Reprise: Nocturnal Milwaukee jazz DJ Ron Cuzner lives on in musicians’ memories


Milwaukee jazz DJ Ron Cuzner died in March 2003. Courtesy Ron 

I received a number of appreciative comments and memories from musicians who read my remembrance piece on Ron Cuzner for the anniversary of his death on March 29. The response indicates how much he meant to Milwaukee-area musicians, because for over three decades Cuzner promoted and played local artists as much as could be reasonably expected of a radio host trying to present the spectrum of straight ahead jazz. And he helped promote them in a concerts on his program and record store. So here are several intriguing, wistful and amusing recollections of Cuzner.

Perhaps my favorite is this remarkable anecdote by Daron Hagen, a renowned Milwaukee composer and 2012 Guggenheim Fellow who is known especially for his operas, such as “Shining Brow,” based on the most dramatic and tragic period of innovative architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s life. More recently, Daron gained widespread acclaim for his opera “Amelia,” the epic story of a pregnant young woman who In barks on an odyssey to gain understanding about her relationship to Navy pilot father who died in the Vietnam war.

Here is Hagen’s story:

“Cuzner was my partner in insomnia for years growing up in Milwaukee. Will never forget that soothing, knowledgeable voice, or his eclectic, always-superb taste in music. One night, working the register in an all-night “White Hen Pantry” convenience store in Brookfield, I remember, all alone, around four in the morning, freaking out when a crazy-looking dude walked in and began pulling stuff randomly off the shelves. I was playing WFMR. On came Cuzner’s soothing voice. I swear, the guy just dropped everything, sat down in the aisle, and began listening to him. A half hour later, when the police came by for donuts and coffee, he was still there. They asked him to get up and go. He left, peaceably, and smiled at me on the way out.”

Evidently the serenity and sublime energy of “The Dark Side” spoke mysteriously to the potentially dangerous stranger. Back then, and increasingly in retrospect, Cuzner’s somber opening theme song, “Solitude” by Duke Ellington, was a profound and timeless expression of humanity for the forsaken, the troubled or the lonely sorts of people haunting “Nighthawks,” Edward Hopper’s famous painting of sleepless city dwellers in an all-night coffee shop. I believe Cuzner understood all this as well as Ellington or Hopper.


Edward Hopper’s famous 1942 painting “Nighthawks,” from in the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy

And yet, several musicians also cherish Cuzner’s dry and eccentric wit. Although the Racine-born Cuzner was a devoted Chicago Cubs fan, he had slyly subversive attitude towards sports. This emerged in his peculiar way of announcing baseball scores during his required news reports.

He would often say something like, “In sports today, Milwaukee defeated Toronto, New York defeated Boston, St. Louis defeated Cincinnati, Los Angeles defeated San Francisco… and my beloved Chicago Cubs lost to Pittsburgh. The scores were five to one, seven to six, three to two, eight to four and nine to six.” It was up to the listener to figure out the precise connections between the teams and in the scores.

Acclaimed jazz guitarist-educator Jack Grassel, like Hagen, once held a dreary late-night service job that Cuzner helped him endure. Grassel recalls:

“When Cuzner was on the air at WZMF, I had a got a third-shift job as a desk clerk at a sleazy motel on Fond du Lac Avenue.  My job coincidentally had me work every hour that Cuz was on the air. I purchased an FM radio to take to work. So I heard every minute of every show for the entire year that I worked there. That must have been around 1960 or 68.  I had nobody to talk to because I worked alone. So did Ron, so I’d call him up and we’d talk almost every night.  Cuz was into Charles Lloyd that year and played the live Forest Flower album and Planet Earth by Cannonball Adderley often.  Some nights it was funky organ players all night.”

Cuzner was also eager to share his passion and knowledge of jazz with any fan who was interested. On the Ron Cuzner Facebook Page, John Doerge recalls “When Ron ran his jazz store in the early 1990s he gave me this list of basic jazz recordings that everyone should know.”

Doerge poasted a scan of the list Cuzner gave him, with the DJ’s markings on it. It would appear Cuzner used the libray as a set ‘s checklist for his show.

Cuzner basic library

Courtesy John Derge, Facebook page.

There are many other recollections and artifacts about Cuzner on the Facebook page as well as podcasts of his radio broadcasts, organized by Al Jewer.

cuzner signaturei Ron Cuzner signed his name to as many of his thousands of LPs and CDs as possible, Here’s his signature on the Phil Woods album “Roundup.” Courtesy Steve Cohen 

Blues harmonica player, guitarist, singer and scholar Steve Cohen also buys and sells vintage, collectible long-playing albums. “A batch that I recently bought had Ron’s name on the back of the jacket of one of them,” Cohen says. “That was inspiring.” The LP, by alto saxophonist Phil Woods titled “Roundup” (see photo detail), includes Cuzner’s signature on both the front and the back of the album, illustrating his almost obsessive concern with putting his name on as many of his thousands of albums and CDs as possible, perhaps fearing a robbery during the long, nighttime hours of his program “The Dark Side.”

“Also I was on the WAMI ((Wisconsin Area Music Industry) Board of Directors a few years back,” Cohen says. “Through the efforts of the board, we were able to give Ron a Hall of Fame award, just shortly before he passed away. It was very gratifying to see him get some recognition. He was so important to so many of us.”


Remembering Ron Cuzner and jazz on “The Dark Side”


Ron Cuzner (Courtesy

It was eleven years ago today, March 27 of 2003, when my mother called me from Milwaukee and told me Ron Cuzner had died that day, at 64. I was stunned to a Cuzner-like pregnant-pause silence. I had moved to Madison in 1989, so I lost my close connection to Ron in those pre-radio streaming years.

He had done his last Ellington “Solitude” intro, and uttered his last golden catch-phrase.
He and his jazz program The Dark Side had finally moved on to the light. 1

Cuzner was the one-of-a-kind disk jockey who exposed countless nocturnal Milwaukeeans to his beloved music on various radio venues, starting in 1968 with an “underground radio” station (along with WUWM’s Bob Reitman). His longest tenure was at the otherwise-classical music WFMR. Cuzner’s preferred time slot was midnight to sunrise. Yet hardly a vampire, he also emceed high-profile jazz concerts and ran a small jazz record store downtown.

Long-time Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel media critic Duane Dudek deemed him probably “the most singular stylist in Milwaukee radio history,” who “took a slow drawl, meticulous diction and an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz to almost every radio station in the city.” 2

In the darkness, he took his sweet time with you. Cuzner’s on-air silences involved exquisite timing between words or phrases — inserting languid grace into his delivery — the opposite of Top 40 DJ hyper-prattle. And sometimes, after the silence, the concluding phrase would be in a slightly lower, softer register: “With a song…in my heart.” He knew how such a deflation of tone could convey emotion, and sometimes pathos.

This guy from Racine would quote a humbling lyric: “They’re playing songs of love, but not for me.” He faithfully carried the torch for jazz but also another flame, for all the lonely people listening to him. Yes, his music kept him company through all those long, dark nights. But back then, he never knew really who or how many people were actually listening.

So Cuzner surely spent countless nights utterly alone until sunrise, feeling sometimes like the most forsaken bluesman. He likely suffered, at times, a bit of Naked City paranoia. He obsessively marked his name on most of his 10,000 CD cases and discs. His vast LP collection is gone, but his wife Janet donated his CDs to the library of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.

