Frank Sinatra Sings Only For the Lonely

 

 

Image result for sinatra and nelson riddle

Poor ol’ Jimmy sits alone in the moonlight

He saw his woman kiss another man

So he takes a ladder, steals the stars from the sky

Puts on Sinatra and starts to cry…

– Stephen Bishop, “On and On,” 1977

There it was, another brief item buried in the Google News feed connected to Frank Sinatra’s centennial year three years ago. The opening sentence instantaneously garnered my attention: “The first pop music concept album ever released, Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning is celebrating its 60th birthday this week.”

In a time when the world continued to reexamine the significance of Frank Sinatra, this was but an infinitesimal, blip-on-the-screen item when it was published in December 2015. And yet, the aftershocks of a disc that was recorded back in 1955 are still being felt all these years later.

A three-in-the-morning rumination on misery, In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning, captured Sinatra’s emotional nose-dive after he and second wife Ava Gardner’s marriage began to crumble. Despite its prevailing gloom, the disc’s influence became so widespread that it is now credited with setting the standard for all concept albums thereafter.

Previously, Sinatra had made a name for himself by generating flashy, big-band-backed records beginning in 1939. In real life, however, the winds never blew in one direction for Frank Sinatra. They inevitably swirled. ”Being an 18-karat manic-depressive, and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions,” Sinatra once admitted. “I have an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as elation. Whatever else has been said about me is unimportant. When I sing, I believe, I’m honest.’” Ultimately, In The Wee Small Hours of The Morning was nothing less than a 52-minute hymn to pathos.

Consequently, it made perfect sense that the mercurial Sinatra followed such a depressing album a year later with the ultimate buzz: his 1956 hyperkinetic release, Songs for Swingin Lovers, which featured such beloved chestnuts as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Old Devil Moon,” and “You Make Me Feel So Young.” As Bruce Springsteen said years later, “When I need a pick-me-up, my default has long been putting on Songs for Swinging Lovers.”

Thus, when Frank then came out with another “downer” concept record 19 months later, critics and fans alike braced themselves for one of Frank’s emotionally harrowing, roller-coaster rides. But Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely wasn’t merely a 1958 follow-up to In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.

It turned out to be his masterpiece.

More than two decades after his death, the widespread appreciation for Sinatra as an artistic immortal has reached universal affirmation. When historians list Frank Sinatra’s assorted “firsts,” his place on America’s musical Mount Rushmore is now rock-solid. After all, he was the first pop superstar of the modern era. He possessed the most recognizable singing voice in the world. He was the most significant male vocalist to bridge jazz to the wider pool of mainstream music. His incomparable “phrasing” set the standard for musicians of all stripes. He publicized such future leviathans as Billie Holiday; Count Basie; Buddy Rich, and Nina Simone when they were struggling to be heard. Because of his association with the fledgling Capitol Records, Sinatra, along with Nat Cole, moved the epicenter of the American recording industry from New York to Southern California. He was the founding father of Reprise Records, a company “created by artists for artists,” something the Beatles tried to replicate years later with Apple Records. Finally, it was Frank Sinatra who was the originator of what would become known as “the concept album.”

For the uninformed, a “concept album is a studio record where all musical or lyrical ideas contribute to a single overall theme or unified story.” Those of us who grew up in the 1960s could easily rattle off a seedbed of concept albums that are now considered classic rock’s “must-have” discs. A short-list might include Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon; the Moody Blues’ In Search of the Lost Chord; David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust; Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going’ On, and the Who’s Tommy.

Casual rock fans believe that the idea of the concept album surfaced somewhere around the time of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In actuality, it was Sinatra who turned out to be the consigliere of the genre when he introduced the notion a dozen years earlier with In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. Whereas that 1955 recording was certainly extraordinary, it is the brutal honesty, utter despair, and lingering regret of 1958’s Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely that hangs like a shroud over every other concept album released since then. Only Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks come close to it.

Of course, creating the very idea of a concept album was no reach for someone like Sinatra, who had famously sung for both the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey-led bands at the outset of his career. Not surprisingly, Sinatra came up with the novel idea through the process of osmosis. After all, his work as a frontman in the 1940s with both Harry James and Tommy Dorsey gave him an education in the musical bookends of sequence and connotation. When he started traveling around the country as part of a big band, Sinatra learned that there had to be a connection between the orchestra and its audience. As he became a seasoned “front-man,” he learned that thematic scheming was an essential part of any successful musical “package.”

This idea eventually led him to become increasingly obsessed with the order of his songs that comprised his old 78 RPM albums as a Columbia artist in the forties. (As an aside, Sinatra has long been credited with being the first recording artist to come up with the idea of interchanging “fast songs” and slow ballads in order to sustain the attention of the listener).

When the industry came out with the 33 RPM long-playing album in the mid-1950s, Sinatra had become even more obsessed with the process.

From his perspective, the songs had to make sense in terms of arrangement, theme, and sound. Thus, when Ava Gardner officially divorced him in 1957, he knew that he had to produce an album capturing “the blues” he felt at the time. The genesis of Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely, then, is largely biographical. Consequently, in May 1958, Sinatra, renowned arranger and producer Nelson Riddle, and conductor Felix Slatkin entered the famed Capitol Studios at 1750 Vine in Hollywood to record the follow-up to In Wee Small Hours of the Morning.

While Sinatra and Riddle had already reinvented contemporary music by creating a sound that was inimitable, their customary big band sound would not be the musical centerpiece for this particular record. At Sinatra’s request, classical maestro Felix Slatkin, a significant talent as well, brought with him a gaggle of orchestral musicians with him to the studio. As he had done years earlier with his first celebrated producer at Columbia, Alex Stordahl, Frank would be the main instrument backed by a minimalist orchestra that would play off the singer’s voice. Over the next eleven days, the collected ensemble repeatedly heard two phrases directed at them from Sinatra himself: follow me and less is more. In recalling the celebrated sessions that encompassed Only the Lonely, jazz guitarist Al Viola recalled, “Classical musicians don’t normally riff, but for Sinatra, they did, and it worked. They played off each other like it was the most natural thing in the world for them to do.”

In a canon of 14 torch songs that comprise Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely, an astonishing eight undisputed masterworks provide the crux for the album. The title track, written by longstanding Sinatra pals Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, serves as the quintessential splash-in-the-face that promptly triggers emotive anguish. Even at a casual listen, it is the fidelity one hears that makes this opening salvo so powerful. Part of that comes from Sinatra’s peerless facility for phrasing – his ability to seamlessly articulate each word and expression.

As Pete Hamill once famously pointed out, it was Frank Sinatra’s exquisite phrasing that taught more people how to speak English as a second language than any other person in human history. Even more remarkably, Sinatra’s aptitude to insert distinctive musical punches into each syllable separates him from everyone else. Finally, the tonal quality of his singing is unmatched. His voice sounds as clear as a bell on every word and phrase he sings.

But as any vocalist knows, phrasing is more than just pronunciation. It also contains another potent vocal element – breath control. Sinatra, like nearly every other great jazz and pop musician of his time, learned that indispensable element from the great Louis Armstrong. In addition, there is the lilt, the playfulness, the dragging out of words to bring the meaning powerfully to life. As songwriter Sammy Cahn once observed, “When Frank sings ‘lovely,’ he makes it sound love-e-ly as in ‘Weather-wise it’s such a love-e-ly day’ in ‘Come Fly with Me.’ Likewise, when he sings ‘Lonely” as in ‘Only the Lonely,’ he makes it such a lonely word.” 

