11 Years Ago: Two of My Favorites Left (Part 1, John Ritter)

david carroll BeaverDamUSA.comOn the morning of September 12, 2003, I got up to help get the boys off to school.  Chris was a junior, Vince an 8th grader.  Like every day, I went back and forth a few times trying to rouse them from that deep teenage-boy sleep, and during the moments in between, I sat down at the computer, signed on, and waited for five minutes of pre-broadband eternity for the home page to pop up on the screen.  On most days, the MSNBC site would feature whatever happened overnight in Washington or some foreign capital.  That unforgettable morning delivered a double whammy though:  not one celebrity death, but two.  Johnny Cash and John Ritter.  Cash’s death, while very sad, was not terribly unexpected.  He was in his 70s, and had been quite ill for a number of years. But John Ritter?  He wasn’t even 55.  He was still active and vibrant.  He was starring in the ABC sitcom “8 Simple Rules,” which seemed headed for a long run.  Then suddenly, shockingly,  he was gone.

He had been working on the second season’s fourth episode, and reportedly did not feel well that day.  He was taken to a nearby hospital and died of an aortic dissection, described as an abnormal separation of tissues within the walls of the aorta, the large blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. The weakened blood vessel may burst, which usually results in death if not treated immediately.  Evidently that’s what happened.

Occasionally a TV star becomes ill, or is involved in an accident, which leads us to wonder, “What would happen to (name a hit show) if (name a big star) died suddenly?  It hasn’t happened often.  Freddie Prinze of “Chico and the Man” committed suicide in 1977, and the show couldn’t recover without its beloved title character.  In the original “Dallas,” the family patriarch “Jock Ewing,” (Jim Davis) died.  In the 2012 update, son “JR” Larry Hagman died.  In both cases, the show went on, with tributes and new plot lines about the deceased stars.  Same with Tony Soprano’s mother (played by Nancy Marchand), who was a major figure in the early years of HBO’s “The Sopranos.”  In the upcoming  season, “Glee” will deal with the recent death of young star Cory Monteith.  Other supporting cast members and soap stars have died during the production of their series, but few hit us as hard as the death of John Ritter.

It All Started With a McDonald’s Commercial

david carroll BeaverDamUSA.comLast year, I celebrated my 30th anniversary in the TV business, which is a total surprise to me.  If you had asked the teenage me, “What will you be doing in the year 2014?” I would have said, “Hopefully I’ll be running a business and finding some time to be on the radio too.”

Radio was my first love.  I often get laughs when I tell people that I became a part-time disc jockey when I was a teen, “because I figured out that I could play rock ‘n roll songs and talk to girls on the phone, and get paid to do it.”  Except I’m not kidding.  It seemed like a really sweet deal.  Yet my dad, and my brain told me that it was at best, a hobby.  Dad ran a successful business, and I was sort of getting the hang of it.  I liked people, and I was good with numbers.  So in my perfect world, I’d do a “real job” during the week, and play the hits on weekends.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way.  The more time I spent at the microphone, the more I loved it.  Slowly but surely, I began to make a living at it.  After a few years, I even met my wife, also a fellow radio kid, right there in the KZ-106 studio.  Certainly I had made the right career choice.  My radio buds and I would go to lunch occasionally and notice the guys at the next table, all wearing ties.  “Man we’re lucky,” we would say.  “We don’t have to wear ties!”

Then this happened:

Yes, my career and life took an unexpected turn in the spring of 1983.  Someone from Channel 9 called, I can’t remember who, and asked if I’d be interested in doing a series of car giveaway commercials for McDonald’s, to be taped on six consecutive Saturdays in their studio in the Golden Gateway.  They didn’t allow their newscasters to do commercials, and their only salesperson with on-air experience, Jerry Lingerfelt was already obligated to Capital Toyota (“we’re open around the clock, until Saturday midnight!” he would exclaim, waving his arms clockwise).  So they reached out to the radio world, recruiting a shaggy-haired, bearded morning DJ.  I’d be giving away a classic car each week to one of six people who had registered at area McDonald’s.  They set me up with a snazzy red McDonald’s jacket and paid me a much-appreciated fifty bucks a week.  Six Saturdays in March and April went by, the commercials ran, and I had a new jacket, $300, and six minutes of television experience under my belt.  That was the end of that.

A few weeks later, I got another call out of the blue, this time from Channel 12.  The program director, Doris Ellis asked me to go to lunch.  I didn’t ask what it was about, I mean why rock the boat when you’re offered a free lunch at the Mount Vernon restaurant?  I showed up with visions of peanut butter pie dancing in my head, and was greeted by Doris and her boss Gary Bolton, the station manager.  Hmmm, I thought, what is this about?

“We’d like you to host the Morning Show,” Doris said.  “We saw you on those McDonald’s commercials, and we think you could do a good job.”  “Sure,” I said, “I’ll try anything once.  What day would you like me to do it?”  It was a daily, 90-minute, totally unscripted live show, and I figured I had enough material (jokes, comments and the like) to fill in for a day.

“No, you don’t understand,” Gary said.  “We mean, we’d like you to host it, every day, from now on.”  The show had been founded by Harry Thornton, who had hosted it for 13 years.  He had been tough to replace.  The two guys after him lasted a combined nine months, and the Channel 12 people were kind of desperate.

By this time Cindy and I were engaged to be married later that year, and my job at KZ-106 was seemingly secure.  What to do?  Stay with the tried and true, or take a chance on TV: I’d always loved watching it, but never once considered being on it.  And yes, I’d have to wear a stinkin’ tie each day.  In fact I’d have to learn to tie one.

I did what any sane person would have done.  I took an afternoon to go to my favorite spot, the waterfall trail at Cloudland Canyon State Park in Dade County, Georgia.  Halfway down, there’s a huge rock.  There wasn’t another soul in sight.  I planted there on that rock, and thought it over.  I took my time, weighing the pros and cons.  Ultimately I decided:  I’m going to give this TV thing a try.  If it doesn’t work out, I thought, I could always go back to radio.

Thirty years later, I’m still here.  The Channel 12 gig lasted about four years, and lucky for me Channel 3 soon came calling.  I made my last appearance on Channel 12 one day at noon, and began anchoring at Channel 3 the same day at 5:30 p.m.

Thanks to all of you who have watched my newscasts, and to my employers for keeping me on the payroll.  And as you may have noticed, I’m still wearing a tie each day.  Never mind how long it took me to learn how to tie one.

 

“I Don’t Remember What Day it Was”

david carroll BeaverDamUSA.com“I….don’t remember what day it was…”

First, it’s the brass section.  Those horns sound great!  Then, it’s that pounding bass…thump, thump, thump.  Those dynamite drums.  Finally, there it is:  that voice.  The voice of AM radio.  Sunshine, summertime 1969.

“I…didn’t notice what time it was….”

We didn’t know what stereo sounded like on a transistor radio all those years ago, and FM stations only played elevator music.  But this was as good as it gets on AM.  We heard it blast out of that little speaker right after some cool jingle:  “W-F-L-I!” they would sing.  Or “Super-GO” they would shout.  If it was late at night, we’d pick up a faraway top-40 powerhouse: “The Best Music, Eighty-Nine, W-L-S, in Chicago!”  And boom, there was that song, from under the pillow. Don’t wake up the parents…

“All…I…know..is that I fell in love with you…”

Some of us thought it was Stevie Wonder.  He too, had a high-pitched voice (he was just a teen, and had already recorded a bunch of big hits).  Others thought it was a girl singer.  Not many guys could hit those high notes.  No AutoTune here.  It’s the real thing.

“And if all my dreams come true, I’ll be spending time with yooooouuuu”

Did you see the footwork of that bass player?  Not only does he rock the world’s greatest mustache, but the dude can dance!  Some radio station did a survey a few years ago, and listeners proclaimed “More Today Than Yesterday” their favorite oldie of all-time.  As Kanye West would say, “THE BEST OF ALL TIME!”  Not a Beatles song.  Not an Elvis tune.  Not even Motown!  It’s by…the Spiral Starecase.  The group of Air Force buddies formed in Sacramento, California and called themselves the Fydallions.  They played the clubs and Las Vegas for a few years, and got the attention of Columbia Records.  The record execs said, “You sound good, but you’ve gotta change that name.”  They chose the title of a 1945 movie, changed the spelling of “staircase” just for fun, and lead singer Pat Upton set out to write some songs.

“Every day’s a new day….in love with you..”

Pat Upton is, a guy.  A nice guy whose soaring voice you hear quite frequently in that wonderful three-minute dose of aural sunshine.   In 1969, it blended beautifully with the Grassroots, who would “wait a million years, just to have you near me,” and Marvin Gaye, who was so busy thinkin’ about his baby that he “ain’t got time for nothin’ else.”  Pat’s song only got up to #12 on the Billboard charts, but sold a million anyway.  It was a perfect fit between the fading bubblegum sound and the futuristic “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin.  Yes, long ago Pat was tagged with that dreaded label, “one-hit wonder.” Like so many radio bands of the 1960s, there were management problems and when the band couldn’t come up with another hit, they soon went their separate ways.  Pat played with other musicians and eventually opened his own club in Guntersville, Alabama.

“With each day comes a new way…of loving you…”

In 1991, with oldies fever in full swing, Pat played the Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga a part of an all-star 60s and 70s group, made up of several guys who had scored a hit or two.  I told him how his song made me smile every time it came on the radio…when it was fresh and new, and even decades later.  I thanked him for writing and singing such a happy love song, in an era dominated by psychedelia, a bad moon rising and suspicious minds.  It sure was a nice counterpoint to creepy stuff like “In the Year 2525,” which (ugh) was the #1 song that summer.  When that song got me down, Pat’s song brought me back up.

“Every time I kiss your lips, my mind starts to wander….”

He was genuinely appreciative of my compliment, although I’m sure he’d heard it a few thousand times before.  I’m sure it was too often followed by, “You’re so great!  Why didn’t you have more hit records?”  As if they were that easy to pull out of thin air.

“And if all my dreams come true, I’ll be spending time with yooouuu..”

He seemed especially pleased to learn that my kids loved his song.  At the time they were 4 and 1.  I told him that a few weeks earlier, as a surprise to my wife, I had the boys lip-synch “More Today Than Yesterday,” while I recorded it on the clunky old video camera.  It’s a masterpiece of amateur clumsy-dad filmmaking, but my wife loved it.  Even today, it appears on our TV to embarrass my young adult sons when girlfriends are in our house.  (It has not yet shown up on YouTube, but don’t dare me).

Ohhhh…I love you more to-day…than yes-ter-day…(horns!) …but not as much…as too-morrr-ooowww”

I sent Pat a copy of the video a few days later, and his wife called to tell me how much they enjoyed it.  A few years later, I found a video of Pat from 1999, thirty years after his big hit, performing it solo in front of his musician friends on a show called “Rock ‘n Roll Graffiti.”  It was minus the big Columbia Records production team, but The Voice still sounded great.

I thought about this song in the middle of another endless rainy day during this damp 4th of July holiday week.  Wrecks everywhere, fireworks shows cancelled, celebrations postponed.  I’ve seen a lot of frowny faces this week, even in the mirror.  But on the way to work today, guess what came on the radio?  And for the thousandth time, conservatively speaking, it made me smile.  Now it was in crystal-clear stereo, with every word understandable, every instrument shining, and that bass sounding better than ever.  It was raining on the outside, but inside my car it was sunny, and I was a few decades younger.  If you were on Dayton Boulevard around 10 a.m., yes that was me straining to hit those high notes.  It’s always fun trying, but nobody can do it like Pat Upton.

“I love you more to-day….than yes-ter-day…but only half as much…as too-morrr-owwwww.”

