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Mr. Bojangles

Okay, first of all I’m not talking chicken here so relax and put down that beer!

Mr. Bojangles is a terrifically popular song written by Jerry Jeff Walker. The authorship may surprise a few of you outside the songwriting industry as it was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band that first made the song popular followed by Sammy Davis Jr. Let’s take a look.

American country music artist Jerry Jeff Walker wrote this song for his 1968 album of the same title. Since then, it has been recorded by many other artists, including US country music band the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose 1970 version was issued as a single and rose to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971. Live versions of the song appeared on Walker’s 1977 album, A Man Must Carry On, and his 1980 album The Best of Jerry Jeff Walker and he sang it with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their 2015 concert album entitled “Circlin’ Back”. The song, however, is most widely associated with Sammy Davis Jr., who made the song part of his stage shows and live television performances for nearly two decades.

Many recording artists have covered this song. They include: Kristofer Åström, Chet Atkins, Hugues Aufray (French version, 1984), Harry Belafonte, Bermuda Triangle Band, David Bromberg, Garth Brooks, Dennis Brown, George Burns, David Campbell, Bobby Cole, Edwyn Collins, Jim Croce, Jamie Cullum, King Curtis, Sammy Davis Jr., John Denver, Neil Diamond, Cornell Dupree, Bob Dylan, Bobbie Gentry, Arlo Guthrie, Tom T. Hall, John Holt, Whitney Houston, Queen Ifrica, Billy Joel, Dave Jarvis, Elton John, Frankie Laine, Lulu, Rod McKuen, Don McLean, MC Neat, Bebe Neuwirth, Harry Nilsson, Dolly Parton, Johnny Paycheck, Esther Phillips, Ray Quinn, Mike Schank, Helge Schneider, Nina Simone, Corben Simpson, Todd Snider, Cat Stevens, Jim Stafford, Jud Strunk, Radka Toneff, Bradley Walsh, Robbie Williams, Paul Winter and yours truly.

Here are the sympathetic lyrics in their entirety:

I knew a man, Bojangles and he danced for you
In worn out shoes
Silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy pants
The old soft shoe
He jumped so high
He jumped so high
Then he’d lightly touch down
I met him in a cell in New Orleans, I was
Down and out
He looked to me to be the eyes of age
As he spoke right out
He talked of life
He talked of life
He laughed, clicked his heels and stepped
He said his name, Bojangles and he danced a lick
Across the cell
He grabbed his pants, a better stance
Oh, he jumped so high
Then he clicked his heels
He let go a laugh
He let go a laugh
Pushed back his clothes all around
Mr. Bojangles
Mr. Bojangles
Mr. Bojangles
He danced for those in minstrel shows and county fairs
Throughout the south
He spoke with tears of fifteen years how his dog and him
Traveled about
The dog up and died
He up and died
After twenty years he still grieves
He said I dance now at every chance in honky tonks
For drinks and tips
But most the time I spend behind these county bars
He said I drinks a bit
He shook his head
And as he shook his head
I heard someone ask him please
Mr. Bojangles
Mr. Bojangles
Mr. Bojangles

I have to insert a short note here. When I played professionally during the 1970’s, this song was often requested so I played it quite often. At home my little boy, who I raised by myself, used to always ask tearfully, “Why did the dog have to die?” Life’s lessons come early.

Jerry Jeff Walker is credited with saying he was inspired to write the song after an encounter with a street performer in a New Orleans jail. While in jail for public intoxication in 1965, Walker met a homeless black man who called himself “Mr. Bojangles” to conceal his true identity from the police. He had been arrested as part of a police sweep of indigent people that was carried out following a high-profile murder. The two men and others in the cell chatted about many things, but when Mr. Bojangles told a story about his dog, the mood in the room turned heavy. Someone else in the cell asked for something to lighten the mood, so Mr. Bojangles obliged with a short tap dance.

Here is the most popular version of the song by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band:

Here’s my favorite rendition, that of Sammy Davis Jr.

Which do you like best? Let’s hear from some of you followers out there!

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Of Mice And Men And Brothers And Sisters

Unfortunately, I do not have a super close relationship with my brother and my sister. I have felt embarrassed by this fact for many years until I recently learned that this is not uncommon in many families from the 1950’s. Contrary to the days of Ozzie and Harriet in which I grew up, many families have drifted apart. I still feel badly about my own case. Let me explain.

Fast backward to 1958. (Is there such a thing?) I am walking my younger sister to elementary school. As we walk the mile or so, I am teaching her the multiplication tables with flash cards. As her big brother, I love and protect her with all my being and she is special. She loves me too. We are brother and sister in the traditional post-war American sense. Fast forward. We haven’t spoken since 2001. How does this happen?

My brother and I have never been super close but at least we had a relationship through the years. He is four years younger than me and we didn’t have the same friends in school growing up. We wound up being from slightly different eras. We both tried to compensate over the years. I remember one of the greatest nights in my life when my brother and I spent an evening playing music together. We wrote a song or two together and we were feeling connected, sort of brotherly tight. It was spectacular! I will cherish those few hours forever. They were composed of what life is supposed to be about.

I also remember a really fun trip to Northern California in the Redwoods with my brother. We were coming together from different viewpoints, making up for a little lost time and getting a little closer. It was the Age of Aquarius but we could still see eye to eye. Today? We still certainly speak but it is sparingly sparse, punctuated occasionally with awkward moments of silence. We have different lives, different politics and different values. We even live in several different countries. It’s tough. We both try but often I’m afraid we fail more than we succeed. I wish it weren’t so! I love him dearly.

My sister and I parted ways after the death of my parents. After a hiatus, I tried contacting my sister several years ago to no avail. I sent a Christmas package to her from Italy full of little curiosities from the village where our father was born and never received a response. I hadn’t really expected one but the silent fact that we were once so close and now we don’t talk at all cuts deep. I hope she’s doing well in her world lightyears away and I would like to think that every now and then she thinks of me, perhaps even with a smile as I do with her. However in honesty I tend to doubt it.

My brother is complex. He may sometimes think I resent him for this fact when in reality I admire him for his complexity and independence. He is an iconoclast. So am I but we are so different in so many little ways that always seem to cloud our vision of one another. There seems to always be the politics of the day, a little too much distance and not enough time. I keep trying but I fear that I am pushing against the wind. Time will tell but the clock is running down; the batteries will someday soon expire.

I often pose the excuse that all three of us were raised to be super fiercely independent. Maybe we are too much so. We were taught from an early age to be our own selves and find our own paths in life. We are all indeed very independent and self-driven. We all have been very successful in life. My sister is a very well-known mountain climber and artist; my brother is an accomplished poet, editor, actor and musician; I am a professional writer who has also been an actor, songwriter and so much more. Success: Isn’t that supposed to be a good thing? But where did so much of the love and closeness go? Was it absorbed in the vacuum of time or was it chipped away in the valley of indifference or simply lost in the passing years and bustle of our own personal lives? I wish I knew and I wish I knew how to right our boat, but I honestly don’t.

Of mice and men and brothers and sisters, I don’t seem to have learned a lot and that is a shame. Maybe in another lifetime?

Photo: Brothers and sisters in the early days.

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The Moving Finger

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

― Omar Khayyám

Most of us have heard this quote sometime in our lives. Authors hear it in their heads every day. It’s our daily motivation and what keeps us focused. We also respect the parameters that are given in these lines, namely that writing is forever. We understand this and embrace it.

However, a new generation or two of writers are upon us, writing away on social media with great fervor. That is a wonderful thing but this new bunch often fails to recognize that writing on the internet is forever and ultimately retrievable at any instant. A few cases in point:

Johnny doesn’t like a fellow student in high school so he writes on Facebook that he is a “fuck face.” Aside from the obvious lack of maturity, it important for Johnny to know that that comment will be out there until he hits the dirt. I’m guessing sometime in the next few decades, he’s going to wish there was a big delete button in the sky. Trouble is, there isn’t one!

In the heat of the moment, Susie writes a Twitter rant in which she condemns all Republicans to hell and says she has renounced her American citizenship. Three decades later, this same Susie wants to apply for a job at the State Department and is now married to a prominent Republican judge. Whoops! That background check just coughed-up a not so good hair ball.

Virtually everything that is put on the internet is there for eternity. It may not be readily available but any determined person can find it sooner or later. Yes, social media accounts can be “scrubbed.” However, digital traces remain and a good detective can almost always retrieve them.

Moral of the story? THINK BEFORE YOU WRITE!  Remember:

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

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Taking Out The Trash – Italian Style

Okay, so most of you know that I have lived in Italy since 2002. Bene!

