A conversation with Michael Olajide, Jr. on Ali, Horus and fitness

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I was very lucky to meet Muhammad Ali on several occasions, talk to him on the phone, write about him at length. I was also very lucky to be great friends with his best friend and photographer Howard Bingham, and it was through Howard that I met Angelo Dundee and Michael Olajide, Jr., at a VIP screening of Will Smith’s 2001 biopic “Ali” at New York’s Ziegfeld theater. Indeed, I was so friendly with Ali’s assistant at the time that I called her the next day to tell her how great it was, and she put me on hold for a moment, then a soft and familiar voice picked up and said, slowly, “So did you like the movie?” He hadn’t seen it yet, but I assured him it was great.

I was lucky to become great friends, with Michael, too. A former No. 1 ranked middleweight, Michael Olajide, Jr. was born in Liverpool and moved with his family to Vancouver in 1970. Trained by his father Michael Olajide, Sr. and the renowned boxing coaches Hector Rocca (Buddy McGirt, Arturo Gatti) and Dundee (Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard), he turned pro at 18, and became known as “Silk” for his exceptionally smooth footwork, hand speed and head movement. He fought Thomas “Hitman” Hearns for the World Super Middleweight Title in 1990, having held the WBC Intercontinental Middleweight Champion belt in 1987. His professional record was 28 wins and four losses, with 20 wins by knockout.

After retiring in 1991, Michael served as a fight consultant/choreographer for major movies and theatrical productions, including, besides “Ali,” Brian DePalma’s Black Dahlia and Spike Lee’s Subway Stories, Blade to the Heat (starring Kamar Delosreyes at the Shakespeare Public Theater) and Golden Boy (starring Alfonso Ribiero at City Center in New York). He’s also served as private consultant to celebrities including Josh Hartnett, Mark Wahlberg, John Leguizamo and Iman, and has worked with many, many others–Hugh Jackman, 50 Cent, Liv Tyler, Eva Mendes, Mickey Rourke, Jane Krakowski and Dustin Hoffman, to name a few. Most significantly, though, he developed an innovative boxing fitness program at top New York fitness facilities and eventually launched his own gym Aerospace, with former ballet dancer and spa innovator Leila Fazel.

“My father taught me how important conditioning is to being a true champion,” Michael says. “I think that advice has always stayed with me.”

The Aerospace website greeting, meanwhile, sticks with me: “Welcome to the most savage and serene fitness experience on the planet.” The site explains how the “machine-free sports-emulation high performance fitness center” is geared toward uniting body, mind and spirit via the best workout techniques from professional sports, including Michael’s smooth boxing moves combined with conditioning basics like jumping rope, push-ups and lower body lunges in his Aero workout programs Aerobbox, Aerojump, Aerosculpt and Aeroimpact.

“Using the techniques of professional athletes is the best way to perfect every physical and mental attribute–endurance, dexterity, power, speed and focus,” Michael says. “It’s the most efficient, effective and rewarding workout on the planet. We always say, ‘Everyone flies in space.’”

Olaj

One other thing about Michael Olajide: Forget how menacing he looks in this picture from the Aerospace website, lean, mean and muscular, with that weird, metallic eye patch covering his right eye. He’s about the sweetest guy in the world.

I went over to Aerospace in Chelsea a couple weeks ago to sit down with Michael and talk about Ali.

What does Muhammad Ali mean to you?

I grew up in the 1970s–and without my father. It was just my mom and sister and myself, and being in Vancouver, there weren’t many positive black images. One was without a doubt Muhammad Ali. But I also loved the way O.J. Simpson would run! Those were my two go-to guys, though as time went on and I got experience with boxing, Ali was obviously it.

You must have been pretty young.

I would argue in elementary school that Ali was going to kill Joe Frazier, when all the other kids were saying Joe Frazier was going to kill Ali, George Foreman was going to kill Ali. Not having a positive black male influence around, I looked to Ali, who provided me with confidence. My younger sister did not have a positive image, in a completely white, Asian society, and as a [black] child growing up you need somebody to hold on to and hook on to. She didn’t have that, unfortunately, but I found Ali and wanted to be like him growing up.

Did he influence you as a boxer?

I started late, when I was 15-years-old. Most people who start in boxing get in when they’re six, seven, eight, and get introduced with kids’ gloves–and by the time they’re 11, 12 and 13 you get used to punches coming at you. When I started watching Ali intensely–and other fighters as well, and seeing what they did—I learned certain maneuvers and practiced them in the gym and they worked so incredibly well. It was like studying a playbook: This person threw a left hand, and this is how you counter it. This one threw a right hand, this is how you counter. There were so many different ways of watching Ali—how he moved, how he recuperated when he got in trouble. It was like a bible of boxing—an encyclopedia of how to take a fighter apart.

But people always said how Ali wasn’t really a classic boxer.

He was unorthodox. As a heavyweight, with his speed and reflexes, he fought like a lighter-weight fighter in the heavyweight division, and could always get away with a lot of those things like having his hands down. But being a lightweight fighter, I knew those were not things I could do and get away with because you’re fighting guys who are just as fast as you, if not faster.

What else can you say about Ali as a fighter?

He was a very unique beast, as well. His vision was incredible, and he could predict what a guy would throw and play off that. And he had an incredible amateur career: Notice how virtually every single great fighter all had extensive amateur careers. You have to serve your apprenticeship first–the only one who didn’t and got to that level and dominated four or five divisions so incredibly was Roberto Duran.

How else did Ali affect you?

It remains in my life how he used to write poems before he fought, and how I’d see him on TV and he’d be picking at his hair afterwards–and I did the same things: I even had those tassels on my shoes! But it was all about believing in yourself: Someone as creative and independent as he was—it teaches you. At first you do what he does and then you find your own way. You just have to be shown the way.

What about his behavior in the ring?

I didn’t talk to dudes inside the ring—none of his braggadocio. That’s not me. But at the same time I understood why he did it: Instead of intimidating the other guy, he was empowering himself. Sonny Liston was big and intimidating and was a knockout puncher and brought fear in people, and the more you face your fear, the less intimidating that fear becomes–and that’s the thing with Ali. You address it and address it and address it over and over again until you see that fear as so much less than what it is. That’s what Ali did.

And Sonny?

He made Sonny so much less. In the heat of situations in ring, you still have to execute—and he took what Sonny liked to put on people and completely reversed it. It was like, “Why are you not afraid of me?” and in boxing, once you get a person hesitating, it’s over! It’s all about who hits who first and most often. So that’s what I thought Ali was able to do—perfect a style to fight someone like Liston, but there was more to it in that he developed a psychological edge that helped him over and over again throughout his career, though for some people maybe it worked against him! Like Oscar Bonavena, and Frazier, of course—it incensed Joe, and every time he gave a super human performance with Ali that he couldn’t have done otherwise, for they were both extremely skilled heavyweights and gold medal-winning amateurs with the highest skills.

How did you meet Ali?

I made a line of “aero fight icons” t-shirts with symbols describing types of fighters. The symbols were part of the “Aero Boxer In-depth Analysis System”: I used to write for Boxing Illustrated,and when a fight was coming up I’d identify the fighters and categorize them using the zodiac symbols according to the way a fighter fights. I graded their attributes on a scale of one-to-10—agility, dexterity, power, resilience, etc., so that people who weren’t boxers could see why one boxer would win over the other based on the stats and assessing these qualities. People think it’s just two guys in the ring and they scrap and the strongest guy wins, but it’s not necessarily like that—someone could bench more than Ali but still lose.

And the icons?

So I had all these “super aeros” icons, with one weighted above the other: Duran, Hagler, Marciano, the Ali icon. I met with him and his wife Lonnie many years ago in a hotel and he loved the idea of it. But my focus couldn’t stay with it and I didn’t end up marketing it–but I hope to have the opportunity to do so in the future.

How did you end up working on “Ali”?

I trained with Angelo Dundee from 1988 to ’90—and he was great. A lot of trainers don’t understand that when you’re taking a fighter over, it’ not a matter or teaching and remaking him but complementing what he’s already doing—and Angelo knew that. He didn’t say, “Ali, you better keep your hands up and go to the body and double up on the jab!” but complemented on what already existed with him and enhanced what he did so well. You have to know the personal style and make it better—bring out the better of you, and not be a conventional trainer and teach you how to stand, for example, but take what’s there and develop it and enhance your game.

How did Angelo impact you?

I think I was unique in not getting the best out of Angelo! Mentally, my love for the sport just wasn’t there any more. You have to love it, and unfortunately I didn’t have the same fire and drive. I found this out when I fought Troy Darrell on NBC-TV in 1987, who was one of Angelo’s fighters. We were both 23 and 0, and Angelo was saying, “We’re gonna whup this kid!” He was shorter than me and no way he could out-jab me–which was my thing–and he shocked the hell out of me! I beat him, but whenever I jabbed he’d slide at the same time and throw his jab and cut my reach down and connect before me! He was just so smart, and I couldn’t understand it during the fight and my cornerman wasn’t telling me how to adjust!

I gutted that fight out and dropped him a couple times and he came out stronger in the middle rounds, but I carried the fight the last few rounds. But that fight was solely on Angelo’s intelligence because I dropped him twice in the first round, and he told him to stop pulling out of the clinches, and he adjusted and adapted.

You fought the legendary Tommy Hearns in 1990 for the super middleweight title.

I lost a unanimous decision. I knew title fights were 12 rounds and not 15 anymore—which makes it an entirely different fight–and should have taken the fight to him earlier and waited until the seventh round before going toward him. Angelo said, “I don’t want you to stop and engage until I say okay,” then I listened and in the seventh, Hector Rocca said too many rounds were going by, “okay, this is the round, start taking it to him.” But I’m not a Hagler-type fighter and have to find the right time to let go. I can’t wade through punches—I’m not built for that. It’s insane how hard Hearns hit! It felt like concrete.

