…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)

1407359070

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.


MEL BLANC: THE MAN OF A THOUSAND VOICES

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

cover

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.


ROCK ‘N’ ROLL RENAISSANCE MAN: THE GREG KIHN INTERVIEW

Greg Kihn is a man of many talents, as you’ll see as you read this interview. For nearly an hour, Mister Kihn reminisced on his life, his family, his music career, his radio career, his writing career, his new book – RUBBER SOUL, the Beatles, Bret Michaels’ sex appeal, Sammy Hagar’s sexual prowess and Willie Nelson’s appendage. So, strap in, boys and girls… this is Greg Kihn uncut and unfiltered. The conversation took place over the phone on August 29, 2013, a few days before the release of RUBBER SOUL. My apologies to Greg for the delay in posting this but, computer glitches have been kicking my butt for the past several weeks. To paraphrase some dead guy named Bill… “Read on, McDuff!”

Greg Kihn (publicity photo)

Greg Kihn (publicity photo)

THE MULE: First of all, RUBBER SOUL. Awesome book. It’s really intriguing and it’s actually a really nice, fun read. How did you come up with the idea… obviously, a coming of age story. But there’s also murder, foreign intrigue and… the Beatles.

GREG: You know, it all came to me after I had interviewed Ringo. It was back when he was on tour with his All-Starr Band. So I had the privilege of Interviewing Ringo and I asked him, “Where did the Beatles get their records?” You know, in the early days, you couldn’t buy this stuff in Liverpool. They didn’t have import shops and so forth. He said, “You know, we got ‘em from Merchant Marines that were traveling back and forth from the States to Liverpool.” Liverpool’s is a big port town, obviously. And these guys would come back and bring all the latest records from the States with ‘em and you had to know a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy so that you could get your hands on these rare American 45s. They normally wouldn’t come out for six to twelve months over there… if they came out at all. A lot of ‘em never made it out. So, that gave me the idea for this character, Dust Bin Bob, who’s a young guy… a young and penniless guy just like the Beatles when they started. He’s got a booth at the flea market in Penny Lane and he’s getting these American 45s from Merchant Marines and he’s selling them at his small stall at the flea market. One day the young Beatles walk by… this is years before they made it and they see these records and they flip out. They become life-long friends with Dust Bin Bob because he furnishes them with music for their whole career; suggesting songs, turning them on to things. Of course, that became their early repertoire and, really, the backbone of their sound.

RUBBER SOUL cover

RUBBER SOUL cover

You know, it was… that was really interesting because I didn’t expect that answer. But it gave me the idea for Dust Bin Bob. “Dust bin,” by the way, is English for “trash can.” So… kinda like “Trash Can” Bob because he’s got a stall at the flea market, he’s rummaging through trash cans. Obviously, they’re all poor; this is years before they made it. And it just gave me the idea for a story. You know… “How do you become life long friends with the Beatles?” Well, obviously, you gotta be their age and start out with them before they become famous and help ‘em out by giving them the records. So, they become life long friends, all through Beatlemania and it climaxes in the Philippines with the assassination attempt by the Marcos regime on the Beatles.

Now, a lot of this stuff was based on interviews. I got to interview Pete Best, the original drummer for the Beatles. He told me all about the Hamburg days. I got to talk to Ringo. I even got to talk to Paul and I got to talk to their driver, Alf Bicknell, who really had some hair-raising stuff to say about what happened to the Beatles when they got to Manila. It was just nuts. But, I don’t wanna give to much away! You gotta read the book, man!

THE MULE: Oh, absolutely!

GREG: It’s unlike anything that you’re probably going to read in years. I know it’s unlike any other Beatles book because it’s Beatles fiction.

THE MULE: Exactly. So, the character of Dust Bin Bob is, basically, a composite of… I would guess… the Beatles’ persona as well as the people that provided the music to them early on.

