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Puerto Rican musician José Feliciano is 78 years old today
José Feliciano performs at the Grand Gala du Disque Populaire on the coastal resort of Scheveningen, the Netherlands, 1970
Photo by Rob Mieremet
José Feliciano is 78 years old today.
The Puerto Rican singer, virtuoso guitarist and composer is known for many international hits including, "Light My Fire," and the best-selling Christmas single, "Feliz Navidad.”
Born in Lares, Puerto Rico, Feliciano was permanently blind at birth due to congenital glaucoma. He was first exposed to music at age three and would play on a tin cracker can while accompanying his uncle playing the Cuatro.
When he was five, his family moved to Spanish Harlem, New York City, and at age nine, he played the Teatro Puerto Rico in the Bronx. He started his musical life playing the accordion until his father and family friend, Benjamin Borges, gave him his first guitar in a brown paper bag.
He played every chance he had by himself in his room for up to 14 hours a day listening to 1950s rock 'n' roll records, classical guitarists such as Andrés Segovia, and jazz players, including Wes Montgomery. He later had classical lessons with Harold Morris, who earlier had been a student of Segovia.
At 17, he quit school to play in clubs, having his first professional, contracted performance in Detroit. In 1963, after some live performances in pubs and clubs around the United States and Canada, especially in Greenwich Village in New York City, and Vancouver, BC, where he played at the same time as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, he was signed by Jack Somer, an executive at RCA Victor.
In 1964, he released his first single "Everybody Do the Click.” Besides his musical skills, Feliciano is known for his strong sense of humor. He constantly makes fun of people's reactions to his blindness, and has even played practical jokes on friends and family based on this.
Once his then bass player, Ted Arnold, contrived to allow Feliciano to appear to be driving down a busy street, fooling the passing police.
During a show he once said, "I was going to dedicate this next song [Zorba The Greek] to Howard Hughes, but I can't see him!" He then dedicated it to Jacqueline Onassis.
Here, Feliciano performs “Light My Fire” in 1968.
Phillip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, 1984
Philip Baker Hall, actor, was born 92 years ago today.
Although Hall was rarely cast for the lead role, he portrayed exceptional characters such as President Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's Secret Honor (1984), Sydney in Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight (1996) and Arthur Pratt in Duck (2005).
He was probably best known for his stirring portrayal of Lieutenant Bookman, Library Cop, on Seinfeld.
Most critics lauded him for his ancillary role as 60 Minutes' exec. producer Don Hewitt, opposite Christopher Plummer and Al Pacino, in the 1999 drama, The Insider.
Hall acted in Cradle Will Rock, a 1999 film on which I was executive producer.
Perhaps my favorite of his roles was in Secret Honor, the 1984 film by Robert Altman about Richard Nixon. Filmed by a crew made of an Altman class at the University of Michigan, Hall played Nixon, who restlessly paced the study at his New Jersey home, in the late 1970s.
Armed with a loaded revolver, a bottle of Scotch whisky and a running tape recorder, while surrounded by closed circuit television cameras, Nixon spends 90 minutes recalling, with rage, suspicion, sadness and disappointment, his controversial life and career in a long monologue.
It was a tour de force of filmmaking.
When I met Altman in the 1980s, I told him Secret Honor was my favorite of his films. He immediately warmed up, responding that it was his favorite as well. We talked for 20 minutes about that outstanding film and Hall’s incredible performance.
Hall died of emphysema at his home in Glendale, California, on June 12, 2022.
Here is a scene with Philip Baker Hall from Secret Honor.
In 1997 — 26 years ago — an electric chair, which was used in Alcatraz and once owned by Andy Warhol, sold for about $7,500 at an auction in the UK.
Warhol used to sit in the chair and watch horror movies. He also painted it. The chair was made in 1935 and used in Alcatraz, San Quenton and the Chino jails.
In the 1950s, it was acquired by Warner Brothers studios and featured in The Walls of Folsom Prison, Crime Wave and Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess.
Warhol bought the chair from the movie studio.
Robert Wise directs Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979
Robert Wise was born 109 years ago today.
Wise was a film director, producer and editor. He won Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture for both West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).
He was also nominated for Best Film Editing for Citizen Kane (1941) and directed and produced, The Sand Pebbles (1966), which was nominated for Best Picture.
Among his other films are The Body Snatcher (1945), Born to Kill (1947), The Set-Up (1949), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Destination Gobi (1953), This Could Be The Night (1957), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), I Want to Live! (1958), The Haunting (1963), The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Hindenburg (1975) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).
Wise was the president of the Directors Guild of America from 1971 to 1975 and the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1984 through 1987.
Often contrasted with auteur directors such as Stanley Kubrick, who tended to bring a distinctive directorial "look" to a particular genre, Wise has been viewed as a craftsman, inclined to let the (sometimes studio-assigned) story concept set the style.
Later cineastes, such as Martin Scorsese, insist that despite Wise's legendary workaday concentration on stylistic perfection within the confines of genre and budget, his choice of subject matter and approach still functioned to identify Wise as an artist and not merely an artisan.
Wise achieved critical success as a director in a striking variety of film genres: horror, noir, western, war, science fiction, musical and drama, with many repeat successes within each genre. His meticulous preparation may have been largely motivated by studio budget constraints, but advanced the moviemaking art. He received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1998.
I personally studied film directing with Wise and got to know him as an understated, quiet man who defied the normal personality of a major film artist. His focus was always on preparation, detail and concentration. He taught me that directing can be accomplished in many ways, not just the showy style of more flamboyant film artists.
Wise suffered a heart attack and died of heart failure on September 14, 2005, four days after his 91st birthday.
Roy James Brown, blues musician, was born 102 years old today.
