Hungry – Plese Help

When I was driving down the main road that goes past Reader Copies this morning, an elderly person was holding up a cardboard sign that had a big bold misspelling:

Hungry – Plese Help

I lived in Wheaton and worked in downtown Chicago for a little over a year, and very quickly got used to seeing panhandlers on street corners.  It became clear that they weren’t necessarily just down on their luck since the same people were on the same corners every day as long as I walked the downtown streets.

This was different.  It was cold this Christmas Eve morning, and the person with the sign was bundled up.  They had on gloves, boots, and a coat with a hood that was pulled so tightly around their face that it was difficult to tell if it was a man or a woman.  What was clear was the wrinkles on their face that evidenced their age.  There was a large coffee on the ground behind them as they moved back and forth to keep warm and attract attention.

It’s not like I don’t have sympathy for those struggling with food insecurity; we routinely send money to Second Harvest when we have more than we need and last month the store even ran a food drive and collected over 400 cans of food for one of the local food banks.  At times I’ve even handed some people five dollar bills and told them to go get a meal, even when I didn’t have a steady income myself.  It’s probably not enough, but it’s likely more than most people do to help.  There should be help readily available to them, but I’m pretty sure they needed money because their resources had run dry, and I can’t really help with that very much anymore.

Like all the cars ahead of me and behind me I simply drove on without stopping to help.  But I couldn’t help but worry about the future we all face in this country.

The Social Security trust fund was not intended to be the way funds were accumulated to pay benefits – Social Security is a pay-as-you-go plan where taxes paid now are immediately paid out to those people receiving benefits.  The trust fund was intended to hold about one month’s benefits, not a huge sum.  In the early seventies, actuaries (the math wizards who worry about such things) projected that as the Baby Boomers started to retire the taxes collected would not cover the cost of the benefits that had to be paid, and as a result, laws were passed to increase the level of taxes.  The extra taxes for the next few decades were to be invested and used to pay the extra benefits required starting well, starting now when taxes are not enough to cover benefits.  Of course, the federal government managed to “borrow” those funds to use to add to general revenues, and the money didn’t really accumulate as much as they should have, so now income taxes have to repay the money that was borrowed to cover benefits.  In fact, the shortage is so bad that it is estimated that by 2034 (at the latest) the trust fund will be depleted and (at best) benefits will have to be reduced by 20%.  And that’s what I was worried about this morning.

Not so much for myself (I do have a small pension and an annuity as well as Social Security) but for the typical Baby Boomer.  The average Boomer has less than $100,000 saved up for retirement, and most of them probably are not debt free.  When Social Security is their only source of income, what will happen if their monthly checks are reduced by 20%?  How many people living paycheck to paycheck could survive a 20% pay cut?

How many of the elderly will be in the situation where standing in the cold with a cardboard sign seems like a good idea?

There are three simple ways we can fix Social Security so no reductions in benefits are required:

    • Raise the retirement age.  Right now the age is slowly moving upwards from 65 to 67, and the age should probably be moved even higher – people are living longer, and Social Security cannot easily cover all those extra years of benefits.  Phasing in a higher full retirement age of 68 or 69 or even 70 would solve our problem.  This is the solution offered by the Republicans and despised by Democrats.
    • Raise the amount of income that gets taxed by Social Security.  Right now you pay 12.4% of income up to $132,900 to Social Security (your employer probably pays half of that), but nothing beyond that is taxed.  If we raise or eliminate the limit (without adjusting retirement benefits) Social Security is solvent for a long, long time.  This is the solution offered by Democrats and despised by Republicans.
    • Increase the tax rate.  Instead of paying 12.4%, require people to pay 13% or 14% or whatever it takes.  This is the solution proposed by nobody who wants to run for office ever again and is despised by everybody.
    • Decrease future benefit calculations.  This is a non-starter, so there’s no need to even suggest it.
    • Finally, we can increase payrolls by increasing population and productivity, but AI and computerization and robots are making that look less and less likely.

Perhaps the only possible solution is one that uses little pieces of all these possible solutions, but it still generates pain and lower benefits to people so politicians will continue to kick the can down the road.

Since our divided Congress is unlikely to grapple with this problem any time soon (What, Me Compromise?), the date we face disaster and the amount of the reduction in benefits will continue to creep ion our direction – you cannot affect reality by wishing it away.

But we really do need to do something before there are lines of people with cardboard signs seeking more help than we can provide.

 

Really? Christmas Edition

Once upon a time, Billboard listed the Hot 100 records based on something simple – sales of single records. Then came airplay, and then streaming, and now the results are in: oops!

