Friday, March 12, 2010

"I Once Hugged A Blind Guy"

During the early seventies, I was working on a ninety-minute talk-variety show in Canada. We taped a hundred episodes in three months, shooting two shows a night, three nights a week. The show rarely offered an “A-List” roster of guests. Case in point: On ten of our hundred episodes, one of the performers on the show was me.

(This isn’t about that, though if you’re interested in the type of stuff I did, you can check out “Interview With A Giraffe” on this very blog. The material actually works better on the page, since I look nothing like a giraffe in person, which kind of messes up the effect.)

As one of the show’s writers, my job involved pre-interviewing the guests, so the host would know what talk to them about on the air, and to write introductions for the performers. Being entirely inexperienced in this type of writing, every introduction I wrote ended with, “Will you welcome please…” until the producer got mad, and I began alternating it with “Please welcome…”

Due to the inferior status level of our program – and this always felt odd to me, and even a little creepy – our talent list included almost exclusively, the children of famous entertainers. Not the performers we knew and loved, but their less well known, and sometimes considerably less gifted, offspring.

We had, not Frank Sinatra, but Frank Sinatra Jr. Not Tyrone Power – which would have been weird, because by that time, he was dead – but his daughter, Romena. Not the immortal Nat “King” Cole, but his daughter, Natalie. Later, Natalie got bigger – which would guarantee that we wouldn’t have gotten her – but back then, she was still just a famous person’s daughter.

Our show also featured second tier comedians, like London Lee, whose comedic “hook” was that, instead of growing up poor like many comedians of the day, London Lee was very wealthy. Or at least, in keeping with “guest motif” of the show, his father was. Apparently, London Lee’s dad made his fortune as a slum landlord, because his first joke began: “The people in my father’s building were so poor…” An acquired taste. We’ll leave it at that.

Now we get to my story. Another cohort of our show’s guests were major talents whose hey-days of popularity were now behind them. I remember meeting Robert Alda, (Alan Alda’s father. It went both ways on our show. We got the parent, or the kid. We never got “the guy.”) Robert Alda had worked in a Marx Brothers movie (After forty years, he still seethed about the Marx Brothers. “Unprofessional.”) He later starred on Broadway in the classic musical, Guys and Dolls.

Our show was also honored by the appearance of the great nightclub entertainer, Billy Daniels. I recall Daniels walking into our production offices and asking, “What’s goin’ on?” Our producer said, “We’re looking for talent.” To which Daniels self-deprecatingly replied, “You’re gettin’ close.”

And then there was Al Hibbler.

I didn’t know much about Hibbler, except for two things. His signature number – his biggest hit, and the song he’d being performing on the show – was “Unchained Melody.”

The other thing I knew about Al Hibbler was that he was blind.

They had saved him for closing. And here’s how it went.

A bar stool stands in the middle of an otherwise empty stage. His assistant escorts Hibbler over to the stool. Hibbler slides himself up. An assistant director hands him a hand microphone. They both leave the stage. And there he is.

A man, alone, singing the song that made him famous.

“Unchained Melody.” A heart-shattering ballad.

Ask any singer. Slow songs are the hardest to perform. Unlike with a fast song, you can’t just get carried along, your delivery protected by the driving rhythm. Singing a slow song, you have to fill every moment, with a steady voice, and emotion-filled meaning.

Hibbler delivers the song exquisitely. Sure, as his “money” song, he’s sung it a thousand times. But that’s not always a plus. When you perform a song a lot, there’s the risk of “throwing it away”, meaning, like, “I’ve done this a thousand times. Who cares about this time?”

Hibbler doesn’t do that. He delivers the song as if his career was on the line, and his mother was watching. It’s like he’s singing it for the first time. He doesn’t rush. He doesn’t force the emotion. He just sits on that stool, squeezing every ounce of feeling out of each word and musical phrase. I stand behind the cameras, dumbstruck. I am watching an artist, hitting it out of the park.

He finishes the song. The studio audience erupts. The director “cuts” the cameras, the taping is over. But the audience continues to roar.

And that’s when I did it.

Impulsively, I race onto the stage and throw my arms around Al Hibbler, accompanying my embrace with a tearful, “That was beautiful.”

I don’t know what got into me. I’m not normally a demonstrative person. I just had to go. Not for a second considering the consequences.

I mean, be Al Hibbler. You’re blind, you just finished performing, and, suddenly, out of nowhere, some stranger has his arms wrapped around you. That’s got to be startling, don’t you think?

The man could have justifiably lashed out. I wouldn’t have blamed him. Also, you know, I had no idea what Al Hibbler was like. He could have been a mean, blind guy. Who knew how to protect himself. He could have really hurt me.

I didn’t consider any of that. I couldn’t help myself. I was enchanted by the moment.

Fortunately, it was okay. Hibbler’s response to my appreciative assault?

A chuckling “Heh, heh, heh.”

There’s this phrase I use when I’ve witnessed a superior accomplishment. And not just for the things I know about; it could be ballet, or painting, or a sumptuously prepared meal. You can sense excellence. And when I’m in its presence, I invariably say the same thing:

“I like it when it’s good.”

Sometimes, I get carried away.


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Max Clarke said...

Unchained Melody is one of the greatest songs ever, it's a great sign of your own humanity, Earl, that you hugged him.

I heard Unchained Melody as a child, but it never registered, it was just a background sound to my own development.

THEN, 25 or 30 years later, a woman from Canada, probably somebody you never heard of, a singer who came and went without comment, sang the song on an album of hers, Fast Horses Run Free.

The singer was Joni Mitchell, which invalidates everything I joked about. She's maybe the finest poet/songwriter of my generation. I put her up with Bob Dylan. If she only did Blue, or Court 'n' Spark, or For The Roses, any one of those albums, she would be a legend.

Anyway, Earl, Joni did a song about A Chinese Cafe on her Fast Horses album. It starts as one song, but it closes with Unchained Melody.

This amazed me, finally I had a connection to a song I heard as a child but never remembered by name or artist, just a feeling for the song.

From there, I had the chance to see a black and white movie a year later, "Unchained," which was about a prison in California which used an innovative program to rehabilitate the inmates. It featured a man in a cell singing the song, Unchained Melody.

Anyway, you did exactly the right thing hugging the blind man. I would have done the same thing.

Brian Scully said...

Hey, Earl, did your show ever have "Monti Rock the Third" on? I actually remember him from "The Tonight Show" and he would have been a notch below London Lee.

A. Buck Short said...

And yet, he never saw it coming....

Unchained has got to be the least known picture scored by the song's composer Alex North. But it still may be at least my favorite Crazylegs Hirsch movie of all time.

ALICE said...

I'm a writer in London and I read about your blog in Variety. I really like your writing - keep up the good work!

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