Cuzner’s program migrated almost as often as a restless pied piper, partly because of his dedication to a quintessentially American music that grew up flirting with commercial instincts like an illicit lover. But also radio station managers would simply pull the plug on his show — either a callow son-in-law program manager changing formats willy-nilly, or simply for tiring of Cuzner. But he understood the mercurial, ratings-obsessed radio business.

So, perhaps his style involved some self-preservation, the cool hipster carrying deep loss on his shoulders with effortless style. That announcing style had what some deemed a faintly patrician insouciance, with impeccable yet fluid and mellow diction. Somebody once niftily characterized his delivery as “an English butler who’d had a few martinis.” ( You can access podcasts of many of his shows on ITunes and on the Ron Cuzner Facebook page:

Another priceless bit, audible on the 7-11-99 podcast, is about how his grandmother “used to bake me pies and cookies and things; and she called me Butchie…” That one grew out, no doubt, of one of his signature bits: “I sincerely hope you are warm tonight, and that you are together tonight, and that your cookie jar is filled to the very brim… with the cookies of your choice, of course.”

These sugary bits had very personal resonance and poignancy, because Cuzner was a diabetic, and he died of that condition. Yes, his on-air persona was masterful shtick that grated on some people. But in retrospect, with nothing but recordings of him, the shtick is precious, in the best sense.

In person, he was laid back, soft-spoken, and yet articulate with, I think, a natural ease with diction. Unlike many of us, he took care to say what he meant as precisely and as well as possible, to honor his own thoughts. How many of us bother to do that anymore in conversation, or even when texting? Dwindling attention spans may have to do with human behavior as well as all the technology engulfing over our lives. So Cuzner ended up making a helluva lot of sense when you talked to him. Are there other people out there, who knew Ron or his show, who know what I’m talking about?

Most Cuzner fans likely have some great nocturnal memories of “The Dark Side.” If you were lucky enough not to be alone, how many times did he assist in a seduction, or in rekindled lovemaking?  An indelible memory for me was the night — while half asleep in my bedroom darkness — a thundering and clarion music broke unannounced from my radio speaker. The piano style sounded familiar but I’d never heard it ringing and roaring with such hair-raising authority.

When Cuzner announced the title “Ebony Queen” I learned it was from the new album by McCoy Tyner, Sahara. It was the breakout album of Tyner’s career. After leaving Blue Note Records, he had wood-shedded for several years and signed a new contract with Milestone Records. This was his first album since fully mastering an extraordinarily muscular new technique and expressive concept, bolstered by lightning bolt left-hand bombs, and piston-powered right-hand abandon. A deeply sonorous eloquence now informed his intimate lyricism. Tyner had reach an artistic level commensurate to his former bandleader, John Coltrane. It led to the most successful period of Tyner’s career, and demonstrated how bracing, inspired jazz could have commercial power.

And it was Cuzner who turned me onto this pivotal moment in the music’s history, among others.

He also aired his own critical opinion at times. He once commented on a Down Beat magazine review which referred to pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist George Mraz and trumpeter Lew Soloff as “also-rans.” Then he played a dazzling cut from the recording of the three musicians. At the end, he repeated their names and added, “also-rans, indeed,” his voice dripping with irony. We lived in “Henry’s city,” as he put it, referencing Milwaukee’s long-time and sometimes baronial mayor Henry Maier. But from midnight to dawn, it was Cuzner’s city.

Cuzner city

The dark side of Ron Cuzner’s city. Courtesy

He was a good friend to me and many members of the jazz community, especially the musicians, who often listened to Cuzner coming home from their late-night gigs. 3 We befriended each other when Ron became a customer of mine at Radio Doctors “Soul Shop” on Third and North Avenue, where I was the jazz record buyer. Later, I covered jazz for The Milwaukee Journal. Ron would eventually get me my first radio job, as a DJ at WLUM, when he left that station. 4

Cuzner w musicians

Ron Cuzner conducts an on air pow-wow with Milwaukee jazz musicians. Seated (from left to right) are trombonist Steve Blonien, pianist Ray Tabs, saxophonist Hattush Alexander, bassist Lee Burrows, trumpeter Tom Baker, saxophonist Warren Wiegratz and Cuzner. Courtesy

I’m sure Cuzner had many highs and lows in his great career. But because he was there when we went to sleep, or when we couldn’t sleep — there for our highs and lows — he and his music became good friends for many people who never met him. 5

Ron Cuzner was, in his way, our musical consciousness. One of my personal favorite Cuznerisms was, “Twenty-two minutes after the hour. And the hour, of course …is absolutely inconsequential.” That’s funny, but it also conveys some of Cuzner’s hip, open-minded philosophy and the program’s aura of wee-hours timelessness. For years, many of us fell asleep to Cuzner, so he likely entered the corridors of our dreams, with his jazz infiltrating our alpha waves.

A Keith Jarrett album title sums up Cuzner well: The Melody At Night, With You.

Finally here’s Ron’s own farewell, a recording of his closing to his program each sunrise, accompanied by pianist Don Shirley’s gospel tune “Trilogy.”

Please feel free to add comments or memories of Cuzner and “The Dark Side.”

A shorter version of this article was published March 27, 2003 in


1 Listen here to Cuzner’s trademark show opening, Duke Ellington’s sublime “Solitude” with Cuzner piping up at about 3:30 in.


3 Once while I was listening I heard Cuzner say, “It’s the suggestion of Kevin Lynch that you drive safely tonight. You see, his life could depend on it. A message of safety from Kevin Lynch, and from WFMR, Milwaukee.” (He borrowed many friends’ names for that bit, often after talking to them on the phone.) Then he played something for me, unrequested. It was the title tune from Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds — music a tad more cutting edge than he normally played, but he understood my taste perfectly and nailed it.

4 That first job as a DJ was memorable, especially the night I was on the air when breaking news came over the teletype that Marvin Gaye had been murdered. What an announcement to read on the air! WLUM is an urban station and the studio phone lines lit up like small souls suffering in an earthly purgatory.

5 When Cuzner emceed jazz concerts fans had an opportunity to see the latest of his trademark caps. He even wore one with his swimming trunks when he hosted his pool parties. It was more than vanity to cover his bald head; he was quite fair-skinned, a true nocturnal creature.



And a few more big jazz dates for Jazz Appreciation Month


Bassist Eddie Gomez with the late pianist Bill Evans and producer Helen Keane ca. late 1960s. Courtesy drummer

I must add a few more big name jazz dates for Milwaukee during April, National Jazz Appreciation Month.

After it was recently sold, The Jazz Estate has been in limbo in terms of future jazz events, although new owner Matt Turner had promised they would continue live jazz.
They appear to be doing that with a flourish!
This information is courtesy of trumpeter-bandleader and all-around jazz man-about-town, Jamie Breiwick.
Beside its six nights a week schedule, The Jazz Estate, 2423 N. Murray, Milwaukee, will feature these acts next month, with all shows starting at 9:30 p.m:

April 4: Eddie Gomez Trio. Gomez is the virtuoso and telepathic bassist who served as the longtime foundation of the historic Bill Evans Trio, which defined the art of the piano trio for the modern jazz era. Gomez has also performed with miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan and Benny Goodman. His trio will include pianist Stefan Carlsson and drummer Rodrigo Villanueva. $20 at the door. Reservations accepted at 414-964-9923. Doors open at 8.

