Weblog of Leland Rucker
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Seeing God in Municipal Auditorium

This photo was taken from the Folly Theater building at 12th and Central, where I worked on a renovation project 1977-79. (KC Public Library)

I was forwarded the Scotty Moore website (Moore was the guitarist for Elvis Presley), which included a page with information about Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City. Presley and Moore played there in May 1956, and the page includes a wealth of post cards, photos and information about the building itself. (Thanks to Mike Webber for the forward.)

Reading it brought back a flood of memories on this Labor Day. Built in 1934 as part of a ten-year plan to bring the city up-to-date, Municipal Auditorium, by the time I first began showing up, was only 20 years old. Its art-deco style, subtle lighting and quiet elegance really impressed me, and I loved going there. Some of the other buildings created at this time, including the Jackson County Court House, City Hall and the Power and Light building, are equally mysterious and enigmatic. Another thing I liked about the Auditorium was that it wasn’t built on a flat surface. Standing at Wyandotte and 14th Street, it looked like it had been built into a hill to the north. You couldn’t tell from the inside, but you certainly could from the outside.

I can’t remember the first time I was there, but it was probably a large church event. I remember being in the Main Arena, which seated 10,000, and our local Lutheran choir joined with dozens of others to raise our voices to heaven – it was incredible.

As a child, I also went there for the special Philharmonic concerts for kids in the more intimate Music Hall. I really loved these. It’s where I found out that a hymn I knew as “What Child is This?” was based on the traditional English song “Greensleeves.” The melody haunts me to this day. Another time the power went off during the performance, and the Phil, undaunted, just kept on playing, something I wouldn’t see again until Joe King Carrasco and the Crowns pulled the same trick at Parody Hall in the early 1980s.

Billie and I caught a couple of Barnum & Bailey shows there, before we stopped doing the circus-as-entertainment thing. The arena was large enough (the blog says it was 92 feet floor to ceiling) to hold even the gigantic tank that a horse jumped into during the finale of one show, or the guy shot out of a cannon at another one as well as the many trapeze and high-wire acts that dazzled us.

The arena has an interesting ceiling lighting arrangement. This was the late 1950s, when nuclear paranoia was very real. When the sermons or services would fade into the background, I would stare up and imagine people above the ceiling, watching us from their perch. You know, the people who run the world only we don’t know it. And this was before psychedelics.

The interior of the Auditorium is drop-dead gorgeous. (KC Public Library)

The Moore site includes a photo of a concert by Louis Armstrong Nov. 7, 1964, that I attended. I had escaped Kansas City to attend St. Paul’s Lutheran High School down the new I-70 in Concordia, Mo. Our class took a field trip to Kansas City that Saturday, and we somehow got free tickets at a Katz drug store downtown. Sitting high behind the stage, we watched the musicians in their dressing rooms (which were just partitions) smoking and laughing in between songs. I thought they were smoking cigarettes at the time, but after learning more about Armstrong, I’m sure it was probably something else.

“Hello Dolly” had made #1 in March, and he sang it three times that night, something I wouldn’t see again until almost 12 years later, when Willie Nelson did “On the Road Again” three times July 23, 1976, in the Arena with Tompall Glaser and the Flying Burrito Brothers as opening acts.

Other memorable concerts there included a special British Invasion reunion in July 1973, with the original Herman’s Hermits line-up as headliners with the Searchers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Gerry & the Pacemakers and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders. I remember they looked so old. Good acid. Good time, and I thought again about the people who control us all above the ceiling.

Blue Oyster Cult did a great show in January of 1978, with Black Oak and a third act, Millionaire at Midnight, who turned me in the direction of the burgeoning local music scene. I was forced to review Foghat/Bachman-Turner with Judas Priest opening. Ugh. The first time I saw Jethro Tull there, people were celebrating Independence Day by throwing fireworks. The second time, when I gave my ticket to be seated, I was told that the seats “didn’t exist anymore.” He wasn’t kidding; all the seats were pushed back and it was an early mosh pit out in front of the stage.

Neil Young brought his Time Fades Away tour to the Arena with Linda Ronstadt in 1974. Riverrock and Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band opened for Jerry Lee Lewis in the Arena on May 4, 1979. When he asked rhetorically at one point, “who’ll play this old piano when I’m gone,” a woman right behind us stood up and said, “Nobody, killer, nobody but you.”

The last time I was there was in the early 1980s to see the Kinks. Beginning in 1974, they had became an annual attraction at Memorial Hall and the Uptown Theatre. But that particular time they almost sold out the Arena, and I saw a younger generation, the children of the Kinks’ original fans, singing along with every song. Absolutely wonderful.

They were with Arista at the time, and I was friendly with the rep, who was traveling with the band. After the show, in the dressing room, Ray said, “I want to meet the obituary editor and music critic,” and we talked for a couple of minutes. I always hoped he would write a song about the obituary editor who wrote about rock and roll. So far, he hasn’t.

September 3, 2012   No Comments

You say Grossman; I Say Goldman

A sharp-eared listener (thanks Ginger) caught me calling the notorious manager of Bob Dylan and the Band Albert Goldman during the Levon Helm tribute program on KGNU.

Everybody knows it’s Albert Grossman.

