THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES
Okay, maybe I’m channeling my inner Bob Hope. Thanks for the Memory was a song written for and introduced by Hope and Shirley Ross in the movie, The Big Broadcast of 1938. It would later become Hope’s theme song because the melody was so adaptable to a variety of topical lyrics. And yes, Bob Hope is a memory, one of many that comes with being born in 1942 and growing up in an era now slowly retreating into the past and, seemingly, on the road to being largely forgotten by today’s generation.
I could go on ad infinitum about all the differences growing up in the late 1940s and 1950s compared with today, such as kids playing outside whenever they could instead of sitting inside with video games and looking at small screens on smartphones and tablets. It’s kind of ironic that we began watching eight and ten-inch television screens and begged for something larger. Now people everywhere seem to be spending half their waking hours staring at screens even smaller. But the pros and cons of the technological age are for another day.
Rather I’m here to talk about memories, the kind that my generation will always carry with us. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that each generation has memories all its own. Those born between 1840 and 1850, for instance, would certainly have lifelong memories dominated by the Civil War, some of them undoubtedly too close for comfort. But in sharing thoughts with others of my generation, I’ve come to conclude that the memories many of us have are special and unique – especially for those interested in history, sports, music, movies and the performing arts.
Because the second World War was so close to us, we invariably learned about the first, the so-called war to end all wars. Didn’t happen, of course, and wars in one form or another have continued to today. But learning about World War I brought us quickly to the Roaring Twenties, a decade in which sports, music, Broadway Shows and movies began to grow and evolve quickly. That, however, isn’t the only reason members of my generation feel so connected to the past.
My grandfather, for example, was born in 1886, just 21 years after the Civil War ended. He lived to see a man walk on the moon in addition to telling me endless stories about life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. First hand oral living history. When I was born, there were still Civil War veterans alive and once I began reading about the old west I learned that Wyatt Earp’s wife, Josie, was also still kicking when I made my debut. If things like that don’t make you feel connected to what many perceive as the distant past, nothing will.
And now to the memories. When you become interested in something you also want to know its history. At least I do. Spending time with groups of friends that had similar interest in sports, movies and music, we soon realized we were living at a pivotal time for all three of these American institutions. Each began growing up in the 1920s. The major sports were already organized for the most part – basketball being the exception – but very different from what they are today; movies went from the silents to the talkies, while music was evolving on several fronts. Jazz began proliferating and changing, American composers began writing the wonderful melodies and lyrics that would eventually make up the Great American Songbook, and the lights of Broadway were growing brighter by the year.
I became a baseball fan early, by age seven or eight, and immediately began learning about the history of the game. I can remember seeing Joe DiMaggio on television in the 1950 All-Star game and, a year later, ran home from school just in time to watch Bobby Thomson hit his Shot-Heard-Round-The-World home run to win the pennant for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Years later, I would work with Thomson on a book about his life and that epic pennant race, talking to many players from that bygone era and rekindling memories from my childhood. In the early 1950s I also began going to Old Timers’ games at Yankee Stadium with my father and can still see the image of both Cy Young and Ty Cobb coming out on the field as old men. I already knew about their careers, but seeing them in the flesh was another connection to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Going to the old baseball parks as kids, we concentrated on the games and the players because these places lacked the many distractions the amusement-park-stadiums have today. And we didn’t have smartphones. As a result, we knew everything about the players – their body language, batting stances, the way they ran and threw. We copied them, emulated them and remembered them, the kind of memories that never fade. With three teams in New York then, it was a kid’s dream. Mickey, Willie and the Duke. Though I was not yet five when Jackie Robinson broke the color line, I soon learned about his courageous struggle and, better yet, saw him play. In fact, I saw all the early African-American stars – Larry Doby, Luke Easter, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin, Don Newcombe, Henry Aaron and others. Then there were two early black stars from Cuba and Puerto Rico, Minnie Minoso and the great Roberto Clemente. The game was changing rapidly and, as I watched, the memories of it all were firmly cemented in my mind.
It was the same with football, basketball and hockey. Starting to watch in the 1950s not only allowed me to see all the stars in these sports, sports that already had great traditions but were also changing rapidly. I watched Jim Brown run the football, John Unitas throw it, was at Madison Square Garden when Bill Russell came in with the Celtics for the first time, and watched Bobby Orr skate at the Garden as an 18-year old rookie – all incredible athletes. I was fortunate enough to watch the 1958 Giants/Colts NFL title game, still called by many “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” And I saw all the great athletes who came into these sports from the 1950s forward. Fantastic memories that kids today can only read about.
