Wednesday, January 9, 2019

A battered newspaperman takes another stand to help a mom keep her son's murderer in prison

Barbara Mack, the mother of Rodney Long, an Austin Peay State University football receiver who was executed by David Frey and Stephen Drake so they could steal his car to escape authorities 37 years ago up in Clarksville, is not in the best of health.
So she won't be attending the parole hearing for Frey (Drake was shanked in prison long ago) Thursday.
I spoke long ago with my friend, the late John Seigenthaler, the pre-eminent print journalist in Tennessee and in the nation for that matter, about whether it was OK for me to write a letter opposing a parole.
He said that since the murder affected me so deeply -- even served as the setting for a newspaper memoir, "When Newspapers Mattered: The News Brothers & their Shades of Glory," published more than six years ago -- it made good sense and indeed was proper, if unusual.
The book was written by me and by my best buddy, Rob Dollar, who was my cops reporter at the time of the murder.
John loved the book, by the way, and devoted an episode of his award-winning "A Word on Words" TV show to it.
Since the Parole Board meets tomorrow (Jan. 10) to consider Frey's release and since it has only been two years since his last hearing, I wouldn't be surprised to learn he is freed.
I did feel compelled, by my love of Barbara Mack and by the physical and mental toll her son's murder took on my body and soul, to write another letter that I have filed with the Parole Board.
Here it is:




In regard to the parole hearing for David Frey, TOMIS Number 0097856



My name is Tim Ghianni.

I am a freelance journalist, author and adjunct university instructor living in Nashville, Tennessee.

I am writing today to vigorously oppose any potential parole for David Frey, the convicted murderer of Rodney Long.

I spent 34 years as a newspaper journalist before being “bought out” (euphemism for being laid off) 11½ years ago.

I have continued to work as a journalist in a freelance fashion since that time.

Particularly during my newspaper years, I came to know the details of way too many stories of the darkest underside of the human spirit.

I found no darker tale than that of the cold-blooded murder of Rodney Wayne Long. Rodney was a good kid, a football player at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville and the pride of his hometown of Rainbow City, Alabama.

I did not know Rodney when he was still alive.

But, even all these years after his murder in 1982, I feel like he is with me every day due to the vile and cowardly act of David Frey and Stephen Drake. Fortunately, Drake died in prison before anyone could consider the unjust idea of granting him parole.

And if the state does what is correct, then Frey, too, will die in prison. Not violently, like Drake, but as a beaten old man who killed an innocent young man for the joy of killing. Perhaps he has reformed, but that doesn’t cancel out the brutality of the execution of Rodney and the trail of heartache that has continued for the last 37 years.

David Frey and Stephen Drake duped Rodney into giving them a ride to the edge of Clarksville, Tennessee, where I was associate editor of the daily newspaper as well as a human-interest columnist and where Rodney was a receiver for the university’s Governors football team.

After they arrived at the edge of town, they killed him for his car, so they could escape the cops who were looking for them in a string of burglaries.

I to this day, even as a 67-year-old former newspaperman who unfortunately has seen the very worst of society, I have never been able to understand why they didn’t just drop him off on a deserted highway and just keep going.

It would have taken him hours to get back to “civilization” to alert authorities and they could have continued on their merry thugs’ journey to the East Coast, their home area.

Instead, they shot him dead for the cold and cruel thrills of it all.  “Good shot!” Drake said to Frey as he put a bullet at close range into the nice young man’s head.

The body was found two weeks later near a creek in what then was a very rural area of Montgomery County, Tennessee, miles and miles from the nearest house even.

In my role at the newspaper, I came to be in charge of the coverage of Rodney’s slaying as well as that of a young woman named Kathy Jane Nishiyama, whose abduction and murder mirrored Rodney’s. Her killer, Eddie Hartman, died on Death Row.

With two young people, good citizens, murdered at roughly the same time, Clarksville was traumatized.

In my role as editor, columnist and occasional breaking news reporter, I came to know the families of both murdered children.

That meant befriending Barbara Mack, the mother of Rodney Long. The first time I met her, she was in Clarksville leading the search for her son or her son’s body.

After that, I encountered her as she cried uncontrollably over her son’s coffin at the funeral home in Rainbow City.

But our friendship has continued over the decades. Our conversation isn’t always about Rodney’s death.

We talk about his life and the loss of which she has never been able to overcome.

If Frey is released, it will kill her.

He already killed her son.





Sincerely,

Tim Ghianni

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Remembering the heroic "Fallen Eagles"

