Skip to main content

Levon Helm

Levon Helm was the drummer and lead vocalist for The Band. Helm's Arkansas roots gave the Canadian group an American folk sound. In the 1960's The Band got its start backing Bob Dylan. They went on their own in 1968 with Music From Big Pink.

13:49

Other segments from the episode on April 19, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 19, 2002: Interview with Robbie Robertson; Interview with Levon Helm; Interview with Eddie Palmieri; Review of the film "Sullivan's travels."

Transcript

DATE April 19, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm discuss their years
with The Band
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

THE BAND: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible) put it to kingdom come,
(unintelligible) only son. Just be careful what you do, it all come back on
you. Waltz with us, spread the news. Somebody's going to lose, either she or
me or you, nothing we can do. Oh, don't say a word 'bout anything you've
heard. Time will tell you well, true, true, yeah. Tarred and feathered,
yeah, fizzled and torn. One or the other, we gotta warn. When you look out
the window, tell me, what do you see? I see a golden calf looking back at me.
Been sitting in here for so darn long waiting for the end to come along.

GROSS: That's song from the 1968 album "Music From Big Pink," the first album
recorded by The Band. The Band's final performance was documented in the 1978
film, "The Last Waltz," directed by their fan, Martin Scorsese. "The Last
Waltz" is back in theaters. The DVD version, featuring unreleased footage,
will be released May 7th. There's also a new "Last Waltz" four-CD box set
containing previously unreleased performances. The concert featured such
guest performers as Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.
The Band got its name when it was Dylan's back-up band in the mid '60s. The
Band played on Bob Dylan's first electric tour when they were booed by fans.

We're going to hear from two members of The Band, Levon Helm and Robbie
Robertson. Robertson was The Band's guitarist and chief songwriter. He's now
an executive at DreamWorks. I spoke with him in 1994.

(Soundbite of 1994 interview)

GROSS: What was it like for you in the early days of playing with Dylan when
you would often get booed by fans who thought that he should stay a folkie?

Mr. ROBBIE ROBERTSON (Guitarist & Songwriter, The Band): Well, there was
times when I wasn't sure that I disagreed with them, that maybe he should stay
a folkie, because it was--we got booed all over the United States. We went to
Australia, they booed us. All over Europe they booed us. And we were getting
better. When we first started out, it was pretty rough, but it was actually
starting to take form and find itself and--but the audience was kind of on a
mission. You would come to these concerts more to partake in the ritual of
booing than you would really to listen to the music. But it was like we were
the bad guys in the situation. And there was a lot of people around saying,
`Listen, you'd better get rid of these guys. I mean, they're ruining
everything.' And I have to commend him on just his patience or else his
hard-headedness, I'm not sure which. But he stuck by it, and he believed in
it.

GROSS: Now how did The Band start establishing its identity nationally as a
group separate from Dylan?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Well, after we did this tour, we moved up to Woodstock and we
got this house up there, a place, really, just to go and do some writing and
like a clubhouse kind of place and--where we would just congregate every day.
And we went there and we started writing some songs, and Bob would come every
day and we would hang out, and it was just kind of a very relaxed music
situation. You know, there was just, you know, completely no pressure in what
we were doing. And we started--Bob started writing some songs. I started
writing some songs. Richard Manuel was doing some writing. And out of this
came "The Basement Tapes," the infamous "Basement Tapes," I guess, that
became, like, one of the first largely bootlegged records ever. And then
after that, from these songs, The Band recorded its first album, "Music From
Big Pink."

GROSS: The Band, early on, anyway, didn't really perform. It was a very
studio-oriented group and the studio was basically in the basement. Were you
tired of performing by then?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Well, we did. When "Music From Big Pink" came out, we didn't
go out and do concerts with that record because one of the members of The
Band, Rick Danko, was in a car accident and he broke his neck and he was in
traction for months; and we couldn't go out. And something happened. All of
a sudden, it was like we were, like, this mysterious group that made records
and never showed up, and when we did, there were these people all dressed in
black and looking like, you know, Pennsylvania Dutch people or something, as
opposed to rock 'n' roll musicians. And so it just became that kind of...

GROSS: Aura?

Mr. ROBERTSON: ...you know--yeah, aura around the group. And then after we
did our second album, then we went and played. I mean, we played at
Woodstock, we played at Watkins Glen, we played at the Isle of Wight. We
played our first concert at Winterland in San Francisco and our last concert
there when we did "The Last Waltz." But we did a lot of tours in between, and
maybe we didn't do it as much as some do, but we did do it a lot and we'd
already done it a lot. We'd been on the road for eight years before we made
"Music From Big Pink."

