March 16th, 1971 edition of Life magazine with cover photo and feature story on the historic Joe Frazier (L) -Muhammad Ali (R) fight. Photo taken by Frank Sinatra.
It was another one of those “fights of the century,” as boxing promoters and the media so like to hype the big showdown battles between heavyweight contenders. In this case though, there was some basis for the hype as two titanic powers were about to square off: Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.
But this fight was more than just a major boxing match for the world title. No, this match was also freighted with the social and political angst then eating at the nation.
The year was 1971. Richard Nixon was in the White House. The No. 1 songs in January and February that year were “My Sweet Lord” / “Isn’t It a Pity” by former Beatle George Harrison; “Knock Three Times” by Dawn; and “One Bad Apple” by The Osmonds. At the box office, the Hollywood film, “Love Story,” starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, was setting sales records as the No. 1 film through early March that year. On television, the landmark sitcom “All in the Family,” starring Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker, made its debut on CBS. In the Super Bowl that year, played on January 17th, Baltimore beat Dallas,16-13.
But the big event in sports in the early part of 1971 was the scheduled 15 round heavyweight boxing championship match between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. That bout was set for March 8th at New York city’s Madison Square Garden. Joe Frazier, with a record of 26–0, was the reigning heavyweight champion of the world. The challenger that night was Muhammad Ali with a record of 31–0.
Poster for the March 1971 World Heavyweight Champion-ship fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.
But the backstory leading up to this fight fed into the much anticipated showdown, truly making it one of the most significant bouts in boxing history. Ali had actually won the title seven years earlier, in February 1964, when he beat Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. Thereafter, he successfully defended the title for the next three years.
However, in March 1967, Ali had his championship title stripped away by boxing authorities for his refusal to be inducted for U.S. military service. Ali had claimed it was against his religion to participate in war. He had also made earlier public statements in 1966 on the war and why he would not go:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied human rights? No, I am not going…to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over…”
Then Cassius Clay, before his title was stripped, in his 2nd victory over Sonny Liston, 1965.
In June 1967 Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000. He paid a bond and remained free while the verdict was appealed. But Ali, then 25, was effectively a champ without a ring, losing his license to fight in many states, and in effect, forced into a three-year layoff during the prime of his career while he battled the federal government and state boxing commissions.
Ali did not fight from March 1967 to October 1970, with two exceptions – an October 1970 bout against Jerry Quarry which he won in three rounds, that fight made possible by an Atlanta, Georgia judge’s grant of a licence, and a December 1970 bout with Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden which he also won in 15 rounds having regained his New York boxing license after a federal court ordered it reinstated. With the December 1970 win over Bonavena, Ali was then the prime contender to meet Frazier in a championship bout.
Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali feuding for the cameras (and for real), separated by NY State Athletic Commission’s Edwin Dooley at Dec 30 1970 news conference. AP photo.
Joe Frazier, the gritty boxer from Philadelphia known as “Smokin’ Joe,” had, in Ali’s absence from the ring, gained the heavyweight championship title with victories over Jimmy Ellis (Feb 1970) and Buster Mathis (Nov 1970).
Frazier was known as a ferocious fighter with a powerful left hook. According to one account of Frazier’s decisive win over Ellis, he delivered “a frightening display of power and tenacity.” Frazier by then was recognized by boxing authorities as the World Champion. So, in the months between the scheduling of the March 1971 match with Ali – agreed to in December 1970 – and during the run up to that fight in early 1971, there was a tremendous amount of hype and anticipation as to who was the true heavyweight champ. Both Frazier and Ali were then undefeated.
Frank Sinatra 1, Ali-Frazier fight, 8 March 1971.
Frank Sinatra 2, Ali-Frazier fight, 8 March 1971.
Frank Sinatra 3, Ali-Frazier fight, 8 March 1971.
Frank Sinatra figures into this story as a boxing fan and amateur photographer – and also, of course, by his own high powered celebrity. The famous singer and Hollywood actor — whose last hit song at the time, “My Way,” reached the Top 40 in 1969 – had stated earlier in 1971 that he was planning to retire that year, possibly by June, after he completed a charity event. But that March, Sinatra was keen to get a ringside seat for the Ali-Frazier fight, but few were available. One report had it that he made a deal with Life magazine to do some photography for them at the Ali-Frazier fight, which would give him more or less free license to roam around up close to the action. But in the introduction to Life’s March 16th, 1971 edition reporting on the fight, managing editor Ralph Graves explained in an “editor’s note” column how the magazine came to use both Sinatra and writer Norman Mailer beyond its own reporters and photographers. On Sinatra’s role, contrary to some other stories at the time, here’s how Graves described it:
…For our pictures of the action, we were relying on the magazine pool photographers at ringside, especially Sport’s Illustrated’s Neil Leifer and Tony Triolo, who delivered outstanding pictures. But it never hurts to have a horseshoe in your glove. Six years ago staff writer Tommy Thompson and photographer John Dominis were doing a story on Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was fascinated by Dominis’ equipment and admitted he had been interested in taking pictures for 20 years. Shortly before the fight Tommy learned that Sinatra had wangled himself a ringside seat and was going to take pictures with a battery of cameras. Tommy went to work wangling Sinatra into letting us have a look at his film. We didn’t expect to get anything the professional photographers didn’t have, but it might be worth inspecting. Indeed, Sinatra wound up getting the cover, a memorable full-spread picture [inside the magazine] (yes, he held his camera at that angle on purpose), and two other shots in our story. We are offering him a job…
On the cover of the March 16th, 1971 edition, shown at the top of this article, there was a special credit line at the very bottom which read: “Cover Photograph By Frank Sinatra.” So, not only did this edition of Life magazine have the value of the Ali-Frazier sports celebrity as a selling point, it also had the added cache of Sinatra’s involvement and Norman Mailer’s prose. Sinatra took photos throughout the night, as others took photos of him doing his work. He became as much a diversion for some fans and news photographers as did the main contenders. Or as one observer would later put it, “Frank Sinatra was the third most photographed person that night.” Mailer’s reporting and Sinatra’s photos – at least four of the latter– would appear together in Life magazine’s nine-page spread on the fight.
March 8, 1971, Madison Square Garden, NY, NY: Frank Sinatra, on assignment with Life magazine to cover the Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali World Heavyweight Championship fight, is a popular subject himself, as others snap away.
Backstory: The Fighters
Before Muhammad Ali was Muhammad Ali, he was known as Cassius Clay, a young boxer from Louisville, Kentucky who developed a dazzling style in the ring. In 1960, as an 18 year-old, he had won the Olympic light heavyweight title. That fall, he turned pro at 18 with the backing of some Louisville businessmen. From October 1960 to June 1963, Cassius Clay won all 19 bouts he entered, a few with some difficulty, notably Doug Jones and Henry Cooper, the latter of whom knocked him down once with a left hook. And it was during these years that Ali became something of a non-stop talker, self-promoter, and boxing poet, proclaiming himself “the greatest” and often predicting in rhyme the round he would beat opponents. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” was a favorite line he used to define his light-of-foot /quick punching style, mocking all comers. The boxing world and the sports media hadn’t seen anything like him.
March 22, 1963: Time cover depicting boxer Cassius Clay also as something of a playful street poet.
June 1963: Then Cassius Clay, tagged the “Louisville Lip” in this piece, on his way to fight Henry Cooper.
Yet this “Cassius Clay” fellow was attracting wide attention wherever he went, for himself and boxing.
By March 1963, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine in a rendition by artist Boris Chaliapin who sought to capture Clay’s “playful mischievousness,” portraying him as part boxing poet. Inside the magazine, Clay was profiled in a favorable five-page story.
That was followed by a June 10th, 1963 Sports Illustrated cover of the young boxer tagged, “Cassius Invades Britain.” Clay was then on his way to fight Great Britain’s Henry Cooper in London.
These stories included Clay’s self-boasting quips, with Sports Illustrated tagging him “The Louisville Lip.” It was a style that would bring him media attention and endear him to many of his fans, while at the same time repulsing the conservative boxing world and his opponents, as well as many sportswriters and boxing fans.
But along with his boasts and bravado, there was real athletic ability and boxing talent. “He had incredibly fast hands and cat-like reflexes,” noted sportswriter Michael Silver. “His handsome face was rarely hit” – a point of pride he would often repeat in press conferences.
Cassius Clay also had a serious side, and was a early follower and friend of Malcolm X, then a Black Muslim. A big turning point for Clay came when he beat Sonny Liston in February 1964 to win the world heavyweight boxing crown.
After his victory over Liston, Cassius Clay denounced his “slave name” and became a Black Muslim, a little known black separatist movement that practiced the religion of Islam, advocating self help for African Americans. He soon began using his new Muslim name — Muhammad Ali. He made clear at the time he would not be treated the way that other black heavyweight champs had been treated. Some of his black opponents, including Joe Frazier, refused to call him by his new name, while the boxing establishment hoped his stay at the top of boxing would be brief.
But Clay – now Muhammad Ali – became a boxing superstar following the Liston fight, as a new round of publicity elevated him to international celebrity. Life magazine put him on the cover of their magazine – not only for its domestic issue of March 6, 1964, with six pages of coverage from the Liston fight, but also in later issues using the same photo and some of the same content. Life’s international issue of May 30th, 1966, circulating in dozens of countries, ran him on the cover, as did some Life special national issues, such as its Spanish edition of July 1966.
March 1964: Sport magazine.
May 1965: Ali and Liston.
May 1966: Life Int’l edition.
August 1966: Patterson & Ali.
Meanwhile, from 1965 to 1967 Ali defended his title against all comers – winning nine bouts, including a rematch with Liston in 1965, a fight that yielded the famous photo of Ali standing defiantly over a knocked down Liston.
Ali’s views on the Vietnam war, his religion and the black race were part of the territory he covered in public – and he received a degree of scorn for speaking out.
But one fighter, Floyd Patterson, who Ali had fought and beaten in November 1965 — a fighter who did not agree with Ali’s views — but nonetheless lent his name and image and support on behalf of Ali’s right to free speech in an August 1966 Esquire magazine cover and feature story. That piece was written with Gay Talese and entitled, “In Defense of Cassius Clay.” Ali’s press coverage by this time went well beyond the usual sports venues.
In the ring during these years, Ali was in a class by himself, few could touch him. But by the time he refused the call of Uncle Sam to serve in the military, the country was split right down the middle over the Vietnam War, and he became part of the controversy and polarization. In 1967, when he refused the draft, hundreds of thousands of Americans were doing service in the jungles of Vietnam. Nearly 30,000 had been killed by then. The champ was denounced as a draft dodger; congressmen vilified him, others questioned his patriotism and his motives.
Racial issues were also coming to the fore in new ways while Ali was making his stand. Racial unrest had broken out in Los Angeles in 1965; in Newark, New Jersey, Detroit, Michigan, and a dozen other cities in 1967; and in April 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, protest and unrest occurred in more than 100 cities. The Black Power movement had begun by then as well. African American athletes at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City in 1968 had given the black power salute from the medals podium, and also that summer, the James Brown song, “Say It Loud, Say it Proud,” hit No. 1 on the R& B music chart.
April 1968: Cover of Esquire.
May 1969: Sports Illustrated.
Nov 9th, 1970: “...He’s Back.”
Nov 9th, 1970: Newsweek.
Ali, meanwhile, continued to be featured on magazine covers – for Esquire in 1968 and Sports Illustrated in May 1969. Esquire, courtesy of its art director George Lois, did a classic cover for its April 1968 issue, featuring Ali in a Saint Sebastian pose with puncturing arrows in his body, with head thrown back as if in great pain ( St. Sebastian was a early Christian martyr shown in some classic paintings tied to a post and shot with multiple arrows). As George Lois would in fact explain to Ali while lobbying him for the photo shoot as an arrow-riddled martyr – “…And what I am saying is that you are a martyr to your race, you are a martyr because of the war. It’s a combination of race, religion, and war in one image, you’re symbolizing it in one image.” For the May 5, 1969 issue of Sports Illustrated Ali was depicted in a cover shot draped in royal garb complete with kingly crown as the tagline asked, “Clay-Ali: Once and Future King?.” The feature story pondered the future of the 27 year-old boxing champion, then in a kind of limbo while he appealed his conviction. Then, in 1970, when an Atlanta judge allowed him to face Jerry Quarry in his first return to the ring, his fans were ecstatic. Life and Newsweek put him on November 1970 covers. And after his fight with Quarry, he was awarded the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Medal and Mrs. Coretta King said that he was not just a champion of boxing but “a champion of truth, peace and unity.” For his fans and admirers, Ali was carrying a lot of hopes and expectations. And this too, figured into the background leading up to the Frazier-Ali fight in March 1971.
Joe Frazier, for his part, was almost the complete opposite of Ali, quiet and hard working, not inclined toward social statement. Nor did he have the celebrity cache and media notice that Ali had accumulated. Born into a poor family on a farm in rural South Carolina, Joe Frazier was the youngest of 12 children. As a married 16 year-old in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he worked in a slaughterhouse. That was about when he took up boxing for exercise, as he had begun to gain weight. He was discovered trying to lose weight boxing at a Philadelphia Police Athletic League gym. He soon became a recognized amateur, winning three Golden Gloves titles. In 1964, he added the Olympic heavyweight championship gold medal. Upon his return from the Olympics, however, there was no money, and he took a job as a janitor in a Baptist church of North Philadelphia. There, the pastor happened to have some wealthy friends, among them F. Bruce Baldwin, executive of the Horn & Hardart restaurant chain who helped set up financing for Frazier’s boxing career. He was 21.
Heavyweight boxing champ, Joe Frazier, in 1971. By this time he had a 26-0 record, with 23 KOs; shown here posing by “victory party” poster after final public workout in Philadelphia, March 6, 1971. AP photo/Bill Ingraham.
Over the next five years, he compiled a fearsome record or 26 and 0, winning 23 of his bouts by knockout. In the ring Frazier developed a reputation for his devastating left hook. Boxing analysts called him “a pure puncher.” He would come at opponents relentlessly, in a low and forward moving crouch. His bobbing and weaving could sometimes disguise his left hook, that could catch opponents by surprise. Outside of the ring, Frazier was described by sportswriter Michael Silver as “a decent, hardworking, law abiding, church going family man, who was too busy trying to support his growing family to get involved in any causes.” But ahead of the famous March 1971 fight, Frazier was also drawn into the soci-political currents of the times.
January 28, 1971: Muhammad Ali, with a small crowd behind him, appears outside Joe Frazier’s gym in Philadelphia, PA to taunt him. Photo, Associated Press.
Ali, as he had done with other opponents and part of his stage act and clowning for the media, would taunt Frazier incessantly. He called Frazier names – some of which cut Frazier to the quick, and for which he could never quite forgive Ali. Frazier was ignorant, said Ali at one point, and he likened him to a gorilla. He also used “chump,” “impostor,” “amateur” and “tramp” to describe him from time to time. Ali also said Frazier’s black supporters – and Frazier himself – were “Uncle Toms,” black code for being subservient and/or sucking up to the white man.
Yet, before all the name calling, Frazier had done what he could to help Ali, reportedly lending him some money during his suspension, testifying in Congress, and petitioning President Richard Nixon to have Ali’s boxing license reinstated. Ali, in fact, had come to Frazier, seeking help to get his license back. Among other things, he told Frazier that once reinstated, an Ali-Frazier match would make them both rich. As Frazier would later recount to Sports Illustrated: “He’d come to the gym and call me on the telephone. He just wanted to work with me for the publicity so he could get his license back. One time, after the Ellis fight [i.e., after Feb 1970], I drove him from Philadelphia to New York City in my car. Me and him. We talked about how much we were going to make out of our fight. We were laughin’ and havin’ fun. We were friends, we were great friends. I said, ‘Why not? Come on, man, let’s do it!’ He was a brother. He called me Joe, ‘Hey, Smokin’ Joe!’ In New York we were gonna put on this commotion.”
March 1st, 1971. Colorful pre-fight edition of Sports Illustrated, with Ali-Frazier cover art by artist Robert Handville.
But Frazier soon became astonished at how quickly Ali pirouetted into something less than a friend once he got his license back, then going into his full media act, demeaning Frazier in the run up to their fight. By then, Frazier was boiling inside over the indignities. And beyond the personal matters, Frazier and Ali also became symbols of the larger societal issues of the day – namely, the Vietnam War and the ongoing civil rights struggle. These issues became part of the backdrop for the fight and a kind of national referendum, with folks taking sides whether they were boxing fans or not. As Michael Arkush, author of The Fight of the Century (2007) would later put it:
…The fight was about much more than two men dueling for the undisputed world heavyweight crown. It was about two men representing vastly different versions of our nation in turmoil. With American troops still waging a lost war in Southeast Asia, Ali symbolized a strong challenge to the status quo while Frazier was seen by many as the embodiment of those who were clinging to the past. No doubt these perceptions were way too simplistic, and unfair, especially to Frazier, but they were another example of how much the country was looking for a way to define itself, and its future.
In the boxing world too, the anti-Ali crowd had found their man in Frazier, even though he was not keen on being anyone’s symbol or cause célèbre. Frazier was content to be himself and nothing more. “I often felt bad for Joe,” photographer John Shearer would tell Life.com in later years, recalling the weeks and months he spent with both fighters before the March 1971 bout. “He was completely miscast as the bad guy in the fight. In so many of the pictures I made of him that winter, when he’s with friends and relaxed, there’s something genuinely charming there — but something in his face suggests that if you scratched the surface, you’d find a world of other feelings.”
Meanwhile, breathing fire into the upcoming March 1971 showdown between the two fighters was the media coverage and the hype of fight promoters.
Life magazine’s March 5th, 1971 edition, ahead of historic first Ali-Frazier fight in NY.
Time magazine’s March 8th, 1971 pre-fight edition, “The ,000,000 Fighters.”
Mainstream magazines such as Life and Time had run cover stories featuring the fighters the week prior to the bout. Life ran its feature story on March 5th with the cover tagline, “Battle of the Champs,” with the fighters shown on the cover decked out in handsome formal wear. Life’s ten-page feature story by Thomas Thompson, “The Battle of the Undefeated Giants,” included photos of both the fighters by Life photographer John Shearer showing them in training and other contexts.
Thompson’s piece included background on, and quotes from, each fighter. Ali, in keeping with his loquacious ways, did not disappoint, telling Thompson at one point: “There’s not a man alive who can whup me. I’m too fast… I’m too smart… I ‘m too pretty…I am the greatest. I am the king.”
Of Frazier, Thompson wrote: “There is a confidence bordering on serenity about Frazier.” His article noted that Frazier was a religious man, read the Bible regularly, and showed him in one photo at a church service with his son Marvis. Another showed him on his daily 6 a.m., six-mile training run with his dog at his training camp, and also noted Frazier’s stage presence and more friendly nature working with his soul and R&B singing group, “Joe Frazier & The Knockouts.”
Time magazine’s pre-fight edition of March 8th, 1971 included an artist’s rendering of the two fighters’ faces on the cover beneath the tagline, “The $5,000,000 Fighters,” alluding to the $2.5 million guaranteed each fighter for their meeting at Madison Square Garden (at the time, the most money ever paid to anyone for a few hours of work). Even though Ali and Frazier were highlighted for the money they would make, the promoter of the fight, then 40 year-old Jerry Perenchio, a California theatrical agent whose clients included Richard Burton, Any Williams, Johnny Mathis, and Henry Mancini, would wind up with even more money – something on the order of $20 million to $30 million. Closed-circuit TV venues were set for 350 locations in the U.S. accommodating some 1.7 million viewers at $10 to $30 per seat. (Still, given Ali’s conviction on draft evasion charges, there were more than 20 venues that opted out of the closed-circuit offering). More viewers would come from overseas locations. Perenchio also had the rights to the souvenir fight program, commercials, poster, and post-fight film. And finally, he also had plans to acquire for auction the trunks and boxing gloves used by Ali and Frazier during the fight. “If they can sell Judy Garland’s red Oz shoes [worn in the classic 19 __Wizard of Oz film] for $15,000,” Perenchio told Life magazine in March 1971, “then we should get at least as much for these.”
Joe Frazier during a break in training prior to the March 1971 title bout with Muhammad Ali.
Time also quoted Ali offering some perspective on his larger motivations: “…My mission is to bring freedom to 30 million black people. I’ll win this fight because I’ve got a cause. Frazier has no cause. He’s in it for the money alone.” Yet Frazier might have proven to have been the more prescient of the fight’s outcome, summarizing how his attack on Ali might go, always calling him “Clay”:
…Clay can keep that pretty head, I don’t want it. What I’m going to do is try to pull them kidneys out. I’m going to be at where he lives—in the body. Then I’ll be in business, when I get smoking around the body. Watch him—he’ll be snatching his pretty head back and I’ll let him keep it. Until about the third or fourth round, and then there’ll be a difference. He won’t be able to take it to the body no more. Now he’ll start snatching his sore body away, and then the head will be leaning in. That’s when I’ll take his head, but then it won’t be pretty, or maybe he just won’t care.
One tidbit of political history that occurred on the night of the Ali-Frazier fight, though little-noticed at the time, was a most-significant break-in at FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania (and in fact, the nation’s preoccupation with the fight that night proved a helpful diversion to the burglers). A small group of independent activists known as The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, would remove suitcases-full of FBI files later distributed to selected press revealing the agency’s spying on American citizens and a lot more. Back in New York, meanwhile, in the main arena of Madison Square Garden, the big show was about to begin.
On fight night, Madison Square Garden was full of the rich, famous and fashionable. Professional championship boxing matches in those years were still something of big social events where the literati and glitterati of all stripes came out to be part of the scene. African-American boxing fans attended the event wearing the latest fashions of the day, including long fur coats and top hats for some of the guys, and the latest mini fashion for the ladies.
Photograph by famous New York photojournalist Jean-Pierre Laffont, capturing the style and high fashion of some of those attending the Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali championship fight at Madison Square Garden, NY, March 8, 1971.
Among notables in attendance at the Garden that night were: jazz musician Miles Davis, comedian Bill Cosby, singer Diana Ross, and actors Dustin Hoffman, Diane Keaton and Woody Allen. Bob Dylan was there too, and so were U.S. Senators Ted Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. Artist LeRoy Neiman was there; he painted Ali and Frazier as they fought. Actor Burt Lancaster was positioned at ringside, serving as a commentator on the closed circuit TV coverage. Barbi Benton and Hugh Hefner came together. Eunice Shriver was there, and so was Hollywood dancer, Gene Kelly. Bert Sugar, boxing historian and commentator was there, as was future contender George Foreman, who would later fight both Frazier and Ali.
March 1971: Actors Paul Newman and Glenn Ford viewed the fight via closed-circuit TV in Beverly Hills, CA.
A sellout crowd of 20,455 packed the Garden. The overflow crowd – including some big names like Bing Crosby who couldn’t get into the main arena – were seated at closed circuit television locations like Radio City Music Hall. In fact, 6,500 seats there had sold out three weeks earlier. Virtually every other closed circuit location was also filled to capacity. Millions more – celebrities among them – watched on closed-circuit screens across the U.S. and around the world. Actors Paul Newman and Glen Ford (pictured at right) viewed the fight at a closed circuit screening in Beverly Hills. Elvis and Priscilla Presley did the same at Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, Tennessee. It was estimated that 300 million people around the globe had watched the fight. It was the largest audience ever for a television broadcast up to that time. More people had tuned into the fight than had watched the moon landing two years before.
In the lead up to the fight, Sports Illustrated had a featured cover story on its pre-fight edition titled, “The Slugger and The Boxer” (shown earlier above), which included some famous bouts from history, but for the current fight, described Ali as “a superb boxer” who was also “a mighty good puncher.” And in Joe Frazier, the magazine found “the very model of the relentlessly oncoming slugger.” The fight, said Sports Illustrated’s Martin Kane, “will surely rank with the classics.” At the time of the fight, Frazier was 27 years old and at his boxing peak, Ali was 29, emerging from his legal battles, with two recent bouts under his belt. The odds makers had given Frazier a slight edge.
March 1971: Joe Frazier (green trunks) and Muhammad Ali (red trunks), square off in the big fight.
At the opening bell of the scheduled 15-round fight, it was Ali who came out on the attack, dominating much of the first three rounds. He came at Frazier with a series of repeated short jabs to the face, which took their toll on Frazier over the course of the bout. Frazier’s face had visible welts by the time Round 3 ended. However, in the closing seconds of round three, Frazier hit Ali hard with hook to the jaw, as some photos caught Ali’s head snapping back.
In round four, Frazier began to dominate, again catching Ali with several left hooks. He also had Ali up against the ropes, where he went to work on Ali’s body, causing him to cover up. “Frazier didn’t fight by going for the head, the way a lot of other boxers did against Ali,” Life photographer John Shearer would later note. “He went after Ali’s body the whole fight, pounding away, taking terrible blows to the head himself.”
Frank Sinatra, roaming near ringside as he took his photographs, noticed Frazier getting hit repeatedly by Ali’s jabs. “…I kept watching Frazier putting his head too far out for Ali to punch it,” he would say in a conversation with Bill Gallo, a sportswriter with The New York Daily News. “He was defying Ali, and I said to the newspaper guy next to me: ‘He may win, but if he keeps that up, he’s going to the hospital, taking all those punches’.” Still, Frazier seemed to have his plan and was sticking with it.
March 1971: Frazier hits Ali with a left during fight.
Life photo showing Ali working his jabs on Frazier, which throughout the night took a toll on Frazier’s head & face.
Round 15: Frazier after landing knock-down punch on Ali.
Round 15: Ali falling to the canvass after punch by Frazier.
Round 15: Joe Frazier escorted to his corner as Muhammad Ali gets to his feet quickly following knock-down punch.
March 1971. Joe Frazier, celebrating his victory over Muhammad Ali with his corner crew. AP photo.
“Frazier moved in with the snarl of a wolf,” Norman Mailer wrote of the middle rounds in his Life magazine piece. “His teeth seemed to show through his mouthpiece … Ali looked tired and a little depressed … At the beginning of the fifth round, he got up slowly from his stool, very slowly. Frazier was beginning to feel that the fight was his. He moved in on Ali, his hands at his side in mimicry of Ali, a street fighter mocking his opponent, and Ali tapped him with long light jabs to which Frazier stuck out his mouthpiece, a jeer of derision as if to suggest that the mouthpiece was all Ali would reach all night.”
The fight had a “grudge match” air about it; each man fighting as if he had something to prove. The verbal slurs and taunts continued back-and-forth between both fighters throughout the contest.
The sixth round came and went – the round Ali had predicted he would knock out Frazier. By this round and the next, Ali was visibly tired. The pace he had set in the earlier rounds had slowed, though he still had flurries of punches for Frazier and his speed and punch combinations kept him roughly even with Frazier,
By round eight, however, at about two minutes in, Frazier landed a clean left hook to Ali’s right jaw. At one point, as Ali tried to take refuge or on the ropes, Frazier grabbed Ali’s wrists and swung him into the center of the ring. Ali then went into a clinch with Frazier until separated by referee Mercante.
In the ninth, Frazier began to work on Ali’s body again, as Ali fended them off the best he could. But then Ali bounced back with a flurry of sharp punches and some good foot work. In the tenth Ali did well again, and it appeared the fight might be turning his way. Yet overall the fight was still very close. Then came round 11.
At about nine seconds into the round, Frazier caught Ali with a left hook, and Ali fell to the canvas with both gloves and his right knee on the canvas. As the referee stepped in, Ali rose from the canvas. The referee wiped Ali’s gloves, but did not signal a knockdown, as the two fighters resumed battle.
Near the end of round 11 Frazier again staggered Ali with a left hook as Ali stumbled and grabbed at Frazier to keep his balance. He then stumbled to the ropes, bounced forward into a clinch with Frazier until the two were separated by the referee. As the round closed, Ali clowned his way back to his corner, with Frazier appearing in control.
Sports Illustrated’s William Nack would later write of the fight some years later: “…It was soon clear that this was not the Ali of old, the butterfly who had floated through his championship years, and that the long absence from the ring had stolen his legs and left him vulnerable. He had always been a technically unsound fighter: He threw punches going backward, fought with his arms too low and avoided sweeping punches by leaning back instead of ducking. He could get away with that when he had the speed and reflexes of his youth, but he no longer had them, and Frazier was punishing him.”
For the next three rounds, to the end of round 14, according to the judges’ scorecards, Frazier had the advantage on points for those rounds by all three judges. However, in the 14th Ali had pounded Frazier with some of his best punches of the fight.
In the final round, round 15, Ali’s legs appeared leaden, and Frazier wasted no time moving in on him. After a minute or so into the round, Frazier landed a powerful left hook – described in one account as “an absolutely titanic left hook” – that put Ali on his back. Some photos show Ali going down hard, with legs in the air and the red tassels on his shoes flying. It was only the third time in Ali’s career that he had been floored.
With Ali on the canvas, referee Arthur Mercante escorted Frazier to his corner. Ali got up quickly from Frazier’s blow, as Norman Mailer wrote his Life magazine piece:
…[Y]et Ali got up, Ali came sliding through the last two minutes and thirty five seconds of this heathen holocaust in some last exercise of the will, some iron fundament of the ego not to be knocked out… something held him up before the arm-weary triumphant near-crazy Frazier who had just hit him the hardest punch ever thrown in his life… and they went down to the last few seconds of a great fight, Ali still standing…
As he rose from the canvas, Ali’s jaw was now visibly swollen from earlier hits. He managed to stay on his feet as the fight resumed, but Frazier continued to land several more solid hits on Ali as the round ended. A few minutes later the judges made it official: Frazier had retained the title with a unanimous decision, dealing Ali his first professional loss.
As the post-mortems of the fight came in among fans and commentators, there seemed to be some consensus that Ali wasn’t prepared for the fight; that he was not in his best physical shape; and that he failed do the proper amount of training. Frazier, on the other hand was in top form.
Life photographer John Shearer, had spent weeks with both fighters before the bout, had taken lots of photos of Ali and Frazier during their respective training camps. “When I see the pictures I made of Joe running by himself, for example,” Shearer would later say, “the one thing that strikes me, maybe even more now than when I was making the photos, is his discipline. He was training, training, training. He was driven. And in many ways, he was a man alone.”
Following the fight that night, there was a party for Frazier. But both fighters would spend some time in the hospital getting checked out. Sports news headlines the next day across the country announced the Frazier victory. Sports Illustrated put Frazier’s 15th round knock down punch of Ali on the cover with the headline, “End of the Ali Legend.” But that assessment would prove way premature.
And even before the fight had ended with Frazier the victor, there was talk of a rematch between the two. And indeed there would be a rematch – in fact, two more celebrated bouts between these two phenomenal boxers, a series of battles that would entwine their names forever as a pair in the annals of boxing history. More on those in a moment.
With his victory and prize money, Joe Frazier was able to leave his mark on his native state of South Carolina, where he spent his dirt-poor farm days as a boy. In 1971 he bought a 368-acre estate called Brewton Plantation near his boyhood home. He also became the first black man since Reconstruction to address the South Carolina Legislature.
NY Daily News, March 1971: “Joe Wins By Decision.”
15 March 1971: Sports Illustrated post-fight edition,, “End of the Ali Legend,” though Ali would rise again.
30 Sept 1996: Ali vs. Frazier – “25 years later...still slugging it out,” over their bouts & personal matters.
Ali, too, had a good outcome in 1971. On June 27, 1971, by a vote of 8-0 (with Justice Thurgood Marshall abstaining) the United States Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction for draft evasion and cleared him of all charges.
Following the 1971 Ali-Frazier fight, Frazier defended his title in two 1972 bouts – one against Terry Daniels and the other with Ron Stander, beating both by knockout, Daniels in the fourth round and Stander in the fifth. In another defense of his title in January 1973 he lost the championship to George Foreman. But six months later, he rebounded with a July 1973 victory over Joe Bugner in London, on his way to becoming a contender again.
After Ali’s loss to Frazier in 1971, he went on a tear, winning six fights the following year – beating Jerry Quarry, Floyd Patterson (for the second time), Bob Foster, and three others. In 1973, Ali suffered the second loss of his career at the hands of Ken Norton, who broke Ali’s jaw during the fight. After initially seeking retirement, Ali went back into the ring and won a controversial decision against Norton in their second bout.
Ali and Frazier, meanwhile, would meet in the ring two more times, creating one of boxing’s most notable rivalries. In January 1974, Ali scored a 12-round decision over Frazier at Madison Square Garden in a non-title bout. Then in October 1975, came the “Thrilla in Manila” championship bout, regarded as one of the greatest fights in boxing history. It ended after 14 grueling rounds when a battered Frazier, one eye swollen shut, did not come out to face Ali for the 15th round. Ali too, was exhausted in his corner, later calling the battle a near death experience. But Ali never let up on Frazier over the years during their bouts. In the build-up to “The Thrilla in Manila,” Ali called Frazier “the other type of negro,” “ugly,” “dumb,” and “gorilla,” while waving around a hand-held toy gorilla he used with teh media when taunting Frazier.
As for Ali and his name-calling of Frazier, some believed it tarnished Ali’s own standing among some of his supporters. Author David Halberstam would later write that Ali was able to manipulate and deal with the media in ways that Frazier could not. But that in demeaning Frazier – “in letting the game become too cruel, Ali [was] diminished in the eyes of those of us who admired him and wanted him in every way to be worthy of his own greatness.”
“The truth was,” wrote Halberstam, “that Joe Frazier was never a Tom, and he was not a white man’s fighter, nor in any way was he political… Frazier’s only politics were his fists. Fighting was his only ticket out of the cruelest kind of poverty.”
After a few more fights, Joe Frazier retired in 1976. He staged an unsuccessful one-fight comeback attempt in 1981. He then retired again and began operating a training gym in Philadelphia.
One testament to the famous standing of the 1971 Ali-Frazier bout came in a special Sports Illustrated issue at the fight’s 25th anniversary in 1996 which featured the two titans once again opposite each other on the cover, with the tag line: “25 Years After the First of Their Epic Fights, They’re Still Slugging it Out.” But this piece, as of 1996, also recounted the long-standing personal bitterness between the two over Ali’s name-calling and demeaning of Frazier.
Frazier, in fact, had been scarred more deeply by what Ali said about him over the years than the actual physical blows suffered in the ring. And some of Frazier’s bitterness toward Ali surfaced in his 1995 book, Smokin` Joe: The Autobiography of A Heavyweight Champion of the World (with Phil Berger), and also in statements he made demeaning Ali after Ali’s 1984 Parkinson’s diagnosis. By that time, even some of Frazier’s closest aides felt he was carrying the bitterness too long and too deeply for his own good.
At the 30th anniversary of the first Ali-Frazier bout, in March 2001, Ali wrote in the New York Times: “Joe is right (to be bitter). I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said. Called him names I shouldn’t have called him. I apologize for that. I’m sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight.” Yet many believe the part about selling tickets and promoting the fights was bogus, since there was plenty of that going on elsewhere.
July10th, 2002: Frazier and Ali pose together as they arrive at the 10th annual ESPY Awards in Hollywood. Reuters/Fred Prouser
Privately, however, Frazier had said for years that he wanted a personal, face-to-face apology from Ali. Still, when Frazier, arriving late at the 30th anniversary gathering, was told of Ali’s statement which Ali had also made to the press there, Frazier was reported to have said: “We have to embrace each other. It’s time to talk and get together. Life’s too short.” Frazier was also reported to have told Sports Illustrated in May 2009 that he no longer held hard feelings towards Ali.
In late September 2011, Joe Frazier was diagnosed with liver cancer and admitted to hospice care. He died on November 7th, 2011. Among those attending his funeral were Muhammad Ali, Don King, Larry Holmes, Magic Johnson, Dennis Rodman, and others. Joe Frazier’s professional record, compiled between August 1965 and December 1981, was 32 wins (27 knockouts, 5 decisions), 4 losses (3 knockouts, 1 decision), and 1 draw. Frazier remains one of only two boxers to beat Muhammad Ali in his prime years, the other being Ken Norton.
In retirement, Joe Frazier often felt overshadowed by Ali’s various awards and notices, and he seemed to be left out of the historic recognition traditionally accorded professional boxers of his standing. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the fictional Rocky Balboa character from the Sylvester Stallone /Rocky film series had a statue in Philadelphia, while the city’s most renowned real boxer of recent years did not. This was not unnoticed by Jesse Jackson, who, while eulogizing Frazier at his funeral, made prominent mention of the slight. A few years later, however, in mid-September 2015, a 12-foot bronze statue of Joe Frazier in his boxing stance was dedicated in front of the NBC Universal Sports Arena at the Xfinitiy Live site in south Philadelphia. Statue artist Stephen Layne said he modeled his work on the famous knock-down punch Frazier leveled on Ali in the 15th round of their March 1971 fight. “I found my inspiration in that photo,” Layne said.
September 2015: A 12-foot bronze statue of Joe Frazier in his boxing stance was dedicated in front of the NBC Sports Arena at the Xfinitiy Live site in south Philadelphia.
Muhammad Ali, meanwhile, remains one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time, and also one of the most recognized sports celebrities in the world. Since retiring from boxing in 1981, he has received all manner of sports and other awards and recognition, and he has met with presidents and heads of state, served on various national and international committees, and has lent is name to various causes. In 1991 he traveled to Iraq during the Gulf War and met with Saddam Hussein in an attempt to negotiate the release of American hostages. In 1996, he bore the Olympic Torch to light the flame at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Although Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984, he remained active for a number of years after his diagnosis. In 2005, Ali was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush during ceremonies at the White House. Ali’s professional boxing record, complied between October 1960 through December 1981, is: 56 wins (37 knockouts, 19 decisions), 5 losses (4 decisions, 1 knockout).
On Saturday morning, July 1st, 2006, a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary front-page photograph greeted readers of The Washington Post. President George Bush and Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, had visited the former home of rock `n roll legend Elvis Presley. Known today as Graceland, the Elvis home had recently been designated a National Historic Landmark. In the Washington Post front-page photograph, Koizumi, a known Elvis fan, was shown demonstrating some of his Elvis moves at Graceland while President Bush, Elvis’s former wife Priscilla, and Elvis’s daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, looked on.
July 1st, 2006 edition of The Washington Post with photo of Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi doing his Elvis imitation at Graceland as President Bush, Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley looked on during tour.
A few months earlier, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, declared the Graceland estate to be a National Historic Landmark, which is the highest U.S. recognition accorded historic properties. Fewer than 2,500 such places share the honor, among them, Mount Vernon and Monticello, Virginia, the former homes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Graceland is also the first, and to date, the only home of a rock `n roll star to be so designated.
March 2006: Graceland a National Historic Landmark; with, L-to-R, Jack Soden of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Priscilla Presley, and U.S. Interior Secretary, Gale Norton.
“In recognition of Elvis Presley’s achievements and contributions to American culture and musical history, we designate his home, Graceland, as a National Historic Landmark,” Secretary Norton said during the March 27th, 2006 dedication ceremony.
“American culture and music changed irreversibly because of Elvis,” Secretary Norton said during her remarks. “It would be difficult to tell the story of the 20th century without discussing the many contributions made by this legendary, iconic artist.”
Former wife of Elvis, Priscilla Presley, and Jack Soden of Elvis Presley Enterprises were on hand to receive the formal certification. Less than three months later, Bush and Koizumi would make their visit to Graceland.
Prime Minister Koizumi, it turned out, was a big Elvis fan, not uncommon in Japan, where at least two Elvis fan clubs thrive with thousands of members. Prior to the Bush-Koizumi visit to Graceland, the two heads of state had conducted earlier business in Washington over two days. They had a series of talks on world and bilateral issues, ranging from Iraq and North Korea to U.S. beef exports. But following a black-tie dinner at the White House, the next day’s itinerary was devoted to Graceland.
July 2006: President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi in the awards section of Elvis Presley home at Graceland where various Presley costumes and recording awards are displayed.
On the Air Force One plane ride to Graceland, it was also “all Elvis” as White House staff and traveling press joined in the festivities. “Love Me Tender” and “Don’t Be Cruel” and other Elvis songs were played over the Air Force One public address system. DVDs of Elvis movies were available for viewing. Even fried peanut butter-banana sandwiches – an Elvis specialty – were offered to those willing to indulge.
July 2006: Prime Minister Koizumi is excited to try on a pair of Elvis sunglasses as Priscilla & Lisa Marie Presley look on.
July 2006: Prime Minister Koizumi with Elvis sunglasses outside Graceland mansion as President Bush looks on.
July 2006: Prime Minister Koizumi outside of Graceland, in front of an Elvis pink Cadillac.
Arriving at Graceland, which was closed to the general public while the heads of state were there, Koizumi and Bush saw what most visitors see. In the museum portion of the home, there were displays of the King’s extravagant concert costumes, his guitars, wall after wall of gold records.
In the living areas of the Graceland mansion they saw a glossy black baby-grand piano and a 15-foot-long white sofa. There was also the billiard room with multicolored fabric covering the walls and ceiling and a yellow-and-blue basement entertainment room with mirrored ceiling and triple televisions embedded in the walls.
And not least on the tour was the famously furnished Jungle Room, with its shag carpet, reportedly decorated from Elvis’s memory of a Hawaiian visit.
It was in the Jungle Room where Koizumi was treated to a pair of Elvis’s gold-rimmed sunglasses, which inspired him to offer what appeared to be a brief display of some Elvis air guitar while singing, “Glory, glory, hallelujah.” Press photos, such as that at the top of this story, captured the moment and appeared in news outlets around the world. Outside, just off the drive way and parked on the lawn was one of Elvis’s prize cars – a pink Cadillac.
Some 300 journalists came out to document and report on the trip. In fact, a separate press center was set up in the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum, a separate building where the Cadillac and an MG used in the Elvis movie “Blue Hawaii” were on display, along with other Elvis cars, reported at one time to have numbered more than 30.
While at Graceland, Bush and Koizumi shared some private time for official business in the Meditation Garden – an area where Elvis and his parents are buried next to an eternal flame.
President Bush had decided that a Graceland visit for Koizumi would be the perfect way to honor his friend and fellow world leader. The two had apparently hit it off on a personal level since their first meeting. In fact, at a 2005 birthday party for President Bush, Koizumi sang a few bars of Presley’s, “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,”( also appropriate at the time regarding the U.S.-Japan relationship).
Cover of 2001 CD: “Junichiro Koizumi Presents My Favorite Elvis Songs,” which was marketed for charity purposes in Japan.
In addition to the July 2006 Graceland visit, and as a parting gift to Koizumi for his then forthcoming retirement from office that September, Bush also arranged for a jukebox loaded with Elvis hits to be given to his friend.
Although Elvis never performed outside of the U.S., he continued to have fans around the world, including thousands in Japan. Koizumi, who shares a birth date with Elvis, January 8th, was also an active Elvis fan back home. His brother once ran Presley’s fan club in Yokohama.
In 1987, Koizumi also played a key role in erecting a bronze statue of Presley in Tokyo. And in 2001, he personally selected 25 Elvis songs for a limited-edition charity CD released in Japan under the title, “Junichiro Koizumi Presents My Favorite Elvis Songs,” a CD that quickly sold out. (In 2009, after he retired, Koizumi attended an unveiling of another Elvis Presley statue, this one in Kobe, Japan.)
Near the end of the July 2006 visit to Graceland, President Bush, reflecting on the tour and satisfied that he helped provide a good time for Koizumi, noted: “I knew he loved Elvis,” he said of the Japanese prime minister, “I didn’t realize how much he loved Elvis.”
Graceland sign outside the former home of Elvis Presley.
Graceland, it turns out, is not only a nice diversion for a visiting head of state. In fact, for nearly 35 years now the Elvis homestead has become big business. Tens of thousands come there every year – as paying visitors. Forbes magazine reported that Presley’s estate – including Graceland visitors, licencing fees, and merchandise – earned an estimated $55 million in 2013, placing Elvis among the top-earning deceased celebrities for that year and a number of years past.
Elvis Presley died at Graceland in August 1977 at the age of 42. Since his death, Graceland has become essentially a memorial to Presley and national monument of a kind. The site was opened to the public on June 7, 1982. It was first listed in the National Register of Historic Places on November 7, 1991, becoming a National Historic Landmark in March 2006. Since its opening to the public it has become, after the White House, one of the most-visited private homes in America with more than 600,000 visitors in recent years.
1957: Elvis at front entrance of Graceland mansion.
Graceland includes the mansion house, located on nearly 14 acres. There are 23 rooms, in the mansion, including 8 bedrooms and bathrooms. There is also a full stable on the grounds. The estate is located just under 10 miles from downtown Memphis, Tennessee and less than four miles north of the Mississippi state line. Elvis was born in Tupelo, MS. Presley, his parents Gladys and Vernon Presley, and his grandmother, are buried in the Meditation Garden at Graceland. A memorial gravestone for Presley’s stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon, is also at the site. When Presley died in 1977 he was originally buried at Forest Hill Cemetery. But after attempts were made to steal his body that August, Presley’s father, Vernon, had the bodies of Elvis and his mother both reburied at Graceland.
Graceland also includes a museum across the street where various Elvis artifacts are on display, including some of his famous Las Vegas jumpsuits, gold records, guitars he used, and other material. Elvis’ extensive collection of automobiles, including his pink Cadillac, are also housed there. And although they were put up for sale in 2015, two of Presley’s specially-outfitted airplanes were also on the grounds, exhibited there for tourists by a separate company.
Elvis originally purchased Graceland on March 19, 1957 for the amount of $102,500. In those days, the property was located in a mostly rural area, which in subsequent years filled in with residential and commercial growth expanding from Memphis. After purchasing the property Elvis spent more than $500,000 making modifications, including a low-lying stone wall of Alabama fieldstone surrounding the grounds; a wrought-iron front gate shaped as a page of sheet music with musical notes with a silhouetted guitar player o each side; a kidney shaped swimming pool; a racquetball court; the “jungle room” mentioned earlier, with indoor waterfall and recording studio; and other additions. Although his performances kept him away from home a good deal, and he also had other homes, Elvis regarded Graceland as his homeplace for 20 years, from 1957-1977, during which, off and on, an assortment of family members lived there as well.
1957: Elvis Presley stands at the wrought iron gates he had made for the entrance drive at Graceland, made to resemble a page of sheet music with musical notes and guitar players depicted.
After Elvis’s death in 1977, the executor of his estate initially was his father, Vernon, who then passed it on to Elvis’ former wife, Priscilla, until daughter Lisa Marie came of age. The estate, meanwhile, faced $500,000 a year in upkeep costs and considerable taxes. There was some worry that Graceland might have to be sold in order to avoid bankruptcy. Priscilla then set about examining how historic homes and museums operated and she hired business executive Jack Soden to help turn Graceland into a tourist destination.
Headlines from an August 2002 Associated Press story on Graceland: “Presley’s Home Earns Millions...”
On June 7, 1982. Graceland was opened to the public under the management of Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE) with Soden at the helm and Priscilla as chairwoman and president. At first, there was uncertainty that Graceland could sustain itself as a tourist location, but after the first few months of visitation the estate recouped its upgrade investment and began turning a profit. There had also been some litigation and court-ordered investigations of the handling of Elvis’s past business affairs by former manager Colonel Tom Parker. Favorable resolution of these and other legal issues helped put the estate on better financial footing. EPE, meanwhile, became more aggressive in securing rights to Elvis’s image and related intellectual property, even helping push through new copyright and trademark legislation in the U.S. Congress. EPE also had a hand in a new Tennessee law that guaranteed that commercial rights to the name and image of a deceased celebrity would pass to his or her heirs.
