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Short-lived, Long-remembered, with Based On A True Story podcast

Special guest: Dan LeFebvre from Based On A True Story podcast.

There are some musicians that leave an enduring legacy through long and storied careers, like the Rolling Stones, who formed in 1962 and swear 2018 for be their final year touring, for real this time.  There are actors who are iconic because they have been on our TV’s or the silver screen for decades, like Sean Connery, James Earl Jones, and our beloved Betty White. But by the same token, there are musicians, actors, and shows that are like a stone dropped in a pond — their appearance was brief, but their ripples continue to this day.

For years and years, if a music journalist wanted to compliment a guitar player, they would do it by likening them to Jimi Hendrix.  That practice continues to this day, even though Hendrix only recorded from 1967 until his death in 1970. Jimi Hendrix was born Johnny Allen Hendrix (later changed by his father to James Marshall) on November 27, 1942, in Seattle, Washington.  He had a difficult childhood, sometimes living in the care of relatives or acquaintances. He and his brothers were estranged from their mother, who had had Jimi when she was seventeen and died at age thirty three. 

Music became a sanctuary for Hendrix.  He was a fan of blues and rock and roll, and with his father’s encouragement taught himself to play guitar.  When Hendrix was 16, his father bought him his first acoustic guitar, and the next year his first electric guitar—a right-handed Supro Ozark that Jimi had to flip upside down to play as he was left-handed.  Shortly thereafter, he began performing with his band, the Rocking Kings. In 1959, he dropped out of high school and worked odd jobs while continuing to follow his musical aspirations. Two years later, he joined the Army, continuing to pursue music while training as a paratrooper.  He would injure himself in a parachute jump and be honorably discharged in 1962.

 

After leaving the military, Hendrix began working under the name Jimmy James as a session musician, playing backup for such performers as Little Richard, B.B. King, Sam Cooke and the Isley Brothers.  In 1965 he also formed a group of his own called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, which played gigs around New York City’s Greenwich Village. In mid-1966, Hendrix met Chas Chandler, bass player of British rock group the Animals, who signed an agreement with Hendrix to become his manager.  Chandler convinced Hendrix to go to London, at a time where British bands were seeing huge success in the States. There he joined forces with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

 

While performing in England, Hendrix built up quite a following among the country’s rock royalty, with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and Eric Clapton all becoming great admirers of his work.  High praise indeed. One critic for the British music magazine Melody Maker said that he “had great stage presence” and looked at times as if he were playing “with no hands at all.” In addition to carefully-crafted skill, Hendrix had a style so unique that chords have been named after him, which you can hear in Foxy Lady.  He combined the rhythm style of funk, with single-note riffs like you hear in Voodoo Child, the use of open strings, and a number of technical things I not qualified to understand, let alone explain. He was also gifted with hands large enough to allow him to wrap his thumb around the top of the neck of the guitar to do bass notes while his other fingers made for colorful chords.  All of those things combined has made it nigh-impossible to excel him.

 

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first single, “Hey Joe,” was an instant smash in Britain when it was released in 1967 and was soon followed by hits such as “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary.”  On tour to support his first album, Are You Experienced?, Hendrix delighted audiences with his outrageous guitar playing skills and his innovative, experimental sound. In June 1967 he also won over American music fans with his stunning performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, that’s the one that ended with the iconic image of  Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire.

 

Quickly becoming a rock superstar, later that year Hendrix scored again with his second album, Axis: Bold as Love.  His final album as part of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland, which featured the hit “All Along the Watchtower,” written by Bob Dylan and cover art of 19 lounging naked women, which, according to Hendrix, was entirely the decision of the label, Track Records.  The Experience split up the following year. 1969 was also the year in which Hendrix performed at another legendary musical event: the Woodstock Festival. The last performer to appear in the three-day-plus festival, opened his set with a rock rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that amazed the crowds and demonstrated his considerable talents as a musician.  Bonus fact of a small-scale nature: my mother was a radio DJ in New York in 1969, but her station didn’t send anyone to Woodstock because they didn’t think it would amount to anything. Too late we grow smart.

 

Hendrix set up his own recording studio, Electric Lady, in which he worked with different performers to try out new songs and sounds.  In late 1969, Hendrix put together a new group, forming Band of Gypsys with his army buddy Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. The band never really took off, however, and Hendrix began working on a new album tentatively named First Rays of the New Rising Sun, with Cox and Mitch Mitchell. Sadly, Hendrix would not live to complete the project.  On September 18, 1970, Jimi Hendrix died in London from drug-related complications on September 18, 1970, at the age of 27. You can hear more about the significance of his age and my gripe with the paramedics in our first episode, Shenanigans. Fair warning, audio quality on the early episodes can be a little rough.

 

I mentioned the tendency to compare guitarists to Jimi Hendrix, but here’s a thought: who did they compare Jimi Hendrix to?  I’ll pose that question on our social media this week…new Twitter handle.

 

One of the music styles that played a part in shaping Jimi Hendrix was blues, a genre that saw another careers whose influence, and legend, greatly exceeded its length, that of Robert Johnson.  Johnson was a Delta bluesman whose virtuosity is virtually unrivalled. He developed his slide style by watching local legends such as Son House and Charley Patton, but was most influenced by local bluesman Ike Zinneman, whose music was sadly never recorded.  Born Robert Spencer around 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, he adopted the last name of his birth father, whom he’d never met, when he was a teenager. As a child, he learned to play the harmonica and the jaw harp, though he would wait many years before learning the guitar.

 

At age 18, he married and at 19 lost his wife in childbirth.  It was that summer that Robert, suffering from a severe case of the blues, first heard Son House play.  Robert was deeply affected by the great Mississippi bluesman and started following him and his partner, Willie Brown, everywhere.  When the bluesmen took breaks during their performances, Robert would invite himself onstage for brief and, by all accounts, mediocre performances.  Hoping to begin a career of his own, he went to southern Mississippi, where he played at juke joints and parties. When Johnson next ran into Son House and Willie Brown, the bluesmen were astounded at the progress he had made on the guitar.  He had developed an incredible talent and unique sound so quickly that it was rumoured Johnson had sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads. Yeah, he’s that guy. Johnson fuelled the rumours with the song “Cross Road Blues,” and his popularity in Mississippi began to take off.   

 

Record salesman Ernie Oertle hooked Johnson up with producer and record exec Don Law, who recorded five sessions with him, three in a San Antonio hotel room in November 1936 and two the following June, in a Dallas office building.  Johnson received a few hundred dollars for the 29 sides he recorded, a substantial for a black man in Mississippi during the Depression. He became something of a star in his home state and travelled constantly, playing anywhere he could.  He was playing a juke joint in Mississippi in the summer of 1938, when he suddenly fell ill, dying a few days later. It’s believed he was poisoned by his lover’s boyfriend.

 

Robert Johnson has come to be the most celebrated bluesman in history, though it would take thirty years before his music reached a broad audience.  In 1961, Columbia released the first compilation of his music, King of the Delta Blues Singers; a second volume followed in 1970. Johnson’s impact on blues, folk, country and rock music is virtually immeasurable, influencing the likes of Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones.  His story of selling his soul to the devil became immediately entrenched in blues specifically and musicianship in general, showing up in such places as O Brother, Where Art Thou and Metalocalypse.

 

Thankfully, I don’t have to sell my soul for good reviews, though there’s only one more to be read after this one.  Nateintahoe writes – “Ok this woman has moxie! With delightful entertainment, a charming delivery, and very thorough research, this podcast is simply one of the best.  It promises to leave a smile on your face and impart some knowledge you did not know. Whether it is war history or ancient burial practices, she has it all. Question: how does a woman who does burlesque manage to apply her talents to human knowledge?”  I’m going to interpret that to mean you think burlesque dancers are superhuman and bless your heart for it. Each review helps increase the likelihood that people searching for fact or trivia podcasts will find us, whether through the Apple Podcasts or another app.  Many apps allow you to swipe up to leave a review or to share it on social media, which would also be greatly appreciated.

 

Speaking of gratitude, I am sincerely grateful to  one reliable source of practical and emotional support, other podcasters.  This week I’m joined by Dan from Based On a True podcast, to tell us more about a career and life cut tragically short, who set the standard by which a certain genre of film would be made.  That genre is kung-fu movies and that man is Bruce Lee.

