We’re Not Ones to Go ’round Spreadin’ Rumors

david carroll BeaverDamUSA.comI’ve been a news guy for 26 years. On the education beat, I meet a lot of school people. Some of them like me, and some don’t. I’ve never been that “gotcha” type who is always looking for the worst in people, yet I’ve never hesitated in reporting those stories. I’m a competitor, I want to get the story first, and I want to get it right. I’ve succeeded in some attempts, failed in others. Through it all, I’ve made some observations I’d like to share.

Despite what many believe, most of us news types don’t wake up saying, “Gee I hope something awful happens today!” I’ll admit, I’ve had that suspicion about some in the news biz. It’s widely known that “Entertainment Tonight”-type shows get a ratings spike when bad things happen to the Anna Nicole/Michael Jackson/Whitney Houston circle of stars. I can’t help thinking they secretly, or perhaps openly rejoice when a juicy scandal lands in their lap. At least, that’s the impression I get from the gleam in their eyes and the tone of their breathless promos. But at the local level, we don’t go around high-fiving when there’s a tragedy or a scandal. We know we have to report it, but we’d have a better day if the mayor won the lottery and bought nice homes for the poor. Honestly we would. And we’d lead the newscast with it.

Not too long ago, I was informed that the principal of a local high school, and one of his assistants had been suspended for “allegations of improper conduct.”  As you would expect, the school was abuzz. Teachers were talking about it, students picked up on it, and within minutes parents were receiving (and forwarding) texts, Facebook was blowing up, and the 2013 method of news/gossip distribution was in full viral glory. This is when a reputable news outlet should do its job: separate fact from rumor, and put the truth out there under its banner with “just the facts.”  I cornered the superintendent, he said what he could say, didn’t say what he couldn’t say, and promised to release more at the conclusion of his investigation.

I’ve been assigned this task many times over the years, with predictable results. In olden days, the complaints would roll in via snail mail and phone calls. Now of course, the Facebook/Twitterverse erupts in seconds. “You’re only putting this on the news because it’s (My Favorite) High School! This wouldn’t make the news if it was (Our Rival) High School!” And this: “Typical tabloid journalism. You’re only telling part of the story. If they did something so wrong, why aren’t you reporting it? We want to know details!”  And finally, “This happens all the time, in every workplace. What makes this newsworthy?”  I can only imagine the complaints we would have received had we chosen to ignore the story (not an option). “Why are you covering this up?” would have been the frequent, and rightful question. There are no winners in these incidents. Everyone involved in the story is paying a huge personal price, and as for the media, we’ll get criticized no matter how we cover it.

By now, you know the rules. I didn’t establish them, but I must follow them. If a public figure (vaguely defined as a person of authority, fame or civic responsibility) is arrested, dismissed or suspended, he or she will make the news. Elected officials, cops, firefighters, attorneys, doctors, educators, athletes, business leaders and media personalities are among those under this umbrella. The guy who painted your house, or the lady who bagged your groceries are usually exempt. Those who aspire to be superintendents or school administrators are told (or should be told), “We’re placing you on a high pedestal. You’re going to be a leader of students and teachers. One false step in your personal life, and boom! You’re on the news.”  The same could be said for teachers and school bus drivers. They’re paid, with taxpayer money, to be an example for our kids, and to keep them safe. This is why their indiscretions (DUI, etc.) often become front-page news, while your hairdresser’s escapades do not.

hee hawSo when this story broke, it got a lot of reaction. Unfortunately Facebook, the “Hee Haw” clothesline gossip service of this generation, is a news source to many. “Well,” usually goes the post, “my daughter’s niece knows someone who used to go to school there, and she knows for a fact that those teachers were out last night…plus they did it in the school…and they did it out of town….blah, blah, blah.”  Some news outlets were no better. One online publication cited “an incident occurring on school time, sources said.” Really? Where’s the proof? How reliable are the “sources?”  This, just moments after the superintendent told me that his ultimate decision would rest on the answer to that very question: was the incident “on school time?”  The superintendent did not yet know, but a news outlet was passing it along as fact, according to “sources.”

A broadcast media personality was carelessly quoting unnamed “sources” who had sent texts and e-mails to him with all sorts of inside information, so it had to be true, to hear him tell it. Could you make up a screen name, make up a story, and have it broadcast as fact? It has happened.

I know one of the educators in the center of all this. I consider him a friend who has done good things for his schools for many years. It gives me no joy to report bad news that affects him and his family. Nor do I celebrate the misfortune of perfect strangers. Every time we report a story like this, I know that we’re showing a picture of someone who has a family, a mom who is proud of them, a spouse who loves them, kids who adore them. It hurts, but we can’t pick and choose. Above all, we can’t cover it up. Despite the frequent accusations of media negativism, we have proudly reported many good things that have happened at that school, and others. Sadly, those stories don’t seem to stick with the public quite as much.

I just hope that those of you who look for accurate news information will demand that media outlets report only the facts, and leave the rumors to others. If responsible journalists don’t stick to the facts, the rumors really get out of control. People should be able to count on us to separate the two. Otherwise, we’re no better than the gossip girls on “Hee Haw.”

 

When ‘Seinfeld’ Was Must-see TV

david carroll BeaverDamUSA.comI caught a “Seinfeld” rerun the other night.  Between the laughs, I remembered how NBC was reluctant at first: the show was too Jewish, too New York, and of course, it was about nothing.  After the first four episodes aired in the summer of 1989, NBC lost interest for a while. The show was offered to Fox, and in a decision I bet they’d love to have back, they turned it down.  In 1991, NBC gave it another chance and the rest is TV history. I scoured the archives and found this interview I did with Jerry Seinfeld right before the show was re-launched on NBC.

It took a couple of years to really catch on, but from 1993-98, “Seinfeld” was consistently ranked among the top 3 shows on TV.  It gave us George Costanza’s hopeless schemes, Elaine’s bad dancing, nagging parents and the great physical humor of Cosmo Kramer.  There were the unforgettable recurring characters like Newman, Uncle Leo, the Soup Nazi and “George Steinbrenner.”  Endless catchphrases live on to this day: “Yadda yadda yadda,” “No soup for you,” and “Not there’s anything wrong with that,” to name a few.

Jerry Seinfeld is not an actor now, nor was he then, and you won’t find his name on any list of Emmy winners for acting.  In many scenes, it looks like he is struggling to keep a straight face.  He is a stand-up comedian, a great one, and was smart enough to surround himself with excellent comic actors:  Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards created iconic characters, and it could be argued that Alexander and Richards still struggle to escape their “Seinfeld” identities.  They were that good.  They became George and Kramer.  Somehow, Louis-Dreyfus has gone on to other roles, although I still see a little “Elaine” in all of them, don’t you?  From what’s been written over the years, Richards was a perfectionist, and would get frustrated when his cast mates would mess up a scene.  Unlike his Kramer character, he was indeed organized.  But like his Kramer character, he may have been a little, well, off-center.  Here’s a brief, but great blooper reel that shows the cast in full, glorious dysfunction:

One thing I admire about Jerry: he knew when to call it quits.  His show was on top, and he felt like there was nowhere to go but down.  He’d made plenty of money, he knew the reruns would keep the cash pouring in, and he could afford to work when he wanted. He could simply take his stand-up act on the road.  You haven’t seen him try to update the series with a new version (which nearly always fails), there’s been no reunion movie (usually a bad idea), and there were no second-rate spinoff series, like “George” or “Kramer.”  Unlike some TV comic actors I could name, he didn’t go on to make the same bad movie over and over.  He seems comfortable with who he is, and what he accomplished at a particular point in time.  “Seinfeld” was once in a lifetime.  He had seen others who couldn’t stop chasing the fame, trying to stay on top.  In all but a few cases, they weren’t able to recapture the magic.

I’m glad someone at NBC decided to roll the dice and take a chance on some unproven actors and writers who wanted to do a show about nothing.  Unlike today, the network had the patience to endure a few years of unspectacular ratings until it finally came together.  “Seinfeld” reruns hold up well today because they weren’t particularly topical. They were about mundane everyday problems like waiting on a table, or finding your car in a massive parking garage.  Just like “Lucy” having a baby, these shows will still be funny generations from now.  “Seinfeld” could push the envelope at times, but it was never out-and-out gross like almost every current CBS sitcom except “Big Bang Theory.”  Plus there’s a certain nostalgia watching Jerry and his friends navigate the world just before the Internet era exploded.  It may have been our last big sitcom before everyone was attached to a cell phone, blogging, net-surfing, tweeting and texting.  In fact, someone has created a popular “Modern Seinfeld” Twitter account with 653,000 followers speculating on what “Seinfeld” episodes would be like today.  It’s very amusing.

In 1998, the “Seinfeld” cast filmed the show’s final episode, and a photographer captured this moment at the end of the day.  I’m sure they knew it was time to go, but that didn’t make it any easier.

Photo by Wally Gobetz (NYC – Morningside Heights: Tom’s Restaurant) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There’s nothing like a great photograph

The Story Behind the Famous
‘Abbey Road’ Photograph

AbbeyRoadalbumWhat many people consider to be the best album cover photo ever, is the Beatles “Abbey Road.”  It’s been studied, diagrammed, dissected and discussed for more than 40 years.  What were they trying to tell us?  What was its meaning?  Or was it just a stroke of luck that the Fab Four seemed to have the right look, at the right place at the right time?  According to Chris Willman of Yahoo.com, photographer Iain Macmillan stood on a step ladder, and took just a handful of shots of the band walking across the lane before the Beatles got back to work.  In only one of them did all four appear to be strolling in symmetry, so it was easy to pick the best shot.  Macmillian recalled, “I remember we hired a policeman to hold up traffic while I was up on the ladder taking the pictures. The whole idea, I must say, was Paul McCartney’s. A few days before the shoot, he drew a sketch of how he imagined the cover, which we executed almost exactly that day.”

Do you see the guy in the background, standing on the sidewalk?  You can see him between Ringo and John.  Who is this man on the most famous album cover in history?  And how did he get on an album cover that’s probably been framed and hung more than any in history?  Willman identifies him as Florida resident Paul Cole, who died in 2008 at age 95.  According to Willman’s article, “Four years prior to that, he was tracked down by Scripps and told how he came to accidentally be part of one of the most famous photos of the previous century. “I told (my wife), ‘I’ve seen enough museums… I’ll just stay out here and see what’s going on outside. I like to just start talking with people. I walked out, and that cop was sitting there in that police car. I just started carrying on a conversation with him… I just happened to look up, and I saw those guys walking across the street like a line of ducks. A bunch of kooks, I called them, because they were rather radical-looking at that time. You didn’t walk around in London barefoot.”

