From Chris Daniels on Fb, 4/11/15:As many of our friends know, the wonderful and lovely Neal Thompson passed away this weekend. He was a dear friend, a great bass player with The Captain’s Red Hot Blues Band and Chuck Hughes and his rockin’ Cyclones with Bill Brennan. He had the best Forrest Means (Fo Fo) stories I ever heard and he always made me laugh. I am just one of so many sending his whole family love and prayers. Everyday is a gift and we were all lucky to have Neal in our lives. As Tim Duffy used to sing, “There will be a wham-bam at the Ashram” when Neal takes his place in that amazing orchestra of the clouds. Big hugs to all CD
From Sandy Thompson:
In case anyone missed the invite, a celebration of Neal’s life will be held Sat., May 2nd, 2:30 to 5:30 at eTown Hall, 1535 Spruce St., Boulder. We hope you can join us to share words, jamming and refreshments.
From Albums on the Hill:
Bring your instruments to Neal’s “send-off” at eTown Hall. . . and celebrate Neal with a tune.
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Stan Freberg (born Stanley Victor Friberg; August 7, 1926 – April 7, 2015) was an American author, recording artist, animation voice actor, comedian, radio personality, puppeteer and advertising creative director, whose career began in 1944. He remained active in the industry into his late 80s, more than 70 years after entering it.
His best-known works include “St. George and the Dragonet”, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, his role on the television series Time for Beany, and a number of classic television commercials.
Freberg’s work reflects both his gentle sensitivity (despite his liberal use of biting satire and parody) and his refusal to accept alcohol and tobacco manufacturers as sponsors—an impediment to his radio career when he took over for Jack Benny on CBS radio. As Freberg explained to Rusty Pipes:
After I replaced Jack Benny in 1957, they were unable to sell me with spot announcements in the show. That would mean that every three minutes I’d have to drop a commercial in. So I said, “Forget it. I want to be sponsored by one person”, like Benny was, by American Tobacco or State Farm Insurance, except that I wouldn’t let them sell me to American Tobacco. I refused to let them sell me to any cigarette company.
Freberg was employed as a voice actor in animation shortly after graduating from Alhambra High School. He began at Warner Brothers in 1944 by getting on a bus and asking the driver to let him off “in Hollywood”. As he describes in his autobiography, It Only Hurts When I Laugh, he got off the bus and found a sign that said “talent agency”. He walked in, and the agents there arranged for him to audition for Warner Brothers cartoons where he was promptly hired.
His first cartoon voice work was in a Warner Brothers cartoon called For He’s a Jolly Good Fala, which was recorded but never filmed (due to the death of Fala’s owner, President Franklin D. Roosevelt), followed by Roughly Squeaking (1946) as Bertie; and in 1947, he was heard in It’s a Grand Old Nag (Charlie Horse), produced and directed by Bob Clampett for Republic Pictures; The Goofy Gophers (Tosh), and One Meat Brawl (Grover Groundhog and Walter Winchell). He often found himself paired with Mel Blanc while at Warner Bros., where the two men performed such pairs as the mice Hubie and Bertie and Spike the Bulldog and Chester the Terrier. In 1950, he was the voice of Friz Freleng’s “Dumb Dog” in “Foxy By Proxy”, who meets up with a disguised Bugs Bunny wearing a fox suit. He was the voice of Pete Puma in the 1952 cartoon Rabbit’s Kin, in which he did an impression of an early Frank Fontaine characterization (which later became Fontaine’s “Crazy Guggenheim” character).
Freberg is often credited with voicing the character of Junyer Bear in Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears (1944), but that was actor Kent Rogers. After Rogers was killed during World War II, Freberg assumed the role of Junyer Bear in Chuck Jones’ Looney Tunes cartoon What’s Brewin’, Bruin? (1948), featuring Jones’ version of The Three Bears. He also succeeded Rogers as the voice of Beaky Buzzard.
Freberg was heard in many Warner Brothers cartoons, but his only screen credit on one was Three Little Bops (1957). His work as a voice actor for Walt Disney Productions included the role of Mr. Busy the Beaver in Lady and the Tramp (1955) and did voice work in Susie the Little Blue Coupe and Lambert the Sheepish Lion. Freberg also provided the voice of Sam, the orange cat paired with Sylvester in the Academy Award-nominated short Mouse and Garden (1960). He voiced Cage E. Coyote, the father of Wile E. Coyote, in the 2000 short Little Go Beep.
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Contrary to popular belief George Lucas called upon Freberg, not Mel Blanc, to audition for the voice of the character C-3PO for the 1977 film Star Wars. After he and many others auditioned for the part, Freberg suggested that Lucas use mime actor Anthony Daniels’ own voice.
Freberg began making satirical recordings for Capitol Records, beginning with the February 10, 1951, release of “John and Marsha” (in both 45-rpm and 78-rpm formats), a soap opera parody that consisted of the title characters (both played by Freberg) doing nothing but repeating each other’s names (with intonations to match the moods). In a 1954 follow-up, he used pedal steel guitarist Speedy West to satirize the 1953 Ferlin Husky country hit, “A Dear John Letter”, as “A Dear John and Marsha Letter” (Capitol 2677). A seasonal recording, “The Night Before Christmas”/”Nuttin’ for Christmas”, made in 1955, still remains a cult classic.
With Daws Butler and June Foray, Freberg produced his 1951 Dragnet parody, “St. George and the Dragonet”, a #1 hit for four weeks in October 1953. On the record’s B-side, “Little Blue Riding Hood” (‘Only the color has been changed to avoid an investigation’ … ‘But Grandma what a big subpoena you have in your pocket – All the better to serve you with, ma’am’), the title character is arrested for smuggling goodies.
Another hit to receive the Freberg treatment was Johnnie Ray’s weepy “Cry”, which Freberg rendered as “Try” (“You too can be unhappy … if you try”), exaggerating Ray’s histrionic vocal style. Ray was furious until he realized the success of Freberg’s 1952 parody was helping sales and airplay of his own record. Freberg reported getting more angry feedback for this than from his other parodies.
After “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (1951), he followed with more popular musical satires, such as “Sh-Boom” (1954), a parody of the song recorded by The Chords. Freberg imitates Marlon Brando, who at the end yells “STELLA!”, based on A Streetcar Named Desire. Other songs include “The Yellow Rose of Texas” (1955), where a “Yankee” snare drummer gets out of hand on the recording; “Rock Island Line” (1956), based on the Lonnie Donegan skiffle version, with interruptions by Peter Leeds; and, “The Great Pretender” (1956).
He spoofed Elvis Presley’s first gold record, “Heartbreak Hotel”; in Freberg’s version, the echo effect goes out of control, and Elvis eventually rips his jeans during the performance.
With Foray, he recorded “The Quest for Bridey Hammerschlaugen”, a spoof of The Search for Bridey Murphy by Morey Bernstein, a 1956 book on hypnotic regression to a past life.
Freberg used a beatnik musician theme in his 1956 parody of “The Great Pretender”, the hit by The Platters—who, like Ray (see above) and Belafonte and Welk (see both below), were not pleased. At that time, when it was still hoped that musical standards might be preserved, it was quite permissible to ridicule the ludicrous, as Freberg had obviously thought when he parodied Presley. The pianist in Freberg’s parody, a devotee of Erroll Garner and George Shearing, rebels against playing a single-chord accompaniment, retorting, “I’m not playing that ‘clink-clink-clink jazz’!” But Freberg is adamant about the pianist’s sticking to The Platters’ style: “You play that ‘clink-clink-clink jazz’, or you won’t get paid tonight!” The pianist relents—sort of. The pianist even quotes the first six notes from Shearing’s classic piece “Lullaby of Birdland”, before returning to the song. The song concludes with the piano accompaniment, despite the histrionic singer’s pleas, becoming uncontrollably fast, and the singer having to escape the studio.
Freberg’s “Banana Boat (Day-O)” (1957) satirized Harry Belafonte’s popular recording of “Banana Boat Song”. In Freberg’s version, the lead singer is forced to run down the hall and close the door after him to muffle the sound of his “Day-O!” because the beatnik bongo drummer, voiced by Leeds, complains, “It’s too shrill, man. It’s too piercing!” When he gets to the lyric about “A beautiful buncha ripe banana/Hide the deadly black tarantula,” the drummer protests, “I don’t dig spiders, man!” The flip is “Tele-Vee-Shun”, an anti-TV song about what television has done to his family, sung in a heavy faux-Trinidadian accent and set to a Calypso tune. The song also lampoons Presley in one verse: “I turn on Elvis Presley and my daughter scream. I fear she have a nervous breakdown cos of heem. I wonder why he wiggle-waggle to de beat. As a boy he must have had a loose bicycle seat.”
