Music: Live & Otherwise

Texas
  • Charles Brown: One of a Kind

    “Here you go. Want to try and do something with this?”

    John Simsen, my boss at the Texas City Sun, was going through the daily stack of mail when he tossed a Rounder Records/Bullseye Blues press kit onto my desk. He knew I was into music, and opportunities were rare to do much regional or national entertainment coverage. Writing a profile on a musician opening for Bonnie Raitt would be a nice change of pace amid the daily grind of cops, obits and meetings.

    I called the press contact and set up a phone interview with Charles Brown, having no idea that I was starting an eight-year friendship with a future member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

    Chances are you’ve heard Charles’ music, even though it’s been 28 years since that interview and almost two decades since his death. He is responsible for two holiday classics (“Merry Christmas Baby” and “Please Come Home for Christmas”) that are piped through stores and Starbucks in a never-ending loop from Halloween to New Year’s Day.

    The stories behind those two songs are fascinating. But then, Charles had a fascinating life. Our interactions, mostly over the phone, were memorable too.

    ••••••

    Yesterday, eating lunch with a friend and freelance colleague, Charles’ version of “Merry Christmas Baby” started playing through the restaurant’s speakers. He recorded the song — as have more than 90 others — numerous times from the 1940s to the 1990s and played it at every concert, no matter the time of year.

    My favorite version is the one he did with Bonnie Raitt in the midst of his comeback. You can listen below and judge for yourself, but I think you’ll agree: Charles Brown was one of a kind.

    When we first talked, in 1990, Brown was in the midst of a comeback that was getting a huge boost from Raitt, whose own comeback had started the year before with the release of the Grammy Award-winning “Nick of Time.”

    “I love her,” Brown told me over the phone. “She’s been very good to me.”

    By this point, approaching 70, he was nostalgic, grateful, and quick to turn on the charm. He described growing up in Texas City in the 1920s and 1930s, raised by his grandmother, Swannee Simpson, after his mother died when he was 6 months old.

    Brown’s grandmother started teaching him church music on the piano when he was 4, pushing him to play more with his left hand than his right. “She liked the deeper sounds you got from your left hand, and said you were taking the easy way out if you spent most of your time on the right side of the piano,” he said. “She’d make me hold my right hand behind my back and play with just my left.”

    When Charles was 11, his grandmother took him to “the Rev. Cole’s” Baptist church. Cole, Brown said, was so charismatic that “he had the sisters rolling. They were carrying them out on stretchers.” He also was “jazzing up those spirituals just like the blues, and I was hooked. I wanted to play like that.”

    Charles started taking lessons from one of the church members, but his grandmother pushed him to get an education. He graduated in 1942 with a chemistry degree from Prairie View College, worked as a high school teacher for a year, then as a junior chemist at the Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas. Ruled ineligible for the draft due to asthma, he moved to California in 1944 and started playing music.

    B.B. King, who I was fortunate to interview in 1991, said he always wondered why Brown chose the life of a musician.

    “We were all jealous of him because he went to college,” King said. “He had so many more options than the rest of us.”

    Within months of moving to Los Angeles, Brown had abandoned chemistry and joined Johnny Moore & The Three Blazers. In 1945, Brown had his first hit song, “Drifting Blues,” which has been covered several times by Eric Clapton. Soon, musicians such as Ray Charles started copping Brown’s mix of jazz and blues.

    “I loved and imitated Nat Cole and Charles Brown,” Charles wrote in his 1979 autobiography, Brother Ray. “I had been stealing their licks and singing and playing like them for years. I had my first hit with a Charles Brown-influenced number, `Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand'."

    Brown went solo in 1948, signed to Aladdin Records and saw his music shoot up the charts. Between 1949 and 1952, his songs spent 103 weeks on Billboard’s Race Chart, including 29 weeks at No. 1.

    “I was living it up,” Brown told me, noting that his next-door neighbor at the time was Billie Holiday. “But things change.”

