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Steve Miller, guitarist and singer-songwriter, is 80 years old today
Steve Miller, Lincoln Center, 2017
Photo by Frank Beacham
Steve Miller, guitarist and singer-songwriter, is 80 years old today.
Miller began his career in blues and blues rock and evolved to a more pop-oriented sound. From the mid 1970s through the early 1980s, his work resulted in a series of successful singles and albums.
Born in Milwaukee, young Miller received his first exposure to music from his mother, Bertha, whom he described as a remarkable non-professional jazz-influenced singer, and his physician father, George, known as "Sonny" who, in addition to his profession as a pathologist, was a jazz enthusiast and accomplished amateur recording engineer.
Moreover, guitar virtuoso, Les Paul, and his musical partner, Mary Ford, were regular visitors at the Miller house. Dr. and Mrs. Miller were best man and maid of honor at their December, 1949 wedding.
Les Paul heard Steve, who was about five, on a wire recording made by Dr. Miller, as the youngster was "banging away" on a guitar given to him by his uncle, Dr. K. Dale Atterbury. Paul encouraged the little musician to continue with his interest in the guitar ... and "perhaps he will be something one day.” Paul gave Miller his first guitar lesson.
In 1950, the family relocated to Texas and Steve, who was nearly seven, began attending Dallas' St. Mark's School, a non-sectarian preparatory day school for boys where, about eight years later, he formed his first band, "The Marksmen.”
He taught older brother, Buddy, the only youngster in the family with a driver's license, to play the bass and also instructed classmate and future musical star, Boz Scaggs, a few guitar chords so that he could join the band.
In 1962, Miller returned to Wisconsin, and entered the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he formed The Ardells. Scaggs joined the Ardells the next year, and Ben Sidran became the band's keyboardist the year after.
Miller soon dropped out of school and went to Chicago. During his time in Chicago, Miller worked with harmonica player, Paul Butterfield, and jammed with blues greats, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Buddy Guy, all of whom offered the young guitarist encouragement to pursue a musical career.
In 1965, Miller and keyboardist, Barry Goldberg, formed the Goldberg-Miller Blues Band and began playing on the Chicago club scene. They signed with Epic Records and released a single, "The Mother Song,” and soon began a residency at a New York City blues club.
In 1967, after moving to San Francisco, he formed the Steve Miller Band (at first called The Steve Miller Blues Band), with Miller also handling vocals. Billed as The Miller Band, they backed Chuck Berry on his Live at Fillmore Auditorium album released that year.
In 1968, they released an album, Children of the Future, the first in a series of discs rooted solidly in the psychedelic blues style that then dominated the San Francisco scene. The group followed the release of their second album, Sailor, with the albums Brave New World, Your Saving Grace and Number 5.
Although the Steve Miller Band had limited peak commercial success, his ongoing popularity has been notable. In 1978, Greatest Hits 1974-1978 was released. The album contained all the big hits from his two most popular albums, Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams (plus the title track from The Joker), which were recorded during the same recording sessions in 1976 and subsequently released one year apart.
This popularity also fueled successful concert tours throughout the 1980s and 1990s, often with large numbers of younger people being present at the concerts, many of whom were fans of the big hits and purchased the greatest hits album.
Miller would often headline shows with other classic rock acts, and played a variety of his music, including a selection of his blues work dating from the late 1960s.
On hearing the news of the death of Les Paul in 2009, Miller responded "I cannot believe he is gone, I will miss him very much, my prayers go out to him."
Here, Miller performs “The Joker” with his band.
Václav Havel, Czech playwright, essayist, poet, philosopher, dissident and statesman, was born 87 years ago today.
From 1989 to 1993, Havel served as the first democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia in 41 years. He then served as the first president of the Czech Republic (1993–2003) after the Czech-Slovak split.
Within Czech literature, he is known for his plays, essays and memoirs. His educational opportunities limited by his bourgeois background, Havel first rose to prominence within the Prague theater world as a playwright.
Havel used the absurdist style in works such as The Garden Party and The Memorandum to critique communism.
After participating in Prague Spring and being blacklisted after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, he became more politically active and helped found several dissident initiatives such as Charter 77 and the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted.
