…AND THE REST: THE DAWN WELLS INTERVIEW

(Part Two of a Two Part Series by Kevin Renick)

Dawn Wells, circa 2014 (publicity photo)

Dawn Wells, circa 2014 (publicity photo)

The following interview with Ms Wells was conducted by telephone in Fall 2015 during one of her many publicity jaunts for her latest book, WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO?: A GUIDE TO LIFE. Throughout the chat, Dawn was charming, revealing, appreciative and fun, just the traits you would expect from the gal who created the iconic Mary Ann Summers character on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. Dawn is seldom wanting for new projects… she’s an actress in multiple mediums, an author, a designer, a brilliant marketer, in demand for special appearances constantly and, as she says, kind of an “adventurer.” She appreciated the essay I wrote about her, and we talked quite a bit about the GILLIGAN days, as well as plenty of other topics.

THE MULE: Hi Dawn. Pleasure to talk to you again! We met some years before in Columbia.

DAWN: Oh, it was probably the Children’s Miracle Network thing?

THE MULE: Yes, indeed. And you were just delightful then, also.

DAWN: Well, what you wrote about me was so lovely. As a fan, you could see the depth of that character and it was really sweet, all the things you said.

THE MULE: I just felt very strongly that you were the heart of the show. You held everything together amidst plotlines that were often preposterous. Not sure anyone else could have done that.

DAWN: That’s the reason that Mary Ann has sustained for so long. And she really has. There are no Mary Ann’s today.

THE MULE: Well, one reason I knew I was onto something with my premise is because I spoke to some female friends about the show and its longevity. And to a one, they said you were their favorite character. Maybe that isn’t so surprising.

DAWN: I’d have been their friend!

THE MULE: Right. Well, let’s talk a bit about your new book, WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO?. What led you to the writing of this book?

WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE (TAYLOR TRADE PUBLISHING, 2014)

WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE (TAYLOR TRADE PUBLISHING, 2014)

DAWN: It was the fans! 80% of the men I meet say, “I married a Mary Ann.” Or, “Mary Ann would have been my partner.” You’d have to have been pretty sophisticated to say that as a young man. The grownups say that they married Mary Ann, and they have their kids with them. Which made me think, there is something to this character that still resonates. Then I went into, Why? What is it about her? As funny as it may seem, I was raised by a Mary Ann mother. In Reno, Nevada. Where there’s legal prostitution! As far away from Kansas as you can be! But it was the morality, the manners, the work ethic, that my mother raised me with. And no matter where you are, it doesn’t make any difference. It was my mother’s influence on me. And I was talking to someone recently, I asked, “Why didn’t I run away? Or go out and drink with my buddies or something like that, like the kids are doing today?” And it’s because I respected my mother. And nobody can teach respect. My parents were divorced. And that’s what I talk about in the book. I had two families that loved me. My mother and father… I never heard a negative word from either of them about each other. My dad would say, “I think your mother needs a washing machine… what do you think?” And then she would ask me something. Raising me was the emphasis in their relationship. And again, that depends on the parents. You know, if you come from a bitter home, you’re listening to what’s around you. And I never had any of that. I really was raised to be a “Mary Ann” and there’s something to be said for that. Today, everybody’s in their room with their computer, nobody knows who they’re talking to or what they’re saying. Nobody has dinner together much anymore. And this bullying? I mean, we had a bunch of kids that I’m sure you’d consider the kids you’d bully maybe. Someone wouldn’t be very good at something but… we loved him anyway. We’ve sort of lost that. I thought this book would be maybe for a mom or a dad or a grandma, to sit down with their kids and read it.

THE MULE: That’s all beautifully expressed, Dawn. I think you’ve really hit on some big things there. You’ve been traveling a lot, and I know you’ve appeared in bookstores and on talk shows and stuff. What has been the response – overall – of people, both the fans and the people who interview you?

DAWN: It’s all positive. I don’t think I have ever had a negative interview.

THE MULE: Really?

DAWN: No, I don’t think so. Well maybe, uh, I don’t know. I did an interview on the Howard Stern show years ago.

THE MULE: Oh, no!

DAWN: I always kind of trusted… and he said we’re gonna do it. And I said okay. Well, it was the most embarrassing thing in the whole world. They did a skit where the Skipper had died and (unintelligible), and Mrs. Howell was pregnant and was played by a guy with a hairy chest. Bob (Denver) and I looked at each other like, Do we walk off or do we continue? But then years later, Howard Stern asked me to be on his radio show, and I said to my PR guy yeah, let me sit down with him for an hour. And I turned him around completely. We got through all of the nonsense right at the beginning. And we ended up talking about the difference between female education and male education in school. And the nitty gritty of who Mary Ann is, which we all know…

THE MULE: Lordy, I’d be terrified to think of the kind of stuff Howard Stern COULD have asked you. (we both laugh) Can you relate an incident or two about fan enthusiasm over the years that stood out? Something more than just, “Oh, you were my favorite character.” Where it maybe surprised you in some way.

DAWN: Well, I tend to get a lot of the same reactions. Some 45-year-old guy will come up, and he’ll bring his 10-year-old daughter. And he wants her to listen to Mary Ann, I think. And they’re not gonna be embarrassed by what I would do. I’m not bra-less, wearing a low-cut gown. So I think they have this trust in what I would say… I mean, I’ve had proposals. Uh, well I did have a cute little thing happen with Nick Nolte. I was doing a show for Australia called “The Castaway Correspondent”. I was interviewing all the people in the movies and everything. And the only person who told me they liked Ginger better than Mary Ann was Robin Williams. (laughs) But Nick Nolte said, “Oh my gosh, you got me through puberty in the nicest of ways!”

THE MULE: That’s a pretty good compliment! In my essay about you, I talked about the fact that you were probably the most popular character on GILLIGAN, that both males and females like you the same, which is amazing. How do you put this in perspective, that you got the most fan mail on the show and continued to be the most popular character years after?

The cast of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Alan Hale Junior, Bob Denver, Dawn Wells, Tina Louise, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer) (publicity photo)

The cast of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Alan Hale Junior, Bob Denver, Dawn Wells, Tina Louise, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer) (publicity photo)

DAWN: I really don’t think I was the most popular… I’m sure it would be Gilligan, maybe, or the Skipper. But, I think Mary Ann was relatable. And for you, as a young person growing up watching the show, Ginger was too much! You have to be pretty sophisticated. And Mrs. Howell could have been your grandmother. I think you identified with me because I’d have been your buddy! I’d have been your buddy if I had gone to school with you and you were a guy. I don’t mean to be too modest, but I don’t think it had anything to do with ME. I just think Sherwood Schwartz put these seven people together and took seven personalities… and I think Mary Ann was… I don’t think I carried the show, but she was the center of making everyone pitch in. Y’know, let’s not bully you and let’s get the Skipper on a diet, and make Mister Howell be a little nicer to Mrs. Howell. And I don’t know that it was really in the writing. There were no messages. I think it was the relationships between us all. And there was no jealousy between Mary Ann and Ginger at all!

THE MULE: That’s interesting… that comes up a lot, people wondering about the relationship between you two.

DAWN: I used to think (regarding Tina Louise), gosh, you’re so glamorous. I don’t know, I never had a leopard outfit on before, and I kissed Gilligan and I kissed the Professor and I thought, oh boy, I get to be a girl now. (laughs)

THE MULE: Well, you brought it up, that episode where you played Ginger… what else do you remember about that one? It’s among the most popular with fans, I think. And it showed off your acting chops.

DAWN: Well, she was very sweet, cause she does that little Marilyn Monroe thing with her mouth. That kind of cute little thing… So I’d say, “Now say that again,” so I could kind of imitate her. And I tried to do that. There’s always a Ginger and Mary Ann question, so you’d assume there would be a competition between us. But Ginger… had never had a Thanksgiving dinner! And she said to me… I’m a pretty good cook and my mother is, too… and she said to me, I don’t know if it was our second or third year, but she said, “Would you mind teaching me how to make a Thanksgiving dinner?” And I said “I’d love that!” So she came to my house, and she sat on a stool with a pencil and paper, and my mother did all the shopping. We chopped all the onions and the celery… and she sat there and took notes. And I don’t know if she ever did it. Eight or nine years later, maybe even later, because she had a daughter by that point. And I met Caprice (Crane, Ms Louise’s daughter). And Caprice said to me, “You know how much I love that story about Thanksgiving, how you taught her how to do it?” And I would not have thought Tina would have embraced it that much!

Tina Louise and Dawn Wells in GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (video still)

Tina Louise and Dawn Wells in GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (video still)

THE MULE: That’s a great story! So, there wasn’t any rivalry between you and Tina on the show? Was that just a made-up thing from the fans?

DAWN: I think the fans, at a certain point, decided they had to make a choice, which was silly. Tina was a big movie star. I had just been in the business a couple of years. She’d done GOD’S LITTLE ACRE with Rock Hudson and she’d been on Broadway. She was a beauty. I remember, we started wearing false eyelashes and Tina ordered them from New York. They were $25 a pair. And they were mink. Well, I didn’t know anything about things like that! I watched her… she was very conscious of only wanting to be photographed from the left side. She was very conscious of how she looked best and everything. And I kind of learned a lot from that! She had the experience, I didn’t.

THE MULE: Did you ever get to have input about Mary Ann’s dialogue or story lines on the show?

DAWN: No. No. I don’t think anybody did… Gilligan might have, a little. But we had good writers, and you all had to just stick to the ridiculous plots. I just did what they told me to do, and read the lines.

THE MULE: There’s a particular episode different friends have mentioned, the one where you did a musical version of HAMLET, which was kind of surreal. What do you remember about that one?

DAWN: Oh, yeah. I didn’t really realize until a few years ago, Phil Silvers was our guest star, and I didn’t realize he helped finance the pilot! Sherwood Schwartz and Gladysya Productions. Not until about six months ago did I realize that Gladysya was Phil Silvers! But no, that was fun. That was quite extensive, what they did with the costumes and everything for that one.

THE MULE: I have a friend who, to this day, if I bring up that episode, she’ll break into one of the songs. They stick in your mind!

DAWN: (singing one of the tunes herself) “Neither a borrower nor a lender be!”

THE MULE: Well, you certainly created something very iconic. No doubt about it. So many memorable episodes. What about you and the other cast members? I know you got along really well with Russell Johnson. I loved you two together. You had great chemistry.

Dawn Wells with Russell Johnson and Bob Denver (uncredited photo)

Dawn Wells with Russell Johnson and Bob Denver (uncredited photo)

DAWN: I think we did, too. And we always laughed in that first year about ” …and the rest” (the theme song for the show the first year said ” …and the rest” instead of crediting Wells and Johnson). We’d send each other cards saying “Love, the Rest” for Christmas and birthdays, stuff like that. Bob (Denver) was very private. Very private. He had a lot of children, and he’d come in looking exhausted. There was a childlike soul in Bob. I was one of the few people he allowed in his home. Um, allowed is not the right word. Alan (Hale) was the same size as my dad. So, every time Alan hugged me, he picked me up half off the floor. So there was this big robust, jovial human being there. And he was a good cook. And Natalie (Schafer) and I were very close, especially in later years. I was the least close, probably, to Jim (Backus). I think Jim and Tina were very close, I think they both had that kind of movie star/Hollywood life, which I never did. But Natalie didn’t have any children, and towards the end she confided a lot of things to me. We really were a tight knit cast, though, and I think that shows. I think the charm of the show was that you could kind of tell we all liked each other.

THE MULE: Yes, I agree. There had to be a reason why the show was so popular and never went off the air. Some people don’t realize that, that it has always been on the air, somewhere. People of a certain age still view it with such love and fondness. What’s it like to be part of something so iconic, that people feel such nostalgia for now?

DAWN: You know, it translates easily, into all these other languages. Because you don’t really have to understand any PLOT particularly. And I can’t go anywhere in the world without being recognized. My favorite story… I’m in the Solomon Islands… (she says something about a knee replacement) I’m not an athlete but, I’m an adventurer. Stephens College… went with some of my Stephens College friends to Rwanda, we climbed up to see the gorillas. And I went with five other Stephens women to the Solomon Islands, where no white women have ever been. There was no running water, and no electricity. We had a photographer who had married a Solomon Island girl, so he said, “I’ll take you around.” And, as we canoed up to an island, the chief – his family had been chief for nine generations. And they were all in huts, up on stilts. No running water, no electricity. And he had a little greeting for us. So these young kids did a little dance and as we canoed up to the island, the chief’s wife looked at me and said “I know you.” And I went “WHAT? What are you talking about?” She said “I was on the island of Honiara (capital of the Solomon Islands), in 1979, going to nursing school. And I used to come home and watch you in black and white.” In the middle of the Pacific Ocean!

THE MULE: Oh, I can’t believe it. You must have absolutely fallen over!

DAWN: I almost dropped dead! And then the other thing was, we were probably in production for four or five weeks and Sherwood came in with the Coast Guard. Six or seven big mucky-mucks from the Coast Guard. And we stopped filming for a minute or so. And he said “The Coast Guard has something to say to you all.” And I don’t know what the ranks are in the Coast Guard, but the guy said, “We have received several telegrams saying there are seven people stranded in the Pacific Ocean. Why can’t you find them?” Some people believe everything!

Dawn Wells as the giant's maid in the GILLIGAN'S ISLAND episode, V For Vitamins (video still)

Dawn Wells as the giant’s maid in the GILLIGAN’S ISLAND episode, V For Vitamins (video still)

THE MULE: Amazing, truly. Even though the show was a huge hit in syndication, you guys didn’t really get to share in the profits at all, right?

DAWN: Not a dime. I was just talking to Bob Denver’s wife recently and she said, “It just makes me so angry.” We’ve never been off the air, and in how many languages around the world. And we haven’t had one nickel from it! Sherwood Schwartz, I was told, made $90 million on the reruns of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND alone. He could have split it between the seven of us, maybe given us a million, but nope.

THE MULE: And there’s no lawyer out there clever enough to remedy the situation now, maybe?

DAWN: No, cause a lot of other shows have tried that, like F TROOP and stuff like that. But it’s been tried. And that was the contract! That’s what it was. And Jim Backus used to get so angry, like “Hey, you took the part! You knew there weren’t any things along that line.” And how do you go back? You can’t be bitter, that’s stupid. We wouldn’t be known for who we were… so that’s a plus.

THE MULE: Did I read somewhere that a pair of your shorts from the show will be in the Smithsonian?

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann in that classic two-piece outfit (video still)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann in that classic two-piece outfit (video still)

DAWN: They’ve asked me. They want them. And I don’t know whether to do that. I have a family foundation and we have funded a children’s museum in Reno… we are tied to the Smithsonian. So I was going to the Smithsonian a couple of years ago and he was pulling out all the costumes from THE WIZARD OF OZ, and they’re all in drawers! I mean, they come out once in a while and display them, but… I don’t know that I want my shorts to be in drawers! I think maybe some fan would rather have them. I still have them, so I don’t know what I’m going to do.

THE MULE: Well, they’re famous! Your shorts, as I mentioned in my essay, came years before the Catherine Bach “daisy dukes” from the DUKES OF HAZZARD, which got so much attention. So, I don’t think you got enough credit!

DAWN: I had to cover my navel, though. I helped design them… I tried to make my legs look longer by making them go up on the sides, and my torso looked longer so I dipped it down on the side but I still had to have that little rise in front so you wouldn’t see my navel!

THE MULE: Still a conversation piece all these years later! Can you just mention a couple of your favorite theatre roles through the years? I know you were in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT. I think I told you that my brother Kyle produced the first version of STEEL MAGNOLIAS in New York, a show you were in elsewhere.

Dawn Wells in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, circa 1969 (publicity still)

Dawn Wells in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, circa 1969 (publicity still)

DAWN: I was not in the New York production, but boy, I love that play. I played Ouiser.(in the Judson Theatre Company production in North Carolina). I did LION IN WINTER. I’m doing a play in Jacksonville, and I’ve been looking at some other things. I just asked the Dramatists Workshop if they ever thought of doing SLEUTH with two women. It took us a long time to get two women to do THE ODD COUPLE. I’m always challenged. I don’t know, THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT was about as far from Mary Ann as you could be. However, I gave her the heart of gold. I made her a nice person. I’m always up for a challenge. I’m doing LOVE, LOSS AND WHAT I WORE again in Laguna Beach. I’ve had some funny things happen. I was doing OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT at the Barn Dinner Theatre in Dallas, and we had to run down the aisle to the dressing rooms to change clothes. And some guy grabbed me around the thigh, and put me on his lap! (laughing) And of course, it’s black out… y’know, you gotta be changing costumes, and I’m trying to get his hands off me! It was quite an experience.

THE MULE: Wow, that’s a good one. And you’ve also done a fair number of movies… which one was the best experience for you?

DAWN: WINTERHAWK. Because it was so incredibly beautiful, and I had been working with such professional character actors. And we were really in the snow. I mean, I had on pantyhose over my long underwear, and I was bareback on the horse, trying to go up the Rocky Mountains. And my little horse had just a little tuft of his mane. And we started up the hill and my pantyhose would slide back towards the tail. And I tried to grab ahold of his mane. And about a week into it, I said to the director, “Charlie! All the Indians have saddles under their blankets. Why can’t I have a saddle?” He said “It’s too late now, I put ya there without one.” But you really got to have that feeling… and Michael Dante was a wonderful actor in the role… I think that was my favorite. (She also mentions the horror movie THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, which was based on a true story and conjured suspense for both the cast and viewers)

THE MULE: Anything else you are working on now that you’d like to mention?

Dawn Wells (uncredited photo)

Dawn Wells (uncredited photo)

DAWN: I’ve been looking at some plays that I could do, now that I’m more mature. I could do GIN GAME and a few things like that. I’m also in the midst of a cookbook. And, I’ve been asked to do a radio show. And I’d really, really like a radio show, so I am contemplating that… what could be my theme, what could I talk about? I like fans that call in, and having conversations. We’ll be talking seriously about that.

THE MULE: (we talk a little about growing older, and I relate the story of my song “Up In the Air” for the George Clooney movie of the same name, and how I have harbored different impulses myself.)

DAWN: See, isn’t that wonderful. That’s what I always say, you know, “why give up?” Everybody has something to offer in this world, you just gotta do something about it!”

THE MULE: Well Dawn, you have managed to create such good will and a lasting impact from what could have been a less substantial role, and I just admire that so much. Any look at the internet shows how much fans love you. And you’ve managed to stay so positive and accessible through the years. Not every star does.

DAWN: It’s not very hard to be loved. (laughs) I certainly appreciate the admiration. I mean, If you were a secretary somewhere, and somebody was saying, “You did the best job, or you wrote the best blah blah blah,” you’d sort of feel flattered. I do feel flattered, but I also feel a connection. I guess, you know, when you find that many people that… fathers with kids, and passing that down, there must be something connecting us somehow. And I love people. maybe it’s the way I was raised. I don’t know. I wouldn’t change my life.

THE MULE: You preserved something on that show for all time, creating such a lovable character. Something you did transcended the limits of a silly half-hour television show, that’s for sure.

DAWN: Well I wonder, was it the dialogue? Was it my presenting the dialogue? Was it just because I was cast as that character? I don’t know. You can’t put your finger on it..

Two of our favorite things, Dawn Wells and the Monkeemobile (uncredited photo)

Two of our favorite things, Dawn Wells and the Monkeemobile (uncredited photo)

Dawn Wells is currently appearing at the Fanboy Expo in Nashville, Tennessee through May 15. Her book WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? is available in bookstores and at Dawn’s website now. You can also keep up-to-date with her upcoming appearances at the site. GILLIGAN’S ISLAND continues its syndication run everywhere, and is probably a popular show on distant planets in outer space by now.


DAWN WELLS: A TRIBUTE TO THE ENDURING SWEETHEART FROM, Y’KNOW, THAT ’60S SHOW

(Part One of a Two Part Series by KEVIN RENICK)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann Summers in GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (video still)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann Summers in GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (video still)

Ginger or Mary Ann? It’s a simple question featuring the names of two girls, and the debate behind it, along with all kinds of underlying implications, not only continues to this day but represents an utterly singular phenomenon in pop culture. The question refers, of course, to the two comely actresses who held baby boomers in their pulchritudinous grip on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, a sitcom about a “three-hour tour” in the Pacific that essentially never left the air after its three-year run came to an end in 1967. Ginger was Ginger Grant, played by Tina Louise; the character was a movie star and glamour girl patterned more than a little after Marilyn Monroe. Mary Ann (Summers) was portrayed by Dawn Wells as the definitive “girl next door” type: Sweet, approachable and down to Earth. Why did this question about the two iconic portrayals gain such traction? Why are there multiple articles about it on the net, including a hilarious point/counterpoint essay on the RetroCrush web site that goes into great detail about why EACH lady deserves to win the argument? What could be so significant about a mere question of preference for certain kinds of women that it caused almost the entire male population of television viewers to immediately take a stand, bonding with those who agreed with their choice and driven to rag on those who didn’t? There may be more intriguing or important questions out there when it comes to pop culture history, but I can’t think of another show or even ANY other entertainment medium that gave rise to such an enduring debate about two women. That deserves some recognition, for sure, in a culture that loves polls and “hall of fame” type debates.

So then, Ginger or Mary Ann? Well, I am proud to say I’ve always been completely, totally in the Mary Ann camp. As a baby boomer, GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was one of the shows I never missed growing up; it was an essential part of my childhood. Dawn Wells was the first actress I ever developed a crush on; it was a rather immediate thing, even in the first season of the show when it was in black and white. I’ve run into many guys of a certain age that said the same thing. The easygoing charm and friendliness of Wells’ Mary Ann was arguably the heart of a sitcom that stuffier critics would often ridicule because of the absurd plots. Few of us ever analyzed the plots; we just loved the good fun of the show, the chemistry of the cast, and the pleasure of watching our favorite characters do their thing in each subsequent episode. For me, that meant Mary Ann, followed by Russell Johnson’s charismatic and brilliant Professor (only in one episode did we learn that his actual name was Roy Hinkley), and then poor besotten Bob Denver as Gilligan. There was a familiarity about GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and especially watching it in endless reruns that kept you tied to a vision of simpler, happier times. The castaways became like an extended family. It may have been just an innocuous sitcom, but Dawn Wells, in particular, did something worth examining on the show – she created a female character so fetching, so warm and caring, and so REAL, that millions of fans fell in love with her. Quite early on, the fan mail coffers started filling up more for Dawn than any of her co-stars, and once the “Ginger vs. Mary Ann” debate started in earnest, Dawn almost always came out ahead (with the arguable exception perhaps being polls that appeared in a few men’s magazines). You can find polls and “lists of faves” all over the internet, but we’ll just mention one from the entertainment site, imdb.com. When the question was put to a vote (even asking for other preferences in TV gals; it was phrased as “Ginger or Mary Ann or… “), Mary Ann was the solid winner out of 3200+ respondents, with 652 votes. Barbara Eden of I DREAM OF JEANNIE, not dissimilar in her overall aesthetic, came in second place, with 418 votes. Where was Ginger? Way down in 6th place, with 218 votes.

GINGER OR MARY ANN? (Dawn Wells and Tina Louise... the debate continues) (video still)

GINGER OR MARY ANN? (Dawn Wells and Tina Louise… the debate continues) (video still)

Let’s face it, we like our stars, and we like falling in love with characters from TV shows and movies. It’s part of the escapism that’s really quite necessary to get through life. Dawn Wells became one of the true touchstones on television to embody the concept of “the girl next door.” How she portrayed the endearing Kansas farm girl Mary Ann was to bring her huge, lasting fame and launch a million fantasies and discussions about “desirability” that would utterly transcend producer Sherwood Schwartz’s initial hopes for his unpretentious little TV show. These things can’t be planned or predicted. Audiences do their own thing (especially so in the pre-internet age), and the march of time ultimately determines who wins the popularity contests. Countless actresses earned male admiration and substantial fan bases through the years, but it takes a special combination of circumstances to make someone an icon, a hall of famer, a list topper. The kind of star fans will flock to every appearance for, or write impassioned letters to, year after year after year. Dawn Wells somehow made ALL of that happen, on a TV show that critics thought would fail right away and that was never considered a classic. So, let’s take a look at how she did it, and celebrate a lovely, vibrant woman who has been able to enjoy the fruits of her achievement for many years now.

MARY ANN, THE APPROACHABLE “FRIEND”

It’s not a put-down to say that almost everyone on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was a bit of a caricature or exaggeration. Bob Denver’s Gilligan, though well-meaning, was always messing things up and preventing rescues; NO ONE would screw up that much in real life. The Skipper, played by Alan Hale Junior, was a commanding if often blustery presence, and spent an inordinate amount of time reacting to Gilligan’s screw-ups. The Professor made too many improbable creations out of crude elements on the island and came up with all sorts of far-flung solutions to problems faced by the castaways. There was likely not much resemblance to any real life scenarios in what he did on that island week after week, but let’s acknowledge just how charismatic and energetic Russell Johnson’s performance was; he deserved more credit than he got. How patently bizarre that the first season’s theme song said “and the rest” instead of naming “the professor and Mary Ann,” something corrected in subsequent seasons. It might’ve made more sense if the lyric said “and the BEST,” since Wells and Johnson were arguably just that. Continuing, though… Ginger? Way too much of a stereotypical “glamorous actress” type, with, again, too many Marilyn Monroe-isms, even if Tina Louise was a game and devoted actress with the part she was given. The Howells? Silly, exaggerated rich people caricatures, though you can hardly fault the quirky and enjoyable acting of Jim Backus and Natalie Schaefer.

Dawn Wells in leopard skin dress, from the GILLIGAN'S ISLAND episode, "The Second Ginger Grant" (video still)

Dawn Wells in leopard skin dress, from the GILLIGAN’S ISLAND episode, “The Second Ginger Grant” (video still)

That brings us to Dawn Wells. Not only was she a totally believable character, with her earnest attempts to help her fellow castaways figure things out and her easygoing charm, she transcended the limitations of the show in almost every way by acting and talking like someone you know or would WANT to know. She was a friend to all. She was tender and caring. She was sometimes motherly, sometimes sweetly innocent, sometimes vulnerable in the most beguiling of ways. I truly think Mary Ann was the genuine heart of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND – the character who provided the most balance and real-life levity. She tended to dole out the lion’s share of reassurance and hope. Her good nature and steadfast loyalty provided forward momentum for a show based on a wacky premise. And emotionally, Mary Ann responded believably to a wide range of situations, her eyes sparkling with vitality and eager curiosity, befuddlement or straightforward concern and empathy. Dawn Wells was a fine actress to accomplish all this; if she was perhaps playing a version of herself, well, it had to take amazing discipline and yes, acting chops, to maintain that level of sweet, affable charm throughout the preposterous scenarios the castaways had to endure. And let’s also acknowledge some of the sassy, sexy moments Dawn gave us on the show. Her physical beauty may have been less showcased, or less “in your face” than Tina Louise’s, but that only made it more distinctive and subtly mesmerizing at times. Who could forget the episode where the girls create a singing group called the Honeybees to compete against fictional pop stars the Mosquitos? One of those “honeybees” generates more BUZZ than the others, and you can guess who it is. Or how about the episode where Mary Ann gets knocked unconscious and wakes up thinking she is Ginger? It’s quite a kick watching Mary Ann wear all her rival’s showy outfits. And there’s the memorable “beauty contest” episode, where the all-knowing Professor promotes Mary Ann as his candidate for “most beautiful woman on the island,” priming her in the important art of showcasing her beauty and talent in different areas. (Professor and Mary Ann ‘shippers must’ve delighted in this scenario.) For the record, Mary Ann’s leggy tap-dancing display would’ve been the most memorable thing in that contest were it not for the glue placed on stage by rivals’ supporters. Every fan can name their favorite episodes and moments, but for me, what Dawn Wells brought to the show was crucial, game-changing. I’d be willing to bet that if you went out and asked a bunch of GI fans who was the heart of the show, the majority of them would probably say Dawn Wells. That says a great deal about a show that started out with such a simple, oft-ridiculed premise.

THOSE LEGS, THOSE LEGS!

GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

Here’s a fun fact that is likely only meaningful to male viewers, but for a show that made such a big deal out of having a sex symbol/glamorous actress in the cast, it’s the sweet girl next door who eventually earned a permanent place in the “Legs Hall of Fame” (especially once the internet came along and allowed for endless scrutiny and analysis of, well, every star EVER). Between Sherwood Schwartz’s amiable open-mindedness and Dawn Wells’ evident desire to set herself apart from Tina Louise, the decision was made early on to feature Dawn in the shortest shorts ever to appear on a TV show at the time. They wouldn’t let her show her navel due to absurd censorship standards then in existence, but boy, they let her show her legs, in tiny shorts cut high on the thigh. I would posit that it was the combination of Mary Ann’s sweet innocence and her continual display of leggy beauty that put her over the top with male viewers. These days we don’t think that much about a star merely wearing “hot pants” or other skimpy outfits on their show. It’s commonplace. But in the mid-60s, this was groundbreaking stuff. If I’m not mistaken, a pair of Dawn Wells’ shorts is even headed for the Smithsonian. Sure, she also wore that omnipresent gingham dress and a handful of far more conservative outfits, but it’s the shorts that made the biggest impression with fans. And there were other leg-baring outfits such as the maid uniform she wore in the “Gilligan and the Beanstalk” episode and the short yellow dress from the above mentioned beauty contest, an outfit that she donned again in the “radioactive vegetables” episode. Remember that one? When the Professor tells everyone they need to keep walking and exercising to offset the negative effects of eating radioactive crops, Dawn starts pacing around in that hard-to-ignore outfit. At one point, she complains to the Skipper that she’s too tired and can’t keep walking. “I haven’t got your legs!” she complains. “It’s a good thing you don’t, Mary Ann, or you wouldn’t be able to fit into those shorts,” the Skipper slyly replies. That was one of the few times that Mary Ann’s attire was even acknowledged on the show. But, let it be said that, through the wonders of syndication and endless repeats, hardcore fans got to know every outfit of Mary Ann’s. Who could forget the short little white number she only wore in two or three episodes, including the infamous “vampire” episode (early syndication runs angered some fans by cutting various scenes to accommodate more commercials; one such scene featured Mary Ann and Ginger fighting off a bat until the Professor comes to the rescue. Thankfully, the DVDs and later syndication runs restored the scene). That girly-style frock was also worn by Dawn in the “Tongo, the Ape Man” episode that featured actor Denny Miller as an actor preparing for his role as, well, an ape man. So, yeah, Dawn had legs, and she knew how to use ‘em. If we’re talking about the history of women on television, and the evolution of the medium in showcasing female beauty, Dawn Wells pretty much deserves an entire chapter. Giggle all you want, but she wore the shorts noticed ’round the world. Anything that’s a first has relevance and deserves to be mentioned, and appreciated. Ms. Wells gave us a first on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. With freshness, ease and undeniable sex appeal. Take THAT, Ginger!

THIS IS HOW A STAR SHINES!

STEEL MAGNOLIAS featuring Dawn Wells (theater card for Judson Theatre's 2014 production)

STEEL MAGNOLIAS featuring Dawn Wells (theater card for Judson Theatre’s 2014 production)

The annals of stardom are littered with the cases of performers who couldn’t handle their fame, stars who became bitter due to typecasting, or who succumbed to substance abuse or other destructive behavior. Rare is the star, especially one who rose to fame on a single show or movie, that consistently handles their fame with grace and puts it to good use. Of all the “castaways” from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, Dawn Wells seemed most grateful for her success and most determined to make it count. Professionally, she did a ton of theatre (THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT and STEEL MAGNOLIAS were among her credits in that realm), and acted in various – mostly low-budget – films such as WINTERHAWK, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, RETURN TO BOGGY CREEK, SUPER SUCKER and CYBER MELTDOWN, as well as three GILLIGAN’S ISLAND reunion movies for television, the weirdest of which was THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS ON GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, actually quite entertaining if you’ve had a few drinks. Dawn has written two books: MARY ANN’S GILLIGAN’S ISLAND COOKBOOK, and the new WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE, which she has been promoting with bookstore and media appearances for the past year or more. In Idaho, Dawn runs Wishing Wells Collections, an organization that makes clothing for individuals with limited mobility. She also helps her pal, Dreama Denver (Bob Denver’s wife), with the Denver Foundation charity.

Dawn Wells at a 2014 book signing for WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? (photo credit: MICHAEL TULLBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

Dawn Wells at a 2014 book signing for WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? (photo credit: MICHAEL TULLBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

But you can read her career stats anywhere on the web. The more important thing to say about Dawn is that she has been fan-friendly to a fault. She has never expressed resentment or even mixed feelings about her GILLIGAN stint; instead, she’s talked about those years with gratitude and the kind of intuitive understanding seemingly beyond the ability of some stars. Dawn appreciates her fans and talks enthusiastically about meeting them all over the world (even relating the tale of a native on a remote island—imagine THAT—recognizing the actress when she was vacationing). She acknowledges the tons of fan mail she gets and answers a good deal of it. She makes autographed photos and other merchandise available on her own web site for modest prices. And, in interview after interview, the divine Ms W talks about the fun she had on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, the reasons why Mary Ann was so popular, and how grateful she was for the whole experience. She even talks about the significance of her shorts with humor and verve. I’ve met quite a few people over the years who were Dawn Wells fans and had the privilege of meeting her at some point. To a person, they state how kind and friendly she was and how appreciative of anything they shared about their fondness for her portrayal of Mary Ann. THAT’S a star. Dawn Wells may not have fully escaped the shadow of GI in terms of subsequent work in the entertainment business, but she has demonstrated, consistently, that she’s at peace with her fame from the show, continuing to work in different media through the years, charming reporters and media types any time she does an interview, and essentially using her fame to keep moving forward while giving fans an ongoing opportunity to connect with her and express their appreciation for what she did on “that show.” Honestly, there just aren’t that many stars of cult TV shows or movies who have so consistently conducted themselves with class and grace, and so openly expressed appreciation for their career path, even if tied to a show with less than stellar critical praise. It’s pretty damn impressive. Dawn Wells could give seminars to fellow celebrities on how to handle fame with true style. And it’s pretty magical how fans seem to light up wherever she goes. She knows that she made an impact with her portrayal of Mary Ann Summers. And she makes it truly FUN to be a fan. That is not necessarily the norm in the entertainment business…

The cast of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, Alan Hale Junior, Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

The cast of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, Alan Hale Junior, Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

It’s strangely ironic that Dawn Wells and Tina Louise are the only surviving members of the GILLIGAN cast. With Russell Johnson’s death last year, the two rival actresses are the only ones left to talk about those halcyon ’60s television adventures, and Tina sure ain’t talkin’ much. In fact, she often sounds indignant and embarrassed when the subject of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND comes up. But to the pleasure of many, Dawn IS talking. She surfaces regularly when she has a project to promote, continues to act, and keeps providing plenty of opportunities for fans to enjoy images of the Mary Ann character and fresh insights into the cast and the show. Dawn could’ve been like so many other stars and simply shunned her past. But even into the latter years of her career, she has proved she is SPECIAL. She’s just one of those strong, confident, charming stars that handles it well. She has a good life because of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, and it hasn’t stopped her from doing a damn thing. Nope, Ms Wells is on the move, and her fans will follow her anywhere.

Mary Ann or Ginger? Personally I think it’s no contest. When you grow up loving a star, you want to believe they are genuine, caring, accessible and able to talk about their fame in a way that makes you glad you contributed to it. Dawn Wells does all that and more. She’s assured a permanent spot in the “America’s Sweetheart Hall of Fame.” Read her book. Watch those old episodes of GILLIGAN. Marvel at how composed and genuine she is when interviewed or chatting with fans. This is a gal more than worthy of admiration and boomer fan-ship. Just sit right back and you’ll hear her tales. She’s not just “the rest” (thankfully, Bob Denver helped rectify that absurdity). She’s genuinely the BEST, the girl who, in whatever capacity she affected you, was destined never to leave your memory. We all need a little Mary Ann in our lives.


DOING TIME ON PLANET SLADE: THE PAUL SLADE INTERVIEW

PART ONE: THE INTRODUCTION

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade) (photo copyright: ALEX WINN/awheadshots.com)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade) (photo copyright: ALEX WINN/awheadshots.com)

One look at Paul Slade’s web-site (Planet Slade) is all you’ll need to understand the author of the new tome, UNPREPARED TO DIE: AMERICA’S GREATEST MURDER BALLADS AND THE TRUE CRIME STORIES THAT INSPIRED THEM. You will see that Paul is not only one of the busiest men in the realm of journalistic endeavor, he is also one of the most inquisitive; that innate need to know has taken the man down some very dark backroads and alleys, into the sewers of London and the very bowels of England’s Parliament; that need to know has forced this gentle being to explore the warped psyches of criminals and vicious murderers. The time and effort put into researching the subject matter for his essays (which fall into three basic categories: “Murder Ballads,” “Secret London” and “Miscellany,” which Slade describes as “anything else I damn well feel like including”) is a full time job in itself; turning that research into entertaining pieces on significant or historic events is an art form. Working and living on Planet Slade led Paul to the idea of turning the “Murder Ballads” page of the site into a book on the subject. And, now, without further ado, we’re off to visit Planet Slade to discuss, among other things, Paul’s new book (the interview was conducted via e-mail; Iv’e kept intact the original English spellings from Paul’s replies)…

PART TWO: THE INTERVIEW

THE MULE: Paul, thanks for the great book and for taking the time to answer a few questions. First, let’s get into a bit of personal history. You’ve been a journalist for nearly 35 years. What led you down this path? Where did you start your journalistic career and what were the first stories you covered?

PAUL: When I finished my Business Studies degree in 1980, I had no idea at all how I wanted to make a living. The Watergate affair of the early 1970s had left me with a rather romantic view of journalism and I’d always enjoyed writing, so that was one of the very few areas that appealed to me, but I had no idea how to go about making that dream a reality. Then I stumbled across the media recruitment ads which THE GUARDIAN carried once a week and realised for the first time that it was possible to apply for entry-level reporters’ jobs on magazines and newspapers all over the UK.

I spent the next six months or so applying for any job in that section that looked remotely feasible and eventually struck lucky at CHEMIST AND DRUGGIST, a weekly trade magazine for retail pharmacists. They took me on to write a couple of pages of business news every week and that’s where I got my start. I was reporting company results, industry rows, boardroom changes and that kind of thing. The editor there drilled the basics of good journalistic practice into all his young team, so it proved a very good foundation.

I spent four years on C&D, then got a job on a new launch called MONEY MARKETING, which took off very rapidly and won several awards. That led to some freelancing for the nationals’ personal finance sections and the occasional bit of freelance music writing. Gradually, I managed to shift my output more towards the popular culture journalism I really wanted to do, and PlanetSlade followed in 2009.

THE MULE: I’ve been listening to music – including several of the songs chronicled in UNPREPARED TO DIE – for a very long time and, I must admit, the term “Murder Ballad” was unknown to me until Johnny Cash’s AMERICAN RECORDINGS version of “Delia’s Gone.” Can you give the readers a quick definition of the term and a brief history of the oral and lyrical traditions involved?

PAUL: I suppose a murder ballad would be any song which tells the story of an unlawful homicide – whether that story is fact, fiction or a mixture of the two. That’s a very wide field, though and I knew I’d have to adopt a tighter definition for my own work if I was ever going to do more than scratch the surface of any given song. Hence, I limit myself to those songs which tell the story of an identifiable real murder. I also decided to concentrate on songs which had been covered many times by many different artists, as these varying interpretations add an interesting extra dimension to the song’s history.

I always envisage this process as roping off a single square of turf in an enormous meadow and digging down as deep as I can in that one area alone. If I tried to excavate the entire meadow, I’d never penetrate more than an inch or two below the surface, which would not be very satisfying for either me or my readers.

Although the word’s used much more loosely these days, a ballad is actually a strict poetic form with its own rules – just as a sonnet or a limerick is. The basic structure is provided by alternating three-beat and four-beat lines, with the second and fourth lines of each verse rhyming. The opening verse of “Knoxville Girl” is a good example and here it is with the beats marked:

I met a little girl in Knoxville,

That town we all know well,

And every Sunday evening,

Out at her house I’d dwell.

The ballad form is fairly bursting with narrative momentum, which makes it an excellent way of telling a story. In the case of that “Knoxville Girl” verse, we’re only four lines into the song, but the story’s already well underway and we’re anxious to find out what happens next. The words’ steady rhythm means they’re half-musical already and easy to remember, so small wonder written ballad verses are so often transformed into songs. Whether used by the gutter poets of the Victorian age or by great artists like Coleridge and Wilde, the ballad form is irresistible.

Murder stories aren’t the only ones ballads tell, of course, but it’s only natural that this form should have been selected when 17th, 18th and 19th century British people had a murder tale to tell. Printed ballad sheets telling the killer’s story were sold at public hangings all over Britain until around 1850 and sometimes sung by the sellers to advertise their wares. The most popular sheets sold well over two million copies.

Folk singers have always loved the ballad form too, and are never happier than when a good juicy murder is the ballad’s subject. Traditional songs like these are polished by each new generation of singers which adopt them, constantly editing the song till only the core of the story and its most memorable images remain.

Many of the classic American murder ballads have their roots in much older British songs recording real murders. Early settlers took these songs with them across the Atlantic, later adapting them to their new surroundings. “Knoxville Girl” traces directly back to a British ballad called “The Bloody Miller,” which was written around 1683. “Pretty Polly” began life as a British ballad called “The Gosport Tragedy,” which dates back to the first half of the 19th century. In their new Americanised form, these songs retain not only their ballad structure, but also much of the language and imagery coined by their original versions – sometimes word-for-word.

Just as happened in Britain, the American songs were taken from town to town by travelling musicians. Home-grown American ballads could be used to spread news from one isolated rural community to another. This was a time long before radio, remember, when even those people who could read might have access to a newspaper only on their monthly trips to the nearest town. Ballads were sung to tell all kinds of stories, but a good sensational murder always been hard to beat for grabbing the audience’s attention. Murder songs’ appeal springs from the same quirk in human nature which makes us watch cop shows on TV or read true crime stories in tabloid newspapers.

THE MULE: How much of your previous work can be seen as a genesis for the material in UNPREPARED TO DIE and on your website, planetslade.com? Where did your interest in the murder ballad genre originate? Which song, in particular, fueled that interest?

PAUL: I’d done odd bits of writing for the music press before turning my attention to murder ballads, but nothing that involved analysing individual songs in any depth. That’s about the extent of the heritage as far as subject matter is concerned. More important were the skills and good habits I’d picked up in journalism of all kinds. This work had taught me the importance of getting my facts right, given me the research experience to chase those facts down and allowed me to hone my writing to a point where I could articulate exactly what I wanted to say in a clear, gripping and entertaining way.