Everyone’s seen that photo a few thousand times, and those of us who have the album have pretty much stared holes into it.  So here are a few more looks into the Beatles’ world a few moments before that iconic photograph was snapped on August 8, 1969.

abbey-road
abbey-road-6
abbey-road-8

Of course there have been dozens of parodies of the album cover.  Random tourists stage photos at the Abbey Road crossing every day, traffic permitting.  My favorite is the Sesame Street version.

album-Sesame-Street-Characters-Sesame-Road

Abbey Road crossing even has a live web feed: http://www.abbeyroad.com/Crossing. Odds are, you’ll see a few tourists attempting to re-enact the scene, hoping for a quiet day in London traffic.  I just logged on, and saw a few people barely avoid getting hit.  If they’re really, really lucky, there might be a classic Volkswagen parked on the curb.

There Really Was ‘A Boy Named Sue’

Well my daddy left home when I was three
And he didn’t leave much to Ma and me
Except this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze
Now I don’t blame him because he run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Is before he left, he went and named me Sue.

Shel Silverstein wrote those words, and Johnny Cash sang them back in 1969.  You can still hear “A Boy Named Sue” on oldies stations forty-four years later.  When the song came out, Johnny was enjoying a career resurgence.  He’d had his ups and downs since he hit the music scene with fellow rockabilly singers Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley from Sun Records in Memphis.  Mixed in with hits like “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line” were well-publicized run-ins with the law, including a few around Chattanooga.

Johnny Cash with Chattanooga City Commissioner Paul Clark in 1981

Johnny Cash with Chattanooga City Commissioner Paul Clark in 1981

The Man in Black enjoyed a kinship with folks behind bars.  He’d spent a little time in jail himself.  Although his misdeeds were never violent, he sure sounded authentic when he sang, “I shot a man in Reno…just to watch him die…” in “Folsom Prison Blues.”  He had written the song in the early 1950s, and released it in 1955.  Thirteen years later he performed it while recording a live album, where else but Folsom Prison in California.  The song, and the album, were very successful, so a year later he went back to jail (to perform), this time at San Quentin in California.  That’s where “Sue” comes in.

Johnny’s wife June had heard Silverstein perform his novelty song at a “guitar pull” in Nashville, defined as a gathering where songwriters would try out their latest tunes for each other.  Silverstein, best known for his children’s books and cartoons, reportedly had two inspirations for his song.  A friend who happened to be a fellow entertainer was a man named Jean, and Silverstein was familiar with Jean’s frustrations of having a female name.  But the song’s actual namesake is believed to be Tennessee’s own Sue Hicks, a well-known legal figure who had first made a name for himself in 1925 at the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.  He was on the prosecution team, led by William Jennings Bryan.  Hicks later served as a Circuit Court Judge in Tennessee for 22 years. During his career, he tried over 800 murder cases and thousands of others, but admitted he was best known for his unusual first name.  Unlike the tortured “Sue” in the hit song, Judge Hicks said he had a good relationship with his father, who bestowed the name upon him in honor of his mother Susanna, who died shortly after Sue was born.  Judge Sue Hicks died in 1980 in Sweetwater, Tennessee at the age of 84.

Judge Sue Hicks

Judge Sue Hicks

Unlike most hit records of that era, “A Boy Named Sue” had a very loose, unrehearsed feel to it.  It certainly wasn’t overproduced.  If it sounds like the musicians were making it up as they went along, that isn’t too far from the truth.  On the live album version, you can hear Johnny ask guitarist Carl Perkins to hang around for another song or two (including “Sue.”) Sure enough Carl had been given the lyrics only a few hours before, and was asked to “put some chords to this.”  Johnny himself didn’t know the words.  He had never performed the song in front of a microphone.  As you’ll see in the video below, he’s reading the words off a sheet of paper on his music stand, and his eyes rarely leave that paper.  If his reactions, and those of the audience sound real and spontaneous, it’s because they’re all hearing Sue’s story for the very first time!  You’ll also notice the actual live recording is not quite what you’ve heard on the radio all these years.  That bleeped-out expletive was kept away from our innocent ears back in 1969, although now it’s hard to avoid on network TV.  Also, a talented tape editor managed to splice out the word “damn” from the song’s closing line.  All we heard was, “And if I ever have a son…I’m gonna name him…Bill, or George!  Anything but Sue!  I still hate that name!”  It turns out “any thing” wasn’t one word after all.

I busted a chair right across his teeth
And we crashed through the wall and into the street
Kicking and a’ gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer

This not-so-friendly father and son reunion, “in Gatlinburg, in mid-July” sure paints a picture, doesn’t it?  Shel Silverstein was awfully good at that, selling 14 million books and writing more hit songs, including “Cover of the Rolling Stone” and “Sylvia’s Mother” for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.  “Sue” was the big one though, winning Silverstein a Grammy for Best Country Song, and Cash for Best Male Vocal Performance (1969).  It peaked at #2 on the charts, kept out of the top position by “Honky Tonk Women” by the Rolling Stones.  (That song may have also included a naughty word or two, but I couldn’t understand what Mick Jagger was saying, then or now.)

What did Judge Sue Hicks get from all this additional notoriety?  Good ol’ Johnny sent him a couple of personally autographed photos: “To Sue, how do you do?”

Of course Judge Hicks is long gone, Silverstein died in 1999, and Johnny left us in 2003.  To borrow a line, I never met ‘em before they died, but if I could, I’d thank them for “the gravel in your guts and the spit in your eye,” and I’d thank June for talking Johnny into performing that song.  As usual, she steered him in the right direction.