Becoming a sports writer by the late 1960s only deepened my knowledge of sports and the individual athletes. I had the privilege to interview many from past days, including pioneer basketball players Nat Holman, Elmer Ripley and Bennie Borgmann, all of whom began playing in the 1920s, as well as many baseball, basketball and football players who toiled in the 1940s. Most of them are gone today, accessible only in books and in films. You Tube, for example, can give young sports fans today a taste of what was like. I was fortunate to see much of it first hand, often in person, and continue to follow sports today, even talking about it on a weekly Blog Talk radio show of which I am a co-host. Quite a legacy of sports memories.
Music, for me, is a whole ‘nother story. It began around 1957 when I was 14 and most kids my age were fawning over a new style of music called Rock ‘n Roll. I listened, as well, to a movement that began when Bill Haley and the Comets did a song called Rock Around the Clock a couple of years earlier. But then something else happened. I bought a jazz record, The Great Benny Goodman, then another, Count Basie’s One O’Clock Jump. That December I watched a live show on national television called The Sound of Jazz, one I’ve never forgotten. It featured a large number of all-time great jazz musicians – the aforementioned Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Roy Eldridge, Rex Stewart, Jo Jones, Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Thelonious Monk, Vic Dickenson and Dickie Wells among others. It’s still considered the best live jazz show ever aired on the tube and I was hooked. I fell in love with the music and have remained in love with it since. At that time, I was barely 15 years old.
Not only did I begin buying records that encompassed the entire spectrum of jazz – from Louis Armstrong through the big band era and into the world of bop – but I began going into New York City from my home in Stamford, Connecticut, and hearing live jazz in the concert hall, at clubs such as Birdland and the Metropole Cafe, and at area festivals. Over the next several years I saw many of the greats in person – Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Lionel Hampton, Thelonious Monk, Red Allen, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Ornette Coleman and others. I soon realized I was watching living history, creating the kinds of memories that stay with you. Today, when I converse with younger jazz fans on Twitter and tell them about the greats that I saw they always tell me how envious they are because by the time they discovered the music, the majority of those greats were gone.
Along with jazz, I also fell in love with the songs that comprise The Great American Songbook, those written by the classic composers, most of whom began working in the 1920’s – Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Kern, Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Ellington and others. There are so many beautiful songs, with both lyrical and lively melodies, and lyrics that are clever, witty, brilliant, urbane, poetic and sometimes even suggestive. Today they are called standards and fortunately continue to be sung and played by cabaret singers, in Broadway revivals and by jazz singers and musicians. I love listening to them performed by the great jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Anita O’Day. And then, of course, there’s always Sinatra. Unfortunately, many young people today – seduced by pop culture genres with names like hard rock, heavy metal and rap – may never even know or fully appreciate these beautiful songs that are are part of the American musical fabric. Again, I’m thankful for the great memories I have, what I’ve learned about those writing and performing the music, and also the simple fact that I can still listen to that music every day.
MOVIES (AND TELEVISION)
I don’t think anyone will argue the fact that movies today are not the same. Nor is television. We live in a world of computer generated special effects, of alien invasions, zombies trying to control the world when the vampires are not, and all kinds of gratuitous violence. What happened to story driven films? But I won’t go into the history of the movies here. This is about memories. When you love the old movies you become acquainted with films and acting performance you don’t see today. Soon you find yourself watching so many – from the pre-code movies of the early 1930’s, to the escapist films of the Great Depression (think Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), film noir, the great westerns and so many story-driven movies from, say, the 1950s through the 1980s. Without realizing it you have forged a legacy of great movies and great performances. All have become indelible memories.
If I mention Jean Harlow, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Astaire and Rogers, Humphrey Bogart, Myrna Loy, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, James Stewart, Betty Grable, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall, Burt Lancaster, Claudette Colbert, Kirk Douglas, Ingrid Bergman, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland . . . Wow, what a list and I certainly haven’t named nearly all of them, including the wonderful character actors who showed up all over the place so often. But if I were to repeat these names to the average teen or young adult today, how many will even know them, let alone have memories of them or their films? Sure, there will be a small number who will become fans of classic movies, do their research and watch. They even may champion the past, but their memories won’t be quite the same as ours for the simple reason that we lived through a good part of that era and also came to feel strongly connected to the dozen or so years before we were even born. We feel it more strongly because the times were different then, making it much easier to identify with period films.
It’s no different with television, a medium our generation embraced from its infancy, usually after becoming familiar with lost years of early radio. We began watching small-screened black and white sets, but that didn’t matter. First there were kids shows, then sports, old movies, live dramas, sitcoms that featured classic comedians like Jack Benny and Burns and Allen, Sid Caesar, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason, as well as variety shows like Milton Berle’s and Ed Sullivan’s, where other great comedians and entertainers performed. And we loved watching late night superstars Steve Allen and Johnny Carson, whose shows featured great skits and great guests almost nightly. That was the television my generation grew up with.
I know I’m dropping a ton of names, but that’s not the real purpose here. I’m looking back more than 60 years and thinking about the people I saw, spoke with, watched, enjoyed and admired as either athletes or artists. I’m looking back at the history I’ve both learned and watched unfold during my lifetime. I’m looking back at events that moved, shocked and sometimes disgusted me – a full spectrum that comes from living for more than seven decades, in my case seven-plus particular decades.
It’s memories like this that become even more vivid as you age and begin to think of your life in its complete context. When it comes to music and movies you can continue enjoying that which you always loved. With sports, you must turn to an entity such as You Tube to again see the stars of your youth and those who came before. But even without that, they remain firmly embedded in your mind.
I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that after some 40 years of writing all kinds of books for both children and adults – including many biographies, sports histories, as-told-to tomes and some juvenile fiction, I’m now writing a series of novels and novellas about a New York City detective working in the 1920s. The Mike Fargo Mysteries. It was a wild decade with Prohibition spawning a new industry – the bootlegging of illegal liquor – and the growth of organized crime amid an array of larger than life characters. As mentioned earlier, it was also an era when sports, movies, music and Broadway were growing and evolving. To write about it and be able to combine fictional with real characters is a total joy, a labor of love.
So in my eighth decade I find myself spending much of my time, figuratively, in the 1920s, an era I’ve always loved but now fully embrace. As most writers will tell you, once they dig deeply into a story, they feel as if they are actually there, living in that era if only in their minds. Mike Fargo c’est moi. Everything that has happened up to now – all those wonderful memories – has brought me back to the Roaring Twenties. So once again borrowing from Bob Hope’s theme song, I can only say, with appreciation . . .
. . . Thanks for the memories.
— Bill Gutman
BASKETBALL – A BEAUTIFUL GAME GONE
Okay, let’s get this over with right up top. I’m not one of those longtime sports fans who’s always touting the greatness of the “good old days.” Sure, I’ve been watching sports since about 1950 and began writing about them in 1968, so we’re talking about many years, many games, many great athletes and a ton of wonderful memories. But I also like to feel I’m still objective, can identify a great player for what he or she is in the context of today’s games which, in all the major sports, are quite different from when I was introduced to them.
So there’s really no way to say one is better now than it was 30, 40, even 50 years ago, or vice versa. They are different. And you can’t argue when it’s said that today’s athletes are, on the whole, bigger, stronger and faster than their counterparts of the past. Maybe some of that is due to the creativity of chemistry, but that’s an issue for another day. The matter of “better” is one of personal preference. Some old timers will insist the games they knew back in the day were better. Others will insist they enjoy today’s versions more. Again, that’s fine, the way it should be.
With the NBA finals recently completed, I’d like to turn my attention to basketball, a game that has been in existence for more than one-hundred years. Yet unlike major league baseball, the NFL and NHL, which were all up and running by the early 1920s, the National Basketball Association per se didn’t begin until the 1946-47 season. It was called the BAA (Basketball Association of America) then and changed two years later when the league merged with the NBL (National Basketball League) to become officially the NBA. So, in effect, I began watching just a few years after the league was formed.
There were certainly some great players in those early days. Big George Mikan, at 6-10, was the league’s first great center, and then there was Dolph Schayes, Bobby Davies, Neil Johnston and Bob Cousy, just to name a few. The game then was slow and deliberate, with teams often freezing the ball for minutes on end until the advent of the 24-second clock in 1954. The Minneapolis Lakers were the league’s first dynasty, winning five championships in six years between 1948 and 1953. Then George Mikan retired, and those both in and outside the league fully realized what a dominant center could mean.
You can make a case that the modern NBA began during the 1956-57 season when Bill Russell, fresh off two NCAA championships at the University of San Francisco and an Olympic Gold Medal, joined the Boston Celtics. Russell was 6-10, like Mikan before him, but was fast, extremely quick, and had a basketball IQ second to none. He quickly showed the NBA what a truly gifted center could do, especially one who loved to play defense. From the moment he took the court he was the league’s best rebounder and a shot blocker nonpareil. He not only changed the game, but would lead the Celtics to eleven championships in thirteen years, including an unprecedented eight in a row.
Following Russell were more great players ready to put their stamp on the game. In the late 1950s and through the 1960s came the likes of Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and many more who played the game at such a high level that they could probably still play in the NBA of today. I thoroughly enjoyed that NBA, whether watching on television or in person at Madison Square Garden. The resurgence in the 1980s with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and then Michael Jordan not only revitalized a sagging league at the time, but produced three more all-time great players who wanted to win every time they stepped on the court.
What happened, then, to lead me to include the phrase “a beautiful game gone” in the title of this blog? I’d like to point to three things that I feel have changed the game almost radically. They are:
1. The lack of regular season rivalries.
2. A game played without true centers.
3. Very few complete ballplayers or teams.
Let’s look at these points one at a time. To many real basketball fans, the regular season has become a bore, a long 82-game prelude to the playoffs. It’s no secret that many teams go through the motions in regular season games, the better teams doing enough to win or maybe turning it up in the fourth quarter of a close game. There is a decided lack of intensity in the regular season, often on the defensive end. Why else would so many fans and media people talk about the increased intensity in the playoffs, where the athleticism of the players can be seen, especially on defense? After all, there’s an old adage in sports that says defense wins championships. All true.
But I’ll tell you a little secret. It wasn’t always this way. In the past, there were intense rivalries during the regular season to the point where almost each and every game was a war. The Celtics during the Bill Russell dynasty years hated to lose. When they did drop a game they were determined not to lose two straight and played like demons. Every time the Celtics with Russell went up against Philadelphia with Wilt Chamberlain the game was an event. There were also combative coaches back then, guys like Al Cervi of the old Syracuse Nats and Red Auerbach of the Celtics. They pushed and prodded their teams to give their all each night. And that was a time when players listened to their coach.
One of the great rivalries of the late 1960s and early ’70s were between the New York Knicks and the old Baltimore Bullets. Every game the two teams played was a start-to-finish battle, regular season and playoffs. The matchups were almost perfect. Walt Frazier of the Knicks versus Earl “The Pearl” Monroe at one guard spot, Dick Barnett and Kevin Loughery at the other; Bill Bradley versus Jack Marin at one forward (and they didn’t like each other), Dave DeBusschere and Gus Johnson at the other; and a pair of tough, strong centers – Willis Reed of the Knicks and Wesley Unseld of the Bullets. The games were exciting, hard fought, usually close and totally enjoyable to watch. These rivalries continued into the eighties when the Celtics and Lakers went to war with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, as well as a great surrounding cast. They weren’t the only ones. Did Michael Jordan ever mail it in during the regular season? No way. Yet very little of that exists today in the regular season where loud music, cheerleaders and laser light displays are part of the entertainment package as much as the players and the game.
All this pomp and circumstance seems to be enough for today’s fans who regularly fill the arenas to cheer, wave their pompoms and enjoy all the various entertaining sideshows as much as the game itself. Back in the days I just described, fans got their moneys worth and more at most regular season games. They got competitive basketball.
And then there were the centers, the operative word being were. For upwards of a half century, the dominant center was a big part of the pro game, with nearly all the title teams having that guy in the middle. It began with the aforementioned George Mikan in the late 1940s, then continuing with a lineage of great big men. Just look up the names. Russell, Chamberlain, Nate Thurmond, Walt Bellamy, Bob Lanier, Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, Willis Reed, Wesley Unseld, Bill Walton, Moses Malone, Dave Cowens, Robert Parish, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal. There were others, as well, a cut below these top guys, but true centers nevertheless.
With so many great and near-great centers, the big guys played each other straight up and had some epic battles. They also defended in a way that you don’t see today. If you watched the recent NBA playoffs you may have noticed how many times the middle – the paint – was wide open. A player would then drive straight to the hoop and either dunk or get hit by a converging defensive player with a hard foul. The middle was never open in this manner when Russell, Chamberlain and the other true centers played. Blocked shots weren’t an official statistic then, but Bill Russell was a master. A player driving the lane might think he had a clear route to the basket only to find Russell, with his impeccable timing, leaping in the air and blocking his shot cleanly.
But Russell didn’t just block the shot by slamming into the fifth row of the crowd to elicit ooohs and aaahs. Rather he would block it with a purpose, often deflecting the shot to a teammate in order to start a fast break. His work in the middle was a thing of beauty. Chamberlain, with his great size and physical presence, was also an outstanding shot blocker, as was Nate Thurmond, Bill Walton and several of the other big men of the time.
Many of these big men were also great scorers. Wilt was an unstoppable force on offense, once scoring 100 points in a single game and averaging better than 50 points a game for an entire season. Sure, he dunked a lot and converted offensive rebounds. But he also perfected a turnaround shot that he would bank in off the glass. And one year, when critics said all he could do was score, he eschewed his scoring to pass more and wound up leading the league in assists. Then there was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose sky hook is still considered the single most unstoppable shot in the game’s history and was beautiful to watch. Kareem retired as the league’s all-time leader in points scored. Does any big man have a hook shot today?
Russell and Chamberlain were also the premier rebounders of their time, holding almost all the league’s rebounding records. Both Russell and Baltimore’s Wesley Unseld were particularly adept at grabbing a rebound, immediately spotting an open teammate, and throwing a quick outlet pass that would result in a fastbreak. It’s no secret that while almost all the championship teams back then were built around a dominating center, they were far from one-man teams. The Celtics won 11 titles in 13 years not only because of Russell’s presence, but because there were other great players on the floor with him, their success orchestrated by a great coach in Red Auerbach and, after his retirement, Russell himself as player-coach. Above all else, they played as a complete team. Together.
