Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Q&A with Eric Barnes, President and Executive Editor of The Daily Memphian

Posted By on Wed, Sep 19, 2018 at 5:49 PM

Eric Barnes - CHRIS DAVIS
  • Chris Davis
  • Eric Barnes
The Daily Memphian, a new, ambitiously scaled and digital-only print news source, launched online this week. When the venture was announced earlier this year, the company's president and executive editor Eric Barnes said such a venture became necessary when Memphis' traditional "newspaper of record," the Gannett-owned Commercial Appeal, lost considerable editorial autonomy. Many of the new startup's first hires were marquee reporters and columnists siphoned away from the CA — refugees from the increasingly non-local local newspaper.

Barnes recently spoke with The Flyer in a brief but far-ranging conversation about sustainability, availability, representative news rooms, and the potential risks and rewards of going big and all digital.

Memphis Flyer: Obviously, you're not starting from nothing. You're building off The Daily News' legacy with so much banner talent direct from The Commercial Appeal. But with this launch, The Daily Memphian goes from zero to light speed in some ways. There's lots of digital news out there, but a startup daily of this scale is barely charted territory. Do you feel the eyes of the industry on you or are you too busy to worry about all that?


Eric Barnes: I’m not worried about industry pressure, and there are people watching us. It’s been interesting. When we started talking to people nationally about other startup digital dailies, we talked to everybody from this really cool little website in Philadelphia to the Graham family that used to own The Washington Post and still owns a bunch of TV stations. It became clear that what we were after was quite a bit bigger and more ambitious than what other people were doing — and they were still incredibly encouraging about doing it.

Most people that have started something like this — for profit or nonprofit — have started very small and grown. We made the calculated decision that we would go big and launch with a really big staff, making a lot of noise by hiring talented, popular writers. And we would come out with a big editorial mission rather than a small mission we’d then expand upon. I think by and large nobody’s done that. At least none I’ve found. Though I’m sure someone from Des Moines or somewhere will call me tomorrow and I don’t mean any disrespect.

Subscription is hard. The tech is hard. The customer service is crazy hard. And on top of the mechanics, you also need unique content people are willing to pay for in addition to what they already pay just for digital access. And all of that's in the context of a redundant media environment where the same information may be available in other spaces, often for free. How are you navigating all of this?

A few things. We wanted to come out with a good subscription signup process. So we went with a company called Piano. They handle everybody from Condé Nast’s online magazines on down. We wanted it to be simple, so there’s only one offer. We’ll have other offers down the road. But we wanted to be $7 a month, first month free. Don’t have to think about it or choose. I think a lot of online publications fail because they make it so hard to sign up. There are lots of options. You’ve got to tie it to your print subscription. You’ve got to enter a special code. It’s all intentional and understandable, but we wanted to keep it simple.

I’m probably going to overuse the word sustainability, so I’ll apologize for that in advance. You guys had, I think, $7 million at startup, which is pretty great. But this is a business where community-spirited billionaires with nothing but the best of intentions have struggled with the cost of building and keeping modern newsrooms. Is there enough revenue and readership in Memphis to support two full capacity dailies?

Obviously, we think so, but it’s not proven yet. We think our projections are modest and doable. We’re talking about, by year 5, having over 20,000 paid subscribers at a relatively low price point. We may go up from $7, but we’re not going to go up dramatically.
I’m not going to give you the paid subscription numbers that we have now, but I will say we’ve exceeded our expectations at launch quite dramatically. So, early signs are good but there’s no doubt it’s unproven. This is uncharted territory. I think we do know, to be a daily news source of high quality, and have the number of journalists you need to do that, I don’t think it can be free. There’s a place for free papers, I’m not saying it’s an impossible model. But to have a newsroom of over 20-people, covering the city on a daily basis, there’s not enough ad dollars out there. So many advertising dollars go to Google and Facebook, and there’s not enough left for the rest of us. We are going to have advertising, and we do have advertising. And we’ve exceeded our numbers on that too. But there’s definitely risk involved.

Do you hope to eventually be fully reader supported? You throw out the number 20,000 paid subscribers in 5 years. With $7 a month subscriptions, is that the number or is there a target number of subscribers for reader-supported sustainability?

Our goal is definitely to be sustainable so we don’t have to live grant to grant and constantly be raising money. For us to fulfill a mission of high quality journalism, people are going to have to participate in that. You see it at the national level. At the big metro papers like Boston.com, Philly.com, Seattle — papers that are below the New York Times but bigger than Memphis. They’re all going harder and harder on their pay wall. And they’re seeing success. It all comes back to, whether you’re for profit or not, you want to run your publication like a business. You want to pay your own way and don’t want to be forever dependent on fundraising.

Non-profit has been a big buzz in media for a while and I get a lot of it. But what I often find myself telling people is it's not some kind of magic status that makes all the sustainability problems go away. All the same essential challenges exist. You’ve got to attract and retain an audience while also covering payroll. And you've got to provide content people want badly enough to pay for it. So maybe we can address myths and realities of non-profit, and how maybe it changes what you do as a publisher.

