All posts by J.D.

“The Ecstasy of Gold”
1966-2010s

United Artists record sleeve for a 1968 Netherlands edition of two singles from “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly,” featuring title track and “The Ecstasy of Gold”.
United Artists record sleeve for a 1968 Netherlands edition of two singles from “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly,” featuring title track and “The Ecstasy of Gold”.
“The Ecstasy of Gold” is the title of a song composed by Ennio Morricone and used to great effect in the 1966 Sergio Leone film, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.

 

Music Player
“The Ecstasy of Gold”
1966-67 – Ennio Morricone

Over the last 50 years, the song has become something of a classic, used on various occasions for its stirring, rising tempo and triumphant and uplifting energy – from Metallica concerts and sporting events to mainstream TV advertising. “The Ecstasy of Gold” is among Morricone’s most famous compositions, and its performance is aided by the amazing voice of Edda Dell’Orso, who is featured in the song’s stirring vocal high notes.

The song is played during a famous scene in the film when Tuco – “the ugly” character, played perfectly by Eli Wallach – is frantically searching through a huge Civil War-era graveyard for the name of a gravesite that is said to hold a fortune in gold treasure. Tuco is “ecstatic” to be at the cemetery where the gold is hidden, thus the name of the tune. But actually finding the gravesite where the gold is buried is another story. This “frantic search” scene by Tuco precedes a final climactic standoff and shoot-out when the three main characters in the story converge on the site and vie for the gold. But it is the “Ecstacy of Gold” song, and also the film’s title song, that have had continuing appeal over the years. The film itself has also become something of a classic in the Western genre.

In the film, “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly,” Elli Wallach’s “Tuco” character, has just arrived at the Sad Hill Cemetery, with  thousands of Civil War graves, one of which holds hidden gold, which Tuco frantically searches for while Ennio Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold” plays in the film’s soundtrack.
In the film, “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly,” Elli Wallach’s “Tuco” character, has just arrived at the Sad Hill Cemetery, with thousands of Civil War graves, one of which holds hidden gold, which Tuco frantically searches for while Ennio Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold” plays in the film’s soundtrack.

In the film, following Tuco’s initial excitement, there comes the climactic showdown scene at the cemetery’s circular plaza (seen in the distance, above photo), when the three main characters appear in a three-way Mexican stand-off and gun battle out over the gold treasure. In that scene, “Blondie,” the “good” character, played by Clint Eastwood, and “Angel Eyes,” the “bad” character, played by Lee Van Cleef, face off, along with Tuco, to determine who will survive to get the gold. More on that outcome and the film’s music a bit later. First, some background on the film’s history and its storyline.

The original soundtrack for “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly,” with added tracks. Click for CD or digital singles.
The original soundtrack for “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly,” with added tracks. Click for CD or digital singles.
The Dollars Trilogy. The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly is the third installment in the “dollars trilogy,” as the three films in this Italian western film series are called. A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More were the first and second installments in the series. These films are also known as “spaghetti westerns,” the somewhat derogatory moniker given Italian-made westerns produced during the mid-1960s.

After first being released in Italy in 1966, the three films were then each released in the U.S. in sequence during 1967 — A Fistful of Dollars in January 1967; For a Few Dollars More in May 1967, and The Good, The Bad & The Ugly at the end of December 1967. Given the bad rap of the spaghetti westerns at the time, the critical reception of the films following their release was mixed, but in later years they gained critical acclaim. The Good, The Bad & The Ugly was a financial success in its day, grossing over $25 million at the box office, and is credited with sending Clint Eastwood into stardom.

 
Plot & Characters

Clint Eastwood as “Blondie,” the nickname his sometimes partner, Tuco, has given him.  Of the three, he is the only one who has any semblance of empathy.
Clint Eastwood as “Blondie,” the nickname his sometimes partner, Tuco, has given him. Of the three, he is the only one who has any semblance of empathy.
The plot of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly revolves around three hard-bitten gunslinger / bounty-hunter types who come to learn about a fortune of buried Confederate gold amid the chaos of the American Civil War. But the twist in the film is that gradually over time, each man comes to learn only part of the gold’s exact location. And in their respective quests to find it, none of the three is above double-dealing or making temporary alliances of convenience to gain knowledge about the prize. But some of this trio are quite ruthless in the process.

In the early part of the film, Tuco and Blondie are running a bandit-reward scam with local law enforcement. Tuco, a Mexican bandit, is wanted for a long list of crimes, and bounty hunter Blondie turns him in to local officials for a reward, which he then splits with Tuco after helping Tuco escape execution – a lucrative money-making scam repeated by the pair in a couple of small towns. But Blondie becomes fed up with Tuco’s complaints, and abandons him in the desert. Tuco survives, vows vengeance, and tracks Blondie down in a town where Tuco has captured Blondie and placed him on a precarious perch to hang himself. But Union shelling there creates enough confusion and opportunity for Blondie to escape.

Tuco later recaptures Blondie and marches him across a desert until Blondie collapses from dehydration. Tuco by this point is ready to shoot Blondie and be done with him, but just then, a runaway stagecoach appears – a Confederate stagecoach with dead and dying soldiers inside, one of whom is Bill Carson, who knows about buried Confederate gold. He promises Tuco $200,000, money which is buried in a grave in the Sad Hill Cemetery. Tuco presses the dying Carson for the name of the grave, but Carson needs water, and passes out from thirst. Tuco then rushes off to fetch water for Carson, but Blondie, also near death by this time given his desert torture by Tuco, is slumped next to the dying Carson. When Tuco returns with water, Carson has died and Blondie reveals that Carson whispered the name on the grave marker to him just before dying. Tuco, whose moral compass is opportunist at all times, immediately turns his attention to reviving and caring for Blondie, now his “best friend” again. Tuco lavishes him with water and care, taking him to a nearby frontier mission to recover, where Tuco’s brother happens to be the head Abbot.

Actor Lee Van Cleef plays “Angel Eyes” –  “the Bad” character in “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” film.
Actor Lee Van Cleef plays “Angel Eyes” – “the Bad” character in “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” film.
Blondie recovers at the mission, and he and Tuco leave in Confederate uniforms taken from he stagecoach, now on a mission to get to the Sad Hill Cemetery. But then they are captured by Union soldiers and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. During a roll call there, Tuco answers for “Bill Carson,” getting the attention of “The Bad” character, known as “Angel Eyes,” who knows something about the Carson connection to the gold.

Played by Lee Van Cleef, Angel Eyes is a ruthless killer who has also heard about the Confederate gold, but doesn’t know the details. He is now disguised as a Union sergeant at the Yankee prisoner camp and tortures Tuco, who reveals the name of the cemetery, but not the name on the grave, which only Blondie knows.

Knowing that Blondie will not likely give up the gravesite name, Angel Eyes offers him an equal share of the gold, and the two ride out as Tuco is put on a prisoner train to be executed, but later escapes. Blondie, Angel Eyes, and his gang arrive in an evacuated, war-contested town, where Tuco has come as well. There, afer a gunfight with others, Tuco resumes a partnership with Blondie, and the pair turn their guns on Angel Eyes’s gang, killing most of them. Angel Eyes, however, has escaped.

Tuco and Blondie continue to make their way to Sad Hill Cemetery (which only Tuco knows at this point), but they are blocked by large Union and Confederate forces preparing for battle. The two armies are separated only by a narrow bridge. Each side is preparing to fight for it, but apparently both sides have been ordered not to destroy the bridge. However, Blondie, reasoning that if the bridge were destroyed “these idiots would go somewhere else to fight.” So he and Tuco then set out to wire the bridge with dynamite.

Actor Eli Wallach plays “Tuco” –  “the Ugly” character,  in “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” film.
Actor Eli Wallach plays “Tuco” – “the Ugly” character, in “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” film.
During their joint enterprise at the bridge, the two trade information; Tuco revealing Sad Hill Cemetery as the gold’s location and Blondie saying that the name on the grave is Arch Stanton. The two then take cover as the bridge blows up and the two armies resume their battle. The next morning, the Confederate and Union soldiers have gone. Tuco abandons Blondie, who has stopped to tend to a dying young Confederate soldier, as a poignant song from the soundtrack plays. (A few contemporary veterans have reported being moved by this song and film scene).

Music Player
“The Death of a Soldier”

Tuco, meanwhile, has left Blondie and is making his way to the cemetery to retrieve the gold for himself. When he arrives, he is beset by a very large cemetery stretching out in all directions, holding hundreds if not thousands of graves. It is here where Tuco begins running and spinning in something of a whirling frenzy, searching for the gravesite with Arch Stanton’s name. And this is when “The Ecstasy of Gold” song runs at full throttle, reflecting Tuco’s feverish search.

Running through the sea of tombstones and makeshift grave markers, Tuco finally locates Arch Stanton’s grave. As he digs with his hands, Blondie suddenly appears. Clad in his trademark poncho, and chomping on a slender cheroot-type Toscano cigar, he tosses a shovel to Tuco. A few moments later, the two are surprised by Angel Eyes, who holds them both at gunpoint. Blondie kicks open Stanton’s grave to reveal it holds no gold, just a skeleton. He hadn’t given up the real name afterall. Declaring that only he knows the name of the grave with the gold, Blondie writes the name on a rock and places it in the middle of the cemetery, telling Tuco and Angel Eyes that “two hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money. We’re going to have to earn it” — meaning, fight for it.

Long view of the climactic Mexican standoff scene at the Sad Hill Cemetery plaza, where Blondie, Angel Eyes, and Tuco take up positions for a gun fight to determine who will survive to get the gold.
Long view of the climactic Mexican standoff scene at the Sad Hill Cemetery plaza, where Blondie, Angel Eyes, and Tuco take up positions for a gun fight to determine who will survive to get the gold.

The three then warily back off from one another and take positions nearly equally separated around the outer circumference of a stone plaza at the center of the cemetery. They stare each other down in a Mexican standoff. The camera pans back-and-forth with close-ups of each of their faces, one by one. On the soundtrack, guitar strings sound, countdown-like, with the “Triple Duel” song building the tension. Then, they go for their guns and the shooting ensues.

Blondie shoots Angel Eyes, who tries to shoot Blondie as he falls, only to be shot again by Blondie, then rolling into an open grave. Angel Eyes is dead. Tuco also tries to shoot Angel Eyes, but discovers that Blondie had unloaded his gun the night before.

Tuco is overjoyed at finding the gold.
Tuco is overjoyed at finding the gold.
Now in control, Blondie directs Tuco to the grave marked “Unknown” next to Arch Stanton’s. Tuco digs into the grave and is overjoyed to find bags of gold inside.

But Blondie has a surprise for Tuco.

Seeking revenge for what Tuco had done to him earlier in the desert, Blondie forces Tuco to stand atop a shaky grave marker, hands bound behind him, while he places a noose around Tuco’s neck tied to a tree branch above.

Blondie is now prepared to ride off, having collected his share of the gold – but only his share – leaving Tuco’s share there on the ground below, as Tuco now deals with his shaky predicament.

As Blondie rides away, Tuco screams for mercy, but Blodie continues his ride. Then the camera pans to Blondie’s silhouette on horseback, seen on a distant hillside against the horizon. He is aiming his rifle at Tuco. Blondie fires a single shot and severs the rope of the noose around Tuco’s neck, as he had done on several previous occasions when he and Tuco were running their local bandit-reward scams.

As the lynch rope is severed by Blondie’s rifle shot, Tuco falls face-first onto the ground below and on top of his share of the gold. Blondie smiles and rides off. Tuco, meanwhile, now has his gold, but his hands are still bound and he has no horse. In a rage of shouting he begins cursing Blondie with a string of expletives. “Hey Blondie! You know what you are? Just a dirty ….” And with that, the film ends.

Near the end of “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly,” Blondie takes revenge on Tuco for his earlier near-death desert torture of Blondie, who now --planning to ride off -- has Tuco set precariously atop a shaky gravemarker rigged to a lynch rope.
Near the end of “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly,” Blondie takes revenge on Tuco for his earlier near-death desert torture of Blondie, who now --planning to ride off -- has Tuco set precariously atop a shaky gravemarker rigged to a lynch rope.

 
Music Lives On

Hugo Montenegro album featuring covers of several Ennio Morricone songs from Sergio Leone westerns. Click for CD.
Hugo Montenegro album featuring covers of several Ennio Morricone songs from Sergio Leone westerns. Click for CD.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (shown earlier above), composed by Ennio Morricone, was released in 1966 when the film was released.

The main theme song from that soundtrack — using whistling and other sound effects, which some say resemble a coyote in parts — would become especially memorable.

The theme’s motif runs through the soundtrack in various forms, and is also cleverly adapted as identity music for each of the three main characters using separate musical instruments – flute for Blondie, ocarina for Angel Eyes, and human voices for Tuco.

In fact, largely on the strength of the title track, the Morricone soundtrack album remained on the music charts for more than a year, rising to No. 4 on the Billboard albums chart and No. 10 on the R&B albums chart.

In August 1968, the original score was certified by the RIAA with a gold record for the sale of 500,000 copies in the U. S. alone. Worldwide, it sold more than three million copies, earning more than $20 million for Morricone since its release.

The main theme was also a hit for American musician, Hugo Montenegro, whose rendition was a No. 2 Billboard single in 1968. Montenegro’s album of that year, featuring “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” theme, also included additional Morricone songs from other Sergio Leone films.

1967 paperback by Joe Millard, Award Books, came out shortly after the film. Click for copy.
1967 paperback by Joe Millard, Award Books, came out shortly after the film. Click for copy.
In 2001, a European production of the Morricone soundtrack was released by GDM music with additional tracks. In 2004, the original soundtrack album was remastered and re-released on Capitol Records, with 10 additional tracks from the film. And in 2009, The Recording Academy inducted Morricone’s 1966 score for The Good, The Bad & The Ugly into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

“The Ecstasy of Gold,” meanwhile, has been used in a number of films, TV shows, video games, and TV ads. The heavy metal rock band, Metallica, has taken a special interest in the song. For more than two decades, since 1985, Metallica has used the song, in its classic rendition, to open their live shows. As the music plays, the band members usually take the stage. The band has also recorded a cover version of the song, and that version appears on several Metallica albums, including a version they recorded with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for their S&M album.

The Romones rock group has also used the song on albums and in performances, as has classical musician, Yo-Yo Ma. On American radio, “The Opie & Anthony Show” (1995-2014), used “The Ecstasy of Gold” as opening music. Jay Z and rapper Immortal Techniqueis are among those who have sampled the song, and it has been remixed by Bandini for the Ennio Morricone Remixes 2 album of 2004. “The Ecstasy of Gold” is also played as entrance music at every home game of Los Angeles Football Club (soccer).

Other stories at this website exploring the power and influence of music in film include: “Streets of Philadelphia” (Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young songs in Philadelphia, with Tom Hanks as AIDS victim Andy Beckett); “The Saddest Song” (Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” in Platoon and other films); “You Only Live Twice: Film & Music, 1967” (a James Bond film story by that name and main theme song by Nancy Sinatra); “Let The River Run” (Carly Simon’s hit song from 1988’s Working Girl); and “Philadelphia Morning – Rocky Music: 1976-1977”. See also the “Film & Hollywood” page for additional stories in that category.

Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 28 October 2019
Last Update: 28 October 2019
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “The Ecstasy of Gold: 1966-2010s,”
PopHistoryDig.com, October 28, 2019.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Matt Lawson & Laurence MacDonald’s 2018 book, “100 Greatest Film Scores,” Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 336pp. Click for copy.
Matt Lawson & Laurence MacDonald’s 2018 book, “100 Greatest Film Scores,” Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 336pp. Click for copy.
“The Ecstasy of Gold,” Wikipedia.org.

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966),” IMDB .com.

“The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” Wikipedia .org.

Roger Ebert, “Great Movie: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly,” RogerEbert.com, August 3, 2003.

“9. The Death Of A Soldier – Ennio Morricone (The Good, The Bad And The Ugly),” YouTube .com, Posted by Art Revell, December 17, 2012 (with posted comments).

Matthew Jackson, “12 Great Facts About The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” MentalFloss.com, December 29, 2017.

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (soundtrack),” Wikipedia.org.

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (theme),” Wikipedia.org.

Charles Leinberger, Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A Film Score Guide, September 1, 2004, Scarecrow Press, 160 pp.

“Ennio Morricone,” Wikipedia.org.

Nick Shave, “Drips, Pop and Dollars: The Music That Made Ennio Morricone,” TheGuardian.com, November 18, 2016.

Tim Gray, “Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns Made a Fistful of Dollars and Clint Eastwood a Star,” Variety.com, January 4, 2019.
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“Paper Lion”
George Plimpton

Signet paperback edition of George Plimpton’s best-selling book on his trials as a professional quarterback with the Detroit Lions football team, summer of 1963. Click for copy.
Signet paperback edition of George Plimpton’s best-selling book on his trials as a professional quarterback with the Detroit Lions football team, summer of 1963. Click for copy.
In the summer of 1963, a well known author and New York literary figure named George Plimpton, sought to undertake an unlikely and somewhat audacious athletic challenge in the spirit of “participatory journalism.”

Plimpton – an amateur sportsman at best, but not a gifted athlete in any sense – wanted to experience the role of quarterback on a professional NFL team, all in the interest of discovering what it would be like for an average person to try that profession. He planned to write about the experience for Sports Illustrated, where he was a reporter, and would later publish a book about the experiment.

This was not the first time that Plimpton sought the experience of a professional athlete. In 1959, he went three rounds with light-heavyweight boxing champ, Archie Moore. And in professional baseball, Plimpton arranged in 1960 to pitch to a lineup of National and American League baseball all-stars in a post-season exhibition game at Yankee Stadium.

In that experiment, Plimpton proposed to pitch his way through each lineup once, and whichever team had the most total bases against him would win a monetary prize. Plimpton – although he had his moment of glory with Willie Mays popping out – he was shelled pretty badly, and reportedly exhausted himself in the ordeal, needing a relief pitcher to finish.

Plimpton chronicled his pro baseball experience in the 1961 book, Out of My League. And in later years, he would do similar stints in other professional sports – from ice hockey to basketball, all to show how an average guy might fare in competition with the stars of professional sport. But Plimpton’s real genius in these undertakings – and hitting upon some unique journalistic territory – was the insider reporting he did on the sports cultures he experienced and player personalities he engaged along the way.

Summer of 1963. George Plimpton in his practice football attire at the Detroit Lions summer camp.
Summer of 1963. George Plimpton in his practice football attire at the Detroit Lions summer camp.
August 1963: George Plimpton, at center with ball, going through some practice drills at Detroit Lions camp, appears to be looking for a receiver with some trepidation.
August 1963: George Plimpton, at center with ball, going through some practice drills at Detroit Lions camp, appears to be looking for a receiver with some trepidation.
August 1963: George Plimpton, during a light-attire Detroit Lions practice session, is late with hand-off to running back.
August 1963: George Plimpton, during a light-attire Detroit Lions practice session, is late with hand-off to running back.

Football, of course, is a rough contact sport where an unknowing soul can be smashed around a good bit – all in fair play, of course. Yet the consequences can range from painful body blows and bruising in the least, to more serious assaults resulting in broken bones, knock-outs, and worse. Plimpton, 36 at the time, was in good health, but not a man acclimated to the pounding pro football players experience. Still, George Plimpton was game.

In his football quest, Plimpton had contacted several pro teams seeking approval to try out his plan. Among these were the Baltimore Colts, the New York Giants, and the New York Titans (predecessor to the New York Jets), all of which turned him down. But the Detroit Lions agreed to host Plimpton at their training camp. The un-athletic Plimpton arrived at the Lions camp in early August 1963 under the guise of a walk-on, former Harvard quarterback, competing for a possible back-up slot.

The coaches at first went along with the fable that Plimpton had come to their camp to try out as a backup quarterback. Detroit Lions players, meanwhile, at least initially, were not aware of the ruse. But once Plimpton hit the practice field it soon became apparent that the “new guy” had questionable football cred. In fact, he didn’t even know QB basics – like how to receive the snap from center.

Still, for several weeks, Plimpton was groomed in the finer art of quarterbacking by veteran Lion QBs Earl Morrall and Milt Plum, who helped him with the basics and offered advice

But along the way, Plimpton would have his troubles with the intricacies of the QB position. He made gaffe after gaffe. His hands and feet were too slow to make the quick-timing moves and spins QBs had to make with hand-offs and passing. The third photo here at left shows Plimpton during a light workout being too slow and missing a hand-off to one of his backs on a simple running play.

Yet as a journalist, he was seeing and learning about the game in a new, insider way – and that’s what he had come to do, though trying his best to measure up as a player. Fellow players thought it odd that Plimpton — tall and gangly, who described himself as having a physique akin to a tall wading bird — was always writing in a notebook between plays. When the players discovered that Plimpton was a writer, he took his share of ribbing and practical jokes. A handmade sign attached to a locker-room whirlpool, for example, read “reserved for Plimpton.” But he went along with all the good-natured fun and was gracious about the ribbing — including rookie hazing rituals.

Despite his struggles on the field, Plimpton managed to convince head coach George Wilson to let him take some snaps and run the team at an upcoming “big game” – an intra-squad exhibition contest – where he was given a chance to run a series of plays.

August 1963.  George Plimpton taking some practice snaps prior to the intra-squad game.
August 1963. George Plimpton taking some practice snaps prior to the intra-squad game.
On one play, Plimpton was met in the backfield by giant 300-pound  defender, Roger Brown, who threw him for a loss and nearly forced a fumble for a touchdown.
On one play, Plimpton was met in the backfield by giant 300-pound defender, Roger Brown, who threw him for a loss and nearly forced a fumble for a touchdown.
After his shot a QB, Plimpton talks with Joe Schmidt, No. 56, the linebacker who opposed him during his series of downs. Sports Illustrated photo.
After his shot a QB, Plimpton talks with Joe Schmidt, No. 56, the linebacker who opposed him during his series of downs. Sports Illustrated photo.

The annual intra-squad scrimmage was conducted in Pontiac, Michigan, and Plimpton rode the bus with the team to the contest, sitting alongside a veteran player, seeking his counsel and advice along the way. When Plimpton got his chance, he managed to lose yardage on each play.

Plimpton first wrote about his Detroit experience in Sports Illustrated in two articles, covering both his time in training camp and his shot at QB in the “big game” intra-squad contest. Plimpton wrote in a self-effacing, humorous manner about his own play, while accurately describing the mechanics of the game and sometimes capturing the more colorful side of his Lion teammates. Below, he describes his third play at QB in the intra-squad game, after his first two attempts had gone for bust:

…The third play on my list was the 42, another running play, one of the simplest in football, in which the quarterback receives the snap, makes a full spin and shoves the ball into the 4 back’s stomach. He has come straight forward from his fullback position as if off starting blocks, his knees high, and he disappears with the ball into the No. 2 hole just to the left of the center—a straight power play and one which seen from the stands seems to offer no difficulty.

I got into an awful jam with it. Once again the jackrabbit speed of the professional backfield was too much for mc. The fullback, Danny Lewis, was past me and into the line before I could complete my spin and set the ball in his belly. The fullback can’t pause in his drive for the hole, which is what he must keep his eye on, and it is the quarterback’s responsibility to get the ball to him. The procedure in the forlorn instance of missing the connection and holding the ball out to the seat of the fullback’s pants as he tears by is for the quarterback to tuck the ball under his arm and try to follow the fullback into the line, hoping that he may have budged open a small hole.

I tried to follow Lewis, grimacing, and waiting for the impact, which came before I’d taken two steps. I was grabbed up by Roger Brown, a 300-pound tackle. For his girth he is called Rhinofoot by his teammates, or Haystack, and while an amiable citizen off the field, with idle pursuits—learning very slowly to play the saxophone, a sharp dresser, affecting a narrow-brimmed porkpie hat with an Alpine brush—on the field he is the anchor of the Lions’ front line, an All-League player, and anybody is glad not to have to play against him.

He had tackled me high and straightened me up with his power, so that I churned against him like a comic bicyclist. Still upright, to my surprise, I began to be shaken around and flayed back and forth, and I realized that he was struggling for the ball. The bars of our helmets were nearly locked, and I could look through and see him inside—the first helmeted face I recognized that evening—the small, brown eyes surprisingly peaceful, but he was grunting hard, the sweat shining, and I had time to think, “It’s Brown, it’s Brown!” before I lost the ball to him. Flung to one knee, I watched him lumber into the end zone behind us for a touchdown.

The referee wouldn’t allow it. He said he’d blown the ball dead while we were struggling for it. Brown was furious. “You taking that away from me,” he said, his voice high and squeaky. “Man, I took that ball in there good.”…

While Plimpton’s big moment had met with failure, he remained confident he could do better, and conceivably might have another chance to play. And so he continued at training camp for another week as the team prepared for its first pre-season game against the Cleveland Browns.

Plimpton believed that if the Lions had a big enough lead near the end of that game, coach Wilson would let him play. However, team officials inform Plimpton at halftime that NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle would not allow him to play under any circumstance. The next day, Plimpton cleaned out his locker space and ended his sojourn with the Detroit Lions. But at his departure, the Lions team awarded him a gold football engraved as follows: “To the best rookie football player in Detroit Lions history.”

About a year later, in September 1964, Plimpton would publish his two long pieces in Sports Illustrated magazine on his adventures at the Lions’ training camp and his QB action.

1966. Harper & Row first edition hardcover of George Plimpton’s book, “Paper Lion,” including photos of Plimpton in drills during Lions’ football camp. Click for copy.
1966. Harper & Row first edition hardcover of George Plimpton’s book, “Paper Lion,” including photos of Plimpton in drills during Lions’ football camp. Click for copy.
But in the fall of 1966, Plimpton’s full book on his Detroit Lions experience was published by Harper & Row in New York: Paper Lion: Professional Football – As it Looks to a First String Writer Trying Out as a Last-String Quarterback.

Paper Lion has vivid details, exuberant humor, a powerful narrative arc and a polished, sophisticated diction, all of which suggested a young craftsman pushing himself to the limit,” observes Scott Sherman, writing on Plimpton for The Nation in 2009.

The 362-page book wasn’t just about Plimpton’s own trials on the field, but also covered the players and coaches he came to know in his month or more association with them.

Among those featured in the book were linebacker Wayne Walker, quarterback Milt Plum, future Hall of Famers cornerback Dick “Night Train” Lane, middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, and defensive tackle Alex Karras. Karras, however, had missed the 1963 season, then serving a suspension for gambling on football games, so his profile came by way of stories about him told to Plimpton teammates, coaches, and others (Plimpton would do more with Karras in a later book). Paper Lion was also a great read for football fans. It not only captured what it might feel like for the average fan to try out for a professional football team, it also had inside information and a locker-room perspective.

Plimpton’s book became a best seller. And in subsequent paperback editions, Paper Lion received a bit more hype, as the Vantage edition at the top of this story notes: “Over 1,000,000 copies in print!” That edition also used the cover tagline: “When a first string writer suits up to take his lumps as a last-string quarterback for the Detroit Lions the result is ‘the best book ever written about football’ – Red Smith”. Then came the film.

“Paper Lion,” the movie, was a 1968 sports comedy film starring Alan Alda as Plimpton, based on Plimpton’s book. The film also depicted his tryout with the Detroit Lions. It premiered in Detroit on October 2, 1968, and was released nationwide the following week. In the movie, unlike the book, Plimpton does well in the scrimmage and scores a touchdown, only to realize that the defense purposely loosened up and allowed him to score.

Film poster for “Paper Lion” movie of 1968 starring Alan Alda, Lauren Hutton & 62 Lions. Click for DVD or video.
Film poster for “Paper Lion” movie of 1968 starring Alan Alda, Lauren Hutton & 62 Lions. Click for DVD or video.
Paperback issued when film came out, some using tagline, “Now a United Artist Motion Picture.” Click for copy.
Paperback issued when film came out, some using tagline, “Now a United Artist Motion Picture.” Click for copy.

In the film, a number of Detroit Lions players appear in brief scenes, among them: Joe Schmidt, Alex Karras, John Gordy, Mike Lucci, Pat Studstill, Roger Brown, Lem Barney, and Garo Yepremian. Coach George Wilson also appeared, as did Green Bay Packers’ coach, Vince Lombardi in one scene, although that scene was not in the book. Frank Gifford, former New York Giants halfback and sportscaster, also appeared. Film posters and tie-in editions of the Plimpton book, both used variations on the tagline: “The Paper Lion is About to Get Creamed.”

2011: 45th anniversary edition. Click for copy.
2011: 45th anniversary edition. Click for copy.
More than 20 years after the film, Plimpton’s son, Taylor, noted some differences in Alan Alda’s portrayal of Plimpton in his Detroit Lion’s venture, explaining: “Alda’s version was always angry or consternated, like a character in a Woody Allen film, while my dad, though he certainly faced hurdles as an amateur in the world of the professional, bore his humiliations with a comic lightness and charm—much of which emanated from that befuddled, self-deprecating professor’s voice.”

Plimpton’s book, meanwhile, went on to live a long paperback life. Paper Lion was reissued in 2011 with a new look for its 45th anniversary edition.

In subsequent years, Plimpton would go on to chronicle other professional sports – and also non-sport professions – in the participant-journalist mold. Not all of these would become book-length treatments, and some would be published as magazine articles or as parts of other books. And Plimpton’s books were not always completely about his experimental participation, as his stories would also include perspective on the special insider access he had, and/or profiles of related people and activity surrounding the subject sport he had chosen.

Plimpton’s first sports book in the participant journalist mold had been his 1961 book about pitching to the major league baseball All Stars, Out of My League. A cover blurb on the hardback edition noted: “A weekend athlete and a full-time man of letters recalls his eye-opening and very funny experience pitching against the greatest pros in baseball.” The book touched upon many of the famous players of that day, including Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Whitey Ford, Ralph Houk, Richie Ashburn, and others. It also included a number of photos of Plimpton and other players, either in action or in the dugout, among them: Stan Lopata, Frank Thomas, Bill Mazeroski, Bob Friend, and Don Newcombe. The baseball book was followed by Plimpton’s Detroit Lions stint in 1963 and the Paper Lion book in 1966.(Click on any book image for Amazon page on that book).

1961: Out of My League.
1961: Out of My League.
1967: The Bogey Man.
1967: The Bogey Man.
1973: Mad Ducks & Bears.
1973: Mad Ducks & Bears.
1977: Shadow Box.
1977: Shadow Box.
 
1977: One More July.
1977: One More July.
1985: Open Net.
1985: Open Net.
1974: Hank Aaron book.
1974: Hank Aaron book.
1987: Novel about Sidd Finch.
1987: Novel about Sidd Finch.
 
2016 edition, Paper Lion.
2016 edition, Paper Lion.
2016 - Hank Aaron book.
2016 - Hank Aaron book.

His third sports book came in 1967, The Bogey Man: A Month on the PGA Tour, a book about his experiences playing (with an 18 handicap) and traveling with the Professional Golfer’s Association (PGA) tour in the time of Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus. “Stroke-saving theories, superstitions, and other golfing lore,” are part of this Plimpton book, explained one reviewer. Another review in the New York Times noted that with Bogey Man Plimpton was probing the psychology of the sport, and on that count, “there is nothing more revealing around.”

A Life magazine blurb added: “Golf is a lonely and private game, lacking the natural drama of football, but Plimpton, by substituting improvisation for plot, has caught its mad comedy and bizarre effects on people in a book just as charming, in its own way, as Paper Lion.”

Mad Ducks & Bears: Football Revisited, is a 1973 book about Detroit Lions linemen, Alex Karras and John Gordy, which also includes extensive chapters on Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne, as well as an account of Plimpton’s return to his “participant” football experience, this time with the Baltimore Colts. But the primary subjects in this book are Karras and Gordy. Says one Chicago Tribune blurb: “[An] irreverent and roguish account of the lives of the two linemen…. Pure gold.” The book was meant, in part, as a companion to Paper Lion.

Shadow Box: An Amateur in the Ring, is Plimpton’s 1977 book about boxing, which includes his own brief 1959 bout with then light-heavyweight champ, Archie Moore, in which Plimpton received a bloodied nose for his efforts. The book also includes Plimpton’s writing on the history of boxing, the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight in Zaire, as well as other bouts and character sketches of fellow writers Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson.

Another Plimpton book published in 1977 is One More July: A Football Dialogue with Bill Curry, about the last NFL training camp of former Green Bay Packer player, center Bill Curry, who later became a football coach and sportscaster. A New York Times blurb for this book notes: “If a time capsule needed a history of pro football’s years from 1965 to 1975, this would be the book.”

Open Net: The Professional Amateur in the World of Big-Time Hockey, is Plimpton’s 1985 book about his experience playing professional ice hockey with the Boston Bruins. This time, Plimpton, at age 50, suited up as a goalie for an exhibition hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Spectrum arena in Philadelphia. As one account of that outing noted: “Plimpton, gangly even in his goalie pads, tends the net with a reporter’s notebook tucked in his uniform. His moment of reckoning comes on a Flyers penalty shot from Reggie Leach. Plimpton makes the save, but when a teammate slaps him on the back of the helmet in celebration, the game-winning goalie loses his balance and topples to the ice.”

Plimpton also did a book on Hank Aaron in 1974 – Hank Aaron: One for the Record – The Inside Story of Baseball’s Greatest Home Run. In this book, Plimpton recounts the play of baseball’s Hank Aaron in his 1974 bid to become the all-time home run champion, then eclipsing Babe Ruth’s previous record of 714 home runs. Aaron sought to beat Ruth’s record amid a media frenzy and even received some death threats. Plimpton, meanwhile, covers the pitchers who faced Aaron during this time, but the focus is on Aaron – his abilities, his philosophy on hitting, and his achievements.

In April 1985, Plimpton wrote a Sports Illustrated story about a baseball pitcher named Sidd Finch, a mysterious talent who reportedly threw pitches at an astonishing 168 mph and was signed by the New York Mets. Reportedly, Finch was an English-born Buddhist monk – Siddhartha – who had acquired his hurling skills by throwing rocks at snow leopards in the Himalayas. The Sports Illustrated story ran for 13-pages and came complete with spring training photos, scouting reports, and Mets player reaction. However, the story was an elaborate April Fools hoax perpetrated by Plimpton. But he liked the story so much he expanded it and turned it into a novel, published two years later by MacMillan – The Curious Case of Sidd Finch.

George Plimpton visiting with Muhammad Ali, likely in the 1970s. Plimpton wrote about Ali in “Shadow Box” and for Sports Illustrated.
George Plimpton visiting with Muhammad Ali, likely in the 1970s. Plimpton wrote about Ali in “Shadow Box” and for Sports Illustrated.
In 2016, publisher Little, Brown & Co. decided to reprint a number of Plimpton’s participatory sports books in a new format, some updated with new material from Plimpton’s archives, celebrity introductions, and/or other features. When Little, Brown reissued the Plimpton book on Hank Aaron, for example, it repackaged it with a foreword by Bob Costas and additional Plimpton material. Two of those later-edition covers appear in the last row above.

In 2016, Nathaniel Rich, writing in the New York Review of Books, noted that Plimpton’s sports books “have aged gracefully and even matured. Today they have the additional (and unintended) appeal of vivid history, bearing witness to a mythical era.” A review of Plimpton’s work in The Guardian noted: “…With his gentle, ironic tone, and unwillingness to take himself too seriously, along with Roger Angell, John Updike and Norman Mailer, he made writing about sports something that mattered. He wrote about the way professional athletes coped with failure, ambition and envy, making them sound like interesting people.”

In his career as a sports journalist, Plimpton came to know and befriend some leading lights of the various professions, among them, Muhammad Ali, of whom he had written in his book, Shadow Box, and soccer great, Pele`, who blistered a shot past amateur goalie Plimpton during a documentary promotion. But beyond his forays into the world of sport and other professions, George Plimpton was a man of many dimensions, a kind of experiential renaissance man, who lived an incredibly full life and was well liked by many.

 

 
Man About Town

George Plimpton
1927-2003

1972: George Plimpton photographing birds in Africa. Photo, Freddy Plimpton / WNET.
1972: George Plimpton photographing birds in Africa. Photo, Freddy Plimpton / WNET.
In some ways, George Plimpton was an unlikely sportswriter – and even less likely a person to test professional sports as an amateur. He was born in March 1927 into a blue-blooded American family in New York City. His father was a wealthy corporate lawyer and a diplomat, appointed by President John F. Kennedy as U.S. deputy ambassador to the United Nations, serving from 1961 to 1965. His mother was Pauline Ames, the daughter of botanist Oakes Ames and artist Blanche Ames, with an accomplished lineage of notables on that side of the family as well.

Plimpton grew up on New York’s Upper East Side, attending St. Bernard’s School there and later, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire Although he tried out for most sports at Exeter, he never survived the cuts. Plimpton was also expelled from Exeter just shy of graduation. According to one account, he wasn’t very good at set schedules, and had been placed on disciplinary probation at Exeter for curfew violations. But then, after aiming a Revolutionary War-era musket at the football coach, he was expelled from Exeter. Still, after earning his high school diploma in Florida, he entered Harvard in July 1944, but did not graduate until 1950 due to his time in the U.S. Army, serving as a tank driver in Italy. Returning to Harvard, he majored in English, wrote for the Harvard Lampoon, was a member of the Hasty Pudding Club, Pi Eta, the Signet Society, and the Porcellian Club. After graduating from Harvard in 1950, he went on to Kings College at Cambridge, England for two years where he earned a graduate degree in English. In 1953, Plimpton joined the newly-created literary journal, The Paris Review, founded by writer Peter Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard) and others. Matthiessen made Plimpton the journal’s first editor in chief, a post he would keep until his death in 2003.

George Plimpton, shown here reading some papers for The Paris Review, and selected by writer and founding member, Peter Matthiessen, to be its editor in 1953, a post he served until his death in 2003. PBS photo.
George Plimpton, shown here reading some papers for The Paris Review, and selected by writer and founding member, Peter Matthiessen, to be its editor in 1953, a post he served until his death in 2003. PBS photo.

At the Review, Plimpton initially served as editor in Paris, France, but later the Review was moved to New York City, at Plimpton’s town home on the Upper East Side. Plimpton is credited with constructing the classic Paris Review interview with established writers, which became an important feature, engaging the subject in a collaborative process with corrections, revisions, and final sign-off. Plimpton viewed the interviews as a vehicle for established writers to explain their craft, not unlike what he would later do in a somewhat different vein as a reporter with his sports immersions. At the Review, Plimpton did classic interviews with figures such as E.M. Forster and Ernest Hemingway, among others. Some credit him with inventing the form, later adopted by Rolling Stone and Playboy magazines. In New York, meanwhile, his residence became known for its legendary cocktail parties, where all the important literati of that era would gather.

At 1963 party at his home in New York, Plimpton is shown seated at lower left. Among other notables attending were: William Styron, Gore Vidal, Jonathan Miller, Truman Capote, Arthur Penn, Mario Puzo, and  Ralph Ellison. Photo, Cornell Capa.
At 1963 party at his home in New York, Plimpton is shown seated at lower left. Among other notables attending were: William Styron, Gore Vidal, Jonathan Miller, Truman Capote, Arthur Penn, Mario Puzo, and Ralph Ellison. Photo, Cornell Capa.

“George saw his home as a place for everybody,” said Sarah Plimpton, his second wife, in comments after his death in 2003. “He loved the lights blazing, piano playing, glasses clattering, and the more oddballs the better. He loved people so much that he felt something was missing if this house wasn’t full.” According to one New York Times accounting, “for more than 45 years, he was host to hundreds of parties for thousands of guests, sometimes at a rate of one a week.”

Those visiting Plimpton at his office in his spacious townhouse on East 72nd Street in New York would notice his piles of papers and his somewhat disheveled dress and work manner, as well as his collection of framed and other memorabilia from his personal travels and friendships. Others marveled at how much life George Plimpton lived, how many balls he juggled at once, and the various projects he had underway or lined up.

George Plimpton traveled in a circle of the American elite and the otherwise famous through most of his life, shown here at the 1962 America’s Cup with Jackie and President John F. Kennedy and others. Photo, PBS.
George Plimpton traveled in a circle of the American elite and the otherwise famous through most of his life, shown here at the 1962 America’s Cup with Jackie and President John F. Kennedy and others. Photo, PBS.

At Harvard, he was a classmate of and friend to Robert F. Kennedy, and would befriend the entire Kennedy family. In the early 1960s, he was a familiar figure at the RFK family place at Hickory Hill in northern Virginia, where he could be found playing touch football. In 1968, he and first wife, Freddy Espy Plimpton, were traveling with RFK when he was making his decision to enter the 1968 Democratic presidential race, and Plimpton also made campaign appearances on Kennedy’s behalf. Following RFK’s victory in the 1968 California Democratic primary, Plimpton, along with former decathlete Rafer Johnson and American football star Rosey Grier, was credited with helping wrestle RFK shooter, Sirhan Sirhan to the floor when Kennedy was assassinated at the former Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Bobby Kennedy’s son, RFK, Jr., would later say of Plimpton: “My father admired George for his courage; he had a curiosity about life and I think that’s the thing that probably attracted my father the most to him. Like my father, he saw life as a great adventure…”

1977: Plimpton trying his hand as race car driver. (AP Photo)
1977: Plimpton trying his hand as race car driver. (AP Photo)
1970: Playing bad guy shot by John Wayne in 'Rio Lobo' film.
1970: Playing bad guy shot by John Wayne in 'Rio Lobo' film.
1970s: In real life, a father of four; here with son Taylor.
1970s: In real life, a father of four; here with son Taylor.
Sept 2003: Alex Karras and George Plimpton at 40th “Paper Lion” reunion at Ford Field in Detroit. Karras, featured in “Mad Ducks & Bears,” became lifelong Plimpton friend.
Sept 2003: Alex Karras and George Plimpton at 40th “Paper Lion” reunion at Ford Field in Detroit. Karras, featured in “Mad Ducks & Bears,” became lifelong Plimpton friend.

In addition to his better known forays into baseball, football, boxing and ice hockey, George Plimpton also tried his hand at auto racing, playing basketball with the Boston Celtics, soccer with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, tennis with Pancho Gonzales, trapeze acrobatics with the Flying Apollos of the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus, stand-up comedy in Las Vegas, as a photographer of Playboy models, and as a percussionist on tour in Canada with the New York Philharmonic orchestra under Leonard Bernstein.

In fact, on his orchestral venture with Bernstein, New York Times reporter Richard Severo would later note: “He was assigned to play sleigh bells, triangle, bass drum and gong, the latter of which he struck so hard during a Tchaikovsky chestnut that Leonard Bernstein, who was trying to conduct the piece, burst into applause.”

Some of Plimpton’s journalism stunts were turned into short television films, including his flying trapeze act, an African wildlife photography stint for Life magazine, and his attempt at stand-up comedy.

He also appeared in bit parts in more than thirty films, including Lawrence of Arabia (Bedouin extra), Rio Lobo (shot by John Wayne), Good Will Hunting (rejected counselor by Matt Damon), and two Ken Burns TV films – Baseball and The Civil War, doing the voice of George Templeton Strong in the latter. And he also did a string of TV commercials and print ads for Intellivision video games in the early 1980s, the income from which he used, in part, to help pay the bills and keep The Paris Review afloat.

But above all, it seems, George Plimpton was a writer. He authored, co-authored, or edited more than 20 books, as well as hundreds of articles for Sports Illustrated, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s and Horizon magazines, and other publications.

Among his books are titles on Truman Capote and one he edited with author Jean Stein on the 1960s Pop Art scene that featured the rise and fall of Edie Sedgewick, an Andy Warhol star.

An avid birdwatcher, Plimpton also wrote about declining bird populations and threats to bird habitat and rare species, including the ivory-billed woodpecker, whooping crane, and other species. He was also a fireworks enthusiast and wrote a book on that subject.

Plimpton was married twice; first to Freddy Medora Espy in 1968, having two children with her, that marriage ending in 1988. His second marriage was to Sarah Whitehead Dudley, in 1992, having twin daughters with her and remaining in that union through his final days.

George Plimpton died in his sleep on September 25, 2003 in his New York City apartment from an apparent heart attack. He was 76.

Only days before Plimpton had been in Detroit where he and the 1963 Detroit Lions were honored by fans and the Detroit Lions organization at a special “Paper Lion” 40th reunion at Ford Field during a Lions football game.

“George Plimpton was one of a kind,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass) in a statement at Plimpton’s death. “He was a lifelong friend of our family since the day he met Bobby at Harvard. . . . He reminded me of the line from Shakespeare, ‘Age could not wither him, nor custom stale his infinite variety.’ We’ll miss him very much.”

Shortly after his death, Cynthia Cotts for the Village Voice, offered a hypothetical “help wanted” ad for a mythical George Plimpton replacement as a lead for her article, “Is George Plimpton Irreplaceable?”:

“George, Being George” - George Plimpton's life as told by others, October 2008, Random House, 432 pp. Click for copy.
“George, Being George” - George Plimpton's life as told by others, October 2008, Random House, 432 pp. Click for copy.

Wanted: Editor to take over New York-based quarterly magazine of fiction and poetry. Must have impeccable taste, be steeped in the craft of writing and editing, and have met every key literary figure of the last 50 years. Please have natural athletic skills, good manners, and a genuine enthusiasm for life. Be world-famous, witty, unpretentious, admiring of pop stars and complete nobodies, a party animal, experienced fundraiser, and shameless self-promoter. Understand New York as the ultimate coliseum for accomplished people in every field. Optional: be tall, handsome, and well-born, with spacious uptown flat that can double as editorial and business offices and party venue.

In 2008, Graydon Carter, himself a literary figure and editor of Vanity Fair for many years, writing a review for the oral history on Plimpton, George, Being George, would offer this summary:

…As literary lives go, Plimpton’s was a doozy. Well born, well bred, the father of four, a witness to the great, the good and the gifted, he epitomized the ideal of the life well lived. He sparred with prize-fighters and competed against the best tennis, football, hockey and baseball players in the world, and along the way he helped create a new form of “participatory journalism.” He palled around with Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and William Styron, and drank with Ernest Hemingway and Kenneth Tynan in Havana just after Castro’s revolution. He also edited and nursed that durable and amazing literary quarterly, The Paris Review, which published superb fiction and poetry and featured author interviews that remain essential reading for anyone interested in the unteachable art of writing. ….Plimpton was ….the public face of the New York intellectual: tweedy, eclectic and with a plummy accent he himself described as “Eastern seaboard cosmopolitan.”

Tom Bean, co-director of the 2014 American Masters/PBS film, Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, noted: “George’s life was about seeking out and trying new things, regardless of the outcome. And as an artist, his life was his greatest work of art.”

See also at this website the “Publishing” and “Annals of Sport” pages for additional stories in those categories. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 27 September 2019
Last Update: 27 September 2019
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Paper Lion: George Plimpton,”
PopHistoryDig.com, September 27, 2019.

____________________________________




Sources, Links & Additional Information

“Home Run,” a 2001 collection edited by George Plimpton, 278pp.  Click for copy.
“Home Run,” a 2001 collection edited by George Plimpton, 278pp. Click for copy.
1970 book, “American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy.” Interviews by Jean Stein, George Plimpton, Ed., 372pp.  Click for copy.
1970 book, “American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy.” Interviews by Jean Stein, George Plimpton, Ed., 372pp. Click for copy.
2014 PBS / WNET Thirteen documentary - “Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself.” Click for DVD.
2014 PBS / WNET Thirteen documentary - “Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself.” Click for DVD.
“Women Writers At Work,” 16 interviews: Marianne Moore, Katherine Anne Porter, Rebecca West, Dorothy Parker, P.L. Travers, Simone de Beauvoir, Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary McCarthy, Nadine Gordimer, Maya Angelou, Anne Sexton, Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates. George Plimpton, Ed. Click for copy.
“Women Writers At Work,” 16 interviews: Marianne Moore, Katherine Anne Porter, Rebecca West, Dorothy Parker, P.L. Travers, Simone de Beauvoir, Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary McCarthy, Nadine Gordimer, Maya Angelou, Anne Sexton, Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates. George Plimpton, Ed. Click for copy.
2003 book, “As Told at The Explorers Club: More Than Fifty Gripping Tales Of Adventure,” George Plimpton, Ed., 464pp. Click for copy.
2003 book, “As Told at The Explorers Club: More Than Fifty Gripping Tales Of Adventure,” George Plimpton, Ed., 464pp. Click for copy.

George Plimpton, “Zero of the Lions,” Sports Illustrated, September 7, 1964, pp. 96–117.

George Plimpton, “Hut-Two-Three…Ugh!,” Sports Illustrated, September 14, 1964, pp. 26–35.

Garry Valk, “Letter from the Publisher,” Sports Illustrated, September 13, 1965, p. 4.

“Paper Lion,” Wikipedia.org.

George Plimpton, “The Celestial Hell of the Superfan,” Sports Illustrated, September 13, 1965 pp. 104–120.

George Plimpton, Paper Lion, Harper & Row, 1965.

“Book Review, Paper Lion by George Plimpton,” Kirkus Reviews, 1965.

George Plimpton, “Miami Notebook: Cassius Clay and Malcolm X,” Harper’s, June 1964.

Brian Glanville, “Paper Lion, by George Plimpton,” Commentary Magazine, October 1967.

George Plimpton, “Sportsman of the Year: Bill Russell” and “Reflections in a Diary,” Sports Illustrated, December 23, 1968.

David Remnick, “The Very Good Life Of George Plimpton,” The Washington Post, November 4, 1984.

George Plimpton, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, 1997, New York: Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 498pp.

Graydon Carter, “Lucky George,” Book Review, New York Times, November 14, 2008

“The Life Adventures of George Plimpton in Trading Cards,” PBS / Thirteen.org.

Luke Poling & Tom Bean (Directors), “Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself,” American Masters / PBS, May 16, 2014.

Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr., Ed., George, Being George; George Plimpton’s Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals — and a Few Unappreciative Observers, 2008, New York: Random House, 423 pp.

Mike Pesca, “Plimpton’s ‘Paper Lion’ at 40,” NPR.org (audio, Day to Day Show), Septem-ber 22, 2003.

Richard Severo, “George Plimpton, Urbane and Witty Writer, Dies at 76,” New York Times, September 26, 2003.

Patricia Sullivan, “George Plimpton Dies at 76,” Washington Post, September 27, 2003.

David Mehegan, George Plimpton, 76; ‘Paper Lion’ Author, Longtime Literary Editor, Amateur Athlete,” Boston Globe, September 27, 2003.

Eric Homberger, “George Plimpton: Fashionable American Writer Who Founded The Paris Review and Turned Sports Journalism Into an Art Form,” The Guardian, September 29, 2003

Associated Press, “Paper Lions Lose Their Author,” September 26, 2003.

George Kimball, “Plimpton Had No Problem Having Fun,” Irish Times, October 2, 2003.

Terry McDonell, “The Natural: George Plimpton, 1927-2003. A Singular Man of Letters, He Pushed the Limits of Journalism and Helped Define Sport in the 20th Century Even as He Elevated it,” Sports Illustrated, October 6, 2003.

David Remnick, “George Plimpton,” The New Yorker, October 6, 2003.

Cynthia Cotts, “Is George Plimpton Irreplaceable?,” The Village Voice, October 21, 2003.

“George Plimpton, 76; Death Claims Another of My Giants,” BlacklistedJournalist.com, December 1, 2003.

Scott Sherman, “In His League: Being George Plimpton; An Affectionate and Absorbing Oral History Raises Questions of Whether George Plimpton’s Amiable Exterior Concealed a Man Without Qualities,” The Nation.com, January 15, 2009.

Taylor Plimpton, “My Father’s Voice,” The New Yorker, June 16, 2012.

Bill Dow, “Recalling Alex Karras’s Last Public Appearance in Detroit,” VintageDetroit.com, October 11, 2012.

Jessica Gelt, “‘Plimpton!’ Documentary Looks at George Plimpton’s Lives,” Los Angeles Times, June 4, 2013.

Miles Wray, “Review: Out of My League by George Plimpton,” Plougshares at Emerson College, August 28, 2015.

“The Stacks: George Plimpton’s Gridiron Nightmare: In Book After Book, He Was The Everyman Who Donned a Uniform and Played Against the Pros, Never More Appallingly or Hilariously than When He Quarterbacked the Detroit Lions,” The Daily Beast, May 1, 2016.

John Warner, “The Biblioracle: Remembering George Plimpton’s Sports Books,” Chicago Tribune, May 11, 2016.

Nathaniel Rich, “The George Plimpton Story,” New York Review of Books, October 13, 2016.

Paul Brown, “Pitcher, Trapeze Artist, Footballer…”, FourFourTwo.com, March 2018, pp. 96-97.

Bob Morris, “Last Call at George Plimpton’s Party Pad,” New York Times, March 2, 2018.


Little, Brown & Co. Re-issued George Plimpton Sports Books, 2016

George Plimpton, Out of My League: The Classic Account of an Amateur’s Ordeal in Professional Baseball, 2016, Little, Brown & Co., 151 pp.

George Plimpton, Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback, 2016, Little, Brown & Co., 360 pp.

George Plimpton, The Bogey Man: A Month on The PGA Tour, 2016, Little, Brown & Co., 284 pp.

George Plimpton, Mad Ducks and Bears: Football Revisited, 2016, Little, Brown & Co., 251 pp.

George Plimpton, One for the Record: The Inside Story of Hank Aaron’s Chase for the Home Run Record, 2016, Little, Brown & Co., 193 pp.

George Plimpton, Shadow Box: An Amateur in the Ring, 2016, Little, Brown & Co., 347 pp.

George Plimpton, Open Net: A Professional Amateur in the World of Big-Time Hockey, 2016, Little, Brown & Co., 270 pp.

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“The Santana Sound”
Woodstock: 1969

1969 Woodstock Festival poster. Click for framed version.
1969 Woodstock Festival poster. Click for framed version.
At the famous Woodstock music festival of mid-August 1969, late-arriving fans on Saturday, August 16th were walking in from the distant reaches of the gathering. Traffic had long since clogged local roads. It was the second day of the festival, and the late arrivals were heading to the fields and pastures of Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm where the performers’ stage and main hillside audience were located. These walkers could not yet see the stage, but they were hearing a new kind of music in the distance. It wasn’t exactly rock ‘n roll; it was something else. But it was powerful, rhythmic, and beckoning.
 

Music Player
“Jingo”- Santana

The sound came rolling over the hillsides and across the pastures; some said they could feel it in the earth as they walked. One of the songs they were hearing – along with 400,000 others at Woodstock that day – was titled “Jingo” (sampled above). That song opens with congas, then builds to big drums, rising organ, piercing electric guitar, and later, some backing vocals. But at its opening, the song has something of a primitive, native sound to it – in a good, earthy way – and in fact, was an African-derived song first done in 1959 by Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji.

But that afternoon at Woodstock, “Jingo” and others were being performed by a new west coast group that most in attendance had never heard of; a group called Santana. But this “Santana sound” of hard-driving Afro-Latin instrumentals was perfect for an outdoor festival. And that afternoon, it raised the energy level of the Woodstock multitudes then covering the hillsides, setting thousands to moving, dancing, and feeling the power of that day. Neither they nor Santana would ever be quite the same again.

Aug 1969. Santana at Woodstock, looking out over the huge crowd – at far left front, Michael Carabello, Jose Areas on congas, David Brown on guitar, Carlos Santana, rear left, guitar, and Michael Shrieve, drums. Not shown, far left, Gregg Rolie, organ.
Aug 1969. Santana at Woodstock, looking out over the huge crowd – at far left front, Michael Carabello, Jose Areas on congas, David Brown on guitar, Carlos Santana, rear left, guitar, and Michael Shrieve, drums. Not shown, far left, Gregg Rolie, organ.

Santana, named after their leader, Mexican-born American guitarist, Carlos Santana, had in fact, scored their slot on the big Woodstock festival almost by accident. They weren’t on the promoters’ original “A-list” of big, “have-to-get” rock stars. In fact, they were pretty much an unknown entity nationally, except for their west coast and San Francisco exposure. Some on the east coast had heard them a few weeks earlier at the Atlantic City Pop Festival of August 1-3, 1969. A mere 100,000 attended that gathering, some of whom were impressed by Santana’s performance there. Still, Santana had not yet cut an album and were unknown by most.

August 16, 1969. Carlos Santana, Jose Areas, and Michael Carabello during performance at Woodstock.
August 16, 1969. Carlos Santana, Jose Areas, and Michael Carabello during performance at Woodstock.

In the 1960s, Santana and his band had more or less broken into the San Francisco music scene by way of promoter Bill Graham, famous for his Fillmore ballroom, a performance venue where a number of rock acts were given exposure that helped launch their careers – notably The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and others. Graham also booked acts at a second San Francisco venue, Winterland, as well as the Fillmore East in New York city. Graham’s venues in the 1968-1971 period were places where performers could experiment and improvise, engage in long sets, and where fans felt comfortable and could even dance in the aisles if they chose.

Famous music promoter, Bill Graham, shown here at his Fillmore East venue in New York City, 1971. Photo, John Olson/ Life.
Famous music promoter, Bill Graham, shown here at his Fillmore East venue in New York City, 1971. Photo, John Olson/ Life.

