Sunday, 27 April 2014

Going into the Rock and Roll Hall (and Oates) of Fame

Daryl Hall and John Oates, recent inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
It is hard to believe how many people were critical of the selection of Hall and Oates to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

If there was ever a band that is synonymous with the 1980s, it’s the duo of Daryl Hall and John Oates, who spanned more than a decade, launching number one hit after number one hit, and leaving their mark indelibly on the music scene.

Out of Touch – literally
As with so much music, I really came to know Hall and Oates near the end of their run of success. It was 1984 and they had just released the album “Big Bam Boom”. I had begun to listen to the radio
regularly and two Lethbridge countdown shows in particular: the top 20 album countdown on LA-107 FM and the top seven at seven on 1090 CHEC AM.

There was a song I just could not get out of my head that made regular appearances on both those shows, and it was the latest single by Hall and Oates off their latest album. It was called “Out of Touch” and in fact, as I listened to more and more music, I was the one who was out of touch with music, although I had had some exposure to Hall and Oates before 1984.

Word play
When I was in elementary school, I used to hang out with this neighbour of mine named Mike, who seemed to be one of the cool kids.
He knew a lot about music, primarily because he had a couple older brothers. He kept singing this song in recess called, “Bitch Girl”, probably because his brothers called it that.

I soon discovered two things. The song was in fact called “Rich Girl”, and Mike never got the words right to any song.

This was my introduction to Hall and Oates.

Warm-up medley
H20 (1982) featured number
one single "Maneater"
Fast forward to junior high. I was in Grade 8, playing basketball for the senior varsity St. Joseph’s Hawks (formerly the Jayhawks until our old blue uniforms were replaced with new burgundy ones). We were playing in a tournament at W.R. Myers in Taber, and for the first time they were playing music while we warmed up. I remember “Maneater” by Hall and Oates playing while I was doing a lay-up.

My old friend and teammate Mike Hartman listened to a lot of music. “Maneater” was one of the songs I remember we listened to while we played video games, shot baskets in his driveway, and hung out.

Commercial success
The title track from Private
Eyes (1981) went to number one
Awhile later a new show was about to start on Channel 7 called “Moonlighting”. They were running commercials to promote it. “Moonlighting” was about a private detective firm, starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. Fittingly, the song they used to promote it was…”Private Eyes”.

Big Bam Boom
Big Bam Boom (1984)
produced "Out of Touch".
Which brings us to 1984 and “Out of Touch”. I just loved that song, partly because it always seemed to be playing somewhere. It was first semester of Grade 10, and I heard it riding the bus to school on CHEC pretty much every morning. My buddy Mat, another neighbour, this one on the opposite side of our place from Mike, had just bought a new ghetto blaster. He was recording songs off the radio, and I thought it was the coolest thing. He asked me if there was anything I wanted. I told him I loved this song “Out of Touch”. The next day, when he got on the bus he looked at me and mouthed the words, “You’re out of touch.” He had to wait a couple hours until it played, but got it. Then he produced a chromium dioxide tape from Radio Shack and handed it to me. I always thought that was pretty cool.

In second semester, I befriended someone who would become one of my best friends. One of the first times we hung out, what struck me was – he got the words wrong.

What was it about Hall and Oates that everyone got the words wrong?

By then, Big Bam Boom had produced other singles.

The next one was “Method of Modern Love”, which, quite frankly, was pretty clunky. They spelled out the words and, although it was catchy, it really wasn’t that good. Still, it had some good success. Their next singles were “Some Things are Better Left Unsaid” which sounded more like their other stuff, and “Possession Obsession” with a rare turn by Oates on lead vocals (and where he drove a cab in the video).

Motown lowdown
The next time I saw Hall and Oates they were part of USA for Africa’s “We are the World” in 1985. That summer they performed at Live Aid. I remember it vividly because they performed with Eddie Kendrick and David Ruffin of “Temptations” fame. Earlier in 1985, I discovered, they had all recorded “Live at the Apollo” together, which was a live album. It was a chance for Hall and Oates to get back in touch with their roots, and sing with two of their idols.

Solo success
Daryl Hall's solo album  "Three
Hearts in the Happy Ending Machine",
which produced the single "Dream Time".
The duo of Hall and Oates was dormant the next two-plus years, but they did keep on working on their own. In 1986, Hall put out an album “Three Hearts in the Happy Ending Machine” (how could anyone forget that title) with the single “Dream Time”, which peaked at number five, and also included the single “Foolish Pride”. Meanwhile, Oates did some work with the Parachute Club, including backing vocals on their single “Love is Fire”. Wikipedia also revealed he got a songwriting credit on “Electric Blue” by Icehouse, which reached number seven on the Billboard Hot 100.

