A REAL Tribute to the King of Pop

Michael Jackson when

"Michael'' meant Michael

Amid the tumult surrounding the sad ending to Michael Jackson’s life, I got to thinking about how I have come to terms with all the baggage that has come with being a huge admirer of the Boy Wonder and Music Genius. It’s a good time to remember that before the age of “Michael’’ when “Michael’’ meant Jordan, a world that transcended music knew Michael. As in Jackson.

As media insist on making his death the freak tabloid sensation of the early 21st century, I have been coping with the loss by reaching back in time. We tend to preserve in a recess of our mind the memories that mark or change us. They surface mostly in times of joy or sadness.

In the fall of my college freshman year at 17, I was in love with two “Michaels’’, in fact, two “MJs’’. One, my boyfriend at the time, the other, the youngest brother in the hottest boy group on the scene, The Jackson 5.

MJ The Boyfriend, and I, and friends drove 30 miles northeast from Grambling, La., to the Monroe Civic Center to bear witness to a concert put on by the popular brothers group we only had known through transistor radio blasts on every floor of every dorm on campus.

After seeing Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael perform and interact with the audience, I was hooked. I’ll Be There, ABC, I Want you Back. We rocked the entire show. And, what a show. Memory of other 1970 Top 10 artists – The Beatles, Jimi Hendirx, Simon & Garfunkel –quickly blurred.

I had never seen anything like them, and I fell head over heels. I resembled countless numbers of girls, boys, women and men all ages across the United States. Unanimous echoes on the drive back (in between off-key drones of ABC lyrics) turned into an anointment: “The littlest one, Michael!” We knew that his star would rise and he would become King.

Like all Michael Jackson loyals, I followed the superstar during his high times and low points professionally and privately and shouldered years of mixed emotions. At the low point, I would embrace the special feeling he and his brothers gave me at that performance, and it somehow soothed my gloom. I had taken him into my heart all those years ago. It was easy to do having brothers his age. When rumors of his abusive childhood erupted, I was in disbelief. The Jacksons seemed wholesome, much like my family. Sure they weren’t perfect, but what family is?

We now know how the story ends. Genius often leads to complexity in the human spirit. We need only point to the abundance of examples of masters throughout history. Mozart. Einstein, Hemingway. Van Gogh.

A month ago, a dear friend and I were discussing the movie Ben with our 20-year-old daughters. Long story, but the conversation boiled down to my rodent phobia, the generational divide, and the film’s once popular title song.

My friend and I reminisced about Michael Jackson, who sang the film’s theme song. That led to us talking about Jackson’s July comeback, which led to us looking online at the artist’s vintage videos.

“Why did he have to change?’’ My friend lamented, as we watched footage of Michael and the brothers from their debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. “He was so adorable, so cute,’’ we agreed.

The Jackson 5 show all those years ago remains at the top of my list of live performances, rivaling only the late ’70s Smokey Robinson concert in Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall. We like to protect our memories. So as I think of The King of Pop, and what is now a Shakespearean ending to a royal life, I will dwell on the 12-year-old boy who made this teenager feel like a princess.

(Want to pay tribute here? I welcome your feedback. Feel free to comment on your favorite Jackson 5 album and/or hit single, as well as memories of your special Michael Jackson solo. This is a Michael Jackson The Genius Safe Zone.)

Once upon a time, very very recently, there lived...

Ten happy Brownie maidens

in a kingdom not far away

Over the last two years of empty nesting, I lost sight of the fun that comes with being a Girl Scout volunteer. Got a call early June from a former fellow troop leader, explaining that our area’s local Girl
Scout council needed volunteers for summer day camp and that possibly
girls were going to be turned down if the Council couldn't meet its required adult-to-child ratio. I signed up and soon after was helping out with a 10-member Brownie unit of 6- and 7-year-olds that called themselves The Maidens in keeping with the camp theme: Medieval Manor. Girls Scouts instinctively are hard-working and smart, and they keep you on your toes. The trick is to remain standing as you lead. Thankfully, I could make good use of my old bag of strategies from seven years as a troop leader. In the end, the girls amused me and taught me a few things.