Carlos Santana had played music with his father as a youth, but it was not his style of music. By 1961, the Santana family had moved to San Francisco, and Carlos worked for a time as a dishwasher while pursuing his music. Bill Graham had taken an interest in the young Mexican-American guitarist, a kid he’d first met trying to sneak into the Fillmore. Santana’s band formed in 1966, initially as the Santana Blues Band with the help of guitarist Tom Fraser. Santana’s group made their debut at the Fillmore in 1968 and were soon managed by Graham, who sensed their sound was different and had potential. By 1969 the band consisted of Santana on lead guitar, Gregg Rolie on organ and keyboards, David Brown on bass, Michael Shrieve on drums, and Michael Carabello and Jose Areas, both on congas and percussion.

1969: Bill Graham, right, at Woodstock with promoter Michael Lang, likely discussing some aspect of Woodstock's logistics.
1969: Bill Graham, right, at Woodstock with promoter Michael Lang, likely discussing some aspect of Woodstock's logistics.
The Woodstock opportunity for Santana came when the Woodstock promoters – then having a bit of trouble with their planned event – came to Bill Graham seeking his help. Graham was then one of the few people in the country who knew how to put on a big music show. Graham agreed to help with Woodstock, but he had one stipulation. “I told them the only way I’d help them is if they put Santana on.” At the time, Graham also managed Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, who were on the Woodstock A-list, and reportedly, Graham also used these groups in the bargain to get Santana a slot. The Woodstock promoters agreed but replied, “What the hell is Santana?” They would soon find out.

Graham believed that Woodstock could be a big breakout moment for Santana, and told them so one evening when he assembled the group at his home in Mill Valley outside of San Francisco. He told them this was their big chance, and if done well, they would emerge on a par with the biggest names in rock. Yet they were skeptical, as Carlos Santana would recall saying, “Bill, we’re from the Mission. We don’t buy into that rock star thing.” The group had no track record beyond their west coast performances. Although in May 1969, they had gone into the studio to record some of their music for a possible later album release.

At Woodstock, Santana and band arrived on Saturday morning, August 16th, for the festival’s second day of music. They were under the impression they would not go on until much later that night, closer to midnight. But in the early afternoon, at around 2:00 pm, they were suddenly rushed on stage, told it was now or never. They performed a 45-minute set of eight songs, of which “Soul Sacrifice” — near the end of their set and including a famous drum solo by Michael Shrieve — was one of the big hits of the festival.
 

 
The Santana performance at Woodstock left a lasting impression on many who experienced it live that August afternoon in 1969. One college student who attended Woodstock with a group of friends, later posted comments noting: “…From a musical standpoint, Santana was unforgettable…. They had the entire crowd on it’s feet and dancing. I believe that this event really launched them to a national level….” Another noted “Santana’s near shamanic outpouring of exuberance on ‘Soul Sacrifice’”. Michael Spendolini, in later comments to the New York Times recalling his visit to Woodstock with a group of guys who piled into a VW bug from Connecticut, noted: “A couple of us were active musicians playing in bands for local high school and college dances…. and were thinking we were ‘aware’ of the music scene until we heard Santana. We, like everyone else there, were totally taken by the sound and ethnic vibe of this unique sound. The crowd reacted immediately and I would say that the energy level of the crowd at that time of day was at its peak.”

Santana's first album, released a few weeks after Woodstock, rose to No. 4 on the Billboard album chart, and would remain on that chart for two years. Includes “Jingo,” “Soul Sacrifice” & “Evil Ways”. Click for CD.
Santana's first album, released a few weeks after Woodstock, rose to No. 4 on the Billboard album chart, and would remain on that chart for two years. Includes “Jingo,” “Soul Sacrifice” & “Evil Ways”. Click for CD.
And true to form, as Bill Graham had predicted, within a few weeks of Woodstock, Santana shot to the top of popular music.

Their debut album, Santana, which had been recorded in May 1969, was released two weeks after Woodstock, on August 30, 1969. It quickly peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and would stay on that chart for two years. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the Santana album at No. 150 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Composed mostly of instrumental tracks, the album contains their first two singles, “Jingo” and “Evil Ways”. The latter became a Top Ten hit, rising to No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album would later reach 2x-Platinum in sales and be reissued in 1998 and 2004.

But in the aftermath of Woodstock, the market momentum for Santana and other festival performers would continue for some time following the event, as both a film on Woodstock and an album of its music – the first of many – would follow.

Film & Music

The Woodstock film was first released for theaters in 1970, followed by an expanded director’s cut in 1994, and a second expanded version for a 40th anniversary edition in 2009, shown here. Click for DVD.
The Woodstock film was first released for theaters in 1970, followed by an expanded director’s cut in 1994, and a second expanded version for a 40th anniversary edition in 2009, shown here. Click for DVD.
By late March 1970, Woodstock, the documentary film was released, a 185-minute production featuring the best parts of more than 25 of the Woodstock acts, including Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” performance. The film received wide acclaim from newspaper and magazine critics of the day and was an enormous box office hit. Initially, the film played at one or two theaters in many metropolitan areas, but thousands were showing up to see it. The film would soon be shown in many theaters and would gross $50 million in the U.S., against a $600,000 production cost, making it the sixth highest-grossing film of 1970 and one of the most profitable that year.

In May of 1970, a live album of selected performances from the 1969 Woodstock festival was released under the title, Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More. It was originally released on Atlantic Records’ Cotillion label as a triple album, and also included Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” among its selections. All of the Woodstock “media” and music items that followed the festival helped raise the stock and trade of Santana and other acts who had appeared there.

 
Santana Gigs

Santana, meanwhile, through the remainder of 1969 and 1970, became a sought-after act at numerous venues beyond those in California where they had been appearing prior to Woodstock. Over the next year, between August 18, 1969, beginning at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and ending on June 28, 1970 in England at the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music, Santana appeared at more than 70 locations across the U.S. and Europe. They were performing somewhere almost daily during that time. Included in their 1969-1970 touring were several large festivals, such as the Texas International Pop Festival at the Dallas International Motor Speedway on August 31, 1969 and the Altamont Speedway Free Festival of December 6, 1969 at Tracy, California. They also appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on October 24, 1969 in New York City. Bill Graham, meanwhile, would feature Santana, among other acts, at his various venues in San Francisco and New York city during this time.

1970. Abraxas album.
1970. Abraxas album.
1971. Santana III album.
1971. Santana III album.
1972. Caravanserai album.
1972. Caravanserai album.
1973. Welcome album.
1973. Welcome album.
1974 - Borboletta album.
1974 - Borboletta album.
1976. Amigos album.
1976. Amigos album.
1977. Festival album.
1977. Festival album.
1977. Moonflower album.
1977. Moonflower album.
1978. Inner Secrets album.
1978. Inner Secrets album.
1979. Marathon album.
1979. Marathon album.
1981. Zebop! album.
1981. Zebop! album.
1999. Supernatural album.
1999. Supernatural album.
2016. Santana IV album.
2016. Santana IV album.
2019. Africa Speaks album.
2019. Africa Speaks album.

 
Albums

Carlos Santana and the Santana band would continue to have musical success in the decades following Woodstock. But along the way they would have their ups and downs. There would be personality clashes, differences over musical direction, changing personnel, and new management — and also musical experimentation.

Yet through it all, the 1970s would prove to be a prolific time for the band, as they would turn out some 14 albums (click album images for product links).

In September 1970, Santana’s second album, Abraxas, topped the Billboard charts and went on to earn a five-times Platinum certification.

In September 1971, Santana III followed, also reaching No. 1 and two-times Platinum. Santana released another twelve albums in the 1970s, each earning RIAA certifications in the U.S. of Gold or better.

Following its early `70s albums, Santana experimented with jazz fusion on Caravanserai (Oct 1972, #8 U.S.), Welcome (Nov 1973, #25), and Borboletta (Oct 1974, #20). Among others in the 1970s were: Amigos (March 1976, #10), Festival (Jan 1977, #27), Moonflower (Oct 1977, #10), Inner Secrets (Oct 1978, #27), and Marathon (Sept 1979, #25).

Zebop!, released in April 1981 was a Top Ten finisher at No. 9 and a Platinum performer.

A lull in the band’s output and popularity came in the 1984-1994 period, as fewer Santana albums were released and sales declined.

But after signing with Arista Records, and teaming up with manager Clive Davis, Santana released the very successful Supernatural album in June 1999 — a collaborative effort with younger artists — that rose to No. 1 in several countries. Supernatural earned Diamond status and beyond at 15-times Platinum, and would sell more than 27 million copies worldwide.

In 1998, the original Santana group line-up of Carlos Santana, Jose Chepito Areas, David Brown, Mike Carabello, Gregg Rolie, and Michael Shrieve was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 2000, basically on the merits of the album Supernatural, the band won six Grammy Awards in one night, tying a record set by Michael Jackson, also winning three Latin Grammy Awards.

In 2016, Carlos reunited with the revered early ’70s Santana lineup of musicians, releasing the album Santana IV, which debuted at No. 5 on Billboard 200 chart. In 2019, they released the album, Africa Speaks.

 
Legacy

Santana remains one of the best-selling groups of all time with 43.5 million certified albums sold the U.S., and an estimated 100 million sold worldwide. Their output includes 25 studio albums, 14 of which rose into the U.S. Top Ten. Four Santana albums have held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts in their day – Abraxas, Santana III, Supernatural, Shaman – along with two No. 1 singles, “Smooth” and “Maria Maria”.

Beyond their music, Santana and band have also been involved in various social causes during their careers. In October 1969, the band headlined a benefit concert at the Fillmore West on behalf of striking California farmworkers during the Delano grape strike. And Carlos Santana would later become executive producer for the 2017 documentary film, Dolores, about the life and work of Dolores Huerta, a farmworker advocate who, with Cesar Chavez, helped found the United Farm Workers of America. Santana and his family have also established the Milagro Foundation, created in 1998, which has donated millions of dollars to non-profit programs supporting underserved children and youth in the areas of arts, education, and health.

A 1969 "special report" from Rolling Stone on Woodstock uses a cover photo of the Santana performance.
A 1969 "special report" from Rolling Stone on Woodstock uses a cover photo of the Santana performance.
Over the years, Carlos Santana has collected a number of achievement awards and special recognition honors from Rolling Stone magazine, Billboard, BMI, the Latin Recording Academy, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and others. In 2013, he was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient and attended a White House reception for honorees that December.

 
Woodstock Moment

Meanwhile, the “Santana moment” back at the Woodstock festival of August 1969, might now feel like ancient history and something that has receded into the musical ether.

Yet at that time and place in 1969 it was a transforming sound and performance; one that was new and exciting, innovative and liberating. It gave its listeners a new and uplifting experience. And it sent an unknown but rising group of musicians on their way, opening the doors to fifty more years of new music and experimentation across a diversity of Latin rock, African, and jazz-fusion genres. As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame put in 1998: “Santana’s fusion of jazz, rock and Latin influences built them a hugely successful and lasting reign in the world of rock.”

For profiles of other artists at this website who were involved with, or have work related to Woodstock, see for example: “Crosby, Stills & Nash,” “Joplin’s Shooting Star,” and “Joni’s Music.”

Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 14 August 2019
Last Update: 14 August 2019
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “The Santana Sound: Woodstock 1969,”
PopHistoryDig.com, August 14, 2019.

____________________________________




Sources, Links & Additional Information

The PBS/American Experience film, “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation,” was released in 2019. It provides one of the best overviews of the history of the festival and its promoters, the reaction and comments of some of its participants, as well as a sampling of the music and artists who performed there, and also good and rare footage of the event as it occurred. Click for DVD.
The PBS/American Experience film, “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation,” was released in 2019. It provides one of the best overviews of the history of the festival and its promoters, the reaction and comments of some of its participants, as well as a sampling of the music and artists who performed there, and also good and rare footage of the event as it occurred. Click for DVD.
President Barack Obama congratulates 2013 Kennedy Center Honors recipient Carlos Santana, during White House reception, December 8, 2013. AP photo, Manuel Balce Ceneta
President Barack Obama congratulates 2013 Kennedy Center Honors recipient Carlos Santana, during White House reception, December 8, 2013. AP photo, Manuel Balce Ceneta

“Santana/Carlos Santana,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 857-859.

Charles Perry, “The Sound of San Francisco,” in Anthony De Curtis and James Henke (eds), The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Random House, New York, 1992, pp. 362-369.

“Carlos Santana Biography,” Santana.com.

“Biography: Santana Induction,” Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1998 (Members: Carlos Santana, Jose Chepito Areas, David Brown, Mike Carabello, Gregg Rolie, and Michael Shrieve).

“Santana (band),” Wikipedia.org.

“Carlos Santana,” Wikipedia.org.

James Sullivan, “Presenting Bill Graham / Rock Ringmaster Gets Top Billing in A&E Documentary,” SFgate.com / San Francisco Chronicle, July 13, 2002.

“Latin Music USA – Bridges; The Salsa Revolution,” PBS-TV, KQED, September 2010.

“Woodstock Remembered: Carlos Santana on the Spiritual Vibe of the Fest,” Rolling Stone.com, August 5, 2019.

Rob Tannenbaum, “Woodstock at 50: How Santana Hallucinated Through One of Woodstock’s Best Sets (His Own),” New York Times, August 6. 2019.

“Santana – Soul Sacrifice 1969 ‘Woodstock’, Live Video HQ,” YouTube.com.

“Santana Discography,” Wikipedia.org.

“Remembering Woodstock: Why the 1969 Festival Still Resonates; Woodstock Was More Than a Concert — It Was a Social, Political, Musical Event That Changed Our Culture (with video),” Rolling Stone.com, August 1, 2019.

George Varga, “Carlos Santana on Woodstock, Tijuana and His Vibrant New ‘Africa Speaks’ Album and Tour,” PacificSanDiego.com, June 19, 2019.

“Santana Tour” (first tour, 1969-1970), Wikipedia.org.

“Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More,” Wikipedia.org.

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“You Only Live Twice”
Film & Music: 1967

“You Only Live Twice” is the name of the fifth James Bond film, as well as the title of its theme song, performed by Nancy Sinatra. The film and soundtrack were both released in the summer of 1967. More on the music in a moment; first, some background.

When James Bond creator and author, Ian Fleming, roamed the world writing early travel stories, he had visited Japan and was very impressed by Japanese culture. Fleming later decided to bring British secret agent 007 to this location via his Bond novels. You Only Live Twice, published in 1964, picked up where a previous Bond adventure and Fleming novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, had left off. The film’s actual plot for You Only Live Twice, however, is a good bit different than Fleming’s novel of that name, his 11th and the last one he wrote for the James Bond series. But the film is flavored throughout with Japanese culture, Japanese scenery, and a quite pleasant and intriguing Japanese musical motif.

One of the opening title screens for the 1967 James Bond film, “You Only Live Twice,” during which the Nancy Sinatra title song is played over the opening credits and film’s set up.
One of the opening title screens for the 1967 James Bond film, “You Only Live Twice,” during which the Nancy Sinatra title song is played over the opening credits and film’s set up.

In the film, British secret agent, James Bond, after a faked death, is dispatched to Japan after a manned American spacecraft disappears mysteriously while in orbit (swallowed whole and captured by a SPECTRE spacecraft, but then unknown to authorities). Back on earth, amid the Cold War, the U.S. blames the Soviet Union for the missing spacecraft. And later in the film, one of Russia’s orbiting spacecrafts is hijacked as well. Meanwhile, a British tracking station in Asia has recorded an alien craft landing in the Sea of Japan and suspects Japanese involvement somehow. This is when Bond, traveling under an alias after his faked death, is sent secretly to Japan, where he later poses as a fisherman in a local Japanese village to investigate the suspected hijackers’ base of operations.

1967. Original soundtrack album for “You Only Live Twice,” the 5th James Bond film, featuring popular title theme song of that name by Nancy Sinatra. Click for CD or digital singles.
1967. Original soundtrack album for “You Only Live Twice,” the 5th James Bond film, featuring popular title theme song of that name by Nancy Sinatra. Click for CD or digital singles.
During the film, rural Japanese settings and Japanese culture are key parts of the story, and composer John Barry sought to incorporate the “elegance of the Oriental sound” in the soundtrack, using Japanese-inspired music and instruments.

Music Player
“You Only Live Twice”
Nancy Sinatra, 1967
(scroll down for lyrics)

The title song, offered above, is widely recognized for its striking opening bars and Japanese flavor. It is heard twice in the film: at the opening and also over the closing credits.

In 2008, Drew Kerr, at an online music site, rated all of the Bond theme songs and placed Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” at No. 1. At the time, Kerr told National Public Radio that Sinatra’s song fit all the usual Bond criteria, from seductive to “spy-ish” sounding, but went further. “It also had that existential thing a lot of Bond movies had,” he said. “There’s something very emotional and cutting about that song.” More recently, in 2015, David Ehrlich at Rolling Stone rated all 22 Bond theme songs, ranking “You Only Live Twice” at No. 3, calling it “a classic” – ahead of Adele’s “Skyfall” of 2012 (No. 4) but behind Shirley Bassey’s 1963 hit, “Goldfinger” (No.1), and Paul McCartney & Wings’ 1973 song, “Live and Let Die” (No.2).

Nancy Sinatra on a later Reprise label EP featuring “Your Only Live Twice” and other songs. Click for similar CD.
Nancy Sinatra on a later Reprise label EP featuring “Your Only Live Twice” and other songs. Click for similar CD.
Nancy Sinatra, daughter of famous crooner and Hollywood actor, Frank Sinatra, already had a hit song by the time she recorded “You Only Live Twice.” Her 1965 song, “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” had stormed the pop charts, becoming a No. 1 hit in the U.S. and UK February 1966. More on that song a bit later.

For the 1967 Bond film, however, Nancy Sinatra was the first non-British vocalist to sing a theme song for the James Bond film series. The music, as with other scores for Bond films of that era, was composed by John Barry. The song’s lyrics were written by Leslie Bricusse.

Both the Sinatra theme song, and full soundtrack album, scored well on the music charts of that day. The soundtrack for “You Only Live Twice” rose to No. 27 on the Billboard 200 album chart in 1967.

Two versions of the Sinatra title song were recorded – one with the full orchestra for the soundtrack, and a second one with guitar backing more appropriate for release as a single. Both versions were popular – the soundtrack version on radio, and the single version for the pop charts, the latter rising to No. 44 on the U.S. Billboard chart and No. 11 in the UK.

 
Popular Appeal

Among the numerous James Bond film songs, “You Only Live Twice” is one that has had lasting appeal for many listeners. It offers something of a poignant and longing message for some; and perhaps a bit of life nostalgia – of memories gone by – for others.

The suggestion of two lives in the song, of course, raises all kinds of interesting possibilities, though here the premise seems to be the struggle between a real world and a dream world – “one life for yourself, and one for your dreams.”

“You Only Live Twice”
Nancy Sinatra
1967

You only live twice, or so it seems
One life for yourself, and one for your dreams

You drift through the years and life seems tame
Till one dream appears and love is its name

And love is a stranger who’ll beckon you on
Don’t think of the danger or the stranger is gone

This dream is for you, so pay the price
Make one dream come true, you only live twice

And love is a stranger who’ll beckon you on
Don’t think of the danger or the stranger is gone

This dream is for you, so pay the price
Make one dream come true, you only live twice
_____________________________

Songwriters: John Barry / Leslie Bricusse
Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

This notion is tailor made for spycraft, certainly, and works well with the James Bond mission in this particular film. But the idea can also inhabit mere mortals as well, and so, the song’s appeal to just ordinary folks.

Also woven through the song is the love variable; that elusive, sometimes mysterious element that is also a part of this song’s suggestion.

The lyrics speak of love as a beckoning stranger – an opportunity, though vanishing the moment second thoughts creep in, or worries about what may lay ahead. “Don’t think of the danger, or the stranger is gone,” say the lyrics. In other words, just go for it, or you’ll lose it!

You can have the dream, suggest the lyrics, if you’re prepared to risk the unknown and reap the consequences, whether good or bad. So, just jump in, “you only live twice.”

Along these lines, Mark Monahan of The Daily Telegraph of London described the lyrics as “mysterious, romantically carpe diem … at once velvety, brittle and quite bewitching.”

For various listeners, the song’s lyrics may summon personal past experiences of missed opportunities, ranging from that mysterious someone who got away, to missed love affairs, missed career opportunities, and generally, the lost past of days gone by. Others have been moved by the music. Visitors to YouTube.com videos playing music from You Only Live Twice have noted various reactions and comment on the film’s soundtrack or the Nancy Sinatra song. Stephen Paul Neave called the film’s music “hauntingly beautiful,” a sentiment repeated by other listeners. Oor Jaki, another from YouTube, said the song “sends shivers down my spine. John Barry really knew how to get right under your skin.” Bruce Powell, liking Nancy’s performance of the song, offered: “…It has some kind of magical, mystical quality, and some eternal truths in the lyrics. Wonderful piece.” Walter Fechter noted Nancy’s “sublime voice” and the “superb orchestration,” and that the song had remained fixed in his memory since 1967.

 
Japanese Sound

James Bond, in staged  marriage ceremony to Kissy Suzuki in Japanese fishing village, as part of his cover. Click for song.
James Bond, in staged marriage ceremony to Kissy Suzuki in Japanese fishing village, as part of his cover. Click for song.
Later in the film, about midway, there is an interlude with the camera panning a beautiful Japanese seaside location ringed by rugged topography, as the “Mountains and Sunsets” track of the soundtrack plays, offering a gentle and beautiful instrumental Japanese version of the “You Only Live Twice” theme (excepting a brief middle section using mysterious-sounding plot music). Here’s that track below:
 

Music Player
“Mountains & Sunsets”
“You Only Live Twice” Soundtrack

Also on the soundtrack, there are short, repeating, instrumental motifs of the theme song that occur throughout the film during several scenes, including the beautifully-scored wedding scene when Bond, as part of his cover, marries a local Japanese fisherwoman (“ama” pearl diver), Kissy Suzuki, played by Japanese actress Mie Hama.

Kissy Suzuki and James Bond cavorting on Japanese hillside as they discover helicopters flying into an extinct volcano.
Kissy Suzuki and James Bond cavorting on Japanese hillside as they discover helicopters flying into an extinct volcano.

Music Player
“The Wedding”
“You Only Live Twice” Soundtrack

In the film plot, meanwhile, Bond is working with Japanese intelligence commander and ally “Tiger” Tanaka.

Tanaka has helped set up Bond in the fishing village, and earlier, as a measure of his Japanese hospitality, treated Bond to an evening with Gisha girls at a Japanese bath house. Tanaka has also been tracking parties believed related to the space hijackers and had Bond undergo rigorous training with Tanaka’s ninja force for an expected confrontation with the hijackers.

Bond later, with his new Japanese wife on one of their rural outings, discovers that the hijackers are using an extinct volcano in the Japanese hills to house an elaborate underground complex where they are holding American and Russian astronauts and spacecraft, as well readying their launch site at the complex for another space nabbing of a soon-to-be-launched U.S. spacecraft.

 
Bond v. Spectre

During some later reconnaissance of a supporting SPECTRE ship docking at nearby islands, Bond has the opportunity to use one of MI-5’s new high-tech military toys, “Little Nellie,” a jazzed-up mini-helicopter that can nearly single-handedly defeat any enemy, and in this case, with Bond at the controls, downs four SPECTRE craft that have come after him.

SPECTRE’s fake-volcano missile site, where Bond and his ninja allies later create havoc, leading to its complete destruction and the release of the captured astronauts.
SPECTRE’s fake-volcano missile site, where Bond and his ninja allies later create havoc, leading to its complete destruction and the release of the captured astronauts.

Bond later infiltrates the SPECTRE base inside the extinct volcano, and a major battle ensues. To make a long story short, Bond, with later help of the ninjas, does battle with the bad guys at this location and saves the day, freeing the prisoners and preventing any further space thievery by SPECTRE. A self-destruct device is activated by arch nemesis and rival, Ernst Bloefeld, who has escaped, and the whole complex blows up. Bond and his ninja allies, meanwhile, have accomplished their mission, avert World War III, and also escape to the sea. As the film ends, Bond rejoins Kissy in a life raft, hoping to convince her they should begin their “honeymoon.” But then a British sub beneath them surfaces, catching the raft on the sub’s deck, as Bond is then summoned to make his report.

 

1967. Frank Sinatra with daughter Nancy in recording studio.
1967. Frank Sinatra with daughter Nancy in recording studio.
Music Back Story

Initially, in the making of the film’s title song, “You Only Live Twice,” there was some trial and error before Nancy Sinatra became the choice to sing that track.

The song was first recorded by Julie Rogers, a popular British singer. Rogers recorded her version with an orchestra in London. And jazz singer Lorraine Chandler also recorded a version that was more in the bombastic mold of Shirley Bassey, the Scottish singer famous for other Bond themes, notably Goldfinger.

But for this Bond film, there was some debate over which version and which artist should be used. As John Barry would put it: “It was usually the producers that said ‘this isn’t working, there’s a certain something that it needed’. If that energy wasn’t there, if that mysterioso kind of thing wasn’t there, then it wasn’t going to work for the movie.”

Actually, the film’s producer, Cubby Broccoli, wanted his friend, Frank Sinatra, to perform the song. But Sinatra suggested his daughter, Nancy, instead. John Barry at one point had thought to have Aretha Franklin do the song, but the producers insisted that he use Nancy, as she was then enjoying great popularity in the wake of her hit single, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.”

A later album of Nancy Sinatra hits, with Nancy attired in mini-skirted dress and boots. Click for vinyl.
A later album of Nancy Sinatra hits, with Nancy attired in mini-skirted dress and boots. Click for vinyl.
In the end, Nancy’s version of “You Only Live Twice” prevailed, offering a somewhat lighter style, with a Japanese flavor, as befitting the film’s setting and content. But Nancy’s image at the time may have also been a marketing factor.

“Nancy Sinatra was the epitome of that swinging sixties hipness, with her boots, her mini skirts, and her blonde hair,” observed British songwriter Marc Almond, commenting some years later on her choice for the song. “She was American as well, which I think was important because that gave the feeling that Bond was international. But there was also a sophistication to her as well.”

Nancy, for her part, later recalled that she was quite nervous during the recording. She was 26 years old at the time. She said she was “scared to death.”

The song was recorded with a 60-piece orchestra in May 1967 at the CTS Studios in London. John Barry created the final version from editing and mixing music and vocals of some previous 30 takes, and re-orchestrating the song to suit Nancy’s range. And Nancy herself later explained: “‘You Only Live Twice’ was difficult in a lot of ways. The fact that is was quite rangey, and I wasn’t used to that, I was used to my little octave and a half. I even asked John [Barry], are you sure you want me to do this because maybe you need Shirley Bassey? But they said no, we want you, we want your sound.”

Penguin Books cover art for hardback edition of Ian Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice.” Click for copy.
Penguin Books cover art for hardback edition of Ian Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice.” Click for copy.
Nancy Sinatra, through 1967, would have a productive year with her various recordings appearing in the Top 100 nine times. As a soloist she had “Sugar Town” (#5), “Love Eyes” (#15), “Lightning’s Girl” (#24), and “Tony Rome” (#83). Three duets with Lee Hazelwood included “Summer Wine” (#49), “Jackson” (#14), and “Lady Bird” (#20). But her biggest hit for the year 1967 was a duet with her father, “Somethin’ Stupid”, which in April 1967 rose to No. 1 for 4 weeks.

For additional stories at this website on film and film music, see for example: “Goldfinger,” another Bond film with Shirley Bassey singing the classic title song; “Philadelphia Morning,” which explores some well-done, film-enhancing music by Bill Conti in the first Rocky film; “Let The River Run,” a story on the rousing Carly Simon song used in the 1988 film Working Girl; “Streets of Philadelphia,” covering two moving songs – one by Bruce Springsteen and the other by Neil Young – that underscore the message and emotional power of that classic film about an AIDS-stricken lawyer played by Tom Hanks; and “The Saddest Song,” which covers some of the history of Samuel Barber’s 1939 masterwork, “Adagio for Strings,” and its use in films including “Platoon” and “Elephant Man.”

Additionally, the “Sinatra Stories” page offers a selection of stories involving the music, politics, and/or love life of Frank Sinatra.

Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 4 August 2019
Last Update: 4 August 2019
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “You Only Live Twice, Film Music: 1967,”
PopHistoryDig.com, August 4, 2019.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Ian Fleming's 
1964 book, "You Only Live Twice," showing cover of New American Library 1st edition. Click for copy.
Ian Fleming's 1964 book, "You Only Live Twice," showing cover of New American Library 1st edition. Click for copy.
“Greatest Movie Series Franchises of All Time – James Bond Films: You Only Live Twice (1967),” FilmSite.org.

“Nancy Meets James Bond … in the Recording Studio,” Melody Maker (London), May 13, 1967.

Andrew, “Nancy Meets James Bond: ‘You Only Live Twice’ at 50,” NancySinatra.com, April 28th, 2017.

“Ranking The Bond Theme Songs,” NPR/All Things Considered, November 14, 2008.

David Ehrlich, “James Bond Movie Theme Songs, Ranked Worst to Best,” RollingStone.com, November 2, 2015.

Keith Caulfield, “’Skyfall’ Soundtrack: Highest-Charting Bond Album in 27 Years,” Billboard .com, November 16, 2012.

MI-6 Staff, “You Only Sing Twice: The History of the Haunting Title Song That Was Recorded 50 Years Ago,” www.MI6-hq.com, May 5, 2017.

Nancy Sinatra – You Only Live Twice (HQ),” YouTube.com, posted, December 22, 2011 (includes Nancy Sinatra song and film frames for opening and closing credits with music, 4:27).

“You Only Live Twice (film),” Wikipedia.org.

“You Only Live Twice (song),” Wikipedia.org.

“You Only Live Twice (soundtrack),” Wikipedia .org.

__________________________________________________





“The Phillips Explosion”
Pasadena, TX: 1989

On October 23rd, 1989 an earth-shattering explosion at the Phillips Petroleum Company’s plastics plant in Pasadena, Texas, killed 23 workers, injured more than 130 others, and totally destroyed the plant, resulting in some $750 million to $1 billion in economic losses. The explosion, with the force of 2.4 tons of TNT, ripped through the plant, twisting multi-story steel structures like tinker toys, sending debris into the air for miles. Buildings shook in downtown Houston and homes were damaged eight-miles away.

October 23, 1989. Fire and smoke at Phillips Petroleum’s Pasadena, Texas plastics plant, following explosion that would kill 23 workers and injure more than 130 others. Homes were damaged within an 8-mile radius of the blast. (AP Photo/Ed Kolenovsky)
October 23, 1989. Fire and smoke at Phillips Petroleum’s Pasadena, Texas plastics plant, following explosion that would kill 23 workers and injure more than 130 others. Homes were damaged within an 8-mile radius of the blast. (AP Photo/Ed Kolenovsky)

“Everything shook with that tremendous boom, and then it began raining pieces of sheet metal a foot more more longer,” reported construction worker Mike Buchanan in comments to the New York Times. Buchanan was driving on Interstate 10 at the time of the explosion, about five miles from the plant. The smoke cloud rising from the disaster could be seen at a distance of 15 miles. Yet the seeds of this catastrophe, according to many experts in and out of the industry, were planted some years before, owing mostly to business and market machinations on Wall Street, as well as the company’s adjustments to those pressures. More on that part of the story in a moment; first some company background.

October 24, 1989.  Early reporting and headline on the Phillips explosion from the New York Times before final numbers were determined on those killed and injured.
October 24, 1989. Early reporting and headline on the Phillips explosion from the New York Times before final numbers were determined on those killed and injured.


Phillips History

In the early 1900s, brothers Frank and L.E. Phillips were having success as wildcat operators and by June 1917, they formed the Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. It soon became a fully integrated oil company with oil and gas production, crude oil pipelines, refineries, and gasoline marketing. After discoveries Texas and Kansas, Phillips became a leader in natural gas production, and by 1925, it was the largest U.S. producer of natural gas liquids.

The Phillips 66 logo and service station sign, having the look, in part, of the “Route 66" highway sign.
The Phillips 66 logo and service station sign, having the look, in part, of the “Route 66" highway sign.
In 1927, it built its first oil refinery in Borger, Texas, then producing gasoline for the burgeoning automotive market, opening its first service station that year. By 1930, it developed its “Phillips 66” trademark logo, later familiar at its service stations nationwide ( named in part from the company’s location near U.S. route 66)

With World War II, Phillips became a producer of high-octane aviation fuel and jet fuel, and after the war, it moved into petrochemicals. Forming the Phillips Chemical subsidiary, it first entered the fertilizer business, but soon stumbled into plastics when a couple of its chemists in 1951 accidentally came up with Marlex, crystalline polypropylene chemical that could be used for a variety of plastics.

Initially, there were few uses for the substance until a company named Wham-O came along in 1958 with a plastic, waist-twirling “Hula Hoop” toy that became a pop culture sensation. Wham-O would sell hundreds of millions of Hula Hoops, many made with Phillips’ Marlex polypropylene. As the Hula-Hoop fad diminished, Wham-O continued using Phillips’ Marlex through the late 1960s and beyond to make the plastic Frisbee, a recreational throwing disc that also became popular. Phillips Chemical by then was making all kinds of plastic products.

Late 1950s. Phillips Chemical began to make its mark as a plastics producer with rise of the Hula Hoop.
Late 1950s. Phillips Chemical began to make its mark as a plastics producer with rise of the Hula Hoop.
In fact, by 1965, the company was boasting in advertising that it was producing “more plastic that any other oil company in the world,” with Marlex leading the charge.

“Almost anything can be made of Marlex…,” Phillips explained in a two-page magazine ad showing a happy family with all kinds of plastic products arrayed around them. “…And 1,001 things are, from colorful, stain-proof fabrics to tough-boy resistant school furniture. They’re easy to use, clean and carry. Easy to look at too. Not surprising then that Marlex is a new household word…”

Well, perhaps not a household word, but by then certainly contributing millions of dollars to Phillips’ coffers.

Back in the oil and gas business, meanwhile, Phillips had ventured internationally with exploration in Canada, Venezuela, and Colombia, and made a major North Sea gas discovery in 1969. In the 1970s, the company was rocked by political scandal for illegal campaign contributions, but by then it had become giant multinational corporation. The Phillips empire by 1979 included 8,400 miles of pipelines, nine crude oil tankers at sea, five U.S oil refineries, 14 chemical plants, and 13,600 service stations. In 1983 it acquired the General American Oil Company, “one of the largest independent oil companies in the nation, with worldwide operations and interests.” By the mid-1980s, Phillips was among the top tier of Fortune 500 companies with annual sales north of $10 billion and profits of more than $1 billion.

March 1985. T. Boone Pickens on the cover of Time magazine in feature story, “The Takeover Game.” Click for his book.
March 1985. T. Boone Pickens on the cover of Time magazine in feature story, “The Takeover Game.” Click for his book.

The Raiders

The mid-1980s, however, would not be happy times for Phillips Petroleum or Bartlesville, Oklahoma, the company’s headquarters. That’s when corporate raiders T. Boone Pickens and Carl Icahn came knocking on Phillips shareholders’ doors, attempting to buy out the company in successive takeover attempts. First, came T. Boone Pickens.

In December 1984, Pickens led an investment group named Mesa Partners in an attempt to purchase what was then the nation’s eighth-largest oil company.

Pickens, a 1951 graduate of Oklahoma State University with a degree in geology, had worked for Phillips in one of his first jobs in the oil industry. But he later became a wildcat oilman, and by 1956 founded the company that would become Mesa Petroleum.

By 1981, Mesa had grown into one of the largest independent oil companies in the world and Pickens would use its Mesa Partners investment group as the vehicle in his shareholder raids. Pickens, like other raiders of that period, saw his takeover bids as helping to sharpen the target corporations, ultimately, in his view, increasing their value and making them better companies – a view not always shared by the companies under attack.

Pickens had previously made a run at Gulf Oil. In the Phillips raid, Pickens accumulated 8.9 million shares of Phillips stock by November 1984 and was angling for another 23 million shares, which would have given him 21 percent of the company. On December 2nd, 1984, Phillips executives were told that Pickens’ Mesa group was making a tender offer at $60 a share — $12 more per share than the stock was then selling for. Pickens said the offer was the first step in a leveraged buyout of Phillips. While just a fraction the size of Phillips, Pickens and Mesa’s leveraged offer was worth $1.38 billion.

Cartoon poking fun at Pickens’ buyout bid for Phillips. Dave Simpson, Tulsa Tribune, December 1984.
Cartoon poking fun at Pickens’ buyout bid for Phillips. Dave Simpson, Tulsa Tribune, December 1984.
Bartlesville, essentially a Phillips company town, panicked with the Pickens raid. For more than a half-century, Phillips was at the center of the town’s economy and was its model corporate citizen, contributing to the hospital, sponsoring athletic events, and more.

But people in Bartlesville began to fear that a takeover would mean job cuts. Some pulled their savings from local banks and a few small businesses began backing out of deals. Layoffs were feared, and holiday shopping that December was subdued.

But townspeople also picketed, wrote anti-Pickens songs, sold “Boone Buster” T-shirts, and held Phillips rallies. Pickens buyout plan was for all of Phillips’s stockholders to receive the equivalent of $60 a share. On that basis, Phillips’s 154.3 million shares would be worth at least $9.3 billion. But Pickens later withdrew his bid after settling with the company. Within a month of Pickens’ December 1984 raid, Phillips` reached a compromise with him, issuing a recapitalization plan to increase the company’s stock value. Under the plan, Phillips would buy back 38 percent of the 154 million shares outstanding at $53 a share, or $3.1 billion. But that wasn’t the end of Phillips’s troubles.

Feb 1985. New York Times headlines for story on the Icahn raid at Phillips.
Feb 1985. New York Times headlines for story on the Icahn raid at Phillips.
In January and February 1985, financiers Irwin Jacobs, Ivan Boesky, and Carl Icahn all bought up large blocks of Phillips stock. And Carl Icahn proved to be the most determined among this group.

He made his run at the company in February 1985, challenging some of the terms in the Pickens agreement, and putting together an $8.1 billion takeover bid. On February 12th, Icahn sought to buy up 45 percent of the company, which combined with the 5 percent he already owned, would give him a controlling stake in the company.

In early March, Phillips executives, faced with shareholders willing to sell to Icahn, came up with a plan to exchange debt securities for half of its outstanding stock, including Icahn’s 5 percent, at $62 per share – compared to the $53 per share it had paid Pickens. Icahn accepted the deal and he left a wealthier man.

In the end, Phillips had managed to outflank both Pickens and Icahn, essentially out-bidding them with sweeteners and special deals for stockholders. But the price was high. Pickens made $90 million in his deal; Icahn $50 million. And in the process, Phillips – with lots of new debt – became the banker’s new best friend. But how this maneuvering and financial debt would manifest itself on the ground, in day-to day operations at the company’s oil and chemical plants, was the more dangerous story.


Debt & Job Cuts

By year end 1985, Phillips was $8.6 billion in debt, and its stock value had fallen dramatically. In 1986, the company’s earnings plunged 45 percent. Under Wall Street’s watchful eye, the company began looking for ways to reduce debt, keep production up, and bolster returns. It soon began selling off some assets and cutting jobs. Between 1984 and 1987, it cut more than 7,000 jobs, and was still slashing in 1989.Between 1984 and 1987, Phillips cut more than 7,000 jobs, and was still slashing in 1989. But some of those job cuts might prove to be costly.

“The stock buyback scheme [ to fend off Pickens and Icahn] forced Phillips to let go 10,000 of its 25,000 employees,” wrote Joseph Kinney, executive director of the National Safe Workplace Institute in Chicago in an October 1989 Op-Ed piece. “…Among those terminated were safety engineers, industrial hygienists and maintenance engineers — technicians who are integral to plant safety.” Bob Wages of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) would also note: “Many of the job cuts (at Phillips) came as a result of closures and divestitures, and others as a result of early retirement offers… Seasoned employees at all levels were let go. In fact, the ranks of hourly workers were decimated — once by early retirements and twice by substitution with contract employees….”

One of the places where strains in the Phillips’ workforce soon became apparent was at the company’s Pasadena petrochemical plant near Houston, where polyethylene plastic was produced. Built in 1956, the Houston Chemical Complex in Pasadena, Texas had undergone major expansions in the late 1970s and 1980s.Phillips froze its work force and used outside workers and mandatory overtime to run the plant. The plant produced approximately 1.5 billion pounds high-density polyethylene (HDPE) per year, a plastic material then used to make milk bottles and other containers. Some 1,500 people worked at the facility, including 905 company employees and approximately 600 daily contract employees who were engaged primarily in regular maintenance activities and new plant construction. But in the aftermath of the mid-1980s takeover raids, the company froze its work force there and used a combination of outside workers and mandatory overtime from existing workers to run the complex. Some workers on mandatory overtime, for example, were doing five-day, 12-hour-per-day shifts in 1989. At the Pasadena plant, Phillips also froze its maintenance work force at about 140-150.

Still, with production up, Phillips had ongoing maintenance responsibilities, especially in the ethylene reactors where production would be slowed by bad product blockage. These maintenance needs were met, increasingly with outside contractors through the services of Fish Engineering. By 1989, there were more than 200 such contract laborers performing maintenance tasks at the plant.


Cheaper Labor

“The company is strongly motivated to subcontract,” explained OCAW’s Robert Wages at November 1989 a Congressional hearing, “as these workers have no labor agreement and can be compensated at approximately 65 percent of that of a Phillip’s employee.” Contract laborers were cheaper in other ways too: benefits did not have to be paid, nor medical insurance or pensions. Nor did the company have to worry about payroll, accounting, hiring or firing. The subcontractor did all that.

Stock photo of construction workers.  In the aftermath of the 1989 Phillips plastic plant explosion, an examination of the differences in experience and training between long-time company and union employees vs. hired-out contract workers was revealed to be an important issue, with contract workers’ inexperience implicated in the explosion.
Stock photo of construction workers. In the aftermath of the 1989 Phillips plastic plant explosion, an examination of the differences in experience and training between long-time company and union employees vs. hired-out contract workers was revealed to be an important issue, with contract workers’ inexperience implicated in the explosion.

But contract workers did not always receive the level of training that full time laborers did — particularly with regard to hazardous material and emergency procedures. In fact, a 1990 study commissioned by the U.S. Occupational, Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and conducted by the John Gray Institute of Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas would conclude: “Compared to permanent employees, contract employees receive significantly less safety and health training and are less knowledgeable about workplace hazards, hazardous materials, and emergency response in petrochemical facilities.”

And that just might have been what made the difference on October 23, 1989. That’s when explosions ripped through the plant, killing and maiming workers, and terrorizing residents for miles around the facility. One OCAW official, reacting to the explosion in November 1989 was quoted in the AFL-CIO News stating that “contracting out of maintenance work, elimination of relief crews, excessive overtime, and paring of staff to the ‘bare bones’ set the stage for an explosion that was waiting to happen.”

Cover of the April 1990 U.S. Department of Labor/OSHA report to the President showing enormous fireball at the October 1989 explosion of the Phillips 66 plastics plant in Pasadena, TX that killed 23 workers.
Cover of the April 1990 U.S. Department of Labor/OSHA report to the President showing enormous fireball at the October 1989 explosion of the Phillips 66 plastics plant in Pasadena, TX that killed 23 workers.

The primary cause of the explosion was the accidental release of a mixture of 85,000 pounds of four highly flammable process gases that created a vapor cloud which then moved rapidly from an open valve to an ignition source on the plant grounds. At the time of the accident, a Fish Engineering contracting crew was working on what is known as a settling line or dump leg, in which solidified polyethylene from processing — called “plugs” or “logs” — accumulates as blockage and must be removed in a normal maintenance procedure. “We were working on No. 1 leg…,” Phillips worker, Chuck Soules would later recall. “The crew that they had there at the time, as far as contractors, was very inexperienced. They did not know what was going on.”

Map showing plant location.(New York Times).
Map showing plant location.(New York Times).
According to OCAW, the contractor crew removed a blocking device, and having hooked up actuating hoses in reverse order, opened a 10-inch valve to the atmosphere. The April 1990 OSHA/Labor Department Report to the President (cover photo above) described the sequence of events after the gas began to escape from the opened valve:

…Because of the high operating pressure, the reactor dumped approximately 99 percent of its contents in a matter of seconds. A huge unconfined vapor cloud formed almost instantly and moved rapidly downwind through the plant.

…Within 2 minutes, and possibly as soon as 90 seconds, the vapor cloud came into contact with an ignition source and was ignited. Two other major explosions occurred subsequently, one about 10 to 15 minutes after the initial explosion when two 20,000 gallon isobutane storage tanks exploded, and another when another polyethylene plant reactor catastrophically failed about 25 to 45 minutes into the event…

…The large number of fatally injured personnel was due in part to the inadequate separation between buildings in the complex. The distances between process equipment were in violation of accepted engineering practices and did not allow personnel to leave the polyethylene plants safely during the initial vapor release; nor was there sufficient separation between the reactors and the control room to carry out emergency shutdown procedures. The control room, in fact, was destroyed by the initial explosion. Of the 22 victims’ bodies that were recovered…, all were located within 250 feet of the vapor release point; 15 of them were within 150 feet.”

“Area Affected By Explosion” map shows a six-mile radius area around the site of the Phillips November 1989 explosion with some examples of building damage and debris that followed.
“Area Affected By Explosion” map shows a six-mile radius area around the site of the Phillips November 1989 explosion with some examples of building damage and debris that followed.

When Secretary Dole announced the proposed fine for Phillips in April 1990, she explained: “This tragedy is magnified by clear evidence that this explosion was avoidable, had recognized safety procedures been followed. OSHA has uncovered internal Phillips documents that called for corrective action but which were largely ignored.” In fact, there were signs as early as 1987, and up until a few weeks before the explosion, operations at the Phillips plant weren’t as tight as they should have been.

U.S. Secretary of Labor, Elizabeth Dole, shown at another event, would issue OSHA’s April 1990 report to the President on the Phillips explosion.
U.S. Secretary of Labor, Elizabeth Dole, shown at another event, would issue OSHA’s April 1990 report to the President on the Phillips explosion.
OCAW union representatives had complained to management on seven specific occasions between September 1987 and August 1989 about sub-contractors performing either unsafe work or failing to notify the company of their intent to work on critical systems. Union members also reported to Phillips management five instances of supervisors not following plant safety procedures or ordering workers to violate safety rules.

In April 1989, an OSHA inspector had received complaints about mandatory overtime from some Phillips employees. A few months prior to the explosion, a crew of contractors working at the plant had suggested to horrified plant operators that they use reactor pressure to clean a 10-inch valve that had become plugged. And in August (1989), Fish Engineering sub-contractors opened some piping to a tank without isolating the line, resulting in a venting of flammable solvents and gas into an adjoining work area where it ignited, burning four workers and killing two others. OSHA cited Phillips for improper lock-out procedures and proposed a fine of $720, which the company contested.

But after the plastics plant calamity at Pasadena, OSHA proposed that Phillips be hit with a $5.7 million fine, accusing the company of 566 willful safety violations, defined by OSHA as “those committed with an intentional disregard of, or plain indifference to, the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.” OSHA also issued 181 willful and 12 serious violations for subcontractor Fish Engineering along with $729,600 in fines. However, in 1991, Phillips reached a settlement with OSHA removing the “willful” characterization of the violations and eventually agreed to pay $4 million to settle the charges, less than 2 percent of the company’s profits in the year of the accident.

Photo of the damaged, still smoldering Phillips plastics plant in the aftermath of the 1989 explosions and fire.
Photo of the damaged, still smoldering Phillips plastics plant in the aftermath of the 1989 explosions and fire.

Hazardous Industry

Dangers Rising

“OSHA’s findings in the investigation of the Phillips complex disaster,” said the agency’s April 1990 Report to the President, “support the conclusion that poor risk assessment and management, lack of redundant systems and fail-safe engineering, inadequate maintenance of equipment, poorly conceived operational or maintenance procedures, and incomplete employee training are the underlying factors that contribute to or heighten the consequences of an accident.” And OSHA also warned: “Because of the trend toward larger, continuous operations, the hazards within this industry are being magnified…”

The Phillips explosion, in fact, was not an isolated case – at Phillips or elsewhere in the oil and petrochemical sectors. One history of OSHA inspections of Phillips facilities in the Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas region prior to the Houston explosion, showed 18 deaths and “multiple hospitalizations.” Beyond Phillips, a series of accidents, fires and explosions throughout the U.S. oil and petrochemical sectors had occurred during the 1980s and early 1990s. A number of American journalists at that time – at the Austin American-Statesman (Texas), National Journal (Washington., DC), New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and others (see “Sources” below) – had all published in-depth stories probing the rash of fires, explosions, and other mishaps then occurring throughout the oil refining and petrochemical sectors. And in many of the reported mishaps, failure to stay on top of plant maintenance and capital repair with an experienced and sufficient workforce was cited as among the chief causes. ‘Skimping on safety,” in other words – whether driven by takeover-related financial pressures, or just plain corporate neglect and/or greed – had become a too common reality in the oil and petrochemical sectors, putting workers and nearby communities at risk.

“Most Hazardous”
Oil Refining

Between 1984 and 1991, a series of fires and explosions at U.S. oil refineries and related facilities killed more than 80 workers and injured more than 900. In California, injuries to oil refinery workers which resulted in at least one day of lost work, increased 32 percent between 1989 and 1990, rising from 214 to 284, according to statistics compiled by the state OSHA.

“Within the petrochemical industry, petroleum refining has been identified as the most hazardous sector,” reported the U.S. OSHA and the Labor Department to then President George Bush in the wake of the Phillips explosion. “All of the data sources, including OSHA’s own inspection data, indicate that a fire or explosion is more likely in petroleum refining than in other petrochemical sectors.”

The OSHA/Labor Department report to President Bush also pointed out some other worrisome trends in the petrochemical industry, namely, that:

the Bureau of Labor Statistics had found “an increase in injury rates in the petrochemical industry since 1985;”

the number of “serious” violations found by OSHA inspections of petrochemical facilities “has increased significantly;”

increases in the size of industrial processing units, changes from multiple-batch operations to continuous-train operations, and reduced spacing of processing equipment have resulted in an increased risk of explosion and of injury or death to workers; and,

inadequacies in engineering controls, supervision, employee training programs, improper tools and equipment, and fire and rescue equipment — all the result of inadequate management systems — contributed to accidents themselves and to severity of their impact.

 
Phillips Again

1999-2000

Phillips Petroleum, meanwhile, would regain its economic footing after the 1989 explosion. It would reap multi-billion dollar annual revenues across its U.S. and global operations through the 1990s. But there would also be additional accidents. Nearly a decade after its 1989 explosion, Phillips had more explosions at its Pasedena, Texas chemical complex. In April 1999, a rail car containing polypropylene blew up. Another explosion and fire occurred on June 23 that year as two contractor workers were killed and three others injured. Phillips was fined $204,000 by OSHA for 13 alleged safety and health violations in the wake of the June 23rd explosion and fire. A third incident occurred in August 1999, when there was an explosion in the polypropylene section of the plant.

Then, on March 27, 2000, another explosion occurred at the Pasadena complex, this time at a chemical process tank. The tank had been out of service for cleaning but had no pressure or temperature gauges that would have provided warnings to workers. In this explosion, one worker was killed, while 71 others were injured (32 Phillips employees and 39 subcontractors), some taken to local hospitals for burns, smoke inhalation, and other injuries. The fire that followed produced huge plumes of black smoke (see NYT photo below) that spread over the Houston Ship Channel and neighboring residential areas. It took work crews five hours of digging through rubble to locate the body of the dead worker, Rodney Gott, a 45-year-old supervisor and long-time employee at the plant who had barely survived the 1989 explosion.

March 28, 2000. New York Times early reporting and photos of explosion and evacuated workers at Phillips Petroleum’s Houston chemical complex, where one worker was killed, and in later accounting, 71 others injured.
March 28, 2000. New York Times early reporting and photos of explosion and evacuated workers at Phillips Petroleum’s Houston chemical complex, where one worker was killed, and in later accounting, 71 others injured.

The March 2000 explosion involved a process in which a type of plastic is made with butadiene. OSHA’s regional administrator, John B. Miles Jr., reporting on that process in the K-resin unit, where the blast occurred, observed: “The primary violations were the failure to properly train workers in the hazards associated with the reaction of the butadiene chemical. We found 30 instances of that where they failed to train their operators and supervisors.” OSHA’s six-month investigation concluded that failure to train workers properly was a key factor in the explosion and fire, and proposed that Phillips be fined $2.5 million in penalties for 50 alleged safety violations. In the broader business arena, meanwhile, Phillips was about to experience some major change.


Conoco-Phillips

On August 30, 2002, Phillips merged with Conoco, another large oil company, forming ConocoPhillips, then the third largest integrated energy company and second-largest refining company in the United States. Ten years later, however, in 2012, the ConocoPhillips creation would reorganize and split into two separate companies. The new Phillips 66 company would keep the refinery, chemical, and pipeline assets formerly held in ConocoPhillips, as well as the brand name and trademark used by the original Phillips Petroleum. The other company, using the ConocoPhillips name, would include the upstream oil and gas exploration and production operations.

Graphic showing some of the business evolution of the Phillips and Conoco oil companies from the early 1900s through their 2002 merger and subsequent 2012 split into separate operating companies.
Graphic showing some of the business evolution of the Phillips and Conoco oil companies from the early 1900s through their 2002 merger and subsequent 2012 split into separate operating companies.

Of course, becoming larger by merger, or more focused as separate, specialized companies, did not necessarily translate into safer operations. Conoco and Phillips, together or separate, would continue to have safety problems through the 2000s and 2010s, regardless of their business structure. Among some their incidents during these years, for example, have been the following (not a complete list):

2001. Part of damage in the wake of explosion and fire at then Conoco-owned Humber Refinery in England, for which ConocoPhillips was fined & cited.
2001. Part of damage in the wake of explosion and fire at then Conoco-owned Humber Refinery in England, for which ConocoPhillips was fined & cited.
2003. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) filed a report on the 2003 storage tank explosion & fire at the ConocoPhillips tank farm in Glenpool, OK.
2003. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) filed a report on the 2003 storage tank explosion & fire at the ConocoPhillips tank farm in Glenpool, OK.
2009. Crumpled storage tank at ConocoPhillips’ Billings, MT refinery following fire. L. Mayer/Billings Gazette.
2009. Crumpled storage tank at ConocoPhillips’ Billings, MT refinery following fire. L. Mayer/Billings Gazette.
A well head gas leak sparked a fire at ConocoPhillips well  near Chetwynd, B.C. November 2008.
A well head gas leak sparked a fire at ConocoPhillips well near Chetwynd, B.C. November 2008.
Stock photo. Bayway oil refinery, Linden, NJ.
Stock photo. Bayway oil refinery, Linden, NJ.
Title card, backgrounder, ConocoPhillips WY gas plant.
Title card, backgrounder, ConocoPhillips WY gas plant.
Explosion & fire at a Phillips 66 natural gas liquids line at Paradis, LA killed one worker and injured 3 others.
Explosion & fire at a Phillips 66 natural gas liquids line at Paradis, LA killed one worker and injured 3 others.
The Phillips 66 Wood River oil refinery in Roxana, Illinois looking west towards the Mississippi River.
The Phillips 66 Wood River oil refinery in Roxana, Illinois looking west towards the Mississippi River.
March 15, 2019. Fire at Phillips’ Carson , CA refinery.
March 15, 2019. Fire at Phillips’ Carson , CA refinery.

U.K. Refinery Explosion
April 16, 2001. Conoco had a major explosion and fire at its Humber Refinery in North Lincolnshire, England on Easter Monday. With most workers away for the holiday, injuries were few and there were no fatalities. In nearby residential areas, however, windows and doors were blown in. And damage at the plant and some adjacent areas was extensive, as the refinery was shut down for several weeks. The incident was investigated by the U.K. Health and Safety Executive and ConocoPhillips was fined £895,000 and ordered to pay £218,854 costs. The Health and Safety Executive cited the company for failing to effectively monitor erosion in the refinery’s pipework. The company pleaded guilty to the charges and implemented a new inspection program.

Storage Tank Explosion
April 7, 2003. An 80,000-barrel storage tank at a ConocoPhillips tank farm in Glenpool, Oklahoma, exploded and burned as it was being filled with diesel. The resulting fire burned for about 21 hours and damaged two other storage tanks in the area. The cost of the accident was placed at more than $2.3 million but there were no injuries or fatalities. Some nearby residents were evacuated, and schools were closed for 2 days.

Refinery Explosion & Fire
July 23, 2003. A gasoline processing unit at ConocoPhillips’ refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma exploded into flames, sending three workers to the hospital. One worker on the scene reported a fireball shooting as high as 100 feet into the air.

Alaska Oil Spill
2004-2007. Polar Tankers, a ConocoPhillips subsidiary, pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of covering up an oil spill off the coast of Alaska three years earlier. The company was ordered to pay a $500,000 criminal fine and $2 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Canada Well Fires
December 2007. An out of control well fire at a ConnocoPhillips natural gas well near Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia burned for several weeks before it was brought under control. A seconf gas well fire at another ConocoPhillips location near Chetwynd,m B.C. occured in November 2008.

Refinery Safety
In 2009 OSHA proposed fines of $92,000 for the ConocoPhillips Bayway Refinery in Linden, New Jersey (830 workers) for repeat violations that left workers “at risk of accidents that could result in injury or possible death.”

