Ike Turner: 1931-2007

December 13, 2007

Ike Turner, whose role as a founding father of rock ‘n roll became overlaid with his image as all-time abusive husband to Tina Turner, died yesterday at age 76. Ike played piano on “Rocket 88,” recorded in Memphis by Sam Phillips and now deemed the first rock ‘n roll record. The New York Times has the best obit I’ve seen so far.

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Norman Mailer and the sorority girl

November 10, 2007

Norman Mailer has died at age 84.  He came to the University of Tennessee in 1973 to give a lecture, which turned out to be a reading from his book about Marilyn Monroe. That’s it–he just got up and read from his book. Hundreds of people had turned out, and much was the disappointment. He had been paid $10,000 or $15,000 or what seemed like a tremendous amount of money for that time, and all he did was read and answer a few questions.

There were high hopes for a better showing at the party afterwards. I was an undergraduate and a member of the committee that chose the lecturers. One of the perks of being on that committee was getting to hang around the man or woman of the hour, often at a dinner before the lecture or a party afterwards.

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Ernest Withers, photographer of Black life, dies at 85

October 16, 2007

The Memphis Commercial Appeal brings the sad news that photographer Ernest Withers has died at age 85. Quoted in the article, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art director Kaywin Feldman said, “Ernest Withers is internationally recognized as one of the most important American photographers of the 20th century. Not only did Withers capture iconic images of the civil rights movement, but he also produced important photographs of the Negro Baseball League, Memphis musicians and daily life for African-Americans in Memphis. We are proud to have almost 200 of Withers’ photographs in our permanent collection.”

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Photo of Elvis and BB King  © Ernest C. Withers courtesy of Panopticon Gallery, Boston.

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Resquiat in Pace Marcel Marceau

September 23, 2007

NPR brought the sad news this morning that Marcel Marceau has died at the age of 84. When I was a journalism school undergraduate at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, a father-son pair named Ralph and Robert Frost booked Marcel Marceau into Knoxville’s Civic Auditorium. I requested an interview with him, and to my astonishment my request was granted. Seems that no other media outlet in town even asked.

I met Marceau in the Hyatt House, where he was staying, and he was very generous with his time with me, even though I was writing for a student newspaper, the Daily Beacon. I interviewed him several years later when I was a freelance writer, when he saved my social neck. Therein lies a tale.

Yours truly and Marcel Marceau

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Eyes of Tammy Faye close at last

July 22, 2007

Tammy Faye Bakker, described in today’s New York Times obit headline with the crossword puzzle-sounding clue of “emotive evangelist,” died of cancer on Friday at age 65. She was a former resident of Gatlinburg. It was to that town that she and former husband, Jim Bakker, fled after their Praise the Lord enterprise collapsed in scandal in the 1980s.

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Cas Walker film in Knoxville

June 13, 2007

Due to popular demand, Knoxville’s East Tennessee Historical Society will show This is Cas Walker, a film about East Tennessee’s most famous–and most notorious–grocer and public figure. The film will be shown on June 22 as a part of Treasures From the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound: A Film Series.

As described in the publicity, “Scenes and outtakes from his popular television show, The Cas Walker Farm and Home Show, as well as vintage commercials and rare early performances by local performers such as Dolly Parton will be included, along with newly discovered footage that was not part of the original screening.”

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Photo courtesy of WBIR
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R.I.P. David Halberstam

April 24, 2007

David Halberstam, a great reporter and a great author, died in a car crash yesterday. After graduating from Harvard in 1955, he came South to cover the growing civil rights movement in Mississippi. That job didn’t work out, so he came to Tennessee. Here is his version of the story, given in a speech in 2005 upon receiving the Columbia Journalism Award:

“I went from there to four years on the Nashville Tennessean – probably the best and most aggressive paper in the South in the Civil Rights Days – where I was taught by very good people. (With all due respect to the faculty, in the end, journalists mostly teach each other.) Every night I would go out to dinner with member of a great staff of an embattled newspaper. Each night was like a great seminar in journalism; I could listen to them talk about what they had done that day, how they had put their stories together. I was a human sponge.

