In 1973, there was no hotter ticket in the City of Boston than Bobby Orr’s Bruins. Therefore, when I scored one unstructured seat to a game against the Rangers forty-six years ago this month, I was jubilant. I showed up and chuckled where my seat was situated: on the blue line of the Bruins side of the ice in the pricey blue-line section of the old Boston Garden.
As I fingered my treasured ticket and made me way to my designated seat, I had to laugh when a bemused Garden usher showed me where I was to sit. “Have fun here!” he guffawed as I appraised the situation. In the end, my seat was situated directly behind a four-foot-wide girder that went from the floor of of the concrete steps to the first balcony above me. If I stayed in my chair and didn’t move my head, I could see the action at both ends of the ice – but that was it. From blue line to blue line, I literally had no view. Baseball’s Uecker would have been proud to sit in such a location.
When the NHL game commenced a few minutes later, I moved my head from side to side, following the puck and the action by peaking my head around the girder. Given the speed of the action, my neck was in constant motion, especially when the mighty Bruins had the puck.
By the second period, I had developed a fan following behind me who were enthralled by my constant head weaving. They particularly enjoyed the fact that I did all this while making sure I was not obstructing anyone sitting in my section. As fate would have it, the goalie in net for the B’s that night was 44-year-old Jacques Plante. Bobby Orr had three assists on the the three Boston goals, which were scored by Gregg Sheppard, Derek Sanderson, and Phil Esposito.
When I left to take the T with a minute to go in the game and the B’s safely in front, I received a standing ovation from the fans sitting behind me and the obstructed beam. One Boston leather-lung yelled out at me, “I don’t know what happened to the Drells, but you must be Archie Bell!”
For at least one evening in my life, I did the tighten up.
As I was walking on my regular morning jaunt yesterday, I heard Chubby Checker’s seminal hit, “The Twist,” on the Sirius 50’s channel. I had a sudden flashback. It’s early March 1961, and my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Marshall, wanted us “to move and release some built-up energy” after we had been “prisoners” all day in our classroom during typical late winter New England sleet-and-rainstorm in our classroom. A wonderfully supportive and innovative teacher, Mrs. Marshall ambled over to the classroom’s record player and put on Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.”
Instantaneously, 25 kindergartners began swiveling vigorously. When the song ended, Mrs. Marshall decided to play the number again because we seemed to have so much fun and were certainly releasing an abundance of energy!
Before she put the needle back on the record, I raised my hand. As the youngest in a family who knew contemporary music well, I bellowed, “That was GREAT, Mrs. Marshall, but can you play the song, ‘Tiger,’ by Fabian? It’s a better tune.”
My kindergarten teacher promptly excused herself to her office where she laughed for about five minutes.
As Art Linkletter used to say, “Kids say the darndest things.”
On an frigid March afternoon in 1964, as I sat intently on my bed in my bedroom in Wellesley, Massachusetts, at precisely 3:00 pm, I switched on my cream-colored plastic clock-radio set at 850 on the AM dial. Despite the snow showers that had begun trickling intermittently in greater Boston, when I heard the baseball-themed jingle on WHDH Radio Boston then, it might as well have been a scorching summer day.
“You’re just in time/For the ballgame/You’re just in time for excitement and fun/WHDH has reserved your place/We’re glad you could make it/We know you’ll have fun/Here’s Curt Gowdy standing by/The ‘Voice of the Red Sox’/A real nice guy….”
“From Scottsdale, Arizona,” announcer, Curt Gowdy, roared, “it’s the Boston Red Sox versus the Chicago Cubs in an interleague spring training game live from America’s magnificent Southwest!”
Notwithstanding the precarious nature of Boston’s American League franchise at the time, I was a nine-year-old true believer who had begun following my local baseball team on a pitch-by-pitch basis the previous season. In 1964, though, the Boston Red Sox were an updated version of the old St. Louis Browns – perennial, lovable losers who were forever blowing games by 11-10 scores. After suffering more than a decade of consecutive losing records, Boston’s big league team had ultimately accumulated enough 90-plus losing seasons to have been routinely referenced as “The Red Flops” by the head of the team’s own fan club.
Thus, when I flipped on the spring training game in my house in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Johnny Pesky was once again the franchise’s manager, shepherding a squad who exuded extremo mediocritatem, even though the Bosox did have the reigning American League Batting Champion, Carl Yastrzemski, and baseball’s most feared reliever, Dick “The Monster” Radatz.
As I listened intently on that wintry afternoon, there was a new name that was repeatedly mentioned by Red Sox announcers Curt Gowdy, Ned Martin, and Art Gleason – Anthony Richard “Tony” Conigliaro. He was just nineteen at the time, a right-handed hitter and outfielder who possessed a transcendent swing that seemed to be designed for Fenway Park itself. A Bostonian by birth, Conigliaro had graduated from St. Mary’s High School in Lynn in ’63 and had then hit 24 home runs in 83 games as an eighteen-year-older for the Wellsville Red Sox of the New York Penn League. The word had already spread to the hinterlands: Boston might have itself an emerging diamond luminary on the horizon.
Consequently, I was a little more than curious to hear about the exploits of young Conigliaro that blustery March day. When the contest ended two hours later, I was an unmitigated believer. Tony ended up finishing the game going 3 for 4, including a double off the centerfield wall. Before he signed off, the Sox’s lyrical broadcaster, Ned Martin, remarked, “This kid, a New England thoroughbred in every way, just might possess the right mix to paint permanent smiles on the faces of Red Sox fans in 1964 – and beyond.”
At that time, baseball oozed through my pores like maple syrup. Over the previous two years, it had become my solitary obsession. I commenced watching Red Sox games with my grandfather in his cottage on Cape Cod during the summer of ’63. When he encouraged me to go to the library to read more about the game, a local librarian recommended that I read the baseball-based novels of John R. Tunis, a popular children’s author whose prose was written for specifically for boys between the age of 9 and 12. Ultimately, I ended up reading everything from The Kid from Tomkinsville to The Kid Comes Back. Because so many of Tunis’s fictional characters were hometown players who eventually made good, I felt that Tony Conigliaro was somehow a come-to-life figure from one of John R. Tunis’s narratives. Because I was magically caught in the midst of the breezy nonchalance of boyhood at that time, every day seemed like summer to me. For perhaps the last time of my life, the days and weeks were each framed by their own unexpected pleasures. In 1964, Tony Conigliaro embodied all that the promise of life had to offer someone so young.
Thus, when Tony C. continued to mash the ball in the Cactus League over the next three weeks, we who listened to Sox spring training games that March increasingly heard about the escapades of the kid from East Boston. Even though he was still a teenager and had played less than a hundred games in the minor leagues, Conig ended up making the big league team at the end of Spring Training and was inserted in right field in the Bronx on Opening Day, April 16, 1964. On that afternoon, a rare win against the vaunted New York Yankees, Boston won, 4-3. Just as significantly, Tony Conigliaro garnered his first major league hit, a single to left-center against future Hall of Fame hurler, Whitey Ford.
The next afternoon, Friday, April 17, Boston opened up at home against the Chicago White Sox. On that day, the Red Sox honored its most famous fan by calling it, “John F. Kennedy Day.” Five months after JFK’s gruesome death, we New Englanders could never seem to let go of “one of our own.”
I rushed home from school early that afternoon to witness the festivities firsthand on the Red Sox television station throughout the 1960s, WHDH TV, Channel 5. By that time, the field was sheathed in a brilliant golden hue, a “scrubbed up” afternoon, the kind of day that Jack Kennedy loved to sail his beloved boat, The Victura, along the azure waters of Nantucket Sound.
As every Sox player was introduced to join his teammates along the first base line, a conciliatory smattering of applause echoed off the far-reaches of Fenway. It was as if their precursory sins had been pardoned by collective decree. However, when announcer Curt Gowdy introduced Tony Conigliaro, the local phenom received a tumultuous response from the hometown faithful as he sprinted out to the first base line t join his teammates. A few minutes later, when the Red Sox starters dashed out onto the grass for the top of the first inning, Conig hustled towards right field, his newly assigned patch of turf at the old park on Jersey Street.
In his first home contest as a big-leaguer, Tony Conigliaro, the team’s new right fielder, was inserted in the seventh hole in the batting order. After Boston went quietly in the first, the Sox scored a run and had two outs in the bottom of the second when Conig approached home plate for the first time at Fenway Park as a member of the Boston Red Sox. Through the glare of spring sun and cigarette smoke, public address announcer Sherm Feller’s Delphonic voice clipped through the haze: “And now batting seventh for the Red Sox…. number 25….. Tony Conigliaro…..right field…..Conigliaro.”
As soon as his name was announced, Tony dropped an array of weighted bats he had been swinging on the on-deck circle and started to finger his own particular Excalibur, a thirty-four-inch-long Louisville Slugger. As I watched the proceedings on TV, I smiled when I heard and saw a sustained wave of appreciation envelop him – a warm cocoon for the native son as he approached the batter’s box at home for the first time.
After he had settled into the batter’s box, Conig took a practice swing and then got into his stance – his feet wide apart, his arms forming a circle as his hands cupped the bat close to his head. He then pointed his bat at the pitcher and waited for the pitch, rearming again when the hurler took too long. His stance encompassed the plate; his head hung over home plate itself. The opposing pitcher, Chicago ace Joe Horlen, delivered the white sphere toward home plate, belt high.
Conigliaro’s swing was deliberate, a savage punch through the air as the ball met the barrel of his 33-ounce bat. The ball seemed to leap off his bat as he extended his arms and followed through, his head already looking toward the thirty-seven-foot green wall in left. The eyes of New England watched from either their seats at Fenway or home on television as the projectile began to sprout into an elegant arch and ended up sailing high over the screen for a home run on the first pitch to Tony C. at Fenway Park.
John R. Tunis couldn’t have come up with a better plotline.
I literally jumped up and down in my living room as Conig sprightly circled the bases. I was hooked for life. The next day, I eagerly joined his local fan club and subsequently asked my baseball coach that spring to issue me Conigliaro’s number, 25, as my own badge of fidelity to the Boston boy wonder.
As his rookie season unfolded, Tony C. was leading all American League rookies in both hitting and home runs until he fractured his arm that August. Within four months, he was already the most popular player on his team, a star of hope amidst a squad largely consisting of black holes. After he was injured and was done for the season, Conig, who had fronted a rock band as a high schooler, subsequently recorded four songs in a studio in nearby Revere. One of them, “Playing the Field,” a Freddie Cannon-like rocker, received considerable air time on WMEX and WBZ, the two most renowned rock stations in Boston at the time.
Because of his exploits both on and off the field, Tony soon appeared on both The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and disc jockey Murray the K’s national radio show in New York. Conig turned out to be a most lucid interviewee – an absolute favorite of Boston sportscaster, Don Gillis. As we all soon discovered, Conigliaro spoke in a supple baritone shaded by a distinct New England-accented tone. His aptitude as a speaker was such that he would eventually make a remarkably breezy transition from player to broadcaster once his playing days were over.
By April 1965, the girls in my fourth-grade class began to wax poetic over Tony’s “chocolate-brown eyes.” The boys in my class – most especially me – started imitating Conig’s inimitable signature stance. One could attend any Little League game that year in most New England towns and observe a dozen trying to out emulate one another with their original interpretation of the iconic Conigliaro stance and swing.
Tony C. ended his second season in the majors with aplomb. He became the youngest player to ever lead his league in home runs when he hit 32 round-trippers that year. Conig also began to foster an emerging reputation as a superb outfielder. At the 1965 All-Star Game, Mickey Mantle was quoted as saying, “That kid out there is very close to approaching Al Kaline – he’s that good in right field.” Longtime Red Sox fans liked the fact that Conigliaro seemed to play the game hard no matter what the score was at the time. “Tony was one of the most competitive players I ever played with,” his former teammate, Jack Lamabe, told me years later. “There was just no quit in him. Tony cared. He was relentless – just like Roberto Clemente. Remember, I played with both men.”
Beginning in the summer of 1964, I embarked on a five-season stint as a bat boy for the Orleans Cardinals of the Cape Cod Baseball League. Because my grandfather resided in Eastham, just north of Orleans, I ended up spending the months of June, July, and August at the picturesque ball field adjacent to what was then the Nauset Regional High School. Consequently, I followed much of Tony Conigliaro’s early career through the reassuring voices of Ned Martin, Curt, Gowdy, and later on, Ken Coleman. Like many Cape families at the time, the Red Sox radio broadcasts became the soundtrack to our summers. Everyone seemed to pause whenever Tony Conigliaro made a plate appearance. A home run or a glorious play in right field was invariably received by a succession of hosannas throughout all four corners of my grandfather’s weathered Cape house.
Nevertheless, I did manage to see his exploits, firsthand, on approximately twenty occasions at Fenway between 1964 and 1967. During one sun-splashed afternoon, my father and I watched transfixed as Conig took batting practice before a game with the old Washington Senators. Until I witnessed Mark McGuire smack thirteen moonshots in the 1999 Homerun Hitting Contest, Tony’s prowess that afternoon remained the Gold Standard. In the end, he hit eight blasts over the screen – with two projectiles hitting the left-centerfield light tower. My father, who had seen Babe Ruth play at Fenway in 1932, whispered to me after Tony had left the batting cage, “Only Jimmy Foxx could have hit missiles to left like Tony C. just did. This kid is a future Hall-of-Famer.”
In May 1965, I was invited by my childhood friend, Trevor Gowdy, to sit in the broadcast booth as his father and Ned Martin described the action. For a fervent Red Sox fan, this was nothing less than viewing a game from Mount Olympus. I ended up sitting next to engineer Al Walker, who even gave me an extra headset to wear. Mr. Gowdy, always the most cordial of men, chatted with us between innings, as did the gracious Ned Martin. In the end, I witnessed Tony C. hit two rocket launches into the screen that afternoon. At the close of the recap, Mr. Martin turned to me and asked, “So Shaun, who is your favorite Soc player?”
“Tony C., of course,” I replied.
“Me too,” Martin winked.