His political activities brought him under the surveillance of the secret police and he spent multiple stints in prison — the longest, for nearly four years, between 1979 and 1983.
Havel's Civic Forum party played a major role in the Velvet Revolution that toppled communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989. He assumed the presidency shortly thereafter, and was reelected in a landslide the following year and after Slovak independence in 1993.
Havel was instrumental in dismantling the Warsaw Pact and expanding NATO membership eastward. Many of his stances and policies, such as his opposition to Slovak independence, condemnation of the Czechoslovak treatment of Sudeten Germans after World War II and granting of general amnesty to all those imprisoned under communism, were very controversial domestically.
As such, Havel continually enjoyed greater popularity abroad than at home.
Havel continued his life as a public intellectual after his presidency, launching several initiatives including the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism, the VIZE 97 Foundation and the Forum 2000 annual conference.
Havel's political philosophy was one of anti-consumerism, humanitarianism, environmentalism, civil activism and direct democracy. He supported the Czech Green Party from 2004 until his death.
He received numerous accolades during his lifetime including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Gandhi Peace Prize, the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, the Order of Canada, the Four Freedoms Award, the Ambassador of Conscience Award and the Hanno R. Ellenbogen Citizenship Award.
He is considered, by some, one of the most important intellectuals of the 20th century.
Havel died on the morning of December 18, 2011 at age 75.
On this day in 1947 — 76 years ago — President Harry Truman made the first-ever televised presidential address from the White House.
Truman asked Americans to cut back on their use of grain in order to help starving Europeans. At the time of the speech, Europe was still recovering from World War II and suffering from famine.
Truman, the 33rd commander in chief, worried that if the U.S. didn't provide food aid, his administration's Marshall Plan for European economic recovery would fall apart. He asked farmers and distillers to reduce grain use and requested that the public voluntarily forgo meat on Tuesdays, eggs and poultry on Thursdays and save a slice of bread each day.
The food program was short-lived, as ultimately the Marshall Plan succeeded in helping to spur economic revitalization and growth in Europe.
In 1947, television was still in its infancy and the number of TV sets in U.S. homes only numbered in the thousands. Most people listened to the radio for news and entertainment.
However, although the majority of Americans missed Truman's TV debut, his speech signaled the start of a powerful and complex medium that would have an enormous impact on how future American presidents would be elected.
It would affect not only how candidates campaigned for the office, but how presidents communicated with their constituents. In a way, its culmination is now, as Donald Trump has ascended to the White House through his use of reality television and Twitter.
Each of Truman's subsequent White House speeches, including his 1949 inauguration address, was televised. In 1948, Truman was the first presidential candidate to broadcast a paid political ad.
Truman pioneered the White House telecast, but it was President Franklin Roosevelt who was the first president to appear on TV — from the World's Fair in New York City on April 30, 1939.
FDR's speech had an extremely limited TV audience. It aired only on receivers at the fairgrounds and at Radio City in Manhattan.
Philip Berrigan in 1967
Photo by A. Aubrey Bodine
Philip Berrigan, peace activist and former Roman Catholic priest, was born 100 years ago today.
Berrigan graduated from high school in Syracuse, New York, and was then employed cleaning trains for the New York Central Railroad. He played with a semi-professional baseball team.
In 1943, after a semester of schooling at St. Michael's College, Toronto, Berrigan was drafted into combat duty in World War II. He served in the artillery during the Battle of the Bulge (1945) and later became a Second Lieutenant in the infantry. He was deeply affected by his exposure to the violence of war and the racism of boot camp in the Southern United States.
Berrigan graduated with an English degree from the College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit university in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1950, he joined the Society of St. Joseph, better known as the Josephite Fathers, a religious society of priests and lay brothers dedicated to serving those of African descent, who were still dealing with the repercussions of slavery and daily segregation in the United States.
After studying at the theological school of the Society, St. Joseph's Seminary in Washington, D.C., he was ordained a priest in 1955. He went on to gain a degree in Secondary Education at Loyola University of the South (1957) and then a Master of Arts degree at Xavier University in 1960, during which time he began to teach.
In addition to his academic responsibilities, Berrigan became active in the Civil Rights movement. He marched for desegregation and participated in sit-ins and bus boycotts.
