Aretha Franklin Recording Session

I Spent an afternoon in a recording studio with Aretha Franklin back in ’81 or ’82 filming and interviewing here for a regular segment I was doing on the “Today Show” called, “On the Record.”   She sat at the piano for the interview where I was hoping to get her to play  and sing something unrehearsed, something that wasn’t part of the album.  Before we began the formal interview I asked if she still played much piano.  She immediately started playing a gospel number, (not one of the classics),  and asked if I could name the song.  I’m assuming she was thinking there was no way I would know the title, and the odds were I wouldn’t,  Songs titles are not my strength, but by a lucky chance this was a gospel song I knew and I think my correct answer helped put her in the mood to play and sing for me.  If only I had the field tapes we shot from that session.

I did find this copy of the story that aired on the Today Show and it has a brief clip of her playing and singing, “Near the Cross” in Aretha’s unmatched gospel style.  It also has her laying down the vocal track for the song, “This is for Real” which would be on her new album.  Looking back at the tape reminded me of how much access we used to get to the music industry for our “On the Record” segment.  At the time no network news organization was covering the music business on a regular basis until I started the “On the Record” segment.  They were so thrilled to be getting the coverage and publicity that we were given permission to film this recording session with Aretha and put the story on the air two months before her album was scheduled to be released.  Now the record company or the artists would film the sessions themselves, edit the material to their liking, and then try to sell the package.

When you look at the video you will notice the producer for the record sitting in the control room is a young looking Luther Vandross.  This was the first of two albums he would produce for Aretha.  This one would be her first gold record in several years.  Of course in the early 80′s it was not only a young looking Luther, but a young looking Aretha and young Boyd, and even a young Chris Wallace who was hosting the Today Show that day.

Wild Dogs

There’s a reason they’re called wild dogs.  Just watch them in action jumping, biting, play fighting with each other and the first thing you think is,”These guy are wild dogs.”   Then when they go on the hunt their relentless full on pursuit of their prey further cements that reputation.  But those same characteristics that some call wild, have made these dogs one of the most successful predators in Africa.  When they go after an animal, it’s estimated they come home with a meal about 80% of the time.

I was in Sabi Sabi Game Reserve in South Africa where I spent a couple of days with a large pack of wild dogs and filmed the pups as they put on quite a show with their exuberant play.  The adults would go off hunting every day and then return to regurgitate a hot meal for the kids.  It’s not a recipe you’ll find in the Martha Stewart cookbook.

More recently i was in Zimbabwe at the Singita Pamushana Lodge in the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve where I filmed a much smaller pack of wild dogs.  Kim Wolhuter, an old friend and filmmaker who’s made several films for National Geographic, has been living on the property for several years and following the wild dogs.  We hooked up with Kim who drove us to where the dogs were eating an impala  they had killed a few minutes earlier.

Kim, whose father and grandfather were both game rangers in South Africa, has spent most of his life in the bush, so it should have been no surprise to learn he often gets out of his vehicle and runs with the dogs, crashing through the trees and bushes with them when they go on the hunt.  Still it’s pretty amazing when you think about it, and it does allow him to capture the kind of footafge you won’t see elsewhere.

I interviewed Kim for my radio show National Geographic Weekend while we were together with the wild dogs.  That interview is now up online at national geographic weekend, or as a free podcast on itunes.  Wild dogs are now endangered and Kim’s films are helping draw attention to the crisis they face.  In this video you can hear part of the interview and see the dogs Kim has been following as well as the ones I filmed playing and jumping around at Sabi Sabi in South Africa.

Nuking Nevada

Nuking Nevada.  If you’re worried about someone setting off a nuclear weapon in the United States, it’s a little too late.  We’ve already had hundreds of nuclear explosions within our own borders, the atomic fury unleashed by our own government.  A little patch of desert in Nevada has been the target of more than nine hundred of those explosions as we developed and tested ever bigger and more destructive weapons.

For a while we even had a program called Operation Plowshare where we attempted to follow the Biblical admonition and beat our swords into plowshares by developing nukes for peace.  Clearly that program to build stuff by blowing up stuff didn’t work.

I was reminded of my visits to the Nevada test site this week on my radio show, National Geographic Weekend when interviewing Lucy Craft who wrote the story about Japan’s Nuclear Refugees in this month’s National Geographic Magazine.  Some of the towns around the compromised Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant are still to this day empty ghost towns.

On the show we discuss Japan and what’s happened after the Fukushima fallout and I also talk about my Nevada visits.  Afterwards, I remembered a visit I once made to the National Atomic Museum, a museum where we pay tribute to our unique ability to blowup stuff.

This video has highlights of my atomic museum and Nevada Test Site visits.  It’s a blast

Icy Adventures

Icy adventures.  As we head into winter I was thinking back to one of the coldest days of my life.  It was 1996 and we were in Minnesota to film a series of adventures for National Geographic Explorer.  The day we arrived the temperature was hoovering around zero.  That was as warm as it would get for the next week.  I wanted to lock myself inside with my arms wrapped around a pot belly stove for the duration of our stay.  But we were there to be outside, so I had to distract myself with all kinds of crazy adventures.  We did ice fishing, ice carving, stock car racing on an ice track, dog sledding, and kayaking on Lake Superior where the water had the consistency of a frozen margarita.

It was so cold you had to put an electric blanket on the hood of the car at night so the engine would start the next morning.  Several times I was sure my fingers had suffered frostbite.  And my lips were so numb I could barely talk on camera without sounding like I was drunk.  By the final day of our trip in Ely, Minnesota, the temperature had dropped to 60 below zero.  We later learned that Ely was the coldest place on the planet on that day.  It was also the day we choose to camp out, sleeping in our dog sleds.

I thought about that experience this week when interviewing two of our National Geographic Adventurers of the year on my radio show.  Jon Turk and Erik Boomer this year circumnavigated Ellesmere Island by kayak and on skis.  No one had ever done it before.  You can hear about their frozen saga this week on National Geographic Weekend and hear about my own Minnesota winter exploits.  And in this video you can see what it looks like to kayak in a slushy margarita and do an eskimo roll in icy water.

Tiger Safari

Here’s a hard to believe statistic, by some esitmates there are more tigers in captivity in the state of Texas than there are tigers roaming free in the wild in all of Asia.  There’s no debating the fact tigers are endangered.  This past year I went to India to see tigers in their natural habitat.  I was in two of the best places to find them, Kaziranga and Ranthambore National Parks, protected areas set aside specifically as tiger reserves.

There are tigers in both parks, perhaps as many as a hundred in Kaziranga and maybe half that in Ranthambore, and yet it took me several safaris into both to find just one tiger.  There was a lot of other wildlife I encountered, so the trip would have been well worth it even if I hadn’t seen the tiger.  In Kaziranga there are some 2,000 Indian one-horned rhinos or about three fourth of the entire world population.

The best way to really get off road and into the tall grass in Kaziranga is on elephant back which I did twice.  This video shows some of that safari and our rhino encounters.  It also has pictures of the one tiger I did see.  I’ve also included part of my radio interview this week with National Geographic photographer Steve Winter who took the tiger pictures in this month’s National Geographic magazine.  The photos are part of the article called, “A Cry for the Tiger”, which documents the crisis facing these charismatic big cats.

Havana Time Machine

Flying to Cuba is like taking a trip in a time machine.  Looking around Havana it’s easy to imagine you’ve been transported to the late 1950′s.  The city is not the exotic, bright, shiny, resort destination for the rich and famous that was 50′s Havana rather it’s more like a faded past her prime celebrity of another era.  There is enough familiar in the appearance to know it’s the same person who used to excite you, but the beauty has faded and the skin is sagging and wrinkled by the passage of time.

The architecture and the automobiles are the most visible reminders of 1950′s Cuba.  The United States economic embargo against the island nation has resulted in more work for car mechanics and less work for new car salesmen.  The Detroit chrome and tailfin classics of  pre 1960 are everywhere.  And in a country with limited cash, there are also more old buildings than new buidings.

But there is a promise of change in the air.  There are new rules allowing private ownership of homes and cars.  A facelift has begun.  Optimism for a better future is sprouting.  New rules now make it easier for U.S. citizens to get a special visa to visit Cuba and take direct flights from Miami.  If you want to experience this time travel adventure hurry before the country completely changes.  I just returned from a week long trip and this video shows a little of what Havana looks like today.

This week on my radio show, National Geographic Weekend, I talk about the trip and share a little known Fidel story that was told to me by Roberto Salas, a photographer who was there chronicling the revolution 50 years ago.