It doesn’t change a lot. There aren’t a lot of limitations that come with that status. We can’t do endorsements, but I don’t know that we would have done endorsements anyway. More and more local papers are moving away from endorsements. There are at least 200 non-profit news sources online around the country. Some have chosen a niche or advocacy, but there’s a full range of stuff. I tell people all the time, one of the most successful businesses in Memphis has to be Methodist hospitals, and they’re a non-profit. But a very sustainable non-profit. Revenue producing. High-quality employer and a big contributor to the community. I’m with you 100%, non-profit doesn’t solve the problem. And non-profit doesn’t make it easier.

You say you can’t endorse. But does this change in any way how you cover government or politics otherwise? Also, you’re a non-profit, but you sell ads? How does that work?

It does not affect the way we’re covering government or politics. There is a difference between advertising and sponsorship and if we bring stuff in that’s deemed to be advertising in the eyes of the IRS, it probably means we end up paying taxes on it. And that’s fine.

Watching our non-profit cultural institutions grow over the years I’ve noted how they are shaped by and service their audience and donor community — which they should, and even have to to survive. But it’s not the same as reflecting and serving the community at large. That’s a tough line to walk and I wonder how will TDM be publicly and proactively transparent?

One thing is, we’re trying to be as accessible as possible to civic groups, clubs, churches, or anybody who wants to get one of us to come speak. And I don’t mean that in a token way. It’s very interesting to meet people and hear what they like and what they are interested in and want. The board is transparent. All the board members are listed on the website. Beyond that, there are some things we won’t be transparent about. Somebody said everything we do editorially should be transparent and public. But I’m not going to do that. There are a lot of stories we’re working on and we want to be first to publish. So there’s a certain amount of privacy. In the end, what matters is what we do on the site and that we’re judged by the work we do on the site.

Can the public view your financials? See big donors. Is any of that required on your 990 tax form?

Everything required to be on 990s will be on 990s. The money’s been donated anonymously and that’s kosher. The money went through the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis and so that’s not required to be disclosed.

A lot of pre-launch criticism has focused on representation in the newsroom. I don't want to be too redundant, but I tend to agree that when you take a birds eye view — or almost any view — there does appear to be a crisis of representation in Memphis print media. Do you think it’s a crisis? And, given an opportunity to build a newsroom from the ground up in a majority African-American city did you have any kind of strategy for building a more representative newsroom?

We were very intentional in trying to build as diverse a newsroom as we could. Both male and female and with people of color. We got close with female participation. We’re somewhere in the 45-percent range. We fell short on what we would have liked for people of color. We’re going to be 20-25-percent African American. That’s pretty standard. I’m not making excuses, but that’s just kind of the world we live in. The number of people of color in journalism is very, very small. The CA was in that range. Otis Sanford has talked at length about it. This has been a problem as long as he’s been in journalism. Even when newspapers were making huge profits, they were not able or did not find ways to crack that code and find ways to make newsroom more representative.

When we were hiring we had criteria. We wanted people with a print journalism background. We wanted people who had daily or near daily experience because the grind of that is not to be taken lightly. And we wanted people who are in Memphis and had covered Memphis for a long time. That meant we weren’t going to go out of market. And we weren’t going to hire kids out of college. So our pool of people was very small. That also meant, when a handful of African Americans turned us down for various reasons, our pool got really, really small. I’m proud of the people we’ve hired.

I get it. We see the world through our own eyes. I try see the world as broadly as I can but I’m still a 50-year-old white guy from Tacoma, Washington. That’s why it’s important for all companies, maybe newsrooms in particular, to be diverse. Because we see things through our own lens. The other part of this, I’ve said, and will keep saying, is that we should be judged by the work we do. If day after day after day the front page is a bunch of 60-year-old white guys who work and live on the Poplar corridor, then I’ve failed miserably. If the stories we write about don’t look like Memphis in all its complexity and diversity then we’ve failed.

We'll come back to this more in depth later. I also want to talk about the digital divide a little. And also briefly, because I want to revisit this in depth at a later date in regard to another project I'm working on. But the post-pulp environment creates information monopolies. There's this idea that "everybody has a phone," but in reality there are so many obstacles to digital access. Is there a strategy for serving the whole community or are we approaching a kind of trickle-down theory of information?

We are going to be as aggressive and smart and creative as we can be in getting access to The Daily Memphian regardless of whether or not they can afford it. We don’t want to leave people out. Simple things. I believe we’re already free in the Shelby Co. libraries. We’ll get to the suburban libraries soon. We’re free to all teachers. We’ll possibly be free in schools and other public spaces where we can take down the paywall and make access available. Then we’re going to talk to more and more people. And I’m open to ideas about how we balance financial sustainability with access.

And can I say one more thing on the diversity front?

Sure.

We will be starting an internship program that's for everybody — black, white, male, female. But we will have a particular emphasis for people of color getting into journalism. That's another small but important way we can start getting more African-Americans, and more people of color into journalism.

The Daily Memphian is available now at  dailymemphian.com

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Trader Joe's Opens West Nashville Location in Germantown

Posted By on Fri, Sep 14, 2018 at 1:56 PM

It's no mistake that the bags handed out on opening day at the new Trader Joe's say "Nashville," and "Music City." After all, it's a new day for Germantown — Trader Joe's has arrived. And while the city will remain in Shelby County, the addition of Trader Joe's to a market that already included Whole Foods and Sprouts, means the Memphis suburb can officially describe itself as being Westest Nashville.
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Via:

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Friday, August 10, 2018

T.G. Sheppard Talks Elvis in Advance of Concert at Graceland's Guest House

Posted By on Fri, Aug 10, 2018 at 4:09 PM

T.G. Sheppard.
  • T.G. Sheppard.
T.G. Sheppard has recorded 21 #1 hits. But he called Memphis to talk Elvis. Also, to share news that he's bringing his old friend Barry Gibb along for the ride.

Memphis Flyer: You’re coming to perform a concert during Elvis week, but also taking part in one of the discussions, correct?

T.G. Sheppard: My wife Kelly Lang and I are part of a concert at the Guest House on the 18th at 3 p.m. It is part of the new Elvis Week calendar. They have added us as one of their main events during all this week. I think that is because of my friendship for so many years with Elvis.

It may also have something to do with having 21 number-one hits of your own. Just guessing.

You are too kind. We're coming in and doing a concert. Then on the 17th, I'm part of the Conversations. I think that's the morning of the 17th. And of course I'm bringing a very very special guest, Barry Gibb* with me.

That is a special guest.

Sir Barry Gibb.

Recently elevated to the peerage.

Yeah. He was knighted about three or four weeks ago. He and his wife were coming in to spend a few days with us during Elvis Week. And he's going to do the conversations with me as my guest. He's also going to attend our concert. It's going to be kind of exciting week in Memphis.
Sounds like it.

When Graceland announced it, our social media outlets just went absolutely berserk. Because Barry is so International. And Elvis was International, and still is. When you mention anything about Barry, your media comes in from all over the world from every country.

When you left home for Memphis, was it to get into the music business?


Well, I was a runaway. I left home when I was 15. I hitchhiked down to Memphis. That's where I met Elvis. I was just a kid at a skating rink. Rainbow Terrace skating rink on Lamar. I was there late one night, and Elvis pulled up in a Cadillac with a couple of other cars. Got out and walked over to me. It was about midnight. He asked where I was going, I told him I was leaving because they were closing the rink right down. He said they're, “No they’re not, they’re opening it up for me.” He said he was a man short on his team. They played a little game and they called it "kill." It was actually football on skates. I went and skated with him and the Memphis Mafia for a few hours, and the friendship just kind of stuck. We became instant friends. We remained instant friends until the day he passed. As a matter of fact, when I started my career out, he gifted me with my first tour bus. That really and truly gave me the opportunity to be able to be a performer. It gave me the confidence I needed at that time in my life to go forward. If Elvis thinks enough of me to give me a tour bus, maybe I've got a shot in this business. So I worked really hard after that.

You were already working in the music world by then but behind the scenes.

I was one of the executives with RCA Victor. After I couldn't make it as a rock-and roll-star, I went into the record business and thought that I could live my dreams through the eyes of other entertainers, which I did. People like John Denver and Waylon Jennings, and so many other stars. So I was a record executive before I became a country singer.


So was it strange going from being a kid from Humboldt to being buddies with somebody every teenager in the world wanted to know?


Yes, it was absolutely amazing to me. All of a sudden Elvis is my friend? It was just, I don't know. I told my mom, when I was a young kid, I said, “Mom someday I'm going to meet Elvis and he's going to become my friend.” And she said, “Now, son, I don't think the chances of that happening are very high. You're from Humboldt, Tennessee. You don't need to get your hopes up because that's not going to happen.” So somehow I always thought that I would meet Elvis. But it never stopped shocking me when I became friends with him. I'd have to pinch myself.

And it never wore off?

No. It never wears off when you're in the presence of somebody as big as Elvis was. And one of the beautiful things about this is, all the years that I was with him, virtually living at Graceland for 7 years. I always knew I was in the presence of greatness in my business and I was in awe of that greatness. But after a year or two, the friendship settled into just a normal friendship. He was just down to Earth. He was a religious man. Loved his mom. Which we all do. Loved and adored his fans. I got the feeling, after awhile, that he was just really and truly one of us. And that's why he is who he is today because he was one of us. But one of the ones who had his dream come true.


Did you learn any career lessons? Cautionary tales?

We all have egos, okay? It's how you control your ego as to how you appear to other people. You can always appear egotistical or you can appear confident. Elvis always appeared confident, not egotistical. I've always learned to portray that my own career. To be confident and not egotistical. If your ego gets out of hand the fans who made you what you are can take it away just as quickly.

Number two, and the most important thing that I learned from Elvis, is what he told me one day. He said, “If you ever forget where you came from you will never get where you want to go.”

You’ve been generous in talking about Elvis. It would be wrong not to ask if you had any projects in the works.

I've been fortunate to have had 21 number-one hit songs. I've been able to fulfill my dreams. But I am doing a couple of things right now that I'm so excited about. I'm in the studio recording my first country solo album in over 20 years. I've done other albums. I've done a duet album with my wife Kelly Lang. I've done duets with Willie, and Jerry Lee, and Haggard, and Mickey Gilley and all those huge, huge stars. But I hadn't done a solo record in so long and I'm having an incredible time recording again. And a strange thing happened with this album that wraps into the Elvis thing. I haven’t titled it yet, and it won’t be out till next year. But there are two songs that came to me that I’m going to debut at my show at the Guest House on the 18th. The first song is called “The Day Elvis Died.” We all know where we were and what we were doing. The second song that I’m going to duet is called, “I Want to Live Like Elvis,” and every line is a hook.

Also, there’s a TV special we just filmed called “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner.” And we’ll be announcing the network and all that soon.

*Gibb has canceled his trip to Memphis. No Sir Barry this Elvis week.

"Memphis Most" Promotion Showcases Parking Lot Under Interstate

Posted By on Fri, Aug 10, 2018 at 2:16 PM

img_9777.jpg
You know what? I'm not going to complain. It could have been worse. It could have been.  Given the Gannett-owned Commercial Appeal's batting average on stuff like this lately, we should all be thankful that the background photograph for this self-promoting ad was taken in Memphis. You can even see a little skyline in the upper left.
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But mostly, it's just a shot of Bass Pro's southern parking lot.
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Under the interstate.
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This isn't a recent issue. The ad's from July. But, like they say, if you haven't read it, it's still a parking lot under the interstate.

That's so Memphis. To somebody. 

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Thursday, August 9, 2018

Sinclair/Tribune Mega-Merger Collapses. What Does it Mean for WREG?

Posted By on Thu, Aug 9, 2018 at 11:37 AM

Race to the Bottom
  • Race to the Bottom
The controversial, law-bending $3.9 billion merger of Tribune Media and Sinclair TV collapsed Wednesday, August 8th, when Tribune Media's board voted to terminate the deal.

The merger, which seemed likely, given the FCC's initial willingness to misapply the outdated "UHF discount" rule, became considerably less certain last month when the FCC criticized Sinclair, casting doubt on Sinclair's proposed divestitures, which might amount to divestiture in name only. Or, per the actual concern, "sham transactions."

Historically, Sinclair's content has been right-wing. Recently, it has become overtly Trumpian, with mandates for local stations to air editorial segments by Boris Epshteyn, the Russian-born Republican political strategist and investment banker who is now the "chief political analyst" for Sinclair. Epshteyn was also a senior advisor in Donald Trump's 2016 campaign.


The president has been more than happy to return the favor. 


What made Trump's endorsement especially troublesome — even for him — is the fact that Sinclair's stations operate unbranded. So, in terms of affiliation, the Sinclair stations the president endorses often are actually affiliates of the NBC, ABC, CBS networks he criticizes.

And some Sinclair stations are FOX affiliates. Welcome to the media ownership funhouse.

While much attention is focused on the big, national networks such as CNN, FOX, MSNBC, etc., Sinclair has been creating a vast web of local, network-affiliated stations. Local TV news has more reach than all four major cable news stations combined.

In addition to ending the merger, Tribune is suing Sinclair.

The stake in this deal for Memphians was news station WREG Channel 3. It now appears that for the foreseeable future, Memphis' Channel 3 will remain a Tribune Media property.

Bye, Boris. 
Boris Epshteyn — Not coming to WREG.
  • Boris Epshteyn — Not coming to WREG.

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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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Thursday, August 2, 2018

Shirtless Man Celebrates 20 Years of NGAF

Posted By on Thu, Aug 2, 2018 at 2:50 PM

Stay shirtless, my friends.
  • Stay shirtless, my friends.
What are you looking at? Never mind, I know. You're looking at me. And, with a lusciously lumpy dad-bod like this one, why wouldn't you be? Besides, that was the whole point of this Shirtless Man fiasco, wasn't it? To be seen? To make my pale flab stand out, establishing the lean, muscular soul beneath it all — the fearless manufacturer of creative nonfiction? Truth be told, I was scared to death. Twenty years later, photographic evidence of my skinful romp across the pages of the 1998 Memphis Flyer's "summer issue" still fills this considerable gut with butterflies.

Angry vampire butterflies zooming on meth.

What were we thinking? There was no real precedent for stunts like this. There was no Sacha Baron Cohen out on the road, erasing the boundaries between reality and satire. The Daily Show wouldn't launch for another year. But there I was, finally discovering an application for my weird Theatre & Media Arts degree, standing in the offices of The Commercial Appeal, applying for a writing job, as shirtless as the day I was born.

"Why?," you might ask. I certainly have, many times. After all these years the best answer I've come up with is also a question: "Why do people jump out of airplanes?"
shirtlessman.jpg

In 1998, I toiled most days in a windowless room in the Flyer's old offices on Tennessee St., cold-calling potential classified advertising customers. I'd only just begun to do a little freelance writing on the side and was certain that nobody would be interested in this cockamamie idea I'd cooked up with my friend and and fellow wannabe writer
Jim Hanas. I can still remember the confused look on Flyer editor Dennis Freeland's face as he repeated the original pitch back to me.

"So you just take your shirt off and go out and do things?" he asked, blinking doubtfully. Like his eyes might be undressing me against their will. "What kinds of things?"

"Oh, you know," I answered, making things up on the fly because I honestly hadn't thought that far ahead yet. "Test drive cars, apply for a loan, try to get a job, buy a shirt, go to a topless club." Next thing I knew, I was on assignment and negotiating with a security guard at the Peabody Rooftop Party.

"You need to put a shirt on, sir," [the guard] says, sidling up to me.

"But I thought this was a party."

"It is a party, sir, but you need to put a shirt on."

"What kind of party is that?"

"It's a private party open to the public for a $5 cover charge."

"And I have to wear a shirt?"

"We prefer it."

"So I don't have to wear a shirt if I don't want to?"

"You need to put a shirt on, sir."

"But look at this sunburn I have here. Terribly painful. OWWWWWWWW! Jesus that hurts to touch it."

"I know how painful that can be, but you need to wear a shirt."

"Do I have to button it?"

"No."

"Can I just wear a vest?"

"You can just wear a vest."

"Do I have to button that?"

"No."
It was really just one shirtless fat guy. Mother was so proud.
  • It was really just one shirtless fat guy. Mother was so proud.
The original shirtless package spawned two sequels. Because I don't know how to relax I turned my honeymoon into a working getaway, and wrote about the big boy's swinging European vacation for the Flyer. The whole original adventure was recreated in a multi-page spread for a popular women's magazine for men. Rose McGowan was Maxim's cover girl for March 1999, but I was the hot topless attraction inside.

A paraphrased but very close to accurate note from my Maxim editor: "Can you give us the same story but take out the philosophy?"
Real v Fake
  • Real v Fake
I couldn't. Which is to say I didn't really know what that meant. So wrote the thing and instructed them to cut anything deemed too philosophical, which they did. They also manufactured a fictional origin story — In the Maxim version I'd become shirtless because gas splashed on my shirt while filling up my car. Hated that part because this was always supposed to be a true story. Right down to the scotch and chocolate milk. But the check cashed.

I might describe "Shirtless Man" as my "Freebird," but, as it happens, I've also written exactly one song that people ask me to play over and over again.

I'm a two-hit wonder!

But Shirtless Man's sordid tale of insecurity and sideboob, wrapped up in tragically fake machismo, has taken on a life of his own. A few years back he was reborn on social media when Memphis artist/photographer Jonathan Postal took a photo originally snapped in front of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and photoshopped it Zelig-like into historical scenes, alongside Abraham Lincoln, Bob Dylan, and Martin Luther King. Twenty years after the eye-assaulting fact — after filling a wall with awards for investigative reporting, disaster coverage, consumer affairs reporting, beat reporting, feature writing, criticism, and blogging — it's a little weird that somebody always hollers out "Shirtless Man!" whenever I appear in any official capacity. Not that I'd prefer things any other way.
Traumatizing entire families since 1998. - DAN BALL
  • Dan Ball
  • Traumatizing entire families since 1998.
I hadn't realized it was my shirtless anniversary until primo photographer Dan Ball posted a previously unpublished photo from the original adventure to his Facebook page. It's a great shot, considering the subject matter. And much to my surprise, seeing in a public space didn't induce the usual wincing shudder. In fact, I wanted to share it right away.

Maybe, after 20 years, I'm actually a little bit proud of that guy. 
Also pictured, Workingman's Sideboob. - DAN BALL
  • Dan Ball
  • Also pictured, Workingman's Sideboob.




 

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Memphis Isn't America's Sweatiest City

Posted By on Tue, Jul 31, 2018 at 10:31 AM

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Cold comfort seems like the wrong way to describe this latest news.

But the mercury is climbing again, as we head into August and as our pits and upper lips go dewey and our thighs turn into cheese factories, we can all be thankful that we live in Memphis, and not one of the nine American cities that, according to a new report, are even nastier.

Honeywell Fans partnered with consultants from Environmental Health & Engineering to create the definitive sweaty city list based on a set of criteria that includes "humidity levels, length of summer and access to shade." Shockingly, Memphis barely cracked the top ten.

As it happens, your Pesky Fly is a misery tourist who's visited every single furnace on Honeywell's top 10. So, instead of simply sharing the list, I've included some thoughts about each location.

1. Orlando, Florida — Anybody who's ever stood in line at Disney World knows that Orlando can be peeing-your-pants-while-drinking-coffee-in-hell miserable. But as hot and bug-infested as Orlando may seem, it's easy to maintain a smile and cheerful demeanor by reminding yourself that at least you're not in Tampa. 

2. New Orleans, Louisiana — Let's be honest. Regardless of Honeywell's methodology, fewer experiences produce more sweat for the least amount of effort, than standing roadside on Carrollton, waiting for an afternoon streetcar. NOLA is probably at least as sticky, buggy, and stultifying as Orlando most days, but everybody's having too good of a time to care.

3. Phoenix, Arizona — There is a place where dry heat meets the dry heaves. That place is Phoenix.

4. Dallas, Texas — Being in Dallas in the summer is like being in a prison movie where the sadistic warden punishes everybody by locking them in a boiler room and cranking the juice.

5. Las Vegas, Nevada — Like somebody covered Dallas in glitter and feathers.

6. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma — How this place clocks in at No. 5 is a mystery. The heat is like a blazing fist that reaches down your throat and rips out your tongue.

7. Kansas City, Missouri — I honestly don't remember KC being all that hot. But I was in a brisket coma.

8. Austin, Texas —  Cooler than Dallas in most regards.

9. Atlanta, Georgia — One of America's most miserable rush hours. Thankfully, there's a proper bar at every exit of the commute.

10. Memphis, Tennessee — There are nine places sweatier than Memphis. And besides, who's got time for weather talk when we have Bird Scooters to complain about?

Friday, July 13, 2018

Commercial Appeal Sees Blurry Future for Ivan Rabb: Dammit!

Posted By on Fri, Jul 13, 2018 at 10:51 AM

The Gannett owned Commercial Appeal has asked readers an important question: "Where will Ivan Rabb fit in?"
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Judging by the portrait of Dillon Brooks, Rabb will be the blurry power forward in the top-right background. Dammit. 
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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Body Double: Trump's Other Memphis Connection

Posted By on Wed, Jul 11, 2018 at 5:11 PM

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Of course, we all remember the time Donald Trump cost 2,500 Memphians their jobs. Don't we? You know, that time when the POTUS of today totally went after Holiday Inn like it was NATO? No? Well, it happened, and here's a link. That inglorious moment isn't Trump's only Memphis connection either. It's certainly not the weirdest. That distinction may belong to this little gem right here. It's not new information, but it's new to us and exactly the kind of thing we here at Fly on the Wall like to pass along.

There's no giving this devil his due here. The Donald in Chief says "fake news," when he means, "news I don't like." But way out there on the fringes of this textbook B.S. there is — as there always is with presidents and other public figures — plenty of grotesque caricature, propaganda, and general misrepresentation; all magnified in a politically polarized, social media environment.The modern myth-busters at Snopes.com have compiled a list of photo-manipulations that have been widely shared on the W.W. web. Some of them impossibly flattering, some not so flattering. In the latter category, among the most recognizable is an image that's been used to make the golf and fast food-loving POTUS appear even more bloated and slovenly than he is in real life. Turns out, in this instance, Trump's nearly crimson face has been pasted onto the body of Memphis' infamous bad-boy pro golfer, John Daly. And yeah, in the original Big John's teeing off while puffing on a cigarette. Like you do. If you're John Fucking Daly.
John Fucking Daly
  • John Fucking Daly
This isn't the first time internet artists have recognized Daly's viral potential. It all began when somebody unearthed this photo, which is basically a Renaissance painting.
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Friday, June 29, 2018

Forcing Cards — How to Identify Divisive Internet Propaganda Before Sharing

Posted By on Fri, Jun 29, 2018 at 3:58 PM

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We’ve all seen magicians manipulate cards in ways that make them appear to have astonishing gifts and the power to know things no ordinary mortal could possibly know. But all they really know is how to force a card — to present you with a choice that's no real choice at all, all the while letting you believe you’re the clever little monkey queering the illusionist's game via the exertion of  free will. Our sense of self-determination is what gives the trick its tension and makes it fun. But there's also usually cautionary lesson or two embedded in the trickster's marvels.

Good propaganda is like a card trick. It appeals to the vanities of self-awareness and control. Good propaganda campaigns are like a Vegas act, replete with sexy assistants, ordinary misdirection, and lots of good old fashioned bait and switch. Great campaigns play all sides to the user’s advantage.

Internet memes create a spectacular opportunity for card forcing, and for injecting divisive, peer-to-peer-spreading viruses into our daily political dialogues. These memes won't look like propaganda, what would be the point? The worst will look like every right-thinking person’s heart’s desire or some piece of apparently unassailable conventional wisdom. It will also be framed in a way that ensures a healthy mix of reflexive consensus and bitter rejection. I noticed an elegant and completely insidious meme making its way around Facebook this week and thought it would make a great study example. I thought I'd share it with the aim of developing better conversations, and maybe a good set of questions for determining whether or not the content we’re sharing online will have a positive or negative impact.

Here's the meme:

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While making a number of valid-seeming points, the ultimate message here is one of uncritical surrender to... well... whatever. There's also a healthy serving of Trumpian, “Get over it,” tacked on at the end. But to what or whom exactly are we all supposed to be surrendering and submitting? What kinds of imperfections are we supposed to start getting over in advance of discovery? Who’s going to have to wait (again!) for a place at the table? Which children will we open our hearts to and which ones will our drones open up on? Does the former hinge on a corrupt bargain requiring the latter? The decisions we make at the polls aren’t light ones. They should never be myopic, reactionary, or strictly self-serving. And whether you’re a Hill shill or a Bernie bro, finger-wagging at voters charged with the confusing task of group self-determination is always a poor community-building strategy.

I’m sure a lot of Trump-fatigued people can’t see a thing wrong with this meme — That’s what makes it genius. Whether it was developed by a Russian troll farm, or by a DNC troll farm doing the Russian troll farms' work for them, or by some doof on the internet doing work the DNC might otherwise do for the Russians, whoever created this black and white text-only marvel deserves all the rubles. With almost zero actual content, it has the magical ability to start fights and make people who agree about current POTUS being a nightmare, yell mean things at one another before they even have a candidate to back. That’s a tell if I’ve ever seen one.

Here’s a list of questions that might help us  separate constructive content from memes that make ol' Vlad Putin dance the merengue. I'm not a propaganda expert, so I know this is not a perfect list. Corrections, suggestions, and contributions are all welcome. My objective here isn't to be right — I'm not invested in that at all. Instead of competing for that distinction, how about we start some critical thinking about critical thinking, and how the content we share actually functions on the internet versus how we feel about it? 

1. Can any part of the meme’s overall content be reasonably interpreted, “fall in line or else”?

If so — and that’s completely evident in our sample — chances are good that the message you are about to share is divisive propaganda using fear and longstanding grudges to motivate. It’s the kind of meme that results in people who need to be in active negotiation with one another typing, “PIGFUCKER,” in all caps at 2 a.m. instead.
Of course, there’s truth at the core of this message: When people don’t unite they tend to lose. That attractive and real fact is like a wad of top shelf peanut butter in the mousetrap of political discourse.

2. Is the message specific or vague? Also, is it active or reactive?

So you’re thinking about sharing a message you agree with. But is it addressing actual candidates, policy proposals, and goals, or is it making vague but nevertheless scary boogie-men? As we move closer to the midterm elections and to 2020, propaganda will personalize and get more specific, honing in on a handful of broad hot-button issues designed to provoke emotional and tribal response rather than critical analysis. But the most corrosive messages are sometimes the ones that keep us agitated, prevent old fissures from healing, and keep us squabbling over the past instead of plotting a course for the future. Our sample meme is exactly that kind of meme. When I shared it on Facebook with a cautionary message, people were arguing Bernie versus Hillary in a matter of seconds while trying to defend against my one and only point that this is purely divisive rhetoric with no tangible social value. Ralph Nader’s name made an appearance within the first hour, along with a few of the the usual odes to compromise and pragmatism that might also be reasonably translated, “Give up.” Absent any real objectives that might be debated or fine tuned, or named candidates with records and platforms to be parsed, vague memes create a perfect black mirror and purely reactionary environment. The latter of which is essential to herding.

3. Does the meme appeal to emotion or intellect?

We’ve all been exposed to some emotionally charged imagery lately. Mass shootings, children being separated from their families — it’s served up daily alongside a sampler platter of daily outrages. Emotional appeals aren’t intrinsically bad, but when a stated aim is to subvert rather than answer or engage critical analysis, chances are you might want to step back and take a second look.

4. Inclusive or alienating?

If your awesome meme’s goal is to recruit voters who must stand together to defeat a monstrously evil candidate that a good third of the country will enthusiastically support based entirely on racism and pissing off liberals, you probably want to build a big, strong coalition that includes a lot of the folks who didn’t, and still probably wouldn’t, vote for [insert your favorite 2016 here], regardless of your feelings for said candidate, their feelings about Trump, or any number of grievances regarding dirty politics, rigged systems, Russian trolls, or any other extenuating circumstance. Re-fighting this long lost campaign or even thinking about recreating it actually or by proxy in 2020, is insane by definition.

Our sample meme truthfully addresses the fact that no candidate will be perfect or pure, which is an obvious statement but with no evident value — like the attractive verities Shakespeare wrote about when he noted that, “Oftentimes, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray us in deepest consequence.”