So I started too late, and Tommy’s an incredible boxer as well as puncher and gets on his toes and decides to box! Sugar Ray Leonard caught him, but that’s about it.

How do you assess your pro career?

One thing remains my undoing as a pro fighter: my lack of an amateur career. When you step in the ring, your instincts are an extremely important part of it. You need to trust your instincts. Sugar Ray, Roberto Duran, Ali–any great fighter you name, they all get advice, and what they need, they take, and what they don’t they cut out. They’re their own rudder–they know the direction they have to go to win. But fighters like me listen to their corner and don’t overrule it. It’s what you learn as an amateur—what you have to do. The kind of stuff that’s only the fighter’s responsibility. You have to be able to take what you need and use it, and push the rest to the side–and that has stayed with me in life. What you need in life you take and don’t put aside because nobody knows your experience like you.

So it was your work with Angelo that led to “Ali”?

I’d done some stuff: I choreographed boxing set to music for Blade to the Heat, a great play based on the fight between Emile Griffith and Benny “the Kid” Paret [Paret, who had allegedly taunted Griffith over his sexuality, died from injuries from the fight], with Paul Calderon in the lead role [based on Paret] and Kamar De Los Reyes [based on Griffith] and George C. Wolfe directing. Angelo heard about me doing that and recommended me to Michael Mann when he was directing Ali. He told him, “I know this kid I think can really help if I’m not here, who can be your eyes and keep everything true to what Ali did and knows what real boxing is all about,” and that’s how I got it. And it was incredible! I got to meet Ali and his daughter Laila and go to Mozambique, and it was just a great, incredible experience. Will Smith was great, and I cast [former champion] James Toney as Joe Frazier–and he was perfect. A lot of other real fighters were used, too, including Charles Shufford, who was a top heavyweight contender at the time, as George Foreman. Michael Mann’s set-ups were very beautiful and special, and to this day Will’s rendition of Ali was special—it showed a different side of Ali, a more serious side.

Who else did you get to meet?

I went to Africa and met Nelson Mandela and had dinner with him! It was such a good time! We talked about how much he loved boxing and Ali–and how he was one of his strengths when he was unjustly incarcerated.

You’ve had Aerospace a long time, now.

Fourteen years in the meatpacking district originally, and three years here in Chelsea. In October we’re opening a gym in L.A. Boxing for fitness wasn’t happening in gyms until I started teaching it in 1991, and now it’s everywhere! It’s fun, social, and very much about believing in yourself and finding yourself and taking your experience. My boxing career was my apprenticeship for my teaching people something fun that can go on forever.

What distinguishes Aerospace?

Our methodology is absolutely considerably different! Our level of expectancy of people is not matched anywhere else: When we train people, I expect them to get in the ring with any boxer or professional boxing trainer and know how to throw a punch, not get hit, do anything a professional boxer can do. That’s the goal, and in giving those skills, they also get all the benefits without all the headaches like detached retinas and other injuries!

I’ve seen other classes and people trying to emulate what we do, but the real love and passion isn’t there, and neither is the knowledge: Take people who haven’t boxed before, teach them head movements, feints, fading back, footwork and things that are all so intricate that there’s no way you can learn everything you need to learn in boxing! Not one fighter knows everything! You can study it forever, and we try to capture that and put it in everyone who comes here.

Speaking of injuries, what’s the story behind your eyepatch?

It’s an Egyptian symbol, the eye of Horus—the falcon-god. It’s so interesting to me on so many levels: From the beginning I was an Oakland Raiders fan, and the Raiders logo has an eyepatch and I used to wear one like it. But I wanted a different design and was always interested in Egyptian art and saw the god Horus: He and his brother Set came into conflict and Set hurt him and took out an eye, but Horus came back and conquered his brother. The story symbolized for me taking a negative and making a positive—using the injury I suffered in my career as a strength instead of a weakness. You never stop! In life you have to adapt, and if you can’t adapt, you die and get wiped out. There was a series of things in my life that I was always having to adapt to, and I became good at adapting!

What about the injury?

Initially it was an eye injury from sparring in the gym. I wasn’t in the mood to box and was having spiritless fights and had moved from Vancouver and wasn’t hungry or paying attention–and he was a hungry kid.

I was going through the motions and he whipped this uppercut out of nowhere and dislodged my eye and I had double vision from then on. I was 20 and 0 and 21-years-old or so, and I couldn’t tell the press or anybody in the media. I had to keep quiet so I wouldn’t have to go back to Vancouver, and the boxing commission wouldn’t let me fight. I was able to get by with double vision, but the eye got weaker and weaker and every fight it got worse. That’s why the Hearns fight was easier, because we both had dominant left hands, and even though he had a really fast right, I could pick it up.

But once I hit the Top 10 and had the injury, it was hard. Everyone’s so great up there at the pinnacle, and there wasn’t a greater time than that, with Sugar Ray Leonard, Hearns, Hagler, Wilfred Benitez, Iran Barkley—I could go on and on. You go through the Top 20 middleweights then and anybody could be champion today—that’s how deep with talent the division was, and it’s never been matched in any era in any division, except maybe welterweight with Leonard, Hearns and Jose Cuevas. So the slightest disadvantage is huge when you get in a fight with those guys and are going for a world title. There’s immense pressure on you, and then you get into the Top Five and you can’t afford a single mistake.

I was 28-4 with 20 knockouts. They say 27-5, but I say 28-4 because I knocked the guy out [Dennis Milton, in 1989] and the ref stopped it, but these guys where we fought upstate [Albany] were connected and it was a non-TV fight for $100,000—-which was unheard of–and the guy ran around and shouldn’t have held his hands up. I dropped him and he was out and the ref waived the fight off and sure enough, they waited and there was a controversial decision, and they decided that because they stopped the fight because the ref thought he heard the bell! It was so crazy it was out of a movie! Randy Gordon, the commissioner, got a visit from the kid’s managers, and [boxing writer] Michael Katz wrote about it, so did Wally Matthews. Randy told Matthews, “I had to give the fight to Dennis.” Matthews said, “Why do that when it was obviously a knockout for Olajide?” Randy said, “His management said if I didn’t give the fight to him, they’d throw me out the fucking window!” Nobody wants to get thrown out of a window!

Any other thoughts about Ali?

I first met Ali in the early ‘80s, in Vegas. Maybe it was a Tyson fight. Me, Dad, my little brother. There was a big crowd commotion following Ali, and beside him was Bundini [Drew Brown Bundini, Ali’s assistant trainer, cornerman and colorful sidekick]. Bundini looks at me and says, “Hey! You’re that kid Olajide, right? I’ve been watching you!” and he goes, “You wanna meet the champ?” You’re kidding me! So Bundini brought me up to Ali’s room, and that’s how I met him.

They say there will never be another boxer like him? I don’t think there will ever be another human being like him! He was so beyond boxing in what he stood for and what he was able to do. And he appealed to so many people for so many reasons. It was his character, not his color—and the ability to not be affected by the superficial, like so many people. That’s unfortunate in our society.

Bessman update!

I’ve noticed an increase in subscribers to this site over the past few weeks–for which I’m greatly thrilled and deeply grateful…and enormously befuddled!

Maybe it’s because examiner.com folded and all my loyal subscribers there wondered if I folded with it. If so, I should state the obvious: Most of the writing here is personal in nature, longer (sometimes way longer!) than the examiner stuff–most of which was probably longer than most people want to read online or off. I’m currently researching setting up another site–with a generic name–in which to write the examiner-type stuff. Until then, I’m doing a bit of it here under the new “News” category heading.

In other words, if you’re a fan of my examiner stuff and not so much a fan of the jimbessman.com stuff, bear with me! I’ll get the new site going soon enough and announce it here, of course. Mainly, I need to come up with a name that hasn’t been taken already, as I have top designers working around the clock–or at least, somewhere within the vicinity of a clock–to get it up.

Also, if you don’t know, I tweet links to everything I write, and will also announce the new site via Twitter. And again, I’m happy anyone comes here, period, for whatever reason!

One other thing: Since the entire examiner.com site is no more, I’ve started reposting a few of the 1,907 pieces I wrote there in six years here, in the new “Bessman Archives” category. If there’s anything you remember that you want to see again by all means let me know.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 15

It’s been five years now, since Nick died. August 22, 2011.

It was while I was flying back from L.A. I knew he was going in the morning, and when I landed in New York, Liz had left a message to come straight to the house. I did, with shorts on, some dumb but clean t-shirt, ball cap, laptop bag and carry-on.

Nick would have loved it.

I recounted this story to J.B. Carmicle over breakfast last week at the Red Flame. He comes to New York from L.A. for a few days every year this time, meeting up with his brother Donnie, who still lives in their Louisville hometown. We talked a bit about Muhammad Ali’s funeral–Ali being right up there with Ashford in personal significance and public greatness.

J.B. hired me at Cash Box when I came to New York in 1982, when he ran the East Coast office. He got us tickets to Ashford & Simpson at Radio City shortly after I started there. The experience was life-changing.

There were four of us altogether, but I don’t remember the other two. I do remember the seats were about two-thirds the way back on the floor, center aisle. I also remember that there might have been four other white people there, it being the High-Rise album and R&B hit single tour, which places it in 1983–ahead of Nick and Val’s pop breakthrough with solid the following year.

Someone had a joint. We smoked it in our seats before the band started and the curtain went up to expose a tall stage prop in the shape of a skyscraper, if not the Empire State Building. The band struck up,and the top half of the building unfolded down into a staircase, much like a small commuter prop plane’s door. There at the top of the stairs, in all their splendor, were Nick and Val. I don’t know if the reefer had anything to do with it, but it had the effect on me of witnessing live one of those Renaissance paintings of the Ascension–no matter that Nick and Val then descended the steps to entertain their worshipful throngs.

Did I say “life-changing”?

