Popped Culture

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Q & A with '68 Comeback and T.A.M.I. Show director, Steve Binder

Posted By on Wed, Aug 8, 2018 at 3:53 PM

Steve Binder & Elvis Presley on the set of Singer Presents... Elvis.
  • Steve Binder & Elvis Presley on the set of Singer Presents... Elvis.
Whether you recognize the name or not, producer/director Steve Binder is probably responsible for developing a considerable portion of your favorite pop-culture real estate. Before directing a landmark 1964 concert film, The T.A.M.I. Show, featuring James Brown, The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, Chuck Berry (and Marvin Gay, and The Beach Boys, and Gerry and the Pacemakers, and The Ronettes), and a full roster of future music industry legends. Binder worked on The Steve Allen Show. He partnered with top-shelf music producer Bones Howe. He produced Pee Wee's Playhouse. Star Wars completists can thank him for directing the Infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, which might have been considerably worse, had Binder not been called in to salvage the project, when the network's first choice didn't work out. In 1968, Binder accepted an offer to direct the NBC TV special Singer Presents... Elvis, better known now as the "'68 Comeback."

This week Binder's coming to Memphis and Graceland to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of Singer Presents..., and sign copies of his book Comeback '68: The Story of the Elvis Special. Here's some of what he had to say about his work on The T.A.M.I. Show, and the NBC special that marked his return to serious recording and live performance. 

Memphis Flyer: I know we’re supposed to talk about Elvis, but I don’t think there’s a ‘68 Comeback without the T.A.M.I. Show in 1964. So I’d like to start there, if it’s okay.

Steve Binder: To begin with, I was directing Steve Allen at the time, and in the middle of it we took a hiatus. So I had an opportunity to collaborate again with Bill Sargent, The T.A.M.I. Show producer. Bill was really a great promoter. He didn’t have a lot of input creatively. He’d just finished producing [a filmed version of] Richard Burton on Broadway doing Hamlet. His idea — he was so far ahead of his time. Everything we’re watching today on digital, Bill thought about those things in the 1960’s.

What you guys were basically doing with T.A.M.I. is an early version of HDTV, right?

He took electronic cameras, when everybody had just transferred over to video tape, and he thought Kinescope was over. I don’t want to get too technical, but American television designated, when it went on the air, that it could only have 525 vertical and horizontal lines for the picture. Bill had a technical background in the Navy. He thought, you know, if we’re not being restricted by the FCC, we can have as many lines as we want and make the quality much better than a television picture. Therefore we can project on theatrical screens, 30 feet high. Back in those days he called it either Electronovision or Theatrovision.


And he came to me and asked if I was interested, because I’d done another project with him that was shown in arenas all over the world, starring Burt Lancaster and a whole cast of stars. It was during the period when schools were segregated and this was to celebrate the desegregation of schools. Burt not only hosted the show, he also sang and danced. It was pretty successful. It played in Madison Square Garden. It played at the Los Angeles Sports Arena and places like that all over the country.

So he came to me and said, I've just done Richard Burton doing Hamlet and I'd like to do another project right away. So we kind of came up with the idea of doing a rock and roll concert. It was obviously the decade with the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassinations, and the assassination of Martin Luther King and so forth. This obviously preempted a lot of all of that. But, Bill didn't give me any restrictions whatsoever. And Jack Nietzsche was the great composer and producer on the East Coast, and Phil Spector on the West Coast, were the two biggest producers in Rock music. And Jack was the musical director of The T.A.M.I. Show. He later went on to do the score for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and other major motion pictures. But Jack is the one who really determined who the hot acts were that year. And gave the Sargent the list.

Sergeant wanted to get the Beatles on the show, but instead he got Brian Epstein to give him Gerry and the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer. Those were his acts. In fact the songs that Billy sang on the show were written by the Beatles.

And James Brown

I didn't even know who James Brown was, let alone how to improvise filming him. But I went to James and said we are ready to rehearse your set. He said you won't need any rehearsal; you'll know what to do when you see me. Everybody else I got one run through with to at least look at the apps. Obviously I went out and got their albums. None of them were superstars at the time. In fact, when the Rolling Stones were booked they were just the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger wasn't even popping out as Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. Same with Diana Ross when we had the Supremes. It was just the Supremes and so forth. We mixed in English acts, because the British Invasion it just started. So we mix those acts with East Coast acts, West Coast Acts, Midwest Acts. None of us knew. I think of nine or 10 acts, eight of them are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame now. Nobody could have predicted that in 1964.


And all of them are huge. It almost seems unlikely that anybody could pick that many winners.


Chris? Who was the biggest star we had on the show do you think?

I’m probably wrong, but I’m going to guess it was Leslie Gore.

She was. She was the biggest recording artist we had on the film.

And she’s amazing. I know she wasn’t out of the closet yet, but re-watching Leslie’s performance of “You Don’t Own Me,” really drove home what an intersectional show this was in 1964. It was male, female, black, white, gay, straight. Like this utopian vision of a better future through rock and soul. And wasn’t a portion of any profit supposed to go toward empowering youth in their communities? Or fostering music scenes. The whole thing feels ahead of its time and I’m not sure there’s really been a concert film quite like it since.

There hasn't been. Sergeant was like one of the Mel Brooks characters in The Producers. He would go out and sell 300 percent of something. It would turn into a hit, and then he was screwed. So he went bankrupt on every film he ever did practically, throughout his career. He never had a successful movie that he held onto. The T.A.M.I. Show was actually picked up by AIP, who were doing all the beach bunny movies at the time with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. They had Vincent Price doing horror movies. American International pictures. They picked it up and then they called me and said they want to do another T.A.M.I. movie. The concept was we were going to do an annual event. And the money was going to go, or at least a great portion of it, to music acts all over the United States.

The minute AIP took it over, they were just interested in making money for themselves. So they took it. The actor who was the star of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was to host it. They put a lot of acts on the TNT show that weren't rock-and-roll acts at all. They were very successful acts, but more middle-of-the-road. Even Ray Charles at the time was on the TNT show. As great as he was, he was not considered rock-and-roll. So it was a case of pride and I turned it down. They gave the music concept to Phil Spector, who I did respect in those days a great deal. Phil literally begged me on his knees to direct the TNT show. I said I couldn't. I mean it's not the same concept. It's not going to have the same impact.


I like how real it is. The crowd is excited in a way you can’t fake. But most importantly, the bands seem to be having a great time. A great time playing, a great time interacting with the audience.

The only thing I contributed to that was making sure all the acts participated with no egos. And they would all be there for the entire two days that we filmed. They all rooted for each other. They bonded with each other. A lot of the dancers dated a lot of the acts, as a matter of fact. It wasn't a case of one-upmanship. It was more a case of trying to do their best. I think Mick Jagger or Keith put out a Rolling Stone interview saying it was the worst decision they ever made to follow James Brown. I think it was the best decision. Because I don't think we would have gotten that performance out of [Mick]. I think he thought he was James Brown after he saw James Brown perform.


I’ve followed some of that. Brown’s performance is unquestionably the show’s climax, but there’s something nice about starting with Chuck Berry and bookending that with The Stones and Keith Richards on guitar, before bringing everybody back for the finale.

I think so too. And all of that was very intentional. I wanted everyone who saw the film to know it was live. So, we had a first act and all the artists who appeared in the first act come out at the end of the first act. And then having all the artists come out at the end reinforced that they were all there together at the same time.

And very clearly having a blast.

I've done nine Diana Ross specials. I did Central Park with her — 1.2 million people there, etcetera. When I think about The Tami Show today, when I had all those dancers go right to The Supremes during their number ... To ask a major superstar today, “Hey we're going to have 25 dancers come through your line while you're performing.” It would be unheard of. But they all loved it. They loved that they weren't doing a television show; they were doing a movie movie. That was a big selling point for everybody. They were for real. And that's what I tried to do with all my shows. I don't want to see the slicked-down image of a star. I want to see the real inside of a star. You get that. With the Supremes, with Leslie Gore.

Leslie Gore has always been a personal favorite, but it really is hard to imagine her as the biggest star on a bill with The Stones, The Ronnettes, the Beach Boys.

She was phenomenal. I never saw Leslie after that, but stayed in touch. I was happy when she came out. I know the difficulty and the struggle the LGBT community face. Especially being from LA and everything. We don't have some of the prejudices that other people do in many cases. But they had to fight for every inch of becoming real 100 percent American citizens.

And her performance of “You Don’t Own Me” is just as good as it gets. We’ve talked about how intersectional the film is — and not always in safe ways for the time. I described it as utopian, even. But sometimes, at the corner of a frame, or just for a split instant you’ll see a cop in riot gear. As fun as it all seems, were there also concerns that something might happen?

