Saturday, May 9, 2020

The Late Great Little Richard

The word "legend" is often tossed around, but in the case of Little Richard the word actually seems inadequate. Never known for his modesty, Little Richard described himself as "the Architect of Rock 'n' Roll." Coming from someone else that could be considered hubris. Coming from Little Richard, it may have been an understatement. He fused elements of boogie woogie, rhythm and blues, and gospel to create a form of rock 'n' roll that would prove more influential than that created by many of his contemporaries. He would have an influence on such diverse acts as James Brown, Otis Redding, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Deep Purple, and Motörhead, among others. Aside from rock, Little Richard would have an influence on entire genres of music, including R&B, Soul, disco, and even rap. It would be difficult to find a man who had more influence on modern music than Little Richard. Sadly, Little Richard died today, May 9 2020, at the age of 87.

Little Richard was born Richard Penniman in Macon, Georgia on December 5 1932. He was raised in the Macon neighbourhood called Pleasant Hill. He was nicknamed "Little Richard" as a child because he was slight of build. He started singing in church when he was still a child. His earliest influences were such gospel performers as Brother Joe May, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Marion Williams. Little Richard learned to play alto saxophone and joined his school's marching band when he was in fifth grade. He attended Hudson High School in Macon. While he was in high school, he got a part-time job at Macon City Auditorium, where he sold concessions during concerts. It was at the Macon City Auditorium that he would be first paid for a performance. Sister Rosetta Tharpe heard Little Richard, then 14 years old, singing some of her songs while he was working at the auditorium. She asked him to open her show and paid him for work.

Little Richard would hang around the travelling shows that visited Macon and would sing with them. He worked with Macon's town spiritualist, Doctor Nobilio, singing to attract people to the spiritualist's show. It was on Doctor Nobilio's advice in 1949 he left home to join Dr. Hudson's Medicine Show. In the show Little Richard performed Louis Jordan's song "Caldonia." Afterwards he performed with Sugarfoot Sam's travelling show. In the show he dressed in drag as a character called "Princess LaVonne." Little Richard would perform in other travelling shows, sometimes in drag, sometimes not.

Eventually moving to Atlanta, Georgia, he would visit the clubs there and was exposed to such performers as Roy Brown, B. B. King, and Billy Wright. Little Richard became friends with Billy Wright and largely patterned his look after him, with a pompadour, pencil thin moustache, and flashy clothing. It was Billy Wright who put Little Richard in touch with a local disc jockey, Zenas Sears. Zenas of WGST.  Sears recorded Little Richard at the radio station. Those recordings would ultimately result in Little Richard getting his first recording contract when he signed with RCA Victor. His first single, "Taxi Blues," was released on RCA Victor in 1951. In all, Little Richard recorded four singles for RCA Victor, none of which charted. He left RCA Victor in 1952, having been with the label for only a year.

Little Richard signed with Peacock Records in 1953. He only recorded two singles for the label, neither of which charted. It was at the suggestion of R&B singer Lloyd Price that Little Richard sign to the label he was on, Speciality Records. Little Richard's very first single for Speciality was "Tutti Frutti." The song proved to be a hit, reaching no. 21 on the Billboard singles chart and no. 2 on the Billboard R&B chart. His next single for Speciality would prove to be an even bigger hit. "Long Tall Sally" hit no. 1 on the R&B chart and no. 13 on the singles chart.

Following "Long Tall Sally," Little Richard would have a string of hits that would last from 1956 into 1958. Several of his singles reached the top forty of the Billboard singles chart and several reached the top ten of the Billboard R&B chart. Among his bigger hits were "Slippin' and Slidin'," "Rip It Up," "Ready Teddy," "The Girl Can't Help It," "Lucille," "Send Me Some Lovin'," "Jenny Jenny," "Keep A-Knockin'," and "Good Golly, Miss Molly." His first album, Here's Little Richard, went to no. 13 on the Billboard album chart. He also appeared in the movies The Girl Can't Help It (1956), Don't Knock the Rock (1956), and Mister Rock and Roll (1957) during the period.

It was during a package tour in 1957, during a package tour, that after his performance in Sydney, Australia, he saw a bright red fireball in the sky above him. He took this as a sign from God and announced that he would become a Christian minister in the middle of the tour. He enrolled at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama in order to study theology. During this period Speciality continued to release his singles. After parting with Speciality, in 1958  he formed the Little Richard Evangelistic Team to tour the country preaching.  He began singing gospel music, initially recording for End Records. In 1961 he signed a contract with Mercury Records to record gospel music.

Little Richard returned to secular music in 1961 after concert promoter Don Arden convinced him to tour Europe as his records were still selling well there. A young band from Liverpool, The Beatles, opened for Little Richard at a show at the Tower Ballroom in New Brighton in October 1962. In November they opened for him at the Star-Club in Hamburg, West Germany. In 1963 he went on tour with The Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, and The Rolling Stones. He also appeared on television in Britain on the show Thank Your Lucky Stars and the TV special It's Little Richard. In the Sixties he also appeared on the TV shows Shindig!, Hollywood a Go Go, Where the Action Is, Top of the Pops, Ready Stead Go!, The Pat Boone Show, Della, This is Tom Jones, The David Frost Show, The Dick Cavett Show. The Smothers Brothers Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and The Barbara McNair Show. He was a guest on the TV special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. In 1970 he had success with the single "Freedom Blues," which peaked at no. 47 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 28 on the Billboard R&B chart. He appeared in the movie Catalina Caper (1967).

In the Seventies Little Richard toured on the rock and roll revival circuit. It was in 1972 that he was a headliner, along with Chuck Berry, at the London Rock and Roll Show at Wembley Stadium. He was a guest artist for such acts as Canned Heat, Joey Covington, Delaney and Bonnie, and Joe Walsh. His 1973 single "In the Middle of the Night" peaked at no. 71 on the Billboard R&B chart. It was in 1977 that he left secular music once again and returned to evangelism. Another gospel album, God's Beautiful City, was released in 1979. In the Seventies he continued to appear on television on such shows as The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Merv Griffin Show, American Bandstand, Soul Train, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, The Midnight Special, Donnie and Marie, and The Mike Douglas Show.

Little Richard would make a comeback in the Eighties. He played Orvis Goodnight in the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) and the mayor in the movie Purple People Eater (1988). He also made guest appearances on the TV shows Miami Vice and Bustin' Loose, and he was a guest voice on the animated series Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures. He appeared on such talk shows and variety shows as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Late Night with David Letterman, Solid Gold, and Soul Train. After having been either a rock 'n' roll performer or an evangelist, Little Richard finally reconciled the two, recording the Christian rock song "Great Gosh A'Mighty" for the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

In the Nineties Little Richard guest starred on the TV shows Martin, Blossom, Baywatch, Columbo, Hearts Afire, Full House, One Life to Live, Night Man, The Drew Carey Show, and Sesame Street. He appeared in the movies Sunset Heat (1992), The Naked Truth (1992), The Pickle (1993), The Last Action Hero (1993), and Chairman of the Board (1998). He sang the theme song to the animated TV series The Magic School Bus. His final album, Little Richard Meets Masayoshi Takanaka, was released in 1992. He performed on tracks with other artists, including Jon Bon Jovi, Elton John, Jimmy Lewis, and Solomon Burke.

In the Naughts Little Richard appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He was a panellist on the game show Hollywood Squares. He appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, The Simpsons, The Sharon Osbourne Show, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and Larry King Live. He also maintained a busy touring schedule.

Little Richard continued to perform into the Teens. He retired in 2013 following a heart attack at the age of 81.

It is very difficult to overestimate the impact on Little Richard on rock music and popular music in general. He blended boogie woogie and rhythm and blues to create a form of rock 'n' roll that was unique at the time. He was further set apart by his powerful vocals. And while Little Richard was known for his whoops and screams on many of his rock 'n' roll songs, his voice was versatile enough that he could sing gospel and even ballads. Of course, Little Richard was further set apart by his flamboyant style. Wearing eyeliner and dressing in flashy clothes, he set the bar for rock performers to come. He once addressed Prince in an interview, "I was wearing purple before you was wearing it!" Little Richard's influence can be felt on performers as diverse as Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, Prince, and yet others. His music would have an impact not only on rock, but other genres of music as well. There was no other performer like Little Richard  in the mid-Fifties and, while many have imitated him, there really hasn't been any since.

