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SHOW: Fresh Air
DATE: November 22, 2005
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In order to investigate his stories, journalist Jerry Mitchell has had to rely
on some very unsavory sources: white supremacists. Talking with them has led
him to documents and information that has helped bring to justice four Ku Klux
Klan member, including Byron De La Beckwith, who was convicted for the 1963
assassination of Medgar Evers, and Edgar Ray Killen, who was found guilty last
June of arranging the murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James
Chaney and Michael Schwerner. Mitchell tracked down Billy Roy Pitts, who had
been involved in the 1966 death of civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer but had
never served a day for his crime. And Mitchell found the hole in the alibi of
Bobby Frank Cherry, who was the suspect in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham
church that killed four girls.
Mitchell writes for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, and he has
reported on his own paper's earlier complicity with the Klan. In recognition
of his work, next Tuesday Mitchell will receive the John Chancellor Award for
Excellence in Journalism administered by the Columbia School of Journalism.
Mitchell got access to thousands of documents from a secretive group called the
Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. I asked him how he did it.
Mr. JERRY MITCHELL (The clarion-Ledger): Basically, somebody leaked them to me.
That's the simple answer. But, you know, the Sovereignty Commission was
basically a state segregationist spy agency. It had one arm that was basically
kind of a propaganda arm, in which they would send white and even black
speakers, who happened to be paid, by the way, up North to say, `Oh, we love
segregation. We love the Southern way of life.' Anyway, it was kind of a
defense for Jim Crow. And then they had another arm, a much more nefarious spy
arm, where they would infiltrate civil rights groups and report back and harass
people, get people fired from their jobs.
There were all sorts of terrible things that the commission did, and it was
kind of formed in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1956 and existed
until the early '70s. And then files were sealed by the Mississippi
Legislature in 1977 for 50 years. But then a lawsuit was filed challenging
that, and that's what was ongoing in 1989 when I began to get those first
files. And, you know, I'm kind of like a kid. If someone tells me I can't
have something, I'm--you know, want it like a thousand times worse. So I began
to develop sources who began to leak the documents to me.
GROSS: So this commission--was it actually officially attached to the state?
Mr. MITCHELL: Not only was it a state agency, it was run by the governor
GROSS: So the governor--was this Governor Ross Barnett?
Mr. MITCHELL: Well, in '56, it would have been Governor J.P. Coleman and then
after him, of course, Governor Ross Barnett and then Governor Paul Jones in
GROSS: So these governors actually ran this secret commission that...
Mr. MITCHELL: Right.
GROSS: ...spied on civil rights groups.
Mr. MITCHELL: Right. Correct.
GROSS: So how did you end up being that person to whom the documents from the
secret commission were leaked?
Mr. MITCHELL: People like me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Mr. Popularity.
Mr. MITCHELL: No, I'm kidding. I don't know. I think I'm kind of the--always
term myself kind of the opposite of Mike Wallace, you know. I'm just--I guess
people--I don't know. Klansmen talk to me, all sorts of things. It's kind of
bizarre. I'm just not a person who comes very aggressively at people. I just
kind of let them have their say, including these Klansmen, and so--but a lot of
them have talked to me. And as a--like I mentioned with sources, I've just
been very fortunate to have sources that have leaked these documents to me over
GROSS: I mean, do you ever mislead your sources into thinking that you're
Mr. MITCHELL: No.
GROSS: ...and that you're behind...
Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, no.
GROSS: ...their thinking?
Mr. MITCHELL: No, not at all, although, interestingly, you know, as a reporter,
you do a certain amount that is chameleonlike, in a sense; that you don't
necessarily state your own opinion, and so, therefore, people you talk to may
presume you think the same way, these Klansmen, because you're white, because
you're Southern, you know, because you had this upbringing. And--but I never
misled them. I never told them I believed what they were saying or anything
along those lines.
GROSS: So what were some of the more amazing things that you learned, some of
the more amazing facts that were in the files of the Mississippi Sovereignty
Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, well, for example--and this was a story that ran September
1989. I found out that Mickey Schwerner, who was one of the three civil rights
workers who was killed in 1964--both he and his wife Rita were spied on by the
state three months before he and the other two civil rights workers were
killed. And I found that extremely fascinating, particularly given that the
state was cooperating at that point with the Meridian Police Department in
Meridian, Mississippi. And, basically, that police department was infiltrated
by the Ku Klux Klan. And, in fact, the guy that was the main shooter of the
three civil rights workers, his brother was on the Meridian Police Department.
So it's really not too much of a stretch to believe that the kind of spying and
things that the Sovereignty Commission was doing may have well made it into the
hands of the Klan.
GROSS: Did this information have anything to do with reopening the case?
Mr. MITCHELL: Actually, that story didn't. There was some brief look at that
case in early 1989, after the movie came out, but then the state didn't bother.
And what did lead to the most recent reopening of the case was in 1998 I did a
story. There was a--the guy that was the head of the Klan in Mississippi was a
guy by the name of Sam Bowers; he was the imperial wizard. And, of course the
Klan in Mississippi was the White Knights, and they were the most violent Klan
organization in the United States, responsible for at least 10 murders that we
know of. And, of course, Bowers ordered those as imperial wizard, including
the three civil rights workers.
Well, he did this kind of legacy interview with state archives officials, and
it was supposed to be sealed--it still is--sealed until he dies. But I managed
to get one of my sources yet again to share that with me. And in that
interview, Bowers said that he was happy to be convicted in the 1967 federal
conspiracy trial that they did have for 18 men in the three civil rights
workers' case on federal conspiracy charges. He was happy to be convicted and
have the main instigator of the entire affair walk out of the courtroom a free
man. And that man--the man he's referring to was Edgar Ray Killen, who was
basically a recruiter, organizer for the Klan.
GROSS: So after you published that, people realized they should find Edgar Ray
Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah. Well--and the families called for the case to be reopened,
and so the state did reopen the case.
GROSS: And he was convicted.
Mr. MITCHELL: Yes, he was.
GROSS: Not very long ago.
Mr. MITCHELL: In June.
GROSS: Let me ask you about another case that you were involved with. Billy
Roy Pitts had been convicted in the murder of civil rights leader Vernon
Dahmer. He was convicted, but apparently he never did any time. You looked
Mr. MITCHELL: Right.
GROSS: What did you find?
Mr. MITCHELL: I found that he never served a day of his life sentence. And so
GROSS: He had a life sentence, and did people assume he was serving time?
Mr. MITCHELL: Well, it was kind of confusing, because the way it had been
explained to me was that he had gone into a Federal Witness Protection
Program--is what I've been told. And so when I began to look--I was just
trying to do a story about the time that these people did, how much time in
prison these serious guys did. I was told, as I was talking to someone at the
Federal Bureau of Prisons--I had said something about, `Well, yeah, I've heard
that he went to the Federal Witness Protection Program and--when he got out of
prison,' and they said, `Whoa, it didn't exist then.' I was like, `Oh?'
So I had already heard from the state that, you know, he had--they had--didn't
have any record of him doing the time, so I just thought it was maybe some deal
worked out with the witness Protection Program. And once I found out there
wasn't a Witness Protection Program in existence at that time, then I knew the
answer. He hadn't done a day of his life sentence. So I--this sounds like one
of those advertisements for an Internet company, but I went onto
Switchboard.com and typed in--you know, because I didn't know where he was--and
typed in his name, and up it popped. And, you know, there was his name,
address, phone number. And so I called him, and the first 20 minutes of the
conversation were like, `How'd you find me? How'd you find me?' I was like,
`It's on the Internet.'
So he basically--they issued a warrant for his arrest, so he went on the lam
for about three weeks. And I got this cassette tape from him in the mail, and
then I played the tape, and it said, `Jerry, I just thought I'd let you know
you've ruined my life, but I promise if I talk to anybody, I'll talk to you, so
here is this tape.' So he proceeds to talk about his involvement in killing
Vernon Dahmer, his involvements in other Klan violence, and basically he turned
himself in a few days later.
GROSS: Now why would he want to do that, do you think? You know, why would he
want to send you this cassette confession?
Mr. MITCHELL: I don't know. I don't know. It's amazing to me. I think what
it is with him and many of these others that I have talked to is everyone wants
to tell their story, and I'm sure you've found that, too. Everyone loves to
tell their story, and I found it to be true of Klansmen, too.
GROSS: Well, let's face it, a lot people I interview, they only tell their
story because they've just written a new book or something.