GROSS: When did you think it was time to leave The Band, you personally?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Well, when we did "The Last Waltz" I thought that we had run
the gamut then, and something was telling me in my gut that there wasn't much
more that we were going to be able to get out of this. And rather than see it
just kind of dribble out or it become, you know, an unpleasant situation
like--because I was seeing a lot of other groups around breaking up and it was
not under the most pleasant terms; and I thought, we've got to try to avoid
this if we possibly can. So that's when I suggested to the other guys that we
bring this thing, hopefully, to kind of a classy finale. And I thought of
this idea of doing "The Last Waltz" where we can kind of pay homage to a lot
of the people that had influenced us and that we had a lot of respect for in
music. And I thought, something needs to be done here to kind of just, you
know, up the grade of this, whatever it is; and that's when I talked to Martin
Scorsese about doing it.

GROSS: Did you know him already?

Mr. ROBERTSON: I had met him when he did "Mean Streets," but I didn't know
him very well. And so anyway, when I told him--when I met with him and told
him about the project and I told him what I had in mind--'cause he was saying,
`Jeez, you know, this is not a great time for me. I'm in the middle of doing
another movie. And, you know, you caught me at--you know, I'm not'--and so
when I told him what I had in mind, he said, `What am I going to do? I have
to do this,' you know; and so he proceeded to figure out a way to do it, and
we did it on Thanksgiving up in Winterland. And what he did was he made it
like he was going to take a little rest, a little Thanksgiving vacation, and
we all just slipped up to San Francisco and shot the movie.

GROSS: Robbie Robertson, recorded in 1994.

The Band first got together as The Hawks when they backed up an energetic
rockabilly singer from Arkansas named Ronnie Hawkins. The first musician to
join Hawkins was the drummer, Levon Helm, who was from Turkey Scratch,
Arkansas. Hawkins and Helm moved to Canada, where they found the other
members of The Band, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick
Danko. In 1964, The Hawks left Ronnie Hawkins to make it on their own. Helm
told the story of how The Hawks turned into The Band in his 1993 biography,
"This Wheel's On Fire." I spoke with Helm after its publication. I asked his
memory of what it was like when the band backed up Bob Dylan in 1965 and they
were booed by fans who didn't like the idea that he'd gone electric. I wanted
to know if Dylan gave them advice about how to handle the crowds.

(Soundbite of 1993 interview)

Mr. LEVON HELM (Drummer, The Band): We had a little huddle there backstage
before we went on for the second half. He played the first half by himself
and it went just smooth as silk and the crowd loved it. And the second half,
we huddled and he--we knew, we had read and heard about, you know, things
getting a little bit tough in Newport, and he told us, `Whatever happens,
don't stop playing. Just keep playing and give it a chance to settle down.'
And we did. And I don't know if it ever settled or not.

GROSS: You left the band shortly after it became Dylan's back-up band. Why
did you leave it? I mean, this was like, in retrospect, a great opportunity
for the group.

Mr. HELM: Well, it was, and, you know, I probably could have been smarter
about it, but we had played most of the American part of the tour. Bob wanted
to play Europe; he wanted to go to Australia. And so we played through the
Northeast, which was pretty tough. Towns like Boston, they gave us a standing
ovation of boos. And at the same time, we would hit Ft. Worth, Texas, and it
would be just another good rock 'n' roll party. But it started wearing on me,
and I got to the point where I couldn't find enough funny things to laugh
about; I didn't feel like joking around all the time like I usually do. And
rather than really make a boner, I decided that maybe I should let the tour go
ahead to Europe and to Australia and some foreign places without running the
risk of making a monkey out of myself. So I stayed back and waited on
everybody. I went back to Arkansas and played with the Kate Brothers Band(ph)
and kind of picked up where I'd left off, playing dances and so forth.

GROSS: So you rejoined the band after the band moved to the Catskills, which
was after Bob Dylan's motorcycle accident?

Mr. HELM: Yes, ma'am. He had a bike, spilled his bike after they got back.
So it kind of changed directions, and instead of so much touring, there was a
lot of extra time, you know, to put music together. And Garth set up his
Ampex tape machine in the basement there at Big Pink, and we started getting
together and just putting songs together and trying our voices, you know,
finding out, you know, how to stack our harmonies and just things like that,
that helped us out later on.

GROSS: We're listening to a 1993 interview with Levon Helm of The Band. More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1993 interview with Levon Helm from the group
The Band. He was the group's drummer and one of the vocalists. Martin
Scorsese's 1978 film of The Band's farewell concert, "The Last Waltz," is back
in the theater. The DVD is about to be released and there's a new four-CD box
set.

(Soundbite of 1993 interview)

GROSS: Well, you write in your book that you think the song "Ain't No More
Cane," which is actually recorded on "The Basement Tapes," was a real
breakthrough for the group.