At Nick’s funeral, among the many names mentioned in reference and reverence, was Jesus. Nick, the speaker said, was “the black Jesus.” Made me think of the many times Liz Rosenberg and I would sit stoned, if not at his feet, in front of him, seemingly looking up, eyes open wide, mouths agape, hanging on every word he spoke to us upstairs at the Sugar Bar like we were disciples listening to the Sermon on the Mount.

Nick was so deep.

The day after Radio City I called Elliot Hubbard, an Epic Records publicist who was one of the few press contacts I’d made in my short time then in NYC. I was so blown away by A&S that I had to talk to someone. He was close to Liz and said I should call her, since she was such a huge fan of Nick and Val, having worked publicity for them at Warner Bros. Records when they were signed to the label. So I called her cold, having no idea who she was, and when I mentioned Nick and Val we became instant forever best friends, who saw their shows so many times together over the next three decades that when the two-disc A&S compilation The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities came out in 2008, it had an essay by Val in which she thanked us and said we should just do their show for them, since we knew it better than they did–which was not untrue.

As I write this I’m back in L.A., where I saw Nick and Val a couple times, at the Sunset Junction Street Fair. It was always great to see them outside of New York, and see how loved they were away as they were at home.

I’ll still be out here Monday, August 22, when I’ll think back on the five years since Nick’s been gone–though it never really feels that way. In fact, it’s very hard for me to think, speak, or write about Nick in the past tense.

I’m thinking now of a year ago last April, at the funeral of Andre Smith, who had hosted Nick and Val’s Sugar Bar’s legendary Thursday night Open Mic Show for 15 hears. The service was at the Macedonia Baptist Church in Harlem, and was attended by the same close-knit Sugar Bar family that made up so much of Nick’s funeral audience at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Of course I couldn’t help but think about Nick at Andre’s funeral, what with Andre being, next to Nick and Val, the face of the Sugar Bar as its famous Open Mic host. As I walked to the church from the 145th Street A-Train stop I also thought of Val’s Aunt Bea’s funeral, which I didn’t know then was the last time I would ever see Nick. He hadn’t been to the Sugar Bar on Thursday night for probably a couple months at least then, and he entered the room just as the service started and immediately left just as it ended.

So the last time I saw Nick I didn’t even get the chance to say hi. I remember I got a ride back to the Sugar Bar afterward with Val and Tee and Nicole and Asia, and telling Asia that I was mad at her for getting the big
tattoo on her back of her parents before I did.

I thought of all this again as I walked back to the subway after Adre’s service, trying to figure out how to get from the A to the 1, 2, or 3 to 72nd & Broadway and the Sugar Bar–again for a post-funeral celebration. Luckily
I heard my name called out from an RV with an extra seat next to fellow Sugar Bar regular Anita Parker Brown. Shinuh, a singer who plays and works at the Sugar Bar, was in the front, and I didn’t know the driver–but we
all shared exactly the same thought of Nick that we expressed on the drive to the Sugar Bar: That it’s impossible to accept the fact that Nick is gone.

Yes, it’s been five years now. But I still say stuff like, “I’m friends with Nick and Val,” or, “Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar.” Depending on the awareness of whom I’m talking to, maybe, I’ll then add that Nick is no longer living. But I never start out a reference to him or to Nick and Val in any way that recognizes that he’s gone.

It’s like how George Faison, the Tony-winning choreographer who was close to Nick and Val and created their classic dance routines, said to me one Thursday night after Open Mic, shortly after Nick died.

“Who would ever imagine that Nick Ashford could be gone?” George said to me as we walked out of the Sugar Bar, probably in the neighborhood of 2 a.m.

“No one ever could,” I replied. Nor should anyone, now or ever. Like I tweet every August 22, Nick Ashford lives.

A.R. Rahman’s U.N. tribute to M.S. Subbulakshmi

Subbu

It was a tribute to legendary Indian Carnatic vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi, but at the event’s Monday afternoon press conference, at least, the big event was as much a tribute to its equally celebrated performer A.R. Rahman, who appeared in concert at the United Nations General Assembly Hall Monday night in celebration of Subbulakshmi’s birth centenary and India’s 70th Independence Day.

India’s U.N. ambassador Syed Akbaruddin lauded Rahman for fitting it into his extremely busy schedule, itself a tribute, he said, to Rahman’s humility and his reverence for one of India’s greatest music artists. He recounted how Subbulakshmi, who died in 2004, had performed in the General Assembly Hall 50 years ago at the invitation of then U.N. Secretary General U Thant, thus becoming the first Indian to perform there.

Subbulakshmi sang the Sanskrit world peace benediction “Maithreem Bhajatha” and earned a standing ovation. Akbaruddin noted that the peaceful global values expressed in her U.N. repertoire, which he said were atypical at the time, were then carried forward in her ensuing international performances, and remain relevant today.

Hailed as “Queen of Music” by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the “Nightingale of India” by leader/poet Sarojini Naidu, she was also the first Indian musician to receive the Bharat Ratna—the Indian government’s highest civilian honor—as well as the first to win the Ramon Magsaysay Award, which is considered Asia’s Nobel Prize.

But Subbulakshmi’s compassion and philanthropic activities were also extolled at the press conference. Rahman was likewise praised for his own humility, generosity and respect for everybody.

“One of my duties is to come celebrate her,” he said, and he did so that night with a three-hour concert focusing on Subbulakshmi’s music but also including popular Rahman originals from hit Bollywood films like Dil Se and Bombay. He also performed Sufi songs and “Jai Ho,” the big song from his Oscar-winning soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire.

Rahman’s two sisters joined him in performance, along with Bollywood playback singer Javed Ali and students from Rahman’s Sunsine Orchestra, an AR Rahman Foundation organization that teaches eastern and western classical music to underprivileged kids.

Rahman said that Subbulakshmi was the inspiration for the Sunshine Orchestra, calling her “a case study” for aspiring artists seeking to achieve “ultimate icon” stature. At the press conference earlier, he noted that Subbulakshmi, who had performed at the U.N. a year before his birth, was the “God of my culture” growing up in Chennai and listening to her on radio and television.

Rahman
(At the Doubletree Hotel press conference, Aug. 15, from left: Dr. Tarun Sharma, director of Sankara Nethralaya, Chennai; Syed Akbaruddin, A.R. Rahman and Prakesh M. Swamy)

He remembered “looking at the aura” of Subbulakshmi, who was also trained in North Indian Hindustani classical music.

“I grew up with an open mind,” he said, “[with] music all around me. My interests were wider, and as I grew older I started to respect foundation of music north and south–and she comes on the top for that, and is one of the reasons I’m here. I was very, very busy but we wanted this to happen because it was such a great honor for us, all the musicians and India.”

Rahman’s U.N. concert was presented by the Sankara Nethralaya nonprofit opthalmological charity organization based in Chennai–which operates the top eye hospital in India (where over 50 percent of outpatient services and 35 percent of eye surgeries are performed free of charge for the poor)–in conjunction with the Sankara Nethralaya Opthalmic Mission Trust, which is also plannng six September “Voice for Vision” concerts by Carnatic vocalist-composer Sudha Ragunathan (in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Chicago and Washington, D.C.) to raise funds for its activities.

Sankara Nethralaya is also arranging a concert by Carnatic vocalist and Padma Bhushan honoree Sudha Raghunathan at the U.N. on Oct. 2, and a concert with composer Zubin Mehta, sitarist Anoushka Shankar and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Lincoln Center on Nov. 5.

Subbulakshmi was one of the main patrons of the Chennai hospital. According to Dr. S.S. Badrinath, chairman emeritus of Sankara Nethralaya, the celebration of her centenary is meant to perpetuate the memory of “not only one of the greatest musicians India had ever produced but that of a greatest soul who lived a life of philanthropy and goodwill for all humanity.”

Additionally, a photo exhibition documenting the life of Subbulakshmi debuted Monday night at the U.N., and Rahman said that a recording of Monday night’s U.N. performance may be released to raise more money for Sankara Nethralaya.

The Dixie Chicks, Muhammad Ali and Donald Trump

I’m happy to be in L.A. today, but I’d love to be in Nashville tonight when the Dixie Chicks return to the sold-out Bridgestone Arena 13 years after they were unceremoniously–or maybe in fact with great ceremony–blacklisted by country radio following Natalie Maines’ impromptu and instantly infamous comment of March 10,2002.

On that day–as recounted in today’s Tennessean–the DixChix, then one of the biggest acts in the country, period, watched news coverage of the buildup to war with Iraq while preparing to perform a concert in London. Their then current hit “Travelin’ Soldier,” about a young Vietnam soldier who didn’t make it back, was the top entry on the country radio airplay charts, and they didn’t want to have to play with a war on the horizon that they didn’t support.

Maines acknowledged this in introducing the song: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all,” she told the London crowd. “We do not want this war, this violence,” she said, then sealed the group’s fate: “And we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”

In short order “Travelin’ Soldier” was pulled from radio and disappeared from the charts. Stations quit playing the Chicks entirely, some inciting ex-fan gatherings where their records were destroyed. They never had another country radio hit.

“The real tragedy is all the great music we will never hear because their momentum was stopped,” Beverly Keel, chair of the recording industry department at Middle Tennessee State University, said in The Tennesean . “It was the perfect storm of the time and the place and what she said.”

Indeed, the only thing I can liken it to was Muhammad Ali’s historic refusal to be inducted into the Army in 1967, costing him the best three and a-half years of his life as an athlete, not to mention all the money he would have made during them–not to mention cementing his status then in much of the country as a hated, ungrateful traitor. The difference, of course, is that Ali knew going in what it would likely cost him, whereas Maines spoke spontaneously and probably didn’t know what hit her–though it didn’t affect her, either. She and bandmates Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire never once attempted to “walk back” her comments, to use the now popular way of denoting a politician’s softening of a comment that proves intolerably damaging.

