An Overlooked Accomplishment by Aaron Sorkin

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BY STEVEN ROSEN/ DEEPER INTO MOVIES / FEBRUARY 21, 2011

REVIEW: STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP: THE COMPLETE SERIES (WARNER HOME VIDEO)

Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network is probably going to get an Oscar on Sunday, and deservedly so. But a previous accomplishment by this writer, who knows how to tackle topical ideas about the role of media in society and offer complex, compelling characters, has been unjustly overlooked. Hopefully, Social Network will encourage people to take a second look at Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — a great television series.

As they did with Lisa Kudrow’s superb but ill-fated The Comeback, TV critics mistakenly attacked the daring Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sorkin’s knowing, brainy and fantastically acted follow-up to the The West Wing. They labeled it “pretentious” and “not funny enough.” As a result, the show never got the buzz it needed to be a success, and NBC canceled it after its first season. It was on for 22 episodes, from 2006-07.

It’s a great loss. This drama — it’s not a comedy — ostensibly is about the struggle of two head writers/producers (Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford, both excellent, with Perry a revelation) to put on a weekly Saturday Night Live-like comedy show.

But that’s just the window into Studio 60‘s real subject — the ethics, policies and politics of network television. And, next to the White House, what better institution for Sorkin’s lacerating, fast-paced and quick-witted writing style? The best of these 22 episodes include sizzling, literate, argumentative back-and-forth among Perry, Whitford, Steven Weber as the network chairman and Amanda Peet as the network president. Grade: A

(Adapted from an earlier Cincinnati CityBeat review)

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Noah Purifoy Exhibit Showcases a Great Artist

BY STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / MARCH 23, 2016

 

THE current 30 Americans show at the Cincinnati Art Museum offers a good chance to see work by key African-American contemporary artists.

All well and good, but you should also definitely get to the Wexner Center for the Arts in nearby Columbus by April 10 to see the retrospective show of another contemporary black artist, the late Noah Purifoy.

It’s called Junk Dada, and I believe you’ll leave it impressed — not just by the quality of his work and vision, but also by his importance to the art and American social and political thought of our times.

The Wexner is the only museum to present this exhibition besides the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which organized it. That speaks to how little-known the Alabama-born Purifoy is outside of Los Angeles, where he lived and worked for much of his career. (He lived and worked as a social worker in Cleveland before moving to L.A. in 1950; he died at age 87 in 2004.)

But it doesn’t speak to how powerful and influential an artist he was, creating assemblage, collage, sculpture and environmental installations in a way that acknowledged outsider art but was also the intentional conceptual work of a trained artist.

Further, his art was community-based while also being forcefully individualistic. He eventually moved to the remote California town of Joshua Tree, where he used his vision and knack for salvaging material to create a new arts-based community in the desert. His Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum now outlives him, as part of the nonprofit Noah Purifoy Foundation.

I’d compare him favorably with Robert Rauschenberg, David Smith, Thornton Dial and Donald Judd, and also to today’s artists who reclaim throwaway objects, like Mark Bradford (who is in 30 Americans) and the Ghana-born El Anatsui.

His journey as an artist cries out for a motion picture. After moving to L.A., he received a B.F.A. at the Chouinard Art Institute, which is now the California Institute of the Arts. He was almost 40 when he graduated. With his background in both art and social work, he came out of school with a keen interest in non-traditional, socially relevant object making.

Junk Dada brings together some 70 of his pieces, showing off his gift in such works as the 1958 surrealist woodwork “Untitled (Bed Headboard)”; 1989’s wearily splendorous assemblage “Rags and Old Iron I (After Nina Simone)”; and 1967’s wonderfully colorful, mixed-media “Untitled,” which uses the frame of an umbrella as a starting point.

The show has much information and photographs about the Outdoor Museum as well as one of his greatest projects — organizing the 1966 traveling exhibit 66 Signs of Neon.

At the time, he was director of L.A.’s Watts Towers Arts Center, drawing inspiration from that monumental creation of the visionary Simon Rodia while also working to connect this idiosyncratic work of outsider art to the black community surrounding it.

