As seen in an earlier entry, the rejection of the Beatles made Dick Rowe and Decca Records synonymous with bad business moves and catastrophic commercial misjudgments. Incredibly, Rowe’s decision to pass on the biggest band of all time – which was bad enough in of itself to enshrine his name in the Bad Business Decisions Hall of Fame – was not his sole episode of monumental shortsightedness. Five years after he failed to sign The Beatles, Rowe turned down another musical icon.
In late 1966, Jimi Hendrix arrived in London and instantly created a stir. At his debut in the British capital before an audience that included Eric Clapton, Hendrix’s guitar play blew everybody away. A bassist and drummer were quickly rounded up to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and they recorded their first single, Hey Joe. Then their manager Michael Jeffrey approached Dick Rowe to try and get a record deal. Decca Records’ A&R man passed. Hendrix ended up at the recently-launched Track Records, instead.
Jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959), born Eleanora Fagan and nicknamed “Lady Day”, led a turbulent life. She was raised in a brothel, and her own mother turned out Holiday for sex work in her childhood. She was further traumatized by the death of her ill father, after he was denied medical care in a whites-only hospital because of segregation. That pain is reflected in Holiday’s rendition of Strange Fruit, a song about the lynching of blacks that she made her own, and that became an anthem of the budding civil rights movement.
Unsurprisingly, Holiday turned to drugs to cope with the pain. The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a 2021 autobiographical release, addresses her addiction struggles. A main theme revolves around Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger’s relentless pursuit of Holiday. Among other things, he pressures people in Holiday’s life to set her up for possession charges, has her trailed by his agents, and appoints one of them to go undercover to gather evidence against her. How much of that was real?
Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, who held that job for 32 years and spearheaded the criminalization of drugs, was an awful person. An extreme racist and bigot, even by his era’s standards, Anslinger demonized racial minorities and immigrants. He also hated jazz, a mongrel music of African, Caribbean, and European origins mating on American soil. It was the opposite of all that Anslinger believed in. He thought it was musical anarchy, and proof of primitive impulses in black people, about to erupt. As he described it in internal memos: “It sounded like the jungles in the dead of night“.
Anslinger also believed that marijuana made people insane. That combined with his racism to produce a toxic mix. He once stated: “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men“. Jazz musicians habitually smoked the stuff, and their music sounded freakish to his ears. So he saw jazz as proof that marijuana caused insanity, and targeted jazz musicians. He wrote his agents to: “prepare all cases in your jurisdiction involving musicians in violation of the marijuana laws. We will have a great national round-up arrest of all such persons in a single day“. When congressmen questioned his vendetta, he reassured them that his crackdown focused not on: “the good musicians, but the jazz type“. Billie Holiday was one of his main targets.
In real life, as in The United States vs Billie Holiday, Harry J. Anslinger sent black undercover agent Jimmy Fletcher to target the singer. Fletcher is depicted as becoming romantically involved with Holiday. However, it is unclear whether that happened in real life. Whatever the relationship, Fletcher got close enough to Holiday to bust her on a drug possession charge in 1947 that got her a year in prison. It also got her a felony record that limited the venues in which she could perform. In 1949, agent Fletcher once again busted Holiday on a possession charge after she was set up.
The movie shows a repentant Fletcher deliberately tank the case on the witness stand. There is no evidence that Fletcher threw the case, but Holiday was acquitted. In the movie, Fletcher then trails Holiday for years, and has a long affair with her. The historic record is silent as to whether such an affair occurred, but Fletcher was assigned to Holiday for years. It is also historic fact that, as depicted in the movie, Anslinger hounded Holiday until her final breath. In 1959, as she lay dying of cirrhosis, her hospital room was raided. She was kept under police guard until she died.
Prince’s beef with Michael Jackson was not his only one. Early in his rise, there was another rivalry with Rick James – although most of it was driven by James. A brilliant but seriously troubled artist who was eventually undone by his addiction to drugs and alcohol, the Give it to Me Baby and Super Freak singer liked Prince when he was a relative unknown. He brought him on as his opening act in a 1980 tour, but the admiration soon morphed into a love-hate relationship, and then into a feud.
Rick James was territorial, and he got mad when Prince copied some of his concert moves. As James’ manager put it: “Rick would go ooh-ooh!, and his audience would go crazy every time he would do that, and Prince would start doing the ooh-ooh! before Rick would come out. Rick was like, ‘Man, you can’t do that ooh-ooh! stuff, that’s what I do!’ And Prince was like, ‘Dude, you don’t have a monopoly on ooh-ooh! I can do what the f**k I wanna do!’” Things got worse.