Today, the dominant center has gone the way of the dinosaurs. The game has changed and while there are still some talented big men, they often play away from the basket and often take long jumpshots instead of developing the inside game of the big men of the past.
My third complaint about today’s game is the lack of complete players. Yes, there are certainly many great athletes in the NBA, but they play the game the new way, with the elements they have loved watching since they were kids. They can certainly handle the ball and have all all the fancy tricks, going between their legs with the dribble, using both hands with equal aplomb and they have the athleticism to change direction on a dime. The fact that they often dribble in a way that years ago would be called palming or carrying the ball – a violation – is completely overlooked today. Many can shoot the three very well and everyone loves to dunk. For today’s audience, it is the spectacular, acrobatic play that brings everyone to their feet and elicits the most screams of approval to adoring young fans. Even the big men today play a versatile game, able to go outside for a jump shot or inside for a jam. But in truth, the game has evolved into one of primarily three-point shots and dunks
So what’s missing? Years ago I interviewed some of the pioneer basketball players who were active in the 1920s and 1930s. One of them told me that on the court “you moved the ball and you moved yourself.” That’s still one of the staples of the game. Only back in the 1960s and 1970s, there were more set plays, more great passing, as well as more exciting fast breaks. Players perfected the pick and roll, set double screens, knew each others moves and played a cohesive, total team game. With no three-point line, they knew how to maneuver for the highest percentage shot possible, and that meant working their way closer to the basket. Many so called perimeter players knew just how to navigate toward the hoop for a 15 or 20-foot jump shot. And, of course, they knew just how to play off the big guy set down low, or in the pivot as they used to call it. Watching the old Celtics or the 1969-70 Knicks was a thing of beauty – great players orchestrating a highly-competitive team game. The players came into the league knowing all the game’s basic fundamentals and just had to fine tune them as professionals. Perhaps the only team of the last decade or so that plays this kind of game is the San Antonio Spurs, and that team has been built around a big man, first David Robinson and then Tim Duncan. Look at the success they’ve had.
I actually stopped watching the NBA completely for several years because the game had become to me very predictable and boring in the regular season. I began watching again when I was asked to do a book about Jeremy Lin during the height of Linsanity when he was with the Knicks. Now I watch when necessary (rarely in the regular season) because I’m part of a weekly sports talk show on Blog Talk radio. But my opinions of the game haven’t changed.
There are certainly great players today, starting with LeBron James – who would have starred in any era – and the kids coming in from the colleges (often after just one year) are fine athletes. But have these teenagers really had time to fully learn the game?
Most players in the eras I’ve discussed came in after four years of college ball where they were taught the game by veteran coaches who knew all phases of play. Oscar Robertson was so good that he was like a man playing against boys in college and, in just his second year in the league, he averaged a triple double for the season. For the season! Today, when a player achieves a triple double in a game it makes headlines. The great players coming into the league between the late 1950s to the 1980s for the most part had mastered all the fundamentals and knew how to play the whole game.
Take a look at this all-star team made up of players who came into the league from the late 1950s to the middle 1980s. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareen Abdul-Jabbar at center. Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Elgin Baylor, Karl Malone, Rick Barry at forward. At the guards, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Walt Frazier, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. The last of this group to enter the league was Karl Malone, 30 years ago. So these are definitely all “old timers.” Yet if these players, all in their primes, went up against an all-star team from today’s NBA, which team do you think would win? Fans today might not like the game they’d play, but I believe they’d wind up with the most points nearly every time out.
I don’t doubt for a minute that the modern fan loves the game he or she is watching today, a game that is most likely here to stay. But in my eyes, the basketball from the 1960s through the 1980s – the game my all-star team played – was a beautiful, well-rounded team sport. And today, that game is all but gone.
— Bill Gutman
Note: You can listen to me on HWTP Sports Talk Radio every Wednesday night at 9 pm EST. The link is: www.blogtalkradio.com/hwtpsportstalk
A LOVE AFFAIR WITH LADY DAY
Had she lived, Billie Holiday would have celebrated her 100th birthday this past April 7. Of course, there was absolutely no way the woman who became known as Lady Day could have lived that long. Life was just too hard, with too many indulgences and bad people between the music. The era in which she performed – the 1930s through the 1950s – was not an easy one for jazz musicians. The liquor flowed freely, there was much marijuana use followed later by heroin and, for so many, the hurtful stares, taunts, restrictions and, sometimes, violence of racism.
But through it all, Billie Holiday produced some of the most wonderful, artistic and emotional music ever heard. That it is mostly categorized as jazz is just incidental. Lady Day was an artist of the first rank, her oft-troubled life pouring out through her music. Using her voice much like a horn she often took improvisational liberties with the melody, would bend notes and always make a song her own, often by virtue of her unique and sometimes suggestive phrasing. From her groundbreaking work in the 1930s there was never any doubt about her place in the music world. And it didn’t hurt that she was often accompanied by some of the greatest jazz musicians that ever lived.
I discovered Billie way back in 1957 when barely 15 years old, no small feat in those days when most teenagers were gushing over and dancing to a new kind of music called rock ‘n roll. I bought my first two jazz LPs that year – The Great Benny Goodman and Count Basie’s One O’Clock Jump. Then on December 8, I watched a live TV program that, in a sense, changed the musical direction of my life. It was called The Sound of Jazz and is still widely considered the finest live jazz show to ever appear on the small screen. It featured many of the greatest jazz artists of all time, including Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Red Allen, Rex Stewart, Roy Eldridge, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Vic Dickenson, Jo Jones, Pee Wee Russell, Ben Webster and others. The musical numbers were not only great listening, but you could see the joy on the musicians’ faces as they played off one another in a jam session atmosphere. It registered quickly in my mind that I was witnessing something extraordinary, and that this was a special kind of music.
And then there was Lady Day. Singing a blues called Fine and Mellow, she quickly had me mesmerized, glued to the TV screen. I’d soon learn that she didn’t sing pure blues very often, though she often sang “blue.” On this occasion I was not only attracted to her voice and her phrasing, but also by the way she listened to the solos of her fellow musicians, smiling and nodding her approval as they played, allowing their music to envelop her and become part of the overall performance. It was a kind of musical kinship I would later come to understand. And while I didn’t know it at the time, in less than two years she would be gone.
Soon after, I went out and bought a three-record set called Billie Holiday: The Golden Years. The sides covered highlights of her Columbia recordings, from 1933 to 1941. The majority of songs were from the popular music genre – some already standards, others obscure tunes rarely heard today – but she put her own special spin on each of them. She sang mostly with small jazz combos, allowing her to be accompanied by many greats, notably the tenor saxophonist Lester Young and the pianist Teddy Wilson. I found myself listening to these records over and over again and soon became a total Billie Holiday devotee.
After her death in 1959, I began reading how the Columbia years constituted her greatest work, the most musically creative. Many who wrote about her seemed to feel that the hard life she continued to live began to take a toll from about the mid 1940s right to the end, and that the work she did in the 1950s represented a period of gradual decline until she was just a shell of her former self. Though she never had the great vocal range of Ella Fitzgerald and especially Sarah Vaughan, the two other female jazz vocal giants of the time, that range slowly dissipated and narrowed, and her voice became weaker and raspy. Back then, however, I still didn’t have a complete frame of reference and accepted this oft proffered thesis as the truth.
But slowly my Lady Day collection grew. I acquired many of the Decca sides from the 1940s and eventually the wonderful eight-record Verve series that Norman Granz produced in the 1950s. I also found the late, full-orchestra album called Lady in Satin and a disc aptly named Last Recordings. By adding additional CD’s, some from live performances, and listening to even more via You Tube, I’ve slowly assembled a large catalog encompassing her entire career. That’s a lot of Billie Holiday, but in my mind when it comes to listening to her sing, there’s no such thing as too much.
Where am I going with all this aside from the fact that I love listening to Billie Holiday? As her centennial celebration approached, I began to notice more and more articles appearing about her life and work. In some ways, she seemed to be more revered a half century after her death than she ever was in life. No argument from me. She should be remembered for the music she produced and how her life as a black woman often mirrored the tenor or the times. But I also noticed that the analysis and sometimes over-analysis had begun again in earnest. Every aspect of Lady Day’s life and career was being dissected to the bone.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with people expressing their opinions, or even bringing musical scholarship to a higher level. Critics, biographers and magazine writers will analyze a notable singer’s voice quality, tone and range, while breaking down almost every song to the very last note. It’s similar to the new analytics in baseball, the over reliance on statistics, or sabermetrics as it’s often called. Today baseball historians, writers and commentators often use stats to tell you how good a player is or was. Real fans, especially the older ones, still rely on the “eye test” for those same answers. It isn’t much different with music. Those of us who react emotionally to jazz – and jazz is a music that attacks the emotions like no other – the music we love is that which passes the “ear test.” That’s all the counts – the way the music grabs you and gets inside your heart, mind and your soul.
I’ve read recently where someone said that Billie’s albums became increasingly difficult to listen to as her voice hardened. I won’t repeat the metaphorical description of her voice, but it was singularly unflattering. That, and other similar comments, made me wonder just what singer these people were listening to and by what standards they were passing their judgments? Was it just a case of writers writing, taking the long-standing company line about Lady Day’s decline, or was it coming from people who never really had a complete understanding or appreciation of Billie Holiday to being with?
