Three Legendary Ladies

At the 2015 The Kennedy Center Honors on Tuesday, December 29, 2015, three great ladies–Carol King, Cicely Tyson and Rita Moreno were among the five honorees.

Cicely Tyson, at 90 looks as elegant as ever.  She is best known for her role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.  She was born in Harlem, New York City and raised by deeply religious, West Indian parents from Nevis, St. Kitts.  Her mother was a domestic and her father was a carpenter. Cicely was discovered by a fashion editor and she became a model.  She took the fashion industry by storm, quickly rising to the top.  She began acting in 1957 in off-Broadway productions before she was cast in feature films.  Her first major role was Portia in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in 1968.  She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her amazing performance in Sounder.  She has appeared in Roots, King and a Woman Called Moses.  Cicely is a seasoned and hugely talented actress who portrayed strong and positive black women.

I don’t condemn anyone for making their choices. If someone chooses those roles, fine. But not for me. When someone stops me and says, You’re the reason I became an actress, that lets me know I made the right decision – Cicely Tyson

We applaud Cicely for standing by her convictions.  Our choices can not only affect us but they can affect others.

Carol King wrote tons of songs such as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for the Shirelles, “Run to Him” (#1 and #2 hits for Bobby Vee in 1961), “Crying in the Rain” (The Everly Brothers, #6 in 1962), “The Loco-Motion” (Little Eva, #1 in 1962), “Up on the Roof” (The Drifters, #5 in 1962), “Chains” (The Cookies, #17 in 1962, The Beatles in 1963), “One Fine Day” (The Chiffons, #5 in 1963), “Hey Girl” ( Freddy Scott, #10 in 1963, also Bobby Vee and The Righteous Brothers), “I’m Into Something Good” (Herman’s Hermits, #13 in 1964), “Just Once in My Life” (written with Phil Spector for The Righteous Brothers, #9 in 1965), and “Don’t Bring Me Down” (The Animals, #12 in 1966) and You Make Me Feel which has become the song most associated with Aretha Franklin.

The songs I identify most with Carol are “You’ve Got a Friend” which became a no.1 hit when it was recorded by lifelong friend, James Taylor and “It’s Too Late”.  Carol is the most renowned song-writer in pop music.   She has the distinction of having 400 of her compositions recorded by over 1,000 artists, resulting in 100 hit singles.  In 1987 she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and in 1990 she was inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

At the age of 70 this remarkable songwriter, performer, author and environmentalist is still going strong. Beautiful–The Carole King Musical which tells the inspiring true story of King’s remarkable rise to stardom won two Tony Awards in 2014 and a Grammy in 2015 for Best Musical Theater Album.  Her music continues to thrill us.

It’s about connections. I want to connect with people; I want to make people think “Yeah, that’s how I feel”. And if I can do that, that’s an accomplishment – Carol King

We are grateful to Carol King for her music which still resonates with us.

Rita Moreno has starred in three great musicals–Singin’ In the RainThe King And I and West Side Story for which she earned an Academy Award.  She has the distinction of being one of the very few and the first performers to win an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy.  She was born Rosita Dolores Alverío in Humacao, Puerto Rico to seamstress Rosa María (Marcano) and farmer Francisco.  She and her mother moved to New York City where she began her career.

Unfortunately for Rita, she was typecast as a Hispanic pepper pot or another “exotic”.  In Father Knows Best, she was cast as an exchange student from India.  She considered the roles she was given degrading. It wasn’t until the ’70s that she was given better roles.  It was during that time that she won a Grammy Award for her contribution to “The Electric Company”‘s soundtrack album, a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for “The Ritz” and Emmy Awards for The Muppet Show and The Rockford Files.  In 2004, she received the award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.  It is said that when her star was unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, she fell on top of it, openly and uncontrollably weeping, later commenting, “I had been dreaming of this day since I was six!”.

We admire Rita who came from humble beginnings to where she is now.  She is a reminder that childhood dreams can come true.