In the summer of 1966, as Tony Conigliaro continued to develop into a heralded major league player, I rejoined the Orleans Cardinals in June, as the third summer of my batboy experience commenced. On the team that season were two brothers from Charlestown, New Hampshire, Calvin and Carlton Fisk. Calvin played first base while Pudge served as our catcher. Since I spent so much time with the squad that summer, the Cardinal players were generous enough to let a certain eleven-year-old southpaw have some fun as well during their practices. After tossing the ball back-and-forth to him during warmups, Pudge encouraged me to throw to him off the Cardinal’s mound. Because I had only tossed baseballs from various Little League diamonds previously, the first time I ever flung a ball from sixty-feet, six-inches was to future Hall of Famer, Carlton Fisk. Because I was lefthanded, he and his brother soon began calling me, “Koufax.” Once, at the old ballpark in Chatham, they even let me take a few swipes in the batting cage. “Hey look, fellas,” shouted Calvin Fisk, “Koufax bats like Tony C.!”
As the 1967 Sprint Training began in Winter Haven, Florida, Tony Conigliaro was a three-year veteran, a first-team All-Star with a boundless future. Still, the team he played on continued to be an unmitigated disaster. “Forever losers,” my older brother quipped as another disappointing season concluded with another ninth-place finish. When the Bosox then replaced manager Mike Higgins with Conig’s first Red Sox roommate, the blistering Dick Williams in December 1966, the Sox’ new skipper brashly proclaimed, “We will win more than we lose.” The vast majority of fans were rightly skeptical as the ‘67 season commenced.
Accordingly, only 8,234 fans greeted the Red Sox on Opening Day at the Fens. Ultimately, the Boston nine were victorious, winning 5-4 behind the starting pitching of Jim Lonborg, the timely hitting of Rico Petrocelli, and the clutch fielding of Tony Conigliaro who made a sensational stab in right field on a ball smoked by Ron Hansen with one out in the ninth.
As usual, I made it home from school in time to see the proceedings. The losing pitcher that afternoon was a journeyman right-hander for the Chicago White Sox, Jack Lamabe, who had played for the Red Sox from 1963–65. Later that year, “The Old Tomato” would be traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. In August, he would be named the National League Player for the month for his stellar work out of the Cards’ bullpen. In the ‘67 World Series, Lamabe would be the losing pitcher for St. Louis in the sixth game of the Series. Hence, Jack Lamabe would be the losing pitcher for the Red Sox’ first and last wins of that historic season.
“Even after I was traded from the Sox in ’65, I still closely followed Tony’s career,” Lamabe told me years later at Jacksonville University, where he served as the head baseball coach for the Dolphins. Nearly ten years after he had last played with Conigliaro, Lamabe’s eyes still lit up whenever I brought up his name. “What a hitter,” Coach admitted to me when we went out to dinner in 1973. “Tony had that classic stroke. As a pitcher, he always put the fear of God into you. And yet, he was also an exceptional base runner and a great fielder who had a cannon of an arm. When I was on the mound for the Sox, I always knew that Tony would get to that ball in the corner. He willed his way to it. He was the best teammate one could have, supportive, enthusiastic, selfless. He just loved the game.”
As both Tony C. and the Red Sox began to get off to an encouraging start in 1967, we Boston fans began to enter the Twilight Zone; the perpetual losers were now playing like confident winners. My father, still embittered that his beloved Boston Braves had departed for Milwaukee fifteen seasons previously, finally began to follow the Red Sox on a day-by-day basis because, as he admitted, “The Sox are finally playing a National League style of baseball these days.”
Unlike previous years when the eventual pennant winner had usually sprinted to the lead by mid-spring, the American League quickly turned into a veritable quagmire. As the season progressed, no team emerged from a pack whose leader changed virtually every day. While the defending World Champion Baltimore Orioles eventually fell out of contention thanks to an unyielding series of injuries, the dangerous Minnesota Twins emerged as the most balanced squad in the league. Many baseball experts believed that the White Sox had the best pitching staff, while the Tigers possessed the league’s most prodigious offense. One last squad lingered near the top of the AL standings that spring like unhurried fog – the one-hundred-to-one-shot Boston Red Sox.
Indeed, as the Sox kept above .500 and within a handful of games of the lead during the first ten weeks of the season, it was apparent that the franchise had finally begun to discard its longstanding country club reputation. Under the direction of Manager Dick Williams, the Sox had now become a hustling, capable bunch who began to develop the habit of coming from behind in the most unanticipated of ways.
After a particularly satisfying win in late May, I began to look closely at the 1967 schedule that adorned my bedroom wall, next to a picture of my latest Boston sports hero, a crew cut-haired teenager named Robert Gordon Orr. When I discovered that the Sox had a home game against the best team in the league, the feared Minnesota Twins on the last day of the season; I scurried down to my father’s study.
“Daddy!” I shouted, “Do you think that Mr. O’Connell can get us tickets to the game on October 1? I have a feeling it might be an important one!” My father and Dick O’Connell, Boston’s general manager at the time, were longtime friends who had served in the Naval Reserve together.
“I’ll call Dick tomorrow,” Dad replied. “He will surely like your optimism, Shaunie!”
Ten days later, I received a bulky envelope in the mail with a Red Sox logo adorning the front. When I tore it open, four tickets tumbled out onto the floor. Inside the envelope, there was an accompanying note. “Dear Shaun,” it read, “I wish all Red Sox fans had your faith. May these tickets bring you great joy.
Sincerely, Dick O’Connell.”
Two weeks later, on the evening of June 15th, nearly 17,000 fans turned out at Fenway to see them battle the first-place White Sox. At the time, Boston was in third place, five games behind the Chisox. Earlier that day, I had graduated from sixth grade and was now officially on vacation. Dad wanted to “break out the summer” by having the two of us take in some nighttime baseball at the Fens.
When we sat in our appointed seats in Section 27, we noticed that the crowd was more boisterous than previous games that we had attended in the past. In centerfield, a homemade sign had been draped on the back wall in bright red letters, which read, “The Little Engine That Could!”
For nine innings, we watched from our seats along the third base line as two improbable hurlers, Red Sox rookie pitcher Gary Waslewski and veteran Bruce Howard battled each other to a scoreless duel. Hard-throwing reliever Johnny Wyatt came out of the Boston bullpen in the tenth and shut the Chisox down. Hoyt Wilhelm and John Buzhardt did the same for Chicago. As the two squads walked off the field to conclude the tenth frame, Dad turned to me and beamed, “Now this is a National League kind of game!”
In the top of the eleventh inning, Walt “No Neck” Williams led off the inning with a scorching double into the leftfield corner. After monitoring the flight of the ball, my father quickly surmised, “The White Sox’s manager, Eddie Stanky, will have Don Buford bunt. Remember, Eddie once played for the Braves!”
As George Scott and Joe Foy crept in to cover the anticipated tapper, the Chicago batter suddenly left his squared-off position in the batter’s box and lashed at a John Wyatt fastball toward right field. First baseman Scott desperately lunged for the ball, caught it on a wicked hop, and beat a stunned Williams to the bag. My father fiercely applauded as he shouted through the din: “Gil Hodges himself could not have gotten to that ball!”
After the second out, however, light-hitting Ken Berry dribbled a single to right with Williams hustling in from third. I slumped into my seat as Tony C. lobbed the ball back to Mike Andrews at second. Dad tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, my boy – the big boys are coming up for us.”
However, when Yaz popped to first baseman Tommy McCraw and George Scott broke his bat on a soft liner to third baseman Dick Kenworthy, all hope seemed lost. “We’re staying for the final out,” Dad barked as I remained seated, watching Joe Foy tiptoe towards home plate. The Red Sox third baseman took a deep breath, fingered his bat, and promptly grounded a single between short and third.
As Tony Conigliaro slowly walked up to the plate, I instinctively rose as virtually everyone else did who remained in the ballpark. At the time, the Red Sox right fielder was mired in a profound batting slump after getting off to a prodigious start earlier that spring. It was apparent that Tony C.’s recent, two-week stint at Camp Drum as a member of the Massachusetts National Guard had left him in a hitting stupor. Aware of Conig’s recent funk, pitcher John Buzhardt promptly threw a pair of unforgiving curves; the kid from East Boston grunted each time as he missed by a foot. An unsettling stillness began to descend over Fenway like an airless shroud.
With the count 0-2, Tony settled into his familiar stance, his bat cocked, his eyes staring out assertively at the White Sox hurler. Buzhardt tossed another curveball, but the sphere seemed to deflate by the time it approached home plate. In less than a second, the streaking ball disappeared into the left field net above the scoreboard as the Red Sox team swirled around Conig who gleefully circled the bases and promptly jumped on home plate.
“Never, ever count this team out!” Dad shouted as we joined in the ecstasy that swelled around us.
A week later, when we packed for another summer on Cape Cod, Dad placed our October 1 tickets “in his special drawer” in his desk in Wellesley. “Let’s hope these tickets mean something,” he exclaimed to me when he put them into the enclosure.
A few days later on the Cape, it was soon apparent that the 1967 Orleans Cardinals had another talented team after watching their first team practice at Eldredge Park. To the surprise of no one, they battled their arch-rivals, the then-named Chatham Red Sox, for first place throughout the nine-week baseball season. With Carlton Fisk gone from Orleans, the best catcher in the Cape League that season was Thurman Munson of the then Chatham Red Sox. He played with a ferocious style that made us all sit up and take notice. I detested his perpetual sneer and rejoiced every time the Cardinals defeated the Chatham town team that year.
As was our custom each summer, we listened to every Red Sox game on the radio – and watched whatever games were televised on Channel 5. Because of the unfolding pennant American League race that year, I can still replay in my mind scores and scores of highlights from nearly every game that magical summer, which found the 100 to 1 Red Sox battling four other teams for the AL pennant in a race that began to resemble a Paragon Park-like roller coaster ride.
In late June, a massive brawl in the Bronx ensued after Jim Lonborg plunked Yankees pitcher Thad Tillotson square in the back in retaliation for Tillotson’s beaning of Joe Foy. Injuries to pitchers Dave Morehead and Bill Rohr were offset by the unanticipated emergence of hurlers Jose Santiago and Sparky Lyle. Veteran second baseman Jerry Adair, utility player Norm Siebern, and pitcher Gary Bell were added to the team in significant mid-season trades. Later on, veteran catcher Elston Howard would be picked up on waivers from the Yankees. In time, Ellie’s intrepid leadership behind the plate would prove imperative to the young squad for the remainder of the season.
The Red Sox joyride, however, seemed to end with a brutality that galvanized the entire New England region when the California Angels’ veteran reliever, Jack Hamilton, hit Tony in the face with a pitched ball on August 18 at Fenway Park, nearly killing him in the process. Eventually, I heard an eye-witness account of the tragedy after I had befriended a longtime usher who had frequented the bleachers since the ‘40s. The attendant, a portly curmudgeon we always called, “The Whale,” gave me the particulars as I watched a game with him from centerfield in July 1969.
“Just as Tony was about to hit, some asshole let off a smoke bomb, which encircled the field in no time,” the Whale informed me. “It took about five minutes for that damn smoke to settle. During that time, Hamilton never even warmed up. When the smoke finally cleared, Jack threw a high fastball to Conig. The kid never had a chance. The sickening thing about it was the fact that when the ball struck Tony’s cheek, it sounded like a loud clap. I knew he was badly injured, and it sickened me to both see it and hear it.”
Fifty years after Conigliaro’s catastrophic injury, Carl Yastrzemski recalled watching from the on-deck circle. “We were all afraid for him,” Yaz told baseball scribe, Peter Gammons. “It’s like he almost lost the ball. He never moved. It hit him flush, and we didn’t have the ear flaps then. When Tony went down, I thought it was the end of our chance for the pennant.”
Of course, I was absolutely horrified by Conig’s horrific injury but was also swept up into the pennant fever that was sweeping like a warm breeze across New England that year. The initial word from the Red Sox was that Tony C. would miss the rest of the season but would be back in fine form in 1968. Still, The Boston Herald published a photograph of Conigliaro a few days after he was struck, his left eye socket closed, his face bloated and black. My father, who opened the paper first that morning gasped from the kitchen, “Jesus.” He silently handed me the paper.
Despite the calamity, I was more upset for Tony that he couldn’t be a part of what had become the Red Sox version of a Magical Mystery Tour. In my mind, Conig would return to the club as good as new in 1968. Ten days after Tony’s injury, Dick O’Connell astutely signed Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson from the Kansas City Athletics. Even though Tony Conigliaro’s season was over, the Sox had not given up. In the end, Carl Michael Yastrzemski would not let the Boston Red Sox fail.
Throughout the last month of the season, four American League teams played musical chairs with one another; no squad had more than a three-game-lead on the others during this time. In 1967, of course, there could be only one winner and three losers in the last season before playoff baseball began in 1968. Accordingly, in the last weekend of the season, the same four teams that had battled one another all year found themselves within one-half game of one another for the American League crown.
Thus, my farfetched epiphany in May had actually been realized! On Friday, September 29, the Chicago White Sox were swept in a doubleheader by a rejuvenated Kansas City Athletics team, which featured such future superstars Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, and Joe Rudi. The next afternoon, the Sox defeated an injured Jim Kaat and the Minnesota Twins at Fenway. In Detroit, the Tigers held serve against the California Angels and remained half-a-game back with a doubleheader scheduled for the next day at Tiger Stadium.
Sunday, October 1st, 1967. My father, brother, and I arrived at Fenway Park 90 minutes before game time. As we took our seats, we all began to grin like little children on Christmas morning. Dick O’Connell had indeed been generous – we were sitting in the ninth row of the box seats directly adjacent to the Red Sox batting circle!
Instinctively, I noticed that a large group of youngsters had formed a semi-circle around the backstop. I scuttled down there, pencil and program in hand, and soon saw what the commotion was about. Wearing an NBC blazer and signing autographs for a few lucky kids was none other than the great Sandy Koufax himself. Recently retired, the former Dodgers’ ace was serving as the colorman for Curt Gowdy’s national broadcast that afternoon. Just as I arrived at the back of the circle, the future Hall of Fame hurler looked up and bellowed to us, “Sorry, boys, but I’ve gotta go. I need to conduct an interview.”
