DATE July 19, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Karl Fleming discusses his memoir "Son of the Rough
South: An Uncivil Memoir"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
My guest, journalist Karl Fleming, spent the early 1960s covering the most
intense battles of the civil rights movement in the South for Newsweek
magazine, often facing surveillance, threats and violence from hostile whites.
Some of his most harrowing moments came while investigating the murder of
three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a crime which
returned to the news recently when an 80-year-old former Klansman, Edgar Ray
Killen, was convicted of plotting the murders.
After his travels in the South, Fleming headed to the magazine's Los Angeles
bureau, only to find himself in the middle of the Watts riot, where he was
beaten nearly to death. Although segregationist whites always regarded
Fleming as a meddling outsider, he in fact was a native Southerner who was
born in rural poverty and raised in an orphanage.
Fleming tells his story in a new memoir called "Son of the Rough South." I
asked him to begin by reading a passage from the book.
Mr. KARL FLEMING (Author, "Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir"):
(Reading) In general, I felt safer in crowds than alone. I believed I could
bluff and brazen myself out of danger in a crowd. I could talk and look just
as tough as the bigots did. Except for the suit, clean-shaven cheeks and
evidence of a recent bath, I looked more or less like one of them: a crew
cut, 210 pounds, belligerent, profane, reckless, cigar-smoking, hard-drinking,
drawling redneck. I could talk the cracker talk and walk the plowboy walk. I
could sip martinis from long-stemmed crystal and eat caviar and souffles in
the Palm Court at the Plaza, and I could gulp Schlitz out of an icy bottle and
eat pickled pigs' feet in a backroads beer joint with a naked woman on a
calendar on the wall. I could talk about my opposition to capital punishment
and to hunting and invite someone into an alley behind a bar to settle an
argument with fists.
DAVIES: Well, Karl Fleming, welcome to FRESH AIR. Good to have you.
Mr. FLEMING: Glad to be here.
DAVIES: The Watts riot in Los Angeles in 1966 marked a real turning point in
your life, and you happened to be there covering this after you had spent many
years covering the civil rights struggles in the South, facing some pretty
dangerous situations there. Remind us what touched this disturbance off.
Mr. FLEMING: What touched off the first big Watts riot was the arrest of a
black man named Marquette Frye on a traffic violation. And his mother came
out, a big argument started. Suddenly rocks began flying and the whole thing
just exploded. And what was ignited was a deep-seated, simmering black anger
that had been there, and all it needed was a match to touch it off. And it
set off, of course, a riot that lasted for an entire week with 33 people
killed and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.
DAVIES: Well, you were talking about the first Watts riot. I mean, it was
the second one at which you got into trouble, right? And...
Mr. FLEMING: Indeed.
DAVIES: And what touched that disturbance off?
Mr. FLEMING: What touched off the riot that I was almost killed in was the
killing of a black man who was driving his wife to the hospital. She was
pregnant. He had tied a white handkerchief around the radio antenna of his
car, which in his native Georgia was the signal of an emergency. But the
police person who was chasing him obviously didn't know this, and the police
person finally got him over to the curb, and the next thing you knew, the cop
shot him dead while he sat beside his pregnant wife. And that was what set
off the demonstrations and the riot in which I was almost killed.
DAVIES: Now in the moments and days following this police shooting, there
were demonstrations and there were African-American leaders who were
protesting this and exhorting crowds to protest this act and protest police
brutality. You've noted that when you covered the civil rights movement in
the South, black leaders there tended to regard you as an ally or at least
welcomed the attention that a reporter would bring to their struggle. What
was the attitude that you encountered among black nationalist leaders in Watts
when you covered those events?
Mr. FLEMING: I had known down South Stokely Carmichael very well, had worked
with him on many occasions. And if not a friend, he was certainly someone I
knew who--or least I thought--respected what I did and my work. And we had a
friendly, open relationship. Suddenly he appeared at Will Rogers Park in
Watts following this shooting and got up to protest this shooting and said
everybody should march down to City Hall and demand that these cops be brought
to justice. And then he looked directly at me--I was standing at the back of
the crowd, the only white person there--and he said, `And we ought to start
charging these white reporters who come down here and exploit us and never
report anything but the bad news and never report anything positive.' And
these young black people turned and glared to me and I thought, `I gotta get
out of this place.'