Thirty-three years ago today, I helped (with my boss Dee Bryant/now Dee Boaz) organize and oversee The Leaf-Chronicle's coverage of the biggest single tragedy ever to slam right into my community. I was associate editor of the Clarksville, Tennessee, newspaper and generally worked the evening shift to get the paper out. As such, I'd barely gotten to sleep when Dee called me to say that a plane -- filled with Fort Campbell soldiers coming home from peacekeeping duties in the Sinai and expecting to enjoy Christmas with their families -- had crashed in Gander, Newfoundland. There were no survivors. Just Christmas toys bought while the soldiers were waiting for their plane to be refueled in Gander and remains of 248 soldiers and eight crewmembers, scattered across a frozen field. "Oh shit," I exclaimed to Dee, before I washed the previous night's after-work traditional whiskey and cigarettes away and got to the office about 6 or maybe it was earlier.
We put out a special afternoon edition of what I had titled "Fallen Eagles" stories (Fort Campbell's 101st Airborne (Air Assault) troops are called "The Screaming Eagles") before turning around to put together our regular morning paper.
Fort Campbell, if you don't know, butts up next to Clarksville, Tennessee, and Oak Gove and Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and our town was filled with troops and retirees. Even the Clarksville Mayor Ted Crozier was from the military, which is where I first met him during his days as a colonel. He's dead now, but I loved old Wild Turkey, as he was called.
About 1 a.m. the next day, I gathered the reporters (one of them my future wife) and photographers in the newsroom library/conference room and, teary-eyed from exhaustion and from genuine sadness, I congratulated them on our coverage. Thanked, them, really, for two straight shifts of fine journalism. I can't even remember the names of all the fine journalists from The Leaf-Chronicle who participated in what was amazing and melancholy coverage … on two different deadlines in a single day. Of course, there were Dee and this old newspaperman. Others included, if I remember correctly (a risky proposition at this point in life) designer Sara Foley, city editor Suzanne DeWitt (now Ghianni), Fort Campbell reporter Steve Zolvinsky, ace cops reporter Carol Davis, photographers Robert Smith and, I think, Toby Tobler, fine human being and reporter Harold Lynch (since deceased, but I think about him every day), copy editor and religion writer/columnist Jim Monday (still a very close friend) and copy desk chief Paul Carlton (since deceased.) Perhaps sports editor Bob Davidson and his crew jumped in as well. Or at least they cleared their pages early for camera room wizard Ronnie Kendrick, who "shot" the pages that were turned into plates for the press. In addition to working in the newsroom and burning cigarettes all day, I had even gone out (at Dee's insistence, because she knew I wanted to write something) that evening to cover the first memorial service at Wilson Hall on the Army post. (I wish I still had that edition, but most of my old newspapers were victims of the 2010 Nashville Flood's cruel invasion of my house.)
Back home for another glass of whiskey and cigarettes by 2 or 2:30 a.m., I sat and thought about that huge disaster and the lives-- I knew some of the soldiers -- lost.
Then I went to sleep and prepared for the next day's round of coverage, which would focus on the mourning community. President Reagan -- from back when presidents were good people even if you disputed their politics -- came to help the families mourn. I never was in the military. Fortunately, in the first draft lottery to select troops for the Vietnam War (I was classified 1A), I drew No. 280, which was good, as I had no desire to die in the jungle nor did I relish the thought of Canadian winters. Still, I've always supported the military, especially the soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines who put their lives on the line for us. I am fortunate that I developed ties with so many soldiers during my 14-year career at the newspaper in Clarksville. On this day, annually, I stop to remember the soldiers and to recall my dealings with Commanding General Burton Patrick (a wise and friendly military soul) as he worked to help the families and to make sure the community remembered the "Fallen Eagles." Bless the souls of those long-departed heroes.

Monday, November 12, 2018

36 years ago today, Flapjacks, Death and their News Brothers saved souls, captured Clarksville


It was 36 years ago today that Flapjacks and his pals captured hearts and souls at the Roxy

A small brick of granite on the shelf in my garage could be interpreted as my tombstone. It says “Flapjack” on it – not “Flapjacks,” which is my News Brothers nickname. That’s because my dad, who fell in love with the stray mutt I’d adopted one cold Clarksville night 35 years ago or so, kept the dog I named “Flapjacks” when my life’s circumstances made it temporarily impossible for me to do it. He shortened my old dog’s name – I named him after myself, in a way -- to Flapjack.”

Even when I became able to take a dog into my restored life, I left old Flap with my dad, who needed face-licking cheering up as my mom’s health continued its mortal struggle.  She’s been gone 19 years now and Flap quickly followed.

I had the dog’s tombstone carved, but never planted it at the pet cemetery mainly because of the poor practices there that had led to the losses of stones I had made for my other pets and for my folks’ animals.  Now I keep the ashes of my dead friends of the animal variety on the top of my dresser with instructions to have them join me whenever and however my own body is disposed of…. Sooner or later. My hope is later, of course. At least most days.

Getting a little somber and sober here, but that’s not the spirit I maintain as I sit here and write about what happened 36 years ago today and tonight, November 12, 1982, when the real Flapjacks – me --and my band of merry men took over, literally, the city of Clarksville for one night … and the succeeding dawn.

This marks the 36th anniversary of the “world premiere” of a 45-minute movie titled “Flapjacks: The Motion Picture.”

It starred and was produced by me and my pal Rob “Death” Dollar. The cast included the rest of The News Brothers with nicknames “Flash,” “Chuckles,” “Dumbo,” “Street” and “The Stranger.” Jim Lindgren was Flash and Jerry Manley was Chuckles and they were the two other main News Brothers. Others came and went, depending on their jobs and their personal lives. Those included Ricky “Dumbo” Moore, John “Street” Staed and the late, great and extremely kind Harold Lynch as “The Stranger.”

John Glenn, the great astronaut, also appears in the film and I’m told it was, other than his first triple orbit of the earth and his Space Shuttle journey, among his life’s biggest thrills. I don’t know who told me this. Perhaps it was Rob. Or I may have been talking to myself.

Since Rob and I wrote it and are in every scene and even did a good bit of the filming – I’d hold the camera while he did a scene and vice versa when we couldn’t summon our pals like prize-winning photographer Larry McCormack (who now seems scared of us, but that’s another discussion for another day) and Robert Smith, a great photojournalist who only recently was put to the curb by Korporate Amerikan journalism.

It happened to the rest of us – well “Dumbo” seems safe in Chattanooga -- years ago. I led the soft parade to the korporate curb 11½ years ago when Gannett tired of its poor, lonely, huddled masses, or at least its older staffers and offered the “generous” buyout, a conscience-salver for the givers, a few bucks for the receivers who had to restart their lives at 55 years old, nearly 56.

