Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Recommended Reading

In the comment section of a recent post of mine, I said someone I've long admired had died and I would be doing an obit on him. Just so as there's no misunderstanding, the Vietnam vet pictured above is NOT that person. Nevertheless, I am not unmoved by his passing, and admit that both during his military service (including his stay at a "Hilton"), and his long political career afterwards, he could at times rise to the occasion. None of which means I think he would have made a good president (though he would have made a much better one than a certain casino mogul I can think of.) So, yes, I have mixed feelings about him. As did this writer for The Nation. His opinions don't completely match up with mine (though it's tempting, I wouldn't quite call myself a pacifist--blame that on Hitler) but they come close.  If you have the time, you might want to give it a read:

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Graphic Grandeur: Russ Heath

Comic book artist Russ Heath worked for Timely (now Marvel) Comics on their Western line and for a while assisted Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder on Little Annie Fanny for Playboy, but is best known for the war comics he drew for DC in the 1960s. Take a look (but first make sure you're wearing your flak jacket):

I'm not sure Mahatma Gandhi would approve, but you have to admit this is some pretty lively comic art.

Need to cool off after all that combat? Let's go for a swim:

Where's the Coast Guard when you need it?

 Where's the game warden when you need him?

Though his career spanned a major revival of superhero comics (today referred to as the "Silver Age"), Heath surprisingly drew very few of those, but here's one he did do:   

I knew she was a tease.

On an assignment for Mad, Heath parodied a superhero...

...who was pretty much a parody to begin with (comics history buffs will note a certain alligator,  a certain cat, a certain phantom, a certain sandwich gourmand, and a certain hyena--there might be others I can't identify, so if you can, please let me know in the comments section.)

Anyone out there care to hum a few bars of the William Tell Overture? It would be a great way to introduce...

...The Lone Ranger! Heath drew the comic strip version of the famous Western hero (I'd say his Tonto is more Jay Silverheels than Johnny Depp.)

 In recent years, Heath drew pretty girls for Glamourpuss, a satirical black-and-white comic book in Canada.

I must have missed the bondage episode, because I don't recall Marlo Thomas ever looking like that. "Oh, Donald!"

Probably the Russ Heath art that was seen by the most eyeballs was not anything on the front or on the inside or a comic book but on the back cover:

Let's move on to another historical period:

 Suppose you plunked down a buck ninety-eight for those Revolutionary War soldiers, what would you actually get?

Bluecoats vs Redcoats. Literally. It's a far cry from that Russ Heath drawing, but I suppose it's just as well. If gunpowder actually did burst forth from those muskets and cannons, it might make a mess of the rec room, and then what would Mom say?

In 1962, this panel drawn by Heath appeared in the DC comic book All American Men at War. A short time later...

...Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein produced this painting:

Look a bit alike, don't they? 

Now, you can go back and forth on this (as I have to myself.) You can argue Lichtenstein, a very well-known artist in his day and certainly not forgotten now, was nothing more than a plagiarist, who achieved fame by ripping off work that at the time was looked down upon and deemed to be more a mass-produced product than actual art, or you can argue he was actually making a statement about America's militaristic culture in much the same way that fellow pop artist Andy Warhol was making a statement about America's consumerist culture with his Campbell soup cans. It's hard to say which, but I do know one thing. The money that changed hands between Lichtenstein and the people (or institution) that bought his painting was much, much greater than the money that exchanged hands between work-for-hire artist Russ Heath and DC comics. Here's what Heath himself had to say about it in 2014:

 I'm afraid the then-84 year old Heaths's memory was a bit off concerning his own work. The "Whaam!" painting he refers to was actually ANOTHER Lichtenstein work based on a comic panel drawn by Irv Novick that also appeared in a 1960s DC war comic. Nevertheless, the point is well-made. Heath and Novick unwittingly helped advance Lichtenstein's career without getting any compensation in return.