Mr. HELM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What did you think was a breakthrough about it?

Mr. HELM: Probably the voices. That's when we first started swapping the
lead vocals around, you know. You know, we would trade verses and we found
out a couple of different ways to stack the harmonies and the answers up with
the lead vocal. So that helped us a lot as far as finding out, you know, the
different possibilities for our voices.

GROSS: Let's hear "Ain't No More Cane" from "The Basement Tapes."

Mr. HELM: All right.

(Soundbite of "Ain't No More Cane")

THE BAND: (Singing) Ain't no more cane on the 'rizon. Ooh-hoo-hoo. It's all
been ground down to molasses. Ooh-hoo-hoo. You should have been on the river
in 19 and 10. Ooh-hoo-hoo. They were driving the women just like they drove
the men. Ooh-hoo-hoo.

GROSS: So when you moved to the Catskills and The Band was living in a house
that was pink and was nicknamed Big Pink, did you move into the house with
them?

Mr. HELM: Yes, I did; moved into the house there. There was an extra spot
for me, and we used it as our headquarters and music room for a couple or
three years there.

GROSS: What was it like to all live together and play together? It could get
very insular. You could really get on each other's nerves in a situation like
that.

Mr. HELM: Well, not for us. We had been doing this for years. We had
traveled and shared the same bedroom--and bed--on different occasions. There
had certainly been times when maybe we could afford two rooms and after a few
flips of the old coin we found out who was gonna get the couch and who might
get an extra pillow and take the floor. So, no, we got along good and things
were a lot of fun for us. We had never had that kind of time on our hands.
We had come from the school of playing six nights a week and a dance on
Sundays if we could manage it. And, of course, Ronnie Hawkins could usually
manage to book that extra night. So all of a sudden, there we are in the
Catskills and we don't have a show to play that night, so we were enjoying it
just sitting around and, you know, the freedom to go down and play some music
or go outside and throw a football around at each other.

GROSS: So after recording in the basement, you finally got to record an
album. But...

Mr. HELM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...the band's name was not initially supposed to be The Band. What
was it supposed to be, and how did you end up with the name The Band?

Mr. HELM: We didn't know what it was supposed to be, and we had signed an
agreement with Capitol Records--well, it hadn't come to that yet. We were
trying to sign an agreement, and we ended up signing the agreement as the
Crackers and we thought that was funny. Nobody else did, especially the
record company.

GROSS: Was the joke that everybody except you was from the North?

Mr. HELM: Well, that--you know, we tried the Honkies just for variety, and
they didn't think that was too funny, either. But people referred to us as
The Band; you know, `Bob's at the hotel and The Band is headed for the sound
check.' So on the "Big Pink" record when it came time for the credits, to
list everybody's names, I think it said something like `The Band,' and then
underneath it told you who all was in the band. So when we cut our second
record, the record company kind of shifted that back around and they liked
that better than the Crackers.

GROSS: It's funny; here was this band that had been on the road together for
so long, right? And now that you had gotten used to recording in the basement
and had an album out, you didn't really want to go on the road.

Mr. HELM: Well, you know, by the time we got our record recorded, we had
learned a whole lot more than we had ever known before about our--you know,
the way we sounded and the different combinations we could use by changing
instruments around. So we didn't want to go on the road; we wanted to
continue to record and try and refine some of our formulas, you know, to help
us do better music, and we thought the closer we stuck with it now that we had
learned the fundamentals of playing music in a recording studio, we didn't
want to go back to playing live and forget what we had learned. We wanted to
kind of keep honing that particular style of chops. It's different playing in
a studio than it is playing live, of course. So we had managed to develop
some studio chops and we didn't want to back away from it that quick.

GROSS: Levon Helm is my guest.

When did things start going bad for The Band--within The Band, dissension and
things like that? I mean, for example, you write in the book about how really
annoyed you were when you'd see on records that Robbie Robertson had all the
songwriting or most of the songwriting credits.

Mr. HELM: Well, that was a bit of a distraction. I didn't think it was quite
fair; not that Robbie didn't do a lot of the songwriting, most of it in some
spots. But at the same time, Richard did some good work, and I always thought
that Garth and Rick and myself was there all the way, no matter whose idea the
song was or if it was halfway there or, you know, it was finished. Most of
our stuff then got finished under that workshop kind of circumstance, and that
was just one of the things that came up that kind of created a little bit of
tension in the group. I could see it, you know, hampering our collaboration,
and it, you know, started bothering the spirit of it.

GROSS: Robbie Robertson in I guess it was '76 decided he wanted to leave The
Band and that The Band should break up and have this big finale concert and go
out with a real bang. You didn't want The Band to break up, so you tried to
resist that; but I guess you weren't able to.

