Saturday, July 10, 2010


Jesse Owens and the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Jesse Owens and the “Nazi Olympics”

“Hitler didn’t snub me—it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”

Jesse Owens, in Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics (Jeremy Schaap, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007)

James Cleveland (“J.C.”/“Jesse”) Owens (1913-1980) was born near Oakville, Alabama (southwest of Huntsville) on September 12, 1913. J.C. was only nine years old when Henry and Emma Owens moved the family to Cleveland, Ohio to seek a better life.

Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics
Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Photo: Library of Congress

Owens is best known for his victories at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, where he achieved international fame by winning four gold medals. The American track and field champ first drew national attention as a student at East Technical High School in Cleveland when he equaled the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard dash and long-jumped 24 feet 9-½ inches at the 1933 National High School Championship in Chicago.

Owens later attended Ohio State University, where he was affectionately known as the “Buckeye Bullet.” In 1935 and 1936 he won a record eight individual NCAA championships, four in each year. At the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan on May 25, 1935, Owens set three world records and tied a fourth.

That same year, Jesse Owens married his high school sweetheart, Minnie Ruth Solomon. (Ruth had given birth to their first daughter, Gloria, in 1932.) They would have two more daughters: Marlene (1939) and Beverly (1940).

Jesse  Owens on Berlin stadium list
OLYMPIC VICTORS: Jesse Owens’ name appears three times on this list at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. His fourth gold medal was for the 4 x 100 m relay (Staffellauf, USA). Photo: Hyde Flippo > More stadium photos

Seven Days in Berlin
Jesse Owens’ lasting international fame is the result of his athletic achievements in Berlin over a period of just seven days in the summer of 1936. Between August 3 and August 9 the Afro-American athlete won four gold medals, one each for the 100-meter dash, the long jump, the 200-meter dash, and the 400-meter relay. Owens’ four track and field victories were an achievement not equaled until 1984, when Carl Lewis, another African-American, did the same at the 1984 Summer Olympics. (Lewis was often called the “second Jesse Owens” before he got his negative image.)

German Track Shoes
Jesse Owens was wearing German track shoes when he won his gold medals in Berlin. So were all the members of the German team and most of the track and field athletes. His shoes were made by the company co-founded by Adolf ("Adi") Dassler. Today that firm is called Adidas.

Many myths have developed around Owens’ victories in 1936. One of the most persistent erroneous stories is the “Hitler snub” myth. We’ll discuss that one a bit later, but first we’ll look at another Berlin Olympics myth.

The fact that there were American athletes competing in the 1936 Olympics at all is still considered by many to be a blotch on the history of the US Olympic Committee. Germany’s open discrimination against Jews and other “non-Aryans” was already public knowledge when many Americans opposed US participation in the “Nazi Olympics.” The opponents of US participation included the American ambassadors to Germany and Austria. But those who warned that Hitler and the Nazis would use the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin for propaganda purposes lost the battle to have the US boycott the Berlin Olympiade.

Which brings us to our first Olympic myth. It is often stated that Jesse Owens’ four gold medals humiliated Hitler by proving to the world that Nazi claims of Aryan superiority were a lie. But Hitler and the Nazis were far from unhappy with the Olympic results. Not only did Germany win far more medals than any other country at the 1936 Olympics, but the Nazis had pulled off the huge public relations coup that Olympic opponents had predicted, casting Germany and the Nazis, falsely, in a positive light. In the long run, Owens’ victories turned out to be only a minor embarrassment for Nazi Germany.

Leni Riefenstahl
Jesse Owens' long-jump victory is documented in the 1938 film Olympia by the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Her groundbreaking film of the 1936 Olympics is considered a cinematic masterpiece.

But Jesse Owens’ reception by the German public and the spectators in the Olympic stadium was warm. There were German cheers of “Yesseh Oh-vens” or just “Oh-vens” from the crowd. Owens was a true celebrity in Berlin, mobbed by autograph seekers to the point that he complained about all the attention. He later claimed that his reception in Berlin was greater than any other he had ever experienced, and he had been quite popular even before the Olympics.