That movie, though crude by today’s standards (I don’t  mean crude as in nasty, just crude as it was filmed long before the emergence of home video, so we shot it on Super 8mm film, pieced it together (thanks Robert) and synchronized a soundtrack, some of it spoken, other sections carried by music from my record collection (pre-CD as well).

It was a Beatles-emulating newsman’s version of “A Hard Day’s Night” or perhaps it was closer to The Monkees stuff. After all, we used “Last Train to Clarksville” to provide the sonic backdrop for our climactic pie fight scene, which included a police officer (a real one who had blue-light chased us to the railyard where the fight began) and The News Brothers at their best and brightest.

There is much to tell about the film, but I’ll spare you here. Only note that it really is quite good – although it was best when shown on the big screen at the Roxy Theater in downtown Clarksville 36 years ago tonight.

In addition to the film, we had aid and entertainment from the Clarksville High School Cheerleaders, the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Jazz Band (from nearby Fort Campbell), The Clarksville Police Department and the Fire Department, which delivered The News Brothers to the theater while we clung to the sides and rear of the wailing tanker truck.  The friendly coppers busted the film showing and arrested us as a means of getting the garbage can filled with admission money out of the building in what was then a desolate and disturbing section of Clarksville.

Oh, we had visits from ET and also from Santa Claus (former and somewhat disgraced editor Tony Durr, who died alone many years ago now and I miss every day).

The mayor of Clarksville, Ted “Wild Turkey” Crozier – a friend of mine until his death a couple years or so ago – proclaimed it “News Brothers Day” in Clarksville. And the local radio station newsman Scott Shelton – who later became “Badger” News Brother – broadcast the proceedings. Scott’s dead now, too. As are Harold “The Stranger” Lynch (who starred in the Sergio Leone gunfight scene), Durr, a pal of ours named Okey Stepp, an old man who lived in the local flophouse who we loved and called “Skipper.” He dressed up in a bellhop’s uniform and looked like a member of Sergeant Pepper’s famed outfit as he presided over the money-collecting. Also dead, of course, is my dog, “Flapjacks” aka “Flapjack,” who was one of the sweetest animals I’d ever rescued from the streets or orphanages. That’s another story as well.

The reason for the community enthusiasm? We were showing the film for charity. “Laugh for a Good Cause” said the marquee outside the Roxy. All money gathered – we had a suggested ticket price of $20, but people could give what they could afford – went to charities of the Police and Fire departments as well as to the Mustard Seed, a homeless-advocacy agency in downtown Clarksville.

Hell, Rob and I even paid $20 apiece to get into our own movie, mainly because we hoped it would seed a trend for those at the 8 p.m. and midnight showings.
Another thing that happened is that once city leaders saw how nice the Roxy looked after we scrubbed and waxed the dusty, old abandoned theater, it was not demolished to make a parking lot. It instead became a community theater.

The News Brothers story is not as simple as that one-night takeover of the 200 block of Franklin Street in downtown Clarksville. That was just a wonderful and starry, starry night for us.

If you are interested, Rob and I wrote a book: “When Newspapers Mattered: The News Brothers and their Shades of Glory,” two men’s trek through the newspaper business, that was published six years ago. If you are interested, you can buy it at Amazon.com.

At the time it was published, many of our newspaper friends – of the employed variety – refused to buy it, snidely claiming that they still had newspaper jobs, so they refused to embrace a rebellious and fun book with such a title.

Now, most of them have felt the ax and have plenty of time to read.

My late friend John Seigenthaler, the legendary journalist, embraced the book as “M*A*S*H in a newsroom,” by the way, and he featured me and the book on his local PBS author interview show. He loved the book and could relate to the decades’ worth of tales and anecdotes of journalistic fear, loathing and enterprise collected there. I know it provided him a few good laughs there near the end of his life.

But enough about the book. This little tale is about the movie that opened to drunkenly raving reviews and howling audiences on a cold November night in an old, abandoned movie house we had revitalized for the showing.

Details may be found in the book, which you will like, I promise, which was a blockbuster seller on its first printing and just about made up the costs Rob and I put into its glorious publication.

One of these days, I’ll post this little movie, but it hasn’t held up well in its translation from film to VHS to DVD, so it never will be as good as that first night’s viewing.

Today, 36 years later to the day, I sit here at my basement desk, trying to find my next freelance story, nursing a really nasty black eye (another sad story) and remembering that night when The News Brothers presided over Clarksville and the world was a much nicer place.

Now, I believe I’ll go out into the garage and get the “Flapjack” tombstone on my shelf. One of these days it may come in handy, though I have no idea how they’ll add the “s.” Won’t be my problem.

Have a damn nice News Brothers kind of day.    



  



   


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Since Ol' Scotty left me...the accurate story detailing the death of my friend Scotty Moore


Winfield Scott "Scotty" Moore was a dear friend of mine. The guy who invented rock 'n' roll guitar died Tuesday in his bed at his home in a rural and rugged part of Metropolitan Nashville.  
There were many errors in the wire stories people picked up for local newspapers. And no one called me to write something, even though the last published interview with Scotty was written by me back when I worked for the morning newspaper here in Nashville. He told me it was the most-accurate interview story he'd ever been involved with. In an attempt to help clear up the information, I interviewed his caretaker/friend and wrote something I tried to peddle to the Nashville Scene. I didn't hear from them until way past time to find a new home for it.
I will be writing more about Scotty, mostly as my friend, and as a guy I was proud to know. But, in order to correct inaccuracies reported elsewhere, let me offer you this story tonight.
    
A public memorial service to celebrate the life of Scotty Moore -- the man who invented rock ‘n’ roll guitar -- is being planned for sometime in the near future in Nashville, according to the woman who was closest to him.
Moore, 84, who provided the licks for the songs that helped launch the Elvis Presley phenomenon, died in his sleep Tuesday morning, according to Margi Lane, his friend and caretaker.
She said Moore died peacefully, sometime after 7 a.m., the last time she checked on him.  He wanted to stay in bed a little longer because his back, because of degenerating disc disease, was hurting.
But he never reopened his eyes to this world, anyway. 
“Everyone else wanted to be Elvis, I wanted to be Scotty,” famously said Rolling Stones guitarist and founder Keith Richards, who was among Moore’s friends.
A small family funeral will be held Thursday (June 30, 2016) in Humboldt, Tennessee, which is about five miles from Gadsden, Tenn., where he was born Dec. 27, 1931.
Lane said after the burial is taken care of, she’ll begin to explore the when and where of the Nashville tribute concert.
“I’m sure we’ll have friends who come in from New York, London and Los Angeles,” Lane said. “We’ll want it to be top-notch and classy, like he was.”
Lane began taking care of the great guitarist after her own mother, Gail Pollock, Moore’s long-time companion and protector, began the struggle with cancer that ended in her death last November.
Moore was the last one left of the four men who were in the room on July 5, 1954, at Memphis Recording Service, when they cooked up their version of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” launching the rock ‘n’ roll era. 
Bill Black, the standup bassist who provided the rhythm for what were called, variously, "Elvis, Scotty and Bill" or "The Blue Moon Boys" died Oct. 21, 1965. Elvis died Aug. 16, 1977. And the producer of that Sun Records release, Sam Phillips died July 30, 2003.
And Scotty now is back with his old friends making some beautiful  noise with that weird teenager with pink shirts and greasy hair and the more subdued bassist. And it's sure that Sam is wild-eyed as he watches what is transpiring. 
Lane said the humble Moore “would have absolutely hated the gossip” published earlier in the week that he died feeble and crippled up, a shell of himself.
Hardly.
“He was still with us,” said Lane, noting that while Moore did suffer a bit of dementia, he still was up and about, with the aid of a walker due to the degenerating disc disease in his back.
When he wasn't napping or talking to old journalists on the phone, Scotty daily enjoyed watching cowboy shows before Margi made dinner, something her mother had done for decades.
She said right up until the end, Moore entertained friends who would visit him in his rural Davidson County home and studio.
Wednesday morning, Lane was going through Moore’s mementoes –“pictures, gold records and all this other memorabilia,” which will be going to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he is enshrined.
Because of a variety of health woes in the last couple of decades, Moore no longer played guitar, and in fact his collection now belongs to various museums and collectors.
“People occasionally would bring a guitar over to the house, but he wouldn’t play it,” Lane said. “He wasn’t sad about it. He said he was through with it. He had done it. And it was over.”

Monday, June 6, 2016

When I floated like a butterfly, stung like a bee, spent a bit of time with Muhammad Ali

I have been struggling with my emotions since Muhammad Ali died Friday night.  I was fortunate in my life to spend time with The Greatest (and he truly was) during the few days before and after the Sept. 15, 1978, fight during which he won for a third time the heavyweight crown by “whuppin’’’ Leon Spinks.  The night of the fight itself was a sleepless one for me, literally. Read on, you’ll see why.  At 8 a.m. Sept. 16, 1978, I was sitting next to Ali on a loveseat in his Hilton hotel room.

Most of the press from the night before likely was sleeping it off.  Me, I was still quivering with excitement and the opportunity to spend a couple hours, virtually uninterrupted, with the once-again-crowned heavyweight champion of the world.

After that dream answered, I took the historic St. Charles streetcar back to my hotel near an above-ground graveyard.  I had already sent my copy from the fight to my assistant sports editor and pal, Larry Schmidt, back in the newsroom that looked out over Commerce Street in Clarksville.  I was going to write the story of my time with Ali, finally grab a nap and then go back to the Quarter, where a bartender two nights before had taught me how to shuck an oyster.

On that day after the fight, I went back and forth between the French Quarter and the press room set up in the Hilton.  It was the first time I interviewed a totally naked woman (she had shown all of her charms by climbing into the ring the night before) and I found out that at close-range, she was beautiful, a bit chilly and obviously “my type.” I was just a kid, remember.  I wrote a little story about her as well after she autographed a photo, carefully not covering her private zones with the signature.

I had met Larry Holmes, George Foreman, Kenny Norton, Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, Howard Cosell and a flock of Hollywood superstars over the previous few days.

Of course all of that paled in comparison to the several times I had been with Ali during that week, with our last encounter being the almost one-on-one joking and talking in the hotel suite.

I saw Ali a few more times after that.  The last time I saw him, the horror of his Parkinson’s was just beginning to slow him down.  He no longer was “the Louisville Lip,” but a middle-aged man (by boxing standards) who had taken too many punches to the head.  That’s one of the risks of the Rope-a-Dope, I suppose.

 I don’t know much else to say, other than that I’m proud I spent time with The Greatest and that memory will live on.

Of course, most of the TV news remembrances have been glorious, flashy and funny and don’t focus on the man trapped for decades inside body’s shell by Parkinson’s.

While I have written about other encounters with the former Cassius Clay, most of my Ali stories come from the time I covered the fight for The Leaf-Chronicle in Clarksville.

 I traded my planned and budgeted trip to the Master’s (golf's not my game) for enough money to fly me to New Orleans, feed me oysters and gumbo and beignets, that were still hot when I retrieved them on the tray that was planted, along with chickory-laced coffee, outside my room each morning.  They also left the day’s newspaper. (You remember newspapers don’t you? )
 
Just shy of 28 years old, I learned much on that trip, much of which will go to my grave with me.