In his autobiography, Rick James recounted the time when he almost beat up Prince: “I chased after that little turd. I caught up with him and was about to lay him out when his manager stepped in. “What the hell is wrong with you, Rick?” asked the manager. I told him Prince had dissed Mom and that I was gonna kick his scrawny ass. Prince explained that he didn’t know who Mom was. “Well, now you know, motherf**ker,” I said. “Prince will be happy to apologize to your mother,” said the manager, “and he will be happy to apologize to you.” Prince apologized to Mom and apologized to me. I was a little disappointed ’cause I really did wanna kick his ass.”
Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins recalled that “Rick definitely had an attitude with Prince … I remember being on shows with Rick and Prince, and they would pull plugs on each other, gettin’ ready to go to blows“. Fortunately, the feud never reached the physical violence stage, thanks to peacemakers such as Nile Rodgers of Chic: “I used to always say to Rick, ‘We all are just doing our own kind of thing. Prince is Prince, you’re you—we all have our own identity when it comes to the world of funk“.
Marathon dances became a big thing in the 1920s and 1930s. They were endurance events, in which couples competed with each other, and prizes went to whichever duo had the legs to outlast the rest. This odd pastime started in 1923, when a woman named Alma Cummings outlasted six partners and danced for 27 consecutive hours at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. That inspired others, and dance marathon contests quickly spread across the US, as competitors tried to break Cummings’ record.
The competitions became spectator events, publicized in the press and hyped up by promoters and sponsors. The happy-go-lucky Roaring Twenties ended with the stock market crash of 1929. In the resultant Great Depression, dance marathons took on a sadder and grimmer tone. Competitions once driven by a desire to break records now took on a sadder cast, with dancers desperate to win prize money. Even if they lost, they would at least spend a few days out of the elements, with free meals and a roof over their heads.
Most dance marathon competitors in the Great Depression were no longer in it for the fun of it. They did not even bother to dance. They wanted the prize money, or to at least spend as much time as possible indoors and fed by the event’s sponsors. So they expended as little energy as possible while sticking to the letter of the rules. Generally, the rules held that the dancers could not fall asleep and remain stationary, but must move constantly. Some competitions however allowed one partner to sleep, so long as the other was awake and kept the pair moving. Thus, dance partners slowly shuffled around the dance floor, adhering to the rules about maintaining a hold upon each other, without their knees touching the floor.
In some competitions, contestants got fifteen minutes’ rest each hour, during which they rushed to sleep on cots. Other competitions had no hourly breaks, and allowed dancers to leave the floor only for bathroom breaks, medical purposes, or to change clothes. Once back on the dance floor, they took turns supporting each other’s weight to keep their partner upright, as he or she got some extra rest and shuteye while being propped and shuffled around. The popularity of dance marathons declined in the 1930s, as they grew increasingly controversial and came under increased criticism. Aside from the immorality of exploiting destitute dancers to entertain spectators, there were concerns about the exhibition of female bodies and potential exploitation. By the end of WWII, dance marathons had largely vanished.
Frank Sinatra (1915 – 1998) is not as well known today as he was in his mid-twentieth century heyday. Ever since, the man known as Ole Blue Eyes and Chairman of the Board has captured the hearts of music lovers around the world. His music sold about 150 million records, which puts him among history’s top artists by volume of sales. When he died in 1998, Sinatra had already established himself as an iconic figure in the same league as a Marilyn Monroe or Elvis.
Sinatra had an abundance of self-respect. Early in his career, at a time of significant anti-Italian sentiment, bandleader Harry James recommended that Sinatra change his name because it was “too Italian”. He replied: “No way, baby. My name is Sinatra. Frank f**king Sinatra“. It’s a good thing he kept the name: bobby soxers, enthusiastic 1940s teenage female fans of pop music, loved it and him. Their passion never dimmed for the rest of their and his life. Sinatra was a class act, but he did have an iffy side. For example, as seen below, he was once arrested for “seduction” of a reputable woman.
Frank Sinatra had a criminal rap sheet. Not a long sheet, but he had one. In 1938, when he was 23-years-old, Sinatra was arrested in New Jersey for the seduction of a reputable woman. Seduction was a crime back then, and an old girlfriend accused him of breach of a marriage promise to get back at him. Per FBI reports: “On the second and ninth days of November 1938 at the Borough of Lodi … under the promise of marriage [Sinatra] did then and there have sexual intercourse with the said complainant, who was then and there a single female of good repute“.
Sinatra was booked for seduction, and released on a $1500 bond. The charge was dismissed when it turned out that his supposedly single accuser had actually been married when she got it on with him. Presumably, the fact that she had broken her marital vows meant that she was not “of good repute“. However, that was not the end of Sinatra’s troubles. A month later, the charges were amended, and he was arrested again, this time for adultery. He was released on a $500 bond. Eventually, that charge, too, was dismissed, and Ole Blue Eyes was free to go on with his seductive ways.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading