December 16, 2013
Guests: Peter O'Toole - Jimmy Amadie
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to listen back to our interview with actor Peter O'Toole. He died Saturday at the age of 81. His New York Times obituary described him as, quote, "one of his generation's most charismatic actors. Blonde, blue-eyed and well over six feet tall, he had the dashing good looks and high spirits befitting a leading man," unquote.
O'Toole was best known for his starring role in the 1962 film epic "Lawrence of Arabia," based on the story of T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who tried to unite Arab tribes in their fight against the Turks during World War I.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LAWRENCE OF ARABIA")
PETER O'TOOLE: (as T.E. Lawrence) So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel as you are.
GROSS: Peter O'Toole's other roles range from The Three Angels in John Huston's epic "The Bible" to a washed-up drunken movie star in the comedy "My Favorite Year." He starred in the historical dramas "Beckett" and "The Lion in Winter." When I spoke with Peter O'Toole in 1993, he had just published a memoir about his early life called "Loitering with Intent." He grew up in northern England during World War II. His father was a racetrack bookie. I asked O'Toole what it was like to have a father who gambled.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
O'TOOLE: I loved it. In the pre-war years, when he was on top, when he was flush, I loved it. I loved going to all the tracks, meeting all the people, learning how to count by understanding the odds, memorizing the names of the horses and the jockeys, looking at the colors, the silks, looking at the animals, looking at the countryside. I loved it, and I loved being with my father and my mother.
Times got a bit more grim when the war came and racing ended. But they cheered up again at the end of the war. Yes, in short, yes, it was lovely.
GROSS: Did your father ever expect you to go into the gambling business?
O'TOOLE: No, he didn't. Well, he might have expected me to, but he didn't encourage me to, and neither did I, though I did gamble quite a lot until I was about 30 or so. Then it petered out. I mean, for instance, Omar Sharif and I - do you know Omar Sharif?
GROSS: Well, not personally, but I certainly know his roles, and he was with you in "Lawrence of Arabia."
O'TOOLE: Well, he's a lovely man. Yeah, well he's - not only was he in "Lawrence of Arabia," but we've remained friends ever since, and he's a graceful and intelligent man, a lovely man. We were in Beirut, Beirut in the better days, and we were playing - well, I don't know what we were playing, cards. And we lost all the money we'd earned in nine months we lost in one night in Beirut.
And then a year later, we were in Casablanca, and all the money we'd earned in that year we lost, but in two nights.
GROSS: Well, did you have enough money that you could afford to gamble away a whole year's earning in one night?
O'TOOLE: Certainly not. But we did gamble it away in one night and then in two nights.
GROSS: Were you drunk that night, and how did it feel to wake up the next morning knowing all that you'd lost?
O'TOOLE: Well, we weren't sober, but neither were we unconscious. We were fully aware of the pain and agony of watching all our pennies go down the Swanee.
GROSS: Well, when you were a young man, you went into the navy. Then when you got out of the navy, you got yourself an audition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. You kind of talked your way into the audition. How did you do it?
O'TOOLE: A series of accidents, circumstances, blunders. A chum of mine who intended to be a painter and I hitchhiked our way into London to begin our lives, and we jumped off the lorry, the truck, at a station called Euston, and we were aiming for a men's hostel. And the street, which goes from the station to the hostel, is called Gower Street. And we were plodding down it, and I looked, and on my left it said the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
And my chum said, well, if you're going to be an actor, you know, it's the kind of shop where they deal with such matters. So why don't you pop in? So I popped in, and I saw a bust of Bernard Shaw. And I was looking at the bust of Bernard Shaw, and the commissionaire, the sergeant commissionaire, joined me at the bust, and we started yarning about Bernard Shaw, telling stories.
And he'd tell me his stories, and I told him my stories. And then we were joined by a gentleman, an elderly gentleman, a burly, gruff gentleman, and he turned out to be the principal of the Royal Academy. And he asked me if I was a student. I said no, I wasn't, but I was thinking of being, and one thing led to another and I found myself, that afternoon even, turning up for the first interview.