Today, I would like to explore taking out the trash – Italian Style! Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Well, read on:

First one must understand that Italy likes to think of itself as a “green country.” They insist on a myriad of environmental laws but see nothing wrong with re-circulating poison from apple growing back into the drinking water supply here in the Val di Non. Let’s call this Italian Logic 101. It sets the stage for the tortuous adventure that awaits all who simply need to take out the trash.

The curbside affair is strange in itself. Garbage must be sorted according to secco (dry) and umido (wet). There is a separate trash can for each. These cans are of about 8 liters so obviously an American would want to fill about 10-15 of them a week. But allora, you are only allowed one of each. (Couldn’t find a head scratching emoji….)

Ah, but the plot thickens. You must recycle every imaginable piece of trash including glass jars, all plastic bottles and containers, cans, plastic packaging and even string. The trash police are watching! I am not kidding; they actually employ police here to check your recycling compliance and to be sure you don’t deposit so much as a Kleenex in a public trash can (of which there are practically none). I once saw a poor female police officer pawing through a public trash container looking for any name or address that would provide a little prova of the culpable act. We in America can only bow our heads and mutter, “Pathetic!”

These recycle items used to be deposited in nearby bidoni (large containers) but the powers that be decided it would be fairer to ask the entire populace, including very old people, to schlep their recyclables to the Centro Raccolta Materiali , a huge public junk yard which lies many miles away. There, under the watchful eye of some babbling idiot from Palermo, you are required to manually sort your recyclables into a myriad of containers: Milk cartons in one, bottles in another, cans in another, etc. Almost always an officious asshole will yell at my wife because she forgot to remove one metal cap from an olive oil bottle. Repeat after me, “Colpa mia, colpa mia, colpa mia!” Scherzi!

I can assure you that a trip to one of these recycle centers is not a picnic. You have to load your passenger car (sorry, I don’t have a tractor) with stinky crap and drive 7 miles with bottles clanking around your passenger compartment. Of course, there is also the stink. You then have to jockey among the rude and restless to do the deed. Occasionally, some impatient maleducato will throw bottles over your head into a bin because they are too lazy to wait their turn at the trough. It is a lovely experience being showered with the contents of who knows what in the Third World.

For this unique privilege, you are charged a mere 150 Euro a year (resident rate – double if you don’t have residency). Please note that I am an ardent supporter of recycling and have been for decades before it became fashionable. It is just in Italy they make it so damned hard to be a good citizen! Why not offer curb-side recycling like any other civilized nation? When I inquired years ago why the bidoni near our house had been removed, I was treated to a typical lame Italian explanation: “The people from the nearby village (that German one) were putting their bottles in our bottle receptacle.” Again, Scherzi!

What can a poor Americano do? I dutifully schlep my crap down the valley to the recycle center, cursing in Italian all the way. My wife? She just tugs on her newly donned rubber gloves like a proctologist and sits silently pissed. This is our weekly routine. In between we must collect this stuff in our cantina. No wonder the plague wiped out most of this country several times!

If you live elsewhere in Italy, maybe you have a better experience with your trash and recyclables. If you live in Napoli, you can just throw it all into the street. If you live in America, count yourself very lucky!

A little light-hearted side note: I often tell my wife that if I croak here due to the stress of all this bureaucracy, just port me to the curb with the umido on Giovedi…. 🙄

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The Right Cheek

The right cheek… Mine has been tweaked more than just a little.

Through the decades (Ten year intervals for you millennials), my right cheek has been grasped and shaken by numerous people. I am still here to tell the tale. Let me elaborate.

When I was just a kid, my grandmother (nonna) used to grab my cheek and say, “Buon ragazzo – you’re a gooda boy!” That’s what Tyrolean grandmothers did back in the day. It was a term of endearment. It was praise by cheek tweaking. I didn’t really know any better so I just accepted it. I was pleased to be praised, although ragazzo sounded like a spaghetti sauce to me at the time.

My other grandmother (mother’s side) used to do the same thing sans the Tyrolean-Italian accent. She liked me immensely and showed it by grasping my right cheek. My efforts in pleasing her were always rewarded in the same flesh grabbing manner. By the age of eight, I was feeling a little bruised but no worse for the wear. I knew that grandmothers were that way and I was okay with it. No harm, no foul save little finger fulls of flesh.

My parents spared me the rod and the cheek. I don’t recall either grabbing or pulling on my face. They had faith in me and believed rightly that I did not need cheek tweaking. I love them still for this simple act of restraint. They believed that der Geist ist willig, aber das Fleisch ist schwach (the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak). I have always appreciated that. My handsome face still does as well.