 

A few episodes back, I asked my gentle listener for their opinion on how I might best monetize the podcast without diminishing the experience.  Everyone who responded kindly said they don’t mind hearing ads or calls to action, because they know those help the show. I have opted to go the Patreon route for a few reasons.  This lets those who are willing to support the show financially, be it for a few dollars a month, do so directly without having to pay for a product or service so that a small portion trickles down.  Also, by not taking on a sponsor, I won’t be beholden to anyone else for input on my content, nor do I run the risk of using a third-party ad sales company, which could pepper the show with ads for companies I don’t have faith in.  If you would be willing to turn your appreciation of the show into a small financial bolster, you can do so at patreon.com/yourbrainonfacts . Every little bit helps defray the costs involved with creating the podcast.

 

Take three walls, add three cameras and one laugh track, and you’ve got a sitcom.  Beginning as recurring sketches on The Jackie Gleason Show, The Honeymooners narrowly beat I love Lucy to the launch of the sitcom as we know it by a narrow ten days.  The single season of the show, which began in the fall of 1951, is about a pair of urban working-class couples, Kramdens and the Nortons, who go through everyday troubles and zany schemes. Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) is a boisterous, short-tempered, and heavy-set bus driver who is constantly frustrated with the world. He is easily seduced by get-rich-quick schemes, and he always involves his best friend, sewer worker Ed Norton (Art Carney). Ed is a dim-witted but lovable guy who is always loyal to Ralphs.  Whenever the two men get out of control in their schemes, their wives, Alice (Audrey Meadows) and Trixie (Joyce Randolph), are always there to bring their husbands’ inflated egos back down to earth. We don’t see the softer-spoken Trixie as often, but Alice Kramden is a strong-willed, sarcastic woman who has zero tolerance for Ralph’s BS.

 

Though it only ran one season, the show ran in syndication almost continually and internationally, being particularly popular in particularly in Canada, Australia, Poland, Norway and Sweden.  It also inspired international remakes, with versions being produced in Canada, Indonesia, Sweden, Netherlands and Poland. The Honeymooners was also the first show to portray an American family in less-than-idyllic conditions.  In fact, the Kramden’s apartment was so bare, fans of the show would mail “Alice” curtains and knick-knacks to try to brighten the place up. The drabness of the apartment was a deliberate choice by Gleason, who based it on the Bedford-Stuyvesant tenement he was born into.  Though it sounds bad out of context, Ralph’s hollow threat to his wife, “One of these days, Alice, bang, zoom, right to the moon,” and his appreciative, “Baby, you’re the greatest,” would be quoted in entertainment and conversation for decades to come. As Ralph was a New York City bus driver, one of the service depots in Brooklyn was renamed the Jackie Gleason Bus Depot and a statue of Ralph Kramden stands at the Eighth Avenue entrance to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City.  Art Carney’s character of Ed Norton created the archetype for the wacky neighbor, which carried through in modern viewing, the most Norton-like example being Kramer on Seinfeld.

 

Ralph, Ed, Alice and Trixie would become something of a blueprint for sitcom couples, though some shows did less than others to disguise the similarities.  There’s no denying that Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones, 1960-66, was heavily “influenced” by The Honeymooners: the primetime cartoon series focused on two couples who were neighbors, the main character was heavy-set and his long-suffering nasal-voiced wife could be counted on to deflate his dreams of getting rich quick.  Fred Flintstone and best friend/next door neighbor Barney Rubble were both members of the same lodge and bowling team, à la Ralph and Ed. The suspicious level of similarity did not escape Gleason’s notice and he considered suing Hanna-Barbera, but decided against any legal action when his publicist asked him, “Do you want to go down in history as The Man Who Killed Fred Flintstone?”  You can also see these archetypes most clearly in The Simpsons and Family Guy and live-action shows like King of Queens.

 

And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today, but I’ll leave you with a pair of Honeymooner bonus facts: the original actress to play Alice, Pert Kelton, had to leave The Jackie Gleason show due to health problems and was unable to return because of McCarthy-era blacklisting.  Her replacement, Audrey Meadows, was the only member of the cast to get residuals from the show airing in syndication. Her brothers went with her to sign her contract and insisted that clause be added; they were both lawyers. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.

 

Word: Leak

 

Sources:

Dan from https://basedonatruestorypodcast.com

https://www.biography.com/people/jimi-hendrix-9334756

https://www.guitarplayer.com/technique/jimi-hendrix-the-five-rules-of-his-powerful-rhythm-style-tab-audio

http://ultimateclassicrock.com/jimi-hendrix-banned-cover/

https://rateyourmusic.com/artist/robert-johnson

http://mentalfloss.com/article/80318/10-bang-zoom-facts-about-honeymooners

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Honeymooners#Legacy

 

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