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An American Story Posted - Apr 07, 2021
The first time Arshay Cooper laid his eyes on one of the "long, thin, snazzy white boats" of crew racing was in the gym at Manley Career Academy high school. He thought, "Oh no . . . you ain't gonna get black people rowing down the lake like slaves."

However, with the encouragement of coach Jessica and program sponsor Ken Alpart, Arshay Cooper had a change of heart, and signed up. The decision changed his life, and is the subject of new book, "The Most Beautiful Thing," by Arshay Cooper. Cooper's story is the story of a poor kid from the wrong side of town, who through dedication and hard work, beats the odds and succeeds; indeed, Cooper's story is a decidedly American story.

Before rowing, Cooper's life's prospects were not promising. He was not a good student, not popular in school, and not particularly motivated, other than to become a short-order cook. He lived in a two bedroom house in one of the most economically depressed neighborhoods on Chicago's West Side. His mother was a recovering alcoholic, and his father was seldom home. As much as he resisted the idea of crew racing, he was intrigued by the sales pitch of sponsor Ken Alpart.

"There are no all-black public high school crew teams," Alpart said. "You will be the first. . . . I went to Flower Career Academy, Marshall, and many public schools in the area and they all rejected it, saying this sport wasn't for their students, that it would not work." (note: It was the principal at Manley High School who gave Alpart the green light).

"We are not just trying to give you the opportunity to row," Alpart added. "We want to give you the opportunity to think outside the box, be young entrepreneurs, go to Ivy League colleges, and travel the United States."

"Seems too good to be true," was Cooper's first reaction, but he and seven of his friends signed up anyway to see what it was all about.

What Cooper discovered, was the sport was mostly about training, doing a lot of running, and working to exhaustion on a rowing machine called the erg. While coach Jessica helped them master timing and the proper rowing technique, Cooper and his teammates spent a great deal of time working with Victor, their strength and conditioning coach. Most of them had never been swimmers before and were afraid of water, something coach Jessica helped them overcome by teaching them how to swim. Ken Alpert, meanwhile, taught them about "eating clean"–establishing and maintaining a diet of good nutrition.

That first year was brutal, and about half the students dropped out. But those who stuck it out, were rewarded with a trip to Philadelphia and a visit to the college campus of Pennsylvania University, where they met a number of college students who were themselves rowers. Later that spring they entered their first competition where they started strong, only to crash their boat against the brick wall that lined the water course. They recovered and finished third. "Every one does it," coach Jessica told them. The lesson was clear–they were strong rowers, but not yet working as a team.

In time, they mastered timing, and working as a unit became a formidable team, an experience Cooper describes as "a most beautiful thing."

Still the team suffered a number of setbacks, as various students dropped out of the program, while Victor, their popular strength and conditioning coach, also left the program. Due to his commitment and willingness to work hard, Cooper was made team captain, and was asked to recruit replacements. Meanwhile, a football coach, who was impressed with Cooper's training habits, tried to recruit him to join the football team. By then, Cooper had developed a strong relationship with Ken Alpart, and decided to stick it out with crew racing.

As promised Alpart took the crew team to a number of university campuses and several fine restaurants. He also brought them to his home, introduced them to his wife and young daughter, and exposed them to a number of business opportunities outside the sport. For Cooper, this meant special culinary training and a job at one of the best restaurants in Chicago.

Alpart not only funded the program, but was the glue that held them together, a good listener who took a special interest in each of them.

After working hard over the summer, in the fall Alpart introduced them to their new strength and conditioning coach, a relentless drill instructor named Marc, who quickly earned their respect. Writes Cooper: "Marc is the best coach that we could ever ask for. When we run, he runs farther. When we do push-ups, he does more. When we have study sessions, he corrects us. When we watch rowing videos, he quizzes us, and when he sees physical results, he puts us on the erg machine and he evaluates us. We call him the Marcantor."

It's the Marcantor who coaches Cooper to his first victory, at the Chicago Indoor Rowing competition, where the activity is not on the water, but on the erg machine. The competition is mostly from all-white high schools in the greater Chicago area. Writes Cooper: "Marc tells me that no one here is in my league. You're stronger than any kid I've seen on the erg machine," says Marc. "Remember, you have a right to be here and a right to win. . . ."

"I sit on the erg machine," writes Cooper, "and Marc is right there next to me to coach me. He is more intense than I am . . . I drive back with all the strength I can gather from my legs." Fatigue inevitably sets in. "My arms are giving out. Marc has to push me through the last couple of minutes yelling 'It's the heart and mind from here." After a couple more minutes of intense rowing, Marc yells, "Stop! Look around; everyone else is still rowing."