It’s been said that folks who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it, and it sounds really good. But maybe that old axiom's not complete. Folks who don’t let go of history get stuck fighting the same battles with the same eventual results. But the topsy-turvy looking glass result of 2016 presidential election is drifting further into the past and and there are real opportunities to learn from past mistakes and not fall for the same tricks. When you're up against homogeneity, the most inclusive messaging is always going to be the most desirable. If the message demands unity but offers no unifying principle beyond "or else," beware.

That's all I've got. Now it's your turn. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

The "T" Word: A Memphis Collective Looks at Black Masculinity, Nomenclature

Posted By on Fri, Jun 15, 2018 at 4:34 PM

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In the time honored spirit of the answer song, the mixed-media art exhibition "Thug" was organized to converse with a past exhibit called "Fiber,"  a deep dive into black femininity. "Thug" organizers wanted to give black male artists from diverse backgrounds an opportunity explore the range and role of masculinity in black culture. Curator and photographer Ziggy Mack says The Collective's exhibit showcases experience.

"It looks at black masculinity and how society views it," Mack says. "And it also looks at sexuality within black masculinity.

"In black culture you see this kind of appropriation happen multiple times," Mack says, setting up context for the show's title. "Post-slavery as a people we'd taken the word boy and turned it on its head substituting the word man. Like, 'Hey man! How you doing my man!' That was a response to black men being called boy. And there's the N-word, a more controversial word. But another word we appropriated like taking lemons and making lemonade."

Thug, a similar appropriation, was re-appropriated in white culture where it's become a deracialized stand in for less socially permissible slurs. 

"The collective and I used it because we thought it would make people ask, 'What's this about?" Mack says. "And we used it to turn it on its head again. To turn it into something else. To build a body of art around the word and black masculinity."

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Commercial Appeal Mistakes Memphis Band Lucero for Mexican Entertainer — DAMMIT

Posted By on Thu, Jun 14, 2018 at 12:39 PM

Whoa! It's totally like we're seeing double.
  • Whoa! It's totally like we're seeing double.
Everybody makes mistakes, even your pesky Fly on the Wall. But the particular mistake I'm highlighting here makes me think it's time to abandon any faint shreds of almost certainly false hope we may have harbored that whatever's wrong at the Gannett-owned Commercial Appeal will work itself out.

When the bot and/or out-of-towner editing Memphis' daily paper can't distinguish between Lucero the Mexican entertainer and Lucero the enormously popular Memphis band, there's a problem. When said bot and/or out-of-towner turns to a general image search instead of scanning the local paper's own archives, it's really bad.

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The error was made announcing the lineup for the Mempho Music Festival

Tom Lee Park Redesign 'Totally Unrelated To Atlantis' New Riverfront Chief Says

Posted By on Thu, Jun 14, 2018 at 9:31 AM

Definitely not an irradiated Gill Man.
  • Definitely not an irradiated Gill Man.
At a press conference in their Front Street headquarters on Tuesday, Carol Coletta, head of the Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP), previously called the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), told reporters that her organization’s plans to dramatically alter the landscape of Tom Lee Park have nothing to do with her predecessor’s ambitious project to raise the lost, subaquatic city-state of Atlantis from the depths of the Mississippi River.

“Our plan will activate the park space for all Memphians, and make it more attractive to Memphis In May festival goers,” said Coletta. “It’s totally unrelated to the RDC’s plans to raise Atlantis.”

Coletta joined the RDC in March, replacing Benny Lendermon, who had announced the public-private partnership's multimillion dollar plan to spend millions of dollars on targeted nuclear explosives that would trigger powerful earthquakes bringing the long hidden city/state of Atlantis back to the Above World, presumably to rule over a golden age of peace and prosperity for Memphis and the Mid-South region.

“Now some people will say that the new undulating hills we’re building in the flood zone of one of the most powerful rivers in the solar system would be an ideal spot for burying the thousands of horribly burned gill-men cadavers that have been washing up on the banks of the Big Muddy, but you would be wrong,” said Coletta.
“We acknowledge mutation is an ongoing problem in this area of the river,” she added. “But we prefer to focus on making the riverfront great for everybody.”

Similarly, a rebranding effort that changed the name of a corporation devoted to riverfront development (RDC) to Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP), was in no way caused by news reports associating the RDC with the effort to raise Atlantis.

“Having a new name that doesn’t come up in Google searches next to the words ‘raise Atlantis’ and ‘nuclear weapons’ was in no way a factor in our decision to rebrand,” said Coletta. “Look, the truth is, there wasn’t much to the Atlantis thing. It was really overblown by the media, right from the beginning.

"When Benny's crew of nuclear demolition engineers got to where they thought Atlantis was going to be, there wasn’t anything there. So, they left. That’s what happened.

"Those earthquakes you want to ask me about, we had nothing to do with those. Completely natural phenomenon.

"We’re just laser-focused on making the riverfront better by cleaning up all the radioactive material from the shoreline and disposing of it somewhere that’s not Tom Lee Park.”

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