Mr. MITCHELL: Well, there you go.
GROSS: They haven't usually just committed a crime or committed a crime...
Mr. MITCHELL: Well, that's true.
GROSS: ...30 years ago that they're still trying to cover up. So, I mean, do
you often wonder about the motivation of people...
Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, sure.
GROSS: ...who talk to you and leak you documents, who...
Mr. MITCHELL: It's amazing.
GROSS: ...were and still are racist?
Mr. MITCHELL: It's amazing. And like Bobby Cherry in the Birmingham church
bombing case, one of the last living suspects in a--his wife e-mailed me. He
wanted me to come interview him down in Texas, so I said, `OK.' And I'm
thinking to myself, you know, I'm the last person that I would be calling if I
were one of these old cluckers that was suspected in a crime. And so I went
down, you know, took him and his wife out for barbecue because, well, I guess
that's what you take Klansmen out for. I'm not really sure, but anyway--so I
spent about six hours talking to him, and he insisted on his innocence. He was
like, `Why, I didn't have anything to do with that church bombing. I left that
sign shop'--this sign shop's like two and a half blocks from where the church
blew up. `I left that sign shop at a quarter to 10 because I had to get home
and watch wrestling,' and--which even to us as Southerners is pretty funny.
But anyway--so I got back to the newspaper and had our librarian, Susan Gray,
contact Birmingham News. I said, you know, `Just check to see what's on TV
that night.' Didn't think anything about it. The next morning I had an
electronic message from Susan all in capital letters, `There was no wrestling.'
In fact, there hadn't been wrestling on for years. So it's really kind of
GROSS: My guest is journalist Jerry Mitchell. He writes for The Clarion-Ledger
in Jackson, Mississippi. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is journalist Jerry Mitchell. His reporting has led to the
reopening of several murder cases of civil rights activists. Next Tuesday
he'll receive the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism.
So you have a policy, I think, of interviewing people who are members of white
Mr. MITCHELL: Sure.
GROSS: ...and who have been involved in crimes--of interviewing them in public
places, so they can't...
Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I...
Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, I've been careful. No, I actually went to Cherry's house.
GROSS: You did?
Mr. MITCHELL: I think one time I interviewed Beckwith in his house. I guess my
rule is I tend not to--Edgar Ray Killen wanted me to come visit him in his
house at night, so I kind of drew the line there. And so we met over catfish
at a public--you know, a restaurant, obviously, in Walnut Grove, Mississippi,
at one of those all-you-can-eat, 8.95 catfish places, which I love, too, and,
you know, it was good catfish. I'll say that. And--but, you know, he
talked--one of the stories he--of course, he insisted he didn't have anything
to do with it, but then he went on to say--I asked him, `Well, what should
happen to the people who did kill these three boys?' And he says, `Well, I'm
not going to say they were wrong.' And then he shared a story, I mean--and
again, it just kind of shocks you that people will share this kind of stuff,
particularly like we're talking about in public, but he told this story about
In 1968, the morning after Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, the
FBI literally went all over the country, you know, trying to talk to people.
They didn't know who was responsible at that point. So a couple of agents
showed up at the doorstep of Edgar Ray Killen in Union, Mississippi, and wanted
to know his whereabouts. He refused to talk to them, would not talk to them,
but they left a card. Time goes on. He picks up the card. He calls the agent
and wants to know who killed King. The agent's like, `Why do you want to
know?' And Killen was like, `Man, I want to shake his hand.'
So just let you know a lot of these guys, old Klan guys, really haven't changed
at all. They hold to the same mentality, justification for violence and things
along those lines. So these are not--I think sometimes when you see the video,
you think, `Oh, that poor old grandpa. You know, what are they trying him for?
You know, poor old guy, why don't they just leave him alone?' But these
people--not only are they not sorry for their crimes, but they're happy to have
done it. I mean, they feel totally justified in what they did.
GROSS: Have you had death threats placed against you?
Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah. Yeah. It kind of--I hate to say it kind of goes with the
territory, but it does, I think, when you're doing this kind of work. I spent
about six hours interviewing Byron De La Beckwith, and he lived in Signal
Mountain, Tennessee, which is right outside of Chattanooga. I always tell
people, you know, Signal Mountain's a beautiful place when the sun's going down
but not if you happen to be with Byron De La Beckwith. So he insisted on
walking me out to the car, and I'm like, `That's OK, really. I think I can
find my car. I'm not sure I need your help.' He walked me out anyway.