Cooper wins and is awarded a gold medal, and afterward is interviewed for a story in "Rowing News."

Cooper worked so hard, that a number of people urged him to slow down and enjoy himself. "People always tell me that I'm young and should enjoy being a teenager, but to me it's only temporary fun. Being a teenager is all about fake friends, being broke and a constant battle for popularity."

That spring the Manley Crew Team faces its biggest rowing event, at a high school in upper Michigan. Due to his strong work ethic, Cooper's teammates now call him "Mini-Marc." About the coming race, he says: "I know, without a shadow of a doubt, it is our time. We've given everything this years for today. It is our moment.

"Basketball, football, and baseball couldn't have done what rowing has done to this group. It has taken nonathletic, nerdy, small, broken, and uncool kids and made them a family. Every time we get into the water, we are adding something to it that rowing has never done before . . . When I look at (my teammates), it's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."

The race is a 1,500-meter event with six boats competing. At the start the Manley crew team jump out into an early lead. With 400 meters to go, they have the race won easily. It's at this point that Cooper loses his concentration. It only takes a second, but he turns around to have a look at the other boats and loses his focus. Writes Cooper: "My oar drops in the water a half second too late and it swings toward me as I lose control. The oar flies up and slaps me right below my neck."

In that second, the two closest boats caught and passed them. Cooper grabs his oar and tries to start rowing again, but as he explains, "It's hard to get back in sync again." But he does. Rowing strongly as a team, "We catch the second boat, but I see we are too late–they cross the finish line ahead of us. We finish third.

"I drop my body forward onto my lap and cry . . . I am the leader and I've let everyone down. I took my eye off what was ahead of me and to see what was behind me, and I'm paying for it. Not just me, but my entire team. My actions caused others to fail.

"In this moment, with my face in my lap and my heart in my stomach, I can hear my teammates saying thank you. I look up and the teams that have passed the finish line are giving us head nods and thumbs-up. They are all showing us the upmost respect . . . " Meanwhile, Marc who has been running beside them, stands nearby. "I look over at Marc's face. He doesn't show any signs of disappointment, but I know he is. Any coach would be. The only thing I do see on his face is pride. He's never seen anything like this in all years of rowing.

"We're a group of black kids from the turbulent West Side of Chicago, surrounded by a group of Midwestern white kids all sharing praise and respect in the middle of a lake. We are all honored to be a part of this and rowing has helped us achieve Ken's vision for our lives. He once said win or lose, rowing is the tool you use to fix things. Now I understand that. When I was angry, the erg helped; when I needed peace the water helped, when I needed discipline, the sport helped. Although I feel bad and unworthy of anything right now, I can't help but think a couple of years ago some of us were basically the rejects and outcasts of our communities, but now we are considered the solution. We know who we are."

In the epilogue, Cooper discusses what became of his teammates. Bottom line: they took what they learned from crew racing and made a success of their lives. Says the author: "After high school, I took a year and dedicated my life to full service at AmeriCorps working with young children in my community. I then kicked off my career of being a chef by attending Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago and taking extra classes in Le Cordon Bleu London."

His career in the kitchen of some of the finest restaurants in Chicago, led to becoming the personal chef for movie sets, professional athletes, and private events. After that he started a young chef program teaching public school kids the career path in the field of cooking in hospitality. Rowing was never far from his mind, however, and he soon founded the only New York City public school rowing team at East Side Community School for black and Latino students.

The model and success of the programs made him a highly sought-after motivational speaker and consultant for many rowing programs around the country, as well as in Germany and Spain. Today he lives in Brooklyn, New York with his family.

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One of the wonders of pop music–"MacArthur Park"
Posted - Apr 01, 2021
Jimmy Webb, the son of an Oklahoma Baptist minister, and of limited song-writing experience, moved with his family to Southern California in 1964, and within three years saw his songs topping Top 40 playlist from coast to coast. Such songs as "By the Time I get to Phoenix", "Wichita Lineman", and "Galveston" made a recording star of an obscure country musician named Glen Campbell. Another of his songs, "Up, Up and Away" launched the career of the vocal group the 5th Dimension. At the age of 22, Jimmy Webb found himself being compared with such legendary song writers as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Lennon-McCartney. Nonetheless, many of Webb's songs were initially rejected. Such was the case with "MacArthur Park".

In 1967, Webb was approached by famed record producer Bones Howe to write a pop song for the vocal group The Association, which he produced and happened to be hot at the time. Howe wanted a song similar to a Bach cantata, with different movements and changing time signatures. Webb sat down at his piano and came up with "everything Howe wanted", and so was non-plussed when the producer rejected "MacArthur Park" as too ambitious.

Webb was not one to give up easily. He went around the producer and personally played the song for the Association. However, they too rejected the tune. The song might have been relegated to the dust bin, had Webb not met Irish actor Richard Harris at a fundraiser in East Los Angeles. Webb was there to perform his songs on the piano. Harris, who had just starred as King Arthur in the film "Camelot," in which he sang a number of songs, introduced himself to Webb and suggested the two get together and make a record. Webb didn't think much about it until Harris called and invited him to his London home to audition a number of his songs for an album Harris was planning. As it turned out, Harris rejected every song Webb performed but one–"MacArthur Park." Harris was crazy about it.

Back in L.A. recording dates were set at Armin Steiner's Sound Recorders in Hollywood. Among the studio pros who took part in the two-week sessions were members of the famed Wrecking Crew (pianist Larry Knechtel, drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Joe Osborne, and guitarists Tommy Tedesco and Mike Deasy) along with Webb himself on harpsichord. Strings, woodwinds and brass were overdubbed to enrich the sound.

Harris was so happy with the results that he asked Webb to write more songs for his album. Entitled "A Tramp Shining", the album was completed in January 1968, and released that Spring, along with the single, "MacArthur Park." As Webb and Harris had hoped, the single was an immediate sensation. In the U.S. the song peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100, while topping the record charts in Europe and in Australia. Best of all, the song had lasting power, and was recorded by a number of singers, including country singer Waylon Jennings, whose version topped the country-and-western charts in 1969; and disco diva Donna Summers, whose revved up disco version topped the easy listening charts in 1978. In 1980, Frank Sinatra recorded a stripped-down version of "MacArthur Park" for his best-selling album, "Trilogy."

At seven-and-half minutes, Harris' version was unusually long for a major pop hit. About the song, Jimmy Webb told Newsweek Magazine in 2014 that like so many of the songs he composed in the late 1960s it was mostly about his relationship with then-girlfriend Susie Horton:

"Everything in the song was visible. There's nothing in it that's fabricated.
The old men playing checkers by the trees, the cake that was left out in the rain, all of the things that are talked about in the song are things I actually saw. And so it's a kind of musical collage of this whole love affair that kind of went down in (L.A.'s) MacArthur Park . . . Back then, I was kind of like an emotional machine, like whatever was going on inside me would bubble out of the piano and onto paper."

Final note: Webb and Horton remained friends, even after their breakup (the subject of "By the time I get to Phoenix") and her marriage to another man. However, for Webb, Susie Horton surely served as his muse, because without her he never wrote another number-one hit song.

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Lincoln's symphony
Posted - Mar 27, 2021
It was Russian author Leo Tolstoy who said it: Lincoln's "peculiar moral powers and greatness of character made him to government what Beethoven was to music."

That being the case, Lincoln's "house divided" speech was his "Eroica" Symphony, a precedent shattering statement that alerted America to a new force in politics.

The Emancipation Proclamation is his "Fidelio", a non-operatic unchaining of the shackles and a celebration of freedom.

The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln's quintessential work, is his Fifth Symphony. "Four score and seven years ago" is as memorable in government as the four-note opening motif of the Fifth is in symphonic music.

Finally, the Second Inaugural Address is Lincoln's Ninth Symphony, his most substantial creation, which pulls together the great issues of Lincoln's public life: slavery, the union, freedom. His plea to "bind up the nation's wounds" to "achieve a just and lasting peace" echoes the spirit of Beethoven's chorus singing, "All men become brothers."

For Lincoln, the Second Inaugural Address' "deep music" stilled the waters he had stirred seven years earlier when he told Illinois Republicans: "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I do not believe this nation can permanently endure half-slave and half-free."

In the speech that began his second term in office, Lincoln saw the divided house as becoming whole again.

(note, in writing this piece, I am indebted to an article by attorney Richard Rothschild.)

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One of the Wonders of Pop Music – the making of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'"
Posted - Mar 20, 2021
Record producer Phil Spector was not a singer, nor a songwriter, but he was an exceptional judge of talent. In 1963, he saw the Righteous Brothers perform at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, and immediately wanted to make a record with them. Known as the blue-eyed brothers of soul, the Righteous Brothers were a duo, comprised of Bill Medley (bass-baritone) and Bobby Hatfield (tenor). As a duo, their contrasting vocal ranges resulted in a distinctive bluesy sound, that attracted a large contingent of African-Americans.