GREG: That’s correct. You know, it was a composite character, which is always fun when you do a guy like that. What I was able to do – once I created the character – I was able to fit my story over actual events in the Beatles’ lives. There’s lots of juicy tidbits in there about the Hamburg days, the early days at the Cavern, and you see it through their eyes, through the eyes of Dust Bin Bob. And, really, it’s a unique… I’ll tell you, it came to me after the Ringo interview and once I got this far, I asked everybody where they got their records and, you know what? They all had the same thing to say: Merchant Marines coming back from the States. So, I thought, well that just helps me bolster my character of Dust Bin Bob. And, I’m telling you, everybody that’s read the book so far has loved it! It’s just completely unique and different. You don’t really have to be a Beatles fan because it’s a murder mystery, too.

THE MULE: Exactly! And, that’s the one thing… you say that a book is a page turner and this one, literally, is. It keeps you engaged and intrigued from the first sentence to that final sentence. So, kudos to you, my friend.

GREG: Hey, that’s why… You know what? I really appreciate it because when you read it, it’s as much fun for the reader… I had so much fun writing it! Though it was fun, I didn’t really do that much research. I know… All this stuff was already inside my brain and based on a couple of interviews. Some things write themselves. I couldn’t wait to get home every day to work on the book. It seemed like it was just writing itself. The story was just bigger… It seemed like I was just channeling the story. Every day, I’d get home from the radio station and I’d just write for two or three hours and the thing was just writing itself. It was like I had a ghostwriter in my brain! It may have been the ghost of Stuart Sutcliffe. I don’t know.

THE MULE: Could be. Or was it John and George, also, you know? Who knows?

Greg Kihn (publicity photo)

Greg Kihn (publicity photo)

GREG: Oh, I agree. I gotta tell you, Darren, I’ve been really… I don’t know if you know my story but, back around last September, I got fired from KFOX, where I’d been for 17 years, doing the morning show. Of course, that’s devastating when you’ve been doing something that long. But, that was a good kick in the pants! I’m really glad that happened now, because I really made good use of my time. In the last six months, I wrote and published RUBBER SOUL; I’ve got a brand new internet radio show that’s up and going, which you can find it at gregkihn.com. It’s really good. We put out a show every day; of course, I’ve got the Kihncert coming up… a big bash that we do out here in California. This year we’ve got Bret Michaels for our headliner and then the Greg Kihn Band and the Tubes. It’s gonna be a fun, fun concert.

But, you know, the cool thing is Bret Michaels draws beautiful women. Women love this guy! When you go and look out into the audience, you are going to see nothing but hot looking women. You’re gonna see a lot of leg, you’re gonna see a lot of leather, you’re gonna see a lot… probably a lot of tattoos. I’m really looking forward to it this year. He really does… I really haven’t known guys that drew women before. When we were… We did a tour with Rick Springfield. That guy drew incredible, beautiful women to every gig. In fact, it was 99% women at every gig! I’m kind of expecting that this year at the Kihncert. Of course, all that information can be found, for anybody that would want to travel… it’s gonna be a hell of a party! It’s all at gregkihn.com. It’s one stop shopping there, Darren.

THE MULE: Yeah. You’ve also… to spread a little bit more info here, you have re-released all of the Bezerkley albums? Is that true?

GREG: Yeah. You know, I got ‘em back, man. It took me years and years. I’ve been working on this for, like, the last 15 years and one by one, I got every album back. Believe it or not. Some I bought… you know, I paid for; some I had to sue… I had to sue Universal to get a couple of the albums back; some of ‘em were just outright released to me. So, we’ve putting together all of the albums. And, I’m one of the few musicians… I know Todd Rundgren’s the other one… who owns all of his own stuff. So, that means that I can put out my own greatest hits packages. And, what we’ve done, we’ve released the entire catalog over the last 12 months or so… every album, in order. You can go to iTunes, download all that stuff. Then we put together a BEST OF BEZERKLEY package, which I think is one of my favorite albums of all time because I hand picked every song. There’s, like, one song from every album and it’s got all our greatest hits on it. The nice thing about that was, I got to do liner notes and I include in a little booklet with lots of pictures of the old days and how the band looked and little stories about each song and how we recorded it.