After the Watts rebellion/riots of 1965, Purifoy and other artists created 66 sculptures from the debris. The exhibit features a photograph of two women walking past a mountain of post-riots wreckage to show the challenge. Anyone who has ever dismissed the importance of “junk” as art-making material should sense the meaning that Purifoy instilled into it here. The project is a landmark, combining foreboding about the fire next time with hope for a better future.

I stumbled onto Purifoy’s 10-acre Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum accidentally when visiting the nearby national park in the early-2000s. He had moved there in 1989, starting a new chapter in his life in a vastly different environment from urban L.A.

He had a tract of relatively barren land that was filled with salvaged, reassembled material that served as a portal into an alternate version of the “real” landscape. He transformed it all into a village where the pieces of wood and metal, the salvaged toilets and bowling balls and who knows what else all fit together. There were other people there, walking and talking, treating the site like both a museum and an amusement park.

It took awhile to learn about his background and understand the intellectual underpinnings and decades of experience behind his work.

After Junk Dada, I believe he’s so important he should have his own museum. Fortunately, in Joshua Tree he does. Everyone should go. More information: wexarts.org.

Tommy James: The Rocker who Tried to Influence a Presidential Election

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BY STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / AUG 20, 2008 

The presidential campaign shifts into super-high gear Monday, when the Democratic National Convention begins in Denver.

And if presumptive nominee Barack Obama emerges from Denver as the party’s standard-bearer, he will be able to count on active support from many Rock and Pop stars. Already, according to Wikipedia, such names as 50 Cent, Arcade Fire, Sheryl Crow, The Decemberists, Wyclef Jean, John Mellencamp, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen, Rufus Wainwright, Kanye West — even Bob Dylan — have endorsed Obama.

While Obama is bringing it to a new level, support for Democratic presidential candidates by Rock stars (as well as other performers of youth-oriented or -originated music) is hardly new. But one man who could make a strong case for pioneering it, were he alive today, would be Hubert Horatio Humphrey.

In 1968, while serving as Vice President and running for President, Humphrey campaigned with Tommy James & the Shondells, whose Garage-Rock-tinged dance tunes like “Hanky Panky” and “Mony Mony” had brought them Top 40 fame at the time. The band played at numerous Humphrey campaign stops. (Humphrey also received an endorsement from James Brown that year.)

The year 1968 was when Boomer-generation young people made their voices heard in politics — usually in protest, sometimes violently. Though a Democrat and mainstream liberal, then-57-year-old Humphrey was the target for a lot of that protest.

Humphrey had trouble breaking with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and was nominated amid the police riot against youthful demonstrators during the infamous Chicago Democratic convention. As a result, he couldn’t quite unite his party and just barely lost to Richard Nixon.

As The Charlotte Observer reported when the Shondells opened for Humphrey in October, “For the first time, presidential candidates are catering to the growing bloc of young people just under 21, or over the 18-year-old voting age in some states.” (This was before the 1971 federal law giving 18-year-olds the right to vote.)

Today, James — a Dayton native — is a youthful-looking 61 and on the oldies circuit. A few months ago, he played a sweaty, vigorous set at Grand Victoria Casino in Rising Sun, Ind., working loudly with a younger band — to an older crowd — through his late-1960s hits, which also included “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mirage” and “Sweet Cherry Wine.”

Backstage before the show, dressed in a “Censorship Off/Free Speech On” T-shirt, James eagerly recalled his work for Humphrey in 1968. With him was an original Shondell, bassist Mike Vale, who had come to visit.

“We had been asked to play (in May) for the Democratic Party at a generic rally,” he says. “We weren’t endorsing any candidate. We played in the afternoon and there war protesters calling us sellouts.” (James says he believes the Lovin’ Spoonful also played.)

After Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated on the night of the June California Democratic primary, James says he went into a funk for several weeks. That was broken when Humphrey’s secretary called his record label to see if he might be able to appear with the Vice President after the convention, assuming Humphrey won the nomination. James agreed, thinking anyone would be better than Nixon.

The Shondells first opened for Humphrey at a rally in Wheeling, W. Va., and met the candidate and his wife, Muriel. “We became his opening act,” James says.

For Humphrey, James figured, his band was a way to attract young people and increase crowds. But, he now surmises, there was more to it than that.

“He wanted very much to be taken seriously by young people,” James says. “He wanted to know how he was viewed, and I was 21 years old.”