Refinery Tank Fire
December 24, 2009. A storage tank at the ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings, MT caught fire on Christmas Eve. The 97,000 bbl/ 4 million- gallon tank was about one-quarter fill with asphalt and pitch, accounting for thick dark smoke with soot during the blaze. There were some complaints from nearby residents about odors and soot. ConocoPhillips later reported emissions from the fire included 6.8 tons of sulfur dioxide, 10.4 tons of particulate matter, 5 tons of carbon monoxide, 1.5 tons of hydrocarbons and 400 pounds of nitrogen oxides.

Refinery Fire
April 29, 2010. Fire reported at Conoco Phillips’ 306,000 bbls-per-day Wood River refinery at Roxana, Illinois. Fire broke out at a sulfur treatment unit and according to the company was safely extinguished with no reported injuries or offsite impacts.

Gas Plant Burns Workers
August 22, 2012. A flash fire at the Conoco-Phillips Lost Cabin natural gas processing plant near Lysite, Wyoming burned four contract workers. Three of the workers were helicoptered to burn centers for medical attention and a fourth was sent by ambulance to Riverton Memorial Hospital. An earlier explosion and fire at this same plant on June 5, 2010, destroyed one of its units and also triggered automated calls to local residents warning them to evacuate. There were no injuries in that fire. The plant strips carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide from natural gas wells in the area.

Pipeline Explosion & Fire
February 9, 2017. A Phillips 66 natural gas liquids pipeline exploded into a raging inferno at Paradis, Louisiana, killing one worker and injuring three others. Local officials reported that residents of some 60 homes in the area were temporarily evacuated. The fire burned for three days before being extinguished. The line is near the Williams Discovery natural gas plant about 30 minutes west of New Orleans.

Hydrofluoric Acid Leak
February 11, 2017. Seven workers were sent to the hospital after a hydrofluoric acid leak at Phillips 66’s Ferndale Refinery, located in the Cherry Point area, west of Ferndale, WA. The leak was from the refinery’s alkylation unit where hydrofluoric acid is used to convert refining byproducts into octane-boosting components of gasoline. The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries fined Phillips $37,800 for the leak, calling the incident “serious” and charging that Phillips “did not implement safe work practices for the control of hazards for the employees” and did not inform the contract employer of the known potential hazards related to the work.

Lawsuits & Settlements
August 20, 2018: Phillips 66 agreed to settle alleged Clean Air Act and other violations at its Wood River Refinery in Illinois. Under the terms of the settlement filed in federal court, Phillips 66 agreed to pay a $475,000 fine (and make other payments) for leaking valves and pumps that caused excess emissions of dangerous chemicals, some occurring in 2009. A 2014 inspection reportedly revealed hydrocarbon emissions escaping from three vents and 17 roof seams at the refinery. Benzene was reportedly leaking from 14 locations on-site. Phillips agreed to make $10.8 million worth of changes at the refinery to comply with federal and state standards. In 2017, the Phillips refinery reached another settlement in a separate case in which 183 properties near the refinery claimed they were polluted by leaked underground toxic chemicals released from the refinery over decades that had migrated off site. In October 2016, the Phillips refinery reached a third settlement over allegations it had released mercury, ammonia, and other byproducts into the Mississippi River.

Refinery Fires
May 1, 2019. For the second time in less than two months, Los Angeles firefighters were called to put out a blaze involving the crude oil pumps at the Phillips 66 refinery in Carson, CA. A similar incident occurred on March 15, 2019 when three of the refinery’s four crude oil pumps were involved in a fire that took about three hours to put out.

For additional stories at this website on the history of oil refinery explosions and fires, see the following: “Texas City Disaster: BP Refinery, March 2005” (about BP’s negligence in the 2005 Texas City, TX oil refinery explosion & fire that killed 15 workers and injured another 180, including 60 Minutes TV coverage and details on related litigation); “Inferno at Whiting: Standard Oil, 1955” (story about the eight-day catastrophic oil refinery fire near Chicago in 1955, and later leaks, spills, and waste issues at the refinery under Amoco and BP management); and, “Burning Philadelphia”( a story about the 1975 Gulf Oil Co. refinery fire in that city). For another story on a petrochem plastics plant explosion and fire, see, “Shell Plant Explodes, 1994: Belpre, Ohio.”

Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 30 July 2019
Last Update: 12 September 2019
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “The Phillips Explosion – Pasadena, TX: 1989,”
PopHistoryDig.com, July 30, 2019.

____________________________________




Sources, Links & Additional Information

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1988 book on the history of Phillips Petroleum (Doubleday, 480pp), also available in later 2014 paperback. Click for copy.
T. Boone Pickens’ 2008 book, “The First Billion is the Hardest: Reflections on a Life of Comebacks and America's Energy Future,” 272pp.  Click for copy.
T. Boone Pickens’ 2008 book, “The First Billion is the Hardest: Reflections on a Life of Comebacks and America's Energy Future,” 272pp. Click for copy.
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Joe Thornton’s “Pandora’s Poison,” on the role of chlorine in modern chemistry and its toxic legacy. Click for copy.
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2013 paperback edition of “Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution,” by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner. Click for copy.
This 1996 classic on how synthetic chemistry may be playing havoc with hormones and reproduction picks up where Silent Spring left off.  Click for copy.
This 1996 classic on how synthetic chemistry may be playing havoc with hormones and reproduction picks up where Silent Spring left off. Click for copy.
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Rachel Carson’s classic book on the dangers of chemical pesticides, “Silent Spring,” a 1960s clarion call that helped spawn the modern environmental movement – here with a new afterward by Edward O. Wilson. Click for copy.
2016 book, “The Green and the Black: The Complete Story of the Shale Revolution, the Fight over Fracking, and the Future of Energy,” St. Martin's Press, 288 pp. Click for copy.
2016 book, “The Green and the Black: The Complete Story of the Shale Revolution, the Fight over Fracking, and the Future of Energy,” St. Martin's Press, 288 pp. Click for copy.
June 2010,  U.S. Senate hearing on safety in the oil & gas industry. Click for copy.
June 2010, U.S. Senate hearing on safety in the oil & gas industry. Click for copy.

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Michael Parrish, “Phillips Fined $5.7 Million for Blast at Refinery… OSHA Cites the Oil Company for 575 Safety Violations in Connection with the Explosion That Killed 23 and Injured More than 130,” Los Angles Times, April 20, 1990.

“OSHA Hits Phillips,” Corporate Crime Reporter, April 30, 1990.

Kirk Victor, “Explosions on The Job,” National Journal (Washington, DC), August 11, 1990.

Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union, Video and Script #9 (May 1990), Out of Control: The Story of Corporate Recklessness in the Petrochemical Industry, Produced by the Organizing Media Project, Washington, D.C., 1990.

Fred Millar, “Too Close for Comfort,” Friends of the Earth Magazine, Winter 1991, p. 10.

Keith Schneider, “Petrochemical Disasters Raise Alarm in Industry,” New York Times, June 19, 1991, p. A-22.

“Phillips 66 to Pay Record $4 Million,” Washington Post, August 23, 1991.

Testimony of Robert E. Wages, OCAW, “OSHA’s Proposed Safety Standard For Highly Hazardous Chemicals,” Houston, TX, 1991, in New Solutions, Fall 1991, p. 94.

David E. Benson, “Potential Dangers of Oil Plants Stir Debate,” Austin American-Statesman, July 5, 1992, p. B-3.

Willy Morris, “Refinery Cutbacks Are Possible Culprit in Spate of Accidents,” West County Times (W. Contra Costa County, CA), August 24, 1992, p. 1-A.

“Petrochemical Accidents,” West County Times (Contra Costa County, CA) August 24, 1992.

Caleb Solomon and Allanna Sullivan, “Phillips Inquiry Disputes Claims Over Explosion; Some Workers Accuse Firm of Telling Them to Lie About 1989 Plant Blast,” Wall Street Journal, July 30, 1992, p. A-4.

Allanna Sullivan and Caleb Solomon, “U.S. Clears Phillips Petroleum of Trying to Mislead Inquiry Into Fatal Explosion,” Wall Street Journal, November 20, 1992, p. A-8.

Robert E. Wages, President, Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers International Union, AFL-CIO, Letter to Jack Doyle, Friends of the Earth, Washington, DC, February 26, 1993.

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Jack Doyle, Crude Awakening: The Oil Mess in America, Friends of the Earth (Washington, DC.) October 1993.

Jack Doyle, “Oil Slick: Profits Abroad and Poison At Home,” Washington Post, Sunday Outlook Section, A Look At Toxic America, July 31, 1994, p. C-3.

Jim Morris, “Union Leaders Express Fears For Plant Safety,” Houston Chronicle, November 20, 1994, p. 1-A.

Ray Tuttle, “Phillips Looks Back: Pickens Launched Takeover Bid 10 Years Ago,” Tulsa World, December 4, 1994.

“Phillips Plant Explodes; Search for Two Workers Continues After Chemical Fire; at Least 52 Injured,” CNN Money, March 27, 2000.

“Explosion At Texas Chemical Plant Injures 52,” New York Times, March 28, 2000, p. A-12.

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Ruth Rendon, “Phillips Facing Fine for Fatal Plant Blast,” CNN.com/Houston Chronicle, September 22, 2000.

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Dawn Marks and Mac Bentley, “Refinery Blast, Fire Injures 3 in Ponca City; Gasoline Unit Explodes at ConocoPhillips Plant,” Oklahoman.com, July 22, 2003.

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Reuters, “Conoco Unit Pleads Guilty to Hiding Alaska Spill,” Reuters.com, October 24, 2007.

“Burning B.C. Gas Well Could Take Weeks to Fix,” CTVbc.ca, November 12, 2008.

News Release, “U.S. Labor Department’s OSHA Cites ConocoPhillips for Repeat Workplace Safety and Health Hazards,” OSHA.gov, October 9, 2009.

Photo Gallery: ConocoPhillips Refinery Fire, Billings Gazette (Billings, MT), December 24, 2009.

United Steelworkers, “Refinery Events, January 4, 2010 – January 7, 2010.”

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Cristina Gallardo, “ConocoPhillips Wyoming Natgas Plant Blast Under Investigation,” Star Tribune (Casper, Wyoming), June 5, 2010.

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“Elton John’s Decade”
The 1970s (w/Bernie)

Sheet music cover for Elton John’s “Your Song,” one of his  first Top Ten hits in the U.S., England, and Canada. Click for digital version.
Sheet music cover for Elton John’s “Your Song,” one of his first Top Ten hits in the U.S., England, and Canada. Click for digital version.
In the 1970s, there were few musicians more successful than Elton John, the British singer and piano player who partnered with lyricist Bernie Taupin to turn out some of the decade’s most signature and enduring popular songs. One of the first John/Taupin hits from 1970 was “Your Song,” sampled below and featured on the sheet music cover at right.

 

Music Player
“Your Song” – 1970″

 

“Your Song” was a kickoff of sorts, the breakthrough song that sent Elton John and Bernie Taupin on their way to the big time. As The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll would say of the prolific output of John and Taupin in the 1970s:

“…For most of the `70s Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin were a virtual hit factory with 26 Top 40 hit singles, 16 Top 10, and six No.1 hits. Fifteen of the 19 albums released in the United States during this time went gold [500K] or platinum [1 million]. In the `80s their fortunes declined only slightly. To date [as of 2001] they have achieved more than four dozen top 40 hits and become one of the most successful songwriting teams in pop history…”

What follows later below is an Elton John chronology listing most of the major albums and singles turned out by the John/Taupin team in the 1970s – in many ways a decade significantly marked, if not dominated, by Elton John music. As the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has noted: “…John and Taupin identified and shaped the mood of the Seventies from its inception. Given to roughly equal numbers of ballads and rockers, John’s output was as critical to this decade as the Beatles were to the Sixties and Presley to the Fifties.” Before getting to the chronology, however, some background on John, Taupin, and the times.

1950. Young Reggie at piano.
1950. Young Reggie at piano.
 
“Reggie” Dwight

Elton John was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in a London suburb in March 1947. “Reggie,” as he was called growing up, learned to play piano at an early age, and was somewhat gifted with an ear for melody and could play classical pieces from memory.

John’s parents were fairly strict, with his father encouraging him to pursue a more conventional career. However, both parents were musically inclined and record collectors, among which were Bill Haley and Elvis Presley recordings that young Reggie liked most.

At the age of 11, Reggie won a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where he attended Saturday morning sessions for several years. At school on occasion – presaging his later stage antics – Reggie would imitate the raucous piano style of rocker Jerry Lee Lewis. By age 15, he was playing piano in a local pub. In 1962 he formed a band named Bluesology, and two years later, dropped out of school to pursue music full time.

 
Bernie Taupin

By June 1967 John met his life-long songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin after both had answered the same magazine ad in the New Musical Express music magazine seeking songwriters. Taupin was born in 1950 at a farmhouse in eastern England, where he grew up, a somewhat rural area that would color his later lyrical life. Not a keen student, but having a flair for writing, Taupin at age 15 worked briefly in the print room of the local newspaper, The Lincolnshire Standard, with thoughts of possibly becoming a journalist. When that did not work out, he drifted through various part-time jobs until answering the New Musical Express ad for songwriters. He and John would prove to be an exceptionally productive pair, as Taupin could sometimes turn out lyrics in less than an hour, while John was equally efficient and would fit Taupin’s words to music without changing the lyrics. When the two first met in 1967, they recorded what would become the first Elton John/Bernie Taupin song: “Scarecrow”. Not long after, “Reggie” would begin using a new name – “Elton John” – which he would formally adopt later.

1970. Young collaborators, Elton John  and Bernie Taupin, on the cusp of becoming one of the music industry’s most successful hit-producing teams.
1970. Young collaborators, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, on the cusp of becoming one of the music industry’s most successful hit-producing teams.

Initially, John and Taupin wrote songs for Dick James Music for other artists, and John also worked as a session musician for groups such as the Hollies. John and Taupin, however, were advised to write for themselves, which they began doing in 1968, producing an early album titled Empty Sky. The album was recorded during the winter of 1968 and spring of 1969. It was released in the U.K. in early June 1969. However, neither it nor other early John-Taupin tunes were making much headway in the U.K. And that’s about when Dick James got the idea of sending Elton to America, which Elton initially resisted.

 
U.S. Breakout

The Troubadour

Young Elton John at piano, circa 1970, age 23.
Young Elton John at piano, circa 1970, age 23.
Elton John’s second studio album in the U.K. – titled Elton John – had been released there in April 1970, but not in the U.S. until July 22, 1970. It wouldn’t enter the U.S. charts for another three months.

Still, the album had been sent to a number of U.S. venues hoping to receive some U.S. exposure for the new British singer and piano player. Doug Weston, owner of the Troubadour nightclub in West Hollywood, Los Angeles was one of those receiving the album – along with a request for John to perform at his club. Weston, upon hearing the album, booked John for some late August shows.

The Troubadour by then was already well known for being a center for 1960s folk music and would help launch the careers of a long list of singer-songwriters and rock musicians. But Dick James’ sending Elton John to America in this case was actually something of a last attempt to get John’s music across to the public.

Meanwhile, a single from the Elton John album, “Border Song,” had made a modest entrance on the Billboard Hot 100 by the time of Elton’s first Troubadour show in late August 1970. Local FM radio had also been playing his songs leading up to the show. So there was a rising interest among musicians, music industry reps, and music critics leading up to his appearance on August 25, 1970.

Robert Hilburn's review of Elton John’s opening show at the Troubadour, as it appeared, Los Angeles Times, Aug  27, 1970.
Robert Hilburn's review of Elton John’s opening show at the Troubadour, as it appeared, Los Angeles Times, Aug 27, 1970.
The Troubadour’s small room — capable of seating 300 or so — was filled to beyond capacity that first night, with possibly 400 people. Neil Diamond, then a rising singer in his own right, was among those in the audience, having heard John’s album and had come to the Troubadour to introduce John and to hear him perform in person.

Also in the audience that night were Quincy Jones, Mike Love of The Beach Boys, David Crosby, Gordon Lightfoot, Leon Russell, Danny Hutton of Three Dog Night, Linda Ronstadt, and other notables.

John performed a nine-song set that night, leading off with “Your Song” followed by “Bad Side of the Moon,” “Sixty Years On,” “I Need You To Turn To,” “Border Song,” “Country Comfort,” “Take Me To the Pilot,” “Honky Tonk Woman” (a Rolling Stones cover), and “Burn Down the Mission.” Five of the songs were from the Elton John album, and two others from a later planned album.

John did not disappoint with his performance that night, as he received a rousing response from the audience (some years later, in 1990, Rolling Stone magazine declared these shows to be among the 20 most important concerts in the history of rock ‘n’ roll).

“Tuesday night at the Troubadour was just the beginning. He’s going to be one of Rock’s biggest and most important stars.”
– Robert Hilburn, L.A. Times
In the next day’s Los Angeles Times, rock critic, Robert Hilburn, gave the show a rave review, opening with: “Rejoice. Rock music…has a new star. His name is Elton John, a 23-year old Englishman whose United States debut at the Troubadour… was, in almost every way, magnificent.” Hilburn reported that the crowd – including the largest local gathering of rock writers in months – “roared its approval, bringing John back for an encore.” Hilburn added that by the end of the evening: “there was no question about John’s talent and potential. Tuesday night at the Troubadour was just the beginning. He’s going to be one of Rock’s biggest and most important stars.”

Thereafter, it was “Katie bar the doors!” First, there was a brief U.S. tour following the Troubadour shows that ran from October 29th through December 4th. One of these shows at the A&R Studios in New York City was recorded for a later live album. Then, for the rest of the decade, the Elton John/Bernie Taupin mind-meld kicked in at full speed, turning out a continuing stream of hit albums and hit singles.

 
A Decade of Hits

During 1971 alone, there were four new albums, each of which reached Billboard’s album chart – the western-themed Tumbleweed Connection; the soundtrack to an obscure film, Friends; the live album 11-17-70, recorded on that date at a New York radio station; and Madman Across the Water, which contained the hit singles “Tiny Dancer,” “Levon,” and the title track. Honky Chateau, which appeared in 1972, included hit singles “Honky Cat” and “Rocket Man.”

Elton John hit, "Levon".
Elton John hit, "Levon".
"Someone Saved My Life..."
"Someone Saved My Life..."
"Don't Let The Sun Go Down..."
"Don't Let The Sun Go Down..."
"Rocket Man" / "Tiny Dancer".
"Rocket Man" / "Tiny Dancer".
“Candle” & “Bennie.”
“Candle” & “Bennie.”
"Rocket Man" single.
"Rocket Man" single.
“Don’t Go Breaking My...”
“Don’t Go Breaking My...”
"Goodbye Yellow Brick Rd".
"Goodbye Yellow Brick Rd".

In fact, from 1972 to 1975, there would be seven consecutive albums that topped the charts: Honky Chateau (1972, No.1 for five weeks), Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player (1973, No.1 for two weeks), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973, No.1 for eight weeks), Caribou (1974, No.1 for four weeks), Elton John – Greatest Hits (1974, No. 1 for ten weeks), Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirty Cowboy (1975, No.1 for seven weeks) and Rock of the Westies (1975, No. 1 for three weeks).

These five albums topped the album chart for a combined total of 39 weeks, meaning that during the mid-1970s, Elton John had a No.1 album about every fourth week.

(See below: “An Elton John Chronology” for listing of album covers and more detail).

As for hit singles, according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, during the three-year period 1973-1976, John amassed 15 hit singles in the U.S., including six that went to No.1 – “Crocodile Rock,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Island Girl,” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”. Three others were No. 2 hits – “Daniel,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”.

Those 15 singles logged a combined 156 weeks from 1973-1976, which is to say that, on average, an Elton John single could be found in the Top 40 every week for three years.

What follows below is a general 1970s chronology of Elton John’s hit singles, albums, and a selection of a few other career highlights from that decade. To be sure, there is much more to John’s career beyond the 1970s, which stretches another 40 years through the 2010s to the present day. And some of that part of the story is covered below the chronology, where the narrative continues.

 

_____________________________________________

 

An Elton John Chronology
1970s Music & Other Events
(not a complete list)

Elton John’s first studio album, “Empty Sky” was produced in the U.K. and released there in 1969, but not in the U.S. until 1975. Click for copy.
Elton John’s first studio album, “Empty Sky” was produced in the U.K. and released there in 1969, but not in the U.S. until 1975. Click for copy.
April 1970. Elton John’s U.S. debut album, his second studio album, became best seller. Click for CD.
April 1970. Elton John’s U.S. debut album, his second studio album, became best seller. Click for CD.
Oct 1970. Tumbleweed Connection, John’s 3rd studio album; hits No.5 on album charts. Click for CD.
Oct 1970. Tumbleweed Connection, John’s 3rd studio album; hits No.5 on album charts. Click for CD.
March 1971.  Soundtrack album for “Friends” film is released; spawns “Friends” Top 40 single. Click for CD.
March 1971. Soundtrack album for “Friends” film is released; spawns “Friends” Top 40 single. Click for CD.
May 1971. Release of live album “17-11-70"  –  recorded earlier at A&R Studios in NY city.  Click for CD.
May 1971. Release of live album “17-11-70" – recorded earlier at A&R Studios in NY city. Click for CD.
Nov. 1971: “Madman Across the Water”, 4th studio album; peaks at No 8 on album charts. Click for CD.
Nov. 1971: “Madman Across the Water”, 4th studio album; peaks at No 8 on album charts. Click for CD.
May 1972. “Honky Château” is released, John’s 5th studio album. Click for CD.
May 1972. “Honky Château” is released, John’s 5th studio album. Click for CD.
January 1973. 6th studio album, “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player” released. Click for CD.
January 1973. 6th studio album, “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player” released. Click for CD.
October 1973: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” double album released, has 2-year chart run. Click for CD.
October 1973: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” double album released, has 2-year chart run. Click for CD.
June 1974. “Caribou” album released, John’s 8th studio album; 2x Platinum by 1993. Click for CD.
June 1974. “Caribou” album released, John’s 8th studio album; 2x Platinum by 1993. Click for CD.
November 1974. “Greatest Hits” album released; will become 20+million seller. Click for CD.
November 1974. “Greatest Hits” album released; will become 20+million seller. Click for CD.
May 1975. “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” released; 9th studio album. Click for CD.
May 1975. “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” released; 9th studio album. Click for CD.
24 Oct 1975. “Rock of the Westies,” 10th studio album, enters chart at No.1. Platinum by 1993. Click for CD.
24 Oct 1975. “Rock of the Westies,” 10th studio album, enters chart at No.1. Platinum by 1993. Click for CD.
30 April 1976. “Here and There” live album released, includes London and NY concerts. Click for CD.
30 April 1976. “Here and There” live album released, includes London and NY concerts. Click for CD.
22 Oct 1976.  “Blue Moves” album released; peaks at No. 3 in U.K./ U.S. and is million-seller. Click for CD.
22 Oct 1976. “Blue Moves” album released; peaks at No. 3 in U.K./ U.S. and is million-seller. Click for CD.
13 Sept 1977.  “Elton John’s Greatest Hits, Volume II” is released. Platinum by Nov 1977. Click for CD.
13 Sept 1977. “Elton John’s Greatest Hits, Volume II” is released. Platinum by Nov 1977. Click for CD.
1 Oct 1978. “A Single Man” album is released, Elton’s 12th studio album - minus Bernie Taupin.  Click for CD.
1 Oct 1978. “A Single Man” album is released, Elton’s 12th studio album - minus Bernie Taupin. Click for CD.
June 1979: Three-song EP released from “The Thom Bell Sessions.” Click for complete six-song CD.
June 1979: Three-song EP released from “The Thom Bell Sessions.” Click for complete six-song CD.
October 1979. “Victim of Love” album released: hits No 35 on Billboard, No. 41 in the U.K. Click for CD.
October 1979. “Victim of Love” album released: hits No 35 on Billboard, No. 41 in the U.K. Click for CD.

1969-1975
Elton John’s first studio album, Empty Sky, is produced in the U.K. and released there in 1969, but not in the U.S. until 1975.

10 April 1970
Elton John’s second studio album – titled Elton John – is released in the U.K., peaking at No. 5 and spending 22 weeks on that chart. In the U.S., it is John’s debut album, released there on July 22nd, peaking on Billboard at No. 4. It is also nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy. Some years later it would be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

24 April 1970
Release of “Border Song” single from Elton John album flopped in the UK, but later peaked in Canada at No. 34, John’s first chart appearance in any country. “Border Song” would also hit No. 92 on U.S. Billboard chart by Oct 1970.

25 August 1970
U.S. breakout after performance at Trouba-dour club in Los Angeles, CA; gets rave review in L.A Times.

30 October 1970
Tumbleweed Connection, 3rd studio album released in the U.K. on this date; U.S., January 1971; peaks at No. 2 in the U.K., No.5 on Billboard. On this album, John and Taupin were influenced by American country rockers, The Band and 1968’s Music From Big Pink, as well as western TV shows they grew up watching. No U.S. singles issued from this album, but “Come Down in Time,” sampled below, with its strings, harp, oboe, and horn, offers a quiet love song.

 

Music Player
“Come Down in Time”- John/Taupin
From Tumbleweed Connection

31 December 1970
By year’s end, Elton John had performed at 71 concert venues or other appearances.

23 January 1971
“Your Song” single – from Elton John album – reaches No.8 by this date. Began as the B-side to “Take Me to the Pilot” before radio DJs discovered its gold. Later added to the Grammy HOF (1998) and also ranked No. 137 on Rolling Stone 500.

5 March 1971
Friends film soundtrack album released – a pre-U.S. breakout John/Taupin project that nonetheless went Gold by April 1971. Also received 1972 Grammy nomination for Best Original Score for a Motion Picture

10 April 1971
“Friends” single from the Friends soundtrack hits No. 34 on Billboard at this date.

10 May 1971
First live album released – titled 17-11-70 – recorded at the A&R Studios in New York City, Nov 1970, during post-Troubadour U.S. tour. Also scored Top 40 rank on album charts.

5 November 1971
Madman Across the Water, 4th studio album released. While only reaching No. 41 on the UK charts, Madman did better in the U.S., peaking at No. 8 on Billboard and No. 10 on 1972 year-end list. It achieved Gold standing in Feb 1972, and $1 million in U.S. sales. By 1998, it was multi-Platinum in the U.S., with sales of more that 2 million units.

11 November 1971
John & band perform most of Madman album before a small studio audience at BBC-Television Centre in London for broadcast on April 29, 1972 edition of “Sounds For Saturday” show on BBC2.

31 December 1971
By year’s end, Elton John had performed at 129 concerts or other appearances.

5 February 1972
“Levon” single (from Madman) – a song about a yearning young boy seemingly stuck in a boring place but bound by family business or local convention – hits No. 24 on the U.S. Billboard chart and No. 6 on Canadian chart.

7 February 1972
“Tiny Dancer” single (from Madman) is released – mistakenly believed to be about Bernie Taupin’s wife at the time, Maxine Feibelman, (literally, seamstress for the Elton John Band for a time). But it was more about the free-spirited California girls Taupin met on his 1970 visit there. While a Top 40 hit in several countries, the song got a second wind after being featured in the 2000 film, Almost Famous. Certified 3x Platinum in the U.S., April 2018, and Gold in the UK, August 2018, though not released there as a single.

3 March 1972
“Rocket Man” single released, from Honky Château album, rises to No. 2 in the U.K. and No. 6 in the U.S. Spends more than three months on both charts. The song uses space travel as a metaphor for spiritual isolation. Later certified 3x Platinum, U.S. and No. 245 on RS500. Taupin says he took inspiration from Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story, The Rocket Man, which also features a lonely astronaut missing his family

 

Music Player
“Rocket Man”- John/Taupin
From Honky Château

19 May 1972
Honky Chateau album released; would rise to No. 1 on Billboard 200 and be ranked at No. 359 on RS 500.

23 September 1972
“Honky Cat” single from Honky Château album hits No. 8.

31 December 1972
By year’s end, Elton John had performed at 92 concerts or other appearances.

1973
Elton John and partners launch Rocket Records label, used mostly for other artists.

22 January 1973
Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player album is released; second straight No. 1 album in U.S. Eventually goes 3× Platinum.

3 February 1973
“Crocodile Rock” single (from Don’t Shoot Me) became John’s first U.S. No. 1 single on this date, staying there for 3 weeks. Also No.1 in Canada (4 weeks), No 5 in UK. U.S. Gold by Feb 1973, Platinum, Sept 1995.

2 June 1973
“Daniel” single hits No. 2 on Billboard by this date. Taupin wrote “Daniel” after reading a newsmagazine article about Vietnam War veteran who had been wounded and wanted to get away from the attention he was receiving when he went back home. “I wanted to write something that was sympathetic to the people that came home,” Taupin would later say

16 July 1973
“Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” single released (from Yellow Brick Road ); hits No. 7 on UK charts, No. 12 on Billboard. Also featured in Grand Theft Auto V video game (2013-14) and film, Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017).

5 October 1973
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road double album released, reaches No.1, and remains on the album charts for two years. Using Wizard of Oz film imagery, the album is regarded as John’s best. It has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. In 2000, Q magazine listed it at No.84 on its 100 Greatest British Albums Ever, and in 2003, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and also ranked No. 91 on RS 500.

8 December 1973
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” single hits No. 1 Canada, No. 2 in U.S., No. 6 in UK. Song is widely praised by critics; some calling it John’s best song. Yellow brick road imagery from 1939 Wizard of Oz film used by Taupin to “get back to [his] roots.” Certified Platinum in 1995 by RIAA (song sampled later below).

31 December 1973
By year’s end, Elton John had performed in 91 concert venues or other appearances.

4 February 1974
“Candle in the Wind” (from Yellow Brick Road) – John/Taupin ode to departed Hollywood starlet, Marilyn Monroe – is released in U.K., reaches No. 11 there but is not released as a single in the U.S. (Click for separate story).

13 April 1974
“Bennie and the Jets”(from Yellow Brick Road) – a song about a fictional band and satire on the greed and glitz of the early 1970s music scene – hits No. 1 in U.S. after heavy play on CKLW radio in Windsor, Ontario, sending song to No. 1 in Detroit, as other markets followed. “Bennie” also found some acceptance on Top 40 R&B radio, especially after John appeared on the Soul Train TV dance show in May 1975 performing the song.

28 June 1974
John’s 8th studio album, Caribou, is his fourth No.1 album in the U.S. and third in the U.K.; nominated for Album-of-the-Year Grammy (1974) and certified 2x Platinum by 1993.

27 July 1974
By this date, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” single (from Caribou) has hit No. 2; song also features Beach Boys Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston on backing vocals.

3 November 1974
“The Bitch is Back” single (also from Caribou) hits No.1 in Canada, 4 U.S., 15 U.K. RIAA Gold by Sept 1995. Reportedly, title was inspired by Taupin’s wife at the time, Maxine Feibelman, who would say, “the bitch is back,” when John was in a foul mood. Taupin lyrics also parody John’s celebrity lifestyle. Some radio stations in the U.S. refused to play the song because of the word “bitch,” to which John remarked: “some radio stations in America are more puritanical than others.”

8 November 1974
Elton John’s Greatest Hits album is released, his first “best of” compilation. It became a No 1 album in both the U.S. (10 wks) and the U.K. (11 wks). In 1975, it was the best-selling album in the U.S., and to date is one of John’s best-selling albums and among best-selling albums of all time, with 24 million copies sold worldwide.

28 November 1974
Thanksgiving Day; John coaxes former Beatle John Lennon onstage for three songs during a Madison Square Garden concert that turned out to be Lennon’s final live public performance.

1974
Elton John signs $8 million deal with MCA – company then reportedly took out a $25 million life insurance policy on John.

31 December 1974
By year’s end, Elton John had performed at 69 concerts or other appearances.

4 January 1975
Elton John cover of Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” hits No. 1 (w/John Lennon on guitar).

12 April 1975
“Philadelphia Freedom,” a non-album single, hits No.1 The song was inspired by John’s friendship with tennis superstar Billie Jean King, whose pro team at the time was the Philadelphia Freedoms.

19 May 1975
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy album released, described as an autobiographical account of the early musical careers of Elton John (Captain Fantastic) and Bernie Taupin (Brown Dirt Cowboy). It debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200, believed to be the first album to do so. It sold 1.4 million copies in its first 4 days of release, and stayed at No. 1 for seven weeks

9 August 1975
Elton John named outstanding rock personality of the year at first Rock Music Awards in Santa Monica, California.

16 August 1975
“Someone Saved My Life Tonight” hits No. 4. – the only single released from …Brown Dirt Cowboy album. Song is a semi-autobiographical story of John’s ill-fated engagement to Linda Woodrow and related 1968 suicide attempt, as the “someone” in the song – Long John Baldry – convinced him to break off the engagement rather than ruin his music career for an unhappy marriage.

September 1975
“Amoreena,” a song about a young man’s love interest, from John’s 1970 Tumbleweed Connection album, is used over the opening credits of the Al Pacino film, Dog Day Afternoon. The song features John’s powerful piano playing and has a country-rock style from the 1970 Tumbleweed album.

 

Music Player
“Amoreena”- John/Taupin, 1970
From Tumbleweed Connection

11 October 1975
Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood” (on Rocket Records) hits No.1 and features John on harmony vocals.

24 October 1975
Rock of the Westies album enters Billboard chart at No.1 (second in a row to do that in the same year, then unprecedented), and is John’s seventh consecutive No. 1 album. The title is a play on the phrase “West of the Rockies,” as it was recorded at Caribou Ranch studio in the Colorado Rockies. RIAA-certified gold in October 1975 and platinum in March 1993.

25-26 October 1975
Elton John performs two sold-out shows at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles (55,000 each night). It was part of his “West of the Rockies” tour that included 17 shows across the U.S. and Canada.

October 1975
Elton John becomes the 1,662nd person to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

1 November 1975
“Island Girl,” from Rock of the Westies album hits No.1.

31 December 1975
By year’s end, Elton John had performed at 28 concerts or other appearances.

1976
John, a long-time English soccer/football fan, becomes investor in, and director of, the professional Watford Football Club.

30 April 1976
Here and There live album released; title refers to two concerts: “Here,” a concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall, summer of 1974; and “There,” a concert at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, November 28 1974.

7 August 1976
“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” by Elton John and Kiki Dee, tops the U.S. charts for the first of four weeks. Released in June, it also rose to the top of the U.K. charts after three weeks. It was John’s sixth No. 1 hit in 3 years – and his last one in the U.S. for 21 years.

22 October 1976
Blue Moves album released; second double album and first on his own label, Rocket Records. Peaks at No. 3 in U.K. and U.S. Although album suffered some negative reviews – one finding it “impossibly weepy” and another charging “fatigue” – it was still RIAA-certified Gold (Oct 1976) and Platinum (Dec 1976). Includes Edith Piaf tribute song, “Cage the Songbird.”

 

Music Player
“Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”
1976

25 December 1976
“Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” single (from Blue Moves album), a ballad about a dying relationship, went to No. 3 in Canada., No. 6 U.S., and No. 11 U.K. – and No. 1 on the U.S. Easy Listening chart. The song was also used in 1977 film Slap Shot starring Paul Newman.

31 December 1976
By year’s end, Elton John had performed at 64 concerts or other appearances.

13 September 1977
Greatest Hits Volume II album is released. Would reach No. 6 in U.K., No. 21 on Billboard, and was certified Gold in September 1977, Platinum in November 1977. There have been several versions of the album.

3 November 1977
Elton John announces at a London concert that he is retiring from live performances, which he does – for 15 months.

31 December 1977
By year’s end, Elton John had performed at 13 concerts or other appearances.

1 October 1978
A Single Man album is released, reaching No. 8 in the U.K. and No. 15 on Billboard. It is Elton John’s 12th studio album and the first with Gary Osborne replacing Bernie Taupin as lyricist. It is the only Elton John album not have any tracks co-written by Bernie Taupin on the original cut. Still, in the U.S., even with mixed reviews, A Single Man was certified Gold in October 1978 and Platinum the following month.

31 December 1978
By year’s end, Elton John had performed at 126 concerts or other appearances.

3 February 1979
Elton John resumes touring after a 15-month hiatus.

21-28 May 1979
Elton John plays eight concerts in the former Soviet Union (USSR). The two-city tour – Leningrad and Moscow – was a significant event amid Cold War tensions of that era and one of the first rock concerts permitted there by a western artist. As a result of John’s visit, in June 1979, the Soviet authorities permitted the state-owned Melodiya record company to issue John’s 1978 album A Single Man, making it the first Western pop album to be officially released in the USSR

June 1979
An EP recording with three songs – The Thom Bell Sessions – is released. It was recorded by Elton John in 1977 in a project with R&B songwriter and producer, Thom Bell, known at the time for his Philadelphia soul music. One of the songs – “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” – became an Elton John Top Ten U.S. single, August 1979. Ten years later, The Complete Thom Bell Sessions was released by MCA, with the original six songs recorded by John and Bell.

13 October 1979
Victim of Love album released: hits No 35 on Billboard, No. 41 in the U.K.
 

_____________________________________________

2017 book, “Captain Fantastic: Elton John’s Stellar Trip Through the ’70s,” by Tom Doyle (no relation). Click for copy.
2017 book, “Captain Fantastic: Elton John’s Stellar Trip Through the ’70s,” by Tom Doyle (no relation). Click for copy.

The Showman

Part of the Elton John success machine of the 1970s evolved from his on-stage concert showmanship and flamboyant costuming.

At the piano, John was an energetic performer, often conducting Jerry Lew Lewis- type acrobatics, beginning with kicking the piano stool out of the way, playing the piano from various contorted positions, to doing flying handstands and horizontal extensions from the piano keyboard – revving up the audience as he did.

In terms of costumes, he used a range of glittery and feathered ensembles, platform shoes, eyeglasses, and more to adorn various fictional and on-stage musical personas. He not only entertained as a talented musician but also broke ground as a kind of “glam rock” fashionista, typically surprising his audience with some new outfit at every show.

As The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll has noted:

“In the mid-1970s, John’s concerts filled arenas and stadiums worldwide. He was the hottest act in rock & roll. And his extravagance, including a $40,000 collection of custom-designed and determinedly ridiculous eyeglasses and an array of equally outrageous stagewear, seemed positively charming.”

1977. Elton John amid colorful feathers on The Muppet Show.
1977. Elton John amid colorful feathers on The Muppet Show.
John’s style had grown progressively more extravagant and outlandish as his performances moved through the decade. By the mid-1970s, Elton John’s stage wardrobe included ostrich feathers and spectacles that spelled his name in lights.

At concerts he would appear in elaborate costume as the Statue of Liberty, Donald Duck, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and other figures. He also appeared with an exaggerated Mohawk hair piece, in a bumble bee costume, as a cowboy, or in various feathered and floral arrangements.

In an appearance on The Muppet Show in June 1977, he wore a large Mummers-parade styled multi-colored floral and feathered ensemble with jeweled white skull cap and matching white-rimed and tinted sunglasses.

He would also dress up for special occasions, as in October 1975, when he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, then wearing a special custom-made pale green and white suit with miniature, gold “Elton John sidewalk stars” sewn throughout the jacket, along with matching star-shaped eyeglasses. In 1997, at his 50th birthday party – for 500 friends – he costumed as Louis XIV of France.

Some of his concerts had an air of spectacle to them – as at the Hollywood Bowl in September 1975 where, as introduction, a succession of dressed impersonators of the Queen of England, Elvis Presley, Frankenstein, the Pope, the Beatles, Batman and Robin, Groucho Marx and Mae West all made their entrance down the staircase. Then, a set of concert pianos arrayed there each raised their covers to display a giant series of letters spelling out E-L-T-O-N, and as they did, flocks of doves were released.

Elton John in concert during the 1970s, doing one of his flying handstands, extending out from the piano keyboard, typically revving up the audience with his energetic performances.
Elton John in concert during the 1970s, doing one of his flying handstands, extending out from the piano keyboard, typically revving up the audience with his energetic performances.

But there were also concerts where the music was what the fans remembered. In October 1975 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles– in a white and blue Dodger-like baseball outfit, adorned with silver studs along with a pair of rhinestone-encrusted glasses – he performed 3-hour plus shows before 100,000 raving fans over two nights. It was one of his more successful outings. Elton John was then a pop culture phenom, as photographer Terry O’Neill has observed:

…You have to remember – in October 1975, no one was bigger than Elton John. He was like Elvis at the height of his career. It is impossible to try to explain to people today what it was like – numerous number one albums, touring non-stop, recording non-stop, media, press, television… he was everywhere. Elton still is one of the most talented people I’ve ever met and he gave his all at those concerts.

August 1973: Elton John featured on the cover of Rolling Stone with some of his decorative eyewear.
August 1973: Elton John featured on the cover of Rolling Stone with some of his decorative eyewear.
July 1975. Elton John on the cover of Time magazine -- "Rock's Captain Fantastic". Click for copy.
July 1975. Elton John on the cover of Time magazine -- "Rock's Captain Fantastic". Click for copy.

Over more than 50 years, Elton John would play some 3,000 concerts in more than 75 countries around the world – and he’s not done yet, as his farewell tour with 300 more dates is slated to close in 2020.

Among other memorable Elton John imagery from the mid-1970s was his appearance as the pinball wizard of the famous Who song and rock opera album, Tommy – in the 1975 rock opera film of that name. John appeared as a very tall “Pinball Wizard” rigged on stilted giant boots.

Elton John w/stilted boots in "Tommy." Click for DVD.
Elton John w/stilted boots in "Tommy." Click for DVD.
Pete Townshend of British rock group, The Who, had asked John to play the “Pinball Wizard” character in the film version of the rock opera Tommy, and to perform the “Pinball Wizard” song.

John’s version of the song was recorded and used for the movie release in 1975 and a single of the song was later released as well, charting at No. 7 in England. John’s version of that song is the only cover of a Who song to reach the Top 10.

The Bally Company, meanwhile, later released a “Captain Fantastic”-themed pinball machine featuring an illustration of Elton John on the machine’s main glass facing.

 
 
Living Large

Through the 1970s and 1980s Elton John soared to the top of the rock world. He played the most famous venues, became a media darling, and made millions of dollars. He also began living large as the good times flowed – “sex, drugs, and rock & roll,” as they say. But behind the success and flamboyance there were some real-life consequences that caught up with John by mid-career.

May 2019.  Life special edition: “Elton John, Rocket Man: The Songs, The Journey, The Life,” Click for copy.
May 2019. Life special edition: “Elton John, Rocket Man: The Songs, The Journey, The Life,” Click for copy.
In the 2019 film about his life, Rocketman, with Taron Egerton playing Elton, there is some coverage of the difficult days John faced as he soared to the top of the world as a famous rock star.

“Success was fantastic and then I couldn’t cope with it,” John explained in one interview about the film and his life, including his personal struggles, which he said he didn’t want covered up or glossed over in the film. “[Y]ou can’t leave out the bad,” he said, of those parts which are included in the film.

“Everyone knows I had quite a lot of [sex and drugs] during the ’70s and ’80s,” he explained during a May 2019 interview in The Guardian. “So there didn’t seem to be much point in making a movie that implied that after every gig, I’d quietly gone back to my hotel room with only a glass of warm milk and the Gideon’s Bible for company.”

Still, those scenes are painful for John. “…It’s difficult to watch [them in the film] because I thought, ‘God, I don’t want to go back there. Thank God I came out of it.”

In earlier interviews, John has spoken about his past excesses and his struggles with alcohol, drugs and food:

“I would have an epileptic seizure and turn blue, and people would find me on the floor and put me to bed. Then 40 minutes later I’d be snorting another line [of cocaine]…This is how bleak it was, I’d stay up, I’d smoke joints, I’d drink a bottle of Johnnie Walker and then I’d stay up for three days….I’d binge and have three bacon sandwiches, a pot of ice cream and then I’d throw it up because I became bulimic. And then go and do the whole thing all over again. That is how tragic my life was.”

“This is Elton John circa the late 1980s,” adds Time magazine, also reviewing Rocketman. “He may be one of the world’s richest and most successful rock stars, but he’s also an alcoholic, a cocaine addict and a bulimic. He’s addicted to sex and he has an anger-management problem. He loves prescription painkillers and he can’t stop shopping. He’s alternately agitated and demonically animated as he rattles off his list of flaws and vexations.” By the 1990s, John got treatment, pulled through it all, and got his head on straight.

Poster for 2019 film, "Rocketman," about the life and career of British rock star, Elton John, here recreating a scene from a famous October 1975 concert before tens of thousands at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Poster for 2019 film, "Rocketman," about the life and career of British rock star, Elton John, here recreating a scene from a famous October 1975 concert before tens of thousands at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

John also struggled with his sexuality for much of his career – married once, announced he was bisexual, then homosexual. Openly gay since 1988, he met David Furnish in 1993, a former advertising executive from Toronto, and the two began a relationship. They entered into a civil partnership in December 2005, and after same-sex marriage became legal in England and Wales, they married in December 2014. Today they have two young children born with the help of a surrogate mother.
 

Elton John's estate in Berkshire, England.
Elton John's estate in Berkshire, England.
Condo-converted to art gallery in Atlanta as part of Elton John residence there. Photo, Architectural Digest.
Condo-converted to art gallery in Atlanta as part of Elton John residence there. Photo, Architectural Digest.
Elton John with some of his car collection, circa 2001.
Elton John with some of his car collection, circa 2001.

Wealth & Generosity

With his rapidly rising success in the 1970s, wealth came quickly to Elton John – and continued to come to him over the next four decades with touring, more hit songs, film and stage productions, Las Vegas performing, and legacy publishing fees and royalties.

In recent years, his personal wealth has been estimated in $250-$400 million range. A few higher estimates have been closer to $500 million. Bernie Taupin, meanwhile, is believed to have amassed an estimated $70 million fortune through his partnership with John.

In any case, Elton John’s fortune will likely get a bump up following his final concert tour. In September 2018, John began his three-year, 300-date “Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour” that is expected to gross something north of $400 million.

According to one touring analyst, Pollstar, John grosses about $1.4 million per tour stop. Given 300 arena shows planned on his final tour through 2020, that could translate to $420 million in ticket sales for the entire tour – leaving out tour merchandise.

Meanwhile, in terms of real estate, in addition to his main home in Berkshire, England, John also owns residences in Atlanta, London, Los Angeles, Nice and Venice.

In 1991, he bought a condo in the Buckhead area of Atanta, Georgia in the Peachtree Heights West neighborhood, starting out with a 5,000 square foot unit, then expanding into several neighboring units, making a two-story art gallery in one.

Elton John is also an art collector, and is believed to have one of the largest private photography collections in the world.

In November 2016 through May 2017, an exhibit of some of his photos ran at the Tate Museum in London under the title, “The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection.” It appears that he and partner David Furnish have agreed to donate some of these works to the nation.

Also a car collector until recent years, when in June 2001 he sold a 20-car collection of Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and Jaguars through Christies that brought in nearly £2 million.

Able to burn through money with the best of them, especially as he churned up the ladder of fame, Elton John was, and continues to be, quite generous with his wealth and celebrity, using both to bring attention to various social causes and raising money for a range of charities.

In July 1985, along with others including Paul McCartney, Queen, David Bowie and U2, he performed at the Live Aid benefit concert for famine relief at Wembley Stadium in London. In 1986, he joined with Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder to record the single “That’s What Friends Are For,” with all profits donated to the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

Hardback edition of Elton John’s 2012 book, Love is The Cure: On Life, Loss, and The end of Aids,” which became a best seller.  Click for copy.
Hardback edition of Elton John’s 2012 book, Love is The Cure: On Life, Loss, and The end of Aids,” which became a best seller. Click for copy.
In the 1980s, John had become quite attentive to the AIDS epidemic. In 1989, he became involved with the plight of Ryan White, a young Indiana boy who had contracted AIDS in a blood infusion and had been ostracized in his local community. John befriended and supported the boy and his family until White’s death in 1990. John was also rocked by the 1991 AIDS death of friend and fellow musician Freddie Mercury. In 1992, John established the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Since its founding, the EJAF has raised something north of $350 million for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention and has become one of the largest HIV/AIDS grant-makers in the world. In addition to his AIDS work, John also supports the Breast Cancer Research Foundation as well as scholarship funding for students at the Royal Academy of Music, Wright State University, and the Juilliard School. He also has established the Elton John Charitable Fund, which has directly supported nearly 100 organizations, including the American Cancer Society and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

In 1993, he began hosting his annual Academy Award Party in Hollywood, which has become one of the highest-profile Oscar parties and has raised over $200 million.

Back in England, John annually hosts a “celebrity-must” White Tie & Tiara Ball at his Berkshire home where a typical menu might include a truffle soufflé, surf and turf, and Knickerbocker glory ice cream, followed by benefit auctions of famous artwork, rare antique automobiles, and entertainment by the likes of a Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and others. Tens of millions have been raised by these balls for the Elton John Aids Foundation. He has also hosted or participated in a number of AIDS benefit concerts. In 2012 he published the book, Love is the Cure: On Life, Loss and The End of Aids, which became a best seller.

“Candle in the Wind 1997," Elton John’s tribute to Princess Diana at her passing, helped raise tens of millions for her foundation. Click for digital, CD, or vinyl.
“Candle in the Wind 1997," Elton John’s tribute to Princess Diana at her passing, helped raise tens of millions for her foundation. Click for digital, CD, or vinyl.
In 1997, after Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris, Elton John, who had been a very close friend of Diana’s and the Royal Family, rewrote his former 1973 “Candle in The Wind” song with Bernie Taupin adding new lyrics for Diana. This version, also using a string quartet and woodwinds, was titled “Candle in the Wind 1997”and was later released as a single at Diana’s passing. It quickly became a gigantic worldwide hit, selling more than 30 million copies. All artist and composer royalties and record company profits from the song have been donated to “The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.” By September 1999, income to that Fund was estimated at $150 million, much of it from royalties generated by sales of “Candle in the Wind 1997.”

In 2001, one month after the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, John appeared at the Concert for New York City, where he performed a memorable version of “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters”. Through the 2000s and 2010s, John has continued to lend his celebrity in support of various social causes around the world.

 

October 4, 1997.  Billboard magazine cover and tribute story, “Elton John: 30 Years of Music With Bernie Taupin.”
October 4, 1997. Billboard magazine cover and tribute story, “Elton John: 30 Years of Music With Bernie Taupin.”
The Music

Meanwhile, Elton John and Bernie Taupin have given the world an enormous musical legacy that will be enjoyed for many years into the future. After their frenetic success in the 1970s, Elton and Bernie took a two-year hiatus from each other (1979-1980), during which time they worked with other writers and artists. But not long thereafter, they resumed their partnership, co-writing several songs on the 1981 album, 21 at 33, and were back in full partnership by 1983’s Too Low for Zero album. Through the 1980s, 1990s and beyond they continued to pen many more songs.

Their work over the years has not only been musically appealing, but also bears a message or two here and there, defines personal feelings that have universal appeal, or offers a commentary on the times or the human condition. Millions of listeners who love the songs of Elton John have their own personal favorites, and listener polls, music magazine rankings, and sales data have identified a number of Elton John tunes regarded as most popular, most loved, most moving, etc..

Some of these have been the top hits, such as “Tiny Dancer,” “Levon,” “Rocket Man,” “Daniel,” and others. But also buried in the Elton John / Bernie Taupin oeuvre are songs that have not necessarily been pop hits, or even released as singles, but are nonetheless popular with listeners. Among these, might be, for example, “The Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” “Come Down in Time” (sampled earlier above), “Take Me to the Pilot”, “Razor Face” “My Father’s Gun”, “Border Song”, “Amoreena” (also sampled above), “Grey Seal”, “Funeral For a Friend”, and any number of others.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Elton John / Bernie Taupin
1973

When are you gonna come down
When are you going to land
I should have stayed on the farm
I should have listened to my old man

You know you can’t hold me forever
I didn’t sign up with you
I’m not a present for your friends to open
This boy’s too young to be singing the blues

So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough

Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh I’ve finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road

What do you think you’ll do then
I bet that’ll shoot down your plane
It’ll take you a couple of vodka and tonics
To set you on your feet again

Maybe you’ll get a replacement
There’s plenty like me to be found
Mongrels who ain’t got a penny
Sniffing for tidbits like you on the ground

So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough

Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh I’ve finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road

Yet, of all the songs Elton John and Bernie Taupin have penned together, perhaps few are more poignant than “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” sampled below. Among his platinum-level hits, and popular globally, this song was not as big a hit as “Tiny Dancer,” “Rocket Man,” “Levon,” or “Your Song.” Still, it is among those John/Taupin songs that many fans and music critics single out.
 

Music Player
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
Elton John/ Bernie Taupin – 1973

 

The song and the album of the same name, use the phrase and iconic imagery from the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. There, and in other historic uses dating to the 1900s and the books of Frank Baum, upon which the film is loosely based, “the road of yellow bricks” has the implied meaning of a pathway upon which one might find some kind of reward, happiness, inner peace, and/or personal redemption. At least that is the seeming promise. It is also sometimes referred to as a metaphor for “the road that leads to life’s answers” or “the road that leads to life’s fantasies”.

In the film, of course, in the land of Oz, it is the pathway to see the Wizard in the Emerald City. The Wizard is sought for his powers by Dorothy and her friends. But to make a long story short, the wizard doesn’t really have any special powers and he isn’t really a wizard.

The Wizard of Oz was reportedly the first film that Bernie Taupin had ever seen, and he used the imagery in the lyrics to relate to his own life. At the time he wrote “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” he wanted to live a more tranquil existence after experiencing the frenetic 1970s success he and John were having during the height of Elton John mania – a desire to get back to his roots. Back, perhaps, to a more real world setting. No more promised land for him; he prefers hearing the owls and ploughing the land over penthouse living and vodka and tonics.

Bernie Taupin’s lyrics in this song have the visceral power of nostalgia, of looking back, of longing for a past that is colored by the thought that it was a better time. And for many, that is a universal kind of sentiment. And Elton John’s voice and melody drive that notion deep into the listener’s emotional core. Together, the song’s moving orchestral arrangement with Elton’s powerful vocals elevate the lyrics to make this song a classic. Stewart Mason’s review of the song at AllMusic.com notes: “…Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is a small masterpiece of ’70s soft rock, and a strong contender for the coveted title of John’s finest song ever.”

Elton John's “Diamonds” 3-CD set w/51 songs, issued May 2019. Click for copy.
Elton John's “Diamonds” 3-CD set w/51 songs, issued May 2019. Click for copy.
Through the 1980s and 1990s the Elton John magic continued with more hit songs – among singles, for example, have been: “Little Jeanie” (#3 US, 1980); “I Guess That’s Why They Call it The Blues” (#4 US, #5 UK, 1983); “I’m Still Standing (#4 UK, #12 US, 1983); “Sad Songs Say So Much”(#5 US, # 7 UK, 1984); “Passengers” (#5 UK, 1984); “Nikita” (#3 UK, #7 US, 1985); “I Don’t Wanna Go on with You Like That”(#2 US, 1988); “Sacrifice (#18 US, 1989 / #1 UK 1990); “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (with George Michael; #1 US & UK, 1991); “The One” (#9 US, #10 UK, 1992); “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”(#4 US, #14 UK); and, “Live Like Horses” (with Luciano Pavarotti; # 9 UK, 1996).

Elton John and Bernie Taupin have been among most successful teams in popular music. They have collaborated on more than 30 albums. A total of more than 300 million Elton John records have been sold worldwide, making him one of the best-selling music artists of all time. To date, he has had more than fifty Top 40 hits, as well as seven consecutive No. 1 albums in the U.S., along with 58 Billboard Top 40 singles, 27 in the Top Ten, four at No.2, and nine at No.1. In his U.K. homeland he has scored 69 Top 40 singles, including 32 Top Tens and seven at No.1.

Philip Norman’s 2001 book, “Sir Elton: The Definitive Biography,” 592 pp,  Carroll & Graf, publisher. Click for copy.
Philip Norman’s 2001 book, “Sir Elton: The Definitive Biography,” 592 pp, Carroll & Graf, publisher. Click for copy.
After decades of success in rock and roll, John also achieved success in film musicals and on stage, composing music for The Lion King film and its stage adaptation, as well as Aida, and Billy Elliot the Musical.

In fact, in the entertainment world, Elton John is distinguished as one of that rare group who have won an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Tony.

Over his career, he has been nominated for 34 Grammy Awards, winning six including, one honorary Grammy.

In film, he has been nominated for three Academy Awards, winning once for Best Original Song for “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” from The Lion King (1994). And in the theater, he has been nominated for four Tony Awards, winning once for Best Original Score in 2000 for Aida.

In addition to these, he has also five Brit Awards – two for Outstanding Contribution to Music and the first Brits Icon award in 2013 for his “lasting impact on British culture”. He has also won a Golden Globe Award, a Disney Legends award, and received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2004.

Elton John – make that “Sir Elton” – has also been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for “services to music and charitable services.” In music, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Ten years later, Rolling Stone ranked him at No. 49 on its 2004 list of 100 influential musicians of the rock and roll era. In 2018, Billboard placed him among the very top of successful solo artists on the Billboard Hot 100 – 3rd on the list of Top Artists of All Time, behind only the Beatles and Madonna and ahead of Elvis Presley. And there are still other awards, honors, collaborations, new Elton John ventures, and more. For further detail on these, see “Sources” below or visit his website at EltonJohn.com.