April 5 — The Greyhounds. This band from Austin, Texas cooks up classic funk and soul, with a lead vocalist. $10 at the door and available at:

April 11 — Charlie Hunter/Scott Amendola Duo. Seven-string guitar whiz Hunter and drummer Amendola are two-thirds of the ground-breaking jam band-meets-jazz band The Charlie Hunter Trio. This show is nearly sold out. $25 pre-sale and at the door. Doors open at 8. eight. Check the duo out in a live date at Sebastopol:


Correction: Starting time of Brian Lynch Master Class.

My previous blog reported that trumpeter Brian Lynch will be conducting a master class at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, 1584 N. Prospect Ave., starting at 6 PM. I received that incorrect information from the conservatory.

But according to Mark Davis, director of the Conservatory’s Jazz Institute, the master class will run from 7 to 8:30 PM tonight.

It is free and open to the public.

It’s spring and jazz is busting out all over in Milwaukee


The Newport Jazz Festival: Now 60! ensemble includes (foreground, left to right) vocalist-pianist Karrin Allyson, clarinetist-saxophonist Anat Cohen and trumpeter Randy Brecker. They will perform at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield on March 29 in a sold-out show. Courtesy

Up jumped spring and out broke big-time jazz, headed at a fast tempo straight for Milwaukee.
Over the next few weeks, this city will see jazz from Milwaukee-raised Grammy-winning trumpeter Brian Lynch, The Newport Jazz Festival‘s 60th anniversary tour, bebop sax great Charles McPherson, envelope-pushing saxophonist Tony Malaby and a powerful double bill of The David Bixler Quintet with The Manty Ellis Trio.
Furthermore, April is national Jazz Appreciation Month, and info on the vibrant range of local and regional jazz artists performing around town can be accessed on the performance calendar of Milwaukee Jazz Vision:

Milwaukee’s jazz spring will climax at 7:30 April 26 when MacArthur “genius” Fellowship-winning pianist and composer Jason Moran brings his new touring show Fats Waller Dance Party to the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center.

Here’s a closer look at each of these notable events:
Brian Lynch ResidencyWisconsin Conservatory of Music, 1584 N. Prospect Ave. Milwaukee, 414 276-5760 or 459-3455, Wednesday-Friday, March 26-28. Trumpeter Lynch returns to his alma mater for his annual spring residency. His recent recording project Unsung Heroes: A Tribute to Some Underappreciated Trumpet Masters, Volumes 1 and 2 (on Hollistic Musicworks) has garnered wide critical acclaim including on this blog.1 The perpetually resourceful, stylistically rich and melodic trumpeter has bolstered the ensembles of such iconic names as Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Phil Woods, Eddie Palmieri and Toshiko Akiyoshi. Lynch earned the 2006 Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album for his collaboration with Palmieri, The Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Recording Project – Simpatico.

Lynch will conduct a jazz master class at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 26 at the Conservatory, which is free to the public. Then he’ll lead jazz combo workshops with area high school groups March 27 and 28, which are not open to the public.

The Conservatory will sponsor several other upcoming jazz-related events: Orquestra Tumbao, the school’s faculty Latin jazz ensemble will perform at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. at the Lincoln High School Center for the Arts on April 11. A big band will stage “Swing! An Evening in Sinatra Style” with New York-based Frank Sinatra-style vocalist Michael Andrew on April 26 at Alverno College. Finally the crackerjack faculty ensemble We Six will perform with renowned bebop alto saxophonist Charles McPherson on May 1 at the Conservatory.


Jazz clarinetist Anat Cohen. Courtesy

Newport Jazz Festival: Now 60! — Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts, Brookfield. The good (and bad) news is that this concert was sold out almost two weeks before its date, which is March 29. (Tickets are still available for the same Newport line-up Friday March 28 at the Overture Center in Madison That follows on the heels of a near-sellout concert last month in the Wlison Center’s 650-seat Harris Hall by Grammy-winning and perennially poll-topping jazz vocalist Kurt Elling. 2 The touring Newport show honors the legendary jazz festival that had a massive influence on developing jazz audiences and the whole music festival phenomenon. Israeli-born Anat Cohen’s warm, supple clarinet style and forward thinking have pushed her instrument deep into the 21st century of mainstream jazz. Vocalist Karrin Allyson is a historically inquisitive and swinging stylist, and a frequent guest of NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” Five-time Grammy-winning trumpeter Randy Brecker’s historic career includes stints with Blood, Sweat and Tears, Horace Silver, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and co-founding the seminal fusion groups Dreams and The Brecker Brothers with his late, great saxophonist brother Michael Brecker. Randy’s prolific career as a guest artist includes working with James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Parliament/Funkadelic, Frank Sinatra, Steely Dan, and Frank Zappa. Guitarist Mark Whitfield is among the leading current masters of the Charlie Christian/Wes Montgomery/George Benson tradition. With a rhythm section of pianist Peter Martin, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Clarence Penn, this multi-generational ensemble will interpret Armstrong, Ellington, Miles Davis, Latin, Brazilian, fusion and more.


BixlerAlto saxophonist David Bixler. Courtesy

The David Bixler Quintet with The Manty Ellis Trio — The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, 926 E. Center St. Milwaukee. 414-374-4722. 7 p.m. Sunday, March 30. $10, or $5 for students. All ages show. —  New York-based Bixler is the lead alto saxophonist with the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. In smaller groups, he works in a post-cool style, which delivers by artfully calibrating its passions. His alto is influenced by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz. Here’s the Bixler Quintet performing “The Darkness is My Closest Friend”: respected Milwaukee guitarist Manty Ellis led a powerhouse quintet at this venue last winter that showed his blues-cum-Montgomery-and-Coltrane stylings remain very potent. Ellis’ guitar should be the prime focus in this trio set.

Tony Malaby Trio — Sugar Maple, 441 E. Lincoln Ave. Milwaukee, 414-481-2393. 9 p.m. Thursday, April 3. $10 — This Bay View craft beer bar and avant performance space presents saxophonist Tony Malaby with  bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Frank Rosaly. New York-based Tucson native Malaby is significantly influenced by Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. That means his tenor and soprano sax styles encompass a daringly wide range of sonic and textural possibilities, including silence. This reflects the folk art/high art aesthetic of the internationally renowned Chicago creative music organization. Malaby’s auspicious resume includes membership in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band, Mark Helias’ Open Loose, and work with bandleaders Mario Pavone, Tim Berne and Marty Ehrlich. Malaby also recorded with the Fred Hersch Ensemble’s Leaves of Grass, the brilliant and moving 2005 settings of poetry by Walt Whitman, with musical readings by Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry. Malaby’s latest recordings are Tamarindo with bassist William Parker and drummer Nasheet Waits and the large ensemble Tony Malaby’s Novela with arrangements by Kris Davis. For info: Here’s Malaby (saxophonist in colored shirt) with Motian’s Electric Bebop Band performing Thelonious Monk’s “Brilliant Corners” at the Chivas Jazz Festival


Pianist Jason Moran (far right) in a giant Fats Waller bobble head with dancers in a Chicago performance of his Fats Waller Dance Party. Courtesy

Jason Moran and the Fats Waller Dance Party, South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center, 901 15th Ave., South Milwaukee  414-766-5049, 7:30 p.m. April 26. $45-$20 adults, $39-$18 Seniors (60+), $20-$12 students — Jason Moran is one of the most impressive, thoughtful and ingenious musicians in jazz today, qualities which have earned him widespread acclaim including a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship. His influences include Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Andrew Hill. And although he has worked in high-toned multi-arts contexts, Moran is also among the first jazz musicians to incorporate hip-hop into their music, especially on his excellent Blue Note album Same Mother. 
Moran’s last two CDs, TEN and the soulful duo album Hagar’s Daughter with Charles Lloyd, were among the best jazz recordings of their respective years. His current show, in support of an upcoming album of Fats Waller music, evokes the legendary stride pianist-singer-entertainer in his Harlem Renaissance prime.