Even now during their sold-out 55-city tour they’ve been performing before a large picture of Donald Trump as Satan.

“I get banned for not liking Bush and now Trump can practically put a hit out on Hillary and he’s still all over country radio!” Maines tweeted last week. “Hypocrites!”

Within days of the Chicks’ banishment I was approached by a radio station to discuss the situation, clearly with the understanding that I would follow what we now call “the narrative,” that being that the Chicks were finished. The war had begun, and in the early goings, seemed to be going great from the Texas president’s perspective.

But I refused to go with the script.

I had two points: One, that it was way too early to predict the Chicks’ future based on a war that only started. “Who knows what it will be like in a month or two?” I said, maybe not in those exact words, but that was the gist.

Two, I noted that whether or not they ever again received any country radio support, the Dixie Chicks had already amassed an immense fan base, who likely would not turn en masse against them, and could conceivably continue to buy their records–depending, of course, on quality. Sure enough, their last studio album, Taking the Long Way (2006), sold well over double-platinum and won Grammy Awards including Album of the Year, and for its unapologetic single “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

“Nashville loved these women, Nashville signed these women, and Nashville made these women stars,” author and country music historian Robert K. Oermann told The Tennessean. “It was a shameful chapter that we allowed to happen, and you couldn’t blame the Chicks if they did feel betrayed.”

But you can sure stand up and cheer them tonight at the Bridgestone for returning to Nashville in triumph, outspoken political stances intact.

Madcity 2016—Corky Siegel & Howard Levy, Le Fete de Marquette, Otis Redding, Ben Sidran, sudden death and Bernie Sanders

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I was at the Delta Terminal at LaGuardia early morning July 14 waiting for my nonstop to Milwaukee when I saw that fellow music writer Joe Bosso Facebooked how he loved Grand Funk Railroad growing up, and how he couldn’t understand how the critics hated them.

I laughed out loud.

I had hated them, too, at the beginning, when me and the guys sat around smoking pot, guzzling beers and sniffing glue nonstop to “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home).” But everything changed when they started having hit singles like “Bad Time,” “The Loco-Motion” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Soul.” A million years later I was privileged to write the booklet notes to the box set Thirty Years of Funk: 1969–1999 and become big friends with frontman Mark Farner. Joe, who rightly called GFR “a total kickass band,” had just interviewed Mark, and drew an ambiguous response from the esteemed Ira Robbins-co-founder of the late, great Brit-rock/new wave-oriented mag Trouser Press-who observed that 150 music writers had been invited to meet the band at the beginning at New York’s Gotham Hotel.

“Exactly six journalists showed up,” Ira tallied, then cited the famous block-long billboard in Times Square promoting the Closer to Home album, at a cost of $100,000. He seemed to be suggesting that Grand Funk’s success was due much to marketing; for sure it wasn’t press adulation. Not wishing to cause my usual Facebook firestorm, I merely stated, “I wrote the notes for the box set. Mark is a sweetheart and great as ever,” prompting Ira to kindly reply, “You’re a midwestern partisan, you are!”

“On my way back to Wisco as we speak!” I wrote back, and it was now time to board.

It was my third annual July trip to Wisco, as I call it, to visit my ninetysomething mother in Madison. I didn’t plan anything when I went back two years ago, but I got lucky: My high school buddy Andy Linderman, now the renowned blues harmonica player Westside Andy, had a gig on July 4 at Waupun–a tiny town 50 miles northeast of Madison mostly known for being the site of the state prison–and I tagged along. The annual Celebrate Waupun festival had two stages–the blues stage, that Andy was part of, and of all things, a Cajun music stage, the big name being Feufollet, a Lafayette band I’d first seen there in the late 1990s when they were all kids. They’re young adults now, after personnel changes including the addition of Kelli Jones-Savoy, the hugely talented wife of my dear friend and huge Cajun music talent Joel Savoy from nearby Eunice, The Cajun Prairie Capital.

It turned out that Feufollet was playing one of my old Madcity haunts, the Crystal Corner bar, a few days later, so I got to see them twice while I was in town. But also playing the Cajun stage was of all people, Jim Schwall, guitarist for the Siegel-Schwall Band, one of the main reasons I got into writing about music in the mid’70s in the first place.

I’d first seen Jim at The People’s Fair rock festival in Iola Township some 140 miles north of Madison, which took place in late June of 1970, when Siegel-Schwall played sometime between 1 and 5 a.m. Saturday morning, the second day of the weekend festival. As I’ve written here elsewhere*, it was life-changing. I think Andy was at the fest, but I know he’d originally turned me on to them and I instantly became a devotee, turning everyone I knew onto the band and seeing them again scores of times throughout the next decade. I wrote about them extensively when I began writing about music, and continued after moving to New York in the early ’80s, eventually positioning myself to oversea the CD reissue of their entire Vanguard catalog.

Jim’s Siegel-Schwall partner Corky Siegel became one of my closest friends, but I never knew Jim that well. After moving to New York he moved to Madison, so I missed out on getting to know him better there. So I was thrilled to get to see him and hang out a bit during the day at Waupun, where he was playing bass in Madison’s Cajun Strangers.

“There’s a theory that there are 35 blues bands in Madison, and 28 blues musicians!” Jim told me, by way of explaining how and why he and so many other Madcity blues players end up playing regularly or sporadically in so many local blues bands. I can’t remember what band Andy was playing with, but I know it wasn’t his, and that like Jim, he played in a number of local blues bands as well.

I was smarter last year in planning my trip, but that’s because I knew well in advance Elvis Costello was playing in Madison with The Imposters–their own gig during a couple days off from their tour opening for Steely Dan. I wrote about the show—and it’s significance to me and my career—here last year*; another high point of last year’s trip was getting to hang out again with Jim, at the Atwood (Avenue) Fest.

This year I was hoping maybe Jimmy Liban was playing somewhere. Jim Liban, another great blues harmonica legend, from my hometown Milwaukee.

Of all the artists—and they probably number in the hundreds if not thousands—whom I saw and loved and supported in my writing career who deserved and didn’t get the widespread mainstream recongition they deserved, none ranks higher in my estimation than Jimmy Liban. Luckily, he put out a record a couple years ago, I Say What I Mean, and I made it my Album of the Year in examiner.com. He hadn’t had a record out in God knows how long, and wouldn’t have had not a young (relatively) guitar player named Joel Paterson, who had played with Jimmy when he was cutting his own musical teeth in Madison, decided, now that he was well established in Chicago and had started his own indie label, to put out an album of Liban originals.

I Say What I Mean did get Jimmy a gig in Europe, and also took him to Memphis for the Blues Music Awards. But remember: This is the blues, so there wasn’t much else. When I called him a few weeks before booking my trip, he told me that he was in the middle of a one-year hiatus from playing—though he had promised a friend that he’d play his wedding, and was honoring that commitment. When the year was up he’d decide if he’d want to play again, but for now, it just wasn’t any fun any more, essentially playing the same Milwaukee haunts for the same Milwaukee people. I shared his frustration, and added it to my own.

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That left Corky. I went to his website and sure enough, he had a gig on July 16 in Fort Atkinson, a 45-minute or so drive from Madison, at Cafe Carpe. I booked the trip, flying to Milwaukee and taking the Badger Bus to Madison. That first night, it turned out, was the start of the four-day Le Fete de Marquette festival, in of all places, Madison’s Central Park. I didn’t even know we had a Central Park in Madison, and that it was a walk from where I used to live on South Hancock Street a few blocks back of the State Capitol. I went there with my old pal Jeff Laramie, owner of the booking agency SRO Artists, who used to be second in command at Mountain Railroad Records, home of artists including Jim Post, Steve Young, a pre-Timbuk3 Pat MacDonald and Spooner–which was fronted by Doug Erikson, later to become Duke Erikson of Garbage, and had on drums Butch Vig, also of future Garbage and Nirvana production fame.

It being Madison, I smoked some pot, followed Jeff and wife Terri around and was blown away by the music (like the festival name suggests, it focused on French-related music), and the one artist I remember seeing is Cyril Neville. I only wish I remembered the conversations I had with Jeff and Terri because I know I had at least five ideas for great stories/commentaries, and I was too high to take down any notes, none of which likely would have made sense had I done so. I at least remember one thing that I think Jeff said, that echoed my thoughts on pre-Democratic Convention Bernie Sanders.

I of course supported Bernie’s positions, but I didn’t support Bernie. He lost me from the beginning on vocabulary ,three words in particular—the first being revolution. I don’t care what he meant, revolution connotes violence. If it doesn’t scare a lot of people to death outright, it puts them way the fuck off.

Bernie’s second bad word was obvious—socialism. Again, even though I doubt most people can correctly defin it, socialism scares people and puts them off, especially since it still widely and wrongly connotes communism. Maybe America is ready to elect a socialist, not to mention a Jewish socialist. I just didn’t want to bet the Constitution on it.

The third word was establishment. Bernie kept railing against the establishment, much as I did when I was a teen high school radical in the late ‘60s. Except this ain’t the late ‘60s, and now I’m the establishment—and I’m not ashamed of it. I always love President Obama’s line from the 2008 campaign, “We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for!” And I’m proud of who I was in the ‘60s in Madison, when there was an awful war going on and a Selective Service draft and a generation gap, and to suggest, like the Bernie or Bust people, that now Obama and Hillary Clinton and I are essentially the same as Nixon, well, I’ll have none of it.

And now I’ll add a fourth word, one that has to do with what Jeff or I did or didn’t say: rigged. Yeah, Bernie, like Trump, riled up his followers by claiming that the “system” is rigged, when he was losing a good fight fair and square. Here he only reinforced a main paranoid tenet of American culture since the JFK assassination, that everything that happens that’s bad is a conspiracy, then, with Trump, helped extend it by giving his followers free reign to believe that winners are corrupt and therefore win unfairly, hence their victories are illegitimate. This breeds cynicism, incivility, unwillingness to compromise, a belief that if you don’t get everything you want, nothing is preferable.