The second ballad on the album, “Angel Eyes,” is so fastidiously arranged by the brilliant Nelson Riddle that Sinatra’s voice serves primarily as the lead instrument here. Because both arranger/producer and singer were notable collaborators, teamwork lay at their heart of their musicianship. As Sinatra and Riddle inevitably seemed to do whenever they worked together, their considerable egos were pushed aside, and “the song became the thing.” Thus, “Angel Eyes” is nothing less than a three-minute narrative that tells a profoundly heartrending tale. “Sinatra’s ability to tell a story had consistently gotten sharper as the voice grew deeper and the textures surrounding it richer,” claims musicologist Will Friedwald. Certainly, when Frank was a young pop star in the ‘40’s with a vibrant tenor, his voice was the equivalent of a new spring day. On “Angel Eyes, however, Sinatra, now 43-years old, sounds like finely crafted wine whose “chops” have been fermenting in a keg for years. He is not some young pup who is aching; Sinatra’s been around the block more than a few times, so the heartbreaking is even more palpable. 

Bob Haggart’s and Johnny Burke’s beloved American Songbook classic, “What’s New” is given an entirely new interpretation by Sinatra in the album’s fabled third song. Previously, the standard had been interpreted by scores of singers in a condescendingly melodramatic way. The effect was comparable to leaving a cake in the oven 10-minutes too long. In contrast, Sinatra’s version is both understated and coy, making it even more wrenching. Linda Ronstadt, who recorded “What’s New” with Nelson Riddle 25-years later, said that she “tiptoed” around ballad at first before agreeing to record it. She freely admitted to Larry King in a celebrated 2003 interview, “How can you top Sinatra?” The orchestration as charted by Riddle is evocatively restrained. To add to the gloom, trombonist Ray Sims plays off Sinatra’s voice like a mournful wail in pea-soup fog. It is one of those numbers that stays with you well after the song is over. 

“Willow, Weep for Me,” the record’s fifth number, is composer Ann Ronell’s heartbreaking, cause-and-effect breakup song – the musical equivalent of the aftereffects of a major nor’easter. It is no accident that Frank, who long revered Billie Holiday, wanted to record one of her more acclaimed ballads. Six months before he released Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely, Sinatra stated famously that…“’Lady Day’ is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular music in the last 20 years. With a few exceptions, every major pop singer in the United States during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius.” In the end, Sinatra not only gives a nod to Holiday in “Willow, Weep for Me,” but he ends the tune with the enduring plea: “Murmur to the night/Hide its starry light/So none will find me sighing/Crying all alone/Weeping willow tree/Weep in sympathy/Bend your branches down along the ground – and cover me/Listen to me plea/Hear me willow – and weep for me.”

Of course, when Frank recorded the number, “The First Lady of Jazz” would have only a year to live. In 1959, Holiday died of cirrhosis of the liver at 44 in her bed at New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital under house arrest, poverty-stricken and despondent. Of course, it was Sinatra who not only paid off all of her debts but then ended up funding Holiday’s entire service – the largest, most celebrated funeral in the city that year. In “Willow, Weep for Me” Sinatra’s haunting voice throughout the dirge is nothing less than a poignant foreshadow of Billie Holiday’s impending demise.

“Blues in the Night,” the classic pop standard composed in 1941 by the celebrated songwriting team of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, proves to be a solitary inhale in an album ladened with exhales. The seventh ballad in the album, this extraordinary version should be Exhibit A as to why experts such as Wynton Marsalis have long claimed that Sinatra is “a jazz singer in all respects.” Recorded on June 24, 1958, there is no counterfeit swooning in Frank’s version of “Blues in the Night.” Instead, his voice sweeps; dips; soars, and propels like a turbulent ocean. As Billy Joel once stated, “Sinatra’s voice expresses more eloquence that I can ever say in mere words.” Years ago, when I played the ballad for a fellow musical pal, he sighed: “Frank sings ‘Blues in the Night’ so persuasively that it makes me want to ditch my girlfriend, go to a bar, and cry into my beer.” 

“Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” the album’s most searing tune and the ninth song on the record has eventually become one of Sinatra’s most enduring numbers. While he was known as “One-take Frank” in the movie business, his fastidiousness when making music was legendary. “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” took almost a day of precise outtakes to get it right, according to chronicler Will Friedwald. As he did on all 12 tracks on Only the Lonely, Sinatra would inevitably enter the studio; greet the musicians individually; saunter up to the front of the room; make notations on the sheet, and then patiently walk through what he wanted to hear from each musician. “Every time you saw him enter the studio to record, it became a workshop into how to make a textbook record,” Quincy Jones said near the end of Sinatra’s career. There are mythical bootlegs of Sinatra’s precise directions to his supporting musicians in scores of sessions out on YouTube. Like an experienced traffic controller, you hear him patiently walking his band through a maze of notes that eventually evolves into a highly imaginative, intuitive sound. When I first heard such outtakes, thanks to New York radio personality Jonathan Schwartz, it reminded me of Leonard Bernstein’s sagacious entries that framed his epic Young People’s Concerts Series back in the sixties.

In “Guess I’ll Hang My Teardrops Out to Dry,” the orchestra and the singer create a symmetry that is indistinguishable, two forces of nature that have merged seamlessly. As with every ballad on this album, the storyline means everything here. Sinatra is a storyteller here weaving out a story that grips your heart and hurls it into the abyss. It all leads to a Casablanca-like ending: “’Yes’ – somebody said/ ‘Just forget about her’/So I gave that treatment a try/And strangely enough/I got along without her/Then one day/She passed me right by/Oh, well…..” When the tune ends, you feel as if the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock has just gone out for the last time. 

“Spring is Here,” the record’s 10th song, is an old Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart standard that had long bordered on schmaltz until Sinatra reinvented the song in a tour de force rendering. Previous to Frank’s version, it was considered a novelty tune without much substance to it. When such accomplished singers such as Jo Stafford, Bing Crosby, and Billy Eckstine sang it prior to Sinatra, their individual versions sounded slightly repentant; all three artists seem reluctant to even sink even their toes into its misery. Not Sinatra. He grabs a hold of the song at the first note, plunges in head first and then plummets to the muck at the very bottom. In so doing, he claims it as his own and produces an authentic classic in the process. Of course, it is that personal touch that separates Sinatra from nearly every other artist. As songwriter Frank Military once declared, “When you listen to Frank, you always believe that he is singing directly to you.”

I can personally vouch for this for when I saw Sinatra perform live at the Jacksonville Coliseum back in 1976. I swore he was belting out number after number to me alone in a coliseum full of people. No wonder that one of his longstanding staples was entitled, “This Song’s For You.” 

The concluding ballad of the album, “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” is, for most Sinatraologists, the greatest thing he ever recorded. An over-the-top purist, Frank felt that the Arlen/Mercer standard was written especially for him and that only he could do any justice to it. Because of his rank perfectionism, Sinatra ended up recording the ultimate male torch song an astounding six times in four different decades. Nearly everyone agrees, however, that the version he inserted to conclude Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely was his best. Miles Davis always claimed that Sinatra “…sounded fundamentally soulful on that number, which is why nobody has ever touched it.” Ella Fitzgerald used to perform regularly “One for My Baby” to live audiences, invariably referring to it as “Frank’s song.” Out of sheer respect, Tony Bennett refused to record it for more than 35 years until he finally gave in and included it as part his 1993 tribute album to Sinatra, Perfectly Frank.

So what makes “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road”) so magical? For most fans, it is the forlornness in Sinatra’s voice; the intentional hesitation in his phrasing; the crushing refrain; the heartbeat-like, call-response provided by pianist Bill Miller, and the pillowed strings that are flawlessly layered to precision by Nelson Riddle and Felix Slatkin. All of these elements fuse into one, creating a genuine chef-d’oeuvre. People living centuries from now will continue to listen to this song in wonder. In my mind, it is the perfect ending to a perfect album. 

