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Bob Dylan, Rejected

bob_dylan_-_bob_dylanIt was a Sunday afternoon at a University of Virginia fraternity house located in a cluster of frat houses that overlooked an intramural field depression known as “Mad Bowl” when I met Bob Dylan and witnessed him rejected as a folk singer and song writer.

The year was 1961, and Dylan had been brought to the fraternity house by folk singer, folklorist, and mentor Paul Clayton who had friends there. Clayton was a UVA grad with a master’s degree in folklore. Since the mid-1950s, Clayton had traveled the Southern Appalachian Highlands in search of traditional folksongs that were in danger of extinction. As a scholar and archivist, he recorded these treasures on site and then sang many of them himself on 21 albums released between 1954 and 1965. In folk music circles from New York City to Los Angeles, Paul Clayton was a prominent figure in the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s.

paul-claytonClayton’s purpose on that Sunday afternoon was to have newcomer Bob Dylan and recorded folk singer Carolyn Hester sing a few songs as a measure of their live performance abilities. It was easy to pull the frat boys away from the ball game on television once they got an introduction to Carolyn Hester. She was 24 years old at the time and Hollywood gorgeous. Hester had already released two albums and was being compared to folk music star Joan Baez. Clayton was helping her with her live performance guitar playing, which was weak at the time. Hester stood against the living room wall and performed two unremembered songs. Her singing was strong and beautiful, but she missed some chords in the accompaniment.

Clayton then encouraged the shy, downcast, tousle headed, disheveled 20-year-old Bob Dylan to uncase his guitar and sing a couple of his original songs. Perhaps in over 50 years of retrospect it is wishful thinking, but I swear that one of the songs that he performed was “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  Although Dylan would become “the voice of his generation,” his singing voice has been described as, “raw, seemingly untrained, and frankly a nasal voice” by Joyce Carol Oates among others. Dylan was also accused of imitating Woody Guthrie’s earthy vocal mannerisms which were also termed “iconoclastic baying.”

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Mad Bowl, UVA

The frat boys that Sunday found Dylan’s singing to be both incomprehensible and downright irritating.  Someone turned the television set back on to the ball game, and there were insincere smiles and gestures that communicated to the performers that their leave taking was in order. Clayton’s fraternity friend made an awkward apology as the three folk singers exited the scene of their embarrassment.

Soon after the fraternity house debacle, Carolyn Hestercarolyn-hester invited Bob Dylan to play harmonica on sessions for her third album at Columbia Records.  At a rehearsal session, Dylan met celebrated record producer John Hammond who signed him to a recording contract. Dylan’s first album on Columbia Records was released on March 19, 1962. The album made a great impression in the folk music community, but it was not commercially successful.

the-freewheelin-bob-dylan

Dylan’s second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in May 1963, however, featured “Blowin’ in the Wind” as its first cut. If Dylan could not make his songs famous, then cover groups like Peter, Paul and Mary, The Byrds, Sonny and Cher, The Hollies, and many others could. The Beatles themselves reported listening to the Freewheelin’ album until they wore it out.

Since being rejected by the UVA frat boys in 1961, Bob Dylan has sold more than 100 million records. No songwriter, past or present, has received so many awards and honors.  A partial list includes The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1991), The Kennedy Center Honor (1997), an Academy Award Oscar for Best Song (2001), the Pulitzer Prize (2008), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012), and the Nobel Prize for Literature (2016).

There are perhaps a dozen men now into their 70s who may remember Bob Dylan from their fraternity house encounter in 1961. Fortunately, their rejection of the young artist did not kill his creative spirit. What if they had encouraged him? No telling to what heights he might have risen then.

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Super Night at the Super Bowl

Joe Namath

Joe Namath

The National Football League’s Super Bowl is the most famous annual event in the United States.  Forget the game itself. If you were not a player, coach, or owner, it is the party that you will remember most if you were there.  Mostly, it’s the rich and the famous who enjoy the prime events outside the stadium, but during Super Bowl XII, I know somebody from the working class who can relate the inside story of its glamour and excitement.

In January 1978 my beautiful future wife Pat was the Administrative

New Orleans Hilton in the late 70s

New Orleans Hilton in the late 70s

Assistant to the General Manager of the New Orleans Hilton, and she personally handled arrangements for VIPs who visited the hotel.  Barron Hilton, the head of the Hilton Hotels chain, was famous for hosting Super Bowl parties in the game host cities.  For Pat and her New Orleans Hilton colleagues, it was a particularly exciting time to host their boss and his friends, and she stayed extremely busy seeing to the details of their transportation and accommodation needs.  Her rewards for a job well done were an invitation to attend Barron Hilton’s private dinner party in the Hilton Ballroom and to be given tickets to that night’s CBS live televised entertainment gala “Super Night at the Super Bowl” at the New Orleans Theatre of Performing Arts.

John Denver

John Denver

Pat’s seats for the “Super Night at the Super Bowl” television special were first-row mezzanine with just about five seats in her row.  Much to her surprise, when the lights dimmed, she saw John Denver and his entourage of four men enter the mezzanine as they walked past her and sat two rows behind.  For some reason the small row of seats behind her was empty, so she knew that Denver was sitting directly behind her.  She has always been, and still is, an avid John Denver fan, and so it took a great deal of restraint to concentrate on the show instead of her music idol.

Andy Williams album coverThe gala show hosts were Joe Namath, Andy Williams, and Paul Williams.  More than a dozen guest stars appearing on the program included Peter Falk, Pete Fountain, Vicki Lawrence, Henry Mancini, and comedians Foster Brooks, Norm Crosby, Minnie Pearl, Mel Tillis and Stiller & Meara.  It was a great show with appeal to the widest possible television audience.

The program from Super Night at the Super Bowl  1978

The program from Super Night at the Super Bowl 1978

Barron Hilton’s guest list for his after-show Super Bowl party included celebrities from movies, television, and sports, and so there was a gaggle of press photographers and onlookers at the entrance to the Hilton Ballroom to capture their entrances.  That night Pat had her blonde hair done up in great style, and she was wearing a silver fox evening jacket over a long formal dress.  I will mention here that after becoming an advocate for animal rights, she now refuses to wear it.  But that night when the photographers saw her approach, and people in the corridor began applauding, they immediately assumed that such a beautiful woman had to be a movie star, and they rushed her as if she had been Elizabeth Taylor.  It was a memorable moment for a working class gal.

Monty and Pat a few years later in 1983

Monty and Pat a few years later in 1983

Inside the ballroom, Pat and her escort sat at a reserved table that had a real NFL football ornamented as a centerpiece along with Denver Bronco favors.  Before the evening was over, a man representing John Denver, who sat at a nearby table, told her that the star would like to have her table’s centerpiece.  A bit flustered, Pat assented only to regret later that she had not insisted on personally delivering the football to Denver.  He and his entourage soon departed the party. That same night Billy Carter, brother to President Jimmy Carter, autographed a can of Billy Beer for Pat.  She still has it for the little that it is now worth.Billy Beer

The next day the actual Super Bowl game was played in the Louisiana Superdome.  The Dallas Cowboys defeated the Denver Broncos by the score of 27 to 10.  Pat didn’t see the game; she was too busy at the hotel serving the needs of the VIPs.

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Richard Pryor: His Stand-Up Comeback

Richard Pryor Here and Now (1983)When Richard Pryor came to New Orleans in August 1983 to record his comedy special Here and Now at the Saenger Theatre, he stayed in the New Orleans Hilton where my wife Pat, as administrative assistant to the hotel’s general manager, handled all VIP guest details.  Pat’s working contact with Pryor was with his agent and show producer David Banks, but Pat and I both got to meet Richard as he prepared for two tapings of his final official stand-up comedy show.

The 1983 stage performances were a comeback to show business after a horrendous event in 1980 when Richard had set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine.  He had third-degree burns over more than half his body, and survival itself was in the balance.

Although Richard Pryor as a stand-up comedian exhibited a profane Silver Streak movie posterirreverent style that was unsuitable for children, our three teenaged daughters knew him well from his hit movies: Silver Streak (1976) and Stir Crazy (1980) both with Gene Wilder. The fact that Richard had won several Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Recording and television Emmys for Best Writing in Comedy for specials starring Lily Tomlin (1973) may have been lost on our young girls, but in the 1970s and 1980s, Richard Pryor was one of the most recognized entertainers in the world.

Richard Pryor’s comedic legacy for bringing highly charged racial and social issues into sharp perspective paved the way for comedians like Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock and opened a venue for the general public to address their prejudices.

The New Orleans Hilton in 1983

The New Orleans Hilton in 1983

In my brief encounters with Richard Pryor in Pat’s office, he seemed both gentle and humble, although he obviously felt the pressure of the scheduled performances.  He was still refining his material for the show when David Banks asked Pat to type the head notes for Richard’s individual sketches onto index cards.  The cards would be placed on an on-stage stool where Richard could refer to them as the show progressed.  The show was performed on two separate days at the Saenger and then edited for the broadcast and DVD versions. Pat and I were given prime seats for the first show, and if you see the show recording, you may notice Richard deftly referring to Pat’s index cards as he moves from one subject area to another.

Monty and Pat in New Orleans in 1983

Monty and Pat at the Hilton in 1983

One day while Richard was in the hotel, I was walking through the Hilton lobby with our three daughters trailing behind when we crossed paths with the star and his lady. We then stopped to greet each other. I had recommended some New Orleans restaurants to Richard, and we had some brief words on that subject before he moved on.  There had been no opportunity to formally introduce the girls, but suddenly they were pulling at my shirt.

Daughters Pam, Danielle, and Annalisa

Daughters Pam, Danielle, and Annalisa

“Dad, that was Richard Pryor!” one of them exclaimed. “He acted like he knew you!”

I guess when the girls saw Richard in Superman III (1983) with Christopher Reeve, they might have tried to impress their friends by saying, “Yeah, my Mom and Dad know him.”

Richard Pryor photoIn 1998, Richard Pryor was the first recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center.  It is the highest award a nation can bestow on a humorist. Considering his abusive childhood and his struggle for racial equality, Richard Pryor’s triumphs are profoundly important in articulating the American experience.  I’m glad to salute Richard Pryor by this remembrance.

 

 

 

 

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