A Boomer’s Look at Those Who Passed in 2010

As we begin a new year, it’s traditional for many journalistic sources to look back at the year ending, and especially at the deaths of people whose lives touched so many. While Mister Boomer would only humbly aspire to achieve professional journalistic standards, he does want to celebrate the lives of many who made a difference to those of us in the baby boomer generation.

Though this listing is far from complete, it represents a sampling of those who passed in 2010, but whose memory lives on in the hearts and minds of boomers everywhere.

William Alexander Chilton

45 RPM records by The Box Tops
45 RPM records by The Box Tops with Alex Chilton, from Mister Boomer's private collection.

A boomer himself, Alex Chilton is best known to boomers as the singer for the band The Box Tops. As a 16-year old Memphis high school student, he co-wrote and sang lead on their 1967 hit, The Letter. Mr. Chilton wrote and sang many other memorable songs for boomers, including Cry Like A Baby. In the 1970s and 80s, Alex Chilton’s music spanned the breadth and depth of rock ‘n roll — from blues to power pop, rockabilly to punk — forming the band Alex Chilton and the Cossacks and joining Big Star. He appeared on numerous independent record labels and remains one of the most influential rock figures of his age of our generation.

Bobby Hebb
On the wings of a number one single, Bobby Hebb is forever etched into the memories of boomers. In 1963, Sunny hit number one and became one of the most played and recorded songs of the sixties. Later, he achieved lesser hit status and in 1971 wrote the Lou Rawls hit, A Natural Man, but he never reached the notoriety that the one, early-60s song had given him. Sunny has appeared on numerous lists as one of the best songs of the twentieth century.

Doug Fieger
Far from just another boomer musician, Doug Fieger gave us the incredibly popular band, The Knack, where he sang lead vocals and co-wrote My Sharona.

Theodore DeResse Pendergrass
Teddy Pendergrass began his musical career as a drummer for several Philadelphia groups, then for The Cadillacs. In 1970, Harold Melvin asked him to drum for his band, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. When Teddy sang during one performance, Harold Melvin made him lead singer of the group, and his career blossomed. In the mid-70s, he continued to remain immensely popular as a solo artist. Then, in 1982, he suffered a car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Despite his challenges, Teddy returned to the stage in 1985 and continued singing until he announced his retirement in 2006.

Bernard Wilson
Bernie Wilson was best known to boomers as the baritone vocalist for Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. He backed Teddy Pendergrass on their huge hit, If You Don’t Know Me By Now.

Don Van Vliet
Boomers know Don Van Vliet as Captain Beefheart. Several of us, including Mister Boomer, will recall his 60s singles as Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band. The good Captain operated best in an avant-garde branch of rock where few have dared tread, save the likes of other experimental innovators such as Frank Zappa and George Clinton.

Ali “Ollie” Woodson
Though not an original member of The Temptations, Ali Woodson sang with the group from 1984 to 1986. He co-wrote and sang lead on their 1984 hit, Treat Her Like A Lady (not to be confused with the 1971 Cornelius Brothers hit song of the same name).

Jimmy Dean
Many boomers will recall Jimmy Dean’s entrance into the musical lexicon through his hit single Big Bad John, in 1961. Appealing to both country and rock audiences with his down-home style, Jimmy Dean hosted his own TV show from 1963 to 1966. Perhaps he is best remembered as the creator and founder of Jimmy Dean sausage.

Robert Culp
The first actor to be teamed with a black man on a TV series, Robert Culp is best remembered by boomers for his wise-cracking, suave portrayal of a spy alongside Bill Cosby in the series, I Spy. It ran from 1965-68, riding the wave of both dramas and comedies that referenced the Cold War.

Barbara Billingsley
As noted in this blog the week of her passing (So Long, June Cleaver), Barbara Billingsley will forever be Mrs. Cleaver to the boomer generation. Ms. Billingsley’s portrayal of Wally and Beaver’s mother in Leave It To Beaver remains the quintessential portrayal of the ideal early sixties parent.

Fess Parker
Sing the first two notes of “Day-Vee …” and every early boomer will sing along with, “Davy Crockett; King of the Wild Frontier.” Fess Parker’s popular Davy Crockett TV character in the 1950s was responsible for the coonskin cap craze of that decade. Many boomers wish they had been able to hold on to their original Davy Crockett cap, as now they are being sold back to boomers on the Internet.

Dino de Laurentiis

An Italian film producer of many popular films of the boomer era, he may be best remembered by boomers for Serpico (1973) and Barbarella (1968). The latter was of particular note to boomers who were drafted during the Vietnam war. According to Mister Boomer’s boyhood friend and neighbor — a Vietnam veteran, Barbarella, in its uncensored European release, was a favorite among U.S. soldiers. In the final analysis, Jane Fonda’s screen nudity in this sexually-liberated romp based on a comic book far eclipsed her politics of the day.

Dennis Hopper
Though Dennis Hopper had more than 200 film and TV credits, boomers best recall Dennis Hopper as Peter Fonda’s motorcycle buddy in Easy Rider (1969). As Billy, he became a poster child of sixties counterculture. Mr. Hopper also appeared in other movies that are on the top of many boomer-favorite lists, including Rebel Without a Cause, Apocalypse Now, Cool Hand Luke, Blue Velvet and Hang ‘Em High.

Leslie Nielsen
A dramatic actor who found his comic genius later in his career, boomers will recall Leslie Nielsen for his numerous portrayals covering the vast landscape of our formative years. Included in his acting credits are appearances in Airplane and the Naked Gun series, along with popular boomer TV shows The Mod Squad, The Virginian, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Bonanza, The Wild Wild West, Daniel Boone, Route 66, Wagon Train, The Fugitive and a host of others. While Mister Boomer still enjoys Airplane, his favorite Leslie Nielsen movie will always be Forbidden Planet (1956).

J. D. Salinger
Little-photographed writer, J. D. Salinger, avoided the spotlight despite the immense popularity of his books, most notably The Catcher in the Rye. It remains an iconic work about teenage angst, though the book has the distinction of being the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the U.S. from 1961 to 1982. Naturally, that made boomers want to read it even more. In 1981 it was also the second-most taught book in public schools, introducing yet another generation to his literary prowess.

Edwin Newman
Boomers could not escape the authoritative voice and face of newsman Edwin Newman. He reported during some of the most memorable events of our boomer years, from making the first radio announcement of John Kennedy’s assassination to acting as television anchor during the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, as well as being an on-the-floor reporter during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. He appeared on numerous NBC News programs as a guest, moderator, interviewer and anchor. He was also well-known as an authority and author about the English language.

Art Clokey (Arthur C. Farrington)

Boomers may not remember Art Clokey as a household name, but mention that he was the creator (along with his wife Ruth) and animator of Gumby and the picture becomes crystal clear. Gumby, and later his horse, Pokey, grew out of Clokey’s 1955 student film, Gumbasia. The film consisted of animated clay shapes moving to a jazz score. Gumby made his first TV appearance on The Howdy Doody Show in August 1956. After it was seen by Samuel Engel, who was the president of the Motion Pictures Producers Association, Engel financed the pilot of what was to become The Gumby Show (1957). Mr. Clokey also created the animated series, Davey and Goliath.

Donald E. Goerke
Another man many boomers may not recall by name, Donald Goerke is best known for a culinary creation that was among many boomers’ favorites: SpaghettiOs. Mr. Goerke began working for Campbell Soup Company in 1955 as a market researcher. In the early 60s, Campbell’s asked him to spearhead a group for their Franco-American division. They were asked to create a canned pasta that children — and mothers — would like. After rejecting various shapes for the pasta, he finally chose the “O” shape since it reduced the mess factor and could be picked up with a spoon. Boomers will recall the famous jingle of, “The neat, round spaghetti you can eat with a spoon: Uh-oh, SpaghettiOs.” For many years, Mister Boomer’s sister had an extremely limited list of acceptable foods for her diet; among them were peanut butter, bologna, Chef Boyardee Beefaroni and more often than not, SpaghettiOs.

We finish not with a person, but with a true icon of the boomer era: Kodachrome film. Technically a slide film (the film intended for paper printing was Kodacolor), it became the witness and archiver of our early years as slide projectors joined the family movie camera, projector and screen. Famous for its “nice, bright colors,” as immortalized in song by Paul Simon, some said it was too bright, and therefore unnatural. Nonetheless, its reign ran from its inception in 1935 until Kodak announced the end of production in 2009. The final roll was created for a National Geographic assignment by Dwayne’s Photo of Parsons, Kansas for photographer Steve McCurry. The final 36 slides will be enshrined at the Eastman Kodak House in Rochester, New York. Dwayne’s Photo officially ended Kodachrome processing on December 30, 2010.

Of course there were many more passings in 2010 that had an impact on boomers’ lives. Let’s continue to celebrate them all for the contributions they have made to our entertainment, social, political, literary and cultural lives.

Boomers Count Down Another Year

Well, boomers, this week we’ll flip the life odometer on another year. 2011 will see the youngest boomers turning 47, while the oldest among us will reach 65. As the clock strikes midnight, we’ll still be wondering what “Auld Lang Syne” means. For the record, it’s Scottish for “times long past,” a phrase popularized by the poet Robert Burns in the song from the late 17th century. Are there boomers of any age who can recall all the lyrics to that traditional New Year’s song? Probably not.

Perhaps the reason is, unless your family was Scottish, the version you probably heard during your formative boomer years was an instrumental played by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadiens. It’s probably playing through your brain right now as you read this. (Sorry.) His TV presence and rendition of the song became synonymous with New Year’s Eve, first for our parents, then passed on to us through family TV osmosis. Mr. Lombardo had performed on a radio broadcast each year since 1928, then his first live New Year’s TV broadcast was aired beginning in 1956. He continued the tradition until his death in November 1977. His brother Victor took over for a year, but the band disbanded in 1978. In addition to his live broadcast from New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, there would be coverage of the Times Square ball drop. While most boomers that Mister Boomer knows couldn’t stand Guy Lombardo (the “old fogey” that he was represented the past, man!), we did want to see the ball drop. That is yet another shared memory we boomers have in our history.

New Year’s Eve was one of the few days of the year when boomer children were allowed to stay up late. Mom and dad, along with possibly some family members, friends and neighbors, would down cocktails and watch Guy Lombardo on the black and white TV, until the time arrived for the big New Year’s countdown.

In Mister Boomer’s household, the children were dressed in their pajamas (with the feet on them), had coats draped over their shoulders like capes to ward off the winter chill, and were issued pots, pans and wooden spoons. The young troop was then marched out the front door, where Mister B and his siblings lined up along the porch edge waiting for the countdown. The TV volume would be turned up so it could be heard from the porch, as the group shivered in anticipation. “5-4-3-2-1 … Happy New Year!” was their cue to bang as furiously and loudly as possible. Their percussive cacophony was joined by a few neighborhood children also banging pots and pans on their porches, along with the sounds of horns, shouts of “Happy New Year,” and car horns that echoed through the neighborhood. Then, as the noise began to diminish, Mister B’s father would step out on the porch with his shotgun that he used for pheasant hunting. All eyes were on him as he loaded a shell into the gun. He raised it to his shoulder, and, aiming at the front lawn, fired into the ground as if the bang were a finale to the neighborhood noise-making.

As the years progressed, shotgun firing was dropped from the family tradition. It wasn’t long after that, that the banging of pots and pans also became “times long past.” We were getting older, and Guy Lombardo wasn’t going to cut it for the Pepsi Generation. Finally, in 1972, Dick Clark offered boomers another choice. Calling his show New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, he put the older generation on notice that his was not your father’s New Year’s celebration. We already knew Dick from American Bandstand, of course. We liked him, and we trusted him as a voice of our generation. If he wanted to rock New Year’s Eve, we wanted to rock with him.

As the decades-old tradition of one television for the whole family began to crack, boomers had New Year’s parties in basements, where they could watch Dick Clark on a second TV while their parents sat in front of Guy Lombardo, upstairs, for another year. That first Rockin’ Eve show in 1972 featured Three Dog Night as hosts, and musical guests Blood, Sweat & Tears, Helen Reddy and Al Green. Mister Boomer recalls several house parties in the seventies, when, rockin’ or not, the show seemed pretty boring. Since it wasn’t Guy Lombardo boring, we would continue to watch.

Any overview of boomer New Year’s celebrations would be remiss without the mention of The Soupy Sales Show. Almost every boomer remembers some version of The Soupy Sales Show on TV. It was New Year’s Day 1965 that marked a momentous day for boomer fans of Soupy. The network had forced Soupy to work the holiday, and that didn’t sit too well with the pie-man. Soupy jokingly looked at his young viewers and asked them to tip-toe into their parents’ bedrooms while they were sleeping and remove the “funny green pieces of paper with pictures of men with beards” from their pockets and purses. He then instructed his viewers to “put them in an envelope and mail them to me.” That week the station, WNEW in New York, received what has been reported as $80,000, though Soupy himself revealed that most of it was was play money or Monopoly money. Soupy was suspended for two weeks, but his show was not canceled and continued another two years.

It is said many boomers like to say they were among those who sent Soupy some dollars in 1965. Unfortunately, Mister Boomer cannot make that claim. Others say it’s more likely we have the same situation at work in the Soupy incident as the number of people who claim to have been at Woodstock. How about it, boomers? Does Guy Lombardo, Dick Clark or Soupy Sales loom large in the annals of your New Year’s memories?