Ever wonder where the expression ‘get laid’ came from? Meet the Everleigh sisters

One of my capsule reviews for Paste. Sadly, the lovely Ms. Abbott no longer calls Atlanta home.

http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2007/07/karen-abbott.html

Long before Hef, a palace of pulchritude

Ada and Minna Everleigh, the Victorian sisters behind the expression “get laid,” might relish their enduring place in the lexicon, but they’d likely sniff at its frat-house vulgarity. In their brothel, the Everleigh Club, Venuses swathed in French couture recited Longfellow while kings sipped champagne from their slippers. Pleasure was an art, hard-won and forever under siege, as Abbott, an Atlanta-based journalist, reveals in this engaging account of Chicago’s bawdy, turn-of-the-century belle époque.

“I want to stress that this is a work of nonfiction,” she writes, as if to wink, “You won’t believe this!” before affectionately introducing her rogues gallery of crafty courtesans, underhanded aldermen and Bible-waving crusaders. Their schemes culminate in a showdown over “white slavery” that heralds, with a ragtime beat, American ambivalence about the pleasure principle.

If only their puritanical detractors had understood: The Everleighs strove to cleanse the red-light district, too, with their own high-end (and scrupulously hygienic) brand of gentrification.

The Cherokee fight for their heritage, one syllable at a time, amid echoes of laughter

This ran in wonderful Paste magazine a few years ago.

Everyone has a Cherokee grandmother.

“We never hear about the grandfathers, just the grandmothers,” a laughing woman with high cheekbones says at the welcome center in Cherokee, North Carolina.

I just had conspiratorially relayed some of my own genealogy only to learn it sounded cliché. Too bad I forgot to bring the grainy snapshot of my foremothers, weaving baskets and looking shamanic in their long braids. However, others in the growing tide of visitors no doubt have thrust similar photos at my greeter. After centuries of near-genocidal repression and poverty, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee lately is channeling its casino money into a cultural renaissance that high-minded boosters predict will turn the dilapidated resort known as “Little Las Vegas” into the “Santa Fe of the East.”

Judging by the changing mood of the Qualla Boundary, as the tribe calls this misty, 56,000-acre homeland, such claims are not all talk, though the value of talk should not be underrated. “English Stops Here,” warns a red, octagonal sign at the Dora Reed Tribal Childcare Center. In this pre-kindergarten immersion program, even the toy blocks are etched with the tribe’s ornate lettering instead of the forbidden ABCs. For eight hours a day, about 30 students, newborn to four years olds, burble exclusively in their ancestors’ tongue – a cheerful rebuke to the institutionalized sadism of the old American Indian boarding schools.

“I grew up speaking only Cherokee,” Arneach Walkingstick, a 61-year-old teacher, whispers in English, briefly breaking the rules out of students’ earshot. “When I first went to school and tried to talk to my teacher, she just kept shaking my shoulders and yelling angrily into my face. I couldn’t understand a word she said, but I still remember her teeth, the back of her throat. I became pitifully shy and preferred being outside, where I wouldn’t have to talk to nobody.”

Now Walkingstick takes the floor like a born orator. In a few years, organizers hope, English will be spoken only in “foreign language class” through twelve grades at the Kituwah Academy, just as it is shrunken into subtitles beneath the bold Cherokee glyphs on several storefronts. Expect a growing library of fiction, too, from the Yonuguska Literature Initiative, which recently produced a monumental translation of Charles Frazier’s “Trail of Tears” epic Thirteen Moons, the first novel published in an American Indian language.

A blond tourist, bewildered by Sequoyah’s 85-character syllabary spooling so proudly through the valleys these days, might start rethinking America’s immigration debate — from the long view — and conclude that what is at work in Cherokee is a necessary Nativism in the truest sense of the word. Before these language initiatives began three years ago, a survey found that only seven percent of the 13,400 members of the Eastern Band were fluent speakers, with an average age of 53.

“We do not separate language from culture,” says Renissa Walker, director of the Kituwah preservation and education program. “I asked my mother, who is fluent, what happens if we lose our language? She answered, ‘We lose ourselves.’”

  ———————————————————–

When Frazier, who tripped over his share of arrowheads while growing up in nearby Andrews, was writing Cold Mountain, he came across an intriguing real-life character.

“I read about an old, old man in a mental institution who at times would speak only Cherokee,” Frazier says, referring to William Holland Thomas, the tribe’s white chief who helped many of his adopted people avoid the forced removal in 1838 and stay in the Southeastern mountains. “I thought fictionalizing his story might help me explore the culture of these people who had lived on the land not so long before mine occupied it.”

Frazier presented the resulting Thirteen Moons in a tribal meeting before publication.

“I told them it might bring some attention to them,” he says. “If they did not like the book and didn’t want to be implicated, I would try to deflect the attention as much as possible. But if they liked it, I wanted to see how it might benefit them.”

Before the powwow was over, Myrtle Driver, an outspoken elder, had volunteered to translate the text, and the Yonuguska Literature Initiative was established at the Museum of the Cherokee to produce more books in the language. (Yonuguska was a heroic chief who resisted the Removal and reorganized the Eastern Band.)

The deciding factor in her decision, she says, was a response not usually associated with the “Trail of Tears”: laughter.

“We find humor in every situation,” says Driver, who customarily addresses every friend as “goober.” “If you walk into a Cherokee home, and they don’t start picking on you, you best pack up and leave because they don’t like you. Cutting up and laughing at each other – that’s how we show affection. How we heal. Humor popped up at the right moments in the book.”