“One of the things I learned, the easiest of lessons, was that the better you do your job, often going against conventional mores, the less popular you are likely to be. (So, if you seek popularity, this is probably not the profession for you.)

“I learned how to work a story, how to talk to ordinary people, and what a joy doing legwork was. I learned the best question of all for any interview: “Who else should I see?” To this day, the back cover of my notebooks is covered with lists of names of people to see.

“I learned that the more legwork you do, inevitably the better the writing seems because you have more details, more anecdotes, and more authority. And I learned that the great fun of journalism was talking to people, that it was where you kept learning. What a marvelous way to grow intellectually!

“So when The New York Times called in 1960, I was ready.”

That’s an understatement. Here is the Tennessean’s piece on him.

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Photo by Yann Nicolas


Tennessee naming expert dies at 84

April 24, 2007

“We are at the mercy of our name givers,” said Kelsie Harder, a native of MIddle Tennessee who became a world authority on naming practices, and who died April 12. He was born in Perry County, got his B.A.and M.A. at Vanderbilt, and spent his professional life in upstate New York. Poor fellow.

My sons and I wrote a baby name book a couple of years ago, and I have long been fascinated with Tennessee names. I came up through rural Tennessee schools with kids who had all manner of unusual given names. Some of the boys’ first and middle names were William Otto, Vivert Aaron, Rush Floyd, and Gale Omar. The girls included Mozella Ann, Cheryl Ruthita, Mary Alyce, Neda Jane, Eufaula Carole, and Rena Rebecca.

After school and in the summers, I worked at my family’s construction company, where I labored alongside guys named Royal, Fate, Shirley and Jehovah. I can remember our dispatcher saying something like, “OK, I’m going to send Jehovah and Fate over there, and they’ll take care of you.”

I later became a reporter, writing about a blind Baptist gospel disk jockey named J. Bazzel Mull and interviewing Judge Sue K. Hicks, the real-life inspiration for Johnny Cash’s hit “A Boy Named Sue.” You can’t come from a background like that and not have an interest in names.

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This blog is part of a much larger website, also entitled Tennessee Guy, that contains travel and cultural information about Tennessee. Visit it here.


Kurt Vonnegut in Tennessee

April 13, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, who died this week at age 84, received part of his education at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Writing in the Tennessee Alumnus Magazine, writer Aaron Purcell describes the program that brought Vonnegut to The Hill in 1943:

“With lower enrollment and nearly empty dormitories, the university easily accommodated such groups as the air corps cadets, who received five months of instruction in English, mathematics, history, geography, physics, and physical education while completing flight training. The Army Specialized Training Program also sent several hundred students to the University of Tennessee, including then-engineering student Kurt Vonnegut. This national program was distributed on college campuses across the country to prepare specialists in engineering, science, mathematics, and foreign languages for wartime demands. During the war, these and other government-sponsored programs educated thousands of soldiers on the Knoxville campus.”

I met Vonnegut once in Massachusetts and found him to be a personable and kind individual. Here is a photo of him as a young man:

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photo by Edie Vonnegut


James Brown’s Tennessee connections

December 26, 2006

James Brown, who died on Christmas day, had several Tennessee connections. First, he played across the state–from Memphis to Kingsport–throughout his career. Perhaps the oddest venue for him was in 1979, when he sang on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. According to an article in today’s Tennessean, the “Godfather of Soul” sang  “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Tennessee Waltz,” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.”

In the early days, his career was one of the many black entertainers boosted by Nashville’s WLAC, a powerful AM station whose most famous disc jockey, John R., aka John Richbourg, played what were then called Rhythm and Blues records. According to the Tennessean, “Starting with his 1956 hit, ‘Please, Please, Please,’ the station and disc jockey John Richbourg gave Brown’s music its first exposure to a national audience, said Don Boner, a writer from Indianapolis who has researched WLAC’s history.

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