Now by no means an I saying that Hillary is spotless, or that I like her, though it turns out that I do, very much–having in fact hated her eight years ago when she ran against Obama, having been a Clinton hater long before then. But she earned my respect and eventual admiration for sucking it up after losing, campaigning for Obama, serving as his Secretary of State and now winning the nomination fairly and handily as the candidate far and away most supportive of the President–which Bernie was to a lesser extent, his chief supporters to a far lesser one. Again, I support Bernie’s positions, which are closer to mine than Hillary’s, and I recognize her weaknesses and shortcomings as a candidate–but in relation to Trump, they’re virtually nonexistent, and the differences between her and Bernie are likewise truly miniscule. All this said, I do hereby salute Bernie for doing the right thing at and since the convention, and am relieved that the bulk of his followers do appear to have similarly sucked it up.

I just wish I could remember the other stuff we talked about, but that old Madison Green—not to mention a new addition in the Madtown Mule—a beer infused with lime and ginger made by Capital Brewery, that I drank an entire mule team of—-made me forget everything except the sight of people as old as me who still lived in Madison and still went out to hear music, and that it was such a great setting in a park in the middle of the near East Side with the majestic State Capitol building visible in the sunset, the Capitol that you can see from miles away as you near Madison on the Badger Bus, that I used to walk through on my way to State Street and the University-area music clubs when I lived there and wrote for The Madcity Music Sheet and was a stringer for Variety before moving to New York.

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I do remember one other thing, part of the Bernie discussion, that I myself came up with and gave to a girl that we were talking to, a friend of Jeff’s, that I know she never acted on, that I should have—a t-shirt slogan: “Vote conscientiously–not your conscience.” If anyone who reads this is so inclined to print up and sell some shirts, honor compels you to cut me in.

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I returned to the festival the next night to meet up with Rockin’ John McDonald, my friend of over 40 years—as long as he’s had his beloved I Like It Like That oldies radio show every Saturday night on Madison’s listener-sponsored WORT-FM. I thought I was cool wearing my orange New York Public Library t-shirt, but RJ topped it with his vintage blue Dr. Bop and the Headliners entry. That day, by the way, I returned for the first time since leaving my third job with the State of Wisconsin in either 1978 or ‘79 to the old State Office Building on 1 West Wilson, overlooking Lake Monona, where I worked two blocks south of the Capitol.

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I needed a birth certificate, as I was suddenly thinking of fleeing to India and didn’t have a passport. I walked into the building and thought I’d stepped into The Twilight Zone: Not everything was the same—there was a security station in the lobby that wasn’t there in the ‘70s. It all looked brighter outside, too. But the institutional flooring and hallways were the same, and it was a step back in time that I recently depicted here.

I can’t remember, but I think my office was on the second floor; I think my second job with the State, a file clerk at the Division of Corrections, was on seventh floor, and the first, where I was a reader/typist for a blind man at the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, was also on an upper floor.

The clerk at the Bureau of Records, of course, was my age 40 years ago, modified in the passage of time and mores by arms full of tattoos. When I was done I walked out and got to the lobby and stopped, giving in to the stupid impulse to go back and tell her that I used to work in the building 40 years ago. She feigned interest.

Since I worked there, and long after I left Madison, they built a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed convention center, the Monona Terrace, behind the State Office Building, on the Monona shore. They put in a plaque on the terrace in memory of Otis Redding, who died when his plane crashed into Lake Monona on Dec. 10, 1967. I was with my friend Beth, whose husband Tim Onosko, the renowned futurist/author, was one of my dearest friends and supporters, an older brother/mentor. Tim died of cancer a few years ago. Pancreatic. I thought he’d beaten it and will never forgive myself for not knowing he hadn’t, though Beth assures me it was okay, he didn’t want anyone to know. Except I should have known and it wasn’t okay.

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We went out on to the terrace, and I sat on one of the benches surrounding the Redding plaque and looked out onto the quiet, still waters of Lake Monona, silently wondering what might have been. What might have been had Otis lived, and Tim. Had I stayed in the Madcity.

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Saturday mid-afternoon I took my mother’s car and drove to Fort Atkinson with my 21-year-old niece Ariela to see Corky and Howard at Cafe Carpe. We got there while they were doing soundcheck. I hadn’t seen Corky since he was in New York four years ago to play Lincoln Center Out of Doors with Dr. L. Subramaniam. I don’t remember the last time I saw Howard, but it was probably at one of his gigs at the Association of performing Arts Presenters (APAP) some 10 years ago, maybe.

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Corky and Howard play together a lot, but this was the first time I’d see them—and I was bringing along my niece Ariela, 21, who’s a classical piano student at New York’s Mannes School of Music, who was also in Madison visiting her mom (my sister). After greeting Corky, his wife/manager Holly and Howard, Corky echoed my excitement over her getting to see Howard (as well as Corky), who does things on a 10-hole diatonic harmonica—i.e., play it chromatically by conceiving an “overblowing” technique–that no one else knows how to do, let alone articulate. You really don’t need to be a musician, let alone understand music, to know when you hear Howard play that he’s doing something that sounds great, but makes absolutely no sense technically speaking.

Howard tried to put it in piano terms for Ariela–but even that was ridiculous.

“I make my mouth do the stuff my fingers would do,” he said. I doubt she understood him. I certainly didn’t.

“I’m not really thinking about this,” he added, speaking, I supposed, of his harmonica. “I visualize the piano.”

He might just as well have been speaking in tongues.

It was at Café Carpe, a wonderful little café/bar/listening room—-maybe 50 seats–in a century-old brick building on the Rock River with a screened porch overlooking the water, owned and operated by regionally renowned folkie Bill Camplin and Kitty Welch. Holly raved about the pumpkin pie; the carrot cake was definitely the best I ever had.

On the wall of the music room was a bumper sticker that read, “I may be old but that’s okay…I got to see all the great bands.”

Bill introduced the show with a Hitchcock like “Good evening,” then asked how many in the SRO room were musicians. At least half raised their hands. I can’t imagine any of them understood what was going on with Howard, either, other than it was, using Bill’s words, “absolute magic.”

Comedic, too. Corky walked to the stage from the back while playing harp, Howard doing same a few paces back in a goofy processional. On stage they tried to out-footstomp each other while Corky played and sang Little Walter’s classic blues “Mellow Down Easy,” leading into a blues harmonica battle between the two.

They went on to trade solo pieces, both on piano and harmonica and sometimes both. At one point Corky laughed out loud at a Howard harmonica solo, which was entirely appropriate considering he was essentially defying all science, such that all one could do was laugh out loud. Howard said that the harmonica is the only instrument that you can pick up upside-down when you’re drunk and not know it. That sort of made sense, but really, it was like listening to Albert Einstein’s feeble attempt at relating with the village idiots.

Then Howard did a Beatles medley including “In My Life” and “Michelle,” his chording so complex that melodies were sometimes barely decipherable, as if he were somehow blowing into a kaleidoscope. “America the Beautiful,” with harp in right hand and left playing piano, segued into “This Land is Your Land,” then he shifted to both hands playing piano and Corky returning, playing harmonica before they sat together at the piano bench duetting—or more accurately, practically crawling over each other while changing hand position, Corky’s at first in between the taller, lankier Howard as he wrapped around him from behind, then the two with their hands alternating before Corky picked up a harmonica, then Howard did the same, each now playing harmonicas with one hand, piano with the other, in left-right-right-left hand mirror image. They also handed off solos on harp and piano and back and forth to where it became dizzying to follow the dazzle.

But that wasn’t all: Howard also played a bass harmonica, penny whistle and on an encore, an angklung set of tuned shakers. But when he doubled the melody on harp and piano simultaneously, well, mouths were agape, and at least in my case, still is. He and Corky walked off together to Siegel-Schwall’s “Hey, Billie Jean,” each finishing the other’s phrases.

The first half of the trip now done, the rest would focus on the few friends in Madison I have left who are still alive, our conversations invariably concerning our respective cancer treatments, except that in Robin’s case he added a new wrinkle to the medical history in having dropped dead at the Minneapolis airport a few months ago—luckily within short distance from a defibrillator. Of course I asked the expected question, i.e., Did you see anything on the other side? Rob’s answer, of course, was no.

Tom, whom I worked with at the State Office Building (same with Rob), seemed to be coming along great after intensive treatment for throat cancer. He was skeletal two years ago, and now he’s playing soccer and drumming in a band.

I had lunch with Chuck Toler, who was partners with Ken Adamany back when I first started writing. The money they made managing Dr. Bop & the Headliners went into developing Cheap Trick. We called Ken, who sounded great. Ken owned The Factory, the nightclub Otis was going to play the day his plane went down in Lake Monona.

Next day was my last—Tuesday, July 19–and I’d end it with some old-time club hopping starting at Otto’s Restaurant & Bar, near my mom’s, where Westside Andy and the Glenn Davis Duo are playing every Tuesday evening during the summer outside on the deck/patio at 5:30 p.m. I’d checked Andy’s schedule before flying out and saw that he was playing every night I was there, all out of town gigs except for this one. He recognized me immediately in his side view mirror when I snuck up on his car after he parked.

It was the second week in a row that an old friend had surprised him, the first being a gal we knew from high school whom he hadn’t seen forever—whom I haven’t seen since—who looked great, who had married the brother of another high school friend, but the husband had died—death being more and more the operative word in these kinds of conversations. Back from a recent Stockholm swing if I heard right–alwasy a 50-50 proposition at best–Andy was still playing with any number of local blues groupings, this one being with Davis, who plays guitar and kick drum and sings. Like Corky and Howard, they turned to Little Walter with “Just Your Fool” while I was there, which was about an hour or so before heading downtown, Andy’s latest album Blues Just Happen in hand, to the Cardinal Bar. I used to hang out there a lot 40 years ago, when it was my corner bar and a straight-friendly gay disco with the best dance music in town.

