April 2011 Archives

The Wall Street Journal previewed this week a new production by the New York City Ballet of the 1933 Kurt Weill morality play "The Seven Deadly Sins," featuring dancer Wendy Whelan and Broadway star Patti LuPone in a split-personality role.

The play concerns a pair of sisters -- who may be the same person --  who leave home in Louisiana and travel to seven different cities, including Memphis, each of which is used to illustrate one of the seven deadly sins:

The sin of pride is taken up in a Memphis strip club, where half of this sister act wants to be an artistic dancer and other wants to be a stripper, explained (production designer Beowulf) Boritt. "Wendy is the pure sister who is continually accused of the sin. But she's considered prideful because she doesn't want to take her clothes off."

NBC pursuing series deal for John Grisham's 'The Firm'

Via Entertainment Weekly, USA Today's website reports that NBC is interested in picking up a TV series based on the John Grisham legal thriller "The Firm," which was adapted for a made-in-Memphis 1991 blockbuster starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman. Grisham will serve as an executive producer, and former "Law & Order" producer Lukas Reiter will be showrunner for the proposed 22-episode order. More from EW on the show's prospects:

The Firm sold 7 million copies and helped launch the modern legal thriller novel genre. The story always seemed like a potential solid fit for a cable channel like FX or AMC, but seems challenging for broadcast.

UPDATE: More details from the entertainment wires:

The two-hour pilot script picks up the action 10 years later, with Mitch McDeere (played in the 1993 feature by Tom Cruise) having just emerged from the Federal Witness Protection Program after bringing down a Memphis law firm operated by the mob. But he and his family soon find their lives are still in danger.

And for those wondering whether the series would be shot in Memphis:

Casting is under way. The project is expected to go into production in Canada in July.

Booker T. Jones' long journey on 'The Road From Memphis'

The West Australian catches up with former Stax Records mainstay Booker T. Jones, who recently followed up his Grammy-winning 2009 comeback effort, Potato Hole, with the star-studded Road From Memphis. The title of the new album refers to Jones' personal journey since leaving the city in 1971, an exit apparently tinged with some bitterness.


Despite the success of songs like "Green Onions," "Time is Tight" and "Soul Limbo," the combo were not afforded the freedoms usually given to hitmakers.

"I had a lot of problems in Memphis," Jones says. "At Stax, we were treated like employees and not musicians and they wouldn't let me sing."

After nearly 40 years, and several years in which Jones was away from the music business, he has regained his form, with help from Roots drummer and in-demand producer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, who helped helm the similarly career-rejuvenating 2008 project Lay It Down for Al Green."He has the energy I need. He knows the old Memphis hits," Jones says of Thompson.

The story closes with a Jones vignette about growing up in Memphis and being influenced by so many great ones:

"I was too young to enter the Beale Street clubs but I heard people like Blind Oscar playing piano when I was outside Club Handy," he says. "When I was delivering newspapers in Memphis I heard Phineas Newborn's piano drifting out of this modest house through an old wire door. It inspired me to play keyboards then. And today, I have the sound I want."

Get your die-cast replica of Elvis' John Deere 4010 tractor

45489_Elvis_tractor_in_box_A.jpg What to give as a gift to your friend the Elvis-loving farmer who has everything? How about this 1:16-scale die-cast collectible model of Elvis' beloved 1963 John Deere 4010 tractor?

According to John Deere, Elvis frequently enjoyed driving the tractor on his Mississippi ranch after he acquired it in 1966, and it was later used to maintain the grounds at his home in Graceland.

Displayed in its box against a photograph of Graceland, the tractor is equipped with a 46A front loader, an accessory rarely found on die-cast collectible models, says the manufacturer. It also features die-cast front and rear wheels and a movable three-point hitch, a detailed dash and pto levers, and a rear light. Elvis' signature is picked out in gold on the top of the bonnet, and every individual box has an Elvis Presley licensed product holographic sticker and a special collector's insert.

The original tractor is on display at Graceland after being restored at Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia. After Elvis sold his Mississippi property (the Circle G Ranch in DeSoto County), he moved it to Graceland, where it fell into disrepair until the estate contacted the manufacturer about restoring it.

You can get the collectible replica for about $80 here and elsewhere.
Remember when Oscar-winning Memphis rap crew Three 6 Mafia were pitching a reality TV concept called "Cookin' Ain't Easy"? Apparently, that show was never produced, but now the former stars of "Adventures in Hollyhood" have found another cooking-related reality show to be a part of, according to a number of hip-hop and entertainment sites:

Tentatively titled Famous Food, the series will feature a number of notable figures working in California restaurants belonging to The Dolce Group, to see who can prove to be the most successful. Other confirmed contestants include Heidi Montag of MTV's The Hills, former headline-making prostitute Ashley Dupre and Jake Pavelka of ABC's The Bachelor.

Memphis dancer Lil Buck jookin' with Yo-Yo Ma


A video featuring renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma performing with street dancer Charles "Lil Buck" Riley has had the social media scene buzzing today. Ma accompanied Riley, who performs in the unique ballet-meets-gangsta-walk style of Memphis Jookin', dancing to Camille Saint-Saëns "The Swan" at an even to promote arts education. The moment was captured by well-known film and music video director Spike Jonze.

A commenter on The Huffington Post's item linked above points out Riley's background: former student and later paid intern for the Memphis-based New Ballet Ensemble, which has sought to embrace urban dancing styles in addition to classical forms. In fact, Riley premiered the piece shown below for New Ballet in 2007. (The commenter happened to be Jimmy Gould, husband of New Ballet founder Katie Smythe.)

Remembering Memphis' 'white Scott Joplin,' pianist Berl Olswanger

Berl-Olswanger.jpg The daughter of a key figure in Memphis music goes in depth on her father's legacy in a piece on Stay Thirsty. Anna Olswanger, who now lives in New Jersey, grew up in Memphis as her father, pianist Berl Olswanger, was a popular performer at public concerts and society events as well as on his own radio and TV shows. He also owned music stores in Memphis. After her father's death in 1981, Anna Olswanger discovered a trove of her father's original compositions, which she hadn't known existed. She contacted University of Memphis ethnomusicologist David Evans to find out more about the ragtime-influenced music:

The improvisational qualities of blues and its odd structure contributed to the breakdown of ragtime and led to the popularity of jazz, which was in full swing by the 1920's. Some piano rags were still being composed in the 1920's, but they often showed blues influence or were harmonically complex "display" pieces like your father's "Juice Harp Rag" and "Berl's Jazz Polka."

Anna Olswanger also talks to Floyd Huddleston, the singer and composer who worked with Berl Olswanger at the old Pepper Records label after World War II.

What would happen at a recording session? Was my dad the kind of composer who would put everything on paper first before he went into the studio?
Yes, he did. See, he had people in his orchestra that were unique to Memphis - they could read! Most of the people were like the ones over at Sun Records and places like that. They couldn't read a note. They knew maybe three chord changes, and that was it. Your dad wrote everything out and the guys could play it. They could all read and once in a while he'd bring in other players.

Huddleston adds that Berl Olswanger, whom he compares to "a white Scott Joplin," could have achieved wider acclaim but chose to stay close to home.

Why do you think he chose not to go out on the road?

Had he gone out on the road and formed a band, he could have been as big as any of these bands, but I don't think Berl liked the road. He told me several times, he had chances to go with different bands, but he didn't want to do it. I think he liked to stay home and have his friends and know everybody. He was a very loving person about his family.

The kicker? Anna Olswanger writes that one of her father's rags, "Chicken Bone Man," recently made its debut at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, alongside the premiere of a musical adaptation of Anna Olswanger's Passover-themed children's book, "Shlemiel Crooks."

The Tampa Tribune features today a long, detailed takeout on the story of Ben McDaniel, the Memphian who apparently died after he went missing during a dangerous diving expedition at Vortex Spring in Ponce de Leon, Fla. I'll provide some excerpts here, but I do recommend reading the whole story; it's worth your time:

On the recovery efforts in the claustrophobic cave where McDaniel dived:

Edd Sorenson stood aboard a yacht in the Bahamas, in the middle of an expedition, when his wife texted. Diver missing. Searches Friday and Saturday unsuccessful.

If there's a go-to recovery diver in Florida, it's Sorenson, a lean and muscular scuba-shop owner who has notched somewhere close to 2,500 dives. Sorenson goes where others can't.

He was bombarded with calls from recovery divers when he got back on Sunday.

Nobody without training could have gone farther than I got, one diver said.

I almost died in there, said another.

Even an official with the International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery told him not to go.

Sorenson suited up on Monday. To save air, he used an underwater scooter to quickly maneuver through the tunnel. Sorenson abandoned the scooter when the cave narrowed and worked his way deeper, through tiny passages, like shimmying under a car, under water. At tight restrictions, belly on the floor and back to the limestone ceiling, Sorenson had to turn his head sideways to squeeze through.

On the lead-up to McDaniel's fateful journey to Florida:

Shelby, 68, and Patty, 62, had just seen Ben on Monday in Memphis. He was loving the Florida sabbatical, diving at every opportunity and trying to land a job as an instructor. He had taken a survey course and was mapping the cave at Vortex.