I think I also benefitted from the fact that I’m old enough to have worked for many years in the pre-internet era. Where younger writers might assume any information that’s yet to be digitised simply doesn’t exist, I knew to dig deep among the dusty book shelves of Britain and America’s bricks-and-mortar libraries too. For all the convenience of Google, there are vast swathes of human knowledge which remain stored on paper alone, and my advanced age meant I was lucky enough to realise that.

I can think of three things which got me started seriously researching murder ballads and they all date from the noughties. Two of these three prompts directly involve “Stagger Lee,” so I guess I’d have to say that was the single most important song which drew me in.

It all began when I heard the radio DJ Andy Kershaw mention on his BBC Radio 3 show that he collected recordings of “La Bamba.” The idea of collecting one particular song in this way appealed to me, so I began collecting different recordings of “Stagger Lee.” I can’t remember why I settled on that particular song, but I’m sure Nick Cave’s stunning 1996 version of it played a part. Also, I already knew there were an awful lot of recordings of “Stagger Lee” to collect, which made finding as many as possible of them an intriguing challenge. The internet was then still in its infancy, so hunting out obscure records hadn’t yet become too easy to provide any satisfaction.

About a year later, I bought THE EXECUTIONER’S LAST SONGS, a 2002 Bloodshot Records compilation put together by Jon Langford of the Mekons. He’d taken the album on to raise funds for a death penalty moratorium project in Illinois. Langford’s approach was to team the best of our era’s Americana performers with classic murder ballads of all kinds: “The idea was to use death songs against the death penalty”, he told me.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Cover for Bloodshot Records' 2002 compilation, THE EXECUTIONER'S LAST SONGS)

The album’s highlights include Steve Earle’s version of “Tom Dooley,” the Handsome Family’s take on “Knoxville Girl” and Neko Case doing “Poor Ellen Smith.” Hearing so many great versions of these ballads on a single album got me thinking about the songs much more deeply and noticing the strands they had in common. Often, the killer’s logic seemed to be, “I love you, therefore I must kill you” and that stuck in my mind. What an odd way to look at the world.

Fast forward now to San Francisco in 2003, where I was enjoying a holiday. I spent one afternoon there mooching around in the basement music section at City Lights, the legendary counter-culture bookstore, where I found a copy of Cecil Brown’s STAGOLEE SHOT BILLY, a book telling the true story behind “Stagger Lee” itself. Reading that in a bar the same evening, I understood for the first time that many of the classic murder ballads were based on real crimes – and that those crimes were often recent enough to be researched in the newspaper archives. I started writing about murder ballads on my website a few years after that, and it’s those essays which eventually led to the book.

THE MULE: Your research into the eight ballads included in the book is painstaking. How long did the research into the true facts in this collection take? The murder ballad seems to be, primarily, a phenomenon of the American South. Did the origins of one tale prove more difficult to trace than the others? Did you discover information about these eight stories that surprised you?

PAUL: It’s hard to put a firm timescale on this. I started researching murder ballads properly in 2009, when I was getting PlanetSlade started, and finally published my book at the end of 2015. I was doing all sorts of other writing throughout those six years as well, though.

The bulk of my early work on murder ballads went into PlanetSlade’s essays (but again proved very useful when the book deal came up). Whenever I could manage a vacation trip to the US, I chose a city with links to one of my chosen ballads, where I’d spend a few days visiting the murder scene and all the relevant graves. These trips took me to Saint Louis, Cincinnati and Indiana.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade in the North Carolina embalming room where the Lawson family's eight bodies were dealt with in 1929, April 2015) (publicity photo)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade in the North Carolina embalming room where the Lawson family’s eight bodies were dealt with in 1929, April 2015) (publicity photo)

Writing the book ate up most of 2015, though I took a month away from the keyboard for one final research trip. The area around Winstom-Salem and Charlotte seems to be “Ground Zero” for the killings that inspire songs like these, so I gave myself three solid weeks in North Carolina researching “Tom Dooley,” “Poor Ellen Smith” and “Murder of the Lawson Family.” As on all my research trips, I took the opportunity to interview local historians and musicians there, as well as to walk the killers’ own streets and make them as real as I could in my own mind.

On my way down to North Carolina, I paused in New York for a meal with the country singer Laura Cantrell, who I knew was particularly interested in “Poor Ellen Smith.” Laura gave me some useful clues on the song’s origin, but I had a lot of difficulty tracing these back to the song’s birth. With the book’s deadline looming, I’d resigned myself to admitting this failure in print. I did decide on one final plunge into the newspaper archives before giving up altogether, though, and this time a lucky chance produced exactly the information I needed. A few hours later, I had not only found the 1893 article which printed this song’s first-ever lyrics, but also identified the jailbird mule thief who wrote them. That was a very satisfying moment.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Poster for the 1966 movie, FRANKIE AND JOHNNY)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Poster for the 1966 movie, FRANKIE AND JOHNNY)

There were surprises in the research for every song. I’d had no idea how deeply the “Stagger Lee” killing was embroiled in Saint Louis’ party politics, for example, with Republicans determined to see the killer hang and Democrats lobbying for his early release. The central role syphilis played in “Tom Dooley’s” murder of Laura Foster came as a shock too, as did the revelation that “Pretty Polly’s” parent song was so closely tied to Britain’s Royal Navy. I hadn’t known that “Frankie and Johnny’s” Frankie Baker had sued two Hollywood studios over distorted adaptations of her song’s story either – let alone that she’d dragged Mae West into one of those actions.

THE MULE: Obviously, this book was not written in a day or two. From the time the idea came into your head ’til you finished it, how long did you work on this project? Did your research and work extend to other ballads? Would you be interested in working on a sequel?

PAUL: As I said above, I’d been researching murder ballads – at least intermittently – ever since 2009. The bulk of the book’s work got done in 2015, though. I started writing it in February that year and delivered the finished manuscript six months later.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade at Tom Dula's grave in North Carolina, April 2015) (publicity photo)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade at Tom Dula’s grave in North Carolina, April 2015) (publicity photo)

It was a fairly tight deadline, so I had to keep all my focus just on the eight songs covered in the book, which are “Stagger Lee,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Knoxville Girl,” “Tom Dooley,” “Pretty Polly,” “Poor Ellen Smith,” “Murder of the Lawson Family” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” I was determined to interview at least one relevant musician for each of the songs, which gave me a good excuse to arrange conversations with favourite songwriters like Billy Bragg, Dave Alvin and the Bad Seeds’ Mick Harvey.

I do have one idea for a follow-up book, this one looking at the British gallows ballads which were sold at public hangings, but it’s a bit too early to talk about that.

THE MULE: The psychology behind these acts is as interesting as the stories and historical references. Was there one story that caused you to reevaluate your stance, once you researched the psychological aspects of the parties involved?

PAUL: There was one song that really got to me, but it’s one I wrote about on my website rather than in the book. It’s called “Misses Dyer, the Old Baby-Farmer” and it tells the true story of a woman in Victorian London who took in disgraced girls’ illegitimate babies, promising to give them a home. As soon as she had the money the girl paid her for this service, she’d simply stifle the baby and dump it in the Thames. This happened at the end of the 19th century and she’s thought to have murdered more than 40 babies in all.

I spent about a week researching this squalid, nihilistic tale and writing it up. By the time I’d finished I had a very bleak view of the human race and just wanted to scrub my brain clean of the whole tale. I often wonder how spending a full year or 18 months immersed in the life of a serial killer must affect the writers of these people’s biographies. Inviting Jeffrey Dahmer into your head to write a book about him is one thing, but persuading him to leave again when the job’s done may not prove so simple.

THE MULE: I was surprised to learn that both “Stagger Lee” and “Frankie and Johnny” were based on events from just across the Mississippi from my home. The story of Frankie Baker, in particular, touched something inside me…. the fact that at least three movies have used the lyrics, or simply the song title, as a jumping off spot for their script, but her real story has never been told in any meaningful way. Why do you believe her story remains largely unknown?

PAUL: I think the fact that the song’s twice been a chart hit – once for Elvis Presley and once for Sam Cooke – has worked against the real story. Neither of these chart versions bear any resemblance to what really happened, and all the movie adaptations just create further confusion. In Presley’s version, Frankie’s a singer working the Mississippi riverboats, in Sam Cooke’s she’s rich enough to buy Johnny a sports car and in Mae West’s 1933 film she marries an FBI agent. Plus, of course, she’s always a white woman.

The real story – young black sex worker kills her pimp in self-defence – is far more interesting than any of these sanitised versions, but it’s been obscured by so many distortions over the years that the genuine Frankie Baker gets lost.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Frankie Baker, circa 1899) (uncredited photo)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Frankie Baker, circa 1899) (uncredited photo)

The quote from Frankie herself that lingers most strongly with me came when she was protesting yet another cavalier Hollywood treatment of her story and the unwelcome attention which these films always brought. “I know that I’m black, but even so I have my rights,” she pleaded to one reporter. “If people had left me alone, I’d have forgotten about his thing a long time ago.” The humility and resignation of that remark breaks my heart every time I hear it.

THE MULE: Aside from your very entertaining pieces at PlanetSlade, what future works can we expect to see from the mind and desk of Paul Slade?

PAUL: I’m working on a new PlanetSlade essay at the moment, which springs from a very interesting artefact I recently discovered. It was made to commemorate a real 19th century US murder of the 1880s and, like all the best objects of this kind, leads anyone researching it into some very interesting tangents and unexpected discoveries. I don’t want to say anything more about that piece for the moment, but it looks set to keep me busy for at least the next month or so. After that, who knows?

PART THREE: UNPREPARED TO DIE

(Paul Slade; 290 pages; SOUNDCHECK BOOKS, 2015)

Front cover

Let me begin by stating, “What a great read!” Most of us have heard at least one version of at least one of the eight ballads discussed in UNPREPARED TO DIE, whether it be the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” or Sam Cooke’s “Frankie and Johnny.” I hadn’t heard the term “Murder Ballad” until it was used in reference to “Delia’s Gone” from Johnny Cash’s AMERICAN RECORDINGS in 1994; I certainly didn’t know that tunes so named were based on actual killings (after reading Slade’s book, it’s kinda hard to call some of the cases “murder”). Maybe it was because songs like “Frankie and Johnny,” “Stagger Lee” and “Tom Dooley” were such fixtures on radio and television and in the movies when I was a kid that I never really paid much attention to the dark stories told through the lyrics. Whatever the reason, those tunes were simply background noise in my youth, with a melody so stunningly simple yet so immediately captivating that they ended up getting lodged in the old brainpan and tended to make their way to the top of my internal playlist at the oddest times. I now have a deeper understanding of where those songs originated and more than a passing respect for the original balladeers and the musicians who have kept the songs alive for so long… in some cases several hundred years.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Hattie Carroll, circa February 1963) (photo credit: BALTIMORE SUN)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Hattie Carroll, circa February 1963) (photo credit: BALTIMORE SUN)

Slade’s writing throughout these eight essays, while scholarly in its depth, is very conversational in its delivery. In other words, he manages to get to the heart of the matter with decades (or centuries) old facts without boring the reader. As it turns out, the least compelling story is the one surrounding Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which tells of the sadistic murder of a 51 year old barmaid in Baltimore in 1963, the year Dylan wrote the song. Miss Carroll was black, her attacker was a wealthy and arrogant white man. While reading Slade’s account and history of the brutal act, as well as the grossly inappropriate sentence meted out to her attacker, one thought that ran through my mind was, “None of this right! This should never have happened,” but, I also thought, “Let’s get back to some more of those hundred-year-old cases.” I hate to say it, but… it appears that Hattie Carroll’s murder was just too recent and too mundane to keep my interest. Obviously, though, it piqued enough interest in both Dylan and Slade to be the subject of a song and a chapter in UNPREPARED TO DIE.

UNPREPARED TO DIE ("They all were buried in a crowded grave." Paul Slade at the Lawson family's plot in North Carolina, April 2015) (publicity photo)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (“They all were buried in a crowded grave.” Paul Slade at the Lawson family’s plot in North Carolina, April 2015) (publicity photo)

The other pieces, “Frankie and Johnny” and “The Murder of the Lawson Family” in particular, really managed to keep me involved in the stories of both the victims and the killers. In the case of Frankie Baker, who was charged with murdering her boyfriend, Allen Britt, for “paying attention to another woman,” the song is far more famous than the actual Saint Louis case. The song actually led to Miss Baker leaving Saint Louis, settling first in Nebraska, then moving on to Oregon; it seems that wherever she went, the song and the rumors followed. It’s amazing that, in the nearly 120 since Frankie killed Allen, at least three different movies (one starring Mae West, another Elvis Presley) have been produced based on the “Frankie and Johnny” song, but not one has bothered to tell the real story. “The Murder of the Lawson Family” is a gruesome tale of mental illness, probable incest, a guilty conscience and – after the fact – unimaginable greed. On Christmas Day, 1929, North Carolina tobacco farmer Charlie Lawson slaughtered his wife and six of their seven children before killing himself. Slade’s examination of the case presents several possible scenarios for what led to such a very bloody Christmas present, including an earlier brain injury and an incestuous rape of the Lawson’s oldest daughter. The latter theory posits that Lawson’s wife, Fannie, had discovered that daughter Marie was pregnant and that Charlie was his grandchild’s father. These and other factors led to a perfect storm of despair in Charlie’s mind, leaving only one solution. Several moneymaking schemes from Charlie’s brother and nephew after the tragedy are nearly as grotesque as the actual killing spree.

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Dave Alvin) (publicity photo)

UNPREPARED TO DIE (Dave Alvin) (publicity photo)

Along with the retelling of events for each of the eight killings (more than a few are of the jealous rage or “you done me wrong” variety), are interviews with historians and, more compelling, many of the musicians responsible for keeping the “Murder Ballad” alive as a viable musical genre. Insight into the art form and the songs themselves is offered from Dave Alvin, Billy Bragg, Laura Cantrell and others. Following each chapter is a list of ten of the most iconic versions of the song discussed therein, dating from the early 1920s through to some of the most recent versions, performed by many of the musicians interviewed for the book. And, like most good releases nowadays, UNPREPARED TO DIE includes several bonus features, which can be found here. The bonus material includes additional thoughts from the various musicians on each song, the genre in particular and much more (like Dave Alvin’s musings regarding killer bees), as well as play lists for each chapter. Whether you’re a music fan, a history fan or a true crime fan, UNPREPARED TO DIE should be right up your dark alley. UNPREPARED TO DIE: AMERICA’S GREATEST MURDER BALLADS AND THE TRUE CRIME STORIES THAT INSPIRED THEM is available directly from Soundcheck Books, Amazon or any of the usual outlets.