And yet this show is Waller updated with “rhythms coming out of 1960s-and-beyond dance music: Motown, house, hip-hop,” according to New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff. Bassist-singer Meshell Nedegeocello was part of the original ensemble as were a group of dancers doing swing-style choreography. It’s unclear, beyond Moran’s ensemble, who will make the South Milwaukee show. But the Harlem Renaissance allowed urbane African American arts to flourish, and nobody did it with more flair, wit and virtuosity than Fats Waller. So this figures to be a very special blending of historic and contemporary jazz talents. Here’s a teaser video for the show:



1 The Culture Currents blog post on Brian Lynch’s Unsung Heroes recordings is at

2. Such successful major jazz events — which got virtually no coverage by Milwaukee area print media — demonstrate that there is a healthy jazz audience in the Milwaukee area, and suggest that new communication avenues like blogging and social media are helping the hip word to get out.

Modern pioneers: How Lombardi’s Packers transformed football’s racial culture


Lombardi’s Left Side — Herb Adderley, Dave Robinson and Royce Boyles. Forward by Bill Cosby. $26.98, Ascend Books,

 One foggy day in the early 1980s I walked down to the shore to take in the fresh, heavy atmosphere of Lake Michigan beside the Milwaukee Art Museum and War Memorial.

Then, out of the mist, a tall, agile man came jogging toward me. I quickly recognized the wide-set eyes and high, handsome cheekbones. It was Herb Adderley, probably my greatest athletic hero, like a vision, in the flesh. What struck me as he passed was his gliding, almost balletic lightness of foot, a rhythmic beauty in his stride, the proud bearing of his presence.

I turned and he disappeared, but fixed in my memory. I had always appreciated those physical qualities watching him play in his Hall of Fame career as a defensive back and kick returner for Green Bay Packers. A photo in Lombardi’s Left Side illustrates his artful way of catching long, end-over-end kickoffs – securely in his soft, bare hands rather than gathering it into his chest, so he could get a quicker start.

scan0295The great Packers coach Vince Lombardi had made Adderley the team’s first African-American first-round draft choice in 1961. He royally repaid Lombardi and Packer nation, over and over again. Some, like Pro Football Hall of Fame writer Ray Didinger say “Herb Adderley was the most complete NFL cornerback I ever saw. He could do everything. Some people call my radio show and say Dion Sanders is the best. Dion is in the Hall of Fame and deservedly so, but the next guy he hits will be the first. Herb could cover, hit, run and return kicks.”

Adderley gave important things to America as well. I knew Herb was a superb athlete. Now, after reading the book he has co-written with teammate Dave Robinson – Lombardi’s top draft pick in 1963 — and author Royce Boyles, I know Herb is a great American. He fought for personal and social justice with all the intelligence, skill and tenacity he brought to his job as a prototype “shutdown” cornerback, ball-hawk and dangerous kick returner.


Herb Adderley displays his stunning athleticism with this field goal block. He was startled to realize he had penetrated so far that the ball hit him in the face. The Vikings coach objected that he was offside but apologized the next day when he saw the film.

Yes, it’s a sports book, but Lombardi’s Left Side distinguishes itself as the story of America’s sports culture and general society in the 1960s, and how that echoes down to the present.

I’ve read plenty about that football era, including Dave Mariness’ magisterial biography of Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered. But there may be no book that has better highlighted and clarified the important role Lombardi played in advancing racial equality. I don’t think I’m overstating to suggest that Lombardi had a bit of Martin Luther King Jr. in him, and — tough guy that he was —  perhaps even some of Malcolm X.

Adderley points out that, with his Italian descent, Lombardi would get a deep tan during the team’s late summer training camps and, at least once, experienced racial discrimination. Before a preseason game with the lily-white Redskins in North Carolina, a restaurant refused to seat him with his own blonde wife. When Lombardi told Washington’s acknowledged-racist owner George Marshall of the incident, Marshall laughed at at him, which eventually ended the two team’s longstanding preseason games, after Lombardi began scheduling the games every other year at high school stadiums. Lombardi’s point to Marshall was that racial advancement was more important than revenues — the sort of principled act that amazed and inspired Herb Adderley, he writes.

Lombardi understood the complex tenor of his times, the 1960s. As comedian Bill Cosby, who played on the same Philadelphia high school basketball team as Adderley, writes in his forward, “It happened during a chaotic time in America.” And the book “captures it beautifully.”


I think it’s a great book because there is much pain in that beauty — physical and psychological — especially regarding the ignorance and arrogance of racism, and the abuse of power, by both white and black men.

Coach Lombardi and two convention-defying African-American prize first-round draft choices had the right stuff to expose such societal and institutional flaws, and to work to change them, by example and by direct challenge.

The fast-reading story builds in dramatic tension, first over the course of the Lombardi era yet that saga is well-known, unfolding in the first great pro football dynasty in little Green Bay Wisconsin, population 80,000.

But the book’s edge comes from this story following the tumultuous racial undercurrents of the era. Though not many realized at the time, Lombardi opened the door for racial equality in pro football and the welcoming of diversity — especially towards African-Americans – which greatly increased the quality of play, despite the NFL’s ingrained mentality of white privilege, and several franchises (the Cowboys, Redskins and St. Louis Cardinals) that unflinchingly practiced racist policies, one of which Adderley would butt heads against directly.

Without flinching Lombardi drafted and traded for black football players in ratios as high as or higher than any team in the league, Royce writes. “He was not going to let any issue undermine team unity or keep them from getting excellent players, regardless of color.”

Lombardi’s was the first NFL team with an African-American starting linebacker (Robinson) and his dynastic defense included five great black players who contributed to the high standard of defense that won championships. Three comprised arguably the greatest left-side defense in pro football history — a key to defending against the naturally right-handed tendency of most offenses. These were end Willie Davis, linebacker Robinson and cornerback Adderley. 1 The other starting black defenders on those great teams were free safety Willie Wood, right corner Bob Jeter and right end Lionel Aldridge.

Tellingly the upstart expansion American Football League hired significantly more African-American players, and probably caught up with the senior league faster than many anticipated, because of that factor.

Remember, after the Packers won the first two dominating showdowns between the leagues, the Joe Namath-led New York Jets’ upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III was one of the most startling reversals of destiny pro football had ever seen. The AFC team’s one-two punch at running back was a pair of black players, Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer.  A third outstanding black Jet on that team played like Adderley — left cornerback Johnny Sample who picked off an Earl Morrall pass at the Jets’ 2-yard line in the first half which proved pivotal in the 16-7 Super Bowl victory.

Adderley’s career is studded with highlights, including 48 interceptions, nine touchdowns and an average of 25.7 yards per kickoff return (over 3,000 career kick return yards) and being selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1960s team. His seven interceptions returned for touchdowns was in an NFL record at the time. He also has the same career value by NFL weighted approximate value ranking (106, or tied for 76th place) as Charles Woodson, the greatest Packer defensive back of the Mike McCarthy coaching era.