Although the record ultimately made it to number one on the Billboard album chart in October 1958, Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely was subsequently awarded just one Grammy the following winter. Inexplicably, it was for the disc’s perplexing cover, an original painting of Sinatra by Nick Volpe, depicting a morose Frank as a Pagliacci-like wag. To correct the obvious faux pas, the Grammy powers-that-be inducted Only the Lonely into their Hall of Fame a year after Sinatra’s death in 1999. By then, Time Magazine had already named it one of the Top 100 musical albums of the century. That same year, critic Jim Emerson wrote, “The bleakest and blackest album of popular songs ever recorded in a hundred years, so quietly powerful it can leave you slumped in your chair with the ice cubes still rattling in your glass. Every single “suicide song” (as Sinatra liked to call ’em) on Only the Lonely is a stunner that will take your breath away.” A few years later, Amy Winehouse called the record, “The single greatest album ever recorded, period.”

And, so, 60 years after the release of Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely, the hurt still burns; the regrets still linger, the music remains set in the present tense. The singer seems to be at the point of death in each and every number, and yet there is no other album out there in which you feel more alive after listening to it.

I guess that was Sinatra’s point all along. 

Image result for sinatra 1958

 

Standard

Forever Came Today

When my sons were very young, I occasionally went shopping at the local Stop and Shop late at night after they were sound asleep. One evening, with the store nearly deserted, I found myself grazing in the pasta section when a supple ladylike voice behind me exclaimed, “Excuse me, sir, I am just too little! Do you mind handing me a jar of marinara sauce on the top shelf?”

I immediately grabbed it, turned around and ended up giving it to a striking, middle-aged African-American woman. She smiled broadly, thanked me profusely, and then patted my hand.

“It’s my pleasure, Maam,” I replied.

Over the next few years, we began to converse when we bumped into one another at the market. The Greenwich, Connecticut Stop and Shop regularly played oldies during the evening hours, and one time when we were conversing, the old Supremes’ tune, “Stop! In the Name of Love!” came on.

“There you are!” I laughed.

“Oh, Shaun, I was so young back then!” Diana Ross professed as she waved goodbye to me.

On another occasion, Ms. Ross and I were reminiscing about an elderly teacher who worked at a local school for years and years before retiring. One summer afternoon, she ended up striking a conversation with him. While this gentleman knew the subject that he taught intimately, friends and colleagues also recognized that his knowledge of the greater society was practically nonexistent.

Because he was naturally engaging, the veteran instructor asked Diana, “So what do you do?”

She was so stunned – no one literally had asked her that in 25 years. She took a moment, pondered what to say, and then replied, “Well, I sing a little!”

He looked at Diana Ross and remarked amicably, “Well, I sing a little too!”

Only in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Image result for diana ross

Standard

754 Homers Behind Hank Aaron

Related image

(In 1984, I was a young fifth-grade teacher at The American School in England – pictured here. In my spare time, I also served as the Cobham Yankees starting pitcher during the baseball season. We played our home games on the TASIS campus, situated 18 miles southwest of London. In the right portion of this photograph, a local Norman landmark, St. Mary’s Church, consecrated in the historic year, 1066, is clearly visible).

34 years ago this month, I was the starting pitcher in the British Baseball League for the Cobham (Surrey) Yankees at a reconfigured baseball field in pastoral Thorpe, England. Working on a makeshift mound, I kept a roster of the opponent team in order to know the nationality of each batter. As I had learned that year, native Brits loved low balls because of their prowess in cricket. Therefore, they would be served nothing but belt high-and-above pitches. For my American and Canadian counterparts, each sphere would be hopefully thrown at the lowest point of the strike zone, the traditional “out” zone for most North American batters.

The matronly tower of St. Mary’s Church, which sat imposingly a few hundred yards behind home plate in the azure sky, framed my view behind the backstop. 20 years previously, a Roman cinerary urn, dated to 120 -150 A.D., had been discovered buried in its ancient churchyard. Local archaeologists then determined that the mainframe of the church had been completed in 1066, the year that William the Conqueror had become the king of England. In addition, the infamous Doomsday Book listed St. Mary’s Church as the main center of worship in the area.

As I glanced toward home to get the sign one glistening Sunday afternoon in late May, a familiar target wearing an authentic New York Yankees baseball uniform was motioning to me with his expansive catcher’s glove. Johnny Munson, our team’s receiver, who was then stationed at a US Air Force base in England, was Cobham’s star player. The older sibling of the late Thurman Munson, Johnny resolutely adorned one of his brother’s old uniforms and took charge of us all as his brother Thurm had during his ten-year career as a New York Yankee.

After I had gotten to know him a bit, I informed him that I had seen his brother play a handful of games in the Cape Cod Baseball League 16 summers previously. Even though I was a diehard Red Sox fan, I instantly won the elder Munson over. Johnny enthusiastically informed me that Thurman’s favorite summer growing up had been those golden months when he had starred for Chatham at the emerald ball field that was frequently shrouded in a thicket of fog at the elbow of the Cape.

After I struck out the first batter for the London Knights that afternoon on the Thorpe cricket pitch, Johnny Munson bellowed, “Keep throwing that slop, Kell,” as I then set the first six batters down in the batting order.  

After a foul ball was sprayed well behind the screen, I noticed a middle-aged man and his wife timidly approach the backstop area. By the look on their faces, they seemed stunned that they had stumbled onto a baseball game in an archetypal English town just a ten-minute drive from Windsor Castle. Eventually, the couple sat down in the stands behind our dugout and watched the game silently.

As I sauntered off the mound to end the top of the third inning, my face broke into a broad smile when it was clear who had chanced upon our game. Sitting with his spouse, the gray-haired gentleman, Bowie Kuhn, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball at the time, smiled broadly as I approached him. “Mr. Commissioner and Mrs. Kuhn, welcome to the British Baseball League!”

Bowie Kuhn cackled audibly and exclaimed, “Luisa and I are here on vacation in the UK visiting some local landmarks, and we couldn’t believe when we observed that a baseball game was being played so close to St. Mary’s Church! Talk about doing a double-take; seeing good old American hardball here in the heart of Merry Olde England!”

When I then pointed out that there was actually a Munson wearing a Yankees uniform catching behind the plate, he blurted. “We’ll all be damned!” The Commissioner was obviously pleased that Johnny was wearing his brother’s old Yankee uniform.

Mr. Kuhn then asked me where I was from. “Wellesley, Massachusetts, sir,” I replied.

The couple collectively lit up like a scoreboard. “That’s where our daughter went to college!” they shouted simultaneously. Mrs. Kuhn then added, “Isn’t Hathaway Bookshop the greatest anywhere, Shaun?

When I nodded in the affirmative, I then introduced the Commissioner and his wife to Mr. Gerry Murphy, my former history teacher and mentor from Wellesley High School who was then spending a sabbatical year teaching with me at TASIS England. Murph, who enjoyed attending our games, began waxing poetic to the Kuhns about the storied Hathaway Bookstore as well.

“Hey, Shaun,” Johnny Munson blurted out from our bench. “You’re up. Remember, National League rules today.”

I politely excused myself, approached home plate fingering a Ted Williams 33 ounce bat, and promptly launched a home run that hit the top of a European ash tree 75 feet beyond the rickety left field fence, well over 400 feet in left-center. It proved to be the farthest ball I ever hit in my life.

“Wow, a Mass Pike shot!” Johnny Munson roared from our bench.

Without blinking an eye, Gerry Murphy nudged Bowie Kuhn’s shoulder and barked, “Mr. Commissioner, you’ve now seen two historic home runs: Henry Aaron’s 715th – and Shaun Kelly’s first.”

Yup, he had.

Related image

 

 

Standard

To Sir, With Love

Image may contain: 6 people, people sitting, people eating and indoor

The Greenwich Country Day School’s distinguished English teacher emeritus, Mr. Tom Brody, passed away recently in Hanover, New Hampshire. Sometimes, great trees fall in the forest, and there is no one to discern it. Mr. Brody’s seedling turned out to be a veritable Sequoia. Thus, we all heard it – even from afar. As one of his former colleagues who still toils at GCDS, I have received ripples of praise for him from a gaggle of his former students the past few days. One of his English scholars wrote me earlier today, “He might be gone, but the spirit of Mr. Brody will always be in the present tense for me.”