He was quite black-nationalistic at that point and, in fact, had been one of
the leaders in driving all the white people out of the civil rights movement.
So he had his own kind of views about white people's place, which was no place
in the civil rights movement. And so he was tough enough and hard enough so
that he could, I suppose, look me squarely in the face at that place and say I
was part of the enemy; I was part of the problem and not part of the solution.
DAVIES: So events got out of hand when this protest eventually ended in, I
guess, someone throwing a brick through a store window--Right?--and then
things erupted. What happened then? What do you recall about what happened
Mr. FLEMING: I recall that the tension and anger of this crowd just kept
building and building and building and building. And there came a moment
which I clearly recognized, a kind of an electric feeling in the air, which I
had felt on other occasions covering the civil rights movement, almost that
kind of moment that comes just before a big thunderstorm explodes.
And suddenly, someone through a brick through a liquor store window, and I
immediately knew something bad was going to happen. I raced back to my car.
I put the camera in the trunk of my car, knowing it was a lightning rod. And
as I was walking back, suddenly it was lights out. And I woke up, or I came
slowly back to consciousness numb all over, looking up into these angry black
faces, seeing my blood running along the street, my reporter's notebook at my
hand, bloody, blood on my shirt. And I thought, `Don't let it be like this.'
I had fantasized my death before as being--taking place down South, probably
in the face of some Klan mob or dragged out of my motel room at night, which
was always a likelihood, and hoping that I would be able to face whatever
enemy it was, like Horatio at the bridge. And suddenly, here I was, lying
ignominiously on the pavement, hit and almost killed by black people who I had
always thought were my friends.
So it was quite an emotional shock, because these people had no idea who I was
and my background and my involvement in the civil rights movement, although I
didn't think I deserved any particular credit for that, but certainly, I did
not think of myself as being an enemy of black people by any means. But to
their minds, I was. I was just another symbol of white oppression and racism.
DAVIES: What injuries did you sustain in the attack?
Mr. FLEMING: I had two broken jaws, a fractured skull, spinal cord injury,
lots of cuts and bruises where people had tried to stomp me to death, and the
lingering aftereffect also included a severe upheaval of really, really
serious asthma. Whether or not this was brought on by the emotional
experience or just jarred something loose in my brain that triggered the
asthma, I have no idea. I was also left with a souvenir, being a permanent
limp, which I have to this day.
DAVIES: The attack got an awful lot of attention. I mean, people wanted to
interview you. What did you say about your attitude toward your attackers and
Mr. FLEMING: My picture was in newspapers all over the country, and it was
also on television. I had somewhat of a reputation in journalism because of
my background in civil rights. And I think people undoubtedly knew my
personal feelings, which is to say that I was clearly on the side of underdogs
in this long-simmering dispute, but that I had always been a fair and
objective reporter. Nevertheless, reporters came to the hospital to question
me almost in the spirit of, `Well, OK, Mr. Liberal Reporter, now what do you
think about these black people who beat you up?'
And what I said was that had I been a young black man growing up on the
streets of Watts, knowing what I did about how their lives had come to that
point, knowing the poverty, knowing the lack of education, knowing the split
up of the families, knowing the anger toward police suppression, humiliating
them at every possible turn, I probably would have had enough anger in me to
want to hit some white guy over the head as well. Although I would certainly
not have done that, I could at least understand the anger.
DAVIES: Do you feel any differently today?
Mr. FLEMING: I do not. I jokingly say to people that being attacked in that
manner made me an even more devoted advocate of Martin Luther King's position
of non-violence. But, in fact, I do understand the anger. And I also say in
this book that I understood, finally, some of the anger that caused the white
racism. The white racism wasn't just about race.
I had an incident. I was up at Oxford, Ohio, with these kids who were
training to go down to Mississippi for Freedom--Mississippi Freedom Summer.
And James Forman, the chairman of SNCC at that time, asked me if I would
role-play a white cop. And he put one of these white Jewish kids in front of
me, and I started berating him and calling him boy and doing all the stuff
that I had heard white people do to black people down South. And all of a
sudden, I felt this anger start to rise in me. I was really steamed up and
angry and really deep into this, and I was absolutely shocked: `Where did
this come from?'
