Saturday, October 31, 2015

"Fowl Owl on the Prowl" - Travis and Boomer (1967)

This is one of my favorite Halloween songs. The film “In the Heat of the Night” actually takes place just before Halloween- look at the calendars on the wall of the diner and at the Police Station. That’s why the chief wears a jacket in some of the scenes; it’s late autumn.

This song still has lots of fans- I just received this comment the other day, showing that the song is still very much appreciated.

MandocrucianOctober 27, 2015 at 11:27 AM

“The scene was filmed to the music of "Little Red Riding Hood" by Sam The Sham & The Pharoahs. Somehow the movie couldn't get synchronization rights for the song (for some stupid reason, the song publisher would only OK using the melody, not the lyrics), so Quincy Jones whipped up a substitute with the same groove and lyric idea. Sounds like Sam The Sham meets Buck Owens & Don Rich.”

Here is the original post which I have re-posted several times over the past few years.

This is one of my favorite scenes in the movie “In the Heat of the Night” which was released in 1968 and starred Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger and Lee Grant along with a host of other character actors. The film won an Academy Award and has been a favorite of mine since its release. But this scene, and the accompanying song, “Foul Owl on the Prowl” has stuck with me since. It’s a satirical country song, with the music written by none other than Quincy Jones, and the lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, a husband and wife team who went on to pen some of the best theme songs on TV sitcoms.

In this scene, Ralph, the night cook at the diner in Sparta, Mississippi where the story takes place, pries open the jukebox to avoid paying a nickel to hear his favorite song. His almost comical role in this scene belies the true nature of the man, as the film bears out.

The song is almost inaudible in certain portions of the scene, and it would be about 20 years before I would hear the entire lyrics to the song, but it’s worth a listen. The lyrics concern a man, described as an owl, who is on the prowl for his next victim in the dark of night. Using various birds and rhymes, Mr. and Mrs. Bergman crafted a very clever lyric to go along with Mr. Jones’ music.

But the real surprise to me has always been that Quincy Jones, the contemporary genius of jazz, was able to write this melody, which is so far afield from his usual genre. It serves to underscore the sheer musical talent inherent in the man. You either have it, or you don’t. Clearly, Mr. Jones has it.

If you have never heard the full recorded version by Boomer and Travis, then here is your chance. Just hit the link below and listen to Boomer and Travis perform this quirky little number which has quite a cult following; including me. The lyrics are printed below the link.

Friday, October 30, 2015

"The Genius Child" by Langston Hughes

This poem by Langston Hughes was part of a collection of his poetry published in 1958. I am unsure of which of his many published works it first appeared in. No matter; it made a great impression upon me when I was about 13 and first read it. I was reminded of it just this week while reading "One Righteous Man" by Arthur Browne. It is the story of Langston Hughes unpublished book about the life of Samuel Battle, New York City's first African-American Police Officer.

What makes this poem so unusual for Mr. Hughes is that it is a poem of personal despair. He wrote about his personal struggle between art and making a living in a letter to Maxim Lieber dated December 30, 1935. In that letter he said, “I’ll just let Art be a sidekick like it used to be in the days I was a busboy and was at least sure of my meals.” 

This poem is at least partially about the author and his longing to have a “normal” job, rather than being a sometimes broke author/poet/activist. Having a vision and trying to fulfill that dream is never an easy task; it is often a burden. It’s lucky for us Langston Hughes could carry that weight…

The Genius Child

This is a song for the genius child.
Sing it softly, for the song is wild.
Sing it softly as ever you can -
Lest the song get out of hand.

Nobody loves a genius child.

Can you love an eagle,
Tame or wild?
Can you love an eagle,
Wild or tame?
Can you love a monster
Of frightening name?

Nobody loves a genius child.

Kill him - and let his soul run wild.

Friday, October 23, 2015

"Our Man in Charleston" by Christopher Dickey (2015)

This book tells the story of the diplomatic efforts which kept Great Britain from recognizing the government of the Confederate States during the American Civil War. Moreover, it tells the story of how and why that eventuality was avoided.

As the North and South grew ever closer to war in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s election to the Presidency, there was another war; unseen by most at the time; taking place between Washington and Downing Street, the outcome of which could turn the tide of the Civil War.

To understand this book you need to have some rudimentary background about both the United States and Great Britain as relating to the cotton crop. And that is not as simple as you may have been led to believe.

The North desperately needed to keep Southern cotton from reaching England. Had it done so it would have financed the war for the South; while plunging the North further into debt.  Moreover, the United States would have had to take a stand against Britain and risk a war which would have us fighting the British to the North,  as they came down from Canada, at the same time we would have to fight a full scale insurrection to the South and West.

