Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Lionel Jeffersion, the Godfather of Soul, and Dr. Stanton

I swear that this December more celebrities have died than have in a long while. And while some of them have not been that famous, others (such as Joseph Barbera and Peter Boyle) have been living legends. Recently, three more people died and as usual I feel the need to eulogise them.

Mike Evans died before Christmas, but I decided to hold off on a eulogy for him until after the holiday. For those of you wondering who Mike Evans is, he played Lionel Jefferson on both All in the Family and The Jeffersons and was the co-creator of the TV series Good Times. He died at the age of 57 from throat cancer on December 14.

Mike Evans was born in Salisbury, North Carolina on November 3, 1949. His father was a dentist, his mother a teacher. While still a child the family moved to Los Angeles. He attended Los Angeles High and was attending Los Angeles City College when he was cast as Lionel Jefferson on All in the Family. The Jeffersons (except for George, played by Sherman Hemsley) first appeared on All in the Family in 1971 as the Bunkers' neighbours. The characters proved so popular that they were spun off into their own series, The Jeffersons, in 1975. The series was successful enough to run 14 seasons. Evans appeared on The Jeffersons until its second season, when his responsibilities on Good Times forced him to give up the role. Following the cancellation of that show, he returned to The Jeffersons as Lionel.

With Eric Monte, Evans created the series Good Times. Although it was not initially meant to be so, Good Times became a spinoff of Maude after Esther Rolle was cast in the lead role (she had played Maude's maid, Florida). The series debuted in 1974 and ran until 1979. It was unique in being one of the few sitcoms about a poor African American family, and it may well have been the last such show on network television.

In addition to his work on The Jeffersons and Good Times, Evans also appeared on the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man and Love American Style.

The Jeffersons remains one of my favourite sitcoms from the Seventies, and Evans was perfectly cast as Lionel. And while my memories of Good Times are not quite so fond, I must admit that for its first few seasons it was a good show (it eventually went downhill, in my humble opinion). In both playing Lionel Jefferson and co-creating Good Times, then, Evans made some significant contributions to American television in the Seventies. I must say that it is very sad to hear that he died.

Of course, while Mike Evans is not a household name, James Brown most certainly is. In a career that lasted over 50 years, Brown was one of the most influential singers of all time, he was known as the Godfather of Soul for his impact on that particular genre. Brown died yesterday at the age of 73 from heart failure brought on by pneumonia.

Brown was born May 3, 1933 in Barnwell, South Carolina. His family moved to Augusta, Georgia while he was still young. His family was poor and as a child he both picked cotton and shined shoes to help make money. At age 16 he was convicted of armed robbery and sent to a juvenile detention facility. Following his release, Brown tried both boxing and baseball before taking up music.

Initially, he performed in a gospel group called The Gospel Starlighters, alongside the sister of Bobby Byrd, perhaps most famous as Brown's co-vocalist and sideman, but eventually he joined the Avons. Changing from gospel to rhythm and blues, the group was renamed the Fabulous Flames. Eventually signed with King Records, their first single "Please, Please, Please," written by Brown and Johnny Terry, went to #5 on Billboard's R & B charts in 1956. Sadly, James Brown and the Fabulous Flames had trouble following up "Please, Please, Please." They were in danger of being booted from King Records when in 1957 they had their first #1 hit, "Try Me." Even Brown's earliest work showed influence from Little Richard, who helped Brown in his rise to the top, although they also showed a heavy use of rhythm and extreme vocals. Not only would Brown's songs have a huge impact on soul music, but they would also help shape the music form that would become known as "funk."

Entering the Sixties, James Brown came into his own. Not only would his song "Night Train" go to #5 on the R & B charts, it would also become a soul standard. It was also the first song that would characterise what most people consider "the James Brown sound." With the success of "Night Train," Brown would have a string of hits in the Sixites and would even see success on the pop charts. "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," one of the songs most identified with the Godfather of Soul, was released in 1965. The song not only went to #1 on the R & B charts, but also hit the top ten on the pop charts. Brown followed up the success of "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" with "I Got You (I Feel Good)," released the same year. Brown's success also gave him greater exposure. In 1965 he appeared in the films Ski Party and The T.A.M.I. Show. He would also appear on the TV shows Shindig, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Hollywood Palace.

As the Sixties progressed, Brown not only refined his style, but the content of his songs also became more serious. "Say It Loud--I'm Black and Proud" and "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I'll Get It Myself)" both addressed the position of blacks in American society. Brown continued to have hits into the mid-Seventies, although by the late Seventies, his career was in decline. While Brown would continue to tour and make television appearances, he would never again see the success that he did in the mid to late Sixties.

It is hard to sum up the career of James Brown, quite simply because his influence was so great. Although called the "Godfather of Soul," his influence extends well beyond that genre of music. He also had an impact on rock and can be credited as one of the creators of funk. Indeed, as a measure of his influence, Brown hit the Billboard charts more than any other artist without hitting #1. Among the diverse artists Brown had an influence on were soul groups Booker T and the MGs, The Temptations, Sly and the Family Stone, jazz musician Miles Davis, rock group The Rolling Stones, Prince, and funk artist George Clinton (of Parliament fame). Quite simply, Brown's influence transcended genres to the point that he is probably one of the most influential musical artists of the 20th century. One thing is certain, he won't soon be forgotten.

