Episode 60: Awopbopaloobop AlopbamUConn
In this episode, Prof. Jeffrey Ogbar, Director of the Center for the Study of Popular Music, talks about the art and lasting influence of Little Richard, and we travel back to the 1940s, when a UConn professor was on trial after being accused of anti-American views – although not the ones you may be imagining.
TOM BREEN: Hello everyone, and welcome to episode 60 of UConn 360. That is the only podcast in the history of civilization that covers the University of Connecticut from each and every conceivable angle. We are coming to you from around the great state of Connecticut, because we are working remotely during this pandemic, and joining me today are my colleagues, Julie Bartucca.
JULIE BARTUCCA: Hi Tom.
TOM BREEN: Hi Julie. And Ken Best
KEN BEST: I am here on the other side of the geography, but I guess not with a picture. You can’t see me.
JULIE BARTUCCA: Well, they can’t see us anyway.
TOM BREEN: I hope none of you can see us. If you can, that’s a very disturbing development. Sadly, not with us today is Maxine Philavong, our ace student worker who graduated from the University of Connecticut this month and is off to great things. But we miss her and wish her the best. I imagine she’s probably listening to this.
JULIE BARTUCCA: Hi Maxine.
TOM BREEN: [00:01:09] We’ve got some exciting stuff for you this week. We’re going to talk about a rock and roll pioneer. We’re going to talk about some controversy from the past, but first why don’t we talk about some news and things that are happening right now. Julie, you want to talk about something, right?
JULIE BARTUCCA: Yes. In non-COVID-19 news, UConn announced that we are going to be piloting a test optional undergraduate admissions process for the next three applications periods. Although we already use a holistic application review process, we give kind of equal weigh to all pieces of students’ application but we are having it be optional that students enter their SAT or ACT scores if they choose. They say that students may submit a SAT or ACT results, but no admissions decision would be impacted and no student would be dismissed. If a standardized test score is not provided, this has kind of started to catch on across the country. More than 70 institutions nationwide have announced this spring that they’re adopting either pilot or permanent policies like this. Several had been doing this in recent years. So it’s very exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing how this goes.
TOM BREEN: Very cool. It’s, a big thing. I just noticed that a university of California system has just announced something similar.
JULIE BARTUCCA: Yeah. I mean, clearly these are being impacted by the pandemic, so that’s kind of the impetus for why right now, but it’s already a trend that was starting to catch up.
TOM BREEN: [00:02:34] I liked the pilot approach to it. We’ll do it and we’ll see how it works and we’ll see what we learned from it. A lot of experiments happening. Before we go any further I wanted to thank one of our listeners, Linda Tokarski — I apologize if I’m mispronouncing that — who graduated from the School of Allied Health Professions in 1970. She heard our previous episode where we talked about the protests on campus that followed Kent State, and she wrote a very thoughtful email. I just want to read a little bit from it where she kind of talks about what the atmosphere was like on campus back then.
In part good reads” There was a big caravan from campus that went down to the March on Washington. I didn’t go, but many of my friends did. There were frequent protests at the ROTC buildings and rallies in front of the old Student Union that filled the entire quad after the Cambodia invasion. And then after Kent State, things became much angrier. There were organized marches through campus. I remember sitting in abnormal psych watching the protest going by the protesters, who were just so angry. They would break into classrooms asking why students were not out protesting. I think they would also break into door meetings. I was never afraid, but there was an element of fear on campus. As a PT student, it was difficult to actively protest. Our teachers really did not approve of the protest and I think in many ways conveyed, it was not in our interest to participate. Some of us felt that we could do more by graduating and working with returning soldiers.
[00:03:57] So a really interesting perspective from someone who was there at the time who experienced those protests. Linda, thank you for sending that in. We encourage everyone who is listening to tell us anything you want about your time at UConn. We’ll be happy to talk about it on the show.
JULIE BARTUCCA: I love hearing from somebody whose real perspective on something that we’ve talked about, because it does sound like it was kind of a scary time and especially somebody who didn’t participate and, , kind of felt that they could do better by graduating and helping out that way. I thought that was really interesting. So thank you, Linda.
