This edition of Off the Deaton Path’s podcast: Robert Johnson, Jim Croce, The Blues, the Devil, Lynching, Notable Passings, Fun Facts Known By Few, The Worst Invention Known to Man, and so much more……
As long-suffering readers of this blog know well, I’ve had a long love affair with the Rolling Stones. I’ve seen them nine times in five different cities over the last 35 years, from the first time as a 17-year-old senior in high school to the last as a 50-year-old in the summer of 2015.
So imagine how Fan-Boy crazy I went when the Stones’ legendary keyboardist, Chuck Leavell, attended the Georgia Historical Society’s Trustees Gala in February in Savannah and yours truly got to sit with him at dinner. To say that I busted his chops would be an understatement. Turns out, he’s a huge fan of public television and was familiar with my own work on “Today in Georgia History.”
I first met Chuck for a few minutes when he gave the inaugural Mark Finlay Memorial Lecture on environmental history at Armstrong State University in the spring of 2015. As you may know, Chuck and his wife Rose Lane turned her family’s plantation into a model tree farm outside Macon, and to say they’ve been good at it would be an understatement. They were jointly named National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year in 1999, and Chuck is the only two-time recipient of the Georgia Tree Farmer of the Year Award. The dedicated conservationist is the co-founder, with Joel Babbit, of the Mother Nature Network. In 2012 Chuck received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy for his work with the Allman Brothers Band as well as an Honorary Ranger award from the US Forest Service. Who else has done that? Take that Bob Dylan, with your Nobel Prize.
The husband, father, and grandfather is also an accomplished author of four books: Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest; the autobiographical Between Rock and a Home Place; The Tree Farmer (a children’s book); and Growing A Better America.
Besides his work with the Allman Brothers, Chuck’s recorded with Eric Clapton, George Harrison, the Black Crowes, Blues Traveler, Train, John Mayer, and many others, in addition to his own accomplished solo projects. The Alabama native attended the Georgia Historical Society’s Gala to honor Pete Correll, the longtime chief of Georgia Pacific and board member of the Mother Nature Network, who was appointed by Governor Deal and GHS as a Georgia Trustee this year.
As in our first encounter, Chuck couldn’t have been more gracious. He is, in the words of Keith Richards, a gentleman through and through and as modest as they come. You’d never know he was at the heart of the Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band in the World, their keyboardist, erstwhile musical director, and the man who counts them in to nearly every song. Having been a Stones fan long before he became their keyboardist, Chuck in many ways is Mr. Everyman, standing in for all of us who love the band and their music dearly while spending the better part of a lifetime getting a nightly rear view—as Charlie Watts once indelicately put it—”of Mick’s bum wigglin’ about.”
And how’s this for coincidence: he made his debut with the Stones at their Atlanta concert in the Fox Theater on October 26, 1981—the first Stones concert I ever attended. Through the magic that is the internet, you can hear the soundboard recording of that magical night here.
Without letting Chuck eat his dinner, I quizzed him about all things Stones, from how they stay so amazingly able to perform at such an advanced age (Mick exercises his body and voice relentlessly and rigorously watches his diet; Keith smokes and drinks), to Ronnie Wood’s newborn twins (for whom he’s given up smoking), to how long it’s all going to last. How do they first contact him to invite him to go on tour–does he look down at his cell and see Mick calling? (Sometimes, perhaps, but first the Stones’ manager Joyce Smyth sends out an email.) And so it went, on and on through every course. He answered my questions from the mundane to the sublime with unwavering politeness and an empty stomach.
Many of my questions had to do with what they will and will not play live in concert, and why. As the group’s official “musical director” Chuck sets every show’s set list with Mr. Jagger and fights hard for songs that get rehearsed but rarely played live, like “Get off My Cloud” (hear Mick ask Chuck to count them in), “Lady Jane” and “Play with Fire.”
When I asked him why they don’t play early 60s standards like “Mercy, Mercy,” or “Walkin’ the Dog” live, he just laughed. He replied that people pay a lot of money to see them (don’t I know it!), and Mick and company feel they have to strike a delicate balance between playing familiar tunes like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” that casual fans expect to hear, leaving little room for rarely played gems such as “She’s a Rainbow” and “Monkey Man” (both, incidentally, containing some of Chuck’s best work) for hard-core nuts like me.
Here’s what Chuck won’t tell you, though if you’ve followed the Stones during his tenure, you know it’s true: he’s made them a much better live band than they were before his arrival. They’re more professional, the songs are crisp and tight, giving their shows an energy and quality they lacked when everything was noticeably more ragged. In my opinion he’s a huge reason the band still plays to sold out audiences around the world well into their seventies.
Chuck and Rose Lane have recently purchased a home in Savannah (not far from my office) and will be spending time here, so we’ll be neighbors for a few weeks each year.
The next sunny afternoon you stroll around Forsyth Park, you may see an unassuming white-haired, tree-farmer-looking gent walking beside you. If you pay him no mind and look the other way, you will miss the man who has been an integral part of musical history for the last third of a century and a well-respected member of rock royalty.
