On the Death of Robin Williams and the Gift of Life

[Editor's Note: This post tackles a dark subject, so young readers proceed with caution.]

[Update: I've added one more story to this piece related to Robin's work with the military, because I found it interesting and moving.]

Last week, mercurial comic genius and beloved actor Robin Williams took his own life by hanging. As he made his mark a little before my time, I’m really just now beginning to approach his body of work. So upon his suicide, I observed the national mourning from a place of relative detachment. Now that I’ve given myself a little crash course on his life and career, I think I’m in a better position to offer my own few cents on Robin Williams’s legacy, his death, and America’s reaction to it.

Robin Williams gave the phrase “insanely talented” a whole new meaning. He had a bizarrely brilliant, inimitable comic gift, and yet he was a fine dramatic actor whose best work ranks with the best of actors like Tom Hanks and Dustin Hoffman.

He was also a notoriously foul-mouthed entertainer and a deeply disturbed man whose suicide came as no surprise to many, after years of addiction, depression, and broken marriages. Yet despite his ugly personal demons, he was known as a warm personality who treated the lowliest extra with respect, was given to spontaneous acts of kindness, and quietly donated time and money to wounded veterans and local food banks. And though his publicly flippant treatment of God and the Bible bodes ill for his eternal destiny, privately he loved to read The Chronicles of Narnia out loud to his kids, slipped into the back row of Tim Keller’s church more than once, and even briefly confessed Christ in rehab towards the end of his life. The duration of this commitment is unclear, but it is clear that he badly needed answers and began stumbling toward them before finally turning away to enter that dark gate of abandoned hope.

What to do with such a complex personality, and such a mixed legacy? However we respond, we can and must do better than cloying sentimentalism. Continue reading

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A Book a Week: Gloria Jean, A Little Bit of Heaven

Gloria Jean, A Little Bit of Heaven

[Psssst, for those of you not clicking, you're missing out on a video embed of a great gospel number by Gloria. Just a friendly word... :-)]

As promised, here is my review of the biography of child singing star Gloria Jean, written by Scott and Jan MacGillivray. The sub-title is A Little Bit of Heaven. Presumably this was chosen because That Awkward Moment When I Caught a Skin Rash From Bing Crosby, Mel Torme Proposed, and Donald O’Connor Hugged Me So Hard He Broke My Ribs would’ve run a tad long.

Although this isn’t an autobiography, Gloria is generously quoted from interviews conducted by the authors, so her own voice still comes through clearly. And what a treat it is! Gloria Jean is one of those people you’re not likely to have heard of. She never attained the legendary status of a Shirley Temple, and most of her work is out of print. But once you get to know her, you’re very glad you did.

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George Gaither and the “708s”

Today I’m going to share a Bill Gaither story that may be new to some of you, but it moved me tremendously when I recently watched it on the How Great Thou Art DVD. Bill tells the story to set up Ivan Parker’s rendition of “Thank You,” and it’s perhaps even more powerful than the song itself. Since it’s not featured in any publicly available clips, I’ve transcribed it in full from the DVD. This is the story of Bill’s father, George Gaither, and it’s Bill’s tribute to those faithful men and women like him who never got to “follow their dreams” or do anything glamorous or exciting with their lives. He introduces it by holding up a pin with the number “708” on it. Continue reading

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Reflections and Poll: The Future of Southern Gospel Yankee

[Last call for votes, poll closes today!]

[Note: I will close the poll next Tuesday, so get your vote in now!]

This week I’m taking a mini-break to focus on some other things (come back on Friday oops, I mean Wednesday—looks like I forgot to un-schedule a post!) so I thought it might be a good moment to run a question by all you readers in the form of a poll. But first, some reflections.

As you all know, I love southern gospel music. A great gospel song, delivered well, never fails to stir my soul. It’s one of the only currently active genres where I can count on hearing something I like every year. At the same time, a part of me sympathizes with the choice made by people like Daniel J. Mount, who recently stepped down from his excellent daily blog. Part of his argument was that there are many outlets for southern gospel news, and increasingly, he felt his blog was becoming obsolete. Since then, sites like Lauren’s Views From the Pew have stepped into the gap with excellence, enthusiasm and to-the-minute energy. Meanwhile, Musicscribe’s panel of writers enables them to keep up a constant rotation of news, commentary, history and reviews. The frequent posting and high quality of these outlets sometimes make me wonder what I have to bring to the table that’s fresh and distinctive. Continue reading

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New Series Announcement: A Book a Week

For the last stretch of the summer, I’ve decided to spend the time that might otherwise have been wasted sleeping in, arguing with atheists on the Internet, surfing the Internet, etc., on reading and reviewing one good new book per week. Happily, I just popped in on a lovely little used bookstore the other week and picked up several good ‘uns. So I thought I might let you, my readers, take a peek at what I’m reading for the next few weeks. But since it seems half the country is on vacation right now, I decided to wait until next Friday to publish the first installment. All the books in my queue so far are non-fiction, mostly revolving around entertainment history, or in one case, military history. The two sections were right next to each other at the bookstore. It’s a wonder I dragged myself out of that place at all!