“Made in England,” 1995, had several popular singles and was million-seller plus. Click for CD.
“Made in England,” 1995, had several popular singles and was million-seller plus. Click for CD.
In the fall of 2019, his autobiography, Me, Elton John, is slated to be published (see below to order), and in 2020, his farewell concert tour will end. But there will likely be an Elton John song or two yet to come.

In any case, the music of Elton John – and especially those indelible John /Taupin creations of the 1970s – will live on well into the future.

See also at this website, “Candle in the Wind, 1973-1997,” about the Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana songs that John and Taupin wrote, or check out the “Annals of Music” category page for additional stories that profile artists, song histories, and the music industry.

Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

 

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Date Posted: 31 May 2019
Last Update: 5 June 2019
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Elton John’s Decade: 1970s (w/Bernie),”
PopHistoryDig.com, May 31, 2019.

____________________________________




Sources, Links & Additional Information

Companion book to “Rocketman” film. “Inside the world of the movie” with foreword by Elton John. May 2019, 160pp. Click for copy.
Companion book to “Rocketman” film. “Inside the world of the movie” with foreword by Elton John. May 2019, 160pp. Click for copy.
Keith Hayward’s 2013 book, “Tin Pan Alley: The Rise of Elton John,” 400pp.  Click for copy.
Keith Hayward’s 2013 book, “Tin Pan Alley: The Rise of Elton John,” 400pp. Click for copy.
“Elton John: Fifty Years On. The Complete Guide to the Musical Genius of Elton John and Bernie Taupin,” 320pp, Post Hill Press, October 2019. Click to order.
“Elton John: Fifty Years On. The Complete Guide to the Musical Genius of Elton John and Bernie Taupin,” 320pp, Post Hill Press, October 2019. Click to order.
Elton John, Madison Square Garden, Oct 2000, “One Night Only - The Greatest Hits.”  Click for DVD.
Elton John, Madison Square Garden, Oct 2000, “One Night Only - The Greatest Hits.” Click for DVD.
Elton John’s partner,  film maker David Furnish, made this film during Elton’s career in 1995. Click for DVD.
Elton John’s partner, film maker David Furnish, made this film during Elton’s career in 1995. Click for DVD.
"Elton John, Greatest Hits, 1970-2002," Click for CD.
"Elton John, Greatest Hits, 1970-2002," Click for CD.

“Elton John,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 500-502.

Robert Christgau, “The Little Hooker That Could,” The Village Voice, November 24, 1975.

Robert Christgau, “Elton John,” in Anthony De Curtis and James Henke (eds), The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Random House, New York, 1992, pp. 528-531.

“The 1970s,” EltonJohn.com.

“Biography, Elton John,” 1994 Induction, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

“Elton John,” Wikipedia.org.

“Elton John, Chart History,” Billboard.com.

Ben Fong-Torres, “Elton John: The Four-Eyed Bitch Is Back; Elton Is Hard to Talk to When Anybody’s Around. By Himself, He’ll Talk,” Rolling Stone, November 21, 1974.

David Rensin,”Performance: Elton at the Hollywood Bowl, 9/7/73,” Rolling Stone, October 11, 1973.

“Elton John: Rock’s Captain Fantastic,” Time (cover story), July 7, 1975.

Matt Ballinger, “Times Critic Was Early Champion of Elton John,” L.A. Times Past/Tumbler.com, October 3, 2013.

Paul Sexton, “The Troubadour Nights That Changed Elton John’s Life; Why 25 August 1970 Was Such a Monumental Occasion in the Career of a Young English Singer-Songwriter,” uDiscoverMusic.com, August 25, 2018.

Elton John Interview, “A More Reflective Leap On Elton John’s ‘Diving Board’,” Fresh Air/ NPR.org, September 23, 2013.

Stephanie Zacharek, “A Glitter-Fueled Rocket-man Blasts Off, Time, June 3-10, 2019, pp. 93-95.

“Elton John: 20 Essential Songs,” The Tele-graph, October 20, 2015.

“Readers’ Poll: The Best Elton John Songs of All Time Your Picks Include ‘Levon,’ ‘Your Song’ and ‘Rocket Man’,” Rolling Stone, November 28, 2012.

“Elton’s First Shows in the U.S. – A Look Back,” EltonJohn.com, August 25, 2017.

“Bernie Taupin,” Wikipedia.org.

“Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” Wikipedia.org.

“Madman Across The Water – BBC Sounds for Saturday, London, UK: 1971,” EltonJohn.com.

“Elton John 1970 World Tour,” Wikipedia .org.

“Elton John Tour Statistics,” SetList.fm.

“Border Song,” Wikipedia.org.

Cal Fussman, “Bernie Taupin: What I’ve Learned,” Esquire, January 2, 2012.

“Levon by Elton John,” SongFacts.com.

Tiny Dancer,” Wikipedia.org.

“Bernie Taupin Interview,” Billboard, October 4, 1997.

Mark Simonian, “Bowls Hollywood Over; Elton John ‘Puts On’ Concert,” The Stanford Daily, Volume 164, Issue 4, September 27, 1973.

Elton John’s 1979 Tour of the Soviet Union,” Wikipedia.org.

“1970s Decade Overview,” RockMusicTimeline .com.

“Photos: Elton John’s Outfits Through the Years; See All the Sunglasses, Animal Costumes and Chest Hair from 1973 On,” RollingStone.com, February 2, 2011.

Kimberley Dadds (BuzzFeed Staff, UK), “The 28 Most Flamboyant Elton John Stage Costumes Ever,” BuzzFeed.com, March 5, 2014.

Doug Fox, “Inside Elton John’s Historic Sold-Out Shows at Dodger Stadium,” Ultimate ClassicRock.com, October 25, 2015.

“Dodger Stadium 1975 – Game On!,” Elton John.com, August 28, 2018.

Marc Myers, “Bernie Taupin Tells the Story Behind 1972’s ‘Rocket Man.’ Inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Tale About an Astronaut, The Song Became an Unlikely Catch Phrase in Trump’s Tweets,” Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2018.

Dave Simpson, “Elton John’s 50 Greatest Songs, Ranked!,” TheGuardian.com(London), September 13, 2018.

Ed Power, “This One’s for You: The Story Behind Elton John’s Hit ‘Your Song’,” The Independent (London), November 15, 2018.

“The Boy & The Piano,” John Lewis Christmas Advert, 2018.

Roisin O’Connor, “John Lewis Christmas Ad: Elton John Tribute With ‘Your Song’ As Soundtrack Could Melt the Flintiest of Hearts,” The Independent (London), November 15, 2018.

Zack O’Malley Greenburg, “Elton John’s Retirement Tour Should Gross More Than $400 Million,” Forbes, January 24, 2018.

Jessica Napoli, “Elton John Reveals His Most ‘Difficult’ Scenes To Watch in ‘Rocketman’ Biopic,” Fox News, May 26, 2019.

Kristin Corpuz, “Elton John’s Biggest Billboard Hot 100 Hits,” Billboard.com, March 25, 2017.

Paul Sexton, “50 Years Of Diamonds From Elton John And Bernie Taupin,” uDiscover Music.com, January 24, 2018.

“Farewell Yellow Brick Road,” Wikipedia.org.

Hannah Taheri, “Top 10 Most Iconic Elton John Ensembles,” Golden1Center.com, Janu-ary 7, 2019.

Kathryn Vasel, “The World’s 10 Richest Recording Artists,” CNN Business, December 2, 2014.

Aisling Moloney, “What is Bernie Taupin’s Net Worth? Elton John’s lyricist Has Made a Serious Fortune,” MetroUK, November 13, 2017.

Ben Hirsh, “Does Elton John Really Live In Buckhead?,” Buckhead.com, May 4, 2016.

“Elton’s Photography Collection Now on Display at Tate Modern,” EltonJohn.com, November 10, 2016.

“Elton John Op-Ed on Tirelessly Fighting AIDS Through His Foundation: ‘We Have So Much Work Left to Do’,” (Cover Story), Billboard.com, October 15, 2015.

Stewart Mason, Song Review, “Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” AllMusic.com.

Rob Sheffield, “Elton John’s Greatest Non-Hits; For every “Rocket Man” or “I’m Still Standing,” There Are Countless Other Lost Gems Ripe For Rediscovery, From Stripped-Down Ballads to Decadent Glitter Epics,” Rolling Stone, February 2, 2011.

“Top 33 Forgotten / Overlooked Elton John Songs,” NeedSomeFun.net, July 4, 2017.

Billboard staff, “The Hot 100’s Top Artists of All Time,” Billboard.com, August 2, 2018.

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“100 Years To Live”
2003-2004

Sheet music cover for “100 Years,” similar to cover art used for the single, with a “life stages” timeline. Click for digtal single.
Sheet music cover for “100 Years,” similar to cover art used for the single, with a “life stages” timeline. Click for digtal single.
Cover art for “The Battle for Everything” album by Five for Fighting / John Ondrasik, released in  February 2004, includes “100 Years” song. Click for CD.
Cover art for “The Battle for Everything” album by Five for Fighting / John Ondrasik, released in February 2004, includes “100 Years” song. Click for CD.

The title of the song is “100 Years,” a popular tune from 2003. It was written and performed by John Ondrasik, who uses the stage name, Five for Fighting.

“100 Years” was the first single from his third studio album, The Battle for Everything. The single was released ahead of the album, in November 2003, but both would become million sellers.

 

Music Player
“100 Years” – Five For Fighting
(scroll down for lyrics)

“100 Years” is a song for the ages; its lyrics and composition aptly capture the wistfulness of life flying by – and the progression of life stages. And the spare but perfectly-suited instrumentation by piano, gives it a weighty poignancy and a lingering, classic appeal.

By early 2004, “100 Years” had risen to No. 28 on the Billboard pop chart. And on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, the song did better, hitting No. 1. In fact, on that chart it was the longest running No. 1 single of the year, doing so during May-September 2004. It claimed the top spot for 12 non-consecutive weeks. In December 2004, on Billboard’s end-of-the-year music chart, “100 Years” was also ranked No. 77 for the year.

“100 Years” also reached the top 40 in Australia and New Zealand, peaking at No. 32 in both countries. In 2007, the song surpassed more than 1 million copies sold, earning Platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America.

“100 Years” is not so much about reaching the age of 100, or a song in praise of seeking that milestone as a goal. Rather, this is a song lamenting time’s passing – and in a fashion, about how brief a time 100 years actually is, or more exactly, how quickly all of those years actually pass by in one person’s life. The song, depending on listener, may also offer an accounting of what one has done, not done, or might have done, with those years. For the young, it is an offering of possibilities and what might be — “time to lose yourself within a morning star,” as one lyric puts it.

During 2004-2006, “100 Years” also received exposure from its use on various TV programs and movies, among them: One Tree Hill (2004), Smallville (2004), JAG (2005), Scrubs (2006), the ABC Family movie, David Heart (2004), and also during Katie Couric’s last day on the Today Show (May 31, 2006). The song was also used as musical backing for a video montage of the 2004 Stanley Cup ice hockey playoffs broadcast after game seven of the finals on Canadian TV’s Hockey Night in Canada (John Ondrasik, by the way, is a serious ice hockey fan, and his stage name, Five for Fighting, is in fact, an appropriated ice hockey phrase meaning, five penalty minutes for fighting on the ice.)

 

 

But it was the song’s use as the backing track for a 2005 Chase credit card TV commercial (above) that also boosted the song’s exposure. That ad, produced by the McGarryBowen agency of New York, ran during primetime ABC, CBS and NBC shows such as “Lost,” “Survivor,” and “Will & Grace.” Although a music video was prepared for the song, and was quite successful, the Chase TV commercial hyping its credit card services, did a pretty good job of actually capturing, visually, the essence of the song and its message.

“100 Years”
Five For Fighting
2003-2004

I’m 15 for a moment
Caught in between 10 and 20
And I’m just dreaming
Counting the ways to where you are

I’m 22 for a moment
She feels better than ever
And we’re on fire
Making our way back from Mars

15 there’s still time for you
Time to buy and time to lose
15, there’s never a wish better than this
When you only got 100 years to live

I’m 33 for a moment
Still the man, but you see I’m a they
A kid on the way babe
A family on my mind

I’m 45 for a moment
The sea is high
And I’m heading into a crisis
Chasing the years of my life

15 there’s still time for you
Time to buy, Time to lose yourself
Within a morning star

15 I’m all right with you
15, there’s never a wish better than this
When you only got 100 years to live

Half time goes by
Suddenly you’re wise
Another blink of an eye
67 is gone
The sun is getting high
We’re moving on…

I’m 99 for a moment
Time for just another moment
And I’m just dreaming
Counting the ways to where you are

15 there’s still time for you
22 I feel her too
33 you’re on your way
Every day’s a new day…

oooooh, oooooh, oooooh, ooh

15 there’s still time for you
Time to buy and time to choose
Hey 15, there’s never a wish better than this
When you only got 100 years to live…

The Chase ad portrays a young male traveling through his various “life stages” – college, job, marriage, family, retirement, grandkids – life stages that are also the subject of “100 Years.” And conveniently for Chase, those life stages are also junctures of commerce when one or more type of credit card Chase issues and co-brands might be useful – such as Continental Airlines, Disney, Amazon, or AARP – each of which appears briefly as the ad runs.

The Chase commercial using “100 Years” in its soundtrack was quite well done visually, hitting all the right emotional buttons. It spurred numerous queries to the web in search of the song’s title and artist. The song and its lyrics, however, are worth a closer look.

 
Song’s Message

The narrator begins with age 15, which he describes as a time “caught between 10 and 20″ when he is “just dreaming.” And here, as a teenager, he appears to be thinking about, and forming himself, for some unknown love in his future. As John Ondrasik has recounted of his own life at that age, it was an awkward time; a time when he had no girl friend.

By age 22, however, all that bad teen angst is history, and the narrator, now in his early twenties, is flying high, and has found his love – “we’re on fire, making our way back from Mars.”

Then comes what might be called “the counseling chorus,” which is repeated later. The narrator here seems to be advising a 15 year-old – about the time he is in and the time he has left: “time to buy and time to lose” – early years, time to wonder and experiment; time to learn; a time of trial and error — but still, a time to make these early years count. “Never a wish better than this,” than to be 15 — with a full road ahead, 85 or more to go…

Back on the narrator’s life track, meanwhile, he is now 33 – “for a moment.” But now he is “a they,” he explains, a family man — “kid on the way…family on my mind.”

At 45 he finds the sea of life is “high” around him, as the years have mounted. And at this point there could be what some call “a mid-life crisis” looming. So now, perhaps, he’s beginning to chase — or reclaim/relive — some of his former self from earlier years?

Again, back to 15 when it was all there before you, really – “never a wish better than this.” Especially when “you only got 100 years to live.”

At the half-way mark there is some reflection. Travelling this far, he appears to be saying, you finally get a little knowledge and you think you’re pretty good at life’s chores and figuring it all out… But soon, 67 is gone in a blink of an eye… And you’re moving on…

By age 99, he is looking back, but still hoping for a bit more time – “time for just another moment.” Then there is a quick recap of the years rolling by – at 15, 22, 33 and more, also reminding us that “every day is a new day”… Carpe deim! But in the end, our narrator appears to be coming full circle, back to age 15, with that counseling chorus — “there’s still time for you.”

In any case, throughout his song, Ondrasik gets it right; suggesting that the sand-in-the-hour-glass slows down for no one. The years are precious intervals and we are all privileged to have those gifts of time. And in the end, it’s not how many years you live, but rather what you have made of them – and how well you have done by the people you’ve known, the family you’ve had, and your own personal truths and measures.

An image taken from the "100 Years" video, showing song author and performer John Ondrasik, along with some lyrics.
An image taken from the "100 Years" video, showing song author and performer John Ondrasik, along with some lyrics.
Music Video. In January 2004, the music video for “100 Years” came out. It would reach No. 30 on VH1’s Top 40 Music Video Countdown of 2004, spending 18 weeks on VH1’s weekly Top 20 countdown. In the video, images of John Ondrasik singing and playing the song at the piano are intercut with fictional versions of himself as a 15-year-old boy, a man in his mid-40s, a 99-year-old man, and at the end, meeting his older self.

A version of the video posted on YouTube.com has collected more than 37 million views and 11,000 comments (as of 2019), many praising the song, and some offering various takes on its lyrics and meaning. Similarly, comments on song and lyrics are also offered at SongFacts.com.

 

In January 1977, New West magazine featured “How To Make it To 100" as its cover story for a special year-end health issue.
In January 1977, New West magazine featured “How To Make it To 100" as its cover story for a special year-end health issue.
Living To 100

Living to the age of 100 has long been thought to be something of the gold standard for those born in the 20th century – though an unreachable marker for most. However, as nutrition, medicine, and genetic knowledge advance, it appears that for those born in the 21st century, living to 100 will be a distinct possibility, and not exceptional.

A growing number of Americans are now found to be living to age 100. Nationwide, the centenarian population has grown 65.8 percent over the past three decades – from 32,194 people who were age 100 or older in 1980 to 53,364 centenarians in 2010, according to new Census Bureau data (as of January 2013). Some 82.8 percent of U.S. centenarians were female.

Japan currently has the greatest number of known centenarians of any nation with 67,824 according to their 2017 census. They also have the highest proportion of centenarians at 34.85 per 100,000 people. According to the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics, one-third of U.K. babies born in 2013 are expected to live to 100.

Of course, for decades now, “living to 100” has been quite topical in the media, receiving generous play in the popular press. Periodic magazine stories, as the one above left, have appeared featuring the lives of those who have achieved the milestone, or other stories about the best way to get there, and still others on the latest science and/or dietary secrets for reaching 100.

Parade Magazine – the Sunday supplement magazine that comes with many Sunday newspapers across America – has periodically featured stories on living to 100, such as the two samples offered below. The April 5th, 2015 issue of Parade ran its cover titled “Cheater’s Guide to Living to 100.” A group of middle-aged to elderly folks were shown on that cover with small print above saying “these people are practicing two longevity boosters now. Can you name them?” And again in January 2017, Parade headlined a “Living to 100” story with the title, “Forever Young,” noting, “Your chances of living to 100 are better than ever,” and adding: “We’ve got the moves to get you there.”

The April 5th, 2015 issue of Parade with cover story, “Cheater’s Guide to Living to 100.” Click for copy.
The April 5th, 2015 issue of Parade with cover story, “Cheater’s Guide to Living to 100.” Click for copy.
Jan 22nd, 2017 issue of Parade headlining a “Living to 100” story with the title, “Forever Young”. Click for copy.
Jan 22nd, 2017 issue of Parade headlining a “Living to 100” story with the title, “Forever Young”. Click for copy.

Time magazine has also periodically visited the “living-to-100” story, or variations thereof, as the three sample covers below illustrate, these respectively, from 2004, 2010, and 2015. In August 2004 Time ran a cover story with the tagline, “How to Live To Be 100 (and not regret it)” – this last point focused on the quality of life in those elder years. In a February 2010 cover story, Time featured “The Science of Living Longer,” showing three stages of a woman’s life, from young girl to older woman. Five years later, in February 2015, Time blew past the age 100 marker, featuring a baby on the cover who Time said “could live to be 142 year old”!

Time, August 2004. Click for copy.
Time, August 2004. Click for copy.
Time, February 2010. Click for copy.
Time, February 2010. Click for copy.
Time, February 2015. Click for copy.
Time, February 2015. Click for copy.

Time, and other of the popular media, delivering stories on this subject, usually focus on the latest information from science and long-term studies. Typically, the message is that some combination of genetics, diet, and lifestyle figure into the magic formula for long life. Some of these stories also point to places such as Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Spain; and Nova Scotia, Canada where clusters of long-lived individuals have been studied, hoping to find their “secret sauce.” Then there are also a slew of magazines, specialized publications, and one-time editions that offer advice, counsel, and/or various products to aide those striving to reach 100. A sampling of some of these are offered below.

2018. "Live to 100", U.K. magazine.
2018. "Live to 100", U.K. magazine.
2013. "Prospect" magazine, U.K.
2013. "Prospect" magazine, U.K.
2011. Dr. Oz, "Men's Fitness".
2011. Dr. Oz, "Men's Fitness".

One U.K. magazine, Live to 100 – “dedicated to inspiring people to lead healthier lives” – has featured a Dr. Hilary Jones on its cover periodically – “Live Longer My Way!” says one of his taglines on a recent issue. Another U.K magazine, Prospect, a monthly British essay and comment magazine, ran a special issue in 2013 on living to 100, including an article by American author and radio personality, Garrison Keillor, with the billing, “Living To 100: Now It’s Normal What Will You Do?” And Dr. Oz, a well-known celebrity physician in the U.S., is shown on a Men’s Fitness cover of July 2011 for the story, “Dr. Oz Shows You How to Live to 100 (and live well).”

2007: “Healthy at 100," by John  Robbins. Click for copy.
2007: “Healthy at 100," by John Robbins. Click for copy.
2017: “The 100-Year Life,” by Gratton & Scott. Click for copy.
2017: “The 100-Year Life,” by Gratton & Scott. Click for copy.
1999: “Living to 100," by Perls & Sliver. Click for copy.
1999: “Living to 100," by Perls & Sliver. Click for copy.

In addition, a number of books have also been published on the “100 years of life” theme. Among titles released in recent years, for example, noted above, are: John Robbins’ 2007 book, Healthy at 100: The Scientifically Proven Secrets of the World’s Healthiest and Longest-Lived Peoples (384 pp., Ballantine Books); Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott’s 2017 book, The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity (424pp., Bloomsbury Business, paperback); and Thomas T. Perls and Margery Hutter Silver’s 1999 book, Living To 100: Lessons In Living To Your Maximum Potential At Any Age (304 pp., Basic Books, paperback).

 
Music Best

Song author, John Ondrasik, shown on cover of 'Five for Fighting, Live' album, which also includes a version of '100 Years'. Click for CD.
Song author, John Ondrasik, shown on cover of 'Five for Fighting, Live' album, which also includes a version of '100 Years'. Click for CD.
Publishing and the popular press may well have the corner on the market for the “how-to-get-to-100” stories and/or profiles of those who have crossed the centenarian threshold.

However, the more poignant stories, perhaps, are those that come with music, as in John Ondrasik’s “100 Years” song. And of course, his is not the only song on the subject.

One listing at SongFacts.com, for example, includes more than 180 songs that have something to do with aging or age-related themes. And periodically, some of the more thoughtful radio stations will offer special broadcasts that group songs around one or more age-related themes.

In any case, music looking back on one’s life – the joys and the trials, the loves lost and won, the wisdom gleaned or missed, and more – will always have strong appeal. And the John Ondrasik song, “100 Years,” is definitely one worth keeping on the playlist.

Readers who liked this story may also find the following stories of interest, which also sample music with related “life story” themes and lyrics, including: “Cycles” (Frank Sinatra), “What A Wonderful World” (Louis Armstrong), “Life is Beautiful” (Vega 4), “Taxi” (Harry Chapin), and “In My Life” (The Beatles). Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 24 April 2019
Last Update: 24 April 2019
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “100 Years To Live: 2003-2004,”
PopHistoryDig.com, April 24, 2019.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Former NPR producer, Neenah Ellis’s 2004 book, “If I Live to Be 100.” Click for book and/or audio edition.
Former NPR producer, Neenah Ellis’s 2004 book, “If I Live to Be 100.” Click for book and/or audio edition.
Michael Greger, M.D. and Gene Stone’s 2015 book, “How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease,” Flatiron Books, 576pp. Click for book.
Michael Greger, M.D. and Gene Stone’s 2015 book, “How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease,” Flatiron Books, 576pp. Click for book.

“100 Years,” Wikipedia.org.

“Five for Fighting” (John Ondrasik), Wikipe-dia.org.

JPMorgan Chase, Press Release, “Campaign Positions Chase as Company that Empowers Consumers Throughout Life’s Important Moments,” May 9, 2005, New York, NY.

“JPMorgan Makes Its ‘Choice’,” Adweek, May 9, 2005.

“Playing the ‘Heart Strings’ Card: JPMorgan Chase’s New Ad Connects with Consumers on an Emotional Level…,” U.S. Banker, July 5, 2005.

Apple/iTunes, “Commercial Success:50 Songs That Sell,” Apple.com, October 7, 2005.

Tim Nudd, “Apple Picks 50 Top Songs from Commercials,” Ad Week, October 11 2005.

“Five for Fighting – 100 Years: Music Video,” YouTube.com, posted October 2, 2009.

“100 Years by Five For Fighting,” SongFacts .com.

“Songs About Getting Older” (list of 186 songs), SongFacts.com.

Richard Corliss and Michael D. Lemonick, “How To Live To Be 100. New Research Suggests That a Long Life Is No Accident. So What Are the Secrets of the World’s Centenarians?,” Time, August 30, 2004.

Emily Brandon, “What People Who Live to 100 Have in Common; U.S. Residents in Several States Live Considerably Longer than the Rest of the Country,” U.S. News & World Report, January 7, 2013.

Bronwen Maddox, “Editorial: Living to 100,” and Cover Story, Garrison Keillor, “Living to 100. Now it’s Normal, What Will You Do?,” Prospect (U.K. magazine), March 2013.

“How Many Singaporeans Are Living to 100 Years Old?,” Population.sg, March 2016.

“More than Half of World’s Wealthy Expect to Live to 100: Survey,” Reuters.com, April 19, 2018.

John Robbins, Healthy at 100: The Scientifically Proven Secrets of the World’s Healthiest and Longest-Lived Peoples, 2007, Ballantine Books, 384pp.

Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, 2017, Bloomsbury Business, paperback, 424pp.

Thomas T. Perls and Margery Hutter Silver, Living To 100: Lessons In Living To Your Maximum Potential At Any Age, 1999, Basic Books, paperback, 304pp.

_____________________________






“Two-Sport Man”
Pittsburgh’s Dick Groat

Early 1950s. Dick Groat, All-American basketball star at Duke University, became a pro baseball player with the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals & Philadelphia Phillies.
Early 1950s. Dick Groat, All-American basketball star at Duke University, became a pro baseball player with the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals & Philadelphia Phillies.
Dick Groat grew up in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania in the 1940s, only a few miles from the Forbes Field baseball park in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, then home of the Pittsburgh Pirates professional baseball team.

Some years later, Groat would become a key player on the famous Pittsburgh Pirates team of 1960. That team — with a roster of other key players, including Vernon Law, Bob Friend, Hal Smith, Harvey Haddix, Bill Mazeroski and others — would upset the heavily-favored New York Yankees team of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, et. al, in the World Series that year in an historic and memorable Game 7 drama.

In fact, Dick Groat, as a Pittsburgh Pirate, would become quite the standout that year – serving as the Pirate’s team captain, winning the National League batting title with an average of .325, and also collecting the 1960 National League’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award.

But before his baseball heroics, there was basketball, as Dick Groat had also been an All-American basketball player at Duke University in the early 1950s, a nationally=ranked player who was selected by the then Fort Wayne (and later, Detroit) Pistons in the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft.

And for a time, Dick Groat thought he might try to play both professional sports for a few years. But in the end, baseball won out, yet basketball always tugged at his soul.

Groat was born in November 1930, the youngest of five children. As a boy growing up in the Pittsburgh area, he played more basketball that baseball, at least initially. “I played probably 20 times more basketball than I did baseball. Nobody in my neighborhood played Little League in those days…”

Dick Groat, 1954 Pittsburgh Pirates; Topps baseball card.
Dick Groat, 1954 Pittsburgh Pirates; Topps baseball card.
The first time he really started to play baseball was during his sophomore year in high school. He honed his athletic skills at Swissvale High School, where he played both baseball and basketball, and also volleyball.

Groat was not a exceptionally big guy – just at 5′ 11’’, but had grit and athletic talent enough that he stood out among his peers. And when the colleges came after him, he chose Duke, receiving a basketball scholarship there, where he would also play baseball.

Groat excelled at Duke, becoming an All-American in both sports in 1951 and 1952. But it was his basketball play that distinguished Groat during his collegiate years. Roy Terrell of Sports Illustrated would later write of Groat’s basketball talents at Duke:

…As a scorer he was almost impossible to stop. He could hit from outside with a two-hand set shot or confound and confuse the opposition with his driving, stop-and-go dribble in close. He was one of the first to realize the value of the one-hand jump shot, and he used it; he was also an exceptional rebounder for his size, a tough defensive man and perhaps the best playmaker ever seen in the old Southern Conference.

In 1951 at Duke he was named the Helms Foundation Player of the Year. In 1952, he became the first and only player to lead the nation in both scoring and assists. In fact, some who watched him play were astonished at his production – one calculating that with his points and assists he was sometimes accounting for more than 55 percent of Duke’s points. In 1952 UPI named him National Player of the Year after he set an NCAA record with 839 points

Dick Groat of Duke University driving for the bucket during his collegiate career in a game against Temple.
Dick Groat of Duke University driving for the bucket during his collegiate career in a game against Temple.
Groat’s last home game with Duke was against North Carolina in late February 1952, a game in which he had an especially hot hand, finishing with 48 points, the most allowed in a game by the Tar Heels. Duke won that game, 94-64, and Groat was carried off the court on the shoulders of Duke students.

Groat’s 48-point performance that game, became the single-game scoring record for a Duke player. The record would stand for 36 years until December 1988 when Danny Ferry of Duke scored 58 points against Miami.

Still, in Groat’s time at Duke, the university was not keen on post-season participation of its athletic teams.

“We were 24-6 in my senior year in basketball,” Groat would recall in a later interview, “and the administration wouldn’t let us play in the NIT.”

Duke that year had upset national No. 1 West Virginia, 90-88, in the Southern Conference semifinals, but lost in the Southern Conference championship game to N.C. State, who went on to the NCAA playoffs.

In the NBA draft of April 1952, Groat was selected 3rd overall pick in round one by the Fort Wayne (later, Detroit) Pistons. He was still in college at the time, and in fact, playing his final year of college baseball that spring as well.

Dick Goat was drafted 3rd overall in the 1952 NBA draft and played briefly with the Ft. Wayne Pistons.
Dick Goat was drafted 3rd overall in the 1952 NBA draft and played briefly with the Ft. Wayne Pistons.
And on the Duke baseball team, Groat was also a standout. In 1951, he hit .386 and helped his team to the College World Series, where they won their first game against Oregon State, but dropped out of the tournament after losses to Penn State and Western Michigan.

In the next season with Duke, Groat hit .370, and was again named All American. He also led the team that year in doubles, hits, runs batted in, and stolen bases.

In his collegiate career, Groat was a two-time winner of the McKelvin Award, given to the Athlete of the Year in the Southern Conference.

Pro baseball scouts, meanwhile, had noticed Groat’s play, and by 1952, three teams were interested – the Pirates, the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Giants. The Pirates had a leg up in the competition, as Pirate scouts and general manager Branch Rickey had been following Groat’s collegiate play. In fact, Groat had been invited to a workout with the Pirates in the summer while still in his junior year at Duke. Branch Rickey wanted to sign him then, offering to put him in the Pirates’ lineup the next night if he signed a contract on the spot.

But Groat said he felt an obligation to finish what he started at Duke, planning to play basketball and baseball in his senior year. But if Rickey made him the same offer a year later, he said, he’d be glad to sign with the Pirates. Rickey agreed to bide his time. A year later, a few days after the conclusion of the College World Series, Groat signed a five-year deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates, then joining the team in New York where he played the next night at the Polo Grounds in a game against the New York Giants.

June 1952. Dick Groat, fresh from the College Baseball World Series of 1952, shakes hands with Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, after signing a baseball contract to play with the Pirates, as Groat’s father looks on.
June 1952. Dick Groat, fresh from the College Baseball World Series of 1952, shakes hands with Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, after signing a baseball contract to play with the Pirates, as Groat’s father looks on.

Groat played with the Pirates through the remaining games of the 1952 season, hitting .284 in 95 games that summer. But after the first season with the Pirates, he returned to Duke, where he planned on finishing his degree. However, the Ft. Wayne Pistons were still hot on his trail and wanted Groat to play basketball for them that fall.

But since Groat was finishing his degree at Duke in Durham, North Carolina, he had assumed that he wouldn’t be able to play in the NBA – “because they were in Fort Wayne and I was in Durham.” But the Pistons really wanted him. “They said they would fly me out for the games, so I flew out and played an exhibition and scored a bunch of points and they wanted to keep me around. So they just flew me into wherever they were playing.” Still, the hectic schedule of games on the road and classes at back Duke almost caused him to end his basketball career, as he later recalled:

“At one point… the weather grounded me in Detroit and I had to cut a class. In those days, if you cut three classes during one semester you were kicked out of the school. My father would have killed me if I didn’t graduate since I only needed nine credits, so I called the Pistons and told them that I quit. They told me that they had to have me back and that the owner would get me a private plane to get me back for my classes on time. Along with that, they doubled my salary, so I was making more in basketball than in baseball. With the new arrangement, I would play with my team on Monday and play at places like Madison Square Garden, and then I’d go to class Wednesday and then fly out to the next game….”

Pittsburgh Pirate shortstop and NL MVP in 1960, Dick Groat, is featured on the August 8th 1960 cover of Sports Illustrated - “Fiery Leader of the Pirates.” Click for copy.
Pittsburgh Pirate shortstop and NL MVP in 1960, Dick Groat, is featured on the August 8th 1960 cover of Sports Illustrated - “Fiery Leader of the Pirates.” Click for copy.
Dick Groat had a .325 batting average in 1960, helping the Pirates take the NL pennant & himself, the MVP award.
Dick Groat had a .325 batting average in 1960, helping the Pirates take the NL pennant & himself, the MVP award.
By 1961, on the heels of the Pirates’ 1960 World Series win, and his own MVP year, Groat was getting top billing alongside Mickey Mantle on the early season reports. Click for copy.
By 1961, on the heels of the Pirates’ 1960 World Series win, and his own MVP year, Groat was getting top billing alongside Mickey Mantle on the early season reports. Click for copy.
At a 1961 spring training game, Groat continued to get head- liner treatment, here with NY Yankee slugger Roger Maris.
At a 1961 spring training game, Groat continued to get head- liner treatment, here with NY Yankee slugger Roger Maris.
In May 1961, Groat continues to receive top billing along side big stars like Mantle and football great, Jim Taylor.
In May 1961, Groat continues to receive top billing along side big stars like Mantle and football great, Jim Taylor.
1960s: Pittsburgh Pirates Roberto Clemente and Dick Groat checking out the Pirate lumber. Click for signed photo.
1960s: Pittsburgh Pirates Roberto Clemente and Dick Groat checking out the Pirate lumber. Click for signed photo.

During his 1952-53 season with the Pistons, Groat played 26 games of the 69-game schedule. He scored 309 points on 100 (two-point) field goals and 109 free throws, with 86 rebounds, averaging 11.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 2.7 assists. He then had two years of military service, where he continued to excel in both basketball and baseball.

During his time at the U.S. Army base in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., he led his teams to worldwide Army championships in both baseball and basketball – the first time a single U.S. Army base had won both titles in the same year.

In his Army play, Groat compiled a .362 batting average in baseball and a 35 points-per-game average in basketball.

In 1955, at the completion of his military service, Groat returned to Pittsburgh, ready to resume his two-sport pro careers with the Pistons and the Pirates.

“I honestly felt it would be all right to play both sports for a number of years.” But Pirate’s general manager Branch Rickey was not happy with that prospect. Rickey believed the two sports were different, and the demands on the human body would be too great – at a cost, Rickey believed, for the baseball side of the equation.

In trying to convince Rickey he could play both sports, Groat cited the example of Gene Conley, who pitched for the Milwaukee Braves pro baseball team in 1952 and also played pro basketball for the Boston Celtics.

“Don’t bring up Conley with me,” Rickey told Groat. “As a starting pitcher he only works every fourth or fifth day, and he’s only a backup center in basketball. You are a regular player in both baseball and basketball. I think you should realize that eventually you won’t justify your salary in either sport”. Rickey didn’t think an every-day player could do both.

Still, Groat said he had considered breaking his baseball contract in order to rejoin the Pistons, who had offered a higher salary and would also allow him to leave the team early for spring baseball training.

But in the end, Groat’s father weighed in as well. He was pretty insistent that his son stick with baseball, especially since in those years, professional baseball was considered the premiere, prestige professional sport – “America’s game.” More than either football or basketball at that time, baseball was the great American pastime. And legally, Groat had signed a five-year bonus contract with Rickey and the Pirates.

So, that was the end of Groat’s professional basketball career, but not the end of basketball in his life. More on that later. Still, Groat is one of 13 athletes who have played in the NBA and the Major Leagues.

The Pirates in the 1950s, meanwhile, were something of a doormat club in the National League, as Rickey was then on a building mission, soon to add high-caliber talent.

Rickey had come to the Pirates as General Manager in 1950, after he had made history with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 by bringing in Jackie Robinson as the first African American player in Major League baseball.

But with Pittsburgh, Rickey had some tough seasons while he tried to rebuild. In 1952, the Pirates had one of the worst seasons in major league history, finishing with 42 wins and 112 losses, 54½ games out of first place.

Rickey had previously invented the farm system with the Cardinals, and built powerful teams with both the Cardinals and the Dodgers. Now in Pittsburgh, he set out to do the same, bringing in new blood and younger players.

Among Rickey’s successful picks were pitchers Vernon Law, Bob Friend and Elroy Face, second baseman Bill Mazeroski, outfielder Roberto Clemente, drafted from Brooklyn, and Dick Groat. These players, and a few others, would form the nucleus of the Pirates’ 1960 championship club.

Groat for his part had a few tough years at the outset, but soon found his footing. At shortstop, though not endowed with exceptional speed or the strongest arm, he was a very smart defender, typically taking the right field position for each hitter.

At the plate, by 1957, Groat was the fifth best in the National League, batting .315. In 1958 he hit .300, and led the league in putouts and double plays as the Pirates finished in second place. In 1959, he again led the league in putouts and double plays and made his first of five All-Star teams. However, in the off-season that year, he was nearly traded for Roger Maris, but the deal was cancelled by manager Danny Murtaugh.

In 1960, at age 29, Groat had a banner year with the Bucs, becoming team captain. He hit for a .325 average that year with 189 hits, winning the National League batting title. By August 1960, Groat made the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, with the cover tagline, “Fiery Leader of the Pirates.”

Groat would also win the National League’s Most Valuable Player trophy in 1960, and help the Pirates to their World Series victory over the NY Yankees, though having just recovered from a broken wrist.

In the Series, Groat tied Game 1 at 1-1 with a first-inning double and scored to give Pittsburgh the lead, eventually winning that game 6-4, with Groat turning a double play to end the game. In Game 7, he had an RBI single and scored in the 8th inning, in which the Pirates scored 5 runs to take a 9-7 lead, eventually winning that game and the Series on Bill Mazeroski’s famed walk-off home run.

In 1961 Groat batted .275, and together with Mazeroski led the league in double plays. In 1962 he batted .294, finishing third in the league in doubles with 34, also leading the league in putouts, assists, and double plays.

But in November 1962, Dick Groat was caught by surprise, as then general manager Joe L. Brown, in need of pitching support, traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for pitcher Don Cardwell.

July 22, 1963: Dick Groat on the cover of Sports Illustrated – “A Hitting Shortstop On a Hard-Hitting Team.” Click for copy.
July 22, 1963: Dick Groat on the cover of Sports Illustrated – “A Hitting Shortstop On a Hard-Hitting Team.” Click for copy.
October 1964: St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Dick Groat and pitcher Bob Gibson celebrate the 1964 World Series championship. (Sports Illustrated photo).
October 1964: St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Dick Groat and pitcher Bob Gibson celebrate the 1964 World Series championship. (Sports Illustrated photo).
April 18, 1966. Dick Groat on the cover of Sports Illustrated showing his "hit-and-run" form, then thought to be a help to the Phillies pennant hopes. Click for copy.
April 18, 1966. Dick Groat on the cover of Sports Illustrated showing his "hit-and-run" form, then thought to be a help to the Phillies pennant hopes. Click for copy.
1967. Groat in his final season with the San Francisco Giants.
1967. Groat in his final season with the San Francisco Giants.

In St. Louis…

Dick Groat was deeply hurt by the trade to St. Louis, having set his sights on possibly coaching and managing in Pittsburgh after his playing years.

“I was heartbroken to hear that I had been traded. Pittsburgh is my hometown and I never wanted to leave. It’s the greatest city in the world and I never wanted to leave. That was one of the toughest winters that I’ve ever spent….”

In fact, for a time after the trade to St. Louis, Groat severed all contact with the Pirate organization (though later restored in 1990 after a team reunion).

In St. Louis, though, Groat became a key member of one of the best hitting infields ever assembled , including Ken Boyer at third base, Groat at shortstop, Julian Javier and Bill White at first)

By July 1963, Sports Illustrated was praising Groat’s play: “Groat, still the same deadly opposite-field hitter he was when he won the National League batting title in 1960, uses a log for a bat and merely slaps the ball wherever it is pitched.”

Groat would later say of his first year in St. Louis, “… I had the best year of my career in 1963 with the Cardinals. I hit in front of Stan Musial the whole season and I had never seen so many good pitches to hit.”

Groat finished finished fourth in the National League that year with a .319 batting average – just seven points off the top average that year – compiling 201 hits. He also led the league with 43 doubles, and was third in triples with 11. And in a year when Los Angeles Dodger pitching sensation, Sandy Koufax, was striking out everything in sight and would win the National League’s MVP award, Dick Groat was the runnerup for that award. He also earned an All-Star appearance that year.

In 1964 he batted .292 for the pennant-winning Cardinals, also leading the league in assists and double plays and making his last All-Star team.

In the 1964 World Series against the Yankees, he reached base on Bobby Richardson’s error in the sixth inning of Game 4, and scored on Ken Boyer’s grand slam in the 4-3 St. Louis victory. Groat also tagged out Mickey Mantle in the third inning of that game on a pickoff play. He scored in the 3-run tenth inning of Game 5, a 5-2 win, and had an RBI groundout in the final 7-5 win in Game 7.

 
To Philadelphia

After hitting .254 for the Cardinals in 1965, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in a six-player deal. The Phillies that year were a good prospect for a National League pennant, according to Sports Illustrated, and Groat, a good hit-and-run man, was seen as someone who could help them get there.

The Phillies finished in the top half of the National League that year, in fourth place, at 87 and 75. Dick Groat hit .265 for the year, and his contract was sold midway through the next season, in June 1967, to the Giants (by then in San Francisco). He then split that 1967 season between the Phillies and the San Francisco Giants, ending his career that year with a .156 average in 44 games.

In his Major League baseball career, spanning 14 years and some 1,929 games, Dick Groat compiled a .286 batting average with 2,138 hits, 39 home runs, 829 runs scored, 707 runs batted in, 352 doubles, and 14 stolen bases. He made five all-star teams and won two World Series rings, one with the Pirates (1960) and St. Louis Cardinals (1964).

At the end of his playing career, Dick Groat returned to the Pittsburgh area. For many years when he played baseball, Groat had worked during the off-season as a salesman for Jessup Steel in Washington, Pennsylvania. But in 1965 he took a new direction. Groat and former Pirates teammate Jerry Lynch built a public golf course, called Champion Lakes, in the Laurel Valley, 50 miles east of Pittsburgh. And for some years thereafter, Groat would spend a good deal of time living at Champion Lakes and managing day-to-day operations there.

 
Back to Basketball

But then in 1979, a new opportunity came Groat’s way – one that brought him back to his first love, basketball. That’s when the University of Pittsburgh reached out to him about becoming a broadcaster for the Pitt men’s games in Division 1 NCAA play. He didn’t hesitate on the offer.

2018. Groat being honored at a Duke-Pitt basketball game.
2018. Groat being honored at a Duke-Pitt basketball game.

Dick Groat was then in his version of basketball heaven! For the next 40 basketball seasons, Groat was a Pitt Panthers’ radio sportscaster, alongside partner Bill Hillgrove.

In March 2019, his tenure as a Pitt broadcaster was ended at age 88, though feeling he still had a few more seasons left. But Dick Groat was always grateful for the experience, saying at one point:

2015. Honored on Duke-Pitt program.
2015. Honored on Duke-Pitt program.
“I could have never pictured myself becoming a broadcaster, but thank God that this has happened because it’s an absolute joy to me and I’ve loved every minute of it. I love college basketball. It was my first love. And just being around all of the kids keeps me young. Every day that I walk into a basketball arena is a joy to me.”

And over the years in Pittsburgh, and on the road, there have been special moments for Groat, some commemorating his basketball feats of the past, and others celebrating reunions with former baseball teammates, and various other special events where he has been honored.

In 2007, Groat was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Four years later, in 2011 he was inducted into the National College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011. With that induction, he became the first man ever inducted into both the college basketball and college baseball halls of fame.

In March 2014, at the opening day of Pittsburgh Pirates baseball season, Groat was there at PNC Park along with Barry Bonds and Andrew McCutchen as honored guests. In mid-January 2015, when Pitt played Duke at the Cameron Indoor Stadium, a photo of Dick Groat of 1952 dribbling down court was featured on the game’s program cover. Back in Pittsburgh, meanwhile, in mid-2018, the City Council announced that “Dick Groat Day” would be celebrated on June 12, 2018. For Dick Groat, the years have been mostly kind, filled with a two-sport collection of many fans and many fine memories.

Duke University's hot young guard, Dick Groat (#10), eluding Temple defenders, and taking the ball to the bucket, early 1950s.
Duke University's hot young guard, Dick Groat (#10), eluding Temple defenders, and taking the ball to the bucket, early 1950s.

Readers of this story may also find “The Mazeroski Moment” of interest — a story about the famous 1960 World Series games between the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Yankees, including background on each team’s 1960 season, key players, and review of the seven World Series games, with photos. See also the “Annals of Sport” category page for additional sports stories. And basketball fans may also find these stories of interest: “Basketball Dollars: NCAA History,” about how NCAA tournament basketball has grown in recent years to become a big money and big media enterprise; and “Bill Bradley, 1960s-2009,” about the former Princeton and New York Knicks basketball star who went on to become a U.S. Senator, presidential candidate, and author of several best-selling books.

Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 22 March 2019
Last Update: 22 March 2019
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Two-Sport Man: Pittsburgh’s Dick Groat,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 22, 2019.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Dick Groat/ Frank Dascenzo 1978 book, "Groat: I Hit and Ran," Moore Publishing. Click for book.
Dick Groat/ Frank Dascenzo 1978 book, "Groat: I Hit and Ran," Moore Publishing. Click for book.
Dick Groat / Bill Surface 1961 book, "The World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates," Coward-McCann. Click for book.
Dick Groat / Bill Surface 1961 book, "The World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates," Coward-McCann. Click for book.

Walter Bingham, “Dick Groat and His Hitting Machine,” Sports Illustrated, July 22, 1963.

William Leggett, “Whose Turn in the Fratricidal National?,” Sports Illustrated, April 18, 1966.

Associated Press, “His First Sport: Ferry’s 58 Points Broke Duke Record Few Realized That Ex-Pirate Dick Groat Held,” Los Angeles Times, December 16, 1988.

Bill Brill, “Duke-UNC Memories: Dick Groat,” Blue Devil Weekly, March 5, 2004.

Steve Treder, “The Branch Rickey Pirates (Part 3: 1951-1952),” The Hardball Times, March 31, 2009.

Joseph Wancho, “Dick Groat,” Society for American Baseball Research, 2013.

Johnny Moore, “An Interview With Former Two-Sport Star Dick Groat,” GoDuke (The Magazine), June 6, 2014.

Al Yellon, “Cubs Historical Sleuthing: All-Star Edition” (There aren’t too many photos around of this game), BleedCubbieBlue.com, February 17, 2018.

Christine Coleman, “Cardinals Throwback Thursday: Basketball Stars Bob Gibson and Dick Groat,” AaronMilesFastball.com, March 20, 2014.

Chip Alexander, “He Twice Won the World Series. But Before That, He Was a Duke Basketball Star,” NewsObserver.com, January 23, 2018.

Ben Hamrick, “Baseball Legend and Pride of Swissvale,” Pittsburgh.com, June 6, 2016.

Brian Rzeppa, “An Interview With Pittsburgh Sports Legend Dick Groat,” BucsDugout.com, February 4, 2016.

James Crabtree-Hannigan, “Pittsburgh City Council Names June 12, 2018, ‘Dick Groat Day’ To Honor Pitt Broadcaster,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 12, 2018.

Ron Cook, “Ron Cook: Dick Groat is The Best Athlete To Come Out of Western Pennsylvania,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 13, 2018.

Jerry DiPaola, “In 40th and Final Year, Dick Groat Reflects on Broadcasting Pitt Basketball,” TribLive.com, March 13, 2019.

“Dick Groat,” Wikipedia.org.

“Guide to the Dick Groat Collection, 1948-1955,” David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Duke University.

 
________________________________
 





“Nixon-Related Stories”
Topics Page: 1950s-2000s

Republican Crisis

“Nixon’s Checkers Speech”

September 1952

Endangered VP candidate,
Richard Nixon, discovers
the “magic” of television.

Post Watergate

“The Frost-Nixon Biz”

1977-2009

The multi-media cottage
industry that followed
the Frost/Nixon interviews.

Politics & Celebrity

“1968 Presidential Race”

Republicans

Celebrity support — from John
Wayne to Billy Graham —
helped Nixon win in ’68.

On Nixon’s List

“Enemy of the President”

1970s

Cartoonist Paul Conrad
draws the ire
of Richard Nixon.

Music & Republican Wrath

“White Rabbit”

Grace Slick: 1960s

Jefferson Airplane song
drew political fire from
Nixon-Agnew-Linkletter.

Politics & Protest

“Four Dead in O-hi-o”

1970

Kent State tragedy
comes with Nixon’s
Cambodia incursion.

Kennedy vs. Nixon

“JFK’s 1960 Campaign”

Primaries & Fall Election

While the focus here
is JFK, Richard Nixon
was his main opponent.

Politics & Publishing

“The Pentagon Papers”

1967-2018

A ‘freedom-of-the-press’
story & the beginning of
Richard Nixon’s downfall.

Nixon & The Environment

“Santa Barbara Oil Spill”

Union Oil: 1969

Oil blowout generates
pressure on Nixon
for ban & tougher regs.

Nixon & The Environment

“Burn On, Big River…”

Cuyahoga Fire: 1969

River’s burning spurs
Congress, Nixon and
Earth Day 1970.



Please Support
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Date Posted: 16 March 2019
Last Update: 16 March 2019
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Nixon-Related Stories, Topics Page:
1950s-2000s,” PopHistoryDig.com, March 16, 2019.

____________________________________





“Buffalo Creek Disaster”
Coal Dams Fail: 1972

In the early morning hours of Saturday, February 26th, 1972, after three days of rain, a series of coal slurry impoundments in the upper reaches of the Buffalo Creek watershed in Logan County, West Virginia, were beginning to weaken. They were filled to capacity, holding tons of coal wastewater. The dams, built of coal slag wastes, were then owned by the Pittston Coal Company. Coal waste dumping had gone on there for decades, up in the hills, at the headwaters of the Buffalo Creek. But in the valley below, Buffalo Creek ran for about 17 miles where some 5,000 people lived in a string of 16 small towns built along the valley’s bottom lands. When the impoundments up in the hills gave way that February morning, a tsunami-like wall of thick, black coal wastewater went crashing down the hollow, wiping out homes and lives.

Feb 28, 1972. Headlines of the 'Charleston Daily Mail' of Charleston, WV reporting early death toll of 66 people killed during the Buffalo Creek flood disaster, the result of a giant “coal waste” wall of water from failed “gob” dams high in the hills upstream, also showing houses tossed about in the ravaged watershed. Actual death toll would be 125, nearly twice early reports.
Feb 28, 1972. Headlines of the 'Charleston Daily Mail' of Charleston, WV reporting early death toll of 66 people killed during the Buffalo Creek flood disaster, the result of a giant “coal waste” wall of water from failed “gob” dams high in the hills upstream, also showing houses tossed about in the ravaged watershed. Actual death toll would be 125, nearly twice early reports.

Residents were just awakening that Saturday morning; some entire families were still in bed. In the end, more than 125 people were killed, at least 1,000 injured, and some 4,000 left homeless. The headlines the next day played the catastrophe as a flood disaster, as there had been heavy rain. Yet, as all who lived in those parts knew well, this was a coal disaster, not an “act of God,” as the coal company would later claim.

Some residents in the area, especially those who lived in the town of Saunders, located in the valley directly below the dams, had worried for years about the dams’ strength. They also worried about the mining practice of dumping coal mining “slag” or “gob”– coal mining waste – into the dams. One resident had even written to the governor a few years earlier saying if something wasn’t done about the dams, “we’re all going to be washed away.”“We saw the water lift up our house. When the water set it down again, it just flattened out on the ground. The water was there, and then it was gone…”    – Edna Baisden And on the morning of February 26, 1972, just after 8:00 am, that worst fear was realized.

The huge wall of coal wastewater was 30 feet high and 550 feet wide as it gauged its way down the hollow, first smashing through Saunders and then, successively through Pardee, Lorado, Londale, and a dozen other small villages in the narrow creek valley.

The moving wall of wastewater did its damage in seconds, in repeated fashion, as it moved down the hollow. “We saw the water lift up our house,” said Enda Baisden Short, recalling for The Herald Dispatch of Huntington, West Virginia that she and her husband had run from their home early that Saturday morning just prior to coal waste flood. “When the water set it down again, it just flattened out on the ground. The water was there, and then it was gone.”

As the wave moved down the mountain valley it wiped out much of what stood in its path. Some residents in higher hilltop homes overlooking Buffalo Creek, watched as entire houses floated down the hollow, some later crashing into a small bridge downstream. One resident at the scene, later quoted in in Kai T. Erikson’s book, Everything in Its Path, noted of the onrushing tide: “This water, when it came down through here, it acted real funny. It would go this way on this side of the hill and take a house out; take one house out of all the rows, and then go back the other way. It would just go from one hillside to the other…”

Map of Buffalo Creek communities in 1972 shown with disaster summary inset. Sources: “The Herald Dispatch,” newspaper of Huntington, WV, Thomas Marsh, and the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.
Map of Buffalo Creek communities in 1972 shown with disaster summary inset. Sources: “The Herald Dispatch,” newspaper of Huntington, WV, Thomas Marsh, and the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.

The black wall of water was later estimated to have moved at a rate of seven feet per second. In addition to its coal debris, the slurry wave picked up an abrasive and destructive mixture of semi-rotten trees, rocks, and sediment as it went, gouging out the land and becoming a more lethal force capable of battering and sweeping away all in its path. It ripped homes from their foundations, swept up cars, mobile homes, and bridges, and even left twisted rail lines in a few places before it finished its destructive run over 17 miles to the Guyandotte River.

One retired coal miner who survived the flood, but who lost his wife, daughter and granddaughter in the disaster, explained what he experienced in one Charleston Gazette account: “…How I got out of that water, I don’t know… I rode the house a long ways. Then I fell off in the water. I finally caught hold of the railroad with one hand and pulled my myself out. As I rode that house down the creek I could see that the bottom of it was above those telephone poles in the holler.”

February 1972.  Aerial photograph from 'The Herald Dispatch' (Huntington, WV) captures some of the enormous damage in the Buffalo Creek valley, showing collection of homes uprooted and floated down the valley, covering roads and rail lines.
February 1972. Aerial photograph from 'The Herald Dispatch' (Huntington, WV) captures some of the enormous damage in the Buffalo Creek valley, showing collection of homes uprooted and floated down the valley, covering roads and rail lines.

Rescue operations and accurate reporting of the dead and missing were made difficult by the fact that access to the area by road had been wiped out, with bridges destroyed and rail lines blocked or flooded. A few helicopters were used initially until local miners and others, and the National Guard, began clearing debris and building makeshift roads and bridges.

Robert Shy, among those in the West Virginia Army National Guard who helped during the crisis, flew helicopters up and down the valley delivering water and milk and picking up dazed and injured survivors. “It just broke your heart to see firsthand the devastation that water could do,” he would tell a Herald Dispatch reporter. “Roads weren’t where they used to be, nor were houses. Railroad rails were twisted, cars were everywhere, bridges were on the roads instead of over the creek.”

February 28, 1972. An early New York Times story filed from Man, West Virginia, implicated 'coal waste pile' in its reporting on the Buffalo Creek disaster, along with a photo of some of the local damage.
February 28, 1972. An early New York Times story filed from Man, West Virginia, implicated 'coal waste pile' in its reporting on the Buffalo Creek disaster, along with a photo of some of the local damage.

The news of the Buffalo Creek Disaster broke variously across the nation the next few days, in part due to the difficulty of getting to the site. The New York Times ran an Associated Press wire story on the front page of its Sunday, February 27th, 1972 edition, above the fold, bearing the headline, “37 Killed as Flood Sweeps A Valley in West Virginia.” The opening sentence of that story read: “A huge, coal-slag heap serving as a dam burst under the pressure of three days of torrential rains early this morning, sending a wall of water through a narrow valley dotted with small impoverished mining towns.” The Times’ own reporter, George Vecsey, based in Kentucky, managed to reach Man, West Virginia on February 27th, filing his story (above) which appeared in the next day’s edition. UPI photographer Leo Gardner, one of the first outsiders to reach the area reported, “Lorado was wiped out.” Another early report from the devastation noted: “52 bodies lying on both sides of the road running alongside Buffalo Creek.” Some drowned in the floodwaters, while others were buried by landslides, as a thick muck had moved along with the coal water.

Feb 27, 1972.  Headlines from 'The Springfield Republican' of Massachusetts, report on the 'W.Va. Dam Break'.
Feb 27, 1972. Headlines from 'The Springfield Republican' of Massachusetts, report on the 'W.Va. Dam Break'.
The Charleston Gazette of February 1972 reporting on the early flood death total, with front-page photo of damaged homes thrown about on the valley floor.
The Charleston Gazette of February 1972 reporting on the early flood death total, with front-page photo of damaged homes thrown about on the valley floor.
Associated Press wire story reporting "400 missing" in a front-page story that ran in The Tuscaloosa Times newspaper in Alabama.
Associated Press wire story reporting "400 missing" in a front-page story that ran in The Tuscaloosa Times newspaper in Alabama.
Feb 28, 1972, The Logan Banner of Logan, WV reports on the search for victims, relief effort, and first-hand accounts.
Feb 28, 1972, The Logan Banner of Logan, WV reports on the search for victims, relief effort, and first-hand accounts.

The Springfield Republican newspaper of of Springfield, Massachusetts ran a wire story from United Press International (UPI) on the front page with the headline: “80 to 90 Feared Dead in W. Va. Dam Break; Mining Town ‘Wiped Out’.” That story shared the front page with other national and regional news that day, picturing U.S. Senator Ed Muskie (D-NH) in one photo, then running for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, shown campaigning ahead of the New Hampshire primary.

At one point, West Virginia Governor Arch Moore, complaining that the state’s image was getting a bad rap from the media, closed the Buffalo Creek area to reporters. But West Virginia newspapers in the area were covering the tragedy closely, as the grim business of accounting for the dead, injured, and homeless continued. Still, the reported number of dead and missing varied with each day’s news reports, a reflection of the difficulty in finding and identifying bodies in the aftermath.

Later accounts from survivors would describe some of the horrendous moments that families faced as the coal flood tore through the valley.

Roland Staten, a coal miner who had managed to jump off of his house as it was being carried away by the rushing waters, held on to his son as he jumped. But his pregnant wife couldn’t get out; she was trapped in the house. In a court statement later, Mr. Staten recounted his travail and losing his wife: “When I looked back and saw her she said, ‘Take care of my baby.’…That’s the last time I saw her.”

Mr. Staten and his son, meanwhile, swept along in the water, were struggling to save themselves. “I was thrown from side to side and crushed,” he recounted, “my insides was crushed so hard it just seemed my eyeballs was trying to pop out, and… I couldn’t get my breath at all. Somewhere along there I lost that boy of mine. I don’t know where. By that time he had stopped screaming and drunk so much water and everything – I don’t what happened to him.”

Alvid Davis was working outside his home in the community of Stowe when he looked up and saw the flood waters coming, according to an Associated Press report of February 28, 1972. Davis managed to rescue two of his sons, and his neighbors helped pull his 17-year-old daughter from the waters two miles down the hollow. But his youngest son and daughter and his wife were among the missing. “My daughter said she had heard my wife praying when the waters hit the house,” said Davis, later recounting his travail.

Wallace Adkins of Robinette, tried to escape the on-rushing wall of water by loading up his family car. But the water-soaked engine would not start, and as he reached for his wife, the flood “just carried her away.” Adkins did manage to hold onto one daughter and two sons, but his wife and two other children could not be located.

Another survivor and eye witness recounted what he saw to a Logan Banner reporter: “…It was throwing houses around like matchstems and it was picking up cars like they were eggshells…”

Two other witnesses reported to the Logan Banner that they “saw bodies getting hung in trees… The water was black and it was carrying homes and timber…” Another man added: “I just didn’t believe I would see that much water and houses floating down the creek. Men and women, children and animals were …floating in that high wall of water.”

Those who survived saw corpses everywhere. Hundreds of families lost everything — their homes, their belongings, their memorabilia. An accounting of the disaster, and multiple investigations, would then proceed to piece together what had happened there, focused on the coal mining and dam building.

A Pittston Coal Group decal sticker listing some of the company's mining locations in the VA-WV area.
A Pittston Coal Group decal sticker listing some of the company's mining locations in the VA-WV area.


Mining & Dumping

The first coal mining in the Buffalo Creek watershed dated to the 1910s when a few “coal camps” – small mining towns – sprang up following the first rail lines into the area to exploit the coal there. Through the 1940s coal mining and coal washing – including dumping coal refuse and coal wash water – occurred in the area of the Middle Fork, one of three headwater streams that formed Buffalo Creek. By 1957, the Buffalo Mining Company, as part of its strip mining operations, began dumping “gob” — mine waste consisting of mine dust, shale, clay, low-quality coal, and other impurities — into the Middle Fork branch.

In 1960, Buffalo Mining had constructed its first gob dam, or impoundment, near the mouth of Middle Fork in 1960. Six years later, it added a second dam, 600 feet further upstream. And by 1968, the company was dumping more gob at a third location, another 600 feet upstream. But this dam – dam No. 3 – had been built on top of coal slurry sediment that had collected behind the earlier dams 1 and 2, not on solid bedrock. By 1972, the third dam ranged from 45-to-60 feet in height, and the Middle Fork had become a series of black pools.

The three dams also served as something of a crude pollution-prevention system: filtering, settling out, and retaining the dirty prep plant particles and toxins found in the coal wastewater, also enabling some reuse of the water in processing. Downstream, the coal wastewater — theoretically “filtered” through the dams – would then emerge in a “cleaner” state in Buffalo Creek and beyond. But the dam pools, and the dumping of the solid slag wastes on the dam structures, were both essentially cost-saving, “cheapest-way-to-do-it” coal industry practices. Additionally, on one side of the valley below Dam #1, there was a huge smoldering coal refuse pile.

Aerial photograph used during investigation of  Buffalo Creek Disaster, showing the approximate locations of the three coal waste “gop” dams, and the path taken by coal slurry flood wave on its destructive run downstream.
Aerial photograph used during investigation of Buffalo Creek Disaster, showing the approximate locations of the three coal waste “gop” dams, and the path taken by coal slurry flood wave on its destructive run downstream.

The dams themselves were certainly not state-of-the-art construction. According to one assessment at the time: “These impromptu structures were hardly dams in any technical sense… They were simply piles of coal waste, clay, shale, red dog, and other by-products of the coal preparation process, dumped off the back of trucks and bulldozed to an even height. Many in the downstream communities were keenly aware of the unstable nature of these impoundments, and expressed their concern to government officials….” In fact, there had already been signs of trouble at the dams, which should have raised alarms and efforts at corrective construction.

In March 1967, a partial collapse at one of the dams caused some flooding in the hollow, alarming residents already concerned about the structures. State officials requested a few minor alterations to the impoundment. And that same year, 1967, the U.S. Department of the Interior had warned state officials that the Buffalo Creek dams – and 29 others throughout West Virginia – were unstable and dangerous.“[I]f you don’t do some-thing, we’re all going to be washed away.”
    – Pearl Woodrum letter, Feb 1968
Interior’s study had been prompted by a coal dam failure in Aberfan, Wales in 1966 – a catastrophe that had killed 147 people, including 116 school children.

In February 1968, Saunders resident Mrs. Pearl Woodrum wrote a letter of complaint to then Governor Hulett Smith saying in effect, the dams were unsafe. “[I]f you don’t do something,” she wrote, prophetically, “we’re all going to be washed away.” Her letter did bring a state inspector to visit the dams. He reported there was no danger of a washout of Dam No. 1. However, he did question the ability of the overflow pipes in Dam No. 2 to handle excessive runoff. A search of Public Service Commission records in response to Pearl Woodrum’s complaint failed to produce any proof that dams No.1 and No. 2 had ever been formally approved by the state. In March 1968, DNR notified the Logan County Prosecuting Attorney of Pearl Woodrum’s letter, but no action was taken at the local level or by the state.

By June 1970, Pittston had acquired the Buffalo Mining Company. But before the acquisition, Pittston engineers had reportedly surveyed the Buffalo Mining property, and according to company officials who later testified: “Our reports had no indication that there was any danger, or that anything was wrong with the impoundments . . .”In 1971, Pittston was cited for over 5,000 safety violations at its mines nationally. At the time of Pittston’s acquisition of Buffalo Mining, Dam No. 3 was under construction and about 50 percent completed.

Less than a year later, in February 1971, Dam No. 3 failed. However, in this case, Dam No. 2 held and halted the water. The state then cited Pittston for violations but failed to follow up with inspections. Pittston by then had developed a reputation for poor safety practices, and was ranked second nationally in the number of fatal and non-fatal mine accidents. In fact, the company was cited for over 5,000 safety violations at its mines nationally in 1971. But the company challenged each of the violations and paid only $275 of the $1.3 million in fines originally proposed.

Pittston was also the fifth largest corporate landowner in the Appalachian region at the time, holding nearly 375,000 acres. It also held coal reserves of 1.5 billion tons, mostly high-grade metallurgical coal used in steel-making. Beyond coal, and headquartered in New York City, Pittston had other diverse holdings – an oil company, a large trucking firm, the Brink’s armored car company, and forty percent of the warehouses in New York City.

February 1972. Some of the flood damage in the aftermath of the Buffalo Creek disaster in West Virginia, showing "mud line" on damaged home, indicating approximation of flood levels for some structures, while others were carried away in the wave or disintegrated into pieces.
February 1972. Some of the flood damage in the aftermath of the Buffalo Creek disaster in West Virginia, showing "mud line" on damaged home, indicating approximation of flood levels for some structures, while others were carried away in the wave or disintegrated into pieces.

As of February 1st, 1972, dam No. 3 was being filled at a rate of about 1,000 tons of refuse a day, carried from the coal preparation plant to the dam in 30-ton trucks. The company was operating eight mines in the vicinity and ran all the coal through the preparation plant above the dams. The plant was pumping about 500 tons of water-saturated waste into the pond behind dam No. 3 every day. A few weeks later, on February 22nd, a federal mine inspector and the company safety engineer observed the dams and found conditions satisfactory. Three days later, on February 25, with heavy rain, the water behind dam No. 3 was rising one or two inches per hour. The next day, February 26th, at 1:30 a.m. the water was twelve inches from the dam’s crest and oozing through the dam’s surface. Not long thereafter, the dam gave way, creating the horror that unfolded for the Buffalo Creek communities downstream.


Surveying The Damage

As the skies cleared on Sunday, February 27, West Virginia’s Governor, Arch Moore toured the area by helicopter, describing the “awesome destruction” he viewed from above. President Richard Nixon, then in China, had contacted Moore by phone to promise Federal disaster aid. Army personnel, the Red Cross, state and county officials were all on the scene by then as well, trying to feed, clothe and comfort survivors. A temporary morgue was set up at an elementary school in the town of Man.

A helicopter hovers over one location in the Buffalo Creek valley, surveying the damage in the aftermath of the coal dam failures and devastating flood of February 26, 1972. Note mud lines on the building at left, marking flood level.
A helicopter hovers over one location in the Buffalo Creek valley, surveying the damage in the aftermath of the coal dam failures and devastating flood of February 26, 1972. Note mud lines on the building at left, marking flood level.

U.S. Congressman Ken Hechler (D-WV)), who also came to the area on Sunday, February 27th, told reporters that the U.S. Bureau of Mines and state agencies had “failed to demonstrate sufficient concern for the protection of the safety of the people who work in the mines and live in the mining communities.” Hechler also pointed to what he believed was a contributing cause of the flooding: “As I looked through Buffalo Creek valley yesterday, it struck me again that the entire valley is honeycombed with strip mines and the waste from deep mines so that the soil can no longer hold the [rain] water.” Hechler also slammed the coal industry’s power in the area, saying, “the people are prisoners of the coal industry…” And with some irony, he added, “the only building left intact in one Buffalo community was the company store.”

Crowd of onlookers in the distance surveys the enormous debris field jammed up against a downstream bridge following the Buffalo Creek coal flood. Some survivors reported homes exploding or splintering apart with the wave's impact. Gazette-Mail/L. Pierce.
Crowd of onlookers in the distance surveys the enormous debris field jammed up against a downstream bridge following the Buffalo Creek coal flood. Some survivors reported homes exploding or splintering apart with the wave's impact. Gazette-Mail/L. Pierce.

On Monday, February 28th, U.S. Senator Jennings Randolph (D-WV) visited Man High School, a temporary refugee location for Buffalo Creek survivors. Tempers flared there as one local man tore into Randolph. “I told you this was going to happen,” he said, “I told you.“ He had voted for Randolph, but was frustrated with the political process and how the locals were regarded by most politicians. He believed most local people didn’t tell Randolph and other politicians how they really feel. “You build them up with a bunch of political propaganda…..,” he said, also suggesting that the “coal operator’s money” installed the politicians in Washington, and then, “you don’t care nothing about us.”

February 1972. The Charleston Gazette reporting on the rising death toll of the Buffalo Creek Disaster and Pittston’s PR office calling the disaster an “act of God”.
February 1972. The Charleston Gazette reporting on the rising death toll of the Buffalo Creek Disaster and Pittston’s PR office calling the disaster an “act of God”.


“Act of God”

Not long after the dams had burst, and the flood waters had raged through the Buffalo Creek communities, Pittston’s New York public relations office, attempting to absolve the company from legal responsibility, issued a news release stating that the flood was “an act of God.” The dam, said the Pittston officials, was simply “incapable of holding the water God poured into it.”

At a protest meeting held in the Buffalo Grade School in Accoville a month after the flood, an older woman stood up and shouted out: “I’ve lived up at the top of the hollow for a long time. And I ain’t never seen God up there driving no bulldozer dumping slate on that dam.” Her remarks won applause from most everyone in the room. Robert Weedall, West Virginia’s climatologist, noted in later remarks that yes, “Act of God is a legal term,” but there were other perhaps more apt legal terms that might apply to what had happened in Buffalo Creek, such as “involuntary manslaughter” or “criminal negligence.” The record, however, would prove that “acts of man” had everything to do with what happened at Buffalo Creek.

WV Governor, Arch Moore.
WV Governor, Arch Moore.


Investigations

By March 2, Republican Governor Arch Moore announced the formation of an Ad Hoc Commission of Inquiry to investigate the flood. Its nine members, however, were either sympathetic to the coal industry, or government officials whose departments might have been complicit in the dams’ failures. After then-president of the United Mine Workers Union, Arnold Miller and others were rebuffed by Gov. Moore regarding their request that a coal miner be added to the commission, a separate Citizens’ Commission was formed to provide an independent review of the disaster.

“The current members of [the Governor’s] panel are either oriented to coal or apologists for the tragedy, so we are creating our own commission of 19 residents to take testimony from eyewitnesses,” said Pat McClintock at the time. McClintock was a field worker for the Black Lung Association, an organization focused on the debilitating disease common to miners. “We do not see this as a disaster in a vacuum,” he said, “but a series of events of coal dominating the lives of West Virginians.”

Both the Governor’s Commission and the Citizens’ Commission set about their investigations, and each group began holding public hearings and collecting information regarding the disaster. But these weren’t the only investigations; there were also several others, including: one or more Congressional committees, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

March 5, 1972.  Ralph Nader letter to Congressional committees raises dangers of coal dams.
March 5, 1972. Ralph Nader letter to Congressional committees raises dangers of coal dams.
Among those pressing for action in Washington was consumer advocate Ralph Nader, well known by then for taking on politicians and corporations. Nader had sent one of his investigators, a young West Virginia lawyer named Davitt McAteer (who years later would head up the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration) to the Buffalo Creek area a few days after the disaster. Nader and McAteer, in a letter to key members of Congress urging investigations, estimated that hundreds of thousands of West Virginians living in narrow Appalachian valleys, could be threatened by sudden catastrophic flooding from unstable coal waste dams. They pointed to a 1966 U.S. Geological Survey report of 1966 that had found 60 such coal mine waste piles in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia, and that little had been done to correct or eliminate those hazards – and additional ones – since that report was made. Citing coal industry dereliction throughout central Appalachia, they said it was imperative for Congress to investigate the industry’s practice of erecting crudely-made coal refuse dams and propose legislation to prevent future disasters. Nader was also quoted saying: “The Buffalo Creek massacre is only one more in the long series of tragedies which coal corporations have perpetrated upon the people of Appalachia, especially of West Virginia.”

The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Labor had already begun an investigation, and by late May 1972 also began a series of public hearings on the Buffalo Creek disaster. This subcommittee would hear from dozens of witnesses, and was briefed at one point by experts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who provided a scale model of the site with details of what happened (see photo below).

May 1972, Wash., DC.  U.S. Senators and experts gather around scale model of Buffalo Creek area in Senate hearing room showing valley below and three coal waste impoundments (#s 8, 5, & 4) that burst causing catastrophic flood on February 26, 1972. Among officials and Senators shown are, from left: Dennis Gibson, Buffalo Mining Co.(22) Garth Fuguay (21, with pointer), Army Corps of Engineers; Sen. Harold Hughes (18); Sen. Jennings Randolph (17); Sen. Jacob Javits (16); Sen. Harrison Williams (15); Sen. Richard Scheiker (19), and Sen. Robert Stafford (20).
May 1972, Wash., DC. U.S. Senators and experts gather around scale model of Buffalo Creek area in Senate hearing room showing valley below and three coal waste impoundments (#s 8, 5, & 4) that burst causing catastrophic flood on February 26, 1972. Among officials and Senators shown are, from left: Dennis Gibson, Buffalo Mining Co.(22) Garth Fuguay (21, with pointer), Army Corps of Engineers; Sen. Harold Hughes (18); Sen. Jennings Randolph (17); Sen. Jacob Javits (16); Sen. Harrison Williams (15); Sen. Richard Scheiker (19), and Sen. Robert Stafford (20).

Leading off the testimony before the Senate Subcommittee was Garth Fuquay of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (shown in above photo), who had been detailed to the subcommittee to help guide the committee in its investigation. Fuquay would also conduct an early field analysis of what happened there. At the outset of the hearing, Fuquay was the first witness, and the subcommittee chairman, Senator Harrison Williams (D-NJ), submitted for inclusion in the hearing record, Fuquay’s 225-page report, titled “An Engineering Survey of Representative Coal Mine Refuse Piles as Related to the Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, Disaster.” That two-part report, focusing on the failed Buffalo Creek dams and a sampling of other dangerous coal refuse dams in the region, made headlines in a few places on May 30th, 1972, the day the Senate hearings began. One newspaper, reporting on the study and the Senate hearings, used the headlines “Army Corps of Engineers Says Dam Doomed From Start” (below).

May 30, 1972. Headlines from an Associated Press story reporting that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- also testifying at U.S. Senate hearings -- found the the Pittston Coal Co. dam above Buffalo Creek was "doomed from the start."
May 30, 1972. Headlines from an Associated Press story reporting that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- also testifying at U.S. Senate hearings -- found the the Pittston Coal Co. dam above Buffalo Creek was "doomed from the start."

The Senate subcommittee would later issue some three volumes of material and by June 1972 would call for new legislation to prevent disasters like Buffalo Creek, offering a “Mined Area Protection Bill,” a measure, however, that would not be adopted.

 West Virginia Governor's report: "The Buffalo Creek Flood And Disaster".
West Virginia Governor's report: "The Buffalo Creek Flood And Disaster".
By September 1972, the two competing West Virginia commissions — one from the Governor, and the other a Citizens’ Commission — issued their reports. Governor Moore, however, acting to protect the Pittston Coal Company, tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress his own commission’s report. When that report came out it called for new legislation and further inquiry by the local prosecutor, also concluding:

…Based on the testimony obtained from hearings, technical reports and our own field inspection, the Commission concludes that: Dam No. 3 on the Middle Fork was born out of the age-old practice in the coal fields of disposing of waste material and was constructed without utilizing technology developed for earthen dams and without using or consulting with professional persons qualified to design and build such a structure. The physical conditions leading to the failure of the dam are complex and involve a weak foundation and saturated embankment giving rise to failure of the downstream portion of the dam and a sudden total collapse of the remainder of the dam due to liquefaction. The failure occurred a minute or so before 8:00 a.m. February 26, 1972, and was solely the cause of the Buffalo Creek flood. No evidence of an act of God was found by the Commission.

Norm Williams, Deputy Director, WV-DNR & Citizens' Commission chairman.
Norm Williams, Deputy Director, WV-DNR & Citizens' Commission chairman.
The citizens’ commission report, formally titled Disaster on Buffalo Creek: A Citizens’ Report on Criminal Negligence in a West Virginia Mining Community, was released in 1972 — and it pulled no punches. It charged that officials of the Buffalo Creek-Pittston Company were “guilty of murdering at least 124 men, women and children living in the Buffalo Creek Hollow.”

The tautly-worded 31-page report offered detailed findings and evidence of corporate negligence and government failures in the disaster, and proposed 21 recommendations. The report found that company and state officials were ill informed of the problems of refuse dams and had not taken timely measures. “Clearly and simply,” said the report, “people living downstream from the Buffalo Mining Company’s coal refuse dam at Saunders were the victims of gross negligence.”

The Citizens’ report also noted that strip mining above the dam had likely contributed to its over-filling. Aerial photos at an Army Corps of Engineers office showed that earlier strip mining of coal seams had occurred on both sides of the slate dump, along with horizontal auger mining boring into the hillsides there. This mining activity, though in the past, had stripped away the water-absorbing forest undergrowth, thus increasing surface run-off during heavy precipitation. The report also noted the possibility that water and coal wastes in abandoned underground mines could break through auger holes and flow into the impoundment behind dam #3, as the practice of disposing coal sludges in abandoned underground mines had occurred in other areas of the state, with sludges breaking through to the surface in some cases.

One of the photos used in “Disaster on Buffalo Creek: A Citizens' Report on Criminal Negligence in a West Virginia Mining Community,” 1972.
One of the photos used in “Disaster on Buffalo Creek: A Citizens' Report on Criminal Negligence in a West Virginia Mining Community,” 1972.

The chair of the citizens’ commission, Norman Williams, then deputy director of West Virginia’s Department of Natural Resources, called for the outlawing of strip mining throughout the state. Williams explained that such mining was only viable because the state allowed it to “externalize costs” – i.e., impose its pollution, mine wastes, and environmental damage on landowners and the general public. Williams wasn’t alone in pointing to the ravages of strip mining. In the U.S. Congress at the time, federal legislation was being considered to regulate strip mining, and the Buffalo Creek disaster figured into the debate. West Virginia Congressman Ken Heckler (D) had offered a bill in 1971 to ban all surface coal mining. West Virginia’s Secretary of State at the time, Jay Rockefeller (D) – who became a candidate for Governor running against Arch Moore in the 1972 fall election – also favored banning strip mining. Moore would prevail in the election, campaigning heavily in West Virginia’s coal mining regions, impugning Rockefeller’s position on strip mining. (Rockefeller would later be elected governor and U.S. Senator). The Buffalo Creek disaster, however, did galvanize concern about strip mining and coal safety in Congress, and helped to spur passage of regulatory bills on the House side during Congressional debate in the early 1970s. A final federal strip mine bill, however, would not be signed into law until 1977.

1977 edition of Gerald Stern's book on class-action lawsuit he brought against Pittston Coal Co. on behalf of Buffalo Creek survivors and settled in 1974. Click for copy.
1977 edition of Gerald Stern's book on class-action lawsuit he brought against Pittston Coal Co. on behalf of Buffalo Creek survivors and settled in 1974. Click for copy.
In addition to the two West Virginia reports, there were also several others, including the U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing record already mentioned; a U.S. Geological Survey report; a U.S. Department of the Interior Report; and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report – all of which, in one form or another, found fault with the design, integrity, and lack of oversight of the dams, and how regulators and the Pittston Coal Company failed to meet their responsibilities for public health and safety.

Several lawsuits were also filed in the wake of the Buffalo Creek disaster, including a large class action with 645 survivors and victim family members suing Pittston for $64 million. The plaintiffs settled out of court for $13.5 million in 1974, with each individual receiving an average of $13,000 after legal costs.

The state of West Virginia also sued Pittston for $100 million for disaster and relief damages, but Governor Arch A. Moore settled that case for just $1 million three days before leaving office in 1977. That deal would dog Moore for the rest of his career. Having faced several corruption allegations when serving as governor, Moore left office with this additional blemish on his record. The state later had to pay the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers more than $9 million for recovery work along Buffalo Creek.

Although the Governor’s Commission had referred the case to the Logan County, West Virginia prosecutor for possible legal action against Pittston Coal Company and its subsidiary, nothing came of it. No criminal charges were brought against the mining executives for their negligence in the creation and operation of the illegal and unstable coal waste dams.

The Logan prosecutor said at the time that Pittston’s failure to receive a state dam license was merely a misdemeanor and that a one-year statute of limitations for prosecutions had lapsed. He also concluded that Pittston’s Buffalo Creek Mining Co. could not be charged with negligent homicide because “there was no way to put a corporation in jail.”

In 1973, the West Virginia Legislature passed the Dam Control Act, regulating all dams in the state. However, adequate funding was never appropriated by teh West Virginia legislature to enforce the law. Pittston, meanwhile, would inform its investors that the 1974 settlement that had come with one of the survivors’ lawsuits did not impact the company’s profit margin.

Kai Erikson’s book, “Everything In Its Path: Destruc-tion of Community in The Buffalo Creek Flood”. Click for copy.
Kai Erikson’s book, “Everything In Its Path: Destruc-tion of Community in The Buffalo Creek Flood”. Click for copy.
According to some, however, there were positive changes that did come to coalfield and regulatory practices in the years immediately following the disaster. But those improved practices didn’t last. And for the survivors of the Buffalo Creek Disaster, there was little real recovery. They lost loved ones, their homes, their neighbors, their community. Many lived in temporary trailer-park style homes following the disaster – some for years. Old community ties and neighbor networks could not be reestablished. The socio-psychology of all this was probed and covered in an award-winning 1976 book by Kai T. Erikson, Everything In Its Path: Destruction of Community in The Buffalo Creek Flood.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, various state, local and federal government agencies had initially come together to help plan for the recovery of the Buffalo Creek area. The first restoration, however, came with the railroads, rebuilt to serve the mines, which were operating again within a week of the flood. A few years later, construction began on water and sewage systems, and some permanent housing was built. But $27 million in flood emergency funds was used in 1975 to build a highway that really went nowhere, except to the coal tipples at the head of Buffalo Creek. Four years after the disaster, in 1976, about 100 families were still living in the government provided mobile homes. There had been emergency relief, but little community redevelopment.

The Pittston Coal Co., meanwhile, continued extracting coal in the Buffalo Creek area through its subsidiary there. And it also continued dumping its coal wastes in the area as well, absent the use of watery waste dams. As of 1987, Pittston was still among the ten largest coal companies in the U.S. But following a bitter labor strike in 1989, and the declining profitability of its minerals division throughout the 1990s, Pittston began to wind down its coal operations. In 2002, Alpha Natural Resources purchased what remained of Pttston’s coal business. By 2003, Pittston had moved into one of its more profitable businesses, private security, then adopting its Brinks Company subsidiary as its new corporate name.


The National Research Council's 2001 report to Congress on coal waste impoundments. Click for copy.
The National Research Council's 2001 report to Congress on coal waste impoundments. Click for copy.
Coal Waste Legacy

The problem of coal waste impoundments in Appalachia — and all across America — has not gone away since the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster. Nearly 50 years later, there are still hundreds of coal waste dams to worry about, as well as other assorted coal waste dangers throughout the U.S.

In fact, there is a very sizeable “coal waste legacy” that will continue to pose dangers for many rural American communities — and the nation’s rivers and streams — for decades to come, even as the coal industry as a whole winds down its role in the U.S. and global economies. For as it turns out, there are coal waste impoundments, and coal waste disposal methods, of many kinds.

In addition to coal waste dams used in mining and coal washing operations, there are also more than 1,400 coal ash impoundments used mostly at or near coal-fired powerplants in the U.S. In addition, coal wastes have also been dumped into abandoned deep mines and used to “reclaim” strip mines. Still other operations use injection techniques to pump various coal wastes underground. Recent history suggests that a number of these facilities and practices hold public safety risks and/or environmental threats.

In the year 2000, increased attention was focused on the regulation of coal waste impoundments following a failure near Inez, Kentucky. In that case, the bottom of the 72-acre Big Branch slurry impoundment – owned by the Martin County Coal Corp. – broke through an abandoned underground mine located below it. That failure sent 300 million gallons of liquid coal waste tearing through the underground mine chambers, then spewing out of mountainside portals into valley streams below. The toxic coal slurry poured into Kentucky’s Coldwater and Wolf creeks, then to the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, traveling more than 70 miles downstream, and eventually reaching the Ohio River, with blackwater visible at Cincinnati. Drinking water systems in ten counties had to be shut down, and a 20-mile stretch of river was declared an aquatic dead zone: more than 1,500 fish were killed. At the time, the EPA called it “the worst environmental disaster in the southeast United States.” The coal company called it “an act of God” (sound familiar?).

In the wake of this disaster, Congress asked the National Research Council to examine ways to reduce the potential for similar accidents in the future, and their report appeared in October 2001, recommending the federal government establish clear authority to review the stability of such impoundments, improve regulation, establish minimum distance rules, and undertake more complete mapping of existing and abandoned underground mines.

December 2008. The failure of a giant 84-acre coal ash impoundment (upper right) at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, released 5.4 million cubic yards of ash slurry into the Emory & Clinch rivers and the downstream community of Harriman, TN.
December 2008. The failure of a giant 84-acre coal ash impoundment (upper right) at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, released 5.4 million cubic yards of ash slurry into the Emory & Clinch rivers and the downstream community of Harriman, TN.

Then in December 2008 a second major impoundment breach occurred — this time, a failure of a giant 84-acre coal ash impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant in eastern Tennessee (photo above). This dam failure released 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry into the Emory and Clinch rivers. More than a dozen homes and hundreds of acres in the down-stream community of Harriman, TN were hit with a gigantic toxic mess. The spill covered the surrounding land with up to six feet of sludge. EPA had initially estimated the spill would take four-to-six weeks to clean up, however, three years later they were still cleaning up.

TVA’s spill was from a “coal ash” impoundment, which is somewhat different than a mine-site slurry impoundment, as it deals with post-combustion, powerplant coal ash, which involves a different regulatory arena than mine-site or coal processing impoundments. Still, the worries for citizens living near either kind of impoundment are equally valid, whether of the mine-site or powerplant variety.

U.S. map showing locations of coal ash waste dams, spills, and contamination compiled by Earth Justice. Click to visit that site.
U.S. map showing locations of coal ash waste dams, spills, and contamination compiled by Earth Justice. Click to visit that site.

According to the U.S. EPA, there are over 1,000 operating coal ash waste ponds and landfills, plus many hundreds of “retired” coal ash disposal sites. Some 208 of these “coal combustion” waste sites are known to have contaminated groundwater, wetlands, and/or rivers. A number of leaks and smaller spills have also occurred. EPA has made hazard ratings for hundreds of coal combustion waste ponds and impoundments in the U.S., ranking them for the public safety dangers and environmental risks they would pose in the event of failure. As of December 2014, some 331 of these facilities were rated as either holding a “high” or “significant” safety hazard – meaning likely loss of life in the former case, and significant economic/environmental damage in the latter case. The Earth Justice organization, one of the environmental groups following this issue, and has complied a U.S. map of these sites as shown above.

For additional stories at this website on the history of coal and coal mining, see for example, the following: “Paradise: 1971″ (about a John Prine song, strip mining in Muhlenberg County, KY, and the demise of a small town); “Mountain Warrior” (profile of Kentucky author and coal-field activist, Harry Caudill, noted for his famous book, Night Comes to The Cumberlands and his life-long critique of Appalachian strip mining); “Giant Shovel on I-70” (about strip mining in southeastern Ohio during the 1960s and `70s and the use of giant strip-mining shovels there); “Coal & The Kennedys,” (featuring Kennedy family involvement with Appalachian coal communities, deep mine safety, environmental protection, and related political issues, 1960s-2010s); “Sixteen Tons, 1950s” (the famous Tennessee Ernie Ford song and some coal mining history, 1940s-1960s); and, “G.E.’s Hot Coal Ad, 2005” (a General Electric TV ad that features a new breed of coal miner).

Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. — Jack Doyle

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Date Posted:  31 January 2019
Last Update:  31 January 2019
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Buffalo Creek Disaster: 1972,”
PopHistoryDig.com, January 31, 2019.

________________________




Sources, Links & Additional Information


"Coal: A Human History", 2016 edition. Click for copy.
"Coal: A Human History", 2016 edition. Click for copy.
Richard Martin's 2015 book, "Coal Wars". Click for copy.
Richard Martin's 2015 book, "Coal Wars". Click for copy.
Peter Galuszka's "Thunder on the Mountain". Click for copy.
Peter Galuszka's "Thunder on the Mountain". Click for copy.
Thomas Andrews' "Killing for Coal". Click for copy.
Thomas Andrews' "Killing for Coal". Click for copy.
Harry Caudill's  "Theirs Be The Power". Click for copy.
Harry Caudill's "Theirs Be The Power". Click for copy.
Davitt McAteer's book on the 1907 Monongah mine disaster.
Davitt McAteer's book on the 1907 Monongah mine disaster.
Chad Motrie's 2003 history of Appalachian strip mining.
Chad Motrie's 2003 history of Appalachian strip mining.
Penny Loeb's 2007 book, "Moving Mountains". Click for copy.
Penny Loeb's 2007 book, "Moving Mountains". Click for copy.
Robert Shogan's 2004 book, "The Battle of Blair Mountain".
Robert Shogan's 2004 book, "The Battle of Blair Mountain".
Rebecca Bailey's 2008 book, "Matewan: Before The Massacre".
Rebecca Bailey's 2008 book, "Matewan: Before The Massacre".

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“Harry Chapin”
Taxi & Beyond

A taxi cab at work on the nighttime streets of some anonymous city.
A taxi cab at work on the nighttime streets of some anonymous city.
It was sometime in early spring of 1972 that a little-known American musician named Harry Chapin made a national TV appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In those pre-cable, pre-internet days, with only three major over-the-air TV channels, Carson’s late night show had a good share of the viewing audience.

Harry Chapin was then a folk rock singer-songwriter who had been playing New York City nightclubs with his small quartet and receiving some local notice. But nationally, he was virtually unknown.

On Carson’s show that night, Chapin performed his song, “Taxi,” about a cab driver who picks up a female passenger whom he discovers, after a few looks in his rear-view mirror, is a long lost love from his youth.

“Taxi” is a song filled with hard-luck poignancy, life-lived serendipity, and what-might-have-beens. And on the Carson show that night, Chapin’s performance wowed the late night audience. His appearance was followed by viewer phone calls and telegrams sent to NBC praising the performance.

In fact, at the time, Johnny Carson himself was so taken with Chapin’s performance that he invited him back to perform the following night. Reportedly, it was the first time in the show’s history that Carson had brought a performer back the very next night for an encore performance. But apparently, the chemistry with Carson was for real, as during his career, Chapin would appear on Carson’s show more than a dozen times.

Harry Chapin performing in the 1970s.
Harry Chapin performing in the 1970s.
In any case, “Taxi,” and the Carson show appearance that spring of 1972, helped launch Harry Chapin into national prominence.

 

Music Player
“Taxi” – Harry Chapin
(scroll down for lyrics)

 

Only months before, in November 1971, Chapin had signed a big recording contract after something of a bidding war had broken out over signing him between Columbia’s Clive Davis and Elektra’s Jac Holzman. Elektra won in the end, and Chapin got free recording time as part of his deal.

By March 1972, Chapin released Heads & Tales, his first studio album. It included “Taxi,” and both the album and single had successful chart runs for about six months, each selling more than 1 million copies. Chapin also had a supporter in WMEX-Boston radio DJ, Jim Connors, who helped push “Taxi” up the pop charts – lasting 16 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No.24. Billboard would also rank the song at No. 85 for the year of 1972.

But “Taxi” had not been expected to do well, especially since it ran nearly seven minutes in playing length (6:47), while most A.M. radio stations at the time rarely used recordings of more than two minutes. But progressive FM radio stations were coming into vogue at the time, exploring lengthier musical formats and even entire albums, a development which also helped “Taxi” get air time. In any case, “Taxi” sent Chapin on his way, providing huge career momentum. And even today, nearly 50 years later, “Taxi” still resonates with many listeners. Below are the song’s lyrics along with some narrative comment.

Harry Chapin's song "Taxi" begins with a lady hailing a cab in a San Francisco rain. Click for digital version of song.
Harry Chapin's song "Taxi" begins with a lady hailing a cab in a San Francisco rain. Click for digital version of song.

“Taxi”
Harry Chapin-1972

It was raining hard in ‘Frisco
I needed one more fare to make my night
A lady up ahead waved to flag me down
She got in at the light

Oh, where you going to, my lady blue
It’s a shame you ruined your gown in the rain
She just looked out the window, she said
“Sixteen Parkside Lane”

Something about her was familiar
I could swear I’d seen her face before
But she said, “I’m sure you’re mistaken”
And she didn’t say anything more

It took a while, but she looked in the mirror
And she glanced at the license for my name
A smile seemed to come to her slowly
It was a sad smile, just the same

And she said, “How are you Harry?”
I said, “How are you Sue?
Through the too many miles
And the too little smiles
I still remember you”

It was somewhere in a fairy tale
I used to take her home in my car
We learned about love in the back of the Dodge
The lesson hadn’t gone too far

You see, she was gonna be an actress
And I was gonna learn to fly
She took off to find the footlights
And I took off to find the sky

Whoa, I’ve got something inside me
To drive a princess blind
There’s a wild man, wizard
He’s hiding in me, illuminating my mind

Oh, I’ve got something inside me
Not what my life’s about
‘Cause I’ve been letting my outside tide me
Over ’till my time, runs out

Baby’s so high that she’s skying
Yes she’s flying, afraid to fall
I’ll tell you why baby’s crying
‘Cause she’s dying, aren’t we all

There was not much more for us to talk about
Whatever we had once was gone
So I turned my cab into the driveway
Past the gate and the fine trimmed lawns

And she said we must get together
But I knew it’d never be arranged
And she handed me twenty dollars
For a two fifty fare, she said
“Harry, keep the change”

Well, another man might have been angry
And another man might have been hurt
But another man never would have let her go
I stashed the bill in my shirt

And she walked away in silence
It’s strange, how you never know
But we’d both gotten what we’d asked for
Such a long, long time ago

You see, she was gonna be an actress
And I was gonna learn to fly
She took off to find the footlights
I took off for the sky

And here, she’s acting happy
Inside her handsome home
And me, I’m flying in my taxi
Taking tips, and getting stoned

I go flying so high, when I’m stoned…

The song features its cab driver narrator in San Francisco coming to the end of a long rainy night, and needing one more fare before calling it quits for the evening.

He picks up a lady who has waved him down at a stop light. She is dressed in an evening gown. When she enters the cab, he offers a sympathetic comment about the rain ruining her gown. She simply stares out the window and gives him the address.

As they drive, he checks her out in the rear-view mirror, then thinks he’s sure he’s seen her face before. He then asks her the “don’t-I-know-you-from- somewhere” question, to which she replies with an air of certainty: “I’m sure you’re mistaken.”

But as they drive on and sit in silence for a time, she looks into the mirror to see his face, and then views the cab-driver license posted on the back of the front seat with his name, photo, and license number.

Still glimpsing her occasionally in his rear-view mirror, he notices a slight smile of discovery coming across her face, noting, as narrator: “It was a sad smile, just the same.”

Finally, she acknowledges her discovery and greets him: “How are you Harry?” to which he replies, “How are you Sue?,” having also remembered who she was: “Through the too many miles, and the too little smiles, I still remember you.”

Then, continuing as narrator, he fills in his listeners with the Harry-and-Sue back story, as in their younger years, they had dated in an earlier “fairy tale,” where they learned love in a back seat of his Dodge. And during those years, they each had big dreams: “She was gonna be an actress, and I was gonna learn to fly. She took off to find the footlights, and I took off to find the sky.”

Then Harry the cab driver appears to begin a life assessment of sorts – and it’s not clear whether this is just his own “talking-to-himself” private assessment, or something that he and his lost love are having a conversation about during the cab ride — catching up a bit, to learn what’s gone on in each other’s lives?

In any case, as for himself, Harry believes he still has “something inside” and the desire and drive to realize his dream. What you see now, he explains of his cab driver gig, is not the final act — “just tiding me over.”

And as for the lady of his dreams, well she appears to be doing well, at least from outward appearances. Yet there’s some uncertainty there. She’s flying high, but on a tightrope of sorts, afraid to fall. (Musically, this part is performed in falsetto by Chapin’s bass player, John Wallace). But why is she crying? “`Cause [inside] she’s dying; aren’t we all.”

Here is the frustration of what people feel when they realize they will never reach their dreams, though they still have the desire; but that life has now become something less than what they had hoped for.

“There was not much more for us to talk about,” says the cabbie narrator, nearing the end of the ride, acknowledging that “whatever we had once was gone.” And although at ride’s end Sue says “we must get together,” Harry knows “it would never be arranged.”

Upon departing the cab, she covers the $2.50 fare with a $20 bill, saying: “Harry, keep the change” – which didn’t provoke anger or hurt in Harry, only regret – “another man never would have let her go.”

As she walks away to her home, Harry thinks somehow that they had both gotten what they asked for those many years ago, when she set out to be an actress, and he was going to learn to fly. For she is now “acting happy inside her handsome home,” and Harry, well he’s now “flying” in his taxi, “taking tips, and getting stoned… I go flying so high, when I’m stoned.”

When Chapin was asked at one point if the song was true, he replied:

“It’s emotionally true, if not literally true. I’ve been in the film business on and off for a lot of years, and wasn’t doing well at one point. So I went out and got a hack [taxi cab] license…, and during the month that I was waiting for it to come through, I heard that an old girlfriend of mine had gotten married and instead of becoming an actress she married a rich guy. I envisioned some night I’d be driving a cab in the big city streets and this lady would get in the back, and I’d turn and look at her and she’d look at me and know we both sold out our dreams.”

Grainy photo of Clare Alden MacIntyre in later life.
Grainy photo of Clare Alden MacIntyre in later life.
Chapin’s brother and fellow musician, Tom, during a 2016 interview, would flesh out more details about Harry’s old girlfriend and the lady character in “Taxi.” Her name was Clare Alden MacIntyre, and Tom described her “an early, formative love” in Harry’s life. She came from the prosperous Scarsdale area, while Tom and Harry were from Brooklyn.

Harry and Clare had met as summer camp counselors in the early 1960s. She was the daughter of Malcolm MacIntyre, a lawyer and corporate executive who headed up Eastern Airlines from 1959 to 1963.

Clare’s parents, in fact, weren’t wild about the budding relationship between their daughter and Harry Chapin. According to Tom, Clare’s father viewed Harry as something of a ne’er-do-well, not worthy of his daughter’s affections.

Still, Harry and Clare had an on-and-off romance in the early 1960s; they dated for two years despite Harry living in Brooklyn, Clare living in Scarsdale. But there was one difference in how they traveled locally in those days, according to brother Tom.”We took subways,” explained Tom of he and Harry. “But [Clare’s] father and mother refused to let her take subways. They always gave her money to take a taxi.”

Harry Chapin, Elektra promotional photo.
Harry Chapin, Elektra promotional photo.
Some years later, in 1969-1970, as Harry was out of work and about to begin driving a cab in the New York area, scheduled to report for his first 12-hour shift in a few days, he began thinking: “What happens if Clare gets in my cab? What am I going to say?”

As it turned out, Harry didn’t become a cab driver nor did he have to confront Clare getting into his cab, as other job offers came his way. But he never discarded the idea of Clare getting into his cab, and some years later, turned it into the song, “Taxi,” as New York became San Francisco and Clare became Sue. And the rest is history, as they say. Billboard ranked “Taxi” as the 85th top song of the year. “Taxi” also earned Chapin a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist of the Year. Yet, according to Peter Coan, Harry Chapin’s biographer, Chapin never completely got over Clare MacIntyre: “She was the love of his life.”

Harry Chapin's second album, "Sniper and Other Love Songs". Click for album choices.
Harry Chapin's second album, "Sniper and Other Love Songs". Click for album choices.
Meanwhile, through the 1970s, following the success of “Taxi” and his first album, Harry Chapin remained popular, recording a number of other “story songs” and successful albums.

His second album, Sniper and Other Love Songs, released in 1972, included two other popular Chapin songs: “Sunday Morning Sunshine” and “Circle.”

Chapin’s third album, Short Stories, came out in 1973 and spawned the million-selling hit, “W.O.L.D.,” using the call letters for a radio station who’s devoted disc jockey has neglected his family, the song penned from the wife’s perspective.

“W.O.L.D.” was inspired by an American radio personality from Boston who Chapin knew, with the song’s story focused on a workaholic-damaged marriage.

“W.O.L.D.” became a top 40 hit in 1974 on the Billboard Hot 100, top 10 in Canada, and in the Top 20 in various other countries.

Other songs from the Short Stories album, but not released as singles, include: “Mr. Tanner,” “Mail Order Annie,” and “They Call Her Easy.”

Cover of Harry Chapin's No. 1 hit single of 1974, "Cat's In The Cradle". Click for digital single.
Cover of Harry Chapin's No. 1 hit single of 1974, "Cat's In The Cradle". Click for digital single.
In 1974, Chapin released, Verities and Balderdash, his fourth album, which sold 2.5 million units, largely due to the single, “Cat’s in the Cradle,” his No. 1 hit.

 

Music Player
“Cat’s in The Cradle”

 

This song is about a father who didn’t find time for his son during his childhood, and finds as he grows older, his son has become “just like me,” and does not spend time with his aging father. “Cat’s in The Cradle” earned Chapin another Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. He was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Verities and Balderdash peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. The album’s follow-up single, “I Wanna Learn a Love Song,” charted at No. 7 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart. The song is a true story about how he met his wife, Sandra Chapin.

By 1976, Chapin was established as one of the most popular singers of the decade. A live album came that year, Greatest Stories Live, selling 2.1 million copies. By the end of the decade, he was doing more touring, though still releasing one album a year.

Harry Chapin proved to be a popular act, selling out arenas and concert halls, some exceeding 250,000. He was then earning an estimated $2 million per year, through 1981, making him one of the highest paid artists in the world. And despite almost no promotion for his later albums with Elektra, they all sold well and charted.

Harry Chapin at the White House, three chairs down from President Jimmy Carter's left at Hunger Commission meeting.
Harry Chapin at the White House, three chairs down from President Jimmy Carter's left at Hunger Commission meeting.

Activist Harry

Harry Chapin, however, was not just a musician; he was also an intensely committed social activist. By the mid-1970s, Harry Chapin was devoting more of his time and energy to various activist and charitable causes – one of which was hunger. In 1975, he co-founded World Hunger Year with radio host Bill Ayres, and also became a key player in the creation of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger under President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Chapin was reportedly the only member of that commission who attended every meeting. He became something of a regular in Washington, DC. advocating for anti-hunger initiatives. He was also involved in a number of other social causes, from helping local food banks to historic preservation. By the mid- and late 1970s, Chapin was performing over half of his 200 concerts a year for charitable causes. By one count, in 1977 he earned $2 million, giving away some $700,000 to charity. In those times, according to some sources, Chapin was known for keeping “a totally insane schedule” between his music career and his various charitable causes.

 

Album cover for Harry Chapin’s “Sequel” of 1980. Click for CD.
Album cover for Harry Chapin’s “Sequel” of 1980. Click for CD.

Taxi, Redux

In 1980, as his contract with Elektra expired, Chapin signed a one-album deal with Boardwalk Records. It was at this point he made an attempt to reconnect with his first hit, “Taxi,” naming a new album “Sequel,” which included a single by that name as well.

“Sequel” continued the story of Harry and Sue. In the song, Harry is no longer driving cabs, but returns to San Francisco as a successful singer for a concert appearance. While in San Francisco Harry hails a cab, instructing the driver to head for “16 Parkside Lane,” where he had last seen Sue.

When he arrives at the address, Sue no longer lives there, and is given the name of an apartment building at another address. There, he finds Sue, now divorced but happy. She likes herself. He invites her to his concert. She says no, she has to work that night. He tries to give her money, she refuses. It’s unclear if they make love or not. What is clear is that they are each in a better place than they were before. “Sequel,” the single, became a top 25 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and the album sold 500,000 copies. Following “Sequel,” Chapin was coy about whether there would be another “Harry and Sue” song down the line. But it was not to be.

On July 16, 1981, Chapin was driving in the fast lane on the Long Island Expressway on the way to perform at a free concert that evening in East Meadow, New York. Along the way, near the Jericho exit, as his car had slowed for some reason, he put on his emergency flashers, veering into the center lane, then swerving left and right. At that point, a tractor-trailer truck traveling behind him could not brake in time to stop, ramming into and climbing over Chapin’s 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit, rupturing the fuel tank which burst into flames. The truck driver and a passerby cut Chapin’s seat belt and removed him from the burning car through a window before the car was entirely engulfed. Chapin was then helicoptered to a hospital where doctors tried to revive him to no avail. Harry Chapin was 38 years old.

Harry Chapin performing, here with other backing musicians, but sometimes on tour, he performed solo.
Harry Chapin performing, here with other backing musicians, but sometimes on tour, he performed solo.

Chapin, by many accounts, was a multi-talented artist, with works in film, stage, and poetry in addition to his music career. A documentary film he made in the late 1960s with Jim Jacobs, titled Legendary Champions, was nominated for an Academy Award. And a 1975 musical stage production, The Night That Made America Famous, ran on Broadway for 75 performances and was nominated for two Tony awards. Chapin’s musical legacy includes nine studio albums, two live albums, thirteen singles, and 14 compilation albums. His total record sales were in excess of 16.7 million copies. In December 1987, he was honored at an all-star Carnegie Hall tribute. At that tribute he was also posthumously awarded a Special Congressional Gold Medal for his campaigning on world hunger and other social issues. An album documenting the event, titled Tribute – with performers including Judy Collins, Richie Havens and Bruce Springsteen – was released in 1990.

Harry Chapin, undated.
Harry Chapin, undated.
At his passing, Harry Chapin was also lauded by activists and politicians who knew him outside of music.

“To talk about Harry Chapin only as a singer-composer,” said Ralph Nader, “is like viewing Theodore Roosevelt as a state assemblyman or Babe Ruth as a pitcher. More than any other entertainer in his generation, Harry was a citizen-artist.” A number of U.S. Senators and members of Congress made floor statements praising Chapin’s policy work. Among these was former Senator Robert Dole (R-KS) who called Chapin “a liberal — and a liberal in the best sense of the word …What he really was committed to was decency and dignity.”

In recent years, Harry’s widow, Sandy, has served as chair of the Harry Chapin Foundation, where she has continued to pursue Harry’s legacy. His son, Josh, has also been involved with the foundation, along with other family members.

For additional stories at this website on music and song history, see the “Annals of Music” category page. Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 19 January 2019
Last Update: 19 January 2019
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Harry Chapin: Taxi & Beyond,”
PopHistoryDig.com, January 19, 2019.

____________________________________

 


 

Sources, Links & Additional Information

Peter Coan's 1987 book, "Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story," paperback version shown, Lyle Stuart, 542pp. Click for book.
Peter Coan's 1987 book, "Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story," paperback version shown, Lyle Stuart, 542pp. Click for book.
Harry Chapin Sheet Music Collection & Songbook (2009), described as “a moving account of Chapin's legacy as a pioneering 'story song' writer, performer, and philanthropist...” Includes sheet music for 24 of his most beloved songs. Alfred Publishing Co., 176pp.
Harry Chapin Sheet Music Collection & Songbook (2009), described as “a moving account of Chapin's legacy as a pioneering 'story song' writer, performer, and philanthropist...” Includes sheet music for 24 of his most beloved songs. Alfred Publishing Co., 176pp.

Don Heckman, “Harry Chapin Shows His Style In Program at the Bitter End,” New York Times, April 7, 1972, p. 25.

Don Heckman, “America — A One-Hit Phenomenon?,” New York Times, April 30, 1972, p. 28-D.

Henry Edwards, “‘Story Songs’ From Harry Chapin,” New York Times, December 12, 1972, p. 63.

“Chapin is Multi-Talented Man,” The Merciad ( Merceyhurst College, Erie, PA), April 2, 1976, p. 3.

Tony Kornheiser, “Harry Chapin: Words and Music,” New York Times, December 4, 1977.

John Rockwell, “Harry Chapin, Singer, Killed in Crash,” New York Times, July 17, 1981.

“Harry Chapin,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 163-164.

“Harry Chapin,” Wikipedia.org.

Harry Chapin Website (Chapin family)

Carol Strickland, “Harry Chapin: All His Life Was a Circle,” New York Times (N.Y./Region), October 19, 1997.

Alan Grayson, “Harry Chapin on What Made America Famous,” HuffingtonPost.com, Sep-tember 27, 2011.

JC Mosquito, “Almost Hits: Harry Chapin, “Taxi” (1972) and “Sequel” (1980),” Some-thingElseReviews.com, September 10, 2013.

Peter Crigler, “Harry Chapin: Balderdash, Charities & Cab Rides, Perfect Sound Forever,” Furious.com, October 2013.

James R. Hagerty, “Clare MacIntyre-Ross, Woman Who Inspired Song ‘Taxi:’ 1943-2016; Clare MacIntyre-Ross’s Break up with Harry Chapin in the ‘60s Prompted Him to Write Tune,” Wall Street Journal, March 18, 2016.

Peter D. Kramer, “Scarsdale Woman Inspired Harry Chapin’s ‘Taxi’,” The Journal News (lohud.com), March 22, 2016.

“Harry Chapin,” DramaticPublishing.com.

Jennifer Kathleen, “Harry and Clare, Skyying,” Medium.com, March 28, 2016.

Rick Moore, Harry Chapin, “Taxi,” American Songwriter.com, June 20, 2016.

“Harry Chapin Discography,” Wikipedia.org.

“Sniper (song),” Wikipedia.org.

The Harry Chapin Foundation.

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“Big Game, New Era”
Colts vs. Giants, 1958

In 1958, the game of professional football occupied a distinctly different position in America’s economy and culture than it does today. There were no Super Bowls then and certainly no $150,000-per-second TV ads during any sporting event. Baseball was then America’s most popular sport, by far. In fact, through most of the 1950s, college football was more widely followed than professional football. But in late 1958 a sea change was about to come to professional football; a change that would set the game on its present course as big-time business, taking over a large part of American sports culture and American Sunday afternoons for five or more months of the year.

December 28, 1958 game-changer: Famous photo from Baltimore Colts vs. New York Giants  NFL championship game; the game that launched a new era of big time pro football sports culture & big business. Baltimore Colts quarterback, Johnny Unitas, No. 19, shown here about to throw one of his passes.
December 28, 1958 game-changer: Famous photo from Baltimore Colts vs. New York Giants NFL championship game; the game that launched a new era of big time pro football sports culture & big business. Baltimore Colts quarterback, Johnny Unitas, No. 19, shown here about to throw one of his passes.

The historic moment marking the beginning of this transformation came some 50 years ago now, on December 28th, 1958 at the meeting of the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants in a professional football game played at New York’s Yankee Stadium. In those days, this season-capping football showdown was simply called a National Football League (NFL) championship game. There was only one football league then, the NFL, consisting of two conferences, East and West, each with six teams. The championship game, however, wasn’t just any old championship game. No, it happened that there was a pretty impressive lot of talent out on the field that day – a number of whom would later join the pro football Hall of Fame. The game was also nationally televised, still something of a rarity for professional football at the time. But this particular mix of elements would make for a pretty exciting afternoon – and more. “That’s the game that changed professional football,”famous Hall of Fame football coach Don Shula would say some years later. “The popularity of it started right there.”


1950s America

Dwight D. Eisenhower, U.S. President 1953-1961.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, U.S. President 1953-1961.
America in 1958 was a much different place than America today. Republican Dwight David Eisenhower was president, and the Cold War was on with the Soviet Union. The previous fall, in fact, in October 1957, the Soviets had beat the U.S. into space with the first earth-orbiting satellite, raising fears about America’s security and technological capabilities.

In terms of consumer amenities in those years, there were no iPhones, of course, no PCs, no big-screen TVs. In fact television then had three primary channels, viewed mostly on small black-and-white sets. TV westerns were a dominant genre in the 1950s, and Gunsmoke, with actor James Arness, was among the most popular shows.

In music, Billboard magazine debuted its “Hot 100″ music chart in July 1958, and Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool” became the first No.1 hit. In Hollywood, South Pacific, a romantic musical film based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage production of the same name, would become the year’s top grossing film. In September that year, Bank of America introduced the first credit card.

President Eisenhower, meanwhile, who had played halfback on the West Point football team, watched the 1958 NFL Championship Game that day between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. He tuned in from Camp David, joining millions of others who also watched the game.

Colts QB, Johnny Unitas, at a 1950s practice session, about to throw a pass.
Colts QB, Johnny Unitas, at a 1950s practice session, about to throw a pass.

Regular Guys

Professional football players in those days, for the most part, did not have the exalted status and multi-million-dollar paydays they would come to have years later. Most in fact, were then pretty much like everybody else; like normal people. Some even lived in row houses.

A guy named Johnny Unitas who happened to be the quarterback on the Baltimore Colts professional football team, had recently helped his teammate, fullback Alan Ameche, lay out his kitchen floor in the row house that Ameche and his wife had bought.

Professional football salaries were such that some players held other work-a-day jobs during their football careers. Unitas, in fact, worked at Bethlehem Steel during the off-season for extra cash. Another Colt, defensive lineman Art Donovan, worked as a liquor salesman.


Football Drama

But in late December 1958, Unitas, Ameche, Donovan and their teammates would travel to New York’s Yankee Stadium for a professional football championship showdown with the New York Giants that some believe was one of the greatest games ever played. It would also be the game that catalyzed a major change in the fan base for pro football, and generally, in its economics as well.“I knew nothing about pro football when the game began and was hooked for life when it ended. So too were millions… of other Americans…”
– Jonathan Yardley
Of fans who saw the game that day – either among the reported crowd of 64,185 who filled the old Yankee Stadium, or the millions who watched on television – many came away believing they had witnessed a very special contest indeed. Washington Post writer, Jonathan Yardley, recalled some years later that his football conversion occurred watching this game on television as a young man – a game, he would later write, “for which the only appropriate adjective was, and remains, thrilling.” Yardley was 19 years-old at the time, home from college for Christmas vacation. Bored to tears with nothing much to do, he had found a black-and-white television set in a recreation room at the school where his father was headmaster – “to which I retreated in desperation the afternoon of December 28th.” Yardley recounted that “he knew nothing about pro football when the game began, but was hooked for life when it ended. So too were millions – literally millions – of other Americans…” More on the game in a moment; first some background on how the two teams got there.


The ’58 Season

In 1958, the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts were the respective champions of their divisions. Each team had complied 9-and-3 records that season, pro teams then playing a 12-game schedule as opposed to 16 today. Baltimore had won their first six games, standing at 6-and-0 until losing to the Giants in a regular season contest, in part because quarterback Johnny Unitas was out due to an injury. In any case, the Colts clinched the Western Conference title by Game 10, beating San Francisco, then able to rest their starters for the remaining two games of the regular season, which they lost.

Dec 14, 1958. Pat Summerall kicks winning field goal in the snow against the Browns to advance Giants to playoff game.
Dec 14, 1958. Pat Summerall kicks winning field goal in the snow against the Browns to advance Giants to playoff game.
The Giants had a more tortured route. They were 2-and-2 by week four, improving to 5-and-3 by week eight, and finishing strong by wining their last four games in a row, bringing them to 9-and-3. But their last few contests with the Cleveland Browns would test their mettle.

On December 14th, 1958, the 8-3 Giants faced a 9-2 Cleveland Browns team — their last regular season game and their last shot at a possible Conference title. That game came down to a 10-to-10 tie in closing minutes of play on a cold, snowy afternoon.

It was then that the call went out to Giant’s place kicker, Pat Summerall, to attempt a 49-yard field goal in the driving snow. The pressure was on. Ending in a tie game would mean Cleveland would go to the Championship game, not the Giants.

Summerall made the kick, despite the freezing conditions, sending the ball through the uprights, and lifting the Giants to a 13-10 win. But that wasn’t the end of it.

Giants managed to hold NFL’s leading rusher, Jim Brown (32) of Cleveland to 8 yds in Dec 21, 1958 playoff game.
Giants managed to hold NFL’s leading rusher, Jim Brown (32) of Cleveland to 8 yds in Dec 21, 1958 playoff game.
Now the Giants and the Browns were tied for the Eastern Conference title, each at 9-and-3.

That meant a playoff game would be needed to determine the Eastern Conference champion. So that game was played the following week on December 21st, 1958 at Yankee Stadium.

Jim Brown of Cleveland was a punishing and powerful fullback for Cleveland, who had gained a record 1,527 yards rushing that year. In the playoff game, however, the Giants managed to hold Brown to a mere eight yards total rushing – no mean feat – and won the game, beating Cleveland 10-0.

Then, a week later, came the NFL Championship game against the well-rested Baltimore Colts, to be played on the same Yankee Stadium field where the Giants had just beaten the Browns – a field worn by the previous weeks’ battles, and much of it on the baseball diamond’s bare-dirt infield. These were not the days of well-manicured Super Bowl fields and climate controlled superdomes.

The Hall of Fame 15
1958 Championship Game

New York Giants
Rosey Brown, Offensive Lineman
Frank Gifford, Halfback
Sam Huff, Linebacker
Don Maynard, Wide Receiver
Andy Robustelli, Defensive End
Emlen Tunnell, Defensive Back
Vince Lombardi, Offensive coordinator
Tom Landry, Defensive coordinator

Baltimore Colts
Raymond Berry, Wide Receiver
Art Donovan, Defensive Lineman
Weeb Ewbank Head Coach
Gino Marchetti, Defensive Lineman
Lenny Moore, Halfback/Receiver
Jim Parker, Offensive Lineman
Johnny Unitas, Quarterback

Talented Teams

The nationally-televised NFL Championship Game was broadcast by NBC and watched by some 50 million people. The broadcast would help open the floodgates to more televised professional football contests thereafter, and the sport’s rising popularity via television in the 1960s and beyond. And the fact that it was being played in media-centric New York, even then, meant that it would receive a fair amount of press attention.

On the field that day there were 12 players and 3 coaches – including Colts’ quarterback Johnny Unitas and hulking Giants linebacker Sam Huff – who would later be inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. (see later sidebar below for brief player profiles).

Unitas and the Colts also had Lenny Moore at halfback, wide receiver Raymond Berry, and all pro defensive end, Gino Marchetti. The Giants, in addition to Huff’s formidable defensive talents, had a potent backfield in Frank Gifford at halfback (also a passing threat), Alex Webster at halfback, and fullback Mel Triplett.

This particular game, in addition to its playing talent, would also have some of game’s rising strategic thinkers and coaching personnel, especially in the case the Giant’s offensive coordinator, Vince Lombardi, and Giant’s defensive coordinator, Tom Landry, both of whom would later rise to have standout seasons and Super Bowl victories as head coaches — Lombardi with the Green Bay Packers and Landry with the Dallas Cowboys. The Super Bowl trophy, in fact – the Lombardi Trophy – is named after Vince Lombardi. And for the Colts as well, head coach Weeb Ewbank would go on to other coaching successes, notably winning Super Bowl III with the New York Jets and quarterback great, Joe Namath.

Frank Gifford (16), star halfback for the New York Giants, shown in an earlier 1958 game, running against the Cleveland Browns, as offensive end, Bob Schnelker (85), blocks ahead of Gifford, with other Giants, offensive tackle Rosey  Brown (79) and half back Kyle Rote (44), visible in the background and headed downfield.
Frank Gifford (16), star halfback for the New York Giants, shown in an earlier 1958 game, running against the Cleveland Browns, as offensive end, Bob Schnelker (85), blocks ahead of Gifford, with other Giants, offensive tackle Rosey Brown (79) and half back Kyle Rote (44), visible in the background and headed downfield.

The 1958 championship game would also have high drama, as it would go into sudden-death overtime – the first time that had ever occurred in an NFL game. And in the wake of this game, new football celebrities were created and pro football as a sports business was about to become a much bigger enterprise.

For the Giants, backup QB Don Heinrich would start the game, as he and regular QB Charlie Conerly had routinely shared the position in the early minutes of each game throughout the season. The Giants’s coaching staff liked to use Heinrich for the first few series to “feel out” the opposition so that offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi and Conerly could look over the defense from the sidelines. Along with their other coaches in the press box, the Giants could then modify the game plan for Conerly when he entered the game. At least that was the plan.

Colts’ Lenny Moore (24) about to catch a Unitas pass. (graphic, Robert Riger).
Colts’ Lenny Moore (24) about to catch a Unitas pass. (graphic, Robert Riger).
First Quarter. The game got off to a sloppy start with fumbles on both sides. Giant linebacker Sam Huff sacked Colt QB Johnny Unitas forcing a fumble, as New York recovered on the Colts 37. One play later, Baltimore took the ball back after defensive end Gino Marchetti hit NY QB Don Heinrich causing him to fumble with the Colts recovering. But in the ensuring Colt possession, a Unitas pass was picked off by Giant defensive back, Lindon Crow.

The Giants then went three-and-out. Baltimore began moving on its possession, as Unitas completed a 60-yard pass to Lenny Moore at the Giants 26-yard line, establishing speedster Moore as a big threat. But Baltimore’s drive was slowed, and they were forced to make a field goal try at the 19 yard line.

Kicker Steve Myhra, who made only 4 of 10 FGs during the season, missed the kick from about the 31 yard line. However, the Giants were offside, so Myhra got another chance, this time from about the 26. However, Giant linebacker Sam Huff broke through the Colt line and blocked the kick.

As the Giants took over, QB Charlie Conerly then came in and moved New York to the Colts’ 30-yard line, featuring a 38-yard run by Frank Gifford. On a third-down play, Conerly threw a pass to wide-open fullback, Alex Webster, who slipped on the turf just as the ball arrived, sailing past him and falling incomplete. If caught, however, this one might have been a Giant’s touchdown. Pat Summerall then kicked a 36-yard field goal to put New York on the board. Giants 3, Colts 0.

Second quarter. During the second quarter, the line play of both teams began to be a telling feature of this game, as some of New York’s standout defenders, like Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier, playing with a a bad leg, wasn’t at full power. Halfback Frank Gifford would have his problems as well. Giant QB Conerly tossed to Gifford in the left flat. But as Gifford tried to break the tackle of Colt defensive lineman, Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb (6′-6″, 285 lbs), the ball popped out and Colt defensive tackle, Ray Krouse, fell on it at the New York 20-yard-line.

December 28, 1958 NFL championship game at Yankee Stadium, as New York Giant’s halfback, Frank Gifford, No. 16, looks for running room as Baltimore Colt defenders – including “Big Daddy” Lipscomb No 76 -- close in.
December 28, 1958 NFL championship game at Yankee Stadium, as New York Giant’s halfback, Frank Gifford, No. 16, looks for running room as Baltimore Colt defenders – including “Big Daddy” Lipscomb No 76 -- close in.

The Colts then took over with mostly running plays: Lenny Moore ran for 4 yards, Ameche for 5, and then again for a yard more and a first down. The Colts were now at the ten-yard line. Moore then tried a run around left end, was almost taken for a loss by Colt defensive back Karl Karilivacz, but broke free briefly until Colt defensive back Jimmy Patton pushed him out at the 2-yard-line. From there, Unitas gave the ball to fullback Ameche (photo below) who took it in for a score behind the blocking of left tackle Jim Parker. Myhra’s point-after-touchdown kick then added the extra point. Colts 7, Giants 3.

Alan Ameche, No. 35, takes hand-off from Colt quarterback Johnny Unitas, No, 19, to score on a two-yard run in the 2nd quarter after Giant’s Frank Gifford had fumbled at that end of the field, putting the Colts in the lead, 7-to-3.
Alan Ameche, No. 35, takes hand-off from Colt quarterback Johnny Unitas, No, 19, to score on a two-yard run in the 2nd quarter after Giant’s Frank Gifford had fumbled at that end of the field, putting the Colts in the lead, 7-to-3.

The Giants made little progress after receiving the Colt’s kick, and after a series of plays had to punt. The kick to the Colts, however, was fumbled by Jackie Sampson, with the Giants recovering on the their 10-yard line. But the Giant’s were unable to capitalize, as Frank Gifford, on a sweep play left, fumbled again late in the second quarter when hit by Colt defensive back Milt Davis. On the Giant’s defensive line about that time, tackle Rosey Grier took himself out of the game, as his leg injury had hobbled him by then. With thin reinforcements, the Giants were forced to use an offensive tackle, Fran Youso, to replace Grier for the rest of the game.

Play diagrams & explanation from ‘Sports Illustrated,’ January 1959 issue (more detail, later below)
Play diagrams & explanation from ‘Sports Illustrated,’ January 1959 issue (more detail, later below)
Unitas then came in with his Colts needing 90 yards for a score – and promptly engineered an impressive drive. Among the key plays: a 10-yard pass to Ameche on 3rd-and-5; a Lenny Moore sweep for a 10-yard gain; a Unitas scramble for 16 on a 3rd-and-7; and a 13-yard pass to Raymond Berry, who made a diving catch at the 21.

From there, Ameche gained 6 more yards. Then Unitas faked to Ameche, as in the previous running play, drawing in Colt defender Jimmy Patton (#20), who thinks it’s a run. But instead, Unitas then turns and fires a 15-yard-pass to Berry who is wide open in the end zone. Touchdown! (see diagram at right). Myhra then added the extra point. Colts 14, Giants 3.

Sam Huff would later say of his nemesis that afternoon, Johnny Unitas:

“You couldn’t out-think Unitas. When you thought run, he passed. When you thought pass, he ran. When you thought conventional, he was unconventional. When you thought unconventional, he was conventional. When you tried thinking in reverse, he double-reversed. It made me dizzy. It bothered me. We were one of the greatest defensive teams ever put together. … But we didn’t have a defense for Unitas.”

Third Quarter. The Colts received the kickoff at the opening of the second half, and Unitas, with continued good protection from his offensive line, moved the Colts down the field with passing in two series of downs before punting to the Giants. But the Giants went 3-and-out, punting the ball back to the Colts. This time, Unitas moved the Colts down the field to the Giant three-yard line, first down and goal to go. A sure touchdown seemed certain. Giant fans were about to throw in the towel. But the Colts were stopped cold by the Giant defense there on four attempts, including a quarterback sneak attempt by Unitas. But the Colts, surprisingly, did not opt for a field goal. On successive 3rd and 4th down running attempts by fullback Ameche, as the Giant defenders held the line

Alan Ameche, Colts fullback, and key workhorse in the game, mis-heard play call that might have been TD.
Alan Ameche, Colts fullback, and key workhorse in the game, mis-heard play call that might have been TD.
On the fourth down play, however, the Colts went for what they hoped would be a touchdown and an insurmountable 21-3 lead. Unitas called a play for Ameche to take a handoff and then throw a pass for the score. In the ensuing play, tight end Jim Mutscheller was open in the end zone, but Ameche didn’t throw the ball. He hadn’t heard the play correctly in the huddle and thought he was supposed to run the ball. He never looked for Mutscheller and was tackled for a loss.

The Giants then took over, giving team and fans hope they would prevail. It was one of the game’s key turning points in what was becoming an exciting see-saw battle.

Still, backed up against their own endzone, the Giants had their work cut out for them. They had 95-yards to go. A key play came on a Conerly pass to Kyle Rote who caught the ball on a long crossing route, broke an arm tackle at about mid-field, but then fumbled when he was hit from behind at around the 25 yard line. Fortunately for the Giants, running back Alex Webster wasn’t far behind, and although some Colt players were closing in on the fumble, Webster managed to pick up the ball and ran downfield until he was knocked out-of-bounds at the one-yard-line. From there, Giant fullback Mel Triplett took the ball in for the score. Summerall kicked his first extra point of the day. Colts 14, Giants 10. The psychology of the game suddenly shifted in the Giant’s favor – or so it seemed.

Mel Triplett (33), NY Giants’ fullback, on the move during the 1958 NFL Championship Game, as Colt’s defensive lineman, Gino Marchetti pursues him. Triplett would score Giant touchdown in the 3rd quarter..
Mel Triplett (33), NY Giants’ fullback, on the move during the 1958 NFL Championship Game, as Colt’s defensive lineman, Gino Marchetti pursues him. Triplett would score Giant touchdown in the 3rd quarter..

The Giants continued their momentum, sacking Unitas for a loss to force a three-and-out for the Colts. Starting the next possession from their 19, the Giants began moving again. Webster ran for 3, then Conerly hit tight end Bob Schnelker with a pass for 17 yards as the third quarter ended.

Fourth Quarter. Then early in the fourth quarter, with the Giants still with the ball, Conerly hit Schnelker again, followed by a 15-yard pass to Gifford who caught it at the 5 yard line, then carrying defender Milt Davis with him into the endzone for the score. With the extra point, it was now Giants 17, Colts 14.

The Baltimore Colts in the fourth quarter were able to move the ball into scoring range on two occasions, but came up short both times. First they made it to the Giants 39-yard line, but kicker Bert Rechichar missed a 46-yard field goal attempt. On another drive after a fumble recovery, they moved the ball to the New York 42 yard line, and then to the 27-yard line. But here, Unitas was sacked twice in a row – once by Giant’s defensive tackle, Andy Robustelli, and once by Giant’s defensive end, Dick Modzelewski. These losses pushed the Colts back by 20 yards or so and out of field goal range.

New York Times photo from November 1962: NY Giants defensive lineman, from left: Andy Robustelli, Dick Modzelewski, Jim Katcavage and Rosey Grier, were also key Giant players in 1958. Photo Dan Rubin.
New York Times photo from November 1962: NY Giants defensive lineman, from left: Andy Robustelli, Dick Modzelewski, Jim Katcavage and Rosey Grier, were also key Giant players in 1958. Photo Dan Rubin.

With less than three minutes left in the game when they received the Colts punt, the Giants were trying to run out the clock through a series of plays and hold their lead. But then they faced a crucial third-down-and-4-yards-to-go, needing a first down for a fresh set of plays. They were on their own 40 yard line. Gifford was given the call on a sweep play, and appeared to have the first-down as he was tackled by Colt’s defensive end, Gino Marchetti. Also joining in on the tackle was Colt teammate “Big Daddy” Lipscomb who fell on Marchetti, breaking his lower leg bones above the ankle. Some say Marchetti’s yelling in pain had distracted the officials resulting in a bad spot of the ball marking the end of Gifford’s run. Gifford believed – and would maintain for years thereafter – that he had made the crucial first down. But at the time, the ball was placed just short of the marker.

Sports Illustrated artists’ rendition of key 4th quarter play from 1958 Championship game when Colt’s Gino Marchetti (89) makes tackle of Giant’s Frank Gifford (16), as Colt’s Big Daddy Lipscomb (76) joins in, when the tibia and fibula bones in Marchetti's lower right leg were broken, afterwhich officials made a controversial spot of Gifford’s advance just short of a first down.
Sports Illustrated artists’ rendition of key 4th quarter play from 1958 Championship game when Colt’s Gino Marchetti (89) makes tackle of Giant’s Frank Gifford (16), as Colt’s Big Daddy Lipscomb (76) joins in, when the tibia and fibula bones in Marchetti's lower right leg were broken, afterwhich officials made a controversial spot of Gifford’s advance just short of a first down.

This meant the Giants were then at a pivotal fourth-down moment. They were inches away from a possible first down, which if made, would help them continue to eat up the clock, hold their lead, and win the game. Should they go for it or punt? Offensive coach Vince Lombardi urged Giant head coach Jim Lee Howell to go for it, as did defensive coach Tom Landry. Giant players wanted to go for it as well, thinking they had a better shot at running the ball at Marchetti’s replacement, Ordell Brase. Giant’s offensive guard, Jack Stroud, would later say: “We only need four inches. We would have run through a brick wall at that point.” There was a little over two minutes remaining.

Injured Colt Gino Marchetti on sideline.
Injured Colt Gino Marchetti on sideline.
Meanwhile, the injured Gino Marchetti, who had been carried off on a stretcher, told his carriers to put him down just outside the sideline so he could watch the rest of the game. “After all those years when we were so bad,” he would later say, “I wanted at least to see the finish.”

Back on the Giant’s sideline, head coach Jim Howell was still pondeing his fourth down decision. He elected to punt, believing his defense could protect the Giants 17-to-14 lead and hold the Colts in the remaining minutes.

The punt by Giant’s Don Chandler pinned Baltimore back on their own 14 yard-line with about two minutes remaining in the game. As the Colts took the field, wide receiver, Raymond Berry recalled: “I said to myself, ‘Well, we’ve blown this ballgame.’ The goalpost looked a million miles away.”

With 1:56 left and no timeouts, a Johnny Unitas legend was about to begin. From that point, Unitas engineered one of the most famous drives in football history – what might be called a “2-minute drill,” though before anyone used that term. His first two throws were incomplete, but Unitas made a third down, 11-yard completion to Lenny Moore. After a first down throw went incomplete, Unitas then threw three consecutive completions to Raymond Berry for 25, 15 and 22 yards, moving the ball 62 yards down the field to the Giants 13-yard line as time nearly ran out. This set up a 20-yard field goal by Myhra with seven seconds left to play. Myhra, in fact, wasn’t just a kicker that day, as he had been playing most of the game, since the first quarter, replacing injured left linebacker Leo Sanford. Nor was Myhra’s record exceptionally good, having made only 4 of 10 field goal attempts during the season. But this time, with seven seconds left, Myhra hit the 20-yard field goal, tying the score – Giants 17, Colts 17.

1958. With 7 seconds  remaining in the championship game, Colts kicker, Steve Myhra, successfully boots one through the uprights from 20 yards out, tying score with the Giants, 17-to-17. Ball in flight is visible, upper center.
1958. With 7 seconds remaining in the championship game, Colts kicker, Steve Myhra, successfully boots one through the uprights from 20 yards out, tying score with the Giants, 17-to-17. Ball in flight is visible, upper center.

As the final seconds ticked away in the deadlocked contest, many of the players thought the game was over and would end as a tie. Some began heading to the locker rooms only to be admonished by the officials that a “sudden death” overtime period was about to begin. It was the first overtime game in NFL playoff history.


Sports Illustrated artist’s rendition of coin toss for “sudden death” period, showing Johnny Unitas for the Colts and co-captains for the Giants, Kyle Rote and Bill Svoboda.
Sports Illustrated artist’s rendition of coin toss for “sudden death” period, showing Johnny Unitas for the Colts and co-captains for the Giants, Kyle Rote and Bill Svoboda.
Sudden Death

As Johnny Unitas later recalled:: “When the game ended in a tie, we were standing on the sidelines waiting to see what came next. All of a sudden, the officials came over and said, ‘Send the captain out. We’re going to flip a coin to see who will receive.’ That was the first we heard of the overtime period.” The respective player-captains came to the center of the field for the coin toss. Unitas called for the Colts, but lost the toss. The Giants would receive. “The first team to score, field goal, safety, or touchdown,” the referee explained to the captains, “will win the game, and the game will be over.”

Across America, meanwhile, as the special overtime period began, TV viewers and radio listeners were transfixed. This game was providing a new kind of athletic drama. On the NBC-TV broadcast, Colts announcer, Chuck Thompson, offered that “something historic” was happening “that will be remembered forever…”

In the overtime period, Don Maynard received the opening kickoff for the Giants, bobbled the ball a bit, but held onto it as he was tackled at the Giants 20-yard line. Giants quarterback, Charlie Connerly, the 37-year-old veteran, then came in, and his first play went to halfback Frank Gifford, who gained four yards. Then Conerly faked a draw play, as receiver Bob Schnelker was sent downfield for about ten yards, deep enough for a first down, but Conerly’s pass just missed him, as Schnelker made a valiant dive attempting to reach it. With a third-down-and-six-to-go, Conerly tried to pass again, but his receivers were covered, so he tried to run for it, moving around the Colts right end, but was hit by Colt linebacker Bill Pellington first, then lineman Don Shinnick, who brought Conerly down just short of the first-down marker. The Giants then punted and the Colts took over.

Earlier in the game, Giants quarterback, Charlie Conerly (42), had been having a pretty good day, shown here throwing a jump pass over on-rushing Colt defenders. But in the overtime period, the Giants seemed to run out of gas.
Earlier in the game, Giants quarterback, Charlie Conerly (42), had been having a pretty good day, shown here throwing a jump pass over on-rushing Colt defenders. But in the overtime period, the Giants seemed to run out of gas.

As the Colts took possession of the ball in the overtime period following the Giant’s punt, once again, the field command of quarterback Johnny Unitas would be put to the test – and he did not disappoint. Unitas took his team 80 yards down the field in 13 plays, as a tired Giant’s defense tried to keep up.

The first play was a run by halfback Louis Dupre over right tackle for 11 yards to the 31. Next, Unitas threw a long pass for Lenny Moore down the sideline, but Colt defender, Lindon Crow, broke it up. Dupre was called again for a two-yard run. It was then 3rd-down-and-8-to-go. On this crucial play, wide receiver Raymond Berry headed downfield on a passing route, but Unitas tossed a flare pass in the flat to Ameche who took it eight yards, just enough to make the first down at the 41 yard line. Dupre that ran again for a gain of four yards.

Photo shows Colt QB, Johnny Unitas (19), in action during NFL Championship Game, throwing pass over the attempt of hard-charging NY defensive tackle, Dick Modzelewski (77), to unsuccessfully block it.
Photo shows Colt QB, Johnny Unitas (19), in action during NFL Championship Game, throwing pass over the attempt of hard-charging NY defensive tackle, Dick Modzelewski (77), to unsuccessfully block it.

On the next play, Giants’ tackle, Dick Modzelewski, broke through the Colt line and sacked Unitas for a loss of eight yards. It was then 3rd down. The Colts were on their own 37 yard-line and needed 14 yards for first down. On the that 3rd down play, Unitas was rushed by Colt defenders, but evaded them and threw to Berry, who had come back for the ball off his pass route, gaining 21 yards for the first down and crossing midfield to the Giant’s 42 yard-line.

As Unitas came to the line for the next play, he had been feeling the pressure of Giant’s hard-charging defensive tackle, Dick Modzelewski. So Unitas this time called an “audible” at the line – a change of play – signaling a trap block on Modzelewski from left Colt guard Art Spinney (63) who would cut across center laterally “trapping” Modzelewski (77) with a good block (see illustration below), while the other Colt’s guard, George Preas (60) went after Giant linebacker Sam Huff (70), clearing the way for fullback Alan Ameche who then went for a gain of 23 yards downfield. A nicely timed play which then put the Colts on the Giant’s 19 yard line.

Artists rendition from ‘Sports Illustrated’ showing key “trap play” during the Colts’ final sequence of plays, with Colt linemen –  Art Spinney (63) making trap block on Giant tackle, Dick Modzelewski (77), and George Preas (60) on Giant linebacker Sam Huff (70) –  clearing the way for Colt fullback, Alan Ameche (35).
Artists rendition from ‘Sports Illustrated’ showing key “trap play” during the Colts’ final sequence of plays, with Colt linemen – Art Spinney (63) making trap block on Giant tackle, Dick Modzelewski (77), and George Preas (60) on Giant linebacker Sam Huff (70) – clearing the way for Colt fullback, Alan Ameche (35).

The next play was a run by Dupre who was stopped cold by the Giant’s line for no gain. Unitas then threw a pass to Raymond Berry who ran a slant pattern over the middle for a gain of 11 yards, bringing the Colts to the Giant’s eight yard-line. The Colts then had first-down-and-goal-to-go.

However, at this point, in the middle of Raymond Berry’s catch, millions of TV viewers across the nation no doubt went apoplectic as the TV transmission of the game suddenly went black. Someone in the crowd had knocked a cable loose in the end zone. NBC tried to get a delay in the game, but failed initially. Then, after some “drunk” (or instructed NBC employee) wandered onto the playing field, a timeout was called, during which NBC managed to reconnect its cable. Viewers would miss a play or two, including play no.11 in the Colt’s drive, when Ameche ran for a one yard gain.

Colt receiver, Ray Berry, making one of his catches during 1958 Championship Game. Berry's 12 receptions for 178 yards that day set an NFL record that stood for 55 years.
Colt receiver, Ray Berry, making one of his catches during 1958 Championship Game. Berry's 12 receptions for 178 yards that day set an NFL record that stood for 55 years.
Back on the field, Unitas on the next play then made what many believed was a risky call. As he dropped back to pass, Unitas made a pump-fake to his halfback Lenny Moore, who was then running into the end zone, but he threw instead to his end, Jim Mutscheller, who made a twisting catch at about the two-yard-line before going out of bounds, just short of the goal. This pass was risky because if it had been intercepted in the flat by a Giant defender, he could have gone all the way for a Giant touchdown. But that didn’t happen. Now the Colts were poised to win the game.

On the next play the Giant defenders dug in on the goal line, including linebacker Sam Huff, all expecting a run. Fullback Ameche got the call, put his head down and sailed through a big opening off right tackle and into the endzone. Colts win, game over! Final score, Colts 23, Giants 17.

Headlines from The Salisbury Times in Maryland reporting on fan reaction to Colt's victory.
Headlines from The Salisbury Times in Maryland reporting on fan reaction to Colt's victory.
Jubilant fans rushed the field and one group carried Ameche off on their shoulders in celebration. Later than night in New York, Ameche would appear briefly on The Ed Sullivan Show, lauded for his and the Colts victory that day.

Back in Baltimore there was wild celebration; 30,000 fans would come out to the airport back home to greet their conquering heroes. Some newspaper stories ran a front-page photo of one happy Colt threesome in the locker room – Steve Myhra, Johnny Unitas, and Alan Ameche.

Unitas was the MVP of that game, awarded for his stellar late-game and sudden-death heroics, as he completed 26 of 40 passes for 349 yards, then a championship game record. Raymond Berry’s 12 receptions for 178 yards and a touchdown that day also set a championship game record that would stand for 55 years.

The following year, Unitas, Berry, and the Colts returned to win the 1959 NFL championship game, also against the New York Giants. But it was the 1958 game that would live for the ages.


New York Daily News, Monday, December 29, 1958 edition, announcing Colts win with photograph of Colt fullback Alan Ameche scoring winning touchdown behind great Colt blocking.
New York Daily News, Monday, December 29, 1958 edition, announcing Colts win with photograph of Colt fullback Alan Ameche scoring winning touchdown behind great Colt blocking.
Lore & Legacy

In fact, “greatest game” accolades for the 1958 NFL Championship Game began almost immediately. In the Monday morning edition of the New York Daily News following the game, reporter Gene Ward wrote:

“In years to come when our children’s children are listening to stories about football, they’ll be told about the greatest game ever played – the one between the Giants and Colts for the 1958 NFL Championship.”

They’ll be told of heroics the like of which never had been seen . . . of New York’s slashing two-touchdown rally to a 17-14 lead . . . of Baltimore’s knot-tying field goal seven seconds from the end of regulation playing time . . . and, finally, of the bitter collapse of the magnificent Giant defense as the Colts slammed and slung their way to a 23-17 triumph with an 80-yard touchdown drive in the first sudden death period ever played….”

True enough; the game was an emotional roller coaster, with ups and downs, multiple lead changes, exciting plays, costly miscues, player heroics, and more. But “greatest” and “best” game attributions would come from other quarters as well, including an early boost from Sports Illustrated magazine, then and now, a respected journal of sports reporting and analysis.

Only a week or so after the game was played, a January 5th, 1959 Sports Illustrated story by Tex Mule was titled, “The Best Football Game Ever Played.” This piece ran over five pages with several photographs by Arthur Daley and Hy Peskin. The first two-page spread from that piece is shown below. Maule, in his article, would say that the contest “was a truly epic game which inflamed the imagination of a national audience.”

The January 5th, 1959 issue of “Sports Illustrated” lauds the 1958 NFL Championship Game as “The Best Football Game Ever Played” in a five-page story by Tex Maule with photos by Arthur Daley and Hy Peskin. Click for magazine issue.
The January 5th, 1959 issue of “Sports Illustrated” lauds the 1958 NFL Championship Game as “The Best Football Game Ever Played” in a five-page story by Tex Maule with photos by Arthur Daley and Hy Peskin. Click for magazine issue.

But Sports Illustrated wasn’t finished with just one piece on the game. Two weeks later, the magazine followed up in its January 19th, 1959 edition with a more detailed breakdown of the game by Tex Maule, along with dramatic hand drawings by Robert Riger, and some play diagrams and description, recreating some of game’s action in detail. That article was titled, “Here’s Why It Was The Greatest Game Ever.” A sampling of a two-page layout from that piece is offered below, but the full Sports Illustrated treatment of the game in this edition ran for nine pages, with drawings and annotation, including one page with a diagram of a football playing field marking the on-field progress of each of the 13 plays Johnny Unitas called in the final Colt drive in the sudden death period.

Sports Illustrated, January 19th, 1959, showing first two pages of a nine-page spread of diagrams, play calling, and analysis of the December 28, 1958 NFL championship game between NY Giants and Baltimore Colts. Click for magazine issue.
Sports Illustrated, January 19th, 1959, showing first two pages of a nine-page spread of diagrams, play calling, and analysis of the December 28, 1958 NFL championship game between NY Giants and Baltimore Colts. Click for magazine issue.

Some observers believe that the January 1959 Sports Illustrated pieces did capture a sense of what the game meant to those who were there at the time or had viewed in on TV, and also how the culture then began perceiving pro football. But the legend and lore for the 1958 game only grew thereafter, especially as the years went by. In fact, over the next fifty years, this game would become the subject of a number of books, magazine features, film documentaries, player reunion TV shows, and more.

David Klein book, 1976.
David Klein book, 1976.
Sports Illustrated, April 2008.
Sports Illustrated, April 2008.
Frank Gifford book, 2008.
Frank Gifford book, 2008.
Mark Bowden book, 2008.
Mark Bowden book, 2008.
 
Lou Sahadi book, 2008.
Lou Sahadi book, 2008.
Pro Football Researchers, 2008.
Pro Football Researchers, 2008.
 

The first of the books on the 1958 game came nearly 20 years later, in 1976 – The Game of Their Lives, by Dave Klein, a sports writer for the Newark Star-Ledger (New Jersey). Published by Random House, this book profiled the 13 players from the 1958 game who would later be inducted into the pro football Hall of Fame. A paperback edition of this book came out a year later, and it was also re-issued in digital and paperback form again in 2007-2008.

But after Klein’s book came out in 1976, there wasn’t much more activity on books about the 1958 game until about the time of its 50th anniversary in 2007-2008.

In April 2008, Sports Illustrated put the 1958 game on its cover, using the classic photo of Unitas rearing back in QB form preparing to throw one of his passes during the game, and titling its lead feature story, “The Best Game Ever,” as it had nearly 50 years before in January 1959. Only this time, the feature story was written by book author, Mark Bowden, and titled: “How John Unitas and Raymond Berry Invented the Modern NFL.”

Bowden would also publish his own book on the game in 2008, The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and The Birth of The Modern NFL.

Frank Gifford, meanwhile, a former New York Giant player in the 1958 game, and also by this time, a well-known sportscasting celebrity who had worked on TV’s Monday Night Football games, also wrote a book on the 1958 game that came out in November 2008. This book – The Glory Game: How the 1958 NFL Championship Changed Football Forever – was written with Peter Richmond, and was popular at the time of the game’s 50th anniversary.

The genesis of the Gifford book had begun with Pulitzer Prize winning writer David Halberstam – famous for his book on Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest, and others, including several sports books. Halberstam had intended to write a book on the 1958 game and Gifford was recruited to help Halberstam get in touch with a number of the players from that game for the planned book. Halberstam, however, on his way to meet one of his first interview subjects for that book, was killed in a California car accident. Thereafter, Gifford decided to take on the project. And once the book came out, Gifford made the rounds on some sports shows and media interviews talking about the famous game.

There were also a couple of other books that came out at that time. In September 2008, Lou Sahadi, an author of other sports and pro football books, published One Sunday in December: The 1958 NFL Championship Game and How It Changed Professional Football, released by Lyons Press. And also that year, the Professional Football Researchers Association issued a book titled, The 1958 Baltimore Colts: Profiles of the NFL’s First Sudden Death Champions.


“Famous Players”
1958 Colts v. Giants Game

The 1958 game also became known for its famous players – those who entered the professional Football Hall of Fame and others who were famous in that game, for what they did elsewhere in football, and/or for later achievement in sportscasting and other career endeavors. What follows below are brief profiles on some of those Colt and Giant players who took part in the famous 1958 NFL Championship Game.

– Baltimore Colts –

Alan Ameche book, 2012.
Alan Ameche book, 2012.
Alan Ameche, cousin of actor Don Ameche, won the Heisman Trophy in college at the University of Wisconsin where he played both fullback and linebacker. He is one of six Wisconsin players to have his numeral retired there. Nicknamed “The Horse,” and famous for his winning touchdown in the 1958 NFL Championship game, Ameche was elected to the Pro Bowl in his first four seasons in the NFL.

Due to an Achilles tendon injury in 1960, Ameche finished his NFL career after six seasons with 4,045 rushing yards, 101 receptions for 733 yards, and 44 touchdowns. He is one of four players named to the NFL 1950s All-Decade Team not elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Ameche was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1975 and the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2004. Along with Colts teammate Gino Marchetti, Ameche founded the Gino’s Hamburgers chain and the Baltimore-based Ameche’s Drive-In restaurants were also named for him.

Raymond Berry book, 2017.
Raymond Berry book, 2017.
Raymond Berry was a split end for the Baltimore Colts from 1955 to 1967. When he was drafted in the late rounds by the Colts in 1954 he was considered a long shot to make the team. His college career at SMU had not been exceptional and he had poor eyesight. However, his subsequent rise with the Colts has been touted as one of American football’s Cinderella stories. He became known for rigorous practice and attention to detail, along with running near-perfect pass routes and his sure handedness. By his second NFL season, after quarterback Johnny Unitas arrived, Berry’s talents came in full display. Over the next 12 seasons together, the two became one of the most dominant passing and catching duos in NFL history. Berry, who did not miss a single game until his eighth year in the league, led the NFL in receptions and receiving yards three times and in receiving touchdowns twice. When his playing days ended, Berry began coaching. After several assistant coaching positions, he became head coach of the New England Patriots from 1984 to 1989. In 1973, Berry was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He is also a member of the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, compiled in 1994, and the 1950s All-Decade Team. Berry’s No. 82 jersey is retired by the Colts and he is also included in the Baltimore Ravens Ring of Honor.

Art Donovan book, 1987.
Art Donovan book, 1987.
Art Donovan, a Colt defensive lineman, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968. As a U.S. Marine he served in the Pacific Theater during World War II seeing action in the Battle of Luzon and the Battle of Iwo Jima. He played his college football at Boston College following his military service. He was an All-NFL selection 1954-1958 and played in five straight Pro Bowls. During his playing days Donovan was noted as a jovial and humorous teammate and capitalized on those qualities with television and speaking appearances in later years. He appeared ten times on the Late Show with David Letterman telling humorous stories about his playing days and “old school” footballers. Donovan also made other TV guest appearances and was a guest commentator for the WWF’s 1994 edition of “King of the Ring.” He was also co-host of the popular 1990s Baltimore TV program, “Braase, Donovan, Davis and Fans,” with fellow Colt teammate Ordell Braase. Donovan also owned and managed a country club in Towson, Maryland and he published his autobiography in 1987 titled, Fatso. Art Donovan died in 2013 from a respiratory disease at age 89.

Big Daddy & Marchetti, 1950s.
Big Daddy & Marchetti, 1950s.
Eugene Allen Lipscomb, also known as “Big Daddy” due to his hulking 6′-6″/285 lb. size, was born in Uniontown, Alabama. He never knew his father, moved to Detroit at age three, where his mother was brutally murdered when he was 11, then raised by his grandparents. For a time at Detroit’s Miller High School, he starred in football and basketball, but was declared ineligible his senior year for playing semi-pro basketball. He then enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, playing football for the Camp Pendleton team. He was signed as a free agent by the Los Angeles Rams (1953-1955) before being traded to the Baltimore Colts where he played five seasons. In 1958 and 1959, he earned a spot in the Pro Bowl, and was instrumental in the Colts’ two consecutive NFL Championships in 1958 and 1959. He then went on to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers for two seasons. Fellow players described him as a powerful big man with unusual speed and athletic ability, but also as a gentle and big-hearted person off the field, often helpful to those down-and-out. Gino Marchetti, his teammate and mentor, found his lateral movement exceptional, calling him “our fourth linebacker;” an uncommon defensive tackle who could sometimes catch halfbacks downfield. In his final game, the 1963 Pro Bowl, Lipscomb was named MVP after making 11 tackles, forcing two fumbles and deflecting a pass. But Gene Lipscomb also had a fondness for nightlife, women, and liquor, and in May 10, 1963, he was found dead of a heroin overdose in Baltimore, though many believed he was not a drug user and suspected foul play. He was 31 years old. In Baltimore, 30,000 lined up for his funeral. Several magazines would later profile and eulogize him following his death (see Sources).

Gino Marchetti sports card.
Gino Marchetti sports card.
Gino Marchetti, the son of Italian immigrants, enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II and fought in the Battle of the Bulge as a machine gunner. After playing college football at the University of San Francisco, he was drafted by the New York Yanks, the team that later became the Baltimore Colts. Marchetti played 13 seasons with the Colts and became known as a relentless pass-rusher. He was voted “the greatest defensive end in pro football history” by the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972. In 1999, he was ranked number 15 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, then the second-highest-ranking defensive end behind Deacon Jones.

In 1959, Marchetti joined with several of his teammates, including Alan Ameche, and opened a fast food restaurant. The business grew, began to franchise, and would eventually become known as Gino’s Hamburgers, a popular fast food chain in the 1960s. On the East Coast in would grow to have 313 company-owned locations when the chain was sold to Marriott International in 1982 and became Roy Rogers restaurants.

Lenny Moore book, 2005.
Lenny Moore book, 2005.
Lenny Moore, Penn State standout from Reading, Pennsylvania, won the NFL Rookie of the Year as a Baltimore Colt running back in 1956. In 1958, he caught a career-high 50 passes for 938 yards and seven touchdowns in helping the Colts win the NFL championship. In 1959, he had 47 receptions for 846 yards and six touchdowns as the Colts repeated as champions.

In 1964, Moore had one of his best seasons when he scored 20 touchdowns, helping the Colts to a 12–2 record and another trip to the NFL Championship Game. He was voted MVP by his fellow players that year and also won the Comeback Player of the Year Award. Moore was selected to the Pro Bowl seven times and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1975. In 2005, he published his autobiography, All Things Being Equal. In 2010, Moore retired from the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services after 26 years of service, working with at-risk kids in Maryland middle schools and high schools.

Jim Parker, Colt lineman.
Jim Parker, Colt lineman.
Jim Parker, offensive lineman with the Baltimore Colts from 1957 to 1967, played college football at Ohio State University from 1954 to 1956. During the 1958 Championship Game, Sam Huff noted that the Giant’s All-Pro defensive end, Andy Robustelli, was having no success getting past Parker to harass Unitas. Huff recalled: “Andy couldn’t get around Parker; he couldn’t come under him; he couldn’t go over him. The immovable object, that’s what Jim Parker was.” And Robustelli himself would say: “I used to think there wasn’t a big tackle I couldn’t outmaneuver. But Parker was too strong, too smart, too good.” Parker was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1973 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1974. He is considered among the greatest lineman to ever play pro football. In 1994, Parker was selected to the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. In 1999, he was ranked number 24 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. Jim Parker died in 2005 at the age of 71.

Johnny Unitas book, 2004.
Johnny Unitas book, 2004.
Johnny Unitas, legendary quarterback of the Baltimore Colts, grew up in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA, losing his father at age 5 and raised by his mother, who worked two jobs to make ends meet. Of Lithuanian decent, Unitas played halfback and quarterback at Pittsburgh’s St. Justin’s High School, and dreamed of playing at Notre Dame, but at a try out there he was told by coach Frank Leahy he was too skinny and would “get murdered” on the field. Unitas played instead for the University of Louisville, where mid-career there, the school deemphasized football, but Unitas persisted, playing both ways, heroically in a few cases, suffering many losing contests. Still, Unitas emerged from Louisville with 245 completed passes for 3,139 yards and 27 touchdowns and was selected as a ninth-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1953? However, with four other QBs in training camp, Unitas was cut by the Steelers even before training camp had ended. After being cut, Unitas played for the Bloomfield Rams in the semi-pro Greater Pittsburgh League. In 1956, Baltimore Colts coach Weeb Ewbank gave Unitas a look and liked what he saw and signed him for a pittance. But with the Colts, Unitas would become the prototype, modern era marquee quarterback, setting records and winning NFL most valuable player awards in 1959, 1964, and 1967. For 52 years he held the record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass ( 47, set between 1956 and 1960), until quarterback Drew Brees broke the record in 2012. Unitas is 7th all time in number of regular season games won by an NFL starting quarterback with 118. He was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979. In 2004, The Sporting News ranked Unitas No. 1 among the NFL’s 50 Greatest Quarterbacks, with Joe Montana at No. 2. At the Baltimore Ravens stadium a statue of Unitas is the centerpiece in the stadium’s front plaza, and large banners depicting Unitas in his heyday flank the entrance. Towson University named its football and lacrosse complex Johnny Unitas Stadium in recognition of his football career and his service to the university.

– New York Giants –

Rosey Brown, New York Giants.
Rosey Brown, New York Giants.
Roosevelt “Rosey” Brown, growing up in Charlottesville, VA, initially played trombone in the Jefferson High School band. He was forbidden to play football by his family after his older brother died from a football injury. However, Brown did play at the prodding of the high school coach, and at first without his father’s knowledge. He then went on to Morgan State University on a football scholarship where he would be named to the Pittsburgh Courier’s All-America team in 1952. Brown was selected by the New York Giants in the late rounds of the 1953 NFL draft, would become one of the team’s most consistent and valuable players, appearing in 162 games, missing only four games in a 13-year career. In his prime, between 1956 and 1963, he helped lead the Giants to six division championships and the 1956 NFL Championship Game. He was selected as a first-team All-NFL player eight consecutive years and was also selected to play in the Pro Bowl nine times. After his playing days, Brown became the Giant’s assistant offensive line coach in 1966, then offensive line coach in 1969. He remained with the Giants organization in the scouting department for many years. Rosey Brown was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974. In 1999, he was ranked number 57 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. Brown passed away in 2004.

Book by Perian Conerly, 2003.
Book by Perian Conerly, 2003.
Charlie Conerly, quarterback for the New York Giants from 1948 through 1961, played college football at the University of Mississippi where he started in 1942 but left to join the U.S. Marines during WWII, and fought in the Battle of Guam in the South Pacific. Back at Mississippi in 1946, he would lead Ole Miss to their first SEC championship in 1947. That season, he also led the nation in pass completions with 133, rushed for nine touchdowns, passed for 18 more, and was a consensus All-American. Conerly was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1966. The Conerly Trophy is given annually to the top college player in the State of Mississippi. Conerly also portrayed the “Marlboro Man” in cigarette commercials. After his playing days, Conerly owned shoe stores throughout the Mississippi Delta, and his wife, Perian, a sports columnist, authored the book, Backseat Quarterback. Charlie Conerly retired to his Clarksdale, Mississippi hometown where he spent his final days before his death in 1996.

Frank Gifford book, 1970.
Frank Gifford book, 1970.
Frank Gifford was a star football player at the University of Southern California and was drafted by the New York Giants in 1952 as a first-round pick, 11th overall. Gifford became a versatile player for the Giants, adept at running, passing, and receiving. He also played defensive back and returned punts and kickoffs. He was named the NFL’s MVP in 1956, helping lead the Giants to a championship. Gifford was named All-NFL six times in his career and selected to a total of eight Pro Bowls at three different positions – defensive back, halfback, and flanker. Overall, Gifford spent 12 seasons with the Giants compiling a record of 3,609 yards rushing and 34 touchdowns on 840 carries. He also had 5,434 receiving yards with 367 catches and 43 touchdowns. Gifford was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame 1977. He also became one of the better-known American sportscasters in the latter part of the 20th century, notably for ABC’s Monday Night Football (1971-1997). Gifford also had an extensive advertising career, both as a player and for years thereafter. At his death in 2015, the much admired Gifford was called “the Mickey Mantle of the Giants.” The New York Post’s Steve Serby also wrote of Gifford at that time: “He was the Giants’ first made-for-television superstar in the grainy, black-and-white glory days of the 1950s, every bit the heartthrob Joe Namath would be in the 1960s…” More detail about Gifford at this website can be found at “Celebrity Gifford” and “Bednarik-Gifford Lore.”

Rosey Grier book, 1986.
Rosey Grier book, 1986.
Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier played his college football at Penn State, and was drafted by the New York Giants in 1955 as the 31st overall pick. He played with the Giants from 1955 to 1962 and was named All-Pro at defensive tackle in 1956 and 1958–1962. Later traded to the Los Angeles Rams, Grier became part of the “Fearsome Foursome” along with Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, and Lamar Lundy, considered one of the best defensive lines in football history. After Grier’s professional sports career, he worked as a bodyguard for Robert Kennedy during the 1968 presidential campaign and was guarding Ethel Kennedy when Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert F. Kennedy, though Grier helped subdue Sirhan and took control of his gun during the mayhem. Beyond football, Grier hosted his own Los Angeles television show and made numerous guest appearances on other shows during the 1960s and 1970s. He also authored several books.

Sam Huff, Time cover 1959.
Sam Huff, Time cover 1959.
Sam Huff was born and grew up in the No. 9 coal mining camp in Edna, West Virginia. During the Great Depression, his father and two brothers worked in the coal mines. Playing high school football, Sam Huff collected all-state honors as a lineman, and continued at the University of West Virginia, where he was an All-American in 1955. Drafted by the New York Giants in 1956, they weren’t sure where to play him until he found a home at middle linebacker, then a relatively new position – where he excelled. Huff appeared on the cover of Time magazine for a pro football feature story in November 1959, and was also the subject of an October 1960 CBS television special, “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” part of a Walter Cronkite series. Traded to the Redskins in 1964 he helped make their defense second best in 1965. An ankle injury in 1967 ended a streak of 150 consecutive games for Huff, and he retired briefly, until Vince Lombardi, then coach of the Washington Redskins, coaxed Huff out of retirement to help bring a winning season in 1969. Huff retired for good in 1970, the year he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, though losing in the West Virginia Democratic primary. Outside of football, Huff worked in textile sales and sports marketing, but through 2012 became known as a Washington Redskin radio and TV broadcast personality with former Redskin teammate Sonny Jurgensen. Sam Huff was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982. In 1999, he was ranked number 76 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. In 2005, Huff’s No. 75 numeral was retired by West Virginia University.

Don Maynard book, 2010.
Don Maynard book, 2010.
Don Maynard, then in his rookie NFL season, returned punts and kickoffs for the Giants in the 1958 Championship game. However, he would become a Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver with the New York Jets (1960-1972). In 1965, Maynard was paired up with Jet’s rookie QB Joe Namath and had 1,218 yards with 68 receptions and 14 touchdowns. In 1967, Maynard caught 1,434 of Namath’s historic 4,007 passing yards. The receiving yards were a career-high for Maynard and led the league; he also had 71 receptions, 10 touchdowns, and averaged 20.2 yards per catch. In the 1968 season opener against Kansas City, Maynard had 200+ receiving yards for the first time in his career and passed Tommy McDonald as the active leader in receiving yards, where he remained for the next six seasons until his retirement. Maynard finished his career with 633 receptions for 11,834 yards and 88 touchdowns. His 18.7 yards per catch is the highest among those with at least 600 receptions. Maynard’s No. 13 New York Jets numeral was the second ever retired by the Jets after Namath’s. He was selected to the Pro Football Hall of fame in 1987. In his post NFL-career, Maynard worked as a math and industrial arts teacher, a salesman, and a financial planner.

Andy Robustelli book, 1987.
Andy Robustelli book, 1987.
Andy Robustelli was drafted initially by the Los Angeles Rams but played most of his career with the New York Giants. He was a starter on the Giants defense from 1956 until his retirement following the 1964 season. Robustelli was a six-time All-Pro selection and was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 1971. After his playing days, Robustelli spent 1965 as a color analyst for NBC’s American Football League broadcasts. That same year he purchased Stamford-based Westheim Travel and renamed it Robustelli Travel Services, Inc. In December 1973, he was appointed director of operations for the New York Giants, essentially becoming the team’s first general manager for the next six years. In 1988, he was named Walter Camp Man of the Year, a public service and leadership award. Robustelli Travel Services, meanwhile, specializing in corporate travel management, grew into Robustelli World Travel by the time it was sold to Hogg Robinson Group in 2006. He also founded National Professional Athletes (NPA), a sports marketing business which arranged appearances by sports celebrities at corporate functions, and International Equities, which evolved into Robustelli Corporate Services. Andy Robustelli died in May 2011 from complications following surgery. He was 85 years old.

Kyle Rote, New York Giants.
Kyle Rote, New York Giants.
Kyle Rote was a running back and receiver with the New York Giants for eleven years. He was an All-American running back at Southern Methodist University where he became one of the most celebrated collegiate football players in the country. In December 1949, in a near upset of undefeated national champs, Notre Dame, Rote ran for 115 yards, threw for 146 yards, and scored all three SMU touchdowns in a 27–20 loss. His performance was voted by the Texas Sportswriters Association as “The Outstanding Individual Performance by a Texas Athlete in the First Half of the 20th Century.” He appeared on the cover of Life magazine November 1950 in his SMU football gear in a featured story on college football. Rote, who had been runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, was the first overall selection of the 1951 NFL Draft. When Rote retired after the 1961 season, he was the Giants’ career leader in pass receptions (300), receiving yardage (4,795) and touchdown receptions (48). He was named to the Pro Bowl four times and was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1964. Following his playing career, Rote was the Giants backfield coach and also a sports broadcaster for WNEW radio, NBC, and WNBC New York. He also wrote a few football books. Kyle Rote died in 2002 following surgery. He was 73 years old.

Pat Summerall book, 2006.
Pat Summerall book, 2006.
“Pat” Summerall played college football from 1949 to 1951 at the University of Arkansas as defensive end, tight end, and placekicker. He graduated in 1953 majoring in Russian history. Summerall spent ten years as an NFL football player, first drafted by the Detroit Lions, traded to the Chicago Cardinals, and then the New York Giants, his last team and where he had his best year in 1959 as a kicker, with 30-for-30 extra points and 20-for-29 in field goals. Pat Summerall, however, is best known for his many years of work in the broadcast booth, along with partners such as Tom Brookshier, John Madden, and others on various TV and cable networks including CBS, FOX and ESPN, doing NFL and other sports events and special telecasts. In 1977, he was named the National Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association and inducted into their Hall of Fame in 1994. That year, he also received the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame in 1999. The Pat Summerall Award, honoring his legacy, has been awarded to various individuals since 2006. Pat Summerall died in 2013 of cardiac arrest at age 82.

Emlen Tunnell book, 1966.
Emlen Tunnell book, 1966.
Emlen Tunnell, played 14 seasons in the National Football League (NFL) as a defensive halfback and safety for the New York Giants (1948–1958) and Green Bay Packers (1959–1961). He was the first African American to play for the New York Giants and also the first to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was named to the NFL’s 1950s All-Decade Team and was ranked No. 70 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. He was selected as a first-team All-Pro player six times and played in nine Pro Bowls. When he retired as a player, he held NFL career records for interceptions (79), interception return yards (1,282), punt returns (258), and punt return yards (2,209). After retiring as a player, Tunnell served as a special assistant coach and defensive backs coach for the New York Giants from 1963 to 1974. Born and raised in the Philadelphia area, Tunnell was a high school standout at Radnor High School. He played his college football at the University of Toledo in 1942 and University of Iowa in 1946 and 1947. He also served in the U.S. Coast Guard from 1943 to 1946. He received the Silver Lifesaving Medal for heroism in rescuing a shipmate from flames during a torpedo attack in 1944 and rescuing another shipmate who fell into the sea in 1946. In July 1975, Tunnell died from a heart attack during a Giants practice session at Pace University in Pleasantville, New York. He was 51.


In terms of the media hype on the famous 1958 Championship game, in addition to the books mentioned above, there have also been occasional newspaper and magazine stories on the game, as well as a few TV specials. In 1998, at the game’s 40th-anniversary, the NFL conducted a teleconference with four of the Hall of Fame players from that game — Johnny Unitas and Art Donovan of the Colts, and Frank Gifford and Sam Huff of the Giants. In January 1999, at the coin toss for Super Bowl XXXIII,…On any given Sunday since 1958, there have been, and continue to be, games that are arguably better… twelve of the surviving Hall of Fame players and coaches from the 1958 game were honored. And by its 50 anniversary year in 2008, the various books had come out, followed by commentary.

So yes, over the years there has been ample analysis of, and reflection upon, the 1958 NFL Championship Game. But despite the game’s legendary claim as the “best” or “greatest” game ever played, most analysts today acknowledge a certain amount of hype and inflated worth in that claim – and some even mark the game’s lapses of sloppiness and poor execution as evidence it was not the “greatest” NFL game ever played. Indeed, on any given Sunday during pro football seasons since 1958, there have been, and continue to be, games that are arguably better, or at least equally thrilling and engaging, played with equally-talented and superb players who regularly demonstrate amazing feats of athletic dexterity and improvisation plying their craft, whether golden-armed quarterbacks, hard-nosed offensive guards, shape-shifting halfbacks, punishing middle linebackers, or ballerina-styled, sideline-dancing wide receivers.

Michael MacCambridge’s 2012 book, “Lamar Hunt: A Life In Sports,” 416pp. Click for book.
Michael MacCambridge’s 2012 book, “Lamar Hunt: A Life In Sports,” 416pp. Click for book.
Yet the 1958 NFL Championship Game does have a fair claim to being an important demarcation in the rise of pro football’s cultural and economic importance. Clearly, things did change after that game, as it did get the attention of the TV networks, advertising executives, journalists, and investors.

Lamar Hunt, son of oil billionaire H.L. Hunt, had spent much of 1958 trying to decide whether he wanted to invest in a football team or a baseball team. But sitting in his Houston hotel room on a business trip on December 28, 1958, he watched the Colts-Giants game and the action convinced him that football was the way to go.

Hunt would proceed to stir the competitive juices of football investors across the country as he and others founded the American Football League (AFL), and in so doing, hastened expansion in the NFL.

There were 12 pro football teams in 1959, and by the beginning of the 1960 season, that number had grown to 21. The AFL-NFL wars had begun, and with them, among other things, came escalating player salaries and a growing interest among the TV networks in telecasting all pro football games.

Pete Rozelle, elected NFL Commissioner in January 1960, helped negotiate large TV contracts, deftly playing one network against the other. In late September 1961, a bill legalizing single-network television contracts by professional sports leagues was passed by Congress and signed into law by President John F. Kennedy.

David Maraniss’s 1999 book on Vince Lombardi, “When Pride Still Mattered,” 544pp. Click for book.
David Maraniss’s 1999 book on Vince Lombardi, “When Pride Still Mattered,” 544pp. Click for book.
Other changes were also afoot following the 1958 Colts-Giants game that would add to pro football’s rising allure. Vince Lombardi, who had been the Giants offensive coordinator, was hired by the Green Bay Packers as head coach in January 1959, starting a pro football dynasty there and raising pro football fervor in Upper Midwest America. By 1966, Lombardi’s Packers would reign victorious over Lamar Hunt’s Kansas City Chiefs in the first AFL-NFL Championship contest (Super Bowl I, though not called that at the time). The AFL and NFL would announce their merger soon thereafter, eventually yielding a pro football colossus that today counts 32 NFL teams generating more than $13 billion in annual revenue, and Super Bowl Championship games with 100 million or more TV viewers globally.

Indeed, the 1958 Colts-Giants Championship Game is quaint by comparison – especially when held up against today’s modern Super Bowl, which some might conclude is an over-the-top, out-of-control media extravaganza with way out-of-proportion importance. Yet the money-making genie of professional football is long out of the bottle, and there is no going back.

* * * * * *

Additional football-related stories at this website include: “I Guarantee It” (a profile of Joe Namath, his famous prediction for Super Bowl III, his bio and pro career, and his off-the-filed activities); “Bednarik-Gifford Lore” (the respective playing careers of Chuck Bednarik and Frank Gifford, and a famous on–the-field collision between the two); “Slingin` Sammy” (career of quarterback Sammy Baugh and Washington Redskins history, 1930s-1950s); “Dutchman’s Big Day”(about Norm Van Brocklin’s single-game NFL passing record and other QBs closing in on that record; and, “Celebrity Gifford” (a detailed look at the advertising, sports broadcasting, and TV/film/radio career of Frank Gifford ). See also the “Annals of Sport” category page for other sports stories.

Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 12 January 2019
Last Update: 12 January 2019
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Big Game, New Era: Colts vs. Giants, 1958,”
PopHistoryDig.com, January 12, 2019.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Jack Cavanaugh’s 2008 book, “Giants Among Men,” paperback edition, 352pp. Click for book.
Jack Cavanaugh’s 2008 book, “Giants Among Men,” paperback edition, 352pp. Click for book.
John Eisenberg’s 2018 book, “The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched a Sports Empire,” Art Rooney, George Halas, Tim Mara, George Preston Marshall, and Bert Bell, 416pp. Click for book.
John Eisenberg’s 2018 book, “The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched a Sports Empire,” Art Rooney, George Halas, Tim Mara, George Preston Marshall, and Bert Bell, 416pp. Click for book.
Jerry Kramer of the Green Bay Packers, 1968 classic book with Dick Schaap, “Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer,” 303pp. Click for book.
Jerry Kramer of the Green Bay Packers, 1968 classic book with Dick Schaap, “Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer,” 303pp. Click for book.
Former QB Ron Jaworski’s 2018  book, “The Games That Changed The Game,” 336pp.
Former QB Ron Jaworski’s 2018 book, “The Games That Changed The Game,” 336pp.

Jack Hand (Associated Press, New York), “Colts 3.5 Point Favorite Over N.Y. Giant’s Sunday,” San Mateo Times (California), December 27, 1958, p. 6.

Gene Ward, “Colts Win In Sudden Death, 23-17; Cop Title in Fifth Period After Late FG Ties Giants,” Daily News (New York), Monday, December 29, 1958, p. 44.

Joe Trimble, “Six Inches Worth $1,600 As Giff Misses First Down,” Daily News (New York), Monday, December 29, 1958, p. 44.

“’The Greatest Game Ever Played’: Colts Beat Giants in 1958 NFL Championship,” Daily News, January 13, 2015 (reprint of 1958 story).

Tex Maule, “The Best Game Ever Played,” Sports Illustrated, January 5, 1959 (photos by Arthur Daley and Hy Peskin).

Tex Maule, “Here’s Why it Was the Best Football Game Ever,” Sports Illustrated, January 19, 1959 (drawings by Robert Riger, explanations by Tex Maule).

“1958: Baltimore Colts @ New York Giants, NFL Championship Games,” Golden Football Magazine, GoldenRankings.com.

“Greatest Game Ever Played,” Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“1958 NFL Championship Game,” Wikipedia .org.

“A Man’s Game” (Sam Huff cover story), Time, November 30, 1959.

Tony Kornheiser, “Giants, Colts of 1958 Play It Again – For Laughs,” New York Times, July 8, 1978.

Shelby Strother, NFL Top 40: The Greatest Pro Football Games of All Time, 1988.

William Gildea, When the Colts Belonged to Baltimore, 1994.

Frank Litsky, “There Were Better Games; None More Important,” New York Times, December 16, 1998.

National Football League (NFL), “Historical Chronology, By Decade,” NFL.com.

William Nack, “The Ballad Of Big Daddy: Big Daddy Lipscomb, Whose Size and Speed Revolutionized the Defensive Lineman’s Position in the Late ’50s, Was a Man of Insatiable Appetites: For Women, Liquor and, Apparently, Drugs,” Sports Illustrated, January 11, 1999.

Richard Rothschild, “Sudden Death, Sudden Impact,” ChicagoTribune.com, January 24, 2001.

Richard Goldstein, “Kyle Rote, a Top Receiver For the Giants, Dies at 73,” New York Times, August 16, 2002.

Scott Calvert, “Hero for a Working-Class Town: Friends and Fans Recall John Unitas as a Gritty, Big-Hearted Man Who Perfectly Fit the City Where He Played Football for Nearly Two Decades; 1933-2002,” Baltimore Sun, September 12, 2002.

Chris McDonell, The Football Game I’ll Never Forget; 100 NFL Stars’ Stories, 2004.

Craig R. Coenen, From Sandlots To The Super Bowl: The National Football League, 1920-1967, University of Tennessee Press, 2005.

Jonathan Yardley, “Book Review, Johnny U: The Life and Times of Johnny Unitas, by Tom Callahan, Book World, Washington Post, October 22-28, 2006.

Tom Callahan, Johnny U: The Life & Times of John Unitas, 2006.

Frank Deford, “Everything On The Line: The Colts-Giants in ’58 Was a Door Between Two Eras,” SI.com, Tuesday July 17, 2007.

“The Greatest Game Ever Played – Sports Illustrated‘s Coverage of The Game,” FleerSticker.blogspot .com, December 14, 2008.

Mark Bowden, The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL, 2008.

Frank Gifford with Peter Richmond, The Glory Game: How The 1958 NFL Championship Changed Football Forever, 2008

Jeff Miller, “Shaky Myhra Made the Kick That Mattered Most,” ESPN, December 8, 2008.

Michael MacCambridge, “Legacy of ‘The Greatest Game’ Can Be Found in What Followed,” NFL.com, December 25, 2008.

Mike Klis, “The ‘58 Classic,” The Denver Post, December 26, 2008.

Ihsan Taylor, “The Glory Game: Q&A With Frank Gifford,” New York Times, January 10, 2009.

Bill Lubinger, “Remember When … Off-Season Was Work Time for the Cleveland Browns (and all pro athletes)?,The Plain Dealer (Cleveland), May 26, 2010.

Joe Garner and Bob Costas, 100 Yards of Glory: The Greatest Moments in NFL History, 2011.

Ernie Palladino, Lombardi and Landry: How Two of Pro Football’s Greatest Coaches Launched Their Legends and Changed the Game Forever, 2011.

Dan Manoyan. Alan Ameche: The Story of ‘The Horse’, 2012.

Joe Horrigan and John Thorn (eds.), The Pro Football Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Book: Where Greatness Lives, 2012.

Kevin Boilard, “Pat Summerall: New York Giants Kicker’s Greatest Performances with Big Blue,” BleacherReport.com, April 20, 2013.

‘Steve Serby, “‘Unforgettable’ Frank Gifford Was The Giants’ Mickey Mantle,” New York Post, August 9, 2015.

“Evolution Of The NFL Player; Creating An NFL Player: From ‘Everyman’ To ‘Superman’,” NFL.com.
https://operations.nfl.com/the-players/evolution-of-the-nfl-player/

“AFL–NFL Merger,” Wikipedia.org.

_______________________________________




“Crosby, Stills & Nash”
1969 & Beyond

In late May of 1969, an album of music with some stunningly beautiful songs was issued by a group named Crosby, Stills and Nash. It was their debut album, simply titled in their last names, Crosby, Stills & Nash. The three musicians, shown below – David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills – had each played previously with other groups. Crosby, with the Byrds, played guitar, sang and wrote songs; Stills, a guitarist, keyboardist, vocalist and songwriter with Buffalo Springfield; and Nash, a guitarist, singer and songwriter with The Hollies – all groups that had made hit songs and albums. But around 1968 these three singer-songwriter-musicians came together to form a new group to make new music. And what good music it was – fashioning a distinctive and beautiful sound, along with a social statement or two here and there.

Photograph of David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills at the Big Sur Folk Festival, California, September 1969.
Photograph of David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills at the Big Sur Folk Festival, California, September 1969.

Legend has it, that at a July 1968 party in Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles (at either Joni Mitchell or Cass Elliot’s house) Crosby, Stills and Nash tried out a new song written by Stills, “You Don’t Have To Cry,” revealing to themselves and others they had very good vocal chemistry with one another and exceptional harmony. Before long, excepting a rejection at Apple Records, they were signed by Ahmet Ertegün at Atlantic Records, and they hired David Geffen and Elliot Roberts as their management team. Their new album came out in May 1969. And with the help of progressive FM radio in those days, which served up generous portions of new albums over the air, Crosby, Stills & Nash became a wildly popular album. The boys also added to their rising standing by performing at the enormous Woodstock music festival in August 1969, where Neil Young joined the group (later becoming “Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young”). Their performance at Woodstock — then the largest gathering at a rock festival to that date — helped place them among the leading troubadours of the counterculture era.

Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, and David Crosby, on the cover of their 1969 album that would help advance the singer-songwriter genre of music through the 1970s. Click for album & digital singles.
Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, and David Crosby, on the cover of their 1969 album that would help advance the singer-songwriter genre of music through the 1970s. Click for album & digital singles.
In the U.S., Crosby, Stills & Nash peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard album chart and had a 107-week stay on that chart. The album also spawned two Top 40 hits – “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Marrakesh Express.”

“Marrakesh Express” was released first, in July 1969. It’s a song by Graham Nash describing a Moroccan vacation he took in 1966 by train from Casablanca to Marrakesh – a song that was turned down by Nash’s earlier group, the Hollies, as not being commercial enough. Released with “Helplessly Hoping” on the B side, another song from the CSN album, “Marrkesh…” would rise to No. 28 on the Billboard pop chart by August 23rd, 1969.

“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is a song about Stephen Still’s former girl friend, folk singer Judy Collins. It’s the opening song on the album and was released as a single in September 1969 with “Long Time Gone” on the B side. It peaked at No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart by December 6, 1969 and also rose to No. 11 in Canada. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” at No. 418 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was also included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock & Roll.”

On the success of their break-out album, Crosby, Stills and Nash won a 1970 Grammy for Best New Artist. The album would continue to be a best seller in later years, earning a RIAA triple platinum certification in 1999 and quadruple platinum certification in 2001.

In one sense, the album was ground-breaking; its music in perfect step with the times. It set a new tone and would prove to be very influential in advancing the singer-songwriter movement of that era, and helped define a kind of “California” or “soft rock” sound that rose to prominence through the 1970s with groups and solo performers such as The Eagles, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and others. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked Crosby Stills & Nash at No. 262 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In addition to its vinyl edition of 1969, it has been issued on compact disc three times: the mid-1980s, again in 1994, and as an expanded edition in 2006. Worldwide is has sold in excess of 6.5 million copies.

1969. The original 'Crosby, Stills & Nash' vinyl LP album was released in a gatefold-type record sleeve that included the above photo of the three musicians in large fur parkas shot against a sunset background in Big Bear, California. photo, Henry Diltz.
1969. The original 'Crosby, Stills & Nash' vinyl LP album was released in a gatefold-type record sleeve that included the above photo of the three musicians in large fur parkas shot against a sunset background in Big Bear, California. photo, Henry Diltz.

Although the album’s two pop hits, “Marrakesh Express” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” are notable and worthy songs, there are other songs on the album that are arguably better – more beautifully written and performed, more entrancing, more melodic. Among two of these, for example, are “Guinevere” and “Lady of the Island” (“Guinivere” was initially spelled with two “n’s,” later corrected).

“Guinevere”
Crosby, Stills & Nash
1969

Guinevere had green eyes
Like yours, mi’lady, like yours
When she’d walk down
Through the garden
In the morning after it rained

Peacocks wandered aimlessly
underneath an orange tree
Why can’t she see me?

Guinevere drew pentagrams
Like yours, mi’lady, like yours
Late at night
When she thought
that no one was watching at all
on the wall
She shall be free

As she turns her gaze
Down the slope
to the harbor where I lay
Anchored for a day

Guinevere had golden hair
Like yours, mi’lady, like yours
Streaming out when we’d ride
Through the warm wind
down by the bay

Yesterday
Seagulls circle endlessly
I sing in silent harmony
We shall be free

 
“Guinevere”

The lyrics of “Guinevere” appear to be patterned after Lady Guinevere of ancient English lore, using a Lancelot-type perspective. However, Crosby has also explained the song has relevance to loves in his own life. Guinevere in the song is clearly the object of the singer’s affection.

According to a Rolling Stone interview with Crosby: “That is a very unusual song, it’s in a very strange tuning with strange time signatures. It’s about three women that I loved. One of who was Christine Hinton, the girl who got killed [in an auto accident] who was my girlfriend, and one of who was Joni Mitchell, and the other one is somebody that I can’t tell. It might be my best song.” Elsewhere, Crosby has said of the song, “It’s three women – three verses, three different women…” – one of whom he promised he wouldn’t reveal.

 

Music Player
“Guinevere”-4:40
Crosby, Stills & Nash
1969

 

Guinivere, in the song, provides glimpses of various behaviors and personality traits. The song also deals with the importance of freedom, with Guinevere described longingly by the male narrator as an inspiring beauty, but also as a free spirit, never quite attainable. “Why can’t she see me,” he asks as one point. And later, recalling a time “when we’d ride…down by the bay.” But in the end, it seems, free spirit prevails, with narrator accepting.

The music, in any case is, as one writer put it, “mesmerizingly beautiful,” and fans of this song have not been bashful about singing its praises.

Some posted comments reacting to one YouTube airing of the song a few years ago are indicative of the impressions this song has left on many listeners:

“Crosby, Stills and Nash: Greatest Hits,” Piano/Vocal/Guitar songbook, Hal Leonard publishers, 2005 paperback, 144pp.
“Crosby, Stills and Nash: Greatest Hits,” Piano/Vocal/Guitar songbook, Hal Leonard publishers, 2005 paperback, 144pp.
Poster for a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concert at New York’s Fillmore East, June 4, 1970.
Poster for a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concert at New York’s Fillmore East, June 4, 1970.

 

Judith Petree: “I still think this is one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded.”

Guitar BS: “This song is so beautiful and haunting. The feeling described in this song doesn’t seem to exist in the 21st century. I dunno, I could be wrong but don’t think so.”

Burt472: “One of the most beautiful songs of the last 2,500 years.”

Limestonegoth: “I wore this album out on vinyl, mostly listening to this song over and over.”

Comer: “Is there any way to describe this song? I consider this one of the most perfect songs ever written. Nothing compares to it.”

Mike Kenwright: “One of the greatest songs ever recorded, I was around 23 when I first herd this track and it always makes my hair on my neck stand on end. The whole album is superb, but this track stands out from the others.”

Adrienne Spy: “Still has the magic. This song will never age.”

Kealani: “Perfection. And no other song is anything like it. Crosby totally knocked it out of the ballpark with this one.”

Thundergod129-7307: “Call me a purist but this is the definitive version of this great ballad. Just David and Graham and a guitar. Pure Bliss…”

Mtjgw: “This song from 1969 is as timeless as they come. Was 11 then and now at 55, the full power of this piece resonates with me every time I hear it. I’m not sure music can ever be better than this as it truly sets the ‘Gold Standard!’.”

TheDocrock100 says, “I constantly hit replay when I get this song on Pandora. Amazing harmony. Timeless.”

Robert Scott adds: “…Always the song I need to hear when I haven’t listened to them for a while.”

Crosby’s skills in writing and arranging “Guinevere” have been praised by Lindsay Planer in one review of the song at AllMusic.com, as follows below:

“Although David Crosby’s contributions to the Byrds had hinted at the depth of his capacity as a singer/songwriter, it would take the calibre of material such as “Guinevere” to reveal his prowess as a true craftsman. This ballad musically spotlights Crosby’s intricate and highly inventive open chord structures. He possesses an uncanny sense of harmonics, which can be likened to that of Brian Wilson or, perhaps more aptly, jazz icon Thelonious Monk. “Guinevere” is likewise structurally designed to augment and support the equally complex vocal harmonies from he and Graham Nash.

“The name “Guinevere” itself instantly conjures up romantic images of knights in shining armour and virtuous maidens fair. Lyrically, Crosby weaves those connotations with his own unique minstrel-like qualities — even incorporating the use of “m’lady” when describing the different muses that influenced his hauntingly beautiful verse.

“The acoustic backdrop is sublime, providing ample space for the crystalline vocals to blend with the sparse instrumentation in an organic way. It also allows Crosby to demonstrate his amazing jazz influenced guitar playing.”

Poster with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at top of the bill for October 1969 rock concerts at San Francisco venues.
Poster with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at top of the bill for October 1969 rock concerts at San Francisco venues.
As for what musicians might hear in this song, consider the comments and reaction of Michael Kaulkin, a San Francisco based teacher and composer. Kaulkin has written about how he belatedly discovered “Guinevere” in 2006, quite by accident, when he was downloading “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” the only CSN song he had previously known. His reaction to “Guinevere,” praising it highly in musical terms, follows:

…What a gorgeous song! … It opens with an almost Sondheim-like chromatic vamp, which turns into a beautiful repeating Dorian-mode figure before the vocals come in. This use of modality is something in common with other music that I like, particularly Reich and early Adams. Do you think David Crosby was sitting around with the score to Ravel’s Mallarmé Songs, turning pages between bong hits?

Then there’s the vocal writing. It’s your standard CSN three-part homophonic harmony at first, which is lovely as usual. But there’s a nifty mixing trick at the end of each verse. The two higher voices are faded in (muted trumpets if I were orchestrating it), holding D and F# (we’re in E dorian, by the way), and they step down in thirds, crossing the remaining voice who has the melody. Some wonderful dissonances result naturally from this, and it’s a terrific effect.

The melody is particularly expressive. It’s rhythmically complex in that it often avoids landing on the beat, which is something I find myself doing a lot in my own music. This is easy for a solo vocalist to pull off — Sinatra is most famous for it — but hats off to these guys for accomplishing it in three parts.

For those listening to this tune with a musical ear, Kaulkin advises: “…Stick with it until the end to hear those descending parallel thirds.”

“Lady of the Island”
Crosby, Stills & Nash
1969

Holding you close undisturbed
before a fire
The pressure in my chest when
you breathe in my ear
We both knew this would happen
when you first appeared
My lady of the island

The brownness of your body
in the fire glow
Except the places where the sun
refused to go
Our bodies were a perfect fit
in afterglow we lay
My lady of the island

Letting myself wander through
the world inside your eyes
You know I’d like to stay here
until every tear runs dry
Do, do, do, do, do, do, do
My lady of the island

Wrapped around each other
in the peeping sun
Beams of sunshine light the stage
the red light’s on
I never want to finish what I’ve
just begun with you
My lady of the island
Do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do
_____________________
Written by Graham Nash.

Another noteworthy song on the Crosby, Stills & Nash album is “Lady of the Island,” a folk song written by Graham Nash. It is the second track on side two of the original edition of the Crosby, Stills & Nash album.

Like “Guinevere,” this song is also a love song, in this case taking its inspiration from fellow folk musician Joni Mitchell, with whom Nash was romantically involved at the time. The lyrics describe the narrator’s impressions and feelings over the course of one or more intimate engagements between he and his lover.

 

Music Player
“Lady of the Island”-2:39
Crosby, Stills & Nash
1969

 

Nash had come up with the melody/music for this song when he was with the Hollies sometime in 1968, but the lyrics weren’t quite there yet. They came later after he began working with Crosby and Stills.

“When I came over to America and I started working with David and Stephen and Neil [Young] and Joni [Mitchell],” explained Nash in a later interview, “I noticed what words they were putting to their melodies and I realized that I would have to get serious about songwriting. I knew I could write melodies, but it was only after I came to America that I really got into changing the way I wrote songs.”

One listener at a YouTube posting of “Lady of the Island” using the name “Charleybones,” noted: “Nash and Crosby make a perfect vocal blend in this song. The sensitivity of Nash’s voice singing the words and melody, with Crosby singing harmony notes that perfectly flow around Nash’s voice. These two were always special together, and Stills simply added the bottom of the three- part harmony and the musicianship to help the other two flush out the instrumental side of their songs in order to produce them on record and in concert. This first CSN album was truly phenomenal….”

 

“Wooden Ships”

A third song from the Crosby, Stills & Nash album worth mentioning here is “Wooden Ships,” which is the first track on side two of the original album. It was written and composed in 1968 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on a boat owned by Crosby. The song was written by David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane, who also recorded a version of the song around the same time. Crosby composed the music, while Kantner and Stills wrote most of the lyrics.

“Wooden Ships”
Crosby, Stills & Nash
1969

If you smile at me, I will understand
‘Cause that is something
Everybody everywhere does
in the same language

I can see by your coat, my friend
You’re from the other side
There’s just one thing I got to know
Can you tell me please, who won?

Say, can I have some of your purple berries?
Yes, I’ve been eating them
for six or seven weeks now
Haven’t got sick once
Probably keep us both alive

Wooden ships on the water,
very free and easy
Easy, you know the way it’s supposed to be
Silver people on the shoreline, let us be
Talkin’ ’bout very free and easy

Horror grips us as we watch you die
All we can do is echo your anguished cries
Stare as all human feelings die
We are leaving, you don’t need us

Go, take your sister then, by the hand
Lead her away from this foreign land
Far away, where we might laugh again
We are leaving, you don’t need us

And it’s a fair wind blowin’ warm
Out of the south over my shoulder
Guess I’ll set a course and go

The song came during the social upheavals of the late 1960s, and at the height of the Vietnam War. Bob Dylan by then had written several songs with anti-war sentiment, and his “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall” was being heard in 1962 around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” came out in 1965. “Wooden Ships” was also aimed at the Cold War clench between the U.S. and Soviet Union and their nuclear arsenals – but in this case, what might happen in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange.

 

Music Player
“Wooden Ships”-5:28
Crosby, Stills & Nash
1969

 

The song opens with a series of innocent-sounding guitar picks, landing on a loud and full guitar power riff, sounding at first confrontational and defiant, but then settling into a quieter story mode.

The lyrics depict the horrors of a post-nuclear war landscape. A man from one side stumbles upon another survivor, hoping for a smile as a sign of trust. He can tell by this survivor’s coat, he’s “from the other side.” Then he asks, perhaps with a shred of sarcasm, “Can you tell me, please, who won?”

The conversation then moves on to their survival and the sharing of “purple berries,” which appear safe; “haven’t got sick once” (re: nuclear fallout).

The narrative then turns to wooden ships on the water, those on board, and a sighting of “silver people on the shoreline,” who David Crosby has described as “guys in radiation suits” — authorities scouring the devastation, perhaps, or other survivors protecting themselves from fallout? In any case, those on the ships are “let be” by those on the shoreline.

Record sleeve for single release of "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" and "Long Time Gone". Click for digital.
Record sleeve for single release of "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" and "Long Time Gone". Click for digital.
Crosby has noted that he and the other authors “imagined ourselves as the few survivors, escaping on a boat to create a new civilization.”

In the presumed departure of the ships then escaping the devastation, those on board look back in horror at those remaining, feeling helpless, “as all human feelings die.” Those aboard the ship are heading “away from this foreign land” – someplace unnamed, but “far away, where we might laugh again,” adding, “we are leaving, you don’t need us.”

For some listeners in that late 1960s early 1970s period, this music and verse no doubt resonated metaphorically regarding the tumult of those times. Some were then opting out of mainstream culture, seeking new values and alternative lifestyles. The year 1968, for example, from top to bottom was truly annus horribilis in the U.S. in terms of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, presidential election tumult, as well as convulsive events abroad.

The Crosby, Stills & Nash album of 1969 also included “Long Time Gone,” a David Crosby song reacting to the July 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy. And in May 1970, Neil Young was then with the group, and he wrote the CSN&Y protest song, “Ohio,” reacting to the National Guard shooting of student anti-war protesters at Kent State University (see separate story, “Four Dead in O-H-I-O.”). Other songs on the Crosby, Stills & Nash album of 1969 include: “You Don’t Have to Cry”( Stills), “Pre-Road Downs” (Nash), “Helplessly Hoping” (Stills), and “49 Bye-Byes” (Stills).

CSN&Y's "Déjà Vu" album of 1970, featuring old tintype style photo, and including musicians Dallas Taylor and Greg Reeves.
CSN&Y's "Déjà Vu" album of 1970, featuring old tintype style photo, and including musicians Dallas Taylor and Greg Reeves.

 

Déjà Vu & Beyond

Close on the heels of their success with the Crosby, Stills & Nash debut album, the group – now with Neil Young aboard – turned out another album titled Déjà Vu. It was released in March 1970 and rose briefly to No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. It also generated three Top 40 singles: “Woodstock” (written by Joni Mitchell), “Teach Your Children”, and “Our House.”

Déjà Vu would become a monster hit album, selling over 14.3 million copies worldwide. In 2003 it would be ranked at No.148 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, however, had their internal squabbles and artistic differences, and not long after a summer tour in 1970, they had an acrimonious parting of the ways. It would be the first of many such splits. They would break up and reform several times over the next few decades, sometimes with and without Neil Young. They split off into twosomes and solo acts (separate solo albums were issued by each member in 1970-71) and they would hold a number of reunion tours of one kind or another. Yet, they would continue to have a loyal fan base, as their touring and subsequent album sales would make clear.

CSN - Greatest Hits album.
CSN - Greatest Hits album.
CSN&Y - Woodstock single.
CSN&Y - Woodstock single.
"On The Way Home" - DVD.
"On The Way Home" - DVD.
"Daylight Again" - DVD.
"Daylight Again" - DVD.
Stephen Stills - solo album.
Stephen Stills - solo album.
Neil Young - solo album.
Neil Young - solo album.
Peter Doggett's 2019 book.
Peter Doggett's 2019 book.
David Browne's 2019 book.
David Browne's 2019 book.
CS&N - Guitar Songbook.
CS&N - Guitar Songbook.
Graham Nash - Guitar Tabs.
Graham Nash - Guitar Tabs.

Four Way Street, a live double album issued after their first breakup in 1970, became another No. 1 hit (8.7 million worldwide). In 1974, they re-formed for a summer stadium tour, but did not cut a new record. Still, a compilation album was released – So Far – and it too became a No. 1 album, their third straight (10.2 million worldwide).

In 1977, Crosby Stills & Nash re-formed without Young for the album CSN, another giant hit (6.8 million worldwide). They followed that album in 1982 with Daylight Again (2.4 million worldwide). By the mid-1980s, however, David Crosby was in the throes of drug addiction and some legal problems, landing in jail during 1985-1986. But he cleaned up his act and returned to the music scene.

In 1988, CS&N along with Young this time, reunited for what would become only their second studio album, American Dream (1.8 million worldwide). Two years later, CS&N followed with Live It Up, which was not a commercial success, though the trio remained a popular live act. CS&N embarked on a 25th anniversary tour in the summer of 1994 and released a new album, After the Storm (200,000 worldwide).

The trio reunited with Young once again for 1999’s Looking Forward (600,000 worldwide), followed in 2000 by their CSN&Y2K tour. A decade or so later, CSN 2012, a DVD/CD set, filmed and recorded during a 2012 tour, was released that same year. As of early 2017, there appeared to be the possibility that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were at least open to the idea of reforming yet again. In any case, they have certainly made their mark musically over the last 50 years or more.

Lauded for their lasting influence on U.S. music and culture, both for kicking off the singer-songwriter movement that soared throughout the 1970s, and their sterling, indelible harmonies, Crosby, Stills & Nash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. All three members of the group were also inducted for their work in other groups – Crosby for the Byrds, Stills for Buffalo Springfield, and Nash for the Hollies. Neil Young, meanwhile, with an amazing body of work on his own and with other groups, has also been inducted as a solo artist and as a member of Buffalo Springfield.

There is a lot more detail on the history and biography of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – both together and as solo artists. Some of this history can be found at any number of on-line sources and websites, as well as a number of books, some of which are listed here at left or below in “Sources”.

See also at this website, “Joni’s Music, 1962-2000s”, a profile of Joni Mitchell’s career, with song samples, album history, travels, songwriting, and her time with Graham Nash. “Four Dead in O-hi-o, 1970,” profiles the Kent State shootings and the genesis and reception of the CSN&Y song, “Ohio.” Additional stories on music can be found at the “Annals of Music” category page. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 18 November 2018
Last Update: 19 July 2019
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Crosby, Stills & Nash: 1969 & Beyond,”
PopHistoryDig.com, November 18, 2018.

____________________________________

 


 

Sources, Links & Additional Information

Neil Young's 2012 book, "Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream," paperback edition, 512pp.
Neil Young's 2012 book, "Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream," paperback edition, 512pp.
David Roberts’ 2017 book, “Stephen Stills, Change Partners: The Definitive Biography,” hardback edition, 326pp.
David Roberts’ 2017 book, “Stephen Stills, Change Partners: The Definitive Biography,” hardback edition, 326pp.
“CSN Demos” CD, a 12-song compilation of previously unreleased Crosby, Stills & Nash demos from 1968 to 1971.
“CSN Demos” CD, a 12-song compilation of previously unreleased Crosby, Stills & Nash demos from 1968 to 1971.

“Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 224-225.

“Crosby, Stills & Nash” (biography & induction page), RockHall.com, 1997.

“Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young,” Wikipedia.org.

Jason Ankeny, “Crosby, Stills & Nash (album),” AllMusic,com.

Lindsay Planer, Song Review, “Guinnevere,” AllMusic.com.

Lee Zimmerman, “The 13 Best Songs by Crosby, Stills & Nash,” PasteMagazine.com, September 27, 2016.

Andy Greene, “Track by Track: Crosby, Stills & Nash on Their Self-Titled Debut,” Rolling Stone, August 18, 2008.

Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, “Review: CSNY Concert Rocks in Truly Classic Style,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Monday, March 20, 2000.

“Crosby, Stills & Nash,” Apple Music Review, iTunes.Apple.com.

“Wooden Ships (1969), Crosby, Stills & Nash,” SongMango.com.

“The Story Behind ‘Wooden Ships’,” The Hangar (Jefferson Airplane), Archived on the WayBack Machine (internet archive), Novem-ber 16, 2012.

“Wooden Ships,” Wikipedia.org.

Lindsay Planer, Song Review, “Wooden Ships, Crosby, Stills & Nash,” AllMusic.com.

“David Crosby,” Wikipedia,org.

David Crosby, Official Website.

“Stephen Stills,” Wikipedia,org.

Stephen Stills, Official Website.

“Graham Nash,” Wikipedia,org.

Graham Nash, Official Website.

“Neil Young,” Wikipedia,org.

Neil Young Website/Archives.

Jordan Runtagh, “Graham Nash Tells the Wild Tales Behind His Most Enduring Songs,” People.com, June 29, 2018.

“Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (page 2),” UnMask.us.

“Top 100 ’60s Rock Albums” (page down on site), UltimateClassicRock.com.

Rick Moore, “Crosby, Stills & Nash: Wooden Ships; Jefferson Airplane Recorded Their Own Version of The Song for Their Controversial Fifth Album, Volunteers,” AmericanSong-writer.com, January 31, 2016.

“Déjà Vu (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album),” Wikipedia.org.

Dave Lewis, “The 10 Best Songs By Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young,” LouderSound.com, August 15, 2016.

Patrick Lyons, “The 10 Best Crosby, Stills And/Or Nash Albums To Own On Vinyl,” VinylMePlease.com, March 9th 2018.

Richard Buskin, “Crosby, Stills & Nash: ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ | Classic Tracks, Producers: David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash; Engineer: Bill Halverson,” SoundOnSound .com, August 2010.

 

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“Fonda Fitness Boom”
1980s & Beyond

1979: Jane Fonda, with ballet exercise bar behind her.
1979: Jane Fonda, with ballet exercise bar behind her.
Jane Fonda, Hollywood film star and sometimes controversial activist, became a national fitness leader in the 1980s.

Her rise to this position, however, was something of an accident, but it would bring her a new identity, a new career path, and a considerable cash flow. More on this part of her career in a moment; but first some biography.

Daughter of Hollywood legend Henry Fonda (who famously played Tom Joad in the film version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath), Jane Fonda had a difficult family life that would haunt her, but also forge her into the energetic whirlwind she later became. When Jane was 12, her mother committed suicide in a psychiatric hospital, a tragedy kept from Jane until she read about it a magazine. She strove for approval from her father, emotionally distant and demanding, as Jane bid for a perfection that would help fuel her ambition.

As a teen, Jane Fonda attended the Emma Willard boarding school in Troy, New York and then to Vassar College for two years before heading to Paris to study art briefly. Returning to New York to work as a model for a time, she twice appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine. By 1958, she attended Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio where she was told she had real acting talent, soon earning positive notice in a few early 1960s’ stage and screen performances, including a few in France. In August 1965 she married her first husband, French film director Roger Vadim, with whom she would make films and have a daughter, Vanessa.

1965. Fonda in "Cat Ballou".(Click images for products).
1965. Fonda in "Cat Ballou".(Click images for products).
1967. With Robert Redford in "Barefoot in the Park".
1967. With Robert Redford in "Barefoot in the Park".
Life cover, 1968, "Barbarella".
Life cover, 1968, "Barbarella".
Newsweek, 1967, "Barbarella".
Newsweek, 1967, "Barbarella".
1969. "They Shoot Horses...".
1969. "They Shoot Horses...".
1970. Time; "Flying Fondas".
1970. Time; "Flying Fondas".
1971. "Klute," Fonda Oscar.
1971. "Klute," Fonda Oscar.
1978. "Coming Home".
1978. "Coming Home".
1977. Newsweek on "Julia".
1977. Newsweek on "Julia".
1984. "The Dollmaker".
1984. "The Dollmaker".

Meanwhile, a breakout U.S. film role had come for Fonda in the western comedy, Cat Ballou (1965) playing the lead character, Catherine “Cat” Ballou, a schoolmarm turned outlaw. This was followed by other films, including Barefoot in the Park (1967) with Robert Redford.

Then came the “sex kitten” stage, especially after her 1968 role in Barbarella, the sci-fi space film directed by her then husband, Roger Vadim, who cast her as the film’s principal character who explores space, futuristic sex, and extravagant costumes while hunting an earth-threatening villain.

Newsweek featured Fonda in a scene from Barbarella on its cover for a November 1967 story on “The Permissive Society.”

But Jane Fonda’s acting bona fides soon became clear when she was nominated for a best acting Oscar in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), a film about marathon dancers during the Great Depression.

Two years later she won a best acting Oscar for Klute (1971), playing a New York city call girl mixed up in a murder, described recently in that role as “a major actress, with a persona all her own: empowered yet high-strung, her taut intelligence shot through with anxiety.”

Time magazine, meanwhile, had published a February 1970 feature cover story under the banner, “The Flying Fondas,” covering the Hollywood accomplishments of Jane, father Henry, and brother, Peter Fonda, who had just co-written, produced, and starred in the 1969 counterculture film classic, Easy Rider.

In 1977, Jane played famous playwright, Lillian Helman, in a story about her friendship with Julia, played by Vesnessa Redgrave, who fought against the Nazis in the years prior to World War II. Fonda was nominated, but did not win, a Best Acting Oscar, but she did win both a best acting Golden Globe and BAFTA award for her role.

In 1978, Fonda won her second best acting Oscar for her performance in Coming Home, playing a Vietnam-era Army wife who falls for a paraplegic anti-war veteran, Jon Voight. This film, and several others, were produced by her own film company, IPC, founded in 1972 with Bruce Gilbert, who had been the nursery-school teacher of Fonda’s 4-year-old daughter at the time.

Fonda started IPC, in part, because she felt “graylisted” in Hollywood — not being hired due to her activism. But IPC was also created to make films that offered important social statments. Coming Home had been inspired, in part, by Fonda’s earlier meeting and hearing Ron Kovic, a Vietnam veteran paralyzed in the war who became an anti-war activist. The film took six years to make. Another IPC film, Nine-to-Five (1980), took on the plight of 40 million female office workers.

Throughout her career Jane Fonda would appear in more than 50 films and various TV productions. In 1984, she won an Emmy Award for her performance in the IPC-crafted TV film The Dollmaker, in which she played an Appalachian mother of six who follows her husband north for work during World War II and takes up wood carving. Recently she and her long-time friend, Lily Tomlin, have appeared in the Emmy-nominated Netflix series, Grace and Frankie (2015-2018). Among some of her other Hollywood films have been: Steelyard Blues (1973), Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), California Suite (1978), The Electric Horseman (1979), The China Syndrome (1979), On Golden Pond (1981), Agnes of God (1985), The Morning After (1986), Stanley & Iris (1990), Monster-in-Law (2005), and others through the 2010s that will be mentioned later.

Apart from Hollywood, it was the political activism of Jane Fonda in the late 1960s and early 1970s that gained her as much notice as her film roles – not all of it good. For she had left some deep scars among Vietnam War era veterans, especially after a 1972 trip to North Vietnam when she appeared in an infamous photo seated in an North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi, for which she later apologized a number of times (including once on ABC’s national TV show, 20/20, in June 1988 and also on 60 Minutes in March 2005) and in written explanations. Still, a derogatory “Hanoi Jane” nickname and worse would dog her for much of her life, with occasional threats and some nasty confrontations from detractors.

1971. Life, "Busy Rebel".
1971. Life, "Busy Rebel".
1972. "Rolling Stone" feature.
1972. "Rolling Stone" feature.
1975. People, Fonda-Hayden.
1975. People, Fonda-Hayden.
1977. "Sex Object...To Woman".
1977. "Sex Object...To Woman".
1977. US mag, "Fonda at 40".
1977. US mag, "Fonda at 40".
2018. HBO, "Fonda in 5 Acts".
2018. HBO, "Fonda in 5 Acts".

Activist Jane

As an anti-war activist in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jane Fonda had the attention of the Nixon Administration, and later the FBI. She had also been lecturing at colleges in the U.S. and Canada about the war. And in Cleveland, Ohio in November 1970, after a flight from Canada, she was arrested and detained on suspicion of drug trafficking, finding in her luggage several baggies of pills. She was booked and photographed by police, told by the arresting officer that he was acting on direct orders from the Nixon White House.

Fonda would later write that Nixon’s people probably hoped that the “scandal” of catching her in a drug bust (and there were headlines), would cause her popularity as a college speaker to be ruined. But in the end, lab tests confirmed the pills were vitamins, as Fonda had said at the time of her arrest. Still, in the the battle with Nixon, Fonda might have had the last laugh, as today her mugshot from that arrest, with raised fist in protest, has become famous, an image she now uses on t-shirts, coffee mugs and other merchandise to benefit child and adolescent development. The Fonda mugshot was also used as the poster image for the 2018 HBO documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, and was used on a giant billboard ad in Times Square in September 2018.

But during the early 1970s, Jane Fonda received quite extensive coverage in the popular press for her various activist involvements. Life magazine, for example, did a cover story on her in April 1971 with the tag, “Busy Rebel: Jane Fonda Pusher of Causes.” That story noted, in part:

“ …[T]here is scarcely an evil – be it racism, sexism, capitalism or the war in Vietnam – she had not taken on, nor a cause she has not espoused….Headlines proclaim her involvement in antiwar shows for servicemen, in demonstrations on behalf of welfare clients and California farm workers and Indians. She makes speeches for women’s rights and GI rights and Black Panther rights. She appears on TV talk shows, and if she turns on many of the young she turns off a great many other citizens. Publicity for herself, however, is not her aim. She is a sincere advocate, though her command of facts and complexities is unconvincing…” Her then estranged husband, Roger Vadim, called her ‘Jane d’Arc.” They were later divorced.

In January 1973, she married her second husband, Tom Hayden, the famous 1960s anti-war activist, organizer of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and one of the Chicago Seven defendants in the high-profile 1969 Chicago trial following the street protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

2001. "Ms America: Why Jane Fonda is A Mirror of the Nation's Past 40 Years". Click for copy.
2001. "Ms America: Why Jane Fonda is A Mirror of the Nation's Past 40 Years". Click for copy.
By 1976 Fonda helped her husband in an unsuccessful primary challenge to then incumbent U.S. Senator John V. Tunney, with Hayden finishing a surprisingly strong second in that bid. Later that year, Fonda and Hayden founded the Campaign for Economic Democracy in California, to promote solar energy, environmental protection, and candidates for local and state political office. Hayden would later win a seat in the California Assembly.

By the late 1970s, Jane Fonda appeared to be having a bit of makeover, with the movie-going public returning to her films, though her Vietnam reputation remained for many. Uneven treatment in the media (examples above) acknowledged her activism (Ms. magazine, October 1977), but also cast her in more of a mainstream role (US magazine, November 1977 “Fonda At 40: How She Juggles Husband, Family and A Red-Hot Film Career”). Through the remainder of her career, Jane Fonda would continue to fascinate and confound, with the popular press continuing to profile her in all manner of stories, from a 1988 Vanity Fair story by Tina Brown on Fonda as a repeat risk taker, to American Heritage magazine in 2001 (at left) treating her as a socio-political mirror of four decades of U.S. history.

There is a lot more detail in the many lives of Jane Fonda, some of it presented in the 2018 HBO film, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, or from Jane herself in her 2005 autobiography, My Life So Far. Suffice it to say here, briefly, that despite her critics and detractors over the years, throughout most of her life, Jane Fonda has been generous with her celebrity and her money, helping advance civil rights, women’s issues, child development, and other causes.

But one chapter of her life during the 1980s became especially interesting, presenting her with new opportunity and a new persona of sorts as she became America’s fitness queen, touching off both a fitness boom and a home video revolution. The “Jane Fonda workout” soon permeated the larger culture as her best-selling books and exercise videos swept over America. She soon had legions of fans in a new arena. In the process, a Jane Fonda business empire worth millions was spawned that both spurred new technology and boosted the economy, while helping enable her pursuit of various activist causes. What follows is a review of some of that history.

Fonda as reporter Kimberly Wells in “The China Syndrome,” a 1979 film about a nuclear meltdown. Click for DVD.
Fonda as reporter Kimberly Wells in “The China Syndrome,” a 1979 film about a nuclear meltdown. Click for DVD.

A Broken Ankle

In 1978, as Jane Fonda was filming The China Syndrome, she had something of a fortuitous accident. The film, about a nuclear power plant disaster (i.e. nuclear core meltdown i.e, “burning through the earth to China”), starred Jack Lemon, Michael Douglas and Fonda as a reporter covering the accident and revealing the dangers to the public.

But on her way to one film set, and running in high-heeled platform shoes, she fell, breaking her ankle. The producers were able to complete filming by working around Fonda’s parts and filling in later. The film, released in 1979, became an especially well-timed and propitious arrival, as an actual near meltdown was then occurring at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Jane, meanwhile, had some other upcoming film roles, in two of which she had to appear in a swimsuit. Staying in shape was important to her for such film roles, and regular exercise had also became part of her life. Normally she had done ballet type exercise to stay in shape. But now, in recovery with her bad ankle, she began to look elsewhere for exercise.


Ballet to Aerobics

Exercise for Fonda, however, wasn’t new. In fact, she had been a devotee of, and believer in, regular exercise for years, focused primarily on ballet. “When I’m on a movie location, no matter where I am, the first thing I ask is, ‘Where is a ballet school?,’ she explained in a 1979 Vogue magazine story. “I’ve studied ballet in almost every country I’ve been in.” Fonda had her own philosophy to go along with the ballet routine. “People respond differently to various types of movement, to different workout speeds, even to different kinds of music.,” she told Vogue. “I like ballet and what it does for me—the slowness, the rigor, the sense of creativity while I move.”

Jane Fonda, at the ballet bar, as photographed by Arthur Elgort for the 1979 Vogue magazine story, “Fitness – Fonda Style”.
Jane Fonda, at the ballet bar, as photographed by Arthur Elgort for the 1979 Vogue magazine story, “Fitness – Fonda Style”.

After her ankle injury, her mother-in-law pointed her to an exercise class in Century City, California run by a woman named Leni Cazden who had developed an exercise technique that toned through repetitive movement backed with popular music. Fonda soon began participating in aerobics and strengthening exercises under Cazden’s direction. “Her class was a revelation,” Fonda would later write. “I entered so called adult life at a time when challenging physical exercise was not offered to women. We weren’t supposed to sweat or have muscles. Now, along with forty other women, I found myself moving nonstop for an hour and a half in entirely news ways.”

Early 1980s: Entrance to “Jane Fonda’ Workout,” her Beverly Hills exercise studio.
Early 1980s: Entrance to “Jane Fonda’ Workout,” her Beverly Hills exercise studio.
Fonda liked what she had discovered in Cazden’s routines, and soon saw the possibility of something bigger on the local scene. In May 1979, she teamed up with Cazden, opening “Jane and Leni’s Workout” studio in Beverly Hill, where three studios were strung together around a patio. The Leni Workout soon became the Jane Fonda Workout, and the Beverly Hills studio was also named “Jane Fonda’s Workout.” Fonda also conducted some classes there and on film sets. The chance to workout with Jane Fonda became an obvious drawing card, and at its peak, 2,000-to-3,000 people would pass through the Beverly Hills studio each week. The three studios there were open six days a week with multiple classes running from 7am to 10pm. For the year 1982, that location alone was showing a pre-tax profit of about one million dollars. By this time, Fonda hired a Julie LaFond as business manger and other teachers as well. She also opened a couple of other studios, one in Encino area of Los Angeles and another in San Francisco. At the time, there was also some thought of franchising the studio. But by then, a few publishers had approached her about the possibility of doing a book on her exercise routines.


The Book

“Jane Fonda’s Workout Book,” in a 254-page hardback edition, was published by Simon & Schuster, November 1981. Click for book.
“Jane Fonda’s Workout Book,” in a 254-page hardback edition, was published by Simon & Schuster, November 1981. Click for book.
At first, she was resistant to the idea of doing a book. “I kept saying no,” she would later recall in a 1992 interview, “but I kept thinking, ‘You know something? If I really made it personal, and I tried to tell some truths about my own journey [she had suffered from bulimia in younger years], maybe it would be helpful.’ And I never had thought of myself as a writer, so it was a real big commitment of time, but I did it anyway, and it made publishing history. It totally took me by surprise.”

In November 1981, New York publisher Simon & Schuster issued the first edition of Jane Fonda’s Workout Book, with photos by Steve Schapiro. The 254-page hardback book, priced at $17.95, included Jane Fonda’s fitness program, designed to burn calories, improve body shape, and increase stamina and flexibility.

The book included chapters on nutrition, health, and beauty, and demonstrations of the exercises. But the book’s personal touch, incorporating some of Fonda’s own struggles and her fitness philosophy, became important elements for her audience. She also wrote about health in a broader environmental context, as she noted in the book:

…There is no way I can write about health and leave it at urging you to make a personal commitment to nutrition and exercise. […] The fact is we can only be as healthy as our ecological environment – the one true life-support system […] we must become aware of how we are being affected by our environment and what actions we can take to protect ourselves, as individuals, as communities, and as part of the whole ecosystem.

By January 24, 1982, Jane Fonda’s Workout Book was making its climb on the New York Times nonfiction bestsellers list, landing at No. 8, described as “an exercise book for women, seasoned with the film star’s philosophy of physical well-being.”

1982. Time: "The New Ideal of Beauty: Taut, Toned & Coming on Strong".
1982. Time: "The New Ideal of Beauty: Taut, Toned & Coming on Strong".
By March 13, 1982 it was No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction list, where it would stay for many weeks. And it didn’t hurt that Time magazine jumped into the frenzy with a cover story of August 30, 1982 titled, “Coming on Strong: The New Ideal of Beauty,” picturing a Fonda-like model in exercise attire.

For the year 1982, according to a New York Times survey, Robert Ludlum’s novel The Parsifal Mosaic was the biggest selling book of the year, though it had just edged out the year’s nonfiction best seller, Jane Fonda’s Workout Book.

The book was No. 1 on the bestseller list for over six months and over 16 months in the top five through 1983. By December 1983, for example, hardback copies of the book could even be found at some Eastern Newstand locations in New York city, such as: the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the Sheraton Centre, the Helmsley Palace Hotel, the Pan Am Building, and Rockefeller Center. After 1.3 million copies of the hardback edition were sold, Simon & Schuster issued a paperback edition in March 1984.

In writing the book, and in her exercise programs generally, Fonda researched sports physiology to understand the process of exercise. She emphasized health outcomes rather than using exercise for beauty or appearance only. And this focus on the factual basis of exercise became an appealing component of Fonda’s programs for many of her followers.

1982 record album and cassette tapes offered an “aural companion” to Fonda’s Workout Book, with music by The Jacksons, REO Speedwagon, Boz Scaggs & others. Click for CD.
1982 record album and cassette tapes offered an “aural companion” to Fonda’s Workout Book, with music by The Jacksons, REO Speedwagon, Boz Scaggs & others. Click for CD.

LP & Cassette

Close on the heels of the book, came Jane Fonda’s Workout Record, a two-disc album featured as “an aural companion” to her best-selling book. The double disc album listed at $12.98, and suggested its users augment the record with the Jane Fonda Workout Book, then available for $17.50. The recording was also available on cassette tapes. Both were issued by Columbia Records and Tapes, a CBS company.

The Workout Record, in fact, had climbed into the Top 40 of the album pop charts in both the UK & US, peaking at No.7 in the UK and No. 15 in the U.S. In 1983, Jane Fonda’s Workout Record was the seventh biggest selling album in the U.S.

By May 1982, the headline on a full-page Billboard magazine ad, then being pitched to record dealers, noted: “‘Jane Fonda’s Workout.’ Her #1 Book is Now an Album.” The text of the Billboard ad ran as follows:

Later edition of “Workout Record” with new music from Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Dean Correa & others. Click for CD.
Later edition of “Workout Record” with new music from Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Dean Correa & others. Click for CD.

‘Jane Fonda’s Workout’ book is the #1 best-selling book in the country and has been for over thirteen weeks! To date, it has sold in excess of 350,000 copies. So be prepared for Jane’s ‘Workout’ album to take off like no other exercise record ever had or ever will!

Narrated by Jane and featuring hits by REO Speedwagon, The Jacksons, Boz Scaggs, Brothers Johnson and others, it is based on the program she advocates in the book, in Jane Fonda’s Workout health clubs, and in her many TV appearances. Included in both the album and cassette packages is a special fold-out of selected illustrated instructions.

This is one time when you’ve be in great shape if you order heavily! Remember, there are plenty of exercise records out and coming out, but only one has Jane Fonda!

Through early 1982, Jane Fonda’s book and record album were doing quite well, as were her exercise studios, generating a sizeable cash flow, some of which was being channeled through the Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED), the organization that she and Tom Hayden established in 1976. By May 1982, some of Fonda’s workout revenues were being used to help fund Hayden’s political campaign, then seeking a seat in the California legislature.

In May 1982, there were some news reports, as in this New York Times story, reporting that money from Jane Fonda’s workout studios and her book were being used to help fund her husband’s run for the State Assembly.
In May 1982, there were some news reports, as in this New York Times story, reporting that money from Jane Fonda’s workout studios and her book were being used to help fund her husband’s run for the State Assembly.

The CED was then financed largely by income generated from Fonda’s exercise salons and her book, which by then was the nation’s No. 1 nonfiction bestseller. Hayden at the time said that the income – about $30,000 a month – was helping finance overall operations of CED and that only a portion of his legislative campaign fund had come from the organization’s political action committee.

Meanwhile, the bigger revenue producer for Jane Fonda’s budding exercise empire – and the product that brought her the most fame and the cultural change that followed – came with the Jane Fonda exercise videos.

Jane Fonda original workout video, April 1982; since re-issued in DVD and digital formats. Click for DVD.
Jane Fonda original workout video, April 1982; since re-issued in DVD and digital formats. Click for DVD.

Make a Video?

In 1980, Stuart Karl, an early producer of home improvement videos, approached Fonda about making a video of the exercise routine that appeared in her workout book. On trip to New York city, Karl’s wife, Debbie, while looking at the book in a New York store window, remarked to her husband that it would be nice to work out at one’s home to avoid gym crowds. That gave him the idea of having Fonda make videos – a video made by his company. But at the time, the home video market was minuscule, and hardly anyone had or could afford a VCR player (also known as a videocassette recorder or video recorder). And besides, who would use a video over and over again?

Still, Karl believed there was a huge opportunity to create a new market for home videos somewhere between the highly commercial Hollywood films and the lurid under-the-counter world of pornography. His fledgling company, Mid-Vid, turned out a line of home improvement tapes, instructional videos, and other special titles that he described at the time as “filling the gap between Jaws and Deep Throat.” But his wife’s remark about working out at home got him thinking, and that’s when he went to talk with Fonda.

But Jane was initially reluctant about Karl’s proposal, thinking it would be bad for her career as an actor. Still, her workout studio in Beverly Hills had been going great guns. So she finally decided, “what the heck, it won’t take long, not too many people will see it and a video will bring in a little extra funding to CED.”

Jane Fonda leading a workout class, circa 1980s.
Jane Fonda leading a workout class, circa 1980s.
So Karl’s company partnered with RCA and $50,000 was made available for production costs to make the first workout video. Fonda’s partner, Leni, created the exercise routine and Jane brought in Sidney Galanty as director, who had done ads for Tom Hayden’s political campaign.

Fonda wrote a short script, and the video featured herself, along with some of her studio workout teachers and clients doing the workout. They did their own hair and makeup, had one camera, and after a few takes, they had their product.

“We did it in three days, we hardly had any rehearsal, we had no hairdressers — when I look at how we do it now compared to then, it was funny,” she would later recall. On April 24th,1982, Jane Fonda’s Workout video hit the streets. Within a few months, it sold more than 300,000 copies — and it kept selling.

The first workout video included a 30 minute beginners’ class and a 60-minute advanced session, with segments for toning arms, waist, abdomen, legs and hips. The workout was designed to build strength, develop flexibility, and increase endurance.

Jane Fonda in beach scene from 1979-80 film, “California Suite,” a Neil Simon comedy with Alan Alda and others.
Jane Fonda in beach scene from 1979-80 film, “California Suite,” a Neil Simon comedy with Alan Alda and others.
Jane Fonda in dock scene from 1981 film “On Golden Pond,” right before the island mail boat arrives.
Jane Fonda in dock scene from 1981 film “On Golden Pond,” right before the island mail boat arrives.

The Best Advertisement

“Look Like Jane”

In her 40s at the time of the first video’s release in 1982, Jane Fonda became “a perfect advertisement for herself,” as one reviewer would put it. And in her writing and verbal instruction, Fonda came across in a non- threatening way, and was all business in her exercise routines, becoming famous for certain phrases, such as, “feel the burn.” Her natural beauty was also an asset, and she drew women to her as they trusted her familiar face over that of strangers. Her Hollywood films also helped sell the Jane Fonda exercise materials.

Swimsuit appearances in two of her movies during 1979-1982 (shown at left) certainly did not hurt sales of her book and video – one beach appearance in California Suite, a Neil Simon comedy released late December 1979 with Alan Alda, Michael Caine, Richard Pryor and others; and another on a lake dock in On Golden Pond, released in 1981, starring her father, Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn.

Fonda, then in her early 40s, looked fit and healthy in her swimsuit scenes, evidence enough for many women to get on the workout bandwagon and buy the Jane Fonda book and video.

Jane Fonda’s Workout became the highest selling home video of the early 1980s, with over a million copies sold. A Fonda-led fitness craze swept the country. The video’s release led many people to buy then new VCRs in order to use the workout at home. VCR sales jumped, helping advance the home video revolution.

Jane Fonda had tapped into a gold mine of female frustration, as in those days there were few places for women to work out, or even to know what kind of exercise to do. Gyms were primarily designed for men, as were weights and most exercise equipment. There was also something of stigma attached to women working out; women “weren’t supposed to sweat,” as Fonda would say.“Part Murphy Brown, part Teddy Roosevelt, the ’80s Fonda was a solid role model for entrepreneurial feminists & career moms.” But with the Baby Boomer females of that era, Fonda found a willing and eager audience, and a huge market. And for Fonda image-wise, her exercise leadership contributed to an elevation of her reputation and national standing, especially among women. One 1984 World Almanac listing identified her as the country’s third most influential woman, and a 1985 Gallup poll ranked her fourth on a list of “America’s Most Admired Women.” Writing in American Heritage magazine in 2001, Peter Braunstein described her as: “Part Murphy Brown, part Teddy Roosevelt, the eighties Fonda was a solid role model for entrepreneurial feminists and career moms.” Meanwhile, the Jane Fonda fitness craze of the 1980s was just hitting its stride at mid-decade, as more Jane Fonda books and videos were on the way.

1984: new book, “Women Coming of Age With Jane Fonda’s Prime Time Workout”. Click for book.
1984: new book, “Women Coming of Age With Jane Fonda’s Prime Time Workout”. Click for book.
In 1984 there was, Women Coming Of Age With Jane Fonda’s Prime Time Workout, written with Mignon McCarthy, which also had a companion video. The book included chapters titled: “Women In Midlife,” “The Body Mature,” “Is There Life After The Menopause?,” “My Program For Midlife Well-Being,” and “Prime Time Workout.” This book also had a 1985 Viking Press edition published in Great Britain.

A couple of yearbook/desk calendar-type publications also came out: Jane Fonda’s Year of Fitness, Health and Nutrition, 1984, a 192-page spiral bound book published by Simon and Schuster. And another similar volume for the following year in hardcover, Jane Fonda’s Year of Fitness, Health and Nutrition, 1985 published by Holiday House.

By the early mid-1980s, it was clear that Jane Fonda, on her exercise ventures alone, had penetrated popular culture in a major way. Observes James Michael Rafferty in a British PhD thesis paper he wrote on Fonda in 2010, “Politicizing Stardom”:

“…The cultural impact and commercial success of The Workout cannot be overstated… By April 1984, [the Jane Fonda workout video] had sold approximately 275,000 copies at $60 each, making it the biggest selling non-musical video in American history. This earned the CED-owned Workout Inc. approximately $2 million. Jane Fonda’s Workout Book sold two million copies in hardcover at $19.95 each and was on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list for ninety weeks; the trade paperback version sold more than 250,000 copies at $9.95 each. Jane Fonda’s Year of Fitness and Health/1984 desk diary, which retailed for $8.95, had two print runs totaling 250,000 copies.

Jane Fonda Workout and Active Wear, manufactured by Capri Beachwear Corporation in partnership with Fonda, was being carried by Saks Fifth Avenue and nearly one hundred major retail outlets across the nation; the clothing line was projected to gross more than $30 million in 1984 alone….

Yet, through the remainder of the 1980s and beyond there was more to come. In 1986, she revised her workout book with a new version – Jane Fonda’s New Workout and Weight Loss Program — released in June that year (Simon & Schuster 254 pages).

1986: New book, “Jane Fonda's New Workout and Weight Loss Program,” released in June 1986, by Simon & Schuster, 254 pages, with a trim Jane Fonda on the back cover holding a vegetable on a fork as a diet prompt. Click for book.
1986: New book, “Jane Fonda's New Workout and Weight Loss Program,” released in June 1986, by Simon & Schuster, 254 pages, with a trim Jane Fonda on the back cover holding a vegetable on a fork as a diet prompt. Click for book.

New York Times writer and columnist, Jane Brody, who then wrote a personal health column, reviewed Jane Fonda’s New Workout and Weight-Loss Program book in mid July 1986, noting: “At last a celebrity has proposed a weight-loss program that is sensibly slow, nutritionally sound, appropriately flexible and readily adaptable for a lifetime.” The updated version of the Fonda workout book put more stress on the role of a healthy diet and suggested a weight-loss program high in fiber and complex carbohydrates and low in fat. A sample menu was also provided. But the book’s major focus was the exercise routines.

Easy Going Workout, 1985.
Easy Going Workout, 1985.
New Workout, 1985.
New Workout, 1985.
Low Impact Workout, 1986.
Low Impact Workout, 1986.
Complete Workout, 1988.
Complete Workout, 1988.
 

Videos Boom

By 1986, Fonda sold over $4 million worth of fitness videos alone. And through the 1980s and into the 1990s, more Jane Fonda videos and books would come as well. Displayed here at right are the covers of some of her classic exercise videos, first produced in the 1980s, but later remastered and re-issued in DVD format. (Click on images for DVDs or videos).

Jane Fonda’s Easy Going Workout (1985), was designed for those who found her other tapes, especially the original Workout video, too difficult and needed a slower workout program. It is a mild, but challenging routine that offers upbeat music & easy-to-follow choreography.

Jane Fonda’s New Workout (1985), her fifth workout video, was designed as an improved version of her original workout program. It offers a 35 minute beginners’ class with 12 minutes of aerobics and a 55 minute advanced class with 16 minutes of aerobics. Each class begins with a warm-up, proceeds to work the waist, arms and aerobics, floor stretch, abdominals, legs and hips, buttocks, and ends with a cool-down.

In 1986, she released Jane Fonda’s Low Impact Workout, offered an alternative to her other aerobic classes with high intensity moves. The classes in this video include a 6 minute warm-up, 35 minutes of low impact aerobics, and a 10 minute stretch cool-down.

Jane Fonda’s Complete Workout was released in 1988, and was designed by Fonda as her new overall exercise class to replace her original and New Workout classes. This program offers a half hour of aerobics which can be done at high or low intensity, or alternating between the two for an interval training effect to maximize fat burning. Upper and lower body toning segments precede and follow the aerobics which can be done with or without dumbbells or ankle weights.

Fonda Fitness Empire
Books, Videos & Audio
1980-2012

Videos:
Jane Fonda’s Workout (1982)
Jane Fonda’s Workout Challenge (1983)
Jane Fonda’s Pregnancy, Birth
and Recovery Workout (1983)
Jane Fonda’s Prime Time Workout (1984)
(later, Easygoing Workout)
Jane Fonda’s New Workout (1985)
Jane Fonda’s Low-Impact Aerobic Workout (1986)
Start Up With Jane Fonda (1987)
Jane Fonda’s Workout With Weights (1987)
Jane Fonda Presents Sports-Aid (1987)
Jane Fonda’s Complete Workout (1988)
Jane Fonda’s Light Aerobics
& Stress Reduction Workout (1989)
Jane Fonda’s Lean Routine (1990)
Jane Fonda Presents Fun House (1990)
(2 videos for children & young adults)
Jane Fonda’s Lower Body Solution (1991)
Jane Fonda’s Step Aerobic and
Abdominal Workout (1992)
Jane Fonda’s Favorite Fat Burners (1993)
Jane Fonda’s Yoga Exercise Workout (1993)
Jane Fonda’s Step & Stretch Workout (1994)
Jane Fonda’s Personal Trainer Series:
Low Impact Aerobics & Stretch (1995)
Total Body Sculpting (1995)
Abs, Buns & Thighs (1995)
Jane Fonda’s Prime Time Series
Fit and Strong (2010)
Walkout (2010)
Trim, Tone & Flex (2011)
Firm & Burn (2011)
Jane Fonda’s Am/Pm Yoga for Beginners (2012)

Books:
Jane Fonda’s Workout Book
Jane Fonda’s Workout for
Pregnancy, Birth and Recovery
Women Coming of Age
Jane Fonda’s New Workout
and Weight Loss Program
Jane Fonda’s New Pregnancy Workout
and Total Birth Program.

Records & Tapes:
Jane Fonda Workout (album & casette)
Jane Fonda’s Walkout
Audio Companions to Videos.
_________________________
Not a complete list. *Pregnancy books were written
by Femmy Delyser in conjunction with Jane Fonda.

By the early 1990s, Jane Fonda’s video line had workouts for just about everyone. There was a standard aerobics video, a workout with weights, workouts that were less vigorous and low-impact, as well as workouts for those in good shape and could deal with Jane Fonda’s Workout Challenge. There were also videos for children and pregnant women, as well as women recovering from childbirth.

So why all the videos? “This is a repeat thing, “ Jane would later explain, “I mean, people use it two, three, four, five times a week, and after a year, they want new music, a few new steps. And so we do a lot of market research to determine what it is now that people want.”

By December 1990, Jane Fond was in New York promoting her 12th workout video, Jane Fonda’s Lean Routine. She told the New York Times reporter at that time: “I never could understand why after a long 15-hour day on the sound stage everyone would be real tired Instead of going home I’d go to dance class and study ballet for a few hours and at the end of that I would feel so great, like I just had a good night’s sleep. Thirty years later, I understand that when you’re exercising strenuously, a chemical is released in the body called endorphin, which gives you a natural high. It also helps relieve stress, fatigue and depression.”

Her new video explored some new exercise territory while also offering diet advice. “I hadn’t yet done a 60-minute aerobic program using interval training, which is now considered the best way to burn fat,” she said at the time, referring to a system where a few minutes of light exercise are interspersed with periods of intense exercise.

“If we’re asking people to do that, we also have to tell them that exercise goes hand in glove with proper eating and dieting. And that doesn’t mean crash diets, which are totally counterproductive. I wanted to explain how to eat and diet properly so that you really are getting on a lifelong program and not just a roller coaster ride.”

On her Lean Routine video Fonda discusses, among other things, why aerobics is considered the safest and most effective way to burn calories, how weight control is fat control, the advantages of healthy living, and guidelines for good eating habits.

By April 1991, Fonda closed her Beverly Hills, workout studio, in part due to increasing competition but primarily to concentrate on her core businesses of fitness videos, books and audiotapes. At that time one UPI report estimated her empire to be worth $100 million.

It was around this time that Fonda had met her third husband, Ted Turner, cable-TV maverick and CNN founder, who she would marry in December 1991, with her life then taking another new turn, as she would put down some roots and make certain philanthropic and community commitments in the Atlanta, Georgia area.

VHS edition of "Jane Fonda's Step & Stretch Workout" from 1994.
VHS edition of "Jane Fonda's Step & Stretch Workout" from 1994.
Back in the workout business, meanwhile, by 1992 she had issued some 15 tapes that had sold about 9 million copies. That year she issued her second video on step aerobics, which involves the use of a small platform or step. Fonda, who formerly conducted some classes at her workout studio, was no longer leading the aerobics sessions on her tapes, but was still doing the floor exercises on the videos. She was still working out four times a week by then, but just didn’t have the time to memorize and rehearse the aerobics routines. The video taping for her exercise videos by this time — more than a decade after her first video – was now much more of a production and took about a year to complete. In the earlier tapes, Fonda had been the principal choreographer, but now most of the routines were created by staff members with input from Fonda, as well as a physiologist and a cardiologist.

Other celebrities had come to the market with their own exercise videos of one kind or another, as the Fonda tapes faced competition. Still, during 1991-1994 she issued five more exercise videos: Lower Body Solution; Step Aerobic and Abdominal Workout; Favorite Fat Burners; Yoga Exercise Workout; and Step & Stretch Workout.

By 1995, as sales of the videos slowed, the Fonda workout managers and sales folks were adopting other strategies. “Fonda’s Personal Training Center” – a retail store kiosk that included videos, clothes, and fitness equipment – was installed at 1,000 locations, including Target, Oshman’s, Big 5 Sporting Goods and Sportsmart. There was also “bundling” of the video tapes with exercise equipment, as Fonda’s business manger La Fond reported to Billboard magazine. “Of the 2 million units sold on Fonda’s “Step Aerobics,” explained La Fond, “1.5 million were sold with the step.”

Jane Fonda, meanwhile, in her personal life had separated from Ted Turner and began living at her own ranch and working on her memoir. By May 2001, her divorce from Ted Turner was final, though the two have remained friends. After she finished writing the manuscript for her memoir, she began to think about making a return to acting. But at 65, that would be a pretty hard sell, but by 2005, she made her first out-of-retirement movie, Monster-in-Law with Jennifer Lopez. That same year, Random House published her autobiography, My Life So Far, which prompted a Washington Post reviewer to conclude that Jane Fonda is a “beautiful bundle of contradictions.” The New York Times called her book, “achingly poignant.” Also around this time, some of her older workout videos were re-released in DVD.

But Jane Fonda was not finished with her wellness acts just yet.

Jane Fonda’s “Prime Time”  book, 2012. Click for book.
Jane Fonda’s “Prime Time” book, 2012. Click for book.

Fitness & 3rd Acts

Although her exercise videos from the 1980s and 1990s were still available in VHS format, and some remastered and issued in digital formats, Fonda decided to hit the exercise market once again in 2010. This time, she would be focusing on seniors living in their “prime time” years. First came two new fitness videos released on DVD in 2010. And there was also a new book to dovetail with the videos – Prime Time: Love, Health, Sex, Fitness, Friendship, Spirit; Making the Most of All of Your Life. It was a new call to her audience that focused on living one’s life fully in the final years. This book followed upon her 2005 best seller, My Life So Far, as Jane explains:

…In my memoir, My Life So Far [2005], I defined my life in three acts: Act I, from birth to 29 years; Act II, from 30 to 59 years; and Act III, from 60 until the end. It really seemed to resonate with people, and a few years after the book came out, my editor at Random House, Kate Medina, came to me and suggested I write a book focusing more on the Third Act. I was interested in doing this because I was already well into my Third Act and relished the challenge to dig deeper, to understand its meaning, to learn how to make the most of it, and to navigate the inevitable challenges of aging–what is negotiable and what isn’t….

The videos – two issued in 2010 and three more in 2011-2012 – targeted the boomer and senior population to help them stay fit as they aged. Brief summaries of four of those videos follow below. (Click on images for DVDs or videos).

Walkout video, 2010.
Walkout video, 2010.
Fit & Strong video, 2010.
Fit & Strong video, 2010.
Yoga for Beginners, 2012.
Yoga for Beginners, 2012.
Trim,Tone & Flex, 2011.
Trim,Tone & Flex, 2011.
 

In 2010, Jane Fonda: Prime Time–Walkout was released. It includes two one-mile walking workouts. Also released in 2010, Jane Fonda: Prime Time – Fit & Strong, was also aimed at seniors and includes two 25-minute workouts aimed at burning fat, toning and shaping muscles, and core strengthening.

In 2011, came Jane Fonda Prime Time: Trim, Tone & Flex, which emphasized the importance of staying strong and flexible in aging, focusing on stretching to help promote weight loss and also protect bones and reduce joint stress. IT includes upper- and lower-body workouts.

Also in 2011, Jane Fonda Prime Time: Firm & Burn Low Impact Cardio was released, using several programs of dance routines to Doo-Wop, Latin, Funk and other music to get folks moving in 5 and 10 minute defined segments.

In 2012, Jane Fonda AM/PM Yoga for Beginners was released. This video includes three morning workouts and two evening workouts. Says Jane: “It’s time to get a yoga body! I love doing yoga in the morning to wake up my body and again at night to unwind from the day. Yoga is a great way to enhance your energy build strength and increase flexibility. Join me for my series of three AM yoga workouts designed to make you feel rejuvenated and energized and two PM workouts that will help you relax unwind and release tension and stress.” This video includes a 5-minute bonus section on stability and posture exercises to improve balance.


The Fonda Cohort

In the end, Jane Fonda had tapped into a market that has grown and aged along with her – mostly around the Baby Boomer cohort, but edging into demographics on either side of that group as well. For it was the thirty- and forty-something boomers from the 1980s who first bought her books and videos, and who then became the fifty- and sixty-somethings in the 1990s and 2000s, and as this is written, even the seventy- and eighty-somethings in the 2010s. At each of these stages there was some kind of Jane Fonda book or exercise video — and/or living advice in later years — to help keep her followers active and interested. It proved to be a prosperous and magic demographic for her. A bonus, of course, is that fair numbers of non-boomers became a part of Jane’s market too, in some cases, as the children of boomers also used Jane Fonda tapes and read her books, and possibly even a few millennials have now ventured there as well.

1979.  Jane Fonda working out with others, as photographed by Vogue magazine.
1979. Jane Fonda working out with others, as photographed by Vogue magazine.

Nor should Fonda’s exercise success and business empire be considered a ‘60s activist “sell out.” Certainly for Fonda herself, her books and tapes were always about female empowerment – bringing fitness and health to women as first steps in the broader empowerment process – and happily for her, also an avenue for proselytizing on diet, the environment, and other issues. It was, for her, all of a consistent piece — an honorable way of doing well while doing good; it all fit together. And it also became something of a built-in market for her autobiography, later books, films, and TV shows.

The success of her workout venture over the years also became an important enabler for her – a financial enabler worth millions every year, complimenting her acting and film production income and providing the means to continue her activism while living a comfortable celebrity life. Moreover, the additional celebrity that accrued to her by way of her workout fame through the 1980s and beyond, only added to her impact and reach on various activist causes. And the publicity she has received, and continues to receive, at activist events (see below), and for her support of social causes and activist organizations, reinforces her celebrity and activist standing.

Jane Fonda, at one of her workout studios, leading a group in floor exercise, circa 1980s.
Jane Fonda, at one of her workout studios, leading a group in floor exercise, circa 1980s.

It’s also turned out that her exercise business gave Jane Fonda entrée to a giant constituency of sorts – a base of followers who not only listened to her fitness advice, but also her “bigger-picture” messages on diet, health and the state of the environment. Certainly not all of Fonda’s fitness audience were in lockstep with her views. No doubt more than a few of her fitness followers loved her workout routines but hated her politics. Still, many likely at least gave her a listen. And combined with her Hollywood film and later TV audiences, Jane Fonda over the years has had a bigger base than many national politicians.


Fonda & others in "Book Club". Click for DVD.
Fonda & others in "Book Club". Click for DVD.
Later Films

Jane Fonda’s film career, meanwhile, has continued into her later years. After Monster-in Law of 2005, Fonda made ten more Hollywood films, among them: Georgia Rule (2007), All Together (2012), Peace, Love & Misunderstanding (2012), The Butler (2013), in which she plays Nancy Reagan; Youth (2015), for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress; Our Souls at Night (2017 /Netflix), with Robert Redford; and Book Club (2018), about a group of senior women reacting to the book, 50 Shades of Grey, also starring Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen.

In her television work, Fonda has been a guest actress appearing in the series, The Newsroom (2012-2014), and is also co- starring with Lilly Tomlin in the series, Grace & Frankie (2015-2018), for which she and/or Tomlin have received several Emmy and other nominations.

During her earlier film career Fonda had won her profession’s highest acting awards, including two Oscars, two BAFTAs, and four Golden Globes, among others.


Activist Life

Whatever might be said about Jane Fonda, one thing is for sure: she has not stood still. Her friends, former husbands, and fellow actors throughout her life have been amazed at her energy and the many causes she undertakes. One reviewer of her 2005 autobiography remarked at being “astonished by how much living can be packed into sixty-plus years.” Indeed, Jane Fonda has marked every decade in which she has lived; leaving a little “Fonda dust” wherever she ventures. Her activism of the 1960s and 1970s — though not always well-received — was no one-time occurrence, and it continues as this is written. She has a long history of supporting women’s rights, environmental protection, and childhood development, and often travels far and wide to participate in protests, conferences, and marches on these and other issues.

1972. Jane Fonda in Rome, Italy supporting a rally on behalf of Italian feminists. photo, Associated Press.
1972. Jane Fonda in Rome, Italy supporting a rally on behalf of Italian feminists. photo, Associated Press.

In May 1979, she was among speakers supporting anti-nuclear power protests in Washington following the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania. In the mid-1990s she established the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power and Potential and the Fonda Family Foundation in the late 1990s. In 2001, she established the Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health at Emory University in Atlanta to help prevent adolescent pregnancy. She has also been a longtime supporter of feminist causes, including V-Day, a movement to stop violence against women, inspired by the off-Broadway hit The Vagina Monologues.

May 1979.  Jane Fonda flanked by Governor Jerry Brown of California (left), and her husband, Tom Hayden, at anti-nuclear power protest rally in Washington D.C., which occurred shortly after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania and as ‘The China Syndrome’ film was still running in theaters.
May 1979. Jane Fonda flanked by Governor Jerry Brown of California (left), and her husband, Tom Hayden, at anti-nuclear power protest rally in Washington D.C., which occurred shortly after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania and as ‘The China Syndrome’ film was still running in theaters.

In mid- February 2004, Fonda led a march through Ciudad Juárez, Mexico with Sally Field and others urging Mexico to provide sufficient resources to investigate the murders of hundreds of women in that city. In 2005, along with Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem, she co-founded the Women’s Media Center, an organization that works to amplify the voices of women in the media. Fonda serves on its board.

2015.  Jane Fonda holding a 'Stop Shell' protest sign at an anti-oil development gathering in Vancouver, British Columbia.
2015. Jane Fonda holding a 'Stop Shell' protest sign at an anti-oil development gathering in Vancouver, British Columbia.
She has also opposed oil development in Alaska and oil sands conflicts with First Nation indigenous lands in Canada.

In June 2015, she joined protests in Vancouver, British Columbia regarding Shell Oil’s drilling plans in offshore Alaska as well as expected oil tanker traffic off the British Columbia coast. In July 2015, she marched in a Toronto protest called the “March for Jobs, Justice, and Climate.”

In November 2016 she helped lead a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline crossing the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota (and later withdrew her money from Wells Fargo bank, one the project’s funders).

In January 2017 she stood with Greenpeace and First Nation groups opposing expansion of tar sands development in Alberta, Canada. Fonda’s protests on various oil projects are often met with vitriol by many in the oil industry, but she says she is working on behalf of her grandchildren and wants to make sure “I did every single possible thing I could do to make their world a liveable world.”

Back in Hollywood, meanwhile, Fonda was honored in 2014 with the AFI Life Achievement Award, and in 2017 she received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 74th Venice Film Festival. As this is written, Jane Fonda is 80 years old, and shows no signs of slowing down, planning to continue both her advocacy and her acting.

See also at this website, “Noteworthy Ladies,” a topics page with dozens of story choices on the lives of famous women in various fields. See also the “Film & Hollywood” page or the “Environmental History” page for stories in those categories. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you.
– Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 27 September 2018
Last Update: 27 April 2019
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Fonda Fitness Boom: 1980s & Beyond,”
PopHistoryDig.com, September 27, 2018.

____________________________________




Sources, Links & Additional Information

Mary Hershberger's 2005 book, "Jane Fonda’s War: A Political Biography of an Antiwar Icon," 228pp. Click for book.
Mary Hershberger's 2005 book, "Jane Fonda’s War: A Political Biography of an Antiwar Icon," 228pp. Click for book.
Jane Fonda's 2005 autobiography, "My Life So Far," Random House, hardback, 624pp. Click for book.
Jane Fonda's 2005 autobiography, "My Life So Far," Random House, hardback, 624pp. Click for book.
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Mary Hershberger’s 2006 book, “Jane Fonda's Words of Politics and Passion,” The New Press, 161pp. Click for book.
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Cover art for earlier Jane Fonda biography by Thomas Kiernan, Jane: An Intimate Biography of Jane Fonda, New York: Putnam, 1973.
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As Told to Alison S. Cohn, “Jane Fonda Opens Up About Her Ageless Style; The Actress Has Defined Her Signature Look on Her Own Terms,” HarpersBazaar.com, September 20, 2018.

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“Shell Plant Explodes”
1994: Belpre, Ohio

On May 27th, 1994, an explosion and multiple fires at a Shell Oil chemical plant in southeastern Ohio killed three workers, caused the temporary evacuation of 1,700 local residents, and polluted the adjacent Ohio River with a mixture of toxic chemicals for more than 20 miles downstream. As later described by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): “A catastrophic failure of a 15,000 gallon polymer reactor vessel was initiated by a runaway chemical reaction” in the company’s Kraton-D polymer unit. “The reactor failure and resulting fire,” explained OSHA, “caused the complete destruction” of that unit. Additionally, missile fragments from the failed reactor damaged

May 27th, 1994 photo of raging inferno in the chemical tank storage area of Shell’s Belpre, Ohio chemical plant, set off as a second fire by missile fragments from initial explosion in another part of the complex. (firefighter photo).
May 27th, 1994 photo of raging inferno in the chemical tank storage area of Shell’s Belpre, Ohio chemical plant, set off as a second fire by missile fragments from initial explosion in another part of the complex. (firefighter photo).

adjacent units of the plant, as well as another area with large chemical storage tanks. One fragment from the initial explosion punctured a styrene storage tank some 600 feet away. This tank’s explosion and fire resulted in the burning of five additional styrene storage tanks containing approximately 3.5 million gallons of flammable products.

The Parkersburg News of Parkersburg, West Virginia reporting on the May 1994 Shell explosion & fires: 'Disaster At Shell'.
The Parkersburg News of Parkersburg, West Virginia reporting on the May 1994 Shell explosion & fires: 'Disaster At Shell'.
Throughout Ohio, and especially in the local region, the Shell explosion was front-page news. The Parkersburg News of Parkersburg, West Virginia, a town just across the Ohio River from Belpre, reported the incident with the May 28th headline: “Disaster at Shell” (photo at right). That story also included a front-page aerial photo of the Shell plant complex burning in two locations (see larger photo later below).

Another Ohio newspaper, The Saturday Review of East Liverpool, for its May 28th edition, used the headline: “Explosion, Fire Force Evacuations; Governor Declares State of Emergency in Belpre.”

Belpre, Ohio is a small town in southeast Ohio on the Ohio River opposite Parkersburg, West Virginia. A town of about 6,800 people at the time of the Shell accident, Belpre is located about 110 miles southeast of Columbus, Ohio and about 150 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Ohio River, in fact, stretching from Pittsburgh, and flowing south and west along the Ohio-West Virginia border to the Mississippi River, became an industrial highway of sorts, making the area something of a chemical valley, with DuPont, GE, and others all locating plants in the Belpre-Parkersburg area in the 1950s and 1960s, using river barges to supply their operations and move their finished products.

Map showing location of Belpre, Ohio on the Ohio River border with West Virginia.
Map showing location of Belpre, Ohio on the Ohio River border with West Virginia.
In 1961, the Shell Oil Company opened a plastics plant at Belpre along U.S. highway 50, building a complex of buildings there on about 15 acres. The plant was expanded at least twice after that – once in 1980 and again in 1990.

The plant became known for making plastics, and in particular, Shell’s Kraton, a thermoplastic rubber used in automotive parts, wire, footwear, adhesives, and cable coverings.

For the most part, things were good at the Belpre plant during those years. In fact, Shell had been crowing during the summer of 1993 about how this plant was meeting “stringent international quality standards” under something known as ISO 9002.

But early morning on Friday, May 27th, 1994, just ahead of the Memorial Day weekend, things at the Shell plant were not quite right. It was about 6:20 a.m., and at that hour only 50 to 75 workers were on hand at the plant. Normally, the plant would fill to several hundred workers. An explosion occurred in the K-1 building at the plant about 6:25am followed by a fire, but soon spread to a chemical storage tank area. Then, at about 6:30 am, there was a violent explosion as the fire reached one of the tanks. Soon, five more chemical tanks there, holding millions of gallons of styrene and 400,000 gallons of diesel fuel, were burning, and they continued burning.

Front page photo from the May 28th 1994 “Parkersburg News” showing the Shell Chemical plant at Belpre, Ohio along the Ohio River, with two areas of the plant burning on May 27th, 1994, following an early morning explosion that day. Three workers were killed; 1,700 residents evacuated. ( Source: Mackey’s Antiques & Clock Repair, Parkersburg, WV).
Front page photo from the May 28th 1994 “Parkersburg News” showing the Shell Chemical plant at Belpre, Ohio along the Ohio River, with two areas of the plant burning on May 27th, 1994, following an early morning explosion that day. Three workers were killed; 1,700 residents evacuated. ( Source: Mackey’s Antiques & Clock Repair, Parkersburg, WV).

The fire raged for nine hours before being brought under control, as dozens of fire companies and some 150 firefighters from surrounding communities responded. At times, flames shot 300 to 600 feet into the air; and firefighters had to back away from their battle at various points due to the intense heat. One exchange among firefighters caught by local reporters for the Parkersburg News, had a fire chief in radio communication with his men who were reporting the searing heat and a possible retreat and withdrawal of equipment. “I don’t care about the [fire] engines, they can be replaced. Just get those people out of there,” he relayed over the radio, according to the Parkersburg reporters. “We’re really feeling the heat,” one firefighter radioed back. “Leave them babies [referring to the trucks] and run,” said the chief. “If you feel it’s safer, then come up here,” the chief advised.

Another photo from the “Parkersburg News,” taken from the other side of the Ohio River, showing two areas of the Shell plant in flames – at right, where the initial explosion occurred, and tank storage area, to the left, where projectiles from the first explosion caused several tanks there to ignite & leak. (Source: Mackey’s Antiques & Clock Repair, Parkersburg, WV).
Another photo from the “Parkersburg News,” taken from the other side of the Ohio River, showing two areas of the Shell plant in flames – at right, where the initial explosion occurred, and tank storage area, to the left, where projectiles from the first explosion caused several tanks there to ignite & leak. (Source: Mackey’s Antiques & Clock Repair, Parkersburg, WV).

At one point, a giant, elongated plume of thick black smoke moved away from the plant and was visible stretching over nearby areas as the fire burned. Two of the burning chemicals in the blaze were petroleum-based solvents, cyclohexane and styrene monomers, according to Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Rob Berger. Both are used in the production of plastics and can produce irritating or poisonous gases.“…Former sheriff Bob Schlicher later told us that officials simply could not explain why the entire tank farm did not explode that day…” Authorities first ordered the evacuation of 15 homes in Porterfield, five miles west of Belpre, then ordered the evacuation of everyone within a one-mile radius of the plant, on both sides of the Ohio River. In all, 1,700 people were evacuated. US highway 50 was shut down and an advisory was issued to boaters on the Ohio River to avoid the area because of the smoke.

One reporter who was at the scene, Mike Cullums, filing live reports for WMOA and ONN radio stations, later offered this account:

…The most memorable moment came as I was reporting from the press pool location, in the parking lot of the Belpre Church of Christ late that morning. While on-air, I looked up and saw a parade of fire engines racing away from the scene and past the church. They had run out of fire-fighting foam. As urgently as possible, hundreds of residents were evacuated from Porterfield, Blennerhassett Heights, and the portion of Belpre west of Farson Street. Former sheriff Bob Schlicher later told us that officials simply could not explain why the entire tank farm did not explode that day. He said that, had the expected blast occurred, the results would have been unimaginably worse….

“Family Men”
Killed in Explosion

Michael Lee Harris of Reedsville, Ohio was one of the workers killed in the explosion at the Belpre plastics plant. He was 36 years old. By all accounts, Michael Lee Harris was madly in love with his wife, Lori, crazy about his two kids, Steven 4, and Katie 2, and liked his job. His wife last saw him at 10 pm the night before the accident when they went to bed, as Michael would sometimes slip away quietly in the morning without waking her. Michael’s father, Sonny Harris, like other residents in the Belpre area, knew the hazards of the job at the Shell plant. “I’ve been in factories all my life,” he said, “so I understand this.” Still, Mr. Harris saw his son as a person with few flaws and a model family man. “Thirty-six years old, and I never heard a swear word out of him… Never smoked a cigarette in his life. No enemies. …That’s just the way he was.”

The other two victims were Gary Reed, 41, who enjoyed the outdoors and left behind his wife, Julie, and two kids, Alexis, 7, and Ashley, 10. George Nutter, 50, was an avid woodworker, leaving behind his wife, Brenda, and two children, Michael, 22, and Heather, 18.

Governor Acts

Shortly after noon on the day of the fire, Ohio Governor George Voinovich declared a state of emergency in Washington County, Ohio where the plant and Belpre were located. He had been advised that the fires at the Shell plant were burning out of control and posed a threat to the health and safety of residents and rescue crews. Voinovich also ordered the Ohio National Guard to fly 8,000 pounds of foram from Rickenbacker Air Base in Columbus, Ohio to Wood County Airport as local foam supplies were low. More foam would be flown in later from Texas.

By late afternoon the day of the explosion, the fires at the Shell plant were brought under control. “The large fire is now out,” reported one Belpre firefighter. “All the firefighters are going through detoxification to assure they don’t have any chemicals on them.” Evacuated residents were also allowed to return to their homes later that afternoon. But at that point, it was known that at least one worker was dead and two others were missing.

Six days later, industrial cranes were still working at the site clearing through heavy debris, as a search continued for the two other plant workers, then presumed to have died in the blast.


River Pollution

Meanwhile, liquid chemicals from the burning and burst tanks had been seeping into the Ohio River, which flows south along West Virginia, then west along the northern Kentucky border to the Mississippi River.

After the explosion, a long slick of ethylene dibromide formed in the Ohio River and began moving down-river with concentrations of more than 100 times the federal drinking water standard. As the spilled chemicals moved downstream toward the Mississippi, towns such as Ironton and Portsmouth, Ohio, and Huntington, West Virginia, began to shut their water intakes. By June 7th, Ironton, Ohio was dependent upon barges bringing in fresh drinking water. By then, the chemical slick on the Ohio River stretched downstream for miles.

On June 10th, 1994, EPA issued a statement on the Shell explosion at the Belpre plant:

“A major explosion and fire at a chemical plant owned by Shell Oil caused four one-million gallon styrene tanks and their secondary containment systems to fail… The explosion released numerous hazardous substances and killed over 1,500 fish in the Ohio River. EDB [1,2-dibromoethane, a pesticide] has been discovered at the water-intake on the River in Huntington, West Virginia, and at other downstream locations. A plume of EDB measuring 22 miles long was identified, and is continuing to be tracked downstream.”

EPA ordered Shell to begin a clean up, monitor on-site run-off and movement of the chemical spill in the river, develop a warning system for downstream water users, provide alternative drinking water supplies for those users, and assess all off-site environmental damage.

In the aftermath of the May 1994 explosion & fires, one portion of the Shell complex revealed a collapsed tank and other damage. Note distant worker standing on platform near right center of photo. Source: Mackey’s Antiques & Clock Repair/Mike Cottrell.
In the aftermath of the May 1994 explosion & fires, one portion of the Shell complex revealed a collapsed tank and other damage. Note distant worker standing on platform near right center of photo. Source: Mackey’s Antiques & Clock Repair/Mike Cottrell.

Within a few weeks of the explosion, a number of residents in the area filed a class-action lawsuit seeking damages for the evacuation and exposure to harmful chemicals. EPA would later report that more than 1 million pounds of toxic chemicals were released during the fires. In the lawsuit, most of the residents were seeking compensation for property damage. The lawsuit also sought, at Shell’s expense, medical testing of people living near the plant and a determination of whether the gases endangered their health. That lawsuit was not certified as a class action, but six individual cases did go forward. Families of the three workers killed in the blast filed wrongful death suits against Shell seeking $20 million each in damages.

Others in the community, however, were worried about jobs, and a rally was held in Porterfield on June 5th, 1994. Hundreds of people turned out voicing their support for the company and carrying signs that they stood behind the company despite the explosion. Meanwhile, investigations by Shell, the state of Ohio, and federal authorities were all underway.

Another photo of the internal damage found at the Shell chemical plant in Belpre, Ohio in the wake of the May 1994 explosion and fires. Source: Mackey’s Antiques & Clock Repair/Mike Cottrell.
Another photo of the internal damage found at the Shell chemical plant in Belpre, Ohio in the wake of the May 1994 explosion and fires. Source: Mackey’s Antiques & Clock Repair/Mike Cottrell.

By late June 1994, Shell said it was preparing to resume operations at the plant, although at a reduced level. In July, when Shell Oil (U.S.) made its quarterly report, it booked a loss and recorded $233 million in costs from the Belpre explosion. In October 1994, Shell reported that one of the three workers killed in the explosion helped cause the accident by failing to follow established operating procedures, but declined to name which worker was responsible. A month later, the company announced it was planning to rebuild the damaged portions of the plant and have it back on stream within one year.


OSHA Fine

In late November 1994, Shell agreed to pay a fine of more than $3 million to the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) for federal safety violations that occurred in connection with the Belpre explosion. At the time, it was the largest fine ever levied on an Ohio company, and the sixth largest ever for OSHA since the agency was created in 1970. OSHA had found 42 violations at the Belpre plant.

“We are very pleased that Shell has agreed to resolve this matter as quickly as possible, in order to ensure maximum protection for its employees,” said then Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich in a prepared statement. “The agreement avoids the burden and cost of possible prolonged litigation and furthers the efforts of both Shell and OSHA to assure a safe workplace.”

A broader look at the Shell chemical plant and one of the damaged areas at center following the May 1994 explosion, with the Ohio River and near shore of West Virginia at the top of photo. Source: Mackey’s Antiques & Clock Repair/Mike Cottrell.
A broader look at the Shell chemical plant and one of the damaged areas at center following the May 1994 explosion, with the Ohio River and near shore of West Virginia at the top of photo. Source: Mackey’s Antiques & Clock Repair/Mike Cottrell.

Shell, for its part, stated the agreement with OSHA was not an admission of any violations. Arnie Ditmar, Shell’s Belpre plant manager, said the company disputed many of OSHA’s allegations and conclusions, but that Shell decided against contesting the case. “It would have continuously distracted from our desire and need to move forward and focus on rebuilding our plant and returning to normal, safe operation,” Ditmar said.

“We don’t agree with Shell’s conclusion that it was operator error.”
    – Deborah J. Zubaty, OSHA
Meanwhile, Shell’s internal investigation of the accident found employee error and equipment failure contributed to an abnormal chemical reaction and resulting explosion in the reactor unit. OHSA disagreed. “We don’t agree with Shell’s conclusion that it was operator error,” said Deborah J. Zubaty, director of OSHA’s Columbus, Ohio office at the time the agreement was announced. “We feel there were a multitude of causes,” though the agency’s investigation did not pinpoint one specific cause.

The violations OSHA did find, however, indicated deficiencies in the company’s equipment, plant layout, production safety procedures, and training of its employees. OSHA also faulted Shell’s emergency response plan, noting that those who first responded were not wearing breathing apparatus to protect them against chemicals, including asbestos.

A “closer in” look at some of  the damaged areas of the Shell chemical plant following the May 1994 explosion and fires there. Source: Mackey’s Antiques & Clock Repair/Mike Cottrell.
A “closer in” look at some of the damaged areas of the Shell chemical plant following the May 1994 explosion and fires there. Source: Mackey’s Antiques & Clock Repair/Mike Cottrell.

One of the OSHA violations revealed that Shell had an earlier experience with an “uncontrolled reaction” at the same reactor and the same chemical involved in the May 27th explosion. That event occurred on January 23, 1994, only four months earlier. Shell, in fact, had written a three-page memo on the January incident, but there was no further investigation and no report by the company. OSHA wasn’t informed about the January 23rd incident until the agency investigated the May 27th accident. Shell maintained it didn’t need to report the January 23rd incident because it was a minor incident that didn’t fall within OSHA’s reporting requirements. Shell’s Mike White said at that time that the company would have “vigorously contested” the OSHA charge on that count. White explained that the January 23rd incident “was not uncontrolled,” and that the attending technician knew what was in the reactor before allowing the reaction to proceed. The reaction was hotter than normal, he acknowledged, because of a frozen vent line due to extremely cold temperatures at the time.


Shell Blocks OSHA

Nearly two years later, in September 1996, just as OSHA was about to publicly release its final report on the May 1994 Belpre accident, Shell filed a lawsuit to block the report. The OSHA report contained a more detailed narrative on the accident and described what the agency believed were contributing factors.…Shell filed a lawsuit to block OSHA’s report on the Belpre explosion. Shell, then facing litigation from the families of the dead workers as well as other cases for property damage from local residents, was doing what it could to limit possible awards in court and keep the company’s name out of the newspapers and media. Shell’s lawyers met with OSHA staff on September 18th, and an agreement was reached to withhold the OSHA report until Shell had a chance to make its case before a federal judge. Shell then filed suit in U.S. District Court in Houston to formally block the report’s release. Shell argued the OSHA report contained trade secrets and law enforcement information that is exempt from the Federal Freedom of Information Act. Shell had also learned that the Charleston Gazette newspaper of West Virginia had sought a copy of the report under the Freedom of Information Act.

Under that law, OSHA is required to inform companies of requests for such reports. OSHA had already explained to Shell that it was intending to delete portions of the report that contained trade secret information. Although OSHA had prepared to delete more of the report after rereading some of Shell’s earlier letters, OSHA still favored releasing the report.

“OSHA believes, as amended, the report does not disclose any of Shell’s trade secrets or confidential information,” said OSHA in a September 10th, 1996 letter to Shell. “Moreover, OSHA continues to believe that the conclusions of its investigation team relating to the history and causes of the event would be useful in educating both the public and the chemical industry on hazards presented by chemical processes and thereby possibly preventing death and injuries at other locations.”

“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 public safety impacts of various industrial disasters and accidents – oil and chemical spills; explosions and fires; toxic and hazardous waste issues; air and water pollution; and other such occurrences.

These stories 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; or 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

Shell, in its court documents, argued against disclosure of the report since its was “based almost exclusively on confidential and privileged documents and information that Shell had voluntarily given to OSHA, which Shell would not release to the public.” Shell also said the report was “an investigatory record prepared by OSHA for law enforcement purposes, and its disclosure would unfairly prejudice Shell in pending litigation. . .” Shell’s request to prevent the OSHA report’s public release went before the US District Court in Houston – where Shell’s U.S. headquarters are located — and was granted a “protective order” to keep the report under wraps while Shell was in litigation.

In January 1997, Shell settled the wrongful death lawsuits with the families of three dead workers. Each family received payments of between $2.1 and $2.4 million in out-of-court agreements. Other litigation with 44 residents seeking damages from the Belpre explosion and fire also proceeded, but it is unclear what the details and final outcome of those actions were, or if any settlements were made. And it appears that OSHA’s more detailed report and narrative on the Belpre, Ohio explosion was never publicly released.

At the Shell Belpre plant, however, there was another incident – an August 1998 explosion. This time it was a hydrogen explosion in a compressor unit. The blast rattled buildings up to five miles away. A fire ensued but was brought under control by the plant’s firefighters within 30 minutes. Shell, meanwhile, had begun an internal process of reevaluating its chemical strategy, and decided to exit some of its chemical lines. In December 1998, Shell announced that it planned to sell the Belpre chemical complex, but would continue to operate the plant until a new owner was found. After 18 months on the sales block, Shell finally sold the Belpre plant to Rippelwood Holdings LLC in September 2000 for an estimated $600 million. Rippelwood then operated the plant until late December 2003 when the plant was again sold, this time to the Texas Pacific Group, a private investment partnership, for $770 million. As of 2018, the Belpre plant continues to operate under these owners, and is known as Kraton Polymers. Following the 1994 explosion, new technology and safety measures were added to the chemical complex, and subsequent owners report they have continued to spend money on system upgrades, worker safety, and environmental protection.


One of the logos used by Royal Dutch Shell.
One of the logos used by Royal Dutch Shell.
Big Player

While Shell sold its chemical plant at the Belpre, Ohio location, it has been a major player in the global chemical business for decades. Royal Dutch Shell, known commonly as “Shell Oil,” is among the world’s top five corporations, one of the four “supermajors” in the oil and gas industry. It is also among the world’s top 15 chemical companies, with more than $20 billion in annual chemical sales.

Formed in the 1907 merger of Royal Dutch Petroleum and Shell Transport & Trading, Shell Oil today has operations in more than 140 countries. In 2017, the company’s total annual revenues were in excess of $300 billion, making it the world’s fifth largest corporation by sales. It’s profits in 2017 were $13.4 billion.

In recent years, Shell has also begun a small renewable energy business developing wind, hydrogen, and solar power. Still, as of 2018 Shell appears to be a fully-committed fossil fuels player, with continuing investments in exploration, refining, transport, and petrochemicals. The company’s 2016 acquisition of the BG Group (formerly British Gas) for $53 billion made Shell the world’s largest player in liquefied natural gas and also bolstered its position in the Brazilian oil business while expanding its holding of offshore deep water assets. Today, in the oil and gas business, only ExxonMobil is bigger.

From an October 2017 story on Shell’s cracker plant, The Pitt News (University of Pittsburgh). Map, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
From an October 2017 story on Shell’s cracker plant, The Pitt News (University of Pittsburgh). Map, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
In North America, as of 2018, Shell has begun building a $6 billion ethylene cracker plant for the production of plastics north of Pittsburgh, PA along the Ohio River. This location was chosen in part for its proximity to a huge feedstock source: the Marcellus Shale natural gas fields, where hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is the current method of extraction. Shell has also stated that 70 percent of its polyethylene customers in North America are within a 700-mile radius of the Pittsburgh location.

In addition to the cracker plant itself will be the 97-mile Falcon Pipeline project that will collect and transport more than 100,000 barrels of ethane daily to feed the cracker.

As work on the Shell plant has gone forward, environmentalists in the area, along with some citizens and clergy, have expressed concerns over the plant’s potential pollution impacts. Others worry about public safety issues. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania officials, supporting the Shell cracker, have awarded the company a $1.7 billion, 25-year tax credit.

With its far flung global empire, Royal Dutch Shell, like other multinationals, has its hands full managing its many operations. While the company is attentive in controlling the impacts of its rigs, refineries, and factories, and spends sizeable amounts on safety and environmental protection, the company’s performance history in these areas is not without incident. Chronic safety and environmental issues continue to be a problem for this company and include, for example: oil spills at sea, refinery fires, offshore accidents, pipeline leaks, workplace incidents, and various chemical release and pollution issues. In the 2010-2018 period, Shell has had major and minor incidents. A few examples follow below:

Paperback edition of “Where Vultures Feast,” a 2003 book about Shell’s performance history in Nigeria. Click for copy.
Paperback edition of “Where Vultures Feast,” a 2003 book about Shell’s performance history in Nigeria. Click for copy.
Ronnie Green’s 2008 book featuring Louisiana resident Margie Richard’s 15 year fight with Shell Oil’s Norco, LA  refinery & chemical plant that polluted her community and sickened its residents, by Amistad publishers, 288pp. Click for copy.
Ronnie Green’s 2008 book featuring Louisiana resident Margie Richard’s 15 year fight with Shell Oil’s Norco, LA refinery & chemical plant that polluted her community and sickened its residents, by Amistad publishers, 288pp. Click for copy.

North Sea Leak
August 2011. A Royal Dutch Shell pipeline off the coast of Scotland at the company’s offshore Gannet Alpha oil platform leaked more than 1,300 barrels of oil into the North Sea.

Refinery Fire
September 28, 2011. A 32-hour fire at Shell’s Pulau Bukom oil refining and petrochemical complex in Singapore, brought an $80,000 fine from Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower on October 30, 2012 for “lapses in workplace safety” that led to the blaze.

Oil Spill
December 21, 2011. Up to 40,000 barrels of crude oil was spilled while being transferred from a floating oil platform to an oil tanker 75 miles off the coast of the Niger delta in the Bonga offshore oil field, off Nigeria, Africa.

Oil Spill
May 12, 2016. More than 88,000 gallons of crude oil discharged from a Shell subsea wellhead into the Gulf of Mexico off Timbalier Island from a flow line about 90 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Glider Field near the company’s Brutus Tension-Leg Platform.

Pipeline Leak
May 30, 2016. Shell Oil’s San Pablo Bay Pipeline, which transports crude oil from California’s Central Valley to the San Francisco Bay Area, leaked an estimated 21,000 gallons into the soil.

Refinery Explosion
August 11, 2016. An explosion and major fire rocked the Shell/Motiva oil refinery in Convent, Louisiana, leading to the evacuation of 1,400 workers and damage to one of the refinery’s processing units. No injuries were reported.

Refinery Fire
July 31, 2017. A massive fire erupted at Shell’s Pernis refinery in Rotterdam in the Netherlands — the largest refinery in Europe – causing a blackout and forcing the company to halt all loadings.

Rig Fire & Spill
November 8, 2017. Shell’s Enchilada oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico was shut down and all associated production stopped after a fire broke out on the rig. Two people were injured and the crew of 46 were evacuated to a nearby platform. There was also a report of a light sheen of oil on the water north of the Shell platform, which is located about 112 nautical miles south of Vermilion Bay, Louisiana.

Refinery Fire
March 4, 2018. Fire and rescue crews were called to the Shell Refinery in Saraland, Alabama for an oil pump fire. No injuries were reported.

Tank Explosion & Fire
June 11, 2018. Shell reported a storage tank explosion and small fire at its Carson, California tank farm and distribution facility. Employees were evacuated from the tank farm, but no injuries were reported. About 60,000 barrels of gasoline were in the tank when the incident occurred,

For additional history at this website on the environmental and safety performance of the oil and chemical industries see, for example, the “Environmental History” topics page. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 26 August 2018
Last Update: 26 August 2018
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Shell Plant Explodes, 1994: Belpre, Ohio,”
PopHistoryDig.com, August 26, 2018.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Ian Cummins and John Beasant’s 2005 book, “Shell Shock: The Secrets and Spin of an Oil Giant,” 256pp. Click for copy.
Ian Cummins and John Beasant’s 2005 book, “Shell Shock: The Secrets and Spin of an Oil Giant,” 256pp. Click for copy.
Steve Lerner’s 2004 book on the Diamond community of Norco, LA, an African-American subdivision sandwiched between a Shell oil refinery and a Shell chemical plant. MIT Press, 344pp.
Steve Lerner’s 2004 book on the Diamond community of Norco, LA, an African-American subdivision sandwiched between a Shell oil refinery and a Shell chemical plant. MIT Press, 344pp.
Lawyer and oil royalty landowner J. Michael Veron’s 2007 account of a nine-year legal battle with Shell Oil over decades of pollution on his family's Louisiana farm. Lyons Press. 272pp.
Lawyer and oil royalty landowner J. Michael Veron’s 2007 account of a nine-year legal battle with Shell Oil over decades of pollution on his family's Louisiana farm. Lyons Press. 272pp.
2002 book published by the Environmental Health Fund of Boston, “Riding the Dragon: Royal Dutch Shell & The Fossil Fire,” includes case histories of Shell environmental and public safety performance over several decades; 350pp.
2002 book published by the Environmental Health Fund of Boston, “Riding the Dragon: Royal Dutch Shell & The Fossil Fire,” includes case histories of Shell environmental and public safety performance over several decades; 350pp.
Stuart Smith’s 2005 book about battling oil companies (including Shell) in Mississippi over oil- derived radium contamination and other oil/environment warnings. BenBella Books, 264pp. Click for copy.
Stuart Smith’s 2005 book about battling oil companies (including Shell) in Mississippi over oil- derived radium contamination and other oil/environment warnings. BenBella Books, 264pp. Click for copy.

“Ohio Chemical Plant Erupts In Fire,” Chicago Tribune, May 27, 1994.

Deborah Paolucci and Jesse Mancini, “Disaster at Shell,” The Parkersburg News (Parkersburg, West Virginia), May 28, 1994, p.1.

Associated Press, “Explosion, Fire Force Evacuations; Governor Declares State of Emergency in Belpre,” The Saturday Review (East Liverpool, Ohio), May 28, 1994, p. 1.

“Explosion at Plant Kills 1; 2 Missing,” Columbus Dispatch, (Columbus, Ohio), May 28, 1994.

U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Accident Report Detail, Accident: 170662498 – Three Employees Killed In Chemical Plant Explosion, Report ID: 0522500 — Event Date: May 27,1994.

Associated Press, “Ohio Chemical Plant Fire Forces 1,700 to Evacuate,” The Washington Post, May 28, 1994, p. A-3.

“Shell Chemical Fire, Belpre Ohio,” Mackey’s Antiques & Clock Repair, Parkersburg, West Virginia.

Rita Price and Jim Phillips, “Families Grieve For Three Killed In Belpre Explosion,” The Columbus Dispatch, May 29, 1994, p. 1-A

K.C. Ottenbacher, (UPI, Belpre, OH), “Third Fire Victim Identified,” May 29, 1994.

“Search Continues for 2 Bodies at Blast Site,” Columbus Dispatch, May 31, 1994.

Susan Ainsworth, “Fatal Fire at Shell Plant Hits Elastomers Market,” Chemical & Engineering News, June 6, 1994, p. 5.

“Ironton Hauls In Drinking Water,” Columbus Dispatch, June 7, 1994.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 5, Order of Injunctive Relief and Corrective Action, June 10, 1994, Case Name: Shell Oil Company; Location: Belpre, OH; Statute: CERCLA section 106 UAO.

“EPA Orders Shell to Clean Up After Fire At Ohio Facility,” Dow Jones News Service, June 13, 1994.

“Shell To Check River for More of Chemical,” Columbus Dispatch, June 15, 1994.

“Shell Ordered to Test, Clean Up Belpre,” Chemical Week, June 22, 1994, p.4.

John Seewer, Associated Press, “Reactions to Disaster Mixed in Company-Dependent Town,” The Register Herald (Beckley, WV), October 2, 1994, p. 5-C.

Associated Press, “Shell Chemical Implements Safety Proposals after Blast,” Journal of Commerce, October 26, 1994.

“Belpre Blast Alarm Ignored Says Shell,” ICIS Chemical Business, November 14, 1994.

Jim Woods, “Shell Agrees To Pay $3 Million OSHA Fine For Fatal Blast,” Columbus Dispatch, November 23, 1994, p. 1-A.

Reuters, “Shell Unit to Pay $3 Million to Settle Explosion Charges,” Journal of Commerce, November 27, 1994.

Rocky Lantz, “Reconstruction: Shell’s $80 Million Recovery Helps Area Economy,” Parkersburg News, May 28, 1995, p. 1.

Ken Ward, Jr., “Shell Sues To Stop Release of Belpre Report,” Charleston Gazette, Septem-ber 25, 1996, p. 5-A.

Cynthia Sequin, “Shell Requests OSHA Report Remain Sealed,” Parkersburg News, June 28, 1997, p. A-1.

Shell Oil Co. v. United States Department of Labor, No. H-96-3113 (S.D. Tex. Mar. 31, 1998).

Associated Press, “Hydrogen Explodes at Chemical Plant; No Injuries,” August 10, 1998.

Associated Press, “Chemical Company to Sell Plastics Division,” Plastics News, September 6, 2000.

Associated Press,“Kraton Sale Estimated at $600 Million,” Plastics News, September 18, 2000.

Mike Cullums, “’It Could Have Been Much Worse’– Remembering the 1994 Shell Plant Explosion,” WMOA1490.com (radio station, Marietta, Ohio), May 27, 2014.

Henny Sender, “Texas Pacific Buys Ripplewood Unit,” Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2003.

Bruce Davis, “Investment Firm to Buy Kraton Polymers From Ripplewood,” Rubber & Plastics News, November 24, 2003.

Alex DeMarban, “Shell’s International Record Slammed by Opponents of Arctic Oil Drilling,” Anchorage Daily News, June 12, 2012.

“Shell Oil: A Record of Environmental and Corporate Malfeasance,” Alaska Wilderness League, 2012, 51pp.

Remy Samuels, “Cracker Plant Creates Controversy,” The Pitt News(University of Pittsburgh), October 5, 2017.

Shell’s Ethane Pipeline ‘Right on Track,’ Construction Starts 2019,” MarcellusDrilling .com, June 22, 2017.

“Shell Pipeline: Not Quite the ‘Good Neighbor’,” FracTracker.org, April 2, 2018.

Steven Mufson and Chris Mooney, “Shell Foresaw Climate Dangers in 1988 and Understood Big Oil’s Big Role,” Washington Post, April 5, 2018.

Fiona Harvey, “Shell Stops North Sea Leak after 10 Days; Scottish Government Launches Investigation into Safety Procedures after Worst Oil Spill in UK Waters for a Decade,” The Guardian, August 19, 2011.

“Fire at Shell’s Bukom Refinery,” The Straits Times ( Singapore), September 29, 2011, p. 1.

Ministry of Manpower, Singapore, “Shell Fined $80,000 for 2011 Pulau Bukom Refinery Fire,” Press Release, October 29, 2012.

“Pulau Bukom Fire (2011),” InfoPedia / National Library Board, Singapore, July 2016.

Lim Yi Han, “Fire at Shell’s Pulau Bukom Plant Leaves 6 Injured, Including 3 in Critical Condition,” The Straits Times (Singapore), August 21, 2015.

Sarah Kent, “Shell Oil Spills Led to ‘Astonishingly High’ Pollution in Nigeria; Stalled Cleanup of Leaks from Faulty Pipeline in 2008 Is Endangering Locals, Letter Warns,” Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2017.

Oliver Milman (New York), “Shell Working to Repair Leak That Spilled 2,000 Barrels of Oil into Gulf of Mexico; Thursday Leak Created a 13 Mile-Wide Slick on the Surface of the Water, from Group of Underwater Oil Wells 97 Miles South of Port Fourchon, Louisi