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Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” Turns 80 July 6, 2017

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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Eighty years ago today, on this day (July 6) in 1937, Benny Goodman and his orchestra recorded the legendary instrumental version of “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)”.  The song originally came with lyrics, written by none other than Louis Prima, who also wrote the song’s music in 1936.  Indeed, Prima cut the first version of the tune that same year, along with his New Orleans Gang band.  Fletcher Henderson cut his own version with his band shortly thereafter.

But it was Benny Goodman who elevated the song to legendary status.  In typical Goodman fashion, they started performing the song during live gigs before eventually recording a studio version for record sales.  Of further interest is that Goodman seemed to waste little time to cover Prima’s song, as his band began performing his own version during the band’s second trip to the Palomar Ballroom, which was in 1936.

Goodman’s band finally cut the famous studio version on July 6, 1937 in Hollywood, Calif.  The location for the recording was likely influenced by the band either doing a West Coast tour, or the fact that they were finishing up their roles for the film “Hollywood Hotel” from the same year.  Naturally, the hit record featured in this article is also featured in the film!

Regardless, the band line-up remained largely intact from the core that helped launch the Swing Era two years earlier.  Red Ballard and Murray MacEachern were on trombones.  The two tenor saxes were played by Art Rollini and Vido Musso.  The two alto saxophones were played by George Koenig and Hymie Schertzer (Toots Mondello must have taken an hiatus, as he was largely a mainstay with the band through the end of the decade).  The rhythm section consisted of Harry Goodman (Benny’s brother) at bass, Allen Reuss at rhythm guitar, and Gene Krupa, arguably the “g.o.a.t” of drummers.  Goodman’s trumpet section was the only part of the band that had changed, and arguably for the better, as it boasted an all-star roster of Ziggy Elman, Chris Griffin, and chaired by Harry James, who enjoyed a lengthy solo during the second half of the record.

Speaking of which, the track was unique for its length.  Most Big Band Era recordings were restricted to three minutes, thirty seconds or less (usually about three minutes and several extra seconds) on account of the spatial and timing constraints of the 10-inch records played at 78 RPM.  “Sing, Sing, Sing”, conversely, lasts eight minutes, 43 seconds, thus taking up both sides of a 12-inch 78 RPM record.

Whereas most of Benny’s swingingest hits were Fletcher Henderson arrangements, Jimmy Mundy arranged this legendary cut.  Not that this was necessarily an anomaly, has he also arranged the great Goodman killer-diller “Bugle Call Rag” from late the previous year.

To be sure, many other artists over the years have covered Louis Prima’s catchy melody, from the Andrews Sisters to Goodman to Bunny Berigan to Teresa Brewer.  Even Paul Anka issued a cover version in 1958.  But clearly, Goodman’s version stands out above all the others.  Appropriately, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1982, as the tune reached the age of 45 years.  Now at 80, let us all take the time to celebrate and appreciate its timeless appeal, its perpetually youthful vigor, and its everlastingly positive contribution to American popular culture!

Steven Holcomb: Olympian, American, Friend May 15, 2017

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Sports.
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Note:  all photos by author unless otherwise stated.

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Steven Holcomb and his 4-man team, piloting the “Night Train” sled during the second of four runs at the 2012 4-man Bobsled World Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y.  Holcomb and the team proceeded to reign victorious in this event, thus further cementing his legacy as the greatest American ever in the sport.

Steven Holcomb, the greatest bobsledder in the history of Team USA, died on Saturday, May 6, 2017.  He was only 37 years old.  Friends found him in his room at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y.  An autopsy, which was conducted the following day, gave preliminary indication that the likely cause of death was pulmonary congestion.  He likely died in his sleep.  Toxicology reports indicated zero drugs in his system, as well (hear that, Russia?).

Needless to say, this sad and sudden news has shocked not only the men’s and women’s bobsled and skeleton teams, but also the sliding sports community around the world and the entire U.S. Olympic community.  We have all lost a friend.

His achievements, by the numbers alone, are staggering.  Three Olympic medals (one gold, two bronze); three world championship gold medals (five counting mixed team events); five other World Championship medals; eight overall World Cup trophies (including four outright overall championships); sixty medals in toto.  Since 2009, he was acknowledged as one of the best bobsled drivers in the world.  More interestingly, though, he came to the sport from an unlikely background, and overcame a debilitating physical condition that almost ended his career before it took off in earnest.

Most bobsled athletes come through the track and field ranks.  As long-time bobsled broadcaster John Morgan has often noted, “[Y]ou can teach someone to drive a sled, but you can’t teach speed.”  Within the ranks of track and field, decathletes are prized above all others for their ability to both sprint (e.g., the 100 m sprint and the 110 m hurdles) as well as their ability to throw around weight (e.g., discus and shot put events), which are both key skills when pushing a sled that weighs almost 400 pounds.  The U.S. and Canada also enjoy another sport from which to recruit that most other countries lack – American football.

Ironically, Holcomb followed neither path to the sport he came to love.  A native of Park City, Utah, he was first an alpine skier, starting competitive ski races at the tender age of six, and continued to race for the Park City Ski Team for 12 years.  In this, he was in good company, as the late, legendary bobsled driver Eugenio Monti of Italy (double-gold medalist at the 1968 Winter Olympics at Grenoble) also was a skier before he took up bobsledding.

To be sure, as Holcomb advanced in age, he participated in other local youth sports, such as soccer, football, basketball, baseball, and track and field.  So suffice it to say, he was a formidable all-around athlete.  In 1998, at age 18, he went to a local try-out for the USA Bobsled team, and scored enough points to where he was invited to stay and train with the national team for an additional week.  Though he finished eighth place in pushing competitions, he was passed over for the national team due to his young age and his short stature (he was only 5’-10”, which is roughly my own height!).

An injury on the team later that year led him to be invited back onto the team, where his involvement steadily grew.  He participated as a push athlete for four years, and served as a forerunner for the Olympic events at Park City in 2002.  By 2006, his seven-year stint as a combat engineer in the Utah National Guard had concluded with an honorable discharge, and he then committed himself to the sport full-time.

Not a moment too soon, either.  The men’s bobsled team was shut out of the medals in the 2006 Winter Olympics.  In fact, Holcomb, who piloted the USA-2 team sled, finished sixth in the 4-man event, ahead of Todd Hays in the USA-1 sled.  The overall showing was very disappointing, considering that both Hays’ and Brian Shimer’s sled teams won silver and bronze, respectively, in the 4-man at Salt Lake in 2002, thus ending a 46-year medal drought in the sport for Team USA.  The showing in 2006 was thus a major let-down.

Hays retired from the sport after the ’06 Winter Games, thus passing the torch to Holcomb, known as “Holcy” (holl-key) to his friends.  His full-time devotion to the sport paid off quickly.  At the conclusion of the 2006-2007 World Cup season, he won the 2007 Two-Man World Cup title, the 2007 Combined World Cup title, and finished second in the World Cup standings in the 4-man.  Suffice it to say, the U.S. men’s team had found its leader to take them to the proverbial promised land.

But just when Holcomb’s career in the sport was about to blossom, it almost ended.  He suffered from a degenerative corneal disease called keratoconus.  Basically, he was slowly going blind, and obviously did not want anybody to know.  Ironically, this condition gave him a competitive advantage, up to a point.  His eyesight continuing to decline, he learned to navigate the narrow, icy tracks of the sport more by feel and increasingly less by sight.  But if one went totally blind, not even one’s exceptional ability to feel would be enough to compensate.

As his sight got ever worse, he feared he would be forced to retire, but he still kept it a secret from the team.  Disgusted with his self-deception and depressed with the prospect of his career in bobsled soon ending, he felt like ending it all.  Then, in a Colorado Springs hotel room, after an evening of schmoozing with Olympic team donors, he almost did.  That night, he shoved 73 sleeping pills into his mouth – yes, he counted – and downed them all with the rest of a fifth of whiskey he had been drinking.  He gradually went to sleep, hoping never to wake up, not even leaving so much as a note.

Miraculously, the next morning, he woke up anyhow.  Holcy was the first to acknowledge this miracle, and instantly got the message that he had been given a second chance.  He started by coming clean with everyone about this keratoconus, telling the story about his battle with the disease, raising awareness of it in so doing.  Then, the following year, opthamologist Brian Boxer Wachler corrected his condition with a revolutionary, new treatment that did not even involve surgery.

His eyesight restored, Holcomb’s success on the frozen track continued.  By the 2008-2009 season, things really came together.  For one, the USA-1 team of Holcomb, pushers Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler, and Curt Tomasevicz truly gelled.  For another, they used the season to gradually break in a brand-new sled that the BoDyn program had designed and built for them, a sled that quickly became the envy of the top national teams everywhere.  With its intimidating flat black primer coating, the guys of USA-1 dubbed it the “Night Train,” and with it, they won the FIBT 4-man World Championship, the first time an American team accomplished that feat in literally 50 years (1959).

Team chemistry aided in this great feat, and that too must be credited to Steve Holcomb. His friend and former teammate, Doug Sharp explained the dawn of Holcomb’s innovation.  “A few months before the 2002 Olympics, we were [competing] at the ice house push track in Calgary, trying out new combinations of pushers.  I said [to the coach] ‘[P]ut Steve over there with me, and I’ll show you what we can do!’  We were ‘lightweights’ at the time.  We only weighed 205 pounds each, but we pushed together so well mechanically and we had such good chemistry that we were still able to out-push other combinations….the only reason we didn’t push together in the Olympics that year was because the team coaches kept re-shuffling the teams even after all the push tests.”

Sharp continued:  “Holcomb is the reason why the USA team coaches do not keep switching around teams.  He saw the German and Swiss teams being left alone to find their own mechanics and thus their speed.  He brought that philosophy over to Team USA.”  According to Sharp, if a change then needed to be made, they would switch out one pusher and then test the new combination over a number of races to ascertain the effectiveness of the move.  The fact that the coaches listened and enacted this recommendation has shown with the improved start times, of which the late, storied driver was also a part.

It was shortly after Holcomb and his team were world champs for the first time (2009) that I first met Steve Holcomb online via Facebook.  Doug Sharp was a fellow Purdue grad, and he and I met while we were both working in the Louisville (Ky.) area about 2006.  He told me about Holcomb at that time, about how the proverbial torch had already been passed to him from Todd Hays, and that great days were ahead for the team.  My friend Doug had done his part in bringing the program back to prominence, as he was a pusher for Brian Shimer’s USA-2 team that won that bronze at Salt Lake in ’02.  He and Holcy had been teammates who had pushed together often in the same sleds and were usually roommates during the World Cup tour while their careers overlapped.  They developed a strong friendship in the process.

It was at this time that I first met Steve Holcomb online via Facebook.  His former teammate, Doug Sharp was a fellow Purdue grad, and he and I met while we were both working in the Louisville (Ky.) area around 2006.  He told me about Holcomb at that time, about how the proverbial torch had already been passed to him from Todd Hays, and that great days were ahead for the team.  My friend Doug had done his part in bringing the program back to prominence, as he was a pusher for Brian Shimer’s USA-2 team that won that bronze at Salt Lake in ’02.  He and Holcy had been teammates, and were even roommates during the World Cup tour while their careers overlapped.  They developed a strong friendship in the process.

By the Spring of ’09, I had gathered the courage to reach out to Steve via Facebook, and he quickly responded to my outreach by stating “[A]nyone who’s a friend of Doug’s is a friend of mine!”  Such was the graciousness of Holcomb that he would quickly accept the friendship of a fan he had never met.

In any case, the 2009 World Championship was only a warm-up act.  Not even a drunk driving arrest later in ‘09 could halt his and his teammates’ training focus for what was to come.  The following year, at the Winter Games in Vancouver (specifically the sliding track at Whistler), Holcy and Team Night Train won Gold in the 4-man, ending a 62-year drought at the top of the podium for that event.  Team USA was back as a forced with which to be reckoned in the sport of bobsled.

The significance of this feat was not lost on Holcomb.  Katie Uhlaender, the 2012 Women’s Skeleton world champion and good friend of Holcy noted after his death that on one occasion, he told a fan who asked to see his gold medal, “[I]t’s not my medal, it’s America’s medal.”

Whosever gold medal it was, it made him a Winter Olympics star.  In the months following the huge win, he met with Barack Obama; he golfed with Charles Barkley; he even hung out with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, who, yes, were still a couple then.  He threw out a ceremonial pitch at a Cleveland Indians game, visited the New York Stock Exchange, and attended the 2010 Indianapolis 500 (not surprisingly, he was a huge racing fan).

Also in the wake of winning Olympic gold, he published an autobiography:  “But Now I See:  My Journey from Blindness to Olympic Glory”.  It was in this book that he first confessed to the world about his suicide attempt in Colorado Springs that blessedly failed.  He used the story as a way to help others who might have been contemplating something similar, to show them that there are always better solutions.

Though he was a focused, humble, grinder, he was always cheerful.  Bobsledding is a fraternity.  The men and women who compete from different countries may always try to out-race each other on the track, but there remains a respect for everybody – to varying degrees – throughout the International Federation of Bobsleigh and Skeleton.  Competitors throughout the world admired Holcomb for the aforementioned qualities he possessed.  He even came up with the “Holcy dance” around 2009, a less-than-rhythmic shuffle that he did at each race of the World Cup circuit to make fellow competitors laugh and to keep everyone loose while competing.

After having reached the pinnacle of success in his sport at the 2010 Winter Games, it was only natural to anticipate a slump in performance, a let-down.  But despite his drunk driving arrest in ’09 (the judge sentenced him to 180 hours of community service), a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the publicity and endorsements that came with it, even with teammate Steve Mesler retiring after said Olympics, Holcy and Team Night Train continued to maintain their diligent efforts and forge ahead.  They even won bronze at the FIBT 2011 World Championships at the Koenigssee track in southern Germany.

It did not hurt that Steve Langton replaced pusher Steve Mesler upon the latter’s retirement.  Langton worked his way up the team ranks and soon pushed for the USA-2 sled.  By the time he joined Team Night Train, he was considered one of the best push athletes in the world.

As well as Holcomb’s performance continued to be for the 2010-2011 season, he still maintained focus and diligence, as he felt there were still key things yet to achieve.  For one, the United States had never won a world championship in the 2-man event, and he was still out to prove that he could continue to win in the 4-man.  No doubt these were some of the biggest motivating factors as he and the rest of Team Night Train tackled the 2011-2012 season, which culminated in the world championships at a home track, Lake Placid.

As a long-time fan, I saw this serendipitous occasion as my opportunity to travel up there to watch (and photograph) Holcy and the boys in action.  It helped a ton that my friend, Doug Sharp, joined me up there and provided me with insider access that I shall forever treasure.

The weekend prior to my arrival in Lake Placid – home of both the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics – the 2-man world championship had already taken place, and Holcomb, along with brakeman Steve Langton, had already made history with the U.S.’s first-ever world championship in that event.

But now it was Feb. 25, 2012; time for the 4-man event, the marquee event of all sliding sports.  Holcomb and the rest of the USA-1 team finished the first of four runs in second to Germany-1, but put themselves in the lead after the second run.  As incredibly eventful as the day was, it was far from over after those two runs.  Doug Sharp took the opportunity to visit with his friend and former teammate, and brought me along over to the Olympic Training Center for this blessed opportunity.  There, in a small, garage-like building at the complex, the two of us entered, and there they were.  Despite having two strong runs earlier that day, there was no time to be complacent, as three of the four guys were there, Holcomb included, polishing their sleds’ runners as part of preparations for tomorrow morning’s final two runs.

Naturally, I wasted little time introducing myself in person to Holcy and to everyone else, thanking them for honoring our great nation.  To my amazement, Holcomb actually remembered me from Facebook!  The gratitude I offered to these fine fellows was very well-received, too.  Bobsledding is obviously a niche sport, one that does not attract the massive fan following of NFL or college (American) football, of the NBA, of Major League Baseball, or top-tier professional soccer in Europe and South America, for that matter.  As such, these fellows treasure the relatively few fans they have, and it shows.

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On the evening of Feb. 25, 2012, two old friends caught up on things.  Holcomb, ever the grinder, was visiting with his friend and former teammate, Doug Sharp, while he is polishing one of his sled’s runners for the last two runs of the 2012 4-man World Championship the next morning.

