Counting Our Losses
Music loses more greats.
By Michael McCall, Bill Friskics-Warren, and Ron Wynn
FEBRUARY 2, 1998: "To die will be an awfully great adventure," Peter Pan suggested in a fit of optimism. For those left behind, however, death can be the most unreasonable of all of life's sureties. Of late, Nashville and the world at large have been besieged by the loss of more than a few celebrated lives. In some cases, the deaths have come as abrupt, shocking surprises; in others, they've come with regrettable expectation. They've come violently, and they've come peaceably. Most of all, they've come far too frequently.
An ancient legend concerning the Greek poet and playwright Aeschylus helps us to remember that no one is ever insulated from death's randomness. According to ancient texts, Aeschylus died when an eagle seized a tortoise and, mistaking the poet's bald head for a large rock, dropped the tortoise on him. Death does not distinguish between brilliant men and dense men, the moral goes. That seems more apparent than ever right now, as death has been plucking our heroes and our friends with an unforgiving frequency that grows crueler with each passing week.
While it's futile to seek rhyme or reason in such a difficult season, speculation at least helps us come to terms with life's passing. Maybe this spurt of high-profile deaths will become a trend, simply because the people who first became famous in the early years of radio and television are starting to grow old. Compounding matters is the fact that the rise of mass culture and mass media since the '40s has exponentially increased the number of celebrities who capture our attention. We may need to accept the idea that this recent spate of deaths isn't a fluke; it may be a harbinger of what's to come in the next few years.
The passing of so many musical heroes does raise a question: Does a life in the entertainment business take a toll on performers? Of the deaths that have recently affected Nashville and country music, executives Owen Bradley and Cliffie Stone lived to be 82 and 77, respectively. Both were mild-mannered, upbeat men with strong roots and rich family lives. On the other hand, the road warriors--Carl Perkins, Floyd Cramer, Justin Tubb--failed to pass retirement age. Is this a coincidence, or is there a correlation?
One thing is certain: As a community and as a nation, we still stop to recognize, to mourn, and to ponder death. We should. No matter how overwhelmed we become by the endless flood of information in our day-to-day lives, death forces us to recognize the meaning that certain individuals bring to our world. In doing so, we celebrate not just what makes us all human, but also what makes certain of us heroic.
H.L. Mencken, on his deathbed, coined his own epitaph: "If after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl." In their way, each of those we've recently taken time to honor--Owen Bradley, Carl Perkins, Cliffie Stone, Junior Wells, Junior Kimbrough, Justin Tubb, Jimmy Rogers, and Skull Shulman--represented the poor, the lost, and the ignored with vitality and dignity. These men remind us that one of the great advancements of the 20th century is that we celebrate art that speaks to the masses more than art created for the upper classes.
As we mourn what's been lost, it's also important to remember what remains.
A local landmark
Like the Ryman Auditorium and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, David "Skull" Shulman was a Nashville institution. With his Hee Haw overalls and a working clock lodged in the crest of his Hee Haw ball cap, Skull sat on his bench in front of Skull's Rainbow Room in Printer's Alley and greeted passersby, posing for pictures and talking about all the celebrities who'd passed through his club. Once they met him, people never forgot him--not the tourists, not the locals, not the celebrities. With his singular presence and his long history, Skull was an irreplaceable fixture of Nashville's downtown.
But Skull's brutal death on Jan. 21 was a harsh reminder that he only seemed immortal. Eighty years old, and still as sharp and as healthy as ever, his throat was slashed by an unknown assailant while he quietly followed his daily afternoon routine at the club. Never one to lock a door or distrust a stranger, Skull regularly shuffled around the Rainbow Room alone, the door standing open. He wasn't one to worry about crime. He didn't think he had to.
"The one thing about Printer's Alley is we haven't ever had any trouble," he told me in a 1988 interview. "We haven't even had that many serious arguments. It seems like everybody conducts themselves with manners down here."
Skull opened his first club on Printer's Alley 55 years ago, the same year that Mickey Kreitner opened The Captain's Table a block away. For decades, the two clubs served as bookends to the bawdiest and most colorful block in Nashville history. From the '40s through the '70s, Printer's Alley was nightlife central in a city that went to bed earlier than most. Over the years, Skull hosted jazzmen, comics, strippers, and country singers--whatever the times demanded. Even when the crowds turned elsewhere and his old friends left the Alley, Skull kept his position, an unflagging reminder of a city that used to be.
"It hasn't changed that much over the years," Skull said. "It's changed a little, but not that much. The Alley will always be here, I expect...and I'll stay here with it. I'll be here until I pass away."
At his graveside funeral, they all came--the celebrities, the politicians, the drinkers, and the bartenders and servers who keep Printer's Alley open. One last time, the rich and famous stood shoulder to shoulder with the broke and the forgotten, brought together by a man who welcomed them all. That night, the Rainbow Room remained locked, its lights out. The Alley may always be there, but it will never be the same.
