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A Subjective Discography of Nat King Cole's Best Posted - Oct 22, 2020
The following is a short list of Nat King Cole's best albums (in my opinion, that is). Had I had the foresight, this subjective discography would have concluded my book review of "Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole"


One of two great swing albums by Nat Cole, arranged by brass specialist Billy May (the second is "Let's Face the Music!", released in 1964). The band is the same stringless/reedless ensemble May employed to make his groundbreaking "Big Fat Brass." You want swing with zing? This is it. Even the ballades swing! The tunes are mostly from the great American songbook, which Cole swings with deceptive ease ("When Your Lover Has Gone", "A Cottage For Sale", "Don't Get Around Much Anymore", "These Foolish Things", etc.), plus three bonus cuts: the hard swinging "Day In-Day Out", "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter", and "Something Makes Me Want to Dance", which is what you'll want to do after listening to this upbeat masterpiece.

(2) LOVE IS THE THING (1957)

An album of firsts: Cole's first of four collaborations with stringmaster Gordon Jenkins; Cole's first album to be certified gold; and Cole's first album recorded in stereo. It's also the album that introduced the world to Cole's sublime, definitive "Stardust." Indeed, "Stardust" woulda-coulda-shoulda been the title of this album of romantic ballads (apparently, Cole nixed the idea). Recorded in late 1956, the album introduces a number of songs that, ironically, would go on to become hits for other singers, including "At Last", a big hit for Etta James, in 1960; "Love Letters", ditto for Ketty Lester in 1962, and "It's All in the Game", which would chart big in 1958 for Tommy Edwards. Another song, "When Sunny Gets Blue", was recorded by Johnny Mathis around the same time as Cole's version, but Mathis's record label had the foresight to release the song as a single, which went number-one in 1957. If you're going to purchase one Nat King Cole CD–this is it.

(3) ST. LOUIS BLUES (1963)

For all intents and purposes, "St. Louis Blues" is the last Nat Cole/Nelson Riddle album, and, by most accounts, their greatest achievement. The album was originally conceived as the soundtrack for a movie of the same name, which starred Nat Cole, as songwriter W.C. Handley, the self-styled "Father of the Blues". Alas, the movie is mostly forgotten, while the album lives on in the digital age.

What W.C. Handy did was take the rootsie Mississippi Delta blues and retool into what jazz critic Will Friedwald calls "a modern, mid-century blues, a highly refined jazz kind of blues." Cole and Riddle accentuate the transformation with a jazzy, big band accompaniment, resulting in a peerless collection of Handy's blues classics sung with heart and intelligence by Nat King Cole.

The album opens with an Aaron Copland-sounding overture entitled "Love Theme", composed not by Handy but by Riddle. This flows seamlessly into the first vocal track, "Hesitating Blues". Standout cuts include "Harlem Blues", "Stay", "Memphis Blues", "Morning Star", and, my favorite, the exuberant "Joe Turner Blues." Famed jazz trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison is heard throughout the set, adding tasteful flourishes on his horn that adorn Riddle's engaging brass-and-string arrangements.

"St. Louis Blues" as conceived by Cole/Riddle, reminds me of what Ray Charles did in 1962 with "Modern Sounds of Country and Western Music", which is to reimagine a niche genre (rustic blues) and transform it into something grand and universally appealing.


Recorded in January 1960, and not released until after Cole's untimely death, "Nat King Cole at the Sands", is sheer exuberance set to music. Cole's joy in performing before a live audience is evident from the start, beginning with "Ballerina", that sounds almost identical to his earlier studio recording. "Funny (Not Much)", a song Cole would record in 1961, is again very much like the studio version. New to the Cole repertoire are a number of standards: "The Continental", "I Wish You Love", "You Leave Me Breathless", "Thou Swell", and "My Kind of Love" all of which Cole delivers with charm and faultless diction. Special attention is reserved for "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top", with its tongue-twister lyrics that Cole sings with precision and panache. "Where or When" is recast for piano, thus allowing Cole (the consummate musician) to express his musical ideals on the keys. Very special. "Miss Otis Regrets (She's Unable to Lunch Today)", a Cole Porter tune, is too clever for its own good, and loses its welcome after one listening. The standout cut is the closer, the rollicking "Joe Turner Blues" by W.C. Handley, which Cole delivers with particular relish and joy. What makes this set highly worthwhile is the band, which cooks throughout.


This is the definitive collection of Nat King Cole's greatest hits, from his early days as pianist/arranger/singer of the King Cole Trio, to his middle years as a standup pop singer working with the best song arrangers in the business (Nelson Riddle, Billy May, and Gordon Jenkins), to his last years working with journeyman arranger Ralph Carmichael. All of the classic Cole hits are here, in pristine digital sound, beginning with his most notable songs with the Trio: "Straighten Up and Fly Right", "It's Only a Paper Moon", "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66" and "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons", to his breakout hits as a pop singer ("Nature Boy", "Too Young", "Send for Me", "A Blossom Fell") to his signature songs ("Unforgettable", "Mona Lisa" and "Stardust"), to his last big hits ("Ramblin' Rose" and "L.O.V.E."). Included are two songs he recorded in a foreign language ("Quizas, Quizas, Quizas" and "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup"). Also included are a number of swing tunes he was famous for ("Almost Like Being in Love", "Let's Face the Music and Dance" and "Just One of Those Things"). Plus some upbeat blues numbers that were minor hits ("Orange Colored Sky" and "Walkin' My Baby Back Home"). Of particular note are three songs, while not hits, were fan favorites ("You Stepped Out of a Dream", "Let There Be Love", and "Smile"). There's no chaff in this marvelous sampling of Cole's best; just 28 great songs by one of the greatest singers of 20th century pop music.

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Book Review: "Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole"
Posted - Sep 20, 2020
The key to understanding the musical career of Nat King Cole is that he, like most great artists–Picasso and Bob Dylan come to mind–realized that the key to staying fresh was not to stand still but to be always changing, and so forever growing as a musician. Cole began by performing jazz piano, then moved on to be-bop, and rhythm and blues, then quite by accident to stand-up vocalist, in both jazz and pop. Once he became America's favorite pop balladeer, he changed again, by recording world music (French, Spanish and Portuguese songs), big band jazz, gospel, and finally, near the end of his career, country and western, all the while retaining his huge fan base, and selling millions of records. Music critic Will Friedwald covers it all with clarity and great wit in his monumental Cole biography, "Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole".

(Note: Cole's song "Straighten Up and Fly Right" is based on a black folk legend that Cole's father–a Baptist preacher–once used in a sermon. It was the first song Cole recorded for Capital Records in the early 1940s, and became his first number one hit).

Nathaniel Adams Coles (he dropped the "s" from his last name when he became a bandleader) was born in 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, the second of four sons of a Baptist preacher, who, four years later, moved his family to Chicago. The Coles settled in Bronzeville, Chicago's largest black community, where young Nathaniel studied piano with their mother, a church organist, and in due time became a professional musician, as did all three of his brothers.

At the time the Coles' family moved to the Windy City, the south side of Chicago, where the Coles settled, was the epicenter of jazz in the time of Prohibition. As young Nathanial was beginning to master the piano, he became aware of one of the all-time great jazz pianists–Earl Hines. Hines was not only a great jazz pianist, he was also a bandleader. As a result, Nat Cole decided he not only wanted to master Hines' brilliant piano technique, but to model his career on Hines-the-bandleader. (Cole decided very early on, that he could never be a sideman; he had to be the leader of whatever ensemble he was playing in. "I kind of thrive on responsibility," he told journalist Edward R. Murrow in 1957).

In September 1933, Nat Cole, now fourteen, entered Wendell Phillips Academy High School. It was there that his musical dreams began to take shape. As fate would have it, Wendell Phillips Academy was the perfect place for a young musician as gifted as Cole to be attending. (Besides Cole, students who graduated and went on to fame, included Herbie Hancock, Sam Cooke and Dinah Washington.) The Academy's music director was a stern task master named Walter Henri Dyert, who made certain that his students were well versed in the musical rudiments, including being first-rate chart "readers." By his sophomore year, Cole could not only read music as well as any classical or studio musician, but also he was an ace improvisor, with a gift for devising ingenious "head arrangements" on the spot.

By the age of 15, Cole was performing every night in small jazz clubs around the South Side, and somehow also making it to classes in the morning. For most of the 1933-34 school year, he also was working regularly as a sideman around the city. (Years later, asked how he managed to get his studies done, Cole confessed, "Well, I guess it didn't get done").

Around this time Cole befriended journalist/promoter Malcolm B. Smith. He encouraged Cole to put together an eight-piece jazz band, and hired them to perform before other teenagers on Sunday afternoons at Warwick Hall, on Chicago's South Side. Smith was a master promoter with lots of connections in the print media, and by working all the angles managed to get Cole's photo in a number of newspapers and trade magazines. Cole's first band was a smash success, and soon an article and photo appeared in a magazine, proclaiming Cole as "the leader of one of the hottest bands in the Midwest." It wasn't long after that, and the Nat Cole Orchestra expanded to ten pieces, with Cole writing all the arrangements and conducting from the piano, with a male vocalist named Arthur Hicks as the front man.

When Cole began his second year of high school, he was already a professional musician, as confirmed by his membership in the local union. After fluctuating between "Coles" and "Cole" for a few years, he now settled on "Cole" as his permanent professional last name, with his ten-piece band now billed as "Nat Cole and his Royal Dukes."

After finishing high school, the next step for Nat Cole and his Royal Dukes was to go on the road, with an extended tour throughout the upper midwest, and finally out to Los Angeles There, despite enthusiastic sellout crowds, the tour stalled, due to a lack of funds. Apparently, someone absconded the ticket receipts, and as a result management could no longer pay salaries or expenses. The band dispersed and Cole found himself without a job.

At the time, all the great jazz clubs were centered in West Los Angeles, and the owner of one of them (the Swanee Inn, at 133 North Le Brea Avenue), Bob Lewis, invited Cole to put together a small group, and perform at his establishment. Cole, who had just turned 18, got together with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince, and in September of 1937, began performing nightly at the Swanee Inn, as the original edition of the King Cole Trio. The rest as they say is history. Within three years, after performing in venues throughout greater Los Angeles, the small combo would sign its first record contract, and hit the airways with their first smash hit, "Straighten Up and Fly Right."

The idea of a trio was quite unique at the time. Full-time jazz combos were rare in the '30s–jazz and pop music would be dominated by big bands for another decade to come. How to explain the trio's success? Foremost, Cole's talent at the keyboard was such that whatever band he performed in would have created a sensation, and Moore and Prince were exceptional musicians. However, the absence of a drummer gave the trio's sound a unique, clean texture that allowed Cole and his sidemen to toss around musical ideas with carefree abandon. All that was missing was the element of contrast, and Cole supplied that when he began singing with the group.

Why did Cole decide to sing? Years later, he explained: "When I organized the King Cole Trio back in 1937, we were strictly what you would call an instrumental group. To break the monotony, I would sing things I had known over the years. I wasn't trying to give it any special treatment, just singing. I noticed thereafter people started requesting more singing, and it was just one of things."

By now, Cole had added a touch of the blues to his robust Earl Hines' jazz stylings. Writes the author: "At twenty, Cole (was) already one of the finest blues pianists in history: few of the piano giants he revered could touch him as far as the blues were concerned, not (Art) Tatum, not (Teddy) Wilson, not (Fats) Waller, and not even his original idol, Earl Hines. . . . "

In addition to recording prolifically (mostly instrumentals), the trio made frequent guest appearances on radio, eventually starring in their own weekly radio show on NBC, "King Cole Trio Time." They followed up their number one hit, with a Christmas tune, that also topped the charts, "The Christmas Song", composed by fellow jazz musician Mel Tormé. This time, their producer added four violins and a harp to sweeten their sound.

There followed a string of hits using the same formula, of utilizing strings to sweeten the trio's sound: "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons", "What'll I do?", "Nature Boy" and "Lost April".

The result led Cole, his manager, and his colleagues at Capitol Records to begin thinking of him not as a singer-pianist, but as a stand-up vocalist who played piano on the side. With this in mind, the executives at Capitol began pairing Cole with arrangers who could further bolster his commercial sound.

The first was an unknown arranger named Nelson Riddle who at the time was ghost-arranging for band leader Les Baxter. As a result two of Cole's biggest early hits ("Mona Lisa" and "Too Young") list Les Baxter as arranger. In time, Cole became aware that the actual arranger behind his number-one hits was not Les Baxter but a shy, former trombonist for the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, named Nelson Riddle. By the time Cole recorded what would become his signature song –"Unforgettable", the record label correctly identified Nelson Riddle as arranger.

The Trio's days were numbered, however, which distressed their legion of loyal fans. While Cole continued to perform in jazz clubs with the trio, the name was changed from the "King Cole Trio" to "Nat King Cole and His Trio." However, when television beckoned, Cole would perform without the trio, as a stand-up vocalist. For Cole, who always thought of himself as an entertainer first, and as a musician second, the change made sense. Indeed, he saw it as another way of staying fresh. However, he never gave up on the trio, and would resurrect it from time to time, especially for pure jazz albums, such as "After Midnight." For more mainstream and hard-swinging jazz albums and singles, Cole began working with brass band specialist Billy May.

How did Cole, who began his career as a bandleader and arranger, manage to take a back seat to other musicians arranging his music? Exceptionally well. Writes the author: "Cole had started his career leading a big band in Chicago, for which he wrote all the arrangements, thus, in later years, rather like Quincy Jones, he didn't need to write all of his orchestral arrangements, but it was his own ability as an arranger that allowed him to work with such giants of pop music orchestrators as Nelson Riddle, Billy May, and Gordon Jenkins. . . ."

His experience as a songwriter, coupled with his ability as an arranger and singer, enabled Cole to find songs the public would love. As a result, he introduced more new standards into the public domain than anyone in the business. "Working in clubs for years, I learned that you have to reach audiences . . . you have to get across the footlights to the crowd. If you don't–you're sunk." (picking good songs, and selling them as a vocalist, was part of the deal).

According to the author, "that partially explains why Cole is so closely identified with individual songs–and had so many hit singles–whereas (by comparison) Frank Sinatra was better suited, in the long run, to create his masterpieces in the album format. Cole could put over a song and make his point in three minutes; Sinatra did better when he could put a story together point by point . . . ."

As singers, both Cole and Sinatra were known for their perfect diction and faultless phrasing, which served them well singing American standards. However, Cole went a step farther by adding French, Spanish and Portuguese songs to his repertoire. His friend, Sammy Davis Jr., used to kid him about his diction on Spanish and French songs. "He learned the songs phonetically, and they sure sound it," remembers Davis, who was taught Spanish by his mother. "But when I went to South America, everybody asked me, 'Why don't you sing in Spanish like Nat?' I stopped teasing him."

In 1956, Cole and arranger Gordon Jenkins made what was perhaps Coles' masterpiece, a collections of heart-felt ballads entitled "Love is the Thing." It was Coles' first million-seller. However, Cole being Cole, rather than repeat himself, moved on to other genres. His next album, in which he resurrected the trio for a hard-core jazz fest, was "After Midnight" After that he worked with Billy May and his band of studio pros, on a high-octane jazz album, entitled "Just One of Those Things." He followed this with "Cole Español", the first of three all Spanish albums he would make. Then, paired with Nelson Riddle, he recorded an album of blues standards entitled "St. Louis Blues". After that he finally got around to making a follow up to "Love is the Thing", entitled "The Very Thought of You." Despite the changes, his fans continued to buy his records. Indeed, thanks to world sales, "Cole Español" was one of his biggest money-makers.

Among Cole's most enduring classics, is his account of "Stardust," a song, ironically enough, he did not want to record. It was Cole's producer and friend, Lee Gillette, who insisted he do it. "I hate to sing 'Stardust,' Cole said at the time, "it wears me out." However, Gillette was insistent. "When we got to choosing the material and came to 'Stardust', and Nat looked at me and he said, 'You gotta be out of your mind! Me, do 'Stardust'?! It's got to have a thousand recordings!' I said, 'Yeah, but we don't have one by Nat Cole.' So we finally got that settled, and got the key set, I said 'Now Nat, there's one other thing . . .' and he said, 'Oh no, I'm not doing the verse!' I said, 'You've got to do the verse.' Well we argued for an hour or so on that. I finally convinced him to do the verse."

Although the tentative title of the album was "Love is the Thing," at one point they considered calling the album "Stardust," and, according to the author, that's what it says on Capitol's recording sheets. But apparently Cole was still unconvinced, even after they made the first take, and it seemed to be apparent to everyone but the singer that this was a "Stardust" for the ages. (Indeed, after hearing Cole's version, Sinatra stepped away from recording his version).

A year after recording "Stardust", Cole sang the song on his own TV show, which aired on NBC. The show had the ratings but, alas, not the sponsorship to keep it on the air. At the end of the first year, NBC reluctantly dropped The Nat King Cole show.

Cole was a lifelong smoker, which, unfortunately, caught up with him in middle age. After recording his 28th album for Capitol Records (entitled, "L.O.V.E."), Nat Cole died February 15, 1965, age 45.

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Book review: "His truth is marching on, John Lewis and the power of hope"
Posted - Sep 17, 2020
The first thing you need to know about John Lewis is that he always wanted to be a preacher. The second thing you need to know is that the goal of the 1960's Civil Rights movement–of which Lewis was a key player–was for African Americans to achieve equality before the law, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and that included the right to vote. The author of this book, Jon Meacham, is a Pulitzer-Prize winning writer, who has produced a number of best-selling books, notably "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power", "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House", and, more recently "The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels." His prose style is graceful and easy to comprehend; at 249 pages his book on John Lewis has religious overtones, that strikes me as a labor love.

John Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, on a small farm outside Troy, Alabama, the third of ten children. His parents were dirt-poor sharecroppers wed to the unforgiving red clay of Pike County, Alabama. Early on Lewis discovered that he hated the hardscrabble life of his parents; picking cotton was backbreaking work, that generated barely enough money for the family to live on. At the age of five, Lewis decided he wanted to be a preacher, and began by preaching to the chickens in the backyard.

Segregation so embraced Alabama at the time, that by the age of six, Lewis had seen only two white people in his life. As he grew older, he began taking trips into town with his family, where he saw first-hand that being black in the Jim Crow south, was a shameful thing to be, and incredibly unfair; that segregation kept him from attending the best schools, and his parents from shopping in the best stores.

When he was 11, an uncle took Lewis to Buffalo, New York, a trip that opened his eyes, and made him acutely aware of the evils of the South's Jim Crow laws. "Segregation was dehumanizing, demoralizing, depressing–and of course that was its purpose," recalled a college friend of Lewis's. "To John and many people obeying the rules of segregation was agreeing that we were lesser people."

Meanwhile, Lewis learned about Rosa Parks, a black woman in Montgomery, Alabama. One day, on her way home from work, Ms. Parks refused to yield her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery city bus. She was summarily arrested, and later with the guidance of Dr. Martin Luther King and the NAACP, she spear-headed a protest among Montgomery's black community to boycott public transportation, a boycott designed to hurt the Montgomery bus line where it counted most–in the pocketbook, as 75 percent of the bus riders were African Americans. Instead of using public buses, she urged them to find another source of transportation. Some walked to work, while others formed car pools, and some took taxis (the price of a taxi ride was roughly equal to the cost of taking the bus). The boycott lasted one year–from December 1, 1955 to December 21, 1956–before the city backed down and agreed to integrate their bus service.

After graduating from high school, Lewis attended American Baptist Theological Seminary (ABT) in Nashville, Tennessee, in pursuit of his dream of becoming a preacher. However, having seen the results of the bus strike, and having heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak on the radio, encouraged Lewis to forsake his dream of being a preacher, and instead to pursue a new dream of ending segregation in the South, by joining the Civil Rights Movement. His fellow students at ABT chided him about his change of plan: "You're supposed to preach about how to get to heaven, not on how to change history."

In pursuit of his new dream, Lewis began attending a workshop held in the basement of the United Methodist Church in Nashville, conducted by civil rights leader James Lawson. The subject was the merits of non-violent resistance as a means of changing segregation laws. As with so many leaders of the Civil Rights movement, Lawson was a well-spoken and well-educated Christian minister. A native of Ohio, he was educated at prestigious Baldwin-Wallace College, and Boston University. After graduation, he was imprisoned for refusing to register for the military draft during the Korean War, and spent thirteen months behind bars. After his release, he traveled to India as a Christian missionary. While there he learned about the nonviolent example of Mahatma Gandhi, who had used passive resistance to help liberate India from British Rule. As a pacifist, the idea appealed greatly to Lawson.

Lawson was furthering his studies at Ohio's Oberlin College, where by chance he met Dr. Martin Luther King, who was impressed with Lawson's advanced studies in nonviolent protests. King urged him to move to the South. "Don't wait," King said. "Come now. You're badly needed. We don't have anyone like you."

Lawson heeded King's words and moved to Nashville about the time Lewis was finishing up his sophomore year at ABT. "Jim came south, almost like a missionary," Lewis recalled. "A nonviolent teacher, a warrior, to spread the good news."

The "good news" was a hybrid of the New Testament Gospels, and of Gandhi. "It was the Sermon on the Mount, rather than a doctrine of passive resistance, that initially inspired the Negroes of Montgomery to dignified social action," Dr. King recalled. "It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love . . . As the days unfolded, however, the inspiration of Gandhi began to exert its influence. I had come to see early that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom . . . Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method."

Meanwhile, at his workshop in Nashville, Lawson was training many of the future leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, of which John Lewis was one. Lewis was a quiet but diligent student. He didn't speak often, but when he did, it was with a conviction that surprised his fellow students, and got their attention. As Lawson remembers it: "Lewis grabbed the ideas, and the ideas grabbed him. He was gentle but extremely strong."

It wasn't long and Dr. King heard about "the boy from Troy," as Lewis was known at the time. As a result, Lewis now had two mentors: Lawson and Dr. King. Writes the author: "King and Lawson gave Lewis an intellectual framework, but Lewis's motivation was by all accounts innate." Lawson's workshops gave Lewis armor for the missions he was to seek. "It changed my life forever, set me on a path, committed to the way of peace, to the way of love, and I have not looked back since," Lewis recalled later.

"Hate is too heavy a burden to bear," says Lewis. "If you start hating people, you have to decide who you are going to hate tomorrow, who you are going to hate next week." As Lewis saw it, the anecdote was love: "Just love everybody."

Besides the Gospels and Mahatma Gandhi, the Lawson workshop studied the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, Mo Ti, Lao-tsu, and Henry David Thoreau. Of particular interest was Thoreau's 1849 essay, "Civil Disobedience", with a special emphasis on the following text: "Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we succeed, or shall we transgress them at once?" Why, he asked, do governments "always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?" In the essay's closing lines, Thoreau asks, "Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvident possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly."

Armed with the lessons of nonviolent protest, Lewis and his companions set their sight on their first encounter with entrenched segregation. The place was the lunch counter at a Woolworth's department store in Nashville. Going in, Lewis and his compatriots were warned that a group of white thugs was nearby waiting to harass them. This news did not phase them in the least. Dressed in their Sunday best, they respectfully and unobtrusively entered the store, sat at the counter, and ordered lunch. The waitress advised them they were sitting in the "whites only" section, refused them service, and asked them to leave. They didn't budge. Soon, the white thugs arrived with their taunts and threats. "Go home, nigger!" they shouted. "Go back to Africa!"

The white thugs wanted a fight, but they weren't getting the kind of fight they understood. "What's the matter? You chicken?" they said, as Lewis and his friends remained silent and refused to react. After that the violence began: Lewis was hit in the ribs and knocked to the floor. There was pulling, punching, and jabbing; some burned the students with lit cigarettes–both on their backs and in their hair, while others poured water and hot coffee on their heads. Soon thereafter the police arrived and arrested them for "disturbing the peace."

Meanwhile, in other college towns across the Deep South, similar lunchtime protests with similar white violence, was occurring, as part of a coordinated effort to bring national attention to unjust Jim Crow laws. And national attention it got in newspapers and in magazines across the land, so much so that local elected officials put the blame on Northerners who were invading the South "to stir up unrest among Negroes."

Bruised and in jail though he was, Lewis was elated. "Now I knew," he recalled. "Now I had crossed over, I had stepped through the door into total unquestioning commitment. This was not just about that moment or that day. This was about forever. It was like deliverance. I had, as they say in Christian circles when a person accepts Jesus Christ into his heart, come home. But this was not Jesus I had come home to. It was purity and utter certainty of the nonviolent path."

The "freedom rides" were yet another attempt to expose the evils of segregation, in this case national bus lines that, upon entering the Southern states, reverted to segregating passengers, similar to what the Montgomery city bus line had done in 1955–with whites seated up front, and blacks seated in the rear. Lewis and his colleagues protested the practice by riding the bus lines and, upon entering the South, refused to move to the back of the bus. The risks were considerably greater than the sit-ins at lunch counters, as the buses were sometimes stopped in the countryside between cities, and away from national scrutiny. In one case, the Ku Klux Klan stopped a bus, and prepared to burn it, with the protestors still inside. While a few suffered burns, no one died, as occupants escaped through broken windows and fled. Fortunately, a TV crew filmed the crisis and the image made the nightly news.

John Lewis led so many demonstrations, and was arrested so often, that he became nationally known, so much so that when, in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr., organized a protest on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Lewis was among the featured speakers. Afterwards, he and the others were invited to meet President Kennedy in the White House. However, talk of legislation to put an end to segregation, never got past the talking stage, as Kennedy feared losing southern support in the next presidential election.

That changed, after Kennedy's assassination, and Lyndon Johnson became president. In 1965, Lewis led a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. As scheduled, the march was to begin in Selma and conclude at the state capital in Montgomery, as an appeal to change the restrictive (to Negroes) voting laws of that state. As it turned out the focal point was the horrific violence reigned down on the marches after they had crossed the bridge. "We were silent," recalls Lewis. "Just six-hundred of us walking in quite persistence." They were attacked by horse-mounted police, with billy clubs, lead pipes, rocks, bricks, and attack dogs, to no avail. "To me, it felt like a holy march . . . I had made peace with the understanding that if I died on that bridge, I would have offered my life in a contribution to an effort that was larger than myself."

Lyndon Johnson was so put off by the images from Selma broadcast on the evening news, that he was determined to pass legislation to end Jim Crow once and for all. The following Monday evening, March 15, 1965, Johnson delivered a televised speech drafted by his speechwriter, Richard Goodwin. The text drew deeply on religious themes. "The biblical imagery is part of the American tradition no matter what your personal beliefs are," said Goodwin. "The Old Testament, the New Testament, it is woven into who we are. Christian, Jew, or whatever. Religious metaphors and religious language form a kind of common bond in America–you can think of it either in a literal or literary terms . . . Most Americans believe there is a higher power at work, whether they call it God or not, and I was trying to frame the civil rights question in terms of what was right, what was just, what was fair–and that was to me at least, and certainly to Johnson, is partly religious."

Johnson's speech: "I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in this cause. At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama . . .

Further on, Johnson said: "There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are here tonight as Americans–not as Democrats or Republicans–we are here as Americans to solve this problem . . . This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: 'All men are created equal' – 'government by consent of the governed'–'give me liberty or give me death.' Well, those are not just clever words or those are not just empty theories. . . .Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex . . . But about this there can and should be no argument – Every American citizen must have the right to vote . . . What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life . . .

"Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice . . . And we shall overcome."

Lewis and King watched he address together on TV, and wept for joy. Civil rights legislation followed, which included the Voting Rights Act, which in a bipartisan vote passed both houses of Congress without delay. The day Johnson signed the Act into law, Lewis was present. It had taken six hard and often painful years, but he had fulfilled his mission, and the South and millions of African Americans would be the better for it.

Still, rough waters lay ahead; in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and in cities across the nation, riots and burning broke out. It was heartbreaking for Lewis, but he saw it as a temporary setback (more about that later).

On a personal and happier note, later that year, Lewis met the love of his life, Lillian Miles. The two were married before Christmas, in 1968. Martin Luther King Sr. performed the ceremony, in Atlanta's Ebenzer Church.

The question was what was Lewis to do with the rest of his life? In the seventies, he accepted a position in the Carter Administration. In a 1981 election, he won an at-large seat on the Atlanta City Council, and served in that capacity until 1986. After that he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives, for the 5th district in the state of Georgia, and won. Lewis served for 31 years, from 1988 until his death in 2020. About serving in Congress, Lewis said: "(It was) a step down a very long road. The results were harder to see, but the work goes on. When people say, and they sometimes do, that things aren't better now than they were in the sixties, I say, 'Come and walk in my shoes.' We are a better people now in spite of everything. In the final analysis, we're good, we're decent. Yes, we still have miles to go, but that's what a journey is . . . "

"The journey begins with faith–faith in the dignity and worth of every human being. That is an idea with roots in Scripture and in the canon of America, in Genesis and in the Declaration of Independence. . . ."

Lewis's years in Congress were not overtly remarkable as his years in the movement, but nonetheless his was an unusual House career. He was arrested fives times as a member of Congress–twice at the embassy of South Africa to protest apartheid, twice at the embassy of Sudan to protest the genocide in Darfur, and once at the U.S. Capitol to call for immigration reform.

He didn't attend the inauguration of President George W. Bush out of protest for how the 1980 presidential election was settled by the Supreme Court ("Bush v. Gore" had stopped a recount in Florida, giving Bush the presidency over Al Gore, who won the national popular vote). Yet, Lewis then worked with both President Bush and Laura Bush as part of a long effort to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Washington Mall.

Late in his life, Lewis said of his earlier life as a protestor: "There is a power of the mind to believe and think on the higher drama of it, the higher things of it, the light, not the dark. We truly believed that we were on God's side, and in spite of everything–the beatings, the bombings, the burnings–God's truth would prevail . . ."

"We've come too far, we've made too much progress as a people, to stand still or to slip back . . . you have to believe it. It's all going to work out."

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Abraham Lincoln: three movies/three reviews
Posted - Sep 05, 2020

"Not much to look at, nothin' to see . . . " That would be Abraham Lincoln. And while he never spoke these exact words (they're from a popular song, "She's Funny That Way") they pretty much summarize Lincoln's view of himself–as a country bumpkin whose hair wouldn't stay combed, and whose clothes rarely fit him. That's the Abe Lincoln who emerges in "Abe Lincoln of Illinois" played to perfection by veteran stage actor Raymond Massey (who bears a striking facial resemblance to Lincoln). As Lincoln, the Canadian actor assumes a backwoods accent that sounds completely convincing when he describes himself as, "a plain common sucker with a shirttail so short I can't sit on it." The movie follows Lincoln's years as a resident of Illinois, up to his election as our nation's 16th president.

The movie begins with Lincoln's formative years in the rustic town of New Salem, Illinois, where he takes up the study of law, falls in love with Anne Rutledge (who was destined to die young), fails as a businessman, and runs successfully for a seat in the state legislature; to his years in Springfield, where he practices law, woos and marries Mary Todd, runs unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate (losing to Stephen Douglas), and attracts national attention in the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates, that in 1860 leads to his nomination as the Republican party's candidate for the U.S. presidency.

Despite his woeful appearance and self-deprecating humor, Lincoln was a self-educated man of exceptional intellectual gifts; this is the Lincoln who emerges in "Abe Lincoln of Illinois", a charismatic leader who, despite appearances, was a brilliant thinker and politician. This is brought into sharp focus in a single 10-minute scene (that summarizes the six Lincoln-Douglas debates), where Lincoln makes a compelling case for the abolition of slavery, and concludes with these immortal words, "a house divided against itself, cannot stand."

The winds of civil war are blowing in the closing scene, where a saddened, sobered Lincoln bids his neighbors goodbye, and boards a train bound for Washington D.C.

Based on Robert E. Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Abe Lincoln of Illinois" the movie stands as a prequel to "Lincoln," Stephen Spielberg's 2013 movie starring another Lincoln look-alike, Daniel Day-Lewis.


Lovingly directed by John Ford, "Young Mr. Lincoln" is more a character study than a carefully plotted Hollywood motion picture. Indeed the movie is something of a think-piece. It's beautifully photographed, and captures the pioneering spirit that dominated Lincoln's early years in New Salem, Illinois. The perfectly cast Henry Fonda reveals Lincoln as a modest man, and a thinker, who reads books, and enjoys the company of his rustic, rough-and-tumble friends. Highlights include Lincoln facing down a lynch mob, a telling scene in which he quotes the Bible to quell their hostility ("Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be obtain mercy" [Mathew 5: 7]); Fonda delivers the lines with appropriate modestly and under-stated conviction. The other big scene shows Lincoln the lawyer in action, as a persuasive speaker to a jury of peers. On the surface, the case appears hopelessly lost, his clients (two brothers) are faced with being hanged for a murder they did not commit, until Lincoln realizes the testimony of their accuser (played by veteran actor, Ward Bond) has a flaw; his testimony is based on the fact that a full moon was out the night of the murder thus enabling him to clearly identify the killer. Lincoln then checks in the Farmer's Almanac and learns the moon was not out that night. Exposed to the truth, Bond admits that, yes, he and not the brothers is responsible for killing the victim.

A young Milburn Stone, who would go on the play Doc in the hit TV series "Gun Smoke" makes an appealing if under used Stephen Douglas. Accompanying the DVD are two essays: one about Mr. Fonda, and the making of "Young Mr. Lincoln", the second about John Ford and his films. If you are an admirer of Abraham Lincoln, or of the classic films of John Ford, this DVD is for you.

In 2003, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

LINCOLN (2013)

Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is as much about passage of the Thirteenth Amendment as it is about our 16th president. This is a good thing, as there’s nothing quite like conflict to reveal character, and Abraham Lincoln was a man of infinite character. He was not a flatterer, neither was he moved by flattery. He was passionate, honest, plain-spoken, and while every inch a politician, he never stooped to pettiness, jealousy, or grandstanding. As historian Alistair Cooke once observed (and the movie illustrates perfectly), “Abraham Lincoln had an extraordinary feel for the humanity of quite inhumane people and tolerated them long enough to get what he wanted from them—contractors, war profiteers, wheeler-dealers, the scum of the republic. He dignified the trade of politician like few men before or since.”

In this time of covid and poisonous political rhetoric, these three movies reveal a brighter and more assuring side of American politics and politicians, that will uplift your spirits.

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Work of My Sons

Morning Softly - Water Echoes Movement
-Released in 2014. Bill made guitar riffs and synth tracks at home, got Lya Finston to write some lyrics and sing, and got Scott to provide some bass.

Morning Softly - Early Eerie Feeling
-Recorded in 2014. Songs written by Bill, at home. Synthesizers were added later. Some drumming done by Brendan Lenihan.

Scott Nisley - Brick City Skies
-Released in 2014. With his piano melodies and vocals, Scott entrusted the production of his album to several studio musicians.

The 45's - Roof-Hopping
-Recorded in 2010. A collaborative effort between Scott and Bill Nisley, Adam Sherman, and Zach Belka.

Oh, Yeah...

Richard Nisley's Brothers in Cars
Thanksgiving Day, 1967. From L to R: my brothers David, Charles, and Rob. Photo by John Nisley.
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