Mr. HELM: Well, I wasn't. By then--maybe "The Last Waltz" started back, you
know, during some of the disenchantment that I felt when the songs didn't
reflect what I thought was the true spirit of things. So by the time "The
Last Waltz" came up, it was no secret our collaboration and, I felt, the
quality of our music had suffered. I didn't hear us getting better. I heard
us, you know, doing albums with old songs that we liked as opposed to getting
in and really trying to grow a fresh crop of songs. And so I certainly didn't
want to end The Band. "The Last Waltz," you know, didn't set right with me,
but, you know, there comes a time when we all want to move on; and that's what
we did.

GROSS: Levon Helm, recorded in 1993. He's currently on tour with the Barn
Burners. Martin Scorsese's film of The Band's farewell performance, "The Last
Waltz," is back in theaters. The DVD version is about to be released, and
there's the CD box set featuring previously unreleased performances from the
concert.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Eddie Palmieri discusses his musical career
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Pianist Eddie Palmieri has been given many nicknames. He's been called The
Latin Monk because of his Thelonious Monk-inspired dissonances. He's been
called The Piano Breaker Man(ph), because he hits the keys so hard. He's even
been called the madman of Latin music. He's taken many of the innovations of
modern jazz pianists and brought them into his Latin bands. But he's never
stopped playing good dance music.

Palmieri grew up in New York, where his parents had moved from Puerto Rico.
He's been leading his own jazz-salsa group since 1961. He's won several
Grammys. His new CD features a new version of his 1960s ensemble, "La
Perfecta," which was known for its great trombone section and gave the band
the nickname the band with the crazy roaring elephants. The CD is called "La
Perfecta II." Here's a track from it.

(Soundbite of music)

Group of Singers: (Singing in Spanish)

GROSS: Eddie Palmieri was born in Spanish Harlem in 1936. He moved with his
family to the South Bronx when he was seven. When I spoke with him in 1994, I
asked him to compare the two neighborhoods.

Mr. EDDIE PALMIERI (Musician): Oh, well, it--they were different at that
time. The Hispanic movement was certainly into the El Barrio, what they
called. And we moved there when I was five years old. And by seven years
old, I was already being accompanied by my brother playing piano. He was nine
years older than me. And my brother passed away in '88, 60 years young. But
then when we moved to the Bronx, then my father, being a genius as far as
being a radio and television repairman and plumber and everything you could
think that had to do with manual labor--he worked very, very hard all his
life--and my mother was a seamstress. My mother had arrived in New York in
1925; my father in '26. And he wasn't able to court her in Puerto Rico
because of my grandmother with the broom. And...

GROSS: Wait, wait. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Your grandmother...

Mr. PALMIERI: With the broom.

GROSS: Your father couldn't court your mother in Puerto Rico because of your
grandmother with the broom.

Mr. PALMIERI: And smoking the cigars. My grandmother smoking the cigar with
the limp leg and running after him with the broom. My father figured it's
better if he met my mother in New York.

GROSS: Did...

Mr. PALMIERI: So...

GROSS: ...your grandmother have something against, you know...

Mr. PALMIERI: Oh, I would definitely say so.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. PALMIERI: And then the thing is that my father arrived on the next ship
a year later, and by 1926, they married. And by '27, my brother was born. I
was born in '36. When we arrived in the South Bronx, it was just a beautiful,
beautiful neighborhood and lamp lights on all the buildings in the entrances
to the buildings. And it was wonderful experience. There were no cars at
all. We were able to play stick ball and not worry about any cars in the
street. It was wonderful years that I remember in the South Bronx.

GROSS: What did it mean to you to be a Puerto Rican when you were growing up?
Were you anxious to assimilate? Were you very proud of being Puerto Rican or
just--were you just Puerto Rican and didn't think about it very much, one way
or another?

Mr. PALMIERI: No, no. Always quite unique being Puerto Rican because of
what I saw, in the family being so united. When my relatives all came to
Puerto Rico, my uncles on--my grandmother, for example, had an open house
policy, you know, which meant that on Saturdays, we would see my grandmother
going down to the Safeway, A&P and doing the shopping. And plus, she would
stop at the liquor store and bring about, oh, six or eight bottles of
different ryes and rums, whatever, merely because my grandfather was also a
professional gambler. So on Friday night, the card games would start, and by
midnight on Saturday, there was no liquor stores open. And the only one that
had the liquor was grandma. And as she sold you a liquor, she would light up
a cigar.

And then my grandfather was quite unique in playing, so he would clean up, and
they would have a house kitty. And on top of that, my uncles, who worked in
leather factories, they would bring my father--my grandfather--excuse
me--these arm bands and suspenders that he would put on with a little hammer
and a copper cup there. He would put the little brass tips on them, and that
was how he made his living. And on Saturdays, all my uncles would get
together and then they would take out their guitars and they would start to
sing. By 13, I was already playing drums with my uncle, Chino Gates(ph),
(Spanish spoken), because I didn't want to play the piano anymore. I wanted
to become my brother's drummer.

GROSS: Now I know when you were growing up, your mother really wanted you to
play piano, but you wanted to play drums.

Mr. PALMIERI: Right.

GROSS: Let's start with your mother wanting you to play piano. Why was she
so big on that?

Mr. PALMIERI: Well, because she passed the Depression here. And actually,
in 1929, she was here already. She arrived in '25. And a lesson was 25
cents, and the idea was you couldn't--you know, try to get the 25 cents. With
$1.25, they made a whole grocery shopping. It's amazing what happened in the
years of the Depression. And because my brother was already playing piano and
he was nine years older than me, then my mother certainly insisted on me to
play piano, too. And I did. And I couldn't thank her, you know, enough for
that.

GROSS: Now I read that your mother said that she thought piano lessons would
help keep you off the streets. Did it?

Mr. PALMIERI: Oh, of course. Not only that, but it saved me from having
these rumbles in the school yard on Saturday night 'cause I would work with my
uncle, you know? My first pay with my uncle was a $1.25, but I missed being
in the school yard, which meant that Saturday nights, you'd be getting in the
school yards, and then there would be, like, two clubs, whatever. And
the--you know, the past time with Eddie you fight John, you know, today, you
know? That's the idea. And, you know, getting punched around isn't quite
enjoyable on a Saturday night. I'd rather be playing music.

GROSS: Now when you were playing in your uncle's band, you were in your early
teens. What did you play in the band?

Mr. PALMIERI: Oh, I played timbales and my uncle sang. My other uncle
played conga, and we had two guitars, a tres and a second guitar who sang, a
trumpet and the bass player, Nicolas. When there wasn't enough money to pay
the bass player, Nicolas was out.

GROSS: Now you studied classical music when you were young--Right?--on the
piano?

Mr. PALMIERI: Well, because of Ms. Margaret Barnes. She was a classical
concert player, and by 11, I gave a recital at Carnegie Hall Recital Hall, but
remember, all those years, from 11 to 12, I just wanted to play drums. So it
hurt me from not really getting into the fundamentals of the instrument as I
need to and I do now.

GROSS: So when you were playing timbales in your uncle's band, what was the
atmosphere like? You were, I don't know, 13 or 14, and he was...

Mr. PALMIERI: Oh yeah.

GROSS: ...playing in dance halls or...

Mr. PALMIERI: Yeah, dance halls and up in the villa. The villas is like
the Borscht circuit--you know, the Catskills here, you know?

GROSS: You were playing in the Borscht Belt when you were 13 or 14?

Mr. PALMIERI: No, no, but in the Spanish ones.

GROSS: The Spanish Borscht Belt.

Mr. PALMIERI: Yeah, they were owned by Spaniards at that time. They call
them las villas, and...

GROSS: So this is in the Catskill Mountains of New York where a lot of summer
resorts are?

Mr. PALMIERI: Listen to this, platicum off Newburgh. Yeah. And I started
working up there 1950, '51, you know? I mean, it's unbelievable.

GROSS: So what was the atmosphere like? What kind of people did you meet?

Mr. PALMIERI: Well, I'll give you an idea. The first day I got there, I
went to see the pool. They told me they had a pool in this villa, and I went
to see the pool. There was a cow drinking at one end of the pool.

GROSS: A cow?

Mr. PALMIERI: Yeah.

GROSS: What was a cow doing drinking from a pool?

Mr. PALMIERI: I don't know. I didn't know. Her name was Elsie(ph) at that
time, so I didn't even--you know? From Borton's(ph) milk. The main thing is
that was the cows that gave you the milk. For $35, you could stay a week at
the villas, room and board, and that fresh milk pitcher was there in the
morning, and then my uncles and my grandfather would love to go up there
because they could gamble up there. They could play cards all day long or
dominoes and that was their world. And my uncle was booked as the music of
the villas, and I was part of that. So that was the way we made our living.

GROSS: Did you drink when you were young?

Mr. PALMIERI: No, but my uncles certainly did, and I always tried to, like,
grab a drink or so, you know, but it was difficult 'cause all my aunts were
there and they would tattletale to my mother.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. PALMIERI: ...(Unintelligible) my mother.

GROSS: Pianist and band leader Eddie Palmieri is my guest. We'll be right
back. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Back with pianist Eddie Palmieri.

