DATE April 12, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Former Senator Bob Dole discusses his new book
"One Soldier's Story"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Former Senator Bob Dole has written a memoir that revolves around the moment
that changed his life, when he was wounded in World War II during a firefight
against the Germans in the Italian Alps. He writes, `Whatever it was that hit
me had ripped apart my shoulder, breaking my collarbone and my right arm,
smashing down into my vertebrae and damaging my spinal cord.' Bob Dole
permanently lost the use of one arm and as a result of infection, had one
kidney removed. But for a while, things looked far worse. Doctors thought he
wouldn't survive and that if he did, he would never walk again.
Dole's memoir, "One Soldier's Story," describes his injuries and the long
process of recovery. It also describes growing up in Russell, Kansas. Bob
Dole represented Kansas in the Senate for 27 years, 12 of which he served as
the Republican leader. He was the Republican nominee for president in 1996
and was the chair of the National World War II Memorial.
Some men always know that they want to fight in the Army. Did you feel that
way? Did you, like, want to join or, you know, was that something you had
actually aspired to, being in the military?
Former Senator BOB DOLE: (Republican) No, I don't think so. I think, you
know, we had a draft board, and if you didn't--in my case, I enlisted. I
thought I'd have more choices if I enlisted rather than waiting for the draft,
but the draft wasn't far behind. And it occurred to me that there were more
possibilities through the enlisted reserves, which I joined in December of
1942, and was called to active duty in 1943 and then later went on to Officer
Candidate School. But did I have any burning desire to join the Army? No. I
mean, you know, I appreciate those who were serving, but I think we knew in
World War II, if we were of sound body and the right age and, you know,
physically fit, we were going to end up in the service.
In my case and my brother's case, which is not in the book, we were what they
call not color-blind but color-confused, and so we couldn't get in the Air
Force or the Navy. Our choice was the infantry. I mean, we didn't have any
GROSS: Before the injury that left one of your arms useless and nearly killed
you, you had another injury in the war. Would you just briefly describe what
happened the first time?
Mr. DOLE: Well, I think what we had--we had almost--I was twice wounded. I
got two Purple Hearts. But the first one was sort of a superficial--we were
out on a night patrol with my platoon, not the entire platoon, about 10 of us,
as I recall. And at one point, we saw some fire coming from a farmhouse which
was occupied by the enemy, the Germans. And I think three or four of us
unloaded grenades, and one of the grenades hit a tree and bounced back and hit
a couple of us, and we had these superficial wounds. And later on, we got a
Purple Heart and never could figure out why, but--it didn't detain us.
But then April 14th was the big one. That's when I really got hurt. And I
was trying to pull my radio man back to safety 'cause he had been hit, and I
felt this sting in my right shoulder. And apparently it was some kind of a
high-explosive shell. I still have fragments of the shell in that shoulder
area. And it ripped into my body and injured my spinal cord and caused all
kinds of problems. But I couldn't walk, I couldn't feed myself for about a
year. I started walking in about six months--I guess you'd call it walking,
sort of struggling to walk. So it was a pretty serious injury. I lost a
kidney during the process and had this pulmonary embolism, and that's the one
that really kept me in the hospital 39 months. Part of that time I was on
leave, but in and out of the hospital for 39 months.
And then about a year or two after I left the hospital--it took me about a
year or two to really--so I could say that I was independent. With a button
hook, I could button my shirt. I still need a little help with my necktie,
but I think you learn a lot in the process. You learn to be patient, which
has never been a strong suit for me, and you learn to adapt. I mean, you have
to use what you have, and you find out you can do a lot of things in a
different way that you couldn't do before.
GROSS: What do you actually remember from the moment that you were hit?
Mr. DOLE: It's kind of fuzzy except your life kind of passes through. I
mean, sort of these flash points. It must be what they call a near-death
experience. I saw my little white dog. His name was Spitzy, S-P-I-T-Z-Y. It
was a Spitz dog, not a very creative name. But I thought of a young lady
there that I'd dated a couple of times. I thought of my parents, my brother,
my sisters. My whole life just sort of floated by, and I was sort of in and
out of consciousness as I was lying there on the battlefield waiting for some
litter bearers to remove me, which they did, I guess, about nine hours later.
And beyond that, I don't remember a great deal. I remember I couldn't move
anything in my body, and I thought my arms were gone. And so I asked this
Sergeant Manninin(ph), you know, `Where are my arms?' And he said, `Well,
they're above your head.' And I said, `Well, please, put them on my chest.'