Albert Goldman

Both of them were about the same age; Albert Grossman was born in 1926, Albert Goldman about a year later.  Each had some connection to rock and roll, and both were almost equally reviled for their efforts in that regard.

Albert Goldman was a teacher and an author, and it was his efforts in the latter that earned him the disdain of rock cognoscenti. His biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon dared to look down the subjects, instead of up. Each book had its flaws, but it was his disdain for two pop superheroes that pissed off most who read it. His biography of Lenny Bruce isn’t as reviled. His biography of Jim Morrison remains unpublished.

I would certainly recommend Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Presley over Goldman’s, but after reading Tim Riley’s exhaustively researched Lennonbio, I don’t think Goldman, though he makes some rather ludicrous assumptions, was that far off the mark about Paul McCartney’s songwriting partner.

Albert Grossman circa 1966

Albert Grossman was once the most powerful manager in the music business, and a model for an entire breed of manager that thrived beginning in the 1960s. He was, as promoter George Wein told author Fred Goodman in Mansion on the Hill, “a strong, one-way street. He was a brilliant man and a good man in his way, but a tough son-of-a-bitch.” And though he was militant about protecting his “artists,” his arrogance generally drove away all his clients, including Bob Dylan, whom he famously managed from 1962-1970.

But the most interesting thing is that both men died on jets heading from the U.S. to London,  Grossman of a heart attack Christmas Day 1986 aboard the Concorde at age 59 and Goldman on March 28, 1994, aged 66.

As it turns out, I walked past Albert Grossman once. It was forty years ago this month. I was in Chicago, May 1972, at a Peter Yarrow/Lazarus concert. After the show I saw this fellow standing near the doors cupping a cigarette in his hand who, as best I could figure, looked like Benjamin Franklin. I wasn’t sure it was Grossman, but since he created Peter Paul and Mary, it seemed right. Years later I began reading other descriptions of him as looking like a certain bespectacled founding father.

May 16, 2012   No Comments

Hound Dog Men: Leiber and Stoller’s Story

When we think of the great songwriters of the 1950s, we usually concentrate on Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Ray Charles. Leiber-Stoller doesn’t immediately come to mind. I didn’t even know their first names – they have always been Leiber-Stoller to me.

All that changed after reading Hound Dog: The Leiber-Stoller Biography (Simon and Shuster 2009), written with David Ritz. Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber were at least as important as songwriters as Berry or Holly, but like their first names, we don’t remember them because they weren’t performers.

Both of them grew up on the East Coast, but they didn’t meet until they had moved to Los Angeles, and their partnership, which began in 1950, has lasted through many decades, if their popularity and creativity pretty much dried up by the 1970s. But they will be remembered for the many songs they wrote for the Drifters, the Coasters and other great doo wop groups of the 1950s.

They were young Jewish men completely enchanted with black music. Stoller, a pianist, studied jazz and classical music and wrote all the music for the team. Leiber was a lyricist literally without peer at the time, and the pair created some of the most fascinating songs of the era: “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Riot in Cell Block #9,” “Kansas City,” “The Chicken and the Hawk,” “Young Blood,” “Yakety Yak,” “Along Came Jones,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Little Egypt,” “Stand by Me,” among them.

Oh, yeah. And “Hound Dog.” “You know, gentlemen, no matter how many beautiful songs you write or how many other achievements you may realize in your lifetimes, you’ll always be remembered as the guys who wrote ‘Hound Dog,’“ Atlantic Records co-owner Nesuhi Ertegun told them. They knew he was right, naming their autobiography after the song and highlighting the quote on the first page.

One thing not many know is that along with their songwriting skills, they were involved in producing records before we came up with the term “production” in the making of records. Listen to the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko,” and read how they came up with the recording. The Cups were in the studio to put final touches on a song they recorded a few days earlier, “People Say,” and warming up their voices with the old Mardi Gras standard “Iko Iko.”

Stoller writes, “We decided to cut it there and then. No band was present … Jeff (Barry) and Ellie (Greenwich) picked up a coke bottle, a plastic bowl and a few can openers. That became the percussion. There was also a souvenir kalimba box from the West Indies, a sort of giant version of an African thumb piano. I found a way to tune it and used it to play a bass line. The Dixie Cups sang the song with tremendous feeling and authenticity. When we were finished, we loved it … We had another Top Twenty hit.”

There are plenty of stories like that one in Hound Dog, their on-off involvement with Elvis Presley and Col. Parker, their experiences with everybody from Phil Spector to Shadow Morton to Norman Mailer, as well as many other stories about the early days of rock and roll. And I finally got their names right.

April 5, 2011   No Comments

Elvis Sighted in Colorado Snowdrift

I spotted this supernatural scene in my backyard just a few minutes ago. Perhaps I should sell it on E-Bay. What do you think?

The statue depicts the young Elvis wearing one of the old Elvis’s Vegas costumes. The snow, which you can see is really coming down now, shrouds the El in white and gives him a kind of Marge Simpson do, which I think is a nice touch.

"He talked about unbuckling that old Bible belt and light out for some desert town." – Gram Parsons, "The Return of the Grevious Angel"

"He talked about unbuckling that old Bible belt and light out for some desert town." – Gram Parsons, "The Return of the Grevious Angel"

March 26, 2009   No Comments