He seemed happier than he'd been in two years. Back home, he'd faced hardship: his construction company failed, he lost his house and his wife left. What hurt the most was when his brother died.

Paul was 22, the youngest. He loved Ben, looked up to him. The two were always running off together to go rock climbing.

In late 2008, Ben found Paul unconscious at home from a stroke. He tried to clear Paul's air passage, then sat with him in the hospital, then mourned him as they played Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah at the service.

He struggled to shake the grief. Something as simple as a Citizen Cope song would send him to his room in tears.

But that sadness seemed to be passing.

Closer to home, McDaniel's parents were to hold a benefit today to raise money for a reward for divers willing to brave Vortex Spring to find their son's body.

'Takeaway' segment on black Confederate soldiers

The Public Radio International program "The Takeaway" marks today's 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War with a discussion about an overlooked group of those who fought: black soldiers serving the Confederacy. The guests are Stan Armstrong, director of the documentary "Black Confederates: The Forgotten Men in Gray."  whose great-great-grandfather was a Confederate soldier, and Nelson Winbush, whose grandfather fought in several famous battles including Shiloh. The segment's web page includes a picture from 1932 of a young Winbush and his grandfather, dressed proudly in his gray uniform, at a train station in Memphis as the veteran departed for a Confederate reunion.

UPDATE: I just noticed that Nelson's name is spelled both "Wimbush" and "Winbush" on "The Takeaway" site. Some further digging found that The Commercial Appeal ran a story in 1996 on Nelson Winbush, with an "n." So we'll go with Nelson Winbush, as I originally spelled it. CA Stories from that far back are not available online, so I have copied and pasted that story on the jump.

News about biopic on rocker Jeff Buckley, who died in Memphis

Hollywood gossip site Deadline has news today about a biopic of late alt-rock singer-songwriter-guitarist Jeff Buckley, who died at age 30 in 1997 when he drowned in the Wolf River Harbor at Memphis. Buckley had been in Memphis working on a follow-up to his acclaimed full-length debut, Grace, so it stands to reason that the Bluff City (or a reasonable facsimile) could play a significant role in the project, which is set to begin production this fall.

Deadline reports that Jake Scott, son of blockbuster director Ridley Scott and veteran of music videos and the 2010 feature "Welcome to the Rileys," will direct the project. Buckley's mother will be an executive producer. The rights package includes Buckley's music and will use as a resource the biography "Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff Buckley" by David Browne.

Thirdage.com has some thoughts on which actor might portray Buckley:

If, in fact, filming will begin that soon, Scott is going to need his Buckley. Slashfilm says that Robert Pattinson has expressed interest in the role, but if the previous rumors about him playing Kurt Cobain were any indication, that may not sit well with some music fans.

Bearing a strong resemblance to Buckley is James Franco, but since the project -- which was first thought of as a possibility five years ago -- has taken its time to come to fruition, he may be getting a bit too old. Also, his vocals could use some work. Then again, that may not matter if this is a lip-synch job.

Ex-Memphian Margaret Hyde continues family's legacy of service

The Santa Monica (Calif.) Daily Press has a profile of native Memphian, children's book author, Oscar-nominated filmmaker, photographer and sustainable-lifestyle advocate Margaret Hyde, in which she speaks of continuing the legacy of service and established by her prominent philanthropic family:

"It's being of service, and completing the circle of mindfulness and sustainability," Hyde explained, staring out at the ocean from the lounge of the Oceana Hotel.

It's a maxim that has been instilled in Hyde since her earliest days.

Hyde grew up in Memphis, Tenn., and a trace of accent still hangs on the ends of her elongated words.

Her family started a charitable foundation that supports healthy neighborhoods and education. The Hyde family was also deeply connected to the National Civil Rights Museum, where the prestigious Freedom Award is granted at an annual ceremony.

The  piece also touches on the genesis of Hyde's short documentary "The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306," which chronicled the final hours of Dr. Martin Luther King's life through the remembrances of civil rights leader Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles.

Hyde knew Kyles through her family's philanthropic organization, the Hyde Family Foundation, and had heard his story of King's life and death at annual gatherings throughout her childhood.

"I was 18 years old and just blown away," Hyde said. "I thought, 'He needs to write a book, something!'"

The result was a film, shot quickly but with powerful material and a crack production staff, that was released on the 40th anniversary of King's death.

"It had a life of its own," Hyde said. "We set out to preserve the story, because we were starting to lose the voices of that generation."

These days, Hyde, the oldest child of AutoZone founder J.R. "Pitt" Hyde III, has become something of a local celebrity in Southern California due to her efforts at promoting green home remodeling. The Daily Press calls her family's 1910 Craftsman-style home an "LEED-certified marvel of efficiency."

Chicago Tribune classical music critic John von Rhein runs down what's on tap as Memphis Symphony Orchestra music director Mei-Ann Chen begins her first season in her other job as music director for the Chicago Cinfonietta.

A host of events during the 2011-12 season will introduce the Chicago Sinfonietta's new music director, Mei-Ann Chen, to the local concert public. These include a free preseason concert at Millennium Park, a multimedia performance marking the centennial of Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe" and several world premieres.

Here's the article that appeared in The Commercial Appeal when Chen took the Chicago job last August.
A story in Wednesday's editions of The New York Times about a rise in K-12 students taking online courses is framed by Memphis City Schools' online learning program. The Times calls MCS' program one of the most ambitious of its kind, with each student required to take an online course. However, online learning for pre-college students remains controversial.

Advocates of such courses say they allow schools to offer not only makeup courses, the fastest-growing area, but also a richer menu of electives and Advanced Placement classes when there are not enough students to fill a classroom.

But critics say online education is really driven by a desire to spend less on teachers and buildings, especially as state and local budget crises force deep cuts to education. They note that there is no sound research showing that online courses at the K-12 level are comparable to face-to-face learning.

The article also raises concerns about students plagiarizing their work in these online courses, in which teachers spend only 10 hours a week with perhaps 150 students. For their part, though, Memphis administrators are standing behind their online learning program:

But administrators insisted that their chief motive was to enhance student learning, not save money in a year when the 108,000-student district is braced for cuts of $100 million and hundreds of jobs.

"What the online environment does is continue to provide rich offerings and delivery systems to our students with these resource challenges," said Irving Hamer, the deputy superintendent.

For those still following the on-again, off-again political career of former Memphis congressman and current Wall Street executive Harold Ford Jr., here's a tantalizing tidbit crammed into the end of a New York Post story about the power-breakfast scene at the Loews Regency Hotel, where Ford is a regular:

To the untrained eye, there's nothing special about the hordes of suit-clad businesspeople who stream into the ground-floor breakfast area. But for those tuned in to city politics, strange bedfellows and secret partnerships can be spotted in nearly every corner.

Recently former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. set tongues wagging when he broke bread with leading Democratic pollster Doug Schoen.

"That could be talk about a possible mayoral run," a political consultant speculated, eyeing the duo as they ordered fruit and black coffee, which cost each about $25.

Ford's job as executive vice chairman of Bank of American/Merrill Lynch doesn't seem to have dulled the aspirations of the Memphis political scion. He discussed the possibility of running for mayor last September on The Daily Beast, just months after he decided against a run for the U.S. Senate now held by Kirsten Gillibrand. Recall some of the lumps that Ford took during his flirtation with the Senate race, here, here and here.

Chicago Sun-Times on Beale Street landmark A. Schwab

The Chicago Sun-Times has a Travel story on A. Schwab Dry Goods Store, the Beale Street landmark since 1876 that recently was put up for sale. Elliott Schwab -- the fourth-generation manager/co-owner -- says in the story that a buyer has made an offer and that the sale could come soon.

" ... This wasn't an overnight decision. I could make more money selling the property than I can staying in business, but that's not the reason. Our base customers have changed. We used to have locals. Now it's about 90 percent tourists. I don't object to that, but when the tourists are down, our business goes down."

The story, pegged to the upcoming Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival, also has some amusing descriptions of Schwab's eclectic inventory:

Elvis Presley bought underwear along the beige wood-planked floors at A. Schwab. B.B. King purchased handkerchiefs and Bono spent two hours talking to co-owner Abram, aka "Mr. Abe."

You can still find mojo bags and granny panties at A. Schwab, but the store no longer carries starched bib overalls.

The Root, Slate's African-American-oriented spinoff, checked in with Delaware and Tennessee officials to see how the states are coming along in implementing the first round of the Race to the Top competitive grants for school reform.

Underperforming Tennessee schools in many cases have come up with their own individual reform plans, about which one Memphis teachers union official was ambivalent.

Ken Foster, executive director of the Memphis Education Association, a union group for Memphis teachers, is not quite sold on the mix-and-match nature of individual school reforms. His district, which has a student population that is 86 percent African American, is home to several of the targeted schools.

"We've only been doing this since August of last year, so it's too early to say whether or not any of these things will be successful," Foster told The Root, noting that the teachers union worked with the district on some of the policy changes. "The Race to the Top money was put out there to try experimental things, and Tennessee was willing to step out there and try them. I'm not convinced they will work, but maybe it's time to put it to rest whether they will or not."
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