They were strikingly similar players: tough tacklers who knew how to take a calculated risk for a game-changing play.

Adderley also nabbed the first interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl history, in 1967 against the Oakland Raiders. It was Vince Lombardi’s last game as a Packer coach which was a great loss for not only the team but Adderley. Lombardi’s replacement, over-his-head assistant coach Phil Bengston, alienated much of the team, including Adderley who asked to be traded and was sent — intentionally he says — to racism-infested Dallas in 1969. Though the talented Cowboys fared better than Bengston’s Packers.Adderley went from one bad coach to another. Yes, Cowboy coach Tom Landry is a Texas legend, but he hated Adderley from the start, for being a member of the team that had defeated his Cowboys in consecutive playoff games, including the brain-freezing Ice Bowl in 1967.


How many fans recall Herb Adderley’s interception (here with co-author Dave Robinson), or his fumble recovery in the 1967 Ice Bowl? * Herb’s heroics are frozen in the annals of history by the Ice Bowl’s iconic final drive.

Landry despised Adderley’s fashionable muttonchops and the cool composure that belied the guts to play several seasons with a lacerated bicep. Adderley proved an inspiring leader for the Cowboys, who’d been incapable of “getting over the hump,” and several players, such as star running back Calvin Hill say they never would’ve won their first Super Bowl in 1971 if not for Adderley’s leadership and inspiration.  Cowboy defensive back Mel Renfro  said, after a 38-0 thrashing by The St. Louis Cardinals  “all hell broke loose from inside a number 26 jersey.”

“’What the hell is wrong with you? You guys act like a miserable bunch of losers,’” Adderley told the team. “The whole locker room got a wake-up call. Nobody had ever taken that approach before because Landry was so laid back as far as his emotions were concerned. Herb just tore into us and got our attention. He brought the Lombardi ambiance of ‘no crap.’ ‘Let’s get it done.’ He was very tough-minded.” 3

Green Bay’s ability to win close championship games was the hallmark of Lombardi’s greatness, and in big, tight games the Cowboys played well enough to lose: “they were in need of a heart transplant,” Royce writes.

Page by revealing page, the great Tom Landry shrinks into a very small man. He coached his team as if they were robots required to adhere to his complicated schemes. He ended up perversely benching Adderley — because he was using his intelligence, skills and instincts to make big plays, as Lombardi taught him to. Landry absurdly insisted that players rigidly follow his scheme, even if they gave up a touchdown. The book sheds light on some of the well-known photos of Landry grimacing in disgust after a loss.

Even worse, persistent racism infected the Cowboy clubhouse. On one occasion someone on the squad wrote the word “nigger” on top of the locker room bulletin board listing the NFL rushing leaders. An arrow led from the “n-word” to the name of the person atop the league leaders, the Cowboys’ own Calvin Hill. In another instance, the Cowboys’ former Olympic champion Bob Hayes was referred to as a “coon” in front of the entire team. “He pulled out a bone that looked like a chicken wishbone, referring to the term “coon bone.” Renfro recalls. Boyles notes that controversially slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin’s shooter allegedly referred to him as: a “f—ing coon.”

Adderley puts it bluntly: Tom Landry and Tex Schramm knew what was going on in Dallas and were part of it for not stopping it.”

In another instance, the two team leaders decided to keep a less talented white player and cut a more talented black player. “That racial tactic told me Landry didn’t put his best players on the field because of the color of their skin.” 4

The book’s final section is aptly climactic in its drama. It shows that the story has no race-baiting or politically correct agenda. It exposes African-American Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL Players Association  as exploiting countless retired NFL players for what amounted to personal greed. It took someone is courageous and respected as Adderley to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the league’s retired players to recoup some of the millions being earned by video games, such as popular John Madden game, that used numerous retired players’ names and identities, without a penny of compensation. It’s a sad and heroic chapter in NFL history and another remarkable measure of a man as a transformative hero in the sport, both during and after his playing career.


Dave Robinson (89) displayed his intelligence, size and athleticism in this climactic play of the 1966 NFL championship game, by forcing Cowboy quarterback Don Meredith to throw a game-ending interception in the end zone.

OK, as an Adderley-idolizing would-be cornerback who broke his leg in a 7th grade St. Robert team practice, I admit I haven’t done justice to Dave Robinson’s role in this story. (Full disclosure, a linebacker broke my leg.) Robinson’s huge play to sniff out a roll-out pass and force a championship-clinching Dallas interception might have been the most crucial athletic play of the Lombardi era. However, it is forever overshadowed by the heroics of the final drive of The Ice Bowl.

But Adderley clearly is the star of this eye-opening and deeply gratifying story, and his close friend Robinson seems to concede that.


All photos copyright 2012, Lombardi’s Left Side, by Herb Adderley, Dave Robinson and Royce  Boyles. 

* Your faithful blogger watched the entire Ice Bowl again for this review. Herb Adderley’s greatest play of the game actually ended it. After Bart Starr’s famous quarterback-sneak touchdown, Dallas had several chances to score the winning touchdown. If completed, Don Meredith’s long pass with seven seconds left along the sideline would have stopped the clock in Packer territory and given him a chance to throw into the end zone and win the game. But Herb Adderley soared high into the air and knocked the ball out of bounds. With that, the Packers won an NFL championship for a record third consecutive year.

1 With Robinson’s February induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, all three members of “Lombardi’s left side” are now enshrined in Canton. Adderley’s NFL pick-six record would be surpassed by several players, but interestingly the two career leaders,  Ron Woodson with 12 TD interceptions and ex-Packer Charles Woodson with 11, took 17 and 16 career years respectively to accumulate their totals. Adderley played only 12 years, and in his last year recorded no interceptions while riding the Cowboy bench, due to Tom Landry’s personal animosity toward him and his Lombardi-trained style. (Another ex-Packer, Darren Sharper, ties Woodson’s 11, but took 14 years. Sharper’s recent legal troubles suggest that Lombardi’s rare skill with character building would not be transmitted by osmosis into the Mike Holmgren era.)

3. Herb Adderley, Dave Robinson and Royce Boyles, Lombardi’s Left Side, Ascend Books,  2012 202

4. Ibid. 206











“Real/Surreal” explores the haunted intersection of realist and surrealist American art


American painter Kaye Sage blends symbolic abstraction with a Surrealist dreamscape in “No Passing” from 1954, on display in “Real Surreal.”

Real/Surreal, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St., Madison, WI (608) 257-0158.

Heart-plucking Americana pictorial art, brash Abstract Expressionism, impishly ironic Pop Art and postmodern spin-offs can all make claims as “real American art.”

But is real American art also surreal? That underlying question of Real/Surreal is a good reason to see this show, aside from its fun-house array of conceptual, psychological and artistic pleasures. Many of these artists’ interests parallel psychiatry and psychology –asking one to inwardly question, probe one’s past or self-assurance or – one’s subconscious fears, and dreams.

Curator Rick Axsom set many of the freestanding display panels at odd angles to convey Surrealism’s skewed reality, says MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman. Running through April 27 and organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, the exhibition signifies “the tension and connections between two powerful currents in 20 century art: realism and Surrealism,” Axsom says.

Surrealism dominated European modernist art of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and many Surrealists moved to America and would deeply influence American abstract expressionism’s intuitive spontaneity. But this show represents primarily how Surrealism weirdly adulterated the intent and act of realistic representation, well past WWII.

Federico Castellon’s 1938 painting “The Dark Figure” depicts his own dazed and disembodied head amid a configuration of limbs, and an enigmatic woman engulfed in black, their flesh rendered with a chilling bloodlessness.


Federico Castellón, The Dark Figure, 1938. Oil on canvas. 17 3/8 x 26 1/4 x 1 1/8 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 42.3. Permission courtesy Michael Rosenfeld  Gallery LLC, N.Y. Photography by Sheldan C. Collins 

More intriguing are artists who walk a finer line between realism and the psychological edge. Joe Jones’ Depression-era “American Farm” shows a meager homestead atop a cloud-shrouded hill, which resembles a voracious tidal wave about to devour the farm.

George Tooker superbly calibrates his 1950 tempera “The Subway.” A worried woman stands surrounded by various men — some with undead-like, lidded eyes, others peering anxiously from alcoves, and one man weeps against a wall. Both moving and unsettling, the painting blends fragments of multiple stories, feeling like a metaphor for American societal angst and isolation, even amid many people, a not-uncommon subway experience.


George Tooker, The Subway, 1950. Egg tempera on composition board, 18 1/8 x 36 1/8inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Juliana Force Purchase Award 50.23. Courtesy of the Estate of George Tooker and D.C. Moore Gallery, N.Y. Photography by Sheldan C. Collins. 

Among the most ambitious and thought-provoking works is Henry Koerner’s 1946 “Mirror of Life,” which reflects a post-war scrutiny of reality and its troubled underpinnings. In the foreground, a man peers out of a hotel window revealing his mistress lying nude on a bed, along with a card game beside the bed. Yet he’s compelled to look out over an extraordinary panorama of life that reaches back into time to the Biblical scene of betrayal in the background. Cain kills Abel, both as naked as the philandering observer — wearing only his watch — and his mistress. Koerner’s virtuosic and ambiguous handling of a sprawling scenario defies accusations of heavy-handed moralism, and befits the surrealist tradition of bringing disturbing dreams to life on canvas.


Henry Koerner, Mirror of Life, 1946. Oil on composition board, Overall: 36 x 42 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 48.2. With permission of  Joseph and Joan Koerner. Digital Image © Whitney Museum of American Art.

I left the exhibit with the feeling that this intersection of realist and surrealist insight suggests that we Americans don’t spend enough time in reflective self-examination.

Remember, film noir — deeply laced with mind-twisting psychological scenarios – also took off in the 1950s. You begin to see how attuned to the times American surrealism was, and may remain.

The show includes work by Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Burchfield, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, Andre Kertesz, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy,  Grant Wood, Andrew Wyeth and others. An accompanying show features Wisconsin Surrealists, (including Santos Zingale’s “Triangle Inn No. 1,” below) and a third celebrates MMoCA’s collection of Mexican modernists.


Santos Zingale, Triangle Inn No. 1, 1942. Oil on canvas, 30 x 39 ½ inches. Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Madison Art Association Purchase Award, 1942 Wisconsin Salon of Art. © Santos Zingale Estate. 


“He IS the guitar.” Blues pioneer Michael Bloomfield finally gets his due

Bloomfield head_heart_hands

Michael Bloomfield From His Head to his Heart to his Hands: An Audio/Visual Scrapbook (Columbia Legacy) 

Finally, this extraordinary Chicago-born guitarist is no longer playing the blues in history’s alleyway. Al Kooper — who met Bloomfield when both played on Bob Dylan’s epochal “Like a Rolling Stone” — curates this “” with love and diligence. 1

The four-disc set includes a new DVD documentary film Sweet Blues: A Film about Mike Bloomfield that tells the moving human story of a hot-wired musical genius, with a photographic memory. Hear Bloomfield trip the lights on for the psychedelic era and much of his era that grew from the blues. He seemed ill-suited for stardom by temperament and trait — a scholarly type afflicted with chronic, perhaps bi-polar insomnia, and a pedestrian Joe Blow singing voice.

But what a guitarist! A relentless woodshedder, Bloomfield encompassed myriad moods, and played more blues styles than virtually anyone. His guitar’s searing intensity beamed a pearly, sweet tone that kissed the listener’s ear while electrifying it. He filtered B.B. King through his own voracious sensibility and mensch-like Jewish exuberance. He broke barriers with a prototype racially integrated music group — the brash, churning Paul Butterfield Blues Band — which set rock musicians on their ears.Butterfield

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, on Chicago’s South side, around the time of their eponymous debut album (l-r) Paul Butterfield, Jerome Arnold, Michael Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop, Sam Lay. Courtesy 

You hear the 1966 title tune from their second album, East-West, a magnificently precipitous bridge spanning blues, jazz and Eastern raga. Bloomfield soon formed The Electric Flag, a forerunner of many blues-R&B-jazz horn groups, including the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Bloomfield’s electric picking peaks on the midnight jam Super Session and subsequent live performances; then his band launches Janis Joplin’s solo career. “One Good Man” from Joplin’s first solo album I’ve Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! yearns with the lonesome blues expression both these artists understood deeply. Wherever he went, Bloomfield exuded ideas and passion as unquenchable fire. He followed his talent, vision, historical acuity and his generosity. He did what he wanted to do, but not as a careerist.Blooomfield

Mike Bloomfield “is the guitar,” says Country Joe McDonald. Courtesy

The set’s previously unreleased bookends are his startling 1964 rehearsals for the historic producer John Hammond — and his 1980 live gig with Dylan, three months before he died at age 37. In the 1964 sessions he astounds Hammond (who had discovered Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen and other greats) who, after Michael’s impromptu “Hammond’s Rag” the producer tells him through the studio intercom, “We’ve exploited you enough; I just want you to know I’m signing you.” “Oh!” Bloomfield cries.

But first, he had to play the blues and beyond, with Butterfield for several crucial years. 2 Bloomfield composed the band’s brilliantly conceived and executed 13-minute instrumental “East-West,” which revealed a superb ensemble attunement to a long-form exploratory context. The piece opened up many musicians of Bloomfield’s generation to the possibilities of jazz and world music, yet few extended works from that generation equal East-West in power, imagination or cohesion.

This insomniac suffered mightily through the Butterfield band’s greatly increased touring. So he quit, to form The Electric Flag (“an American music band”) just in time to debut at the historic Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, when Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and others discovered Bloomfield as a live-performance force. In 1964, he and his Butterfield band mates had been the transgressors responsible for Dylan’s notorious “going electric” at the Newport Folk Festival, in effect the birth of folk-rock.Bloomfield Dylan Newport Bob Dylan shocked many listeners at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival by playing with an electric band including Michael Bloomfield (far left) on electric guitar and Bloomfield’s Paul Butterfield Blues Band mates, Sam Lay on drums and Jerome Arnold on bass. Courtesy Sony/Legacy

In Sweet Blues, Country Joe McDonald (famous for his “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” at Woodstock) recalls noticing Bloomfield’s peculiarly intimate relationship to his instrument: “He was like a noodle. It was the way he became at one with his guitar, the way he bent over it, like his fingers melded into the guitar. He’s not playing the guitar, he is the guitar.” But Bloomfield could not hold together the Electric Flag, which was poisoned by excess drug use. After one album with some dynamite performances, they broke up.

Electric flag

The cover of the lone studio album by the genre-crossing “American music band” that Bloomfield led long enough for it to make a stylistic impact that echoes to such current rock-blues-with-horns bands such as The Tedeschi Trucks Band.

Kooper seized the opportunity, wanting to capture Bloomfield unadulterated. He booked a Columbia Records recording studio which would produce the best-selling album Super Session. But this proved also symptomatic of Bloomfield who, after one night’s recording, went sleepless again, simply went home with a note on his hotel bed. Kooper scrambled to find another guitarist to finish the session, and Stephen Stills came through. Bloomfield’s solution for insomnia proved ominous. He took heroin to control his overactive brain, explains Electric Flag singer and long-time friend Nick Gravenites. Here’s Bloomfield wringing the blues out to dry on “Albert’s Shuffle” from Super Session.

Bloom on floor

My favorite photo from the “Super Session” date was of Bloomfield lying on the studio floor, doing everything he could with his body and mind to get the music he wanted out of this Gibson Les Paul. He also did the session barefoot because he was suffering from a very painful ingrown big toenail, aside from this ongoing insomnia. That’s some kind of blues, but even a guy with his quirky sense of humor was probably too embarrassed to write a blues about it. That’s really the blues. Bassist Harvey Brooks offers encouragement. Courtesy luizwoostock.blogspot.coml

But the Kooper-Bloomfield partnership produced some expansive and meaty live recordings afterwards — and enough fleeting hype to get famed Americana artist Norman Rockwell to paint the pair for a live album cover (see below).Bloomfield RockwellNorman Rockwell’s painted cover for “The Live Adventures of Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper.” Courtesy

Among the most character-defining of Bloomfield’s later recordings included here is Bloomfield’s puckish little self-portrait called “I’m Glad I’m Jewish” with a bluesy mock-boast, “you know those Christian girls can’t leave those Jew boys alone.” He understood his gift, and its fundamental and deep human appeal.

The final disc, a DVD of Bob Sarles’ new film Sweet Blues is filled with the precious few film clips of Bloomfield playing and talking, and a litany of testimonials and memories from Dylan (“He was the best guitarist I ever heard.”), B.B. King, Carlos Santana, Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, and Grateful Dead singer-guitarist Bob Weir: “The way he could bend a note and then do a vibrato was way beyond the limits of human ability at that time.”

As a teen, Bloomfield fled to the South Side blues scene and defied his “brute” of a father who called Michael’s guitars “fruit boxes” and would literally smash them to pieces. He poorly understood the gifts of a son who learned to play right-handed guitar despite being left-handed. His son could recall whole pages of books, word for word.

“But the best thing about him he was fearless,” says former Butterfield band mate Elvin Bishop. Yes, that’s what allowed him to dive into his bottomless passion, to go for broke and the musical outer limits.

There’s also telling and touching stories from his brother Alan, his ex-wife Susan Beuhler and his mother Dottie Shinderman, to whom Bloomfield remained very close to his whole life.

The film’s only flaw is not addressing the significance and impact of the composition “East-West,” instead using it as a musical backdrop to that point in the Butterfield Band’s career. As John Coltrane’s great drummer Elvin Jones once said of “East-West” on a Down Beat blindfold test: “Very well done. This has a nice feeling. I’d give that five stars.”

After Bloomfield’s gradual demise in the late 70s, Dylan finally located him in 1980 on a West Coast stop, almost as an intervention. He persuaded Michael to come out and play at his gig. From that concert we hear — on “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” — how Bloomfield almost doesn’t make it out to the stage after Dylan’s long introduction of him.

And then, a few months later, Bloomfield was found mysteriously dead in his car, from a mixture of drugs he didn’t ordinarily use. Al Kooper heard the news and says, “I just played the Super Session record all night long.”

Perhaps he was trying to somehow bring his musical brother back to life. Kooper finally got the real opportunity to conjure Bloomfield, from his head to his heart to his hands.

Bloom grave


* Bloomfield box set photo courtesy Bloomfield grave stone courtesy

In 2011, Rolling Stone magazine declared Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” as number one among “the 500 greatest songs of all time.”: Dylan instructed Bloomfield: “No B.B. King shit” for this song. The guitarist showed great restraint on “Rolling Stone,” mainly playing a rusty-edge rhythm guitar shuffle (He literally had to wipe snow off his guitar, as he showed up with his Fender Telecaster strapped over his back, without a case).

You hear more of Bloomfield’s characteristic blues lacerations on the following tune on Highway 61 Revisited:  “Tombstone Blues.” The guitar highlight of Highway 61 is “Desolation Row,” of course. I’m pretty sure most of the elegant acoustic-guitar filigrees are by Nashville studio ace Charlie McCoy. But it sounds at times like three guitars (including Dylan’s strumming), so I think 22-year-old Bloomfield was adding some fills, and learning on the fly from the master country picker.

Al Kooper’s curatorial choices on the new Bloomfield set are almost flawless although my quibble is his opting for  the breezy medium-tempo “Blues with a Feeling” to the exclusion of “I’ve Got a Mind to Give up Living” (from East-West) — only a half-minute longer in length –  but braced by two of Bloomfield’s most piercingly soulful guitar solos. The latter song was a slow blues which is a strong measure of a blues player, just as a ballad is for a jazzer, because both modes are about quality and depth of expression more than speed chops.

2 Bloomfield signed with Columbia in 1964 but fitfully pursued his career as a leader with the large label. This new set greatly expands on the 1994 Bloomfield CD Don’t Say I Ain’t Your Man: Essential Blues 1964-1969 and Bloomfield: A Retrospective a two-LP anthology from 1983 which never made it to CD. Kooper lobbied for years to produce a set to do Bloomfield justice. This writer did as well, in my very first blog post on in 2012. Sony/Legacy seems to abide by ten-year reissue intervals.

Robert Hilburn’s “Johnny Cash: The Life” feels like a definitive biography


Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn (Little, Brown) $32  679 pages

 The steely quaver in Johnny Cash’s voice seemed to ring out of the blackest, most-bedeviled corner of the male American psyche. It conveyed the resolute self-assurance of a guy you could count on standing up for the little guy — if not for showing up for a concert date. But to know the man’s life story is to understand all the fault lines cracking the foundation of that heroic American voice and vision.

His John Wayne-esque musicality never sounded slight, even for a few goofy if tough-minded songs like “A Boy named Sue,” which became an improbable hit. It tempered his voice’s natural gravity while revealing a slipstream of humor in a man who often suffered miserably through his life.
Cash hauled his deep-bottomed baritone like a riverboat skipper through a sort of upstream river odyssey, which often felt like the challenging stuff of a novelist. Cash found an outlet to trace his sense of humanity’s tragic arc in his pioneering concept albums. These he dedicated to the truth and poetic mythology of America’s varied strains of “huddled masses,” as they dispersed and faced their often harsh destiny.

These albums were a central aspect of an artistic ambition unmatched in country music history. In many circles he would eventually be proclaimed as the greatest artist in the history of the genre, finally surpassing Hank Williams. He would care for other people’s souls much more than his own, while struggling mightily to control the day-to-day impulses that a fast-rising and descending superstar faced with life on the road.

That’s where the wide-ranging pathos and, yes, the juiciness of this biography arises.
Hilburn is frank without indulging voyeurism on a man with a large appetite for life.
He seems to have been through much of it with Cash, albeit with the proper journalistic distance. He is touted as the only journalist to have witnessed Cash’s legendary concert at Folsom Prison (a photo in the book verifies his presence there, actually standing beside Cash.)
So Hilburn manages the delicate balance of opportunity that a posthumous work provides while treading carefully through Cash’s large, extended natural and musical family, and among the profusion of memoirs they produced, along with Cash’s own two autobiographies. In Hilburn’s picaresque scenario, Johnny Cash’s complicated life of drug addiction, unpredictable behavior and infidelity puts a great onus on him as a performer, artist and as a man.

But Lordy, we feel Cash’s own suffering and the travails of those closest to him, especially the four daughters he sired with his first wife Vivian, whose domestic ways perhaps doomed her prospects as a lifelong mate of such a driven and charismatic performing artist. The admiring females came a-callin’, as did the siren song of drugs, to help ease the pressures of the road. He stayed hooked on amphetamines fitfully through much of his career and a number of crazy scenes resulted, including driving his second wife June Carter’s Cadillac into a telephone pole and breaking his nose and knocking out four front teeth. Or accidentally helping ignite a 500-acre National Park forest fire that resulted in 53 dead condors.

Yes, Cash fell down, down, down, into a ring of fire.  But he improbably managed to become the most popular American recording artist of the late ’60s and early ’70s, by the force of artistic will and unshakable human and spiritual values. In 1969, he help Bob Dylan perform a transcendent “Girl from the North Country” on the iconic folk-rock singer’s country album Nashville Skyline. Cash’s Grammy-winning liner notes to the album may be the most poetic evocation of Dylan’s genius ever penned. A sampling of the notes:

This man can rhyme the tick of time
the edge of pain, the what of sane
And comprehend the good in men,
Can feel the hate of fight,
the love of right
And the creep of blight
at the speed of light
The pain of dawn,
the gone of gone
the end of friend,
the end of end… 1

That year, Cash sold more records (6 million)  than anyone had in a year. This would lead to his extraordinarily pioneering television variety show.

What also led to that point was the path he took championing America’s most embattled and forsaken peoples. He’s best known for the often blistering and virtually unprecedented prison albums at Folsom and San Quentin (he’d served jail time for a drug bust in El Paso). In the slightly chaotic San Quentin performance, you get the uncanny feeling that Cash has managed a shift of moral grounding — and that the prisoners have covertly taken over the prison, akin to Melville’s Benito Cereno, and righteously so.

johnny_cash_folsom_prison_10-x600 Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison  in 1968. Courtesy

After those, his most famous humane interest was for the Native American, whom he identified with deeply and realized that their cause had received short shrift during the civil rights movement of the ’60s. The cover of his album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian shows him dressed unironically as an Indian. The various paeans and story-songs include included a savage portrait of General Gorge Custer — then still depicted in school textbooks as a hero — for his slaughter of Native Americans.

Then there’s the unforgettable “Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Hayes was a Pima Indian, one of six Marines in the historic photo of the flag raising on Iwo Jima during World War II, perhaps the most celebrated image of the war. Hayes struggled with all the attention and returned to his native Arizona and tried to lead a normal life. The iconic photo’s fame wouldn’t let him be. He felt unworthy — other soldiers had given their lives in the battle. “He sank deeper into alcoholism was and arrested 52 times for public drunkenness before he was found dead in an abandoned adobe hut,” Hilburn reports.


The LP cover to Cash’s “Bitter Tears,” also reissued as a CD. Photo courtesy 

Cash planned the song as his set’s centerpiece at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, run by George Wein, who founded the celebrated Newport Jazz Festival and was widely admired for artistic integrity more than commercial values.

It was a historic event, with the first appearance of Bob Dylan the festival broke its attendance record with 70,000 paid customers. But the date epitomizes Cash’s challenges and triumphs. His mounting nerves addled by drugs, he missed his plane flight to Rhode Island and was re-scheduled for the end of the festival.

“He didn’t look good. With his drawn face and his unfocused manner, he resembled a man on a wanted poster,” Hilburn recalls.

Nevertheless, “Cash sang (“Ira Hayes”) with a commitment and purpose that transformed his set. It was the moment he had been waiting for. This was his message for Newport. This was who he was and what he believed…’Ira Hayes’ was a revelation for an audience that knew Cash chiefly for his hits.” 2

What Johnny Cash brings to his performance as a singer-songwriter, and as a man living a life he struggled with, makes him so compelling. He seemed to exert no effort to impress with stylistic manner or pretense.  He rarely strayed far from the spare boom-chicka-boom rhythmic groove of his longtime backup band the Tennessee Three. But he knew how to exercise poetic license.

On The Johnny Cash Show he sang “The Man in Black” and explained that he wore the funereal color for all the struggling and bereft humans in America, though some saw this explanation as insincere, as he’d worn black for many years.

It didn’t matter — he made his point brilliantly. That sense of artistic license also meant he set a broad definition of what valuable music constitutes. His TV program bridged the cultural gap between traditional country and the emerging pop counterculture, besides great country artists he also presented Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Derek and the Dominoes, Stevie Wonder, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Linda Ronstadt, Kris Kristofferson and, showing his sense of history, Louis Armstrong, wherein Cash and Satchmo re-created Armstrong’s recording of “Blue Yodel #8” with Cash’s country music role model Jimmie Rogers.

At least one of the daughters inherited much of her father’s gift. So we’re fortunate that Roseanne Cash’s body of work is simpatico and complementary to her father’s. Neither here nor in her wonderful memoir Composed, does as Roseanne let dad off the hook. And yet, we come to know how much he finally redeemed himself in her eyes.


Daughter Roseanne and Johnny Cash, late in his life. Courtesy

Besides personal reconciliation with Roseanne, he spoke to her, and to millions, through extraordinary art, such as the song “Hurt,” one of the high points of the album The Man Comes Around, part of an unlikely ongoing collaboration between Cash and rock producer Rick Rubin which produced several magnificent autumnal career albums. Cash laid claim of a new medium brilliantly with his music video of “Hurt,” a lacerating testament to moral suffering written by Trent Reznor, lead man with Nine Inch Nails.

With wife June — just diagnosed with cancer — looking on, the Grammy-winning “Hurt” depicts Cash shouldering a tremendous burden with a sort of naked grace.

Amid artifacts of a lifetime, Cash sings: “I hurt myself today/to see if I still feel…Everyone I know goes away/ in the end/ and you could have it all/ my Empire of dirt/ I will let you down/ I will make you hurt.”

Here’s the video:

Roseanne saw it this way: “Dad showed me the video in his office at the house and I cried all the way through it. I told him, ‘You have to put it out. It’s so unflinching and brave and that’s what you are.’ I was tremendously proud of him. I thought it was enormously courageous. It was a work of art, excruciatingly truthful. I thought, ‘How could that be wrong in a way?'”  3

Perhaps that is the best way to view Cash’s career and his deeply troubled life. He did most everything, in this story, for the sake of his art, in all its history-laden beauty and excruciating truth.

Hilburn unflinchingly and humanely follows the long, rocky road to its end. And yet, let Kris Kristofferson have the last biographical word, here in his comment in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time. “Johnny Cash was a biblical character. Like some old preacher, one of those dangerous old wild ones. He was like a hero you’d see in a Western. He was a giant. And he never lost that stature.” 4


* Ira Hayes’ story is also dramatized in the Clint Eastwood film Flags of our Fathers.

1. from liner notes by Johnny Cash for the album Nashville Skyline by Bob Dylan, 1969 Columbia Records, reissued 2003 Sony Music Entertainment, Inc.

2.Johnny Cash: The Life, by Robert Hilburn, Little, Brown, 2013. p 260-61

2. Ibid, p. 603