People Who Died - May, 2022
Okay folks, Summer is here. I know, the “official” start isn’t until June 21 but that’s a load of crap. Summer begins on Memorial Day and ends on Labor Day. Someone ought to fix that to make it “official.” Who wants to start Summer on a day when every day thereafter is shorter than the next? No; Summer started last weekend and that’s that. Hot dogs, BBQ’s, baseball, apple pie, amusement parks and too much drinking is what we are hoping for but come Labor Day all we will probably have to say is “where did the summer go?” Thus, my advice to you, before you wind up in a blog like this, is get off your lazy asses and do something this summer. Ride a bike, run a 5K, paddle a kayak, chug a few Foster’s oil cans, or get in the car and enjoy a nice drive in the country (but not after downing the oil cans). Don’t let the summer slip away with nothing to show for it other than an impression on the couch-seat and another lost Met’s season because their pitchers are too fragile and their star shortstop is not looking so star (although he has been looking good of late). Not sure I can endure another summer where the damned Yankees best us.
Summer says lots of things, among them hot dogs and pickles and this month we bid adieu (a good Wordle starter word by the way) to Robert Vlasic of Pickle fame who left us at 96. Vlasic took over the family business, based in Detroit, and turned it into a pickle powerhouse. He came up with the advertising campaign featuring a stork, playing off the theme (probably hated by the #Metoo crowd) that pregnant women craved pickles. The stork remained and the brand grew, eventually supplanting Heinz as the largest pickle purveyor in the Country. He sold the company to Campbell Soup in 1978 for about $35 million. At that time per-capita pickle consumption was said to be 8 pounds which seems rather large to me. I suspect they were counting all of those wedges and slices that come with sandwiches that people routinely throw in the garbage (but not me). In later years he provided advice to the Archdiocese of Detroit. Hope he told the priests where they should keep their gherkins.
Keeping with the food theme because, after all, summer is for parties, Jack Cakebread clinked his last wineglass at 92. Mr. Cakebread was an auto mechanic having taken over the business from his dad. He had a creative side and used photography as his first outlet, studying under Ansel Adams. He was commissioned to take pictures for a book which involved his visiting all 130 commercial wineries in the U.S. Today there are over 11,000. That work got him interested in wine and in 1972 he and his wife purchased a 22-acre cattle ranch in Rutherford, California. After learning from Robert Mondavi, one of the few vintners in California at the time, he planted sauvignon blanc grapes which were then unheard of in this country. Many told him it was a mistake but he decided to grow what he liked to drink because, according to his New York Times obit, “that’s what we would do if we didn’t sell it.” In the first year they produced 157 cases. It sold. The Cakebreads, however, kept working at the garage for the next 20 years with winemaking being a sideline. Eventually they took it up full-time and produce an array of wines sold the world over. From carburetors to chardonnay, not a bad career trajectory.
Sticking with the festive theme we lost two club owners at different ends of the socializing spectrum this month. Rachelle Zylberberg, professionally known as Regine (I can’t work the keyboard to get the accent in), whose clubs were all the rage in the 70’s died at 82. Regine was abandoned by her mother as a child and when her father was arrested by the Nazi’s when she was 12, she hid in a convent, where she was beaten by the other girls because she was Jewish (that Christian do unto others mentality not at work). She eventually found work selling bras on the streets of Paris, promising herself that someday she would become rich. She borrowed some money and opened a club in a Paris basement. She couldn’t afford live music so patrons danced first to a juke box and then to two turntables she installed so that the music would be non-stop. It was a hit; she was a rage and Regine opened 23 clubs around the world realizing her dream of making a fortune. She was Steve Rubell before Steve Rubell was Steve Rubell. What a run.
From Paris to Texas, it is closing time for Mickey Gilley who left us at 86. Known more for his club on the outskirts of Houston, than for the 17 number-one country tunes he crooned (including Don’t the Girls All Look Prettier at Closin’ Time), Gilley’s featured a 48,000 Sq. foot dance floor that could accommodate 5,000 and a mechanical bull for the more daring (or drunk) patrons. Gilley’s was the inspiration for Urban Cowboy and a resurgence of the whole “country” lifestyle thing. John Travolta, and the always pretty (regardless of what time the place closed) Debra Winger starred in the movie. Travolta, who three years earlier starred in Saturday Night Fever, is probably the only person to fit in at both Regine’s and Gilley’s. Mr. Gilley’s childhood was as removed from Ms. Zylerberg’s as their clubs were different. While Ms. Zylerberg’s childhood was filled with misery, Mr. Gilley grew up in rural Louisiana, singing gospel tunes in the choir with his cousin Jimmy Swaggert. They both, however, found fortune and fame in making people happy. As far as I know, Regine never thought about installing a mechanical bull in her clubs.
We’ll move to music (trust me gangster-movie fans, I’ll get to Ray Liotta) which has had some oddities pass this month, foremost among them being Ric Parnell, a real drummer, mostly known as playing in a fake band and spontaneously combusting onstage with Spinal Tap. He banged out is last paradiddle at 70. Those who read this blog with any regularity know that I am not a movie fan but for me, Spinal Tap is right up there with Citizen Kane. In a world of 10’s it’s clearly an 11. Mr. Parnell first toured with Engelbert Humperdinck and auditioned for the Spinal Tap gig while he was in the band Atomic Rooster, joining after their original drummer, Carl Palmer, left to work with Emerson and Lake. Notwithstanding that musicianship had apparently nothing to do with the role, as none of the other members of the band were musicians, he got the gig that ultimately led to his celluloid combustion onstage thus keeping with Pete Townshend’s adage, which Pete himself has not adhered to (77 and still touring), that he “hopes he dies before he gets old.”
I have always said that I didn’t want to be the man. I would rather be the man behind the man (or woman s the case may be). But to be the man behind the band; now that would be something. Well, the man behind the Band – Ronnie Hawkins – died at 87 and according to his wife, “he went peacefully and he looked as handsome as ever.” That statement might be as good as a Margalit Fox obit. Hawkins was a rockabilly musician who received advice from Conway Twitty to head to Canada because those whacky Canadians were starved for his type of music. He went and formed his band and like Art Blakey, in a different genre, mentored those who played with him. At various times, his band consisted of Roy Buchanan, members of Janis Joplin’s Full Tilt Boogie Band (I love that name) and eventually Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko, who left to become Bob Dylan’s backup band and then just The Band. According to Robbie Robertson, he made the band practice incessantly and “taught [us] the code of the road.” According to Hawkins’ 1989 autobiography “The last of the good Ol’ Boys” “Ninety percent of what I made went to women, whiskey, drugs and cars. I guess I just wasted the other 10 percent.” That’s a life.
Alan White, best known as the drummer for Yes, died at 72. He was also a member of the Plastic Ono Band (along with Klaus Voorman and Eric Clapton) and drummed on the “Imagine” Album and several others for Lennon as well as George Harrison’s “All things Must Pass” album. He played on a lot of studio sessions with the likes of Gary Wright, Donovan, Jesse Davis and on many of the members of Yes’ individual projects.
When I first heard that Susan Jacks died at 73, my first reaction was who is she? Then I was informed that she sang the song “Which Way You Goin’ Billy” and I had to really reach to remember it. Once I remembered it, however, it became one of those songs that sadly, I could not keep out of my head. Sort of like the Kars for Kids commercial that tortures me on a regular basis. “Which Way You Goin’ Billy” was far less tortuous than Kars for Kids and in its day was quite popular. It marked the apex of the Poppy Family, which fractured when she divorced one of the other Poppy’s, Terry Jacks, the song’s author. Ms. Jacks was never able to mount another hit but hey, one is better than none.
And one hit is perhaps better than making a musical living playing glassware with moist fingers filled with liquids to create separate notes. That is just what Gloria Parker, who stopped wetting her fingers at an even hundred, was able to do. She learned the craft from her grandfather and leveraged it as a career (she also played the marimba) and a role in the Woody Allen film “Broadway Danny Rose” where she was one of Danny’s “unorthodox” acts. She also appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show (just like the Beatles), the Mike Douglas show and Late Night with David Letterman. Lest you think that playing the glasses is a low-talent avocation, in an interview with the New York daily News, Ms. Parker explained just how precise her instruments had to be “One drop either way makes a difference. Height, circumference — it all makes a difference soundwise.”