Early in his career, Carl Perkins came up with the perfect description of rockabilly music, the classic rock 'n' roll sound he helped pioneer. "It's a white man's song put to a black man's rhythm," said the famed performer, who died Jan. 19 at age 65 after suffering a series of strokes in November and December. Perkins repeated the definition for decades, altering it slightly from time to time but never changing its simple, honest message. Apparently, when this down-to-earth son of an impoverished sharecropper found something that he believed in, he stuck with it.
He remained a resident of Jackson, Tenn., from his youth to his death. He remained the husband of Valda Crider Perkins for 45 years. And he remained a rockabilly musician to the end. Over four decades, Perkins rarely moved far from the trademark sound of his first recordings for Sun Records in 1956. He occasionally toyed with slight alterations, kicking up the tempo or emphasizing the music's rural roots. But while his friend and Sun labelmate Elvis Presley eventually embraced a variety of pop-music styles, Perkins stayed close to the music that built his reputation.
These days, rockabilly is a maligned and misused term, twisted out of shape by uninformed marketing departments and lazy music critics. It's also sullied by the ranks of young musicians who master the rockabilly look but massacre the tricky simplicity of its sound. The nervous guitar scratches and slapping rhythms that serve as rockabilly's backbone have never been better defined than in the songs and recordings of Carl Perkins. To understand what the music is all about, one need only hear such Perkins classics as "Dixie Fried," "Gone, Gone, Gone," "Honey Don't," "Matchbox," "Boppin' the Blues," and his most enduring creation, "Blue Suede Shoes."
Much has been made of the unfortunate twists of fate that blocked Perkins from achieving the same level of stardom as Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, his onetime Sun labelmates. The reasons are lined up as irrefutable evidence: a fateful 1956 car crash that put him in a hospital, a series of devastating family deaths, difficult bouts with alcoholism and depression.
But the primary reason Perkins never climbed to superstar status was because he couldn't help but be who he was: the gawky, sincere, unrefined heart of rock 'n' roll. As Perkins moved beyond "Blue Suede Shoes," his music maintained an anxious rawness and a blatant rural quality that didn't stand a chance at mass popularity. Though Perkins and Presley emerged from similar backgrounds and drew on the same musical influences, they nonetheless presented vastly different artistic personae. Presley owned a simmering, magnetic presence that helped catapult him to stardom. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine Perkins effectively crooning "I Can't Help Falling in Love" or jitterbugging across a film screen with Ann-Margret. But his place in rock 'n' roll history is secure and important.
Though Perkins battled professional disappointment and personal difficulties, he found recognition and inner peace in the later years of his life. A humble man filled with quiet dignity, he settled into a comfortable existence filled with love and warmth, much of it spent in the company of his wife, his children, and his friends.
In the end, Perkins also should be remembered as a survivor, as a man who overcame the limitations of poverty and a long list of setbacks that would have crippled a lesser person. Speaking to a convention of music executives and aspiring rockers last March in Austin, Texas, Perkins concentrated on conveying two messages. "You must keep chasin' that dream," he said. "Don't give up. It won't be easy, but don't give up. Shoot for the stars. Maybe you won't make it as high as you hoped, but more than likely you'll land someplace along the way."
He also offered this advice: "Fill your heart with as much love as you can, and don't hold it in. Share it with everybody you can." Perkins' own statements nicely describe the man: He was a loving, generous family man and entertainer who never gave up and never quit doing what he most enjoyed.
Business with pleasure
When Cliffie Stone died in California a week ago Saturday, the 80-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer left behind a towering legacy, one that few people in the business will ever rival. One of the principal architects of the West Coast country boom of the 1940s and '50s, Stone's greatest claim to fame was helping to launch the careers of Merle Travis, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ferlin Husky, Skeets McDonald, and hot-licks duo Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. In the 1950s, Stone also established Central Songs, an enormously influential publishing house that owned material written by Buck Owens, Tommy Collins, and the Louvin Brothers. At the time, the Central Songs catalog also included "Foolin' Around" and "Under the Influence of Love," both early hits for Owens and two of the first classics to come from the pen of a promising young songwriter named Harlan Howard.
"I was workin' in the factories then," Howard remembers. "Cliffie had a TV show called Townhall Party, and I started hangin' around backstage. He took me in and understood that I wanted to be a writer. I wasn't a bad writer, but I had a lot to learn. Cliffie was one of a handful of people who supported and encouraged me. Before long, we became dear friends."
Cliffie Stone, born Clifford Snyder in 1917, was a honky-tonk renaissance man par excellence. He broke into the business in the early 1940s, first as a bass player, then as a bandleader and as host of popular radio and TV programs, most notably Hometown Jamboree, the show that jump-started the careers of Travis and Ford, among others. Before hanging out his shingle as a publisher, Stone also had considerable success as a songwriter; his collaborations with Travis, "Divorce Me C.O.D." and "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed," topped the country charts in 1946 and '47. Stone also managed the careers of numerous artists, produced hundreds of recording sessions, and helped establish the Academy of Country Music, the West Coast's answer to the Nashville-based Country Music Association.