THE DESCARTES HIGHLANDS

(Eric Gamalinda; 300 pages; AKASHIC BOOKS; 2014)

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This story had me so confused for the first few chapters, I almost gave up on it; written in three distinct voices (and styles) and covering (at least) two different time periods on at least three continents (and an island nation or two), it took a while to get my head around what was happening, when it was happening and to whom. At some point, I noticed that the chapter titles… really weren’t; each character’s story had its own title; that’s when I went back to the beginning and figured out exactly what the heck was going on. Sometimes I can be a little slow on the uptake, but once I get on board with a concept, I can generally roll along rather nicely.

Author Eric Gamalinda (photo credit: ROME JORGE)

Author Eric Gamalinda (photo credit: ROME JORGE)

The story follows the paths of two young men, born just hours apart in neighboring huts in a poor village in the Philippines. Both men are unaware of the existence of the other or the reasons for their adoptions; their father, an American named Andrew Breszky, told their mothers (who didn’t know that Breszky was the other child’s father) that he was going to sell the babies for adoption and send the money back to the village to save their families the embarrassment of, not only being unwed mothers, but also giving birth to an American child. One of the boys was adopted by a woman in New York, the other by a couple from the south of France. The title of the story comes from the region of the moon where Apollo 16 landed in 1972, the year the boys were born; the mother in New York would give her adopted son letters from his father, with the return address listed as “Mister Breszky, the Descartes Highlands, the Moon.” Interspersed with his sons’ stories, the story of political prisoner Andrew Breszky unfolds, allowing the reader insight into the psyches of the two men, desperately seeking a long lost clue to who they are and why they act as they do. THE DESCARTES HIGHLANDS is a psychologically taut drama that unravels right in front of you, much like the relationships and mental stability of the two sons. Filipino author Eric Gamalinda spins a tale of lies and loneliness, of longing for the truth and for an acceptance that always seems to be at arm’s length; the acceptance is there – from parents, from girlfriends and lovers – but the pair can never quite trust their own feelings… to believe that what is being offered to them freely doesn’t come with some sort of string attached. Yeah… the story can be a bit confusing and, occasionally, mind-numbing in its intricacies but, if you stick with it, following the ups and downs, the in and outs… I guarantee that you will be richly rewarded. Gamalinda’s storytelling and bleak imagery is disturbingly realistic, his dialogue frighteningly authentic. It’s time that you put on your thinking caps and delve into THE DESCARTES HIGHLANDS.


THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN

(Jill Lepore; 410 pages; ALFRED A KNOPF PUBLISHING/RANDOM HOUSE BOOKS; 2014)

secret history of wnder woman cover

If you’re going into THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN expecting a major discourse on some secret comic book origin story of the Amazon princess, you are definitely looking in the wrong direction. The book is more of an historical look back at the suffrage and feminist movements of the late nineteenth and the first eight decades of the twentieth centuries. It also works as, quite possibly, the most comprehensive and accurate biography of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, who was – to say the least – a deeply flawed individual. Many of Marston’s flaws and foibles were at the core of the character’s creation and writer Jill Lepore’s examination of his early scripts and notes highlights his attempts to forward his fervent feminist beliefs through a series of failed teaching positions and “scientific” experiments that were – and, I’m being generous here – borderline, at best.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (AMERICAN SCHOLAR 13 1943-44) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (AMERICAN SCHOLAR 13 1943-44) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

Almost from birth, William Moulton Marston surrounded himself with strong, independent thinking women; he had to… he was far too lazy to have any job other than the odd “professorship” that allowed him to practice his borderline kinky experiments virtually unmolested. His aunt, his female students and lab assistants and his wives carried the financial burdens of the classroom, laboratory and household. A student aide and paramour (Olive Byrne, niece of famed feminist and trail-blazing birth control advocate, Margaret Sanger) was brought into the home as nanny to his two young sons; when she became pregnant, Marston made her wife number two, telling the two Missus Marstons that the third (and eventually fourth) child would continue under the tutelage and care of number two, while the more successful number one would be called “Mother” to all four and continue to bring in the household funds. The fact that these women didn’t kill him (or each other) must be proof that females are, indeed, the superior sex… cuz I woulda beat the guy like a baby seal.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (DC Comics editorial meeting, 1942, with William Moulton Marston. artist Harry G Peter, editor Sheldon Mayer, publisher MC Gaines) (Publicity photo)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (DC Comics editorial meeting, 1942, with William Moulton Marston. artist Harry G Peter, editor Sheldon Mayer, publisher MC Gaines) (Publicity photo)

But, anyway, the great character of the women in his life DID give Marston the template for the first female super-hero; the fact that he was able to snow the editors and publisher of DC Comics with the concept that Wonder Woman’s strength was best exhibited by her continually being bound in some form or other (almost always by the male of the species, with chains being the favorite mode of bondage, though the Amazon was also harnessed into a straightjacket, locked in an electrified cage and hogtied with a rope) speaks volumes to the man’s mastery at the art of humbuggery. When the thought police came a-calling, he would be sure to have all of his Amazons in a row, usually in the form of one of his smitten female colleagues or some borderline-legitimate psychologist who moved in the same semi-reputable circles as Marston, ready with their own convoluted explanations of how depicting such scenes of bondage would, ultimately, empower women to become the family, political and social leaders that is their destiny; disputes and wars would cease, leading to a Utopian society with peace and love and dancing.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of WONDER WOMAN #7, Winter 1943) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of WONDER WOMAN #7, Winter 1943) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

The guy musta been doing something right, however, as Wonder Woman became wildly popular. And, not just among the young boys who were the vast majority of comic book readers at that time; Princess Diana had found a new audience as young girls all across America began reading her adventures and emulating her amazing feats in their backyards and living rooms. When two members of the Justice Society of America, the Flash and Green Lantern, were awarded their own books, the editors of ALL STAR COMICS conducted a readers poll to which hero should take their place within the ranks. Wonder Woman was far and away the victor. However, Marston wasn’t writing the adventures of the JSA, so the Amazon was made official secretary of the team, in charge of holding down the fort while the men were off fighting evil and in charge of coffee and snacks during meetings. These tales were, by and large, written by legendary comic scribe, Gardner F Fox, though it has long been rumored that Robert Kanigher may have ghosted several of those JSA adventures. That would actually make some kind of since, as Kanigher hated not only Marston, but his creation, as well. This visceral dislike of the character led to the eventual dumbing down of the Wonder Woman strip, as Kanigher was named as Marston’s replacement upon the latter’s death in 1947, a post he held for more than 22 years; suddenly, Diana Prince’s alter ego became a besotted and lovelorn member of the weaker sex, falling prey to ridiculous scheme after ridiculous scheme as she pined away for her boss in Military Intelligence, Captain (eventually Colonel) Steve Trevor. Trevor ended up saving the Amazonian warrior as often – or more often – as she saved him.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of MS #1, July 1972) (Art by ROSS ANDRU and MIKE ESPOSITO)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of MS #1, July 1972) (Art by ROSS ANDRU and MIKE ESPOSITO)

As the turbulent sixties were coming to an enlightened end, Kanigher finally relinquished his hold on Wonder Woman in 1968 and Diana relinquished her powers to become a mortal woman, working as a secret agent to clear Steve Trevor of a bogus murder charge. The death knell for this “liberated” Wonder Woman came with the December 1972 issue, a “special Women’s Lib issue.” Denny O’Neil was gone, too, replaced by… Robert Kanigher, back for another (short-lived) round. The damage to the venerable character had been done during Kanigher’s first monumental run and, seemingly, month after month, the poor scripts and ill-conceived attempts at relevancy piled degradation upon degradation on the Amazon princess, even as a new publication from the National Women’s Political Caucus called MS featured her on the cover of their debut issue in 1972 (which may have prompted the return of the original Wonder Woman costume and powers a few months later). Wonder Woman remains a stalwart of DC Comics, considered to be an integral part of “the Trinity,” with Superman and Batman. A couple of generations of new creative teams have removed the layers of tarnish to return the character to something much closer to the character William Moulton Marston originally envisioned nearly 75 years ago. Lepore has delved deep and dissected every aspect, every historical event that has gone into the creation of the first female super-hero; likewise, she points to the many ways that Wonder Woman – and, by extension, Marston – has molded the history of the women’s movement since she first burst onto the scene in 1941. You don’t have to be comic book fan to enjoy THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN, nor do you have to be a woman or a feminist to appreciate the history and politics that led to Wonder Woman’s creation and longevity; the book is just a good, thought-provoking read.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (author Jill Lepore) (photo credit: DARI MICHELE)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (author Jill Lepore) (photo credit: DARI MICHELE)

It should be noted that since the book’s publication, several descendents of the Marstons have come forward to dispute many of the assertions that Ms Lepore puts forth regarding the family and their lifestyle; for what it’s worth, much of this information has been floating around for quite awhile and I tend to support the Lepore’s version of events. I’ll leave it to you to make up your own minds.


MEL BLANC: THE MAN OF A THOUSAND VOICES

(Ben Ohmart; 706 pages; BEARMANOR MEDIA; 2012) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

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Even if you don’t recognize the name or the face, if you’ve been on this planet for any time in the past 80 years or so, you most certainly recognize the voice… or, to be more accurate, the voices: Bugs Bunny, Barney Rubble, Foghorn Leghorn… the list of animated A-listers voiced by the legendary Mel Blanc is improbably long. Though Blanc’s is a familiar name to aficionados of early radio and classic animation, few among us know much about the man himself. In a concise 220 pages (more on that HUGE page discrepancy a little later), we are given insight to, and learn the life story of, the most famous voice actor of all time. Author and classic radio, television and movie historian Ben Ohmart heavily relies on Noel Blanc’s unpublished biography about his Dad, as well as Walt Mitchell’s extensive interviews, conducted over a decades-long friendship. Under Ohmart’s deft hand, MEL BLANC: THE MAN OF A THOUSAND VOICES is the most comprehensive exploration of the life of the man who would be Daffy (and Porky and Woody and Secret Squirrel and… well, you get the point).

Mel Blanc (photo credit: GAB ARCHIVE/REDFERNS)

Mel Blanc (photo credit: GAB ARCHIVE/REDFERNS)

Ohmart covers the extraordinary story, from the birth of Melvin Jerome Blank on May 30, 1908 through his childhood in Portland, Oregon, his first, tentative steps into the world of radio at age 22 and through one of the most storied careers in the entertainment industry. During a lengthy radio career, Mel performed alongside such luminaries as Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Al Jolson, Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie Allen and Judy Canova and on weekly programs like THE ABBOTT AND COSTELLO SHOW, THE JOHNSONS WAX PROGRAM (in the “Fibber McGee and Molly” series), THE LIFE OF RILEY (starring William Bendix) and many others. As his radio work continued to (barely) pay the bills, Mel began making appearances on the movie screen, as well as doing voice work for Warner Brothers’ cartoons. Starting his cartoon career as one of several actors voicing the different characters (much like his radio work), Mel was so accomplished (his nickname was “First-take Blanc”) that he was soon doing most – if not all – of the voices for the Warner cartoons, demanding and receiving one of the most lucrative contracts in the business. He would also work (surreptitiously) for competing studios (including Walter Lantz Productions for Universal Studios).

Mel Blanc with, from lower left, Jack Benny, Don Wilson and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson (publicity photo)

Mel Blanc with, from lower left, Jack Benny, Don Wilson and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (publicity photo)

Mel’s family life is expertly documented, an amazing story of love, devotion and sacrifice; his wife, Estelle, was always supportive of Blanc’s aspirations and her love and caring hands were instrumental in the long healing process after a devastating car wreck almost took his life in January, 1961. Their son, Noel, remained at Mel’s side throughout the ordeal, as well, helping to set up a home recording studio so his father could continue the work he loved from his bed; Noel eventually became Mel’s business partner and made it possible for the actor to explore other avenues for his talents, including the Mel Blanc School of Voice and Commercials. Noel Blanc (it was an unfortunate coincidence that the Jewish parents had given their son a name, that in French, translates to “White Christmas”) also became the voice of many of his father’s characters after Mel’s death. Jack Benny remained a close and trusted friend, one of the few “show biz” people Blanc elevated to that status. Mel always had a kind word (usually in character, as Bugs Bunny) for any and all children, making numerous appearances at hospitals; he never refused an autograph, though he usually signed them “Bugs.”

Mel Blanc (uncredited photo)

Mel Blanc (uncredited photo)

Ohmart’s style is warm and friendly, like his subject and, early on, it’s quite obvious that he’s also a fan; with the addition of excerpts from Noel’s biography and Mitchell’s interviews, by the end of the narrative, Mel Blanc is as familiar as any of his legendary characters. That, my friends, is the hallmark of a good biographer. The great – sometimes rare – photos are an added bonus to the story, even if they’re all black and white.

SPEECHLESS (Warner Brothers' Mel Blanc tribute artwork)

SPEECHLESS (Warner Brothers’ Mel Blanc tribute artwork)

Now… about the nearly 500 unaccounted-for pages. There are tributes (from the modern voices of Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny, Bob Bergen and Joe Alaskey; Walt Mitchell and others), a transcript of the speech given by Mel at the 1964 convention of the American Association of Advertising and – most importantly – a comprehensive listing of all of Mel’s work in radio (compiled by Martin Grams, Junior), feature films (contributed by Randy Bonneville), television (including cartoon work on THE FLINTSTONES, THE JETSONS and various Saturday morning shows from the Hanna-Barbera production machine), recordings (compiled by Mitchell) and an exhaustive, 300 page list of cartoons and short subjects, compiled by Bonneville and Keith Scott; that final category is virtually indispensable for any fan of Mel Blanc or his Warner Brothers cartoons output. The price is a hefty 44 dollars, American, but the memories alone make it money well spent.


TOMMY JAMES: A TALK WITH THE ’60S ICON ABOUT HIS SURPRISING CAREER

(SOON TO BE A SCORSESE-PRODUCED MOVIE)

Tommy James

Story and interview by KEVIN RENICK, writing for The Mule

Children, behave!/That’s what they say when we’re together.” “Look over yonder, what do you see?/The sun is a-risin’/Most definitely.” “C’mon everyone, we got to get together now./ Oh yeah, love’s the only thing that matters anyhow.” If you’re of a certain age, you know those lyrics as the opening verses of some of the most beloved and successful pop songs of all time, and chances are you can sing the rest of the words with no trouble. For those compositions are just part of the amazing pop catalogue of Mister Tommy James, one of the most successful recording artists of all time. James had an unprecedented series of major hits in the 1960s: “Hanky Panky,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mony Mony,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “Ball of Fire,” “Draggin’ the Line.” And those are just the HUGE hits, there were many, many others that charted. But among the countless surprises in James’ career is how so many of his songs had a second life due to all the cover versions: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts scored a Top 10 hit with “Crimson and Clover” in 1981, teen star Tiffany scored her biggest hit with a cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” and new waver Billy Idol had a dance floor smash with his incendiary take on “Mony Mony.” Both of the latter were in the late ’80s, and kept James’ name out there despite all the changes in the music industry. This is not to even mention the many James compositions that ended up in movies and TV shows. His songs have truly been omnipresent in the history of American rock and roll.

Nothing, however, is as startling all these years later as the too-weird-to-be-believed saga of James’ years at Roulette Records, which it turns out, was a front for organized crime. In his suspense-filled 2010 autobiography ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC: ONE HELLUVA RIDE WITH TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS, James not only gives plenty of interesting details about his hits themselves, he tells a tale of being under the thumb of mobsters like Morris Levy that is so gripping, it sounds like something Martin Scorsese would dream up. In fact, the DENVER POST called the book “the music industry version of GOODFELLAS.” Not only that, one of Scorsese’s producers, Barbara DeFina (who worked on GOODFELLAS, CASINO and CAPE FEAR) is set to produce the James film. It’s all pretty heady, enthralling stuff for an amiable kid from Niles, Michigan who just wanted to play music.

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Tommy James was born Thomas Gregory Jackson in 1947, and though born in Dayton, Ohio, his family moved to Niles early on. He was a child model at the age of four, and formed his first band, the Tornadoes, when he was only 12. Soon after, the band changed their named to the Shondells. In 1964, a local DJ, at WNIL in Niles, named Jack Douglas launched a small label, Snap Records, which recorded some early Shondells tunes. One of these was “Hanky Panky,” a catchy little ditty penned by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Some locals dug it, but there was no budget for promotion at the time, and the song was largely forgotten about. But in the first of countless legendary incidents in James’ stellar career, something unpredictable happened. In 1965, Bob Mack, who was a local dance promoter in Pittsburgh, found a copy of “Hanky Panky” in a used record bin, and began playing it at his dance clubs. An enterprising bootlegger then started pressing copies of the disc, and it sold an estimated 80,000 copies in Pittsburgh in ten days. By early 1966, the tune was Number One on Pittsburgh radio. And, after James got word of what was happening and flew to Pennsylvania to meet with Mack and Chuck Rubin (the talent booker for Mack’s clubs), the resulting promotional efforts led “Hanky Panky” all the way to the top of the singles charts by July of 1966. Much had already changed for James by then; he no longer even had the services of the original Shondells. But Tommy met a five-man group called the Raconteurs at the Thunderbird Club in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and found great chemistry with them. So the rechristened Tommy James and the Shondells started doing shows and shopping for record labels. Rubin, an experienced industry type, suggested they go to New York, where the majority of the key labels were located. And one of their last stops was Roulette Records. The head of the label, Morris Levy, was initially out of town and James and company heard nothing back at first. Oh, but the story was to get so much more interesting than the young Tommy could ever imagine, and we should hear it right from him.

Manager Leonard Stogel, Tommy James and Morris Levy, management agreement signing, 1966 (publicity photo)

Manager Leonard Stogel, Tommy James and Morris Levy, management agreement signing, 1966 (publicity photo)

Suffice to say that James was soon recording all those classic hits that every baby boomer has memorized, and achieving his wildest, most improbable dreams… although not quite the way he imagined. I was lucky enough to speak with James by phone last fall, and I began our talk by telling him how much his music meant to me in the late ’60s. I had a particular obsession with the song “Sweet Cherry Wine,” which I thought was beautiful and produced just brilliantly. That song was my favorite of the year in 1969, and the first album I can ever remember buying with my own money was THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS, released that year. James is an amiable, charming person in conversation, and he is well aware of how incredible his story is. He’s involved in the ongoing development of the movie based on his life and book, and he still tours and releases new music. I first met James in the late ’70s, when I attended a New Year’s Eve show he was performing while I suffered from a horrible cold. James said he played in Saint Louis the first time in 1966, but couldn’t remember the venue. What follows is an edited version of our lengthy interview.

THE MULE: Tommy, it is so amazing to talk with you. I wanted to start out by telling you how much I loved “Sweet Cherry Wine” back in the ’60s. It was really one of the first songs that gave me chills, every time. I couldn’t wait to hear it on the radio when I listened.

TJ: Well thank you. It’s as close as we ever got to a protest song. It’s a semi-religious song. There was no such thing as being politically correct back in the ’60s. The singles that you did, and we were basically doing singles then, were like snapshots of where you were as a human being. That was one of the songs in the mix between the CRIMSON AND CLOVER album and CELLOPHANE SYMPHONY, the magic year of 1969. All the records we did were so different from one another. “Crystal Blue Persuasion” was so different from “Sweet Cherry Wine,” which was in 3/4 time and, “Sweet Cherry Wine” was so different from “Crimson and Clover.” We outsold the Beatles with singles.

THE MULE: Wow, that’s amazing. And things were so crazy back then, the way rock and roll was progressing.

TJ: In late 1968, we were out on the road with Hubert Humphrey, we did the presidential campaign. And the whole industry changed from singles to albums in the 90-day period we were out with him. In August of ’68, when we left, all the major acts were singles acts… Gary Puckett, the Buckinghams, the Rascals and us and the Association. And we came back 90 days later and it was Blood Sweat and Tears, Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills and Nash. The world had turned upside down in the music business. So we were very lucky to be working on “Crimson and Clover” at that very moment. Because that single allowed us to make the jump from singles to albums, from “Top 40” to FM progressive album rock. I don’t think there’s any other single we ever did that would have allowed us to do that in one shot like that.

Tommy James with Hubert Humphrey (uncredited photo)

Tommy James with Hubert Humphrey (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: “Crimson and Clover” and then, “Sweet Cherry Wine.” I wanted to say that those songs were among the first I remember hearing where background vocals were a key texture and added to the haunting nature of the song. You were doing something unique, I couldn’t even explain it at the time, but those background harmonies were amazing. Can you explain a little about what you were trying to do?

TJ: As music got more and more complicated, the background parts became actually almost part of the lead. With “Crimson and Clover,” it happened almost by accident. Basically, we had done the record with tremolo and we put it together really quickly. With tremolo on the guitar, that was sort of the signature sound. When we got to the end, we had the fade, we knew what was going to be there. We just decided to throw tremolo on it. So, we actually recorded the backgrounds straight, and then piped ‘em out through the guitar amp, and then mic’d the guitar amp, turned on the tremolo like we’d done with the guitars, and brought it back thru the board. The point was, it became sort of the signature sound of the record and it became our biggest selling single.

Tommy James and the Shondells Crimson and Clover picture sleeve, 1968

Tommy James and the Shondells Crimson and Clover picture sleeve, 1968

THE MULE: Do you have a personal favorite story about a song from back then? About where something came from, for example?

TJ: Well, we’re doing a movie. We’re gonna try to put as much of this stuff in the movie as we can.

THE MULE: I read that. It sounds amazing. Wasn’t Scorsese interested in the film?

TJ: His producer, Barbara DeFina, is going to produce our movie. She produced HUGO, GOODFELLAS, CASINO, CAPE FEAR. She’s an incredible talent. She’s doing the movie of the book.

THE MULE: And you’re a consultant on it?

TJ: Sure, sure. And we’re going to be working very closely with the screenplay writer, Matthew Stone. Over the next few months or so, the screenplay will be put together. And also, we have several more stories that will be in the movie, than we had time for in the book.

THE MULE: I read your book with amazement, I gotta say. I just couldn’t believe it. I never knew any of that stuff about the mob, I just liked your music so much. And my jaw dropped as I read about all those shenanigans you went through with Morris Levy. How did you even keep your cool?

TJ: Well, what it boiled down to is that we constantly had to ask ourselves if it would be smarter to get out of this thing. When we were first approaching record labels in New York, “Hanky Panky,” our first record, sort of exploded out of Pittsburgh. Really unexpectedly so. I grabbed the first bar band I could find because I couldn’t put the original group back together. We were in NY two weeks later and we made the rounds of all the record companies to try to get a national or international deal. So, this is spring of 1966. I’m 19 years old and we get to New York, and we’re taken around by a couple of people who had been in the business a long time. We got a yes from CBS, RCA, Atlantic. And Kama Sutra who were hot at the time. And the last place we took the record to was Roulette. And you know, at the end of the day we didn’t pay much attention. I thought it would be great to be with Columbia Records, one of the big corporate labels at the time. So, I went to bed that night feeling real good. And we woke up the next morning, and all of a sudden all the record companies that had said YES the day before, suddenly said, “Tom, I’m afraid we’re gonna have to pass.” And I said, “What d’ya mean you’re gonna have to pass? I thought we had a deal!” And finally, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic told us the truth, that Morris Levy at Roulette Records had called all the other companies, and basically backed them down. (James speaks in a low-pitched mobster voice) “’This is my fuckin’ record company, back off!” And they did. Red flags went up right there… what was so special about Roulette? We’d heard rumors, but didn’t believe it. But apparently, we were gonna be on Roulette, because the first offer, we couldn’t refuse! (he laughs) All of a sudden, we started recognizing people we were doing business with. We’d meet somebody up in Morris’ office, and a week later we’d see them on the TV news being taken out of a warehouse in New Jersey in handcuffs. Y’know… “Didn’t we just see them in Morris’ office?”

Tommy James and the Shondells receive their first gold record from Morris Levy, 1966 (publicity photo)

Tommy James and the Shondells receive their first gold record from Morris Levy, 1966 (publicity photo)

THE MULE: That is NOT exactly what a musician hopes for from their first label.

TJ: No! Roulette was basically a front for the Genovese crime family in New York. In addition to being a functioning record label. But if we had gone with one of the corporate labels, I’ll tell you what would’ve happened. We would have been turned over to an in-house A&R guy and that’s probably the last that anyone would have heard of us. Especially with a record like “Hanky Panky.”

THE MULE: Oh, that’s hard to believe. You think so? So, was that sort of the trade off you had to make, that you were sacrificing money for the artistic freedom you were given?

TJ: Sure. But we didn’t know that at first. It took us a while to realize that we weren’t going to get mechanical royalties. We weren’t gonna get paid for all this. Of course, we made money from all kinds of other directions, like touring, commercials. All that. But mechanical royalties, no. We had to constantly ask ourselves if we wanted to take our life in our hands and try to get outta this thing. Or, because we were having such great success there, if we could just keep our mouth shut and go along, and have the hits. Because we were making so much money in other areas, like touring. I think we made the right decision to stay. ‘Cause it worked out for us. Plus, I get to tell the story now. But we ended up doing about $110 million in record sales with Roulette.

THE MULE: There was a point in the book that was really cathartic, when you finally told Levy off after years of being kinda screwed, and not getting the money you earned. It felt like a big moment.

TJ: (He laughs) I have such mixed feelings about the whole thing. Because the truth is, every time I go to say something really nasty about Morris Levy and Roulette, I have to stop myself. The truth is, if it hadn’t been for Morris Levy, there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James. That is true. However, having said that, there were a lot of bitter feelings. And there was a lot of danger up there. It was a dangerous place to be.

Tommy James and the Shondells on the Ed Sullivan Show (uncredited photo)

Tommy James and the Shondells on the Ed Sullivan Show (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: You mean like, were there times you feared for your life?

TJ: Yes! One of the times, y’know, they were having this big gang war in New York. The Gambino family was taking over, and Morris was on the wrong side. And Morris left for Spain and wasn’t heard from for almost a year. And the rest of us were just left holding the bag at Roulette. So, my attorney told me flat out, “I think it would be a real good idea if you left town ’til this damn thing blows over.” There was almost 300 people killed. Bodies were flying around all over the place. He said, “If they can’t get Morris, they’re likely to go after what’s making Morris money, and that’s YOU.” So I said, “Oh, that’s freakin’ great!” So I had to go to Nashville. I went to Nashville and did an album with Elvis’ guys. That was in 1971. And then I get back, thinking everything was over, and Tommy Eboli, Morris’ partner, who was the head of the family by that time, all of a sudden he gets killed. That’s when I exploded. I said, “I gotta get out of here. I’m done.” But Morris wasn’t gonna let me go. He said (low voice again) “You’re not goin’ anywhere.” So, I basically went about destroying my own career. Essentially, I stopped making any more records for Morris. I’d write stuff and ,sometimes I’d record it, but I wouldn’t turn it in.

THE MULE: That was purposeful on your part?

TJ: Oh yeah. God, yes. It was a horrible thing to have to do. But I finally got out by 1974. I went with Fantasy Records, on the west coast. But, we were just real lucky to make it out of there in one piece. So the gist of the book and the movie is, that here we are, trying to have this career in rock and roll, with this dark and sinister and frightening story going on behind the scenes, and we can’t talk about it.

THE MULE: There can’t be too many rock stars whose career went like this. It’s quite unique!

TJ: Probably true. When we started writing the book, Martin Fitzpatrick, my co-author and I, we were originally gonna call the book CRIMSON AND CLOVER, we were gonna write about the hits, and making records and writing songs, and that would’ve been great. But we got about a third of the way into it and,, we realized that if we don’t tell the whole Roulette story, we’ll be cheating ourselves and everybody else. I was very nervous about finishing the thing. Cause some of these guys were still walking around. And it’s not like we were talking about a huge amount of criminal activity. I mean, there was some. But the fact you were talking about this stuff could’ve gotten you killed. So I was nervous. And we put it on the shelf for about three years. And finally, in 2006, the last of the Roulette regulars as I called them, passed on. And we finally felt like we could finish the book, which took us two or three years to do. When we did, we immediately got a deal with Simon and Schuster. They just gobbled it right up.

Tommy James with ME, THE MOB, AND ME (uncredited photo)

Tommy James with ME, THE MOB, AND ME (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: And you started getting all those royalties that you were cheated out of before.

TJ: Of course. But then, at the end of all that, we started getting calls for the movie rights and for the Broadway rights. It’s gonna be a Broadway show after that. So, this is gonna be a real interesting time.

