Today is the birthday of a famous accordion player named
No, I'm not talking about Weird Al. I'm talking about "America's Polka King,"
Frankie Yankovic, who was born on this day in 1915 in Davis, West Virginia,
where his parents worked in a lumber camp.
The Yankovic family moved to Cleveland when Frankie was but a small lad. There
he became immersed in Slovenian-style polka. According to his obituary in the
After learning to play button accordion from one of the Slovenian
boarders in his parents' Cleveland home, Mr. Yankovic got a squeezebox of
his own as a teenager and made a name for himself in the region by his
In 1943, he left to fight in World War II, where he served in the 1st
Infantry Division at the Battle of the Bulge. The battle proved nearly
fatal for Mr. Yankovic and his musical career when he emerged with
frost-bitten hands and feet.
"It was a dreadful experience," he said in a 1995 interview. "My limbs
were frozen. In Oxford, England, the doctors said they were going to have
to amputate my hands and legs. I told them, `No way. I'd rather die.' What
good would I be, an accordionist, with no fingers?
"But you know what happened? The gangrene started going away; it started
clearing up. Then the doctors told me there was an accordion in the
hospital that I could try practicing on, if I wanted to. So that became my
Frankie died in 1998 at the age of 83
Here is "Just Because," Frankie's first national hit. Elvis Presley recorded
this song during his Sun Records period. But Frankie first released it in
1948. (Actually it goes back to the late 1920s when a band called Nelstone's Hawaiians recorded it.)
Here's one called "Tick Tock Polka":
Frankie sings "Julida Polka":
And no, Frankie was not related to Weird Al -- though the parodist has often
joked that his parents bought him an accordion as a child because "there
should be at least one more accordion-playing Yankovic in the world." The two
famous Yankovics combined forces in 1986:
I'm not sure what this video is, but the song is a polka classic by Frankie
Katharine Lee Bates only spent one summer living in Colorado, but that year she wrote the words to one of the United States’ most famous patriotic songs, “America the Beautiful.” At the time she wrote the song, in 1893, she was living in Colorado Springs teaching English at Colorado College. The words, particularly the phrase “purple mountain majesty,” are said to have been inspired by Bates’ stay in Colorado.
Unless she was thinking of the majestic purple mountains of Massachusetts.
Actually, according to her page at the Songwriters Hall of Fame website, it was one purple mountain in particular that inspired bates to write to the song. It quotes an interview with Bates:
"It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind. When we left Colorado Springs the four stanzas were penciled in my notebook, together with other memoranda, in verse and prose, of the trip. The Wellesley work soon absorbed time and attention again, the notebook was laid aside, and I do not remember paying heed to these verses until the second summer following, when I copied them out and sent them to The Congregationalist, where they first appeared in print July 4, 1895. The hymn attracted an unexpected amount of attention. It was almost at once set to music by Silas G. Pratt. Other tunes were written for the words and so many requests came to me, with still increasing frequency, that in 1904 I rewrote it, trying to make the phraseology more simple and direct."
"America the Beautiful" in its early days was sung to the tunes of several existing melodies. But the one that stuck was a song by one Samuel A. Ward, a "hymn-tune 'Materna,' previously known as 'O Mother Dear Jerusalem,' which was written in 1888."
No, she wasn't Norman Bates' mom
Bates had graduated in 1880 from Wellesley College in her home state. That was a time in which very few colleges in this great nation were open to women. She later taught at Wellesley.
And though she's best known for this song, Bates also published several books, including books of poetry children's literature. She worked as a New York Times reporter covering the Spanish-American War. She crusaded for various social reforms on behalf of women, immigrants and poor people and worked for attempts to establish the League of Nations, which she told the New York Timeswas "our one hope of peace on earth."
Bates died in 1929.
I have personal experience with "America the Beautiful." One night back in the early 1980s I was onstage at The Forge performing my regular tacky tunes when I was joined onstage by one of my favorite songwriters Butch Hancock. And guess what song we sang. If I remember correctly we did the first verse, which everybody knows, as well as the verse that begins "O beautiful for pilgrim feet, Whose stern, impassioned stress ..."
It wasn't some random event. I'd met Butch a couple of times before through our mutual friend, artist Paul Milosevich. Both Butch and country star Tom T. Hall were in town for one of Paul's art openings that afternoon and both had come to hear me at The Forge.
I wish someone would have recorded that duet with Butch. (And I wish Tom T. would have joined us on the stage.)
So let's see how others have covered "America the Beautiful.
Most of us grew up with versions like this one:
However, I like a less pomp and a lot more soul. Ray Charles in the early '70s made it grand without being grandiose. (The Sunday morning gospel show on WWOZ in New Orleans usually ends
the show with Ray's recording of this.)
Here's a blusier, funkier version by Bobby Rush (with the Curb Collective and
And The Dictators put some rock 'n' roll into the song
Anyway, have a great Throwback Thursday and may God shed his grace on thee.
Today would have been the 111th birthday of William Hanna, who, with partner
Joseph Barbera, was part of an animation team that produced some of the most
memorable cartoon characters of my childhood. And he was born in what was then
New Mexico Territory in the town of Melrose.
Hanna died in 2001 at the age of 90 (while Barbera died in 2006 at the age of
95.) How did they live so long? Maybe a steady diet of pic-a-nic baskets, Boo
It's true, as was the case of a lot of cartoons of their era, that the
Hanna-Barbera cartoons suffered from poor quality, especially compared with
the Disney, Warner Brothers and Fleischer cartoons of preceding decades.
But as I said above, so many of the characters Hanna and Barbera created are
immortal. And many of their theme songs still are stuck in my skull.
Here are a few of those, starting with ol' Huck:
Here's one greater than the average theme song
Ya like westerns?
Here's a song my cat, Little Darrell Terrell loves the best, though he insists that he's the top cat around here:
And finally, this one probably is the best known Hanna-Barbera theme. I can't help myself but I'm using the B-52s' version, which was used in that horrible live-action Flintstones movie from the '90s. They were a band that never was afraid of being cartoonish:
Have a Yabba Dabba Doo birthday in the Great Beyond, Mr. Hanna!
Granville Henry McGhee, nicknamed "Stick" or sometimes "Sticks," was in the Army when he heard what Allmusic describes as "a ribald military chant" about the joys of getting drunk off the fruit of the vine. This tune allegedly had a refrain that went “Drinkin' wine motherfucker, drinkin' wine, goddamn!"
But Stick, who was the younger brother of bluesman Brownie McGhee, decided to make it more radio friendly and instead of singing "motherfucker," he substituted a nonsense phrase from an older song -- a wonderful example of creative bowdlerization.
McGhee first recorded "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" in 1947 for the Harlem label. But the song didn't become a hit until 1949 when McGhee signed with Atlantic Records and re-recorded it in 1949. In that second version, McGhee moved the wino action from St. Petersburg to New Orleans.
Here's the original 1947 " 'Petersburg" version credited to "Stick McGhee & His Buddy." (The '49 version was credited to Stick McGhee & His Buddies.")
The mysterious phrase "spo-dee-o-dee" came from a song by that name by Lovin' Sam Theard, a former circus worker from New Orleans who wrote or co-wrote songs including "(I'll Be Glad When You're Dead) You Rascal You" and the Louis Jordan hit "Let The Good Times Roll."
Not much here in the way of vino in this Theard song, but it's got a similar spirit of wild abandonment as McGhee's tune. (Later Theard would record and perform under the name "Spo-Dee-O-Dee.")
Following McGhee's hit in 1949, several big names recorded the song that same year. It was a natural for jump-blues shaman Wynonie Harris:
Also in 1949, Lionel Hampton brought some good vibes (I sincerely apologize for that) to "Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee":
Besides jazz and R&B artists, the rockabillies became big promotors of the Spo-Dee-O-Dee drink. Here's Johnny Burnette's take:
And here's a guy named Jerry Lee Lewis. I got my first belt of wine
spo-dee-o-dee back in the early '70s, with the version the Killer cut with a bevy of British rock stars. But he'd recorded the song before, on his 1966 album Memphis Beat.
One of my favorite latter-day versions is an acoustic version by British folk-rocker Richard Thompson:
Here's where things start getting weird.
Pere Ubu took Spo Dee O Dee to strange galaxies. (Actually, as Ubu fans
know, the group is notorious for slapping well-known song titles onto
bizarre and seemingly unrelated original songs.)
It's likely that many traditionalists consider Ubu's song to be blasphemous.
But come on, you wanna hear some blasphemy? Let me introduce you to a guy
named Pat Boone ...