As I grew up, the right cheek went intermittently unscathed for many years until I was in college. Then the assault resumed. My German teacher took a special interest in me, probably because I was bilingual to start with. She was a large German frau who probably could have played professional football for the Steelers. Again with the hand! She felt that I worked too hard in my studies. (I did!) “Du solltest heiraten und dich niederlassen.” (You should get married and settle down.) She pinched that right cheek so many times with that same phrase that I finally took her advice in desperation and  went off blindly to ask a young girlfriend to marry me. On the way to her workplace, I was told by a friend that she had died of a drug overdose that same day. I pinched my own right cheek hard and cried into the night. Forty years later I learned that the story was just a ruse by a jealous friend and that my old girlfriend was just fine. I retro-filed that one under “super bummer” and moved on.

I went through a sort of cheek hiatus for many years after college. Only occasionally would a date’s mother or female co-worker grab it for dramatic effect. It usually didn’t work. I had acquired a certain amount of cheek immunity. The right cheek healed from years of abuse and I was for many years feeling cheeky. (Can’t believe I threw that in!) The whole tweaking thing was behind me or so I thought.

Married for the second time nearly four decades ago (millennials note: that’s 40 years), I was cheekless in Seattle for many years. (Again, sorry! It was actually Eugene, Oregon.) Then of course, my lovely wife began to grab my right cheek and say things like, “Oh, you poor thing!” I admit I deserved it as I was whining about some trivial transgression from one of society’s dumb masses. Besides she kind of liked the whole pound of flesh idea. It comes with marriage, right? I have now come full circle in life’s great right cheek firmament. Currently I occasionally pull my own cheek just to see if my old skin will still return to its proper place. (👍 It does!)

Now as I approach super-geezerdom, I wonder if when I am gone someone will lean into my face and grab that same cheek one last time? What will be the words? I hope they are, “Una buona vita, ragazzo!”

Note: The photo is of mini-me circa 1952 and my nonna Anna Maria Flor Rizzi.

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Lunedi Senza Parole #171

Indovina dove! Guess where!
Foto © Allen E. Rizzi

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Wikipedia describes Doo-Wop as follows:

Doo-wop is a genre of rhythm and blues music developed in the 1940s by African-American youth, mainly in the large cities of the upper east coast including New York. It features vocal group harmony that carries an engaging melodic line to a simple beat with little or no instrumentation. Lyrics are simple, usually about love, ornamented with nonsense syllables, and often featuring, in the bridge, a melodramatically heartfelt recitative addressed to the beloved. Gaining popularity in the 1950s, doo-wop enjoyed its peak successes in the early 1960s, but continued to influence performers in other genres.

Here’s an example of Doo-Wop with the aforementioned bridge, Little Darlin’ by the Diamonds (1957)

Although the musical style originated in the late 1940s and was wildly popular in the 1950s, the term “doo-wop” itself did not appear in print until 1961, in The Chicago Defender, just as the style’s vogue was nearing its end. Though the name was attributed to radio disc jockey Gus Gossert, he did not accept credit, stating that “doo-wop” was already in use in California to categorize the music.

“Doo-wop” is itself a nonsense expression. In The Delta Rhythm Boys’ 1945 recording, “Just A-Sittin’ And A-Rockin”, it is heard in the backing vocal. It is heard later in The Clovers’ 1953 release “Good Lovin'” (Atlantic Records 1000), and in the chorus of Carlyle Dundee & The Dundees’ 1954 song “Never” (Space Records 201). The first record to use “doo-wop” in the refrain was The Turbans’ 1955 hit, “When You Dance” (Herald Records H-458). The Rainbows embellished the phrase as “do wop de wadda” in their 1955 “Mary Lee” (on Red Robin Records; also a Washington, D.C. regional hit on Pilgrim 703); and in their 1956 national hit, “In the Still of the Night,” The Five Satins enlivened the bridge with a plaintive “doo-wop, doo-wah.”

Here’s the Satins version of In The Still of the Night:

In 1961, Barry Mann released a song that played on the Doo-Wop sound’s success. Along with Gerry Goffin, he co-wrote and recorded Who Put The Bomp. It charted at number seven in the United States. The spoken bridge is a reference to the song Little Darlin’ by the Diamonds. Other parts of the song recall the Marcels’ Blue Moon, Chubby Checker’s Pony Time and The Edsels’ Rma-Lama-Ding-Dong. In the end, it is a sort of salute to Doo-Wop. The song fits into the category of “self-referential” songs.

Over the years, Doo-Wop has come simply to mean any song in the Doo-Wop style. It is in the end a truly American sound that can’t be imitated. Its popularity has never really gone away, as attested to by the countless PBS Doo-Wop television specials. Many of the original Doo-Wop groups still tour and perform. Me? Oh yes, I am a verified Doo-Wop fan. Just ask my wife.

What’s your favorite Doo-Wop song? (One of mine is the obscure Pretty Little Angel Eyes by Curtis Lee ((1961)) backed by the Halos and produced by Phil Spector.)

Another favorite is 1962’s Remember Then by the Earls.

Note: The picture above represents a typical Doo-Wop chord progression in C Major.

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Whiskey Benediction

This week finds me looking at yet another old poem, one that I wrote 50 years ago. Glancing back, I muse on why I wrote it. The reasoning is buried in time but I still pull this one out every so often and give it a read, I invite you to do the same.

Whiskey Benediction

©1972 Allen E. Rizzi

In the damp cold night, I followed Lilly

Into the frosty room where her low lamp burned,

And sat with swelling anticipation

Until the light burnt out.

And then, she removed nature’s cloak,

Lending forth coal hot passion,

Which burnt into my veins

And filled my head with all of love’s desires.

Climbing to passion’s zenith,

The night burnt stronger,

To find me standing

Idly on the highest peak.

The dawn saw dim light fading;

It felt the feeling fleeting;

I gazed at Lilly as though burnt coals,

Consumed in fire, only to grow cold.

As I entered, Virginia was poised

As perfect as spring’s first flower;

As pure as the sun’s first rays

That lit the blessed Mary’s breasts.

And this entirety she has given me:

Purity too blessed for this earth,

Seething sweetness too great for wine

And love of powdered sugar.

Between these two, I stole a lot.

Read my complete anthology of poetry: Prescriptions from the Rhyme Doctor

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Gene Pitney

Gene Piney (February 17, 1940 – April 5, 2006) is a name that many of us remember from the 1960’s.

Signed to the newly formed Musicoe label in 1961, Pitney scored his first chart single, which made the Top 40, the self-penned (I Wanna) Love My Life Away, on which he played several instruments and multi-tracked the vocals. He followed that same year with his first Top 20 single,  Town Without Pity.

Pitney is also remembered for the Burt Bacharach–Hal David song “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance”, which peaked at No. 4 in 1962. Though it shares a title with the John Wayne western, the song was not used in the film because of a publishing dispute. That same year “Only Love Can Break a Heart” became his highest charting song in the US at No. 2, followed in December by “Half Heaven, Half Heartache”, which reached No. 12 on the Billboard chart. Both of these latter two songs were the stuff of my early years in junior high. I learned a lot about carrying long notes from both of these.

Meanwhile, Pitney wrote hits for others, including “He’s a Rebel” for the Crystals, “Today’s Teardrops” for Roy Orbison, “Rubber Ball” for Bobby Vee, and “Hello Mary Lou” for Ricky Nelson. The Crystals’ version of “He’s A Rebel” kept Pitney’s own No. 2 hit “Only Love Can Break a Heart,” his highest-charting single in the U.S., from the top spot, the only time that a writer shut himself (or herself) out of #1.

Due to a publishing conflict, he was unable to receive a writing credit for Bobby Vee’s “Rubber Ball”. The credit goes to Ann Orlowski, his mother, although it’s commonly known that he wrote the song. “Only Love Can Break a Heart”, “If I Didn’t Have a Dime”, “Half Heaven, Half Heartache”, “Mecca”, “It Hurts to be in Love” and “True Love Never Runs Smooth” were all hit records for Gene in the US. I owned all of them at one time.

His popularity in the UK market was ensured by the breakthrough success of “Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa,” a Bacharach and David song, which peaked at No. 5 in Britain at the start of 1964. It was only Pitney’s third single release in the UK to reach the singles chart, and the first to break into the Top Twenty there.

Pitney was touring the UK in the spring of 2006 when his manager found him dead in his hotel room in Cardiff on April 5. An autopsy found the cause of death to be a heart attack and that he had severely occluded coronary arteries. His final show at Cardiff’s St David’s Hall had earned him a standing ovation; he ended with “Town Without Pity.” He was buried at Somers Center Cemetery in Somers, Connecticut.

If you are a 1960’s song enthusiast like me, you are sure to remember Gene Pitney with a great deal of affection.

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