Wednesday, January 23, 2013

They swang in the Sixties: a Deceased Artiste roundup

I love researching the Deceased Artistes I write about, and I'm not bound on these Net-pages by either a deadline or writing-for-payment (heaven forbid!), so I do wind up saluting a bunch of these folks some time after they've left this mortal coil. In the case of the “departures” of 2012, although several folks linked to the Seventies kicked off in the last annum (including a number of sitcom stars), I wanted to salute some of those dead folk associated with the Sixties, since that “rupturous” era produced some very strange and exceedingly absorbing pop culture. Included were some pop stars, a director of audience-pleasin' fare, and two very ubiquitous TV performers.
The first pop artist I need to salute is "one-hit wonder" R.B. Greaves, who died at 68 and whose catchy-as-hell pop tune “Take a Letter, Maria,” has been stuck in my head since I was but a mere child, thanks to repeated plays on AM radio. Greaves’ version of the song (which he wrote) bulleted to #2 on the charts back in 1969, but his rendition wasn’t the first — in a curious twist, Tom Jones and Stevie Wonder had recorded the song before Greaves, but he had the hit with it.

Born in British Guyana, Greaves was raised on a Seminole reservation and started his musical career in England. He also was related to pop royalty, as his uncle was the legendary Sam Cooke. His musical career continued for a few years following “Maria,” but he finally moved into the technology industry in the Seventies. Here he is doing his unforgettable ode to attentive secretaries on a Sixties variety show (anyone have any idea which one?):

The label “one-hit wonder” is reductive and insulting to artists who worked for decades in show business, but the overwhelming success of a killer pop tune is that sharpest of double-edged swords: a calling card that will keep the artist in “oldies” gigs for years, but will also detract from all of their other work. Such is the case with Fontella Bass, whose 1965 hit “Rescue” Me” was one of the biggest pop-soul tunes by a solo female artist in the Sixties. At various points people who knew no better attributed the song to Aretha Franklin, who quickly usurped Bass to be dubbed “the Queen of Soul.”

Bass had a very active career in the years before “Rescue Me”: she started out as a gospel singer and was discovered by Little Milton, with whom she worked as a pianist and singer. After recording a few unsuccessful solo singles (produced by Ike Turner), she secured a contract at Checker records, a Chess subsidiary.

Following her time as a best-selling pop artist, she collaborated with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, whose members included her then-husband Lester Bowie. She retired from performing to raise a family in the early Seventies, but returned full-time to singing gospel and blues in the early Nineties. She also won a lawsuit around that time that established her as one of the co-writers of “Rescue Me,” which was at that point being used in an American Express TV campaign.

The most interesting bit of trivia in her obits was the fact that “Rescue Me” was used in a Pizza Hut campaign, where the song was retitled “Deliver Me.” Bass, who was extremely available for the gig at that point, wasn’t chosen to sing the tune — instead, Aretha Franklin sang the song, and thus DID finally sing the song wrongly attributed to her by some, but in a goofy, rewritten version. Here is the original, from an appearance Bass made on Shindig:

Joe South was another pop star who achieved fame and then faded away, leaving some extremely catchy melodies in his wake. Chief among them was his Grammy-winning song (made a hit by Lynn Anderson), “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.” 

South's career began, curiously enough when he started his own pirate radio stations as a teen in order, among other reasons, to get a platform for his music. His first song to break the Top 100 was “The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor,” a double-barreled novelty hit that was also recorded by the Big Bopper.

Joe was a session guitarist heard on hits like Tommy Roe's “Sheila” and Aretha's “Chain of Fools,” as well as Dylan's Blonde on Blonde album.  He had several hits as a songwriter, most notably “Hush” and “Down in the Boondocks” (his versions are in the link). The former was a truly archetypal Sixties hit for Deep Purple, and the latter is one of my fave slices of Sixties pop, turned into a hit by Billy Joe Royal:

South had two giant hits as a performer, in addition to the pop lamentation “Don't It Make You Want You Want to Go Home,” “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” and the 1968 chart-topper “Games People Play.” Named after a then-popular psychology book, the song finds South not only singing but playing an electric sitar (the same instrument he played on “Chain of Fools”). It's quite an aggressive little ditty, performed live here by South (on what would appear to be the Smothers Brothers variety show – note the E! Logo):


Another 2012 departure inextricably linked to the Sixties was producer-director William Asher. He worked his way up from the mailroom (in this case the one at Universal) and wound up writing and directing for Our Miss Brooks, and directing many, many episodes of I Love Lucy, as well as The Twilight Zone, The Patty Duke Show, Gidget, The Paul Lynde Show, and Temperatures Rising.