A Reuters news graphic outlining the Graceland-area businesses and properties of Elvis Presley Enterprises at that time, August 2002.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Elvis Presley Enterprises also bought up some of the properties and businesses around Graceland. And over the years EPE also filed more than a hundred lawsuits to assert and protect the estate’s exclusive right to Elvis’s name and image. Licensing fees were also bolstered to help produce income for the Presley estate. Any business selling Elvis memorabilia in the U.S. pays EPE both a licensing fee and an advance royalty based on expected sales. In terms of Elvis’s music, however, Colonel Parker sold those rights long ago to RCA for a song. But in the 1990s, EPE negotiated a new deal with RCA for royalties from newly packaged anthologies of old Elvis tunes. Among these, for example, was a five-CD boxed set released in 1993 that topped a million in sales. More new releases have followed.
At Graceland, meanwhile, tourist visitation continued to do well through the 1990s. On the 20th Anniversary of Elvis’ death in 1997, throngs of fans descended on Graceland, including several hundred media, whose coverage of the event brought more public notice to Graceland, helping spur more visitation. Each August now, at the anniversary of Elvis’ death, thousands come to Graceland for a range of activities during “Elvis Week.” At the 25th anniversary in 2002 as estimated 40,000 people came to Graceland during Elvis Week. And Elvis’s music, even in 2002, still had popular currency. When RCA rereleased some of his singles that year to promote a greatest-hits compilation, more than a dozen of them became top five hits in Britain.
In the early 2000s, however, visitation at Graceland hit a plateau in the 500,000-to-600,000 range. Priscilla, Lisa Marie, and Jack Soden at EPE had watched visitors from the U.S. and all over the world express their enthusiasm, and open their wallets, for all things Elvis. They suspected there was more potential upside at Graceland and the Elvis Presley legacy. But they did not have the experience to take it to the next level. That’s about when some bigger players entered the picture.
Lisa Marie Presley, 2004.
In December 2004, Lisa Marie Presley made a business deal with CKX, Inc. and its chairman, Robert Sillerman, a notable player in the entertainment business and celebrity rights management. In a $114 million deal with CKX, she sold some 85 percent of the business side of her father’s estate, along with some Elvis Presley rights. She kept the home and the Graceland property, as well as the bulk of the possessions there. But she turned over the management of Graceland and EPE to CKX.
“For the past few years, I’ve been looking for someone to join forces with to expand the many facets of (Elvis Presley Enterprises), to take it to new levels internationally and to make it an even greater force in the entertainment industry,” said Lisa Marie Presley at the time of the deal.
Lisa Marie received $50 million from the sale plus stock in CKX. Priscilla Presley got $6.5 million and a 10-year consulting contract with CKX at $560,000 a year. She also received a seat on the CKX board of directors.
Sillerman and CKX got the rights to the Elvis name, image, likeness, and trademark, then used in 100 or so merchandising and licensing deals. CKX also got the publishing rights to 650 songs, royalty rights to fewer Elvis songs recorded after 1973, and royalty rights to 24 Elvis movies.
Robert Sillerman in a 2009 photograph.
Robert Sillerman, the chairman of CKX, had become a billionaire in the 1990s after collecting and selling off a network of radio properties, and concert and entertainment venues. Sillerman was known as something of wheeler dealer in the entertainment management world. In fact, shortly after the Graceland deal, his company also acquired 19 Entertainment, the company that owned the American Idol TV show. That deal was valued at $190 million.
Sillerman, a friend of Mel Brooks who years earlier had invested in Brooks’ Broadway production, The Producers, also came to own Muhammed Ali rights as well as the firm that managed Woody Allen, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. In April 2006, Sillerman paid $50 million for an 80 percent stake in Muhammed Ali’s name, image and likeness. “When we created CKX and came up with the idea for it,” Mr. Sillerman said in an April 2006 interview, “we came up with three things that we thought had the greatest impact on American culture,” then naming the three: Elvis Presley, American Idol, and Muhammed Ali.
Sillerman had big plans for the future – including those built upon the licensing rights of baby boomer cultural icons like Elvis. He even had hoped to land some Beatles’ rights, but that did not happen. Still, with Graceland and the Elvis Presley legacy, Sillerman saw new business opportunities ahead. “Does it make sense to invest in Elvis Presley enterprises in Japan? Does it make sense in Germany?,” he asked at the time of the Elvis deal. “Are there things that can be done in other jurisdictions in the United States? The answer to some of the questions is obviously yes,’ he said., “we just don’t know which ones.”
Elvis Week at Graceland has evolved into an annual mid-August celebration of the music and legacy of Elvis Presley.
There was thinking at the time of possible Elvis-themed venues around the world, prehaps something similar similar to a Hard Rock Café type design. Some observers believed that taking the Elvis brand into foreign markets could dwarf U.S. opportunities. “Put a casino in Macau or Dubai, put a replica of Graceland in Tokyo—the opportunities are huge,” offered one business analyst. EPE’s Jack Soden had also been eyeing the international potential, and he offered one anecdote as an indication that foreign visitors were just as crazy about Elvis as Americans. “The Bolshoi Ballet came en masse to Graceland,” Soden told Fortune magazine in 2005. “All these ballet dancers from Russia were huge Elvis fans, and [their handlers] were asking for our help to get them out of here and back to rehearsal. They had a per diem, and they were missing meals and saving money so they could buy more stuff at the shop.”
In February 2006, Robert Sillerman announced plans to turn Graceland into a much improved tourist destination that would also draw international visitors. What Sillerman had in mind was something on a par with the Disney or Universal theme parks. Graceland and the immediate area would be made over to accommodate a doubling or even tripling of annual visitors, possibly to around 2 million a year. CKX began working with Disney Imagineering based in Orlando, Florida, to improve the tourist area around Graceland. While keeping the historic home intact, the make-over would include a three-mile Elvis Presley Boulevard as an entertainment district near the estate. Elvis Presley Enterprises, meanwhile, had already bought up over 120 acres of land, apartments and existing shops that would make way for the expansion.
2015: Although it took time to advance from the earlier property acquisitions of Elvis Presley Enterprises and the vision Robert Sillerman’s CKX in 2005, expansion plans for the Graceland area, with a new hotel – “Guesthouse at Graceland” (lower left) – and an “Entertainment Complex,” have moved forward, collecting state and local approvals.
There was also some potential for Elvis/Graceland cross-promotion between Sillerman properties and Elvis venues. In May 2006, Sillerman’s American Idol show featured some of its contestants visiting Graceland. Not long thereafter, attendance at Graceland in July 2006 was up six percent over July 2005, which some attributed to the American Idol linkage. And in September 2006, Memphis was one of seven cities where American Idol held auditions. American Idol contestants doing Elvis songs on that show in the future was another distinct possibility.
“Viva Elvis” debuted December 2009.
Sillerman was also working on an Elvis venue to be built in Las Vegas. And his firm was helping Cirque du Soleil develop a high-concept production about Elvis that would launch later in Las Vegas and potentially tour the world. That production was planning to use Elvis imagery, music, and artifacts in an artistically-colored act with Cirque du Soleil dancers and trapeze artists.
After some time in development, that show, billed as a tribute to the life and music of Elvis Presley and titled “Viva Elvis,” debuted with preview performances in December 2009 at the Aria Resort & Casino.
However, Sillerman’s bigger plans for Elvis and CKX began to fall apart after he invested in Las Vegas property with the idea of creating an Elvis Presley-themed casino. That occurred not long after the economy turned bad in 2008-2010, as stocks and real estate values plummeted, when Sillerman and CKX got into financial trouble. In May 2010, Sillerman stepped down as chairman and CEO of CKX. About a year later, in May 2011, CKX was sold to Apollo Management for $512 million, and Apollo changed the name of CKX to CORE Media Group. Not long thereafter, Apollo began to sell off some of what it has acquired, though keeping American Idol, at least for the time being.
Authentic Brands Group logo.
On November 19, 2013, Apollo sold its stake in Elvis Presley Enterprises and Muhammad Ali Enterprises to Authentic Brands Group(ABG), a New York-based intellectual property corporation that already managed Marilyn Monroe rights, among others. In this deal, ABG would then own Elvis Presley’s intellectual property rights and Elvis Presley Enterprises. ABG was believed to have paid something north of $130 million for the Presley and Ali rights. In the deal, ABG assumed the global rights to a vast library of Elvis Presley photographic imagery, including artwork, album covers and movie posters; video and audio assets, including television appearances and music specials; Elvis’ name and likeness; and other assets, including the rights to major Elvis-themed events such as Elvis Week.
With the ABG deal, Priscilla Presley noted in a statement: “We look forward to working with the ABG team to further promote the legacy of Elvis. This is the opportunity the family has been envisioning to expand the Graceland experience and enhance Elvis’ image all over the world.” Lisa Marie Presley added: “While I will continue to own Graceland and Elvis’ original artifacts, we are looking forward to working with our new partners to continue the growth and expansion we have been working towards. The licensing and merchandising aspect of this business is not to be confused with the fact that the property will always remain with me and my family. However, this is a great partnership for our family and Elvis fans worldwide.”
“Direct From Graceland: Elvis” – for ABG’s London exhibit.
ABG soon put its Elvis properties to work, taking their new Graceland brand on the road for the first time with a nine-month exhibition of Elvis Presley artifacts displayed at London’s O2 arena.
And in February 2015, ABG announced it would establish a second permanent Elvis home in Las Vegas, at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort and Casino, on the site where Elvis had performed in earlier years.
In 1969, Elvis had played a record 58 consecutive, sold-out shows at that location at the former International Hotel. He would eventually play some 837 performances in Las Vegas.
The London and Las Vegas venues, according to ABG, demonstrated the potential for using the million or so Graceland-Elvis artifacts that often remain in storage. “Once you give someone a taste of this,” said ABG managing partner Joel Weinshanker of the Elvis exhibits and other artifacts, “they’ll want more.”
Back at Graceland proper, meanwhile, Authentic Brands was also at work. By August 2014, they introduced an interactive iPad tour guide and the Graceland Archive, in which curators exhibit and discuss material not on permanent display. ABG and EPE were also moving ahead with the planned Graceland expansion. A 450-room hotel and conference center – dubbed the Guest House at Graceland (noted on map earlier), is scheduled to open in 2016. It will be Memphis’s largest new hotel and will also include a 500-seat theater. In conjunction with the larger Graceland area development plan, EPE is also seeking to designate the area a “tourist development zone.” It also wants state and local tax breaks – as much as $40 million according to one report – noting that the projected expansion will generate jobs and business income.
The July 2008 Tennessee Business magazine raised the question of how long the Elvis economic magic and appeal might last.
Still, there have been some “doubting Thomases” out there who wonder just how long the Elvis magic can last. Elvis followers and fans are mostly older, and some analysts have called the Elvis enterprise a “boomer play,” expecting a downturn as this cohort dies off. But there are signs that the Elvis story and his music can have legs with new followers and new markets. In recent years, new compilations of Presley’s music, and rediscovered or never released material, have resonated with younger listeners and buyers. Elvis’s appeal musically also cuts across the rock, gospel and blues genres, and that will also help broaden and sustain his fan base going forward.
So stay tuned. Elvis hasn’t quite left the building yet – and if the investors and entertainment moguls have anything to do with it, he never will.
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “They Go To Graceland, Elvis Home a Big Draw,” PopHistoryDig.com, September 17, 2015.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
“Celebrity Visitors” …At Graceland
President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Koizumi weren’t the only high-profile visitors to tour Graceland in recent years. Since their July 2006 visit to Graceland, other heads of state and/or related royalty have also gone to Graceland. On August 6, 2010, Prince Albert II, Monaco’s Head of State, and his fiancée, Charlene Wittstock, on a U.S. vacation, toured Graceland. Prince William and Prince Harry of the U.K., while in Memphis for a friend’s wedding, visited Graceland on May 2, 2014, where they were joined by Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie for a private tour. Rock `n roll “royalty,” as well, have also had some interaction with Graceland. American singer-songwriter Paul Simon, visited Graceland in the early 1980s and wrote a song which became the title track of his 1986 world music hit album, Graceland, suggesting some homage to Elvis and his home place (Simon has also mentioned Sun Records recordings of country rhythms as an influence on the album). On May 26, 2013, Sir Paul McCartney visited Graceland, leaving a guitar pick on Elvis’s grave “so Elvis can play in heaven.” And of course, in prior years, a long list of celebrities, aspiring musicians, and other notables – from conservative columnist William F. Buckley to world famous architect, I.M. Pei – have visited Graceland. A few years after he left the White House, President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Roslyn Carter visited Graceland.
Sept/Oct 2010 sample edition of “Graceland” magazine, published by German fans since 1979, one indication of Presley’s continuing appeal abroad.
One of the exhibits of Elvis Presley gold records and other artifacts at Graceland in Memphis, TN.
Elvis Week logo, August 2012, 35th anniversary, Graceland.
Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts, “From the White House to Graceland,” Washington Post, June 14, 2006, p. C-3.
“Bush, Japan’s Koizumi Tour Graceland,” USA Today, June 30, 2006.
Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts, “Bush and Koizumi, Walking in Blue Suede Footprints,” Washington Post, June 30, 2006, p. C-3
Peter Baker, “Bush Takes Koizumi for Tour of Graceland,” Washington Post, Saturday, July 1, 2006.
Stephen Kaufman, “Bush, Koizumi Tour of Graceland Highlights Elvis’ Enduring Legacy; Rock Icon’s Home Attracts More than 600,000 Visitors Each Year,” U.S. Department of State, June 27, 2006.
Woody Baird, AP, “Public Tours Of Graceland Bring High Profits,” Kentucky New Era, June 8, 1983, p. 12.
Craig Horowitz and others, “The Presley Inheritance: Elvis Squandered It, Priscilla Restored It; Now Lisa Marie Is in Charge of It,” People, Vol. 39, No. 8, March 1, 1993,
Sidebar (Presley inheritance story above), “Taking Care of (the King’s) Business,” People, Vol. 39, No. 8, March 1, 1993.
Woody Baird, Associated Press, “Graceland: Presley’s Home Earns Millions For Estate,” The Daily Courier (Prescott, Arizona), August 16, 2002, p. 15-A.
Associated Press, “Lisa Marie Presley Selling Elvis Estate,” USA Today, December 16, 2004.
Andy Serwer, “The Man Who Bought Elvis; Investor Robert Sillerman Is Combining the King, American Idol, and Other Enter- tainment Assets to Build His Next Media Conglomerate,” Fortune, December 12, 2005.
Woody Baird, Associated Press, “All Shook Up Over Graceland Deal; Now That Outsiders Run the Elvis Presley Mansion, Those Who Flock to Memphis Every Year Worry That it Won’t Be Quite So Homey,” Los Angles Times, August 11, 2005.
Associated Press, “Media Mogul Wants To Improve Graceland,” The Victoria Advocate (Victoria, Texas), March 5, 2006.
Associated Press, “Elvis’ Graceland Becomes a National Landmark; Home of ‘King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ White House Receive Rare Distinction,” NBCtoday.com (includes video clip with Campbell Brown and Priscilla Presley), March 27, 2006.
Julie Bosman, “$50 Million Puts Ali in Ring With Elvis and ‘American Idol’,” New York Times, April 12, 2006.
Woody Baird, AP, “Lisa Marie Worries Elvis Fans By Selling Piece of Graceland,” The Victoria Advocate (Victoria, TX), August 6, 2006, p. 6-D.
David Lieberman, “Master of the Fame Game” (Robert Sillerman), USA Today, October 17, 2006.
Donnie Snow, “A Little More Action” Busi- nessTN, July 2, 2008.
Anthony Effinger and Daniel Taub, “American Idol Sillerman Dealt Elvis Default Heartbreak in Vegas,” Bloomberg.com, June 1, 2009.
On a clear, quiet Friday morning, February 21st, 2003, around 10 a.m., a tanker barge owned by the Bouchard Transportation Co. was off-loading its cargo of 100,000 barrels of unleaded gasoline at ExxonMobil’s oil depot at Staten Island, New York. Suddenly, an explosion of tremendous force erupted, shaking businesses and homes for miles around (see video at 4th image below). Black smoke from the blaze drifted through the boroughs of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens and rattled terrorist-sensitive city residents, many of whom thought of the 9/11 attack. “I was convinced that there had been a terrorist attack…,” said one woman from Tottenville, Staten Island, three miles south of the blast. “It was so violent. I was in a total panic. You could actually taste the gasoline in your mouth.”
February 2003. A Bouchard Transportation Co. barge exploded & burned while unloading gasoline at the ExxonMobil docks at Port Mobil, Staten Island, NY, on the Arthur Kill waterway. Two workers were killed.
On Wall Street, when traders first heard the news of the explosion, also thinking it was terrorist-related, there was a stock sell-off. But once they learned it was “only a refinery fire,” it was back to business as usual. New York’s mayor at the time, Michael Bloomberg, moved to reassure his city and the nation that there was no reason to believe terrorists were involved.
Burning wreckage of Bouchard Barge 125 after Feb 2003 explosion at ExxonMobil oil depot.
Map showing location of February 2003 barge explosion & fire in the NY City-NJ area.
At the accident scene, meanwhile, it was like a war zone. “I looked up at the sky, and I saw pieces of metal flying all over,” said worker Jaime Villa, who was repairing a pump at the depot when the barge exploded. “I ran as fast as I could go…”
Electrical contractor Ernie Camerlingo also described the scene: “It sounded like a bomb going off. I could feel the debris hitting the top of my car….”
Large chunks of the exploding barge – some “as big as a small bus” by one account – flew hundreds of feet away from where the barge was berthed. One New York Times report noted: “Witnesses told of metal chunks flying in the air, of searing heat waves and blast forces that knocked people down, shattered windows and unhinged doors miles away…”
Another account described “chips of burnt material the size of quarters rained down upon the roofs and patios” in residential areas sending “thousands of panicked residents into the streets.”
Bouchard Barge 125 had unloaded about half its cargo of 100,000 barrels of unleaded gasoline before it exploded. It burned ferociously at its depot berth following the explosion, sending flames 100 feet or more into the air. A NASA satellite image later showed the smoke plume stretching about 94 miles from the site of the fire.
Divers who examined the remains of the barge underwater following the incident, found that the explosion had created a tunneling effect, ripping through the vessel and destroying all 12 of its cargo tanks. A malfunctioning pump aboard the barge was later suspected as the culprit, possibly discharging sparks that ignited the explosion (play silent video below briefly to see size of initial explosion).
As the barge burned that day the New York City Fire Department sent fire boats and fire trucks to the scene. The boats battled the blaze from the Arthur Kill side of the incident, while fire trucks went to the depot side to fight the fire from land.
At one point another tanker barge, Bouchard Barge 35, also loaded with 8,000 barrels of gasoline, began burning. That fire was put out before it could ignite another explosion, but the barge was still near the blazing inferno. Heroically, one tug crew went in there and pulled the threatened barge away from the blast area. It was then doused with water by the fire boats to keep it cool.
The 200-acre storage depot, meanwhile, which included eight loading berths and 39 large storage tanks, was also a major concern. Residents living near the industrial area were evacuated after the explosion. The depot’s storage tanks could hold up to 2.5 million barrels of gasoline, low-sulfur diesel and jet fuel. But at the time, less than 500,000 gallons of product were then in storage at the depot.
After being pulled from near the explosion area, fire boats proceeded to douse Bouchard Barge 35 with cool water, at it was also loaded with gasoline and fire officials feared it too would explode.
At the time of the explosion, there were about 30 ExxonMobil employees on the job at the depot. One ExxonMobil worker at the dock was severely burned and hospitalized, while the bodies of two Bouchard barge crewman who were killed in the explosion were later pulled from the water. Firefighters had contained the barge blaze by the afternoon of the explosion, but flickering flames could still be seen at the site the following morning.Another Bouchard barge spill of 98,000 gallons of oil in Buzzards Bay, Mass. killed hundreds of loons, sea ducks and other birds. The Coast Guard closed the Arthur Kill waterway to shipping between Staten Island and New Jersey. The barge remained partially submerged, and eventually sunk.
The Bouchard Transportation Co., meanwhile, had some previous New York spills, one East River spill in March 2002 in which a Bouchard employee was found legally drunk. The cleanup for that spill lasted several weeks and cost $1.3 million. Bouchard would also have another spill a few months following the Staten Island barge explosion, when one of its barges in April 2003 ran aground outside a shipping lane at Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. In that spill, 98,000 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil took a considerable toll on birds and other wildlife. Hundreds of loons, sea ducks and other birds were killed. Beaches there, which serve as key habitats for birds such as piping plovers, were also oiled. Bouchard would pay a $10 million fine as part of a criminal plea deal in that case, the government charging the company had negligently piloted the barge, resulting in the death of migratory birds in violation of the Federal Migratory Bird Act. In November 2010, Bouchard also agreed to pay another $6 million penalty in that case to settle claims for water pollution.
Smoldering remains and aftermath of the Bouchard Barge 125 explosion at ExxonMobil’s Staten Island depot. Half-sunken remains of the barge visible in the foreground, as large portions of it were blown out into the depot.
“The Daily Damage”
An Occasional Series
This article is one in an occasional series of stories at this website that feature the ongoing environmental and societal impacts of industrial spills & explosions, fires & toxic releases, air & water pollution, and other such occurrences.
These stories will cover both recent incidents and those from history that have left a mark either nationally or locally; have generated controversy in some way; have brought about governmental inquiries or political activity; and generally have taken a toll on the environment, worker health and safety, and/or local communities.
My purpose for including such stories at this website is simply to drive home the continuing and chronic nature of these occurrences through history, and hopefully contribute to public education about them so that improvements in law, regulation, and industry practice will be made, yielding safer alternatives in the future. — Jack Doyle
Back in New York, in November 2008, three years after the Staten Island barge explosion, the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn asked a federal judge for a judgment against Bouchard of up to $61.6 million under the Clean Water Act. Some 3.2 million gallons of gasoline spilled into the Arthur Kill waterway at the time of the incident, much of which was assumed to have been burned off in the fire that followed. Still, under the Clean Water Act penalties of up to $1,100 per barrel of spilled oil can be sought. “Shipping companies that spill large quantities of gasoline into the environment and navigable waters must be penalized and made to contribute to the cost of future cleanups,” said U.S. attorney, Benton J. Campbell, in a statement at the filing.
The final outcome of that case, however, did not come until February 2011, eight years after the explosion, when Bouchard agreed to pay $4 million to settle the Clean Water Act lawsuit for the 50,000 barrels of gasoline it allegedly spilled near Staten Island, N.Y. The civil penalty was then the largest ever collected by the Coast Guard in a federal Clean Water Act case, according to Loretta Lynch, U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York and Admiral Daniel Neptun, Commander of the First Coast Guard District. Still, the Coast Guard, had originally sought a penalty of up to $1,100 per each barrel of oil spilled, which would have amounted to more than $50 million.
See also at this website, for example: “Burning Philadelphia,” a story about the 1975 Gulf Oil Co. refinery fire in that city; “Burn On, Big River,” about the historic pollution of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio; or “Inferno at Whiting,” about the Standard Oil refinery explosion and fire of August 1955 near Chicago that burned for eight days. Additional environmental stories can be found at the “Environmental History” topics page. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please consider making a donation to help support this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
A 1966 song by the Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby,” not only became something of an important departure for pop music in its time, it also inspired at least one piece of sculpture in the Beatles’ hometown of Liverpool, England. The bronze statue, shown below, is displayed at Stanley Street in Liverpool not far from the Cavern Club where the young Beatles performed. It depicts a woman seated on a bench in coat and head scarf with a handbag on her lap and a shopping bag on her right. Also on the bench is a discarded copy of a newspaper upon which is a sparrow pecking at a piece of bread, as the woman looks down at the bird. She is a representation of one of the “lonely people,” described in the Lennon-McCartney song, “Eleanor Rigby.”
Sculpture in Liverpool, England offered in 1982 in homage to the Beatles’ song, “Eleanor Rigby” and the lyric therein, 'All the lonely people.' Sculptor, Tommy Steele.
The statue was designed and sculpted by Tommy Steele, a famous rock musician himself (and sometime sculptor) who rose in the 1950s as Britain’s first teen idol, then dubbed as the U.K.’s answer to Elvis Presley. He is known for his 1957 No. 1 hit, “Singing the Blues.” In 1981, on a visit to Liverpool where he performed, Steele made an offer to city officials to create the sculpture as a tribute to the Beatles, donating his labor. The city fathers approved the idea and also helped fund the project. The cost of casting the figure was met by The Liverpool Echo newspaper. Steele completed the piece in December 1982 when the sculpture was unveiled.
On the wall behind the figure is an inscribed plaque which reads in part, “Eleanor Rigby, Dedicated to ‘All the Lonely People…’ This statue was sculpted and donated to the City of Liverpool by Tommy Steele as a tribute to the Beatles…”
Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people
Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
Father McKenzie, writing the words
Of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working, darning his socks
In the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people
Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt from
his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
The Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby,” credited as a Lennon-McCartney creation, was released on the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver and as also as single. It appears to be one of those songs, fashioned at least partially, by a group process during the give and take of songwriting. In addition to Lennon and McCartney, where the division of labor was 80 percent McCartney and 20 percent Lennon, according to McCartney, several others also contributed suggestions for phrasing and composition that figured into the final song.
“Eleanor Rigby”-The Beatles
The idea for the song began with McCartney, who initially had been working with earlier lyrics that he set aside, most of which would be abandoned. But when he hit upon the phrase, “…picks up the rice in a church where a wedding had been,” it became a pathway to the song’s story. McCartney imagined this woman picking up the rice as odd, since others would leave it on the ground. He envisioned her “as a lonely spinster type of this parish,” not likely to have her own wedding, and that’s when he decided the song would be about lonely people. In particular, the song was structured around the spinster and a priest, who also cross paths at the woman’s funeral.
The name Eleanor Rigby came over time as well, with “Eleanor” first borrowed from Eleanor Bron who had appeared with McCartney and the Beatles in the 1965 film Help!. “Rigby” came about from a business sign McCartney had seen – Rigby & Evans Wine & Spirit Shippers. But there is also something earlier from when young Lennon and McCartney first met in 1957, which was near a cemetery at St Peter’s Church in Woolton, a hang-out spot at the time. In that cemetery one tombstone’s engraving includes an “Eleanor Rigby” entry. As McCartney has stated about the name: “It was either complete coincidence or in my subconscious” from his earlier years.
Other lyrics for the song came together after McCartney gathered his mates – Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Lennon friend, Pete Shotton – at Lennon’s home to help finish the lyrics. George came up with the opening phrase, “Ah, look at all the lonely people.” Ringo contributed “darning his socks,” and Shotton offered that the song should end with a funeral, bringing all the story’s characters together.
The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” EP, Portugal, Parlophone.
In the studio, meanwhile, it was George Martin’s idea to add strings to the composition, which Paul at first did not like, as he thought it would sound too syrupy. But apparently he grew comfortable with the idea. In fact, according to Lennon, McCartney at the time was listening to and liking Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, introduced to him by way of his then girlfriend, Jane Asher.
In any case, two string quartets – comprised of four violins, two cellos, and two violas, scored by George Martin – would become central to the song. However, McCartney did ask that the strings have a “biting” sound in the arrangement. And this was met through the work of engineer Geoff Emerick who, according to Rolling Stone, “was determined to capture the sound of bows striking strings with an immediacy previously unheard on any recording, classical or rock…” In order to achieve this, Emerick miked the instruments separately. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, as the strings stand out in “Eleanor Rigby” – clearly audible, dominant, and not syrupy at all.
The Beatles, however, do not play any instruments on “Eleanor Rigby.” McCartney provides the lead vocal, double-tracked, with Lennon and Harrison adding harmonies. But the message in “Eleanor Rigby” is as important as the music.
Cover art on the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine / Eleanor Rigby single as released in Brazil.
The song was among those that took the Beatles – and for that matter, a portion of contemporary music – away from simple pop-styled rock `n roll to more sophisticated studio productions and songs that had something to say.
“Eleanor Rigby” is described by Rolling Stone as “a meditation on solitude and aging that sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time.” AllMusic critic and reviewer Richie Unterberger has noted that “singing about the neglected concerns and fates of the elderly” on “Eleanor Regby” is one example “of why the Beatles’ appeal reached so far beyond the traditional rock audience”.
After Paul McCartney heard the final track, his perception of his own songwriting changed, according to Rolling Stone, seeing the song as something of breakthrough, moving him away from pop styles toward more serious possibilities in the future.
Still, on the popular music charts of 1966, “Eleanor Rigby” did quite well, especially in the U.K. It was released in early August 1966 as a single and also on the album Revolver. It was the second track on that album, following George Harrison’s “Taxman.” Ringo Starr’s “Yellow Submarine,” which would be paired with “Eleanor Rigby” on the single, is also on Revolver.
Revolver was the Beatles’ 7th studio album and their second following Rubber Soul, which marked a progression in their new “studio phase” of music making, where they began experimenting with new sounds and new techniques, evolving a more sophisticated body of work (see also at this website a separate story on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” also from Revolver).
Beatles on the cover of the 1966 Swedish edition of the “Yellow Submarine” / “Eleanor Rigby” single, 1966.
In the U.K, the “Eleanor Rigby” single on the Parlophone label went to No. 1, staying there for four weeks. In the U.S., on the Capitol label, it hit No. 11. The song was also nominated for three Grammys, with McCartney winning the 1966 Grammy for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance. Rolling Stone magazine rated “Eleanor Rigby” at No. 138 on its 2004 list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
Beatles song historian, Ian MacDonald, author of Revolution in the Head (1994), has noted that “Eleanor Rigby” – while certainly not the first popular song to deal with death and loneliness – “came as quite a shock to pop listeners in 1966.”
The song, as others have noted, despite its bleak message of depression and isolation with funeral trappings, went right to the top of the pop music charts. Prior Beatles material, for the most part, had been focused on love songs in one form or another.
By 1966, they had released a few songs such as “Nowhere Man” and “Paperback Writer.” But “Eleanor Rigby” marked an even sharper departure from their earlier years. Adds AllMusic.com reviewer Richie Unterberger:
… In a broader sense, the Beatles could be commenting here on the alienation of people in the modern world as a whole, with a pessimism that is rare in a Beatles track (and rarer still in a McCartney-dominated one). What are these characters doing their small tasks for, and what is the point: those are the questions asked by the song, albeit in an understated tone. Pessimism about the worth of organized religion is implied in the desolate portrait of Father McKenzie and the finality of the phrase ‘no one was saved.’…
In any case, the musicians and producers of that day were listening, and they heard something new. Pete Townshend of the rock group The Who noted in one 1967 interview: “I think ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was a very important musical move forward. It certainly inspired me to write and listen to things in that vein.” And American songwriter Jerry Leiber has stated: “The Beatles are second to none in all departments. I don’t think there has ever been a better song written than ‘Eleanor Rigby’.” Howard Goodall, an English composer of musicals, choral, and theatrical music has remarked on the song as being an urban version of a tragic ballad with classical Greek influences.
Cover of a 1968 Ray Charles single featuring his version of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” song.
The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” has also been covered by a long list of contemporary artists, at least 62 of whom have recorded it on albums. Among those covering the song vocally have been Joan Baez, Aretha Franklin, John Denver, Bobbie Gentry, and Sarah Vaughn, to mention a few. Instrumental versions include those by Booker T and the MGs and The Percy Faith Strings.
“Eleanor Rigby”-Ray Charles
However, one cover version of “Eleanor Rigby,” offered by Ray Charles and his Raelettes, provides a strong and vibrant interpretation – adding a touch of soul and R & B from the master, along with a little call-and-response action from the Raelettes. The Ray Charles version, in fact, cracked the U.S. Top 40 in July-August 1968, reaching No. 35.
Cover art for the May 2012 digitally-restored editions of the 1968 “Yellow Submarine” film, which includes the “Eleanor Rigby” song.
The Beatles, meanwhile, would also issue the song on a number of their albums. In addition to Revolver in 1966, it also appears as the second song in the Beatles’ 1968 animated film, Yellow Submarine, but is not on the original Yellow Submarine soundtrack album. In 1984, a re-interpretation of the song was included in the film and album Give My Regards to Broad Street, written by and starring Paul McCartney. The song in that production segues into a symphonic extension titled, “Eleanor’s Dream.”
A fully remixed stereo version of the original “Eleanor Rigby” was issued in 1999 on the Yellow Submarine Songtrack for the re-release of the 1968 film. It also appears on several other Beatles collections, anthologies, and box sets issued since the 1990s.
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Eleanor Rigby, The Beatles: 1966,” PopHistoryDig.com, August 31, 2015.
Source, Links & Additional Information
EMI ad on the release of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” single, appearing in the Friday, August 5th, 1966 edition of the U.K’s “New Musical Express” magazine, which also includes a photo of the Beatles behind a wire mesh fence.
1966: Capitol Records’ 45rpm disc for the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” single.
“The Beatles,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 56-59.
Greil Marcus, “The Beatles,” in Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke, with Holly George-Warren (eds), The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock n Roll, New York: Random House, revised edition, 1992, pp. 209-222.
“No 138, Eleanor Rigby, 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” Rolling Stone, 2011.
Terry Cavanagh, Public Sculpture of Liverpool, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997.
Bill Harry, The Beatles Encyclopedia: Revised and Updated, London: Virgin Publishing, 2000.
Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties (3rd ed.), Chicago Review Press, 2005.
Book jacket cover for 1948 first edition of “The Babe Ruth Story” as told to Bob Considine, published by E.P. Dutton.
Babe Ruth, the famous New York Yankee baseball slugger of the 1920s and 1930s, had retired from baseball in June 1935 after playing professionally for more than 20 years. In April and June of 1948, before adoring fans, he was honored on two occasions at Yankee Stadium. But by this time, Ruth was also battling throat cancer, first diagnosed in November 1946, though he was never told he had cancer.
In 1947, Ruth had also authorized a biography about his life and times — The Babe Ruth Story (cover at right) — which would be published in 1948. Written in the first person, Ruth’s story was “told to Bob Considine,” then a famous author and Hearst syndicated newspaper columnist. Considine’s name appears on the book’s cover along with Ruth’s — as well as a hand-written note at the top, supposedly from Ruth, calling the book “my only authorized story.”
The Babe Ruth Story, however, was not written by Considine – or at least a good portion of it came from another source. Considine did meet with Ruth several times in attempts to interview him for the book. Another sports writer, Fred Lieb, who worked for the New York Telegram newspaper, became the real ghostwriter for the book. Lieb later recounted his role to other writers, including Lawrence Ritter and Leigh Montville:
“The Babe Ruth book is under Considine’s name, but I gave him most of his information. I dictated that book for about a week before the 1947 World Series. I told everything I knew or could recall about the Babe – well, everything that could be printed, anyway.”
According to Lieb, Considine didn’t know enough about Ruth to do his biography, and hadn’t covered him as extensively as Lieb had. “I was with Ruth [as a sportswriter] from 1920 to 1934. Considine didn’t come to New York until around 1933.”
Back cover of 1948 book, “The Babe Ruth Story.”
In 1947, when Considine sought to work with Ruth, he found it hard for Ruth to sit still long enough to have any serious interviewing – as Ruth was then on the rebound from what was thought to be a successful round of drug treatments (false, it turned out) for his diagnosed throat cancer. Ruth would become too sick for Considine to interview for the book, and without the interviews, he only had partial knowledge of Ruth’s full career. And that’s when Considine turned to Fred Lieb for help. But Lieb, Considine, and Ruth did work on various parts of the book during the closing months of 1947.
When the book came out in May 1948, it was Bob Considine’s name on the cover, plus a photo of he and Ruth on the back cover, along with Considine’s biography and considerable author credits.
Considine was born in Washington D.C., grew up there and graduated from George Washington University with a journalism degree. However, he had also worked at the state department while in college, and might have had a career overseas if it weren’t for a Washington Post job offer as a sports writer. He covered the sports beat there and at the Washington Herald between 1930 and 1933. Thereafter, Considine served as a war correspondent for the William Randolph Hearst-owned International News Service (a predecessor of United Press International).
From 1937 to 1975 Considine’s “On The Line” column was syndicated nationally. He also authored some 25 books, including Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, a 1943 collaboration with Captain Ted Lawson. His “On the Line” column was also the basis for radio commentaries.
Young Babe Ruth in action with the Boston Red Sox. Click for story with more of his career statistics and the batting records he set.
A Time magazine profile of him would note: “Ghostwriter Considine dashes off his fast-moving autobiographies while their heroes still rate Page One, takes one-third of the ‘author’s’ royalties as his cut. His General Wainwright’s Story was in print before Wainwright was out of the hospital. While Ted Lawson was still recovering from wounds suffered in Doolittle’s Tokyo raid, Considine finished Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” In his prime, Considine was making an estimated $100,000 annually. He also wrote several Hollywood movie scripts. By the time he was tapped to write the Babe Ruth book, his national column covered the general news topics of the day. On the back of the Ruth book, Considine offered his Babe Ruth bona fides:
“Babe and I have known each other since 1933, when I started covering big league ball for the Washington Herald. When I was a kid, he was, of course, my No. 1 baseball hero. He pitched the first big league game I ever saw – during the summer of 1918. He beat Washington [then the Senators] 1-0, and the 1 was one of the 11 home runs he hit that season to tie for the America league homerun championship. I was the first sportswriter Babe was able to see after he returned home from the hospital [during his cancer treatments]. I took Hank Greenberg [famous Detroit Tigers slugger] up there one Sunday afternoon early last year  and the story of the two of them, incidentally, hit a lot of front pages throughout the country.”
The 250-page book on Ruth was published by E.P. Dutton & Co. in New York, in May of 1948. Below are the internal book jacket fly leafs offering the publisher’s description of the book – which Ruth claimed was his only authorized story, a line used on the cover and in marketing.
Inside front book flap for “The Babe Ruth Story,” which also repeats “my only authorized story” note.
Inside back book flap for “The Babe Ruth Story” also mentioned the forthcoming film & paperback edition.
In his treatments for cancer, Ruth had received, in different stages, both radiation and some newer drug treatments. During this time, he was in and out of the hospital, a period when he had also lost quite a bit of weight and had difficulty speaking and swallowing.
An 8-part series of the Babe Ruth book ran in the Saturday Evening Post. The top of the Feb 14th edition ran a feature box for part 1.
In early 1948, Ruth returned to New York after some convalescing in Florida, but his cancer was not much better. He agreed, however, to attend a book signing party for The Babe Ruth Story being held at the offices of E.P. Dutton. Bob Considine, who attended the book signing, would later recall:
“A lot of publishers were there because it was obvious that Babe’s days were numbered. Bennet Cerf [a founder of Random House] stood in line to get the Babe’s autograph. Ernest Hemingway was there. The books were just about running out, the end of the line near, and I said, ‘Jeez, I’d like to have one, too.’ Babe opened the book and wrote, in his marvelous Spencerian handwriting, ‘To my pal Bob…’ And he looked up and said, ‘What the hell is your last name?’ I’d spent two months with him.”
Excerpts from the Ruth-Considine book appeared in an eight-part series in The Saturday Evening Post, then a popular weekly magazine read by millions. The series appeared under the by-line “Babe Ruth with Bob Considine” and ran under the title: “My Hits – And My Errors.” (sample page below).
Sample page from the Saturday Evening Post series on “The Babe Ruth Story,” showing a young Ruth sprinting from the batters’ box on the occasion of his 21st Yankee home run in 1920, a year he hit 54 HRs, changing the game thereafter.
The serialization of The Babe Ruth Story in The Saturday Evening Post ran in editions that appeared between February 14th, 1948 and April 3rd, 1948. That exposure no doubt helped bring notice to the book and helped increase its sales. A New York Times book review covering both the Ruth book and another on pitching star Walter Johnson, appeared in May of 1948.
Pocket Books edition of “The Babe Ruth Story” - by Babe Ruth as told to Bob Considine, 1948.
Paperback publishers at the time, also released Babe Ruth books. Bantam had a Babe Ruth book out in 1948, and Pocket Books (then owned by Marshall Field III who also owned the Chicago Sun newspaper) apparently had the rights and/or an agreement with Dutton, to publish The Babe Ruth Story under its name in paperback form. The Pocket Books edition of The Babe Ruth Story shown at right featured Ruth on the cover in his distinctive home-run swing.
The Babe Ruth Story was also the first baseball book to crack the New York Times bestsellers list, then in its 13th year. Sales of the book were spurred in part by the Babe’s passing, as the book had only been out a few months before his death. The Babe Ruth Story was on the New York Times bestsellers list for three weeks.
Today, copies of The Babe Ruth Story, especially autographed hardback editions, are highly valued by collectors. A Babe Ruth autographed 1948 hardback edition of The Babe Ruth Story sold for $6,462.50 at Robert Edwards Auctions in 2008 – billed by the auction house as “one of the most desirable of all baseball books.” Ruth-autographed copies of this book are especially rare since he was quite ill at the time and only singed a limited number of copies.
As the Robert Edwards auction house has stated: “Thus, signed copies of this book are not only rare but also represent one of the most important and final items ever penned by the legendary ‘Sultan of Swat.’ For that reason they are highly prized by collectors today.” At least one other copy of a signed hardback edition of The Babe Ruth Story sold at Robert Edwards Actions for $4,740.00 in 2013.
One of the movie posters for 1948 film, “The Babe Ruth Story,” this one also promoting Louisville Slugger bats.
Babe Ruth Film
As the book was being written, plans for a Hollywood film on Ruth using the same title – “The Babe Ruth Story” – were also underway, with the film to be based on the Bob Considine book. Considine, in fact, was hired to help with the screenplay.
Starring in the film would be: William Bendix as Ruth; Claire Trevor as Ruth’s wife, Claire; Charles Bickford as Brother Matthias, and William Frawley (later famous for his I Love Lucy TV role as Fred Mertz) as Jack Dunn, Ruth’s manager during his years with the minor league Baltimore Orioles. The film would be produced by Roy Del Ruth (no relation), who had directed a number of actors in the 1930s, including, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Edward G. Robinson, Ginger Rogers and others. Allied Studios would distribute the film.
The idea for a film on Ruth and his life had been kicking around in Hollywood since 1941 or so. But with the outbreak of WWII, the project was shelved for a time, and then the film was on again – off again while trying to find the right lead actor. But in 1947, with Ruth’s health in decline, it became the intent of Allied Artists studio to quickly produce the film and get it into theaters while Ruth was still alive.
Ruth had been signed by the studio as a consultant to help prepare Bendix for the role, and in late-April-early-May 1948, Ruth and Claire went to Hollywood.
On June 13, 1948, when the New York Yankees celebrated the 25th anniversary of Yankee Stadium, there was a also a ceremony retiring Ruth’s No. 3 jersey. It was the last time Ruth would appear at the stadium. Following that outing, and over the next week or so, Ruth traveled on behalf of an American Legion Baseball project with Ford Motor Co., visiting three cities in the Midwest. Not long thereafter, he was back in the hospital, as by this time the cancer had spread throughout his body.
Babe Ruth giving actor William Bendix a few pointers on the art of hitting, May 1948. Ruth was then battling cancer.
Still, in late July 1948, July 26th, he was taken from his hospital room – apparently with the approval of his then wife, Claire – to make an appearance at the film premiere of The Babe Ruth Story at the Astor Theater. A number of those around him at the time thought he was really too sick to have been there, and half way though the film, he was taken back to the hospital. About ten days later, Ruth died of cancer on August 16th, 1948, just before the film’s general release. He was 53 years old.
As for the film’s reception, Leigh Montville would note in his own book on Ruth, The Big Bam:
“…The movie was so bad, so cliche filled and unbelievable, that people [attending the premiere] said they wished they also could have left [as Ruth did]. ‘The Babe Ruth Story’ was killed across the board by the critics.
“ ‘No home run,’ Wanda Hale of the Daily News said, ‘It’s more than a scratch single, a feeble blooper back of second base.’”
1948 film poster for “The Babe Ruth Story.”
The New York Times review stated that the film “has much more the tone of low-grade fiction than it has of biography.” American film critic and historian Leonard Michael Maltin, author of several mainstream books on cinema, called it a “perfectly dreadful bio of the Sultan of Swat that is sugar-coated beyond recognition…” A number of others put it on their “worst movies” list.
Still, one bad film wasn’t going to tarnish the legend of Babe Ruth, which remains intact today, warts and all. And although the 1992 biopic, The Babe, was made with John Goodman in the lead role, there may yet be room for other films to come on this giant personality and how he changed the game. Certainly in the book department, Ruth is well covered. According to Leigh Montville and others at least 27 books have been written on Ruth, but that mysteries about his life still remain.
For additional stories on Babe Ruth at this website see: “Babe Ruth Days, 1947 & 1948” (covers special days honoring Ruth at Yankee Stadium and reviews his career); “Ruth at Oriole Park” (about a statue of Ruth at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, his early baseball youth, and years in Baltimore); and “Babe Ruth & Tobacco” (Ruth’s endorsements of various cigar, cigarette, and chewing tobacco products, as well as appearances at a tobacco shop in Boston). See also “Baseball Stories,” a topics page at this website with additional baseball history. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please consider making a donation to help support this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Circa 1910: Postcard rendition of oil storage tanks at southern tip of Lake Michigan where the sprawling Standard Oil refinery at Whiting, Indiana would become one the world’s largest.
Late 1930s billboard, along a row of storage tanks (behind sign), touting the Whiting refinery as “the world’s largest.”
Aerial view of refinery grounds, processing equipment and storage tanks covering some 1,600 acres at Whiting, Indiana.
In 1955, the Standard Oil refinery at Whiting, Indiana was one of the largest oil processing centers in the world. The refinery became a centerpiece of John D. Rockefeller’s Midwest oil empire in 1889, part of his larger Standard Oil Trust that came to dominate the oil industry through the early 1900s.
Initially, the Whiting oil refinery processed high-sulfur, “sour crude” from the oilfields of Lima, Ohio, imported via Rockefeller-controlled railroads. The principal product was then kerosene for lamp lighting. But by the 1910s, with the rise of the automobile, gasoline became the primary product. In fact, at Whiting, some of Rockefeller’s scientists helped develop a refining process that would produce more gasoline from a barrel of oil.
Rockefeller’s company, Standard of Indiana, later became “Amoco” after Standard absorbed the American Oil Company in the 1920s. Amoco and the Whiting refinery, were later acquired by British Petroleum in 1998, the current owner.
But at the beginning, in 1889, the Whiting oil refinery rose in what was then a mostly rural area on the southern shores of Lake Michigan – a time when sand dunes were the most prominent feature in the area.
The town of Whiting – born of a railroad stop named “Pop Whiting’s Siding” after a rail engineer — grew with the refinery. Located about 16 miles from downtown Chicago, by the mid-1930s about 7,000 people were employed at the Whiting plant and the company’s Chicago offices.
By the early 1950s, Standard of Indiana ranked as the second-largest American oil company with annual gross sales of $1.5 billion. The refinery by this time had grown to encompass more than 1,600 acres, with many acres of storage tanks, refining towers, and processing equipment.
Standard of Indiana, like all oil companies of that era, had its growing pains and also had its share of spills, fires, and explosions. But on Saturday morning, August 27, 1955, an incident of historic proportion erupted there.