When you were young, you played with Tito Rodriguez. What did you learn about
showmanship and running a band from watching him?

Mr. PALMIERI: Oh, he was the one. He was the dandy. He was the dandy
because no one dressed like him.

GROSS: How did he dress?

Mr. PALMIERI: Oh, immaculately, you know, so hip and he was so sharp. The
orchestra all in uniform because he was the best singer that we had here as
far as a rumero singer(ph), of an orchestra leader, and he had the
preparations to do it. And he just kept improving constantly because of his
competitive edge, you know, that he always had with Mr. Tito Puente. If Tito
Puente played vibes, Tito Rodriguez wanted to learn how to play vibes, you
know? It was one of those things. He just couldn't stand--you know, mostly
Tito Rodriguez towards Tito Puente. There was something that just irked him,
you know, but when I was working with him from the year '58 to '60, I
certainly learned a tremendous amount from Mr. Tito Rodriguez, and may he
rest in peace, but he knows that he's in my heart.

GROSS: What did you wear in the band?

Mr. PALMIERI: Oh, all different kinds of uniforms. Sometimes we looked like
waiters, you know, and they would ask us for a drink and that, and, you know,
I would give them my drink and, you know, take the tip or something like that.
The main thing is our tuxedos, but we worked because--with Tito at that time,
then we didn't stay working in what they call the circuit. He went to Vegas
and we did Vegas, and he had to show--his wife was oriental Japanese and she
sang. And he had a Cuban dancer, Marta(ph), and he was after that Desi
Arnaz-Lucille Ball movement since he knew Desi and he knew Lucille Ball
because his wife also came from one of those show cabarets, but he was so
sharp, you know, and he could dance. And the thing was he could sing.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TITO RODRIGUEZ: (Singing in Spanish)

GROSS: When did you feel ready to form your own band?

Mr. PALMIERI: 1960. After I left Tito Rodriguez, it took about a year, and
then by 1961, I started a different form of orchestra, La Perfecta. That
started in late '61 which was the orchestra then that stood together for
seven, eight years, and we had two trombones, a wooden flute and timbales,
conga, bass, singer and I with a total of eight.

GROSS: Were trombones unusual for a Latin band?

Mr. PALMIERI: At that time, yes. They called us, like, the sound of the
roaring elephants.

GROSS: So when people compared your sound to elephants, was that in praise?

Mr. PALMIERI: Oh, well, in praise and in annoyance. You know, it was a
combination of both because we were playing up in the Catskills for three
summers with that orchestra, and that's a really commercial setting. And the
orchestra certainly didn't belong there, but we needed it to be there because
that was the way we would be able to maintain our status in the city, by being
away for the summer. Like, Machito would go to the Concord and Tito Puente
would go to the Presidential Hotel and Swan Lake or whatever. And we landed
up in Kutches Country Club(ph), and then I landed up in Browns. And then I
landed up in--eventually in '65, in the Raleigh Hotel, and that's where they
called us the roaring elephants.

GROSS: Now a lot of the hotels that you mentioned had primarily Jewish
clientele vacationing there.

Mr. PALMIERI: Right. That's why I told you before. Sometimes the mouse
was quite annoying.

GROSS: So were you used to seeing people who weren't Latin doing the cha-cha
and the mambo and everything? And I wonder what you thought of their dancing.

Mr. PALMIERI: Oh, no. Of course, because in the '50s, remember that the
Jewish clientele was the clientele in the Palladium on Wednesdays.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. PALMIERI: And what we saw was not only the Jewish clientele dancing to
the most incredible dances that you could find, but you saw Marlon Brando
there. You saw him playing bongos with Tito Puente. I mean, you saw things
in the '50s that you wouldn't believe and then the mambo with Tito Puente
again and Tito Rodriguez and Machito. These were great orchestras that the
Jewish clientele followed. On Fridays and Saturdays, the Palladium was more
Hispanic, and on Sunday, it was definitely black. So we had four different
days there that we had four different, unique ethnic groups coming to dance
and they all danced superbly.

GROSS: I want to play one of your classic recordings. I want to play "Puerto
Rico."

Mr. PALMIERI: Oh, I love it. We just did that in Puerto Rico just now.

GROSS: Did you?

Mr. PALMIERI: Yes.

GROSS: Well, let me play an early recording of it, and this is my guest,
Eddie Palmieri, his band. He's featured, of course, on piano.

(Soundbite of "Puerto Rico")

Mr. PALMIERI: (Singing in Spanish)

GROSS: What stage were you at when you recorded that?