Freberg’s musical parodies were a by-product of his collaborations with Billy May, a veteran big band musician and jazz arranger, and his Capitol Records producer, Ken Nelson. Two weeks after Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful! Wonderful!” fell off the Billboard Top 100, “Wun’erful, Wun’erful! (Sides uh-one & uh-two)”, Freberg’s 1957 spoof of TV “champagne music” master Lawrence Welk, debuted. To replicate Welk’s sound, May and some of Hollywood’s finest studio musicians and vocalists worked to clone Welk’s live on-air style, carefully incorporating bad notes and mistimed cues. Billy Liebert, a first-rate accordionist, copied Welk’s accordion playing. In the parody, the orchestra is overwhelmed by the malfunctioning bubble machine and the entire Aragon Ballroom eventually floats out to sea. Welk denied he had ever said “Wunnerful, Wunnerful!”, though it became the title of Welk’s autobiography (Prentice Hall, 1971). Some of the regulars on Welk’s show got lampooned as well; Alice Lon became “Alice Lean,” Larry Hooper became “Larry Looper,” and the Lennon Sisters became the “Lemon Sisters.”
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In 1958, the Oregon Centennial Commission, under the sponsorship of Blitz-Weinhard Brewing Company, hired Freberg to create a musical to celebrate Oregon’s one-hundredth birthday. The result was Oregon! Oregon! A Centennial Fable in Three Acts. Recorded at Capitol in Hollywood, it was released during the Oregon Centennial in 1959 as a 12″ vinyl LP album. Side one featured two versions of an introduction by Freberg (billed as “Stan Freberg, Matinee Idol”), with the second version including a few words from the president of Blitz-Weinhard Co. This was followed by the show itself, which runs for 21 minutes. Side two includes separate individual versions of each of the featured songs, including several variations on the title piece, Oregon! Oregon!
Fifty years later, as Oregon approached its Sesquicentennial, an updated version was prepared by Freberg and the Portland band Pink Martini as part of a signature series of performances throughout the state. Pink Martini toured the state and performed four regional performances in the northern, southern and central areas of Oregon in August and September 2009. This was made possible by a grant from the Kinsman Foundation for a $40,000 launch of Pink Martini’s Oregon! Oregon! 2009 with Freberg.
In 1960, in the light of the payola scandal, Freberg made a two-sided single titled “The Old Payola Roll Blues”, which tells the story of a corrupt recording studio promoter (voiced by Jesse White) who gets a teenager who cannot sing to record a song called “High School OO OO”, as well as the flip side, “I Was on My Way to High School”. The promoter then tries to bribe a disc jockey at a jazz station to play the song on the air, which he flatly refuses, suspecting that the promoter was never in the music business in the first place. Afterward, a song in the big band style heralds the end of rock and roll and a resurgence of swing and jazz. Freberg’s record was on the Hot 100 only the week of Leap Day 1960, at #99, about three and a half months after Tommy Facenda’s multi-versioned “High School U.S.A.” peaked at #28. Alan Freed, whose career fell prey to charges of payola, reportedly laughed at Freberg’s interpretation of the scandal.
Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Volume One: The Early Years (1961) combined dialogue and song in a musical theatre format. The original album musical, released on Capitol, parodies the history of the United States from 1492 until the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783. In it, Freberg parodied both large and small aspects of history. For instance, in the Colonial era, it was common to use the long s, which resembles a lowercase f, in the middle of words; thus, as Ben Franklin is reading the Declaration of Independence, he questions the passage, “Life, liberty, and the purfuit of happineff?!?” Most of that particular sketch is a satire of McCarthyism. For example, Franklin remarks, “You…sign a harmless petition, and forget all about it. Ten years later, you get hauled up before a committee.”
The album also featured the following exchange, where Freberg’s Christopher Columbus is “discovered on beach here” by a Native American played by Marvin Miller. Skeptical of the Natives’ diet of corn and “other organically grown vegetables”, Columbus wants to open “America’s first Italian restaurant” and needs to cash a check to get started:
Native: “You out of luck, today. Banks closed.”