I fell in love with New Orleans and streetcars, above-ground graveyards and voodoo queens.  Because of my time spent there with Muhammad Ali, that city has been special to me and I’ve visited often.  Even pondered moving there, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as magical as the time I was there for The Fight.

The time a tired boxer extended his hand and shook my own very softly, explaining his hands were sore from “whuppin’” Leon Spinks the night before.

Ali’s death has saddened me (that’s not hard). It also has been invigorating to watch all of the news stories, to see him in his prime, to realize that, really, he had lived his life and it was time to take the ring in the great whatever after.  My other hero, by contrast, was John Lennon, whose life ended  in healty life’s prime at 40 due to a crazed fan confused by “Catcher in the Rye.” (Weren’t we all?)

But Ali was always there, a man I respected, loved even, who had made plenty of mistakes in his life, but fessed up and bounced back until he could bounce no more. He could hardly even walk.

I don’t feel eloquent today.  And it depresses me that most of my clips of the coverage from sparring to weigh-in to the fight itself and the after-parties disappeared in the May 2010 flood that consumed my office and most of my written memories. But nothing could steal those in my head.

Because I won many honors for one piece of my coverage, a column I hope you’ll stick around to read (see it below), I still had a Xeroxed (yep, a real Xeroxed) copy of it in my short stack of favorite “resume” writings that remained dry, a few feet above the water six years ago.

I am too tired to write much more about him, and the clips on TV tell the story better anyway. Skip the Will Smith movie and watch the real thing, the clips of “The Thrilla in Manila” – featuring Ali and Joe Frazier in the most brutally beautiful of all prize fights. Or perhaps watch the guy from the George Foreman Grills commercials get “Rope-a-Doped” in Zaire during “The Rumble in the Jungle.”    

Sure, I’m a man of peace who stood proudly against war.  Sure, as my pal Kristofferson would say “Tim, you’re a walking contradiction.” But I relished in the ring exploits of Muhammad Ali.  And I’ll never forget his personal kindness to me.

Here’s a farewell to the fight and my time in New Orleans that I composed on a steamy Sunday, at a table in the French Quarter over chickory coffee before my mid-afternoon flight back to Nashville’s ancient Berry Field.

Thanks for making it this far and read on if you wish:
                    
Ali and me ….
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, September 1978 --
“Ali … Ali  … Ali… Ali …”
There is something unbelievably exciting about being surrounded by 70,000 people exploding in unison with one magic word over and over again.

Of course that is just what happened Friday night when the main act in a four-day circus in New Orleans took place in the center ring beneath the biggest big-top of them all – the Louisiana Superdome.

Everybody was in town for the final performance of “Muhammad Ali’s Traveling Circus and Magic Show.” No matter who you talked to – bartenders, jazz musicians, cab drivers – they were all going to the Ali-Leon Spinks rematch.

The airports had been busy for days prior to the fight. Cabs were almost impossible to come by.

The jazz throbbed long and loud on Bourbon Street. The beer flowed freely.

People wandered the streets all night long. Folks from Tunisia, India, South Africa and Hollywood and, of course, the mob, had made the pilgrimage.

All of the excitement could have easily turned to violence and tragedy.

“It’s insanity,” said one of the nation’s top boxing writers of the crowd which had paid $200 per seat to witness the fights from the main floor of the Superdome Friday.

The reporter had left his cherished ringside seat to join the bulk of the working press up in the press box.

“It’s uncontrollable down there,” he said, shaking his head. “People are drinking and shoving and yelling at one another. There’s not usher one down there. No one can see!”

The first true indication that there was a little “insanity” in the air came during Thursday’s heavyweight weigh-in in the Grand Ballroom of the New Orleans Hilton. The ballroom has a seating capacity of 400. An estimated 3,500 pushed into the session which was to have been for members of the press only.

The crowd pushed its way onto the stage where the weighing was taking place.The stage nearly collapsed.

The weigh-in incident cause a rift between co-promoters Top Rank and Louisiana Sports Inc. The charges and counter-charges floating around did little alleviate the tension in the air.

While the nation was watching some pretty fine boxing on television, the press and the crowd in the Superdome were treated to many, many other fights in the crowd.

Though there was quite a bit of security, it was pretty slack. Many of us in the press were wondering just what would happen if the obvious crowd favorite, Ali, lost. It could have been incredibly tragic.

After the evening’s fight card was concluded, thousands flocked to the Hilton, where a “Championship Extravaganza” featuring Isaac Hayes as the entertainment and the fighters as scheduled special guests was to be held.

A little thing like the loss of the heavyweight championship of the world did not keep Leon “Disco” Spinks off the dance floor.  However, he was the only boxer to spend much time at the extravaganza. Ali did not attend at all.

But most of the people who flocked in the Hilton did not have tickets ($75 per person) for the extravaganza – which was in the same Grand Ballroom as the weigh-in.

People who attended the bash came out and tried to peddle their torn ticket stubs to members of the flashily-dressed throng outside the entrance to the ballroom.

Others tried to rush the gate.

Police officers wielding nightsticks came in on at least one occasion to try to help control the crowd.

“I wouldn’t go in there,” said one woman, who was working the ticket gate.

The extravaganza went on well into the night. In fact, the first member of Ali’s “family” to arrive –noted comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory – finally came to the Hilton at 3:30 a.m.

But the way the people filled the streets outside it seemed like it should be just the middle of the afternoon. The situation in the French Quarter a few blocks away was similar.

It was Mardi Gras in September. Both Friday and Saturday nights the celebrating on Bourbon Street and surrounding area was in full gear. The crowd nearly filled the entire street.