And then I did an audition, and then I did another audition, and I found, to my surprise, that I was in.
GROSS: What did you do for your audition?
O'TOOLE: The first one was a bit of Chesterton and a bit of Bernard Shaw.
GROSS: What did you choose from Shaw?
O'TOOLE: "Pygmalion," Higgins.
GROSS: Do you remember the lines?
O'TOOLE: Do you want to live here for the next six months, learning how to speak beautifully, like a lady in a florist's shop? Yeah, that bit.
GROSS: Now you weren't from the kind of background where you grew up speaking, you know, proper English or the queen's English, were you?
O'TOOLE: Well, it was the king's English in my day.
GROSS: The king's English, that's right, excuse me.
O'TOOLE: He popped his clogs later on, but yes...
O'TOOLE: My mother always spoke rather beaut - she was a Scotswoman. And as you probably know that the best English is spoken, I am told, in Edinburgh. And she always spoke rather properly and then corrected me every time I was improper.
GROSS: Did you see a particular niche for yourself on stage when you were at the Royal Academy?
O'TOOLE: No, no, I didn't. I just rather enjoyed being a student in London and messing around, doing what students do and thoroughly enjoying the life. Then I was given a job at the end of two years. I was given a job at the Theatre Royal in Bristol, at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company, a repertory company. And at the end of the first year, having done about 12 or so plays, playing comparatively minor roles, I began to believe that I could do it, I could act.
GROSS: Were you given any advice about what type of character you would likely play?
O'TOOLE: Yes, I was. I remember one man saying you'll spend your life or your early years popping through a French window with a tennis racket saying anyone for tennis?
O'TOOLE: But that didn't prove to be the case. I've never through French windows with or without a tennis racket and invited anyone to play tennis, or not.
GROSS: And that's a lucky break, too, isn't it? Well, after - yeah.
O'TOOLE: You see the young men, if you're given a certain cast of physiognomy, you find yourself playing the juvenile, and juveniles can be crucifyingly boring. The producer will often say don't forget he gets the girl. But, you know, one doesn't want to get the girl. One wants to be covered in wigs and humps and being villains or being anything other than the juvenile.
The whole world of the juvenile changed in 19- what - 56, 57, when John Osborne wrote "Look Back in Anger." And there was a juvenile, he was 24, 25, who had all the good stuff, all the practical pudding that usually the character actors had. So the world changed then, and that was lovely. I enjoyed playing Jimmy Porter.
GROSS: Well, not only didn't you make your career saying anyone for tennis, but your first real big movie role was in the epic "Lawrence of Arabia." Were you kind of surprised to get the role?
O'TOOLE: Astonished. I can't imagine anyone whom I'm less like than T.E. Lawrence. But that's what David wanted, I think, someone who could act it rather than be it.
GROSS: David Lean, the director.
O'TOOLE: That's right, David Lean, the director, my master, the man I really do admire, did admire enormously.
GROSS: So the movie was shot on location, obviously. Which parts of the desert was it shot in?
O'TOOLE: You tell me.
O'TOOLE: We were in Jordan, and between Jordan and the Saudi Arabian border. I think sometimes we nipped over the border, but we didn't know. It was uncharted desert. And what we would do, we were based in Aqaba, and there was a big DC-3, which would take off with the cameras and us in it, and then we'd find a mud flat and land and pitch tents and generators and all that and film.
GROSS: So where would you live during the shooting, which I imagine took a very long time?
O'TOOLE: It took nine months in the desert, in the desert of Jordan. Where would we live? We lived in tents. Occasionally I had a caravan, and we just - and we'd shoot for about 10 to 12 days and then have two or three days off, and I would go to Jerusalem to - which I love, or to Beirut - Omar and I, where we'd squander our pieces at poker.
GROSS: Was it hard to learn to ride the camel?
