Saturday, March 2, 2024

Andy's Gang, a favorite children's TV show from the fifties

 Mr. Peabody instructs Sherman to set the Wayback machine to the year 1955

 While driving through Kingman, Arizona, on our way back to Washington state, Katie and I noticed the street we were on was Andy Devine Avenue. Andy Devine was a character actor in movies and television shows and died in 1977. When I looked him up online, I found out that he was born in Flagstaff, and grew up in Kingman. He is the town's favorite native son. In the Mohave Museum in Kingman, there is a whole room devoted to his life and career.  
Devine started his career on the radio in the 1930s, then transitioned into movies and television, acting in over 400 films, mostly Westerns. He played Roy Rogers' sidekick, Cookie, in ten films and was in several John Wayne movies. But I mostly remember him from Saturday morning television. "The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickock" ran from 1951-1958. Devine played Jingles, Wild Bill's sidekick. In the opening of every show, Wild Bill, played by Guy Madison, is galloping on his horse, shooting his pistol at who knows what, and Jingles is pulling up the rear, trying to keep his hat from blowing off.  Jingles yells in his unforgettable high raspy voice, "Hey Wild Bill, wait for me," as if Wild Bill would slow down and let the bad guys get away just so Jingles could catch up. 

"Andy's Gang", or "The Andy Devine Show" ran from 1955-1960. Andy took over the show that was originally called, "Smilin' Ed McConnell and his Buster Brown Gang". It was first on the radio and then became a television show. In 1954, Smilin' Ed suddenly died of a heart attack. This popular children's show needed a replacement and Andy took over in 1955.  Buster Brown Shoes continued to sponsor the show. Buster Brown was a comic book character created in 1902 and adopted by the Brown Shoe Company as its mascot in 1904, along with his creepy looking dog Tige.  Buster was an effeminate looking boy in a weird costume. 

Andy inherited many of the same characters from Smilin' Ed's show; Midnight the cat, Squeaky the mouse, Grandie the talking piano and everybody's favorite, Froggy the Gremlin.

When Andy said, "Pluck your magic twanger Froggy," in a puff of smoke, Froggy would appear on top of the old clock and say in a low voice, "Hiya kids, hiya, hiya, hiya," and the kids in the audience would go wild. There were no actual kids in the audience, but like "canned laughter", clips of the audience laughing were cut in where appropriate. Froggy appeared in skits with a teacher or a French baker, who would be instructing the audience on how to do something. In the middle of his instruction, Froggy would rudely interrupt, and the instructor would become flustered. In one skit I remember, the baker was teaching us how to make a cream pie. When the baker said what he was going to do next, Froggy interrupted saying, "and you put it on your head." and the befuddled baker put the pie on his head, and it dripped down all over his face. I thought this was hilarious. 
But the best part of the show were the stories about an East Indian boy. Andy would pick up his big Story Book, sit down in an overstuffed chair and begin reading. As his voice faded out, a film began running with the latest adventure of Gunga Ram and his best friend Rama. The boys' job was tending the elephants used in a Teak lumber company. They also helped the Maharajah when he got into some sort of jam. I felt as though I was transported to an exotic land and envied the boys riding around on elephants and having adventures in a land filled with wild animals like tigers, pythons and monkeys. 
 Frank Ferrin produced both Andy's Gang and a movie called "Sabaka" which was filmed partially in India and partially in LA. What we saw on Andy's Gang were clips taken from the movie and developed into their own mini stories for the show. Gunga Ram was played by an Italian actor named Nino Marcel. At the time I watched it, I wouldn't have cared about any of this motion picture gimmickry, historical inaccuracy or inauthenticity. I thought the show was great.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Bob Kuban and the In-men, Our Local Band


The St. Louis area spawned many famous musicians, most notably Chuck Berry, Ike and Tina Turner and more recently Michael McDonald, who graduated from McClure High School, in Florissant, Mo. I had already graduated from McClure before he entered high school, so I'm sorry to say, I didn't know him. In North St. Louis in the mid '60s the local band that made the big-time was Bob Kuban and the In-Men. If you've heard of them, you are either familiar with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's one hit wonder list or you’re from the St. Louis area or you have an incredible amount of rock and roll trivia rambling around in your brain. I'm guilty of all three.

Bob Kuban was the drummer and band leader of the In-Men. On Friday nights during the summer, his band would play at Jackson Park, a relatively small park in Berkeley, a north St. Louis suburb. Jackson Park hosted a variety of local bands during the hot St. Louis summer nights. In the summers of 1964 and 1965, my friends and I would go back and forth between Jackson Park and the local YMCA where there was usually a band playing as well. But when Bob Kuban and the In-Men were playing at Jackson Park, we tried not to miss it. It was a first-rate band.

The Beatles and the British bands were taking over America at that time and they were the major influence on popular music. Bob Kuban's band was not your typical band of the era. It had more in common with the earlier rhythm and blues bands of Ike Turner, Wilson Picket and James Brown. In an interview, Kuban states that Ike Turner was a big influence on him and his formation of the band. As a footnote, in 1951 before Tina joined him, Ike Turner's band was called The Kings of Rhythm. They recorded a song called Rocket 88 which some believe was the very first rock and roll song.

Bob Kuban had an eight-piece band with horns, drums and keyboard, which was played by Greg Hoeltzel, who lived in my neighborhood. The lead singer was Walter Scott, who had a great voice for that style of music. During those two summers we listened to our local band, knowing they were a cut above the other local groups, playing in their unique St. Louis style. This was several years before Chicago, originally called (Chicago Transit Authority) and Blood Sweat and Tears would bring the big band sound back to popular music. In 1966 Bob Kuban and the In-Men hit it big with The Cheater. The song was all over the radio for months. That year we watched our local guys on national TV, but their run was short lived. They had only a few other songs that got national play, Teaser, and a cover of a Beatles song Drive My Car. I also remember hearing a song called Jerkin' Time and the Bat Man Theme on the radio as well, but they may have just been popular locally.

Walter Scott left the band shortly after The Cheater's popularity to pursue a solo career. He never had another hit song, but in his repertoire, he sang (Look out for The Cheater) over and over again in a variety of performance venues. In 1983, when Bob Kuban was trying to get the original band back together for a reunion concert, he discovered that Walter Scott was missing. Scott was found 4 years later floating face down in a cistern with his ankles, knees and wrists bound. He had been shot through the heart from the back. In one of life's ironic turns, it was discovered that his murderers were his “cheater” wife and her "cheater" boyfriend. There was a Forensic Files TV show about it, as well as a book written titled The Cheaters: The Walter Scott Murder by Scottie Piesmeyer.

I don’t know if Bob Kuban still has his band. He would be in his 80s today. I read that not too long ago, the Bob Kuban Brass played a summer evening gig at Jackson Park and invited all the fans to come out for old time's sake. I would have liked to have been there. I live out west and haven't been back to St. Louis since 2002. But I still have memories of those hot summer evenings in the '60s at Jackson Park, listening to our local band that made the big-time.

Here's a link to The Cheater

(131) The Cheater (Remastered) - YouTube


The Birth of Motown

In 1957 Barry Gordy went to an audition with Jackie Wilson’s manager to hear a local group called the Matadors. Their lead singer was a 17-year-old Smokey Robinson. At the time, Gordy was writing and producing songs in Detroit for artists on a variety of record labels, most famously Wilson’s hit song Lonely Teardrops. Wilson’s manager declined to sign the Matadors, but Gordy saw potential in the young singer and his group. Gordy discovered that Smokey already had hundreds of songs written in a notebook and Gordy helped him craft the best ones. 

Gordy wanted to start his own independent music label and Smokey had the passion and creative talent to help make it happen. So, Gordy made Smokey his vice president and together they formed Motown records. They bought a photographic studio in Detroit and converted the downstairs into a recording studio and business office. Gordy lived upstairs. He called the house, Hitsville USA and that’s exactly what came out of it, hit after hit. 

In 1960 they had their first million selling record, Shop Around written by Smokey and performed by “Smokey (Bill) Robinson and the Miracles”(changed from Matadors). Between 1961 and 1971, Motown had 110 top ten hits from their all-black artists, which included: the Miracles, the Marvelettes(who had Motown’s first #1 hit on the pop charts with Please Mr. Postman), the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and Martha and the Vandellas.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Elders of Green Valley, The Silent Generation


View from our patio

Katie and I moved back to Arizona, but this time as snowbirds, splitting our time between Washington and Green Valley. We were in our sixties when we lived here before and the folks of the WWII Generation were the elders in this community of people 55 years and up. The youngest of that generation would now be 97 years old, so there are not many left, and those who are, don’t get out a lot. The Silent Generation, those people born between 1928 and 1945, was the dominant group, while Baby Boomers, born from 1946 to 1964, were the youngsters.