Columbus: [archly, knowing what the response will be] “Oh? Why?”
Native: “Columbus Day!”
Columbus: [pregnant pause] “We going out on that joke?”
Native: “No, we do reprise of song. That help …”
Columbus and the Indian together: “But not much, no!”
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Freberg’s early parodies revealed his obvious love of jazz. His portrayals of jazz musicians were usually stereotypical “beatnik” types, but jazz was always portrayed as preferable to pop, calypso, and particularly the then-new form of music, rock and roll. He whopped doo-wop in his version of “Sh-Boom” and lampooned Elvis Presley with an echo/reverb rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel”. The United States of America includes a sketch involving the musicians in the painting The Spirit of ’76. The terribly hip fife player (“Bix”, played by Freberg) and the younger drummer (played by Walter Tetley) argue with the older, impossibly square drummer (“Doodle”, also voiced by Freberg) over how Yankee Doodle should be performed.
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When Freberg introduced satire to the field of advertising, he revolutionized the industry, influencing staid ad agencies to imitate Freberg by injecting humor into their previously dead-serious commercials. Freberg’s long list of successful ad campaigns includes:
• Butternut coffee: A nine-minute musical, “Omaha!”, which actually found success outside advertising as a musical production in the city of Omaha. It tells the story of a young man, “Eustace K. Butternut”, who was stolen by Gypsies at an early age and, as an adult, returns to his own city, finding the residents under a spell that keeps them singing and raising their arms in the air. He frees them by saying his last name backwards (“Tunrettub”), but he immediately orders them to raise their hands back up again, taking everything the citizens have.
• Contadina tomato paste: “Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?”
• Jeno’s pizza rolls: A parody of the Lark cigarettes commercial that used the William Tell Overture and a pick-up truck with a sign in the bed saying “Show us your Lark pack”, here ending with a confrontation between a cigarette smoker, portrayed by Barney Phillips (supposedly representing the Lark commercial’s announcer) and Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger over the use of the music. Jay Silverheels also appears as Tonto, filling his possibles bag with pizza rolls, after asking “Have a Pizza Roll, kemo sabe?” It was regarded as one of the most brilliantly conceived and executed TV ads of the period; after one showing on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson remarked that it was the first commercial he had ever seen to receive spontaneous applause from the studio audience.
• Jeno’s pizza, in a parody of Scope mouthwash commercials. “You know why nobody likes your parties, Mary? You have bad pizza—bad pizza!”
• Sunsweet pitted prunes: Depicted as the “food of the future” in a futuristic setting, until science fiction icon Ray Bradbury, a friend of Freberg’s (shown on a wall-to-wall television screen reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451) butts in: “I never mentioned prunes in any of my stories.” “You didn’t?” “No, never. I’m sorry to be so candid.” “No, they’re not candied” (rim shot). Bradbury reportedly refused to consider doing a commercial until Freberg told him, “I’m calling it Brave New Prune”, prompting Bradbury to ask, “When do we start?” Prune sales increased 400 percent the year following the campaign.
• Another Sunsweet commercial features Ronald Long as a picky eater: “They’re still rather badly wrinkled, you know”, and ends with the famous line, “Today, the pits; tomorrow, the wrinkles. Sunsweet marches on!”
• Heinz Great American Soups: Ann Miller is a housewife who turns her kitchen into a gigantic production number, singing such lyrics as “Let’s face the chicken gumbo and dance!” After watching his wife’s flashy tap dancing, her husband, played by veteran character actor Dave Willock, asks, “Why do you always have to make such a big production out of everything?” At the time (1970), this was the most expensive commercial ever made.
• Jacobsen Mowers: Sheep slowly munch on a front lawn. On camera reporter/announcer (voice of William Woodson): “Jacobsen mowers. Faster… than sheep!”
• Encyclopædia Britannica: The boy in these commercials is Freberg’s son Donavan. Freberg talks to him from off screen.
• Chun King Chinese Food: Magazine ad, featuring a line-up of nine smiling Chinese men and one frowning white man, all dressed in scrub suits and white lab coats, with the caption, “Nine out of ten doctors recommend Chun King Chow Mein!” The frowning white doctor is Freberg.