O'TOOLE: Impossible. I - what you see is a European perched uneasily on the top of this huge brute, snorting and galloping.
GROSS: Well, it looks so uncomfortable the way you're positioned on there, with one leg over the side of the camel and the other leg crossed over the hump.
O'TOOLE: Sidesaddle, precisely, and that - there are two things that stick up like nails on the pommel, the pommels of this wooden saddle. And if you've - if you ride a horse, you're finished because you can't post or anything like that. You just bounce. I found after a while that my bottom was bleeding from bouncing up and down on this snorting red dragon.
And I went to Beirut not to gamble this time but to buy sponge rubber, and it was, I remember, mucous membrane pink.
O'TOOLE: And I arrived back to my Bedouin friends with this lump of thick, thick rubber, and I stuffed it shamelessly onto my saddle. And of course they were saying, ah.... But after a while, they looked, and they saw that it was quite comfy, too, and you could bounce more easily on sponge rubber than you could on wood and hump. So they began to ask me to buy more.
So I was requisitioning tons of this damn stuff, yards of it. And I think I introduced sponge rubber into Arabian culture.
O'TOOLE: The Bedouin call me Abu - they couldn't say sponge so they called me Abu Svingh(ph), the father of rubber.
GROSS: We're listening to a 1993 interview with Peter O'Toole. He died Saturday at the age of 81. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to my 1993 interview with actor Peter O'Toole. He died Saturday at the age of 81. He's best known for his role as T.E. Lawrence in the 1962 film epic "Lawrence of Arabia." When we left off, we were talking about riding camels in the film.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
GROSS: There are a lot of scenes in "Lawrence of Arabia" where the camera seems to be almost several miles away from the people being shot.
O'TOOLE: And that - you're quite right, and that soul on the camel all those many, many miles away, is invariably me.
GROSS: Well, what was it like to know that you were being shot by - at such a great distance? And of course then, you know, the camera could like zoom in for a closer - I mean, they could zoom in with the lens, you know, for a closer shot. But that must have been pretty disorienting.
O'TOOLE: Initially, one was peeved. I remember David Lean saying to me - I had a stuntman doing it, all those shots that were miles and miles away. And David said look at me through the lens, Peter. Look at the stuntman. So I did. And he said, you see? No poetry.
O'TOOLE: So I found myself being the poet, and I was the one bouncing up and down miles and miles away. But it was all right. I had a transistor radio plugged into my ears, and I had a cigarette going, and I had a little bottle of something in the saddlebag. I was quite comfy. And the man who taught me to ride and who did all those shots of the - those amazing shots of the desert was a man called Kutafin Abu Tayi, who was the grandson of the man whom Antony Quinn played, Auda Abu Tayi, Auda Abu Tayi.
GROSS: What was it like to be in the middle of some of those chaotic battle scenes. Is it pretty frightening knowing that even though it's just a movie, things can still go wrong?
O'TOOLE: Well, there was the charge at Aqaba, which I shall never forget because we were then in Spain. We'd left Aqaba, and we'd built Aqaba in Spain. I know, this is the logic of filmmaking. And it was downhill on shale about a mile and a half to the cardboard Aqaba we built, cardboard minarets. And we'd imported from Morocco plow camels.
Now, your camel may look just like a great, humped brute to you, but there are fine distinctions. In Arabia proper, we'd had camels called Values, which are bred for racing purposes, and they're bought in Damascus, and they cost a great deal of money.
And here we were with Moroccan plow camels, who had never, ever had a thing on their backs and had never, ever gone quickly in their poor little lives. I thought this is going to be a bit tasty. So I looked at Omar, a gambling man, and said what are you going to do?
He said I've been working out the odds. I said have you really? He said yes, I've been working out the odds about whether or not I fall off the camel or whether the camel falls over.
O'TOOLE: And I've decided that the odds are very strongly on me falling off the camel. So I said, yes. He said, so I've decided that I'm going to tie myself on. I thought, really, tie yourself on to a camel. Because we were surrounded by 400 horses. We had to lead, Omar and I had to lead on a handful of what, a dozen or so, 20, 50 camels with 400 horses galloping behind us.
