This blog is officially "retired," but my other blog,
"The Lair of the Silver Fox," is still open for business!

Thursday, June 10, 2004

RAY CHARLES, 1930-2004, R.I.P.


I have approximately as many 45 rpm records among my personal belongings as I have videotapes -- roughly 2,000 of each -- and while most of those songs are there because they range between good and great, some are there because they're "so bad they're good," and some are there because there's something truly novel about them.

One of those "novelty" records is a scratchy, barely playable, badly-pressed single. The record's label is in the center of the disc (well, sort of) where it belongs, but when the record itself was pressed, it was somehow pressed so that the playing grooves were more than a bit off-center.

The song, appropriately enough, is entitled "Let's Go Get Stoned." It was recorded by Ray Charles.

Ray Charles.

Ray Charles died this morning at the age of 73. The stated age didn't seem right. He often seemed much younger to me, somehow, younger than I myself had ever been, or thought of being. And yet, he seemed older, too, maybe 100 or more, older than recorded music itself, someone who'd "always" been around, like Santa Claus. (Not the worst analogy, really; both have given us all some great gifts over the years... )

I was with a lady friend, eating supper in a local pizza parlor, when I heard the news. We were captive audience to the restaurant's widescreen TV, tuned to CNN. While we ordered our pizza, news about the late President Reagan went on, and on. While we waited for our pizza, news about the late President Reagan went on, and on. And while we ate our pizza, news about the late President Reagan went on, and on... At some point, I explained to my companion that while it's sad that Reagan has died, I wasn't feeling the loss personally, due to varying factors such as his advanced age and my knowledge that he'd had Alzheimer's Disease for years (which precluded the "shock" element), added to the fact that I'd always thought of the man as fairly likable, but no one I'd especially admired.

Suddenly, as the Reagan coverage paused for a commercial break, Wolf Blitzer mentioned something I barely caught about playing something-or-other in tribute to... Ray Charles. "Did Ray Charles die?" I asked.

Yeah. Ray Charles died. Shit. Another celebrity whom I'd loved, admired, respected... He was "always" there. He was one of the few whom I could see performing his music on a TV commercial (for Diet Pepsi, remember?) without screaming "You f**king sell-out!" His was my absolute favorite bit part in "The Blues Brothers."

And once again, this usually wordy writer is grasping for words.

Unlike my off-kilter pressing of "Let's Go Get Stoned," Ray Charles defied labeling. He was -- and yet, somehow, he wasn't -- a blues artist, exactly. He was -- and yet wasn't -- a country artist, either, exactly. He was/wasn't a jazz artist, a pop artist, an R&B artist, a soul artist... Hell, the man was a musician, pure and simple. Yet there was nothing pure and simple about Ray Charles' style itself, except its deceptive appearance. And by "deceptive appearance," I mean that the man was so good, and so natural, that he made it all look and sound as easy as falling off the proverbial log. And maybe it was, for him. There was more life experience behind each syllable that he sang than most of us encounter in a decade.

(By the way, if you're wondering why I keep referring to him as "Ray Charles," it's because 1) I felt that I knew the man just by hearing him perform (better than I could by reading any biography), yet calling him "Ray" would still seem overly familiar and disrespectful, but 2) calling him "Mr. Charles" would seem stuffy and pretentious. Even for me.)

More than twenty-five years ago, the National Lampoon published an article called "Mel Brooks is God." I've been saying "Ray Charles is God" for almost that long, and I was only being somewhat facetious. For if there is a God, and if, as the Bible states, Man was created in His image... Well, at least one of us hairless bipeds has to have been a mighty close avatar to the original model.... and what better choice is there than Ray Charles?

Thanks for your time.


Saturday, January 24, 2004

Jack Paar, 1918-2004, R.I.P.

Another day, another f**king death... This is getting monotonous. These individual listings keep intruding on the time I'm able to devote to writing my RantZ!

One of the worst things about getting old is that the longer you live, the more you'll witness the deaths of friends, relatives, and celebrities whom you admire. And it's especially rough on someone like myself, because I have a historical interest in entertainers. I'm not only familiar with many TV personalities, movie stars, musicians, etc. who were around when I was growing up. I also backtrack and learn about the careers of stars like Jean Harlow, Al Jolson, Wynonie Harris, Billie Holiday, Enrico Caruso, Ernie Kovacs, Fred Allen, Carole Lombard, Eddie Cantor, Buddy Holly, and numerous others who either died before I was born, or died before I was old enough to appreciate them or even to be aware of them!

Jack Paar hosted NBC's Tonight Show for roughly five years (1957-1962). After he left, a guy named Johnny Carson took over, and he did fairly well in Paar's old post, as I recall...

I don't have any clear memories of Paar's late-night reign. Other than the vaguest of reminiscences, I apparently became aware of the world around me -- although with a vengeance! -- in 1962 or so. When I look at Billboard's list of Top 40 songs for 1961, for example, I recall nary a one from back then (and the fact that I now know so many from that era, and before, doesn't count!), but upon perusing their 1962 listing, I remember hearing several at the time of their initial popularity, and can often tell you where or when I was on at least one occasion when I remember hearing them!

I do know that even as a pre-schooler and kindergartner, I would occasionally sit up with one parent or the other and watch Paar's show. (My parents were extremely lenient about waiving offical bedtimes as long as there wasn't school the next day, a non-rule which was happily adhered to throughout my growing up!).

Paar retired from the Tonight Show grind in 1962, and only made sporadic appearances on television after that. But as I aged, I kept in my mind that this was "the guy before Carson," and always had a strange reverence for Jack Paar because of his being predecessor to one of my two favorite comedians. And it certainly didn't hurt when, years later, I discovered that my other favorite comedian, Jack Benny, had given Paar's career a big push during the 1940s. So regardless of some of the negatives I've read about Paar over the years -- for example, in Mickey Rooney's autobiography -- he seems almost blessed by his vague (or not so vague) associations with Carson and Benny.

And that -- in Paar's case, at least -- beats the hell out of whatever Tonight Show memories have long since faded from my mind.

By the way, I am honestly dreading the day when the name of Johnny Carson himself tops one of these tribute columns of mine...

Thanks for your time.

Friday, January 23, 2004

Bob Keeshan, a/k/a "Captain Kangaroo," 1927-2004, R.I.P.

I look back fondly at my own childhood. And although I truly regretted the loss of Fred "Mister Rogers" Rogers almost a year ago (and I'll get to the exact reason why in a moment), I was quite literally shocked by Friday's news that Bob Keeshan, better known as "Captain Kangaroo," had died.

(By the way, when I originally wrote this column, I used his proper name, Robert, in the title. However, it didn't look right, probably because I rarely saw him referred to as "Robert," so I edited the earlier version of this posting. After all, when it comes to celebrities, we might as well go by the names they're best known by, which in many cases aren't even their real names anyway!)

Undoubtedly due to the film "Dead Poets Society," a lot of people who couldn't otherwise give a fig about Walt Whitman are familiar with the "O Captain! my Captain" phrase from the poem called (amazingly enough) "O Captain! My Captain!" I've got to admit, I almost called this entry "O Captain! My Captain!" then realized that it was so flamin' obvious that numerous other tribute articles about Bob Keeshan will use it as -- or reference it in -- their title. So my usual "R.I.P." title will have to do.

Whenever I list a celebrity death on my RantZ page, I'll eschew any sort of lengthy biographical data, assuming that if you need and/or want to know anything... well, you're already on the internet. For right now, I just want to state that I always lament the passing of those who truly believe in what they do. Bob Keeshan, like his friend Fred Rogers, had a quaint but vitally needed sincerity that we don't often see the likes of nowadays.

And the fact that we don't often see such sincerity... ummm... stinks. (I could have said worse, but the Captain's watching me now!)

Thanks for your time.

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