SCRATCHING ONE OFF THE “CATCH UP” LIST AND CHATTING WITH A MUSIC LEGEND

Geoff Muldaur autographs a CD for a fan
Geoff Muldaur autographs a CD for a fan

Tuesday night, I was able to scratch another item off what I refer to as the “catch up” list.  I detest the overused term “bucket list”.  To me, making up for lost opportunities is catching up and that’s what I did in seeing one of this country’s musical treasures, Geoff Muldaur, for the first time in the intimate setting of the Blue Door.

He isn’t a household name outside of music aficionados like me, but rather ‘famous by association’.  His sister is the actress Diana Muldaur, who still turns up on the odd “Murder She Wrote” rerun and played Dr. Pulaski on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.  His ex-wife and ex-bandmate, Maria Muldaur, became an ‘80s FM radio darling with her big hit “Midnight at the Oasis” and the salacious cover of the Swallows “It Ain’t The Meat, It’s The Motion”. He was part of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band in the ‘60s and Paul Butterfield’s Better Days in the ‘70s.

After recording a couple of solo albums in the ‘80s, he ‘disappeared’ for 17 years, but was really hiding in plain sight.  While on a working sabbatical, Muldaur scored music for movies and TV, played on other people’s albums and joined the corporate world.  Returning in the late ‘90s, he began a path of helping audiences rediscover blues and jazz music from the depression era through his contemporary interpretations and he’s now combining his infrequent public appearances with creating arrangements for an orchestra in the Netherlands.  Refreshingly, at 70, Muldaur plays because he wants to and not because he has to.

Which brings us to his Blue Door show.  Through the years, Muldaur’s trips to Oklahoma City have been fraught with weather issues.  In 1999, he was scheduled on the evening the tornado struck Moore.  In 2008, he had to delay his Blue Door appearance for one night because an ice storm made it impossible for him to get out of the hotel parking lot.  But this time, he missed the freak April snow flurry by one day and followed the night of the blood moon with a flawless two-hour solo performance in front of a whopping crowd of 28 – which eclipsed his previous two climate hampered appearances.

Don’t feel bad for Geoff.  These were people who were really into his music, some coming all the way from the Far East, where as the saying goes he is ‘big in Japan’.  He was able to weave some time-tested stories on the background of songs from Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie Johnson and Vera Hall, as well as late bandmate and tour partner Bobby Charles, into a pastiche of blues, folk and classical tunes. It was like a fireside chat with the curator of these musical genres. And even though he is more of an interpreter or arranger of ‘other folks music’, rather than a lyricist, one of the highlights of the show is his own composition “Got To Find Blind Lemon, (Parts 1 and 2)” about the search for Blind Lemon Jefferson’s grave in East Texas.  Enjoy it here from a performance a couple of years back.

Getting set to do some recording next month, Muldaur has also taken several Tennessee Williams poems and set them to traditional music with startling effect. It’s part of his continued reimagining and reengineering of musical forms that make what is old new again.

I surprised Muldaur during the introduction of his version of Blind Willie Johnson’s  “Trouble Will Soon Be Over” when he asked if anyone had ever heard of Philippe Wynne.  I answered in the affirmative and added that Wynne was the lead singer of the Spinners (Rubberband Man, Could It Be I’m Falling In Love, you know).  Astonished, he said I was the first person at any of his shows that had known who Wynne was.  That established my bona fides and allowed me to have a private discussion with him following the show.

It seemed to me that a great part of his show was spent educating audiences on the origin of many of the tunes he performed, sort of a college of musical knowledge.

“I don’t know if I’m trying to educate, maybe I’m a ham,” said Muldaur. “I like to talk about this stuff, I’ll tell you why.  It’s because I’m talking about worlds that don’t exist anymore.  And it was so yesterday for me.  All of a sudden it’s a whole other sack of potatoes, man. To tell any of these stories, it means so much to me.”

Muldaur and Kweskin kicked around the Northeast in the early 1960s, discovering old 78RPM records of the ‘20s and ‘30s blues men (and women) to learn their chops. Back then, about all you had were the John Lomax field recordings, and the American rediscovery of the later blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, among others, was just beginning. You had to scour the record stores to find obscure recordings and felt like Columbus when you did.  This often caused people to miss entire genres of music while they were just learning the first one. While Muldaur was in the jug band and folk explosion, something else was happening in another part of the country.