As a result, James says, a friendship developed that included late-night, post-rally talks on a variety of topics. At one point, he says, Humphrey asked his take on calling for a national referendum on ending the war. Another time, James says, he was asked to become Humphrey’s advisor on youth affairs if he won the election.

“He wanted everything from Rock festivals to an open dialogue with young people,” James says. “It really bothered him he was thought of in such a terrible way, as a warmonger.”

After the election, the Shondells made a splash with a new sound, the neo-psychedelic Pop Rock of “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” Humphrey wrote the liner notes to the resulting album, Crimson & Clover.

Hubert Horatio “Skip” Humphrey III, 66, the vice president’s son and a former Minnesota elected official himself, was eager to talk about James’ relationship with his father.

“I know that Tommy James and his group were helpful in the 1968 campaign,” he says in a phone interview from his Minnesota home. “My wife and I had an opportunity to be with them a couple of times. I don’t recall the specifics, but I can assure you that Tommy James and his group were supportive of Dad and helpful.”

Also eager to speak about the relationship was the late vice president himself — courtesy of a tape of a post-election radio interview sent by James in a package of newspaper clips and other corroborative materials.

“We used to sit up late at night and discuss politics after they’d entertain for us,” Humphrey says on the tape. “Gee, they’re fine young men. At midnight, we’d sit around and have a visit and talk about what had happened during the day. These are bright young men that want to know a lot about their country.”

Incidentally, James now favors Obama.

“What we need is a breath of fresh air,” he says. “I really believe what we need most is somebody to make us feel good about ourselves.”

 

 

The Cincinnati/Weegee Connection and Other Discoveries During a Trip to L.A. Art Shows

CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / MAR 6, 2012 

(Nam June Paik’s “Video Flag Z”)

Sometimes you have to leave Ohio — and Cincinnati — to discover how many interesting and unusual connections there are between the Buckeye State and the larger world of modern/contemporary arts and design.

That was brought home to me, in varied and stimulating ways, when I ventured to Los Angeles recently to see Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980. This massive show, years in the planning, involved 60-some cultural institutions and looked at the evolution and worldwide impact of Southern California art and design. Going to Los Angeles for the show also gave me the opportunity to see one major museum building, new since I moved from there in 2007 — the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 

The Broad displays some of the largest contemporary pieces in L.A. public collections. And on the main floor was Nam June Paik’s 1987 “Video Flag Z.” This museum-owned work, in which TV monitors show video images that comprise a large American flag, has pride of place on a central wall — at least during a show called Human Nature — because it has just undergone restoration. 

“Video Flag Z,” it turns out, exists because of a working relationship Paik had with Cincinnati’s Carl Solway at the time. 

“The piece was built in Cincinnati, first exhibited at Chicago Art Fair in 1985,” Solway explained in an email. “There were three versions — ‘Flag X,’ the Chicago-exhibited version, sold to Detroit Art Institute; the Chase Bank purchased ‘Flag Y’ for their collection; and LA County Museum purchased ‘Flag Z.’ ”

Moving from that into LACMA’s Pacific Standard Time-related show, California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way, I quickly was confronted with another Ohio connection. Perhaps the key iconic piece in the exhibit is from an Ohio company, Airstream of Jackson Center. Modernist in form and in its vision of the American open road, the 1936 aluminum-body Airstream Clipper on display was designed by the company’s founder, Wally Byam. He created Airstream trailers in L.A., where they were manufactured from 1932-1979. But the company opened its Ohio plant in 1952, part of its post-World War II expansion. In an odd case of reverse migration, that’s where it is located today.

Probably the most interesting connection of all — another Cincinnati one — occurred at the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art’s Pacific Standard Time entry, Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles. Weegee (Arthur Fellig), the New York crime/street-life photographer who was propelled to fame after a 1945 book, Naked City, became a best-seller and prompted a movie, used the proceeds to move to L.A. and pursue a career.

I was struck by the fact that the 1945 clothbound copy of Naked City on display — the edition that triggered his fame — had been published by Zebra Picture Books of Cincinnati. According to MOCA, it sold through six printings, at 25 cents a copy, in its first year. (The unabridged hardbound version, also published in 1945, was from New York’s Essential Books.) 

And in trying to learn about Zebra Picture Books, I discovered George S. Rosenthal, part of the printing/publishing family that owned S. Rosenthal & Co. (Richard Rosenthal was his cousin.) He died young, not yet 45, in 1967, but his legacy is preserved by his wife, Jean Bloch of Cincinnati. She has provided his work to Cincinnati Historical Society and recently spoke to me about him in a phone call.

In 1944, when he was about to enter the family business and already interested in photography, he attended a summer session at Chicago’s Bauhaus-inspired Institute of Design under photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, which inspired his subsequent work. 

Collaborating with editor Frank Zachary, soon after the war he published a beautiful one-time magazine/yearbook called Jazzways. It was followed by the way-ahead-of-its-time graphic-arts magazine Portfolio, which apparently lasted three issues and featured work by Charles Eames, Alexander Calder, Richard Avedon, Saul Steinberg, Ben Shahn and others.

Rosenthal, meanwhile, pursued his own photo projects, such as one of Mexican ruins and another documenting the pre-expressway architecture of the West End. The Historical Society has these. 

Zebra Picture Books seems to have been more pop-oriented — besides Naked City, other titles were Life and Death in Hollywood and Murder Incorporated (about the Mafia). I looked through Jazzways at the Historical Society and it’s extremely impressive, with articles and photographs devoted to New Orleans, Chicago and elsewhere.

I look forward to finding out more about his work — he deserves renewed attention. Thanks, L.A., for introducing him to me

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com

The Mystery of Woody Guthrie’s “Ludlow Massacre”

Above: A portrait of folk singer Woody Guthrie by artist Charles Banks Wilson hangs in the Oklahoma state Capitol. Left: Guthrie was a song- writer who employed patriotism and protest.
Above: A portrait of folk singer Woody Guthrie by artist Charles Banks Wilson hangs in the Oklahoma state Capitol. Guthrie was a song- writer who employed patriotism and protest.

“My Dusty Road,” a boxed set of songs that the hard-travelin’, populist singer-songwriter of “This Land Is Your Land” recorded in the early 1940s, is a candidate for 2009’s best reissue. It recently received Grammy nominations for best historical album and best album notes.

Guthrie, who died at age 55 in 1967 after a long, debilitating illness, is considered the greatest of American folk singers, mixing anti- status-quo political protest with humor and patriotism. He was a key influence on Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and their followers.

Among his songs is the poetic Depression-era anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” included in “My Dusty Road.” (A recent version, by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, opens the current film “Up In the Air,” a top Oscar candidate about job loss in today’s America.)

“My Dusty Road” has been especially heralded for the way its pristine source material — metal master recordings recently discovered in a Brooklyn basement — afford a vitality missing from other versions of its songs.

But for all the improved sonic clarity, the record’s inclusion of the song “The Ludlow Massacre” only heightens the mystery about the tune. Guthrie recorded the vividly descriptive, pro-union song in 1944, when he was just past 30, and three decades after the infamous event in southern Colorado.

During a 15-month strike by coal miners against Colorado Fuel & Iron Co. of Trinidad, the Colorado National Guard on April 20, 1914, engaged strikers in a gun battle at a tent colony in Ludlow, killing seven men and a boy. Then, the Guard set fire to the camp, killing two mothers and 11 children hiding in a dirt bunker. That launched a rebellion that the U.S. Army had to come in and control.

Overall, according to author Scott Martelle of “Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West,” some 75 people died in the battles. The United Mine Workers put a monument at Ludlow in 1918. In 2003, vandals defaced it. The UMW repaired the damaged statuary, and last June the site was declared a National Historic Landmark.

Guthrie’s pro-union song, from the miners’ point-of-view, recalls the horrors of the massacre yet also exhibits their pride at exacting revenge

“The state soldiers jumped us in wire fence corner,

They did not know that we had these guns,

And the red neck miners mowed down those troopers,

You should have seen those poor boys run.”

Yet at the time the recording first came out, the U.S. was in the middle of a war against the Nazis (and the Japanese) that the patriotic leftist Guthrie so enthusiastically supported he placed a “This machine kills fascists” sign on his guitar. (“My Dusty Road” also has the intensely pro-American “Talking Sailor,” for instance.) It would be like Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle — two Guthrie-influenced singers — railing against the 1970 Kent State shootings after 9/11.

“Mother” Bloor’s influence

“The right to belong in a union was so recent, with the New Deal, that (activists) wanted to honor people for their part in the struggle,” says Kathleen Nutter, a history lecturer at Stony Brook University. “So to identify with something like that from 30 years earlier wasn’t that unusual.”

Much of Guthrie’s motivation for writing “Ludlow Massacre” had to do with his admiration for a remarkably colorful but now-forgotten, rabble-rousing figure in American — especially Western American — labor history named Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor. She was a founder of the Socialist Democratic Party in 1897, then joined the Socialist Party, and was a founder of the American Communist Party in 1919. She tirelessly campaigned on behalf of striking workers.

Guthrie was a communist sympathizer. He sang in the early 1940s with the Almanac Singers, a political/protest/pro-union folk group that included then-communist-influenced Seeger.

“Was Woody a member of the Communist Party? No,” says Ed Cray, his biographer, who also wrote “My Dusty Road’s” Grammy-nominated liner notes. “Did he sympathize generally with communist philosophy? No.

“But he did feel strongly that Communists were the only people doing anything about the things he cared a great deal about. Woody was a very early civil-rights advocate.”

Cray says Guthrie was moved to write “Ludlow Massacre” around 1941, after reading Bloor’s 1940 autobiography, “We Are Many.” In her book, Bloor recounts being in Trinidad, in the thick of Ludlow strike planning, on behalf of the socialists. After the massacre, she writes, she attended a dinner for the strikers in Trinidad: “Miners from Ludlow were there, fathers of the murdered children. As they went out after supper, the women quietly put a gun in the hand of each man.”

Only a legend

Guthrie uses her account for his lyrics. There’s just one problem. Martelle (told about Bloor’s account by this reporter) called it false. If she played any role at Ludlow, it was minor, he says. And Nutter, who studied Bloor’s archives at Smith College, says Ann Barton ghostwrote Bloor’s book when the activist was in her late 70s.

“It is quite embellished,” Nutter says. “It’s more ‘as told to,’ and her memory is not the best, and she’s a little like the Woody Allen character Zelig who is at every important moment in labor movement.”

Bloor and Guthrie were already friends before he read her book. In the 1930s, she gave fundraising hootenannies, known as Mother Bloor’s Birthday Party, at her farm in Pennsylvania, and Guthrie performed there.

“One of my favorite pieces in her papers at Smith is a crumpled-up old brown paper bag, and in red lettering it says ‘better red than dead — love, Woody,’ ” Nutter says.

“He had given her something in the bag and she had saved it. It was part of her papers. I’ve always wondered what was in that bag.”

In 2008, the Song of the Year Was a 45-year-old Soul Classic

Climate Change

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BY STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / DEC. 23, 2008

When Aretha Franklin takes to the stage at President Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, it would be fitting if she were to serenade him and his guests with the late Sam Cooke’s anthemic “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.

Appropriate for her, since she recorded a searching, pleading, transcendently Gospel-derived version for her breakthrough Atlantic Records album of 1967, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. That’s the album that contained “Respect” and indeed brought her respect as the Queen of Soul, a designation so powerful she was just chosen by Rolling Stone the greatest singer of the Rock era. (Cooke, incidentally, ranked fourth.)

But it’s also appropriate for Obama. During 2008, the song has come to represent not just his quest to become President — the nation’s first African-American one — but also to bring about a better, post-Bush America once he’s in office. And the success of his campaign has come to signify the whole arc of the civil rights movement, from the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to the White House.

Throughout the year, as Obama’s quest gained ground, the song also gained renewed momentum — versions kept showing up on albums by veterans like Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and newcomers like Americana singer Ben Sollee and Jazz horn player Anat Cohen. It was as if there was a willed, telepathic connection between it and the campaign. It even made it to American Idol.

Arcade Fire, early Obama supporters, started performing it in concert. A version of the band doing it live during an Obama benefit at Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville, Ohio (near Athens) made it to YouTube before being removed over copyright issues.

Not that Obama was quick to embrace Cooke’s song, however. He at first seemed to want to maintain distance from its symbolic implications that his campaign was a logical evolution of the civil rights movement. Instead of playing it at the conclusion of his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Denver, where its use would have been striking, he instead chose the raucously patriotic Brooks & Dunn Country tune, “Only in America.”