Tuesday summer early evenings at the Cardinal now are turned over to Ben Sidran’s “Salons for Secular Humanists, Arch Democrats and Free Thinkers,” in which my old friend Ben, Madison’s renowned jazz pianist/author/composer who cut his teeth in The Ardells, a Madison band made up of UW students in 1961 that also included Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs—and Jos Davidson, who would go on to play bass in an early Siegel-Schwall configuration. Ben also played in the Steve Miller Band in the late ‘60s.

He was on break when I got there and ran into Stu Levitan, president of WORT-FM’s board of directors and head of the Madison Landmarks Commission, whom I’d hung out with at the Marquette fest when I met up with Rockin’ John. He told me that Ben was at the front of the bar. Sure enough, Ben was sitting by the window, engrossed in a conversation. So I stood nearby waiting for him to look at me, though I wasn’t sure he’d recognize me, it had been so long since I’d seen him in New York. I know the last time I saw him in Madison was at a Dr. Bop gig, since we both would be called up to sit–and drink–at the ultimate oldies show band’s famous onstage Celebrity Bar.

So I stood there waiting, then noticed a familiar looking woman looking at me like she’d seen a ghost—which would have made sense had she recognized me. Except who’s going to recognize me here now? I thought, and usually people who think they recognize me are soon disappointed when they find out I’m not who they hope I am.

Except that now this woman was smiling broadly and seemed certain it was me, and suddenly it dawned on me that she was right! It was Lynette Margulies, frontwoman pianist/vocalist of jazz-pop group Four Chairs No Waiting back in the day, whom I hadn’t seen since back in the day. I have no idea how she recognized me, but really, I should have recognized her right off.

Lynette immediately interrupted Ben and told him who I was, and he practically fell on the floor. “It’s old home week!” he said when he regained his blance and composure, and sure enough, he’d been locked in conversation with another old Madison journo friend who also lived in New York and was in town visiting. As for Lynette, she remembered when I reviewed Four Chairs when I was stringing with Variety just before splitting for New York—and will never let me off now for not recognizing her right away.

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(Photo: Lynette Margulies)

As for Ben’s second set, it really was fabulous—almost all new music by him and and his guitarist Louka Patenaude, bassist Nick Moran and drummer Todd Hammes. Loved the song “College,” especially the line “that’s the place…where I went wrong”–that is, if I read my notes correctly—always a 50-50 proposition at best.

“Who didn’t go wrong in college?” Ben asked when it was over. “And if you didn’t go wrong in college, you missed a huge opportunity!”

“Too Much, Too Late,” he said, was “in the spirit” of his “guru” Mose Allison, which made me think of how I always look at Corky as my guru, though I should add that Simon Burgess is my actual guro, or teacher, in Filipino martial arts.

“It’s the ‘singles’ show!” Ben joked, “just the hits tonight!”

Again struggling to decipher my notes, I can’t tell if someone asked about Steve Miller, or if Ben brought it up on his own. He did say how everybody asks him about Miller, and observed how Miller’s been playing “the same 12 songs for 40 years,” no doubt because of the big bucks he gets paid to do them.

Here Stu, who later explained that he was just quoting Ben from one of Ben’s books, called out something on the order of how those big bucks also paid for Ben’s graduate education so he should shut his mouth, and for sure, Ben’s stint with Miller included his lyrics to “Space Cowboy.”

“At least write a song!” Ben continued, speaking directly to the absent Miller. “It seems like such a waste.”

At least Ben sure made it seem that way from his end, considering the quality of his new songs. I’d been sitting with Patenaude’s proud mom, and he sat with us for a few minutes after the show.

It’s like learning,” said Patenaude, a youngish cat who’s played with Ben since the mid-2000s. “It’s really loose and fun. He tries something out and sees if we feel it and if it works.”

Ben then told me that he rarely makes it out to Manhattan any more.

“There’s no reason to come to the city any more,” he said, though he does get to Brooklyn, where his son Leo, also an esteemed musician/composer who co-produced the Oscar-winning song “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” for the soundtrack to the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, lives. And while he’s working on a new album—and Stu said that the whole first set was new songs that were also great—Ben said that he realized there was no point to it, at least in terms of today’s record companies, airplay and traditional music business marketing.

But what are you going to do? I asked. You’re a musician, and a musician makes music. I’m a writer, and a writer writes—even though I just lost examiner.com, my main outlet, that barely paid. I still have this site, that I have to pay for. But what am I going to do?

Stu, meanwhile, is working a on a book about Madison in the ‘60s, and I again ask you, Stu, to mention that I was one of the Memorial 101 who were suspended from James Madison Memorial High School for protesting Kent State. Before closing out the night—and trip—down the street at the Essen Haus to catch a little of jazz concertina player Brian Erickson, I walked over to where the cigarette machine used to be next to the front door, where I picked up a copy of The Madcity Music Sheet the night I got back from a week’s vacation in Nashville on Memorial Day in 1977-—my first time there—when I dropoped by the Cardinal to hear folk legends Malvina Reynolds and Rosalie Sorrels. There was a stack of giveaway papers on the cigarette machine and I picked one up and paged through it—then just a single sheet of newsprint folded over twice–saw an ad for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes (with guest Ronnie Spector) appearing in town at the Stone Hearth, and went because I was a huge Ronettes fan and understood where Southside was coming from musically.

I met Gary Sohmers, the Sheet’s publisher at the Southside gig, and not knowing anything about me other than that I’d come to the show after seeing it highlighted in his paper, he asked me to write for it. I told him I flunked out of high school. “It doesn’t matter!” he said. And that’s how my career began—and now, some 40 years later, it still doesn’t matter. The only difference is that there was no cigarette machine now at the Cardinal.

I told Stu and his girlfriend how great this night had been, indeed, the entire trip–in terms of seeing so much fantastic music. She said maybe I should move back to Madison–the perfect setup for one of my favorite Sandra Bernhard lines, Sandy, of course, being from Flint, Michigan.

If you can make it in New York, says Sandy, you’ll be a failure everywhere else.

5/22/2012 Eddie Blazonczyk: An appreciation

[Having reposted by Steve Popovich tribute from now defunct examiner.com, here’s a few Eddie Blazonczyk tributes, also from examiner.com. Eddie B. was a true giant, in every way.]

There was no one like him.

Eddie Blazonczyk. Big, personable, and with a voice so robust and warm it put a smile on your face as your feet started a-hoppin’.

Polka isn’t called “that happy, snappy music,” for nothing, and Eddie Blazonczyk sure made people happy.

“I have pictures of Ryan at 18 months with Eddie,” recalls Dee Dee Ogrodny, who was in Pennsylvania’s Grammy-nominated polka band Henny & the Versa J’s when her son Ryan, then the group’s seven-year-old featured violinist/vocalist, recorded “If I Could Be Like You Polka” with his idol.

“We wrote it in the living room on the floor,” she continues. “Ryan would bounce up and down in his playpen and jumper chair and sing Eddie B. songs!”

“If I could be like you I’d sing this song,” the young Ryan sang, “to make the people happy all day long/‘Cause those who play bring out such joy in me/My one great dream to be like Eddie B.”

Eddie Blazonczyk, known far and wide as Eddie B. and the king of Chicago’s Polish “push” polka style, died yesterday of natural causes. He was 70 and had retired after suffering a stroke in 2001, though his son Eddie Blazonczyk Jr. had kept his band, The Versatones, going until last December.

None other than Jimmy Sturr, who dominated the polka Grammy category, called him an icon.

“Everyone wanted to have a band like Eddie’s,” he told The Chicago Tribune’s arts critic Howard Reich. “But as much as everybody would have liked to have a band like The Versatones, nobody reached that pinnacle. Not only because of the musicianship in his bands, but because he had such a great voice. He was probably the best voice ever in polka music.”

Lenny Gomulka was a long-time member of The Versatones before striking out on his own as leader of the Chicago Push polka band.

“I traveled with Eddie throughout the country back in the day when we did 180 performances per year,” he says. “We co-wrote songs together and spent thousands of hours in the studio inventing new sounds and styles. He was always a perfect gentleman and tremendous talent: With his good nature and wonderful sense of humor, he made the polka world a much better place.”

As Blazonczyk Jr. told The Trib, his father was “a one-man music mogul” since the 1960s. He absorbed the full range of polka bands and styles at taverns and ballrooms on Chicago’s Southwest Side, then became a recording rock ‘n’ roller as Eddie Bell, touring with the likes of Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and Brenda Lee before joining The Versatones in 1962; with his band The Bell-Aires, he had a hit with “The Masked Man (Hi Yo Silver)” and appeared on American Bandstand.

With The Versatones, Blazonczyk perfected the intensely dance-rhythmic Polish “Chicago push” polka style, his classic six-piece band format (bass, drums, accordion, concertina, trumpet, clarinet) blending traditional polka music with rock ‘n’ roll, country-and-western, Cajun and Tex-Mex forms in modernizing the genre. His and his band’s 55-plus albums included the 1986 Grammy-winning Another Polka Celebration; his many other awards incuded a National Heritage Fellowship Award (presented by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1998), and his induction into the International Polka Association Polka Music Hall of Fame.

“Music I, too, love to sing and play,” he sang back to Ogrodny in “If I Could Be Like You,” “and helping you to make the people smile/Is something that makes my job so worthwhile.”

One of his most remarkable concerts had to be a 1998 set at Central Park SummerStage.

“We were asked by an Eddie B. fan to add polka to our already diverse musical roster,” says Bill Bragin, who booked SummerStage then and now oversees Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing and Lincoln Center Out of Doors summer series.