Jazz blared out of some clubs, while barkers tried to coax the celebrants into other clubs offering such specialties as “topless and bottomless tabletop dancing.”

Fans – drinks in hand – each made it from oyster bar to beer joint to Dixieland hall. Many folks danced in the streets.

Bourbon Street finally calmed down Sunday. By the time the early afternoon sun began baking the city, most of the fans and the press were finally packing up and leaving.

A little jazz played at one or two of the bars, while sleepy Ali fans did some last-minute souvenir hunting.
(Ali himself left New Orleans Sunday for his home in Chicago.)

The only thing left of the previous few nights of revelry was the overwhelming stench caused by the hot sun baking the stale beer and rotting food in the streets.

The circus was over. It was time to go home.

        

Saturday, June 13, 2015

All the chapel bells will ring for Jim Ed Brown ... friends remember the voice of a good fella



Note from Flapjacks: When Jim Ed Brown died the other night, I wrote a quick obituary for Reuters News Service. But in the process of gathering information, I had much more than they needed. Which was fine.  I thought someone else in Nashville may be interested in publishing this, but I was wrong. Been wrong before, so no big deal.  Well, I liked the guy. I didn’t know him as well as I know (or did know) some of the old school country musicians, but he was a kind gentleman with one helluva voice. If you are interested, his funeral is 10 a.m. Monday June 15 at The Ryman. Here is the obit no one wanted, but perhaps you may wish to read:  

 Jim Ed Brown didn’t live quite long enough to participate in his Country Music Hall of Fame induction set for this fall.

Brown, 81, a Grand Ole Opry star for more than a half-century and just elected to the Hall of Fame this year, died Thursday night at Williamson Medical Center in Franklin after a battle with lung cancer.

“He had class and style,” said his old friend (and mine) Bobby Bare Thursday night, voice cracking shortly after learning the news.

“He was not an Arkansas hillbilly. He had class and he had style and he had a great voice…. He was a real artist,” said Bare of his friend of more than 50 years.

Jim Ed Brown’s “class and style” showed through in the body of work he helped create since leaving behind his upbringing without electricity and conveniences on the family farm in Sparkman, Arkansas, where every Saturday night the Brown family would gather around a battery-powered radio to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s WSM-AM.

Bare said his earliest recollection of time spent with Brown goes back to 1963 “or somewhere in there. I remember we were doing a show somewhere down in Arkansas and I went with him to his mom’s house one morning and she cooked breakfast for us.”

Brown’s ability to mimic the voices of the stars – Hank Snow was his best – eventually got him into a talent competition at a radio station in Little Rock, Arkansas. While he didn’t win the contest, he and his sister Maxine were asked to appear again on the radio station, where their harmonies were developed and then sprung loose on their first  Top 10 Country hit, “Looking Back to See,” written by the duo.  Sister Bonnie joined to make it the trio that is being inducted into the Hall of Fame this autumn.

As The Browns, Jim Ed, Maxine and Bonnie had country hits with “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow, “I Take the Chance” and “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing” and their trademark hit, the glorious and honey-coated “The Three Bells.”

After the sisters retired Jim Ed Brown continued as a country hit-maker as a solo artist on singles like “Morning” and “Sometime Sunshine”  and his signature tune, “Pop a Top,” which later was a hit for classic country stylist Alan Jackson.  “Set ‘em up my friend….”

Brown also continued to make music as a celebrated duet partner with Helen Cornelius on a string of hits including their No. 1 country hit “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You.”

An Opry royal, Jim Ed really never stopped being interested in singing, and in 2013, Bare produced a single by Brown, “In Style Again.”  “I became a brand new fan of Jim Ed’s when I was in the studio,” said Bare Thursday night. “I’d forgotten how good he sang.”

That single then was used as the title track of an album put out by Brentwood-based Plowboy Records, which is run by Shannon Pollard, grandson of longtime Brown pal Eddy Arnold, who died in 2008 at the age of 89. (I loved Eddy Arnold. And Shannon’s a helluva guy, too.)

Shannon said Jim Ed’s  relationship with his grandfather dated back to the 1950s and included a joint appearance with The Browns at Carnegie Hall.

As for recording the new album in the summer of 2014 after a long absence from the recording studio, the Opry star “really wanted to do it,” said Pollard, adding “his voice was fantastic.”

Before he became desperately ill, Brown had planned to participate with Bare and some other veteran performers on one of the stages of this week’s CMA Music Fest in Nashville. “I knew three weeks ago that he wasn’t going to make it,” said Bare, adding the show would go on, but he’d miss those wondrous tones of his pal.

The Browns’ official induction into the Hall of Fame will come in October.  However, Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern, Hall of Famer and friend Bill Anderson and Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young visited the hospital June 4 to present him with a medallion commemorating his Hall of Fame membership.

“Fame is fleeting, hit records change every week, award show winners and nominees change every year, but being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame will be forever,” Brown said.

Pollard remembered that Jim Ed was mentored by his grandfather and visited Arnold regularly when the Tennessee Plowboy was hospitalized in his final days. 

As for Jim Ed’s decision to record again, label chief Pollard said “He knew we had the label that was up and running. He wanted to put more music out, and it worked out.”

He said the memories of Brown’s friendship with his grandfather made it doubly hard for him to accept that the singer had died.  It was like saying goodbye to his grandfather all over again, he allowed, sadly.

“We’ve been preparing for this for several days,” said Pollard. “I got to say my goodbyes to him and I was very honored that I was able to do that.