The day before James Brown died also saw another man die whose influence cannot be measured. Dr. Frank Stanton died at the age of 98 on December 24. For those who have never heard of him, Stanton was a legendary broadcaster who, alongside its founder William S. Paley, turned CBS into the most powerful American television network in the Fifties and the Sixties.

Dr. Stanton was born in Muskegon, Michigan on March 20, 1908. His father was a woodworking and mechanics teacher. The family moved to Dayton, Ohio while he was still young. While still a child, Dr. Stanton learned electronics. Going to college he meant to be a physician, but found medical school too expensive. Having received his bachelor's degree at Ohio Wesleyan, he then received a master's degree at Ohio State in psychology. While he worked on his PhD, he experimented with various way to measure audiences for radio. He developed a device that could be plugged into a radio and register which station someone was listening to. Quite simply, it was a forerunner of Nielsen's audimeter and the first device to qualitatively measure a programme's appeal. This brought him to the attention of CBS, who offered him a job in their research department (which then consisted of only two men). Having received his PhD, Stanton went to work for CBS.

Dr. Stanton's knowledge of psychology proved formidable in the field of radio. He was able to chose programmes that would not only attract audiences, but advertisers as well. He was also able to persuade affiliates to leave NBC for CBS. This knowledge helped Dr. Stanton in his career at CBS. By 1938 he became their research director and the research department now boasted 100 employees. It was also with this knowledge that Dr. Stanton created what is known as "block programming." In his research he noted that by airing similar programmes one after the other, a network could increase its ratings. Stanton then persuaded CBS to air similar programmes in blocks. The practice soon became established in radio programming and would be a part of television from the beginning.

By 1945 Dr. Stanton was vice president and general manager of CBS. By 2946 he was its president. Dr. Stanton and CBS's chairman and founder William S. Paley divided the responsibilities of running the network between themselves. Stanton would handle such things as the company's organisation and policies while Paley handled programming entertainment. Among the first things Stanton did was to reorganise CBS. He divided the network into divisions for radio, television, and research CBS Laboratories. The other networks would follow CBS' lead in using their model for organisation.

Dr. Stanton was also pivotal in the effort to bring colour to television. Alongside actor Robert Alda, actress Faye Emerson, TV personality Arthur Godfrey, columnist and TV show host Ed Sulivan, and CBS founder and chairman William S. Paley, he appeared on Premeire, a TV special introducing CBS's colour sequential system for colour television. Unfortunately for CBS, their system was incompatible with black and white sets, so the FCC ultimately chose RCA's system.

Dr. Stanton's power at CBS was such that he even helped shape the network's look. He oversaw the creation of CBS's "eye" logo, designed by graphics artist William Golden. He also oversaw the design of the company's headquarters in New York. Dr. Stanton approved or vetoed all of the designs submitted to him by Golden, then creative director for the network. Between them, Golden and Dr. Stanton were responsible for he use of Didot Bodoni as CBS's primary typeface.

While Paley handled the entertainment programming and Dr. Stanton handled mostly news programming at CBS, he did sometimes venture into the entertainment realm, and his choices were almost always correct. It was Dr. Stanton who drew comic Jackie Gleason away from DuMont on the chance that he could bring in ratings for CBS. Dr. Stanton also saw to it that Arthur Godfrey made the transition from radio to television, even though Paley disliked Godfrey. His most lasting contribution to entertainment programming may have been overseeing the legendary anthology show Playhouse 90. Among the teleplays that aired on the show were Rod Sterling's Requiem for a Heavyweight, Judgement at Nuremberg, and The Miracle Worker.

Following Edward R. Murrow's lead, Dr. Stanton also encouraged CBS to make a greater commitment to public affairs. This would result in the CBS public affairs series CBS Reports and still later the news magazine 60 Minutes. He was also responsible for the fist televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. He persuaded the FCC to suspend Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1934 (which requires equal time for political candidates) so that they could air the debate.

Dr. Stanton would also become an unofficial spokesman for the broadcasting industry. In the Seventies, when Nixon attacked the networks for their coverage of the Vietnam War, it was Dr. Stanton who most often defended the industry. In 1971 he also faced jail time. CBS had aired a documentary, The Selling of the Pentagon, which examined huge expenditures, not all of them legal, for the United States military. Subpoenaed by the House Commerce Committee to provide research materials for the documentary, Dr. Stanton refused on the grounds that news programming deserved protection under the First Amendment. Eventually, the House sided with Dr. Stanton against the committee.

Paley had promised Dr. Stanton the position of chairman and CEO at CBS upon his retirement. Unfortunately, this was not to be. Paley went back on his promise and Dr. Stanton served as the company's vice chairman from 1967 until 1973, when he retired. During his retirement he served as chairman of the American National Red Cross, and on the boards of the Carnegie Institution, the Lincoln Centre, the Stanford Research Institute, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He remained on CBS's board until 1978.

There can be no doubt that Dr. Frank Stanton was pivotal in American television broadcasting. Alongside William S. Paley, he turned CBS into the Tiffany Network, for a time the most powerful network in the United States. For better or worse, he was a pioneer in measuring audiences, working in the field long before the Nielsen ratings. He was largely responsible for the growth of CBS News and hence the networks' expansion into news and public affairs. He created the modern day organisation of most television networks. And for many years he was the unofficial spokesman for the broadcast industry. Dr. Stanton was one of a number of figures, such as William S. Paley, David Sarnoff, Pat Weaver, and Edward R. Murrow, who largely made American broadcast television what it is today. We probably won't see his like again for some time.

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