So we got out to the car, and he's like, `If you write positive things about
white Caucasian Christians, God will bless you. If you write negative things
about white Caucasian Christians, God will punish you. If God does not punish
you directly, several individuals will do it for him.'
GROSS: Oh, gosh. Oh, it...
Mr. MITCHELL: And so his....
GROSS: So how seriously do you take that? Go ahead, yeah.
Mr. MITCHELL: Well, his wife had made me a sandwich.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MITCHELL: You can probably guess what I did with the sandwich.
GROSS: Do you call the police after that?
Mr. MITCHELL: I didn't call them on that one. I did call the FBI after this
white supremacist guy called and--when I was working on Bowers and told me he
had pictures of me and my family and knew where I lived and, you know, all that
kind of stuff and basically threatening harm against us. So I did call the FBI
on that case. Come to find out the guy lived in like South Carolina, so I
thought, `Well, at least he has to drive a ways,' you know. So...
GROSS: (Laughs) Take some comfort in that.
Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, exactly.
GROSS: Well, after doing all this incredible investigative reporting that
you've done that reopens civil rights murders, do you have--and after
interviewing some of the people behind those murders, some of the most racist
people in America, do you have different impressions of your state or people
who might be your neighbors or, you know, of the country?
Mr. MITCHELL: That's a good question. I mean, I think it's very easy to make
these things into simplistic, kind of two-dimensional things. For example,
I'll give Beckwith as an example. If you were, you know--from the comments
even that I was sharing with you, I mean, you would think--some people might
think of Beckwith--or seeing him in the movie "Ghosts of
Mississippi"--portrayed in "Ghosts of Mississippi," people would think he's
just the--you know, they view him as Satan incarnate, you know. But it's much
more complex than that because Beckwith, for example--when I showed up, he
welcomed me like a long-lost cousin, but it was because I had kind of passed
You know, he won't talk to anybody except a white Christian, Southern--you
know, you have to, like, pass all these questions in order to talk to him. And
I knew with my upbringing that he would love all my answers, so I didn't have a
problem answering all these personal questions. And, sure enough--and so
it's--and so he was very gracious. I mean, he was kind to his wife, you know,
kind to his family, would strike you otherwise as just this kind old
grandfather, like I said, and so it's very fascinating to me. And, you know,
what is it that turns somebody like that, you know, into a racist? And I find
that part very fascinating. And I...
GROSS: Do you have any thoughts about what it is that does change someone like
Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah. With regard to Beckwith, I do. Beckwith was an orphan by
age 12, and, you know, everybody else--there were a few other reporters that
actually did get to talk to him, and I think everybody else was trying to do
one of those gotcha interviews, and I didn't really have any interest in that.
Instead, I really wanted to know what made him a racist, and I think I sort of
got an answer.
He--because he was an orphan and, you know, I--we're kind of guessing now,
we're kind of playing the psychologist here, but he was an orphan. And what I
found and what he told me, he joined basically everything. He joined every
organization. He was definitely a follower, not a leader. And in the end he
joined the Klan. And so I think that kind of maybe helps to explain. And if
you understand, too, I mean, he's someone who was born within those times. I
think he thought he was going to get a parade when he killed Medgar Evers. I
think that's what he really expected. He thought everybody was going to come
pat him on the back, `Thank you, thank you, De La, for doing this,' and, you
know, I think that's what he really expected. And, of course, that wasn't the
response he got.
GROSS: Jerry Mitchell writes for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.
Next Tuesday he'll receive the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in
Journalism, which is administered by the Columbia University School of
Journalism. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we talk with Dianne Reeves. She's the singer featured in the
film "Good Night, and Good Luck," and she's a three-time Grammy Award winner.
Also, more with investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with journalist Jerry
Mitchell. His reporting has led to the re-opening of several unsolved murder
cases from the civil rights era, which subsequently ended in convictions.
Mitchell writes for The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi. Next Tuesday,
he'll receive the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism, which is
administered by the Columbia University School of Journalism. His most
important sources have been white supremacists.
Have you met white supremacists who have used the Bible to justify their
Mr. MITCHELL: Beckwith. Beckwith.
GROSS: Oh, yeah?
Mr. MITCHELL: Mm-hmm. He's part of--and this--it's a belief, and so therefore
it kind of transcends group lines. It goes beyond just groups, certain groups,
but it's called Christian Identity. And Beckwith is an adherent to that, or
was an adherent to that. And he basically believes--this is kind of it in a
nutshell, so I'm putting it pretty bluntly, unfortunately, but he believes that
Adam and Eve were white people. He believes that all the non-white races were
created on the sixth day, with the animals, and so therefore, of course, they
don't have souls, in his eyes, and that he believes that Eve mated with Satan
the serpent and that's where Jews came from and that Cain was the first Jew.
And this is horrible, horribly racist stuff, but this is what he and
unfortunately others believe. This is Christian Identity stuff.
But they point to Scriptures, and I'll give you an example. In the Garden of
Eden, it says there was no man to till the soil, you know, that basically
everything grew on its own. So he took--he took me to that verse, 'cause I was
asking him where he's getting all this from, and he was pointing me to, you
know, various verses. And he said the word `man' there is--in Hebrew is adaam,
or Adam, and he's correct on that. And it literally means `blood in the face.'
That's correct, too. And he said that only the white race could blush or show
blood in the face, so this is proof that Adam and Eve were white people. And
that's how ridiculous, you know, this kind of stuff is. But that's what,
unfortunately, they rely on.
GROSS: Edgar Ray Killen was 80 when he was convicted...
Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, he was.
GROSS: ...of the murders of the civil rights workers Schwerner, Chaney and
Mr. MITCHELL: Right.
GROSS: And in that sense, do you feel like this is kind of like the end of the
era? It's the very end of the era where people who might have been involved in
crimes against civil rights activists...
Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah.
GROSS: ...this is, like, their last moments on earth, and if justice is going
to be done while they're alive, this is like the last minute.
Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, the window's closing.
Mr. MITCHELL: The window is closing, and I've said this for the past several
years. The window is closing very quickly on these cases. I mean, the window
kind of opened and it's closing very quickly now. Of course, the Justice
Department is supposedly going to have a cold cases unit to begin looking at
these cases. You know, I just wish that if they were going to do that, they'd
have done that, like, 10 years ago, because it's going to be very difficult at
GROSS: How has your life been changed by the stories that you've been writing
and the attention you've been getting from them?
Mr. MITCHELL: Attentionwise, I guess, I wouldn't say anything drastic. I mean,
I guess--I think mainly it's helped me realize a lot of things. I mean, it
made me realize that, you know, here I was as a kid and these things were
taking place around me and I had no idea. And it just lets you know how, if
we're not really in tune with what's going on, we really can be misled. We can
be just left in the dark. And it really made me realize that, going through
this process, and it really opened my eyes to a lot of things.
I know that one of the most moving things that I ever witnessed was in the
Dahmer case--Vernon Dahmer case. After Sam Bowers was convicted, there was a
hearing, and Billy Roy Pitts testified, and as he walked to the back of the
courtroom, he ran into the Dahmer family. There was Mrs. Dahmer, Vernon
Dahmer's widow, and some other family members. And Billy Roy Pitts asked Mrs.
Dahmer to forgive him for what he had done, and she did. And she began to cry.
He began to cry. The Dahmer children who were there began to cry. And I began
to cry, too, and it just made me realize that that's really what redemption's
all about, trying to make things right even when they've gone so terribly wrong
in the past.
GROSS: And do you think Billy Roy Pitts was sincere about wanting to be
forgiven? Do you think he really cared...
Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah.
GROSS: ...or do you think it was an act?
Mr. MITCHELL: I got the sense that he did. I got the sense that he did. He
and I talked a lot about it after. I am a person of faith and a Christian. And
there's a book that Philip Yancey wrote years ago that's called "What's So
Amazing About Grace?" And so we talked a lot about forgiveness. And he told me
how he felt like a big burden had been lifted off of him when she forgave him.
GROSS: Well, Jerry Mitchell, congratulations on your award.
Mr. MITCHELL: Well, thank you.
GROSS: And thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. MITCHELL: Appreciate it very much. Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Jerry Mitchell writes for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.
Next Tuesday, he'll receive the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in
Journalism, which is administered by the Columbia University School of
Coming up, jazz singer Dianne Reeves. She sings in the film "Good Night, and
Good Luck." This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, host:
In the movie "Good Night, and Good Luck," about how broadcast journalist Edward
R. Murrow challenged Senator Joe McCarthy, the action is punctuated with
performances by jazz singer Dianne Reeves. She plays a singer who performs on
a show broadcast from a studio in the CBS building where Murrow works. Reeves
is a three-time Grammy Award winner. Let's start with a song from the
soundtrack of "Good Night, and Good Luck."
(Soundbite of "I've Got My Eyes On You")
Ms. DIANNE REEVES: (Singing) I've got my eyes on you. So best beware where you
roam. I've got my eyes on you. So don't stray too far from home. I've set my
spies on you. I'm checking on all you do from A to Z. So, darling, don't be
wise. Keep your eyes on me.
GROSS: Dianne Reeves singing "I've Got My Eyes On You" by Cole Porter, from the
soundtrack of "Good Night, and Good Luck." The film was directed by George
Clooney. I asked Dianne Reeves what kind of direction Clooney gave her.
Ms. REEVES: Really what he wanted the singing to be is like a character part of
the storytelling, which I thought was very interesting, 'cause at first, I
didn't know exactly what it was that he wanted, 'cause I didn't have a script,
but when I got the script, I thought, `Oh, I see how this is working.' And the
beautiful thing was, he really wanted me to be in the studio and able to sing
live in the studio. And he thought that I could do that very well, and that
was one of the reasons why he chose me to do it. And we went in there and we
started recording the music. I had the script, so I knew what was going on
from song to song.
GROSS: George Clooney's aunt was Rosemary Clooney, and he lived with her for a
while and went on the road with her for a while. And I know he really loves
her singing. Did he talk with you about her singing, and how familiar were you
with it yourself?
Ms. REEVES: I was very familiar with her. Yeah, he told us all kind of
wonderful stories. It was like being in there with another musician. And
actually, she was one of the reasons why he chose me, because he said that she
really loved the way that I sang. And he told me, he said, `Rosemary always
loved the way that you sing.' And I didn't even realize that she was listening
to me. So that was quite a compliment.
GROSS: And were there any changes that he asked you to make in the way that you
sing? 'Cause this is supposed to be the 1950s, not the 2000s.
Ms. REEVES: Yeah, but one of the things that I think he knew that I knew--I
mean, I have all kinds of video of singers from that era and, of course, CDs
now but albums and stuff. And so I really understood what it was that he
wanted, and basically to sing--these songs in a lot of ways had just been
introduced. So by 2005, you know, you would improvise, but then you were
singing the words and really paying close attention to respecting the melody.
So that I understood, and we talked about that right before we did the film
about, you know, keeping it straight and, you know, really just telling the
story of the lyrics.
GROSS: One of the things you had to do for the movie "Good Night, and Good
Luck" is dress in period. Would you describe your hair and the clothes that
Ms. REEVES: Well, I have locks, and anybody that knows anything about locks,
it's like that--it's not braids. It's the way your hair grows. So they were
all the way down my back. So I allowed them to cut them a little bit, like
about six inches, which was OK. And then they pinned them up under the--pinned
them up so that they could put this really nice I call, oh, kind of--I think my
character was a cross between Dinah Washington and Sarah and Ella, all of them,
you know. So it was this really nice haircut and wonderful look.
And then, of course, the clothes. You know, I had great-aunts who were
entertainers, and I watched them perform in the same clothes that I was
wearing, actually could have brought some of the things, had I known exactly
what they wanted me to wear. I actually have a lot of vintage clothing from
that era. And it really, really adds to the character, 'cause it's easy to put
those in, and it's like playing dress-up and being of that time, because I've
always been in love with that time period of singing and performance. So that
part was, for me, the most exciting.
GROSS: Dianne Reeves, how did you start singing?
Ms. REEVES: Oh, I have lots of wonderful musicians in my family, and...
GROSS: Well, you know, you mentioned earlier that your great-aunts, did you
say, were performers?
Ms. REEVES: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: What did they do?
