WINNERS (Whitey Ford and Joe Morgan, R.I.P.)

I grew up with the legend of Whitey Ford and the reality of Joe Morgan. Ford retired the year before I saw my first Major League baseball game. Morgan played second base for the Houston Astros in that game, which took place in 1968 in the Houston Astrodome, then the “eighth wonder of the world” now vanished from the face of the earth, as is the Yankee Stadium where Ford pitched the home half of his remarkable career.

The word on Ford was that he never possessed overpowering stuff. That all he knew how to do was get people out and win games. It was for the latter he was best known, racking up the fourth highest winning percentage in MLB history, winning six World Series titles and setting the record for consecutive scoreless WS innings (33) which still stands.

It may stand for a long time yet. A lot of great pitchers never even get to pitch 33 innings in the World Series. And for those who think his great winning percentage was carried by great Yankee hitting, it’s worth nothing that his career ERA is bettered in the post war era only by two pitchers who are still playing. They will likely come down in time. The more time goes by, the more Whitey Ford stands alone.

Joe Morgan stands alone, as well, as the best all-around second basemen of his era and possibly the best ever. There are modern stat freaks who say so, but Morgan was one of those players who could never be fully appreciated by the numbers others believe in so fervently. That quality made him a valuable voice for young baseball players when he became a post-season commentator while he was still playing.

My favorite Joe Morgan story wasn’t any of the remarkable things I saw him do at the plate or in the field or on the bases. It wasn’t even seeing him in my first MLB game (where, to tell the truth, he didn’t make much impression on the faraway Astro-turf. Somewhere or other in the Spring of 1973, I had come across Joe Morgan’s baserunning tips, which included not relying on your coach when running from first to third on a base hit to right field. According to Joe, you should throw a look over your right shoulder when the ball cleared the infield and make up your own mind about whether you could make it to third.

Come my Little League All Star game, I got my team’s first hit in the bottom of the third. (We were already trailing 1-0 because my team’s catcher dropped my perfect throw from center field in the top of the first…not that I’m still bitter or anything.) My good friend Doug S. (R.I.P.) was next up and he got a base hit down the right field line. I followed Joe Morgan’s advice perfectly. Quick glance over the right shoulder. Saw the ball as down the line and never looked up or back until I had steamed into third.

We had the third base dugout and my manager immediately jumped all over me for not looking at the coach. I nodded and thought, “You’re a nice guy Mr. K, but you ain’t Joe Morgan.”

The next batter grounded to the infield. I took off for the plate and the infielder went to first. The first baseman mishandled the ball and Doug S. tried to score from second (where he had reached when they tried to throw me out at third). He was thrown out by ten feet. Big inning spoiled.

We lost the game 4-2. I didn’t see Doug S. until the following school year, when he assured me that the only reason he tried to score (he was the slowest man on the team), was because the third base coach waved him around.

“Yeah,” I said. “I didn’t pay any attention to him.”

Like Mr. K, he was no Joe Morgan.

I hope somebody’s creating those kind of memories for kids these days. But permit me to doubt it.

So long Whitey. Goodbye Joe.

All you knew how to do was win.

DANCE THE NIGHT AWAY (Eddie Van Halen, R.I.P.)

Not many guitarists could put David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Eddie Van Halen was that rare player who could shred or solo with the best while never losing track of the basics, could play maestro or riff-master according to what the moment needed.

You know me. I loved the beat and in his age, nobody kept it better.

Yes, he was “historical.” His solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” was one of the last great crossover moments and the combination almost single-handedly opened up MTV for black artists. His band invented hair metal. No matter how you felt about all that, he and they deserved their iconography.

But for me, it never got further than the record that broke them open in the Spring of 1979…..and never needed to:

JUST KEEP IT FRIENDLY…(Mac Davis, R.I.P.)

Mac Davis was relaxed even for his own time. He couldn’t have had a career in this time. Our loss.

As the composer of “In the Ghetto,” “don’t Cry Daddy,” “Memories” and “A Little Less Conversation” his importance to Elvis Presley’s late 60’s comeback was incalculable and second to none. Same for his Elvis stories, which were invariably warm but believable, the stories of an authentic friendship as opposed to dining out on a brush with greatness.

But when he passed (the same day as Helen Reddy), my immediate memories were of the happiness he delivered on his short-lived variety show where he seemed both more relaxed and less likely to take a wooden nickel than anyone on television. That combination always infused his own best records, some of which were heard by all…

some by quite a few…

and some by almost no one….

Hey Chris, that last one’s for you and Big Mac and the memories.

THE ROAR (Helen Reddy, R.I.P.)

When I was in junior high and high school (1972-78), if a kid came in and told the class “Dad threw a shoe at the TV last night” nobody had to ask who had been on. Not Johnny Rotten, not Mick Jagger, not David Bowie or Alice Cooper or some politician.

The only person who drew that kind of response in my part of the world–the only real threat to order–was Helen Reddy. I always thought that made her the truest rock ‘n’ roller since Elvis. After 1978, my local oldies’ stations did not agree, because they never played her records again and by “never” I mean not once. She was dropped down the memory hole. I’m sure they played her somewhere. Just nowhere I was.

I pity those who missed her. There was no combination of sights and sounds to quite match Ms. Reddy in a bare midriff halter and hip huggers belting “I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore” on one TV show after another, so ubiquitous you couldn’t miss her, even at my house, which seldom had a functioning television set.

I assumed she would be a permanent fixture in my generation’s lives. Instead she was kicked to the curb as soon as she stopped being a force on the radio. Some of this may have been by her own design…but surely the larger part of it was due to other forces. The same forces that spent the last forty years screwing up literally everything else.

Nothing damns our present more than memory-holing the feminist who had the best idea of where it all might have gone.

And yet, if I listen close, I still swear I can hear a roar, like a seashell held right next to the ear, intimate and epic in equal measure:

 

REGGAE DONE GONE NOW (Toots Hibbert, R.I.P.)

I don’t have anything like the energy to pay a just tribute to Toots Hibbert, leader of the Maytals, who passed away while I was in the hospital on Sept. 11.  Suffice it to say he came as close to defining reggae as any one man could, right down to naming it on his 1968 hit “Do the Reggay” and making its greatest record (see below).

I confess I never heard the strong resemblance to Otis Redding often noted by others. But Toots was as central to the soul of Kingston as Otis was to the soul of Memphis and I trust they are finally playing that killer double-bill we never got to hear in this place in some better land tonight.

THE LOVE THAT BURNED (Peter Green, R.I.P.)

In the late 60’s, a handful of men managed to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the blues had no color, or even nationality. The one who, along with the long gone Duane Allman, proved it deepest and truest, was Peter Green, founder of the original Fleetwood Mac.

He died today in a world that is on fire in large part because the lessons of his music remain ignored and discarded. I’m not feeling too good myself, but I pause to remember and reflect. Maybe we should listen this time. Maybe we should even refuse to forget.

THE LONG HAIRED COUNTRY BOY MOVES ALONG (Charlie Daniels, R.I.P.)

I spent the summer of 1979 working at the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina. My car was a ’71 Ford Maverick with no air-conditioning and an AM-only radio. In that part of North Carolina I could pull about four stations. If I spent more than four minutes in the hot car I heard “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band on at least one of those stations.

More than a few times, when I was tooling around looking for record shops, I heard it on all four stations consecutively. The record would end on one station and go to a commercial or a song I didn’t like (a VERY common occurrence in 1979 no matter where I was) and I would punch the button and land in the middle of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Then it would end and I would change stations again and the next station would be playing it and so on. I learned the words a long time before the summer was over.

Today when I found out Charlie had passed, I pulled it up on YouTube and, though I hadn’t heard it in at least twenty years, I hadn’t forgot a thing–including the fall of ’79, when I came home and started watching college football and poor Chris Schenkel was doing a game intro, welcoming the fans to the game of the week and, whichever southern stadium was hosting (Athens? Auburn? Baton Rouge?…the memory hazes) had Charlie for a guest and the network cut to him just as he was substituting “son of a bitch” for “son of a gun.”

Different times.

Of course there was a lot more to Charlie Daniels than my memories (which stretched back to my sister and me laughing at “Uneasy Rider” on the way home from the mall almost a decade before). He was a top-tier session man and formidable band leader and his big break came writing the greatest record in Elvis’ vast secret catalog (and one of the greatest in his catalog, period):

Later on, in 1982 to be exact, he took the lid off the top 40’s resistance to the damage Viet Nam had left in both individual vet’s lives and the country’s psyche with his cover of Dan Daley’s “Still in Saigon.” Whether that was a makeup for redneck anthems like “Leave This Long Haired Country Boy Alone” and “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” or a continuum of a valid world view is a matter of taste. What is undeniable is that it opened a seam that, on the radio, ran all the way to Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.”

But to tell you the truth, what I remember today is the Summer of ’79, when he was literally the only good thing on the radio…so good they played him on every station, country, rock and pop, all day long, all summer long:

ALMOST A FAIRY TALE (Bonnie Pointer, R.I.P.)

Bonnie Pointer left her sisters in 1977 (just before they made the jump to major stardom) and had the usual solo career: strong start, long fade. Her sister Anita was the distinctive lead on most of the Sisters’ iconic hits before and after the split.

But Bonnie left her own large impact on the culture just the same, co-writing several of the group’s early hits, one of which “Fairytale,” became a Grammy-winning crossover hit.

What it crossed over to first was the country chart. What the Grammy was for was Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for the year 1974, the year they also became to first female vocal group to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.

If you don’t think that was a big deal in 1974, or yesterday, you haven’t been paying attention. No one–no one–represented the aspirtaional aspects of Rock and Roll America better than the Pointer Sisters, who never did anything but make great records in any style they tried. After her solo career petered out, Bonnie had her share of troubles, sourced in drugs as usual. I hope she’s found the peace she deserved tonight.

You know what we do here. Strive to not forget.

And keep asking: “How long…will this game go on?”

INDISPENSABLE (Betty Wright, R.I.P.)

Like not a few young women before her–Carla Thomas at Stax was another prime example–Betty Wright was instrumental in establishing a scene/label/genre which proceeded to drop her by the wayside on the way to bigger things. In Wright’s case her decidedly un-hip 1968 hit “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do” was a foundation record for the burgeoning Miami scene which, following her 1971 monster hit “Clean Up Woman,” became a major player in 70’s funk, soul and disco. Her label, Alston Records, spun off TK (home of the McCraes–whom the teenage Wright discovered–and KC and the Sunshine Band) and the rest was history. In funk central’s move from Memphis to Miami, Wright was a major player.

She never had another hit as big, but it wasn’t for a lack of making great records, a fate she shared with a lot of fantastic R&B female singers who were her contemporaries: Stacy Lattisaw, Ann Peebles, Candi Staton. One or two shots at the mainstream, then back to the modern chitlin circuit or the gospel highway or a bit of both.

Twenty-five years ago I came up with a home-made mix-taping concept called Radio Free America that eventually turned into about forty home tapes (later reconstructed for CD). The idea was to compile records from every conceivable rock ‘n’ roll genre, as long as they had the beat, the beat, the beat. Those mix-tapes ended up providing me with about as good a definition of rock ‘n’ roll as I’ve ever come up with–whatever the girls on Shindig and Hullabaloo could dance to. Of course, any concept needs to start somewhere and after about two minutes, I knew where those forty tapes had to start:

Betty Wright passed away from cancer on May 10 at the age of 66, mostly forgotten everywhere except Black America…and my house.

..And maybe Rock and Roll Heaven.

EVANGELIST (Little Richard, R.I.P.)

He recorded almost everything he would be known for in about two years. His various “retirements” from Rock ‘n’ Roll, which he really did believe was the devil’s music, were nearly as numerous as his greatest hits. I’m pushing sixty and he spent most of my lifetime living off his legend.

Doesn’t matter. That brief, shining moment in the 50’s wasn’t everything he ever was, but it was enough. The fire he lit burned deep and long just as if he had answered God’s call after all. It has survived our cultural collapse the only way anything can–by sinking deep in the heart of man, where it will forever constitute the spirit that will need rekindling if we’re ever to amount to anything again.

Two years or two hundred, no man can do more than that.