Now Boomers are the dominant group, the youngest is 59 and the oldest 77. The evidence of this Boomer take-over is everywhere. Walking the desert trails, I’m occasionally flashed the two-finger peace sign by another walker. It always takes me by surprise and I usually just give a normal wave. Many men still display their “freak flags”, with tiny thin pony tails or facial hair. The other day, I was standing in line at the grocery store and the elderly woman in front of me had long straight white hair and was wearing a colorful skirt down to her ankles. She reeked of patchouli oil, which transported me mentally back to the Oregon Country Fair in the 70s, where the dominant smells were patchouli and cannabis. We’ve attended three different music venues since we’ve been here and all the music was 50s and early 60s rock & roll.

The youngest Boomers have more in common with Gen-Xers. They were too young to remember Watergate and when the boys came of military age, the draft had already ended, so, unless they lost a loved one, the Vietnam War had little impact on their lives. The oldest Gen-Xer would be 58 and they are beginning to show up here as well. I see them holding hands, walking with a spring in their step, newly retired, hopeful, bright-eyed and bushytailed.  

The Silent Generation(SG), also referred to as Traditionalists, are the elders now. They were children during the Great Depression and the end of WWII. Couples during this time were not having a lot of babies, so they are a comparatively small generation.  As children they were strictly managed by their parents (seen but not heard) as opposed to the later more promiscuous Boomers and Gen-X children. Radio was their dominant form of entertainment. Women entered the workforce in record numbers and unions became strong and dominant in the work place. SGs inherited the values of their parents-- conformity, hard work, religiosity and early marriage. But times were changing and for the first time in American history, divorce became legal and more culturally accepted, so this generation has the highest divorce rate in US history. Communism was on the rise in the world and Joseph McCarthy attempted to root out communist leaning individuals in all walks of life. SGs made up the majority of soldiers in the Korean War. Because of these national events, this generation is described as being conservative and cautious.

And yet, this cautious and conservative generation had a rebellious undercurrent that erupted in the 1950s.  In the 1953 movie “The Wild One”, Marlon Brando’s character, the biker gang leader, was asked by another character, “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”, and he replied “What have you got?”. The 1955 movie “Rebel Without a Cause”, starring James Dean, captured the alienation, angst and confusion felt by teenage SGs. From this generation sprung the civil rights movement, which later morphed into the 60s peace movement and protests against the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King and John Lewis were SGs. The Beatniks were a 50s phenomenon, a counter-culture movement whose expression was seen in literature, art and music. They laid the foundation for the Hippies of the 60s.  

The “Beat Generation” or “Beatniks” were anti-establishment and anti-materialism. Their music was jazz by musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and their writers were Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gary Snyder among others. They embraced eastern philosophy and adopted the lifestyle of the “Lost Generation” writers and French existentialists of the 20s. Some dressed in black tight outfits, horned rimmed glasses and berets and they gathered in coffee houses and listened to poetry readings or acoustic music with accompanying bongos.  My introduction to Beatniks as a child was the Maynard G. Krebs character on the TV show “The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis”, played by Bob Denver. Later I read Kerouac’s book “On the Road”. In Greenwich Village, the coffee house scene transformed in the early 60s into the folk revival movement of Silent Generation musicians like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen, Tom Rush, Tim Harden, and Leonard Cohen as well as John Sebastian(The Lovin Spoonful), Roger Mcguinn(The Byrds) and Cass Elliot(Mamas and the Papas).

Ken Kesey, an SG, was a direct bridge between the Beatniks and the Hippies. In 1964, he and the Merry Pranksters drove a psychedelically painted 1939 International Harvester school bus they named “Further”, across the country, smoking marijuana and dropping LSD. They stopped in small towns and visited with (or more like intimidated) the locals along the way. Neal Cassady, who Kerouac’s side kick character was based on in “On the Road”, was one of the Merry Pranksters. The “trip” was immortalized in Tom Wolf’s book “The Electric Cool-aid Acid Test”.

All the early rock & rollers were from the Silent Generation, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, Ricky Nelson. All are dead now. Don Everly just died in 2021.

I was surprised to learn that even the second wave of rock & roll in the 60s was launched by a bunch of Silent Generation artists--the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jerry Garcia, Surf Music inventor Dick Dale, as well as the Beach Boys(except the youngest of the Wilson brothers Carl was a Boomer) and Jan and Dean.   