And we had to lead this charge. And Omar said I'm going to tie myself on. I thought, well, I don't want to tie myself on, not really. Tie yourself on a camel, no. I said no, I'm going to get drunk. He said, oh, I'm going to get drunk, too. So we both got a bottle of brandy, and we shoved it into milk, and we swallowed back the milky brandy, which made us feel not a lot of pain, hopped on our beasts and did it.
And I was described in one newspaper as having a look of messianic ecstasy on my face.
O'TOOLE: What it was was terror compounded with slightly - being a little bit pissed. It was rather nice, really, on the whole. And we made it. We got to the other end all right, right to the sea. And I stood on my camel, we stood in the water, and I looked, and to my right was Omar. And he was still tied to the camel but hanging on upside-down.
GROSS: Was it easier to stay on the camel being slightly inebriated? I'd think it would be harder.
O'TOOLE: It was less - it was less - look, the prospect was being trampled to death by 400 horses. So it seemed to be - if one was going to be trampled to death by 400 horses, at least have a smile on your face, I thought.
GROSS: Be a little more relaxed about it.
O'TOOLE: A bit more relaxed.
GROSS: One of the films of yours I especially like is "My Favorite Year."
O'TOOLE: That's good fun.
GROSS: Yeah, and you play a washed-up actor from the swashbuckling era, ala Errol Flynn, who's making a guest shot on a Sid Caesar-type variety show. And you walk in, and you're soused all the time. Were you able to play off your image of having been a real drinker?
O'TOOLE: The first thing to say that he was not an actor. As he points out very clearly, as he going into the television - I'm not an actor, he says, I'm a movie star. That's the first.
O'TOOLE: The second thing is that, yes, it did provide an opportunity for hilarious self-caricature, which I enjoyed thoroughly.
GROSS: How - you were telling us about how you drank during the battle scene in Aqaba. How often did you drink when you were performing back then?
O'TOOLE: Never, never. You can't do it. You can't act and drink or whatever. You can't do it. It's impossible. You need every - all your faculties clear and pure and spinning. You can't have it fuddled and muddied.
GROSS: So it was only like for stunt-type sequences that you would do that?
O'TOOLE: Oh yeah, yes.
GROSS: You stopped drinking a while ago?
O'TOOLE: I did.
GROSS: Was it hard?
O'TOOLE: Not at all.
GROSS: It's usually hard for people. That's why I ask.
O'TOOLE: No, no I didn't - if - no, no, no, I stopped because I didn't like it anymore. I didn't like the effect anymore. If I fancied a drink right now, I'd have one, but I don't fancy one.
GROSS: How much acting are you doing now?
O'TOOLE: None at all.
GROSS: And why is that?
O'TOOLE: I'm not acting. I'm not in a play. I'm just me, droning on with a pair of earphones onto this furry mic in front of me.
GROSS: Oh, I didn't mean right this very second how much are you acting. I mean, at this point in your career.
O'TOOLE: How much acting am I - oh, I see what you mean. Not a lot. I'm doing more scratching, scribbling, writing.
GROSS: And what led you in that direction to start writing?
O'TOOLE: An urge.
GROSS: An urge to write or an urge to tell your story?
O'TOOLE: No, an urge to write. I tried a novel; that was a failure. I had written a few things, and a publisher saw it and suggested to me that I write my story. So I said I don't think I can do that. And they - and then I began to try, and I'm doing it.
GROSS: What did you go back to, to spark your memory about the early days that you're writing about, your childhood?
O'TOOLE: Well, I have a host of memories, which I see very clearly, and though I'm fully aware of the tricks of memory, I'm also aware of the concrete nature of these brilliantly lit pictures in my mind. And they'll never go - they're ineradicable. I'll give you an example. I had written a bit about my childhood, and the - I got a hint of how to do all this from a line spoken by a Spaniard many years ago.
