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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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.