Tuesday, October 30, 2018

New Book Inspires 'Spooky' Memories of Southern Rock Band (and Client) Atlanta Rhythm Section

Just in time for Halloween, last week I found a "Spooky" treat sans trick via my email inbox.

The P.R. team for Schiffer Publishing reached out to offer a review copy of the new book "The Atlanta Rhythm Section: The Authorized History" by Willie Moseley.

Yes, please!

I don't think the publicist knew that in 1999 ARS was one of my first clients at The Headline Group. 

Along with "Spooky" (penned by the band's longtime manager and our main contact, Buddy Buie), during that springtime project I also came to appreciate ARS' Southern rock classics including "So Into You" and "Doraville" ("a touch of country in the city") as well as "Imaginary Lover" and "Champagne Jam."

Our motto while publicizing the band's CD titled "Eufaula" -- named for the historic town near the Alabama/Georgia state line -- was "Do It Or Die." 

We nearly did just that during a severe thunderstorm with too-close-for-comfort lightning that crept up during a live and lakeside Internet event with the band.

If only the online audience had known we were chatting with them from a state park men's room while hunkered down during the cloudburst (the band's front man Ronnie Hammond was a good sport about this and many other interviews we secured). 

I found "The Authorized History" of ARS to be a quick read and it will be a fun text for longtime fans. Much of the book features the band's slow but steady rise to prominence during the early 1970s, peaking with some spectacular concerts during which the band shared top billing with Heart, Genesis, Foreigner, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Jefferson Starship.

Interesting to learn that ARS presented the first rock (or any) concert at Georgia Tech's Grant Field, a venue that most recently hosted The Rolling Stones in 2015. 

Pouring over Moseley's writing, I knew there'd be a five-ringed payoff, and sure enough there is, on page 204.

"Another memorable concert -- for the entire band -- happened [when] the Olympic Flag Jam, a grandiose event, was held at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on September 17, 1992, to boost the upcoming 1996 Centennial Olympic Games that were scheduled for Atlanta.

The Olympic flag was officially transferred from Barcelona, Spain, the site of the previous Olympiad. Overseen by Dick Clark and Whitney Houston, the event was attended by President George H.W. Bush and his wife."

The text goes on to describe the celebratory event as including Houston, Santana, Travis Tritt, Tricia Yearwood, Alabama, Garth Brooks, TLC and James Brown, and sports personalities including Richard Petty and Atlanta-based Olympian Edwin Moses, who autographed a set of bass strings belonging to an ARS member. 

"My most vivid memory of playing at 'flag jam' was looking in the audience and seeing Coretta Scott King dancing along to us playing 'Champagne Jam,'" said Steve Stone, ARS bass and backing vocalist, according to the Moseley text. 

The event marked ARS' second live performance for a sitting president, a follow up to their September 25, 1978, gig at The White House hosted by fellow a fellow Georgia native, President Jimmy Carter. Interesting to read about "the first rock band to play on the south lawn" at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and how the after party unfolded without much interference by Secret Service personnel.

It was gratifying to find mention of Buie's obituary in The New York Times which I personally pitched to the newspaper upon learning of Buddy's passing three years ago.

But, unfortunately, the book did not delve into much about the work our team from The Headline Group did in spring 1999, save mention of a spring picnic at which food from The Varsity was a treat and a noise complaint brought things to an early close (I was there!).

But I'm not gonna let it bother me tonight.

Photos via ARS, Schiffer Publishing and SI.com featuring AP photo by Scott Applewhite

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Taking in 'Paul Simon: The Life' by Robert Hilburn

Last month in New Jersey, I stumbled upon a new audio book in the public library near my summer 2018 address.

Robert Hilburn's thorough biography titled "Paul Simon: The Life" sort of jumped off the shelf and into the CD player for the drive back toward Atlanta. 

To my chagrin, this authorized biography of the 12-time Grammy Award winner remained off my radar since its mid-May release.

Later found myself wishing I had known of and read it during the summer spent near Newark, where Simon entered the world 77 years ago this month.

The book is a page-turner as it's fun to learn the back story to so many of Simon's works during October, Major League Baseball's post-season for a sport which Simon aspired to play professionally while growing up in Queens, N.Y.

Whether you're a lifelong fan or only discovering Simon's music, this is a great read. 

There's two five-ringed connections in the text.

First, there is reference to a song titled "Western Movies" by a 1950s band named The Olympics, which I learned is a band also known for the song "Good Lovin'" (later a No. 1 hit for The Rascals).

Apparently Simon enjoyed The Olympics' version more as it is cited as the inspiration for one of his pre-Simon & Garfunkel tunes scribed not long after the duo performed together in a middle school musical.

Second, the Simon & Garfunkel song "Citizen of the Planet" was hand-picked by Olympic broadcasting's Dick Ebersol to run during NBC's closing credits of the Athens 2004 Olympic broadcast. 