Berrigan was first imprisoned in 1962 and 1963. During his many prison sentences, he would often hold bible study class and offer legal educational support to other inmates.
As a priest, his activism and arrests met with deep disapproval from the leadership of the Catholic Church. Berrigan was moved to Epiphany Apostolic College, the Josephite seminary college in Newburgh, New York, but he continued his protests.
Berrigan attracted the notice of federal authorities when he and six other anti-war activists were caught trading letters alluding to kidnapping Henry Kissinger and bombing steam tunnels. They were charged with 23 counts of conspiracy, including plans for kidnap and blowing up heating tunnels in Washington.
Although the government spent $2 million on the Harrisburg Seven trial in 1972, they did not win a conviction. This was one of the first reversals suffered by the U.S. government in such cases. Another was The Camden 28 in 1973.
After a life of protest, Berrigan died of liver and kidney cancer at the age of 79 on Dec. 6, 2002.
In a last statement, he said I die with the conviction, held since 1968 and Catonsville, that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth. “To mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family and the earth itself,” he wrote.
Howard Zinn, professor emeritus at Boston University, paid this tribute to Berrigan saying "Mr. Berrigan was one of the great Americans of our time. He believed war didn't solve anything. He went to prison again and again and again for his beliefs. I admired him for the sacrifices he made. He was an inspiration to a large number of people."
Bill Dana and Steve Allen
Bill Dana, comedian, actor and screenwriter, was born 99 years ago today.
Appearing on television such as The Ed Sullivan Show, frequently in the guise of a heavily accented Bolivian character, José Jiménez, Dana often portrayed the Jiménez character as an astronaut.
Born William Szathmary in Quincy, Massachusetts of Hungarian-Jewish descent, he took his stage name, "Dana," after his mother's first name, "Dina," as he felt "Szathmary" was unpronounceable.
Dana began his career as a page at NBC's famous Studio 6B while performing comedy in nightclubs around New York with a partner, Gene Wood. In the 1950s, he performed on The Imogene Coca Show, The Danny Thomas Show and The Martha Raye Show, as well as writing for and producing The Spike Jones Show.
Dana's career took a major turn when he began writing stand-up routines for the young comedian, Don Adams, including the now well-known "Would you believe?" jokes popularized on Adam’s TV show, Get Smart.
From there, he was brought in as a writer for The Steve Allen Show, where he created the José Jiménez character for the show's "Man in the Street" segments.
On an Ed Sullivan Show appearance, Dana related a story of how a woman recognized him on the street, but only knew him as José Jiménez. She asked what his real name was.
Instead of his stage name, "Bill Dana," he gave her his real name, "William Szathmary." The woman rejoined: "Wow, no wonder you changed it to Jiménez!"
Dana had several comedy albums, but only one that strictly featured the Jose Jimenez character. One of the cuts — "The Astronaut (Part 1 & 2)," an interview with news reporter, writer and producer, Don Hinkley — made it to the Billboard Top 40 charts at #19 in September, 1961. Hinkley and Dana met as writers for the Allen show.
In the NBC sitcom, The Bill Dana Show (1963–1965), a spinoff of The Danny Thomas Show, Dana's José Jiménez character became a bumbling bellhop at a posh New York hotel. His snooty, irritable boss was played by Jonathan Harris. The cast also included Don Adams as a hopelessly inept house detective, Byron Glick.
Before appearing in front of a television camera for the first time on The Steve Allen Show in 1959, Dana had been a prolific comedy writer, an activity he continued into the 1980s.
Dana co-wrote the script for the Get Smart theatrical film, The Nude Bomb. His brother, Irving Szathmary, wrote the famous theme for the Get Smart television series.
In 1966, Dana appeared uncredited in episode 48 of Batman playing Jose Jimenez, opening the window in the wall Batman was climbing and talking with him.
In May 1967, Dana hosted his own late-night talk show, The Las Vegas Show, on the new United Network. Originated live from the Hotel Hacienda in Las Vegas, Nevada, the program was cancelled by the end of May when the United Network folded.
Joey Forman's 1968 parody album about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, called The Mashuganishi Yogi ("mashugana" meaning crazy or bizarre in Yiddish), was produced by Dana, and includes a cameo of Dana as Jiménez, as well as a cover appearance.