TOM BREEN: [00:04:46] And now turning to something else that was in the news recently — the death of a rock and roll pioneer. And who better to talk about that, then our own Maven of the Wall of Sound Studio, Ken Best. Ken, you’ve got a story for us. What, what are we going to hear?
KEN BEST: Well, we’re talking about, of course, Richard Penniman, known to the world as Little Richard, who was one of the pioneers of rock and roll in the 1950s and member of the first group of musicians, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His piano pounding, screaming, and kinetic performances, injected raw energy into this new form of music for the post-World War II generation. It crossed Racial lines and influenced many musicians, from James Brown and the Beatles to Prince. Little Richard had 16 top 100 chart hits from 1956 to 1959, and his songs have been covered by a wide range of musicians, including many contemporary artists. I thought the best place to go for a perspective from the eyes of history and music at UConn would be Professor Geoffrey Ogbar, who is a historian, also the founding director of UConn Center for the Study of popular Music and the author of the book, Hip Hop Revolution, the Culture and Politics of Rap.
JEFFREY OGBAR: [00:06:02] I think it’s often hard to understate how important little Richard has been to popular music. You know, we often say, oh, well, this person was a giant. When we use terms like that too frequently, we don’t quite capture the scope of someone like Little Richard, who was so important not just the development of rock and roll music, but also your favorite artists were most likely influenced by Little Richard. Little Richard shaped aesthetics, sound, dance, the energy. After this frenetic energy that we see across genres, you know, from funk, soul, rock and roll. You think of someone like Prince who influenced so many people. I’m a fan of people today, like Andre 3000, who’s a rapper, but has also gone into singing. I love Childish Gambino, who’s a rapper, actor, comedian who also sings. They are influenced by Prince. There are so many ways that we can measure his impact. And so, yeah, he’s a formidable figure in the scope of popular music and across genres.
KEN BEST: [00:07:22] He credits, many people for influencing his style early on, which of course was the late forties, early 1950s to mid-1950s. He specifically cites the gospel influence, as many R&B and rock and soul singers do. Marion Williams, who was with the Ward Singers and Stars of Faith; Miss Rhythm, Ruth Brown, who was of course the star in 1950s and Sister Rosetta Thorpe, I was just looking at old videos of her, strapping on an electric guitar and playing leads, belting out gospel songs. So that foundation, complete with the whoops and the shouts is there when you watch those videos and it’s just remarkable how you can see the connection to the roots of rock and roll.
JEFFREY OGBAR: [00:08:11] We think about so many people who covered him The lists of folks who covered Little Richard is too long, but I’m just thinking it was some giant like, Elvis Presley who was also influenced by Little Richard, but also the Beatles were influenced by Little Richard. Paul McCartney talked about how his vocalizations, how he learned to hone his own singing skills when they open for Little Richard. The Beatles opened for the him in 1962 during his tours in Europe. We think about the folks who influenced Little Richard and it’s interesting to see that nothing comes out of a vacuum. But, you know, expressions are often a consequence of along intimate exchange with other expressions and different cultural spheres, and we certainly see that with little Richard.
When I think about the people who were influenced by him, they’re also folks like Roy Brown, an early R&B performer who help shape Little Richard and gave him opportunities when he started off in Atlanta. Yeah, you’re right. There are so many places, and people, who shaped him who, of course, was quite innovative in its own space. Just how, how powerful his impact and imprint was on popular music.
KEN BEST: Having gone back and looked at a lot of material about him and some of the tributes, there’s an author named Richie Unterberger, who’s a music historian and does a lot of books on musical figures. He says that he was crucial in upping the voltage from high- powered R&B into dissimilar yet different guise of rock and roll. And that seems to be what is coming out when you see what James Brown said, and what many others have said is that his energy and his stage presence is really the thing that hit them. Mick Jagger, the same thing because he performed on the same stages as Little Richard when he was opening for them and they were opening for him early on in their career.
JEFFREY OGBAR: 00:10:17] Yeah, it is interesting. If you look back at Little Richard then, what he must have looked like for people? In fact, were three people who are central to laying the foundation for rock and roll –Fats Domino, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Fats Domino, who played the piano and sang; that frenetic energy that we associate with little Richard was absent. Chuck Berry, who played the guitar, in fascinating and powerful ways, might be reminiscent of some Ike Turner styles and sounds, but, but that, that energy he had with his duck walk, that was a sort of ratcheting up and being close to what we might see with rock and roll. But if you step outside of the sort of R&B, the rhythm and blues of that period and the early rockers, the only thing that would come close that sort of energy I would see would be in some swing bands like Cab Calloway’s. He would, you know, swing his hair and don’t let the Nicholas brothers jump out and dance and have that sort of energy.
But in terms of a performer, even in most swing bands, whether we’re looking at Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and others, that sort of energy was absent from popular music. In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the rise of bebop jazz, which was very subdued, you had a cool, a different expression of cool coming out. Miles Davis Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Bird Parker. But, again, that sort of energy that you saw on that scale in popular music, Little Richard was a guy who did all that in one performance and it was quite extraordinary to see. I think when you kind of look at the landscape of popular music and kind of think – No, what did it look like before Little Richard and after a Little Richard, you get a chance to just see how innovative he was in so many ways.
KEN BEST: [00:12:33] You see that, I think, in some of those early rock and roll films, which were pretty much vehicles just to get the music out there to the public. In the days of Alan Freed and the beginning of what were the rock concert tours, which are just collections of people playing their hits, and then moving on to the next town everything changed once little Richard was on the stage, it’s sort of amped up. That was why he sort of was towards the end of the show back in those days. I remember on one of those films, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and this is much later on, were reflecting on all of that. It was kind of like the gathering at Sun Studios between Elvis and Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, the great icons of, of the, of the form sitting there talking about how they started everything. And of course, everyone credited original little Richard who was trying to take, take credit on his own as, as he, as he always did.
JEFFREY OGBAR: [00:13:12] Yeah. You know, it’s interesting because I think he’s the one who said it’s not as much conceited as confident. I think when he celebrated himself and I think it was to some extent. We have to remind ourselves that many of these people covered Little Richard and in case of Pat Boone going higher on the charts with his version of of Tutti Frutti. I think that Little Richard was quite aware of his circumstances; the finances, the sort of contracts he signed, the sort of hyper exploitation he experienced in the music industry, the gangsterism of the music industry, the sense of where he was even in this popularity and imprint for years sort of still, never got the fame that someone like Elvis and people who explicitly said I modeled [myself off him]. But as you start to see rock and roll be increasingly associated with being creative and innovative by white people, then Little Richard just becomes a sort of guy who may have associated with some rockers. That narrative seems to become dominant, and I will say that in my classes at UConn for years, I tell my students that rock and roll evolved out of black music; that African Americans were the people, who founded, created rock and roll and named Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino. And my students are almost always surprised assuming that Elvis created rock and roll and that whites were the ones who invented it. And there might’ve been a couple of black guys who may have come around. And so I think that for Little Richard in some ways even as people would acknowledge him, he often felt some ways famously overlooked.
[00:15:17] It was beautiful to see that in his later years that there seemed to be a term and a more explicit celebration and recognition of his name imprint in the genre, not just being inducted into the initial class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in ’86; also all the other accolades he received and movies and documentaries books, and so many of the other spaces. I think in many ways he may have felt redeemed. It was beautiful to see him live this long, 87 years, let alone the sort of global imprint in popular music and to adoring crowds of all races. He lived a remarkable life and to meet and to hobnob and enjoy the quality of life that this guy had and influence so many people and so it brings so much joy to the world. I mean, he really had a remarkable life. It’s really outstanding.
KEN BEST: [00:15:46] little Richard still can be heard in lots of music today and he will never be replicated of course, because he was unique. And as he would always tell people, he was the architect of rock and roll. He plainly claimed that and everybody gave him credit.
JULIE BARTUCCA: Great interview, Ken.
TOM BREEN: [00:16:13] Everyone out there, I think is probably a little fatigued with the COVID-19 with the pandemic and all that’s happening. And, you know, it’s what we do here. We’d like to provide an escape from the troubles and trials of our day, especially at Tom’s History Corner. We like to revisit the happy times of bygone years, times that were less stressful and less upsetting. So, this week we’re going to go back to one of those times — World War II.
During World War II on campus, there was a professor of German language called Theodor [sic] Karl Siegel. He actually was from Germany, immigrated to the U S in 1931, which is when he started working at UConn. He became a citizen of the United States in 1938 and by many accounts he seemed to fit in fine with the faculty at UConn. His daughter went to UConn however when the war started I began to get a little suspicious of his sympathies. There was a debate on campus at Beach Hall in 1940 over the war. Now, remember this was before the U.S. had entered the war and Professor Siegel stressed that he was not a Nazi, a member of the Nazi party, but he, he understood why Germany invaded France.
[00:17:18] He was sort of making the case for Germany, that they were encircled by the Allies and they didn’t have another option, that kind of thing. That rubbed some people on campus the wrong way, as you can imagine. Complicating the problem is that that they were using textbooks in the German language class that had been printed in Germany, in the thirties. Those textbooks were sort of flavored with Nazism. There was one in particular called “In Deutschland,” that was kind of rabidly pro-Nazi that the Daily Campus wrote a kind of a series of expose essays about it. They didn’t name Siegel in the stories, but it was kind of clear who was assigning this book. So there was a little more tension. Then in January of 1944, he was actually charged with lying on his citizenship application. This is a really interesting case. The federal prosecuting attorney who filed the charges against it was Tom Dodd, for whom the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center is named, and the argent was that he had never really intended to renounce his German citizenship and that he never really believed himself to be American, which is a really slippery kind of charged to make. How do you prove that? So, there’s actually a federal trial in Hartford in the summer of 1944 in which there were students and faculty members who testified against him and also students and faculty members who testified on his behalf. Two of the faculty members who testified against them are names that people will recognize; Professor [Andre] Schenker and Professor [Jamie Homero] Arjona also testified against them.
JULIE BARTUCCA: I love when our buildings pop up in these stories.
TOM BREEN: [00:19:09] He was not a Nazi party member. There was no smoking gun. The government had been opening his mail for a while, which they did during the war and actually after the war for decades. But he wrote letters to his family and Germany saying basically I’m with you, I support you, I hope we win this thing kind of thing. That was, I guess, the crux of the evidence. At the time he was suspended, with pay, from the university. There was a lot of pressure on the university to fire him but President [Abert] Jorgensen and Albert Waugh, the provost, wanted to resist it. They said: Let the trial happened, let’s let due process happen. We don’t want to fire a professor who has tenure until all the facts are in. So Professor Siegel was convicted of lying. He had his citizenship restricted; it wasn’t revoked, interestingly. The case actually gained national prominence because he appealed and while it was an appeal, Jorgensen still said, we’re not going to fire this guy until the process has exhausted itself. This was taken up by Walter Winchell, who was a nationally broadcast radio person who was kind of a combination of like a political talk show guy and also a kind of a celebrity gossip guy. He was hugely influential and famous at the time. He started taking this up as an example of the universities being soft on Hitler, the terrible university faculty is not really caring about America. He challenged President Jorgensen to a debate on the radio, which never happened but it stirred up a lot of anger. The American Legion, which at the time was a very politically active organization got involved and they wanted to lobby the legislature to cut off UConn’s funding unless they fired this professor. Eventually, his appeal was denied and the Board of Trustees did in fact fire him.
[00:20:52] He did not get deported to Germany or anything. He spent the rest of his life in the United States, although there were certain restrictions on his citizenship. It’s a really interesting case. I was reading the contemporary newspaper accounts of the trial and it’s strange because, I mean, the guy probably had some pro German opinions but it’s a weird thing to try to prove in court that somebody didn’t really mean he wanted to be a citizen.
JULIE BARTUCCA: It’s his intention.
TOM BREEN: That’s yeah. And a few years later, when McCarthyism came to campus, a lot of faculty members brought this up and they said this was a bad precedent because now we’ve sort of established that the Board of Trustees will fire someone because of political reasons.
KEN BEST: [00:21:33] Interesting stuff, because Dodd then went on to become part of the prosecution and the Nuremberg trials, of course, which is what he’s known for. Walter Winchell was Ed Sullivan’s competitor in those days and the tabloids in New York City, where they were writing the stories. The real nugget for those of you who remember the original Untouchables TV show, the one with — I’m trying to remember the name of the guy who played Elliot Ness..
TOM BREEN: Robert Stack.
KEN BEST: He was the narrator for the Untouchables. He opened the beginning of the show telling you what the crime was that he was going to try and deal with.
TOM BREEN: This is obviously 1945, a time when radio broadcasts weren’t recorded or stored, but I would love to be able to hear or even see a transcript of those radio broadcasts, where a Winchell inveighing against the University of Connecticut and challenging President Johnson.
JULIE BARTUCCA: It was smart of Jorgensen not to engage.
TOM BREEN: [00:22:33] Yes, he was not interested in that. The letters that he had exchanged were about this work. Jorgensen clearly thought the whole thing was ridiculous and was annoyed that it had become such an issue in the press. In 1945 getting put on blast by Walter Winchell was about as prominent you could get, pretty big deal.
JULIE BARTUCCA: Going viral.
TOM BREEN: Yeah, so you’re around and you remember it, if you are Walter Winchell, we’d love to hear from you.
KEN BEST: I believe he’s at the great microphone in the sky right now.
TOM BREEN: [00:23:11] Yeah. Well, that’s, I think that’s just about it for this week. Ken, there was something you wanted to tell us about though before we left, right?
KEN BEST: If you can recall back to episode 57, where I mentioned that one of the studies that I wrote about my friend, Dave Atkin on the communications faculty. He did one of the early studies with a former student of his, who was actually in China on the beginnings of the pandemic in that area of China, where it began. That study has been seen all over the world. He got an email from a professor at a university in Lithuania requesting information and some collaborative effort on a paper that’s being done. In the citations is my UConn Today story, so I’ve been cited in a study about the pandemic in Lithuania, which is kind of strange because I don’t have a Ph.D. in anything.
JULIE BARTUCCA: But you wrote about it.
KEN BEST: Yes. And then Julie told me: I’m she’s Lithuanian when I told her about it.
JULIE BARTUCCA: One of the many pieces of my background is Lithuanian, and Stagis is my maiden name.
TOM BREEN: I was trying to find what happened to Professor Siegel’s daughter, Betina Siegel because she was a UConn graduate, too, who was sort of tied up in this. I was Googling her. There is currently a very popular like mommy blogger named Betina Siegel. Much, much, much too young, but that’s not a like common sounding name.
KEN BEST: [00:25:29] Yeah, fortunately, that paper is in English because I received a copy of the initial paper where I am cited. It wasn’t done in English because that’s of course, one of the dominant languages in the world now of the 7,000 languages that are spoken around the world. I did a whole, I did a little bit of research on what Lithuania but we don’t need to talk about that. We have other things to do.
TOM BREEN: That’s very cool for you, Ken. And that’s all the more reason for all our listeners to frequently visit today.UConn.edu, where you will see tomorrow’s academic citations today. If you want to follow us on Twitter, you can follow us at UConn podcast. You can follow at main underscore old, which is a for all kinds of old pictures and info about UConn history. We had a bunch of stuff from the 1970 protests recently. I’ll see if I can find some stuff from the war. Maybe a picture of a Theodor Karl Siegel, You can follow me individually at TJ Brene, Julie, is there anything you’d like the good people of listener land to know.
JULIE BARTUCCA: I’m at Julie Bartucca. We’re working on the next UConn Health Journal, which will have a good amount of COVID coverage that got shelved back when everything shut down, so looking forward to getting that out soon and Tom, I was just thinking you should make an Instagram for old main.
TOM BREEN: That’s a good idea. Ken.
KEN BEST: Well, Saturdays from three to six 91.7, W H U S in stores, you can sound alternative is the Good Music show, which is being prerecorded. This next weekend show is already done. It’s up in the cloud and, something that faithful listeners to the podcast should know that on Fridays at 11 o’clock in the morning, you can listen to our favorite episodes of the 360 podcasts. Now that we’ve had three years of podcasts, Julie, Tom, and I selected our favorite episodes and I am preparing those and as you are listening to this a bunch of them have already been done and they’re ready to go. So, Fridays at 11 o’clock you can go to wsus.org if you’re not in the listening area and listen again.
TOM BREEN: [00:27:21] I think of those episodes as artisans selected to curated episodes. So, thanks again for listening everyone. We will be back in two weeks with more UConn for your listening pleasure.