Thanks to the full court press of Christmas music on radio stations desperate for listeners and streaming by people who should really know better, lots of Christmas singles are finally hitting the Hot 100 rather than the special Christmas chart. The only problem? It’s old, older, and older than me records rather than new recordings. Here’s a list of the records in this week’s list (all of which I usually punch out immediately if I’m listening in my car or on my portable radio):

#7 All I Want For Christmas Is You – Mariah Carey *
#16 It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year – Andy Williams **
#21 Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree – Brenda Lee
#22 A Holly Jolly Christmas – Burl Ives ***
#26 Jingle Bell Rock – Bobby Helms
#29 The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You) – Nat King Cole
#34 Last Christmas – Wham
#36 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – Gene Autry
#41 Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow – Dean Martin

No sign of Baby It’s Cold Outside thanks to all the recent bannings of the formerly popular song.

* Extra Credit: guess how much Mariah has made off writing and recording her Christmas record. Give up? Over 60 million dollars. Merry Christmas to Mariah!

** The next week Andy’s Christmas tune moved up to number 10, giving him a new record: it was over 41 years between the last time Andy Williams hit the top ten (the Theme to Love Story) and this record — crushing the 30 year span for Dobie Gray that previously held the record.

*** And one week after Andy’s trip to the top ten, Burl Ives crushed his record by getting into the top ten 56 years after his last trip there.  He also eclipsed Paul McCartney’s record for longest stretch in the top ten and in the top 40 (Paul grabbed the record when FourFiveSeconds briefly got into the top ten a few years ago).  Louie Armstrong probably still holds a few longevity records.

Christmas Records Buried in the Snows of Time

A very long time ago, radio stations put occasional Christmas records into the rotation in December, but that’s a thing of the past.  A few stations began playing Christmas music full time on some of the weekends, and their ratings soared (this is long before streaming made it easy to hear what every you wanted to).  It wasn’t too long before we started getting wall to wall Christmas music on some stations as soon as Thanksgiving, and SiriusXM radio now has year-round Christmas music on at least one channel.

While the expansion of Christmas music may sound like a good idea, that isn’t quite what we got.  Instead of stations playing hundreds of different Christmas records we get what seems to be the same ten or so songs by various artists over and over and over.

Sure, it’s nice to hear George Michael sing Last Christmas again (okay, the label says “Wham”), but a half hour later we hear the song “performed” by the Glee crowd or  Ariana Grande or even Taylor Swift.  Then here comes Little Drummer Boy by Joan Jett or Justin Bieber or the Temptations or somebody else at least once per hour.  Lots of cover versions of the Christmas Song (“Chestnuts Roasting”), White Christmas, Blue Christmas, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, and maybe even a few now politically-incorrect versions of Baby It’s Cold Outside (and, sadly, a few newer versions that are adapted to be politically correct — sigh).  I can barely stand to listen for even an hour thanks to the endless repetition.

It didn’t take long to make up a list of songs that have been “misplaced” and no longer seem to be on the air.  The hard part was winnowing down the list to a manageable number.  In no particular order, here are a few songs that might help you remember a Christmas past:

Whatever Happened To Christmas by Frank Sinatra. This 1969 song was on the Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas album; the real surprise is that Jimmy Webb wrote the song.

Christmas Mem’ries by Rosemary Clooney.  Rosemary sang and danced her way through the movie White Christmas in 1954 (which was a remake of 1942’s Holiday Inn, renamed due to the popularity of Bing Crosby’s biggest record). This version of memories of the past was written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and put to music by Don Costa by 1975.

This Time of the Year by Brook Benton.  A 1959 television performance of Brook lip-syncing the song, one of the 67 records that Brook got onto the Hot 100 pop charts.

Little Toy Trains by Roger Miller. While he may have continued climbing the Country charts for a few more decades, this record came near the end of Roger’s success on the pop charts.

Christmas Night In Harlem by Louis Armstrong.  At about the midpoint of his career, Louis recorded this Christmas song in 1955.  The original hit version of the song was by Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra in 1934, but that version contains some lyrics that aren’t quite acceptable in these modern times.

Snowy White Snow and Jingle Bells by Vaughn Monroe.  From 1945 to 1952 Vaughn usually had 4 or 5 hit records each year; the only exception was 1950, the year he released this Christmas song.  Perhaps three top ten records in the next five months was the present Santa left under his tree!

It’s Gonna Be a Lonely Christmas by The Orioles.  This 1948 release by one of the first doo-wop groups shows much of the promise that bloomed later in their career (you are most likely familiar with their biggest hit, Crying in the Chapel, which was later covered by Elvis).

