Thursday, July 5, 2007

More Celebrity Deaths

While I don't believe that celebrities die in threes, they do seem to die in groups at times. This week has already seen several celebrity deaths.

Among the most notable was opera diva Beverly Sills, who passed on July 2 at the age of 78 after a battle with lung cancer.

Sills was born in Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn on May 25, 1929. As a child she earned the nickname "Bubbles," which she kept all her life. She started performing while still a very young child. At age four she performed on the radio show Rainbow House. By age seven she had adopted her stage name and sang in the movie short Uncle Sol Solves It. Her big break came October 26, 1939 when she won the weekly talent contest on the radio show Major Bowes' Amateur Hour. Afterwards she became a semi-regular on the radio show Capital Family Hour (also produced by Bowes).

She entered the world of opera in 1945 as part of a Gilbert and Sullivan touring company. In 1947 she received her big break as an opera star as the Spanish gypsy Frasquita in Bizet's Carmen in Philadelphia. Sills' reputation would only increase with each passing year. She would become the star of the New York Opera, having first performed there in 1955 in Die Fledermaus.

What separated Sills from many opera stars was that she was approachable. In fact, she was known as "the diva next door." It should be no surprise, then, that she would appear on television often. Sills appeared on The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffith Show, The Tonight Show, The Muppet Show, and The Wonderful World of Disney. She also appeared in TV adaptations of operas ranging from The Barber of Seville to La Traviata, and specials which displayed her talents. If she had a home in the world of television it would be the unlikely venue of The Carol Burnett Show. Close friends with Burnett, she appeared on the show frequently.

Sills retired from the stage in 1980 when she was 51. She was general director of New York City's opera for a time. While its director she provided the opera with supertitles, titles in English projected onto a screen above the stage. She would also be chairman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, both the first woman and artist to hold the position.

Never having been a big fan of opera (I like some opera, but not all of it), I can't say that Beverly Sills had a huge impact on my life. But I always did like her. While many opera stars seem to belong to a different world, Sills seemed to be on of us. For all her success, Sills still seemed like a simple girl from Brooklyn. Indeed, how many other opera divas would appear on The Muppet Show? I certainly will miss her.

Saturday Will H. Shaefer passed at the age of 78 from cancer. For those of you who have never heard his name, Shaefer was a Pulitzer nominated conductor, composer, and arranger who wrote much of the incidental music for classic TV shows (that is, he did not write the theme songs, but the music one hears during an episode).

Schaefer was born November 28, 1928 in Keosha, Wisconsin. He earned degrees at De Paul University and Northwest University. In the Korean War he served as assistant conductor and arranger for the 5th Army Band, Special Services at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. It was during his tenure there that he wrote music for various local stations, as well as Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America.

Following the war he made his way to New York. He soon found himself composing and arranging music for TV shows and commercials. He also arranged music for no less than thirteen Broadway musicals, as well as Buddy Rich and Count Baisie. In 1966 he made the move to Los Angeles and went to work for Walt Disney, composing music for episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney, as well as such Disneyland attractions as Pirates of the Caribbean and Bear Country.

Over the years Schaefer worked on many classic TV shows. His first work in network television was as an orchestrator on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. Over the years he composed music for TV shows such as The Phil Silvers Show, The Flintstones, Hogan's Heroes, and I Dream of Jeannie. He also composed music for movies, including the original Shaggy Dog, The Aristo-Cats, and Forgotten Heroes. Although not the best known composer to work in television, Schaefer was one of the most prolific and one of the most talented.

Yesterday saw the passing of Bill Pinkney, the last surviving member of The Drifters. He was 81 years of age.

Pinkney was born August 15, 1925 in Dalzell, South Carolina. He grew up singing in the church choir. During World War II he served in the United States Army, receiving a Presidential Citation with four Bronze Stars. Following the war he was pitcher for the New York Blue Sox of the Negro baseball league. He would also sing in various gospel choirs.

It was after Clyde McPhatter had left The Dominoes in 1953 that Atlantic Records to form a new group. After a single session with members from his old group, the Mount Lebanon Singers, Atlantic asked McPhatter to form yet another group. For the original incarnation of The Drifters, McPhatter recruited Gerhart and Andrew Thrasher, Bill Pinkney, Willie Ferbee, and Walter Adams. Pinkney was with The Drifters on their earliest hits, including "Honey Love," Ruby Baby," and their version of "White Christmas." Pinkney and nearly the entire group was fired in 1958 when their manager decided to form a whole new group with The Drifters' name. Pinkney then formed "The Original Drifters" with other original members of the group. Pinkney toured for decades with the group. In fact, he was scheduled to perform with The Original Drifters the day he died in Dayton Beach.

While Pickney was not with incarnation of The Drifters which had the biggest hits ("There Goes My Baby," "Up on the Roof," and "Under the Boardwalk," among others), there can be no doubt of his talent. The original Drifters' version of "White Christmas" is my favourite rendition of that song. Indeed, Pinkney receive many awards, including the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award and an Honourary Doctorate of Fine Music from Coastal Carolina University. He has also been inducted into thee Vocal Group Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,and the Beach Music Hall of Fame. There can be no doubt that with Pickney's passing we have lost a talented artist.

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