I don't know who he was or when he was, but he said: I am I and my circumstances, (speaking foreign language). And that clicked with me. If I could describe the circumstances of my life, as well as me being in them, that was the clue to how I set about writing. But I had written a passage. And I thought hang on, you've very described very clearly an abbey and stepping stones and this, that and the other.
I put the pen down, having finished that particular passage, and I jumped in my car, and I drove the 200 or 300 miles to the spot, which I hadn't seen for 40 years. And as I got there off the motorway, along the little boreens that led to it, I found myself just chuckling all alone in the car, chuckle, chuckle, chuckle because it was exactly as I remembered it.
Oh, certain things were different, but the colors, the shapes, everything. The water, the abbey, the stones, they were all there.
GROSS: My interview with Peter O'Toole was recorded in 1993 after the publication of his memoir about his early years. He died yesterday at the age of 81. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. With so much contention in air around holiday get-togethers, jazz critic Ken Whitehead wonders if music might help bring together folks with opposing views. He has some listening and viewing recommendations for seasonal dinners.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEEN TOWN")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Chris Biesterfeldt on mandolin, Playing Weather Report's "Teen Town," by Jaco Pastorius. Jazz hounds and fans of fancy string picking don't always get on at family gatherings, but maybe they could bond over Biesterfeldt's CD "Urban Mandolin."
Mostly, he plays diverse jazz tunes, bebop classics, to organ group funk, to '70s fusion. His band is a bare bones trio, where mandolin has to stay busy to fill out the texture.
Chris Biesterfeldt is primarily a guitarist, but he has serious mandolin chops. This is Jimmy Smith's "Ready and Able."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "READY AND ABLE")
WHITEHEAD: A jazz fan listening to that might even wonder what other virtuoso mandolin improvising is out there. You'll never know. We jazz critics like to go on about how Dixieland and the avant-garde have in common, what with all the collective improvising. Their respective fans don't always hear the resemblance, but they can unite in reaction to new music that pokes fun at both camps.
The album "Red Hot" is from the twisted minds of a not quite serious band of serious players. Bassist Moppa Elliott's quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOSTLY OTHER PEOPLE DO THE KILLING")
WHITEHEAD: Peter Evans on trumpet and John Irabagon on saxophone. The tall tale booklet essay for the album "Red Hot" tells of the Brimstone Corner Boys, a western Pennsylvania jazz band wiped out in a 1934 mine disaster. They left behind only some piano parts from which an expanded Mostly Other People Do the Killing seek to re-create their style. As often happens when modern musicians tackle old music, anachronisms abound, letting them satirize contemporary giants like McCoy Tyner and Evan Parker too.
Jazz humor can be dismal but "Red Hot" is kind of inspired, up there with jazz parodies by the Bonzo Dog Band, Willem(ph) Bloker(ph), and singer Jo Stafford's tone-deaf alter ego, Darlene Edwards. The worse it sounds, the better it is. Guests include Dave Taylor on bass trombone, and muted guitar hero Brandon Seabrook on banjo.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED HOT")
WHITEHEAD: After dinner you can quiet competitive family members who seek out obscure music videos online. Sit them down to watch four DVDs of recently unearthed early '60s variety shows by singer, comedian, dancer, actor Edie Adams. "Here's Edie," aka, "The Edie Adams Show," has all the dancing and sketch comedy and Vegas razzle you'd expect. But there is also a lot of jazz mixed in: Woody Herman's orchestra, Count Basie or Duke Ellington and some key sidemen sitting in with the house band, Lionel Hampton playing the vibes and juggling drumsticks, John Hendricks scatting, Bobby Darin swinging, and more.
There were two appearances by saxophonist Stan Getz at the peak of his bossa nova fame.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WHITEHEAD: Edie Adams was a good singer who sometimes joins in, duetting with Nancy Wilson or Hoagy Carmichael or cooing wordlessly with Ellington saxophonist Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney.
Watching these shows, younger folk will see jazz really was a TV staple once upon a time, and see how loose, low-budget and vaudeville-like '60s shows could be. They'll also see Don Rickles in a toreador outfit, dancing in a cigar commercial. That should leave the whole gang speechless, letting you enjoy a lull in their always fascinating conversation.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat and eMusic, and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Urban Mandolin," by Chris Biesterfeldt, "Red Hot" by Mostly Other People Do the Killing, and the DVD "Here's Edie."
Coming up, we remember jazz pianist and teacher Jimmy Amadie. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: That's Jimmy Amadie at the piano. He died last week at the age of 76 of lung cancer. He achieved some fame for his albums, which he didn't record until late in life, and for the story of what he had to overcome to make it possible for him to record. Amadie's performing career got off to a promising start. He was a sideman with Woody Herman, accompanied Mel Torme, and performed with Coleman Hawkins, Red Rodney, and Charlie Ventura.
He said he is to play as much a 70 or 80 hours a week in those days. And that may be why he developed tendinitis in his hands, which became so severe it prevented him from playing more than a few minutes at a time. The considerable physical pain was probably nothing compared to the agony of not being able to do the thing he was most obsessed with: play.
The story of how he was finally able to record several albums, nine of them, and even perform one concert before he died, involves our executive producer, Danny Miller, who was one of Amadie's students. Amadie had become an educator after he was forced to stop playing. He wrote two books, one on the harmonic foundation of jazz, another on jazz improvisation. Danny studied piano with him in the '70s and '80s and they remained good friends
I asked Danny to join me in the studio and tell us more about Jimmy.
Danny, I'm sorry for your loss.
DANNY MILLER, BYLINE: Thank you, Terry. And thanks for making some time for us to remember - to remember Jimmy. I thought it would be nice to start with a conversation that I had with Jimmy back in 1982 on FRESH AIR. This was at a point in his life when he was almost entirely focused on teaching and writing the books that you refer to on jazz theory. I was studying with him at the time and every once in a while he'd play for a few minutes during our lesson, you know, just to demonstrate a point, and I couldn't imagine how he managed to play so well, how he sounded so good with just a couple of minutes - if that - at the piano each day.
When I talked to him in 1982, I asked him how he did that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
JIMMY AMADIE: I try to think about playing a lot but, you know, there's really no substitute for playing. What I try to do is remember what my function is when I'm either interviewed or when I'm giving a clinic demonstration. And my function is to be able to teach and to get my point across of what my text is about and what's happening as far as jazz harmony, theory and improvisation is concerned and not to go out and try to wail because, you know, it's not really possible for me to sit down and say well, look, I'm going to sit down and I'm going to wail.
MILLER: But how do you keep your skills together? How are you able to, for the bit that you do spend at the keyboard, what do you do away from the keyboard to keep...
AMADIE: Well, I think about playing. I think about tools for development. I have a mental practice that's really very important. It's my survival because, you know, some days I, you know, I may play 10, 15, maybe even 20 minutes. But going beyond that is really pushing it and if I don't have a good day, I may have to lay off three or four days. I mean let's face it, it's not like when you're playing four, five, six, seven hours a day.
But I don't think I need to play that many hours to accomplish what I want. Because, you know, again, I don't sit down and say well, look, let me wail and show you how I can play. That's not my purpose. My purpose is just to illustrate the content and what I want to do is just make my point of the content. And as long as I work within that, then I'm really working within my physical limitations and I can get my point across and accomplish something.
MILLER: That's my 1982 interviewed with Jimmy Amadie on FRESH AIR. When I listen back to that, I can hear him saying that he has to impose the limit on itself to not play too much. But I knew all along that he had never really given up the idea of returning to playing.
GROSS: He said that he has a mental practice. What did he mean by that?