“Like The Sun Exploded”
It was early dawn that Saturday morning. A brand new hydroformer at the Whiting refinery was cranking up. It was also known by some as a “cat cracker,” as catalysts were used with naphtha and hydrogen under high pressure and heat to make higher-octane fuel. The hydroformer stood 260 feet high, or more than twenty-five stories tall. It was a giant piece of equipment, made of steel plate and concrete, designed to withstand the rigors of heavy operating pressures. In it’s production of high octane fuel, it would process 30,000 gallons of highly flammable naphtha every day. This hydroformer was one of the heaviest vessels ever made for oil refining at that time, then believed to be state of the art. But something went terribly wrong that Saturday morning.
Aerial photograph of the spreading August 1955 oil refinery fire at Standard Oil’s Whiting, Indiana complex. The 8-day fire, set by a processing tower explosion, would consume at least 45 acres of storage tanks and damage nearby homes and businesses. Two people were killed, another 40 injured, and 1,500 evacuated.
Without warning, at about 6:15 a.m., several explosions occurred at the giant hydroformer, and shortly thereafter – as some who were at the refinery that day would later recount – “all hell broke loose.” The initial blast tore apart the huge processing unit, hurling 30-foot long chunks of two-inch steel and countless smaller shards in all directions. “I thought the sun had exploded and that this was the end of the world,” said one woman, quoted in The Times newspaper of northwest Indiana. “There was a terrible noise and a big red flash.” The force of the initial blast broke almost every window in a three-mile radius. Smoke could be seen in Chicago and from 30 miles away.
Aug 28, 1955: In the town of Whiting, Indiana, looking south along Indianapolis Blvd, the Standard Oil refinery grounds to the left is where the initial explosion occurred, as the rising fireball shows. But there were also acres of storage tanks and more refinery stretching away from this area with additional storage tanks and refinery on the other side of this road.
Fiery debris from the exploding cat cracker rained down on the refinery grounds and nearby residential areas. Within the refinery, some of the flying metal and concrete landed on and punctured other oil storage tanks, igniting them in the process, touching off subsequent explosions. The Times and Chicago Tribune newspapers, among others, reported on the scene at the time, described “a flood of burning oil and naphtha” that washed over the refinery grounds and into Whiting streets and sewers. Residents were later warned about the risks of smoking and other open flames from home appliances that might ignite fumes backing up from the sewers. Some utility poles in the area also caught fire. (A short British Pathé newsreel film from 1955, shown below left, complete with dramatic music, captured some of the blaze that swept through the refinery and the Whiting community).
In residential areas near the refinery, flying projectiles damaged several homes, terrifying residents. A 3-year-old boy in one nearby home was killed in his sleep as a 10-foot steel pipe torpedoed through the roof of his bedroom.
In another instance, a 180-ton chunk of steel “as big as a five bedroom house,” according to The Times was hurled two blocks. That huge projectile, leveled a home and a grocery store on 129th Street, where the homeowner had left only minutes before the blast. Businesses, homes, garages and automobiles within a three mile radius of the refinery sustained substantial damage. Six miles from the explosion, some residents reported being knocked from their beds.
One family that barely escaped was that of Harvey Hunter and his wife Beverly and their two young children, Bonnie and Dennis. Harvey, a crane operator at Inland Steel in his day job, recounted the family’s horror to a Chicago Tribune reporter after he and his family had reached the Whiting Community Center for shelter:
August 1955: Onlookers watching the refinery blaze from a distance were surprised by a subsequent explosion and ran for their cars. Life magazine, Sept 5, 1955, Wallace Kirkland.
“We were thrown out of bed by the explosion. Chunks of steel pipe came thru the building, the windows and screens blew inwards, and the plaster fell from the ceiling.
“I picked myself off the floor and started looking for the children. Dennis’ bed was upside down and he was under it – covered with broken glass and plaster. Something had hit me on the head…
“I found my wife and daughter and the four of us got out of there in a hurry. We got into our station wagon and started down the alley but the way was blocked by a metal casting – it must have weighed 100 tons – that had been hurled there from the refinery. We turned back and got out at the other end of the alley and got here [community center shelter]…”
In addition to the boy killed in his home, one Standard Oil workman died of a heart attack, and more than 40 others were injured and sent to hospitals.
About 1,500 residents from some 600 homes were evacuated from the area to avoid further casualties as armed National Guard units patrolled the streets helping local police maintain order. Following the initial explosions, fire began consuming other parts of the refinery. By night fall on the first day, 60 million barrels of oil in storage tanks had gone up in flames.
For the next two days, the fire continued to spread, marching through the refinery’s tank farm acre-by-acre touching off further explosions, more refinery spillage, and additional fire. Spreading flames sometimes rose to heights of 300-to-400 feet.
Aug 28, 1955 Chicago Tribune headlines on the Standard Oil refinery fire indicate huge losses and “oil blaze out of control.”
Aug 29, 1955 Chicago Tribune headlines indicate Standard Oil fire in check, but still burning, with residents kept from their homes.
In the end, at least 67 storage tanks over some 45 acres had been completely destroyed. Oil and naphtha from ruptured tanks had also flowed into the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal.
Newspaper photos from inside the refinery told a story of the fire’s awesome heat and destructive power — railroad rails that “resembled strands of spaghetti, bent by the extreme heat and force of the explosion,” according to one report. Some freight and tank cars were melted by the intense heat generated.
In battling the inferno, numerous Standard Oil workers were enlisted to fight the blaze and fire departments from Hammond, East Chicago, Gary, Calumet City, Dolton and Chicago rushed to help – more than 6,000 in all joined the fight.
As the days went by, the firefighters realized their task was to contain rather than extinguish the blaze. They began building large sand barricades at the perimeter of the fire in an attempt to keep burning oil from spreading to other areas of the refinery. At times, however, there was fear the blaze would spread to the nearby Sinclair Oil refinery, creating an even greater catastrophe. But on the second day of the blaze, the fire was said to be “under control,” although sill burning.
A YouTube viewer commenting on one of the Whiting fire films found on the web, offered an eye-witness account of the 1955 blaze with the following: “I lived two streets in front of this [fire] on White Oak Ave. When the explosion happened we thought it was the Atom Bomb. Everyone ran from their homes, some people were moving their furniture out. By the time we got to the corner of Indianapolis Blvd., the entire block at Standard was on fire and oil tanks were exploding. I was 11 years old. We left for East Chicago and spent a week at my grandmother’s home. Sand trucks were brought in from the Dunes to help contain [the refinery fire]. The tanks were exploding and we could feel the heat by just standing in the front yard of my grandmother’s home miles and miles away. We left everything, including the dog and our bird…”.
Aug 1955: Life magazine photo of Standard Oil workers at Whiting trying to contain burning oil and sequential tank explosions by building sand barricades to keep the oil & fire from spreading to other parts of the 1,660-acre refinery.
When the last of the fires were finally put out on September 4, 1955, the area was declared a National Disaster. The company’s own internal publication, The Standard Torch of October 1955, offered an initial accounting: “Eight days and five hours later, the last flame was extinguished. By then, 45 acres of the refinery lay in ruins. Seventy tanks were crumbled and burned out. Three process units were destroyed. Twisted, fire-blackened steel lay about as grim reminders.. .. Damage was estimated to be in excess of $10 million dollars, all but one million of which was insured.” Other estimates put the figure at $30 million (or roughly between $87 million and $273 million in 2015 dollars).
Two men at center survey the damage in a portion of the burnt-out Standard Oil refinery, then still smoldering, with the remains of two crumpled and distorted giant storage tanks to the left. Whiting oil refinery, Aug 1955, Chicago Tribune photo.
A year after the fire, Standard Oil was back to business as usual, having rebuilt the damaged parts of the refinery and soon operating at 100 percent capacity again. But the terror the incident created among workers and in the community was very real. One resident, Gayle Kosalko, would later note, “that explosion caused Whiting’s population to go from 10,000 people to 5,000.” And indeed, after the incident, Amoco/Standard took the opportunity to buy up land near the refinery, and many homes and businesses that were destroyed or damaged by that fire or abandoned were leveled and never rebuilt.
Boiling fire on top of large tank at left, with twisted metal thrown from explosion in the foreground. Whiting refinery fire, Aug 1955.
Photo of some of the large debris thrown by the explosion into residential areas. Whiting refinery fire, Aug 1955.
In August 2005, at the 50th anniversary year of the big blaze at the Whiting refinery, a couple of survivors from the incident spoke with reporter Oliva Clarke of The Times, recalling its effects. Norb Dudzik, 62, of Whiting noted: “You could just feel the heat off of it. …[W]e drove through some of the neighborhoods. It was almost like you’d seen a tornado with cars flipped upside down and houses — some destroyed and some moved off their foundation.”
George Orr, 89, of Hessville, Indiana and an instrument technician supervisor at the time of the blaze who was also recruited to fight the fire for several days, explained:
“The flames were as high as telephone poles on both sides of us and the heat was unbearable…I wore ordinary work clothes, and of course we had to wear hard hats and hard-toed shoes. …If you refused to fight the fire, you didn’t have a job at Standard Oil in the morning.”
At the fire’s 60th anniversary, in August 2015, the Historical Society of Whiting/Robertsdale sponsored a screening of a new documentary on the fire titled, “One Minute After Sunrise.” The half hour film was the result of a year’s worth of research and personal interviews aimed at preserving and documenting this episode of Whiting and Standard Oil history.
Other Incidents. The 1955 fire and explosion at the Whiting refinery was not the first such incident there, nor wold it be the last. In September 1941, a nine hour conflagration at the refinery killed one man and injured 20 others. That blaze also destroyed more than 30 oil storage tanks and half a dozen buildings with a loss estimated at $100,000 (1941 dollars). Another fire and explosion in July 1946 ripped through the refinery, this time with only one worker injured. In the years following the 1955 inferno, there continued to be more incidents at the Whiting refinery of one kind or another – fires, leaks, spills, explosions, and or pollution. These occurred more or less on a regular basis, both large and small, some years worse than others, but continuing to the present day under the auspices of BP, the refinery owner since 1998-99.
Whiting Refinery Incidents Standard Oil/Amoco
Over the years, the Whiting oil refinery has had its share of incidents, large and small, including numerous fires and explosions, many of the smaller variety, some not always reported. Included below is a sampling of some of the documented incidents occurring at the Whiting oil refinery under Standard/Amoco management in the 1957-1991 period:
23 Nov 1957++2 workers killed in refinery fire. 27 Feb 1977++oil tanks at the refinery overflow. 2 Mar 1977++fish kill is tracked to leaking underground tanks at the Whiting refinery. 29 Mar 1977++oil blows into the air from tank field onto nearby homes in “a rain of oil.” 18 Aug 1978++Amoco is cited by EPA for excessive hydrocarbon emissions. 13 Feb 1978++explosions at night rock refinery area; residents evacuated. 14 Feb 1978++1,000 area residents are barred from returning home as a second series of explosions occur at refinery after pipeline leak. 2 Mar 1979++fumes described as “85 percent explosive” rout families from homes in refinery area. 20 Apr 1979++Residents find crude oil 3 feet beneath the ground; complain of fumes in their homes. 30 Apr 1979++crude oil overflows from tanks. 3 May 1979++chlorine gas leak; fumes drop five workers at refinery. 24 Aug 1980++a dust-like cloud escapes from catalytic cracking unit in repair; Amoco keeps unit running during repair to avoid start-up costs. 3 Nov 1980++residents of Whiting & Robertsdale discover oil spurting two feet into air from manhole; oil also found in wiring tunnel to Calumet College 14 Jun 1981++pipeline leak at Optimist Park, Kennedy Ave. sends unknown amount of diesel fuel into Optimist Lake. 7 July 1983++fire at Whiting refinery. 10 Jan 1984++worker dies in fire at refinery. 26 Dec 1984++residents evacuated during refinery blast & fire threat. 31 Oct 1985++residents complain about refinery fumes. 24 Jul 1986++Amoco notifies officials of chemical leak. 19 Feb 1988++second fire in two weeks at refinery. 16 Apr 1988++16 hurt in explosion at refinery. 6 Oct 1988++explosion & fire at refinery injures two workers. 31 Oct 1988++3 workers killed, 1 seriously injured in asphalt plant explosion & fire. 16 Nov1989++1,800 lbs of hydrogen sulfide gas escapes along w/naphtha, butane and other flammable gases; reaches Valparaiso; 3 to hospital & evacuation. 16 Dec 1989++two injured in refinery blast. 20 Feb 1990++explosion at liquid petroleum loading dock kills 2 workers, injures 3 truck drivers; Amoco fails to notify Hammond. 25 Dec 1990++500 lbs. of hydrogen sulfide gas & 25,000 lbs of propane hydrocarbon gas escapes from over-pressurized relief valve. 28 Dec 1990++150 lbs. of hydrogen sulfide gas escapes from same relief valve. 24 Sep 1991++unknown quantity of propylene gas escapes from Amoco rail tank car.
Sources: Don Jordan, “Amoco Shutdown is Part of Firm’s History,” The Times (of Northwest Indiana), April 13, 1990; Rebecca Vick, “Amoco Toxic Gas Leak Is Second This Week,” The Times, December 29, 1990, p. B-1; Susan Erler and Phil Wieland, “OSHA Orders Shutdown of Reactor,” The Times, April 12, 1990; Rebecca Vick, “Leak Forces Amoco Employees to Move,” The Times, September 25, 1991, p. B-1.
By the late 1980s, incidents at the Whiting refinery had the attention of state and federal safety officials. On October 30, 1988, an explosion and fire killed three workers and injured another. The explosion occurred in the oxidizer unit, a vessel 70 foot high with a 32-foot diameter. When the explosion occurred, the entire unit rose 40 to 50 feet off the ground.By 1988-1990, Indiana officials were calling the Whiting refinery the most dangerous workplace in the state. It also coated workers with 500-degree asphalt. The unit had begun to malfunction several days earlier, but the company kept it running in order to maintain production. Two previous explosions in the same unit in 1988 had injured 18 workers. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited Amoco for a wide variety of violations and fined the company $300,000 for the infractions. In fact, for the 1988-1990 period, Indiana officials were calling the Whiting facility the most dangerous workplace in the state. “No one else has that kind of safety record,” said Kenneth Zeller, Indiana Commissioner of Labor at the time. In April 1990, the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration — citing “imminent danger” and “a strong possibility of catastrophe” — ordered Amoco to shut down a chemical reactor in one of the refinery’s key Ultraformer processing units. Officials ordered the shut down after inspecting the unit following an anonymous complaint from a worker at the plant who reported “hot spots” in the reactor. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, at least two more people were killed at the Whiting refinery and several others injured in at least five other incidents.
Artist’s rendering of oil storage tanks at Whiting, circa 1940s or so.
In January 1991, after conducting a two-year, in-house investigation, Amoco officials revealed a 16.8 million-gallon leaked underground plume of petroleum products beneath the Whiting refinery. The company reported that 150 ground-water monitoring wells defined a plume of lubricating oils and gasoline components, including benzene, of between four and 18 inches floating on groundwater beneath much of the plant. Amoco sent 500 information packets to residents in a 12-block area in Whiting and the Robertsdale section of Hammond notifying them of the findings and offering free testing for benzene and combustible vapors. At the time, Amoco officials said the situation did not present an immediate safety or health hazard” for people living near the plant. The plume, they said, was formed over the plant’s 102 years of operation, a time when wooden and metal storage tanks leaked oil products into the ground. At least two class action suits were brought against Amoco in the 1990s claiming the company was negligent for allowing oil to leak into city sewers and beneath the community.
BP Acquires Amoco
One artist’s rendering of the “merging” of Amoco & BP.
In August 1998, Amoco was acquired by British Petroleum (BP) in a nearly $54 billion deal that at the time created the world’s third-largest publicly traded energy company, behind Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon.
Over the years since, BP has had a mixed record at the Whiting refinery. For example, in May 2009, EPA issued a notice of violation to BP for toxic air pollution at the refinery.
According to EPA, for nearly six years, under BP’s watch, the refinery emitted cancer-causing benzene at its wastewater treatment plant without proper air pollution control equipment.
BP stated at the time there was no evidence that humans or the environment were harmed. The violations occurred between 2003 and 2008. In 2008, the BP plant totaled just over 100 tons of benzene waste – nearly 16 times the amount allowed, according to the EPA. Similar violations for benzene waste also occurred between 2003 and 2008.
By 2013, BP stated that it had invested $3.8 billion to modernize the Whiting refinery, primarily to make it capable of processing of heavier crudes – i.e. tar sands from Canada and other crude. BP stated that its “modernization” was essential to the long-term viability of the refinery, and included $1.4 billion for “environmental enhancements” such as wastewater improvements, emissions reductions, and systems to remove sulfur from gasoline and diesel.
Yet today, one of BP’s by-products in refining the sludgy tar sands crude is an unwelcome substance called petroleum coke, or “pet coke.” Refining heavy crudes produces significantly more pet coke than conventional crude oil. And BP’s refinery at Whiting has tripled its yield of pet coke since expanding the refinery to process more of the unconventional tar sands oil. Whiting now yields about 6,000 tons of pet coke every day, or about 2.2 million tons annually.
“The Daily Damage”
An Occasional Series
This article is one in an occasional series of stories at this website that feature the ongoing environmental and societal impacts of industrial spills & explosions, fires & toxic releases, air & water pollution, and other such occurrences.
These stories will cover both recent incidents and those from history that have left a mark either nationally or locally; have generated controversy in some way; have brought about governmental inquiries or political activity; and generally have taken a toll on the environment, worker health and safety, and/or local communities.
My purpose for including such stories at this website is simply to drive home the continuing and chronic nature of these occurrences through history, and hopefully contribute to public education about them so that improvements in law, regulation, and industry practice will be made, yielding safer alternatives in the future. — Jack Doyle
While petroleum coke can be used as a heating fuel in some instances, or as a raw material in manufacturing, piles of the stuff from the Whiting plant and other U.S. refineries have produced swirling dust storms in areas where it’s stockpiled, raising public health concerns and angering nearby communities.
EPA has noted that significant quantities of fugitive dust from pet coke storage and handling can present a health risk. Particles that are 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller are of special concern to EPA, as these particles can pass through the throat and nose and enter the lungs, and once inhaled, can affect the heart and lungs and cause serious health effects.
Residents and community activists in the Whiting area have also raised concerns about the health effects of increased air pollution that comes with the use of flaring at the refinery – stack “flares” being a kind of safety valve feature found in all refineries, yet still a process that can sometimes be abused or used to compensate for more serious systemic shortcomings within the refinery. Others have also expressed worries about tar sands-induced pipeline leaks near the refinery, given that tar sands have a more corrosive effect on pipelines.
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Inferno at Whiting – Standard Oil: 1955,” PopHistoryDig.com, August 21, 2015.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Aug 27, 1955: Explosion at the Whiting refinery as seen looking north on Berry Ave. from 129th St. Original Chicago Tribune caption noted: “A dark mushroom cloud, 8,000 feet high and visible for 30 miles, obscured the sun, effectively turning day into night.” Photo, John Austad
Part of the destruction from the 1955 Whiting oil refinery explosion & fire. Investigative worker in foreground is inside large piece of structural metal thrown there from explosion.
Another aerial photo of the August 1955 Standard Oil refinery fire at Whiting, Indiana taken from a different perspective.
August 1955: Photo of Whiting fire taken from inside the refinery, it appears, by a firefighting unit, according to photo's notation.
1966: Frank Sinatra performing at The Sands nightclub, lost in a moment of song -- perhaps grieving over that lost summer love...
For those Frank Sinatra fans who have heard the song “Summer Wind” at least once or twice, the musical give-away is that light, airy, Nelson Riddle orchestral lead. It offers a kind of instant recognition for that song – and anticipation. You know Frank is coming behind that lead, and he doesn’t disappoint. The topical matter suits him perfectly, as well.
“Summer Wind” has a poignancy about it that only Sinatra can give voice to. It’s a story about a summer love, once held, but now – wistfully and longingly – remembered by its crooning narrator.
The song’s musical treatment, plus Sinatra’s delivery, give it a presence in the mind’s eye; transporting the listener to a summer place, summoning the very elements of that season.
One guest writer on the Sinatra Family Forum website page – “Melissa” – put it aptly in her 2006 comment: “Summer Wind was meant for Frank Sinatra. No one has ever done it better. I can almost feel the breeze blow when he sings it.” Indeed, the “summery-by-the-ocean” feel is there through and through.
Anonymous couple enjoying a summer beach stroll.
“Summer Wind” was written in 1965 by Johnny Mercer and set to music by Henry Mayer. Although this song was first recorded in the U.S. by Wayne Newton in 1965, it is the 1966 version by Sinatra that has become the classic.
Summer Wind – 1966
Sinatra recorded his version in mid-May 1966 with Nelson Riddle and his orchestra. The song was released later that same month on the album, Strangers In The Night. It also appeared as a Reprise single backed by “You Make Me Feel So Young” on the B-side. By the week of August 30th, WABC radio of New York had “Summer Wind” as a top hit prospect. Beginning in early September 1966 the song would have a seven-week run on the Billboard pop singles chart, peaking at No. 25. “Summer Wind” also hit No. 1 on the Easy Listening chart in October that year.
Although “Summer Wind” is classic Sinatra in style and content, he didn’t start performing it regularly at his concerts until some twenty years later. But by 1986, “Summer Wind” had become a part of Sinatra’s performances.
H. Mayer, J. Mercer
The summer wind, came blowin’ in, from across the sea
It lingered there, to touch your hair, and walk with me
All summer long, we sang a song, and then we strolled that golden sand
Two sweethearts, and the summer wind
Like painted kites, those days and nights, they went flyin’ by
The world was new, beneath a blue, umbrella sky
Then softer than, a piper man, one day it called to you
I lost you, I lost you to the summer wind
The autumn wind, and the winter winds, they have come and gone
And still the days, those lonely days, they go on and on
And guess who sighs his lullabies, through nights that never end
My fickle friend, the summer wind
The summer wind; warm summer wind
Mmm… the summer wind.
The male narrator of “Summer Wind” remembers a happy time – a brief time, with his summer love. He sings of strolling on the beach, and glorious days and nights, shared between the two. The listener can imagine all of the good summertime activity that a couple in love could share – from dinner at a seaside café and evening walks along the shore, to the deeper intimacy and personal discovery that come with romantic relationships.
“The world was new,” the narrator sings, clearly taken with his lady and seeing only good things ahead. He was feeling like a million bucks, and more. Anything was possible!
But then, suddenly, it all ends.
Turns out, the summer wind can cut both ways.
One day it called to the lady of this lyrical tale, sending her off for parts unknown; no explanation offered. The narrator simply croons, “I lost you to the summer wind.” Was it another love? A rooted and committed life somewhere else? Or perhaps it was personal: some fundamental differences? No details provided.
In any case, those formerly happy days and warm summer nights were now just a memory. Closing his eyes, our narrator is there again, back in that moment, remembering how it was, though heartsick in the losing. Going forward, he nurses his hurt through the “autumn wind” and the “winter wind” – harsher times, and lonely times — longing for a return to that earlier time, left only with “my fickle friend, the summer wind.”
Millions of music listeners have had their own “summer wind” experiences, good and bad, and Frank takes them along for the ride in this song. It’s just good, old-fashioned “memory music,” tinged with a touch of the blues made perfect by the master.
The song and lyrics of “Summer Wind,” however, are flexible enough that the song has been used in other contexts, some commercial. “Summer Wind” was used in the opening scene of the 1984 film, The Pope of Greenwich Village, starring Mickey Rourke and Darryl Hannah. It was also used in the 2003 film Matchstick Men with Nicolas Cage and Alison Lohman.
Frame from MasterCard TV ad, "Family of Four - Summer Wind," depicting a family at an L.A. Dodgers baseball game away from modern distractions. Click to view ad.
In 2006, MasterCard used the song in a baseball-themed TV ad depicting a family outing at a big league game. The ad was part of MasterCard’s “priceless” commercials, and was shot at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
The ad features a family of four taking in a night game in the grandstands at Chavez Ravine. The sentimental spot plays up the family relaxing and bonding during the game at the ballpark, away from all the modern gadgets and distractions.
As Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” plays in the background, the voice-over in the ad states: “Program in the first: $4. Snacks in the fourth: $25. Soda at the end of the seventh: $3. No runs, hits, errors, TVs, meetings or video games — priceless.” Sinatra’s cool message, between the lines in this case, is actually saying: “Hey, relax. Chill out. Enjoy the game. Enjoy your family. Feel the breeze.” In this ad, “Summer Wind,” sets the tone, and puts the viewer in that frame.
Frank Sinatra, likely in California, mid-1960s or so.
In 1966, Frank Sinatra had already had a pretty good year, even before recording “Summer Wind” that April. His first live album, Sinatra at the Sands, was recorded during January and February at The Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. A Sinatra single, “It Was a Very Good Year,” was also in the Top 40 during January and February that year.
In March 1966, Moonlight Sinatra, a studio album recorded the previous November was released by Sinatra on the Reprise label. All of its songs reference the moon in some way, and it was arranged and backed by Nelson Riddle and his orchestra. The album’s title is a play on Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”. In May 1966, Sinatra released Strangers in the Night, the album that included the hit single of that name along with “Summer Wind” and a mix of show tunes, standards and big band music.
In his personal life, meanwhile, in mid-July 1966, Sinatra married Mia Farrow. She was 21, he 50. She was then the star of TV soap opera Peyton Place. By late July 1966, the album Strangers in the Night had reached No. 1. on the Billboard 200 albums chart. The single version of “Strangers…” hit No. 1 on the U.K. charts in June 1966, and also on the Billboard pop and easy listening charts in July. Early that fall, as Sinatra and Farrow settled into their first months of marriage, “Summer Wind” was also in the Top 40 on the radio. Another Sinatra album, That’s Life, was released in October 1966, with its title song, “That’s Life,” hitting the No. 4 spot in December 1966 — this and other Sinatra hits coming at a time when the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, and other rock groups were all the rage.
Cover of the April 1966 issue of Esquire magazine, featuring Gay Talese’s classic article on Frank Sinatra.
On other fronts, earlier in 1966, Gay Talese had published a legendary piece of writing for Esquire magazine, titled “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” The Talese profile of Sinatra – published in the April 1966 issue — would become one of the most famous pieces of magazine journalism ever written, often considered one of the best pieces on Sinatra as well as one of the best celebrity profiles ever. Vanity Fair called it “the greatest literary-nonfiction story of the 20th century.”
As for the title of the Gay Talese piece, the article opens in 1965 with Sinatra in a bad mood at a private Hollywood club. He is stressed about all the events in his life he is then dealing with, and on top of it all he has a common cold, which has restricted his singing.
Talese, meanwhile, proceeds to write about Sinatra mostly in 1965, the year he turned 50, when he was in the news regarding his involvement with Mia Farrow. It was also the year when he was the subject of a CBS television documentary that had pried into his personal life and speculated about possible ties to mafia leaders. Sinatra’s various business ventures in real estate, film, recording label were also probed. At the time, Talese also wrote that Sinatra maintained a personal staff of 75. Over time, however, the Talese Sinatra profile became more about Talese’s writing style and the “new journalism” methodology he employed than it was about Sinatra per se – although the subject was well covered, to be sure.
Anonymous couple catching the seaside’s summer wind.
Sinatra, in any case, would survive the glare of the Talese piece in 1966, and in fact thrive through the remainder of the decade. At the 9th Annual Grammy Awards in March 1967, for example, honoring musical accomplishment for 1966, Sinatra scored major awards: Record of the Year; “Strangers in the Night” (Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Bowen); Album of the Year, Strangers in the Night (Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Bowen); and, Best Male Pop Performer, “Strangers in the Night” (Frank Sinatra). Yet some things begun in 1966 would not survive. The Sinatra-Farrow union, for one, would end in divorce a few years later. They separated after 16 months. The “summer wind,” in any case, would continue to beguile and intoxicate star-struck couples wherever they may wander.
1972: Joni Mitchell during early folk singing days. AP photo.
Canadian born Joni Mitchell is one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of the late 1960s-mid-1970s period – and also one of the most gifted voices of that era. A rising folk musician in Canada and the U.S. during her early years, Joni Mitchell reached mainstream notice in the 1968-1974 period with the release of her first several albums, among them — Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, and Court & Spark, each of which include a selection of very poignant, personal and moving songs.
What follows here is a sampling of some of that music from her early years along with a bit of her biography and social context during, before, and after that period. For starters, consider one of her songs below, “Little Green,” which she wrote a few years into her career. It’s a song about a baby daughter she had given up for adoption, as would be learned later. More on that part of her life to follow. For the moment, however, consider the voice, the music, and the poetry.
Music Player “Little Green” – Joni Mitchell
Born Roberta Joan Anderson in 1943 in Fort MacLeod, Alberta, Joni Mitchell was an only child. Her father was in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the family moved around a bit before settling in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Young Joni contracted polio when she was nine, and spent time in a polio ward where she first began to sing for others – also beating the prediction she would never walk again. Growing up in the late 1950s she listened to a lot of local Canadian radio, but classical music appears to have first captured her ear. “I loved Debussy, Stravinsky, Chopin, Tchaikovsky,” she would recount in a later interview, “anything with romantic melodies, especially the nocturnes.” Unable to afford a guitar as a teenager, she bought a cheap ukulele and a Pete Seeger songbook and taught herself to play. Learning some folk songs, she began performing for movie money and pocket change to pay for cigarettes, a life-long habit she began early on. Still, music was a secondary interest at the time, as she wanted to be an artist.
Her first club performances as a 19 year-old folk singer came in late October early November 1962 at the Louis Real Coffeehouse in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. And through 1963 and early 1964 there were also performances at ski lodges, a few “hootenannies,” as folk-singing gatherings were called, as well as coffeehouse and club appearances in Calgary, Regina, and Edmonton.
October 1965: Joni Mitchell, as she appeared on a Canadian television show.
Chuck and Joni Mitchell in a promotional photo for their singing act.
After a year at the Alberta College of Art and Design she moved to Toronto in June 1964 to make a more determined bid as a folk singer, but initially had difficulty finding the money to enter the musicians union, which was needed to play most venues. She also worked at local department stores for a time to make ends meet.
In Toronto, while performing at The Penny Farthing club in March 1965, she met Chuck Mitchell, a young musician from America. In their early meeting she chastised him for badly altering some Bob Dylan verse. Still, they struck up a romance, and the two were married in June 1965. It was a union that Joni would later describe as a “marriage of convenience,” for at that time she was an unwed mother with a young baby daughter fathered by a former college boyfriend who had left before the baby’s birth. She had given birth in February 1965, and while single, relied on local foster care to help with her child. At first, it appeared Chuck and Joni would raise the child together, but that changed and the child was put up for adoption. The birth and adoption would remain private for much of her career.
Chuck and Joni Mitchell moved to Detroit, Michigan and performed together as a folk duo, where they became something of a “golden couple” on the local folk circuit. Joni’s singing, meanwhile, drew praise as she began to further develop her musical and songwriting skills, sometime performing on her own. In Detroit, she would meet other musicians, among them, Eric Anderson, a singer songwriter from New York’s Greenwich Village, who taught her some basics about open tuning, a style and sound she would become noted for. One of the clubs where Chuck and Joni performed was the Chess Mate in Detroit. On one occasion there, when singer songwriter Tom Rush was on the bill for a short engagement, he listened to a set of Joni’s songs. “She was a slip of a girl: blond, intense,” recalled Rush in a later interview. “…The songs blew me away – their poetry, their visual imagery.” One of the songs he heard Joni perform was “Urge For Going,” a version of which is offered below in a YouTube video from her early years.
Tom Rush adopted “Urge for Going” in his own routine, and performed it to great reception on his hometown circuit in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In fact, he was eager to have more of Joni’s material. “I remember asking her, ‘What else do you have? What else do you have?'” She sent him an early version of the “The Circle Game,” which she wasn’t happy with but he instantly liked and would later use in a 1968 album, titled The Circle Game. Rush would also have Joni come to New England and open for him at a series of engagements there.
1966: Joni & Chuck Mitchell at work in their apartment at the Verona on Ferry St. in Detroit. Detroit News
1967 ad for a Joni Mitchell appearance at the 2nd Fret club in Philia., PA, where she also appeared in 1966.
Summer 1967: Joni Mitchell would meet and befriend members of the Blues Project band, playing at the club where she was appearing.
Through Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell would be invited to the July 1967 Newport Folk Festival.
At the Newport Folk Festival, Joni Mitchell would meet Leonard Cohen. Photo, David Gahr
Back in Detroit, and also in some Canadian venues, Chuck and Joni continued their performances together. The “Chuck & Joni show,” as it was sometimes called, consisted of an opening song or two together, a closing song or two together, and solos in between.
At their Detroit home – a top floor apartment in the 1890s Verona building, a five-story walk-up near Wayne State University – they were a gracious and sociable couple. In fact they entertained lots of visitors and up-and-coming musicians there. A long line of them stayed at the Mitchell place when they played in Detroit – Gordon Lightfoot, Jerry Corbitt, Jesse Colin Young, Tom Rush, Dave Van Ronk, Bruce Langhorne, Eric Andersen, Rambling Jack Elliot, and others.
Joni, meanwhile, sought more autonomy in performing, and over the objections of her husband, she began making single bookings, although they would still do some joint performances.
In May 1966, Chuck and Joni appeared at the Gaslight Café in New York to play as part of a Gaslight Hootenanny. A month later, they made their first appearance as Gaslight Café performers for a two-week engagement. This is the period during which Joni would be seen by other performers, among them, Joan Baez, who came to Joni and said she liked her performance.
David Geffen, who would later become Joni Mitchell’s agent, also first heard her perform at the Gaslight – when she and Chuck Mitchell were performing there together. Geffen was then the agent for singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, whose new album at the time included Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” which Geffen especially liked, and was the first time he had ever heard her name.
In late 1966 Joni had some engagements at The 2nd Fret club in Philadelphia. It was there that Joni met another folk singer from Colorado named Michael who was playing at the Trauma club, also in Philadelphia. The pair struck up a romance, and spent some time together in Philadelphia. But back in Detroit, upon her return there, this did not go over well with Joni’s husband, Chuck. The affair, however, had fueled Joni’s song, “Michael From Mountains.” New love was a powerful creative force for Joni and her songwriting, as would be shown time and time again throughout her career.
Meanwhile on the club/coffeehouse circuit, Chuck and Joni continued to appear together, honoring their commitments through early 1967. But by that time, their marriage was over. Their last joint appearance came in May 1967.
Joni Mitchell then moved to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a solo artist. She eventually settled in New York’s Chelsea district as her home base.
While in New York during the summer of 1967 and performing at the Café Au Go Go she met Steve Katz who played with the house band there, The Blues Project. She had a brief romance with Katz who in turn, introduced her to Roy Blumenfeld, the Blues Project’s drummer. Blumenfeld and Joni then spent a part of the summer of 1967 together until Blumenfeld’s French girlfriend came home from Europe.
“I was crazy in love with Joan Mitchell,” Roy would tell author Sheila Weller in her 2008 book, Girls Like Us. “The way I felt about her….it scared me…” Joni’s song, “Tin Angel,” using the name of a New York restaurant, is in part about Roy. Roy would later say that Joni Mitchell’s music “was more original than Dylan’s.”
Another of Joni’s Blues Project band member friendships turned out to be Al Kooper, the group’s keyboardist, lead singer, and chief composer. Kooper was also a friend of Judy Collins, who would invite Joni to the Newport Folk Festival, in Newport, Rhode Island.
The July 1967 program at the Newport Folk Festival then included the likes of Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Odetta, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and others.
Joni, after being introduced at the festival by Judy Collins, played a short set that included “Michael From Mountains,” “Chelsea Morning” and “The Circle Game” – a set that stunned the audience, and according to Lachlan MacLearn who was there – prompted “a tumultuous and prolonged standing ovation.”
It was also at the Newport Folk Festival that summer that Joni met Judy Collins’ Canadian friend, Leonard Cohen, by then a rising poet and singer. Joni was much taken with the 42 year-old Cohen, and the two began a romance. This affair, like others, is credited with fueling Joni’s “love muse,” helping to inspire her songwriting. Among the Joni Mitchell creations credited in whole or part to her time with Cohen, are said to be: “Rainy Night House,” “The Gallery” and “A Case of You.”
As became her practice, Joni wrote snatches of material based on what moved her at the moment, these figuring into songs she might not complete until months or years later. The Cohen affair, in any case, ended within a year or so, after Joni discovered Cohen wasn’t everything she thought he was. Still, Cohen described Joni as “prodigiously gifted,” and a “great painter too.”
Through 1967, Joni continued her performances in various U.S. and Canadian venues, among them: The 2nd Fret in Philadelphia, Le Hibou Coffee House in Ottawa, The Riverboat in Toronto, The Living End in Detroit, and The Gaslight Café in Coconut Grove, Florida.
Those who heard Joni Mitchell sing in those early years were typically blown away. David Crosby was one of those smitten by her sound — and her good looks. Crosby himself was already a famous singer-songwriter who had successfully performed with the Byrds (e.g., “Mr.Tambourine Man” 1965, “Turn Turn Turn,” 1965,” Eight Miles High” 1967). He would also soon become a founding member of another folk-rock group, Crosby, Stills & Nash. But it was sometime in late August/early September 1967 when Crosby had his first encounter with Joni Mitchell. By this time, he had left the Byrds over personal differences and had gone to Florida to sort things out.
David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, and not shown, Graham Nash, en route to Big Bear Lake, California, February 1969. Photo, Henry Diltz
Joni Mitchell and David Crosby, California, 1968.
“I went looking for a sailboat to live on. I wanted to do something else. Find another way to be. I was pretty disillusioned.” Then he walked into a coffee house in Coconut Grove, Florida and heard Mitchell singing. “[I] was just completely smitten,” he would later say. “She was standing there singing all those songs … ‘Michael From Mountains’, ‘Both Sides Now’, and I was just floored. I couldn’t believe that there was anybody that good….”
Crosby would also fall for Joni, and would later write at least part of a song alluding to his feelings about her with “Guinnevere,” which appears on the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album. Joni Mitchell moved in with David Crosby for a time when she came to southern California in 1967, but according to her, they were “never an item,” save for a brief romance in Florida. Crosby would later say of Joni: “It was very easy to love her, but turbulent. Loving Joni is a little like falling into a cement mixer.”
Still, Crosby became her personal promoter and helped her settle into a special little corner of Los Angeles known as Laurel Canyon, which became a famous singer-songwriter enclave where an incredible amount of high-quality rock and folk-rock music would originate. Crosby had her play at the homes of his Hollywood friends — “Mama” Cass Elliot among them, she of the then flourishing Mamas & Papas group. Still, in the U.S. music industry at the time, folk music was a tough sell. But Crosby, with his Byrds success and some connections in the music business, was determined to produce a Joni Mitchell album.
Joni soon had her own manager as well. In late October 1967, while performing at the Café Au Go Go in New York, she met Elliot Roberts, who then managed Buffy St. Marie, who suggested he check out Joni’s performance. Roberts later recounted this first meeting with Joni to Vanity Fair: “I saw Joni in New York… at the Café au Go Go…. I went up to her after the show and said, ‘I’m a young manager and I’d kill to work with you.’ At that time, Joni did everything herself; she booked her own shows, made her travel arrangements, carried her own tapes. She said she was going on tour, and if I wanted to pay my own expenses, I could go with her. I went with her for a month, and after that, she asked me to manage her.”
Joni Mitchell at Reprise contract signing, March 1968, with (l-to-r), Elliot Roberts, David Crosby, and Mo Ostin.
In New York, she had also met Mo Ostin, general manager of the Reprise record label, by way of Tom Rush, who had already recorded two of her songs. It had not gone unnoticed that a number of her songs were being snapped up by others beyond Tom Rush, including: Judy Collins (Both Sides Now, Michael From Mountains), Buffy Sainte-Marie (Song To A Seagull, Circle Game), Ian & Sylvia (Circle Game), Dave Van Ronk (Clouds, Chelsea Morning), Fairport Convention (Eastern Rain), and George Hamilton IV, a country musician whose version of “Urge For Going” became a big country hit in 1967.
Still, folk music at the time did not have the business appeal that rock `n roll did. Elliot Roberts, however, helped Joni negotiate a recording deal with the Reprise record label in mid-March 1968. Joni, who already had her own publishing company, Siquomb Music, secured a pretty good deal with Reprise. For one, she was given total and complete artistic freedom. It was then quite rare for a woman to be writing and recording her own material, let alone to be an unaccompanied solo act. At the contract signing in Burbank, California, and pictured at left were: Elliot Roberts, David Crosby, and Mo Ostin. Crosby would produce her first album, and for the most part, to his credit, he let the album’s recording sessions focus on Joni Mitchell and her acoustic music without regard for the more “rocked-up” marketing wishes of the studio.
Joni Mitchell’s first album, “Song to A Seagull,” which includes her art work on the cover, a practice that would continue with subsequent albums.
The resulting album, Song to a Seagull, was released in March 1968 and included ten of Mitchell’s acoustic songs, including some of those that had bowled David Crosby over in Florida.
“Cactus Tree”- Joni Mitchell
Among the album’s ten songs are: “I Had A King,” “Michael From Mountains,” “Night In The City,” “Cactus Tree” and others. “Cactus Tree,” the last song on the album, is offered above in the music player. It’s a song about a long line of suitors and another from her muse-driven trove of autobiographical love-loss-hurt-vs-freedom songs. As narrator in this song, she is loving to all her suitors, though warning each one, in so many words, “don’t get to close, as I have things to do and places to go.” Indeed, as she states, she’s busy being free.
1968 French release of 45rpm single of Joni Mitchell’s “Night in the City” on Reprise.
In terms of the other songs in this album, ‘I Had a King,’ takes it cues from the ending of her first marriage, and is her statement of moving on and becoming independent, with no regrets or blame.
“Michael From Mountains’ is about a new-found love, described earlier, a song that some listeners find very moving. ‘Night in the City’ is regarded by many as the best song on the album. In some countries, this song was released as a single with “I Had A King” on the B side, as shown in the French release at left. Joni does the guitar and piano work on this track, along with her great vocal range, and Stephen Stills provides the backing bass guitar. Other songs on the album include: “Marcie,” “Nathan La Franeer,” “Sisotowbell Lane,” “The Dawntreader,” and “The Pirate of Penance.” David Crosby, meanwhile, fared well in the album, as Joni referenced him in some way in at least three of the songs: the first stanza of “Cactus Tree,” a line in “Dawntreader,” and parts of “Song to a Segull.”
Following the recording sessions for Song to a Seagull, Joni was on the road for a good part of 1968. In March she was playing Le Hibou in Ottawa. In June she had twelve shows at The Troubadour in Los Angeles, and through early July 1968 she played seventeen dates at The Bitter End in New York. In August she appeared at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Back at her new home in California’s Laurel Canyon, Joni Mitchell’s personal life was about to take a new turn.
Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash.
Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash at the Miami Folk Festival, 29 December 1968. Photo, Henry Diltz
Joni Mitchell at Laurel Canyon house, 1968. Baron Wolman
David Crosby, Stephen Stills & Graham Nash first harmonized together in Laurel Canyon, CA, and as Joni Mictchell recalls, first at her house.
It was August 1968 when Graham Nash arrived at the house Lookout Mountain Avenue in Laurel Canyon section of Los Angeles. He had just flown in from London and was in the process of splitting from the famous British rock band, The Hollies, over differences. His marriage was then on the rocks as well. He had come to Los Angeles to visit Joni Mitchell – the woman, he explained later – “who had captured my heart.”
Nash and Mitchell had met earlier that year, in March, after a Hollies show in Ottawa, Canada when they became romantically involved. His August 1968 arrival at the Laurel Canyon house was the first he had seen Joni since then. “She was the whole package,” he would later write, “a lovely, sylphlike woman with a natural blush, …and an elusive quality that seemed lit from within.” They began living together thereafter, as Joni invited him to stay at her Laurel Canyon home.
But also there that August night when Nash arrived from the airport with his guitar case in tow, were David Crosby and Stephen Stills – two singer-songwriters who, like Nash, had also departed from their rock groups – Crosby from The Byrds, and Stills from Buffalo Springfield. These three bandless musicians started some impromptu jamming and singing that evening and discovered they made wonderful harmony together. As Joni Mitchell recalled for Vanity Fair in 2015: “[T]he first night they raised their voices together I do believe happened at my house. I just remember in my living room the joy of them discovering their blend.” That soon led to the formation of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and about a year later, their blockbuster debut album bearing the group name.
By the time of the Miami Pop Festival of late December 1968, Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell were traveling together as a pair. And Nash, like his friend and new bandmate Crosby, would later write songs about Joni and his relationship with her – “Our House” and “Lady of the Island” – songs that would later appear on Crosby, Stills & Nash albums.
Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash – whom she called “Willy” and wrote a song about him in that name – also visited Joni’s parents in her Canadian hometown of Saskatoon. The pair had talked about marriage briefly, but their relationship eventually ran its course and ended. But Joni would remain close to the Crosby, Stills & Nash group (and later Neil Young, a fellow Canadian, as well), and often performed and/or traveled with them.
Mitchell’s music, meanwhile, was rising in notice, and through the late 1960s, she continued one of her most productive periods of song writing and recording. In fact, she had written many more songs than she had recorded, with some of her work doing well for other artists. In 1967-68, at least three artists had released albums with one or more of her songs on them: Tom Rush, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Judy Collins. But it was Collins’ recording of Joni’s “Both Sides Now” that helped move Joni’s music to a new level. Collins had first included the song on her 1967 Wildflowers album and then released its as a single in October 1968. Two months later the single was a Top Ten (#8) pop hit. That helped raise interest in Joni Mitchell’s songwriting, and created anticipation about what she might do with her second album.
During early 1969, Joni was featured along with John Sebastian and Mary Travers (of “Peter, Paul & Mary”) on The Mama Cass Television Program, ABC-TV, which was taped in January of 1969 and broadcast in April. On the road, she had play dates at The Troubadour in W. Hollywood in January, and in the following month, Carnegie Hall in New York and Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley. And there were also continuing coffeehouse dates, including the Unicorn Coffee House in Boston, where James Taylor opened for her in March. She also had a Queens College date that month. And in April, more performances: Boston University, Northwestern University in Illinois, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, the Fillmore East in New York, and McConaughy Hall at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Finishing off April 1969, she and a small group of musicians, including Graham Nash and Bob Dylan, had dinner at the home of Johnny Cash where they also played music among themselves for hours. In Nashville, on May 1st, she and Dylan also had performances taped for the Cash show that would be broadcast later that summer.
Joni Mitchell’s 2nd studio album, “Clouds,” released in May 1969, also featured her artwork on the cover.
In May 1969, Mitchell’s second studio album, Clouds, was released. Among its ten tracks were her own versions of songs that had already been covered by other artists, including “Chelsea Morning,” “Tin Angel,” and “Both Sides Now.”
“Both Sides, Now” – Joni Mitchell
“Both Sides Now,” had been written by Joni a good 18 months before it ran up the charts for Judy Collins. It was inspired in March 1967 during a plane ride as Joni was reading Saul Bellow’s novel, Henderson the Rain King, and in particular, a passage where the main character is also traveling by plane viewing clouds out the window, as Joni was doing when she put the book down and started writing. The novel also includes the line, “we are the first generation to see the clouds from both sides,” presumably referring to the newly available commercial aviation and viewing clouds from above.
“Both Sides Now”
Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all
Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way
But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away
I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all
Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way
But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
Joni’s perspective at the time, and forming the first stanza of “Both Sides Now,” recalled how children see clouds from the ground below, concocting all sorts of fanciful and innocent images, and then in later life, as adults, seeing them more as bearers of bad weather. The song then continues to use the two different perspectives of looking at clouds as metaphor for the larger themes of life and love, adding in the verse, that even with life’s new perspectives and experience — its trials, tribulations, judgments of others, ups and downs, etc. — she really doesn’t understand life or love after all.
Mitchell was 21 when she wrote the song, and some suggest it is also derived, in part, from the failure of her first marriage and, as later learned, her decision to give up her baby daughter for adoption. Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Both Sides, Now” at No. 171 on its December 2004 list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
Mitchell did a re-recording of “Both Sides Now” in 2003 that was used in the film Love Actually, along with other songs from her later, February 2000 Both Sides Now album. The Judy Collins version of the song was used in a June 2013 episode of the Mad Men TV series.
Other songs on the Clouds album deal with love, lovers, and the uncertainty of new love – i.e.,”I Don’t Know Where I Stand,” “Tin Angel,” “That Song About the Midway,” and “The Gallery.” The “love/relationship” factor would continue to play heavily in her other albums during the early 1970s, a time some describe as her folk/confessional period. But Clouds also includes “The Fiddle and The Drum,” a song that compared U.S. government during the Vietnam War to a bitter friend, and, “I Think I Understand,” dealing with mental illness.
David Cleary of AllMusic.com, in a favorable review of the album, also singled out another of its songs: “Imaginatively unusual and subtle harmonies abound here, never more so in her body of work than on the remarkable ‘Songs to Aging Children Come,’ which sets floridly impressionistic lyrics to a lovely tune that is supported by perhaps the most remarkably sophisticated chord sequence in all of pop music.”
In 1969, Joni Mitchell’s Clouds album rose to No. 22 on the Canadian chart and No. 31 on the Billboard 200 chart. Mitchell produced all the songs on the album (except for one), played acoustic guitar and keyboards, and was joined by Stephen Stills on bass guitar for one song. Clouds also brought Joni Mitchell a Grammy Award – her first – for Best Folk Performance.
1969: Joni Mitchell, Nashville, TN, possibly in May for the Johnny Cash Show taping.
In the summer of 1969, Joni’s earlier taped performances for two episodes of The Johnny Cash TV Show aired. On the June 7th show, Joni then 26, and fresh from her first Grammy win, joined Cash in a duo on the song, “I Still Miss Someone.” In July and August she did a number of folk festivals, beginning with the July 18-19 Newport Folk Festival in Newport, RI where she met James Taylor. In July, she also made other appearances, including the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA; The Music Shed at Tanglewood in Lenox, MA; the Schaefer Music Festival at the Wollman Skating Rink Theater in New York; and the Mariposa Folk Festival held on Centre Island, Toronto (where she and Joan Baez were the featured performers). Another festival performance in early August came at The Sounds Of Summer Mississippi River Festival in Edwardsville, IL where she and Arlo Guthrie were featured performers.
That summer, Joni also appeared in some locations as the opening act for her friends Crosby, Stills, and Nash, who were just about to break out big with their first album, Crosby, Stills, and Nash. She would open their first big concert at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago on August 8th. But at one of the Crosby Stills & Nash performances — the Atlantic City Pop Festival Atlantic City Race Track on August 1st, 1969 – she left the stage angrily due to the inattentiveness of the large crowd. It would not be the last time she would lose patience with outdoor festival crowds, as she would come to prefer the friendlier confines of the smaller clubs and coffeehouses she had known, as well as the studio.
Joni had already been featured on the cover of the May 17th, 1969 edition of Rolling Stone magazine, then in its early years. Inside the magazines, she was featured in a piece entitled, “Introducing Joni Mitchell.” The cover of that edition also included the tag line, “The Swan Song of Folk Music,” which was somewhat premature given her rise, though at the time reflected the prevailing perspective in the music industry. Happily, despite the tag line, Joni would prove, at least for a time, that folk music and/or folk-rock, were on the upswing. And by that summer’s end, she would become known for something else as well.
Headlines from the New York Daily News of August 14, 1969, tell of a Woodstock-generated traffic nightmare.
Joni Mitchell was scheduled to appear at the August 1969 Woodstock festival in upstate New York, but her agent, David Geffen, cancelled her appearance there, worried she would not be able to make it back in time for a television appearance in New York for The Dick Cavett Show. It appeared at the time that horrendous traffic congestion and bad weather might make it difficult for her to get back to the city, as filming for the late night show occurred on Monday afternoon.
As Geffen would later describe their arrival coming into New York for the festival: “I was bringing Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young …and Joni Mitchell to Woodstock. And I arrived a La Guardia Airport. And I picked up the New York Times and it says, ‘400,000 People Sitting In Mud.” And thought, ‘no way am I going to Woodstock.’ And so they [Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young] went on to Woodstock. And Joni and I went back to my apartment at Central Park South, and we watched it on television…”
Geffen did not want to risk Joni missing national TV exposure. The Dick Cavett Show was a very popular, and culturally important TV show at that time. Cavett’s show ran opposite Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in those days, and he was somewhat more permissive of his guests’ interaction and expression than Carson, and had a following among the young and literati of that day. For his late-night show following the Woodstock gathering, Cavett had lined up a number of guests who were scheduled to appear at the festival and would come to the city for a Monday afternoon taping of the late-night broadcast.
Joni Mitchell, however, by staying at Geffen’s 59th Street New York city apartment and not going to Woodstock, would instead compose a song titled “Woodstock” — a song that would become an anthem of sorts for her generation, defining one of the era’s key events. The song would become a big hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and would also be recorded by Joni for her Ladies of the Canyon album (more on this album later below).
Joni Mitchell on the Dick Cavett TV show, post Woodstock, August 1969.
As it turned out for the Cavett show, in addition to Joni, some of those who had performed at Woodstock were able to make it back in time for the Monday afternoon taping – including David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Grace Slick, and the Jefferson Airplane. On the show, Mitchell sang several songs, including “Chelsea Morning”, “Willy,” and “For Free,” and also an a capella version of “The Fiddle and the Drum.” The Jefferson Airplane performed “We Can Be Together,” Stephen Stills performed his”4 + 20″ song, and David Crosby joined Grace Slick in a version of “Somebody to Love.” Cavett’s “Woodstock show,” as it would be called (which can be found today on YouTube), was seen by many young people who had heard about the festival, or read about it in the newspapers, but weren’t able to get there. When Cavett asked David Crosby about what he had seen at Woodstock and if he thought it was a success, Crosby (who had arrived with Nash and Stills in the general area by helicopter, getting quite an overview of the scene) replied: “It was incredible. … It looked like an encampment of the Macedonian army on the Greek hills, crossed with the biggest band of Gypsies you ever saw.”
I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who I am
But you know life is for learning
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation
We are stardust
(billion year old carbon)
We are golden
(caught in the devil’s bargain)
And we’ve got to get ourselves
back to the garden
In the months and years that followed the giant festival, it would be the “Woodstock” song that Joni Mitchell had written about the gathering – which she composed on the basis of reports from her then boyfriend, Graham Nash, plus what she saw on television – that would have lasting impact.
“Woodstock” – CSNY
The version of “Woodstock” that first reverberated across the nation, however, was that recorded by her friends, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSN&Y). When they first heard it, they decided to record it. By March-April 1970 the song was receiving airplay in three ways: the CSN&Y single of “Woodstock;” the CSN&Y album De Ja Vu, which included the single version; and Joni Mitchell’s album, Ladies of the Canyon, also released at that time with her version of the song. The CSN&Y single became a popular national hit, rising to No.11 on the Billboard Hot 100. Stephen Stills provided a distinctive lead guitar opening for that version and also the lead vocals, backed with Crosby/Nash harmonies. This version also ran over the closing credits of Woodstock the film, which had a much anticipated opening in March 1970 as well.
“Woodstock” – Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell’s version of the “Woodstock” song also came out about this time as well. Her version, however, has a different pace and feel to it, some finding it a more haunting treatment. The song is an “all-Joni-Mitchell-production” — she sings the main verse, plays a tremoloed Wurlitzer electric piano, and provides her own backing chorus with layered, multi-tracked Joni Mitchell voices. It is the more contemplative of the two versions, and coming from the composer, reveals, perhaps, more of her intention. She would also perform the song in September 1969 at the Big Sur Folk Festival, one month after Woodstock.
The lyrics to “Woodstock” tell the story of the narrator meeting a person on his way to Max Yasgur’s farm – the actual festival location in upstate, Bethel, New York. The traveler also explains he’s going for the music but also other reasons – to camp out on the land and try to get his soul free. Then comes the “we-are-stardust” chorus that is part metaphysical, part spiritual, suggesting a getting back to nature and/or a “Garden of Eden” like place.
One of the posters for the “Woodstock Music & Art Fair,” this one identifying some of the scheduled acts to appear at the festival during the three-day, August 15-17, 1969 event.
As the narrator joins the traveler on his trek, she explains that she too, wants to “lose the smog” and the feeling of being “a cog in something turning.” And maybe there is opportunity ahead, this time, for some revelation and learning. Repeat chorus and refrain that there is hope/power in our stardust, i.e., “we are golden;” a chance for change and getting back on the right path. Reaching Woodstock, they find “half a million strong” and much celebration. Buoyed by this hope, the narrator lets herself dream that things might be different. At a time when the Vietnam War was the national concern, she conjures “bombers… turning into butterflies.” Peace is the hope.
Joni Mitchell with guitar, 1960s.
In the final chorus, more detail is added to the stardust concept: that it is, in fact, “billion year old carbon,” which science by that time had borne out. And as some interpretations have it, although “we are golden” and this Woodstock generation is strong, it and we are also “caught in the devil’s bargain,” this dating to the biblical bad deal Eve made with the devil, eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, for which she and the rest of us were expelled from paradise, i.e, the garden. And now in modern times, as sinful souls, we are left to grapple with, presumably, war, racial injustice, crime, pollution, etc.,. Still, we have the ability to work at these problems and “get back to the garden.”
Mitchell, in somewhat less grander terms, would later explain her feelings and perspective on writing “Woodstock,” as offered in a 1995 Goldmine magazine piece. First, she explained that not being able to get to site that weekend made her want to be there all the more, and gave her a special interest in the event:
“The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock. I was one of the fans. I was put in the position of being a kid who couldn’t make it. So I was glued to the media. And at the time I was going through a kind of born again Christian trip – not that I went to any church, I’d given up Christianity at an early age in Sunday school. But suddenly, as performers, we were in the position of having so many people look to us for leadership, and for some unknown reason, I took it seriously and decided I needed a guide and leaned on God. …So I was a little ‘God mad’ at the time, for lack of a better term, and I had been saying to myself, ‘Where are the modern miracles? Where are the modern miracles?’ Woodstock, for some reason, impressed me as being a modern miracle, like a modern day fishes-and-loaves story. For a herd of people that large to cooperate so well, it was pretty remarkable and there was tremendous optimism. So I wrote the song ‘Woodstock’ out of these feelings…”
“We-are-stardust” sculpture at Princeton University, donated by the Class of 1969 on their 25th reunion in 1994.
David Crosby, who was there, offered his praise for Joni’s “Woodstock” song: “She captured the feeling and importance of the Woodstock festival better than anyone who’d been there.”
And years later, others found her poetry of that moment worthy of memorial. The Princeton University Class of 1969 – at their 25th reunion in 1994 – dedicated a piece of sculpture featured in a quiet garden on campus (shown at left), that has the final “we-are-stardust” verse etched into its body along with Joni Mitchell’s by-line.
Following Woodstock, Joni continued her performances in the U.S. and Canada, appearing at the Vancouver Pop Festival at the Paradise Valley Resort in Squamish, British Columbia and the California Exposition & State Fair at Sacramento, CA, both in the August 22-24 time frame. She also had a series of a half dozen or so August dates at the The Greek Theater in Los Angeles, opening on her final date there for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. In mid-September it was on to the Big Sur Folk Festival at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA, where she performed solo and again with CSN&Y and John Sebastian. Some of these performances were later featured in the film, Celebration at Big Sur. In late September, Canadian Broadcasting (CBC-TV) aired the earlier performances at the Mariposa Folk Festival (July 25-27) with Joni, Joan Baez, Ian and Sylvia, Doc Watson, and others.
Through the last quarter of 1969, there were more performances, among them an October 19th Gala 50th Anniversary Concert at the Pauley Pavilion, at UCLA in Westwood, CA where Joni performed nine songs alone and three with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. On October 27th, 1969 she did a performance at the Rockefeller Chapel, at the University of Chicago. On November 1st it was on to her hometown of Saskatoon, SK where she performed at Centennial Auditorium. More college and university concerts followed in November and December: California State University at Fullerton on November 22nd, where John Fahey opened for her; an afternoon concert at Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA on November 29th; and an evening concert that same day at Alden Memorial Auditorium at Worcester Polytechnic Institute also in Worcester.
14 Sept 1969: From left, John Sebastian, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby and Stephen Stills at Big Sur Folk Festival. It appears that Joni and Stills may be having a little “dueling guitars” contest. Photo Robert Altman
On December 5th 1969, she performed at Symphony Hall in Boston, and on the following day she did two evening performances at Crouse College Auditorium in Syracuse, NY. Two days later she performed at the University of Hartford in Hartford, CT and on December 10th at Springfield College in Springfield, MA. Over the next four days, December 11th through the 14th, she performed at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA; M.I.T in Cambridge, MA; the Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, NY; and The Masonic Temple Theater in Detroit, Michigan, where she was a surprise guest performer at a CSN&Y concert.
By April 1970, Joni Mitchell’s 3rd studio album, Ladies of the Canyon, had been released, and in addition to “Woodstock” it also included “The Circle Game,” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” the latter known for the line, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” The song was written by Mitchell on a trip to Hawaii, seeing the beautiful paradise-like islands, but also, out her hotel window, a huge, never-ending parking lot. An environmental anthem for some, the song also references the pesticide DDT — “Hey farmer, farmer, but away that DDT now.” Released as a single, “Big Yellow Taxi” became a Top 20 hit in several countries. Ladies of the Canyon, meanwhile, became quite popular on FM radio, and it sold well over the summer and into the fall, eventually becoming her first gold album, selling more than 500,000 copies.
I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
And the children let out from the schools
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green
Across the street he stood
And he played real good
On his clarinet for free
Now me I play for fortunes
And those velvet curtain calls
I’ve got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good for free
Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their T.V.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good for free
Among other songs on the album is one titled “For Free,” the second track, written by Mitchell. It’s a song about a traveling music star in an anonymous city who comes upon a local musician playing a clarinet on a street corner — “for free.”
“For Free” – Joni Mitchell
The song’s narrator – a music star like Mitchell, presumably – comes to this town for a gig. While there, she is out and about walking through town doing some shopping, and in the course of her outing, comes to an intersection with a traffic light – “waiting for the walking green” – where she sees a street musician across the way plying his craft.
The scene has her thinking about her own career by comparison – “now me, I play for fortunes, and those velvet curtain calls.” She is also driven to her concerts in a limo and escorted by two gentlemen, bodyguards, no doubt. And if you want to attend one of her shows, it will cost you a fair penny. But the guy playing on the street that day – the one by the quick lunch stand – “he was playing really good for free.”
She laments the fact that “nobody stopped to hear him,” and attributes this lack of interest to a fickle public that knew “he had never been on their T.V.,” so they passed his music by. She had in mind to join him – “maybe put on a harmony.” But the signal changed, and life went on. Still, “he was playing read good for free.”
"...He was playing real good for free.."
The song is emblematic of Mitchell’s style at the time, likely something she experienced in her travels. It is also a simple story, with a poignant tale, accompanied by a basic piano and Mitchell’s gorgeous voice; a perfect little song and vignette. It’s also shows her good eye for scenes from daily life, and how to find poetry there. In this piece there are touches of jazz in the clarinet playing and arrangement, a harbinger of her emerging interests to come. On YouTube, there is at least one video clip that has Mitchell at the piano performing “For Free” in a televised segment.
Other notable songs on Ladies of the Canyon, include: “Circle Game,” “Rainy Night House”, “The Priest”, “Morning Morgantown,” “Conversation,” “Ladies of the Canyon,” “Willy,” “The Arrangement” and “Blue Boy.” Credited on the album for helping with the chorus on “The Circle Game” is “The Lookout Mountain United Downstairs Choir,” i.e,, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Among reviewers of Ladies of the Canyon in 1970, Robert Christgau of The Village Voice, gave the album a “B+” finding it “superior to her previous work, richer lyrically and more compelling musically.” He called the album’s second half “almost perfect,” noting that its arrangements “are intelligent throughout.” However, he also noted Mitchell’s voice to be weak at times and her wordplay “inconsistent.” Most of her fans, in any case, were glad to have it.
1970: Joni Mitchell with dulcimer and Cary Raditz on the island of Crete.
In early 1970 Joni Mitchell decided to take some time off to travel and to paint, and renew her creative juices. She was feeling isolated, finding that success had a way of cutting her off from the rest of the world. She would perform at a few festivals in the summer of 1970, but did not take on a regular concert schedule. She felt she needed new material. “I need new things to say in order to perform,” she told one reporter. “You just can’t sing the same songs.” She was also still ending her relationship with Graham Nash.
On her sojourn that spring, taken in part with a friend named Penelope, Joni traveled throughout Europe, visiting France, Spain, and Greece. On the isle of Crete she took up the dulcimer and while there began writing a series of songs dealing with her adventures. Among these were “Carey” and “California,” the former song about an American guy, Cary Raditz, who she became involved with while on Crete.
Later that summer, Joni agreed to perform at the Isle of Wight Festival off England in August 1970 – a giant festival with 250,000 or so attending, some of whom became rowdy and impolite to performers. Joni, for one, was interrupted during her performance by one stage crasher (actually, someone she knew from Crete who was quite out of line), driving her to near tears. Still, she delivered her performance while asking the audience to be civil toward performers.
July 1969: Joni Mitchell and James Taylor at Newport Folk Festival.
Oct 29, 1970: James Taylor and Joni Mitchell in London for a BBC radio performance.
In 1970, Joni also spent time with James Taylor. She had met him a year or so earlier at the Newport Folk Festival. But during 1970, he was working on a Hollywood film project with the title Two-Lane Blacktop, a road movie also starring The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson and Warren Oates. In any case, during this time, as Taylor would later explain in a June 2015 Uncut interview: “Joni Mitchell came along with me [during filming]. We wrote in this camper across the southwest of America and had some of the most outrageous good times. It was really great.” Taylor also noted: “I had played on the album that Joni was making when we met, Blue. I played guitar and backed her up on a few of those songs. It was wonderful working with Joni. We had a great year together, we worked, we traveled.”
Mitchell and Taylor were then each writing songs for their respective albums that would appear in 1971 – Mitchell’s Blue and Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. And each would write songs for and/or about the other: Mitchell for him in “See You Sometime” and “Just Like This Train,” and Taylor for her in “You Can Close Your Eyes.”
Although she was not on a hectic touring schedule that latter part of 1970, Joni was still making selected appearances in the U.S. and in Europe. In the fall of 1970, Joni joined actor Dennis Hopper, Michele Phillips of the Mamas & Papas, Micky Newbury and Johnny Cash for a late night of food, fun, and music at a Nashville restaurant after that year’s first taping of The Johnny Cash Show. In London, England in October 1970, she gave a concert of her songs on guitar, piano and dulcimer for the BBC’s “In Concert” series. In Vancouver, British Columbia she, Phil Ochs and James Taylor performed at an October Greenpeace benefit concert. That month she also joined John Hartford and Pete Seeger for a “folk-rock” TV special in Los Angeles. On October 29, 1970, she and James Taylor appeared together for a BBC radio performance at the Paris Theater, broadcast in late December that year. In early November she appeared during the encore session of a James Taylor concert at Princeton University where she and Taylor sang “You Can Close Your Eyes” together.
Cover of Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album, “Blue.”
In 1971, Joni Mitchell would record an album that would set her apart from her peers and distinguish her for a major achievement. The album, Blue, covered what some would call her confessional oeuvre, with Joni bearing her soul, wearing her love life on her lyrical sleeve, as it were.
Blue was hailed and lauded by critics as well as her musical peers. She had written some of it years earlier, some during her European travels of 1970, and more when she came back home.
Blue offered, for the most part, an intimate and painful assortment of her own love and life stories. Stephen Holden, a music critic at the New York Times observed that “Blue just went to a level of psychic pain and honesty that no one else had ever written before, and no one else has written since.”
In its lyrics and tone, the album was regarded as inspired, a near masterpiece — albeit depressing and “blue” as its title aptly states. Mitchell would later explain: “At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. … I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either….” Jack Hamilton, commenting on Blue some years later in a retrospective review of Mitchell’s work for The Atlantic magazine, called the album “a 10-song suite that might be the most vivid autopsy of romantic relationships ever put to record.”
In fact, Mitchell’s buffeting from the loves of her life once again proved the powerful ingredient in her song-making. In its deepest moments, Blue is part Graham Nash, part James Taylor. And as mentioned earlier, even relationships dating to the 1960s, such as that with Leonard Cohen, may have also influenced some of the album’s lyrics.
From the album, Blue
Blue, songs are like tattoos
You know I’ve been to sea before
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away
Hey Blue, here is a song for you
Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin
An empty space to fill in
Well there’re so many sinking now
You’ve got to keep thinking
You can make it thru these waves
Acid, booze, and ass
Needles, guns, and grass
Lots of laughs, lots of laughs
Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go
Well I don’t think so
But I’m gonna take a look around it though
Blue I love you
Blue, here is a shell for you
Inside you’ll hear a sigh
A foggy lullaby
There is your song from me
Graham Nash, writing of Joni and this album in 2012, noted: “Listening to Blue is quite difficult for me personally. It brings back many memories and saddens me greatly. It is, by far, my most favorite solo album, and the thought that I spent much time with this fine woman and genius of a writer is incredible to me. I watched her write some of those songs and I believe that one or two of them were about me, but who really knows?”
Prior to the making of Blue, Mitchell had broken up with Nash, and on her travels to Europe had a fling with Cary Riditz on Crete, and then came back to the States where a relationship with James Taylor began. All of that and more figures into the emotional stew at work in this album.
“Blue” – Joni Mitchell
Despite James Taylor’s difficulties with heroin, Mitchell became quite taken with him during their time together and was said to have been devastated when he broke off the relationship. It was around this time that she began recording Blue. Among the songs on the album believed to be inspired in whole or in part by her involvement with and parting from Taylor are “All I Want” and “Blue,” as well as “This Flight Tonight” and “River.”
On the song “Blue” – in this instance, Blue being the unnamed subject of the narrator’s plea and love song – there is palpable and powerful emotion. On this song, as well as others on this and previous albums, Mitchell’s performances send out very visceral waves of emotion; feelings unseen of course, but yet somehow moving from voice, piano wire, and guitar string through the air as a kind of empathetic current, deeply penetrating and deeply felt by those who receive it, some brought to tears and/or deep internal feeling as they listen to her songs. Mitchell seems to possess a certain kind of emanating emotional aura that flows out of these performances in a very tangible way.
1971: Joni Mitchell’s “Carey” released as a single with “This Flight Tonight” on the B side.
1971: “California” was the 2nd single from the album Blue, with “A Case of You on the B side.
Released in June 1971, Blue was a powerful watershed for Mitchell as well as a critical and commercial success. By September, Blue peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard albums chart, while hitting No. 3 on UK albums chart. In January 2000, the New York Times chose Blue as one of the 25 albums that represented “turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music.” Among the songs on Blue, in order of their appearance are: “All I Want,” “My Old Man,” “Little Green,” “Carey,” and “Blue” on side one, and “California,” “This Flight Tonight,” River,” “A Case of You,” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard” on side two.
Reviewing the album in 1971, Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times called it “a marvelously sensitive portrait of love and romance…” He also added that it ran the gamut of emotions – “…There’s happiness in ‘My Old Man,’ tenderness in the poignant ‘Little Green,’ mischievousness in ‘Carey,’ regret in ‘This Flight Tonight,’ longing in ‘River’ and a kind of shattered idealism in ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard.’
“Little Green” – the song available at the top of this story – is autobiographical and dates to 1964 when Mitchell became pregnant by her boyfriend at the time who later left her. Joni had given birth to the child in February 1965, naming her Kelly Dale Anderson, choosing the name after the color, kelly green. The child, initially placed in foster care while Joni struggled as a poor folk singer in Toronto, was later given up for adoption. “I was dirt poor,” she later explained. “An unhappy mother does not raise a happy child. It was difficult parting with the child, but I had to let her go.” Mitchell wrote “Little Green” in 1967.
The existence of her daughter was not publicly known until 1993, when a roommate from Mitchell’s art school days in the 1960s sold the story to a tabloid magazine. Kelly’s adoptive parents, David and Ida Gibb, renamed her Kilauren. Joni and her daughter were reunited in 1997 and since then a number of press accounts have appeared about their relationship.
Other songs on the album are not sad in the way that “Little Green” is sad, but most are soul-wrenching in other ways. And some, like “California,” describe travels in Europe with a longing to be home. Still, it is the love and loss-of-love songs, such as “River,” that have the deep and abiding power in this album.
“River,” the third track on side two of Blue, has become one of Joni Mitchell’s most famous songs. It’s cast in a Christmas setting, believed to be southern California where Mitchell was then living, along La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, as James Taylor would later observe. In the song, the narrator is in a painful time, dealing with a recent breakup and not feeling particularly cheery. She longs to escape her emotional difficulties. “I wish I had a river I could skate away on,” she sings, a river so long she “would teach my feet to fly.” In Canada, no doubt, Mitchell – pictured below on her skates – did exactly that on more than a few occasions. But in her southern Californian home of the early 1970s, no frozen rivers were available to soothe her wounded Canadian soul. The song’s spare, piano-driven arrangement paints a vivid picture of loss, longing, and some self-blame as well.
Joni Mitchell skating on frozen river, 1976. Photo, Joel Bernstein.
James Taylor, who had been involved with Mitchell not long before the Blue recording sessions, was quite familiar with “River,” having first heard the song when she played it at her home in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles. “I’ve known it from the time it was written, and I’ve always loved it,” he told Washington Post reporter J. Freedom du Lac in December 2006.
And although “River,” was not intended to be a holiday song, it is now often heard during the holiday season when Christmas music is played. In fact, more than 100 artists have covered the song, including Taylor, who put “River” on his own Christmas album.
From the album, Blue
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on
But it don’t snow here
It stays pretty green
I’m going to make a lot of money
Then I’m going to quit this crazy scene
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
I wish I had a river I could skate away on
I made my baby cry
He tried hard to help me
You know, he put me at ease
And he loved me so naughty
Made me weak in the knees
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on
I’m so hard to handle
I’m selfish and I’m sad
Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had
I wish I had a river I could skate away on
Oh, I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I made my baby say goodbye
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
I wish I had a river I could skate away on
“River” – Joni Mitchell
“Most Christmas songs are light and shallow, but ‘River’ is a sad song,” Taylor explained. “It starts with a description of a commercially produced version of Christmas in Los Angeles . . . then juxtaposes it with this frozen river, which says, ‘Christmas here is bringing me down.’ It only mentions Christmas in the first verse. Then it’s, ‘Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on’ — wanting to fall into this landscape that she remembers.” Taylor also adds: “It’s such a beautiful thing, to turn away from the commercial mayhem that Christmas becomes and just breathe in some pine needles.” But he adds, “It’s a really blue song.”
The demise of the personal relationship is the major point of the song, as Mitchell turns the blame on herself at one point: “I’m so hard to handle / I’m selfish and I’m sad / Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby I’ve ever had.” So she’s thinking maybe she’s made a big mistake here, sending her lover away. And about now, she really needs that river.
During his Washington Post interview, Taylor asked rhetorically: “Do I want to know who she made cry, who she made say goodbye?…Well, I haven’t asked her that question. That’s the only mystery in it: Who was it whose heart she broke?… There were a lot of us.”
For Mitchell, meanwhile, “River” is one of those songs that has also reaped wider exposure through its use in film and TV programs, providing emotional background music. Over the years, the song has been used in televised episodes of: Thirtysomething(1987), The Wonder Years(1988), Ally McBeal(2000), Alias(2002), and ER(2007). It was also used in the films Almost Famous(2000) and Love Actually(2003). In fact, many of Mitchell’s songs have been used in various films, TV programs, and documentaries over the years – garnering at least 85 soundtrack credits to date, according to Imdb.com, the movie data base website. In other cases, her music has made it into the film’s narrative or dialogue as in the 1998 film, You’ve Got Mail, in which there are numerous references to Mitchell’s songs by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
April 1972: Joni Mitchell with, among others, James Taylor and Paul Simon for benefit concert for Democratic Presidential candidate, Senator George McGovern.
Sometime after Blue, Joni Mitchell sold her house in Laurel Canyon, and purchased a piece of property near Half Moon Bay in British Columbia, Canada where she could have privacy and quiet not available to her in Hollywood. In the latter half of 1971 she retreated to this property for a time where she built a small house. When she needed to be in L.A. for recording or other business, she would stay with her agent, David Geffen. By February of 1972, Joni resumed performing, beginning a 13-city North American tour. Jackson Browne, then a rising singer-songwriter, became her opening act for the tour, and the two became involved in what would be something of a stormy relationship.
After her North American tour, she began residing at David Geffen’s house in Los Angeles. She would also sometimes travel in Geffen’s social circles. In 1972 she and Geffen attended a fundraiser for Democrat George McGovern’s presidential campaign. There she met Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, among others. She and Jackson Browne by this time were ending their relationship, and Geffen sought to cheer up his friend and housemate by taking her away from the L.A. scene for a time with a trip to Paris.
Joni Mitchell’s “For the Roses” album, produced on the Asylum label and released in November 1972.
Joni would later write about Geffen and Paris in one of her songs, described below. At this point in her career, her contract with the Reprise record label had ended, and coincidentally, housemate David Geffen was then starting his own recording label, Asylum, which Joni signed on with.
Mitchell’s albums following Blue kept her career on an upward trajectory. Her fifth album, For the Roses, released in October 1972, did well on the music charts, rising to No. 11 on Billboard and also going gold. A single from the album, “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” peaked at No. 25 on Billboard for two weeks in February 1973, her first American hit single.
Two other songs of note from this album – “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire,” about a heroin addict, and “Judgment of the Moon and Stars” (Ludwig’s Tune), inspired in part by Beethoven – were also popular tracks. In 2007, For The Roses was one of 25 recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry – the only one of her albums so far selected for that distinction.
Joni Mitchell’s 6th and most successful studio album, “Court and Spark,” released on Asylum, January 1974.
Joni Mitchell’s sixth album, Court and Spark, came in January 1974 and would become her most commercially successful album. It went to No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart and No. 1 on the Cashbox chart.
Mitchell by this time was breaking away from her earlier folk and acoustic sound, adding more musical hardware to the production of her songs, and delivering, in some cases, more of a rock `n roll sound. She hired a jazz/pop fusion band, L.A. Express, to back her up on Court and Spark. In the PBS documentary, Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind, singer-songwriter Eric Andersen observed of Joni’s move to working with a band: “People have this image and idea of this fragile, Nordic goddess who’s descending from the mountains, like wisps of Wagner, and Tiffany wind chimes… But later on, you know, I think when she got infected with rock and roll, well she turned [out] like a red-hot mama, flesh and blood.”
The new band helped power songs like “Raised on Robbery,” which cast Mitchell as a hard rocker. Backing her now on a tune like “Robbery” were fellow Canadian Robbie Robertson on guitar (later of The Band) and also Tom Scott on saxophone. David Crosby and Graham Nash contributed background vocals on “Free Man in Paris.” And several other musicians also contributed throughout the album.
Joni Mitchell, Mama Cass & David Geffen, possibly at Laurel Canyon gathering, late 1960s. Photo, Henry Diltz
David Geffen and Joni Mitchell sometime in the 1970s. Photo, Julian Wasser
Geffen: Free Man
Another popular song and hit single from Court and Spark was “Free Man in Paris,” a song Mitchell wrote about her agent and friend, David Geffen. Part of the inspiration for this song came about when she, Geffen, Robbie and Dominique Robertson made the trip to Paris mentioned earlier. “Free Man in Paris” went to No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 2 on the Easy Listening chart.
Geffen was Mitchell’s agent from nearly the beginning of her career, and he would be around her and her friends not only in recording, contract, and negotiating sessions, but also on social and informal occasions. In the Laurel Canyon years, he would visit with Joni and friends and help her when she needed a friend to lean on or a place to stay.
“Free Man In Paris” is a song that hits at the travail of those who work in the popular music industry, and in particular, a guy like Geffen who was then engaged with many pop artists “stoking the star-making machinery behind the popular song.”
Mitchell, who had already begun taking swipes at the pop music industry in earlier songs, would have a double effect with this song, as a thank you to her friend and agent for his hard work in helping her, but also as a critique of the industry that was taking a toll on its own, and sometimes, as Joni saw it, trying to crush her art in favor of dollars. There would be more of Mitchell’s music industry critique in the years ahead.
“Free Man in Paris”
The way I see it he said
You just can’t win it
Everybody’s in it for their own gain
You can’t please ’em all
There’s always somebody calling you down
I do my best
And I do good business
There’s a lot of people asking for my time
They’re trying to get ahead
They’re trying to be a good friend of mine
I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
There was nobody calling me up for favors
And no one’s future to decide
You know I’d go back there tomorrow
But for the work I’ve taken on
Stoking the star maker machinery
Behind the popular song
I deal in dreamers
And telephone screamers
Lately I wonder what I do it for
If l had my way
I’d just walk through those doors
Down the Champs Elysées
Going cafe to cabaret
Thinking how I’ll feel when I find
That very good friend of mine
I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
Nobody was calling me up for favors
No one’s future to decide
You know I’d go back there tomorrow
But for the work I’ve taken on
Stoking the star maker machinery
Behind the popular song
Geffen, meanwhile, may have felt that he was in the meat grinder too, but was soon doing quite well in the music business. In fact, by 1970 he had founded Asylum Records with Elliot Roberts, the label that Mitchell had joined for her albums, For The Roses, Court and Spark, and others to come. In fact, Asylum would also sign a number of artists, among them: Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Linda Ronstadt, and others. By 1972, Asylum would be acquired by Warner Communications and merged with Elektra Records.
“Free Man in Paris” – Joni Mitchell
Geffen went on to become a Warner Brothers executive for a time, establish Geffen Records in 1980, DGC Records in 1990, and in 1994, one of the three founders of DreamWorks SKG. As of 2014, Geffen’s estimated net worth was $6 billion, making him one of the richest people in the entertainment industry.
So, while David Geffen might have been a free man in Paris momentarily in the early 1970s, enjoying some well-deserved R&R, as history would seem to suggest, he went back to work and built himself a nice little entertainment empire.
Still, “Free Man in Paris” has a nice airy feel to it, and is an enjoyable and relatable piece of music, especially for any listener who has an overbearing, high-pressure work load and a longing to find some escape, whether Paris or the Great North Woods.
Court and Spark, in any case, went to No. 2 on the Billboard album chart and stayed there for four weeks. “Help Me,” a popular single from the album, released in March 1974, became Mitchell’s only Top 10 single when it peaked at No. 7 in the first week of June 1974.
Meanwhile, Mitchell herself was “courting and sparking,” as she would later put it, beginning a relationship with L.A. Express drummer John Guerin. In 1974, Joni purchased a Spanish style home on a private road in the Bel Air section of L.A., and she and Guerin set up house there.
Maclean's, June 1974.
Time, December 17, 1974.
Court and Spark – and the L.A. Express – helped make Joni Mitchell a popular touring act over some 50 dates in the U.S. and Canada during 1974, generating good notices and also producing a live, two-record set album, Miles of Aisles, in November 1974.
Joni was also a mainstream music star by this time, sought out for magazine features and cover stories. In June 1974, Maclean’s magazine of Canada featured her in a cover story, and Time magazine also put her on the cover of its December 17th, 1974 issue, featuring “Rock Women: Songs of Pride and Passion.”
Through the second half of the 1970s the Joni Mitchell albums kept coming: The Hissing of Summer Lawns in November 1975, Hejira in 1976, and Don Jaun’s Reckless Daughter in December 1977. By now, Joni Mitchell was well into the jazz and experimental stage of her career, and she had lost some of her previous fans who preferred her acoustic style.
Nov 1975: Joni Mitchell’s “Hissing of Summer Lawns” album, the title and lyric phrase derived from the sound of L.A. lawn sprinklers.
As Tom Casciato would put it in one later online review: “Hissing was where a lot of people got off the Joni bus.” But Joni Mitchell, like Bob Dylan, was not about to be circumscribed by her fans’ preferences. She had to follow her muse and move into new territory; that was just who she was. So the music continued, and so did the poetry, now in a different form.
She began working with some of the best musicians in the jazz and fusion worlds, composing new music, and winning their respect, among them – bass player Jaco Pastorius, drummer Don Alias, saxophonist Wayne Shorter (all of whom worked with the progressive jazz group Weather Report), jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, and others.
In late 1978, Charles Mingus, the famous jazz bassist, composer, and orchestra leader, asked her to work with him on his last project. Mingus was then in the final stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The album Joni helped produce and compose for him, Mingus, was released after his death in June 1979.
In 1982, Joni Mitchell married jazz bassist and sound engineer Larry Klein. They were married for about 10 years.
December 1995: Joni Mitchell with the Billboard Century Award, for “distinguished creative achievement.”
In 1982-1992 Joni Mitchell was married to bassist and sound engineer Larry Klein, and during that decade, with Klein’s help and others, she released more albums, three on Geffen Records — Wild Things Run Fast in 1982, Dog Eat Dog in 1985, and Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm in 1988. In the popular market, however, much of this work did not fare well. The 1980s were also a time when Mitchell broadened her social critique taking aim at televangelists in one of her songs, while supporting causes such as the plight of Native Americans (Wounded Knee incident). She also continued to level barbs at the music industry. In a 1995 Vogue interview with writer Charles Gandee, she noted: “…Another thing was that in the eighties we moved into a particularly unromantic period in music. Videos had just begun, and they had a tendency to feature cold women with dark lipstick and stilettos grinding men’s hands into the ground. It was an anti-love period, and my work — Wild Things Run Fast, in particular — was a joyous celebration of love, which basically made people sick.”
In the 1990s she regained some of her popularity. Night Ride Home, released in March 1991, was closer to her earlier acoustic work. Her next album, Turbulent Indigo, also viewed by some critics as having more accessible material, though still offering social critique at turns, was called a strong comeback. Turbulent Indigo won two Grammy Awards, including Best Pop Album. In the late 1990s she re-united with her daughter, Kilauren Gibb, and her grandchildren. In the year 2000, Mitchell turned out a collection of standards along with a couple of her older songs with Both Sides Now, which received a Grammy award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. In 2007, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock released his River: The Joni Letters, an album dedicated to Mitchell’s music, and also the first jazz album to win Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards.
In recent years, Mitchell has collected a variety of honors and awards for her musical and songwriting accomplishments. In December 1995, Billboard honored her with The Century Award, its highest award for distinguished creative achievement. In 1996, she received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, Canada’s highest honor in the performing arts. In 1997, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In April 2000, the TNT cable TV network presented a celebration in her honor at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City, with an all-star cast of performers singing her songs, from Elton John to Diana Krall. In 2002 she became only the third popular Canadian singer/songwriter to be appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada, that country’s highest civilian honor. She also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award that year. In 2007 she was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and Canada Post also honored her that year with a postage stamp. In 2015, she was awarded the SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award. Yet for Joni Mitchell, perhaps the highest praise has come from her peers and those who have been touched by her words and music.
Joni Mitchell, in a pensive moment, undated.
Magic & Muse
Joni Mitchell’s music and poetry have touched a lot of people. Those who heard her perform or listened to her songs in her early years seem to have been especially moved by her ability to reach into their inner core.
David Crosby, awed from the first time he heard her, would simply say of her singing and songrwriting, “there’s some magic that took place there.” Gene Shay from Philadelphia’s Second Fret, where Joni played in her early years, echoed a similar sentiment about her performances: “Everyone was saying that there was a magic to her songs,” said Shay. “She’d come up with these marvelous melodies and wonderful words.”
“Joni exorcises her demons by writing those songs,” said Stephen Stills in a 1974 Time magazine story on Joni, “and in so doing she reaches way down and grabs the essence of something very private and personal to women.” True enough, but it wasn’t just women she touched – though women did seem to have an extra sensory something that “got” what she was sending out.
1973: Malka Marom and Joni Mitchell on their way to visit fellow Canadian singer Neil Young at his ranch just south of San Francisco.
Malka Marom, a Canadian folk artist and writer, had her own singing act a few years earlier than Joni. She performed in Canada with her husband, as Malka & Joso. One night in November 1966 Malka discovered Joni when she happened into The Riverboat coffeehouse in Toronto where Joni was playing. Malka was simply knocked out by what she heard:
“When I first saw her, hardly anybody was there…I mean the coffeehouse was empty. She was standing almost a little pigeon-toed. She was all involved in tuning her guitar, and she covered her face with her hair. It’s almost like she wants to erase who she is, and just let the voice be, let the songs be who she is. Then she started to sing “I Had a King,” [a poignant song about an ill-fitting marriage with the opening lines, ‘I had a King in a salt-rusted carriage / Who carried me off to his country for marriage too soon…’] I was going through a divorce then. And I just felt, I don’t know what it was about that song. Talk about a new way of conveying–-through music, through words–-a new way of conveying an existential reality… It was really something… And, oh, I just started to sob. …She sang it as if she was singing for me. She was my voice, you know… She was everybody’s voice… I was amazed that she was so young; there was so much wisdom in her work.”
Malka that night would talk with Joni after she performed to the mostly empty coffeehouse, telling her she had something special and could become a star. The two became life-long friends and Malka would compile a book on Joni in 2014 based on the conversations she had with her over 30 years, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words.
Feb 1991: Joni Mitchell, age 47, on the cover of Telegraph Magazine, interviewed in advance of her album, “Night Ride Home.”
Among those in the music industry who first dealt with her, many were amazed at what she brought to the table and how she created so much material in so short a time. Elliot Roberts, her manager in the early years would observe: “When she first came out, she had a backlog of 20, 25 songs that were what most people would dream that they would do in their entire career. She had already done it, before she had recorded. It was stunning.” Bill Flanagan of MTV Network, explained in the PBS film, Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind: “Joni took this really potent popular image — that had been building for seven or eight years anyway — the California girl, the Beach Boys’ girl, the beautiful golden girl with the long, blonde hair parted in the middle. And Joni not only was the girl, but she was also the Bob Dylan, the Paul Simon, the Lennon and McCartney, writing it. I mean, she was the whole package. She was the subject and she was the painter. And that was incredibly powerful for people.”
Yet women in particular looked up to Joni Mitchell as a trailblazer and would grow up with her music over the years. In 2003, filmmaker Susan Lacy, who made the 90-minute PBS documentary, Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind for the “American Masters” TV series, also offered her personal views on what Mitchell meant to her:
In my teens, 20’s, and even into my 30’s, when I was disturbed or needed to reflect on things, I would sit at the piano and play Joni Mitchell songs. When I had children, my favorite song to sing with them was “Circle Game,” which they learned from the time they could sit up. I loved her music then and still do. Her songs were a touchstone to my own experiences and emotions. I grew up listening to Joni Mitchell – going from my teenage years into adulthood.
I saw her as the free spirit we all wanted to be. She represented an incredibly interesting mix of mysticism, beauty, talent, and femininity but, with a backbone of steel. She was doing it her way. Wouldn’t we all like to be like that?
“Joni’s Love Muse”
Joni Mitchell loved being in love. It inspired her; it was how she wrote much of her material. “Being in love is extremely important to her muse,” said jazz musician and producer Larry Klein, her husband for ten years in the 1980s. “A lot of her creative impulses come from whatever that phenomenon is that happens to us when we fall in love.” Joni was a free spirit in her dealings with men, given licence in the era of “sex, drugs and rock n roll” to be whoever she wanted to be. And she pushed it to the limit. She acted just like men had for eons. But Joni was a genuine romantic, taking her relationships to heart, good and bad. And that came through in her music. Sometimes though, the scars ran deep, both professionally and psychologically. A few bad depressions and one rumored suicide attempt appear to be part of that history. When Rolling Stone magazine included her by name in an early 1970s story with line graphic connecting partners in the Laurel Canyon love nest, Joni was hurt and angry. She saw the age-old double standard at work. And although there were marriages and near marriages in her life’s course, Joni seemed to have a compulsion to stay free. “I remember getting a telegram from Greece from Joan,” said Graham Nash of his early 1970s relationship with her. “The last line of which was, ‘If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers.’ It was Joan’s way of saying goodbye to me.” And so she remained: in love, recovering from love, or on the hunt for love through much of her career. Of course, the record for all of this — or at least some of it — is found in her lyrics, explicit and between the lines, in the hundreds of songs she has written. It’s a legacy of heart and soul, delight and torment, doubt and self discovery; a legacy that remains an open book of one person’s journey with life and love.
Gail Sheehy is a New York writer with some 17 books to her credit, including Passages of 1976, and also occasional articles for Vanity Fair and other publications. In 2014, Sheehy spoke to the Wall Street Journal’s Marc Myers about how Joni Mitchell’s music had entered her life, and how one song in particular, “Both Side Now,” helped her grow, celebrate, love, divorce, grieve, and recover in her own various life stages:
“Back in 1968, when I was 30, my entire life blew up. I had a life plan and it collapsed for no rational reason. I had been a newspaper reporter in New York but left the job to help editor Clay Felker start New York magazine. My marriage was breaking up and I was falling in love with Clay. The song that carried me through those years and all stages of my life is “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell…”
In that song, Sheehy found Mitchell’s voice to be genuine, neither “cynical or put off by life;” she admitted her confusion while still marveling at what she saw around her, though shedding her illusions. “In 1969, after my divorce,” said Sheehy, “I let go of my illusions about marriage.” Some years later, after a second marriage and after her husband had died in 2008, Sheehy was devastated. “I put on Joni’s version [of “Both Side Now”] with strings from 2000 and heard a deeper voice full of sorrow and wine and cigarettes. Eventually I found my way out of that dark place and dared to love again.”
Linda Sanders of Entertainment Weekly, reviewing Mitchell’s Turbulent Indigo of 1994 called that album “the distilled essence of everything she’s done before,” adding of her long career to that date: “all she’s really managed to deliver in the course of sixteen albums is one of the most vivid and delicious chronicles of a woman’s life that’s ever been produced in any medium anytime, anyplace.”
Yet Joni Mitchell is more than simply a troubadour of the female soul or a love balladeer – as anyone who has followed her career knows. Whether finding exquisite phrasing to capture an image or some moment of the heart, using her “weird chords” (open tuning) to bend the sound for the right tonal conveyance, or pushing the bounds of experimental jazz, Joni Mitchell has been a thoughtful and pioneering musician.
Joni Mitchell, 1968. Photo, Doug Griffin
In addition, her interviews, especially in the later years, are full of thoughtful, honest and sometimes stinging critique. She became outspoken on a range of topics, whether the state of the environment or the corruption of modern culture — including her own music industry. Still, for millions, it will be her poetry and music that bear the lasting gifts – whether from the “acoustic Joni” or the “jazzy Joni.”
Although this piece has explored more of the early parts of her career, and is meant more for those who know little about her, there is much more detail on the life and work of Joni Mitchell at her website, JoniMitchell.com. See also the various Joni Mitchell biographies, interviews, and profiles noted below in “Sources” at the end of this article. For additional stories on music at this website see the “Annals of Music” page. See also “Noteworthy Ladies,” a topics page with additional story choices on famous women. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please consider making a donation to help support this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
“Joni Mitchell,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, New York: Rolling Stone Press, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 657-659.
Stephen Holden, “The Evolution of the Singer-Songwriter”(Joni Mitchell section), in Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke (eds), The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock `n Roll, New York: Random House, 1992, pp. 483-484.
Wally Breese, “Biography: 1964-1968, Early Years,” JoniMitchell.com, January 1998.
Mark Scott, “Oh, But California…,” 2014 Biography Series, Part 2 of 16, JoniMitchell.com, May 16, 2014.
David Yaffe, (Dance), “Working Three Shifts, And Outrage Overtime,” New York Times, February 4, 2007.
Sheila Weller,“The Rebel Angels,” Vanity Fair, April 2008; Excerpted from, Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation, New York: Atria Books / Simon & Schuster, 2008.
George Bulanda, “Sixties Folklore” (interview with Chuck Mitchell), Detroit News, February 24, 2009.
Brian D. Johnson, “Leonard Cohen’s Tale of Redemption,” Maclean’s(Canadian magazine), October 22, 2012.
Roger Friedman, “Graham Nash: Listening to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ is ‘Quite Difficult for Me Personally’,” ShowBiz411.com, November 15, 2012.
Graham Nash, “The Beatles: Please, Please Me, and Joni Mitchell: Blue,” in Jeff Gold, 101 Essential Rock Records/The Golden Age of Vinyl From the Beatles to the Sex Pistols, Gingko Press Inc.; 1st edition, November 30, 2012.
Leah Collins, “Throwback Thursday: Cartooning with Joni Mitchell and Adrienne Clarkson,” CBC Live (Canada), June 6, 2013.
Graham Nash, “’Come to My House and I’ll Take Care of You': Graham Nash on His Romance with Joni Mitchell and Making Music with Crosby and Stills,” Daily Mail (London), September 14, 2013.
Marc Myers, “The Many Sides of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now'; Joni Mitchell’s Classic Speaks to the Many Stages of Life, Says Gail Sheehy,” Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2014.
Caroline Howe, “The Secret Torment of Joni Mitchell: Unflinching Insight into the Reclusive 70s Icon’s Battles…” The Daily Mail (London), September 1, 2014.
Malka Marom, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, ECW Press, September 2014.
Sean O’Hagan, “Joni Mitchell: The Sophistication of Her Music Sets Her Apart from Her Peers – Even Dylan,” TheGuardian .com, Sunday, October 26, 2014.
Judith Timson, “Happy Birthday Joni Mitchell, and Thanks for Everything,” Toronto Star, November 7, 2014.
Michelle Davies, “Joni Mitchell’s Colourful, And Often Tragic, Life Story,” Marie Claire, November 2014.
Marc Myers, “When Joni Mitchell Met Cary Raditz, Her ‘Mean Old Daddy’,” Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2014.
Marc Myers, Anatomy of a Song, “Joni Mitchell on the Muse Behind ‘Carey’,” Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2014.
Lisa Robinson, “An Oral History of Laurel Canyon, The 60s and 70s Music Mecca,” Vanity Fair, March 2015.
Kenneth Partridge, “Joni Mitchell: One of Music’s Greatest Singer-Songwriters Creates an Inspired Box Set,” M Music & Musicians, April 2015.
“Joni Mitchell: Seven Essential Songs,” BBC.com (Canada), April 1, 2015.
Maura Johnston, “Joni Mitchell’s Long Battle With ‘Male Egos’,” Refinery29.com, April 2, 2015.
Jeff Meshel, “215: Joni Mitchell, ‘Blue’,” jmeshel.com, April 3, 2015.
The above video clip is the movie trailer for the 2015 film, Love & Mercy, about Brian Wilson of the 1960s Beach Boys rock group. Wilson is the singer-songwriter-composer known, most famously, for helping lead and musically inspire the Beach Boys through their phenomenal rise in the 1960s. While many regard Wilson as the genius composer, arranger, and studio whiz behind the group’s much-loved music, he also had his personal demons, which become a focal point in this film. The Beach Boys early success is chronicled in the film up to the point where Wilson has a breakdown and quits touring with the group to focus on studio production, vowing to create “the greatest album ever made,” which becomes Pet Sounds of 1966. In the film, Wilson is shown losing his grip on reality as his drug and psychedelic experiences give rise to voices in his head and more serious mental duress and odd behavior.
A young Brian Wilson, in real life, early 1960s, in a studio setting with fellow Beach Boy, David Marks behind him, lower right.
In something of a novel approach, Wilson is played by two separate actors in the film, each marking distinct periods of Wilson’s life, reflecting his respective psychological condition in those times — well and not well.
Love & Mercy director Bill Pohlad, in a May 2015 comment to Michael O’Sullivan of the Washington Post, described the film as “the story of a hypercreative musical genius reaching his peak — really, his most creative period. And then he falls off the edge.”
Wilson actually went through a period of about 20 years of ups and downs with his various drug problems and mental health issues, and repeated rehabilitations and periodic lapses. Unbeknownst to those around him, Wilson suffered from a psychological condition later determined to be “bipolar schizoaffective disorder.” But for many years, no one knew quite how to help him. In 1988, after the Beach Boys were inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, he began a fuller recovery and a solo recording career which he has continued though the 2010s.
Brian Wilson, right, performing in 1964 with fellow Beach Boys, Carl Wilson and Al Jardine.
In the film, director Bill Pohlad tells the Brian Wilson story by cutting back and forth between the “two Brians” during his respective life periods of success and struggle. Actor Paul Delano plays Wilson in the early years, capturing Wilson’s creative period and his crash-and-burn descent. By 1973, in real life, Wilson had gone into major seclusion, a time after his father had died and he faced other problems. During this period, there were times when he barely made it out of bed, prompting family members to seek help for him.
In the film, now some years later in the 1980s when Wilson is a middle-aged man, he is played by actor John Cusack. At this point Wilson is shown as a broken, confused man under the hold of medical therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti who dispenses for Wilson a pharmacological regimen and dictatorial control over his every move. In the film, during an outing to buy a Cadillac automobile with the ever-hovering Dr. Landy, Brian meets his second wife to be – Melinda Ledbetter, played by Elizabeth Banks – she, the Cadillac saleswoman. The two strike up an intense relationship which the film explores. But Melinda also becomes determined to save Wilson from Dr. Landy’s manipulation. In real life, Wilson’s family would win a court order freeing Brian Wilson from Landy’s grip. (Although not depicted in the film, Landy faced state ethical charges and surrendered his license in California and was also forbidden from further contact with Wilson. Landy died in 2006.).
Brian Wilson in the recording studio.
Love & Mercy is filled with Beach Boys and Brian Wilson music, its title taken from a 1988 Brian Wilson song of that name. Those who grew up with Beach Boys music will definitely want to see this film, and those not knowing much of Wilson’s recording genius or his psychological difficulties, will be enlightened on both counts.
Love & Mercy is directed by Bill Pohlad, whose past credits, as executive producer, include: Brokeback Mountain, A Prairie Home Companion, and Food, Inc., and as producer, Into the Wild and 12 Years a Slave. In 2012 he was nominated for an Academy Award as producer for The Tree of Life. Love & Mercy is also produced by Pohlad, along with Claire Rudnick Polstein and John Wells. The writers are Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner.
Love & Mercy’s premiere screening came in September 2014 at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it received early acclaim from reviewers and audiences. It also had early screenings at the South By Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas and in Europe at the Berlin International Film Festival. Its public release in the U.S. would not come until June 2015.
Brian Wilson, August 1976.
The film’s unusual approach to biography in using two actors to portray the main character, was predicated upon the view that Wilson was actually “like two different people” before and after his mental difficulties. The original film score by composer Atticus Ross has also received praise, as have those scenes portraying Wilson’s genius at work in the recording studio during his earlier years. Brian Wilson himself has called the film “very factual,” and his wife, Melinda, appears to have played an important role in helping guide its accuracy.
A film on Brian Wilson’s life titled “Love & Mercy” was first proposed in 1988. It was planned to star William Hurt as Wilson and Richard Dreyfuss as Dr. Landy. But for whatever reasons, that film was not advanced. However, two made-for-TV films were produced: Summer Dreams: The Story of The Beach Boys, in 1990, and, The Beach Boys: An American Family, in 2000. These films were criticized for historical inaccuracies. Another 1995 film on Wilson, I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, by Don Was, received better marks. One book that came out in early 1991 appears to have muddied the waters on Wilson – Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story, “by Brian Wilson with Todd Gold,” which many believe was actually ghost-written, in whole or part, by Dr. Eugene Landy to tout his services in “saving Brian.” In 2006, the earlier Hollywood project on Wilson was briefly revived, but went nowhere. Then in 2011, the Love & Mercy film project was announced with Bill Pohlad directing.
Film poster for 2015 film, “Love & Mercy,” featuring Paul Dano and John Cusack, uses the tag line: “His Music Shaped Our Lives. Love Saved His. The True Story of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson.”
In 1997, Pohlad had become quite taken with the Beach Boys music, and in particular, The Pet Sounds Sessions boxed set. That music prompted him to take a deeper look into the life of Brian Wilson, and he began thinking about a film. He later collaborated with John Wells and Claire Rudnick Polstein who were attempting to make their own Beach Boys film, but instead became producers for Love & Mercy. Reportedly, Pohlad financed the undertaking with his own money.
After the Toronto screening in September 2014, Lionsgate Entertainment paid $3 million for film’s North American rights, with Roadside Attractions doing distribution. In other countries, Lionsgate will handle the release.
Among early reviews, The Hollywood Reporter gave Love & Mercy a favorable nod, calling it “a deeply satisfying pop biopic whose subject’s bifurcated creative life lends itself to an unconventional structure.” The same reviewer added, however, that Cusack’s lack of a physical resemblance to Wilson “will be a stumbling block for some fans, but those who can get beyond it will find a very fine film about a singular artist.” One theatrical poster for the film ran a favorable Washington Post blurb at its top that read: “Extraordinary. Visionary. Brilliance on Brilliance. Paul Dano and John Cusak mesmerize in a groundbreaking dual performance as Brian Wilson.” Another poster, shown above, appearing near the film’s release, used the tag line: “His Music Shaped Our Lives. Love Saved His. The True Story of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson.”
Brian Wilson, in more recent times, 2007.
Maclean’s magazine of Canada thought the film edged into glorification of Wilson, claiming more hagiography than biography, but also noted that “the soundtrack is unimpeachable,” and that Pohlad “offers a riveting look at how Wilson crafted such aural wonders as ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Good Vibrations’.”
The film’s public release was scheduled for June 5th, 2015. In addition to the film, a book titled, I Am Brian Wilson, was also slated for release, and a soundtrack of the film’s music from Capitol Records was also planned.
Beach Boys Story
See also at this website two related Brian Wilson/Beach Boys stories. The first, “Early Beach Boys, 1962-1966,” recounts the phenomenal rise and early recording and touring history of the Beach Boys, lists the group’s hits, subsequent albums, TV appearances, and more. The second story, “Early Beach Boys, Pt.2: Six Songs,” includes six full songs and historical narrative for each from the 1963-1966 period: “In My Room” (1963), “Don’t Worry Baby” (1964), “All Summer Long” (1964), “When I Grow Up” (1964), “The Warmth of The Sun” (1964), and “God Only Knows” (1966).
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Love & Mercy: Brian Wilson Film,” PopHistoryDig.com, June 4, 2015.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Nov 4th, 1976: Rolling Stone magazine with cover story: “The Healing of Brother Brian – A Multitrack Interview with Beach Boys Brian, Dennis, Carl, Mike and Al, Plus Brian’s Mom, His Dad, His Wife and His Shrink,” by Davide Felton.
Brian Wilson, presented as his 1960s self, on the cover of Mojo, the UK music magazine, March 2004, around the time he performed his “Smile” concert in London.
“The Beach Boys,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, New York: Rolling Stone Press, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp.51-54.
Alexis Petridis, “The Astonishing Genius of Brian Wilson,” TheGuardian.com, June 24, 2011.
For a detailed musical/technical analysis of Brian Wilson/Beach Boys’ songs, see Greg Panfile at “The Mind of Brian,” a series of detailed musical reviews of at least nine Beach Boys’ songs. This link takes you to his review of “In My Room.”
1963 Union Carbide ad titled, “Holding the Line...For a Richer Harvest,” touting its chemical insecticide, Sevin.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Union Carbide Corporation began an advertising campaign that was somewhat unique in the annals of advertising. The campaign, in purpose, was not unlike the usual ad banter that companies use for touting their products or industrial abilities. However, Union Carbide used a “giant hand” motif to capture attention and convey its industrial-sized prowess. And no doubt for some readers who came across these ads, at one level the giant hands may well have conveyed a kind of almighty, “hand-of-God” type imagery. In fact, one observer of the Union Carbide ads noted: “The hand seems clearly intended to remind us of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo depicted the hand of God bestowing life by touching Adam.”
The Union Carbide “giant hand” ads — and there were dozens of them in the series — typically explained how the company was wielding the powers of science and engineering, or touted the particular virtues of one or more products it was selling. Union Carbide was then ranked among the top 30 U.S. corporations on the Fortune 500 list, with mid-1960s annual revenues of about $1.5 billion or so.
One of Carbide’s giant hand ads, from 1963, shown at right, has the giant hand positioned in an agricultural field. One side of the field shows crop plants ravaged by disease and pestilence, and the other side, bountiful and productive – “protected” by the giant hand. The headline beneath the ad’s illustration reads: “Holding The Line …For a Richer Harvest.” The rest of the text explains:
Boll weevil, codling moth, leaf rollers, thrips and beetles . . . these are only a few of the thousands of insects that chew up millions of dollars worth of farm crops each year. Fortunately, however, they are no match for a new Union Carbide product called Sevin insecticide. In the United States and many other countries, the use of Sevin has already saved such staple crops as cotton, corn, fruits and vegetables from destruction by ravaging insects. You can now get Sevin insecticide for your own garden as part of the complete line of handy Eveready garden products that help you grow healthy vegetables and flowers. Sevin comes from years of research in Union Carbide laboratories and at an experimental farm in North Carolina where scientists prove out their latest agricultural chemicals. This is only one area in which chemicals from Union Carbide help improve everyday living. The people of Union Carbide are constantly at work searching for better products that will meet the needs of the future. ….A Hand in Things to Come. Union Carbide.
Union Carbide company logo with slogan, later years.
Union Carbide – which today is part of the Dow Chemical Company (Dow acquired Carbide in 2001) – began its industrial life in the 1910s. Initially, it was formed in a merger of five companies that included, principally, two main businesses: the National Carbon Co., a maker of the first dry-cell battery, later trade-named Eveready, and the Union Carbide Co., a calcium chloride producer. By 1917, the new company was known as the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation. It was engaged primarily in metallurgical and carbon products, but soon added gases and chemicals to its repertoire, and by World War II, was also refining uranium. By the 1940s plastics and agricultural chemicals were emerging from its laboratories, and in the 1950s these became substantial parts of its business. Sevin, the insecticide touted in the ad at the top of this article, was introduced commercially by Carbide in 1958, made from the chemical carbaryl, which Carbide discovered. Carbaryl is part of the carbamate family of chemicals.
Carbaryl initially, was given a relatively clean bill of health in terms of its environmental and human toxicity. In fact, early on, the development of the carbamate insecticides was generally seen as something of a major breakthrough in pesticide chemistry, since the carbamates did not have the persistence of the chlorinated pesticides – which Rachel Carson would later single out in her seminal pesticide critique of 1962, Silent Spring. Still, carbaryl and Sevin, had toxic effects, not all of which were at first apparent. Carbaryl, the active ingredient in Sevin, is an inhibitor of the cholinesterase enzyme, found in nervous tissue, red blood cells, and plasma. That’s how it kills insects. But in the 1950s and early 1960s, environmental and health effects testing and analysis were very limited. And like other pesticides, carbaryl and Sevin would generate a long history of ongoing reviews by the U.S. EPA for health and environmental effects. Years later, in the early 2000s, the chemical would be classified as a likely human carcinogen by EPA based on animal feeding studies, though it is still used today. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Sevin was approved for use on hundreds of crops and other applications.
Union Carbide ad titled “Complexion Care for Apples,” touting the company’s Sevin insecticide for orchards.
Another of Union Carbide’s “giant hand” ads for Sevin touted the chemical as an orchard insecticide – an ad that Carbide titled, “Complexion Care for Apples.” The text of that ad explains:
Apples and peaches are the most tempting when they look best. Yet all season long fruits are exposed to attack from hungry insects that can stunt growth and leave ugly blemishes on the surface. This battle of the bugs is now being won with the remarkable Crag insecticide called Sevin. Highly effective against a wide range of insects, it helps fruit trees produce a crop with healthful beauty that is more than skin deep.
Many modern chemicals are used to do the work for you on the home garden front too. A complete line of garden products is available under Union Carbide’s well known Eveready trade-mark. There are dusts to keep delicate roses or tomatoes free from destructive bugs or fungus. . . weed killers that put an end to a back-breaking chore . . . and an all-purpose aerosol insecticide that had a lethal effect on insects in the garden or inside the house.
The people of Union Carbide are continuing their research to develop more of the products that help enrich your everyday life. Union Carbide. …A Hand in Things to Come.
Carbide’s “giant hand” ads became part the “good-life-with-chemicals-and-plastics” mantra that was a cornerstone of chemical company growth and messaging that went on for decades from the end of WWII through the 1960s and beyond. Environmental and public health risks were not the primary concerns of Union Carbide and other chemical companies in those years. Rather, as these 1960s ads show, Sevin was touted by Carbide as a broad-spectrum insecticide, pushed to American farmers as a good thing. Sevin was also pitched for use in the home garden, and it was not uncommon to find home gardeners through the 1960s, and even in more recent decades, using Sevin dust on their tomatoes and other vegetables. Beyond American farmers and gardeners, Sevin was also proffered to third world countries as a savior for their insect-ravaged crops. Latin America was targeted first, then India.
A 1962 Union Carbide ad titled, “Science Helps Build a New India,” which appeared in 'National Geographic', among others.
In India, Carbide offered Sevin as a solution to Indian farmers’ troubles, as their crops were then being regularly ravaged by insects. Sevin would kill any insect, went the pitch, and soon the chemical was embraced as a solution, regarded as something of a “miracle chemical” to improve India’s agricultural prospects. In the process, Union Carbide was seen as a company that would bring beneficial products to India.
By 1962, Union Carbide, in one of its “giant hand” ads (at left), was offering that view in a paternalistic, “Western-know-how- will-help-you” message titled, “Science Helps Build a New India.” The rest of the ad’s text ran as follows:
“Oxen working the fields . . . the eternal river Ganges . . . jeweled elephants on parade. Today these symbols of ancient India exist side by side with a new sight – modern industry. India has developed bold new plans to build its economy and bring the promise of a bright future to its more than 400,000,000 people. But India needs the technical knowledge of the western world. For example, working with Indian engineers and technicians, Union Carbide recently made available its vast scientific resources to help build a major chemicals and plastics plant near Bombay. Throughout the free world, Union Carbide has been actively engaged in building plants for the manufacture of chemicals, plastics, carbons, gases, and metals. The people of Union Carbide welcome the opportunity to use their knowledge and skills in partnership with the citizens of so many great countries.” The ad ends with the sign off: “A Hand in Things To Come / Union Carbide.”
Union Carbide India, Ltd. plant at Bhopal, India.
Dec 3rd, 1984: Screenshot of “NBC Nightly News” TV program with Tom Brokaw reporting on Bhopal gas leak.
December 5th 1984 edition of The Hindustan Times of India with early reporting on the Bhopal gas leak disaster.
The Bhopal Plant
India by the 1960s had begun to embrace the promise of Green Revolution agriculture – a regimen that used new wheat varieties, heavy fertilization, and chemical pesticides. In 1969 in central India, a few miles from Bhopal, a city of about 900,000 people, a new pesticide plant was built. That year, Union Carbide India, Ltd. (UCIL) — 50.9 percent owned by the Union Carbide Corp.(U.S.) — began producing Sevin and another pesticide, Temik, an aldicarb pesticide.
In manufacturing these pesticides, an intermediate chemical ingredient named methyl isocyanate, or MIC, was used. For the first decade or so, the Bhopal plant imported MIC from a Union Carbide “sister plant” located in Institute, West Virginia.
By the late 1970s, however, the Bhopal plant added its own MIC production unit, with engineering and design based on Carbide’s West Virginia plant.
Normally, during the process of producing the pesticides, MIC, a dangerous gas, was vented and passed through a sodium hydroxide scrubber and flare towers to prevent any problems. But on December 2nd, 1984, something went wrong at the Bhopal plant.
At 11:30 p.m. that night, workers at the Bhopal plant, their eyes tearing and burning, informed their supervisor they had detected a gas release. By 12:45 a.m. a rapid pressure increase occurred inside one of the MIC storage tanks, which opened the safety relief valve, releasing the dangerous methyl isocyanate into the atmosphere. In all, some 40 tons of the gas were released.
Twice as heavy as air, methyl isocyanate remained close to the ground as an escaping gas cloud as it left the plant, rolling southward on light winds. The low-lying, ground-hugging gas cloud was heading toward the eastern flank of a sleeping Bhopal.
MIC is a highly poisonous gas, capable of reacting violently with many substances, including water and some metals. It is also particularly lethal to the eyes and respiratory system.
On December 3rd, 1984, as the gas left the plant, it first hit densely-populated squatter settlements near the plant containing some of Bhopal’s poorest citizens. Thousands were killed in their sleep or as they fled in terror.
December 17th, 1984: Union Carbide’s disaster in Bhopal was Time magazine’s cover story.
The gas poured out of the plant for nearly two hours, spreading eight kilometers downwind over the city. Hospitals were overwhelmed in the hours and days that followed.
“No one is counting the numbers any longer,” reported chemical engineer and journalist Praful Bidwai at the Hamidia Hospital three days after the gas release. “People are dying like flies. They are brought in, their chests heaving violently, their limbs trembling, their eyes blinking from the photophobia. It will kill them in a few hours, more usually minutes.”
There were more than 500,000 people in the path of the Union Carbide MIC gas leak at Bhopal. At least 3,000 people are thought to have perished in the first 24 hours. Thousands more died within two weeks. And over the years since the disaster, thousands more succumbed as gas-related diseases took their toll. Additionally, many thousands more were injured or were left with debilitating life-long conditions of one sort or another — 558,125 with some kind of injury by one count.
A 2014 report in Mother Jones magazine, quotes a health clinic spokesperson for Bhopal Medical Appeal, noting that: “An estimated 120,000 to 150,000 survivors still struggle with serious medical conditions including nerve damage, growth problems, gynecological disorders, respiratory issues, birth defects, and elevated rates of cancer and tuberculosis.” However the grim toll of this tragedy is counted, Bhopal remains the worst industrial accident in history.
Portion of a graphic showing map of 1984 Bhopal gas release and incorporating various estimates of those killed in the immediate aftermath of the incident and longer term. AFP / Source: India CSE/ICMR
The repercussions of the disaster would stretch over the next 30 years, and as of this writing they continue. A wide variety of social justice, victims compensation, environmental and other organizations have worked for years to bring fair compensation to the people of Bhopal and its region, among these, the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. Union Carbide and its successors were taken to court and brought before tribunals multiple times and in varying U.S. and Indian jurisdictions.
Dan Kurzman’s 1987 book on Bhopal, “A Killing Wind,” was one of a number of books written on the tragedy and its aftermath.
In 1989, the Union Carbide Corporation paid $470 million to settle litigation. That settlement was unsuccessfully challenged by activists in 1990 and 1991, some advocating pursuit of the $3 billion in damages that had been originally proposed. Civil and criminal cases, however, continued to be pursued. In 1994, Union Carbide sold its stake in the Bhopal plant and after some clean up at the site, which remains contaminated from historic practices unrelated to the disaster, it was eventually turned over to the state government of Madhya Pradesh. By 2001, Dow Chemical had completed its acquisition of Union Carbide, and although it had tried to insulate itself from Carbide’s Bhopal liabilities by how it structured the Carbide deal, it too was pursued by Bhopal victims.
In October 2003, U.S. Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and eight other members of Congress filed an amicus brief on behalf of about 20,000 victims of the 1984 Bhopal disaster. The brief, initiated by Pallone— a co-founder of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans— came in response to a March 2003 decision by a U.S. District Judge in New York who dismissed all claims against Dow Chemical (although Bhopal victims appealed). Pallone and his colleagues sent a 23-page brief in the appeal case. It urged the court to hold Dow Chemical responsible. “There is strong support in Congress for holding those responsible for this horrific tragedy accountable for their actions,” said Pallone at the time. “It is unacceptable to allow an American company not only the opportunity to exploit international borders and legal jurisdictions, but also the ability to evade civil and criminal liability for environmental pollution and abuses committed overseas.”
In November 2014, at the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, the film, “A Prayer for Rain,” starring Martin Sheen, was released.
In June 2010, as result of civil and criminal cases filed in Bhopal, India, seven ex-employees, including the former UCIL chairman, were convicted of causing death by negligence and sentenced to two years imprisonment and a fine of about $2,000 each, the maximum punishment allowed by Indian law. In February 2012, WikiLeaks released a cache of email related to a private U.S. security think tank named Stratfor. It revealed that Dow Chemical had engaged Stratfor to monitor the public and personal lives of activists involved in the Bhopal disaster. As of 2013, a curative petition previously field challenging the earlier $440 million settlement of 1989 was still pending in India’s Supreme Court. In November 2014, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, a historical drama film based on the disaster – A Prayer for Rain starring Martin Sheen – was released. Los Angeles Times critic Martin Tsai called the film “ambitious and shattering,” also noting that “although the real-life events took place three decades ago, the cautionary tale could not be more relevant.”
Back in the mid-1980s, meanwhile, one of the highlighted revelations driven home by the Bhopal incident was that the way pesticide and other chemical products were made – that is, the chemical ingredients and processes used in their manufacture – could be quite dangerous and toxic to workers and nearby communities. Chemical plant safety, in other words, was spotlighted by the Bhopal disaster in a much bigger way than it had been previously. And the risks to public safety weren’t limited to foreign locations with little regulation. In fact, in the U.S. not long after the Bhopal disaster, there was a less serious but no less worrisome incident at a Union Carbide plant that also handled methyl isocyanate.
West Virginia Leak
In the mid-1980s, Union Carbide operated a chemical plant located at Institute, West Virginia, where it also produced methyl isocyanate (MIC) – the same gas that had savaged Bhopal. Carbide officials, however—especially in the aftermath of Bhopal—had promised to focus on safety at all of their facilities. Yet federal investigators in 1985 soon found serious problems at Institute—namely, 190 chemical leaks from the MIC plant in a five-year period. Still, company Chairman Warren Anderson then assured the public that Carbide had gone through the complex “with a fine tooth comb” and had determined the plant was “safe to run.” The company poured millions into the Institute plant to demonstrate its commitment to safety. But at the very place where the company was making its supposed best effort, another mishap occurred.
Wire service stories on Union Carbide’s August 1985 gas leak in West Virginia appeared in various U.S. newspapers.
On August 11, 1985, the plant released a toxic gas cloud consisting of aldicarb oxime – a chemical used to make the pesticide Temik – and methylene chloride, a known neurotoxin and suspected animal carcinogen. At least 135 people were sickened by the gas and taken to local hospitals. Described in one account as “a 200-yard-wide cloud of yellowish gas that rolled over the West Virginia towns of Dunbar, Institute, Nitro and St. Albans,” the leak also closed some local roads in the Kanawha River Valley, including Interstate 79 and West Virginia 25, for up to an hour. Some of the stranded motorists complained of a choking and burning sensation from the fumes. Others described it like a rolling fog. Union Carbide officials said the leak occurred because of a valve failure after a buildup of pressure in a storage tank containing the chemical. The incident soon had the attention of Congress and the nation. “Here we had a company that could not operate in a safe fashion even with a public microscope on it,” said U.S. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), then referring to a highly-scrutinized Carbide, post-Bhopal. “It casts doubt on the competence and credibility of the whole industry.”
Given the Bhopal incident, and revelations that American plants weren’t all that safe either, Congress was spurred to action, and soon moved to adopt tougher regulation. The 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act was adopted, establishing the Toxic Release Inventory, which improved citizen access to toxic chemical information in their own communities. EPA reports made clear that the U.S. chemical industry had the capacity and the potential, with the right set of circumstances, to have Bhopal-scale or worse chemical disasters. It also helped to improve state and local emergency planning. And for the next several years, chemical plant safety and toxic release issues remained on the agenda as Congress considered the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. During that debate, EPA reports made clear that the U.S. chemical industry had the capacity and the potential, with the right set of circumstances, to have Bhopal-scale or worse chemical disasters. More emphasis was placed on chemical plant safety at EPA and OSHA, and new programs were adopted. EPA was authorized to develop its Risk Management Program Rule for protection of the public, and OSHA to develop its Process Safety Management Standard to protect workers. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 also established the independent U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which since its creation, has become an important investigative entity, issuing hundreds of accident investigation reports and recommendations for improved chemical plant safety. Still, to this day, many find that national chemical safety oversight is lacking, fraught with basis data gaps, and lacking in meaningful funding.
One of the 1984 ads for Union Carbide’s Sevin pesticide by the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather.
As for the pesticide Sevin, the chemical continued to be used for many years. In fact, Union Carbide ads for the insecticide would also appear in later years, though not with the drama of the “big hand” motif. In fact, in 1984, the same year of the Bhopal disaster, but some months before it occurred, a new advertising campaign for Sevin had been authorized by Union Carbide. The Ogilvy & Mather ad agency of Atlanta, Georgia developed a new campaign with a series of print and TV ads that sought to revitalize and reintroduce classic brands. In the case of Sevin, part of the pitch was made to home gardeners and also for lawn, horticultural, and turf uses. And although the Olgilvy & Mather ad shown at right makes Sevin out to be just about one of the safest things you could use in your garden, Sevin had been getting some less-than-flattering internal government reviews about its safety. In fact, as early as 1969, a U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare report recommended that the use of carbaryl “should be immediately restricted to prevent risk of human exposure.” HEW, as it was then known, had seen some studies showing that carbaryl could cause birth defects in mammals. But HEW’s concerns were ignored. By the mid-1970’s EPA, then the primary agency in charge of pesticide registration, decided to review carbaryl in a process known by its acronym, RPAR – for Rebuttable Presumption Against Registration. Under RPAR, when questions arise about the risks of a certain pesticide, the public is permitted to submit evidence to make a case against its continued registration The pesticide manufacturer then has an opportunity to rebut the evidence. If the manufacturer can make that case, the pesticide retains its registration. If they can’t the pesticide is either restricted, taken off the market, or changes are made in allowed uses and its label description and/or warnings. Carbaryl, it seems, was on the road to RPAR in the late 1970s when it was abruptly withdrawn from that process in 1980. Turns out there some working groups from the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Protection that had twice recommended that carbaryl be taken through RPAR, and despite several scientific studies that raised health questions about the chemical, the director of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs decided that there was not enough evidence. Instead, the EPA elected to conduct a review outside of the RPAR process. In 1984, the agency requested two scientific studies on carbaryl and made a few minor changes on its label.
Close up shot of a front panel from a Garden Tech Sevin product in recent years.
Carbaryl was then one of America’s most popular and widely used pesticides, including among some 5 million or more home gardeners, More than 25 million pounds of Sevin were then used annually by all users. The chemical was then present in some 1,500 products used on over 100 crops to control more than 500 insect pests. By 1984, it had been sprayed over hundreds of thousands of acres to battle gypsy moth and was widely used in home gardens to kill Colorado potato beetles and flea beetles. It was also approved for use as a dust to control fleas on cats and dogs. But Warren Schultz Jr., writing an Organic Gardening magazine article in October 1984 titled, “The Trouble With Carbaryl,” called the widely used chemical possibly one of the most dangerous then in use. “You wouldn’t know it from reading the label,”he noted. “The recommendations and precautionary statements [on the label] make Sevin sound about as safe as baby powder. Inspect a canister or bottle of Sevin at the local hardware store, and you won’t find the words ‘Poison’ or even ‘Danger’ anywhere on the package.” That was 1984.
Since then, EPA has made more reviews of carbaryl and Sevin and more restrictions have come on the chemical. In 2003, EPA classified carbaryl as a likely human carcinogen. It is also potentially toxic to the human nervous system, can cause nausea, dizziness, confusion and, at high exposures, respiratory paralysis and death. Young children are particularly vulnerable to carbaryl and other pesticides because their bodies and brains are still developing. In the environment, since it is a broad-spectrum insecticide, carbaryl can kill beneficial insects like honeybees and other pollinators. And when this chemical runs off farms and lawns it can contaminate streams and rivers, where it is toxic to aquatic animals and fish. Yet, at this writing, Sevin and carbaryl are still used on a wide variety of farm and orchard crops including, apples, pecans, grapes, alfalfa, oranges and corn. as well as lawns and gardens. But EPA has been tightening its restrictions. In October 2009, the agency announced that carbaryl will no longer be allowed for use in flea collars. The environmental organization, NRDC, the Natural Resources Defense Council, has called for a total ban on the chemical. “The surest way to protect the American public at large is to ban the use of carbaryl entirely,” says NRDC on its “Smarter Living” page profiling carbaryl. Sevin/carbaryl, meanwhile, has had a product lifetime of more than 50 years, which shows that once chemicals are approved for use, getting them removed from the market is nearly impossible.
“The Body Toxic” by Nena Baker, one of a number of books in recent years to probe the dangers of “everyday chemistry.”
Carbaryl, of course, in only one of many chemicals in current use. And new chemical compounds for all uses continue to be introduced into global commerce at a rate of about three per day. Yet less that 10 percent of the 100,000 chemicals registered for use in global commerce have had complete toxicological profiles, and most have not been studied in-depth for potential ecological or reproductive effects. More worrisome is the fact that in the last decade or so, more than 500 chemicals – variously labeled “persistent organic pollutants” or “persistent bioaccumulative toxic substances” – have been found in human blood and body tissue. Modern chemistry, it seems, has become an invasive human health concern.
As for Union Carbide’s “giant hand” ads of the 1950s and 1960s – and there was an extensive series of these covering a gamut of Carbide products and industries – they went the way of over-done industrial hype and eventually faded from the advertising pages. However, these Union Carbide ads – among others from the chemical industry in those years – helped create and embed a “chemicals-are-good-for-you” culture, along with the notion that these substances were somehow the handmaidens of progress, vital to the economy, and above reproach or challenge. Rather, the “giant hand” needed today is one of safety assurance from the government, strict chemical oversight, and no chemical harm.
Union Carbide Corporation, Company Profile, Hoover’s Handbook of American Companies, 1996, Austin, TX: The Reference Press, Inc.,.
Milt Moskowitz, Michael Katz, and Robert Levering, Everybody’s Business, Harper & Row: San Francisco, 1990, pp. 526–27.
David Dembo, Ward Morehouse, Lucinda Wykle, Abuse of Power: Social Performance of Multinational Corporations: The Case of Union Carbide, New York: New Horizons Press, 1990.
“Complexion Care for Apples” (Union Carbide advertisement), Torrance Press (newspaper, Torrance, CA), Thursday, August 15, I957, p. 15.
Rajiv Desai, “An Ill Wind: For The People Of Once-prosperous Bhopal, The Horror Of History`s Worst Industrial Disaster May Never End,” ChicagoTribune.com, November 30, 1986.
Dhiren Bhagat, “A Night in Hell,” Sunday Observer, reprinted in Bhopal: Industrial Genocide?, Arena Press, March 1985, p. 23, and Praful Bidwai, “The Poisoned City—Diary From Bhopal,” Times of India, December 16, 1984, both cited by Russell Mokhiber in Corporate Crime and Violence, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988.
“Carbaryl” (General Fact Sheet), National Pesticide Information Center, (NPIC is sponsored cooperatively by Oregon State University and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).
Artist John Falter’s painting, “Golf Driving Range,” was used to illustrate the cover of the July 26, 1952 “Saturday Evening Post,” one of some 129 covers he did for the magazine.
Illustration art – the kind used on the covers of mid-20th century magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post – is rising in value. So say the experts at Antiques Roadshow, the popular PBS TV show that explores the market and historic values of hidden treasures found in family attics and garages all over the country.
On an Antiques Roadshow first broadcast from Birmingham, Alabama in June 2014, and rebroadcast in early April 2015, a painting by artist John Falter (1910-1982) used to illustrate the cover of the July 26th, 1952 Saturday Evening Post shown at right, was assigned an insurance value of up to $250,000.
“I would put an insurance value of about $200,000 to $250,000 on it,” said Alan Fausel, the Roadshow’s appraiser during the segment presenting Falter’s painting. It was brought in by a Roadshow guest. The appraiser here was talking about the original painting by Falter that was used for the magazine cover – not the magazine cover itself. Still, that Falter’s work – and by extension, other illustration artists of that era of similar skill – could fetch that amount of money, certainly got the attention of viewers, and shortly thereafter, the Twitterverse and beyond. Appraiser Alan Fausel also commented during the show that “illustration art is one of the hottest things in the American art market today.” According to the Antiques Roadshow website, the owner of the Falter painting, “Golf Driving Range,” later sold the painting at auction in November 2014 for $197,000.
November 2014: “Antiques Roadshow” appraiser (L) with owner (R) of John Falter painting, magazine cover & letter.
The owner’s father originally had seen the painting when it had periodically hung in his office as part of a rotating exhibit. He later decided to contact the artist, John Falter, directly to purchase the painting for his own use, which he did in 1978 for $2,500.
In that transaction, John Falter included a letter to the buyer explaining the genesis of the painting and some description of it subjects.
When the owner’s son – the Roadshow guest in Birmingham, Alabama – inherited the painting, he still had the original Falter letter, which is valuable “provenance” as they say in the art appraisal trade, and more valuable coming from the artist himself. Together with the painting, of course, it made for a more valuable “package.”
The Falter painting, “Golf Driving Range,” captured a bit of popular 1950s Americana and recreation activity, as golf driving ranges such as that depicted were then sprouting up all over suburbia. And many were open at night as well, also as illustrated in Falter’s piece. Golf in post-WWII America was becoming a middle class pursuit.The owner of the inherited John Falter painting sold it at auction in November 2014 for $197,000. By 1953, the Tam O’Shanter World Championship golf tournament near Chicago was the first to be nationally televised. Falter too, it turns out, was something of a frustrated golfer himself, as he would explain in his 1978 letter to the buyer: “The idea of this cover,” he would write, “came from the frustrations of the artist to solve the mysteries of Golf.” Falter noted that he had early experience with the game as a youth in Nebraska – with “corn field golf that considered sand greens total luxury.” Later, after WWII when Falter was living on the East Coast, he picked up the game again, becoming something of a self-described “golf nut,” trying still to decipher the game’s secrets. So when he painted “Golf Driving Range” in 1952 he had some first-hand experience with the game’s difficulties – and enough to know about its golf-swing frustrations, which he comically depicted in his painting, all explained in his letter below (here, taking some liberties with punctuation):
“…The scene of the cover is a [golf driving] range out on Rockville Pike, Bethesda [Maryland]. Probably gone now. I tried to represent all of the bad swings in golf, as I know them – and I should know, I had them all. [Describing the various “swings” from the top of the painting]: The anger shot; the no energy swing; the overextended back swing; the embraceable you shot; Bobby Jones the change of pace; The eager beaver; The irritator who always looks good but can’t hit; The lesson; The Fall back; the Fall forward. There are probably a lot more that I would have learned had I not been stopped by arthritis…”
In closing his letter Falter noted, “It’s a grand old game,” then adding a touch of humor, “and I have low handicap — on the tube.” ( here, presumably, he meant as a TV viewer ).
But to the good fortune of art, and not golf, and for nearly two decades from the 1940s through 1961, Falter turned out 128 other covers for The Saturday Evening Post – and these were only a portion of the more than 5,000 paintings he did during his lifetime. A selection of some of his Saturday Evening Post covers follows below, along with background on his career, the times, and his subject art. It should be noted, however, regarding the cover art below, that the original Saturday Evening Post magazine was a large-format magazine, nearly 11″x 15″ in size, so the artist’s detail and color quality would be much sharper in the actual magazine – one reason why millions of Americans in those days looked forward to seeing their weekly Saturday Evening Post. Still, the quality of Falter’s work shines through, even in these smaller examples.
Ben Franklin, January 1943.
Ltr From Overseas, May 1943.
Gramercy Park, NY, 1944.
Amber Waves..., Sept 1945.
Yankee Stadium, April 1947.
Fall scene, November 1947.
Surf Swimming, August 1948.
Flying Kites, March 18, 1950.
Family Baseball, Sept. 1950.
Paperboy, April 14, 1951.
Evening Picnic, August 1951.
Covered Bridge, August 1954.
Golden Gate, Nov 1957.
Frosty in Freezer, Feb 1959.
Commuters in Rain, Oct 1961.
Foxhunters Outfoxed ,1961.
Born in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, John Phillip Falter began his artistic career by creating a comic strip when he was a high school student. A cartoonist at the Des Moines Register newspaper in Iowa – Pulitzer Prize-winner J. N. “Ding” Darling – saw some of Falter’s cartoons and said he should become an illustrator.
After high school, John Falter set off on his art education. Among his pursuits and learning experiences: he studied at the Kansas City Art Institute; won a scholarship to the Art Students League of New York City (which he did not complete); took courses during the Depression at the Grand Central School of Art above New York’s Grand Central station; and with three friends from his days at the Kansas City Art Institute, set up shop in New Rochelle, NY where he and they launched their respective careers as freelance illustrators.
In 1933, Falter received a major break with his first commission from Liberty Magazine. He was hired to do three illustrations a week. “They paid me $75 a week,” Falter said, “just like a steelworker. But my expenses for models and costumes were running $35 a week during one 16-week serial I was illustrating.”
Falter soon discovered there was better money to be made doing advertising illustrations. By 1938, he had begun doing ads for Gulf Oil, Four Roses Whiskey, Arrow Shirts, and Pall Mall cigarettes. Many of these ads appeared in the national magazines of that era. Falter found in fact, that his advertising work gave him enough income to explore other avenues of art, including easel painting.
With the outbreak of WWII, Falter joined the war effort, enlisting in the Navy in 1943. Eventually rising to the rank of Chief Petty Officer, Falter’s artistic talents were used in the war effort, designing over 300 recruiting posters.
Some of Falter’s wartime posters focused on security concerns of the time and about causal conversation leaking information to the enemy. One of his posters featured a Navy man heading off to duty, duffle bag on shoulder, with the caption, “If you tell where he’s going, he may never get there.” He also did a series of recruiting posters for the women’s Navy, the WAVES. And later for Esquire magazine, he did a series depicting 12 Medal-of-Honor winners.
Falter’s first Saturday Evening Post cover, a portrait of the magazine’s historic founder, Benjamin Franklin, appeared with the September 1st, 1943 issue. That began a 25-year association between Falter and the Post, during which he developed his own unique style. Falter’s eye for America and its people was aptly suited to the distinctly American story the Post sought to convey to its readers each week.
“There were plenty of Rockwell imitators and J. C. Leyendecker imitators,” Falter explained of two of the more famous Saturday Evening Post illustrators. “My main concern in doing Post covers was trying to do something based on my own experiences. I found my niche as a painter of Americana with an accent of the Middle West. I brought out some of the homeliness and humor of Middle Western town life and home life. I used humor whenever possible.”
Most of Falter’s Post covers were his own ideas. “Four didn’t make it,” he said, in one interview, and “probably 12 ideas were supplied by the Post.”
After the war, Falter moved to Saint Davids Street in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, where he was closer to the offices of The Saturday Evening Post and its owner, Curtis Publishing. In addition to his Saturday Evening Post illustrations, Falter also did work for other Curtis magazines, including Country Gentleman and Ladies Home Journal. He also did work for rival magazines, such as Reader’s Digest, Life, and Look.
As can be seen in the selection of his covers included with this story, there is a clear American style and tone about Falter’s Saturday Evening Post art, whether capturing the beauty of a Nebraska wheat field, the vivid colors of fall, or a simple, everyday scene of a newspaper boy on his bike – this last, an everyday occurrence in 1951 when it was painted, but today, a wistful part of a fading Americana.
Falter was dedicated to his craft. “It has to be a love affair every time,” he would say about his subject art. “If you aren’t in love with what you are trying to put on that canvas, you better quit.” Still, when viewing his completed works, he would always see something to improve. But most viewers, without his hard-judging eye, only saw very good illustration.
“John Falter’s work was less about people and more about settings,” wrote Diana Denny, describing his work in a 2012 story for SaturdayEveningPost.com. “It was all about perspective…”
John Falter’s “Running for The Bus,” October 12, 1957.
While there are often people in Falter’s Saturday Evening Post work, those covers depicting outdoor themes in particular, stress the larger nature scene and not the people. In some respects, in these paintings the people are only bit players, secondary to the scene; made small in comparison to the larger majesty of a river, rolling landscape, moonlit night, etc. In “Evening Picnic,” shown earlier above, there is a well-crafted and detailed picnic scene with people engaged in all the requisite activities. Yet the “star” in this illustration is clearly the pink evening sky reflected on a glassy lake, accented by a few the tall trees. Again, in his “Running for the Bus,” a 1957 Saturday Evening Post cover shown at right, the child running down the lane to catch the school bus, and the local traffic jam made in the waiting, are only the smallest parts of this scene, which glories in the larger natural setting, its productive color, and it agricultural yield. Here, the human activity appears incidental. It’s as if Falter is purposely saying how small we all are when placed against the larger beauty of the world around us. Perspective indeed. In fact, Falter’s panoramic covers with long views and small people were something of a departure from the Post’s traditional close-up designs. Other Post illustrators, including Norman Rockwell, adopted the style for a time. In fact, Rockwell had high praise for Falter generally, calling him “one of America’s most gifted illustrators.”
But like Rockwell and other of the Post illustrators, John Falter’s art used humor frequently, which also fit the Americana imagery the Post sought to convey. Falter’s humor often revolved around American families, children, and teenagers. “Frosty in the Freezer,” for example, from 1959 and shown earlier, is a clever Falter subject along these lines. Another is, “Learning to Fly,” a June 1953 cover, shown below left, which aptly captures the humor and parental concern for an adventuresome son convinced that he has devised the perfect personal flying apparatus. Falter features him atop the family garage about to make a test run. Mom and Dad, of course, are shown pleading for some sanity. Falter also shows a grandparent and a few neighbors, all out on their porches or back yards looking on as the boy gets set to “test his wings,” so to speak – mattress below at the ready (the painting for this cover would later be included in a Heritage Auctions catalog of October 2008 with an estimated sale price of between $40,000 and $60,000.
John Falter’s “Learning to Fly,” Saturday Evening Post, June 20, 1953.
John Falter’s “Stan The Man” (Stan Musial, St. Louis Cardinals), Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1954.
