College Daze

If digital camers had been around when I was in college, and if they were as inexpensive and available as they are today, then I suspect there would be endless hours of incriminating video that I would would be trying to collect and destroy.  There were film cameras and I did have one, 8mm silent, and use it occasionally to film my roommates and our friends.

Film and processing cost money, and I was also concerned that the person processing the footage might look at it and I didn’t want that kind of attention focused on my private behavior, especially in the 60′s.  So filming was limited, but I did record my roommates and some of our friends hanging out being college kids.

This video is for them.  I can’t imagine it being of interest to anyone who didn’t go to college with me.  I’m posting it because that’s the easiest way to get it out to the people who’ve asked if I still had any of the films I took while in school.

I’ve put music behind the video, but the original film is silent, which is good news for everyone because you won’t have to listen to my bad sax playing.  However, it’s also unfortunate because you won’t be able to hear the guitar playing and singing of Rod Ruthrauff or the trombone playing of Byron Fisher.  In addition to Rod, Byron, and me, there are also scenes with our roomates,Chuck Seymore, and Richard Mixon, as well as some young ladies whom I will not embarrass by naming.

For some reason we’re all rather clean cut in these pictures.  The beards and really long hair will apparently live only in our memories.

Rhino Close Encounter

Just how bad is a rhino’s eyesight?  Here was the plan, if you can call a crazy off the top of your head idea that no one in their right mind would consider doing a plan, we were going to get out of our vehicle and see how close we could get to a wild white rhinoceros. There was a method to the madness. I was at South Africa’s Sabi Sabi Game Reserve where they were helping me with a story on rhinos.  Part of the story was to see if the old theory of rhinos having bad eyesight is true.  By the way, although Sabi Sabi does offer walking safaris to tourists, they would never do this with one of their clients.  Being with National Geographic occasionally gives you some privileged access.  Well, after you watch the video you can decide if this was a priviledge or not.

What did we learn from our test?  Do rhinos have eyesight so bad they can’t tell a person from a bush at 20 feet?  At 10 feet?  Or closer?  Did it prove I have a very small brain to even attempt this eye test?  This video shows the results.

Etta James

Years ago music legend Johnny Otis told me about the day he discovered one of the great R & B singers, Etta James.  She was 14 or 15 years old and had been singing in a little know girl’s group with two friends when she went to audition for Otis.  He said she was so shy that she insisted on going into another room to sing for him, so that he wouldn’t be able to watch her and she couldn’t see him while she was singing.  Today that would sound like a takeoff on the beginning of a new season of the NBC show, “The Voice.”

Etta James died a few days ago, the day after Johnny Otis passed away.  They both left a tremendous musical legacy. In the early eighties when I was doing the “On the Record” segment for the today show I was fortunate to get to spend some time with them for profile pieces on the show.  For one of the stories I filmed a performance by James in a women’s prison where she had served time for what, as best as I can remember, was a conviction for writting bad checks.  As James told me in a later interview, which is in this video piece, her real problem was an addiction to drugs, particularly heroin.

Whatever troubles she faced in her life, it seemed as if was able to channel all that emotion into her singing which made her vocals all the more powerful.  This video from the early 80′s was part of a series on women in rock, and is a reminder that all these years later she set a standard for vocalistists that few since have matched.

Open Hands: Meet the Band

Individually the members of the band Open Hands have enjoyed great success playing and recording with some of the biggest names in music, but together as Open Hands they are at their creative best.

Good musicians who can look at notes and lines on a sheet of paper and transform those hieroglyphics into beautiful music always impress me, in part because that ability eludes me.   Even more impressive to me are the musicians who can hear a tune in their head and then reproduce that melody on an instrument.  But there is another skill that a very few musicians possess that to me takes playing to a whole different level, to a realm only the most talented inhabit.  These are the musicians who start with notes on a page and them begin to improvise as a group and somehow make it all work together, or sometimes they don’t even have the notes as a jumping off point, they just call out a key and go to work.  That’s the kind of musicianship that describes Open Hands.

In this video the members of Open Hands demonstrate their technical skills, show their improve ability and talk about how they do what they do. This is an introduction to Open Hands: Greg Mathieson, Justo Almario, Abraham Laboriel, and Bill Maxwell.

Johnny Otis

Johnny Otis died this week in Altadena, California at the age of 90.  He lived long enough that for many young people today his name probably won’t ring any bells.  If they hear a musician popular in the 40’s, and 50’s passed away, they might say, “Whatever he did, it doesn’t relate to what I’m listening to.”  But in fact, Johnny Otis was there in the beginning to help lay the foundation for rhythm and blues, which would become the foundation for rock and roll.  For people of a certain age, he will probably be best remembered for his hit record, “Willie & the Hand Jive,” but the musical influence of Johnny Otis extends far beyond writing & recording that one hit.

In 1950 alone, ten of his songs made Billboard Magazine’s R&B chart, and yet it was his ear for the talent of others that may be his biggest contribution to music.  Otis discovered or produced some of the legendary R&B vocalists like Etta James, Hank Ballard, and Big Mama Thornton.  He produced the original version of “Hound Dog” by Big Mamma Thornton, the song Elvis Presley would later record to help launch his career as the King of Rock & Roll.

I met Otis 29 years ago when I was doing my “On the Record” segment for the Today Show.  In the time we spent together I learned how much more there was to appreciate and respect about Otis as a person and an artist beyond his fame as a performer on “Willie and the Hand Jive.”  Rather than me retelling the details here, just watch this video I found from 1982 of my Today Show story about Otis.

Flying With Whooping Cranes

According to the song, “Birds gotta fly,” but sometimes people have to teach them where to fly.  If you’re a whooping crane chick hatched in capitivity in an incubator in Maryland and raised by humans at a wildlife refuge in Wisconsin then you have no idea how to get to your home in Florida your first winter.  Somebody has to show you “The way to go home,” according to another song.

That’s where Operation Migration steps in as surrogate parents to several whooping crane chicks each year.  They help raise the young birds and get them to imprint with an ultralight in the role of parent or really big bird.  First the chicks learn to follow the delta wing or flying trike as it drives around on the ground.  Next the young cranes take daily flights around the wildlife refuge following in a V formation behind the ultralight.  By October each year the new whooping cranes are ready to begin their trip south to Florida and their winter home.  After that first trip they manage to find their way back and forth each year on their own.

I was lucky to be the first journalist to fly with Operation Migration and the whooping cranes.  It’s a special treat to watch these huge birds in formation off your wingtip.  This week on my radio show National Geographic Weekend I talk with the co-founder of Operation Migration, Joe Duffy, about the effort to help save the whooping cranes.  At one point we were down to only 15 whooping cranes left in the wild.  We’re now up to a few hundred, but we’re still a long way from ensuring their survival.

This video shows how they train the birds to follow the ultralights and then we take you for a ride, flying with whooping cranes.

Oldie But Goodie

Boy was I surprised today.  I found an unlabeled video tape and stuck it in the player to see what was on it.  It turned out to be a dub of some old 16mm film shot in the 70′s while I was working for the NBC TV station in Ft. Worth, Texas.  In addition to all the pictures of me decked out in bellbottoms and flowered shirts, there was some rare footage I shot of Andrae Crouch and the Disciples in 1971.

I filmed their sound check before a concert at a local church for a story about the group on the evening news.   The song was, “Satisfied.”  I’m sure I had them sing it two or three times to get all the angles I needed, but I don’t know where all that film is or what happened to the cut story.  I was thrilled and very surprised to find this one uncut take of, “Satisfied”.  I was sure it no longer existed.

Forty years sitting in a box has taken its toll on the sound, which isn’t quite up to the correct speed at the beginning.  Also I only had one mic on the camera to record the audio so the mix is not the best, but footage of Andrae and the Disciples singing in the early 70′s is so rare I think this is worth posting.

Fans of the group will notice this was done before Andrae added the band featuring Bill Maxwell, Hadley Hockensmith, Harlan Rogers, and Fletch Wilcy, and unfortunately this angle doesn’t show Bili Thetford although you can hear him singing and playing bass.

It’s an oldie but goodie and a fun trip down memory lane.

Rock Art Zimbabwe

The San Bushmen lived in the area of Zimbabwe, Africa that is now the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve as far back as seven thousand years ago.  They didn’t leave behind an architectural footprint of cities, or temples, or even houses to be studied by 21st century archeologists, but they did leave their mark.  More than eighty sites on the Malilangwe Reserve are living museums of San Bushmen rock art.  The animals they painted are the same ones running wild in the area today.  Brad Forchet, a ranger and guide at the Singita Pamushana Lodge, led me on a hike to see some of the paintings.

According to Brad, even though the animals are recognizable, the Bushmen weren’t painting scenes from their daily life.  Instead the artwork was done by spiritual leaders when they would go into a trance.  The scenes depict visions they had while in the trance.  Brad talks with me this week on my radio show, “National Geographic Weekend” about these African Picassos and the importance of their rock art.

We also go looking for some of the animals whose images appear on the sandstone cliffs around the Pamushana Lodge.  And just like we found the rock art on foot, we go looking for rhinos and elephants on foot.  In our interview you’ll also hear the story of how we were charged by a black rhino and lived to tell about it.  This video is from the part of our conservation about rock art.  Coming soon I’ll post the video and story of the rhino charge.

If you’re thinking about a trip to Africa and want to know more about the Singita Pamushana Lodge here’s a link to their website:

Sippie Wallace Blues Pioneer

Sippie Wallace recorded her first record in 1923.  It was a blues classic with the songs “Shorty George” and “Up the Country Blues.”  Fifty-seven years later I met Sippie in Detroit where she was still belting the blues in nightclubs on Saturday nights and then playing the organ and leading the choir on Sunday mornings.  I spent some time with her in both the club and the church and then stopped by her home where she talked with me about her extaordinary career.

It was Sippie who first told me the only difference between the blues and gospel, the only difference between the music she sang on Saturday night and Sunday morning was the words.  She said in the clubs she was singing “Baby” and in church she was singing “Jesus”  She sang both for me for a series we were doing on American music for the Today show.  This clip is another find from the Boyd closet of old tapes.  Scott Goldstein was my producer at the time and we both were just looking for an exscuse to go meet some of the pioneers of the “roots” music we loved.  The series also included stops in the “Windy City” for Chicago Blues and a stop in Louisiana for Cajun music.  The series would become the inspiration for our regular weekly segment, “On the Record”.

Sippie was one of the big influences on singer Bonnie Raitt who would record one of Sippie’s songs, “Woman Be Wise,” and would also take Sippie on tour as an opening act.  Two years after this story Sippie Wallace would be nominated for a Grammy and six years later she would suffer a stroke following a concert in Germany.  Less than a month after the stroke, on her 88th birthday, she died in a Detroit hospital.  Her contribution to the blues lives on in some of her most famous songs like, “Suitcase Blues”, “Woman Be Wise, “Up the Country Blues”, and “I’m A Mighty Tight Woman.”