    ••••••

    What changed was the music business, as Charles’ smooth, mellow blues/jazz hybrid fell out of favor with the birth of rock and roll. He continued to record throughout the 1950s and 1960s for multiple labels with limited success. Like many African-American musicians of that era, he was prevented from getting royalties to his songs, or sold off the rights to fuel a ferocious gambling habit.

    Although Charles didn’t drink, he loved to gamble. He refused to play piano for Sam Cooke’s “Night Beat” album in 1963, noting that he was offered only $75 for the session and “I could make more than that at the track.” Cooke cut the album in four days and featured two of Charles’ songs on it.

    Middling gigs and stints as a music teacher and with a janitorial service led Brown to consider quitting the music business by the early 1980s. But a chance encounter with a Steinway piano in one of the houses he was cleaning started his comeback.

    “We were working in one of those big houses, and I saw this piano,” Charles told me. “It was a Steinway, and no piano player would turn down a chance to play a Steinway, no matter if you had permission or not. So I sat down and started playing, and the owner of the house found me. She liked what she heard and asked me to play for a party she was having.”

    It was at the party, in 1986, that a record executive for a small label asked Brown to return to the studio. The subsequent album, “One More for the Road,” received enough notice to get Brown back on stage, where he struck up a conversation with Raitt at the Blue Note in New York. A longtime fan of Brown’s work, Raitt offered him the opening slot on her tour, which is how we met.

    ••••••

    Two hours into our conversation, Brown asked if I was going to the show and offered to leave tickets and a backstage pass for me at will call. Afterward, we met in his dressing room and started talking like we had known each other for a lifetime.

    A few minutes into the conversation, someone opened the door and asked if a few people could take a picture. Charles obliged, and into the room walked Raitt, Lyle Lovett, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, and Jeff Healey.

    If I had been chewing gum, I would have swallowed it then and there.

    After the picture was taken, Raitt stayed behind and sat in the chair next to me. “Who the hell are you?” she asked, before Charles made a formal introduction and noted I was from his hometown.

    “I love this man,” Raitt said. “If more people were like him, there would be no war. He is just filled with love.”

    The day before the concert, Raitt had performed “Amazing Grace” with Jackson Browne and Stevie Wonder at Stevie Ray Vaughan’s funeral in Dallas. I had snagged the wire photo from work and gave it to Raitt.

    She sighed. “That,” she said, “was a day I’ll never forget.”

    A few minutes passed and Charles had to change and get on the bus that was taking the tour to its next stop. But before he left, he gave me his home phone number and asked me to give him a call when he got back to California.

    “It’s always nice to talk to someone from my hometown,” he said.

    ••••••

    For the next eight years, every four to six weeks, Charles and I talked on the phone. He’d tell stories about Texas City and the musicians he’d encountered, ask questions about my work and family, and then cut the conversation when it was time to leave for the track.

    I saw him perform twice more in Houston before I moved to North Carolina in 1993 and was thrilled to hear he would be touring with Raitt and Ruth Brown on the “Caravan of Blues” tour in 1995.

    We met for dinner in Raleigh, and he regaled me and others at the table with tales of love and marriage and music. He talked about betting on the horses, saying simply, “It’s my hobby.”

    On the way back, Charles asked how I was doing. Jill and I had met, but we were both going through divorces and the relationship was not yet on solid ground. I mentioned to Charles that “All My Life,” the title track from the 1990 album that led to our interview, was a perfect summation of my feelings for her. I also mentioned that Jill didn’t fully believe me when I told her of the friendship Charles and I shared.

    “Well,” he said. “Let’s do something about that.”

    Sitting in the hotel lobby, he proceeded to ask for a piece of paper and a pen, then took 10 minutes to write her a one-page note. The note mentioned what I told him about “All My Life” and ended with “Forget my concern, it’s only real.”

    I knew it was.

    Flash forward four months. Charles is on the road with his small band, playing in Carrboro. He wants to meet Jill, so we arrive for the soundcheck. I asked him to play “All My Life” for us.

    “Can’t do it,” he said, picking at the piano. “Don’t like the introduction.”

    That night, at the show, he asked the two of us to stand. He told the audience the basics of our story, and of how I had bugged him to play the song. He then told us to look into each other’s eyes as he sang “All My Life” just for us.