“It took some convincing, because of our preconceptions about the limits of the audience it would appeal to,” Bragin continues. “When the day finally came, sharing a bill with zydeco master Geno Delafose, we were impressed by the broad appeal of Eddie B.’s upbeat, joyous music. My most profound memory is mid-set, when Cleveland International record impresario Steve Popovich pulled a $100 bill out of his wallet and announced, ‘Let’s call a dance contest!’ A young Polish-American man and women fought hard, but only took second place–edged out by a lesbian couple who had taken their first polka lesson earlier that afternoon!”

Blazonczyk & The Versatones were “as avant-garde, subversive and punk rock as anything I’ve ever seen at SummerStage,” Bragin adds. “And [Blazonczyk crowd favorite] ‘The Happy Tappy’ has been in regular rotation in my personal musical collection ever since.”

Blazonczyk was also a music publisher and producer, radio broadcaster and record label owner—and role model for other artists.

“Eddie was such a great inspiration and mentor and friend for me,” says grownup Ryan Ogrodny, who now goes by the easier-to-spell Ryan Joseph in his new role as Alan Jackson’s fiddler. “About a year ago I spent a day in Chicago with Eddie. It was wonderful and something I will always cherish.”

For Grammy-winning polka/rock band Brave Combo, Blazoncyzk’s acceptance “meant everything to us—as far as the polka world is concerned,” says bandleader Carl Finch.

“I remember playing on stage in Chicago at Fitzgerald’s night club in the early 1980s and seeing a group of large men take over all the stools at the bar,” says Finch. “One of them was obviously Eddie and the more we played, the more he smiled and clapped. This was like hitting a grand slam: The polka king of Chicago was giving his approval!”

Blazonczyk invited the band to his store/recording studio/record company headquarters.

“That was one of many visits over the years,” says Finch. “One particular event stands out, though. He booked us to play his annual polka Fourth of July blow-out, Polka Fireworks, at the Seven Springs Resort in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania. Just before we took the stage to perform for a curious packed house–which was 90 percent Polish polka purist–Eddie introduced us, defending our style and asking the audience to welcome us and, basically, open their ears. And that’s just what they did.”

It was a very important moment for the band in being “accepted into the polka fold,” says Finch, “where we’ve been allowed to remain. But beyond all of my personal memories of Eddie Blazonczyk, his contributions to polka music are indisputable: great songs, great arrangements, great production and, of course, his perfect, one-of-a-kind voice. Above all, I am just happy to have had the opportunity to hear Eddie B. do his thing. And, man, it was a powerful thing.”

Indeed, Eddie Blazonczyk (pronounced Blah-ZON-chick) was every inch the “Polka Hero” of one of his most famous songs.

“I always say that he ‘evolutionized’ the music,” Blazonczyk Jr. said, noting how his father had taken polka beyond its traditional style of older-generation songs like “Roll Out The Barrel.” “Before him, polka music carried such a stigma.”

Also in The Tribune’s obit, Sturr likewise observed how people who don’t know about polka music—or know only the stereotypes—look down on it.

“Eddie tried to break that barrier,” Sturr said. “And he did break that barrier, because a lot of people followed that band.”

Perhaps Blazonczyk put it best, himself, via the lyrics of “If I Could Be Like You.”

“It seems to me you got a real good start,” he sang to the young Ryan Ogrodny. “’Cause pleasing people comes right from your heart.”

Singing from the heart–Eddie Blazonczyk’s big heart–is exactly what he did.

[The Examiner wrote liner notes on Cleveland International’s Polkatime: 20 Of The Best from Eddie Blazoncyk & The Versatones CD, and was a judge at the polka dance contest held during The Versatones’ Central Park SummerStage show.]

12/29/2011 Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones: An appreciation

Polka music’s venerable band Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones chose to go out in good company.

“Oprah…retiring. Regis Philbin…retiring,” Chicago’s long-reigning top polka band noted amusingly in announcing its own retirement on its Web site earlier this year. And after Saturday night’s New Year’s Eve show at the Glendora House ballroom in Chicago Ridge, one of America’s most celebrated and beloved polka bands, who certainly deserve to be included alongside the admittedly better-known Winfrey and Philbin, will be no more.

Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones recorded their first album, Polka Parade, in 1963 on the Bel-Aire record label. They were led by Eddie Blazonczyk, Sr., the son of immigrants from the rural Tatra Mountain region of southern Poland, whose parents performed gorale mountaineer music and dance.

As a youngster, Blazonczyk (pronounced blah-ZON-chick) was exposed to some of the most influential polka musicians of the day, including Lil’ Wally, Steve Adamczyk, Eddie Zima, Marion Lush and America’s Polka King Frank Yankovic. Before embracing polka as a performer, he recorded rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll as Eddy Bell with some regional success and toured with the likes of Buddy Holly and Brenda Lee–and performed his hit single “Hi-Yo Silver” on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

When he did go polka, though, he went all the way. He and his Versatones played some 160 dates at polka bastions in the U.S., Canada, France, Austria, Mexico and Poland. A purveyor of the intensely dance-rhythmic Polish “Chicago push” polka style, his classic six-piece band format (bass, drums, accordion, concertina, trumpet, clarinet) blended traditional polka music with rock ‘n’ roll, country-and-western, Cajun and Tex-Mex forms in modernizing polka. Its 55-plus albums included the 1986 Grammy-winning Another Polka Celebration.

Blazonczyk’s many other awards incuded a National Heritage Fellowship Award (presented by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1998), and his induction into the International Polka Association Polka Music Hall of Fame. In 1997, his son Eddie Blazonczyk, Jr. took over the operations of The Versatones, and in 2002, Eddie Blazonczyk, Sr. pretty much retired from the band due to health reasons, with his son carrying on until now.

“I spent countless hours with Eddie, Sr., in the recording studio and on the road,” recalls Lenny Gomulka, a longtime clarinet player with the Versatones before forming his own celebrated polka band, The Chicago Push.

“Eddie was a friend to many of us musicians,” Gomulka continues. “He captured the hearts of friends and fans and always stayed a gentleman. I have too many nice memories to mention and much too many funny stories to tell.”

But Gomulka does want to emphasize “my respect and admiration for Eddie, Sr., as a fellow musician and longtime musical and personal friend. We go back nearly 50 years. Eddie was a driving force on the polka scene, especially when polka music was much more widespread. Congratulations, Junior, for hanging on another 10 years after Senior’s retirement and for keeping the torch lit. Congratulations, God’s blessings and Sto lat [100 years] to the Blazonczyk family. I expect to see The Versatones back in a few years, good Lord willing.”

One of Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones’ most memorable performances had to be their 1998 appearance in New York at Central Park SummerStage. At the time, the late Steve Popovich was releasing Versatones albums on his Cleveland International label.

“He’s got a magical personality that comes through in his music and can attract anybody,” Popovich told Billboard before the event, which he supported with an on-site polka dance contest. Noted Blazonczyk, Jr., “We’re trying to get people past the ‘polka’ stigma, that it’s all just ‘She’s Too Fat For Me’ or ‘Beer Barrel Polka’ when it’s really happy, snappy music that gives you a better life. If we can only get people in the door we can convert them, so we’re very excited about playing Central Park!”

Sure enough, they made a major convert at the park.

“This is real rock ‘n’ roll!” declared the late Dave Nives, a music business veteran in sales, marketing and a&r, and like Popovich, one of the last of the great record men.

[The Examiner wrote liner notes on Cleveland International’s Polkatime: 20 Of The Best from Eddie Blazoncyk & The Versatones CD, and was a judge at the polka dance contest held during The Versatones’ Central Park SummerStage show.]

5/24/2012 Who stole the kishka? The confession of Eddie Blazonczyk

Now it can be told: Eddie Blazonczyk stole a pizza! And maybe the kishka, too.

Actually, “Who Stole The Kishka,” as all polka fans know, is the much-recorded polka standard having to do with the grievous theft of a kishka, or Polish sausage. Written by Blazonczyk’s fellow Polka Hall of Famer Walter Solek (who also had a hit, incidentally, with “Pierogi Polka”), the tune was memorably recorded by polka king Frankie Yankovic in 1963.

The legendary Chicago Polish “push” polka star Blazonczyk, who died Monday, was the chief person of interest in an incident that took place in the 1990s at one of his annual Fourth of July Polka Fireworks weekends at Seven Springs Resort in Champion, Pa.

Wanted posters mounted throughout the hotel ballrooms and hallways asked, “Who stole the kishka?”, with the drawing of a shady suspect that did in fact resemble Blazonczyk, a.k.a. Eddie B., printed beneath the question. There was also an investigative reporter, with a camera crew, interviewing people at the crime scene of what has now long been a cold case.

One of them was Kathy Blazonczyk, Eddie’s daughter, known to polka fans everywhere by her alias, Kathy B.

“Did your father ever steal anything before?” the relentless reporter asked. Clearly buckling under the withering interrogation, Kathy B. softly conceded, “He once stole a pizza.”

Years later, confronted with his own daughter’s incriminating testimony, Eddie B. confessed. Fittingly, it was at a Pulaski Day black-tie dinner at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel ballroom, where Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones were about to play a short set of Polish songs.

Let the record show that Blazonczyk made no attempt to deny his dark secret; indeed, if not relieved to finally make peace with himself, he most certainly was more than amused, as he broke into a hearty belly laugh—and as all Eddie B. fans know, he did have a belly.

They were at a hotel one night, he recounted, and there was an unexpected knock on the door. It was a pizza delivery man with a pizza for another guest.

It remains unknown to this day, but one only hopes that the guest who had ordered the infamous pizza did not go hungry that night.

Presumably, the statute of limitations for the misdeed at the time of Blazonczyk’s confession had long since expired.

[The Examiner wrote liner notes on Cleveland International’s Polkatime: 20 Of The Best from Eddie Blazoncyk & The Versatones CD, and was a judge at the polka dance contest held during The Versatones’ Central Park SummerStage show.]