Falter, and other Post illustrators, also had time for baseball in one form or another. He did a couple baseball themed- covers depicting family and sandlot games, and also one with an actual baseball great, Stan Musial, of the St. Louis Cardinals, shown signing autographs at the edge of a dugout during a big league game – and aptly titled “Stan the Man,” the fan-based moniker he was known by in those years.
A Golden Era
For any magazine illustrator of the mid-1940s through early 1960s, The Saturday Evening Post was the place to be. Millions read it weekly, and the cover illustration each week was sort of the YouTube or Instagram of its day – making a visual statement of some kind about the nation, its people, its culture. But the Post was not immune to the vagaries of a changing world and its economic demands. Falter, Rockwell, and other illustrators who had drank deeply from the golden cup that was The Saturday Evening Post, might have thought that their world would go on forever. “I was sort of going along on a ship that would never sink,” Falter himself would later say. “It seemed that nothing could possibly happen to the Post. Then suddenly, in my middle life, I had to retool…” By the early 1960s, photography was coming on strong, elbowing illustrators off magazine covers. And TV was making inroads on magazine advertising, leading eventually to the demise of the big, general interest and picture magazines of that era. The Saturday Evening Post was the first to go, but in later years, the other big magazines went under as well.
By 1963, illustrated covers at The Saturday Evening Post had gone by the wayside as photography moved in. Illustration art had become unfashionable. Once famous illustrators were now scrambling. Falter, for one, was forced to spend much of his savings to stay afloat and regain his footing. He turned to portrait painting and book illustration. Clark Gable, James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, and other celebrities had portraits done by Falter. Among the 40 books he illustrated was a special edition of Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln – The Prairie Years and also Houghton-Mifflin’s series on Mark Twain. Jazz nightclubs and jazz muscians were also part of Falter’s territory, having been a self-taught jazz clarinet player in the 1920s. He painted scenes of Harlem nightclub life in the 1930s, and later did portraits of famous jazz musicians. He would sometimes sketch at clubs such as Eddie Condon’s on West 52nd St in New York City. In the mid-1970s, the 3M Company commissioned him to do a series of six paintings in celebration of the American Bicentennial, titled “From Sea to Shining Sea.” Paintings of the Old West became another Falter specialty. One of his projects in this area consisted of some 190 scenes, painted on separate canvases, depicting the western migration from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains. He continued working into the early 1980s. However, in May 1982, after a stroke and resulting complications, John Falter died at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. He was 72. His ashes were later cast into the Platte River, flowing into the Missouri, a subject of his western paintings. John Falter’s work lives on today, on display in numerous galleries and continuing to rise in value among collectors.
John Falter’s “Listening to the Sea,” Saturday Evening Post cover, July 21, 1956.
Photo of sketch setting brought into “Antiques Roadshow,” 2007, by Falter’e step-daughter, the girl in the painting.
Other work of John Falter’s appeared on an earlier Antiques Roadshow program – prior to the “Golf Driving Range” painting that is described at the top of this article. In 2007-2008, Falter’s “Listening to the Sea” painting — which appeared as a July 1956 Saturday Evening Post cover — came to a Roadshow broadcast from Louisville, Kentucky. The painting came via Falter’s step daughter, who had appeared in the painting as the little girl subject holding the seashell to her ear, shown at left. Falter’s step daughter also had a photograph of that setting, with her as the little girl with the seashell.
“We were posing for my stepfather, John Falter, who was one of the artists painting for The Saturday Evening Post,” explained Falter’s step-daughter on the Roadshow segment. “We were in my stepfather’s studio, outside San Francisco, and the background [in the painting] is all creative license.” The boy, also in the photo and painting, dressed in something of space suit, was a neighbor. They were both about 5 years old at the time.
The Roadshow’s appraiser, Kathleen Guzman explained at the time that Falter’s art had not risen to the “Norman Rockwell level,” but that there was “a lot more interest in this kind of second-tier sort of artist.” About ten years ago, or earlier, she explained, “this was a very hard thing to sell,” and that buyers weren’t really looking for that kind of art then. “The market price on a picture like this was barely $5,000 to $7,000,” she explained. “It crept up to $10,000 to $15,000.” She then asked her guest how much she thought the painting might be valued at? The guest replied, “$50,000.”
Guzman suggested there had been a surge in price, which “has only happened in the past five years.” Although it wasn’t “record-breaking, to the point of Rockwell,” prices for Falter’s work, she said, were rising. She noted that “a few years ago,” a Saturday Evening Post painting by Falter of Yankee Stadium (shown earlier above) “at auction, brought $150,000.” Guzman acknowledged that the subject, being Yankee Stadium, as depicted in the 1947 cover, made it “kind of a specialized category.” Turning to the art at hand, the appraiser, Ms. Guzman continued: “This subject, though, is just as wonderful. As a presale auction estimate, something like this we would put between $100,000 to $150,000. Okay. And I’m sure, since this is an heirloom… I would say for an insurance value, you should put at least $175,000 on it.”
John Falter’s “Ice Skating in the Country,” for the December 1st, 1971 Saturday Evening Post.
Also in 2008, a few other of Falter’s pieces were included in a Heritage Auctions Catalog for an auction that was held in Dallas, Texas in October 2008. Three pieces of Falter art were featured in a section of the catalog titled, “Through Falter’s Eyes.” The Falter pieces had come to auction from the estate of Jack Warner, a Pennsylvania friend of Falter’s.
One of the works featured was a panoramic piece Falter had painted of a snowy winter scene in Pennsylvania, a portion of which was later used for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post “Winter 1971″ issue shown at right. This cover, with old-style title lettering, came when the Post was operating under different ownership and published much less frequently. The cover also marked the last time (to date) that a Falter painting would appear on a Saturday Evening Post cover.
The full panoramic painting Falter did of the Pennsylvania winter scene was the auction item, and was given an estimated value of $30,000 to $50,000. It is not known if this particular painting was actually sold at the time or at what price. More recently, however, sale prices were posted on three other Falter paintings sold at a 2014 Christie’s auction, discussed below.
Falters at Christie’s
During an American art sale held at Christie’s auction house in New York city in February 2014, three John Falter paintings that were used for Saturday Evening Post covers were sold at auction for premium prices and well above pre-sale estimates. The three Falter paintings, which were acquired in the late 1960s, were put up for sale by “a distinguished family collection,” according to Christie’s.
Falter’s “Fifth Avenue” painting, shown below left, only a portion of which was used for The Saturday Evening Post cover of March 19, 1960 (was a larger fold out cover), sold at auction in its full version to a private buyer at a price of $461,000. His “Spilled Purse on Steep Hill,” shown below middle (lady losing the contents of her purse while walking a dog, as three gentlemen passing by attempt to retrieve her items), used for The Saturday Evening Post cover of March 26, 1955, sold for $131,000. The buyer in this case was the American Illustrators Gallery of New York city. Also bought by the American Illustrators Gallery at the same auction was Falter’s “Chasing the Fire Engine,” at a price of $106,250. This painting had been used as the cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post of June 30, 1956.
John Falter’s painting used for this March 1960 Sat Eve Post cover sold for $461,000 in Feb 2014.
John Falter’s painting used for this March 1955 Sat Eve Post cover sold for $131,000 in Feb 2014. Click for larger.
John Falter’s painting used for this June 1956 Sat Eve Post cover sold for $106,250 in Feb 2014.
Note: The works of John Falter shown in this piece are small representations of the actual full-size Saturday Evening Post covers that appeared in subscribers’ hands each week. See larger examples and/or poster-size prints of Falter’s Saturday Evening Post covers at FullTable.com, eBay.com, or VintagePosterWorks.com to see how magazine readers of that day would have viewed these covers, as well as the level of detail offered by illustrators like Falter.
In 1934, Elinor Smith became the first woman to appear on a Wheaties cereal box – then on the back panel. Wheaties would not put a woman on the front of the box until 1984 when gymnast Mary Lou Retton won the honor.
It was the fall of 1928, a very heady time in America when all kinds of boundaries were being challenged and broken. The country, then in the midst of the “roaring 20’s,” was feeling pretty good about itself. It was the age of jazz, new fashion, liberal behavior, and great sports accomplishment.
Babe Ruth, the immortal slugger of the New York Yankees, hit 54 home runs that year after hitting 60 the year before – an unheard-of fete. Jack Dempsey, although he had lost the heavyweight boxing crown by then, was still a popular sports figure in New York and elsewhere, having held the title for most the 1920s. On Wall Street, fortunes were being made daily, as the stock market was running full bore, soaring to new records – this about a year before the Great Crash.
On November 6th, 1928, U.S. President Herbert Hoover, who had spoken that fall of America’s “system of rugged individualism,” would defeat Democrat Alfred E Smith in the U.S. Presidential election, winning his second term. Later that year, in December, NBC would set up a permanent, coast-to-coast radio network and Louis Armstrong would record his “West End Blues.”
Aviation, a new industry, was still testing its wings, so to speak, and the American public was captivated with what it saw. “Wing-walkers,” barnstormers, and flying circuses had become popular sources of aviation entertainment in the mid-1910s and 1920s. But more than any single event, it was Charles Lindbergh’s historic May 1927 non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean from Long Island, New York to Paris, France that made Americans aware of the potential of commercial aviation.
Teenage pilot, Elinor Smith, 1927-28.
Flying then was generally a man’s arena, although there were a few determined women making their mark, the most famous of whom would be Amelia Earhardt, who by October 1922, had set a the women’s altitude record of 14,000 feet. But there were others among this “aviatrix” group, not the least of whom was a young woman named Elinor Smith – a woman who would perform a bit of derring do in the skies around New York city that would make her an instant celebrity. More on that in a moment.
Born on August 17, 1911 in New York City, Elinor Smith, at the age of six, took her first flight in a Farman pusher biplane. What she saw that day on her first flight stayed with her forever.
“I could see out over the Atlantic Ocean, I could see the fields, I could even see the [Long Island] Sound,” she recalled. “And the clouds on that particular day had just broken open so there were these shafts of light coming down and lighting up this whole landscape in various greens and yellows.” Young Elinor was hooked: from that point on, all she wanted to do was fly.
Elinor Smith in the cockpit of her plane, circa 1928-29.
She had grown up at Freeport, Long Island during the “golden age” of flight, and there she had access to some of the best flying fields in the country and also some of the most famous flyers.
Taking lessons as a young girl, she had to have blocks attached to the rudder pedals in order to reach them. Before she was 10, she flew with an instructor, propped up with a pillow and aided by her rudder blocks. By age 12, she would later say, “I could do everything but take off and land.” At 15, she made her first solo flight. Three months later, she set her first of many altitude records – an unofficial women’s light aircraft altitude record of 11,889 feet in a Waco 9 plane. A year later, in 1928, she received her pilot’s certificate, then becoming the youngest pilot at age 16 to receive a license from the Federal Aviation Administration. Orville Wright signed her license.
The 4 Bridges Stunt
In the fall of 1928, Smith set out to do something that was quite daring. About a month after she received her license, a former barnstorming pilot who hung out at Curtiss Field, bragged to Smith and others about his failed attempt to fly under a bridge. This barnstormer reportedly also spread rumors that Elinor Smith had backed out of trying a similar feat. Other accounts have reported that Smith was ridiculed by male pilots and was acting on a dare to try the feat. So the 17-year-old Smith decided not only to try flying under one bridge, but four – the Queensboro, Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges – all on New York’s East River.
Artist’s rendition /recreation of Elinor Smith’s plane approaching the Queensboro Bridge for a “below-the-bridge” flying stunt. Adapted from an illustration by Francois Roca in Tami Lewis Brown’s 2010 book, “Soar, Elinor.”
Smith undertook her plan with careful preparation. She visited all four locations of the bridges, and studied their structures, suspension features, and pillers. She also noted the surroundings of each bridge, their use, the river tides, and especially the extent and nature of the river traffic below each bridge. Smith had also done some aerial reconnaissance above the East River and the four bridges to plot the route she would fly in approaching the bridges. She had also practiced low-level flying around ship masts on western Long Island’s Manhasset Bay. Still, the feat was daring and filled with risk. There could be unpredictable winds, and ships and boats on the river could move in unpredictable directions. And there was also a big professional risk even if successful: she could lose her pilot’s license for the stunt, regarded as a threat to public safety.
Photograph of Elinor Smith & plane (circled) flying beneath New York city’s Manhattan Bridge on the East River, October 21, 1928. Photo by Nick Petersen/NY Daily News.
On Sunday, October 21, 1928, the morning broke clear and bright in the New York city area. The weather offered near-perfect flying conditions with little or no wind. Elinor and her friends pushed the Waco 9 plane out of its hangar and onto the airfield. She then hopped into the cockpit and did a final check run of the plane’s engine.
In her autobiography, Aviatrix, Smith recalled that she was disappointed that none of the newsmen who had dared her to undertake the feat, had come out to see her off that morning. But Smith had a few well wishers that day, including one who thoroughly surprised her.
As she was seated in her cockpit making preparations for her flight, someone tapped on her shoulder. When she turned around, she would later recount, “I found myself staring into the handsome face of the world’s hero, Charles Lindbergh.” Lindbergh gave her a big smile and said, “Good luck, kid. Keep your nose down in the turns.” Lindbergh’s support and encouragement was just what she needed.
Among the crowd of friends and pilots she had come to know at the Curtiss airfield on Long Island, there had been much talk and some betting about whether she could really accomplish the four-bridges fly under feat she had set for herself. However, those in Elinor’s corner had alerted the media in advance of her plan so there would be clear evidence in the newspapers and on film that she was the person flying the plane should she succeed. Smith herself, however, was unaware that the media and newsreel crews had been alerted to her plan.
(Reportedly there were newsreel crews at each bridge that day, and Cynthia Krieg of the Freeport Historical Society has stated that the library at the University of California, Los Angeles has an archive of old Hearst movie reels and may have the footage of Smith flying under the bridges).
According to one recounting of her flight that appeared in a 2010 Wall Street Journal story: “…[Smith] headed south in her Waco 9 biplane, dodging ships while flying beneath the Queensboro, Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges. She finished by flying sideways beneath the Brooklyn Bridge and then circled the Statue of Liberty twice.” One account of her finish noted that boats in the harbor blew their whistles in salute to the young pilot. The New York Daily News of October 22nd, 1928 — which gave the event front-page coverage with photos — reported: “Elinor Smith, Freeport’s 17-year-old aviatrix, nonchalantly ducked under four East River bridges yesterday afternoon in a Waco biplane and reported the stunt was easy… ‘I had to dodge a couple of ships near the bridges, but there was plenty of room,’ the high school aviatrix reported.”
Headlines from New York Times story , October 22, 1928.
The New York Times of October 22nd also covered her flight with the headline: “Says She Flew Under East River Bridges; Elinor Smith, 17, Reports Feat at Curtiss Field –Tells of Dodging Ships.” Some of the post-flight coverage was quite enthusiastic about Smith’s feat, calling her a “daredevil” and posting photos of her powdering her nose following the flight.
The stunt, in any case, made her an instant celebrity and helped win her the nickname “The Flying Flapper.”
At New York’s city hall several days later, however, the young pilot was called to account for her actions. She received a 10-day “grounding” by the city of New York, the prerogative of then Mayor James J. Walker. However, Walker interceded on the young pilot’s behalf to prevent U. S. Department of Commerce from suspending her license. Other reports indicate there was a 15-day suspension of her license for the stunt.
An artist’s rendering from the 1940s showing three of the four bridges on New York’s East River that Elinor Smith and her plane flew beneath on October 21, 1928. In order, from the top: the Williamsburg Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Not shown and further upriver and the first bridge Smith flew under, was the Queensboro Bridge.
A 1981 photograph showing two of the bridges Elinor Smith flew beneath in 1928 – the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge – more or less as they appear today.
Poster promoting Elinor Smith as celebrity aviation correspondent for NBC Radio in the early 1930s.
Elinor Smith’s career, meanwhile — as the result of her stunt — took off. In addition to selling sightseeing rides in her plane from a Queens sandbar airstrip, she would also have a host of other opportunities – from modeling clothes in newspaper and magazine ads posed in front of her airplane, to becoming an aviation commentator at NBC radio.
Advertising posters such as the one at right would later tout her radio broadcasts – “Famed Star In The Air, And On The Air,” offered one NBC tagline. Both NBC and CBS wanted her, but NBC gave her a weekly show.
During her career, Smith would also do some writing, becoming aviation editor at Liberty magazine and also writing stories that appeared in Aero Digest, Colliers, Popular Science, and Vanity Fair.
But Smith was a very active aviator in her early years, and she continued to push the bounds for female pilots, setting records on her own and with other female partners.
On January 30th, 1929, flying an open cockpit Bruner Winkle biplane with zero degree temperatures aloft, Smith set a women’s solo endurance record of 13½ hours. Three months later, in April 1929, after other women pilots had broken her endurance record, Smith again took to the skies, staying aloft for 26½ hours in a Bellanca CH monoplane, also marking the first time a woman had piloted such a large and powerful aircraft.
In May 1929, she set a women’s world speed record of 190.8 miles per hour in a Curtiss military aircraft. The following month, the Irving Parachute Company hired her to tour the U.S. and fly a Bellanca Pacemaker on a 6,000-mile tour
A Universal Newsreel title screen featuring a story on one of Elinor Smith’s record flights for altitude.
Crowd of admirers gathering around Elinor Smith's plane on arrival at airfield after one of her record-setting flights.
Elinor Smith greeting a well-wisher from the cockpit of her plane, one of the crowd who came out to cheer her return.
Smith also teamed up with another female flier, Evelyn “Bobbi” Trout. In November 1929, flying out of what is now Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles, the pair set the first official women’s record for endurance with a mid-air refueling, at 42½ hours.
In March 1930 Elinor surpassed the world altitude record by 1 mile, flying to a height of 27,419 feet. It was following this event, after she had given an interesting interview to an NBC radio reporter, that the 18 year-old Smith was offered a broadcasting position covering aviation. Through 1935 she would do live broadcasts for NBC from air shows such as the Cleveland Air Races. She also did interviews with pilots and covered Graf Zeppelin landings as well.
Among her other distinctions, Elinor Smith also became the youngest pilot ever granted a Transport License by the U.S. Department of Commerce. But one of her most prized honors came in a poll of licensed pilots conducted in October 1930, when she was voted the “Best Woman Pilot in America,” beating out her contemporary, Amelia Earhart.
In March 1931, she attempted to set the world altitude record again, but almost met with disaster when she blacked out at high altitude and her plane went into a steep dive. Fortunately, she regained consciousness at about 6,000 feet and managed to pull out of the dive and bring the plane to a safe but damaging landing, forcing the plant up on its nose purposely to avoid wing damage.
Ten days later, after repairs, she made a second attempt at the record, securing the women’s record again at 32,567 feet, but not the world record. Smith also had hopes of doing a non-stop trans-Atlantic solo flight, but the Great Depression put the damper on that venture.
New York Times story on Elinor Smith’s flight of March 1931 when she blacked out and had engine failure, but still managed to recover from both and set an altitude record.
For a time thereafter, Elinor Smith continued to be a prominent stunt flyer. She also performed for numerous Depression-era fundraisers, some benefiting the homeless and needy.
After the birth of her first two children, she decided to retire from flying and would spend the next 20 years as a suburban housewife, raising her four children. Following her husband’s death in 1956, she returned to flying periodically, including piloting the Lockheed T-33 jet trainer and C-119s for paratroop maneuvers.
In 1981 her autobiography, Aviatrix, was published in New York by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and in 2001 she was inducted into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame. At age 89, in April 2001, she flew an experimental C33 Raytheon AGATE, Beech Bonanza at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. A year earlier, in March 2000, with an all-woman crew, she had piloted NASA’s Space Shuttle vertical motion simulator, becoming the oldest pilot to navigate a simulated shuttle landing.
Elinor Smith, portrait photo, circa 1930s.
At the death of Elinor Smith in 2010, age 98, Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, told the Washington Post: “She’s not a household word, but she probably should be because she did some really significant flying.”
Today, Elinor Smith is among the female fliers whose photographs and biographies are on display at the Women in Aviation and Space History section of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Readers of this story may also find “1930s Super Girl” of interest, featuring the athletic career of 1932 Olympics phenom and later golfing sensation, Babe Didrikson. For additional stories on famous and interesting women at this website see, “Noteworthy Ladies,” a topics page with thumbnail links to 36 other stories on a variety of women. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you see here, please make a donation to support this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
“Says She Flew Under East River Bridges; Elinor Smith, 17, Reports Feat at Curtiss Field–Tells of Dodging Ships,” New York Times, October 22, 1928. p. 3.
Associated Press (Roosevelt Field, N.Y.), “Flapper ‘Ace’ Tops Women’s Air Records; Elinor Smith Is Up Above 26 Hours; Victor Over Four,” April 24, 1929.
“Miss Smith in Faint Sets Altitude Mark; Girl Flier Loses Consciousness When More Than 30,000 Feet Up, a Record for Women. Her Motor Fails at Peak; Fuel Line Frozen, Plane Drops Mile Before She Recovers to Make Difficult Landing,” New York Times, March 11, 1930. p. 1.
“Elinor Smith Passes Test; Freeport Flier, 18, Qualifies for Transport Pilot’s License,” New York Times, April 6, 1930.
“Elinor Smith Assails Foes of Stunt Flying; Replying to Exchange Club Head at Freeport Luncheon, She Says Aviators Are Business People.” New York Times, September 11, 1930.
“Girl Flier’s Hard Trip; Elinor Smith Uses Planes, Trains, Taxis and Motor Boat to Cross Country in Two Days for Radio Engagement; Decides to Take Chance,” New York Times, December 7, 1930.
Elinor Smith, Aviatrix, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981, 304pp.
Phyllis R. Moses, “The Amazing Aviatrix Elinor Smith,” Women Pilot, (Chicago, Illinois), March 30, 2008.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of January 4th, 1988, describes river pollution from Ashland oil tank failure & drinking water concerns.
During the first week of January 1988, the big news story in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and around much of the nation was the failure of a giant oil storage tank owned by the Ashland Oil Company. On the evening of January 2nd, 1988, the big tank split apart vertically at the company’s storage yard in Floreffe, Pennsylvania, located about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River. The tank released its entire contents of 3.85 million gallons of diesel fuel, flooding the complex grounds and sending some 750,000-to-800,000 gallons of the fuel into the Monongahela River. The Ashland tank failure would become one of the worst inland oil spills in the nation’s history. The Monongahela River flows north-northwest to Pittsburgh, where it joins the Allegheny River to form the Ohio River, then flowing west into the West Virginia panhandle, Ohio, and beyond. The spill’s pollution of the Monongahela and Ohio rivers created an acute public safety emergency. Public water systems were shuttered and more than one million people in some 80 communities downstream in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia were affected. Some towns were without regular water services for up to eight days. Thousands of birds and fish were killed.
Artists’ rendering of failed storage tank at Ashland Oil Co.’s Floreffe, PA complex in January 1988. Source: EPA.
Aerial photo looking down on the scene with twisted shell of split tank remaining and “dented” neighboring tank at right.
The Monongahela River flows north to Pittsburgh where it joins the Allegheny, then forming the Ohio River. Floreffe, where the tank burst, is about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh.
January 4, 1988: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on the evacuation of some 242 families near the spill site.
The tank’s failure occurred while it was being filled to capacity for the first time after it had been installed at Ashland’s Floreffe storage yard. The big tank, which had been previously used in Ohio, was dismantled there and moved to Pennsylvania where it was reassembled. When the tank split apart, its contents overwhelmed the standard earthen containment dikes, as millions of gallons of diesel fuel swamped and flooded the storage complex and flowed across adjacent property, reaching a nearby drain. About 775,000 gallons of the spilled fuel entered the Monongahela River through the drain.
The force generated at the site by the escaping fuel volume as it burst from the tank was considerable. Some local residents reported hearing a low level explosion-like sound as the tank split apart. The escaping oil from the big tank actually propelled it backwards off of its foundation, ripping and bending the structure. The steel shell of the tank itself was left “twisted and contorted” on the ground, as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) would later report.
“[M]assive steel columns and other internal support members were bent into acute angles and thrown dozens of feet from their original locations,” DEP would explain in one report. “The shell itself was displaced about 120 feet to the east of its original location.”
Another large storage tank, about one hundred feet away, was crumpled at its side by the impact of the surging fuel from the burst tank. A second nearby tank exhibited brownish stains all the way up its side – some forty feet from ground level – where the escaping fuel had splashed against it. One small structure also in the path of the spill, was swept away.
On the first night following the spill, some 242 families – about 1,200 people – were evacuated from their homes in Jefferson and Elrama? in Washington County near the Ashland facility. Firefighters from the Floreffe Volunteer Fire Co., had begun going door-to-door in the area telling people that had to leave their homes as a precaution for safety reasons.
During the tank collapse, some debris from the spill had punctured a gasoline line at another big million-gallon tank, which had then leaked some 20,000 gallons of gasoline. A mixture of diesel and gasoline fumes can create a danger of an explosion, which was the primary reason for the evacuation. Lt. Gov. Mark S. Singel visited evacuees the day in a shelter set up at a local high school.
By Monday evening, January 4th, 1988, the Pittsburgh oil spill was among the top stories on the NBC Evening News with Tom Brokaw. The network’s Cassandra Clayton reported from the Monongahela River showing emergency crews at work with attempted clean-up efforts and also noting that Pennsylvania Governor Robert P. Casey had declared the region a disaster area. Some local residents appeared on camera expressing concern about drinking water safety, and Pittsburgh’s public safety director, Glenn Cannon, commented that cleanup costs would be substantial.
On the Monongahela, meanwhile, a giant oil slick soon moved down river, washing over two dam locks and dispersing throughout the width and depth of the river. The spill not only killed birds and fish and contaminated drinking water, but also damaged private property and adversely impacted area businesses. The Coast Guard closed the Monongahela River to vessel traffic between the Ashland facility in West Elizabeth and Pittsburgh. The smell of diesel fuel could be detected as far south as Pittsburgh. Rail and motor vehicle traffic was halted along some routes near the river due to concerns about human health and fire hazards.
January 1988: Workers at Ashland’s Floreffe, PA storage yard in aftermath of tank collapse, try to clean up some remains of spilled diesel fuel in an earthen-bermed containment area. Photo, Darrell Sapp/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
As the diesel fuel entered the Monongahela River above Pittsburgh, at least five municipal water suppliers serving tens of thousands of residents were affected, closing their water intakes. Water conservation measures were put in place to conserve supplies; classes in some Pittsburgh schools were suspended, for example, to help conserve water. Still, some Pittsburgh residents went without normal water service from January 4 until January 12th.
When the oil slick reached the junction of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers – which together form the Ohio River which continues west and southwest – concentrations of diesel fuel remained high enough to warrant continuing concern for downriver users in the states of West Virginia and Ohio. In Steubenville, Ohio, for example, all nonessential businesses were closed with water service interrupted for three days.
January 1988: Boat on the Monongahela River in the aftermath of the Ashland Oil tank collapse. The “dark patches” in this case are those of water, the rest is spill. Photo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
By January 8, 1988, although icy water and stiff winds had slowed the flow of the slick, it reached Wheeling, West Virginia. In the days thereafter, it would continue flowing south-southwest down the Ohio River – though in more diluted form – to other large cities, including Louisville, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Evansville, Indiana
In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, at least 11,000 fish and 2,000 birds were killed by the spill, with dozens of miles of river shoreline contaminated. One report later stated that “ millions of fish” were killed. Coast Guard and oil company clean-up of the spilled diesel fuel was hampered by the wintry weather, though some 2.98 million gallons were reported recovered. Still, estimates of between 510,000 gallons and 860,000 gallons of the diesel fuel was not recovered, remaining in the rivers.
January 1988: Following the Ashland Oil tank collapse, which polluted the Monongahela and Ohio rivers, workers on the Monongahela at the Braddock Lock, attempt to remove oil from the river. Tony Tye/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
In September 1988, Ashland was indicted by a federal grand jury for negligently discharging oil into the Monongahela River in violation of the Clean Water Act. Ashland faced $32.5 million in assorted fines and settlements, including: $14 million for damages, expenses, and civil penalties (including $4.6 million in costs and civil penalties to the state of Pennsylvania); $11 million for cleanup; $5.25 million in attorneys’ fees; and $2.25 million for a Federal criminal fine for negligence in the spill. The Ashland spill, according to Mary Ellen Bolish of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, speaking at the time of the incident, “could have been prevented if the tank had been inspected.” She added that the Ashland tank failure was “the huge one,” but that smaller such incidents were then occurring “all over the state.”
Nearby tank damaged by the force of escaping oil from collapsed tank at Ashland’s Floreffe complex. Photo, NOAA.
Lack of Regulation
The Ashland tank collapse highlighted the inadequate regulation of aboveground storage tanks – known as “ASTs” – at both the state and federal levels. According to EPA at that time, only 15 states had laws then regulating ASTs. Less than half of the states even bothered to keep track of AST spills. Thirty-four states then regulated ASTs under National Fire Protection Association standards – standards that had little to do with protecting the environment, rivers and streams, or groundwater. Among states that did regulate, the jurisdictions and authorities were unclear, sometimes spread over several agencies. Local jurisdictions were often left fending for themselves, or at the very least, confused about who to call for help when a large spill or underground leak threatened a school, a water supply, or residential areas.
A brief round of Congressional inquiries into ASTs followed the Ashland incident, and a number of bills were introduced, ranging from those designed to prevent catastrophic spills like Ashland’s, to others that would subject ASTs to tougher licensing and inspection procedures. But the central regulatory failing that surfaced in the various post mortems of the Ashland spill was the lack of government-mandated standards for tank design, construction, operation and inspection — a series of changes, which if adopted and enforced, would shift the federal emphasis from after-the-fact spill clean-up and contingency planning to spill prevention.
“EPA’s regulations do not require that operators of oil storage facilities construct and test tanks using industry standards,” reported a 1989 General Accounting Office (GAO) study to Congress. “The Ashland tank was not constructed of materials meeting current industry standards and was not tested for integrity as required by these standards. The tank ripped apart when it was first filled to capacity. Subsequent metallurgical analysis showed that it was not tough enough for the cold temperatures and stress to which it was subjected.”
Another shot of the Ashland terminal in relation to the Monongahela River at right, following the tank collapse.
Following the Ashland oil tank disaster, Pennsylvania lawmakers adopted the Storage Tank and Spill Prevention Act of 1989. New tank regulations came into effect in August 1989. Thereafter, every storage tank in the state had to be registered and permitted to ensure that inspectors for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) knew where to find them. Only storage tank installers or inspectors certified by the DEP could install, modify, remove or inspect storage tanks. Tank farms and tank storage yards were also required to have a secondary containment system that, in the event of failure, would be able to hold more than what its tanks held. These systems were required to be capable of capturing 110 percent of the volume of the largest tank at that particular location. Pennsylvania’s regs also required that tanks would be painted and have no visible signs of rust. And tank owners must also have approved preparedness, prevention and contingency plans and/or a spill prevention control and countermeasure plan for each tank. These plans and spill prevention measures must be approved by the DEP.
“The Daily Damage”
An Occasional Series
This article is one in an occasional series of stories at this website that feature the ongoing environmental and societal impacts of industrial spills, toxic releases, fires, air & water pollution incidents and other such occurrences.
These stories will cover both recent incidents and those from history that have left a mark either nationally or locally; have generated controversy, political activity, or government inquiry; and generally have taken a toll on the environment, worker health & safety, and/or local communities.
My purpose for including such stories here is simply to drive home the continuing and chronic nature of these incidents through history, and hopefully contribute to public education about them so that improvements will be made in law, regulation, and industry practice, yielding safer alternatives ahead. — Jack Doyle
Aboveground tank failures such as the Ashland disaster are rare. Yet another major problem with giant oil storage tanks at refineries and tank farms – though mostly out of sight but often more damaging – has been tank leakage, groundwater pollution, and offsite public safety concerns. During the middle and late decades of 20th century in the U.S. and elsewhere, numerous such leaks began to be discovered, some revealing gigantic underground “lakes” or “plumes” of petroleum pollution. Crude oil, gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and other petroleum and/or petrochemical mixtures, were often found, in varying thicknesses, floating on top of groundwater, or leaking into nearby creeks and streams. Some of these leaks – also occurring at a smaller scale from gasoline stations and smaller storage yards – created public health concerns and /or explosion fears, especially where leaked petroleum product migrated into underground drinking water sources and/or beneath neighboring residential areas.
The 1988 Ashland tank collapse, in any case, is one in a long list of oil industry incidents and accidents imposed on society during many years of extraction, refining, and transporting fossil fuels. Such incidents, and their aftermath, are still apparent, or have left their mark, on many U.S. communities. And for Pittsburgh, the 1988 incident would not be the last time the city would see oil or chemical pollution of its waterways. In March 1990, a Buckeye Pipe Line Co. 10-inch pipeline ruptured after a landside at Murphy’s Bottom in South Buffalo Township of Armstrong County, sending more than 75,000 gallons of gasoline, kerosene and diesel into the Allegheny River. In February and March of 2010, there were also two smaller spills at the Floreffe tank farm, by then owned by Marathon Petroleum – one of 660 gallons of hydrochloric acid, and another of a oil-based asphalt emulsion of more than 4,000 gallons.
See also at this website “Oil Fouls Montana,” a story about a January 2015 oil pipeline leak in Eastern Montana that polluted the Yellowstone River and disrupted local water supplies; “Burning Philadelphia,” an account of a Gulf Oil Co. refinery explosion and fire in 1975 that killed 8 firefighters and threatened the city; and “Offshore Oil Blaze,” the story of a 1970-71 Gulf of Mexico offshore oil blowout and fire at a Shell Oil platform that killed four workers, injured 37 others, and burned for more than four months. Other stories at this website with environmental-related history include “Burn On, Big River,” about the historic pollution of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, and “Paradise,” a story about strip mining in Kentucky. For Pittsburgh fans, see “The Mazeroski Moment” (1960 World Series) and “$2.8 Million Baseball Card” (Honus Wagner history). Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you see here, please support this website with a donation. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Carman J. Lee and Sarah Behrer, “Tap Water Safe, Supply is Short,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 4, 1988, p. 1.
Lynda, Guydon, “Oil Affects People, Wildlife; Families in District Evacuated Overnight, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 4, 1988, p. 5.
Wolfgang Saxon, “Monongahela Oil Spill Threatens Water Supplies in Pittsburgh Area,” New York Times, January 5, 1988.
“Oil Spill Cuts Water Supply to Thousands West of Pittsburgh,” Seattle Post-Intel- ligencer, January 5, 1988, p.A-1.
“More Towns Prepare as Diesel-Fuel Spill Moves Downstream,” Seattle Times, January 7, 1988. p.A-2.
“Oil Imperils Water in Two More States,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 7, 1988, p. A-3.
Associated Press, “Oil Slick From Tank Collapse Reaches City in West Virginia,” New York Times, January 8, 1988.
John Hartsock, States News Service, “Focus On: The Oil Spill Ashland Oil Co. Tank Collapsed Through Hole In Federal Regulations,” The Morning Call (Allentown, PA), January 10, 1988.
“Diesel Oil Slick Reaches Wheeling, W.Va.; Citizens Urged to Conserve Water,” Seattle Times, January 10, 1988, p. A-2.
“Oil Slick Threatens More Cities Along Pathway of Disaster,” Seattle Times, January 13, 1988. p. B-6.
“Oil Spill Will Disperse in Next 2 Weeks, Experts Says,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 13, 1988, p. A-4.
“The Nation : Cincinnati Shuts River Valves as Oil Hits,” Los Angles Times, January 25, 1988
Associated Press, “Bad Welds Detected A Year Before Tank Collapsed,” January, 28, 1988.
U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Energy and Commerce. Subcommittee on Transportation and Hazardous Materials, Hearing, “Ashland Oil Spill,” 100th Congress, 1st Session, January 26, 1988.
David Guo, “Fisher: Ashland ‘Stonewalling;’ Executive Fails to Answer Queries of [Pennsylvania] Senate Panel,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 13, 1988, p. 4.
U.S. Senate, Committee on Environment and Public Works, Subcommittee on Environ- mental Protection,” Hearing, “Oil Spill on Monongahela River,” 100th Congress, 1st Session, February 1988.
Fred J. Sissine, “Oil Storage Tanks: Construction and Testing Issues Arising from the Ashland Oil Spill,” Issue Brief, Science Policy Research Division, Congressional Research Service, Washington, D.C., Updated February 10, 1988, 14pp.
Staff Memorandum (Patty Power) to U.S. Senator John Heinz (R-PA), “Federal Reaction to The Ashland Spill,” February 12, 1988, 3pp.
Tank Collapse Task Force, “Report of the Investigation into the Collapse of Tank 1338,” Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, June 1988.
David Guao, “Substandard Steel At Fault; Report Lists Reasons For Ashland Oil Tank Collapse,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 18, 1988, p. 5.
Associated Press, “Ashland Accepts Oil Spill Accord,” New York Times, November 9, 1989, p. A-32.
Associated Press, “Company To Pay Millions For Spill,” New York Times, November 23, 1989, p. A-22.
ABB Environmental Services, Inc. (EPA-Commissioned study), 1992.
Mike Ward and Scott W. Wright, “Tank Farm Leaks, Spills Increasing Nationwide,” Austin American-Statesman (Austin, TX), Sunday, June 7, 1992, p. A-11.
U.S. General Accounting Office, Report to the Honorable Arlen Specter, U.S. Senate, Inland Oil Spills: Stronger Regulation and Enforcement Needed to Avoid Future Incidents, GAO/RCED-89-65, February 1989, p. 3.
Cdr. E. A. Miklaucic, U.S. Coast Guard, Pittsburgh, PA, and J. Saseen, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Wheeling, WV, “The Ashland Oil Spill, Floreffe, PA – Case History and Response Evaluation,” International Oil Spill Conference, 1989.
Lois N. Epstein, P.E., “Comments Of The Environmental Defense Fund On Oil Pollution Prevention: Non-Transportation-Related Onshore and Offshore Facilities” (Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure Plans), December 23, 1991, Docket Number SPCC-1P., pp. 2-3.
Michael J. Davis, Unregulated Potential Sources of Groundwater Contamination Involving the Transport and Storage of Liquid Fuels: Technical and Policy Issues, Environmental Assessment Programs, Environmental Assessment & Information Sciences Division, Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, IL (U.S. Department of Energy, Asst. Secretary for Environment, Safety & Health, Office of Environmental Analysis), August 1989.
Cover art for “Sea of Love” by Phil Phillips & The Twilights, 1950s Collection, Bacci Bros Records, 2010.
One night in 1957, John Phillip Baptiste of Lake Charles, Louisiana was trying to express his ardor for the lady of his fancy. Her name was Verdie Mae, and she was not convinced that John Phillip really loved her. John Phillip was visiting her that evening, and as they talked in her kitchen, he was trying to make his case plain. He later went outside on the porch with his guitar, still trying to come up with a way to convince Verdie Mae that his love was real. He began thinking about the sea and taking Verdie Mae out on the water alone.
“If only I could take her to the sea and tell her how much I love her, it would prove my love for her,” he would later recall. “With guitar in hand, a melody came to me as I started to strum. I started singing the melody out loud: ‘Come with me, my love…To the sea, the sea of love…I want to tell you how much I love you’.”
And with that, John Phillip Baptiste – who would later change his name to Phil Phillips – had the basis of a 1959 Top Ten hit song titled “Sea of Love.” It would eventually sell more than 2 million copies and win a gold record. But success for Phil Phillips with this song didn’t come easy, and his career suffered along the way as a contract dispute between feuding record labels prevented him from recording while he was a hot commodity.
“Sea of Love” – Phil Phillips
Born John Phillip Baptiste on March 14, 1926, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Phil Phillips began singing at the age of eight. As he grew a bit older he formed a gospel music group with his brothers called The Gateway Quartet. He also sang solos at his church. Phillips was also briefly enrolled at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, but later returned to Lake Charles, Louisiana where he worked as a bellhop at the Chateau Charles Hotel. He later organized a group to sing backup which he named The Twilights. Phillips had also made a demo of his Verdie Mae/“Sea of Love” song. One afternoon, a gas company meter man heard him singing the song and told him he had a hit. The workman had also mentioned the song to George Khoury, who owned a record store and was also a local record producer. In 1958, Phillips was introduced to Khoury, who would soon record Phillips’ song at the Goldband Recording Studio, owned by Eddie Shuler.
Eddie Shuler, George Khoury, and Phil Phillips at Goldband Studio, 1959, where “Sea of Love” was first recorded.
Shuler was convinced the song was a hit the first time he heard it, listening to a demo that Phillips had made, recorded alone with his guitar.
“You’re walking around with a million dollars in your hand,” Shuler would tell Phillips at one point, referring to the demo he heard.
Khoury first brought Phillips in for an audition in late February 1959, as he and Shuler worked out their production agreement. The song was arranged and produced by Eddie Shuler for George Khoury’s self-named label, Khoury Records.
Shuler and Khoury took some time to set the song’s arrangement, as Phillips with guitar began working with pianist Ernest Jacobs, and then with backing vocal groups. After three months they felt they were ready to record.
As Phil Phillilps would later recount: “The Twilights and I, along with some musicians and a group called Cookie & The Cupcakes, recorded Sea of Love in about eight to ten takes…” Phillips used the same exact lyrics that he had sung to Verdie Mae on her porch back in 1957. Cookie & the Cupcakes, was a local “swamp rock band” who had recorded their own song, but added background vocals and harmony for the session.
The “Sea of Love,” by Phil Phillips, as first issued by Khoury’s Records of Louisiana.
The finished recording of “Sea of Love” was released on Khoury’s label, credited to “Phil Phillips with The Twilights,” with Khoury and Phillips (Baptiste) listed as songwriters. However, the song wasn’t an immediate hit. “When it was first released, deejays just took the record and threw it in the trash can,” Phillips said. “They said it wasn’t a good song.”
A deejay in Baton Rouge, however, played “Sea of Love” and his listeners liked it so much they started calling him to play it over and over. But the manager at that radio station wasn’t exactly smitten by the song, and told the deejay to quit playing it. When the deejay refused, they fired him.
Still, the deejay persisted, locking himself in the control room and playing the song repeatedly. That act of defiance did the trick for Phil Phillips and the “Sea of Love,” as the listening public began requesting the song. Other deejays also began playing it as well.
Mercury Records’ 45rpm single recording of Phil Phillips “Sea of Love.”
Khoury, meanwhile, negotiated a distribution deal with Mercury Records. Mercury leased the song and signed Phil Phillips to a contract. And all was well – but only for a time.
The “Sea of Love” entered the Billboard pop chart at No. 85 in early July 1959. Phillips then appeared on American Bandstand’s second anniversary show on August 6, 1959 performing his hit, “Sea of Love.” Annette Funicello also appeared on that show performing the song “Lonely Guitar.” In addition to Bandstand, Philips also appeared on the Alan Freed Show that year. By late August, “Sea of Love” had risen to its peak No. 2 position on the Billboard pop chart.
In October 1959, Phillips joined the Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, touring the country with the Drifters, the Skyliners, Bobby Rydell, LaVern Baker, Duane Eddy, Paul Anka, Lloyd Price and others. It was around this time, that “Sea of Love” hit No. 1 hit on the R & B chart.
Cover of the 1959 record sleeve for the Mercury Records’ release of “Sea of Love.”
However, a year or so after the release of “Sea of Love,” Mercury Records and Khoury got into a legal dispute, catching Phillips in the middle.
“They just put the kill on my records,” he would later say. “They had me under a five-year contract and I couldn’t get out of it and that killed my whole career.”
Phillips had also recorded enough material for an album, but he decided not to produce one under the circumstances.
In the late ‘60s, Phillips attempted a recording comeback at the Muscle Shoals recording studio in Sheffield, Alabama, where Percy Sledge had launched his career in 1966. But the Muscle Shoals experience didn’t help Phillips get back on track. Still, “Sea of Love,” both in Phillips’ version and some cover versions, would continue to get air time in subsequent years, helping to keep the song’s legacy alive.
Cover of a 1959 EP on the Philips label which featured Marty Wilde’s version of “Sea of Love.”
“Sea of Love” has been covered by a number of recording artists, including B. J. Thomas, Freddy Fender, the Heptones, Cat Power, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits and others. However, there were at least three cover versions of “Sea of Love” that reached the charts. One of the first of these came quickly on the heels of the original 1958 version – recorded in the U.K. by a rock ‘n roll star named Marty Wilde who was also popular on U.K. TV music shows.
From mid-1958 to the end of 1959, Wilde was one of the leading British rock ‘n roll singers, along with Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard. In February 1959 Wilde had Top Ten hits with a cover version of Ritchie Valens’ hit “Donna” and in May that year with Dion DiMucci’s “A Teenager in Love.” Wilde’s version of “Sea of Love” became a No. 3 hit in the U.K. in September 1959. In more recent years, some of Wilde’s children including Ricky Wilde, Kim Wilde and Roxanne Wilde have had pop hits as well.
Cover of record jacket for Del Shannon’s 1982 single recording of “Sea of Love.”
Record jacket for the Honeydrippers’ 1984 single of “Sea of Love” and “Rockin` at Midnight.
In 1982, Phil Phillips’ “Sea of Love” was covered by Del Shannon, and his version would climb to No. 33 on the pop charts.
Shannon’s version of the song had first entered Billboard’s Hot 100 chart on December 6th, 1981. About six weeks later, on January 16th 1982, Shannon performed “Sea of Love” on the ABC teen dance TV program, American Bandstand. A week later, by January 31st, 1982, the Shannon version peaked at No. 33.
For Shannon – who had three Top 10 hits in the 1960s, the most notable of which was his 1961 No.1, “Runaway” – it would be his 17th and last recording to enter the Top 100 chart.
Two years later, in 1984, a group named The Honeydrippers recorded “Sea of Love.” This group was a pet project of Robert Plant of the rock group Led Zeppelin, who wanted to have an R&B band.
In addition to Plant, The Honeydrippers group included Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Yardbirds alumnus Jeff Beck, Nile Rodgers from the band Chic, and Paul Shaffer on keyboards — this last participant known to many as the band leader on Late Night with David Letterman.
The Honydrippers version of “Sea of Love” rose to No. 3 on the pop chart, spending 14 weeks in the Top 40. In production of the single, the A-side was initially intended to be “Rockin’ At Midnight,” a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” with “Sea of Love” as the B-side. But the single got flipped, which worked to the advantage of “Sea of Love.”
Another artist who has done a cover version of “Sea of Love” is Tom Waits who included it on his 2006 collection Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. For Phil Phillips, meanwhile, the cover versions brought in some writer’s royalties, which helped keep him afloat through those years, as did a few uses of the song in films.
Al Pacino Film
Blue-ray disc cover for the 1989 film, “Sea of Love,” starring Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, and John Goodman.
Sea of Love is also the name of a 1989 detective/crime film starring Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, and John Goodman. The story centers on a New York City detective – Frank Keller, played by Pacino – who is trying to catch a serial killer who finds victims through the singles column in a newspaper. Frank is assigned the case, and investigates the murder of a man in Manhattan, shot dead while face down in his bed, naked who had been listening to an old 45 rpm recording of “Sea of Love,” which is still playing at the scene. Other victims are subsequently found murdered in the same way, some with the “Sea of Love” playing on the phonograph when the victim is found. A female perpetrator is suspected in the murders, and Frank sets about using his own singles ads to lure a series of females, one of whom he becomes involved with. Turns out, her ex-husband is the culprit, methodically killing the guys his former wife – and Frank’s new friend – had relationships with. Now Frank is next. When the murderous ex-husband comes to kill Frank, the two begin a fight, during which the perpetrator falls through a window and to his death. End of story.