Even though rock & roll was invented and carried on by individuals of the Silent Generation, it was the Boomers who made up the majority of the audience and claimed the music as their own. By the time of the British invasion in 1964, most of the SGs were married and working at their jobs, too busy to pay much attention to the music. But the hordes of Boomers just coming of age, latched on to the music and it became the sound track of our lives.   






Saturday, November 12, 2022

John Sebastian and the Lovin' Spoonful


This drawing was inspired by the album art of Chrystal Russell

In the mid-1960s, I bought records by a few musicians as soon as their latest albums were released-The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and The Lovin’ Spoonful. Unlike the other groups, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s popularity only lasted about two years, from 1965-67. They were a New York city folk/rock band, a musical genre that dominated the music scene in the late 60s and early 70s. The Byrds are widely credited with the invention of folk/rock, but one could argue that the Lovin’ Spoonful were equally instrumental in launching this new genre. The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” (a Bob Dylan song that he gave them the OK to record) is thought to be the first folk/rock hit. It came out in April 1965. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s first hit song was “Do You believe in Magic” which was released in July. Even though the Byrds were from LA and the Lovin’ Spoonful from New York, both bands sprung from the early 60’s folk scene.

 John Sebastian grew up in Greenwich Village. His father was a professional concert harmonica player and his mother, a radio script writer. His godmother was Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy), a close friend of John’s mother. His family hosted many musicians at their home, Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Sonny Terry, and Lightening Hopkins. John got to know them and their music intimately. I attended a John Sebastian concert in Tucson in the early 2000s. John said Mississippi John Hurt stayed with his family when he was in New York and John learned Mississippi’s finger picking style. He confessed and demonstrated how the Lovin’ Spoonful song “Loving You” was a direct rip off of Hurt’s musical style.

As part of the folk revival, John was in a group called the Mugwumps along with Zal Yanovsky, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty. In 1964, they put out one album and two singles. When the group broke up, Cass and Denny joined with John and Michelle Phillips to form the Mammas and Pappas and John and Zal recruited bass player Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler to form the Loving Spoonful. The Mammas and Pappas 1967 hit song, “Creeque Alley”, tells the story of the formation of the two bands.

After their first hit song, “Do You Believe in Magic”, the Lovin’ Spoonful had a string of hits with “You Didn’t Have to be So Nice”, “Day Dream”, “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind”, “Summer in The City”, Rain on the Roof”, “Younger Girl” and “Nashville Cats”. They had seven consecutive top ten hits. John Sebastian was the main song writer and lead singer. He often played the auto harp on their recordings and was/is an excellent guitar and harmonica player. Even though the other members of the group were good musicians, John was the dominant force behind the group.

The band was flying high throughout 1966. Joe Butler was in the Broadway production of “Hair”. The group composed and performed the music for Woody Allen’s film “What’s Up Tiger Lily?”. Sebastian composed the music for Francis Ford Coppola’s second film, “You’re a Big Boy Now” with the band performing all the instrumental background. And they scored another hit song from the film, “Darling be Home Soon.” The producers that created the TV show “The Monkeys” built the show around the Lovin’ Spoonful, but "dropped the band from the project due to conflicts over song publishing rights". 

In May of 1967, Zal left the group after getting busted for marijuana possession. He was a Canadian citizen and the police pressured him to either give up the name of his drug supplier or be deported. Zal was afraid he wouldn’t be allowed back into the U.S. so he complied. After this incident, there was a counter-culture movement to boycott all of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s records and performances. In an interview Zal said he left the band because he didn’t like the direction John’s song writing was taking it. Zal was replaced by Jerry Yester from the Modern Folk Quartet, but the band was hurt by the drug controversy and only had a few minor hits after that. In 1968 Sebastian left the group to pursue a solo career. I love his first solo album titled “John B. Sebastian”.

I attended a benefit concert for fire fighters at the Tacoma Dome in the 90’s. The bands included America and the Lovin’ Spoonful. America sounded great, with the two remaining members. The Lovin’ Spoonful consisted of Boone, Butler, Jerry Yester and his brother Jim. Joe Butler sang all of John’s leads. The music sounded the same, but Butler was no substitute for Sebastian on the lead vocals. In 2000, the original band got back together for their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

In the summer of 1969, Sebastian performed at Woodstock and some of it is captured in the “Woodstock” movie. In an interview John said he was not scheduled to perform. He had hitched a ride on a helicopter and attended the festival as a fan and to support his musician friends. He didn’t even bring a guitar with him. After a fairly long bout of rain, the crew needed to sweep down the stage to make it safe for the electronic equipment. They needed someone who could fill in with just an acoustic guitar, so John borrowed a guitar from his friend and fellow folk singer, Tim Hardin, and performed a totally improvised acoustic set.