Greg Kihn Band: THE BEST OF BERZERKLEY cover

Greg Kihn Band: THE BEST OF BERZERKLEY cover

You know, I’m older than dirt. My first album came out in ’76. I’ve had a hell of career, man! Eighteen albums all total, in 18 years; I had a bunch of hits, with “Jeopardy” and “The Breakup Song.” Then, I got into radio and did that for 17 years straight. Held down the number one spot in the morning, so you know that’s a toughy! No less than San Francisco, which is a major market… the whole Bay Area there. Definitely, the odds are a jillion-to-one that I could have done that.

So, I started writing books in there somewhere and now, I’ve got this new book out and I’m thinking this could be a best seller. It’s certainly got all the earmarks. And all of the reviews have been great. So far everybody’s loving it. Wouldn’t it be cool… I mean, I’m not gonna make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but I’m gonna definitely make a whole bunch of little Hall of Fames. I’m in the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame. I got fired the same week I was inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame. I’d already won the ratings war but, you know how it is, man… it’s all the bottom line and you work for these companies… you know… you take your chances. I’m not bitter about it. In fact, I think we had a great run. I’m very happy to have 17 years on the air and what it did was set me up really comfortably. I’m workin’ for myself and it’s a lot of fun.

THE MULE: Plus, you have the time to do all this other stuff.

GREG: Yeah. That was the key. When you’re doing a morning show, you’re getting up at four, you’re going to bed at nine… you don’t have time to do anything else. Really, you don’t have time for anything. What time you do have, you’re pooped… you’re ready to take a nap. So, you know, suddenly I had all that time and I really fell right into writing the book. In fact, I’m about one third of the way through the sequel to RUBBER SOUL right now and that should be coming out next year around this time.

THE MULE: Really? That sounds awesome. Is this going to be another book… Is it gonna be just Dust Bin Bob or is it gonna continue the Beatles theme?

GREG: Yep. It’s going to be the continuing adventures of Dust Bin Bob. I don’t wanna let the cat out of the bag but, it’s, like, the next chapter in Dust Bin Bob’s life. It’s real exciting. Once again, he’s involved in a murder mystery. It’s a lot of fun. You know, I gotta tell ya, life’s been pretty good to me so far. It’s just a little complacent being on the radio and, now, it’s nice to be out there doing stuff… You know what we’re going to do next? The audio book to RUBBER SOUL. We’re going to follow this up… because the book comes out on September 3, which is Tuesday. That’s the actual street date for the book. So, I’ll be doing a bunch of book signings and promotions all around California. But, then I’m going to start working on that audio book here in my own little studio. I have no idea how long that’s gonna take. You know what I did? Dig this, Darren… I got a guy to help me, ’cause I’m reading this and there are a lot of parts that require Liverpool accents. I got this vocal coach. This guy does a great Liverpool accent and he’s going to coach me on all the Liverpool parts so, when I do it, it’s an authentic Liverpool accent. So, all of that stuff’s here and I wouldn’t be doing any of this… It looks like I’m going to continue to enjoy life. I really love being footloose and fancy free and working on what I wanna work on.

THE MULE: So, let’s stay with the books for a little bit. This is not the first book that you’ve written.

GREG: That’s correct. This is actually my fifth, right? Yeah… it’s my fifth. My first book was HORROR SHOW, which came out in ’96. That was my first novel. And, that was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for best first novel. I was very flattered. We’re trying to get… Here’s another thing that I’m going to be doing in the next year. We’re trying to get funding to make a movie of HORROR SHOW. I wrote a script for it and it’s just a really crazy horror movie. I just think it would be a lot of fun. So, that may be something that we’ll be doing a year from now.