In addition to the use of the Phil Phillips version in the Pacino film, “Sea of Love,” sung by Cat Power, was also used in the 2007 award-winning film Juno, the Canadian-American comedy-drama starring Ellen Page as the independent-minded teenager who confronts an unplanned pregnancy and more.
Phil Phillips in 2007 at his Louisiana Music Hall of Fame designation with statement signed by the Governor.
Cover of compilation album of Phil Phillips’ songs released by Bear Family Records in 2008.
Although Phil Phillips would not again reach the top of the music charts with his music, he would continue to perform occasionally and also work in the music business. In his later years, Phillips worked as a radio DJ at station KJEF in Jennings, Louisiana.
In October 2007, Phillips was honored for his contributions to Louisiana music with his induction into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. And in 2008, a compilation album under the title Sea of Love, was issued by the Bear Family Records. The CD contains some 26 tracks, including all of Phillips’ original Khoury/Mercury recordings, plus nine never released tracks and a 36-page booklet. Among the Phil Phillips tunes and covers included are: “Stormy Weather,” “Don’t Leave Me,” “I Love to Love You,” “Don’t Cry Baby,” and “Yes I’ll Get By.”
Phil Phillips, by the way, did not end up with Verdie Mae, which he seems to believe was for the best. Instead, he married Winnie Bell in June 1961, with whom he had seven children. The couple in recent years lived in Lake Charles, Louisiana. For additional stories at this website on music history please see the “Annals of Music” category page. Also included at this website, are stories on Dick Clark and American Bandstand and Alan Freed, both mentioned in the current story. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you see here, please make a donation to support this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Sea of Love, 1959,” PopHistoryDig.com, March 21, 2015.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
“Top 25 Hit Songs”
Billboard Hot 100 Chart
September 5, 1959
1. The Three Bells -The Browns 2. Sea of Love – Phil Phillips
3. Sleep Walk – Santo and Johnny
4. Lavender-Blue – Sammy Turner
5. I’m Gonna Get Married – Lloyd Price
6. What’d I Say – Ray Charles
7. A Big Hunk O’ Love – Elvis Presley
8. There Goes My Baby – The Drifters
9. Red River Rock – Johnny & Hurricanes
10. ….Walk You Home – Fats Domino
11. It Was I – Skip & Flip
12. …Heart…Open Book – Carl Dobkins
13. (‘Til) I Kissed You – Everly Brothers
14. Broken-Hearted Melody – S. Vaughan
15. Kissin’ Time – Bobby Rydell
16. Thank You Pretty Baby – B. Benton
17. Baby Talk – Jan & Dean
18. What A Difference… – D Washington
19. What Is Love – The Playmates
20. Just a Little Too Much – Ricky Nelson
21. My Wish Came True – Elvis Presley
22. … A Wheel Some Day – Fats Domino
23. 40 Miles of Bad Road – Duane Eddy
24. Lonely Boy – Paul Anka
25. Here Comes Summer – Jerry Keller
____________________________ Source: “The Hot 100,” Week of
September 5, 1959, Billboard.
LP cover for “Rocky” film score/soundtrack, by Bill Conti, 1976.
In the very first Rocky film of 1976 – the Academy Award winner for “Best Picture” that year – there is a key film segment backed by an understated but powerful piece of music titled “Philadelphia Morning.”
It’s not a long piece of music, but in its own way it’s something of a masterpiece for what it helps to set up and convey in the film.
Now, if you happen to abhor the Rocky franchise and/or boxing, don’t head for the exits just yet. Give this piece of music a chance, and consider its artistry and what it did in the film (the music is provided in a moment).
“Philadelphia Morning” runs about two-and-a-half minutes or so. In the film, it gives depth and emotional underpinning to a particular scene, and it tells a bit of a story in itself.
It is arguably one of those perfect little pieces of film music that captures the essence of an on-screen moment, providing weight and poignancy to the scene and the story so the viewer/listener not only gets the message, but feels the moment, and in this case, the challenge too.
“Philadelphia Morning” is nearly perfect for its task, although it may be the kind of music passed over and forgotten as the movie rolls on to other scenes. Yet for some, as the feedback on this film over the years suggests, this particular passage does hold something of an indelible conveyance. But before delving into that, some context and set up for the scene and the music.
In the film, Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed at press conference announcing the special fight.
Rocky Balboa, played by Sylvester Stallone, is a down–and-out boxer who uses the moniker “The Italian Stallion.” His boxing career hasn’t exactly been lucrative, or even sustaining, so he is also a part-time “break-your-thumbs” debt collector — though the empathetic Rocky breaks few thumbs. But in an amazing turn of the fates, Rocky is plucked from obscurity to spar with the world’s undefeated heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers. It’s a special prize fight and publicity stunt, designed to give some unknown boxer “a shot at the title.” It will be staged in Philadelphia on New Year’s day 1976, the year of the U.S. Bicentennial. It’s all hype and no worries for the Muhammad Ali-like champ, Apollo Creed, who came up with the idea. Creed expects to dispense with Rocky at will – three rounds at most. For Rocky, however, it’s the chance of a lifetime; a chance to prove himself and be somebody. And the “Philadelphia Morning” music helps set the stage.
In the opening scene of the “Philadelphia Morning” film segment, a ringing alarm clock in a dark room rouses the sleeping “Italian Stallion,” who makes his way out of a rumpled bed. He turns on the a.m. radio with its background noise, then lurches toward the fridge. There, he cracks a series of eggs one-by-one into a large plastic glass and then downs his home-made protein drink. He then pulls on his sweats, heads down the steps and out the door.
The “Italian Stallion” confronts his first “Philadelphia Morning” workout – it’s 4:00 a.m., and he’s out of shape!
It’s a gray, cold winter morning in Philadelphia that day – 4 a.m, still dark and 28 degrees. Bill Conti’s score, opening with its flat French horn, captures the cold remoteness of the setting as well as the unwelcoming challenge ahead. The horn is also a kind of eerie calling; an uncertain calling, beckoning the down-and-out boxer to his task.
“Philadelphia Morning” – Bill Conti
Rocky lives by himself in the bowels of back-street Philadelphia in his ramshackle row-house walk-up. But now, it’s all on him; what he faces in getting ready to battle Apollo Creed. He’s pretty much alone. He has one “sort-of-friend” in a guy named Paulie, no roommates, and maybe an older trainer from the local gym who will help him. But basically, on this morning, it’s just him facing his first day of self-imposed training. And that’s what the muted French horn and trumpets are saying. They’re calling to him, but at the same time, playing to his self-doubt. “Hey buddy, it’s a long road here. Are you ready for this?” At his stoop, Rocky stretches his legs a time or two. Then he begins to jog away, slowly, very slowly, as the music and camera follow him into the darkness of pre-dawn Philadelphia.
Rocky begins his pre-dawn run, moving away from his stoop.
Rocky (far center) recedes into the city’s deserted streets.
Rocky (lower center-left) continues his run into center city Phila-delphia and through the City Hall passageway on Broad St.
On the other side of City Hall, Rocky heads for the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Philadelphia Art Museum in daylight, where Rocky will arrive in early morning darkness to run its steps.
Rocky Balboa during one of his later training runs of the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
However, on his first try at the steps, Rocky struggles, barely making it to the top, and is badly winded when he gets there.
Doubled over in pain and wheezing, Rocky ends his run and begins his retreat down the Art Museum’s steps.
With the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in view, Rocky, still winded, reaches the bottom of the steps, now heading home.
Bill Conti’s score in this short segment is penetrating and pensive, and part oppressive – as it had to be. For this music is also describing the battle within; the solitude of it; the impossibility at hand; and generally, the struggle involved in pushing oneself. We all have those battles, putting one foot ahead of the other; taking one day at a time.
Still, the weight of the prospect before this Rocky Balboa character is truly daunting – as long-odds as the music suggests.
In fact, there is a powerful but subtle orchestration here; the sound of a kind of musical undertow — an undertow that is pulling our hero down, as if giving him leaden legs, or of running in quicksand. But there is also a twinkle of possibility left in this score.
Meanwhile, Rocky, as he begins his run must be thinking: “How the hell did I get into this fix? I can’t do this! What the hell was I thinking?”
The music has already begun to convey the self doubt and the challenge – the horns are muted and not quite sure. It’s a tough road ahead, no question.
Piano and orchestra begin tracking Rocky’s tentative first steps. They are heavy, ponderous plodding steps as he begins to rise to his impossible dream. Yes, one foot ahead of the other, the underdog begins his journey.
Rocky slowly moves away from his walk-up on the still dark street. The camera pulls out as a smaller and smaller Rocky fades into the morning darkness headed for center city and beyond. It’s still dark, the city is still asleep.
The camera follows Rocky as he moves through the streets, shadow boxing a bit, jabbing at the air. A Daily News delivery truck pulls away after dispensing some of the morning newspapers.
Rocky passes through City Hall, picking up the pace a bit on the other side, now heading toward his middle-run challenge: a series of steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (since named the “Rocky Steps” in Philadelphia lore because of this film). It’s still dark when he arrives at the base of the steps. The city is waking; some twinkling lights are seen.
Rocky begins his charge up the steps, which rise to the museum in several segments, each separated by a short, flat plaza. But by this time, he is probably wishing he had stayed in bed. For Rocky struggles as he tries to conquer the museum steps.
Half way up, he is bending over, feeling the burn, but he keeps moving. He is badly winded when he gets to the top of the steps. He barely makes it.
At the top, he is bent over, gasping for air and collecting himself. There is no “champ dance” at this arrival. “What have I gotten myself into?” he is surely thinking, bent over in pain and inadequacy — now limping, not running, down the steps, holding his side and wheezing as he goes.
As the dawning light begins to break over the Philadelphia skyline, Rocky has lost his first bout with the museum steps. He gingerly limps down the final flight of steps, logging an incomplete workout, heading back to his walk-up.
The music returns to the flat, muted horn and that “undertow” sound is heard once again. The suggestion is writ large: “can this guy make it?” And after this run, he’s no doubt asking himself the same question.
The piano and orchestra trail off, and there is uncertainty in the air. This “Philadelphia Morning” was a rough beginning. It is the first of many to come if he is to stick with it. Would he continue? Could he even get to square one? Maybe he’ll just stay in bed the next time?
The music, though muted and understated, was perfect for this scene, helping to cast the loneliness of the struggle, the hard road ahead, the impossible odds. Nicely done. Thank you, Bill Conti.
In the years since Rocky was first shown, the “Philadelphia Morning” segment has appeared on YouTube and similar channels in both aural and video form, inspiring a range of comment from viewers. Of these, a few noted that the scene seemed utterly hopeless. Others said the scene made them feel badly for the struggling underdog. But a number also found the scene quite moving, some rating it among their favorites.
“Although on the surface this scene seems simple, it is actually a very beautiful, artfully created masterpiece,” said one YouTube viewer. “The acting’s great, the music is just right, the lighting and the scenes go along with one another perfectly well. It really puts you into the moment…”
Still others found encouragement and inspiration: “This scene is iconic to me. No matter how inspired or encouraged you are by others, it’s up to YOU to make that sacrifice and get out there and push yourself no matter how thankless the result of your final performance….”
One 17-year old from West Virginia wrote in 2014 that he’s been running three miles every morning at 4 a.m. for the last six years – “and I owe it all to this scene.”
Others raved about the music and praised the film score and its composer. “Bill Conti captured 100% of the emotion and power of this movie,” said one. “Just incredible. I remember when I first saw this movie. I was 16. I didn’t understand the message it sent. I do now.”
This “Philadelphia Morning” segment, of course, is all set up for what’s to come later in the film, as Rocky does manage to get himself into fighting trim and will have more successful visits with the Art Museum’s steps. More on that later. First, some background and history on the music maker, Bill Conti, and his Rocky soundtrack.
“Rocky” music composer Bill Conti around the time the first “Rocky” film was produced.
The Rocky Film Score
“Let me tell you something,” John Avildsen, Rocky film director would say in an interview some years later, “if Bill Conti’s music wasn’t in Rocky, nobody would know anything about Rocky.” Indeed, the film is buoyed throughout by both powerful, inspiring tracks – as well as its more pensive and tender moments – all thanks to composer Bill Conti.
Conti was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1942, graduated from Louisiana State University, and studied at the Julliard School of Music. He spent time in Italy ghost-writing for composers and working in clubs. By the 1970s, he and his wife were working in the U.S. and taking what work they could find. Bill’s big break into musical celebrity came in 1975-76, when he was hired to compose the music for a small, low-budget, United Artists film named Rocky.
The film, written by Sylvester Stallone, then an unknown actor who pushed the studio to cast himself in the leading role, became a surprise major hit, and Conti’s film score helped make the film a mega American hit and international success. In composing the score, Conti started with a relatively simple theme at his piano – “a sad tune for a sad, down-and-out boxer,” he would later say. Conti used variations and extensions of that motif throughout the film to help fashion the entire soundtrack. At the time, much of it was piecemeal and additive, working with the theme to fit the various movie scenes, stretching and cutting the music as needed.
The single jacket cover for Bill Conti’s “Gonna‘ Fly Now,” with B-side “Reflections.”
A number of the tunes in the score are raucous and brassy, as they were designed to be, summoning boxing and heroic themes during the film. Yet, Rocky is also a love story – between Rocky and the shy pet store attendant, Adrian (Talia Shire). And it is also at times, a story with pensive, inward-looking “can-I-do-this” and “alone-in-the-ring” moments – as in the “Philadelphia Morning” segment. Among this softer group, Conti used subdued treatments such as the spare piano Rocky theme. Rocky the person, despite his rough edges and awkwardness, is really a softie inside. And Bill Conti’s music manages to capture and covey this as well, and the overall story, in good and popular form. When Stallone first met Conti to do the score, he had his doubts, but in the end, he was more than pleased, saying he should have known, since Conti was an Italian.
“Gonna’ Fly Now” – Bill Conti
The now famous film montage of Rocky training in and around Philadelphia for the fight — and growing stronger as he does – is backed by the Conti piece that became the movie’s main theme and most popular song – “Gonna Fly Now”(lyrics by Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins). Also known as the “Theme from Rocky,” the song builds and builds in the training sequence, rising to a crescendo as Rocky soars up the 72 steps at the Philadelphia Art Museum with energy to spare. It is on this occasion that Rocky does his famous “champ dance” at the top of steps, arms thrust to the sky. Thereafter, that scene and the song became embedded in American popular culture.
In one of the “Rocky” film’s most iconic screen moments, Bill Conti’s composition of the theme song, "Gonna Fly Now" reaches a crescendo point as Rocky now sprints to the top of the Art Museum’s fabled steps, where he proceeds to do a little “champ dance,” proclaiming his fitness with arms raised while facing a Philadelphia morning skyline.
The song, with only a spare 14 words sung multiple times, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The version of the song from the movie, performed by Conti and orchestra, with lyrics sung by DeEtta Little and Nelson Pigford, hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in early July of 1977. Another of the Rocky/ Bill Conti songs with lyrics by Connors and Robbins – “You Take My Heart Away,” also sung by Little and Pigford – became popular as well, cracking the Top 40 on the pop charts. In fact, the entire Rocky soundtrack would become a best seller, hitting No. 4 on the Billboard 200 albums chart at its peak. Here’s a listing of the tracks in that album:
“Gonna Fly Now” (Theme from Rocky; vocals Little/Pigford) – 2:48
“Philadelphia Morning” – 2:22
“Going the Distance” – 2:39
“Reflections” – 3:19
“Marines’ Hymn/Yankee Doodle” – 1:44
“Take You Back (Street Corner Song) – 1:49
“First Date” – 1:53
“You Take My Heart Away” (vocals: Little/Pigford) – 4:46
“Fanfare for Rocky” – 2:35
“Butkus” – 2:12
“Alone in the Ring” – 1:10
“The Final Bell” – 1:56
“Rocky’s Reward” – 2:02
Sylvester Stallone and Bill Conti, circa 1970s.
As for Bill Conti, once his Rocky score landed him Oscar, Golden Globe, and Grammy nominations, and as sales of the Rocky soundtrack album soared, a whole new era of opportunity began for the composer. These openings ran the gamut in film and television, spanning both the pop and orchestral realms.
For starters, he was asked to lead the orchestra for the Academy Awards show in 1977, the year he was first nominated for his Rocky song ( He would subsequently do the Oscars show 18 times, more than any other orchestra leader – and win Emmy Awards for three of those productions).
In 1984, Bill Conti won the Academy Award for composing the score of The Right Stuff. He also did the music for several of the Rocky sequels (those of 1979, 1982, 1990 and 2006). Included among Conti’s other film scores and TV music are: the James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only (1981); That Championship Season (1982); The Karate Kid (1984); Falcon Crest and Dynasty (TV, 1992); The Thomas Crown Affair (1999); and others.
Movie poster of Adrian and Rocky walking away after he has lost the fight, but won the love of his life.
The original Rocky music, however, remains a high point for Conti. The music did well in 1976-1977 and it has continued to reap recognition. In 1977, Billboard ranked Conti’s version of “Gonna Fly Now” as the No. 21 song of the year. Conti’s single also became a certified million seller in the U.S. In June 2004, the American Film Institute placed it at No. 58 on its 100 Years…100 Songs list. Versions of the song continue to be heard somewhere almost daily, whether high school marching band, political campaign, or commercial advertising, leading some to cry “Rocky fatigue.” In 2015, the song was used as backing music in a Publishers Clearing House TV commercial.
As for the original Rocky film, there continues to be divided critical opinion – ranging from “love it” to “hate it,” and others who believe the proliferation of the Rocky sequels have detracted from or overshadowed the original. Still, in its day, 1976-77, the Rocky film was a phenomenon — and in somewhat difficult economic times, its “underdog rising” and “love story” motifs gave the nation something to cheer about. At the box office, meanwhile, for a small-budget film ($1 million) with an unknown lead actor, Rocky became a huge success and the highest grossing film of 1976. According to Hollywood Reporter, by December 2006 the original Rocky had grossed $225 million worldwide, with more than $117 million of that at the domestic box office. The film also received ten Academy Award nominations in nine categories, winning three. The Rocky film series, meanwhile (6 films to date), has generated more than $1.2 billion at the box office worldwide, with a 7th film in the series, Creed, slated for release in November 2015. In 2006, the original Rocky was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
On January 17th, 2015, as much as 1,200 barrels of crude oil may have leaked into Montana’s Yellowstone River.
On January 17th 2015, the Bridger Pipeline Co.’s 42,000-barrel-per-day Poplar pipeline leaked as much as 1,200 barrels of crude oil into the Yellowstone River near Glendive, Montana. Poplar’s 12-inch steel pipeline, which crosses beneath the Yellowstone River, had burst that Saturday morning, leaking crude into the river.
The Poplar Pipeline transports crude oil from the Bakken oil fields of eastern Montana and western North Dakota – an historic area of oil reserves that has seen booming development recently with the industry’s new hydraulic fracturing technology, also known as “fracking.” The Poplar Pipeline runs from the Canadian border to Baker, Montana, where it meets the Butte pipeline, also owned by Bridger.
According to initial reports, the spill occurred some nine miles upstream from Glendive, an agricultural town of about 6,000 people located about 220 miles northeast of Billings, Montana, near the North Dakota border. Once the leak was discovered early aircraft patrols spotted an oily sheen on the Yellowstone some 25 miles downstream from the leak. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official later said an oil sheen was also detected near Sidney, Montana, about 60 miles downstream, although icy conditions generally made detection and attempted clean-up difficult.
January 23, 2015: Aerial photo looking down on ice-covered Yellowstone River as workers attempt to find and clean up an oil spill that occurred on January 17, 2015 near Glendive, MT from the Poplar Pipeline. EPA Photo.
The Yellowstone River, which has it headwaters in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park (see map below), flows north into Montana and then east and northeast across the state and eventually, several hundred miles later, northeast into North Dakota where it flows into the Missouri River.
The Bridger Pipeline oil spill into the Yellowstone River was the second recent pipeline breach releasing oil into the Yellowstone in less than four years. In July 2011, ExxonMobil Corp’s 40,000 barrels-per-day Silvertip pipeline in Montana ruptured underneath the river near Laurel, Montana, about 230 miles southwest of Glendive. That rupture released an estimated 1,500 barrels (63,000 gallons) of crude into Yellowstone River that washed up along some 85 miles of riverbank, costing the company about $135 million to clean up. Federal regulators later levied a $1.7 million penalty against ExxonMobil for that incident and the government is still in the process of pursuing the company for natural resources damages for the spill.
This map, compiled by Inside Climate News, shows the locations of both the July 2011 ExxonMobil pipeline spill and the January 2015 Poplar Pipeline spill, both fouling the Yellowstone River. Click on map for Inside Climate News.
“This is a significant spill,” the EPA said in a January 19th, 2015 statement regarding the Bridger/Poplar pipeline breach. The oil “threatens downstream water users, including drinking water supplies, agricultural uses, and wildlife,” the agency stated. EPA was then working with Bridger, local and state officials as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Transportation to contain the spill. Dave Parker, a spokesman for Montana Governor Steve Bullock, said on January 19th: “We think it was caught pretty quick, and it was shut down. The governor is committed to making sure the river is cleaned up.” Bridger Pipeline Co. issued a statement saying the pipeline was shut down shortly before 11 a.m. Saturday. Spill responders by then began placing containment structures across the Yellowstone River at Sidney, Montana, about 30 miles downstream of the spill.
Airboats were being used to transport oil spill response workers on the frozen Yellowstone River following the break of the Poplar Pipeline near Glendive, MT. Some of the early response shown here. Photo, Great Falls Tribune.
Complicating the tracking and clean up of the spill was the fact that the river was partially frozen, much of it covered in ice as shown in the photos above. By January 19th, 2015, two days after the leak was discovered, cleanup workers had cut holes into the ice on the Yellowstone River near Crane, Montana as part of efforts to recover oil from the upstream leak. “These are horrible working conditions to try to recover oil,” Paul Peronard, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator, said at one point. “Normally you at least see it, but you can’t see it, you can’t smell it, ” he said. “We’re going to have to hunt and peck through ice to get it out.” By Tuesday, January 20th, oil sheens were reported as far away as Williston, North Dakota, below the Yellowstone’s confluence with the Missouri River. By February 4th, however, clean-up efforts along the Yellowstone were suspended due to weather conditions.
Jan 20, 2015: Residents of Glendive, MT line up to receive drinking water at distribution center. Matthew Brown / AP
Jan 21, 2015: EPA contractor Megan Adamczyk examining water sample from a Glendive fire hydrant.
Jan 20, 2015: Whitney Schipman of Glendive, MT receives a case of bottled drinking water. AP Photo/Matthew Brown
January 2015: Residents of the Glendive area loading bottled water into their car.
One immediate worry in the wake of the spill was the safety of drinking water in Glendive and other towns downstream that depend on the river for drinking water. Initial water tests in Glendive Saturday and Sunday showed no evidence of oil, but residents soon complained that their tap water had an unusual odor. An advisory against using the water was issued late Monday, January 19th by offficials at the city’s treatment plant. Truckloads of bottled drinking water were shipped into Glendive as residents began lining up. Some businesses dependent on water, such as restaurants, shut down for a time.
It was later reported that benzene in the range of 10 to 15 parts per billion was detected in some early samples of Glendive water, according to EPA’s Paul Peronard. Anything above 5 parts per billion is considered a long-term risk, but not likely a health risk over a short period of time.
On the benzene problem, it was first thought that since oil floats, it would be well above the Glendive water treatment plant intake, which is some 14 feet deep in the river. However, the river was covered by ice. One theory offered was that because the oil was trapped beneath the ice rather than in the open air, chemical constituents such as benzene, could not volatilize into the air, and instead became dissolved throughout the entire water column. Some oil was also moving downstream.
On January 22nd, EPA investigated a reported contaminant at the water intake for city of Williston, ND suspected as being related to the Bridger Pipeline release. The reported contaminant level was subsequently found to be well below the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) standards.
Back at Glendive meanwhile, by Friday, January 23, 2015, the municipal water supply was given the O.K., as it was then meeting standards set by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, according to Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality. Bottled water distribution in Glendive was also discontinued at that time since city’s water was certified safe to drink. As a precaution, local authorities stockpiled a two-day supply of bottled water in Glendive.
By February 3rd, 2015, Bridger opened a claims center in Glendive for people affected by the spill. “…[W]e have the claim center set up, so businesses, residents and even local governments that have incurred added expense, because of this incident, which we’ve taken responsibility for, that we can reimburse them for those expenses,” said Bridger’s Bill Salvin.
“A Much-Loved River”
…And A Valued Resource
The Yellowstone River as viewed in Yellowstone National Park at the tamer northern end of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.
The Yellowstone River is a much loved resource, both in Montana and nationally. From its headwaters in Yellowstone National Park though its nearly 700 miles to its juncture with the Missouri, the Yellowstone is an important economic, public health, and recreational resource. It is also distinguished as the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states. As one historic marker near Glendive, Montana explains:
…When the West was won, most rivers were lost to damming and dewatering. This river is the exception: it remained wet, wild and dam-free over its entire length. The Yellowstone flows free for over 650 miles, draining a watershed greater in area than all of the New England states combined.
In the 1970s, Montanans held a great debate over this mighty river’s future. When the dust settled, the state reserved a Yellowstone might never be depleted and might forever remain free-flowing.
Other uses of the river-municipal: agricultural and industrial are also provided for. Today this waterway is in balance with all its users, including nature’s creatures. Few American rivers can still make that claim.
The Yellowstone River in Montana.
In Montana the river has been used extensively for irrigation since the 1860s. In its upper reaches, within Yellowstone Park and the mountains of Montana, it is a popular destination for fly fishing. The Yellowstone is also ranked as a Class I river from the Yellowstone National Park boundary to the North Dakota border for the purposes of stream access for recreational purposes.
Judy Woodruff, of the “PBS NewsHour,” reporting on the Glendive, Montana oil spill, January 2015.
Pipeline Cover. A key issue for the Poplar Pipeline, and thousands of others that run beneath lakes, rivers, and creeks all across the country, is the earthen cover that exists over those lines – and especially how thick and how stable it is. A February 2015 report at InsideClimateNews raised this issue in some detail and discovered that when Bridger last checked its pipeline 3.5 years ago, it was buried under eight feet of riverbed. When the pipeline burst, however, it was no longer completely covered, but rather exposed on the riverbed for about 110 feet, vulnerable to the river’s current, damage by debris and other objects, as well as corrosion. Inside ClimateNews and others have pointed to a “scouring effect” that river currents can have on what was previously thought to be adequate and stable pipeline cover. Some experts believe that tougher standards are needed.
Bridger Pipeline LLC logo.
Belle Fourche Pipeline Co. logo.
Company Record. The owner of the Bridger Pipeline Company, True Oil LLC, a family-owned company, also owns other pipelines, and a second pipeline company, Belle Fourche, which operates lines and tanks across some 551 miles in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. According to the Casper Star-Tribune, both companies have had prior spills, together accounting for some 30 incidents in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming between 2006 and 2014. The Bridger Company reported nine incidents to government authorities during that time frame, while Belle Fourche, reported 21. Some of True Oil’s pipeline companies also own and operate “gathering lines” in the oilfields, small-diameter lines which gather oil from wells. These lines are unregulated and often a source of oilfield leaks and spills that go unreported and unmitigated.
Ecology & Wildlife. Environmental authorities say the ice cover on the river will delay the evaluation of the spill’s impact on fish and wildlife, probably until spring. The area provides nesting habitat for bald eagles and the river is also home to the pallid sturgeon, an endangered species. State and federal wildlife officials have identified nesting locations to be avoided during cleanup, especially during the spring breeding season. Bald eagles, piping plovers, and interior least terns are in the area, as are heron. Bald eagles will abandon their nests and chicks if their nests are disturbed. There will likely be some fish impact as well; oil spill toxins can accumulate in fish tissue as well as in the worms and crawdads that fish eat. Oil can also harm the tiny fibers in fish gills, their “breathing” system.
Artist’s rendering of pipeline tunneling beneath a riverbed.
New Crossing & Restart. Bridger has proposed a new under-river crossing, and spokesman have stated the new route will be deeper than the original crossing. In fact, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will require Bridger to use a technique known as directional drilling when they dig their new crossing. Tunnels drilled with this method are sometimes dozens of feet beneath a river, even passing through solid rock or other more stable depths to avoid the problem of shifting riverbeds. Bridger will not be permitted to restart the Poplar Pipeline at this crossing until it receives approval from PHMSA. Inspectors from the federal agency were at the Glendive, MT spill site and will also inspect Bridger Pipeline’s control room in Casper, Wyoming in making their report on the incident.
Beyond the Bridger Pipeline spill itself, is the larger issue of pipeline water crossings generally – existing and proposed. Among the latter category is the hotly debated Keystone XL oil pipeline, a line that would cross nearly 1,900 rivers, streams and reservoirs in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, according to one estimate. The route also takes that proposed pipeline across the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers in Montana, where owner TransCanada has pledged to install the pipeline 35 feet below the riverbeds.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, carrying Canadian tar sands crude, will cross the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.
The Glendive spill has led to renewed concerns among environmentalists about the safety of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which, if built, would pass about 25 miles north of Glendive. Residents of Glendive are not necessarily opposed to Keystone line, the town being generally supportive of the oil and gas industry for economic reasons. But there is also support in Glendive and Montana for strict environmental standards regulating oil and gas companies. “Eastern Montana is the energy producer for the state,” said Jerry Jimison, mayor of Glendive. “People down here deserve the same safeguards for safe water.”
Another problem with regard to pipelines nationally is a lack of frequent inspections, fueled in part by too few inspectors. Shortly after the Bridger/Poplar pipeline spill near Glendive, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), offered an amendment to the Keystone XL pipeline bill – then being considered in the U.S. Senate. Tester’s amendment called for a study of the federal pipeline agency’s inspection program. He argued that more inspectors were needed to prevent accidents like the one in Glendive. However, his amendment was never voted on, but the Keystone measure itself – which President Obama was then vowing to veto – was approved by the Senate.
“The Daily Damage”
An Occasional Series
This article is one in an occasional series of stories at this website that feature the ongoing environmental and societal impacts of industrial spills, toxic releases, fires, air & water pollution incidents and other such occurrences.
These stories will cover both recent incidents and those from history that have left a mark either nationally or locally; have generated controversy in some way; brought about governmental inquiries or political activity; and generally have taken a toll on the environment, worker health and safety, and/or local communities.
My purpose for including such stories here is simply to drive home the continuing and chronic nature of these occurrences through history, and hopefully contribute to public education about them so that improvements will be made in law, regulation, and industry practice, and that safer alternatives will replace them in the future. — Jack Doyle
However, on February 13th, 2015, Montana’s Governor, Steven Bullock (D) wrote to the Obama Administration urging a review of the current four-foot depth requirement for pipeline crossings beneath major waterways. Bullock also asked for more federal pipeline inspectors in Montana, which currently has only one overseeing some 3,800 miles of pipelines in the state. “Clearly, more frequent inspections and oversight are needed so as to avoid another major disaster here in Montana,” Bullock wrote.
Meanwhile, American Rivers, a Washington-based conservation organization working to protect the nation’s rivers, initiated an online petition drive shortly after the Poplar Pipeline spill, urging citizens to send a message to the federal pipeline agency, PHMSA, “to strengthen standards for oil pipelines and better protect our clean water.” At its petition site, American Rivers explains that “since 1986, pipeline oil spills have caused more than 55 deaths, 2,500 injuries, and more than $7.7 billion in damages.” The recent Yellowstone spills, says American Rivers, are “the latest in a string of pipeline failures that have put our rivers and clean water at risk.”
In the end, the Glendive/Poplar Pipeline oil spill may prove to have modest impacts, especially when compared to catastrophic spills such as the 2010 BP blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico. Still, the final verdict and full assessment for the Glendive/Poplar spill is some months away. Even if it turns out to be a modest incident, it is nevertheless one more in the continuing fossil fuels assault – i.e., spills, explosions, fires, toxic releases, and greenhouse gases – that have been occurring regularly for the past century or more. Clearly, there are safer energy alternatives available that should become the preferred choices of policy makers and political leaders everywhere.
Stay tuned to this website for future stories on environmental history and “the daily damage.” See, for example “Burn On, Big River,” a story about the history of pollution-caused Cuyahoga River fires in Ohio; “Paradise,” a story about Kentucky strip mining and the demise of a small town there; or “Power in the Pen,” about Rachel Carson’s powerful indictment of chemical pesticides in her famous book, Silent Spring. Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you see here, please make a donation to support this website. Thank you. — Jack Doyle
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “”Oil Fouls Montana: January 2015,” PopHistoryDig.com, February 15, 2015.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Workers attempting early clean-up on the frozen Yellowstone River cutting 75-foot long “ice-slots” into the river(right, continuing out of frame) to try to collect passing oil spill (see below).
Long, three-foot wide ice slots, cut in the river ice with chain saws and fitted with absorbent material, were tried in early clean-up attempts following the Poplar Pipeline spill near Glendive, Montana.
Oil spill crew in air boat on icy Yellowstone River have safety line tied to worker trying to soak up oil, January 2015.
“Bridger Pipeline’s Oil Spill on the Yellow- stone River Near Glendive,” Montana.Gov, January February, 2015.
December 1970: Smoke & flames rise from Shell Oil's burning rig in the Gulf of Mexico, as five mobile rigs around it work to drill relief wells. Photo: Times-Picayune, New Orleans.
In the Gulf of Mexico, when it comes to offshore oil spills and other incidents, there is certainly ample history to ponder. The U.S. Minerals Management Service in the Department of the Interior, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration both have extensive case files and reports that document a sad and continuing history of oil and gas incidents, large and small.
The BP disaster of 2010 was certainly the most notable of these in recent history. Yet spills and blowouts have been occurring in the offshore regions for decades. And these offshore incidents are but one part of the continuing environmental damage that has occurred at the hand of the fossil fuels industry for more than a century. Herewith, the case of Shell Oil’s “platform 26.”
Headline from ‘Washington Post/Times Herald’ story of Dec. 7th, 1970, reporting on Shell Oil’s offshore rig blowout & fire.
On December 1st, 1970, an offshore oil rig operated by the Shell Oil Company in the Gulf of Mexico in Bay Marchand near Port Fourchon exploded and caught fire. Four workers were killed and 37 others were seriously burned, some injured when jumping from the burning rig into the water to save their lives. A well blowout was later determined to be the cause.
The Shell platform and several of its multiple wells burned for nearly three months. A large oil slick also formed, covering more than twenty miles at one point, stretching into the Gulf and oiling some Louisiana islands and beaches. Oil slicks of smaller size, breaking up over time, were still visible in the Gulf five months after the incident – through April 1971. At the time, the Shell blowout and fire was the worst offshore oil disaster to have occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. The incident lasted 137 days with some of its oil reaching Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
“The Daily Damage”
An Occasional Series
This article is one in an occasional series of stories at this website that feature the ongoing environmental and societal impacts of industrial spills, toxic releases, fires, air & water pollution incidents and other such occurrences. Included among these will be both recent incidents and those from history that have had some impact either nationally or locally — i.e., have generated controversy; brought about government inquiry or political activity; and generally, have taken a toll on the environment, worker health and safety, and/or local communities.
My purpose for including such stories here is simply to drive home the continuing and chronic nature of these occurrences through history, and hopefully contribute to public education about them so that improvements will be made in law, regulation, and industry practice, yielding safer alternatives in the future.— j.d.
Also known as “Platform 26” or the “Baker” drilling rig, the Shell offshore platform included 22 production wells, which before the blowout were producing 17,500 barrels of oil and 40 million cubic feet of natural gas each day. One of the wells – the 21-B well with a yield of more than 400 barrels a day – had ruptured about 12 feet above the water line and became a primary feeder of the fire. The flames from the burning platform leapt 400 feet into the air. Burning oil covered the surface of the water in an irregular 50-foot circle around the platform. For the first two to three days, the fire raged at full throttle.
By December 3rd, 1970 the big service crane on the rig collapsed towards the center of the platform at a 60° angle. Several drilling rigs were deployed to drill relief wells to cut off the oil supply from the bad wells feeding the blaze. The first of the relief wells, started on December 5th, would eventually reduce the oil flow to some extent. Oil slicks that formed near the platform ignited periodically, endangering and hindering response teams.
Six days into the incident, on December 7th, well 21-B was still contributing its yield to the fire. At least eight other wells at the rig were also burning. Shifting winds, fog, and rough seas slowed the efforts underway to fight the blaze and control the spillage. Two firefighting firms, Jet Barges Jaraffe and Red Adair, were pumping about 19 million gallons of water per day to cool the burning platform. By December 30th, salt water was pumped into the relief well to help kill 21-B, the well with the largest fire. Killing this well reduced the intensity of the fire by about 40 percent.
Water is sprayed on collapsed Shell oil rig, as well fires continued burning weeks after initial blowout.
Chemical dispersants were used early in the response to prevent oil slicks from developing. The dispersant concentration was not allowed to exceed 0.03 percent of the total spray stream, due to its toxic nature. Shell’s Oil Herder product was used to aid skimming operations two miles southwest of Belle Pass. Aerial application of the dispersant was also used along the shoreline from the west end of east Timbalier Island to 1.5 miles west of Belle Pass. Skimmers, straw, and booms were used to contain and collect oil when possible. An oil slick entered Timbalier Bay by late December, and some of it reached the beach. A week later, pollution surveys reported scattered oil accumulations on the beach, and some at the southern end of Grand Isle. Oil accumulations were also noted southwest of Caminada Pass. On January 13th, oil along Grand Isle Beach was reported to be breaking up into globs and patches with the incoming tide. Still, a 1.5-inch thick accumulation of oil was observed near the Grand Isle Beach jetty. A slick ten feet wide and 6-to-12 inches thick floated on the water. Vacuum trucks later recovered oil from Grand Isle Beach and truckloads of litter and oil emulsion were picked up and hauled away by January 15th.
By January 20th, 1971, nearly two months later, eight of the wells at the damaged platform remained on fire. Workers had put through a relief well by this time attempting to contain the flow from the blowout, but the fire and oil flow continued. By January 20th, the slick extended two miles southwest of the fire, producing a fan of rainbow sheen for another six miles.By January 20, 1971, nearly two months after the explosion, eight of the rig’s wells were still burning and the oil slick extended two miles from the fire. Streaks of sheen extended for up to 29 miles southwest of the platform, with a maximum width of four miles. Well-head piping was severely damaged by the intense heat of the fire. Shell Oil Co. personnel constructed an abrasive cutting boom in an attempt to cut the damaged well head off the B-8 well, which was bent into the water and partially submerged, causing a pollution problem. This device was used to cut the well heads off two of the wells and a sand-blast cutting device was used to cut the piping off two other wells. Three additional well heads were cut by February 11th. Oil spill response operations began moderating on March 1, 1971, as a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and helicopter were released from the scene by then. Still, relief drilling, capping, and pumping of the wells continued throughout April. The next-to-last well fire to be quelled – number 10 of the burning wells – came on April 7, 1971. However, one of the wells, B-4, continued burning, as there was difficulty intercepting it by way of a relief well. It was finally controlled from the surface, and was put out with a high-pressure water spray. Well B-4 was capped and declared dead on April 16, 1971.
By this time, the event had lasted 136 days. Still, on April 16, 1971, the estimated rate of oil being released was 20 barrels per day. The case was closed by the U.S. Coast Guard on May 17th, 1971. Shoreline oiling resulting from the incident was found between Caminada Pass and Bay Champagne. However, some oil from the incident was tracked to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.…Robert Bea recalled that his bosses at Shell were surprised to learn that the oil traveled underwater all the way to the Yucatan Peninsula…. Bob Bea, who helped design the multi-well platform used on the Shell rig at Bay Marchand and later became a University of California professor, would serve in a key role investigating the cause of the April 2010 BP disaster. But for the 1970-71 Shell incident, Bea recalled that his bosses at Shell were surprised to learn that the oil from that incident traveled underwater all the way to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. It took nine months to finally complete all the of relief wells to fully kill the 23 boreholes associated with the platform. Shell eventually removed the destroyed platform, built a new one, and redrilled the field. And as author Tyler Priest writes in his 2007 book, The Offshore Imperative: Shell Oil’s Search for Petroleum in Postwar America, the 1970-71 blowout at Bay Marchand “was a watershed event for the company, forcing the E&P [exploration & production] organization to refocus on safeguarding the environment and workers.” But Shell, to this day, like other oil companies, would continue to have leaks, spills and blowouts in their operations.
Later investigation of the Shell disaster at its Bay Marchand platform revealed that the plastic coating on the tubing in well B-21 sloughed off and plugged the well. In the course of wireline operations to clean out the well there was a time when the well was unattended and well-control valves were left incompletely closed.…A subsurface safety valve waiver, granted for com- pletion purposes, was also in effect at the time… In addition, a subsurface safety valve waiver – which had been granted for completion purposes – was also in effect at the time. The rest, as they say, is history: the well blew out and the fire ignited. Yes,1970-71 might seem like ancient history, and much has improved in the industry since then. Following the 1970-71 Shell blowout, which had been preceded earlier that year by a Chevron rig that also burned for months, industry began to focus more on safeguards for the environment and workers, while government regulators moved to tighten standards as well. Still, a look at the Wall Street Journal map below from 2010, shows there is no room for complacency in the Gulf of Mexico when it comes to potential offshore catastrophes that may be lurking in the existing stock of offshore rigs.
Map of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, compiled by the Wall Street Journal in 2010. Click for interactive link.
The above map, compiled by the Wall Street Journal in 2010, shows Gulf of Mexico oil and gas rigs. The Journal found that roughly half of the region’s more than 3,000 rigs have been operating longer than their designers intended, with about a third dating back to the 1970s or earlier, well before the adoption of modern construction standards. According to the Journal’s 2010 analysis, of the 81 accidents on these facilities reported to the federal government in the past three years (presumably 2008-2010), in more than one-quarter of the cases the incident was related to the age of the structure. In this map, the darkest red indicates rigs dating to the 1940s, while the lighter pink shades indicate rigs of more recent vintage, installed in the 2000-to-2010 period. Click on map to link to the Journal’s interactive version.
Other stories at this website on environmental history, include, for example: “Burn On, Big River,” a story about pollution-caused Cuyahoga River fires near Cleveland, Ohio; “Paradise,” a story that uses a John Prine song as introduction to some history about Kentucky strip mining and the demise of a small town there; and “Power in the Pen,” a profile of the impact of Rachel Carson’s historic book on chemical pesticides, Silent Spring. Stay tuned to this website for future “daily damage” stories on the oil industry and others. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you see here, please make a donation to support this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Offshore Oil Blaze, Shell: 1970-71,” PopHistoryDig.com, February 15, 2015.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Tyler Priest’s 2007 book, “The Offshore Imperative: Shell Oil's Search for Petroleum in Postwar America.”
“Deep Water” – Report to the President by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and the Future of Offshore Drilling, 2011, 392pp.
Jack Doyle’s 2002 book, “Riding The Dragon: Royal Dutch Shell & The Fossil Fire.”
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin-istration, Hazardous Materials Response Division, Oil Spill Case Histories, 1967- 1991: Summaries of Significant U.S. and International Spills, Report No. HMRAD 92-11, Seattle, WA, September 1992.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin-istration (NOAA), “Shell Platform 26; Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana, December 1, 1970,” IncidentNews, NOAA, Washington, D.C.
“IFP. Platform Databank on Accidents to Drilling Vessels or Offshore Platforms (1955-1989),” #7032, U.S. Coast Guard POLREP file.
United Press International, “Shell Oil Plat-form Is Ablaze in Gulf; 2 Are Dead and 57 Are Rescued,” New York Times, December 2, 1970.
“Fire Fighters Begin Gulf Rig Battle,” Arizona Republic (Phoenix, AZ), December 5, 1970, p. 41.
“Shell Tries to Plug Burning Oil Wells,” Washington Post/Times Herald, December 7, 1970, p. 10.
United Press International, “Oil Crews Drill Under Fire in Gulf,” Chicago Tribune, December 7, 1970.
Associated Press, “Offshore Oil Fire Curbed As a Wild Well Is Plugged,” New York Times, December 31, 1970.
“Threaten Court Action Against Oil Companies,” Houma Daily Courier (Houma, LA), January 14, 1971.
Associated Press, “Wild Oil Well Killed in Gulf”[8th well of 11], New York Times, March 21, 1971.
K. Edmiston, “Shell Fire Dying Peacefully,” Oil Industry 6: 1971, pp. 34-41.
“Offshore Oil Blaze Blasted Out After Burning Since Last Dec. 1,” New York Times, April 13, 1971, p. 36.
Robert T. Miller and Ronald L. Clements, Shell Oil Co., “Reservoir Engineering Techniques Used To Predict Blowout Control During the Bay Marchand Fire,” Journal of Petroleum Technology, Vol. 24, No. 3, March 1972, pp. 234-240.
August 17th, 1975: Gulf Oil refinery fire scene near landmark stack, Philadelphia, PA.
In 1975 it was one of the biggest oil refineries in the country – the Gulf Oil Co. refinery and tank farm in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Originally built in 1904 and located near the juncture of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, the Philadelphia refinery soon sprawled over more than 700 acres on the outskirts of the city. By the 1950s, commuters on their way into and out of the city viewed it daily as they crossed the high-rising Penrose Avenue Bridge that arched over the refinery grounds.
But on August 17th, 1975 near dawn, a fire started in the refinery when a 75,000-barrel oil storage tank ignited after being filled from a docked oil tanker on the Schuylkill River. However, this fire, thought to be under control a few hours after it began, roared back to life a second time, taking the lives of several firemen already on the scene, and causing a fire-storm inferno at the Gulf complex that almost took down the entire refinery, and more.
On that Sunday morning, just after midnight, at around 12:45 a.m., the oil tanker Afran Neptune, berthed at a Gulf refinery dock, had begun off-loading its cargo of crude oil to the refinery. It was pumping reconstituted Venezuelan crude oil (containing an additional five percent naphtha) into storage tank No. 231. This particular tank had been built in 1929 and it was located in the refinery not far from Boiler House No.4, which also had a tall brick chimney that rose high above the refinery grounds. Both were near the Penrose Avenue Bridge. The stack was a familiar landmark to Philadelphia motorists using the bridge, as it bore the giant word “GULF” in large, white letters, announcing the refinery’s owner.
Gulf Oil Company logo.
The Gulf Oil Company was then one of the largest corporations in the world, among the top ten on the Forbes 500 list. Gulf, in fact, was one of the original “Seven Sisters,” the famous group of international oil companies that sat atop the global economy.
By 1975, Gulf was among the top U.S. producers of crude oil, natural gas, and coal. Their 17,000 gas stations were found in 29 states. Gulf Oil mined uranium and also produced chemicals and plastics. Overseas, Gulf oil production came from countries such as Kuwait, Nigeria, Angola, Gabon and Zaire. On the world’s oceans, a fleet of 17 large Gulf oil tankers moved petroleum in international trade. And at least 14 Gulf-owned oil refineries in North America, like the one in Philadelphia, turned crude oil into various petroleum products.
Aug 1975: Aerial view of Gulf Oil refinery fire in Phila. PA, looking down on the Penrose Ave. Bridge that crossed the refinery grounds.
But on the Sunday morning of August 17th, 1975, hydrocarbon vapors, coming from tank No. 231 at the refinery as it was being filled from the berthed tanker, had wafted into the air outside of the tank and accumulated near the boiler house. There the vapors ignited causing a fiery explosion.
The flames then followed the vapor trail back to tank No. 231 causing another huge explosion. It was about 6:00 a.m. that Sunday morning, just about sunrise.
Then a second explosion occurred at tank No. 231, as burning petroleum spilled into a diked area surrounding the tank. Another tank in that area also went up. The first explosion had damaged a nearby pipe manifold, and leaking petroleum was spewing out on the ground, which also ignited.
The first alarm for the Philadelphia Fire Department went out shortly after the initial tank explosions, followed quickly by a second alarm. Arriving firemen found large clouds of heavy black smoke coming from the two burning tanks. The 150-foot brick tower stack at the Boiler House was also showing fire with a prominent vertical crack radiating from its base.
The battalion fire chief on the scene quickly ordered a third and fourth alarm, followed by a fifth from another fire chief and then a sixth alarm from Fire Commissioner Joseph Rizzo at around 7:00 a.m.
Over the next few hours, firefighters fought the blaze with water and foam, and by 9:00 a.m. or so they thought they had the fire contained and stabilized, though it was still burning. However, there were other problems on the scene that would soon make the situation near-catastrophic.
August 17, 1975: Firemen and equipment beneath Penrose Bridge as they move in to fight the Gulf Oil refinery blaze in Philadelphia, PA, with a Gulf Oil office building in the fire’s path.
It soon became apparent that the refinery’s sewerage system was not adequately draining the water and petroleum-naphtha mixture that was accumulating on the ground at the scene. In addition, the power to some of the refinery’s drainage pumps was shut off over concern for overhead power lines in the area. The liquid mixture continued to accumulate, as is seen in the photo below.
August 1975: Firemen pulling hose through the Gulf Oil Refinery in Philadelphia, PA, on their way to do battle with the fierce blaze. Note accumulating water at their feet. Dominic Ligato, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin photo /Temple Univ.
Three firemen at one point were wading in the watery mixture in an area of the refinery where they were attending to their equipment and one of the firetrucks. Suddenly there was a flash and the water was ablaze. Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Joseph Rizzo and Gulf refinery manager Jack Burk were then on an overhead catwalk nearby observing the firefighting operations when they witnessed the unfolding horror, as their men became trapped in the fiery water. “The flames just engulfed them,” said Commissioner Rizzo of his men, also describing how he escaped the first of dozens of explosions.“The flames just engulfed them…They were human torches.” – Fire Commissioner J. Rizzo As he looked back, he saw his three men sealed in flames. “They were trying to get under the foam, but to no avail,” he said. “They were human torches.”
One firefighter that day, David Schoolfield, who was in the middle of that same tragedy and nearly lost his life, recalled the scene some years later: “The ground was full of hose lines coming from all directions. We were walking in warm oil that came up maybe 24 inches on our boots. …But they said we were controlling the fire. I believed it. Then about 3:30 that afternoon, I was on break at a Red Cross truck and I heard them call ‘firemen on fire.’ I ran in that direction. I saw three firemen in flames. They were like human torches running around in circles. They fell into the oil to try to douse themselves. They may have drowned. There was nothing I could do. Then I heard people behind me screaming for me to get out. But when I turned to run, I broke through the foam, flames shot up and I went up like a torch. …A guy named Reginald Simmons grabbed me and we got out…I remember they had to keep putting me out because my skin kept reigniting…”
August 1975: View of the Gulf refinery fire from Penrose Bridge, looking west. Photo, Temple University
August 1975: Another view of the Gulf refinery fire from further up on the Penrose Bridge. Photo, Temple University
David Schoolfield spent the next two months in hospital burn centers for treatment of burns that covered 26 percent of his body.
Back at the refinery, meanwhile, a fire storm was now developing. Commissioner Rizzo ordered two more alarms, five additional rescue squads, and recalled all fire companies that had previously been released that day. It was nearly 5:00 pm, and Rizzo soon had ordered a ninth alarm. A major disaster was now unfolding at the Gulf Refinery.
The fire had already expanded eastward in the refinery, taking with it two fire department engines – No. 160 and No.133 – and also a refinery foam pumper. Two other Philadelphia fire trucks had already been destroyed in the flash explosion. Electric power and phone service also went out in the area around the refinery. The fire, meanwhile, kept spreading and was threatening four additional storage tanks, and was headed for the 125-foot Penrose Avenue Bridge. By 5:30 p.m. Rizzo ordered the tenth alarm. The fire had now engulfed the refinery’s administration building. Another fire that day in Philadelphia at a paper plant had fully taxed the Fire Department’s capabilities. By 6:00pm, Rizzo ordered an 11th alarm for the refinery fire and also ordered day-shift personnel held over. Explosions during the fire had put a large crack in the boiler house smokestack next to the bridge. Officials then closed the bridge for several hours, fearing that the big Gulf Oil stack might collapse on the bridge or that the encroaching fire would damage or weaken it.
By 7:00 p.m. Sunday evening, the burning tanks and pipelines at the refinery were still gushing flames and a number of roadways in the complex were also burning streams of oil and other petroleum products. For a time, it appeared the fire would not be stopped. This was not the first time the Gulf Oil refinery had burned. In fact, there were 10 fires there between 1960 and 1975. Contingency plans, in fact, had been made for a street-by-street, tank-by-tank retreat through the refinery. In the end, the Philadelphia Fire Department prevailed in the main battle, and by 5:38 a.m. Monday morning, August 18, 1975, the fire was reported as under control. That evening on ABC-TV, the Philadelphia fire made the ABC Evening News national news broadcast with Howard K. Smith reporting. Clips from the fire were shown as Smith explained the fire was still being battled and that six men were than lost, 4 dead and 2 missing. Back in Philadelphia, meanwhile, the fire in the original tank no. 231, was permitted to burn itself out. “Flare-ups” at the site continued for another week or so, with at least four calls to the Fire Department to assist refinery firefighters still dealing with the fire’s aftermath.
Associated Press wire photo used by The Baltimore Sun showing firemen still battling one of the tank fires at the Gulf Oil refinery in Philadelphia, PA on Monday, August 18, 1975, a day after the fire had started. “Flare ups” at the site would continue for another week following the original inferno.
Finally, on Tuesday, August 26, 1975, the fire was declared officially extinguished. However, this had not been the first time the Philadelphia Gulf Oil Co. refinery had burned. In fact, the refinery had been the scene of ten fires since 1960. On May 16, 1975, a six-alarm fire struck the Gulf Refinery. And following the big blaze of August 1975, a second six-alarm fire occurred at the Gulf refinery on October 20, 1975.
“The Daily Damage”
An Occasional Series
This article is one in an occasional series of stories at this website that feature the ongoing environmental and societal impacts of industrial spills, toxic releases, fires, air & water pollution incidents and other such occurrences. These stories will cover both recent incidents and those from history that have left a mark either nationally or locally; have generated controversy in some way; brought about governmental inquiries or political activity; and generally have taken a toll on the environment, worker health and safety, and/or local communities.
My purpose for including such stories here is simply to drive home the continuing and chronic nature of these occurrences through history, and hopefully contribute to public education about them so that improvements in law, regulation, and industry practice will be made, and that safer alternatives will replace them in the future. — Jack Doyle
The cause of the August 1975 inferno at the refinery was the overfilling of tank no. 231. Large quantities of hydrocarbon vapors had been trapped at the top of the big storage tank above the crude oil. As the quantity of crude oil in the tank increased, these hydrocarbon vapors were forced out of the tank’s vents and into the area of the boiler house where the initial ignition occurred. The overfilling of the tank had resulted from a failure of the tanker’s personnel to properly monitor the quantity of crude oil being pumped into the tank. After the first explosion and initial fire, the supplying tanker terminated its pumping, left its Schuylkill River berth, and relocated to the piers at Hog Island.
Six firefighters lost their lives on the scene that day; two others died later of burns and at least 14 others were treated for burns and injuries. The Gulf Oil refinery fire of 1975 is still remembered in Philadelphia, especially among friends and family of those lost in the blaze and by the Philadelphia fire-fighting community. In August 2007, about 200 people gathered at the Fireman’s Hall Museum in Philadelphia as plaques were unveiled to honor the firefighters who lost their lives in the Gulf Oil refinery disaster.
Other stories at this website on environmental history, include, for example: “Burn On, Big River,” a story about pollution-caused Cuyahoga River fires near Cleveland, Ohio; “Offshore Oil Blaze,” an account of a major offshore well blowout and fire at a Shell Oil Co. rig in the Gulf of Mexico; and “Power in the Pen,” a profile of the impact of Rachel Carson’s historic book on chemical pesticides, Silent Spring. Stay tuned to this website for future “daily damage” stories on the oil industry and others. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please consider making a donation to help support this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
1966: The Beatles’ album “Revolver” ventured into new musical territory with use of the sitar and novel studio effects in “psychedelic” song, “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
In August 1966 the Beatles released their seventh studio album, Revolver. The album spent 34 weeks on the UK albums chart, arriving at the No. 1 spot on August 13th 1966. It also reached No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, where it stayed for six weeks.
Among the 14 songs on Revolver are a number of memorable Beatles tunes, including: “Taxman,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Good Day Sunshine,” and “For No One.” But one song on the album – the last one on side two – is titled, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It is credited as a Lennon–McCartney song, but was written primarily by John Lennon.
The Beatles, with this album, and the one preceding it, Rubber Soul, began venturing into what became known as psychedelic music. And “Tomorrow Never Knows,” in particular, was one of the songs with a sound all its own; a sound that typified the self-discovery, “mind-expanding” reaches of the psychedelic genre. The title for the song, which does not appear in the lyrics, came from a Ringo Starr observation – Starr known occasionally for his twisted expressions, in this case, a malapropism of “tomorrow never comes,” adopted by Lennon for the song’s title. And for this particular tune, “Tomorrow Never Knows” seemed to fit quite well.
1964: "The Psychedelic Experience," by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert – a "how to" guide for those planning to use psychedelic drugs.
Classic guide to Tibetan traditions & thought; seen in 1960s as a basic text for psychedelic explorations.
John Lennon wrote the song in January 1966. His lyrics were adapted from the 1964 book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner.
Some have stated that Lennon’s source for the lyrics was the Tibetan Book of the Dead itself, which Lennon reportedly read while under the influence of LSD. But both George Harrison and Paul McCartney stated that the idea for the lyrics came from the Leary-Alpert-Metzner book.
“Tomorrow Never Knows”
[ scroll down for lyrics ]
McCartney reported that he and Lennon visited the newly opened Indica bookshop in London. At the time, Lennon was looking for a copy of The Portable Nietzsche but instead found of The Psychedelic Experience.
In that book is the line: “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream,” similar to the lyric heard in the song.
According to some accounts, after Lennon bought the book, he then went home, took LSD, and followed the instructions exactly as stated in the book.
The book held that the “ego death” – experienced under the influence of LSD and other psychedelic drugs – is a shedding of ego, but the process requires a stepwise guidance, outlined in the book.
The Beatles, meanwhile — at least three of them — had already experienced LSD. Reportedly, while in Los Angeles in August of 1965, John, George and Ringo had first ventured into LSD with Peter Fonda and The Byrds. Paul apparently did not partake at the time.
So John already had some experience with the drug prior to his 1966 venture in composing “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
“Tomorrow Never Knows”
Turn off your mind relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining.
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing
And ignorance and hate mourn the dead
It is believing, it is believing
But listen to the colour of your dreams
It is not leaving, it is not leaving
So play the game “Existence” to the end
Of the beginning, of the beginning
Of the beginning, of the beginning
Of the beginning …[ fade out ]
George Harrison would later offer the following observation about whether Lennon (and others) fully understood the meaning of the song’s lyrics:
You can hear (and I am sure most Beatles fans have) “Tomorrow Never Knows” a lot and not know really what it is about. Basically it is saying what meditation is all about. The goal of meditation is to go beyond (that is, transcend) waking, sleeping and dreaming. So the song starts out by saying, “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, it is not dying.”
Then it says, “Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void—it is shining. That you may see the meaning of within—it is being.” From birth to death all we ever do is think: we have one thought, we have another thought, another thought, another thought. Even when you are asleep you are having dreams, so there is never a time from birth to death when the mind isn’t always active with thoughts. But you can turn off your mind, and go to the part which Maharishi described as: “Where was your last thought before you thought it?”
Psychedelic poster art, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ by RedBundle at DeviantArt.com, incorporating first line of Beatles’ 1966 song.
The whole point is that we are the song. The self is coming from a state of pure awareness, from the state of being. All the rest that comes about in the outward manifestation of the physical world. . . is just clutter. The true nature of each soul is pure consciousness. So the song is really about transcending and about the quality of the transcendent.
I am not too sure if John actually fully understood what he was saying. He knew he was onto something when he saw those words and turned them into a song. But to have experienced what the lyrics in that song are actually about? I don’t know if he fully understood it.
1966: John Lennon during recording sessions for the Beatles album, “Revolver.”
Music & Recording
Revolver was recorded at EMI Studios, London, with sessions that ran between April and June of 1966. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” was the first track to be recorded – primarily in April 1966 – but became the last song on the album.
The song stands out as totally different from the rest, as there was a good deal of studio experimentation with this song.
One prominent instrument heard in the song is the sitar, which George Harrison had been using after visiting with Ravi Shankar. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is also distinguished by Ringo’s unusual backbeat on the drums – a constant but non-standard tumbling pattern suggested by Paul McCartney for the song.
There were also some novel techniques used in the song’s production such as reverse guitar, and at one point, some of Lennon’s vocals were given an unusual treatment as well.
Robert Rodriguez’s 2012 book, “Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock 'n Roll.”
John Lennon’s instruction to producer George Martin and EMI engineer Geoff Emerick for the production on this song, was that he, Lennon, wanted “to sound as if I’m the Dalai Lama singing from the highest mountain top.” Other accounts, describe Lennon as wanting to sound like a “hundred chanting Tibetan monks.” At one point, Lennon even had the idea of singing the song while spinning on a rope suspended from the studio ceiling to get the effect he wanted. In the end, Lennon’s vocals were run through a rotating Leslie organ speaker to produce the desired effect, the first instance of using that particular technique on a pop recording.
Lennon, upon hearing his processed voice in the studio for the first time, exclaimed: “That is bloody marvelous!” McCartney added, “It’s the Dalai Lennon!” (The Beatles would, two years later, take a much publicized trip to India to study meditation ). Tape loops by the Beatles were also used on the song, “mixed in and out of an Indian-based modal backing,” according to one description. Seagulls and various orchestral sounds can also be heard, some of which was played and recorded backwards. The result of all this studio experimentation and novel recording was that the Beatles were moving in a distinctly new direction, taking popular music with them as they went.
Some consider “Tomorrow Never Knows” as one of the Beatles’ greatest songs – or at least one of the most notable in that era. Robert Rodriguez, writing in his 2012 book, Revolver: How The Beatles Re-Imagined Rock ‘N’ Roll, describes “Tomorrow Never Knows” as “the greatest leap into the future” that the Beatles had yet taken, and was on the leading edge of psychedelic music.“…Never had pop swirled quite like this – the seagulls, the sitar drone, the sped-up orchestral bits. It was music without edges, all porous borders, one sound bleeding into the next…” –Pitchfork,2006 Other musicians and producers agree, some citing it as “the beginning of psychedelia in recorded music.” In the book The 100 Most Influential Musicians of All Time (Gini Gorlinski, ed.), the song is called “hallucinatory hard rock.” In August 2006, Pitchfork, the Chicago-based internet music magazine, ranked “Tomorrow Never Knows” at No. 19 on their list of “The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s,” noting:
…Never had pop swirled quite like this– the seagulls, the sitar drone, the sped-up orchestral bits. It was music without edges, all porous borders, one sound bleeding into the next. But it wasn’t some new age drift, either, what with Ringo compensating for all the space in his part by hitting each stutter-stop beat with double force, and the snarling backward lead zigzagging ribbon-like down the rabbit hole. Disorienting contrast is the power of this song– a possible bad trip talk-down…– and explains why it loomed mightily above the nascent psychedelic movement.
Still others date the Beatles entry into psychedelia even earlier, with the preceding album, Rubber Soul, and songs such as “Norwegian Wood,” which also uses the sitar. But “Tomorrow Never Knows” was clearly an innovative leap forward in any case, drawing praise as recently as 2011 from contemporary hip hop artist DJ Spooky, who noted the song’s contribution to sampling. Others have cited it as an early example of the “studio as instrument.” And despite its unusual sound and recording techniques, “Tomorrow Never Knows” has also been covered by a number of artists, ranging from Jimi Hendrix in 1968 and Herbie Hancock in 2010, to Reggae group The Wailing Souls in 1998 and the Portland band Helio Sequence in 2000, among others.
Poster for the TV series “Mad Men,” which follows the drama of those working at a New York advertising agency in the 1960s.
Mad Men Episode
“Tomorrow Never Knows” has also been used recently in one television series. It was featured during the final scene of the 2012 Mad Men episode “Lady Lazarus” (Episode 8, Season 5).
In that episode, Don Draper (John Hamm) – the super advertising guy in the 1960s New York ad agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Price – is given a copy of the Revolver album by his younger wife, Megan (Jessica Pare). Don has complained to Megan about not knowing what is going on in youth and popular culture. Megan responds by bringing him a copy of The Beatles’ Revolver album. She picks out the song “Tomorrow Never Knows,” advising him to “start with this one.”
As Megan leaves for acting class, Don picks up the album sleeve, looks it over a bit, then removes the LP, and plays it. He listens to the music as he sits with a glass of whiskey. As Lennon and the Beatles sing, “You may see the meaning of within…,” the camera cuts to a sequence of scenes of Don’s wife and his co-workers, all caught in moments of uncertainty and transition. Back in his easy chair, Don’s own response to this bit of Beatles’ mind-expanding music is more puzzlement, if not outright disinterest. Less than a minute or so into the song, Don lifts the needle from the recording in mid-play and turns off the player. Seemingly displeased with the sound, lyrics or both, and no more enlightened than he was before about youth culture, Don Draper walks back to his bedroom as the episode ends in silence. The song also played over the closing credits. The episode was watched by 2.29 million viewers during its initial broadcast
2012: “Mad Men’s” Don Draper, in his easy chair at home, listening briefly to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
According to the New York Times, the rights to the song for the Mad Men episode cost the producers over $250,000. Beatles songs have been rarely used in TV productions or commercials.
In the late 1980s, the Beatles went to court when Nike used one of their songs in a famous sneaker commercial. In the case of this Mad Men episode, writer/creator Matthew Weiner felt strongly about using the song, and using it in a proper context. In fact, to win the approval of Apple Corps, which administers Beatles song rights, Weiner had to share the episode’s story line with the company. The surviving Beatles, Yoko Ono, and Olivia Harrison, also signed off on the Mad Men usage. As Matthew Weiner explained to the New York Times:
…It was hard, because I had to, writing-wise, commit to the story that I thought was worthy of this incredible opportunity. The thing about that song in particular was, the Beatles are, throughout their intense existence, constantly pushing the envelope, and I really wanted to show how far ahead of the culture they were. That song to me is revolutionary, as is that album.
May 19, 1967: The Beatles at a London press conference celebrating the completion of their album, “Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Back in 1966 meanwhile, when the Beatles released this song and Revolver, the group was just getting started with innovative music and psychedelic-tinged songs. For in the next year, 1967, they produced their much-heralded Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album. And following their 1968 sojourn to India, they would return to London to record the double disc “White Album.”
Harry Caudill’s 1983 book on the history of Kentucky exploitation by steel and mining companies, published by the University of Illinois Press.
Harry M. Caudill (1922-1990) was a mountain warrior who fought for Appalachia and his native Kentucky homeland. He fought with words and political action to preserve his land and local culture, writing books, becoming a citizen activist, winning a seat in the state legislature, and rising to national prominence as a spokesman for Appalachia. During the 1950s and 1960s especially, he rose on the issue of coal mining’s destructive effects on Kentucky land and its people.
Caudill, after years of battling with the powers that be, had succeeded in drawing attention to the plight of Kentucky and the larger Appalachian Region. Kentucky then, and still today, is besieged by corporate interests who came for the region’s natural wealth, primarily its coal. Caudill not only did battle with the coal barons, but also local corruption and local politicians – often the handmaidens of the outside interests. The cover of one of his books is displayed at right, as its title and subtitle aptly capture what Harry Caudill railed against for much of his life.
A lifelong resident of Kentucky’s Letcher County, Harry Monroe Caudill was born near Whitesburg on May 3, 1922. His ancestors helped settle the county. After high school, Caudill served in the U.S. military and saw action in Italy during WWII. Following the war, he received his law degree from the University of Kentucky in 1948. That year he began practicing law in Whitesburg. But he soon turned to politics, elected to the Kentucky legislature in 1954, 1956 and 1960. He also rose on the national stage with the 1963 publication of Night Comes to the Cumberlands, a book which eloquently described the forces of Appalachian poverty and exploitation, helping to spur the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to help the region.
Harry Caudill of Kentucky.
In addition to Night Comes…, Harry Caudill would write a number of other books, several on similar themes of resource and regional exploitation, among them: My Land is Dying (1971), Darkness at Dawn (1976); The Watches of the Night (1976); and others. His writing also appeared in numerous magazines, among them, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, Reader’s Digest, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Audubon, and Commonweal.
Becoming something of a national figure in the 1960s, Caudill was also profiled in articles by noted writers such as Calvin Trillin of The New Yorker and noted historian, David McCullough, then writing for American Heritage magazine.
Caudill would also testify before various committees of the U.S. Congress on topics ranging from balanced economic development to the problems of older Americans in rural areas. But the issue that helped bring Caudill to state and national attention between the 1950s and 1970s was strip mining for coal.
1967: Harry Caudill, photographed in Kentucky by Life magazine photographer Bob Gomel.
Strip mining in Kentucky and elsewhere had gone on for decades before Harry Caudill arrived on the scene, but after World War II the technology had moved well beyond the “pick-and-shovel” stage. In eastern Kentucky especially, the practice of “shoot and shove” contour strip mining was notorious. Miners gouged into hillsides with mechanized shovels and dozers, establishing a “bench,” and from there would snake around mountain sides for miles (see photo later below). In the process, tons of dirt and spoil were pushed “over the side,” off the bench and down the mountain sides, clogging and polluting streams below. In its wake, a ruinous moonscapes remained, with dangerous highwalls, acid mine drainage, mudslides and flooding. Hardscrabble farmers and rural communities often paid the price.
In the 1950s, residents of Letcher, Harlan, Knott, Perry and other mountain counties in Kentucky began to advocate a ban on strip mining. Regulatory control bills had been offered in 1948 and 1952 but did not pass. By the time Harry Caudill took his seat in the legislature in 1954, a weak measure was adopted, requiring operators to post a paltry $100 to $200 bond per acre. In those days, few operators even bothered to get a permit, and a court decision exempted augur mining- a horizontal drilling technique that often added to the damage. Then the governor abolished the regulatory agency. Eastern Kentucky continued to be ravaged.
Many operators who held mineral rights obtained under the notorious “broad from deed”– a pernicious bit of legalese that swindled rightful landowners out of their mineral rights decades earlier – ran roughshod over landowners. Coal operators did not bother, nor were they bound, to ask the landowners for permission to mine. Neither did they repair the land or abate the damage in the wake of their mining. Blasting and bulldozers shattered windows, knocked homes off foundations, covered roads with debris, uprooted forests, and ruined cropland – typically without compensation to landowners.
Circa 1967: Aerial view of contour strip mining's handiwork in Eastern Kentucky, with gouged mountainsides running for miles to the far horizon. Source: “These Murdered Mountains,” Life magazine, January 12, 1968, photo by Bob Gomel.
In 1960, Harry Caudill had introduced the first bill in the Kentucky legislature to ban strip mining. But more pressure to develop Kentucky and Appalachian coal fields came from a New Deal agency designed to help the region – the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 1961, TVA decided to get into the coal business and signed long-term contracts to buy 16.5 million tons of strip-mined coal to supply its power plants. In 1962, Peabody Coal Co. was among those answering the call, as it opened the Sinclair Surface Mine in Muhlenberg County in Western Kentucky, there operating a gargantuan 20-story shovel nick-named “Big Hog” that supplied coal for years to the TVA Paradise Fossil Plant (see “Paradise” story at this website). Back in Eastern Kentucky, more strip mines opened up as well, arousing citizen anger. One local resident named Raymond Rash gathered petitions from one thousand supporters calling for a strip mine ban. Bu neither Caudill’s bill in the legislature nor the citizen petitions made much difference, as a 1963 revision of the state’s control law was adopted, but it was all window dressing and had little effect on stripping. That was the year Harry Caudill would publish the book that would bring he and his Appalachian cause more national notice.
Cover of best-selling 1962 book by Kentucky author and state legislator, Harry Caudill, whose portrayals of Appalachia and the ravages of strip mining were revelations to many readers.
In 1962, Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands was published as an Atlantic Monthly Press book by Little, Brown & Co. of Boston, Massachusetts.
“InNight Comes to the Cumberlands, “ wrote the publisher on the back of early paperback editions, “author Harry M, Caudill focuses on the terrible social sore of squalor, ignorance and demoralization among the inhabitants of the Cumberland region of eastern Kentucky. The ugly practice of coal mining plundered the hills, leaving the natives jobless and hopeless among refuse-clogged streams, sterile fields, and abandoned ‘company towns.’ And these shocking conditions prevail in the Cumberlands even today.”
Excerpted on the book’s back cover as well were selected review blurbs: “Few books of recent years present a more devastating but poignant account of the degradation of a people than the story of the Kentucky mining regions,” from the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, and, “…One cannot come away from reading Night Comes to The Cumberlands without a terrible sense of indignation and urgency,” said JFK brother-in-law and Peace Corps director, Sargent Shriver.
“Caudill’s book,” wrote then Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall in the book’s preface, “is a story of land failure and the failure of men. It is reminiscent of such earlier works as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men….” Like those books, said Udall, Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands “speaks eloquently to the American conscience”.
In the book, after an eloquent geological and cultural overview of the region’s evolution and its heritage, Caudill explained the coal industry’s dire effect on the land and its people:
“…Coal has always cursed the land in which it lies. When men begin to wrest it from the earth it leaves a legacy of foul streams, hideous slag heaps and polluted air. It peoples this transformed land with blind and crippled men and with widows and orphans. It is an extractive industry which takes all away and restores nothing. It mars but never beautifies. It corrupts but never purifies.”
April 1964: President Lyndon B. Johnson during a visit to with Tom Fletcher and family in Inez, Kentucky announcing his “War on Poverty” program.
“But the tragedy of the Kentucky mountains transcends the tragedy of coal. It is compounded of Indian wars, civil war and intestine feuds, of layered hatreds and of violent death. To its sad blend, history has added the curse of coal as a crown of sorrow.”
What Caudill did so successfully with Night Comes… was to point up, in 1962, that Appalachia had become an island of poverty in a national sea of plenty and prosperity. The book was at least partially credited with sparking the creation in 1964 of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a federal agency to assist Kentucky and twelve other states in the Appalachian Mountains. After Caudill’s book came out, President John F. Kennedy appointed a commission to investigate conditions in the region, and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, made Appalachia and the ARC a focus of his “War on Poverty.” Johnson, in fact, came to Inez, Kentucky, meeting with a local family there as part of his “War on Poverty” campaign. Subsequently more than $15 billion in federal aid was invested in the region over twenty-five years.
February 1968: Harry Caudill showing U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) some of Eastern Kentucky during Kennedy’s tour of Appalachia.
Night Comes to the Cumberlands also inspired young activists to come to the region to offer volunteer help. Social scientists came too. “By fall 1963,” wrote John Cheves and Bill Estep in their 2012 series on Caudill for the Lexington Herald-Leader, “the whole world was coming to Whitesburg to share a meal with Harry and Anne Caudill in their modest, book-lined home and take his ‘poverty tour’ of shattered mountains and shantytowns.” Bobby Kennedy was one of those who came. In February 1968, then a U.S. Senator, Kennedy toured Appalachia and Eastern Kentucky and met with Caudill. Not long thereafter, Kennedy announced he was running for president, only to be cut down by an assassin’s bullet in June 1968 after he had won the California primary.
Back in Appalachia, as the fight to control strip mining began moving from state legislatures to the federal level in the late 1960s, the national press began to pay more attention to the issue. One story that ran appeared in the January 12th 1968 issue of Life magazine. Life was one of the very prominent weekly magazines of that era, and it titled its strip mining story: “These Murdered Old Mountains – Kentucky Operators are Violently Defacing the Land and Ruining Lives.” The story was given prominent play in the magazine over several pages, and it included some dramatic photos of strip mining’s effects, one of mountainside strip mining stretching to the horizon shown earlier. It also included accounts of strip mining damaging homes, unearthing a grave in a family cemetery, causing land-scouring mudslides that destroyed homes, and others that wiped out gardens or clogged streams that flooded and backed-up into people’s homes.
The home at the bottom of this 1968 photo near Hazard, KY was formerly located half way up the mountainside, its demise by massive mudslide precipitated by the removal of forest and strip mining for coal. / Life
Part of the Life magazine story included photos of, and an interview with Harry Caudill, who was quoted as follows:
“…When man destroys his land, he begins to destroy himself. I believe that… We’re laying a precedent for the destruction of vast areas. This is not an abstraction. We’re talking about millions of acres, at a time when we’re on a collision course between diminishing land and increasing population. This land may not recover fully for a century. If we have any consideration for posterity, of continuity, of meaning or design in the human equation, then the land is the most important heritage we can pass down. Those narrow few inches of topsoil laid down over so man centuries are the very basis of life. That explains man’s atavistic attachment to the earth – and it explains why the mass destruction of land is somehow obscene.
“You see this in these murdered old mountains and in the impact on the spirit, the soul, the mind of the these people.”
Life’s correspondent noted that the Kentucky coal industry regarded Caudill as an “impractical visionary who doesn’t grasp the real significant of progress,” quoting one strip miner who had gone to college with Caudill, saying: “he was a son of a bitch then and he’s a son of bitch now.” Caudill’s retort was simply, “Strip mining has become a very big business.”
Caudill would also travel to Washington to lend his voice to the strip mine debate. In the summer of 1968, he testified before a Senate committee then considering three proposed bills that had been introduced to regulate strip mining, including one from the Johnson Administration. Caudill stated that stripping should only be allowed where reclamation of the land could be assured – and according to Caudill, none of the pending bills met that standard. He also stated that strip mining should be prohibited in much of southern Appalachia where the slopes were so steep that reclamation and restoration of the land to it former state was impractical and impossible. Areas of special beauty and important to wildlife should also be off limits to strip mining. And finally, as part of any worthy strip mining bill would be a program to restore abandoned mine lands – of which there were many thousands of acres already stripped and abandoned in Caudill’s Kentucky, as well as thousands more in 25 other states, a problem which still festers to this day. An abandoned mine fund, said Caudill and others, should be financed by a special tax on the extractive industries.
Although some bills were introduced in Congress during the late 1960s and early 1970s to regulate strip mining nationally, they made little headway. In 1971, over a dozen bills were introduced, including one by the Nixon administration. In February 1971, Rep. Ken Hechler (D-WV) introduced a bill to ban all surface coal mining. But turning such measures into law would be uphill fights in Congress, where the coal industry had many friends.
Cover of Harry Caudill’s 1971 book, “My Land is Dying,” which covered more of the Appalachian struggles with coal and mining.
Harry Caudill, meanwhile, continued his activism and writing. In November 1971, he published My Land is Dying, something of an extension of Night Comes to the Cumberlands, Caudill singled out Kentucky legislators, judges, and the TVA, as part of the problem. He also documented the court struggles of the Appalachian Group, Save the Land and the People, harassment of Appalachian volunteers, and the actions of local mountain people who sat before bulldozers, some with shotguns in hand, in attempts to save their land and communities. Focusing on Kentucky, Caudill found the state’s “reclamation” law to be toothless, evaded regularly by the strippers. Kirkus Reviews called My Land is Dying “starkly graphic, bitter and eloquent” and one that should rise to the top of the conservation literature. Harvard social scientist, Robert Coles, in an introduction to the book, noted of Caudill: “He writes, he fights in the courts, he speaks to people, he does all he can and more than most of us. A more enlightened nation would honor him as one of its finest citizens. But then, a more enlightened nation would not be so in need of his kind of extraordinary public service.”
Back home, Caudill and his neighbors tried unsuccessfully to stop a big Bethlehem Steel company strip mine in Letcher County in 1969. That operation — begun by the Beth-Elkhorn Corporation in June 1969 — eventually took out more than a thousand acres of heavily timbered land, much of it owned by the company, in order to begin strip mining 7,000,000 tons of coal found in three near-surface seams.
Undated photo of citizens demonstrating for ending the broad form deed in Kentucky.
Harry Caudill also worked to overturn the effects of the “broad form deed,” an outmoded legal document that severed mineral rights from surface rights, meaning those who lived on such land might not own the minerals below the surface. And in fact, for thousands of landowners that was the case, their mineral rights signed away many decades earlier. Under the broad form deed, the mineral owner could extract coal or other minerals by any means “necessary or convenient.” While other states construed the broad form deed to refer only to coal extraction methods existing at the time the deed was executed, Kentucky courts would rule that the broad form deed allowed mechanized strip mining, a practice inconceivable in the late 1800s. Numerous residents discovered they held only “surface rights” to their homes and farms.
Holders of mineral rights under the broad form deed could come after any coal, gas and oil on the property, destroying the surface land even if the surface owner objected. It took years to change the law; not until 1988 when an amendment to the state constitution was adopted with the help of the citizen group, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
Harry Caudill was also quite forceful on why extractive industries in the Appalachian region should have been taxed more in order to improve the lot of the larger community. In a 1975 interview with the Mountain Call, for example, he said:
“…Instead of letting the coal barons plunder these mountains at will and get off scot-free the way we’ve done, let’s say we started taxing the big coal companies fairly back in their early days. And that we used the money collected to provide education for the people who lived here in the hills from which all that black wealth was taken.“[L]et’s say we started tax- ing the big coal companies fairly back in their early days. And that we used the money collected to provide education for the people who lived here in the hills from which all that black wealth was taken….” Would that education for its inhabitants early on have drastically changed Appalachia’s recent past and present?
“If we had had the will and the mind and the intelligence at the local level to levy a fair and adequate tax on coal and the other minerals taken from these mountains and then if we had put that money into good schools, we could have changed the whole situation.
“It wouldn’t have taken a very large tax, either. If we had collected just 10 cents a ton on coal moving out of here in the early years — and keep in mind that 10 cents then had the purchasing power of about 60 or 70 cents now — we would have had — in a county like Letcher, for example — $60 million to spend by 1955. Well, $60 million invested in schoolhouses and in roads to get children to school and in decently paid teachers would have created an entirely different situation….”
Caudill’s ideas on corporate responsibility and taxation gained some traction in the late 1970s, when George Atkins, former UK basketball player, Hopkinsville mayor, and state Auditor, sought the Democratic nomination for governor of Kentucky. Atkins advocated an increase in the severance tax if corporations failed to contribute voluntarily. Atkins later supported John Y. Brown who was elected governor and appointed Atkins as Finance Secretary. Harry Caudill, meanwhile, remained concerned with tax inequities, as well as with the large swaths of Appalachian land and resources controlled by absentee owners.
“Protest at Clear Creek*”
January 1972: Part of the contingent of 20 Kentucky women who occupied equipment at a Knott County strip mine site in protest.
In Kentucky in January 1972, two hundred activists and citizen groups traveled to Frankfort to pressure their state legislators on strip mining. A bill had been introduced by Rep. Nick Kafliogis to phase out strip mining. The citizens advocated the abolition bill and carried signs that read, “Reclamation a Damn Shame” and “Keep Our Country Green And Employed: Ban Strip Mining.” Several legislators and Governor Wendell Ford addressed the crowd, making no commitments.
Meanwhile, back in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky, a small group of protesters from Floyd County, Kentucky occupied equipment at the Ken Mack strip mine site above Clear Creek in Knott County. It was a cold, rainy day that January 1972 as 20 women moved to occupy loaders and bulldozers on the site in an angry and tense confrontation with workers. The women were all members of the group Save the Land and the People.
During the 15-hour standoff, some workers tore down a tent the protesters had put up, and other male demonstrators who were not directly on the site (for fear they would provoke male workers) but at the gate area — including James Banscome and a reporter for the Mountain Eagle – were attacked by mine employees. When the protest ended, the women found two of their cars had slashed tires and smashed windows. Branscome’s car was overturned.
Published statement from women who blocked mining equipment in Knott Co., Kentucky, January 20, 1972.
The protest action that day in Knott County, Kentucky would mark one of the final acts of citizen protest and direct action against surface mining prior to the federal legislative fight that came in the 1970s.
By the early 1970s, activist and citizen sentiment for controlling strip mining nationwide became increasingly focused on what might be possible in the U.S. Congress. Citizens in Appalachia by then had begun to convene regional and multi-state gatherings of activists, focusing on strategy for federal legislation. State legislatures during this period were also active, some passing bills for the first time, others amending existing laws, though typically not for the better. The coal industry would maneuver to pass weak state laws in hopes of forestalling federal regulation. However, a month after the Elijha Fork citizen action in Kentucky, tragedy struck the coalfields in West Virginia. On February 26, 1972, a large coal waste dam burst at Buffalo Creek, killing 125 people. The event galvanized concern about coal mining and related dangers, and helped spur the drafting and passage of regulatory strip mine bills in the U.S. House of Representatives during the early 1970s. But none of these would become law — at least not then. There was more to come on that fight.
___________________ *Note: In other accounts, this protest was reported as occurring at “Elijah Fork.”
Harry Caudill’s 1976 book, “The Watches of the Night,” offered a new plea for Appalachia.
Harry Caudill sought to help his region deal with the power of coal and corporations by bringing more government leverage to the table. Among his proposals was a “Southern Mountain Authority” modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority, which he saw as a good model for resource development in its early years, despite its later faults. He also advocated diversification of Eastern Kentucky’s economic base by establishing wood-using forest-based industries for furniture, flooring, and molding.
Still, even as he fought for improved regional leverage, Caudill seemed resigned to the fact that all the coal in Appalachia would be mined regardless of how it was regulated; he was not optimistic about controlling strip mining or the prospects for post-mining reclamation, even with stronger regulation. In a wide-ranging February 1975 interview with Caudill on Kentucky coal and other topics that was first published in The Mountain Call and later in Mother Earth News, Caudill – who was not opposed to all coal extraction, but abhorred surface mining – told his interviewers that Appalachia’s future did not look good.
“I think it’ll be mined into a desert,” he said. “We’ll dig till every lump of coal is taken out of these hills.” At the time, Caudill thought there might be some hope in a technique known as “coal liquefaction” – that is, to “liquefy coal in place… and pump it out of the ground instead of having to tear it out.” This, of course, was in 1975. “Otherwise,” he continued, left to strip mining, “it’s just a matter of time. Every hill will be decapitated and all the woods will be dug up. The streams will be congested with mud and the whole country will be ransacked…” And as time and further analysis would show, many of the “synthetic fuels” options touted about that time, including coal liquefaction, would offer no better outcomes.
1967: Life magazine photo of the after-effects of contour strip mining on a Kentucky mountainside showing the highwall cut, coal overburden sent down the hillside, and the remaining shelf, now used as a coal haul road.
As for the power of regulation to make the strippers reclaim the land, Caudill believed that was not likely either, as he explained in 1975:
“…Even if you passed a tough strip mining law now, you’d never know the difference.
“I had kind of hoped we’d do more than make strippers reclaim the land they tore up. I’d hoped we might stop stripping entirely.
“Not a chance. The pressures to keep it going are too powerful. You’re facing a tough combination when you line up against the rails, and the barge lines, and the mining companies, and the great land-owning companies, and the steel companies, and the utilities, and the rural electric co-ops, and the great foreign corporations that are loaded with billions of dollars and who want the coal.
“That combination could buy every voter in the country if necessary, and most people couldn’t care less. People, for the most part, don’t care anything about the land. We’re a people without any land ethic whatever…”
Despite Harry Caudill’s dire forecast in the mid-1970s, efforts persisted across the country and in Washington, D.C., to bring stronger national regulation to strip mining.
1977 Strip Mine Law
Front-page New York Times story by Ben Franklin on President Jimmy Carter signing the strip mine law, August 1977.
The battle over a federal strip mine law, however, would emerge as one of the longest and most contentious of the 1970s’ environmental fights. Not only were eastern Appalachian land, water, and wilderness at stake, but Midwest prime farmlands in Indiana and Illinois, as well as grazing and ranching lands of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado were also underlain with near-surface coal. In fact, in the semi-arid western states, critical underground aquifers were sometimes interwoven with the coal seams. Given the national dimensions of the problem – with strippable coal in 26 states – a determined national citizens coalition formed of Appalachian groups, Midwest farmers, Western ranchers, and Native Americans to push a federal strip mine bill in Congress. The coalition was led by a small Washington-based environmental lobby group named the Environmental Policy Center.
The legislative battle in Congress would rage through the mid-1970s in a process that would see more than 500 attempted amendments, good and bad, all kinds of legislative maneuvering to stop the bill, and two presidential vetoes. By 1977, following the election of Jimmy Carter, who said during his campaign that he would sign a strip mine bill, Congress passed the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act of 1977, which was signed into law by President Carter in August 1977. Harry Caudill was among those in the Rose Garden the day Carter signed the bill. Yet as this is written, more than 40 years later, the battle over strip mining – made more rapacious in recent years by way of “mountain top removal” techniques – continues, and its effects seem to bear out what Harry Caudill worried about in the mid-1970s.
1983: Harry Caudill photographed in his office with a portion of his Appalachia library at the right. Photo by John C. Wyatt, Herald-Leader newspaper, Lexington, KY.
University of Kentucky
In 1977 Harry Caudill gave up practicing law to become Professor of Appalachian Studies at the University of Kentucky (UK).“…[T]hrough his zeal for teaching, his ready rapport with people of all ages, and his well honed wit,” wrote the University of Kentucky on his biography page, “he quickly and effectively gained the respect of students and faculty alike.” And by all accounts, he continued to be his own man. Finding no suitable textbook on the region for teaching, for example, he compiled his own. Caudill remained a professor at UK until 1985.
Earlier, 1965 photo of Harry Caudill and his wife, Anne Frye Caudill.
He also continued to write. With his wife Anne as his secretary, he published dozens of articles in numerous publications, including: The Atlantic Monthly, Reader’s Digest, The Nation, Audubon Magazine, and others. He turned out more books as well, among them: The Mountain, the Miner and the Lord, and Other Tales from a Country Law Office in 1980; Theirs Be the Power: The Moguls of Eastern Kentucky, in 1983; and Slender is The Thread: Tales from a Country Law Office, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987. He also wrote numerous editorials that appeared in the feisty Whitesburg newspaper, The Mountain Eagle. And he delivered frequent speeches on strip mining and other eastern Kentucky issues.
In October 1986, Caudill was honored at a “Banquet and Roast” at the University of Kentucky, part of the conference, “On the Land and Economy of Appalachia,” sponsored by the University’s Appalachian Center and also intended to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Night Comes to the Cumberlands. By 1990, Harry Caudill was spending much of his time at home. Experiencing increasing pain from a foot injury he suffered in WW II and battling Parkinson’s Disease. On the afternoon of November 29th, 1990, while facing Pine Mountain outside his Whitesburg home, Harry Caudill took his own life with a handgun. He left a note telling his wife that he loved her and did not want to burden her with his Parkinson’s Disease. In addition to his books, he left behind 80 newspaper essays, 50 odd magazine articles, and more than 120 lectures and speeches.
Rendering of Harry Caudill by Chris Ware.
Later Years & Legacy
Harry Caudill remained a critic and gadfly throughout his life, and regularly expressed his disillusionments with the remedies and fixes that were offered to help his region, some being created by his own prodding. The well-intentioned Appalachia Regional Commission, for example, ended up becoming its own political boondoggle, spreading its largesse over some 420 counties in 13 states. Even though hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into Kentucky and other states, with visible infrastructure and other improvements resulting, some believed the fundamental underlying problems still remained, and Harry Caudill was among the critics.
In his later years, some say Caudill turned bitter and jaded, though still searching for answers and solutions to help the seemingly intractable misfortune that gripped his homeland. Caudill in the mid-1970s, edged into some dicey territory when he began considering the highly controversial theories of Robert Shockley, and “dysgenics,” suggesting that a poor gene pool among Scotch-Irish and German descendants in the Kentucky mountains may have contributed to the region’s problems. In newspaper reporting that appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader during 2012, some documentation and correspondence was unearthed suggesting that Caudill had adopted the dysgenics view with the intention of supporting research by Shockley into that arena in Eastern Kentucky. Yet his wife Anne, writing in reaction to the story, maintained that her husband’s excursion into the works and theories of Shockley, and his meeting with Shockley, were among hundreds of discussions and meetings he had with countless others over the years. His thinking in this area was, according to Anne Caudill, later abandoned. She wrote: “…Harry Caudill always spoke openly and wrote about his thinking. Was he always right? No one is. After a little further correspondence, he became dubious about the direction of the discourse and dropped it.” But for some of Harry Caudill’s friends and former colleagues, this transgression in thought and consideration caused a parting of ways.
The 2001 edition of “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” includes photographs of the region’s conditions and environmental damage, as well an Afterword written by Caudill’s son, James K. Caudill, titled: "The Gray and Cloudy Present."
Still, the great bulk of Caudill’s life’s work over several decades was focused on those who exploited the region’s resource wealth but gave little back in the way of lasting socioeconomic improvement. And many believe it is that contribution and perspective for which Harry Caudill should be remembered. Caudill, according to the University of Kentucky archive where his papers are housed, “was best known nationally for his role as a writer… who drew attention to the social, economic, and environmental problems the coal industry had caused in his region, earning him the moniker ‘Upton Sinclair of the coal fields’.” Caudill, according to the archive, wanted the nation to develop a more objective understanding of Appalachia along with a new land ethic. “…He wanted everyone in and outside of Appalachia to feel the urgency of the realization that haunted him: the knowledge of how important it was for the region to get out from under the shadow of coal and stand on its own….”
The main public library in Letcher County, Kentucky, located on Main Street in Whitesburg, was named the Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library in 1994. In addition, the Harry Caudill Award for Journalism is made every two years by Bookworm & Silverfish, a book store in Wytheville, Virginia, to recognize investigative journalism in the Appalachian region. In 2010, for example, the $2,000 award was given to journalist Penny Loeb for her book, Moving Mountains, the story of one woman’s battle against the coal industry and mountaintop removal in southern West Virginia.
The Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library, located on Main Street in Whitesburg, KY, was named for Caudill in 1994.
See also at this website, “Paradise,” a story which uses the “Mr.-Peabody-has-hauled-it-away” line and music of John Prine’s 1971 song as segue into additional coal mining history in Kentucky’s Muhlenberg County. “Sixteen Tons,” another story that uses a popular song from the 1950s, also explores Appalachian coal mining history. See also the “Politics & Culture” and/or “Business & Money” pages for additional stories in those categories. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you see here, please consider making a donation to help support this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle