Funny Business: The Tenacity of Jay Leno

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At the age of 65, Jay Leno is driving himself like a pack mule of comedy: performing 210 to 250 dates a year in venues across the country.

Unlike Kanye West, apparently, Leno doesn’t need the money, so it is difficult for any non-famous codger who is still a long way from making his first million to imagine why Leno is still toiling so much and so hard.

“I’m a great believer in low self-esteem,” he said in a phone interview. “And, you know, all the people with high self-esteem are actors and criminals. If you think you’re the smartest person in room, you stop growing.

“I’ll tell you,” Leno said, “there were only 4,000 geniuses in recorded history and in Hollywood there seems to be thousands of them.”

Leno will perform March 3 at the Embassy Theatre.

There are a lot of entertainers who probably like to hear themselves described as “the hardest working man in show business,” but Leno has earned that title year after year.

This stems, he said, from having been diagnosed as dyslexic as a child.

“My mother always told me, ‘You’re going to have to work twice as hard as other kids to get the same thing’ and that always worked for me,” he said. “‘You mean I have to put in eight hours to your four? OK.’”

As a stand-up comic, Leno has never been accused of reinventing the form. From the moment he first got up on stage, there were always more innovative comics around.

Unlike some of those other guys, however, Leno has always been dependably funny. He is a joke surgeon – he loves analyzing jokes based on audience reaction and retooling them for future shows.

Leno is not the sort of guy who should stir controversy but he did on two notable occasions during his career.

The first time was when NBC bestowed “The Tonight Show” upon him in 1992. Many people, including prior host Johnny Carson, had favored having “Late Night’s” David Letterman take over as emcee. Letterman subsequently bolted for CBS and some people grumbled that Leno had somehow stolen the prestigious gig.

For NBC execs, the final choice may have come down to differing dispositions.

“I’m not going to say anything negative about Dave,” he said. “But I come from the Dale Carnegie, look-em-in-the-eye, shake-their-hand school. My dad was a salesman.

“I like people,” Leno said. “I have no problem going to affiliates. I visited almost every NBC affiliate in the country personally and then I read an article that said, “Leno cheated. He went to every NBC affiliate.’”

Leno said he didn’t do anything he wouldn’t naturally have done.

“I mean, you don’t have to go to every affiliate,” he said. “If you volunteer to do it, you know what it is? You make friends and that’s what happened. The affiliates voted on who they wanted.”

Former G.E. chairman Jack Welch used to tell people that “We chose the guy who is the least pain in the ass,’” Leno recalled.

“You know anything about Dave’s personality?” he asked. “I have no problem meeting executives, and Dave’s a prickly guy. He’s a good guy and whatnot, but the suits really couldn’t talk to Dave. They had to talk through his people.

“I was someone – I don’t have an agent. I don’t have a manager,” Leno said. “I was like, ‘What do you need, guys? What do we need to do to make the show number one? Let’s do that. Let’s work harder.’”

A sort of feud played out between the men over the ensuing decades, but Letterman seemed to be the only one making public reference to it.

Prior to Carson leaving “The Tonight Show,” the comics had been admirers of each other. Leno said Letterman’s focus on stage was wordplay and his focus was performance and they each marveled at the other’s unique strengths.

“Some of the favorite times in my career were doing the Letterman show,” Leno said. “Because I would always get a meatball sandwich and I would stand in the hall and I would wait for Dave to come down to make-up and then I’d come around the corner (Leno makes sloppy eating sounds).

“And he would go, ‘How can you eat that (expletive) sandwich? You’re going on in five minutes,’” Leno said. “I would push the sandwich in his face and he’d say, ‘Get that thing away from me!’”

Leno said he’d always try to come up with some interesting phrase for Letterman to wryly mull over while the men were on the couch and behind the desk, respectively.

“For Dave the funny part was on the way to the joke,” he said. “It was never the joke.”

There are no hard feelings between the men now that they have both retired from their shows, Leno said.

“Comics have a bond,” he said. “Only other comics truly understand what you do for a living.

“And when it comes down to talk show hosts, the group is even smaller. There’s really only a dozen people who really understand what these things are all about and how they work and how much effort you have to put in to get a little reward,” Leno said.

One of those dozen people, presumably, is Conan O’Brien, who was a participant in Leno’s second major controversy.

In 2009, O’Brien was given “The Tonight Show” and Leno was moved into a 10 p.m. slot.

Both shows were ratings disappointments and after some ham-handed non-fixes by NBC, O’Brien left the network and Leno was re-installed as the host of “The Tonight Show.”

Many accused Leno of usurping “The Tonight Show” from its rightful heir, but he said that every decision was made by the network.

“They told (O’Brien) what they wanted to do and he left and they said, ‘Do you want show back’ and I said, ‘Sure’,” Leno recalled. “If that makes me the bad guy then I guess that’s what it is.

“I certainly made other people the butt of the joke in my monologues,” he said. “You can’t all of sudden start crying sour grapes when it turns on you every once in a while. That’s all right. That’s fine. Ultimately, it’s a business.”

Nobody wants to see rich people arguing, Leno said.

Asked if giving up the show was like losing a limb, Leno laughed.

“Not at all,” he said. “There’s an old saying. Don’t fall in love with a hooker. OK? It’s not going to work out. I’ve been married for 36 years. I have the same friends I had in high school. The same wife. In certain instances, I have the same car.

“I enjoy observing show business,” Leno said. “I enjoy talking with Charlie Sheen. But I don’t want to be Charlie Sheen. I always found him amusing, interesting and funny. But I don’t want to be him. I don’t want to live that life.”

The real trick, he said, is “to make show business money and lead a normal life.”

Leno said a guy in that lofty, 11:30 p.m. position has to know when it’s time to leave.

“When you’re 40 and talking to the 26-year-old supermodel, it’s sexy. When you’re 65, you’re the old guy,” he said. “At this stage of my life, I shouldn’t have to know all of Kanye West’s music.”

These days, Leno (who said he owns 140 cars and 117 motorcycles) hosts a much lower profile show for vehicle aficionados on CNBC called “Jay Leno’s Garage.”

Leno is able to convince big celebrities to visit by assuring them that the only questions he plans to ask are about cars, motorcycles and planes.

“They’re comfortable talking about their hobby without having to worry about me saying, ‘Your last film bombed. Why do you think that is?’”

Leno said he enjoys returning to “The Tonight Show” in the role no different from any other comic trying to prove himself.

“I’m going on again Thursday,” he said. “And I’m going on as a stand-up comedian. I’m not going on as some old legend who used to do the show. I’m going on as a comedian. You will rise and fall based on jokes that you tell.”

His plan to keep touring as long as he is able isn’t about proving something. It’s about enjoying himself.

“It’s great fun to write jones and tell them for a living,” Leno said. “It gives you a great deal of satisfaction. People laugh. I don’t think of it as work. It’s really fun for me. I truly enjoy it. I’m not one of those people who vomits before they go on stage because they’re so nervous.”

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The Flying Bender Brothers

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When Gregg Bender, longtime Journal Gazette illustrator and frontman of his eponymous band, was a teenager growing up in Berne, he and his friend John Ludy performed original music in the style of the West Coast rock revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s – a revolution that involved infusions of country and folk music.

“He’d write five songs a day,” Bender said. “When I got together with him, we were like ‘Why can’t we make it? Why can’t be one of those people?’”

This may be an especially plaintive question to ask in tiny Berne, which is known more for Swiss homages than rock revolts.

But long odds didn’t stop the young men from getting into a car and driving to L.A. The year was 1974 and they had $200 to their name.

“The first day we got there, we drove around the city twice and said, ‘What are we doing?’” Bender said.

They checked into a fleabag motel and started offering to perform at restaurants in exchange for meals.

Fortune soon smiled on them. A well-to-do family in the dining room one night asked them if they’d like to provide entertainment at a party they were hosting.

“It was in Santa Monica,” Bender said. “A really nice house. He was a lawyer. She was a writer and also a professor at UCLA. They had four kids.”

After the party, the couple made a proposal that may seem exceptionally generous and credulous in these paranoid and cynical times, but might have been fairly typical in Southern California seven years after the Summer of Love.

They asked the guys if they wanted to move in.

“We were Midwestern youngsters,” Bender said. “We were like, ‘Oh no. We can’t do that.’ Three days later, we were knocking on the door.”

One day after Bender and Ludy had moved in, the family went on vacation and left them alone in the house.

Many great things began happening for them.

The family had connections in the music business and hooked the men up with composer Patrick Williams, who went on to score several dozen of the biggest films and TV shows of the 1970s and 1980s, including “Breaking Away,” “Columbo,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Streets of San Francisco.”

Williams liked their music and offered them free studio time.

“It was $100 an hour,” Bender said. “And the Stones had been in there. Vanilla Fudge.”

They recorded a demo tape and took it to Leon Russell’s Shelter Records where they received further kudos and blocks of free studio time.

That resultant accumulation of recordings was subsequently well received by Jackson Brown’s manager.

And while it did nothing to further their career, babysitting for former “Gilligan’s Island” star Dawn Wells — who lived down the beach from where Bender and Ludy were luxuriously bivouacked — provided the men with a brush-with-greatness tale that still impresses today.

But establishing a national musical career requires much exigency and many falling dominoes and the men began to lose faith before too long.

Six months after they’d arrived in Los Angeles, they returned to Berne.

“I mean, we were 19 years old,” Bender explained.

The men eventually went their separate ways.

Bender’s newspaper career took him to Kendallville; Jackson, Tennessee; South Bend; Little Rock, Arkansas; Jackson (again) and, finally, Fort Wayne.

It was during his stint at the Kendallville News-Sun in the early 1980s that he hooked with an old college buddy named Tracy Warner.

Bender became a fixture at, and sometime host of, the open mike nights at Munchie Emporium and it was during this period that he learned Warner played saxophone.

The two formed an atypical guitar/saxophone duo for a time.

In all the towns where he has lived, Bender has always tried to find places to play his guitar and sing.

He seems to get an almost daredevil thrill from entertaining.

“Not everyone is geared for that sort of thing,” he said. “But, for me, stepping out in front of people and playing is almost like putting yourself out there in a sporting event. You practice and practice and have one shot to be the best you can. If you are a perfectionist, second place is not an option. But the rules of the game are: You’re not going to do your best every time.”

About two years after he started working at the Journal Gazette in 2003, he started performing solo again in Fort Wayne and with Warner.

He had no grander plan than that.

But sometimes grander plans are thrust upon us.

In 2006, Bender started attending, then participating in, open band nights at the North Star Bar and Grill.

He ran into a former high school friend of his named Jim Childers and the pair repaired to Bender’s house for a jam session.

“And I said, ‘If we’re going to do this and make it sound pretty good, we might as well go out and play,’” Bender recalled. “I dragged him out to open mike night and it went over really well.”

The twosome began to accrue additional musicians: Drummer Mike Andrews, who Bender said owes his lead style of playing to Jimi Hendrix’s percussionist, Mitch Mitchell; bassist Dave West, who Bender said has mastered a bewildering array of songs and genres in his decades of performing in Fort Wayne; and Warner, of course.

Before too long, the Gregg Bender Band was born.

A mere three years after forming, the Gregg Bender Band performs almost weekly in numerous regional venues and has been featured on Julia Meek’s public radio music showcase “Meet the Music” at least four times.

The Gregg Bender Band is strictly a cover band, but Bender said they try to choose deep cuts that probably can’t be heard anywhere else in town.

Bender’s ultimate goal with the band “is to be mentioned in the same breath along with some of the other top-notch bands in this city.”

Bender said this unexpected later-life success is much more fun than any of the triumphs of his callow youth because “these guys are my friends and we get to share this experience together.

“I had never really played in a band before,” he said, “although I knew of others where fights developed and everyone parted ways. We’re older now and don’t have that baggage anymore. There are no aspirations of being big. We just want to play the best we can and let the other stuff roll off. There is really no pressure except the pressure we put on ourselves to play to the best of our abilities.”

Bender said Ludy, now a retired teacher living in Fremont, might come down in March to participate in a recording session.

But any resulting CD would serve posterity, not fuel ambition.

“This is a vanity project,” he said. “We have no illusions. We can hand it out at shows.”

 

 

 

 

Musiq to Our Ears

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When Musiq Soulchild (birth name: Taalib Johnson) was growing up making music in Philadelphia, his aspirations did not feature a major record label.

“I wasn’t even planning to sign a deal,” he said in a phone interview. “I was planning on just recording records – pressing up CDs and selling them myself. That was pretty much the plan.

“I’d heard a lot of stories about artists going through what they were going through with record labels,” Soulchild said. “I mean – I didn’t really know anything from anything. But I was thinking about my music not being respected and appreciated and having to compromise my integrity in order to make a dollar.”

But Def Jam President Kevin Liles, who’d fallen hard for Soulchild’s demos, proved very persuasive.

“I guess everybody around me was doing their best to make me feel comfortable,” he says.

Soulchild said he wasn’t in a position to turn down a blessing like that.

“I had nothing to my name,” he said. “I was homeless, essentially – depending on the kindness of strangers.”

The result was that Soulchild made a big splash in 2000 with his first single, “Just Friends (Sunny)” and with a debut album, “Aijuswanaseing (I Just Want to Sing).”

He was hailed by some as heir to a possibly endangered tradition of sweet soul balladeering and, by extension, as a presumed protector of that tradition.

Musiq Soulchild performs Feb. 12 at the Embassy Theatre

Soulchild released three subsequent albums in the “Aijuswanaseing” vein. They were all well received and lucrative but Soulchild began to feel restless.

“Everybody’s point of reference for me became this crooner or love man or romantic guy,” he said in a phone interview. “And that never fit me. That’s not even my personality.”

Indeed, it was Soulchild’s diversity that made his musical reputation in Philly. He could beat-box, freestyle, scat sing and perform credible street corner doo-wop.

In a 2000 profile in the Philadelphia Daily News, a 22-year-old Soulchild expressed a fear of being pigeonholed.

“The world is my focus,” he said. “It’s not just the ghetto. It’s not just the suburbs. It’s not just soul or hip-hop music. It’s not just pop, blues or jazz. The whole world is my focus.”

Soulchild’s desire to experiment with his hits in concert rather than mimic them hasn’t sat well with some fans.

“People expect a typical R&B show,” he said. “And I do the singles – do the hits – but I like to try different iterations. I may rock out on one and do a jazz version of another and a straight out remake of something. And people get this look on their faces sometimes. Because it doesn’t sound like it did on the radio.”

The debut of Soulchild’s rap alter ego named The Husel in 2014 also met with a lot of pushback.

Soulchild said he welcomes criticism. He listens to what sounds relevant to him and casts the rest aside.

It wasn’t always that way. He said it used to upset him more when he learned that someone wasn’t pleased with something he’d done.

Based on a preponderance of the anecdotal evidence, it might be safe to conclude that sudden fame isn’t so much a mixed blessing as it is a mixed curse. In the early days of Soulchild’s career, people used to tell him how well he was handling everything. But he said he really wasn’t handling everything well at all.

“I wasn’t really ready or prepared,” he said. “I wasn’t accustomed to that amount of attention. When you don’t have much going on in your life, nobody really cares. You have to beg for attention. Suddenly it was coming at me in a way I’d never experienced.”

He said it was really difficult at first for him to handle people recognizing him and coming up to him on the street.

“My shoulders would get tight,” he said. “Because people don’t walk up on you like in Philly.”

Soulchild wasn’t much of a drinker then, but people started buying him free drinks and it became a problem, he said. He’s been sober for a while now.

These days, Soulchild said he’s committed to “refocusing people’s expectation about who I am and what I have to offer.”

He is gratified to be so widely identified as an R&B artist, but he hopes to become known as more “R&B adjacent.”

To that end, Soulchild is launching his own record label called Soulstar Music Company. It will be a venue where his various personas can play, including one that no one has heard yet: Purple Wondaluv.

Asked what sort of music Purple Wondaluv makes, Soulchild gave an expected response: New Age.

“The sound comes from an idea I had,” he said. “‘What would it sound like if you sort of mashed together Bob Marley and Sade?’”

Soulchild said he intends the music to be calming and relaxing.

“With Purple Wondaluv, I don’t plan on making love songs or songs about romance,” he said. “The songs will be about general compassion. Not only for other people, but also for yourself.

He likens Purple Wondaluv songs to self-help books. Soulchild wants to use Purple Wondaluv to convey to listeners what he has learned about coping with some of the more difficult aspects of life.

“Without being self-righteous about it,” he said. “My idea is, ‘Here’s how I felt and here’s how it helped me and maybe it will help you if you go through it.’”

All future feats and forays will be kept separate from each other, Soulchild said. The only persona audiences should expect to see at a Musiq Soulchild show is Musiq Soulchild.

Soulchild said he isn’t afraid to fail.

“Being an artist is about learning to walk in your artistic confidence,” he said. “I may not know anything. I may not always know what I am doing. But I will always know what I am capable of.”

 

 

 

Isle of Bluesman

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The Isle of Man, a possession of the British crown, is not widely known for its bluesmen.

Most Americans know so little about this tiny, self-governing, water-encompassed country in the Irish Sea that they couldn’t even begin to surmise what might be giving its residents the blues.

But one Isle of Man axman who has made headlines in the states is here to report that the Isle of Man has a vibrant and varied music scene.

And it owes it all to herring.

“The fascinating thing about the Isle of Man is that it’s slap bang down in the middle of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales,” said Davy Knowles in a phone interview.

“Back in the day, there was huge fishing – herring fishing. So you’d get boats from all of those countries and other places coming to the Isle of Man, fishing around the waters and stopping in the Isle of Man.”

They’d all bring their songs. And Manx musicians (Manx being the name of the language and native people of the Isle of Man) would learn those songs and appropriate those songs and tweak those songs, he said.

So “there are a lot of great musicians” on the Isle of Man performing traditional Celtic music, blues and rock, Knowles said.

Knowles will play a mix of all three when he performs at C2G Music Hall on February 13.

But it wasn’t a Manx musician that inspired Knowles to take up the guitar.

It was Mark Knopfler.

Knowles’ dad had an expansive record collection and Knowles was poleaxed by the Dire Straits hit, “The Sultans of Swing.”

“My dad played me that tune when I was 10 years old,” he said. “I was totally hooked. (Knopfler’s guitar work is) just so melodic. You could sing every one of his solos.”

Later, his sister introduced him to the Irish bluesman Rory Gallagher and Knowles was brought closer to what would become his style of play.

“I really connected to him a lot because I could hear a lot of Celtic in his playing,” he said. “It was really cool to see this quite exotic American music being played by an Irishman and coming out slightly mid-Atlantic.

“The aggression of Rory’s playing really grabbed me,” Knowles said. “Between Rory Gallagher and Mark Knopfler is where I’d like to be.”

Knowles started gigging when he was 14, toured England when he was 15 and formed a band at 16 with some schoolmates called Back Door Slam.

The short-lived group played the SXSW Festival and toured the states twice before disbanding in 2009.

Knowles said his first U.S. tour was “astounding.”

“Just totally a dream come true,” he said. “Up to that point, we’d just been playing pubs, mainly on the Isle of Man. It was a hell of a big jump. It was quite daunting to go from playing in pubs to actually touring the United States. There were a lot of learning curves. I think that’s what ultimately shortened the life of that band.”

Knowles found himself opening for such guitar gods as Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani and Buddy Guy, which was both thrilling and nerve-wracking.

“Totally terrifying, yeah,” he said. “There’s part of you that’s a fan and is totally blown away. Everything seems very surreal. But there’s also that degree of, ‘Well, this is my job and I’d best get on with it.’ Practicality kicks in. It’s only after the fact that you think, ‘(Expletive). How lucky I am?’

“You try absorb as much as you can,” Knowles said. “They’ve been around a long time and are at the top of their craft and their game. They’re total inspirations and you’d be foolish not sit and take notes every night.”

Sharing a stage with legends is one thing. Collaborating with them is quite another.

A friend of Knowles who lived in Nashville shared his music with another musician and that was how Knowles came to be on the receiving end of a call one day from Peter Frampton.

“I got a phone call from him and he said, “Hey, I’ve been listening to your stuff and I like it a lot. We should get together,’” Knowles recalled. “And I’m thinking it’s a big practical joke.”

Eventually, tour breaks coincided and the men met up.

“We just hit it off,” Knowles said, “He’s such a lovely bloke. We just wrote and worked really well together.”

Because they’d co-written so many songs, Knowles asked Frampton to produce his next album.

“He was into the idea, thank God,” he said. “It all kind of fell into place quite nicely. What a joy he was to work with. A lovely, lovely man.”

These days, Knowles is based in Chicago, the home of the blues (or one of them).

He lives with his girlfriend who he met at one of his Windy City shows.

“I’d been on the radio and her folks dragged her down there,” he said. “She didn’t particularly want to go.”

One sad fact about contemporary Chicago is that its days as a blues mecca are long past.

Knowles said the blues scene is made up of “a very, very, very few elder statesmen – people like Luther ‘Guitar’ Johnson, Jimmy Burns and Buddy Guy. But there are very, very few people who are doing it with integrity, with a kind of old-fashioned spirit behind it.”

A lot of the blues that gets played in Chicago, he said, is equivalent to music performed by a rock cover band or tribute act: designed for undiscerning tourists.

And few African-American residents patronize the music, Knowles said.

“It is a very, very strange thing,” he said. “Not that I’m one to talk in any kind of way. But the audience is mostly white people – white, middle-aged people. Which is fine. If you like music, then (liking music is) the only thing that should be involved.

“But this is very much a black music adopted by other people,” Knowles said. “It’s kind of sad to see that not a lot of that is being embraced.”

Before the Internet robbed records and CDs of their profit-earning potential, success in the music business was easier to define but harder to achieve.

Of course, it’s never been easy to be a bluesman.

For Knowles, success “just means carrying on doing it.”

“I don’t want to be big pop star,” he said. “I just want to get better and better and keep enjoying it and be able to tour.”

There are certainly some unsavory conditions in the music business, Knowles said.

“But it’s no good complaining or grumbling about it,” he said. “I don’t know what the old days were like. I wasn’t there. This is the only time period I will know. I’ve got to make the most of it. There is a place for musicians rather than people who just want to be on the charts.”