Farrah & Midnight Train to Georgia

FARRAHAs my wife would gladly tell you, I’m the world’s worst when it comes to song lyrics.  Even though I was on radio for about ten years, I spent most of my on-air time doing research rather than actually listening to the songs.

Of course I’m lying.  I spent most of the time on the phone with girls.  Why do you think most of us deejays got into radio in the first place?  I would hear the first few seconds of a song, as I introduced it, and the last few seconds, as it ended.  Everything in between was pretty much background noise.  Years later, my wife and I would be listening to the radio, and I’d comment about how much I liked a certain song.  For instance, “You’re Sixteen” by Ringo Starr.  My wife would say, “How could you possibly like that?  It’s creepy!  He was like, 35 when that came out, and he’s hitting on a 16-year-old girl.”  “Oh,” I’d say. “I had no idea.  I just knew it had a good intro, and I like the kazoo.”

Or, “Vehicle” by Ides of March.  “Now, there’s a great song!” I’d exclaim.  “What?  Have you ever actually listened to the words?”  Uh, no.  “Well!  I’m the friendly stranger in the black sedan, won’t you hop inside my car? I’ve got pictures, candy, I’m a lovable man, I can take you to the nearest star.”

“Okay, okay, I get it.  Now wait, there’s a great love song.  Sting is singing  ‘Every Breath You Take,‘ I’ll be watching you.  How romantic is that!  We should’ve played that at our wedding.”  There I go again.  “Seriously, David?  It’s about his divorce!  He was very controlling and wanted to track her every move.  Do you EVER pay attention?”  Clearly, the answer was no.

However, one of the few songs that I would actually crank up in the control room was “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight and the Pips.  (I always hoped they would have lots of hits, so that Gladys wouldn’t have to lay off a Pip or two.  I mean, how embarrassing would it be to fill out a job application, and under “previous occupation” you’d have to write, “Pip. From 1967-1980.”)

Recently, thanks to a great article in the Wall Street Journal, I learned the cool back-story about this song.  Obviously, most love songs were written about a real person.  Some were inspired by a girlfriend whose name became famous after the song became popular.  Sharona, the teenage girl that caught the eye of Knack lead singer Doug Fieger, or Peggy Sue, the girlfriend of Buddy Holly’s drummer.   There was even “Rosanna” (Arquette) who would become famous on her own, after being serenaded by her boyfriend’s band, Toto.  Others, as we’ve come to know, were already famous.  “Sweet Caroline” Kennedy, the namesake of Neil Diamond’s song.  Plus all those guys who jilted Taylor Swift, and that unidentified but reportedly famous vain dude that Carly Simon sang about.

Back in the 70s, we had no way of knowing that “Midnight Train to Georgia” was inspired by…Farrah Fawcett.  Yes, that girl on the poster, and  Charlie’s best-known angel. In 1970, Farrah was a 23-year-old Texan who had moved to Hollywood to become a star.  She linked up with actor Lee Majors, whom she would eventually marry.  Farrah landed some bit parts in shows like “I Dream of Jeannie” and a few commercials, but had become discouraged.  One night she’s at Lee’s place, and the phone rings.  On the other end is songwriter Jim Weatherly, one of Lee’s pals.  The two chatted, and Farrah told Jim she was packing her bags, taking a midnight plane to Houston to see her parents.  She might decide to stay, and if so, Lee might go too.  The conversation ended, and as good songwriters do, Jim started writing down lyrics.  “Hmmm…a midnight plane to Houston…that sounds like a song.”  And in 30 minutes it was.

He used Farrah and Lee as characters in his story, which included the great line, “I’d rather live in her world, than live without her in mine.”  Weatherly recorded a country-sounding version of “Midnight Plane to Houston,” which didn’t go anywhere.  His publisher sent the song to record producer Sonny Limbo, a former Chattanooga disc jockey (WMOC and WGOW in the 1960s) who was working with singer Cissy Houston in Atlanta.  (That’s Whitney Houston’s mom.  Little Whitney was eight years old at the time).  It was Cissy’s idea to change the plane to a train, and Houston to Georgia.  She said her family didn’t ride planes or go to Texas.  They rode trains and were from Georgia.  Songwriter Weatherly said he was okay with that, just as long as he got paid if her version of the song was a hit.  It wasn’t.

Soon after, Gladys Knight heard the song, and decided she wanted to record it.  Her record company hired a producer to add more instruments and pep it up.  Her brother Bubba, one of the Pips, encouraged her to ad-lib, resulting in that great ending: “I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go, hey!”  A few weeks after it was released, it shot up to number one, displacing “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. (“Angie” may have also been inspired by a real person, the Stones won’t say.  More likely, they just don’t remember.)

The next time you hear “Midnight Train to Georgia” you’ll know that it would never have been written if Lee Majors had answered the phone that night.  Speaking as a music lover who actually knows the words to this one, I’m glad Farrah took the call and told Lee’s friend about her travel plans.  Crank it up, and join me!  I always try to sing the Pips parts.  Be glad I keep my car window up.