There were concerns from the city which owned the Santa Monica City Auditorium at the time. And we fought against it. We definitely did not want these uniforms standing in the aisles and so forth. It was interesting because this is the time before any of the kids knew how to react to rock-and-roll. We didn't have a warm-up guy telling them they should applaud and scream and so forth. We didn't have signs up saying applaud. This is all real. In fact I didn't even sweeten the soundtrack. What people saw in the theaters was what happened, because there was no post-production whatsoever. When I looked at James Brown’s performance afterwards one of the engineers asked me if I could hear some of the female kids screaming the F-word. “F-me! f me!” But I couldn't hear it. It was all natural. It was all really happening. Parents were coming in to drag their kids out of the theater while we were actually filming. It was quite an experience.

We should probably move ahead four years. This utopian vision didn’t quite pan out. Like you said, the country is in turmoil. MLK, Vietnam. It’s a different world when you get the call about directing an Elvis TV special. Music had changed too. And you can’t do it because you’re about to start work on a feature film. Correct?

I was hired by an iconic 1950s producer at the time to do a dramatic feature film. The guy's name was Walter Wanger. He was famous and he was married at the time to a famous actress. He caught a Universal executive taking her out to dinner and shot him in the balls and became a front-page news story. I think he became more famous for that than his films. Anyway he had a book that he wanted to do, and I just seen the movie Blow Up out of England, and loved it. So I was working on the script when I got a phone call from NBC. I just finished this controversial Harry Belafonte, Petula Clark special.

Bob Finkel was a very good producer and director on his own in the 1950s. He was planning on producing the special himself after they made a deal with Colonel Parker, because Parker knew that the money had dried up in the movie industry to make another Elvis movie. So he went to NBC and said, “I'd like you to finance Elvis's movie with the caveat that Elvis will do a television special for you.” Well he never told Elvis about this and when he did tell Elvis about this Elvis said, “I don't want to do television, I've been burned on television,” and he had been — except for his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

They made him wear a tuxedo. Steve Allen put a hound dog in front of him while he was singing. Stuff like that. Bob said, “We've got a deal on paper, but we haven't got Elvis Presley.” He said he’d read about my Petula Clark/Belafonte controversy and realized I was around the same age as Elvis, and had a kind of rebel reputation. He said, “I know I'm not going to be doing it because every time I meet Elvis he calls me Mr. Finkel. We need to find somebody he can relate to.” So I said I wasn’t available. “I'm doing a movie movie.” Fortunately, my partner back then was one of the best record producers on the west coast, Bones Howe. Bones was producing all the hit records for the 5th Dimension, and The Association; he was working with Laura Nyro on "Save the Country."

Tom Waits, also?

That's right. Bones overheard my conversation with Steve and he said, “I've worked with Elvis. I engineered. I think you and Elvis would hit it off great,” he said. “I think you should do both. I think you need to call Winger and see if you can get permission to do the television special and do the movie.” By the time I got around to calling Wanger back, fate lifts his finger; he dies of a heart attack and this movie is canceled. I'm now free. So I called Finkel and said, “Hey, if you're still interested, I'm out of my commitment and would be interested in doing Elvis — on one condition. I want to meet Elvis one-on-one. I want to meet him alone, without any entourage or anything.

So they call me back and say, in order to do that I have to meet the Colonel in person. The Colonel will decide if I get to meet Elvis or not. So Bones and I truck out to MGM Studios where Elvis had just finished a movie. That's where the Colonel's offices were. And we walked in. And now the Colonel hands me a quarter-inch audio tape of 20 Christmas songs that Elvis had recorded and sent out as a gift to disc jockeys all over America. It's got a picture of Elvis surrounded by Holly and berries and so forth. He said, “This is the show that NBC and myself and decided on.” In my head instantly I knew this is a show I'm not going to do. So I wrote off the meeting.

We drove back to my offices on Sunset where I get this call: “I don't know what you did to charm Colonel Parker, but Elvis is going to be your office tomorrow at 4.” I was taken by surprise myself. In my book that I just finished, I go into detail on my first meeting with Colonel Parker and what happened when he presented me to the Snowman’s League for membership.

What was the Colonel’s superpower?

In my experience with Parker? I think he felt and really did believe he had power over people. I saw major executives at NBC who were just terrified of not pleasing the Colonel. I couldn't believe it. He overpowered people. I swear, he tried to hypnotize me many times. He was an amateur hypnotist and he would stare into my eyes. Especially the end. He was trying to will me. I think I was probably one of the only people he met in his life that really wanted nothing from him. I grew up working in my dad's gas station. My security blanket was always, in show business, if this doesn't work out I can always go back and pump gasoline and change tires so, you know ...

You weren’t getting snowed.

I thought he was a lousy businessman to be honest with you. Elvis wound up not having a piece of any of the movies he made. They're all owned by the studios themselves. All he wanted was the paycheck. And you owned Elvis from 9 to 5, when he went to work. He’d sing any song, read any script.

The Colonel told me, on the first day at MGM, he had a moving truck parked in the lot, in case he got into a confrontation with the studio, he knew he could move him and Elvis out in an hour.

So you get the meeting. And Elvis shows up ...

When Elvis showed up in my office the next day, first of all he saw all the gold albums on our wall. The 5th Dimension. The Association. He felt at home immediately. One of the first things out of his mouth is, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to do television because his turf was in the recording studio. And I said, “Why don’t you make a record, and I’ll put pictures to it.” He said it was the one sentence that really relaxed him. He asked me, “What if it fails?" I said, “If it fails, your career is over. But nobody will forget the success you had in your early recording career and your movies. TV is instant. The minute you appear on TV everybody has an opinion the next morning. If you’re successful, all the doors will open and you’ll have any choice you want. But it’s a gamble and I can’t promise you it’s going to be successful."

And you bring in The Wrecking Crew, The Blossoms, your production team.

By the time we got to Elvis we were well oiled machine behind the scenes. So this was really the first thing Elvis did outside the womb. In other words, he joined our world instead of me joining his. But, I asked Elvis if he wanted anybody from his world on our staff, and he said only one person, “I want Billy Strange to do my music.”

I'd been working with Billy Goldenberg in New York and on the west coast and thought Billy was brilliant. But I hired Billy Strange. In the beginning, I was more than willing to do. So everyday that we're getting closer to starting rehearsal in my office is with Elvis I called Billy strange and say where the lead sheets, where are the piano parts? We've got to start teaching the material. He'd say, “don't worry, don't worry.” Finally after all my frustrations I told Billy if the lead sheets aren’t on my desk Monday morning at 9 he’d be fired. He said, “You can't fire me.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “I’ve known Elvis a lot better and for a lot longer than you.” I said, “Fine, then I'll be gone and you'll be there but one of us is not going to be there.”


So I called Bob Finkel and I told him what I told Billy Strange. He called the Colonel and the Colonel said, “If Billy Strange is not there on Monday, Elvis isn't going to show up.” So I fired Billy Strange [and hired Billy Goldenberg]. I said, “Billy I'm not asking you I'm begging you, you've got to get on a plane and get here.” That changed Elvis's musical life period. What I didn't realize was, Elvis had never sung with an orchestra before. He'd only sung with his rhythm section. He'd go home and they'd bring in all the musicians to overdub everything.

When Elvis saw Billy Goldenberg standing on the podium, he'd never seen so many musicians in one room at one time. We had the big Studio One At Western Studios in Hollywood. The recording studio. And he called me out on Sunset Boulevard and said, “Steve, if I can't sing with this orchestra — if I don't like what I hear, you've got to promise me you're just going to keep the rhythm section and send everybody else home.” I made that promise to him. I said yes. And we walked back into the recording section and he walks up to conductor stand with Billy Goldenberg. And he loved every note he heard. He bonded with all the musicians. And that was the Wrecking Crew. The most successful studio musicians group in the history of the music. There was not a record made on the West Coast they didn’t work on, almost. The Beach Boys, The 5th Dimension, The Association and just every act used The Wrecking Crew for their records.

And you used several on T.A.M.I. Leon Russell, I think. Maybe Glen Campbell.

Leon Russell played Jack Nitzsche’s piano. And Glen was one of the guitarists. I used the Wrecking Crew throughout my music career practically. So there winds up being nobody from Elvis's world on my production team.

That’s pretty incredible.

Elvis came to me and he said, “There's a possibility I don't have to travel from LA to Beverly Hills.” In those days it was two or three hours in your car. Nowadays it might take 5 hours. But those days it was saving him a couple of hours of driving time to just stay in his dressing room. He said, “Do you think we could convert one of the dressing rooms into a living quarters? So we could bring a bed in and I can sleep there?”

