Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Is There Something Strange in the Air?

As readers of this blog and/or listeners to this podcast are aware, some Mondays present us with a plethora, a Mother’s Day buffet of musical topics from which to choose, while others are as dry as a perfect martini. During such days of topical feast or famine, coming up with a topic is equally challenging: in the case of feast, the challenge is choosing one topic over the others and in the case of famine, manufacturing a post out of topical crumbs, dust motes, and bed mites.

Festivus Pole
A Festivus pole in all of its holiday glory

Having said that, December 23 presents us with a situation I have never before faced in the 3½ years I’ve been writing this post. Yes, there are a couple of events – a birth and a death – that we will mark in a moment. But in doing my research, I have discovered a gaggle of strange, even horrific musical events associated with December 23, making me wonder whether there is some genuine weirdness in the air on this date. Is it the proximity of December 23 to Christmas Eve Day (the 24th) or the Winter Solstice (the 21st)? Is it a reflection of “The Night of the Radishes”, an annual celebration held on December 23 in Oaxaca, Mexico dedicated to carving oversized radishes? Perhaps it is a function of “Operational Servicemen Day”, a military holiday observed by all service personnel of the Armed Forces of Ukraine? Or maybe it’s all a result of the spirit of Festivus (“Festivus for the rest of us”), a secular holiday presumably “celebrated” on December 23 as an antidote to the materialism and commercialism of Christmas? (Festivus was invented in 1966 by the writer Daniel O’Keefe, though it gained prominence thanks to a 1997 Seinfeld episode called The Strike, which featured a Festivus dinner and such “traditional” Festivus activities as “The Airing of Grievances”, “Feats of Strength”, the labeling of commonplace events as “Festivus miracles”, and the display of a “Festivus pole”: a plain aluminum pole mounted on a wooden stand. 

Whatever. Let us mark a birth and a death, and then get on to some of the musical weirdness (and mayhem) that has taken place on this date.

Edita Gruberová as the Queen of the Night, from Mozart’s The Magic Flute
Edita Gruberová (born 1946) as the Queen of the Night, from Mozart’s The Magic Flute

A birth. We mark the entrance into this world on December 23, 1946 – 73 years ago today – of the coloratura soprano Edita Gruberová in Bratislava, Slovakia. OMG, what a voice, what an actress, what a Queen of the Night, what a total, perfect DIVA in the best possible sense! I would lay down on a train track for Madame Gruberová (that’s provided that the track was out-of-service; hey: it’s the thought that counts!)

Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson (1925-2007)

A death. We mark the passing, on December 23, 2007 – 12 years ago today – of the pianist and composer Oscar Peterson, at the age of 82. We will all note that I didn’t say “jazz pianist”, because Peterson’s pianism and musicality transcended genre or classification. A gentle giant, soft-spoken, articulate, and a true student of his art, Peterson’s fellow musicians referred to him as “Hercules”, so overpowering was his technique and imagination. I would have given this post over entirely to Maestro Peterson had I not already dedicated a Dr. Bob Prescribes post to him on June 25 of this year.

On to the strange/weirdness.

Chuck Berry (1926-2017) in 1957
Chuck Berry (1926-2017) in 1957

On December 23, 1959 – 60 years ago today – the rock ‘n’ roll legend Charles Edward Anderson (“Chuck”) Berry (1926-2017) was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old waitress named Janice Escalante, and for transporting her across state lines to work as a hat-check girl at his night club in St. Louis, the “Club Bandstand”. Berry claimed that Escalante told him that she was 21 and that he was unaware that she was a prostitute, which a number of sources claim that she indeed was. He was tried in March of 1960 and convicted of trafficking a minor under the Mann Act, also-known-as the “White Slave Act.” He was convicted: fined $5000 and sentenced to five years in prison. Berry appealed the decision, arguing that the judge’s racist comments had prejudiced the jury. The appeal was upheld, and Berry was retried in May and June of 1961. He was again convicted, this time sentenced to three years. He served 20 months – from February 1962 to October of 1962 – doing part of that time in Leavenworth Penitentiary. Dude; check ID.

Brian Wilson in 1964
Brian Wilson (born 1942) in 1964

On December 23, 1964 – 55 years ago today – the singer, songwriter, record producer and co-founder of the Beach Boys Brian Wilson (born 1942) suffered a full-blown panic attack on board a flight from L.A. to Houston. While Wilson’s “nervous breakdown” – as it was referred to at the time – was initially written off as a response to the pressures of his profession, it was in fact a harbinger of something much worse: mental illness and subsequent substance abuse, which effectively sidelined him for much of the next forty years. A bit of Beach Boys trivia: when Wilson stopped touring after that breakdown 55 years ago today, he was replaced initially by Glenn Campbell (1936-2017), who at the time was working as a session musician in Los Angeles.

Raymond Belknap and James Vance

On December 23, 1985 – 34 years ago today – Raymond Belknap (18 years-old) and James Vance (20 years-old) shot themselves after listening to the 1978 record album Stained Class by the English heavy metal band Judas Priest. The young men had consumed copious amounts of alcohol and marijuana while listening, in particular, to a cut on the album entitled “Better by You, Better than Me”. That evening 34 years ago today, they drove to a church playground in Sparks, Nevada with a 12-gauge shotgun. Belknap put the gun barrel under his chin and blew his head off. Vance followed suit but only managed to blow away the lower half of his face; he survived for three agonizing years before succumbing to his injuries. 

In 1990, the families of Belknap and Vance brought suit against Judas Priest, claiming that a subliminal message in the song “Better by You, Better than Me” saying “do it, do it” caused them to shoot themselves. The trial ran from July 16 to August 24, 1990. In the end, the suit was dismissed when the presiding judge ruled that:

“the so-called subliminal message was a result of a studio error when mixing some background vocals.”

George Harrison and Cristin Keleher
George Harrison (1943-2001) and Cristin Keleher (1973-2007)

On a rather lighter note: on December 23, 1999 – 20 years ago today – a 27-year-old woman named Cristin Keleher broke into George Harrison’s mansion on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Harrison had bought the estate – located on 61 acres – to protect himself from paparazzi and stalkers just like Keleher, who managed, nevertheless, to gain entry to the then empty house. Once inside, she made herself right at home: she cooked up a frozen pizza, did a load of laundry, and then called her mother back home in Long Branch, New Jersey. Discovered after an hour by a security detail, she was arrested and spent four months in the hoosegow.

Sir Paul McCartney’s coat of arms
Sir Paul McCartney’s coat of arms

Finally, on December 23, 2002 – 17 year ago today – the “College of Arms”, the English heraldic body created back in 1484, granted Sir Paul McCartney his own coat of arms. McCartney’s coat features a bird holding a guitar at the top of the crest; the body of the crest features six vertical (guitar) strings stretched across two soundholes. The motto at the bottom of the crest reads “Ecce Cor Meum”, which is Latin for “Behold My Heart”: it’s a phrase McCartney employed four years later as the title of an oratorio of his composition.

A Merry Festivus to all and to all a good night!

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