ALWAYS THERE (Occasional Sports Moment #32)

Chris Evert was the most important female athlete of the twentieth century.

Some people would argue Billie Jean King was more important. I’d say that’s a little like suggesting Branch Rickey was more important than Jackie Robinson, or John the Baptist was more important than Jesus. Yes, someone must clear the path (and Billie Jean, unlike Mr. Rickey or The Baptist, was great in the arena).

But it’s the one who walks through the last gate who fulfills the final, most vital task–the thing that cannot be done by the world simply asking or allowing a new thing to be given a chance or even by the very best people with the very best intentions dedicating their own lives to making it so.

Jesus and Jackie have gotten their due. Evert has not. (There are reasons. I discussed some of them here.)

Jesus’ job was to sacrifice his life for mankind. Jackie’s was to excel on the field and take all the guff that came with breaking the color line in the only sport where, in 1948, it mattered.

Evert’s job–one I doubt she wanted any more than Jackie wanted to keep his considerable temper–was to put butts in the seats and keep eyes glued to the tube and to do it for a long enough period of time that taking a non-Olympic women’s sport seriously would take hold for good.

This is something she alone has ever done in the history of day-to-day women’s sports. Today’s women, playing her sport only reasonably well, routinely make more in endorsements than those playing other sports do for winning like crazy–and that’s on top of their sport, in good years or bad, already being a long way tops in competitive prize money.

Thank Chris Evert for all that. Without her there would be a tour. And it would be every bit as popular as the LPGA or the WNBA. (Or Billie Jean’s real passion, World Team Tennis. Not even Chris Evert, who, at the peak of her career, sacrificed the records that would have made it impossible to dismiss her in the Greatest of All Time** argument to support it, could make that dog hunt.)

The best moment in this very good interview (conducted by Steve Flink, a rare good tennis journalist and one with whom Evert has a strong enough relationship to keep her appointment even with what sounds like a terrible head cold) about her U.S. Open career, is Evert describing the two weeks when, at sixteen, she burst onto the scene with a series of improbable upsets and comebacks against the tour’s best players. The professional tour was so new it wasn’t even an idea when Evert took to the Lauderdale public courts ten years earlier, deploying her signature, revolutionary two-handed backhand because her six-year-old hands were otherwise too small to wield the racket.

Although it would be a worthwhile interview in any case because it’s a rare case of a long interview sticking almost entirely to tennis (these days, most tennis “journalists” don’t even bother with this when they are calling matches), the real kicker is when Evert and Flink revisit the moment she put not only women’s tennis, but tennis, on the front page of the paper.

Not the sports page.

The paper.

Up to and including the New York Times…and the one in my home town and yours, too.

They don’t say it so I will….

No one else, then or since, could have done that. And then backed it up with a career so consistent I–doubtless not alone–endured mild but lasting trauma eighteen years later when she retired and I was forced to confront the cold, harsh reality that there really was no rule that said my favorite player had to be in the finals every single week.

Still not sure I’m over it. All I can say is tennis is now the last sport I follow with any regularity. Not because of what it is. But because of what I know it can be.

**True, only fools do so now. But the world is run by fools. I’m sure you’ve noticed.

THE RISING….1975, WHAT A CONCEPT (Sixth Memo: Mixed Race Edition)

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As defined by that cover at the right (from Time Life’s invaluable Ultimate Seventies series and a rare failure from their usually inspired graphics department), 1975 was every crap-u-lous thing the punks said it was. It makes me want to take the shop-worn Survived-The-Seventies secret decoder badge out of my wallet and slip it into a wood stove with pine knots blazing.

Then again, there’s the music.

That’s trickier.

The mid-seventies were a troublesome time, a time when we had to either deal with the sixties or head down the path that brought us to this cozy little paradise we now enjoy. By 1975, what I’ve taken to calling The Rising–the attempt rock and rollers of various hues made to sustain the revolution that had begun in the fifties and perhaps even broaden it into a world where we would never be forced to admit we aren’t going to get along because we really don’t like each other very much–was cresting into what turned out to be its last wave. Within a year or two (or five), punk/alternative and rap/hip-hop would arrive full force, and, with some help from an intelligentsia programmed to believe its own self-contempt was the New Covenant, carry us back to our various tribes.

What a happy journey that’s been!

I mean, forty years later, radio is such an awesome void nobody even pretends to fathom it. The only thing blanker, less alive, is journalism.

Or maybe politics.

I wonder: Was 1975 so bad it really had to be this way?

I mean, forget politics. Culture dies (or simply withers away) first. The rest is detritus.

I wonder, was 1975 alive, or–as some would have it–dead?

Hmmmmm….How best to ponder?

I know. Let’s think of it as a concept.

And let’s think of Time Life’s edition of Ultimate Seventies: 1975 as a concept album.

Yeah. That’s always fun.

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(Linda Ronstadt and band, on the road in ’75)

Track 1: “You’re No Good” Linda Ronstadt

The 1975 journey begins. In 1963 actually. White boy (Clint Ballard, Jr.) writes song with who knows who in mind. White producers (Leiber and Stoller) cut it on a black woman (Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister). It goes nowhere. Black producer (Calvin Carter), picks it up with an idea of cutting it on a black man (Dee “Raindrops” Clark), then decides the lyrical message will be too harsh coming from a guy, so he gives it to another black woman (Betty Everett) who gets a top five R&B hit out of it, with modest pop crossover. Six months later, the Swinging Blue Jeans take their cover to #3 in England.

All very typical.

Everett’s record had just enough cachet to make it into some of the standard live sets of  the decade hence, including, circa the early seventies, Linda Ronstadt’s. Ronstadt, still chasing the real thing after a decade of not-quite-stardom, gave her first major performance of the song on a December, 1973 episode of The Midnight Special...where she was introduced as the country singer she still considered herself to be.

All still pretty typical.

Months later, after a tortuous process of layered guitars, studio tinkering and bitching about tempos amongst Ronstadt, her new producer, Peter Asher (a Brit keen on the Swinging Blue Jeans’ version), and the crack band she had assembled after granting the Eagles permission to strike out on their own, the song was recorded with a pop sheen that only enhanced what she had done on The Midnight Special, which was make the song’s deep mix of dread and liberation seem inherent and blow every previous version to smithereens.

It was released November, 1974 and reached #1 in Billboard, February, 1975.

Good start.

Leg up to ’75.

Track 2: “Jackie Blue” Ozark Mountain Daredevils.

By 1975, “Southern Rock” was a sufficiently big deal for some marketing genius to decide the form needed its own version of the Eagles.

Perverse genius? Or merely perverse?

Like so much else back then, and so little now, that’s for each person to decide.

Track 3: “That’s the Way (I Like It)” KC and the Sunshine Band

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Southern funk band goes full-blown “Disco,” forever blurring the distinction and making the newer concept a bigger deal than it had been previously. After them, it was inevitable somebody would make up stories about disco. And just as inevitable that the fakers would split the cut.

[Of note: KC was the first white lead vocalist to officially top Billboard‘s R&B chart since, weirdly, Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack” in 1963. (Also of Note: Along with a handful of record by black artists, Joel Whitburn lists the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” as an R&B #1 in 1964, when Billboard had temporarily suspended its R&B chart. The British Invasion of that year, perhaps helped by other things, soon necessitated the restoration of the pre-rock-n-roll order, which disco was threatening by 1975, thus requiring us to be “saved” yet again by our betters. First time around, we got Beatlemania. This time around, we settled for the Sex Pistols. To which I’ll only add that, between Herbert Wayne Casey and John Lydon, I know who the visionary radical was. Listen again.)]

Track 4: “Must of Got Lost” J. Geils Band

From Wikipedia: “The title, if correct English had been used, would be “Must Have Gotten Lost”. When a contraction is used, “Must Have” becomes “Must’ve”, which sounds like “Must of”, which is not correct English and makes no sense.”

And I was just going to complain that they don’t make blue-eyed-soul-garage-rock records like this anymore. Silly me, forever underestimating the present’s ability to stick a pencil in my eye.

Track 5: “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” War

Talk about a leg up to ’75. “I hear you’re workin’ for the C-I-A/They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-i-a.” That’s everything rap ever wanted to be in a couplet and that’s not even getting into how they could sing and play.

Track 6: “Sister Golden Hair” America

What’s that you say? 1975 deserves every kick you can give it?

“Too, too hard to find?” you say?

Okay. Maybe.

But you know, I just say, “You’re no good, Jackie Blue, and that’s the way I like it, so I must of got lost and just why can’t we be friends sister golden hair?”

I also sing along every single damn time it comes on the radio.

Track 7: “Philadelphia Freedom” Elton John

Wait, the song about Philadelphia Freedom was sung by the bald, bi, English dude who could cut in on Soul Train? And programmed right after the song (cut with George Martin no less) by America, the band that so cheekily named itself after the country the bald guy was celebrating….assuming he wasn’t really putting all that pop genius into just giving a shout out to Billie Jean King’s World Team Tennis team?

Of course it was.

But not to worry. That was “America” then. Nothing like that would happen now. Not even close.

Track 8: “Black Water”The Doobie Brothers

Slick West Coasters channeling Mark Twain. Literally. We’re riding along easily now. The spirit of AM Gold is achieving a touch of somnolence. Maybe the world really did need a wake up call?

Track 9: “Love is a Rose” Linda Ronstadt

Maybe. And perfectly fine. But it’s no “You’re No Good.”

Track 10: “How Long” Ace

Yes, I feel myself fading. Bobby Womack and Rod Stewart were among the many who later tried to kick this to life. They, too, were defeated.

Track 11: “Dance With Me” Orleans

And if I’m asleep, this isn’t likely to wake me.

Not that sleep is a bad thing. Necessarily.

Track 12: “Freebird” Lynyrd Skynyrd

A bit of life stirs. Not my favorite Skynyrd, actually, but it’s the real life Huck Finn singing about the real life road so it always pulls me in in the long run. And that’s even before the guitars start playing…and playing…and burning.

