Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Albert Johnson
Life in the frigid temperatures and untamed wilderness of Canada's Northwest Territories, especially in the 1930s - a time when things like "propane heating" and "not getting eaten by bears" were unheard-of luxuries - was pretty much a miserable experience for anyone who didn't enjoy freezing their nuts off and/or being forcibly kicked in the abdomen by a bunch of angry moose.  Survival in this hostile, almost-inhabitable environment was far from guaranteed, making the foolhardy venture of frontier life one that was generally only undertaken by those who possessed an iron will, a hardy constitution, a modest arsenal of kill-crazy weapons, and a tenuous grip on their own sanity.  Unfortunately for the officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the man known only as Albert Johnson, the infamous "Mad Trapper of Rat River" possessed all of these things and more.
Albert moved to the Northwest Territories for some strange reason in July of 1931, and immediately went to work being a total jackass and pissing everyone off with his crazy antics.  Living by himself in a log cabin he probably built out of wood he harvested with little more than a series of devastating karate chops and operating a small series of traps on the Rat River, he lived the lonely life of an eccentric badass frontier mountain man – hunting for food, selling animal pelts, fucking with the natives, and generally rocking out like a Depression-Era Unabomber.
Well, one day the local Inuit tribe filed a formal complaint with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, claiming that some local nut was jerking around with their strategically-placed animal traps, so the Mounties decided to pay Big Al a little visit.  On December 26, 1931, two RCMP officers traveled roughly 80 miles by dogsled (a two-day journey in temperatures that hovered between negative-40 and negative-50 degrees) out to the middle of goddamned ass-nowhere to ask Mr. Johnson a few harmless questions about why he was being such a jackoff to the Indians.  After banging on his door for a half-hour with no response, the Mounties decided that they didn't basically travel half of a fucking Iditarod just to go home empty-handed, and opted to kick down the door and bust their way inside Albert's log cabin.  This proved to be a tactical error.  Mr. Johnson politely declined comment to the nice officer by putting two bullets through the door and wounding one of them.  The cops got pissed opened fire on Johnson's cabin, but he had strategically drilled gun ports through the walls of the cabin and successfully fought them off in a brief but decisive firefight.

A crappy log cabin in the middle of nowhere.

That was fucking it. The RCMP went back, licked their wounds, and put together a totally sweet frontier posse capable of assaulting pretty much anything this side of Omaha Beach.  A few days later, nine men, forty-two dogs, forty pounds of TNT, and more handguns than the local NRA chapter arrived outside the home of the Mad Trapper.  Once again, Albert Johnson decided to give the RCMP a warm reception by busting a few hundred caps in their direction. For fifteen hours (!) the cops exchanged fire with Johnson, who was firing out of the gun ports, and basically making his unassuming log cabin into an immobile 20th century version of the goddamned Killdozer.
Seeing as how this shitty little log cabin was seemingly impervious to bullets, the Mounties decided to whip out their home-made TNT grenades and shove them up Albert's ass with the realness.  They thawed out a huge-ass stick of dynamite (remember, this is all taking place in temperatures that make the walk-in freezer at the local liquor store look like Miami Beach in mid-July), lit the fuse, and chucked it through the window of the cabin.  In a flash of flame, splintered wood, and billowing black smoke, the entire log cabin went up like the White House in Independence Day.  The roof collapsed.  Three of the four walls were blown into sawdust.  Children and small dogs were weeping silently to themselves.  Sad orchestral violin music was playing in the background.  Finally, when the fog of war cleared, the Mounties casually strolled up to the wreckage, half expecting to shovel whatever was left of Albert Johnson into an unmarked body bag and call it a day.
Unfortunately for the Mounties, this guy had other plans.
As they neared the smoking crater that had once been Chez Johnson, the Mad Trapper jumped up out of a fucking insane bomb-proof foxhole he had dug (by hand) in the middle of his living room, clutching an automatic pistol in each hand.  He opened fire, shooting the flashlights out of the Mounties' hands and basically scaring the ever-loving shitballs out of anyone unlucky enough to witness this insanity.  The cops turned around and did their best impression of that thing Shaggy and Scooby-Doo do where they jump up in the air, kick their legs like they're running, and vanish in a cloud of smoke.  They didn't slow down until they'd reached civilization.
Well the RCMP may wear funny uniforms and ride around on horseback, but that still doesn't mean you can arbitrarily go off and start shooting at these guys for no good reason and not expect them to want to shove a boot or two up your ass.  These guys always get their man, and a little something like "almost being fragged into gibs by a bomb-proof lunatic in a homemade nuclear fallout shelter" isn't going to deter them from bringing this nutjob to some righteous Canadian Justice.  They put together a massive posse of pissed-off motherfuckers, and went out to show Mr. Johnson what happens to bitches who mess with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The problem is, when they arrived at the remains of Johnson's cabin, he was nowhere to be found.
You see, Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper of Rat River, took the only possessions he needed to survive in the harsh, unforgiving Arctic climate of the Northwest Territories – a pair of showshoes, and a couple firearms – and made a run for it on foot through one of the most inhospitable lands on the Planet Earth in the dead-ass middle of Winter.

The Northwest Territories in Winter.

If this sounds suicidal to you, then you need to learn some shit about Albert Johnson. This guy was fucking nuts - and apparently also unkillable - with like a +10 Resistance to Cold and/or Starvation.  In what is now known as "The Arctic Circle War", this guy led the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on a wild goose chase that would last for 48 days through temperatures so ball-shatteringly cold that it could probably flash-freeze a polar bear.  He covered hundreds of miles, on foot, while being relentlessly pursued by the RCMP, the Candian Army, civilian trappers, dogsled teams, crazy vigilantes, Indian trackers, and goddamned surveillance aircraft.  Twice he led the cops on chases through intense blizzards and complete-whiteout conditions, including one time when he somehow avoided capture by scaling a 7,000-foot mountain in a raging blizzard with no climbing gear or extra food.
Even if you don't particularly like this guy (you know, because he's a crazy criminal whackjob who needlessly opened fire on police officers), you really have to respect the fact that he was the ultimate survivalist.  It is believed that this dude, traveling alone on foot, actually covered ground twice as fast as the RCMP dogsled teams.  He continually doubled-back on his trail to throw off his pursuers, lived off the land, and caught or foraged all of his food with his bare hands (firing a gun would have given away his position), all the while constantly evading the ever-searching eyes of Canada's Finest.
Well, as they say, all good things eventually must come to an end, and after evading the authorities for nearly two months, the fuzz finally caught up with Albert Johnson.  He was spotted by an airplane and cornered by the police.  He opened fire on them with his rifle, of course (did I mention he was fucking off his rocker?), and was only brought down after the RCMP plugged nine bullets in him.
Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper of Rat River, lives on today in the folklore of the Canadian wilderness. This crazy bastard is notorious for his rampant insanity, and his epic flight from the police - and the fact that he is almost completely shrouded in mystery only helps to bolster his legend.  This guy never spoke a single word to police during the entire engagement… and shit, if it's not bad enough that to this day they don't even know if he was the guy responsible for tampering with the Inuit traps, the government of Canada can't even verify that Albert Johnson was even the man's actual name!  He's like the Snake Eyes of crazy frontier mountain men.

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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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