• Kaiser Aluminum produced foil, to rival Reynolds Wrap. Freberg created a sales campaign based on Kaiser’s difficulties in getting grocers to stock their product, featuring the “Kaiser Foil Salesman”. Despite the company’s initial hesitation, the campaign did increase sales.
Today, these advertisements are considered classics by many critics. Though Bob & Ray had pioneered intentionally comic advertisements (stemming from a hugely successful campaign for Piels beer), Stan Freberg is usually credited as being the first person to introduce humor into television advertising with memorable campaigns. He felt a truly funny commercial would cause consumers to request a product, as was the case with his elaborate ad campaign that prompted stores to stock Salada tea. The owner of Jeno’s Pizza Rolls had to pay off a bet over the success of a Freberg ad campaign by pulling Freberg in a rickshaw on Hollywood’s La Cienega Boulevard. Freberg won 21 Clio awards for his commercials. Many of those spots were included in the Freberg four-CD box set Tip of the Freberg.
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Freberg died on April 7, 2015, aged 88, at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica in Santa Monica, California from pneumonia.
[Editor’s note: There is so much more to Stan Freberg. His talents will truly be missed. Please read more about his life and accomplishments. Thanks to Dick Weissman for reminding us of the significance of Mr. Freberg’s contributions to American Life!]
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Milton DeLugg (December 2, 1918 – April 6, 2015), born in Los Angeles, California, was an American musician, composer and arranger.
A talented accordionist, he appeared in short Soundies musicals and occasional movies (like 1949’s Jolson Sings Again). He quickly became a successful arranger and composer and worked as band leader at Slapsy Maxie’s Wilshire location in Hollywood. His clients ranged from the American Junior Miss Pageant to Jackie Wilson, and he was a musician on such radio programs as The Abe Burrows Show. One of his best-known tunes is an arrangement of the song “The Happy Wanderer”, and his brassy polka “Hoop Dee Doo” became a game show staple. He is also the composer of “Hooray for Santy Claus”, the catchy theme song for the low-budget motion picture Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. He also composed “Roller Coaster” – recorded by Henri Rene Orchestra on RCA Victor. It was used as the closing theme for the popular Goodson-Todman panel show What’s My Line? from the early 1950s until its cancellation in 1967.
In 1950 and 1951, Delugg was musical director, bandleader, and accordionist on Broadway Open House an NBC late-night television program which has been considered a forerunner to The Tonight Show. He often played a song he co-wrote, titled, “Orange Colored Sky”, which was best remembered as a hit for Nat King Cole. In 1950, Delugg was also orchestra conductor for the short-lived Abe Burrows’ Almanac.
In 1953, he played accordion, leading the Milton Delugg Trio on the short-lived The Bill Cullen Show. Four years later, in 1957, Delugg joined the cast of the Winchell and Mahoney Show.
In 1958, Milton Delugg produced Buddy Holly’s single, “Rave On!”.
For decades, Delugg has been associated with NBC as a musical director. In 1966, he was briefly musical director of The Tonight Show Band during the tenure of Johnny Carson.
Delugg enjoyed a long association with Chuck Barris, beginning as arranger of the original theme to The Newlywed Game in 1966. From 1976 to 1980, he was musical director of The Gong Show (appearing with his “Band With a Thug”). Delugg often appeared on the show as a comic foil, in the characters of bad joke teller Naso Literatus and philosopher Old Drool. Delugg’s venerable “Hoop Dee Doo” became a fixture on The Gong Show, and was used whenever the contest winner was chosen.
Delugg also wrote the theme music for other Barris projects including The $1.98 Beauty Show, Camouflage (where, in a throwback to an earlier era of game shows, the music was actually performed live by DeLugg and his band), Leave It to The Women, Three’s a Crowd, and The New Treasure Hunt. He also recorded new versions of the theme songs to the 1970s versions of The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, as well as providing the themes for their 1980s revivals. DeLugg and sidemen Mark Stevens, Billy Neale and Ray Neapolitan appeared in Chuck’s The Gong Show Movie (1980) as The Hollywood Cowboys.
Delugg remained active as musical director of the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade through 2013.
Delugg died at home on April 6, 2015, at the age of 96.
