Thursday, May 14, 2020

Sweet Indeed

In 1956, Walt Disney decided to start his own record label and hired jazz musician Salvador "Tutti" Camarata to form and run Disneyland Records.  The label served as an outlet for all music created for Disney's movies and television shows, but also had a few independent releases.  In 1959 Disney formed Buena Vista Records to produce those independent releases separately.

One of Buena Vista's first releases was the single Lost In a Fog, by Camarata's own Tutti's Trumpets / Camarata Strings.  The B-side  was Toot Sweet, a jazzy instrumental composed by a frequent Camarata collaborator, 19-year-old Paul Anka.  

Around that time, Annette Funicello was ready to transition from The Mickey Mouse Club to Disney's teen movies.  To help transform her image, she decided to release an album of love songs, and asked Camarata to produce it.  Camarata enlisted Anka, who was publicly dating Funicello at the time, to write the songs, and the album was thus entitled, Annette Sings Anka. One of the songs on the album, It's Really Love, was a reworked version of Toot Sweet, to which Anka had added lyrics.

Hollywood cranked out plenty of teen movies during the 1950s, and so did studios in Europe.  One of the European productions, a 1959 French film named Faibles Feemes (starring up-and-comer Alain Delon), needed a song sung by a male teen heartthrob to suit the storyline.  Anka recorded his own version of It's Really Love, and the song appeared in the film.

So, Toot Sweet began life as a humble B-side, but then helped propel Annette Funicello to stardom and later became an international hit.  But this little song was not done yet.

Not by a long shot.

Listen to the original Toot Sweet, by Tutti's Trumpets / Camarata Strings:

A bit familiar?  Here's It's Really Love, by Annette Funicello:

And here's Anka's cover of It's Really Love:

Yes, this is the song you know as Johnny's Theme, which opened The Tonight Show during Johnny Carson's 30-year tenure as host, from 1962 to 1992:

Carson, a fan of jazz, had worked with Anka in England on a television special, An Evening with Paul Anka, in 1961.  When they happened to meet up again in New York the following year, Carson mentioned that he was taking over as permanent host of The Tonight Show in October and needed a theme song.   A few weeks later, Anka came up with a new instrumental arrangement of It's Really Love and sent a demo tape to Carson.

It was love at first listen.

One last tidbit: Anka generously offered Carson the opportunity to rewrite the song's lyrics (even though no lyrics were ever used in the show) so that Carson would share the songwriting credit with Anka and thus share in the royalties every time the song was played.  On average, Anka and Carson earned $200,000 each per year in royalties from Johnny's Theme.

Sweet?  Darn tootin'.

Attribution note: In addition to the sources linked in the essay, material was gathered from this Internet Archive article about the evolution of Johnny's Theme and this Wikipedia article about Salvador Camarata.

Monday, May 4, 2020

James and Israel

James was born in 1940 in New York's East Harlem.  His parents divorced when he was two years old.  His father moved to California, so James was brought up by his mother and grandmother in the Bronx.  James began smoking and drinking at age nine and began using marijuana at 13.  His two closest friends died of drug abuse. As a teenager, he dropped out of school and left home. To make ends meet, he worked as a messenger, busboy, janitor, and postal clerk.  During his teens and early 20s, he was often homeless and slept in friends' houses or on the street.

Israel was born in 1901 in Budzanow, a town in what was then Poland but is now Ukraine, the youngest of four children.  His father emigrated to New York's Lower East Side, leaving his wife and sons in Budzanow with an uncle.  By 1909, Israel's father had saved enough money to bring Israel and the rest of the family over.  In 1918, Israel's older brother (and best friend), Zalmon, died in the influenza pandemic.  The event was so traumatic to young Israel that despite being a straight-A student, he dropped out of school.

Let's put James and Israel aside for a bit, and watch this fantastic four-minute scene from The Godfather Part II, with Al Pacino as Michael Corleone and Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth:

I find that scene unusually compelling.  There's some excellent acting going on, but I think there's something more.

Pacino can convey volumes with even the most subtle facial expressions.  Here, though, he is deliberately deadpan.  During Strasberg's monologue there are plenty of opportunities for him to emote, yet he restrains himself.

Pacino's remarkable ability to express what's in his character's mind using only delicate facial expressions is evident in this 50-second clip from The Godfather):

Yet, in the scene with Strasberg, nothing.  No eye movement, no mouth tightening, no subtle gestures.  Nothing.  I've come up with two theories to explain Pacino's conspicuously impassive performance in that scene.

But first, back to James and Israel.

After dropping out of school, "James" (Alfredo James "Al" Pacino), pursued an acting career.  A few years after being rejected as a teenager, he was able to gain admittance to New York's prestigious Actors Studio.  There, he studied method acting under the Studio's founding artistic director (and fellow high-school dropout) "Israel"  (Israel Lee Strasberg).

 I'll let Pacino himself describe the influence Strasberg had on his life and acting career:
The Actors Studio meant so much to me in my life. Lee Strasberg hasn't been given the credit he deserves.  [Actors Studio] sort of launched me. It really did. That was a remarkable turning point  my life. It was directly responsible for getting me to quit all those jobs and just stay acting. It was exciting to work for him [Lee Strasberg] because he was so interesting when he talked about a scene or talked about people. One would just want to hear him talk, because things he would say, you'd never heard before ... He had such a great understanding.  He loved actors so much.
Pacino shared the stage with Strasberg for the first time in The Godfather Part II.  My two theories regarding Pacino's lack of expression during the "I didn't ask who gave the order" scene:
Theory #1: Pacino determined that Michael Corleone would have been expressionless in that situation and played it that way.  Nothing more than method acting at its best.
Theory #2: In a loving act of deference and generosity to his teacher and mentor, Pacino intentionally subdued his performance to draw no attention away from Strasberg's monologue.
Theory #1 is, by far, the likeliest.

Nevertheless, I joyfully subscribe to Theory #2.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Golden Path

Andy Grignon and his colleagues smuggled a flask of Scotch to the event.  The group of six was seated in the fifth row, in plain view of the presenter, not to mention the audience members around them.  Nevertheless, after each segment of the demonstration, they passed the flask around, each taking a shot.  By the end of the presentation, they were quite drunk, having drained the flask.  

During the entire event, the demeanor of the presenter belied the tightrope he was walking. But the liquored-up group in Row 5 knew that the presentation teetered on the shakiest of foundations.  Every shot they took was in celebration of a particular disaster averted, but their joy was short-lived, as they knew another potential calamity lurked around the corner.

The presenter continued with his demo, seemingly oblivious of his precarious situation, almost daring the device to fail.

The device in question was not ready. Grignon and his group hadn't gotten it to work consistently yet.  Everything about it was half-baked.  But the presentation had to be held that day.  So they had no choice but to jerry-rig the demo device as best they could and stage the demonstration in a way that would, at least, make it seem like the device was working flawlessly.

The most critical aspect of their preparation was the Golden Path.

After countless experiments, the group had come up with a specific sequence of demo actions that, if  performed in a particular way and in the predetermined order, had the best chance of demonstrating the device's features without it crashing.  This sequence was dubbed the "Golden Path."  As long as the presenter didn't stray from the Golden Path, he had at least a decent shot at a successful demo.

With the Golden Path firmly established and rehearsed, on the morning of the presentation, Grignon and his pals had nothing else to do but watch, hope for the best, and celebrate each successful step in the demo sequence with a warming shot of contraband Scotch.

I've witnessed one bonafide historic event in my life.  It happened that day, January 9th, 2007.

As an Apple-focused IT consultant at the time, I journeyed to San Francisco every year to attend Macworld Expo.  And, every year, I lined up at the Moscone Center door all night to be among those precious few conference attendees allowed into the auditorium to watch the Steve Jobs keynote presentation that launched the Expo in person.  Every Steve Jobs presentation I had the privilege of attending holds a special place in my heart.  But January 9th, 2007, was the day that changed everything.

That day, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone.

Jobs clearly understood the momentousness of the occasion, and instinctively imbued it with the proper solemnity and gravitas.  Everyone in the room was transfixed.  To say the presentation was magnificent would be a gross understatement. 

As mere attendees (neither credentialed press nor Apple VIPs), my fellow consultant nerds and I were way in the back of the auditorium, nowhere near Grignon's group in the fifth row, so we didn't see them taking their celebratory shots.  We also had no idea how genuinely fraught Jobs' demo was.  Knowing what I know now, Jobs' cool, at times even playful, demeanor as he demonstrated* the iPhone seems nothing short of superhuman.  He acted as if he somehow knew nothing would go wrong.

As I rewatch the demo, I consider his untimely passing, and wonder what might have been.

*Supplementary material:  Here's Steve Jobs' iPhone introduction (approx. 51 minutes):

Attribution note: Background material for this essay was gathered from this New York Times Magazine article and this Internet History Podcast transcript.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Late One Night, In Hollywood

It's 1969. I'm sitting on the floor, in a dark room above Whiskey A Go Go in Hollywood's Sunset Strip. I'm struggling to write a song, but it's just not happening. I can't think of anything to say.
OK, I have an idea. I'll just write about my setting and what I'm going through. That much I can do, right?

Here goes:
I'm eager for morning to arrive. I can't find anything to talk about. Wow, those lights outside seem to be moving around. I can't do it anymore, my eyelids are falling. I'm sitting Indian-style. It's just past 3:30 am.
I'm looking forward, thousand yard stare. I'm getting up to put some liquid on myself. I don't want to fall asleep. I'm not sure how much longer I can go. I should have made a better attempt. It's just past 3:30 am.
Maybe I should rest. The room is turning, falling. I still can't find anything to talk about. I'm eager for morning to arrive. It's just past 3:30 am. It's just past 3:30 am.
That's pretty bad writing.

Except, it wasn't me above Whiskey A Go Go that 1969 night. It was Robert Lamm. So although he recounted exactly the same idle musings I describe above, in that same order, he didn't use the lame lines I used. Instead, he wrote this:

The pièce de résistance was, of course, Lamm's reference to the time.  "25 or 6 to 4" (twenty-five or twenty-six minutes until 4 am), which became one of the best song titles of all time.
Lamm, in a 2016 interview with CNN:

"When I had nothing to say, I made the song about writing that song."

Well, Robert, we're so glad you did.

Attribution Note: Background material for this essay was gathered from this Wikipedia article.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Lynn and Crocker


It was 1970. Lynn was not happy. His pop group's first album did poorly, selling only 18,000 copies. It was late. He was working at home, trying to put the next album together. It would be make-or-break for the group. He needed more material. As he worked, he had the TV on in the background.
Wait, what?


The conference room was littered with fast food wrappers and empty coffee mugs. The meeting had lasted all morning and most of the afternoon, but the executives in charge of marketing for San Francisco-based Crocker National Bank had finally agreed on a strategy. The data clearly indicated that Crocker had become, to quote one of its executives, "an old fashioned bank with old fashioned customers." Precious few people in their twenties and thirties had even heard of Crocker. To stay relevant in the long term, the executives figured, the bank needed to find a way to appeal to young adults.
To implement this strategy, the marketing folks at Crocker hired hot-shot adman Hal Riney, creative director of the San Francisco branch of BBDO, a worldwide advertising agency. Riney came up with a slogan targeting young adults:
You've got a long way to go.
We'd like to help you get there.
Riney figured the slogan would be most effective if paired with images of young people's lives, and specifically how they were changing. A wedding-themed TV ad would be perfect! Riney put together a sweet montage of wedding moments. All he needed was a song to go with it. BBDO had an in-house songwriter, Tony Asher, but he'd broken his arm in a skiing accident and couldn't play the piano, so he suggested Riney contact Roger Nichols and Paul Williams, freelance songwriters. Nichols and Williams wrote the song. Paul Williams sang it himself for the commercial.
Since part of their agreement with Crocker specified that Nichols and Williams, as writers, would retain their rights to the song, they added a third verse, not included in the ad, just in case anyone would ever want to record it.
The commercial proved to be well-received and popular, and did indeed attract a large number of younger customers to Croker National Bank. It turned out, though, that the younger demographic the executives had targeted was not desirable. Young adults starting their careers tended to have no money to deposit and little collateral for loans. Who knew.
Riney, Nichols and Williams did exactly what was asked of them, but what the campaign successfully implemented was, alas, a failed strategy.
The campaign was unceremoniously dumped.


Wait, what?
The voice on the TV, singing some bank commercial, of all things, sounded familiar. It sounded like Lynn's friend, Paul Williams. And the song Paul was singing sounded like it belonged in his group's next album.
The next day, Lynn made a few calls, confirmed that the song was, indeed, Paul's work, and called his friend to ask him if there was a full version of the song, and if Paul had retained rights to it.

"Funny you should ask," said Paul. "Yes, and yes."


This is the 1-minute Crocker National Bank commercial that Lynn saw late that night in 1970:

And this, of course, is the full version of "We've Only Just Begun," as recorded by Lynn (Richard Lynn Carpenter) and his sister, Karen, released in September of that same year:

"We've Only Just Begun" became a RIAA certified gold single, was featured on The Carpenters' best-selling album "Close To You," and became the go-to wedding song of the early '70s.
They just don't make bank commercials like they used to.

Attribution Note: Background material for this essay was gathered from this Wikipedia page, this Huffington Post article, this interview with Hal Riney, and this article from Songfacts.

Everything in the essay is documented historical fact except for:

1. Richard Carpenter's "not happy" frame of mind the night he heard the commercial, which is my conjecture.

2. The meeting at Crocker National Bank. It is fact that they came up with the strategy to target young people, and that they hired Hal Riney do do so, but that they actually formulated the strategy during a long meeting in an untidy conference room, although possible, and, perhaps even probable, was totally made up by me.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Better Than Perfect

File:Armando Galarraga pitching 2010.JPG

June 2nd, 2010. Detroit's Comerica Park. Tigers right-hander Armando Galarraga throws a nasty breaking ball that Cleveland Indians batter Jason Donald slaps to the right side. Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera runs to his right, fields the ball cleanly and throws to Galarraga covering first base. They've practiced this play thousands of times. They execute it flawlessly. As Galarraga catches the ball and steps on the bag, Cabrera jumps high in the air to celebrate the rare and precious thing that just happened.
Except, it didn't happen. But something better eventually did.
Some context:
A pitcher throws an official "perfect game" if he pitches a minimum of 9 innings, earns a victory, and no opposing batter reaches base. As of June 2nd, 2010, only 20 perfect games had been thrown in Major League Baseball's 140-year history. On average, that's one perfect game every seven years, although there had been stretches of 23 and 33 consecutive years without a single perfect game. No Detroit Tigers pitcher had ever thrown a perfect game.
Galarraga's pitch to Donald came in the top of the ninth inning, with two outs. The Tigers led 3-0. Galarraga had retired the first 26 batters he faced. Cabrera was celebrating because once Donald was called out at first base, Galarraga would become the 21st pitcher in the history of the major leagues to throw a perfect game, and the first Detroit Tiger to do so in the team's 110-year history.
Alas, it was not to be.
Jim Joyce, umpiring at first base that day, called Donald safe at first base.
Here's the play:

Everyone on the field, everyone in the stands, and everyone watching on TV knew it was a bad call. Donald should have been out. Under today's replay rules, the call would have been challenged and overturned, Galarraga would have become the first Detroit Tiger ever to throw a perfect game, and Jim Joyce would have been off the hook. But these replay rules were four years away from being adopted. In 2010, there could be no challenge, so the game continued, with Donald at first base. Galarraga got the next man out to end the game and ended up with a complete-game one-hit shutout. But no perfect game.
Minutes after the game ended, Joyce saw the replay. He only had to see it once to realize he had blown the call. He was devastated. He immediately asked to meet with Galarraga. This was a highly irregular act. Umpires don't meet with players. Nonetheless, Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski personally escorted Galarraga from the Tigers' clubhouse to the umpires' room. Galarraga walked up to Joyce, embraced him and said, "We are all human." Joyce, crying, apologized in English and Spanish (Galarraga is Venezuelan) and left the room, unable to speak any further.
Later, Galarraga said to the media, "[Joyce] probably feels more bad than me. Nobody's perfect. Everybody's human. I understand. I give the guy a lot of credit for saying, 'I need to talk to you.' You don't see an umpire tell you that after a game. I gave him a hug."
Joyce, spoke (tearfully) to the media as well: "I just missed the damn call. ... And there's nobody that feels worse than I do. I take pride in this job and I kicked the shit out of that and I took a perfect game away from that kid over there who worked his ass off all night.... This was probably the most important call of my career and I missed it."
There is much more to this story. Like how the next day, Joyce was assigned to be the home plate umpire, and Leyland tasked Galarraga with delivering the Tigers' lineup card to Joyce, resulting in a tearful handshake and shoulder pat at home plate, acknowledged by the Comerica Park crowd with a warm ovation. Or how Joyce and Galarraga would go on to jointly write a book about the incident that would connect them forever.
But the essence will always be this:
  1. On June 2nd, 2010, Jim Joyce made a mistake that deprived Armando Galarraga of his rightful spot in the annals of Major League Baseball.
  2. Compassion, empathy, honesty, self-accountability, and sportsmanship ruled the day. Both men's reactions to the incident turned it from an unfortunate event into a shining example of humanity at its best.
A perfect game pales in comparison.

Attribution Note: This essay was inspired by this bleacher report article and includes background material from this Wikipedia article about Galarraga's near-perfect game and this book. The title image of Galarraga is by Arbitrarilyo.