Final Goodbyes of 2012

As the year comes to a close, it’s fitting to remember those who’ve gone but can’t, or shouldn’t be, forgotten.

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Daniel Inouye – Like many Japanese-Americans of his generation, he was reviled, discriminated against, locked away into concentration camps, looked down upon. And like many, to prove his loyalty to his country, he went to war. In Inouye’s case, he suffered, soldiered on and became an honest-to-God American, Medal-of-Honor-winning hero. The story goes that he went into a San Francisco barber shop on his way home, still wearing the uniform of an Army captain (with one sleeve pinned up because he’d lost an arm in the Italian campaign) and the barber refused to cut his hair because he was Japanese. A mark of shame on my hometown. Inouye became the first Asian-American member of the House, and first in the Senate. He died as the most senior member of Congress. He was steadfast in his principles and admired for his humanity.

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Johnny Otis – Brilliant and revolutionary bandleader, showman, musician, developer of talent. ‘Hand Jive’ anyone?

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Etta James – A singer who can get you up dancing and break your heart at the same time. Coincidentally, one of Johnny Otis’ great discoveries.

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Joe Paterno – His players practically worshiped him but his reputation will be forever linked and, therefore, sullied by his connection to a sexual abuse scandal centered around a former assistant.

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Earl Scruggs – A giant. A legend. A pioneer. A person who, defying all odds, brought soulfulness to the banjo.

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Dick Clark – Forget the new year’s eve caricature he became. He broke ground and he sincerely loved teenagers and their music.

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Levon Helm – Listen to him sing. Read his lyrics. You can’t mistake him for anybody else.

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Mike Wallace – The number-one case in point for this axiom: fearless journalists piss powerful people off.

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Maurice Sendak – He turned a very uncertain and unhappy childhood into art adored by millions of children and adults alike.

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Carlos Fuentes – Great writer of brutally honest fiction.

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Doc Watson – Changed the lives of thousands of musicians and maybe millions of fans with his clear and honest singing about the lives of real people.

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Rodney King – Beaten by LA cops, who were filmed doing it. All holy hell broke loose when they were acquitted. Then, in all sincerity, Rodney King asked his townsfolk to get along and stop killing each other. For his efforts, he was turned into a national joke. He deserved better.

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Andy Griffith – On popular TV shows for, like, 50 years but he still died an underestimated and underappreciated actor.

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Ernest Borgnine – Played honest-to-God working-class American men with gravity and honesty. They don’t make guys like him or movies like that anymore, to our great loss.

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Kitty Wells – Raw and honest voice. A trailblazer for women in music. Ran her own life and her own career her way. Also a beautiful, generous and gracious human being.

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Sally Ride – Terms like “role model” and “hero” get thrown around like nickels these days. I just wish kids knew less about people like Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan and a whole lot more about people like Sally Ride.

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Neil Armstrong – The first line of every single obituary of Neil Armstrong? He was the first man to set foot on the moon. Do you need a second sentence? Every one my age or older remembers the precise moment.

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George McGovern – A war hero who wanted to end the useless and wasteful Vietnam War. As a result, he was chewed up by the Nixon campaign machine and made to look weak, unmanly. He told the truth.

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Margaret DuPont – Graceful, smart, tough as nails. Was she the first American female sports star? Many owe her a great debt of gratitude for making the model many now trade upon.

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Marvin Miller – Created major league baseball as we now know it. Helped players stand up to the organized servitude that was baseball. Hated by many. Hated.

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Hector Camacho – Grew up tough in Spanish Harlem. Became successful, rich, famous. Never lost the chip on his shoulder or need to live wild. Ended bad, as it had to, by a bullet to the head.

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Dave Brubeck – His iconic ‘Take Five’ may be the most recognized jazz song of all time. His bands were tight. His piano was beautiful. He represented his era well.

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Ravi Shankar – Classically-trained. Spiritual. A bridge between very different cultures.

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No More Like Her

Despite the hits, the 60-plus year career touring as the “Queen of Country Music,” the omnnipresence on stage and TV, what I most vividly remember about Kitty Wells is my mind’s image of her sitting at her kitchen counter sipping a cup of coffee, smiling that beautiful smile, engaging a perfect stranger, a stranger she’d warmly invited to her home, in happy conversation about her life in country music.

I was not a fan of country music when I first moved to the South in the 1980s. Of course, at that point I’d only heard the overproduced junk that was most popular during that period. I knew little, if anything, about the hard-edged, truth-telling, straightforward country music of earlier eras. Lucky for me, every Saturday night, my local PBS station played old films from the Grand Ole Opry.

I watched, reluctantly at first, eventually as a die-hard, never-miss fan. My biggest “discovery,” without question, was Kitty Wells. Her music blew me away. It was everything contemporary country music wasn’t. It was raw, honest, stripped-down, real. And Wells’ on-screen presence was phenomenal. Her eyes burned through the TV right into my brain. If you don’t already know her music, I encourage you to find it and listen for yourself.

Sorry to sound cliche, but they just don’t make music like that anymore.

Wells blazed the trail that was followed by other country music giants, like Pasty Cline and Loretta Lynn.

When, years later, I had the chance to interview Wells and her husband, Johnnie Wright, half of the country duo Johnnie and Jack, I jumped at it. The couple invited me to their home, insisted we’d all be more comfortable there than at some office or hotel. And so we were. I was greeted as an honored guest and treated like an old friend. They were gracious and generous to a fault, not only engaging and bottomless sources of history and information but singular hosts and warm human beings who, incidentally, showed great affection for each other.

As I think back on the music of Kitty Wells, I’ll remember listening to “I Don’t Claim to Be An Angel,” for the first time, questioning everything I’d assumed about country singers. You can watch Kitty sing it here. Even without the music, the lyrics jump off the page with searingly painful regret, are current and fresh still:

I don’t claim to be an angel my life’s been full of sin
But when I met you darling that all came to an end
Never doubt my love dear whatever you may do
I don’t claim to be an angel but my love for you is true.

You’ll hear talk around town of things I used to do
Some will try to poison your mind that my love can’t be true
Many nights I lay awake dear hoping our love will last
Wondering if your love is strong enough to forget about my past.
I don’t claim to be an angel…

I never knew what real love was till you came along
You changed my outlook on life made me regret my wrongs
Why should my past keep haunting me all through the years
I paid for each mistake with millions of bitter tears.
I don’t claim to be an angel…

I sincerely mourn the passing of Miss Kitty Wells. May she rest in eternal peace.