Here are choice moments from the week:

Vignette No. 1, straight from my journal...
Had a good day with Girl Scouts, but man am I wiped out. The camp theme generated a flurry of activities, crafts, songs, swaps, flag ceremonies and dances. The enthusiasm was dizzying. I'm out of practice. I was so wiped out I had to take a nap when I got home. Forgot how much I missed being around industrious girls of all ages. Some of the older scouts are from the middle school where I sometimes teach, so the first part of the day I heard a lot of "Hi Mrs. Johnson!?!?'' ricocheting from the big gym. It's funny how surprised students can be to see that teachers have a life outside of the school building. :-)

Vignette No. 2 , again, straight from the journal…
OK, today was hot hot, and I am so grateful for indoor camp activities and air-conditioned school gymnasiums. True confession: Today I discovered how out of it I am as to what the little kids are into. The one good thing about my former life as a reporter was having the Youth Beat. It kept me fresh and on top of things. So, there I was all day with 10 young Brownies smarter than me. We are one of several units, Girls K through 4. Thursday is the day units will present plays tied to the medieval theme. I had arrived late the first day and missed the production's details. Today, my Unit co-leader filled me in, telling me that the girls had opted to make their presentation a musical based on Love Story. So I thought, “Wow! That's such a modern and complicated and mature story for 7-year-olds... don't know how they will tie that all together with a medieval twist, but they seem smart and confident. More power to them.” Turns out today a small portion of the time was spent rehearsing, and that's when I found out that the Love Story musical is based on a five-minute video that is (as cool you probably already knows) a modern takeoff on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet by someone named Taylor Swift. I felt so stupid. My co-leader and I had a good laugh over it. The girls are none the wiser. These little girls are sooooooooo adorable. I forgot how fabulous this age can be. They can't wait to dress up in their pretty dresses for the ball scene.

Vignette No. 3, straight from my journal…
Man, I had to skip camp today for a “self-mandatory’’ teacher training session. Today, the Brownies/maidens created the indoor version of “campfire’’ s’mores and cooked hot dogs. What lousy timing I have!

Vignette No. 4, from you know where…
I am so proud of my little maidens. They knew all the words and dance steps and gestures and wowed the audience of peers and grownups. In the end most wanted to be fair maidens because no one wanted to be Romeo or Juliet. The ring scene was too much to take. As one of the little princesses exclaimed, “I have to marry him? No way!’’ One of the two PAs played Juliet, and the other PA’s little brother, a very brave soul, showed up to do the Romeo honors. The youngest Brownie persisted -- she didn’t want to be a princess or maiden. She had preferred being a tree in the garden where the proposal would take place. She arrived this morning with fresh cut branches from her Grandma’s oak to adorn her 3-feet frame at show time. Another had preferred strumming her guitar and pretending as a traveling musician to serenade the couple in the big proposal scene. The rest lined up as maidens and formed an impressive chorus line.
Improvisation aside, I predict they will all live happily ever after.

The End

The obvious moral of the story is that you, too, can get this corny feeling you used to get as a little girl playing princess. So, if you have spare volunteer hours, please consider giving them to our little Girl Scout sisters? If we all donate time, no girl will be denied. To learn more about volunteering in the Dallas area, visit Girl Scouts of North East Texas at http://www.gsnetx.org/

EXTRA EXTRA!! There is such a thing as a free lunch

Hungry? Like chicken? Got

a printer? Hurry! Oprah

is throwing down at KFC

Hungry college students, out of work folk, families on a tight budget, KFC lovers, plain greedy people (doesn't this cover all of us), relief is on the way. The Oprah Winfrey Show, according to oprah.com, the talk program's offical Web site, is picking up the tab for your order of Kentucky Fried Chicken's newest promotion: The Grilled Chicken Meal, which also includes two sides and a biscuit.

You have to act fast, so I'll be brief. Click on the link below and download the coupon by midnight CDT. The coupon is good until May 19, not including Mother's Day, and downloads are limited to four per computer. There are a few other fine print provisions at the site, so read carefully before you rush out the door to place your order.

Click here for the coupon: http://www.oprah.com/article/oprahshow/20090430-tows-kfc-coupon-download

I am still doing the math based on the U.S. population (Keep in mind that I'm numbers challenged). Nonetheless, hypothetically and literally speaking, according to my very fuzzy calculation, if every American partook in a meal, wouldn't this wipe out our billionaire talk queen's coffer?

Also, strictly speaking, shouldn't KFC drop the "F'' in its logo if it is expanding its menu to include more healthy choices?

OK, if you are still reading, you're a true subscriber, and I thank you, but please be practical and crank up the printer. NOW!!


Take a 12-minute break for a jazzy duet

at open mic night from Cambridge

Here We Go Again

Here We Go Again (the finale)

On the Radio

This Is How It Goes

Out In the Cold

Historical Grambling band

can toot its own horns

for Inauguration 2009

For more than 30 years, fans around the country have watched the Grambling State University marching band perform annually at the Superdome during the NBC-TV broadcast of the Bayou Classic, a football matchup in New Orleans between rivals Grambling and Southern University of Baton Rouge.

