Eli's Corner

Tom Wesselmann ". . . and Hank"


A short time ago I wrote about Pop Artist Tom Wesselmann and classic country music. That story took place in the early 1950's, when Tom and I served together in the Army. This is going to be another Wesselmann/country music story, but it takes place about forty years later, in the late 1980's and early 1990's.

Background: In 1988, when this story starts, Tom Wesselmann was already well-established as one of the pioneer artists in the "Pop Art" movement. Today his pieces regularly sell at the big auction houses for millions of dollars -- they don't command the astronomical prices of an Andy Warhol or a Roy Lichtenstein, but they do respectfully well.

Tom's art studio was in a multi-story building that he had purchased (again, for millions of dollars) in downtown Manhattan. I, on the other hand, was living and working the suburban Long Island life, which meant that by train or car we were about two hours apart. So our friendship was pretty much reduced to telephone conversations or mail.

Once a week, we would monopolize the phone line, sometimes for hours at a time. We would mostly go over our usual topics of classic country music and gag cartooning. As I mentioned many times before, Tom, like me, was a frustrated "New Yorker-cartoonist-wannabe", and he was still sporadically submitting cartoons to The New Yorker. He would do this mostly under a fake name, so as not to get his cartooning aspirations mixed up with his Pop Art celebrity. Anyway, one of the most important things we did in our long phone conversations was to analyze that week's issue of The New Yorker, page by page, with particular emphasis on the cartoons. We always had plenty to say about each cartoon, about each gag, and even about each cartoonist.

As for the country music part of our conversations, Tom, like me, took his country music fun quite seriously. But, unlike me, he had the resources to follow up on his dreams. First of all, he wrote many original country songs, some in a humorous vein, but others that were quite serious. I have the names of about 25 of his original compositions, but I'm sure there were many more. Current biographies of Tom state that he composed more than 400 country songs, but I find it hard to believe that he actually completed that many -- song titles, maybe, but not finished songs.  Second of all, every week Tom hired a small band of musicians, along with a professional singer and recording equipment, so that he could have private recording sessions of his songs right there in his studio.

Okay, that's enough background, now I can get on with my story. During one of our long phone conversations, I casually mentioned to Tom that I had what I thought was a great idea for a new Hank Williams "tribute" song. Over the years since his death in 1953, there have been, literally, hundreds of Hank Williams tribute songs -- if you don't believe me, just check out Wikipedia or Google. And while you're at it you can check on the enormous influence that Hank Williams had on Bob Dylan and a host of other performers. One of my favorite tribute songs is "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?", written and recorded by Waylon Jennings.

I told Tom my song title was ". . . and Hank" (over the phone I just said "dot, dot, dot and Hank", and Tom knew immediately what I meant). And then I told him my concept for the song, which was for each verse to name a whole bunch of legendary country music stars and for each verse to conclude with ". . . and Hank". Tom expressed an interest in the idea, and I told him he could do anything he wanted with it, because I certainly wasn't going to be following it up myself.

Time passed, and I all but forgot about ". . . and Hank". Then during one phone conversation, Tom mentioned that he'd been working on it, and soon after that he sent me a copy of his first hand-written draft, words and music. By the way, all our correspondence was by old-fashioned snail mail -- no email, Twitter, Facebook or texting in those days. Once I had the song in my hands, we spent a lot of time on the phone tweaking the words, with me suggesting ever so slight changes and Tom mostly disagreeing vehemently. Mind you, I'm in no way saying that I had anything to do with the writing of the song. Aside from the title, the basic premise, and the very last line (more about that later), the lyrics and music were all Tom's.

More time passed . . . years, in fact. Then one day I received a small package in the mail from Tom. It contained a cassette tape of Tom singing ". . . and Hank", backed up by his musicians. Later on, he sent me another cassette with a version of ". . . and Hank" performed at one of his recording sessions by a hired singer, a fellow named Duane Gray, I believe (but I'm not positive -- it could very well be someone else).

Here are the two audio cassette tapes. Tom first, then "Duane". There are multiple changes in the lyrics on the "Duane" version, so it must have been recorded a considerable time after Tom's version.