I have listened to her Verve recordings many, many times over the years. In fact, I almost have a need to hear them periodically. They cover the years 1952 to 1957, and are comprised mostly of standards from the Great American Songbook. Not only are these recordings artistically beautiful, they continue to show Lady Day’s overriding talent as a consummate singer. Yes, the voice is raspy. Yes, it has lost some range. But beautiful voice quality and an impressive range were never Billie Holiday’s strong suit. She always had what can be described accurately as a thin voice. But it is the timbre of her voice combined with the way she uses it to structure a song that makes her who she is.
You can hear the gradual change in her voice during the five year period of the Verve recordings. But at the same time there is no change in the way she approaches a song and presents it to the listener. I have also read recently that someone said she had learned many vocal tricks over the years that she used to mask her decline. Sorry, that doesn’t wash. Billie Holiday never needed vocal tricks. She always sang songs from the inside out, from the heart, and no matter what happened in her personal life – the alcohol, the drugs, the bad men – that never changed. No one had to tell her the meaning of a song or how to sing it. She simply did it in a way no other singer could ever duplicate. Once you connect with her and she gets inside you, she stays. That’s the way it has been with me, from her first recordings in the early 1930s right up to the last. She was always Lady Day. The best.
— Bill Gutman
FROM JOE D. TO JETER – BASEBALL’S ENDLESS CYCLE
Looking back, the earliest baseball game I remember visually was the 1950 All-Star Game. I was watching on a small, black and white television set at a neighbor’s house and can recall Joe DiMaggio drifting under a fly ball. Seeing Joe D. I kept referring to the American League as the Yankees, despite someone correcting me. But give me a break. I was just seven years old.
By the next year I was a full-fledged fan, totally aware of baseball, especially in New York where the three best teams resided in 1951 – the Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. On October 3, of that year, I raced home from school to catch the end of the third and final pennant playoff game between the Dodgers and Giants. I ran up the stairs where my mom had the game on. Bottom of the ninth inning, Dodgers leading 4-2, and Bobby Thomson of the Giants at the plate facing Ralph Branca of the Dodgers, with two on and two out. As soon as I realized the game situation I said to my mother:
“Only a home run can save them now.”
Them was the Giants. If you were a Yankees fan in those days you automatically hated the Dodgers. I didn’t want to see them win, though I figured the Yankees would take the World Series, as they always seemed to be doing back then. Anyway, I held my breath and watched. That’s when Bobby Thomson delivered his Shot-Heard-Round-The-World home run to win the game and write his ticket to baseball immortality. I was less than a week from my ninth birthday. Forty years later I was fortunate to be able to work with Bobby and write the story of that pennant race and home run, as well as Bobby’s baseball life. The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant!, the title echoing Russ Hodges’ epic home run call, was a book I thoroughly enjoyed writing because it also took me back to my own childhood and the absolute joy I had watching baseball then. That, and speaking with players I had seen perform so long ago when I was a wide-eyed kid who absolutely loved the game.
That’s part of the magic of baseball. If you become a lifelong fan early, the sport becomes one of milestones – a kind of guidepost for your life – maybe never quite as front and center after you reach the age of reason, yet always lurking beneath the surface as you follow the progression of teams and players. But when you’re still young and growing up, ah, the wonder of it all.
It was 1955 when the Yankees and Dodgers were again doing battle in the World Series. The Yanks won the first two at Yankee Stadium and then the Dodgers rebounded, taking the next three at their wonderful little ballpark in Brooklyn, Ebbets Field. Yet I was supremely confident that the Yankees would still win it all, even more so when they took the sixth game. I was in junior high then, right on the brink of my teenage years. Because our school had literally burned down one night we had to attend classes at the high school in the afternoon, double sessions. All World Series games then were played during the afternoon, so I couldn’t watch the finale. That hurt. But it soon got worse. I remember sitting in class late in the day when the PA system bell rang, meaning an announcement was coming. It was the vice principal, and I can still hear the sound of his voice in my head.
“I guess you’re wondering about the World Series,” he said. “Well, the Dodgers won.”
Just like that. Needless to say I was shattered. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. The whole order of the universe had been suddenly overturned. The Brooklyn Dodgers were world champs for the very first time. Today, I look back at those Dodgers teams with fond memories of Jackie, Pee Wee, Campy, Newk, Oisk, the Preacher, the Reading Rifle, the Duke and Gil. If you’re a longtime baseball fan you’ll know just who I mean.