In the middle of the game’s four quarters, the real rivalry comes in the Battle of the Bands. No matter what the text-message voting says, there is no contest, in my very biased opinion. Grambling (my alma mater) wins.

See for yourself. The Historical Black College’s renowned high steppers will take to the streets of D.C. at the inaugural parade to show what they do better than any of the rest: high step, dance, body bump and toe tap, while not missing a note. GSU is the only Louisiana school invited.

(A congratulatory letter from Sen. Mary Landrieu: http://landrieu.senate.gov/releases/08/2008C06657.html)

A college band that moves and plays simultaneously? Don’t they all? To be fair, many HBC marching bands do. But, Grambling has put the unique style on the map culturally speaking. Credit the band’s high exposure to Grambling’s football program’s success. Or, the 1966 documentary, 100 Yards to Glory, which showed off how the school groomed athletes for professional football. Credit its innovative longtime band director the late Dr. Conrad Hutchinson Jr. Whatever you do, credit them.

How clueless was I until I traveled to New York with the school’s athletes and musicians to write a lead feature story on the fall 1973 Whitney M. Young Classic at Yankee Stadium. Grambling played Baltimore’s Morgan State University, and at the time, the event was the pride of black New York. As editor-in-chief of The Gramblinite, the college’s weekly, I took the assignment on face value – an all-expense-paid trip to The Big Apple.

I had attended many Grambling football games, which meant that my main attention this trip would be elsewhere. As a novice to the city, all of 20 years old, I was hysterically caught up in the thrill, seizing a stroll down Fifth Avenue, gawking at the Empire State Building, ooh-ing over Lady Liberty and the Hudson Bay and riding a subway for the first time. And, with tremendous shortsightedness, I couldn’t wait for the Main Event. Not the football game, but its halftime performances of headliners Aretha Franklin and Patti Austin. Who wouldn’t have been taken in by it all?

Not surprisingly, Patti and the Queen of Soul played famously to the crowd. The real shock came when the G-bandsmen took to Yankee Stadium’s field. The striking black uniforms with the growling tiger face covering most of the jacket’s front, the clean white shoes and gloves, the military style hat with the vibrant gold plume. It was like I was seeing and hearing them for the first time, and I couldn’t believe my ears or my eyes. The stepping in time, the great music, the roar from the crowd.

The throng in the stadium took to their feet, everybody swaying and clapping to the rhythms of sweet soul music and Old School dance moves on the field. I distinctly recall voices around me expressing amazement over the athleticism and musical talent, as the band played a couple of R&B hits of the day. One person specifically wondered: How do they do that? They dance and play instruments at the same time? Even the percussionists! Even the tubas!

It took a new larger than life venue to appreciate that what Grambling had was and is special. I naively thought that some kind of magic occurred on the football field each time the band hit the lines. That it wasn’t the training, talent and unique skills of the musicians and the long practices that began in the heat of summer long before the rest of us showed up for fall semester. Or the strategic search for the best and brightest from all over the country.

Or that Dr. Hutchinson (Prof, as he was fondly called), the first band director, had not put the G-men on the map when he created the marching style of eight steps to five yards at 180 beats per minute. Hutchinson also introduced the lunge that was later made popular by Southern University. And was the first to bring an organ and timpani drums on the field.

Years after I graduated, some of the novelty was vanishing, however, the G-bandsmen were still kicking high and traveling the globe. They appeared in a popular TV commercial in 1981, a Coca-Cola spot and starred in numerous national sports events, including Super Bowl performances. Two decades prior, in the early '60s, there were USO shows in Cuba, Korea and the Bahamas. Later, on the invitation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1971, the band traveled to Monrovia, Liberia, to represent the United States at the inauguration of President William R. Tolbert Jr.

The historical college band was invited to appear in the 2000 inaugural parade, just as they will do the honor during the inauguration parade of the country’s first black president. Through what is an undeniable legacy, they will continue to step high, drum to the beat and blow to the rhythm in future inaugural parades.

Cecil Neal Jr., a 1970s member of the band and currently an assistant high school principal in Dallas, best summed up the Grambling band experience when I interviewed him in October 2004: “My grandmother was so proud of me for not just going to school, but for going to Grambling. Back in the day, it was beyond the prestige of going to Harvard.’’

Grambling prepares for Jan. 20, 2009: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/theoval/post/2009/01/61512062/1

Visit Grambling State University at http://www.gram.edu/

2008 Bayou Classic performance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0sNqEjP6bs

Photo Credits: Tiger Yearbook,
The Gramblinite, The Dallas Morning News