Tom Brody’s passion for literature inspired three generations of students at Country Day to become adroit writers and deft thinkers. A teacher who loves teaching will teach a student to love learning. Mr. B. was one of those difference-makers who emphasized that the world of learning was limitless. He innately understood that our students are only as brilliant as we allow them to be. William Butler Yeats once wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” In every way, Mr. Brody was a fiery fellow (and, yes, he loved puns). His influence was such that he shaped the hearts and minds of virtually every student he taught.

As a renowned columnist and writer for Sports Illustrated in the 1960s, Tom Brody was a respected contemporary of such acclaimed writers as Frank Deford, William Nack, and Jack McCallum. (Tom’s published profiles of everyone from Johnny Unitas to Bill Russell to Willie Mays at SI are now considered literary classics).

Beginning in the fall of 1967, Mr. Brody instilled his “clarion call for lucidly written expression” within the hearts and minds of hundreds of his minions whom he coaxed and prodded in his celebrated English classes for the next three-decades-plus. Tom Brody cared – perhaps more than any instructor I’ve ever known. His legendary SPLAT Paper assignments inspired a legion of young people to write with feeling, intensity, and sagacity. He emphasized a plethora of compositional techniques including the most elusive of them all, “show – don’t tell.”

Through the venue of such immortal short stories as Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” and his favorite narrative beginning – “No one knew the color of the sky” – Tom’s would ultimately take his marking pen and cross out gobs of prose in order to uncover the simple truth that framed a student’s narrative. He believed that the act of writing was a sweat inducer, which…“ was more exhausting than pitching a complete game and more satisfying because printed words on a page were monuments to the process.” As Mr. Brody used to say, the first and foremost characteristic a writer must have is pluck.

In recognizing that teaching is the greatest act of optimism, Tom Brody strove to have his students learn a wellspring of lessons about life through the characters he introduced to them in a myriad of short stories, poems, and novels. While he was a great pontificator in class, Mr. Brody’s listening skills were such that I used to kid him that he was a cleric in a former life. An innovator at heart, Tom taught Lord of the Flies through the lens of Freudian psychology; he cherished the flawed Holden Caulfield and prodded his students to walk in the shoes of all people, both real and imaginative. (I well remember one class when his charges got to the critical juncture of Lord of the Flies, and Tom was almost reduced to tears. “Oh, Piggy…..dear, sweet Piggy,” he sighed.)

I was incredibly blessed when the celebrated Mr. Brody explicitly adopted me as his protege and asked me to teach with him in ninth grade beginning in 1995. Under his nimble guidance, I learned how to use the exemplary texts he so loved to bring a profound sense of enlightenment to my charges. When he retired, Tom charitably left me with his notes to over 25 short stories and seven novels, a gift that continues to light up the sky for me two decades later.

As someone who spent hundreds of hours in his luminous presence, I was able to incorporate Tom’s pedagogical template for how to bring out the best in my own students. Like all great educators, Tom Brody’s heady sense of humor, his flair for the dramatic, and his preference to clothe anything through the prism of the anecdote – especially the absurdist variety – was legendary. His passion for everything from baseball to politics to literature was indisputable. (He once told me that the thing he most loved about baseball was “the music of the game.”) The bottom line, Tom Brody invariably gave a damn. No wonder Juliet Capulet was his favorite literary figure.

Ultimately, I will remain forever indebted to him for showing me the way as a teacher, writer, and nurturer. When I heard Tom had died, I immediately thought of Dylan Thomas’s immortal refrain, which Mr. Brody often quoted. “Do not go gentle into that good night; old age should burn and rave at close of day; rage, rage against the dying of the light.” As passion fueled him like a woodstove, I am certain that in the end, Tom Brody raged on against the dying of the light.

As a master wordsmith, Mr. Thomas Cobb Brody frequently ended his trimester comments to deserving students with a favorite laudatory word, which fits pretty well right for him right here. Kudos.

Kudos, indeed.

 

Standard

Glad All Over

Image result for dave clark five greatest hits

Unlike virtually every rock and roll ensemble in history, this British Invasion band was fronted by a drummer, whose unique style of play created a sound that is as distinguishable today as it was more than half a century ago. The group’s lead singer, Mike Smith, called by Bob Dylan, “the single greatest white male vocalist of the 1960s,” remained such a revered figure in musical circles that everyone from Joe Cocker to David Bowie viewed him as a revelation. The group’s saxophone player, Denis Payton, R&B-rooted solos were so fetching that it convinced a young Bruce Springsteen to hire Clarence Clemons because he wanted his septet, the E Street Band, to sound like them. Renowned guitarist and producer, Miami Steve van Zandt, called the band’s mid-1960’s singles… “the absolute best productions made during the mono era.” And Bruce Springsteen’s longtime drummer, Max Weinberg, declared, “When you attend an E Street concert today, there will be at least 20 to 25 songs featuring Dave Clark’s familiar tum-tum-rolls.” 

As Mick Jagger said to Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone Magazine, “The Dave Clark Five was the best pure rock and roll band that came from the British Invasion.”

During their heyday, the DC-Five headlined such giants as The Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and The Who. When they were formally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, it was lifelong fan Tom Hanks who presented them to an adoring audience. Later that evening, Billy Joel, Bon Jovi, Jeff Lynne, and Joan Jett paid tribute to them during a memorable musical revue onstage at Carnegie Hall, where the DC Five had once performed 12, sold-out shows in three days 43 years before.

In 1964 and much of ’65, this celebrated band from Tottenham, North London, brazenly managed to spot the Beatles single-for-single. Like every other group at the time, however, the Dave Clark Five ultimately couldn’t match the Lennon-McCartney juggernaut, especially when the Fab Four demonstrated an astounding ability to change their sound with virtually every record. Nevertheless, for those of us who loved pop music back then, the DC Five’s music was such that everytime one of their singles popped on one of our local AM radio stations, you quickly cranked up their music to decibel 10. In the end, the band had 17 hits on the Billboard Top 40 and also appeared on the influential Ed Sullivan Show a record-breaking 18 times between 1964-68.

In a decade that gave us such LP masterpieces as Astral Weeks, Sam Cooke Live At the Copa, High Tide and Green Grass, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Blonde on Blonde, Days of Future Past, and I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You, it was The Dave Clark Five’s Greatest Hits that was my most played album when the 1960s ended. As Bruce Springsteen commented a few years ago, “My copy of that record was so full of scratches that I had to purchase a new one by 1970.” 

I ended up purchasing The Dave Clark Five’s Greatest Hits in the fall of 1966 with some newfound money I had earned as a local paperboy. Recorded in crystalline mono by Epic Records – with the distinctive canary-yellow label – the record’s 10 songs seemed to literally jump right off the record-player like a Saturn Five rocket. For rock fans at the time, the DC Five’s uninhibited, gleeful singles chased away any stormclouds and gave us a reason to believe. “Their music reverberated, primarily because it was percussion-based, which was both original and distinctive,” remarked Bruce Springsteen in 2014. “For kids like me, their recordings were like instant adrenaline shots.” Thus, a greatest hits package of such treasures was a must for those who cherished their songs.

For marketing purposes, The Dave Clark Five’s Greatest Hits hit the ground running with its opening tune, “Over and Over,” a classic cover of the 1958 Bobby Day hit that turned out to be reimagined by the group in a genuinely inspired cover. In the late fall of 1965, it was the band’s latest single to hit the market. To the commonplace listener, however, “Over and Over” was a reminder that you needed to strap yourself in and hold on. Of course, there was a hipness to the “with-it” message, “Everybody there was there,” as well as the idiosyncratic tom-tom-beat that drove so many of Dave Clark’s songs. In addition, the intensity of lead singer Mike Smith’s vocals was omnipresent. His husky baritone in “Over and Over” knifed right through the percussion-centered musical accompaniment even as he provided a lilting keyboard riff. The memorable bridge was framed by Denis Payton, whose riveting harmonica solo proved worthy of Delbert McClinton, while the vocal harmonies sung by both drummer Dave Clark and lead guitarist Lenny Davidson provided a palpable sense of panache. The number one song in the US during Christmas week, 1965, “Over and Over” turned out to be the group’s last tangible gasp in its nearly two-year competitive battle with the Beatles.