That was the greatest thing that ever happened. Without that, I’d have never ever done the improv. We had two different companies of dancers. I had two separate choreographers; two separate sets of dancers. The show had kind of a combination of his stand-up, when he was in the black leather, doing his old hit records with an orchestra live. And that was basically it. I had not yet chosen how we're going to close the show. The Colonel kept constantly reminding me that it had to be a Christmas shop song. Also he wanted an old Frankie Laine song called “I Believe.” I don't know why he thought it was a Christmas song, because it isn’t.


So Elvis is basically living in his dressing room through this. That's interesting. A little like you talking about how all the T.A.M.I. show musicians were on site for the whole filming.


The entire time that we’re rehearsing the show, Elvis would go into his dressing room/living quarters, and he would jam with whoever happened to be hanging out. Like Charlie Hodge, his army buddy, who he loved. So we go in there and they would just be having fun and talking about the old days and singing songs I’d never heard before. And I said to myself instantly, “This is better than all the big production numbers were doing on stage. We've got to get a camera in there."

And the colonel wouldn't let me bring any cameras into the dressing room. And it was insane. Because this was the magic.I knew if we were putting out a disc, this is the one that you go platinum. Not the regular show. So I just kept pounding the colonel and hounding him everyday. And finally he broke down. I don't think he was ever happy that he did it. But he said, “Okay Binder, If you want to recreate it on stage, you can try that but I won't guarantee it'll get into the show.”

So I jumped on it. I didn't even have any money left in my budget to build the set for the improv. Because, I thought, “Hey, he did the stand up In his black leather, and he sang all his old hits from hound dog and Blue Suede Shoes on, and I said let's use all that set again. And then Elvis said to me, “You know, if we do this, is there any chance I could get DJ Fontana and Scotty Moore to come out?” I said I didn’t know. And he said, “Nobody plays guitar licks like Scotty Moore.”

So I got on the phone, although they hadn't played with Elvis in years and were totally pissed off at the Colonel. But they only came out for the improv when I taped it. They weren't in the dressing rooms when the jam sessions were happening and so forth. And that's where the whole idea came from. And thank God I was able to do it.

When the show first aired as the Singer special, it was an hour. It was cut down to about 48 minutes because of commercials and station breaks and public service announcements or whatever — with only two minutes of this improv. And it still got these gigantic ratings. It was the first time, I think, in Primetime, that one guy did the whole show himself without guest stars.

I had been through the guest star drama on every show I ever did. I’d just come through the Harry Belafonte episode where they didn't want him on The Petula Clark Show. So I wasn't going to put any guest stars in the Elvis show. Anyway it was a case of where I went to NBC. And I said, guys, I've got this great material in the can. I've got to put it into the show. How about buying another half hour of their time. They looked at me like I was insane. And obviously they didn't.

So I went on my own, and edited together a 90-minute version, which is the one we all watch today. NBC put it down in the catacombs. And when Elvis passed, NBC decided to do a big tribute to him. So they got Ann-Margret to host. And they used the Hawaii show. And they sent a gopher down to the catacombs to track down the Elvis Presley special. And this is a twisted fate. The guy who went down to the basement didn't know anything about the Elvis Presley special, when it aired, or anything about it. And he pulls my 90-minute version off the shelf, thinking, that's the show. That's when they started airing the 90-minute version instead. The 60-minute version even cut out the sequence where Elvis walks into what they call the bordello, with a brass bed and the girls. A lot depended on luck and fate, believe me. I couldn't be happier.

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Talking T.A.M.I. Show & '68 Comeback with Blossoms Vocalist Darlene Love

Posted By on Wed, Aug 8, 2018 at 3:28 PM

Darlene Love plays The Guest House at Graceland Monday, August 14
  • Darlene Love plays The Guest House at Graceland Monday, August 14
Darlene Love is one of the great voices of rock and roll. She may also be one of the great, under-tapped experts on 20th-century pop, having observed the biggest acts in rock and soul from 20-feet away.

As a member of The Blossoms, Love was a regular on the seminal '60s era TV show Shindig. But the group made their career as studio support, and backing vocalists for artists like The Crystals, and The Righteous Brothers

"Monster Mash," anybody?

They also performed alongside Elvis in his '68 Comeback TV Special.

Love's coming to Memphis Monday, August 13th to celebrate 50 years of the '68 Comeback Special. She'll be performing at Graceland's Guest House. Here's what she had to say about being a Blossom and performing with Elvis.

Memphis Flyer: The Blossoms were already a group when you joined up, right?

Darlene Love: I met The Blossoms when I was in the 12th grade, the last year of high school. That's when I say I professionally started singing, because that's when they started paying me. Even if it was only $15 to buy gas for the car. Gasoline was only $0.22 a gallon.The Blossoms were a group already. They were getting ready to record for Capitol Records and needed a replacement right away. They just happened to be in a wedding party, and I was singing. And that's how I met them.

I thought it was something like that. I didn't think y'all had gone to school together.

The Blossoms did go to school together. But I was a little younger than them, and came along behind. They already had a manager and a singing coach. We used to practice everyday like going to school or going to a job. They already had a contract with Capitol Records. And they were getting ready to record. So it was lucky that we met and that I fit in the group. So we went from there to singing back-up. It's like we were thrown into that. Not even really knowing what we were doing. We knew we could sing, but we weren't sure about the session work.


But you start doing that almost right away, right?


We worked our first session I think back in 1958.

I know you guys were trying to make it as recording artists in your own right, but show business is tough and, while I know there were many downsides too, I'm guessing the session work created stability a lot of young artists trying to make it don't have. Is that accurate?

That's very accurate. Because there weren't really any black groups at the time that we're doing this. It was unheard of for them to be doing session work. Most of the sessions were contracted through our unions AFTRA. And most of the people in AFTRA were white singers. They'd call them and put together three or four girls.  Once we started getting into it we had to join the union. Thank God! Before, if they needed three singers, they booked three singers. But we already had a sound. So they could depend on us to have the sound they wanted. Therefore, we became bigger than life, in doing session work.

I've heard you guys called the West Coast's Sweet Inspirations. But I like to think of The Blossoms as the Wrecking Crew of backing singers.

Yes. Those guys in the Wrecking Crew were already doing sessions. We met them through Phil Spector. He gave them the name Wrecking Crew. We were doing work for everybody. We were at sessions all the time together. It was a minimum of a 2-hour session. Most sessions lasted anywhere between two and five hours. But a minimum of 2 hours. So we became very popular as background vocal group. And the Wrecking Crew became famous, and very wealthy for the recording sessions. They could do many more sessions a week than we could, because we had to use our vocal cords. They were using their instruments.

And the voice can wear out pretty quickly when you use it like that.

Hello? I think that's how I really learned how to take care of my voice. After we had a hard day, like a 10-hour day of singing. Sometimes that's what it was. I'd do nothing. No talking, no singing. That's when I found out your vocal cord were like a muscle. And your muscles get sore after a while. So you have to rest them. I learned all that on my own nobody told me. Well I couldn't afford a doctor! I had to learn it all on my own. But it's paid off over the years.


I know you've told it many times, but can we talk just a little bit about how The Blossoms recorded "He's a Rebel," then Phil Spector put it out as a Crystals record?

We had already been doing background work for two or three years before we met Phil. We were working for Lester Sill. Unbeknownst to us, that it was Phil Spector's partner. That's how we met Phil. Because Phil needed someone to sing "He's a Rebel," so they hired me to do it. As Darlene Love and The Blossoms. But that's not the name it came out under. It was credited to the Crystals. It all came out in 20 Feet from Stardom. I know a lot of minds were opened.


You guys knew it was a going to be a Crystals record though, right?


Oh yeah. We didn't go in there to do it as a group. We went in as a session. And I got paid extra for singing the lead on it. We knew it was going to be a Crystals record. It wasn't a surprise. The surprise was when we signed with Phil, [the next record] was supposed to be my record. But he put that one out under the name of the Crystals too. It got a little confusing for everybody back in those days.

You say it wasn't a surprise for you, but it was a surprise for The Crystals.

A big surprise. They were out on the road working and the record was on the charts.  They didn't even know the record was out. They were on the road with Gene Pitney who wrote the song. And from what I can understand, I talked to Gene Pitney years and years ago, and he said he'd taught them the song on the road. That's how they learned it.

So they were singing it on the road, just not on the record.

None of the crystals were on any of the records we recorded in California. Like to "Doo Run Run," "Sure the Boy I Love." Their lead singer LaLa Brooks was there to do the singing on the Crystal songs. But the Crystals weren't there to do the background on their sessions. We actually did a lot of those kinds of things, but a lot of those other records weren’t hits.  
I'm sure that did get confusing. Especially as you're trying to develop your career.


When I went out, everybody thought Darlene Love was a Crystal. But she was never a Crystal; she just recorded those records with Phil Spector. The Crystals lived in New York. I lived in California. And the Crystals were young girls. I was like 19. They were like 13 and 14.

I knew they were young. I guess I didn't realize they were that young.

Their mothers wouldn't let them fly to California to record. That was one of the big problems. It's well-known today. The Crystals still have a little trouble with it, and I can understand why. They go and do shows today. And they sing "He's a Rebel," and "He's Sure the Boy I Love." I'm sure they gotten to the point where they just don't talk about it anymore. That's water under the bridge.

And, to some extent the public record had been corrected.

The biggest problem I had, when I went out as a solo artist, the producers all wanted to say I was Darlene Love "originally of the Crystals," and I'd said "No no no! You can't say that. I have never been with the Crystals. I had to build a whole new career as Darlene Love. Which took a lot of time and energy. Thank god I was young. There was a time I couldn't even find work. Because the Crystals name is bigger than my name. So of course they could sell tickets on the Crystals, but they couldn't sell tickets on Darlene Love.

I know we're supposed to talk Elvis, but can we talk T.A.M.I. Show first?

We were doing Shindig at the time. And they think the producers of Shindig to let us out for the week to do The T.A.M.I. Show.

I was just talking to director Steve Binder about how intersectional and ahead of its time that show seems to be, conceptually.

It is. You're absolutely right. And it ended up being great, and people love great things. They love to watch wonderful things. It didn't matter to them if it was a male or female singing.

And it still just blows my mind looking at all the talent collected for that thing.

Rock-and-roll was like a stutter at the beginning. Okay here, we go! Oh no we can't! No, now here we go! What they did, they put the right people on The T.A.M.I. Show. My God, the Rolling Stones? Jan and Dean as the emcees? Give me a break, okay? Then, to bust it wide open, they hired James Brown. And he stole the show. I mean the Rolling Stones were going on after James Brown — and they refused to go on at first. They were like, "We're not going on after that!" That was an eye-opener for white people to see James Brown. Before that they didn't know James Brown. James Brown was a black act.

I love the moment when he's exhausted at the edge of the stage and The Blossoms are encouraging him to go back for more.

We were just as excited as the audience. I'd never seen James Brown. I mean, I loved those records. But nobody had ever seen that kind of energy on stage. Not before James Brown. Even Michael Jackson talked about how he stole a little bit of Jackie Wilson, a little bit of James Brown, and Chuck Berry, and I wrapped it all up in Michael Jackson. Then you have, of course, Elvis Presley who came on wiggling and shaking, and they didn't know what to think about that, either. He also took it to a whole other level.


So let's talk about the Comeback. Which, Elvis hated, by the way. Or— the word. He didn't like anybody calling it "the comeback."


I'm sure he didn't. Because it wasn't a comeback. He was getting ready to go to Vegas and he needed something to catapult him into live shows. That was one reason for doing that show. I didn't understand the word either. They call it that now, I guess because they couldn't think of anything else to call it.

Had you ever worked with Elvis before?

No. That was our first time to meet Elvis. But we were in the recording studio, recording all the music. That's where we met Elvis and became friends with him. Especially me, because of my gospel background. Every time he got a moment, he'd go get his guitar and ask, "Do you know this song?" We'd be over in the corner with The Blossoms and Elvis, just having a good time. I think they got a little bit angry with us we're taking all of his time.

And the improv part of the show is inspired by that, and Elvis jamming in his dressing room.

So natural. And they caught that when they did the round circle thing with him the black leather suit. I don't think they realized that was going to be so big. But it was all so natural. And it wasn't planned.

Can you tell me a little bit more about how the improv stuff developed. Not on the show, but in the studio between takes, or dressing room after rehearsal?

What I loved about Elvis: He loved what he called 'the hymns of the church.' Like "Precious Lord Take My Hand." "Amazing Grace." "How Great Thou Art." For us to know those songs, he was like, "Yeah, come on let's do some of those!" He would sing the leads and we’d do the background. He'd go, "Is this key is this alright?" And you know, whatever key it was in was all right with us. And that was the fun we had. And then we found out, years later when he went to Vegas, when they would be breaking down the stage to go home, Elvis and the singers would be sitting around the piano. It brought Elvis down. It was his down time. Like going to your room and watching TV. It takes a while to come down after you've done a show like that. And they would all just sit around and sing gospel songs. Not rhythm and blues or rock and roll. But gospel. Elvis won three Grammys for gospel music. That says a lot. I've been invited to come to Memphis for the 50th anniversary of the special. My group, we're going down to Graceland in August to celebrate the Comeback Special. And most of the show's going to be gospel. Then I've been invited back to go to Bad Nauheim, Germany where Elvis was stationed in the army, and where they have his festival. Last year we went and there were more than 10,000 people there. I said, "Y'all sure Elvis is dead?"

The T.A.M.I. Show 1964 [FULL LENGTH] from Larry Ball on Vimeo.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Great National Pancake Day Robbery + A Thirsty Burglar

Posted By on Tue, Feb 27, 2018 at 11:55 AM

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Fly on the Wall's always looking to spot new trends in TV reporting and WMC's recent marriage of food and crime news looks promising.
From this list of headlines we discover two things: It's national pancake day (who knew?). Also, the International House of Pancakes in Midtown was robbed.

Good news/Bad news
  • Good news/Bad news

WMC has also alerted Mid-southerners to the activities of a very thirsty burglar who'll break into your house and steal all your Capri Sun. We bet this fiend would grab your SunnyD too, given half a chance. 
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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ameripolitan Awards, 2018: Winners and Music Clips

Posted By on Wed, Feb 14, 2018 at 5:41 PM

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Everybody who's a fan of honky tonk, western swing and rockabilly wins at Dale Watson's international Ameripolitan Music Awards. Sadly, only a few folks go home with trophies. The Tuesday night awards followed four days of showcases at venues like Loflin Yard, Blues City Cafe and the Guest House at Graceland and performances by dozens of artists like Whitney Rose, The Greenline Travelers, and Watson himself.

In addition to honoring the best new makers of old sounds the 2018 Awards paid tribute to Stray Cat Brian Setzer and, pedal steel wizard Lloyd Green who played on records by Johnny Paycheck, Charley Pride, and other Nashville hit makers. The night's top honoree was Sun studio founder Sam Phillips whose memory was honored with performances by contemporary artists backed by Sun drummers W.S. "Fluke" Holland and James Van Eaton. "She Thinks I Sill Care" songwriter Dickey Lee made an appearance as did the Blackwood Brothers.
And the winners were...

Honky Tonk Female: Brennen Leigh

Honky Tonk Male: Luke Bell
Honky Tonk Group: The Reeves Brothers

Western Swing Female: Sophia Johnson

Western Swing Male: Billy Mata

Western Swing Group: The Carolyn Sills Combo
Rockabilly Female: Bailey Dee

Rockabilly Male: Al Dual
Rockabilly Group: The Go Getters

Outlaw Female: Nikki Lane

Outlaw Male: Cody Jinks

Outlaw Group: Whitey Morgan and the 78’s
Ameripolitan DJ: W.B. Walkers

Ameripolitan Venue: Sportsmen’s Tavern
Ameripolitan Festival: The New England Shakeup-Up

Ameripolitan Musician: Chris Scruggs

Keeper of the Key: Reverend Horton Heat

Founder of the Sound: Lloyd Green

The Master Award: Brian Setzer

The Legend Award: Sam Phillips 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Go to Helvis

Posted By on Wed, Oct 25, 2017 at 5:38 PM

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If you're planning to check out Mike McCarthy's Destroy Memphis documentary, about the failed effort to save Libertyland, or at least Elvis' favorite rollercoaster, the Zippin Pippin, you might also want to grab a copy of McCarthy's recently complied comic book HELVIS No. 1 (Millenia Comeback Special).

This erratically-published story of a pop-eyed zombie Elvis walks a weird line between personal and regional mythology, and a kind of underground journalism, chronicling the death and decay of a Memphis at the heart of American pop culture. 
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McCarthy created HELVIS in 1988 when he was still living with his parents, seventeen miles outside of Tupelo. The first (unfinished) version of the comic wasn't published for 24-years though the ghoulish, trash-rock horror story served as an inspiration for McCarthy's first film, Damselvis, Daughter of HELVIS, and its influence can be felt on in other films like Teenage Tupelo, The Sore Losers, and Superstarlet A.D.


The new, "complete" Helvis, currently available at 901 Comics, reflects McCarthy's interests from  Sexploitation films, Mad magazine,  and rock-and-roll to historic preservation. One sequence finds Helvis disoriented, mad, and riding the Zippin Pippin in Green Bay, WS. Although it reflects a less than happy ending for Memphis, the comic's a sweet Halloween treat for your favorite trickster, and the perfect companion piece for Destroy Memphis.

Worth it for the centerfold . 
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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Legendary Memphis Wrestling Announcer Lance Russell Dies at 91

Bye-bye to ol' Banana Nose

Posted By on Tue, Oct 3, 2017 at 10:16 AM

Andy Kaufman and Lance Russell
  • Andy Kaufman and Lance Russell
It's a terrible day for fans of Memphis wrestling. Lance Russell, a longtime program manager for WHBQ and one of the most beloved wrestling commentators in the history of sports entertainment has died. In 2014 the man known to heels coast-to-coast as ol' Banana Nose, talked to The Memphis Flyer about King Lawler, Memphis wrestling, and playing himself in the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. This is a reprint of that interview with lots of links.


Memphis Flyer: You and Dave Brown were
the eye of this colorful, chaotic storm. Calling wrestling like it was any other sport during the glory days of Jackie Fargo, Tojo Yamamoto, and Jerry "The King" Lawler vs. Andy "the clown" Kaufman. Can you even go a day without talking to somebody about wrestling?

Lance Russell: Well, it's easier down here [in Florida] than it was when I lived in Memphis. When I wasn't talking in person to some fan about wrestling, I was talking on the telephone. Somebody was always calling. You know, people say, "Boy, whatever happened to the good old days of Memphis wrestling?" Well, I can tell you Memphis wrestling is just as alive as it ever has been.

You'd be the one to know.

My son was looking at his computer a couple of nights ago and found where somebody had made a list of people who were involved in wrestling as promoters or wrestlers or managers or referees and even announcers. And they have them ranked by age. My son said, "Did you realize that in the United States you are the fifth oldest person involved in wrestling that is still alive?" When I got up the next day I said to my son, outside of wanting to kill you, I was amused all night long. I didn't sleep, but I was amused.

I suspect that makes you a go-to resource, having seen wrestlers from so many territories and having also worked for Turner Broadcasting.

I can tell you as a director of programming for WHBQ in Memphis for all of those years, I'm not proud of the fact that I didn't put an edict out that there will be no erasing of tapes from Talent Party or wrestling or any of those kinds of things. We erased everything. And sometimes we would record on the same tape two weeks in a row. We kept telling ourselves we were saving money.

You know Vince McMahon is getting ready to program Memphis wrestling on the network he started so he's trying to pin down all the programs. And, in Memphis, everything we ever had in terms of tapes is all just blasted asunder. Jerry Lawler ended up with the biggest quantity of tapes. Jimmy Hart, a wrestler and wrestling manager who worked with Vince McMahon in New York after he left Memphis, ended up with a lot of tapes. People pay good money for them too, and now Vince McMahon wants to broadcast Memphis wrestling every day.


Why are people still fascinated with Memphis wrestling?


I'm gonna tell you, Memphis was absolutely totally different than any territory in the country. I eventually went with Turner Broadcasting, and when I went there and I ran into guys from the East Coast and West Coast they'd say, "All you clowns in Memphis spend more time making jokes than anything else." And we did, because it made people happy. They were tickled to death to look forward to some of the foolishness that went on. And we were proud of it. It was good entertainment.

You and Dave Brown had great chemistry.

What made Dave and I different was the programming. The different matches that we booked. The different characters that were made up. Like Kamala the Giant, who is from right down in Mississippi and was very popular all over the country. I hired Dave to work in television. Dave was an all-night radio jock for WHBQ, and I knew him as a person and liked him very much. Anyhow, he questioned wrestling. I said, "Man, if you want to work in television, you will learn more in two months of wrestling than two years of anything else." So he took a chance, and he was great. Dave and I also agreed on one thing you never talk about in wrestling. See, I was a wrestling fan, and I had been ever since the days when I grew up in Dayton, Ohio and worked in the auditorium as an usher. I never wanted anybody to say to me, "Hey, I'm going to win in the third fall on this match." I don't want to be a stiff actor saying some lines, I wanted to call things as I saw them in my face for the first time.
No matter how over the top it was, it was completely alive. Anything could happen.

We had great matches too. But in the meantime, we didn't mind tickling your funny bone. We'd have a guy or a gal shaved bald right there in the middle of the ring.

I thought I was going to get killed one night in the Memphis Coliseum, when Jerry Lawler put up his hair and Bill Dundee put up his wife's hair and Dundee lost. We had our own barber who was there to cut hair when necessary. He thought he was going to be killed. The crowd was incensed that Lawler had cheated to win and this vivacious young redhead was losing her hair. It's hilarious when you stop and think about a situation getting that serious over what was actually a very funny incident.

But that's the Memphis audience, right? It's why the famous Lawler/Kaufman feud couldn't have happened anywhere else.

You're right about that. There was a kind of audience reaction that we had cultivated either on purpose or unknowingly. And this is the thing that attracted Andy Kaufman. As a kid, Andy would watch wrestling and he would see the bad guy: Just by raising his hand he could get this big reaction from the crowd. That power that wrestlers held captivated him, and he initially tried to get the attention of Vince McMahon's father and his grandfather who, in addition to promoting boxing, also promoted wrestling. They said "What are you trying to do, make a joke out of wrestling?" Well, Andy ran across a guy who worked for the wrestling magazines and he said to check out the guys in Memphis, who will do anything. And they're great show people.


Even if the outcomes are known, this is unscripted stuff.

I got a big guy from Canada supposedly. He comes out there [to interview] and he says, "Jerry Lawler! I'm going to get him! I'm taking a blood oath!" And I'm the program director at WHBQ, so I say, "No, I don't want any blood. Don't be busting his eye open on television. We don't want our audience to have to put up with that." And this idiot has got one of these big double-headed axes, and he runs the blade down his massive arm and I'm sitting here looking at it, and I know that the camera is right on this thing, and all of a sudden here comes the stream of red right into the camera. I thought, "Oh my God, he's cutting his arm open on television for crying out loud." I almost had a heart attack.

[Let's talk about] Jerry Lawler, the King of Memphis wrestling.


The superlatives for Lawler? I don't have enough of them. But I can tell you I've seen a lot of wrestlers, and Jerry Lawler is a guy who is gifted in so many directions. I promise, I don't owe him money or anything. I'm just telling the truth. He is the most talented guy in the business and people hated him in the East because of what he's done in Memphis. I mean, he became a television host on Channel 5, and he was very good at what he did.
And you recognized his skills right away.

When he was 15, his dad took him down to the auditorium every Monday for wrestling. We had no way to record the matches; it was too expensive at that time. So when Dave and I did the show, we'd have to just talk about what happened. Well, Jerry was a natural artist. He draws these 11" x 14" pictures on pieces of cardboard. He drew maybe the finishing move from a match or something. Then Dave and I could talk about the picture.

I found those pictures in my attic about five years ago. I've had them for 35 years.

You got to play yourself in Man on the Moon. That had to be affirming to have that Kaufman/Lawler feud become widely recognized as a big moment in pop culture.

Yeah, yeah. I've got several copies of it. Unfortunately they cut out some of my best scenes. That was fun though.

And what about the actual feud. Did you guys know you were making history?

We were all working. That's what we did for a living.


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Monday, August 28, 2017

Real Gone: The Orpheum vs. Gone With the Wind, Social Media Roundup

Posted By on Mon, Aug 28, 2017 at 11:34 AM

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Memphis Billboard Contains Porn

Posted By on Tue, Jul 18, 2017 at 2:19 PM

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Well, it contains the word, anyway.

A Memphis billboard off I-40 near Whitten Rd. has a strong message for glossy women's mag readers: "Cosmopolitan  Magazine Contains Porn." Which seems a little extreme, if you ask me. Unhealthy body standards, sure. And maybe a peculiar strain of neurosis-inducing content obsessed with the male gaze. But — and I haven't consulted with Mae Beavers for the definitive ruling — to call it porn sounds like a stretch.
Your mama does.
  • Your mama does.
This isn't a new complaint. One of the loudest "Cosmo = porn" voices is a Hearst heir. She's been at it a while.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Musical History of Labor Hero Joe Hill at First Congo

Posted By on Tue, Mar 14, 2017 at 2:11 PM

Regular Joe.
  • Regular Joe.
And when Joe looked back at the sweat upon his tracks
He had nothing to show but his age
He
had nothing to show but his age - Phil Ochs - "Ballad of Joe Hill."

