I’m writing a new arts column for the estimable Facts & Opinions: Journalism Matters journal, recalling interviews I did with celebrities during the 15 years I worked as a newspaper entertainment reporter. I was inspired to revisit the interviews after a recent conversation with a friend, during which I happened to mention casually that Tennessee Williams once complained to me that the Russians were ripping him off to the tune of thousands of dollars in unpaid royalties.
“You talked to Tennessee Williams?” said my friend.
Yes, and I talked to Kenny Rogers and Tammy Wynette and Sally Rand and Chuck Berry and dozens of other well-known individuals of that period. Revisiting those interviews now is an enjoyable exercise in time-capsule journalism for me, particularly in light of events that have occurred since. I call the column Brief Encounters because many of the interviews were conducted in haste, in green rooms and hotel rooms, when the publicists gave me 15 minutes or less to fish for pearls of wisdom.
I talked to Kenny Rogers after he had tried rockabilly, jazz, folk, country and psychedelic rock, and was unsure where he was going to go next. This was long before he recorded “The Gambler.” I talked to Tammy Wynette when she was finding it difficult to reconcile being a married mother of four with being constantly on the road. Later that month, she got divorced for the fourth time. I talked to fan dancer Sally Rand when she was still taking her clothes off in public at age 71. I talked to Chuck Berry when he was refusing to talk to other reporters because of all the bad press he received over his troubles with the law.
Jay Silverheels as Tonto
When B.B. King played for President Obama at the White House in 2012, I recalled that he once told me he thought the blues was dying. When Randy Bachman reinvented himself as a CBC Radio host, I recalled that I had talked to him about his career choices after he had seemingly committed artistic suicide twice, first by walking away from The Guess Who and then by leaving Bachman-Turner Overdrive. When Johnny Depp played Tonto in the 2013 big-screen remake of The Lone Ranger (a flop, by all critical accounts), I recalled that I had talked to the original Tonto, Jay Silverheels, about the racism he encountered in Hollywood.
My first column is about Silverheels. Check it out by clicking here. I hope you enjoy this journey down memory lane with me.
Many of us in the writing game have a story to tell about Alistair Macleod. This is mine. It happened at the annual meeting of The Writers’ Union of Canada in Ottawa in 2003. Alistair was the writer picked to deliver the annual Margaret Laurence lecture, talking about his life as a writer. He gave his presentation at the National Library of Canada.
He didn’t have a prepared text. He had a stack of yellow foolscap pages filled with handwritten notes, and he leafed back and forth through them as he spoke.
I didn’t take notes. But I remember two things he said that have stuck with me ever since. One was that a writer should have a plan of attack. Random words, sentences, paragraphs and scenes would never end up as a story, he said. It would be the same as a woodworker aimlessly sawing, nailing and hammering, and expecting to have a birdhouse or a patio deck at the end of the process.
The other thing he said was that a certain point in the composition of every story, one should write the last sentence on a Post-it note and stick it on the computer screen as a reminder of where the story should end. I haven’t used this technique with Post-it notes, but I often remind myself that what I write must carry as strong an ending as its beginning. As for having a plan of attack, that’s certainly a must when one does journalism and other kinds of narrative nonfiction. I could also see it applying to fiction.
When he finished his speech, which was greeted with a well-deserved standing ovation, Alistair joined a few of us for drinks at the Library bar. There was a piano in the room, a vintage nine-foot Steinway once owned by Glenn Gould. I couldn’t resist. I pulled off the quilted vinyl cover and started to play “Farewell to Nova Scotia.” During the chorus I looked across the room and there, singing and dancing a reel with fellow Maritimer Deborah Windsor, was Alistair Macleod. He looked as happy as a bird in spring. ‘Tis a memory I will always cherish.
(This story is one of a series entitled “One Person’s Journey” telling how people from all walks of life, including a few rogues and rebels, have left their marks upon the world. To see a list of others featured in the series, click here.)
Kathleen Parlow 1890 – 1963
No Canadian artist of the early 20th century enjoyed a more distinguished career than violinist Kathleen Parlow. During a 20-year career as a touring concert soloist, she performed to great acclaim on the stages of North America, Europe and Asia, recorded for Columbia Records, and was hailed by audiences, critics and fellow musicians as being without peer among the violinists of her time.
The newspapers dubbed her “the lady of the golden bow.” Born in Calgary, Alberta, where her father worked as a retail store clerk and her mother taught elementary school, she started playing the violin at age four, and right from the very beginning seemed destined for greatness. She gave her first public recital at age six (she characterized herself as “one of those things – a child prodigy”) and by age 15 was performing in Europe. She turned professional at 17 and spent the next two decades touring the world as a concert violinist.
Though she left Canada as a child and didn’t return permanently until she was 50, Parlow was often billed as “the Canadian violinist.” This caused some consternation in San Francisco ….
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The song is called “Sweet City Woman.” It was first released in 1971 by the Stampeders, a Calgary pop trio previously known for topping the Canadian charts with a single called “Carry Me.” I didn’t believe “Sweet City Woman” would do particularly well. It featured a decidedly non-pop-sounding banjo as the key rhythm instrument, and sounded like something better suited for a campfire singalong. A Prince George dee-jay insisted, however, that I was wrong. “This one will be big,” predicted Larry Bauder of CJCI Radio. “It will be their break-through record in the States.”
Bauder was absolutely right. “Sweet City Woman” became a number one hit on both the Canadian pop and country charts. Then it reached number seven on the Billboard Top 100 charts in the States. It stayed there for 14 weeks. The Stampeders were on their way to the city lights.
“Sweet City Woman” was covered by several musicians. They included the Dave Clark Five (who managed to mess up the familiar banjo introduction) and – if you can believe it –Lawrence Welk. The most recent cover, entitled simply “City Woman“, was released by Canadian rap artist Kyprios in 2011.