The Marvelous Toy by the Chad Mitchell Trio.  The song was written (and later recorded) by Tom Paxton, who was briefly accepted as a member of the group but forced to move on when his voice apparently didn’t blend in well enough.  Other members of the group at one time or another included Harry Belafonte and John Denver, but the hit record was recorded in 1963 by Chad Mitchell, Mike Kobluk, and Joe Frazier.  Numerous versions have been recorded since then, but the radio pretty much ignores them.

Merry Christmas, Baby by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers.  This is the original 1947 version of the song, featuring vocals by Charles Brown.  The 1962 version that Charles recorded as a solo record didn’t get much traction, but the next two years the two different versions of the record (as well as a third version) went into heavy rotation at Christmas and all the modern covers followed after that.

The River by Joni Mitchell.  Not many Christmas songs get released in June, but this entry was on the album Blue, which was released that month in 1971.  That album is widely considered to be her best.  The River appears to have been written about her breakup with Graham Nash (of the Hollies and Crosby, Stills, and Nash) and is one of the saddest of the Christmas songs.

A 5 Pound Box of Money by Pearl Bailey.  I really don’t need to hear Santa Baby once an hour by Ertha Kitt and Madonna and Glee and Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift and… hmm, isn’t this list starting to sound familiar?  Here’s a similar plea from Peal Bailey from 1959 that concentrates on one simple gift request.

A Howdy Doody Christmas by The Fontane Sisters and Howdy Doody.  Okay, I got to sit in the Peanut Gallery once upon a time, so how can I ignore Howdy Doody’s 1957 entry into the Christmas Hall of Fame?

May Every Day Be Christmas by Louis Jordan.  If the radio isn’t going to play Baby It’s Cold Outside by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, perhaps the record he cut two years later can gain some traction.

Santa’s Beard by the Beach Boys.  The Beach Boys Christmas Album in 1964 contained their most played Christmas song, the Little Saint Nick, as well as a stack of covers of classic hits, but this song about searching for the real Santa Claus seems all but forgotten.

There are, of course, many, many more – I’ll pick out another stack of tracks next Christmas!

Stan “The Man” Lee

With the reported death of Stan Lee, acclaimed comic book creator, we’ve lost one of the most prolific writers of our lifetimes.  Rather than concentrate on the hopeless task of describing everything he created in his lifetime, I want to describe my first meeting with Stan.

I barely remember reading comics as early as 1954, but at that time I was simply pointing to pictures of Disney’s ducks and making up my own stories since I couldn’t actually read the words.  By the late fifties, I was finally reading the words and spent a lot of time with the reboot of the Silver Age by DC.  In the early sixties Marvel comics launched a line of monster comics, and on weeks where DC didn’t have too many comics I would throw down my dimes and nickels and pick up Strange Tales or Tales to Astonish and read stories about mankind outsmarting monsters that were intent on stomping their way through cities.

I usually got to go to Camp Townsend in upstate New York in the Summers.  In 1962 we stopped at a soda shop in Parksville and our Dad let us each pick out one comic book to buy and read on the way home.  I snatched a copy of Fantastic Four #1.  While I had been reading stories written by Stan Lee for years (mostly cowboy comics, but also a large number of the monster comics), this was the first true superhero comic from Marvel in the sixties.  After reading that comic I started paying closer attention to the comics from Marvel.  My attention became much more focused a monthly later: the fifteenth issue of Amazing Adult Fantasy changed its name to Amazing Fantasy and put Spider-Man on its cover.

Marvel comics quickly developed a unique relationship with their readers.  The writers, artists, and inkers were credited on the pages of the stories and a bullpen page was added that included information about events.  There was even a Merry Marvel Marching Society (which I joined, member #14784) that sent us stationery (I still have some) and a flimsy 45 rpm record and a membership button.  I even ordered the first Spider-Man poster direct from Marvel.  Jack Kirby kept putting pictures of himself and Stan in the comics, and a few times there were even photographs.

All the better to recognize them.

The sixties were a turbulent time, and while I would have preferred going to college at MIT or one of the other schools that excelled in Mathematics, my mother limited my choices to a handful of southern states.  I was not allowed to attend college with Northeast Intellectual Liberals (Mom was from Birmingham).  They had computer classes, so I ended up exiled to Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  I stayed there in the summers In an effort to graduate as part of their three-year program. In the Summer of 1969, I was on a nearly deserted campus taking a few classes mostly with basketball and football players. While walking across campus from a classroom back to my dorm room I spotted a man sitting under a tree talking to three or four other students.

I instantly recognized Stan.

I went over and mumbled something about his name and Stan smiled and waved and invited me to sit down and talk with him.  Nashville had some sort of annual convention for cartoonists and Stan was there to hobnob with some of his friends, and for some reason was walking across campus when a few students recognized him.

For about two hours we peppered Stan with questions and listened to him tell us tales about the comic book industry and our heroes – for me the heroes were the writers and artists, but most of the questions were about the superheroes in the books.

For years a question about the early Hulk comics had bothered me, and one of the questions I asked Stan was pretty simple: whatever happened to the Secret Empire?  The early Marvel comics had featured a number of secret societies, including Aim and Hydra, and the Secret Empire had tangled with Hulk a few times and then just disappeared.  Stan’s response?  “Oh, right, I forgot about them.”  They eventually were retconned into yet another arm of Hydra and made life miserable for a few issues.

When the session was about to break up, Stan asked the four of us who were left to vote.  Marvel was thinking of reviving a fan club and was unsure about whether to resurrect the Merry Marvel Marching Society or create a new club called Friends of Ol’ Marvel.  By a vote of 3 to 1, we chose the new name, and Stan declared all of us to be charter members of the new club.  It was nearly four years later that FOOM was announced, but when I wrote in and reminded Marvel that Stan had named some of us charter members I got a package in the mail that included the membership package and a few other goodies.

What impressed me most about Stan was how friendly and personable he was to a collection of random college students.  He seemed to really enjoy talking with us and was clearly as big a fan of the comics as we were.  It took several decades and a few hit movies before everybody else found that out.

Over the years I ran autograph sessions for Stan a few times, got him to sign my copy of Fantastic Four #1 a few months after Jack signed it, sent him the Spider-Man poster because he didn’t have one, and got a thank you letter from him that is one of my prized possessions.  He even signed it with an Excelsior.

 

A Different List of Halloween Songs

If you look around online for a list of Halloween songs, the lists are almost exactly the same.  To save you the time of looking, here’s a sample list: Monster Mash, Thriller, I Put A Spell On You (various versions), Ghostbusters, Zombie (the Cranberries), Black Magic Woman, Superstition, Hungry Like the Wolf, Time Warp, and the themes from the Addams Family and the Munsters.

This is not that list.

Here’s an assortment of songs that almost none of the lists out there mention:

Lady Samantha by either Elton John or Three Dog Night.  The song was the first single Elton’s record company released in the US, coming out for the first time in 1969 and re-released a year later.  Nobody paid it much attention and it didn’t get on an album or CD for a decade or two.  Three Dog Night covered the song on their second album, but never released the song as a single.  It fits our Halloween theme thanks to the lyrics, “Her home is the hillside, her bed is the grave,” which makes the lady a ghost.

Angie Baby by Helen Reddy was a number one record in 1974, her second most successful single after I Am Woman.  It’s a story tune that relates the way a young woman with challenged intellect but mystical powers of some sort. She turns the tables on a despicable man who intended to take advantage of her.  The video I’ve linked in leads to a cartoon version of the song that comes complete with a possibly haunted house.

And while we’re doing cartoon videos, here’s one for Cher’s Dark Lady. This time we get a Dark Lady in New Orleans who casts spells of black magic…she picked the wrong victim when she goes after Cher!

All You Zombies by the Hooters makes the list just on the strength of its title.  The Hooters went on to have bigger hits with And We Danced and Day By Day, but their first single is still my favorite.

Ghost Riders in the Sky was released as a single by Burl Ives in 1948, but it was Vaughn Monroe who had the #1 hit with the song a year later.  The recording is considered one of the top ten Country and Western songs of all time.  Vaughn’s career ran from his first hit record in 1940 up to the middle of the fifties and included two dozen top ten records, so stop rolling your eyes and complaining that you’ve never heard of him.  Once again there’s an animated video for the record (just ignore the Spanish titles at the start).

Dinner With Drac was the sole hit single for John Zacherle, one of the best-known horror television show hosts (he predated Svengoolie and Elvira by a few decades, but trailed behind Vampira by a few years).  He hosted late-night horror films on local television stations in New York and Philadelphia in the fifties and sixties (and was even a regular on the Captain Kangaroo show in the eighties).  He had a record album with the hit single and wrote a few books as well.

