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One of the best perks of working for the Today Show in the eighties was their willingness to let me do stories about almost anything that interested me. I didn’t have to ask, “Is this story the stuff of front page headline news?” I just had to bring them compelling stories that were factually correct and well crafted. I worked under the assumption that if it was interesting to me, then there must be other people who would be equally fascinated with the topic as well.
That philosophy is how I got the show to let me start a weekly series called, “On the Record.” News organizations for the most part in those days ignored stories about the music business unless it involved a rock star getting arrested or overdosing. We had a Hollywood segment on the show and a movie review segment, but no regular music coverage. Being of a generation that considered rock and roll a soundtrack for life, I thought by ignoring music stories we were failing to report on an area of interest to a big chunk of our audience.
The Today Show agreed to let me cover music, in addition to my other stories, and I used that platform to meet and film artists whose music appealed to me, whether or not they happened to be at the top of the charts. And that’s how in 1981 I ended up in Louisiana spending a few days with some of the pioneers of Cajun music.
Dennis McGee, Dewey Balfa, and Sady Courville, fiddle players and singers all had a big influence on 20th century Cajun music. I had heard some of their early recordings and decided it was a music genre whose story needed to be told and documented for a larger audience. I spend a few days hanging out with the guys and their family and friends, listening to music, hearing their life stories, and sharing some great meals. This is the Today Show piece that came from my time in Cajun country.
Davy Jones of “The Monkees” died today of a heart attack. The group was created to be a fictional band on a TV show, but in a case of life imitating art, The Monkees became one of the biggest selling bands in the country in the late 60’s. In the 80’s I did this “where are they now?” story about the group for the Today Show.
They were hired for their looks and ability to act. The show concept was about a group of guys in an out of work band. They were supposed to a kind of spoof on the Beatles, but they were also to be a safe band, one that wouldn’t frighten parents. They fact they all had a little musical ability and three of the guys played instruments probably helped Peter, Davy, Michael, and Micky get the gig. It wasn’t that the producers wanted them to really play their instruments in the show, but it would add to the believability if it looked as if they were really playing. They were really singing, but after a couple of hit records they also wanted to be the guys they were pretending to be, they wanted to play the instruments on their records and have more creative imput into the music.
Michael Nesmith, the most accomplished musician and song writer in the group, led the fight for the change. Eventually the boys got their way and became the musicians playing on their own albums. By the time I did this, where are they now, story the guys were mostly dabbling in music part time while making their living in other ways. But over the years there was always enough of a demand for “The Monkees” that they would occasionally reunite for short projects. Nesmith continued to perform, as a solo artist and in a group called First National Band. He also produced some movies, wrote a couple of novels, and is credited with thinking of the concept that would eventually become MTV.
Upon hear of the death of Davy Jones today, Nesmith posted these wonderful thoughts on his facebook page which I’m reposting here.
“All the lovely people. Where do they all come from?
So many lovely and heartfelt messages of condolence and sympathy, I don’t know what to say, except my sincere thank you to all. I share and appreciate your feelings.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
While it is jarring, and sometimes seems unjust, or strange, this transition we call dying and death is a constant in the mortal experience that we know almost nothing about. I am of the mind that it is a transition and I carry with me a certainty of the continuity of existence. While I don’t exactly know what happens in these times, there is an ongoing sense of life that reaches in my mind out far beyond the near horizons of mortality and into the reaches of infinity.
That David has stepped beyond my view causes me the sadness that it does many of you. I will miss him, but I won’t abandon him to mortality. I will think of him as existing within the animating life that insures existence. I will think of him and his family with that gentle regard in spite of all the contrary appearances on the mortal plane.
David’s spirit and soul live well in my heart, among all the lovely people, who remember with me the good times, and the healing times, that were created for so many, including us.
I have fond memories. I wish him safe travels.”
Motown Records was started by Barry Gordy to give black artists in the Detroit area a shot at making hit records, but what he ended up creating was a company that provided a soundtrack for life during much of the 60’s and 70’s. On the 20th anniversary of Motown, the company was headquartered in Los Angeles, their first million selling singer, Smokey Robinson, was still recording, but he was also a vice-president at Motown.
This video is a story I did for the Today Show looking back at Motown’s success on their 20th anniversary. At the end of the story after filming the Temptations in a rehearsal the guys were sitting around and sang a little song especially for the Today Show.
Since most people are thinking about that great American institution the Super Bowl today, I though before the game begins you could use a little break and enjoy a few moments of pleasure from another American institution, Motown Records.
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.
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.
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.