If case you're wondering about the Hero Initiative that Heath mentions, it's an organization that helps aging comic book artists, many who spent their careers as benefits-deficient freelancers, help make ends meet. And, as you just read, not only did it make Heath's ends meet, he even got a bottle of wine. Speaking of wine:

A toast to Russ Heath. Rest in peace.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Quips and Quotations (Social History Edition)

The late 1920s were an age of islands, real and metaphorical. They were an age when Americans by thousands and tens of thousands were scheming to take the next boat for the South Seas or the West Indies, or better still for Paris, from which they could scatter to Majorca, Corsica, Capri or the isles of Greece. Paris itself was a modern city that seemed islanded in the past, and there were island countries, like Mexico, where Americans could feel that they had escaped from everything that oppressed them in a business civilization. Or without leaving home they could build themselves private islands of art or philosophy; or else - and this was a frequent solution - they could create social islands in the shadow of the skyscrapers, groups of close friends among whom they could live as unconstrainedly as in a Polynesian valley, live without moral scruples or modern conveniences, live in the pure moment, live gaily on gin and love and two lamb chops broiled over a coal fire in the grate. That was part of the Greenwich Village idea, and soon it was being copied in Boston, San Francisco, everywhere.

--Malcolm Cowley


Sunday, August 19, 2018

In Memoriam: Aretha Franklin 1942-2018

"I sing to the realists; people who accept it like it is."

 Though she was born in Memphis, Tennessee, Aretha grew up in Detroit, Michigan.

Now, I'm sure you associate Detroit largely with the automobile industry, but as far as I know Studebaker, De Sotos, and certainly not Edsels had any affect on Aretha's formative years, but the above building, home of the New Bethal Baptist Church, most certainly did.

For it was here that Aretha's minister father, C.L. Franklin preached the Gospel:

When Franklin wasn't talking, he was singing:

Whether you're a true believer or not, you have to admit that a strong pair of vocal chords ran in that family. In fact, Rev. Franklin was known in ecclesiastic circles as The Man with The Million Dollar Voice.

Not just in Detroit, either, once a pioneering local black record producer and record store owner named Joe Von Battle put the Baptist preacher's sermons and gospel singing on vinyl. C.L. Franklin became a nationally-known figure, a star even, at least in the world of the black church.

Daughter Aretha wasn't forgotten about. While in her teens, she began singing with her father in church, and as his fame grew, began touring with him as well.

Franklin convinced the aforementioned Battle to record his daughter. In 1956, when Aretha was just 14, she came out with her first album Songs of Faith.

Around this time, Aretha met a young gospel singer named Sam Cooke who was about to make the jump into the pop mainstream. Impressed by his subsequent success, Aretha admitted to her father that she, too, would like record something a little bit more secular. If this was an R+B gender-changed version of The Jazz Singer, I suppose you'd expect him condemn her to fire and brimstone at this point, but fortunately, it's real life. Her reverend pop not only understood, but helped produce her two-song demo.

It didn't take long for a major label to sign her.

 John H. Hammond, whose many musical discoveries included Billie Holiday and Count Basie, produced Aretha's...

 ...first album, which also included...

 ...her first single.

Released in 1960, it reached #10 on the R+B chart.

Nevertheless, in her six years at Columbia, Aretha successes were sporadic, and in 1966...


...she decided to sign with another label. 

Though headquartered in New York City, Atlantic had their new artist record not there...

...but to a place further south, in Alabama.

FAME studios, where Aretha worked with music journalist-turned music producer...

...Jerry Wexler. Back in early 1950s when he was still writing for Billboard, Wexler had coined the term "rhythm and blues". There's no evidence he also coined the term "soul music", but the white, Jewish,  middle-aged Atlantic executive was one of the form's chief proponents.

