Sunday, June 25, 2017

Rheta's (re)tired, and I don't feel so good myself

I got the news last Wednesday morning, and I didn't know what to do.

Then it hit me: herd some words, you wannabe scribbler.

So I did.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson, scribe of the super sort, has retired. Kinda.

She's giving up the grind of a weekly column. Thirty-plus years of it, 40-plus years in newspapers, Rheta has earned some rest.

But, oh, I'm so glad we had this time together. (ear tug)

She was a teacher before she was told.

She's a storyteller, paints word pictures like a poet. She can craft a sentence that would make Raymond Chandler as envious as a carpenter bee in a coppice.

And she has good taste in music.

I wrote her a letter when her second husband, Don Grierson, died. A couple of book signings and what seems like a lifetime later, she has become a friend with whom I correspond when I can.

What intrigued me was not the features on the famous and infamous, but, as she put it in her goodbye piece, profiles of "unmined jewels in plain sight." I filed that away.

It reminded me of a Charles Kuralt quote.

"It does no harm to acknowledge that the whole world isn't in flames, that there are people in this country besides politicians, entertainers, and criminals."


I'll never forget my foray to Fishtrap Hollow. On that porch, that perfect porch, sat Hines Hall -- retired history professor and a darn good raconteur himself -- and Hank Williams albums, dogs that didn't bark, and, in time, some of the characters from her columns.

Steve Haffly will forever be a favorite, because of this tale about two women and -- well, go buy the book. Give me a day or so, and I'll remember which one. Rheta's (re)tired, and I don't feel so good myself. 

I was asked to visit when I was seeking solace, and you don't forget such things. Marvelous memories survive among my souvenirs.

This isn't a goodbye. Rheta says she will still be writing. I would've expected no less. She never missed a deadline. God knows I can't say that, but I admire the hell out of it. Work ethic, it's called -- a dying breed, along with kindness, critical thinking, and common sense.

So, I'll not say so long, have no maudlin moment, croon no Cole Porter classics. Instead, I'll use a phrase I think she'd appreciate.

Au revoir, mon ami.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

'Memories of you...'

The song begins, and I'm swingin' again.

It is, as is everything, it seems, out of my era. But it's mine, as much a part of who I am as whoever is in the top 40 today, or was in your day, might be to you.

Benny Goodman, the King of Swing, and Rosie Clooney begin to perform "Memories of You." In my mind, Johnny Carson's on NBC-TV again, saying so long.

I taped Carson's "Tonight Show," watched it again and again, paying attention to the timing, to the phrasing, and, yep, to the performance of that big band.

Carson and Doc Severinsen (who lives in East Tennessee now, by the way) introduced me to so much big band, jazz, and swing. Benny, sure. And the Dorsey brothers, Dizzy Gillespe, Glenn Miller, Buddy Rich, "Begin the Beguine."

I met Doc after a show a few years ago. He was cordial, cool, calm. I chose not to mention Carson. Instead, I asked about Eddie Shaughnessy, Tommy Newsom, Snooky Young, Ross Tompkins, members of his old band.

He perked up when I did. I told him their music had led me to the '30s, '40s and early '50s, to the ballrooms of New York City, to the big bands, to the best, to Harry James, with whom Doc started, then to Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra and so forth.

Doc dug it.

I hear the music, and, suddenly, it's a spring Saturday. Friend and former co-worker Janna Barrett and I are hunting records. I find Goodman's famous 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall. I find a comeback quartet reunion record for RCA. That was a good day.

I gotta tell ya, buddy Gary started this when he posted a classic clip of Goodman with Gene Krupa, Cootie Williams from Duke Ellington's band, and the boys, on Sid Caesar's show. Bonus points for seeing Sid on sax, and Howie "Ernest T. Bass" Morris and Carl Reiner cutting a rug.

The YouTube rabbit hole leads me to Goodman's guest shot on "What's My Line?" Oh, those days. I feel like I was there.

And, when the needle drops on the disc, I am -- to Carson, to that Severinsen show, to springtime and Record Store Day, to Carnegie Hall 40 years or so before I was born.

And, mixed in the music, somewhere in that sweet, sweet, swing, lie, too, my "Memories of You." 

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