Place and Change: Memphis Changes the World

A shy, skinny, eighteen-year-old truck driver walked into a tiny recording studio and asked to make a record for his mother’s birthday. The receptionist, Marion Keisker, asked if he was a singer. He looked down and mumbled that he was. She asked who he sounded like and he glanced up, grinned, and said, “I don’t sound like nobody.” And he was right. The world was about to change.

The ramshackle recording studio was in Memphis, Tennessee and that mattered. It mattered because place matters. Place has always been a catalyst of change. Memphis had become the continent’s largest inland port a hundred years before because it lay at the intersection of the mighty Mississippi that flowed from Minnesota, past Memphis, to the Gulf of Mexico and the Illinois Central Railway that tied the city to Chicago and New Orleans. Its serving as a vortex for people chasing a buck and a dream was rendered even more significant with the building of Highway 61 from New Orleans through Memphis to Canada. The river, rail, and road both fed and consumed post-WWII prosperity with a vibrancy that could be felt and, even more, heard. A new, angry, joyful, scary music raged as if the place inhaled surrounding sound then exhaled a hurricane.

place-and-change

The cotton fields that had ringed Memphis ensured that generations knew of the music African-American slaves sang to pass their sunup to sundown work days. Their songs were mournful melodies, chants, or call and response rousers that bled spirituality while expressing justifiable despair and inexplicable hope. From slave songs, field hollers, negro spirituals, and country-gospel, came the blues. In 1912, Memphis songwriter W. C. Handy was commissioned to pen a tune for a corrupt Memphis mayor and he called it Memphis Blues. He wrote a number of similar songs and, despite others claiming the title, became the father of the blues.

African American Memphis businessman, Robert Church, Sr., purchased land and supported the building of clubs, bars, and the Church Park and Auditorium along what became Beale Street. It offered every known vice and a few it made up. Beale Street became home to a number of African-American owned businesses and where bands and singers played the blues. It attracted performers from Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans and every time they came they taught, learned, and went home to spread the news.

The music industry was as segregated as the city. White record shops would not stock “race” music and white radio stations wouldn’t play it. By 1949, Billboard magazine writer Jerry Wexler had developed an appreciation for the new African American music and decided that instead of “race’ music, he would call it rhythm and blues (R&B). It worked. The new name seemed to make it less offensive to white audiences and some white radio stations began to play it. In popularizing the new sounds, Memphis radio stations joined Beale Street clubs where laws were broken and highway 61 honky tonks and juke joints where it was ignored altogether.

White society could segregate everything but radio proved that the air didn’t care. White and black folks in Memphis could hear the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville, with its lively bluegrass, Appalachian folk ballads, and proud and corny country and western based on three chords and the truth. On other stations, they could hear blaring big bands playing quick-tempo jump and swing along with smooth pop epitomized by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. But at the same time, Memphis radio station WDIA was among America’s first to risk R&B records and it even hired African American disc jockeys to play them, including young blues singer Rufus Thomas and Riley King, an exceptional blues guitarist who everyone called B.B. Dewey Phillips at WHBQ was the city’s most popular disc jockey. While he was white, his nine to midnight Red, Hot, and Blue show played black and white music to a black and white audience. The air over Memphis was desegregating sensibilities below.

Among the R & B records played were 1948’s Good Rockin’ Tonight by Wynonie Harris and Rockin’ At Midnight by Roy Brown. Everyone understood that rock and rockin’ were thinly veiled euphemisms for sex. Sex was absolutely taboo in a society where pregnant teenagers were exiled, sex education was unthinkable, and birth control could not even be purchased by married women. Pile atop that the racist terror of oversexed black men with designs on white women, then the sexed-up “race” music, no matter what it was called, and all the radio stations, clubs, and honky tonks popularizing it, meant that something was both degenerate and dangerous. But it was as unstoppable as the Mississippi.

Among those attracted to the growing Memphis music scene was Alabama disc jockey Sam Phillips. Phillips moved to Memphis in June 1945. His Saturday afternoon WREC radio show became as daring as Dewey Phillips (no relation) in mixing black and white records. While working for the radio station at big band shows at the swanky Peabody Hotel, he spoke with white musicians who claimed to play differently when they came to Memphis and having to convert back when they left. He was told of black musicians who played Beale Street bars as well as Highway 61 juke joints and honky tonks who also played and sang differently when in or near Memphis.

Phillips saw that the supply of R&B records was unable to meet demand and recognized an opportunity. He rented an old radiator shop in downtown Memphis at 706 Union Street and had it renovated. In January 1950, he opened the Memphis Recording Studio. With primitive equipment, he recorded anyone with the money to rent time. Most left with nothing but their wax souvenir. Those with a unique song or style, though, found themselves signed to a deal that had Phillips license recordings to established companies that manufactured and distributed them. Through Phillips, independent companies along the rail, road and river lines in St. Louis, New Orleans, and, most importantly, Chicago’s Chess Records, began spreading the Memphis sound.

Among those Phillips recorded was B. B. King. King played a version of the blues that wrenched emotion from lyrics and, while still developing his style, defined songs with crisp guitar runs and riffs. Following King into the Memphis studio were bluesmen who honed their talents on Beale Street and whose music bled the amalgam of styles for which the city was becoming known: James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Junior Parker, Walter Horton, and the man who would become as legendary as B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf.

A Clarksdale, Tennessee disc jockey heard that Phillips was recording black singers. Ike Turner gathered his band and headed north. At first hearing, Phillips knew he had something special. Saxophonist Jackie Brenston sang the lead on a Turner composition called Rocket 88. The lyrics reveled in double entendre in equating a fast car to faster sex. The drums were relentless and the sax inventive. An amp had fallen off the car’s roof on the trip to Memphis and the resulting damage distorted the guitar, making it growl menacingly.

