Saturday, November 23, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Abraham, Mabley, and John

This is not who they mean by "Abraham, Martin, and John."
I don't remember much about the day JFK was assassinated.  I was in the second grade, and I don't even remember the name of my teacher. 

I was so traumatized by the assassination, I had to put on my
Pierrot costume.
I seem to recall that, once the word came through that the president had been shot, we were dismissed from school.  What a difference 50 years make.  If a similar thing happened today, kids would certainly not be sent home;  instead, schools would go into Lockdown Mode, and NOBODY would be allowed to leave.  But back in that simpler time, we all went home and watched Walter Cronkite and Huntley & Brinkley give us the details of the moment which changed the world.
The Kennedy clan became an American royal family of sorts.  When Ted Kennedy died a few years ago, I wrote a bit about all the siblings, go here for that rundown.
There were lots of tributes and reminiscences this week, regarding that day of infamy 50 years ago, but none from these two ladies below.  JFK's history, as we now know it, is peppered with his relations with the opposite sex;  we can barely think of Kennedy without Jackie O coming to mind, or Marilyn Monroe, or one of Jack's sisters, or even Jack's mother, that Iron Butterfly Rose Kennedy.  But, because I have such a minimal recollection of that day 50 years ago, two ladies have become linked to JFK, in my own mind.  You won't hear any reminiscences from them today, as they are both dead.
Helen Wagner has popped up several times in these pages.  She is in the Guinness Book of World Records as having played a single character on TV longer than anyone else.  That role was matriarch Nancy Hughes on As The World Turns.  She spent 50 years on the soap, including the episode airing November 22, 1963.
You may never have heard of Helen Wagner nor watched a single episode of her soap As The World Turns, but it's still likely you caught a glimpse of her performance.  On November 22, 1963, CBS was the only network broadcasting a national feed at 1:30 PM, EST. 

Walter Cronkite brought us the news. CBS began four days of
non-stop coverage, unprecedented at the time.

Both NBC and ABC had turned that hour over to their affiliates to program, so the clip everyone sees, of the announcement of the assassination of the president, comes from CBS.  In it, Walter Cronkite breaks into "regularly scheduled programming" to report the shocking news.  That news clip is preserved in museums and other archives the world over;  the program Cronkite is interrupting is As The World Turns, and the actress on the screen at the time is Helen Wagner.
As The World Turns was presented live in those days, so when CBS News interrupted the program, the actors were not told.  They continued with the show, and did not learn of the assassination until they had concluded the episode.
Back in 1968, in response to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, a somber song called "Abraham, Martin, and John" became a hit for a number of artists.  Dion took the song to #4, and the tune was immediately covered by Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Harry Belafonte. 
Believe it or not, this is one of FIVE albums recorded by
Leonard Nimoy. He's one of a number of artists to release
versions of this week's Dance Party.

Andy Williams, who was a close friend of Bobby Kennedy and was actually in that Los Angeles hotel when RFK was shot, recorded his own version and sang it several times on his TV series. 
Dion's version was the biggest hit.

In 1971, an unusual remix hit the charts, which included actual sound bites from our murdered heroes.

There is another unlikely version of the song out there, recorded by another woman whom I now associate with the JFK assassination. 
Jackie "Moms" Mabley was a groundbreaking standup comic back in the day.  She was a superstar on the "Chitlin' Circuit," which showcased black entertainers who were barred from appearing in segregated venues.  She had an horrific childhood:  by the time she was 15, she had been raped twice and had given up the resulting children for adoption.  She left her hometown in North Carolina and joined a traveling vaudeville troop.  At the height of her career, she was making $10,000 a week headlining the Apollo Theater in Harlem. In another highly controversial move, she revealed her lesbianism at the age of 27.  It was 1924.
I first saw Moms Mabley on The Merv Griffin Show, though she made regular appearances on all the variety/talk shows of the 60s.  She developed a stage persona which never varied;  wearing a loose fitting house dress and knit hat, and never wearing her false teeth, she cut a rather bizarre figure.
This is Mike Douglas and Phyllis Newman cracking up at Moms.  Her stage material was strictly x-rated, so her act had to be cleaned up considerably for television, but she still got away with more than most comics.  Her harmless appearance allowed her to delve into issues of race which were usually not allowed on TV.
This week's Dance Party comes from one of her appearances on Merv Griffin's talk show (and is annoyingly marred by superimposed titles, I hope you can ignore them). 
Comics of color all point to Mabley as a great influence.
Whoopi Goldberg has produced a documentary on Moms.

She recorded "Abraham, Martin, and John" shortly after the original hit the streets, and her version climbed to #35 on the Billboard charts (in this clip, Merv Griffin mistakenly reports that the song went all the way to #2; it did not).  Moms is now in the record books due to that recording:  at age 75, she was (and remains) the oldest vocalist to crack Billboard's Pop 40.

Mabley's rendition has a lot of heart and soul, so to commemorate the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, here she is: