Saturday, May 7, 2022

Mickey Gilley: 1936 - 2022

1936 - 2022
The news was released within the last hour that the country music community has lost another legendary figure. Mickey Gilley passed away today at the age of 86. March 9, 1936 - May 7, 2022. I like his singing and if I knew he was going to be on a TV show I'd always watch his performance. I saw him in concert only one time. He appeared at the Clark County Fair in 1990. My grandparent's and I went to the Fair and we sat next to a long-time fan of Mickey's who told us a lot of information about his career as well as her favorite songs. We were familiar with Mickey's songs but the more dedicated of fan told us a lot more about him. My grandparent's were aware that Mickey was a cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart. I had no idea about it, at the time, until the fan told us. I recall that Mickey sang practically all of the songs of his that I was familiar with. "Paradise Tonight", the duet he did with Charly McClain, was performed with one of Mickey's harmony singers. I don't want to definitively say that he closed the show with "Don't The Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time" but I think he did. He did a lot of boogie-woogie piano solo's in between the songs. The photo that I chose to include in this blog post shows Mickey Gilley in what a general audience might remember. Mickey had a successful string of country music hits throughout the 1970s, including several number one hits, but the Urban Cowboy movie shot his career into the pop music mainstream. The movie was mostly set inside Mickey's huge bar, Gilley's, in Pasadena, Texas. Mickey appeared in the movie and contributed songs to the movie's soundtrack. Johnny Lee, a frequent performer at Gilley's, was catapulted to stardom in 1980 as a result of his participation in the Urban Cowboy soundtrack with "Lookin' For Love" and "Cherokee Fiddle". The soundtrack included a 1978 hit from Mickey titled "Here Comes the Hurt Again" and a new recording, "Stand By Me". 

Mickey's rendition of that particular song (a previous pop/rhythm and blues hit for Ben E. King) become his biggest cross-over hit. In addition to hitting the top of the country chart in 1980 it reached the Top-30 on the pop driven Hot 100 and the Top-10 on the Adult-Contemporary chart. In fact, four of Mickey's single releases appeared on Billboard's Hot 100 pop chart. After "Stand By Me", his second highest charting Hot 100 pop single is his rendition of "You Don't Know Me", which hit number one on the country chart in 1981 and reached the Top-20 on the Adult-Contemporary chart as well. Mickey had 6 consecutive number one country hits on the Billboard country chart during the 1980-1981 time frame. His first single release of the decade, in 1980, was "True Love Ways" and he followed that chart-topper with 5 more. The single that broke the string, "Tears of the Lonely" peaked in the Top-5 here in America but it did reach number one on Canada's country music chart. Mickey would have three additional number one country hits on Billboard taking us through the second half of 1982 and into 1983: "Put Your Dreams Away", "Talk To Me", and "Fool For Your Love". The latter being his final solo single to reach number one on Billboard's U.S. country music chart, with his duet with Charly McClain in the late summer of 1983, "Paradise Tonight", becoming his final chart-topper on Billboard's U.S. country music chart. "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" and "Too Good To Stop Now" hit number one for Mickey in Canada in 1984. Mickey's final Top-10 hits arrived in 1985 and 1986...with the nostalgic "Doo Wah Days" becoming the final Top-10 of his career. He had a Top-20 country hit in 1987 with "Full Grown Fool" and a Top-30 country hit in 1988 with "She Reminded Me of You". 