What immediately struck me about Steve Holcomb when I was able to converse with him was how humble he was in his achievements.  Here he was, the most decorated American bobsledder of all time, whose achievements have been without parallel despite a long tradition of American success during earlier eras of the sport.  Yet he acted as if they were no big deal:  what mattered was what he achieved lately, as he kept his nose to the grindstone, maintaining an unshakably calm demeanor all the while.

 

The following morning, Holcomb and Team Night Train picked up where they left off, and maintained their lead through runs 3 and four, winning the world championship in the 4-man event convincingly.  Naturally, many a set of congratulations and ‘atta boys showered upon the team.  Holcomb was on top of the world for his sport, having won the world championship for both the 2-man AND 4-man (again, an unprecedented feat in the history of American bobsledding).  Indeed, he had just won his third gold medal/world championship in the 4-man in a span of only four seasons.

Yet through all the victory celebration and awards ceremonies immediately following the race, what amazed me was Holcomb’s persistently even keel and humility.  Here was a consummate “grinder,” an incredibly focused, diligent person, refusing to let this success or previous successes go to his head.  Naturally, his easy-going demeanor, his understated happiness, and approachability persisted as well.

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Holcomb, flanked by the author and our mutual friend, Doug Sharp, as he hoists the Martineau Cup, the trophy his team won upon winning the 2012 4-man World Championship.  Even in victory, Holcomb remained as humble, gracious, and approachable as ever.

Even with this latest pinnacle of achievement, he and his team remained as diligent as ever.  There was always still some other new feat to achieve, some mountain left unclimbed.  A medal at World Cup races at the legendary St. Moritz track in Switzerland (the only natural ice track left on the circuit) continued to elude him, despite his record of success elsewhere.  It just so happened that the World Championships were to be held at this Mecca of a track in 2013.

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Friends, both brand-new and old, together for a group shot during a VIP luncheon in celebration of Holcomb and Team Night Train winning the 2012 4-man World Championship.  L-R:  Frank Briglia, the engineer who designed the cowling for the Night Train sled; Brian Shimer, the coach of the team and driver for the Bronze-winning USA-2 4-man team from the 2002 Winter Olympics; the author; Steven Holcomb; Doug Sharp and Mike Kohn, who together with Shimer won Bronze in 2002.

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The legendary “Night Train” 4-man sled, with which Steven Holcomb and his team won both the 2009 and 2012 World Championships, Bronze in the 2011 World Championship, and Gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics at Vancouver.

That medal continued to elude Holcomb in the 2-man event of the 2013 “Worlds”, putting even more pressure on him in the 4-man event.  But this time, he and Team Night Train came through, winning Bronze.  Another mountain was finally climbed, this one far more personal than previous feats.

The 4-man USA-1 team remained intact since the 2010-’11 season.  What changed following the 2012 world championship were two things.  One was that Christopher Fogt eventually replaced Justin Olsen in the line-up.  The second was a new sled, also provided by the BoDyn project.  Naturally, the team immediately dubbed it “Night Train II”.  Whereas the previous sled was built to take advantage of the unparalleled speeds on the Whistler track for the 2010 Winter Games, this one had different aerodynamic qualities built to better-negotiate more complicated tracks, such as the one at Sochi.  Whereas the Whistler track remains the fastest sliding sports track on the planet (top 4-man speeds have been known to reach 95 mph), the Sochi track was one of the slowest.

The Sanki Sliding Center was the track for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.  Its first world cup race was held following the 2013 worlds at St. Moritz to cap off the 2012-’13 season.  Like Lake Placid, it too was a “driver’s track,” but complicated in a very different way.  Teams were lucky to reach 80 mph.  Those “in the know” pointed out that you didn’t make any time at all on this track.  You just tried your best to minimize the time lost.  Holcy and the boys did not even place in the first 2-man and 4-man race at the Sanki Center.  They obviously had their work cut out for them come the 2014 Winter Games.

In other words, there was yet another mountain yet to climb, all the more incentive to keep grinding away as always.  This time, he and Steve Langton had a new weapon at their disposal.  BMW took over the design of the 2-man sleds, and unveiled a new prototype by 2013.  Some tests and tweaks throughout that year ensured that it and other 2-man models were ready for Team USA – both for men’s and women’s events – for the 2013-2014 Olympic season.

By the time the Winter Games at Sochi rolled around, Holcy and the boys were ready to go.  One achievement that eluded him and Team USA was medaling in the 2-man event.  The United States had not done so since 1952.  This time, Steve Holcomb rose to the occasion and won bronze in that event.  Amazingly, the two came back from 5th place starting the 3rd run and made up the deficit in the last two runs to medal.  In so doing, he and Steve Langton quenched another 62-year medal drought for USA bobsledding.

The 4-man event was agonizingly close between the top five finishers.  But Holcomb piloted Night Train II on the fourth run to maintain a .03-second lead over Russia-2, thus guaranteeing the team Bronze.  With that achievement, Holcomb double-medaled in the 2-man and 4-man events at the Winter Olympics for the first time since 1936.  As ESPN’s Lee Corso is so fond of saying, “That’s a ‘yo’!”

More amazingly, he achieved this playing through pain.  He strained a calf muscle during the second run of the 2-man, which slightly hobbled his push-runs at the top of the track, and possibly compromised the team’s start times on a track where that was more crucial than most.  Yet he pulled off the double-bronze anyhow.

Obviously, bobsledding was what he did well above all else, which is why he stuck with the sport after the rest of the 2013-’14 iteration of Team Night Train retired, and Justin Olsen would eventually go on to start piloting a sled of his own.  Still recovering from his lower-leg injury during the 2014-’15 season, and leading an all-rookie team of pushers, the team’s performance understandably suffered, and continued to do so the following season as Holcomb’s full strength gradually returned while the team struggled to find its inner rhythm.

But Holcomb’s leadership through persistent diligence started to pay off once more, as the team did find its inner rhythm just as the storied pilot returned to full strength.  The 2016-’17 World Cup season ended with Holcomb finishing third in both the 4-man standings and in the combined 2-man and 4-man standings.  Obviously, Team USA was making a comeback.  Clearly, Holcomb was expected to lead the U.S. men’s bobsled team to and through the 2018 Winter Olympics at PyeongChang.

“Holcomb is the reason why the USA team coaches do not keep switching around teams.  He saw the German and Swiss teams being left alone to find their own mechanics and thus their speed.  He brought that philosophy over to Team USA.”

-friend and former teammate Doug Sharp

But now, all of a sudden, not anymore.  In the wake of the shock, eulogies have poured in within Olympic circles throughout the United States.

“USA Bobsled and Skeleton is a family and right now we are trying to come to grips with the loss of our teammate, our brother and our friend,” U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation CEO Darrin Steele said.

“The entire Olympic family is shocked and saddened by the incredibly tragic loss today of Steven Holcomb,” U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said. “Steve was a tremendous athlete and even better person, and his perseverance and achievements were an inspiration to us all. Our thoughts and prayers are with Steve’s family and the entire bobsledding community.”

Teammate Nick Cunningham, the driver for USA-2 and who inherited the first Night Train sled for the 2014 Winter Games, reminded us of who and what we have lost:

“The only reason why the USA is in any conversation in the sport of bobsled is because of Steve Holcomb.  He was the face of our team. He was the face of our sport. We all emulated him. Every driver in the world watched him, because he was that good at what he did. It’s a huge loss, huge loss, not just for our team but for the entire bobsled community.”

During a recent celebration of his life, held in Lake Placid on May 11, Mike Preston, who has worked at the OTC in Lake Placid since 1985, summed it all up nicely:  “He won gold, and he had a heart of gold.”

No surviving friend or family member could ever disagree.  Yes, he made the occasional mistake, but we all do from time to time in our lives.  Moreover, they must never obfuscate the importance of the man, or how he touched so many lives so positively.  He was not only the greatest American bobsledder of all time, but he was an unabashed patriot as well; a humble, cheerful, ever-diligent teammate, and an example for all to follow.  In short, he was not only a great (nay, superb) American athlete, but more importantly, a great American.

General George Patton once admonished, “[I]t is foolish and wrong to mourn the dead.  Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.”

As shocked and saddened as we all are at this most sudden passing of a friend, exemplar Olympian, and fellow patriot, we must always be grateful to the Lord our God that he was here on Earth to apply his talents in such a unique way.  With his gold medals, we shared great joy in the honor he brought to our country.  As a person, we shall always remember the gold in his heart.  On behalf of a grateful nation, thank you, my friend, and rest in peace.

Amicus noster nobis reliquit multam nimis cito mane et mortua est in vita.  Sed perpetua laus Deo sumus qui sciebant eum esse beati atque in perpetuum sui memoriam.

What Happened to Brazil? April 1, 2017

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Politics.
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What happened to Brazil (economically-speaking)?  In previous articles, I have already spelled out the problem in so many words.  Brazil did enjoy economic growth for a while, which made them appear as though they were ready to join the grown-ups table of commerce-oriented countries.

But then Brazil hit an economic downturn from which it has failed to recover.  Even in 2009, it was still able to display a facade of prosperity, and thus successfully sold the International Olympic Committee on the idea of becoming the first country and city [Rio de Janeiro] to host the Olympic Games.  All those sports venues, built by government money, are now vacant and deteriorating, by the way.  So much for governmnent “stimulus”.

But do not take my word for it.  Now, Felipe Moura Brasil, a native Brazilian, offers his perspective on the systemic problems that have brought Brazil to this sorry pass (video at the top of the article).  Watch, listen, and learn.

Among the points he cites are:

  • Government transferring money from the rich to the poor.  Funny who the poor never got any richer as a result.
  • Those who did get richer by the aforementioned government actions of legalized theft were — surprise, surprise — Lula da Silva (Brazil’s then-president) and his corporate cronies.
  • The Socialists increased government spending, deficits, and debts, calling it “Stimulus” (e.g., all the Olympic venues that are now abandoned).
  • The same Socialists also increased the salary and retirement benefits of those in the civil service, euphemistically calling it “investing in the future”.
  • Handed out thousands of jobs in state-owned companies to political allies, euphemistically spinning such corruption as “good governance”.
  • Government spending kept going up, causing the economic growth to eventually collapse.

Fortunately, the Brazilian journalist in question cites some good news in the wake of this government-begotten economic wreckage.

One is that, according to Brasil, more Brazilians are starting to see capitalism and limited government as the way out of their national malaise.  As we have already pointed out on this blog, da Silva’s successor, Dilma Rousseff — also a Socialist — has been impeached and removed from office.  Her successor, Michel Temer, has already been leading some important economic reforms.

As Brasil himself points out at the end of this video, it will take a long time for his native country to recover economically from the havoc wrought by the Socialists.  This is to be expected for a country that was still on the upper end of the “developing country” spectrum, and whose corrupt government policies preempted it from being able to fully emerge as one of the truly grown-up, commerce-oriented nations (e.g., the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Australia, etc.).  Brazil’s only hope to be able to recover so as to emerge as one in the future is through, again, limited government and free enterprise.

Just as socialism wrecked Brazil’s economy and continues to wreak apocalyptic havoc in Venezuela, it can also cause America’s prosperity and social order to also collapse.  Bernie Sanders supporters, take note.

Chuck Berry, Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Founding Father-Poet, Dies at 90 March 26, 2017

Posted by intellectualgridiron in History, Pop Culture.
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Chuck_Berry_1958

Chuck Berry in his most iconic publicity photo.  Notice the traditional, shawl-lapel tuxedo, which was an implicit appeal to mainstream audiences.

Chuck Berry died at his home in St. Louis on March 18, 2017.  He was 90 years old.  Given that the musical genre of Rock ‘n’ Roll is over 60 years old by now, it comes as little surprise that most of its “founding fathers” are now dead.  Some died when the music was still young (e.g., Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, etc.), others later on from old age (Berry), or any types of cancers or other ailments (Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, Carl Perkins), or drugs/pills (Elvis).

Only a few notable rock founders remain; Little Richard (84), Fats Domino (89), and, inexplicably, Jerry Lee Lewis (81).

But Chuck Berry’s passing is particularly notable since his musical legacy is arguably, outside of Elvis, the farthest-reaching of any of Rock’s Founders, both literally as well as figuratively.

Take the obvious example of “Johnny B. Goode”.  As we speak, it hurtles through the cosmos, cut into golden records affixed to both the Voyagers I and II spacecraft.  Should some intelligent, extraterrestrial beings find these probes thousands of years from now, they shall hear it as a prime example of music produced by the people of Earth.  Let that sink in for a moment.

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An authentic duplicate of the gold-plated records that were launched along with the two Voyager spacecraft in 1977 and continue to silently sail beyond our solar system.  Among the diversity of music on this disc is Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”.  (C) photo by author at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., Nov., 2014.

But back down to Earth, the song’s energy and mood take on a spirit of their own.  It has been used in countless movie soundtracks for one.  Its opening guitar riff is one of the most famous in the history of the electric guitar, and grabs the listener with its first few opening notes on Berry’s Gibson ES-350T, never to let go.  Though recorded in 1958, even almost 60 years later, it still has the incredible ability to both raise the energy and lighten the mood of a room, no matter how lively the scene may currently be.  Personal experience has demonstrated this on a number of occasions.  Feeling lethargic during the morning commute to work?  Call up Johnny B. Goode on your mp3 library in your car:  that record will rev you up to take on the day without fail.

Guitarists both professional and amateur the world over have picked up their cherished instrument out of inspiration for that record’s famous opening riff, many having spent months trying to learn to imitate it.  But if all that does not demonstrate the distance and depth Chuck Berry’s musical legacy, consider the aforementioned space travel note.

Like many artists, Berry himself was not example well-adjusted, either during his youth or adult life.  Despite growing up in a middle-class family in St. Louis, he had a serious run-in with the law before graduating from high school.  During his Senior year, he was arrested and for armed robbery and for stealing a car at gunpoint, and sent to reformatory near Jefferson City, Mo., in 1944, and was released on his 21st birthday in 1947.

He married in 1948 and worked jobs ranging from janitor of the apartment where he resided to factory worker at auto plants in St. Louis in order to support his wife and young family.  At one point, he even trained as a beautician, which might explain his distinctive hairstyle on stage and in publicity photos.

Speaking of the stage, however, he did have a life-long interest in music, and even gave his first public performance as a high school student in 1941.  By the early 1950s, he started working with local bands to supplement his income, formulating his own style by borrowing heavily from the riffs of T-Bone Walker, further honed by guitar lessons from his friend Ira Harris.  By early 1953, he was performing with Johnnie Johnson’s trio.  That collaboration would prove fruitful for both, for it was Johnson who would be the reliable pianist behind Berry’s many legendary tracks after his own band became yesterday’s news.  Indeed, his piano playing seemed to perfectly complement Berry’s guitar on “Johnny B. Goode”.

The irony in Berry’s successful formula is that it took an opposite approach to the one Elvis Presley used for his own success.  Sam Phillips, the founder and owner of legendary Sun Records, realized that Elvis had the potential for huge commercial success by being a white person who could imitate the singing mannerisms of black artists.  Berry came up with a different recipe.  He covered Country-Western songs – along with the requisite R&B tunes – to the vocal stylings of Nat King Cole, backed up with the musical stylings of Muddy Waters.  Translation:  instead of a white guy covering R&B tunes, he was a black guy covering [white] Country-Western tunes, with mainstream vocal styling and enough R&B musical backing to give the music an edge, and in so doing brought in a much wider, more affluent audience than he would have by simply sticking to the blues.  His calculated showmanship was also a key ingredient in his success, as he frequently wore a tuxedo during live performances in order to appeal to the aforementioned mainstream audiences.

Perhaps the best example of Berry’s use of Country-Western came about after he actually first met Waters when he traveled to Chicago in May of 1955.  At Waters’ behest, Berry contacted Leonard Chess (founder and owner of Chess Records), demonstrating to the rising executive what he could produce for him.  What grabbed Chess’ attention was Berry’s adaptation of a fiddle tune called “Ida Red”, which was recorded by Country Swing bandleader Bob Wills* in 1938.  Berry recorded this Rock adaptation of Ida Red under a new title, “Maybelline” on May 21, 1955.  The song soon sold over a million copies, and became one of the key records that gave fuel to the explosion of Rock n’ Roll that very same year.