Friday, May 8, 2020

The 100th Birthday of Saul Bass

It was 100 years ago today that graphic designer Saul Bass was born in the Bronx, New York. He become internationally famous for his title sequences for movies, although he also designed movie posters and corporate logos. To this day he is one of the few title sequence designers whose name may be recognizable to the average person. Perhaps more than any other graphic designer, he revolutionized the title sequences in movies.

Saul Bass graduated from James Monroe High School in the Bronx. He studied at the Art Students League in Manhattan for a time before taking night classes at Brooklyn College. There he studied under painter, photographer, and designer György Kepes. Mr. Bass then apprenticed at Manhattan design firms. Chafing under the constraints of the design firms, Sam Bass moved to Los Angeles in 1947 and opened his own studio.

Saul Bass soon found himself creating print advertisements and posters for the Hollywood studios. Among his earliest work in movie posters was the poster for Champion (1949). In may ways it was a stark contrast to other movie posters of the time. It combined the style of American pulp magazine covers with European minimalism. Over the years Saul Bass would create several movie posters, many of which utilized his "cut paper," minimalist style. Among his movie posters were posters for such films as Carmen Jones (1954), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Love in the Afternoon (1957), Bonjour tristesse (1958), Vertigo (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), One, Two, Three (1961), It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), and The Shining (1980).

It was Saul Bass's work in movie posters that would lead to his work in title sequences. Otto Preminger was so taken with Saul Bass's poster for Carmen Jones that he asked him to design the movie's title sequence as well. The title sequence for Carmen Jones launched Saul Bass on a career in title design that would last for over forty years. Through the years he designed some of the most recognizable and lauded title sequences of all time, including the titles sequences for such movies as The Man with a Golden Arm (1955), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), Vertigo (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), North by Northwest (1960),Psycho (1960), Spartacus (1960), Ocean's 11 (1960), West Side Story (1961), It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), In Harm's Way (1965), Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), Seconds (1966), Such Good Friends (1971), Broadcast News (1987), Goodfellas (1990), and The Age of Innocence (1993). In addition to his work in film, Mr. Bass also designed the title sequence for the television series Alcoa Premiere.

Saul Bass's title sequences were truly revolutionary. Prior to Saul Bass, title sequences of films often tended to be static, with a few exceptions Saul Bass's title sequences included movement. He utilized both animation and kinetic typography. And while many of his title sequences bore the "cut paper," minimalist style of his early movie posters, they could as often include sophisticated artwork or photography. Indeed, the title sequences for The Man with the Golden Arm, West Side Story, and Seconds are all recognizably from the same artist, and yet they are quite different from each other save in that all of them use good deal of movement.

Saul Bass's work in title sequences would also lead to him becoming a filmmaker of his own accord. He was hired as a "visual consultant" or "pictorial consultant" for the films Spartacus (1960), Psycho (1960), West Side Story (1961), and Grand Prix (1966). Mr. Bass also directed the short films "The Searching Eye," "From Here to There," "Why Man Creates," "Notes on Popular Subjects," "The Solar Film," and "Quest." He directed one feature film, the sci-fi/horror movie Phase IV (1974).

While Saul Bass is best known for his work related to film, he also did a good deal of work in corporate design. Some of the best known corporate logos were created by Sam Bass. Among them are such logos as Lawry's Foods (1959), Fuller Paints (1962), Alcoa (1963), Wesson Oil (1964), Dixie (1969), Bell Telephone (1969), United Way (1972), Warner Communications (1974), Girl Scouts of the USA (1978), Minolta (1981), AT&T (1983), General Foods (1984), and J. Paul Getty Trust (1993). Saul Bass's corporate logos are not only known for their recognizability, but their longevity. In 2011 web designer Christian Annyas did a study of the logos designed by Saul Bass and discovered their average lifespan was 34 years. Often when a Saul Bass designed logo ceased to be used, it was simply because of the demise of a corporation or a merger.

Saul Bass also designed some album covers. The 1956 album Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems Of Color  featured a cover designed by Mr. Bass. Saul Bass also designed the album covers for Stomu Yamash'ta's 1973 album Freedom is Frightening and 1984 album Sea and Sky, and The Smithereens' 1991 album Blow Up.

Saul Bass would have an immediate impact on title sequences in the Fifties and Sixties. The impact of Saul Bass's title sequences can even be seen in more recent films, such as Monsters Inc. (2001), Catch Me If You Can (2002), and Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol (2011). The influence of Saul Bass is obvious in the title sequence of the TV series Mad Men. Various movie posters have also been influenced by Saul Bass's work, including posters for Burn After Reading (2008) and  Precious (2009). Saul Bass's influence on graphic design is pervasive, and can be seen in everything from movie posters to album covers.

It is difficult to overestimate the impact that Saul Bass has had on graphic design. He took both movie posters and title sequences from the early 20th Century to the mid-20th Century. And while Saul Bass's work is apt to make most people think of the Fifties and Sixties, there is a timeless quality to them. His use of symbolism, basic geometric shapes, and minimalism allows his work to be as appreciated in the 21st Century as it was in the 20th Century. Saul Bass revolutionized movie posters and raised the movie title sequence to an artform.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

John Ericson Passes On

John Ericsson, who played Sam Bolt on the cult TV series Honey West and appeared in such movies as Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Pretty Boy Floyd (1960), 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) died on May 3 2020 at the age of 93. The cause was pneumonia.

John Ericson was born Joachim Meibes on September 25 1926 in Düsseldorf, Free State of Prussia, Germany. His family moved from Germany to the United States in order to escape the rise of Nazism. He studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Among his fellow students were Grace Kelly, Jack Palance, and Don Rickles.

John Ericson made his television debut in 1950 in an episode of Lux Video Theatre. In the Fifties he guest starred on such shows as The Philco Television Playhouse. Out There, Chevron Hall of Stars, Kraft Television Theatre, General Electric Theatre, Cavalcade of America, Climax!, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, The Millionaire, Playhouse 90, Wagon Train, Zane Grey Theatre, The Restless Gun, The Loretta Young Show, The United States Steel Hour, and Rawhide. He made his movie debut in 1951 in Teresa. He played the title role in the movie Pretty Boy Floyd (1960). During the decade John Ericsson also appeared in such movies as Rhapsody (1954), The Student Prince (1954), Green Fire (1954), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Return of Jack Slade (1955), The Cruel Tower (1956), Forty Guns (1957), Oregon Passage (1957), and Day of the Badman (1958). He appeared on Broadway in Stalag 17 from 1951 to 1952.

In the Sixties he played Sam Bolt, the title character's man Friday, on the short-lived TV show Honey West. He guest starred on the TV shows Route 66, Target: The Corruptors, Kraft Mystery Theatre, The Dick Powell Show, General Hospital, The Fugitive, Profiles in Courage, Burke's Law, Bonanza, The Invaders, Death Valley Days, Gunsmoke, Ironside, and Marcus Welby M.D. He appeared in the unsold pilot Sybil, which starred Suzy Parker as the wood nymph of the title (it aired as an episode of Vacation Playhouse in 1965). He appeared in the movies Io Semiramide (1963), 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1963), Agente S 03: Operazione Atlantide (1965), Los 7 de Pancho Villa (1967), The Money Jungle (1967), The Destructors (1968), The Bamboo Saucer (1968), and Testa o croce (1969).

In the Seventies John Ericson guest starred on the TV shows The Virginian, Medical Center, Longstreet, Assignment: Vienna, The F.B.I., Tenafly, Escape, Hawkins, The Wide World of Mystery, Doc Elliot, The Streets of San Francisco, Police Story, Barbary Coast, S.W.A.T., Police Woman, Vega$, and The Wonderful World of Disney. He appeared in the movies Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Hustler Squad (1975), Crash! (1976), and The House of the Dead (1978).

In the Eighties John Ericson appeared on the TV shows Nero Wolfe; One Day at a Time; CHiPs; Knight Rider; The A-Team; Automan; Fantasy Island; Airwolf; Murder, She Wrote; and Hardball. He appeared in the movies Final Mission (1984) and Primary Target (1989). In the Naughts he appeared in the movie The Far Side of Jericho (2006) and guest starred on the TV show Crash.

John Ericson will probably always be best remembered as Sam Bolt on Honey West, but he played a wide variety of other roles as well. In 7 Faces of Dr. Lao he played Ed Cunnigham, the publisher of the local newspaper and the very definition of a crusading journalist. He played a character as far removed from Ed Cunningham as possible in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Nazi officer Colonel Heller. In The Return of Jack Slade he played yet a different role, the heroic Jack Slade, Jr., who faces off against a band of outlaws. It was only five years later that he played famous outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd. John Ericson was quite versatile, able to play everything from heroes to villains and everything in between. While he'll always be remembered best as Sam Bolt, he played a good number of other roles as well.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Shirley Knight, India Adams, Irrfan Khan, Sam Lloyd, and Florian Schneider Pass On

I think I can speak for everyone when I say that 2020 has not been a good year. As if the COVID-19 pandemic and murder hornets were not enough, the year thus far has seen the deaths of several celebrities. In fact, the past few weeks there have been so many actors and music artists die that it has become very difficult for me to eulogise them one by one on this blog. In fact, were I to do so it seems possible that the entire month of May on this blog would be devoted to nothing, but eulogies. I have then decided,as I have done so before, to simply offer several short eulogies for those who have died rather than the longer, in depth eulogies I usually do. It pains me to to this, as every single one of these individuals is deserving of their own, in depth eulogy.

Shirley Knight (July 5 1936-April 22 2020): Actress Shirley Knight died on April 22 at the age of 83. She was born on July 5 1936 in Goessel, Kansas. She studied at the Pasadena Theatre School. Her film career began with a minor role in Picnic in 1955. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for both The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). She also appeared in such films as The Group (1966), Petulia (1968), Endless Love (1981), and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002).

Miss Knight also had an extensive career in television. She was a regular on the TV shows Buckskin, Maggie Winters, and Desperate Housewives. She guest starred on such shows as Rawhide, 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick, Naked City, The Virginian, The Fugitive, Tales of the Unexpected, The Equalizer, Thirtysomething, Matlock, L.A. Law, ER, and Hot in Cleveland. She also appeared in Broadway in The Three Sisters, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Watering Place, Kennedy's Children, and The Young Man in Atlanta.

India Adams (March 5 1927-April 25 2020): India Adams, who dubbed the singing voices of both Cyd Charisse and Joan Crawford, died on April 25 2020 at the age of 93. She was born on March 5 1927 in Los Angeles. Miss Adams dubbed the singing voice of Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953) and Joan Crawford in Torch Song (1953) and Johnny Guitar (1956). She performed extensively in nightclubs in New York City and the Catskills. She also performed at the Latin Quarter and Radio City Music Hall in New York City. She also performed at various clubs and theatres in London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

Irrfan Khan (January 7 1967-April 29 2020): Bollywood star Irrfan Khan died on April 29 2020 at the age of 53. The cause was a colon infection after having been diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumour in 2018. Irrfan Khan was born on January 7 1967 in Tonk, Rajasthan, India. He made his film debut in Salaam Bombay! in 1988. He appeared in the British film The Warrior (2001) and then had his breakthrough with the films Haasil (2003) and Maqbool (2004). Mr. Khan appeared in such films as The Namesake (2006), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Life of Pi (2012), The Lunchbox (2013), Piku (2015), and Talvar (2015)

Sam Lloyd (November 12 1963-April 30 2020): Sam Lloyd, who played lawyer Ted Buckland on the cult sitcom Scrubs, died on April 30 2020 at the age of 56. The cause was a brain tumour. Sam Lloyd was born Sam Lloyd, Jr. on November 12 1963 in Weston, Vermont. His father, Sam Lloyd, Sr. was also an actor and the brother of actor Christopher Lloyd of Taxi and Back to the Future fame. Sam Lloyd made his television debut in a guest appearance in an episode of Night Court in 1988. In addition to playing Ted on Scrubs, he also had regular roles on the TV shows City, Double Rush, Desperate Housewives, Cougar Town (reprising his role as Ted), and The PET Squad Files. He guest starred on such shows as Matlock, Seinfeld, Mad About You, 3rd Rock from the Sun, NYPD Blue, The West Wing, Bones, and Modern Family.

Mr. Lloyd also appeared in such movies as Galaxy Quest (1999) and The Brothers Solomon (2007).

Florian Schneider (April 7 1947-May 6 2020): Florian Schneider, co-founder of electro-pop band Kraftwerk, died today at the age of 73. The cause was cancer. He was born on April 7 1947 in what would become the state of Baden-Württemberg, but was then the French occupation zone. It was in 1970 that he co-founded Kraftwerk with Ralf Hütter. Kraftwerk would see international success with their fourth album Autobahn. Kraftwerk would see continued success through the next several decades. Florian Schneider, who played both flute and synthesizer, left the band in 2008.