As it turned out, morality; rather than just a quest for victory; came to play in this drama. And that morality surprisingly came from London. Well, maybe it’s not such a surprise after all, as the British had abolished slavery throughout the United Kingdom even as we were fighting the American Revolution here in America. So the British had a vested interest in seeing the Union win the moral contest. At least that is how Her Majesty’s government saw it.

But the other side of the British coin was that the lack of cotton from America; with not enough cotton from Egypt or Africa; had the mills of Lancashire silent as there was no cotton to weave. BY 1862 there were hundreds of thousands out of work and literally starving. So the working class of England wanted to recognize the Confederacy, if only to put food back on their tables. But Prince Albert; consort to Queen Victoria; had worked his entire life to end the African Slave Trade, and he was not about to let the progress he had made toward that goal fall victim to what he considered to be a short term economic problem.

But, even as we were on the brink of war with Britain on one point, we were closer to her on another. The problem was how to exploit the latter, while downplaying the former. There were several people involved in this seemingly impossible task, and all played crucial roles in keeping the situation from spinning out of control.

To begin with there was the English Consul in Charleston, Robert Bunch, who came to America in 1853 and therefore had a bird’s eye view of the developing friction between the North and South. This background was invaluable in shaping his opinions and actions in the opening days of the Civil War, while he was still allowed to dwell in Charleston even though the British Government had not recognized the South diplomatically. And while he was there he used his time to send intelligence reports back to Downing Street informing them of every development and how they would affect the Crown should she decide to recognize the new nation.

The other chief player in this drama was American Secretary of State Seward, who vacillated between belligerence and diplomacy in his efforts to keep us out of war with the English. A mercurial man at best, he used the threat of war with England to avoid actually going to war with them, and much to everyone’s surprise; including his own; we never did have to fight that war.

1862 was a pivotal year for this whole diplomatic contretemps. While this dance was taking place the United States seized British packet steamer Trent as she left Cuba bound for London with former US Senator James Mason and Louisiana Senator John Slidell aboard. American Navy Captain Charles Wilkes; commanding the American steamer USS San Jacinto; intercepted the Trent and boarded her, removing the 2 Southerners and returning them to the United States. The British were furious. This is the point at which Prince Albert shines the most brightly. This episode became known as the Trent Affair.

Lord Palmerston and Lord Russell drafted an ultimatum to the United States, directed at the much despised Secretary of State Seward, giving the United States one week form receipt of the ultimatum to release the two diplomats. It lacked only the approval of Queen Victoria to become a reality.

And this is where history gives us a fine example of the randomness of all things. The Queen was busy getting dressed for a dinner party and was not to be bothered. Albert, on the other hand, was ill with the early stages of the typhoid which would end his life in only a few more days, and so he decided to remain behind. That is how he came to see the draft of the ultimatum before the Queen did. He simply changed it to read “Her Majesty’s government is unwilling to believe that the United States intended wantonly to put an insult upon this country.”

Now Seward had a way to wiggle out of; and also explain; why the United Sates had taken the action it had. You must remember that Albert was faced with the prospect of recognizing the Confederacy and that would entail allowing the African Slave Trade to continue; thus destroying his legacy. This was made very plain to the Confederate Secretary of State via the released Senator Mason.

At about the same time the Lincoln administration was seeking to assure the Crown that there would be no reconciliation with the South if slavery were not abolished outright.  Lincoln crafted the Emancipation Proclamation to deny the South the necessary labor to carry on the cotton trade and also satisfy the Crown that slavery, where it already existed in the United States; and which Lincoln was willing to live with as per his 1861 Inaugural address; was gone forever. 

This bond between the 2 nations was the actual linchpin which kept England from trying to influence the war. It was a highly noble stance, especially considering the economic implications which would result from the decision not to recognize the Confederacy.

This is a highly charged piece of history which has been skillfully crafted by the author. The quotes from Robert Bunch are extraordinary, and I will include one which lends much insight into the mind of this diplomat cum intelligence agent;

“Other nations; especially those enlightened and more old fashioned in their notions; rebel and fight for Liberty. South Carolina; and the Confederacy; are prepared to do the same for Slavery.”

Reading this book is essential to a full understanding of the diplomatic war which was raging even as the canons were firing and the grape flying. It underscores the old adage that the “Pen is mightier than the sword.” But for the agreement between the United States and Great Britain, the Civil War just might have taken a different turn.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

"Bummy Davis vs. Murder, Inc." by Ron Ross (2003)

If any book is a gift in and of itself, and a good book a treasure; then it follows that a good book given as a gift is an even greater treasure. And, so it is with this book; which I received as a Chanukah gift from Glen Slater, a friend who lives in my old neighborhood off Kings Highway in Brooklyn. He also happens to be related to Albert “Bummy” Davis, the subject of this colorful biography.