According to Kay Adams, the Bakersfield singing sensation who worked with Stone during the 1960s and '70s, Stone's way with people was as indelible as his business sense and his ability to spot and develop talent. "Cliffie always had a twinkle in his eye," Adams recalls. "You immediately felt comfortable with him. And he really listened. You could take your troubles to him. Over the years, I came to treasure his friendship even more than his having been my producer. He always called--right up to the end.
"I know Cliffie did all these wonderful things," Adams continues. "But the thing I remember most is his deep, rich laugh. I can just see him throwin' his head back havin' a big laugh--the kind that reaches down to the midriff. The pressures of the music business can take that away from you in a hurry. But Cliffie never let anything change him. He was a real sweetheart."
Dying bed blues
Nearly a month after the death of blues guitarist Jimmy Rogers at the age of 73, the blues world is saddened yet again by the news of Junior Wells' passing on Jan. 16 at the age of 64. It's perhaps a supreme irony that, during their lifetimes, these men had much in common They both grew up in the South, and they both moved to Chicago within months of each other. And, most important of all, they were both members of Muddy Waters' groundbreaking postwar blues band.
Though Rogers was a gifted vocalist, underrated composer, and influential bandleader, his greatest musical contributions were as a supporting player. Born James A. Lane in Ruleville, Miss., on June 13, 1924, Rogers helped forge the signature Chess sound when, as a member of Muddy Waters' band, he switched from harmonica to second guitar. In short order, his brilliant chords, explosive bass lines, and inspired fills became a vital element of the group's sound. He also provided invaluable guitar instruction to Waters, giving him tips on everything from tuning to phrasing. What's more, Rogers also recruited two other standout members to the band: harmonica player Marion "Little Walter" Jacobs and, later, pianist Otis Spann.
Rogers began his professional career in 1946, when he moved to Chicago. During his formative years, he closely modeled his harmonica style after John Lee Williamson (Sonny Boy I), and after his longtime friend Snooky Pryor. Other close associates included pianist Sunnyland Slim and guitarist/vocalist Big Bill Broonzy. By the late '40s, he was working in guitarist Blue Smitty's band; when Smitty departed, Waters stepped in. After the addition of Little Walter, the group started to revolutionize the Chicago blues sound with such classics as "The World Is in a Tangle," "Money, Marbles & Chalk," "Back Door Friend," "Left Me With a Broken Heart," and "Chicago Bound."
Rogers attained solo stardom after leaving Waters' band in 1955, cutting some classic tunes of his own, including "You're the One," "Walking By Myself," and "Rock This House." In the '60s, he left the music world in disgust, disenchanted by Chess' newfound emphasis on rock and soul. For several years, he owned a clothing store on the west side of Chicago, until it was destroyed during rioting following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Rogers returned to performing and recording during the late '60s, maintaining a steady pace over the next three decades. While he didn't exactly duplicate his Chess successes, there were some notable accomplishments, among them a 1978 reunion with Waters, a stint in the Muddy Waters Tribute Band, and the rollicking 1990 LP Ludella. He'd recently recorded some tracks for an all-star Atlantic release that was to feature guest appearances by Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, but the fate of these tracks remains uncertain. In the meantime, students of American musical history are directed to The Complete Chess Recordings of Jimmy Rogers, a two-disc set issued by MCA Records in 1997.
Junior Wells may be somewhat better known than Rogers, since he forged a more dynamic and distinctive sound with his instrument. Indeed, "Junior" may have been part of his stage name, but there was absolutely nothing secondary or derivative about his powerful harmonica solos and exuberant vocals. Born Amos Blackmore in Memphis in 1934, Wells began playing harmonica as a youth; thanks to lessons he received from his childhood friend, "Little" Junior Parker, he was already a formidable talent when he arrived in Chicago in 1946. He first made his reputation as a member of the Deuces, a band featuring guitarists David and Louis Myers that later became known as the Aces.
Wells began to hit his musical stride in 1952, when he replaced Little Walter Jacobs in Muddy Waters' band. His aggressive, biting lines weren't quite as adventurous as Jacobs', but they were just as invigorating and essential to Waters' sound. A year later, Wells began cutting solo dates, sometimes backed by former Aces partners and/or by alumni from Waters' band. While he made some fine singles during the '50s for such labels as States, Chief, Profile, and Paula, Wells' greatest records were the albums he cut in the '60s and '70s.
In the mid-'60s, Wells also forged a partnership with guitarist and vocalist Buddy Guy that proved to be just as influential as the ones forged by Leroy Carr and Scraper Blackwell, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Wells and Guy performed together for nearly two decades, during which time they became famous for their unpredictability and volatility both onstage and off. Hoodoo Man Blues, Southside Jam, Live in Montreaux, Pleading the Blues, and other classic releases revealed the dynamic vocal and instrumental skills of both Wells and Guy, who shared leads and solos. Inevitably, the recurring clash of egos drove the duo apart, but not before they'd made some unforgettable music.
Wells had been plagued with bad health for several years, though he continued recording into the late '90s. His best '90s release was Harp Attack, a 1990 date that paired him with fellow harp greats Carey Bell and James Cotton, along with contemporary blues artist Billy Branch.
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