Monthly Archives: December 2009

That new adventure

You may know Ernie Harwell. He was the radio voice of the Detroit Tigers for almost 40 years, retiring in 2002. Ernie is 91.

Ernie is dying. He learned this summer that he has cancer of the bile duct.

Ernie is so beloved in Detroit that he had to use his newspaper column to thank everyone who reached out to him after learning of his diagnosis. He’d received 10,000 cards and letters.

On Christmas Day, on the front page of the Detroit Free Press, Ernie wrote:

“This year, I’m not sending [Christmas] cards. Last July, doctors gave me only six months (more or less) to live. That was five months ago. I am still hanging around. But, while getting ready for my new adventure, I’m not dying to send out cards.”

Beautiful.

It wasn’t the first time Ernie had put it that way. When he announced his diagnosis in September, he said:

“Whatever’s in store, I’m ready for a new adventure.”

Beautiful.

For those of us of a certain age, some sports broadcasters — particularly baseball announcers — are part of the family. We’ve spent that much time together.

I’ve been listening to Bob Uecker call the Milwaukee Brewers since I was 13. Bob is still calling the Brewers. He’ll be 75 next month. Nothing lasts forever, so last summer, I listened to more Brewers baseball on the radio than I had in some time, if only to savor Bob’s home-run calls.

When Bob started calling the Brewers in 1971, he worked with another guy who was part of the family. We lost that guy this year.

The smooth Merle Harmon is on his new adventure. So are these folks:

Patrick McGoohan, 80, Jan. 13. I was 11 when they aired “The Prisoner” in the U.S. in 1968. I had no idea what was going on. I still may not.

Ricardo Montalban, 88, Jan. 14. The best “Star Trek” villain ever. That bug-in-the-ear thing still creeps me out.

Billy Powell, 59, Jan. 28. Without the piano player, I think Lynyrd Skynyrd is really gone now.

Martin Lange, 82, Feb. 17. One day in 1958, he took the boss’ idea and ran with it. In just a half-hour, he threw together a couple of 3½-inch radio speakers, some cardboard backing and an old headband and created the prototype for the first Koss Stereophone. I’ve used Koss headphones from Milwaukee forever. I recently wrecked the cord on my old pair, and I found a new, improved pair under the tree on Christmas Day.

Eddie Bo, 79, March 18. A giant in New Orleans R&B. I learned everything I know about Eddie Bo from the music blogs. Thanks, Dan. Thanks, Larry.

Irving R. Levine, 86, March 27. The NBC economics reporter who wore a bow tie. Nice.

Merle Harmon, 82, April 15. Merle read my name on the air during a Brewers broadcast one summer night. I think it was 1974. I’d sent him a fan letter and had forgotten about it until he finally got around to reading it. I was listening on the front porch at my grandparents’ house. A big thrill, even for a high school kid.

Dom DeLuise, 75, May 4. Pals with Dean Martin, then Burt Reynolds. That guy must have had a lot of fun. Great cameo in “Blazing Saddles,” one of my favorite movies.

The Rev. Robert Cornell, 89, May 10. Priest, politician, professor … and rock promoter in our corner of Wisconsin.

Wayman Tisdale, 44, May 15. Good basketball player, good jazz musician. Gone too soon. A tough year for old-school NBA guys. Johnny “Red” Kerr, Norm Van Lier, Chuck Daly and Randy Smith also started new adventures.

Sam Butera, 81, June 3. Can I get some Witnesses? He was the wild sax player behind Louis Prima.

Ed McMahon, 86, June 23 … Farrah Fawcett, 62, June 25 … Michael Jackson, 50, June 25. Man, that was some week. Ed McMahon was another member of the family. Some fathers and sons play catch. My dad and I watched Johnny and Ed. … Do you remember where you were when you heard the news on June 25? … When you remember Michael Jackson, remember the Nicholas Brothers, too.

Walter Cronkite, 92, July 17. To a kid who was 7 when he decided he wanted to go into journalism, it was like going to reporting class every night at 5:30 p.m.

John Hughes, 59, Aug. 6. There are several guilty pleasures among his ’80s films.

Dominick Dunne, 83, Aug. 26. What a second act. Having crashed and burned after one career as a TV and film producer, he became a great crime reporter.

Patrick Swayze, 57, Sept. 14. If only as Bodhi in “Point Break.”

Henry Gibson, 73, Sept. 14. You really had to be there for “Laugh-In.” I wish I would have bought his comic poetry LP — “The Grass Menagerie” — when I came across it while crate digging last year.

Mary Travers, 72, Sept. 16. My dad had a Peter, Paul and Mary record. We listened to it endlessly as kids. Of course, it was the one with “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

Marvin Fishman, 84, Oct. 9, and Wesley Pavalon, 76, Dec. 12. They founded the Milwaukee Bucks in 1968 and presided over their great teams of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Al Martino, 82, Oct. 13. You know him from “The Godfather.” We know him a little differently over at Ray’s Corner.

Vic Mizzy, 93, Oct. 17. If only for the theme from “The Addams Family.”

Michelle Triola Marvin, 76, Oct. 30. I hear this, and I think immediately of Roger Ebert’s great story about a memorable 1970 interview with Lee Marvin. Not mentioned in that Esquire piece, but told later by Ebert: Lee’s dog walks into the room with a pair of panties in its mouth. Michelle says they’re not hers. “Bad dog!” Lee says.

Carl Ballantine, 92, Nov. 3. He was part of the crew on “McHale’s Navy.” His daughter — who was named for a horse tracktells a great story about his last day. “I gotta get out of here,” he said.

Ken Ober, 52, Nov. 15. Much like those old MTV Christmas videos posted here earlier this month, “Remote Control” seems quaint and innocent now.

Brittany Murphy, 32, Dec. 20. She really could sing, too.

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You’re going out tonight?

Christmas night once was an excellent time to hit the bars.

By the time all the gifts are unwrapped and dinner is eaten, many young people have had their legal limit of their family for one day. That’s the way it was back in the late ’70s, and I doubt it’s changed much.

At that time, Wisconsin’s drinking age was 18, so the bars were full of college students fleeing their homes.

We gathered — of all places — in a tiny restaurant lounge. It seems an unlikely place for that, but if you went to the bar at Nino’s Steak Round-up, you ran into someone you knew almost every night during Christmas break.

The lounge at Nino’s seemed a vaguely sophisticated place. It had exactly one beer on tap. Special Export, brewed in Wisconsin, was a bit of a premium brand. It came from the same brewery as the more popular, less expensive Old Style. (It was as Michelob is to Budweiser.)

There you were — 18, 19, 20 — and drinking a beer that wasn’t something you drank in high school. If not Special Ex, then mixed drinks. Save for a brief and still inexplicable flirtation with the Vodka Collins, my mixed drink of choice was the whiskey sour. I couldn’t begin to tell you what brands of liquor went into them. Some sophisticate.

I spent many nights at Nino’s, but it wasn’t a place for music. It was a place you went to chill out, to shoot the breeze. Lots of people went there for a quiet drink. There was a stereo behind the bar, and I vaguely recall albums being played. It was the time of late-night free-form FM radio, so maybe they played that.

Truth be told, Nino’s was a place to go to escape the dreadful music played in central Wisconsin — and lots of other places — in the late ’70s. It was enough to drive anyone to drink, even on Christmas night.

One look at the WLS charts for the week of Christmas 1977, when I was home from school during my junior year in college, and I know why drinks were in order. Shaun Cassidy has two singles and two LPs in the charts. Two LPs titled “You Light Up My Life” are in the charts, one by Debby Boone and one the movie soundtrack.

So there will be no music from the week of Christmas 1977. There will, however, be music in the spirit of those Christmas night gatherings.

“Christmas Night In Harlem,” Louis Armstrong with the Benny Carter Orchestra, 1955, from “Santa Claus Blues,” 1993. It’s out of print.

Harlem is nothing like central Wisconsin, but this vibe is much the same.

“Oh, everyone is gonna sit up until after 3/Everyone will be all lit up like a Christmas tree.”

Yeah, that’s pretty much how it went after you fled the house on Christmas.

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Just one under the tree

Whether you celebrate Christmas or something else, here’s hoping you enjoy the time spent with friends and family.

Because you just never know.

Twenty years ago, we did our best to enjoy Christmas. But my mom was rapidly becoming lost to Alzheimer’s disease. She was diagnosed in the early ’80s and we’d learned to go with the flow, to savor the good days and manage the bad days, but this was different. Much different.

I vividly remember thinking: “So this is what Christmas is going to be like from now on.” Not in the sense of feeling bad for myself, but rather what we would need to do for family gatherings — how would we make memories — when Mom is there, but not really there at all.

It never came to that. Mom died the following July.

You just never know.

On a winter day almost 40 years ago, Louis Armstrong went to work in the den at his home at 34-56 107th Street in Corona, Queens, New York. That day — Friday, Feb. 26, 1971 — he recorded this:

“The Night Before Christmas (A Poem),” Louis Armstrong, 1971,  from “The Stash Christmas Album,” 1985. It’s out of print, but you can find the original 7-inch single (Continental CR 1001) on eBay.

There’s no music. Just Satchmo’s warm, gravelly voice and Clement Clarke Moore’s classic poem.

“But I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, ‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night. A very good night.’

“And that goes for Satchmo, too. (Laughs softly.) Thank you.”

It was the last thing he ever recorded. Satchmo died the following July.

You just never know.

Embrace the moment.

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Three under the tree, Vol. 44

This has been a dreadful year for finding new Christmas music. I can’t remember the last time it was so hard to find something I really liked at the record store.

Thankfully, this has been a pretty good year for finding some good Christmas music around the blogs. Read on, and fill your sleigh.

– Blondie is offering a free download of a new recording of “We Three Kings.” It’s pretty good. Give it a listen or watch the video, then go get it.

– Nils Lofgren is offering free downloads of three Christmas tunes he did in the late ’90s to benefit United Cerebral Palsy in Arizona, where he lives. They’re laid-back versions of “O Holy Night” and “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and then Margo Reed joins him for a duet on “Silent Night.”

Listen to “O Holy Night,” from “Merry Arizona 97: Desert Stars Shine At Christmas,” then go get ‘em.

– Did you have an Advent calendar when you were a kid? Ours had one part of the Christmas story each day. Our son Evan gets a piece of chocolate in his Advent calendar each morning. It’s breakfast.

In any case, each day of Advent 2009 brings a new song over at the Punk Rock Advent Calendar, courtesy of UK punker Jimmy Severe. More hits than misses. But don’t click on the links too early!

“Oi To The World,” Severe, from the Punk Rock Advent Calendar, 2009. (It was either this or a Who-inspired “Angels We Have Heard On High.” You can’t go wrong with either one.)

– If you like Christmas mashups as much as I do, head over to the Bootie Blog to grab either or both of their Christmas compilations, “A Very Bootie Christmas” from 2006 and the new “A Very Bootie Christmas 2.” There are 16 cuts on the former and 14 or 15 cuts on the latter, depending on whether you want the family-friendly version. Or, you can just grab individual cuts.

“Back Door Santa Getting It On,” DJ Schmolli, from “A Very Bootie Christmas,” 2006. Clarence Carter meets T. Rex meets Whitney Houston, courtesy of this fine DJ from Vienna, Austria.

“Christmas Bop,” Smash-Up Derby, 2006, from “A Very Bootie Christmas 2,” 2009. The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” meets Santa Claus and some familiar Christmas tunes, done live by the San Francisco group that bills itself as “the world’s first live mashup rock band.”

This cut also is on last year’s “Santastic Four,” the most recent of the four Christmas mashup compilations from dj BC of Boston. Bootie Blog proprietors A + D graciously point you toward those four fine “Santastic” comps. Dig them also. (There is no new “Santastic” comp this year.)

– Finally, a gentle reminder that this year’s Three Under the Tree posts will stay up here at AM, Then FM through New Year’s Day.

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Three under the tree, Vol. 43

Christmas lurks out there, scarcely 10 days away now.

Everyone’s busy, no time to read, no time to write.

This is going to be it for Three Under the Tree. I get the feeling this series has run its course, anyway. I have something in mind for next year, something a little different.

So as we go out, three more good ones:

“All I Want for Christmas,” Timbuk 3, 1987, from “A Different Kind of Christmas,” 1994. It’s out of print.

Gotta support your local musicians. Pat MacDonald, born right here in Green Bay and kicked out of West High School in the late ’60s over his long hair (and that’s only part of a great story), was half of Timbuk 3 with his ex-wife Barbara K. He’s living in our corner of Wisconsin these days, doing a variety of gigs and billing himself as pat mAcdonald.

“Winter Wonderland,” Steve Goodman, from “Artistic Hair,” 1983.

Recorded live, but not otherwise a Christmas record. On which Steve struggles to remember the lyrics but comes close enough, and in so doing comes up with a delightful acoustic version. I bought this record at a Steve Goodman show in 1983. He autographed it for me: “Joe, Hello”

“Merry Christmas Baby,” Chuck Berry, 1958, from “Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade, Vol. 2,” 1973. The LP is out of print, but this tune — and a shorter alternate take — are available on “Johnny B. Goode: His Complete ’50s Chess Recordings,” a 2008 compilation, and digitally.

On which Chuck demonstrates how well he does those quiet, slow blues. Listen for a snippet of “White Christmas” at about 1:40. Mostly, though, it’s just Chuck’s voice backed by Johnnie Johnson’s piano. The rest of the group is Willie Dixon on bass and Fred Below on drums.

And to think I got to see Chuck Berry this year. Christmas came early.

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Three under the tree, Vol. 42

Watching that old George Thorogood video last night, it struck me how cutting-edge MTV seemed at the time and how quaint and innocent those old videos seem now.

It sure would be nice to sit down with our 14-year-old son and watch something like that now.

Of course, he’d roll his eyes and say, “Dad! That’s so corny!”

Absolutely. And it wouldn’t be Christmas without it.

Take 1:

“Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You,” Billy Squier, 1981, from “A Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas,” 1995.

Here’s a little behind-the-scenes bonus: Bob Leafe was taking photos on the set when Billy Squier and Co. shot that video in the MTV studios. He shares some memories and photos.

Take 2:

“Do They Know It’s Christmas (single edit),” Band Aid, 1985, from the 12-inch single. It’s out of print but is available on “Now That’s What I Call Christmas!” 2001.

Take 3:

“Christmas In Hollis,” Run-D.M.C., from “A Very Special Christmas,” 1987. (This one is for Doug.)

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Three under the tree, Vol. 41

The below-zero wind chill is gone, and so is my energy.

So we’re gonna keep it simple. Tonight, we rock the tree.

“Rock & Roll Christmas,” George Thorogood and the Destroyers, 1983. As you can see, it once was used to rock the house at MTV. Damn! Mark Goodman gets a nice long smooch from a cutie under the mistletoe at 1:55!

(Is that really John Lee Hooker as Santa Claus as suggested on YouTube? I’m skeptical, but my friend Larry says in the comments: “I think that may in fact be Hooker as Santa” and points to the photos of Thorogood and Hooker taken by Bob Leafe at an MTV taping in 1984. “I’d love to know for sure,” Larry says. So would I. Ah, those little mysteries.)

“Sock It To Me, Santa,” Bob Seger and the Last Heard, 1966. “Deck the Halls” meets Mitch Ryder and James Brown on this rave-up by a young Seger and one of his earliest Detroit bands.

You can find the Seger and Thorogood cuts on “A Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas,” 1995. Also on this fine record: “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses, “Merry Christmas Baby” by Chuck Berry, “I Believe in Father Christmas” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and some other faves of the ’70s and ’80s.

“Run Rudolph Run,” Keith Richards, 1978, released as a single with a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” on the flip side. It was re-released in 2007 as a single with a cover of Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” as the flip side. (This one is for Chris in Germany.)

Though recorded by Chuck Berry, he didn’t write it. You know “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer?” Johnny Marks wrote all of them.

You can find the Richards and Seger cuts on “Little Steven’s Underground Garage Presents Christmas A Go-Go,” released in 2008. However, the Seger cut is on the CD only and not available digitally.

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