Saturday, August 27, 2011

John Howard Davies R.I.P.

John Howard Davies, former child actor and television producer, passed on 22 August 2011 at the age of 72. The cause was cancer.

John Howard Davies was born on 9 March 1939 in Paddington, London. He was the son of screenwriter Jack Davies. Mr. Davies was only 8 when he was cast Oliver in David Lean's version of Oliver Twist (1948). He went onto The Rocking Horse Winner (1949), Tom Brown's Schoolboys (1951), The Magic Box (1951), and episodes of William Tell. Mr. Davies left acting when he was a teenager, feeling he was not good looking enough to be a leading man nor talented enough to be a character actor. Following National Service in the Royal Navy, he worked in the financial district of London and later as a carpet salesman.

It was in 1966 that he became a production assistant at BBC. In 1967 he began directing and producing TV series. That year he directed episodes of Misleading Cases and produced episodes of The Very Merry Widow. He would go onto direct episodes of The World of Beachcomber, Monty Python's Flying Circus, All Gas and Gaiters, The Goodies, Steptoe and Son, Fawlty Towers, Good Neighbours, All in Good Faith, Andy Capp, Mr. Bean, No Job for a Lady, Hope It Rains, Law and Disorder, and The Bill. He produced such shows as The World of Beachcomber, Monty Python's Flying Circus, All Gas and Gaiters, Steptoe and Son, The Goodies, Fawlty Towers, Good Neighbours, All in Good Faith, Mr. Bean, No Job for a Lady, Hope It Rains, and Law and Disorder.

From 1977 to 1982 John Howard Davies was the head of BBC's comedy division. He approved such shows as Yes, Minister  and Only Fools and Horses.

John Howard Davies had a hand in some of the most legendary British comedy shows of all time. Indeed, Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Goodies, Steptoe and Son, and Fawlty Towers are counted among the greatest British television series of all time. As a child actor he was quite talented, not only giving a strong performance as Oliver in Oliver Twist, but also strong performances in The Rocking Horse Winner and Tom Brown's Schoolboys. As an actor and as a television director, John Howard Davies was very talented.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Nicholas Ashford R.I.P.

Nick Ashford, who with his wife Valerie Simpson co-wrote hits for Motown, passed on 22 August 2011 at the age of 70. The cause was complications from throat cancer.

Nick Ashford was born in Fairfield, South Carolina on 4 May 2011. He spent most of his childhood in Willow Run, Michigan. He entered the world of music through the Willow Run Baptist Church, where he sang with the gospel choir and even wrote songs for them. For a time he attended Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, but eventually went to New York to look for work as a dancer. He was homeless when he attended White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem. It was there that he met Valerie Simpson, then a music student. They started writing songs together. It was after Ray Charles recorded their song "Let's Go Get Stoned" in 1966 that they signed with Motown as songwriters and producers.

Ashford and Simpson wrote a string of hits for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, including "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Precious Love," "Ain't Nothing like the Real Thing," and "You're All I Need to Get By." For Diana Ross they wrote "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)" and "Remember Me." They also wrote songs for Gladys Knight and the Pips, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, and The Marvelettes.

Ashford and Simpson were also performers as well as songwriters. In the Sixties they recorded songs as part of the gospel group The Followers. In 1964 they recorded a single as Nick and Valarie. During the Sixties, either separately or together, Nick Ashford and Valarie Simpson recorded various singles. In 1973 they released their first album as Ashford and Simpson, Gimme Something Real. It would be followed by fifteen more albums. In 1979 Ashford and Simpson would have a hit with "Found a Cure." In 1984 "Solid" would go to #12 on the Billboard Hot 100.  In 1996 they opened the Sugar Bar, a restaurant and entertainment venue.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Late Great Jerry Leiber

Jerry Leiber, who with Mike Stoller wrote hits for artists ranging from Elvis Presley to The Coasters to Jay and the Americans, passed on Monday, 22 August 2011 at the age of 78. Arguably Leiber and Stoller numbered among the greatest song writing teams of the 20th century.

Jerry Leiber was born on 25 April 1933 in Baltimore. His mother ran a grocery on the edge of the ghetto. As a result Mr. Leiber's musical influences ranged from the mainstream pop music of the Thirties to the early African American precursors to rhythm and blues. Mr. Leiber's family moved to Los Angeles when he was a teenager. Initially he wanted to be an actor, but by 16 he was already writing songs. In 1950, while a senior at Fairfax High in Los Angeles, Jerry Leiber was looking for someone with whom to write songs. A mutual friend referred to him to a pianist who was currently a freshman at Los Angeles City College, Mike Stoller. Upon meeting the two discovered they each had a love both blues and rhythm and blues. They started writing songs together the very day that they met. It was not long before they sold their first song, "Real Ugly Woman," in 1950. It was originally recorded and performed by Jimmy Witherspoon.

In 1952 Leiber and Stoller would have their first hit, "Hard Times." Recorded by Charles Brown, the song went to #7  on the rhythm and blues chart. That same year Little Willie Littlefield recored "Kansas City" under the title "K.C. Lovin'." Under its original title and performed by Wilbert Harrison, it would go to #1 on the charts. It was also in 1952 that Leiber and Stoller wrote another of their signature songs. "Hound Dog" was originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton. It spent seven weeks at #1 on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart. In 1956 Elvis Presley recorded "Hound Dog" as the B-side to "Don't Be Cruel." Despite being the B-side, "Hound Dog"  topped the Billboard pop, R&B, and country charts. Along with "Don't Be Cruel" it was the first song ever to do so.

With such success, Leiber and Stoller formed their own record label along with their guide and mentor Lester Sill in 1953. In its roster Spark Records included The Robins, who would record the Leiber and Stoller songs "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and "Riot in Cell Block #9." Sparks Records and The Robins met with such success that Atlantic Records offered Leiber and Stoller an independent production contract if they would produce The Robins for the label.  With only two of The Robins willing to make the move to Atlantic, a new rhythm and blues group would emerge, The Coasters. The association of song writers Leiber and Stoller with the vocal group The Coasters would prove to be one of the most successful in the history of American music. Among the Leiber and Stoller songs The Coasters recorded were "Yakety Yak," "Charlie Brown," "Along Came Jones," and "Poison Ivy."

Of course, Leiber and Stoller did not write exclusively for The Coasters. Indeed, they are also well known for their association with Elvis Presley. With the success of Elvis's cover of "Hound Dog," Leiber and Stoller would go onto write songs for him. Among the Leiber and Stoller songs which Elvis covered or which were originally written for him are "Love Me," "Jailhouse Rock," "(You're So Square) Baby, I Don't Care," "Don't," "King Creole," and "Bossa Nova Baby."

Leiber and Stoller would continue to have hits after they left Atlantic Records and well into the Sixties. They wrote The Clovers' biggest hit, "Love Potion #9," which topped the charts in 1959. They produced many of The Drifters' songs and wrote some of them, including "There Goes My Baby." Among their most fruitful associations of the Sixties was one with Ben E. King. Jerry Leiber wrote "Spanish Harlem" with protégée Phil Spector, and Leiber and Stoller produced the song. The song went to #10 on the Billboard pop charts. The success of "Spanish Harlem" would be followed by Leiber and Stoller compositions, including "Stand by Me," "I (Who Have Nothing)," "Yes," and "Gypsy." Leiber and Stoller would also write for other artists. The Exciters recorded "It's So Exciting." Jay and the Americans recorded "I'll Remember You," "It's My Turn to Cry," and "Only in America," among other songs.

In 1964 Leiber and Stoller founded Red Bird Records. While owned by Leiber and Stoller the label produced such hits as "Chapel of Love" by The Dixie Cups and "Leader of the Pack" by The Shangri-Las. Leiber and Stoller sold the label in 1966, as they wanted to concentrate on song writing. In the latter half of the Sixties Leiber and Stoller would have hits with "Is This All There Is (Peggy Lee's cover charting in 1969)," "D. W. Washburn (by The Monkees)," "Do Your Own Thing (by Brook Benton)," and others. They wrote songs for the movie The Phynx (1970), about a fictional rock band of the same name.

In the Seventies Leiber and Stoller would write such songs as "Been Down So Long (by Eddie James)," "The Best Thing (by Dino & Sembello)," "Dancin' Jones (by Dino & Sembello)," "The Girls I Never Kissed (by Arthur Prysock)," "Humphrey Bogart (by Joan Morris & William Bolcom)," and others. Leiber and Stoller produced the Elkie Brooks album Two Days Away, released in 1977.  Leiber and Stoller wrote several songs on the album, including its first single, "Pearl's a Singer" with Ralph Dino and John Sembello. In 1995 Smokey Joe's Cafe, a musical revue based on the songs of Leiber and Stoller, opened on Broadway. It ran for 2035 performances.

It is difficult to assess the total impact of song writers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. In fact, songwriters who wielded the sort of influence that they did can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand (Livingston and Evans, Lennon and McCartney, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin). It is not simply that they produced some of the biggest hits of the late 20th Century, but they also produced rhythm and blues standards and rock 'n' roll standards that have stood the test of time. Among the songs they wrote were such legendary tunes as "Hound Dog," "Kansas City," "Jailhouse Rock," "Searchin'," "Stand by Me," and "On Broadway." And while Leiber and Stoller were known for their sense of humour, particularly evident in the songs they wrote for The Coasters ("Along Came Jones," "Yakety Yak"), they were also capable of writing a wide variety of other sorts of songs. Throughout their long career they wrote everything from pure rock 'n' roll ("Jailhouse Rock") to soulful ballads ("Spanish Harlem") to epic, nearly Bondian love songs ("I (Who Have Nothing)." Their songs would be covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to The Beatles to Tom Jones. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were among the most successful songwriters of all time. With Jerry Leiber's passing, a giant in the world of popular music is gone.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Late Great Jimmy Sangster, Hammer Films Screenwriter

Jimmy Sangster, who penned such classic Hammer films as Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959), and Brides of Dracula (1960), passed on 19 August 2011 at the age of 83.

Jimmy Sangster was born in North Wales on 2 December 1927. He began his career in film at the age of 16 as a clapper boy and worked his way up to projection assistant. In 1949 he received his first assistant director credit on the movie The Adventures of Jane, based on the famous British comic strip Jane. With Man in Black, released the same year, he began his long association with Hammer Films. Mr. Sangster served as an assistant director on several films, including What the Butler Saw (1950), Whispering Smith Hits London (1952), Spaceways (1953), 36 Hours (1953), and Murder by Proxy (1954).

Jimmy Sangster then served as production manager on several films, including The Stranger Came Home (1954) Third Party Risk (1954), The Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), and X: the Unknown (1956).  Although now best known as a screenwriter, it was never Mr. Sangster's intention to go into writing. Hammer producer Anthony Hinds asked Mr. Sangster to write a script. Mr. Sangster protested that he was a production manager, not a writer. Mr. Hinds told Mr. Sangster that if he liked the script, he would pay him for it.  That script was the short film "Man on the Beach (1955).  Jimmy Sangster followed it up with X: The Unknown.

In the end Mr. Sangster would write some of Hammer's most legendary films, including the two that started the studio's run of great horror films: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula. From the late Fifties into the Sixties Mr. Sangster wrote such films as Horror of Frankenstein (1958), Blood of the Vampire (1958), Jack the Ripper (1959), The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959), The Brides of Dracula, The Mummy, Paranoiac (1963), The Nanny (1965), Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966), Deadlier Than the Male (1967), The Anniversary (1968), and The Horror of Frankenstein (1970). He also wrote for television, including Armchair Theatre, Motive for Murder, and The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre. He also directed The Horror of Frankenstein.

The early Seventies would see Jimmy Sangster in the director's chair on such films as Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Fear in the Night (1972), as well as American television series Cannon, Banacek, and Faraday and Company. He was still prolific as a screenwriter, writing such films as Fear in the Night, The Legacy (1978), and Phobia. He wrote a good deal for American television, on such shows as Ghost Story, The Magician, McCloud, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Ironside, and Wonder Woman. He was a story consultant on the TV shows Ghost Story and Movin' On.

From the Eighties into the Nineties Jimmy Sangster wrote the film The Devil and Max Devlin (1981), as well as episodes of Concrete Cowboys and Beyond Belief. Over the years Mr. Sangster also served as a producer on several films, including Scream of Fear, The Anniversary, The Horror of Frankenstein, and many others.

In their eulogy for Jimmy Sangster, Hammer Films admits that they owe him a huge debt, even calling him "...perhaps the most important screenwriter in the company's history..." I do not believe that anyone could offer a convincing argument otherwise. With two films, The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, Mr. Sangster, alongside director Terence Fisher, transformed Hammer Films into a studio of quality horror movies. Indeed, Hammer Films would come to rival Universal Pictures in fame when it came to the genre.

The reason Jimmy Sangster had such an impact on Hammer Films is that he was, quite simply, a great writer. Mr. Sangster had an innate knowledge of what made a great horror film. He also knew that for any horror film to be any good had to begin and end with its characters. Mr. Sangster's characters were never two dimensional. They always had some very deep motives for what they were doing, even when what they were doing might seem utterly insane to an outsider. When such characters were brought to life by such actors as Peter Cushing and Sir Christopher Lee, one often had films that were nearly perfect. I rather suspect no other screenwriter had the impact on the history of horror movies that Jimmy Sangster had, taking a small studio into the greatest horror movie studio in the world.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Final Friends of Old Time Radio Convention

Those of you familiar with Old Time Radio probably know of the Friends of Old Time Radio Convention. Sadly, the final convention will be held 20 October to 23 October 2011 at the Ramada Plaza in Newark, New Jersey. Guests will range from Tommy Cook (one of the actors who played Little Beaver on the Red Ryder radio show) to Diana Canova (Judy Canova's daughter and star of the TV sitcom Soap) to Russell Horton (who appeared on many episodes of CBS Radio Mystery Theatre). There will be dealers' tables, complimentary wine and cheese, recreations of old radio shows,  panel discussions and more.

If you are a devoted fan of Old Time Radio, I encourage you to attend. After 36 years this will be the very last Friends of Old Time Radio Convention.  For more information, go to The 2011 Friends of Old-Time Radio Convention, The Final Convention.