"Paul Simon: The Life" is dense in its detailed descriptions of Simon's family upbringing and youthful neighborhood interactions. Often teased about his height, the future husband to Princess Leia actress Carrie Fisher stood up for himself when kids picked on his outfit of choice (cargo shorts) on a hot summer day. 

Readers learn that standing up for himself, smart and methodical planning and an incredible work ethic are each common themes throughout Simon's life.

To earn pocket change as an aspiring musician, Paul logged innumerable hours playing as a house-guitarist of sorts for labels in Manhattan, along the way picking up industry tips to guide his own career. For instance, he gained the rare-to-his-peers insight to maintain copyright ownership to all of his creations, which no doubt paid off in countless ways through six decades of performing.

As a 20-year public relations executive, I found it fascinating that Simon shrugged off the aid of publicists during the early years of his career, but somehow by the time "Graceland" entered the charts he had the moxie to hire an issues management P.R. firm as his world music recordings included sessions that some predicted would draw flak over connections to Apartheid-era South Africa.

The same award-winning music and sessions, for which Simon engaged numerous African and other international musicians, earned him the Zulu name Vutlendela or "the one who opens the way" in honor of all the connections he helped establish for world music.

Simon's crisis counselor also accompanied the singer when he stood up to a group of South African protesters who reneged on a settlement during an embarrassing-for-Simon press conference in 1992. The incident is tied to Simon's adult son by his first marriage, Harper, and a lesson he wanted to teach him.

Decades earlier, a preschool Harper also played a part in Paul's lyrics for "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover," for which "snappy rhymes grew out of a good-natured rhyming exercise Simon had" with his son.

Hilburn's research is packed with quotes from interviews with the likes of Lorne Michaels, Burt Bacharach, David Geffen, Quincy Jones, Clive Davis, Charles Grodin, Dick Ebersol, Carrie Fisher, Philip Glass, Randy Newman, Linda Ronstadt, Steve Martin, Wynton Marsalis, Steve Van Zandt, Sting and Chuck Close.

Surprising photos in the book include Simon in an embrace with Fisher, baseball legend Mickey Mantle with Simon during the video shoot for "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," and a candid snapshot Michaels captured as Simon autographed a speeding ticket received during his drive to Memphis, Tenn., for their intentionally fanfare-free first visit to Elvis' home.

The book also provided a fun reminder of Simon's cameo as a music executive in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall."

Big awwwww for the description of Paul's love at first sight introduction to Edie Brickell when he crashed her appearance on "Saturday Night Live" (Simon's deep connections to the show's run from Season One to present also get their due).

Of course the reading (and listening to the audio book) made me sentimental about the two Paul Simon concerts I was lucky enough to attend, including the first one in 2011 that included an impromptu high-five from the artist as this blogger snapped an arm-extended selfie on the front row.

And all those wonderful songs, and the vivid lyrics, play in the readers' head as the context and scenes of Simon's world unfurl on the book's pages.

And the moon rose over an open field
And I'm empty and I'm aching and I don't know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They've all come to look for America

Photos via Simon & Schuster, United Artists, Twitter.com/PaulSimonMusic 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Family Secrets Revealed Sans 'One Moment In Time' in Kevin Macdonald's Latest Documentary 'Whitney'

The first time I watched a film by British director Kevin Macdonald, the cinema was only steps from the Sydney Opera House.

It was summer 2000, on the eve of the Australian Olympiad, and the story on the silver screen was "One Day In September," the Oscar-winning documentary about the terrorist attack in the 1972 Munich Olympic Village. It was such a great film, I watched again twice before returning stateside.

Macdonald packed 94 minutes with deep history and surprising interviews all in the five-ringed context. 

So, when news arrived that "Whitney" -- billed as a family-authorized Whitney Houston documentary -- got assembled with Macdonald's skilled craftsmanship, my curiosity piqued and I started counting the days to its July 6 release. 

How would the director weave in Houston's Olympic anthem "One Moment In Time," I wondered. 

And would the film billed as "an intimate, unflinching portrait" at last reveal both when and how the singer/actress met her husband Bobby Brown? 

In "Whitney" (now available streaming and on DVD) Macdonald does deliver the goods on Houston in many interesting and revealing ways -- it is so well done, I've already watched it thrice. 

As in "One Day In September" there's no way around the tragic ending, and Macdonald treats the subject's troubling spiral head-on sans varnish. There's great, surprising interviews, and amazing footage of Houston's best performances around the world, starting with her showstopping national TV debut, many of which were new for this longtime fan. 

For more about what "Whitney" does include, please jump ahead seven paragraphs. 

Though Carl Lewis taking an L.A. Olympic victory lap appears in a montage of 80's nostalgia, much to my disappointment, "Whitney" does not include reference to "One Moment In Time," Houston's Seoul Olympic anthem and her seventh single to reach No. 1 on Billboard's chart for Hot Adult Contemporary songs. 

In fact, many of the singer's late-80s/early 90s hits are glossed over while the filmmaker focused on Houston's personal life of this period, highlighting tours and TV appearances during which she defended herself from an Al Sharpton-led movement labeling her "Whitey" Houston (ever the publicity hound, Sharpton makes a later appearance, at 180 degrees, praising the singer on the day of her funeral). 

The film segues to the common narrative that Houston met and flirted with her future husband Brown during the Soul Train Awards, skipping what I believe to be the real narrative, that Brown met Houston while filming the video and recording for the anti-drug PSA "Stop The Madness" (a close look at the credit roll reveals that Houston and Brown, as part of the band New Edition, willingly participated). 

For a peek check the video time stamps of 1:44 (Houston solo), 3:01 (Brown on front row in gray jacket) and 5:06 (end credits listing The New Edition and Whitney Houston as lead vocals).

I am dying to ask Macdonald and his team whether this "Stop The Madness" clip ever met their eyes, and if so, did they ask about it during their interview with Brown or others they captured on film for "Whitney."

Would also love to ask him about the "One Moment In Time" omission. No response to my requests/queries to the Roadside Attractions PR team, so far. 

"Whitney" opens with Houston's own voiceover -- from an early-career publicity interview -- with a vivid description of her recurring dream in which the singer runs across a fiercely swinging bridge while chased by an unknown giant.

"That's the devil chasing you," according to Houston's mother, Cissy, later introduced as a backup singer for Aretha Franklin turned matriarch of the East Orange, N.J., home where Whitney and two brothers grew up blocks from racially-divided Newark. 

Viewers also meet Whitney's father, aunts (including Dion Warwick and her sister, Dee Dee, sometimes tapped as a babysitter when Cissy traveled in pursuit of her own singing career) and other players of Whitney's youth and early career. 

Devoted churchgoers, the Houstons were affectionately named "The Cosbys" of their neighborhood by one Macdonald interviewee, but viewers learn soon enough that choices of infidelity, greed, drug use and other human behaviors all factored as Whitney's star gently rose then took off like a rocket to the moon. 

There are many poignant moments, including mother-daughter scenes in which Cissy imparted wisdom and affection for Whitney. 

And there are professional milestones presented with the perspectives of agents, producers, stylists, friends and ex-boyfriends, and several light-hearted moments showing Whitney at her most playful and upbeat self. One "get" that I suspect Macdonald wanted was an interview with Robyn Crawford, Whitney's closest confidant from high school to the late 1990s, when a wedge (Brown) created a rift too great to overcome. 

Macdonald delves into several darker influences (bullying, racism, drug-using relatives, homophobia) that, all combined, may explain the sharp turns Whitney took around the apex of her success, arguably the months after "The Bodyguard" and the worldwide tour that brought her to meet Nelson Mandela, who dried her tears at their introduction (her performance in Johannesburg stood out for this blogger).

Her private homes, including her childhood abode, an early fame custom-built mansion in a New Jersey forest, and later residence with Brown in Alpharetta, Ga., provide some insightful peeks. 

Atlanta's cameo in the film is anything but flattering, but the panoramic drone views of summer in Midtown are spectacular. 

Interviews with Brown, L.A. Reid and others who deny discussion or knowledge of Houston's drug use left some audience members dumbfounded. 

And much of "Whitney" and the milestones of her addiction are where the film is just plain sad, punctuated by an interview with the personal assistant who found Whitney a Beverly Hilton bathtub. Not a dry eye in the theatre. 

There are also many gut-wrenching revelations into the world and demise of Houston's daughter, Bobbi Kristina. 

But the big reasons to watch "Whitney" are her astounding live performances as a teenager, energetic and new-to-fame twentysomething and those early 1990s moments in time. 

The backstory about her Super Bowl performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is inspiring. 

And her work on "The Bodyguard" is interesting (Macdonald only really touches on this, her first film, and her final film "Sparkle," leaving out "Waiting to Exhale" and "The Preacher's Wife" for unknown reasons -- maybe time as "Whitney" clocks in at exactly two hours). 

I was hoping the DVD would include extended interviews with Kevin Costner, her production company leader Debra Martin Chase, or her film agent Nicole David, who seemed to be the only person interested and actively trying to save Whitney from herself and the demons of her addictions. 

Loved the original albeit haunting music by Adam Wiltzie that scores some of the most sorrowful moments of Whitney's life. 

It's not clear whether Macdonald's latest work will earn the same acclaim as "One Day In September." It would be interesting to see the filmmaker tackle another topic with five-ringed connections. 

My suggestion to Macdonald: Enter the Olympic ring again, this time with heavyweight sports documentary filmmakers like Leni Reifenstahl and Bud Greenspan who captured entire Olympiads of competition for the ages. Macdonald as the official O-film director for a "Tokyo Olympiad" sequel in 2020, anyone? Yes, please.

For the longtime Whitney Houston fan or a younger viewer discovering her music, "Whitney" is an excellent and rounded view a life filled with many big moments in time. 

Images via Roadside Attractions, Arista, HeyUGuys.com

Blog Archive

Web Analytics