Track 13: “You Are So Beautiful” Joe Cocker

Okay, now I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle. I’ve slept a bit and I’m up and ready to engage the past, the present, the future. And god knows I’ve got time, listening to Joe, who always could make two minutes sound like ten.

Wish they had gone with Tanya Tucker’s version.

Track 14: “Feel Like Makin’ Love” Bad Company

A true taste divider. To some, meh. To others, the incarnation of every-wrong-mid-seventies-thing.

What I hear is a great white blues and a natural answer record to Betty Wright’s “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker,” which had gone top ten R&B in the fall of ’73.

Track 15: “Lady Marmalade” LaBelle

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And while we’re at it, why not a natural #1 (Pop and R&B) about a hooker suckering a chump down in old New Orleans? (And if you only link one video here…)

Track 16: “Pick Up the Pieces” Average White Band

Or maybe a funk masterwork by a bunch of Scotsmen?

The more I think about it, the more I’m aware that there was no way this sort of thing  was going to be allowed to stand. All that peace, harmony and funk breaking out everywhere? The Overlords must have really been asleep at the switch. No wonder they hit back with such a vengeance.

Track 17: “Island Girl” Elton John

A natural answer record to “Lady Marmalade,” in which the chump goes home, falls for a Jamaican hooker being pimped by “the racket boss” and, given a chance to tell his side of the tale, turns out to be even more of a chump than the lady thought….because nobody (the girl, the chump, the “black boy” in her island world) can save her and he’s the one who can’t stop asking himself why.

Just in case that’s not enough confusion, the Jamaican girl’s background ghost-voice was provided by Kiki Dee.

Of course it was.

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Track 18: “Some Kind of Wonderful” Grand Funk

Yes, they had dropped the “Railroad.”

A straight rip and scary in its efficiency. White boys who helped define corn-fed midwestern stadium rock take on the Soul Brothers Six and their straight-from-the-soul-shadows mind-bender and do it note-for-note, lick-for-lick. And get an earned hit. That’s not the way it was supposed to happen. Ever. Not even in ’75.

Get away from me ’75!

Track 19: “The Hustle” Van McCoy

Okay. Come back ’75. Let Van McCoy celebrate his career by naming an era-defining dance after it and tripping the light fantastic.

Track 20: “Let’s Do It Again” The Staple Singers

Which brings us all the way around to the song that was sitting at #1 when the year ended.

By 1975, one of the mixed blessings of the decade’s first half–the blaxploitation flick–had started to come a box-office cropper, and so the curtain was about to be drawn on one of the period’s unmixed blessings, the blaxploitation soundtrack.

Even the best of those movies never lived up to the best of their music, and, though I’ve never seen the Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby vehicle that provided the excuse for the Staples’ to formally close down the southern soul era (and Stax records), I have no reason to suspect it was among the best of anything.

Even if it was great, though, I’ll feel safe betting it wasn’t this great, because, whatever else it was, it wasn’t a reach for the heavens, let alone a reach which was about to have its fingers stomped by Brits in boots, pretending to preach freedom.

Speak to me ’75!

And, if you’re gonna go down, go down swingin’. Hey, If sitting through “Jackie Blue” and “Dance With Me” is the price of the ticket, I’ll pay it every time.

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(The Staple Singers…reaching for higher ground)

COACH (PAT HEAD SUMMITT, R.I.P.)

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One of the few modern developments worth applauding has been the mainstreaming of women’s sports. After Billie Jean King and Chris Evert, no one was more important to that process than Pat Head Summitt, who just passed away, at 64, from complications of early onset Alzheimer’s.

She was hired as the University of Tennessee’s basketball coach in the fall of 1974. She was 22, fresh off an All-American senior season at UT-Martin. In the early years, she drove the team van, sometimes to places where they slept on the floor of the opponent’s gym because they couldn’t afford a motel.

These days, no major college women’s team sleeps on anybody’s floor. Thank her for that.

She won in her first season and, thirty-eight years later, she won in her last. In between she won in every single other season. There were eight national championships, an Olympic Gold Medal (back when American dominance of international women’s basketball was far from assured–thank her for making that an ongoing reality, too) and a record number of wins overall. Along the way she graduated one hundred percent of her players.

And all of that paled next to the endless, incalculable inspiration, typified by Kate Fagan’s fine tribute at ESPN’s website, which I recommend in the strongest terms.

patsummitt2Near the end of her career, cut short a few years ago by the diagnosis of the disease that took her today, The Sporting News ranked the top fifty coaches across the history of all sports. Exactly one woman made the list, at #11. If you followed sports even a little in the last half-century, and somebody told you there was only one, you would not have needed to be told who.

Like I always say: When there’s only one of something, there are reasons. In this case, chalk it up to the fire within. Not just the ability to coach a sport, however considerable that was, or even the most extraordinary capacity to lead, but to imagine that every single person who plays for you really and truly matters. You do that, and there will be a reason why every single person who played for you across four decades cries when you die, something that probably could not be said of any of the other forty-nine coaches on that list because, frankly, coaching at that level isn’t really supposed to be like that.

Thank her for proving that idea wrong, too.

Sounds like dedication time, so here’s from the Maryville in me to the Clarksville in her:

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