And then I remembered that I had been bullied growing up in this orphanage in
North Carolina, and I had this huge anger about being bullied, and so I was
carrying a lot of anger. And out of that came an understanding of where some
of the white racism came from. It came from poverty, lack of education, a
feeling of impotence, of not being able to get a proper job, of being put down,
of being irrelevant in society, so that the racism, so-called, wasn't always
just about racism, and I came to understand that, though certainly not to
approve it, nor did I ever condone it. At least I came to some understanding
DAVIES: I want to talk some more about your background and your childhood,
but a couple of--one other thing before we leave the Watts experience. You
mentioned that you had an encounter at the beginning of the day at which you
were beaten with Stokely Carmichael, the black nationalist leader. I wonder,
did you ever talk to Stokely Carmichael after that about the events of that
Mr. FLEMING: Well, in fact, some years later, I met Stokely at a
fund-raising. He had, by then, moved to Africa and was back in this country,
doing some kind of fund-raising thing. And I--you know, we embraced,
actually. And I have a picture on my wall of us with our arms around each
other. And I said to him, I said, `Stokely, you SOB, you damn near got me
killed.' And he just kind of laughed and said, `Well, those were bad days,
weren't they?' And I said, `Well, yes they were, and these are better days,
aren't they?' And he said, `Yes, they are.'
DAVIES: My guest is Karl Fleming. His new book is "Son of the Rough South:
An Uncivil Memoir." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: My guest is Karl Fleming. He covered the civil rights movement in
the South for Newsweek magazine and was later injured in the Watts riot in Los
Angeles. He has a new book called "Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil
Karl Fleming, you've written that your sympathetic coverage of the civil
rights movement in the South was rooted in part in your sympathy for the
underdog, which grew out of the poverty you knew as a child growing up in the
South. You father died soon after you were born. What kind of living did
your mother make? Give us a sense of some of the conditions that you and your
sister lived in in your early years.
Mr. FLEMING: I was born just at the tail end of the Great Depression. And
after my father died when I was five months old, my mother tried to sell
dishes and Bibles door to door and do other things to make a living. And she
just couldn't make it. And finally, out of desperation, she married my
father's best friend, a man she clearly did not love. He was much older, too,
like my father had been. And then I had a half-sister born, but then my
stepfather soon died.
And my mother's health was failing. We were living in a shotgun shack down in
the swamps of eastern Carolina, a shack owned by my stepfather's family. But
she just got worse and worse and worse and worse and finally had no option
except to take the advice of some of her friends in the little Methodist
church in that small town, and made arrangements for me to go off to the
Methodist orphanage in Raleigh, North Carolina.
DAVIES: Before you went to the orphanage, I mean, you describe a
poverty-stricken and isolated life. I mean, you really didn't have friends.
Give us a--What did you eat? What did you wear? How did you spend your day?
Mr. FLEMING: We lived completely isolated on an unpaved dirt road with not
even any mail delivery at that time, and the only books I ever remember seeing
were my mother's Bible and the annual Sears, Roebuck catalog. We lived--we
had a--tended a vegetable garden. We had some chickens, which were donated by
my stepfather's brother. And I walked up a country road every night to one of
my stepfather's brothers and got a pail of milk and walked it back home at
night. And we ate what all poor people of that day ate. We ate more or less
what we raised. The only thing that people bought were flour and sugar. And
we got those donated by the local church. I wore overalls, and I don't
remember--I went barefoot, except in winter, when I had one pair of shoes. I
just don't remember there being any money at all. We never had a Christmas
tree. We never had a Christmas celebration. We never had birthdays. But not
that we were any worse off than other poor people who lived around there. It
was just a desperately poor time.
DAVIES: You went to the orphanage and describe being despondently sad about
it for a time, but eventually came to regard it as your--you know, your
community, your family. And it seems you grew up in a world where the rules
were set by kids and your institutional caretakers. And eventually, you came,
you said, to think of your mother less and less. And I'm wondering, looking
back, what the psychological impact you think was of sort of living in that
world without a parent.