Bigger than life is not difficult for me. I am bigger than life – Rita Moreno

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Notes to Women salute these amazing women for their well deserved honors and recognition for their work in music, film and stage.

Sources: IMDb; Brainy Quote; Carol King Website; Think Exist; IMDb;

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Donna Summer

I was shocked and saddened when I learned that Donna Summer was dead at the age of 63.   When you think disco, you think of the queen of disco who belted out songs like “I Need Love”, “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls”.  Of course, when you ask men which song they like best by her, the contender is more often than not, “Love to Love You, Baby”.  They love the groans and moans.  Not everyone was receptive.  In fact, some American and European radio stations, including the BBC, refused to play it.   “Love to Love You Baby” found chart success in several European countries, and made the Top 5 in the United Kingdom despite the BBC ban.  Among her other disco hits was the song she did with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)”.  Donna was a five-time Grammy Award winner and the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach number one on the U.S.Billboard chart.  She also charted four number-one singles in the United States within a 13-month period.

She was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines  on December 31, 1948.  Donna Summer was her stage name.  She came from a Christian African American family.  She first became involved with singing through church choir groups before joining a number of bands influenced by the Motown Sound.  Donna was one of seven children.  Her father was a butcher and her mother a schoolteacher.  Mary Gaines later recalled that from the time she could talk, her daughter would often sing: “She literally loved to sing. She used to go through the house singing, singing. She sang for breakfast and for lunch and for supper.”

Donna made her singing debut in church at the age of ten when a vocalist failed to show up.  She recollects:   “I started crying, everybody else started crying. It was quite an amazing moment in my life and at some point after I heard my voice came out I felt like God was saying to me ‘Donna, you’re going to be very, very famous’ and I knew from that day on that I would be famous.”  

Later Donna auditioned for the role in the musical Hair but Melba Moore was cast instead.  Donna agreed to take the role in the Munich production and moved to Munich, Germany with her parents’ reluctant approval.  Donna became fluent in German, singing various songs in the language.  She lived there for several years before moving to Austria where she married Austrian actor Helmut Sommer, whose surname she adopted as her stage name.  They met on the set of Godspell.  The couple had a daughter, Mimi but the marriage ended as a result of her affair with German artist (and future live-in boyfriend) Peter Mühldorfer.  Donna kept Helmut’s surname but anglicized it to “Summer”.

Becoming known as the “Queen of Disco”, Donna Summer regularly appeared at the Studio 54 club in New York City.  Her music gained a particularly large following within the gay community, for whom she became a gay icon.  There was, however, some controversy surrounding comments she made which angered the gay community.  In the mid-1980s, she allegedly made anti-gay remarks regarding the then-relatively new disease, AIDS.  This had a significantly negative impact on her career and saw thousands of her records being returned to her record company by angered fans. At the time, Donna was a born-again Christian and was alleged to have said that AIDS was a punishment from God for the immoral lifestyles of homosexuals.  However, she denied that she had ever made any such comment and, in a letter to the AIDS campaign group ACT UP in 1989, she said that it was “a terrible misunderstanding. I was unknowingly protected by those around me from the bad press and hate letters… If I have caused you pain, forgive me.” She went on to apologize for the delay in refuting the rumours and closed her letter with Bible quotes (from Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians).

Also in 1989, she told The Advocate magazine that “A couple of the people I write with are gay, and they have been ever since I met them. What people want to do with their bodies is their personal preference.” A couple of years later she filed a lawsuit against New York magazine when it reprinted the rumours as fact just as she was about to release her album Mistaken Identity in 1991.

Donna remarried 1n 1980.  Her second husband Bruce Sudano.  The two met in 1978 while Donna was working on the hit track, “Heaven Knows” which featured Brooklyn Dreams member Joe “Bean” Esposito on vocals.  Bruce was a fellow member.  A year later, Summer gave birth to another daughter (her first child with Sudano),Brooklyn Sudano, named after Sudano’s group. (Brooklyn would grow up to star in the hit ABC production My Wife and Kids.) A year after that, Summer and Sudano had their second child, Amanda.  In 1994, Summer and her family moved from Los Angeles to Nashville, where she took time out from show business to focus on painting, a hobby she began in 1985. In 1995, Summer’s mother died.

Donna had a lot going for her in the 2000s.  She continued to score top ten hits on Billboard’s Dance Chart in the new millennium. In 2000, she also appeared on the third annual Divas special, dedicated to Diana Ross, though Summer sang mostly her own material for the show.  In 2004, Donna was inducted to the Dance Music Hall of Fame alongside the Bee Gees and Barry Gibb as an artist. Her classic song, “I Feel Love”, was also inducted that night.  On December 11, 2009, Summer performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway, in honor of United States President Barack Obama. She was backed by theNorwegian Radio Orchestra.

Before becoming a born again Christian, Donna struggled with drug drug addiction and depression.  Diagnosed with lung cancer, Summer died on the morning of May 17, 2012, at her home in Florida after a battle with the disease.  Singers and music industry professionals reacted to Donna Summer’s death   Gloria Gaynor, a famous Disco performer during the late 1970s,  said that she was “deeply saddened” and that Donna was “a fine lady and human being”.  Speaking on the CNN Headline News, Gaynor said she was devastated by the death of her longtime friend, and that she had not known about Summer’s cancer.  Harry Wayne Casey of KC and the Sunshine Band said he and Donna “ran in the same circles and are part of the same generation”.   Barbra Streisand wrote on Twitter: “I loved doing the duet with her. She had an amazing voice and was so talented. . . It’s so sad.”  Quincy Jones, on Twitter, wrote that Donna’s voice was “the heartbeat and soundtrack of a decade”. Aretha Franklin said, “It’s so shocking to hear about the passing of Donna Summer. In the 70s, she reigned over the disco era and kept the disco jumping. Who will forget ‘Last Dance.’ A fine performer and a very nice person.”  Chaka Khan said: “Donna and I had a friendship for over 30 years. She is one of the few black women I could speak German with and she is one of the few friends I had in this business.”

President Obama expressed his sadness at the passing of such a great talent and icon, “Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Donna Summer. A five-time Grammy Award winner, Donna truly was the ‘Queen of Disco.’ Her voice was unforgettable, and the music industry has lost a legend far too soon. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Donna’s family and her dedicated fans.”  Fans paid tribute to the singer by leaving flowers and memorabilia on her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Notes to Women salute this amazing and talented woman whose legacy will live on.  Our thoughts and prayers are with her family.

Because I’m just an ordinary person that did some extraordinary things.

But I like to know that someone is stronger than I am. I want to be able to know that if I get tired, somebody is there to hold up the fort. I like knowing that I can’t pick a refrigerator alone. God did not make me strong enough to do that.

God had to create disco music so I could be born and be successful.

I don’t care if I’m beautiful; I don’t care what I am on the outside. It isn’t about the outside.

I don’t really try to predict what can and will happen with things. Sometimes you think something’s gonna be a huge success, and it isn’t. And sometimes you pay no attention to something whatsoever, and God just makes it into everything.

I want a private life, I truly do. I’m not just pretending to want one like lots of celebrities.

Donna Summer

Source:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donna_Summer

Hattie McDaniel

I never knew about Hattie McDaniel until I saw her in Gone With the Wind.  She made history when she won an Oscar for playing Mammy in the Academy award winner for best picture.  She was the first African American to do so.  In her acceptance speech, she said, “I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race, and to the motion picture industry.”  Well, Ms. McDaniel, you are and will always be a credit to your race because you have opened doors for stars like Sidney Poitier, Whoopi Goldberg, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Monique and most recently Octavia Spencer.

McDaniel has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood: one for her contributions to radio at 6933 Hollywood Boulevard, and one for motion pictures at 1719 Vine Street. In 1975, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and in 2006 became the first black Oscar winner honored with a US postage stamp.

In addition to having acted in many films, McDaniel was a professional singer-songwriter, comedian, stage actress, radio performer, and television star. Hattie McDaniel was in fact the first black woman to sing on the radio in America. Over the course of her career, McDaniel appeared in over 300 films, although she received screen credits for only about 80. She gained the respect of the African American show business community with her generosity, elegance, and charm.

Hattie McDaniel was born June 10, 1895, in Wichita, Kansas, to former slaves. She was the youngest of 13 children. Her father, Henry McDaniel, fought in the Civil War with the 122nd USCT and her mother, Susan Holbert, was a singer of religious music. In 1900, the family moved to Colorado, living first in Fort Collins and then in Denver, where Hattie graduated from Denver East High School. Her brother, Sam McDaniel (1886–1962), played the butler in the 1948 Three Stooges’ short film Heavenly Daze. Another acting sibling of Hattie and Sam was actress Etta McDaniel.

In McDaniel’s time, America was segregated in virtually every respect in terms of race. In the South, blacks were barred by law from attending school with whites and subjected to segregation in all other public places Even outside the South, many restaurants and hotels refused to accept black customers. Job opportunities were limited. Custom or restrictive covenants kept blacks from living in “white” neighborhoods. Marriage between blacks and whites was illegal in most states of the United States. The United States military required blacks to serve in all-black regiments. Black Americans also faced the terrorism of lynch mobs without the assurance of federal or state protection. Indeed, in 2005, the U.S. Congress issued an apology for the federal government’s failure to enact lynching legislation to protect blacks in that era.  I will never forget the scene in the movie about Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry, where the pool at the hotel where she was staying was drained because she dipped her foot in the water.  And insult to injury, African American men were the ones cleaning the pool.  How hurtful that must have been for Dorothy.

The field of entertainment emerged as a profession in which blacks were allowed to reach white and black customers. Still, however, the success of black entertainers and their ability to rise into ownership and management was limited by racial restrictions. Often, many of the same places that allowed blacks to be on stage, did not allow them to sit in the audience as patrons.  State laws allowing discrimination and requiring segregation assured that black entertainers were not allowed the same benefits and opportunities as white ones. Black actors were cast repeatedly in menial roles and were consistently required to speak in contrived stereotypical “Negro dialects.” If black actors did not know how to speak that way, they had to learn to in order to succeed in Hollywood. Movie houses often hired white dialect coaches to teach the so-called “Negro dialect.” 

I hated the way the blacks talked in movies.  It degraded them and made them seem ignorant.  And they were always bowing and shuffling and their eyes wide open as if they were having a fright.  Here are a few examples of words considered “Negro dialect”: ah for I, poe for poor, hit for it, tuh for to, wuz for was, baid for bed, daid for dead, mah for my, ovah for over, wha for where, ifn for if, fiuh or fiah for fire, yo’ for you, cot for caught, kin’ for kind, cose for ’cause, and tho’t for thought.  What?!?

I learnt that the competition to play Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939) had been almost as stiff as that for Scarlett O’Hara. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to film producer David O. Selznick to ask that her own maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, be given the part.  McDaniel did not think she would be chosen, because she was known for being a comic actress. One source claims that Clark Gable recommended the role go to McDaniel; when she went to her audition dressed in an authentic maid’s uniform, she won the part.  Clark Gable and Hattie McDaniel became very good friends.   When the date of the Atlanta premiere approached, all the black actors were barred from attending and excluded from being in the souvenir program as well as southern advertising for the film. David Selznick had attempted to bring Hattie McDaniel, but MGM advised him not to because of Georgia’s segregationist laws. Clark Gable angrily threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere unless McDaniel was allowed to attend, but McDaniel convinced him to attend anyway.  Hattie and her escort were seated at a segregated table for two, apart from her Gone with the Wind colleagues and her colleagues in the motion picture industry, a painful reminder of how far the industry and the country had yet to go in overcoming racism.

The Twelfth Academy Awards took place at the Cocoanut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It was preceded by a banquet in the same room. Louella Parsons, an American gossip columnist, wrote about Oscar night, February 29, 1940:

“Hattie McDaniel earned that gold Oscar, by her fine performance of “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. If you had seen her face when she walked up to the platform and took the gold trophy, you would have had the choke in your voice that all of us had when Hattie, hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dress up to the queen’s taste, accepted the honor in one of the finest speeches ever given on the Academy floor. …

Hattie did look wonderful and she was deeply humbled.  She said, “Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. ”

Hattie was also known for her community service work.  During World War II. She was appointed the Chair of the “Negro Division” of the Hollywood Victory Committee, providing entertainment for soldiers stationed at military bases. (The military was segregated and black entertainers were not allowed to serve on white entertainment committees.) She asked her friend actor Leigh Whipper and other well known black entertainers to join her Negro Division Victory committee. She also put in numerous personal appearances to hospitals, threw parties, performed at United Service Organizations (USO) shows and war bond rallies, to raise funds to support the war, on behalf of the Victory Committee.  Bette Davis also performed for black regiments as the only white member of an acting troupe formed by Hattie McDaniel, that also included Lena Horne and Ethel Waters.  She was also a member of American Women’s Voluntary Services.

She joined actor Clarence Muse, one of the earliest black members of the Screen Actors Guild, for an NBC radio broadcast to raise funds for Red Cross relief programs for Americans, who had been displaced by devastating floods. She gained a reputation for generous giving, often feeding and lending money to friends and stranger alike.

Hattie was married four times.  When she was married to James Lloyd Crawford, she happily informed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in 1945 that she was pregnant. McDaniel began buying baby clothes and setting up a nursery. Her plans were shattered when the doctor informed her she had a false pregnancy; McDaniel fell into a depression. She never had any children. She divorced Crawford in 1945, after four and a half years of marriage. She said he was jealous of her career and once threatened to kill her.  Hattie  befriended several of Hollywood’s most popular stars, including Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Shirley Temple, Henry Fonda, Ronald Reagan, Olivia de Havilland and Clark Gable (as I mentioned earlier).

Hattie died at age 57 from breast cancer, in the hospital on the grounds of the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills, on October 26, 1952. She was childless and was divorced from her fourth husband. She was survived by her brother, Sam McDaniel. Thousands of mourners turned out to remember her life and accomplishments. In her will, McDaniel wrote: “I desire a white casket and a white shroud; white gardenias in my hair and in my hands, together with a white gardenia blanket and a pillow of red roses. I also wish to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery”. The Hollywood Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood was the resting place of movie stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, and others. Hollywood Cemetery refused to allow her to be buried there, because it, too, practiced racial segregation. It did not accept the bodies of black people. Her second choice was Rosedale Cemetery, where she lies today. 

Notes to Women celebrate and remembers this resilient woman, gifted actress and beacon of hope for other African Americans.  She left behind two legacies–her contributions to radio and the movie industry.   She was not opposed to playing menial roles.  She reportedly said,”Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”  We thought it fitting to end Black History Month by celebrating the life and acchievements of this model of offscreen courage and great, show-stealing onscreen performances. 

A woman’s gifts will make room for her.

Faith is the black person’s federal reserve system.

I did my best, and God did the rest.

I don’t belong on this earth. I always feel out of place – like a visitor.

I am loathe to get married again. I’ve been married enough; I just prefer to forget it.What is the thing that Hollywood demands most? Sincerity. No place in the world will pay such a high price for this admirable trait.Hattie McDaniel
 

Sources:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hattie_McDanielhttp://www.imdb.com/name/nm0567408/biohttp://www.popmatters.com/tv/reviews/b/beyond-tara.htmlhttp://www.mahoganycafe.com/hattiemcdaniel.html; http://voices.washingtonpost.com/postpartisan/2010/01/harry_reid_could_use_a_lesson.html