Archive for the ‘Retirement’ Category
We’re overdue for another edition of Country Catalyst, the Special Feature that offers a classic country song while hoping to open a few ears and make some new fans. As it happens, today’s song is another one with an American Indian theme, sort of like our previous post, but this one has quite a pedigree.
When Cindy Walker wrote “Cherokee Maiden” in 1941, she was still in the early stages of what would be a Hall of Fame career, but she knew it was perfect for Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. It was indeed, and his hit record of the song apparently appealed to listeners who would have at that time needed cheering up while nervously watching the beginnings of World War II.
The song became a familiar one on bandstands — at least for country bands — and as the years passed it surged into renewed hit status a couple of times. The first notable occasion occurred in the mid-1970s when Merle Haggard took it to #1 on the charts, and the second happened in 2001 when Ray Benson and Asleep At The Wheel — Bob Wills’ modern counterpart — won a Grammy with the song.
Since we combined Asleep At The Wheel with Bob Wills on an earlier post for Country Catalyst, let’s give Merle Haggard a shot today. (Video below.)
Bob Wills – “Cherokee Maiden”
Exactly six years ago today we spotlighted J.P. Richardson, better known as the Big Bopper, a DJ and songwriter-turned performer who had the misfortune to go down in the same 1959 plane crash that took the life of Buddy Holly. But just before that, he was instrumental in getting another rock and roller off to a good start, even if he wasn’t around to enjoy it when Johnny Preston took “Running Bear” to the top of the charts.
John Preston Courville was born and raised near the Louisiana border in Port Arthur, Texas, and as someone who was part Cajun it’s not surprising that he was musically inclined. But even though he sang choir in high school, it wasn’t until he was in college in the late 1950s that he found himself in a breakout moment for his musical career. While going to school in Beaumont he’d formed a small band that entertained in area night clubs, and during one of his appearances he was spotted by Richardson, who was looking for someone to record a song he’d written.
The song — “Running Bear” — was a silly take on the old tale of Romeo and Juliet, but with American Indian characters. Richardson arranged for a studio and backup musicians and singers, including himself, veteran Link Davis, and young George Jones, who was even then beginning to build his fame as a country star. Richardson and Preston then took the recording to Mercury Records, and it was issued just about the time Richardson had his fatal plane crash, so he wasn’t around to see it shoot up the charts to #1.
It would be Preston’s biggest hit by far, although he did reach the Top Ten with “Cradle Of Love” and had several other lower charting records before things started slowing down for him. He was relatively inactive for a number of years, but like many others of his era, found some late career success on the oldies circuit and in Branson. He was 71 when he died in 2011.
Johnny Preston – “Cradle Of Love”
Regular visitors to the GMC might remember that I once played the clarinet myself, and that probably contributes to my fondness for spotlighting clarinetists from the past. (The real thing, not hapless amateurs like me.) One of the best was Barney Bigard, whose career began in the 1920s and stretched for a half-century — even though he didn’t begin it as a clarinetist.
Bigard was yet another musically-inclined New Orleans native, a member of a prominent Creole family who studied music with Lorenzo Tio Jr., the legendary clarinetist who also taught Sidney Bechet. But by the time he reached adulthood and began appearing professionally, Bigard was mostly playing tenor sax, and he was very good — good enough to move to Chicago in the 1920s and play alongside some of the best of the early jazz era, including Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton. But within a few years Bigard had landed a job that would be a turning point in his career — playing in Duke Ellington’s band.
For a fifteen year period that ended in 1942 when he tired of the rat race involved with a touring band, Bigard built his reputation with Ellington’s renowned orchestra. Laying aside his sax and mostly playing clarinet, he became a featured part of the band, not only as a soloist but also as a composer and arranger on some of the group’s biggest hits, including “Mood Indigo.”
After leaving Ellington, Bigard found plenty of work with other groups, but in the post-war years he found himself on the road again, this time touring the world with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, an outfit that would find a lot of success for a number of years. Bigard was on board for a lot of that time, although he did take a couple of breaks from the grind to work with others, but by the 1960s he was slowing down. In his later years he remained active, sometimes leading small groups or just working alongside other pros, but was closer to semi-retired. He was 74 when he died in 1980.
Barney Bigard – “Farewell Blues”
Folk music legend Pete Seeger is someone you probably remember, but did you know that one of his musical influences might have been his ‘almost’ nanny? Although Pete was pretty much on his own by then and housekeeper Elizabeth Cotten wasn’t exactly Mary Poppins, she did take care of his younger step-siblings while attending to her other domestic duties, and the whole Seeger family — including Pete — encouraged and embraced her late-life musical career.
Born as Elizabeth Nevills in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1895, her upbringing was typical of the period, and she was working as a domestic by the age of 12. However, she’d also found music by then, first by picking at a banjo and then moving on to her brother’s guitar, which she taught herself to play in an unusual way. She was left-handed, so had to hold the instrument upside-down, which meant she played bass with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. (Most left-handers just re-string the guitar, but her unusual style would later become known as Cotten pickin’.)
By her late teens, Elizabeth had married Frank Cotten and given birth to a daughter, and it was about then that she put music aside and began devoting herself to her family and church. Still working as a domestic, she stayed with her rambling husband for the next couple of decades, relocating at one time or another to New York and Washington, but when her daughter grew up and married, Elizabeth divorced him and went to live with her.
By the 1940s she was working as a housekeeper for the Seeger family, which had a long tradition of musical — and social — activism. (Pete’s father, mother, step-mother, and most of his siblings were involved in both activities throughout their lives.) With their encouragement, Elizabeth again began playing guitar, and even though she’d missed decades of practice she eventually regained her skill. By the late 1950s she was ready to go public, and her groundbreaking album established her as a performer, and as as composer too. One of the cuts was a song she’d written as a girl — “Freight Train” — and it would become a country standard.
Even though she continued with her housekeeping duties for a while, Elizabeth gradually became more comfortable performing in public, and as her fame grew she eventually retired from her previous work and devoted most of her time to entertaining her many fans. She even grew relaxed enough on stage to tell stories of her childhood. A Grammy winner and the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award, she was 92 when she died in 1987.
Elizabeth Cotten – “Freight Train”
Yes folks, it’s time for another edition of Five Star Favs, the GMC Special Feature that has a pretty simple premise: it spotlights one of my tip-top, all time favorites. And a few of those might surprise you. For example, my infatuation with today’s featured song began about thirty years ago when I saw it on MTV, and it’s one that has had its share of controversy. (Although that has nothing to do with my fondness for it.)
With two teenagers in the house, it’s not surprising that our main TV set was often tuned to MTV in the 1980s. It also wouldn’t surprise you to hear that I was usually grumbling about those damned ‘no-talent’ rock and roll musicians, who seemed to me so inferior to those I remembered.
But one day I heard a MTV video starting that featured a pounding beat and a blazing guitar riff, a combination that’s always drawn my interest. What I saw intrigued me even more, because it featured computerized animation, something that was cutting-edge at the time. And finally — even though I’m not a lyrics guy and mostly get into the instrumental part of a song — I realized the blue-collar cartoon characters were poking fun at modern rock musicians. I was in.
When the British group Dire Straits generated “Money For Nothing” in 1985, it attracted a lot of attention for a number of reasons. Not only the song itself, but also that it was something new for the era, obviously designed for the MTV generation (MTV is even in the lyrics), and for its inventive use of computer graphics. It also didn’t hurt that Sting was involved and sang the introduction, but in any case it made a big splash and won a lot of awards, including a Grammy.
However, as time passed it also caused some controversy for its lyrics, which have been called racist, sexist, and homophobic. Defenders of the song point out that it was all in the spirit of satire, so I guess it’s up to the individual listener to make up their own mind. Below is the the full-length album version and below that the original MTV video.
Dire Straits – “Money For Nothing”