After a particular performance in El Centro, California, a black U.S. Marine in the audience shouted, "That was righteous, brothers!", and at shows thereafter greeted them with "Hey righteous brothers, how you doin'?" The name stuck, and not long after they began billing themselves as "The Righteous Brothers."

It was their distinctive vocal sound that attracted Phil Spector. Up to this time, Spector had worked almost exclusively with black singers. To record the Righteous Brothers, Spector needed a song that would showcase their distinctive vocal style.

As he had in the past, Spector turned to the Brill Building in New York City for a song, specifically to the songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. He wanted them nearby, and invited the pair to come to Los Angeles and stay at the luxurious Chateau Marmont hotel, to write the song.

The pair decided to write a ballad. Mann wrote the melody first, and came up with the opening line, "You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss you lips." Working very quickly, Mann and Weil then wrote the first two verses, including the chorus line, and then became stuck. They asked Spector for help with writing the bridge. Spector sat at his piano and began playing a riff from "Hang On Sloopy", and from that minor inspiration they composed the bridge.

With that done, Mann and Weil finished the song. Then they played it for the Righteous Brothers. They agreed the song was a potential hit, but felt it did not suit their more upbeat rhythm and blues style. Recalls Bill Medley: "We thought, 'Wow, what a good song . . . for the Everly Brothers'". With some retooling the song–which was originally written in the higher key of F Major–was recast in the lower key of C Sharp Major to better accommodate Medley's deep baritone voice. That and slowing down the song's tempo, "changed the whole vibe of the song", according to Medley.

When learning that Medley would sing the first verse alone, Bobby Hatfield expressed annoyance that he would have to wait until the chorus before joining in. When he asked Spector just what he was supposed to do during Medley's solo, Spector replied cheekily, "You can go directly to the bank!"

Recording dates were set, and with members of the famed "Wrecking Crew" (specifically, Don Randi on piano, Tommy Tedesco and Barney Kessel on guitar, Carol Kaye and Ray Pohlman on bass, and Earl Palmer on drums) the instrumental tracks were recorded first. After that a horn section was added (two trumpets, two trombones, and three saxophones).

To record the vocals, Spector turned to Gold Star Studios in West Los Angeles, famous for its echo chamber. It didn't come easy. Bill Medley sang the opening verse over and over again until Spector was satisfied. The process was then repeated with the next verse. In all, recording the vocals took over 39 takes and around eight hours over a period of two days.

After the vocals, a string arrangement by Jack Nitzsche was then recorded and overdubbed. Reverb was applied to further deepen the sound. During the mix, Bill Medley added yet another lead vocal track. According to music critic Robert Palmer, the effect of Spector's technique was to create a sound that was "deliberately blurry, atmospheric, and of course huge; Wagnerian rock 'n' roll with all the trimmings" (a.k.a., Phil Spector's famed "Wall of Sound").

The recorded song was slow, and a half tone lower than what Mann and Weil had composed. When Mann heard the finished record over the phone, he thought that it had been mistakenly played at 33 1/3 instead of 45 rpm, and told Spector, "Phil, you have it on the wrong speed!"

At four minutes in length, the song was unusually long, by a full minute over what most top-40 radios were playing at time. Undaunted, Spector asked his record label to list the playing time at 3:05.

Bill Medley admitted later: "We had no idea (the record) would be a hit. It was too slow, too long, and was released in the middle of The Beatles and British Invasion." Meanwhile, the record company shipped vinyl copies to record stores across the country, while Spector nervously awaited the verdict of the marketplace. He had spent out of his own pocket something like $35,000 on productions costs alone, a huge gamble for an independent record producer. "I didn't sleep for a week when that record came out," he said.

As it turned out, Spector had no reason to worry. The song debuted on Billboard's Hot 100 on December 12, 1964, and by February 6, 1965 topped the charts.

To this day the song remains highly popular on the radio; according to the performing-rights organization Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), it became the most-played song of all time on American radio in 1997 with over 7 million airplays, overtaking the Beatles' "Yesterday". At the end of 1999, the song was ranked by BMI as the most-played song of the 20th century, having been broadcast more than 8 million times on American radio and television, and it remains the most-played song ever, having accumulated almost 15 million airplays in the US by 2011.

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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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