Monday, July 26, 2010

Dad, Carmen Basilio and Charlie Parker

I’m writing this just before 7:00 A.M. Arizona Time on the 26th of July, 2010. My father, Clayton Edward Machen Jr., would have turned 81 years of age today. (He died of a heart attack in February 2004.) As I told a few folks on Facebook that I would, I spent a few of the wee hours of this morning with three things he loved throughout his life – 1950s boxing, bebop jazz and green tea.

During his final few years, I was my dad’s main caretaker, and as a result I would tape some things from overnight cable TV that I knew my dad would want to watch during the day, including the old boxing kinescopes that ESPN Classic would run. One of those VHS tapes that survives is a two-hour dose of Carmen Basilio, “The Onion Farmer,” who courageously bucked the corruption rampant in 1950s boxing, was harassed by the Genovese Family, and was great enough to win two world championships (welterweight and lightweight) in spite of the Genoveses.

When Dad and my grandparents first got a TV in 1953, there were only two stations they could get in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, WBAY-TV/2 out of Green Bay and WTMJ-TV/4 out of Milwaukee. WBAY was a primary CBS affiliate at the time, running occasional NBC, ABC and Du Mont material from time to time; WTMJ was a wholly NBC affiliate, with CBS, ABC and Du Mont being seen in Milwaukee on UHF stations that required a special tuner to receive and couldn’t be seen as far north as Oshkosh. Dad had two choices every week to satisfy his boxing jones, the Wednesday Pabst Blue Ribbon Bouts on CBS/Channel 2, and the Friday Gillette Cavalcade of Sports (on which the only sport was boxing) on NBC/Channel 4. Both of these were controlled by a promotion called the International Boxing Club, whose primary promoter was Jimmy Norris and silent partner was mobster Frankie Carbo. Had Dad been able to pick up WOKY-TV Channel 19 from Milwaukee, he could have gotten a third, ABC’s Fight of the Week on Saturdays, but that franchise evaporated when promoter Ray Arcel was attacked by a mobster wielding a lead pipe outside a Boston hotel and he decided he needed to quit the boxing game for a couple of decades. The IBC took that franchise over as well, and ABC moved it to Wednesdays, picking up Pabst sponsorship (the CBS fights had been cancelled in 1954) and bringing Mennen (a Gillette competitor for male-oriented toiletries) in as a secondary sponsor.

It was on ABC’s renamed Wednesday Night Fights that the 1956 rematch for the welterweight championship was carried. The challenger and former champion was Canastoga-born Carmen Basilio, who was a favourite son at Syracuse’s War Memorial that night; the then-champion was Brooklynite Johnny Sexton. They’d first met in a Chicago ring, when Basilio was on his first welterweight championship; after Basilio led the fight for the first three rounds, Sexton’s left glove split open and its padding started coming out. It took about twenty minutes to find a replacement, by which time Sexton had recovered and eventually was able to take the championship from Basilio. No such shenanigans were involved in the Syracuse rematch; it went nine rounds, with Basilio pounding the snot out of Sexton by 1:31 of the ninth to win the championship back by TKO. Basilio retired five years later; Norris and Carbo were convicted of assorted forms of corruption and jailed, the IBC ordered to sell its interests (including a good chunk of Madison Square Garden) and dissolve, and while in prison Carbo’s last champion, heavyweight Sonny Liston, had his ass handed to him by Cassius Clay.

The bebop was supplied via a couple of old radio airchecks from 1948-9, when the champion of the new music coming out of Manhattan’s 52nd Street clubs was Symphony Sid Torin, host of the “all-night all-frantic one” over WMCA New York. Every Friday and Saturday night Sid would take his WMCA mic to the Royal Roost, a fried chicken restaurant that had added a jazz stage, to broadcast whatever sounds were being created there. A frequent participant in the sound creation was The Yardbird himself, Charlie Parker; in memorable Christmas and New Years broadcasts on Symphony Sid’s show, The Bird took his alto and pushed through it the hippest “White Christmas” you have ever heard, before joining a great little all-star jam on “How High The Moon/Ornithology.” Not only was it from an age when the newest musical trends were embraced by commercial radio, it was also common at the time for the most interesting radio programming to be heard in the middle of the night courtesy of some people who were actually at the radio station at 3:00 in the morning instead of being on an hours-old recording because the station was too damned cheap to program live broadcasting after 6:00 at night, like nowadays.

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