MILLER: Well, you know, if like you hear something in your head, if you're just imagining, so you're imagining playing a trumpet solo or a piano solo and you can hear the notes mentally. Well, Jimmy not only did that but he knew what each of those notes that he was hearing were. And he would take a kind of melody idea and know exactly what each note was, play it in all 12 keys - major, minor keys - figure out what is fingering would be. But he's never at the piano and he's doing this. It is all in his head. And it is the same type of obsessive practice that you would need to approach the piano with if you're actually at the piano, except Jimmy could not take the risk of being at the piano and playing for extended periods of time because he would get hurt.
GROSS: Well, Jimmy was able to play a few minutes at least like a couple times a week. I think he had to like ice his hands and stuff after he played and go through a whole regiment and then...
MILLER: Oh, he'd be in braces. His fingers would be wrapped. He would ice his hands. For a while he was using magnets underneath ACE bandages as a pain control thing. Yeah, he would pay a price. But he would be able to play for a few minutes, a few times a week.
GROSS: And the price was worth it to him just to play. And because he was able to play for short intervals if he left enough space between intervals and gave himself time to recover, you ended up turning his living room into a home recording studio. What gave you the idea to do that and how did you accomplish it?
MILLER: Well, how it started was sometimes I'd show up for a lesson and I could see that Jimmy was really in pain. His hands were hurting him because he had played too much the evening before or earlier in the week. So I just had a what I thought was a very simple idea, which was if he recorded himself when he was playing and then was able to listen back to what he had just recorded, he would be able to be still in those moments of playing a kind of virtually experiencing the playing which would, frankly, help him resist the urge to play too much so he wouldn't get injured.
So Joyce Lieberman, engineer at WHYY, set Jimmy's living room up with microphones and a DAT recorder, a digital tape recorder, and he started recording himself. Now in the back of my mind, in the back of Jimmy's mind, maybe we thought it would lead to him actually recording in a way that could be put out on the CD. But, really, it started with just thinking Jimmy, listen to yourself play and maybe you won't overplay and maybe won't hurt yourself by playing too long at the piano.
GROSS: And it did end up being released as a CD. It was his first album.
MILLER: First album, yeah. And he ended up recording nine CDs - two of them at home, but eventually he was able to extend his playing so that he could play with the rhythm section and he recorded seven other CDs in a studio. I should say, this is with a number of hand surgeries, a good deal of physical therapy, a good deal of pain shots. I mean he would prepare himself and he would pay a price after.
But you know, he never held back. He never let any of the challenges, the pain, the surgeries hold him back and stop him.
GROSS: Can you play something for us? A track from that first album where he - of the sessions he did in his living room after you had it all mic'd up for him?
MILLER: Well, this is actually from his second album.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
MILLER: But about that same time.
GROSS: But also from the living room.
MILLER: From the living room, you know, in the mid-'90s. This is his performance of "Just Friends," probably recorded in the middle of the night. I remember him calling me up the next day and playing it for me over the phone. And I was just stunned and I hope everybody enjoys it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST FRIENDS")
GROSS: That's Jimmy Amadie at the piano recorded in 1996 in his living room. If you're just joining us, we're remembering the pianist and jazz educator Jimmy Amadie, who died last week of lung cancer at the age of 76. And in the studio with me is one of his former students, our executive producer, Danny Miller. Danny studied with him in the '70s and '80s and then they became friends for the rest of Jimmy's life.
As we mentioned, Jimmy was able to record nine albums - two at home in his living room, seven in a studio - and he was able to perform once before he died in front of an audience. You were there, Danny. Tell us a little bit about that and what it meant to Jimmy.
MILLER: Well, it was a beautiful setting. It was in the grand hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Jimmy hadn't played in public since 1967, so this was 44 years after his last public performance. It was one of the most victorious moments of his life, and Jimmy - when he was a kid, Jimmy was into boxing, he was into football, he was really a star athlete. So he was very competitive by nature and this was his chance to prove who Jimmy Amadie was in concert, no holds barred.