Epic Records, in 1980, released this compilation album on Mickey titled Encore. The Encore series of albums were label-wide...all recording artists signed to Columbia's various record labels had an album titled Encore released on them. The Encore album they released on Mickey, as you can see, heavily promoted his night-club without using it's name on the front of the album. On the back of the album Mickey is surrounded by mostly cowboy hat wearing girls. A couple of them are wearing tops that state: "I rode the bull at Gilley's". The bull, of course, is the mechanical bull...shown prominently on the front of the album. The mechanical bull became a staple in all kinds of country-oriented bar room's and night clubs attempting to emulate the ambience of Gilley's place. It was called the world's largest Honky-Tonk. Mickey co-owned the club with Sherwood Cryer. The club opened in 1971 and once Urban Cowboy hit theaters and became a massive box-office hit Gilley's night club in Pasadena, Texas became a super destination for locals and out of State tourists. The club branched out into television and radio productions...numerous country music singers stopped by and recorded concert performances for a local radio series tied to the nightclub and there was also a television program that originated from Gilley's for awhile. Gilley's became part of most tour stops for Country and Adult-Contemporary performers. The night-club burned to the ground in 1989 leaving some music critics and historians to point out that a night-club so synonymous with 1980's country music should happen to burn to the ground at the close of the decade. 

Mickey, following this period of his career, moved on and opened up a theater in Branson, Missouri...and he remained a fixture in Branson for the next several decades. An accident while helping move furniture in 2009 impacted his performing career and he spent a year or more recovering and in physical therapy. The accident left him paralyzed and although he did the rehab and physical therapy there were lingering effects for the rest of his life. In January 2018 Mickey and his son were involved in a car accident while traveling from Texas to Missouri. They never made it out of Texas, though, and neither were seriously injured. Mickey and Johnny Lee, during this point in time, had been on something of a national reunion tour with an Urban Cowboy theme. The movie, in 2015, turned 35 and by 2020, of course, it hit 40. The two had performed an extended reunion series of shows at Mickey's Branson theater for the last several years. The news of Mickey passing away today at the age of 86 seems surreal. He released numerous singles...and among my many, many favorite Mickey Gilley recordings is the cleverly titled "The Power of Positive Drinking". It was a Top-10 hit for him but it wasn't one of his signature songs and so it's sort of fallen into obscurity. I saw him sing it on an episode of Hee Haw and it became an instant favorite...

Monday, April 18, 2022

Benny Hill: Going Back to April 20th 1992...

I was going to begin this blog entry with a familiar greeting by Fred Scuttle, one of Benny Hill's famous characters, but I don't know if the phrase is copyrighted or not. We're a few days away from April 20, 1992...a sad day for millions of Benny Hill fans around the world. It was on that day Benny Hill passed away. Those who knew him personally may have expected it...but in the years since a lot of us fans have become aware of Benny's final weeks. There's been a lot of essays and commentary about his death in the last 30 years...and I'd say there's been a heavy dose of commentary circulating about him within the last 10 years. The video hosting site, YouTube, came along in 2005 and within 5 years video content from around the world had been accessed tens of millions of times, combined. Benny Hill videos...specifically his comedy sketches, comedy monologues, and Hill's Angels features...gained an entirely new audience. There had been a market established for Benny's comedy on VHS tape and on DVD...but with YouTube it enabled the content from those VHS and DVD releases as well as full episodes of his hour long television specials to be readily available. All a person needed to do is simply type in Benny's name in a YouTube search box and the results are nearly endless. Benny was chased off of television in 1989...after 20 years at Thames TV. Prior to his association with Thames he worked at the BBC. His television specials at the BBC were titled The Benny Hill Show. Highlights from his BBC programs have been issued on VHS and DVD...they're in black and white and can be accessed online. In the BBC episodes some of his supporting players were usually Jeremy Hawk, Patricia Hayes, and Rita Lloyd. 

It's been reported that his first performance to a mass audience was on a radio series, Variety Bandbox, in 1947. Benny made his television debut in 1950. He appeared regularly on the BBC airwaves throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In 1956 he starred in the comedy movie, "Who Done It?". He had a radio series, Benny Hill Time, for 2 years (1964-1966) and 26 episodes in total. He headlined a couple of television specials for ITV and ATV during his long association with the BBC but the most significant change happened in 1969 when he joined Thames Television. It's with this company that Benny became an international comedy star. His hour long television specials would be sprinkled throughout a calendar most years he would deliver 3 or 4 one hour specials. His television specials became events and much anticipated. His supporting cast in the first decade of the Thames specials were Henry McGee, Bob Todd, Jackie Wright, and some faces familiar from his BBC years like Patricia Hayes and Rita Lloyd. In 1979 the syndicator, Don Taffner, brought Benny Hill to American television screens...and from America to television screens all over the world. Taffner conceived the idea of selling half hour installments of Benny's comedy to local television stations across America. An editing team carefully pieced together numerous half hour episodes using the footage from Benny's hour long television specials for Thames TV.

These half hour episodes aired practically all over the world in late-night time slots or in pre-dawn, early morning time slots. Benny also added a collection of female dancers to his show around this same time and he called them Hill's Angels. The dancers also doubled as comedic foils for Benny. As the 1980's progressed and the edited half hour Benny Hill programs were spiking local television ratings, becoming increasingly popular in various non-English speaking territories (thanks to a lot of pantomime sketches), the comics in his own homeland were on the verbal attack...and by 1989 with mounting pressures from British comics, critics, and feminist groups (collectively a very loud minority of people), Thames TV canceled the Benny Hill television specials. The last television special aired on May 1, 1989. The half hour episodes were still airing around the world...including America. 

Due in large part to the success that the half hour shows were still having in America the syndicator, Don Taffner, asked Benny if he would do another television special and that he'd handle the distribution. They hit on a concept called Benny Hill's World Tour. The television specials would spotlight a different major city/town in nearly every country on the planet. The first, in this proposed World Tour series of specials, spotlighted New York City. The USA Network bought the broadcast rights and Benny Hill's World Tour: New York! hit the airwaves on May 30, 1991. It was his first comedy special since 1989. Unfortunately, Benny's health began to decline as the year went February 1992 he suffered a mild heart attack. He declined further medical treatment (a bypass) and experienced kidney failure and he passed away on April 20, 1992. His body was discovered by his long-time television producer, Dennis Kirkland, several days later. Several people had called Benny's house and there were no answers for several days. The lack of reply caused great concern, obviously, and with the help of the police Dennis Kirkland was able to get inside Benny's locked house where they found him sitting in front of the television in his favorite chair, non-responsive. 

The memorials and outpouring of grief was almost immediate once the news broke. It was revealed that among the mail in Benny's living room was a contract awaiting his signature...a contract for a series of new television specials for Central Independent Television. Apparently, and I'm just guessing, but this was the company Benny would've worked for on the World Tour series of television specials...with syndication rights perhaps held by Don Taffner. Nobody outside of a few has ever seen the actual unsigned contract so any number of us over the decades have made wild speculations as to what it may have contained. Benny Hill reruns have been scarce on television since the early 1990s. In the last 20 plus years BBC America and Antenna TV have aired variations of Benny's show. BBC America aired edited hour long episodes whereas Antenna TV in 2011, and added again to the line-up this year, air edited copies of the half hour edited programs. Antenna TV has been airing the half hour episodes in program blocks from 12am to 2am early Sunday morning. So, as I mentioned earlier, Benny Hill is always going to be there...ready to be discovered by successive generations of people. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

C.W. McCall: 1928 - 2022

A few months ago news was released that C.W. McCall had been placed under the care of hospice. The news was abrupt and matter of fact without too much information given as to the reason why. Then, out of the blue, news surfaced that C.W. had passed away on April 1st at the age of 93 from cancer. He was born Billie Fries, according to most websites, and later legally changed his name to William Fries, Jr.. He was born November 15, 1928 in Audobon, Iowa. He had a career in the advertising business when he created the character, C.W. McCall. He didn't portray the character in the television commercials but the product, Old Home Bread, became something of a major sales hit in the Omaha, Nebraska area in 1973. The commercial won a Clio Award, which is the Oscar of the advertising world, in 1974. The commercials spawned professionally recorded songs with emphasis on the sights and culture of the Plains States (Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado). Bill Fries became C.W. McCall on recordings. He wrote the lyrics to his recordings while Chip Davis wrote the music. His first single release, "Old Home Filler Up and a Keep on a Truckin' Cafe", was a direct tie-in with Old Home bread and it became a Top-20 country music hit and landed on the Hot 100 pop chart as well. "Wolf Creek Pass" was his second single and it, too, reached the Top-20 on the country music chart and reached Top-40 status on the Hot 100 pop chart. In 1975 "Classified" reached the country Top-20 followed by the chart hit, "Black Bear Road". 

His style was narration...meaning that he didn't sing too much on his single releases. He wasn't sad in his recitations like Red Sovine famously happened to be but given the narration approach and the mostly up-tempo, rollicking music arrangements it gave McCall a style and sound that set him apart. The massive hit single in his career came along later on in 1975... the iconic "Convoy". This recording was massively popular...a monster hit...a million selling country and pop hit. It was officially released in November of 1975 and it, as I said, was a monster hit. 

It reached Number One on the country and pop charts here in America. It was number one for 6 weeks on the country chart. It hit number one on the pop chart in Canada early in 1976 and the Top-10 on their country chart. It also hit number one in Australia and New Zealand. The single popularized the C.B. fad that swept the entire country and Canada. The recording cemented C.W. McCall's long-lasting popularity as a 'truck driver singer'. There are many compilation albums filled with songs specializing in the truck driving industry...and there's almost always inclusion of "Convoy" or several other singles from his career. The single, being incredibly popular and spearheading a national fad, ultimately had it's share of detractors/critics. The critics were definitely in the minority opinion, however. 

Now, as it turned out, 1976 turned out to be the peak year for C.W. McCall's recording career. There wouldn't be another recording by him that would match the phenomenal popularity of "Convoy" but he continued recording and releasing singles. He would have several chart hits during the remainder of the decade but nothing else reached the charts as the new decade began. Some of those latter day recordings that hit happened to be "There Won't Be No Country Music", a country Top-20. "Crispy Critters", "Four Wheel Cowboy", and "Round the World with the Rubber Duck" all reached the country charts in 1976. 

In 1977 he issued a couple of recordings...first up is "Audubon", a recording about his hometown in Iowa which serves as something of a prequel to his first single release. It's mid-tempo and highly entertaining...he mentions Mavis Davis, a character from the Old Home bread commercials and there's a refrain of his first single's chorus heard in this recording. For whatever reason it didn't register as high on the Country singles charts as his previous releases. The follow-up, the mellow "Roses for Mama", was his last major hit single...reaching the Top-10 on the country music charts here in America and in Canada early in the fall of 1977. Red Sovine recorded a version of the recording, too. McCall would have one final chart hit...a commentary on country music titled "Outlaws and Lone Star Beer" in 1978. It clocks in at just under 2 minutes and it features him singing...a departure from his recitations. In the song he laments that most people see country music as nothing but what the song's title he decides to reveal there's more to country music. "Convoy", in the meantime, inspired a truck driver movie starring Kris Kristofferson, Ali McGraw, Ernest Borgnine, and Burt Young among others. The movie was released in 1978 and it featured a revised recording of the song by McCall. 

C.W. McCall officially 'retired' from country music following his 1979 album containing "Outlaws and Lone Star Beer". There is the existence of two rare single releases by him in the 1980's...the first being "Kidnap America" in 1980. A social/political commentary on the Iran Hostage crisis. The other is 1983's "Pine Tar Wars", commenting on the charged use of excessive pine tar on the bat of Major League baseball player, George Brett. Living in Colorado he ran for and was elected the mayor of Ouray, Colorado in 1986...a small town/hamlet in the mountains...and he remained mayor of the town until 1992. 

He maintained a low profile and kept out of the spotlight until just this year...soon after news broke that he was in hospice care he was asked about the Freedom Convoy that was taking place in Canada and the potential for it to move into the United States. The organizers received McCall's consent to use his "Convoy" song during the protests and he was quoted as being enthused and energized in the knowing that there was a revival of interest in his song and it's overall message. His quoted statements are from a February 9th conversation. He passed away on April 1, 2022 at the age of 93!