Spooky by the Classics IV began as an instrumental by Mike Sharpe, but it didn’t become a hit until lyrics were added and sung by Dennis Yost later in 1967.  It was the first hit record for the group (a few failed singles came first) but was not their entire career – additional hits Stormy and Traces came along the next two years, after which their star faded.  The song was a minor hit about a decade later for the Atlanta Rhythm Section, a group that included two of the former members of the Classics IV.

The Witch Queen of New Orleans by Redbone came out after their first chart record (Maggie) made two runs on the charts, stopping at #80 in 1971 and #45 in 1972).  The song about Voodoo, zombies, and an immortal witch made it up to #21.  A few years later the Native American group scored their biggest hit record with the release of Come and Get Your Love, but that song simply doesn’t fit our holiday.

No list of Halloween themed songs would be complete without the inclusion of Laurie (Strange Things Happen) by Dickie Lee.  The song includes a ghost, a graveyard, spooky voices, and a twist ending – give it a listen if you don’t recognize the song.  Dickie had hits in 1962 and 1963 with Patches and I Saw Linda Yesterday, and Laurie was his last visit to the Top 40 in the US, but he spent most of the seventies successfully knocking hit records into the Country Charts (reaching that top 10 four times). I’ve linked in a video that does an amazing job of reflecting the lyrics with a series of pictures.

Billy Vera and the Beaters

Here’s another chapter from my upcoming book, Hit Records That Needed To Be Released Twice.

A lot of really good music goes undiscovered and simply disappears.  Such was the fate of a record recorded by Billy Vera in 1981.

Billy Vera spent decades working in the music industry.  He wrote a song that was recorded by Ricky Nelson in 1965, reached the Hot 100 with his own solo record in 1967 and with a duet with Judy Clay in 1968, and wrote a song that Dolly Parton covered and took to #1 on the Country charts in 1979.

His biggest success resulted from a song he recorded with the group the Beaters in 1981.  The group he put together recorded an entire album during several days of performances at the Roxy in Hollywood.  Alfa Records, a small record label based in Japan, released the album and promoted it by releasing the single I Can Take Care of Myself.  The single made it up to number 39 on the Billboard charts, which was enough of a success for the label to release their second single, At This Moment.

This second live recording climbed all the way up to #79 and then sadly vanished without a trace.  The record label collapsed shortly after that, leaving the band playing in clubs but not touring.  Billy also successfully started an acting career, appearing in numerous television shows beginning in 1984 as well as The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.

A telephone call in 1985 brought his musical career back to life.  The television show Family Ties wanted to use At This Moment in an episode that featured the relationship between Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox) and Ellen Reed (Tracy Pollan).  The episode aired in 1986, and television fan reaction to the song was immediate.  Radio stations were inundated with request for the song, and that quickly led to a reissue of the single in November 1986, this time on Rhino Records.  Within a few weeks, the record hit number 1, easily selling over a million copies.

Getting back on the charts was not in the cards.  About a year later the record Between Like and Love made the top ten on the Adult Contemporary charts, but it didn’t even make the Hot 100 at all.  Billy has continued to make a living in the music business, but not by recording hit records himself.

Billy’s biography can be found on his official website at http://billyvera.com/billy-vera-bio/

John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band

Here’s another chapter from Hit Records That Had To Be Released Twice, my next book:

It isn’t just records that sometimes need more than one swing at success, sometimes films do as well.

Eddie and the Cruisers was released to movie theaters in September 1983 but left theaters after only three weeks.  The film was about a rock band in the early 1960s that produced music ahead of their time and fell apart after the apparent death of their lead singer.  The original idea was to create a band similar to Dion and the Belmonts, and a member of Jay and the Americans helped by supplying pictures and stories about his band’s early days.  The lead singer played by Michael Pare changed the band so that it began to resemble the Doors, and the music that was produced for the movie sounded more like Bruce Springsteen than anything on the radio in the early sixties.

John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band had released several almost successful records before being signed up to produce music for the movie.  In conjunction with the release of the film, the single On the Dark Side was released and credited to Eddie and the Cruisers.  Before the film left theaters, the single did well enough to reach #64 on the charts, but after the movie was gone the momentum for the record faded as well.

The next year the movie moved to cable and was a surprise hit on HBO as well as home video.  Viewer interest in the music led to the rerelease of the single, this time credited to the actual band, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band.  Thanks to the success of the film, the record did much better the second time around, reaching #7 in the Fall of 1984.  We’re lucky enough to be left with two videos for the single: the clip from the movie as well as a video by the actual band.  If the saxophone player looks similar, it’s because he was cast in the film after they met him!

A sequel to the film was made, but few people seem to have anything nice to say about it.

The band’s homepage is at http://johncafferty.com/.