This week at First Congo, Nashville's Shelby Bottom String Band provides the music for a multimedia history of early 20th-century folk singer and union organizer Joe Hill and a discussion about art and activism in the Trump era.

Hill was an immigrant, but in the early decades of the 20th-Century there wasn't a native-born worker in America who couldn't relate to the stories he told in his songs. In addition to giving American labor its marching music, Hill became the movement's patron saint when he was cut down by a firing squad for a murder he almost certainly didn't commit.

Last words: ""Fire — go on and fire!"


It's a pay what you can event, Wednesday, March 15th at 6:30 p.m. - 8:30 p.m. First Congregational Church, 1000 South Cooper. For additional details, click here.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Corker Describes Trump as a "Wrecking Ball"

Day Officially Ruined

Posted By on Mon, Feb 13, 2017 at 11:28 AM

Yes, “Wrecking ball.” That’s the expression Tennessee Senator Bob Corker used to describe President Donald Trump, in a recent interview for Politico. Corker’s intention was to describe the flailing President as a powerful leader wrestling with destructive foreign policy urges. He didn’t mean to make us all imagine what Trump might look like naked in a Miley Cyrus video.

Thanks, Bob. 
If that wasn't enough, Corker also wants to "massage" Trump's "nuggets." No, he actually said that.
  • If that wasn't enough, Corker also wants to "massage" Trump's "nuggets." No, he actually said that.

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Friday, February 10, 2017

Little Joe Gives It Away: A Conversation with Joe Dallesandro

Posted By on Fri, Feb 10, 2017 at 10:00 AM

Joe
  • Joe
So you're not that into Warhol, and the name Joe Dallesandro is unfamiliar? That's his crotch on the cover of The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers LP. More of a Smiths fan? That's his torso on the cover of the band's first record. Lou Reed called him "Little Joe" in his hit song, "Walk on the Wild Side." You know Joe, or parts of him anyway.

Dallesandro, the only Warhol superstar to have any significant film career outside the factory, is coming to the Brooks Museum of Art to talk to fans. Fly on the Wall talked to him first about the Warhol/Morrissey trilogy Heat, Trash, and Flesh. working with Louis Malle, and Serge Gainsbourg, and what it means to be told you changed male sexuality on film forever. .

Fly on the Wall: When you first started working with Paul Morrissey, part of the allure — as I understand it — is Paul told you these films would still be shown in museums in a hundred years. I know it’s not been that long, but what’s it like living through the hype, and watching that promise, more or less prove true.

Joe Dallesandro: No, no surprise as it started appearing in the way he had said. It was kinda for me something I believed to be true back then, and it was beginning to happen. There was nothing I thought was real special because I always expected it to be that way. Having seen all the different work Andy had. And even back then he was doing tours at universities and things.

I felt that what he told me was the truth, and they were already doing tours at universities. So the next step was these things went to museums.


I read somewhere a quote by John Waters. Something about how you changed male sexuality on film forever. And so much else has been said in that regard. What’s it like living with those kinds of comments?

I always thought of Paul Morrissey as my mentor. Paul told me early on, I can't look at the press because if I take to heart the good and the appreciation, I have to take to heart the bad things, too." It was enjoyable to hear all that. But it was just the many opinions and sayings of people who were out there. I love John Waters. Anything he said was appreciated. I look at him as a personal friend. It’s not like I’d expect him to say something bad about me like Paul or Andy.

Why were they talking bad about you?

Back in those days, after I finished the trilogy with them I was pretty much kind of fed up for a while because they started to say bad things about me. I was being looked at in productions that were bigger and different than there’s in the real world. I remember reading somewhere that Andy’d said, “Oh, I think he does drugs.” And Paul told someone, “I don’t believe he could learn a script. So, when I went to do Frankenstein and Dracula with them, I made them write every line I had to say. Because it pissed me off they didn’t think I could do a script. I was never offered to do a script with them before.


But you hadn’t had experience with that kind of film. Or any kind of film, you just fell into it. Unlike a lot of the others who started this way, you put together a career.

It was Paul’s saying, he thought I’d be good at it. And just to do it. And everything he’s telling me— He’s like a book on cinema. He knew everything about actors and the movies. You could call him up and ask him anything and he had the information on it. So, when he’d say he thought I’d be good at it, I trusted what he was telling me was the truth. Back then I was a real young kid so people made impressions on me back then. Back then I wanted to be a cook and make pizzas. I wanted to own my own pizza shop one day. That was my big dream back when I was a kid. But things change.
I trusted what Paul was saying to me was the truth and I was getting a lot of press.

There were the movies I did with Paul and the movies that I did with Andy. Andy’s movies, whoever talked the fastest and the most was the lead in the movie. There was no story to it, it was just whatever was interesting to Andy that went in the movie. The first time I met him he was sitting behind a camera reading a newspaper and we couldn’t see him because he had the newspaper up. And he was turning the camera on and off. And you’d hear a giggle or a laugh from behind the newspaper, and then his hand would come out and he’d switch the camera on and off. Really strange, peculiar guy.

And an odd artistic partner for Paul, a number of people have noted.

Paul always was trying to shift him in a different direction in the way he made his films. To put more of a story to it. To use the people in a more interesting way. This is back when Paul had the greatest eye for casting, because he’d pick these peculiar people, and they were very interesting, and they had a knack for being able to tell stories and stuff. Until we went to Europe and he’d get people who just spoke to him briefly in English. Then, come to find out, they didn’t speak well enough to improvise their lines. So it was kinda good I said I wanted things written for me. They had to write things for the other people too.

And he’s shooting in an environment he doesn’t approve of.

He was always trying, in some way, to change those people. Get them to go in a different direction than what they were doing. He’d get really upset with Andrea [Feldman]. He wanted her to be normal. But Andrea was just Andrea.

And Andy...

Andy wouldn’t know my name when I came into the office. My brother was his chauffeur and drove him around all day long. Would come back telling me all these stories and conversations they talked about in the car. He chose who he talked to, who he spoke to and listened to. People I guess he thought were entertaining. And there were people that he didn’t. I was one of those people he didn’t speak to very much. I used to think he was just afraid of me. That’s why they had me up there guarding the door or something. I always got the impression they wanted me almost like a bodyguard, or somebody that scared people away: “Andy’s not here today.” When he’s here in the back.

But of everybody, you kept on making movies.

I went over to Italy with the idea I’d come back Clint Eastwood, but it didn’t happen that way. I was too short for a horse.


But you made some action movies.

I made all these shoot ‘em up films.

Did you know you were going to stay in Europe when you went over to do Frankenstein and Dracula, or did all that happen while you were there.

They were already offered to me by the time I finished Frankenstein and Dracula. Paul set it up so I’d do movies over there.

And I don’t know a thing about them— about the Italian films. They were like gangster films, right?

Bad boy gangster films. I’m the guy who was selling cigarettes for the higher ups, but then wanted to take over and do it for myself. They made a bunch of those lower budgeted ones over there. They would shoot them pretty fast. They were all like that, back to back. I swore off artists when I got to Italy. But the manager who helped me over there because Italian wasn’t my language, and I had to have somebody to interpret for me. I remember telling them I didn’t want to work with art directors. I just wanted to do shoot-em-ups/And he said, “No, no, no, no, you came from working with Andy, you have to continue working with art directors. So I continued working with art directors in France.

Louis Malle. Serge Gainsbourg.

Who?

Serge Gainsbourg.

Oh, yeah, Serge.

He was already established as a musician, but Je t'aime moi non plus  was his first film, and he’s writing, and directing. And it just looks like everybody is comfortable, and having a great time. Is that just my impression, or is that accurate?

That’s accurate. I believe it was Serge. He had an openness about him. I didn’t know if it was because he drank a lot or what, but we all had a really great time doing the film. I became a good friend of Serge after that. I don’t usually stay connected, I move on. It’s family when you’re doing it, then you move on. That’s how it is in a film, you’re family. But Serge was a great guy.

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Do you have a favorite film.

Oh, Je t'aime. When it was done, Serge wanted a bigger showing here [in America]. Not sent out to some odd theater. He wanted a big release. I believe it was a little too early. People weren’t there yet. But the material was great material. And it was beautiful to look at.

Yes, with the aerial shots. A really playful camera.

When I did Louis Malle film it was great to work on that too. When I saw the film, my son, who was still young, loved the it. He just loved it. So I saw it a couple of times. But I didn’t see the colors. We spent a lot of time with the lighting, and it wasn’t what I expected from his talent. But it was a fun film.

Je t'aime  was certainly colorful. I think of the truck.

They asked if I drove a truck, and I was thinking a little pickup truck. I get there and it’s this big Mack truck with two gear shifts and air brakes. Holy shit. And the first shot they want me to drive up to a plate glass window with her behind and stop. And I thought everybody’s gonna run away because they don’t know if I’m going to stop in time. Our cameraman was one of the craziest, bravest guys I ever knew. There was a shot he wanted to do from a plane and he was hanging outside the plane to get the shot. That was just his way of doing things. And I loved Gerard [Depardieu]. He was doing a movie in Italy and would fly in on the weekends to shoot these small scenes with us. And he was so much fun. Everybody walked the extra mile to make the film look good, like it was in the midwest and shot in America.

It would be wrong of me to not ask something about. Sticky Fingers. The Smiths. Lou Reed and “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.” You didn’t even know Lou when he wrote about “Little Joe,” is that correct.


That’s correct. None of those things had nothing to do with me. With the Smiths album, [Smiths singer Morrissey] was a fan, and I don't think he asked anybody for permission. He just used the picture. Sticky Fingers, the crotch shot could have been anybody. The only reason I know it was me is because of my belt. With "Walk on the Wild Side," that was Paul Morrissey telling Lou he should watch some films they'd been doing and write about the people in them. He wrote about the character he saw on screen. It wasn't like he was socializing with us."


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Memphis Gets a Shout Out From Joss Whedon and a Beautiful Artist's Diary

Posted By on Thu, Jan 12, 2017 at 12:47 PM

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Thumbing through Twitter last night I noticed a tweet from Mr. Avengers director, Joss Whedon that read, "this THIS this." It linked to a graphic essay about the contemporary political landscape, and lessons that might be learned from Memphis. So I clicked.

You'll want to click too.

Artist Christopher Noxon wasn't prepared for what he found at the Civil Rights Museum and was moved to share his experience.

What happened on Mulberry St. was foundation-shaking. What's grown up in the shadow of tragedy contains a blueprint of dissent — a map to freedom.  

It's still inspiring people.
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Friday, January 6, 2017

It's Sex Pistols Taco Bell Day in Memphis. Eat a Burrito

Posted By on Fri, Jan 6, 2017 at 10:47 AM

God save the Mexican Pizza.
  • God save the Mexican Pizza.
Every year on this day Fly on the Wall invites readers to take a spin down scenic Union Ave. and stop in for a seven layer burrito at the Taco Bell where the other Taco Bell used to be. See, before the first Taco Bell was erected on that site, 1447 Union was home to the Taliesyn Ballroom. And on Jan 6, 1978 the original, imploding, disaster-bound Sex Pistols played one of their few U.S. dates. It was a big night in the cradle of Rock-and-Roll, a psychobilly hotbed with its own notable punk history.  

The Pistols show was documented, a nifty, noisy listen. Crank it up in the car on this beautiful snow day and celebrate punk the way it was meant to be celebrated — with a greasy sack of cheap, mass-produced food product laden with calories and colonialism.

Last year this Taco Bell (where the other, more authentic Taco Bell used to be) was still playing canned Christmas music. Punk as hell.
 
Be careful out there.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Home Horror Movies: A 10-Year Halloween Tradition

Posted By on Mon, Oct 31, 2016 at 9:00 AM

10-year-old girls think this completely inappropriate title is hilarious.
  • 10-year-old girls think this completely inappropriate title is hilarious.
"Why must it always end in ketchup?"

It's a great line, and my weird family says it all the time. Well, we don't really say it so much as we overact it. It's the angst-ridden cry we unleash when things go wrong. Especially when things go wrong in ridiculous ways — "WHY MUST IT ALWAYS END IN KETCHUP?"  The phrase was coined by my effortlessly absurd daughter Josie, as she prepared to shoot a gore-spattered scene in our very first family zombie movie, Attack of the Bloody Hand, starring her and her fraternal twin, Lucy.

I'm an open book on social media, but, tend to keep family life out of my columns. Today I'm breaking that rule because it's Halloween, and, at the risk of seeming self-indulgent,  I want to share the family tradition that brought this beautifully bloody catchphrase into our lives.
Shot on location, when old Ozymandias was just around the corner.
  • Shot on location, when old Ozymandias was just around the corner.
I've been making homemade monster movies with my daughters for 10 years now. We've made Sci-Fi flicks too. And at least one swashbuckler. But it's mostly horror because we do it in October, usually the week before Halloween. We have rules too, to make sure things never get too expensive or serious. It's an imagination game, not about set-building. The shoot takes place in our house, but can spill out into the yard, and immediate neighborhood. We have a $20 budget, but can sometimes splurge on an item if it's just that cool, or we know we'll use more than once. Shooting has to be completed in one day, and the whole project has to be completed before Halloween.

I'm not a filmmaker, and don't pretend to be one. This isn't fancy stuff— It shouldn't be about that. Our 5 to 15-minute flickers are all lit with natural light and flashlights. They are costumed from closets, shot on Flips and iPhones, and edited in iMovie. Sometimes we make our own special effects and write our own soundtrack music, but we also truck in parody, mixing  in clips and sounds from horror classics. It's the sort of thing  anybody can do with tech they carry in their pocket, and as stupidly fun family traditions go, I can't recommend it enough.

Prepare yourself now for the macabre in miniature — Ten years of highly collaborative short movies made with 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14-year olds.  We're not Hammer, or Universal exactly. But on a good day we can at least compete with Eegah! 

1. The Robbers: It's about pirates, but the girls wanted to call it The Robbers. I don't think we really planned this, but just kind of fell into it while playing with toy swords at the park. Little did we realize this was the beginning of something completely ridiculous. This chase sequence is shot in a small format, and it's sometimes hard to hear. We get better.


2. Three Against the Sky: Costarring their friend Avery, this movie found three little girls saving the universe from a three-headed, lightning-breathing dragon, and flying saucers. Lots of pure joy in this one.


3. Attack of the Bloody Hand: We didn't know it at the time that Attack of the Bloody Hand would be part of a trilogy. Part three, in fact. Though shot out of order the three parts of The Bloody Hand Trilogy are The Ancient Evil Mummy, Ancient Evil From Before the Dawn of Time, and Attack of the Bloody Hand. Trivia: There's no bloody hand in chapter one, The Ancient Evil Mummy. The last one — which is also the first one —is a zombie flick with some familiar horror movie music.


4. The Wolfing: I have no idea what we were doing here. Werewolf movie? Bergman parody? Just hanging out on Saturday?


5. The Ancient Evil Mummy: What happens when you unlock the secrets of Cleopatra's closet? Part 1 in The Bloody Hand Trilogy. Also, a lot of fun. So glad we shot this while the Ramses II statue was still at the Pyramid.

6. Invaders From Uranus: This is an homage to a popular Twilight Zone episode starring Endora, and Earth vs the Flying Saucers. The twins, had just started playing musical instruments (and a band with featured friend Janie). So they wanted to try making some of their own soundtrack music. Who knew monsters could be destroyed by tween rock?

7. Ancient Evil From Before the Dawn of Time: In the past we'd written outlines and just made stuff up as we went along. Here Lucy emerges as a strong writing collaborator, with a real sense for Lovecraftian dread. The girls add a nifty original song to the soundtrack— "Shooting Star." This is part 2 in The Bloody Hand Trilogy.

8. The Devil Doll: Inspired by the scariest part of Trilogy of Terror. More Josie & Lucy songs too.

9. Bride of Boggy Creek: This one's inspired by the Bigfoot cheapie The Legend of Boggy Creek and also by The Blair Witch Project. It's the funniest of the bunch, and probably my favorite. The twins had just discovered Drunk History and borrowed some of that show's storytelling techniques. No, there wasn't any booze involved, but you wouldn't know from all the giggling. Featuring a ukulele remake of the original Boggy Creek theme song.

10. Three Against the Sky 2: This year's project is a cease and desist letter waiting to happen. It should have been a 10-year extravaganza, but became one of our least ambitious efforts due to a number of unforeseen obstacles cutting into our planning time. This is a sequel/remake and, at the very least, it's nice watching little heroes grow up. There are flashbacks, and a lot of pure joy in this one too.
 
Thanks for enduring that. I won't post anymore backyard movies of my kids until we've been doing this for 20-years. In the meantime, I'd love to see other people pick up this tradition. I'll happily publish homemade horror movies here at Fly on the Wall every Halloween. They don't have to be good, they just have to look like they were a lot of fun to make.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Former Memphian David Gest is Dead at 62

Posted By on Tue, Apr 12, 2016 at 12:42 PM

davidgestpa.jpg
David Gest is dead. The American producer, and the former Mr. Liza Minnelli who became a British reality TV star, was found dead Tuesday morning in his room at the Four Seasons hotel in Canary Wharf, London. He was 62.

