Thursday, March 29, 2012

Godspeed Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs, the bluegrass banjo player best known for his long partnership with guitarist Lester Flatt, passed on 28 March 2012 at the age of 88.

Earl Scruggs was born on 6 January 1924 in Shelby, North Carolina. He began playing the banjo at age 4 and would later learn to play the guitar as well. Eventually he began playing with various bands, among them Lost John Miller and His Allied Kentuckians. Once Lost John Miller and His Allied Kentuckians broke up, Mr. Scruggs quit school in December 1945 to join Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. It was there that he met guitarist Lester Flatt.

Earl Scrugg would remain with the Blue Grass Boys until 1948. By that time both he and Lester Flatt were weary of the low pay and an often gruelling schedule. The two left the Blue Grass Boys and formed their own band, The Foggy Mountain Boys. More often than not in the following decades, the band would simply be known by the names of its founders "Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs" or, more simply, "Flatt and Scruggs."

It was in 1949 that Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs would make their first impact on music. Their song "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" went to #9 on the Billboard Country charts. Over the years they would have several more hits, including "'Tis Sweet to Be Remembered," "Cabin in the Hills," "Go Home," "Just Ain't," "You Are My Flower," and "My Sara Jane." What might be their best known song of all time came from a television show. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs performed the theme song to the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies (it was sung by Jerry Scroggins), "The Ballad of Jed Clampett." Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs released "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," which went to #1 on the Billboard country charts and #44 on the Billboard Hot 100. They would also release another song from The Beverly Hillbillies, "Pearl, Pearl, Pearl," which went to #8 on the country charts and #113 on the Hot 100. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs also performed the theme song to Petticoat Junction. It was also released as a single and went to #14 on the Country chart.

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs not only performed the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies, but they appeared on the show as recurring characters as well. They essentially played fictionalised versions of themselves.  Their wives were played by actresses Joi Lansing (who played Gladys Flatt) and Midge Ware (who played Louise Scruggs).

Despite their success, the team of Flatt and Scruggs would not last. Earl Scruggs took a progressive approach to bluegrass music, while Lester Flatt tended to be more of a traditionalist. These creative differences would eventually lead to the break up of the partnership in 1969. Earl Scruggs formed a new band, The Earl  Scruggs Revue. The Earl Scruggs Revue would often play on the same bill as rock and folk acts, something unusual for bluegrass groups at the time. Earl Scruggs continued to release albums into the 21st Century. His last album, Lifetimes: Lewis, Scruggs, and Long (recorded with Little Roy Lewis and Lizzy Long) was released in 2007.

Earl Scruggs was quite literally an innovator in the field of bluegrass music. He introduced a fingerpicking method of playing banjo known as the three-finger style, but perhaps better known as "the Scruggs style." After Earl Scruggs introduced it in 1946, it became the most common method of playing the banjo. Indeed, it is arguable that Earl Scruggs was the greatest banjo player of all time. He had a virtuosity with the instrument that few others could match, even in his later years. Indeed, Earl Scruggs' impact would not only be felt on bluegrass music, but on such other genres as country, folk, and rock. Over the years he would collaborate with such musicians as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Steve Martin, John Fogerty, Sir Elton John, and others. Quite simply, Earl Scruggs was a music virtuoso whose sheer talent transcended any genre.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cartoonist Al Ross R.I.P.

Al Ross, whose cartoons appeared in The New Yorker for decades, passed on 22 March 2012 at the age of 100.

Al Ross was born Abraham Roth 19 October 1911. While most sources state that he was born in Vienna, according to his son David, he was actually born in Romania but grew up in Vienna. After World War I the family migrated to the United States, settling in New York City. Both he and his brothers started drawing early   (who would also become noted cartoonists) . During the Depression, when Mr. Ross was in eighth grade, he dropped out of school to work as a messenger. He and his three brothers studied at the Art Students League.

It was during the Thirties that Al Ross first began to sell his cartoons. Initially his work appeared in Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, and Esquire. It was in 1937 that his work first appeared in the venue in which he would become best known, The New Yorker. He would continue to be published in The New Yorker for literally decades. His last cartoon to be published in the magazine was in 2002, 65 years after his first.

Even while his cartoons continued to appear in The New Yorker, Mr. Ross also published cartoons elsewhere. His cartoons appeared in Cosmopolitan, Maclean's, and such humour magazines as Snappy. He would publish two collections of his cartoons, The Love Life Of The Modern Homo Sapiens, published in 1953 and Bums Vs. Billionaires published in 1972. He illustrated the book Bedside Humour by Howard Stackman (published in 1953) and the book What Every Supervisor Should Know by Lester Bittel in 1959. His work also appeared in numerous anthologies of the cartoons published in The New Yorker and other anthologies.

Al Ross's cartoons were known for their droll sense of humour, not to mention their often intellectual and sometimes whimsical content.  Mythological figures, anthropomorphic animals, snatches from famous paintings, historical figures, and ordinary people all appeared in his cartoons at one time or another. Mr. Ross's style also emphasised the actions of the figures in his cartoons, right down to their facial expressions. An excellent artist, his talent becomes all the more amazing when one realises he almost never worked from preliminary sketches. More often than not he would just sit down and draw a cartoon. He was one of the best cartoonists to ever draw for The New Yorker, a magazine known for some of the greatest cartoonists of all time.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Screenwriter Tonino Guerra Passes On

Tonino Guerra, who wrote the screenplays for such classic films as Blowup (1966), La Avventura (1960), and Amacord (1973), passed on 21 March 2012 at the age of 92.

Tonino Guerra was born Antonino Guerra on 16 March 1920 in Santarcangelo di Romagna, Italy. During World War II he was captured and sent to a German concentration camp. It was there that he began writing poetry. Following the war, in 1946, a collection of his poetry was published under the title I Scarabocc. He worked as a teacher for a few years before he moved to Rome. It was there that he met future director Elio Petri. Mr. Guerra would share his first screenwriting credit with Mr. Petri and others, the 1957 film Uomini e lupi. For the next few years he would write screenplays for Cesta duga godinu dana (1958), Un ettaro di cielo (1958), and La garçonnière (1960). It was 1960 that Tonino Guerra's first collaboration with director Michaelangelo Antonioni, the classic L’Avventura, was released. The film would essentially make both of their careers. Mr. Antionioni and Mr. Guerra would collaborate many more times over the years, including on the films La notte (1961), L'eclisse (1962), Il deserto rosso (1964), Blowup (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970), Il mistero di Oberwald (1981), Identificazione di una donna (1982), Al di là delle nuvole (1995), and Eros (2004).

Over the years Mr. Guerra worked with most of the major Italian directors. He collaborated with director Elio Petri on L'assassino (1961), La decima vittima (1965) and Un tranquillo posto di campagna (1968). He collaborated with Federico Fellini on Amarcord (1973), Il Casanova di Federico Fellini (1976), E la nave va (1983), and Ginger and Fred (1986). With director Francesco Rossi he worked on C'era una volta (1967), Uomini contro (1970), Il caso Mattei (1972), Lukcy Luciano (1973), Cadaveri eccellenti (1976), Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (1979), Tre fratelli (1981), Carmen (1984), Cronaca di una morte annunciata (1987), and La tregua (1997). With director Mario Monicelli he worked on Casanova '70 (1965), Caro Michele (1976), and Il male oscuro (1990).

Not only would Tonino Guerra work many of the greatest directors in Italian film history, but he would have a particularly long career. His first film was released in 1957. His last film, Everybody's Fine, was released in 2009. In his later years he worked on such films as Nostalghia (1983), Kaos (1984), Good Morning, Babylon (1987), Il sole anche di notte (1990), To vlemma tou Odyssea (1995), Le chien, le général et les oiseaux (2003), and Um Ano Mais Longo (2006).

In his later years Mr. Guerra took up writing and publishing poetry again, as well as working in fiction. He would also paint and sculpt.

In any language Tonino Guerra was arguably one of the greatest screenwriters of all time. Indeed, not only were his screenplays always intelligent and possessed of a poet's sensibilities, but he was also extremely versatile. My best friend and I often noted that co-writers Michelangelo Antonioni (who also directed) and Tonino Guerra scripted the quintessential film about Swinging London, Blowup; they were two Italians who captured the time and essence of the place where native Englishmen had failed. This was not an isolated case in Mr. Guerra's career either. With co-writer Lino Iannuzzi, Tonino Guerra was able to capture the feel of Prohibition New York City in Lucky Luciano. Tonino Guerra had a singular talent for capturing the essence of any time and any place with his screenplays.

Another example of Tonino Guerra's versatility was the fact that he began writing films that fell firmly in the Italian neo-realist camp, he would go onto write one of Federico Fellini's more stylised and symbolic films, Il Casanova di Federico Fellini. He also wrote in a number of genres, from sword and sandal films (Perseo l'invincibile, released in 1963) to crime (L'assassino) to science fiction (La decima vittima) to comedy (Anonima cocottes, released in 1960). Given the sheer variety of genres in which he worked and how prolific he actually was (IMDB lists 104 films on which he worked in some capacity as a writer), it is even more amazing when one realises that not only did Tonino Guerra produce a number of classics, but most of the movies he wrote were quite good. A bad film written by Tonino Guerra was indeed a rare thing. Versatile, intelligent, and possessed a poet's view on life, Tonino Guerra was a great screenwriter in any language.