I think that was either Manninin or Sergeant Frank Carafa. So that's what
I really--the next thing I remember, I was going down a hillside in a litter,
and I remember they scraped my back. Apparently a rock or something just sort
of right down your back, and I could feel that.
Then I went on to a field hospital. I remember being in a line of litters,
and I don't remember another thing until I woke up in a hospital in
GROSS: When you woke up in the hospital, you still didn't have any movement?
Mr. DOLE: No, I didn't have any movement for a long time.
GROSS: Or sensation in a good deal of your body, did you?
Mr. DOLE: No. I could talk, I could see people. I mean, I was alert. I
just couldn't do anything. And people helped me--bathed me and they took me
to the bathroom, which is humiliating, as you might guess, but you get
accustomed to it because it has to be done. And the nurses and the orderlies
and the other technicians, they consider that's their job. I'd always
apologize, say, `I'm sorry I have to do this.' But I've kind of joked. I
think I could have learned to feed myself more quickly, but the nurses were so
nice and it was somebody to talk to. They bring your food in. If I could
talk to them for a half-hour or 45 minutes, whatever it took, that was always
kind of a nice--you know, something a little different.
GROSS: You were in a body cast for a long time.
Mr. DOLE: Right.
GROSS: Would you describe what the cast was like and what the experience of
being in it was like?
Mr. DOLE: Yeah, it's sort of what the old gladiators wore.
GROSS: Like the armor?
Mr. DOLE: Yeah, like the armor. That's about what it was. It came up under
your chin, up around your--below your ears and the back of your neck--and, of
course, they didn't want my neck to move because of the spinal injury--and
then way down to your waist. And my right arm, which was more seriously
damaged, was sort of propped up at a 45-degree angle and my hand stuck out in
front of me, so it was sort of a body armor with that little appendage. And I
still wasn't able to do much with my left arm, particularly my hand. I could
kind of move my elbow, but I couldn't hold anything with my left arm or my
left hand. It'd slip out of my hand. I didn't have enough strength.
But it was--once you, as I remember, got used to it, it wasn't too
uncomfortable, but initially, it's very uncomfortable. You can't move. You
can't scratch where it itches, but I guess you get used to it.
GROSS: Then you described how it just started to smell after awhile because
it's not like you can take it off and clean it.
Mr. DOLE: Yeah, after you drop a few carrots and peas and a little mashed
potato down your--they'd feed me and, you know, sometimes it would drop off
the spoon. And I don't say it was that--didn't have a plateful of stuff down
there, but there was enough that after a few weeks, it started to smell a
little. So what they did, they finally cut the cast so they could sort
of, like a lid, lift off part of it and clean it up and then put the lid back
GROSS: And you describe how your mother basically moved in to take care of
you. She took care of you in the hospital, and of course, she took care of
you when you got home. And, you know, here's what I'm thinking: Like, you
had no physical ability then. You couldn't take care of yourself, you
couldn't control your body functions, you couldn't...
Mr. DOLE: Right.
GROSS: ...feed yourself. And, you know, a mother is somebody you never have
to feel embarrassed around. And I think, you know, that's--don't you think
that's one of the wonderful things about a mother taking care of you then?
Mr. DOLE: Oh, well, a mother--you're right, Terry. I've only once seen my
mother really, really sob, I mean, really uncontrollably crying. And that's
when she first got a glimpse of me when I arrived in Topeka, Kansas. But she
went back--she left, say, for five minutes and regained her composure and came
back and like nothing had ever happened. But you can tell from people's eyes
that they'd been crying. But mothers are great, and you learn to appreciate
your mother and your father, of course.
But the one thing that really pleased me when we found all these letters--I
didn't know they existed. I couldn't remember what was in the letters. But I
read them all and read the letters that were sent to me, and I was--I thought
I always respected my parents, but reading the letters back and forth
confirmed that opinion that we had a great relationship. We weren't the
hugging kind of family, but we were the caring kind of family. People can
express themselves in different ways.
GROSS: You know, we were talking about how you never have to be embarrassed
around your mother, so it's wonderful, like, when a mother comes and takes
care of you when you're really sick, as you were. You married...
Mr. DOLE: It's still a little embarrassing, maybe it's because you're
dealing with one of your daughters, but, you know, it's still embarrassing for
a grown young man to have...
GROSS: Good point.
Mr. DOLE: ...his mother...
GROSS: Good point. I'm thinking like a girl. Good point.