He is best remembered for two things: having directed the fun but truly brain-damaged “Beach Party” movies series with Frankie and Annette (Asher's tenuous hold – let's be honest, complete disconnect – with real teen behavior is spoofed mercilessly in George Axelrod's Lord Love a Duck) and having created the long-running “I married a witch” sitcom Bewitched for his then-wife Elizabeth Montgomery.
To salute Asher, I spotlight a clip that is from neither of those squeaky-clean, frighteningly optimistic creations, but is instead representative of his “darker” side. The crime thriller Johnny Cool (1963) stars super bad-ass Henry Silva as a hitman (dubbed an “international murder machine” here).

This trailer introduces the cast, which includes the Rat Pack (sans Dean and Frank, who had severed from Peter Lawford before this) and several comedians playing serious roles, including Mort Sahl. Sammy Davis is the only one as cool as Johnny himself, sporting an eyepatch and taking no guff from anyone:

From a TV director to two performers who were constantly on TV back in the Sixties. The first is William Windom, the very busy actor who appeared in comedies, dramas, action shows, westerns, sci-fi,  thrillers, and “message dramas.” To those in my age group, he is most fondly remembered for his starring role on the long-unseen Thurber-derived 1969 sitcom My World and Welcome To It, in addition to his scene-stealing work on cult-favorite genre programs. 

Windom could play sensitive, but he also played a hard-ass very well — he in fact fought in the infantry in WWII and entered acting while studying at the Biarritz American University in France. Although he was definitely known for his work on television, he also appeared in many films, most notably To Kill a Mockingbird and a cult masterwork by Funhouse god Robert Altman, Brewster McCloud (Windom in fact serves as the “ringleader” in the Felliniesque closing credits and has the last line in the film).

Windom’s first major TV role came when he starred in the cute family sitcom The Farmer’s Daughter (1963-66), where he played a Minnesota Congressman; interestingly enough, his real-life great-grandfather (who was also named William Windom) served in that capacity and later wound up becoming Secretary of the Treasury.

He won an Emmy as Best Actor for My World… (and mockingly thanked NBC for cancelling the show as his acceptance speech), but did have one long-running TV role awaiting him: he played Angela Lansbury’s doctor friend Seth Hazlitt on Murder, She Wrote from 1985-96.

A few Windom memories: the credits for the third season of The Farmer’s Daughter, the first one done in color and the season where they killed the show off by marrying Windom’s character to his nanny, the lovely (and gone-too-soon) Inger Stevens. Here is the “set-up” for the series:

Windom gave a hell of a frenzied performance in the Star Trek episode “The Doomsday Machine” as a starship captain who survived an attack on his ship:

One of Rod Serling’s final great scripts was the one for “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” on Night Gallery. Sadly, the producers persuaded him to change the ending (the original is in the paperback novelization), but the show still is a brilliant work, continuing on from Serling’s Patterns, “Walking Distance,” and “A Stop at Willoughby”:

The alternately sweet and cynical My World and Welcome to It hasn’t been released on DVD and hasn’t been in syndication for years (although I seem to remember the show being rerun in the early Seventies). Thankfully we have examples of it available on that hub-site with the arbitrary rules, YouTube. Here is a promo for the show included in an 1969 NBC special touting the new fall season:

Two full episodes of the show are up on YT. The first is a non-family show, in which Windom’s cartoonist character (who ordinarily dwelt half in the real world, half in his cartoons) has fantasies of seducing his neighbor (Lee Meriwether). It’s a fun episode, and I’m assuming it has been preserved so carefully by fans because of Meriwether’s sexy performance and the catfight her character has with Windom’s wife (Joan Hotchkiss) — neither of those elements was common to a low-key show like My World

A more representative episode is the Christmas show, which finds Windom shopping on Xmas Eve, picking an odd gift for his daughter (a flag), and discovering that it pisses off his neighbors (who think he’s doing something subversive). The show was extremely well-written and utterly charming; it is one of the many network series that developed a cult because it was (the old Trio network phrase — and we know what happened to Trio) “Brilliant but Cancelled”:

The last, and undoubtedly most important, Sixties TV performer to “depart” in 2012 was the inimitable living cartoon that was Phyllis Diller. Diller was one of the true pioneers of standup comedy, blazing a trail that would be followed by many other (more sensibly dressed) woman standups. Her only predecessors in this regard were Jean Carroll (who is a “subject for further research” for comedy fans, as there is little footage of her and only one LP) and the one and only Moms Mabley (who finally broke through nationally after Diller, but started working as a standup before her).

Diller, who died at 95, started her show business career rather late in life. A “housewife comic” who really had been a housewife, she started performing professionally as a standup at 37 and worked for five decades onstage (1955-2004). She honed her character throughout the Fifties and Sixties, gradually turning into the gaudy, tacky soul whose act consisted of self-deprecating quips, comments about her lazy, dumb husband “Fang,” and barbed comments on the latest pop-culture fads and crazes.

For a woman who made a living being “ugly” professionally, she was not as horrible as she dolled herself up to be, although she was one of the first celebrities to publicly acknowledge that she had had cosmetic surgery (yes, she created the template for Joan Rivers, except for the sex-talk, cursing, and verbal abuse of other celebs). 

A short time ago, when Anderson Cooper was serving as interim host of the Larry King show on CNN, there was an episode devoted to female comedians. Diller was included (via satellite), but one of the women sitting in-studio (I can't remember whether it was Kathy Griffin or Joy Behar) noted that they considered Joan Rivers the "real" beginning of female standup comedy in America because she didn't have to "dress up" onstage like Diller did. This is fascinating, given that Rivers' initial act was a copy of Diller's, and Rivers later became the foremost victom-of-bad-plastic-surgery standup comedian.

Listening to some of her comedy LPs one is struck by the fact that she had a decent singing voice. She also was a pianist of some skill, playing gigs with symphony orchestras in the Seventies. But music was a sideline for her, as she appeared constantly on variety shows, talk shows, and sitcoms, and in some very meager movies.

I noted when I wrote about the Mark Twain Prize a few years back that Diller deserved the award for her important place in the history of standup comedy — she never received the award (but Tina Fey has!), and the other seminal standups I nominated in that entry (Dick Gregory, Sahl, Berman, Nichols and May, the Smother Brothers) probably won’t either (why Mel Brooks hasn’t is still a major mystery, and now that Sid Caesar is in poor health, he will also never be honored in the way that inferior talents have been).

Those who grew up watching TV in the Sixties and Seventies knew Diller’s stage persona well, though, and were aware that no one could put her down because she took care of that very well herself.

There are literally a few hundred Phyllis clips on YT, including what would seem to be her last TV appearance, on the short-lived Rosie O’Donnell show on the Oprah network, and her farewell standup show. I will go backward in the chronology here, but first I should spotlight her in classic form doing her trademark self-deprecating shtick:

Here is a clip from the 1987 NBC special aired to celebrate Bob Hope’s 85th birthday, shot at the Pope Air Force Base. Phyllis looks like a rogue Kabuki space demon:

A clip from the VERY unusual 1975 kiddie show Uncle Croc’s Block starring the chortling wildman, Mr. Charles Nelson Reilly. Diller plays “Witchy Goo-Goo” — this era of kiddie show was clearly aiming not only at toddlers but also at stoners:

A classic blooper that occurred on The Tony Orlando and Dawn Show that was left on-air; it demonstrates Diller’s good-natured willingness to make fun of herself:

Phyllis and Liberace were a natural pair, given their wardrobe. Here she guests on a 1969 Liberace TV special made for British television. The other guests are Millicent Martin and Dusty Springfield:

From that same show, a piano duet with Lee and Phyllis:

Phyllis’ “monstrous” charm and witch-cackle laugh was well-utilized in the Rankin Bass feature Mad Monster Party? (1967), which found Phyllis providing the voice of the “monster’s mate” — and obviously serving as the model for her character:

Her two TV series last only one season, but The Pruitts of Southampton (1966-'67) definitely did boast a very catchy theme tune:

Sixties variety at its silliest and most endearing: Phyllis hosts The Hollywood Palace, performing “I Feel Pretty” and appearing singing Andy Williams’ hit “Music to Watch Girls By,” with her guests Frankie and Annette, the Fifth Dimension, and Phil Harris!

A more serious side of Diller: as a guest on David Susskind’s Open End in 1964, back when she was still “the housewife comic”:

Her rather curious movie debut, playing Texas Guinan in the Elia Kazan drama Splendor in the Grass (1961):

And her first significant national TV appearance, as a guest with “the one, the only… Groucho!” on You Bet Your Life in 1958:

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