Back in the USA
With his victories and medals behind him, Owens was looking forward to reaping some rewards. But after being stripped of his amateur status, potential sponsors backed out. That, and the racial discrimination of the day in his native land, prevented him from enjoying anything close to the huge financial benefits that African American athletes can expect today. When Owens came home from his success in Nazi Germany, he faced barriers that he would not have faced today. In fact, Owens had encountered far less discrimination in Germany than he did back in his own country. For a post-Olympic reception at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, the world-famous black athlete was forced to use the freight elevator! That is just one example of the humiliating discrimination that even a black man as famous as Owens confronted in those days.

18 African-American Athletes in Berlin
Jesse Owens was just one of 18 African-American athletes (including 2 women) who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. That was the largest number of black athletes who had ever been part of the US Olympic team up to that time. Ten of the 18 won 14 Olympic medals, 8 of them gold. That figure represents almost one-quarter of the total of 56 medals won by the US team in all events.
SOURCE: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

After the ticker-tape parades, Owens received no Hollywood offers, no endorsement contracts, and no ad deals. His face didn’t appear on cereal boxes. Three years after his victories in Berlin, a failed business deal forced Owens to declare bankruptcy. He made a modest living from his own sports promotions, including racing against a thoroughbred horse. After moving to Chicago in 1949, he started a successful public relations firm. Owens was also a popular jazz disc jockey for many years in the “Windy City.”

Jesse Owens
Jesse Owens (center) during his gold medal award ceremony for the long jump, admidst a sea of Nazi salutes in Berlin. Photo: Bundesarchiv

The Hitler-Snub Myth
Adolf Hitler did shun a black American athlete at the 1936 Games, but it wasn’t Jesse Owens. On the first day of the Olympics, just before Cornelius Johnson, an African-American althlete who won the first gold medal for the US that day, was to receive his award, Hitler left the stadium early. (The Nazis later claimed it was a previously scheduled departure.) Prior to his departure, Hitler had received a number of winners, but Olympic officials informed the German leader that in the future he must receive all of the winners or none at all. After the first day, he opted to acknowledge none. Jesse Owens had his victories on the second day and later, when Hitler was no longer in attendance. Would Hitler have snubbed Owens if he had been in the stadium on day two? Perhaps. But since he wasn’t there, he didn’t.

Jesse Owens’ Record Wins
Owens’ Gold: 100-meter dash in 10.3 seconds (tying the world record), long jump with a jump of 26' 5-¼" (Olympic record), 200-meter dash in 20.7 seconds (Olympic record), and 400-meter relay (first leg) in 39.8 seconds (Olympic and world record).

The FDR Snub
Ironically, the real snub of Owens came from his own president. Even after ticker-tape parades for Owens in New York City and Cleveland, President Franklin D. Roosevelt never publicly acknowledged Owens’ record-breaking achievements. Owens was never invited to the White House and never even received a letter of congratulations from the president. That included the later Truman administration. Almost two decades passed before an American president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, honored Owens by naming him “Ambassador of Sports” — in 1955.

1998  Jesse Owens US postage stamp
This US postage stamp was issued in honor of Jesse Owens in 1998. Photo: USPS

Later US presidents also honored Owens. In 1976, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush posthumously awarded Owens the Congressional Gold Medal.

The many tributes to Owens since his death in 1980 include two US postage stamps (in 1990 and 1998, see photo above). In Berlin a street near the Olympic Stadium in Berlin was renamed Jesse-Owens-Allee in 1984. The Jesse-Owens-Realschule/Oberschule (a secondary school) in the Lichtenberg district of Berlin also honors his name. In 2001, Ohio State University dedicated its Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium for track and field events.

Jesse Owens, a longtime smoker, died of lung cancer in Tucson, Arizona on March 31, 1980. In Phoenix, where he had spent his retired life, his body lay in state in the Arizona capitol rotunda. He is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.

“When I came back, after all those stories about Hitler and his snub, I came back to my native country, and I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. Now what’s the difference?”