    Charles and I continued our long-distance phone conversations. Finally financially stable, he had moved into a one-bedroom unit in a Berkeley senior-citizen housing project.

    In 1997, he went to the White House, where he received a Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. The next month, he was feted at the end of the San Francisco Jazz Festival by Raitt, Ruth Brown and John Lee Hooker, among others.

    In 1998, we talked only two or three times. Jill and I were busy with a toddler and two newborns, and Charles’ health was starting to fade. When the notice came in December 1998 that he had been selected as an “Early Influence” by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I tried to call but could not reach him.

    In January 1999, just two months before the induction ceremony, Charles died of congestive heart failure at age 76.

    Eight years before, during the meeting in his dressing room, I asked Charles if he had ever been recognized in his hometown. He laughed and said no, but “That sure would be nice, wouldn’t it?”

    After writing the story and a subsequent column on him, I thought Texas City would find some way to honor one of its most famous residents, but it took 19 years. Today, a bust of Charles hangs in the Charles T. Doyle Convention Center, and he is recognized annually during the city’s Juneteenth celebration.

    I just wish he was alive to see it.

  • Charles Brown's Christmas Classics

    Charles Brown’s presence is felt every year during the holidays thanks to two classic ballads — “Merry Christmas Baby” and “Please Come Home for Christmas.”

    The list of artists who’ve covered the songs is a “Who’s Who” in music. “Merry Christmas Baby” has been recorded more than 90 times, by artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Bruce Springsteen to Otis Redding and Chuck Berry, to name a few. More than 30 artists have recorded “Please Come Home for Christmas.” Among them: The Eagles, James Brown, Willie Nelson and Bon Jovi.

    Released 12 years apart, the origin of both songs is in some dispute. Brown insisted he wrote both, reworking “Merry Christmas Baby” for a friend who needed money for surgery and penning “Please Come Home for Christmas” while being forced to work for a kingpin who ran illegal gambling clubs in Northern Kentucky.

    “Merry Christmas Baby” is credited to Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore, the leader of the trio that Brown first recorded with in the mid 1940s. Charles plays piano and sings lead on the song but was denied the writing credit he always claimed he deserved.

    “Johnny Moore was illiterate,” Brown told me. “He couldn’t sign his name.”

    Brown claimed that he reworked Baxter’s lyrics for a song titled “Merry Xmas Baby” as a favor. Richie Dell Thomas, a friend of Brown’s who I met in the 1990s in Houston, said she remembered him working on the song in her apartment in Los Angeles.

    “That song is his as much as it anyone else’s,” Thomas said. “Charles doesn’t lie about that stuff.”

    In a December 2017 article in the Smithsonian Magazine, writer William Browning reaches the same conclusion, saying, “At a minimum, I think Brown should have received partial credit for writing the song.”

    I did not know the origin of “Please Come Home for Christmas” until I read a 2014 Cincinnati Enquirer article by Steven Rosen, who notes that Brown spent time working in gambling clubs owned by the notorious Frank “Screw” Andrews from 1959 to 1961.

    By this point, Brown’s star had faded — he had not had a hit since 1952 — and he was in heavy debt due to a lifelong gambling habit. He became Andrews’ house pianist, working with fellow singer/pianist Amos Milburn.

    In 1960, Syd Nathan of King Records asked Brown if he could “write something as good as ‘Merry Christmas Baby’.” The result was “Please Come Home for Christmas,” Brown’s last hit as part of a split single with Milburn’s “Christmas Comes but Once a Year.” But on the second song, which Brown claimed was a solo effort, King Records musician Gene Rudd receives a co-writing credit.

    Had Brown received proper publishing credit for those two songs — and, if we’re being honest, not gambled as much — the residuals would have left him comfortable financially. But, like other artists who saw potential windfalls vanish without a trace, he didn’t get to benefit from his creation.

  • Photos & Review: Ryan Bingham in Austin

    It’s nice to see Ryan Bingham smile.

