Don, Sleepy, and Gertrude, RIP

Over our many years in the writing obituaries for daily newspapers we noticed that January was the busiest time of the year on the dead beat, as many terminally ill people cling to life through one last holiday season. This young year has already brought obituaries for three very different individuals, and we think passing is worth noting.
The first obituary we noticed was for Don Larsen, who died New Years Day at the age of 90. Larsen was a journeyman baseball pitcher, just good enough to hang on through a journey of 14 seasons in the major leagues with seven teams before arriving at a career record of 81 wins and 91 losses, but he’s well remembered as the only man to ever pitch a perfect game in the World Series.
He’d been been knocked out of the second game of the ’56 Fall Classic in the second inning by a powerhouse Brooklyn Dodgers squad and didn’t expect to get another start, but New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel gave him the ball for game five, and Larsen went out determined to at least do better. He had a full count against future Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese in the first but threw a third strike and retired the side in order, and after that he turned in the most flawless pitching performance ever seen, and on baseball’s biggest stage. Larsen got some help from one of Mickey Mantle’s signature spectacular defensive plays after Dodger great Gil Hodges slammed a likely single to the middle of the outfield, and the legendary Yogi Berra was calling the pitches from behind the plate, but Larsen earned his place in baseball history.
Back in Larsen’s day journeyman pitchers didn’t earn enough to retire to a life of leisure, and he spent of the rest of his working days as a liquor salesman and the a paper company executive. His second marriage lasted 62 years and produced a son and two grandchildren, he got to be in the stands when David Cone pitched a rare regular season perfect game for the Yankees, and he always had that one October afternoon of perfection. This gives hope to all of us journeymen journeying through life, so he’ll be missed, and we hope he’s safe at home.
We were also saddened to read about the passing of Sleepy LaBeef on the day after Christmas at the age of 84. If you don’t know the name that’s because you’re not sufficiently hep to cosmic American music jive, as LaBeef was as rocking and rolling a singer and guitarist as you’re ever likely to hear. His 6-foot-6-inch and 270 pound frame packed a basso profundo voice that could shake a honky-tonk’s roof, and he could do anything with the full-sized hollow body electric guitar that looked like a mandolin in his hands.
Born during the Great Depression in Smackover, Arkansas, as Thomas Paulsey LeBeff, or LeBeouf according to some accounts, he took his stage name from the droopy eyelids he had despite constant coffee drinking and his massive size and burly guitar licks. He grew up playing the black gospel music he loved, but first broke into the music business playing the rockabilly style that was hot in the late ’50s, and despite cutting some classic records for obscure labels he didn’t generate sell a lot of records at a time with the good-looking and hip-shaking Elvis Presley was the big deal. He kept at it long enough that he was around for the big rockabilly revival craze in the ’80s, though, and his Rounder Records releases and live appearances wowed all the aficionados around the world.
One hot August in the ’80s LaBeef played a four-night stand at the Spot Recreation Center, a notorious dive just east of downtown where we liked to hang out, and we were there for every minute of it. The music was as raw and real and rocking and rolling as we could have hoped for, and we got the chance to hang out with the man between sets. He was friendly and funny and turned us on to the gospel great Sister Rosetta Tharpe and all sorts of other fantastic musicians we’d been missing out on, and it saddens us to think of all the great American music that the young folks of today will be missing out on from now on.
The death of Gertrude Himmelfarb at the age of 97 is also worth noting, and perhaps more consequential at the moment. She was best known as the historian who came to the defense of the Victorian era, which had long been much derided for its puritanism and imperialism despite the great advances in social justice and modernization she demonstrated had been made, but she was also an important voice for conservatism in general, and wound up playing a role in America’s victory in the Cold War.
She was born in 1922 in a Jewish ghetto of Brooklyn, with immigrant and Yiddish-speaking parents who had no formal education but ambitions that their daughter would do better, and she became a star student of history and philosophy and economics at Brooklyn. While there she met and fell in love with Irving Kristol, a formidable intellectual in his own right, and they remained married until his death in 2009. Both were Trotskyites during their undergraduate courtship, but both gradually grew to recognize the error of their ways, and became leading voices of the neoconservatism that provided the intellectual underpinnings for President Ronald Reagan’s more aggressive and ultimately successful stance against the Soviet Union.
Back then conservatism was an intellectual movement, led largely by such bona fide intellectuals as Himmelfarb and such Nobel Prize-winning economists as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and such erudite commentators as Bill Buckley and Russel Kirk, and it saddens us to think what the kids are missing out on in an age when low-brow radio blowhards such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and such demagogues as President Donald Trump define conservatism.
It’s a rough start to a year when we could use the likes Larsen, LaBeef and Himmelfarb, but we’ll hope somewhere out there are those ready to step up and take their places in history.

For the Good Times

Ray Price died on Monday, George Jones died last April, and it’s been a bad year for the American culture.
Our more sophisticated readers might not recognize either Price or Jones, as their fame was limited to the working class folks in flyover land who comprise the core audience for country and western music, but they gave voice to an American age whose passing leaves us all poorer. The decline of the American economy can be measured in worker participation rates and per capita income, and our declining international influence is more subjectively measured by the alliances our erstwhile allies are making for a post-American epoch, but the diminution of the American spirit is perhaps best exemplified by the sad comparison between the days of Price and Jones and what’s playing out there now.
After a war-time stint with the United States Marine Corps, Price got his first taste of musical stardom singing on a small town radio station in his native Texas, then went big city with a regular gig on Dallas’ “Big D Jamboree.” After a full decade of honing his craft in the rough honky-tonks of Texas he enjoyed a string of country hits through the ‘50s with such rough honky-tonk standards such as “Release Me,” “Crazy Arms,” and “Heartaches by the Number.” With his crack Cherokee Cowboys band, which at various times included such future stars as Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Bush, Buddy Emmons, Willie Nelson, and Roger Miller, who wrote Price’s hit “Invitation to the Blues,” Price defiantly resisted the smoother “countrypolitan” style and remained popular with his fiddle-and-steel-and-nasality style well into the ‘60s. When he finally relented and went countrypolitan he did so with a vengeance, producing the lushest and smoothest and most string-laden records in Nashville, and he did it well, producing such fine fare as the Kris Kristofferson-penned “For the Good Times” that he even found favor with the old-fashioned pop fans back east. His masterpiece recording was a lush but gritty rendition of “Night Life,” written by his protégé Willie Nelson, which expresses the broken dreams of a honky-tonk denizen so well it requires several beers to be fully appreciated.
George Jones loomed even larger in country music, with his first hits coming in the mid-‘50s and his last playing in the mid-‘90s and hardly a week going by in between with something on the country play lists, but he never came close to a cross-over hit and was largely unknown to anyone who wasn’t a hard-core country fan. His first hits had a raucous rockabilly sound, with the billy overwhelming the rock, and “Why, Baby, Why,” “White Lighnin’,” “The Race Is On,” and other Jones tunes remain standards for any country band wanting to enliven a dance floor. For most of his career he specialized in slower and sadder fare, however, yielding such gems of manic depression as “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Window Up Above,” “The Grand Tour,” “A Good Year for the Roses,” and the saddest song ever written, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” There were occasionally the syrupy Nashville string arrangements, but always a heartfelt workingman’s anguish in the vocals, and an unmistakably genuine connection to his downtrodden audience best heard in his duet with sometime-wife Tammy Wynette on “(We’re Not) The Jet Set.”
Both men were just prominent members of a remarkably rich musical community in their heydays, but both stuck around even as it all gave way to a younger, better-looking generation of performers with more elaborate stagecraft and more effective marketing techniques. Our hometown of Wichita has always been kind to those great performers that the rest of the country tends to forget, and would pack the Cotillion or the Coyote Club or some other mid-sized venue for western swing stars such as The Texas Playboys or Hank Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys, or a Kansas City jazzbo such as “Fiddlin” Claude Williams or Jay McShann, or a seminal rocker such as Sleepy LaBeef or Marvin Rainwater, until they all died off or went into retirement, and Price and Jones were always welcome here. Price was still filling the seats here until old age finally got him off the road, and he never failed to give a show that featured both the honky-tonk and countrypolitan hits despite the strain on his voice. Jones played a show at the venerable Orpheum Theater just months before his death, and although he was fresh out of the hospital and still suffering a respiratory ailment and hoarse throat he gave a memorable performance by using his impending frailty and impending mortality to imbue those drinkin’ and cheatin’ songs with an extra measure of hard-earned melancholy.
Those shows were one of the great things about living in a town like Wichita, and offered an satisfying assurance that our hard-working little city had an authentic artistic sensibility that those snooty cities back east could not duplicate or even comprehend, but they don’t happen so often these days. Country music is still a draw here, and the local paper even had a story recently explaining how only country acts seem to do well at the fancy new downtown that was built on one of those fishy public-private partnerships, but none of it justifies the exorbitant ticket prices or provides the same sense of working class authenticity. There might be good country music out there, but we no longer dredge through all the artificial studio concoctions and video marketing to get to it. The decline is not just in country music but across the American musical spectrum, with everything from Broadway musicals to black inner-city music to suburban garage rock in a similarly sorry state, but the loss of a Price and Jones is especially felt in a town like ours.
We still have the old records, though, and they’ve been getting a lot of play on the turntable today. They might even inspire another age of American greatness, and the good times can linger on.

— Bud Norman