Andy Fletcher, one of the founders of Depeche Mode, a synthesizer driven band that was the forerunner of techno-pop, died at 60. Now as a drummer, I have little use for bands that lack them and Depeche Mode was one such band but even I have to acknowledge the force that they were in music. The band, which consisted of three synthesizer players and tape recorder that provided the rhythm (shameless in my mind), played danceable music which is perhaps another reason why they are not on my top-ten list. That said, Mr. Fletcher and the band he formed was responsible for music enjoyed by millions and for that he deserves a spot here.
I have written before about my odd relationship with “The Sound of Music,” formed when the nuns brought us to see the movie on the big screen. Also, growing up we had a cat named supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (docious for short – blame my mother). Anyway, the von Trapps are a dying breed and this month we lost another when Rosemarie von Trapp do-re-me’d into the hereinafter at 93. She was the last surviving daughter of Baron Georg Johannes von Trapp, upon whom the movie was based. Her brother, Johannes von Trapp, gets to lay claim to being the last child of the Baron so I may be writing about him at some point to close the book on this storied family. Julie Andrews, by the way, is still going strong at 86 so “The Sound of Music” lives. Ms. von Trapp was actually not in the movie because it focused on the children that the Baron had with his first wife and Ms. Trapp (she dropped the von at some point although I am sure she probably used it for hard-to-get restaurant reservations) was actually the daughter of the Baron and Maria, the nanny played in the movie by Julie Andrews, making her actually more of an item than the other kids in my mind. It would have ruined the story line of the movie to tell the truth, which was that the Baron and the nanny married ten years before the movies script had them walking down the aisle (another good Wordle starter word). Thus, having their daughter in the flick would have been hard to explain. Perhaps had the nuns known that they would not have been so keen on taking us to see it. While not in the movie, she did perform with the rest of her half-siblings as the Von Trapp family singers so there was apparently no hard feelings. She resided at the family lodge in Stowe, Vermont (a great place by the way – Stowe that is), and often led the guests in sing-alongs. Perhaps that’s why I always stayed at the Stowe Motel.
Finally on the musical front, Vangelis, real name Vangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou, died at 79. Best known for his music in the movie “Chariots of Fire,” he was a composer, and synthesizer player who won an Oscar for the score. He might have been more well-known had a certain comedian punched him in the face when he accepted the award but he seemed to make due, scoring many films in his career, among them “Missing” and “Blade Runner.” In an interview with the Associated Press Vangelis was quoted as saying, “Music goes through me. It’s not by me.” I can’t top that.
Alright, Ray Liotta died this month and it was a bit of a shock since first, he wasn’t found in the trunk of a car in the Todt Hill section of Staten Island, and second, he was only 67 which is perilously close to my own age. Here is where I confess that I have never watched an entire Godfather movie so therefore, I have not seen Scarface, Goodfellas, The Many Saints of Newark or any of the other movies that venerate La Cosa Nostra life. For me, it is all encapsulated in this short cut seen here. Having said that, I know I am in the severe minority and the loss of Mr. Liotta, was somewhat akin to getting whacked for say, mistakenly running over your neighbor’s kid. The portrayal of Henry Hill (a real-life gangster who violated the sacred pledge of omerta which frankly isn’t so sacred anymore given that the greatest generation of real gangsters is also gone) in Goodfella’s was probably Mr. Liotta at his best although he was in plenty of movies. I am told that in Goodfellas there were points, some of the best in the movie, that were improvised and the part really permitted him to use the full extent of his thespianic (I made that word up) range. While Goodfellas gave him his career role, he was in many other movies, such as “Something Wild,” “Narc” and “Field of Dreams,” among others. The interesting thing about “Goodfella’s” is that he almost didn’t get the gig because the producer, Irwin Winkler, didn’t want him for the role as he did not “get” his charm. However, Liotta approached Winkler at a restaurant, asked for some time with him and in ten minutes talked his way into the role. Not sure if he sweet-talked him or explained that he could swim with the fishes if he chose someone else. A real loss to gangsters real and fake.
We lost David Birney of “Bridget Loves” fame at 83. I always thought Meredith Baxter was gorgeous and the fact that, aside from playing her unlikely husband in the sitcom, he actually married her in real life, always endeared me to him. The show was about a marriage between a Jewish cab driver played by Mr. Birney and an Irish Catholic schoolteacher played by Ms. Baxter (who is still going strong by the way lest you think she, too perished). Birney turned down a scholarship to attend Stanford Law School after graduating from Dartmouth choosing instead to study theatre at UCLA. A Broadway actor, he found his way to the little screen and he toggled back and forth. He was in the initial season of “St. Elsewhere” but had to leave because he was committed to be in “Amadeus” on Broadway. He married Ms. Baxter in 1974 and they divorced in 1989. Oh well, we can’t have it all.
While we are on actors, Ron Galella, who liked to capture celebrities on film, died at 91. While he shot (with his camera) everyone from Streisand to Elvis, his most famous “victim” was Jackie Onassis who he stalked constantly and who got a restraining order requiring him to keep 25 feet from her and 30 feet from her children. According to her New York Times obit, Onassis testified that Galella made her life “intolerable, almost unlivable, with is constant surveillance.” Galella, who shot mostly in black and white, was relentless in stalking his prey. He would bribe doormen, maids and limousine drivers for tips about where he could position himself for a shot. Marlon Brando once knocked five teeth out if his head and broke his jaw with a right hook. For all of his annoyance, the guy was a good photographer and everyone bought his work, from magazines like Time, Life, People and the National Enquirer. His work could also be found in galleries that featured photography. Not everyone was a detractor. Diane Keaton called him the best chronicler of people’s beauty and said that in Gallela’s photographs, “Marlon Brando is still the most beautiful man I have ever seen.” And that was before photoshop.
Larger luminaries in the world of sports have passed this month but to me, the death of Joe Pignatano at 92 is the sports story. Pignatano, or Piggy as he was known, is one of those quintessential sports names and for some reason, his everyman personality captured many a Mets’ fans heart. As a kid, I had a cousin from the South Bronx who would visit the “country” which is what Astoria, Queens passed for to a kid from the Grand Concourse, where we played endless games of wiffleball. Joe, size large, was quickly nicknamed Piggy after Pignatano (who by the way was not especially large) and after that, Pignatano took on a bigger role for me. Piggy (the player, not my cousin) never rose above the role of backup catcher (but for someone who never even sniffed at high school baseball I should remain silent) and his last at-bat, which was with the New York Mets, perhaps best summed up his major league career when he hit into a triple play. More than his baseball feats, he was known as the gardener of Shea Stadium where, as bullpen coach, he cultivated tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, eggplant zucchini and even pumpkins. On the field, he also functioned as Gil Hodges’ Sergeant-at-Arms. His major league career was not without its highlights as when, in the second game of a tie-break playoff series in 1959, he got a key hit in a rally that led to a Dodger victory. Sometimes we Met fans have to be reminded that he was more than a gardener.
Undoubtedly a bigger athlete, Bob Lanier, died at 73. And when I say big, I mean not only big in the way he played but the guy had a size 22 shoe. He played for St. Bonaventure in college and the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks in the pros. He played in an era that was far more rough and tumble than today’s game and in one particularly heated rivalry with Bill Lambeer (not known as Mr. Gentle), of his old team, the Pistons, he leveled Lambeer with a left hook that broke his nose. Aside from his on-court pugilism, he was elected MVP of the 1974 All-Star game (back when they really contested them) and was elected to the NBA Hall of Fame. Although his induction into the Detroit Pistons Hall of Fame was delayed due to his clobbering Bill Lambeer, he was eventually installed. I am sure he thought the wait was worth the punch.
This is a blog about those who have left us and most have gone naturally. I would be remiss, however, if I did not at least make note of the 31 people (21 in Uvalde and 10 in Buffalo) who senselessly lost their lives to hatred and deranged minds. I will not get caught in the quicksand of controversy here but suffice it to say that we bemoan their passing
Finally, John Farmer, a lifelong aficionado of the Blues among his other long list of accomplishments, has written a book, entitled “Way Too Fast” on the life and tragic death of Danny DeGennaro, a gifted musician, who, for a myriad of reasons, never “made it.” John writes about the seismic shift that affected this Country in the 70’s and 80’s through the prism of Danny’s life. A worthwhile read. Pick it up on Amazon.