“He truly was an inspiration to me throughout this whole battle he fought.  He knew he was not leaving the hospital, but he still was trying to make everybody feel good.”                 
All the chapel bells will be ringing....

Monday, January 26, 2015

Now Ernie will urge them to play two in heaven


“Let’s play two!” the kind, old gentleman said to St. Pete the other day.

 Perhaps as some folks speculate, they always play doubleheaders in heaven…. I’ll probably never find out for a variety of reasons, the least of which is poor hand-eye coordination …. I know that on that slice of Chicago green called Wrigley Field that’s all  the gentle and genteel first baseman wanted.  Doubleheaders.

“It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two,” Ernie Banks would say often as he worked his bat (a slight enough guy, he did hit 512 homers), or whipped the ball around the infield as a shortstop and later a first baseman.

“Mr. Cub,” as he was known throughout baseball, died Friday night at 83 years of age.  I’m 63 now and the fact I can remember scores of games attended with Ernie at the plate or with his glove … and his smile …. Means I’m pretty old too….  More a relic of late fall than a boy of summer, for, after all …. Mr. Cub retired in 1971, almost 44 baseball seasons ago.

And I can remember like it was well, at least some hazy replica of yesterday (when all my troubles seemed so far away, etc.) when watching this almost dainty-footed ballplayer dance around the bases or throw across to Ronnie Santo at third to … most times … get some lousy Mets or Reds player out.  Rose wants to slide in head-first? Hit him in the face with your glove, Ronnie.

Wrigley Field has, of course, been deemed the trendy place to see ballgames in the last few decades. Except for the blasphemy committed when lights were installed, Wrigley’s sort of the pastoral, vine-walled diamond that time forgot and where the Cubs never really learned how to win.  For generations younger than mine, it is a great place to buy a $10 Old Style and a lukewarm hot dog and enjoy an evening without really caring who wins as long as your iPhone is charged.  These selfie-centered folks are there to be seen.

 Me, I rarely had time for the lukewarm hot dogs on those great spring and summer afternoons at Wrigley Field.  I was too busy keeping hope alive. It always was a beautiful day for a ballgame when I could stop by the players’ entrance on Waveland Avenue and get a greeting or a handshake from Ernie or from Ronnie.  Ferguson Jenkins (who spent some off-seasons with the Harlem Globetrotters). Billy Williams. Randy Hundley. Don Kessinger. Jimmy Hickman …

Remember the Twiggy Hartenstein-Don Drysdale pitchers’ duel on the front end of Billy Williams Day’s doubleheader? Perhaps the Koufax-Hendley rivalry a few years prior? Gotta love the Ghost, even if he was a denizen of Chavez Ravine.  

No need to sneak past armed security to ask for autographs, as these guys – in those wonder years of the pre-9/11 world – would stand among you and your buddies like human beings.

“Let’s play two!” we’d yell at Ernie as he arrived. Or as he left after the Cubs lost one. … Let’s play two. Get ‘em next time.

Hope. The final frontier, as far as I’m concerned.  Usually it is fruitless to hope.  But how could you not when this slender No. 14 with the seemingly oversized first-baseman’s mitt was around to spread optimism in the beautiful confines of Wrigley Field.

  It hurt when I learned that Ernie Banks had died Friday.  A lot. I mean, he was old and everything, but that single act assured one thing: The most-popular Cub of all time never would play in a World Series …. Or see his team play in one (depending on what the afterlife holds in store, of course).

Ernie almost made the World Series in 1969.  We all did. How many afternoons did Jimmy Hart and I climb into the old Falcon or take the train down to the neighborhood near Wrigleyville, park, walk a few blocks and pay $1.25 for a bleacher seat?

Left-field bleachers were not the territory of digital-technology millionaires and their arm-candy lackeys back then. It was where the guys went who loved the game but didn’t have a lot of money to spare.   

Another buck and half and you could, or at least so I was told, buy your first illegal beers at age 17. Or was that 14? No ID? No problem.  Or so I’ve been told.

It was back then that the Cubs were going to be World Series champions, almost destroying their myth.

There was no goat, Bambino’s ghost or anything to blame, but the Cubs always finished well down in the standings.  There was joy in Mudville… I mean Wrigleyville … that summer.  I’d go to the games to cheer my favorites, as in seasons past. But this was special.  Hope. Hell, they got it in the bag.  Don’t they?

Ronnie “Pizza Man” Santo -- with his heel-clicking dance to the locker room after yet one more Cubs victory – was really my all-time favorite boy of summer.   Jack Brickhouse, who like Santo and now Ernie is dead, was the announcer back in those pre-Harry Caray days.

“Hey hey and holy mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are on their way,” he’d sing on WGN after each victory made it seem that the Wrigley dwellers finally were going to play well into the autumn of ‘69.  I’ve got that on 45 rpm around here someplace.

But, as the Mets proved by dismantling the Cubs’ near-insurmountable lead as the season waned, Ernie and Ronnie and the rest truly were Boys of Summer. Period. Not a single Mr. October among them.

 Disappointing, sure. But then so is life. And we learned to cope with that by being devoted fans of the North Siders.

Nowadays, of course, there also are a lot of fans who find it trendy to cheer for the more successful Chicago franchise, the South Siders, the White Sox.   For me, Comiskey Park was only a place to go if the Cubs were out of town.  Hell, I don’t even know what the name of the White Sox field is now.

I long ago lost track of my pal, Jimmy Hart, a year younger than me, but equally interested in sneaking off to the beach at Lake Michigan and puffing Swisher Sweets while sharing a pilfered-from-the-home-fridge Meister Brau.  We worked together that summer at the Park District – where I would try to get the Jeep to literally fly when I gunned it over the top of a hill.  Rat Patrol-style. If you’re old enough, you’ll understand that. If not, well, hell with it. Just read on.