But what was soul exactly? Since the 1970s (and due largely to the efforts of one Don Cornelius) it's been an umbrella term for African-American music in general. But back in the '60s, the meaning was more specific, the music was more specific. It had something to do with the blues, but was much more melodic, not just one note endlessly repeated. On the more rousing songs, you could clap and stomp your feet. Not just the audience, but the PERFORMERS sometime did this. Actually, you might mistake the audience as part of the performance, as there seem to be a bit of shouting going back and forth from the stage to the seats and the seats to the stage. Perhaps to really understand it, you have to look at Aretha's problems at Columbia. She being black, the label  pushed her into singing jazzy pop numbers, because jazz is, you know, what black people were known for. (Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and Leontyne Price might have had some other ideas.) And Aretha was a pretty good  jazz/pop singer, but it's not what she was raised on. Nor was, for that matter, Ray Charles, who wasted a lot of his early career trying to sound like Nat King Cole. Many, many black artists, such as James Brown and Otis Redding, had learned how to sing in church. Sure, they may have wanted to do something less religious (and more lucrative) once they got a chance to do so, but did that really require a total retreat from their main musical training ground? The artists and producers operating out of Muscle Shoals, as well as those at Stax Records in Memphis, didn't think so. It's an oversimplification, but soul to a large extant is a secular form of African-American gospel. The emotion, the drama, the full-throated singing, the clapping, foot stomping, and if there's an audience present, the urge to call out to them expecting some sort of response. (Want to turn a gospel song into a soul song? Replace Jesus with a more earthbound lover, and Satan with a earthbound FORMER love who done you wrong. If it's a song of repentance, instead of dropping to your knees and asking the Lord for forgiveness, you promise that woman of yours that you'll no longer step out at night.) And it was just this secular gospel...

 ...that would transform Aretha Franklin's career.

 Ironically, Aretha spent but a single day in Muscle Shoals. While she looks very happy in the above picture with a group of SPACE session singers, apparently her then-husband Ted White and studio owner Rick Hall got into an argument, and the session was abandoned, but Aretha was there just long enough to record..

...what up to then was the biggest hit of her career, peaking at #9 on the pop charts.

Aretha  would spend the rest of the 1960s recording up north, but she never forgot what she learned in Muscle Shoals, calling it "the turning point in my career."

I mentioned Otis Redding earlier. Today he's best known for  "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" which had hit the charts after he had already died in a plane crash. But when he was still alive, he had had a bit of success with a crossover hit that had peaked at #35 on the pop charts. But another version of the same song was going to go much higher than that.


Redding's feminist anthem--well, it might not have been a feminist anthem when HE sang it--reached #1 and became her signature song.

More hits followed:

Soon, Aretha didn't just sing soul...

 ...she owned it.

The daughter of a famous black preacher meets one even more famous.

She sang at his funeral.

More hits followed in the 1970s:


 Even when the hits stopped coming about midway through the decade, Aretha kept busy.

A return to her roots.

Aretha meets Jake and Elwood.

Aretha's father, meanwhile, continued to preach, and though obviously not the household name his daughter was, was still very popular in the black church. 

 On June 10, 1979, Rev. Franklin was shot twice by burglars at his Detroit home. He had been armed with a gun himself, had fired, but failed to hit anyone. He spent the next five years in a semi-coma. Upon his death, the crime became a homicide. Four men and two women were evenutally charged and found guilty ofr their participation in the crime. His four-hour funural was attended by 10,000 people. Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered the eulogy.  

  Nothing can replace the death of a parent, but things were otherwise looking up by 1985, Aretha, now at Arista, had her first Platinum-certified album, which included...

...this hit single.

That same year she got together with the Eurythmics...

...and put out this hit.

Aretha in the 1990s.

 Aretha sings at the inauguration of the first African-American president.

It's not the branch of Christianity she was raised in, but Aretha sang for Pope Francis in 2015.

In 2016, Linwood Boulevard, where the New Bethel Baptist Church is located, was changed to C.L. Franklin Boulevard.

 Aretha singing at that very place her father preached.

 RIP, the Queen of Soul.