But, HORROR SHOW… the second one was BIG ROCK BEAT. No… I’m sorry. The second was SHADE OF PALE. BIG ROCK BEAT was the third one and that was the sequel to HORROR SHOW. And then, MOJO HAND was the fourth one, which was the sequel to BIG ROCK BEAT. So, I tend to do things in sequels. I mean, once I get some characters, I like to transform through their lives to see what’s going on. So, I’ve done that multiple times and that’s going to be fun doing it with Dust Bin Bob because this guy leads an incredible life.

THE MULE: Oh, yeah! The adventures in RUBBER SOUL are really phenomenal and, you know, you start reading a book like this and you think, “Aw, man! That’s pretty impossible!” But, I think, maybe by you introducing real people into the story and into the plot, I find it pretty plausible. I mean, some fairly weird things happened to the Beatles.

GREG: Oh, yeah. Well, they certainly lived an exciting life.

Greg Kihn Band, circa 1977 (Steve Wright, Dave Carpender, Greg, Larry Lynch) (publicity photo)

Greg Kihn Band, circa 1977 (Steve Wright, Dave Carpender, Greg, Larry Lynch) (publicity photo)

THE MULE: Yeah, there’s no doubt about that! Also, let’s talk a little about the music again. The Greg Kihn Band now features your son, is that correct?

GREG: Yep. My son, Ry, plays lead guitar in the band and he’s phenomenal. He started off as a student of Joe Satriani when he was in the band. He’s got a little touch of Joe in him. That kid can play. He’s graduating with a guitar master from Cal Arts and he went to the Berkley School of Music in Boston so, he’s… Actually, unlike his old man, he can read music and he’s legit. The kid can play any style. Now, having him in the band ’cause he grew up watching all the great guitar players we’ve had in the band… we had Joe Satriani, Jimmy Lyon, Greg Douglass, Dave Carpender… we’ve had great guitar players and he grew up watching these guys! So, he knows how everybody played each solo and he’s been in the band now for awhile so, he’s real comfortable. I tell ya, I’m very proud. When I’m onstage, It’s an extra kick for me to look over there and I see my son. I’m really proud of the way that kid plays. You know, he gets a lot of standing ovations for a lot of his solos. It’s fun! I gotta tell you… I’m a proud papa!

Also… here’s another thing: I’m a grandfather now. My daughter had got two sons. They’re four and one-and-a-half. Now, these kids are both lovin’ the guitar! They love to play with grandpa on the guitar. We got them all kinds of toys… you know, various musical instruments. I’m tellin’ you, give us about 15 more years and we’ll have three generations of kin in the Greg Kihn Band. Wouldn’t that be a kick? We’d probably teach Nate how to play keyboards, we’ll teach the other one how to play bass and we’ll have a great time!

THE MULE: It’ll be like the Partridge Family, almost.

GREG: Yeah! There you go. Life is good. You know, I think part of it is, you just gotta kick back, enjoy life and not work so hard and grind your face into the wall. You know what I mean? You just gotta enjoy life and take things as they come. You gotta have… as a guy once said, “You gotta have rubber soul.” The title of RUBBER SOUL comes from a conversation that John Lennon is having with Dust Bin Bob. And, he says, “What do you think the human soul is?” I think the measure of a man is how you bounce back from adversity. You know? ‘Cause everybody feels good when they’re doing good but, when you’re bouncing back from adversity, and there’s a lot going on, you’ve got to have a rubber soul to bounce back. And, John goes, “That’s brilliant!” and writes it down. Of course, they used it for that album title years later.

THE MULE: There’s a lot of stuff that you put into the book that is really – you know – like I said, it’s very, very believable. Even though, upfront, you’re telling us Dust Bin Bob is a fictional character, this whole thing is fictional… you know, some of this stuff with the Beatles really happened but these are fictional accounts. But… reading something like that, you think, “You know what? That is a conversation that John Lennon could have had with anybody. That topic could have come up and, it’s very believable. So, “What are we gonna call the album?” “Oh. How about RUBBER SOUL?” It works!

GREG: Yeah. Exactly. And a lot of the stuff, little things like that… Like, did you know that, originally, they were called Long John and the Silver Beetles? And that they changed their names to Paul Ramone and George was… Well, they all had different names.

THE MULE: Yeah. His was Carl Harrison, right? After Carl Perkins.

GREG: Yeah, that’s right… Carl Harrison. By the end of the first year, they got back to their old names and they changed the group to the Beatles with the B-E-A and Dust Bin Bob goes, “That’s the dumbest name I’ve ever heard. You guys’ll never make it with a name like that!”

THE MULE: Yeah. I mean… it really is just – like I said before – it’s a fun read! It’s a good read. It’s a page-turner, because it is exciting and, you know, it feature’s some people that just about everybody on the face of the planet has a feeling about.

GREG: I agree. And, it was really fun working with them because they are so famous, we know so much about John and George and Paul and Ringo. We know these guys. They’ve been part of our lives for so long and, I don’t… This book, like I said before, wrote itself, man. It was real easy.

THE MULE: Obviously, you’ve already told us that Dust Bin Bob will make a… will have a sequel. Do you look forward, maybe, to any other books featuring different musical artists?

GREG: Well… As a matter of fact, I do. I’ve been making notes for probably two or three books down the line. I have always been fascinated with the life of Hank Williams – Hank Williams, Senior… the original Hank Williams – and I’ve got some notes on an idea for a book called THE DEVIL AND HANK WILLIAMS that I think will be a hell of a good read. All about Hank makin’ a deal with, you know, the Prince of Darkness and then trying to get out of it for the rest of his life. Of course, he died on his way to a gig in 1953. A lot of people thought, “Hey, the Devil came to reclaim ol’ Hank,” ’cause he had a hell of a career. He was only, like, 27 when he died. It’s ridiculous.

THE MULE: Yeah. Was he even that old? I was thinking he was even younger, but I… you know, I could be wrong. I mean, I’ve been wrong before.

GREG: Yeah, I’d have to check that. But, there’s so much about Hank and I thought, “You know, here’s a guy… “ and I was gonna draw a parallel to Paganini, go all the way back to the FAUST thing. And, it really is a retelling of the FAUST story. But, back in the 1800s, people thought that the great violinist Paganini had sold his soul to the Devil. Another claim… People claimed that in concerts, they could see the Devil over his shoulder, guiding his fingers; that he played these insane things that only he could play. And, I thought, “You Know, that’s kinda like Hank Williams.” The Devil was looking over Hank’s shoulder the whole time and the poor guy suffered his whole life. I think there’s a great novel in that so, I’ll probably be working on that next year.

THE MULE: Sounds good. I’m in, man! Whatever you write, I will read!

GREG: (Laughs) That’s what I love to hear!

THE MULE: You write it, I’ll read it.

GREG: I’m trying to start this new genre. You know how Tom Clancy writes techno-thrillers and John Grisham writes the legal thrillers… I’m trying to write music thrillers, trying to spark a new genre here. And, I like the fact that I use historical… you know, it’s like historical fiction. It’s like you’re writing about… Abraham Lincoln, or something. You can write about these historical characters because, really, all you’re doing is taking facts and adding your story to them.

THE MULE: Yeah… exactly. You know, a lot of people were kind of upset about ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER or whatever the heck the name of it was…

GREG: Exactly. You know, here’s another thing… Another thing, I’d like to say this because I think it’s important. I’ve always treated the Beatles with respect. I mean, I love them, they are a part of my life, they’re talented, creative people. I think that a certain amount of respect… that was the trouble with …VAMPIRE HUNTER. Really… that’s so disrespectful of, you know, Abe Lincoln. The whole thing, I find it repugnant. I always try to treat my guys with respect. All I can say is… I think what goes around, comes around and a lot of it is just having good karma.