But at his election-night victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park, Obama seemed to embrace the song. He almost directly quoted from it when he said, “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight change has come to America.”

The connection finally made explicit, Seal then recorded “Change” as the lead cut on his new Soul album. It’s a beautifully sung version, his voice remarkably close to the bittersweet warmth of Cooke’s, but it’s marred by a production (by David Foster) that turns bombastic toward the end. It didn’t take long for someone to set images and excerpts of Obama’s acceptance speech to Seal’s version and post it on YouTube.

There are some terrific cover versions of the song out there. Besides Franklin, such great African-American singers as Tina Turner, Al Green, Aaron Neville, Patti LaBelle, Otis Redding and Baby Huey & the Babysitters have performed it. So, too, have many rockers. (YouTube has video of an arrestingly bluesy live version by the alternative-folk-rocker Will Oldham/Bonnie “Prince” Billy, performed last month at Lexington’s Old Tar Distillery.)

Long a huge star for the friendly mellifluousness of his voice (“Cupid,” “Bring It on Home to Me,” “Twistin’ the Night Away”), Cooke was first and foremost a Pop star. Although he came out of gospel, he wasn’t thought of in the same way as the more Gospel- and Blues-derived Deep Soul African- American singers of the era, like Solomon Burke or James Brown.

So “Change” represented a change for him. Cooke wrote the song in 1963 and recorded it in December of that year, moved by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and his own observations of the heated fight then going on to end segregation in America.

Cooke, according to Peter Guralnick’s biography Dream Boogie, wrote it while on a tour of the South, then a civilrights battleground. He had been arrested in Shreveport for trying to stay at a segregated hotel.

His gorgeously melodic, sensitively arranged version came out on the Ain’t That Good Newsalbum in April 1964. But it wasn’t released as a single until late December 1964, several weeks after he was shot and killed under mysterious circumstances by a female motel manager in Los Angeles. He was just 33.

Even then, his record label released it as a B-side to the dance tune “Shake.” But “Change” eventually climbed into the lower reaches of the national Top 40, Cooke’s last major hit. It was recognized at the time as a political statement — not common in the Top 40 but not unheard of, either, in a time when “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Kingston Trio’s anti-nuclear “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and the Impressions’ “Keep on Pushing” were also hits.

“Change” probably initially garnered attention for the unexpectedness of Cooke’s world-weary voice on chillingly prophetic lyrics, “It’s been too hard livin’ but I’m afraid to die/I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky.”

But the broader message was not lost. And it has only grown with time.

“He took all of those experiences,” Guralnick told NPR, “but he enlarged upon them and he broadened them to the point that the song … becomes a statement of what a generation had had to endure.”

(2018 UPDATE: Bettye LaVette sang the song in a duet with Jon Bon Jovi at the first inaugural concert for President Obama.)

Remembering Ben E. King, the Singer Who Created “Stand by Me” and so Much More

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BY STEVEN ROSEN / PASTE MAGAZINE / MAY 5, 2015

It may seem foolhardy to compare Ben E. King, who died last week at age 76, with The Beatles. Their music and their backgrounds seem so totally different.

But King, himself, did that when this writer interviewed him for a 2005 Paste story about the late 1950s/early 1960s pop music associated with New York’s Brill Building. And he expressed hurt and complaint when he discussed what The Beatles did to the world he knew.

As the urbane baritone singer with both eloquently clear diction and an underlying streak of poignantly soulful gruffness, first with The Drifters and then solo, King worked with a record company (Atlantic), producers (Leiber and Stoller) and songwriters (Pomus and Shuman, Goffin and King, Phil Spector and Bert Berns) associated with the Brill Building’s heyday. He also was an excellent composer himself, co-writing “There Goes My Baby” and the gospel-influenced “Stand By Me.”

In that interview, King conveyed pride in his accomplishments. He felt he was part of something bigger than just chasing Top 40 hits. He and his collaborators were in the vanguard of changing times by challenging segregation and the racial division of American arts and culture into black and white.

So he was disappointed when, in 1964, the British Invasion swept the Brill Building sound aside, often with new groups who covered songs that American artists, especially African-American artists, had failed with.