The second tune on the album, 1964’s “Everybody Knows,” remains my second favorite Dave Clark Five number ever, a single so infectious that it should have its own zip code. From the unforeseen chord changes to the incredible instrumentation provided by saxophonist Denis Payton and lead guitarist Lenny Davidson, it is Dave Clark himself who drives the bus here with his propelling percussion work. The song is bridged together by the group’s version of Lennon-McCartney-Harrison-like harmonies, led by alpha dog vocalist, Mike Smith. When I showed this clip to my class one time, several kids were astonished that Dave’s drumset was positioned in the front – with the guitarists, keyboard player, and saxophonist behind him. In every way, the drummer was the leader of this band.

The Dave Clark Five’s Greatest Hits’ third entry, “Can’t You See That She’s Mine,” reached as high as number 2 on the Billboard Top 40 the week of July 18, 1964. It also has been my all-time personal favorite Dave Clark Five number, a tune so animated that my pulse still soars every time I hear it. Keyboard player and lead vocalist Mike Smith dominates throughout, with an amusement park ride-like introduction that morphs into his familiar gravelly vocals that exuberantly frame the rest of the song. When you see the video, however, you will surely notice the extraordinary musicianship of Dave Clark, from his riveting percussion work to his auxiliary vocals, which support Smith at every turn. Underrated lead guitarist Lenny Davidson adds the essential licks, while Denis Payton provides the finishing touches with a breathtaking solo that forms an instrumental bridge for the last verse. When I used to host oldies shows in college back in the mid-’70s, “Can’t You See That She’s Mine” was one of those songs where everyone got up and danced.

The record’s fourth number, “Bits and Pieces,” was, in reality, one of the DC Five more pedestrian releases, a B side throwaway for most bands. Here, though, in a seminal “Tops in the Pops” television presentation on the Beeb, the band proves that this number is downright irresistible. The rhythmic jungle of sound is deftly choreographed by the planned stomping of feet and reminds us why Dave Clark, who directed the band’s movements, was both the spiritual and musical leader of the group. In addition, the exceptional bass guitar work of Rick Huxley tears straight through you. As an aside, it should also be noted that the copyright to “Bits and Pieces” is still owned outright by Dave Clark. Paul McCartney once said, “We all should have all taken business lessons from Dave. John and I lost millions and millions of pounds because of our mismanagement. Dave Clark never did. He got it when none of us cared.” 

“I Like it Like That,” the single that ends Side 1 of the record, turned out to be a faultless cover of the 1961 R&B hit by Chris Kenner. In less than two minutes, Mike Smith here provides an iconic vocal performance that many rock critics believe actually surpasses John Lennon on his more famous “Twist and Shout.” This isn’t just some persistent teenage bewailing as Lennon does so fervidly throughout his Beatles hit. In Smith’s re-do of “I Like It Like That,” his vocals are a manly plea for both temptation and lust. When Tom Petty introduced the song on his Sirius radio show a few years ago, he called Mike Smith’s performance throughout the group’s cover version, “an absolute tour de force.” I couldn’t agree more.

Side 2 of The Greatest Hits of the Dave Clark Five begins with the title song of their only feature film, “Catch Us If You Can.” An exuberant harmonica solo by Denis Payton forms the bridge to some of the best harmonies the band ever recorded. Not only is Dave Clark’s drumming truly buoyant here, but his primal screaming, which spoofed Paul McCartney’s Little Richard-like yowl is downright hysterical. Like virtually all successful DC Five numbers, the simplicity of the number belies the complexity of the musicianship.

Many fans of the DC Five regard that the seventh tune included in their greatest hits package, “Because,” as the most illustrious single they ever generated. Within the context of 1964, this was the group’s famed retort to the Beatles’ “This Boy” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” In every way, it was a beautiful slow song, whose luminous harmonies and melodies matched the lyrics themselves. Mike Smith’s reverent vocals, his improvisational organ solo that forms the bridge, and the exceptional bass guitar licks by the underrated Rick Huxley create a veritable masterpiece. Paul McCartney once called “Because” a “daunting song” to match if you happened to be in the rival band. “Those blokes threw everything they had into that one,” claimed Sir Paul. Brian Wilson recently called “’Because’ one of the two or three best songs that were recorded in 1964.” Throughout that summer, this gorgeous single dominated the radio waves on both sides of the Atlantic, reaching number one in North America by the Fourth of July. Such indelible musical memories still beat inside of us like a second heart.

“Any Way You Want It,” a frolicking, speed-of-sound-rocker, logically followed “Because on the album, reminding listeners that the Dave Clark Five were primarily a fast-paced dance band. Mike Smith admitted years later that the DC Five were intentionally mirroring the Beatles “big vocal sound” throughout this radiant gem, which features four of the band’s members in a classic call-response refrain to soloist Mike Smith’s strident lead vocal. The reverberated “hey…hey…hey” was not electronically mastered; Smith actually used vocal elocution to pull off the trick! This is one of those songs that remind you that the authentic joy transcended any gloom in virtually every one of The Dave Clark Five’s singles.

Only the DC Five could follow-up one impossibly fast-paced rocker with another, as they did on their greatest hits package with the indefatigable 1964 smash, “Do You Love Me?” A remake of the Contours ’62 Motown classic, the boys here decide to record their cover version in Mach 3 speed, daring the listener not to get up in dance forthwith by undocked impulse. Mike Smith’s singing here is an epiphany, but you could argue that it is Dave Clark’s machine-gun-drumming that drives the engine. Saxophonist Denis Payton provides the musical harmony with his decisive playing, providing a musical blueprint for Clarence Clemons to emulate a generation later for the E Street Band. Like all eminent Dave Clark Five numbers, the ongoing collaboration between the circle of band members here is extraordinary.  

Not surprisingly, the tune that concludes their greatest hits package also happens to be the DC Five’s most sustaining, hit record. With its marching band stomps that supports an irrepressibly adolescent chorus, “Glad All Over” became the first major British Invasion hit in North America by a band other than the Beatles. It was also the single that knocked “I Want to Hold Your Hand” off the top of the British hit parade. “I was going through my record collection, and I saw the title ‘Glad All Over,'” remembered Dave Clark Five singer Mike Smith to journalist Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone. “I couldn’t remember what the song was like, but I thought it was a great title. So I sat down at my dad’s piano and wrote ‘Glad All Over.'” As Bruce Springsteen recollected years later, “The title of their most popular song was how we felt each time we heard a Dave Clark single back then.”

While The Dave Clark Five continued to achieve palpable success through 1966, they managed to generate just one more significant hit in the States thereafter. Their last top ten single, a phenomenal cover of Marv Johnson’s 1959 classic, “You Got What it Takes,” was released in late April 1967, skirting the psychedelic singles that would then dominate just the subsequent Summer of Love. Although the band continued to have modest success in the UK for a spell, by 1970, they quietly disbanded. The proverbial one-trick pony, the band had exhausted their unique musical template and didn’t – couldn’t – reinvent themselves as the Beatles did so with aplomb. Let’s be honest, you didn’t turn to the DC Five to figure out the mysteries of life as you did when you listened to the Moody Blues or the Pink Floyd. Ultimately, their music just made you feel better at the time. In retrospect, that was not a bad legacy to maintain.

Still, for the group’s legion of fans, we all continued to wave their banner and never stopped listening to them. We were thrilled when Dave Clark ended up working with such artists such as Freddie Mercury, Stevie Wonder, and Cliff Richard as a producer and musical entrepreneur. We rejoiced when keyboardist and singer Mike Smith began performing with his own band in 2001 after a 25-year hiatus and were stunned to discover that he still had the same umph behind his vocals. We also wept when Smith died of complications to a fall suffered at home, just two weeks before he and the band were to be formally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Happily, when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band began to steadfastly cover a batch of the DC Five’s singles onstage, we rejoiced that a new generation of fans had begun reexamining the group’s timeless music.