“I didn’t even get around to Motown until it was almost over and then I fell in love with James Jamerson, Benny Benjamin and then I went berserk” Muldaur admitted. “ But I had to go through all the blues and all my jazz thing and then all of sudden, I said ‘wait a minute’.  The words didn’t do it for me, but man did these players do it, so I got into that. It’s just sort of endless and the whole gospel thing produced probably the greatest singers we ever had.”

Rather than complain about golden eras of music being smothered by the musical morass that confronts the public these days, Muldaur says to find the abundance of good  music being made today and embrace it, even though it will never replace the special talents that have come before.

“When I started playing country blues guitar, the young white guy in 1960-1961, we don’t think there were more than 120 guys in the United States that did that. That’s high,” Muldaur said.” Now there are 120,000 easy.  There’s this incredible proliferation of all styles, all techniques.”

“Let me give you an example. How many flat-pickers since Doc Watson came up, how many have played phenomenal, fast, flat picking?How many have whipped that guy?  Not one,” said Muldaur.  “There were these people and the thing that you can’t put your finger on, other than a few technical things, the genius and the magic of these people and you can’t repeat it. It becomes a classical exercise. Music is a very magical and mysterious thing.”

Another reason that Muldaur plays a handful of shows in the U.S. and Japan each year, along with special collaborations with The Kweskin Jug band and former Better Days partner guitarist Amos Garrett, is to remind the audience of the vast body of tremendous music that has been created during the past century.  And that, sadly, its creators have almost all passed.

“Everyone who invented all this music is gone.  I mean, B.B. King is what, 88? The last inventor of a blues style,” Muldaur said. “I’m not a curmudgeon about it, it’s just these things happen when they happen.  I was very lucky to catch the last third of the zeitgeist. So we caught a few of these guys. I wasn’t hanging out in Harlem in the Big Band era.  Right now, I’m steeped in classical music. That’s not going away, you’re never going to run out of that.”

He doesn’t decry the age of Spotify and Rdio, where people can stream millions of songs without purchasing them, to the detriment of music sales, but instead, he is happy that there is a new audience for many of these recordings and a new way to learn the history of what came before.

“We’re all lucky when we get to hear special music. And these days, we’re not in a golden age, but we have billions more notes being played on a daily basis, but you have to be discerning and keep an open mind,” said Muldaur. “You find this person and you say ‘oh my God, that person really has the real stuff right there’.  And you never know when it’s going to happen so you have to be open.”

There is a downside to the proliferation of music seemingly available  everywhere. Each day,  we’re bombarded by YouTube videos of eight-year old guitar shredders and pint-sized vocalists who are note and pitch perfect.  But often they just seem to be mimicking what they’ve heard and not really feeling the notes.  Something akin to soulless robots.  That is something that has also caught Muldaur’s attention.

“Everyone can go on the Internet now and get anything by anybody,” he says. “How come they don’t get the spirit of it when they play it? “

When his Oklahoma City show was announced, I was fearful that age might have stripped Muldaur of his vocal range and styling.  I even asked Blue Door owner Greg Johnson a few months back “what’s he sound like, what kind of shape is he in.” And when Muldaur arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to see that he looked like a marathon runner and much younger than his age.  Then when he started singing, it was obvious that he had lost nothing and might even sound purer than some of his old recordings.

He admits that 17 years of not grinding through one-nighters and club dates preserved his voice, something that those who continued with life on the road can’t say.

“It’s just a technical reality. I wasn’t out there beatin’ the boards for 17 years, so my voice held up.  I can still sing.  I’m not getting any younger, but I can sing,” said Muldaur. “That’s why I can’t make disparaging remarks about  people – and you probably know some of who I’m referring to – that are out there croaking, but I’m telling you, they got there because they put out for a lot of people over many years and I took a lot of time off.  I also spent a lot of time in the gym and hiking and bird watching.  Well, after those years with Butterfield I had to.”

And then he regaled me with a few stories of Bobby Charles, Reverend Ether (Ronnie Barron) and life on the road. Preserving the history and keeping the music  alive.  That’s important to Geoff Muldaur and it’s important to me. Thanks, Geoff.

 

 

 

 

 

Bill Self – Homegrown But Not Home Bound

Self Photo

I’ve known Bill Self since his high school days at Edmond Memorial, when as a sophomore, he almost brought the Bulldogs back against Yukon in the 1979 5A State Championship game.  What struck me about him then was his outgoing personality, unusual for most teenagers, and his thirst for knowledge about the game of basketball.

Self was back in his old stomping grounds last night to pick up the Wayman Tisdale Humanitarian Award at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. He reminded me of his personal connection to the late superstar, having played with Wonderful Wayman for two years on the Oklahoma Rams, the outstanding AAU team that was dominant nationally in the 1980s.

“First trip we took, we drove to Las Vegas, in a 12 or 15 passenger van and the air conditioner went out. It took us 27 hours and we were actually stranded on the highway part of the time,” Self said. “I remember sitting in the seat with (future OSU teammate) Joe Atkinson and Wayman behind me, they had no place to put their legs, so they put their legs over my shoulders and I’m thinking how many more hours? I was mad I took a shower that day.”

“I remember the first game I played with Wayman, he scored four points and had two rebounds and I had 27. And after the game, it was like a reception line with the college coaches, you had Tubbs, John Thompson, everybody and not one man spoke to me.  Every one of those coaches could not wait to say ‘Wayman, you were great today, you played great!’  And I thought, really?  And then the next game he had about 50 points so I understood why they were all lined up. But it was fun because he was so good.”

Self was a year ahead of Tisdale and the great Oklahoma class of 1982 that also produced NBA star Mark Price among others.  He was a good but not great player at Oklahoma State, and he was savvy enough to keep building the basketball connections that would take him to head coaching stints at ORU, Tulsa, Illinois and eventually Kansas, where he had spent time as an assistant to Larry Brown. He is now considered one of the top five coaches in the NCAA and has won several national coach of the year awards.

But picking up the Tisdale Humanitarian Award was something special for the Jayhawks coach and an honor that he was surprised to receive.

“First of all, they could have picked a lot of guys more deserving of a humanitarian award than me. But it does mean a lot, because first of all, happening in Oklahoma City and then having Wayman’s name on it,” said Self. “I was by no means in competition with him in anything, but I did play during the same era and I saw how he revolutionized basketball in our state. He more than anybody else. You could say Billy Tubbs and Nolan Richardson had a strong hand in doing that, but Wayman changed the whole climate of everything going on here. And to have a guy do it that was such a personality and maybe as good of an ambassador as anybody as our state has known, at least that I’m aware of, is very cool.”

Self and his wife Cindy, have been involved in numerous events that have raised money and awareness for many charities, making him a worthwhile selection for the award.  I can personally attest to his willingness to get involved. Several years ago, he stepped to help me in a fundraising effort for Operation Breakthrough in Kansas City, providing signed memorabilia and making a radio appearance to promote the cause.  Self has never forgotten his roots and still has many close friends in Oklahoma.

Still, he is firmly entrenched at Kansas, one of the storied programs of college basketball.  As much as Oklahoma State fans would love to dream that Self would give that up to return to his alma mater, that isn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future – and maybe not ever.

 

 

Granville Liggins – All-Time Sooner Great

He may not have realized it at the time, but Granville Liggins was a trailblazer for future athletes at Oklahoma. 

Although OU had welcomed a number of black players since Bud Wilkinson had desegregated the team by bringing in Prentice Gautt in 1956, Liggins became the first black player from OU to gain All-American status, paving the way for the host of African-American athletes who followed him. 

Being a black player in NCAA football in the mid-60s was much different than it is today.

“It was quite scary, actually.  In 1963 and 64, there were only three or four black players on the football team – and only about 100 black students out of about 18,000 on campus,” Liggins recalled.  “We didn’t have many experiences off-campus.  Today, as we speak, the black kids have a helluva lot more fun socializing and doing things away from school than we ever did. The only exciting things that happened to me at OU were on the football field. 

Racism was never a factor on the football field, but it was driven home for Liggins during the off-season in his hometown of Tulsa.

“On my summer job in 1966, I was working at a paper company and one day I went to lunch at a restaurant with some other guys who were white,” Liggins said.  “I was told by the manager of the restaurant that I couldn’t eat my lunch there.  As an 18 or 19-year-old kid, I was stunned.”

“And as I sat outside and ate, I wondered to myself  “if this was OU and Notre Dame playing on a Saturday in Norman, Oklahoma, would those same people who refused to let me eat in their restaurant be cheering for me?”  Of course they would.  It hurt, but I just moved on.”

It had always been Liggins’ dream to play at OU for Bud Wilkinson.  He grew up idolizing lineman Ed McQuarters, another Tulsa Washington grad who starred for the Sooners in the early ‘60s.  Liggins listened to the OU games on the radio and watched Wilkinson ‘move those little pieces around on the chalk board’ on the weekly Sooner Football television show.  He never got to play for Wilkinson, as the legendary coach resigned to run for the U.S. Senate shortly after Liggins had committed to the Sooners.

And even though he went on to be a two-time All-American for the Sooners in football, Liggins’ greatest moment in Oklahoma athletics may not have even occurred on the gridiron. 

Granville LigginsAs a junior, Liggins was pressed into service by the OU wrestling team, which was in desperate need of a heavyweight.  The 5-11, 212 lb. Liggins had been a star grappler in high school, but at this level, he often had to go against opponents that were 50 to 100 pounds heavier.

“The Big Eight Championships were in the old field house at OU, “ Liggins remembered.  “I wrestled some guy about 6-6 and 280 lbs.  And somehow I beat him.  Everybody went crazy and I was hoisted around the field house and everybody was chanting ‘Granny, Granny, Granny’.  It still sends tingles up my spine to think about it.”

Liggins went on to become an All-American in wrestling as well, losing in the NCAA Championships to future NFL star Curley Culp, a 300-pounder.

Despite his small stature, Liggins was a demon for the Sooners at middle guard, taking on larger opponents and outmaneuvering them with his speed and quickness.  That was a trademark of Sooner teams of that era.

“We had the lightest defensive line in college football.  I think we averaged about 210 lbs. across the front but the one thing about OU is that we were fast from sideline to sideline.  They couldn’t run around us.”

But many teams still tried, including old Sooner nemesis Notre Dame.  Liggins calls the meeting against the Fighting Irish in 1966 as the biggest game of his career.

“They had Terry Hanratty, Alan Page, and Nick Eddy and their offensive line averaged about 250,” Liggins said.  “For two or three quarters, they tried to run around the end, but finally (Notre Dame coach) Parseghian got wise and they go the bright idea to run right at us and just wore us out.”

The other Oklahoma game that stands out in Liggins mind was the 1968 Orange Bowl victory over Tennessee.  It was a bittersweet moment for the senior, as he suffered a knee in jury in the third quarter and had to miss the Hula Bowl All-Star game.

That might have affected his NFL draft status as well, as he only went in the 10th round to the Detroit Lions despite finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.  Their offer was not enough to suit Liggins, but another one was.  It came from the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders and it would change his life.

“I didn’t know where the hell Canada was then.  All I knew is that it was up north”, laughed Liggins. “My size was an issue with the NFL, but in the CFL, the bigger field gave me a chance to use my speed.”

“I had a ten-year run in Canada, when most pro careers average five to five and a half years. The best thing that ever happened to me was coming to Canada.  It’s a great place to live. I was truly blessed.”

Liggins played on Calgary’s Grey Cup championship team in 1971, defeating the Toronto Argonauts.  Ironically, Liggins was traded to the Argos in 1973 and recently, he was named as one of top five greatest players in Toronto history.  Staying in Canada, Liggins still makes his home in Oakville, Ontario.

Even though he now considers himself a Canadian, after spending more than half of his life north of the border, Liggins holds fondness for Oklahoma and the Sooners.  His mother lives in Oklahoma City and he still wears his “O” Club ring and the Orange Bowl/Big 8 Championship watch he got after his senior year alongside his Grey Cup Championship ring.

Liggins said he almost fell on the floor when told that he had been selected as one of OU’s greatest players.

“I’m amazed that people in Oklahoma still remember my name.  That is very humbling”, admitted Liggins.  “My years at OU, that was a great ride.  Every year I pull for those guys, but I don’t have the opportunity to get back there very often.”

“I was just fortunate.  Very few people get to do what they want to do.  I wanted to play football at OU.  I wanted to be an All-American.  I wanted to play in the NFL, but wound up in the CFL, which was a blessing for me.  When I retired from football at 32, my life was complete.  Everything since then has been a bonus.”