It’s the ‘Principal’ of the Thing

david carroll BeaverDamUSA.comFor twenty years now, I’ve been the “School Patrol” guy on Channel 3.

In all honesty, I don’t remember the date I was assigned to that beat.  But believe me, it’s somewhere around 20 years.  The first few years I worked at the station, I covered a little of everything, mostly lighter stories, which was fine by me.  One day the boss called me in and said, “We want you to specialize in something, you know,  your own beat.”  I agreed, with one condition.  “Look,” I said. “I’m not a confrontational kind of guy.  Could you give me something with no politics, no controversy, no violence?”

They said, “How about schools?” Little did I know….

But to coin a phrase, it’s been educational.  Most of the time, I’ve loved it. I go into more schools than the milk delivery guy.  Twenty different counties and school districts, more than 100 schools every year.  The rich ones, the poor ones, the new ones, the crumbling ones.  I’ve attended the groundbreakings and dedication ceremonies for just about every new school that’s opened in the past 20 years, and that’s always fun.

While reminiscing about School Patrol, I thought about a lot of principals.  I’ve known hundreds of them.  Some of them like me, others not so much.

Most of them understand my role.   If their school has great test scores, or wins a big award, I should cover it.  But if their school is vandalized, or a teacher gets in trouble, I should cover that too.  Early on, a few principals hit me with this painful accusation: “You only come here when it’s something bad.”  Sadly, too often they were right.  I pledged to visit them when something good was going on too, to give them positive coverage.  It’s still my goal, yet try as I might, I fail far too often.

As you might expect, being a TV news guy, I get plenty of parental complaints.  They used to arrive by letter, a few still come by phone, and now they’re most often by e-mail or Facebook.  Many of the complaints are about bus drivers, quite a few are about teachers, and the majority are about principals.  I look into each one.  Most are the result of poor communication, and when the two sides actually talk, the problem resolves itself.  However, some of them are valid complaints which turn into news stories. If I do my job well, the problem either gets solved, or becomes a story in which the public is informed about an issue that could affect them.

There are a few red flags.  When I see a complaint about a “principle,” I sigh and keep on reading. In this era of spell check, I seem to sigh a lot.  And besides, I’ve had a few complaints about principals myself.  Some principals I’ve known were sure that I was out to get them. There have been a few cases in which my news coverage may have played a role in a principal being demoted, transferred, or even dismissed.  I can remember another situation or two when a stubborn superintendent would resist moving a sub-par principal, just to avoid admitting a mistake.  No doubt about it:  there are unqualified, poor performing principals, just as there are poor performers in every occupation you can name, even news reporters.  Still, I sympathize with principals, particularly those in public schools who feel like they’re wearing huge targets on their backs.

The best principals are the ones who understand what I believe to be the three most important parts of their job.  I tell them they should spend 40% of their time on academics, 40% on discipline and 40% on public/parent relations.  Yes, that adds up to 120%, but any principal will tell you they have to put in that extra time.  Especially the high school principals;  the money is good, absolutely.  But who among us wants to unlock the door at 6:00 a.m., be responsible for the safety of 1500 or more teenagers in this post-Columbine, Facebook-frenzied world, and attend every athletic event, PTA meeting, dance and fundraiser?  Folks, they earn their money.

 

I’ve known some duds.  There’s the guy who threw me out of a high school during my KZ-106 radio days.  Some cheerleaders invited me to give away prizes at a pep rally, and I was happy to do so.  I no sooner got on stage when the secretary tapped me on the shoulder and said “Mr So-and-So wants to see you.”  Assuming that he wanted to thank me for generously bringing a box of Journey albums, I strolled down to his office, expecting the red carpet treatment.  He promptly yelled, “What do you think you’re doing?  Are you trying to take over my school?”  As I started mumbling something about my cheerleader pals, his neck turned beet red and he bellowed, “You’d better get out of here!”  I thought that was good advice.  A few days later, one of the lovely cheerleaders called and said, “What happened to you?  You left before the pep rally even started!”  I guess the kindly old principal just let the matter drop.  I wish I could.  To this day, when I see his scowling face on the school’s wall of principal portraits, I growl at him.

Oh, I’ve been tossed out of schools since then, but you never forget your first.

I’m glad to say though, that most principals I’ve dealt with have been terrific.  Some, past and present are among my best friends.  Most of them know they’re the face of their school, and the good ones know how to set the right tone for their particular campus.  One of my favorites is at a rural high school.  Walking down the hall with him one day, he spotted a 9th grader out of dress code.  “Boy, you get that shirt tail in, or I’ll whup your ass,” he said in a stern tone of voice.  He could tell I was a bit startled by his colorful choice of words.  “Aw, that’s nothing,” he said.  “I grew up with that boy’s daddy.  That’s the only language he understands.  And he knows I’m not really gonna whup his ass.  I’d let his daddy handle that.”

Such is the life of a high school principal.  Middle school principals deal with raging hormones.  Elementary principals get a lot of hugs, but have to wave off clingy parents.  Above all, my School Patrol experience has taught me this:  I’d rather report on principals than be one.

I Feel Good; I Knew That I Would

david carroll BeaverDamUSA.comNot too long ago, I walked out of my allergist’s office, and realized, “I feel good.”   Now, why waste valuable Internet space on my (knock on wood) good health?  Because I’ve made four lifestyle changes that have made me feel better than I did years ago.  Who knows, there may be someone reading this who wants to feel better, and maybe I can help.  I’m no doctor, but I have stayed in a Holiday Inn Express, and my first two initials are D.R.  Close enough.

1)  I finally went to the allergist.  Ever since I was in my twenties, I sneezed a lot.  I have vivid memories of spring softball games, with my beloved KZ-106 Foul Tips, sneezing my brains out.  My wife Cindy would suggest I see someone about it, but in typical male fashion, I’d blow it off (pun intended).  I remember telling her, “It’s no big deal, I sneeze every day of the year.”

True, but it got to the point that I was miserable, just downright sick every May.  The tree and grass pollen overwhelmed me.  Then in October the leaves would fall, and my misery level would rise again.  Twice a year, for several weeks at a time, I’d trudge on to work, on radio and TV, stuffed up and sore-throated.  It was just part of life, I thought.  About four years ago, I had the “scratch test” done, the allergies were identified, and the weekly shots in the arm began.  Soon they were bi-weekly, and now they’re monthly.  Easily the best doctor’s visit I ever made.  Relief was immediate.  This was a life-changer.

2)  I finally went to the dermatologist.  Being of fair skin and English/Irish descent, the sun is not my friend.  No one told me this when I was a teen, sunbathing constantly in a futile effort to look as good as my bronzed friends.  No one said anything about it when I was playing softball on blistering weekend afternoons, with no “protection.”  I kept thinking that painful beet-red burn would magically peel into a skin tone somewhere between Bob Barker and George Hamilton.  No such luck.  The only thing it turns into is melanoma.  About ten years ago, a good dermatologist looked first into my family history, then deeply into my skin and laid down the law.  “Hey Knucklehead,” he may well have said.  “You shouldn’t even get the mail without smearing SPF 55 sunscreen over your exposed skin.”  Done!  Much of the damage was inflicted long ago, and it never goes away.  But at least I’ve fended off any new damage in recent years.

3)  I finally started getting an annual physical exam.  A good friend and former boss of mine scared me to death when he was about 40, and I was in my 20s.  He was telling the tale of the prostate exam portion of getting a physical, and made it sound like torture.

I never forgot that, and adopted (again) the stubborn male philosophy of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  My dad was among many who would say, “If you go to the doctor when you’re not sick, they’ll find something wrong with you anyway.”  So unless I was deathly ill with a stomach virus or something, I stayed out of doctors’ offices.  Finally, I gave in to spousal pressure, and made the annual date with the doctor.  No excuses.  That uncomfortable little exam I had so dreaded wasn’t so bad after all.  It only lasts a few seconds.  And the good doctor has monitored my once-high cholesterol levels, and introduced me to the wonderful world of colonoscopies.

(That reminds me of a story.  My first colonoscopy was about 7 years ago.  During one of my many visits to the bathroom the night before the procedure, I looked at the bottle of liquid laxative I was chugging.  It was called “GoLitely.”  On the floor was a bottle of bathroom cleanser, labeled “KaBoom.”  I remember thinking “KaBoom” would have been a more appropriate name for the laxative.)

4)  I finally visited a sleep center.  Throughout our marriage, Cindy often expressed amazement I was still alive each morning, after enduring sleepless nights of my high-decibel snoring, the rattle frequently interrupted by me gasping for breath.  Of course, I had no idea this was happening.  All I knew was, I would awaken bone-tired, like I had worked in a cotton field all night.  I would often lumber out of the bed wondering why I was so achy and exhausted.  Eventually I’d snap out of it, but mornings were not pleasant.  I endured a sleep test, with all the sticky electrodes and uncomfortable gear making it darn near impossible to sleep.  But evidently, the doctor acquired enough data and video evidence to prove that I had sleep apnea.  The solution:  that lovely C-PAP device that covers your nose, keeping your airways open.

nixon 007

(My kids nicknamed the device “Nixon.”  I have no idea why, but the name stuck.  A salute to our 37th president.)  The happy ending:  almost immediately, I slept better, stopped snoring, and have since felt great when I wake up each day.  Another life-changer!

Nothing I’ve written here is revolutionary, or considered a recent medical breakthrough.  Certainly, I’ve been blessed to work for a good employer with a health insurance plan that allows me to make regular doctor visits and undergo these treatments.  I wish everyone could do the same with no hassle or financial worries.  But if anyone reads this, and is able and willing to get their allergies under control, regular physical exams (and if appropriate, colonoscopies), skin cancer screening or sleep apnea testing, it might make their life better too.   As for me, 20-30 years ago, there was no TV news guy on the Internet passing along these little self-improvement tips.  If there had been, I would’ve been singing this song a long time ago:

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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.”

 

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.

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:

 

“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:

 

Radio Hall of Famer Tommy Jett and the Healing Power of Rock & Roll

david fpBack in May, Chattanooga radio legend Tommy Jett was inducted into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame. The honor was a long time coming, but that’s not why the story is remarkable. His induction almost didn’t happen, at least not with Tommy alive to witness it.

When the organization’s first round of inductees was announced last year, Tommy was disappointed, though not surprised that he didn’t quite make the cut. Only six living radio legends were elected, including nationally known broadcasters like Ralph Emery, Wink Martindale and John Ward, and Chattanooga icon Luther Masingill. Maybe next year, Tommy thought. In the meantime, he gathered his memorabilia, including his bright red 1960s-era WFLI “Jet-FLI” blazer and planned a trip to the ceremony to reminisce and mingle.

Fate intervened just days before the banquet one April afternoon. Tommy, a longtime diabetic, apparently lost consciousness while driving along a rural north Georgia road. His car went airborne, flipping a half-dozen times before landing in a ditch out of the view of most drivers. Fortunately, another motorist was nearby and saw it happen. Emergency workers were called to the scene, and spent the next four hours carefully removing Tommy from the wreckage, using the tools known as the “Jaws of Life.” Walker County Deputy Bruce Coker, who had worked alongside the deejay during numerous “Stocking Full of Love” Christmas charity events, led the rescue effort. “I thought there was no way we could get him out alive,” Coker said later.

Tommy Jett David Carroll beaverdamusa.com

Chattanooga radio legend Tommy Jett.

Yet within days, Tommy Jett was holding court in his hospital room, recovering from neck surgery and other procedures. He was determined to make his annual commitments to the Corn Bread Festival in South Pittsburg and his own Entertainers Reunion, both scheduled during the next month. Plus he’d been asked to introduce oldies acts like the Turtles and Gary Puckett at the Riverbend Festival in June. For Tommy, if he was breathing, the show must go on. He made every date, looking more gaunt and gray by the day. He was losing weight at an alarming rate. The once robust, rosy-cheeked rock-and-roller just didn’t have much of an appetite, and he didn’t know why.

It all came to a head in late June. His wife Charlene, who had tried mightily to get him to eat more, called 911. He had lapsed into a coma, and she didn’t know what to do. He was rushed to a Chattanooga hospital on that Friday afternoon, and friends and neighbors started spreading the word: this didn’t look good.

On Sunday, July 1st, the phone calls and e-mails went out. “If you want to see Tommy Jett one more time, you’d better hurry over to the hospital.” He was being kept alive on a respirator, and doctors told Charlene the bad news: he was totally unresponsive. “He will never get better,” they said. Some grave decisions had to be made. That afternoon, she told friends she was beginning to accept the inevitable. By the next morning, his family members should all be in town. Those closest to Tommy could say goodbye. Funeral arrangements were made, a church was chosen, pallbearers were notified.

What happened next has yet to be explained, scientifically anyway. Some longtime radio friends, led by Chip Chapman and Ben Cagle hatched an idea. Yes, Tommy is lying in a hospital bed. He doesn’t seem to hear us, he shows no signs of life, he probably doesn’t even know we’re here telling him how much we love him. But what did Tommy enjoy more than anything else in the world? Being on the radio, playing the hits of course. So the radio guys rounded up a boombox, loaded in some CD recordings of Tommy’s classic WFLI “Night Train” call-in request shows from the 1960s, and cranked it up near the head of Tommy’s bed. All day, all night. When one disc ran out, a new one was put in. Elvis, the Supremes, the Four Seasons, all introduced by Tommy’s familiar “Hey Now” greeting. Budweiser commercials, 1963 news flashes and hit songs, just as they aired on AM transistor radios fifty years earlier.

Monday morning arrived, and to everyone’s surprise and relief, they did not “pull the plug.” Doctors told the family that Tommy had shown slight signs of improvement. Those were visible only to doctors. To the rest of us, Tommy was still in a deep sleep, with no movement. The music played on. “Come on and be my little…good luck charm,” Elvis crooned. Tommy Jett’s lively voice would interrupt between songs: “Nineteen minutes after midnight, you’re movin’ and grooving, with Super-Jett, your ever-lovin’ leader!” ending on a high note few men over thirty could ever hope to reach.

The next day, Tommy began to move his fingers just a bit. By Wednesday, he was blinking his eyes as James Brown yelped in the background. Later that day his eyes began following the movements of his wife and grandkids in the hospital room. Message received: Tommy wasn’t ready to “check out” just yet. He still had some living to do.

By Friday, five days after his old deejay pals came by to say goodbye, they returned to witness what can only be described as a miracle. There was Tommy Jett, still listening to his old radio shows, but now able to speak, laugh, and express his thanks. Was he able to hear the music while doctors and family were discussing his planned exit from this life? No one, not even Tommy can be sure about that. One thing is for sure: it didn’t hurt. And if anyone wants to attach a little healing power to the sounds of rock and roll, so be it.

By the spring, he was driving again, appearing at Corn Bread Festivals and Entertainers Reunions, and putting together an eye-catching outfit for his induction into the 2013 class of the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame on Saturday May 4. He was determined to make it this time, and deliver the acceptance speech his friends thought would never take place. Yes, his appearance would be accompanied by sound clips and music from his old radio shows. After all, it’s his lifeblood.

Tommy is quick to credit his faith and his doctors for bringing him back from the brink of death’s door. Charlene says, “We give much credit to the doctors, like David Denman. And Tommy and I know the real reason he is here is God.” But the man who loves his fans like no other radio personality can’t hide a smile when it’s suggested that maybe rock and roll had something to do with it. “There’s nothing like music,” he says. “It’s been a big part of my whole life.”

As for me, I’m instructing my family to keep some Tommy Jett CDs handy, just in case I’m ever the subject of those serious hospital conversations. Crank up “TJ the DJ” for me. That might make me want to stick around a while longer too.

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