Ms. REEVES: They both played the piano and sang. And they sang--one of them
sang some of the most risque music. You know, now I understand that it was,
but then I never got, you know, the dual meaning of the songs. But it was
interesting because a lot of the places that they performed were along the
lines where the porters and waiters were, so it was on the train line, you
know, from Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, Utah, all of that, Kansas City. They
played in all of those different places, and that's how they lived, as
performers. She played the piano. She sang, and then her younger sister,
Katherine Howard(ph) or Miller(ph), did the same.
So growing up, I was--my Aunt Katherine really kind of took me under her arm
and she would teach me all of these very, very funny songs that now, you know,
when I go back and I listen to them--I have to crack up laughing, 'cause some
of them I sang for a long time, and I'd be on stage and then I'd understand
what I was singing, but you know, so she--they were both really wonderful. And
then I have an uncle who played with the symphony, with San Francisco and the
Denver symphony for many, many years, also a great jazz bassist. He's a
bassist. And then a cousin, George Duke, who is a recording artist, producer,
arranger and actually produced a lot of my earlier albums.
GROSS: I want to go back to your aunts again. You know, they--so you learned
all these, like, bawdy, double-entendre kind of songs. Would you sing a few
bars of one of them that would be clean enough to sing on the radio but would
get the point?
Ms. REEVES: Well, I love--the one thing that--one that really came to mind that
I didn't know it was about, she used to sing.
(Singing) I got blues in my mailbox, 'cause I ain't got no mail. I got the
blues in my mailbox, 'cause I ain't got no mail. I got the blues in my bread
box, because my Roman mill done gone still.'
And I never knew that the mailbox was the M-A-L-E box. I was thinking, `Oh, no
mail. Nobody's writing letters,' all for--I mean, forever. And then one day,
I was on stage and I went, `Oh, my God.' I couldn't believe I was singing. I
didn't know. You know, and she used to sing, `I had a man that gave me gifts,
treated this woman so good. Oh, I had a man that gave'--no, `Oh, I said I had
a man that gave me gifts, treated this woman so good, but one day I found out
that sucker was giving gifts all over the neighborhood.' Just all kinds of
GROSS: So when you were very young, did your parents cover your ears or
anything, or did they figure you get what you get?
Ms. REEVES: No, because we didn't know...
Ms. REEVES: We didn't know what they were talking about, and they would laugh,
and then, of course, it was OK. They taught me how to sing these, and my Aunt
K.(ph) would teach me how to shimmy-shake, but they called it shimmy-waddle
when I would do it, 'cause they would just laugh 'cause of the way I would do
it. And, you know, I got to put on their brooches and earrings and pearls and
all of that--all the stuff that they used to wear. And she'd have me up there
singing these songs and I would shake and do all the things in the places that
she taught me, you know. But I never knew, you know--and the adults would just
go crazy; they would just laugh so hard. And--but I didn't know what I was
singing about until, like, 20 years later.
GROSS: So did that childhood experience encourage you to perform yourself?
Ms. REEVES: Oh, absolutely. It wasn't until junior high school that I really
became serious, that I realized, `Ooh, this is a very powerful thing.' And it
was really--you know, then it was just--I just sang because everybody in the
family would contribute something. Either they were a great storyteller or a
musician or something. But when I got into junior high school, which is a very
rough age, but it was even rougher for us, because we were the first kids in
Denver, Colorado, to be bused. And there was a great deal of anxiety and, you
know, everybody was just--nobody knew what to do at that time. Nobody--we
weren't prepared to go into these schools, and they weren't really prepared to
I had this great teacher who came out of Texas, and she found that the best way
to heal the differences or all the misunderstanding or, you know, the tension
in the school would be through music and poetry. So she helped us as students
write our own kind of school play or school musical, and we did poetry. And,
you know, Native Americans and African-Americans, everybody, you know,
contributed something. And we sang all of this music, and I remember the first
time I stood out on the stage. I sang this song called "Joy," which was from
an Edwin Hawkins record who, at that time had put out "O Happy Day." So I loved
that whole album, and I sang this song "Joy." And it was so powerful, you know,
that I felt that it moved the audience, it moved me and I remember walking off
the stage thinking, `I want to do this. This is exactly what I want to do.'
And that's when I started singing.
GROSS: How did that song go?
Ms. REEVES: It goes...