Driver frequently joins Frazier for lively, bilingual readings of Thirteen Moons. One crowd-pleasing passage involves the noises a chief makes during lovemaking. To dramatic effect, Driver imitates the animals his groans evoke: “boar hogs rooting in the ground, groundhog whistles, buck snorts, crow calls.”

“She always gets more laughs than I do,” Frazier says.

This drollery tempers the overall cultural reclamation as the town strives for greater authenticity in its attractions – a pottery guild, a downtown facelift with traditional stonework, high-end art instead of plastic tomahawks made in China. Several institutions have joined forces in a marketing effort that employs the Anikituhwa Warriors, who glower beneath their war-paint from billboards and ads with menacing captions such as: “We’re looking for you.” It makes for imagery that, as Driver might say, messes with folks.

“We dug into our history books to get the details right,” says Jeff Goss, whose advertising agency designed the campaign. “The Cherokee, in addition to this rich, fascinating history, consistently engage with humor, which is always a good selling point.”

“They had a word for a hog bite,” muses the narrator of Thirteen Moons. “Not two words, one word. Satawa. My opinion was that if hogs are biting you so often that you have to stop and make up a specific word for it, maybe lack of vocabulary is not your most pressing problem.”

Or maybe it is.

  ———————————————————–

You have not seen this production of “Unto These Hills”

When “Unto These Hills,” debuted in 1950, the outdoor docudrama presented the history of the Cherokee as a soap opera told largely from a white, European perspective and starring a largely non-native cast.

Written by Kermit Hunter, a grad student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it also featured ballet, modern dance, and unrealistic dialogue.

“The male actors all spoke in the third person, which was just ridiculous — an outdated Hollywood version of Indians,” says John Tissue, executive director of the Cherokee Historical Association.”

In 2005, the tribe commissioned Hanay Geiogamah, a Kiowa playwright, to overhaul the play, but his extensive changes met with mixed reviews.

“It was tremendous, but some people felt it was a little too native in the sense that it drifted away from a lot of the storytelling that people like,” Tissue says.

Now two Hollywood writers, Ben Hurst and Pat Allee, are doctoring the play for “narrative expression that maintains authenticity.”

“Some of the tribe want more scenes of everyday life so that the biggest chunk is not the Trail of Tears,” Tissue says. “They want to communicate that, while it was awful — absolutely awful — their lives are not all woe-is-us.”

How do you solve a problem like Maria? Ask Fatima

This ran in the Brenau Window, alumni publication of Brenau University   

Maria Ebrahimji had gone to bed early the first Sunday night in May to rest up for a special occasion. She was taking some time off from her hectic job as an executive editorial producer for CNN in Atlanta to launch her first book, I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim. The release party for this anthology, scheduled the following day in Washington, D.C., was sure to attract an engaged and vocal crowd at the Buxton Initiative, an interfaith think tank that promotes dialogue among Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

“I woke up excited about getting the book out, and then I was stunned to see something like 450 messages on my BlackBerry,” she recalls. “I knew something newsworthy had happened overnight.”

Terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden had just been shot dead, and, if Ebrahimji, WC’98,  had clocked in as usual at CNN, she would have been urgently reaching out to heads of state, military leaders, reporters, and other newsmakers and commentators to coordinate interviews and intense, live coverage.

“The timing was strange and ironic,” says Ebrahimji, who majored in mass communications and political science at Brenau. “On the one hand, it was the biggest story in 10 years, and, for once, I was not at work. I felt remorseful because it’s your natural instinct as a journalist to be right there in the mix when those history-making stories break. At the same time, I knew my news team could handle it, and this book was the culmination of years of hard work; it was important to me, a moment I needed to seize. As it turned out, the death of Osama bin Laden ended up giving an unexpected news peg to the book and prompting a lot of questions and lively discussion at our promotional events around the capital that week.”

In fact, I Speak for Myself, published by White Cloud Press,  is expected to serve as an eye-opening resource during these changing times as we progress — inshallah, or “God willing” — toward a more just, peaceful, and understanding community. After a decade of fallout from 9/11, including the “War on Terror,” protests of mosques, school bans on head-coverings, hate crimes, and other controversies, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings surrounding the practice of Islam, here is a collection of affecting and affirming perspectives from vibrant, homegrown Muslim women — just in time for the geopolitical shifts of Arab Spring.

Maria Ebrahimji

Ebrahimji and her co-editor, Zahra Suratwala, a Chicago-based writer, compiled these essays from 40 women under the age of 40. Varying widely in their approaches to faith, family, work, and lifestyle, they share only this singular feature in common: a Muslim upbringing in the United States.

“What we want to convey is that we are your neighbors and always have been, and we proudly claim this country as ours, too,” Ebrahimji says, “These pieces are not lengthy life stories, just glimpses that reveal us as women you probably would enjoy having over for coffee and conversation.”

The eclecticism and self-discovery of their experiences, the writers hope, will help demystify their religion and counter the persistent stereotypes of women-as-chattel, stifled miserably and mutely beneath a cloak of monolithic orthodoxy. Contributors include the first Muslim woman elected to the Michigan legislature; a Georgia Tech student who researched terrorist recruitment and training in Dubai; a feminist engineer who home-schools her children and wears the hijab and niqab; a fashion designer who finds beauty and flair within traditional Islamic ideals of modesty (“My life revolves around a hemline,” she writes);  a zumba instructor who competed in the Miss Arab USA Pageant 2011; and firebrand poets, bloggers, hipsters, attorneys, teachers, social activists, homemakers, and other lettered and devout professionals, including the volume’s editors.

“Although the purpose of this book was to showcase the incredible diversity among Muslim American women, I myself didn’t realize how much I had to learn about this community until I started receiving and editing essays,” says Suratwala. “This project has deepened my already great respect for not only Muslim American women but women of all faiths, as I begin to understand not only how diverse we are, but also how unified we are in our humanity and our womanhood.”

American-born Queen Noor of Jordan pronounced these writers “a new generation of peace-builders”: “Through their honesty and courage they are making a lasting contribution to the search for cross-cultural understanding. Maria Ebrahimji and Zahra Suratwala’s book joins the mission for global tolerance; it is truly a step in the right direction.”

In the fall, these editors plan to organize a web-based, intra- and interfaith “40 to 40″ outreach project in which their contributors initiate a one-on-one relationship with Muslim women in other countries, eventually encouraging women from other backgrounds to ask questions and weigh in. “We want to create a dialogue worldwide because even within the Muslim world there is stereotyping of Americans and other groups,” Ebrahimji says.

In her essay, titled “In Search of Fatima and Taqwa,” the CNN producer relates an unsettling exchange in Yemen with a sheikh who counseled her to decelerate her fast-track career to land “a good Muslim husband.”

“My women’s college-educated mind urged me to stare him down and set him straight,” Ebrahimji writes, explaining that his comments “made me feel small, less respected, and in some ways, less worthy of being the fearless and self-supporting woman I thought I had become. Personal sacrifices of time, emotion, or money I have always lived with, but never once had I been told to pare back myself to get what I wanted in life. All at once, this aroused in me both a resoluteness and curiosity. … Was I Muslim enough?”

———————————————————————-

Ebrahimji is fit, driven, warmly gregarious and fond of the word “empowerment.” Her Indian parents met in Africa, where her mother attended art school, and then decamped for the United States with a nest egg of only $120 as refugees from dictator Idi Amin’s atrocities in the 1970s. Her early childhood was spent in Maryland before her family moved to the small town of Toccoa, Georgia, where she was the only Muslim girl in her high school.

“It was a little scary when we first moved there because there were KKK posters on the telephone poles, but I honestly never experienced any discrimination in north Georgia,” Ebrahimji says. “I was a country girl in the mountains, hiking and water-skiing on the lake and going to Passion Plays and prom with a non-Muslim boy. But I was also fasting for Ramadan and striving to adhere to the tenets of Islam. I didn’t wear my Muslim-ness on my sleeve, but I didn’t hide it, either. My taqwa, or ‘God consciousness,’ made me Muslim at the core.”

To help their daughter fit in, her parents usually introduced her with the more familiar Latin version of her name, even though it is properly pronounced “MAH-ria.” “People assumed I was Mexican,” she says, “and my teacher described me as ‘white with a really nice tan.’ I still speak with this little Southern twang, so even now people often don’t know quite what to make of me!”

A conscientious student, Ebrahimji was awarded several scholarships at Brenau, where she became the first woman of color to pledge a mainstream sorority, Alpha Chi Omega. “Brenau is fairly representative of the South and was not really that diverse when I was a student,” she says. “But five years after I graduated, I was sitting at an Internet cafe in Bombay (now Mumbai), and someone emailed me a photo of that year’s pledge class. I was so astonished at the progress in diversity — at all of those very different faces smiling back at me — that I burst into tears. Brenau, like the rest of the South, keeps evolving and developing a more international culture and spirit.”

Journalism professor Clara Martin helped her secure a coveted internship at CNN, and the network hired her shortly after graduation for an entry-level position, rolling teleprompter for anchor (and fellow Muslim), Riz Khan. While working full time, Ebrahimji earned a master’s degree in international relations at Georgia State University, studied Arabic, read 20 or more newspapers each morning, and began ascending the ranks of the 24-hour news outlet.

In South Africa, Ebrahimji conducted the first broadcast from the historic church where demonstrators had sought refuge during the Apartheid-era Soweto Uprising, and about six years ago in Davos, Switzerland, she produced a panel discussion of “young, rising leaders of the Middle East, including Gaddafi’s son and the crown prince of Bahrain — mostly people who no longer seem that relevant in light of recent events,” she observes. “Strange to think that no long ago we took it for granted that they would be in charge now. It’s great for me to see the images coming out of current protests in the Arab Spring — this organic movement with women standing side by side for the first time with men and claiming their identity, demanding the right to choose their government.”

After the planes struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Ebrahimji did not sleep for 36 hours, she recalls, and since then has vigilantly monitored the network’s depictions of her faith. She is the vice chair of the diversity council at CNN. “I look at both our content and our workforce to make sure they’re inclusive and accurate in what they reflect,” she says. “One thing I like to do is get more Muslims in front of the cameras who have other topics of interest outside the context of just the religion or terrorism — Muslims who are talking about a health issue, a passion for jogging or environmental cleanup, education costs, or other concerns that everyone out there faces and can relate to. It’s important for the public to see ‘regular Americans’ who just happen to be Muslim.”

She is one of them, after all.

In the soul-searching that followed the sheikh’s advice, Ebrahimji looked to the example of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Mohammed.

“While my outward appearance may suggest my faithfulness to the world, my real faith, my inner taqwa, is only known to God and me — as it should be,” Ebrahimji writes. “I think Fatima would say to both the sheikh and me that all is possible. She maintained her inner taqwa, and she bore the qualities I see important in all women. I can be who I want to be and still be like Fatima. … And while I can choose to pare myself down by choice or grow myself stronger through circumstance, I am no more or less Muslim than I was in the beginning. What tormented me in the Yemen desert has only reaffirmed the writing of God on my solidly Muslim American Indian — independent — soul.”

Joey Stuckey, guitar hero, can rattle the rafters

For Macon Magazine a few months ago:

Signs of Joey Stuckey’s curiosity and free-range eclecticism are scattered all over his downtown recording studio, Shadow Sound.

His equipment includes both knobby, old-school analog and the latest in high-end digital, and his instruments vary from the usual strings, keys, and percussion to ukuleles; a dulcimer; a Japanese shamisen used in kabuki theater; and a tarango, a Colombian mandolin with a resonant belly crafted from an armadillo’s armor. “All kinds of crazy stuff!” says Stuckey, who sings, composes, and plays his own music when he is not recording others. “If it makes a sound, I’m interested.”

Stuckey’s versatile enthusiasms achieve a kind of harmonic convergence on his latest album, “The Shadow Sound,” an omnivore’s buffet of blues, jazz, rock, and pop released by Virtuoso Music in February. “With this collection, I want to bring back the era of the ‘Guitar Hero,’ a time when names like Clapton, Page and Stevie Ray adorned the pages of every rock magazine on the planet,” Stuckey says. “Back when music was what really mattered.”

Of course, for Stuckey, music has always mattered, always has flooded his senses and pooled in the deep, sustaining chambers of his imagination. “Sound is my whole world,” he says — by default. Stuckey, 34, is blind. He survived a brain tumor as an infant, but it caused him to lose his sight and his sense of smell. Consequently, he became a sort of sonic savant, a human tuning fork.

“I don’t think my ears are necessarily, magically better,” he says. “The difference is that visual stimulus is so powerful that it dominates what you perceive. When I’m listening, that’s all I’m doing; I’m not staring out the window at the trees the way most people do. I get very excited about the hum of an air-conditioner or the burst of a car starting. There’s beauty in the sound of an elevator. My head is always full of beats and melodies, and I feel a rhythmic pulse going through me at all times. That’s just the way my spirit works.”

As a teen-ager, he discovered the hooks and riffs that drowned out most of the other racket. “I knew how to turn the radio on and off, but one day I realized that if I turned the knob, it changed to different stations,” Stuckey says. “One day I heard this very energetic music that knocked me out. It was a revelation. It was rock ’n’ roll. I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

He was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida, and moved to Macon when he was 15. Yes, he is kin to the dynasty of the Stuckey pecan log — beloved snack of sweaty, Dixie road trips — and his father was one of a set of musical twins named Eugene and Talmadge (a nominal hat-tip to the populist governor) who performed as “The Stuckey Twins and the Dodge County Playboys.”

“Um, I’m Southern,” Stuckey says with a laugh.

An academic prodigy, he already had graduated from a regular public high school in Florida by the time he moved to Macon, and he enrolled, at age 16, at Mercer University. Not content simply to play by ear, Stuckey, who had studied Braille, also wanted to read music. He found a mentor in professor Terry Cantwell, and together they embarked on some tactile, Helen Keller-style lessons, with the instructor scratching music notations into sand, which Stuckey then would touch and trace. So unlike many of the rootsy musicians he records and performs with, Stuckey actually can decipher those notes.

Stuckey went on to study with jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan, and he since has established himself as “a blind musician with an insightful vision.” He modeled his playing style after rocker Jeff Beck and the jazzier Wes Montgomery, while his vocal influences include Mel Torme and Gregg Allman (possibly the only time you will see those two names in the same sentence). A cuddly, barrel-chested Teddy Bear of a man, Stuckey possesses a set of pipes girded by a mighty diaphragm that powers some high-decibel blues shouting — no amp necessary.

At 21, Joey released his first album, Take a Walk in the Shadows, and he followed it later with Live and Stuff, and Live and More Stuff: The Sequel to the Prequel, both recorded at the historic Douglass Theater.

Around that time, another mentor, punk impresario Ian Copeland, who was a booking agent for Sting, observed, “Joey is one of the most amazing guitarists I know.”

In the 1990s, Stuckey worked the soundboard at Phoenix Sound Studios, which like its namesake “rose from the ashes” of the old Capricorn headquarters, and he started opening for acts as diverse as James Brown, Wet Willie, Trisha Yearwood, Ted Nugent, Bad Company,  and Clarence Carter.

“Joey is a joy to play with because his timing is so tight — he never misses a cue,” says Macon drummer Stephen Chanin.

Stuckey named his studio after a song he wrote as a way of explaining his blindness to curious strangers.

“In my youth, I had some trouble being accepted because of my handicap,” he says. “The best way I new to talk about being blind with out getting crazy-detailed and going overboard was to go with a familiar concept of shadows. While not entirely accurate as to how I actually see the world — or don’t — I thought it would make a easy concept for folks to grasp. Later, because being blind is part of what makes me special as a recording engineer and brings something different to my projects, I named the studio Shadow Sound Studio.”

He acquired, among other bells and whistles, the console used by Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics. It draws artists from around the globe, such as Brazilian guitarist Felipe, as well as Capricorn veterans like Jimmy Hall, and it keeps Stuckey busy with custom studio work.

“I’ve done a ton of jingles, for everybody from politicians to chiropractors, to tattoo parlors,” he says.

Stuckey, who lives in north Macon with his wife, Jennifer, a professional midwife, is nothing if not a melodious multitasker. He devours audiobooks, and — as articulate as he is pitch-perfect — he writes reviews and columns for several music magazines. He teaches music technology at Mercer while operating www.WTMT.net, a streaming, 24-hour Internet radio station that promotes indie music in all genres. In 2006, his guitar chops and hail-fellow-well-met disposition landed him the role of Macon’s “Official Ambassador of Music.”

“I’ve been so busy recording other people and putting food on the table with the commercial stuff that I haven’t taken much time for my own music until now,” he says. “And I’ve never cared much for boundaries around genres.”

“The Shadow Sound” came about as a collaboration of sorts with Virtuoso founder Victor McLean, who has worked with Quincy Jones, George Benson, and Diana Krall, among others. McLean, as executive producer, helped Stuckey sift through his “eclecticka” and remaster some older tracks, and they rounded up an all-star ensemble to play on the project, including Randall Bramblett, Chuck Leavell, and David Ragsdale, the violinist of Smashing Pumpkins and Kansas.

“Joey will be an inspiration to the many kids out there picking up a guitar for the first time, and also to music fanatics who are searching for something unique,” McLean says. “We feel that Joey will have a Phish or a Dave Matthews-type following when you consider his material and the caliber of performance that he is capable of delivering.”

The album so far has enjoyed favorable reviews and climbing sales on iTunes and amazon.

“Everybody’s favorite track seems to be the last one, ‘Truth is a Misty Mountain.’ That one was recorded live for public radio, and it’s just me and my guitar,” Stuckey says. “The album has gone over big in Belgium, for some reason, and is getting a lot of radio play there.”

With any luck, some child, maybe in Brussels, is switching radio stations as Stuckey once did, or browsing the web, and discovering this fresh interpretation of rock ’n’ roll.

We miss your sweet soul music, Otis Redding

A piece I did a few years ago for Atlanta magazine:

A Rebel flag criss-crosses that first vinyl single of “Shout Bamalama,” released by the Confederate Records label in 1962.

Consequently, African-American disc jockeys chunked it in the trash without even putting the needle in the groove to hear Otis Redding belt out his jump-blues tribute to Bamalama, a one-eyed busker who played a washboard with a thimble. It was another inauspicious break for the Macon vocalist, who was booed off the stage, in tears, the first time he performed away from church.

Redding’s galvanic talent, though, could not be stopped.

With his pained, pleading tremolo, the singer-songwriter set an unassailable standard for soul music at its rawest and most sublime. He could “worry a note,” as he put it, to wring arias from the field hollers of his sharecropping roots; the call-and-response of the choir; the wits and sweat required of black survival in the segregated South; and something transcendently his own. Filtered through Redding’s larynx, lust never sounded so sacred.

Rolling Stone magazine ranks Redding No. 21 in the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time,” and Billboard named two of his compositions, “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” and “Respect,” in the top 20 tunes of the 20th century. More musical benchmarks no doubt would have followed if he had not died at 26 in a plane crash 40 years ago, on December 10, 1967.

So the original “Shout Bamalama” 45 rpm (with the song “Fat Gal” on the flipside) adds a distinctly Southern, ebony-and-irony note to “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” a sweeping exhibit of about 200 Redding artifacts that opened last fall at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon and runs until September 8, 2008. Much of the memorabilia – posters, unrecorded song lyrics, candid photos, even receipts for hay to feed his beloved farm animals — has been sealed for decades at the “Big O Ranch,” where Redding’s widow, Zelma, still resides. Visitors also can listen to oral histories, which reveal little-known facts about the singer.

“I wanted to show not just the arc of his career but the kind of complex man he was,” says Ellen Fleurov, curator of the exhibit. “A consummate entertainer, he also was an astute businessman who soaked up every possible lesson from whatever situation he was in. He was a talented A&R guy who, if he’d lived, probably would have started his own record company and gotten more involved in the civil rights movement. I think he would have been the South’s answer to Berry Gordy.”

At the time of his death, Redding, having recently dethroned Elvis as “top male vocalist in the world” in Melody Maker magazine, was mulling over television and movie offers. “Even in his relaxed time, Otis was coming up with something new to try,” says Newton Collier, a horn player who worked with Redding. “I don’t care how long you’d been rehearsing, if Otis walked in the studio, you’d say, ‘Let’s do some mo’! Wherever he was, he inspired everybody. Interesting word, ‘respect.’ He could write about it because he commanded – and got – it.”

The euphemisms stop here: Octavia Spencer’s multiple roles in ‘The Help’ phenomenon

This appears in Auburn magazine.

As an award-winning actor and an outsize personality who, even in the hammy social circuit of Hollywood, stood out for her straight-talking, no-bull charisma, Octavia Spencer was accustomed to stealing scenes, holding court, and generally being watched.

She did not know, however, that an unpublished writer was quietly scrutinizing her and finding in her a heroically cantankerous muse. As a result, Spencer is now enjoying one of those monumental, art-imitates-life twists on the Hollywood dream. She is starring in “The Help,” the much anticipated Steven Spielberg-produced movie opening in theaters on August 10, playing the role of “Minny Jackson,” the character she originally inspired in the best-selling book.

In 2002, during a vacation in New Orleans, Spencer, a 1994 graduate of Auburn, met Kathryn Stockett, a softspoken, belle-ish alumna of the University of Alabama, through some mutual friends. Both had been English majors, and Stockett was exploring an idea for her first novel.  Spencer was trying, grudgingly, to slim down for the camera.

“I was 100 pounds heavier then and on a diet,” Spencer recalls. “It was August, so it was hot, and I was hungry and surrounded by all that rich New Orleans cuisine that I wasn’t supposed to eat. I was extremely grumpy.”

Stockett, drawn to Spencer’s amplitude of form and attitude, took notes for her novel-in-progress, and the resulting “Minny” — a plump and deliciously defiant maid — became one of the principal narrators and most memorable characters in this story of race relations and female friendship in segregated, 1960s-era Jackson, Mississippi.

“Minny was probably the easiest character for me to write because of Octavia,” says Stockett, who grew up in Jackson and now resides in Atlanta. “At the time we were more acquaintances than friends, but I would watch her at parties – her mannerisms and gestures. She’s just hysterical. She’s extremely intelligent and well-educated, but Octavia will definitely tell you like it is. You can just imagine the look on her face when some skinny white girl came up and said to her, ‘I’ve written a book and you’re one of the main characters.’ She rolled her eyes and said something like, ‘that’s good,’ and walked away!”

Spencer, who lives in Los Angeles, puts her harrumphing reaction in context: “In Hollywood, everybody – and I mean everybody — is shopping around a book or a screenplay or a video or an idea at every turn.”

All of that shopping around paid off. The Help became one of the publishing world’s seersucker Cinderella stories, released by Putnam to crest The New York Times best-seller list for 103 weeks. Spencer, like book clubs around the country, was won over once she started reading.

“Frankly, I approached it reluctantly – I bristled at the dialect,” she says. Minny’s first words are: “Standing on that white lady’s back porch, I tell myself, Tuck it in Minny. Tuck in whatever might fly out my mouth and tuck in my behind too.”

Spencer says, “I thought, ‘Oh, God, not another one of those books about the South.’”

Her reading tastes lean toward Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Maya Angelou, she explains, so she feared that the The Help might be just another exercise in moonlight-and-magnolias cliché, a hoop-skirted white author rhapsodizing with the vapors over some one-dimensional “mammy.”

“I was naturally curious, though, about this ‘spitfire’ based on me, and once I cracked the book open, I ended up skipping a party to sit down and devour it, and decided it was one of the best books I’d ever read in my life,” Spencer says. “It really resonated with me as a Southern woman, and I realized immediately that the important themes and the rich complexities of these characters would resonate with readers across racial, regional, socioeconomic, and generational lines. Suddenly, I had high hopes.”

Spencer grew up in Montgomery, a bookworm in a family of seven children.

“Most people in Hollywood are dreaming of acting, of being in front of the camera, but ever since I was at Auburn, I’ve called myself a writer,” she says. “I had a minor in theater arts, but I had to be more or less dragged in front of the camera.”

That pivotal moment came when was working behind the scenes as a production assistant on “A Time to Kill.” A director asked her to read, and she landed a small part in that Mississippi-based film. On that set, she became fast friends with another up-and-comer, Tate Taylor, and they lit out for Los Angeles and lived as roommates for four years, eventually accumulating a coterie of “expat Southerners” in the dues-paying stage of their red-carpet aspirations. Taylor had grown up in Jackson with Stockett.

“We all had culture shock in L.A.,” Spencer says with a laugh. “I remember the first time my car broke down on the side of the road, and I thought, ‘Back home, 10 people would’ve stopped to help by now.’ I missed the manners and the warmth of the South, so I surrounded myself with other Southerners who felt the same.”

The reluctant actress began burnishing her resume with roles in Dinner For Schmucks, The Soloist, Seven Pounds, Bad Santa, Spiderman, Big Momma’s House, and Being John Malkovich. On the small screen, Spencer became a familiar, apple-cheeked face, starring in the series “Halfway Home,” and appearing in “The Big Bang Theory,” “E.R.,” “CSI,” “Raising The Bar,” and “Medium,” along with a memorable five-episode arc as a lusty INS agent-turned-stalker in “Ugly Betty.”

Meanwhile, Stockett almost had given up after 60 agents had rejected her novel. Tate, who had directed several indie projects, begged for the film rights before it was even published and went to work on a screenplay. In 2009, the year The Help came out to such fanfare, Entertainment Weekly named Spencer one of the “25 Funniest Actresses in Hollywood,” and then DreamWorks got behind the movie project.

“We all had run around together, and since Kathryn modeled some of Minny’s traits after Octavia, we felt no one else could play her but Octavia,” says Tate, who made authenticity his mission (read: refreshingly believable drawls), shooting the film in Greenwood, Mississippi. “When I was looking for actors, I was looking at how they talked, the way they moved. I didn’t want to do a Hollywoodized version of the South. The South is an oppressive, complicated, beautiful, tragic, loving place all in one bundle.”

Ironically, Spencer had drilled away her accent. “I partially paid my way through Auburn with public speaking scholarships,” she says, “so I had to put that lilt back in my voice!” she says. Ultimately, she so embraced the dialect that she read for the audiobook version of The Help, and won the “Earphone Award,” and Spencer accompanied the author on a book tour in which she delivered the African-American voices in the text during readings.  “Some people suggested I might be underplaying Minny,” Spencer says. “You can read her rebellious thoughts in the book, but realize that to talk back to a white employer during that era was dangerous. She couldn’t publicly express her feelings. So I tried to play it down rather than overacting and overplaying her fiery spirit.”

It comes through, though, in every knowing, sidewise glance. Spencer, as Stockett noted, can’t help “telling it like it is,” just like her alterego, Minny, who muses: “Truth. It feels cool, like water washing over my sticky-hot body. Cooling a heat that’s been burning me up all my life.”

Joe Morgan: Live and Let Die

At every cocktail party, the question pops up.

“People always want to know, ‘What’s the worst you’ve ever seen?’” says Joseph Morgan, rolling his world-weary eyes. “So let’s just get this out of the way.”

Pointing to a slide of an amorphous-looking silhouette that looks like an amoeba wedged into a greasy sofa, he says, “This is the partially denuded skull of a Hapeville lady whose body was cut in half and then not found for at least three months. There was slime on the wall up to here,” he says, indicating his waist. “Her five adult dogs were locked up with her.”

He pauses to let us make the awful connections.

Morgan worked for about 20 years as a forensic death investigator in Atlanta and New Orleans.

“The rest of the slides I’m going to show are graphic and disturbing, so if you need to leave, no problem, that’s totally understandable,” he says.

Morgan will graciously repeat that disclaimer several times, between close-ups of maimed and bloated cadavers in varying states of putrefaction helped along by the industrious handiwork of maggots, but we all stay put, revolted and riveted, in this night class called “Behind the Crime Scene Tape” at North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega. It is a cursory introduction to sizing up a corpse, to the cell-by-cell sloughing off the mortal coil. His other workshop is whimsically titled “Lunch with Death,” but who could eat?

“Every death is a ‘homicide’ until proven otherwise,” he says, noting that he has assisted in 7,000 autopsies and performed 3,000 next-of-kin notifications. “I despise the word ‘murder,’ which is a lawyer’s word that implies malice, or evil afoot.”

Morgan, 42, does not fear the reaper — at least not clinically. For someone who has logged so many solemn hours at the morgue, he is a remarkably lively fellow, telling Southern Gothic stories in a drawl, with finely honed gallows humor. Sometimes he is as blunt as the sledgehammer that struck one unfortunate person’s skull; he lumps some photos under the heading “stupid human tricks.” Other times he speaks in folksy euphemisms. To say that a lingerie-clad gentleman “was sent to Jesus” just sounds gentler than “autoerotic asphyxiation.”

“I had to slaughter a hog just to get that image out of my mind,” he often says about certain memories. Once he even had to shave his head and agonizingly pluck every hair from his nostrils to shed the stench from one particularly time-consuming scene. “In many ways my mind has been polluted by images I’ll never be rid of,” he says.

Continuing his slide show, he points to a speckled tableau and says, “What do you think those black dots are? They’re flies, second-generation ones that already developed from the original maggots and now are laying more eggs — husks had been shed and left behind. There have been times when I’ve had thousands of flies lighting on me after they’ve been on a body.”
He shrugs stoically.

“But all of that helps in determining how long the body has been there.”

There are other ways, of course, to determine time of death, and his “favorite postmortem change” is livor mortis, or lividity, which refers to the gravitational pooling and settling of blood that begins as early as 20 minutes after death.

“I’m a ‘livor guy,’ and just the fact that I have a ‘favorite’ among these sets me apart from most of humanity,” he says.

Unlike rigor mortis, the stiffening caused by lactic acid (starting in the jaw one to three hours after death), or algor mortis, which involves changes in body temperature (we cool down two to two-and-a-half degrees in the first hour under ideal circumstances, if any could be described as truly “ideal”), lividity generally occurs at the same rate for everybody — that is, every  body — regardless of the weather. Blanched patches in cherry-pink flesh also can signal whether a corpse has been moved.

“The dead will tell you a story if you’re only willing to listen,” Morgan says. “I tried to speak for those who could no longer speak for themselves. Those unfortunate souls who take their own lives, the people who die all alone in an apartment — those quiet, lonely deaths with no fanfare – their stories are just as worthy of dignity and attention as those who go out in a blaze of glory.”

For me, one of the most despair-drenched images in Morgan’s presentation was the least grisly; it was a straightforward suicide by shooting. The man had started a note, but did not bother to finish it, as if his last words were not worth the effort.

This macabre little seminar is an outgrowth of the forensic concentration Morgan, an associate professor of criminal justice, is developing for the university. One of 11 founders of the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators, he has helped standardize procedures by devising a rigorous certification test with methods that are “applicable from Hahira to Manhattan.” This ABMDI exam is administered at only two sites in the country: North Georgia College and Texas Tech.

“There are more fighter pilots and brain surgeons than death investigators,” Morgan says. “There are only about 670 of us practicing, so I don’t have that many people I can talk shop with. There aren’t that many folks who understand what it’s like to slip and fall in decomp fluid.”

Soon, though, he likely will have more colleagues who do. College students across the country are demanding more forensic training in their criminology curricula, and “CSI camps” are popping up for high school students to probe mock crime scenes. Morgan plans to lead such a program for teen-age sleuths this summer, and he is writing a textbook about death investigation.

The rising interest in this field is evidence of the cultish popularity of the “CSI” television shows, which, in a formula that is more howdunit than whodunit, rely on high-tech wizardry to zero in on gore at the mitochondrial level in America’s freakiest cities: Las Vegas, Miami, and New York. (Still waiting for “CSI: Hahira.”) Count Morgan out of this fan club. Of all the horrendous subjects we discuss in class, the “CSI” series and its counterparts, with their slick production values and preposterous plotlines, is the only one that makes him shudder.

At one point, he explains that it is virtually impossible to force another person into a noose. “My predecessors had to deal with that, unfortunately,” he says, referring to lynchings. “Most of the suicides I worked were hangings, not overdoses, which surprises people. But I’ve never investigated a hanging that was initiated by anyone other than the victim — not one.”

Like the classroom know-it-all, I raise my hand to point out that last night’s episode of “CSI: Miami” featured, after a parade of ersatz bosoms, a plastic surgeon who had been drugged — the toxicology screenings involved much thoughtful squinting by supermodel-types in labcoats — and then ingeniously hanged by the nurse he was two-timing. (The “scorned woman” theme never seems to go out of style.)

“THOSE THREE LETTERS ARE VERBOTEN IN MY CLASSES!” he says. “If you come in and say, ‘Last night on CSI…’ you are sunk.”
Like a guilty suspect in the interrogation room, I clam up.

The “CSI Effect,” as it is called, is a much-bemoaned syndrome in the legal system. Jurors and the victim’s family often expect investigations and trials to unfold with TV tidiness: Everyone at the scene gets swabbed for DNA; cars and rooms are dusted and sprayed; and the unambiguous, infallible results handily solve a crime in under an hour. As a result, in real-life cases, eyewitness accounts and even confessions sometimes are not enough for convictions; increasingly juries want to hear about the physics of a blood spatter or the telltale hair left behind on a car seat. Often such comprehensive procedures are unnecessary, and, when fibers and fluids are analyzed, the process takes time. With lawyers for both sides attuned to the persuasive effects of physical evidence, many crime labs end up frustratingly backlogged.

“There is nothing ‘Hollywood,’ about this work,” Morgan says. “In reality, it’s a descent into pure hell. It’s showing up at a chaotic scene where there’s a crowd of people very hurt and angry that you’re there; gunshots are going off in the distance; there’s a mother screaming and writhing on the ground because she’s just lost a child. And you’re trying to show compassion for her, dodge the bullets, and, all the while, apply the scientific method in a clinical, professional manner.”

It might come as a surprise to many Americans, but Jerry Bruckheimer did not invent forensic science, which derives from the Latin forensis, meaning “the forum,” specifically the imperial court of Rome. In fact, a doctor investigated the assassination of Julius Caesar and concluded that, of his 23 stab wounds, only one was fatal. The Chinese, though, were the first to publish a guidebook on medicolegal death investigations in 1247, not long after they invented gunpowder, ironically enough. Morbid curiosity, too, has long been with us. In his “Poetics,” Aristotle writes that we “enjoy contemplating the most precise images of things whose sight is painful to us.”

But, still, what kind of kid thinks dreamily: “I want to work in a morgue when I grow up”? Who wants to “descend into pure hell” day after day? Morgan, who was born in Griffin, Georgia, started his career in New Orleans’ Jefferson Parish after realizing that, while the job might not be as glamorous as “Quincy,” the crime-fighting coroner, made it look on TV, it offers a certain rush, along with deeper satisfactions.

“I was sweeping the floors of the morgue when I was about 21,” he recalls. “Cleaning up blood and decomp fluid. This kind pathologist took me under wing and one day said, ‘You wanna close?’ So we opened the chest down to the pubis and removed the organs and drained the fluids. An autopsy needle is this S-shaped needle that makes sort of a baseball stitch. After sewing the body up after the autopsy, I thought, ‘This is the greatest thing in the world!’ How many other people get to do this? I wanted to prove myself in an arena where few others venture to go.”

It takes guts, after all, to work with guts, and Morgan is proud of his “strong stomach.” “I’ve never thrown up because of a case,” he says. Death becomes him, as they say. Even so, he is happy to be spending more time these days among the living.

“In this line of work, you’re constantly observing the abnormal within the context of the normal,” he says. “You might go to an office park, where there is a lady on the floor by her terminal. She’s wearing perfume and a business suit, and has her shoes off, with pantyhose visible because that’s how ladies relax in their cubicles. …But there’s a gunshot wound to the side of her head. When I sit down to eat dinner that night, these images roll around in my mind, and I can’t believe I saw what I just saw. Each death claims a piece of your soul.”

These visions make him “hug his wife and kids a little tighter,” he says, noting that post-traumatic stress disorder is a common occupational hazard for longtime death investigators. It is alleviated, to some extent, by helping the bereaved.

“With the next-of-kin notifications, you’re meeting people at the single lowest point in their lives,” he says. “I’m conscious of the fact that my image in all its details will be burned into their minds forever — that whether or not I extend my hand or put my arm around them will always be remembered. The thing I’m most proud of is that most of the time I was able to use my forensic tools to help them get in answer to these fundamental, life-and-death questions, to find out what really happened to their loved one. And maybe extend some mercy to someone who’d never received much mercy from a public official before.”

In this way, Joseph Morgan has achieved his own immortality.