In talking about the performance, he said it was a magical moment for him. He was wearing a self-tie-dyed outfit and pretty high on pot. In the middle of the set, the clouds parted and the sun came out. His solo career got a big boost from that performance. John had his biggest solo hit, “Welcome Back” in 1976, the theme song to the television show “Welcome Back Cotter”.

When we saw him perform in Seattle, John still had his voice and put on a great show in the small club. I was determined to speak to him. During the break he went to the bathroom and I followed him. I didn’t want to be creepy, so I waited outside the door. When he came out, I said, “John, thank you for your music.” He said, “You’re welcome.” And that was the extent of it. He got back on stage and finished the show. When we saw him in Tucson years later, he had all but lost his voice. He still put on a good show, but his croaky voice did not work well singing the old “Spoonful” songs but sounded appropriate for the early folk and blues songs. 

The Lovin’ Spoonful was truly an authentic American band that pioneered a genre of rock & roll that is still popular to this day.


Wednesday, June 1, 2022

The "Girl Groups"


I was in middle school when early rock & roll all but died out and “girl groups” began appearing over the radio airwaves. These groups sprung out of the male dominated Doo-Wop era of the forties and fifties. The “girl group” phenomenon lasted from about 1957 to 1966.The early groups were mostly teenagers who sang together in school and church. “Mr. Lee”, by the Bobbettes was the first song to make the pop charts. These five teenage girls from East Harlem, originally called themselves the Harlem Queens. They grew up in the projects and like the Doo-Wop groups before them, practiced in the hallways and on the playground.

“Maybe”, by the Chantels, was the next song to become a hit. It was a million seller in 1957 and re-released in 1969 after Janis Joplin covered it. The Chantels were five high school girls, ages 14 to 17, who attended parochial school in the Bronx and sang together in the school choir.

My favorite “girl group”, and the act that solidified the “girl group” sound was the Shirelles, four teenagers from Passaic, New Jersey. They began singing together at high school shows and parties, initially calling themselves the Poquellos. They had a sweetness and innocence to their sound, with back-ground harmonies like the earlier Doo-Wop groups. Their first single “I Met Him on a Sunday” was a song they wrote themselves and sang at school parties. Their second single, “Dedicated to the One I Love”, was a cover of a 1957 “5 Royals” song. The Shirelles version was released in 1959, but without a national distributer, only charted at #83 on the Billboard Top 100. In 1961, after they had several hits, the song was re-released and shot to #3. In 1967, the Mamas and the Papas covered the song "Dedicated to the one I Love" which went to #2. This was the first song that Michelle Phillips sang lead on instead of Cass Elliot.  

“Tonight’s the Night”, the Shirelles next hit single, was co-written by lead singer Shirley Owens. “Will You Love MeTomorrow” written by Carole King and her then husband Jerry Goffin was their first #1 song and the first #1 by any “girl group”.  Both of these songs would later make Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the greatest hits of all time. “Mama Said” reached #4 and in early 1962 “Baby It’s You” (co-written by Burt Bacharach, Hal David and Barney Williams) went to #8, It was recorded by the Beatles and put on their first album “Please Please Me” along with another Shirelles’ song, “Boys”, sung by Ringo. In 1969, a group called Smith had the biggest hit with “Baby It’s You”, but I favor the Shirelles’ version. The Shirelles second #1 hit, and their biggest selling single was “Soldier Boy”. Even though they continued to record new material until the late sixties, the Shirelles’ last hit single was “Foolish Little Girl” in 1963, charting at # 4.

Following in the wake of the Shirelles, came a host of other “girl groups” and 1963 was their most successful year. The Chiffons had hits with, “He’s So Fine” and “One Fine Day”(another Carole King/Jerry Goffin song),  The Ronnettes (Phil Spector’s Group) with “Be My Baby”, Martha and The Vandellas (a Motown act) had two hits, “Heatwave” and “Come and Get These Memories”, the Chrystals with “DaDoo Run Run”, and the Angels had a hit with “My Boyfriend’s Back”.

The most popular “girl group” was the Supremes (another Motown act). In 1964 they had two hits, “Where did Our Love Go,” and “Baby Love”. They went on to have 12 number one hits and for a time rivaled the Beatles popularity.

But in 1964, after the Beatles came to America, popular music became dominated by British groups, pushing out and replacing many musical styles, including almost all of the “girl groups”.