 

Tales of a Teenage Disc Jockey

david carroll BeaverDamUSA.comI can’t tell you how many times people have said, “Why don’t you share some stories of your early, wacky days as a teenage disc jockey? I can’t tell you, because that hasn’t happened.  But if it had, I’d start with this one:

At the ripe age of 19, I was doing the afternoon show at WFLI in Chattanooga.  I had been the weekend DJ at WEPG in South Pittsburg during my teen years, and had perfected the art of doing the “transmitter meter readings” far in advance. According to that important-looking paper on the clipboard, the FCC required hourly meter readings.  But, since the scary old FCC inspector had not yet paid me a visit, I didn’t worry about it.  I would take a quick glance at the meters early in my four-hour shift, and write down all the numbers in advance so I wouldn’t be bothered with it again.  I could then get back to the serious business of playing K.C. and the Sunshine Band songs, and talking to girls on the phone.

Besides, I didn’t know what those numbers meant anyway.  Back then, a deejay could pursue either of two types of FCC radio licenses.  A first-class license was for smart guys, the engineers.  They usually had to go to school and take special courses in order to pass the test.  The lesser third-class license required memorization (or cramming) of facts and figures that were easily learned, and quickly forgotten.  Passing that test enabled teenagers who had never changed a light bulb to suddenly take control of a radio station.  Meet Mr. Third-Class.

wgowdavidcI didn’t like to spend a lot of time near the transmitter.  It was a monstrous, scary contraption with ominous red buttons, giant switches that looked like they could shut power off to the entire city, and “Caution!” signs everywhere.  Each day, depending on the time of day I was working, I had to increase, or lower the power from 50,000 watts to 1,000 watts.  I had no qualifications or interest for this task.  I merely followed the step-by-step directions each day, and hoped for the best.  I would know I had raised the power correctly when the folks who lived the near the station in Tiftonia would call to complain that they were hearing us on their toaster, their bedsprings, their telephones and their tooth fillings.

wfli-transmitter

One fine afternoon, I started my shift at 2:00, took that long, 10-second stroll over to the read the meters, and wrote ‘em down for 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 and 6:00.  As usual, I varied the numbers a bit, so that it looked like the 4:00 readings were slightly different from the 3:00 readings, and so on.  That way, if anyone ever really looked at those numbers a day or two later, they’d think I had actually been doing my job in a competent manner. At about 2:55, the station owner, Billy Benns paid a rare visit to the control room, accompanied by his companion, a large dog named King.  It was a Friday, and Mr. Benns, who was known to be somewhat cranky, was especially irritated on Fridays when he had to sign all those paychecks.  Mr. Benns, who had built that transmitter when he put WFLI on the air 15 years earlier, was an engineering genius.  Among the deejays, Mr. Benns was respected, and feared.  Mostly feared.

wfli-benns

He put on his glasses, found the clipboard and looked at the transmitter log, studying it intensely.  I tried to stay cool, tapping my feet and swaying to the beat of “Rock the Boat.”  But I knew I was busted.  He put down the clipboard and said, “Uh…Mr. Carroll.”  (He addressed all of us kid deejays formally, which I found very flattering.)  “Do you have a crystal ball?  Can you predict the future?”

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Using my well-honed ad-libbing skills, I mumbled, “Uh, sir, well I uh, you know, it’s funny you should ask…”  Before I could continue sputtering, he asked, “How do you know what the meters will read at 4:00?  At 5:00? That’s several hours from now, Mr. Carroll!”  I’m sure I had a really clever comeback all ready to go, but he continued.

“You know the FCC could shut us down for this, right Mr. Carroll?   And you, sir, would be out of a job.  Now don’t let this happen again.” I was about to pledge my newly found devotion to hourly meter reading when he grabbed the door, turned around and said, “And start playing more Elvis!  Let’s go, King.”

“Yes sir, Mr. Benns.”  He walked out, and I cued up “Burning Love.”

No Good (News) Deed Goes Unpunished

(Reprinted from July, 2013)
As I wrote in this blog last month, there are people out there who complain loudly that we media types don’t report any good news.  Many of these folks are the ones who fill Facebook pages and message boards with hateful comments on any issue, whether it affects them or not.  So if you’re one of the venom-spreaders, stop here, and go to the website or wacko cable channel of your choice.

All right, now that I’ve cleared the room and set the table, I will proceed with the latest developments in a “good news” story.  That family I’ve been telling you about, the Reynolds family of Chattanooga is back from Ukraine.  Ezra and Kelly, who adopted two beautiful special needs girls in 2011, returned to Ukraine in May and have now brought home two more children:  a six year old girl, also with special needs (Katerina) and an 18-month old boy (Andrew) who was born with no hands and no feet.  Let’s celebrate together with their new family portrait, freshly photographed this week in Chattanooga:

reynoldsfam

That’s little Andrew with dad Ezra on the left, with Juliana, Katerina and Elena being held by mom Kelly.  This is a family.  I am in love with them.

If you know me, you know that I’m generally positive and peaceful.  However,  I’ve also been known to whine and complain if I have to wait in line more than five minutes at Wendy’s.  What have I done for my family?  Well, I’ve gone to work each day, and I’ve tried to help them with homework and sports, through about sixth grade anyway, when both their homework and sports exceeded my abilities.  Now that my sons are in their twenties, I can honestly say that they were pretty easy to raise.  In the big picture of life, I rarely broke a sweat.

On the other hand, here’s what Ezra and Kelly have done for their kids:  traveled thousands of miles from home (repeatedly), endured Ukranian orphanages, institutions, and government offices that are to say the least, inefficient, and ingested food and water that would be condemned here. That’s just skimming the surface.  These children have learning disabilities, vision problems, hearing deficiencies, mobility limitations and a very short waiting list of potential parents.  In some cases, there is no list.  Most people see children like these and say, “Awww, aren’t they precious,” and then hurry to walk away.

Ezra and Kelly will not walk away.  They go out of their way to give these kids a chance, a home, a life.  They deal with the naysayers, like many of the online snipers who write judgmental insults.  When the Reynolds were stuck in Ukraine for several weeks due to a government passport snafu that stranded thousands, some of the comments included, “Serves ‘em right, they ought to be arrested….we have plenty of kids in the US they could adopt.”  These people could have written more, I guess, but they probably powered down their laptop and started visiting US adoption agencies.  Right.

The Reynolds’ intentions are pure.  They’re not begging for my money, your money or government money.  They have jobs, thankfully answering to people who allow them to take time off to change the world.  They’re the first to give credit to family members who have been incredibly patient babysitters, friends and church members who have helped with basic needs, and even total strangers who have offered meals, shelter, diapers, or just a pat on the back. When I asked them what to tell people who want to help them, they said, “Just tell them there are still a lot of children who need good homes, in this country, and all over the world.  If your family is able to help, you don’t have to look far.”

reynoldsandrew

Another recent online comment went like this:  “Can you support these or will they be on welfare?”  These what?  I’m sure the author of this question is genuinely concerned, and only wants to offer his help in case this working family is unable to meet their children’s needs.  (It’s always good to see a person’s true colors.  Plus, it gives me a chance to clean out my Facebook page of people who claim to be a friend).

Thankfully, the huge majority of responses to my series of stories has been positive.  Perhaps I shouldn’t let the bottom feeders get on my nerves so much.  The Reynolds family is not related to me, and frankly had their story not been so unique, I might never have heard about them, written about them, or met them.  But I have, and I did.  Again, there’s a lot to love.  There’s a little girl who loves my Channel 3 microphone, not unlike my younger self, all those decades ago.  There’s another little girl who sat on my lap and rested her head on my chest the entire time I interviewed her daddy.  There’s still another one who gives her mom and dad a little break each evening while camped out in front of the TV, watching the letters and numbers on that spinning “Wheel of Fortune.”  And there’s that cute little boy who has no hands to catch a ball, no feet to walk or run, but does have the will and ability to throw you a kiss.  Thanks to his energetic, inventive parents, he will have prosthetic limbs some day and will surely accomplish great things.

I’ve enjoyed following their story, and now I’ve met them and grown to love them.  I hope you love them too.  They are angels among us.

I’ll close with a song.  Elena is the 4-year-old who loves to sing into the microphone and “interview” people.  She’ll stick it right in your face, like Ryan Seacrest does.  While my news photographer was capturing video of the family at play, Elena just wanted the microphone.  I sat down with her, and while I knew we were being photographed by a friend, I thought it was only still pictures.  Imagine my delight when I found this 30-second video on my camera:

 

Kids With Big Hearts at Ider High School

ider-1

It all started with a photograph:

A dear Facebook friend (and cousin) Shana Reyes sent me this link, and said “This would be a great story for you.”  Just look at this photo.  A glowing dad, Charles Mitchell watches as last year’s Ider High Homecoming Queen crowns this year’s winner.  Lace McMahon is the radiant young lady on the left, and Taylor Mitchell is wearing her favorite color, Georgia Bulldogs red.

The Mitchell family moved to Ider, Alabama from Georgia last year.  Taylor, then a high school junior had already overcome a lot in her brief life.  Adopted by Charles and Rita Mitchell when she was three months old, doctors said she wouldn’t live to see her first birthday.  As you can see, sometimes the will to live surpasses any and all medical expertise.

She lives with cerebral palsy each day.  It causes a lack of muscle coordination.  For Taylor, just snapping a clothespin on a piece of fabric requires great patience and concentration.  Often, her movements are involuntary and random.  She is unable to walk and has difficulty holding her head up.  Swallowing isn’t easy, and although she is expressive (with personality to spare) her speech can be hard for others to understand.

In brief, Taylor Brooke Mitchell is not the type of high school senior you usually see in photos like this:

ider2Nor is Paloma Vasquez, the young lady in yellow standing next to Taylor.  Shy and soft-spoken, Paloma is in Taylor’s special-needs class with teacher Kim Keena.  The teacher was delighted to see both girls’ names on the homecoming ballot, but like many, didn’t expect much more than that.  Taylor’s mother Rita told me, “We thought it was wonderful that the students nominated our girls.  Taylor was just excited about wearing the dress, getting her hair done, and riding on the truck.”

ider3About that truck:  From the Fort Payne Times-Journal, “Taylor is in a wheelchair, so we were concerned with how she was going to ride in a convertible. Scott Jones of Rainsville stepped up, so Taylor rode in the back of his 1966 turquoise Chevy truck,” Keena said. “We had to build a ramp to get her in the back of it, and the wood was donated by Johnson Lumber.”  Chestnut Grove Baptist Church offered to pay for anything the girls needed and also provided jewelry. The Dream Shop in Henagar  and Affordable Fashions in Geraldine helped with the girls’ dresses.

So the stage was set.  Rita Mitchell was thrilled that her daughter, the baby who wouldn’t survive her first year, would be out there on the 50-yard-line with the other girls.  They would call her name, and she would be escorted by her proud dad.  The beauty treatment, the classic pick-up truck ride, and a few cheers from the fans.  That would be enough.  “We know that Taylor will never walk down the aisle to get married.  We know that she can’t have children, there won’t be any grandchildren for us.  So just the fact that the other students notice her, that they care enough about her to let her be on the field at homecoming…” she paused.  “That was enough for us.”

ider4No one could predict what happened next.  I mean, sure, there are good kids out there.  Up to a point, right?  They’re nice enough to put some special students’ names on the ballot, but when it comes to choosing Homecoming Queen?  Isn’t that always reserved for the head cheerleader, or the slim, graceful girl who wins just about everything?  Besides, those girls spend their entire lives campaigning for that honor, do they not?  They wear the right clothes, hang out with the cool crowd.   Signs are posted, friendships and loyalties are tested.  We’ve all watched “Saved By The Bell.”  Homecoming queens look like Tiffani Amber-Thiessen, don’t they?

Not this time.  When you click the link below, you can see the WRCB news story that includes the big announcement.  A TV station in Huntsville recorded the event, intending to spotlight the two special-needs girls who were happy to be in the Homecoming court.  They captured that moment for sure, but came away with much more.

When Taylor Mitchell’s name was announced as the 2013 Ider Homecoming Queen, the home team bleachers erupted in cheers and tears.  It went on and on and on, like no Homecoming before it.  Brooklyn Mitchell, another senior candidate on the court, would surely have loved to hear her name called.  But instead, she was thrilled to see Taylor’s reaction, as well as that of the crowd.  “I remember thinking, I’ll never experience a moment like this again, with so many caring people together in one place.”  Macy Bell, the school’s drum major and a devoted daily helper to Taylor, couldn’t help but notice the visiting fans from Cherokee County High School.  “I was looking over there at our opponents’ side, and they cheered as loud and as long as we did.  I’ve never seen anything like it in high school.”

Click this link for video

Sometime soon, you’ll see some misbehaving kids on the news.  They’ll get in trouble, they’ll bully somebody, they’ll put something inappropriate on social media.  You’ll sigh, and say, “Kids today.  There’s just no hope.”

Oh yes, there is.  I was blessed to visit Ider High School.  I met the students who love Taylor and Paloma.  They hold their hands, they comb their hair, they cheer the routine accomplishments of everyday life.  Matching the right colors, getting from one side of a room to the other, lifting a piece of food from hand to mouth.  They don’t look the other way when a special-needs student is in the hallway.  They stop, they talk, they hug.

Don’t tell me that today’s kids are bad.  Don’t tell me they’re self-absorbed.  I’ll take you to Ider where, when given a chance to select a Homecoming Queen, that iconic, once-in-a-lifetime honor, they voted to make a night of memories for Taylor Mitchell:  a red dress, a shiny tiara, a ride in the back of a pick-up, as hundreds chanted her name.  Gazing at her daughter, Rita Mitchell said, “We’ll never forget that night.  All I could think of was, thank you God for this moment.  And thank you to the students of Ider for what you gave to us.”

Remembering the Late, Great Jim Croce

croceHis songs are still on the radio, some of them anyway.  Oldies stations play only the ones that move fast.  I think they’re afraid younger, short-attention span listeners will tune out a love song or a ballad.  Not me.  Jim Croce only had a big-time career for 18 months or so, but man, did he make an impact.

He’s the guy on the left (above).  Those of us who grew up in the pre-MTV days of album cover art would recognize that mustache anywhere!  As the title of a Jim Croce album puts it so well, “Photographs and Memories.”  That album was released after he died in a plane crash on September 20, 1973: just over forty years ago.  The guy on the right is Maury Muehleisen, not as familiar name or face, but I’ll bet you’ll recognize the guitar riffs and vocal harmonies.  He was on that plane too, which crashed shortly after takeoff.  Croce and company were leaving one show in Louisiana, enroute to another one in Texas.

“Operator” was one in a nice string of hits Croce and Muehleisen recorded and performed in 1972 and 1973.  The music was memorable, but so were the words.  I have so many favorite Croce lines.  From “Operator,” I love the way he sings, “Operator, oh let’s forget about this call, there’s no one there I really wanted to talk to. Thank you for your time, oh you’ve been so much more than kind. And you can keep the dime…”

Most oldies stations today pump out his first hit, 1972′s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” which took us to 42nd Street, where we met Big Jim Walker, that pool-shooting son of a gun.  A year later, he went uptempo again with another summertime smash, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”  Say those words to anybody who grew up in the 70s, and I guarantee you they’ll come right back with “the baddest man in the whole damn town.”  That’s another one you hear in the background a lot these days.

Many of his other hits are not as familiar to today’s listeners.  “Like the pine trees lining the winding road, I got a name,” he would sing, painting word pictures.

A few months after his death, his recorded words spoke for so many of us tongue-tied guys: “I know it’s kinda strange.  Every time I’m near you, I just run out of things to say.  I know you’d understand.  Every time I tried to tell you, the words just came out wrong, so I’ll have to say I love you…in a song.”

All this and more, recorded and released in about 18 months.  These days, the major hit makers might treat us to two big hits in that period of time.  Croce was from a different era, when the Beatles, CCR, Elton John and so many others cranked them out, every 3 months or so, year after year.  They wrote them, sang them and produced them.  No  AutoTune, no tricks.  It was the real thing.

Everybody I mentioned seemed to be most productive and commercially successful in their 20s. That’s the nature of the business, it’s a young person’s game.  They all kept recording, and those who survive still do, but they’re mainly known for their youthful-era hits.  We’ll never know if Jim Croce would have given us more musical photographs and memories.  Maybe those songs he left us were the best he’d ever record.  But something tells me there were more stories to tell, more characters to create, and more heartfelt words we couldn’t bring ourselves to say.

When I posted his most famous song, “Time in a Bottle,” on Facebook on the 40th anniversary of his death, I was touched by a response from Elaine Kirby McEwen, who wrote, “My husband used a (Jim Croce) quote to propose to me. “I’ve looked around enough to know, that you’re the one I want to go through time with.”

I was disappointed that the 40th anniversary of Jim Croce’s death didn’t get much mainstream media attention.  There’s a memorial concert here and there, and an observance or two, but on a national scale he’s fading quickly into the fog of obscurity.  Sirius XM’s bland 70s music channel (70s on 7) plays his two upbeat songs regularly, but ignores the others.  They didn’t even take the time to acknowledge the anniversary of his death on their Facebook page.

That points out a great benefit of our modern-day era, with our mobile devices, iPods and computers that store the songs we love, some even with video.  Hard as they may try, the national radio programmers and consultants haven’t taken Jim Croce’s music away from me.  I am proud to share a little of it with you today, and hope you’ll find more when you get a chance.

“Kokomo” Turns 25

25 years ago:
Love it? Hate it?
“Kokomo” was #1
for the Beach Boys

david fpIn 1988, the Beach Boys were toast.  Done.  Only in their 40s, they were already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is life’s way of saying, “We love what you did for us, but we’ve moved on.  Now run along and play your oldies at Riverbend, and those other little fairs and festivals.”  They hadn’t had a number-one hit (“Good Vibrations”) in 22 years.  Their most recent top-10 hit, “Rock and Roll Music” had been in 1976, and even that was a nostalgia piece recorded by Chuck Berry in 1957.  Radio stations were playing Whitesnake, Guns ‘N Roses and Def Leppard.  Brian Wilson, the troubled genius behind the Beach Boys’ solid-gold 60s sound, was off recording a solo album.  Younger brother Dennis, the drummer, had drowned five years earlier, leaving Carl as the only Wilson still active with the group.  He and cousin Mike Love, family friend Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston, Brian’s longtime fill-in, made up the rest of the act.  One of the top-selling groups of all time didn’t even have a record label.  So how did this happen?

In early 1988, a Tom Cruise movie called “Cocktail” was being prepared for a summer release, and it needed some soundtrack tunes.  Producer Terry Melcher and songwriter John Phillips (Papa John of the Mamas and the Papas) had collaborated on a little tune about a tropical getaway.  After seeing some footage from the movie, they thought their song would be a good fit, and Melcher’s old friends the Beach Boys would be the perfect group to record it.  Mike Love changed a few words and contributed the chorus and opening lines, “Bermuda, Jamaica…” which he admits were inspired by this song from 1955:

The song was completed, the movie was released, and for a while nothing happened.  Elektra Records didn’t think it was strong enough to be released as a single.  The Beach Boys started performing it in their summer concerts, but compared to familiar sing-along hits like “California Girls” and “Help Me Rhonda,” it was getting little audience response.  Someone then came up with the idea of producing a music video, mixing a lip-sync performance by the group with movie clips featuring Cruise juggling bottles behind a bar.  The video was shot at the newly opened Grand Floridian Resort at Walt Disney World in Florida, with “Full House” heart-throb John Stamos pretending to play the drums.  Cheerleaders who were staying at the resort provided a bikini-clad audience backdrop, and the video was quickly a hit on VH-1.  By late October, “Kokomo” was the most popular song in the USA.

It was not without its detractors, however.  Some Beach Boys purists disapproved because it was the group’s first big hit with no involvement from Brian Wilson.  He didn’t write it, didn’t play on it, and didn’t sing a note, so how could it be a true Beach Boys song?  In later years, VH-1 itself named it one of the era’s “40 Most Awesomely Bad Songs,” and Blender magazine included it on its list of “50 Worst Songs Ever.”  Even now it gets limited play on oldies and satellite radio outlets.  Programmers say their research shows people either love it or hate it, “and we try to avoid playing songs that people hate.”

At least the folks in Vermont have cooled down.  When the song was getting all that airplay in 1988, a commonly-misheard lyric was Mike Love’s spoken “Martinique…that Montserrat mystique.”  Many people, including Vermonters, thought he was singing, “Vermont’s a rotten state.” In the context of the song, it made sense.  After all, it was about tropical climes, not chilly old Vermont.  Eventually, most of us figured it out.

Twenty-five years later, many of us are still looking for that fictional place off the Florida Keys, where we go to get away from it all.  The song that dominated the airwaves in the fall of 1988 still says “summer” especially when you hear the angelic voice of the late Carl Wilson: “We’ll get there fast, and then we’ll take it slow…that’s where we want to go…way down to Kokomo…”

It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since the song was released.  At that time, my wife and I were taking a fall trip to Myrtle Beach hearing this song get played over and over, so it brings back pleasant memories. In fact, a few days ago it came in handy again.  I was undergoing a rather painful procedure in the doctor’s office (nothing serious, but it did involve some discomfort).  The doctor said, “This is going to sting for about ten minutes, so try to think about something that will get your mind off the pain.”  So there I sat, singing “Kokomo” to myself 2 or 3 times until the pain began to ease.  Unlike most songs in my top-40 mental database, I actually know all the words to this one!  So call it one of the worst songs of all time if you like.  All I know is, it made me feel better for a few minutes.  If I could write a song like that, I’d feel pretty good about myself, no matter what the critics say.

Oh by the way, the Muppets took a shot at “Kokomo” a few years later.  It’s one of their better music video efforts:

 

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