Sunday, June 07, 2009

Death By Association

IF, LIKE OCEAN WAVES, celebrity passings come in threes, then this past week made for some strange deadfellows. Shuffling off this mortal coil in rapid succession were Sam Butler, age 81, and Koko Taylor, 80, on Wednesday, followed by David Carradine, 72, Thursday. And although all three enjoyed a pretty nice run, check back with me in about 20 years: I have a feeling 72 years old is not gonna seem all that ancient or far away anymore.

I don't necessarily like when people die, but I do love to read a well-written obituary. Is that wrong? Does it say something morbid about me?? Is this seat taken???

Anyway, ladies first.
Koko Taylor -- "Queen of the Blues" -- was the most highly regarded modern female blues singer after Etta James. Her version of Willie Dixon's raunchy roadhouse romp Wang Dang Doodle is absolutely the gold standard -- which is saying something considering how ferocious the Howlin' Wolf version is.

Taylor's rise was nothing less than a real-life rags to riches story. She grew up as Cora Walton on a plantation in Tennessee the daughter of a sharecropper and

"gave little thought to pursuing a career in music until she was living in Chicago, working as a cleaning woman by day and frequenting the city’s blues clubs with her husband by night. At Mr. Taylor’s urging, she began asking the performers to let her sit in.

In 1962 Willie Dixon, an influential behind-the-scenes presence in Chicago blues, heard one of her impromptu performances and said, as she later recalled, “I never heard a woman sing the blues like you sing the blues.” He took her to Chess Records, where he was a talent scout and producer, and wrote a number of songs for her, most notably “Wang Dang Doodle,” which she recorded despite her initial trepidation about its raunchy lyrics. It made her a star."

Sam Butera was best known as the wailing saxophone player and arranger on just about all of Louis Prima's classic '50s sides, as the serious record collectors say: Oh Marie, Just A Gigolo, Jump Jive an' Wail, Hey Boy Hey Girl. Butera also regularly served as a foil for Prima's in-song banter -- mostly being implored by the bandleader to keep up or blow harder or play what he just sang. And like any good sax man, you can't imagine the songs without his contribution (think Springsteen with no Clarence Clemons, or David Bowie's Changes missing the bittersweet sax coda)...

Butera formed his own band in the late '70s after Prima passed away, and he remained active until about five years ago, often playing with Keely Smith. And you have to be encouraged by Butera's ability to know crap when he sees it. According to The Times:

Among Mr. Butera’s best-known arrangements was the medley of “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody” that was a hit for the Prima-Smith team in 1956. To Mr. Butera’s chagrin, it became an even bigger hit for the rock singer David Lee Roth three decades later. “He copied my arrangement note for note, and I didn’t get a dime for it,” Mr. Butera told The New York Times in 1997. “But there wasn’t an act in Atlantic City or Las Vegas that would do that song, out of respect for me.”

David Carradine will always be known for the hit '70s TV series Kung Fu, which has achieved almost cult status over the years -- that is, he WOULD HAVE always been known for his starring role in that Asian Western if -- and there's no real way to sugarcoat this -- the man had not been found dead with a rope tied around his private parts. Call me judgmental, but that kind of ignominious ending will tend to have an adverse effect on your reputation, on how people think of your body of work -- uh, legacy. But no, instead Mr. Fancypants Autoerotic Asphyxiation goes to Thailand and hangs himself in truly bizarre fashion instead of engaging in the more acceptable local custom of paying to have illicit sex with underage prostitutes like any normal, decent Westerner.

Actually, despite being the right age for Kung Fu when it ran from 1972-75, for whatever reason I never took to it. Instead, i got to listen to friends who did watch it reciting variations on the series' signature line "Snatch this pebble from my hand, grasshopper" whenever they could squeeze a reference in.

Bound for Glory -- the 1976 feature based on the Woody Guthrie autobiography whose title now takes on comically ironic overtones -- is the consensus critical choice as Carradine's best performance out of his more than 100 movie roles. However, as the Times dryly notes, Carradine was "a busy actor if not always the most discriminating in his choice of roles."

In the excellent Times obit, observing the more respectful graciousness of the format, habitual obituarist Bruce Weber omits mention of just what role the actor's bound genitalia may have played in his demise, while revealing that Bangkok police were treating the whole mess as a suicide -- apparently standard operating procedure even in Thailand when a dead man is found swinging from the light fixture.

I jumped off the Quentin Tarantino bandwagon pretty much for good about 10 years ago (right after Jackie Brown, which I liked) , soon after realizing what a complete, utter doofus the guy is -- so I never did see Carradine in either of the gratuitously violent Kill Bills. In me 'umble opinion, the Kill Bill franchise was Tarentino's desperate, cynical attempt to rescue his flagging career by making movies so repulsively violent that critics would have to take notice, moronic suburban teenagers would flock to the multiplex, and clueless hipsters would watch it in some downtown art house & pretentiously hail it as a masterpiece of cinema, you know the type: "Kurosawa meets Peckinpah."

Also saw on the Daily News website yesterday a story about Tony Darrow, an actor you'd know by face, who was arrested Thursday at LaGuardia Airport and charged with good-old-fashioned extortion stemming from a 2004 incident involving known members of the bent-nose crew Joseph "Joey Boy" Orlando and Giovanni "Nothing Catchy Rhymes With My Name" Monteleone. Darrow, like just about every Italian-American actor, was in The Sopranos, but as Bamboo Lounge owner Sonny Bunz, he had some of the most quotable lines in Goodfellas as he runs afoul of the crazy Joe Pesci character, including the demented:

"But I'm worried... I mean, I'm hearin' all kinds a fuckin' bad things. I mean he's treating me like I'm a fuckin' half-a-fag or somethin'. I'm gonna wind up a lammist, I gotta go on the fuckin' lam in order to get away from this guy? This ain't right, Paulie."

So his acting career is not only on hold, but now in intensive care and on life support. It looks like the guy's gonna be doing some time here -- officially unavailable anytime soon to play those mob stooge types he had down to a science.

1 comment:

Serge A. Storms said...

Just so you know, in the world of the bent nose crew, if there is nothing that rhymes with the name, the person is dubbed "Fingers" by default, as odds are they are capable of doing something nefarious with their fingers.