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Keith McCormack (October 19, 1940 – April 10, 2015) was an American singer, guitarist and songwriter.
McCormack was born in Dalhart, Texas. He sang and played guitar for the Patio Kids, the Rock ‘n’ Rollers, the Leen Teens and, finally, the String-A-Longs with Aubrey deCordova and Richard Stephens from 1956 until 1965. The Leen Teens were managed by Norman Petty, who later renamed them the String-A-Longs, and in 1960 they had their biggest hit with “Wheels”, which reached number 2.
McCormack co-wrote “Sugar Shack” with his aunt Fay Voss, which was recorded by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs and sold over one million copies in the United States in 1963. It was the biggest selling song of the year and spent five weeks at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 from October 12 until November 9, 1963. He also co-wrote their follow-up single, “Daisy Petal Pickin'”, which reached #15 on the Billboard chart and #5 in Australia. He died in Springfield, Missouri on April 10, 2015.
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The Fireballs, sometimes billed as Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs, were an American rock and roll group, particularly popular at the end of the 1950s and in the early 1960s. The original 1958 line-up was: George Tomsco (lead guitar), Chuck Tharp (vocals), Stan Lark (bass), Eric Budd (drums), and Dan Trammell (rhythm guitar).
The Fireballs were formed in Raton, New Mexico, and got their start as an instrumental group, featuring the very distinctive lead guitar of George Tomsco. They recorded at Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico, where Buddy Holly had previously launched his career. According to group founders Tomsco and Lark, they took their name from Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire.” They reached the Top 40 with the singles “Torquay” (1959), “Bulldog” (1960) and “Quite a Party” (1961). “Quite a Party” peaked at #29 in the UK Singles Chart in August 1961. Tharp, Budd and Trammell left the group in the early 1960s, but the Fireballs added Doug Roberts on drums, plus Petty Studio singer/pianist Jimmy Gilmer (born September 15, 1940 in Chicago and raised in Amarillo, Texas) to the group.
Billed as Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs, the group reached number 1 on the Billboard chart with “Sugar Shack”, which remained at that position for five weeks in 1963. The single also reached number 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart for one week in November of that year, but its run on that chart was cut short because Billboard ceased publishing an R&B chart from November 30, 1963 to January 23, 1965. Nonetheless, “Sugar Shack” earned the group a Gold Record Award for “Top Song Of 1963”. In the UK the song peaked at #45. Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs then had another pop hit in 1964 with a similar sounding “Daisy Petal Pickin'”, which reached number 15 on the Hot 100.
During the run of “Daisy Petal Pickin'” on the charts, the British Invasion began with the first hits by the Beatles. The group had difficulty competing with the influx of British artists and did not reach the Top 40 again until 1968, with “Bottle of Wine”, which was written by Tom Paxton. The Fireballs took “Bottle of Wine” to number 9 on the Hot 100. Although Gilmer was still a member of the group, the band was billed simply as “The Fireballs” on that single. Gilmer left the group in 1969 to pursue artist management and record production in Nashville, Tennessee. Drummer Doug Roberts died in 1981.
All of the Fireballs’ material has been reissued on Ace Records (UK) and Sundazed record labels. The Fireballs continued performing with original members George Tomsco, Stan Lark and Chuck Tharp until Tharp died of cancer in 2006. Jimmy Gilmer returned as lead vocalist and this line-up continues to perform, as of 2014. George Tomsco has continued to release CDs of new material using the Fireballs name.
[Editor’s note: Stan Lark is often a judge for the Country Showdown contests, in particular the regional competitions held in Raton, New Mexico. See the “Talent Needed” category for upcoming Country Showdowns.]
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Percy Tyrone Sledge (November 25, 1940 – April 14, 2015) was an American blues and soul singer. He is best known for the song “When a Man Loves a Woman”, a No. 1 pop and soul hit in 1966. It was awarded a million-selling, Gold-certified disc from the RIAA.
Having previously worked as a hospital orderly in the early 1960s, he achieved his strongest success in the late 1960s and early 1970s with a series of emotional soul songs. In later years, Percy received the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Career Achievement Award. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.