 

 

 

 

And here are Tom's lyrics, pretty much as he originally wrote it:

When I'm asked what country music is,
I reply by running down the rank.
I say it's Waylon, Willie and Liz,
Emmylou. Roy, Kitty . . . and Hank.

They've been stars in countless country shows,
You just can't find better, to be frank.
Such greats as Ernest, Charlie and Rose,
Wilma Lee, Webb, Leftie . . . and Hank.

That just names a few, there's more to go,
Touching men and women we all thank.
Rosalie, Marty, Melba and Moe,
Billy Crash, Tex, Hawkshaw . . . and Hank.

It's a sparkling history that they've forged,
East and West, the Rebels and the Yanks.
Just think of Conway, Tammy and George.
Little Jimmy, Tom T. . . . and Hank.

It's so moving when their voices crack,
Touching men and women we all thank.
Norma Jean, Dolly, Faron and Mac,
Whisperin' Bill, Carl, Stonewall . . . and Hank.

They sing songs of girls down on their luck,
Songs of cheaters and poor souls who drank.
Great songs by Porter, Patsy and Buck,
Gentleman Jim, Jeannie . . . and Hank.

They helped make this place a better world,
Touching men and women we all thank.
Loretta, Ferlin, Skeeter and Merle,
Jerry Lee, Red, Wanda . . . and Hank.

Mickey, Jimmy . . . and Hank.
Bobbie, Bonnie . . . and Hank.
Boxcar, Cowboy . . . and Hank.
Jessie, Eddie . . . and Hank.
All those other Hanks . . . and Hank.

About that last line, "All those other Hanks . . . and Hank.". Tom wrote his first draft with the song just trailing off after "Jessie, Eddie . . . and Hank". In our phone conversations, I kept insisting that an additional last line was called for, mainly because of all the other Hanks that were recording classic country music (Hank Snow, Hank Thompson, Hank Locklin, etc.). I felt that the whole point of the song would be lost if it didn't include some respectful acknowledgement of them. Tom was totally against it, but I guess I was very insistent, and he finally came around to my way of thinking.

Tom tried very hard and mostly unsuccessfully to get his songs recorded professionally. I followed closely as he told me of all his contacts with the "Nashville" crowd. There were many such contacts and interviews, both with recording artists and record labels. At one point, I'm pretty sure he told me that someone had optioned a few of his songs, including ". . . and Hank", but in every case the deal fell through.

I also have a CD that Tom sent me much later, entitled "double xx posed". The blurb on the cover says, "DOUBLE XX POSED is a compilation album of original songs written and performed by nationally recognized artists living in New York, Nashville, Kansas City, Scottsdale, and Tucson. The album exposes another creative side of each artist, be it music or art". Tom sings three of his own songs on that album: "Let Someone Hurt Her Once For Me", "He Kept His Secret" and "I Love Doing Texas With You". I don't know too much about the album, or what its distribution might have been.

 

The photo on Tom's audio tape was taken in February 2003, a year before he passed away. The photo below is from July 1986. Me on the left, Tom on the right.

Eli Stein and Tom Wesselmann

The photo of Tom Wesselmann at the very top of this posting was taken on November 1, 2000. Yes, that is Kermit the Frog hanging from Tom's shirt pocket. My wife Lila snapped the picture, and in the year 2000 every photo she shot had to have Kermit the Frog in it. But that's another story, isn't it?

 

All of my previous postings about Tom Wesselmann are easily available. All you have to do to find them is click on my category of "Eli's Corner".






Tom Wesselmann and "Release Me"


As I've written about on this archive/blog in the past, I met Pop Artist Tom Wesselmann in the early 1950's when, as draftees, we served together in the same unit at an army base in the deep South. Tom, who passed away in 2004, grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, but we hit it off immediately when we discovered our mutual interests in humor, gag cartooning and "classic" country music. This story concerns country music. 

Here's some background information, so that you'll be able to follow what I'm writing about. First of all, Tom's hometown, Cincinnati, is right across the Ohio River from Covington, Kentucky, where there was a very popular and powerful radio station, WCKY (CKY = Covington, Kentucky). WCKY served up country music to a good portion of the U.S.A. -- I could even pick it up at night in Brooklyn.  The station is still on the air, but with a completely different format. So Tom grew up very well-versed in the country music genre, much more than I was. But I found country music fun to listen to, was anxious to learn, and Tom taught me well.

By "classic" country music, by the way, I'm talking about the King, Hank Williams (not his son, Hank Williams, Jr.) and other legendary performers such as Webb Pierce, Hank Snow, Kitty Wells, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Ray Price, Hank Thompson, Faron Young and Marty Robbins, to name just a few.

In those days, country music was going through a phase of "sequel" songs. Example: Hank Thompson came out with an extremely popular song called "The Wild Side of Life", in which he lamented that "I didn't know God made honky tonk angels". Before long, Kitty Wells recorded "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels", which went viral, as we would say today. That megahit was the main reason why Kitty Wells eventually became known as "The Queen of Country Music". Another example: A hit song by Jean Shepard and Ferlin Huskey, "A Dear John Letter", created the sequel "Dear Joan" (sung by Jack Cardwell) and still further, another sequel, "Forgive Me John" (sung by Shepard and Huskey again). So the country music scene at that time was being flooded with sequels.

One more bit of background material before I get to my story: At that particular time, all the Hollywood studios were fighting off the juggernaut of Television -- and they were hanging in there by re-releasing their old hit movies. Not re-making them, just re-releasing them. So a first-run movie in those days could easily have been an "M-G-M re-release" or a "Paramount re-release", and so forth.

That's about it for background information.

In the early 1950's, country music star Ray Price came out with a wildly popular song called "Release Me". It was a classic that was all over the radio stations. It was also a crossover hit that has lasted to this day. You can still hear many versions of it today. Tom and I enjoyed making fun of it. I particularly loved the ingenuity of the rhymes in the song. Here are some of the lyrics:

"Please release me, let me go.

I don't love you any more.

To live together is a sin.

Release me and let me love again.

I have found a new love, dear--

and I'll always want her near.

Her lips are warm while yours are cold.

Release me, darling, let me go."

(Well, at least "near" and "dear" rhymed)

But I digress. At some point Tom got a furlough approved and took off for a week. When he returned and wanted to know what was new, I excitedly told him that the radio stations were all playing a sequel to "Release Me", and that it was called, naturally, "Re-Release Me". I told him that in the sequel the man and woman had gotten together again . . . but it didn't work out . . . again . . . and now the guy wanted out . . . again. I said that I had heard the sequel so often on the radio that I already knew some of the words. And I sang a verse to him (I was well-prepared -- I had written my phony verse during the week and had it memorized).

It went like this (to the tune of "Release Me"):

"Re-release me just once more --

Like you did that time before.

To stay together isn't right.

Re-release me and set me free tonight." 

Tom's reaction was incredulity at first. Then he listened attentively to my lyrics, laughed appreciatively, nodded his head and said, "Yep, that sounds just stupid enough." 

He had bought it! The whole shebang! It was only the next day, when he wondered why he wasn't hearing the song being played on the radio, that I confessed.

You can read more about Tom Wesselmann and me, and also about his brief career as a gag cartoonist, by checking out my previous postings about him. I've done a few over the years and you'll find them all under the category of "Eli's Corner".

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Cartoon Caption Contest Trivia


About five years ago, shortly after I started this Archive/Blog, I was contacted by the Editor of The Gayco Tablet, a newsletter dedicated to "improving the health of residents in long-term health care facilities". He asked for permission to use reprints of my cartoons in the newsletter.

I looked over the issue he sent me and found that it was chock full of helpful information on Alzheimer's, dementia and other eldercare quality-of-life issues. I decided that it was worthy of "pro bono" treatment and told the Editor that he could pick and choose any of my cartoons from the site and that there would be no fee involved.

The newsletter has been irregularly reprinting my cartoons since that time, and the Editors even created a panel called "AS NEEDED FOR LAUGHTER" to showcase the cartoons.

The latest issue of the newsletter arrived this week, and this was the panel I saw:

I gave it a quick glance and was about to move on to other business when I did a classic double-take. "Wait a minute," I said to my wife, "I never did that cartoon!" After a few minutes of recollection and investigation, I realized what had happened. True, I had never sold that drawing with the completely different caption that I originally wrote for it, but I had used the drawing for "Eli's Cartoon Caption Contest No. 37". The caption that The Gayco Tablet printed was Cary Antebi's winning entry. You can see it all right here.

So . . . congratulations are in order once again, Cary Antebi. The Editors liked your caption more than my original caption (no, I'm not at all insulted). As I keep saying, you are indeed one of the funniest people around!






Happy New Year


Wow, it's 2013 already!

I started this archive/blog in June 2006. I want to take this opportunity to wish all of you who have stood by me all these years a Happy, Healthy, Peaceful and Prosperous New Year.

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Contest deadline extended due to Hurricane Sandy


Yes, last Monday we lost electric power due to Hurricane Sandy -- and of course lost the ability to use computers, phones, cell phones, etc. Personally, we had no other damage -- no flooding or fires or trees falling on our house or car. So we have definitely been lucky. Right now, my wife and I are staying with our son, about a half-hour's drive from our home. He has power, and all the other conveniences. It may be many more days before our own power is restored.

As for the Caption Contest, out of necessity I am extending it for another week, so the deadline for entries will now be midnight Tuesday, November 6th. Hopefully, by then, we will have power and can resume our normal activities at home.






Cartoonist Al Ross -- October 19, 1911 - March 22, 2012


I'm sad to report that legendary cartoonist Al Ross has passed away. He was 100 years old.

I received these two brief messages from Al Ross's son, Arlen:

-- My father, Al Ross, passed away today at the age of 100 years young! He was simply the greatest, and will always live on through his art, and his thousands of fans and his offspring! The world was a far better place with him, and now is still the better for it! Love you Dad!

-- My father Al Ross, passed away today at the age of 100. He was even a greater painter and fine artist than he was a cartoonist, if that can be possible! Gone is the greatest there ever was!!! Long live my Dad, Al Ross!

Al Ross was one of four cartooning Roth brothers. The other three brothers, all deceased, published cartoons under the names Ben Roth, Salo and Irv Roir. In his heyday, Al Ross's gag cartoons appeared extensively in The New Yorker and in just about every other national or international cartoon-oriented publication.

In the past few years I've written several pieces here about Al and the other cartooning Roth brothers, and I even have several photos up, some of them pretty old. You can find all the material by clicking on "Eli's Corner" in the right-hand column. Al was also featured in my "We All Have to Start Somewhere Department" (No. 16). And in addition, you can find several very heart-warming "comments" under some of the postings, notes that came in over the years from the Roth family, friends and neighbors.

Rest in peace, Al Ross.

Al Ross at his 100th Birthday Party.






Back in Business . . . Almost


Sorry for the long interruption, but what should have been just a software correction turned into a major rebuilding of the site on a completely new platform.

I haven't been ill or anything like that, but the site was definitely not too healthy. Hopefully I'll be resuming business as usual . . . or better than usual . . . very soon.

By the way, the site is being rebuilt by my son the computer whiz -- so for the price I'm paying him (zilch), I can't really push him to speed things up.

If you notice anything missing in the archive, or see anything obviously out of kilter, please let me know and I will try to get it corrected. And since the site will be on a new platform, there should be some interesting new features, too.

And yes, the Cartoon Caption Contest will resume as soon as I can manage it . . . hopefully by next week.

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"Comments" working again


As a temporary band-aid, the "anti-spam word" device has been deactivated.

So now it is once again possible for you to submit comments and cartoon captions in the contest. Just follow steps 1) click on "Comments", 2) type in your name and caption and 4) click on "Submit". Forget about step 3.

Hopefully we'll get back to normal soon.






Oops


I was informed by an anxious caption-writer that my anti-spam word is not functioning. So of course it's been impossible for anyone to comment or submit captions for the current contest. Sorry about that -- I really don't know how long that's been going on, and I'm trying to have the glitch repaired.






"Al Jaffee's Mad Life"


Mary-Lou Weisman is the author of "Al Jaffee's Mad Life", a recently-published biography of cartoonist Al Jaffee. I wrote an online review of the book on Litkicks, and you can read it here.






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