For Christmas 2016, my wife ended up giving me an unexpected pleasure – a turntable with a built-in speaker. I instantly fingered through my stack of old records that I had kept and quickly located The Dave Clark Five’s Greatest Hits.

Riddled with scratches made by a careless needle 50 years ago, the DC Five’s music still filled me to the brim with sustained delight. When my son, Max, asked about the cacophony of audio blemishes throughout the album, I reminded him that some were so old that they had been made while Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were still alive. “You are listening to an antique, Max, a cultural fossil from a different time and place!” I bellowed.

Max chuckled and began to listen.

“Good tunes!” he exclaimed. I merely smiled and nodded my head affirmatively. a smile planted on my face, my right foot tapping away at the beat of every song. It made a good day even that much better.

I guess that was the point The Dave Clark Five was trying to make all along. That music like theirs has the capacity to make you feel glad all over.

Image result for dave clark five

Standard

Crossing the Line: My One-Day Experience as a Baseball Beat Reporter

Related image

March 1978. I began to stir as a stream of light pierced through my bedroom blinds that face east, towards the expansive Atlantic Ocean just a few miles away. After clearing my head, I realized I could make the two hundred mile drive from the Arlington section of Jacksonville, Florida to Winter Haven—a modest hamlet situated in the central portion of the Sunshine State—in about three hours.

As I hastily left my flat, I scooped up a portable Radio Shack cassette recorder with fresh batteries. I hoped to include a few recorded interviews during my planned sojourn to the Boston Red Sox Spring Training facilities.

By reflex, I grabbed a tattered Red Sox hat on my way out of the apartment. Realizing that I would be attending an afternoon spring training game as a writer, not as a fan, I threw the Boston baseball cap onto the vacant passenger seat as I started my car.

As the bank clock adjacent to Exit 5A registered 7:30 am, my rickety ’69 Dodge Dart made its way towards Daytona on I-95 with an oppressive Florida sun shimmering off the highway blacktop. Heading southwest, I began to think–as long as I had been in love with the game of baseball, I had always assumed I would somehow end up in the sport.

After enjoying success as a player growing up in the Boston area, I somehow made my way onto the roster at nationally-ranked Jacksonville University, where I found myself buried in our bullpen like a dog’s bone in a well-worn garden. While I had pitched against such significant collegiate powers like the University of Miami and FSU early on, by this time, I had painfully acknowledged that my supposed “prowess” as a lefty on the mound would never enable me to enter the professional ranks through the constrained avenue as a player. Accordingly, in the summer of 1977, I contacted an umpiring school in Florida about possibly starting out in that lonely but honorable trade. When I received the brochure, however, I just couldn’t fill it out. I had always wanted to be Sandy Koufax – not Ed Runge.

Luckily, I had begun to find my voice as a writer. During my last year in college, I served as the editor of the university’s newspaper. Since graduating the previous spring, I found myself supplementing my job in the printing business in North Florida by working as a stringer for the Associated Press, mostly covering NCAA Division 1 basketball games featuring the University of Florida Gators and the Jacksonville University Dolphins.

I smiled as I pondered it, that the written word was about to become my doorway to the big leagues. The cobalt waters of the Atlantic framed my backside as I pulled onto the Interstate for the last major portion of the drive to Winter Haven, some 70 miles inland. A plethora of billboards upholding the virtues of both Orlando and Disney World began to peek through the stout palm trees that lined the highway.

An hour later, I turned onto Florida State Highway 27, the last thoroughfare on my itinerary. After driving past the renowned Cypress Gardens, I soon pulled into Chain O’ Lakes Park in Winter Haven, the then winter home of one of major league baseball’s most celebrated franchises, the Boston Red Sox.

Almost immediately, I was stopped by a weary parking attendant asking for my credentials. Proudly, I flashed him my pristine 1978 Spring Training Press Pass. He fingered it for a moment and then mechanically pointed to a long rectangular building off in the distance. “The Sox clubhouse is over there. You have to walk through it to get to the field beyond!” he bellowed over the din of traffic.

Instantaneously, I maneuvered my junk-heap into the choice lot next to the team’s clubhouse area. The blazing Florida heat caused my vehicle to wheeze as I turned off the ignition. My shitcan Dart looked absolutely ludicrous next to a shimmering new Cadillac, glistening in the sun like a sparkled jewel. Prominently displayed on the right rear bumper was a sticker proclaiming, “If You Outlaw Handguns, Only the Outlaws Will Have Them!” I reminded myself that I was in the heart of redneck country and felt suddenly out of place. Nevertheless, I strutted toward the Sox clubhouse with my cassette recorder in hand. I looked at my Red Sox hat on the front seat; I decided to leave it there. That day I was a reporter, not a fan.

30 seconds later, I entered a nondescript building that opened into a brightly lit chamber. A row of lockers greeted me as I began to saunter through the outsized room. The pulsating beat of a Latin American samba echoed from an unwieldy speaker in the clubhouse.

Emerging from a whirlpool and smoking a long stogie was none other than Luis Tiant, a legendary Red Sox pitcher who was at the height of a brilliant eighteen-year career in the big leagues. “El Tiante” paid no attention to me as he wrapped a towel around his body and began to dance to the music. As the Red Sox starting pitcher circled to the tune, puffs of smoke formed a cloud near the ceiling above.

In 1978, Luis Tiant was my favorite Boston player. And there he was, dancing away less than 20 feet away in the Red Sox clubhouse! I’d officially enter The Twilight Zone. Somehow, I snapped back to reality and walked briskly through the room to find the nearest exit. I was there to get a story and would not interrupt the Boston pitcher who was oblivious to my meager presence.

I quickly ditched the clubhouse and skirted out onto an emerald field, which had just been watered down. While there was a handful of Sox players within shouting distance, a wave of trepidation consumed me as I tiptoed onto the spongy playing surface. My dream of being on a big league field among major-leaguers was suddenly realized. For a decade-and-a-half, I had dreamt of scrambling up Mount Olympus, and yet, now that I was there, I discovered I couldn’t speak to the bronzed idols circumventing the bulky iron cage jutting out around home plate. As I glanced again at the home plate area, shortstop Rick Burleson and second baseman Jerry Remy were leaning against the cage, bats in hand, laughing at the antics of outfielder Bernie Carbo, pretending to employ his bat as a cue-stick in a billiards game.

Sheepishly, I turned in the direction of two young men near the warning track in right field, dressed in civilian clothing – obviously reporters –and steeped in conversation. For the first time in my life, I felt more comfortable with two journalists than with the players encircling the field.

I closed in and gestured to the two reporters. “Hi,” I croaked, “my name is Shaun Kelly. I am from Boston, but I work for the Associated Press out of Jacksonville.”

“Hi, Shaun,” one of them replied. “You’d better face home plate instead of at us because the Sox are about to take BP.”

“Oh, sorry,” I muttered, embarrassed beyond belief.

I gazed at the batting cage and spotted a left-handed batter crouching in an irregular stance, his bat swaying forward like a flagpole in a gale. As the white ball was delivered to the plate, Carl Michael Yastrzemski’s bat uncoiled like a conductor’s baton.

Crack.

Instantaneously, the ball whizzed over me. A ball hit by the Great Number Eight, Yaz, the first American League player to have 3000 hits and 400 plus home runs. The screech of the sphere passing over my head brought me to my senses. Yastrzemski motioned to the accommodating batting practice pitcher for another pitch. I looked closer and realized that Eddie Popowski, the famed third base coach of the ’67 Impossible Dream Red Sox, was throwing BP to the renowned Red Sox left fielder.

Immediately, I reverted to the batting circle. Carl’s sniper eyes converged in on another pitch. Crack. My eyes grew larger as another sphere lashed into the air, gathering momentum as it approached us.

“Your first time, Shaun?” one of the reporters sighed.

“Yes,” I said meekly. They could smell a rookie a mile away.

“My name’s Peter Gammons of The Boston Globe,” stated the reporter matter-of-factly. He stuck out his hand and gave me a firm handshake. “This is my friend, Tom Boswell.”

I glanced at the other reporter as a cordial smile promptly appeared on a broad, patrician face. “Hi, Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post. Heads up!” Crack. Another bazooka launch from home plate carved our group in two.

“The old man can still shell them out,” Gammons exclaimed, pointing to the batting cage where Yastrzemski, the winner of four batting titles, was hitting.

“I see that Yaz is working on another new stance. A genuine sign of spring!” laughed Boswell. We smiled collectively. For longtime Red Sox fans, Captain Carl’s annual experimentation with new batting stances was nothing less than insolence against advancing age.

I continued to watch the fabled Number Eight battle fate, time, and the game itself. As I looked at him closely, I realized that nothing was ever easy for Carl Yastrzemski. I pressed the record button on the cassette recorder and whispered a note: “The harder Yaz works, the more unlikely it is for him to surrender.” Silence began to engulf the three of us as we continued to watch Yaz. I wanted to linger in this intimate circle longer, but I knew I was a provisional member, at best. To break the quietness, I bleated out, “Is Ted Williams here today?”

“Oh, yes,” replied Gammons. “He’s off in the minor league complex working with some of the rookies. If he were here, you’d have surely heard him by now!” Boswell and I snickered, knowing that was true about the retired Boston legend who then habitually worked with “his kids” during Spring Training.

Crack. I looked up and observed a white sphere disappearing into the orange grove beyond the reaches of the outfield. I had seen Carl Yastrzemski hit innumerable home runs since 1963, my first year following the club, but not from this angle! I remained standing near the worn part of right field, the spot where the regulars transformed the area into a shallow patch.

Crack. I looked up as Yaz swung from his heels. The ball whistled over first base and seemed to pick up speed as it headed toward us. I skipped out of the way as the white blur hurtled past me.

“Looks like he’s aiming for you!” chortled Gammons. The reporters chuckled as we moved past the right field foul line.

After explaining my motivation, I asked the two men which Sox players might be amicable enough to accommodate a struggling reporter with a short interview on the field. “Most of the backups are pretty reasonable, “Gammons volunteered. “Some of the regulars are, by nature, not the friendliest people in the world. You learn to live with it in this job. It’s part of the business.”

Just then, I noticed Bill Lee doing wind sprints in the outfield. Lee, an iconoclast of the first order, had appropriately been nicknamed “The Spaceman” by announcer Ned Martin. Lee, who famously had admitted to smoking pot in the Red Sox bullpen and had counted Jerry Garcia and Warren Zevon as two of his close friends, was the embodiment of the generational gulf that I had already observed on the field. In the bluest state in America at the time, Massachusetts, Bill Lee was already a veritable icon. The Spaceman approached the outfield where we were still huddled forth like a crowded island. “Lee might give me an interview; am I right?”

“Normally, yes, “replied Gammons, “he loves the spotlight, but this spring, Bill’s been avoiding the press. I doubt he’d give you–or any of us–the time of day right now, especially with the season almost upon us.”

“Well, I am going to try anyway,” I smiled as Gammons nodded, emitting a slight chuckle in the process. I thanked both reporters for spending a few minutes with such a conspicuous novice. They shook my hand warmly as I left the outfield.

I silently crept away from them as Boswell spit out a few observations on other camps around the Grapefruit League. The Globe baseball writer started to take down notes as Boswell spoke in rapid fire; some of the tidbits would be subsequently used in Gammons’ Sunday “Baseball Notes” column.

As I sauntered near the first base bag, I noticed the Red Sox third baseman was headed towards the Boston clubhouse. Remembering that Gammons claimed Hobson was an agreeable sort, I blurted out, “Excuse me, Butch. Can I ask you a few questions?”

He turned around and appraised me with weary eyes. Hobson was dripping sweat but proved too much of a gentleman to turn a juvenile correspondent aside. “Okay, for sure,” he mumbled with a soft Alabama drawl.

We sat on a bench adjacent to the Red Sox clubhouse. I held my cassette player and asked him a series of inane questions. I concluded the two-minute interview by inquiring, “And what about the Yankees?”

“Whatever team outlasts the other will be the one who wins,” Butch replied. “It’s gonna be a dogfight all the way. I think we have the horses to do it. We have a lot of gamers on this side of the field. We’ll get it done, or there’ll be heck to pay up in Boston!”

I thanked the young Sox third baseman, noting to myself that he poured more clichés down on me than sparks in a firestorm.

As the chivalrous Red Sox infielder sprinted away from me, veteran Sox players Dwight Evans and Fred Lynn approached my bench from the batting cage. The two mates were chortling as they drew near – Lynn cracked up as Evans replicated Yaz’s new stance. In a game where failure is more ubiquitous than success, laughter is the only preemptive strike against madness.

In the past, I might have said hello to both Dwight and Freddy. But I had been part of a fraternal baseball collective in college, however, so I knew to keep my mouth shut. The two players skated by me to the shelter of the Boston clubhouse.

Haphazardly, I glanced down at the cassette recorder that was begging for more interviews. I wondered if I could muster up the gumption to talk to another Sox player. Had I somehow crossed a line that I shouldn’t step over?

Moments later, I glanced at the stands and noticed more and more people filing into Chain O’Lakes Park. Hundreds streamed in like a horde of bees. The vast majority of fans were wearing blue or red Boston baseball caps. I touched my hatless head and suddenly felt utterly exposed.

“I should be sitting with them,” I thought.

Moments later, I detected a solitary Boston player completing his wind sprints in the haze of the outfield. Before I knew it, he was lollygagging my way, bathed in perspiration, his left hand playfully juggling a baseball like a ball of Silly Putty.

I considered what Gammons had told me earlier about Bill Lee not talking to the press, but now the fan in me wanted desperately to speak to him. The last bit of reporter left in me began to wonder if Lee might possibly talk to me, a neophyte.

In 1978, WCAS in Cambridge, Massachusetts was an alternative folk-rock station whose playlist ranged from Richard Thompson to Patti Smith to John Prine. The tiny, 5,000-watt station could barely be picked up beyond the Newton hills and through some obscure FCC ruling, ‘CAS could only broadcast from sunup to sundown. Since its inception, WCAS, like Bill Lee, always marched to its own drummer.

I made a bold move to get Lee to talk to me. Instinctively, I surmised that Lee was probably a keen listener of the station. “Excuse me, Bill,” I barked. “I am a stringer for WCAS in Cambridge. Can I talk to you?”

Lee’s chocolate eyes widened; he broke into a bemused smirk when he observed the el-cheapo recording system in my shuddering hands.

“You must have come down here on your own time and money. I can’t see that station spending money sending anyone down here.”

Man, he is smart, I thought. “You’re right Bill,” I retorted, “I’m here on my own. Could I ask you a few questions anyway?”

“You know, I really like ‘CAS,” he began, looking me directly in the eyes. “I can usually pick up the signal near the Belmont-Cambridge line—in the afternoon, of course.”

Lee suddenly dropped down on the bench next to me as the sun dropped, quilt-like, over the grandstand behind us. I instantly raised the issue of the Yankees in my opening salvo to the Red Sox lefty pitcher. He looked out at the field as the visiting Minnesota Twins begin fielding practice. “The Yankees will always be a force. The gods have determined that, of course. However, the challenge over the years has been to confront the notion of predestination. In so doing, one defies fate. I’m a fate buster.”

I waited for him to finish and then asked, “Don’t you feel that this year, particularly with pitcher Dennis Eckersley having just been traded to Boston, that this is the year for all of you to change that fate?”

He chewed on the inquiry and then replied, “Hopefully, but it’s all out of our hands. All 25 of us could come down with hamstrings on the same day. You ride it out, hoping that the wind will be blowing your way at the end of the day.”