A lot of our time also was spent lining the ballfields for Little League games. No Dixie Youth up there, folks.  I had not yet made the Land of Cotton my home.  It was a simple process back then.  You’d put spikes from where the corners of first were and the corners of second and third and down the foul lines to the home.  Then you’d tie string to each spike, to form a diamond.  And then use that string as your guide while rolling the little pail filled with lime around the field.

I think there are more precise methods now. But I have to admit that lining the fields was my favorite part of my park district job. That and driving the Jeep to the bakery for the daily donut run.  Two bucks an hour and all the donuts you could eat. A great way to live, partly because we went to work before 6 a.m. and got off in the early to mid-afternoon those summer days.  Those summer days…. Wrigley Field was perhaps 25 minutes away.

Catch the last few innings. There were no bastard lights at Wrigley back then.  Baseball was (is?) meant to be played in the sunshine.

That’s where Ernie would be, basking in the sun, a trickle of sweat on his brow, when he’d say “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two.”

I know that reality set in when that summer ended… prematurely … with the “Ya Gotta Believe” Mets -- led by singer Tim McGraw’s illegitimate father -- playing successfully through the autumn. The feat by gentlemanly Gil Hodges’ team helped prove that Leo “the Lip” Durocher was wrong. (Does anybody else remember how much fun it was to have “Nice Guys Finish Last” Durocher helming the Cubs while Eddie Stanky managed the Chisox?) Talk about kicked dirt and epic manager-umpire squabbles.  Screw you. Screw me blues.

 I was sad… as usual, I suppose… when the Cubs swooned.  

When that summer ended, I went off to college, to Iowa State University, where I studied hard and had a lot of fun.

Anyway, I was off on the great adventure of growing my hair and hanging out with National Guardsmen and radicals, attending Panther meetings and reading Muhammad Speaks.  Enjoying a late-night philosophic discussion with Allen Ginsberg after he performed most of “Howl” straight through, concert style at C.Y. Stevens Auditorium. Of course I had, as I pointed out, a fair amount of fun, especially at Tork’s. You had to be there when the call for quarters rang out at our table. Jocko. Titsy. Nardholm. Carpy. Dogshit. Schultzy. J-Dub. Eggman.Captain Kirk. Those were among my companions at various times over those years.   Uncle Moose usually had to go home on weekends to tend to the hogs.  Moose is dead now. I have remained in touch with Carpy. And Captain Kirk just sent me an airbrush T-shirt dedicated to a man we all know as “Flapjacks.”  Hear from Nardholm and Titsy’s wife occasionally.

Still, the days of the carefree summers when Jimmy Hart and I would go down to see Ernie Banks and Ronnie Santo play were done. Jimmy “had” to get married that fall. Back then that was what they said when a young woman and a young man made that life-changing “mistake.” Great girl. Great friend. Pretty baby.   Last time I heard from Jimmy he was a social worker in Tampa and his dad had a gas station in Winter Haven. Of course Jimmy was divorced.

So, by the time I got home the next summer, 1970, Jimmy Hart was folding diapers and I was on my own. A complete unknown. Letting my hair grow and hanging out backstage with Vanilla Fudge.  Sometimes shaving at least one side of my face.

Sure, there would be more stealthy trips to Wrigley, where pigeons always seemed to use me for target practice, before I uprooted common sense and made Nashville my forever hometown.  See me wasted on the sidewalk in my jacket and my jeans….to paraphrase my good friend Kris Kristofferson.  Or perhaps “once my future was shiny as the seats of my pants are today….” 

Still that summer of 1969, when the Cubs should have won it all, but faltered, remains among the best summers of my life. Partly it was because I could go see these ballplayers and shake their hands. Partly it was because of the optimism of seeing Billy Williams tag one to left field or Randy Hundley catching the fiery fastballs of Ferguson Jenkins.

Partly it was because it was the summer after I graduated from high school and I’d already been dumped by the girl I took to prom. I didn’t know she had a boyfriend who was away at college. So it was kind of a shock to go to her house the week after I graduated, three weeks after we saw Modern Jazz Quartet on Rush Street after the dance was ended, to see the boy friend. (Yes, that was a good thing. That cunning cheerleader became a high-profile, Bush-appointed Republican judge in Florida, so I think our ideologies would have separated us anyway.)   I mean, all I was saying was Give Peace a Chance. Still am saying that, you know.

What that previous paragraph means, I’m not sure. Perhaps it was just that it was during that summer, that wondrous time of hope, I had to come to terms that life offered a box of chocolates filled with caramel hope and red cream despair. 

The summer of 1969 was when reality began to settle in. When the optimism of Mr. Cub almost was realized.  Emphasize “ALMOST.”

It was Woodstock and ‘Easy Rider’ and an era when I was glad I was going to be a college student and wouldn’t have to join big strong men in Vietnam.  "Lay down your books and pick up a gun, we’re gonna have a whole lot of fun," Country Joe McDonald would tell me on my record machine.  The future is plastics, the fat guy told Benjamin Braddock.

I went 1A in the draft after the first “lottery.”  I felt safe, but still war threatened my quiet world of academia (as some might define my rambunctious years). Later in life when I needed something to make me feel better, I always have cheered for the Cubs and believed in hope and dreams. 

I mean it. I still do.

 Ernie Banks always said: “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two.”

He’d also say: “Wait ‘Til Next Year.”

Hope always stands a chance as long as this great man, Number 14, brings out his bat and occupies … momentarily at least…  a portion of my mental bank of memories. 

Now he’s dead.  Hell. Let’s play two.