And it was a great evening and, you know, I miss him most when I hear him play. This evening whenever I listen back to this concert brings those memories back. So what I thought it'd be nice to hear is the song that he opened up with, which is "There Is No Greater Love." Jimmy was playing with his trio - Tony Marino on bass and Bill Goodwin on drums. And thanks, Terry, for taking a couple of minute to remember Jimmy.
GROSS: Oh, and thank you for remembering him. And Danny, was Jimmy already sick when he performed this?
MILLER: Yeah. Jimmy was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago and this is just two years. But he was in pretty good shape then.
I mean, as I said, he was a fighter and very aggressive in staying healthy and taking lots of treatment to extend his life, and so this was at a pretty good time for him health-wise.
GROSS: Well, thank you, Danny, for telling us about Jimmy Amadie. Jimmy died last week of lung cancer at the age of 76. And here he is at the piano at that art museum concert that Danny was just describing. And Danny Miller is, of course, FRESH AIR's executive producer and was Jimmy's student and good friend.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE IS NO GREATER LOVE")
GROSS: That's Jimmy Amadie performing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art two years ago. On our website you'll find a link to a video of that concert. That's freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new album from a former lead singer of the '60s girl group the Crystals. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:This is FRESH AIR. Delores La La Brooks was a member of the Phil Spector girl group The Crystals. She sang lead on the 1960's hits "Do Doo Ron Ron" and "Then He Kissed Me." Now in her 60s, she's made a solo album called "All or Nothing." It's a collection of new songs and covers that rock critic Ken Tucker says is more than just an attempt at a career comeback.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
LA LA BROOKS: (singing) Forget how you look tonight. Never mind your style. Leather boots and jeans so tight take away your smile. The way the place gets electrified, when the door swings open and it's you, and my heart is beating. I'm so confused. It'll be so bad. I'll be so glad. If I could have a boy like you.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: A half-century on, La La Brooks is still singing about boys and girls falling in love. At an age when other veterans of first-generation rock movements are thinking about retirement or oldies tours, Brooks has come up with a fresh, energetic collection that does not deny her past, but also refuses to succumb to mere nostalgia.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIND MADE UP")
BROOKS: (singing) I've got my mind made up. When you're ready to go you're getting out of here. I've got my mind made up. When you're ready to go, you're getting out of here. Mm-hmm. I looked around for...
TUCKER: Brooks has a strong, surging voice that has deepened over the years, as can be heard on that song, "Mind Made Up." But it's not as though the teenager who sang the "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Then He Kissed Me" was a cooing puppet for Phil Spector. Brooks's singing then and now is characterized by a firm assertiveness. She conveys pleasure in being the object of someone's affection, but also in speaking her mind, even when the words are written by others.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I BROKE THAT PROMISE")
BROOKS: (singing) Where do we go from here? Have all the good times been here and gone? When we were just like the birds so free. And we vowed we'd never change, but it's not we who changed; the one who's changing is me. And I broke my promise, that promise that was so special to me. And I...
TUCKER: That's Brooks's cover of Willy De Ville's "I Broke That Promise." It's a song that Brooks has said she's wanted to record since De Ville released his own version of it in the late '70s. Like the Brooklyn-born La La Brooks, Willy De Ville was a New York rocker whose hardboiled exterior can barely contain a romantic's sensibility. Combine that with a learned-over-decades sense of right and wrong, and Brooks's collection gains a crisp authority.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
BROOKS: (singing) I stand by you in every fight and then I cry for you most every night. But this time I won't stand for one more lie. Because two wrongs don't make it right. I thought I loved you...
TUCKER: "All or Nothing" isn't a great album. Its material is uneven, much of it co-written by two of the musicians who helped put this album together, and the production quality can be somewhat muddy. But La La Brooks sings her heart out on every number, and she brings such nuanced force to her phrasing and tone that you don't mind the album's flaws.
"All or Nothing" is a reminder that rock and pop can thrive on imperfection, because it can make the performer sound all the more urgently alive.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed "All or Nothing" by La La Brooks.
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