The Celebrity Grim Reaper was busy in the week between Christmas and New Year, taking Lemmy, Natalie Cole, The Specials’ drummer John Bradbury and Guru Josh (not Guru Josh!) off to meet their maker. But I’m not kidding when I say the one that upset me the most personally was the death of legendary Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon.
Basketball is a niche sport in England and when I was a kid we’d never even heard of the NBA and couldn’t name a single American team. But we knew all about The Harlem Globetrotters (who actually came from Chicago), the exhibition team who toured the world playing “matches” against opponents they always beat which were full of trick shots and clownish routines and more about entertainment than sports.
They were such a pop-culture phenomenon in the early 70s they had their own Hanna-Barbera cartoon show on television (the first one made with a primarily black cast) and made guest appearances on Scooby-Doo.
My mum took me to see them at Wembley Empire Pool (now the Arena) one year and actually seeing Lemon — the star of the team nicknamed “The Clown Prince of Basketball” — doing his famous Hook Shot and that gag with the bucket full of confetti was one of the major treats of my childhood.
But it was their cartoon show that really made them household names with my generation of English kids, and because of it Meadowlark Lemon (how could you forget that name!) became part of the pantheon of loved TV stars I watched after school. So when I heard the news about his death it felt like Hong Kong Phooey or Secret Squirrel had died. No wonder I was so upset.
The sad death of the great Allen Toussaint earlier this week got me falling down a YouTube hole of records he either wrote, produced, or performed himself. Bouncing between Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, Dr John, The Meters, Aaron Neville, and Labelle really brought home what an extraordinary amount of great music he was responsible for. Like this joyous beauty he wrote.
I’m not entirely sure who was the very first woman I saw on TV as a boy that made my dormant hormones go Boing! and realize that girls were actually rather interesting creatures. Previously I’ve identified that first crush as possibly being Raquel Welch, or even Bobbie Gentry, but it could very well have been Yvonne Craig as Batgirl.
The Batman TV show was already catnip to a young boy anyway with its bright cartoon sensibility and KAPOW! fight scenes, then they threw this cute girl in a skintight purple outfit into the mix (they already had Julie Newmar as Catwoman, add her to the list too) and I thought it was about the greatest thing on television.
40+ years later and I have a daughter who loves watching the same show to see Batgirl beating up bad guys. Anyone with a daughter can tell you the power of strong female role models to fight against the malevolent evil that is Barbie and Disney princesses, so I’m very grateful to her Batgirl for several reasons. Craig died yesterday at the age of 78, she’ll be fondly remembered.
Well this was a shock. I doubt if Cilla Black means much to anyone outside of Britain but there she didn’t fade away with her 60s pop hits. When those dried up she parlayed her Scouse charm and gift of the gab into a long and successful television career — at one point she was the highest-paid woman on British television – becoming, in that overused phrase, something of a national institution.
The TV shows she fronted were mostly awful (though Blind Date could be fun) but a lot of her records were terrific and I hope she is remembered more for them. As a singer she wasn’t as great as peers Dusty Springfield, Lulu, and Sandie Shaw, but it was her lack of polish that could make her so affecting: That shaky, off-key quiver she had, the way her Liverpool accent often shone through, and when she had to go big on a song like “Alfie” she sounded emotionally overwhelmed.
I wrote about this song here many, many years ago, and about how my mother used to sing the opening lines to me. It still tears me up a bit because of that, but it’s Cilla’s kitchen-sink realness that makes such a soppily sentimental song so touching.
I once saw Errol Brown coming out of the Gents in a trendy Soho bar in the late 1980s and, while thinking he was shorter than I’d imagined, I just gave him a very cool smile as he walked past me while inside I was all “FUCKING HELL, IT’S ERROL BROWN!” because here was the man behind so many beloved pop hits of my youth — which is why his death upset me more than I imagined it would. While they were only modestly successful elsewhere, Hot Chocolate were a pop institution in the UK, having at least one hit every year between 1970 and 1984. With his distinctive bald head, Brown was as familiar a face on Top of The Pops as the DJs, one of the few regular black singers on the show who wasn’t American.
Hot Chocolate were a difficult band to pin down. Their records contained elements of soul, pop, glam, funk, dub, and psychedelia — sometimes all at once thanks to the production magic of Mickie Most. What linked some of them together however was a surprising bleakness, singles like “Emma” and “Brother Louie” are pretty grim for pop hits your mum probably liked, and even a love song like “Put Your Love In Me” has an edge of dark desperation about it.
They were such a singles band they didn’t release their debut album Cicero Park until several years into their hit-making career in 1974, and shockingly it was a flop despite containing the hit “Emma” and being a terrific album in it’s own right. The title track in particular is a fabulous piece of moody Blaxploitation soul-funk. If Curtis Mayfield had made this record it would hailed as a classic.
I first heard of the late Steve Strange in 1979 when he was the notoriously-strict doorman at the Blitz club in Covent Garden and his refusal to let Mick Jagger into the club became a minor tabloid story. An act that served as both bravely sticking to your style guns and two fingers up to the crusty old rock establishment — though when Bowie showed up he was treated like a God, they were his children after all.
Back then, the Blitz Kids (as New Romantics were called initially) were still just a small underground clique and I can remember seeing these dazzling peacocks in flamboyant clothes and make-up hanging around the King’s Road or going out at night on the Tube, and would be startled by how they looked which was a million colourful miles away from the Punk and Mod styles everyone else was wearing. I had no idea who they were but admired the balls it took to go out looking like that, in those days just looking “weird” could easily get you beaten up.
Steve Strange grew up in Wales as plain old Steve Harrington and, like many kids of his generation, had his life changed by seeing the Sex Pistols and moved to London with dreams of reinventing himself, changing his name, creating his own scene. This was when it was possible to survive in London without much money and get by on the dole and living in squats which most of them did. It was also that exciting time post-Punk when outsiders and oddballs like Strange, Boy George, Gary Numan, Adam Ant, and Marc Almond could be given the keys to the pop kingdom and become bona fide stars. God knows we could do with some colorful mavericks like them in mainstream pop music today.
The New Romantic cult can look very silly today (never boring though), but Strange and his Blitz friends had an influence way beyond that one movement. They changed the look and sound of British pop, defining 80s music in the process. It was also the first British style/musical movement to come out of the club scene which would prove to be the incubator for nearly every other one to come after.
Once you look past the frills and eyeliner it did produce some great records too. Because Strange was thought of as just a club promoter and fashion plate it wasn’t exactly cool to like Visage (despite the rest of the band all being members of Ultravox and Magazine) but I did love this one, particularly the extended 12″ dance version.
Trad Jazz clarinetist Acker Bilk died on Sunday. He was one of those faces that always seemed to crop up as the musical guest on Light Entertainment television shows in the 1970s, always with his distinctive bowler hat, waistcoat, and goateee. Put on Morecambe & Wise or Mike Yarwood on a Saturday night and there he’d be. If it wasn’t him it would be fellow Trad-Jazzer Kenny Ball (who died last year), it was like a refuge for all the pre-Beatles acts who’d had their pop careers wiped out by the Fabs.
So while I knew bugger all about him — I only just found out where his nickname “Acker” came from — and couldn’t tell you how good his Jazz chops were, he was ubiquitous in my youth so his death makes me rather sad. It’s like another little piece of my childhood as gone, if a very esoteric one. Acker Bilk was a household name back then but I doubt if anyone under 30 has ever heard of him.
This is the tune he’s most famous for and no apologies for that because I think it’s a gorgeous melody, even if it does sound like a proto-Kenny G record now. A huge hit in 1962, this became only the second record by an English artist to top the American chart (Vera Lynn was the first, trivia fans).
He plays it slightly jazzier on this version, but I’m including this clip mostly because it’s such a perfect example of the shabby tackiness of 1970s Light Entertainment television. The rubbish you had to sit through on a Saturday night while lying on your brown living room carpet in front of the television waiting for Match of The Day to come on.
Poor old Malcolm Owen. Died of a heroin overdose after The Ruts had recorded just the one album and a few singles, forever making them a “What if?” footnote in post-punk history. Also had the misfortune to die only two weeks after Ian Curtis and get forgotten by history while the gloomy Manc is a legend (even though The Ruts were a bigger band than Joy Division at the time).