    That’s what the singer-songwriter did, early and often during his solo acoustic show at the 299-seat One World Theatre in west Austin on Wednesday. Bingham, whose first album since 2015’s “Fear and Saturday Night” comes out in February, tested out new material from the forthcoming “American Love Song” and played some of his more familiar work in an intimate setting that is far removed from the larger venues he plays with his full band.

    On Wednesday, Bingham was a jovial, salty ringmaster, providing the audience with a somewhat linear, at times slightly scrambled narrative of his difficult upbringing. He apologized on several occasions for the rambling during the two-hour show, but there was no need because the stories were so interesting and entertaining.

    The basics of Bingham’s life and career are well known to fans. Born in New Mexico, his parents struggled with alcoholism and substance abuse, and he lived a largely itinerant childhood. Eventually establishing deep roots in Texas, Bingham scored a record deal in 2007 and then became known nationally when his song “The Weary Kind” from 2009’s “Crazy Heart” won a Grammy and an Academy Award.

    Kicking off the show with “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So,” he moved into “Nothing Holds Me Down,” a bluesy number from the forthcoming album. After a sublime “Dollar a Day,” Bingham said his father told him to “keep a real open mind because a lot of people are going through similar things and hard times, too.” He then launched into “Hard Times,” which features the wordplay of “When it pours it rains,” and told a funny yet sad story about following his father to Laredo.

    The funny: Bingham hitched a ride with two girls from Houston who were driving to South Padre Island, where he saw his first concert on the beach. Run-D.M.C. was playing, and two University of Texas football players put the skinny kid on their shoulders so he could see.

    “It was badass,” Bingham recalled.

    The sad: His friends realized how far Laredo actually was from Houston, so they dropped him at a truck stop so he could hitchhike the rest of the way. A truck driver named Al offered him two pieces of sage advice: If you’re going to hitchhike, get a pocket knife and keep it with you at all times. And, if you’re stuck at a truck stop with nowhere to go, wait for the big rigs to come in and snuggle up to next to one of the tires to keep warm.

    Bingham then sang “Long Way from Georgia,” a tribute to Al, and then told how learning how to play a mariachi song on guitar inspired him to play music. The guitar, a gift from his mother, “became my voice and my identity and my soul,” he said as an introduction to the classic mariachi tune “La Malaguena.”

    The stories continued. “Sunshine,” about Leonard Peltier, was partially inspired and written after he met a man working as a dime store Indian at Disneyland Paris, where he had flown with a one-way ticket to get a job on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The job didn’t pan out, but the experience provided him with fodder for a song.

    At that point, Bingham started sharing more songs from the new album, which has the potential to be his best yet. “Jingle and Go” talks about playing for tips. “Lover Girl,” the story of Bingham meeting and wooing his wife of almost 10 years, was illustrated with a tale about convincing her to drive from Los Angeles to Texas to pick up his belongings, which turned out to be a box of records his uncle had given him.

    The strongest new songs played came toward the end of the evening. One is “Wolves,” which he wrote for students who have spoken out against gun violence in schools. He said the response of adults to student activism in the wake of last year’s shooting at Stoneman Douglass High School “takes me back a little bit” to his own feelings of abandonment by adults, noting that is “at a time when kids need someone to listen to them the most.”

    The second was “America,” a simple, emotional state-of-the-state ballad that likely will be controversial when it is released. The song asks a number of questions (“Can we see what we’ve become?”) and is replete with vivid imagery (“A bullet is only dressed in blood”) that likely will not be played on conservative country radio.

    That’s not what Bingham cares about though. Unlike most performers, he does not perform his biggest “hit” at the end of every show. He played “The Weary Kind” during the previous evening’s encore but left the stage without mentioning it on Wednesday.

    That felt somewhat ironic, given his focus on the past, but the audience didn’t seem to mind. They cared more about the stories and the other “damn good songs” that he has in his canon. For two hours, he delivered plenty of those. And all with a wink and a smile.

    This story and photos were posted to the Americana Highways  website. You can see more of my photos  here.

  • Fathers, Family & Austin

    I need live music. It feeds my soul. Since my late teens and early 20s, when I lived in Houston, I’ve found myself in bars and clubs, absorbing the sounds of musicians telling their stories and pouring out their souls to crowds large and small. Usually small.

    Most of my family doesn’t understand this need; at least I don’t think they do. The music I typically enjoy is miles from the top 40, although I’ve been known to embrace the occasional pop song that is played ad infinitum on the radio. But mostly I appreciate singer-songwriters whose music strikes a common cord with who I am, who I’ve been, or who I wish to be.

    Jon Dee Graham cuts across all three. His music touches and informs; the honesty with which he writes and plays is something I related to immediately. He writes as a father and a husband who has acclaim and hardships in equal measure. I’ve been a fan for almost two decades, albeit one who has experienced the topics he writes about both vicariously and up close and in person.

    Like The Replacements, another band I tried to see but couldn’t manage to connect with live until a few months ago, my attempts to see Graham seemed thwarted at every turn. I’ve caught Dave AlvinSteve Earle, John Hiatt, and Buddy Miller — other genre-crossing favorites in my ongoing music queue — numerous times. Other than one show in the mid 1990s when he was the opening act, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I missed Graham by a day or a week, seemingly caught in an inextricable conflict that prevented me from making that live connection.

    Still, I’ve bought everything he’s released, ranging from the music on mid-major labels (New West) to his self-released material. I made a contribution via mail when I heard of his son’s rare disorder, which led to a live album/DVD that I also purchased and lapped up with the fervor of the fans who’ve seen him live hundreds of times. I’ve read with envy of his weekly 17-year residency at the tiny, infamous Continental Club in Austin, and wondered how I could catch a show at the infamous small club in my home state’s capital.

    This past Wednesday, thanks to a fortuitous spur-of-the-moment trip and my wife’s indulgence, I finally managed to see Graham live. In Austin… at the Continental Club … with Jill and I sitting on a former car seat against the wall.

    And it was worth every penny, even if the cover charge was only $8. I gladly would have paid much more.

    These photos (plus the ones on my Facebook page here) tell the story of that night. They alternate between photos of the club and the groups we saw — Graham with his incredibly tight band, the Fighting Cocks, and his tremendously talented teenage son, William, leading his band, the Painted Redstarts.

    The best part for me was seeing my wife enjoy one of my favorite musicians in a club in my home state. The next best was seeing Graham standing on the opposite side of the room, watching his son perform and leading the cheers. Just like any other proud dad.

  • My Grandmother, Dad & Elvis

    The story goes something like this…

    In early 1955, my 14-year-old father went over to his girlfriend’s house on a Saturday night. A few minutes after he arrived, and was sitting on the girl’s living room couch with her parents in the other room, the phone rang in the hallway.

    It was my grandmother, and she wanted to talk to Dad.

    My father was mortified — the Methodist version of teenage guilt in the 1950s — but dutifully went to pick up the phone.

    “Turn on the Louisiana Hayride,” my grandmother said. “I just heard this guy perform and he’s coming back in a little while. He’s going to change everything.”

    The “guy” was Elvis Presley.

    ••••••

    Music has always been a huge part of my life, even though I can’t sing, dance, or play an instrument. A good song, no matter the genre, appeals to my artistic sense as a writer and storyteller. Finding a compelling, talented new artist or group brings with it a sense of discovery and wonder.

    I have a profound appreciation for artists of any kind who are willing to lay it on the line for their passion. This is true for my children, and is one reason I believe so strongly in being honest through my writing and imagery.

    I get my love and appreciation of music from my father and paternal grandmother, who died in 1989 at age 83. In addition to being a packrat and chronicler of life, my grandmother was an explorer when it came to music. When she was almost 80, I came home from one day and found her watching “The Last Waltz,” the 1976 documentary of The Band’s final concert. She thought it sounded interesting, although she had trouble understanding Bob Dylan.

    Grandmama could whistle a symphony or add a jazz-like hum to a country song. She loved to sing at church, and her cousin Bessie told me she loved to dance, especially during her single years in the 1920s that she rarely discussed.

    In the 1950s, the radio was always on, and Saturday nights — with few exceptions — were devoted to the Louisiana Hayride. The show was broadcast from the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium, 60 miles from where my grandparents lived in East Texas.

    For more than a decade, the Hayride was second only to the Grand Ole’ Opry in importance among country and western singers. Elvis, who famously was rejected by the Opry for being too, well, out there, was signed by the Hayride and made numerous appearances on the show from late 1954 until December 1956.

    Presley, as we all know by now, was different, and it was during this time that his fusion of country and western, gospel and rhythm and blues became early rock and roll. His presence and influence on teens, especially during the late 1950s, was undeniable. It certainly had a lasting effect on my father, who collected Presley’s music along with every other artist from that era that he could find.

    Dad, especially in his later years, seemed to regress to his teenage days in his tastes. When I was growing up, his eclectic record collection was housed in a six-foot wide, coffin-like wooden cabinet that held the somewhat flimsy turntable on the right side.

    The albums included some of the era’s more modern music — The Beatles, Rolling Stones, even AC/DC and Aerosmith — along with Rodgers & Hammerstein soundtracks and a little too much Mario Lanza and Johnny Mathis for my taste. After my Grandmother died, Dad begrudgingly moved into the CD era, but would still turn back to obscure 45s by singers and doo-wop groups from the late 1950s.

    Still, Elvis seemed to top them all. 

    ••••••

    The first concert I remember attending — at age 6 — was an Elvis show with my parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle at Hofheinz Pavilion in November 1971. Three years later, for my second concert, the mom of a childhood friend took two of us to Rodeo Houston to see Presley perform before a then-record crowd of more than 44,000 in the Astrodome.

    The first album I owned was the Camden budget release (remember those?) “Burning Love and Hits from His Movies, Vol. 2,” purchased in part because my father loved the single. (The movie cuts were not the best, hence the budget release.)

    Like my dad, I was hooked by “Burning Love,” the last single Presley placed in the top 10 before his death, but sadly, I didn’t realize that publicly declaring my love for the song was cause for me to lose cool points on the elementary school playground. (In my defense, I was smart enough to know that jumpsuits are definitely not the fashion statement any second-grader wants to make, no matter the era.)

    Several months later, seeing my growing interest in Elvis and wanting to bond with his son, Dad took me to Parker Music on Ninth Avenue in Texas City, thumbed through the albums on the rack, and pulled out Presley’s 1956 self-titled debut. He bought it that day and later gave it to me as a present.

    To really understand what made Elvis the king, he said, I needed to go back to the very beginning.

    ••••••

    1956 was a crazy year for the former truck driver from Memphis, between constant touring, multiple (and controversial) television appearances, and making the movie “Love Me Tender.” Even if you’re not a fan, watch the documentary Elvis ’56 and you'll see how that one year changed everything, both for Presley and for those who listened to him.

    By year’s end, Presley had outgrown the Hayride, although he had one more show in his contract. The show, held at the Hirsch Youth Center at the Louisiana Fairgrounds on Dec. 15, was attended by tons of screaming fans, including my father and then 51-year-old grandmother.

    The story, like one about my grandmother’s Presley discovery, was somewhat legendary in my family. My grandmother went for the music; my dad went to look for girls. Because neither drove, my grandfather begrudgingly took them, complaining all the way.

    My grandmother recalled the show fondly, although it was tough to hear amid the screaming. And apparently my dad found the girl, because her name is written inside the 50-cent program that my grandmother bought.

    We still have the program, which would be worth about $200 except for the girl’s printed address in ink on the center spread, but my father could never remember what happened to her. 

    ••••••

    Twenty-one years later, on Aug. 16, 1977, I was sitting in the waiting room at the Tyler Chest Hospital when we got the news. My grandfather was hospitalized with the emphysema and COPD that killed him four years later. My aunt and I were waiting for my grandmother to bring him to the lobby.

    “Elvis is dead.”

    I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do or say. My grandmother and aunt took me to the Gibson’s in Longview that evening and we purchased “Moody Blue,” the blue LP that was Presley’s last major release. There were some decent songs on it, but it was nothing like the stuff I heard from 1956.

    Over the years, I’ve remained an Elvis fan. If you can sift through the dreck, and there is plenty of that, you will find so much music that is worthwhile. In the earliest sides, going back to the beginning, you can see the influence that continues to resonate today.

    There is so much to choose from, and it has all been packaged and repackaged so many times that it’s tough to find out where to start. But a couple of years ago, I found something special.

    The five-disc box set, “Young Man With the Big Beat,” features the complete 1956 masters, as well as alternate takes and three short live shows, one of which was previously unreleased. That show happens to be the Dec. 15 concert at the Hirsch Youth Center in Shreveport.

    The audio quality is not the best, but every once in a while, I put it on my CD player, close my eyes, and am transported to the auditorium with my dad and grandmother.

    And that means more than you know. 

    About the Photos:

    Top: Cracked plexiglass on top of the Elvis picture at Sun Studios in Memphis, September 2013. Upper middle: Photos taken of late 1920s programs saved by my grandmother. Middle: Photo of Presley in Dallas is part of an exhibit at Graceland, his Memphis mansion. Lower Middle: Elvis-related memorabilia collected by my family over the years. Bottom: The original 1956 program and the cover of RCA's "Young Man With the Big Beat."

  • One Piece at a Time

    “The story of our lives. Written page by page. Careful what you write. You gotta read it all some day.”

    When I was a child staying at my grandmother’s in East Texas, inevitably I had to take food to Mrs. Douglass’ house.

    I viewed this as penance for some yet-to-be-committed sin, in part because Mrs. Douglass and I had nothing in common and I was not interested in a career in the pharmaceutical industry at age 11. At this point in the story — Mrs. Douglass was a white haired, frail widow in her early 80s — conversation revolved around the variety of doctor’s appointments and prescriptions she was taking.

    Mrs. Douglass was inevitably polite — although bitter about her lot in life, it seemed to my childhood self — and she always seemed to enjoy my visits. The pattern rarely deviated: I sat on the couch and, after a 30-second description and acknowledgment of the home-cooked meal my grandmother had made, listened to her describe her various ailments and what they prevented her from doing. After 15 or 20 minutes, I was escorted to the door and told to come back soon.

    “I never want to be like that,” I told my grandmother more than once.

    She nodded, pursed her lips slightly, and gave me a half smile.

    ••••••

    “You can give away some things. That you never will get back. One piece at a time. And you never will get them back.”

    My father-in-law is 80. Over the 15-plus years I’ve known him, the conversational window has narrowed considerably. At one point we could talk about photography; recently he barely looked at the pictures I showed him, even though most were of his grandchildren. At another, he could provide you with a dissertation examining the merits vs. the weaknesses of any sport involving the University of North Carolina. Now he barely talks about his beloved Tar Heels.

    The relationship Jill and her brother have with their father is fractious, prickly, and tense. This is nothing new, but rather an extension of feelings that have been there since childhood. The undercurrents of lives that constantly overlap and occasionally intersect are never far from the surface.

    Jill (I know) and her brother (I’m sure) have spent countless hours trying to figure out the enigma who is responsible for their place on this planet. And while it’s not my place to say what they think, I believe it comes down to this: Don’t mistake gratitude for kindness.

    Like Mrs. Douglass, Bob’s life seems to revolve around two things — his visits to the doctor and the various prescriptions that he is taking to extend his life. He too is bitter, so focused on those things that he doesn’t seem to care about much else.

    Recently, I drove to Boone as part of a Virginia/North Carolina trek that also involved parents’ weekend at Nicholas’ college (more about that in a separate post). Jill and her brother are trying to see Bob at least once a month and this gave me an opportunity to help.

    Bob appeared grateful. He appreciated my taking him to the doctor and taking care of the things he has on a never-ending list. He talked of wanting to leave the assisted care facility to return to his house full time, although he’s not in good enough health for that to happen.

    His charm with others not close to him remains intact. The person who has cut his hair for years spoke of his wit (and his love for Carolina sports). As he shuffled through the lobby, where a community band honked through the “Gilligan’s Island” theme at a 5:30 dinner concert, a couple of his fellow residents perked up, said hello, and waited for his acknowledgment. He gave them a nod, but didn’t sit with them.