6/9/2011 Steve Popovich–an appreciation

[This is a piece I originally wrote for examiner.com, now defunct. As I was tweeting about Steve a lot yesterday–and think about him so often–I want this to remain available. We must never forget those who are so important to us, and as Gregg Geller said, “Steve Popovich is not replaceable.”]

BessBlazPop
A screenshot from a YouTube video tribute to the late Eddie Blazonczyk (center), the polka legend for whom Steve (left) released a compilation that I (right) wrote the liner notes for.

There’s nothing better you can say about a man than “he would give you the shirt off his back,” and Steve Popovich, who died in Murfreesboro, Tennessee yesterday at 68, would truly give you the shirt off his back–and you wouldn’t have to ask.

Indeed, there’s at least one Examiner who has a closet full of them.

Of course, they’re big shirts. Popovich’s shirt size was extra large, for he was a big man, obese, to be sure, who made his annual trek to the Duke University “Fat Farm,” as he called it, and over the last few years he did seem to be making some progress in eating healthy and dropping a few pounds. But the years of working hard and eating bad had clearly put a fatal strain on his heart–though as big as his belly was, he had an even bigger heart.

But his big heart let him down in the end, at least it appears so ahead of the determination of official cause of death–and probably in more ways than one. Simply put, as much as he loved his family (the Cleveland native, who never forgot his working-class, ethnic roots, had moved to the Nashville area, where he once held court, to be with his radio producer/artist manager son Steve Popovich Jr. and two grandchildren), he loved all humanity, really, and all music–but not so much the business of music.

Not that he didn’t excel at it. The “widely loved” Popovich, according to Nashville music historian Robert K. Oermann in today’s Musicrow.com, was “one of the most colorful record executives in the history of Music Row.” After helping establishing the likes of Santana, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Mac Davis and Chicago during a stint at CBS Records in the 1960s and ’70s, he became vice president of A&R at Epic Records, where he signed or helped guide the careers of Michael Jackson, The Jacksons, Cheap Trick, The Charlie Daniels Band, Ted Nugent, Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones and Boston.

He also famously ran his own label Cleveland International Records, home of Meat Loaf’s 1977 album debut Bat Out Of Hell, one of the biggest-selling albums ever, said to be at 40 million units sold worldwide. But he became embroiled in years of litigation with Sony, which distributed Cleveland International, over millions of dollars in unpaid royalties and its failure to print the Cleveland International logo on reissues of the album.

Cleveland International’s original artist roster also included Ian Hunter and country music legend Slim Whitman. From 1986 to 1988 Popovich ran Mercury Records in Nashville, where he signed legendary artists including Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, polka king Frank Yankovic, Lynn Anderson, Billy Swan and Johnny Paycheck.

He returned to Cleveland to restart Cleveland Interational in 1995, and released albums representing his typically wide musical interests with titles from Grammy-winning polka acts Brave Combo and Eddie Blazonczyk & The Versatones, as well as a series from country music great David Allan Coe. Popovich himself was rightly inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame in 1997.

But the son of a coal miner in Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, who startedf out in the music industry by unloading trucks at a Columbia Records warehouse in 1962, long expressed frustration with the business as it related to the less mainstream music that he so often championed.

In one of many loving and telling Facebook tributes posted as word of his death spread, fellow Nashville music business veteran Neal Spielberg recalled a late 1980s Country Radio Seminar panel where an audience member complained that the labels weren’t taking chances in Nashville. “Hey, I signed 60-year-old polka singer Frank Yankovic to my country label. Don’t tell me I’m not taking chances!” responded panelist Popovich.

In another post, artist manager Mark Spector called Popovich “a kind and generous man who was a mentor to so many at Columbia in the early ’70s. He had a passion for records that was infectious.” For veteran entertainment producer Chip Rachlin, his death marks “the end of an era”; wrote Gregg Geller, who worked with him at Epic, “Steve Popovich is not replaceable.”

Geller’s comment capped a memorial sent out to a network of Popovich’s business associates, in which he confirmed that his former boss did in fact sleep in his office, that is, if he ever slept at all.

“When you worked for Steve you were on the job 24/7 because he was working 24/7—there was simply too much music and too little time!” noted Geller. “I’ll never forget heading out to his place in Freehold–a two-hour drive–at 4 a.m. only to turn around and head back to the city at 7 a.m., stopping for coffee on the run, his Camaro strewn with half-listened-to cassettes.”

Half-listened-to, Geller explained, “because he just couldn’t wait to get on to the next tape.” And while he could introduce his associates to hip discs like Ian Hunter’s “All The Young Dudes” and a fistful of singles from England’s Stiff label, “if Steve Popovich believed that ‘After The Lovin’’ by Engelbert Humperdinck was a hit record, you had better believe it was a hit record! There were audiences out there in the real world, the world Steve lived in, waiting to be entertained. Our job was to provide for their entertainment.”

Entertainment–and spiritual enrichment. For Steve Popovich, the two went hand-in-hand.

He may not be known to the general public as a music industry giant on the level of the Ahmet’s, the Clive’s, or the Walter’s who were his contemporaries, but Steve Popovich was every bit the great record man they were and so very much more, always his own man–and an uncommon music man of and for the people. All the people.

[The Examiner wrote CD liner notes for several Cleveland International releases.]

Concert Highlights: Dwight Yoakam and Cactus Blossoms at Damrosch Park, 8/7/2016

Yoak
(Photo: Jim Bessman)

I hadn’t seen Dwight Yoakam in concert in a long time, but at his Americanafest NYC show August 7 at Damrosch Park/Lincoln Center Out of Doors, he hadn’t changed much from when I first saw him here in the early 1980s. He looked to have on the same hat, and it’s not impossible he had the same jean jacket, jeans, shirt and guitar.

And he sounded the same, with that trademark hiccup at the end of his traditional country phrasing on classics like “Honky Tonk Man,” “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “Little Sister,” “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music),” “Little Ways,” “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” and Buck Owens’ 1973 hit “Streets of Bakersfield,” which became Dwight’s first country chart-topper in 1988 after he cut it with Buck as a duet.

But as big an influence as Buck was on Dwight, Dwight’s current tour pays tribute to “someone who played Americana before there was the name”: the other Bakersfield great—also now deceased—Merle Haggard.

“I learned a lot about songwriting listening to Merle songs,” Dwight said, noting that this applied to his entire generation of songwriters—and “not just country” ones. Among the Hagg hits he performed were “Silver Wings,” “Mama Tried,” “Swinging Doors,” and “Okie from Muskogee,” which he followed with the other side of “the same coin”: Little Feat’s “Willin’.”

Dwight encored with a couple other tributes to recently departed greats in Glenn Frey (The Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling”) and George Martin (The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” complete with a Beatles bow by Dwight and the band at the end).

Opening band Cactus Blossoms need be noted for an excellent set, kind of a cross between Everly Brothers and cowboy songs. And Dwight, by the way, has a bluegrass album coming out Sept. 23 on Sugar Hill Records, Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars, featuring bluegrass takes on choice compositions from his catalog.

Concert Highlights–Eric Burdon and the Wild New Band of Animals at City Winery, 8/8/2016

I haven’t forgotten the first time I saw Chubby Checker.

It was around 1980 or so, and I was reviewing for Variety when he opened for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison. He had a young rock ‘n’ roll band that was full of energy, and he made Frankie look tired and boring in comparison. After his set I told him about my friends Dr. Bop & the Headliners who were playing at a campus club and sure enough, he went down there and sat in.

I thought of Chubby Monday night at City Winery, when Eric Burdon did the first of his two-night stand there. The last time I saw him he was with a band made up of guys in his age range, that is, middle and older, now that he’s 75. He was great, they were great, but I will note that he sat on a stool a lot of the time. Maybe he had to—but not now: His band now is made up of youngsters and there was no stool in sight. And when he sang “When I Was Young”—which smoothly segued into “Inside Looking Out”—well, he sounded none the worse for 50 years of wear as one of rock’s greatest vocalists.

He opened with his 1970 hit with War, “Spill the Wine,” his bass player Justin Andres laying out a funky bottom from which Burdon modified the lines “When I thought I’d lay myself down to rest/In a big field of tall grass” to a big field of “medical marijuana”—in Mexican accent. Ruben Salinas added a blazing sax answer to “I could feel hot flames of fire roaring at my back,” and on “See See Rider” trombonist Evan Mackey took a lead.

Other Animals classics performed included “Don’t Bring Me Down” (featuring another great sax part), the anthems “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which Eric dedicated to “the spirit” of its originator, “Miss Nina Simone”–then related how he was introduced to her, upon which she said, “You’re the little white motherfucker who took my song and ruined it!”

He sang Lead Belly’s folk standard “In the Pines,” his “Bo Diddley Special” tribute from his latest album ‘Til Your River Runs Dry (opening with a tuneful dirge during which guitarist Johnzo West reverently placed his hat over his heart and Eric and the rest did the same with their hands), and of course, his Animals signature “The House of the Rising Sun,” really hitting those high notes solid.

“Hitting all the notes in all the original keys,” marveled the great guitarist and Conan bandleader Jimmy Vivino in a post-show tweet. “No small feat. Just wonderful to hear that voice and songs again.”

He even threw in “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” the Randy Newman song that he recorded before Three Dog Night hit big with it, and Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” But maybe the night’s big takeaway came in his self-penned 1967 hit “Monterey,” about the legendary California pop festival and in which he invoked the participants Ravi Shankar, The Who, The Dead, Hendrix, Hugh Masakela and Brian Jones. “You want to find the truth in life?” he asked/sang the lyric. “Don’t pass music by…and you know I would not lie!”

And then he shared the wonderful story about how a girl handed him a white rose while Otis Redding was performing, and in keeping with the overall vibe, he ate it.