The same year (’55) yielded other great records by Chuck Berry, including “Thirty Days”.  In both cases, one thing that stands out is his guitar.  His Gibson ES-350 model was his signature instrument in the same way that Buddy Holly would come to “own” the Fender Stratocaster.  The ES-350 (“E.S.” standing for “electro-Spanish”, incidentally) had the sublime combination of the traditional, mellow tones of a hollow-body archtop guitar, but with a hard edge to make things very interesting.  Berry quickly learned to use this potent combo to amazing effect, as his first hits alone clearly show.

The following year (1956) would prove just as fruitful, especially with his hard-charging hit “Roll Over Beethoven”.  Also added to that year’s successful mix was “Too Much Monkey Business” and “You Can’t Catch Me,” the latter of which he also performed in the movie “Rock, Rock, Rock” that same year.

The very soundtrack from 1957 cannot be complete without both “Rock and Roll Music” and “School Days,” while 1958 proved, arguably, to be Berry’s most fecund vintage.  Not only did ’58 produce the legendary “Johnny B. Goode,” but also “Sweet Little Sixteen” – the song that became the inspiration for the Beach Boys’ huge hit “Surfin’ USA” the following decade – but also “Carol”, “Reelin’ and Rockin’”, “Around and Around”, “Sweet Little Rock and Roller”, and “Run, Rudolph, Run”.  One can easily be forgiven for mistaking the last number with “Little Queenie,” which charted the following year:  both of which share an identical melody.

The year 1959 proved just as energetic, though, as he recorded “Little Queenie (as already mentioned),” “Memphis,” “Let It Rock” “Almost Grown,” and “Back in the USA”, the latter two having been augmented by the vocal backup of The Moonglows, who were Chess Records stablemates.

“Let It Rock”, although a brief track at 1:47, also merits special notice as he successfully emulates the sound of a train with his guitar.  Little Richard proved that the Holy Grail of Rock was the “freight-train” effect in music.  Richard achieved this with the combination of percussion and piano syncopations, sometimes with saxophones mixed in, too.  Berry’s unique contribution was, as already mentioned, via guitar.

Even by 1960, when the genre had already evolved itself into something less energetic, Berry was still producing songs of comparatively exceptional energy such as “Bye, Bye Johnny” (an obvious follow-up to Johnny B. Goode).

Only in 1961 did his career take a temporary turn for the worse when his mal-adjustments caught up with him yet again.  This time he was arrested and eventually convicted for violating the Mann Act (transportation of underage women across state lines for immoral purposes).

Released after serving a year and a half in prison, he immediately returned to recording and quickly produced more hits, including “Nadine” and “No Particular Place To Go,” (the melody borrows heavily from “School Days”) and “You Never Can Tell”, all of which clearly the recalled the energy and excitement of the previous decade when rock was fresh.  This, at a time, when what passed for “rock” had become comparatively boring and listless.  Even in the early 1960s, both Chuck Berry and Little Richard were keeping the flame alive long after their still-active contemporaries had sold out.  The only thing about him that did seem to evolve was his choice of guitar.  Instead of his blond-finished ES-350, he seemed to increasingly favor a red ES-335 instead.

Perhaps the grandest irony of Chuck Berry’s career was that he did not have a “Number One” hit on the Pop charts (though several topped the charts, or came close to doing so on the R&B charts).  Johnny B. Goode peaked on the Pop charts at No. 8; Sweet Little Sixteen actually surpassed it, peaking at No. 2.  Not until 1972 did Berry finally have a record that achieved Number One status on the Pop charts with the rude novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling,” the lyrics of which would put Sterling Archer’s famed reaction-expression of “phrasing” into overdrive!

Berry’s music from the ’50s and early ‘60s also causes us to reconsider Rock music’s ancestral origins.  Many historians quickly point out Rock’s base ingredients of both R&B (sometimes outright Blues itself) and Country-Western, and those key ingredients are clearly evident across the board.  But the third key ingredient of Big Band-Swing is often overlooked entirely.  A careful study of Chuck Berry’s own interviews verifies this as a key ingredient to the genre he helped, ironically, create.

A 1987 LA Times article revealed Berry in that year reminiscing not of his early hits or those of his contemporaries, but of Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie” (1938) and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” (1939).  “The Big Band Era was my era,” he candidly clarified.  “People say, where did you get your style from.  I did the Big Band Era on guitar.  That’s the best way I could explain it.”  He even continued, “”Rock ‘n’ roll accepted me and paid me, even though I loved the big bands . . . I went that way because I wanted a home of my own. I had a family. I had to raise them. Let’s don’t leave out the economics. No way.”  Indeed, in that same interview, he was even more candidly frank in saying that he would have been even happier crooning Nat King Cole-style songs instead of rock.  Let us take a moment to pause and consider that as our collective jaw drops to the floor in amazement.

But perhaps we ought not to be so surprised.  In his ‘Rockumentary’ film “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll”, also from 1987, he attempted to croon, during a rehearsal session in his home, to traditional American Pop Standards “I’m Through With Love” and “A Cottage For Sale.”

Yet another clue, though, shows up in a live gig he did at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958.

Notice the jazzy approach he takes toward the live rendition of this hit record from the previous year.

To put things in yet another perspective, one could make the case that Berry did not sing Rock music insomuch as he sang folk music set to Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Johnny B. Goode, for example, became a hero of legend as the protagonist in Berry’s immortal record.  In the case of “No Money Down,” the lyrics describe the dream of every new car buyer to this day.  “School Days” articulate the day-to-day experience of kids in junior high and high school like no other song ever, and they still ring just as truly today, 60 years later.  “Too Much Monkey Business” describes/pokes fun at the struggles of most 20-something men as they make adjustments to adulthood and the responsibilities thereof.  “Back in the USA” speaks the heart of every patriotic American who is grateful to return to their beloved native land after travelling abroad.  Even “You Never Can Tell” speaks to the hopes and the potential of young newlyweds as they just start off on their own.

Chuck Berry’s music packed a punch still that resonates strongly today, more than sixty years after this first recording sessions were put to tape.  His guitar riffs are the stuff of legend, and everybody guitar player, professional and amateur alike, owes some degree of debt to him for their own inspiration.  But ironically, Chuck Berry’s greatest staying power might be on account of his own lyrics, which made him the poet of Rock’s Founding Fathers, and who has now joined most of his fellow contemporaries in a higher plane of existence.

*According to the late Waylon Jennings, “Bob Wills is still the king (of country)!”

On NASA “Boilerplates” March 16, 2017

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Usually when you think of the word “boilerplate”, you might think of some sort of insincere, hackneyed statement from a public relations person or a politician.  But when it comes to the history of space exploration, the term takes on a much more important meaning.

Boilerplate spacecraft are simulations of the real spacecraft, having the size and shape of the real thing on the outside, but are not actual flight articles.  Their use is for simulation and testing without putting an actual, flight-ready spacecraft at risk to damage, etc.  The video above offers a more thorough explanation with some excellent examples of how such mock-ups were utilized.

I have had the privilege of encountering lots of genuine NASA spacecraft over the years, but I’ve encountered a few interesting “boilerplates” as well.  Indeed, by interest in space was kindled by frequent encounters with a boilerplate.  As a Louisville, Ky., native who lived the first 6 and a half years of his life in that city, my parents often took us to what is today called the Kentucky Science Center (back then it was the Louisville Museum of Natural History and Science).  From about 1980 (the year I was born) to about 1996, they had an impressive space gallery on the first floor, with all sorts of cool space artifacts.

I can still see them all as a kid, walking along and viewing the amazing vestiges of “vintage space”.  There was a test pilot’s helmet from the 1950s; various astronaut gloves, an astronaut suit (whose specifically I cannot recall); a 1:4 scale model of an Apollo Lunar Module; an old Gemini simulator that you could actually sit down inside; part of an old rocket engine; 1960s-era NASA mainframe computer panels (no joke – these made up a mini-corridor all their own); a scaled down model of an Apollo Command Module, pre-launch, hence its white exterior (about 1:8 scale, give or take).

But the obvious crown jewel of the exhibit was Apollo BP-1102A, a water egress-training module.  After Apollo 13’s “successful failure,” NASA removed the interior of that used spacecraft and moved it into this particular boilerplate for investigation purposes.  The shell of the Command Module Odyssey was eventually put on display at the Air and Space Museum in Paris (yes, France), while Odyssey’s interior and newly wed BP-1102A somehow found their way to the museum in Louisville.  In that same room, there was a photo of all three astronauts from that mission on hand for an exhibit inauguration ceremony in front of the museum’s façade along Main Street in downtown.  Since this was around the time I was born, it was a fortunate thing that all three astronauts — Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise — were able to be together again, as Swigert died of cancer roughly two years later, ironically just after getting elected to Congress.

As a very young boy, I did not know about “Boilerplates”:  all I understood was that the Apollo 13 was in my hometown.  As I got older, it gradually dawned on me that the authentic part of the display was the capsule’s interior, while the exterior shell was a mock-up.  The copper-colored paint job was to make the boilerplate look like the Block II Apollo Command Modules during splashdown, after they burned to a golden-brown color during re-entry on account of the massive fraction of Earth’s atmosphere.

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As a Louisville native who visited the Kentucky Science Center as often as I could growing up, encountering this distinctive Apollo boilerplate at the Udvar-Hazy Center was like seeing an old friend.  (C) photo by the author; Nov., 2014.

But all good things come to an end, sooner or later.  By the latter half of the 1990s, the whole spacecraft was gone.  The popular 1995 film Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and the late Bill Paxton had apparently made the local spacecraft landmark too valuable a commodity to be tucked away in Louisville.  What I heard at the time was they reunited the interior with the exterior shell, but the “restored” spacecraft’s whereabouts were unclear to me, until I later found it that it was on new display at the increasingly famous Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Ks. (Of all bloody places!)  Moreover, the space hall was moved up to the second floor of the museum, and by that time, it was already a shell of its former self.  Presently, the whole exhibit has been phased out, sadly, but the Gemini simulator is still on display there, thankfully, ever inviting guests to sit down inside and experience a hint of “vintage space” for themselves.

But one thing I did wonder for the longest time was, whatever happened to BP-1102A?  Only in recent years did I learn of NASA spacecraft boilerplates, and that is when I “put two and two together” and realized that I had many a hands-on encounter with such a test model while growing up and did not even realize it at the time.  Convinced I would never see it again, I was eventually proven mistaken.

A past job fortuitously took me out to the East Coast for a month in November of 2014.  While there, I seized the opportunity to visit the Udvar-Hazy Center (a remote annex to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum) near Dulles International Airport.  While there, I came upon a boilerplate that looked eerily similar to the one I always ran to the old space hall in Louisville as a young boy.  Further research afterwards indicated that I had indeed seen an old “friend” for the first time in almost 20 years.  In addition to being given a much more prominent venue for display (it does not get any bigger or higher-profile than the Smithsonian), it has also been fitted with the flotation collar and balloons from the Apollo 11 – talk about an upgrade!

Not too long after this reunion of sorts, I came across another Apollo boilerplate (29A), this time at the immense Meteor Crater near Winslow, Ariz.  Obviously, it is but a small side-show to the main attraction, but it is intriguing to encounter nonetheless.  Much like BP 1102A, the purpose of Boilerplate 29A was to test the systems that helped the Apollo capsules stay afloat during splashdown in the ocean.

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Another Apollo Boilerplate (29A) that I encountered while visiting the massive Meteor Crater near Winslow, Ariz.  (C) photo by author; May, 2015.

The lesson of this story – such as there is one at all – is to keep your eyes peeled for these interesting space artifacts during your sojourns, as you never know when you might encounter them.  After all, as the video at the top of the article reminds us, they have their own special place in the history of space travel and the development thereof.

Time to Re-think “6 AM’s” March 1, 2017

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There is an oft-overlooked part to college football that has gotten out of control.  As a former Big Ten football team staff member, I had to endure what are, in the industry, known as “6 AM’s”.  The simple definition/description is that they are winter conditioning sessions for college football players, usually starting in late January and lasting until Spring Practices begin.

They are also a royal pain in the backside.  College kids have a hard time getting enough sleep as it is.  Now imagine having to get up no later than 5 in the morning and trudge yourself into the football facilities.  Show up for work all dressed in normal practice garb no later than 5:30 in the morning so you can set up the equipment for these early morning conditioning sessions.

At least we did not have to run through all those grueling drills:  that was for the players to do.  Good luck being able to maintain consciousness in your classrooms for the rest of the day.  If you miss class because you are too tired, coaches typically cook up special penalties, such as more running.  At Purdue during the Joe Tiller era, the penalty was for players who missed class to start running at 5:30 – meaning we would have to get things set up prior to that time – after which they had to join the rest of their teammates for the 6 AM B.S.

As bad as they have been, coaches have gone too far with these “6 AM’s”.  One recent example is of several Oregon football players needing hospitalization during such a session, which included an hour of push-ups and “up-downs.”  An hour, seriously?  Some of these hospitalized players were diagnosed with Rhabdomyolysis, which basically involves the soft muscle tissue breaking down, then leaking into your blood stream.

But that was just earlier this year.  Back in 2011, 13 Iowa football players were hospitalized for the same problems following one of their winter conditioning sessions.

It is perfectly reasonable for coaches needing their players to be in shape.  Moreover, it make sense that they already be in shape for spring practices, so that the coaches can properly ascertain what sort of talent they have to work with for the upcoming fall season that year.  But treating these winter conditioning session as “gut checks” is horribly antiquated, and arguably abusive.

The problem is that coaches too often use these “6 AM” drills (some coaches smartly schedule them in the afternoon, but not enough of them do) as a symbolic gesture to remind players that they are under said coaches’ thumbs, so to speak.  Coaches also too often use these drills as an excuse to put them through “gut-checks”, testing their manhood so as to earn the coaches’ respect and earn their right to stay on the team.  Again, this is not always the case, but incidents like those mentioned above give that impression.

By all means, have conditioning sessions, but coaches, be both sensible and reasonable and have them in the afternoon…like sane people.  There is nothing holding coaches back from implementing these sensible solutions:  only ego and antiquated thinking.  It’s just a matter of coaches having the good sense to be practical and realize that they can get their players in good enough shape without sleep-depriving them, ruining their entire days of class, and fatiguing them to the point of needing hospitalization.  This is not the Marines, let alone the French Foreign Legion.

Give the players a break, schedule the conditioning sessions in the afternoon, and focus on getting them in shape without having to put them through daily gut-checks.  After all, they should have earned your respect by their willingness to show up in the winter to go through such hell before even putting on helmets and pads later in the springtime.  For those coaches who already honor this ethic, kudos.

On finding the best version of “The Christmas Song” December 23, 2016

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“The Christmas Song”, recorded by Nat King Cole has been a perennial favorite secular Christmas recording by folks both young and old for more than fifty years.  When this aforementioned record’s familiar strains hit the airwaves each holiday season, almost everyone quickly recognizes it.  It’s a “comfort record”, a tune that takes us back to the simpler Christmases of our youth, and the very lyrics encapsulate the warm feelings and the nostalgia that this time of year readily inspires.*

But there is only one problem:  the best-known version is not the best version.  Moreover, most people are not even aware that Cole recorded multiple versions over a span of 15 years.

The most familiar version is the one that Nat King Cole cut in 1961.  Those who are familiar with this legendary artist’s body of work would not be surprised.  Cole’s tenure at Capitol Records lasted over 20 years, from 1943 (the label began the previous year) to his untimely death from lung cancer in 1965.  He was such an integral part of the label’s success that when Capitol moved to its current location near Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles in 1956 – the world’s first circular office tower, interestingly – it became known as “The House that Nat Built.”

Those who are familiar with Cole’s body of work at that label would be aware that he recorded multiple versions of many of his hits.  He recorded a spate of new versions of his biggest hits from the 1940s and ’50s during the early 1960s, for example.  When one examines this pattern, the fact that he cut another version of arguably the most legendary secular Christmas record should come as no surprise.

But as many musical connoisseurs – this one included – will quickly point out, Cole’s early ’60s versions lack the sharpness and the soul of the originals.  His early ‘60s renditions of “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Paper Moon” are pathetic imitations of the 1940s counterparts.  His early ‘60s re-dos of his 1951 hits “Mona Lisa” and “Too Young” likewise fall short.  Same goes for many more of his respective songs.  As great as his 1961 version of “The Christmas Song” may be, it too falls short of previous versions he himself recorded.  The only reason he made the later versions was to give the public the option to hear his songs in stereo, as his hits from the ’40s and ’50s were all recorded in monaural (due to the technological limitations of the time).

Rewind 15 years to 1946.  “The Christmas Song” itself was only a year old on paper.  Crooner Mel Tormé wrote it in 1945, on a sunny summer day in California, while lounging by a pool.  Tormé’s rationale for this irony was that it was a blistering hot day, and he wrote it as a way to “stay cool by thinking cool.”

Nat King Cole fittingly recorded the first versions of the song, at his own behest, the following year, at first with his Trio.  Thus, the legendary song was truly born:

Later that same year, Cole re-recorded that song again, this time with a string section.  With his youthful energy and younger vocal chords, this version is a treasure, with a quality and a capturing of Americana far superior to the better-known ’61 rendition.  One needs only to give the large-group 1946 version a listen to discern the positive difference.

 

(Is it just me, or were 80 percent of all record labels before the 1950s colored black?)

But wait, there’s more!  As truly wonderful as his “With String Choir” version from 1946 is, Cole, truly on top of his game the following decade, recorded yet another version of the song in 1953.  This will sound rather similar to the ’61 cut, but it has a certain sharpness that the later one clearly lacks, as one would expect from a time when the great singer was clearly in his prime.

(Note the iconic, purple, Capitol Records label from the Fifties!)

I first heard this 1953 version on the radio at age nine.  Even my lesser-educated ears at that tender age could quickly discern that this rendition was far better than its 1961 doppelganger.  The soft beat of the drums in the 1953 recording alone make a huge difference, as they give the tune a key dimension the later one sorely lacks, and that’s just for starters.  Plus, the orchestra was conducted by Nelson Riddle, who was one of the chief reasons why Capitol owned the pop market that decade, but more on that some other time.

Let it also be known that he performed this song live a few times, some of which have been captured as airchecks for posterity, so they too are floating out there for the hard-core music fans to enjoy.

Indeed, it becomes difficult to decide which is the best performance of this song by this artist:  his large-group 1946 version, or the 1953 version?  The latter is probably more palatable to most ears, as it sounds a bit more similar (compared to the former) to the 1961 edition that everyone who has not been living in a cave since then already knows.

The answer comes down to which sort of Americana one prefers, the early post-WWII flavor of Americana, or the 1950s flavor?  They’re both absolutely wonderful, so don’t overthink it and add BOTH to your playlist this Christmas season!

*Unless you’re an unreformed, unrepentant Scrooge.  But as Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd would say, “[T]hat is a ‘you’ problem!”

 

College Football Awards, Week 14 (2016) December 5, 2016

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We now await the Committee’s verdict.

(Note:  All rankings are current AP [week 14] unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES

Wish I were him: P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan

Glad I’m not him: Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State

Lucky guy: Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia

Poor guy: Ken Niumatalolo, Navy  Hon. mention:  Kevin Wilson, Indiana; Jim Grobe, Baylor

Desperately seeking a wake-up call: Neal Brown, Troy

Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Paul Petrino, Idaho

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Gary Patterson, TCU

Desperately seeking … anything:  Gary Patterson, TCU

TEAMS

Thought you’d kick butt, you did:  Alabama (defeated No. 15 Florida 54-16)

Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t:  Navy (lost to Temple 34-10)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did:  ULM (lost to Louisiana-Lafayette 30-3)

 Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Temple (see above)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Washington (defeated No. 9 Colorado 41-10)

Dang, they’re good: Alabama

Dang, they’re bad:  Louisiana-Monroe

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  Troy

Did the season start?  Baylor Can the season end?  TCU

Can the season never endWestern Michigan   Hon. Mention:  Penn State

GAMES

Play this again:  No. 7 Penn State 38, No. 6 Wisconsin 31

Play this again, too:  No. 3 Clemson 42, No. 23 Virginia Tech 35

Never play this again: No. 4 Washington 41, No. 9 Colorado 10

Close call:  No. 14 West Virginia 24, Baylor 21

What? No. 7 Penn State 38, No. 6 Wisconsin 31

Oh – my – GodTemple 34, No. 19 Navy 10

NEXT WEEK

Just one game: Army vs. Navy – God bless America!

Week 14 Take-aways:

The conference championships are now concluded, and shall no doubt yield some excellent bowl game matchups come Sunday. Regarding those championship games, everything ended as anticipated, with a mild surprise of Penn State sort-of-upsetting Wisconsin in a hard-fought, close game that surely gave the fans’ their money’s worth. The MAC championship took on an engaging, intriguing aspect of its own, what with a respectable Ohio U team coached by the venerable Frank Solich taking on the undefeated Western Michigan Broncos, coached by the young, energetic P.J. Fleck. On the line was preserving the Broncos’ first undefeated season since 1941 (which again, “yo!”), and a possible Cotton Bowl berth. A manifestation of this MAC championship game meaning something is that it is the most highly attended in the history of that end-of-season matchup.

But anyhow, it’s now time to start talking bowl game matchups, which, as always, shall take up an entire article itself. So, stay tuned.

Louisville’s End-of-Season Collapse: A Postmortem November 27, 2016

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It’s still too painful to watch.

Without a doubt, Louisville’s upset loss at home to rival Kentucky is the most unsettling thing I have witnessed thus far in this entire college football season.  The Cardinals were rolling for so long, despite a relatively early-season loss to mighty conference foe Clemson.  But even then, that was on the road, in arguably the most hostile, difficult setting in the ACC, under primetime lights, no less.  The Cardinals quickly regrouped, and still managed to mount a plausible playoff campaign.

Until the game at Houston on Nov. 19.  The Cougars started very strongly as well, but then got upset twice, first to Navy, then mysteriously to lowly SMU.  But two Thursdays ago, Houston showed up ready to play, and, in hindsight, hungry for redemption.  It showed.  The Cougars had legitimate athletes on the defensive line that made Louisville QB Lamar Jackson’s life miserable the whole night.  Defensively, Louisville’s defense never could get dialed in.  In the end, Houston, then unranked, walloped Louisville, 36-10.

It did not help the Cardinals that it was a Thursday night game.  They had to make a quick preparation turnaround after facing fundamentally sound Wake Forest the previous Saturday evening.  But still, championship-caliber teams would not rest on that excuse.  They would show up to play, and win.

Such a loss should have been a wake-up call, to both the coaches and the players.  Bobby Petrino should have used this as a teaching tool to his players, to remind them of the need to bring your best game no matter the circumstances, and to not take all teams seriously, no matter how inexplicable their previous losses may have been.  Frankly, how a team like Houston could have lost to either of those other two teams remains the biggest mystery of the season.

Win or lose, Louisville nevertheless had extra time to lick their wounds, recover, and prepare for the season-ending game, at home, to rival Kentucky.  The oddsmakers had Louisville favored by three touchdowns.  Except that Kentucky continued to slug in out in the brutal SEC, against NFL-grade bodies.  In short, the Wildcats were battle-hardened, and like the Cougars before them, they showed up ready to play, even though this time they were the visitors.

What should have, on paper, been a borderline body bag game in favor of the Cardinals quickly turned into a game-spanning grind.  On offense, the Cardinals committed four turnovers, while their defense continued to be as porous as they were against Houston over a week earlier.  A last-minute field goal clinched it for the Wildcats, who took home the Governor’s Cup for the first time since 2010.

A long-time truism said by many a coach is that the team that make the fewest mistakes wins.  Obviously, those four turnovers on the part of Louisville cost them dearly.  One less interception, and the outcome would likely be different.

But even so, systemic problems have developed that have, in hindsight, become evident in the past two debacles of games.  For one, while Petrino has done an outstanding job recruiting skill position players, he seems to have neglected his lines (yes, both of them).  Surely his time in the NFL, brief though it was, would have taught him that one builds a team from the inside out, not vice-versa.  In other words, a wise man/coach builds his team around his offensive and defensive lines.  That deficiency became very glaring during the debacle against Houston, where again, the Cougars had real athletes on their defensive line, and it retarded Louisville’s offensive production accordingly.

Perhaps Petrino did know this vital maxim but delegated the building that part of the team to an assistant coach.  If so, that was an obvious mistake.  If he were not aware, hopefully these last two embarrassments will bring this deficiency to his attention.

Another issue is that the offense seems to have come to rely too heavily on QB Lamar Jackson, making Louisville a one-trick pony.  As insanely, freakishly talented as Lamar is, he relies, at this point, too much on rhythm.  If he is off-rhythm, the whole offense suffers.  The Cardinals have at least two good runningbacks, both productive, and yet they were under-utilized on account of the coaches being seduced by the siren song of creating sexiness and sizzle with Lamar at the expense of wearing down other teams’ defenses with methodically-sustained drives.

But perhaps the biggest problem of all is a chronic deficiency in discipline, which was evident by too many penalties.  These penalties obviously hamstrung the Cardinals during key moments throughout the season.  Any discerning fan or coach would also point out that relying on raw talent to overcome these penalties and mental mistakes is a fool’s errand, for there are teams such as Alabama and Ohio State that are both incredibly talented athletically and for more disciplined.

Yes, Louisville is a very talented team, but obviously they are not exempt from paying a heavy price in the end from such a lack of discipline.  The most effective systemic solution, as politically incorrect as this may sound, is for Petrino to recruit a few more white players.  This is serious.  The comparative analysis of the black player vs white player goes something like this.  With black players, there is the obvious benefit of greater athletic talent, but the drawback is, one cannot count on a consistent performance from many, if not most of them.  Conversely, with white players, the athletic talent/output is usually not as great as it is with most black players, but on the plus side, one can always count on a consistent effort from the whites.

Bottom line:  too many blacks on a team tends to lead to a lack of discipline, and Louisville this year has been a perfect example of this.  On the other hand, having too many whites leads to insufficient athleticism and comparative, well, sluggishness.  Nevertheless, to be a consistently effective team, one needs both.  Think of it as building a wall.  One needs both bricks and mortar.  Think of the black players as bricks.  A wall just of bricks can be well-stacked, yet easily toppled because there is nothing to bind them together.  Conversely, the white players are the mortar.  A wall of just sculpted mortar is theoretically possible, but it’s limited in terms of how one can practically build said wall.  One needs both bricks and mortar in order to build a wall of optimal size and strength, hence optimal effectiveness.  In the same vein, a strong, consistently effective team needs both black players for athletic prowess and white players for consistency and examples of discipline.  A good example of this is Pat Narduzzi’s Pittsburgh team, which clung tenaciously to Clemson for that entire game in Death Valley, and capitalized on the last-second opportunity they earned.

Petrino would thus be well-served to recruit a few more whites.  Doing so will instill much-needed discipline in his team.  That, along with better line play and more of a running game will eliminate the risk of a sudden collapse like this year, and at the same time, put the team in a far better position to make the playoffs next year.  Onward and upward.

Disclaimer:  You self-appointed, politically-correct thought police better sit down and shut up.  We all know how hysterical you are, crying “racism” even more often than the boy who cried wolf.  There are no racist statements here at all regarding the aforementioned observations of black vs. white players.  The more you cry racism when none exists, the more you cheapen it and make normal people all the more apt to ignore it when such an abhorrent thing actually occurs.  Sell your crazy somewhere else.

College Football Awards, Week 13 (2016) November 27, 2016

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The Game lived up to The Hype.

(Note:  All rankings are current AP [week 13] unless otherwise noted.)

COACHES

Wish I were him: Urban Meyer, Ohio State

Glad I’m not him: Charlie Strong, Texas

Lucky guy: Kevin Wilson, Indiana

Poor guy: Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati

Desperately seeking a wake-up call: Bobby Petrino, Louisville

Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Bobby Petrino, Louisville

Desperately seeking … anything:  Butch Jones, Tennessee  also:  Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

TEAMS

Thought you’d kick butt, you did:  Virginia Tech (defeated Virginia 52-10)

Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t:  Louisville (lost to Kentucky 41-38)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did:  Iowa State (lost to No. 19 West Virginia 49-19)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  Kentucky (see above)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  UTEP (defeated North Texas 52-24)

Dang, they’re good: Clemson

Dang, they’re bad:  New Mexico State

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  Nebraska

Did the season start?  Louisville

Can the season end?  Texas  also:  Ole Miss, Notre Dame

Can the season never endWestern Michigan

GAMES

Play this again:  No. 2 Ohio State 30, No. 3 Michigan 24

Play this again, too:  Georgia Tech 28, Georgia 27

Never play this again: No. 4 Clemson 56, South Carolina 7

Close call:  Indiana 26, Purdue 24

What? Vanderbilt 45, No. 24 Tennessee 34

HuhAir Force 27, No. 21 Boise State 20

Double-Huh?  Memphis 48, No. 18 Houston 44

Are you kidding me?  Iowa 40, No. 17 Nebraska 10

Oh – my – GodKentucky 41, No. 11 Louisville 38

NEXT WEEK

(rankings are current AP (post-week 13, pre-week 14))

Ticket to die for: No. 6 Wisconsin vs. No. 8 Penn State in the B1G Championship

also: No. 11 Oklahoma State @ No. 8 Oklahoma

Best non-Power Five vs. Power Five matchup: none

Best non-Power Five matchup: Western Michigan vs. Ohio U in the MAC Championship, Friday

Must win: too many to list!

Offensive explosion: No. 6 Washington vs. No. 9 Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship

Defensive struggle: No. 13 Florida @ No. 15 Florida State

Great game no one is talking about: Louisiana Tech @ Western Kentucky

Intriguing coaching matchup: Nick Saban of Alabama vs. Jim McElwain of Florida

Think there’s enough purple? Kansas State @ TCU

Who’s bringing the body bags? Baylor @ No. 14 West Virginia

Why are they playing? Wisconsin vs. Penn State in the B1G Championship (ever heard of Ohio State?)

Plenty of good seats remaining: New Mexico State @ South Alabama

They shoot horses, don’t they? Georgia State @ Idaho

Week 13 Take-aways:

Rivalry week has yielded some decent drama, and upsets, as one would expect. Purdue, hapless all year, acquitted themselves well against a far-superior offense in IU. Highly-ranked Louisville gave up the game via four turnovers to in-state rival Kentucky, at home. The collapse of Louisville within the past couple of weeks is the most unsettling thing witnessed in major college football this year.

The annual coaching carousel hath begun its merry ride. Charlie Strong is out at Texas (after much unnecessary vacillation and drama on the part of the Texas Athletics Department), and Tom Herman is in. Such drama sadly bled over to Herman’s Houston team, who clearly was not focused when losing to formidable Memphis on Friday, despite being favored on the road. Meanwhile, Ed Orgeron earned a well-deserved promotion from interim head coach to full-time head coach at LSU. Orgeron is perfect for the role, what with his love for the school, his extensive experience in many big-name programs, his long-time conference presence (he was once the head coach at border rival Ole Miss), to say nothing of his deep Cajun drawl. His performance in the interim job itself was a strong case, as the Tigers went 5-2 under this leadership (one of those losses was to Alabama, where LSU held the Tide to only 10 points). Justice has been met in this special case.

Despite Mississippi State’s disappointing year, Dan Mullen has ended the year well by convincingly beating their main rival, Ole Miss. The Rebels started the year with high rankings and hopes, but injury and other bad luck put the team into a freefall. Losing their starting QB Chad Kelly to season-ending injury obviously contributed to this, to be sure.

In the world of weird football news, Navy beat SMU 75-31 (yes, this was a football game, not a basketball one). What do these two teams have in common? They’re the only two teams that beat Houston this year. That aside, who says the triple option cannot be a high-scoring offense?

More regarding the world of weird football news: Eastern Michigan is, after this week, 7-5, and obviously bowl eligible. Let us all pause as our collective jaw drops to the floor.

Now we await the conference championship games next week, and immediately afterwards, we shall finally ascertain the teams that shall be in the playoffs. One intriguing game is the MAC Championship. Should Western Michigan win and continue their undefeated season, they could qualify for a major bowl game. Might P.J. Fleck be able to lead his team in rowing the proverbial boat all the way, say, the Cotton Bowl? We shall all find out in due time. Let the games begin…and continue!