After that, Hall and Oates pretty much faded from my life. They released one more album in the summer of 1988, and the single “Everything Your Heart Desires” hit the airwaves, making it all the way to number three and becoming the duo’s last top ten hit.

The years since
Ever since then I have become more and more familiar with Hall and Oates, with songs such as “Kiss on my List”, “You Make My Dreams”, “She’s Gone”, “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling”, and “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do))”, and I've grown to like them more and more.

Parting thoughts
I have this cousin who knows pretty much everything about music. Whenever the topic of Hall and Oates came up, he used to say he really neither liked nor disliked them. They were always on the radio with something new, so he said they were “passable”.

I totally disagree. Their music was more than passable. Over a five-year period, they regularly occupied the top ten, but merit should not be based strictly on popular success or how many number-one songs a band records. Hall and Oates did more than just record cookie-cutter singles hoping to recreate success over and over. Instead, they took some chances and did some different things, and their music was a fundamental part of the 1980s pop music scene because of it.

Beyond that, they are a part of the fabric of pop culture. Their songs bring back memories for virtually everyone who hears them.

They have earned their place in the hall of fame.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Mickey Rooney: One last hurrah in the '80s

Mickey Rooney with Kelly Reno in "The Black Stallion"
Mickey Rooney died last week, so I started to think back to what I had seen him in. Wikipedia and the International Movie Data Base revealed that his greatest work was done in the 1930s and 1940s when he was one of the top box office draws in Hollywood. His career may have peaked back then, with three Oscar nominations for best actor. He continued making movies, appearing on television, and doing live theatre, but what became of him as the 1980s dawned?

It turns out that's when he had his last hurrah – and it lasted almost four years.

Early memories
Mickey Rooney was a name I knew, but growing up I really had not seen him in too much. Movies like “National Velvet” and his Andy Hardy stuff rarely was rerun in the world of three TV channels. What I knew about “National Velvet” mostly came from its 1978 sequel “International Velvet” starring Tatum O’Neal.

Most old movies were replayed at odd times like after midnight and, oddly, during the day time. For a kid going to school, it was hard to catch any of these. The exception was the summer, when I did see the odd movie on Channel 7. One of those movies was “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World”, and Mickey Rooney was one of the stars. It featured a mad dash across the country seeking buried treasure.

One particular summer Saturday afternoon, my mom and sister took me to a Disney movie called “Pete’s Dragon,” about an orphan boy named Pete and his friend a dragon named Elliott. It was a mix of live action and animation and, at the age of seven I just loved it. It starred Jim Dale, Helen Reddy, and Rooney as Reddy’s father.

Dennis Quaid and
Mickey Rooney in "Bill"
The dawn of the '80s
It was 1979 when Rooney’s renaissance began. “The Black Stallion” features a boy who is shipwrecked on a desert island with a black Arabian horse that he befriends. Once they are rescued, they meet a once successful horse trainer named Henry Dailey, and set out to race the best in a challenge match.

I recall seeing that movie when it was on TV, and how inspiring it truly was. Rooney played Henry Dailey, and for his efforts he was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor in a supporting role, losing to Melvyn Douglas in “Being There” which was another great movie.

Then in 1981, Rooney starred in the television movie “Bill”. He played the title character, a mentally handicapped man who wants to leave an institution and live on his own. It was another touching performance, winning Rooney Emmy and Golden Globe Awards for outstanding lead actor. Two years later he reprised the role in “Bill: On His Own”, and was nominated for another Emmy.

He may no longer have been the same box office draw he was as a young man, but in his 60s Mickey Rooney had become critically acclaimed. In 1983 he was also given an Academy Award for lifetime achievement.

Last gasp on television
Mickey Rooney would spend the rest of the '80’s continuing to work in a variety of media. He did guest roles in “The Love Boat”, and later “The Golden Girls”, and had a part in the 1986 TV movie “The Return of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer”.
Amid that, he had his last recurring role in a weekly sitcom with “One of the Boys” in 1982. You would think a show with Dana Carvey, Nathan Lane, Scatman Crothers, and Mickey Rooney would be a can’t miss. The premise was solid too. Rooney plays Oliver Nugent, a senior citizen who, with his best friend Bernard Soloman, played by Crothers, leaves his nursing home to move in with his grandson Adam Shields, played by Carvey, and his roommate Jonathan Burns, played by Lane, who are attending college. Meg Ryan also had a recurring role as Adam’s girlfriend Jane.

The show was on Channel 7, and I don’t recall much beyond it not being that funny. Everyone else agreed, as NBC yanked it after 13 episodes. It even made TV Guide’s list of the 50 worst television shows of all time. Look at all that star power whose release may have been delayed had “One of the Boys” had a long run, much like Jim Carrey and “The Duck Factory”.

As the '80s closed, Rooney got his last big recurring role, reprising the character of Henry Dailey for a three-year run on “The Adventures of the Black Stallion”, from 1990 to 1993 totalling 78 episodes.

Parting thoughts
Mickey Rooney would go on to continue working on stage, screen, and doing the voices for cartoons, well into his 90s. He appeared in his last movie earlier this year, “Night At The Museum 3”. He also was an advocate for veterans and animal rights. Late in his life he would suffer elder abuse, and had very little left when he died on April 6, 2014. He was 93.

Mickey Rooney should be remembered not only for his longevity, but his versatility. He did so much more that I have not recounted, but it spans everything.

I find it inspiring that in his 60s, when most people are beginning to wind down their careers and look towards retirement, Mickey Rooney went through a renewal. He was like a fine wine, getting better with age.  Rest in peace Mickey. Hopefully you will find the comfort that eluded you in the last few years.

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Duck Factory: How Jim Carrey got his start

The cast of "The Duck Factory". Clockwise, from top
left are Nancy Lane; Jim Carrey; Dippy Duck; Jay Tarses;
Julie Payne: Teresa Ganzel; Jack Gilford; Don Messick;
and Clarence Gilyard,Junior.
What would have happened if a struggling sitcom about a struggling animation studio making a cartoon called “Dippy Duck”, starring a promising young Canadian comedian had been given a chance? After all, NBC had shown patience with other struggling shows that would go on to have long runs.

In 1984, NBC had tested two sitcoms. One was a little show called “Night Court”, which the network finally chose. It would go on to a successful nine-year run as part of NBC’s powerhouse Thursday night lineup. The other was called “The Duck Factory” and would have been relegated to the dustbin of TV history except for one thing: it starred a very young Jim Carrey.

Promising talent
Back in the early 1980s, Jim Carrey was a stand-up comedian best known for his impressions. He often drew comparisons to Rich Little, another Canadian, who, at the time, was the greatest impressionist around. The CBC used to have a show called “The Journal”, which followed “The National”. On Friday nights, they spent more time on stories about the arts.

One Friday night, I saw an extended piece on Jim Carrey. It went into his history, and showed clips of him on stage, doing impressions of the likes of Leonid Brezhnev, the premier of the Soviet Union at the time. What they focused on was how he was able to use that face, which seemed almost made of plastic, to not only imitate the voices of famous people, but to contort his face to become those people.

It was only a matter of time before he would get his big break.

The main actors from "The Duck Factory". From left are
Teresa Ganzel, Jim Carrey, Jack Gilford, and Nancy Lane.
The Duck Factory
There are TV theme songs that linger in the mind. For whatever reason, whenever I see Jim Carrey, the theme song for “The Duck Factory” plays in my mind.

The show was based on an animation studio that produced a show called “Dippy Duck”. Carrey plays Skip Tarkenton, a na├»ve and aspiring cartoonist from Minnesota who comes to the big city to pursue his dream. He winds up at Buddy Winkler Productions, where Buddy Winkler has just passed away. He gets a job working on the show’s main product, “Dippy Duck”, and meets a strange cast of characters. Jack Gilford and a very young Clarence Gilyard Junior played artist Brooks Carmichael and Roland Culp respectively, and Teresa Ganzel, one of the blonde bombshells of the 1980s, played the widow of Buddy Winkler (in an era before Anna Nicole Smith). Real-life comedy writer Jay Tarses played comedy writer Marty Fenneman and long-time cartoon voice actor Don Messick played the voice of “Dippy Duck”. 

The show debuted in July and lasted just 13 episodes.

It played on CTV, Channel 13 on peasant vision in the summer.

Parting thoughts
“The Duck Factory” had potential, but NBC obviously made the right choice in “Night Court”. Besides, had Jim Carrey had a similar run as Harry Anderson and "Night Court", perhaps he would not have been contractually free to assume his breakout role in FOX television’s “In Living Color” which led to his motion picture break through in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”, “Dumb and Dumber”, and “The Mask’, all hitting the theatres in 1994.

However, the show was Jim Carrey’s first lead role in a Hollywood production, and undoubtedly helped him along his career path.

“The Duck Factory” may not have lasted, but it was an interesting premise, which leaves me wondering what could have been.

(You can see for yourself because a good chunk of the episodes are on YouTube)

Friday, 4 April 2014

Vince Ferragamo: The pastures aren’t greener in Canada

Quarterback Vince Ferragamo's jump to the CFL in 1981
was such big news, it made the cover of "Sports Illustrated".
Every year, players from the CFL leave to pursue their dreams south of the border in the NFL. More money, lower taxes, and being closer to home are the usual reasons.

As hard as it is to believe, there was a time, more than 30 years ago, when a high profile player jumped from the NFL to the CFL.
However, in the end, the grass wasn’t greener for quarterback Vince Ferragamo.

New ownership
This whole saga began in 1981 when Sam Berger retired and sold the Montreal Alouettes to Nelson Skalbania. At the time Skalbania was best known for purchasing the Atlanta Flames and moving them to Calgary, so he brought a certain amount of credibility to the CFL.

Immediately, he decided to upgrade the talent of the Alouettes. He signed NFL veterans James Scott, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, and the up and coming runningback David Overstreet. His biggest signing was yet to come. Keep in mind, they were two years removed from an Eastern Conference championship and a Grey Cup appearance.

Go north young man
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, things were also changing. The Rams had relied on quarterback Pat Haden for years, achieving regular season success, but running into the Doomsday Defense of the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs. That all changed in 1979 when Haden got hurt and Vince Ferragamo took over as quarterback of the Rams. He threw a TD pass to Billy Wady late in the NFC Divisional Game against Dallas, shocking the Cowboys, and setting up a showdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a chance to play Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. They won that game too, as Frank Corral kicked three field goals, and the Rams won 9-0. Ferragamo would become the first player in history to start a Super Bowl in the same season he had his first professional start.

They would get beaten by Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers in the Super Bowl, but Ferragamo had the team leading after three quarters.

Things looked promising for the Rams. Haden, coming off injury, started the season at quarterback, but again was injured, opening the door for Ferragamo again. He passed for 30 touchdowns, second most in the NFL, and a team record, and was the team's most valuable player. However, the Rams lost the NFC Wildcard game to Dallas.

Ferragamo’s contract was up, and he was seeking a raise from the $47,500 he made in 1980. The Rams offered him $250,000, but along came Nelson Skalbania and the Montreal Alouettes, with an offer of $400,000 over two years, which was rich even by the NFL standards of the time. It was the right offer at the right time.

Vince Ferragamao was coming to Canada.

Things go south
The 1981 season was not kind to the quarterback from Nebraska. He had difficulty adjusting to the CFL game. In his opener against the B.C. Lions in Vancouver he went 13 of 30 in a 48-8 loss. In their second game, he engineered a last-minute drive to help Montreal beat Toronto 23-22 in their home opener, then passed for 353 yards in a 33-31 loss to Ottawa in their third game. He would go on to play 13 games, going 175 of 342 for 2,182 yards, seven touchdowns, and 25 interceptions. By the end of the season, he had been replaced by veteran CFL quarterback Ken Johnson, as the Alouettes plummeted to 3-13. Incredibly, they finished third in the CFL East and still made the playoffs, losing to Ottawa in the East semi-final. (The clip below features Ferragamo doing battle against the Warren Moon-led Edmonton Eskimos).

Since Ferragamo signed two, one-year contracts, he left Montreal after the end of the 1980 season, returning to the Rams.

The great CFL experiment was over.

Parting thoughts
Vince Ferragamo never achieved the same success he had before he left, although there were flashes, finally retiring after the 1986 season.

His one-year stint in Canada was a strange chapter in the history of the CFL. Unlike Warren Moon, who came to the CFL as a relative unknown, or Doug Flutie, who had enjoyed incredible success in college, but never got the same opportunity during his first stint in the NFL, Vince Ferragamo was a bonified NFL star who came north for more money.

Sadly, in some reports he blamed his lack of success on the CFL being a “minor league”. That’s unfortunate, because it’s not the game’s fault he could not adjust to different rules – especially when the likes of Moon and Flutie could (and Jeff Garcia and Joe Theismann and Joe Kapp for that matter).

The inflated contract he signed also aided in the demise of the Alouettes who would have money troubles from then on and eventually fold – twice. It also led to an escalation in salaries that almost led to the demise of the entire league.

Still, looking back, it is still pretty remarkable a player of that calibre jumped ship and came north. He was one year removed from being the quarterback of the Super Bowl runner-up. Can you imagine Colin Kaepernick jumping to the CFL today?

Thursday, 3 April 2014

KFC: A treat becomes comfort food through the decades

It was always finger lickin’ good with 11 herbs and spices, promoted by a white-haired southern gentleman in a white suit, bolo tie and white beard and moustache.

To me Kentucky Fried chicken was always a treat, and later a comfort food.

Going to town
Growing up on the farm, I got to Lethbridge, the nearest city, maybe once a week, and always on Saturday. We would check out the stores, and as I got older, me and my mom would go for coffee, while my dad did his own thing for a couple hours.

Every so often my dad would look at my mom and say those fateful words: “You want go for Kentucky chicken?”

Kentucky Fried Chicken was a treat in our house. There were four franchises in Lethbridge, all owned by a man named Sven Erickson. Oddly, he also owned a self-titled restaurant, which was one of the classiest in town. My Aunt Joanne worked at Erickson’s starting out as a waitress and working herself up. The four franchises, which I believe are still in the same spots, are on the corner of Third Avenue and Mayor Magrath Drive, further down on Mayor Magrath beside Erickson’s (which since has been sold and turned into a Keg restaurant), on the north side, and on the west side.

Every time my aunt hosted a special occasion, Kentucky Fried Chicken was the meal of choice. In particular, I recall my grandparents’ 50th anniversary and the confirmation celebration for my cousins Nina, Carl, and Doris.

So, we always stopped at the north side KFC. That was primarily because my Aunt Joanne and my grandparents lived nearby, and we’d stop for supper on our way home from visiting them. In fact, the KFC was almost exactly halfway between their houses.

I loved the chicken, but the favourite part was the fries and gravy – and particularly the gravy.

KFC meet Cousin Carl
We were visiting Aunt Joanne one time, when we discovered she got her son a job at the same northside Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC meet Cousin Carl. (He actually already knew the colonel quite well. All over his room, he had various bits of memorabilia, including a Colonel-Sanders-shaped piggy bank. It was the colonel standing straight up, and the coin slot was in the back of his head).

A few weeks later, we were visiting Lethbridge again, a night Cousin Carl was working. I was disappointed we were not going to see him. My aunt encouraged us to go visit him. His shift was ending fairly soon. So we walked down there, and Carl was just about done. He would have been done sooner, but customers came in late. He finished up, grabbed his coat, and revealed something else. A big, white KFC bag of fresh fries. They had to cook a whole batch up, just for one customer, and he got to take home the leftovers. As we walked back to his place, he said he was going to try to do that as much as he could.

Soon though, he got heavy into his band and left behind the world of 11 herbs and spices.

Quest for chicken
Once life got busy in high school, we never really had KFC. However, things changed for one night in September of 1987 in Edmonton when I was in my first year of university.

It was maybe two weeks into the school year, and our floor coordinator in res, a guy named Doug, had a hankering for KFC. Really, I thought. I had not thought about it for years. But I was tiring of the food in res already. It was a Saturday night when he suggested we walk down to the nearest KFC and get some chicken. I was game. Back then at 17, I was game for anything.

Doug checked out the phone book and found an address. I had never been to Edmonton before I moved there. So we began our trek, chatting while we walked. It seemed like forever when we got there. I have since heard that distance seems smaller when you know where you are going. That was so true, because it seemed to take forever to get to the KFC on 109th Street. A few years later, I took the same walk, and it didn’t seem to take long at all.

So we ordered, waited, got our chicken, and planned how we were going to get back to res. It was hard carrying all that stuff. The plastic bags cut into my hands. Then, when we were about a block away, we heard this yelling, over and over. It was the guy from KFC. We had forgotten our drinks. Those darn pops became the bane of my existence, making the long trek back that much longer and harder.

Still, we made it and ate well – very well. I remember sitting in Doug’s room eating. He had ordered some buns and stuck a piece of chicken into one. He squeezed hard on the bun and pulled out the bones, leaving nothing but meat inside. Instant sandwich.

He was a thinker too. He ordered enough to have leftovers for a week. He had definitely put that MBA he was earning to work.

Comfort food
Fast forward to 1995. I re-discovered Kentucky Fried Chicken in my last year in res. Things were pretty stressful at times. I learned KFC delivered. After one particularly harrowing week, I pulled out the phone book and ordered from that same KFC on 109th Street. The gravy tasted so good on everything – chicken, fries, buns. I did that once every couple weeks after that. My one-time treat had become comfort food.

Parting thoughts
Kentucky Fried Chicken has become something I eat once a year maybe. Every time I do, it brings up memories of growing up in the 80s. My siblings were so much older that by then they had left home, leaving me alone with my parents. It reminds me of those times together, just the three of us, going to town to shop, stopping for chicken, and eating it together at home. It was really about talking, and spending time together. What a simple time it was.