Take it from me: he won’t mind if you walk up and say, in Mick’s immortal words, “Please allow me to introduce myself….”
Tell him Stan said hello. And for all the pleasure—dare I say Satisfaction–you’ve given us through the years, Chuck, a heartfelt and sincere thank you. I like it, like it, yes I do.
Last week I did presentations on history in three middle schools in three different Georgia counties, Gwinnett and Walton in metro Atlanta and Fannin in North Georgia. Two of the programs were for 8th graders and one for 6th graders.
I’ve been doing public speaking since I first started this job nearly 16 years ago, and standing in front of an audience to talk about history is about as natural for me now as breathing. But I think I’d rather stand up in front of a hundred federal court judges than a hundred 8th graders. It’s a tough age and they can be a tough audience. Acting jaded, cynical, and uninterested is a badge of honor.
And of course it’s become a rite of passage for adults to bemoan teenagers in this or any age for what they don’t know, don’t care about, or even care to know what they don’t know. The world is going to hell in the proverbial handbasket, and the younger generation is always leading the charge. It’s the declension theory of civilization—it was better in the past, people worked harder, valued things (education, manners, work ethic, etc.) more than they do now, and cared passionately about and understood the value of getting a good education. Kids these days are just entitled lazy brats.
Adults have been saying that about the rising generation for millennia. It was said of our Founders and of the folks we now call the Greatest Generation. Today’s teenagers will say it about their own kids.
One might assume that as a professional historian, I would routinely engage in this kind of hand-wringing. But the truth is, after visiting with these students last week, I was very pleasantly surprised.
They knew a lot more about history than I thought they would for people who were born in 2002. Even the 6th graders were familiar with things like D-Day and the Civil Rights movement that I didn’t think they’d know a lot about. What’s more, many of them were not only familiar with history, they were actually very interested in it and weren’t afraid to show that interest, even in front of their peers. I came away impressed with these students and their teachers.
I was particularly impressed with a 12-year-old boy in Fannin County named Mike. You might not notice Mike otherwise as he was a little small for his age (as I was in 6th grade). But Mike was well-behaved, interested, smart, and he asked great questions.
And I’m drawn to people who ask questions, who are naturally curious about the world around them, and how the world go to be the way it is. At one point I told the students that in my estimation the greatest gift anyone can have is a natural curiosity; armed with that, you’ll never stop learning as you go through life and it will enrich your journey in ways you can’t imagine.
Mike had that in spades. He raised his hand so many times (in a gym assembly of over 100 kids) to ask a question that I finally had to ask him to give others a turn. He came up to me afterwards to ask more questions and to tell me that like me, and like Thomas Jefferson, whom I also talked about, he loved books and loved to read.
Of all the kids I met last week, the little boy in Fannin County with the tousled hair and wearing the plain white t-shirt impressed me most. I told him before I left that I thought he was going places, that he would do great things with his life. His eyes lit up. “Really?” he said, beaming at me. “You think so?” Really Mike. Yes I do. Keep reading, keep learning, and most of all keep asking questions. One day, you’ll be the one standing up in front of a crowd, talking about something that you love.
There’s an old saying, “the world steps aside to let any man pass who knows where he’s going.” I think there’s a young boy in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia who will make the world step aside one day.
I got a glimpse of the future last week, and it didn’t scare me at all. It smiled back at me and promised great things. The future is in better hands than we think.
“Hey! Aren’t you the guy that does that history commercial every night on TV?”
I was walking back to my office one afternoon after lunch in Chatham Square here in Savannah, and that question was shouted at me from a guy unloading a truck on Gaston Street. That history commercial? He was referring to Today in Georgia History. I was flattered that he watched the show and, as we say, tickled at his notion of what the 90-second program was. Yep, that’s me, I said. “Keep it up, it’s great!” he shouted back.
The Georgia Historical Society launched Today in Georgia History, a daily 90-second TV and radio program, on Georgia Public Broadcasting in September 2011, and it has been a rewarding and powerful way for GHS to fulfill its mission, to reach new audiences, and to teach Georgia history on a daily basis. The program was produced in collaboration with GPB. In addition to receiving the praise of viewers, this innovative program has won two Emmy Awards, a Leadership in History Award from the American Association of State and Local History, and a Georgia Historical Records Advisory Board Award for Excellence in the Educational Use of Historical Records.
Today in Georgia History, or TIGH as we call it, features historical events or people associated with a particular day in Georgia history. TIGH began with the question, how can the Georgia Historical Society teach Georgia history every day in a way that will be entertaining and educational, help raise our visibility around the state, and get audiences to stand on new ground and see the past in a different way?
We proposed the idea of a short 1-2 minute daily radio program to Teya Ryan, President and Executive Director of Georgia Public Broadcasting, and she loved it. But, she asked, why limit it to radio? She saw the potential for something much bigger—radio yes, but let’s broadcast it on TV and internet as well, with illustrations, photographs, maps, and other graphics that flesh out each subject in a more meaningful way, and broadcast it across the state—and into Georgia classrooms—every day.