My first entry in this new little series will actually not be a used book purchase, but something I recently purchased new. It’s the biography of a forgotten child singing star from the same era as Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin. Her name is Gloria Jean. This young lady was the original Jackie Evancho—a true prodigy. She was trained as a coloratura soprano from childhood on up and achieved worldwide fame through her facility with both classical and pop standards. Along the way, she rubbed shoulders with so many legendary show biz names it would make your head spin. And not just names only show biz buffs would recognize either. The book draws heavily from her own words and contains stories you won’t find anywhere else—funny stories, strange stories, and downright beautiful stories. It’s also a sober look at the less pleasant side of child stardom and show business in general, as the small-town girl rose to fame only to fall off the map again.

She has her own Youtube channel now and still interacts with fans via a website. Here she is introducing some vintage clips of her singing and acting, to whet your appetite and get you counting stars. Come back next Friday for the full review!

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New Music and Livestream from Terry & Barbi Franklin

Terry Franklin and his wife have been hard at work on a brand-new collection of songs entitled Awaken Us. It will be available at the end of September, and pre-ordering at their site just opened up the other day. From the blurb:

With a variety of musical styles people have come to expect from Terry & Barbi, this CD includes orchestral, movie-score style ballads similar to the title song, “Awaken Us”, Hillsong-style worship choruses, intimate modern Celtic ballads, soaring acapella solos and simple heartfelt hymns. All of these will be available with band and orchestra charts as well as piano/vocal sheet music that churches can use with their worship teams and choirs.

You can make a Paypal donation from here and include a note that you’re interested in a copy of the CD, and they’ll reserve it for you. They are also conducting a live-streamed prayer and worship event this evening, which you can sign up for on their home page here.

 

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CD Review: Pursuit, by the Ball Brothers

Ball Brothers, Pursuit

The Ball Brothers are one of southern gospel’s youngest and most progressive groups. Consistently thinking outside the box, they serve up a uniquely tight, pop-flavored harmonic blend that recalls GoFish or the Backstreet Boys more than your typical southern gospel men’s group. They built their career as four blood brothers, but since then they’ve replaced two, including brother Stephen, who tragically had to bow out due to early onset hearing loss. Fortunately, Andy Tharp and Chad McCloskey have seamlessly slipped into the groove, and anyone who didn’t know any better could easily think all four are related. Their fresh, youthful appeal has many fans wondering if it’s only a matter of time before Ernie Haase signs them to StowTown Records, since he played a large part in giving them their first exposure. Click below the fold for my thoughts on their latest release, Priority. Continue reading

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Monday Morning Humor: Classic Tongue-Twisters!

Carol Burnett and Roddy McDowall are absolutely marvelous together. My, didn’t he grow up to be charming? ;-) They bide their time before breaking into “Moses Supposes,” but there’s so much good stuff here I figured I’d save myself a little time and just embed the whole thing. My only question: Shouldn’t it be “Thus, the seething sea sufficeth us?” Methinks he slippeth!

***

Roddy: “Try this one. Captain Craxcomb cracked his cousin’s coxcomb…”

Carol: “Will you knock that off?”

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Video of the Week: “Say Amen”

Brian Free & Assurance have released a music video for their excellent new song “Say Amen.” Southern Gospel music videos tend to be hit or miss, since often there’s no storyline for the video to follow. The Browns also released a new video last week for their catchy song “Everything Changes,” but it fell into that very trap because there’s nowhere interesting for the song to go visually (and no, Andrew’s sleeveless biceps don’t count). But “Say Amen” is one of the better SG videos I’ve seen, because the song allows room for someone with a good imagination to tell a story with the images. It’s not groundbreaking like the Nelons’ “Famine in Their Land,” but it’s a notch up from “Four guys/gals standing around and singing.” A good example of how it’s done:

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Toe-to-Toe: Ball Brothers vs. Mullins, “Who’s Gonna Stand in the Gap?”

BB vs. M

[Update: Brian has pointed out that Squire Parsons also recorded this song himself back in the 80s. If you'd like to hear that version for yet a third take, click here.]

Since some readers took offense at my appropriation of Steve Eaton’s “Smackdown” title for this series, I’ve given it a new name so as to accommodate everyone. :) Today, I’m taking a hot new track off the Ball Brothers’ release Pursuit (review scheduled for next week) and comparing it with an old acappella version by the Mullins. The song is “Who’s Gonna Stand in the Gap?” written by Squire Parsons. Squire’s songs consistently deliver for me. He just seems to knock it out of the park every time, and this resounding call to action is no exception. It’s like a contemporary “Dare to Be a Daniel,” exhorting Christians to stand proudly for God.

The Ball Brothers’ version is the standout track on their new project and pulls out all the stops for a big band swingfest, while the Mullins’ version is more soulful. I was happy to discover the album that the Mullins’ version comes from, Vocal Point. Classy acappella reminiscent of the Haven of Rest Quartet or Glad. You can listen to both versions on Spotify. Check out the Mullins here. Then check out the Ball Brothers here. Which do you prefer? To me, there is a clear winner, but I will let you be the judge!

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