Sunday, September 25, 2016

Jean Shepard: 1933-2016

The news broke a couple of hours ago of the death of Jean Shepard at the age of 82 due to Parkinson's Disease. If you're not familiar at all with her music/career then seek out Amazon or YouTube. In some circles of country music she became known as the Queen of Honky Tonk Music and some referred to her as The Honky Tonk Heroine (which, incidentally, became the name of a retrospective collection of her Capitol Records recordings in 1995). Discovered by Hank Thompson (himself a legendary country music artist), Shepard released her first single in 1953 titled "Crying Steel Guitar Waltz". The title alone should tell anyone reading that she preferred country music in it's most basic, purest form and that what became known as traditional country music in the '90s and beyond was labeled Honky Tonk in the '40s and '50s.

She found early success as a duet partner with Ferlin Husky in 1953 on "A Dear John Letter", a massive #1 country hit and a Top-10 pop crossover hit. They followed it up with "Forgive Me, John", and that became a Top-10 country hit and a Top-30 pop hit. Having been born in November of 1933, Shepard was still a teenager at the time of her first national success. In the '40s she had been a member of the Melody Ranch Girls, a group described as an all-girl band, formed in 1948. A 1996 box set from Bear Family, The Melody Ranch Girl, is a must-have if you happen to be a hardcore fan.

The impact year in the earlier part of Jean Shepard's career happened to be 1955. This is the year in which she became noticed for her solo recordings. She had issued 6 solo recordings during a 2 year span (1953-1955). As mentioned earlier her first solo recording was "Crying Steel Guitar Waltz" but 1953 was dominated by her 2 duet recordings with Ferlin Husky. In fact, none of the 6 solo recordings Capitol issued on Shepard made the national charts. The commercial turning point came in 1955...and the release of her version of "A Satisfied Mind". This is the perfect opportunity to explain some things about country music recordings of the era. In the '40s, '50s, and even into the early '60s it wasn't uncommon for country artists to record and release the same song in the same year. This kind of thing wouldn't be tolerated in today's music climate and is frowned upon by music critics and consumers largely because fans have come to feel that songs belong to only one singer or one group and that nobody else should attempt to record something that another singer has recorded. I don't share that opinion but millions of people do...

"A Satisfied Mind", in 1955, became a smash hit for three different country music artists in 1955. The biggest hit came from Porter Wagoner and his version hit #1; Red and Betty Foley took the song to #3; and Jean Shepard took the song to #4. The b-side, "Take Possession", charted at #13. Shepard's follow-up, "Beautiful Lies", also hit #4 and it's b-side, "I Thought of You", hit #10. In addition to her commercial impact that year she also became a performer on the Ozark Jubilee. The increased visibility enabled her to become one of the very few female country music performers on national television. She appeared on the series for several seasons.

Ironically, after having 4 consecutive Top-10 country hits in 1955, it would be 8 more single releases before she returned to the charts. She hit 2 more times (once late in 1958 and again early in 1959) but then entered another long string of non-charted releases. This non-chart activity can be traced to the choice of material. Her love of traditional country music at it's most purest didn't earn a lot of praise from the critics, DJ's, and fans of the style of country music being pushed in the late '50s and early '60s...that style being labeled The Nashville Sound. None of the single releases from mid 1959 through 1963 reached the charts. As I like to point out, though, a charted single means a song has become a commercial success but only because it's been played on radio...if a song isn't being played on radio then it obviously runs the risk of not being discovered by record buyers and therefore it isn't going to have the chance of becoming a "commercial hit". In other words don't let chart inactivity fool you into the belief that a recording "must not be good" if it doesn't make the charts".

The commercial fortunes turned around in Shepard's career in 1964 in a big time way. She released one of her signature songs in "Second Fiddle To An Old Guitar" and this recording hit the Top-10. This set in motion a string of single releases that consistently placed in the Top-50 of the country music charts (many of them peaking in the Top-20). By far the most commercially successful of her career is the 1964-1974 decade. She and Ray Pillow released a couple of hit duet recordings in 1966: "I'll Take the Dog" and "Mister Do-It Yourself".

Some of the songs she performed at the Opry on many weekends happened to come from the 1964-1974 time period: "Second Fiddle To An Old Guitar", "Slippin' Away", "Seven Lonely Days", and "The Tips of My Fingers". In addition to those songs she could also be seen/heard performing "A Satisfied Mind", "Under Your Spell Again", and I heard her perform "Twice the Lovin' In Half the Time" at least once on the Opry, if I remember correctly, but the songs I previously mentioned are the ones she performed much more regularly.

She had become a member of the Grand Ole Opry in November 1955. This is even more notable because she became the first female member of the Opry (in November 2015) to reach 60 years of membership. I'd say she appeared regularly at the Opry for at least 58 of those 60 years...slightly decreasing her appearances due to health reasons...but she did return to celebrate her 60th anniversary as an Opry member and then she officially retired.

In 2011 she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame some 58 years after having had her first success. A long overdue election to say the least but, at least, she was around to enjoy the honor.

Jean Shepard: November 21, 1933 - September 25, 2016

Monday, August 29, 2016

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders

I've heard of this upcoming project for about a month and a half (or longer) but I finally came across much more information. This coming fall (October/November) there is to be a Blu-Ray and a DVD release of an animated film called Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders. The thing that makes this film unique is that Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar are the voices of Batman, Robin, and Catwoman (the roles they played in the mid '60s live-action television series).

As you could tell from the trailer and from the cover art of the Blu-Ray and DVD the characters are more or less patterned after the actors and actresses that portrayed them in the TV series. The Joker is faithfully on-model with Cesar Romero and for those curious there's no indication of a painted over mustache and I'm glad that they decided not to add that touch. If the animators had done that kind of thing it would've been more insulting than respectful.

Maybe it's a rhetorical question but how come there's so many comments from people on social media (YouTube, specifically) wondering why the animated movie is being presented in this fashion? Do these people that are making those kinds of comments realize that a very popular live-action Batman television series existed in the mid '60s? This may be Earth shattering news for some but Batman wasn't created in the 1990s...the character goes back to 1939! 

This idea that the Batman characterization HAS to be brooding, gritty, sarcastic, and anti-social just because that's the way he's interpreted in contemporary cartoons is nonsense. Yes, I know that the original presentation of Batman in the late '30s and into the mid '40s depicted the character in much the same fashion as he is today; so, yes, I'm familiar with the argument that the contemporary Batman cartoons are simply "returning the character to his roots"...but lost among all the brew-ha-ha on social media (from those that are unfamiliar with the 1960's TV series) is that this upcoming animated movie is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the live-action TV series 1966 debut. This upcoming animated movie isn't meant to be part of the contemporary DC Universe continuity. It's simply a salute to the 1960's live-action TV series and I, for one, can't wait to get the DVD!!

You can pre-order the DVD at Amazon by clicking HERE. I'll post my thoughts of the entire film in November.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Uphill All The Way...

The premise of this comedy-western centers around 2 bumbling good ol' boys (Roy Clark as Ben and Mel Tillis as Booger) who, at the start of the film, are tossed off a train after failing to show their tickets. They wander inside a saloon and attempt to cheat their way into a fortune at the card table. Frank Gorshin appears as the drunkest of the crowd (his character is named, Pike). To pull off their scheme Booger has a hat, hidden inside is a mirror, and he nonchalantly walks around the room letting Ben see the other player's hands. One thing leads to another and Booger drops the hat and cracks the mirror. At first the saloon women think Booger's using the hat to look up women's dresses...but eventually a seasoned card player realizes something's fishy and the other players suggest to start a new game since the previous one had been interrupted. Burt Reynolds has an uncredited cameo appearance in this saloon scene as the seasoned card player. He shows off his card tricks, at first, and then wastes little time at stripping an overly zealous but uneducated Ben of his winnings. Ben didn't realize the hand he held (the one he bet all his chips on) turned out to be a losing hand in that particular card game.

After a night of escapist romance with a couple of saloon women (Miss Jessie and Lucinda) they confessed, the following morning, that they didn't have any additional money to pay for the long night's activity. This caused the pair to get tossed out of the saloon/brothel, literally, by the bouncer (Leon). He pushed them down a flight of stairs.

Broke and wandering around they end up becoming fugitives after they innocently visit a bank to ask for a loan. Feeling that a shotgun should be excellent collateral the duo casually enter the bank and stroll up to the window with their shotgun.

A teller (Richard Paul), seeing their shotgun and mistaking their vague, nervous ramblings as some sort of veiled threat, flips the security alarm. After Ben yells that he's never been inside any bank before and is wondering about the reason for the loud noise Booger realizes that the alarm sound is for the police to hear and that they're being mistaken as bank robbers. From there they take off, hopping aboard a car in which the driver, obviously, mistakes the pair as car thieves. The driver asks for his luggage and nervously tells Ben and Booger they can keep the car and he makes a hasty exit. Ben asks Booger if he has any idea of how to drive "this fancy contraption" and of course his answer is "no!".

Meanwhile, the alarm is still blasting back at the bank and the local sheriff (Burl Ives) makes his entrance into the story and it takes a lot of explanation on the teller's part that the alarm wasn't just a test and that there was actually an attempted robbery. The sheriff's annoyance is made loud and clear due to being called to the bank on false alarms many times before.

Soon, though, a posse is formed after the driver of the car Ben and Booger "stole" arrives in town demanding that the 2 crooks face justice. Pike, the town's drunkest drunk, is recruited by the sheriff to join the posse.

By this time Ben and Booger are well on their way at evading a string of law enforcers all over the west due to a series of misunderstandings, confusions, and genuine criminal intent. One of those in the posse is a hysterical military Captain (Glen Campbell).

Burton Gilliam (Corporal) and Gailard Sartain (Private) appear on horseback during a scene involving Ben and Booger attempting to fix a flat tire on their "contraption". The shady servicemen fix the flat but insist on being paid for the labor. Ben says they're broke...this causes the Corporal to pull out a switchblade knife and he proceeds to let the air out of the tire. Fearing the worst and perhaps not looking forward to pumping air back into the tire, yet again, Ben pulls out his shotgun and the 2 macho servicemen do an about face and are now trembling with fear.

Ben and Booger steal the Corporal and the Private's clothes and their horses. The sheriff and his posse meet up ith the vandalized military officers and he insists they join in and track the 2 con-artists/bank robbers/murderers.

Ben and Booger eventually come to a stream...but it's filled up with soapy water. This leads the pair to a couple of alien's doing their laundry. Confusion abounds and the foreign aliens mistake Ben and Booger's demeanor as threatening and they pull out oars...startling the horses. The chaos causes the horses to trample all over the 2 alien's laundry rack...knocking it off into the nearby pond. This incident, as a result, creates more members of an ever growing posse. 45 minutes into the film Glen Campbell's character enters the story. At first he and his underlings are trying to get their vehicle back onto the road. He spots Ben and Booger in their stolen military clothes and on horses and demands that they come down and help get the truck on the road. "You 2...on the horses!!! Get down here on the double!!!". The Captain doesn't have much tolerance and is prone to barking snappy orders. On the count of 4 Ben and Booger take off on the horses as the General and the other officers attempt to keep the truck from sliding further off the hill. The Captain promises a court martial for those 2 once he arrives at the base. The posse meet up with the alien laundry men...and in a running joke they recognize Miss Jessie (Elaine Joyce) as did the Corporal and the Private earlier in the film.

Ben and Booger find themselves in a shoot out after they come across what appears to be an abandoned shack in the middle of nowhere. During the shootout a man emerges from the shack and shoots at all of the bandits as Ben and Booger race inside the shack. The stranger introduces himself as Anson Sudro (Sheb Wooley) and introduces his family.

The posse meet up with the Captain and the wrecked vehicle. The sheriff informs the Captain that the 2 people on horseback are impostors and don't belong to the military at all. Back at the shack Ben, Booger, and Anson continue to have a shoot out. They begin shooting at another shack in which holds dynamite...hoping the gunfire will ignite the dynamite in some way. The shot up shack explodes and the 2 flee Anson's residence and top a hill and see Mexico just across a river. They return to Anson's shack and help fight off the bandits. Eventually the posse come upon the shoot out and they, unknowingly, drive into it. The military vehicle had since been salvaged and it enters the chaotic surroundings. The Captain and the rest of the officers start firing at the bandits, too.

After things settle and the shooting stops the Widow Quinn (Trish Van Devere) makes a big showing of thanking "those 2 brave soldiers" (Booger and Ben) who had by that time vanished to the river to escape into Mexico. The Sheriff prevents the Captain and several others in the posse from revealing the true nature of Ben and Booger's 'fame' and he more or less bribes the posse to keep their mouths shut due to Ben and Booger unknowingly helping the daughter of a local politician.

Ben and Booger end up back on a train and they read a paper about the battle and fallout that took place in Sudro Springs and that the 2 mysterious saviors (Ben and Booger) vanished into thin air. They learn that the the Widow Quinn happened to be a daughter of a Senator and a reward's been offered. Ben suggests they return to collect their reward. Just then they're asked to turn in their which Booger can't find them...and they're promptly tossed off the train once again just like at the start of the film. They bicker over their goals and whether or not to return to collect their money but in the end the 2 head off down the railroad presumably to their next get-rich-quick adventure.

This film hit theaters in 1986. Roy Clark, at the time, had been co-host of the syndicated television series Hee Haw dating back to 1969. Mel Tillis was certainly no slouch, either...for he not only is a great singer-songwriter but he displays good comedic skills in practically every project he's appeared in. Glen Campbell is also a legendary the time of this film's release he had been riding a crest of popularity that dated back to the 1960s. One of Roy's fellow cast-members from Hee Haw, Gailard Sartain, is another one of those performers loaded with talent. Frank Gorshin, the legendary impressionist and The Riddler from the Batman television series, had a memorable role as town drunk, Pike, but he didn't necessarily have too many lines. Gorshin's physical performance made the character memorable. Elaine Joyce had become so famous as a character actress and as a panelist on game shows, by 1986, and she eventually hosted a version of The Dating Game later on that year.

This movie can be purchased on DVD and it can be viewed, as of this writing, in it's entirety on YouTube. Search the video hosting site for the film.