This turned out to be a good decision for many reasons. The ability to market TIGH as an educational program is tied very directly to the visual product; teachers made it clear to us that the program would be more useful in the classroom if there was a visual element rather than just an audio segment. And ultimately, as regards funding, the ability to reach students and teachers is vital to the success of any project like this, because it’s been our experience that getting funding for education projects for children is easier than for other types of programs, like lectures for adults.
Both Teya and my boss, Todd Groce, GHS President and CEO, wanted me to act not only as lead researcher and writer of each episode, but also as the face and voice of the show as well. Why me? We wanted the show to be more than just the usual trivia that often makes up the “today in history” spots in the media, and in addition to my background with both journalism and history degrees, they felt that having an honest-to-goodness professionally trained historian as the on-air host—rather than just hiring an actor to read a teleprompter—would give the show a credibility and authenticity it might not otherwise have. “You’ll be the Steve Thomas of Today in Georgia History!” Teya told me, and as a fan of both the show and the long-time host of This Old House, I was excited and grateful for the opportunity.
So we began work on creating a daily TV show that would tell Georgia’s story in a new and hopefully thought-provoking way—and do it in less than 90 seconds and about 165 words. At one point we counted over a hundred people at both GHS and GPB working on the show. Georgia Public Broadcasting put together a team of seasoned and dedicated professionals that included producers, editors, sound and lighting technicians, graphic artists, and set designers.
It was my great pleasure—and it was great fun—to work with legendary Atlanta producers Don Smith and Bruce Burckhardt, and the GPB crew that included Keocia Howard, Mark Harmon, Ashlie Wilson, Rosser Shymanski, Layron Branham, Marilyn Stansbury, Bob Brienza, Tom Spencer, Tiffany Brown Rideaux, and all the other talented folks at GPB who worked so hard to make me sound and look good. GPB commissioned an original score for the TIGH theme music that TV viewers and radio listeners would instantly recognize as belonging to our show.
The GPB team worked with a dedicated group of staff and interns at the Georgia Historical Society, including my colleagues Laura García-Culler (who acted as GHS’s executive producer), Christy Crisp, Leanda Rix, Katharine Rapkin, Maggie Brewer, Sophia Sineath, Elise Lapaglia, and Alison Zielenbach. They worked tirelessly to track down the images from hundreds of institutions across the country that would flesh out and illustrate that day’s subject. Not only did using these illustrations help promote the GHS collections and those of other repositories but also demonstrated the ongoing need for institutions like ours that preserve the documentary evidence of the past.
We didn’t shy away from controversial topics either; we took an unflinching look, for example, at the myriad ways in which slavery, Jim Crow, and the continuing problems of race have shaped Georgia’s history and identity right up to the present. The production team put into daily practice on TIGH what we at GHS do as an institution every day: GHS as a public history institution serves as a bridge between the academy and the public, taking the best of cutting-edge historical scholarship and making it accessible to the lay public without watering it down. This was one of the reasons the show received so many accolades from viewers and professionals alike.
The project began in the spring of 2011 and by the time production ended a year later, we had collaboratively created an impressive body of work that over the course of 366 days (leap year!) covers the entire scope and sweep of Georgia history, from 1526 to 2009. We told the stories of artists, authors, athletes, singers, actors, poets, musicians, architects, politicians, civil rights leaders, agriculture, aviation, military history, Native American history, political history, economic and business leaders, sports, education, weather history, cultural topics and religious subjects, covering every historical era from the colonial period through the 21st century. There’s no facet of Georgia history that we didn’t cover in the course of the year.
In order to help fund the project as part of a larger capacity building campaign, GHS secured a $900,000 grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation. We needed to raise our visibility across the state, particularly in Atlanta, to help the institution attract the resources it would need to sustain future growth. When we invited someone to become a GHS member or walked into a corporate or foundation office, we wanted them to know who we were, and TIGH has helped raise the visibility of our brand in every corner of the state.
In addition to daily radio and television broadcasts, we created an interactive website, www.todayingeorgiahistory.org, to serve as an educational resource for teachers and students. Many history classes around the state begin their day by watching the daily segments on the internet. The site features audio and video streaming of each segment, as well as transcripts, tips for teachers, curriculum, writing prompts, review questions, discussion topics, classroom exercises, follow-up research topics, and selected primary source materials. The web resources align with Georgia’s social studies curriculum and performance standards.
Public response to TIGH has been overwhelming and positive. No other kind of program we’ve done has matched this one in reach. By the end of 2012 nearly six million Georgians had seen or heard the program and it was being used by thousands of Georgia teachers and students in the classroom. And it will continue to live for years to come on the internet.
For me, working on “that history commercial” was one of the most professionally rewarding things I’ve ever done. When the show won two Emmys—for short-form writing and overall cultural and historical excellence—at the regional National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences gala in Atlanta on June 8, 2013, it was a tribute to the hard work and dedication of all the talented professionals at both organizations who worked on the show. I will always be proud to have been part of the TIGH team.