Mr. FLEMING: My having been a kind of mama's boy added to the fact that going
to this orphanage was truly a traumatic event, and I lapsed immediately into
despair. I wouldn't eat. I wouldn't tie my shoes. My first nickname was
Slouchy. I began to lose weight. And I was bullied. There was a kid there
named Fatty Clark(ph), and my second nickname was Pretty Boy, so Fatty Clark
beat me up every day. And there was really no one to turn to. Part of the
code of conduct was that you didn't squeal on anybody. You learned to
survive. And if you didn't learn to survive, then you didn't make it.
So I gradually learned to survive and to fit in, and I ceased being called
Slouchy and being called Pretty Boy, and my name became Karl Payne. That's my
middle name, Karl Payne, and I was called that thereafter. And gradually, I
got used to being there and joined in the games and the fun. And I had
terribly ambivalent feelings about my mother, which I didn't understand at the
time. But psychologically, I had been given away by her, so that whenever I
saw her, rare moments when I saw her, I felt intensely uncomfortable. And I
came finally to a time, whenever she came to visit me, I just wanted to run
away. I didn't want to be around her.
She also--God love her, she had many fine qualities. For one thing, she was
not a racist. But on the other hand, she was extremely narcissistic and
self-involved. And she always painted this orphanage experience as the great
tragedy of her life, how horrible it was that she had had to give up her two
children, never any recognition at all of how it must have felt for us.
So I had very, very mixed feelings about my mother, which grew into a great
amount of guilt, by the way, because she painted herself as being such a pure,
loving, good, honest person, and I didn't love her, and I knew I was supposed
to love--a child's supposed to love his mother, so I felt guilty about that.
DAVIES: My guest is journalist Karl Fleming. He'll be back in the second
half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Coming up, more with civil rights reporter Karl Fleming. Also,
Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel from the Pulitzer Prize winner Michael
Cunningham. And there's a new four-CD retrospective of the '60s band The Beau
Brummels. Dan Tucker has a review.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross.
My guest, journalist Karl Fleming, covered the battles of the civil rights
movement in the early '60s and was later severely beaten in the Watts riot in
Los Angeles. His memoir about growing up in a Southern orphanage and covering
social change is called "Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir."
You joined the Navy at the end of World War II and eventually made your way
into the lower rungs of the journalism profession, working at The Daily Times
of Wilson, North Carolina, where your mother lived, and eventually kind of
found your way into covering the civil rights movement. And I'm curious. As
a white guy who had grown up in a segregated world in the South, I mean, it's
interesting for me to look at what attitudes you brought to this. I mean, so
many people in the South in the early '60s would have regarded sharing
drinking fountains and rest rooms with black people as just completely,
preposterously unthinkable. What attitudes towards black people did you bring
to your early years?
Mr. FLEMING: By all rights, given where I came from, how I grew up, who I
grew up with, I probably should have grown up burning crosses on people's
lawns or worse. But because of my own experiences in this orphanage of being
bullied, and because of, I think, the few good things my mother did give me, I
had a sense of fair play, a strongly developed sense of not liking bullies, of
abhorring the misuse of power, of the strong taking advantage of the weak, so
that after growing up in the isolated atmosphere of this all-white orphanage,
when I began to see racism in its expressed form, I immediately was deeply
offended and immediately took the side of the underdogs. And I felt like, you
know, this is not fair, this is not right.
DAVIES: You became involved in covering a lot of the major civil rights
battles throughout the South, and it's interesting that this is not so long
ago in historical terms, but it's easy, I think, for people who see modern-day
demonstrations in American cities to take for granted an atmosphere in which
the worst that they're going to risk is arrest or being tear-gassed or maybe
hit with a billy club in the extreme circumstance. But the kinds of struggles
that you witnessed were--had a level of violence which is shocking to reread,
I have to say.
And you were there when James Meredith was finally admitted, with the
protection of federal marshals, to the University of Mississippi. I'd like
you to describe the scene you witnessed. They brought him in on a Sunday
night to avoid a mob, unsuccessfully. Describe the scene that you observed
Mr. FLEMING: Meredith was brought onto the campus on Sunday afternoon with
the view that the campus would not be occupied, but the governor, Ross
Barnett, had put out a call for all Christian white Southerners to come and
help defend Mississippi against the cruel barbarism of the federal government
and the hated Kennedys. So the word got out that he was coming, and this huge
white mob formed at the edge of the campus and began throwing rocks and
bottles and Molotov cocktails at the US marshals who were there to protect
Meredith. And this huge riot ensued that went on all night long. Cars
overturned and set on fire, gunfire. I had, myself, four bullets stitched up
alongside my head as I stood in front of the administration building there,
where the deputy US marshals were holed up. And it was a horrifying thing to
And one of the worst things that I saw that night was, I stood and watched and
counted as 68 Mississippi State Highway Patrol cars slowly drove off the
campus and left the scene to the rabble. In other words, they abdicated their
responsibilities as, indeed, the entire white leadership of that state, and
just left it to the mob.
DAVIES: And so we weren't talking just about fists or sticks here. There was
gunfire. I mean, what were the casualties that night?
Mr. FLEMING: Two people were killed, including one reporter shot in the
back. Thirty-eight deputy US marshals were wounded. Another reporter for The
Washington Post was shot in the leg. It was a horrifying thing to behold. It
was so chilling. They just screamed, `Give us the nigger! Hooray for old
Ross! Down with the Kennedys! Kill the nigger!' And these cries went on.
It was just absolute madness and bedlam all night long. And I just stood
there watching in total shame and revulsion and anger. And many people have
asked me, was I afraid? And I rarely was afraid. And I think the reason I
was not afraid was that I was so angry and shamed. The anger and the shame
overrode whatever feelings of fear that I might have felt.
DAVIES: And, of course, the outcome was that despite that, the brutality of
that night, Meredith remained and attended classes at Ole Miss.
Mr. FLEMING: Meredith went on to graduate from that school. I went to visit
him many times. We would walk across the campus, and white kids would run up
behind him and throw cherry bombs on the sidewalk. They would go off like
gunfire. He never flinched. He was absolutely one of the bravest people I
ever saw in my life.
DAVIES: My guest is Karl Fleming. His new memoir is called "Son of the Rough
South." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're speaking with author Karl Fleming. His new book is "Son of the
Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir."
You spent several years in the '60s traveling through rural areas of the
South, covering civil rights battles in a lot of small towns, staying at
small-town hotels. What were some of the steps that you had to take for your
Mr. FLEMING: I was followed. I had my phone tapped. I was threatened. I
was beat up. I was shot at. I had my stories sabotaged at Western Union. So
I traveled as much as I could with my friend, Claude Sitton, of The New York
Times. We were not competing, so we traveled together, not only because we
liked each other but also for security, because it would not do to be caught
out alone on a road in the South by yourself at night. We stayed in adjoining
motel rooms. We made sure that we stayed at the very front of the motel in a
well-lit place, because we feared if we were at the back, we might be dragged
out of our rooms with God knows what result. We used pay telephones. We
never were out on back country roads at night if we could possibly avoid it,
and certainly we never drove those roads alone.
We finally devised a notebook which was a cut-down secretarial-size notebook
that we used to carry, big secretarial notebooks, but we thought that these
were one of the things that helped people identify us as reporters, so we had
one cut down that would fit into your back pocket or your jacket pocket in the
hope, which turned out to be false, that we would not be identified as
reporters. We were often mistaken for FBI agents, because, you know, we wore
the Brooks Brothers suits and the button-down shirts and the rep ties and the
Cordeman(ph) shoes, which was how the FBI agents--and I was often accused of
being an FBI agent. And I must say, I never denied it. I just said, `I don't
want to talk about that.'
DAVIES: It wouldn't hurt if people thought you were a federal law enforcement
Mr. FLEMING: Would not hurt.
DAVIES: You describe one moment, one night when you were staying at a motel
with your friend, Claude Sitton of The New York Times, and you heard a loud
pounding at your door and looked out the window and saw a black woman in a
dress, begging you to please open the door. How did you react?
Mr. FLEMING: Well, I came awake to this terrible pounding on the door, and I
lay there just terrified, because I thought, `This is it. This is the night
they come for us.' All of a sudden, my friend Claude Sitton came running
through the door, hair flying, in his boxer shorts and said, `Don't open the
door.' And I said, `I'm not about to open the goddamn door. You think I'm
So I climbed up and looked out the window, and there was this black woman
pounding on the door, yelling, `Let me in!' Well, my immediate thought and
Claude's immediate thought was that this was as setup, that I would let the
black woman in, and then we would be arrested and charged with rape and put in
jail and maybe even dragged off and killed. So, of course, I didn't open the
door, and finally she wandered off, and who she was or what she was up to, we
DAVIES: A recent case that's gotten so much attention in the news media is
the trial of an 80-year-old former Ku Klux Klan member, Edgar Ray Killen, who,
I guess, bears the nickname Preacher, for the deaths of three young civil
rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Now that was, I guess, from the
Freedom Summer, the activities that you covered. And you, back at the time
when these three civil rights workers actually disappeared, were one of the
first couple of reporters to go into Neshoba County, where this happened, and
investigate. Tell us what experiences you had with local law enforcement and
citizens as you went to investigate the disappearance of these three
Mr. FLEMING: My friend, Claude Sitton, and I were the first two reporters to
show up at the sheriff's office after these three kids went missing. And, of
course, we strongly suspected that they had been killed. They had constructed
a system. They were supposed to call in every hour if they were away from the
main office in Meridian, Mississippi, and they didn't call in, and we were
immediately alerted and drove over to the sheriff's office and questioned
Sheriff Rainey and Deputy Price, and they had the guilt written all over them.
They took us over to the jail and showed us the books that, indeed, they had
had these kids under arrest, but they showed us the book that they had been
released, and they claimed they had taken them out to the edge of town and
turned them loose.
We went back the next morning, and after we finished talking to the sheriff
and his deputy, we came out into the small lobby of the courthouse and were
confronted by this huge mob of white guys whose leader immediately began
assaulting us verbally. And he said, `If it weren't for you goddamn
Jew-loving, nigger-loving communist reporters coming down here, stirring up
this trouble, we wouldn't be having all this difficulty, and blah, blah,
blah,' and on and on he went. And the end of this was, `And if you don't get
out of this town right now, you're going to be killed.'
DAVIES: I was also struck by an encounter you had with four white gentlemen
who appeared outside your motel room door. Tell us about that incident.
Mr. FLEMING: Well, after the confrontation with the white mob, we went back
to our motel. I looked out the window and saw this automobile sitting in
front of our motel door with both doors flung open, and there were these four
white guys sitting there. Two shotguns were visible. They had a quart of
moonshine whiskey. So I went out, and they invited me to have a drink with
them, which I did. And I told them I was just a good old Southern boy down
there doing my job, not trying to cause any trouble, just reporting the facts.
And they said, `Well, you know, we got some good farms around here. Maybe you
and your buddy would like to take a ride out with us through the country.'
And I went back and told Claude, `We got to get out of this place.'
So we got in our automobile. It was raining. It was getting dark. And we
took off for the 35 miles for Meridian with these guys pursuing us, and they
pursued us all the way to the county line, and we were more than glad to get
the hell away from them, I assure you.
DAVIES: You've lived in California for decades, but you were a son of the
South and returned to North Carolina and even to Philadelphia, Mississippi.
And I'm wondering, when you see what--the social changes that have come there,
what insights or lessons do you draw about the strengths or limits of American
Mr. FLEMING: I remain an optimist about our democracy. I saw a time when I
saw things so horrible that it would make me go back to my motel room and
literally throw up. I went back to the South recently. The change is
absolutely extraordinary. I saw terrible things, but I also saw something
quite inspiring. About 100 kids, mostly black, a few Jewish and Martin Luther
King literally changed this country. And what they did in the civil rights
movement gave birth to the anti-war movement, the women's movement and the gay
rights movement so that today, more people have more rights in this country
than ever before. So we have a lot to be grateful for, though much remains to
DAVIES: Karl Fleming lives in Los Angeles with his wife, journalist and
novelist Anne Taylor Fleming. His memoir is "Son of the Rough South: An
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Four-CD retrospective of The Breau Brummels called "Magic
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The Beau Brummels were an American '60s British invasion era pop group that
hailed from California. They had only a few major hits, but rock critic Ken
Tucker says a new four-disc retrospective of the band, called "Magic Hollow,"
gives the band its due and then some. Here's The Beau Brummels' biggest hit
from 1964. It's "Laugh, Laugh."
(Soundbite of "Laugh, Laugh")
THE BEAU BRUMMELS: (Singing) I hate to say it, but I told my so. Don't mind
my preaching to you. I said, `Don't trust him, baby.' Now you know you don't
know everything there is to know in school. Wouldn't believe me when I...
KEN TUCKER reporting:
That's The Beau Brummels only top-10 hit, "Laugh, Laugh," sung by a
20-year-old Sal Valentino in his distinctive quavering tenor, and produced by
Sly Stewart, who would later lead Sly & The Family Stone. The real brains
behind The Beau Brummels, however, was songwriter-guitarist Ron Elliot, who
wrote all of the band's best songs and, despite the fact The Beau Brummels
quickly became something less than a cult band, had admirers ranging from the
Everly Brothers, to Otis Redding, to Randy Newman.
Elliot was a real music nerd. A child prodigy on guitar, diagnosed as a
diabetic, he claimed that melodies, quote, "poured out of him." His medical
condition occasionally kept him off the road and from fully enjoying his
band's brief girl-screeching popularity in the late '60s with their follow-up
semi-hits like "Just a Little," "You Tell Me Why" and "Don't Talk To
Elliot frequently claimed not to even like much rock 'n' roll. He was fond of
the musical theater and toyed with the idea of writing a suite of magicals
about his favorite books--You guessed it--"The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
Despite such flightiness, Elliot sure knew how to bend a pop hook into
something irresistible, and in his pal, Sal Valentino, he had an ideal voice
to deliver The Beau Brummels' sinuous melancholy.
(Soundbite of "Tell Me Why")
THE BEAU BRUMMELS: (Singing) You tell me that I should not cry. You tell me
all good things must die. You ask me why I get upset. You tell me that I
will forget. Tell me why.
TUCKER: It's really striking what a fully formed talent Elliot and Valentino
had right from the start. It's almost shocking to hear this song, a piece of
beautiful bitterness called "People Are Cruel," and discover that it's a
never-released tune cut during one of the band's earliest ventures into a
(Soundbite of "People Are Cruel")
THE BEAU BRUMMELS: (Singing) People don't know. They say, `We are kind,'
kind, yet they hurt so. Face to face they're the best of friends. Turn your
back and the friendship ends. Let them say what they please. Understand that
all these people are cruel.
TUCKER: This four-disc, 113-song retrospective is one of those labors of love
that includes unreleased tracks as well as the meticulous liner notes from
which I've cribbed the biographical details I'm recounting here. The
project's producers buy into the idea that as Elliot's ambitions matured,
their lack of commercial success amounts to a tragedy. But to my ears, that
gets the importance of the band's music backward. Their 1967 album
"Triangle," freighted with the repeated symbolism that turned on the band's
becoming a trio, and Elliot's seeing great importance in the number three,
came perilously close to stuffy art rock.
In 1968, they released what many of their fans consider their greatest work,
"Bradley's Barn." The idea was to ship The Brummels down to Nashville, hook
them up with many of the same crack session players that appeared on Bob
Dylan's "Nashville Skyline," and presto, Ron Elliot's songs would take on a
country rock grandeur.
(Soundbite of music)
TUCKER: Instead, the album was, I'm afraid, deeply, draggingly
self-conscious. More `Beau Bummer' than Brummel.
(Soundbite of song)
THE BEAU BRUMMELS: (Singing) Coyote hunts his frightened meals. The moon
splits on the broken wheel. She don't know about the way she feels, Cherokee
girl. Coyote hunts on winter ground. He tries to track her shadow down. She
pulls ...(unintelligible) around, Cherokee girl.
TUCKER: I remain a big Beau Brummels fan, and I urge you to listen to "Magic
Hollow" for the idiosyncratic take on harmony and British invasion pop that
these bright West Coast lads were able to produce early in their career. It's
The Beau Brummels who appeared on teen TV dance shows, like "Hollywood A Go
Go" and "Where The Action Is," who became animated characters in an episode of
"The Flintstones" that I think are everlastingly swell. They were never
naive, silly boys, though Ron Elliot was able to write and Sal Valentino was
able to sing music that captured the kind of heartache that naive, silly boys
and girls everywhere of all ages could latch onto and take solace in.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker is film critic for New York Magazine and Fresh Air rock
critic. He reviewed "Magic Hollow," a new retrospective set from The Beau
Coming up, the new novel from Pulitzer Prize winner, Michael Cunningham. This
is FRESH AIR.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.