I then commented on the teeming pack of fans and the wave of press engulfing the team whenever it traveled. He immediately gestured out to the infield, “There is a certain magnitude to all of this, I guess. Still, I’ve never forgotten how, in one sense, we are not very important compared to what social workers or teachers or doctors or nurses do on a daily basis.”

As I continued listening to the Red Sox pitcher, Tom Boswell and Peter Gammons walked by us, their eyes wide open. I could hear slight laughter in the background as the two reporters walked together to the batting cage.

I looked back at Lee who began to finger a baseball as he continued his sermon: “I find myself playing for the Boston Red Sox in Boston, Massachusetts, New England. Who’s to say that if I ever end up in a commune outside of Spokane, Washington that I actually might find a greater truth ultimately? Some of us need to get perspective in life,” Lee spat out emphatically as a purposeful Carl Yastrzemski walked by, careful not to glance at the quixotic Red Sox hurler.

He ended the interview with this thought: “You know, our entire universe could be encased in an atom on the fingernail of a much greater being – so we all have to keep perspective of the comings and goings of our lives. Whatever we do in life, information is processed and then regurgitated—only to then be forgotten. Nothing lasts in this world. The earth continues to rotate regardless of our successes or failures—and will do so no matter what happens this season.”

“The Spaceman” abruptly got up, grabbed my hand, and shook it earnestly. “Hey, kid,” Lee smiled, “you tell ‘CAS not to ‘sell out.’ So many do these days, but you probably know that already.”

Lee’s last words hit me between the eyes.

Despite my success in securing a Lee interview–even under somewhat false pretenses–I felt somehow tainted. As I stumbled away from the bench and towards the Red Sox clubhouse, I asked myself, “What the hell am I doing here?”

Image result for bill lee 1978 red sox

Over the course of the next four hours, I completely embarrassed myself by welcoming pitching stud Dennis Eckersley to the Red Sox during his first official press conference with the team; fumbled an interview with closer Bill “Soup” Campbell, whose exasperation with me left me disconsolate; observed Yaz in a screaming match with a mortified fan over an autograph; sat and listened to a number of jaded reporters in the crowded Chain O’ Lakes press box while they gossiped about the lives of many of the players; and passively watched as the local press interviewed Jim Rice and Carlton Fisk at the end of the game.  I hadn’t even bothered to tape Fisk’s and Rice’s responses to the press, even though I had stood five feet away from the two future Hall of Famers. As the day progressed, I found myself wanting to chuck the cassette recorder away and join my baseball brethren in the stands.

After the last player left the clubhouse at the end of the afternoon, I found myself sitting alone in one of the seats near the Boston dugout. While the notes I secured would be used as the basis of a future story – and WCAS would receive my interview as well – I realized I did cross a line I had never wanted to step over. I looked at the press box one last time and ripped up my official MLB press pass. 

Moments later, I circled the outer lining of the park as the sun began to peek its way toward the shadows behind the orange grove in centerfield. I trudged towards my Dodge Dart, aware that I had a lot of hard driving ahead of me. I figured I could make Jacksonville by 8:30 if there was no traffic. I got into my car and threw my cassette recorder brusquely on the passenger seat.

Off in the distance, a familiar figure could be seen approaching the parking lot from the adjacent minor league complex. The echo of his shoes hitting the pavement reverberated off the elevated press box behind the lot. Heading in my direction, the approaching man seemed like a lone sheriff inspecting the main thoroughfare of a Western frontier town. He approached the car parked next to mine, saddled up to his pallid Cadillac, and disappeared behind the tinted glass.

Instinctively, I rolled down the driver-side window. Not knowing really what to say, I finally blurted out, “Thank you, sir!”

Slowly, his passenger window mechanically stopped halfway; the gentleman’s creased face became a fissure behind the glare of the sun. He stared at my youthful eyes, puzzled, and then made an educated guess. “No problem, kid!” he roared, his voice cutting through the air like a machete. “Remember, always swing with a slight uppercut.

“I will,” I grinned, thrilled beyond belief that the great Ted Williams concluded I was one of the many Red Sox prospects he had helped earlier in the minor league batting cage.

Watching my reaction to his morsel of advice, “The Splendid Splinter” flashed me a smile and motioned an abbreviated wave. He then closed the window of his car, ignited the engine, and leisurely pulled out of the Red Sox players’ parking lot. I smile as I observed the “If You Only Outlaw Handguns – Only the Outlaws Will Have Them” sticker that covered his right bumper.

“Of course,” I laughed to myself, “Williams would have that on his car!”

I cranked up my own car as the baseball legend’s car disappeared in the distance.

When I thought about it later, I found it fascinating that I had cried out “thank you” to Ted Williams. On the evening of Number Nine’s death 24 years later, I finally figured it out. Intuitively, I wanted to thank him back then for being the greatest hitter of all time; for being the greatest Red Sox player to ever wear a Boston uniform; and for serving our country so nobly in two separate wars. Most importantly, my show of gratitude for “Teddy Ballgame” had come from the heart of a fan. 

After Williams left that afternoon, I put on the Boston baseball cap I had left behind earlier in the day. Within moments, my car pulled out onto Florida State Highway 27.

My one-day career as a baseball reporter was forever in the rearview mirror.

Image result for ted williams coaching

Standard

Teachers and Guns Don’t Mix

Image result for teachers and guns

Like nurses, doctors, and the clergy, the vast majority of us of us who are teachers view our profession as a calling. To paraphrase fellow educator Brad Henry, a good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instill a lifelong passion for learning in children. We don’t teach for the money. We teach to nurture and shape humankind’s most precious commodity – children. The payback is in the give-and-take of learning, fostering, mentoring, and the profound joy that comes with discovering something new. Ultimately, the best teachers dare their students to find the best within themselves.

Thus, when President Donald Trump speculates that American teachers could be “on the front lines” armed and ready to confront mass killers, it struck a chord in all of us who are instructors. After all, there have been a number of educators in recent years who have bravely put themselves in front of the children they teach in order to protect them from such madmen. All you have to do is to Google Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Aaron Feis, Scott Beigel, or Christopher Hixon and you’ll learn what authentic courage and selflessness really mean. From this lens, virtually every teacher I know would instinctively step in front of a gunman to save his or her kids. After all, we are in the business of saving lives.

But to put a gun in a teacher’s hand? Almost every instructor I know would refuse to do so. Why? For something that educators would inherently understand but many who are not might find perplexing. As one colleague said to me earlier today, “I would immediately think of those children who are already filled to the brim with anxiety and stress. The trust they have for their teachers would quickly dissipate if they knew their teachers were armed. They are not looking for policemen on the block. They are looking for someone to understand them.”

All of us who teach these days know that we are in the front lines of insanity because American politicians as a group do not dare to do what is right and seek sane reform in the area of gun control. Your guns or your children? What is more important to you? That’s rather stark, but the truth can sometimes hurt. Every day for the rest of this school year, we teachers will be there for our kids and their futures. When you think about it, everything else is secondary.

Standup comic Tim Hanlon made a most salient point this afternoon in a series of tweets, which he posted hours after the shooting. He reminded his followers that Chris Kyle, the most prodigious American sniper in recent military history, was shot and killed in 2013 by Eddie Ray Routh, who used a 9mm SIG Sauer pistol. Ultimately, the former Navy SEAL was killed by a deranged veteran with a gun. I wonder if  America’s teachers could stop such a killer if Chris Kyle could not? Given that there were 8,000 American casualties to friendly fire during the Vietnam War, imagine the damage that might occur in a school with an ill-trained, armed teacher?

If common sense and practical gun control can somehow form the basis of a sane approach to the issue, then our nation will be better for it. If that occurs, then American teachers can, in the words of Einstein, continue “to awaken the joy of creative expression and knowledge” within each child and teenager under their immaculate care.

Image may contain: 1 person

Standard