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When Les is More . . .

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I have always been attracted to oddball guitars, and have had a bunch of them. However, the three classic electric guitars– the Fender Stratocaster, the Fender Telecaster and the Gibson Les Paul– were ones I always passed up. Maybe it was because they were so frequently seen; I don’t know. These three icons of the guitar world were all developed between 1950 and 1954 and a lot of companies have either copied them outright or made their own variations of them. More on that in a second.


In the last couple of years, as I amble into my dotage, I finally gave in and got a Stratocaster (though not a Fender; more on that in a second, too!) and a Tele (made by me from various old-timey Fender parts). The Telecaster is now my favorite electric. For those of you who don’t play guitar, there’s a big difference between acoustic and electric guitars; in my mind, they are two different instruments. I started on bass, coming to guitars as I did from playing a baritone sax, and then mainly played acoustic guitars.


For some reason, guitar players develop an affliction called Guitar Acquisition Syndrome, or GAS. I try to ignore it, but seeing rows of Tolex guitar cases all over the house proves I came down with GAS a long time ago. I guess I still have it, though I try to keep it in check.

My latest GAS object of desire is a Les Paul, but not just any old Les Paul. The one I want is a type that Gibson made for only a few years: The Fretless Wonder Black Beauty model. Its official designation is the Gibson Les Paul Custom, and it was originally made from 1954 to 1960. These originally sold for about $350 but command astonishing prices now– say $15K or so. I saw one for sale on the Net this morning for $37K. And most of the ones I’ve seen in person have been modified with taller frets. I play with a very light touch and the original flat, tiny frets would be perfect for my style of playing; most players today hate those kind of frets and have them changed to the more modern type.

Since the original Fretless Wonders are so pricey, I looked into Gibson’s “Historic” and Vintage Old Stock reissues of those guitars. Even those are past the $3K mark; I’ve seen some selling for over $7K. Yeesh!

Now Gibson Guitars realized several years ago that their prices for guitars built here in the U.S. and built using the original materials and finishes were beyond the reach of most players. And as the quality of the American-built Fenders and Gibsons declined– and they surely did when accountants controlled the companies–Tokai and a few other Japanese companies blueprinted the original classic guitars and painstakingly reproduced them by hand. Gibson and Fender both gave in and had their own Japanese contractors make guitars for them, and they are quite good. I have a Japanese Fender reissue of a 1951 Precision Bass that is a beautiful instrument. And the Stratocaster I got a year or so ago is one of the early-’80s Tokais and it is a spooky-good recreation of a two-color sunburst 1956 Strat– just like the ones Buddy Holly used to such good purpose.

So I looked at the Tokai versions of the 1950s Les Paul Customs. They’re beautiful and exact copies of the Gibson Les Paul model I want, but even those are selling now for over well over $2K. And, being a crazy GAS-afflicted guitar player, I wouldn’t be satisfied unless the Les Paul I got was one of the tiny-fretted, fat-necked gloss-black nitrocellulose-lacquer-finished Les Pauls! Really!!!

So to heck with it. No Les for me. As I struggle to find a permanent day job in this frustrating economy it makes no sense to throw that kind of money at a guitar. Besides, Patty has learned to count those hardshell Tolex guitar cases and I am scared of her. But can you imagine how wonderful it would be to have a black Les Paul ’58 Custom that matches Murphy, my Boston terrier?!?!?!

Les Paul presents Paul McCartney with a custom lefty Les Paul.

Great Spirit Comic Books!

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I first encountered Will (or Bill, as the old comics guys called him) Eisner’s Spirit comics when I got a copy of Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes. This stunning book, which I got for Christmas in 1966, was a chance for a 1960s kid to see for the first time what comic books had been like in the 1940s. Living in the Florida Keys, where we had moved earlier in the year, I had few chances to find old comic books for sale.

Oddly enough, while snorkeling one day, I discovered a stash of old comics that someone had evidently thrown overboard long ago in and around the marina outside our home in Marathon Shores. These comics were coverless and half-buried in the sand and silt about 15 feet deep on the salt-water side of the island where we then lived, but I’d dive for them and leave them to dry on the dock outside our house. Once dried, they were perfectly readable, if rather crinkly, and I was able over the summer to get 20 or 30 old DC comics in this fashion.

So I was primed to learn more, and Feiffer’s superb book was right up my alley. I then sent a letter to the Miami Herald asking where old comic books could be found, and they printed my letter and listed some shops in Miami that sold them. Armed with that info, I bugged my dad until he finally agreed to fly me the 107 miles to Miami!

One odd thing my dad did was keep $50 cars at a few airports he flew in and out of a lot. He’d never pay more than $50 for the cars, so they weren’t too spiffy, but they saved him the trouble of renting cars. We drove in whatever clunker Dad had stowed in Miami to several of the stores that the Herald had listed, and I was finally able to get a copy of a 1940s Spirit comic book. The Spirit feature had originally been part of a 16-page Sunday newspaper comic supplement from about 1940 to 1952, and Quality Comics had printed a magazine in the mid- to late-1940s showcasing the character. Eisner, being nobody’s fool, was smart enough to keep the copyrights and that was unheard of in comics at that time.

Will Eisner was a solid pro not only at writing and drawing comics, but in print production. He, by the time we’re discussing here, had moved on from newsstand comics to producing preventive maintenance monthlies for the U.S. Army. One of my uncles had given me some of those, as they had a ton of great Eisner artwork in them, and they were unsurpassed in explaining technical issues in a simple and understandable way. I still have a stack of these P.M. magazines somewhere in the basement, much to Patty’s dismay.

Eisner’s Spirit stories, and there are about 250 of them, I guess, were way above the norm for a comic book. They weren’t aimed at nine-year-olds, for one thing, and Eisner had a tight group of amazingly talented assistants who helped write and draw the stuff. Jules Feiffer had been one of these ghosts for Eisner.

Nowadays, Eisner’s Spirits are easily found in both comic-book form and in hardback, and much of the work is also available in digital form, if you know where to look. In the late 1960s, it was very different and Spirit comic books were few and hard to find.

There had been a couple of 64-page color reprints by Harvey Comics in 1966 and ’67 and those were comic books to be treasured; beautifully printed and colored. My next Spirit encounter was in what were called Spirit Bags in the early 1970s. These were 6″ x 9″ black-and-white reprints of the 8-page Spirit stories and had a typed commentary by Eisner on the last page. Still have all those, too.

Over the years I snagged a ton of other Spirit reprints, both in hard copies and in digital form. I recently learned that Fiction House, a second-tier comic-book publisher, had issued five Spirit comics in the early 1950s. I had never heard of them before, but Fiction House really did a nice job on these reprints of the newspaper Spirits. The coloring is amazing, especially when you consider that they only had 64 colors and tints to work with in those old days.

I now have these in digital form and they are a treat. If you have an interest in Eisner’s work, I encourage you to download them; here’s a site:
http://digitalcomicmuseum.com/index.php?cid=932

These are in the public domain. You’ll need a PC, Mac or iOS reader for the files; they’re easy to find. I particularly enjoy the Comic Zeal iPad app; it makes organizing the hundreds of comics on my iPad a snap.

Thank me later!!! Enjoy!!!

Side Note:

A couple of years later, when we started a student newspaper at Naples High, I made damned sure that the newspaper was called The Spirit, and I worked for days on a masthead for it; my crude homage to Will Eisner. Of course, Eisner, who was so gifted that he came up with a different and stunning masthead for each and every Spirit story, was in a much different league than I was and I cringe to look at my crude Spirit newspaper masthead now!

So it goes!

Music Really Does Makes the World a Better Place

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I heard of Jackie Guthrie’s passing yesterday when Rip Tragle, a friend of the Guthrie family and a member of the Shorpy community, posted this lovely photo he took at Jackie and Arlo’s wedding, back in 1969:

I didn’t want to post the image here without Rip’s kind permission, but he granted that just now and I’m pleased and honored that he did.

The title of this blog entry is from a series of bumper stickers that my old friend John Pearse used to give away when someone bought his guitar strings or accessories. Lord knows I bought a bunch of both, and once even bought a high-end Martin guitar from John, but the sticker he created is what’s on my mind today and John may have had the Guthrie family in mind when he wrote it. It seems to be very apt when considering the passing of Arlo Guthrie’s wife, Jackie. They were married for over 43 years.

The Guthrie family has consistently used music as a way to make the world in which they found themselves a more human, more kindly place.

What they had to say may not have always been politically correct, and I may not have agreed with every position the various members of the Guthrie family took, but no one could say that they didn’t do more than their share to help others find happiness and peace.

Woody Guthrie’s famous statement, placed prominently on his guitars, remains a touchstone for why many people picked up the instrument in the first place. Woody’s musical and philosphical DNA has spread over much of the world and many folks may not even be aware of it. But they owe him.

Arlo came into most of our lives through his wise and witty 1967 song, Alice’s Restaurant, properly titled Alice’s Restaurant Massacree, and that song was a breakthrough on many levels. It was funny, fact-based and a fingerpicker’s joy. So infectious and joyful was his playful delivery that it may have masked the more serious message of his words: Official America can sometimes be a blind lumbering beast that can step on people unless someone shouts a warning.

I recall playing that record for my dad, who had no taste or interest in music and was an outspoken opponent of the “hippy” movement or anything that smacked of a lack of respect for authority. Dad tried hard not to laugh as the song progressed but at the mention of “mother stabbers and father rapers” he surrendered and enjoyed himself and the song. I couldn’t believe it. Dad had let his short hair down, if just for the duration of a song!

So today we remember the Guthries and all they have meant to us. For those of you who haven’t listened to the music and message of the Guthries– Woody, Arlo and his and Jackie’s children Abe, Sarah Lee, Cathy and Annie– I encourage you to please take the time to do so. And here’s Arlo’s website: http://www.arlo.net/

Their world is our world and it’s a wonderful place to be.

Murphy Supervises The Construction

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Murphy, our Boston terrier, is very interested in the sewer-pipe replacement activity going on in front of our house. As the photo shows, he pays strict attention to all that goes on, though he is sometimes nervous about the loud noises and shaking of the house that are part of this effort.

Here we see Murphy watching as the LBT is smushing the dirt in the big hole dug by the other machines.

I have been on the lookout in case the final resting place of Jimmy Hoffa is discovered, but so far, he has not surfaced. One of the crew said to me the other day, “This is a big pain and inconvenience for the folks on your street, but just think: In a week or so you’ll have brand-new feeder pipes for your sewerage!”

Yes; that is a wonderful thing to contemplate, and I hope that I can restrain myself from lording it over those with lesser sewerage-feeder pipes. They can’t help it, and it would just make them jealous.

I Can’t Wait For The UPS Truck!

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As many of you may already know, I’m not an impulse buyer. All my purchases are well-considered and thoroughly thought out far in advance. Still, there are opportunities that arise, chiefly on eBay, that require a snap decision and a firm commitment to furthering one’s stable of useful and necessary items. Hence the auction below, which I just won:

Just click to enlarge!

Yes, within days, I will have my own Little Blue Thing to fool around with. Sometimes Patty isn’t in 100% alignment on the things I buy, but this purchase is sure to meet with her approval. I can see it now:

“Hey, Patty; the LBT and I are up early and rearing to go! Is there anything around the house that you need smushed this morning?”

“Why, yes, my Darling Husband! Howzabout having your new mechanical friend smush that fat ugly empty thing perched on top of your neck?”

“No problem! Where’s my LBT remote control?”

Well, as you know, there wasn’t really a Little Blue Thing for sale on eBay, at least today. But maybe one day . . .

Where’s Our LBT?!?!??!

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After the street crew parked everything for the weekend, having done as much damage as they could for one week, I didn’t see our old friend, Little Blue Thing.

I walked out to where all the machines, gravel, asphalt and pipe were on the side of the road, and looked around.

Wait a minute! Is that a little blue nose sticking out of that giant steel contraption used to keep the sides of the hole from caving in?

Yes! LBT is hiding inside it. I don’t know if he was driven into it via his remote-control box or if the machine operator placed the contraption over LBT.

It’s a snug fit, no matter how he got in there.

It’s a Gas Gas Gas!

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I’m so proud of my Boston terrier, Murphy. He is truly a wonder dog.

Aaron and Murphy during our excitement.

I was taking a nap this afternoon about 3pm, and, as is the norm, Murphy was sleeping at the foot of my bed. My son, Aaron, who has a cold, was also asleep. Patty was at work.

Suddenly Murphy jumps on my head and starts barking incessantly. He’s never done that before. So I get up, get dressed, opened the bedroom door and was overpowered by the smell of gas. I ran downstairs, thinking that perhaps Aaron had somehow started a fire in the kitchen and the smell was even worse there.

Then it dawned on me: The street repair folks out front must have broken a gas line. I ran out on the front porch and the smell of gas was overwhelming and you could hear it hissing loudly. The crew, except for one staunch fellow and one staunch woman, had hauled ass down the street a ways.

My neighbor next door, Karl, who works nights, walked onto his front porch with a cup of coffee and an unlit cigarette in his mouth. I yelled, “Hey, Karl; I wouldn’t light that if I were you!”

Neighbors Karl and Bill; we’re cracking jokes once safely down the street.

I got Aaron up and leashed Murphy and, joined by Karl, we all went down to the corner; on the way, we saw Buddy, another neighbor, poke his head out of his front door and told him to get out of his house. By now the smell was super strong.

I called 911 and the Hyattville Fire Department showed up very quickly. The Washington Gas folks weren’t as prompt, but they showed up after about 40 minutes and sent a crew down to the hole in the street where gas had been spraying out all this time.

Hyattsville Fire Department pros suit up before walking to the gas leak.

Washington Gas trucks arrive.

Brave young men.

After about 40 more minutes, the gas line was capped and the Washington Gas techs gave us the all clear. One of their techs, a really nice man, brought a sniffer wand into my house to make sure it had aired out after I had turned on all the ceiling fans and opened the windows.

From my front porch.

So all’s well that ends well. My only concern, and I expressed this pointedly to the WSSC contractor’s supervisor, the fire department folks and the folks from Washington Gas, is that somebody should have alerted the residents of the street that there was a problem and that they should (a) not turn on any flame and (b) vacate their homes until everything was safe again and (c) the contractor should have called 911.

And I am so proud of Murphy for knowing something was amiss and waking me up!!!

That white PVC pipe down in the hole is what broke.

Words to live by . . .

7pm Update:

Still at it!

The contractors are still hard at work; now they’re filling the hole where the gas line broke. I guess they’ve got a few more hours of work ahead of them.


I love the colors in this iPhone photo. On your left, about a third of the way from the bottom of the pic, is our friend, Little Blue Thing. That’s his headlight shining.

Buddy, one of our neighbors, walked over to Jefferson Street when the gas was escaping and he said the smell of gas was very evident at that point, well over a block from where it was whooshing out of its pipe. So we were lucky that all turned out well. Karl and the folks across the street, Colleen and Mar, still don’t have their gas restored, but everyone is hard at work trying to restore the service.

Morning After Update:

As the above photo indicates, this morning the contractors have marked the gas lines a lot more obviously than they had previously done. Before, there were just thin yellow lines of paint to show where the high-pressure gas lines were; now there’s big white lettering, too. The importance of good, clear graphics!

The Washington Gas guys told me that those gas lines have a pressure of 50psi, which doesn’t sound like much but can produce a huge volume of gas in the air when the pipe is ruptured, as our event yesterday afternoon proved.

It’s Just The Best Spaghetti In The Whole World; That’s All

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One place our family went to a lot when I was a kid was Madame Turci’s Italian Restaurant in New Orleans. The man and woman who ran the place were famed opera singers in Italy in the 1920s. I understand that the restaurant closed down in the early 1970s. Too bad; it was super!

A friend from the Shorpy.com nation (Hi, Colleen!!!) found for me a recipe for the spaghetti sauce they served at Turci’s; she found it here:

http://www.nomenu.com

The site has, among other interesting info about New Orleans food and restaurants, over 600 recipes you can try!

Here’s the Turci’s spaghetti recipe from that wonderful site. My daughter is reluctant to cook with chicken innards, but I’m encouraging her to try cooking it anyway. It’s a two-day process.

Spaghetti Ala Turci

  • Stock:
  • 1 small whole chicken (gizzards, liver and heart reserved)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 onion, cut into chunks
  • Leafy tops from 1 bunch celery
  • Stems from 1 bunch parsley
  • Sauce:
  • 1 pound ground veal
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • Gizzards and heart from the chicken above, chopped
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped celery
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 lb. ham steak with fat, finely diced
  • 1 8-oz. can tomato paste
  • 1 28-oz. can whole Italian tomatoes, pureed
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • 1/4 tsp. thyme
  • 1/2 tsp. basil
  • 1 tsp. oregano
  • Meatballs:
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper
  • 1/2 cup freshly-grated bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 tsp. Italian seasoning
  • 12 sprigs fresh parsley, leaves only, chopped
  • 2 eggs, beaten into a froth
  • 8 oz. white mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 lbs. spaghetti

1. Put all the stock ingredients into a saucepan with 1/2 gallon of water. Bring to a light boil, then lower to a simmer. Simmer for 90 minutes, uncovered. Strain the stock and set aside. Put the chicken into a food storage bag and into the refrigerator.

2. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy, large skillet over medium-high heat. Remove a fistful each of the ground veal and ground pork (put the rest into the refrigerator). Add the meats to the skillet, along with the chicken gizzards and heart. Let the meat brown well, then break it up with a kitchen fork. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

3. In a large saucepan or dutch oven over medium heat, heat the remaining olive oil until it shimmers. Add the onions, celery, and garlic until they get soft.

4. Raise the heat to medium-high. Add the tomato paste and the pureed tomatoes. Cook for about ten minutes, stirring constantly, until it gets thick and noticeably darker in color.

5. Add the chopped ham and the browned veal and pork. Continue to cook and stir for another three minutes.

6. Add 5 cups of of the chicken broth, and the thyme, basil, and oregano. Bring to a boil then lower to a simmer. Cover the pot and let it simmer for for two hours. Stir the pot, scraping the bottom well every twenty minutes or so.

7. After two hours, turn off the heat and let the pot cool for a half-hour. Spoon the contents into a large bowl or food storage container. Put it into the refrigerator overnight to let the flavors come together.

8. The next day–about two hours before you’re ready to serve–put the sauce back onto the stove on low heat. If it seems too thick after it warms up, stir in add a little more chicken stock.

9. Pull about two cups of chicken meat–a blend of white and dark–from the chicken you used to make the stock. Slice it if necessary into pieces the size of the tip of your little finger.

10. Make the meatballs next. Combine the salt, pepper, bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, Italian seasoning and parsley with a fork. Wet your hands with cold water, and combine the remaining ground pork and veal with sprinklings of the bread crumb mixture and the beaten eggs. Handle all of this as gently as possible, rolling the meatballs into rough spheres about an inch and a half in diameter. Cracks should show around the outside. Gentle!

11. Heat 2 Tbs. of olive oil in a skillet until it shimmers. Drop a few of the meatballs in. Every few seconds, roll them around (gently!) until they’re browned all over (not cooked all the way through). Remove and drain. Keep going until all the meatballs are cooked.

12. Add the meatballs and the chicken to the sauce. Simmer for an hour, stirring only very lightly (to avoid breaking the meatballs). Add the mushrooms, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook another fifteen minutes.

13. Cook the spaghetti until still firm (six minutes or so). Drain and put it into a big bowl. Ladle about two cups of the liquid part of the sauce over the spaghetti and toss to coat. Serve in big bowls with the remaining sauce on top.

Serves eight to twelve.

“I Have Got to Get Me One of These!”

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You already know what Will Smith movie the header quote came from, so I won’t bother telling you.

The WSSC is tearing up our street again, and the letter they sent to us all promised that, during this project, we’d see “interesting machines.” Patty thought that was a strange thing for them to say, but it has proved to be true.

My neighbors and I– at least the male neighbors– have fallen in love with this little blue thing. We all want one.

It’s about half the size of a car, articulated in the middle, and is radio controlled. When it’s powered up, the round light in front flashes orange and it begins to shudder, like a puppy held tight on a leash:

It isn’t speedy, but it is determined as it moves down the road. It’s shape gives it an R2-D2 quality.

Here it is relentlessly proceeding to the actual holes in the street down our hill:

Here’s the fellow controlling it with a black box about the size of a Lipton’s tea-bag package. He stands pretty far away from this unit, so I couldn’t get them both in the same photo. The controller’s skill is high; we watched him parallel park the thing and it was most impressive.

The technical name for this device, based upon the knobby wide metal wheels, is, I believe, a “smusher.”

FRIDAY MORNING UPDATE:
Here we see Little Blue Thing parked alongside its bigger brother, Somewhat Larger Blue Thing. Go ahead; call them The Blues Brothers.


As happens occasionally even in human families, the smaller brother is the cuter one. The larger one is not unattractive, but its need to have a steering wheel, driver’s seat and roll bar get in the way of its smooth lines. It looks purposeful but not cute.

In addition, the bulging hood on Somewhat Larger Blue Thing, combined with the row of vents at the sides of the hood, give this fellow a more aggressive look. It’s like what happened to the Ford Mustang after it had been out a couple of years.

FRIDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE:

Our hero, LBT (Little Blue Thing) gets a chance to show its stuff as it takes on the challenge of smushing down the red-clay dirt at the bottom of a deep trench. Notice how the crew lowers LBT down into the trench using some large machine:

Once in the trench, you can sense the LBT’s enthusiasm as it trembles in anticipation before the control-person sends it into action. Clearly in its element, LBT blithely rolls back and forth, smushing with abandon. Even the jaded construction crew smiles with joy and– yes– pride as they watch LBT’s antics:


FRIDAY EVENING UPDATE:

The crew working on this sewer project are splendid; they get in early, work steadily all day and clean up before they leave in the evening; not only sweeping the street but washing down where they’ve worked.

And I can’t say “these guys” are excellent; there are women among the crew. They dress the same as the men, including the green safety vests, so it isn’t immediately obvious that they’re female.

Some of our neighbors were initially rather upset that this work wasn’t done a couple of years ago when our street was totally replaced, but the super job that the WSSC contractors are doing has put most of that feeling to rest. After the crew leaves each day, many of us are outside marveling at the way they’ve approached their task.

So it’s become sort of a social thing but then again this is a close-knit community.

“Like Joan Sutherland and Kermit the Frog . . .”

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Hey; he said it; I didn’t!

Great clip of three of my favorites live at The Odeon in NYC in 1983: Linda Ronstadt, Randy Newman and a slicked-down Ry Cooder. I have the complete performance on VHS somewhere but no way to play it.

Here’s their version of Mr. Newman’s Rider in the Rain from his Little Criminals album. On the record, he’s backed up vocally by The Eagles, who started as Ms Ronstadt’s backup band.

This clip is a great example of what I believe is a good rule for music and other things: Take the prep and practices seriously, but have fun with the performance. It’s obviously sung in a key that isn’t Mr. Cooder’s first choice, but I love what he does with it.

When Patty, her brother Billy and I saw Randy Newman at the spooky old Tampa Theater live in the 1970s, he worked solo. He is so talented and tuneful.

In George Martin’s memoirs of his days with The Beatles, he describes visiting Mr. Newman at a jingle factory in LA. He had been sent by The Fabs to recruit Newman as their first Apple Records artist. Newman turned Mr. Martin down, as writing jingles on demand was steady work and he had a family. The Beatles chose James Taylor instead for an Apple release, and he’s done pretty well!

As has Randy Newman.

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