Saturday, 21 January 2012

RIP to Etta James, Johnny Otis, and other early R&R greats

The past week two iconic figures of the early years of R&B and R&R died; a pioneer of the classic beat and the last of the classic Divas;

Etta James w/BB King, Paul Butterfield and Dr. John ~ "Something's got a hold on me" (1970's TV appearance) ;

Etta James was the last of the great Divas of the latter part of the post-war era that included Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Koko Taylor, Big Mama Thorton and Ella Fitzgerald. Big, strong women with big strong vices who sang the blues, gospel and jazz with majestic sorrow and pride that would lead later singers like Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Janis Joplin to take it to the mainstream in the 1960's. Etta was among the bluesiest of the bunch but also versatile enough to cover sweet ballads with string sections and belting blues with equal aplomb.

Born in Los Angeles in 1938, Etta's mother was 14 and her father unknown, although she always suspected it was the famous pool player Minnesota Fats. She began singing in her teens and formed a Doo-Wop group which was discovered by Johnny Otis who renamed them The Peaches which also became her nickname. She recorded her first hit "Dance with me Henry" when she was 15 for Modern Records in 1955 only to see a cover version by white singer Georgia Gibbs become a bigger hit on the white pop charts. In 1960 she moved to Chess Records where she would have her biggest hits including "At last", "Tell Mama" and "I'd rather go blind".

Etta James ~ "I'd rather go blind" (2001);

She had a slew of other hits into the 1970's and was also a major touring artist who won six Grammys until her career was sidetracked for a decade do to drug problems, especially heroin. She would spend much of the late 1970's and 1980's in and out of rehab and sometimes even getting arrested for various drug related offenses. She also had serious health issues as well with diabetes, weight problems and eventually leukemia and Alzheimer's. She would still find the time to occasionally perform including a dramatic version of "At last" on "Dancing with the stars" in 2009. She was portrayed by Beyonce in the 2008 movie "Capitol Records" and was not happy with the portrayal, although it helped to introducer to a new generation. Beyonce would also sing "At last" at the Obama inauguration when Etta was too ill to appear. It was the leukemia that would eventually kill her just mere days before her 74th birthday.

Etta James ~ "At last" performed on "Dancing with the stars" in 2009, her last major appearance;

Johnny Otis ~ (real name Ioannis Alexandres Veliote) 1950's R&B singer/band leader who played piano and drums. As his real name shows he was Greek but with his dark complexion he passed for mulatto and most of his legion of mostly black fans assumed he was. After playing in the 1940's with swing bands led by Harlan Leonard, Wynonie Harris and Charles Brown he formed his own band and wrote the classic hit "Willie and the hand jive" in 1958 which inspired Bo Diddly with it's distinctive beat and was hugely influential. Also had hits with "Harlem Nocturne'" in 1946, and produced and/or co-wrote such records as Big Mama Thorton's original version of "Hound Dog", "Roll With Me, Henry" for Etta James and "Every Beat of My Heart", first recorded by The Royals in the 1952 but later a hit for Gladys Knight. As a band leader and A&R man for King Records Otis discovered singers like Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, Little Willie John, Mel Walker,Little Ester Phillips and the Robins (later the Coasters) sax man Big Jay McNeely. As a session man he backed Johnny Guitar Watson. Otis hosted his own TV show in Los Angeles in the 1950's. His son, Shuggie Otis also had a career as an R&B band leader in the 1960's & 70's. In the 1960's he later also entered politics and ran for California State Assembly as a Democrat and lost then becoming chief of staff to another assemblyman. He was also a church pastor. He died just three weeks after his 90th birthday.

Johnny Otis ~ "Willie and the hand jive";

A episode of "The Johnny Otis Show' from the 1950's w/ Lionel Hampton;

Red Holloway ~ Jazz sax player w/Etta James,Dexter Gordon Willie Dixon, Junior Parker, Lloyd Price, and John Mayall.
In the 1950s he played in the Chicago area with Billie Holiday, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Ben Webster, Jimmy Rushing, Arthur Prysock, Eddie Vinson, Sonny Rollins, Red Rodney, Lester Young, Joe Williams, Redd Foxx, B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Aretha Franklin. During this period, he also toured with Sonny Stitt, Memphis Slim and Lionel Hampton and later the young George Benson. He became a member of the house bands for Chance and Vee Jay Records ~ 84

Billy Strange ~ 1960's composer. Wrote "Limbo Rock" later done by The Champs, Routers, Ventures and Chubby Checker, Arthur Lyman, The Knickerbockers and Chet Atkins and Hank Snow. Also teamed up with Mac Davis and wrote several hit songs for Elvis Presley, including "A Little Less Conversation". He acted as writer,arranger, producer and guitarist for Nancy Sinatra for hits including "Something stupid". Also played as session guitarist for the Beach Boys on the hit "Sloop John B" as well as for Jan & Dean, The Ventures, Willie Nelson, The Everly Brothers, Wanda Jackson, Randy Newman, and Nat King Cole ~ 81

The Beach Boys ~ "Sloop John B");

The Champs ~ "Limbo Rock";

Louisiana Red ~ Blues singer/guitarist from the 1949 when he recorded for Chess Records right up to last year. Also played with John Lee Hooker. Moved to Germany in 1981.

Louisiana Red ~ "Alabama train";

Al Urban ~ 1950's rockabilly singer ("Lookin for money"), later a country songwriter w/ hits for Charlie Rich ~ 76

Al Urban ~ "Lookin' for money";

Larry Butler Nashville pianist and producer died at 69; he (played on "Hello Darlin"), as well as Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn and others. Became a producer for Kenny Rogers, Charlie Rich, Mac Davis, Debbie Boone and John Denver ~ 69

Conway Twitty ~ "Hello Darlin'";

And finally one non-musician who actually made a difference to Canadian music and radio; Pierre Juneau, 89, Canadian broadcasting executive and head of The CRTC and the National Film Board. He didn't sign, play, produce or write a song but he brought in the famous CanCon rules forcing Canadian Radio Stations to actually play some Canadian artists. Before Juneau they didn't have to, and usually played as little Canadian music as possible. After Juneau that changed. This also forced record labels to open branches in Canada and sign Canadian artists instead of their having to go south of the border. It also meant that labels in Canada could have a shot at the airways as well. Right wingers were upset at this "government interference" then and they still are. They complained that Canadians were too mediocre and their records not good enough to play or sell. They hysterically predicted that audiences would tune out if they actually had to listen to Canadian music. That radio stations and record labels would go out of business. The results were immediate and speak for themselves. When Much Music went on the air twenty years later the CanCon regs would also applied to them, but by then it didn't matter. There was clearly enough good Canadian talent to go around. In his one attempt to run for office (as a Liberal) he was defeated. No matter, he did good.

Friday, 6 January 2012

On Christopher Hitchens & HL Menken

Christopher Hitchens died of cancer this December after a long and public battle. There have been the expected praiseful obituaries some of which I happily endorse, his reaction to cancer was lacking in the sort of maudlin self pity that passes for empathy these days.

And yet I have a caveat. First of all I have read some (but by no means all) of his essays and while I found some interesting and well written I have never been impressed with his biggest claim to fame, at least in the Excited States of America, his radical atheism. Let's be honest, religion is a laughably easy target. From crazed homophobic Christians to radical Zionists to violently hate filled Islamists to celebrity chasing Scientologists, God knows there are no shortage of targets. The smug self congratulatory pose atheists always adopt is too annoying to be really funny. Seriously; you aren't risking anything here being as how we aren't living during the Inquisition.

Besides, while I am by no means religious I can not deny that for some people religion has been a good thing. Martin Luther King was a pretty religious guy. A preacher in fact. And so were J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas, Norman Thomas, Desmond Tutu and the Berigan Bros. If religion gave them the strength to do great things that improved thousands of life who am I to belittle that. And yes that even goes for one of Hitchens' bete noires, Mother Theresa. Yes I know the Catholic Church hierarchy has been deeply implicated in pedophilia, homophobia, antisemitism, and it's opposition to birth control is inexcusable. But there is no denying that her mission saved thousands of lives. Are their lives less important than her nineteenth century beliefs? A true humanist shouldn't have to even ask that question.

Which brings up something I noticed whenever Hitchens was on some sort of panel show like Bill Maher's. Whenever anyone seriously questioned, or worse made fun of him, Hitchens seemed truly offended, even outraged that anyone could possibly disagree and not be held in contempt. I always found him smug and overly self satisfied with absolutely no sense of humour at all. Many obits mentioned his wit and humour, but I think they are mistaking a talent for invective, which he certainly had (he famously, and repeatedly called Mother Theresa a "Poisonous Dwarf" which was also a name Josef Goebbles was often called, something Hitchens probably knew) with real wit, let alone humour.

Invective might be witty, especially if it turns out to actually be funny, but sometimes it's just an insult. That's a judgment call and it depends on the target. And as an Irish saying goes; "Wit is the ability to laugh at others, humour is the ability to laugh at ones self". This is a quality Hitchens clearly lacked. He simply took himself far too seriously and held himself in too high regard. A humanist should have some humility and humour. While not exactly funny himself, Martin Luther King had this quality, as did Mandella, Desmond Tutu and Tommy Douglas, Hitchens however did not.

In the various obits about Hitchens comparisons were made with past writers like Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and (his personal hero) George Orwell. But I always thought that his obvious successor was the early twentieth century American writer H.L. Menken. Both did not write non-fiction but instead wrote opinion pieces, reviews and essays. Both despised religion, superstition, cynical politicians, quackery, censorship, prohibition, professional killjoys and the dumbing down of popular culture. No argument there. Both gloried in literature, science and "serious culture". Both reveled in their large vocabulary and had a talent for incendiary invective. Both were best known for their contemptuous attacks on the main religious figures of the age. Both were lionized by liberals for doing so. Both then lost some of that praise when they then attacked liberal figures with only slightly less venom.

Menken savaged conservatives, but then he later turned his scorn on FDR and socialists for appealing to the great unwashed. Hitchens disdained Republicans but he despised Bill Clinton and JFK for their sex scandals (for a famed libertine Hitchens was something of a prig) and would famously support the Iraq war and would be full of praise for Tony Blair.

Both Hitchens and Menken were in fact true elitists. Elitism has become a hopelessly diluted term by now. These days the term "elitist" is used to define anyone who is not a right wing blowhard, especially when it's being used by right wing blowhards. However there used to be a real definition for the term. A true elitist believes that there is a class of people who are inherently better suited to rule over the masses, either due to race and breeding or because of their superior education and culture. True elitists are actually rather rare but Menken and Hitchens belonged to this last group. They were suspicious of the great unwashed masses who were too stupid and credulous to be trusted.

Those liberals who idealize Menken should read one his essays, "The calamity of Appomattox" in which he states his belief that the loss of the slave owning Confederacy in the American Civil War was a tragedy. Not because Menken in any way supported slavery or segregation of course, but because it dethroned the Planter Aristocracy of Jefferson Davis and Robert E Lee, cultured southern gentlemen, and replaced them with southern populist demagogues and Klansmen. He argued that they would never have been able to take power in the CSA, especially since most poor southern whites couldn't vote as the CSA had property qualifications that prevented them from doing so. He did have half a point there but I doubt condemning millions of blacks to lives of slavery and oppression and millions of poor whites to poverty and effective disenfranchisement is a fair price to pay to keep an "enlightened elite" in power.

Likewise Hitchens was perfectly prepared to toss aside a lifetime of belief in civil liberties and hatred of demagoguery, censorship, and hyper patriotism in order to support a war against the hated Islamicists. The end justified the means.

Another writer who comes to mind is Zora Neale Hurston. Again she is rightly noted for her high ideals, great writing and commitment to individualism. However those liberals who idealize her might pause to take a lok at some of her later writing in which she opposed desegregation in favour of protecting an imagined black elite. Menken, Hurston and Hitchens had a number of interesting things to say, but before granting them the sort of hero worship that the media encourages one should take a step back. You would think we would have learned a few things from the deification of Thomas Jefferson in an earlier age.

Someone once said about H.G. Wells that he "Loved mankind but hated people". I never got the feeling that Hitchens (or Menken or Hurston) much cared for mankind as a whole. At least not as much as they cared about their own ideas. In a writer this can be harmless, even admirable, in a political polemicist it is not.

H.L. Menken speaks (part of the only known surviving interview);

A podcast about Menken from "The Ludwig von Mises Institute presents The Libertarian Tradition, a weekly podcast with Jeff Riggenbach"

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Fade to black, SUN TV's Last Day in The Bunker

For those who didn't notice, and judging from their truly pathetic ratings most people didn't, SUN TV (AKA FOX North) went off air on midnight October 31 2011, after being ordered to cease all terrestrial (meaning over-the-air) broadcasting by the CRTC. SUN TV will still however be offered by some cable networks in some parts of Canada including Shaw and Bell.

The CRTC announced their order back in August 2011 ruling that SUN NEWS TV would be losing their terrestrial (over-the-air) signal at the end of October . It seems that SUN TV had been living on borrowed time since going on the air in a suspiciously rushed and slapdash manner during the last federal election, during which SUN TV acted as cheerleaders for the Tories. Since backing the winning horse in the election SUN TV had spent an remarkable amount of attacking their enemies in the media with vitriolic campaigns against the CBC and arts funding along with some what less frenzied attacks on the CRTC. Both SUN TV as well as FOX itself have been feuding with the CRTC for years while demanding the preferential treatment that would allow both of them to set up the kind of national wide right wing network FOX has in the USA and ultimately the rest of the (white) English speaking world including Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Israel. FOX's ambitions have dealt a serious if not lethal blow by the phone hacking scandals of course, but this hasn't dampened the frothing ambitions of SUN TV who continued to try and bully the CRTC into granting them a full nation wide broadcast. If SUN TV were assuming that they now had protection from the now all powerful Harper govt, they gambled wrong.

The odd thing about the SUN TV's sign off was it's stealthy nature. For a right wing trash talking tabloid who never pass up a chance to rage against the vast liberal establishment which is always censoring our poor oppressed billionaires and conservatives this silence spoke volumes. Even after the CRTC's public announcement the near silence from SUN TV was deafening. The assumption is that SUN wants another crack at this once the current CRTC chair, who has the honest-to-God name of Conrad Von Finkelstein (Seriously? He sounds like a Bond villain) is gone. Finkelstein's term is ending and while he has made it known that he would like to stay for another term, Harper has made it even more clear that he will be appointing another one of his more pliable cronies. So SUN is going to bide their time and not make things worse by picking a public fight with the CRTC.

An additional factor was the pathetic ratings of SUN TV which at times have been measured as being as low as 25,000 nation wide, which is less than some local TV stations. Some surveys showed them pulling less than half that (7000 at one point) which is even less than CKLN used to get. Pathetic. As SUN TV was circling the drain the CBC couldn't pass up a chance to rub salt in the wound by taking out ads bragging that CBC's ratings were 650 percent better than SUN TV's. And that was even before they went dark. This led to more impotent outrage from from various SUN TV talking heads who sputtered about the scandal that "Tax Payer Money" was being used to "attack" a poor defenseless mom and pop operation like SUN TV. Taking another shot in the increasingly nasty death match, the CBC piled on by running more ads pointing out the millions of "Tax Payer Money" that QMI (SUN TV's parent company) had gotten over the years from corporate welfare (which I also wrote about here,). QMI Boss Pierre Paladeu threatened a libel suit (like his pal Rob Ford when faced with bad press) and then failed to follow through (also like Ford). Notably he did not actually deny the accuracy of the CBC report however. He did however get to testify at parliamentary hearings which gave him yet another chance to sputter his outrage on behalf of the sacred taxpayers that the big bad CBC would be allowed to run adds smacking him down.

So the run up to the Oct.31 sign off was oddly muted. Other than a crawl across the bottom of the screen which listed the cable providers which would still carry SUN (which at that point was merely Shaw, at least in Southern Ontario) but actually did not mention that they would be off the air at all. That was pretty much it.

I watched the last hours from SUN TV's bunker curious to see how they would go into the dark, dark night, on Halloween no less. Still expecting some kind of grand defiant send off, or at least some kind of acknowledgement to their few viewers. What we got was slapstick.

With FOX North looking to come with a version of the ever popular "War on Christmas" that FOX South has been hawking for years, we had the ludicrous spectacle of Ezra Levant and Charles Adler ranting about the liberal "War on Halloween". The evidence for which being a few schools that banned Halloween dances. Running on a roll they then rambled on to rant some more about the outrageous liberal War on Disneyland. If the War on Halloween consisted of a few school board Killjoys, the War on Disneyland existed solely in the paranoid fantasies of Levant and Adler who simply speculated about how imaginary liberal activists MIGHT protest about racism in Snow White or whatever. The fact that nothing like this ever actually happened is apparently beside the point. As was the fact that the one group who actually HAVE protested Halloween has been Christians, outraged at a pagan holiday. Actually some Christians have even protested Disneyland for allowing gay tourist charters. But there I go using "facts" again, no fair.

At any rate with all this idiotic babble going on I plumb forgot that they were about to go off the air at midnight and turn into a pumpkin with no viewers. Apparently they forgot as well since they never bothered to mention this even once as the minutes ticked down to midnight. At about five to midnight as Levant was in still in mid rant the screen suddenly froze on Levant with his arms outstretched and his mouth silently agape. This shot stayed motionless like this for perhaps half a minute, then the screen went dark on SUN TV forever. And that was that.

I have now had the odd distinction of listening in to no less than three stations go off the air. I also listened in as 1050 CHUM went off air back in 2001 to become an all sports station. They had a classy sign off with an Elvis song "Heartbreak Hotel" (the first number one record at CHUM) and a long sound collage of various moments from CHUM's past. The new format didn't last very long and they soon came back as an oldies station, which also didn't last. Then they were bought out to simulcast CP20's TV newscasts, which was odd since there was obviously no video to go along with the commentary. This year that came to an end and they went back to being an all sports station, which is dying in the ratings again. I didn't catch those changeovers but apparently they were done with little or no notice, let alone fanfare.

1050 CHUM promo circa 1986;

And then there's CKLN. They were yanked off the air this April for being completely inept. Given their penchant for strident left wing ranting and bizzarro conspiracy theories their sign-off was oddly muted. As D-Day came there was no notice of their impending demise until mere minutes before when the station manager Jacky Harrison broke into "The OCAP Show" to announce they would be going off air in about five minutes. She then handed the show back to the perpetually outraged OCAP Radio show host to furiously rant about this censorship for a few minutes before Harrison came back to repeat the warning. Then back again to the OCAP host who was by then comparing CKLN to the Arab Spring protesters before being cut off in mid rant, putting an end to their Abbott and Costello routine for good with the sweet, sweet sounds of static.

It's worth pointing out that after being yanked off the air various members of CKLN's disgraced management gave their conspiracy theories about the CRTC's secret plan to destroy community radio, using this as an excuse for their incompetence and portraying themselves as hapless victims. To go along with this they confidently predicted that others would soon follow, particularly CO-OP Radio in B.C. and CIUT in Toronto.

CO-OP Radio did indeed face CRTC hearings last year partly due to some serious issues over their financial and equipment problems as well as some missed paperwork fillings, as well as a plan by CO-OP to trade their signal with a commercial radio station in exchange for enough money to fix their existing issues. I happily wrote a letter of support to the CRTC for them. The hearings were quite different from the CKLN Gong Show hearings of December 2010. In spite of the CRTC's supposed ruthless corporate racist agenda against community radio they granted CO-OP their extension and allowed their signal swap. And CIUT has been granted their extension along with every other community station as well. Except for CKRG who gave theirs up voluntarily.

CKRG was a Low Power campus station at York University's Glendon Campus. How low? About 5 watts, which would cover the area of the campus itself and that's it. They had been around since 1998 first as a Low Power AM signal then moving to Low Power FM in 2004. They had tried to go for a 200 watt license in 1994 but were turned down. Lately they had decided not to bother to renew their license when the current one came up for renewal in Aug. 2011. There was an extension to Nov. 2011 but by then CKRG had actually been off the air since school had let out the previous spring. Like many student stations (and CKRG was always a student station) CKRG had given up on trying for a terrestrial signal and had decided on a purely internet future. This is unfortunate since they had made this call before they know that CKLN was going down and would be creating an opening that they could have made a bid for. Oh well.

So the cheese stands alone.

A few other sign offs;

CINW-AM 940 in Montreal;

CIGM-AM 790 in Sudbury;

CJUL-AM 1220 in Cornwall;

WMJX-FM 96.3 in Miami (shut down by the FCC in 1981);