When the Dodgers and Giants broke hearts and moved to the West Coast before the start of the 1958 season, I was one of the many who didn’t believe it. How could they? But baseball was on the brink of expansion then and this was one of changes that opened the door to a coast to coast sport. At the age of 15, I would often lay in bed late at night and listen to a great broadcaster named Les Keiter recreating the now San Francisco Giants games from the coast. I should have been sleeping with school the next day, but the games captivated me. Sitting in a New York studio, Keiter would receive the play-by-play action over a teletype machine, then tap a block of wood to simulate the bat hitting the ball. The crowd noise was also canned, but Keiter still made the games exciting. I can remember him describing the great Willie Mays hitting a triple. His voice rising, he painted a perfect word picture of Mays circling the bases, telling us the Say Hey Kid lost his cap between first and second and, as he rounded second, Keiter screamed, “You should see Willie run!” The fact that he couldn’t really see him didn’t matter. I could see him in my mind because I remembered his every movement and nuance so well from New York days.
Flash forward to the summer of 1963. I was home from college and watching a Yankees game one weekend afternoon. It was a game in which Mickey Mantle returned to pinch hit after being out two months with a broken foot, and he promptly belted a home run. I cheered so loudly that my parents, who were in the backyard, came running into the house to see if something was wrong. There wasn’t. The Mick had hit a home run, so all was right in the world. Another of those milestones you never forget.
Mickey came up to the Yankees in 1951 when I was still eight years old. I literally grew up with him and, to those who remember, he was the perfect hero. No one ever looked better in a baseball uniform. That was long before the realities of Mickey’s off-field activities surfaced. So it shouldn’t be surprising that I was still cheering for the Mick twelve years later at age 20. When Mickey retired prior to the 1969 season I was 26 years old. Think about it. Mickey Mantle was a constant in my life for nearly 18 years, from the time I was in elementary school to when I was out in the working world and the sports editor of a daily newspaper in Greenwich, Connecticut.
That fall, I was at Shea Stadium when the New York Mets defeated the Atlanta Braves to capture the first ever divisional playoff and earn a ticket to the World Series. The Mets were a huge story that year, brushing aside seven years of futility to win the pennant. The finale with the Braves was the first game in which the fans stormed the field and actually tore it up, ripping out chunks of sod for souvenirs. Outside the ballpark I saw a fan with a hunk of turf trying to sell it, claiming that Mets’ manager Gil Hodges had actually stepped there. The story gave me the opportunity to write a fun column as well as memories to last a lifetime.
Not surprisingly, life and the real world eventually claim some of your childhood enthusiasm for the game. No more idolizing players, just admiring their skills. When your team wins a big game you’re still happy and, if they win a championship, you let a little bit of that kid lurking somewhere inside you to come out. Eventually becoming a freelancer, I found myself writing about baseball quite often – biographies, histories, and books that required me to speak with older players, such as the aforementioned Bobby Thomson. So I was able to keep up and learn more about a sport that I had loved for such a long time.
Now we come to one Derek Sanderson Jeter, who retired in September after a yearlong farewell tour filled with as much or more fanfare and respect than any player this side of Mariano Rivera. His was truly a great career, one that will land the Yankees’ longtime shortstop in the Hall of Fame five years from now. And while I followed Jeter’s career and rooted for those great Yankees teams that won five more World Series with him at short, it was markedly different from the way I rooted for Mickey Mantle during my formative years. What attracted me about Jeter was his skill, competitiveness and consistency, as well as the way he conducted himself both on an off the field. Like I said, there were no longer idols, only an appreciation for great players.
But in an important way, Jeter’s long career has served as yet one more notch in that guidepost and created another milestone in my life. When he won the shortstop job in 1996, I was not yet 54 years old, but still able to run three or four miles several times a week, something I felt helped to keep me fit and in my prime. His retirement, however, has brought me to another place. While Jeter has said that retirement transformed him from an old 40 as a ballplayer to a young 40 in any other walk of life, it has reminded me that the length and breadth of his career had taken me from age 53 to 72. Mickey Mantle, by contrast, accompanied me from age eight to 26. But when you put them together, the numbers are a bit daunting.
From the beginning of Mantle’s career to the end of Jeter’s you have the passage of 64 years, a veritable lifetime, replete not only with life’s ups and downs, but all kinds of baseball memories along the way. I’m still going strong today, however, except for a couple of bum knees from all the years of running. Symbolically, this past summer I updated a book I originally wrote five years ago called Yankees by the Numbers. Since old writers never quit I’m still at the keyboard and the Yankees remain a part of my life, only without the emotional ties of childhood and the rabid enthusiasm that comes with it. But they are there, just as baseball is always there with its endless cycle, one that that renews itself without fail each spring.
And now there is yet another link in this long chain. I’m currently writing a series of mysteries involving a detective working in the New York City of the 1920’s. The first novel in The Mike Fargo Mysteries series is titled Murder On Murderer’s Row, and you can guess which team had that nickname. Yep, it’s the Yankees again. The story is set in 1927 and a major character throughout – as a murder suspect no less – is none other than Babe Ruth. Talk about coming full cycle and then going back again, way back this time. Somehow I’d like to believe that only baseball has the magic to do that for you.
— Bill Gutman