Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay was the site of a military prison which housed civil war prisoners as early as 1861, but it is most famous as the site of a Federal Penitentiary which operated between 1934 and 1963, housed famous prisoners such as Robert Stroud; ‘The Birdman of Alcatraz’, Al Capone and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, and inspired movies such as ‘The Rock’.
The terrible reputation of the island-fortress rests on the fact that escape was impossible. However, one chink in the seemingly impenetrable armour of the Alcatraz legend is the escape attempt of June 11th 1962 which inspired the Clint Eastwood film ‘Escape from Alcatraz’. On this day, convict brothers John and Clarence Anglin and co-conspirator Frank Morris broke free via an elaborate plot which involved false air vents, a route through the bowels of the prison, a rooftop scramble, a descent via drain pipes and escape on improvised rafts. The trio even used realistic dummy heads placed in the beds of their cells to avoid detection. Oars from their vessel and personal effects were eventually found; as was a body in prison uniform which had deteriorated too badly to be identified. However, none of the escapees were ever found. The official view is that the men met a watery death in San Francisco Bay, but there have been several unconfirmed sightings over the years and their friends and families claim to have received several hand-written postcards over the years. Their files remain open until the 100th birthdays of all three.
Life inside the prison was a tough. Early Alcatraz prisoners wore wool trousers and overalls to work but the convict uniform later changed to blue denim trousers, a rough cotton shirt, a cotton jacket, overcoat, wooden cap and raincoat; which would be donned for outdoor work details by the docks with teasing views of the mainland San Francisco shore. On July 31st 1945 one such prisoner working on the docks, John Giles, attempted an inspired escape by stealing an army uniform from a batch sent to the island for cleaning, and boarding an apparently mainland-bound boat incognito. Unfortunately for Giles, the boat was actually bound for nearby Angel Island, where he was recaptured by officers and returned to his rocky abode. Giles deserves kudos for ingenuity, but what follows are five famous escape attempts from Alcatraz that made headlines around the world:
April 27, 1936
Convict Joe Bowers had worked burning prison waste in an incinerator close to the shoreline for some time. On this day he must have found the close proximity of the mainland too tempting to resist. In a moment of desperation, he began to climb over the chain fence at the edge of the shore but was shot by a guard tower officer and fell 50-100 feet to the ragged shore below, later dying of his terrible injuries.
alcatraz escape1
December 16th, 1937
Ralph Roe and Theodore Cole had patiently spent some time inconspicuously filing through the iron bars of a window in the mat shop of the model industries building. During the night they made their way through said window, scrambled to the shore and into the murky waters of San Francisco Bay. Roe and Cole clearly picked the wrong evening for their escape bid as a heavy storm churned the waters of the bay into a menacing maelstrom and the official view is that they were swept out to sea never to be seen again.
alcatraz escape2
January 13th 1939
January 13th 1939: William Martin, Rufus McCain, Henry Young, Dale Stamphill and Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker; son of Ma Barker and member of the infamous Barker-Karpis gang, sawed their way through the cellbars of the cell-house isolation unit and made their way to the shore. They were met by a posse of correctional officers and all surrendered, except Stamphill and Barker; who were promptly shot, with Barker dying of his injuries.
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May 2nd-4th 1946
This attempted escape saga became known as the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’ and began when prisoners Marvin Hubbard, Sam Shockley, Clarence Carnes, Miran Thompson, Joe Cretzer and Bernard Coy overcame cell-house officers, helped themselves to weapons from the armoury, found the cell-house keys and took control of the section. However, the crucial key was missing… the one that unlocked the door of the recreation yard. Rather than surrendering, the six decided to shoot it out with authorities over the next few days and attempted another two escapes, killing 2 correctional officers and injuring a further 18; with the result that the U.S. Marine Corps was called out to assist and the escape ended with the deaths of Coy, Hubbard and Cretzer. Carnes, just 19 years old at the time of the incident, was given a second life sentence for the deaths of the officers.
alcatraz escape4
September 29th, 1958
Convicts Clyde Johnson and Aaron Burgett were working on the prison garbage detail close to the shoreline when they overpowered their supervising officer and took to the water to swim towards San Francisco and freedom. Jonson was apprehended by authorities in the water but Burgett could not be located, despite the best efforts of authorities during a long search mission. His dead body was found floating in San Francisco Bay two weeks after the escape attempt.
alcatraz escape5
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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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