(Singing) Behind every dark cloud, there's a silver lining. And after each and
every rainstorm, there's a bright new star. When trouble grieves you and
friends deceive you, oh, don't worry. It will pass over, over in the mornin'.
And that was, like, the last song of the performance, and everybody was going
through things at that time in the school, so that song was, you know, very
appropriate for me, you know, going through all my angst and, you know,
hormonal changes and also just dealing with the differences that we were
dealing with. And that song was so powerful for us at that time, and I felt
it, and here we were, we were in junior high school. People were crying and I
thought, `Ooh, music is a powerful thing.'
GROSS: My guest is Dianne Reeves. She sings in the movie "Good Night, and Good
Luck." The songs from the film as well as extra songs are featured on the
soundtrack. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is jazz singer Dianne Reeves. She's a three-time Grammy
winner, and she sings in the film "Good Night, and Good Luck."
You know, you've told us a little bit about, you know, how there's musical
people in your family. Your great-aunts sang; your uncle was a bass player;
your cousin, George Duke, you know, is a pianist. And do you take your
voice--did you ever take your voice for granted and think, well, most people
have, you know, musical ability? I mean, because, of course, most people don't
have too much musical ability, but you might not have known that in your
Ms. REEVES: No. I never took my voice for granted because it was also
something that saved my life, without even going into the details of it. See,
I never realized that I always perceived my voice to not be the one that came
out of my mouth but the one that was in my heart, and I see that now, and
that's how I've always felt. But it was a way to move through my life, because
I had something that was my own that, you know, I was in charge of and it
belonged to me. And it helped me to get through my life in a way that gave me
strength and empowered me. So my voice for me was and still to this day is
nothing that I take for granted.
GROSS: When you say it saved your life, do you mean that literally?
Ms. REEVES: Yes, absolutely. I won't go into that...
GROSS: Would you tell what happened? Oh, OK. OK.
Ms. REEVES: ...but it did. But it did. It saved--and at a very, very young
age. I'll just put it this way: At a very young age when, you know, there was
just so much pressure and you know, your parents always can look and say,
`Well, it's not as bad as you think,' but as a kid, you think it's pretty bad.
And there are a lot of things that were happening in my life, and I didn't want
to be here. I wanted to commit suicide, and had I not discovered my voice in
the way that I did in the time that I did and singing the songs that I was
singing, then I don't think I would be here. So voice really saved my life.
GROSS: And how old were you?
Ms. REEVES: I was about 12.
GROSS: And you hadn't sung before?
Ms. REEVES: I had sung, but I was singing the songs that my aunts gave to me to
sing, but then once I got into junior high school...
GROSS: I see.
Ms. REEVES: ...it was a whole new set of problems, and I never--those songs
never connected with my life. And it wasn't until junior high school that I
found songs that connected, that actually, you know, addressed my life in a way
that they, you know, made my heart feel better or, you know, made my mind feel
better, because I could think of the words and I was connected to the words,
and here I was singing them. And it felt good to me. You know, it felt
calming, and it helped me to--it was like a mantra, I guess, you know, because
here I was singing this song "Joy," and it's saying, you know, `Don't worry.
In the morning it's going to be over,' you know. And it gave me faith and
strength. My voice--you know, now I realize it and I can articulate it that my
singing voice is one thing, but my heart voice is really the real thing.
GROSS: How does what you've just been telling us guide how you choose songs
Ms. REEVES: It's still the same thing. I try to find songs for myself that I
really, really believe in or that--you know, they just address my life in some
way. It doesn't have to be, you know, an experience that I've gone through,
although a lot of them are. But I try to find things that I really understand
and I really want to talk about, and I really have something to say.
GROSS: Well, Dianne Reeves, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. REEVES: Mm-hmm. Thank you.
GROSS: Dianne Reeves sings in the movie "Good Night, and Good Luck."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with another song from the soundtrack of "Good Night, and Good
Luck." In the movie, Dianne Reeves sings this one after one of Murrow's
associates commits suicide.
(Soundbite of "How High the Moon")
Ms. REEVES: (Singing) Somewhere there's music. How faint the tune. Somewhere
there's heaven. How high the moon. There is no moon above when love is far
away, too, till it comes true, that you love me as I love you. Somewhere
there's music. It's where you are. Somewhere there's heaven. How near, how
far. The darkest night would shine if you would come to me soon. Until you