Four in the Morning, the End of December

It’s raining in San Francisco.

It’s kind of amazing because I was starting to feel like I had escaped weather entirely by moving to the Peninsula. After a very wet spring in Colorado, the weather here hadn’t deviated more than five degrees for months until the monsoon started a few days ago.

(See, I broke one of the cardinal rules of writing there. Never start with the weather).

Anyway, I just popped in to archive a few stories and refresh the blog before another new year begins. This one has been crazy enough.

IMG_3549Just to finish up the project, in mid-October I flew down to Austin to award the Kirkus Prize in Literature for nonfiction, along with my comrades-in-arms, Marie du Vaure of the Getty Museum and prolific essayist Meghan Daum. It was a closer race than you might imagine but in the closing minutes, the prize went to Ta-Nahisi Coates for his emotional and brilliant book, Between the World and Me. In some ways, it was a strange year to be a judge for the Kirkus Prize because of the wealth of nominees. But despite the diversity in this year’s starred books, there was still a clear winner, as evidenced by Coates winning the National Book Award just a month later. Can I pick ’em or what? You can read about all of the other winners here.

Working my way through the Kirkus Prize and applying the skills to pay the bills has been pretty much all-consuming through the fall, but here are a few stories that have been published in the meantime.

  • ZeroesI interviewed one of my favorite writers, Chuck Wendig, about his new novel, NOT STAR WARS. I’ve always liked Chuck’s writing advice that he inflicts on his audience at his blog, Terrible Minds, so it was a pleasure to talk to him about his new sci-fi novel Zer0es. Check out his violent and horrible series that starts with Blackbirds as well. I was sad to hear that the adaptation of his Miriam Black novels over at Starz is now kaput but he did offer the perfect writer’s reaction to the news: “Hey, I got paid at least.” It didn’t hurt that when I interviewed him it was a month away from his publishing the first in-canon Star Wars novel since the original trilogy ended, Star Wars: Aftermath. Chuck has since fielded some, er, “interesting” reviews for the bare minimum diversity he chose to include in the book, and his reaction is dead on: ” If you can imagine a world where Luke Skywalker would be irritated that there were gay people around him, you completely missed the point of Star Wars. It’s like trying to picture Jesus kicking lepers in the throat instead of curing them. Stop being the Empire. Join the Rebel Alliance. We have love and inclusion and great music and cute droids.”
  • StrangersAnother title that has kind of flown under the radar is Larissa MacFarquhar’s fascinating and terrifying debut, Strangers Drowning. Just after I moved to California, I caught up with the New Yorker journalist to talk about her portraits of extreme altruism. What I loved most about this book is that the author doesn’t bring any kind of moral agenda to her work. “If readers are moved to do more themselves, that’s terrific, but as much as I want to show that these people are admirable, I also want to show that what they have chosen to do is very difficult and they are very tough to be able to deal with it,” she told me. “I didn’t want to cover that up or simplify their difficulties.”
  • SamI think I’ve ended the year with my interview with music journalist Peter Guralnick about his comprehensive biography of Sam Phillips. Long before I decided to do this for a living, I remember listening to Peter’s Elvis biographies as audiobooks when I was working for a library. Sam was also still kicking around Memphis when I was a kid, so it was interesting to take this deep dive into the guy who pretty much made Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Okay, I think that’s it for now. There are more stories to tell at some point, like the bizarre job interviews I’ve had here in the start-up culture, but I think they’ll wait for another day. See you on the other side.

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Louis Prima Played It Pretty For the People

Author’s note: sometimes you don’t want good stories to disappear. This was one of my first magazine features, and because it’s of a historical nature, I think it holds up. It was also a lot of fun to write, and some of the original voices in the story, like sax man Sam Butera, have left us. Anyway, every so often, you may see me resurrect an old story for my entertainment, and for yours. A slightly alternative version of this story originally appeared in the late Atomic Magazine. Ladies and gentlemen, Louis Prima.

To his guys, he was simply, “The Chief,” or “The Boss.”  To throngs of admiring women, he was a magnetic, charismatic star with a dazzling and disarming smile.  For musicians he was their sensational trumpet player as well as the bandleader who knew how to bring out the best playing they had in them.  For children, he remains forever the voice of “King Louie,” from Disney’s The Jungle Book.  To a legion of music lovers worldwide, he is the indomitable, gravel-voiced giant of swing that is the one and only Louis Prima.

Atomic Louis Prima One

For Prima fans, a large chunk of the musician’s formidable output has been widely unavailable until now.  Louis’ widow, Gia Prima, has recently re-released nine albums that were originally available on Prima’s own Prima 1 Magnagroove label.

“It was a long, hard battle but I’m so proud of them.  I think they look beautiful and they sound wonderful,” said Prima of the process of re-releasing the records.

Featuring original album covers and remastered recordings, the discs cover the years from 1962 to 1975.  They include such rare albums as Prima Show at the Casbar and King of Clubs that have been out of print since the early sixties as well as regional favorites like Just A Gigalo and The New Sounds of the Louis Prima Show, which sold almost exclusively at live gigs in Las Vegas and New Orleans.

“You close your eyes and it’s like a time machine taking you back to a Las Vegas of long ago,” said New Orleans radio host Ron Cannatella, who has consulted with the Prima estate on the re-releases.  “It’s really like being in the audience.  You can hear the clinking of the glasses and the crowd really getting into it.”

Louis & KeelyThrough three-quarters of a century, King Louie’s finger-snapping, foot-stomping brand of New Orleans-flavored jazz continues to reign over fans, critics and other artists.  His music could fill three lifetimes and has deeply entrenched itself into the fabric of American life.  He was a crack big band leader who went on to form the hottest combo in the world.  In his later years he became a children’s favorite but never stopped experimenting with style and substance until he passed on into legend with his death in 1978.  Since then, he has passed his unique combination of deft musicianship and daft humor onto a broad spectrum of artists ranging from ridiculous remakes to smoking tributes from the neo-swing set.

Prima is also the bridge between two other monoliths of 20th century American music.  Alongside him is Louis Armstrong, a more serious horn blower, but one who came out of the same New Orleans tradition that Prima was born into.  After Prima comes Frank Sinatra, who took Prima’s reconstruction of the lounge act and forged his own famous “Rat Pack.”

Louis Prima would be a legend if all he had ever done was to compose the now-classic “Sing, Sing, Sing,” around 1935.  The big band anthem became hugely successful for the famous rearrangement performed by the Benny Goodman Orchestra and was the first song to be put into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Lucky for all of us, on December 26, 1954, the stars aligned and Louis Prima struck gold again on the night the Witnesses were born. (Keep swingin’ with Louis Prima after the jump).

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