An R&B singer, songwriter and musician, Brown had a significant influence on the early development of rock and roll and changed the direction of rhythm and blues. His original song and hit recording, "Good Rocking Tonight," was covered by Wynonie Harris, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, Ricky Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Pat Boone, James Brown, the Doors and the rock group, Montrose.
Brown was the first singer in recording history to sing R&B songs with a gospel-steeped delivery, which was then considered taboo by many churches.
Brown had a melisma style, where he could sing and plead using a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession. His vocal style influenced such notable artists as B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Elvis Presley, Jackie Wilson, James Brown and Little Richard.
Born in New Orleans, Brown started singing gospel music in the church. His mother was an accomplished singer and church organist. After a move to Los Angeles in the 1940s, and a brief period spent as a professional boxer in the welterweight category, he won a singing contest in 1945 at the Million Dollar Theater covering "There's No You," originally recorded by Bing Crosby.
After being rejected by the Armed Forces because of flat feet, he secured his first major job in a Shreveport, Louisiana club singing mostly pop ballads such as "Stardust" and "Blue Hawaii." The owner of Bill Riley's Palace Park hired him, he said, because of his appeal as "a Negro singer who sounds white."
It was at the Palace Park that Brown started developing a blues repertoire, learning contemporary R&B tunes such as "Jelly Jelly" (recorded by Billy Eckstine). He returned to New Orleans in 1947, where he performed at The Dew Drop Inn.
Brown was a big fan of blues singer, Wynonie Harris. When Harris appeared in town, Brown tried but failed to interest him in listening to "Good Rocking Tonight." Dejected, Brown approached another blues singer, Cecil Gant, who was appearing at another club in town.
Brown introduced his song, and Gant had Brown sing it over the telephone to the president of De Luxe Records, Jules Braun, reportedly at 4:00 in the morning. Brown was signed to a recording contract immediately and recorded the song in a jump blues style with a swing beat.
It was released in 1948 and reached #13 on the U.S. Billboard R&B chart. Ironically, Wynonie Harris covered it and hit the top of Billboard's R&B chart later in 1948. Presley also covered the song for Sun Records in 1954. It was later re-released on RCA Victor when his recording contract was sold to that record label in 1956.
Brown continued to make his mark on the R&B charts, scoring 14 hits from mid-1948 to late 1951 with De Luxe, including "Hard Luck Blues" (his biggest seller in 1950), "Love Don't Love Nobody," "Rockin' at Midnight," "Boogie at Midnight," "Miss Fanny Brown" and "Cadillac Baby," making him, along with Harris, one of the top R&B performers for those three years.
Brown died of a heart attack near his home in the San Fernando Valley on May 25, 1981. He was 55 years old.
He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame the same year.
Here, Brown performs “Hard Luck Blues.”
The Mellotron is an electro-mechanical, polyphonic tape replay keyboard originally developed and built in Birmingham, England, in 1963. The instrument works by pulling a section of magnetic tape across a head. Different portions of the tape can be played to access different sounds.
The Mellotron became more popular after the Beatles used it on several tracks. It was subsequently adopted by the Moody Blues, King Crimson and Genesis, and became a notable instrument in progressive rock.
Later models, such as the best selling M400 model, dispensed with the accompaniments and some sound selection controls in order to be used by touring musicians. The instrument became less popular in the 1980s due to the introduction of polyphonic synthesizers and samplers.
Production of the Mellotron ceased in 1986, but it regained popularity in the 1990s, and was used by several notable bands. This led to the resurrection of the original manufacturer, Streetly Electronics. In 2007, Streetly produced the M4000, which combined the layout of the M400 with the bank selection of earlier models.
Here is the Mellotron in a vintage film from 1965.
You either had to be part of a fairly small subculture of music fans or a professional on the business side of the music industry to have heard of Nirvana before the autumn of 1991.
To the few who followed their particular brand of alternative music before "alternative" went mainstream, Nirvana had announced themselves as a band to watch with their independently produced 1989 album, Bleach.
And to the music-business pros who knew that Bleach sold 30,000 copies after being produced for only $600, Nirvana was seen as a prime candidate for a breakout with their second album being released by the major label, Geffen Records.
But absolutely no one — not Nirvana's biggest fans, not their biggest industry supporters and certainly not the band-members themselves — suspected the magnitude of what was about to happen. In just a few short months, a group that was a complete nonentity to the mainstream music-buying public would become the most important rock band on earth.
The transformation began on this day in 1991 — 33 years ago — with the release of Nirvana's landmark single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
The song Nirvana's label and management hoped would be a hit off the band's forthcoming album, Nevermind, was "Come as You Are," which was set for release later in the fall.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released quietly and without significant promotion in the hopes that it would begin building awareness of the new album among listeners to college and alternative radio.
"None of us heard it as a crossover song," Nirvana's manager, Danny Goldberg, later recalled, "but the public heard it and it was instantaneous. They heard it on alternative radio and then they rushed out like lemmings to buy it."
Kurt Cobain, Nirvana's guitarist, lead singer and primary songwriter, had to be talked into even including "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on Nevermind by his bandmates bassist, Krist Novoselic, and drummer, Dave Grohl.
He was self-conscious about a song he'd written as a rip-off of the Pixies' hard-and-loud, then soft-and-quiet style. But most of the millions who would soon become Nirvana fans had probably never heard of The Pixies or the other punk, hardcore and alternative bands that had inspired and influenced Kurt Cobain.
He was the product of an underground scene far outside the pop-music mainstream, but his gift for channeling the noise and anger of that scene into brilliantly accessible songs like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ended up redefining the mainstream itself.
Here, Nivana performs in the music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Fire Island at the end of summer, 2014
Photo by James Gavin