Jesse Owens, quoted in his New York Times obituary (April 1, 1980)

On June 29, 1996, in conjunction with the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Owens’ hometown of Oakville, Alabama dedicated the new 20-acre Jesse Owens Memorial Park in Danville and unveiled the new visitors center, memorial museum, and a replica of the Owens home. As part of a nationwide torch relay, the Olympic Torch passed through Cleveland, Ohio (June 9) and Oakville (June 29), 60 years after Owens’ 1936 Olympic triumph in Berlin. Stuart Owens Rankin, Jesse Owens’ grandson, was one of the torch bearers. (Ironically, the very first Olympic Torch relay was inaugurated by the Nazis for the 1936 Games.)

In October 2005, with help from the Hampton Inn Corporation’s Save-A-Landmark Program, volunteers revitalized the Jesse Owens Memorial Park, which features a bronze statue of the athlete and a replica of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Torch. Jesse’s widow Ruth lit the torch’s eternal flame as part of the 1996 ceremonies.

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As his 80th birthday approaches, a look at the life and legacy of the late Ray Charles.

"I just do what I do." That's what Ray Charles told Billboard in June 2002 when asked to assess his role in music history. Of course, Charles' self-effacing response belies a groundbreaking career and a legacy that endures today, as fans look toward celebrating what would have been the legendary artist's 80th birthday Sept. 23. Looking back at Charles' storied career, what comes to mind is the phrase "musical genius." In Charles' case, that's no hype.

Rare & Unseen Ray Charles Photos | Charles on the Charts

80th Birthday Year Events | Charles Charity

In 1954, the artist's melding of gospel and blues yielded the pioneering hit "I've Got a Woman"-and forged an indelible imprint on R&B, rock and pop. His earthy, soulful voice graced a steady stream of classics after "Woman," including "Drown in My Own Tears," "What'd I Say," "Hit the Road Jack," "Unchain My Heart," "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Georgia on My Mind."

Video below: Ray Charles performs "Hit The Road Jack" in São Paulo, Brazil on September 22, 1963.

Video below: Ray Charles performs "Then I'll Be Home" in Montreux, Switzerland on July 19, 1997.

Just as at home on the Hammond B-3 organ as he was on the piano, he also landed at the top of Billboard's R&B, pop, country and jazz charts-and even the dance chart, collaborating with childhood friend Quincy Jones and Chaka Khan on "I'll Be Good to You."

His final recording, 2004's "Genius Loves Company," made history when it won eight Grammy Awards, including album and record of the year for his pairing with Norah Jones on "Here We Go Again."

But what many may not know is that the inimitable Charles was also a genius when it came to the business side of music. In the early '60s he negotiated a rare feat after leaving Atlantic Records to sign with ABC-Paramount: ownership of his own master recordings. He also established his own labels. Tangerine (his favorite fruit) came first, which later evolved into CrossOver Records.

A songwriter who penned nearly 200 songs, Charles also operated his own publishing companies, Tangerine Music and Racer Music. For these entities, Charles and longtime manager Joe Adams designed and built the RPM International office and studios on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles. The Ray Charles Memorial Library will open in the building this fall.

Charles also found time to manage the careers of other acts, including Billy Preston and '70s R&B group the Friends of Distinction. And way before it was de rigueur for artists to do, Charles set up what became a foundation to help needy children with hearing disabilities and later on support education.

He was an amazing human being," says Jones, 77, who became friends with Charles when both were scrappy teenagers in Seattle. "A true innovator who revolutionized music and the business of music," he adds. "Growing up, we only had the radio; no Michael Jackson, Diddy or Oprah. So it was hard to imagine today's entrepreneurial world. But that didn't stop us. We spent a lot of time talking and dreaming about things that brothers had never done before."

"He really was a genius," says singer Solomon Burke, a former Atlantic labelmate. "He did things the way he wanted."

Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga. As many learned through actor Jamie Foxx's Academy Award-winning portrayal in the 2004 film "Ray," Charles became blind by age 7 and orphaned at 15 while growing up in northwest Florida.

In eight years at a state school for the blind, the young Charles learned how to read and write music. Leaving Florida in 1947, he headed for Seattle ("Choosing the farthest place he could find from Florida," Jones says), where he notched his first hit two years later as a member of the Maxin Trio, "Confession Blues."

Even then, Charles was an enterprising individual. "He had his own apartment, record player, two pairs of pimp shoes, and here I am still living at home," Jones recalls with a laugh. "His mother trained him not to be blind: no cane, no dogs, no cup. His scuffed-up shoes... that was his guide and driving force. He was the most independent dude I ever saw in my life. Ray would get blind only when pretty girls came around."

Signing with Atlantic Records in 1952, Charles as a West Coast jazz and blues man recorded such songs as "It Should've Been Me" and label co-founder Ahmet Ertegun's composition, "Mess Around."

Then he connected in 1954 with "I've Got a Woman," which set off a chain reaction of more hits capitalizing on his bold gospel/blues fusion. But Charles was just getting started. In 1958, he performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, accompanied by a band that featured such jazz cats as saxophonists David "Fathead" Newman and Hank Crawford. Further bucking convention, he recorded "The Genius of Ray Charles," a 1959 release offering standards on one side (including "Come Rain or Come Shine") and big band numbers on the other, featuring members of Count Basie's orchestra and several arrangements by Jones.

Video below: Charles' 1966 Coke commercial, "So Tired."

Leaving Atlantic for ABC-Paramount, a fearless Charles recorded the seminal "Genius + Soul = Jazz" album in 1961. A year later, his earlier dabbling in country music grew serious with the release of the million-selling "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music."

Complemented by lush strings and a harmony-rich choir, he scored with covers of Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" and Ted Daffan's "Born to Lose"-and spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

For a black man to do this in 1962 was unheard of," says Tony Gumina, president of the Ray Charles Marketing Group, which handles the late artist's licensing affairs. "He was trying to sell records to people who didn't want to drink from the same water fountain as him. But this was one of his greatest creative and business moves: to not be categorized musically and cross over. Though he never worried about it, he was resigned to the fact that he might lose some core fans. But he thought he'd gain far more in the process."

Gumina was operating his own promotion company working with state lotteries when he met Charles in 1999. The two teamed up on a series of commercials for various state lotteries and also introduced a line of Ray Charles slot machines also accessible to the blind.

"Everything he did had a business acumen to it," says Gumina, who cites Charles' liaison with manager Adams as a pivotal turning point. Originally hired to be Charles' stage announcer, former radio DJ Adams segued into overseeing production of the singer's shows, lighting and wardrobe.

Together the pair designed and built Charles' L.A. business base, RPM International (Recording, Publishing and Management) studio. When he began recording there in 1965, the label rented the studio from him, so he made money on his recordings before they were even released.

To save money on travel expenses, Charles purchased an airplane to ferry his band around to gigs. A smaller plane was also acquired so that Charles could wing in to, say, New York to record a couple of songs before flying back out in time for a show.

"He understood the entertainment business enough to know that you may not be popular forever," Gumina says, "and you need to maximize your product. At the same time, he had as much fun as any rock star but without the sad money stories. There was a time to work and a time to play, and he knew the difference. He didn't have a bunch of homes or a large entourage. That's why he was able to save $50 million before he died."

Calling Charles an "incredibly smart man," Concord president John Burk says he learned a lot from the ailing singer while he was recording his final studio album, "Genius Loves Company."

Video below: Ray Charles performs "It Ain't Easy Being Green" in Trentnton, NJ on Nov. 7, 2002.

Going through "some sticky deal points, he was amazing," Burk recalls. "He had the whole agreement in his head. Without referencing any material, he knew all the terms we proposed and had the deal done for the album in two discussions."

Creatively, Burk says Charles was an artist dedicated to delivering "a true performance from the heart. Part of his creative legacy was his approach to singing. He opened the door to vocal improvisations, changing how people perceived you could sing a song. Many singers today are influenced by him and they don't even know it."

Rare & Unseen Ray Charles Photos | Charles on the Charts

80th Birthday Year Events | Charles Charity


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