    Meanwhile, his temper simmered just below the surface, and he struggled not to bark or bellow. His temper, while infamous, is not something his children talk about, and you can tell he struggles to control it.

    On more than one occasion, I’ve heard Jill mention that her father is not a kind man. I didn’t see it fully, however, until this visit, when I realized all along that I had mistaken gratitude for the kindness I had hoped to see.



    “You need a strong heart. You need a true heart. You need a heart like that in a world like this. So you don’t get faithless.”

    Four years ago, on Sept. 11, my second “mom” passed away. In many ways, she had died 3 1/2 years earlier.

    If you follow this blog for any period of time, you will discover that I had two sets of “parents” — my biological ones and Fran and Bill, who lived across the street from us growing up. We moved into my childhood home on 22nd Avenue in Texas City when I was 4, and my parents became fast friends with the couple across the street and one house over to the left.

    Much more than my parents, Bill was my personal familial enigma, although unlike Bob we reached a much more peaceful resolution in the end. With my mom facing a much more difficult juggling act (work, kids, sick husband) than any of us knew, I often turned to Fran for advice and support.

    And Fran freely dispensed it, in what my mom called her “Yankee” way. (Ironically, it took me a while to realize that mom’s definition of Yankee includes the south side of Chicago.) Fran was always quick with an opinion and never afraid to share it, whether it was about my choices in music or literature. Unlike my grandmother, she didn’t partake in the rock and roll era (more about that in a future post, too).

    Like my father, Fran had health issues for much of her adult life, and it took me some time to realize just how much she relied on Bill for everything. Without children of their own, all they had was each other, even though they treated us like their kids.

    Fran marched in lock step with her Catholicism, never missing a mass and politically aligned largely with its beliefs. But after Bill died in 2004, she started questioning everything, including her own belief about the end of life.

    One afternoon, during one of my 14 trips to Texas in 2007 to see my dad in the hospital, I stopped by Fran’s house for a visit. She was using oxygen, largely confined to bed or her chair.

    Like Bob and Mrs. Douglass, most visits with Fran at the time were conversations about doctors, her various caregivers, and her medical treatments. The conversations had narrowed so much that a person I once could talk to at any time ran out of things to say in just minutes.

    But on this mid-May day, we sat in her bedroom, went through pictures of the kids — unlike Bob, she remained interested — and talked about life’s trivia. She even endured a song I could not get out of my head at the time — Jon Dee Graham’s “Faithless.”

    She put her head back on her chair and listened, eyes closed.

    “In the deep blue dark down under. Tell me what you’re thinking of…”

    She smiled.

    “The things we find. The things we lose. The things that we get to keep. Are so damn few. And far between. So far between…”

    She teared up, but rebounded at the conclusion.

    “You need a strong heart. You need a true heart. You need a heart like that in a world like this. So you don’t get faithless.”

    For a moment, she seemed more confident. “That’s how I feel on so many days,” she said. “I get so frustrated. It’s so easy to do.”

    Fran told me how much she enjoyed the visit. I gave her a kiss and let myself out. In less than four months, she was dead.

    “ … I AM NOT FAITHLESS.”

  • Interviewing B.B. King

    In 1991, I was fortunate to have an hour-long, one-on-one interview with B.B. King at a hotel in Houston. The interview covered much of the terrain you'll see in the various tributes to the blues legend, but I have three random — though distinct — memories from that day.

    First, King had the biggest hands of anyone I've ever met, with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali (that's another story). Just huge, with a diamond on his left hand that could have paid for my college education.

    Speaking of college, I asked King about Charles Brown, a blues pianist from Texas City who started around the same time and was then enjoying a revitalized career thanks to Bonnie Raitt. King said he always wondered why Brown chose the life of a musician. "We were all jealous of him because he went to college," King said. "He had so many more options than the rest of us."

    Finally, King said his only option was to work harder and longer than everyone else. "This is what I do," he said in a matter of fact manner. "I don't play golf. I can't imagine playing golf."

    RIP, Mr. King, and thank you for the memories.