Mr. PALMIERI: Oh, I was in quite an incredible stage, always with the
economical pressures around you, but I found myself in Puerto Rico walking on
the beach and looking at that beautiful ocean, and that's what the lyrics say.
(Spanish spoken), you know, `beautiful island with your blessed water
surrounding you.' So that's a special album in a special year you played for
me.

GROSS: In Latin music, there's a lot of repetition that the piano plays. I
think--is that called montuno?

Mr. PALMIERI: That's exactly right.

GROSS: So...

Mr. PALMIERI: It's a montuno part, but it's called a guajillo. You'll hear
like: bompee, bompee, bompee, bompee. That would be a guajillo that I'm
using there, and I'll use the guajillos behind the percussionist, because the
least amount of harmonic changes in Latin is where we get the highest degree
of synchronization which is what you're after. We simplify the chord changes
and there we get what we call a masacorte(ph), which is the synchronization of
the rhythm section and the piano and bass, so that we're featuring that
soloist that is showcasing himself or that I'm showcasing on the record or,
you know, live presentations to the public.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PALMIERI: (Singing in Spanish)

GROSS: I want to play something from your album "Palmas," and you have a
piece on here called "Bolero Dos."

Mr. PALMIERI: Right.

GROSS: And it opens with an extended piano solo. I mean, there's no rhythm
behind you...

Mr. PALMIERI: Right.

GROSS: ...in this piano solo, which is very unusual in Latin music. I mean,
the rhythm never stops in Latin music.

Mr. PALMIERI: Well, I've always done that since the son of Latin music that
won the first Grammy. It's just piano alone.

GROSS: Now why do you go for that?

Mr. PALMIERI: Oh, I mentioned that before, is that I love variations of a
theme, and I know exactly what's going to come behind me, but it's such a
beautiful melody that why not play with the, you know, piano first? And
there's never been a piano opening or intro that has annoyed or not brought in
an audience. So when you're in an audience that your rhythm can be, not
annoying, but certainly complicated, it's wonderful to hear a piano first and
we'll just--you know, like, I'll just sip it in, you know, like by playing
piano, and then all of a sudden, then I'll go into my orchestra and it's been
very, very well accepted. And I love to do it. And it's more pianistic. So
it helps me in my direction of getting to know my instrument better and
better.

GROSS: Well, let's hear the beginning of "Bolero Dos." This is Eddie
Palmieri on piano.

(Soundbite of "Bolero Dos")

GROSS: Well, we could hear you growl on that song.

Mr. PALMIERI: See, I told you. I warned you.

GROSS: How did you start growling like that?

Mr. PALMIERI: Well, let me tell you what happened. My first recording--you
know, we started to record years ago. The first recording, "Alegre," and all
of a sudden, I see the owner walk in with the engineer, and he walks in and I
say, `Los amigos, what is that?' you know? And, `What is what?' And we start
looking for something that nobody can--you know? `What is what?' And we
start looking. And sure enough, we go back to recording, and he comes back,
`What is that?' you know, and finally he found out it was me. So then they
didn't know what to do with me. Either gag me or put some kind of--yeah, they
wanted to gag me. Either that or, you know, like, cover the piano, and they
did everything with the piano until later on in the other recordings,
different, you know--and they said, `Let it be. That's the way he sounds.
And, you know, that's him. Let it go. Let it go. What are you going to do?
You know, don't gag him. You'd probably choke him.'

GROSS: Were you aware of the fact that you growled before the engineer
mentioned it?

Mr. PALMIERI: Not like that, you know? Really your proof is when you hear
it back. It's, like, `What is that?' you know? But it's that inner, spirit
inside. And it gives me, like, some kind of an ambiance for myself when I
play and it helps, and I just can't help it. It's just me.

GROSS: Eddie Palmieri, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. PALMIERI: Thank you, my dear Terry, and I want to wish you the best in
the City of Brotherly Love, and now after talking to you, it's Sisterly Love.

GROSS: Eddie Palmieri recorded in 1994. He has a new CD called "La Perfecta
II" featuring a new version of his 1960s band.

Coming up Henry Sheehan reviews the DVD of the classic film "Sullivan's
Travels." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: DVD release of "Sullivan's Travels"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Movies from Hollywood's golden age make us laugh or cry so readily that it's
been hard for many people to credit them with being more than entertainment.
There certainly can't be art. A new DVD release of Preston Sturges' backstage
comedy, "Sullivan's Travels," is the occasion for film critic Henry Sheehan to
examine that issue.

HENRY SHEEHAN reporting:

Is it art or entertainment? Do we respond to the exultations of the muses or
the demands of the bankers? Hollywood has always been bedeviled by these
questions and not just on the inside where directors and writers face off
against producers and executives. Even audiences wonder whether the comedy
they're laughing at is a proper response to a world in torment.