Sledge was born on November 25, 1940 in Leighton, Alabama. He worked in a series of agricultural jobs in the fields in Leighton before taking a job as an orderly at Colbert County Hospital in Sheffield, Alabama. Through the mid-1960s, he toured the Southeast with the Esquires Combo on weekends, while working at the hospital during the week. A former patient and mutual friend of Sledge and record producer Quin Ivy introduced the two. An audition followed, and Sledge was signed to a recording contract.
Sledge’s soulful voice was perfect for the series of soul ballads produced by Ivy and Marlin Greene, which rock critic Dave Marsh called “emotional classics for romantics of all ages”. “When a Man Loves a Woman” was Sledge’s first song recorded under the contract, and was released in March 1966. According to Sledge, the song’s inspiration came when his girlfriend left him for a modeling career after he was laid off from a construction job in late 1965, and, because bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright helped him with the song, he gave all the songwriting credits to them. It reached No. 1 in the US and went on to become an international hit. “When a Man Loves a Woman” was a hit twice in the UK, reaching No. 4 in 1966 and, on reissue, peaked at No. 2 in 1987. The song was also the first gold record released by Atlantic Records. The soul anthem became the cornerstone of Sledge’s career, and was followed by “Warm and Tender Love” (covered by British singer Elkie Brooks in 1981), “It Tears Me Up”, “Take Time to Know Her” (his second biggest US hit, reaching No. 11; the song’s lyric was written by Steve Davis), “Love Me Tender”, and “Cover Me”.
Sledge charted with “I’ll Be Your Everything” and “Sunshine” during the 1970s, and became an international concert favorite throughout the world, especially in the Netherlands, Germany, and on the African continent; he averaged 100 concerts a year in South Africa.
Sledge’s career enjoyed a renaissance in the 1980s when “When a Man Loves a Woman” re-entered the UK Singles Chart, peaking at No. 2 behind the reissued Ben E. King classic “Stand by Me,” after being used in a Levi’s commercial. In the early 1990s, Michael Bolton brought “When a Man Loves a Woman” back into the limelight again on his hit album Time, Love, & Tenderness. On the week of 11/17/1991 to 11/23/1991, Bolton’s version also hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, exactly 25 and 1/2 years to the week after Percy’s did in 1966.
In 1994, Saul Davis and Barry Goldberg produced Sledge’s album, Blue Night, for Philippe Le Bras’ Sky Ranch label and Virgin Records. It featured Bobby Womack, Steve Cropper, and Mick Taylor among others. Blue Night received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album, Vocal or Instrumental, and in 1996 it won the W.C. Handy Award for best soul or blues album.
In 2004, Davis and Goldberg also produced the Shining Through the Rain album, which preceded his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Songs on the CD were written by Mikael Rickfors, Steve Earle, the Bee Gees, Carla Olson, Denny Freeman, Allan Clarke and Jackie Lomax.
In May of 2007, Percy was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame in his home city of Baton Rouge, LA.
In December 2010, Rhino Handmade issued a four-CD retrospective, The Atlantic Recordings, which covers all of the issued Atlantic masters, as well as many of the tracks unissued in the United States (although some were simply the mono versions of songs originally issued in stereo; Disc 1 comprises Sledge’s first two LPs which were not recorded on stereo equipment.) In 2011 Sledge toured with Sir Cliff Richard during his Soulicious tour, performing “I’m Your Puppet”.
Sledge married twice and was survived by his second wife, Rosa Sledge, whom he married in 1980. He had 12 children, two of whom became singers.
Sledge died of liver cancer at his home in Baton Rouge on April 14, 2015, age 74.
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Other Notable Musicians’ Deaths…
14: Percy Sledge, 74, American R&B singer (“When a Man Loves a Woman”), liver cancer.
13: Ronnie Carroll, 80, Northern Irish singer and political candidate.
11: Bill Arhos, 80, American musician, founder of Austin City Limits, heart disease.
10: Keith McCormack, 74, American singer and songwriter (Sugar Shack).
9: Tut Taylor, 91, American bluegrass musician (The Great Dobro Sessions).
7: Stan Freberg, 88, American comedian and voice actor (Looney Tunes, Lady and the Tramp), pneumonia.
6: James Best, 88, American actor and musician (The Dukes of Hazzard, Ride Lonesome, The Twilight Zone), complications from pneumonia; Ray Charles, 96, American musician (The Perry Como Show, The Muppet Show); Milton DeLugg, 96, American composer.
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