The 8-bar blues with the driving back beat sat perfectly at the core of the Venn diagram linking the pop, R&B, country, and the blues that Memphis musicians inhabited and traveling bands imitated. Phillips licensed the record to Chess Records and within weeks it was number one on the nation’s R&B charts with many pop stations and even country stations daring to play it. Rocket 88 was the world’s first rock ‘n’ roll record.

The success of Rocket 88 and other licensed recordings encouraged Phillips to launch his own record company. He called it Sun Records. Starting in February 1952, Sun enjoyed moderate success but Phillips grew increasingly frustrated by the persistent, racist resistance to R&B and blues records. He said to Marion Keisker, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a million dollars.” A little while later, on Saturday, June 26, 1954, the shy, skinny Memphis truck driver walked through his door to make his mama’s record. His name was Elvis Presley.

Phillips did not hear Elvis that day or a few months later when he returned to pay another four dollars to record again. When Phillips was again complaining about not being able to find the right singer to blend black and white, Keisker suggested the kid with the sideburns. Elvis was called and he ran to the studio, arriving panting for breath while Keisker was still on the line. Phillips had a couple of talented session players, guitarist Scotty Moore and stand-up bass player Bill Black, work with the kid. But that rehearsal and then a recording session revealed nothing particularly impressive. They were on a break when Presley spontaneously launched into an Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup R&B song called That’s Alright Mama. Black and Moore jumped in, all three laughing at the loose-limbed, ragged sound they were making. But Phillips heard what he’d been searching for.

That’s Alright Mama was quickly pressed and a copy taken to Dewey Phillips at WHBQ. A couple of spins brought phones calls to hear it again and again. The record was played on Memphis radio stations and its local then regional success put Presley on the road. He bought his clothes from Lansky Brothers, a black shop on Beale Street. His on-stage gyrations were variations of the black performers he had seen in Beale Street clubs. He sang, and then soon would record, more black, R&B songs. But with equal conviction, he wore his hair and sideburns in a defiant, white-trash truck driver style and also sang white ballads, gospel, pop, and the country numbers he loved. He was, in short, the embodiment of Memphis, the meeting place, with its new music absorbing influences from the lines that connected it to the world, synthesizing them, and sending them back with the challenge to question the barriers of class, race, age, and gender, and concepts of right and wrong, and fun and indecent.

Presley’s growing success afforded even more allure to Memphis. Carl Perkins grew up in grinding, rural Tennessee poverty. He took his guitar and dream to Memphis where he consummated the marriage of country and rock ‘n’ roll in a new variant called rockabilly. His second Sun Records release, Blue Suede Shoes, became a national hit for him and then Elvis. Hoping to become a gospel singer, Johnny Cash, moved from Arkansas to Memphis where Sam Phillips encouraged him to sing his own compositions including his second Sun release, Folsom Prison Blues. It contains music’s nastiest line: “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” Roy Orbison was enjoying little success in his native Texas but knew of the musical mecca that Memphis had become. He impressed Sam Philips with his three-octave range, was signed to Sun, and soon Ooby Dooby was a national hit. Jerry Lee Lewis attacked more than played a piano. He was drawn to Memphis from Louisiana and after a stint as a Sun Records session player, recorded Crazy Arms and then the blatantly sexual Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On and Great Balls of Fire.

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET

Lewis, Perkins, Cash, and Presley, Sun Records, December 1956. (Photo: The Commercial Appeal)

By 1956-’57, the new music that Memphis had been central to creating was topping national charts, being heard on TV, and filling juke boxes, theatres, and arenas. Parents were yelling upstairs to turn that noise down. Rock ‘n’ roll had become a central element in the transformation of first America and then the western world from old to new. It provided an impetus and soundtrack for the move from the white, patriarchal, sexually repressed world of segregated people and ideas to what would become the more liberal, modern era. Rock ‘n’ roll was the voice of the baby boom, the gigantic demographic whose power was its numbers and a determination to be heard its creed. Rock ‘n’ roll was the notification that the generation that had survived the Depression and war and now yearned for things to be calm, controlled, and predictable, was losing its existential battle for cultural supremacy. It was the bridge from the composed assurance of Eisenhower to the audacious vibrancy of Kennedy.

Memphis was the place of change and the change could not be contained. Up Highway 61, in Hibbing Minnesota, Bob Zimmerman heard the news and would soon change his name to Dylan and immortalize the highway in song. Across the Atlantic, sailors smuggled American records into Liverpool and Manchester where kids named John, Paul, Mick, and Keith studied them and then helped England lead rock ‘n’ roll’s second wave and, with it, inaugurate a new phase in the generational revolution. Place would matter again in causing change. And the change began in Memphis.

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An Election Really Rigged – Part One

We Canadians are a smug lot. For the last while, we’ve pressed our noses to the window on our southern border and been shocked and chagrined by the gong show masquerading as a presidential election. We’ve been stunned by, among other things, all the talk of rigged elections and secret shenanigans. Let’s get over ourselves. Let’s consider a Canadian election that was truly rigged. First, let’s see how the Americans helped topple the Canadian government.

President John F. Kennedy hated Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Their political difference would have put them at odds even if they had gotten along famously. The final straw in the feisty fight was Kennedy’s rage over Diefenbaker’s failure to offer enthusiastic and unreserved support during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy needed the Canadian government changed. He usually got what he wanted.

Raffi final

Photo:Toronto Star

Strike One: Two and a half months after the Cuban crisis ended and the world returned to the gritted-teeth peace, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander General Norstad ended his career with a tour of alliance capitals. On January 3, 1963, he arrived in Ottawa. Resplendent in his medal-bedecked uniform, Norstad made a brief statement and then, in response to reporters’ questions, suggested that Canada’s prime minister was a liar. He had been lying, the general said, about a number of things including the need for Canadian troops in Europe to have American nuclear weapons.

Many newspapers and people had already turned on Diefenbaker but Norstad’s stunning declaration turned more. A few days after igniting the firestorm, Kennedy welcomed Norstad to the White House, pinned a Distinguished Service Medal on his chest, and praised him for displaying “great skill” and “sensitivity” in his diplomacy and especially for having, “…in a unique way held the confidence of our allies in Europe and, of course, our partner to the north, Canada.”

Strike Two: Amid withering attacks from all sides, Diefenbaker rose in the House of Commons to explain and defend his government’s nuclear policy. He concluded that his government’s policies would always reflect Canadian interests and not those of “people from outside the country” who cared only for their own national interests.

The speech was a grand performance but confused more than clarified. It intensified questions about Diefenbaker’s leadership in the media and among his cabinet and caucus. The Americans then poured oil on the gathering flames. The American ambassador sped a message to the State Department in which he took specific exception to nearly every point Diefenbaker had made. The letter was reworked by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and then Secretary of State Dean Rusk took it to the president. Kennedy agreed to the letter’s release saying, “We can’t let these fellows get away with this.”

Late in the afternoon of January 30, the State Department press release was given to Canadian reporters in Washington. It was astonishing. Point by point, it explained how Diefenbaker had misrepresented a range of issues and facts. Only three weeks after General Norstad had told the Canadian people that Diefenbaker was being disingenuous regarding nuclear weapons, Kennedy’s State Department, even more bluntly, had called their prime minister a liar.

In the House of Commons Diefenbaker thundered: “[Canada] will not be pushed around or accept external domination or interference in the making of its decisions. Canada is determined to remain a firm ally, but that does not mean she should be a satellite.” The fury of indignation led by media on both sides of the border forced Secretary of State Rusk to respond. Far from apologizing, he said that after hearing Diefenbaker’s speech the Kennedy administration was justified in laying out the facts. News of Rusk’s statement appeared on the front page of the New York Times and was reprinted in papers across Canada. Yet another high-ranking American, the third in three weeks, had called the Canadian prime minister a liar.

Kennedy called his special advisor George Ball twice that night to say that he understood the effects of his government’s action in Canada but that Diefenbaker deserved it. Ball confirmed that as a result of their interventions the Diefenbaker government could fall. Kennedy doubled down saying, “We should feed some…up there that Diefenbaker’s in trouble. We knew that he has always been running against us so that it’s very important.”

 Strike Three:  The growing tension brought all that had been tearing the Diefenbaker cabinet asunder to the fore. In an unprecedented shouting match meeting at the prime minister’s residence, the cabinet split and the defense minister resigned. Shortly afterward, Rusk appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Canadian Affairs that had been called to investigate the State Department’s intervention into Canadian domestic political. Revealing that he obviously had an Ottawa mole, Rusk said that six or seven Canadian cabinet ministers were splitting from the prime minister. He then bluntly reiterated everything the State Department memo had said. For those keeping score, it was the fourth time a senior Kennedy administration official had publicly called Diefenbaker a liar.

Ottawa fell into chaos. There were bizarre late night meetings, hushed hallway conversations, private deal making, and public back stabbings. On the evening of Tuesday, February 5, for only the second time in Canadian history, a government was defeated on a vote on non-confidence. Diefenbaker visited the Governor General and the election was set for April 8.

The news sparked laughter and celebration at the White House. The American ambassador telegrammed the State Department to gloat about America’s role in having brought down Diefenbaker: “In effect, we have now forced the issue and the outcome depends on [the] basic common sense of Canadian electorate… we see grounds for optimism that over the long run this exercise will prove to have been highly beneficial and will substantially advance our interests.” Kennedy said nothing publicly about his administration’s role in the Canadian government’s fall. However, McGeorge Bundy later admitted to President Johnson, “I might add that I myself have been sensitive to the need for being extra polite to the Canadians ever since George Ball and I knocked over the Diefenbaker Government by one incautious press release.”

Let us not be naive. Politics is tough. Politicians will do things to advance their careers, political appointees will do things to support their bosses, and political leaders will do things to advance their agendas. Occasionally that leads one government to overthrow another with a violent revolution or coup. Sometimes, such as in Canada in 1963, it leads to a nudge through shaping perceptions and changing course.

Kennedy’s efforts in helping to overthrow the Canadian government would not have been worth it, of course, unless Lester Pearson and his Liberals won the ensuing election. The president would not leave that to chance. But that is for part two.

I have been away from my Monday blog for a while to complete my next book but I’m back. Part two of this story will appear next week with more in the weeks that follow. For more on Kennedy and Canada you could check out Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front which is available online and at bookstores throughout Canada and the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The $1,000 Cottage

Water delivery can be arranged for all the material needed for the 560 square foot Chemong “Readi-Cut” cottage. The Chemong offers, “…the answer to your Family Fun, a cottage that will give you many years of relaxing pleasure as well as the pride in showing the folks the job you’ve done yourself.” It’s only $1,069 or, with nothing down, $37 a month.

Time travel is fun. It’s what first attracted me to the study of history. I scour old newspapers when researching my books but time and mission are constant pressures so, usually with eye-straining microfilm, I jump to what I need then leap out. Yesterday, however, an old friend gave me an unexpected gift: a pristine copy of the Tuesday June 11, 1957 Peterborough Examiner. Its stories and ads are fun and revelatory.

The big bold headline reads: PC’S 110, LIBERALS 103. The black and white picture is of John Diefenbaker; the Progressive Conservative leader whose party had just captured what would become a minority government. The trick with the old paper was to enjoy it while knowing not the warp and woof of the day but the context and future.

Diefenbaker’s election presaged an era of contradictions. The cancelling of the Avro Arrow would hurt thousands but Canada’s new Bill of Rights would protect millions. The nationalist Diefenbaker would seek to make Canada more sovereign but a new American president, John F. Kennedy, would try to make her more obedient. Aboriginal people would be granted the right to vote but their children would still be kidnapped for residential schools.

Like now, most Canadians shrugged and accepted the changing political landscape while focussing upon more immediate concerns, distractions, and dreams. Not just cottages but suburban home ownership was an important element of those dreams. Bank and life insurance company ads offer 5.5% mortgages. Another ad presents the chance to move into Peterborough’s “Finest New Home Development” – Westmount Gardens – with a Delux Split Level home that boasted 3 bedrooms, cathedral ceilings, a fireplace, 2 bathrooms, and a 2-car garage, all for $20,900.

Another ad offers a sixteen-foot cedar strip boat, Evinrude motor, and trailer. And for men, Westminster dress shirts are only $4.95. The interesting part of all these consumer dreams, and others the paper offers is that the products were all made in Canada and sold not in national or international chains but by locally owned businesses and companies. Canadians were having Canadian dreams.

The $1000 Cottage

(Love the chrome, tailfins, and pushbutton transmission)

In sports, Terry Sawchuck is happy with his trade from Boston back to the Detroit Red Wings. The team welcomes the all-star goalie back after having won the Stanley Cup eight out of the last nine seasons. The reporter notes that Sawchuk had suffered from mononucleosis and nervous tension while in Boston. No one could guess that his health and demons would see him dead in only 13 years. In the article’s last paragraph, Red Wing general manager Jack Adams offers up for trade the team’s all-star veteran, and league’s highest scoring left-winger, Ted Lindsay. Few knew the trade was punishment for Lindsay’s trying to start a player’s union.

Local sports are generously reported with league play in golf, softball, bowling, lawn bowling, and lacrosse. The number and popularity of the leagues reveal the extent to which people were getting out of their homes to join with others. Nobody bowls alone.

The weekend and weekday leagues also showed that, in 1957, work was not just something you did but somewhere you went. Work had a beginning and end time. Clocks were punched. Overtimes were calculated and rewarded. Technology did not allow work to follow you home. As a result, there was time for sports and fun with neighbours and friends.

Hollywood offers the world to Peterborough’s working class, hockey culture. The Drive-In has Janet Leigh and Jack Lemon in My Sister Eileen and Gregory Peck in The Purple Rain. Two movies! Plus everyone knew a cartoon or two would begin as you were settling in your car with popcorn and pop and adjusting the steel speaker to your window. Downtown theatres presented three more movies, the latest from Robert Taylor, William Holden, and Bob Hope. If that were not enough, the Memorial Centre, the town’s big arena, was presenting, in person, The Lone Ranger and his horse Silver and “the world’s most beloved dog “Lassie.” The boats, houses, and shirts may have been all-Canadian but culture came with an American accent.

The Examiner’s editor was Robertson Davies. Yes, that Robertson Davies who would later write exceptional novels that would help spur a new and overdue interest in Canadian literature. It was perhaps his writer’s eye that led to the paper’s excellence. In every story of substance the vocabulary is challenging, the tone serious, the arguments cogent, and the sentences complex. The paper clearly invites readers to rise to a higher standard rather than pandering to a lower one.

Like the city and society the paper served and reflected, it is very much for and about men. Nearly all the ads are for men including two job postings for “salesmen.” The letters to the editor are all written by men. Nearly all the sports are about men except for a report on a businesswomen’s golf league that is entitled “Business Girls.” Similarly, there are photographs of three local women who graduated from the Kingston General Hospital School of Nursing. The photo’s caption begins, without irony, “Three Peterborough Girls…”

The paper is surprisingly big. The gift’s gift was bigger. It allowed a time travel adventure. It was also a reminder to ignore the muck of life and observe the horizon, to seek context amid distracting details, and, most of all, to enjoy the wonders and blessings of the moment for no one knows what tomorrow will bring. My hour with the paper reminded me that to worry about the past invites depression and to fret about the future brings anxiety so I should more gratefully and completely accept the gift of now – the present of the present.

If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others and consider checking my others at http://www.johnboyko.com or maybe even my books, like Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front, available at Chapters and Amazon and bookstores everywhere.

Small Kids – Big Lessons

A while ago I was asked to lead a full-day program on the 1960s for the Peterborough Centennial Museum. The call caught me in a good mood and I believe museums are an essential part of our communities that deserve support and so I agreed. As the March Break date approached, I wondered what I had done to myself.

Last Friday morning, I stood before 21 kids, aged 5 to 11, with the squirming, giggling, wrestling lot of them exploding with energy. By day’s end – harried, tired, but still smiling – I was surprised by what I had learned.

Colouring: Among the best selling books right now are adult colouring books. Adults have come to understand the meditative peace derived from keeping between already drawn lines and the absence of technology. Kids have always understood.

I began the day with a brief introduction and the application of washable ‘60s tattoos. Thank goodness for the dollar store. I then noted that many people in the ‘60s chose new names. They each picked a page from the Flowers and Animals colouring books I had purchased and cut up and were soon transformed into Hibiscus, Fox, Tulip, and more. The oldest boy didn’t want to play until I assured him that the seahorse he had picked for his hippy name could be sea monster – with a grin, he was in. And then they coloured. I marvelled at their scrunched noses and furrowed brows as they silently scribbled and shaded with not a screen in sight.

Diversity: Throw a net over a random group of 21 adults and you would nab the same range of personalities as my young charges. When split into groups for various activities there were clear leaders and troublesome narcissists. I watched the gravitation toward those seeking a consensus and the rejection of the ego-driven and bossy. There was smart but shy. There was a bully. Mostly there were fun lovers – eager to risk playing and suspending belief, being goofy, and making new friends.

Kids arrive at school and to the museum that day as we arrive at work. Like us, they tote all the baggage, good or ill, from home. They bring their maladies and anxieties, fears and dreams, and ever-shifting concepts of self. Like a boss at work or teacher at school, I knew I was not one person. For the 21 of them, I was 21 people.

Fairness: Like us, kids intuitively understand power and recognize injustice. Also like us, they swallow the stress of powerlessness when unfair things that should be changed are not. Ask those in a Donald Trump crowd. Ask those repulsed by Donald Trump crowds.

I explained that in the 1960s, a lot of people protested things they thought unfair. Their brainstorming was cute and revealing. Kids shouldn’t have bedtimes, shouldn’t have to go to school, and should be able to have as much candy as they want. One girl said adults should never be mean. Another said grownups should not be allowed to yell. The ideas flew, the leaders led, and they finally determined their cause and slogan: Everything Free For Kids!

The charged up lot were quickly on the floor plying markers and stickers to create their protest signs. They practiced their chant and then marched upstairs to the museum staff area: Everything Free For Kids! Everything Free For Kids! They burst into the offices and circled desks to smiles and applause. I didn’t ask how many of them actually pay for anything.

Everything Free For Kids

Kenzie Leads the Protest (Photo: Peterborough Examiner)

Forbidden Pleasures: I wanted the kids to leave thinking that museums are cool. In the morning, I led a tour of the permanent collection but after lunch, to show that museums preserve as well as display, I’d arranged a tour of the warehouse of artefacts that are locked up and closed to the public. I gathered the kids in a tight circle, got down low, and whispered that if they really wanted, we could go to a secret place, a place nobody ever sees, a place where kids are forbidden. Who is interested, I asked. Guess.

With hands in pockets or folded “grumpy-like” over chests, we moved slowly through the aisles of towering shelves of artefacts that resembled Heaven’s Costco. Their oohs and ahs told me when to stop and tell a story. How could a family have only one telephone and turn that wheelie-thing to dial? How could people sit before those big radios and just listen to shows and not watch anything? How could people actually wear those hats? And then my question at the end: When you are old like me, do you think there will be kids looking at your toys and clothes in a museum like this?

Music: When performing with my little rock ‘n’ roll band, I always watch for people singing along with particular songs. Sweet Caroline, improbably, is a hit with everyone. Spirit in the Sky always sparks dancing. What is true at the Canoe and Paddle Pub was also true with kids at the museum. The Beatles transcend generations.

After reading a couple of stories and talking about the Canadian flag created in the 1960s, the kids designed new flags with more symbols. With guitar in hand I sang the Beatles Yellow Submarine. They all knew it! Every one of them! We used the tune and symbols we’d gathered to write a new national anthem and they were soon belting it out with such gusto it would have burst McCartney’s buttons.

The day was delightful. Maria, the Trent-Queen’s student, and Faryn, who runs the museum’s education programs, and Susan with the artefacts (even a cup and saucer from the Titantic!) were invaluable. The kids were great. They left with tie-dye t-shirts, arms full of crafts, and faces awash with peace signs, stars, and flowers. Nearly all said a smiley bye, and there were some hugs and a few thanks.

As I rubbed my eyes and stretched my back I thought that I have no idea how much elementary teachers earn but whatever it is, they deserve a raise.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. For a few more pictures of the day and a brief clip of the protest march, click here: http://www.thepeterboroughexaminer.com/2016/03/19/march-break-campers-feeling-groovy

Five Reasons Why JFK Still Matters

On a bright and frigid afternoon fifty-five years ago, John F. Kennedy became America’s 35th president. It was an exciting day. The unabating flood of articles, books, and movies suggest that his life and leadership continues to enthral. Let’s consider why he still matters by pondering questions he still poses.

5 Reasons Why JFK Still Matters

(Photo: mauialmanac.com)

Leadership and Wealth: The one percent who own and influence so much is under attack. In Canada’s recent election, Justin Trudeau’s opponents argued that his inherited wealth precluded him from understanding and helping working- and middle-class Canadians. Hillary Clinton is taking similar hits.

Kennedy grew up in mansions and was chauffeured to school in his father’s Rolls Royce. He could have done anything or nothing at all. Instead, he worked tirelessly to improve the lot of those toiling in shops, fields, and factories. He implemented a middle class tax cut, a higher minimum wage, and proposed universal health care. Does money kill compassion?

Government Power: Kennedy was more practical than liberal and more pragmatic than conservative. He decried ideological blindness that seeks victory without compromise while trying to tip the balance of power between government and business too far in one direction. He believed government was a positive societal force, essential for the collective good.

Because government cannot and should not do everything, should it do nothing? Does a government’s inability to completely solve a problem invite rejection of first steps?

Celebrity: Kennedy did not invent the celebrity politician but he was the first to exploit looks, charisma, and a photogenic family in the TV age. The 1960 campaign swung when he beat the more experienced but less-media savvy Richard Nixon in TV debates. Kennedy confessed that he would not be an effective president or possibly even have become president without television.

A journalist once wrote of Canada’s 1968 “Trudeaumania” election: “Canadians had enviously watched the presidency of John Kennedy, and continued to wish for a leader like him.” Last year, Canadians watched Trudeau’s son ride a wave of Kennedyesque celebrity while Nixon-like opponents attacked his appearance and gaps in his policies and resume, all the while forgetting Kennedy’s lesson. And now Trudeau commands, Donald Trump confounds and Kevin O’Leary considers. Must our leaders now also be celebrities?

Public Privacy: Kennedy’s legacy was later tarnished by revelations of reckless sexual liaisons. He also hid serious health problems and daily drug injections that managed symptoms. The press was complicit in the secrecy and silence.

The post-Watergate media changed the relationship between public and private. Social media shattered it. Canada’s last election saw candidates humiliated and others withdraw due to social media gaffes and attacks. Many good people now avoid public service, fearing slander and privacy’s surrender. Can a flawed person be a valid candidate or good leader? Are there limits to our right to know?

Aspiration: Many recall lines from Kennedy’s stirring inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you…” or “The torch has been passed to a new generation…” In June 1963, he called for world peace based on our shared humanity. The next day he went on TV and reframed Civil Rights as a moral imperative.

We are well served by neither demagoguery nor technocratic managers masquerading as leaders. Instead, with so much and so many dividing us, Kennedy reminds us that real leaders really lead and that we need words that inspire, dreams that unite, and the positing of challenging questions and grand goals. What’s wrong with shooting for the moon?

Kennedy still matters because, in the final analysis, his enduring gift was not programs or policies but his inspirational leadership. We should consider the questions he still poses and answers he suggests. We owe it to ourselves and our children to consider his audacious exhortation that idealism is not naïve, hope is not foolish, hardship is incentive, and community can extend beyond one’s family, class, race, or even country.

This column originally appeared as an op ed in the Montreal Gazette on January 20, 2016, the 55th anniversary of JFK’s inauguration. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it with others.

Most Important Bands of All Time

The Beatles are not the best band of all time. Neither is U2 or Led Zeppelin. You see, a teenage John Lennon once snapped, “We’re not a band, we’re a group.” He understood. Lennon’s Quarrymen and then the Beatles were groups. So was the Clash and so are the Rolling Stones and the Eagles. In musical parlance, a group is a self-contained unit providing music and vocals while a band is a collection of musicians creating music either without or to accompany vocals. Forget boy bands. Their name is only part of what’s wrong with them.

So let’s leave groups aside and consider, in rough chronological order, the five most important bands.

  1. Tommy Dorsey Band

The 1930s brought the Depression and the 1940s the Second World War. Year after year people lost homes, loved ones, and faith in the rules they had believed would secure their families and futures. As always happens in eras of tragedy and transition, music filled the emotional void with fun. Swing music was nothing but fun.

Dance halls were everywhere and everywhere were big bands playing jumped up tunes with driving beats, mournful ballads, and goofy novelty numbers. The most influential of the big bands was led by Tommy Dorsey.

Dorsey played trombone, of all things. He reinvented the instrument so that it carried the melody. He promoted band members who stood and, in a nod to jazz, leaned into solos that were different every night. It was art as lightening, existing for the moment. Dorsey also sought the best singers around and handed careers to many including his best find of all, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra toured and recorded 80 songs with the Dorsey band. He learned his vocal styling and discipline from Dorsey’s trombone breathing techniques.

When other bands faded with changing musical tastes, Dorsey continued to evolve his sound and bring more jazz and popular music into his repertoire. His innovative ideas influenced another generation. His band placed an incredible 286 songs on the Billboard charts and he enjoyed 17 number ones. His biggest hit was I’ll Never Smile Again, which, in 1940, was number one for twelve weeks.

In the 1950s he and his brother Jimmy co-hosted a popular show on the new medium of television. He demonstrated courage when he ignored critics and insisted that a new young singer be invited to perform. It was through Dorsey, therefore, that America first saw Elvis Presley.

Tommy Dorsey died in 1956 when only 51 years of age. In 1982, his I’m Getting Sentimental Over You was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and Marie was inducted in 1998. In 1996, the United States Postal Service issued a Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey stamp. His music lives on in singers and bands who believe they are inventing new ideas that Dorsey actually brought to audiences before their grandparents were born. 

  1. Wrecking Crew

Los Angeles session musicians used to arrive wearing suits and obediently read from charts to provide music for whatever commercial, movie, or singer rented their services. It was a nine to five job. That ended in the early 1960s when others began strolling in as the professionals were leaving. They dressed more casually. They played more casually. They could read charts but more often played what they felt. They made suggestions. They took chances. The grumpy old pros said the young bucks would wreck the music industry and so, according to drummer Hal Blaine, their name was coined.

You’ve heard their work if you’ve heard the Monkees, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Jan and Dean, the Partridge Family, Mamas & Papas, Association, 5th Dimension, Grass Roots, the Carpenters, the Byrds, the Turtles, Bread, Simon and Garfunkel, and on and on. Did you think the Monkees were the only group that didn’t play on their own records? You heard the Wrecking Crew if you’ve heard Dean Martin sing Everybody Loves Somebody or Frank Sinatra croon Strangers in the Night.

Sonny Bono once had a rather ordinary sounding song until the bass player, Carol Kaye, suggested a line that was simple in its complexity but riveting as a hook, and The Beat Goes On was born. She later suggested the descending bass notes in the Nancy Sinatra’s Boots. Brian Wilson employed the Wrecking Crew to create the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations and Pet Sounds.

When Wrecking Crew guitarist Glen Campbell struck out on his own, it continued as his studio band. Other members that enjoyed solo success were Leon Russell and Mac Rebennack, who called himself Dr. John. Wrecking crew drummer Jim Keltner played on nearly all the Beatles solo albums, the Concert for Bangladesh, and, under the pseudonym Buster Sidebury, with the Travelling Wilburys. In 2007, the Wrecking Crew was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame.

Turn on an oldies radio station and be guaranteed that within minutes, whether you know it or not, you will hear the Wrecking Crew.

  1. The Band

Born in Arkansas and making a name for himself as a rockabilly wild man, Ronnie Hawkins toured Canada in 1958 and never went home. His music and show was like nothing seen or heard before. It was all made possible by the driving beat and incomparable sound of his band. They were kids. Arkansas native Levon Helm joined Canadians Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko. They practiced all day and played all night. Their playing became as tight as their friendships.

Hawkins called them the Hawks. They quickly grew to be the premier band on Toronto’s Yonge Street strip that became the heart of the burgeoning Canadian music scene. Hawkins was crazy on stage. He yelled. He did back flips. He invented the moonwalk that Michael Jackson would later steal. Nearly any band can back someone who sticks to the songs but it took something all together special to hang on through the hurricane that was Rompin’ Ronnie. Through the antics, alcohol, and smoky haze was the band that never missed a beat, dropped a note, or missed a cue. Hudson’s keyboard work was majestic and rose beyond the limits of three-chord rock ‘n’ roll. Helms played masterful fills while Robertson took guitar leads to the edge of out of control.

In 1964, the band left Hawkins. They toured a little and recorded an unsuccessful album but a year later their ability to back quirky front men was recognized and rewarded when they received a call from Bob Dylan. At that point, Dylan was a tremendously successful folk singer. In July 1965, he had endured angry boos when he had plugged in a telecaster and, backed by Mike Butterfield’s band, sang an electric set at the New Port Folk Festival. Ready for more, and he hired Hawkins’ old band.

The American tour began a month later. It was like nothing anyone had heard before. Woody Guthrie had bedded the Beatles. The marriage of folk, pop, and rock is commonplace now but was then revolutionary. They toured the world and endured more negative reaction. There is film of a Manchester, England concert where someone yells that Dylan is Judas. Dylan snaps back, and then turns to the band, and shouts, “Play it fucking loud!” And they do. They play it loud and they play it well to those who were booing, those who understood, and for posterity.

The band accompanied Dylan back to Saugerties, New York, where, exhausted but exhilarated, they lived and made new music together. From Helms came southern country and from Hudson came classical. From Robertson came pop and his respect for southern history and native culture. From Manuel, and Danko came blues, gospel and traditional bluegrass. Their informal recordings became the Basement Tapes and a decades-long iconic, unheard mystery.

The eclectic talents and interests melded with their years with Hawkins and Dylan to inform their 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink. They had been Hawkins band then Dylan’s band and now they needed a name. Helms suggested they be known as they were to many already, simply, The Band.

The group enjoyed hit songs and great success and well deserved places in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But it is as a band that they were midwives at the birth of rock n roll in Canada and country-rock around the world. Michael Nesmith, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and others who followed their lead owe a debt to the band called the Band.

  1. The Swampers

Speaking of Lyrnyrd Skynyrd, consider the fourth verse from their most popular song, Sweet Home Alabama:

Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/And they’ve been known to pick a song or two/Lord they get me off so much/They pick me up when I’m feeling blue/Now how bout you?

The Swampers? You may have never heard of them but, like the Wrecking Crew, you’ve heard them. Entrepreneur Rick Hall built FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. His very first song he recorded was by a shy, hospital orderly named Percy Sledge – the gospel-tinged power ballad When a Man Loves a Woman. The band is brilliant in its restraint. The organ creates a drone and the beat is pulled just slightly before each chorus, allowing tension to build to a climatic release. The notes are smooth, erotic, and let the singer and song do the work.

The record’s success brought attention to Muscle Shoals and more hit records to the world. People dancing to Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally were dancing to the Swampers. People swooning to Aretha Franklin’s Respect were loving the Swampers. Those moved by Etta James’ raucous Tell Mama were moved by the Swampers. Few knew the band. Fewer still knew that those motoring the new wave of Black R & B were all white.

None had musical training. But David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Pete Carr, Will McFarlane, Spooner Oldham, Clayton Ivey, Randy McCormick, and Albert S. Lowe all had soul, imagination, and a willingness to risk.

In 1969, Beckett, Hawkins, Hood, and Johnson formed their own studio called Pro Sound. The Swampers sound and feel, though, remained true to its roots. More singers came to capture its magic. They backed recordings by Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, John Prine, Duane Allman, Boz Scaggs, and the Oak Ridge Boys. They helped the Rolling Stones record Wild Horses and Brown Sugar. Bob Dylan came to record Desire. It’s the Swampers you are enjoying when singing along with the Staple Singers I’ll Take You There, Paul Simon’s Kodachrome, and Bob Seger’s Night Moves.

God was having a particularly good day when he decided to place the intersection of Black and White music in the heart of segregated Alabama and allow its sweet sounds to offer lessons to us all.

  1. E Street Band

Most Important Bands of All Time(Photo: http://www.sfae.com)

New Jersey is tough and the Jersey shore is tougher. It’s Sinatra tough. It’s Sopranos tough. It was tough in the late 1960s when in and around the hardscrabble Ashbury Park a new, hard driving, working class music developed in seedy bars and seedier clubs. Like Liverpool in the early ‘60s, Ashbury Park in the early ‘70s saw bands form and fall apart. The journeymen went to factories and the best to other bands. Among the dwindling elite were Danny Federici, Vini Lopez, Garry Tellent, David Sancious and Clarence Clemons. They came to know each other and became friends with a skinny young Jersey singer named Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen signed a recording contract in 1972 and offered a job to the best musicians on the Jersey Shore. They rehearsed at Sancious’ mother’s house on the corner of 10th Avenue and E Street. The name was born – The E Street Band. Their first album was entitled Greetings From Ashbury Park. A life of touring began. Some members left and were replaced but the sound grew tighter and even more powerful, and even tougher. The band was strengthened when ace guitarist Steven Van Zandt joined in 1975.

Springsteen became known for his working class anthems and he and the band for their working class dedication to fair play for fair pay. Concerts lasted three hours or more. There were few breaks between songs as the band kept the music or rhythm pulsating with the crowd engaged, enthralled, and enraptured. Songs people knew from the records were reinvented, made longer, more complex, and given more energy and different textures every night. Like the stadium band they became, they played to the back row. Like the bar band they had been, they played requests.

For 15 years, Springsteen recorded and performed without the band but they were reunited in 1995 and have been together ever since. Springsteen was not the same without them. He is better with them at his side and watching his back. Springsteen always affectionately introduces each member and then yells over the cheers: “It’s the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making, legendary E Street Band!”

Try to imagine Born to Run without Clarence’s sax solo. Try to imagine Glory Days without Little Stephens’ guitar and crazy harmonies. They take good songs and made them better. That’s the job of any band but not a job just any band can do. Now try to imagine Bruce Springsteen without the E Street band. I’m guessing he’d be a retired steel worker living in Ashbury Park, strumming his acoustic guitar and wondering about glory days that might have been.

Please share this column with others if you liked it and leave a comment on my choices. Suggestions for most important groups would be welcomed. If you have not seen it – johnboyko.com – has my thoughts on six most important singers.

Santa, Trudeau, and the Acceptable Lie

We lie to our children. The biggest lie, of course, is that we adults know what we’re doing. Right up there with our major league whoppers is Santa Claus.

We know that Santa began as a 3rd century Turkish monk named St. Nicholas who gave his inherited wealth to the poor. The Dutch perpetuated the legend but called him Sinter Klaas. We also know that in 1823 American Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature Clement Clark Moore wrote a poem for his daughters that invented the notion of a fat man, chimneys, sleighs, and reindeer. Only much later was it entitled “T’was the Night Before Christmas.” In 1881, Harper’s Weekly political cartoonist Thomas Nast gave pictures to the poem and Santa got his red suit. We also know that in 1931, the Coca Cola Company hired illustrator Haddon Sundblom who, stealing from Moore and Nast, initiated a decades-long ad campaign based on Santa as a jolly, wholesome, kid-loving, and Coke-drinking Christmas mainstay. Cue the malls and parades.

Santa, Trudeau and the Acceptable Lie..

The Nast Santa

We know all that. But we lie anyway. And maybe that’s OK. Santa is the flimsy link between the magic of Christmas and parenthood’s delicate dance. He is among the gifts we offer our children to balance our warnings about holding hands crossing the street, not talking to strangers, secret code words, and practicing fire drills at home and lock downs at school. We scare the hell out of them to keep them safe so maybe it’s alright if we temper fear with fun through a few years of Santa, the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and our invincibility.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is now enrapturing the country and many others around the world with his sunny disposition and deft ability to humanize the office that seems designed to suck the humanity from any who enter. Good on him. Canadians have known him from his birth – on Christmas day by the way – because his father was Prime Minister from the late ‘60s to early ‘80s. Canadians were reintroduced to Justin on September 28, 2000, when he delivered a touching eulogy at his father’s funeral. Consider a story he told:

“I was about six years old when I went on my first official trip. I was going with my father and my grandpa Sinclair up to the North Pole. It was a very glamorous destination. But the best thing about it is that I was going to be spending lots of time with my dad because in Ottawa he just worked so hard. One day, we were in Alert, Canada’s northernmost point, a scientific military installation that seemed to consist entirely of low shed-like buildings and warehouses.

Let’s be honest. I was six. There were no brothers around to play with and I was getting a little bored because dad still somehow had a lot of work to do. I remember a frozen, windswept Arctic afternoon when I was bundled up into a Jeep and hustled out on a special top-secret mission. I figured I was finally going to be let in on the reason of this high-security Arctic base. I was exactly right.

We drove slowly through and past the buildings, all of them very grey and windy. We rounded a corner and came upon a red one. We stopped. I got out of the Jeep and started to crunch across towards the front door. I was told, no, to the window.

So I clamboured over the snow bank, was boosted up to the window, rubbed my sleeve against the frosty glass to see inside and as my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I saw a figure, hunched over one of many worktables that seemed very cluttered. He was wearing a red suit with furry white trim.

And that’s when I understood just how powerful and wonderful my father was.”

Santa, Trudeau and the Acceptable Lie

Justin and his Dad (Ottawa Citizen Photo)

Let our leader be our guide. While we can, let’s enjoy the lie. This Friday my granddaughter will open presents that came all the way from the North Pole. Her eyes will sparkle. And that’s just fine.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and check more of my Monday blogs at http://www.johnboyko.com but, please, not on Christmas Day. Instead, let’s darken our screens to devote undivided time with those we love.