Mr. DOLE: Yeah. Well, no, but I'm not sure of that...
GROSS: That's a really good point.
Mr. DOLE: ...but I was always a little embarrassed my mother had to empty the
Mr. DOLE: ...you know, give me a bath, but it never bothered her. I mean,
she would just say, `Now, you know, just be good now. Let me do this,' and so
I tried to be good.
GROSS: Oh, that's a very excellent point, though...
Mr. DOLE: She used to hold cigarettes for me, too, which was a--tested
anybody who smoked, and here she was holding my cigarettes.
GROSS: Do you think you would have gone into politics if you weren't injured
in the war? Do you think your life might have taken a completely different
Mr. DOLE: I think so. I've wondered about that a lot if, say, nothing had
happened. The war was about over--three weeks to go--and I wouldn't have been
injured, but, you know, what do you do if you come back? Would I have gone
back to school? I think so, but I'm not certain. But having this injury, I
knew I had to do something. I had to finish my education. And I used to say
if I can't use my hands, I'll use my head and go to law school and do whatever
you do with a law degree. So I think I realized that, you know, you're in
good shape now, you've got a future ahead of you and you've got to prepare for
GROSS: My guest is Bob Dole. His new memoir is called "One Soldier's Story."
We'll talk more about a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is former Senate Majority Leader
Bob Dole. He has a new memoir about serving in World War II and recovering
from the injury that nearly killed him. It's called "One Soldier's Story."
Now, you know, we've been talking about your recovery from your World War II
injury. Just a few months ago, you had hip replacement. You were on blood
thinner and you ended up with internal bleeding that also...
Mr. DOLE: I fell down.
GROSS: You fell down, and that's how you got the internal bleeding?
Mr. DOLE: Yeah. The hip surgery went very well. The surgery for--in New
York, the specialists, they only do bone and joint surgery in this hospital,
and Dr. Paleechi(ph) operated on me. But a month after that operation, I was
still on blood thinners, and I fell in the bedroom of our home and apparently
hit my head and hit my arm. And I had this bleeding in my head, which nearly
cost me my life, according to the doctors. And I was in the hospital 41 days,
I think, and I had a blood clot, and my left arm was swollen the size of
my--almost the size of my leg, filled with fluid. I mean, I had all kinds of
problems because of my fall. But my hip--the surgery on the hip was great. I
mean, excellent, no more pain and no more pills. But we didn't anticipate
that I would fall on January the 11th, which--I'm still getting therapy for my
left arm and shoulder.
GROSS: Well, was your coping mechanism any different this time around than it
was when you were, you know, a young man in the 1940s?
Mr. DOLE: It was almost worse, I think. Here I am, 81 years of age, and I'm
back in a hospital. It's almost deja vu all over again. Here we go again.
Here I was almost 60 years from the date I was wounded, back in the hospital.
I couldn't feed myself, I couldn't go to the bathroom. It was just like it's
going to happen again, and I was really down. I don't know if `depressed'
would be the right word, but I was really--my spirits were low because it
takes longer when you get older to make that recovery. And I'm still sort of
in a recovery mode. I get a little tired and--I tire more easily, and my left
arm is I'd say maybe 75 percent rehabilitated, so I'm still doing therapy, but
it's not easier the second time around.
GROSS: The anniversary of your injury in World War II is coming up I believe
Mr. DOLE: Fourteenth, right, Thursday.
GROSS: Is there anything that you do to mark that anniversary? Or do you
think about it every year when you reach April 14th?
Mr. DOLE: No, I think about it--when I was in the Congress, in the Senate, I
made a speech every day on the 14th of April if we were in session on that
day; if not, the closest day, on people with disabilities, on what we needed
to do to help people with disabilities. And so for all those years, I made
a--that was my--the day I became a member of the disabled community. The
first speech I made in the Senate was on disability, and Tony Coelho and I
back one April 14th, he invited President Clinton up. And here I was in my
office minding my own business, and in walks the president of the United
States. He used to come up on April the 14th and tell me, you know, what a
great job I was doing, that kind of thing, which made me feel good. And we
had a little lunch there.
So every April 14th when I was there, I tried to commemorate the day with
talking about what we need to do for Americans with disabilities. Since that
time, I just sort of--I think about it, but again, it's just another day at
the office, and I'm very, very fortunate that I'm able to still be around and
still do things and hopefully still make a difference.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is former Senate Majority Leader
Bob Dole. His new memoir about his experiences in World War II and the injury
that nearly killed him is called "One Soldier's Story."
What do you think of Bill Frist's efforts to end the use of the filibuster of
Mr. DOLE: I don't get into those issues, but that's a decision he has to
make. It's something that Robert Byrd tried a number of times, to change the
rules when he was in charge, but I'll leave that up to my wife, Elizabeth,
who's in the Senate from North Carolina, and the other 99 senators.
The Constitution does say that the Senate shall confirm. It doesn't say the
Senate Judiciary Committee shall block a nomination or should block a
nomination, so I think there's some validity. But the better course, in my
view, would be--if I were there, I'd be trying to work it out with Senator
Reid, see if he couldn't figure out some way to have a consensus among
Democrats and Republicans. It may not be possible, though I certainly would
not give it up. I'd try and try again before I did anything else.
GROSS: Well, you certainly know the procedures in the Senate, and what do you
think would happen if the Republicans do end the use of the filibuster and
then the Democrats do everything they can to make things difficult for the
Republicans procedurally in Congress after that? Like, what are some of the
scenarios that might happen?
Mr. DOLE: Well, again, it's all speculation. I don't--I always like to have
the facts before I talk about anything like that, but I don't know who would
be blamed. I think the blame would be shared. Most American people, you
know, don't have a very lofty view of what happens in the Congress or Congress
as a whole. They may like their Congressman or their Senator, but you put us
together--that always puzzled me. If you're Democrat or Republican, you could
have, say, a 70 percent approval rating in your district or your state, but
they ask you the question, `But what do you think of Congress?' it would drop
to about 20 percent or 25 favorable.
But I think if the Democrats shut down the Congress, if the Republicans try
the constitutional option, I don't know what the American people's response
will be. But as I said before, hopefully there can be some resolution because
there's enough work to do to keep the Senate busy this year without getting
into, you know, shutting down or slowing down the procedure.
GROSS: Bob Dole. His new memoir is called "One Soldier's Story." He'll be
back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with former Senator Bob Dole. He was
the Republican leader for 12 of the 27 years that he represented the state of
Kansas in the Senate. His new memoir, "One Soldier's Story," revolves around
the injuries he sustained fighting against the Germans near the end of World
War II. He nearly lost his life and was temporarily paralyzed. He lost a
kidney to infection and never regained use of one arm.
Being a veteran and being injured in the war was such a life-changing
experience for you. So some people were surprised that you became one of the
people who criticized John Kerry for his military service during the period of
the Swift Boat campaign against him. You said, `Three Purple Hearts and he
never bled that I know of. I mean, they're all superficial wounds. Three
Purple Hearts and you're out.' How did you decide whether to say anything and
then what to say about Kerry's service during the 2004 presidential campaign?
Mr. DOLE: Well, I only said it once, and John Kerry and I are friends and
we're still friends, even though, you know, this--politics is not beanbag.
It's hardball. And I'd sent word through one of his friends, who I will not
name 'cause he doesn't want to be involved, to tell John to stop talking about
Vietnam. I mean, you know, it seemed to me that you can--he overdid it. I
really think he may have won the election had he not talked about his--when he
saluted at the convention, and everything was sort of based on his being a
Vietnam hero. And I acknowledged when I said that he was--I don't quarrel
with his war record. He has a great record. He ought to be pleased about it.
But I was also in the Senate when he came back with that terrible display--in
effect, said our soldiers there were raping and killing babies, and, you know,
that was only a report. He was reporting what he'd picked up, but he should
have been more responsible. If he didn't know the facts, he shouldn't have
been spewing all that bad news about--or charges against our own forces.
But I talked to Kerry after I made that statement because he just kept pushing
and pushing and pushing his war injuries. In fact, the injuries weren't
severe at all. I felt it necessary to make a statement. I mean, you get the
feeling after a while if somebody's out there telling how bad they were
wounded or injured, you know, the facts didn't bear it out.
GROSS: Maybe I'm mistaken, but my memory is that he wasn't emphasizing being
wounded as much as, you know, the bravery and the sense of leadership that he
had to display when he was in Vietnam.
Mr. DOLE: Oh, I think he referred to his Purple Hearts frequently and Silver
Star. And I don't quarrel with the fact that he served in Vietnam. But I
always felt when I ran in '96 and Clinton evaded the service--he didn't avoid
it; he evaded it--that, you know, can I capitalize on that and say, `This guy
is a so-and-so because he didn't serve'? I didn't think that was appropriate.
I thought I could talk about--I'd get up and say, `I'm proud to be a veteran,'
and I go and talk about the issues. I wouldn't stand there for 20 minutes and
say, `This happened to me and this happened to me and this happened to me,
and I couldn't use my left arm, right arm,' dah, dah, dah, dah. I don't know
whether people want to hear that every time you stand up, and I think that
was--but that's not in my book. I'm not talking about politics.
GROSS: No, I realize that. Were you concerned, though, that as a result of
this Swift Boat campaign that it kind of opened up the door for anybody who
had been a veteran who had risked the life to serve their country that their
record could be impugned; that in spite of risking their lives for their
country, that someone could come along and say, `Well, it didn't really
happen,' or, `You didn't do what you said you did,' and that your, you know...
Mr. DOLE: You know, I don't know. I wasn't part of the Swift Boat operation,
so I don't know. I mean, I think they had--it's hard to believe that 260 men,
I guess, in this case who were out on that--in that group were all liars or
were not telling the truth. So it may be their recollection was a little
cloudy, but this is not--it's about my book. It's not about the last
GROSS: I want to ask you something else about what's happening in Congress
now, as the former Senate majority leader. Referring in part to the courts
that ruled against reinserting the feeding tube into Terri Schiavo, House
Majority Leader Tom DeLay denounced the judiciary. He described the judiciary
as having run amok. He said, `Our next step, whatever it is, must be more
than rhetoric.' And he said, `I believe the judicial branch of our government
has overstepped its authority on countless occasions, overturning and in some
cases ignoring the legitimate will of the people.' What's your reaction to
that? Do you think that the judiciary is overstepping its functions? Do you
think Congress should be intervening?
Mr. DOLE: Oh, I think there have been cases. I mean, there have been cases
where Congress has made big mistakes, and I'm certain there are judges who
sometimes let their--I'm talking about either party here, too, not just of one
party--sometimes they let their personal views intervene in their decisions.
And that's not what it's supposed to be. You're supposed to be able to take a
step back from politics and judge the case before you, based on the
Constitution or whatever the case may be, not your own activist view.
But, again, I don't know whether he has--he should have facts before he makes
his statement. And if he's got cases where judges have overstepped, I
think--you know, the judiciary is not so fragile you can't--you know, they're
an equal branch of government, and they sometimes are critical of Congress.
So I don't see any problem if somebody has facts. If they don't have the
facts, then I think he shouldn't be making the statement.
GROSS: The implication is, in part, that some of these judges should maybe be
impeached? I guess...
Mr. DOLE: Well, I don't know about that. I think that's a little over the
GROSS: I guess I'm wondering if you think that Tom DeLay and others in
Congress now are saying to judges, `If you don't agree with the right of the
Republican Party, then you are acting irresponsibly, and there will be
Mr. DOLE: I don't think it's limited to the Republican Party. I mean, I
think there are Democrats who would jump up and criticize the Republican
justice or appellate judge or district judge, and there probably have been. I
haven't done any LexisNexis search, but I'm certain that if some of the more
outspoken Democrats--and I can name some, but I won't--they're not going to
pass up any chance to take a shot at Republicans.
GROSS: Do you think that...
Mr. DOLE: But I really didn't come to discuss all that. I came to talk about
GROSS: No, I understand that. One more question about Tom DeLay, though. Do
you think that he should resign because of the...
Mr. DOLE: Why?
GROSS: ...ethical issues?
Mr. DOLE: Why? Because The New York Times says that. I mean, they're part
and parcel to the Democratic Party, as some think NPR is, too.
GROSS: I'm sorry, but do you feel like you need to say that I'm asking
questions from a biased point of view, that it's not OK to just ask questions?
Mr. DOLE: No, it's fine to ask that question. I don't have to respond to it
'cause I don't have the facts.
GROSS: Absolutely you have the right to not respond if you don't want to
Mr. DOLE: Yeah, you give me the facts, I'm a pretty good judge. But you give
me what The New York Times says or the LA Times or The Washington Post, who
are out to get DeLay in the first place, then I don't think I can make a
judgment. If they want to bring out every member of Congress who may have
done the same thing--and, again, I don't know what was done, but let's just
say it'd be a great thing for NPR to look down both parties and see how many
parties, quote, "allegedly," end quote, have abused the system when it comes
to trips or who pays for trips. Then I think that would be doing a public
service. But when you just single out one person because of his philosophy
and his party affiliation, then, you know, I think that's wrong. I mean, it
seems to me that there are a lot of--most of the members of Congress
regardless of party are well-intention men and women who want to get the job
done. And this gotcha journalism that some people promote is not--you know, I
don't think it's healthy, or it's not right either.
GROSS: I want to get back to your book.
Mr. DOLE: Good. Yeah, I thought that's what I came for.
GROSS: I thought you might say that. One of the things you had to do to
write this book is look for survivors of your battle--or maybe you already
knew them or knew where they were--because, I mean, let's face it, you were
unconscious lying on the ground...
Mr. DOLE: I'm also 81 years...
GROSS: Right, right, right. So...
Mr. DOLE: Age, too, has taken a lot of my friends.
GROSS: Yeah, I'm sure, but I'm wondering what it was like to talk to people
who were there observing you while you were unconscious and could tell you
things that you maybe never knew about what actually happened to you.
Mr. DOLE: Well, I was very lucky to find one of the survivors. There's a
wonderful man who was our platoon sergeant named Frank Carafa,
C-A-R-A-F-A, from New Rochelle, New York. And he visited me in the Senate
several years ago, and I said, `Frank, you know, we're not getting any
younger. Would you please--I'm going to leave the room, and I'm going to have
somebody come in with a recording machine. Would you tell them what happened
that morning? Just say it so I'll have it as a record,'--'cause I didn't have
any idea I'd be writing a book at that time. And he went through the whole
process, how he--and, in fact, I describe some of it in the book--how he
crawled out to get me, and he was crying and he was scared and everything else
and how he pulled my wr--or the wrong arm and probably thinks may have damaged
But Sergeant Kochek(ph) is gone, Olly Mann(ph) is gone, McBryer(ph) is gone.
I mean, most of the people who were involved with me that day are gone.
Corporal Booth(ph) is gone, the young man who wrote letters to my parents in
the hospital. So we had to rely a lot on--you know, my wife and I had a book
in 1988 called "Unlimited Partners." We had a lot of material in there. So
we had to go back and do a lot of research and do the best we could. But if
it hadn't been for Sergeant Carafa, I'm not sure I could swear to the accuracy
of the book because he's been sort of the one eyewitness who was there, saw
it all and has the credibility that was needed.
GROSS: Well, Bob Dole, congratulations on your book and also on your recovery
from your injuries this past winter. Thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. DOLE: Terry, thank you very much, and I appreciate it. And I hope to
have a chance to see you one of these days.
GROSS: Likewise. Thank you very much.
Mr. DOLE: Maybe I'll see you on a book tour. OK.
Mr. DOLE: Good luck.
GROSS: Bob Dole's new memoir is called "One Soldier's Story."
Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward tells about the rockabilly group the Rock
`n' Roll Trio. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Rock `n' Roll Trio history
TERRY GROSS, host:
Everyone knows that Memphis is the birthplace of rockabilly, but few know
about the band that coined the term, the Rock `n' Roll Trio, a combo as famed
for drinking and fighting as for playing raw, primal music. With the recent
reissuing of their complete works by Hip-O Select, rock historian Ed Ward
takes a look at their wild story.
(Soundbite of song)
ROCK `N' ROLL TRIO: (Singing) Well, down in New Orleans, where everything's
fine, all them catfish drinking that wine, a drinking that mess with delight.
And when they get drunk, they fight all night. Drinking wine spo-dee-o-dee.
ED WARD reporting:
Early in the 1950s, Sam Phillips was doing well, recording blues artists at
his Memphis recording service and on his Sun Records label. And he famously
remarked one day that, quote, "If I could find a white boy with the colored
sound and feel, I could make a million dollars," unquote. His first shot at
this was Harmonica Frank Floyd, who was too weird for the general public. His
second was Elvis Presley, who wasn't. But what's intriguing is that the very
act he was looking for was playing bars in Memphis and had been almost as long
as Phillips had been in business. Of course, it's quite possible he knew
this, but like a lot of people, he was just scared of Johnny and Dorsey
(Soundbite of song)
ROCK `N' ROLL TRIO: (Singing) Little girl, don't you understand, I want to be
your loving man all by myself, all by myself. I don't need no one to love
you. Gonna love you all by myself. Well, meet me in a hurry behind the barn.
Don't be afraid. I'll do you no harm all by myself, all by myself. I don't
need no one to love you. Gonna love you all by myself.
WARD: The two brothers were indeed scary. Besides playing wild music, they
were best known for fighting, whether in the boxing ring, with the patrons of
the rough bars they played or with each other. In 1939, when Dorsey was seven
and Tommy was five, their father bought them toy guitars. They immediately
broke them over each other's heads. Roy Orbison once told the story of
waiting for an elevator and, when it arrived, finding the Burnettes tangled
up, throwing punches at each other on its floor. But when that energy got
channeled into making music, it was something to behold.
(Soundbite of song)
ROCK `N' ROLL TRIO: (Singing) Well, it's a rock, a rock, a rockabilly boogie,
a rock, a rock, a rockabilly boogie, a rock, a rock, a rockabilly boogie, a
rock, a rock, a rockabilly boogie, a rock, a rock, a rockabilly boogie
tonight. Well, I know a little spot on the edge of town where you can really
pick 'em up and set 'em down. It's a little place called Out of the Way. You
get to rockabilly till the break of day. Well, it's a rock, a rock, a
rockabilly boogie, a rock, rock, a rockabilly boogie, a rock, rock, a
rockabilly boogie tonight. Whoa!
(Soundbite of music)
WARD: Their secret weapon was the third member of the band, electric
guitarist Paul Burlison, who was a few years older and had done a stint with
legendary blues man Howlin' Wolf. Without a doubt, one of the greatest
guitarists of the rock 'n' roll era, Burlison somehow managed to get on with
both brothers and played with them whenever they managed to get gigs. They
all had other jobs. Johnny was an appliance salesman, and Dorsey and Paul
were both electricians.
Like a lot of Memphis musicians, they followed Elvis' career with interest.
And when it was announced that he was going to perform on the Tommy Dorsey
television show, Johnny convinced the other two that they should also head to
New York and see if they could get on TV. Since Dorsey and Burlison had just
been laid off, it seemed like the right thing to do. And before they knew it,
they were on the "Ted Mack Amateur Hour," winning three times in a row. The
next thing they knew, they had a manager and a contract with Coral Records,
a division of Decca, and were in the New York studio. Eager to get away from
the orchestra they'd had to use on one track in New York, the band insisted on
recording in Nashville with famed producer Harold Bradley. And it was these
sessions between July 2nd and 5th, 1956, which cemented their legend.
(Soundbite of song)
ROCK `N' ROLL TRIO: (Singing) Come on, little baby, let's tear the dance
floor up. Come on, honey baby, let's tear the dance floor up. Come on,
little mama, let me see you strut your stuff. Tear it up! Tear it up! Tear
it up! Tear it up! Come on, little baby, let me see you strut your stuff.
I'm a leavin', little baby. Gonna be gone a long, long time. I'm a leavin',
little baby. Gonna be gone a long, long time. Oh, come on, little baby, and
show me a real good time. Tear it up! Tear it up! Tear it up! Oh! Tear it
up! Oh, come on, little mama, let's tear the dance floor up. Oh, baby! Hit
(Soundbite of music)
WARD: Sometime before these sessions, Paul Burlison's amplifier had fallen
off of a riser at a state fair show and began making weird noises. Burlison's
knowledge of electronics was good enough that he analyzed the problem and was
able to recreate it in the studio. His playing on "Train Kept a-Rollin'," an
obscure Tiny Bradshaw tune, made him an idol to guitarists from that day
But the Rock `n' Roll Trio, as they were known, didn't last very long.
Although the sessions with Bradley came out on several singles and a 10-inch
album, they were overshadowed by Elvis, and the Burnettes couldn't stop
drinking and fighting off and on stage. When they added a drummer, Johnny
insisted that the act was now known as Johnny Burnette and the Rock `n' Roll
Trio, which didn't go down too well with Dorsey. Finally, at the end of 1956,
Burlison quit, returned to Memphis and opened an electrical contracting
company, which he ran until 1974 when fans managed to convince him to start
Johnny and Dorsey finally made up, went to Hollywood and made it as solo
artists and songwriters. Johnny died in a boating accident in 1964, and
Dorsey died in 1971. Paul Burlison passed away in 2003, the only member of
the Rock `n' Roll Trio to have lived long enough to see the legacy he had
helped create get its due.
(Soundbite of song)
ROCK `N' ROLL TRIO: (Singing) Oh, baby, baby, baby b-b-b-b-b-b-baby, baby,
baby. Oh, baby, baby, baby, b-b-b-b-b-b-baby, baby, baby. Oh, come back,
baby. I want to make love to you. You told me that you loved me and always
would be true. But now you've gone and left me, baby, made me, oh so blue.
Baby, come back, baby, come back. Oh, come back, baby, come back. Oh, come
back, baby. I want to make love to you. Oh, baby, baby, baby,
b-b-b-b-b-b-baby, baby, baby, baby. Oh, baby, baby, baby, b-b-b-b-b-b-baby,
baby, baby, baby. Oh, come back, baby. I want you to love me, too. Oh
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Berlin. The complete works of Johnny Burnette and
the Rock `n' Roll Trio have been reissued by Hip-O Select.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Meg Wolitzer's new novel "The Position."
This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Meg Wolitzer's "The Position"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Meg Wolitzer is the author of seven books, including the much acclaimed 2003
novel "The Wife." Her new novel, "The Position," takes readers back to the
1970s and explores the long-term consequences of the sexual liberation
movement on one particular family.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
When Charles Dickens died in 1870 at age 58, the classic hidden identity plot
in literary fiction essentially died with him. Constantly writing on
deadline, Dickens had churned out so many dazzling tales that turned on
characters being unmasked as something other than what they pretended to be or
what we readers thought them to be that he not only exhausted himself into an
early grave. But he seemed to have exhausted the possibilities of that
narrative design as well. Sure, lowly whodunnits rely on the hidden identity
plot, but highbrow fiction since Dickens has largely dismissed that particular
story line as a rusty contrivance of a bygone age.
That's why Meg Wolitzer's recent novels, for all their edgy wit and economy of
plot, seem so neo-Victorian. Without groaning or gimmickry, they turn on
revelations of hidden identity. In her novel "The Wife," the heroine's droll
feminist commentaries on marriage 1950s style and the literary world in
general become charged with horrific significance by an 11th-hour unmasking of
her hidden self.
In Wolitzer's latest novel, "The Position," the delayed disclosure of a minor
character's identity surely will prompt shaken readers to rethink their
assumptions about the bonds between the two main characters. Wolitzer's
narrative revelations signify something beyond their own shock. They're
moving rather than mechanical. Her novels boast all the charm of an
old-fashioned, plot-driven story without the creak.
"The Position" opens with a high-concept situation. Left alone in their
suburban Long Island home on a drear November afternoon in 1975, the four
children in the Mellow family, ranging in age from six to 15, stumble upon the
best-selling, coffee-table-sized, "Joy of Sex"-type book that their parents,
Paul and Roz Mellow, have not only written but posed for. Called
"Pleasuring: One Couple's Journey to Fulfillment," the book contains
chatty anecdotal advice about lubricants and fetishes, as well as tastefully
detailed line drawings of the Mellow parents in all sorts of Kama sutralike
positions, including a makeup sex act they invented themselves and dubbed,
with 1970s jauntiness, Electric Forgiveness.
By the time Paul and Roz return home that evening from giving a lecture on
their book at the New School, no less, all the children are tucked in their
beds asleep. Here's a sampling of the long and evocative passage in which
Wolitzer's amused, yet empathetic, omniscient narrator describes what's
`All four children looked exactly the same as they had that morning, before
they'd looked through the book together. What the parents couldn't know was
that throughout the day, the children had been rapidly and frantically
changing. Together, by nightfall, the four Mellow children would have shed
thousands of old cells, unknowingly sloughing them off and replacing them with
newer, in some cases vulgar, ones, cells whose mitrochondria contain buried
commands that went far beyond "Do homework" and "Be kind to slow child in
class" and went, instead, into the territory of "Be dominated" and "Touch
this" and "Tell no one." While Paul and Roz Mellow had driven along the Long
Island Expressway toward the city making excellent time, cruising
seat-belt-free, air-bag-innocent, thinking not of the possibility of car crash
or even particularly of sex, their children, as they knew them, were
As that passage reveals, Wolitzer possesses a miniaturist's eye for detail.
But her story line, in terms of chronology and cast of character, has an
ambitious sweep, as befits a neo-Victorian. Wolitzer's narrator tells us that
30 years have now passed since the publication of "Pleasuring." And in a
hop-skip, disjointed fashion, we learn about the damage and the rewards time
has visited on the aging Mellows and their now-adult children. I'll remain
mum about the rest of the plot because to mention specifics would be to spoil
much of the fun of this smart, wry novel that, by its end, also turns out to
be a poignant elegy to the fleeting health and pleasures of the body as well
as to the fleeting emotional and physical togetherness of the family.
In "The Position," Wolitzer refines her signature invention of the `hip hidden
identity plot' and, in so doing, makes it cool for contemporary readers to
once again gasp out loud at narrative surprises.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Position."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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