Imagine how fraught a problem that was in 1942 when the US was not only at
war, but the Great Depression was not yet a memory. Oddly, this state marked
the midpoint of one of the greatest roles in comedy history, the seven movies
the writer/director Preston Sturges made between 1940 and 1944. It was then
Sturges made "Sullivan's Travels," a comedy about an A-list Hollywood director
who decides he's tired of making lighthearted frolics like "Ants in Your Pants
of 1939." He wants to make a political drama called "Oh, Brother, Where Art
Thou?" based on the struggle for social survival.

In one of the funniest scenes ever made for movies and in a perfect example of
Sturges' gift for dialogue, the director, John Sullivan, played by Joel
McCrea, tries to convince two studio executives, played by Robert Warwick and
Porter Hall, of the wisdom of his desire.

(Soundbite from "Sullivan's Travels")

Mr. JOEL McCREA (As John Sullivan): You see? You see the symbolism of it?
Capital and labor destroy each other. It teaches a lesson, a moral lesson.
It has social significance.

Unidentified Actor #1: Who wants to see that kind of stuff? It gives me the
creeps.

Mr. McCREA: Tell him how long it played in the music hall.

Unidentified Actor #2: It was held over a fifth week.

Unidentified Actor #1: Who goes to the music hall? Communists.

Mr. McCREA: Communists? This picture is an answer to Communists. It shows
we're awake and not dunking our heads in the sand like a bunch of ostriches.
I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions, stark realism,
the problems that confront the average man.

Unidentified Actor #2: But with a little sex.

Mr. McCREA: A little, but I don't want to stress it. I want this picture to
be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a
picture of dignity, a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.

Unidentified Actor #2: But with a little sex.

Mr. McCREA: With a little sex in it.

Unidentified Actor #1: How about a nice musical?

Mr. McCREA: How can you talk about musicals at a time like this with the
world committing suicide, with corpses piling up in the street, with grim
death gargling at you from every corner, with people slaughtered like sheep?

Unidentified Actor #1: Maybe they'd like to forget that.

Mr. McCREA: And why do they hold this one over for a fifth week at the music
hall? For the ushers?

Unidentified Actor #1: It died in Pittsburgh.

Unidentified Actor #2: Like a dog.

Mr. McCREA: What do they know in Pittsburgh?

Unidentified Actor #2: They know what they like.

Mr. McCREA: If they knew what they liked, they wouldn't live in Pittsburgh.
That's no argument.

SHEEHAN: "Sullivan's Travels" is not a forgotten or lost film by any means.
No movie with dialogue like that could vanish from cinematic memory, but a
recent DVD release of the film from Criterion complete with a documentary
about Sturges and some old tape of him singing at his home piano suggests that
it's a richer movie than generally believed. It's much more than a cynical,
if hilarious, retort to privileged filmmakers who would assume to speak for
the downtrodden.

"Sullivan's Travels" is actually a modern-day "Candide." Only the apparently
worldly director turns out to be the naive traveler and his experience guide
is a young woman disappointed in an acting career. Sullivan meets the girl,
played by pouty-voiced, peekaboo-blonde Veronica Lake, in the film's middle
portion. It's a joke, of course, that the girl never, in fact, gets a name, a
clue that Sturges is breaking his movie down into bits of convention so that
he can build it up again. Over the next half-hour, the girl teases the
director out of his self-congratulatory pomposity and through love brings him
to a more humane selflessness.

But Sturges' ideas of comedy had a classical bent. Sullivan has anchored the
gods with his pride and he must be brought down low. And so the movie's final
third is dark and somber, though, like the rest of the movie, loaded with
irony. Sullivan mistakenly ends up sentenced to a Southern prison work camp,
a familiar film setting of the 1930s. There he learns that abstractions like
justice, an abstraction he thought he could put on film, have no meaning
outside of concrete human experiences and that laughter seems to be the key to
all of them.

A brass-knuckled satirist, Sturges attacked American pieties about sex and
politics with an unmatched fervor, but a satirist needs double vision, one eye
to keep on humanity's foibles, another to fasten on its possibilities. In
"Sullivan's Travels," in a time of national struggle and fear, Sturges could
see both without ever getting cockeyed.

GROSS: Film critic Henry Sheehan lives in Los Angeles.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

07:28

'Luster' Combines Nicely Tailored Prose With A Stinging Sense Of Humor

Raven Leilani's novel centers on a young woman with a free-range libido who dreams of being a painter. Luster is a crackling debut about sex, art and the inescapable workings of race.

43:07

'Ghosting The News' Author Says Local Journalism 'Freefall' Is Accelerating

More than 2,000 newspapers have shut down in recent years, and some regions have become news deserts. Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan says the collapse of local news undermines democracy.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue