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Thursday, May 29, 2014

In Memoriam: Maya Angelou

Written by Kyle Slagley

Yesterday the world lost one of the most powerful and astute voices in literature. Poet, singer, dancer, and activist Maya Angelou passed away in her North Carolina home at age 86.

Many people are familiar with Angelou at least by name, if not necessarily by having read her work. She is known as a writer whose ability to speak to readers on a deep and personal level is uncanny nearly to the point of being unsettling. Angelou’s struggles as a child in the Jim Crow south would shape her writing in later years. Her signature memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings gave insight to her struggles, having worked as a cook, nightclub dancer, prostitute, and even for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

A spokesperson for women and minority rights, Angelou’s work speaks for any group who has ever faced attempts at being silenced. Perhaps that is because Angelou herself took years to discover her own voice—literally. When she was 8 years old, her mother’s boyfriend assaulted her. When she told her brother what happened, her attacker was convicted but jailed for only one day. Four days after he was released from jail, he was found murdered. When Angelou found out, she didn’t speak again for six years, believing that her voice had killed the man. 

Fortunately for the world, Angelou found her voice and, despite the struggles she endured through the years, used her voice to speak love, acceptance, and peace to anyone who would listen, as evidenced by the fact that her words are seen in books, on billboards, in commercials, and on social media on a daily basis. Her awards, honorary titles, medals, and commendations are too numerous to name here, but I would invite you to visit her Wikipedia page for more information.

Angelou passed away at her home in Winston-Salem, NC. Fittingly, her final tweet read:

"Preacher, Don't Send Me"
by Maya Angelou

Preacher, don't send me
when I die
to some big ghetto
in the sky
where rats eat cats
of the leopard type
and Sunday brunch
is grits and tripe.

I"ve known those rats
I've seen them kill
and grits I've had
would make a hill,
or maybe a mountain,
so what I need
from you on sunday
is a different creed.

Preacher, please don't
promise me
streets of gold
and milk for free.
I stopped all milk
at four years old
and once I'm dead
I won't need gold.

I'd call a place
pure paradise
where families are loyal
and strangers are nice,
where the music is jazz
and the season is fall.
Promise me that
or nothing at all.

From The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou
published 1994 by Random House

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Last Comic Standing Returns to NBC

Written by Jon Williams

Do you need a laugh? Of course you do—who doesn’t? Well, you’re in luck, as tomorrow night marks the Season 8 premiere of Last Comic Standing on NBC. The reality series pits a number of up-and-coming standup comedians against each other in challenges and head-to-head competition to see who is the funniest of them all. This will be the show’s first season since 2010.

The first season featured Jay Mohr as host and included appearances from a number of famous comics who served as judges, including Mo’Nique, Colin Quinn, and Phyllis Diller. That season, Dat Phan won the title of Last Comic Standing, winning the audience vote over Ralphie May. In the second season, John Heffron was the winner over Alonzo Bodden and Gary Gulman. Bodden won the third season, which featured the best performers from the first two seasons. Other comics to compete included Kathleen Madigan, Sean Kent, and Ant.

Last Comic Standing was cancelled after the third season, but came back after a one-year hiatus for a fourth in 2006. That year Josh Blue, one of the most memorable contestants due to his cerebral palsy, beat out a field that included Gabriel Iglesias, among others. The fifth season was hosted by Bill Bellamy and featured a fantastic cast that included international comics for the first time. Jon Reep took out Lavell Crawford for the win; other notable names from that season include Doug Benson and Amy Schumer, currently starring in the hilarious Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer, not to mention Gerry Dee of the very popular Mr. D on CBC.

The sixth season brought Bellamy back as host. History was made that season, as Iliza Shlesinger became the first female comic to win the title. The seventh season featured Craig Robinson as host with Greg Giraldo, Natasha Leggero, and Andy Kindler serving as judges; Felipe Esparza won the competition. The new season that begins tomorrow night will be hosted by JB Smoove and judged by comedy legends Roseanne Barr, Keenan Ivory Wayans, and Russell Peters.

So give your patrons a laugh! Check out the comedy specials above, or SmartBrowse any of these names for even more standup specials, CDs, movies, and audiobooks from these very funny performers.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Happy (Belated) Birthday to the Piano Man!

Written by Jon Williams

Last Friday, legendary pop-rocker Billy Joel turned 65 years old. Although the Grammy Award winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer hasn’t put out an album of original pop material in over twenty years, he remains a popular draw all around the world as a concert entertainer.

Joel got an early start in the music business, and his first album, Cold Spring Harbor, was released in 1971. However, Joel was unhappy with its production, and album sales languished. (The album has since been remastered, and the production mistakes fixed.) While he tried to get out of his recording contract so he could sign with another label, he went incognito, taking a job playing at a piano bar in Los Angeles. He used his experiences there as the inspiration for the song “Piano Man,” a song that would become his first hit and his signature tune.

He was successful in switching labels, signing with Columbia Records, and his second album, Piano Man (bearing the eponymous single), was released in 1973. He followed it up the next year with Streetlife Serenade, and in 1976 with Turnstiles. Although these three albums contained notable Joel tracks like “Captain Jack,” “The Entertainer,” and “New York State of Mind,” they did not initially reach the level of commercial success Joel would come to enjoy (although they were all eventually certified platinum by the RIAA, Piano Man four times over).

That success came with 1977’s The Stranger. Produced by Phil Ramone, the song jumped to #2 on the Billboard chart (kept out of the top spot primarily by Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours), and four of its nine songs charted as singles. It also earned Joel the first two of his six Grammy Awards, Song and Record of the Year for the song “Just the Way You Are.” In 1978, Joel released the album 52nd Street. Propelled by hits like “My Life” and “Big Shot,” it became Joel’s first #1 album, and also garnered him two more Grammy Awards (Best Pop Vocal Performance and Album of the Year). Interestingly, in 1982, 52nd Street became the first album to be released on the compact disc format.

The partnership with Ramone was obviously working, and the pair would work together on four more albums: 1980’s Glass Houses, 1982’s The Nylon Curtain, 1983’s An Innocent Man, and 1986’s The Bridge. They contained a string of hits, and all have been certified multiplatinum. In October of 1986, after the release of The Bridge, Joel made a series of performances in the Soviet Union, one of the first American rockers to do so. A recording of his Leningrad performance was eventually released on CD as KOHUEPT (Russian for “concert”); next week an expanded collection of his performances comes out as A Matter of Trust, in a standard 2-disc version (that includes KOHUEPT) and a deluxe edition that also includes a Blu-ray featuring concert footage and a documentary on the trip.

In 1989, Joel released the album Storm Front, his first album to reach #1 since Glass Houses. It contained the smash-hit single “We Didn’t Start the Fire” as well as the song “Shameless,” perhaps more popular as a hit for country superstar Garth Brooks. It was followed in 1993 by River of Dreams, which also reached #1, and is the last album Joel has released.

Still, more than twenty years later, Joel continues to sell out stadiums and arenas filled with legions of fans who come to hear him perform his hits for hours. In addition to touring, he also has a residency at Madison Square Garden in New York City, performing one show there per month. So, despite such a length of time with no new material, interest in Billy Joel’s music remains strong. SmartBrowse his name on our website for all of these albums, as well as plenty of compilation and live albums, concert and video collections, and the biography from Fred Schruers scheduled for release in November.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Power Rangers Movie in the Works

Written by Jon Williams

“It’s morphin’ time!” Today Lionsgate and Saban Entertainment announced that they would be producing a feature film that will bring the Power Rangers back to the big screen.

The series revolves around a group of teenagers invested with the ability to morph into a team with special skills and powers that must use said ability to fight off the forces of aliens and other evildoers. Originally based on the Japanese series Super Sentai, the franchise kicked off as the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers television series in 1993. In one form or another it has been in production ever since, entertaining legions of young adults and spawning a popular line of toys and video games. The current incarnation, starting in 2013, is known as Power Rangers Megaforce.

This will not be the Power Rangers’ first foray into theatres; two previous feature films have been made. The first, spurred by the popularity of the original television series, was produced in 1995. In it, the Rangers must battle an ancient alien shape-shifter brought to Earth by their archenemies. In the second, the heroes must protect a wizard from an intergalactic pirate and a demon. This movie, released in 1997, came on the heels of the Power Rangers Zeo series and led into Power Rangers Turbo.

Lionsgate has had great success lately bringing to the screen action movies aimed primarily at the young adult set, beginning with the first two Hunger Games films and the adaptation of the first book from the Divergent trilogy. Certainly they’ll carry that same energy into the upcoming Power Rangers film, which as of now does not have a target release date. In the meantime, though, there is plenty of material to keep young fans entertained. SmartBrowse ‘Power Rangers’ on our website for the full line of TV series and movies in this popular franchise.