Gest is one of those special people who is primarily famous for being famous. He had been friends with Michael Jackson, and was still technically married to Liza when he took up residence not a stone's throw from the Flyer's Tennessee St. offices. Before jumping across the pond to try his hand at shows like "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!" Guest lived in Memphis' South Bluffs community, and was often seen puttering about Downtown, or chowing down on fried chicken at Gus's. He could also be seen in Midtown, East Memphis, and other parts of the city where, in spite of a professed desire for anonymity, his face was blown up larger than life, and split into two halves on billboards promoting the man and his various initiatives.  

On November 20, 2006, the Flyer received a transcontinental phone call from the London Sun, a daily Rupert-Murdoch-owned tabloid that was looking to hire a fearless reporter who could get to the bottom of a hot story that was taking Europe by storm. Longtime Flyer columnist and reporter John Branston took the call but not the job. According to a blog post Branston wrote later that same morning, the Sun wanted someone to visit Gest's house to confirm a story he'd shared with the British media about a maid he kept on staff in Memphis named "Vagina Semen" — a name that was later revised to the slightly less graphic "Vaginika Semen." The Sun needed confirmation.

When reality TV gets real.
  • When reality TV gets real.
"We are so NOT making this up," Branston wrote. "Stay tuned."

Memphis has known its share of eccentrics, but few have been more wondered about than Gest, who upon growing weary of his life in big cities (and the tabloids), tried to escape all the notoriety by moving to our sleepy little river town where he fancied buying, "a very small, intimate luxury hotel with a ballroom on the top of it," but never did. 

In 2004, after weeks of trying to score an interview for an article about him and a charitable event he was planning, Gest told me to meet him at the Peabody Hotel. He kept me waiting for an uncomfortably long time, but he did show up eventually, and we chatted over a plate of batter-fried veggies and cheese.

Here's the original Q&A from Dec. 3, 2004.

The Two Faces of David Gest

"There's another David Gest, and I'd really like to meet him. The one you read about is fascinating, wild, weird, and wonderful, and I don't really think of myself in any of those ways. I never intended to be a personality. I went for years [behind the scenes] as a producer. Then [I produced] Michael Jackson's 30th Anniversary] special. That's when I fell in love and everything changed. Things changed after my wedding and after my life with Liza."

— David Gest, at The Peabody, November 29, 2004

He's on a diet and he's had cosmetic surgery. He's good friends with the King of Pop, Michael Jackson (who has had cosmetic surgery, is probably not on a diet, but has other troubles with which to contend). He's married to Liza Minnelli (whose diets, surgeries, and other troubles are well-known), but they are separated and suing one another. He says she got raging drunk and beat him to the point of disability. She says he swindled her knock-kneed.

These are the things you already know about music producer David Gest, if you know anything about him at all. And since these stories have been blown out in the supermarket rags and on tabloid TV, there's really no point in repeating any of it, now is there?

Gest lives in Memphis now, on the south side of downtown near the river. And he wants to make sure that every Memphian who is hungry, cold, old, infirm, lonely, or down on his luck has a nice dinner waiting for them at various Memphis restaurants on Christmas Day. He's promised participating restaurants money up front and is willing to fund it out of his own pockets. But he'd prefer to pay for the whole shebang by way of a star-studded shindig at the Cannon Center: David Gest's All-Star Holiday Extravaganza.

"So I'm only bringing 40 or 50 artists to town," Gest says, countering criticisms that many of the celebrities he's used to promote the event won't be attending. "Who else is bringing four?"

And who else is offering a free Christmas dinner to anybody who shows up and says "I'm David's Gest" at Corky's, Gus', Willie Moore's, the High Point Café, Westy's, Precious Cargo, Neely's, or Ray's? Whether you love to hate him or hate to love him, David Gest is in the house. He's roaming downtown Memphis, performing random acts of kindness, offering up the moon and determined to deliver some stars.

Flyer: Where were you and what were you doing when it occurred to you that you would be moving to Memphis?

David Gest: I was living in Hawaii and suffering from a brain concussion, and somehow I just dreamed about living on the Mississippi River. I always had an affinity for Memphis. It was something that I felt like I needed at this time in my life — to be away from the paparazzi and not to be someone who's always in the tabloids. I wanted to buy a home that was facing the river, and I did. In my life I've learned you've got to go with your gut. I wanted to live in the South. I felt that I could go to Memphis and make records and do things. I can always fly to L.A. or to New York. And I like living in a small town. It agrees with me.

But what was the specific allure of Memphis?

I was — I think — 17 and I was a journalist when I first came here. It was 1971, and I came to Memphis for a rock-and-roll writers' convention. Everybody got to go to Stax and to Hi Studios. There was a big reception at the Holiday Inn Rivermont, which was the hotel back then. You'd see Rufus Thomas walking around in hot-pants promoting "The Funky Chicken." You'd see all the great Memphis artists there. And all of this had a really strong effect on me, so I kept coming back. About two years later, I was offered the job of national public relations director for London Records. I was supposed to be 21, but I'd just turned 19. I lied about my age. I had a thick, thick Afro that went down to my butt and a moustache and a beard, so I looked older. You know when you're a kid you always want to look older. Then you get old and you want to look much younger. When you get to my age — which is 51 — you start to go, Unh-unh.

That was when you started doing PR for Al Green.

Yes, I did public relations and career guidance for Al Green. [He] was the biggest thing at the time. I did the publicity campaign for [Ann Peebles' hit] "I Can't Stand the Rain." You know, I was the one who had John Lennon come to the Troubadour [an L.A. club where Peebles was performing] on the night he wore the Kotex on his forehead. He was really drunk, and he was screaming, "Annie, baby, I love you! Annie, baby, I wanna, I wanna " And then he asked the waitress, "Do you know who I am?" And she said, "You're an asshole with a Kotex on your forehead." They kicked him out of the Troubadour that night. But he loved "I Can't Stand the Rain." It was his favorite record.

How often were you in Memphis back then?

I'd be here every three to four months. I'd fly in and work with Quiet Elegance, or maybe Ace Cannon, and others. I gave a party in 1977. It was called "Moonlight on the Mississippi in Memphis." It was a party on a riverboat for the Doobie Brothers. Jerry Lee Lewis was there and Rufus Thomas, Ann Peebles, Carla Thomas, the Memphis Horns. It seemed like everybody was on that boat, and it was a jam all night.

Is it true that you recently gave an elderly woman who was shopping at the MIFA thrift store $100 to buy a coat?


Yes. I loved this lady's face. She was 70 or 80. The sweetest little woman you've ever seen. She came up to me and she said, "I love you." And I said, "Well, I love you." She'd seen me on Larry King a few times, and she said, "I think it's wonderful what you're doing for the community." And so I asked her what she was doing, and she said, "I'm buying a coat." I said, "Let me buy you a coat." I went in with her to shop, but she couldn't find the right coat, so I said, "Here's a hundred dollars. Go buy yourself something." She was sweet. I have no idea what her name was.

When you moved to Memphis did you know that you would be producing a celebrity gala and trying to provide Christmas dinner for 100,000 disadvantaged people?

No. In fact, when I moved here, I'd decided that I really wasn't well enough to start working again. Then one day I saw this man on the street and he said he had no food and he needed $7 for shelter. He said, "I've got no place to go not even for Christmas." I asked, "What do you do on Christmas?" and he said, "I beg for food."

I thought, I'm going to put on a show. I'll call my friends and put together a concert so that on that one day a year people can eat for free. [Even with the benefit concert] it's probably going to cost me money to feed all of these people. I'll underwrite it. What's important is seeing results.

Is Memphis now your home or is it just a pit-stop?

Home. I'm going to buy a hotel. I'm in the process of buying a property and building a very small, intimate luxury hotel with a ballroom on the top of it. It's something I want to do with some of my friends. With all these artists coming in because of the FedExForum, there's a need for something like that here.

Have Memphians encouraged your plans to feed 100,000 people on Christmas, or have they been cynical?

A little bit of both. Some people are jealous. Some people would like to see me not succeed. But I will succeed regardless of any obstacles. I will thrive. People can say what they want, but the doubters are going to see this happen in Memphis.

There was recently news that many of the artists scheduled to perform at the benefit concert wouldn't actually attend. How many have confirmed?

Tons have confirmed. It's going to be phenomenal. We're going to have the full band from Michael Jackson's 30th Anniversary special. And to give you some idea [of what's in store], Kim Weston, who had a hit with "Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me)" in the '60s is going to sing that song with the Doobie Brothers who also had a hit with it in the '70s. They are going to be accompanied by a 200-member gospel choir. It's really going to be phenomenal."
vaginica.jpg

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