Monday, July 26, 2004

Quentin Tarantino Lauds Our Friend Linda Haynes

Many of you know of my long-time friendship with actress Linda Haynes Sylvander and some of you even met her when she came to Memphis to visit.  She is one of my dearest friends and our friendship began as the result of a quest of many years to find her.  I had seen the 1970's revenge flick Rolling Thunder starring William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones in addition to Linda.  Well I thought it was a terrific film and was completely knocked out by the grittiest performance of its time by Linda.  You film buffs know how Warren Oates could absolutely bring a B movie to life?  Well, Linda could do the same thing to a film and to top it off she was (and is) about a million light years better looking than Warren.

One of the few things I have ever lost that I highly valued was a set of movie stills from Rolling Thunder, one of which was THE PERFECT photo of Linda (see a somewhat decent copy of it on my web site at

I have been trying to find more copies of the photo and I stumbled across a statement by Quentin Tarantino regarding Rolling Thunder, one of his favorite films.  It is a long story, but it was strictly due to Mr. Tarantino that I was able to find Linda.  Anyway, the long quote was published on the highly respected film web site www.ain'titcool

After Tarantino's long quote ain'titcool further lauds Linda.  I include the pertinent parts herewith.  I told Linda that if Quentin Tarantino, one of a handful of great American directors of the last decade, said such things about me I could die a contented man.  So here it is for you guys.  Please notice (ahem, pat myself on the back) that what I've been saying about Linda for about 20 years is EXACTLY the same thing said by Tarantino, et al.  Ahhhh, vindication.  All those who thought I was nuts to spend such time and moolah tracking Linda down, apologies will be accepted.  The beauty of tracking Linda down ultimately wasn't about writing a profile of this fascinating person, but about becoming her friend.  That was reward enough.

"However, ROLLING THUNDER played next, and as far as I’m concerned it kicked ENTER THE DRAGON’s fucking ass. ROLLING THUNDER, I just love. It’s a character study and an action film. The first half was getting to know Charlie Rane and the second half was pure revenge. In the first half we find out about how Charlie Rane was a P.O.W. for 7 years. How he suffered through the camps, tortured, malnourished, beaten… the whole time telling himself that once he got back home everything would be o.k. Just get me back home. That life would be good. That he’d have his wife and his son and everything would be happily ever after. He comes back, finds out that his wife is going to marry another man. That his son doesn’t even know him. And just as he’s coming to grips with that, they’re both killed and he loses his hand to thieves searching for a bunch of silver dollars. Everything is not ok. Everything is fucked up" - Note: This was very hard to catch because Quentin is in full machine gun mode delivery. Repeating half repeating… very excited about the film… My notes are good, but not complete. "Now there were a lot of folks trying out for the role of Major Charles Rane. Joe Don Baker was considered. Even David Carridine, but it was fate that landed William Devane in what is the best role of his career." "Tommy Lee Jones went basically straight from JACKSON COUNTY JAIL into ROLLING THUNDER, although there was this TV thing he did where he played Howard Hughes" "However, THE performance of the film for me is Linda Haynes as Linda Forchet! She was in one of the sleepers for the first QT fest THE NICKEL RIDE, she was in Pam Grier’s COFFY… she was the girl that reaches into Grier’s afro when she has the razors in there and ‘aaaahhhh’. But Linda Forchet is my favorite female character in a Paul Schrader movie. She looks like she’s been left out in the rain one day too many. She has that look that Ava Gardner got, you know blousey, but it took Ava years to do it, and Linda Haynes just did it naturally. And I mean that in a good way." "James Best, my old acting teacher, plays the main sonuvabitch in the film" "Now the thing was at the time when Schrader’s script was nearing production, a young writer that had written a really hot non-produced script at the time was brought in to work on it. His name was Heywood Gould. His script was FT APACHE THE BRONX" Quentin believes that Heywood wrote the film he likes best. And credits Gould with bringing in elements that really made the film work all the way across the board for him. So… What did I think of ROLLING THUNDER?
Well, I thought it ruled pretty dang hard. I’ve seen the trailer for going on 12 years of my life thus far… and ever since being introduced to the QT-taste buds for film, and knowing he loved this film enough to name a company after it… My expectations were fairly dang high. From the beginning of the film I could tell this was something intelligent and deliberate. You get that feeling sometimes when watching a quality flick. I remember sitting in the theater watching SILENCE OF THE LAMBS that first time and that Tak Fujimoto tracking shot alongside Jodie Foster’s head and shoulders as she jogged… there was something mesmerizing about it. The same could be said with the setting up of the welcome community in San Antonio, the private jet of ‘heroes’ returning from captivity in Vietnam… Tommy Lee Jones’ fears, William Devane’s confidence… It was utterly hypnotic and foreboding. There’s just an air of wrongness at the beginning of the film. Too much jubilation for those that don’t want it, but do for those that need to cheer. Then there is the disintegration of his life. Devane plays Charles Rane as an internalized disciplined MAN (all caps). He doesn’t cry for others, doesn’t despair for others, doesn’t become tormented for others. He bottles all his emotions save love for his family and pride. He isn’t the sort of guy to take a swing at an insult, but rather retort with a story to give you nightmares or to demonstrate his pure strength of will and determination through self-degradation. He is as scary as they come. The revenge version of Charles Rane is another animal all together. It is as if he never got to torment or kill those that tortured him for all those years imprisoned. He didn’t need to, his revenge was to live happily ever after while those bastards rotted in grass and bamboo huts in Vietnam. But here… when what happens to him happens. No, he knows jail is too easy to survive for these bastards. He knows that it would become a lifestyle they could endure, and that… he could not endure. He must kill these people badly. Then there’s Linda Forchet… I agree with Quentin, she is a marvel in this film. I love her dearly based on a single viewing. She has, what I like to call… ‘Comfortable Beauty’. What I mean is this, today… so many actresses working in Hollywood films are just plain gorgeous… they have that unapproachable perfection about them. They seem like dolls to keep mint behind glass that you dare not touch. There’s almost a fear to become intimate for fear of breaking the illusion. And there are women like this walking the earth we walk on every day. ‘Comfortable Beauty’ is a state of loveliness that you instantly want to engage in conversation, drinking with, watching films with, living with, spending time with. You can see no harsh lines, but an ability to adapt and swing with in life. There is an openness and ease to Linda Haynes’ Forchet that is absolutely entrancing to me. I believe I fall deeply madly for her when she picks up the revolver and shotgun and begins telling stories about her being the tom boy of the litter. She’s that girl, and that’s my favorite type. "


Thursday, July 08, 2004

The Blackwood Brothers Quartet

Note: The following article of mine appeared in the July 2 special issue of The Memphis Flyer that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the birth of rock and roll in Memphis

1954 - 1963

The Third Rail of Rock-and-Roll

Paying respect to the greatest of gospel groups.

By Tom Graves

One week before Elvis Presley struck a chord heard 'round the world at Sun Studio, he heard news on the radio so devastating that he spent more than half an hour in Gaston Park crying bitter tears over the tragedy. Two members of the most famous gospel group in history, the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, had died in front of hundreds of spectators at a county fair in Clanton, Alabama. The 10-seater Beechcraft airplane the Blackwoods used to fly to their appearances crashed and exploded during a practice take-off and landing. Two group members were on the ground watching in horror with the rest of the crowd as the plane stalled and fell nose down, piloted by R.W. Blackwood and bass singer Bill Lyles.

There is some debate over which gospel group Elvis most favored the Blackwoods or the Statesmen Quartet. What there should be no debate about is that Southern gospel music was the music Elvis most loved and was most influenced by. There were many days in Elvis' life when he heard not one note of rock-and-roll, blues, country, or soul. But there were very few in which he did not hear music by one of the many gospel groups he adored. James Blackwood once told a reporter that the last album Elvis listened to was by the Stamps Quartet. Insiders at Graceland have said the album still sits on the turntable.

Of all the biographers and critics and musicologists who have explored ad nauseam every facet of Elvis' musical life, scandalously few pages have been devoted to his greatest passion, gospel music. Why? There are several reasons. The most apparent is that few of these writers hail from these parts and thus were not exposed to the Blackwoods, the Statesmen, the Happy Goodman Family, the Florida Boys, and the Dixie Echoes, as many Memphians were on every Sunday morning for over two decades. The born-again movement that began in earnest in the 1970s also, in effect, balkanized music tastes. Country gospel music became wholly identified with low-church fundamentalism and polyester suits. Before this social change, however, many gospel fans who would not ordinarily darken the door of a church on a Sunday morning, such as Elvis Presley who, contrary to myth, was not much of a churchgoer would have a sweaty, stompin' good time at the All Nite Sings at Ellis Auditorium.

The Blackwood Brothers were the first gospel group to sell over a million records, the first to sign to a major record label (RCA), and the first to get nationwide television exposure (on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, which, incidentally, they won). And they made Memphis their headquarters for over 50 years. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a Memphian under the age of 40 who has ever heard of the Blackwoods, much less could name any of their songs. Yet virtually every one of the musical giants who came out of Sun Records, particularly the white ones, owed musical debts to the Blackwoods, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash, who wrote a song for the group.

People who still believe that white gospel music did not cross over to black audiences should note that so many requests were phoned in to Ellis Auditorium at the funeral for the two Blackwoods who died in the plane crash that the balcony was reserved for black mourners. And it was full. The funeral procession that day is believed to be the biggest in Memphis history until the King himself died in 1977.

After the crash and funeral, the Blackwoods regrouped and brought in one of the greatest bass singers to ever overshadow a stage, J.D. Sumner, who later toured with Elvis. Sumner was like no one before or since a revelation as a singer who brought a rhythmic, boogie beat to the staid gospel field. He was a superb songwriter (you've got to hear his vision of heaven as a Hawaiian Eden in "Paradise Island") and a great entertainer who could bring down the house with his deadpan ad-libs. At the other end of the quartet was Bill Shaw, a high tenor as remarkable as any competitor on the Atlantic Records R&B roster. Bear Family Records in Germany last year put out a terrific, if expensive, boxed set of the group's pre-1960 recordings. But the Blackwoods recorded many more treasures after that, up until the departure of Sumner for the Stamps Quartet (which was owned by the Blackwoods' company). One example of the group's vocal acrobatics is their cover of the Dixie Hummingbirds' "The Devil Can't Harm a Praying Man," where they morph their style from black gospel to white and back again, all in homage to the black gospel groups the Blackwoods revered and championed. During the days of segregation in the South, the Blackwoods frequently booked the legendary black gospel group the Golden Gate Quartet on their tours. And white audiences loved them.

If there's one group America needs to rediscover before the historical rust obliterates this music form, it's the Blackwoods and their singular gospel-quartet style. Shortly before his death from a series of strokes in 2002, James Blackwood, the sole surviving original member of the quartet, quietly admitted his hurt when in tribute after tribute to Memphis music the Blackwoods more often than not were not mentioned.

There is one person in Memphis' music past who would never have allowed such a thing to happen. This same person won his only Grammys with million-selling gospel albums that in large measure paid tribute to a group few now bother to remember.