EVANGELIST (Billy Graham, R.I.P.)

In my world–among my people–he was as ubiquitous as Elvis and as universally beloved. In the world at large he was, after Martin Luther King, the most famous American Christian leader of the twentieth century.

I’ll leave the debate over his significance and the good vs. the bad to others. Of course he was not perfect. He walked with kings a little too often for the common touch not to wear off now and again. He should never have abetted Richard Nixon’s anti-Semitism even in private (some ways, doing it in private was worse, especially when he clearly did it to curry favor rather than from shared conviction). Even in old age, he should have been more resolute in the face of Islamic terror after 9/11. He was a bit soft on our own fundamentalists, too–soft enough to let them not only tie themselves up in party politics but become confused in the public mind not just with Evangelicals (of whom they are a small minority) but with Protestants (of whom they are but a fraction) and finally, all Christians (of whom they are a fraction of a percent). Some (not all) of this is on his head and one could go on.

But against all that, and without even mentioning his legion of good works, I’ll say this: There are very few televangelists of any era I can count on to be with “my people” on the last day.

Him I can count on.

So, just this once….

TESTIFIER (Dennis Edwards, R.I.P.)

Dennis Edwards was one of the last great soul men–and, perhaps because he replaced another legend in the greatest call and response vocal group of the rock and roll era (there’s competition among the harmony groups, where they’re also in the running)–one of the least appreciated.

Like a lot of soul singers, he was the son of a preacher man. Very few brought as much raw gospel power to the world stage. He turned every venue into a revival, every microphone into a pulpit. If you need a measure of his quality, consider only this. The Temptations survived the departure of David Ruffin (whom Edwards replaced). They survived the death of Paul Williams. They survived the departure of Eddie Kendricks.

When Dennis Edwards left in 1977, they were finished as a major force in American music. By then, he had helped extend their legacy by nearly a decade. Shouting all the way, from his first mighty hit (which kept them firmly at the forefront of the changing times)…

to his (and their) last.. which might have been his (and their) mightiest.

Higher ground tonight brother. Every inch earned.

PATHFINDER (Hugh Masekela, R.I.P.)

Given the mellow nature of his career-defining hit, an instrumental version of “Grazing in the Grass” that topped the Pop and R&B charts in 1968, it was easy to take Hugh Masekela for granted. But for a very long time, he was the most famous musician from South Africa on the world stage and one of the most famous people. And he kept his country’s issues on the minds of anyone who would listen and walked the line between entertainer, artist and citizen of conscience better than a lot of others who were far more prone to making a big deal of never letting you forget how hard they were working at all three.

He was probably best known as a trumpeter, but he played several other instruments just as well, besides being an affecting (if occasional) vocalist, a formidable bandleader….


and lyricist.

Of course, for a lot of rock and rollers, his signature moment is probably his indelible trumpet playing on the Byrds’ “So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” There’s no shame in thinking so…as signatures go, few musicians ever left a finer one.

He died of cancer last week at 78, in Johannesburg. If there’s any cosmic justice he’s in that place where no one’s lying to the races, blowing up a storm.


“INTO ALL THE WORLD” (Edwin Hawkins, R.I.P.)

The story behind gospel choir leader Edwin Hawkins’ big hit “Oh, Happy Day” is one of the great American tall tales that just happens to be true and exemplifies the freewheeling spirit that defined record-making in the rock and roll era. I could never tell the tale as well as Mark Steyn does so I’ll just link to his piece.

And to the record, of course….

…which was one of the last examples of the New Testament trying to breathe life into the Pop Charts before a different sort of tide washed everything away.

Except the next world, of course, where Brother Edwin now resides.

Better then.

SCENE STEALER (Dorothy Malone, R.I.P.)

In Hollywood from the early forties, Texas-raised Dorothy Malone got her first big break in 1946, when she played a bookstore clerk in the Bogart/Bacall classic The Big Sleep. Ever after, the world has been divided into two kinds of people. Those who think, no matter who killed the chauffeur, the movie should have been about her….and the rest of you schlubs.

Stealing scenes from Bogey didn’t turn into anything big. Even winning an Oscar for Written on the Wind a decade later didn’t turn into anything really big because Hollywood still didn’t know quite what to do with her. The closest she ever came to being a household name was starring in the TV version of Peyton Place and even that level of fame didn’t last. Who now watches reruns of Peyton Place? Not enough to insure immortality I’ll bet.

She deserved better and probably knew it, but she kept a sense of humor about it. On screen, no matter the part, she had the kind of presence that can only come from those who don’t take themselves any more seriously than is required to not be taken for a sucker.

She probably left her deepest imprint on fifties-era westerns (I can highly recommend the tense, chamber-piece Quantez but she was also the best thing going in Warlock, among many others). The Texas accent she once quipped about losing as the big accomplishment of her days as a contract player at RKO may not have left a mark on her speech but the upbringing behind it gave her a no-nonsense quality that fit the genre hand-in-glove. In the movies I’ve seen, she never struck a false note. I doubt she knew how. When she was tired of Hollywood, she went back to Texas, where she passed away this week at 93.

No doubt still casting a cold eye on the inherent silliness of fame and the fleeting nature of all glory.


Denise LaSalle’s life read like a book of the blues. Born Mississippi, moved to Chicago, recorded in Memphis (for a Detroit label), died Jackson, Tennessee.

Though she benefited from the space Aretha Franklin opened up in the American narrative when she came south for a brief session in Muscle Shoals, LaSalle carved out a space all her own. Her entire career–as singer, persona, writer (of her own biggest hit “Trapped By a Thing Called Love” and Barbara Mandrell’s country standard “Married, But Not To Each Other” among dozens more…the titles tell all)–was dedicated to the deceptively straightforward place where sex, love and obsession meet.

Her voice, measured but gritty, made those simple themes worthy of a lifetime of exploration and, across nearly five decades, there was no year she could stand when she couldn’t hit the road and pull a crowd in some juke joint somewhere. She probably deserved bigger and better than she got (and she was plenty big at times), but she was a rare talent in a style that, devoid of the moral authority lives like hers brought to it, no longer exists except in memory. The style doesn’t exist because, for better or worse, the lives don’t exist.

Time does that. Catches up, overtakes us.

Hey time….Catch this.


…and, yes, they were known to pick a song or two.

But the reason the Swampers, and the little Alabama hole in the wall recording studio where they shook the world, were in Muscle Shoals was because Rick Hall, trying to make his mark outside of Memphis, without resorting to Nashville, fetched up there and set up the third point of American music’s great Southern triangle. Rick Hall was Fame Studios and Fame Studios was Rick Hall.

They both ended up being a lot of other things. A whole lot of people contributed. Mostly black artists and mostly white session men with a mix of songwriters, all trying to prove each other to each other in the classic Southern style while George Wallace’s Alabama (where Hall made a point of frequenting local diners in the company of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett) tried to turn back the clock all around them.

But it was Hall’s vision and once he took hold of it Southern Soul and the world it was born to save were never quite the same.

It was from Hall’s place that the careers of Arthur Alexander and Percy Sledge and Clarence Carter and Joe Tex and Candi Staton were launched and those of Etta James and Aretha Franklin (specifically chasing Sledge’s success) were reborn. And that was just the tip of a mighty iceberg. Shamefully, he died without entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (can’t blame the voters for that one–nods to visionary producers and label owners are in the hands of the Hall’s own committee).

Doesn’t matter. I just got the playlist from the Entrance Commission at the Pearly Gates.

I’m hearing it’s the greatest night ever. Smoked Jerry Wexler’s entry party and they’re swearing even Berry Gordy’s gonna have to run to keep up…(The Wilson Pickett cut is live and not to be missed).

Hope your vision comes all the way true where you are now brother….Because it sure is lying in tatters down here.


As often happens with those who carry the blessing/curse of teen idol-dom, it became easy to forget just how big a star he was, capable of carrying a hit TV show and, despite being signed only as an actor, taking over the lead vocals of the show’s Family Band conceit himself and becoming enough of a draw to sell out 50,000 seat stadiums on his own.

Like many who were blessed/cursed before and since, he yearned for more than fame–wanted to write, produce, be taken seriously.

He did the first two, and quite well (check his The Higher They Climb for a fine version of the Beach Boys’ “Darlin'” and the original version of “I Write the Songs,” which went to #11 in the UK (he and the song’s composer, Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, co-produced) before it became forever associated with Barry Manilow. Unable to achieve the third goal, however, he sank into a classic spiral of alcoholism and hubris. Lynn Goldsmith’s invaluable book of rock and roll photography carries an anecdote of her and Cassidy walking on a beach somewhere and him telling her he was legend in his own time.

In your own mind maybe, she thought.

But he was probably more right than she was. He was a legend in his own time. That shouldn’t be devalued just because he didn’t transcend his time.

The Partridge Family was the cool show of my elementary and junior high years, so cool that I was able to follow along despite the frequent absence of a working TV at my house. That was how much other kids talked about it.

And, while Cassidy himself should have acknowledged the show being conceived around the Cowsills, and then yanked from them because of their boorish father, (DC’s real life step-mom, Shirley Jones, the on-screen Mrs. Partridge, became a big supporter of the group once she found out what had happened–which was after the show went off the air), he was a draw no Cowsill–or other Partridge–could have matched. Much as we all related to Danny Bonaduce’s character, we all knew, in our secret hearts, that the show could never have revolved around him.

For that you needed a star. David Cassidy was a star.

And, as far as I know, he and Ms. Jones (the only “Partridges” who actually sang on the records) are still only one of two Parent/Child vocal combos to hit #1 in Billboard.

The other one was named Sinatra.

Not bad company really, for a man who was, like all the greatest teen idols, a fine pop singer, as evidenced by a long, successful solo career that counted a handful of hits in the US (and as late as the nineties) and a near-dozen in the UK.

Besides which, anybody who hasn’t hit the natural high of that “Hey-y-y-y-y” a few times in their life, hasn’t lived as fully as they should have.

67 is too young to die of anything in a modern, developed country. It’s horribly young to die of complications brought on by dementia. I don’t doubt the years of self-abuse–abuse he brought on himself, in part, because it took him far too long to accept the kind of stardom that was in his bones and his stars–took their toll.

That’s not the worst you can say about a teen idol–that he wanted what his talent probably deserved.

Hope while the world is remembering tonight, it will also take a moment to listen.

FLORIDA BOY (Mel Tillis, R.I.P.)

In the days when Mel Tillis was as famous for being a reliably charming and hilarious talk show guest as he was for being a country singer, he liked to tell the story of his discovery by Mae Axton (Hoyt’s mother and co-composer of, among many others, a little tune called “Heartbreak Hotel”). She met him somewhere in Nashville, learned he was a sihger/songwriter, checked out his stuff and encouraged him to see a producer/executive she knew. Recognizing that his afterwards-famous speech impediment might be a problem during any formal interview process, she wrote a letter for him to take along.

The essence of the letter was this: “Never mind that he can’t talk. Good singer. Great writer.”

Of all the people who have ever been thus described to a Nashville Executive–by Mae Axton or anyone else–and who then carried the tag for a decade or more, while so many other people (Bobby Bare, Brenda Lee, Tom Jones, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers) sang his hits….

…only Mel Tillis emerged all the way from such deep and lengthy shadows to become a superstar in his own right. On the slow-moving Writer-Becomes-An-Unlikely-Singing-Star train, even Roger Miller had a shorter, faster ride to the Promised Land reached by so few.

Some of what allowed Mel to buck the Narrative was likability, some of it stick-to-it-tiveness, some of it elbow grease–all qualities prized by country audiences.

Most of it, though, was that he turned out to be a great singer as well, master of both comedy….

and melancholy…

..able to work nearly endless variations at both ends of the scale until it all meshed into a Sawdust-in-the-Suburbs world-view…

…one where country’s impoverished roots and middle-class aspirations were revealed as two sides of the same coin. By the seventies, when Tillis ascended to the top of the country charts often enough to become a presence in the larger culture, the assurances of the latter were still undercut by the memory (and shame, and guilt, and stubborn refusal to admit either) so inescapable in the former.

Most of that contradiction has been washed away now and what country music understood itself to be for nearly a century along with it. Now, the real impoverishment is spiritual…and hence not curable by either the dream or the reality of a split-level in the suburbs or a house in the Hills or even a recording contract in Nashville.

I had the pleasure of serving a couple of Mel’s daughters (not Pam, alas) breakfast, lunch and dinner at a girl’s camp in the summer of 1979. They were shy to a fault–even shyer than most shy kids, even shyer than I had been–and, if their stammering, stuttering father came from a similar psychological place and transcended it so thoroughly, it was a mark of character that makes me proud to have shared a home state with him.

And, speaking of Pam, she sang the harmony on the cut below, my pick for the greatest country record of the 80s….or, if there really could be such a thing, ever.

There was a lot of talk about outlaws back then.  And a lot of that talk–mostly from people who didn’t really like country music or its audience–said that outlaw was the “real” country.

Maybe along about here I should mention that the girls’ camp where Mel sent his daughters was at the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina.

Nobody ever called Mel Tillis an outlaw.

And  nobody was more country than Mel Tillis:

Born: Tampa (1932).
Raised: Pahokee.
Died: Ocala (2017).


RIGHT CROSS (Malcolm Young, R.I.P.)

It’s a little hard for a non-musician to say exactly what a rhythm guitarist adds to a rock and roll band but I’ve always assumed it had something to do with providing, you know, the rhythm.

If that’s true then few people have ever been a more hard core rock and roller than AC/DC’s Malcolm Young, who just passed away, twelve days after his older brother (and original producer), George, and three years after he retired from the band he founded with another brother, Angus, in the early seventies, as a result of complications due to early stage dementia. Because, before and after they were anything else, AC/DC were rhythm, rhythm, and more rhythm.

Yes, they wrote songs, including fifteen or twenty that became permanent radio staples and Malcolm had a strong hand it that, too. I suspect on some level, he played a role similar to John Entwistle’s in the Who–the steady hand, who took care of basic business, musically and otherwise, giving the more flamboyant personalities (in AC/DC, the head-banging, road-running, rhythm-rhythm-rhythm Angus, and the powerhouse rhythm-rhythm-rhythm lead singers Bon Scott and Brian Johnson) room to roam.

Unlike the punks who rose beside them or the death metal bands who sprang up in their wake (and often cited AC/DC as an influence), the Young brothers knew there was more to rhythm–and hence to the “rock and roll” they always insisted was a good enough description of what they did when anybody bothered to ask–than just playing loud, fast and primitive. Yes, they rocked–and rocked and rocked and rocked. But they never forgot to roll. Which is why they were a truly great band and also why they blasted out of more radios than all the punk and death metal bands combined back when rock and roll on the radio was still the common coin of the culture.

I suspect their “rhythm” guitarist had something to do with that, as well.

Malcolm Young and his band knew who they were, they kept on being who they were come hell or high water and they never quit or tried to be anyone else.

Very few of us get to pass to the next stage knowing we managed all that.

I hope the final highway led some place other than Hell, but, if not, at least Malcolm Young will be one of the very few who reach the last stop with his eyes wide open.