THE MULE: Yeah. Anything new on the music side of things? Are you still writing…

Greg Kihn onstage (photo credit: BR COHN)

Greg Kihn onstage (photo credit: BR COHN)

GREG: Well, we have the Kihncert coming up and we’re starting to rehearse. Yeah, I’m starting to write songs again after years of not writing hardly anything. And, we may going back into the studio maybe this winter. Right now, I’ve got so much on my plate, I’m not gonna have time. But, we just leased a beautiful warehouse in Martinez, California… which is where I’m talking to you from now. We’ve got one room set up like a radio station and we’re doing the internet show from there. We’ve got the other huge studio room with 20 foot ceilings there. We’re going to change that to a recording studio and, we’re going to have the band rehearsing in there. Then, as we get… as we come up with the material, we’ll cut it right here. You know, there’s a lot on my plate and there’s going to be a lot on my plate as time goes by but, I tell you, man… I’d rather be working than not working, you know?

THE MULE: Yeah. You know, it sounds like you’ve got some things mapped out there and you are definitely keeping busy!

GREG: (laughs) You’ve got to, man! It’s what… It keeps you young, it keeps you moving, man! I’ve got to wrap it up here in a second. Let me just end this with a little story that happened to me a couple of months ago. I was at a big charity gig at a winery out here in Napa. Sammy Hagar and Joe Satriani were there and the Doobie Brothers were there. We were all backstage, yakkin’ away… talkin’ and I was bragging to Sammy. And, you know, you don’t brag to Sammy! First of all, the guy could buy and sell all of us… twenty times over! He’s got more money than God. He told me he’s got more money than he can spend from his tequila thing. So, anyway, I’m sitting there, kinda bragging to Sammy: “Hey, Sammy, you know, I’m a Grandpa now! Got two kids, got two grandsons! Two grandsons, four and one-and-a-half!” And, he looks at me and he goes, “Hey, man, we’ve got children younger than my grandchildren!” And… I’m thinking, “Wait a minute, that means that you’ve boned your wife in the last… twelve months?” I thought to myself, “Wow! That’s impressive!” His own kids are younger than his grandkids! That’s insane! It shut me right up. Sobered me right up! You can’t brag to a guy like that. He’s still got bullets left in the chamber… I was blown away!

I just read on the air yesterday a funny poem by… you should look this up on the internet… it’s a funny poem by Willie Nelson and it’s called, “I’ve Outlived My Pecker.” He’d just turned 75 and it’s this poem about how it used to get him trouble and he was proud of it and now it’s just hangin’ there. It’s really funny but, you know, in a way, it’s kinda true. I mean, when Sammy told me that, I didn’t know what to say except, “Well, Sam, you got me beat, buddy!” I don’t think I could go out there and have babies at my age, at this point in time. Not that I’d want to but, apparently, he’s still bumpin’ ‘em out and he’s older than me and you! Anyway, that guy is amazing!

So, I’ve got to wrap it up, Darren. Anything else you want to ask me in closing?

THE MULE: No… We’re just talking about www.gregkihn.com. You’ve have the radio show that’s on there. RUBBER SOUL is coming out on September 3. That’s next Tuesday. You have all of the Bezerkley albums that have been released over the last few months, actually. The Kihncert… when is that again?

GREG: October 12 in Morgan Hill, California and it’s gonna have me and Bret Michaels and the Tubes.

THE MULE: Sounds awesome! Thanks for the time.

GREG: Hey, thank, Darren! Great interview, too.

THE MULE:Take care, Greg. Thanks.

So, there you have it. Again, my apologies to Greg for the delay but, I guess – as the old adage goes – better late than never, huh? Greg’s a great guy and a real character. It was an extreme pleasure to just let the tape roll and see where his stream-of-consciousness, kamikaze approach to an interview would lead next. If you haven’t done so yet, go to Greg’s site (or any of the usual places) and pick up a copy of the coming-of-age, murder and espionage thriller, RUBBER SOUL, starring the Beatles. You will not be disappointed! It really is as good and as fun as I said. Obviously, the Beatles, their likenesses and their voices are so familiar to most of us who are of a certain age and I was really having fun reading the book, imagining the voices of John, Paul, George and Ringo actually saying their lines. All right, Greg, I’m ready for that sequel!


NECESSITY IS (THE EARLY YEARS OF FRANK ZAPPA AND THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION)

(Billy James; 223 pages; SAF Publishing; 2001, Revised 2005) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

NECESSITY IS COVER

Pieced together from various interviews with early band-mates conducted and compiled by the author, NECESSITY IS delves into the psyche of one of the true musical geniuses of the past half-century (maybe the only one, in fact): Frank Vincent Zappa. Mister James (a musician himself, who has worked with many of the Mothers quoted) is obviously a fan, and that’s alright. Really, unless an author wishes simply to vilify another person (or organization), why would he write about someone he wasn’t a fan of? It’s obvious, as well, that most of the gentlemen interviewed were/are fans of Frank and remained in contact with him until his death in 1993. That doesn’t mean that every quote or remembrance is pleasant. As is the case with many struggling bands (especially one with a dominant figure like Zappa), disagreements – and downright vicious fights – arose. The early Mothers (1964-1971) was a revolving door of jazz, rock, and avant-garde musicians, all struggling to be heard over (through?) the mayhem orchestrated by composer/arranger/guitarist Zappa.

The Mothers of Invention

The Mothers of Invention

Zappa was known as a task-master and this book confirms that estimation. Many of the quotes from original drummer Jimmy Carl Black, keyboardist/electronics genius Don Preston, multi-instrumentalist Bunk Gardner, and others relay (sometimes humorously) the love/hate relationship between the band and Zappa. Indeed, as Frank’s dominance and creative genius materialized, the original core group – the band who recorded the first album, FREAK OUT (1966) – of drummer Jimmy Carl Black, bassist Roy Estrada, vocalist Ray Collins, and guitarist Elliot Ingber were either forced to take a back seat to more “advanced” musicians (those who could read music, like Gardner, Preston and Ian Underwood) or asked to leave the group. In the case of Ingber, the first to be ousted from the band, a predilection for drugs was his downfall (highlighting Zappa’s strong anti-drug stance and no nonsense approach to his leadership role, Ray Collins remembers, “…He maybe smoked a little bit too much.” in regards to Ingber’s “drug abuse” and subsequent dismissal from the band). Ingber famously became a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, as Winged Eel Fingerling. Ray Collins seemed to wander in and out of the group, as he and Zappa butted heads or he would become disillusioned by the direction Frank was taking the band. Another problem, apparently, was money. Zappa had the group on a rigorous rehearsal schedule – several hours a day, seven days a week, holidays included – for which there was no pay. Frank and manager Herb Cohen had a habit of funneling money from paying gigs back into the organization, promising an eventual big payday for the band.

All of this information, including background and history on the individual Mothers, comes in the first chapter of the book. Rather than rewrite the book here and now, I’ll leave you to imagine, from the above capsule, the breadth and scope of NECESSITY IS as Billy James takes you through the late ’60s, the infighting and insanity of the original group, the later versions of the band with Aynsley Dunbar, Mark Vohlman and Howard Kaylan, the frightening and life-changing on-stage attack by a fan in London that crushed Zappa’s larynx and left him in a cast for a year, and, inevitably to the dissolution of the Mothers in 1971. James also goes into extensive detail regarding the lives of the principal figures after “Motherhood.” Late in the book, there is an extensive section quoting an interview with Zappa that supplies his side of the Mothers’ story, which does soften and enlighten the reader’s previous views of the dictatorial band leader. As is true in any disagreement between two (or several) people, you can probably temper both sides a bit, meet somewhere in the middle and come up with your own ideas about what really happened.

Mother Frank

Mother Frank

Mister James, while not an absolute master wordsmith, has produced a highly enjoyable and easily read book, covering the early history of one of the most infamous and influential bands of the rock era. With an extensive “Where Are They Now?” section, an exhaustive discography of everyone who was a part of the Mothers (including design artist Cal Schenkel) during the period covered in the book, a tour history through 1972, and a well-documented list of source materials, James has given us a history of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention that should be read (and owned) by every music lover on the planet. (DT)