THE MULE: What kind of a shift, aesthetically, happened for you with your music after the Roulette era ended?

TJ: Well, in the ’70s, by that time music itself had changed. We kind of went with that flow. The band and I had broken up in 1970, so I was by myself doing this. The first place I went was Fantasy, and we had two albums out there. They did pretty well for us. Fantasy was a great place to be, an interesting place. Couldn’t be any further geographically from Roulette than it was. And then. after those two records, I came back to New York and signed with Millennium Records, which was RCA. And had three more chart records, one went number one, “Three Times in Love,” in 1980. We were very lucky because I took three years off in 1981 and sort of collected my publishing and got a lot of my masters back. And it was really a good time creatively. Finally, in 1988, I began recording again. We were getting all kinds of cover records in the 1980s. A lot of movies and stuff. And I released a record in 1990, the HI-FI album. That did very well for us. And that’s kind of where the book ends, in 1990. ‘Cause that’s when Morris died. He was indicted in 1986, and was put on trial in 1988. And he lost. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. But, he died before he could serve any time. He died of colon cancer in 1990.

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Did you ever have any final conversation with him during those days?

TJ: The end of the book and of the movie are gonna be quite touching. Because, basically, what happened is that he asked for me. As I’m rushing out the door to do a gig in Chicago – this actually happened – the first gig on this promotional tour that I was doing for the HI-FI album. It was the first album I’d put out in 10 years, so it was a big deal. And Morris was asking for me. I didn’t realize how sick he was. And Howard (an accountant at Roulette Records) said, “If you wanna see him, you better get up to the farm right away.” So I said, well okay, I’ll be back the next day. And he died that night. So I never officially got a chance to say goodbye to him. The last scene in the movie is going to be, where I am telling this story. In the book, I’m actually telling the story after he died, to a reporter there in Chicago. I go down from the theatre, about two in the morning. It’s a beautiful, crisp night in Chicago. And I’m by myself. And we’re gonna go back to the hotel. The limo driver is snoozing. And I get in the back of the limo, and I sort of have this imaginary conversation with Morris. This is at the end of the movie, and I get a chance to say goodbye to him that way. The funny part is, in the film, at the very end, the closing credits happen right then. And the limo takes off, you can see the Chicago skyline. And the credits start rolling. And this new version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” that I did with the original Shondells. I brought them up from Pittsburgh. Took ‘em in the studio, and we did this slow, beautiful version of the song at the end.

THE MULE: Oh man, that gives me chills.

TJ: The funny part is, the words work so well. Because Morris was gone, and we’re alone now! It worked so well in this somber moment, just as well as they did in the original teeny bop love song from the ’60s.

Tommy James (photo credit: TOM WHITE/THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Tommy James (photo credit: TOM WHITE/THE NEW YORK TIMES)

THE MULE: There are three of the Shondells still alive, right?

TJ: Yes. Mike, Ronnie and Eddie. Course, I’m out on the road now every year with a new group of Shondells.

THE MULE: I wanted to ask you about one of the many covers of your songs… there’s been a zillion. But, the Billy Idol version of “Mony Mony,” which became a huge dance hit. You surely knew about this obscene four-line chant, that people started doing in the song. How did that come about?

TJ: That happened on a spring break by a bunch of kids from Chicago, who went down to Fort Lauderdale during the ’70s. And they started doing that to the song. I don’t know… it was amazing, they would sometimes do that when I was onstage. And I thought I was getting booed offstage. That just kinda happened, one of those spontaneous things the college kids just made up.

THE MULE: Two other funny things I read. You actually said NO to George Harrison about something in 1968? What was that all about?

TJ: Well it wasn’t that I said no. George Harrison wrote with a group he was producing, called Grapefruit. What happened was, when the Beatles started Apple, it started out as a publishing company before it was a record company. And their idea was to write songs for all their friends. For other artists. That was the original reason for Apple. George wrote me a bunch of songs. “Mony Mony” had been the biggest record of the decade in England. It was actually bigger over there than it was here. So, they wrote me oh, eight or ten songs. But they all sounded like “Mony Mony”. They brought ‘em over here and delivered ‘em to my manager. At that time, we had moved on to “Crimson and Clover,” to sort of another sound. And so I never really got a chance to do those songs. And I felt terrible, I never got a chance to thank George for what he had done. I just always felt bad about that.

THE MULE: Another thing I did not know. You almost died in 1970, right?

TJ: Well, that’s true. I collapsed onstage in Alabama. That was real scary. I was popping a lot of uppers at the time. And they all caught up with me onstage. I was lucky I didn’t have a heart attack. It was close.

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I wanted to ask you about a couple of the more recent songs. I was struck by “Megamation Man.” It’s an interesting song, with that little boy’s voice on it. Was he one of your kids, or just a kid you found?

TJ: No, it was one of the kids of my engineer, with whom I was making the record at the time. I wrote that song back in 1994, actually. It got recorded about ten years later. And it’s about what’s called the new world order. I guess you could call it the police state that’s being set up right now around the world.

THE MULE: Is megamation a real word?

TJ: I made it up, as far as I know. It’s about the character that scripture calls “the anti-Christ.” It’s a strange topic to be writing about in rock and roll, but I just felt the urge to do it.

THE MULE: How much do you allow politics or topical concerns to affect your music? Early on, “Sweet Cherry Wine” was an exception, but do you have a line there that you don’t want to cross when you are writing something?

TJ: Sometimes…. my view is that, when you write a song, it can come from several different places. It can be something that you imagine. But, when you write a song, you are writing a little story. No matter how trivial the lyrics, you are writing a story. It’s sort of a snapshot. It doesn’t have to be about real life. But sometimes it is. “Megamation Man” was about a topic that I felt strongly about, and wanted to make it musical. It’s not easy to do that sometimes. But every now and then, I have the urge to do that.

Tommy James (photo credit: MICHAEL BUSH/UPI)

Tommy James (photo credit: MICHAEL BUSH/UPI)

THE MULE: And you re-recorded a new version of “Sweet Cherry Wine.” What made you do that?

TJ: My engineer came to me and was playing the piano. He’s a great musician. And he played me this sort of gospel version of “Sweet Cherry Wine.” And I said, “We gotta do that.” ‘Cause, really, that’s a gospel song. And so we created a little choir, and I was just really happy with that record. In 2006, we released the HOLD THE FIRE album. And we had three top five adult contemporary records from that album. One of them went Number One, “Love Words.” And so, that was our first time back on the charts for quite some time. We were gonna release “SCW” as a single but we decided not to.

THE MULE: I also wanted to mention the song “Give It All,” which I thought was really strong. It seemed like you had reached some new kind of powerful place as a vocalist with songs like that. Did you feel that yourself?

TJ: Thank you. To me, my favorite album that I have done in the last 40 years is our Christmas album. (I LOVE CHRISTMAS, released in 2008 on Aura Records) I have never sounded better vocally. It all just came together. I recorded it with Jimmy Wisner, who I had first started making records with in 1967. Just this last Christmas, we released it on vinyl, as well. But I have been really blessed with being able to keep my voice. In my view, I’ve gotten a little better. I’ve gained almost an octave that I didn’t have as a kid. Usually, it’s the other way around.

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Are you still enjoying making music just as much as in the old days?

TJ: Oh. yeah, I am. When we play on the road, I see three generations of fans at the concerts and it’s amazing.

THE MULE: Well, a lot of us grew up with your songs and just have vivid memories associated with them. There must be people that come up and tell you stories all the time, right? Poignant stories about what songs meant to them? Does anything stand out?

TJ: The funny thing is that radio was a much more intimate media than movies or TV or anything else and, your record on the radio was more intimate than anything. So, when people come up to me, they have memories attached to that song. And so do I! I feel that way about other acts during that period of time, like the Beach Boys or the Beatles. I have a lot of memories attached to the music. People feel like they know you. And your audience becomes like an extended family. It’s as close to a religious experience as you can have in rock and roll.

THE MULE: Who were some of the artists who affected or influenced you when you were coming up in music?

TJ: Oh, man… all of them. I listened to the Beach Boys’ records and I’m there. The Four Seasons. I used to PLAY a lot of that stuff, it wasn’t just listening to it. I was in cover bands in high school and so forth. So I played all this stuff. “1-2-3″ by Len Barry. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard that record. It’s amazing what music does for me. I can tell you what year it was, where I was in my life, I can almost tell you what I had for dinner that night.

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Well Tommy, there are so many other things I’d love to ask you, but I know we have to wind down now. Do you have certain hopes for your musical future, things that you want to accomplish that you haven’t quite done yet?

TJ: Well, you know we just started our YouTube channel. YouTube people came to me over the previous Christmas holiday and asked me if I would like to have a YouTube channel, because our catalog was so deep. And I said, “Yeah. What’s THAT?” (laughs) And they told me. And it’s all your past stuff, plus new stuff. So every two to three weeks, we put up a new video on the YouTube channel. It’s usually me talking about the song or where it came from. And we’re gonna keep putting up new music.

THE MULE: Finally, and this is silly, but I gotta ask. Does your baby still do the hanky panky?

TJ: Oh yeah. It never stopped. When we still play that record, the place kind of explodes.

Tommy James with his gold records (uncredited photo)

Tommy James with his gold records (uncredited photo)

By the time Tommy James was truly free of the Morris Levy craziness, he had sold millions upon millions of records, had become a household name, and found himself with a tale to tell that would give him a wildly improbable entry into the movie business. The ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC book talked about earlier is essential reading for anyone wanting to know the depth of James’ journey. James only released a few records in the 70s (the Shondells era was long over by then); these included CHRISTIAN OF THE WORLD, IN TOUCH and MIDNIGHT RIDER, but few of these yielded hits as huge as what had come before, although “Three Times in Love” was a 1980 single that made it to number 19 on the Billboard chart. But, after that, there was no new James material until 1990’s HI-FI. James’ last new album was 2006’s HOLD THE FIRE. There have been many compilations, of course; with a catalogue as deep as James’, record companies will always want to keep the reissues coming. And James has a YouTube channel well worth investigating, because he talks about various songs himself in a witty and lively manner. The link for the channel is here: www.youtube.com/user/TJShondells. James also continues to tour, both solo and with a new version of the Shondells. Although he could easily coast on his past glories, James still loves songwriting and performing, and continues to write new stuff. He’s a very lucky guy and he knows it. Despite the royalties he was once screwed out of by Morris Levy, not only was the wrong eventually righted in a way that gave James unprecedented financial security, Levy unintentionally did James a peculiar favor by making his particular tale so interesting that new life was given to the music years later, and James would get the opportunity to work with top people in film and theatre. Whatever “hanky panky” happened in the past, Tommy James is enjoying some “sweet cherry wine,” indeed, these days, and the audiences still turn out in droves for his shows. His is an amazing rock and roll tale, and we can look forward to much, much more from James in the near future. For tour dates and more, visit Tommy’s official site: www.tommyjames.com and, of course, ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC is available at all of the finest book repositories and the usual on-line places.


TINSELTOWN: MURDER, MORPHINE, AND MADNESS AT THE DAWN OF HOLLYWOOD

(William J Mann; 463 pages; HARPER BOOKS/HARPER-COLLINS PUBLISHERS; 2014)

9780062242167

William J Mann’s new book is an historical, scholarly and meticulously researched look at the earliest days of Hollywood that reads like one of the best murder mysteries you’re likely to come across this year. The story delves into the lengths that an entire industry would go to to cover up a scandal… any scandal. As “moving pictures” or “flickers,” as they were called, began to take hold of a public looking for the next new thing in entertainment, there were no rules; churches and civic groups didn’t like that and began crusades to censor the industry in hopes of crippling it to the point that it would fold in upon itself and just go away. Those moguls who were making money hand over fist were, naturally, not inclined to let that happen.

TINSELTOWN (William Desmond Taylor) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (William Desmond Taylor) (publicity photo)

Beginning in 1917, and through 1923, drugs, suicide, murder, rape and lasciviousness of every nature befell the motion picture industry, as the hard-living individuals who appeared on the nation’s silver screens carried on their private lives. In retrospect, these things were happening in virtually every walk of life but, the utility worker down the street stepping out on his wife wasn’t as glamorous or newsworthy as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s reportedly drunken soiree where a young actress named Virginia Rappe was one of the guests. Arbuckle was, famously, accused of raping the young woman in a drunken stupor, his enormous weight causing her bladder to rupture, leading to her death. The courts (and three separate juries – the first two unable to come to a verdict) eventually acquitted Arbuckle of all charges, but his career was, ostensibly, over from the time he opened the door of his hotel room to the revelers on that day in September, 1921 when Virginia Rappe took ill. He was brought back to Paramount Studios on a probationary status; the studio released one of the movies Fatty had made before his arrest and all seemed well… until the 1920s’ version of the thought police threatened to close down every theater that would show such filth as a Fatty Arbuckle comedy. The Roscoe Arbuckle story and trial play as a backdrop to the real tale here.

TINSELTOWN (BRIGHT LIGHTS title card with Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle)

TINSELTOWN (BRIGHT LIGHTS title card with Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle)

Hollywood, in the ’20s, was a very different place than it is today; the movie industry was definitely more concerned with the public’s opinions of their stars. Paying off newspaper editors to keep their stars’ names out of the headlines, covering up evidence and flat out lying to the authorities was standard operating procedures from studio heads (one, in particular, Adolph Zukor of Famous Players-Lasky, later Paramount, was especially adept at keeping the tarnish off of his stars). One of the foremost directors of this early era of movie-making was William Desmond Taylor; Billy, as the ladies called him, worked for Zukor. Sometime around eight in the evening of February 1, 1922, Taylor was murdered in his home. The list of suspects in the crime was a crowded one, including stars and former stars of the film industry, friends, employees and former employees of the deceased, the haves and the have-nots and the power players of the Hollywood movie machine. The murder was virtually forgotten until 1964, when one of the original suspects made a dying confession to the son of a neighbor; still, it took years of digging and research before a definitive answer to an eighty year-old mystery could be laid to rest. As ghoulish as it may sound, the fun of this story is wading through the murder and the depravity that led to it. Mann is a master storyteller, delivering a riveting look at the early twentieth century’s movers and hustlers, all the while never losing sight of the facts of the case; sometimes those facts and the wildly over-the-top personalities involved seem far to bizarre to be a true crime story.

TINSELTOWN (Mabel Normand) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (Mabel Normand) (publicity photo)

The suspects include the four notable women in Taylor’s life: Mabel Normand, a hard-living comedy actress (she was alternately known as was “the Queen of Comedy” and “the Female Chaplin”), best known for a series of films co-starring Arbuckle and a very public dalliance with cocaine and other illicit drugs, including bootleg liquor (it was, after all, the height of prohibition); Margaret “Gibby” Gibson, a struggling actress and two-bit scam artist who fell out of favor at the major studios after being arrested for prostitution in 1917, the first of the many scandals to hit the industry over the next six years (she tried to reinvent herself by trimming five years off her age and calling herself Patricia Palmer… she was marginally more successful); Mary Miles Minter, a teenage beauty touted as the “next Mary Pickford,” with an all-consuming schoolgirl crush on Taylor; Charlotte Shelby, a bullying stage mother who had forbidden her daughter, Mary, to see Taylor and threatened Taylor, telling him to keep away from her meal-ticket. Most of the circumstantial evidence suggested that Mary Minter’s mother was the guilty party, a fact exacerbated by a district attorney seemingly protecting her at every turn in the case. As much as the life and foibles of William Desmond Taylor are laid bare here, Mann, likewise, does his due diligence in uncovering even the minutest detail in the lives of these four remarkable women; no stone is left unturned.

TINSELTOWN (Margaret Gibson) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (Margaret Gibson) (publicity photo)

Other candidates included Edward Sands, Taylor’s former valet, who was fired for forgery and other indiscretions (some believed Sands had been blackmailing the director, who’s secret life – lives, actually – would have destroyed him and embroiled the studio in another scandal); Don Osborn, “Blackie” Madsen or any of the other two-bit thugs and confidence men that “Gibby” took up with in her never-ending effort to be “somebody,” which to her, meant someone with an endless supply of cash; an unknown drug dealer that Taylor threw out of Normand’s house after the man tried to sell dope to the recovering addict; one of the many religious zealots who saw Taylor’s life and work as morally abhorrent. Some of the suspects were dismissed out of hand, particularly the cute, little eighteen year-old, Mary Minter, because… well, who ever heard of a little girl killing someone? Others were investigated and cleared, including the first suspect, Taylor’s then-current valet, Henry Peavey; that scenario seemed to make the most sense initially, as Peavy had a record (for soliciting young men for sexual purposes… not only was that illegal, it was “send-a-guy-to-Hell” immoral) and, of course, he was black.

TINSELTOWN (Mary Miles Minter) (publicity photo)

TINSELTOWN (Mary Miles Minter) (publicity photo)

As Mann relates all of the available information, peeling away the layers of cover-ups, lies, innuendo and downright fiction, he breathes life into the long-dead bones of, not only Taylor, but everyone related in any way to the concentric circle of his influence. Obviously, there is much more to this story than I’ve related here; my job is to pique your interest about the book without giving everything away. Any fan of the silent film era, of historic insights into the years leading up to the dawn of what became known as “the Roaring ’20s,” or of a good old murder mystery will find much to like about TINSELTOWN. It would have been very easy to turn this story into a boring, sterile thesis, offering the facts and nothing but the facts in a very precise, analytical fashion. But, then, who would want to read something like that? Certainly not me! Thankfully, William J Mann understood that and, without ignoring evidence and substance in favor of literary glitz, has written what is generally referred to as a “page-turner.”


EASY STREET (THE HARD WAY): A MEMOIR

(Ron Perlman with Michael Largo; 297 pages; DE CAPO PRESS/PERSEUS BOOKS GROUP; 2014)

20448528

I’ve always liked Ron Perlman’s quirky choices of roles… especially HELLBOY. His voice is immediately recognizable, with a depth of emotion and a sonorous quality that defines the man every bit as much as his character studies… maybe more. When I saw that he was writing his memoir, I was stoked to wander around through the noodle of one of the most adventurous actors of the past 35 years. I wasn’t disappointed with the journey. Well, not much.

SONS OF ANARCHY (Ron Perlman) (photo credit: Prashant Gupta/FX)

SONS OF ANARCHY (Ron Perlman) (photo credit: Prashant Gupta/FX)

Like many of us, Ron Perlman grew up in a home where the Dad went above and beyond to give his kids the kind of life that he didn’t have; like many of us, Ron Perlman was not an exceptional child and was bullied and abused at school; like many of us, Ron Perlman’s parents made him a better person (not just a more successful person); like many of us, Ron Perlman has taken what he learned from his parents and made a better life for his children. Unlike most of us, Ron Perlman did everything in front of the world. The story he tells is poignant, funny and irreverent; it’s the story of a young kid dealing with a nearly crippling lack of self worth and how, as an adult, he has learned to live with – even embrace – these feelings of inadequacies.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Ron Perlman, in costume, with co-star Linda Hamilton) (publicity photo)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Ron Perlman, in costume, with co-star Linda Hamilton) (publicity photo)

A young Perlman was infected by the acting bug in high school when, as a member of the swim team, his coach picked him to try out for the school play because they needed bodies and his body wasn’t getting a lot of time in the water at swim meets. In college, he was offered an internship as a production assistant with a very, very off-Broadway company that would occasionally take their show on the road. Ron was on the road when his girlfriend and his cousin came to deliver the word that his father had died; he immediately went home to help his mother with his older brother, a man incapacitated by manic depression (years later, at 39, Les Perlman committed suicide). So, like his father before him, Ron Perlman put his dreams and aspirations on the back burner because that’s what families do. All of this is told in a forthright, warts-and-all narrative in Ron’s inimitably… uh… flowery turn of phrase.

SONS OF ANARCHY (Ron and Opal Perlman at the 2011 season premiere) (uncredited photo)

SONS OF ANARCHY (Ron and Opal Perlman at the 2011 season premiere) (uncredited photo)

Perlman (ably assisted by Michael Largo) is fearless in his assessment of his career (and, for long spans of time, lack thereof). When he was cast in the 1981 movie QUEST FOR FIRE, he was certain he was on his way to being a household name; his next job didn’t come until three years later, when he was cast in the STAR WARS spoof, THE ICE PIRATES. That has seemed to be Ron’s career trajectory: A defining moment in front of the camera followed by long lulls when the actor was doubting his choice of career followed by a job he would take to put food on the table. He seemed to be getting typecast in an odd sort of way, also; as varied as most of his early roles were, nearly all of them buried Ron’s face in makeup and prosthetics, including his next big role, as Salvatore in THE NAME OF THE ROSE. The role that defined him for quite a few years, Vincent in the highly successful CBS television series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, was one he told his agent to pass on because he was tired of his face being an artist’s canvas for four hours every day. When things weren’t happening in front of the camera, Perlman started getting work behind a microphone, doing voice-overs and cartoons.

PACIFIC RIM (Ron Perlman with director Guillermo del Toro at the 2013 premiere) (uncredited photo)

PACIFIC RIM (Ron Perlman with director Guillermo del Toro at the 2013 premiere) (uncredited photo)

A life-long working relationship and friendship was formed in 1992 when Ron was told that a guy named Guillermo del Toro wanted him to star in a movie called CRONOS and was anxious to meet the actor. As fate would have it, that meeting led to the two working together several more times, including BLADE II, PACIFIC RIM and, of course, HELLBOY and its sequel (another is rumored to be in the works). His work as the lead character in the HELLBOY movies directly led to his being cast in the FX series, SONS OF ANARCHY. Guillermo has had a great calming effect on Ron, helping him to keep his feelings of inadequacy in check (Perlman has been diagnosed with clinical depression, a lesser form – though equally as debilitating – than his brother suffered from). The other calming effect in his life has been his family; he’s been with his wife, Opal, since 1976 (they married in 1981) and they have two kids, Blake and Brandon. Opal was by his side through some of the leanest of Perlman’s lean years and continues to be a solid pillar for him to lean on. When he speaks of Opal and his children, you can tell he has a deep and abiding love for his family and an undying respect for the woman who has stayed with him through thick and thin.

HELLBOY (Ron Perlman in make-up and costume to fulfill a MAKE-A-WISH request, 2012. This is why we love you, Ron) (publicity photo)

HELLBOY (Ron Perlman in make-up and costume to fulfill a MAKE-A-WISH request, 2012. This is why we love you, Ron) (publicity photo)

EASY STREET (THE HARD WAY) is a wild ride through the life of one of Hollywood’s true characters and, as mentioned, Perlman does not pull a single punch. The only problem I find in the book is in the final two chapters, in which Ron does the standard Hollywood political stance thing. I’m not gonna tell you which side I come down on as regards the last few residents of the White House, but I do find it disingenuous and more than a little unfair to label everyone who didn’t vote for our President a racist; I don’t agree with that assessment. I think my real objection here is that, unless I’m reading a biography or autobiography about a political figure, I don’t particularly want to read about someone’s political leanings. Nothing personal… I feel the same way about political statements coming from the stage of a nightclub, too… or from the pulpit. It seems to me that a celebrity making their political thoughts known is well on the way to alienating half of their audience. And, with Ron Perlman, that would be a shame because I believe that he really is one of the good guys.


PROCOL HARUM: THE GHOSTS OF A WHITER SHADE OF PALE

(Henry Scott-Irvine; OMNIBUS PRESS; 308 pages; 2012)

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For some odd reason, I never owned a Procol Harum album until I picked up a Canadian reissue of LIVE IN CONCERT WITH THE EDMONTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA sometime in the early 1980s. Don’t get me wrong… I had long been a fan of the band, having been introduced to “Conquistador” first, probably on AM radio and probably the version from the ESO show. A year or so later (September, 1973), they appeared as “hosts” on an episode of THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, performing “Conquistador,” “A Salty Dog,” “Grand Hotel” and, of course, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Anyway, I digress.

The Paramounts, circa 1966 (Gary Brooker, Dix Derrick, Phil Wainman with glasses, Dix Derrick, Robin Trower) (publicity photo)

The Paramounts, circa 1966 (Gary Brooker, Dix Derrick, Phil Wainman with glasses, Dix Derrick, Robin Trower) (publicity photo)

Scott-Irvine’s comprehensive view of the Procol Harum story begins where all good stories should begin… at the beginning. The author has shown enough foresight to quickly move past the whole “Gary Brooker (or Keith Reid, or BJ Wilson, or Robin Trower) was born in a small log cabin… ” kind of stuff and get right to the lads’ first dalliance with the demon, Rock and Roll. That dalliance occurred for Trower, Brooker and Wilson, who would become integral parts in the history of Procol Harum, in their hometown of Southend-On-Sea, as the Paramounts. As Gary Brooker became more serious about the business of making music, he began writing tunes and, as the tunes were in need of lyrics, he went in search of someone who could add their words to his music; he was eventually introduced to and paired with lyricist Keith Reid, forming one of the best-known and most potent songwriting teams of the late ’60s and early ’70s. In 1966, Gary and Keith, with the aid of influential music industry insider Guy Stevens, began working and demoing material as Procol Harum. After several stabs at the perfect sound and a committed group of musicians, Deram Records released the group’s first single in May, 1967. And, what a single it was! The group that recorded “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was Brooker (vocals and piano), Matthew Fisher (organ), Dave Knights (bass), Ray Royer (guitar) and Bill Eyden (drums); before the recording sessions were even over, Eyden had been replaced by Bobby Harrison (Harrison was told that the drum track he recorded would be used for the release and didn’t know otherwise until he heard the tune on the radio). Before the band started work on their second single, Harrison and Royer were replaced by ex-Paramounts, BJ Wilson and Robin Trower. This version of the band was to be the most fertile and best-remembered, though the line-up was in a seemingly continual state of flux.

Procol Harum, 1967 (Gary Brooker, Dave Knights, Bobby Harrison, Ray Royer and Matthew Fisher) publicity photo)

Procol Harum, 1967 (Gary Brooker, Dave Knights, Bobby Harrison, Ray Royer and Matthew Fisher) publicity photo)

The author painstakingly documents each and every coming and going (and the occasional coming again) of every musician who ever appeared on stage or on a recording (released or not) as a member of Procol Harum. He also reviews each album and single, noting the differences in the UK and US versions (as well as releases from other countries), giving insight into what was happening within the band, with the producers and the record companies and the global reception of each release. Through extensive interviews with the primary members of the group (Brooker, Reid, Trower and Fisher), as well as other musicians who did time in the band and others within their circle (friends, family members, journalists, former producers and managers), Scott-Irvine is able to piece together a very compelling narrative of the ups and downs of a bunch of guys who just wanted to play music that people would enjoy listening and dancing to. Here in the States, those “ups” were limited to the singles, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and “Conquistador,” the albums A SALTY DOG and LIVE IN CONCERT WITH THE EDMONTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA and a string of concert successes through about 1976 or so; the “downs” were, well, just about everything else. On a more personal level, which many of us here weren’t privy to, the “downs” included Wilson’s increasingly erratic behavior due to alcohol and drug use, a mismanagement of funds (usually involving paying off former members and managers) and, eventually, a court case in which Matthew Fisher sued Brooker and Reid for a co-writing credit on “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

Procol Harum, circa 1967 (Gary Brooker, Dave Knights, Robin Trower, BJ Wilson, Matthew Fisher) (uncredited photo)

Procol Harum, circa 1967 (Gary Brooker, Dave Knights, Robin Trower, BJ Wilson, Matthew Fisher) (uncredited photo)

Scott-Irvine also delves into the solo and other work of the various players, focusing particular attention on Fisher and Brooker; oddly enough, I thoroughly enjoyed all of Brooker’s solo albums even though, as I mentioned, I didn’t own a single Procol record until the early ’80s. The various reincarnated versions of Procol Harum are discussed at length and we read in greater detail than was originally offered regarding the horrendous head injury Gary Brooker suffered on May 29, 2012 (his 67th birthday) and just how close we came to losing a true musical legend to a fluke accident. The book itself is a solid read from front to back, meticulously researched and annotated, with several appendices (including the appeals ruling of the House of Lords regarding the authorship of “A Whiter Shade of Pale”) and a comprehensive discography of Procol, Brooker, Wilson and Trower.

Author Henry Scott-Irvine (uncredited photo)

Author Henry Scott-Irvine (uncredited photo)

In short, THE GHOST OF A WHITER SHADE OF PALE should be in the library of every lover of ’60s and ’70s progressive rock music. Just don’t expect an answer to the one question that everybody is still asking some 47 years later: “Exactly what do the lyrics of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ mean?” Even Gary and Keith, who both take halfhearted stabs at explaining them within the pages, can’t answer convincingly. But… maybe that’s part of what makes the song so great.