“But Sandy!” I called out in panic. “I read your book with Ed Linn!”
“Who said that?” Koufax shouted out to the group.
“I did,” I retorted.
“Well, Kid, then I’ll sign for you.”
As Koufax rolled my program through the backstop screen, I checked to make sure that he had signed it. In a steady hand, he had scrawled his name, “Sandy Koufax,” with the pencil I had given him on the back of the scorecard. The former Dodger lefty slowly walked out to a spot near the batting circle, a microphone in his hand.
It was evident that Koufax was about to tape an interview. The entire group of boys around the batting cage soon noticed his appointed subject who slowly made his way from the Red Sox dugout. We all exploded as we recognized him. “Tony! Tony!” How are you, Tony?”we all shouted.
“Hi, boys,” Conig turned to us. “We’re gonna win this one today. Right?”
“Right you are, Tony!” we replied in unison.
Tony gave us a little wave and then began a short interview with Sandy Koufax as the autumn sun began to drip in splotches over the infield.
Three hours later, as I gripped the program with Sandy Koufax’s autograph on the back cover, my father and I instinctively hugged one another as shortstop Rico Petrocelli enclosed a dying quail from Rich Rollins to end the game. Our Red Sox had won a most improbable pennant! Instantaneously, every Red Sox player rushed out onto the green diamond to smother pitcher Jim Lonborg. Only one player remained behind, Tony Conigliaro, who reportedly had tears in his eyes, watching in silence as his teammates made their way out to join the emerging pandemonium that was forming around the pitcher’s mound.
Four months later, as the 1968 Spring Training season approached, reports began to surface from Winter Haven, Florida that Tony C. was experiencing enormous difficulty picking up the ball. We soon learned that a hole had formed in his retina; the word out on the street was that Conig was partially blind in his left eye. He stayed behind in Florida as the team headed north. When I eventually read in The Globe that he was attempting to make the team as a pitcher, a pit began to form in my stomach.
When I told him the news, my father sighed, “Oh, Tony, poor Tony.”
Later that spring, as I began my first season playing in the Babe Ruth League in Wellesley, my father attended an important Saturday afternoon contest at Hunnewell Field. I ended up pitching a complete game, a seven-inning shutout. Nevertheless, Dad still looked concerned as he put his arm around me at the end of the contest. “Why did you seem to flinch every time you batted? You were always so aggressive at the plate.”
I gulped and looked at Dad for a long time. “I guess because of Tony. I’m kind of scared of the ball right now, Dad,” I admitted. In retrospect, there must have been several thousand boys like me from New England who recoiled in the batter’s box that spring, the memory of Tony Conigliaro’s shattered face etched permanently in our minds.
By the middle of the summer of ‘68, Conig’s future in baseball seemed uncertain at best. We heard that he was undergoing a series of treatments to improve his eyesight after his pitching experiment had failed. Conigliaro, and, by extension, his many fans, were learning that life might just be a long preparation for something that never quite happens that way you thought it would. “Perhaps Tony is the outfielder’s version of Indians’ pitcher Herb Score,” my father stated to me one August afternoon that summer. “The promise of brilliance gone in an instant. I learned in war that life is inherently unfair,” sighed Dad, a survivor of three major invasions including Okinawa.
I took Dad’s words in and stirred them around for a while – and ended up saying nothing in return.
Spring Training 1969. Tony Conigliaro announced that he was attempting another comeback, this time as an outfielder. The word out of Winter Haven was that Tony’s eyesight had “slowly returned.” By late March, Manager Dick Williams announced that Conig would be returning to right field. Making the Red Sox that spring as well was Conigliaro’s younger brother, Billy. I waited impatiently for the Opening Day of the season to commence – a day affair in Baltimore.
To her everlasting credit, Mom let me come home early from
school. A lifelong baseball fan herself, she knew how much this particular game
meant to me. My heart was in my throat as Tony was introduced as the starting
right fielder during the pre-game warm-ups. As he approached home plate for the
first time in nearly a year-and-a-half in the big leagues, Conig received a
tumultuous ovation from thousands of Oriole fans. In the tenth inning of that
first game, Conigliaro came up to the plate for the fifth time in the contest.
On a 1-1 pitch, he launched a towering homer to left off of Baltimore reliever, Dave Leonard. The Red Sock slugger sailed around the bases and was mugged in the dugout by his teammates. Manager Dick Williams even gave him a peck on the cheek. Ned Martin said later that he almost felt like crying as he watched Tony sprint around the base paths.
The Great Conigliaro was back.
Still, it was evident that Tony was struggling at times to pick up the ball. Little did we know that Tony’s vision hadn’t healed completely – there was still a blind spot in his left eye – a perilous situation for someone who tried to make a living as a baseball slugger. During the first few games that were played at the Fens that year, the Red Sox administration began to comprehend that their young right fielder could barely pick up the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand – especially with so many Red Sox fans wearing light tee-shirts in the background. In retrospect, Tony’s left eye hadn’t really healed. He was just tilting his head more directly toward the pitcher’s mound in order to pick the ball.
Back then, the centerfield seats behind the television camera were open to the public – $1.25 a ticket. In May, the Red Sox announced that from then on, patrons would be expected to wear black or Navy blue attire in that part of the bleachers. For agreeing to such a proposal, each participant would receive an engraved card, stating that he or she was a member in good standing of “Conig’s Corner.”
I soon became a regular member, sitting out in center field at least 40 times in both 1969 and 1970. Manning that unique section both years was the legendary usher, “The Whale,” who made sure that Tony C. had the proper backdrop as he approached home plate to bat.
Scores of New Englanders, resourceful if not inventive, began to tote two shirts with them to the game if they planned on sitting in “Conig’s Corner.” When the Red Sox came out to bat, a large flock of customers would adorn their dark-blue shirts or sweaters, depending on the weather. However, when the opposing team came to bat, many of us whipped out white tee-shirts and put them on over our dark ones, hoping that it would somehow help the traditionally run-of-the-mill Sox pitching staff.
Tony was always gracious to us in “Conig’s Corner,” waving to us regularly as he took his familiar spot in right field. A young woman, who proudly wore a Red Sox jersey adorned with the number 25, habitually began to serenade Tony C. as he made his way to the outfield. She used the melody from the famed fan club song from Bye Bye Birdie and inserted Conigliaro’s name instead: “We lo-ov-ve you, Tony….oh yes, we doo-ooo-ooo….”
Once after Conig jacked a gargantuan home run to left, he sprinted out to his regular spot in right field, turned around to face us, and made an elegant bow with a twist of his arm.
We loved him for that.
For two years, Tony Conigliaro continued to defy science, hitting a career-high 36 home runs in 1970. Our little world was therefore jarred beyond measure when the Red Sox announced on October 11, 1970 that they had traded Tony C. to the California Angels for – among others – Jarvis and Ken Tatum.
“We just cornered the market on Tatums,” my despondent father muttered as he threw down The Globe the day after the trade was announced. I could barely talk as I walked to school that morning. My hero was now an Angel. “Conig’s Corner” was soon quietly disbanded.
The following summer, Tony Conigliaro and the California Angels came to town to play the Red Sox. With a mixture of loyalty, reverence, and sadness, I lined up to purchase one bleacher ticket two hours before game time. As I made my way toward the old “Conig’s Corner,” I noticed “The Whale” checking people’s clothing. He was making damn sure that Tony still had the right background to hit from – even though he was now wearing an enemy uniform.
While patrons in the old “Conig’s Corner” had been wearing white while the Angels were batting, they quickly changed to black or Navy blue as Tony approached home plate for the first time as an opposing player. Ultimately, he received a frenzied, two-minute standing ovation from the Fenway faithful.
A few minutes later, when Conig sprinted out to his familiar spot in right field for the first time that afternoon, we rose as one and began calling out to him. He turned around and blew us a kiss. Eventually, the crowd quieted down, and the game commenced.
Slowly, sadly, a familiar refrain could be heard coming from his old corner: “We lo-ov-ove you, Tony, oh yes we doo-ooo-ooo.”
Even “The Whale” brushed away a few tears.
Conig turned around and waved to us all. “We will ALWAYS love you, Tony!” a leather-lung called out. A lump in his throat, Conigliaro nodded and waved to us once again.
At the end of that season, he retired from baseball, saying that his eyesight had deteriorated. The word on the street, however, was that he was lonely out in California. He needed us as much as we needed him.
Two years after Tony C. retired from the Angels, I enrolled at Jacksonville University and secured a spot as a pitcher on the varsity baseball team. When I met former Red Sox pitcher Jack Lamabe for the first time, I impulsively barked, “Coach, you pitched a hell of a game for the Sox on Opening Day back in ’64!”
He looked stunned. “Shaun, I haven’t heard anyone tell me that in a long, long time.”
Throughout the next four years, I would spend hundreds of hours with the former Red Sox hurler. Because of his palpable baseball connections, Coach Jack Lamabe would eventually bring in several baseball luminaries to talk to us including Robin Roberts, Ted Simmons, and most memorably, Theodore Samuel “Ted” Williams.
When the Splendid Splinter showed up during a practice session one year, he informed me that I was erroneously throwing my slider. After repairing the flaw, Teddy Ballgame looked me in the eyes and roared, “Now, Son, when you go back to Boston, I want you to tell your friends that Ted Fucking Williams taught you how to throw a fucking slider!”
I couldn’t wait to get to the telephone to tell my dad the story.
In the winter of 1975, I sprinted into Coach Jack Lamabe’s office one morning after I heard on the radio the astonishing news that Tony Conigliaro was attempting another comeback with the Red Sox after a nearly four-year absence from professional baseball. Lamabe’s eyes blinked a few times as Conig’s former teammate took in the fact that number 25 was going to give it another shot.
“Oh, I hope Tony can make it,” Coach Lamabe sighed. “He deserves all the success in the world.”
I cheered Tony from afar that spring as it was announced that he had beaten out the talented rookie, Jim Rice, as the team’s designated hitter. My heart nearly burst when I heard the accounts of the spirited reception Tony C. received at Fenway on Opening Day 1975 from my emotional father on the phone. I barged into Coach Lamabe’s office to tell him the news. “Conig’s Corner is back in business!” I bellowed. “The Old Tomato’s” tobacco-lined smile spoke worlds.
A few days later, Tony and the Red Sox played a day game in Baltimore. In his second at-bat that afternoon, Conig launched his first home run in the big leagues in four years.
In mid-May, I returned home to Wellesley from Jacksonville determined to see Tony C. hit once again at the Fens. The old centerfield section where Conig’s Corner had once held forth was now permanently closed by the Red Sox in hopes that a dark green background would provide a safe backdrop for both teams. Still, I wore a black jersey the first game back in the bleachers upon my return to the old ballpark. I then glanced up-and-down the centerfield stands and realized that a gaggle of “Conig’s Corner” veterans were all there, still rooting with fervor for the kid from Eastie.
As the game began, I adjusted my transistor radio to my ear, listening to the affirming voices of Ned Martin and his new radio partner, Jim “The Possum” Woods. As my ear was pressed against my tiny transistor in the bleachers, it was seemed surreal when Tony Conigliaro sauntered up to home plate at Fenway that warm May night. Within seconds, Conig immediately crouched in his distinctive stance, waiting for the pitch, his bat held upright.
The luminous left-handed flame-thrower, Vida Blue, was pitching for the Athletics that night when Tony connected on a monstrous home run that went over the screen and landed onto Lansdowne Street. I can report here that the last home run of Conigliaro’s career – the 166th of his career – paralleled his first. The crowd in the bleachers reacted as if Bobby Orr had just scored another Stanley Cup-winning goal. After several moments, my “Conig’s Corner” friends high-fived each other as number 25 took his seat on the bench.
A few days later, Tony Conigliaro was sent down to Pawtucket, never to return to the Big Leagues. The youngest player to reach one-hundred career home runs in baseball history had just cashed in his chips.
He was just 30 years old.
Even though he was no longer playing organized ball, I still cheered for Tony Conigliaro as he began his new career as a sportscaster – first in Providence – and then out in San Francisco. By 1982, I was teaching at TASIS England, an American School situated eighteen miles west of London and was visiting my folks in Wellesley for Christmas, when I read in The Globe that Hawk Harrelson, the Red Sox TV commentator at the time, had just signed on with the White Sox as their lead telecaster. Incredibly, Tony C. was flying back to Boston for an audition with Channel 38. “Ned Martin and Tony Conigliaro together again,” the article said. Mercy.
However, the day before I was to leave for the UK, we learned that Tony had suffered a catastrophic heart attack on the way to Logan Airport. Ironically, his tryout as the second Red Sox announcer had so impressed the WSBK officials that he had unofficially been offered the job on the spot. His brother, Billy, had heroically saved Tony’s life by reconnoitering his car in the tunnel the wrong way to get Conig to Mass General as quickly as possible.
It was a long flight for me back to England that evening.
Ultimately, it would take seven years for Anthony Richard Conigliaro’s heart to stop beating. His parents, and his younger brothers, Billy and Ritchie, were continually at Tony’s side during his extended convalescence. The massive stroke that he had suffered as a result of his heart attack had left him a shell of a man.
Fifteen years after Conig’s death, I conversed with famed sports journalist Mike Lupica, who visited Tony up in the North Shore and wrote a memorable piece on Conigliaro in Esquire. “What I most remember about the visit was Tony’s violent coughing,” Lupica told me. “It shook me to the core. You just wanted it to stop. It broke your heart to see him in that condition. After he died, I remembered thinking, ‘At least he doesn’t have to cough anymore.'”
On February 24th, 1990, Tony Conigliaro died from the ravages of a stroke and a subsequent heart attack. He was 45-years old. By that time, I had moved on to Greenwich, Connecticut, where I began teaching at a local independent school. After I heard that Tony had drawn his last breath, I put on my old “Conig’s Corner” shirt, drove to the local high school baseball field that was then shrouded in a nighttime snow squall, and cried my eyes out on the pitcher’s mound.
A decade later, when it was revealed that Tony Conigliaro had fathered a child out of wedlock and that his daughter was now an elegant young woman, I stared in wonder at the copy of The Boston Herald that had published her picture. She had her father’s eyes. Tony’s legacy had been passed on.
In May 2001, I had the privilege of chatting with both Jim Kaat and Bobby Murcer in their cramped MSG broadcasting booth at Yankee Stadium. As we all began to reminisce, I took out a 1966 Topps Baseball Card of Conigliaro that I had kept in my wallet for more than 30 years. “Ah, Tony,” said Kaat as he fingered the card delicately. “He would have hit 500 home runs. He always put the fear of God in me when he came up to the plate. I tried to pitch him low and away. When I made a mistake to him – watch out.”
Bobby Murcer glanced down at my card as well and held it reverently in his right hand. “What a talent,” he sighed. ” As a player, I always looked up to Tony. And what courage.”
Later that evening, when the Yankee’s venerable public address announcer, Bob Sheppard, asked me who my favorite Red Sox player was in 40 years of following the team, I proudly informed him.
“A fine, fine choice,” Mr. Sheppard replied.
In March 2003, I was interviewed by Black Canyon Productions for an HBO original movie that eventually became the Emmy-award winning documentary, The Curse of the Bambino. Throughout the two-hour exchange, I touched on a number of subjects pertinent to the film, from Luis Aparicio’s stumble around third in 1972 to Rich Gedman’s passed ball in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. As the interview concluded, I admitted to producer John Stone, “There is a lot of pathos involved with the franchise, for sure, John. But can I share with you my thoughts about one special player?Can I tell you about Tony Conigliaro?”
When I finally attended the premiere of the HBO film in Boston that fall, the only time that a well of emotion swept over me occurred early on in the documentary when director George Roy showed a young Tony Conigliaro, effervescent and impenetrable, signing an autograph for a young fan. I brushed away a few tears in the darkened movie theater.
That August, I took my youngest son, Max, to Fenway Park for the first time in his young life. After we settled into our seats, I pointed out to the green expanse and whispered, “Son, a giant once played out there in right field.”
When I peeked up at the retired numbers near the Jimmy Fund sign, I was not at all upset when I failed to see the number 25 hanging up next to all the other honored numbers. I had retired Tony C’s number in my mind years before.
Hours later, when my youngest son and I walked back to take the Riverside subway line back home, Max, a nine-year-old at the time, asked, “Dad, was Tony C. your all-time favorite Red Sox player?”
“Yes, Max,” I replied. “No other player quite captured my heart as much as Conig did.” As we climbed aboard the trolley, I thought a lot about fathers, sons, and baseball heroes as we headed to the Woodland T Stop.
The ensuing week, I read John R. Tunis’s baseball novel, The Kid from Tomkinsville to Max in the same bedroom in my grandfather’s Cape house where I had first read it when Tony Conigliaro was a rookie. When I completed the narrative, Max asked if we could go outside for a catch. I realized right there that my life had come full circle.
Little did Max and I know at the time that the Red Sox would, throughout the next fifteen seasons, not only secure the franchise’s first World Series Championship in 86 years but then garner three more world titles in the process. While Tony Conigliaro’s name would occasionally be bandied about by Bosox fans in the bleachers or on sports talk shows during this time, an entirely new generation of fans began singing the praises of the likes of Pedro, Schill, Big Papi, Manny, Petey, Jon, Koji San, Mookie, J. D., Bennie, Jackie, and a wellspring of others.
However, when the greatest living Red Sock, Carl Yastrzemski, was asked in 2017 who was the best player who played with him during his storied 23-year-career, Yaz said without hesitation, “Tony Conigliaro.” When “Number 8” was then queried whether Conig would have been enshrined in Cooperstown, Yastrzemski replied, “Without a doubt. He was an extremely talented hitter, and in ’67, Tony became a great defensive player. There’s no doubt that if he didn’t get hit in the eye, he could have been in the Hall of Fame.”
If you live long enough, wisdom does come to you through the grace of experience, sorrow, and divinity. When I listened to Tony Conigliaro’s first spring training contest as a major leaguer in March 1964, I was a youngster who had not even lived a decade. As I write this now, I am on the cusp of an infiltrating age that will eventually reduce to me to dust. When I think back to that moment when I was nine, I recognize that the optimism I felt then on the shores of my youth – where time hadn’t yet chipped away my faith – resulted in me uncovering a living, breathing embodiment of life’s transcendence in the personage of nineteen-year-old Tony Conigliaro. It was as if the most inconsequential trickle of water ended up filling a mighty reservoir. Despite all that has happened since 1964, my reverence for Tony Conigliaro has never wavered.
Of course, for four decades after that 1964 spring training game, I wanted nothing more in life than to experience at least one Red Sock championship season before I died. Now, in my 56th year of following the team, I celebrated my team’s fourth such title this past October, when the Boston Red Sox enjoyed their most hallowed season in the 117-year history of the franchise. Each time the Sox have won it all, I have felt like a nine-year-old boy once more.
Still, I do know that my middle school students now view me as being older than God. As the years slip by like shuffling cards, the past to me is now nothing more than a series of postcards that encapsulate millions of snapshots of life. In the final analysis, the people who supported, nurtured, and loved me are the ones who have made all those frames so meaningful. As always, love matters – and nothing else really counts.
And so, if I could vibrantly relive something in my life right before the moment of my own death, I would venture back to the magical summer of 1967 – right before the smoke bomb and the pitch that divided Tony Conigliaro’s life into a “before and after.” I would be twelve once more, sitting next to my father in Section 15, Row 5, Seat 10 at Fenway Park. I would be smiling broadly watching Dad, alive again, keeping score as he always did at every ballgame.
“Who’s coming up to bat, Dad?” I ask.
“Your favorite, Shaunie. Tony C.!”
I immediately glance up at the scoreboard in left; it’s the bottom of the first inning, and a young Tony Conigliaro is beginning to swing a few weighted bats in the on-deck circle near where Daddy and I are sitting.
Seconds later, as Conig approaches home plate – healthy, brisk, and eager – public address announcer, Sherm Feller, bleats out, “Now batting fourth, number 25, Tony Conigliaro, right field, Conigliaro.” The Fenway crowd begins to clap around us rhythmically, and my father and I reflexively join in the refrain as well.
Tony then settles into his familiar stance, his bat cocked, his coffee eyes staring assertively out at the pitcher. Within seconds, a fastball is tossed at the catcher’s padded glove. As soon as the pitch is delivered, Conig’s vigorous eyes become wide ovals as the ball whistles towards the strike zone. He swings with the panache of a bullfighter; his tan bat strikes the red numbers on his back as he completes his savage stroke.
In less than a second, Dad and I quickly rise from our blue seats as the white ball make its way over the left field wall towards Lansdowne Street.
In the last moment of my life, all would be finally right with the world.
For the late Nick Carfardo of The Boston Globe – who loved my original piece on Tony and encouraged me to update it. Gracefulness and passion guided him always. I have a strong hunch that Nick would have loved my Dad.
BUDDY HOLLY PERFORMING AT THE SURF BALLROOM – CLEAR LAKE, IOWA (Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup in the background).
On the evening of Monday, February 2, 1959, one of the most venerated concerts in rock ‘n roll history concluded at exactly 11:07 CST at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa as twenty-two-year-old Buddy Holly belted out an impassioned rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Brown-eyed Handsome Man” to an ecstatic audience of 1,200 teens who had paid $1.25 a ticket for the privilege of attending the three-hour-long extravaganza.
After hearing the Lubbock, Texas native’s cover in person while on tour with him in during the spring of 1958, Jackie Wilson, “Mr. Excitement,” had declared that Buddy’s version of Chuck Berry’s 1956 recording was better than Berry’s iconic original. Holly had subsequently recorded the number in New Mexico, but it was waiting for the proper mixing and overdubs to be added once he returned from the winter tour.
“Buddy played with such a distinct intensity, particularly when he ended the show with ‘Brown-eyed Handsome Man,” recalled Holly’s then-fledgling bass player of his band that night, fellow Texan Waylon Jennings. “You could hear his distinct Tex-Mex influence on his Fender Stratocaster, which bridged each verse of the tune. He was on fire – and the Clear Lake audience reacted accordingly. Buddy had a big grin on his face when he finished.”
Joining him on the stage for an encore of the number were his Winter Dance Party Tour mates – seventeen-year-old sensation Ritchie Valens, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Dion and the Belmonts, and newcomer Frankie Sardo. “Thank you, Clear Lake!” Holly bellowed as he and his rock ‘n roll entourage left the stage to a final standing ovation.
Within minutes, Buddy was backstage meeting with Surf Ballroom Manager Carroll Anderson, who was in charge of securing a plane flight for the rock star and two other passengers from nearby Mason City Municipal Airport to Fargo, North Dakota – 360 miles to the northwest. According to the nineteen-day itinerary mapped out by the General Artists Corporation, Holly and his traveling Winter Dance Party Tour would next be playing in Moorhead, Minnesota – across the Red River from Fargo – the ensuing evening. Anderson had already called Jerry Dwyer, who owned a local flying service. “We need a plane after the concert tonight if you can provide one,” Anderson requested. Jerry Dwyer replied that he had secured both a transport and a pilot, a local flyer, Roger Peterson, who was willing to fly in subzero temperatures and snow flurries after the concert.
Eleven days previously, the Winter Dance Party Tour had opened up in Milwaukee on Friday evening, Jan. 23, 1959. It had then zig-zagged from Wisconsin to Minnesota to Wisconsin to Minnesota to Iowa to Minnesota to Wisconsin and back to Iowa once again. It was evident that the group’s booking agent, the General Artists Corporation, paid little heed to either common sense or geography when the tour was organized in December 1958. As rock historian Bill Griggs recalled: “GAC didn’t care. It was like they threw darts at a map. The tour from hell – that’s what they named it at the time – and that’s what it turned out to be.”
From day one of the odyssey, the entire musical troupe had ventured together in a series of rentals. The reconditioned school buses used throughout the tour had proved to be utterly inadequate; four of them had already broken down as an extended cold spell hung over the region like a shroud. As was the norm in the early days of rock ‘n roll, the artists themselves had been responsible for loading and unloading equipment, often in lingering frigid temperatures. Additionally, the rickety buses they used were not equipped for the waist-deep snow and icy weather that awaited them at virtually every stop. “It was so bone-chilling on each of the vehicles we used that we had to wear all our clothes, coats and everything. … I couldn’t believe how cold it was,” Waylon Jennings admitted in a Rolling Stone interview on the tragedy years later.
When the ensemble reached Clear Lake from Green Bay, Wisconsin, Richardson and Valens were already coming down with flu-like symptoms and Holly’s drummer for the tour, Carl Bunch, had to be hospitalized for frostbitten feet. On the last full day of his life, Holly had apprised Dion DiMucci that he had just decided to hire a plane to fly to the next point of entry so that he could sleep in a warm bed rather than ride on another all-night bus ride with insufficient heating. “My husband told me in a phone call from his Clear Lake dressing room that he also couldn’t wait to wear clean clothes for the following evening’s show in Minnesota. Buddy was determined to visit a laundromat in Fargo after he slept in a warm bed,” recalled his widow, Maria Elena.
By the time Holly ambled into Carroll Anderson’s car to drive the five miles to the Clear Lake Municipal Airport, he was, despite his youth, one of the most revered rock ‘n roll stars in the world. In a public career that lasted less than a thousand days, Buddy Holly had already chiseled out a breathtaking artistic legacy. After all, he had been the first rock and roll star to compose, perform, and produce his own music. He had also introduced the concept of a three-guitar band, something unheard of previously in a genre that was still in its infancy. His use of double-tracking created an enriched sound in the studio, which revolutionized the way contemporary musicians recorded from then on. Buddy’s original folk ballad, “Well, All Right,” was the first rock and roll song to have an acoustic guitar play the lead on a major single.
In addition, his controversial recording session with the NBC Symphony Orchestra and über musical-director Dick Jacobs produced four string-laced ballads, including two top-ten hits in “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” and “True Love Ways.” That session also proved to be another first as Holly became the first rock and roller to ever record his music in stereo. Finally, Holly’s transformative infusion of country and western, Mexican, and rock influences between 1956-59 had created what would become known as the Tex-Mex Sound.
Just as notably, Buddy Holly proved to be a cultural trailblazer who had already cast a considerable light beyond the musical realm. In the summer of ‘57, he and his backup band, the Crickets, became the first all-white rock group to play at Harlem’s fabled Apollo Theatre. The great Sam Cooke, “The Father of Soul,” who had toured extensively with Holly that summer, was so impressed by his friend’s autonomy that Cooke ended up copying Holly’s business profile and became his own writer, producer, arranger, and record company executive with SAR Records until his untimely death in 1964.
A year later, when Buddy cut an original tune called “Reminiscing” and recorded it with revered rock-and-soul saxophonist, King Curtis, Holly broke another barrier. As Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh pointed out, it turned out to be the first time that a Southern white rocker had recorded and subsequently released a song featuring an African-American artist in a culture that was still largely segregated.
Because of the expanding popularity of his music, Buddy Holly ultimately made seven national TV appearances during his shortened career, including three live performances on the popular Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. His 1958 live appearances in both England and Australia broke new ground for the nascent musical form. Consequently, when he perished in the snows of Iowa 60 years ago at the age of 22 and had already achieved brilliance, Buddy Holly was just getting started.
In retrospect, it was the Lubbock, Texas native ’s sustained musical influence that kept his memory alive, most notably with the most significant band in rock history, the Beatles. The Fab Four partially patterned their group after his backup group, the Crickets (“We were a three-guitar band, just like the Crickets. We even named ourselves after the Crickets. After all, we’re both insects who could sing,” John Lennon coyly remarked in his first American interview in New York in 1964). They also embraced the notion of forming their own sound as Holly had done. The Fab Four recorded their first song, Buddy’s “That’ll Be the Day,” in a small Liverpudlian studio on July 12, 1958. In the fall of 1964, at the peak of Beatlemania, the band ultimately enjoyed a top-five single with Holly’s 1957 hit record, “Words of Love.”
The week before his own tragic death, John Lennon toldwriter Jonathan Cott, “Buddy Holly was the first one that we were really aware of in England who could play and sing at the same time – not just strum, but actually play some great licks. We couldn’t get enough of him.” In The Beatles Anthology documentary series, Paul McCartney remarked: “All these years later, I still love Buddy’s vocal style – and his writing. One of the main things about the Beatles is that we started out writing our own material. People these days take it for granted that you do, but nobody used to then. John and I started to compose because of Buddy Holly. It was like, ‘Wow! He writes and is a musician’! At least the first 40 songs from the Lennon-McCartney catalog were Buddy Holly-influenced.” In 1982, when Buddy Holly’s musical catalog finally became available, Paul McCartney immediately bought the rights. For the past 37 years, he has stewarded the Holly goldmine with a mixture of both vigilance and veneration. “If Buddy couldn’t protect his music, I have made sure that Ido,” Sir Paul said recently.
Waylon Jennings, who played bass for Holly during his last tour, recalled, “Buddy was the first person to have faith in my music. He encouraged me in my music and my writing. If anything I’ve ever done is remembered, part of it is because of him.” Dion DiMucci, who played with Holly throughout the ill-fated Winter Party Tour, called Holly…“ the best musician I ever had the pleasure of performing with – and I ended up playing with nearly all of the greats.”
In a New York Times interview, Mick Jagger recollected, “We all learned from Buddy Holly how to compose great songs. He was a beautiful writer.” Eric Clapton agreed: “Of all the music heroes of that era, Buddy was the most accessible.” Keith Richards called him…“ a revelation. You hear more of Buddy Holly in British rock songs than any other American artist.” Given his longstanding influence on the rockers who framed the British Invasion, it was not at all surprising that one of its leading bands, the Hollies, ultimately themselves after him.
On January 31, 1959, just four days before he died, Minnesotan Robert Zimmerman, soon-to-be-known as Bob Dylan, saw him play at the Duluth National Guard Armory during his senior year in high school. In his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech in 2016, Dylan reminisced:
“If I was to go back to the dawning of it all, I guess I’d have to start with Buddy Holly. Buddy died when I was about eighteen and he was twenty-two. From the moment I first heard him, I felt akin. I felt related – like he was my older brother. I even thought I resembled him.”
“Buddy played the music that I loved – the music I grew up on – country western, rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm and blues. Three separate strands of music that he intertwined and infused into one genre. One brand. And Buddy wrote songs – songs that had beautiful melodies and imaginative verses. And he sang great – sang in more than a few voices. He was the archetype. Everything I wasn’t and wanted to be. I saw him only but once, and that was a few days before he was gone. I had to travel a hundred miles to get to see him play, and I wasn’t disappointed.”
“He was powerful and electrifying and had a commanding presence. I was only six feet away. He was mesmerizing. I watched his face, his hands, the way he tapped his foot, his big black glasses, the eyes behind the glasses, the way he held his guitar, the way he stood, his neat suit. Everything about him. He looked older than twenty-two. Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction. Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something to me. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.”
The last half-hour of Buddy Holly’s life, of course, is now the stuff of legend. When he arrived at the Mason City Airport at 12:35 AM on February 3, 1959, Holly quickly met up with Carroll Anderson and paid him $36 for the one-way ticket to Fargo, North Dakota, where the Winter Dance Party Tour would entertain the next night. Anderson then introduced Buddy to Roger Peterson, 24, who was just two years older than Holly at the time. “We should arrive in Fargo sometime around 2:00 AM,” Clear Lake pilot said confidently to his star passenger. Peterson then gave Holly a quick tour of the 1947 V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza, which would take them to North Dakota.
Earlier that evening, when Buddy had been informed that there would be extra seats on the single-engine plane, he eventually offered one of the seats to the Big Bopper, who was sick and needed rest. Holly then asked his old Texas friend, guitarist Tommy Allsup, to accompany him. Ritchie Valens, who was also feeling poorly, asked the Texan guitarist for his seat on the plane. The two agreed to toss a coin to decide who would go. Bob Hale, a disc jockey with Mason City’s KRIB-AM, was working the concert that night and flipped a quarter in the ballroom’s side-stage room shortly before the musicians departed for the airport.
Valens won the coin toss for the last seat on the flight.
When the trio of musicians and their pilot finally boarded the aircraft, the weather in Northern Iowa was overcast and freezing with occasional snow showers; temperatures were in the teens, and winds were gusting between 20 and 30 MPH from the southeast.
Jerry Dwyer witnessed the take-off at 12:55 AM from a platform outside the airport’s control tower. He was able to see the plane’s tail light for most of the flight, which started with an initial left turn onto a northwesterly heading and a climb to approximately 800 feet. Dwyer explained later to the FAA that he then observed the tail light gradually descending until it disappeared out of view.
The passengers were in the air for approximately four minutes before they crashed in a remote cornfield belonging to local farmer Albert Juhl. All four died instantly upon contact. The next morning, their frozen corpses were discovered after the plane failed to arrive safely in Minnesota. By noontime, it was the leading news story on virtually every radio and TV station across the nation. Eleven years later, singer-songwriter Don Maclean would immortalize the tragedy in his anthem, American Pie,” calling Holly’s death, “the day the music died.”
Because I roomed with my oldest brother each summer at our grandfather’s cottage on Cape Cod, I began digging Buddy Holly’s music a year before he died. Through our shared record player, we habitually played such Holly 45 classics as “Early in the Morning,” “Peggy Sue,” “Rave On,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Everyday,” and “Maybe Baby.” We also listened to his entire catalog of hits on WMEX Radio, Boston, which fervently played Holly’s music years after his passing. When the Rolling Stones, the Who, Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, the Clash, Chris Isaak, and Amy Winehouse all recorded Holly cover songs over the next five decades, Buddy’s music was periodically reenergized. In 1977, I befriended rock historian Bill Griggs and subsequently joined his Buddy Holly Memorial Society. Over the next 40 years, there would be two significant biographies, an acclaimed BBC/PBS documentary film, a longstanding Broadway show, and an Academy-nominated bio-picture all covering the short life and luminous career of the rock ‘n roll pioneer.
When the plane carrying him lifted off from the frigid runway at Mason City Airport on February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly was blissfully unaware of the danger that lay ahead, oblivious to everything but his reoccurring musical dreams. A minute later, as the Beechcraft 35 Bonanza flew over Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom, Holly must have thought that he was approaching an incandescent musical career that would stretch on for years, even as a seedbed of adrenaline still surged through his body from the triumphant concert that had concluded an hour before in the picturesque Iowan town below.
Three minutes later, Holly was gone, cold-dead, forever in the past tense. Omnia enim et voluptas vana gloria.
Some 21,900 days later, though, his music lives on. In the end, “Not Fade Away” isn’t just the title of one of Buddy Holly’s more venerated hits.
It is his legacy.
14 BUDDY HOLLY-CONNECTED SONGS FOR YOU TO CHEW ON
“Not Fade Away,” 1957. Recorded in May, 1957, with his band, the Crickets, at producer Norman Petty’s legendary recording studio situated in Clovis, New Mexico, 100 miles northwest of Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, this, along with its A-side, “Oh, Boy,” were the logical follow-ups to the group’s first number-one single, “That’ll Be the Day.” As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame pointed out when Holly was inducted in 1986, “Not Fade Away” was one of the first pop songs at the time to feature the “Bo Diddley” sound, a series of beats (da, da, da, da-da-da) popularized by Diddley, who used it on his first single in 1955. The signature beat originated in West Africa and was adopted by Diddley as his signature rhythm backup. Holly incorporated it with aplomb here and added some Tex-Mex chord progressions to create a new kind of sound. To add to the luster, Crickets drummer Jerry Allison played a cardboard box for percussion on this. (He’d heard Buddy Knox’ drummer do the same on his top-ten single, “Party Doll,” which had earlier been recorded at Petty’s Clovis studio). In 1964, the Rolling Stones had their first top ten hit with it. For years, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band covered “Not Fade Away” as a natural encore selection. In so many ways, the original Holly number is an inspired hybrid of African-American, country-western, and Tex-Mex music.
“Everyday,” 1957. The flip side to “Peggy Sue,” “Everyday” features the celesta, a keyboard with a glockenspiel-like tone that Norman Petty kept in his New Mexico studio. On this recording, Vi Petty, the wife of the Crickets’ producer, did the honors. The unique percussion sound is actually drummer Jerry Allison keeping time by slapping his knees in unison for two minutes. For legal reasons, Holly changed his songwriting credit to Charles Hardin, his real first and middle names. This is Exhibit A in the Holly Catalog of Unexpected Musical Pleasures. Not surprisingly, the first four songs Holly recorded were flat-out rockers, but then Buddy threw this childlike ballad into the mix. Buddy said at the time, “I loved recording something that was just a little different.” At least two aspiring teenage rockers from Liverpool, England took notice.
“Maybe Baby,” 1957. Recorded in September 1957 at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma while the Crickets were on tour, Buddy composed the song on a General Artists Corporation tour bus, played it for Sam Cooke, who strongly urged him to record it as soon as possible. The reverberating downbeat of Buddy’s Fender Stratocaster is a revelation here as is the undercurrent of Joe B. Mauldin’s stand-up bass and Jerry Allison’s snare drum. As with nearly every Holly composition, the licks aren’t too hard to play, but they sound damn good anyway. Ultimately “Maybe Baby” is a quintessential Holly recording wrapped around an infectious melody and a tom-tom percussion change similar to what Dave Clark did years later with the DC Five. Like so many of his ballads, this is not only the template for rock ‘n roll songs in the sixties, but it’s a quintessential garage-band-tune as well.
“Reminiscing,” 1958. The big news here, of course, is that the late, great King Curtis plays the tenor sax in an inspired take that was so influential that it spurred a young Clarence Clemons of E Street Band fame to pick up the instrument. Curtis, who played on hundreds of songs – everything from the Coasters “Yakety Yak” to the Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” to John Lennon’s “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier” – befriended Holly while on tour with him in 1957. A year later, Buddy, who composed “Reminiscing” with Curtis in mind, invited him to record it with him at Norman Perry’s famed Clovis, New Mexico recording studio. The master of the 3-chord song, nevertheless, Holly let Curtis improvise here is a session that is profoundly historical – “Reminiscing” is the first time that a prominent white rock and roller recorded a number featuring a prominent African-American artist. While this was never a hit in the United States, it was in England; the Beatles ended up bringing it to Hamburg, where they played it regularly in both 1960 and ‘61.
“Rave On,” 1958. Sonny West, a childhood friend of Buddy’s and fellow professional musician, composed this single and gave it to Holly’s producer, Norman Petty, who scheduled the Southwest rockabilly group, Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs to record it. (Gilmer and the Fireballs later had a hit with “Sugar Shack” with Norman Petty years later). Buddy Holly knew how good the tune was and exclaimed, “No way, Norman, I’ve got to have this song!” His intuition paid off. In August 1958, “Rave On” was the number one single in both the US and Canada. In 2015, when Tom Petty played Buddy’s version on his Sirius radio show, he exclaimed, “Holly’s version of ‘Rave On’ is the epitome of rock and roll.” Everyone from the Rolling Stones to Prince has played it in concerts ever since. Bruce Springsteen has often remarked that “Rave On” is one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time, and that he still psyches up for live performances by singing it backstage.
“Early in the Morning,” 1958. Buddy Holly not only wrote impeccable singles but he also left a treasure-trove of excellent covers as well. While “Early in the Morning” was a Bobby Darin composition, Buddy’s 1958 version outsold Darin’s and became a much-played single in the last summer of Holly’s life. The gospel-tinged call response throughout the number reminds us how “church music,” as Holly called it, resounded through Buddy’s music. In rock history, of course, this tune has a DNA that is hard to beat. While the Rolling Stones have always credited Muddy Waters’ “Rolling Stone” as the impetus to their name, Mick Jagger once said, “When Buddy Holly sang, ‘You know a rolling stone/don’t gather no moss,’ in ‘Early in the Morning,’ that kind of secured it for us.” Bob Dylan said the same thing after he composed, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Considering that Rolling Stone magazine ultimately based its name on the same Plymouth Rock, there are very few singles in rock history that have such a pronounced musical heritage.
“Well, All Right,” 1958. Recorded 61 years ago this spring, this acoustical foray into folk rock by one of the Founding Fathers of rock and rock is another example why Holly’s genius as both a composer and recording artist prevails all these years later. A single so influential that Bob Dylan said that he tried to model his first four albums on its “haunting simplicity,” the original Crickets back him up here, minus rhythm guitarist Nicky Sullivan. The flipside to “Heartbeat,” this single, like much of Holly’s work was more popular in the UK, where a young John Lennon tried to hash out the chords with the help of his mate, Paul McCartney. By 1959, the Quarrymen included “Well, All Right” in concerts at Pete Best mother’s venue, Liverpool’s Casbah Club. John sang the vocals while George Harrison ended up playing the acoustical lead. In 1979, when I interviewed the late Steve Goodman backstage at Passim’s, a prominent club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the singer-songwriter-guitarist extraordinaire told me that he often played “Well, All Right” to remind him that “less is more and that simplicity beats complexity most of the time.”
Brown Eyed Handsome Man, 1958. This classic Chuck Berry cover was the last number Buddy Holly ever performed at his legendary Clear Lake, Iowa concert at the Surf Ballroom on February 2, 1959. Less than two hours later, he would be dead in a plane crash. Regardless of that tragic reality, Buddy’s recording here is a pièce de résistance. Finally released in 1963, Holly’s version of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” would go to number 3 on the British Top of the Pops survey that summer. You forget that Buddy Holly was both an exceptional and innovative guitarist – and then you’re instantly reminded when you here when you listen to his version of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” Chuck Berry famously claimed that Buddy Holly’s version of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” remained his favorite cover of any of his songs. Tom Petty swore by Holly’s version and often played it on his much-beloved Sirius show, “Buried Treasures.”
“True Love Ways,” 1958. What a gem this first-generation recording is, and it was discovered by Maria Elena Holly, Buddy’s widow nearly forty years after Buddy’s death. As you will hear, in the first ten seconds of the master, Holly can be heard preparing to sing. The audio starts with an unnamed female executive from Coral Records exclaiming, “Yeah, we’re rolling.” Pianist Ernie Hayes and tenor saxophone player Abraham Richman play some notes, and Buddy mutters, “Okay,” and clears his throat. Producer Dick Jacobs then yells, “Quiet, boys!” to everyone else in the room, and at the end of the talkback, the producer says, “Pitch, Ernie,” to signal the piano player to give Holly his starting note, a B-flat. Buddy then flawlessly sings one of the most beautiful love songs recorded in the last 60 years. Recorded in stereo at the famed Pythian Temple in New York City at 135 West 70th Street on October 21, 1958, it was posthumously released as a single 14 months later. While the original sales in the US were somewhat disappointing, Holly’s stringed song hit number one on the UK charts, where he remained an icon. “True Love Ways” remains the ultimate teaser; the kind of ballad that Holly wrote in the last few months of his life that seemed to herald a different musical direction for the artist who loved to dabble. I can’t even imagine how many hits were unwritten because Buddy Holly died much too early.
“Love is Strange,” 1959. Originally recorded on Holly’s brand-new Ampex tape recorder in his Greenwich Village apartment 60 years ago on January 19, 1959, Buddy’s longtime producer, Norman Petty, later added the orchestration supporting his acoustic guitar after he died. Of course, “Love is Strange” was a crossover hit by American rhythm and blues duet Mickey & Sylvia, which was initially released in late November 1956 on the Groove record label. The tune was based on a guitar riff by the legendary Bo Diddley, which Holly duplicated here. Sadly, it was the last song that Buddy ever recorded, which is why Norman Petty reverently included the eerie organ background, performed by his musician wife, Vi. Holly’s mother, Ella, later said that it sounded as if her son was singing to her from heaven. If you haven’t ever heard this incredible version, you will notice that Buddy plays the song at 2/4 time, a radical departure from the original rockabilly tune that Diddley had originally written it in a few years previously. When Paul McCartney hosted a Sirius show on Holly’s memory a few years ago, he played “Love is Strange,” and remarked, “It’s almost as if Buddy knew something was going to happen.”
“Words of Love,” The Beatles, Live on the BBC, 1963. Even at the height of Beatlemania, the Fab Four play Holly reverently on this live studio recording, mirroring his chords and harmonizing Holly’s double-track recording almost to a T. The song was covered a year later by the band on their LP, Beatles for Sale. John Lennon and Paul McCartney harmonized on their version, while Ringo Starr played a packing case on this song as well as drums, to achieve a similar sound to Holly’s “Everyday.” Of course, the band had initially been named themselves the Beetles after the Crickets, but John Lennon’s artistic sense of wordplay altered it to – the Beatles. Here’s a live version of the Holly tune on the Beeb. As you will hear, they perform it with reverence.
“Rock Around With Ollie Vee,” From the Movie, The Buddy Holly Story, 1978. Yes, it’s Gary Busey playing Buddy Holly, but after all, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance – and deservedly so! What I always loved about this version was that Busey and his band successfully captured the energy and excitement of a star and his mates who dared to crossover from safe country & western to the much more daring and provocative realm of “bebop” as white people in Lubbock called rhythm and blues/rock back then. Talk about leaving your comfort zone! People forget that whites imitating blacks in the South back then was unheard of on so many levels. Like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly found the various African-American sounds both evocative and enduring.
“Peggy Sue Got Married, Buddy Holly, 1959, and The Hollies, 1993. Graham Nash reunited with his old bandmates 24 years after he left the group in order to make this recording possible, a featured number of a project paying homage to Buddy Holly’s music. While Holly wrote and recorded the novelty song in his apartment in Greenwich Village a week prior to leaving on the Winter Party Dance Tour, the Hollies ended up dubbing their backup vocals and the supporting instrumentation, imagining, in Nash’s words, “what Buddy might have come up with in the final production had he lived.” By the way, the real Peggy Sue Gerron Rackham died on October 2, 2018, in Lubbock at the age of 78. Not long before she died, Peggy Sue, who dated and married Holly’s drummer, Jerry Allison in 1958, commented, “How wonderful that ‘Peggy Sue’ is still in the heart of every young man and in the spirit of every girl’s daydreams. Buddy Holly, my dear friend, the kid with black-rimmed glasses began this fairy tale romance with me when he recorded the song with my name. That fairy tale remains eternally young.”
“A Tribute to Buddy Holly,” Mike Berry and the Outlaws, 1961. When 22-year-old Buddy Holly perished in the crash of a private plane outside of Clear Lake, Iowa on February 3, 1959, more than 40 tribute songs to him were recorded over the years, including Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Two years after Holly died, Mike Berry, a renowned skiffle player from Northampton, England, wrote and recorded this poignant tribute, which remains the best song to Holly’s memory. According to Berry, the bridge refrain he sings… “was channeled right from Buddy. It almost sounds corny, but it came to me in a dream.” (Kudos to drummer Carl Betz for mirroring Jerry Allison by duplicating the “Peggy Sue” tat-at-tat-tat percussion). I agree with the late George Harrison who once told Beatles’ author Hunter Davies that… “‘A Tribute to Buddy Holly’ captures the essence of his music, his death, and his legacy better than anything I’ve ever heard.” Of course, Buddy Holly lives on in his music as this single poignantly implies.
On January 30, 1969, the Beatles took the concept of “Up on the Roof” to an entirely new level.
“Mannish Boy,” Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter Live, 1979. There are a myriad of versions of Muddy playing his iconic ballad on his own, or supported by such alpha-stars as Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, B. B. King, The Band, Keith Richards, Son House, and Jeff Beck, but there is nothing comparable to this live recording with the great Johnny Winter and his band recorded 40 years ago this month. It encapsulates the blues, Americana, and life itself in six glorious minutes. On a personal note, I played this opening number and the entire live album incessantly during a ten-week summer teaching experience in Lugano, Switzerland in 1983. Amidst the glory of the foothills to the Alps, it reminded this expatriate at the time of the best of the country I was born and raised in. Don’t let any political party or individual tell you that this country is homogeneous. We are a mosaic, and each part has the potential to bringing out the best in others if we just tuned in.
“When I Die,” Motherlode, 1969. Motherlode was a Canadian pop-rock group formed in 1969 in London, Ontario. The group scored tangible success in the US with their single, “When I Die.” While it is somewhat of a Lost 45 in the States these days, it is still a revered standard in Canada, thank goodness. You could easily place it on a songlist of infectious, harmonic love songs that framed the 1960s musical world. One of my old friends once thought that it was a song that came from the musical, Hair. Not a bad bit of speculation. “When I Die” would have fit in neatly near the end of the second act.
“Wondering Where the Lions Are,” Bruce Cockburn, 1979. 40 years ago this month, when I first heard this single from Bruce Cockburn played on WBCN/Boston by Mark Parenteau, I nearly drove off of Route 9. I still can’t figure out why, but it touched me to my core. Like James Taylor’s “Copperline,” there was something here as outlined by the Ottawa native that touched the hemline of both childhood and eternity. Its innocence cannot be underestimated. Ultimately, we are all children hiding in adult bodies.
“Both Sides Now,” Joni Mitchell, 1969. When musicologists look back on 1969, it will be this surreal ballad that might find its way on top of the musical pyramid in the end. While her lyrics here have been called the soundtrack of an entire generation, let’s go behind the usual and go to the more unexpected pleasures – Joni’s unusual phrasing. Anyway you look at it, “Both Sides Now” is a devilishly hard song to cover because her vocal so often seems as if it’s ‘out of time’ with the guitar; with words coming late on the beat, or hanging on too long, But then she lands on the sweet spot, and it all makes beautiful sense, exactly how Joni intends you to understand the subtlety of the lyric. It’s not just about the words, sublime as they are, it’s about how she SINGS the words here. In an entirely different genre, Sinatra had the same rare gift. If and when Joni Mitchell wins a Nobel Prize for Literature, “Both Sides Now” will be one of her siren songs that will be played in celebration that day in Oslo.
“Venus,” Frankie Avalon, 1959. I don’t care if you call this ballad a schleppy, bobbysoxing, Eisenhower-era bag of smaltz, I will defend it to the day I die. The number one tune in the US 60 years ago this week, “Venus” is still considered a prototypical early rock song. “I still remember it so vividly,” Frankie Avalon told The Toronto Star in 2013. “I’ll never forget it. The minute I heard ‘Venus,’ I fell in love with it, and we decided to go to New York right away to record it. I sat in the back seat of the car with Bob, rehearsing the arrangement he had done on the guitar. We walked into Bell Sound in New York. We had a 7 PM recording date. It was all one track then, the band was there with you, and they played, and you sang, and that was it, buddy. No mixing and fixing like today. Back then, they pressed the acetate recording right away. I waited for it to be done until 4:00 AM. I took it back to Philly with me like it was gold. I had a little victrola, and I played it over and over again. I just knew it was going to be a smash.”It was.
“Everyday People,” Sly and the Family Stone, 1969. Goodness, what a song, and while Sly has been somewhat marginalized lately, he will always be an authentic American Master to me. This late ‘60’s anthem takes some inspiration from, of all things, Mother Goose, adding a twist to the traditional nursery rhyme “Rub-a-dub-dub.” The familiar three men in a tub – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker – become the butcher, the banker, the drummer, and, in the spirit of the song’s message of solidarity among all people, Stone adds: “makes no difference what group I’m in.” In a modern world where exceptionalism is rampant, I always loved that Sly viewed himself as just one of us- a regular person with real-life struggles. Given his multi-ethnic band, Sly didn’t just talk it, he lived it and really did try to bring all of us together through the most universal of venues – music.
“Kathy’s Song,” Eva Cassidy, 1993. On St. Patrick’s Day, why not post a rare recording of one of the great Irish-American voices in the past 100 years, the incomparable Eva Cassidy. It is easy to tell that she just loved to sing. I love that Cassidy performed as if she had nothing to prove, no statement to make, and never an attempt to show you “what I can do.” On this version of “Kathy’s Song,” Eva’s impeccable prowess on the acoustic guitar serves as a backdrop for her soaring vocals of this melancholic Paul Simon tune, an ode to his old girlfriend, Kathy Chitty, whom he had left behind in England.
“The Sultans of Swing,” Dire Straits, 1979. There are a few occasions when I hear a song for the first time and say, “Oh, my God!” “The Sultans of Swing” was one such ballad. At the time, I thought that Lou Reed and Bob Dylan had somehow morphed into one human being in the form of Mark Knopfler. In reality, I was not too far off there – at least for a spell. Interestingly, Knopfler got the idea for the single from watching a wretched club band perform one dreary evening in Ipswich, England. According to legend, he ducked into a bar where the local bar band was closing out the night to an audience that was maybe four or five drunks unaware of their surroundings. The hapless group ended their set with the lead singer announcing, with no apparent irony, “Goodnight and thank you. We are the sultans of swing!” Said Knopfler: “When the guys said that there was something really funny about it to me because Sultans – they absolutely weren’t. You know they were rather tired little blokes in pullovers.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
“Time of the Season,” The Zombies, 1969. This is quintessential Zombies – haunting vocals; impeccable musicianship; melodic hooks; and surprising lyrical twists. Built around the bassline heard in the intro, this song has some very effective and unusual structural components that helped it endure. The bass riff is punctuated with a hand clap and the breathy “ahhhh” vocal. These elements add sonic texture during the verses, and also show up in the two interludes. And while most hit tunes beat you into submission with a prevailing chorus, this one doesn’t. The full chorus – “It’s the time of the season for loving…” takes just eight seconds and is repeated three times. The number 3 song in the US fifty years ago this week, I wish I could somehow venture back in a time machine and personally convince the Zombies not to break up after this single was released. After all, they were just getting started.
“Come Softly to Me,” The Fleetwoods, 1959. Fleetwood members Gary Troxel and Gretchen Christopher were waiting for a lift home from high school in Olympia, Washington by her mother one day in the spring of 1958. Impulsively, Troxel started humming, “Dom dom, dom domby doo wha…” and Gretchen noticed that it was the same chord progression that she used in a song that she had just finished writing, “Come Softly.” She asked him to slow his tempo, then sang her song atop Troxel’s humming. Its nursery-rhyme-like veneer was downright hypnotic, and the melodies oh, so soothing. It took the fledgling group six months to ultimately record it, but it was well worth it. By the winter of 1959, it was the number one song in the US and Canada. “Come Softly to Me” still works its magical charm on most listeners all these years later.
“Lotta Love,” Nicolette Larson, 1979. Cancer is a bitch, and Nicolette Larson should still be here manufacturing great singles such as this gem, which was released 40 years ago this March. That she has been dead for over 21 years now is simply unacceptable. This live version of the Neil Young classic from Comes a Time is superb in every way. Yes, Young and Larson were a couple briefly while this song was both composed and then recorded. Her stellar work on Neil’s Comes a Time garnered her a recording contract with Warner Brothers, and while she never had another significant solo hit after “Lotta Love,” she was still a revered artist in the genre because of her prodigious pipes.
“Try a Little Tenderness,” Three Dog Night, Live, 1969. Most bands realized that they wouldn’t dare do a cover of the great Otis Redding’s 1965 signature song. Four years later, however, Cory Wells, the lead singer of Three Dog Night, finally mustered the gumption to take one of soul music’s most iconic ballads straight-on. The band also had the gall to sound like the Funk Brothers on speed and support Wells’ singing as if their lives depended upon it. This electric cover not only became a staple for Three Dog Night in their concerts over the next decade, but they then released it as a single 50 years ago, where it entered the Billboard Top 40. As the great Sam Moore – of Sam and Dave fame – commented at the time, “Otis would not only have approved their interpretation, he would have dug it.”
“Blue in Green,” Miles Davis, 1959. From his masterpiece, Kind of Blue, “Blue in Green” was recorded on March 2nd, 1959, in New York City at The Church, the legendary CBS Recording Studio on 30th Street. Wild Bill Evans, who starts the tune on the piano and ends it, and with Miles and John Coltrane and the bass up under it, played this circular movement inside of arrangement. Miles’ tone throughout is both classical and rhapsodic through the mute he has on his horn. Miles said later that the aching loneliness throughout the song tries to capture the back road of his childhood in the rural South, a dusty, dusky place in Arkansas when Miles and his cousins walked in the darkness of a woody area. All of those memories that he had inside of him surfaced like a spring bulb in “Blue in Green.”
“Hello, It’s Me,” Nazz, 1969. This heartfelt single, released in mid-December 1968, had become a popular single by February of ’69, where it had grooved itself into the consciousness of the American youth psyche. Todd Rundgren’s vocals and guitar work were impeccable; his supporting cast also rose to the occasion. Of course, Todd also composed the song, which takes us through a phone call where the singer breaks up with a girl. It’s a remarkably realistic account, devoid of sweeping metaphors typically found in “breakup songs.” In this instance, we hear the one side of the phone call, which starts with the familiar greeting, indicating they’ve been together a while. Then they have “the talk,” where he hashes out why they can’t be together and lets her know that she should have her freedom. As what has happened to us all in real life, all he can ask in the end is that she thinks of him every now and then. Like many at the time, I thought that “Hello, It’s Me” was a single by the Association. When Rundgren was apprised of this by fans, later on, he took it as the ultimate compliment.
“Scar Tissue,” The Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1999. Released 20 years ago this February, “Scar Tissue” was the first single released by the then newly formed Red Hot Chili Peppers. From its impeccable guitar work to its infectious rhythm section to the hypnotic lyrics, this number proved to be an exemplary introduction by a most important band of the present millennium. The video of the single shows the band driving through a desert and was directed by French director Stephane Sednaoui. As you will see, the band’s members are all battered and bruised and the neck of John Frusciante’s guitar is broken, a metaphor for the song itself.
“What a Fool Believes,” The Doobie Brothers, 1979. Kenny Loggins co-wrote this with the Doobies’ lead singer Michael McDonald in the winter of 1978. Loggins eventually put his version on his album, Nightwatch, which was released in July 1978, five months before they included it on their Minute by Minute disk. Loggins’ version was never released as a single; the Doobies’ version went to number one. By the way, Michael Jackson added some background vocals on this song. Ultimately, this was the 500th number one song of the rock era, which began in 1955 when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” soared to the top of the charts 24 years previously. From the first day I heard these lyrics – “He came from somewhere back in her long ago; the sentimental fool don’t see tryin’ hard to recreate; what had yet to be created once in her life; she musters a smile for his nostalgic tale; never comin’ near what he wanted to say; only to realize it never really was” – I nearly plotzed.
“Reflections of My Life,” The Marmalade, 1969. A top-five song 50 years ago this month, this Beatlesque number with John Lennon-like lyrics (“the changing of sunlight to moonlight; reflections of my life…”); a McCartney-like melody from his Revolver period; and a Harrison guitar riff, which sounded right out of Abbey Road. Even the drums sound like Ringo! All in all, “Reflections of My Life” proved to be the highpoint for the group from Glasgow who never had another substantial hit thereafter. Given how good this single was, maybe that was enough. One thing’s for sure – you hardly ever hear a song like this nowadays – and that’s a bloody shame. (RIP to lead singer, Dean Ford, who died on January 2, 2019, in Los Angeles at the age of 72).
“Hold the Line,” Toto, 1979. Raise your hand if you thought that this song was written and recorded by ELO? I thought so for weeks when it was released until I heard that Toto recorded it. Given their prowess in songs such as “Africa,” and “Rosanna,” this great single was also top ten hit for the band from Southern California 40 years ago this February. From this lens, Toto was made up of six enormously talented musicians who had backed up such legends as Boz Scaggs, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, and Jackson Browne in the 1970s, but it was their vocal work that came to define them as a band in the subsequent decade.
“Dazed and Confused,” Led Zeppelin, 1969. American balladeer Jake Holmes may not have gotten credit for inspiring Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” until 2012 when it all spilled out, but without his original trippy folk song, this Zeppelin mega-hit would not have existed. Holmes wrote a very different version of this song for his 1967 solo record, The Above Ground Sound. Jimmy Page heard it while Holmes opened for The Yardbirds and then later took his psychedelic interpretation to Led Zeppelin, which featured his iconic guitar bowing and wild instrumental breakdowns. In doing so, Page and his band refitted it and made it brand new. These days, of course, “Dazed and Confused” is a deserved rock staple.
“Take Me To The River,” Talking Heads, 1979. Apart from this being a brilliant piece of music, “Take Me to the River” is one of the most wonderfully inventive interpretations of an original song, up there with Devo’s version of The Stone’s “Satisfaction” and Nazareth’s cover of “This Flight Tonight” by Joni Mitchell. Like many Talking Head songs, it is the rhythm section that makes this song a much-deserved classic. In every way, this version is both timely and timeless.
Occasionally, there is a documentary that is released that is so powerful and compelling, that it needs to be shouted out to the musical market square in the “must-see” category. This is the case here. The great Sam Cooke was already in the highest reaches of rock and soul stardom when he was tragically shot 55 years ago this December. In 1964 – and to this day -Cooke’s senseless murder at the height of his career was both haunting and inexplicable. This film captures the pathos magnificently. Sam was getting too powerful; he was friends with Dr. King, Ali, and Malcolm X; he had started his own record company, which had been formed to exclusively record young black artists; he was starting to write and record “songs that mattered,” most especially, “A Change is Going to Come.” When he died, Elvis, who idolized Cooke as a gospel singer and who subsequently mourned his death, said that the powers that be thought that Sam was getting too big and powerful, and, as a black man, he had to be somehow stopped. Of course, Sam Cooke is still deservedly known as “The Father of Soul Music,” and was also the best male gospel singer of all time. As you will see if you take the time to view this astonishing film, his influence was moving way behind hit records all the way to the mantle of black power. For more than 50 years, I have loved Sam Cooke’s music. How rare that the brilliance of his artistry matched the magnificence of his soul. in the end, this incredibly evocative documentary attempts to connect all of the dots and brings up surprising new evidence. If you have Netflix, then you can search for “The Two Killings of Sam Cooke.”
“Nothing But a Heartache,” The Flirtations, 1969. Even though “Nothing But a Heartache” made it to only number 34 in the Billboard Top 40 fifty years ago this February, its popularity as an oldie has made it one of the more popular singles from the 1960’s era. Formerly known as the Gypsies, a girl-group from South Carolina, they reformed in London and became known as the Flirtations after that. Impeccably produced by British musical mogul, Wayne Bickerton, this earth-shattering single later became a staple at dance clubs in both Europe and the US. Hearing it these days, most assume the Supremes performed it. Sorry, folks, it’s the Flirtations!
“She Say (Oom Dooby Doom),” The Diamonds, 1959. Ultimately, I have never outgrown doo-wop music; it is as enchanting to me now as it was when I first heard this exquisite single as a four-year-old back in the winter of ‘59. This number turned out to be Barry Mann’s first top ten single for the Brill Building musical phenom. According to the singer-songwriter himself, an even younger Carole King – then known as Carol Klein – helped Mann compose the bridge. Thankfully, “She Say (Oom Dooby Doom),” was then given to one of the greatest doo-wop groups in history, the Diamonds, who made it into a Top 20 hit sixty years ago this winter.
“A Tribute to Buddy Holly,” Mike Berry and the Outlaws, 1961. When 22-year-old Buddy Holly perished in the crash of a private plane outside of Clear Lake, Iowa on February 3, 1959, more than 40 tribute songs to him were recorded over the years, including Don Mclean’s “American Pie.” Two years after Holly died, Mike Berry, a fledgling skiffle player from Northampton, England, wrote and recorded this poignant tribute, which remains the best song to Holly’s memory. According to Berry, the bridge refrain he croons… “was channeled right from Buddy. It almost sounds corny, but it came to me in a dream.” (Kudos to drummer Carl Betz for mirroring Jerry Allison by duplicating the “Peggy Sue” tat-at-tat-tat percussion). I agree with the late George Harrison: “A Tribute to Buddy Holly” captures the essence of his music, his death, and his legacy. Of course, Buddy Holly lives on in his music as this singe emphatically implies.
“Wichita Lineman,” Glen Campbell, 1969. An absolutely seamless production from composer Jimmy Webb, vocalist and guitarist Glen Campbell, and LA’s legendary Wrecking Crew, who provided the brilliant orchestration – especially the string section – which were arranged by the incomparable Quincy Jones. Because of the neo-mystic quality of the number, it was not a surprise that it ended up being the best-selling single released during the winter of 1969. Given the somewhat quirky subject, the backstory of “Wichita Lineman” is just as absorbing. According to Jimmy Webb, he was driving along the Kansas-Oklahoma border during the summer of 1968 when he saw a lonesome telephone lineman working atop a telephone pole. This incident gave him the idea for the ballad. That evening, he composed it in a hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma and then called his buddy, Glen Campbell, “Glen,” exclaimed Webb, “I’ve got your next number one song!” Finally, “Wichita Lineman” contains one of my favorite lines in the entire rock and roll canon – “And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time…” As a lyricist, you dream or writing a line so prescient.
“Moonlight Serenade,” Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, 1939. This dreamy ballad was Glenn Miller’s breakout hit, but it was actually years in the making. Miller wrote the melody in 1935 when he was a trombone player in Ray Noble’s band. When he finally assembled his band, Glenn and his orchestra famously recorded it. “Moonlight Serenade” made it to number 1 on the US Billboard charts 80 years ago this January, and it stayed there until mid-spring. (This, of course, comes on the heels on the news that Glenn Miller’s long-lost plane might well have been discovered off the English coast.) In late November 2005, as my mother lay dying, I played “some of the old songs” for her in her hospital room. When this familiar tune came on, she said, almost by association, “Before the war…the Outer Beach in Chatham….visits to the Totem Pole at Norumbega Park in Auburndale with your Dad…when life seemed both simple and good.” Yup, you’re right, Mum.
“Yeah, Man,” Sam Cooke, 1964. In the last year of his life, the King of Soul fearlessly experimented with soulful R&B and rock, a heady mix that wouldn’t clearly emerge until a decade later with the Tower of Power. Here is one of the last records he recorded, “Yeah, Man,” which Arthur Conley later used in 1967 as the template for “Sweet Soul Music.” All of Cooke’s “regulars” backed him here, including his soundman, Sonny Bono, and producer Lou Adler, along with the incomparable Wrecking Crew. Sam Cooke was not only a brilliant singer and songwriter but an authentic visionary as well. On what would be his 89th birthday, Sam is still The Man.
“You Should Have Been There,” Marshall Crenshaw, 1989. One of my favorite Marshall Crenshaw singles ever, sadly, “You Should Have Been There” turned out to be a little blip on the musical screen when it was released 30 years ago this winter. I always believed that if Crenshaw had released his singles in the 1960s, he would have been a gigantic star, but timing in life is everything, isn’t it? With his Beatlesque sensibility and his passion for coy lyrics and deft musicianship, ala Buddy Holly, no wonder he is a revered musician among pop veterans. I do think that Crenshaw, who played Holly in the movie, La Bamba, and who played John Lennon on Broadway in Beatlemania, produced the kind of music that Holly might well have generated if he had not died so young.
“Love is Strange,” Buddy Holly, 1959. Originally recorded on Holly’s brand-new Ampex tape recorder in his Greenwich Village apartment 60 years ago on January 19, 1959, Buddy’s longtime producer, Norman Petty, later added the orchestration supporting his acoustic guitar after he died in a tragic plane crash on February 3, 1959. Of course, “Love is Strange” was a crossover hit by American rhythm and blues duet Mickey & Sylvia, which was released in late November 1956 by the Groove record label. The tune was based on a guitar riff by the legendary Bo Diddley, which Holly duplicated here. Sadly, it was the last song that Buddy ever recorded, which is why Norman Petty reverently included the eerie organ background, performed by his musician wife, Vi. Holly’s mother, Ella, later said that it sounded as if her son was singing to her from heaven. If you haven’t ever heard this incredible record, you will notice that Buddy plays the song at 2/4 time, a radical departure from the original rockabilly tune that Diddley had originally written it in a few years previously. When Paul McCartney hosted a Sirius show on Holly’s memory a few years ago, he played “Love is Strange,” and remarked, “It’s almost as if Buddy knew something was going to happen.”
“Someday,” Sugar Ray, 1999. When I first heard “Someday,” it sounded like a 1960s AM single; melodic; wistful lyrics, crisp phrasing; and sound musicianship. I later learned that the band, Sugar Ray, who hailed from Newport Beach, California, intentionally copied the ethos the 1960s Californian Pop Sound, so it all made sense then. Released 20 years ago this year, “Someday” is one of those songs” that instantaneously brings a smile to my face. Perhaps it’s because that my two sons asked me to turn up the radio when it came on one morning when we were driving off to another hockey game that they would then play at the outdoor Greenwich, Connecticut Skating Rink! In retrospect. I would give anything to go back to those fleeting times. Ultimately, of course, music is the enduring window to the past.
“Touch Me,” The Doors, 1969. From their underrated album, The Soft Parade, this unique single was composed by Robby Krieger, and its riff, according to Krieger, was influenced by, of all things, The Four Seasons’ “C’mon Marianne!” The tune became notable for its extensive usage of brass and string instruments to accent Jim Morrison’s vocals, including three measures of the lead singer’s crooning like Sinatra, and a powerful solo by saxophonist Curtis Amy, who put a bow on the entire proceedings. Ultimately, “Touch Me” reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 in the Cashbox Top 100 in January 1969 (the band’s third American number-one release). Here in this incredible live TV performance in 1969, Jim Morrison starts with the proceedings with a visionary poem, and then plays it straight, much to the relief of the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, who backed up the Doors on this Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour appearance. For real.
“Lonely Teardrops,” Jackie Wilson, 1959. After listening to this mesmerizing original recording, Elvis Presley supposedly said to Wilson: “I have no idea why they call me, ‘The King.’ You are.” (Years later, this anecdote became the basis of Van Morrison’s iconic rocker, “Jackie Wilson Said.”). Sixty years ago today, this early soul classic was the number 1 song in America. “Lonely Teardrops,” which was written and produced by a young Berry Gordy, was used as the proceeds to launch Motown Records as a corporate entity in 1960. In September 1975, when Jackie Wilson was performing at the Latin Casino in New Jersey, he collapsed from a combined heart attack and stroke smack dab in the middle of a rendition of “Lonely Teardrops.” Wilson never recovered and remained in a coma for eight more years until his death on January 21, 1984. What tragic irony that the last words Jackie sang before collapsing were, “My heart is crying, crying!” The audience at first thought that his fall on stage was part of the act and they started to wildly cheer him. Soon, however, It became evident that something was terribly wrong. Upon his death, Stevie Wonder said famously, “Before there was Marvin Gaye, there was Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.”
30 years after Jackie came out with “Lonely Teardrops,” actor/musician Howard Huntsberry paid homage to the essence of Jackie Wilson in his brilliant portrayal of him in the Ritchie Valens’ biopic, La Bamba. This is simply mesmerizing!
“Another Brick in the Wall, Part II,” Pink Floyd, 1979. A few years ago, the song’s lyricist, Roger Waters, admitted in an interview in The London Times, “You couldn’t find anybody on the planet more pro-education than me. It is the air I breathe. But the education I experienced in an English boys’ grammar school in the 1950s was exceedingly controlling – and, in my mind, that demanded rebellion. The song is meant to be a rebellion against an errant government, against people who have power over you, who are wrong. Ten it absolutely demands that you rebel against it.” As an educator for nearly four decades, I have never thought that “The Wall” was never about education or bad teachers. It was always about authority and mind control in a world dominated by an explosion of jingoistic language, thoughtlessness, and collective sociopathy. If “The Wall” were to be updated in 2019, its laser beam might well be on Fox News.
“Time Has Told Me,” Nick Drake, 1969. The archetypal musical cult figure, Nick Drake produced just three solo albums in his tragically compressed life, and yet he is revered in his native UK and behind for producing music that is continually stripped bare, honest, soul-to-soul. As we all have discovered over time, life is a heavy emotional burden for many of us. Those who feel deeply, see deeply, need deeply. Nick was one of the burdened. This single, which was released 50 years ago on January 4, 1969, reminds us that life is fleeting.”Time has told me/You’re a rare, rare find/A troubled cure/For a troubled mind/And time has told me/Not to ask for more/For someday our ocean/Will find its shore…” While he died much too young in 1974, Nick Drake’s music has been rediscovered and is played regularly, especially in Europe, where he is now an iconic musical figure.
“Giving You the Best That I Got,” Anita Baker, 1989. The Queen of Smooth Soul retired a few years ago, but the great Anita Baker ended up leaving an impeccable legacy. Three decades ago, the joy that wrapped around each of her ballads was like an unexpected warm sunny day in the midst of a wintery cold front. Ultimately, “Giving You the Best That I’ve Got” turned out to be Anita’s biggest-selling hit, scoring #1 on both the Adult Contemporary and R&B charts, and number 2 on the American Top 40. Composed by the legendary Motown songwriting team of Holland, Dizier, and Holland, Baker took it and added some detail at the beginning and had the tempo sped up, producing a peppier version. A quintessential crossover song, this tune ended up becoming a staple of jazz, pop, and light rock stations thereafter.
I recognized immediately that Mr. Gerry Murphy’s legendary Humanities class at Wellesley (MA) High School would be different from any other course that I had ever taken as a student when we began breaking down Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in September 1972.
In his elongated classroom on the top floor of the old Wellesley (MA) High School building, Mr. Murphy began the class by handing us all copies of a relatively narrow volume with an intriguing title. We all nodded affirmatively. Several seniors from the previous year had already enlightened us that this text would change our lives. As one former student told me at the time, “Books can be dangerous. The best ones, like Man’s Search for Meaning, should be labeled ‘This could change your life.”
After the well-worn copies had been distributed, Mr. Murphy then explained to us that Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Jew, studied neurology and psychiatry with a focus on depression and suicide years before being arrested and deported by the Nazis in 1942. Dr. Frankl defied odds by lasting three years in a handful of concentration camps including Auschwitz. He ultimately lost his parents, his only sibling, and his beloved wife, who was pregnant at the time.
As doctors were in short supply in the camps, Viktor Frankl, after working as a slave laborer for some time, was able to work as a physician in Auschwitz and Buchenwald until his liberation in 1945. For the next year, the author wrote nonstop until he felt that he had crafted the psychological narrative he wanted to publish. In the fall of 1946. Frankl published Man’s Search for Meaning. It remains an enduring bestseller and has never been out-of-print.
As his work before the war had focused on depression and the prevention of suicide, Viktor Frankl turned his focus to his own survival story and the people with whom he interacted in the camps before he was liberated. Why did some survive and others perish? What gave people the will to live? And, then the kicker of all questions – what gives life meaning? This all formed the basis of his lifelong work in a new psychological form of analysis, which he calledlogotherapy.
Over the next five weeks in our Humanities class, Mr. Murphy provided a heady mix of antidotes, humor, insight, and grace in order to bring Frankl’s prose alive to the class. Through the framework of both perspective and dialogue, we concluded that Viktor Frankl believed that life was not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud held, or a pursuit of power, as Alfred Adler taught, but an enduring quest for the significance of one’s life.
One particular morning, our teacher outlined what Dr. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person) and in courage (during arduous times). Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it. As Mr. Murphy saw it, forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you. And then he touched upon on even more significant truth: love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Ultimately, the salvation of humankind is through love and in love.
“Does anyone have anything to add?” Gerry Murphy asked us.
I hurriedly raised my hand and sang out, “All You Need Is Love!”
“Exactly, Mr. Lennon!” Mr. Murphy responded, without blinking an eyelash.
Now, more than forty-five years later, and after a lifetime spent on the other side of the desk as a longtime teacher, I believe that the message of Man’s Search for Meaning is one of those narratives that are relevant no matter when you read it, how old you are, or what your circumstances are in life. Ultimately, it is a volume that smacks you right between the eyes. It is also the most influential book I have ever read in my life.
As a result of its message, I became a lifelong humanist, someone who at least cares about people on both a concrete and an abstract level. I chose to teach because of the intrinsic value in nurturing and opening doors to discovery but also as a vehicle to openly participate in the give-and-take of human dialogue that forms each day for both teachers and students alike.
This kind of active empathy was also addressed by in Stephen Crane’s allegorical short story, “The Open Boat,” a tale that I have had ninth graders read and chew over since 1994. The story’s narrator, a New York correspondent, who is hanging on for dear life in a lifeboat at sea after their freighter has sunk, recalls when he was a boy reading Caroline E. Norton’s classic tale, “Bingen on the Rhine,” which describes a young soldier in the French Foreign Legion who is dying of war injuries in far-off Algiers. Crane writes:
“In his childhood, the correspondent had been made acquainted with the fact that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, but he had never regarded the fact as necessary. Myriads of his school-fellows had informed him of the soldier’s plight, but the dinning had naturally ended by making him perfectly indifferent. He had never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow. It was less to him than breaking of a pencil’s point.
Now, however, it quaintly came to him as a human, living thing. It was no longer merely a picture of a few throws in the breast of a poet, meanwhile drinking tea and warming his feet at the grate; it was an actuality—stern, mournful, and fine. He was now sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers.”
For nearly five decades, I too have cared for the soldier who lay dying in Algiers. As Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels/I myself become the wounded person.”
After reading Man’s Search for Meaning the first time, I began to consciously ask myself, “Will this be meaningful to me?” If the answer was “no,” I would normally shuck it. Frankl’s message emphasized living as meaningful a life as possible.
As I learned over time, life was not so much as about the product as the process. It’s all about the journey – and not the end result. After all, some enthralling paths can’t be found without at first getting lost. In the end, every human being is a work in progress. Frankl recognized that and said, “Humanity has only scratched the surface of its vast potential.”
In director John Carpenter’s 1984 film, Starman, featuring the great Jeff Bridges in the lead role, a curious alien comes to earth for three days and learns a lot about human beings in a brief time. When he chats with a NASA scientist on his last day before escaping back to outer space, he is asked why he has come to earth, after admitting that he had visited earth previously. He responds: “You are a strange species. Not like any other. And you’d be surprised how many there are. Intelligent but savage. Shall I tell you what I find most beautiful about you?You are at your best when things are at their worst.”
Viktor Frankl himself emphatically makes this point in the opening chapter of Man’s Search for Meaning: “We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Given the profoundly helter-skelter times we live in these days, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is not a 280-character tweet, but a 180-page sermon to the power of the human spirit. As the founder of logotherapy reminds us in the last passage of his masterwork:
“Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz. However, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
“And while you’re not going to sing, Shaunie, you’re going to be at the center of things!”
When my intrepid Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Marshall, cheerfully informed me that I would be “the Christmas Tree” in a child production based on the old German yuletide ballad, “O Tannenbaum,” my eyes lit up like a Broadway light bank. “You mean, Mrs. Marshall that I’m going to be the star?” I unknowingly punned.
“In a general way,” she replied with a smile.
As we began to rehearse for our kindergarten Christmas play, we children in Mrs. Marshall’s class soon learned that the crux of the story involved a somewhat droopy Christmas tree in a forest, which was unloved and ignored by the people of the surrounding village. After all, there were far more impressive and sturdier trees than this somewhat pathetic evergreen, which was both undersized and undervalued. “Its branches hung down to its base as if the tree was both ashamed and weak. Many thought that it would be cut down, but the children of the town always convinced the adults to let the tree live.”
As the narrator in the play explained, one of the traditions of the people in the town had been to congregate around the most imposing pine tree on Christmas day, where carols were sung, and gifts were presented. For years, the desolate evergreen stood in the dark as everyone danced and sang around the mightier trees.
However, on the day before Christmas, when a sudden nor’easter hit the village and its peripheral forest, the villagers were shocked to discover that the one surviving tree in the windstorm was the previously secluded evergreen that had once been the laughing stock of the entire community.
As Christmas Day dawned, the children of the village began to slowly gather round and pay homage to the formerly destitute tree. Eventually, the adults too began to gather around the evergreen, which was now decorated with Christmas lights and ornaments. The 20-minute performance was supposed to conclude with a vigorous singing of “O Tannenbaum.”
Dad, forever a big-picture guy, reminded me that I would be the principal player in a drama without any lines. “That is something to cherish,” he remarked. Mummie was instructed to dress me entirely in dark green pants and a corresponding shirt. Mrs. Fitzmaurice, our art teacher, made special brown shoes to represent to the base of a tree, and we kids all made a gold star that would be planted on top of my head. Mrs. Fitzy also inserted real pine needles from an overarching evergreen that stood resolutely outside on my school’s playground. When my older brother, Chris, saw me decked out in the outfit, he cried out, “In the valley of the Jolly Ho! Ho! Ho! Green Giant!”
After a series of rehearsals, it was time for the big show, which Mrs. Marshall put on for our parents and friends a half-hour before dismissal for Christmas vacation. Because of the name of the musical, the plotline, and how I was the entire focus of the show, I was visibly nervous as the play began. Miss Scoboria, our well-intentioned Headmistress, did not help things when she peeked backstage, saw me in my entirely emerald outfit, and exclaimed, “Well, look who’s the star of the show!”
Thankfully, one of my peers, a little girl whose nickname was – I swear to God – Buttercup, bellowed, “Oh, Miss Scoboria, Shaunie isn’t the star of the show. Here it is!” She then held up…well, the star in the show – the object we had made in art class that would be placed on my head to conclude the performance.
Everything went entirely too smoothly until it came time for me, the previously ignored Christmas tree, to “shine in the light.” Until that time, I had looked appropriately despondent and had kept my arms to my side. Mrs. Marshall smiled broadly at me as the play unfolded, and I knew I was somehow nailing it.
However, when it came time to come alive and sprout my arm-branches out, that’s when things began to go asunder. As the townspeople slowly gathered around me, my arms, now stuck out like a crossed railroad crossing, began to increasingly twinge. Within a minute, my limbs, still held like sticks at a ninety-degree angle, commenced to sag with unrelenting pain. The agony in both of my arms increasingly throbbed as I continued to hold both of them out. A minute later my eyes began to roll, and I felt like passing out.
What was I to do?
I suddenly came up with an inspired solution. Just as the chorus paused between verses of “O Tannenbaum,” I yelled out off-script, “Here comes the wind!”
Everyone in the audience – and on stage – suddenly looked at me with unyielding alarm. A lifelong mimic, I slowly began to make a series of howling noises like a Nantucket gale, my fierce, ghostly sounds reverberating across the room like a swirling overhead fan. I then swayed my arms and body like a majestic seagull, flapping the pain away. After ten seconds of purposeful bluster, I noticed that the audience was now reduced to sustained laughter, with my wheezing mother leading the charge.
My classmates, of course, were horrified, while my teacher, Mrs. Marshall, who had been holding a towel after she had cleaned up some spilled water, buried her head in the cloth and silently laughed herself to tears. While I knew I had precariously gone off script, I was determined to continue blowing and thrashing until the agony in my limbs ceased. Finally, I ceased making gale-like sounds and corresponding arm movements. I then stood as still as a statue.
In the crowded classroom, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. This remarkable metamorphosis so transfixed my peers that they almost forgot to then shout out in unison, “Merry Christmas, Everyone!” when they had completed encircling me. Needless to say, I received a near-standing ovation when I took my bow very majestically a minute later.
The only fallout from my experience as a Christmas tree in my Kindergarten play occurs each holiday season when I inevitably hear the familiar musical refrain, “How lovely are your branches!” on the Sirius Holiday Music Channel.