Or, they scored with inferior original material—King asked how The Beatles’ 1964 “I Want to Hold Your Hand” could in any way be considered a musical advancement over his 1961 “Spanish Harlem,” a blending of Latin, soul and rock with a poetic lyric worthy of West Side Story. (He acknowledged The Beatles did later become superb writers.)

”It was not the blend of music we had going at the time, which was a mixture of music of all races,” King said then. “I had Latin music, rhythm and blues, two wonderful Jewish guys producing me [Leiber and Stoller], so I had wonderful human relationships in the music. But when it came from England, it was European groups playing what they assumed pop music and R&B should sound like.”

In a comment that was published in that story, King said, “the only reason these kids came to be popular is they imitated what we sent over. They had a great look, a great promotional gimmick and you have to allow for all the songs recorded by blacks that didn’t get played in some parts of the country. So when The Beatles came over, no problem. Every state loved them, every major TV show they were on. They cut through with no problem.”

It’s a compelling viewpoint—the British Invasion as racism—that deserves consideration as rock history continues to be revised. But it also needs to be said that King’s (and The Drifters’) records—while marketed to and bought by teenagers, black and white—were special even for the often-special standards of the Brill Building.

He and his collaborators were working at the top of their game with an ear for where soul, rock and vocal-group pop could transcend genre definitions. And they didn’t want his records to be merely cute or catchy. King was royalty—deserving of the most sophisticated material.

The high regard for King—born Benjamin Earl Nelson in North Carolina but raised in Harlem—started with Doc Pomus, whose short-lived R&B Records released a 1958 single by a doo-wop group King had joined, The Crowns. It didn’t do much, but indirectly led to The Crowns becoming a new version of The Drifters after the latter’s manager fired the existing group.

Pomus and Mort Shuman provided The Drifters, with King as lead singer, two of his most autobiographical and substantial songs, “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.” For Pomus, who because of childhood polio needed leg braces and crutches, King’s voice lifted him up.

From the start, King seemed a mature and self-assured singer, not an easily pliable imitator. He was melodic in an intimate and conversational way that could be romantic, melancholy and discreet, yet urgent and full of longing in the way a late-night confession to a friend or lover can be.

On his ballads and mid-tempo numbers, which are what he is best known for, King seemed to carefully, thoughtfully measure just how much emotion he’d let his voice reveal. As a result, his singing is neither superficial nor melodramatic. His feelings are deep and expressed naturalistically. Not just the biggest hits, all acknowledged masterpieces, but also other Drifters tracks like “Dance With Me” and “I Count the Tears” and much of the early 1960s solo material like “On the Horizon,” “Gypsy” and “I (Who Have Nothing).”

He made his collaborators strive for excellence. Beginning with 1959’s “There Goes My Baby,” the orchestral arrangements by Stan Applebaum created three-minute symphonies out of his songs. And his solo “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” which King’s wife Betty wrote with Atlantic’s owner Ahmet Ertegun, is a very complex song, an early example of “meta” in the way it urges us to listen to a record whose singer is imploring the object of his attention to not play it. It’s an intellectual head trip of an idea, but King’s singing transcends that conceit. He means it.

King’s greatest recording, 1961’s “Stand By Me” (which he wrote with Leiber and Stoller) is somewhat atypical of the others in its raw immediacy and directness. Opening with a seductive, vibrating bass line as incessant and insistent as a heartbeat, its straightforward lyrics have the universality of the cosmos, itself: “When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we’ll see…”

As the string section builds toward a maelstrom of minor-key ominousness, King repeats the title to steady himself—and us. Toward the end, as he repeats the title, he says, “Whenever you’re in trouble, won’t you stand by me.” It’s like a prayer, a plea, a cry against pain, itself. And it’s forever contemporary for being so, which is why it’s been so covered.

Earlier this year, the Library of Congress named it to its National Recording Registry of “cultural, artistic and/or historical significant” recordings.

King eventually made a comeback with a 1975 funky dance hit, “Supernatural Thing – Part 1,” and then again in 1986 when “Stand By Me” was the theme song for a movie of the same name. Great codas. But for his work from 1959-1964, until the British Invasion ended the Brill Building’s golden era, he should be remembered as one of our greatest pop singers ever. King himself was a national cultural treasure.