The song acquired a new lease on life again in 2012 when Calgary was named a cultural capital of Canada. “Sweet City Woman” was chosen as the official song for the year-long celebration. Every performer in town, from Dan the One Man Band to Calgary poet laureate Kris Demeanor, worked hard to master the banjo licks of the song’s introduction and the falsetto lines of the chorus.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in late September 2012, “Sweet City Woman” again staked its claim for international recognition. More than 1,000 Calgarians gathered in Olympic Plaza to toss inhibitions to the winds and take part in a joyful outdoor “lip dub” presentation of the song. Rather than try to describe this rare, heart-warming event, I invite you to watch it below on YouTube, where it’s already received more than 24,000 hits. I make a cameo appearance during the instrumental section toward the end. You can see me in my top hat and tails, swaying along with a group of youngsters dressed in yellow capes.
In early December 2012, with the song still resonating in my head, I went to San Francisco on vacation. Johnny Z and the Camaros, the featured house trio at Lefty O’Doul’s, were taking requests. Could they do “Sweet City Woman”? Could they ever? Watch them perform it below on video. They don’t use banjo, but somehow they manage, without breaking a sweat, to capture the strum-happy spirit of the original. A nice American salute to the first Canadian performers after Anne Murray and Gordon Lightfoot to break into the U.S. pop charts. If you like their performance, and want to catch them live, you can now hear the Camaros playing at the new Gold Dust Lounge in Fisherman’s Wharf. And the Stampeders still rock!
(Published in the Calgary Herald on Aug. 16, 1997)
Those who cared will still remember what they were doing when they heard the news, 20 years ago today. I was interviewing Calgary concert promoter Dave Horodezky at his office when he excused himself to take a call. “What a shame,” said Dave, after a moment’s silence. “What a black day for rock ‘n’ roll.”
What a black day indeed. For members of the first rock ‘n’ roll generation, Elvis Presley’s death at age 42 brought home to us the sobering reality of our own mortality. I was 33 then, and suddenly felt much older.
Other rockers — Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix — had died before Elvis. But we could rationalize their deaths as avoidable aberrations, caused by plane crashes or drug overdoses. Elvis’s death hit closer to home because he was the first of the original rockers to die from natural causes. Or so we thought at the time. It was only later we would discover that pills and southern-fried cholesterol were contributory factors.
I cared about Elvis because his music, wild, loud, uninhibited, was joyously different from the Mantovani music my parents listened to on Radio Eireann, the national broadcasting service in my native Ireland.
At age 13, it was important for me to have things private and unshareable — things that were exclusive teenage property. The sideburns and ducktail hairdo would come later. In the beginning, it was enough just to have the music, the raw sound, beamed to us from across the Atlantic via the only commercial pop music station, Radio Luxembourg, that could be picked up in Dublin in those unenlightened times. My friends and I listened to it surreptitiously after dark, when the station pointed its signal toward the British Isles.
Elvis didn’t invent white rock ‘n’ roll, of course, but he was unquestionably its first universal hero. Bill Haley, who scored the first huge rock ‘n’ roll hit with Rock Around the Clock, didn’t count because we knew he was just a failed country and western singer who got lucky with a new gimmick.
Elvis was the real thing, an American hillbilly with danger in his voice and rebellion in his soul, who took his surly look from the movie characters of Marlon Brando and James Dean, took his good-rocking music from the black gospel, and rhythm ‘n’ blues singers he heard on the radio as a kid, then synthesized these various borrowings into something original, something distinctively his own.
Competing for our young ears during the same period were other top U.S. rock ‘n’ rollers, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, Little Richard. But good as they were, they could not compare with Elvis, who commanded from the first day we heard him. First with Heartbreak Hotel, and later with Don’t Be Cruel and Hound Dog, he ruled the airwaves like never before.
My friends and I would suffer through two hours of hit-parade Perry Como and Dean Martin on Radio Luxembourg every Sunday night just to hear three minutes of Elvis singing Don’t Be Cruel. By the end of that memorable year, 1956, Elvis had racked up half a dozen record hits, and earned the right to be forever called the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. No one would ever dethrone him. From that moment onward, Presley would be the once and future king.
The generation that followed, the teenagers who had their life’s soundtrack composed for them by the Beatles, would doubtless disagree. They would say Elvis was nothing more than a brooding singer with an average voice, swivelling hips and limited guitar-playing ability. Heck, he didn’t even write his own songs.
But then they wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t understand why Calgary Herald editor Bob Parkins showed up for work on Aug. 17, 1977, wearing a black arm-band. They wouldn’t understand why, for those of us who were teenagers in 1956, even the most mediocre of the first Presley recordings could make the pop music that followed seem as nothing, to be blown away like chaff.
I don’t much understand it either. I don’t understand why Pavarotti appeals to me more than the technically superior Placido Domingo, and I can’t explain why Elvis ruled and Pat Boone didn’t. Boone also released several rock hits in 1956, including Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally. But he couldn’t hold a candle to Presley. Maybe it was because Boone sounded like someone my parents would have approved of.
I almost never listen to Elvis’s recordings nowadays, though I will always play his Blue Christmas in my house at Christmastime while resolutely refusing to listen to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Fats Waller and John Field have taken the place of the popular music I craved as a teenager. The Presley impersonators have ruined his songs for me by reducing them to parody.
But whenever someone suggests, as a 30-year-old friend named Tom did recently, that Elvis was not very good, I put Presley’s July 2, 2021 recording of Hound Dog on the turntable, and listen to it one more time. I hear what you say, Tom, but I have to disagree. Elvis was good. He was very good.