The album is a mock news conference, an extended question-and-answer session. The ersatz Bolivian–accented Jiménez asks the ersatz Indian-accented Yogi: "Why do you talk so funny?"
In 1970, responding to changing times, Dana stopped portraying the José Jiménez character. However, he played the character again on the 1988 revival of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
Dana wrote the script for possibly the best known episode of the hit situation comedy, All in the Family, entitled "Sammy's Visit," which featured Sammy Davis Jr.
Dana died on June 15, 2017 at his home in Nashville at the age of 92.
Here, Dana performs as Jose Jimenez. The interviewer is Don Hinkley.
Bob Geldof is 72 years old today.
An Irish singer, songwriter, author, occasional actor and political activist, Geldof rose to prominence as the lead singer of the Irish rock band, the Boomtown Rats, in the late 1970s and early 1980s alongside the punk rock movement.
The band had hits with his compositions "Rat Trap" and "I Don't Like Mondays." He co-wrote "Do They Know It's Christmas?," one of the best-selling singles of all time, and starred in Pink Floyd's 1982 film, Pink Floyd The Wall.
Geldof is widely recognized for his activism, especially anti-poverty efforts concerning Africa. In 1984, he and Midge Ure founded the charity supergroup Band Aid to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. They went on to organize the charity super-concert, Live Aid, the following year and the Live 8 concerts in 2005.
Geldof currently serves as an adviser to the ONE Campaign, founded by fellow Irishman, Bono. A single father, Geldof has also been outspoken for the fathers' rights movement.
Geldof has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, was granted an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II and is a recipient of the Man of Peace title which recognizes individuals who have made "an outstanding contribution to international social justice and peace," among numerous other awards and nominations.
Here, Geldof performs “I Don’t Like Mondays.”
Of all the artists Bob Dylan singled out in his notable 2015 MusiCares speech, probably the least known today is Billy Lee Riley.
Riley was helped financially by MusiCares the last six years of his life and Dylan appreciated it. Here’s what Dylan said:
“A friend of mine who they helped for six years when he was down and couldn’t work. Billy was a son of rock ‘n’ roll, obviously.
He was a true original. He did it all: He played, he sang, he wrote. He would have been a bigger star but Jerry Lee came along. And you know what happens when someone like that comes along. You just don’t stand a chance.
So Billy became what is known in the industry — a condescending term, by the way — as a one-hit wonder. But sometimes, just sometimes, once in a while, a one-hit wonder can make a more powerful impact than a recording star who’s got 20 or 30 hits behind him. And Billy’s hit song was called “Red Hot,” and it was red hot. It could blast you out of your skull and make you feel happy about it. Change your life.
He did it with style and grace. You won’t find him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s not there. Metallica is. Abba is. Mamas and the Papas — I know they’re in there. Jefferson Airplane, Alice Cooper, Steely Dan — I’ve got nothing against them. Soft rock, hard rock, psychedelic pop. I got nothing against any of that stuff, but after all, it is called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Billy Lee Riley is not there. Yet.
I’d see him a couple times a year and we’d always spent time together and he was on a rockabilly festival nostalgia circuit, and we’d cross paths now and again. We’d always spend time together. He was a hero of mine. I’d heard “Red Hot.” I must have been only 15 or 16 when I did and it’s impressed me to this day.
I never grow tired of listening to it. Never got tired of watching Billy Lee perform, either. We spent time together just talking and playing into the night. He was a deep, truthful man. He wasn’t bitter or nostalgic. He just accepted it. He knew where he had come from and he was content with who he was.
And then one day he got sick. And like my friend John Mellencamp would sing — because John sang some truth today — one day you get sick and you don’t get better. That’s from a song of his called “Life is Short Even on Its Longest Days.” It’s one of the better songs of the last few years, actually. I ain’t lying.
And I ain’t lying when I tell you that MusiCares paid for my friend’s doctor bills, and helped him to get spending money. They were able to at least make his life comfortable, tolerable to the end. That is something that can’t be repaid. Any organization that would do that would have to have my blessing.
Riley died at age 75 in 2009.
Here is Billy Lee Riley performing “Red Hot”
Po’ Monkey’s Lounge outside Merigold, Mississippi
Photo by Will H. Jacks