Albert Davidoff was born in Brownsville in 1920. He arrived at the dawn of Prohibition, and he would live and die at odds with the world of that misguided public policy which spawned the era of Organized Crime, which still stands as a testament to the wisdom of social engineering by the government.

But this story is more than just about politics and gangsters. It is the story of a soulful man living in a world devoid of a soul of its own, and how he came to deal with the hand that life had dealt him. In his case that hand took the form of a devastating left hook.

Author Ron Ross brings life to the character of the man who bore the name “Bummy”. Born as Albert Davidoff to a Jewish family in the East New York section of Brooklyn known as Brownsville, he was a typical kid for the times in which he lived. Surrounded by colorful characters and friends he grows up in a world where making a living was of paramount importance. His father worked at running his candy store, selling newspapers and sodas for 12 hours a day. Each member of the family had their own tasks to perform which brought in the money to feed them all.

Al was a bit different than his brothers; especially Willie, who hung out with the faster crowd and sported pin stripe suits. He also had a reputation for strong arming the local pushcart peddlers and store owners for protection money. In a time and place inhabited by the likes of Lucky Luciano and Abe Reles, this was actually considered a living.

As Al grows up he realizes that he has a talent for fighting and begins to fight in the amateur bouts at the AAU. But he soon comes to realize that in Brownsville everything is up for grabs. Even some of the fights are “fixed” so that the “smart” bettors; the ones who are connected; will always win the big money. Fighters could be marginalized so that they would never fulfill their full potential, while making big money for the “handlers.”

“Bummy’s” big break came in 1939 when he defeated former lightweight champion Tony Canzoneri in 3 rounds. He was finally on his way to the big time. By the close of 1939 he would go on to defeat Tippy Larkin, dispatching him with a mighty left hook in the fifth round. That left hook was his trademark, and enabled him to amass the impressive record of 66 wins and 47 knockouts, with only 10 losses and 4 draws. He is still considered one of the greatest punchers of all time for his weight and class.

His career was marred by his utter distaste for the corruption that went along with the sport of boxing, as well as his own quick temper. His penchant for anger caused him to lose a bout with Lightweight Champion Lou Ambers in 1940. Also that year, he fought Fritzie Zivic, who knocked “Bummy” down in the first round, and continued to harass him in the 2nd round, gouging his eye with a thumb. 
Al went slightly ballistic in response, peppering his opponent with no fewer than 10 “foul” blows, causing him to be disqualified in New York for life. (This suspension was later lifted.)

Along with a terrific account of Al Davis’ life and the fight game, Mr. Ross has also given us a history of “Murder, Inc.”-  the place where the mob went when they needed to have someone “rubbed out.” Abe Reles and the Half Moon Hotel were like local legends to me growing up just about 1 mile or so from Coney Island. The savagery with which they went about their work dwarfs even some of today’s more lurid crimes.

This book reads like a film noir classic; and also boasts a complete record of Al Davidoff’s fights as well as a pretty cool Yiddish glossary to help those who may not be from Brooklyn navigate the dialougue more easily.

In the end Al “Bummy” Davis goes down most unexpectedly. While I was expecting the hail of bullets which ended his life, I expected them to come from a different source. If it’s of any consolation, I think Al Davis was equally surprised.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"The Valley of the Shadow of Death" by Kermit Alexander (2015)

 “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” is the story of pro football player Kermit Alexander and his struggle to find justice in the wake of the murder of his mother and nephews in Los Angeles in the late 1980’s. Not just a history of the crime itself, the book delves into the history of gangs in Los Angeles. The history and origins of the Crips and Bloods, along with the story of Tookie Williams, will hold you captive.

But the real meat of this book is in the way the author takes you through each pace of the investigation, explaining what it’s like to be the prime suspect in the case. That came about because it is standard procedure in homicide cases to look at those most closely connected to the victims. In Mr. Alexander’s case it could have been gambling debts that went unpaid; he was, after all, a pro football star. Even in the years before O.J. this was cause enough to suspect him. This has to be one of the hardest aspects of the case; being suspected of something as heinous as matricide.

Although he was cleared of any involvement this standard procedure poisoned his relationship with his family. Some of them actually believed he was responsible for the death of his own mother, something which he has never been able to overcome.

Working the streets “undercover” he provides the clues and names to the police, who seem to be too busy to really look into the killings deeply. His descriptions of this phase of his life are haunting, as he is consumed by his dual mission to find his mother’s killers and clear his own name.

Throughout the book he laments the lack of intact families as one of the chief causes for the many hurdles which still face the average African-American community today. And I agree with him whole heartedly; which is what made the ending of this story so perplexing to me.

After the trials and appeals are done; which took considerable time; Mr. Alexander re-ignites a relationship which began during the trials when he was in the throes of depression and self-loathing. He describes her only as “blonde haired”, never referring to her race at all, leading the reader to believe that she is a white woman.  They then embark on a visit to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake there. The woman becomes enraptured with a young child whose mother cannot afford to keep her family fed; let alone together.

Eventually, Mr. Alexander and his companion “adopt” all of the women’s five children and bring them back to the United States. I had a hard time with this; not the interracial relationship; but the splitting up of this Haitian women’s family in order to make one of their own. They went to the trouble of building a large addition to their home, and then whisked the children away from the biological mother. It seems to me that they could have taken the mother along; after all they did hire a nanny to help with the care of the children. I couldn’t help but think that the mother could’ve taken on that role.

I found it confusing that; in spite of his stated angst at the plight of the African-American family being torn asunder by economics; Mr. Alexander has taken an impoverished Haitian family apart. He imports the children to America, where there are already so many kids without a mother or father, especially in the African-American community. He has created a perfect world for himself, which he deserves; if only as a reward for the hell he has been through. But I can’t help thinking about that mother who had to sell her children to the African-American man with the blonde haired wife.

Still, this is an engrossing book which sheds much light on what it is like to be behind the headlines when you are both the victim and the suspect. I won’t tell you who killed his mother; or why. That’s one of the most engaging parts of this story; the why. And sometimes even “why” doesn’t really cut it….

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Carolina Israelite" by Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett (2015)

I was first introduced to the writings of Harry Golden by Leonard Herman when I was 15 years old. He was the father of one of my friends when I was growing up in Brooklyn. Come to think of it, he also was the first person to expose me to Isaac Singer’s wonderful short stories. Years later; something like 40; I went to live in Charlotte, N.C. where Mr. Golden is somewhat of a legend; if only for the fact that he lived through the Civil Rights Movement here while writing about it like a liberal Jew from New York.

His home/office on Elizabeth Avenue was even burnt down in reaction to something he printed in his self-published newspaper the “Carolina Israelite” which is the tile of this book. The authors’ mother actually worked for Mr. Golden for a brief period in the 1940’s and uses the title in the way Mr. Golden meant it. It wasn’t the title of the paper as much as it was a description of Mr. Golden himself; he was the Carolina Israelite; roaming the wilderness of North Carolina espousing his views on racial and social equality, much as the Israelites roamed the desert for 40 years in search of a home.

The author does a wonderful job of chronicling the life of this enigmatic man; including his years in New York where he rose from the Lower East side selling newspapers on the corners, to engaging in some very astute stock market swindles which landed him in jail for a time. It was after his stint in prison that he began to roam, looking for a new start somewhere. For some reason he chose Charlotte, North Carolina as the place to transform himself.

As a spokesman for African-Americans he penned the controversial, and hysterically funny piece of satire called “The Vertical Negro Plan”, in which he solves the whole lunch counter seating problem which was then engulfing North Carolina by simply recommending that all seats be removed from restaurants and schools, as the only time black and white people seemed to have problems concerned seating arrangements; even on buses. Make ‘em all stand.

His friendships’ with some of the most influential men of his time are well chronicled, and the author does a great job of reviewing those relationships and even how some of them came about. His habit was to add a famous person’s name to his subscription list and then mention that they were subscribers, thus enhancing his own stature. Shades of his Wall Street days come to mind here. Surprisingly, most of those he befriended in this way actually did become friends with him. The Kennedy’s, both Bob and Jack; Carl Sandburg, who also lived in North Carolina; Adlai Stevenson; even Billy Graham all were proud to count him among their friends.

As far as Jewish-American relations go, Mr. Golden was not idle in that theater of operation. His most stunning piece of work; at least in my eyes; is his essay “Teaching Shylock”, in which he shows the reader how the “Merchant of Venice” and its portrayal of Shylock were not anti-Semitic at all. In fact Shakespeare has lampooned the Christian aristocracy in such a subtle way that people have been reading that play all wrong for 500 years. This is some accomplishment and I urge you strongly to read that piece. I will include a link to it at the end of this review.

In short, this is a wonderful book, long overdue, about one of the most underrated and unappreciated writers in American literature. It is only in the past 20 years that he has begun to be recognized as such. Lenny Herman was way ahead of the curve when he introduced me to the works of this wonderful man of letters.

Here is a link to the “Teaching Shylock” piece, which I really hope you will take the time to read.  If you are a Shakespearean scholar, or just a humble Jew like me, this piece will simply blow you away.

And for a review of “For 2 Cents Plain” use this link;