bible for authoring a few Old Testament books, and loudly predicting Babylon would invade Israel, to the disbelief of his leaders (he would be proved correct in 586 BCE) – secreted the rock away before the Babylonians attacked. Somehow, in spite of Jeremiah escaping to Egypt, they believe said rock made its way to Ireland. No one knows when exactly the Stone of Destiny appeared in Scotland, but it is assumed most, if not all Scottish Kings were crowned atop this mythical piece of rock, as legend has it the stone was on their soil by the mid 600s AD.
This is, at least until the Scots fell afoul of England’s King Edward I, known to historians as Edward Longshanks, among other names. Another sobriquet, The Hammer of the Scots. A constitutional crisis arose when Scottish King Alexander III and his three heirs all died within a few years of one another. With 14 rival claimants, Longshanks was called upon to decide who should be king. He picked John Baliol, sparking an insurrection. Most of the Scottish lords backed Robert de Brus – grandfather of future king Robert the Bruce (mentioned in another recent blog post). Drawn into the conflict, Longshanks just took over the nation of Scotland for himself – and following the 1296 Battle of Dunbar – stole the Stone of Destiny. The stone was incorporated into English ceremonies, insinuating any time an English monarch was crowned, they were de-facto named ruler of the Scots too.
The Bah Humbug moment?
Don’t get me wrong, Edward Longshanks is the kind of historical monster I could spend days on. I am also a sucker for any tale where the underdog – in this case the four students – succeed against the odds. Let’s not understate the importance of the removal of the stone from Westminster Abbey either. In 1950, less than 1% of Scots backed the politicians calling for devolution – a conscious uncoupling from the British Empire. The removal of the stone sparked a conversation which led to a number of referenda, where Scotland secured their own parliament, but fell short of completely devolving. The 1979 vote (to leave) had too few voters to count, the 2014 vote saw a narrow victory to the stay campaign.
Essentially though, the tale itself is a bit of an anti-climax. Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson and Alan Stuart worked out how long it took security to do their rounds, then just nicked the stone while the guard’s back was turned. The stone got accidentally broken in half on the journey – and buried in a field in Kent for a while – then dug up and secreted away to Arbroath Abbey, Scotland. It was found four months later, and returned to London. These four students did a miraculous thing, in my opinion – but every time I have tried to write this tale – the labyrinthine nature of the backstory just seems to rob the impact of their deed somewhat.
Two – How The Onedin Line Brought down a Despot.
The following is a tale I have carried around with me for decades. The Onedin line, to the uninitiated, was a British television show which ran from 1971 to 1980 in the UK. In New Zealand in the late 1980s and early 90s it’s majestic theme music greeted me as I arrived home from school. My mum often watched the repeats on a late afternoon timeslot, if not on night shift that day. My family came from a village across the river Mersey from Liverpool, where the show was set (though not filmed). I come from a family with an interest in history, and the Onedin Line touched on a number of historical events which would have affected the fictional shipping line. From Coffin Ships to The Atlantic slave trade, and beyond, the popular soap opera was an insight to the issues of the time. I don’t think I appreciated the show terribly at the time.
The Romanians, however, were on my mum’s side. Legend has it they loved the Onedin Line from the get go. They would not have a legitimate feed to the show for long however.
In the wake of the Second World War, Romania – who were a democratic monarchy till overrun by a fascist organisation early in the war – fell under the control of the USSR. From 1947 the nation would be ruled by a communist assembly. Also early in the regime, a young man named Nicolae Ceausescu began his climb to the top of the party. Ceausescu was a member of the Romanian communist party from before the war – having made a name for himself as a capable street fighter – and was in jail for the duration of the war for ‘anti-democratic behaviour’. From the mid 1960s Romania allowed their people a somewhat westernized lifestyle – to enjoy some television, theatre, music and art from the capitalist world – but in 1971 Ceausescu travelled to North Korea and China. He fell in love with their brand of communism, especially their unaccountable strongmen, and methods of propaganda. The then head of the state council, and future president came back with a 17 point plan, the ‘July Theses’. He banned all foreign television.
In the wake of the ban, fans of The Onedin Line found a workaround, in higher powered aerials which tuned in to feeds from nearby capitalist nations. They followed the saga of the Onedin family. No doubt they picked up many other shows as well, the news especially. As Ceausescu ruled as he saw fit, the people tuned in their sets, and rolled with it. They suffered through abortion and divorce bans which would flood their orphanages with children – (children subsequently sold off to well off foreigners) – and a poorly timed power grab for oil supremacy, which put the country in the poor house by the mid 80s. As austerity bit, all the while their own media selling a message everything was fine, the fans of Onedin saw news coverage of thawing relations between the Cold War rivals – Glasnost and Perestroika – ‘openness’ and ‘restructure’… and then, on 9th November 1989 – the fall of the Berlin Wall. Try as he might to deny it, the Onedin watchers saw it – they knew the world had changed, and the time was right to take to the streets to demand their freedom.
The revolution was quick. On Christmas Day 1989 Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were tried for their despotism and personal enrichment in the face of massive poverty, and executed by firing squad.
The Bah Humbug Moment?
Besides it being not at all Christmas-y? The only evidence I could find that this ever happened is that a BBC television documentary was made in 1992, outlining the Onedin watcher’s role in the revolution. I am dead certain this is where I picked the tale up from in the first place. Could I find a copy of the actual doco? Not a chance. I may be awful when it comes to footnoting, but I always fact check. Sorry Onedin Line.
Three – Dodgy medieval kings reinforce their ‘divine right to rule’ via Christmas coronations.
Umm, yeah let’s just jump to the Bah Humbug Moment….
It is true medieval kings claimed their right to govern over a people was God’s will. According to the ‘divine right of kings’ doctrine, not only were they on the throne “By the grace of God” but their rule was preordained – the thuggish warlord who has just invaded your nation and sat himself down on the old bosses chair was all part of God’s plan from before you were born. Many saw Christmas – the day the apparent King of Kings was born in a little town called Bethlehem – as a portentous date to take the crown. If the warlord who now runs our land was crowned on such a holy day – they must be extra blessed by God right?
It’s true several high profile warlords ascended to the throne on this day. Charlemagne, king of the Franks was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD. Stephen I founded the Kingdom of Hungary in 1000 AD. The Danish warrior Sweyn Forkbeard is crowned King of England in 1013 AD – Sweyn would hold onto the position for a little over a month, before being deposed by Aethelred. Mieszko II of Poland was crowned Christmas 1025. As was Polish king Boleslaw II in 1076. William the Conqueror was crowned in 1066. Roger of Sicily – someone I have been fascinated with since reading Bertrand Russell’s thoughts on the man… but for whom I’ve yet to make the time to read up on – ditto, 1130. Add to this list King Baldwin I of Jerusalem, on 1100 AD.
The problem is it is a list, not a Tale. Often there is no mystery in their motives. It doesn’t even mark out a trend, as many more rulers weren’t crowned on Christmas. Does it have an arc? Any plot to speak of? Any kind of emotional payoff? No, it is a list. Yes I could have taken one of these sword wielding lunatics and spun a decent short biography on them? Oh yes, I could have – but maybe I have plans in the new year for a project along those grounds (hint, keep your eyes peeled on the social media accounts in, probably late January).
Would the piece have made for some useful pub quiz knowledge? Maybe, but probably no more than this none-piece. For the pub quizzers out there you may add one more to the list… kind of. King Clovis I of the Franks was not crowned on Christmas, but he was famously baptized into the Catholic faith in 508 AD.
Four – [Subject name redacted: Work in progress]
I do have one topic for a prospective Christmas story. It is a tale of human endurance, and breaking barriers. It’s a tale of how small acts can inspire massive paradigm shifts. Furthermore it is incredibly pertinent in this day and age. Where it falls over though…
Put simply, I ran out of time. This tale was taking me out into waters I don’t know terribly well, and need to put some time into studying. There is nothing terribly complex in the tale itself, but I am – embarrassingly – unschooled on the cast of characters, or the chronology of events following this juncture. I’ll probably need two weeks to get everything together on it – minimum. I’m hoping to return to this topic some time in 2021. I will also need to use my free monthly articles from various science journals fairly cannily too on this one, just FYI.
So there we go, sorry folks I feel like this week’s post is more lump of coal than stocking stuffer. I did discount several other topics. Washington crossing the Delaware felt like the cast were too well known for a blog mostly featuring obscure figures. I played round with West Point Military Academy’s Eggnog Riots for a little while, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I even revisited that famous soccer game on the Western Front, Christmas 1914. I felt the only thing I could add to the mix, ultimately, was to colourize, then cartoon some old black and white photographs.
I also toyed with the idea of writing on John Elwes, the probable real life inspiration for …. actually, no, he’s perfect.
Give me a couple of days folks. Don’t Google him, it’ll ruin everything! Post coming December 25th.
The following was originally released in four parts, on the Facebook page, in June 2019. I’ve heavily edited, & collated the piece into one blog post.
One: That Dick Cavett Interview…
Hi folks, I should say up front I thought I understood Altamont. In researching this Tale, I found out much of what I thought I knew was superficial, or wrong. I think it’s also worth spending a little time on the reason I came to revisit the infamous concert – old episodes of The Dick Cavett show on YouTube. As with episodes of What’s My Line? I’m a sucker for good, old television, and in 2019 I was regularly binge watching old interviews on The Dick Cavett show. Some clips (Segregationist Governor of Georgia Lester Maddox storming off for example) are historically important, others (Orson Welles, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix) perhaps less so, but make great viewing for a pop culture junkie like myself.
The episode in question was filmed in 1972. The setting, backstage at Madison Square Garden. The Rolling Stones – last stateside as a band in December 1969 – had returned. Cavett is speaking with bassist Bill Wyman; and clearly has a question which must be asked.
Cavett “What’s running through your nervous system right now? Are you worried, are you scared? Do matinees give you the willies or anything?“
Wyman replies he’s just tired. Cavett asks would they play so many concerts so closely together in the future, Wyman replies they have done this many before. Cavett continues… “You’re still protected from the…” Wyman runs him off at the pass. He states he’s just a little tired this tour. Cavett “I wonder what’s happened on this tour that made it this way?” Wyman replies “Just the energy…“
Knowing when to pivot, Dick Cavett changes tack. He asks Bill Wyman if the age range in their audiences has changed. talks a little about Tom Jones and middle aged ladies. Is Bill a chain smoker? Would he go back to school if the Rolling Stones came to an end? who are all the children backstage? Bill Wyman relaxes into the conversation. Not yet done however… Cavett.
“Has there been anything on this trip that’s scared you, or any bad moments when you were worried that something was going to happen? ….. menacing…”
Wyman, after a drawn out, Freudian pause “No, just seeing the cops beat kids up scares me sometimes you know“
“Was there much of that this time?“
“Not as much as usual but we have seen it. They seem to grab guys out of the audience, take them out and they go through a whole thing on the way with sticks and it’s pretty rough you know, they don’t deserve it.“
Cavett asks if too much security is a problem, Wyman replies that sometimes they “get up front and cause trouble“
Dick Cavett moves in, he deindividuates asking about “the guys in the group” rather than “you” but all the same, he knows he’s landed the hook. Now is the time to reel his catch in.
“Do you guys in the group talk about Altamont ever, and what happened there, or has it faded?“
Bill Wyman answers.
“We talk about it yes, but, I’d sooner forget about it you know. It was just a very unfortunate thing. It was the last show of the tour and we all weren’t going to do it, it was just a live concert.. a free concert that was set up a few days before and – (long freudian pause) – I mean there was 300,000 people there, and there was only 30 people fighting. I mean almost all the audience never even saw it, didn’t even know what was going on you know?”
Yes he was minimizing “what was going on” He passed the responsibility for this last concert to some ‘other’, as they almost weren’t going to play that day. Honestly, from a business perspective I can get that too, you wouldn’t want “what was going on” to define your band – Just think for a second if Great White came to town would you want to go and see them? Now if you said yes, would you still want to go see them if a nationally syndicated reporter asked them to recall gig at the Station Night Club, Rhode Island, February 20th 2003, where malfunctioning pyrotechnics set fire to the club, killing 100 people and injuring 230 more? It puts me off.
What I can also see in Bill Wyman’s reply is he does still think of Altamont, and probably very much doesn’t want to think about it. There’s a look on his face that implies the day was the stuff of nightmares. Keith Richards also downplayed the incident, but rumours abound during the 1972 tour he carried a loaded 38 caliber pistol with him at all times, just in case “the security” -oh and we are not talking about the police – sought revenge.
The Altamont Speedway Free Festival, at Altamont Speedway Northern California, December 6th 1969, had other acts lined up. Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young all on the bill. The Grateful Dead were meant to be the penultimate act, before the Rolling Stones helicoptered in to play their set, but they declined to play. The assault on Marty Balin was the final straw for them. Jerry Garcia, frontman of The Grateful Dead commented, in a British interview in 1970 that Woodstock and Altamont were “two sides of the same coin“.
“It’s like two ways that kind of expression can go of a huge number of people and no rules…One of the ways, obviously can go to a terrible bummer like Altamont, nd one of the other ways is to an immensely enjoyable scene like Woodstock. And they both had their extremes, but they were both, sort of characterized by this heaviness, this sort of historical heaviness“.
I get that to be honest, to my mind Woodstock, August 15- 18 1969 seemed the cultural zenith of the 60s counter-culture, peace and love movement. The poster, “3 days of peace and music” a bird perched on a guitar neck seems so apt. Altamont, then, had to be it’s nadir – a scene out of Dante’s Inferno “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”. It turns out this was not exactly the case.
Two: You Can’t Always Get What You Want
When one thinks big, open air concerts in the 60s, people generally think of a little thing called Woodstock – named after the town in Ulster, New York. Woodstock actually happened 43 miles (70 km) Southwest, on a 600 acre dairy farm in Bethel New York, but the advertising had already gone out, they quickly needed to find a new spot. Anyway Bethel doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. 32 acts performed at Woodstock. 400,000 people attended. Despite the occasional bursts of rain, people danced, got high – some involuntarily, they put flowers in their hair and got closer to nature. It took on the aura of the high point of the hippie counterculture movement.
Of course some of this is us looking through rose tinted glasses at the 3 day concert – held August 15 – 18, 1969. On the morning of the 16th, 17 year old Raymond Mizsak was accidentally run over by a tractor on its way to empty the port-a-loos. He died before he could be airlifted to a local hospital. Food was terribly scarce – were it not for a local company bringing in tonnes of Granola at the last minute there would have been nothing provided whatsoever. Back to the toilets, there was a ratio of 1 toilet to every 883 people. The traffic jam caused by the concert is still on record as one of the 10 worst traffic jams of all time. For all the peace and love there was a little violence – notably Pete Townshend of The Who beat up a stage invader with his guitar. Besides the death of Raymond Mizsak, two others died of drug overdoses.
In the aftermath, the people of Bethel got rid of the town supervisor at the next election. The people clearly stating the concert was their reason for punishing him in the polls. A couple of musicians who played the event were clearly buzzing from the experience however.
Soon after Woodstock, Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Spencer Dryden got together to plan a similar gig, on the West Coast this time. They decided to ask fellow Woodstock alumnus The Grateful Dead– and The Rolling Stones – arguably the second biggest band in the world behind The Beatles at the time, to be on the bill. Both bands signed on. The Stones likely did so because they were heavily criticized for the high ticket prices on their 1969 tour of the USA – and this was a free concert. They were also filming a documentary, and footage of a large, open air concert would look fantastic. The Grateful Dead? Well they were friends. They gigged incessantly, notching up over 2,300 concerts in their career. They played the two big, open air concerts of the 1960s – 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock, so it made sense to include them on the third.
With next to no planning time, the organizers scrambled to find a venue. San Jose State University (in California) had a large practice field that could be used to host large concerts, but the university were not interested in renting out the field. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was mooted, and sent out as the likely venue to the other acts on the bill. However there was a scheduling problem. On 6th December Kezar Stadium – located in a corner of the park – was booked for a football game between the San Francisco 49’ers and The Chicago Bears. (if you are wondering the 49ers beat the Bears 42 to 21). To have two large activities going in the park at the same time would be a logistical nightmare. Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma California looked promising but organizers ran into two problems. First, the owners wanted $300,000 up front, and they did not have the cash to spare. Second, the owners of the raceway were Filmways Inc – a film and TV production company, best known now as the creators of a much of CBS ‘rural’ content – Mister Ed, Petticoat Junction, The Beverley Hillbillies, and my personal favorite – Green Acres. Filmways wanted to film and distribute the concert – the Rolling Stones refused as they were intent on their own crew filming for their documentary Gimme Shelter.
On the 4th December 1969, Altamont Speedway, a motor racing track in Tracy, California was suggested. Running out of options, the organizers signed up to put on the concert at the poorly set up venue.
Three: A large visible space…
Hi all, this week let’s bake a disaster. What’s the recipe? First add a hazy, dusty day, hanging over a drab, colourless landscape. Picture Woodstock in your mind’s eye, out at Max Yasgur’s farm. It is lush and verdant, till the sky opens, then it turned terribly muddy – but there is still something very ‘age of Aquarius’ about it. People tuning in to mother nature, love, music and narcotics. If you were a young searcher looking for Rousseau’s hypothetical ‘State of nature’ before the world corrupted humanity, you could almost imagine it among those buzzed out, drenched, half naked kids, on that lush, green farm. Altamont was no Woodstock. Grace Slick, of Jefferson Airplane describing the atmosphere
“The vibes were bad, something was very peculiar, not particularly bad, just real peculiar. It was that kind of hazy, abrasive day.”
Next add a sprinkling of next to no preparation. With less than two days to prepare there are far too few toilets. A shortage of medical tents will prove very problematic as the day wears on also. At Woodstock there was no shortage of tents, something which came in handy in dealing with many cut feet and, allegedly, burnt eyeballs from tripping kids looking up at the sun. More on first aid later. The stage would prove a massive headache for organizers. It was far too low – just four feet off the ground, constructed in a dip owing to the slope of the racing track itself. The organizers had no security barriers to keep the concertgoers a safe distance away so a ball of string was run at chest height, in a line in front of the stage, to mark where the crowd should stop. Making up for the lack of barriers, the Hells Angels were stationed front and centre to keep the crowd back.
Now add security. The Hells Angels were hardly new to doing concert security, having worked many shows without incident. Altamont was a difficult gig for them for a number of reasons. First, their role was poorly defined. The Rolling Stones then tour manager, Sam Cutler, stating
“The only agreement there ever was…The Angels would make sure nobody tampered with the generators”.
They came to the concert with no idea just how much they would be required to do.
Second, they agreed to be paid in $500.00 worth of beer, to be provided on the day for them – around $3,400 now. Adding a large amount of alcohol to the mix would prove disasterous. Third, no provision was made for a safe place for the Hells Angels to park their bikes.
Add to the bowl an expectation 100,000 people would attend, sprinkle in 200,000 excess concertgoers. Stretched resources would suddenly be stretched beyond breaking point. One way in which this played out is The Hells Angels had to call in reinforcements. The reinforcements had nowhere to park their bikes but at the side of the stage – more on that later. Another way this led to disaster… well I should mention the final ingredient. Drugs and alcohol.
Drunken Hells Angels were one thing – no doubt their judgment was impaired by the beer; the drugs were far more concerning. Early in the day a large amount of LSD, laced with speed was passed through the crowd. The crowd was full of tripping fans, nothing new there, but the speed was giving many of them really bad trips. With far too few medical staff, treatment was slow – and the preferred treatment at the time – the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine – ran out early on in the day. Many a concert goer became strung out and increasingly paranoid in this hazy, dusty scene. Now mix ingredients thoroughly.
Santana were the first act up. They got through their set with no major incidents, in spite of growing tensions between the crowd and the Hells Angels. Jefferson Airplane had barely started when a flurry of violence broke out, out front. Rumour has it a concertgoer had knocked over one of the motorcycles at the side of the stage. The Hells Angels retaliated in a flurry of punches, then by bringing out pool cues, striking audience members. Vocalist Marty Balin jumped into the crowd to intervene, only to be knocked unconscious by a gang member.
Guitarist Paul Kantner grabbed a microphone and addressed the crowd. “Hey man, I’d like to mention that the Hell’s Angels just smashed Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit” Sarcastically he addressed the security “I’d like to thank you for that.”
A brooding- looking Hell’s Angel named Bill Fritsch – a former hippy, one time San Franciscan poet, one time left wing progressive, almost appeared in Kenneth Anger’s film ‘Lucifer Rising’, till his scene was cut AND associate of Charles Manson- grabs a microphone and fires back.
“Is this on? If you’re talking to me, I’m gonna talk to you.” Kantner: “I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to the people who hit my lead singer in the head.” Fritsch: “You’re talking to my people.” Kantner: “Right.”
All the while Hells Angels continued to trade blows with audience members in front of the stage.
Santana drummer Michael Shrieve reported back to the Grateful Dead what just happened, and the Dead decided they’d seen enough. They packed up and got out of there.
The fighting died down while country rock act the Flying Burrito Brothers played their set, but soon after violence erupted – and escalated. Where early in the day medics were de-escalating bad trips, they were now dealing with a number of seriously wounded concert goers- the injury of the day, fractured skulls. To paint the Hells Angels as the only ones dishing out violence is wrong. Denise Jewkes, singer for cult San Francisco rock band The Ace of Cups, in attendance as a fan, and six months pregnant, was treated for a fractured skull – her injury the result of someone in the crowd throwing an empty bottle. All the same, concertgoers who dared get close to the front were beaten senseless with pool cues and bike chains. A woman was at one point was dragged across the stage by her hair.
A young man in a lime green suit wandered off to his car, a Ford Mustang, and popped the boot, grabbing a 22 calibre Smith and Wesson revolver. He headed back to the show, feeling more secure for his six shooter.
As night set in a helicopter carrying the stars of the show, The Rolling Stones, arrived. Their start time was delayed by the late arrival of Dick Cavett’s (1972) guest Bill Wyman – he missed the copter. Out front it must’ve looked like a blood bath but the Stones were going out to play, regardless. The helicopter prepared to take off, now laden with members of Jefferson Airplane, ready to beat a hasty retreat. The Stones kicked off their set. The helicopter, now airborne, hovered for a second above the venue as a shaken Jefferson Airplane looked downwards. Journalist Joel Selvin describes the scene
“The pilot circled over the crowd for one last view of the stage. They looked down. The crowd in front of the stage spread apart before their eyes. A large, visible space opened and quickly closed up again. They watched as the mass of people spread apart and fused back together in a single seamless movement. They had no idea they had just witnessed the killing of Meredith Hunter”.
Four: The Ballad of Meredith Hunter.
At the Skyview memorial lawn cemetary in East Vallejo, California, there is a simple grave – lot 63, grave c. The plot holds a young man killed in December 1969, and as of 2006, when film maker Sam Green made a short documentary, titled Lot 63, Grave C, the plot remained unmarked. It was hardly as if the young man didn’t have loved ones left in the wake of his killing, but they didn’t have much money – and were so heart broken by his death they kept their distance. His mother, Alta May Anderson, had struggled her whole life with schizophrenia, and the killing sent her into a tailspin. For years after she turned to electro-convulsive therapy to manage her depression over her loss. After the killing she was a shell of her former self. His sister, Dixie, couldn’t bring herself to attend the murder case against her brother’s killer. She was heavily suspicious that when a white man is charged with killing a black man, the white man walks – a little on this later. She did not want to go through the pain of seeing this happen. A short, solidly built Hells Angel named Alan Passaro was tried for her brother’s murder, but would be acquitted.
It was Dixie who plead with her brother, 18 year old Meredith Hunter, not to go to the Altamont Free Festival that day. She was not worried about biker gangs so much as that it was on the rural edges of Alameda County – a place which seemed to her somewhat regressive in it’s racial views. Remember that it is 1969. To add a little context, just six years prior, President John F Kennedy had ordered the National Guard in to the University of Alabama to arrest, if need be, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace. Wallace was physically blocking the entrance of two black students around the same age as Hunter, who were there to complete their student registration to the all white college. Wallace was a hair’s breath from arrest when he backed down. Five years prior, in Mississippi, three civil rights activists were detained and murdered while travelling through the area and enrolling black people to vote. Perhaps most pertinent in a way, and please note I am pulling a small handful of examples from a very disturbing history here, this was 14 years since a young boy from Chicago – Emmett Till – was kidnapped and tortured to death for daring to speak to a white woman who worked in a store – again in Mississippi. The act of miscegenation, of mingling of the races for sexual reasons, was thought bad enough by some that even an attempt to miscegenate was an offence worthy of a lynching. The teller’s husband, Roy Bryant and his friend J.W. Milam brutally murdered Till, and – being two white men having killed a young black boy, were also acquitted. I stress this case as, at the time Hunter was dating a young white woman called Patti Bredenhoft.
Hunter did pay some heed to his sister, packing the Smith and Wesson revolver in the boot of his step-father’s Mustang. He drove over to Patti’s and the two drove off for the concert. As a child I had heard he was a pimp, and Patti one of his girls – this is untrue – he was an Arts student. I had also heard he was way more fearless than he should have been, as he was high on methamphetamine. The latter was true.
Picking up the tale from just after the Jefferson Airplane incident. The bikers flew through the crowd on their hogs, just whizzing past Hunter and Bredenhoft. The couple were nearby when violence erupted out front and singer Marty Balin was knocked unconscious. Patti had, at this point, had enough and returned to the car. Meredith wanted to hang around, and just prior to the Rolling Stones set decided he would go back in to catch them. The two had words, Meredith was the more forceful of the two. He grabbed his gun, and the two made their way back to the stage – what could go wrong?
Everything – everything could go wrong – and it happened very quickly. Why it unfolded is a subject to guesswork – following the incident, president of the Oakland chapter Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger stated on KSAN Radio San Francisco
“When they (the concertgoers) started messing over our bikes they started it”
He went on to say their bikes represented their everything. Was this wave of violence caused because someone tipped a bike over? In any case the Rolling Stones had only just began their set when the group of Hell’s Angels at the front of the stage advanced, again on the crowd, like an Athenian phalanx. The crowd out front dispersed. Meredith Hunter had climbed atop a speaker cabinet at the side of the stage before the surge, perhaps feeling safer up there – but a Hell’s Angel grabbed him by the ear and threw him to the ground. Hunter back peddled as best he could, putting some distance between himself and his assailant. He drew his pistol and tried to back himself away from the bikers, when the heavy set Alan Passaro appeared on his left flank. Passaro grabbed his shooting hand, disarming him, then stabbed Hunter twice in the back. Hunter stumbled. Passaro followed him down, stabbing him all the way. A pack of five Hells Angels surrounded Hunter and laid into him.
Bredehoft struggled to stop one of the men, but was shrugged off. Hunter plead with them “I wasn’t going to shoot you” but the men continued to strike Hunter till he stopped moving. A young, brave bystander named Paul Cox did step up, doing his best to stop the assault, but was powerless. He eventually managed to get Meredith Hunter away from the scene of the beating, and to a medical tent. A helicopter was called for but he passed before it could arrive. Meredith Hunter was one of four fatalities that day, though the only one not to die as the result of an accident.
Post Altamont, the zeitgeist changed considerably. No doubt this incident was just one of several to shock the American public – the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, April 4 and June 5 1968 respectively, the images coming out of Indochina and rising death toll – less I suspect the 3 million dead Vietnamese and similar numbers in Cambodia and Laos – but an eventual death toll of 58 thousand Americans. and a high number of wounded – Politicians refer to the Dover test when accepting one too many coffins returns to Dover Airforce base, well the Dover test had come some time back. In August 1969 a hippie ‘family’ led by Charles Manson slaughtered Sharon Tate and the LaBiancas, in an attempt to start a race war in the USA. With the trial of the Chicago Seven around the corner (long story short they were anti-war protesters involved in a violent battle with Mayor Richard Daley’s police force outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention – edit. 2020. with the release of the film on Netflix maybe I should have- still should? write a post on them), and the acceptance of a number of cultural icons to the 27 club soon after, it felt a little like things had gone from Bob Dylan’s The times are a changing, to 10 years after’s I’d like to change the world, but I don’t know what to do… The hippie movement and flower power faded, and the 1970s would be much edgier.
Alan Passaro was charged with murder, and brought before a jury. The jury saw the film footage from the day, saw Passaro as a man who brought a knife to a gunfight and decided he had acted in self defence. Alan Passaro would, mysteriously drown in the Anderson Reservoir, Morgan Hill California in 1985 – a wad of cash totalling $10,000 on him at the time. He lays buried under an impressive gravestone, if the photo on Find a Grave is anything to go by.
I could not find much on Patti Bredehoft. She did give a 2005 interview to The Sunday Times, where she claimed not to have made much of her life – and of course discussed her infamous second date with Meredith Hunter. FYI their first date was to see The Temptations.
The Hell’s Angels blamed the Rolling Stones for the outcome of the concert. Keith Richards may have been well advised to carry a gun with him on their 1972 tour, and perhaps Bill Wyman was wise not to say too much. The Hells Angels did hatch a plot to assassinate Mick Jagger in revenge. Their plan, to assemble a death squad, hire a boat, and sail to his house on Long Island. On the day of the assassination, a storm set in and a group of Hells Angels eventually made it back to dock, the worse for wear, and by all accounts lucky not to have drowned. They gave up on killing Mick after this. This story made it to the FBI via an informant in their organisation in 1985, and was made public knowledge in 2008 – Mick himself only found out how lucky he had been when the public did.
Which brings me round to Mick Jagger himself – could he do better than Bill Wyman, on that Dick Cavett interview, which started this cycle? In 1995 Rolling Stone Magazine’s Jann Wenner met with the Rolling Stone and asked the following.
“After the concert itself, when it became apparent that somebody got killed, how did you feel?”
“Well awful. I mean, just awful. You feel a responsibility. How could it all have been so silly and wrong? But I didn’t think of these things that you guys thought of, you in the press: this great loss of innocence, this cathartic end of the era… I didn’t think any of that. That particular burden didn’t weigh on my mind. It was more how awful it was to have had this experience and how awful it was for someone to get killed…”
This Tale is also Episode Four of Season One of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.
Originally posted in four part May – June 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow
If she was just trying to get to sleep, and took the overdose of pills accidentally, why was the light on? Usually people sleep better in the dark. – Dorothy Kilgallen on Marilyn Monroe.
Warning! This Tale begins with a shaggy dog tale involving YouTube and my recurring insomnia.Scroll to the bottom for pages 2 and 3.
I’ve no idea why YouTube algorithms saw fit to drop episodes of the 1950’s-60’s gameshow What’s My Line? in my feed – maybe my love of ephemera, or the time I watched every episode of A.J. Benza’s ‘Mysteries and Scandals’ (a 1990s series on the scandals of Hollywood’s Golden Age). Maybe the suggestion came after a session of looking in vain for live footage of 1940s jump blues shouter Wynonie Harris… I wanted to see if Elvis really did steal all his moves. Whatever the site’s rationale I’m glad they did. On many a night where I’ve woken at 3am, old episodes of What’s My Line? Have become a bit of a guilty pleasure.
Running from 1951 to 1967, then rebooted several times after that – What’s My Line? was an American game show that pitted a celebrity panel of sleuths against hundreds, if not thousands of contestants. The contestant could be a dynamite salesperson, the man who made President Kennedy’s inauguration top hat, a hotel detective, a flight instructor – at one point an unknown Colonel Harland Sanders – the year before he sold Kentucky Fried Chicken and became the public face of the franchise. By asking questions the sleuths had to work out the contestant’s job. If the panel got ten ‘no’s, the contestant would walk away with $50 winnings. There was always a celebrity mystery guest where the panel wore blindfolds while guessing – the celebs are the primary reason most of the show footage survives to this day.
For this bleary-eyed writer, struggling to get back to sleep in the wee small hours, these shows were a godsend… not because they would bore you to sleep either. I think as much as I like the concept itself, I think (yes the same me who loves The Sopranos and Breaking Bad) it’s refreshing to watch a cast so intelligent, personable and so damned charming just being so mannered and respectful to one another. The actress Arlene Francis would enter and formally introduce comedian Steve Allen, who would welcome journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, who would in turn welcome book publisher Bennett Cerf, who would in turn welcome the host, John Charles Daly to the stage. The cast wore evening attire – evening gowns or tuxedos – they stood on ceremony and manners. The show was nicer, and more wholesome – probably by a factor of 1,000s than my usual fare. It was because of this I was shocked, one night to click on a partial episode aired on November 14th 1965, where the cast made an announcement.
John Charles Daly: “Now, until next week, good night Arlene Francis” Arlene: “Thank you John, and I just want to say that in the… more than 15 years of Sundays that we’ve spent together on this programme, we have become, not just associated but a kind of family. And, it is not so much as a co-worker that we miss Dorothy, though certainly she was a game player that was better than almost all the rest of us – it is really as a family that we are saddened by her absence.”
And so they go on down the line, Steve Allen eulogized her stating “the world knows her as a very brilliant woman, very quick- minded and very intelligent. A writer of a very fine newspaper column… but we also think it is very important that she was a very fine wife and a mother, and we all miss her in those capacities”. Dorothy’s ringer for the night, actress and panelist on the similarly themed show To Tell the Truth, Kitty Carlisle, briefly spoke her condolences, passing to Bennett Cerf.
“Well, a lot of people knew Dorothy as a very tough game player, others knew her as a tough newspaper woman. When she went after a story nothing could get in her way. But we got to know her as a human being, and a more lovable, softer, loyal person never lived; and we’re going to miss her terribly.”
John Charles Daly, it turns out when I found the complete episode, said his piece up front. The poor guy looked and sounded completely devastated by the loss.
Dorothy! What the hell happened to you? I thought. Though it does happen, as a general rule most middle aged people don’t just die suddenly. Yes, her death occurred half a century ago, but healthy, well heeled, middle aged folk tended not to die suddenly, even then. On some digging, I uncovered her immediate family all lived well into their 90s, making a sudden demise all the more shocking.
It turns out she had been out filming an episode of What’s My Line? the day before her death. Stopping at a bar after for a drink with producer Bob Bach, she then left to meet a ‘mystery man’ at the Regency Hotel. The two were seen in the bar of the Regency at around 2am, where it was believed she made a phone call to a friend around 2.20am. At 9am, her friend and hairdresser Marc Sinclaire would drop by Dorothy’s Manhattan townhouse, finding Dorothy not yet awake, or in her usual bedroom. He would find her body, sat upright in bed in the master bedroom – her makeup and false eyelashes still on, decorative hairpiece in, wearing a dressing gown he’d never seen her in before. Open beside her, Robert Ruark’s final novel The Honey Badger. Rigor Mortis had set in, which put her time of death somewhere between 2am and 4am.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself, we’ll come back to the scene, going over it’s oddities later. What I think germane to our understanding of the tale right now though, Dorothy was on a mission. Convinced there was much more to the assassination of her friend John F. Kennedy. For 18 months she had investigated his murder, publishing a number of articles already which cast doubt on the Warren Commission’s findings that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. She claimed she had uncovered a lead which would expose a conspiracy to kill the president, and planned to travel to New Orleans to meet a source. She never made that trip. Before I lay all this out it pays to first discuss What’s Dorothy’s Line? as I believe she has largely faded from the public consciousness.
What’s Her Line?
Dorothy Mae Kilgallen was born in Chicago, Illinois, July 3rd 1913 to James and Mae Kilgallen. Mae had been a promising singer before her marriage. James was an accomplished journalist himself, having covered, among a great many other tales, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and Germany’s surrender in World War Two. James once commented on his own career he had
“…covered railroad wrecks, airplane and ship disasters, sitdown strikes, beauty contests in Atlantic City, eucharistic congresses in New Orleans and Barcelona, Spain, the World Series, golf championships, major prize fights, courtroom dramas, executions and national political conventions – in fact every conceivable type of story in this country and abroad.”
Dorothy had shown an early interest in her father’s work, and on graduating Erasmus Hall High School, then two semesters at The College of New Rochelle, she took a writing job at the New York Evening Journal. Though initially there for work experience, once she got her first by-line (a story about a child who was hospitalized in some accident my secondary sources don’t explain) she decided to leave college and take on a full-time role at the paper. By age 20 she had covered many stories, including a number of murder trials.
She came to national prominence in 1936, when she took part in a race around the world using only public transport. Reminiscent of our earlier tale of Nellie Bly, she raced against two male journalists, filing updates for the paper as she went. Dorothy came second, but got the lions share of the publicity, and the material for her first book ‘Girl Around the World’. Her book would inspire a 1937 movie, Fly-Away Baby – itself the second in a series featuring the intrepid reporter Torchy Blane, a character believed to be based on Dorothy herself. (As an aside, Torchy, played by Glenda Farrell, would in turn influence Jerry Siegel to write Lois Lane into the Superman universe). In 1938 Dorothy would become “The Voice of Broadway” in William Randolph Hearst’s ‘New York Journal- American’ newspaper – a role which would see her eventually syndicated with 146 papers, to 20 million readers across the country.
Dorothy married an actor named Richard Kollmar in 1940. The couple met while she was writing on, and he acting in a play called Knickerbocker Holiday (a play which both loosely adapted a Washington Irving tale, and was a thinly veiled attack on Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal). They would have three children together, and from 1945, host a morning radio show from their townhouse called ‘Breakfast With Dorothy and Dick’. The couple would have a less than functional marriage – which plays into the tale later – though, being Catholic, they never divorced. Richard’s extravagant spending and womanizing led to the couple becoming estranged. They continued to live at the townhouse together, in separate rooms, and never let on to the public they had grown apart. In private they had an open relationship for many years.
Besides her entertainment column, Dorothy also continued to cover a number of murders. Prior to the John F. Kennedy assassination, one of the most famous cases she covered was of Dr Sam Sheppard. I’ll do a short blog post on Shepherd as a coda to this tale – but if you have not come across his tale before – what you need to know for now is Dr Sheppard was a neurosurgeon accused of murdering his wife, Marilyn in 1954. The media circus around the trial ensured he would not get an unbiased trial. Trial by media found him guilty. Dorothy was one of the few who believed Sheppard was innocent, and used her influence, investigative skills, and pen to help the doctor overturn his conviction.
I could write on the myriad connections Dorothy made in high places, or her more colourful feuds with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Tonight Show host Jack Paar; her cruel literary hit job on Nina Khrushcheva – wife of Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev, or her ongoing campaign against Cuba’s Fidel Castro. I should quickly mention she was famous enough in her time she has one of the initial 500 stars in the Hollywood walk of fame. It is important to discuss her friendship and admiration for former President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. She had met the president on occasion through friends in common. One particular friend, the fashion editor and journalist Florence ‘Flo’ Pritchett-Smith, dated a young JFK, and remained close friends until the president’s death. Flo had first introduced the two. As a fellow catholic of Irish extraction, with similar political leanings, Kennedy and Kilgallen got on very well together. Dorothy would become an active supporter of the president, and would be absolutely crushed by his assassination.
Next week we’ll look at the death of the president, and Dorothy Kilgallen’s 18 month investigation into the murder. Join us next week.
Edward Bulwer Lytton, a man of letters, once wrote ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. He wrote several other memorable phrases, one of which has led to his name adorning an annual competition, the goal of which is to write the most hilariously bad, convoluted opening sentences ever written. Just go and download an e-book of Paul Clifford and you will see why. It is a great phrase though isn’t it? The pen is mightier than the sword. Think about it for a second.
In 1860 presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln, then very much a fan of the barber’s chair, got a letter from an 11 year old girl named Grace Bedell. She told Honest Abe his unshaven face looked too thin. He should grow a beard cause “all the ladies liked whiskers”. In 1894 an anonymous letter containing various state secrets was handed to French intelligence. It led to the wrongful arrest of a Jewish officer named Alfred Dreyfus. He would languish on the infamous Devil’s Island until 1906; but lest we forget it was an 1898 public letter “J’Accuse” written by the author Emile Zola which sparked the public outrage that finally freed him. A 1917 telegram sent by German Foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann to his counterpart in Mexico, promising them the return of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico to them if they invaded the USA the moment the States entered World War One was a precipitating moment in the Great war. Needless to say it backfired horribly for the Germans when the letter was intercepted then leaked by British intelligence.
Einstein wrote a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, which warned of the dangerous possibility Nazi Germany could build a superweapon. His letter kicked off the Atomic Age. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, which stated “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, kicked the civil rights movement into high gear. My focus this week, however, is a letter sent by a 14 year old girl at Sligo Junior High School to a man known as CJ the DJ, and how that letter may have changed the course of popular music forever.
On November 22nd 1963 CBS Morning News ran a piece on an all but unknown British band whose very presence back in Old Blighty was a sight to behold. A bona fide phenomenon, girls, and no doubt some boys fell head over heels at the very mention of their name. It may have garnered more attention but for an incident in Dallas that afternoon which would eclipse everything else that day. The Kennedy assassination overshadowed the 95th birthday of Franklin Roosevelt’s former vice president John Nance Garner, the deaths of CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley, and Walt Disney’s announcement of the planned site for Disneyworld. The unnoticed piece on this group of mop topped Liverpudlians was to be re-run that evening on Walter Cronkite’s CBS evening news, but as you could imagine, it got shelved, and passed more or less unnoticed.
The piece would resurface on the evening news, however, on 10th December. Cronkite felt the USA, deep in mourning over President Kennedy, needed something to lighten the mood. What better than a tale on four charming British entertainers you never knew you needed in your life? The piece did not spark a revolution, but Marsha Albert of Silver Spring, Maryland was bowled over by the group. A motivated Marsha wrote a letter to WWDC-AM radio DJ Carroll James jr, which begged him to play some songs by this group, asking “Why can’t we have music like that here in America?”.
(This author chooses to ignore that America was making some fantastic music at the time, when you got away from Fabian and teen idols named Bobby, and that the group in question’s first album contained covers of songs by Arthur Alexander, The Cookies, The Shirelles, Lenny Welch, and The Isley Brothers. Their second album, released in the UK on the day of the Kennedy Assassination featured covers of Peggy Lee, The Marvelettes, Chuck Berry, The Miracles, The Donays and Barrett Strong songs.)
This author too, is a fan of the group in question and, anyway the point is America was missing out on this cultural phenomenon that was taking off across the Atlantic.
Marsha’s letter got CJ the DJ seriously thinking about this, and how to get an advance copy of this record that had been released in the UK but was not planned for any release until early 1964 in the USA. CJ the DJ spoke with station management, then a friend who worked for British Airways, and within a few days had a copy of I Want To Hold Your Hand, in his hot little hand.
On 17th December Marsha Albert was invited to the WWDC-AM studio to introduce the record, by her new favorite band, The Beatles. The US release of their album was brought forward, just in time for Christmas, and they were on their way to massive fame and fortune stateside, and around the world.
Thank you, Marsha Albert, for caring enough to put pen to paper.
Hi all, sorry for the delay. For part one, which includes the Spotify playlist itself, Click Here
Hi all, let’s put that playlist to bed. Apologies for missing the Thursday timeline two weeks running – if the worst thing to happen to me from COVID is having to suddenly find a new home I’ll consider myself lucky… but that said, I’ve been waylaid a little this week by having to look for a new home – ad all te joys which come with that.
Oh, and anyone who has enjoyed this rock and roll bonus series, I will do some more at some time. I feel there is a story to tell, of which I have only scratched the surface in these short tales
Birmingham Bounce (1950) by Hardrock Gunter and the Pebbles. I am not just including this track as I think Sidney Gunter had the best stage name ever – which he arguably did – but because it was somewhat ahead of it’s time, pointing towards elements of rockabilly. Some writers will tell you the record was important because it was the first Western Swing song to sing about rocking out on the dance floor – I don’t know nearly enough to challenge, or confirm this. Others will point to how Gunter’s sound was making steps towards rockabilly. To my ears I’m hearing something like this – the musical timbre seems very much of the western swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. At the same time there is that prominent boogie woogie piano, and a noticeable back beat. Maybe it was more on it’s way to the Northern band rock and roll of Bill Haley?
Birmingham Bounce would not chart for Hardrock Gunter. Decca Records offered to buy the masters, and take the song to the world. Gunter’s songwriting partner did not want to sell his portion of the royalties, as he had promised the money to his church when it hit the big time. A disappointed Decca called in Red Foley to cut his own copycat single, which – as they had done to many a small label R&B record – killed Gunter’s version dead in the water.
Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee–O-Dee (1949) by Stick McGhee and his Buddies. Yet another song put forward as ‘the first rock and roll song’. I have included it to the playlist for a number of reasons. 1. It is a great little 8 bar blues track with rock and roll sensibilities. 2. It was an early hit for Atlantic Records, the then tiny label which would go on to have some of the biggest records of the 1950s and 60s. They may have been the house Ruth Brown built, but ‘Spo-dee-o-dee’ had great crossover appeal – going to #1 on the R&B charts and #26 on the pop charts. 3. The song foreshadowed the gibberish lyrics of many early rock and roll hits (Little Richards ‘Wop bop a loo bop, a lop bam boom’ of Tutti Frutti. The Chords ‘Day dong da ding-dong, A-lang-da-lang-da-lang, Ah, whoa, whoa, bip, Ah bi-ba-do-da-dip, whoa’ of Sh-Boom. Nappy Brown’s ‘So li li li la li li li la li li li la don’t be angry’ of Don’t Be Angry). He was hardly the first – but still. Of course wine spo-dee-o-dee was a real thing – it is when you mix wine, or sherry with bourbon. 4. How about I just really like the song, and wanted to share it with you all?
The Fat Man (1950) by Fats Domino. Champion Jack Dupree’s Junkers Blues (1942) probably should be the song I’m sharing here, as it lit a fire under a bunch of New Orleans piano professors, who stole the melody for rock and roll (or rock adjacent) songs. Professor Longhair’s Tipitina, Lloyd Price’s Lawdy Miss Clawdy, and Fats Domino’s The Fat Man all bear the mark of the song – but of course junkers blues was still very much a blues song. The Fat Man launched one of the all time great rock and roll innovators. It has always seemed to me New Orleans rock and roll, with its melting pot of influences, seems so sizzle a little more. The rolling, barrel house piano, the tricillo rhythm which pervades it. Again I share as I really like this song.
Have Mercy Baby (1952) by Billy Ward and The Dominoes. The Dominoes were a R&B vocal group put together by a Julliard trained pianist and arranger named Billy Ward. Though Ward himself got top billing in the band, and the lion’s share of the money, the voices of a couple of really great singers propelled the group to fame. In their first single, Sixty Minute Man (1950) bass singer Bill Brown was in the lead. With Have Mercy Baby it was very much lead tenor Clyde McPhatter’s song. The song is a landmark because it was one of the first songs to capture an exuberant gospel vocal performance within an R&B format. Earlier vocal groups like The Orioles had caught something of the mournful side of Gospel singing with tracks like it’s Too Soon to Know back in 1947. In both acts, in very different ways, their lead vocalists were doing something pop singers didn’t. Most pop singers were stylists who would recite a song – not sans emotion- but if they were actors you might admire their craft, well aware of their craft on display. Rock singers in the mold of Clyde McPhatter lived, ate and breathed the song. They inhabited it and the song inhabited them. If they were actors they would be a Robert De Niro – a method actor being that role.
McPhatter would tire of getting paid a stipend, while making Ward rich, and would head off to form the first version of The Drifters, before becoming a soloist in his own right. He was the first person inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – even if he had, sadly, drunk himself to death before the honour could be conveyed to him. All multiple inductees are said to have joined the Clyde McPhatter Club.
It’s Too Soon to Know (1947) by The Orioles. In 1941 a vocal group called The Ink Spots sparked a revolution in the world of vocal music. Having seized upon an opportunity (the preeminent vocal group before them, a ‘coffee pot group’* called The Mills Brothers became trapped overseas for the duration of World War Two) they revolutionized vocal harmony singing. Though formulaic, they set the standard for much of the 1940s. The acoustic intro. The plaintive ‘Irish tenor’ vocal sings a verse. The bass singer copies that verse, only lower. The tenor revisits the hook, taking the song home. Throughout the 1940s a group of ‘bird groups’ so named as they mostly took their names from birds. Some followed the high – low vocal. Others, like The Ravens, put the bass singer front and centre. The Orioles put their lead tenor out front, and were a kind of missing link between The Ink Spots and the Doo Wop bands which followed.
*coffee pot groups used to imitate big band instruments using their voices, often through coffee pots and kazoos, to back the lead vocalist. The coffee pot would be passed through the bar for tips at the end of the show.
Speaking of Doo Wop. I’ve previously mentioned The Chords ‘Sh-Boom’, which should have been the first rock and roll record to go to number one on the pop charts, but for a white copycat record. Gee (1953) by The Crows had no such problem – though it was a slow burner, released almost a year before Sh-Boom, then finally seeing chart success just after The Chords had. It gets a little pitchy at the end of the track, but does share a number of similarities to Sh-Boom. Perhaps of note, The Crows eschew the honking sax solo for a guitar solo – likely played by Tiny Grimes, a jazz player and session ace whose ‘Tiny’s Boogie’ (1947) is yet another contender for first rock and roll song. Grimes also gifted the world Screaming Jay Hawkins – Hawkins having got his first big break singing for Tiny.
Teardrops From My Eyes (1950) by Ruth Brown. Atlantic records were a small label, making interesting ‘race records’ – and then there was Ruth Brown. Atlantic records, musical powerhouse it is to this day, is the House that Ruth Built. Teardrops from my Eyes was a huge, runaway hit for Ruth – hitting #1 on the R&B charts and staying there for 11 weeks. The song set Brown up as the reigning queen of R&B, and as an influence for future female rock and roll singers.
It’s All Right Baby (1938) by Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson. I have already written the first music blog on this song here. I just figured it would be nice to end this where I started.
Hi all welcome back for the fifth installment of my early rock and roll, Thursday series- I know it’s a little late, I’ve suddenly had to look for a new home, and as such lost a few evenings to flat hunting. Sorry everyone. This week I’m just going to drop a playlist of songs – all preceding Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Most pre-date or are roughly contemporaneous with Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ Rocket 88. I am not trying to answer which was the first rock and roll song – there isn’t one first rock and roll song, just a handful of songs which sound increasingly like something DJ Alan Freed retroactively named rock and roll. I’m just capping off something I was doing, daily – one song at a time – on my personal Facebook page to distract myself during the COVID lockdown. let’s just jump into it.
Edit: Oh, as I started writing this it became apparent the text would need to be in two parts, I’ll publish the 2nd next Thursday.
First up Tomorrow Night (1948) by Lonnie Johnson makes my list, first because I think it is a beautiful song. Second, it was a country blues song written by a couple of Tin Pan Alley writers who normally catered for the likes of Bing Crosby. It topped the R&B charts and made it as far as #19 on the pop charts. Several rock and rollers would do their own covers of the song, including Elvis Presley, last week’s star LaVern Baker, Episode 1’s star Big Joe Turner…. And in 1992 Bob Dylan. Johnson delivers both vocally in his plaintive, almost country-esque vocal, and exquisite guitar work, while a piano and bass pad the track out – way in the background. Johnson had been a recording artist since the early 1920s, and counted among his early fans Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Robert Johnson.
Strange Things Happening Every Day (1945) by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Sam Price Trio on the other hand is an old African American spiritual, rocked up. When listening to Sister Rosetta on an electric guitar, backed by Lucky Millinder’s orchestra circa 1944 there’s no doubt she helped build rock and roll. Check out This Train, or Rock Me, or Rock Daniel and you soon get the idea. In Strange things she is on a dobro, and a little bit more laid back – but I believe it still counts as proto rock – just check out that guitar solo. Tharpe was a guitar virtuoso, Gospel singer who made a name for herself playing at the Cotton Club in 1938. She was on the bill at the Spirituals to Swing concert mentioned in the first rock and roll episode. As a heavily religious Pentecostal church member, a bisexual woman who lived most of her life with her partner Marie Knight, and a true originator of ‘the devil’s music’ there is so much to unpack with Sister Rosetta – more than a paragraph could do justice to.
I don’t know near enough about Hillbilly Boogie – I’m going to tackle two of them at once. Growing up I was told rock and roll was born when R&B met country. This is not exactly correct, country had little to do with rock and roll. Western Swing (typified by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, none of his songs in this list) and Hillbilly Boogie had much more to do with rock and roll. True country music had no drums, none of that walking bass line we associate with rock and roll. It was far more genteel. Guitar Boogie (1945) by Arthur Smith and his Crackerjacks, and Hot Rod Race (1950) by Arkie Shibley and his Mountain Dew Boys, are two examples of the Hillbilly Boogie that would influence the rockabilly players especially. Smith’s instrumental went to #25 in the pop charts… though this would happen on a later 1948 re-release which came about because James Petrillo’s 1948 musicians’ strike, which had record labels looking through their catalogues for anything in lieu of new material. Hot Rod Race makes the list for it’s subject matter, which influenced Chuck Berry’s writing on his first single Maybelline. Maybelline, incidentally also had Wills’ Ida Red all over it, the verses sound very similar.
Choo Choo Ch’Boogie (1946) by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five. Rock and roll owed much to the big Swing Orchestras of the pre war era. Their demise was one major stream for rock and roll.
A musicians strike from 1942 to 1944 (led by James Petrillo, see the ‘Nature Boy’ entry) , combined with the effects of World War Two on music – namely fuel scarcity made transporting big bands around untenable; band members being drafted to fight (not to mention maybe half their audiences)… as well as a sudden scarcity of shellac to make the records with – Shellac is a byproduct from a beetle found only in Vietnam and parts of India – led to the disintegration of the big band, in favor of smaller units who often played heavier to make up for their smaller size. Louis Jordan was well ahead of the pack. A featured vocalist and saxophonist for one of the greatest big bands ever – Chick Webb’s orchestra – Jordan had tried and failed to execute a coup de tat on Mr Webb. Webb, the drummer and band leader fired Jordan in 1939. Necessity being the mother of invention, Jordan formed a smaller group unlike anything else at the time. Much of his music has a rock and roll leaning to it, even if a lot of it relies heavily on a swing beat rather than the backbeat. When you listen to his ‘Caldonia’ you can’t help but think of singers like Little Richard. As tempting as it is to claim rock and roll was all about guitars so many of the early groups were driven by the horns and a boogie woogie piano – following the formula set down by Louis Jordan.
One Mint Julep (1951) by The Clovers. I don’t know anywhere near enough about this group, but I love this song. Vocal R&B groups play a big role in early rock and roll, especially in what came to be known as doo wop. The first vocal groups sounded like the Ink Spots, and the various ‘bird groups’ they inspired (the Ravens, The Orioles, The Wrens…). Generally they were of a certain mold – a high tenor, a bass singer who often parroted the tenors first verse but in a much lower voice, a couple of others singing oohs and ahhs behind them. The Clovers wanted to be the Ink Spots, but Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegan had bigger plans for them – a newer, less maudlin sound based on Billy Ward and the Dominoes. There is an urban legend The Clovers rebelled against Ertegan’s demands for more of that newfangled vocal music by wasting his studio time recording an a-Capella parody of the jazz standard ‘Darktown Strutters Ball’ called ‘Rotten C**ks**kers Ball’ – which a disappointed Ertegan buried. The song surfaced in the 80s – although it turns out it was the kind of thing often made for music industry insiders ears only… limited run Christmas gifts.
This song however is a good example of a vocal group moving towards a rock and roll sound, sax solo and all…. And an early drinking song.
Rock the Joint (1949) by Jimmy Preston and his Prestonians is the kind of song most of us probably think of when looking for a first rock and roll song. It’s got that walking bassline we all know. It’s got a backbeat. There is the honking saxophone first popularized by Illinois Jacquet in the early 1940s. It has a big gang vocal chanting ‘we’re gonna rock, we’re gonna rock this joint” – Alan Freed may have coined it rock and roll, but there were a slew of songs, well before his time, to sing of rocking (Tiny Grimes’ Rock the House, Wynonie Harris’ Good Rockin’ Tonight, Wild Bill Moore’s We’re Gonna Rock three examples). This is the song that convinced former Indiana state yodeling champion and then country singer Bill Haley he needed to try this new thing the kids were doing. To my ear several tracks from around 1948-49 are undeniably rock and roll – but where I think 70s rock critics fixed on Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88 is that rock music to them was only something you played on guitar. I disagree.
Good Rockin’ Tonight (1947) by Wynonie Harris. One of the songs put forwards when arguing for a first rock and roll song. Wynonie Harris was a blues shouter who had come to prominence in 1944, after he joined Lucky Millinder’s orchestra – one of the swing era big bands who were managing to stay relevant in a more jump blues and boogie inflected 1940s. Millinder’s band had a decent sized hit in 1944 with ‘Who put the whiskey in the well?’ – a jump blues piece with a boogie bassline and strong backbeat, which still ends up sounding a million miles away from rock and roll to my ears. Feeling aggrieved band leader Millinder (who did not play an instrument himself) got the credit for the disc, Harris struck out on his own. Wynonie Harris, mercurial as he was, has always seemed a bit of an ass to me. On the upside you’d hear he was electrifying on stage, gyrating his hips a decade before anyone had heard of Elvis. On the downside, the man owned two Cadillacs, employing two chauffers. At the end of the night he would decide which driver would take him home – and which driver had been sitting outside all night for naught. Yeah I’m sure both got paid, but I can’t be the only one who feels this was a little capricious – especially if one particular chauffer was the perpetual bridesmaid?
In 1947 a fan of Harris, and decent vocalist in his own right named Roy Brown brought Harris a song called Good Rockin’ Tonight. Though it was exactly the kind of song Harris did, he passed – till he heard Brown’s own version on the jukeboxes. When trying to sell the song to another jump blues singer called Cecil Gant, Gant passed too but immediately called his record company head (at 2.30 in the morning) to say ‘hey, you have to listen to this’. Brown was soon in the studio himself, laying down a version of the song. Harris quickly knocked together a cover, adding the ‘O when the saints’ intro, a couple of ‘’hoy, hoy, hoy”s at the end – and, most importantly, a back beat. The back beat is exactly why some say his version, not Roy Brown’s, is the first true rock and roll song.
Ok, I’ll do write ups for the second half next week. Spotify playlist below.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness” – Oscar Wilde.
Hi all, FYI I held off writing this bonus episode till early in the week. While this tale reveals an injustice which happened all too often in the postwar music business, there are elements to this bonus tale I don’t have my head around as much as I would like. For one I don’t feel the most comfortable around the position of written music in the era in question – oh by the way we’re talking about covers today. Written music still made up a sizeable percentage of music sales in the 1940s and 50s. The songwriters often wrote in the hope that multiple artists would pick up their work, and release their own arrangements of it… much more so than a songwriter today, who will often write with a particular artist in mind. In 2020 songs are usually associated with a single artist, and it has been that way for decades. Songs often weren’t in the 40s and 50s. It only seems fair I state this up front.
The other element I feel uncomfortable working around is how, exactly you designate one song a tribute (i.e. Elvis records Lonnie Johnson’s Tomorrow Night), another a rip off (i.e. The Diamonds cover of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers Why Do Fools Fall in Love). I think it is fair to say some covers are better than others. Elvis, for example, covered a lot of songs – and on most of them he brought something new to the table. There was also an authenticity to the work of the King, and a respect for the original artist. I don’t know his work well enough to say for certain he never released a cover within weeks of the original artist – tracks like his cover of The Drifters Such a Night came seven years after the original. Even his cover of Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes came six months after Perkins version. There just seems something very different with releasing a note for note copy within weeks of the original, with the express purpose of stealing its thunder.
Give me Scottish witch trials, Chicago mobsters or Victorian era conmen I feel pretty confident – but this topic takes me a little out of my wheel house is all I’m saying. But now I have said that….
Our tale starts today in Los Angeles, California in late 1948. Albert Patrick, a record executive at a small rhythm and blues label called Supreme Records, bought the rights to produce a song called A Little Bird Told Me. The writer an acclaimed songwriter and arranger named Harvey Brooks. They soon went about producing a catchy ear worm with an R&B piano, handclaps on the backbeat, and the vocal talents of Paula Watson – an African American R&B vocalist and piano player newly arrived from Mobile, Alabama. The song, at first, proved a wise investment – it shot up to the top of what was then called the ‘race music’ charts (now the R&B charts). What proved especially pleasing no doubt would have been A Little Bird Told Me also entered the far bigger, and largely white pop music charts. The song was an exceedingly rare case of a black artist on a small, black owned label having a hit song in the white channels – well exceedingly rare until around 1956 in any case. The song rose through the charts till it hit number 14… then it died away just as dramatically.
The song’s trajectory was stalled because Decca records, a large label mostly making safe pop records – largely white music for a largely white audience- had been paying attention. They quickly realized if they made a sound-alike version – copied the formula, the jaunty R&B piano, hand claps, the backing vocals – and put an attractive young white woman out front – they would have a huge hit on their hands. They may not capture the fire of the original; the singer may not be as good as Ms Watson – but they had the bigger label, far more connections, and a society more willing to buy music from the white artist. Evelyn Knight’s cover, released within weeks of Paula Watson’s went to #1 with a bullet, staying on the charts for 21 weeks. It killed the momentum of the original.
Supreme records took out a lawsuit against Decca. While they could not claim copyright of the song, they felt comfortable they could claim rights to the arrangement of the song. When the case went to trial in 1950 the courts sided with Decca – you cannot copyright an arrangement. This was bad news for Supreme records, who were broke at the time, and soon after shut their doors. It was not the worst of news for Paula Watson, who had, in the interlude signed up with Decca herself – but it was awful news for a number of early rock and roll groups and singers, who may have broken bigger, and sooner – had some judge not set a precedent which allowed major labels to relegate their work to the trash heap with their inferior, but far more privileged cover versions. The examples are numerous, but let’s discuss a few.
The Chords ‘Sh-Boom’ is an often cited example, not least of all because the early Doo Wop song was on track to become the first rock and roll song to hit #1 on the pop charts. Sh-Boom (some of you may know it as ‘Life Could Be a Dream’, but Sh-Boom is it’s real name) was written by the members of the black, Bronx based group themselves – and released in 1954. It shot up both the R&B and pop charts – until the Canadian pop group The Crew-Cuts cut an insipid, watered down version of the song. With all their advantages, their cover killed the Chords original just as it hit #9 in the charts. Their cover went to #1, and stayed in the pop charts for 20 weeks. Despite being, by far, the better version – the Chords version would miss out on sync opportunities in movies and television until the 1990s.
The Crew-Cuts were one of a number of white acts preying on black artists. They would go on to make inferior versions of The Penguins ‘Earth Angel’ (mentioned in last week’s bonus episode), and Gene and Eunice’s Ko Ko Mo (I just wish I had the time to talk about this song, dozens of artists covered this song, including Rosemary Clooney’s sister and the actor Andy Griffiths – it was HUGE – it is now forgotten). Of course Pat Boone was another serial offender; ripping off songs by Fats Domino, the Flamingos, Ivory Joe Hunter, Big Joe Turner… and most famously Little Richard. And then of course, there was the LaVern Baker v Georgia Gibbs feud.
LaVern Baker was a popular R&B and early rock and roll singer from a family of blues and gospel singers. She had come to national prominence in 1953 with the torch song Soul on Fire, released on Atlantic records. Her first big hit, however, would be Tweedle Dee, an up-tempo piece with a Latin feel to it. The song is dumb, but Baker’s performance elevates the track to something truly listenable. Tweedle Dee crossed over to the pop charts, reaching #14, to be knocked off the charts by white former big band singer Georgia Gibbs note for note cover of the song. Gibbs version, released by the then much larger label Mercury records, shot to the top of the charts. To add insult to injury Gibbs had hired the same arranger and musicians Baker had used for her version. She had tried to hire her audio engineer, Tom Dowd also, but he demurred. Baker was furious at the gall of Gibbs, more over the lost opportunities – more the airplay and lost exposure, than the lost sales (which she estimated at $15,000 in 1955 dollars). She went all out to ensure no rip-off artist ever did that again.
First, Baker carried out a publicity stunt meant to embarrass Gibbs. After booking a long distance flight, Baker took out a life insurance policy for the journey. Who was listed as the beneficiary on the policy? Georgia Gibbs of course – If the plane went down and LaVern Baker died, Baker let all in sundry know, Gibbs’ career would die a horrible death too. Second, she approached Michigan congressman Charles Diggs Jr, asking congress to look to pass a law banning note for note copies of other peoples’ records. All indications are congress looked into the issue, but decided it was out of their purview to do anything about it. What she did do however, in publicly embarrassing Gibbs and rallying congressmen to the cause, was to make it suddenly very uncool to just steal another artists act like that. Gibbs would go on to record one more dodgy knock off cover – this time Etta James’ answer record The Wallflower (retitled Dance with me Henry) before swearing off stealing R&B artists music. She kept her word for two years. Lavern Baker had another single, Tra La La, which was flying up the charts – so Gibbs copied it note for note. Her version bombed. The listeners were buying Baker’s disc for the B side, a great rock and roll song called Jim Dandy – today’s attached song.
I’ll do another one of these Tales of Rock and Roll next week – probably the final of these for a little while. IF the Batavia series doesn’t capture the imagination as I hoped it would I’ll have a look at running another short Thursday series… Please love Batavia though, you have no idea how many hours I spent on it. See you all next Tuesday for the final episode of Tom Horn. – Simone.
To tell this tale of rock and roll I feel I need to tell another short tale first. Context is everything.
On the 2nd September 1957 a group of nine black students, chosen by the Arkansas branch of the NAACP attempted the radical act of going to school. Their destination, Little Rock Central High School – a formerly all white school established in 1926. Only a few years earlier, on 17th May 1954, the US Supreme Court overturned a ‘separate but equal’ ruling established in 1896 via Brown v Board of Education. The case they overturned, Plessy v Fergusson established even an ‘Octoroon’ (someone with 1/8 African American heritage, 7/8 European) named Homer Plessy could be barred from the white compartments on a train so long as the black compartments were nominally equal. This ruling legitimized a state of apartheid in American life for over half a century. The Brown case established, around schooling, but in the same way as Plessy relating to all aspects of life – separate but equal is never equal, and put a sizeable sector in American society at a huge disadvantage. Some southern states particularly fought bitterly against the ruling, and by 1957 the order to desegregate the schools had yet to be challenged.
How did first day of school go for the Little Rock Nine? Terribly. Eight of the group car pooled in. Elizabeth Eckford, whose parents did not have a phone, missed the memo and walked in by herself. The photo of her walking in all on her lonesome – surrounded by screaming white people is one of many sad indictments of racism among some white Americans in the civil rights era. The nine arrived to find Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had ordered in the National guard to block them from entering.
The incident escalated. Federal justice Ronald Davies began legal proceedings against the Governor. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower stepped in to ensure the nine would go to school. On the 20th September Governor Faubus was legally forced to call the guard off. On the 23rd September the nine tried again. This time they were escorted past 1,000 white protesters by a police guard. When the protesters began rioting, the Little Rock Nine were led away from the school. On the 24th Eisenhower ordered in 1,200 military from the 101st Airbourne to protect the nine, and on 25th September they finally made it through their first full day at Little Rock Central High. The tale of the schooling of the Little Rock Nine is one of bullying and harassment, though one of the teens stuck in there till graduation day.
Keep this tale in mind as I share with you another tale from Little Rock Arkansas, 6th February 1960. Those brave nine broke new ground, but they hardly cured Little Rock of such malignant racism.
Now… let’s talk about Jesse Belvin. Many of you may not have heard of Mr Belvin – and that is absolutely understandable – cultural amnesia really is the norm and the stars we remember the rare exceptions. It is worth knowing however in 1960 Jesse Belvin was a star on the rise, billed by RCA, his record company as the ‘Black Elvis’. He had several successful years of writing and performance behind him – and had squandered much of it by selling his share for money up front. He had a song which topped the R&B charts with an earlier duo, a songwriting credit on the song with which all other Doo Wop classics are measured, and, in my opinion, the most beautiful lullaby ever written – used by Alan Freed to close his radio show and covered by dozens of artists. His history is labyrinthine, but let’s see if we can run through it in a paragraph or two.
Having started right out of the gates in 1951 with a gig as the vocalist for fellow Jefferson high school alum and legendary saxophonist Cecil ‘Big Jay’ McNeeley’s R&B act Three Dots and a Dash – Belvin saw some early success with ‘All the Wine is Gone’ – an answer record to Stick Mcghee’s ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-dee-O-dee’. The track did respectably in the R&B charts but by 1952 Belvin had gone solo, with the decent but non charting ‘Baby Don’t Go’. Restlessly he abandoned his solo act to form a duo with Marvin Phillips, known as Marvin and Jesse. The two scored a #2 hit on the R&B charts in 1952 with ‘Dream Girl’. It is also at this time that Jesse got together with Gaynel Hodge and Curtis Williams, formerly of the popular R&B vocal group ‘The Hollywood Flames’ and co-wrote the song which would become the archetype for almost all doo wop ballads. He would be drafted into the army before Hodge and Williams were to see any success with the song, under the moniker The Penguins.
The song, Earth Angel, would sell five million copies for the Penguins… twenty million records when you count the slew of cover records of the song – but the Penguins would be cheated of their royalties by their record head Walter ‘Dootsie’ Williams, who refused to pay the group a cent for breach of contract. Jesse Belvin, however would successfully manage to sue Dootsie (Dootsie himself a particularly litigious lawyer by trade) for some share of the royalties on his release from armed service.
Upon his release from the army, Jessie Belvin was a dynamo – constantly developing new musical projects. Writing and performing for whoever would have him – and on occasion waiving his rights to various songs for a quick couple of hundred dollars in pocket now. He would occasionally get together with Marvin Phillips, who was now performing as ‘Marvin and Johnny’ with a rotating roster of Johnnys. He recorded with a group called The Californians, having a minor hit with ‘My Angel’, The Sheiks who charted with ‘So Fine’, The Cliques whose ‘The girl of my dreams’ also charted. The Gassers whose ‘Hum de Dum’ didn’t do a lot – which is a shame. I think the song has so many great hooks – even if it is one in a line of knock offs of Gene and Eunice’s Ko Ko Mo. With the Saxons he charted with ‘Is it true’. He provided backing vocals on The Shields ‘You Cheated’ one of an extremely small number of songs from this era where a song released by a white artist on a major label was stolen by a black group on a small label – and the black group ended up having the bigger hit. My touchstone on all things rock and roll, Andrew Hickey stated in his episode on Jesse Belvin the above list is not even half of what he was involved in from 1954- 58.
Of course Jesse Belvin also had a solo career. As a solo artist he released a diverse, interesting portfolio of songs – but the song he has become best known for was 1956’s Goodnight My Love – a smooth ballad, a lullaby really – which has gone on to be covered by everyone from Paul Anka, to Gloria Estefan, Evanescence’s Amy Lee, to Los Lobos. Harry Connick Jr to Aaron Neville. The song did very respectfully – #7 in the R&B charts – but Goodnight My Love earned it’s place in the great American songbook after the famed DJ Alan Freed made a ritual of using the song to close his radio show. There has been controversy over whether Jesse sold his share of the songwriting credits or not to record producer John Marascalco. Marascalco himself was a talented songwriter who penned a number of classic rock and roll songs, including last week’s bonus episode song (Little Richard’s Rip it Up), but a story persists Belvin sold him the co-write needing just $400 at the time.
It was in the midst of this period that Jesse met his wife Jo Ann. Far more business-minded, Jo Ann Belvin began to focus Jesse on a career path set to bring him greater success – and to finally step up as the star he deserved to be. The new Jesse Belvin was to be a smooth balladeer in the mold of Nat King Cole. He was to focus on one project only and follow through accordingly. The major label RCA jumped at the opportunity to work with Jesse, however saw his path slightly differently. He was the ‘Black Elvis’ he could croon, he could belt out rockers as well as anyone. Besides being extremely talented and charismatic he was the likeable face they needed to break into an untapped market of white teens in – dare I say it – horrendously racist towns like civil rights era Little Rock Arkansas.
And so it was that Jesse Belvin found himself on a tour of the South, alongside Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Marv Johnson – an all black roster, on what would be billed as ‘The first rock and roll show of 1960’.
There is a great deal of speculation about exactly what happened on 6th February 1960 at Little Rock’s Robinson auditorium. What can be said for certain was Little Rock was little changed, if changed at all, in the few years since the Little Rock Nine. There were protests over their arrival, and allegedly death threats made against the performers. The show that night was likely played to the first integrated audience in the town’s history, further enraging the town’s racists. There is an unverified line in this tale, which states the Belvins were increasingly concerned this tour was going to end badly and were ringing Jesse’s mother daily – where normally they would touch base one or twice a month. The show was allegedly stopped twice due to groups of white protesters throwing glass bottles down from the mezzanine and fighting with black concertgoers– though if local police managed such incidents, they failed to keep any records. However bad the show was, at the very least it is fair to say the night was unpleasant, and jarring.
The claim has been made that racist elements in the town tampered with the performers vehicles. This may be true – Jackie Wilson had car trouble which caused him to run late on his way to Austin, Texas after the show. There is no evidence of tampering on the black Cadillac carrying the Belvins, guitarist Kirk Davis and their driver Charles Shackleford – but this is because there is NO evidence preserved from the crash scene, no notes, photos – if a report was ever filed it is long lost to history. A bystander claims the police officer at the scene exclaimed their back wheels had been tampered with. There was a rumour someone may have slashed their tyres. At the end of the day we just don’t know what happened – thanks to, at the very least, lazy or incompetent police work. At most horrendously racist and complicit through their inaction.
What can be said for certain is the Belvins’ black Cadillac, on its way towards towards Hope, Arkansas, collided head on with another vehicle. Jesse and Shackleford were killed instantly, while Kirk Davis was badly injured. Jesse, it appears, had attempted to shield Jo Ann, possibly saving her life in the immediate aftermath. Jo Ann Belvin was taken to hospital, badly injured, but still alive. Not believing Jo Ann had either insurance, or the money to pay for her treatment, hospital staff left her on a gurney -refusing treatment until Jackie Wilson arrived. Wilson convinced the staff he could cover the costs of treatment, however at this stage Jo Ann had been left for hours to die. Wilson himself had lost precious time getting to Austin due to his own car troubles. When he arrived to find the Belvins had yet to show up, he first called Jesse’s mother, then doubled back till he found out what had happened. Jo Ann would too pass away days later, leaving their two young children orphaned. Within a few weeks of their passing rumours spread throughout the town that tyres had been slashed that night. Those whispers reached a high enough pitch that newspapers got wind of them and reported that the Belvins and Charles Shackleford had in fact been murdered. Was there a thorough police investigation into the scuttlebutt? As if you even had to ask… of course there wasn’t.
Jesse Belvin is by far my favorite member of the 27 club, and it breaks my heart that I can make that statement about him.